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You and Me (and Everyone in Between)

Chapter Text

James Ironwood loved Sunday mornings. He always started them by making dinosaur shaped pancakes for his daughter, Penny. He hummed to himself, listening to the local news report on the radio that sat perched on his kitchen counter. Next weekend there was supposed to be clear skies. Which was excellent, because Oz was hosting a backyard party at that ridiculous house of his.

“Penny,” called James, flipping the last of the pancakes onto a plate. He’d made a half decent Triceratops this time, but his Apatosaurus was still his best, followed by his Brachiosaurus. But then, he’d been making them for over a decade now.

James set the plate on the table next to the maple syrup and strawberry jam – a favourite of Penny’s – and frowned. Where was she?

He headed toward the living room, calling, “Penny?”

“In here, Father,” said Penny. James paused in the door of the living room to find Penny on her knees in the window sill, her palms flat against the glass and her nose only inches away from it.

“What is it?” he asked, a touch of a smile on his face and in his voice.

Penny pointed out the window. “We have new neighbours. Someone is moving into Mr. Burcawich’s old house.”

James stepped into the living room and looked over Penny’s shoulder. Sure enough, a relatively modern silver sedan and a moving truck were parked out front of the two storey home. James frowned slightly, eyes narrowed.

“No one has lived in Mr. Burcawich’s house for four years,” said Penny, looking up at James. “Can we go greet them, Father?”

James nodded, his smile returning. “Of course,” he said. “Why don’t you put together a welcome basket for them?”

Penny perked and hopped up, darting for the kitchen. “I’ll give them our special chocolate cookies. Those always make people happy.”

James followed after her. “Do you think they need the cookies?”

“Everyone needs our cookies,” said Penny in a matter-of-fact voice. “If you’re already happy, they will make you happier. No one can be too happy.” She pulled a chair out from the table and climbed onto it to reach the cookies on the top shelf. James hadn’t remembered putting them there, but Penny had a better memory for those things than he did.

She took the cookie tin, a bottle of homemade lemonade, a pack of road chalk, and four small teddy bears she kept for new neighbours, and placed them all into a big basket. Then, she tied a bow onto the basket and lifted it up for James to carry.

“Four bears?” he asked, taking the basket. He’d grabbed some Allen keys and a couple of screwdrivers he kept for sharing as well. Those things always got lost in the move. “I only saw three people.”

“There was a dog,” said Penny.

“Ah,” said James, smiling. “Of course.”

Together, the two headed out of the house – after Penny double checked she was wearing her lucky pink laces – and headed down to the blue house on the corner. There, a girl in a red hoodie, probably the same age as Penny, was running around the front yard with a barking corgi.

When she saw them, the girl zipped over to them faster than James thought possible, and grinned.

“Hello!” said the girl, she was bouncing as she spoke.

“Salutations,” said Penny, giving the girl a little salute. “My name is Penny Ironwood, and this is my father, James Ironwood. We are your neighbours. It’s an honour to meet you!”

The girl grinned and pulled down her hood. “My name’s Ruby! Which house is yours?”

Penny turned and pointed to their white house down the street. James was still smiling, though, here, it was a bit more reserved.

“We have brought you presents! Including one for your dog,” said Penny.

“You brought something for Zwei?” asked Ruby, bouncing again. “Ahh, that’s so cool!”

Penny pulled one of the small teddy bears from the basket and handed it to Ruby, who, with a giggle, threw it to the small corgi. The dog leaped into the air, caught the teddy, and took off running in circles again.

“Look, he likes it,” said Ruby, grinning.

Penny smiled, then, turning her gaze up to James – though it was more over his shoulder than anything else – she asked, “May I show Ruby the park, Father?”

“If it’s okay with her dad,” said James.

Ruby cocked her head to one side and frowned. “Dad…? Oh, you mean Uncle Qrow.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said James. “I didn’t realize.”

Ruby shrugged. “It’s cool. Me and Yang look like him – which is weird because Yang’s related to him not me – so we get it all the time,” said Ruby. Then, over her shoulder, she shouted, “Uncle Qrow!”

“What?” came the reply across the yard. A man with a light dusting of stubble and smelling faintly of alcohol came stumbling around the moving truck holding a box. He set down the box and walked over to the trio, eying James and Penny with a small amount of confusion.

“Neighbours?” guessed Qrow.

“Yeah,” said Ruby, before James could reply. “This is Penny and her dad. Penny wants to show me the park, is that okay?”

Qrow sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Sure thing, kiddo, just take Zwei with you. He’s getting fat.” He reached out and ruffled Ruby’s hair, grinning lopsidedly.

“He’s not fat,” said Ruby, sticking her tongue out at him. “He’s muscular.” She whistled. “Come on Zwei, we’re going to the park!” Zwei trotted up, tongue lolling and teddy forgotten, and followed Penny and Ruby as they walked down the street.

“Have fun,” called James. “Be home for lunch.”

“Yes, Father,” replied Penny.

With that, James and Qrow were alone.

“James,” said James. “I’d offer you my hand, but I have a basket.”

Qrow chuckled. “Qrow,” he replied. “But I think Ruby told you that. Lemme…” He trailed off, taking the basket and walking over to his step to set it down. James followed, somewhat awkwardly, and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He’d forgotten his gloves back at the house.

“Don’t suppose you wanna lend a hand? I’m one kid short now and Yang’s not really up to lifting much yet,” said Qrow.

James nodded. “I’d be happy to help.”

“Hey!” came a voice from the door. James turned to find a blonde girl leaning against the door. “I’m fine to help.”

“Docs said small stuff only until you’re fully healed,” Qrow shot back. “Go unpack yours and Ruby’s room.”

The girl threw her arms into the air – revealing an electric yellow prosthetic on her right arm. James recognized the model as a TG-800. Highly advanced SchneeCorp arm – and went back into the house.

“New arm?” guessed James.

Qrow nodded. “Yeah, she’s had it about three weeks now. Still doesn’t have fine motor control, but the doc said it’ll come with practice.”

“Top of the line,” said James.

“You know the model?” Qrow raised an eyebrow in mild confusion.

James pulled his right hand out of his pocket, revealing its metallic fingers. “TG-600. Not as new, but it’s one of the sensory models.”

Qrow grinned. “Hers is just passed her elbow, yours?”

“Arm and shoulder,” said James. “Among other things.”

“All sensory enabled?” asked Qrow.

James nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I used to freelance for SchneeCorp, so they gave me a hefty discount on this model when it came out.”

Qrow looked over his shoulder, back toward the house. “Yeah, the insurance covered Yang’s arm. She’s pretty pleased to have one that can feel things, but we can’t get the calibrations right.”

“I could help her,” offered James. “If it wouldn’t be overstepping.”

“You’d have to ask her,” said Qrow. “But go for it.”

Qrow and James hauled furniture together for over an hour. James had to stop at a few points, hissing at the pain that spider-webbed from the space where his fake hip met his real one, but he kept going. Sure, he’d hurt tomorrow, but Qrow needed the help.

When they were finally done, James and Qrow sat down on the couch with a beer each, surrounded by boxes labelled in looping, red marker hand writing.

“Ruby’s,” said Qrow, by way of explanation. He was already on his third beer while James was still nursing his first. The smell of alcohol around the man made sense now, at least.

“Cute,” said James, amused.

“Thanks for the help,” said Qrow. “Never could have gotten all this furniture in without you.”

James took a sip from the bottle and found the beer had gone warm. He grimaced a bit. “It’s no trouble. Moving is difficult without help.”

“No kidding,” said Qrow, laughing. “You been here long?”

James nodded. “Ten years or so. Penny and I moved in while she was still young. We’ve been here ever since.”

“Good neighbourhood?” guessed Qrow.

“Excellent,” said James, nodding. “The neighbours are wonderful, the school systems are excellent, and you have access to every amenity you need with less than a ten minute drive.”

Qrow laughed and held up his hands in surrender. “Hey, hey, I already live here. You don’t have to sell me on the place.”

James cleared his throat. “It’s lovely here,” he said.

“Sounds it,” said Qrow. “Only seen you out of the neighbours though.”

“You’ll see the others. I believe most of them are working today,” said James.

Qrow raised an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? Who all are they?”

“Well,” said James. “There’s Glynda, who is a wonderful woman, and her two teenagers, Ren and Nora – both adopted when they were six. There’s Bart, who lives in a bungalow on his own, he’s a local teacher, and Peter, who lives next door, he’s also a teacher. There’s the Vasilias family and Sun, a friend of their son, Neptune’s, who lives with them, as well as the Arcs and the Nikos family.” James leaned back on the couch, beer in his good hand forgotten. “And then there’s Ozpin.”

“Ozpin?” echoed Qrow. “First or last name?”

James shook his head. “No idea. I’ve known the man as long as I’ve lived here and I don’t think anyone knows.”

“Maybe it’s both,” quipped Qrow, chuckling.

The door behind them opened then, and Ruby, Penny, and Zwei came streaming in.

“Uncle Qrow!” cheered Ruby, throwing herself at her uncle. With practiced ease Qrow lifted his beer, let Ruby hit him square in the chest, and threw his spare arm around her in a loose hug.

“Hey, kiddo. Have a good time?” asked Qrow.

Ruby nodded. “The best. Penny told me all about the Apatosaurus. It seems like such a cool dinosaur. She even has earrings of one.”

“Yes. They are my favourite earrings,” said Penny, clasping her hands behind her back. “Father, it is time for lunch and afternoon studies.”

Qrow grinned. “You sure you don’t wanna stick around?” he asked.

Penny pressed her lips tightly together, a nervous edge to her eyes. “It is time for lunch and afternoon studies,” she echoed.

“Of course,” said James, standing up. He set down his beer on the coffee table he and Qrow had set up and nodded to both Qrow and Ruby. “It was nice meeting you both, I’m sure we’ll see you again soon.”

“Yeah!” said Ruby. “Can we hang out tomorrow, Penny?”

“We may hang out between lunch and three p.m. if Father is okay with that,” said Penny.

“Sounds wonderful,” said James.

Ruby grinned. “Sure! Your place?”

Penny nodded.

“All right, time to go,” said James.

He and Penny headed out of the house and down the street. As they walked, Penny began to chat excitedly, her steps growing into skips.

“Ruby is wonderful and she wants to learn about dinosaurs,” said Penny. “I enjoy her company very much. Zwei is very funny, too.”

James nodded, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “I’m glad you liked them, Penny. It’s nice to see you with a friend.”

Penny tipped her head to one side, still watching her steps. “She’s my friend?”

“If you both want her to be,” said James.

“How do I know if she wants to be?” asked Penny.

“You ask,” replied James. “I’m sure she’d be agreeable, she seems like a very nice girl.”

Penny grinned. “I will do that,” she said, nodding. “Tomorrow.”

“Sounds good,” he said. Then, “May I?” His left hand hovered near Penny’s shoulder. She nodded. He rested his arm across her shoulders as the two walked home, Penny still chattering away about how wonderful and funny Zwei was.

Chapter Text

The next day, Qrow sent the girls out for groceries while he unpacked the house and tried to get some semblance of organization into the remaining boxes.

That failing, he grabbed his flask, took a deep swing from it, and started putting dishes away while classic rock played on his stereo.

Halfway through the cups, Qrow heard a knock at the door. Turning down his music, Qrow tossed the dishrag he was using onto his shoulder and headed for the door.

The man on the other side was old. Maybe. It was kind of hard to tell. But he had a cane and grey hair and tiny ass glasses, so old seemed like the most accurate word to describe the guy.

“Can I help you?” asked Qrow, eying the guy.

“Hrm?” said the man. “Oh, no, I just thought I’d say hello to the new neighbours.”

Qrow raised an eyebrow. “I’m guessing you’re Ozpin, then.”

“What gave it away?” asked the man, a light smirk playing across his expression. If Qrow had thought the man was old before, then he couldn’t anymore. The smirk took a good ten, fifteen years off him.

“Weird old guy, mostly,” said Qrow, shrugging. “Heard a bit about you from Jimmy. Nothing bad.”

Ozpin chuckled. “Jimmy? Oh, he’ll love that. May I?” Qrow stepped aside and let Ozpin into his house, noticing the way the man leaned heavily on his cane.

“Would you like some help with anything, while I’m here?” asked Ozpin over his shoulder as he strolled into Qrow’s kitchen.

“Got towels and shit you can fold,” said Qrow.

Ozpin nodded. “Excellent.” He limped across the room and set to work immediately. Qrow shook his head in disbelief. What was up with this guy? Eh, whatever got him out of more work, anyway. He started back in on the dishes.

“Did you move very far?” asked Ozpin. “I haven’t seen you around before.”

Qrow sighed. “We’re from Washington.”

“I see.” Qrow didn’t like Ozpin’s cryptic tone. “Needed a fresh start?”

Qrow paused in his dish drying and clenched his jaw. No, he definitely didn’t like that tone. It was too cryptic to be an innocent curiosity. But then, James had had an odd tone when he’d spoke of Ozpin. Something that made Qrow wonder what the man’s motives were.

“Something like that,” Qrow said, eventually.

Ozpin nodded. “And the girls I saw, they’re your… daughters?”

“Nieces,” said Qrow. “I raised them.”

Ozpin hummed. “You picked a good neighbourhood for that. Lot of surrogate and mixed families around here.”

“Yeah, I heard about one – Glynda?” guessed Qrow, trying to remember her name.

Ozpin nodded and walked over to Qrow, slowly wrapping newspaper from around dishes and setting them on the counter. Qrow looked over his shoulder to see all fifty or so towels and clothes folded neatly on the dining room table. Damn, Oz was fast.

“Yes, she’s a wonderful woman. Ren and Nora have lived in town all their lives, and when they lost their parents to that fire…” Ozpin trailed off, shaking his head. “We were all very glad when Glynda was approved to foster them both, and then adopt them a few years after that. Ren and Nora were always close, it would have been a tragedy to see them split up.”

Qrow thought about Yang, whose biological mother had come looking for her not long after Taiyang’s death, a little more than ten years ago. He remembered the court dates, the arguments, the fear that he’d lose one of his girls and that Ruby and Yang would be split up. But then Raven had gotten into one too many fist fights and had been gone again.

“Yeah, I get that,” said Qrow, his voice a little rough.

“I thought you might,” said Ozpin.

Qrow narrowed his eyes as he dried dishes. “How?”

“A feeling,” said Ozpin, dismissing Qrow’s suspicion with a well-timed shrug. Qrow shook his head. Something about this guy was off. Way off. But he seemed nice enough.

“Anyway, I should be off,” said Ozpin. “I just wanted to stop in and say hello.”

Before Ozpin could leave, however, the door swung open and in came Ruby, Yang, Penny, James, and a ton of groceries.

“Uncle Qrow, look,” said Ruby, hoisting her bags high. “Mr. Ironwood drove us home so we got even more groceries!”

Qrow shook his head and took some of the bags, chuckling to himself. He set them on the counter and let Ruby envelope him in a tight hug.

“You did good, kiddo,” he said, pulling back to ruffle her hair. “Hey, you met Ozpin yet?” He turned to see Ozpin slowly edging his way toward the door. Caught, the man stopped and smiled warmly at Ruby and Yang.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m Ozpin.”

Ruby narrowed her eyes. “Is that your first name or your last name?”

“That is an excellent question,” said Ozpin. “But I have a better one; what’s your name?”

“Ruby!” said Ruby, her question already forgotten. “And that’s my sister, Yang.”

“Hey,” said Yang, setting down bags on the counter. Penny and James followed suit. Penny was carrying a surprising number for such a small girl.

