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Don't Shoot the Messenger

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The school thing was Raven’s idea.

To be honest, most things in the lives of the Branwen twins were Raven’s idea, but the school thing was the first one Qrow had really stopped to question. Mostly because it was the first one that sounded godawful.

“Look, I’m not complaining,” Qrow said, even though he had to shout it back to her from the ten-foot and climbing lead he’d gained storming ahead. And the only reason they were walking at all was because he had insisted on staying human so he could do said shouting and storming. "I'm just—expressing dissatisfaction with the turn of events."

"That is the actual definition of complaining," Raven said as she caught up to him, and despite the dry indifference of her tone he noticed she held her rusted odachi loosely at the ready in her right hand. It was a move Qrow knew he'd be better off emulating with his own zweihander, between the unguarded expanse of potentially Grimm-infested road they were traveling on and the low-grade turmoil he was probably generating with his venting, but he was, for the moment, determined to ride his pettiness train all the way to the station.

"You could have at least asked me first," he snapped. Raven disappearing for a few days to do her own thing was nothing new. Raven disappearing for a few days to alter the entire course of their lives kind of was .

"I'm asking you now," Raven pointed out, like it changed the way that she'd gone behind his back before doing so. She pouted her lips and softened her eyes in a manipulative expression of consternation that had worked on countless strangers the Branwens had come across in the past, but Qrow just raised a disdainful, unimpressed eyebrow until she stopped. "I know tomorrow’s a relatively...sudden deadline, but until we are physically inside the building and speaking to the headmaster, nothing is set in stone. You can veto this at any time."

"Okay, I'm vetoing it," said Qrow, partially because he was and partially because he knew Raven was just dying to give her three hour dissertation on why the school thing was a good idea. Which he would be equally happy to shoot down.

Raven rolled her eyes. "Of course you are," she said, and sure enough, squared back her shoulders and jabbed a finger at him. "I understand why you'd think this is a bad idea—"

"—a terrible idea—"

"And also that you feel contractually obligated to be a dick—"

Qrow gasped in mock outrage and pressed a scandalized hand to his chest. "What, me? Never."

"Anyway," Raven said, exchanging her extended pointer finger for her middle one, "the first point I'd like to make is—"

A Beowolf howled somewhere in the distance, the rest of its pack chorusing a reply. Qrow’s blade was out and Raven’s snapped up into defensive position in an instant as they eyed the direction the sound had come from.

“That,” said Raven, nodding to herself and looking too smug by half. “The first point I’d like to make is that.” She nudged Qrow in the side. “You still on your diva kick or can we at least take this conversation airborne?”

And the point went to Raven. What else was new.

Qrow sighed. “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, and made sure his sword was secure before shifting and taking to the skies. A black-feathered blur flashed past him as Raven followed suit.

In a perfect world (or at least a reasonably improved one) this would have at least put the discussion on hold while they scouted out a safer section of road and were limited by, well, beaks , but sadly Qrow lived in the shitty real world where he shared a two-way surveillance and communication hotline of a Semblance with his ever-scheming sister and her one-track mind.

They shared the shapeshifting too, but that was—that was a mixed bag, really. Convenient this far out of the kingdoms, sure, perfect for hiding from Grimm and people alike, definitely, but the shapeshifting tended to be where the questions and suspicions started, too. Apparently, in a world where people could tear apart Grimm with their bare hands and spontaneously combust on command, shapeshifting was the weirdness that crossed the line. Or maybe it was the possibility of twins sharing their Semblances with one another. Or maybe it was the more likely possibility that they just had the one shared Semblance and the shapeshifting was some weird bonus prize anomaly—it wasn’t as Aura-dependent as the average Semblance in any case (and how life-saving was that feature) and in the end why should they give a damn as long as it kept them alive?

Qrow was definitely not bitter and had never had any traumatic life experiences involving others questioning his and Raven’s shapeshifting.

Nope.

They actually managed to travel a few watchful, Grimm-seeking miles by air before Raven picked up the conversation thread again.

As I was saying, Raven continued, ignoring her brother’s over-dramatic groan of disappointment, it’s about time we accepted how much worse the Grimm have gotten since the Faunus War started.

Well, she wasn’t wrong.

(Not that she admitted it when she was.)

