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For Christmas, One Family, Ready Made

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-/-

Let us make one thing absolutely clear before we begin: Nora Valkyrie does not believe in Santa Claus. She’s considered the logic of it, and while she’s fully prepared to believe in flying reindeer, one-night world-wide trips, and a fat man who can fit down chimneys, she’s too skeptical of the idea that Santa, a man who can create and make anything at all in his workshop, would bring big, extravagant presents to bratty rich kids whose parents are perfectly capable of supplying said gifts on their own, while poor kids with perhaps no family at all are left in the dust. It’s against everything she’s been told about Santa, and the obvious answer is that either Santa is not the kind, benevolent man she’s been led to believe, or he doesn’t exist and he’s just the kids’ parents in disguise.

It’s all very sensible and a somewhat depressing conclusion for a nine-year-old to come to.

But while we might ourselves scoff at the unbelievable, who among us, come zero hour, would not get in a bit of goodwill, just to cover our bases? Just in case ?

So it was that, the night before Christmas, Nora begged and begged and begged Qrow to take her to see Santa again, so she could ask him her wish special.

Just in case.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here- let’s back up about two months, to just before Halloween, when all of this started.

-/-

“It’s my birthday it’s my birthday it’s my birthday!!!”

Ruby bounced through the house trailing punctuation while Nora followed, just as excitable, making fanfare noises with her mouth. They skidded to a halt, though, when they reached the door to the kitchen and ran smack into Uncle Qrow’s legs. He put his hands on his hips and stared down at them, only just barely suppressing a smile.

“And just what are you two doing?” he asked.

They pulled themselves up, and Ruby struck a pose. “It’s my birthday!” she said. “We’re celebrating.”

“Okay.” Qrow pinched the bridge of his nose and held up a finger. “One, it’s not your birthday for another two weeks. Two, it’s six o’clock in the morning on a Saturday, so why are you two even awake ? Three…”

“Three, your Uncle Qrow has a hangover, so why don’t you girls keep it down a little?” Uncle Tai came out of kitchen, pushing Qrow aside, and scooped up both girls. They giggled, but quietly, while he carried them back to the room they shared.

Nora twisted around to look over Uncle Tai’s shoulders as they were carried away, and saw Uncle Qrow clutching his head and leaning back against the wall. When he saw her looking, he straightened up a little and gave her a small wave before ambling through the kitchen and back to his own room behind it. She grinned and waved back, even though he was out of sight now.

“Why is Uncle Qrow hungover?” she asked, as they were dropped carefully onto the bottom bunk. Ruby hopped off and immediately scrambled up the ladder to her own bed.

“Because he went out drinking last night and doesn’t know how to stop at a reasonable amount.” He straightened. “You don’t have to go back to bed, but try to play quietly, okay? The rest of us are trying to sleep.”

“Yes, sir,” they both mumbled, properly chastised, while he left. Once he was gone, Nora climbed up the ladder and crawled into Ruby’s bed, pulling the covers up over both of them until they were under a tent of sorts.

“Hey Ruby, I’ve been thinking,” she said.

“What about?”

“Do you like me?”

“Don’t be stupid, of course I like you.”

“Yeah but I mean, a whole lot? Like how much you like Yang?”

“Oh. Um…” Ruby twiddled her fingers silently while she considered. She loved Nora, sure, but Yang was her big sister. The two just didn’t add up.

“Oh.” Nora hung her head. “Never mind, it was stupid.”

“What? No!” Ruby half-tackled her, wrapping her up in a hug. “You’re super great! I love you a whole lot! Please don’t be sad!”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure! Nora, what’s wrong?”

“I- I want Qrow to adopt me!” she said, almost shouted, and then clamped her hands over her mouth, scared of her own words.

Ruby, meanwhile, had lit up in delight. “Nora! That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard! Then we’d be family for real! Ooooooh, I can’t wait!”

“Ruby, shhh! I don’t know for sure yet that it’ll happen. Anyway, I’ve been thinking. He’s a teacher, right? He’d never be able to adopt me on a teacher’s salary.”

“What does that have to do with it? He’s already allowed to take care of you, so why not just make it permanent?”

“I don’t know, but all my other foster families have said that adoption is an expensive process.”

“So how are you going to get him to adopt you?”

“I’ve been thinking about that, actually. What if- and hear me out- what if he marries someone rich ? Then he’ll have plenty of money!”

“Nora, that’s perfect! Oh, but who is he going to marry? We don’t know anyone who’s rich.”

“Ah.” Nora stilled, and folded her arms. “...I hadn’t actually thought that far ahead.”

“Well, keep thinking about it,” Ruby assured her. “Maybe something will turn up.”

-/-

In all honesty, the girls had not actually expected anything to ‘turn up’. Though they spent the rest of the morning entertaining the idea that Nora had put forth, they both knew in their hearts that the odds of someone rich turning up in their little town, and being eligible, and being compatible with Qrow, was very slim.

So while they enjoyed the idea, they tucked it away as just an idea, and decided to find some other way to get Uncle Qrow to adopt Nora instead.

They weren’t counting on James Ironwood happening to them.*

They certainly weren’t counting on him happening so soon .

Sunday evening, while Uncle Tai was making everyone lunches for the next day- turkey salad, in case you’re wondering, with all the fixings packed separately so that the bread wouldn’t get soggy beforehand- Qrow got a phone call. He left the room to take said call, and everyone ignored him because it wasn’t important, but a few minutes later he came back in and got their attention because it apparently was important.

“So I’m getting a new student in my class tomorrow,” he said. “That was Ozpin, he was letting me know. Her name is Penny, and I’m meeting with her dad first thing in the morning, before school.”

Ruby wrinkled her nose at that. “Does that mean we have to leave the house early in the morning?”

“Ha!” Qrow reached over and ruffled her hair. “That’s exactly what it means. Sorry, kiddo.”

“Ugh, that’s so laaame.” Ruby leaned back with a groan. “Can’t Dad drop us off at school instead?”

Tai looked up from the orange he was carefully prepeeling. “Sorry, sweetheart, but I’ve got an early morning faculty meeting, I’m leaving early too.”

“Anyway, while I’m talking to the stiff, I want you girls to try to get to know Penny. Make her first day nice- you don’t have to be best friends, but show a good friendly Signal E welcome, okay?”

“Yes, Uncle Qrow,” the girls all chorused, and Qrow ruffled Ruby’s hair again. “Look on the bright side- at least you haven’t got to have a boring meeting with a parent.”

They all agreed that this was a definite positive, but spoiler: the meeting was not going to be boring. It was not exactly going to be life-shattering, but it was going to kickstart a very exciting two-and-some-change months, which was almost as good.

-/-

It was a very sleepy trio of girls who sat down in Qrow’s classroom that Monday morning. Yang immediately rolled up her jacket and used it as a pillow to lay her head down on the desk and go back to sleep, but Ruby and Nora glued themselves to the door, opening it and looking out every- what felt to them like- ten minutes (it was, in fact, about thirty second intervals), waiting to see the new girl and speculating about what sort of person she’d be.

“How long until your meeting, Uncle Qrow?” Ruby asked, after about the fifth time opening the door to peek. Qrow looked up from his desk.

“About another five minutes,” he said. He pointed up at the clock over the blackboard. “It’s six fifty-five now. My meeting is scheduled at seven.”

“Five minutes,” Ruby said, and gave a determined nod. “What are we going to do for five minutes while we wait?”

“You could try sitting quietly,” Qrow said, and was immediately dismissed.

Nora went over to her bookbag, and took out her Gamebuddy. Qrow’s attention was immediately back on them.

“Hey, hey, you girls know you’re not supposed to have those at school. Come on, hand it over- I’m not having another meeting with Bart about you not paying attention in class.

“Awww…” She pouted and gave it to him; he tucked it away in his briefcase, and gave her a gentle smile.

“Hey, come on, don’t look like that. If it wasn’t me it was gonna be someone else. At least this way you can be sure of getting it back at the end of the day.”

“Yeah…” She was still pouting, though, so he shooed them back over to the door to wait.

On the bright side, they’d managed to kill half of their five minutes, so it was in no time at all- and in fact, it was right on the seven-o’clock mark- that there was a knock on the door. Nora hurried to grab the doorknob first and swung it open with a bit too much enthusiasm, and found herself face-to-knee with the answer to all of her problems, though she was unaware of this at the time.

She looked up, and up some more, and then leveled her gaze back out when the man crouched in front of her.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m James Ironwood- I’m supposed to have a meeting with Qrow Branwen?”

“He’s over there,” Nora said, she and Ruby both gesturing over at Qrow, who had already stood and was moving over to join them.

Once he was with them, he planted one hand on his hip and gave Mr. Ironwood an amused look. “That’s me,” he said. “Come on in. Where’s your daughter?”

“She’s-“ he paused, and looked around, and then gestured to someone out of sight. “-over here.”

Nora and Ruby leaned around to door and saw a girl their own age reading the big Halloween poster outside their classroom. She joined them at her father’s beckoning, though, and once she was in the room at his side she saluted.

“Sal-u-tations!” She said. “My name is Penny Polendina! It is nice to meet you! I hope that we can be friends!”

“Hey, Penny,” Qrow said, leaning a bit to address her. “I’m Qrow Branwen, I’m gonna be your teacher now. You can call me Mr. Qrow, though, Mr. Branwen makes me sound old.”

“You are old,” Yang said, waking up from her nap to join them. He gave her a look like he wanted to stick his tongue out at her, and ruffled her hair instead.

“And this is Yang, that’s Ruby, and that’s Nora. Why don’t you girls head outside?” he said. “I gotta talk to these two in private.”

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

Once outside, the girls were about to find a new way to occupy themselves when Nora suddenly threw her arm out and nearly closelined Ruby as a glorious thought planted itself in her brain. Ruby doubled over, rubbing what would surely be a bruise soon, and gave Nora a bewildered look.

“What was that for?!”

“Ruby!” Nora whisper-hissed. “Did you see that guy? And Penny!”

“Yes? What about them?”

“They’re super well dressed! Like… quality stuff!”

“Yeah? So?” Beside Ruby, Yang nodded agreement at the confusion. Nora rolled her eyes.

“I mean , they’re probably rich .” She waggled her eyebrows meaningfully, as comprehension dawned on Ruby and Yang just looked more confused.

“So what if they’re rich? Also, they could just have nice clothes.”

“And a really nice watch? And shoes?” Nora rolled her eyes. “Come on , Yang, they’re obviously loaded!”

“Nora wants to marry Uncle Qrow off to someone rich so he’ll adopt her,” Ruby said, since it was clear Nora wasn’t going to get around to explaining any time soon. “You think this guy would be a good candidate?”

“Ch-DUH!” Nora waved her arms a little. “Point one: he’s rich. Obviously. Point two: he’s handsome.” She paused, and the other two nodded that this was true enough. She kept on. “Point three, he seems really nice and good with kids, and you know Uncle Qrow won’t date anyone who isn’t.”

“That’s true,” Yang said. She folded her arms thoughtfully. “He once told me he wouldn’t date anyone we couldn’t get along with or feel comfortable around. But how do you know he’s available?”

Nora held up her hand. “He wears his wedding ring on the wrong finger, like your dad does,” she said.

They both nodded again, and Yang said, a little uncomfortable, “How do we know he’s interested in dating, then? And would like Uncle Qrow? How do we know he likes men at all?”

Nora rolled her eyes again. “Well obviously we’ve got to find out! We’ll ask Penny, she’ll know.” When they still looked dubious, she said, “I know it’s a long shot. But what’s wrong with trying?”

Yang looked over at Ruby, who nodded. “Okay,” Yang said. “We can try. What could go wrong?”

Quite a lot of disasters have begun with the phrase “What could go wrong?” Spoilers, this wasn’t one of them. This story has a happy ending that will probably make you cry. But it’s entirely possible the events to come would go much more smoothly if Yang had not decided to tempt fate with such ominous phrasing.

-/-

Once the girls had gone, Qrow beckoned James and Penny over to his desk. There were a pair of folding chairs in front of it, kept there for parent teacher meetings. “Don’t mind my girls,” Qrow said absently, while he settled into his own chair.

“Are all of them yours?”

Qrow shook his head. “Just the redhead. The other two are my nieces. So.” He folded his hands on the desk and put on his best teacher expression, which was horribly out of place on his face and it’s any wonder that it hadn’t long since been ostracized by his other expressions, which were more of the “belligerent drunk” and “belligerent sober guy who wishes he was drunk” and “hungover and swearing never to drink again, no, really, I mean it this time” variety. “You’re the one who asked for this meeting. What’s up?”

“I wanted to meet Penny’s teacher,” James said. “I’d like to know what sort of man I’m trusting her education and care to before I do.”

“Can’t say fairer than that,” Qrow said.

“I… also wanted to ensure there would be no problem with her… situation,” he added.

“And what situation is that? Hang on…” He pulled her file to him. “Oz only gave me this about fifteen minutes before you showed up, I haven’t actually looked at it yet.” He flipped it open and skimmed over it, and then looked up at Penny, and back at the file. He closed it. “Ah. That situation.”

“We weren’t able to get my transcript altered in time,” Penny said cheerily, and James added, “If it’s going to be a problem-“

“Eh? Nah, no problem.” Qrow waved that away with a dismissive hand. “You’re not the first trans kid I’ve had in my classroom, won’t be the last. It’s not a problem with me, and if anyone else tries to make it one, just tell me or Ozpin and we’ll take care of it. You’ve met Oz, right? The principal?”

“The very old man with the very small glasses?” Penny asked. Qrow let out a bark of laughter.

“He’s not that old!” he said. “He’s not much older than me, I think.”

“Your niece said that you are old.”

“Yang’s eleven,” Qrow said, clearly disgruntled. “Everyone’s old to her.”

“Well, I am ten,” Penny said primly. “So everyone is old to me, too.”

“Can’t argue with that logic,” Qrow agreed, and Penny added, “Except Father, who is very young and handsome and eligible.”

“Penny!” When Qrow looked over at James, he suppressed a smirk, because there was a blush creeping up his neck and he’d put one hand over his mouth in embarrassment. He lowered it slowly. “I’m not that young. Or handsome. And I’m not sure if I’m eligible.”

Qrow’s eyes flickered to his hand. “How long’s it been?” he asked quietly, and when James looked startled, gestured at his wedding band. “My brother-in-law does the same thing.”

“Oh.” He dropped his hand back to his lap. “Five years. I know it’s been awhile-“

“No, it’s fine.” Another dismissive handwave. It was clear James had felt the need to explain this before, if he was jumping to his defense so quickly. “It’s your business, not my place to pass judgment. Kids are just… like that sometimes.”

They looked over at Penny, who didn’t look even a bit ashamed. Qrow steepled his hands in front of him, trying to imitate Ozpin and failing spectacularly.

“In an attempt to change a very awkward subject, I can tell you that you’re not the only trans kid in this school. There’s a few others floating around- and I’d be happy to ask on your behalf if they’d like to meet you. Most of ‘em are friendly with my girls, so I can also vouch for all of that bunch being trustworthy with that kind of information.”

Penny looked surprised, but pleased. “Oh! I would like that very much,” she said. “Please do.”

“Great! Now, why don’t you go out and get to know my girls, so your dad and I can talk about boring grown-up things?”

“Yes, sir.” She slid out of the chair and turned a very stern look on her father. “Do not tell him any family secrets.”

“Cross my heart,” James said, and with a nod she turned very smartly and left. James turned back to Qrow with a fond look that he was completely failing to disguise. “So boring grown-up stuff?”

“This might fall under the heading of family secrets, but I wanted to ask you something personal,” Qrow said, and when James gestured for him to go on, “Penny is adopted, isn’t she?”

“I wouldn’t call that a family secret. Most people can tell we’re not genetically father and daughter.”

Qrow laughed, and rubbed sheepishly at the back of his neck. “At the risk of sounding really racist, it’s kinda obvious you don’t share any dna. But she could have come from your…?”

He paused, searching, and James filled in, “Husband. And no, you’re right, she’s adopted. Why do you want to know?”

“Uh, well… that redhead I said was mine?” James nodded. “She’s not- not really. She’s a foster. But I’ve been thinking seriously lately about maybe, you know, adopting her for keeps. I was just wondering if there was any advice you could offer, you know, as someone on the other side of things.”

“Oh, of course.” James looked thoughtful, and, “Honestly, I’m not sure how much insight I can give you. Josef and I adopted Penny when she was born, and she’s always been with us. We did talk about fostering and potentially adopting an older kid later, when we were ready again, but then when he got sick-“ He broke off abruptly. “Anyway, we had to abandon those plans.” When Qrow looked disappointed, he offered an apologetic smile. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine.” Qrow leaned back in his chair. “Anyway, that’s all I wanted to ask. Got anything else you want to know?”

“Nothing I can think of. School supplies? Got any advice about the school? Any events or field trips coming up that I should know about?”

“Ah, normal boring adult stuff. I’ve got a supply list here-“ He rummaged in his drawer for a moment and pulled one out. “We do a lot of hands-on learning in my classroom so if you’re worried about her good clothes getting mucky send a more battered change along, we’ve got lockers back of the room. There’s a Halloween party coming up for the fourth through sixth graders, and, oh, it’s Ruby’s birthday party in a couple weeks so if she hits it off with Penny be prepared for an invitation. That’s all I can think of for now.”

-/-

When Penny came out to join them, Nora pounced and threw her arms around her. “Hiiiii, Penny~” she said. “We were wondering if we could ask you some questions about your dad.”

Penny looked startled- as most people did, the first time they interacted with Nora- but rather than the overwhelmed look most people got, she just beamed. “Hello! What questions would you like to ask?”

“For starters, is he available?” Nora asked. “Specifically, is he available for a thirty-something male teacher, likes dancing, bad movies, fighting games, and dogs?”

“Are you referring to Mr. Qrow?” Penny asked.

Nora contrived (poorly) to look like she’d only just thought of that. “Wow! You’re right, Uncle Qrow DOES fit that description! Amazing! So is he available?”

“Umm…” Penny scrunched up her face a bit while she considered this. Yang reached over and rested a hand on her shoulder.

“If he’s not, it’s okay. Our dad doesn’t date either.”

“It’s not that he’s not available,” Penny said slowly. “I am simply unsure if he is available specifically for your uncle. He has not dated since my daddy died, I do not know what sort of person he would be interested in.”

“That doesn’t sound like available to me ,” Yang said, but Penny just shook her head.

“He has said that he thinks maybe he should try… ‘getting into the game again’. Do you think Mr. Qrow would be interested?”

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Ruby said, in a tone that left no room for argument. “Your dad is soooo his type.”

“He likes tall guys,” Nora explained. “And I heard him tell Uncle Tai once that he liked guys that were really well put-together so he could rumple them up.” She accompanied this with an eyebrow waggle, because she had understood that conversation to be about sex and knew that comments relating to sex must be accompanied by a knowing eyebrow waggle. Fortunately for the peace of mind of all reading this, that was all she knew.

“Would you be happy if we got our Uncle to date your father?” Yang asked.

Penny nodded. “Oh, yes! I like Mr. Qrow. I’m just not sure if it’s doable.”

“Well, we gotta try!” Nora said. “Wanna help?”

“Ab-so-lutely!” Penny snapped off a cheery salute. “Did you have anything in mind?”

“I do have one plan,” Nora said. “It involves you inviting us over to your house when Uncle Qrow is free to chaperone.”

“I can do that.” She clapped her hands together. “Oh, Father will be so delighted that I have already made some new friends!” She paused at that, though, and added, “I… have made some new friends, right?”

She seemed genuinely worried, and immediately found herself enveloped in one of Ruby’s hugs. “Of course you’ve made some new friends! Three of them! And later, we’ll introduce you to our other friends, and you’ll have made even more ! That’s like… a hundred friends already!”

“Ten,” Yang said. “There’s ten of us. She’ll have made ten friends.”

Penny looked baffled by the specific number, so Ruby added, “We have other friends too but there’s ten of us that play on the monkey bars at recess.”

“We’re a tight-knit group,” Nora said. “And I’m sure they’re all gonna love you!”

-/-

It was not much later when Qrow and James finished their meeting, and rejoined the girls in the hall. James raised an amused eyebrow when he saw them gathered in their conspiratorial huddle, which broke apart the moment the door opened.

“Making friends?” he asked. Penny nodded.

“Yes! And soon my new friends will introduce me to their friends, and I will have a total of ten whole friends!”

“Ten!” James looked impressed. “That’s a lot of new friends to make in one go. Are you excited?”

“I am very excited!” She bounced happily, as if to prove this. “Have you finished with your meeting?”

“Yes. I have to go now- work beckons. But I think I’m leaving you in good hands.” He crouched and opened his arms; Penny threw herself happily into a hug. “Have a good day, Penny.”

“You too, Father!”

-/-

After James was gone, the girls led Penny to the playground, where other students were beginning to arrive for the day. They immediately led her to the monkey bars, where there were two boys their own age. One of them was sitting quietly with a book in his lap; the other was hanging from the monkey bars by his foot. He had a yellow sock tied to his rear belt loop. Nora dragged Penny over to the boy with the book.

“Ren! Reeeeen! Ren, look! Look!”

The boy looked up with a small smile. “Good morning, Nora. Who’s this?”

“This is Penny!” She presented the girl with a flourish. “She’s new! She just started today! We’re gonna get her dad to marry Uncle Qrow!”

Ren had been about to give Penny a warm greeting and welcome, but at Nora’s final remark he snapped his mouth shut and gave her a baffled look. “Wait, what?”

“We’re going to get her dad to marry Uncle Qrow!”

The boy hanging from his foot dropped from the bars- how he didn’t land on his head none of them were clear- and joined them. “Why are you gonna do that?”

“Cause they’d be great together, duh!” Nora rolled her eyes.

“Okay, no need to bite my head off!” The boy held up his hands defensively, and then turned his attention to Penny and stuck out his hand. “Hi, Penny! My name is Sun.”

“Sun is in Uncle Qrow’s class too,” Ruby said, while Penny shook the offered hand very solemnly. “Sun, will you look after Penny for us? None of us are in her class.”

“No problem!” He threw an arm around Penny’s shoulders. “Just you stick with me, Penny! And if you need help setting your dad up with Mr. Qrow, I’m your boy!”

“Aaaw, that’s so nice of you, Sun!” Ruby sighed. “Do you really care about Uncle Qrow’s happiness that much?”

“I mean, yeah, but mostly I’m just thinking that if he gets married he’ll be too distracted to tell me off anymore.”

There were more kids approaching the monkey bars. Ruby plucked Penny away from Sun and steered her over to hand out more introductions, and Penny’s first day of school at Signal Elementary was officially off to a good start.

-/-

When James came to pick Penny up that evening, she was in Qrow’s classroom, waiting with Nora and Ruby, and a few other students still waiting for their rides. They were at the front, taking turns drawing on the chalkboard while beside them, Qrow leaned back in his chair with a book in hand.

When James approached, he set his book down and gave him a smile.

“Welcome back,” he said. “Penny’s got something to ask you.”

James turned to Penny, who set her chalk down and beamed up at him hopefully. “May I invite Ruby, Yang, and Nora over to play on Saturday afternoon?”

He found himself on the receiving end of three hopeful looks, and turned to Qrow for harbor. Qrow just grinned toothily at him.

“I’m up for a playdate if you are,” he said. “They already made sure I was on board before they decided to ask.”

James turned back to Penny with a suspicious look, but she just kept smiling hopefully, and his face softened. “All right. I don’t see why not.”

-/-

 

Chapter Text

-/-

The week dragged by for the girls, who were desperate to get their plan rolling. Several times over the week they lamented that they had to wait , but each time Yang was there to sensibly point out that, had they selected an earlier day, they might have been refused, and Saturday afternoon was the only time they could guarantee that Qrow would accompany them and not Tai, as he taught a class during that time.

Which, sure, it was true, but still . It was five whole days!

Still, eventually, after an eternity of waiting, it was finally Saturday. Qrow loaded the girls up into his pickup and drove to James’ address. Nora was practically vibrating the whole way over; she was sure that once she got the two men alone for awhile sparks would fly and they would hear wedding bells in no time.

“Mr. Ironwood is really nice,” she said, as they headed to the Ironwood home. “Don’t you think so, Uncle Qrow?”

Qrow raised an eyebrow at her in the mirror, and smiled knowingly. “Yeah, he seems pretty legit. Good with kids, definitely.”

“And he’s really tall!” Nora added. She was small even for her age, and paid a lot of attention to people’s heights. “ And very tidy. And he’s handsome. Don’t you think he’s handsome, Uncle Qrow?”

Qrow snorted. Subtle. “Sure, he’s pretty good-looking.”

“It’s too bad he’s single. It must be really lonely, being a grown-up without your own special person.” She paused, and gave it some thought. “Do you ever get lonely, Uncle Qrow? You don’t have a special someone either.”

“Sometimes.” They pulled up in front of the address; it was a very nice house in a gated community, the sort with a big fenced in yard and a big swingset that they could just see over the top of the fence. “Fortunately I’ve got you girls, and Tai, too.”

As soon as they pulled up, the girls piled out of the truck, and before they’d even reached the door it was thrown open by Penny.

“Good afternoon~” she chirped. “Welcome to Casa de Ironwood-Polendina!”

“Penny!” They pounced her as one, as if they had not just seen her yesterday.

Qrow rolled his eyes good-naturedly and stepped over the giggling pile of girls to finish the approach to the house. He knocked lightly on the doorframe, and a few seconds later James came into the foyer to meet them. Qrow’s brain went “fsst!” at that, because James had abandoned his usual tidy dress-shirt for a black t-shirt, one that showed off thick muscle on one side and a silver prosthetic on the other. Nora was right, he was very handsome.

He smiled. Qrow’s brain went “fsst!” again.

“Are you girls going to stay out on the front step all day?” James said, but they’d already pulled themselves together and dashed inside.

“We are going to go upstairs, and I am going to show them my playroom!” Penny said. “It is this way!”

She showed the girls up the stairs, and then halfway up she stopped and leaned over the banister.

“By the way, Mr. Qrow, if you are looking for something to talk about, my father likes dancing, bad movies, and dogs.”

And then she was gone. James stared after her with his mouth hanging open, and then turned a sheepish look at Qrow. Qrow noticed the blush spreading up his neck, and smirked. He folded his arms.

“You get the feeling this was a set-up of some kind?”

James snapped his mouth shut, and rubbed the back of his neck while looking adorably flustered. “Sorry,” he said. “A few months ago I told Penny that I was thinking about getting back into dating- and ever since then she’s tried to set me up with every reasonably attractive man we’ve met.”

“Reasonably attractive?” Qrow raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m hurt. I’ll have you know I am a ten , thank you.”

James looked embarrassed again. Qrow cheered internally. This was going to be fun.

“Why don’t you come inside?” James said abruptly, only just now realizing that Qrow was still stood on his doorstep. He stepped to one side and Qrow followed him in, out of the foyer and into what was apparently the living room. There was a couch and a tv set up, and an empty bookshelf, but the rest of the living room was stacks of boxes. James looked sheepish again. “Sorry about the mess, we’re still unpacking.”

“No problem. Need some help?”

“No- well-” James looked around. “Actually, sure. I’m trying to figure out which of these boxes are books, they got a bit mixed up in the move.”

“I can help with that, if you don’t mind me rummaging through your stuff.”

This got him a small laugh. “All of the private stuff is up in my room already.”

“Darn, so no snooping?” Qrow grinned to signal it was a joke, and pulled out his pocket knife to cut into the nearest box. This one was books; he pushed it over to one side so he could start on the next. “So where’d you guys move from anyway? And what brings you to our little town?”

“We’re from Mantel, up near Atlas.” James checked a box- this one photographs- and moved it away from the book pile. “And it was because of Penny, actually.”

Qrow straightened up, and raised an eyebrow. “The transition thing?”

James hummed an affirmative. “Our previous school administration wasn’t particularly supportive,” he said. “Penny was all for sticking it out and fighting for her place, but I remember being the only gay kid in my middle school so I made the executive decision that she’s ten and I don’t want her to have to fight. She’ll have plenty of opportunities when she grows up but at least I can try to give her a safe and supportive background before then.” He shrugged. “My stepsister lives in this town and suggested it to me; she said the principal here is very adamant about open acceptance of kids’ identities.”

Qrow nodded. “Yeah, Ozpin is pretty good about that kinda thing. You don’t have to worry about Penny at Signal, not while Ozpin is in charge.”

He grabbed another box to cut open; this one was photographs too. The top one was a family photo, a teenage James, a woman who looked remarkably like him, and two other people he assumed were James’ stepfamily. Qrow gave it a small, knowing smile, and set it aside before rocking back on his heels.

“So about that ‘reasonably attractive’ comment,” he said, and waited for James to look up from the box he was opening to continue. “I was thinking you can take me out for a drink to make it up to me.”

There was that blush again. Good gods, this man was adorable. “I don’t know…”

Qrow sighed. “Look, I’m not- I’m not asking for anything, okay? But you did say you were thinking about dating again, right?”

James nodded, then shook his head, then shrugged. “I’m just not sure if I’m ready.”

“So find out- one drink, one evening, not stakes, no pressure. If you’re not comfortable at any point we call it a night and go home and you know you still need time. If you get there and it turns out you’re into it, then- well, we both end up having a really nice night and figure it out from there.”

There was silence. James considered Qrow thoughtfully, before finally shrugging. “All right,” he said. “One drink. I can do that.” Then he halted, and added, “Wait, I don’t have a sitter for Penny.”

“Oh, that’s no problem,” Qrow said. “I’ll get Tai to do it. Hang on.” He stood and fished his phone out of his pocket. After a few rings, Tai answered; James could just make out his end of the conversation.

“Xiao Long,” Tai said, and Qrow grinned.

“Heeeeeeey, Tai! It’s your favorite brother in the whole wide world.”

There was a pause, and, “What do you want, Qrow?”

“What makes you think I want anything?” There was another pause, this one long and pointed, and Qrow finally said, “Do you mind babysitting Penny tonight so her dad can take me out for a drink?”

“So- what the hell, Qrow?” James heard a sigh, and, “Are you serious?”

“Dead serious. Come on, Tai, it’s only for a couple hours, tops. She’s a sweet kid, you’ll like her.”

“Qrow, I don’t even know this guy. How are you going to convince him to trust his daughter to me?”

“You can meet him when he drops Penny off.” Qrow adopted a wheedling voice. “Come on, Tai, he’s sweet and pretty, would you really want to deprive me of this?”

“You always say that. He can’t be that good looking.”

“Wanna bet?”

“What?”

But Qrow had already taken the phone from his ear and pushed a button. He passed the phone over to James. “Here, see for yourself.”

“What? Qrow, you can’t just-!” Tai’s objection cut off abruptly when he realized he’d been put on video call. James stared down at the screen, and managed a weak smile.

“Hi,” he said. “Sorry.”

Tai huffed. “It’s not your fault, Qrow’s just an ass.”

“I’m sure I can find another sitter for Penny. Or just raincheck and go another night.”

There was a pause, while Tai looked him over, and then finally shrugged. “Nah, it’s fine. I’ve been hearing about this kid all week, I might as well meet her.”

“Thanks, brother!” Qrow grabbed the phone and grinned down at it. “I owe you big time for this.”

“Don’t worry, I’m keeping a tab. Is that all you wanted? Only I still have half my class to get through.”

“Yeah yeah, go on. See you later, buddy.”

They hung up, and Qrow grinned up at James. “See? Easy as that.”

James looked amused. “Are you sure he didn’t mind?”

“Oh yeah, he’s been saying the girls’d have to invite Penny over at some point anyway.” Qrow shoved his phone in his pocket and grabbed another box. “No big deal. Anyway you’ll like Tai, he’s a good guy.”

“Sounds like it.” He stood. “I should go check on the girls and tell Penny what’s going on. I’ll be right back.”.

-/-

Once in the playroom, Penny gave the girls the grand tour. It wasn’t a long tour- most of her toys were still packed up- but she still made sure to pay attention to each corner of the room. Once all of them knew their way around, they flopped onto the couch shoved under the window, giggling a little.

Nora wasted no time steering their conversation where she needed it, though.

“Okay, so,” she sat up and looked serious. “How do you think things are going downstairs?”

“Mr. Ironwood looked kind of embarrassed about your comment,” Yang said.

“Yeah, but Uncle Qrow looked pleased,” Ruby put in. “I’m sure he’ll do the rest. Dad says he’s very forward.”

“That’s true, but will Mr. Ironwood respond to forward? What if Uncle Qrow puts him off?”

They all looked at Penny over that, who looked thoughtful for a moment. “Father does not respond well to forward,” she said. “He gets very embarrassed when he is being flirted with.”

Nora looked perhaps more horrified than strictly necessary. “But Uncle Qrow loves flirting! What if they’re not compatible after all?”

She was about to go into full pout mode when there was a knock on the door, and Penny called a cheery “Come in~”.

The door opened and James came in. He knelt so he could talk to them. “Penny, how would you like to go over to the girls’ house for a couple of hours this evening?”

Penny looked delighted. “Oh! I would love to! But why? Is something wrong?”

He shook his head. “No, nothing’s wrong. Qrow and I are going out and his brother has agreed to look after you for me.”

Behind Penny, he saw the excited grin spread across Nora’s face- in fact she was practically vibrating-, and kept his eyes glued to Penny lest he give himself away by grinning. It seemed it wasn’t just his daughter that had intentions on him going out with Qrow. Well, that explained Qrow’s amusement- Nora struck him as even less subtle than Penny, an accomplishment. James could only imagine what Qrow had been dealing with all week.

“That means we get to show you our house too!” Ruby said excitedly. “We don’t have a playroom but we have our own bathroom that Dad and Uncle Qrow aren’t allowed to use! That’s cool too, right?”

“That is very cool!” Penny said, obviously awestruck. James had his own bathroom, but Penny had to share hers with company, which meant she had to keep it looking tidy for company. For Penny, a private bathroom was the height of accomplishment. It meant the girls could leave their clothes on the floor all day , and only bother picking them up when it was time to do laundry.

Penny was very impressed. She said as much.

“I don’t know if it’s that cool,” Ruby said, suddenly embarrassed, while Yang squinted up at James.

“When you say you’re going out with our uncle, do you mean you’re going out , or that you’re going out ?” At Nora’s petulant ‘Yaaaang!’ She added, “What? It’s a legitimate question. They could just be going out.”

James suppressed another grin. “I mean we’re going out ,” he said, doing his best to mimic her inflection. “Is that acceptable?”

Yang shrugged- an attempt at nonchalance- while Penny bounced happily and Ruby and Nora high-fived. “Yes!” Penny said. “It is the most acceptable!”

“Good to know.” He stood. “I’ll let you get back to conspir- I mean playing now. Let me know if you need anything.”

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

Qrow found another box of pictures while he was waiting, and decided to snoop a little- James had more-or-less given him permission, or at least indicated he didn’t care. Qrow took out a photo album at random and started flipping through it. It was pictures of Penny, mostly, back when she was a toddler- there was some James in there, the occasional addition of his probably-stepsister, and sometimes, a man that Qrow assumed to be Josef: he was a small man, comically so beside James, with a stocky figure and a scruffy beard.

As he flipped idly through the book, the man appeared less and less, and James appeared in front of the camera more and more, and the pictures of any given event grew more numerous.

Qrow heard footsteps on the stairs, and glanced up as James came back into the room. He glanced down at the photo album he’d been flipping through.

“Sorry,” he said, his turn to be sheepish. “I was just feeling kinda nosy.”

“It’s fine,” James replied. He sat down and took the album gently from Qrow, glancing at it once before closing it and setting it aside. He seemed tired. Qrow glanced at the album guiltily.

“You’re gonna get on well with Tai,” he said, searching for some way to clear the awkward air. “He keeps a camera glued to his hands all the time too.”

This was, judging by the tired way James covered his eyes, the wrong thing to say. He stared down at his lap. Okay.

“Josef was the one who liked taking pictures. After his condition started worsening-“ James began, and broke off before plunging on. “There were days- long stretches- where he just… couldn’t do much. So I started taking the pictures instead. Lots of them. As many as I could. And later- after the fact- we showed him, and told him about everything that we’d done. So at least he could still feel like a part of our lives.”

Qrow continued his scrutiny of his hands. They were very interesting, and far more rewarding than looking at James, who was staring wearily at the ceiling. After awhile, Qrow broke the awkward silence that had descended on them.

“You know,” he said quietly, “I’m not sure if you’re ready for that date yet after all.”

“What?”

“Listen.” Qrow still didn’t look up. “After- after Summer died- I moved in with Tai. I don’t think I have to tell you how hard it is to suddenly be a single parent? Someone had to take care of him. So for the past- gods, seven years now- look, do you know how many dates Tai has been on in that time?”

“I’m guessing not many?”

“Six. And every time he does he comes home- like- more depressed than ever. Dating again- for Tai- he says it’s just a reminder of what he lost, of why he’s going on dates. And I know it’s different for everyone, I know- but I just- you talk about Josef the way Tai talks about Summer- that kinda, slightly reverent voice? Like you can’t believe someone like that ever loved you - and I just- I’ve seen how bad Tai feels after a date and I don’t- I don’t want to make you feel like that, okay?”

James was silent, now making a study of his own hands- much more interesting than Qrow’s, if only for the lack of symmetry. Twice he tried to speak, but found he had nothing to say. Qrow was right- as much as he’d wanted to be ready, he wasn’t. He ran tired fingers through his hair and sighed.

“You’re right,” he said. “I wish you weren’t, but…”

“Hey.” Qrow finally looked up, gave him an attempt at his usual cheeky smirk. “Listen, I’m not gonna sit here and pretend I don’t have a personal investment in you dating again, okay? Cause you’re sweet and you’re pretty and it’s pretty obvious my girls and yours want us to date, too.”

“They’re going to be very disappointed when we tell them we cancelled.”

Qrow breathed a laugh. “Yeah… still…” He reached over, hesitantly, and touched James’ hand. “Let’s not cancel, then. Let’s just… raincheck. You’ve got my number, you know where to find me. If later on you find yourself wanting that drink after all then… gimme a call. Deal?”

James looked over at him, and then gave him a relieved smile and nodded. “Okay. Deal.” He held out his hand and they shook on it, and then James leaned back in his seat. After a moment, “By the way… in the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t mean you when I said reasonably attractive. I was referring to Penny’s bare minimum requirement. It’s a sliding scale.”

“A sliding scale, huh?” Qrow crossed his arms, relieved that the serious talk had temporarily been abandoned. “So where do I fall on this sliding scale?”

“Well, let’s see…” James leaned forward and looked Qrow over; Qrow struck a pose that he hoped showed off his best features. “I’d put you at about a nine, maybe a nine and a half in good lighting.”

“Nine and a half?!” Qrow straightened up, indignant, and jabbed a finger in James’ direction. “Listen pal, I am a ten on my worst days, it’s like my base state of being! You’ve got some kinda nerve- I got half a mind to walk right outta here right now- nine and a half .” He scoffed. “You blind or something?”

James was just watching him, though, an amused look on his face. Qrow broke off and realized his cheeks were burning under the scrutiny. He folded his arms and pouted.

“What?”

“You’re cute.”

What ?!”

This got him a laugh, and James stood up, stretching lightly before wandering in the direction of the door. “Want something to eat?”