 “James, Penny, lovely to see you both again,” said Ozpin. “But, really, I must be going. Parties to plan and all that.”

“Party?” echoed Ruby, brow furrowing.

Ozpin smiled, his hand on the doorknob. “I’m throwing a barbeque this Saturday as a way to celebrate the end of summer. Why don’t you come?”

“Can we bring Zwei?” asked Ruby as the dog came into the room.

“Of course,” said Ozpin. “The more, the merrier. James can bring you.” And then he was gone before anyone could protest that arrangement.

Once the door was closed, James grimaced. “Sorry about that, he’s…”

“Eccentric?” offered Qrow.

James nodded. “Among other things.”

“He is very strange, but he is nice,” said Penny. “And he used to babysit me when I was younger.”

“His house as weird as him?” asked Qrow.

Penny tipped her head to one side. “I do not know. He has many pictures, many notecards, and a great deal of red string in one of his kitchen drawers, however. I do not think these are kitchen items.”

Qrow raised an eyebrow. “No, they aren’t.”

“Hey, Uncle Qrow,” said Yang. “Check this out!” She held out her electric yellow arm and wiggled her fingers one after the other, then formed a proper fist and fainted a punch into the air.

Qrow grinned. “You got some fine motor back,” he said.

“Yeah, Mr. Ironwood helped me while Ruby and Penny were loading up his Jeep,” she said.

“It’s such a cool Jeep,” Ruby cut in. “It’s like armoured and has sonar and it’s so high tech and awesome.”

“Did you know he helped design the arm I have?” asked Yang, grinning.

“Yeah! And he’s got a metal arm too,” said Ruby, also grinning.

Qrow chuckled and ruffled both of their hair. “Seems like you got a couple fans,” he said to James.

James shrugged, his eyes darting low and the tips of his ears turning red. “Just helping out.”

“May Ruby and I play now?” asked Penny. Qrow noticed her gaze didn’t quite meet James’ and raised an eyebrow at him. James smiled at Penny, his gaze darting over to Qrow.

“Of course, have fun,” he said.

“Woo! Let’s go Penny. Yang, you wanna come?” asked Ruby.

“Nah, I’m gonna get some sun,” said Yang. She yawned and placed her yellow hand over her mouth. “Maybe take a nap.”

“’Kay,” said Ruby. Ruby and Penny disappeared out the front door, while Yang and Zwei went out the back, leaving James and Qrow alone in the kitchen.

“Can I ask?” said Qrow, referring to Penny.

“Specifically?” replied James. Qrow saw the way he’d gone tense and raised his own hands in surrender.

“Hey, not judging, just curious. If it ain’t my business, tell me,” said Qrow.

James smiled. “She’s autistic,” said James. “Milder end of the spectrum.”

“Ah,” said Qrow. “That’s cool. Ruby’s pretty familiar, back home she had a couple friends on the spectrum, so she shouldn’t do anything stupid.”

James nodded. “Penny’s good about advocating for herself. I think the two will get along fine.”

“Seems to me like they already are,” said Qrow. “It’s good. Was worried Ruby wouldn’t have friends here.”

James leaned against the doorframe and frowned slightly. “Can I ask?” he said, and Qrow knew he was referring to the move.

“We’re from Washington,” said Qrow. “S’where the girls grew up. Where their dad died.”

James nodded. “The mother?”

“Two,” said Qrow. “Half-sisters. Yang’s mom showed up and tried to take her away after their dad died. I fought tooth and nail to keep those girls together. Ruby’s mom – the one that raised them – she died in the same fire their dad died in.”

“You were close,” said James, his eyes soft.

“They were family,” said Qrow. “My family.” He heard his voice go hoarse and dropped his eyes. Fuck, but why was he opening up like this?

“Is that why you’re ‘Uncle Qrow’?” asked James.

“Nah,” said Qrow. “Yang’s bio mom, Raven, is my twin sister.”

James stared.

“Yeah, it’s a little fucked up,” he said. “But they’re my kids, not hers. She has no claim to Yang anymore.”

James nodded. “That’s why Ruby said she wasn’t related to you, yesterday.”

“Yeah, they know they’re half-sisters. They know I’m not actually related to Ruby, biologically speaking, but they don’t care. They love me. I love them. Isn’t that what’s important, in the end?” said Qrow.

“Yes, I’d say so,” said James.

Qrow cleared his throat, eager to change the subject. “So, barbeque?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

James groaned – a new sound that made Qrow chuckle – and rubbed his good hand across his face. Gloves today, Qrow noticed. But only on the right hand. Huh.

“He throws one every year and invites the entire block,” said James, the exasperation clear in his voice. “There’s always a fire, always a fist fight, and someone always gets stuck on the roof.”

“Sounds like my kind of party,” said Qrow, grinning.

James just shook his head. But there was something fond in his eyes that had Qrow grinning at the other man.

“Just wait and see, all right?”

“All right,” said Qrow, the amusement still in his voice. “But I think it’s gonna be fun.” He walked passed James and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Now come on, Jimmy, let’s grab Yang and get her to put these groceries away.”

“It’s James,” said James, making Qrow’s grin widen. “And shouldn’t we do it ourselves?”

Qrow snorted. “Pfft. She wants to help? She can help. Let’s go, Jimmy.”

They headed for the backyard, Qrow still laughing at the indignant look on James’ face at his new nickname.

Chapter Text

Saturday came quickly enough. Qrow spent the next two days unpacking, trying to convince Yang to go make friends, and attempting to keep track of Ruby and Penny, who were always running around the block together with Zwei. So, when Saturday came, Qrow was both relieved and caught off guard. He hadn’t met any of the neighbours except Ozpin, James, and Penny, and he didn’t know what to expect.

“Girls!” called Qrow, jogging for the door as the second round of knocks emitted from it. “Come on, James and Penny are here. Time to go.”

He opened the door and sure enough, James and Penny were there. James was in a long-sleeved button up with his customary glove, making Qrow sigh inwardly because how had he not died of heatstroke. And Penny was in a flowery blue and white dress that Qrow could only describe as adorable.

“Well, don’t you look great,” said Qrow to Penny, grinning. She smiled shyly back at him, fidgeting with her dress. His eyes slid over James. “You’re all right.”

“Thanks,” said James, drily. He looked over Qrow’s shoulder. That was the only warning Qrow got before Ruby barreled into him. He laughed, swung her around, and dropped her in front of Penny. Ruby had ditched her hoodie for a t-shirt and shorts.

Yang appeared next to Qrow, silent as a ghost. She was in sleeves today, her hands shoved deep in her hoodie pockets.

“You’re are going to boil,” said Qrow, nudging them all out the door and closing it behind them.

Yang shrugged, her head ducked slightly, and followed beside Qrow as they walked toward Oz’s house.

“You okay?” asked Ruby, leaning around Qrow to look at Yang. She shrugged again, but didn’t say anything.

There was a long, awkward pause. Then, James pulled off his glove, undid the cuff buttons on his shirt, rolled both sleeves up to just below his elbows, and re-buttoned them. His metal arm shone in the afternoon sun. Yang stared. Qrow couldn’t help but stare as well, if only because he’d never seen James without long sleeves before. Damn if the man didn’t look good.

But, more than that, Qrow noticed the way James was looking at Yang, with concern and hope. Slowly, Yang pulled her hands out of her pocket, shoved her sleeves up to her elbows, and grinned at James.

‘Thank you,” Qrow mouthed over the girls’ heads. James only nodded.

“Are there other kids in the neighbourhood?” asked Ruby, mostly addressing Penny.

Penny nodded. “There is Sun and Neptune, and Pyrrha, and Jaune, and Nora and Ren.” She tipped her head to one side. “I believe they have been working or on vacation this week.”

“Are they cool?” asked Ruby.

Penny tipped her head to one side. “Sun is nice. Neptune is… his boyfriend. I do not know much else about him.” She frowned. “I do not know much about any of them, but Pyrrha has helped me home before.”

“Boyfriend?” echoed Yang, eyebrows raising. “Sweet. Less competition for me.”

“For boys?” asked Penny.

Yang grinned. “For girls.”

James’ eyebrows went up. “I’m sure you won’t have a problem,” he said.

Yang punched her right fist into the air. “Right on! Barbeque, here we come.”

The walk up the hill was spent mostly listening to Penny and Ruby. Penny had gotten on the topic of the Triceratops, and was explaining its bone structure to Ruby and Yang – who both kept asking questions whenever there was a long enough pause.

Qrow couldn’t keep most of it straight, Penny spoke fast when she got excited, but Ruby and Yang seemed interested enough. And he caught the way James’ eyes went soft when he watched the three. Qrow wondered how long it had been since Penny had someone to talk dinosaurs with that wasn’t James.

Before long, the five reached the top of the hill, where Ozpin’s house came into full view.

There were a couple houses atop the hill – one had a rather dilapidated “For Sale” sign perched on its lawn, and the other was obviously Ozpin’s. It was tall with a spindly tower with green windows on the left side. The tower was probably four stories tall, making Qrow gawk.

The rest of the house was done up with a ridiculous amount of foliage, and a tall fence that wrapped halfway around the backyard. Cars dotted the area and a great deal of laughter was coming from the backyard.

“Are you going to be all right?” James asked Penny in a soft voice. She nodded, a bright smile on her face, and gestured toward Ruby.

“A-okay,” she said, saluting him. Ruby grinned and started forward with Penny, saying something about meeting the rest of the neighbourhood. Yang lagged behind with Qrow and James, the hesitation plain on her face.

“They know about me,” said James, wiggling his metal fingers. “The most you’ll get is a startled look. Everyone will be used to it in an hour.”

“You sure?” asked Yang, eyeing the backyard as they got closer.

James nodded. “Positive.”

Yang grinned and tore off after Ruby and Penny, shouting for them to wait up.

Qrow looked up at James, a fond look in his eye.

“What?” asked James.

“It’s nice of you,” said Qrow, clearing his throat. “To do that for her.”

James shrugged, and Qrow saw the tips of his ears turn red. Qrow couldn’t quite hide his grin at the sheepishness that swept across James.

“I wasn’t lying. They’ve all seen the arm. It doesn’t surprise them anymore,” said James.

“What about the rest of it?” asked Qrow.

James raised an eyebrow. “The rest of it?” he echoed.

“Arm, shoulder, among other things,” said Qrow, partially quoting. James grimaced, using his good hand to hide it, but Qrow saw it anyway in the pinch of his brow and the narrowing of his eyes.

“Uh,” said James, expression pinched.

“It’s fine,” said Qrow, waving him off. “Forget I asked.” James’ small smile was thanks, Qrow saw, but he didn’t say anything else.

A few more steps and both men were entering the backyard party, where a short, portly man was working the barbeque and a tall, spindly man was speaking with his hands at Oz. Qrow couldn’t help but grin. This neighbourhood already looked fun. Eccentric, friendly, and full of interesting people.

His eyes slid across James again, who was scanning the backyard, presumably for his daughter.

“Uncle Qrow!” Ruby slammed hard into Qrow’s side, latching onto his arm. “Hi,” she said.

Qrow grinned and ruffled her hair, lifting her off the ground. “Where’s your sidekick?” he asked.

“Partner,” corrected Ruby. “And she’s right here.” Sure enough, Penny appeared on Qrow’s other side, a respectful distance away and her arms folded behind her back.

“We are attempting to find Sun and Neptune, so that I may offer my customary greeting,” said Penny, perkily.

Just then, a blond guy with an open shirt and a blue-haired guy wearing a stupid Hawaiian shirt popped up behind Ruby.

“Penny!” they said. The blond pointed finger guns at Penny and went “Chicka-Pow!” She returned the gesture with equal vigor.

Penny giggled afterward. “This is Ruby, she’s my friend. She just moved here.”

“Hey,” said Ruby, waving weakly.

“’Sup?” said the blue haired boy, tipping his chin upward. The blond elbowed him, hard.

“Forgive Neptune, he’s not good at meeting new people. Or old people. Or… anyone, really,” said the blond.

“Hey!” protested Neptune, pouting. “Sun, come on.”

Ah. So this was Sun and Neptune. Qrow had heard bits and pieces about them from James. The two were notorious for being pranksters, daredevils, and, well, boyfriends, if Penny’s words were anything to go by.

“This is my Uncle Qrow,” said Ruby.

Sun slung an arm around Neptune’s shoulders, a hard task, considering Neptune was a good three or four inches taller than Sun, and grinned.

“Awesome. Anyone else with you two?” he asked.

“My sister,” said Ruby, cheerfully. “She’s around here somewhere.”

“Probably at the buffet,” said Qrow, drily, gesturing toward the tables full of food.

“That’s a lot of food,” whispered Ruby.

James glanced down at her, eyes mischievous. “That’s nothing,” he said. “There was twice as much last year, but then,” he looked around and leaned down to Ruby, whispering, “the ‘incident’ happened.”

Ruby’s eyes went wide and she gasped, hands flying to her mouth. “What happened?” she asked.

James pressed a finger to his lips and smiled conspiratorially. “There was… a food fight.”

Ruby broke into a wide grin, still half hidden by her hands. “Who won?”

“Ozpin,” said James, drily. “Because he made the rest of us clean up the mess and took a nap.”

Ruby broke into snorting giggles, holding onto her belly to keep herself from falling over. James grinned and straightened, flashing the look to Qrow, who felt his stomach flip-flop. He swallowed hard and grinned back.

Hot and good with his kids. Damn. That just wasn’t fair.

“I’m gonna go find Yang,” said Qrow. James nodded and the girls waved him off, still chatting with Neptune and Sun, who was still hanging off Neptune like a monkey.

Qrow snorted and shook his head. Teenagers. He headed over to the table of food, where, sure enough, Yang was standing. She was holding a plate of food in her left hand and was picking at it with her right, tossing bite-sized hot dogs and French fries into her mouth while an older blonde woman spoke to her.

“Hey, Uncle Qrow,” said Yang, waving with French fries in her hand. “This is Glynda, she and Ozpin and best buds.”

Glynda raised an eyebrow and adjusted her glasses. “That’s… not what I said. At all.”

Yang shrugged and shoved another tiny hot dog into her mouth. “I read between the lines,” she said.

Qrow nodded. “So, you’re Glynda. The one with Ren and Nora?”

“Yes,” said Glynda, sighing. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen them? Chinese guy with a short redhead following him around?” Qrow shook his head. “Damn it. I hope she’s not drinking the syrup… again.”

“Sound like fun kids,” said Qrow, drily.

Glynda chuckled. “I love them dearly, really. But they are a handful.”

There was a crash from inside, a screech of glass on metal, and an exasperated “Nora!” Glynda winced, sighed, and looked to Qrow apologetically.

“That would be them. Excuse me,” she said. She ducked passed Qrow and headed through the sliding glass doors, which Ozpin had just ducked out of. And hadn’t he been in the backyard a minute ago? Qrow frowned. Must have been fast.

He still had his cane, but the man didn’t seem to be using it much, and simply limped up to Qrow with it tucked in one hand.

“Qrow, glad you could make it,” said Ozpin, smiling.

“Same,” said Qrow. He picked up a root beer from the table and cracked it open with a hiss. Took a deep swing from it and tried not to sigh. Wished he had his flask. But he was trying to cut down, for the girls. It wasn’t going great. “Interesting crowd.”

Ozpin chuckled. “Yes. Many have come and gone since I moved in, but this might be the greatest neighbourhood we’ve had.”

“How long you been here?” asked Qrow.

Ozpin shrugged. “A while,” he said, vaguely.

Qrow sighed. Somehow, he felt he should have expected that.