The Faunus War was the latest and greatest item on a long, long list of reasons Qrow couldn’t stand the kingdoms, and boy was it something. It took a special kind of stupid to abuse people for something like having minor animal characteristics in a world where humanity was threatened by monsters attracted to discord and determined to drive them to extinction. Starting a damn war over it was just suicidal.

What had begun almost three years ago as an attempted quarantine had developed into a full-blown uprising on the part of the Faunus, and while Qrow couldn’t blame them for fighting back, the only ones who actually seemed to be benefiting from any of it were the Grimm. They were out in droves these days, primarily near cities and villages where the uprising was most heavily underway, but they’d been getting bolder even in areas where their only prey would be the infrequent traveler.

Well, at least the Huntsmen and Huntresses were probably in high demand because of it—wait, no, he was not going to start making Raven’s argument for her.

Qrow scoffed. Right, so your solution for escaping the increase in Grimm is to take shelter in one of the places they’re most likely to go? A few extra Grimm out here doesn’t really equal the trouble we’d have in there.

Raven gave a skeptical hum. Ha. A few . Speaking of those few, what do you say to splitting up for a bit, covering more ground? A pack wandering around this far out usually doesn’t bode well.

Qrow could, technically, roll his eyes in bird form, but it didn’t quite carry the same weight. Which was a shame. Yeah, sure, he sent in the most sarcastic tone he could muster, peeling off to head west. Caution was always a plus, but the Branwens didn’t tend to run into many problems as long as they stayed avian. Which meant Raven just wanted to play drama queen to make her point.

My solution, Raven sent after several minutes of fruitless but pointed surveillance from the ground each of them had covered, is to take shelter in one of the most heavily fortified places on the planet. The kingdoms may be a godawful mess of arbitrary rules and violent prejudice, but they haven’t stayed standing all these years without reason. Which is more than we’d do out here on our own.

Really a shame about the eye-rolling thing. We’re doing fine. We’ve always done fine. The landscape beneath him and the skies above remained blissfully Grimm-free. He tapped into his sister’s vision to reassure himself that her path was equally clear and felt her respond in kind. See? Fine. We kill what we can and avoid what we can’t. The system works.

Yeah, the system works until we run out of supplies. Then it’s ‘hello civilization, let’s see what we can wring out of you this time before we get run out of town.’ More than a touch of bitterness colored Raven’s tone at that, which Qrow would be more inclined to sympathize with if her plan didn’t involve ‘hello civilization’ all the time for four years straight. And we’re living off the bare minimum, Qrow. I keep worrying my damn sword’s going to break in half before I can scavenge a new one, and yours isn’t doing much better. I mean, we could be getting money for these Grimm we’re killing, you know? Which brings me to my next point—

Oh good, Qrow’s favorite part of an already dubious plan—death wish academy for the terminally optimistic. Yeah, about that next point—a school for Huntsmen? Really? First of all, how did you even find a school that would admit us, and second, do you really want to tough out four years of that crap? C’mon, it’s not like every desperate town’s going to ask for our credentials if we did go with this Grimm-exterminators-for-hire plan. And again, Huntsmen?

Raven huffed. What, did you have a better profession in mind? Should I have looked for a trade school instead? I’m sure we’d fit right in there.

Wow, someone felt a little insulted, those sarcasm readings were off the charts. And that didn’t even rate as a decent argument for a normal person, let alone Raven.

Well, would you look at who’s twisting my words again when she can’t come up with a good answer, Qrow sent wryly. I don’t want any profession, Raven, because this plan is the worst.

All right, he’d put his opinion out there. Which hopefully meant Raven’s only options were to admit that Qrow was right for once or rally and turn her rambling into a worthwhile sales pitch.

And of course, Raven chose to rally. And you, dear brother, are looking at this from the wrong angle, as usual, and there it was, the opening statement to nearly every one of Raven’s (generally successful) counterarguments. Had they been human (and in the same location for that matter), this would have been about the point when Raven seized his shoulders, grin plastered to her face and eyes alight with excitement. As it was, her enthusiasm permeated her every word.

Huntsmen and Huntresses may be glorified death seekers, but we’ll be staying in the heart of the very place that glorifies them! A place with shelter, food, supplies, and the perfect excuse to exploit them all. If we put in the four years of effort we could come out of this with shiny official degrees that would let us keep doing what we’ve been doing but actually get paid for it.