This was… not how Qrow usually played this game. He stood and ambled after James, through the foyer to the kitchen, hands shoved down into his pockets. Usually he was the one doing the flirting and flustering, winding up his potential partners until push came to shove and they unwound in his direction.

Was that what they were doing, though? They’d rainchecked their date, and Qrow wasn’t one for commitment free sex if it was with someone he was actually into - so what was James playing at? What was the endgame here?

...was he allowed to ask?

In the kitchen, James had taken a box of cookies out of the cabinet and set a pack of juice boxes onto the counter as well.

“Do your girls have any allergies? Or foods they’re just not allowed to eat?”

“Nah, though you may be biting off more than you can chew if you’re planning to feed Nora sugar.”

“Hyperactive?”

“She’s a pretty energetic kid as it is, so I don’t let her have caffeine or particularly sugary foods too often. I love her but… she’s a handful.”

James considered the cookies, and then reached for the fruit bowl and picked up a bunch of bananas instead. “How are they on fruit?”

Qrow laughed. “Fruit works! Fruit won’t have her climbing walls.”

While James took the fruit and juice boxes upstairs, Qrow poked a straw into his own and sucked on it thoughtfully. James was flirting with him, obviously, but what did that mean? Was Qrow allowed to flirt back? And if so, where was the line? Flirting was okay, suggestive wasn’t? Was suggestive okay?

“Man… kinda wish we’d just gone for that drink,” he huffed, sucked at his juice box until it crumpled.

-/-

When James came back downstairs, Qrow was scrolling absently through his phone. He’d texted Tai about his and James’ raincheck, though he’d left off details, just saying that they’d decided it wasn’t a good idea right now. He glanced up.

“So how’d they take it?”

“Ah…” James looked sheepish again. “...I didn’t tell them.”

“Why?”

“Because I can barely handle disappointing Penny, let alone Penny, Nora, Ruby, and Yang.”

“Coward,” Qrow scoffed. “Fine, I’ll wait till we go to break it to ‘em. But it’s on you if that means they cancel plans they were making for the evening.”

“You think they’ll make plans that quickly?”

Qrow gave him an amused look. “Penny hasn’t had much of a social life up to this point, has she?”

“No? Oh, I see. This is normal for girls her age, isn’t it?”

“Extremely.” Qrow gave him a cheeky look. “Tell you what. In the interest of not disappointing them too badly, why don’t I have you two over for lunch tomorrow? I’ll throw some hot dogs on the grill or something, the girls can just postpone their plans a bit.”

“You don’t mind?”

He waved that away. “Nah, it’ll be fun.”

-/-

To say that Nora was disappointed when Qrow later broke the news about cancelling his date with James would be… an understatement. Far more accurate would be to say that Nora stared at him in abject horror for several moments before, almost in tears, demanding to know why .

“But don’t you like him?” she asked.

Qrow chuckled. “Course I do. But it’s not that simple.”

“Why not ?”

“Cause it’s not. That’s just how it is.”

Nora folded her arms and slumped down in the seat, pouting, and didn’t say anything else for the rest of the ride home, ignoring Ruby and Yang’s cheery chatter about everything they had done on their visit with Penny and everything they had planned for tomorrow. When they did get home, she disappeared into her room without a word.

For the moment, Qrow left her alone- she was obviously upset, and needed space, so he gave her that while he got dinner on cooking and helped Yang with her homework. After Tai got home and took over cooking, though, he mixed up a glass of Ovaltine and took it to Nora’s room.

He heard a muffled response when he tapped on the door, and after a moment just in case he’d misheard, he pushed the door open. Nora was on her bed, curled around her pillow with her little radio playing upbeat techno music. She switched it off when he came in, though.

“Hey, kiddo,” he said. “I brought you some Ovaltine. You wanna talk about it?”

She took the Ovaltine without a word, sipping it slowly while brooding, but when the glass was half empty she finally shrugged.

“I just really want you to date Mr. Ironwood. I don’t understand why you won’t. If I wanted to date a boy, I would.”

Qrow’s eyebrows shot up, and he covered his eyes while looking up at the ceiling. “Spare me the thought of you dating, kiddo, I’ve got a good five or six years before I have to mentally prepare for that.” He leaned back on his hands, studying Nora thoughtfully, trying to decide how best to explain James’ situation in a way that she could understand. After a few minutes, he said, hesitantly, “Do you remember when you lost Trunkie? It was right after we brought you here. Remember how you felt?”

“Yeah, I remember.” She sipped at her Ovaltine again. “It was awful. I didn’t think I was ever going to be happy again.”

Qrow nodded. “Remember how Tai tried to cheer you up by buying you a new stuffed elephant? And how that made you even more upset?”

This got an even stronger pout, and a long gulp on her Ovaltine, until the glass was empty. “It wasn’t Trunkie .”

“Right!” Qrow reached over and took the glass gently from her, setting it aside and raising his arm with a murmured ‘c’mere’ of invitation. She crawled over and settled against his side, still clutching her pillow and tucked up under his arm. He went on. “I want you to hold onto your memory of that feeling, okay?”

“Okay…”

“Okay. See, Mr. Ironwood was married before, to Penny’s dad. And they loved each other very much, and they were very happy. And then Penny’s dad died, and James was very sad. Sad like when you lost Trunkie, remember? And right now, going out with someone else would be like when Tai bought you a new elephant.”

There was a long silence while Nora contemplated this. “So… Mr. Ironwood doesn’t want to date you because he still misses his husband?”

“Right.” Qrow ruffled her hair, glad that she understood. “And just like how Tai respected that the new elephant didn’t make you feel better, and didn’t try to make you take it for the sake of his feelings, I have to respect that J- Mr. Ironwood isn’t ready to date again, and not try to make him do it anyway for the sake of my feelings. You still with me?”

She nodded against his side. “But I did eventually get a new stuffed animal to be my very favorite,” she said. “Does that mean one day Mr. Ironwood will want to date someone new? Will he want to date you?”

“I’m hoping.” He reached around to noogie her playfully. “He’s handsome, you know.”

Nora giggled, shooing his hands away while he mussed her hair up. Once she’d wriggled her way free, she pulled her knees to her chest. The fond way she was looking up at him made something inside him wiggle, and to disguise what he knew must be an incredibly sappy look, he caught her face in both hands and scrunched it up, then pulled her over so he could plant a kiss on the top of her head, earning him a snorty giggle and more flailing for his efforts.

“It’s nearly dinner time,” he said, pushing to his feet and ruffling her hair even more. “Gonna come hang out with us until then or do you want to stay in here for awhile longer?”

“I’ll stay here,” Nora said, reaching over for her radio. “I’ll come out for dinner, though.”

“All right, I’ll call you when, then.” He grabbed the empty glass and headed back to to the kitchen to wash it, Nora’s adoring look still printed onto his brain.

-/-

It was rare that Josef got good days, anymore. Rare that after only a couple of frequently-paused hours of activity he was able to stay up long enough to spend time with his little family. This was one of those rare days; he’d had the energy to watch a movie together, and now their child lay across their lap asleep while the credits rolled and Josef leaned into James’ side, more from exhaustion than from affection.

While James was absent-mindedy watching names crawl up the screen, he felt Josef stir, and sit up. He looked over, an eyebrow raised in question.

“James,” Josef said quietly. “I have been thinking. There is something I would like you to promise me.”

“What is it?”

He closed his eyes, and between them his hand found James’, closing around it. “When I am gone, I would like you to promise me that you will find love again.”

“Josef-“

“No- please- do not argue. I know you, dearheart. I know your tendency to dwell, to cling. I know you will not let me go easily.”

“Do we have to talk about this now?” James asked, glancing down at their sleeping child. He didn’t want to think about this right now, not when they’d just spent an enjoyable evening together.

Josef just smiled wearily. “There is never a good time, my beloved. Either I am too tired, or I am not and we are happy. But this needs to be said, and we are running out of time.”

“You don’t know that. You could still make a recovery.”

Josef sighed. “James, your hope is a buoyant thing- but it is unfounded. Please, listen to me. You are a good man, and your heart is beautiful. I cannot bear the thought of you spending your life alone on my account.”

James was silent, but between them, his thumb traced the wedding band on Josef’s finger. Josef twisted his hand around, twining their fingers together.

“I do not mean for you to start seeking my replacement at my funeral,” he said, ignoring the way James’ hand tightened around his at the word. “Take whatever time you need to grieve, to mourn. And when you are ready- and only when you are ready, my dearest, my beloved, then please, find someone new to love, to love you. Promise me you will do this.”

“Josef-“

“James, please. You are too good to waste on unhappiness. I love you too much for this. Find love. Promise me.”

James was silent again, watching the looping menu screen for a long time before finally nodding. “All right,” he said quietly. “I promise.”

Josef let out a slow breath and leaned his head back again, closing his eyes and tightening his grip on James’ hand. “Thank you.”

-/-

It was late, probably gone midnight, and James hadn’t gone to bed yet. He’d meant to, but after putting Penny to bed he’d ended up leaning on the back porch railing with a beer dangling from his fingers, staring out at the dark backyard, his mind a million miles- and several years- away.

His head fell forward wearily and he ran the fingers of his free hand through his hair.

“I’m trying, Josef,” he murmured. “I swear I am.”

-/-

-/- End Act 1 -/-

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

Tai’s house was a lot smaller than James’, a little more cramped and a lot more crowded, but this didn’t stop Ruby from grabbing Penny’s hand and taking her through a tour of the entire house the next afternoon, when James and Penny arrived for lunch. Nora and Yang trailed behind them, offering commentary.

“Qrow’s in the kitchen making lunch,” Tai said, after shaking James’ hand and giving him a thoughtful once-over. “I’d stay and chat too but I have twenty-seven papers to read and grade.”

He looked so disgruntled that James couldn’t help but laugh. “Your input will be missed,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah.” Tai sighed and disappeared down the hall to his bedroom- James knew it was his bedroom because Ruby’s tour had stopping front of the door and she’d explained, in her best cryptid-tour guide voice, that this was ‘the forbidden zone’, where daughters and nieces were not allowed without permission. Tai stepped carefully around the tour and slipped into the room, ignoring the four girls leaning over to peek into the room now that it was open.

Ruby was whispering new information to her tour group now that the door was open, but James couldn’t hear it. With one last glance to make sure Penny was enjoying herself, he followed the sound of cheery, gravelly singing that led him to the kitchen and Qrow. Qrow broke off and looked up when he came in, and waved the knife he was holding in greeting.

“Hey,” James said, ambling closer and trying to work out what Qrow was making. “Need some help? Penny abandoned me for a tour and Tai ran off to grade papers.”

“You poor neglected baby,” Qrow teased. He gestured at some onions on the counter. “Knock yourself out, if you’re offering. Knives are in the drawer at the end, be sure to rinse it off before you use it, we’ve got mice.”

James grabbed a knife and pulled one of the onions to him. “Diced or sliced?”

“One of each. We’re having hamburgers, and Yang likes her onions sliced but Nora likes them diced, so I always just do both.”

He nodded, and for a few minutes there was silence, nothing but the sound of the knife tapping softly against the cutting board and the soft pat-pat-squish of Qrow mixing hamburger meat.

“So Ruby definitely wants Penny to come to her birthday party Saturday,” Qrow said after a while.

“Her birthday is Halloween?”

“Oh yeah.” Qrow grinned. “We used to give Summer hell about that one, it was her favorite holiday. Speaking of Halloween, you taking Penny trick-or-treating Saturday? Ruby’s party is gonna be early so everyone can have time to go home and get ready. And she wants Penny to come trick-or-treating with us.”

James laughed. “Ruby seems to be making a lot of plans with someone she’s only known for five minutes.”

“Yeah, well.” Qrow shrugged. “That’s Ruby for you. She wants to do everything and she wants everyone to be there to do it with her. You gotta be careful or she’ll run right over you, but she’s a good kid.”

“It’s fine,” James said. “And I’m glad Penny is making friends so easily.”

They broke off, then, because the tour had made it as far as the kitchen. Ruby gestured at the stove.

“And this is where we prepare our food, and by we I mean Dad and Uncle Qrow because Nora and I aren’t allowed to use the stove until we can reach it and Yang isn’t allowed to use the stove until she stops setting things on fire to see what happens.”

“We live with fascists and suppressors,” Yang said, folding her arms matter-of-factly.

Qrow snorted. “Says the girl who set our bathroom on fire.”

“That was one time!” She pouted. “I thought it would be fine since the bathroom has so much water in it.”

“And that is why you’re not allowed to use the stove.”

Nora had gotten bored with the tour- she had, in fact, had the same tour back when she first moved in six months ago- so now she moved over to the counter and climbed up onto a stool beside James.

“Whatcha doing?”

“I’m cutting onions.” He winked at Nora, and nodded toward Qrow. “Your uncle put me to work when I came in here.”

“Hey, you volunteered, pal!” Qrow waggled a wooden spoon at James in mock admonishment before going back to patting out hamburger patties. “You coulda said no.”

“I wanted to help.” The other girls were joining them now, climbing up onto stools while Ruby did her duty as a good hostess and got juice boxes out of the fridge for them all. Beside him, Nora was watching him cut onions intently; he could see the question burning in her eyes and finally sighed. “Go ahead, I know you want to ask.”

“Where’d you get a cool robot arm that acts like a regular arm?”

Which wasn’t the question he was expecting . He set the knife and onion down and held his hand up for her to see, turning it over to show off the individual and life-like finger movements.

“I’m a roboticist,” he explained. “Specifically, I design robot limbs and other prosthetic body parts."

“You make robots ?!” Nora was halfway standing on her stool, obviously excited. “That’s so cool ! We made a robot! Actually we didn’t, we just strapped a knife to a roomba and called it a robot. Does that count?”

James pretended to consider that. “Well… a Roomba is already a robot, so I would say you enhanced it. How did you strap the knife to it?”

“Velcro. Uncle Tai needed some for one of his classes and he had a bunch left over so we used it around the house.”

“We were unsticking things for weeks ,” Qrow added. “Including Stabby.”

“I’m telling ya,” Yang said. “We’re living with the fun police.”

-/-

Some time later, while the burgers cooked and Qrow and the girls regaled James and Penny with tales of their adventures, Tai wandered into the kitchen. He looked like he’d just come back from a warzone, and when he pulled up a stool he laid his head down very gently on the counter with a long drawn out sigh. Within seconds, there was a juice box placed beside his hand.

“Are the papers really that bad?” James asked. Tai just groaned.

“See, this is why I teach grade schoolers,” Qrow said.

“I feel like I’m teaching grade schoolers sometimes,” Tai said. “Some of them have the same grasp of composition as grade schoolers.”

“Hey!” Ruby folded her arms and pouted. “I thought you said I had a good grasp of composition!”

“Oh, sweetie, you do!” Tai lifted his head and reached over to stroke Ruby’s hair fondly. “But you’ve only got a couple years of experience, and you’re at a grade school level still. There’s no shame in that- but my students are all college kids. They’re supposed to know this stuff already.” He sighed. “If they had some limitations holding them back I could understand and work with them, but for most of them they’re just plain not bothering to try. And then there’s the ones who don’t understand the concept of a maximum word count .”

James reached for a juice box. “What do you teach?”

“Astrophysics.”

James choked on his juice box.

“That’s what everyone says,” Qrow said cheerily, while Tai frowned. He opened the oven, and then made a pleased noise. “Burgers are ready- you girls wanna get the table set for us?”

They hurried to do so, while James gave Tai an apologetic look. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend- just I’ve known several astrophysicists and you wouldn’t have struck me as the type.”

“Yeah, a lot of my colleagues are woefully uncool compared to me.”

“That’s sadly true,” Qrow said, earning a shoulder smack from Tai as they headed to the table as well. “What? You’re not cool!”

“Yes I am! I have a tattoo,” he said, gesturing to the stylized dragon symbol on his arm, as if that proved it. “ You don’t have a tattoo.”

“That’s all you know.” Qrow looked up from fixing his plate and gave James a playful wink, and James felt his neck heating up. He suspected he knew where this conversation was going.

Tai, meanwhile, looked disbelieving. “You do not have a tattoo, Qrow.”

“How would you know? It’s not exactly in a place I like to show off.”

“Did you forget we’ve been ski- we’ve- uh…” He broke off, and looked over at the kids, all of whom were completely ignoring the conversation in favor of their own. This didn’t mean they weren’t listening, though. Kids were cunning like that.

Qrow smirked. “ Little pitchers , Taiyang. You were saying?”

“I was saying I’ve been in enough situations with you that if you did have a tattoo, no matter where it was, I would have seen it.”

“Heh. Let’s just say you would have had to have been looking real close to be able to see it.”

“I still don’t believe you,” Tai said, and glanced over at James. “So what about you? Do you have any tattoos?”

“I used to,” James said.

“Used to?” Qrow raised an eyebrow. “What, did you get it removed or something?”

“Well…” All of them had been on his right side, so, “...in a manner of speaking, yes. Removed is definitely a word for what happened.”

“What’d you go and do that for? Was it just that embarrassing? ...was it a tramp stamp?”

“Qrow! Little pitchers!”

“What? They’re not listening!”

As if on cue, Nora looked up from her burger. “What’s a tramp stamp?”

Tai just gestured at her as if to say ‘ see? ’, while Qrow facepalmed and tried to decide how to explain tramp stamp without slut-shaming or talking about sex in any capacity whatsoever.

-/-

After lunch, Qrow took the girls outside to play while Tai stayed behind to clean up, and James volunteered to help.

“You don’t have to,” Tai said, passing him a rag anyway. James took it with a pointed look.

They were silent while they put away the food and stacked the dishes, but once they were both standing at the sink, Tai broke the silence.

“So Ruby wants to have Penny sleep over on Friday, so they can make their plans for Halloween- Qrow did talk to you about trick-or-treating, right?”

“He brought it up, but we never resolved anything. As I understand it, Ruby intends to monopolize my daughter for the entire weekend if she can get away with it.”

“That’s a pretty good way to put it. She’ll calm down eventually, I promise, but right now she’s excited about her new friend.”

“It’s fine,” James said. “Penny’s never had anyone get excited about her before. I’m honestly more worried about what’s going to happen when the new wears off, or when her friends find something else to get excited about.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that. Once the honeymoon stage is over, they’ll just get excited about things together.”

“I hope so. Penny’s never had close friends before. She did have other kids, but- well- she was always an afterthought to them, somewhat. Or invited to things because their parents told them to.”

“Oh, no wonder Qrow’s so taken with her.”

“What?”

Tai laughed. “You think it’s just the girls who are getting attached? The invitations are their own doing but Qrow isn’t exactly discouraging their enthusiasm, if you catch my meaning. I was wondering about that, I thought it was just his crush on you getting out of hand.”

James didn’t say anything else, but he could feel his ever-present blush spreading already. Tai laughed again.

“James, between Qrow and my girls, I have heard of literally nothing but you and Penny all week. Nora in particular has been singing your praises. She’s quite taken with you.”

“I think she may have been concocting a plot to set Qrow and I up.”

“Ah.” Tai laughed. “Well, that makes sense. The way she was going on I was worried she was the one with the crush- and I was so not looking forward to that conversation.”

“No, she’s just a very enthusiastic wingman.”

-/-

After they finished the dishes, they headed outside, where Qrow was playing backyard football with the girls, Qrow and Penny against Yang, Nora, and Ruby. As they watched, Penny threw the ball at Qrow with surprising skill, and Yang tackled him before he could get anywhere with it.

He lay on the ground groaning, and suddenly Ruby and Nora joined the pile as well. He went still.

“Okay, you guys win,” he said. “You’ve gone and killed me and that defaults to a win.”

“I’m not sure that’s how football works,” Tai said, as he and James came out to join them. Tai fished around in the pile of girls and got a grip on Qrow’s shirtfront, hauling him to his feet while the girls tumbled safely to the ground.

“Oh sure,” Qrow said. “Lord your fancy football knowledge over me. You know I don’t know jackall about the game whatsoever.”

The three adults walked- or in Qrow’s case, limped- back to the porch, leaving the girls to play two-a-side instead. Nora immediately claimed a spot on Penny’s team, citing that the two of them would be unstoppable, while Ruby and Yang scoffed and declared their own superiority.

“Did you play football in school?” James asked.

Tai shook his head. “Nah, I was a cheerleader. Still got to go to all our games, though.”

“I got to go to all the games too,” Qrow put in, “and I know fuckall about football.”

“That’s because you were too busy watching the players to pay attention to the game. He was a majorette,” Tai added, because James had the question on his face. “What about you? I bet a big guy like you was the favorite for your team.”

James nodded. “I was captain my senior year. Marched in the band, too.”

“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me,” Qrow said. “What’d you play?”

“I marched baritone my first two years, and then switched to drumline later. Though during the rest of year I did orchestra, double bass.”

“Someone’s an overachiever,” Tai said, while Qrow groaned and leaned back, throwing his arm over his eyes. James raised an eyebrow at him.

“Are you okay?”

“He’s fine.” Tai reached over and patted Qrow’s knee reassuringly. “He just has a thing for string instruments.”

“You didn’t have to tell him that,” Qrow said. “You coulda just not said it.”

“He already knows you think he’s cute, I don’t see why it matters.”

“It matters cause you’re a jerk ,” Qrow said, and was cut off from further comment by a shout of pain from the yard. All three men were down the porch steps in an instant, out into the yard where Penny was sitting on the ground clutching her foot and trying not to cry.

The other girls had crowded her, but they moved aside for James. He knelt and caught her head in his hands, brushing away a few tears with his thumb and getting her focus onto him.

“Hey,” he said gently. “Tell me where it hurts.”

“It’s my ankle,” she said, sniffling a little. “I sl-slipped on some grass and fell. I thi-ink I twisted it.”

But James had already moved away from her face and was feeling at the ankle in question with careful fingers. After a moment he let out a slow, relieved breath. “It’s not bad,” he said. “Thank goodness for that.” He reached up to brush a few more tears away. “I’m going to pick you up now. I don’t think it’s a bad sprain, but I don’t want you putting weight on it until I can say for sure.”

She nodded, and he slipped his arms under her back and knees so he could pick her up. Once he got her into the kitchen, he found Tai already in there, an ice pack and cloth sat on the table waiting. He’d also moved the chairs so that she could prop her foot up.

“We’re no strangers to injury in this house,” Tai said. “You gonna be okay, sweetie?”

She nodded, while James set her down in the prepared chair and got to work on the ice pack. She hissed and jerked her foot away instinctively when the cold ice touched it- even through the cloth-, but the second time she let him set it in place.

“I don’t think it’s a bad sprain,” James said. “But I definitely don’t want you walking on it for now. Just hang tight- unless you want to go home?” he added, in case she’d had enough fun for the day.

She shook her head. “I want to stay. Please, Father? Just for a little while? I like it here.”

James glanced over at Tai, who shrugged. “You guys are welcome to hang out if you want. We could watch a movie or something, that’s low impact, though I warn you that no one in this family knows how to shut up during a movie.”

The girls had been peeking around the back door for this; now Ruby, in her excitement, fell through. She bounced to her feet, unphased. “Oh, oh! Let’s watch The Vampire Mummy Werewolf!”

James squinted. “Which one?”

“Duh, the first one.”

He looked at Penny. “You want to stay and watch the first Vampire Mummy Werewolf?”

“Yes. I enjoy that movie, and I have seen it enough times that I do not mind if everyone talks during the movie.”

-/-

It was later than James would have liked when he and Penny finally left the Branwen-Xiao Long house. One Vampire Mummy Werewolf had turned into two, and an attempt to turn it into a third had turned into an argument about the merits of the third movie as a valid part of the franchise, which had turned into an argument about which parts of the franchise were canon, which had turned into a lecture on why the nineties cartoon series was in the truest spirit of the original creation, and by then James had realized that Penny had fallen asleep on him.

He knew they should have left sooner, but, well. Honestly, he’d never seen Penny playing with other kids who so wholeheartedly welcomed her presence, who so openly delighted in it.

He carried Penny out to the car- she was dead on her feet, and while her ankle hadn’t been badly injured he was hesitant to have her walk on it just yet- and Qrow followed them, trailing after him with his hands shoved in his pockets. Once he’d put Penny into the seat and buckled her up, he straightened up and gave Qrow a warm smile.

“Thanks for having us over,” he said. “It’s nice to see Penny actually having fun with other kids her age for once.”

“No problem, kid’s pretty great.”

He said nothing else, and the silence that descended between them, comfortable and soft, stretched into eternity while James stood there. He was struck suddenly by wondering what would have happened if he hadn’t rainchecked their date. Would they have been as comfortable then as they were now?

Somehow he doubted it.

“...I gotta go,” Qrow said abruptly, taking a half-step back and jolting James out of his thoughts. He nodded.

“Of course. I should get Penny home anyway. I’ll see you tomorrow, I guess.”

“Yeah- tomorrow-” Qrow grinned, an attempt at cheeky, and turned and fled into the house.

-/-

 

Chapter Text

-/-

Ever since Penny had started at Signal, James had listened every evening while Penny regaled him with tales of her school day and stories about all of her new friends. One friend in particular, a boy named Sun, seemed to factor into a lot of stories, since he was the only one she shared a classroom with, but James had yet to meet him since he usually took the bus home and was gone by the time James arrived to pick up Penny.

He met him Tuesday.

When he arrived at Qrow’s classroom, Penny and Ruby were drawing on the chalkboard, but instead of Nora they were joined by a blond boy with a yellow longsock tied to his rear belt loop. James gestured to the sock and raised an eyebrow at Qrow in question, who laughed.

“Hey Sun, c’mere.” When the boy handed off the chalk and moved over to Qrow’s desk (followed by Ruby and Penny, too nosy to stay put), Qrow gestured at James. “This is Mr. Ironwood, Penny’s dad. He wants to know about your tail.”

The kid immediately lit up at this. “Oh!” He spun around, showing it off. “Well, it’s basically one of the coolest things about me. See-” He turned back around. “-my moms are always going on about how I’m their little monkey boy. And then we learned about monkeys in class, and Mr. Qrow says that monkeys have tails, and apes don’t!” He reached behind him for his ‘tail’ and stretched it out. “So, anyway, I knew if I wanted to be a monkey I’d need a tail. So I got this from my mom’s sock drawer.”

“I see.” James put a hand over the smile that was threatening. “Does it do any cool tail stuff?”

“Nah, it’s just a sock.” He shrugged and dropped it. “But! By the time I grow up, genetic engineering will totally be a thing! So I’m gonna get a real one. It’ll be so cool! It’ll be like having an extra hand and an extra foot, except it’s neither, it’s a tail!”

“Sun knows lots of things about monkeys,” Ruby said. “I think he must be the smartest monkey expert in the world!”

“Aw, I don’t know about expert,” Sun said, clutching his ‘tail’ bashfully. “But I do know lots of things. My moms got me a book about monkeys when we got my baby brother.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know very much about monkeys,” James said. “So you definitely know more than I do.”

“Sun’s one of the kids going trick-or-treating with us Saturday,” Qrow said, once the kids got distracted by Sun’s endless supply of monkey facts and the adults found themselves mostly ignored. “Speaking of which, you still haven’t said if Penny can come with us.”

“Oh, right.” James folded his arms and leaned back on the desk. “We keep getting derailed every time it comes up. Who all is going? It’s not just you, Tai, and the girls?”

“Nah, we got a mixed bunch this time.” He ticked off on his fingers. “Me and Tai, of course we’re going. And Nora and Ruby are gonna be with us, and Sun, and Nora’s friend Ren. Penny, hopefully, but Yang is going to a Halloween party at her friend’s house- she says she’s too old for trick-or-treating now.”

“Eleven is too old for trick-or-treating?”

“When you’re eleven it is.” Qrow shrugged. “The kid’s in middle school, she thinks that means she’s gotta be grown up now.”

“Oh, of course. I hated that age, I hope she gets past it soon.” James shook his head. “Okay, so that’s… four kids? Five if Penny comes along.”

“And at least two adults, three if Ren’s mom is able to make it.” He brightened up. “You can come too, if you want. The kids’ll probably enjoy having you there, and more adults to look after five kids out in the streets at night never hurt anything.”

“Do I have to wear a costume?”

“Uh, duh.” Qrow adopted the same wheedling face that he’d used on Tai on the phone. “Come on, Jimmy, it’ll be fun. And you don’t have to wear a costume. I guess.”

James rolled his eyes; he’d seen Qrow use this same tactic on Tai, and wasn’t sure why it had worked. “Are you sure it’s the kids who want me to come along?”

“All right, so maybe I’m the one that wants you there. So what? I’m allowed to want things.” He folded his arms, dangerously close to pouting. “So are you gonna come or not? We actually could use an extra chaperone, I wasn’t kidding about that. This lot are a handful.”

James sighed. “All right, we’ll go. It’ll be a good chance to get to know the area- though we’ll have to go costume shopping before Saturday.”

“Ooh, last minute costume shopping? Good luck with that.”

-/-

James had work to do that evening, and the next as well, so it was Thursday before they were able to go costume shopping. He met another of Penny’s friends like that- a girl named Weiss, who he quickly found out lived across the road from one down from them. He’d seen the enormous house plenty of times since they moved in, but hadn’t realized there were kids there; while other houses in the neighborhood had evidence of children- toys in the yard, playground equipment, treehouses- the Schnee home was immaculate.

“Weiss does not have many toys,” Penny had said when she asked to invite her along. “She says that it is more important for her to maintain her studies.”

“Being a kid while she’s young sounds more important,” James said. “Why are we taking her costume shopping with us?”

“Because she wants to get out of her house for a little while, and it is the perfect excuse. Will you ask her father if she may go? Please, Father?”

“All right, all right.” He ruffled her hair fondly. “You don’t have to beg, I’m always happy to meet more of your friends. And it’s nice that you’ve got one nearby. Why don’t we go around right now and talk to them? I don’t want to leave things too late and interrupt their dinner.”

Penny looked delighted, and led James over to Weiss’s house, though as they neared he noticed that she found his hand and hung nearer to him. He wasn’t surprised- the Schnee home, while beautiful, was intimidating.

The door was opened by a butler- an honest to god butler. James inclined his head politely. “Hello,” he said. “My name is James Ironwood, my daughter is friends with Miss Weiss? I’d like to talk to one of her parents about having her come out with us tomorrow evening.”

The butler looked from James down to Penny, who gave him a small smile, and then bowed graciously and shimmered out. A moment later, a tall, thin man in a white suit and black hair fading to white came downstairs to join them.

“Ah, this must be young Penny and her very handsome father,” he said. “My daughter said that I could expect a visit soon. Jacques Schnee.”

He spoke with a permanent sneer, but his words were friendly enough despite his tone, so James took his hand when offered. He decided not to ask about the handsome comment.

“James Ironwood- and Penny, of course.” He rested a hand reassuringly on Penny’s shoulder, because he could feel her shrinking under Jacques’ gaze, and gave his warmest look. “Penny and I are going costume shopping tomorrow,” he explained. “Penny has asked- well, begged, really- if we can invite Weiss to join us.” An indulgent smile. “She’s very excited about doing things with all of her new friends.”

“Yes, they do get exciteable at that age, don’t they.”

“It’s an exciting age.” A movement up the staircase caught his eye, and he looked up to see a girl Penny’s age peering down at them. Another girl, a teenager, was also peering around at them. He gave them his friendliest smile. “This must be Weiss?”

Jacques turned around and spotted the girls, then beckoned them down. They were quiet when they joined him; the open curiosity he’d seen was gone, hidden behind a blank mask.

“My daughters,” Jacques said. “Weiss, of course, and Winter as well. I suppose Weiss may join you and your daughter tomorrow. She must be home in time for dinner, though,” he added.

James turned another smile on the girls, hoping to encourage them somewhat, and the look on Winter’s face gave him pause. “Your other daughter is of course welcome to join us,” he said abruptly. “If she wants to, that is.”

Jacques looked surprised, and turned to look at Winter. “Well?”

“I suppose I do still need a hat of finish my Halloween ensemble,” she said carefully. “Yes, I would like that. May I go?”

“I suppose…”

“Thank you, Father.”

It was… eerie. And uncomfortably familiar. James made some mental notes, and turned his attention back to Jacques. “We’ll take our leave now,” he said. “I still have to get dinner ready.”

“Of course, of course.” Jacques rubbed his chin thoughtfully, making James pause at his scrutiny. “Ironwood… of the Atlas Ironwoods?”

“That’s me.”

“Well now.” His manner was a bit warmer now, but also a bit pricklier. “I’ll have the girls ready at four-thirty, and I expect them home by seven. I believe that’s a reasonable timeframe for shopping.”

-/-

Penny clung to James’ hand as they left, and once they were away from the house she asked, “What did that man mean by ‘the Atlas Ironwoods’?”

“Your grandfather- my father, not my stepfather- came from a very important family,” he explained. “People like Jacques place a great deal of stock in bloodlines.”

Penny contemplated that. “I am not certain I like Mr. Schnee very much. Is that all right?”

James ruffled her hair fondly. “You don’t have to like anyone you don’t want to, as long as you treat people with the necessary respect. And if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I like him either.”

“Why did you invite Winter to come shopping with us?” Penny asked, as they made it to their own house. James laughed.

“I’m not sure. I guess she just seemed like she needed to get out of the house for awhile, too. Do you mind?”

“No. Weiss says Winter is the best sister in the world. I have never had a sister, but I have met several, and I would like to see for comparison.”

A thought occurred to James. “Would you like a sister?”

Penny stopped in her tracks, then hurriedly ran inside and closed the door behind her. “I am not sure. It is sometimes lonely being an only child, but I also like having all of your attention for myself. Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know.” He was saying that a lot lately, he noticed, and tried again. “Your dad and I always intended to adopt another child, once you were older. We had to put those plans on hold, but I never intended to stop at one child, and I have the means to foster or adopt if we decided to. But it would have to be something we both wanted,” he added. “If you’d rather stay an only child-“

“What if you got married?” Penny cut in. “If you got married to someone with a child, then would it still be my say?”

James looked startled. “Of course it would. If I ever do get married again, it would have to be someone that you were comfortable with. He’d be your stepfather, after all. I’d want us to be in accord on the matter.”

“So if you wanted to get married and I said no, you would just stay single?” She seemed oddly distressed by the idea. James’ eyebrows flew up and he steered her over to a chair, and sat next to her.

“Penny, your happiness matters more to me than anything in this world. Even if I was just dating someone you weren’t happy with, I wouldn’t keep dating him.”

“But what if he made you happy?”

“There is no one- no one at all- who could make me happy enough to ignore your feelings. Do you understand? You matter to me more than anyone else ever could.”

“Except your other daughter, if you get one.”

“Well, yes.” He smiled fondly. “But that’s why I’d want someone you were comfortable with. I wouldn’t want to feel torn between my girls.”

“Okay.” She looked thoughtful, and, “You should marry Mr. Qrow.”

“Penny.” He sighed. “We’ve been over this.”

“That is just my opinion. I would be very happy if you married him. And then Nora and I could be sisters. I would not mind Nora being my sister.”

“We barely know them.”

“You like him?”

“Yes.” His expression softened- he could feel it softening. “Yes, very much.”

“Then marry him.” She slid off of the seat. “I am going to do my homework now. Please reconsider your stance in this matter.”

-/-

At recess the next day, Penny and Weiss discussed costume plans, while Sun, Ren, and Nora played on the monkey bars above them. It was just the five of them right now, since it was only the fifth graders’ recess.

“I actually already have my costume,” Weiss said. “I’m going to be a pirate.”

“A pirate sounds fun,” Penny said thoughtfully. She sidestepped slightly as Nora dropped down to hang upside down beside her.

“I’m gonna be a queen!” she said. “I’ve been practicing my walk.”

“Your walk?”

“Yeah!”

Nora grabbed the bar she was hanging from and flipped down to her feet, only stumbling a little. She stood up straight as she could and adopted an odd expression, and then took off walking toward a pair of boys playing with a hacky-sack a little way away. When they saw her coming, they exchanged baffled looks and, upon realizing she wasn’t stopping, shifted away. Nora spun back around and beamed at the others.

“See? That’s how you walk like a queen! I learned that from Queen Eleanor. Or possibly Bucky Barnes…” She came back over to them. “Hey Sun! What are you going to be?”

Sun was sitting on top of the monkey bars; he grabbed the edge and flipped off, only narrowly avoiding falling on his face. “My moms got me a monkey hoodie,” he said. “So I’m gonna wear that.”

“You’re always a monkey, though,” Weiss said, folding her arms and giving him a contemptuous look. “Why not be something different for Halloween?”

“Cause I wanna be a monkey!!” He folded his own arms, and tried to mimic her expression, then shrugged. “Also, I didn’t feel like putting together an actual costume and store bought costumes are boring.”

“And generic monkey hoodies aren’t ? At least put some wings or something on it.”

“Oh, that would be so cool!” His face lit up. “I could be a flying monkey! That’s even better than a regular monkey!” His face fell. “I don’t have any wings, though.”

“Well you’re. In. Luck ,” Weiss said, her snooty look getting even snootier. “Because I’ve got some left over from last Christmas when I was an angel in our Christmas nativity, and I can loan them to you.”

“Whoah, really?” Sun beamed. “Thanks, Weiss!”

“Don’t mention it,” she said haughtily, and then, “No seriously, don’t mention. I have a reputation to protect.”

“Don’t worry, Weiss,” Sun said, throwing an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. “The fact that you’re secretly actually really nice and thoughtful is a secret I will carry to my grave.”

“Ugh, let go of me!” She pushed him away and folded her arms again. “You smell like boy.”

“Yeah? Well you smell like oatmeal!” He laughed, and hauled himself back up onto the monkey bars, until he was sitting cross-legged on the top, his ‘tail’ dangling beneath him.

“Hmph!” Weiss threw her nose in the air. “Come on, Penny, let’s go stand a little farther away. This boy smell is getting into my nose.”

Penny giggled. “What is boy smell?”

“It’s the smell boys have, of course. It smells like being a jerk, and saying things that aren’t true, and not respecting personal space. Also bananas for some reason? And I thought that was just Sun, but Ren smells like bananas too? It’s so weird.”

Sun dropped down behind Penny and said, low enough that only Penny could hear, “It’s not weird. Ren found some cologne samples in one of his dad’s old magazine’s and for some reason it smelled like bananas. We’ve been using them all week.”

“Why?” Penny whispered back, while Weiss turned away in a huff.

“Cause we wanted to smell nice,” Sun said, shrugging. “And then we found out it confuses Weiss and that’s even better.”

Penny giggled. “You two are so weird.”

“We’re just being boys,” Sun said, shrugging. “You wouldn’t get it cause you’re a girl, but boys are always doing weird stuff. Penny?” He  looked alarmed by the slightly wobbly expression her face had taken on. “You okay?”

“I am fine!” She tried to turn her smile down to a normal amount of watts. “I am. Fine.”

Sun looked unconvinced. “Maybe girls are weird too? That’s cool. Being weird is way more fun.”

“Yes,” Penny said. “I am a very weird girl .”

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

James and Penny arrived at the Schnee home at promptly four-thirty, and found Weiss and Winter sitting in the foyer doing their homework when they arrived. Weiss shoved her work away quickly, hurrying over to say hello to Penny, while Winter folded her things carefully away and set them- and Weiss’ as well- on a shelf for safekeeping.

She was so controlled. James wondered how much of that control was natural for her. Admittedly, he didn’t have much experience interacting with teenage girls, but his own sister had been an explosion at that age, and he didn’t recall any of her friends being particularly demure, either.