“I see you’ve met Glynda,” said Ozpin. “Did you like her?”

Qrow chuckled. “She seems great. Her kids sound like a handful.”

“Not unlike yours, I imagine,” said Ozpin.

Qrow’s gaze swept the backyard. Saw Ruby and Penny and Yang talking to Sun and Neptune. Yang was gesturing widely and Penny was babbling away. Ruby was grinning and poking at Sun’s abs, which were exposed by his unbuttoned shirt. Qrow shook his head, fond.

“Yeah, they’re a lot to handle. But I love them,” said Qrow.

“I can tell,” said Ozpin. “You seem like such a wonderful father.”

“I’m not their father,” said Qrow.

Ozpin raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you?” he asked, sipping his coffee. And then he was gone, walking off to greet some guy named ‘Peter’ in the crowd.

Qrow stared for a moment, frowning. What was up with that man?

“Don’t worry about him, he’s weird, but he’s awesome,” said a voice. Qrow turned to see a short red-headed girl grinning up at him. Beside her stood a slightly taller Chinese boy with a pink streak in his hair. “I’m Nora.”

“Qrow,” said Qrow, taking Nora’s hand when she held it out. She shook it hard, making him shake his hand when she released him.

“This is Ren,” said Nora, jerking a thumb at the boy next to her. He nodded, silent.

Qrow raised an eyebrow. “Wasn’t Glynda looking for you two?” he asked.

Nora shrugged. “Probably. But it’s fine. We only set the kitchen on fire a little bit.” She waved off her words with one hand.

“The toaster blew up,” said Ren, by way of explanation. His own voice was a soft timber next to Nora’s sharp enthusiasm.

“I am not a crook,” said Nora, flashing peace signs with both hands. “Besides, it’s better than last year. Remember last year?”

Ren sighed. “We blew up the pool.”

“Yeah, so she can’t get that mad at us,” said Nora.

“Oz has a pool?” said Qrow, looking around. He couldn’t see it.

“He used to,” said Nora vaguely. “He filled it in after that.”

Qrow nodded. Trying not to grin at the two before him. It was hard, but he knew it’d encourage them. And he knew from experience that encouraging destructive teenagers was never a good idea.

“There you two are,” said Glynda, stalking up to them. “Now go clean up at that mess before Ozpin decides to make puns about blow torches and toasters.”

“Yes, Glynda,” said both Ren and Nora, and they disappeared back into the house.

Qrow grinned. “I like them.”

“Thank you,” said Glynda, preening a bit. “Where are yours?”

Qrow waved over to where the girls were. “They’re making friends.”

“With Penny,” added Glynda, sounding thoughtful.

“That a bad thing?” asked Qrow, raising an eyebrow.

Glynda shook her head. “No, it’s good to see her making friends.” She glanced back at the kitchen and sighed. “I should keep an eye on them. I’ll talk to you later.” She walked off, leaving Qrow to his thoughts.

He couldn’t help but frown. He wasn’t Ruby and Yang’s father. He’d raised them for years, since Tai and Summer had died, but he wasn’t their father. He’d never try to take that from them.

And yet.

“You all right?” asked James, walking up. Qrow smiled at him.

“Fine,” he said. “C’mon, you gotta tell me what’s safe to eat at this place.” He dragged James closer to the buffet table, ignoring the thoughts Ozpin had set in motion.

Chapter Text

Qrow woke up in a cold sweat, visions of fire and the sound of screaming and gunshots echoing throughout the room. He scrambled upward, kicking off the blankets in an attempt to cool down. His entire body shook. Wiping at his eyes, he pressed his palms into them, hoping to stem the images and the tears.


He looked up. The digital clock on his nightstand read “4:30am”. The red numbers blurred until Qrow thought they could almost be blood. He shook his head to clear the thought.

With a sigh, he got out of bed and headed for the bathroom. Looked like it was going to be one of those days.

By the time Qrow peeled himself out of the shower, shaved, and made coffee, it was almost five thirty. At that point, he dug through the cabinets, found the flour, and set to work.

At a little after eight thirty, when the girls appeared, bleary eyed and curious, Qrow was just pulling out the last batch of cookies from the oven. Four dozen muffins, two dozen cookies, and a pie sat on the counters and the dining table.

“Did you even sleep?” asked Yang, staring. Qrow shrugged, setting down the last set of cookies.

Ruby grinned and hopped onto a chair, stealing one of the triple berry muffins. “Thanks, Uncle Qrow,” she said. Qrow nodded, shucked the oven mitts, and started rooting around the fridge for something to drink. Whiskey, preferably, but he wasn’t picky.

“Hey,” said Yang. Qrow looked up, one hand around a beer, and raised an eyebrow at Yang. “You okay?” Her voice was soft, the same kind of tone he always used on her.

With more self-control than Qrow thought he had, he let go of the bottle and closed the fridge.

“Fine,” he said, offering Yang a smile. He knew it didn’t reach his eyes. He knew his bangs mostly hid them. His gaze flicked to her electric yellow arm. Yang’s scream pierced behind his eyes and tore out his vision. Left him staring at Ruby cradling her sister. Then at a burning house, holding two little girls close to him as the firefighters tried to find his friends.

“Uncle Qrow.” The words jarred him back to the present. He was sitting, leaning against the fridge. Both Yang and Ruby were crouched next to him, both keeping their distance.

“Hey,” said Ruby. He nodded to her. Shoved himself to his feet and grabbed a beer from the fridge. Downed half of it in one go.

“I’m gonna go sort out the bills,” he muttered, before heading upstairs. He caught the hurt expressions on Ruby and Yang’s faces as he retreated, but he couldn’t turn back. Couldn’t talk to them.

He could only see the blood and the fire and feel the punch to his gut.

It was going to be another one of those days.

Qrow awoke sometime around noon to a pounding headache and the cries of Yang and Ruby. He leaped out of bed. Halfway to the door before he realized the cries were inside his head and not aloud.

He punched the door. Split two of his knuckles and let the pain ground him.

He needed harder alcohol.

He trudged down to the kitchen, ignoring the tiny streams of blood on his hand. All the muffins and cookies had been put into Tupperware and put away. The pie was covered on the counter. A note was pinned to the coffee maker. Qrow plucked it up as he went to grab his keys to the car.

‘Uncle Qrow, we thought you needed some sleep so we didn’t wake you up when we left. We’re gonna go hang out with Ren and Nora at the park.

Love you! Sorry you’re having a bad day.

  • Yang & Ruby’

Qrow found himself smiling, softly, at the looping handwriting of Ruby’s. He leaned against the counter, keys forgotten on their hook, and sighed.

Don’t drive like this, he told himself. Remember what happened last time. He flinched. Okay, maybe don’t remember what happened last time and just don’t drive either. He could do that.

He grabbed another beer out of the fridge and headed for the couch. Turned on the TV and stared blankly at the news in the dimly lit house.

Sometimes he could go weeks – even months – before the nightmares and the panic returned. Until all he could see was the death of his friends – his family – over and over again in his head. The guilt that he hadn’t run back in, the fear of what would have happened to Ruby and Yang if he did, the ‘what ifs’ that swam around his head a thousand times… They all came back sooner or later.

He’d been a fool to think that moving would change that. Especially when Yang losing her arm had jarred loose a whole new set of worries and fears.

Zwei hopped on the couch next to Qrow and nuzzled up against him. Qrow stroked Zwei absently, his gaze still on the news but not really absorbing anything. Zwei helped, a little. His warmth and wriggling reminding Qrow that he was still there, in this room. That there was a present, and not just the past, warped a thousand times over from his own nightmares.

Yang and Ruby waved goodbye to Ren and Nora, who were dragged in by Glynda for lunch. They’d been out at the park for hours, playing catch and chasing each other around the fields. Yang’s aim was starting to get pretty good again – she’d only been missing by ten or fifteen feet at a time, and Nora and Ruby had had a lot of fun diving after the Frisbee and baseball they were tossing around.

Stretching her arms over her head, Ruby sighed as she and Yang walked back toward their house. “That was fun,” she said.

“Yeah,” said Yang, stretching as well. She frowned a bit. “Hey Ruby?”


“When was the last time Uncle Qrow had such a bad day?” asked Yang.

Ruby thought about it, lips pursed and brow furrowed. It was hard to tell, because Uncle Qrow was usually a lot better at hiding it. And they didn’t usually hit him this bad, either. She thought maybe the move had jarred something loose.

“I think…” Ruby pressed her lips together. “It was when you went into the hospital,” said Ruby, her voice going soft. “When we got kicked out while you were in surgery because Uncle Qrow was threatening the staff.”

Yang winced. “That… would explain why I don’t remember it.” She rubbed the back of her neck with her right hand. “Was he really that bad?”

“Worse,” said Ruby, still quiet. “I had to stay with a neighbour because he tore apart the house.” She shook her head. “I’ve never seen him like that. Not before or after. He thought you were going to die and that we wouldn’t get to say goodbye.” Her voice broke on the last word, lips trembling and vision blurred with tears.

“Hey, hey,” said Yang, pulling Ruby into a tight hug. They stopped walking, clinging to each other. Ruby sniffled into Yang’s shoulder, lips still trembling. “I’m here, right?” said Yang, pulling back. “And I’m not going anywhere.”

“You better not,” mumbled Ruby, wiping at her eyes.

“Are you two all right?” The girls turned as one to see Mr. Ironwood and Penny coming down the street. It was Mr. Ironwood that spoke. Ruby managed a little smile and pulled back from Yang completely.

“Yeah, Mr. Ironwood, we’re okay,” said Ruby. She blinked a few times to make sure the tears were gone. “Just a rough morning, I guess.”

Mr. Ironwood nodded. There was a softness in his eyes that made Ruby feel a bit better. “Oh? Is there anything I can do to help?”

Yang shook her head, but Ruby said, “You could check on Uncle Qrow, I guess. He’s not doing so great.”

“Is everything okay?” asked Penny, peeking around Mr. Ironwood.

Ruby smiled at Penny. “Yeah, he’ll be okay. Just having a bad day.”

Penny nodded in understanding. “I have those.”

Mr. Ironwood pinched his eyebrows together and looked between the three of them. He seemed stumped, for a couple seconds, on what to do.

“Why don’t you girls head back to our place?” he asked, flashing a smile at Ruby and Yang. “Penny, you could show them your new video game.”

Penny perked. “Do you like Mario Kart?”

“Love it,” sing-songed Yang, grinning. She cocked her head to one side. “I wonder if I can still play.”

Ruby giggled and looked up at Mr. Ironwood. “What are you going to do, Mr. Ironwood?”

“I think I’ll go check on your uncle,” he said. Ruby nodded and followed Penny and Yang, who were already heading back toward Penny’s house.

“Good luck!” Ruby called back to him.

James hesitated on the doorstep of Qrow’s house. He wasn’t sure if he should knock or not. Wasn’t sure if Qrow would answer, if he did. He’d seen the strained look in Ruby’s eye when she said Qrow had been having a bad day. He’d seen the way the girls had hugged each other tightly before he’d walked up.

Bad day probably didn’t begin to describe what was going on with Qrow at the moment. Not that James was judging, no. In fact, he could relate. Even now, almost twelve years later, he still woke up from nightmares from time to time. Nightmares that marked when he lost his right side. When he’d almost lost Penny. He hadn’t lied to Qrow, about SchneeCorp giving him a discount on his arm. But he also hadn’t told the whole truth.

The truth that he designed just about all of their advanced prosthetics. The truth that he had worked for them for years after the accident – and still did, in fact. The truth that he’d designed the very arm Yang wore and he’d known instantly what had been wrong with its calibrations.

She’d punched something – presumably a wall – at least a few days before the move. Strained the pneumatics and joints. James hadn’t said anything, just fixed it that day in the grocery store.

He knew what it was like, to want to feel something. Couldn’t blame her or judge her for doing something he’d done a dozen times. Perhaps more.

James knocked. He didn’t know if Qrow would answer. Frankly, didn’t expect him to. But he knocked nonetheless. The car was in the driveway, so he was probably home.

There was no response.

James knocked again, more just in hope that Qrow might acknowledge him somehow. If he walked away from the house and Qrow turned out to be in trouble, he’d be hard pressed to forgive himself.

“Qrow?” called James through the door. “It’s just me. I wanted to see if you were all right.”

There was a pause. Painfully long, by James’ standards.

The door opened.

Standing before him, hunched over and wrapped in a throw blanket, was Qrow. Zwei zipped out between their legs, silent as ever.

James didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t expected Qrow to open the door. There was a haunted look to Qrow’s eyes. Eyes that were bloodshot and had bags beneath them. A haggard look to his appearance.

Exhaustion and pain marred his every movement.

“Hi,” said James, his voice soft. Zwei zipped back into the house, brushing James’ legs as he went.

Qrow blinked, slow and sleepy. “Could you… keep the girls until after dinner?” he asked, his voice rough. He was shaking, James realized, and half of him longed to put his arms around Qrow and hug the smaller man. He’d been where Qrow was, in one way or another. When the nightmares wouldn’t let up and it was all you could do just to stay afloat.

“I don’t want them to see me like this,” said Qrow, voice raspy. James knew the girls knew part of it, but he didn’t know how much. But the look in Ruby’s eyes said that maybe Qrow couldn’t hide anything from those girls. He wasn’t going to tell Qrow that, however. It wasn’t his burden to place on the man.

“Of course,” said James. He hesitated. “You’re not… going to do anything rash, are you?”

Qrow chuckled, but it was dark sound, not a cheery one. “Nah.” He didn’t offer any further explanation. James didn’t ask for any, either.

“If you need anything,” said James. He trailed off, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m here for you, Qrow. I may not know exactly what you’re going through, but I can help.”

Qrow nodded. “Thanks,” he said. Then he shut the door, slow and deliberate.

James turned and walked back to his house. He couldn’t shake the haunted look in Qrow’s eyes the entire walk home.

Chapter Text

Two days later, Qrow was doing better. He still wasn’t fine – the girls were making all their own meals and he slept a lot more than he should have – but he wasn’t climbing the walls or trying to drown himself in cheap beer. So, that was a plus.

Instead, he ended up taking the girls back to school shopping. Sure he was still a little shaky, and he kept his hands stuffed in his pockets to hide the most obvious of his hangover symptoms when he wasn’t pushing the cart. But he was sober, he was focused, and he got to spend time with the girls. That was what was most important.

“Uncle Qrow!” called Ruby from down the aisle. Qrow leaned on the cart and grinned at her. She was waving around some notebooks with wolves on them. “Can I get them?”

“Sure,” said Qrow. He glanced at the cart, which was half full of supplies. New backpacks, some new clothes, lots of pencils and papers and such. Even a new ink cartridge for the printer – something he never would have thought of. And while he was happy to buy all these things for the girls, he couldn’t help but wince at some of the prices.

He still didn’t have a job. And the insurance money wasn’t going to last too much longer at this rate. He needed to start handing out more resumes. Presuming he could hold down a steady job with his nightmares being back.

“Mommy,” Qrow heard a little girl whisper. “How come that girl’s arm is yellow?”

Qrow saw Yang’s hands still. She was down the aisle, sorting through socks. She was in short sleeves today, loose and hanging around the elbow. So far, that was the only comment they’d gotten. Though Qrow had seen some looks that Yang hadn’t. Mostly he’d just glared at them until those people had hurried along, heads down.

When Qrow looked over at the mother and her daughter, he saw the mother looking more than a little lost. He chuckled softly.

“She lost it in an accident,” said Qrow, easily. He smiled at the two, as paternal as he could muster. “But we got her a new one, so she could keep playing games with her sister.”