‘Exploit.’ Wonderful word. One of the Branwens’ favorite words. And damn her, Raven had a point. The life of Huntsmen and Huntresses tended to be, from Qrow’s distant and admittedly biased observation, considerably less glamorous, rewarding, and survivable than a lot of the newbies tended to think it was, but their PR department was incredible. Rumor had it academy students wanted for nothing—sure, they were supposed to get their feet wet about the whole hunting and survival thing compared to those kiddie schools, but aside from the occasional requisite mission they were able to train in relative peace and safety at their fancy-ass campuses, secure in their belief that they’d be able to save the damn planet with a big enough convertible weapon. Reality didn’t hit till after they got those shiny official degrees Raven kept raving about and the drudge work that came with them.

Speaking of—

Yeah, except we’ll be doing what we’ve been doing for other people. Because that’s always historically ended well for us. We’re just a couple of natural-born helpers, bringing trust and happiness wherever we go, right? And altruism lends so well to our general life-style of actually surviving the things we fight. Qrow spotted a brightly dressed body sprawled out off the beaten path. Oh hey, what do you know? May I present Exhibit A of my rebuttal.

He’d been hoping one of them would run into a body. They weren’t exactly rare even during peacetime (okay, they weren’t always Huntsman either—those pedestrian trade caravans were full of sad, desperate people) but there’d been a definite increase since the war had begun. Granted, the bodies weren’t usually as conveniently abandoned as this one was—the smarter civilians and even the less suicidally proud Huntsmen and Huntresses tended to travel in groups, so survivors were generally able to collect the bodies unless the Grimm themselves stuck around out of spite, curiosity, or imagined hunger.

This poor bastard was as abandoned as they came. Which made him not only a great example but a potential target for scavenging.

Hey, it’s not like the guy would need it anymore.

Qrow felt Raven glimpse through his eyes at the corpse below. What was he doing out this far in the first place? she wondered, wheeling around to rejoin him as he circled curiously above.

Probably entertaining that glorified death seeking you were talking about earlier. He looks what, mid-twenties? Maybe? God, what a successful and long-lived career choice.

Raven snorted in spite of herself. Shut up , she sent, not sounding nearly as put out as she probably meant to. Body looks a few days old, either nobody’s out looking for him or he went so far off track they haven’t found him yet. Think it’s worth the trouble to go through his stuff or should we keep moving?

Qrow was almost impressed with the way she tried to stick to her ‘dangerous outdoors’ stance. Almost, but mostly annoyed. What, in case our fucking wings haven’t put enough distance between us and a mangy old Beowolf pack? I say we check.

Of course you do , Raven muttered, but flit past him to land by the corpse anyway.

Qrow definitely did not celebrate having lips again by smirking up a storm when he shifted back. He admittedly lost it a little when he took a look at how bad off the Huntsman had been up close, though. Damn, maybe it hadn’t been worth taking a look after all.

Whatever had killed the Huntsman had done so messily—his right (likely dominant) arm had been crushed to a useless pulp and his chest collapsed into a concave mess of gore beneath his mostly intact coat. Something with teeth had tried posthumously gnawing away at his legs for a while before losing interest. All in all, not exactly the greatest mark for potential supplies.

Raven sighed and rolled up her sleeves. “I hate the messy ones,” she grumbled, kneeling down to rifle through what was left of the man’s pockets as Qrow stood watch.

“I would’ve done it if you asked,” Qrow pointed out as he scanned the horizon, but barely knew why he bothered when his control-freak of a sister probably would have insisted on double-checking the body if he had. This at least saved them time.

“So where do you think his weapon ended up?” Qrow asked after few moments of wet squelching as Raven rummaged through various bits of fabric and organic matter.

Raven gingerly (but triumphantly) pulled out a dark, dripping wallet and stuffed it into her own pocket. “I swear to God, if this is about the stupid scythe again—”

“Of course it’s about the scythe,” Qrow said with a frown, turning back to his sister as she wiped her bloody hands off on her shirt. “I miss the scythe. The scythe was great.”

Raven raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Yeah? Then why’d it break?”

“Because it was old, Raven. It was old and now it’s gone and I’m fucking pissed because it’s like no one uses scythes—”

The Ursa that barreled in from out of damn near nowhere would have caught Raven dead to rights if she hadn’t had her brother’s eyes to borrow. As it was, she flung herself forward to avoid the swipe of a massive paw, rolling neatly back to her feet and drawing her odachi with wide, shaken eyes. Qrow had already darted past her, meeting the Ursa’s outstretched paw with his own blade and severing it at the joint.