(Actually, most of his memories seem to involve a lot of giggling, usually at his expense. His sister and her friends had been ruthless.)

“Is your father home?”

“Father is out right now,” Winter said, folding her hands in front of her. “Kline knows we’re leaving.”

“I’d like to speak with him before we leave,” James said. “Only for a moment.”

“Of course.” Winter moved over to the wall and touched a speaker system. “Kline? Mr. Ironwood would like to speak with you.” Then she folded her hands again and they fell to waiting.

Kline appeared after only a moment, looking oddly stern. James gave him a reassuring look.

“I wanted to let you know I’m taking Weiss and Winter.”

“Yes, Mr. Schnee told me of your plans.”

“I’m sorry to have disturbed your work,” James said. “I simply don’t feel right taking children from their caretakers without checking in first.”

“Of course.” A change seemed to come over the man, and he gave James a gracious look. “Have fun, girls. I’ll ensure that your father knows you went with Mr. Ironwood.”

-/-

James kept glancing at Winter on the ride into town, and even managed to engage her in some light conversation.

“So what have you got planned for your costume?” he asked.

“I am going to be a magician,” she said. “I have most of my costume already prepared, but I wanted a different hat.”

“Sounds fun. What about you two?” he added, glancing at Penny and Weiss in the rearview mirror.

“Weiss is going to be a pirate,” Penny said. “I have not properly decided, but I think it would be nice to be a fairy princess.”

“That sounds boring,” Weiss said, but James caught Penny’s eye in the mirror and gave her a reassuring smile.

“I think you’d make a great fairy princess. Though, we may have to settle for what we can find. We’ve left things a bit long.”

“Why did you wait so long?” Winter asked.

“We were too busy getting moved in earlier in the month,” James explained. “And then we were too busy getting settled. Halloween snuck up on us a bit- and honestly we weren’t expecting to have plans.”

“I am going trick-or-treating with my friends!” Penny chirped happily. “What about you?”

“Winter is taking me trick-or-treating with her girlfriend,” Weiss said, and then slapped her hands over her mouth with a squeak.

Oh. James glanced over at Winter, who’d turned a brilliant shade of red, and looked like she was going to be sick. Oh . He recognized that look.

“That sounds fun,” he said, giving Winter a smile. “Have you been together long?”

“Two months,” Winter mumbled.

“Are you coordinating your costumes? Is she going to be your lovely assistant?”

“No. She’s going to be a knight.” She looked away, and added, in a mumble, “Father doesn’t know.”

“I won’t say a word.”

She looked over at him, searching, trying to decide if he could be trusted, and then gave a tiny nod. “Thank you.”

-/-

There wasn’t a lot of selection left for costumes at the store. James and Penny stood on the aisle, looking over odds and ends and premade costumes that were either too big or too small for Penny.

“You did leave it till the last minute,” Winter said. She’d warmed to James somewhat after their talk in the car. James looked properly sheepish.

“Well… I’m sure we can do something with this.”

“If you can find the crown and other stuff, I can loan Penny one of my old recital dresses,” Winter said. “They’re suitably princessy, and practically in brand new condition. I’m sure at least one of them will fit her.”

“That is very kind of you, Winter,” Penny said. “I think Weiss was right about you being such a good sister.”

-/-

In the end, they found a reasonable crown, wings, wand, and a trip to the clothing aisle turned up a pair of glittery leggings that would keep her warmer than the sheer stockings that were more traditional to fairy princesses. She had a pair of ballet flats at home already that would look good with the dress Winter had in mind, and so all that was left was for Winter to slip the dress to her at Ruby’s birthday party Saturday.

“What about you, Father?” Penny said, while they were heading to the register. “You need a costume too.”

“...ah.” James hesitated. Certainly none of the costumes would fit him, and he wasn’t sure what could be done with the odds and ends they’d seen on the costume aisle.

Penny’s eyes lit up. “Oh, oh! I have an idea! Wait here!”

She shoved her things into his arms and took off to the costume aisle, and a few minutes later had come back with a pair of black cat ears. “You can be a kitty!” she said excitedly.

James stared down at the ears, and sighed. “All right. I guess that’s what I get for leaving it to the last minute.”

“That’s the spirit,” Winter said, which was almost a joke.

-/-

On Friday, when James dropped Penny off for class, he had her overnight bag with him. She was going home with Qrow and the girls, so they could ‘plan their Halloween route’, though James suspected that she just wanted an excuse to have a sleepover. Well, he didn’t mind. Really. He didn’t. And he wasn’t worried about having her spend the night in someone else’s home when he wasn’t there to look after her. At all.

He wasn’t .

Yang took him out to Qrow’s truck in the parking lot, so he could put Penny’s bag in it rather than have her carry it all day. As they were returning, Yang asked, hesitantly, “Hey Mr. Ironwood? Can I ask you what’s up between you and my uncle?” At James’ questioning look, she hastily added, “I know it’s not really my business. But it’s pretty obvious you both want to go out, so, I mean, why don’t you?”

James considered this a moment, and, “Do you understand why your father doesn’t date?”

“Well, yeah. But he’s never really been into anyone since Ruby’s mom died. I think if he had someone he was into he would change his mind. And you’re really, really obviously into my uncle. So I don’t really understand what’s stopping you.”

James sighed, and reached over to give her shoulder a squeeze. “Why don’t we just chalk this one up to complicated grown up things, okay?”

“Oh, all right .” She pouted. “But I still think you should reconsider. Here’s my classroom. You can take Uncle Qrow his keys

-/-

Qrow had to get groceries that evening, so it was late in the evening that he and the girls finally got home. He loaded each girl up with a couple grocery bags, then set them putting things away while he brought in the rest. Penny, who didn’t know where anything went, was tasked with taking the bags off of everything and hanging them up.

“I have never been to a sleepover before,” she said, while she carefully organized the various bags by color and how cute the picture on the front was.

“That’s okay,” Nora said. “I’d never been to one before I came here. Then I made lots of friends, and we had a big slumber party for my birthday, and Pyrrha and Weiss and Blake and Neptune were all there.”

“Neptune?”

“Neptune is special,” Ruby said, elbowing Nora and giving her a Look. “So he got to come too.”

“Oh,” Penny said, and then something clicked in her head and she said, “OH.”

“Oh what?”

“Nothing. It is nothing.”

“Penny…?” Yang looked worried. “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you? Neptune doesn’t want anyone to know.”

Penny hid her smile behind her hand, and then nodded. “I will not say anything, I promise.”

They decided to play outside once they’d gotten the groceries put away, while Qrow cooked dinner, and by the time it started to get too dark and too cold, Tai had gotten home, and Qrow had made cocoa and popcorn for them all. They sat around in the living room watching Halloween cartoons on tv, sipping cocoa and eating popcorn while the smell of frying chicken filled the house.

It was nice, and Penny only missed her father a little bit all evening.

-/-

James had a less pleasant evening. He tried to focus on getting some work done, but he was antsy without Penny. He wished he’d volunteered to help chaperone the sleepover- after all, an extra pair of adult eyes couldn’t hurt, right?- but that just made him think of sleeping over with Qrow and that thought brought a blush rising over his entire face. He was glad no one was around to see that.

Around midnight, he grabbed his phone and called Qrow. There was no harm in checking on things, right?

“This is Qrow,” Qrow said, after about the fourth or fifth ring.

“Hi, Qrow.”

“Oh, hey Jimmy. What’s up?”

“Nothing- nothing. I was just calling to check on things. Are the girls having fun?”

“Sure, they’re getting ready for bed right now.” There was a pause, and, “Huh.”

“What?”

“Nothing, just I just realized this is the first time we’ve had Penny over without you.”

“Ah.”

There was a grin in Qrow’s voice. James heard a door closed in the background, and the sound got a bit echoey. “Gonna have to cut those apron strings sometime, Jimmy,” he said.

“It’s her first sleepover,” he said. “Can’t I be a little anxious?”

“Sure. But there’s no reason to be. You wanna come over?”

It was tempting. James shook his head, even though Qrow couldn’t see him. “No. No, you’re right. I’ll just have to…”

“Put on your big girl panties and deal?”

“I was going to say ‘suck it up’, but sure.”

Qrow laughed. He sounded muffled, and there was some shuffling in the background. “That all you wanted?”

“I suppose.”

“You’re not really sure of much, are you, Jimmy?” There was another noise in the background, and after a few seconds James identified it as a shower. Oh. Oh .

“I should let you go,” James said hurriedly. “You sound busy.”

“Just about to shower, but I can put it off if you want to talk.”

“It’s fine. I’ll- I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He hung up without another word, and had no idea if Qrow had tried to respond. He shook his head, trying to banish the images trying to form, to little success. His brain was stuck too hard on the thought that Qrow had been undressing while they were talking.

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

The next morning, Penny was woken by Ruby hurling herself at her, crushing her beneath her before bouncing up and chattering excitedly.

“Penny! Penny, wake up, wake up! It’s morning! It’s my birthday! Wake up! Wake! Up!”

She stopped shouting long enough for Penny to get a word in, and Penny said, “I am awake!” very hurriedly. “Please get off of me. You are crushing my spleen.”

“Oh, sorry.”

Ruby scrambled to her feet, and then bounced over to Nora’s bed, where she hurled herself at her cousin in delight. Nora was more used to Ruby’s enthusiastic wake-up calls; she rolled away and then rolled over, trapping Ruby inside the blanket and prompting a very one-sided wrestling match as Ruby tried to free herself and Nora tried to keep her trapped.

There were footsteps outside, and the door was pushed open by Qrow, who looked exhausted. “How can three kids make so much noise so early in the morning?” he demanded.

Ruby poked her head out from inside her blanket cocoon. “Sorry, Uncle Qrow. But it’s my birthday! For real this time! Isn’t it exciting?”

“Can’t it wait another three hours to be exciting?” He shook his head and turned to leave. “I was having a nice dream, too,” he lamented.

Ruby and Nora exchanged mischievous looks. Nora bounced over to the end of her bed. “Was it a dream about a booooy ?” She teased.

Qrow squinted at her. “...what have you heard?”

“It was!” Nora beamed, and turned to high five Ruby, only to stop short when she realized the other was still trapped. She turned back. “I bet it was about Mr. Ironwood.”

It had been, in fact, and even more embarrassingly, it had been a remarkably unsexual dream. He was pretty sure there were cherry blossoms involved*. He folded his arms. “You’ll never prove a thing.

Penny looked between Nora and Qrow, and said, “You should date my father, Mr. Qrow.”

“I’d love to, kiddo, but he doesn’t want to, and that’s all there is to it. Now come on. If you three are going to insist on being awake I might as well put you to work. By the time I get some breakfast in you it’ll be light enough to start setting up the party stuff outside.”

He left, then, so they could get dressed. As soon as he was gone, Nora flopped down on the bed. “Hear that?” she said. “Uncle Qrow is game. Now we just have to work on your father.”

“I am trying,” Penny said. “He is being very insistent.” She picked up her clothes from yesterday- she would change into her party dress later- and headed to the bathroom to change. “But we will get him there eventually.”

-/-

James had agreed to help set up for the party, so he would need to get early, but when he got up that morning an idea hit him and he called Jacques before he did anything else.

“Schnee.”

“Hi, Jacques!” he said cheerily. “I know Weiss and Winter are going to Ruby’s birthday party today, so I wanted to offer to give them a ride.”

There was a pause, and, “Why?” Jacques asked suspiciously. James laughed.

“I’m just trying to be neighborly. If you’d rather take them yourself-“

“No, that will be acceptable,” Jacques cut in. “What time shall I tell them to be ready?”

“I’m leaving at ten. Can they be ready by then?”

“That will be no problem. Very well, I will inform them. Thank you.”

He hung up, then, and James gave the phone a grim smile. Well, there was one problem solved.

Two hours later, James pulled over to the Schnee house and headed up. As before, both girls were waiting for him, and Winter had an almost comically large gift bag clutched in her lap. There were two brightly colored packages poking out of the top.

“My ladies,” he said, giving a playful bow. “Your carriage awaits.”

“I’ll take the bag,” Weiss said, picking it up on the second go by wrapping her arms around it. Winter waited until she was halfway down the driveway before beckoning James over to their father’s study. She tapped on the door.

“Father? Mr. Ironwood is here. We’re going now.”

There was a pause, and the door opened to reveal Jacques.

“James.”

“Jacques.” James gave him his best friendly-neighbor smile. “We should get going now, I promised I’d help set the party up.”

“Yes, of course. You girls have fun.”

“Yes, Father.” Winter turned and hurried away, before anything else could be said. James gave Jacques another friendly look. “I guess they’re eager to go. See you later.”

-/-

Penny launched herself at James as soon as he arrived at the house, but since he’d been so anxious since dropping her off at school the day before he didn’t exactly object. He shifted her to his right side and took the bag Winter had brought in his other hand, carrying both inside with no trouble.

Inside, he set the bag down on the table and Winter and Weiss pounced. They set the gifts aside- neither big enough to account for the bulk of the bag- and then Winter took out a hefty garment bag that had been secreted into the bottom.

“I was uncertain of your measurements, so I brought several options,” Winter explained, unzipping it carefully to reveal a bundle of dresses, all with tissue paper tucked in between them to keep them safe. Penny let out a breathy ‘ oohhhh ’ at the sight of them.

“They are all so beautiful.” Her lip wobbled, and she launched herself at Winter to hug her. “Thank you so much, Winter!”

Winter looked startled, and patted her shoulder awkwardly. “I- well- that’s quite alright.”

“I told you she was the best sister in the world,” Weiss said haughtily.

While this had been going on, Ruby, Nora, and Yang had been snooping through the dresses. Ruby took out the one that was her personal favorite and held it up against Penny thoughtfully.

“Try this one on first,” she said. “It’s the prettiest one.”

“Okay. I will be right back.”

She hurried away with the dress tucked over one arm, at the same time Qrow came in from the backyard. He had a basket of laundry balanced on one hip, and he came to a halt when he saw everyone gathered around the remaining dresses.

“So this is where my help went,” he said. “I had to bring in the laundry myself thanks to you guys. Oh, hey, Jimmy. When did you get here?”

“A few minutes ago,” James said. “They’re helping Penny pick out a dress for her costume tonight.”

“Oh, I see.” He passed the basket over to James. “That’s definitely more important than doing laundry. I guess. Here, go throw those on Tai’s bed, we can sort ‘em later.”

James wasn’t entirely sure why he agreed, but he did as he was bid, while Qrow leaned over to snoop at the dresses.

“Wait, I know these dresses,” Qrow said, after a moment. He straightened up and squinted around the group, until he found Winter, leaning into a corner and staring at her phone. When she felt his gaze land on him, she looked up, eyes narrowed in annoyance.

“Qrow,” she said, disdain dripping from her tone.

“Ice Queen,” he responded, ditto. He squinted. “...you know the party’s not for a couple more hours, right? What are you doing here early?”

“Mr. Ironwood brought us,” Winter said. “And the dresses belong to me. I brought them so Penny could borrow one for her costume.”

“Oh. That’s nice of you.” He perked up. “Hey, if you’re going to be here, feel like doing some work? We need someone to blow up balloons.”

“...I suppose I could.”

“Great! Come on, I’ll show you how to use the helium tank. Hey, Jimmy,” he added, “Come out here, I need your tree-like proportions to hang streamers.”

-/-

The first dress that Penny tried on was a bit tight across the shoulders, but she came out to show it off anyway.

“It is too small for me,” she explained, while she twirled a bit. “But it is so beautiful I wanted to wear it a few minutes longer.”

“You look so pretty, Penny!” Ruby said, nudging Penny around so she could admire her from every angle. “You’re going to be the prettiest fairy princess ever, ever, ever!”

“Do you think?”

“Definitely!” She took a second dress, the one that Nora liked, and passed it over. “Here, Nora says do this one next.”

“Okay.” Penny hurried off to change again, but as soon as she had the first dress unzipped she hugged herself and grinned, almost bouncing with uncontained glee.

-/-

Qrow put Winter to work blowing up balloons in an out-of-the-way corner of the dining room, then dragged James out into the yard to help him hang streamers around the deck, the central setting for the party. The streamers were black and red and white, and there was also a banner with ‘Happy Birthday Ruby’ that needed to go up as well.

“So what was that with Winter?” James asked, holding one end of the banner up while Qrow dragged the ladder over to hang the other.

“Heh.” Qrow glanced through the glass door at Winter, diligently inflating balloons. “My first foster was a girl named Amber. I only had her about six months, her mother got better after awhile, but she and Winter were close while she was here, and I got to see a lot of the kid.”

“That’s why she hates you?”

“Honestly? I have no idea why she hates me. I never did anything to her, and Amber and I had a great relationship while she was with me.” He shrugged, and climbed off of the ladder. “Honestly I think she just likes having a grown-up she’s allowed to backtalk. Anyway, her sister’s pals with my girls so I see a lot of her these days, she’s always like that.”

“She lives in my neighborhood,” James explained. “Just a couple doors down.”

“Yeah, I know. You met her old man?”

“Yes.”

Something of his disdain must have shown in his voice, because Qrow laughed. “Yeah, you sound like it. Want my advice? Invite the girls places through the mom instead. Their dad keeps ‘em on a short leash and their mom’ll agree to just about anything if it’ll annoy him. Sucks the kids have to get stuck in the middle of that but at least you have a way of getting them away for a little while.”

He dragged the ladder off to the side and perched on it, watching while James finished putting up streamers. He was very clearly enjoying himself, and James tried not to think too hard about that.

-/-

Once the streamers were done, Qrow went to put the ladder up while James went inside to check on the girls. When he got to the living room, he found Penny trying on another dress, and clearly doing her best to hold back tears while her friends crowded her. He hurried over.

“Penny? What’s wrong?”

“I am fine!” She sobbed, and sniffled. “I am just feeling very, very overwhelmed.”

He caught her face gently, centering her attention. “Are you sure?”

She nodded, hiccuping slightly. He nodded back.

“All right. Let’s go get you calmed down and cleaned up, then, okay?”

She nodded, and led him to the bathroom where she’d left her clothes. He rummaged around for a moment in search of a washcloth, and ran the sink until it was lukewarm. Then he passed it over to her and waited while she cleaned up the tear tracks on her cheeks. One she was calmer, he asked again what was wrong.

“I was trying on the lovely dresses that Winter brought me,” she explained. “And everyone was being so kind. They were encouraging me, and not so that they could laugh at me.” She hung her head, a little embarrassed. “I have never had anyone to play dressup with. In Atlas, my classmates merely laughed at me if I tried. And they certainly never would have complimented me so genuinely.” She scrubbed away at some fresh tears. “And I was feeling so happy that I suddenly could not stop crying.”

“I see.” He sat down on the toilet seat and gave her a knowing smile. “So does that mean you don’t regret us moving here after all?”

She shook her head hurriedly. “No! I am very happy here in Vale! I have friends who are kind to me, and Mr. Qrow and Mr. Tai let me come over and play with their daughters, and you are happier here, too. I don’t ever want to go back to Atlas. Except to visit my grandparents,” she added, lest he think she was including visits in that. “You were right, Father, Vale is much better for us than Atlas was.”

There was a tapping on the door then, and Qrow called, “Hey kiddo, you okay in there? Your little pals are getting worried.”

Penny scrubbed at her face with the cloth one last time, then opened the door and gave him a weak smile. “I am okay, Mr. Qrow,” she said.

Qrow glanced over at James, who said, “Just an overwhelming amount of happiness.”

“Oh, is that all.” Qrow folded his arms and leaned against the doorjamb. “The other party guests are arriving. You wanna go back and play with the other kids now?”

Penny nodded. “Yes! Oh- I have to change back into my clothes first.” She took a step back and twirled a little. “Is it not the prettiest dress you have ever seen?”

“Sounds like a good matchup that you're wearing it, then,” Qrow said, prompting an embarrassed blush.

-/-

Sun’s mom had brought his new baby brother with them to the party, and his carrier was on the table near her. He was tucked away behind blankets, and the hood of his kitten onesie was pulled up over his head to keep any wind out, so all that was really visible of him was a round, grumpy face and a floof of dark hair poking out of the hood.

Sun had dragged Ruby over to show him off, and now he was standing proudly by while she leaned over the carrier and cooed over him.

“You’re so lucky, Sun,” she sighed. “I wish we had a little baby to take care of- but Uncle Qrow says he doesn’t have the spoons to take care of an infant or a toddler so he only takes in older kids.”

Sun folded his arms and nodded thoughtfully at that. “Yeah, that makes sense,” he said knowledgeably. “Babies need a different kinda spoon than grown ups do, you can’t take care of them if you don’t have any. Maybe he doesn’t know where to get them? We got ours from the baby store.”

“So if we got some baby spoons from the baby store, Uncle Qrow could take care of a baby?”

“I mean, maybe.” He shrugged. “But you don’t wanna go talking him into getting a baby until Nora is good and adopted, so he doesn’t have to go choosing between them.”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” Ruby said. “You’re so smart, Sun.”

“Yeah, well.” He rubbed his neck bashfully. “That’s cause I eat blueberries. Blueberries are good brain food- I bet if you had blueberries a lot you’d be super, super smart!” He grinned, and then backpedalled hastily. “Not- not that you’re not already smart. You are! You’re like, the smartest ever! But you’d be, like, you’d be even more smart !”

When she seemed more amused than offended, he sighed in relief, and turned his attention back to his brother. “Anyway, having a baby isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. All he does is poop and cry and grump. But mom says the time we put in now is a long-term investment in his happiness, and that before I know it he’ll be big enough to play with for real, and then I get to be a big brother role model too, just like my big brother, only better, because I’m never ditching this little guy on Halloween so I can go to some dumb party and make dumb googoo eyes at Jaune’s dumb brother.”

He folded his arms at that last part, and pouted. Ruby touched his arm sympathetically.

“I know how you feel. Yang is abandoning me tonight so she can go to a middle school party with Blake and Pyrrha and all their middle school friends. She says she’s too old to go trick-or-treating.”

“What?!” Sun looked horrified. “But you get to put on a costume and go to people’s houses and they give you free candy ! How is anyone too old for that?”

“Right?! It’s the best holiday in the world!”

-/-

Qrow had been roped into grill duty for the party; he was there now, diligently cooking hamburgers and hot dogs and some vegetarian option for a girl a couple years older than Ruby, who for some reason was wearing a pair of rabbit ears. James grabbed a couple sodas out of the cooler and ambled over, holding one out to Qrow in offering.

While he cracked it open, another of Penny’s new friends came over. Though he hadn’t met this one yet, he recognized her from Penny’s stories: the bow she wore looked, just as Penny had said, uncannily like a pair of cat ears.

“This must be Blake,” he said. She squinted at him suspiciously.

“What have you heard?”

James looked startled by the scrutiny, while beside him Qrow hid a laugh behind his hand. James managed to regroup quickly, though. He sipped his drink thoughtfully. “Well, I’ve heard that you like to read. That you’re very dedicated. That you like tuna.”

Blake folded her arms and considered him, then nodded. “All true.” She turned her attention to Qrow. “You got the goods?”

Qrow rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Yes, Blake, I’ve got your weird tuna-burger all grilled up and ready to go. Pass me one of those plates, Jimmy?” James grabbed a paper plate from the nearby table; Qrow gave one of the burgers one last squish with the spatula before plating it and passing it to Blake. “There you go, cat-girl. I’ve got three more in the box if you’re still hungry when you’re done with it, just say the word and I’ll cook one up for you.”

“Thanks, Mr. Qrow.” She hurried away to the food table to fix her plate, leaving James and Qrow alone.

“That’s the one having the party?” James asked. Qrow nodded.

“She was in my class last year. Weird kid, doesn’t talk much, but you know what they say about still waters. Hungry?”

“Not at the moment.” He grabbed a folding chair from nearby and sank into it, glad to have the weight off of his leg for a bit. For a long stretch it was just that: a comfortable pocket of silence inside the din of happy children.

This time, it was James who broke the silence. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“When we first met, you said you were thinking about adopting Nora,” James said. “Are you still?”

“Yeah, thinking about it.” Qrow looked up, and his gaze landed on the girl in question: she was with Ren, talking nonstop while she climbed on him. His face softened noticeably when he saw her, and he turned back to the grill, suddenly sheepish. “Why?”

“I was just wondering why you haven’t,” James admitted. “I can see just from watching you how much you want to.”

Qrow shrugged. “I’m just- not sure yet,” he admitted. He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “It’s like- just being a foster parent, there’s this like… barrier there. A safety net. But the minute I sign the papers and make everything official, that’s it. There’s no turning back. And I keep thinking… what if I’m not ready to be a real parent? What if I think I am, and I adopt her, and I realize I’m not? That kid’s been through enough as it is, I don’t wanna- I don’t wanna put her through that, too, on top of things. If I do make that step, I wanna know that I’m never gonna change my mind.” He shrugged again. “Parenting is opt-in, not opt-out, you know?”

James nodded. “She’s not your first kid, I know- is she the first one you’ve thought of adopting?”

“Eh.” Qrow wobbled his hand vaguely. “To be honest I always go into any new kid knowing it’s a possibility. Let’s see.” He ticked off on his fingers. “I always knew I wasn’t keeping Amber, so I never even considered it with her. After was Tuk, real good kid, real obsessed with books, and I- god I wanted him so bad.”

“What happened?”

“He went to live with a cousin or something in Vacuo. Which, I mean, good for them, I met the guy, he’s a good dude, but, I mean. I really wanted that kid, man.” He shook his head and took a long drink from his soda. “Anyway, that’s how it goes. Nora’s number seven, so I’ve been down this road before. Haven’t really thought real, honestly seriously about adoption since Tuk, though, till now.” He sighed. “I want that girl so bad, but I’m- god, I’m so scared I’m going to fuck it up. How do you do it, Jim? There’s nothing standing between you and Penny and every mistake that could ruin her life.”

“The personal responsibility?” James considered. “If I’m being honest, I’m not sure. But the thought of doing anything that will hurt Penny- I’ve stood on Death’s threshold, I’ve buried the love of my life, and neither of those was as painful as knowing how badly I could mess up with her.”

“Jesus. Isn’t that terrifying?”

“Yes. But it’s so, so worth it.”

As if on cue, Penny ran by them, laughing while being chased by a scraggly blond boy in an oversized hoodie. She veered off and scrambled over to James, climbing up his chair to stand on the back and peer over his shoulder at her pursuer, who pouted up at her.

“No fair!” he said. “That’s cheating!”

Penny just stuck her tongue out at him. “If you want me, you will have to come get me.”

James glanced between them. “Should I interfere?”

“No!” the boy said, and added, “If I can catch Penny before she makes it to safe I get the spider ring from her party favor bag.”

“Those are some pretty high stakes,” Qrow said, while James added, “I’m not sure I want to get involved in a competition with so much riding on it.” He turned to Penny. “What do you get if you make it to safe before he catches you?”

“I get his spider ring.”

“Okay, you’ve convinced me. I’ll hold him off while you get a head start.”

“Yes! Thank you, Father!” She gave him a quick squeeze, then bounced off the chair and ran around the back of the table, while James held his arms open, blocking the boy’s passage for a second or two before letting him by.

Once they’d gone, Qrow finally let out the laugh he’d been holding in. “Spider rings are serious business,” he said.

James shook his head, fond amusement crinkling his eyes. “Honestly? If the most serious business she has to worry about is a spider ring, then I couldn’t be happier.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Qrow said. They both grabbed their drinks, and tapped the cans together in paternal solidarity.

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

After the party, Penny gave the remaining dresses back to Winter, and held up her chosen dress to show which she was using.

“It is the most beautiful dress I have ever worn,” she said. “And it fits me perfectly.”

Winter looked like she wasn’t quite sure how to reply to that: she looked worried that Penny was going to hug her again, but when she didn’t, Winter chanced a small smile and a gracious nod.

“I’m glad it’s going to something worthwhile,” she said. “It has been sitting in my closet since the recital it was commissioned for.”

“Commissioned?” Penny stared down at the dress in her arms in shock. “This was custom made for you?”

“Yes. When I still did recitals, Mother considered it of high import that I not wear anything off the rack. Admittedly, clothing tailored to the body wearing it is more attractive, but a dress could have been bought and altered, even moreso for a dress that would be used once.”

Penny was in awe. She knew about tailoring clothes to make them more attractive- her aunt had even taken her dresses in when Father bought them, so that they’d fit her body- but the idea of custom ordering a dress, and one that would only be worn once, was so outside of her comprehension that she simply couldn’t wrap her brain around them.

“I’ll take very extra good care of it,” she said quietly. Winter chanced another smile.

“I’m certain you will.”

-/-

Along with the dresses, the garment bag had also held a pair of fake angel wings. Weiss took these out and handed them over to Sun.

“Here,” she said. “And you’d better take care of them, I need them for the Christmas pageant this year.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He found the straps and buckled them on, then spun around to show them off. “What do you guys think? I’m gonna be a flying monkey tonight!” He waggled his arms to make the wings flap, and bounced over to Qrow, who was walking by with a roll of trash bags. He latched onto his leg and grinned cheekily up at him. “I’ve got you! Now I’m gonna pull all your straw out!”

“What?” Qrow squawked and wobbled, trying not to overbalance, and glared down at the boy. “Are you saying I haven’t got any brains?”

“Yes.” Sun let go and flopped back, careful to catch himself lest he squash the wings Weiss had loaned him. “But Mr. Qrow! You remember how the story went! The Scarecrow was the smartest guy all along!”

“Yeah, all right, nice save,” Qrow grumbled, pulling himself away from Sun and heading back on his errand. “So if I’m the Scarecrow, who’s the Tinman?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Sun said. “Mr. Ironwood. He’s the nicest guy ever, and he’s got a cool metal arm!”

James had been in the process of getting his group ready to leave; now he coughed and choked, and said, “Wait…” He held up a hand to pause the conversation. “Could you run that by me again?”

“Well the Tin Woodman was like, the nicest guy ever! And he was made of tin because he chopped all his body off. So you’re just like him!”

“I see,” James said, while Qrow bapped Sun with the roll of trash bags.

“Hey, haven’t I taught you anything about tact yet?”

“I think that’s next week’s lesson,” Sun said, and ran off giggling. He skidded to a halt behind Ruby. “Hey, Ruby, what do you think of my wings? I’m gonna be the best flying monkey ever, right?”

Ruby nodded. “You need a hat, though. The flying monkeys had the yellow cap that controlled them and then Glinda the Good gave it back to them at the end of the book.”

“Aw, I’m sure I’ve got a yellow hat at home or something.”

James had managed to get his group ready to go; he threw the garment bag over his shoulder and caught Qrow’s eye when he stood. Qrow was watching him; he felt his neck heating up under the scrutiny and tried to will it away.

“I should get this bunch home,” he said. “I’ll see you tonight?”

Qrow blinked, startled, and shook his head. “Sorry, I zoned out there… yeah, tonight. Yeah. See you later, Tinman.”

-/-

On the drive home, James became aware of three pairs of eyes staring him down. He glanced around at them, and raised an eyebrow.

“What are those looks for?”

Weiss folded her arms. “You are not subtle.”

-/-

Once James was gone, Qrow pulled a trashbag off the roll and was about to unfurl it when he realized that Ruby, Sun, and Nora were all giving him knowing looks. He looked from one to the other in confusion.

“What?”

“Come on!” Sun said, flailing a little. “Either date him or don’t, but don’t keep teasing us like that!”

-/-

Sometime around five, Penny disappeared into her room to get ready. She came out half an hour later, ready apart from the dress; she’d thrown a playdress on instead.

“I do not want to put the dress on until we leave Mr. Qrow’s house,” she said. “Winter is trusting me not to harm it and I do not want to risk damaging it while I am home.”

“That’s very responsible of you,” James said. “I’m glad you understand how to take care of things that belong to others when they’re trusted to you.”

Penny beamed, then moved over to his closet. “Now we have to get you ready,” she said.

“Ah- I don’t think it’s much trouble to put on a pair of cat ears,” he said. “We’re leaving soon, I’ll put them on then.”

“You cannot wear just the ears,” she protested. “You must wear something else as well. Otherwise it does not count.”

She threw his closet open, and frowned while she poked through his clothes. After a few minutes, she turned around and folded her arms. “You do not own anything but suits or house clothes,” she said.

James rolled his eyes fondly. “All right, stay there, I think I have the answer up in the attic.”

“Really?” She followed him up the stairs, standing patiently watching him while he rummaged through a few boxes. “What is- ohhhh .” He’d found what he was looking for; she clapped gleefully when he held it up. “Yes! That is perfect!”

-/-

Since Winter didn’t want her father to know that her girlfriend was going to be trick-or-treating with them, she had arranged to have the girl meet them at James’ house instead. A few minutes before James and Penny left, the girls appeared on their doorstep. James took a few minutes to admire their costumes, clapping when Winter showed him the one trick she knew and pretending to be frightened when Weiss brandished her pirate sword at him and demanded ‘your candy or your life!’

“I think that’s highwaymen,” he said, rummaging into the tub of candy he was leaving on the steps for something for each of them. There were signs beside the two tubs that said “please don’t be greedy!” and “leave enough for everyone, please!” He dropped the candy into each of their bags. “If you get cold while you’re waiting, the spare key is taped inside the mailslot. Make sure you lock up behind you if you do go in.”

“Yes sir,” Winter said. “She shouldn’t be much longer but you’re kind to offer.”

“All right. You two have fun.

-/-

Yang went home with Blake after the birthday party, to help get ready for the other party, and between Tai and Qrow, and Ruby, Nora, and Sun (left behind by his mother), by the time they finished cleanup they had just enough time for a quick break before it was time to get into their costumes.

Tai was the first ready, so he was the one charged with putting out the buckets of candy for any trick-or-treaters that stopped by. While he was doing that, James and Penny pulled up. One look at James’ outfit, and a grin threatened to split his face. He stepped back into the house.

“Hey Qrow, your boyfriend’s here.”

Qrow came out of his room with a scowl. “He’s not my boyfriend, Tai.”

“Go look at him.”

This got him an odd look, and then Qrow went to the door to let James and Penny in. He opened the door and- his brain went fsst ! Again. He stared, uncomfortably long, until James raised an eyebrow and snapped his fingers in his face to get his attention.

“Earth to Qrow.”

“Hwah?”

“It’s the jacket!” Tai called from somewhere in the house. “You have to take it off to get a response!”

James considered his jacket, and remembered the last time Qrow had seen him in short sleeves, and called over Qrow’s shoulder, “I somehow doubt that!”

This was enough to snap Qrow out of his daze. He called over his shoulder, “You’re a jackass , Tai!”

“Language!”

“Fu- uh- aw, heck.” He scowled, and looked James over. “Nice jacket.”

“So I gathered.”

“Why do you own a leather jacket? You are the least punk person I’ve ever met. And I live with him .”

He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder, where Tai was coming up with another bucket of candy. As if to prove Qrow’s point, he was wearing a red, orange, and yellow dragon onesie. He set the bucket down beside the first and gave Qrow a haughty look.

“You can mock all you want to-“

“I will, thanks.”

“-but I’m going to be warm and cosy all night.”

“You’re also going to look ridiculous.”

“Said the man with candy corn on his head.”

Qrow reached up to touch the pair of candy-corn nubs on his head, and shrugged. “It’s in the spirit of Halloween. Anyway, I’ll be fine, I’ve got this cloak.” He swished the grey cloak he was also wearing. “Nice and warm without looking like an idiot.”

James looked Tai’s costume over. “Are you a sun dragon?”

“Yep!” Tai beamed. “I am also sweating like a pig so I will be waiting outside for the rest of you.”

He disappeared then, while Qrow finally let James and Penny in. Penny ran off to finish changing into her dress, while Qrow and James settled on the couch to wait. Qrow looked James over again, enjoying not just the jacket but the tight black t-shirt and jeans he was wearing with it. His gaze finally ended on the pair of ears topping James hair, and he smirked.

“Let me guess,” he said. “Penny wouldn’t let you get away with just the ears?”

James nodded. “Fortunately I had this in the attic. It’s leftover from college.”

“And the t-shirt?” Qrow’s eyes kept being drawn back to James’ front, where the shirt stretched over it. Solid. Good gods.

“It’s just a t-shirt, Qrow.”

“Yeah, says you.” He pushed to his feet and disappeared into the kitchen. “I need a drink to deal with you, sometimes. Juice box?”

He got up and followed. “Sure. What do you mean ‘deal with me’?”

“Are you kidding?” Qrow straightened up with the juice boxes and looked startled to have James standing behind him. He shoved one into James’ chest. “I can’t tell if you know exactly what you’re doing and just playing innocent, or if you genuinely have no idea no idea how attractive you are.” He sighed and leaned back on the counter. “And to be honest I’m not sure which would be worse.”

James shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Are you serious?”

“Qrow-”

Qrow jabbed a finger at James. “Mirror. Look in a mirror.”

An eyeroll. “Qrow, I know I’m attractive. I take great care in my appearance, and I’ve seen enough people looking to know it works. But I definitely think there’s a line between what I see and what you’re seeing.”

Qrow squinted. “So are you doing it on purpose or what?”

“Doing what ?”

“This!” Qrow gestured at the entirety of James, and then buried his face in his hands. “Gods, I’m trying so hard not to come onto you and you’re just… sat there… being so goddamn sexy… it’s not fair…”

“Oh.”

There was silence; eventually, Qrow chanced a peek over his hands and saw James looking thoughtful. “Hey. You okay up there, Jimmy?”

This almost got him a smile- he saw the twitch of James’ lips- and, “I’m sorry. You’ve been so patient with me and I’m-”

“Hey, don’t.” Qrow grabbed James’ hands, clasping them between his own. “However that sentence ends, just don’t. I’m not ‘being patient’, I’m just… trying to be a decent guy. That doesn’t change just cause you’re ridiculously sexy and I’m a selfish bastard. That’s on me, not you.”

There was silence then, while James studied Qrow’s face, searching for any sign of insincerity. The moment was interrupted by a throat clearing behind them; they both jumped, startled, and turned to see Tai leaning on the doorway, arms folded and one eyebrow raised.

“You know,” he said. “I’m inclined to agree with the kids on this matter.” He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “The kids are ready to go. You two actually coming with us?”

James looked like a deer in the headlights; he pulled his hands away like they’d been burned, and hurried away, out the kitchen and then the front door to where the kids were waiting. Qrow followed him with his eyes, and then turned his gaze back to Tai, who gave him a sympathetic look.

“You’ve got it bad, brother,” he said.

-/-

They were doing their trick or treating in Ren’s neighborhood instead of their own; they and their neighbors were more spread apart, where Ren lived in a well-lit, close-together community. He and his mother were waiting on the porch when they arrived. While Qrow introduced James and An, Ren ran over to his friends to admire their costumes and show off his own.

Nora pounced on him the moment she saw him, giving him a squeeze. “There he is!” she said. “What’s a queen without a handsome knight to protect her?”

“Hi Nora,” Ren said, prying her off of him. “I like your costume.”

“Right?” She spun around, bouncing lens flares off of the many sequins adorning her. “It’s not what I expected, but I googled ‘queens’ and this is the kind of dress that came up in the results, once I’d filtered out the city, the band, and Elizabeth II.”

“I think it looks great on you,” Ren said matter-of-factly. “What about the rest of you?”