The little girl nodded, looking thoughtful. “Was it a bad accident?” she asked.

“Very,” said Qrow, his gaze on the little girl. “She’s very lucky to be happy and safe again.”

The little girl nodded again. “Okay.” Then, to Yang, “Your arm is really cool.”

Yang smiled. “Thanks,” she said. The little girl grabbed her mother’s arm and dragged her away, the mother smiling fondly as they went.

“Happy and safe?” echoed Yang.

“Aren’t you?” asked Qrow. There was a genuine twitch to his voice that he only just caught.

Yang nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “I am.”

“Good,” said Qrow. “You deserve to be.”

Ruby came back around the corner, wielding highlighters and fuzzy pens. She stared at Qrow hopefully and he nodded, gesturing to the cart.

“Don’t forget clothes, kid,” said Qrow. “You need some new pants.”

Ruby rolled her eyes. “Says you. You own like, three shirts.”

“That’s not the point,” said Qrow. He owned more than three shirts. It was just that he only owned three different shirts. He had like six copies of his grey button-up shirt. It was his favourite. “The point is that most of your pants are worn through at the knees. My clothes are fine.”

Ruby sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Hate clothes shopping.” She stalked off toward the clothes department, dragging her feet. Qrow shook his head.

“You need at least three pairs!” he called, pushing the cart after her.

“Yeah, yeah,” Ruby called back, disappearing around a corner.

Qrow followed after her. When he turned the corner, he caught sight of Penny rushing toward Ruby and skidding to a stop before her. She snapped a mock salute at Ruby, who returned the gesture. Both girls giggled.

“Penny, what’re you doing here?” asked Ruby.

Penny smiled. Qrow saw her eyes flick to the sundresses behind Ruby. “I’m buying new clothes,” said Penny. “Mostly dresses.”

“You really like dresses,” said Ruby. She grinned. “Oooh. What about a green dress? Do you have any?”

Penny shook her head.

“We should get you one then! It’d look awesome with your hair,” said Ruby.

“May we?” asked Penny. Her gaze flicked over to James, who’d been watching the two. Qrow pressed closer with his cart, unable to hide his smile at their appearance.

“Sure,” said James. “I’ll be around. Text if you need me.” The girls nodded and took off. Leaving Qrow and James alone in the aisle. It took a second, but James looked up and caught Qrow’s gaze. Immediately, he smiled. Qrow felt a larger one tug onto his face.

James had that effect on him.

“Hey,” said Qrow.

“Hello,” said James. “Feeling better today?”

Qrow nodded, ducking his head. “Yeah,” he said, voice a little hoarse. “Much.” Maybe not much, but James didn’t need to know that. He’d been enough of a burden already. “Sorry about… everything.”

“Don’t be,” said James. And the earnestness in his voice made Qrow look up. The warmth in those blue eyes made the tension slide right out of Qrow’s body. “We all have our days.”

“Yeah…,” said Qrow, softly.

“Hey, Uncle Qro-” Yang’s words abruptly cut off as she came around the corner behind Qrow. “Oh, hey Mr. Ironwood.”

“Hello, Yang,” said James. Qrow turned to her.

“You know, you and Mr. Ironwood spend a lot of time together,” said Yang.

“What of it?” asked Qrow. They really didn’t, did they? Part of it was just that Penny and Ruby got along so well. But Qrow enjoyed James’ company. He hoped he wasn’t intruding on the man’s life too badly.

Yang shrugged, a twinkle in her eye. “Nothing. It’s important to have a strong support network, Uncle Qrow.” Her voice took on a mocking tone. “After all, trauma can often have adverse effects on your mental health.”

Qrow rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. If you’re gonna quote me, pick something less recent, kid. It’d be more impressive. Now, what’d you want?”

Yang held up her phone between her yellow fingers. “Sun just texted me. He wants to know if I can go see Space Mummies 3 with him and Neptune.”

“You got everything you need?” asked Qrow. He glanced back at the basket and tried not to cringe at the price tags.

“Yeah,” said Yang.

Qrow nodded. “All right, be home for dinner.”

“What’cha making?”

“Spaghetti,” said Qrow.

Yang punched a fist into the air. “Hell yeah!”

“Language,” admonished Qrow.

Yang gave him a flat look. “You say worse all the time.”

“Not in public I don’t,” said Qrow, running his fingers through his bangs.

Yang rolled her eyes. “Heck yeah,” she said, punching her fist only slightly up.

Qrow grinned. “That’s better. Now off ya go.”

“All right, I’m going,” said Yang. “Bye Uncle Qrow, later Mr. Ironwood.” She turned and headed down another aisle and back toward the door.

When Qrow turned back to James, the man had an amused look on his face.

“Kids,” said Qrow, drily.

“Space Mummies 3?” said James, raising an eyebrow.

Qrow chuckled. “She loves bad horror sci-fi, apparently so does the other blond.”

“Neptune hates horror movies,” said James, fondly. “That’s going to be a fun combination.” He paused for a moment. “So, quoting?”

Qrow nodded. “Back when she first got out of the hospital, she wasn’t doing so hot. I bought all these books about dealing with trauma and loss, looked up stuff on the internet.” He sighed. “I even talked to some war vets. Yang got to talk to them too, but it wasn’t the same kind of trauma. I used to say some pretty ridiculous stuff to get her to leave the house.” He chuckled. “I guess she’s just quoting me now.”

“How…?” James trailed off.

“Not my story to tell,” said Qrow. “If she wants you to know, she’ll tell you.”

James nodded. His gaze lingered on the spot where Yang had disappeared. He looked thoughtful, with his brow furrowed and his lips pursed. It was a good look on him.

“Can I ask you something?” asked Qrow, after a moment of silent.

James’ gaze returned to Qrow. He blinked. “Of course.”

Qrow jabbed a finger at James, frowning slightly. “There’s a ton of kids in this neighbourhood, and Sun seems like he likes Penny just fine. Why is it that Ruby’s her only real friend?”

James sighed and rubbed his left hand over his face. “They like her just fine,” agreed James. “And Penny likes them. But most of them…” He trailed off, cringed. “They can’t handle her for more than a few hours at a time.”

“That’s shit,” said Qrow, not bothering to hide the frustration in his voice.

“It is,” agreed James. “She’s wonderful and friendly and she loves making friends and telling people about what she likes. And most people…” He shook his head. The frustration in James’ voice was new. It dropped his pitch and left him sounding a little scratchy. Qrow tried not to be too attracted to it.

“They don’t understand her,” said James. “They don’t understand that she doesn’t like touching people or making eye contact. That you have to warn her when you’re changing plans unless it’s on her terms.” His hands clenched the handle of the cart so hard that Qrow heard it creak.

“What about school?” asked Qrow.

“She doesn’t go. I home school her,” said James.

Qrow frowned. “Don’t you think that’s making it worse?”

“No,” said James. There was a sharpness in his voice that made Qrow jump. “I don’t.”

Qrow opened his mouth to protest, only for Penny and Ruby to reappear, each carrying a couple of dresses.

“I tried them on,” said Penny. “They all fit and I look very pretty in them.”

“She really does,” said Ruby, grinning.

“May I get them?” asked Penny. Qrow saw her eyes flick to his necklace – a crooked cross – for a second.

“Sure, sweetheart,” said James. His gaze was still on Qrow. Penny and Ruby dumped the dresses into the cart. Penny fidgeted.

“There was something else,” said Penny.

Now James looked at her. “Yes?”

“Ruby is going back to school shopping,” said Penny. She rubbed one of her arms and looked at the floor. “But I do not go back to school shopping. Because I am homeschooled.”

“That’s right,” said James. Qrow frowned. What had Penny and Ruby been talking about?

“Do I have to be homeschooled?” asked Penny. Her eyes darted up and over James’ shoulder. “Ruby and I would be in the same grade. Yang and the other people in the neighbourhood all go to the same school.” Penny fidgeted again. “I think I would like to go to school with them.”

James frowned. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“But,” started Ruby.

“Do you remember what happened last time you went to school?” asked James.

Penny nodded.

“And you still think you should ask me this?” said James.

“…No, Father,” said Penny, softly. “I guess not.”

James sighed. “I think it’s time we went home. Come on, Penny.”

“But,” said Ruby again, as James and Penny went passed her. “Penny…”

“Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” asked Qrow, leaning against the cart and frowning. “Kid’s gotta grow up sometime.”

James turned and scowled at Qrow. “No, I don’t.”

“She obviously wants to go. Why not let her make the choice?” asked Qrow.

“Because it’s not her choice. Before you showed up, she never talked about school,” snapped James.

Qrow rolled his eyes. “Maybe that’s because she never had anyone she wanted to see at school before,” he shot back. “Why not let her make her own decision, for once? One bad experience shouldn’t destroy you for life.”

“She’s my daughter,” said James, voice raising. “Don’t tell me what to do with her. What do you even know about raising kids? You don’t have kids.”

Qrow flinched like he’d been struck. Saw the way James’ expression faltered.


“Let’s go, Ruby,” said Qrow, his voice hoarse. He gripped the cart hard to hide the shaking in his hands. “Let’s go.” He shoved the cart down the aisle and away from James and Penny, ignoring the way James was looking at him, calling after him. Pity. He didn’t need pity. Fuck his pity.

The check-out and drive home was silent. Ruby stared out the window. Qrow tried not to shake with rage. They didn’t talk until they got home.

Ruby said she was going to go put all her stuff away and throw Yang’s stuff on her bed. Then, she came back down to the kitchen, where Qrow was leaned against the counter, nursing a beer.

“He’s wrong, you know,” said Ruby. Qrow looked up. “Yang and I are just as much yours as we are Mom and Dad’s. Maybe we’re even more yours.” She crossed the room and hugged him, tightly. “Don’t let anyone tell you different, Uncle Qrow.”

Qrow set down his beer and blinked hard. Wrapped his arms tight around Ruby’s shoulders and buried his face in her hair. Sniffled.

They stood there for a while, clinging to each other. And they both pretended that the tears in Qrow’s eyes and in Ruby’s hair didn’t exist.

Chapter Text

Yang appeared on James’ driveway sometime the following afternoon with a look in her eye that James could only describe as “murder”. He had been working on an old car at the time – a project he enjoyed on his off days – when she’d stalked up to his garage and planted herself right in the entrance, square in front of his car.

“You’re an asshole,” she said. Voice sharp and blunt all at once.

James wiped his hands off on an old rag. “Weren’t you told to watch your language?” he asked. There was hesitation in his voice. He had a feeling on why she was here, but he didn’t know what she was going to do.

Yang scowled and stabbed a finger at him, accusingly. “You made my uncle cry. I’ll say whatever the fuck I want to you.” She folded her arms across her chest, voice dropping to a growl.

James stared. “He… what?”

“Yeah,” snapped Yang. “Ruby told me what you said to him at the store. What happened when they got home. You’re a god damn asshole.” Her lips curled back from her teeth, baring them in a snarl. “It’s one thing to say he’s not our father – biologically he’s not – but to say he doesn’t have kids at all?” Yang threw her hands into the air. “Just what the hell do you think Ruby and I are? Do you think we go somewhere else to sleep?”

She slammed her prosthetic fist, clenched tight, into the hood of his car. He jumped, eyes wide. She’d left a dent.

“Who the fuck are you to say what’s family and what’s not?” Her voice went loud enough that it cracked. Her shoulders were heaving, her face red, and her hair hung around her in a curtain that wasn’t unlike fire. James swallowed hard. He might have had a hundred pounds and a foot on Yang – at least – but he was sure, in that instant, that she could snap him in half if the thought struck her.

He’d dealt with a lot, working with Schnee and being in the military, but he couldn’t ever recall a time when a teenager had ever put him this on edge.

The dent in his car probably wasn’t helping matters.

Yang’s voice went low and dark, most of the anger gone subtle. “If you ever want to talk to my uncle again, you’re going to apologize to him.” She took five steps forward until she was in his personal space and looked up at him. Her fists were clenched at her sides. “No excuses. No saying you were right. You hurt you. You will apologize.”

James asked, “Why do you think you can threaten me?” He knew his voice had gone defensive. He didn’t like being on edge. Didn’t like that Yang – a child – was trying to make him out to be a fool. Yes, he’d hurt Qrow, and yes, he was going to apologize. But did she really have to try and back him into a corner? He’d screwed up. He knew that. Why push it this far?

Yang grinned, all teeth. “You’re an over-protective father of a teenage girl and I’m missing an arm.” She shrugged. “Experience says that I could knock out all your teeth and you wouldn’t touch me.”

Well, she wasn’t wrong, thought James. “You certainly seem to think you have me pegged.”

Yang raised an eyebrow. “Am I wrong?”

He sighed. “No, not in the least. Though I like to think I can stand up better to your threats than you seem to think I can.” He eyed his car. “The dent was a tad overdramatic.”

Yang grimaced. Rubbed the back of her neck. “Yeah, well. I was pissed off.”

“You’re not anymore?”

“Oh I am,” said Yang. “I’m actually debating if I can maim you and not get arrested.” She grinned. “But, I mean, you’re gonna apologize, right?”

James nodded. “Yes, I am.”

She shrugged. “Then fine, I’ll let it slide, this time. Uncle Qrow likes you too much for me to do any serious damage.”

James raised an eyebrow. “He likes me?”

“Oh yeah,” said Yang. “But he hasn’t had friends in years, so it’s not surprising. Besides,” she shrugged, “he called you a tree. So, bonus!”

The mood whiplash was making James’ head hurt He couldn’t believe this girl had gone from threatening to knock out his teeth to cracking jokes about her uncle with him in less than five minutes. He wanted to rewind the clock and see if anything that had just happened was real, of if he’d just imagined it. And tree? He was tall, of course, but why was tree a good thing?

“Look, Ruby told me something else you said, too,” said Yang. She leaned against his car, her hand resting on the dent.

“Oh?” said James. He leaned his hip against the door, frowning slightly.

“About you not wanting Penny to go to school,” said Yang.

James bristled. “I don’t think that’s really your business.”

“Ruby’s upset,” said Yang. She narrowed her eyes at him and flipped her bangs out of her face. “That makes it my business. Look, I get that something happened to Penny last time she went to school…”

“No,” said James, sharply, cutting her off. “You don’t. What happened to Penny last time she went to school was monstrous. I refuse to let there even be a chance that it will be repeated.” He clenched his fists at his sides. “She’s safer here.”

“You can’t keep her safe forever,” Yang shot back. “Why not let her decide what she wants to do? It’s her life. Her education.”

“She doesn’t understand,” said James.

Yang jumped off the car and stood up straight. “And neither do we! We’re her friends, Mr. Ironwood. We love her, okay? It’s been two weeks and we already love her. She’s the most awesome person Ruby and I have ever met.” Yang flexed her hands in front of her. James saw the pinky on her right hand twitch feebly. She’d wrecked the calibrations when she’d punched his car. He’d have to show her how to fix that later.

And god, even when she was trying to argue with him, he wanted to help her out. It was impossible to stay mad at this family, wasn’t it?

“Penny wants to go to school,” said Yang, quietly. “It’s all she can talk to Ruby about. She’s got me and Ruby to kick the ass of anyone who comes after her.” Yang looked up at James with wide eyes. Her soft expression suited her much more than the angry one that had previously adorned her face. “She’s strong. She can do this.”

“How do you know?” asked James, quietly. “How do you know she can handle it?”

Yang held out her right arm. He saw the pinky twitch again. “I lost my mother, my parents, and my right arm. I lost my home and moved halfway across the country.” Yang smiled at him. “I’m still here, aren’t I?” said Yang. “If I wasn’t strong, I wouldn’t be. Ruby’s dealt with just as much, even if she’s still got all her limbs, and she’s still here too.”