Which would have been a lot more satisfying if the rest of its pack hadn’t chosen that exact moment to show up.

“Well, shit,” he said, as the Ursae lumbered in, fanning out to surround them.

Mostly because it meant Raven was right. This wouldn’t be an easy fight, sure, but however passive the Branwens’ Semblance might have seemed at face value it did wonders for getting them out of messes like this.

Thoughts traveled faster than words, after all. And the saying did go that two heads were better than one.

—at least a dozen I’d say—

—it’s a dozen even—

—half a dozen heavily armored, better to take out the younger ones as fast as possible—

—start with the older ones, they’re too cunning to leave unchecked—

—what if you try shifting, maybe we can ditch this fight altogether, I can finish off this scout easy—

“I told you they were getting bolder,” Raven chided, pressing her back to his. The Ursae held off for the moment, more intent on cutting off all the Branwens’ available exits and no doubt gauging their reactions after the older ones saw what had already happened to their scout.

—fine, I’ll shift, you break the circle finishing off the one you maimed—

—either we’ll have an opening to ditch after or we swap out—

“‘I told you so’ later, killing now,” Qrow snapped, and threw himself at the wounded Ursa again.

Two of the Ursae behind him lunged for Raven at the same time—only to find themselves swiping at thin air as she shifted and took to the skies. Qrow felt something unravel in his chest knowing that she’d gotten out, even as he cleaved messily through the wounded Ursa’s neck.

Annoyingly, the Ursa had been angry enough and heavy enough that even Qrow’s momentum and the thing’s actual death didn’t stop him from staggering back into the Ursae circle rather than forward to freedom. ( Birdseye view—the young, armorless Ursa to his immediate left was moving to strike— ) Qrow managed to avoid the first swipe and take another paw with him, but there was only so much he could dodge as they closed ranks around him again—

At which point Raven shifted in midair and landed squarely on the nearest one, jamming three feet of steel through its skull.

Swap out it was, then.

Raven's Ursa dropped like a stone as she flipped away from the circle, taking off at a run. She winked and saluted to her brother as three of the remaining Ursae broke the circle to pursue her.

Your turn.

Qrow smirked and shifted himself as the Ursae scrambled to regroup.

Keep your eye on the birdie, suckers.

Discipline and weaponry and Aura and Dust were all well and good, but what the Branwens really excelled in was good old fashioned confusion. There wasn't much point in fighting things head on when they had shapeshifting and Semblance-enhanced coordination on their side—whichever Branwen was liable to get hit could tap out well ahead of time provided at least one of them saw it coming.

Qrow liked to think of it as their little magic trick, sometimes. Or like those street hustlers with the cups and the acorns they palmed in their sleeves. It didn’t matter which Branwen their opponent had their eyes on; if it wasn’t both, it was the wrong one.

They probably could have just up and flown away at this point, Qrow mused as he resumed human form and caught one of the Ursae chasing Raven in the back with his zweihander. Eh, they'd already invested enough time in this to make it personal.

The ambush and the circling had been admittedly a little more strategic than the average Grimm, but one or two fancy maneuvers and a few years of accumulated armor and experience did not a truly smart Grimm make.

Seven to go, Raven sent as they finished off the two remaining Ursae that had separated from the pack.

So she was pissed off enough to stick this out, too. Good to know they were on the same page.

A Huntsman training academy seemed a little redundant to most people roughing it outside the kingdoms from what Qrow had seen—he caught Raven by the wrist as she feinted a stumble to the ground, spinning her around into a lunge towards the nearest Ursa to fall for it—considering it mostly meant training for something they'd been doing for as long as Qrow could remember, but at least that would make it an easy degree if they could keep sane for four years. And yeah, okay, he was definitely making Raven's argument for her now—Raven dipped him like a damn ballroom dancer as one of the Ursa attempted some sort of aerial leap to bowl them over; he stuck his tongue out at her before dropping to a kneel and severing another one's spinal cord—but he was beginning to see her point. Which, if he had to admit it, was what tended to happen with all of Raven's ideas.

—to your left—

—hit the deck, I've got a clean shot if you're not in it—

—careful, its armor's a lot more effective than the others—

—there's the joints, we got this—

And they did, of course. They were a little battered and bruised maybe, but the dust had cleared and they were the ones walking away from the fight at a reasonably faster pace than before.