“I’m a witch!” Ruby said, waving around the house broom she’d grabbed to complete her ensemble. Since it was bigger than she was, this meant nearly concussing Sun, who hurried over to stand behind Ren to protect himself. Ruby just cackled. “I’m a mean wicked witch!”

“That’s terrible,” Ren said. “What kind of mean things do you do?”

“Really mean things!” Ruby insisted. “Like litter! And keep library books out overdue so other people can’t read them! And…” Her voice dropped, low and secretive. “I might even say a swear.”

The other kids gasped, appropriately scandalized by such wickedness, while behind her, Tai pushed her pointy hat down over her eyes playfully. “No swears,” he said.

Ruby pulled her hat off and looked pleadingly up at him. “Aww, but Daaad! I’m a mean old witch! I have to do naughty things!”

She looked as pitiful as possible, and he finally sighed. “Okay. How’s this. You may say one swear, once, tonight only. Choose wisely, and don’t waste it.”

Ruby’s grin threatened to split her face; she bounced in glee, then threw her arms into the air and shouted, “Fuck!”

Tai stared, stunned, and then facepalmed.

“I kind of thought she’d do one of those kiddy swears like heck or darn,” he said, when the other adults gave him sympathetic looks. “Where did she even learn that word from?”

“Probably from her uncle,” An said. “At least she got it out of the way now.” She looped her arm through his. “Let’s go, we don’t want to wait too long.”

“Oh, all right.” He waved the kids over. “Buddy system, guys. Everyone find a partner.”

Nora grabbed Ren’s hand instantly, but almost immediately they spotted the problem. Ruby stood between Sun and Penny, looking torn and distressed from one to the other.

“I don’t know who to pick,” she said. “If I pick Sun, Penny doesn’t have a buddy, and if I pick Penny, Sun doesn’t have a buddy! And if they’re each other’s buddy, there’s no one to be my buddy!”

“Nice going, Tai,” Qrow said. He crouched. “Hey, easy, kiddo. Who says you can only have one buddy? You three will just have to all keep an eye on each other, okay? Anyway, the buddy system is only to make sure we can keep up with all of you, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be regular buddies with anyone else.”

“I can have two buddies?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay!” She grabbed Sun’s hand in one and Penny’s in the other, beaming. “We can all be buddies!”

-/-

It had rained the night before, and though the weather was clear now, there were still puddles littering the streets. Sun made a beeline for every one of them; his mothers had had the foresight to put him in rainboots, and he was taking full advantage of this.

The others, however, were less pleased. Penny in particular was worried that the splashing would ruin her borrowed dress. Poor Ruby, who didn’t mind getting splashed, was getting torn, wanting to stay with both of her buddies and not being able to since Penny was trying to keep outside of the splash zone.

Finally Qrow reached over and scooped Penny up, pulling her away from a particularly big splash. “Here,” he said, kneeling. “Why don’t carry you for awhile? Piggy back style.”

“Penny back,” Tai said, while Penny climbed aboard. Qrow locked his arms around her and stood, while she stuck her tongue out at Tai’s joke.

“There,” Qrow said. “Now you don’t have to worry about messing up your dress, and Ruby doesn’t have to worry about losing track of her buddy.”

“Now I can jump in puddles too!” Ruby cheered, moving to do just that only to be stopped by Tai grabbing the hood of her cape. “Aww, Daaaaaad!”

“Sorry, sweetie, but I didn’t think to bring your rainboots.”

Another groan. She slumped. “Yang’s right, you are the fun police.” She folded her arms and pouted, but Tai stood firm.

“No puddles.”

-/-

“That’s an interesting costume, Qrow,” An said after awhile.

Qrow glanced down at himself. “Oh? Oh yeah.” He adjusted his cloak. “I’d only meant to wear the cloak, really, but then when I told Oz he gave me these.” He touched the candy corn headband. “Said they’d be more festive and thematic. He gave me these too-“ he reached into his pocket and took out a pair of red handcuffs. “-but I’m not sure why. And I’m not asking why he has them. Ever.”

An looked like she was suppressing a great deal of laughter. “And he just had them?”

“Yeah, and that was kinda weird but… I don’t ask questions when it’s Oz.”

“Why?” James asked.

“Because I might get answers .”

-/-

At one point, a particularly enthusiastic splash from Sun sent Nora shouting in shock and dancing out of the splash zone, scolding Sun as she did. He stood in the middle of the puddle and pouted at her.

“Oh come on, Nora. I thought you were cool!”

“Not when it’s freezing! It’s too cold to get wet.”

Sun just grumbled and stomped out of the puddle, still pouting. “You guys are no fun.”

“I’m sure I must have taught you about respecting people’s wishes,” Qrow said. Sun just hung his head and scuffed one foot shamefully.

“Yeah…”

“If Nora doesn’t want to get wet, that’s her decision, just like it’s your decision to jump in the puddles.”

“I guess…” He scuffed his foot again and mumbled, “Sorry, Nora.”

“I for one would love to make the decision to get wet,” Ruby said, giving her father a pointed look.

Tai pushed her hat forward again. “Nice try. Next time you bring your boots and we’ll talk.”

-/-

The night stretched on. Sun got bored of puddles and Penny climbed down from the safety of Qrow’s back. A woman handing out candy asked if James was Ruby’s witchy familiar, which had Qrow in fits of laughter while James just shrugged and went along with it. Ruby came close to concussing all of her friends with her broom at least once, prompting Tai to take it away from her until she could stop waving it around. Several teenagers told Qrow they liked his costume, including one in a matching candy corn headband with a gemini symbol on his shirt.

As they neared the end of their round, a block away from Ren’s house, Nora was getting tired. She was falling behind the others, her footsteps shuffling, her head drooping in exhaustion. They stopped to let her rest, and James hit on an idea.

“Here,” he said, kneeling to her level. “Why don’t I carry you the rest of the way?”

She lit up at that. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. A queen shouldn’t have to walk when she’s got loyal servants to command, after all.”

That was all she needed. She scrambled onto his back, and her grip only tightened a little when he stood.

“Whooooah! I can see everything from up here! I knew you were tall but this is so much! Just how tall are you, anyway?”

“Well, last time I was measured I was six and a half feet.”

“Whoah! How did you get so tall?”

“Oh, you know, the usual. When I was growing I ate a good, healthy diet, I got plenty of rest and exercise in equal measure, and I also came from a gene pool that trended toward being absurdly tall. I think that helped the most,” he added in a conspiratorial tone.

“Aww, man.” Nora pouted. “My parents were both small. I’m doomed to being short forever, aren’t I?”

“Probably,” James agreed. “But look on the bright side- you’ll probably never have to give up getting piggyback rides.”

“Do you ever get piggyback rides?”

“No, I’m too tall. I had to stop when I was only a little bit older than you, but since you’re so small, you’ll be getting piggyback rides even when you’re a grownup. Especially if you have tall friends.”

Nora fell silent at that, contemplating whether it was better to be tall, or to always be eligible for piggyback rides. After awhile, he heard her yawn and lean her head down on his shoulder. After another moment, she shifted uncomfortably and said, “Mr. Ironwood? How far up is your arm metal?”

“All the way up,” he said quietly. “Try the other side, it’s nice and fleshy.”

Another yawn, and she swapped shoulders. “That’s better.”

“Sounds like someone’s ready to sleep,” Qrow said. “How late did you girls stay awake talking last night?”

“Pretty late,” admitted Ruby; she and Penny were only barely holding up themselves.

Tai looked amused. “Why don’t we call it a night and head back? We can give this last row of houses a miss, I think you kids have plenty of candy already.”

“Never have plenty of candy,” Nora mumbled into James’ shoulder.

“You especially have plenty,” Qrow said. “All right, let’s head back.”

-/-

By the time they eventually made it back to Ren’s house, Qrow had resumed his role as Penny’s loyal steed, and Tai was holding Ruby, who wasn’t actually as tired as her friends but wasn’t about to be left out of having her own ride back, not when Penny and Nora did.

“Next time Mr. Ironwood can carry me instead,” Ruby said. “I want to be tall too.”

“Hey, I’m not that short,” Tai said.

“You’re not as tall as Mr. Ironwood, though.”

“Very few people are,” Tai grumbled.

-/-

The drive back was quiet, the car filled with the sound of exhausted children trying not to yawn and let on how tired they really were. When they returned home, Tai had to go drop Sun off and pick up Yang from the Belladonna’s, leaving Qrow to get Ruby and Nora ready for bed alone. Penny had to change out of her dress before it wrinkled, leaving James to get the car running so it would be nice and warm for the ride home.

Qrow came out while he was waiting, and leaned on the top of the car, stretching out languidly, idly. “That was fun,” he said. “Got any plans for tomorrow?”

“Not really,” James said. “It’s been a long weekend, I wanted Penny to get some rest.”

Qrow nodded. “We’ve still got a shitton of food leftover from the party of you two wanna come around for lunch tomorrow. Save you having to cook.” He shrugged. “Just a thought.”

“I’ll think about it. We might just order takeout and stay home. Penny hasn’t had time to do any of her homework this weekend, so we should get that done."

Qrow snorted. “Speaking as her teacher, I can tell you she doesn’t have any.”

“No?”

“Nah, I don’t give out homework for holiday weekends. That’s dumb. Who wants to do homework on a holiday? Or at all, really. I don’t think I’ve ever met a kid that actually liked doing homework.”

“I never minded much,” James said idly.

This earned him a toothy grin. “Of course you didn’t. You nerd.”

“I wanted to do well. My mother went through a lot of trouble to get me into the best private school in the area and I wanted to repay her by doing my best.”

“Oh, a nerd and a mama’s boy,” Qrow teased. “You wanna go for the trifecta and tell me you were also a boy scout?” When James said nothing, Qrow’s grin grew even wider. “You were , weren’t you?”

“I think I still have my old sash stored away in the attic somewhere, actually.”

Qrow shook his head, amusement twitching at his lips. “You really are something else, Jim,” he said. As Penny finally came out of the house, he straightened up and stretched. “All right, I’ll let you guys get going. See ya, kiddo,” he added, ruffling Penny’s hair fondly as he passed.

“Goodnight, Mr. Qrow.”

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

The next day was a rest day for everyone. Winter came over to pick up the borrowed dress, and thanked Penny for taking such good care of it, leaving Penny beaming proudly over how responsible she’d been. James got a call from An at one point, inviting him and Penny over for dinner sometime in the near future so they could get to know each other better, which Penny agreed to with enthusiasm. And he texted his sister a picture he’d taken of Penny in her costume the night before, and got a reply demanding to know why he hadn’t gone trick-or-treating in her neighborhood so she could see in person.

Sorry , he texted back. We went out with some friends instead .

Oh, friends. Why didn’t you say so ?

I didn’t ?

I’m glad she’s making friends. What did I tell you? Vale is much better than Atlas, for both of you .

Yes, okay, you were right. Is that what you wanted ?

Hold on, I need to take a screenshot. You admitting I’m right? I’m pretty sure that’s in some Ragnarok prophecy somewhere .

Ha, ha.

She’s not the only one making friends .

Oh ?

James ?

James stared down at his phone, trying to decide whether he should tell her about Qrow. What would she think? What did he want her to think?

I’m thinking about dating again , he finally sent back.

There was silence. On the bottom of the screen, a set of dots appeared, vanishing and reappearing as she typed and erased her thoughts several times.

That’s good. I’m glad you feel comfortable enough to move forward again .

I’m only thinking about it .

It’s more than you’ve been doing. What’s brought this on ?

It’s been five years. That’s more than enough time to move on .

You know it doesn’t work like that .

Are you still there ?

You’re doing it again.

There’s no shame in needing time.

There’s no deadline to how long you’re allowed to take. You loved Josef so much, and your life together was stolen from you. Five years isn’t too long, if that’s the time you needed. Even if you’d needed fifteen, even fifty, it wouldn’t have been too much. Everyone heals at different rates, and emotional wounds are no different .

I met someone . More typing bubbles, and then nothing. James added, We haven’t gone out yet. But I like him .

Do you think you have a chance ?

Yes. I know he’s interested, we’ve talked about it. He knows why I’m hesitating. He says he understands .

Sounds like a keeper. What’s holding you back, then ?

I just don’t know .

Do you want to talk about it ?

No .

Okay. If you change your mind, I’m here .

Thanks .

Around lunchtime, James got a text from Qrow, asking if they were coming over for leftovers or not. His thumb hovered over the y for a long moment while he decided, and then he shook his head and typed, No, thank you. I think we’re going to stay in our pajamas and watch a movie instead. It’s that kind of day .

Okay, take care. Enjoy your movie .

-/-

The next morning was a quick, hectic one, with first Tai and then Qrow oversleeping, everyone rushing to get dressed and out the door on time, with no doubt something necessary being left behind.

The morning after that, Qrow had an early meeting, and Tai had to get the girls to school on his way to the college.

And so on. It was, therefore, Thursday before Qrow watched Nora walking up to the house after school and realized she was stepping very carefully, as if the very act of walking pained her. He squinted, looking her over for any sign of injury, and saw nothing.

“Nora,” he called, and saw her wince when she stopped. “Why are you limping? Did you hurt yourself?”

“No!” She shifted her jacket closer around her, scrunching down- he hadn’t seen her do that since they’d brought her home, trying to take up as little space as possible. He approached slowly, wary, still looking for any sign of injury and wondering why she seemed so nervous.

When she turned around, he realized the problem, and wondered why he hadn’t noticed before. He crouched in front of her, and gave her a flat look.

“Why didn’t you tell me you’d outgrown your shoes?”

She stared down at her feet, at the visible bumps that were her toes scrunched at the end. She shuffled her feet, trying to hide them from scrutiny, and shrugged. “You just bought me these in August,” she mumbled.

Qrow rolled his eyes. “Yeah, so? I don’t care if I just bought them for you last week, if you outgrow them I need to know so I can replace them.”

More shuffling. More mumbling. More refusing to look at him. He sighed.

“Listen, kiddo, I can’t take care of you if I don’t know what it is you need. You gotta tell me these things- I’m doing the best I can but you gotta communicate.”

“Shoes are expensive,” she said. “You said money was tight right now.”

“Wh-” Qrow slapped his forehead. “Christ, kid! Worrying about money is my job, not yours. You can really hurt yourself wearing shoes that are too small for- come on, you don’t wanna stunt your growth, do you? Or mess your feet up? That-”

“Qrow.” He looked up to see Tai standing over both of them, arms folded. He jerked his head toward the house. “Can I talk to you alone for a minute?” When Qrow stood, Tai turned his attention to Nora. “Why don’t you go change out of your school clothes, sweetie? And get those shoes off, too.”

They headed inside, Nora kicking off her shoes and fleeing to her room the moment she passed through the door. Tai led Qrow through to the kitchen, where Yang was standing in front of the open fridge, staring at the contents. He caught her attention.

“Yang, we put some of your old clothes and shoes up to keep last time we did a Goodwill run, right? The box is in the hall closet, can you go get it down? Get Ruby to hold the stepladder for you so you don’t fall.”

“Sure.” She grabbed a yogurt out of the fridge and headed out; once she was gone, Tai turned to Qrow, and folded his arms again.

“Qrow, do you remember when we first brought Nora here? How she was swimming in her clothes and tripping over her shoes? And how long it took us to convince her that she was allowed seconds at dinner?”

Qrow sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah. Dammit…”

“Leo told us her last guardians convinced her it was too expensive to go beyond the bare minimum and she was with them for a year. That kind of thing sticks. You know that.”

“I know, I know.” He scrubbed his hands over his face and groaned. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Tai reached over and squeezed his shoulder, gave him a sympathetic look. “I know how you feel, trust me. But scolding her isn’t going to do anyone any good, especially not Nora. You’re the grown up here. You have to act like it.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Qrow clapped his own hand over Tai’s and gave it a squeeze before turning. “All right, I’ll go talk to her.”

-/-

Nora was sprawled out on her bed reading when Qrow came in, carrying a glass of Ovaltine. She sat up at his entry, though.

“I’m sorry,” she said, before he could speak.

“Nah, don’t be. I’m the one who should be apologizing.” He grabbed the chair from the corner and pulled it over to sit down, leaning forward on his elbows to talk to her. “Listen, kiddo, I didn’t mean to scold you like that. I shoulda talked to you instead.”

“I just don’t want to be a burden,” Nora mumbled, hugging her knees to her chest. “Kids are expensive.”

Qrow snorted, and leaned back in the chair, thinking through his response this time. He reminded himself that it wasn’t Nora’s fault she’d been taught to think that way, and took a deep breath before going on.

“Okay. You wanna know a secret? Kids are a burden. You’re… small, helpless, growing humans who need grown ups around to make sure you make it long enough to take care of yourselves. You’re still learning how to get along in this world, and kids without adults to look after them have terrible survival rates. But.” He gave her a firm look. “ But . That’s a burden I took on willingly when I became a foster parent. I knew the kinda thing I was signing up for. Not every burden is a bad one, kiddo. And you're the kind I want to do my best job with.”

“But…” She looked away, wringing her hands anxiously. He sat up and held out his hands.

“C’mere.” When she did, hesitantly, he took her hands and folded them between his. “Listen, Nora. When I say that money is tight and that we’re on a budget, that means that I can’t afford to get you the fancy name brand things, that you have to make do with a few outfits instead of a closet full, that we have to get some of your stuff second hand. What it doesn’t mean is that you run around in shoes that hurt your feet. You let me worry about the money, okay? That’s my job, I'm the parent here. Your job-” He poked her playfully in the chest. “-is to be a kid, and be happy, and let me take care of you like you need me to. Can you do that to me?”

She didn’t respond immediately, but she did nod eventually. “Okay.”

“That’s my girl.” He chucked her chin. “Now. We’ve got some of Yang’s old things put up, they’ll do you for now until we can you replacements. In the meantime, what we’re doing tonight is going through your closet to see what all you need. If you’re outgrowing your shoes that means you’re gonna outgrow your clothes too, if you haven’t already.”

He broke off and looked her over, gauging her clothes’ current fit. The shirt was too snug for his liking; she hadn’t gotten much taller since he’d got her, but proper care and attention and getting to eat her fill at meals had filled her out, and she was starting to expand outward. This was a good thing in Qrow’s book, but it did mean her clothes needed replacing.

“A lot of them are too tight,” she admitted. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but…”

“Hey, nah. If you need it, you need it.”

“Okay…”

-/-

Qrow left Nora to go through her closet while he cooked dinner; while he was stirring the noodles his phone rang. He checked the number before answering.

“Hey, Jimmy. What’s up?”

“Hi, Qrow.” He could hear the eyeroll in James’ voice, and smiled despite himself. “I’m just calling to let you know Penny won’t be in school tomorrow. She’s managed to catch that bug that’s going around so I’m keeping her home to take care of her.”

“Aw, oh no. She gonna be okay?”

“She’s-” He broke off, and Qrow could hear muffled conversation in the background. After a few quick words, he heard the phone being passed, and Penny’s voice came over the line, small and pitiful.

“Hi, Mr. Qrow.”

“Hey, kiddo. You okay?”

“I’m sick.”

“So I heard. Your dad says you’re not gonna be in class tomorrow. “

“Yes. Sorry.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. We’ll work on getting you caught up once you come back- right now you just focus on getting better, okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thattagirl. Gimme back to your dad now, okay?”

There was more phone passing, and James said, “She wanted to tell you herself.”

“It’s fine.”

Silence fell, comfortable silence. It occurred to Qrow that being on the phone without saying anything while he cooked dinner was a bit odd, but he kind of liked having James on the other end of the line, quietly companionable while he did… whatever he was doing.

“It’s a lucky call for you that you can work from home, anyway,” Qrow said, just to fill the silence. “You don’t have to worry about missing work to take care of Penny.”

“That’s true,” James agreed. “There’s nothing time sensitive going on at the lab, and even if there was Jet could take care of it.”

“Jet,” Qrow scoffed. “I still can’t believe you actually know someone actually named Jet fucking Steele.”

“In fairness to Jet, he did pick the name himself.”

“Oh. You didn’t mention that part.”

There was a pause, and, “Oh, no, that’s not what I mean- he’s cis, he just had his name legally changed to Jet because it sounded cooler.”

“God, what a loser.”

“Well, yes.”

Silence fell again. Qrow realized his world had gone pink and soft, and something clenched painfully in his chest. He leaned back against the counter and buried his face in his free hand, careful not to make a sound that would alert James.

“I’ve gotta take Nora shoe and clothes shopping tomorrow after school,” he said abruptly. “She’s pretty much outgrown everything so… gotta go replace it all. Do you need anything? Since you’re gonna be stuck at home with the kid, I mean. Do you need me to pick you up anything while I’m there?”

“No, I’m fine. We have everything we need, and I can call an errand service if something comes up.”

“Okay. That makes more sense- yeah- okay.”

“Thank you, though.”

“Yeah… don’t mention it…”

-/-

After school the next day, Qrow dropped Ruby and Yang off with Tai and took Nora around to the mall. He wasn’t fool enough to try wrangling all three girls on his own in the mall, and it had been awhile since he’d spent one-on-one time with Nora anyway. Her spirits were up from the day before, but he’d vowed to keep a better eye on her in the future. Clearly she hadn’t gotten as better from her last home as he’d thought.

All he knew was that he never wanted to meet her previous guardians. There was a world of difference between making do when money was tight, and doing without- and either way, you didn’t pin that on the child.

“Yang’s pants really don’t fit me that well,” Nora said, as she scrambled up to the front seat, after dropping the other girls off.

Qrow glanced over at her and grinned. She did look a bit silly with her pant legs bunched up at the ankles so much, but at least they weren’t too small. “They definitely wouldn’t work as a long-term solution,” he agreed. “Yang’s a gangly noodle and you’re a plump dumpling. But they’ll do in the meantime.”

“I like being a dumpling,” she said cheerily. “Dumplings are cute.”

“Yeah? Well I like you as a dumpling too.”

It was crowded at the mall, and Qrow decided to start with shoes. Yang’s old sneakers were far too big, and Nora was tripping over her feet trying to walk in them. They went into Lazy Shoeise, and flagged down an attendant to measure her feet for them.

Five minutes later, the salesman led them along the aisle, pointing out which of their athletics selection had pink in them. (Most of them, really. Qrow wasn’t about enforcing gendered coloring, but it did make shopping easier when pink was her favorite color.)

Qrow glanced out the window, and boggled. There was a Santa’s Sleigh display set up in the center runway of the mall, with a sign saying that Santa was out. Cheery Christmas music tinkled out of the speakers.

“Are you kidding ?” Qrow asked. “Halloween wasn’t even a week ago!”

The salesman snorted. “Yeah, try working here,” he said. “It’s just Fridays and Saturdays right now, though. I guess they figure since people are already getting on their Christmas shopping…” He shrugged. “Our Santa is weird this year, though. Our usual guy couldn’t do it so we had to get a replacement, and this one is… odd.”

“Odd how?”

“He’s kinda creepy, if I’m being honest.” The salesman furrowed his brow, thinking, and said, “I had a customer- an old, old woman, put it best. She said… ‘he tain’t what Santa is , but he tis what Santa be .” Another shrug. “Have fun figuring that out.”

“That is weird.” Qrow looked down at Nora. “You wanna go see him when we finish here?”

“I guess.”

“Yeah? You guess?” He ruffled her hair. “Anyway, I wanna at least see this weird Santa, even if you don’t wanna do the whole spiel.”

“Okay.”

-/-

By the time they’d replaced all of Nora’s shoes, the Santa was back. Since they were passing by on their way to Threads of Fate anyway, they stopped by at the sleigh. There wasn’t much of a line- just a parent he’d never met with a child he vaguely recognized as a third grader from Signal. Other than the helpers running the kiosk- all dressed as elves- the only other face around was a little boy with a permanently dirty face, tucked away to one side of the helpers with a book open in his lap.

This boy, more than anything else, told him what to expect when he got close enough, so he wasn’t surprised to see that the ‘Santa’ was rail thin and somewhat cryptic looking rather than the jolly fat man the sleigh usually held. Qrow grinned. Suddenly all made sense.

“That’s definitely not what I picture when I think of Santa,” Qrow said. “Wanna go up?”

Nora shrugged. “Sure. Could be fun.”

“Gosh, you’re so enthusiastic.” He laughed and ruffled her hair to soften any blow in his words, and got in line; after a few minutes, it was Nora’s turn.

-/-

Nora didn’t really believe in Santa, as has already been stated. However, she felt somehow that telling anyone this would only be a disappointment, so she’d resigned herself to going through the motions rather than let anyone down. And Qrow was right, this was a weird Santa. She headed up the short set of steps to the sleigh and climbed up, pleased that the Santa didn’t offer her more help than a steadying hand. She was, after all, ten, and perfectly capable of climbing onto a sleigh herself.

“Hello, Nora,” Santa said, twinkling his eyes at her.

No really. They honest twinkled . Nora squinted at him.

“How do you know my name?”

“I know everyone’s name,” Santa said. “For example, I know that your father over there is named Qrow.”

Now she looked smug. “Ha! I caught you out! He’s not my father.”

“No?” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Are you sure about that?”

“Yes.” She stared down at her hands. “He’s just my guardian. I’m a foster child. He’s only taking care of me.”

“While loving you, seeing to your needs, your wants, your happiness… that sounds like a father to me .”

“Tell that to the people at CPS. They don’t think he’s my dad.”

“Well, maybe they missed the memo.” He gave her a gentle smile. “But that’s not why you’re here, is it? Why don’t you tell me what you want for Christmas?”

Nora shrugged. She hadn’t actually given it any thought yet, and thanks to Santa her mind was on her continued failure to be adopted. “I… I wouldn’t mind if Uncle Qrow was my dad,” she said. “But I don’t think you could manage that, so… I don’t know. Can I have a tool set? I’ve never had my own tools to work with before.”

This got her a chuckle. “Oh, I think I can arrange that. Anything else?”

“A dog?”

“Ah!” He smiled. “Now that one I think I can definitely promise you. You don’t have any preference on breed, do you?”

“No, I like shelter dogs. They deserve a second chance to have a family too.”

“That makes it even easier.”

-/-

Qrow was worried when Nora looked sad with the Santa, but by the time she returned, she looked in brighter spirits. He paid for the photos they’d taken at the end, and they headed down to Threads of Fate to get her some clothes. He ruffled her hair again.

“So did you tell Santa what you wanted for Christmas?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Maybe he’ll arrange for you to get it, then.”

“Maybe.”

“In the meantime… you need clothes.”

And in the meantime, he’d be having a talk with his boss, about what he’d be getting his kid for Christmas. Hopefully it was something doable; Nora’d had the lack of enthusiasm inherent in kids who didn’t believe in Santa himself and hadn’t yet discovered the joy behind the lie, and he wouldn’t put it past her to ask for something extravagant and undoable just to see what happened.

-/-

They ended up stopping by to see James and Penny on the way home after all. Nora stood beside him on the doorstep, holding the envelope she’d been entrusted with, while Qrow tried to knock enough to get James’ attention without waking Penny in case she was sleeping.

After a few minutes of this, Qrow was going to just send him a text, when James finally opened the door. His hair was messed up, as if he’d been running his hands through it a lot, and Qrow gave him an amused smile.

“Hey. Penny’s little pals made her a get-well card earlier, we stopped by to drop it off.”

“Oh, of course.”

He let them in and led them to the living room, which had been made into a cosy sickroom; there were cartoons playing at low volume on the tv, James’ computer set aside on the end table where he’d been working, and, cocooned in a pile of blankets and looking utterly pitiful, Penny. When she saw them she reached one hand out to wave at them weakly.

“Hey, kiddo,” Qrow said. “How you feeling?”

“I am still sick ,” she said.

“We made you a card,” Nora said, coming over to her and handing over the envelope. “And I got new shoes! Look!” She held up one foot to show off the high tops Qrow had bought her, silver with pink trim. She reached over and squeezed the tongue. The soles exploded with light. “Aren’t they cool ?”

“They are very cool,” Penny said. She clutched the envelope to her chest. “Thank you for the card.”

“Oh, puh-sha, it was nothing. We just wanted you to have something nice so you’d feel better quicker.”

“That is very kind of you,” Penny said, and then sneezed. She burrowed deeper into her cocoon. “I am sorry.”

“No need to apologize, kiddo,” Qrow said, beckoning Nora over. “We only stopped in to give you that- we’ll leave you to get back to resting now.”

“Bye, Penny,” Nora said. “I hope you feel better soon.”

She leaned over and squeezed the cocoon quickly, then hurried after Qrow, one foot still pulsing a dim purple.

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

On Monday, Qrow had a meeting with Ozpin over lunch. Ozpin wanted Qrow to put together the Thanksgiving program for the fifth grade, and needed to go over what he wasn’t allowed to do.

“...and needless to say, recreating the scene from Addams Family Values will not be acceptable.”

“Why? ‘S more accurate.”

“Perhaps, but there are things we are allowed to ask ten year olds to perform and others that are, shall we say, inappropriate.” When Qrow still looked mutinous, he added, “There are plenty of loopholes in the rules for you to portray a more… honest… depiction of Thanksgiving, Qrow. Remember that for many, especially the children, the holiday is very much in the spirit of exactly what it says- a time of giving thanks, and being glad of what blessings you have. You can be honest with them about the history of the holiday without taking that away.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Qrow was still grumpy about how much his hands were tied, so he folded his arms and switched tracks. “So… Santa… what’s that about, anyway?”

Ozpin chuckled. “Oh yes, that. The usual Santa is a friend of mine. When he had to give up his position suddenly, with no time to find a replacement, I offered to step in. Last weekend was the first- it was also rather fun. I think I’m quite the natural.”

Qrow looked him over pointedly, and snorted. “Sure. Why not.”

“Now, Qrow. There’s more to being Santa than being fat.”

“If you say so. So what am I getting Nora for Christmas?”

“She wants a tool set. If I may make a suggestion, I think you should avoid anything with power tools.”

“Hey, don’t tell me how to raise my kid.”

This resulted in a raised eyebrow from Ozpin. “Oh? So you’ve made up your mind to adopt her after all, then?”

“What? Oh… I don’t know…” He leaned onto his elbows and buried his face in his hands with a groan. “I want to. I just- something’s holding me back. I can’t bring myself to, not yet.”

“Well, when you do, I would be happy to vouch that Nora is being well-cared for in your guardianship.”

“Thanks. That means a lot- it does.”

-/-

Penny was still out sick- according to James, she was mostly feeling better, but still weak enough that he’d prefer to keep her out a day or two longer. He did come by after school to pick up her missed work, though, so he could get her caught up with her class in the meantime. Qrow was alone this time when he arrived, since Yang had gone home with Blake, and Ruby and Nora were in Ren’s classroom for a change.

“If she’s not able to get caught up tell her not to worry about it,” Qrow said, when he handed over the folder full of worksheets and lesson summaries. “Her main focus right now should be on getting better.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t let her exert herself. But she’s at that restless stage of recovery and I want something to occupy her with.”

“Oh, that stage.” Qrow grinned. “Most parents send their kids back at that point and let them be my problem.”

James gave him a flat look, and, “I prefer to keep her nearby when she’s recovering from illness, so I can make sure she recovers.”

There was a beat, where Qrow tried to work out the odd undertone in his voice, and then it clicked in his head. “Oh- oh, yeah, I guess you would- god, sorry, I didn’t think-“

“It’s fine.”

“It is just a bug though, right?”

“Bugs can develop into worse.”

“Yeah, I know.” Qrow twiddled his fingers, and, in an attempt to change the subject, “So we’re doing our grade’s Thanksgiving pageant now. Ozpin, in his- hn- infinite wisdom, has decided to put me in charge. Anyway, there’s a page in that folder summarizing the program, but I’ll go over it with her in detail once she’s back.”

“It sounds fun.”

“It’s not.” Qrow leaned back in his chair with a sigh. “But it’s part of being a teacher- sometimes I gotta do things I hate, and it's my turn on the rotation. Ah well.” He shrugged. “What have you got planned for Thanksgiving?”

“Penny and I are going upstate to spend a few days with my family in Atlas. Mother misses us, Josef’s parents like to take Penny with them to pick out their Christmas tree, and I need to check in with some friends anyway.”

“Gonna be a busy few days.”

James snorted, and, “I told my sister about you. She’s going to spend five days quizzing me about us.”

“Oh?” Qrow’s smile grew secretive for a moment. “And what are you going to tell her?”

“The truth.”

“So, that you’re pining desperately for me.”

“Oh, absolutely.”

Qrow chuckled. “Tell her I’ve got a cute butt and nice hair.”

“You have a cute butt?”

“Really?!” Qrow squawked indignantly. “We’re still doing this?” He jabbed a finger at James. “I’ll have you know my ass is like two pringles hugging!”*

“I wouldn’t know, your shirttails cover it.”

“Well-“ A beat, and Qrow’s face split into a grin. “You’ve been looking.”

“Ah- I—“

“Been trying to stare at my ass, Ironwood?” Qrow’s grin was more smug than any grin had a right to be. “What else you been staring at?”

His blush was back, spreading over his neck and touching at his jawline. God, he was adorable. How was that even allowed? Qrow stood and leaned on the desk, so he was somewhat looming over James. He smirked at him.

“Anything in particular you want a better look at?”

James stood, and Qrow suppressed a whimper, because the way James was looking at him- Qrow had never actually seen anyone smoulder in real life, but James, James was honest-to-god smouldering.

And then he pressed his hand over his eyes and took a deep breath, and when he pulled his hand away his face was passive and calm.

“I have to go,” he said. “I left Winter watching Penny since I was only going to be gone a little while.”

“Wh- oh-“ Qrow straightened up and sat down slowly, stunned. “Y-yeah. Yeah. Go take care of your kid. I- I have work to do here, I’ll, I’ll see you later.”

“Qrow, I-" A sigh. "Yeah. I’ll see you.”

-/-

It was another two days before Penny was back, looking far more refreshed and recovered than his kids usually looked when they’d been out ill. She’d also done her homework and stayed caught up with the class with James’ help- he hadn’t come back since that first visit, but Qrow had emailed him the lessons each day, so she could keep up.

“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” Ruby said, clinging to Penny when she saw her after school later. She squeezed. “When you didn’t come back right away we were worried.”

“Oh, I was feeling better by Monday,” Penny said. “Father can sometimes get overprotective when I am sick. He said he prefers me to get better where he can see me.”

“So you got to miss three days of school when you weren’t even that sick?” Ruby groaned. “Man, lucky. I wish Dad would let me miss school even when I’m not sick.”

Qrow passed by on his way to the cupboard with an armload of construction paper, the discards of his class’s attempt at making turkey headbands for the Thanksgiving program next week. On his way by, he said, “As teachers we’re not supposed to encourage our kids to skip school. But if you ever needed a flop day, you could probably talk him into it.”

“What is a flop day?”

“It’s a day where you just flop,” Ruby said, before Qrow could. He grabbed a basket and started gathering up bottles of glue. “Sometimes Dad gets really, really sad, and he says his brain won’t let him do anything productive or be useful to anyone. So when he gets like that, he calls into work and has a sub cover his classes, and he stays home and takes a nap and watches a movie and eats junk food. He says it’s important not to have too many flop days, but once in awhile is okay. You don’t have to do specifically those things for a flop day,” Ruby added. “That’s just what Dad likes to do.”

“Oh, you mean a mental health day,” Penny said. “Father lets me have those sometimes, too.”

“Yeah, Dad says our mental health is as important as our physical health. But Uncle Qrow! A flop day isn’t the same as skipping school!”

Qrow had to concede that this was true. He took the broom out of the cupboard so he could finish cleaning, and swept playfully at them. “Maybe we’ll take a skip day sometime,” he said. “No harm in it, I guess. Don’t tell anyone, teachers aren’t supposed to encourage skipping class.”

It wasn’t long after that that James came by to pick Penny up. He didn’t stay long, just long enough to say hello, and he would barely meet Qrow's eye while they were there. When they left, Ruby gave Qrow a confused look.

“Did you two have a fight?” she asked.

Qrow looked down at her, then hurriedly wiped the hurt look off his face in favor of a reassuring smile, and ruffled her hair. “Nah, he’s probably just busy. Don’t worry about it, kiddo.”

Ruby looked dubious, and squinted up at him suspiciously, but he’d already gone over to his desk to get his things, so she didn’t see that his hurt look had returned.

-/-

Qrow had come to enjoy his brief visits with James after school- he rarely stayed more than a few minutes, but seeing him was always a delight and Qrow looked forward to it.

With only four school days left before Thanksgiving break, Qrow really didn’t like the idea of James avoiding him. He didn’t want him going away without them at least getting back on even footing.

(And, privately, he didn’t want James telling his sister that Qrow was the kind of guy who pushed his boundaries too much. Qrow prided himself in not pushing too hard, too far, in drawing back before he did damage.)

So after he put the girls to bed and went to his own room, he called James up, perched on the end of his bed while he waited for James to answer. When the first call didn’t go through, or the second, he frowned and shot off a text instead.

Hey. Can we talk?

Nothing. He waited, and the message went to read, but there was no reply. He frowned down at the phone. Really?

“Of all the childish, petty…” He scowled and shoved his phone into his pocket, then grabbed his shoes and slipped out the back door. He needed at least four drinks to deal with this.

-/-

As a rule, Qrow didn’t drink on weekdays. He couldn’t be a teacher if he was hungover in the mornings, and since he had never in his life managed to stop at just one drink, he restricted his drinking to Fridays and Saturdays.

It was a pact he’d made with Summer when he decided to be a teacher, and even seven years after her death he did his best to uphold his end of the bargain.

“Hi there, baby bird,” Roman said, when he arrived at his regular bar. “What are you doing here on a weekday?”

“Wishing I was allowed to make bad choices,” he said, folding his arms on the bar and burying his face in them. “You must have something non-alcoholic back there, right?”

“I’ve got a whole selection of sparkling drinks,” Roman said. “I would recommend the orange mango.”

“Sounds disgusting. Pour me two.”

-/-

“He left me on read , Torch,” Qrow said, five drinks in. (The orange mango had been surprisingly nice, and then he’d switched to mixed berry, then two strawberry lime. There was currently a glass of blue raspberry in front of him.) He downed half his drink and slammed it down. “He’s giving me the silent treatment, avoiding me- and I’m trying to put things right and he fucking leaves me on read .”

“The nerve,” Roman said, in his ‘I couldn’t actually care less’ voice. “How cute is he?”

“Drop dead gorgeous, but what has that got to do with anything?”

“Well, if he was only okay, I’d say drop him. Men who take work are only worth it if they’re very worth it, if you know what I mean.”

“I’m not dropping him because of one fight,” Qrow said. “It’s not even a fight. He’s just being a brat.”

“That’s even worse! Are you sure he’s hot?”

Qrow sighed, and unlocked phone, holding it up so Roman could see. His homescreen wallpaper was dominated by Nora at Halloween, but he’d taken the picture when James was carrying her, and he and the fond look he was giving Nora were both clearly visible.

Roman took the phone, and eyed it thoughtfully before handing it back.

“Okay, so he’s worth it.”

Qrow snorted and set his phone down. “You’re the least helpful, you know that?”

“What do you want from me? I’m not your friend, I’m just your bartender. I don’t give you advice, I give you drinks and call Tai when you can’t stand up anymore. Speaking of which, is he still straight? Asking for a friend.”

This just got him a flat glare. “I am not setting you up with my brother, Roman Torchwick. Even if he was gay and ready to date again. I’m not risking you being in my family.”