She crossed the space between them and laid a hand on his arm. “She can do this. She survived. She’s here. She’s happy. And we’ll be with her every step of the way.” Yang smiled up at him. “Can you please just, think about it? And trust us?”

James hesitated. But he could feel his resolve crumbling at Yang’s words. “I’ll think about it,” he said, finally.

Yang grinned. “Awesome!” She pumped her fists into the air. “Now, show me what you’re working on.”

James raised an eyebrow. “You know cars?”

Yang gave him an incredulous look. “Dude.

“All right, all right,” said James, chuckling. “Let’s get to work.”

Qrow drummed his fingers nervously on the bar counter, looking around. This place was fancy – way too fancy for him. He was in his best clothes and he still felt underdressed. There was no way this place would hire him, but he didn’t have many other options. Besides, Summer had known the owners, once upon a time, and he’d brought in a picture with his resume when he’d requested to speak with the manager.

Lisa Lavender, a woman a few years Qrow’s senior, strolled out of the back room. Qrow straightened and smiled, trying to look like he wasn’t silently freaking out. He’d been waiting almost half an hour.

“Sorry about that,” said Lisa. “I was calling some of your references.” Qrow nodded. That was a good sign, right? She set down the picture and his resume on the counter. “They seem to think you’re the best thing to ever happen to them.”

Qrow shrugged. “I worked hard.”

“Do you still?” she asked. Qrow nodded. Lisa hummed. “Summer told me about you, once. How you were driven and charismatic, could talk people in and out of anything.” Her fingers trailed the picture.

“Can’t believe you’re the only one of ‘em that never ended up with Tai.” She grinned at him. “You’re the best looking one out of the bunch.”

Qrow chuckled. “Thanks, you’re not so bad yourself.”

Lisa smirked. “You’ve got an impressive resume, references that think you’re god’s gift to bar tending, and a glowing review from my late best friend.” She shook her head. “What’s the downside?”

“I’ve got two kids,” said Qrow. “And I can’t be out all night.”

Lisa nodded, lips pursed thoughtfully. “All right,” she said, slowly. “I don’t usually do this, but I’m short bar tenders and I need to fill the 6-12 slot with a good performer. You can do that?” Qrow nodded. “Okay, you mix me my favourite drink, you’ve got the job.”

Qrow grinned, swapped places with Lisa, and set to work. He put on a whole performance for her, juggling and tossing and giving his flourishes their casual flair. He winked at her, once, catching a tumbler behind him, which got her laughing in surprise.

He set down the drink, complete with little umbrella and lime, and waited as she took a sip.

Lisa hummed. “A talented performer who makes an excellent drink.” She nodded. “I’m sold. Sunday to Thursday nights – five days a week – six to midnight. Starting pay is twenty bucks an hour, plus tips. We have a dress code.”

Qrow nodded, eyes wide with disbelief. “Of course,” he said.

“I’ll get you the paperwork and everything else you need,” said Lisa. She stood and came back around the counter, heading for the door. “Oh, and Qrow?”

He looked up, eyebrows raised in question.

“It’s good to see one of you is still around,” said Lisa, softly. Qrow nodded, a small, sad smile on his face.

As Lisa disappeared into the back, Qrow leaned against the counter and grinned. He’d gotten the job, and at a pretty swank place to boot. He’d be making good money, and he wouldn’t be away from the girls on Fridays or Saturdays. It was perfect.

Maybe his luck was finally starting to look up, after all.

Chapter Text

As much as it terrified him, James eventually relented. Penny would be attending school with Ruby and Yang after all. He spent the week before school began talking to counsellors, the principal, and the various education assistants to make sure Penny had everything she needed. From a safe room, to support, to the ability to use the special bathrooms. Anything and everything, and she only had to use what she wanted. The rest was just there to make sure Penny had a safety net.

But even knowing that, he was terrified. Penny hadn’t been in typical school since she was twelve years old. With his freelance work, various degrees, and occasional trips to Atlas City to visit Schnee Corp, it’d been easy enough to home school her for the last three and a half years. And, more than that, he’d enjoyed the structure that Penny’s studies had provided his day.

So, the morning he dropped off Penny for her first day of school, James could feel his hands shaking.

“Goodbye, Father,” said Penny. She gave him her customary salute as she climbed out of the car, bag over her shoulders. “I shall see you at two-forty.”

James nodded, forcing a smile to quell his nerves. “Ruby and Yang will be here soon, right?”

“Yes, they will be here in five minutes. Ruby texted me.” Penny held up her phone.

“Good,” said James. “Have a good day, Penny.” He paused, then added, “I love you.”

Penny beamed. “I love you too!” she said, perkily. Then she ran off toward the flag pole, where she had said she would wait for Ruby and Yang the night before.

James watched her go, his chest tight, and forced himself to drive off instead of sitting there, watching her, until Ruby and Yang arrived.

He made it a block before he pulled over and texted her.

“Still okay?” he texted. He waited, one hand clenched on the steering wheel, for her response.

Twenty-six seconds later – he watched the time on his phone – Penny’s response came through.

“Yup. Ruby and Yang just arrived. We are going to jog around the track twice before going inside.”

James felt himself relax, the tension leaving his shoulders. She wasn’t alone. That was what was important. She had refused a personal EA, quite adamantly in fact, and so James had taken great pains to make sure she was in all of Ruby’s classes. It hadn’t been hard. Ruby had whole-heartedly agreed.

Maybe it wasn’t fair to Ruby, to have her be part of Penny’s support system, but both girls had been so adamant that James couldn’t find it in him to refuse. And the principal, a lovely woman by the name of Peach, had been more than happy to arrange their schedules together.

Taking a deep breath, James headed for home. There was nothing else he could do for now. At two-forty, he’d pick up Penny. Until then, worrying would only make it worse.

James slowed the SUV as he approached Qrow’s house, hesitating. He wondered if Qrow would be awake – Ruby and Yang took the bus, after all. And that reminded him, he should ask the girls if they wanted a ride to school from now on. James was fine with driving Penny every day. No reason not to ask Ruby and Yang if they wanted a lift as well.

Taking a breath, James parked his SUV and walked up the pathway to Qrow’s house. Perhaps the man would be available. He was a good distraction, and besides, he’d already apologized for his day in the grocery store a dozen times. Qrow seemed amiable enough toward him now.

Three raps on the door and Qrow was opening it. He squinted up at James, his bangs slicked back. The look suited Qrow. It gave him a mischievous air that was very attractive, if James thought about it for long.

Not that he found Qrow attractive, mind you, it was just asking for trouble. Good friends were hard to come by.

“Mornin’, Jimmy,” said Qrow. He stepped back and let James into the house.

“James,” grumbled James. He followed Qrow into the house. Zwei looked up from his position on the couch and gave a quiet bark before settling again.

“Penny get to school, okay?” asked Qrow. He led James to the kitchen and poured them both a coffee, which James took gratefully.

“Yes, she seems happy too,” said James. He sighed. “I can’t help but worry, however.”

Qrow hummed and leaned against the counter. He was still in pyjamas, and the low slung sweats, combined with his t-shirt riding up, revealed a thin line of pale skin that drew James’ eye more than he cared to think about.

He cleared his throat and focused on his coffee.

“She’ll be fine. She’s a tough kid,” said Qrow. His gaze had a twinkle in it, one that James wasn’t sure what to make of.

“So people keep telling me,” murmured James.

“Hey,” said Qrow. He reached out and laid a hand on James’ left shoulder. “I’m not kidding. I’ve known that kid for a couple weeks now, and she’s damn strong.” Qrow’s eyes were soft. “Whatever happened before, she’s past it. She can handle herself.”

James pressed her lips tightly together. “And if she can’t?”

“Then you’ll be there for her,” said Qrow. “And so will Ruby, and Yang, and myself. If she falls – and that’s a big if, Jimmy – we’ll catch her.”

James drank deeply from his coffee to avoid having to think of what to say for a minute. When he finally did find the words, he found Qrow was staring at him.

“How do you do it?” asked James, his voice quiet.

“Do what?” asked Qrow.

James pressed his lips together. “Let them go off on their own, knowing they could crash and burn.”

Qrow was silent for a moment. Long enough that James began to worry. But, finally, Qrow said something.

“You know how Yang’s arm is a recent injury?” asked Qrow, quietly.

James turned slightly so that he was fully facing Qrow. Schooled his face so that his surprise didn’t show. “Yes.”

“I can’t tell you exactly what happened – that’s her business,” said Qrow. “But I can tell you why it happened.” Qrow took a deep breath, his eyes closed. “I’ve always let the girls explore who they are. Be who they want to be, and all that. But one night, I flat out said no to Yang. I didn’t offer reason or explanation or anything. I just told her no, end of story.” He opened his eyes. Leaned harder against the counter. Stared at the wall instead of at James. “She threw her phone at me and walked out. Screamed I wasn’t her father.” He laughed, but it was a bitter sound.

Qrow sighed. “There was an accident. She couldn’t call anyone. If…” His voice cracked. “If Ruby hadn’t followed her – stolen my god damn car and followed her – Yang would have died that night. And it would have been all my fault.”

Qrow blinked hard and James saw tears collecting in the man’s eyes. He averted his gaze to be polite.

“So it’s not a matter of hiding them from the world, Jimmy,” said Qrow. “It’s a matter of showing them how to be safe and explaining the monsters. Because if they wanna go, they will. And you can’t stop them.” Qrow shook his head. “God knows I had to learn that the hard way.”

James reached out, hesitantly, and rested a hand on Qrow’s shoulder. “She doesn’t seem to hold any ill will toward you,” he said, slowly.

“She doesn’t,” agreed Qrow. The man gripped his coffee cup harder. “Neither one of them does. They don’t get it.”

“Get what?” asked James.

Qrow laughed, sharp and bitter. “It’s all my fault. It always is. That’s why we’re broken to begin with.”

James didn’t have anything to say to that. He wondered how much of this Qrow meant to say and how much was just spilling out because it had nowhere else to go.

“Have you eaten today?” asked James, changing the subject. “Or last night?” Qrow shook his head.

James sighed. “Well, I’ll have you know I make a mean dinosaur pancake, how about I make us some?” asked James.

Qrow nodded and allowed himself to be led to the dining table. James sat him down, grabbed him a glass of water, and set to work.

After Qrow got some food into him, he lightened up, and the two men ended up trading horror stories about raising kids for a few hours. James thought Qrow’s story about Ruby and the Jello took the cake, but Qrow argued that Penny’s adventures in kites were just as good.

Before long, it was time to go get Penny from school and James sent her a text asking if Ruby and Yang wanted a ride home as well. When he got the affirmative, he asked Qrow if he wanted to join him, and the two, plus Zwei, set off to the school in James’ SUV.

“Father!” called Penny, running toward the SUV as they pulled up. Ruby and Yang were right behind her, laughing. James caught the slight tightness in Yang’s shoulders, despite her easy laugh.

The girls piled into the backseat – James noticed that Ruby was careful not to jostle Penny, and he found himself smiling.

“How was your first day?” asked James.

“Fantastic,” said Penny. “The teachers were very lovely and I sat next to Ruby in all my classes.”

Ruby grinned. “It was so cool. Penny had to leave the classroom once and no one was upset or anything.”

“Oh?” said James. A sharp spike of worry travelled down his spine. “Are you all right?”

“I am fine,” said Penny. “I was bumped in Math class and I needed to wash my hands to stop shaking.” She smiled. “But the girl apologized afterward.”

“Her name’s Neo,” said Ruby. “And she can’t talk. So she’s gonna teach us sign language so we can hang out with her at lunch.”

James pulled out of the parking lot and started home. “Sounds like you had a fun day,” he said.

“What about you, Yang?” asked Qrow. He pivoted around in his seat to look at her. James took the next corner carefully to avoid knocking Qrow around.

“It was fine,” said Yang, shrugging. “People stared. Ren and Nora ate lunch with the three of us. No big.”

“Yang,” said Qrow.

Yang rolled her eyes. “Oh come on, we knew people were gonna stare, Uncle Qrow. Just be happy I didn’t punch anyone. They kept asking how strong it was.” She slumped in her seat, arms folded. “I’ll show them strong.”

“I thought you’d eat with Sun and Neptune,” said James, slowly. He thought it was a safe topic.

Yang raised an eyebrow, which he caught in his rear view mirror. “They spent all of lunch making out in one of the staircases.”

Qrow grinned, chuckling as he turned back in his seat. “Ah, young love,” said Qrow, the dryness in his tone making James fight a snort.

“We walked by them, once,” said Penny. “They did not seem to notice us.” She had her head tilted to one side and her lips pursed.

“He never does up his shirt,” whispered Ruby.

Penny nodded. “The teachers kept yelling at him.”

“He kept yelling ‘sexist dress code’ back at them,” said Ruby. The girls dissolved into giggles.

“Well, I’m glad you all had fun,” said James. He looked to Qrow out of the corner of his eye. “Why don’t we all have dinner together? It’s a lovely night, we could eat in our backyard, Penny.”

“Oh yes!” said Penny, bouncing slightly in her seat. “That sounds wonderful.”

“I’m in,” said Yang.

“Woohoo!” said Ruby. “Please, Uncle Qrow?”

Qrow shrugged. “Sure.”

James smiled at Qrow, and saw the way Qrow’s eyes went soft when he smiled back at James. After their conversation today, James found he had a newfound respect for Qrow and his struggles. And he couldn’t help but want to lessen the burden that Qrow seemed to deal with. He couldn’t help with everything, but maybe by being a friend, and by keeping Qrow engaged with the world outside his nieces and his job, he could do a little.

And really, thought James, seeing the way Qrow laughed at one of Ruby’s stories, every little bit helped.

Chapter Text

The first few weeks of school bled summer into fall, and Qrow found his luck had well and truly turned around. His job was going well, the girls were adjusting easily to their new home, and his friendship with James seemed to have made it past those first few stumbling blocks. As the leaves began to change colour and the first week of October came around, Qrow could honestly say that he hadn’t felt this good in years.

It helped, he thought, that he tended to just call James whenever he felt the urge to get into hard liquor. Beer remained a mainstay in the house, but he was staying away from whiskey and vodka at least, which used to be a staple in the fridge. He knew the girls were appreciative as well.

So when Qrow woke up that morning in a great mood, he decided it’d be good to check out the farmer’s market before it closed up in a few weeks. It was a Saturday, but Yang and Ruby both had plans. Ruby and Penny were going to the indoor wave pool downtown with Ren, Nora, and Glynda, and Yang was doing… something with Neptune and Sun. Qrow wasn’t sure what it was, but Yang assured him it wasn’t dangerous and was mostly legal, so he was inclined to let it go.

Once the girls were gone, Qrow clipped a leash to Zwei and walked down to James’ place, where he tapped on the door. He wasn’t sure if James was busy today, but he figured it was worth a shot. The man was good company. And Qrow could probably talk him into carrying all the bags. Or maybe just the watermelon. He wasn’t picky.

James opened the door in a v-neck that made Qrow forget his name for a minute. He could see the spot where metal met flesh near his collarbone, and the spider web of pale, smooth scar tissue that surrounded it. He blinked a few times before figuring out that James was looking at him. And that James seemed rather uncomfortable.

“Morning, Jimmy,” said Qrow, looking up to grin at the man and his blue, blue eyes.

“James,” he replied. “And good morning to you too.”