Raven was the one to insist on staying human this time. Probably because it'd make it easier to gloat.

There were a few new nicks in his sword after that, Qrow noted with a scowl. Aura could only compensate for so much weapon durability when maintenance wasn't really an option. Raven nudged the nearest Grimm corpse with a foot as she passed, watching it dissolve into the wind. Both of them had worked up more of a sweat than was really necessary for one measly Huntsman's wallet.

“Okay, so I might be willing to give you a point or two,” Qrow said finally, still staring at his blade. Mostly to avoid seeing the way Raven was smirking in triumph. He didn't need to see it, he could sense it. Lurking.

“Good. I didn’t even get to the armory yet.”

Qrow glanced over at her at the word and—yep, there it was, there was the smirk. It was terrible. “The what now?”

“The armory,” Raven repeated, glancing over her own blade thoughtfully. But the smirk stayed. Damn it. “Huntsmen and Huntresses are permitted to forge their own weapons—usually in one of the starter schools, but forging equipment and a set amount of supplies are permitted for maintenance and repair in the professional schools as well.” She gestured vaguely with the odachi. “We can toss these useless scraps of metal right in the trash if we want. In fact, you could even go right ahead and make yourself some stupid scythe-sword hybrid if you can figure out how.”

Huh. That actually sounded like a pretty good deal. Let Raven make fun all she wanted; Qrow was handy with a sword and he was awesome with a scythe, so why not combine the two? Weapon diversity was one of the only smart things Huntsman and Huntresses had managed to come up with.

“Lemme guess, you’re just interested in the Dust,” Qrow said, and suppressed a shudder at the thought of Raven in close extended proximity with the stuff.

'Interest' was an understatement. It bordered on an obsession, really—which was impressive, since they only tended to run across an actually noteworthy amount of Dust once in a blue moon. But every time they did, Raven called dibs on whatever she could get her hands on and vanished into the middle of nowhere to run God knew what experiments, returning days later with an expended supply, the jittery air of someone who'd skipped out on a dangerous amount of sleep, and pages of scribbled notes Qrow probably wouldn't have had the patience to understand even if she'd ever offered to explain them. Whatever her deal was, extended access to a decent supply was going to either finally put it to rest or magnify it to a really horrifying degree.

“I am entirely interested in the Dust,” Raven admitted without even a hint of shame. She nudged him gently in the side. “So…?”

Qrow sighed. “Four years, you said?”

“Four years,” she agreed. The smirk had thankfully faded in place of an actual smile, which while equally annoying in context, was at least less insulting. Her eyes were shining with more relief than Qrow felt was really necessary for what he was agreeing to.

“And it’s not Mistral?” he asked, and immediately regretted it as she glared at him.

Of course it wasn't in Mistral. Most of their shittiest shapeshifting judgment experiences that had definitely never happened had taken place around Mistral. Raven wasn't a masochist.

“It’s in Vale.”

Huh. At least he knew why she’d been steering them towards Sanus now. If it weren’t for the generally aimless turn their life had taken since leaving the tribe he probably would have picked up on that sooner. Way to go, Qrow.

“So how’d you even get this headmaster guy to consider taking us? Isn't everyone supposed to be on high alert for weird applications with the Faunus hunt still in effect?” Then again, if anyone could sell the 'tragic orphans from the middle of nowhere' angle, it was Raven. If the doe eyes, crocodile tears, and sob story didn't cut it, her Plan B usually did the trick. “Did you have to sleep with him? Or this one of those deal with the devil things where we're going to owe him our souls in four years?”

Raven shrugged. “Haven’t even met the man yet. Not in person, anyway. But I put the best spin I could on our applications and we’ve exchanged limited correspondence since then. He said our situation was unique enough that he’d have to hold an in-person interview to be sure we even qualified for the entrance exam.”

“Which is tomorrow.” Figured she'd give him the smallest window possible to decide. No, that didn't seem like Raven stacking the deck in her favor at all .

“Yep.”

Just about the only victory he could salvage here was avoiding giving her an outright 'yes'. But even if he didn't say it out loud, it looked like this was happening. Qrow tried to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach. “Lot of ground to cover then, I guess. And what’s this place called again?”

Raven smiled. “Beacon.”