“I said a friend! Why are you so gosh-darn suspicious, baby bird?” At Qrow’s deadpan look, he said, “All right, fine. I’m the friend. I was asking for me.” He folded his hands over his chest. “Anyway, what have you got against me dating your brother? He’s hot, I’m hot. It’s a match made in heaven!”

Qrow continued to glare. Roman pouted.

“You’re no fun anymore.”

-/-

Two hours later, Qrow had his head down on the counter. He’d been groaning for awhile, but then he’d just kind of… stopped. Roman gave him a pitying look, and then glanced over when his phone lit up. Hmm.

Qrow wasn’t paying attention to him. Roman picked up his glasses, palming his phone as he went by, and disappeared into the back room, where he wouldn’t disturb Qrow from his apathy while he… handled things.

“Don’t say I’ve never done anything for you, Qrow,” he muttered, and hit talk on the phone.

“Qrow’s phone,” he said cheerily, peeking through the slit in the door to make sure Qrow was still out of it.

“Uh- hello?” The voice on the other end sounded perplexed. Roman grinned. This was going to be fun.

“I’m guessing this is James?”

“Yes. What are you doing with Qrow’s phone? Who are you?”

“I’m Qrow’s- well- I was going to say friend , but that’s not entirely true. Let’s just say I’m someone who knows him, okay?”

“Okay, fine. Is Qrow there?”

“He’s asleep right now. Is it important? I don’t want to wake him, he’s all tuckered out.”

“Right. Of course.” He sounded on edge, confused and disoriented. Roman peeked through the doorslit again.

“I could take a message…?”

“No- no, it’s fine, I’ll- I’ll call later. It’s fine.”

“You do that, then. Bye bye, stud.”

There was a pause, and then the call disconnected. Roman shook his head and took the phone back out, sliding it carefully over beside Qrow’s arm as subtle as possible. Then he reached over and shook him.

“Wake up, baby bird, it’s after midnight and you need to go home.”

“I’m not asleep.” Qrow straightened, then stood. He grabbed his phone without looking at it. “Maybe I can get him to talk to me tomorrow.”

“Maybe. See you around.”

“Yeah, night.”

“Night.”

-/-

When Qrow got home, there were several texts waiting on him from James.

If you still want to talk, we can.

I can explain my behavior from the past few days.

I don’t know if your friend will tell you but I tried to call you.

Sleep well. I’ll see you tomorrow .

Friend? Qrow squinted at the messages, wondering what he meant, and then checked his call logs. There was a missed call from James, and then another that had been answered… while he was at the bar.

Qrow slapped his forehead. Great. Thanks a lot , Roman. He dialed Roman, and took a deep, steadying breath while he waited for an answer.

“Torchwick.”

“The hell’d you say to James?”

“Oh, you heard.”

Roman .”

“Oh, relax, all I said was that you were asleep and I didn’t want to wake you.”

“And that’s it?”

“On my honor.”

“Your honor as a thief, a gambler, and a confidence trickster?”

“Don’t forget your future brother-in-law.”

“Stop deflecting. That’s really all you said?”

“Yes, Qrow, that’s all I said.”

“And what did he say?”

“That he’d call you back. Honestly, it was a short conversation, check your call log if you don’t believe me. He called, I answered and said you were sleeping, offered to take a message, and he said no and we hung up.”

"Okay..."

“Good. Now can I go? I have to finish kicking the late-nighters out of the bar.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

-/-

Qrow wasn’t surprised when James stopped by his classroom the next morning, alone. He had his hands folded behind his back, a look of stiff resolve on his face, and Qrow’s stomach sank at the sight of it.

He leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the desk.

“So what’s up?”

“You wanted to talk,” James said. “I’m sorry I didn’t call back sooner I- I wasn’t sure what to say, if I’m honest.” He cleared his throat softly, and, “When I tried to call last night, a man answered your phone. I know it’s not my business-”

“You’re right. It’s not.”

James’ eyebrows went up at that; Qrow’s furrowed, and he swung his feet around and stood, stalking around so he was leaning back on his desk, only a few inches away from where James was still halfway to attention. He folded his arms.

“For what it’s worth, Roman is my bartender. He’s… a kind of friend, sort of. But that’s it.” The relief that flitted across James’ face was nice, but Qrow ignored it for the moment. “But you’re right, it’s not your business.”

“I was only going to say I’d like to know if you’re making yourself unavailable. It’s your decision, but if this- this whatever is between us- is going to come to a close, I would only want to know. It’s only fair.”

“Fair?” Now it was Qrow’s turn to introduce his eyebrows to his hairline. “Yeah, fair . Sure. Like how it was fair for you to cold shoulder me like some goddamned child because I pushed too hard. Look- I get it, okay, it was a boneheaded move. But good god, James, you can say something. Tell me to back up, ask for space, at least take three fucking words to tell me to fuck off or something.”

James pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Okay,” he said. Another breath, and, “Qrow, do you know how long it’s been since I had sex?”

“...what?” Qrow looked baffled, and said, “Knowing what I do about you, I’d guess at least five years.”

“Six,” James said. “There was about a year before Josef passed where he just wasn’t up for it. And, of course, you know the part afterward.”

“Okay. So what?”

“So I’ve got six years of pent up sexual energy and sometimes when I’m talking to you I have to struggle to get it back under reign.”

“...oh.”

James chanced a small smile. “You’re right, it was childish of me to avoid you for so long. But it wasn’t because you’d overstepped- it was more that I felt I was in danger of overstepping. I’ve said it before, but you’ve been remarkably patient with me.”

“Jim-”

“No, you have. And I appreciate it, which is why I would prefer not to send any mixed signals. And, I would prefer not to offer you a fragment when it’s my hope to eventually offer you the whole.” He gave Qrow an apologetic look. “I walked away because I was afraid if I stayed any longer, I’d forget that.”

Qrow sighed, and shook his head. “Okay, fair enough. You still should have said something- and besides, there’s two of us in this room. Remember me? That guy with autonomy and free will and self-control? Even if you had tried it on with me, I still wouldn’t have gone any further until I knew what you were offering. I wasn’t going to do anything you would regret later, just because in the moment you wanted it. Besides,” he added, giving James a toothy look that could not quite be called a smile, “ I don’t do casual when I mean it, and by gods, Jim, with you I mean it.”

“Oh.” James looked stunned, and Qrow wondered what was going on in his head. “Qrow, I- I’m sorry.”

Qrow half shrugged one bony shoulder. “Just talk to me next time, okay? Even if all you say is to give you space. I’m not a complete bastard, you know?”

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

The Thanksgiving pageant was during last period on Tuesday, the last day of school before break. Surprisingly, it managed to go off with only the minimal amount of chaos inherent in a program put on my ten-year-olds, and slightly less offensiveness than most of the faculty had come to expect from Qrow in situations like these.

“The turkey headbands were a good call,” said a voice somewhere near his ear, after the pageant had ended. Qrow turned his head slightly to see James standing behind him, arms folded behind his back. “Not even a little bit racist.”

“As a bird I find that offensive,” Qrow teased. He shrugged. “It’d be nice if I could talk about the real stuff, but school board won’t let me. Still, Ozpin makes sure I get plenty of easily exploited loopholes. So I focus on how the holiday became a holiday instead of some inaccurate ‘first Thanksgiving’ story.”

“It was still a good program. I learned a lot.”

Qrow twisted around to look at him, surprised. “Did you?”

“Yes.” Amusement danced in his eyes. “I learned that Sun won’t take his tail off even when he’s meant to be dressed up, that Weiss is better at projecting than any of her classmates, and that even in a sea of ten-year-olds, Nora stands out like a beacon and Ren is only noticeable if you find Nora and look a bit to the left.”

Qrow let out a bark of laughter at that. “Were you even paying attention to the program?”

“I found the kids more interesting,” and added, because Penny had run up to join them, “There you are. Are you ready to go?”

“I have to go get my bag,” Penny said. “Then I will be ready.”

She shoved her turkey headband into his hands and dashed off to collect her bag.

“Heard on the news there’s gonna be some bad weather up near Atlas,” Qrow said.

James nodded. “I know. That’s why I decided to leave as soon as school ended, rather than wait. We should be able to make it in time, but I’d prefer to not chance it.”

Penny returned then, her bag bouncing on her back, Ren and Nora trailing along with her. She hurled herself at James, who caught her and scooped her up with no problem. “We should get going,” he said. “You kids have a happy Thanksgiving.”

“You too, Mr. Ironwood,” Ren said politely, while Nora waved and called, “Byyye! Drive safely! Have fun!”

Qrow watched them walk away, Penny waving over his shoulder, then took out his phone and put the weather app on alert for up near Atlas.

-/-

The storm hit while they were eating dinner. Qrow’s phone beeped the alert at him, and he skimmed it before pulling up his messenger and shooting off a text to James.

Did you guys make it to your folks’ place before the storm hit ?

We made it about five minutes before the bottom fell out.

Everything good down there?

Yeah, we’re only getting the edges of the storm.

You guys take care up there.

He put his phone up and found Nora staring intently at him. He raised an eyebrow in question.

“They’re okay, right?”

“Oh, yeah, they made it just fine.”

“Okay, good.” She grabbed her drink and went back to her dinner, as happy as if the exchange had never happened.

-/-

Later, James was in the kitchen with his sister when his phone went off again. It was still Qrow; he swapped to stirring the cocoa with his right hand so he could respond.

So according to the news your storm just turned into snow .

Did it? I haven’t been outside, I wouldn’t know .

The girls are jealous. It’s still just ice down here .

Don’t bother mentioning that we’re pretty used to snow up here, then .

His sister looked up. “Who are you texting so intently over there?” When he started blushing before he could even respond, she rolled her eyes. “Oh, I see. That guy you mentioned?”

“He says the news says our rain turned to snow.”

“Did it?” She paused in pouring up bowls of popcorn to go over to check. “Oh, it did.”

“His girls are jealous, too.”

This got an eyebrow. “Oh, you managed to find a man with kids?” She sounded amused. “Which did you notice, the cute boy or the potential new daughters?”

His blush spread up to his cheeks. “You know it’s not like that…”

“I know you . How many does he have?”

“Just one. The other two are his nieces, he lives with his brother.” He finished pouring up the cocoa and transferred it to a tray with the popcorn, then grabbed it and headed down the hall to the kitchen. His sister followed, a thought forming on her face.

“Lives with his… James… James wait-“

But he’d already made it to the living room and was passing out the cocoa and popcorn to Penny and their parents and her wife. Once she was sure no one was paying attention to her, she grabbed her phone and pulled up her messenger.

Qrow Emile Louis Branwen, are you dating my brother?

What?

That’s not my name.

Where did you get any of that?

Answer the question, Qrow.

Jesus, Glynda. What’s your problem?

Are. You. Dating. My. Brother.

Okay, one, how would I know? You’ve never even told me your bro’s name.

And two, no, I’m not.

We’re just talking right now.

I’m going to kill you in your sleep.

Glynda returned her phone to her shirt and settled next to Snow, fuming silently. She was being largely ignored in favor of Penny, who was telling everyone about her Thanksgiving pageant at school.

“-but I do not think Mr. Qrow likes Thanksgiving very much. He seemed very bitter about being put in charge of the pageant.”

Snow perked up. “Oh, you got Qrow’s class? Good for you, he’s a way better teacher than Peach.”

“You know Mr. Qrow?” Penny said, while Glynda folded her arms and locked eyes with James, who suddenly looked very nervous.

“Of course we know him, he and Glynda are colleagues.”

In a very clear case of narrativium, James’ phone chose that moment to beep at him. This earned him an idle glance from the rest of his family, but Glynda’s expression hardened. He sighed and checked his phone.

So uh, you may be in for some yelling soon .

I think so too. Did you know you work with my sister?

Yes.

Wait, what? Yes? You already knew?

How did you already know?

I snooped through your pictures, remember?

Oh.

How mad is she?

She looks like she’s out for blood.

What did you do to her?

Why do you assume it was me?

Well?

Nothing specific. She thinks I’m irresponsible and a drunk and a bad influence .

You’re not a drunk though?

Eh, that’s not entirely true. I keep a handle on it, but, yeah, she’s not actually WRONG about me.

I think she is.

You’re biased.

“Honestly, James,” Mother said, interrupting his argument. “Always with your phone in your hand. Your work can wait, this is time to spend with your family.”

Glynda was still glaring at him, foot jiggling irritably. He returned his phone to his pocket. He needed to have a word with his sister, but he wasn’t having it here, in front of the rest of their family, and especially not in front of Penny.

-/-

That night, after everyone else in the house was asleep, James slipped across the hall to Glynda’s room and tapped on the door. It was Snow who answered it; she glanced behind her at Glynda and then gave him a small smile.

“I’ll leave you two alone,” she said, and added, just for James to hear, “For the record, I’m on your side.”

Then she hurried out of the room, and James stepped inside, closing the door quietly behind him. He folded his hands behind his back and gave her an expectant look; she stood and folded her own arms across her chest, and for a long moment, there was just the two of them, staring each other down in uneasy silence.

“You don’t approve of me getting involved with Qrow,” he said, breaking the silence finally, when it was clear Glynda was saying nothing.

One shoulder rose and fell slightly. “It's not my favorite, no.”

“That’s one way of putting it. You were fuming earlier when you found out.”

“All right, so I'm upset.”

“Why? I thought you were happy about me being interested in someone.”

“I was before I knew who you were talking about.” Glynda sighed. “James, Qrow isn’t… suited. He’s not good at dating, or being in a relationship. He’s not good at people .”

“Neither are you,” James pointed out. “Neither am I, for that matter.”

“You have redeeming qualities,” Glynda sniffed.

“And Qrow doesn’t?” James shook his head. “Glynda, what’s really wrong here?”

“Qrow is an ass, that’s what wrong. He’s antagonistic and reckless and if you get involved with him you’ll only end up getting hurt. I don’t want to see you hurt, James.”

James dropped his gaze, a knowing smile tugging at his lips. “I’m a big boy, Glynda, I can take care of myself. I don’t need you shoving my crush into a locker because he wouldn’t go to the dance with me.”

“This is not the same thing at all. That time was because he’d already hurt you, this time I’m trying to stop you from getting hurt to begin with.” She moved over and laid her hand on his arm. “James, I’ve waited five years for you to be okay and I’m glad that you feel ready to put yourself out there again, but I don’t want your first time dating again to be with someone who only cares about himself.”

“Are we even talking about the same Qrow here?” James looked baffled. “He’s one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met.”

“Is that so.” She folded her arms again. “And did he ask you out before or after you said you weren’t ready to date again?”

James glared at her. “As a matter of fact, he was the one that recognized I wasn’t and suggested we put our date on a raincheck until I was. Since then he’s been nothing but patient with me about everything, even things he had every right to be more angry about.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. “Look. I don’t know what happened between you and Qrow that made you think he’s this- this vastly different person than the one I know. But the Qrow I know is a good man- he’s kind, he’s patient, he’s great with kids, my daughter adores him… Glynda, I really like him. And I want to explore this thing between us, and see where it leads. And maybe it will lead to heartache. Maybe I’m setting myself up for failure. But that’s on me. It’s not your place to decide it for me.”

“You’ve known him for a month, James.” She sighed. “Why did it have to be him ? Why couldn’t it be someone else? Bart, or hell even Ozpin?”

“The principal?” James looked baffled. “He’s too old.”

“He’s not that much older than us. I think.”

“He seems older.” James waved that away impatiently. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m not interested in anyone else.” He reached out and took her hands, folded them between his own. “Please don’t ruin this for me. I’m tired of being alone- I’m tired of waiting . If I let this go, who knows how long it will be before I find someone else I’m interested in?”

“All right, fine .” She took her hands back and folded her arms again. “But it’s on you when this goes sour. Remember that I warned you.”

That was all he was getting, he knew. He gave her a weak smile. “Thank you.”

-/-

Thanksgiving was a special time in the Xiao Long-Branwen household. They didn’t go all out, they didn’t really have lots of decorations*,  and they didn’t even have any major traditions.

They didn’t even have a turkey; instead, the whole family worked together to prepare an enormous dish of noodles, laughing and chatting in the kitchen which they chopped vegetables, stirred noodles, pulled chicken.

Nora had been put in charge of peeling and cutting carrots, and she was doing so under Qrow’s watchful eye. She popped a piece of carrot in her mouth while he was looking away, and said, “I’ve had six different Thanksgiving homes counting my birth home, and this is the first time I’ve ever had noodles instead of turkey.”

“Turkey tastes like napkins,” Yang said. She’d been put in charge of eggs, and was staring at them very intently.

“I’m not complaining,” Nora said. “It’s just… different.”

Tai was working on the noodles- Qrow had told him very sternly not to overcook them- and now he paused in stirring them. “It was around this time of year that my family came to America when I was a little boy,” he said. “I was pretty young at the time, and I don’t remember much of the details, but I remember my parents ran into a lot of obstacles in getting us here- and we finally arrived just in time for Thanksgiving.”

This information was news to Nora. “Is that why we’re having noodles now?”

Tai laughed. “Sort of. See, we got here just in time for Thanksgiving, and my parents really liked the idea of celebrating a real American holiday, and a time of Thanksgiving after everything we had been through to get here seemed like a really good idea. But they didn’t really know anything about the holiday, and they were trying to recreate traditions they had never experienced and didn’t understand and had only heard of by word-of-mouth.”

“What’s to understand about turkey?”

“There’s a lot more to Thanksgiving than turkey. Imagine if you were living with a Jewish family, and they were celebrating Hanukkah, and you’d never experienced it before. You probably know a few things about Hanukkah from watching tv, but I bet you don’t really understand them, not without experiencing them or being taught.”

“I know there’s pastries involved,” she said. “I saw some pictures of them in our social studies book. They look delicious .”

“I’ve had them, they are,” Tai said, laughing again. “Anyway… my parents eventually got frustrated trying to recreate a holiday they didn’t really know anything about, and that culminated in us not having Thanksgiving dinner ready in time. So we threw together a dinner with stuff we had, including noodles, and had that instead.”

“So your first Thanksgiving really sucked, huh?”

“No, it was nice. Remember, I was just a little boy at the time, a few years younger than you, and I’d just moved halfway around the world and left behind everything I knew. And my parents were going on and on about an American tradition and American food and I- to tell you the truth, I was homesick. So getting to hang out with my family eating food that was familiar to me, that was pretty nice. After that, we always had noodles at Thanksgiving. It was our tradition, to remember everything we’d gone through to make our home here, and to make sure we held on to where we came from, too.”

“The first Thanksgiving I had after my folks died that was worth it was when I was living with Tai’s family,” Qrow added. “I was sixteen and it’d been years since I had a Thanksgiving worth remembering, and here was this nice family making noodles and including me in everything- it was pretty cool.”

“Oh.” Nora fell silent, staring down at the carrots she’d been cutting. “...I don’t remember what Thanksgiving was like with my parents,” she said quietly. “And I’ve never had a good once since then.”

“That’s why we always try to make Thanksgiving nice,” Yang said. “Uncle Qrow says that foster kids deserve to have good holiday memories just as much as anyone.”

“Is that why we celebrated Arbor Day right after I came here?”

“No, we celebrated Arbor Day because trees are cool . And because you seemed like the type to have fun digging a hole and getting really dirty.”

“That was pretty fun.”

-/-

That night, Nora climbed up to Ruby’s bunk after the rest of the house had settled quietly for the night. Ruby raised her blanket wordlessly and then tucked it around both of them once Nora had curled up beside her.

“It’s almost Christmas,” Nora said eventually, voice a mere murmur in the dark. Ruby nodded sleepily, and Nora went on. “I saw Santa in the mall the other day. Your dad said tomorrow we’re going to get our tree. Upstate it’s already snowing.”

“Are you excited?” Ruby whispered. “You don’t hate Christmas do you? Uncle Qrow’s last kid hated Christmas, it was a real downer.”

“No, I like Christmas,” she said. “I always have okay ones, sometimes even nice ones.” Nora hesitated, and, “I’ve never stayed anywhere for more than eight months, and I came here in April. After Christmas, it’ll be the longest I’ve ever been anywhere.”

“That’s great!” Ruby said. “We’ll get to have a record with you!”

“Maybe.”

“Nora?”

“...I’m scared. What if Uncle Qrow sends me away? Or what if I get moved for some reason? I don’t want to leave. I like it here. I feel like I have a real family here.”

“Oh, Nora.” Ruby wrapped her up in a big hug and squeezed until she squeaked. “You do have a family here! Even if Uncle Qrow never adopts you and you have to leave, I promise, you’ll always have a home and family with us. We love you.”

“Th-that’s why I want to stay.”

“Then we’ll just have to make sure Uncle Qrow adopts you before you have to leave.”

“But how? Mr. Ironwood isn’t dating him and I overheard him tell Uncle Tai that he was holding out until he was, and that means I can’t just marry him to someone rich. What am I going to do? I just want a family of my own.”

“Well…” Ruby considered this, and, “I know! We’ll ask Santa! Maybe he can do it!”

Nora reached up and scrubbed at tear-stained cheeks. Should she spoil Ruby’s faith? No, best to leave it, Ruby was too innocent, and Nora refused to destroy that. “I’m not sure Santa can manage that kind of gift, but we can try.”

“I’ll see if Dad will take us to see Santa this weekend,” Ruby assured her. “We’ll think of something. I promise.”

-/-

It was after lunch that they all piled into Qrow’s truck and drove out to the Sleepy Pine Tree Farm, their traditional stop for their Christmas tree every year. The place was run by a retired stunt pilot and her teenaged daughter, and they’d been coming to the farm for so long that they felt like old friends.

“Where are the good trees this year?” Qrow asked, when they had pulled into the drive. After a moment’s consideration, they were directed to the northwest corner of the farm, and headed off in that direction, bouncing and bumping on the uneven dirt paths that crisscrossed the farm.

After they parked, they all piled out of the truck, and Yang and Ruby took off in two different directions. Nora stood, a little stunned, until Qrow gave her an encouraging pat on the back.

“Go on,” he said. “See if you can find any you like,” and then, raising his voice, “You kids stay where we can see you!”

The initial stage of searching was complete chaos, with first one girl and then another calling the rest over to see that she’d found the perfect tree- a process that Nora quickly found herself joining in, talking up the merits of her favorite trees, and laughing along with the others at the sillier suggestions that Tai and Qrow made in between.

Eventually, though, they found themselves converging until they had narrowed themselves down to two trees. One was tall and full with a wide base but a crooked trunk. The other was smaller, but with an even trunk and wider spaces to hang ornaments in. They moved between the two, considering them from first one angle, then another, weighing the merits of their choice.

It was Qrow who influenced the final decision, pointing to the smaller one and saying, in a slightly cryptic voice, “That one will do better with the girls’ special gift, once we get it.”

There was thoughtful pause from Tai, while the girls looked between them, wondering what special gift he meant, but Tai just nodded in agreement. “Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that.” He looked at the girls. “What do we think? Is that the one we want?”

The response was a clamor from the girls, gathering around him and begging to know what special gift he meant. Tai laughed and pried himself out of the clamor. “All right, all right! That tree it is. Okay, everyone stand back.”

He’d brought his own axe to cut the tree down; now he grabbed it from the tree he’d leaned it against and got to work on the tree.** Tai was good with an axe; in no time at all the tree was toppling sideways, where Qrow caught it to keep it falling.

Tai handed the axe over to Qrow and found a handhold in between the branches, then with a grunt of exertion hoisted the tree up over his head. Qrow laughed as bits and pieces of tree fell out into his hair and clothes.

“You’re gonna be shaking sheds out of your underwear for a week,” he said.

Tai shrugged, and followed as they made their way back to the truck. He tossed it into the back, and Yang and Ruby scrambled up to sit with it. Tai looked down at Nora. “Wanna ride in the back?”

“Yes!” She hauled herself up over the tailgate and settled down with them.

It was fun riding in the back with the tree, clinging to the edges as they tried to bounce as high as they could on the rough ride without actually bouncing out. Twice Tai had to call back for them to sit down and hold on, and eventually they pulled up to the central office, where other tree-seekers were waiting their turn to have their tree wrapped and shaken while their children ran around, playing like old friends with people they saw, at best, only once a year.

Tai hoisted their tree out of the back and stood in line with it, while Qrow found a clear bit of wall to lean on while he watched the kids. While they waited, a familiar van pulled up and the Belladonnas piled out. Qrow watched as Blake spotted him, then waved and looked around before hurrying over to join the others, Ilia trailing a little hesitantly behind her.

While Ghira took their tree up to the line- tossed over one shoulder like nothing,^- Kali came over to join Qrow with a wave.

“Hey Kali,” he waved back. “Thought you guys left your tree till later in the season.”

“Normally we do,” Kali said. She nodded out to the kids, to Ilia. “But we thought it might be good for Ilia if we threw ourselves into the Christmas season early this year.”

“Yeah, of course. Christ, it’s been a year, hasn’t it?” And at Kali’s nod, “How is she holding up?”

“She’s still having trouble trusting anyone, she’s angry at the world, and as we draw near the year mark, a lot of our progress is undoing itself.” She folded her arms around herself. “We’re doing our best, of course, but I…” She shook her head. “I don’t think I ever realized what you must have to deal with, being a foster parent. How do you do it?”

He shrugged. “A lotta patience, really. Being prepared to have your work undone. Understanding that the kids that take the most work have the greatest need. Knowing the kid always deserves the best they can be given. And knowing that sometimes the best isn’t going to be you.”

His last remark had Kali looking out at the kids again- currently taking turns doing cartwheels- with a sad expression. “I’d hate to have to send her away,” she said. “Ghira and I have been talking about making things official, she feels so much like family. But what if we can’t give her what she needs?”

Qrow gave her a reassuring smile. “I wouldn’t worry about that too much,” he said. “I’ve only ever had one kid I couldn’t work with, and that was special circumstances. And having a real family again might help Ilia a lot in the long run.”

“You think?”

Another shrug. “It woulda helped me.”

“Hey Qrow!” They looked over at Tai’s call; he was currently tossing the tree back into the pickup bed. He turned back to Kali and gave her a quick shoulder squeeze.

“The only thing I can say is don’t make that decision until you’re sure. But if you are sure, and if Ilia’s game, then go for it with everything you’ve got.”

-/-

That night, Tai and the girls got the tree put up and decorated while Qrow sat back on the couch with a mug of cocoa and laughed himself sick as Tai got utterly covered in tinsel and Christmas specials played on low volume in the background. Once they’d got it done, Tai switched off all the lights and they all sat back to admire their handiwork.

It really was a pretty tree. In the half-dark, Qrow felt the couch dip beside him and raised his arm wordlessly as Nora settled into his side. He leaned down to so that only she could hear him.

“What do you think, kiddo?” He asked. “Gonna be a good Christmas?”

She nodded against his shoulder, and when he heard the tiniest, most barely noticeable sniffle, he decided that he was going to see to it she had the absolute best Christmas he could give her.

-/-

Qrow was still in the living room late that night, staring at the tree in idle silence. He was shaken out of his daze by his phone buzzing him; he grabbed it and answered without checking.

“‘Lo?”

“Hi, Qrow.”

“Jimmy?” Qrow sat up straight. “You okay?”

“I’m fine, I just…” He trailed off. Qrow could hear him shifting in the background, and, “I’ve been thinking.”

“Yeah?”

“After I get back to Vale. You think maybe we could have that drink?”

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

The next day, Ruby begged and begged and begged until Tai relented and agreed to take the girls to the mall to see Santa. Though initially Ruby was the only one excited- neither Tai nor Qrow were that eager to deal with the mall’s usual weekend crowd, Nora had already been to see Santa once, and Yang was trying to act too cool and grown up for something like Santa- by the time they reached the line, they were in brighter spirits.

The line was longer this time than when Qrow and Nora had come by, way back before Thanksgiving. There were a few familiar faces in the line as well, and when Ruby spotted Sun she dragged Nora over. Qrow watched the three of them leaning close together and talking suspiciously quietly. Occasionally one of them would look over at him.

He folded his arms. Well well. Looked like he was the subject of another conspiracy. He wondered if he should tell them there was no need to try setting him up with James anymore, and then changed his mind. He was kind of curious to see what they’d come up with, and anyway he didn’t want to get their hopes up until he was sure where their drink was going to lead.

-/-

“-so we’re going to ask Santa if he can get Uncle Qrow to adopt Nora,” Ruby finished explaining. “Since our first plan is a bust we need to come up with something else.”

“I can ask too, sure,” Sun said. “I mean, if four people ask, then he’s gotta at least try, right? I’m pretty sure that’s a rule.”

“Yeah! And since we’ve all been so good, that’ll be even more incentive!”

“If we get the rest of the crew to ask too that’ll up our odds.”

“Who all has been to see Santa yet?”

“Ren said his dad was taking him this weekend. I’ll call him tonight and see if they’ve gone yet.”

“Weiss’ mom already brought her and her brother up last weekend.”

“We should still tell her,” Sun said. “She’s so rich I bet she’s got like a direct line to the North Pole.”

“Agreed. Ruby can talk to her next time we see her.”

Their meeting was interrupted by Sun’s mom then; they’d made it to the front of the line, and his mom wanted a picture of him and his brothers with Santa before he got to talk to the big man himself.

“I have to go,” he said. “I have to tell Santa what my baby brother wants for Christmas too, so I’m pulling double-duty today already.”

They waved, then turned and headed back to where their parents were waiting. Qrow ruffled Nora’s hair and she leaned against his leg, tilting her head back to look up at him.

“Did you guys talk about anything interesting?” he asked. She and Ruby exchanged secretive looks, and she shrugged.

“We just talked about what we were going to ask Santa,” she said, completely honestly.

-/-

Once the group pictures had been taken, and Sun’s elder brother had slunk off to window shop and his mother had taken his baby brother out to wait on a bench nearby, Sun climbed up into Santa’s lap. He looked him over critically, because something about this particular Santa felt off.

“Well, Mr. Wukong, do I meet your satisfaction?” Santa said, amusement dancing in his dark eyes.

“I know you’re not really Santa,” Sun said. “I worked it out. How is Santa supposed to be at all the malls in the world?”

“Ah, but after being at every house in the world in one night, wouldn’t you imagine that being at every mall in a couple of months be nothing at all?”

“No, that’s dumb. Anyway like I said, I already worked it out. You’re one of Santa’s elves. You dress up like your boss and come hang out in the mall, and everyone is properly fooled. It’s okay, your secret is safe with me.”

Santa covered his mouth, amused. “All right, I see you’re too smart for me. But will you still tell me what you want for Christmas? I have to be able to tell Santa once I return to the North Pole.”

“I want a real tail,” he said, holding up the end of his yellow sock. “Like the kind I can grab stuff with. But if you can’t get that, I’ll take a more reasonable fake one. The sock is getting kinda gross.”

“A tail? I think Santa could probably work something out. Anything else?”

“A PS Vita. Oh, and for my friend Nora to get adopted by her foster dad. We’re all kinda scared she’ll be sent away if he doesn’t adopt her soon, and we love her, we don’t want to lose her.”

“Interesting.”

“What’s interesting?”

“I didn’t think the PS Vita was that popular.”

“Yeah, but it’s got the new Mud Mummy Invasion game on it and I really wanna play that.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Have you been good this year?”

He nodded, and then, guiltily, “I’ve tried my best to be good,” he admitted. “But being good is hard.”

“Keep doing your best,” Santa assured him. “That’s the part that matters.”

“What about my friend? Are you gonna be able to do anything for her?”

“Oh, we’ll see. People and events are much harder to manage than material objects.”

“If you have to knock the Vita off, that’s okay. I can get a Vita later, but I only have the one Nora.”

Santa looked surprised, and then twinkled at him. “Well… we’ll see, anyway.”

-/-

Ruby needed no help scrambling up onto Santa’s lap, but once she was there she subjected him to the now-familiar scrutiny of a child meeting a Santa who did not meet expectations.

“Your beard is fake,” she said.

“No it’s not.”

“Yes it is. I can see the strings.”

“Can you touch it?”

She reached out and touched it, then nodded. “Yes.”

“Then it’s real.”

She squinted again. “Every story about Santa says he has a beard.”

“I do. I own it. It belongs to me.” He patted the beard. “I paid good money for it.”

“Are beards expensive?”

“This one was.” He twinkled his eyes at her. “Do the stories say that Santa’s beard is attached to his face?”

“...nooo…” She scrunched her nose up. “But they do say Santa is fat. You’re even skinnier than my uncle. I bet my dad could break you in half easy.”

“That’s no feat, have you seen your dad?”

“Yes. He can lift a whole tree. Why are you skinny?”

“I’ve been dieting.”

“You shouldn’t do that. It’s not healthy to lose so much weight that quickly.”

“I can assure you, Miss Rose, that I went about my diet in as healthy a manner as possible.”

“Well that’s good. It’d really suck if Santa dieted to death right before Christmas.”

“Hmm, yes. You shouldn’t worry yourself. Stress is also uhealthy. Now.” He twinkled again. “What do you want for Christmas?”

“I want a deadly mechanical scythe that transforms into a customizable high impact sniper rifle.”

“Perhaps try for something a little less… dangerous.”

“BB gun?”

“Try again.”

“Nerf gun?”

“Better.”

“Three nerf guns. For me and my sister and Nora. So we can play with them together. Speaking of Nora.” She beckoned him to lean closer, and whispered, “Can you get my Uncle Qrow to adopt her?”

“Is that what you want?”

“Yes.”

“The nerf guns will be more doable.”

“Focus on the adoption. My dad can get us nerf guns if you can’t.”

-/-

Yang was doing her best to project “not that interested” when it came to her turn. She also didn’t sit on Santa’s lap, claiming that she was perfectly capable of having a conversation that didn’t involve being infantilized.

“Eleven is a very important age for making sure everyone knows you’re growing up,” Santa said. “If you give in to every childish urge, they’ll think you’re still just a little girl, and they won’t take you as seriously.”

“Exactly!” Yang said. “But I’m not a little kid, and I shouldn’t be treated like one! I’m a tween . Before you know it I’ll be a teenager, and then I’ll be in high school , and then I’ll be a grown-up. I can’t have people thinking of me as a little kid when I’m practically in my thirties.”

“I quite understand. But will you tell me what you want for Christmas? No one looking would think you were being childish in this.”

“I mean, I already told my dad and uncle what I wanted and I’m pretty sure they can take care of it. But can you get my uncle to adopt my cousin? It’s kind of important.”

He took both of her hands and folded them between hers, and gave her a warm smile. “I’ll see what I can do,” he promised.

“Thanks.” She pulled her hands away. “I’m gonna… go now.”

-/-

Since Nora had already been to see Santa once, she didn’t bother going up this time, so once Tai had paid for Yang and Ruby’s pictures, they left. Once they were out in the parking lot, Tai "realized" he’d left the pictures behind, and hurried off to collect them, sending the rest of them on to the truck.

Once he’d made it back, he waited for a break between kids, and beckoned Santa over.

“Hey Oz,” he said quietly. “Just a quick question…”

“Nerf guns,” Ozpin said.

“Got it, thanks.”

-/-

James and Penny returned home around five Sunday evening, and around seven Glynda arrived to look after Penny while James went out for his drink with Qrow. She had said nothing else of his interest in Qrow since their conversation Wednesday and said nothing of it now, either, but he could see the disdain lurking beneath the surface.

As long as it stayed there, he could deal. So he hugged Penny and reminded her she had school the next morning, and then headed out.

-/-

Qrow had decided on Junior’s for their drink, at risk of running into Roman, because Junior and Roman could both be trusted to cut him off after only a couple of drinks. The last thing he needed on this long-awaited date was to get absolutely shitfaced, and ruin any chance he had with James before things got off the ground at all.

Once they’d taken care of their drinks and settled into an out-of-the-way corner of the bar, Qrow leaned back and watched James thoughtfully.

“So,” he said. “What made you change your mind?”

There was a long moment before James replied, and, “I’m not sure, if I’m being honest. But… I think I just got tired of waiting. I’ve been alone for so long, and after awhile it got to the point that I was the thing holding myself back. I’m tired of waiting around to be ready again.”

“Fair enough.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“What, are we playing twenty questions?”

James laughed. “Sure, why not? We don’t actually know that much about each other- and it is a date, after all.”

“All right.” Qrow ran a finger idly around the rim of his glass. “Twenty questions, and it’s your turn. Shoot.”

“Why did you wait for me to be ready?”

James watched as one shoulder rose minutely, and, “I dunno. You just seemed worth it, I guess.”

“So it wasn’t just my dashing good looks?”

He tried his hand at a cheeky look, but Qrow waggled a finger at him. “Uh-uh, it’s my turn.” He drummed his finger on the table, and, “How’d you lose your arm?” When James raised an eyebrow at him, he added, “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. I’m just being nosy here.”

James snorted. “It’s fine. Some… jerk… jumped the lights and slammed into me. I was on my bike at the time and honestly I’m lucky to be alive.”

“Yikes. Wait, when you say bike-“

“I mean motorcycle. And that’s two questions.”

“Nah-uh, that’s just clarification.” Qrow stuck his tongue out. “Okay, fair’s fair, you get two this time.”

“All right, ah…” James considered. “Why did you decide to be a foster parent? And a teacher?”

“Ooh, getting personal?” He knocked back the last of his drink and waved for another from the enormous man behind the bar. “My folks died when my sister and I were kids. We went to live with our uncle for awhile but then… anyway, after awhile we ended up in the system. It wasn’t really a hard decision, honestly. As for being a teacher, that was Summer’s idea. I wasn’t about it at first, until I fell in love with my first class.” He looked sheepish. “Do me a favor and never tell anyone what a sap I am.”

“Your secret’s safe with me.” He broke off as their fresh drinks arrived, and Junior rumbled a warning at Qrow, and, “Your turn.”

“All right, ah, let’s see… why did you decide to adopt, instead of using a surrogate or something?”

“It was a non-decision, really,” James said. “There are enough children in this world without parents that it seemed selfish to go through the trouble of creating a new one just so it could share one of our dna. It was never a question.”

They fell silent for a few minutes, enjoying both the company and the atmosphere, processing the new context they were learning about each other in. Finally, Qrow gestured at James that it was his turn. James drummed his fingers on the table.

“Why does Glynda hate you so much?”

Qrow snorted. “What did she say about me? That’s not a question, I just need context so I can answer.”

“She said you’re reckless and antagonistic and an ass.”

“Eh, she’s not wrong.”

“Qrow-“

“No, listen. She’s not.” He fidgeted with his glass, tracing condensation, before knocking it back in one go. “When Glynda and I met, it was at a very… very low point in my life. I didn’t make a good impression. It was right after we lost Summer, and I wasn’t- I wasn’t in a good place to make a good impression.” He shrugged. “Glynda’s seen me in some of my ugliest moments. She’s always been a good friend, but she’s also never pretended I was anything but what I am.”

“And what are you?”

“A self-destructive, self-absorbed bastard who drags down the people around me and needs a bunch of ten-year-olds to keep me in line. And that was two questions.”

James made a disgruntled, irritated noise at the deflection, but leaned back and gestured impatiently for Qrow to ask his questions.

“Why did you have your tattoo removed? And what was it?” He’d meant the questions to lighten the mood, to drag them back to something more pleasant, but instead James just grew quiet, and ran his hand through his hair.

“And I have to answer honestly?”