Qrow shifted Zwei’s leash to his other hand. Tried not to stare at James’ throat and neck. He’d known about the arm, figured it went up to the shoulder, but now he saw the metal across his collarbone and wondered just how much of James was chrome.

“Was wondering if you were busy,” said Qrow. “Wanted to check out the Farmer’s Market and could use an extra set of hands.”

James glanced over his shoulder into the house, lips pressed together. “Well I do have some work…” Qrow felt his shoulder slump a bit. But then James looked back at him and smiled. “But I think I can put it off, let me get dressed.”

James disappeared into the house and Qrow, not knowing what to do, waited on the front porch. Zwei sniffed at James’ petunias, which hadn’t yet been touched by the growing cold.

After a few minutes, James reappeared in a black turtleneck and with his customary glove for his right hand. Qrow blinked. Hard. Of course he was aware that James was attractive – and that was as far as that thought went, they were friends – but the turtleneck was giving him a whole new level.

“Right!” said Qrow, clearing his throat. “Walk?” James nodded, his brow furrowed slightly at, Qrow suspected, the slight crack in Qrow’s voice.

The two walked toward the farmer’s market, which was only six blocks away. It was good exercise, both for Qrow and for Zwei, who was often cooped up in the backyard. And James seemed to enjoy it as well.

“You ever been to the market?” asked Qrow as they walked.

James hummed. “From time to time. Penny likes their tomatoes.”

“Picky?” guessed Qrow.

“Incredibly,” said James. “Not that I mind, of course, and she’s very apologetic about not liking certain foods.”

Qrow nodded and kept one eye on Zwei, who was sniffing at a telephone pole near the sidewalk. “Well, guess I should get the tomatoes then.” He glanced over at James, who was smiling fondly at Zwei. Qrow knew he was staring. He cleared his throat, asked James about Penny’s schooling – the parts that Ruby didn’t bother to mention – and passed the next fifteen minutes with a decent excuse to keep looking at James for a little too long.

The market was crowded, but not unpleasantly so. Qrow and James slid through it together easily, keeping Zwei close and occasionally pulling each other out of the way of someone or something that cut too close. The warmth of James against his right side was pleasant – a reminder that the man was there, and solid. And in a turtleneck, which still wasn’t fair.

“Tomatoes?” said James, drawing Qrow from his thoughts. James pointed to the cart next to them, where an impressive display of tomatoes lay, piled high. Qrow wondered, idly, if he could get away with taking a few from the bottom of the pyramid, or if it would bring the whole thing down.

“Don’t you dare,” said James.

Qrow looked up at him, all false innocence. “What?”

James stabbed a finger at him, stopping just short of Qrow’s face. “I raised a teenage girl, Qrow, I know that look.”

“That’s good for the old ego,” quipped Qrow. He batted James’ hand away and grinned. “Don’t worry, I won’t.” He wanted to, but he wouldn’t. Wouldn’t be fair to the people running the cart, no matter how much he wanted to see those tomatoes go tumbling across the farmer’s market.

“Tomatoes,” said James, firmly. Qrow grinned wider.

“Tomatoes,” he agreed, a teasing tone to his voice.

James sighed. A long suffering thing that Qrow thought he’d probably practiced on Penny a hundred times before. Although, he couldn’t imagine Penny doing something that would garner such a look. Ruby and Yang, on the other hand…

Well, Qrow had had a lot of practice on that particular sigh and look, over the years. Particularly so since they hit puberty. Although, Yang had always been more of a handful.

“Are the watermelons here any good?” asked Qrow as they piled some tomatoes into a little bag.

James raised an eyebrow at him and handed Qrow another tomato. “You’re going to carry a watermelon for the rest of the day?”

Qrow’s lips twitched. “Oh, I’m not.”

“You could just ask,” said James. “I will, but you could just ask.” Qrow grinned and threw an arm around James’ shoulders for a quick, one-armed, totally-manly hug. He felt the way the man stiffened in surprise and Qrow let go. Overstepped, shit.

“Let’s find us some watermelons,” said Qrow, clearing his throat.

Together, the two headed through the farmer’s market, studying fruits and vegetables together as though it was a matter of serious business. They discussed squashes, listened to honeydew – although neither one of them liked honeydew, they discovered, after buying four – and Qrow even juggled some apples for James, who laughed until Qrow dropped them and had to pay for them.

All in all, in it was the best morning Qrow had had in a long time, and he couldn’t help but grin and laugh at every little thing. Because this? This was why he’d moved. This was why he was trying. For the days that made everything shine a little brighter. For the days that could light up the darkness, no matter how far he fell. It was nice, knowing that there were days like this. And that those days were growing more frequent and closer together.

But he tried not to dwell, and instead, he focused on the morning at hand. Enjoyed himself in the moment.

On their way back to the house, both of them laden down with bags and with Zwei sniffing at telephone poles, Qrow found himself staring at James.

“What?” asked James, when he finally noticed, only a few blocks from home.

“Thanks,” said Qrow. James furrowed his brow, so Qrow pressed on, “This was fun. I needed it.”

James smiled, a warm thing that touched the corners of his stupidly blue eyes. “It was fun,” agreed James. “We’re friends, Qrow, I’m almost always willing to spend time with you.”

Qrow cocked an eyebrow. “Almost?”

“I do need to work and sleep,” said James, drily. “And I have a daughter to raise.” He glanced up at his house as they approached it. Ruby and Penny were sitting on the porch, Ren and Nora sitting on the railing. Penny’s hands were flying, her face alight as she told a story.

“Although,” said James, his voice fond, “she seems to be finding more and more people to spend time with.”

Qrow smiled. “Yeah, good to see her and Ruby enjoying themselves so much.”

James nodded. Then, with a slight confused pinch to his face, asked, “Where’s Yang, today?”

“No idea,” said Qrow. James gave him a curious look. “But she told me it was mostly legal and not dangerous, so she’s probably fine. Plus, she’s with Sun and Neptune.”

“The resident trouble makers,” said James with a sigh, shaking his head. “And ‘mostly’ legal?” He cocked an eyebrow.

Qrow shrugged. “Jimmy, if you knew the stuff I got into as a teenager, you’d know mostly legal is better than I ever did.”

James let out a soft laugh. “Ah, fair enough.” He shook his head, and Qrow found himself smiling at James’ easy expression.

“Father!” Penny’s voice rose to great them as they approached. “Oh! Did you get blueberries?”

“Lots,” said James, holding up one bag. “Do you want to help us put these away? Then I can start on lunch.” Penny nodded and took the bags from James, calling for Ruby to follow her into the kitchen.

That left Qrow eyeing Nora and Ren, who looked far too innocent for Qrow’s liking.

“You wanna make five bucks?” asked Qrow. Nora perked. He held out the bags. “My door’s unlocked – you know the house – go put these in the fridge without breaking anything and I’ll give you five bucks.” Nora took the bags.

“Come on, Ren!” shouted Nora, running off.

Ren sighed. “Nora! We get a forty dollar allowance every month.” He looked at Qrow, sighed again, and jogged after her. Qrow was amazed at how much exhaustion the kid managed to get into the motion. He wondered if Ren ever slept. Or if Nora did, for that matter.

It was pretty obvious who was faring better from the deal.

“So,” said James, now that they were alone. “Want to help me make lunch?”

Qrow laughed. “Lead on, Jimmy, lead on.”

“It’s James,” said James, but his voice was fond, and his voice was light. And as Qrow stared up at James, he realized how close they were. And he felt his cheeks heat and saw the way James’ breath hitched.

And they stared at each other. Neither one daring to move. Barely daring to breathe.

Then Penny was shouting that they were done putting the groceries away. The moment lost, James stepped back from Qrow, something unreadable in his eyes, and darted off into the house. It wasn’t quite fleeing, but Qrow thought the message was pretty clear.

He slumped against the railing of James’ porch for a moment. Put one hand on his face and took a few deep breaths.

He’s your friend, he told himself. Get a grip.

But, for a moment, those blue, blue eyes had captured him. And he thought he’d captured James as well.

Stupid, he thought.

He collected himself and headed into James’ house. He had teenagers to pay and lunch to make, after all, awkwardness be damned.

So much for his perfect morning.

Chapter Text

The tension between Qrow and James was thin, but present. They refused to stand close to each other, started finding excuses not to be alone together for long periods of time, and generally just avoided each other unless they had to be together. It was taking a toll on their friendship, and a toll on Qrow. He was spending far too much time alone again. And the familiar prickle of want and need for something stronger than a beer was a scream inside his head, sometimes louder than his own thoughts.

So when Ruby and Penny suggested a sleepover party the following Saturday, Qrow was all for it. Taking care of a bunch of teenagers would keep him busy enough to stay away from the liquor store for the night. Maybe not block out the want, but at least the ability to follow through.

So Nora, Ren, and Penny all ended up at Qrow’s house that night. Yang was off at Sun and Neptune’s for the night – Qrow had told her to take condoms, Yang had looked horrified and thrown a book at him, it’d been worth it – so that meant he had four teens to take care of.

Qrow ended up in the kitchen, making nachos and a special dip, while the four watched Treasure Planet on the big screen in the living room. He heard them shouting at Jim Hawkins more than once – and maybe if (and that was a big if) he and James made up, he’d have a new nickname for him – and it made him smile.

When he brought out the nachos and dip, he was sure to also bring out the bag of chips he’d grabbed special for Penny. She flashed a smile at him and took the chips, nibbling on one or two, while eyeing the nachos.

“Do they have peppers in them?” she asked.

“The left ones do, the right ones are just tomatoes, cheese, and chicken,” said Qrow. “And I used that one spice you like instead of the others.”

Penny perked and grabbed a nacho. “These are really good,” she said. “Thank you, Mr. Branwen.” She snuggled into her chair and munched on the nachos.

“Sure thing,” said Qrow. “Rest of you good?” He looked to the couch, where Nora was half on top of Ren, trying to steal his food, and Ruby was lying upside down, her feet dangling as she watched the movie.

“Yup,” said Ruby.

“All good,” said Nora. She grabbed the chip and sat down on Ren’s stomach.

He stared at Qrow with long-suffering eyes. “Please, help me.”

Qrow raised an eyebrow, shrugged, and headed back to the kitchen. Ren could handle the girls. He hoped. Either way, the kid had a lot more experience with Nora than Qrow did.

Qrow tidied up the kitchen slowly, listening to the four teens chatting alongside the movie. More than once, he caught himself looking out the window, which pointed up the street, toward James’ house. It was a useless endeavour. Not just because Qrow and James weren’t speaking properly, but also because James was halfway across the state, in Atlas, attending a Schnee Corp convention as one of their freelancers.

Qrow sighed and glanced back toward the living room. He wondered if the kids would mind him sitting in with them. This was turning out to be a lot less work than he’d thought.

But even as the thought occurred to him, Penny was poking her head into the kitchen.

“Mr. Branwen?” she asked, her eyes a little wider than usual. Her gaze flicked over his shoulder, then settled on the sideways cross he wore.

“Hey, Penny,” he said. “Are you all right?”

“Um,” said Penny. She looked back toward the living room. Then at the cross. Then at the floor. “Um,” she said again. And right, James had told Qrow about this. How sometimes Penny got overwhelmed and couldn’t answer complex questions.

“Okay, let’s start small,” said Qrow. “Do you need to be alone?” Penny shook her head. “Do you want to sit in here with me?” She nodded. “Do you want a drink of water?” She nodded again. Qrow grabbed a glass and filled it up, sliding it toward Penny, who sat down at the little table.

“Others too loud?” asked Qrow. He leaned against the counter and kept his voice low, spoke slowly. Penny nodded, biting her lip. She ran her finger around and around the rim of the glass, her eyes following the movement.

“It’s no big deal,” said Qrow. “I was just going to wipe down the counters, then probably grab a book.”

A few minutes passed in silence. Qrow wiped down the counter and then picked up his book. He’d only gotten two pages in when Penny spoke again.

“What are you reading?” she asked.

Qrow looked up. She was still tracing the glass. The movements were slower now, less sharp and frantic. “Legends of the Owl Man,” said Qrow. “It’s a fairy tale about a time travelling wizard. It’s really good.” Penny nodded. “Would you uh, like me to read it to you?” he asked.

“Yes, please,” said Penny.

Qrow turned back to the beginning and started to read. He put on his narrator voice, the one he always did for fairy tales.

He’d only gotten six or seven pages in when Ruby poked her head into the kitchen. She smiled at Qrow and then turned her attention to Penny.

“Hey, you okay?” asked Ruby.

Penny nodded. “I am feeling much better now,” said Penny. “Your uncle helped a lot.”

“That’s good,” said Ruby. “You think you wanna come watch another movie? We were going to put on Tangled, your favourite.”

Penny bit her lip and glanced at Qrow, her gaze skittering over his shoulder. He smiled and nodded to her, placing the bookmark in his book and closing it.

“I, personally, would love to watch Tangled,” said Qrow.

Penny perked. “Then we’ll all watch it together,” she said, her voice cheerful once again. Qrow allowed the girls to walk out of the kitchen first. Ruby dropped onto the couch and Penny took the chair. Qrow took the floor, leaning against the edge of the couch that was closer to Penny.

She smiled at him, out of the corner of his eye, and he smiled back.

By the time the second movie was over, Nora was asleep against Ren and drooling, Ren was in tears over the ending (apparently he’d never seen the movie), and Ruby had eaten every snack on the table. Penny was silent, a little smile on her face, as she watched the end credits go by.

“That is a good movie,” said Penny. “I have now seen it thirty-seven times.”

“Good number,” said Qrow, nodding. “All right, I think you four are ready for bed.” He got up and clapped his hands together. Ruby whined and Nora stirred.

“But Uncle Qrow,” Ruby said.

“But nothing,” said Qrow. “It’s after midnight and you’re all ready to collapse. Come on, bed.”

The four got up – with Ren half-supporting Nora – and trudged up the stairs to Ruby and Yang’s room, where sleeping bags were laid out. As Qrow followed after them, something occurred to him.

“Penny, is there enough room for you in there?” he asked. The floor space couldn’t have been big enough for all three of them to sleep comfortably.

“I am sleeping on Yang’s bed,” said Penny. And, it occurred to Qrow then, that that was probably by design. Yang hadn’t mentioned wanting a sleepover until after Penny was coming over with Ren and Nora. She’d probably figured that there wasn’t enough space for Penny to sleep without being jostled and fixed it herself.

Damn, he had good kids – nieces, he corrected mentally. They were his nieces.

Qrow bid the four good night and headed to his own room, where he stared at the ceiling for a while in hopes that he’d fall asleep eventually.

He didn’t, and he was still awake when there was a rap at his door around two in the morning.

“Come in,” he called, setting down his book. The lamp beside his bed was on, and it bathed Penny in a soft glow when she peeked into the room. “Hey, Penny, what’s up?”

“…Can I call my father?” asked Penny in a tiny voice. She was trembling. Her lip wobbling and her eyes wet.

“Of course,” said Qrow, sitting up. “You wanna sit down?” She nodded and sat down at the end of the bed. Qrow grabbed his cellphone and punched in James’ cell number. Listened to it ring.

“Hello?” said the groggy voice on the other end.

“Jimmy, it’s Qrow,” said Qrow. “Penny wanted to talk to you.” He handed the phone off to Penny and watched her sniffle and wipe at her eyes.

“Father,” said Penny, her voice trembling. “Yes, I’m okay. I had a bad dream and I woke up in Yang’s bed and not my bed.” A pause. “Yes, I am sure. I am fine for the rest of the weekend.” Another pause. “Mr. Branwen has been very nice. He’s a good father.” Qrow looked at his hands, eyes soft.