“I mean, not really, if it’s too personal. It wasn’t something really hateful, was it? Because if so, the fact you got rid of it says just as much about you as getting it to begin with.”

This earned a weak laugh. “No, it wasn’t anything hateful, it was a vine pattern around my side.”

“Why get it removed, then? You don’t seem like the type to get embarrassed over something like that.”

“Who said I had a say in removing it?” James watched him, studying him closely, and then tossed back his drink. “Is there somewhere private we can go to finish this conversation?”

Qrow’s eyebrows shot up. “Jesus, you said you were thirsty, but I didn’t-“

“It’s not that. This is just… not something I can explain in a public space. Please?”

“All right, your place or mine?”

“My place has my sister and my daughter.”

“Well my place has my brother and my girls, but we could always sneak in through the backdoor to my room, if you’re determined.”

“That works.” He stood. “Let’s go.”

-/-

The drive back to Qrow’s was quiet, uneasy. James was clearly on edge about something, and Qrow was growing more and more worried about what James had to tell him.

The back door to the house led to Qrow’s bedroom; he let them in and listened intently to the rest of the house for a long moment, but there were no sounds, and soon he’d satisfied himself that no one had woken from their return.

“Feel free to kick your shoes off,” Qrow said, moving around to pick up a few stray items discarded around. He kicked a pair of dirty underpants into his bathroom and closed the door, then turned around to see if James had listened. His eyebrow went up. “Shit, the leg too?”

James gave him a grim smile, and twisted the hem of his shirt nervously in both hands. “It’s not just that,” he said. “I debated telling you about this yet, but I feel like, if it’s a dealbreaker, this is the best time to find out.”

Qrow crossed the tiny room to stand in front of him. “Hey, whatever it is, if you don’t want to tell me, you don’t-” and then he sucked in a sharp breath and breathed, “Holy shit,” because James had pulled off his shirt in one swift, jerky motion, revealing an expanse of metal across the right half of his torso. Qrow raised a hand, like he wanted to touch, and then pulled it away. His eyes crawled over James’ chest, trying to find something- anything- to say in response, and, “Is that a false nipple?”

A relieved, slightly nervous laugh bubbled out of James, and he looked down at the spot in question. “It’s an unfortunately placed rivet,” he said weakly.

Qrow took his hand and led him over to the futon that served as his bed- kicked another pair of underpants under it- and sat them both down.

“So when you said that asshole slammed into you-”

“I meant it in the most literal sense possible,” James finished. He pulled his shirt back on, much to Qrow’s obvious disappointment. “I lost the entire right side of my body and some of the organs on my left side as well. Like I said. I’m lucky to be alive.”

Qrow wasn’t really sure how to respond to that. “Yikes,” he said, which felt insufficient.

“It’s pretty gruesome,” James agreed. “It wasn’t all bad, though. It’s how I met Josef.”

“Yeah?”

James nodded. “He helped develop a lot of the technology they used in my reconstruction, and later he liked to visit to talk to me about how I was adjusting, so he could find ways to improve. And going through all of this, and talking to others who went through their own trauma, led me to switch careers from military androids to prosthetics.”

“Not all bad,” Qrow repeated dully. “Sorry.” He ran his hands through his hair. “It’s… a lot to process.”

“I know. That’s why I decided to go ahead and show you now. I didn’t want things to progress ideally and then for your first time seeing me like this being our first time being intimate.”

Qrow forced a grin. “The kids aren’t here,” he said. “You’re allowed to say fuck.”

The blush that spread up James’ neck at that pushed Qrow’s grin from forced to real. He pulled his legs up under him so he was seated on his knees and threw his arm over the back of the couch, leaning forward so he was in James’ personal space.

“Whose turn is it?” he asked.

“What?”

“We were playing twenty questions, remember? Whose turn is it?”

“What are you…” James looked baffled, and then his expression flattened. “...you want to ask about my dick, don’t you?”

“I mean… you said your right side, but that would have been the center, so…” His face split into a smug grin. “But the fact you guessed so quickly tells me all I need to know, so never mind.”

“All you need to know? Really? Because I think there are probably some details you’re missing out on.”

“What?” Qrow looked stunned, then glared and jabbed his finger at James. “What does that mean? What are you hiding, Ironwood?”

Now it was James’ turned to give him a smug smile. “Let’s just say… I’m fully functional.”

“Well color me intrigued.”

Qrow was impossibly close now, so much in James’ personal space that a breath couldn’t pass between them. He leaned a little closer, so James could make out the sunset-flecks in his red eyes, and waggled his eyebrows. James licked unconsciously at his lips, gaze locked on those eyes.

“So,” Qrow murmured, “Is there any particular reason we can’t… be intimate … right now?”

“Do I look like the kind of man who puts out on the first date?”

“No… but you also don’t look like the kind of man who owns a leather jacket or used to own a motorcycle or had a tattoo once, either. I think you’re full of surprises.”

He was so close, and James finally gave in and closed the distance between them himself. Qrow raised up on his knees and shifted, throwing his leg over James’ lap in one fluid motion, pressing himself flush against James and deepening the kiss. James was content with this direction for events, and when they parted he rested his forehead against Qrow’s collarbone.

“Qrow,” he murmured, and got a hum telling him to go on, “When did I say I only used to have a motorcycle?”

Qrow stilled. “...You really are full of surprises.”

“Mmm-hmmmm.” He grinned, and then pushed Qrow gently away. “And for now, I think I’m going to keep it that way.”

Qrow sat back on his heels, and pouted. “Spoilsport.”

“Sorry.” James found his hand and twined their fingers together. He rather liked this position, he decided. “I think for now I’m doing well to date at all.”

“Aww, all right.” He swung his leg back over and settled back into his previous position. “It’s your turn, then.”

“We’re still playing?”

“Sure. Why not? Look at what all we’ve already learned about each other.”

“All right. Uh… have you really got a tattoo in an intimate place?”

Qrow just grinned. “ That ,” he said, “is something you’ll have to find out for yourself.”

-/-

James did leave, eventually. Qrow dropped him off at the bar to pick up his car, and then watched him drive away before heading back home himself. He was still processing the news of James’ cybernetics; he couldn’t imagine going through something like that, coming our the other end a better person.

“You really are full of surprises,” he said, kicking his clothes off and half-collapsing onto his bed.

-/-

 

Chapter Text

-/-

Qrow found himself under Penny’s close scrutiny the next morning after James dropped her off. He raised an eyebrow at her, and she folded her arms.

“You kept my father out very late last night,” she said. “I hope it was not to do anything inappropriate.”

“Define inappropriate.”

“Were you holding hands?”

“There was a bit of hand-holding that went on, yeah.” He folded his arms on his desk and leaned forward a bit. “You’re okay with me and your dad, right, kiddo?”

“Yes. I like you, and so does Father. But,” she added, waggling her finger at him. “You must act like a perfect gentleman, or I will retract my blessing.”

“Understood.” He considered a moment, and, “Wait, is hand-holding allowed or not?”

“Only consensual hand-holding.”

“Hey, easy, kid. This Qrow never goes where he’s not invited. Consensual hand-holding is the only kind I do.”

“Then we will not have any problem at all.”

-/-

“So Uncle Qrow and Mr. Ironwood went on a date last night,” was the hot gossip when the girls met up with their friends on the playground that morning before school. “Penny says Uncle Qrow says they held hands, and I heard Uncle Qrow tell Uncle Tai that they even kissed .”

(“Am I the kinda guy to kiss and tell?” Qrow had asked, unprompted, because he wasn’t aware Nora was listening and really wanted to brag.

“I didn’t ask you to,” Tai had said. “And yes, always.”

“You’re right, I am. We kissed and it was great and I’m like, eighty percent sure we’re gonna kiss again.”

“Congratulations. Please never tell me about it.”)

“So is our plan back on?” Sun asked. “Are we marrying them off?”

“You think we can?” from Yang. “I mean… it takes a long time for people to decide they want to get married.”

“They’ve had a month ,” Ruby said. “That’s like… a year. It’s plenty of time.”

“I’m just not sure. We need a plan that is designed for the short term- not one that depends on two people to get their feelings together.”

“I agree with Yang,” Weiss said, and then made a weird face. “That felt weird to say. But she’s still right. These things take time. Are we sure we have enough?”

“If I might make a suggestion?” Ren said, and turned to Nora. “Have you considered just asking Mr. Qrow to adopt you?”

“That never works,” Nora said. “He has to think of it himself.”

“Why?”

“Because it never works !” she shouted, and stomped her foot, then stared down at her shoes and wrung her hands. “It never works,” she repeated quietly.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s okay. But. It. It never works to ask. He has to think of it himself. And he has to think of it when it’s not inconvenient.”

“So what are we going to do?” Penny asked.

“Well…” Ruby tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Most of the time relationships take a long time, but… it is Christmastime. If Hallmark movies have taught me anything, it’s that at Christmastime everything is fifty-seven times more romantic and relationships go a lot faster. So we’ve got the season on our side.”

“There’s also loads of romantic stuff going on this month in town,” Nora added. “There’s the parade, the tree lighting, the Christmas pageant…”

“Don’t forget the Christmas concert with the band and Mr. Ozpin’s solstice party,” Yang added. “And caroling and shooting mistletoe and decorating the house. There’s loads of stuff we can do.”

“Mistletoe!” Penny clapped her hands together in delight. “We can push things forward a bit if we get them under the mistletoe!”

“You think?”

“It always works in the movies.”

“Um.” They looked over at Jaune, who was shuffling a little nervously. “Um, I don’t want to be that guy, but, what’s the good of getting Mr. Qrow and Mr. Ironwood married if we don’t also make sure that he likes Nora enough to adopt her?”

There were some murmurs, and Ruby slapped her hands over her mouth and gasped. “No! He’s right! What if we go through all the trouble and then when Uncle Qrow gets married he thinks Penny is enough daughter for him? He might send Nora away!”

“I don’t understand why he has to get married to adopt her in the first place,” Ren said, but nobody paid him any attention.

Ruby threw her arms around Nora. “Nora, I’m so sorry! We forgot to consider all the angles! What are we going to do?”

There was silence all around while everyone thought, and Sun smacked his fist in his palm. “I’ve got it!”

“Yay!”

“We just have to get Mr. Qrow really all about the idea of him and Nora and Mr. Ironwood and Penny as a family. So if they take Nora and Penny on all their dates, he won’t be able to think of being with Mr. Ironwood without also thinking about having Nora there too! All the Christmas stuff in town is family oriented anyway, right? It’s perfect.” He turned to Ruby and Yang. “But you guys have to do your part by not getting as involved in Mr. Qrow’s stuff. Let it just be them for awhile.”

Ruby’s lip wibbled at that, but she raised her fists in determination. “Okay! For the sake of getting Nora adopted, we’ll stop going everywhere with Uncle Qrow.” She looked sad. “Hopefully it’ll be soon. I like going places with Uncle Qrow.”

-/-

When James came to pick up Penny that evening, he lingered, leaning on Qrow’s desk to talk to him while Penny took as long as she could to gather her things. Once she felt she’d dawdled long enough, she joined the two adults and tugged on James’ sleeve.

“Father, may we go to the tree lighting with Mr. Qrow? It is a very special evening, very romantic.”

Qrow choked on a laugh at that, and James raised an eyebrow. “Another setup?”

“Listen kid,” Qrow jabbed a finger at her. “I don’t need a wingman, all right?” A beat, and, “Actually that does sound pretty nice, you game?”

“What tree lighting?”

“Oh, it’s a local thing. You know that enormous church out on Maine Street? With the big tree on the front lawn?”

“Yeah.”

“They decorate it every year and then have a big thing where they light it. It’s pretty nice, there’s cocoa and music and the kids always have fun. There’s also the kids-in-need Secret Santa, we do that one every year as a family.”

James raised an eyebrow. “A church? You don’t strike me as the religious type,” and then his eyes flickered to the silver cross hanging around Qrow’s neck. “Or…”

Qrow laughed softly. “This? Nah, this was my dad’s, I’m not religious, I just like the tree lighting. You wanna go with us?”

“Sure, sounds fun.”

-/-

That evening, Nora was trying to get through her required reading for Dr. Oobleck when Ruby pounced out of the top bunk onto her. After a brief wrestling match, Nora threw a blanket over Ruby’s head and wrapped her arms around her, effectively trapping her.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“I have an idea,” Ruby said, muffled under the blanket. “Let me out so I can tell you.”

Nora complied, and once Ruby was free said, “An idea for what?”

“For getting Uncle Qrow to think of you and him as family. What if you do the Secret Santa together? I mean, separate than me and Yang and Dad?”

“What Secret Santa?”

“At the tree lighting!” Ruby waved her arms a bit. “Every year the church people put a bunch of names on the tree of kids who won’t have much of a Christmas, and what they want, and then other people can take a name and buy them a present, so they can have a gift to open too! We do it every year as a family but if you and Uncle Qrow do it together that’ll be sure to work!”

“Oh, that thing,” Nora said, and folded her arms thoughtfully. “Do you think he’d do it?”

“Of course! Why wouldn’t he?” Ruby twisted into Nora’s side and beamed up at her. “You should at least try. Please?”

“Okay. I’ll try.”

-/-

The downside of getting involved with a teacher who was also a family man was that any and all dates had to be planned around his devotion to his kids and the fact that the had to be in front of a classroom at eight o’clock the next morning, so there were limited options to dating. Still, they managed to arrange to meet for coffee Wednesday evening; James, after a lot of wibbling, hired Winter to watch Penny, since it was only going to be a couple of hours anyway.

“She’ll be fine,” Qrow said, when James mentioned said wibbling. “Winter’s a pain but she takes responsibility seriously, she’ll have someone at home to call if something comes up, and Penny’s a good kid, she won’t give Winter any trouble.”

“I know, but still. She’s fifteen. Anything could go wrong.”

“And if it does, she’ll handle it.” Qrow found James’ hand with his own, folding them together and giving it a reassuring squeeze. “Come on- I wanna spend some time with you. Don’t worry about Penny, Winter’s got this.”

James just sighed. “All right.” And then after a beat added, “It must be nice to have someone else at home to watch Nora when you want to go out.”

“That’s honestly part of the reason I was willing to go into foster care,” Qrow said. “I’d always meant to, but when I was living on my own, I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to devote to raising a kid. I was working two jobs at the time just to keep myself afloat- I settled a bit after I became a teacher, but resources were still pretty tight, and I’d have to hire a sitter all the time and not be able to devote the time I need to my kid. After I moved in with Tai, we were able to split costs and it was finally an option. I still have to hire sitters sometimes, but between me and Tai we manage to keep it only a sometimes thing.”

“When we still lived in Atlas, I lived near enough to my parents that they were able to take care of Penny when I wasn’t able to. I don’t have that here.”

“You’ve got Glynda.”

“True, but…” James gave an awkward little laugh and, “To be honest, I don’t really want to involve her in our relationship until she’s gotten used to the idea.”

“Still doesn’t approve, huh?”

“When I got home later than expected Sunday, she gave me this look .”

Qrow laughed. “I’ll just bet she did. Eh, she’ll come around. Or she won’t. Who cares?”

They’d reached Release the Grounds now; inside, the owner’s daughter and the girl with the inexplicable rabbit ears were sat near the door. Qrow waved.

“Hey Coco, rabbit girl.”

“It’s Velvet .”

“Whatever.”

She scrunched up her face and stuck her tongue out at him, then went back to her homework. James gave Qrow a meaningful look.

“What?” Qrow rolled his eyes. “She wears rabbit ears. Anyway she was one of mine last year, it’s fine.”

“Is it?”

“Tch. Hey Velvet! Tell Jimmy here who your favorite fifth grade teacher was!”

“You were my only fifth grade teacher.”

“See? What’d I tell you?”

James snorted. “I’m starting to think you might be a menace.”

“Yeah? Well you’re the one who agreed to go on a date with me. What does that say about you?”

“That I like menaces who never grew out of their bad boy phase.”

“Phase? You think this is a phase? This is who I am , Jimmy. You just don’t under stand me.”

James gave him another look, then rested his hand faintly on Qrow’s hip and leaned in close, so he could murmur in Qrow’s ear, “I’ll just have to try as hard as I can to, won’t I?”

Qrow shivered, more at the proximity than the actual words. “Okay, that time you did it on purpose.”

“Maybe. What are you going to do about it?”

“Heh. And you called me a menace.”

-/-

Winter being Penny’s babysitter was, in Penny’s opinion, a godsend. Winter had latched onto James and it took next to no persuading for Penny and Weiss- who had naturally followed her sister over to the Ironwood home- to convince her that aiding in his relationship with Qrow was for the best.

“I’m not sure if I approve of his choice,” she said, folding her arms. “I agree that he deserves someone to make him happy, but should we really be pushing him toward Qrow?”

“Mr. Qrow is who he wants,” Penny said. “It would not be right to push him toward someone else.”

“Besides,” Weiss added. “If they get married Qrow will move here, and that’ll annoy Father.”

“Well… I do enjoy things that annoy Father without any consequences for myself…” She sighed. “All right, what do you need?”

“In the long term, you just need to be available to watch Penny if he needs you to, so he doesn’t have to raincheck dates,” Weiss said.

Penny added, “But right this minute we just need to use your phone.”

She reached for it, then hesitated. “Who are you calling?”

“We need to talk to Ruby, Nora, or Yang,” Penny said.

Winter nodded and scrolled through, dialing their landline. After a moment, there was an answer from Tai, and a quick explanation that she needed to talk to one of the girls had the phone being handed over to Yang.

“Hey, Winter. What’s up?”

“Penny and Weiss want to speak with you,” she said, and passed the phone over. “Do not take too long, I have limited time on my phone.”

Penny snapped off a reassuring salute, and held the phone up so that she and Weiss could hear it together. “Hello, Yang,” Penny said. “We have an idea, so listen very carefully. Is it possible to get your father to invite my father and I over for dinner?”

“He just put dinner on now. I’ll go ask.”

-/-

Tai was flouring chicken wings when Yang approached him. “Dad, can we invite Penny and Mr. Ironwood over for dinner tonight?”

Tai folded his arms and eyed her thoughtfully, his eyes flickering to the phone in her hand. He did some quick mental calculations, and suppressed a smile. “We’ve got plenty for company,” he said. “I don’t mind. Call your uncle and ask him.”

“Thanks Dad!” Yang hurried out of the room, while Tai turned back to the chicken wings. He shook his head. Those kids were not subtle at all.

-/-

“Dad says yes,” Yang told Penny and Weiss a few minutes later. “Was there anything else?”

A quick exchange of glances, and Weiss leaned the phone more to her. “Yang, listen carefully. Once you’ve got them over, you have to make sure you clump Mr. Ironwood and Penny together with Qrow and Nora. Make sure that he thinks of them as a unit, and not as a unit with you and your sister and father.”

“Got it. What else?”

“That’s it, for now. Penny?”

“I cannot think of anything. Thank you for helping, Yang.”

“No problem. If it gets you and Nora into the family, it’s worth the effort.”

“Oh.”

“Penny?”

“I did not think of that. I will be part of your family then.”

“Yeah, of course. You.. you are okay with that, right?”

“Oh, yes! It is sensational! I just had not thought of it!”

“Well, think about it now! I have to go, I have to call Uncle Qrow and ask him about having you guys over. See you later. And tell Winter I said thanks, too.”

-/-

The coffee- or, more specifically, the coffee and the frappe with unholy amounts of sugar piled in and on it- was gone, as were the muffin and the chocolate loaf that had accompanied them, but James and Qrow were still lingering over their remains. Partly because they didn’t want to part just yet, mostly because it was cold outside and a bit of a walk to where they’d parked.

Qrow’s phone rang. He checked the number- the landline at home- and frowned as he answered.

“Tai?”

“It’s me, Uncle Qrow.”

“Yang? What’s up? Everything okay?” He half turned away, waving away James’ concerned look for the moment.

“Everything’s fine, I just called because Dad said to tell you to tell Mr. Ironwood that he and Penny are invited for dinner.”

“Oh, okay.” He turned to James. “Yang says Tai says you and Penny are invited for dinner.”

“Oh. That sounds nice. Of Tai.”

Qrow smirked, and said, “He says they’ll be there,” to Yang. “Tell Tai he says thanks for the invite.”

“Sure thing, Uncle Qrow!”

Once they’d hung up, Qrow shook his head. “So what did you tell Penny about us? I mean, after Sunday.”

“The truth. I said we were testing the waters to see what happened, that things were still a question mark, but a hopeful one.”

Qrow nodded, and, “Yeah, that’s about more-or-less what I told my lot.”

“So.” He drummed his fingers on the table, and got a grin from Qrow.

“Sounds like our kids both want this question mark to become a period.”

“Are you sure?” James deadpanned. “Because they’re being so subtle I couldn’t tell.”

Qrow snorted, then giggled. “God, kids, right?”

“It’s a good thing, really,” James said. “It means they’ve never had to be subtle.”

“True. My last kid was a master of subterfuge, she-“ He broke off. “Well, anyway.”

“Qrow?”

“It’s nothing.” He waved a dismissive hand. “We just don’t always succeed, and- I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder how she’s doing, that’s all. If she actually got what she needed from her next home.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No.”

A searching look, and,“Let’s talk about something else, then.”

“All right, uh,” He drummed his fingers on the table thoughtfully. “So… what have you two got planned for Christmas? Going upstate again?”

“No, we talked about it but I think we’re going to stay here. It’s our first Christmas in Vale and I’d like to spend it building new traditions. Besides, it’s the first time Glynda has family around for Christmas, since they always spend it in Vale with Snow’s family.”

“What kind of new traditions? Can one of them be coming to my and Tai’s Christmas Adam party on the twenty third?”

“Your… what?”

“Christmas Adam. You know, comes before Christmas Eve and is generally less satisfying?”

“I… I don’t…”

“God, just how gay are you?”

“What is…?”

“Don’t worry about it.” Qrow reached over and patted James’ hand. “Just be glad you’re pretty.”

James looked even more confused, and was about to express that when his own phone rang. He checked it before answering, a concerned furrow to his brow. “Winter? Is everything okay?”

“It is me, Father,” Penny said cheerily on the other end. “I simply called to ask what we were going to do for dinner.”

“Why?”

“Because- um-“ She broke off, and James heard frantic whispering in the background before she continued with, “Because Weiss is thinking about asking me over for dinner, and I need to know what my options are.”

“Oh, I see. Well Tai had invited us over to his, but if you’d like to make plans with Weiss, I’m sure we can raincheck.”

“No! I mean, um, that is quite all right. Weiss was only thinking of inviting me, and Mr. Tai already has . I can eat at Weiss’s another time. We should not disappoint Mr. Tai when he was kind enough to invite us over. Bye, Father! See you tonight.”

She hung up, and James stared stunned at his phone before slowly returning it to his pocket. Qrow raised an eyebrow at him.

“What’s up?”

“I think Penny was confirming that we were coming to yours for dinner,” he said.

Qrow shook his head, laughter tumbling out of him, and stood. “All right, come on. Let’s get you home so you can get all gussied up for our impromptu dinner date.”

James stacked their plates quickly and followed, dropping a tip in the jar and tossing their cups as he went before hurrying to catch up. “Gussied up?”

“You know, make yourself all pretty.”

“I know what gussied up is, I just mean, is it that kind of dinner?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make yourself all pretty for me.”

“Are you planning to return the favor?”

“What?” Qrow gave him an indignant look. “Are you saying I’m not pretty enough already?”

“What?” James shook his head, laughing. “How about I just put on a nice shirt and call it a night? And you can put on… another of the exact same shirt you always wear.”

“You trying to say something?”

“Do you even own other shirts?”

“What’s wrong with this shirt? Besides, all you ever wear is the same white dress shirts. Wear a t-shirt tonight, I wanna look at your arms.”

“Which one?”

Qrow halted them at that, and spun so that they were facing each other. He grabbed James’ tie and dragged him down so their lips were a breath apart, and murmured, “Both of ‘em,” before closing the distance.

The kiss was sweet and gentle; James’ hands hovered faintly over Qrow’s hips while he returned it. When they parted, the world had gone all pink and soft again, and Qrow leaned his forehead on James’ shoulder rather than let him see the soppy look that was almost certainly on his face.

“We should get going,” Qrow said softly, letting go of James’ tie. “Gotta go pick up the munchkin for dinner.”

James nodded, straightened up. “Right. I’ll see you in a little while, then.”

“Yeah. See you, pretty boy.”

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

The house smelled of frying chicken and potato salad when James and Penny arrived. Tai was there to take their coats; Penny handed hers over hurriedly before dashing off to the kitchen, leaving James and Tai behind. James shrugged out of his greatcoat with an amused look.

“What do you think they’re planning?”

“No idea,” Tai said. “But they went into a huddle when I told them to set the table.”

James was therefore not surprised when he made it into the kitchen to find that rather than their previous arrangement, which had put James in between Ruby and Nora, they had arranged it so that he and Qrow would be sitting across from one another. The end of the table, usually Qrow’s place, had been laid claim to by Nora and Penny.

“It’s more symmetrical this way,” Nora explained.

“Why do we have to sit at the end, then?” Qrow asked. “Why not put us at the other end of the table, next to Tai? That way you kids can sit with your little friend.”

This caused the children pause; their eyes darted around slightly before Penny managed a halting, “Because… because… it is… better weight distribution.”

Tai laughed. “I don’t think the house is going to collapse if you put three adults at the same end of the table.”

“I dunno,” Ruby said. “Mr. Ironwood looks pretty heavy.”

James let out a startled laugh at that. “I will have you know I am a perfectly ordinary weight for my body type,” which got a snort out of Qrow.

“How much do you weigh, then?”

“Ruby!”

Tai took Ruby’s hand and pulled her over to scold her, while James pursed his lips and, “Okay, let’s just sit at the end.”

While they were taking their seats, Qrow murmured, “Just how much do you weigh?”

“Less than you’d expect, more than they’d expect.”

Nora and Penny finished putting out the drinks and climbed up into the seats at the end, and Ruby, thoroughly chastised, climbed into the seat between James and Tai. She tugged on his sleeve, and he turned a questioning eyebrow at her.

“I’m sorry I was rude,” she mumbled.

James smiled, and reached up to give her shoulder a squeeze. “Apology accepted.”

-/-

Since Tai had cooked, it was Qrow’s turn to do the dishes. James volunteered to help again, and after another quick round of whispers, Yang and Ruby ran off shouting something about homework while Penny and Nora remained behind to help clear the table and put away food.

Qrow set a load of dishwater running and turned around, leaning on the sink with his arms folded while he watched the kids.

“All right, what’s going on?” he demanded. They halted and looked up at him, politely puzzled.

“What do you mean, Mr. Qrow?”

“I mean, I know you have homework because you told me, and I know you have homework because I gave it to you. So why aren’t you using that as an excuse to get out of dishes like your pals?”

“I’m still not clear on the problem,” Nora said. “Are you saying you don’t want us to help?”

“I’m saying it’s awfully suspicious that you’d volunteer. Come on, what’s going on?”

They exchanged guilty, shuffling glances, and Nora sighed. “It’s all right, Penny. The game is up. The truth is-”

“-that I wanted to show you that my father and I were very good at being guests, so that you would invite us over more.” Penny grabbed Nora’s shoulders, cutting her off, and added, “Nora remained behind so that it would seem less suspicious.”

Qrow raised an eyebrow, looking from one girl to the other, and then nodded, waving a dismissive hand. “Oh, is that all. Well, you don’t have to do chores just to be a good guest. Being respectful and having fun is all you really need to do- you girls go on and get your homework done now, okay? Me and Jimmy can tackle the rest of this.”

“If you are sure,” Penny said doubtfully, but Nora just grabbed her hand and pulled her away.

“Penny already did her homework after school,” James said, once they’d gone. He took over where the girls had left off on cleanup, while Qrow got back to the dishes.

“I figured, but I hate putting the kid to work when she’s a guest.”

“I’m a guest, you don’t seem to mind putting me to work.”

You’re the one that keeps volunteering. Besides, I like having you in here with me. If I let you go hang out with Tai he’ll tell you embarrassing stories about me.”

“What kind of embarrassing stories?”

Qrow turned and gave him a sharp look, then squinted. “Nice try,” he said, turning back to the sink.

“It was worth a shot.” He’d finished stacking dishes; now he started rinsing the ones that had piled up. “I think maybe I will go be a good guest. I hardly ever spend any time with Tai, I’m sure there’s loads we could talk about.”

Qrow grabbed the sprayer and held it up threateningly. “Do it and I’m spraying you. You volunteered for this, now you gotta follow through.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Yeah? I’m the guy who never grew out of my bad boy phase, remember?” He waved the sprayer tauntingly. “Don’t test me, Jimothy. I will spray you.”

-/-

Yang and Ruby abandoned their homework when Nora and Penny joined them in the living room.

“Did it work?” Ruby asked. They shook their heads.

“It just made them suspicious.”

“We may need to change our tactics, then,” Ruby said. She folded her arms thoughtfully. “So… maybe if we just work extra hard to make Mr. Ironwood think of himself as a part of our whole family? And we make sure that Nora is especially included in that.”

Yang nodded. “If Mr. Ironwood likes Nora enough, then when they get married he’d be all for adopting her.”

“So are we abandoning our separation plan?” Nora asked.

“For now,” Ruby said. “But we’ll still make sure you do lots of stuff just with Uncle Qrow, so he gets attached enough.”

They were interrupted, then, by a crash and shouting from the kitchen, followed by a shriek and “You bastard!” from Qrow. Tai emerged from his room and went to poke his head into the kitchen, the girls following behind to be nosy as well.

The kitchen was mostly cleaned, but there was a soapy frying pan lying on the floor, and James and Qrow were both dripping wet, the sprayer held in James’ hand and dribbling slightly. Tai looked from one to the other, and shook his head.

“Never mind, I don’t want to know.”

“Sorry.” Qrow glanced over at James, and added, “I’m gonna loan Jimmy something of yours while his shirt dries. That okay?”

“Sure, no problem.” He waved that away, and headed back to his room. The girls exchanged glances, and hurried back to their huddle on the couch.

“Was that a good sign or a bad one?” Ruby asked.

“They were playing,” Nora pointed out. “It’s a good sign.”

-/-

There weren’t many dishes left, but neither of them were keen on staying in wet clothes any longer, so Qrow shoved James into his room and went to grab one of Tai’s shirts from the laundry closet before following.

“We don’t actually have a drier so we’ll have to hang these up in front of the heater,” he said. As soon as the door closed behind him, a wet shirt hit him in the face, and he spluttered before yanking it away and glaring. “Thanks a lot!”

“Sorry,” James said, despite not looking even a little sorry. Before he could say anything else, Qrow had tossed his shirt back in his own face. He scrambled to pull it away, only to find Qrow had stepped into his personal space while his face was covered, and was now grinning up at him.

“Change of plans,” Qrow said, taking the shirt from him and tossing both it and the dry one aside. “Why don’t we forget about shirts and make out instead?”

-/-

Ruby and Nora were finished with their homework relatively quickly; though Yang still had a few math problems to get through, she set them aside so they could hang out instead.

“I’ll just do them in homeroom if I don’t finish them tonight,” she said, and shrugged.

Penny had been sitting on the floor with Ruby, helping her with her spelling, but now she climbed up beside Nora instead.

“Nora, earlier today Yang pointed out that if our plans work, you and I will be sisters.”

Nora beamed, and threw her arms around Penny’s shoulders. “Did you just now realize that, silly? I’ve known it all along!”

“I think I sort of knew it?” Penny pulled her knees up and settled into Nora’s embrace. “Do you want to be sisters? I never asked.”

“Of course I do! Penny, you’re gonna be the best sister there ever was! No offense, you two.”

“That’s okay,” Ruby said cheerily. “I know how to accept someone else’s opinion is wrong without needing to convince them.”

-/-

They had started off making out, but Qrow seemed to have gotten bored with that and pushed James back onto the unfolded futon. Now he was perched on James hips, running his hands over the bare expanse of metal and skin laid out before him.

James had been hesitant about this part, but Qrow seemed to be paying equal attention to both sides of his body, and he’d relaxed quite a bit at that. But he wanted to get back to the part where he was an active participant, so he propped himself up on one elbow and took Qrow’s hand in his free one, pulling him forward so they could go back to kissing.

“I feel like I’m a romance novel,” Qrow said, once they parted.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, and it’s being written by a really thirsty bastard who loves to draw attention to how sexy you are.”

“How meta,” James murmured, and pulled him in again.

-/-

“I think everyone thinks their sister is the best sister,” Penny finally said. “I have asked, and everyone has said the same thing.”

“Not everyone,” Yang said. “Uncle Qrow and his sister don’t get along at all .”

“I thought that his sister passed away?” Penny asked. “Or… does he have more than one sister?”

“No, my mom is the one who passed away,” Ruby explained. “Yang’s mom is Uncle Qrow’s sister- and he really hates her.”

Yang folded her arms and slumped back on the couch. “She hasn’t exactly done anything to make herself likeable,” she grumbled.

“Dad says she’s got lots of redeeming qualities.”

“Dad’s biased.”

“It’s a sore subject,” Nora explained, while Ruby patted Yang’s shoulder consolingly. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“Ooh, I know!” Ruby held up one hand. “Let’s talk about which of our Christmas traditions we can involve Penny and Mr. Ironwood in!”

-/-

They had shifted again, because Qrow had finally got around to shedding his own damp shirt and James had decided he was the one leading the romance novel here. He had Qrow pinned half under him, and it was his turn to explore, the highly-sensitive pads in his fingertips feeding him more information than his living hand ever could.

Such as, for example, the fact that there was a tense knot of muscle under his hand.

“I have a thought,” he murmured, and waited till Qrow was looking him in the eye before flicking one of his internal switches. There was a moment before he got a reaction, and then Qrow practically purred and melted against him.

“One of your surprises?”

“Temperature regulation. It has some unforeseen uses when I have a partner to enjoy it.”

Qrow hummed pleasantly and leaned into the warmth pooling on his back.“What else you got in there?”

“Well, there is…” Another switch, and suddenly Qrow squirmed against him, giggling as he tried to get away. James pulled his hand away and cut the motors. “Qrow?”

“Why-“ He glared, panting a little. “ Why has your hand got a vibrate function?”

James just smirked at that, and leaned in so that his breath was hot on Qrow’s ear when he murmured, “I think the question you should be asking is what else do I have that has a vibrate function?”

Qrow went still, breath hitching in his throat. He let the air out slowly. “Not that I’m complaining,” he said hoarsely, “but where is this going? Last time we were together you seemed like you weren’t ready.”

James considered this, and sat up, putting some space between them. “I admit I was hesitant the other day,” he said slowly. “Overwhelmed, stunned, unsure…”

Qrow sat up, mirroring his position. “Yeah?”

“But I don’t feel any of those things now. Honestly the only thing that’s holding me back right now is that my daughter has a bedtime, and I don’t like the idea of running out after all is said done.”

“What a gentleman.” Qrow smirked, and covered James’ hand with his own. “Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t we call it a night here, and then make some proper plans? There’s the tree lighting Friday, right? Afterward, how about we go out for a real date? Dinner, walk in the park to look at the lights, then we find a hotel or something to head back to and…” He trailed off and gave James a suggestive look. “You can leave Penny here, if you don’t want to find a sitter for her overnight. We can, aha, get to know each other . And by that I mean, I can make friends with your metal dick.”

-/-

The girls were watching cartoons with Tai when James came in, shirt still damp. He’d assured Qrow it was fine, that his temperature regulators would keep him from getting cold, and Qrow had eventually relented.

“Penny, it’s time to go,” he said.

Tai leaned his head back on the couch to look at him. “So do you just come over to see Qrow now?” He frowned at the blush crawling up James’ neck, and snorted. “Never mind, don’t answer that.”

“Sorry. Come on, Penny, you’ve got school tomorrow and it’s already after your bedtime.”

“I am coming, Father.”

She’d unfolded herself from the small pile of children the kids had worked themselves into, and joined him in collecting their coats. She waved at them.

“Goodbye, I will see you all tomorrow. Thank you for having us, Mr. Tai.”

“No problem, you guys are welcome here any time. I mean, the way things are going you’re practically family anyway.”

He’d said it jokingly, idly, but the way the color drained from four faces at once sent up alarm claxons in all three adults. James threw his coat on and draped an arm around Penny, a little nervous suddenly, and steered her out to the car with a hesitant goodbye trailing after him.

Once they were gone, Qrow and Tai turned their attention to their own girls, who were all suddenly interested in their hands.

“I knew you kids were up to something,” Qrow said. He folded his arms. “All right, out with it.”

It was Ruby who broke the silence. “...we really like Penny,” she mumbled. “And you like Mr. Ironwood so much that we thought…” She shrugged, and mumbled something incoherent.

Qrow sighed, and sat down beside her on the couch. She crawled over to curl into his side, looking up at him with big, innocent eyes. He looped an arm around her, looked to the other two as well.

“Listen, guys… you can’t just go interfering with someone’s love life like that. You’re right, I really do like Jimmy, a lot, but we’ve only known each other for a little while and we need to take time to see how things go. He’s still getting used to dating again and I ain’t exactly the king of committed relationships, this is tricky ground for both of us. We need to be free to explore it together, without being pushed.”

“But it’s been like… two months,” Ruby protested. “That’s forever.”

“He’s right, though,” Tai said, sitting on their other side. Yang scooched over to make room. “Relationships take time, and they need to take that time without pressure- especially in cases like James’. This is probably all really scary for him.”

“Are you sure you’re not projecting?” Yang asked.

“More like speaking from a place of experience,” he said, nudging her a little. “I know you all have your hearts in the right place, but this is something you’ll have to stay out of.”

“We just want you to be happy,” Nora said. She’d pulled her knees up to her chest; with Ruby with Qrow on one side and Yang with Tai on the other, there was no one left for her to cuddle up to.

“I am happy,” Qrow said. “But James and I both come with a lot of baggage, and we need to take time to sort that baggage out together. And even if we didn’t, relationships still take time to build.”

“But it’s Christmas,” Ruby pointed out. “What about all those movies where people fall in love at Christmas and live happily ever after?”

“This ain’t a story, kiddo. These things need work. Listen. Maybe things’ll work out with James. From where I’m standing I really kinda hope they do. And I’m really glad you kids are so for the idea, because the last thing I wanna do is date someone any of you are uncomfortable with. But you gotta let this happen on its own. Okay? For my sake, I need you to stay out of it.”

He looked from one to the other, catching each one’s eye.

“Promise me, okay?”

They all nodded, and murmured their promises. He sighed.

“All right. Run along, then, it’s past your bedtimes and you’ve all got school tomorrow.”

-/-

The ride home was silent and uncomfortable. Penny kept sneaking looks at James, but by his expression he seemed miles away. When they made it to the house, she trudged along the walk behind him, staring down at her shoes while he unlocked the house and they went inside.

“You are angry at me,” she said quietly, once they were inside. James paused in hanging up his coat.

“...I’m not angry,” he said. “I’m just… confused. You’ve never been the kind of girl to meddle in other's business- so why now?”

Penny stayed staring at her shoes, and shrugged. “I am tired of you being lonely,” she finally mumbled. “You need someone to love you.”

“Penny…” He sighed; touched soft fingers to his forehead and shook his head. “Sweetheart, I have plenty of people to love me. Qrow… could be one of them. But it’s something that I need to find out at my own pace, without you and your friends pushing me too fast into something that I’m only barely ready for.”

Another half-hearted shrug. “I just want you to be happy.”

“I am happy, Peanut,” he said softly.

He held out his hands and she took them hesitantly, letting him lift her up. She clung to him then, laying her head on his shoulder and letting him hold her.

“I miss Daddy,” she finally said. He sighed.

“I know. I miss him too. Every day.”

-/-

It was late, after midnight, when Tai shuffled sleepily out of his room. He stopped halfway to the kitchen when he saw Qrow huddled on the couch in the dark, staring at the tree with an empty mug in his hands. Tai detoured over to his brother instead, sitting beside him and draping his arm over the back of the couch.

Qrow responded to the wordless invitation on autopilot and shifted over to lean on him, twisting and burying his face in Tai’s shoulder with a sigh. Tai dropped his arm around Qrow’s shoulder instead.

“You wanna talk about it?”

“I’m scared, Tai. What’s gonna happen when James finds out what I’m really like?”

“What do you mean what you’re really like?” Tai shifted, taking the mug from Qrow’s hands and setting it aside, then resting his chin on Qrow’s head. “You’re not pretending to be anything you’re not. You’re a good man, Qrow. Just because you forget to act like it sometimes doesn’t change that.”

Qrow didn’t say anything to that, so Tai didn’t either. They just sat in silence, watching the slow pulse of lights until Qrow finally dozed off.

-/-

“So you got busted, huh?” was the hot gossip on the playground the next day. Sun dropped down to hang upside down so he could talk to them. “That’s rough. Does that mean that you’re giving up on your plans?”

“Yeah,” Ruby sighed, at the same time Nora said, “No way!”

They looked at each other. Ruby frowned.

“Nora, we promised…”

“We promised we’d let it happen on its own,” Nora said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t… make sure there’s no interference. We just have to be more careful that we don’t get caught, that’s all.”

“But we promised!”

“I know, but… but I can’t think of anything else.”

Ruby sighed. “Okay. No interference, we just stop other interference?”

“Yeah.”

“All right. We’ll keep working, then.”

“Thanks, Ruby.”

“You know,” Sun said, folding his arms. “Not to sound like Ren, but you could just ask.”

“I’m not going to ask, Sun! He’ll say no for sure. They always do. It’s too expensive- or maybe there’s a chance your parents will come back for you- or they have so many more kids to take care of- or, or, or . It has to be his idea!”

“Okay, okay!” He held up his hands defensively. “It was just a suggestion.”

Ruby turned back to Nora. “Have you asked Uncle Qrow about doing the Secret Santa together?”

“Not yet. I was going to last night but, um.” She shrugged.

Beside them, Sun tried to pull himself up and fell with a thump, stirring up dust. “Ow.” He let out a long groan before pulling himself up to his feet. “What’s that about the Secret Santa?”

“Nora’s gonna try to do it with Uncle Qrow this year, instead of all of us doing it as a household.”

“Oh, that’s really smart.”

“Does your family do the Secret Santa, Sun?”

“Yeah, but this year me and my brothers are gonna do it together, without our moms. They already said it was okay. My brother’s got some money leftover from counselor training up at the camp this summer, so we’re gonna use that.”

“Is your baby brother going to help?”

“Yeah, we’re gonna narrow it down together and then let him pick between the last two choices.”

-/-

That night, Qrow was sprawled out on his bed trying to make sense of Sun’s composition homework when Nora knocked softly on his door. He set his glasses and the papers aside and called entry tiredly.

“Hey kiddo,” he said, sitting up and stretching. “What’s up?”

She climbed up to sit next to him. “I was thinking,” she began.

“Yeah?”

“Ruby says you guys always do the Secret Santa together, as a household.”

“Yeah.”

“I was thinking,” she repeated. “You think, maybe, could we, you and me, I mean, could we do our own? Together? Just us?”

He raised an eyebrow. “I guess we could do that, yeah. Why?”

“Well it’s just…” She wiggled her feet restlessly. “...I really miss doing stuff with you. We used to do stuff, just us stuff, and then lately it’s like we always have to have Ruby and Yang with us. And I love Ruby and Yang! But sometimes I want you all to myself.” She chanced a glance at him. “Is that selfish? They were here first.”

“It’s not selfish to want time with someone all your own,” Qrow said. He considered the past few months, and gave her a sheepish smile. “I guess I have been kinda neglecting our time together lately.”

“There’s been a lot going on.”

“Yeah, and you’ve been right in the thick of it, too.” He reached over to ruffle her hair. “Tell you what- after I get home Saturday, it’ll just be me and you, okay? I’ll float you some cash and take you Christmas shopping, or we can go to the rink and go ice skating, or something else- up to you. What do you think?”

“I think that sounds perfect ,” she said, and then frowned. “Wait, when you get home from where?”

Qrow gulped, and rubbed the back of his neck, cheeks pink. He hadn’t meant to mention that part. “Well, uh… I’ve got a date with Jimmy Friday night. We’re, uh, having a sleepover. So I won’t be home till Saturday.”

“Grownups have sleepovers ?”

“Oh yeah, absolutely. And the best part of being a grownup is you don’t have to ask anyone permission to have one, either. Unless you count having to hire a sitter. Does that count? Unless they’re your Uncle Tai they’re getting paid. Pretty sure that doesn’t count.”

“Why doesn’t Uncle Tai get paid?”

“He gets paid in having me for a brother.”

“Wow, that is a really good payment.”

Qrow snorted, and caught her in a playful headlock. He noogied her gently. “All right, squirt, what are you fishing for?”

She giggled and squirmed away from him, shaking her hair down flat. “Nothing! Really! I just think if I was Uncle Tai and I was gonna have a brother, I’d totally pick you!”

He gave her a disbelieving look and folded his arms. “Uh-huh. And?”

“...can I have a puppy?”

Qrow laughed and slapped his forehead. “I knew it! You only love me for my ability to buy dogs!”

“Nooo! That’s not true at all!” She pounce-hugged him, and then said, quietly, “...Blake said her parents are getting Ilia a pet.”

Qrow’s breath hitched. “Ah- look, kiddo… why don’t we… let’s talk about this after Christmas, okay? Now’s not- not the best time. Okay?”

Her grin faltered, and faded. She sat back. “O-oh. Yeah. Okay. After Christmas. Yeah.” She slid off of the bed and shuffled a little. “I’ll, um, I have to, I have homework.”

She fled, then. There was no other word for it. Once she was gone, Qrow stood and headed out his back door, stopping himself from slamming it behind him and alerting the whole house. Outside, he buried his hands in his hair and leaned back to groan at the moon, then hauled off and kicked the wall as hard as he could.

“Coward,” he snarled, and then swore at his bruised toes and limped back inside.

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

On Friday, James met them at the house, but they only stayed long enough to drop off Penny’s overnight bag and throw James' and Qrow's into James' car before they were all piling into Tai’s van to head out to the lighting. James had been given shotgun on his guest status, so Qrow was in the back with the kids. James glanced over at Tai.

“Thanks for watching Penny for me tonight,” he said.

“No problem. I know how hard it is to get away for a night when you’ve got kids to consider.” His phone started buzzing, and he glanced down at it on the console. “Oh- Qrow, can you get that? It’s mom.”

“Sure.” Qrow grabbed the phone. “Hey, Ma, what’s up?” He was silent for a moment, and, “Uh, now may not be the best time to talk about this, we’re in a van full of munchkins. ...Yeah, no problem. ...Sure, I’ll call you back later. ...Sure, I’ll tell him. Love you too.”

He hung up and returned the phone to the console. Tai raised an eyebrow at him in the mirror.

“Was she calling about the special present?”

“Yeah. She’s free next weekend, so if one of us feels like making the drive down we can pick it up.”

“What special present?” Ruby said. “What is it? Tell us!”

Qrow winked. “No way, kiddo, that’ll ruin the surprise. You’ll see next week. Tai?”

“You know if only one of us goes she’ll complain about not seeing the other one.”

“She’s seeing us over New Year’s. And for Pop’s birthday next month. And for Chinese New Year the month after that. She can handle only one of us for a short visit.”

“You just don’t want to make a ten-hour round trip in one day,” Tai accused. Qrow folded his arms.

“I don’t think I can be blamed for that, not when five of those hours are gonna be spent with- uh-.” He broke off. “Well, the you-know-what.”

“Fine, I’ll go. You can have child duty. Invite James, I know you’re going to.”

“Question,” James said, because it seemed like a good opening. Qrow winked at him.

“I’ll tell you later, when the kids aren’t around.”

“Aww, why does he get to know?” Ruby demanded.

“Nepotism.”

"Not fair!"

"It's nepotism, it's not supposed to be fair."

“All right, enough, we’re here.” Tai had pulled into the parking lot across the road; they climbed out of the van, and James took a good look at the church for the first time.

It was, in the most generic sense, a church, one of the big fancy ones, but for now the scene was dominated by the enormous tree on the front lawn. It was for the time being only lit by the light pouring from the front porch, where helpers were handing out cocoa, but even from here he could see the darkened decorations.

A tiny hand settled in his and he looked down to see Penny. He gave it a squeeze.

“Feeling shy?”

“There are lots of people here.”

“Sure are. I bet you know a lot of them, though. Look, see? There’s your friend Jaune, and Pyrrha too. And Ren.”

“Where?”

“There, see? Nora is running toward him.” He pointed at Nora, and then followed the line of her path to where Ren was facing away, talking to Jaune and Pyrrha. He saw the realization on both of their faces, but it was too late to warn Ren when Nora pounced, tackling Ren to the ground. Penny giggled.

“Aunt Glynda says she cannot imagine why they are friends.”

“What do you think?”

“I think that Ren loves Nora very much .”

They began making their way across the road, following behind the others. He paused to check the traffic, but the side street between the church and parking lot was dead. They hurried across and rejoined their group.

“I am going to go play with my friends,” Penny said, letting go of his hand and hurrying off to join some of the other children, a few of whom he didn’t even recognize. It occurred to him that Penny had made more friends than he’d had a chance to meet, and a smile touched his lips- she was settling in so beautifully here in Vale.

He was startled out of his thoughts by another hand slipping into his, this one much bigger, and more calloused as well. He looked down to see Qrow at his side, trying to hold two styrofoam cups in one.

“I thought this would be cute, but actually I’m in real danger of spilling cocoa on myself,” Qrow said. James came to his rescue by grabbing one with his free hand, and Qrow shifted his grip on his own. “There, and I didn’t even have to let go of your hand.”

“So how long until the lighting?”

“Bout half an hour. They’re taking time for fellowship right now, and the children’s choir will do their singing soon as the director can get a handle on ‘em- kids, you know? Hard to organize.”

“Said the teacher.”

“Look, I have a rewarding and fulfilling job that I wouldn’t give up for anything, but if you think that means I can’t admit it’s hell wrangling kids then you’re wrong.” He swapped topics then, with, “So where are you taking me tonight for our fancy dinner date?”

“La Restaurant Elegante,” James said.

“Bless you.”

“It’s French.”

“I know, your pronunciation is shit.” He finished off his cocoa and moved to fold his hands behind his head instead. “So you’re taking me to a fancy French restaurant?”

“I thought it might be nice. It’s also on the other side of the park from L’hotel Elegant,” he added.

“That really fancy hotel? And that park that’s lit up like a damn fairy wonderland for the season?”

“The same.”

“So, what, we eat, walk through the park to the hotel, and have our sleepover?”

“That’s the plan.”

“I like that plan.”

“I thought you might.” James finished his own cocoa, and took both of their cups to throw away. “We’ll stop by the hotel on the way to the restaurant, check in and drop off our overnight bags, then there’ll be no reason to wait around for check in when we get there.”

“Thought of everything, have you?”

“I was a boy scout, you know. Always be prepared.”

“Oh? What else are you prepared for?”

“I’m prepared to find out if you really have an intimately placed tattoo.”

“Oooh, I like the sound of that search.”

-/-

Tai had Ruby perched on his shoulders when a voice in the crowd called out to him. He sighed and turned around.

“Tai, baby!” the voice said. “And you’ve got Little Red with you too. Hey, Little Red. Enjoying the festivities?”

“Hi, Roman,” Tai said, while Ruby added a shy, “Yes,” alongside.

“So how’ve you been, sunshine?” Roman said, looping an arm through Tai’s free one. “Life treating you well? Got that tenure or whatever at the college? Questioning your sexuality yet?”

Tai sighed. “No, Roman, I’m still straight.”

“Are you sure? Not even a little bi-curious? Heteroflexible? No?”

“Roman, I promise. If I ever decide to try dating men, you’ll be the first to know.”

“I’ll be holding you to that,” he pouted. He turned his attention to Ruby. “Why are you there, instead of off playing with your little friends? Pretty sure I saw that weird monkey boy a minute ago.”

“I wanted to hang out with my dad,” she chirped. “Besides, someone has to be here to cuddleblock you.”

Roman blinked, stunned. “To- I’m sorry, to what ?”

“Cuddleblock. You know, when you want to cuddle someone, but someone else gets in the way.”

Roman still looked stunned. “Where did you learn…?”

While they were talking, Qrow and James ambled up. Roman turned his attention to them, and when he spotted James, his face split into a wide grin.

“Hell oooo ,” he said. “You must be James. Heard loads.”

James raised an eyebrow. “Going on the voice, you must be Torchwick.”

“Oh, my reputation precedes me.” He waggled his eyebrows. “I can see why Qrow has been keeping you from me, you’re even more handsome in person.”

“Stop hitting on every man I introduce you to,” Qrow said, scowling. “It’s rude.”

“It’s not my fault you’re a magnet for every hot guy in a twelve mile radius. Besides, you’re such a heartbreaker it pays to lay the groundwork.” He turned his attention to James. “You would not believe the number of men I’ve had to console after he spends an evening flirting with them and then just leaves . It’s honestly disgraceful.”

“The world will remember your sacrifice,” Qrow said drily, while James asked, “Is there a point to this?”

“Just making sure you know where to find me, stud.” He patted James’ chest and grinned. “When Qrow here disappoints you, just give me a call.”

“Don’t touch me.”

“Ooh, ice cold! Thawing you out is going to be fun. Well, I’ll leave you alone then. See you, baby bird.”

He sauntered away, and Qrow turned a sidelong glance at James. “He stuck his card in your pocket,” he said, and reached up to take it out. It was a playing card, a two of hearts, and there was a phone number scribbled on it. Qrow sighed. “Sorry about him.”

“He was propositioning Dad before you got here,” Ruby said. Three pairs of eyes widened.

“Uh, sweetheart?” Tai said. “Do you know what propositioning means? In this context?”

“It’s when grown-ups offer to kiss and cuddle each other, duh.” At their relieved looks, she added, “That’s right, right?”

“Oh yes.”

“Absolutely.”

“Completely correct.”

-/-

They did finally manage to get the choir started, a dozen kids in robes singing slightly off-key on the front steps. Weiss was among them; Ruby waved frantically until Weiss glanced her way, but she couldn’t respond properly while she was singing. Ruby sighed happily and leaned on Tai’s head.

“Isn’t Weiss so cool? I want her to be my best friend.”

“I thought Sun was your best friend.”

Ruby wrinkled her nose at that. “Um, no? Sun is Neptune’s best friend. He and I just have a close, mutually fulfilling friendship that is, despite what rumor suggests, absolutely not a crush.”

She folded her arms at that, and Qrow’s eyebrows raised; he looked genuinely surprised. “So you don’t have a crush on Sun?”

Ruby looked exasperated. “Uncle Qrow, I’m nine . I’ve got, like, four years before I start caring about boys. Can I please just have this?”

Qrow raised his hands defensively. “All right, all right. Sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed.”

On the porch, the singing had stopped and the reverend had approached the podium. They could see Winter behind him; when Ruby waved at her she looked resolutely away, causing Ruby to pout and slump over on Tai’s head.

“Weiss says Winter is the best, but I don’t think she likes me very much.”

“That’s cause you’re too much like me,” Qrow said.

“Are we a lot alike?” Ruby asked.

“You two are so much alike people sometimes assume you’re his when we’re all out together,” Tai answered.

“Well that’s dumb,” Ruby said, folding her arms and pouting. “How could anyone not realize you’re my dad?”

“Cause you look like your mom,” Qrow said, “and not very much like your dad at all. And since Summer and I had some superficial resemblances, that means you technically look more like me than your dad. At least, superficially,” he added. “Things like hair and eye color, build, that kind of thing. Oh, sounds like he’s nearly done preaching. Where’re the others?”

“They’re over there,” Ruby said, pointing over to their left. She craned up as high as she could get and waved until she got their attention, then beckoned them over. Only a few moments later, Yang, Nora, and Penny joined them.

“There you are, Ruby,” Yang said. “Have you been with Dad this whole time?”

“Yes. It was nice. Mr. Torchwick tried to proposition Dad, and then he tried to proposition Mr. Ironwood. But I don’t think they were interested.”

“It is nearly time to light the tree,” Penny said. She took James’ hand and gave him an imploring look. “Father, will you lift me up? So that I can see?”

“Sure.” He lifted her onto his shoulders; she and Ruby high-fived, nearly throwing both parents off balance.

It was nearly time. The lights were dimming, the reverend was calling for a brief moment of silence, Winter was stepping into place-

-the yard was completely dark, now, and Qrow felt Nora move closer to him. He looped his arm around her and let her lean into him, rubbing his thumb in soft, gentle circles on her shoulder.

Soft singing began nearby, gradually growing louder until it reached a comfortable background volume, O Holy Night drifting over and around them, and then it began. Lights, crawling long a series of cables until they reached the tree, which itself lit up in layers until, after a breath of anticipation, the star on top burst into life.

A soft ohhhhh came from the crowd, and then the other lights began coming on, dim compared to before, now that the tree was dominating.

A spell had come over the crowd, but now it was slowly dissipating, and people were milling around again. Penny leaned happily on James’ head.

“That was so lovely,” she said. “I would like to come see it again next year.”

“I think we could probably arrange that.”

Beside them, Qrow hoisted Nora up onto his back. “Come on, kiddo, let’s go find the table for the Secret Santa. We don’t wanna take too long and all of them be gone.”

“I don’t think there’s a danger of running out,” Nora said, while they trailed into the crowd.

James leaned his head back slightly, and Penny leaned forward so she could look at him.

“Penny, would you like to do the Secret Santa?”

“Oh, yes, Father, can we?” She settled back down. “We have so much. We should try to use that to make someone else happy too.”

A proud smile touched James’ lips- he must be doing something right, if that was her attitude- and he began making his way toward the tree, where a table had been set up and others were beginning to converge as well.

Among the various decorations on the tree, there were several folded cards; people were taking turns selecting them, and then taking their selection to the table to write down who they got.

There were a lot of families in the group; Ren’s father caught his eye, and there was Sun as well, leaning impatiently on his older brother while one of his mothers stood nearby with their baby brother, waiting. He joined the cluster waiting their turn at the tree and found himself next to a woman he thought might be Blake’s mother, judging by the resemblance and also the presence of Blake and Ilia at her side.

“Oh, hi,” she said cheerily. “You must be James and Penny- heard loads.”

“You and everyone else,” he said, amused. “I keep hearing that every time I meet anyone new these days.”

“Admittedly we’ve heard more about Penny than you,” she said. “But Qrow does like talking about you. I’m Kali Belladonna.”

“I’ve heard a little bit about you, too,” he said. He tilted his head back to indicate Penny. “ Someone seems to think her friend getting a pet means she should get one too.”

“I just pointed out that Ilia is not very much older than me, and she is old enough for a pet.”

“We’re not getting a parrot, Penny.”

“But they are pretty.”

“They also take a lot of care,” Kali said. “You’re basically committing to taking care of a toddler for the next thirty years or so- assuming you take proper care of it.”

Penny looked intrigued. “Really?”

“Yes. Parrots are pets for people who’ve never raised an animal before. If you want to convince your father you’re old enough for a pet, you should try for a starter pet instead.”

“Like a fish?” James suggested. “A nice quiet fish?”

“Well, fish are a lot higher maintenance than people think, but if you’re willing to put in the time and effort they can be very rewarding pets. But for a first pet, a cat or a nice social breed of dog is your best bet. They’re just as much work as any other pet, but it’s easier to find resources since they’re so common.”

James glanced up at Penny. “Are you sure you don’t want a nice quiet fish or two? Or something that won’t… wander around the house getting into things? And will stay in one place?”

Kali laughed. “You don’t like animals in the house, do you?”

“It’s not my favorite.”

“I hope you can talk her into a fish, then.” She rested a hand on Ilia’s shoulder. “This one decided to get a chameleon, so now we’re learning about chameleon care together before we get one.”

Penny’s eyes widened in delight. “A chameleon?”

“We’re not getting a chameleon.” James turned back to Kali. “You know a lot about animal care.”

“Animals are a hobby of mine. Ghira and I have had lots of pets since we got married, usually rescues-though you can’t beat a nice cat in terms of pets, at least that’s how I feel.”

“Cats are nice,” Penny said. “I like birds better, though.”

“Consider getting a pigeon or a chicken, then. They’re sweet and rewarding, and they don’t require nearly as much care as a parrot.”

“A chicken doesn’t sound so bad,” James said hesitantly.

“Oh, oh, can we get a chicken?”

James glanced up again, and sighed. “...we’ll talk about it after Christmas.”

Penny beamed, and pumped her fist happily, nearly overbalancing her father again. “I will take it!”

-/-

Qrow had to set Nora down when they joined the crowd, but once it was their turn to select a name he lifted her up again, letting her choose the card that she liked best. She selected one with a horse and sleigh on the front, and they stepped off to join the queue for the sign-in. Nora opened their card and held it up to the light.

“Our kid’s name is Emerald,” she said. “That’s a pretty name!”

“Emerald, huh? What does she want?”

“She lists her options as a coat, or pajamas, or a necklace (or similar) that serves no purpose but to be pretty.”

“I think we can manage at least one of those things,” Qrow said. “What do you think?”

“I think if we buy things secondhand, we can get her both a coat and pajamas, or we could get her something brand new just for her but only one thing.”

“Pretty sound logic,” Qrow agreed. “We’ll figure it out tomorrow while we’re shopping, okay?”

-/-

Penny took several minutes trying to choose their name, before finally settling on a card depicting the northern lights. She held it up for James to open once they were away from the crowd; his eyes skimmed over it, and he ‘hmm’ed thoughtfully.

“Father?” Penny asked. He glanced down at her.

“His name’s Mercury,” he said. “All his list says is ‘boy clothes’ and then his measurements. What do you think?”

They exchanged a look, and Penny smiled. “I think we should make sure to get him the most boyish clothes we can.”

“That sounds like a plan.”

-/-

It was Yang’s turn to pick their name this year, and after some deliberation she chose a pretty sunrise scene. While they stood in line, Yang flipped it open, while Ruby craned around her to see it herself.

“It says her name is Cinder,” Yang said. “She says she wants a music player, or dress shoes, or for the revolution to come and burn everything to the ground.” She looked up, and then back to the list. “But that part has ‘lol’ next to it so I’m pretty sure it’s a joke.”

Tai smiled. “Your uncle used to talk like that. She must be an older kid.”

Ruby craned up to see again. “It says here she’s fourteen.”

“Sounds about right.”

-/-

There wasn’t anything left now that the tree was lit. The crowd for the Secret Santa had dispersed apart from the odd straggler, and the sign-in table was down to one attendant. The cocoa was starting to run out as well, so people were beginning to migrate back to the parking lot. Qrow and Nora were already at the van when the others got there, and then only a moment or two later James and Penny arrived as well.

For the ride back, the kids chattered about their Secret Santa selections, comparing notes on their assigned child.

“Our child is named Mercury,” Penny said.

Qrow looked baffled. “Who names their kid Mercury?”

“...asked Qrow,” James added.

Qrow and Tai both snorted.

“You don’t know the half of it, pal,” Qrow said. He held up a hand and ticked off on his fingers. “I’m Qrow- my sister’s name is Raven, our parents are Jackdaw and Merla, and our uncle was Jay- Branwen .”

“So you’re…”

“Crow Mc… sodding Crow, yes. Got a problem with that, Tinman?”

He looked grumpy, so James inclined his head in concession, and then added, “Wait, I thought your sister’s name was Summer.”

The temperature in the van dropped by about twenty degrees at that, and he saw Tai give Qrow a warning look in the mirror. Qrow huffed irritably and folded his arms, slouching down in his seat.

“I wish,” he muttered. “Been better off than with my real sister.”

“Qrow and Raven don’t get along,” Tai said, and Qrow muttered, “Understatement,” under his breath in response. Tai gave him another warning look.

“I’ve been married twice,” Tai explained, before Qrow could start commenting again. “First time was Qrow’s sister, second time was to Summer. You didn’t hear wrong, you just didn’t have all the facts.”

Qrow didn’t respond to that, just sulked even harder, and Tai gave James a helpless shrug before turning his attention back to the road.

By the time they’d reached the house, Qrow had at least stopped sulking, though he was staring out into space and looking less than stellar overall. He shook himself out of it enough to scoop Nora up and carry her to the door.

“Jimmy and I are taking off now, but I promise, tomorrow is gonna be all about me and you, okay? And we’ll- we’ll reopen that dog conversation. Maybe. We’ll see.”

“Really?!”

“Y-yeah… but just a conversation, okay? I’m not promising anything.” A beat, and, “Aw, don’t look at me like that, kiddo, you know I can’t handle those big ol’ eyes of yours.” He set her down. “Go on, I gotta get going.”

“Okay. Good night, have fun at your sleepover.” She headed toward the house, but stopped as she passed by James, on his way out from saying good night to Penny. She beckoned him down so he could hear her, and planted her hands on her hips. “I expect you to be a perfect gentleman tonight, understand?”

James bit back a laugh and rested his hand over his heart. “Oh my honor, I’ll be on my best behavior.”

She nodded, satisfied, and turned to go in, but then she paused and added, “And make sure he goes to bed early. He’s got a big day tomorrow.”

James had to cover his mouth to hold in the laugh that threatened to get out, and nodded solemnly. He turned, startled to find that Qrow had slipped into his personal space while he was turned away. Qrow smirked up at him.

“Hear that, Jimmy? You gotta get me into bed early. You promised. And you don’t want to go disappointing my kid, do you?”

James grinned, and caught Qrow’s chin in a gentle hold so he could lean in for a soft kiss. “Never,” he murmured. “Want to head out now?”

“I mean we could keeping standing out here making out on my front lawn if that suits you. Also just f-y-i, the kids’ bedrooms look out over the yard, and they’re a nosy bunch. Just saying.”

James stiffened at that, and Qrow laughed and caught his hand, pushing it down gently.

“Come on, Jimmy, we’ve got reservations.”

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

Dinner was nice. James mangled several more French pronunciations, to Qrow’s delight, and Qrow tried to show off his French-language skills only to have it turn out all he knew were profanities (though the waiter did compliment his ability to swear creatively, at least). By the time they left the restaurant, they were feeling content and sated.

The park was lit up, as Qrow had said, like a fairy wonderland. At first they walked hand-in-hand, but after only a few moments Qrow had to take his hand back so he could talk- he was currently in the middle of a story about Nora’s attempt to make him breakfast in bed for his last birthday (the reason for her stove ban), and James kept glancing over at him with an incredibly soft and pink expression.

“-and I mean, we put the fire out eventually, and the cats will eventually regrow most of their fur, but- uh…” He trailed off. “What’s that look for?”

James’ smile grew, if possible, even more soft. “Qrow, are you aware you’ve spent almost our entire date talking about Nora?”

“Have I?” His cheeks colored. He shoved his hands into his pockets. “I mean, okay, so what? You wanna fight about it?”

James just shook his head, still smiling. “No. I think it’s sweet.”

“You calling me sweet, pal? You think I’m sweet? That what you think?”

James stopped, and tugged Qrow around so they were facing each other. He cupped the back of Qrow’s head, smoothed fingers into hair drowning in product*, and leaned down to kiss him again, then murmured, “Yes,” against his lips.

Qrow swooned, honest to god swooned. His knees wobbled; he was glad James was holding him up. “W-well… don’t.”

Another kiss, another murmur. “Okay. If you insist.”

“Oh, god ,” Qrow mumbled, then threw his arms around James’ neck and dragged him down for a much deeper kiss. “Hey,” he mumbled as they parted. “Is that a revolver in your pocket, or are you as desperate to get to our room as I am?”

-/-

The room was not particularly fancy, since they were only going to be there the one night, but James had sprung for a room with a view of the park and the city beyond, lit up magnificently against the clear night. Qrow wandered over to the window and looked out while James put up the do-not-disturb hanger and locked the door.

“Gorgeous,” Qrow said, and then glanced back at James. “This is the part where you say ‘yeah’ while clearly looking at me, by the way.”

James snorted. “This isn’t a romance novel, Qrow.”

“True. If it was, we’d have already banged ages ago.” He moved over to his bag and grabbed a toothbrush and toothpaste. “Be right back.”

He disappeared into the bathroom, while James sat down on the end of the bed to take his boots off. Qrow returned while he was unlacing the second, and as soon as it hit the floor Qrow caught his shoulders and pushed him back, pinning him down and leaning in for a kiss.

“So about that search for my tattoo,” he murmured.

-/-

James did find Qrow’s tattoo, eventually. It was a bird- a crow, probably- done in white ink on the inside of his thigh, and it wasn’t in a place anyone Qrow referred to as his brother had any chance of finding it. James pressed a kiss to it when he found it.

“Find something you like?” Qrow asked. He propped himself up on his elbows. “Oh, you found my bird.”

“It’s nice,” James said. “Very intimate.”

“That was the idea.” He shifted and hooked his leg over James’ shoulder. “Now. Not to imply that I’m not enjoying all this attention, but I can’t help noticing that while I am down to my underwear, all you have done is untuck your shirt. And while an untucked shirt is indeed pretty scandalous… I’d really rather you were naked too.” He paused, and added, “Unless you’re not comfortable? I don’t wanna be pushy, that’s no fun.”

James laughed. “No, I’m comfortable. I was trying to seduce you.”

“You’d seduce me a lot faster if you were naked. Just saying.”

Another laugh. “All right.” He sat back and got to work on his buttons, and Qrow sprawled back.

“Oh, yeah baby, take it all off.” He sat up and leaned in close, running his hands along James’ waistband. “Come on, I still have to make friends with your iron wood.”

James paused in his efforts, and gave Qrow a flat look. “Are you proud of yourself for that one?”

“Yes, actually. Been waiting to use it.”

He looked intensely pleased; James just rolled his eyes and got back to his buttons. “You’re not the first person to think of it. Jet uses that joke at least once a week.”

“Aww, no fair. Tell him to find a new one, that one’s mine now.”

“I’ll be sure to get right on that.” He finished his buttons and shucked his shirt and undershirt; Qrow grabbed his now-bare shoulders and pulled him down until they were lying flush together, and kissed him soundly. He smiled into the kiss as they parted. “Thought you were in a hurry?”

“I am, you’re taking too long so I’m gonna take over.” And without any more warning than that, he flipped them so that he was straddling James’ hips, a mirror of their position from earlier that week. He scooted back and pressed a kiss to James’ navel, then got to work on his pants. That button didn’t take any time at all, and then he yanked them down with no preamble, underwear and all.

And then paused, and checked, and grinned wickedly.

“Commando, Jimmy? Naughty.”

“More comfortable without them,” he said, propping himself up. “They get caught in the hip joint and it’s just impractical.”

“Mm, fair enough. I wasn’t complaining, anyway. Now.” He looked down pointedly, and then looked up to meet James’ eyes. “If you don’t mind, I’ve got a new friend to make.”

-/-

It didn’t really come as a surprise to Qrow that James was a cuddler; peeling himself out of James’ embrace later so he could use the bathroom without waking him was a task and a half and frankly he felt he deserved a medal.

When he came back to bed a few minutes later, though, James was awake anyway, peering blearily at him. Qrow took his arm and lifted it so he could tuck himself back under it, and snuggled into James’ chest.

“Hey,” he said quietly. “Sorry to wake you.”

“S’fine.” James nuzzled his hair, shifted and stretched and tangled their legs together sleepily. “You know you snore?”

“You’re not the first person to be wrong about that,” Qrow huffed. James laughed, and Qrow felt it all around him.

“So what do you think?” James mumbled sleepily. “Have you formed that new friendship you were hoping to?”

Qrow hummed and pressed against him. “Oh, I think this is a friendship that is going to last a good long while.”

“Mmm, good.” He was clearly still half-asleep; his eyes were closed and his breathing was even, slow. Qrow decided he liked this side of James, all sleepy and soft. He brought his hands up and rubbed gentle circles into his back, humming softly, and James snorted.

“Are you sure you’re not an actual crow?”

Qrow let out a bark of laughter at that, and buried his face in James’ chest. “What do you know about crows?”

“I know they like to preen and groom their mates,” James mumbled. “They sing to their mates, too.”

“Yeah?” He spread one hand over the metal planes of James’ back. “They like shiny things, too.”

“I do take care to keep a nice shine on.”

“Sounds perfect.” It did sound perfect, actually. Qrow sighed and burrowed closer, and James’ arm shifted to a more comforting hold almost instinctively.

“Qrow?”

“Nothing. Nothing- I just- everything about being with you makes me happy and I- I guess I’m just waiting for that other shoe to drop.”

“Why does it have to?” He sounded more awake now, and Qrow felt bad. He’d seemed so content before.

“Because it always does.”

“Maybe it won’t this time.” There was a long silence at that, and when Qrow didn’t respond, James said, “Do you know what Jet said when I told him about you?”

“No, what?”

“He said ‘finally, someone to appreciate my handiwork’. He designed most of my, uh, downstairs functions, and he’s been hounding me to do more than just a personal test run for years now.”

His words had the desired effect of setting Qrow giggling against his chest, and he brought his hand up to brush through his hair instead, stroking until Qrow finally stilled.

“You deserve to be happy, Qrow.”

“Hmmph.”

“You do.”

“You’re just biased cause I did such a good job of sucking your dick.”

“I thought that even before you did such a good job of, of sucking me off.”

Qrow started giggling again. “Dick, Jimmy. You’re allowed to say it. I promise not to tell anyone you said a swear.”

James just hummed in response to that, and they fell silent again. Qrow listened to James breathing around him, and after awhile he stretched out contentedly. “What time is it?” he mumbled into James’ chest.

“Bout two. Maybe a little after.”

“We didn’t sleep very long.”

“You’re the one who got up.”

“I had to pee.”

“Oh.” Another long, sleepy silence, and, “I’m glad we showered after that last round.”

“Yeah, your hair is way softer once you wash all the product out.”

James snorted. “Kettle.” He ran his hands through the unruly, shaggy mess that was Qrow’s hair without the gel in it. “I like your hair down like this.”

“Mmm, well, don’t get used to it,” Qrow said, even as he leaned back into the touch. He stretched out contentedly. “Well since we’re awake, wanna go again?”

“Let me think,” James said, and rolled them over so he was looming over Qrow. He leaned in for a kiss that Qrow grinned into. “Yes, I think that sounds agreeable.”

-/-

James was the one to wake first the next time. Qrow had rolled away and was sprawled out, drooling on the pillow and snoring again. James considered scooting closer and cuddling some more, but changed his mind; instead he burrowed into his own pillow and lay there for awhile, watching the steady rise and fall of Qrow’s chest through half-lidded eyes.

He felt so… content . So at ease.

A pang shot through him at that, and he turned to bury his face in his pillow. The last time he’d felt like this was with Josef, and it wasn’t fair to Qrow that he was sitting there missing his husband while Qrow was sleeping less than a foot away.

Qrow stirred beside him, and he raised his head to see him stretching and making sleepy noises that shouldn’t, by all accounts, be shooting right to his dick like that.

“Mmm, morning,” Qrow said, and let out a jaw-cracking yawn. He looked over at James, and then pouted when he saw James watching him with the same soft look he tended to these days. “What? Come on, I was just sleeping!”

James chuckled and stretched out as well. “You look sweet when you sleep.”

“You gotta quit calling me sweet. I’m not sweet. I’m spicy. I’m a spicy boy.”

James just laughed again. “Qrow, you spent our entire date talking about your daughter. There is nothing you could do at this point to convince me you aren’t sweet.”

Qrow pouted even harder at that, but then his face fell and he rolled over with a sigh. “She’s not my daughter.”

“She might as well be. Are you still hesitating about adoption?”

Qrow snorted. “Hesitating implies I’m being rational and considering pros and cons. At this point I’m just being a coward. I know it’s what I want, I- god, I love that little girl so much, I want her so bad , but every time I try to make the decision- I’m just- I’m so terrified.” He groaned and shifted so he could bury his face in his pillow, and then made a disgruntled noise. “Why is my pillow wet?”

“You were drooling in your sleep.”

“Gross.”

“Here, come over here.” James scooted over and beckoned Qrow over to share his own pillow. “Tell me what’s scaring you. Maybe talking about it will help.”

Qrow sighed, and complied, scooting over till they were lying face to face on the same pillow. James’ hand found his hip, his thumb stroking gently, back and forth, comforting. Qrow let his eyes close and for a moment, he just allowed himself to enjoy the contact, before he finally sighed again, and, “You remember my parents died when I was a little kid, right?”

“Yeah, you said.”

“After they died, we- my sister and me- went to live with our uncle.” He fell silent at that, shifted to half-bury his face in the pillow again, before turning back and continuing. “Jay was- he was- he tried . He did his best. I’ll never fault him for that, but. He didn’t take losing his brother very well, or mom for that matter. They were all so close.” He sighed. “It was okay at first. He said taking care of us was a good distraction. And then stuff stopped being okay. Not immediately, but he… he started having more and more bad days, less good ones. He wasn’t mean to us- I mean, he’d snap at us more, but he’d never cross the line or anything, but… he just wasn’t taking care of us properly.”

He fell silent again, and James leaned in and rested their foreheads together. Qrow closed his eyes and let a content smile touch his face, just for a moment.

“I’m sorry,” James said quietly. “You didn’t deserve that.”

There was no response, but after while Qrow went on. “When we were about ten, he decided he was doing more harm than good by keeping us, and gave us up into foster care. Said he was going to try to get the help he needed but he couldn’t do that with us there. It was supposed to be short term, but that was the last I saw him until I was twenty.”

“Is that why you’re reluctant to adopt Nora? Because your uncle wasn’t a very good guardian?”

Qrow scoffed. “You don’t get it, do you? All the shit Jay did to deal with his grief- a lot of it runs in the blood. And I didn’t exactly take well to losing Summer- I mean, hell, none of us did. It’s why Raven left, it’s why I moved in with Tai and the girls. She was my best friend and when I lost her I hit rock bottom and started digging.”

He turned to bury his face in the pillow again, and didn’t see the thoughtful frown on James’ face at his words. It seemed like he was dancing around something, and James couldn’t put his finger on it.

“Qrow?”

“I feel like I’m okay. Not great, but… okay. I wouldn’t have applied to be a foster parent if I didn’t think I’d pulled myself together. But I just keep thinking… Jay thought he was okay, and then he wasn’t. And I can’t stand the idea of doing that to Nora. She doesn’t deserve it. She doesn’t deserve any of the many ways I could ruin her. And I just can’t shake the idea that as soon as I take down that safety net and adopt her for real, that’s the first thing I’m gonna do. At least a foster kid, if I'm falling I can send them away and give it up for awhile.”

He went silent after that, turning and burrowing so wholly into the pillow that James wondered how he could breathe. It was James who broke this silence, after a long time of deliberation.