“Thank you, Father,” said Penny. “I love you too.” She handed the phone back to Qrow, and he saw the call was still going. She got up and left the room, offering him a little wave. He waved back.

“Hey, Jimmy,” said Qrow. “Sorry for waking you.”

“It’s no problem,” said James. “I’m always available for Penny.”

Qrow chuckled. “Yeah, you’re a good dad.”

“So are you,” said James. Qrow closed his eyes and leaned against the headboard. He smiled softly. He’d missed talking to James this last week. “Listen, Qrow, I’m sorry for being so distant lately.”

“It’s fine,” said Qrow. He opened his eyes and stared at the patterns the lamp made at the ceiling.

“No, it’s not,” said James. “We’re friends and I let…” He trailed off. “It’s not important. The point is, I’d like to make it up to you. How about I make you a nice lunch later this week?”

Qrow swallowed hard. What had James been about to say? What had he ‘let’?

“Sure,” said Qrow. “Sounds great.”

James chuckled over the receiver, and the warm sound released the last bit of tension in Qrow’s shoulders. “Good night, Qrow,” said James.

“Night, Jim,” said Qrow, softly. “See you when you get back.”

Qrow hung up the phone and fell back on his bed, covering his face with his hands and groaning. The soft sound of James’ chuckle, laced with affection no doubt leftover from his conversation with Penny, made him want to scream from frustration. The man was hot. The man was great.

And Qrow was in way over his head.

Meanwhile, in Atlas, James hung up the phone and put his head in his hands, leaning over the side of the bed of his hotel. He gave a great sigh and scrubbed his fingers up through his hair.

“Dammit, James,” he muttered to himself. He’d also let slip what had happened. Almost told Qrow he’d nearly kissed the man a week before.

Qrow was gorgeous, and kind, and an incredible father. He also had a lot of baggage. But the more James learned about him, the less that last part seemed to bother him.

But Ruby was Penny’s best friend. And Qrow didn’t seem the type for relationships. And James didn’t know enough about the man to risk making a move.

So he vowed to make himself the best friend possible, and damn everything else. Because he could do that much, at least, without risking hurting his daughter’s friendship.

Chapter Text

Lunch ended up being canceled. Qrow understood – James had work to do, people to hold phone conferences with – but he couldn’t help but he disappointed and relieved all at once. Disappointed that he wasn’t spending more time with James. And relieved… that he wasn’t spending more time with James.

It was an odd mix, to be sure, but Qrow distracted himself from it by running errands that day. He needed to get groceries anyway.

So he made sure Zwei could get out to pee, grabbed his keys, and drove down to the bookstore. He needed a new cookbook. His other ones were dog-eared or falling apart or covered in foot stuff that he really didn’t want to look at too closely.

Qrow pulled into the bookstore a little after eleven that morning. Cutting the engine, he hopped out of the car and walked up to the shop. It was a quaint thing, with a nice front and an apartment above it. Qrow assumed the owner – a guy named Tukson if the sign was anything to go by – probably lived there.

The door gave a little jingle as he opened it, and the other customer looked back at him from where he was leaning against the counter.

“Qrow,” said Bart, his face splitting in a wide smile. “Good to see you.”

“Hey, doc,” said Qrow. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked up the aisle to him. “What’re you doing here?”

Bart gestured to the door that led to the back room, where Qrow assumed Tukson was. “I had a doctor’s appointment this morning and took the day off. Tukson and I have known each other since he was a student of mine. He finds me rare books.”

Qrow nodded, a little disoriented by how fast Bart could talk.

“Doctor’s appointment?” echoed Qrow. “Thought you could handle that stuff yourself. Or are you not that kind of doctor?” He headed back down one of the aisles, picking his way through cookbooks. There was a cool one on vegetarian meals he grabbed. Penny loved vegetables and only liked chicken, so maybe this book would help out. She had said there ‘wasn’t a vegetable she didn’t like. Except sprouts’. Qrow also remembered Yang’s response to that had been ‘fuck sprouts’ and it made him chuckle.

“I am,” said Bart, a laugh in his own voice. “Among a different kind of doctor. But you aren’t supposed to check on yourself. Something about ethics or committees.”

Qrow looked toward Bart and raised an eyebrow. “Among? How many doctorates do you have?”

“Two,” said Bart. “I did them simultaneously, actually.”

Qrow felt dizzy just thinking about all that. “Did you ever sleep?”

“No,” said Bart, drily. “And I never slowed down afterward, either. There is a reason I drink so much coffee, after all.”

The door behind the counter swung open and a man with incredible side burns walked out carrying two very old looking books.

“All right, doc,” said the man. “I think I got both of them this time. Sent me on a wild goose chase, let me tell you.” The man had a warm, low laugh. “Fourteen book collectors in eight different countries.” He shook his head. “Now where do you get these titles?”

Bart smiled and took one of them. Qrow picked up another cook book.

“Here and there,” said Bart vaguely. “I do love history.”

“Evidently,” said the man, drily. Then, he seemed to spot Qrow. “Hello. Welcome to Tukson’s Book Trade.”

“You’re Tukson?” guessed Qrow. The man nodded. “All right, I’m Qrow.”

“Good to meet you,” said Tukson.

Bart thumbed through the books, his brow furrowed and his mismatched eyes darting back and forth behind his round glasses. “Yes, these are definitely the right books, Tukson, thank you.” He dug around for his wallet while Qrow went back to studying cookbooks. He wondered if a dessert book would be a good idea. Ruby liked fruit desserts and Yang liked… well, everything. Except sprouts.

“Hey, doc, think you could put in a good word with me at your night class? There’s a student of yours I’ve been wanting to ask out,” said Tukson.

Qrow cocked an eyebrow. “Don’t you teach high school?” he asked, looking up from his book. He was on a page detailing coffee cakes. Probably not the best idea with a hyperactive fifteen year old in the house.

“I teach night classes at the university,” said Bart.

“You really don’t sleep,” muttered Qrow.

Bart chuckled. “I’d be happy to, Tuskon. Tell me, is it that new student… oh what was their name…?”

“Matte,” mumbled Tukson.

“Right!” said Bart. “Matte! They DJ at the local club on weekends. Lovely place.”

Qrow glanced toward the counter and saw that Tukson had gone rigid. His eyes danced back to Qrow once or twice while Bart pondered over the book, seemingly unconcerned. Picking up the two books, Qrow walked up to the counter and flashed a grin to Tuskon.

“So, are they cute?” asked Qrow. Tukson’s ears went pink and he took the two books from Qrow’s hands. His posture relaxed and Qrow flashed him a warm smile.

“Very,” mumbled Tukson. “And charming and intelligent and…”

Qrow chuckled. “You sound smitten.” He dug out the bills for the cookbooks and handed them over. “I’ll bet you’ve got a great chance with them.”

“Thank you,” said Tukson, his head still ducked.

Transactions completed, Qrow and Bart wandered out of the store together, each carrying a bag.

“Don’t suppose you need a lift?” asked Qrow. He checked the small parking lot, but couldn’t see Bart’s car.

“That would be lovely,” said Bart. “I walked here, but I wanted to run some errands today…”

“S’fine, I need to run some too,” said Qrow. Then, he realized what Bart had said. “Wait, you walked here?” asked Qrow, opening the trunk of his car. “Isn’t it five miles to our neighbourhood?”

Bart cocked his head, blinking owlishly. “Is it?” he asked. “I believe the doctor’s is closer than that, and Peter drove me there.” He shrugged. “Either way, not a bad way to get some exercise.”

They climbed into the car, Bart’s long legs folding into the passenger’s side with a little difficulty.

“Peter?” Qrow echoed. There was something he’d been meaning to ask for a while. “Are you two…?” He trailed off, unsure how to finish that statement.

Bart chuckled. “Yes, we’ve been together for, oh, five years now?”

“Why don’t you live together?” asked Qrow. He pulled out of the parking lot and drove toward the grocery store.

“Too much stuff,” said Bart, drily. “Besides, we like the neighbourhood as it is. Wouldn’t want to mix it up.”

“Fair enough,” said Qrow. He wondered if he and the girls counted as ‘mixing it up’.

Bart hummed and combed his fingers through his green hair.

“Why is it green anyway?” asked Qrow, remembering Ruby’s soft whispers of “his hair is green” after the backyard party.

Bart laughed. “I dyed it for rainbow week a few years ago at the high school, when I went to bleach it back to my usual blonde, it went green.” He shrugged. “My students – and Peter – loved it so much that I never changed it back.”

Qrow nodded. “It suits you, that’s for sure.”

Bart hummed. “May I ask you something, Qrow?”

Qrow turned a corner, checking his mirrors before he switched lanes. “Sure.”

“What’s going on between you and James? You two seem… close,” said Bart.

Qrow gripped the steering wheel tightly and kept his eyes on the road. “We’re just friends.”

“Really?” asked Bart, a touch of disbelief in his voice. “I have a hard time believing that.”

Qrow grit his teeth. “Look, finding someone hot and dating them are two separate things.” He didn’t look at Bart. “Besides, he’s not interested.”

“How do you know?” asked Bart.

Qrow rolled his eyes. “Because he’s probably fucking straight.”

Bart snorted. A sharp, exasperated noise that made Qrow stare at him for a second. “Qrow, my friend, James is the gayest man I’ve ever met,” he said. He let his glasses slide down his nose to look at Qrow sharply. “And I’m counting myself in that.”

Qrow started. He pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store and parked, perfectly silent.

“Then, he’s not interested in me,” said Qrow, unable to keep the disappointment out of his voice.

Bart reached over and rested a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“S’fine,” mumbled Qrow, getting out of the car. “Let’s get some groceries.”

“Indeed,” said Bart in the same subdued tone. Qrow tried not to think about it too much.

Yang, Ruby, and Penny walked along the boardwalk next to the mall, chattering together as they hunted for another store. School had let out an hour ago and they’d taken the bus up to the mall to pick up the final touches for their Halloween costumes.

Yang needed more fabric for her phoenix costume, and Penny’s old bandanna for her cowgirl costume had bothered her skin. Ruby had something like four complete costumes in her closet and was mostly looking for accessories to flesh them out.

Honestly, Yang still wasn’t sure what Ruby was going to go as for Halloween, but she loved putting together elaborate costumes on a budget. And hey, who was Yang to complain if it made her sister happy?

“What do you think, Penny, are the new bandannas better?” asked Ruby, balancing on the edge of a fountain.

Penny nodded and wrapped one around her wrist. “Oh, yes, I think these will be spectacular,” she said, voice bright. Yang watched Penny lean back to look at the clouds. “That one looks like a brontosaurus.”

“Yeah, it does,” said Ruby. With a yelp, Ruby fell of the fountain, overbalanced from her leaning. Yang caught her and set her down.

“Easy, Ruby,” said Yang.

“Thanks, Yang,” said Ruby.

Yang glanced at the stores as they passed them, frowning slightly. “There’s gotta be a fabric store in this mall, doesn’t there?”

“You’d think,” said Ruby. “I think it might be in the strip mall by that bookstore though.”

Yang sighed. Of course it was. They’d have to call Uncle Qrow if they wanted to go to that store. Penny probably couldn’t do another bus, and, honestly, neither could Yang.

Thinking about Uncle Qrow reminded her of something she’d meant to ask, though.

“Hey, Penny, can I ask you something?” asked Yang.

Penny nodded. “Of course!”

“Your dad, Ironwood.” Yang tried to figure out how to phrase her next question. “He and Uncle Qrow are getting kind of… close. Do you think there’s anything there?”

Penny cocked her head to one side, eyes at the sky. “Like what?”

“Like romance,” said Yang, figuring it was best to put it bluntly.

Ruby blinked. “Our dads?” she echoed. “That’d be cool.”

The word was like a punch to Yang’s gut. She stumbled. Catching her bag.


“You just called Uncle Qrow, ‘dad’,” said Yang, eyes wide as she looked at Ruby.

Ruby furrowed her brow. “I mean, he’s basically Dad, isn’t he?” She shrugged, looking mildly apologetic. “I was a baby when Mom and Dad died, Yang, I don’t remember them. And Raven?” She shrugged again. “The only thing I remember from that was Uncle Qrow drinking so much he had to get his stomach pumped and we stayed at Pearl’s and Asper’s for the weekend.”

Yang said nothing.

“If they did get together,” said Penny, her voice sing-song and distant. Yang fought the urge to pull Penny out of the way of the potted plants. Penny stepped around them anyway. “Would we be sisters or cousins?”

“I say sisters,” said Ruby. “What do you think, Yang?”

Yang smiled, her stomach tight. “Sisters,” she said. She sighed. “Just a matter of convincing them that.”

“We’ll figure it out,” said Penny.

Yang paused. “You just used a contraction.”

“Pardon?” said Penny. She blinked. Gaze skittering toward one of the stores and brow furrowed. “I suppose I did. Is that wrong?”

Yang grinned and shook her head. “No, Penny. You just… you sound more like me and Ruby every day. I like it.”

“Me too,” said Ruby. “As long as you don’t start swearing.”

“I do not think my father would approve of swearing,” said Penny somberly. She looked almost disappointed.

Yang couldn’t help but laugh. “No, but it’d be funny to see his face.”

“Perhaps,” agreed Penny, her lips quirking into a smile. “We shall see.”

The three continued their walk to find a perfect store. Just as they passed a pet store, a girl with long black hair came streaming out of it. She slammed into Yang and they both went sprawling to the ground.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” said the girl. Yang shook it off and picked up her own stuff. The girl had golden brown eyes, Yang noticed, and her breath caught when she saw the yellowing bruise underneath one of them.

“Are you okay?” asked Yang.

“Blake!” The sharp voice cut across the parking lot. Yang didn’t miss the way the girl – Blake – flinched as she stood up.

“Coming, Adam!” called Blake. “Sorry,” she said again. And then she was running off across the parking lot toward a guy with red hair and dark sunglasses. Yang narrowed her eyes at him and caught his smirk. He threw an arm roughly around Blake and led her down the parking lot. Blake didn’t look back.

“What was that?” asked Ruby.

Yang frowned, grinding her teeth. “I don’t know,” she said. “But I don’t like it.”

“Me neither,” said Penny, quietly. “You shouldn’t do that to people without asking.” Her gaze was on the ground, darting toward where the guy and Blake had disappeared.

Yang pressed her lips together. “I’m gonna keep an eye out for her.” She saw the way Ruby and Penny both looked upset and changed the subject. “Hey – you two wanna get ice cream? My treat.”

They both perked up and followed Yang to the ice cream parlour, chattering on excitedly about Halloween. The entire time, Yang couldn’t shake the feeling she had about that man and the girl – Blake. Something was terribly wrong, and she wanted to find out what.

But how?

Chapter Text

James double checked his make-up in the mirror again, eyeing Penny’s carefully sculpted eyebrows and contours. She’d spent almost thirty minutes working to make him into a perfect scarecrow and he was more than impressed with the results. The yellows and browns on his face, mixed with the straw poking out of his outfit, blended together perfectly to turn him into a movie ready scarecrow.

“I love it,” said James, grinning at himself and then at Penny. “You did a fantastic job. Thank you.”

Penny smiled and tapped a salute to him, before twirling around in her layered jean skirt. It went just passed her knees, and the cowgirl boots she wore – she’d been very insistent that cowgirl and cowboy boots were different – came up almost as far. He hoped she’d be warm enough. But then, Penny was fifteen, and she could make her own costume design decisions. And besides, she was going to the party at Neptune’s house, not trick-or-treating.

“You look lovely as well,” said James. He grabbed his wallet and tucked it into one of the many pouches on his overalls.