“So… after Josef died, I wasn’t okay,” he said, and paused until Qrow made a hum of acknowledgment before going on. “I had… difficulty with carrying on my normal routine. I even gave up shaving for awhile because it just seemed like too much trouble.”

“Mmm, hot,” Qrow mumbled, and James snorted.

“I wasn’t adjusting well and Penny was the one who paid for that- we lived near enough to my parents that I could get them to babysit, and I threw myself into my work because it was work Josef and I had begun together and I had this irrational feeling that if I kept it going, then he wasn’t really gone. It reached the point where I’d go days without ever seeing my child, because I was getting home so late and leaving so early that there was no point in even picking her up.”

“Damn,” Qrow whispered. He rolled over so they were face to face again. “What happened? Something must have, you two are so close. Wait, is that why you hover so much now? I thought you were just a mother hen.”

“I am a bit.” He laughed. “Trying to make up for that time? A little, maybe. As for what happened…” He shook his head. “My family happened, honestly. And my friends. They staged an intervention and told me in no uncertain terms they had no intention of letting my child lose two fathers in less than a year.”

“Oh.”

James gave him a soft look. “Qrow, I know how you feel, I do. That terrifying feeling that you’re only marking time until the relapse, and knowing that your child is the one that will suffer for it. I get it. But it sounds like you have something that your uncle didn’t, you have a support network. You have people there who will step up and help you if you do start to fall. Do you really think Tai would let you hurt Nora the way Jay hurt you? Or An, or the Wukongs, or the Belladonnas? Bart? Me ?”

Qrow snorted. “No. I know you wouldn’t. Tai for one would kick my ass.”

“I just bet he would.” James brought his hand up and cupped Qrow’s jaw, leaned in for a soft, brief kiss. “I won’t tell you your fears are unfounded. They’re not. But I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit when you let them hold you back. Do you think Nora would like for you to adopt her?”

Qrow let out a short bark of laughter at that. “She asked for a puppy a few nights ago.”

“...okay?”

He looked so confused that Qrow couldn’t resist leaning in to steal a quick kiss, and then smiled. “You don’t get a pet for a kid who doesn’t have a permanent home.”

Understanding dawned. “Ohhhh. So the Belladonnas getting Ilia a chameleon…”

“It was my suggestion. She’s not ready for them to adopt her, and they wanted to show her she was still a part of their family. It’s the same thing Tai’s folks did for me, when I turned eighteen- I was scared that since I was aging out of the system, I was gonna have to leave, and I was still in school, right? So they got me a dog. That’s when I knew I had a home with them as long as I needed it.”

James looked surprised. “Wait, when you called Tai your brother-”

“Raven and I were split up when we were fifteen, I was sent to live with the Xiaolongs when I was sixteen. When we found Raven again years later, she and Tai got together. So he’s both my brother and my brother-in-law, even though they never got married and Ma and Pop never adopted me officially, so he’s not actually either. But I don’t care. He’s my brother.” He paused, and added, “I don’t tend to bring up that ‘brother and brother-in-law’ thing much. People get the wrong idea.”

This got him a laugh, and he grinned, briefly, before letting it fade. He shuffled closer and pulled James’ arm around him, burying his face in James’ neck.

“I’m supposed to reopen the dog conversation with her today. I’m hoping I don’t chicken out this time, because even if I’m not getting her a dog, it’s at least a good way of bringing up the idea of adoption, at least floating it by her.”

“No dog? She’ll be so disappointed.”

“She’s getting a dog!” Qrow snapped, leaning his head back to glare up at him. “Just one she has to share with Ruby and Yang. That’s the special present we’re picking up, the neighbors’ dog had puppies and we’re getting one for the girls. But I can’t exactly say ‘no, I can’t get you a dog because I’m already getting you a dog’, can I? It’s supposed to be a surprise!”

James couldn’t help laughing at his outburst, shoulders shaking and chest rumbling all around Qrow until he was giggling too. When they’d finally stilled, Qrow tilted his head back and scooched up until they were face to face. He wrapped his arms around James’ neck and kissed him soundly, humming happily when James took the cue and rolled over so that Qrow was sprawled on top of him.

“How long until we gotta check out?” Qrow asked.

“About an hour.”

“Mmm, plenty of time, then.”

Chapter Text

-/-

James and Qrow got back to the house a little before lunchtime, and found the kids watching cartoons in the living room while Tai got lunch ready. As soon as they were through the door, Penny launched herself at James; he caught her and swung her around with a laugh.

“Good morning to you too,” he said. “Did you have fun with your friends?”

“Yes! We watched the most recent four Vampire Mummy Werewolf movies because the new one is coming out soon and we would like to go see it together.”

“They’re making another one?”

“They are good movies.”

“Well, yes, of course they are, but they were old even when I was your age. It just seems strange to me that they’re rebooting the series again.”

“Oh, they do that all the time,” Qrow said. “The fanbase is pretty divided over this new director, though, apparently he secured a huge budget for the film and you know how the fanbase is when a lot of money goes into a Vampire Mummy Werewolf film.”

“Irrational?” suggested James, a lifelong fan of the third Vampire Mummy Werewolf film.

“I was gonna say prone to frothing at the mouth in entitled rage, but sure, irrational works too. Mind you, they’re not wrong in their opinions about how bad they are.”

“You guys should probably go,” Yang said. “Uncle Qrow looks like he’s about to start explaining everything wrong with the third Vampire Mummy Werewolf movie.”

“Oh, ha ha,” Qrow said. “Very funny. Look, just because I’m smart enough to recognize the difference between flashy filmmaking and good filmmaking-“

“Oh no, it’s started!” Ruby hurried over and pushed James toward the door. “Go, Mr. Ironwood! Save yourself, before it’s too late!”

James was startled enough to find himself being pushed that he allowed Ruby to scoot him out the door; she made ‘go go go’ motions at him before closing it.

Once she’d closed the door, Qrow cut off, stunned, and pouted. “Aww. I wanted a goodbye kiss.”

“You had plenty of time for kisses at your sleepover,” Ruby said sternly, going back to her spot on the couch. Qrow paused halfway through the living room and gave her a sharp look.

“What do you know about that?”

“Well that’s what grown-ups do at sleepovers, right? They kiss and cuddle and hold hands?”

Qrow looked relieved. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly what we do. I’m gonna go drop my bag off and shower, okay?” He reached over and ruffled Nora’s hair. “We’ll head out after that, kiddo.”

“All right.”

She hurried off to change, and Qrow disappeared through the kitchen door. Yang turned a confused look on her sister.

“Hey Ruby? Mrs. Wukong did give you that special talk like Dad asked, right?”

“Oh, yeah, ages ago.”

“So you do know that…”

Ruby snorted. “Yeah, but I’m not telling them that. It’s way more fun to keep faking them out.”

Yang laughed and punched her arm playfully. “You devious little troll! Why would you do that?”

“Because it’s funny .”

-/-

One Qrow and Nora were away from the house, he glanced over at her. “So where do you wanna go for lunch, kiddo? Pick anywhere they don’t expect you to wear a tie and the choice is yours.”

“Can we go to Simple Wok?”

“That noodle place?” Qrow raised an eyebrow at her. “Don’t you get enough noodles at home?”

“Uncle Tai always overcooks them. And Old Man Shopkeep is the best.” She shrugged. “We can go somewhere else, if you want.”

He shook his head. “Nah, I said it was your choice, so if you want noodles, noodles it is. I was just surprised, that’s all.” He turned down a side street that was a shortcut to Simple Wok, and added, “You know, Old Man Shopkeep has a name. You don’t have to call him that.”

“What is it, then?”

“Uh…” He broke off, opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. “...well, I’m sure he has a name. We can check his nametag while we’re there. Seems kinda rude not to use his real name.”

“Why? You never use anyone’s real name.”

“I don’t?”

“You use Uncle Tai and Mr. Ozpin’s names, but everyone else has nicknames. You have about twelve ways of not using Mr. Ironwood’s name. You call me and the others kid and kiddo and squirt and munchkin and all kinds of things.”

“Oh.” He frowned. “Does it bother you?”

“I mean, not really?” He gave her a searching look at that, and she squirmed a little. “I mean, maybe a little bit? It would bother me more if you didn’t do the same with Ruby and Yang.”

“If it bothers you at all, I won’t do it.”

“Really?”

“Nora, your feelings matter a lot more than any weird speech patterns I’ve picked up.”

She squirmed again. “It doesn’t bother me. Not usually. It’d just be nice to feel like I’m special. That’s all.”

“You are special.” He pulled into the carpark down the road from Simple Wok and turned to wink at her. “That’s why we’re having us time today. Cause I’ve been forgetting to show you that.”

-/-

Old Man Shopkeep was wiping down his stove when they approached the stand, but as they climbed up into the seats he gave Qrow a polite nod before two enormous bowls of noodles appeared wobbling before both of them, almost like magic. Nora inhaled deeply and grinned.

“I don’t know how he always does that,” she said, and then waved for his attention. “Can I get some more eggs, please?”

Qrow laughed and handed over his card. “Bring me some more, too. Thanks.”

The stool wasn’t high enough to reach the table for Nora, but Qrow knew better than to get her a booster seat, so he said nothing when she wiggled around until she was kneeling instead.

“You good?”

“If I don’t have a growth spurt soon I’ll have to get kneepads,” she grumbled. “I wish I was tall like Mr. Ironwood.”

“Eh, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Qrow said. “Finding shoes that fit him is a nightmare and he’s in store for some back problems down the line.” Or he would be if his spine wasn’t reinforced with metal, Qrow mentally added.

“He does have big feet,” Nora agreed. “But my feet are so small I’ll have to get my shoes from the kids’ section forever.”

“That’s not a bad thing, either,” Qrow argued. “It’s hard to find light-up shoes for adults.”

Nora twisted around to look at her shoes thoughtfully. She almost never remembered to charge them anymore, but she still loved them. She turned back to him.

“Okay, maybe being small isn’t so bad. But I do want to be tall enough to reach the counter.”

“Well, you’re due for a few growth spurts soon anyway, so there’s that. Once puberty gets ahold of you. Speaking of which, did Mrs. Wukong ever have that special talk with you like I asked her to?”

“Yeah, ages ago.”

“Good.”

They fell silent for awhile while they ate; Qrow was done well before Nora, who tended to take her time, but he didn’t rush her.

There was a bar across from Simple Wok, called The Crowbar. It had been his regular place before Summer died, but he hadn’t been inside in years, not since he’d switched to Junior’s. His gaze landed on the door, idly wondering how the old staff were doing, if they were even still working there, and then he stiffened as the door opened and he caught a glimpse of a face he’d never wanted to see again at the bar. He slid off of his stool.

“Uncle Qrow?”

His attention snapped back to Nora, giving him a confused look. He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

“I’ll- I’ll be right back, okay?”

She stiffened at his words, and he mentally cursed himself. He took both of her hands. “Ten minutes,” he said. “I just gotta check on something, promise. Stay right here, and I’ll be back soon.”

“Promise?”

“Cross my heart.” He pressed a reassuring kiss to her forehead and left, jaywalking in his haste and glad that the little sidestreet was always so dead.

The Crowbar looked the same as it always had, even down to the good-natured Canadian behind the bar, half an eye on the few patrons who had dropped in over lunch. When he spotted Qrow, he looked surprised.

“Qrow! Gosh, it’s been ages since we’ve seen you.”

“Yeah, ages.” Qrow looked around. “I’ve only got a minute- I’m looking for a woman.”

“You and me both, brother.”

“A specific woman,” he added. “About so high, looks a lot like me? We’ve got the same eyes.”

“Hmm…” He considered this. “Sorry, doesn’t ring a bell.”

Qrow swore. “I thought for sure- aw, hell, it doesn’t matter. I gotta get back to my kid. See you later, Reg.”

He waved and headed back out, ignoring Reg’s called farewell. He shoved his hands into his pocket as he slouched back across the road, where Nora was watching him anxiously, and visibly relaxed as soon as he rejoined her.

“What was that about?” she asked. He shook his head.

“Nothing important. Just thought I saw someone I used to know.”

“Oh.” She’d finished her noodles, and now she sat down on the stool properly. “I do that sometimes. Sometimes I think I see my mom.”

And oh , that was heartbreaking. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” She looked away. “I don’t really want to see her, though. Is that bad?”

Qrow snorted. “No. I’d say it’s just about right.”

She slid down to from the stool; he tucked a tip under their bowls and took her hand for the walk back to the car.

“Kids aren’t supposed to hate their moms,” she said quietly.

He glanced back over at The Crowbar, and shook his head. “Moms aren’t supposed to abandon their kids.”

“Mr. Leo said she was too sad to take care of me after Daddy left,” she went on.

Qrow snorted again, but said nothing. He had his own private feelings about Nora’s parents, but he knew better than to voice them. It was the first time she’d actually talked about her birth family in more than the vaguest sense, and he didn’t want to ruin that attempt to open up with his own vitriol.

“She didn’t want me,” Nora mumbled, and Qrow came to an abrupt halt, and looked down to see Nora staring down at her shoes. She scuffed her toes on the ground. “She told me so. Before she left. She said she’d never wanted me.”

Oh . Qrow knelt in front of her, reached up to brush her hair out of her face. “She shouldn’t have said that to you. There’s a lot of things she shouldn’t have done, but that’s really high on the list. Hey, look at me.” He brushed a thumb over a tear threatening to spill out. “Your mom was an idiot .”

This got him a wobbly giggle, and he smiled hopefully.

“So it’s okay if I hate her?”

He snorted. “Under the circumstances, I think hate is still being pretty charitable.”

-/-

The mall was crowded, as it usually was on Saturday, especially right before Christmas. The line to see Santa was longer than ever. Nora spotted Jaune in line with a ferrety young man and waved; Jaune spotted her and yanked on the man’s arm until he turned to look where Jaune was pointing.

“Kid must have scored leave for Christmas,” Qrow said, as they headed over to the escalator a couple minutes later.

“Is that Jaune’s biggest brother?”

“Yeah, we don’t see much of him since he ran off and joined the army.”

“He looks like a ferret.”

“Yes he does.” They’d reached the upper level; Qrow took out a little notepad and pen from his shirt. “All right. Who do you want to put on your Christmas list?”

Nora ticked off on her fingers. “Ruby, and Yang, and Uncle Tai, and Ren,” she said. “And you, obviously. Should I get something for Dr. Oobleck, too? I heard you’re supposed to.”

“Eh, a little token of some kind is traditional, but nothing extravagant. Especially on your budget. So that’s… let’s see, six gifts? Got anything specific in mind?”

She shook her head. “I think we should just look around.”

-/-

Nora, it turned out, was terrible at gift shopping. It wasn’t that she couldn’t find anything for the people on her list- it was that she kept finding things she thought they’d like, and having to take things back and get something else, then put them up and go back and get something she’d put back, and Qrow frequently had to remind her that she had to keep track of her budget.

She finally managed to get gifts for Ruby, Yang, and Tai narrowed down, and agreed that a nice gift bag of candy would do for Dr. Oobleck, and all she had left now was Ren’s gift.

“He’s my best ever friend,” she said. “And we’ve both been so busy lately that we barely get to see each other outside of school. So I want to get him something special so he remembers he’s my best ever friend.”

“I don’t think he’s in danger of forgetting that anytime soon,” Qrow assured her, since he knew for a fact from An that Ren was working just as hard to get a nice gift for Nora, for the exact same reason. “Don’t stress yourself over a gift, okay? Ren will love you whatever you get him.”

“I know, but I still want to get him something nice.”

“Fair enough. Don’t forget we’ve still gotta get something for the Secret Santa, too.”

“Oh, that’s right!”

“So what do you think, coat or pajamas?”

“Well, it gets really cold,” Nora said thoughtfully. “A little girl shouldn’t have to not have a warm coat during winter.”

“Yeah.”

“But pajamas are snuggly to sleep in, and for lying around in the house. Everyone should have pajamas.”

“Okay.”

“But when you’re poor enough to go on the Secret Santa list, you probably don’t often get given something that is just a nice thing to have.” She was silent, and thoughtful, and then gave him a hopeful look. “Can we get her everything on the list? Please?”

“Nora, you know I’d love to, but I’ve got a budget to maintain, and this stuff can get pricey.”

“Well, yeah, but…” She scuffed her toes again. “I was in the Secret Santa last year,” she mumbled. “Are you sure we can’t? You don’t have to get me anything if it’s just the money, you’ve already given me so much, I just… it’s really not fair. She probably needs a coat. And pajamas. She wouldn’t ask for them if she didn’t. Can’t we please?”

“Oh, Nora.” His face softened. “All right, come on, there’s a secondhand shop in the mall. We’ll see what we can find there.”

“Really?” She grinned. “Thank you!”

“No, there’s nothing to thank.” He looped an arm around her shoulder and hugged him to his side while they walked. “You’re a real sweet kid, Nora, you know that?”

-/-

Nora was able to eventually find the gifts she wanted, and even spent her own saved up pocket money on a second-hand necklace to put with the coat and pajamas Qrow had bought. She also made him go wait in the other line while she checked out, and was very secretive about the contents of the solid shopping bag she’d had the cashier put her purchases in. He made a show of trying to peek, and she held it against her chest while glaring at him until he held up his hands in surrender.

“All right, point taken,” he said with a laugh. “So you’ve got everything you wanted?”

“I think so.”

“Good, cause it’s getting late. Let’s stop for something to eat and then head home, okay?”

“Okay! Can we get burgers?”

“Absolutely.”

-/-

It was late when they finally made it home. Qrow was dead on his feet- he hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, and running after Nora all day was an energy drain under normal sleep amounts.

Tai’s van was gone when they pulled into the yard, but by the time they’d put their things away and put a pot of cocoa on the stove, the rest of their family had arrived as well. Ruby was covered in mud and slightly damp, but she was also clutching a large envelope to her chest with a brilliant smile on her face.

“We went around to visit Jaune,” Tai explained, while Qrow poured cocoa for everyone. “You know his brother’s back in town?”

“Yeah, we saw them while we were at the mall.”

“He taught us how to do some cool kicks like he learned in the army!” Ruby said excitedly, dropping the rainboot she’d taken off and hop-skipping over to them, leaving muddy footprints with the one she was still wearing. “And he bet me a number five X-Ray and Vav comic that I couldn’t roundhouse kick an apple off of his head.”

“Ruby, finish taking your boots off,” Tai said wearily, while Qrow asked, “So did you?”

“No, I kicked him in the face instead.” She hopped on her bare foot back over to the door and started pulling off her other boot. “And it was really satisfying!”

“Was he okay?” Nora asked.

“Oh, yeah, his nose stopped bleeding eventually. Then he gave me the comic anyway, he said because I had moxy, then he told me not to push my luck like that again. Then he offered to teach us some cool knife tricks, but Jaune’s other brother said he wasn’t allowed to teach us how to play with knives.”

Qrow rolled his eyes. “Gosh, I wonder why.”

“I don’t know, cause he hates fun, I guess.” She dropped her boots and hurried off to get cocoa, but Tai caught her on the way by and pointed her at the broom closet instead. She sighed as dramatically as possible and went to clean up the mud she’d tracked in, making sure that they knew how horribly she was being treated the whole time.

Yang flopped down beside Qrow and stretched out beside him with her cocoa; he shifted wordlessly so he could loop his free arm around her shoulders.

“So how was your date with Mr. Ironwood last night?” she asked.

“Was he a perfect gentleman?” Ruby added, interrupting her display of mistreatment to take interest in the conversation instead. “Did he hold doors open for you and tell you how nice you looked?”

“Did he bring you flowers?” Nora asked. “Did you bring him flowers?”

“You’re a nosy bunch,” Qrow teased. “No, there were no flowers, but yes, we had a good time. And yes, he said how nice I looked.”

In fact his exact words were, ‘Good gods, Qrow, do you have any idea how beautiful you look right now?’, a hoarse whisper against his skin while James took him apart with agonizing attentiveness, but that part wasn’t for sharing.

“Qrow, are you blushing?” Tai asked.

And good grief, he was, wasn’t he? Qrow willed that away, and shot Tai a glare. “You will tell no one of this.”

Tai rolled his eyes. “Relax, Qrow, your secret is safe with me.”

Ruby had finished cleaning up the mud; she finally poured her cocoa and climbed up onto the loveseat with Tai, pushing against his side with her feet and free hand until she had enough room to scooch into. She stretched her legs across his lap and snuggled into her little nook with her cocoa. Tai sighed.

“I should have made you change out of your muddy clothes when we got home,” he said.

Qrow made a disagreeing noise. “Relax, Tai, the furniture’ll clean and so will your pants.”

“Yeah Dad, stop being the fun police,” Ruby said.

“How’d you get so much mud on you anyway?” Nora asked, and then gasped and looked scandalized. “Were you and Jaune jumping in mud puddles without me?!”

“Yes! I mean no! Maybe! Okay yes. Sorry.” When Nora contrived to look as offended as possible, Ruby added, “But you had fun with Uncle Qrow, right? Your special you time?”

“Oh, yeah, loads. We went to Simple Wok for lunch and everything.”

“Simple Wok?” Tai looked over at her. “Don’t you get enough noodles at home?”

“That’s what I said,” Qrow put in, and was ignored.

“Yeah, but I don’t get good noodles,” Nora said. “Yours are always overdone and Shopkeep’s are perfect .”

Tai managed to look even more offended at that than Nora had a moment ago, enough so that Qrow howled with laughter until Tai grabbed the cushion on Nora’s other side and threw it at him.

“You’re the worst, Qrow.”

-/-

After Qrow had showered and was getting ready to collapse into bed, there was a tapping at the door and Nora came in. She was bundled in her pajamas and had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

“We never reopened the puppy conversation,” she said, and Qrow thought a long string of swears.

“I’m sorry,” he said, once he was sure he wasn’t going to say any out loud. “I meant to, and it slipped my mind.” He sat down on the end of the bed and patted the spot next to him. “Come here, let’s have that talk now.”

She climbed up beside him. “Okay, so I know you’re probably thinking that I’m not responsible enough to take care of a puppy, right? But I really, really am! I do my chores, sometimes without even being asked, and I do my homework most nights, and I almost never try to take my Gamebuddy to school anymore. And last week I had to take care of Ren’s Tamagotchi for a whole day and I only killed it once.”

Qrow looked startled- he hadn’t realized that Tamagotchis had come back around. He shook that thought away, though. He had a much more important discussion to have right now.

“Listen, Nora. I can’t get you a puppy right now. And I promise it’s not because I don’t think you’re responsible enough. I’m sure you can manage to take care of a puppy, especially since you’d have me and Tai here for backup. But right now it’s just not feasible.”

“Is it the cost? I can pay for the food myself with my pocket money. I can help.”

“Your pocket money isn’t enough to cover dog food,” he said, and, “Listen, it’s not the cost, I promise. You’ll understand soon- no, don’t ask why, just take my word when I say it’s not the best time.”

“That’s the same thing you said before,” she said. “Why did you want to open the conversation back up if you were just going to say the same thing?”

“Because…” He trailed off. There were a lot of things he wanted to say right there, a lot of things he needed to say.

He wanted to say, Because I know the real reason you want a puppy, and I needed you to understand you don’t have anything to be scared of.

He wanted to say, Because I wanted an opening to tell you that I love you, that you’re already like a daughter to me, that I want to make that real .

He wanted to say, Because the last time we had this conversation I should have told you right then what I felt, and I didn’t, because I’m a coward .

But all he could see in her face in this moment was his own face, scared and confused, when Jay told him and Raven that they’d have to go away and live with strangers for awhile so he could get better for them, his face a decade later when Jay tried to explain why he’d never come back for him.

He looked away.

“Because I wanted to make sure you understood,” he said quietly. “Me not getting you a dog doesn’t mean anything besides that getting you a dog isn’t feasible right now. It doesn’t say anything about you, or us, or your place here. Okay? All it means is no dog.”

She was silent after that, trying to process what he’d said, and he hoped she got his meaning even if he couldn’t say it outright yet. After a few minutes, she looked up at him again.

“Uncle Qrow?”

“Yeah?”

“I- it’s just-” She shook her head and threw herself at him, flinging her arms around his middle and clinging as though her life depended on it. She buried her face in his side. “I love you,” she said, voice muffled by his shirt.

Oh. Ohh. Qrow reached up, hesitantly, and stroked her hair while cursing himself as an idiot. “I love you too, Nora,” he said hoarsely. “More than you can possibly imagine.”

-/-

Chapter Text

-/-

That Monday started the last week of school before they let out for winter break. It was a long week for Yang, who now that she was in middle school had exams at the end of each semester, but it was a cakewalk for Nora and Ruby and Qrow, since in Elementary school the last week before the break was usually pretty easy-going, even moreso for Qrow, who managed to grab two more coffee dates with James, and another family dinner in between.

The theme of the week with lessons was solstice-adjacent holidays and the history surrounding them, and on Friday, for last period, two of his pta moms turned up with a cake and cookies and cocoa, and they just had a little end-of-the-semester party instead of bothering to try learning anything.

He let his kids exchange gifts during this time, and to make sure no one was left out he’d gotten them all little gift bags, the cheap tokens inside at least carefully catered to their interests.

By the time the bell rang and his busriders and most of his car riders had gone, his classroom was a mess, but the two pta moms had at least stayed behind to help him clean up. His last few stragglers volunteered as well, and between them they had the classroom mostly cleaned when James arrived to pick up Penny.

“I take it the party was successful,” James said, looking around at the last bits of mess and the large trash bag that held the rest. He waved at the others when they greeted him, and scooped up Penny when she flung herself at him, but he seemed distracted when Qrow caught his eyes.

Qrow shrugged. “What can I say, we had a pretty good time. Cookie? We’ve got a few left over.”

“No, thank you.” He set Penny down. “Actually, can I talk to you in private for a second?”

“Sure.” He followed James out into the hall, concern furrowing his brow when he saw the worry in James’ eyes. “What’s up? Everything okay?”

“Not really.” He reached into his pocket and took out his phone, then unlocked it and passed it over for Qrow to see. It was a text from Glynda.

Mom called, had to rush Dad to hospital, driving up to Atlas, talk later , it read. Qrow’s frown deepened.

“Shit.”

“Yeah.” James took his phone back and pocketed it. “I have to go- I know I was going to come over to help watch the girls while Tai went to pick up the- well, you know- but I-“

“No, it’s fine.” Qrow took his hand and folded it between his own. “I’m not gonna have a hissy fit just cause you’re bailing on me to see your family.” He brought the hand up and pressed a kiss to one knuckle. “You okay?”

“I’m not the one in the hospital.”

“So?” Another kiss to the next knuckle. “I know you. Do you need anyone to watch Penny while you’re gone?”

James shook his head, while Qrow continued pressing reassuring kisses to his hand. “No. I don’t want to leave her behind if- if-“ He broke off, and shook his head again. “It’s the third time this year. She should see him.”

“Yeah, of course, I understand.” Qrow beckoned him down for a kiss, a gentle, reassuring one. “Call me if you need anything, okay?”

James leaned his forehead against Qrow’s, eyes closed as some of the tension in his face smoothed out- not entirely, but it was something. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Hey, come on, it’s your dad.”

“Stepdad,” James corrected, pulling away and putting on some of his public mask.

Qrow frowned and jabbed a finger at him. “Yeah, but you don’t talk about your real dad and he features in exactly zero of the photos on your wall. You wanna think about who you’re talking to before you try to pull that crap?” When James said nothing, Qrow found his hand and laced their fingers together. “You should get going. We’ll talk later, okay?”

“Yeah. Okay.” He gave it another moment, gave Qrow’s hand a squeeze, and then pulled away, putting his mask entirely on before he opened the door to collect Penny.

-/-

Qrow and Tai took the girls out for dinner that night to celebrate the end of the semester; Qrow tried not to worry about James, and reminded himself that if he hadn’t heard from James yet, that must mean something good, or at least nothing bad.

Tai went to bed early after they got home, since he had an early start the next morning, so Qrow put the girls to bed alone, his phone never far from him in case James called. All the same, it was late- late enough that Qrow had given up and gone to bed- before his phone finally buzzed. He groaned and fumbled beside his bed for his phone, which had fallen off while he slept.

“Lo?”

“Hi, Qrow.”

“Hey, Jimmy.” Qrow half-buried his face in his pillow. “What’s up? How’s your dad?”

“Stable,” James said, relief evident in his voice. “I mean, they’d stabilized him before I got here but now he’s out of immediate danger.”

“That’s good news.”

“Yeah. Great news.” He was silent, quiet for so long that Qrow almost dozed off again, and, “Qrow?”

“Hmmm?”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For understanding. And for letting me call you at two in the morning.”

“I’m not exactly gonna tell you to fuck off, am I?” He burrowed deeper in his blankets. “You give me way too much credit, Jim.”

“Maybe you don’t give yourself enough.” There was another pause, but this time Qrow could hear voices in the background before James spoke again. “I have to go,” he said. “Get some sleep, we can talk later.”

“Yeah. Night.”

-/-

Glynda waited for James to hang up before the pair began making their way back to the hospital room. Glynda folded her arms.

“That was Qrow?”

James nodded. “We had plans this weekend and I had to cancel. I thought he’d like to know how things were going up here.”

“Hmm.”

“Glynda…”

She shot him a glare. “I’m not upset with you. You’re right, it’s your business, whatever my feelings about Qrow.” When he didn’t reply, instead gesturing for her to go on, she rolled her eyes. “I’m just worried about Dad and I’m taking it out on everything else.”

James reached over and rested a hand on her shoulder. “He’s going to be fine.”

“Provided he actually takes his care seriously this time,” she added. She huffed. “I can’t believe he’s been so lax about his appointments. Doesn’t he know how serious this is?”

“I think he has a better idea since you yelled at him.” James sounded amused, but there was worry in his gaze; he raised an arm and let her lean into him. “He’s going to be fine.”

“You keep saying that.”

“You keep not believing me.”

“Hmm.”

He leaned his head on hers, giving her a moment, before, “I think I’m going to go around and visit Josef in the morning, as long as I’m in town anyway. Do you mind watching Penny for me for an hour or two?”

“Sure, but don’t you think she’d like to see him too?”

“Probably,” he agreed. “I’ll take her around sometime before we head home but I just… need a little time alone.”

“Okay. I’ll look after Penny for you.”

-/-

It was freezing when James went around to the graveyard; the sun was barely up, turning the sky grey. The snow crunched under his boots while he made his way shivering past the headstones, until he reached the familiar one that belonged to Josef.

This part was always awkward. He shoved his hands into his armpits and tried to think of where to begin.

There was only one place, really.

“So, I… met someone,” he began, hesitant. “I’ve been keeping my promise. It’s been… easier… than I expected.”

The silence continued. He looked around, eyeing the glittering landscape and the slow sunrise. He swallowed, and pressed on.

“His name’s Qrow,” he said. “He’s… I… I don’t think you would have liked him much. He’s, he’s arrogant, and cocky, and he never grew out of his bad boy phase.” A soft laugh. “I like those things about him, if I’m honest.”

James fell silent again, then moved and leaned back on the headstone, burying his face in his hands and running his fingers through his hair.

“I could fall in love with him so easily,” he added quietly. “And that, that scares me. Because I know that if I want to actually follow through on this thing we have, if I want to give Qrow everything he deserves… that means I have to let you go.”

A wind blew through the graveyard, whipping James’ greatcoat around his legs. He laughed.

“I know. I know! If you were here with me, I know what you’d say. That’s why I came here to tell you that, that I am letting you go. I know it’s a long time coming… it hasn’t been easy without you here… but I’m going to give everything I can to this thing Qrow and I have.” A pause. “Anyway… that’s all. I’ll bring Penny around later, so you can see her. You won’t believe how much she’s grown- she’s at that age, you know-”

He broke off, cut off a sob that threatened.

“You’d be proud of her. The person she is, the person she’s becoming… I wish you were here to see it with me.”

He pushed off of the headstone with a sigh. “I should go now. ...I miss you.”

-/-

James called Qrow again that evening, careful not to leave it so late that he’d be asleep this time. Qrow sounded worn out when he answered, but not like he’d just woken up, and there were voices in the background to suggest he was with the kids.

“Tai hasn’t made it home yet,” Qrow said. “I’m still on my own down here.” James heard an ‘oof’ from Qrow and then Ruby’s voice came through, Qrow protesting half-heartedly in the background.

“Hi, Mr. Ironwood,” Ruby said. “Would you believe what we’re getting? I just can’t believe it! It’s so exciting!”

She paused, here, and James suppressed a smile. “Nice try,” he said.

“Aww, man!” He heard her hand the phone back to Qrow and stomp away, prompting giggling from Qrow.

“I take it you didn’t fall for her clever ruse?”

“It was a close call,” he said, as seriously as possible.

“So how’s your dad?”

“Doing better. They’re keeping him a bit longer but Penny and I are coming home tomorrow. He’s got Mother and Glynda up here to take care of him, and I’ve got work.”

“Oh yeah, speaking of that,” Qrow said. “What are you planning to do about Penny during the work day, now that school’s out for awhile?”

“Are you volunteering?”

“I might be.” James could almost see Qrow’s cheeky look through the phone. “If you’ve got other arrangements that’s fine. But I like the kid, I don’t mind taking her on for a bit. Besides, it’ll give me an excuse to see you now that I don’t have the school run.”

“You think you need an excuse to see me?”

“Maybe.”

“Somehow I think I couldn’t avoid you even if you didn’t have any excuse. Still, I’d be a fool to refuse a free babysitter when one pretty much falls in my lap.” There was an audible silence, and James shook his head. “Behave.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking it.”

“You’d be hard pressed to find a time when I’m not thinking something along the lines.” A beat, and, “Also for the record I’d fall into your lap anytime.”

“Very funny.”

“Hey, tell me something, Jimmy, when they replaced half your body, did they surgically remove your sense of humor at the same time?”

“No, they just replaced it like everything else.”

-/-

While Qrow flirted up a storm over the phone, the girls converged in the dining room with cookies and juice boxes, their discussion alternating between speculation about what their ‘special present’ was, and how the relationship between James and Qrow was growing, with or without their input.

Nora was uncharacteristically quiet during this discussion, staring off into space and having to be dragged back into the conversation several times.

“Are you okay, Nora?” Yang asked, resting a hand on her arm. “You’ve been quiet lately.”

“Do you think there’s really a point in all of this?” she asked. “I mean… this plotting. Even if we do get them married off before Uncle Qrow decides to send me away, I mean, what’s the point? He’s never gonna adopt me. And once they get married he’ll have Penny, so what will he even need with me?”

“Sometimes people want more than one kid,” said Ruby, the younger of two. “And Penny did say that Mr. Ironwood brought up adopting another kid.” Her face lit up. “Hey, if we can’t get Uncle Qrow to adopt you, we could always ask Mr. Ironwood!”

Far from its desired result of cheering Nora up, this statement caused her to sigh and pillow her head on her arms, staring dully out at the kitchen. She found herself suddenly enveloped in two pairs of reassuring arms, and managed a small smile.

While they were thus engaged, Uncle Qrow poked his head in to check on them and raised an eyebrow at their embrace. “What’s up, guys?”

Yang and Ruby exchanged a meaningful look, and Yang opened her mouth to reply, but Nora, sensing the direction she was going, jumped in first.

“We’re just feeling really sad because we don’t know what our special present is going to be,” she said. “We’ve been trying to figure it out but we’re drawing blanks.”

Qrow looked between them, one guilty face to another. It was clear he didn’t believe them, but instead of calling them out, he gave them a smug look.

“Nice try,” he said. “You’ll find out when Tai gets home with it and not a minute sooner.”

He got a chorus of disappointment for his trouble, but this did nothing to deter him. With one last suspicious look, he headed back into the living room, leaving Nora to give Yang a scolding look.

“You can’t tell him,” she said. “I told you, he has to think of it himself.”

Then, without giving them a chance to reply, she got up and stalked into the living room, lifting Qrow’s arm so she could tuck herself under it and curl into his side. He allowed this without question, and once she’d made herself comfortable he brought his hand up to stroke her hair gently.

“You okay?”

“I will be.”

“...you know you can talk to me about anything, right?”

Nora was quiet for a moment, then nodded. “I know.”

-/-

The girls were getting ready for bed when Tai pulled up. Qrow beat them all to the door and shooed them back while he poked his head out to see what was going on. Tai had a large box in his arms, a heavy blanket thrown over the top, partially to hide it but probably also to keep the contents warm.

Qrow stood aside and held the door open to let him in, and the girls immediately crowded around him while Qrow locked up and came over.

“Hold on, let me get out of my coat and boots,” Tai said, passing the box over to Qrow, and making a show of shrugging out of his coat and brushing it off, then doing the same slow performance with his boots. By the time he was out of both, all three girls were crowded around Qrow, begging to know what was in the box.

“Nope, this is Tai’s rodeo, you’ll have to wait.”

“But it’s taking too looooong,” Ruby said, clinging to Qrow’s jeans and digging her chin into his thigh, sighing up at him with the biggest puppy dog eyes she could muster.

“All right, all right.” Tai had finished tormenting their patience, so he moved over and took the box from Qrow, then knelt with it. They gathered around, trying to grab for the blanket, but Tai stopped them. “Before I show you what’s in the box,” he began, and then stopped, because a whining and scratching and huffing noise had come from the box.

Qrow folded his arms and smirked. “Think you took too long,” was all he was able to get in before the girls realized exactly what was in the box and started squealing.

Tai just sighed and pulled the blanket aside, revealing a small puppy, a corgi-husky mix, currently with his paws over his ears at the squealing.

They were, eventually, able to get the girls to quiet down. All three of them peered into the box, eyes alight.

“He’s so cuuuute,” Ruby cooed. “Look at him!”

“Is he ours?” Yang asked. “I mean, for real he’s really ours?”

“Yep,” Tai nodded. “Qrow and I have been talking about it, and we decided you kids are ready for the responsibility.”

“And he is your responsibility,” Qrow added. “We’ve got your back but you three will have to be the ones to take care of him.”

“Which means that if we find ourselves being the ones doing all the work, he goes away. We clear?”

The girls exchanged looks, and then mumbled their assent, before Ruby finally reached into the box and scooped the puppy out.

“Is this why you kept saying we had to stop asking for a dog?”

“Because we knew we were getting you one? Absolutely.”

“I can’t believe it. He’s so perfect!”

Ruby cooed over the dog a moment longer, then passed him over to Nora to hold next. She buried her face in his fur and laughed, squeezing him perhaps a bit too hard just once before passing him to Yang. Once Yang had him, Nora turned to Qrow, who had flopped onto the floor with them, long legs stretched out in front of.

Without warning, she flung herself at him, throwing her arms around his neck. “Thank you,” she mumbled. He patted her back with a laugh.

“I told you you’d understand soon.”

-/-

James and Penny came over Sunday evening, partly so Penny could meet the dog- Zwei, they’d named him- and partly because after the weekend he’d had, James just wanted to spend a little time with Qrow, without worrying about anything else.

Penny adored Zwei from the moment Ruby dumped him into her arms, and the kids hurried off to play while Qrow dragged James over to the couch, pushed him down onto it, then sprawled lazily on top of him.

James chuckled.

“Comfortable?”

“It’s been a long weekend,” he mumbled into James’ chest.

James grinned, and brought his hand up to rub soft circles into Qrow’s back.

“Agreed.”

-/-