“Thank you, Father,” said Penny. She twirled around a few times, head swaying back and forth as she looked up at the ceiling.

“Did you take your pills?” asked James.

She nodded. “With dinner,” she said, still staring at the ceiling.

“Good,” said James. “And you have everything you need?” He was still worried about the party being a sleepover, but he hadn’t expressed that worry to Penny. She’d been very clear about finding out what she needed to know about the party, and expressing what she needed to Neptune and Sun. They’d taken it in stride, from what James had heard.

“Yes, I have my nightgown, my pyjama pants, my day clothes, my medicine, and my book,” said Penny, counting it off. “I also have Norbert. Neptune has assured me that I will have a spot to sleep where I won’t be touched, and there are bathrooms to change in.” She beamed as she tapped her fingers to the dresser with each count.

“And you have your phone, just in case?” asked James.

Penny dug it out of her skirt pocket and held it up. “Just in case,” she agreed. James glanced back at her overnight bag. Norbert the Grimm Dragon poked his head out of the bag, smiling the way he always did. He hoped that she’d be okay.

“All right,” said James, managing a small, genuine smile, “let’s get going.”

The two headed downstairs, Penny in front of James, and out the front door. It was a cool, clear evening, and the sun was still brushing the horizon. Little kids scurried back and forth, holding out buckets, pillowcases, and bags as they hunted for candy. It was almost time for most of them to head home, and James knew they’d all be gone within the hour. He’d left the rest of his candy on the porch with a little “Take One, Please!” sign that Penny had written.

Halfway down the street, Ruby, Yang, and Qrow joined them. Ruby and Yang were going to the party with Penny, while Qrow and James were headed to the party up at Ozpin’s place.

“Those are some lovely costumes,” said James, eyebrows raising. Yang was in a layered dress made mostly of loose fabric and scarves, all done up in shades of red, orange, and yellow. The painted feathers on her face, plus the colored ones forming wings on the fabric draped over her shoulders, betrayed her status as a phoenix.

Ruby wore a fitted tuxedo with holsters attached to her hips and inside her jacket. Fake guns, although they looked pretty convincing, poked out of each one. A pair of sunglasses rested on her head and a very familiar looking pen poked out of her jacket pocket.

James raised an eyebrow. “Any aliens about?” he asked.

Ruby grinned. “Nope. But if I see any, I’ll know what to do.”

“We are truly in safe hands,” said James. He glanced at Yang, who was grinning. “And what of you? Set anything on fire today?”

“Nah,” said Yang, giving him a thumbs up. “Mostly looking for a place to spread my wings and fly.”

James chuckled. His gaze found Qrow, who had been chatting quietly with Penny, her hands flying and her eyes alight as they focused just over his shoulder. He was dressed in greys and whites, his face and hand painted metallic, but it was his conical hat that gave him away.

He was dressed as the tin man from Wizard of Oz. James couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Feeling heartless tonight?” asked James.

Qrow grinned. “Maybe a bit. I take it you’ve foregone brains for this party?” James shrugged. He hadn’t meant to be the scarecrow, but he’d run with it.

“Shall we?” asked James. The five headed up the block together. Ruby and Penny chatted excitedly about the evening while he and Qrow hung a step back, comfortably silent.

James noticed Yang was rubbing at the spot where her prosthetic met skin and he frowned.

“Everything okay?” he asked, keeping his voice down. Ruby and Penny were a few steps ahead, still chatting away.

Yang looked back at him, face pinched. “Yeah, just… sore. It happens.”

James nodded. “It does. Extensive injury takes a very long time to heal.” He could only vaguely remember the early months of his own recovery, when no one had been sure if he was going to survive or not. There were others in the world as extensive as him, but none with quite the reconstruction. He flexed his right hand absently, wondering.

“What’d you do, in the first year?” asked Yang as they neared Neptune’s house.

“Mostly I tried to figure out how to live on OxyContin,” said James, drily.

Yang’s eyebrows went up. “Right, you’re more than just the arm, aren’t you?”

“Quite a bit more,” admitted James, quietly. “But I’m here, and so are you. That’s what’s important. I’ve been through it all. I know it’s hard sometimes.”

Yang smiled, small and genuine. “Thanks,” she said.

Then, “Yang, come on!” It was Ruby, waving Yang toward Neptune’s house. Yang shifted her overnight bag on her arm, gave a mock salute with her yellow hand, and jogged toward the two and up to the house.

Penny veered back for a second, smiled up at James, and said, “May I hug you?”

James grinned and opened his arms. “Of course.” She hugged him, tight, and he hugged back. A few seconds later, she pulled back and ran up the street, calling “good night!” as she went.

Once she was gone, James realized Qrow was staring at him, and that he was grinning just like James was.

“So she does hug,” said Qrow.

“Sometimes,” said James. “Depends on the day.” He glanced back toward the house as the door opened. Neptune’s vibrant blue hair stood out on the porch. The three girls disappeared inside with him.

“Yang adores you,” said Qrow, softly.

James felt his ears flush. “I’ve been where she is, I can relate.” They were halfway up the hill to Ozpin’s now. “She’s not fragile, but she still needs help. If I can do anything to help her…” He shrugged, feeling bashful.

“You are,” said Qrow. “Helping, I mean. All of us.”

“I’m glad,” said James, his voice quiet. The two fell silent again until they reached Ozpin’s house. When the door opened, James did a double take and Qrow cackled.

“Are you a fucking fairy princess, Oz?” asked Qrow. Ozpin did a little twirl, lifting the edges of the fabric wings that laid like a veil across his bare – and tattooed and somewhat scarred – shoulders and arms, and also lifting the layers of the full, floor length dress he wore. James didn’t think a man was supposed to look that nice in pale pink and cream.

“Why, yes, yes I am,” said Ozpin cheerfully. He tapped his wand to the little tiara he wore. “Won’t you come in?” James squinted at Oz as they walked into the house passed Ozpin. He was definitely wearing make-up. And glitter. Lots of glitter. In his hair, on his costume, on his wand. James wondered if Ozpin wouldn’t be covered in glitter for the next month.

Then again, it was Ozpin, that wouldn’t be all that strange.

Inside, the party was filled with most of the adults in the neighbourhood, sans Mama and Mom Vasilias (James couldn’t remember their names, offhand), as well as several others from around town and teachers at the local high school.

“Glynda, good to see you,” said James went he caught sight of her. Glynda looked up and gave him a warm smile. Her outfit pegged her as a snow queen, James guessed. And her make-up, done in blues, silvers, and white, with decal snowflakes around her eyes, was flawless.

“Did you do that?” asked James.

Glynda shook her head. “Ozpin,” she said, drily. “He has quite the talent.”

“Or too much free time,” said James.

“You know,” said Glynda. “I don’t think he works, so I can believe that.”

“Where does he get all his money then?” asked Qrow, walking up to the two. He handed James a beer, one eyebrow raised, and James took it with a grateful nod.

Glynda sighed. “I honestly have no idea,” she said. “I’ve lived here almost as long as James has and I’m one of his closest friends. And yet…” She trailed off, shrugging. “Are you a robot?”

“Tin man,” said Qrow. He took a swing from his beer, which, James noticed, was already half empty. He pressed his lips together, wondering what was going on in Qrow’s head and if there was anything he could do to lessen the burden. Maybe it was just a bad day.

“And you’re the scarecrow,” said Glynda, raising one eyebrow. “Oh, that’s adorable.”

James gave her a flat look. “Really, Glynda?” he asked. He could feel the tips of his ears turning pink and wished he’d thought to wear a straw hat. Her words weren’t meant maliciously, James knew, but with his attraction to Qrow growing harder to ignore, he couldn’t help but take them a bit close to heart.

She looked a bit smug. “What, I’m not allowed to mock you?” she asked.

He’d prefer if she didn’t, to be honest, but that wouldn’t change anything. “I suppose,” he said. “What are we mocking me about this time?”

She raised her other eyebrow. “You don’t remember saying that Ozpin and I were positively adorable that one time you thought we were dating?” she asked. “I was just echoing the sentiment.”

“Jimmy and me?” said Qrow. His voice was light, a little amused. James felt himself tense and didn’t look at Qrow. Caught Glynda’s look switching to mildly concerned for a brief flash, then it was back to neutral. Then, “Wait, you and Ozpin?” Now Qrow just sounded disturbed.

“Right?” said Glynda. “Honestly. And that’s not even getting into my sexuality.”

“I didn’t know you were gay at the time,” murmured James, feeling the back of his neck heat. “I apologized quite a bit. I baked you cookies.”

Glynda hummed. “Yes, but every time I bring it up, you bake me more. That’s reason enough.”

James sighed. “You could just ask for cookies.”

“Now where’s the fun in that?” asked Glynda, a dry amusement in her voice.

Qrow laughed. “Oh, I like you more and more every day, Glynda.”

“Introducing you two was a terrible mistake,” bemoaned James. “I will never know peace again.” But he was smiling as he said it. It was nice to have things mostly back to normal. Even if he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted from “normal.”

While Glynda and Qrow swapped advice on the best way to get James to make cookies – Qrow had apparently decided that sending his nieces after James to ask was most effective – James headed into the kitchen, where he’d seen Ozpin disappear.

In there, he saw Ozpin sipping from a ginger ale and trying to reach behind himself to fix his wing clasps.

“Let me,” said James. Ozpin nodded and turned his back to James. James undid the clasps and re-hooked them into the back of the dress, letting the wing shawl-veil hang properly again.

“Thank you,” said Ozpin, turning back to James. “That was getting to be quite the nuisance.”

James dug his phone out of his pocket, hiding it in one hand as he asked, “Do you mind if I send a picture of your costume to Penny? She’d love to see this.”

Ozpin nodded and picked up his wand, stepping into the better lighting. “Would you like me to strike a pose as well?” he asked.

James laughed and shook his head. “No, this should be fine.” He snapped a picture and sent a text message to Penny: ‘Thought you’d enjoy this. He makes a lovely princess.’ With the picture and text sent, he tucked the phone back into his pocket.

“You know, Ozpin, you surprise me more and more every day. I didn’t realize you agreed with the narrative that men can wear dresses as well,” said James.

Ozpin nodded, not quite looking at James. “I do indeed,” he said, softly. “Sometimes they’re just more comfortable, and what better way to enjoy that than at a costume party?”

“You’re quite the man, Oz,” said James.

“Yes, I suppose I am,” said Ozpin. There was something in his eyes as he said it, something forlorn, almost, that made James pause. But he shrugged it off. Ozpin was Ozpin. Nothing to worry about.

“Shall we?” asked James. He gestured for the door and Ozpin nodded. He straightened his tiara and followed James back into the living room.

Ruby and Penny were giggling over Sun’s pirate costume and Neptune’s monkey costume when Penny’s phone gave a cheerful beep. She pulled it out of her the pouch she wore on her skirt and looked at it. At her giggle, Ruby perked curiously.

“What is it?” asked Ruby. Penny turned her phone toward Ruby. It was a picture of Ozpin in his kitchen, dressed as a glittering fairy princess.

“He looks lovely,” said Penny. “I think he’s the perfect princess.”

Ruby giggled. “He really is,” she agreed.

Sun and Neptune called everyone together for a party game then, to a collection of whoops and boos, and Penny tucked her phone back into her pocket. The two headed to the circle of people, eager to start the rest of their night.

Chapter Text

Yang sat at James’ dining room table, her tools for calibrations spread all around her and one of the tiny screwdrivers pressed to a loose connection inside the exposed inner workings of her prosthetic arm. James watched from next to her, offering adjustments and corrections as needed. From time to time, one of Yang’s fingers would twitch and she would frown.

Whenever she got stuck, or frustrated, he offered quiet words and directions. Showing her how each wire and microchip and connection was important to the whole. Calibrations were simple, once you understood them, and James wanted to be sure that Yang understood them completely.

Finally, after perhaps another ten minutes, all the fingers flexed at once, then each one moved individually. Yang beamed and pulled the tool from her wiring.

“I did it!” she said. “Woo-hoo!” She punched her left hand into the air and wiggled the fingers on her right one again. Then, she grinned up at James, eyes bright and smile so wide it could almost be painful. “Thanks, Jimborie.”

“Jimborie?” echoed James, one eyebrow raised.

Yang pinked and turned all her attention to putting her arm panels back into place. “I mean, Uncle Qrow nicknames you all the time, right?” She shrugged. “I can go back to calling you Mr. Ironwood if you like.”

“No, I like it,” said James, a smile spreading on his own face. “It’s nice to know you’re that comfortable around me.”

Yang made a face. “Well, yeah,” she said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.

James chuckled and pointed a finger at Yang. “Don’t tell your uncle.” Yang nodded solemnly, but there was a twinkle in her eye that told him she was going to tell Qrow anyway.

“All right,” said James, standing up. “Let’s grab Ruby and Penny and get you girls to school.”

“Yay, school,” said Yang. Her shoulders slumped and tensed as she stood up, her gaze at her feet.

He put a hand on her shoulder. “Eventually, the stares do stop around people who know you, I promise.”

She nodded and followed him out to the car. “Hey, don’t forget I’m going with Sun tonight and Ruby and Penny wanted to take the bus to the bookstore, so you don’t have to pick us up,” said Yang.

“Thanks for the reminder,” said James and he shouted for Ruby and Penny, out on the front yard.

After James got back from driving the girls to school, he saw Qrow leaning on James’ porch, a twinkle in his eye.

“Qrow,” said James. “What are you doing here?”

Qrow grinned, as mischievous as James had ever seen him. “You still owe me lunch, Jimmy.”

James blinked, slowly remembering their cancelled plans. He chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. “So I do,” he agreed. “It’s a bit early for lunch yet, though, and I need groceries for lunch.”

Qrow hopped off the porch and walked up to James, gesturing to the car. “Let’s go,” he said. James followed after him with a shrug. Well, why not?

Qrow hadn’t been sure how James would react when he showed up that morning, but when James had only laughed and said he needed to go to the store to get the supplies for lunch, it had been a weight off Qrow’s chest. That laugh and smile, the easy way James spoke, it made Qrow’s body and mind relax. As though all his problems, temporarily at least, could be washed away by such a simple gesture.

Qrow walked alongside James in the grocery store, offering suggestions for lunch and dinner, as well as compliments to his extensive knowledge of spices.

“You can’t bake?” asked Qrow, eyebrows raised.

“I can,” said James. “Just not nearly to the same extent that you can.”

Qrow hummed and snagged some yeast off the shelf, he wanted to make a cake later. “Looks like I’m making dessert tonight. How does Penny feel about brownies?”

“She likes the ones without nuts. And you don’t have to do that,” said James.

Qrow smiled. “I want to,” he said. He ducked around James again and grabbed some cocoa powder, already running the rest of the ingredients over in his head. James grabbed some pie crusts – to which Qrow made a face, homemade crusts were much better, if horribly difficult and time consuming – and then they were headed for the produce.

“Any vegetables the girls don’t eat?” asked James.

“Sprouts,” said Qrow immediately.

James snorted. “Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.”

The two kept on through the grocery store and headed back to James’ house. Qrow sang along to the radio – mostly teenage pop music – all the way and had James laughing so hard at stoplights that other drivers were giving them looks.

Qrow didn’t care. He and James were having fun.

Back at the house, they set to work on preparing lunch together, shoulders bumping as they sliced vegetables for salad. Qrow set to work on the brownies afterward while James did the dishes, and the two swapped stories between comfortable bouts of silence.

“You’re a mean cook, James Ironwood,” said Qrow as he measured out the cocoa powder.

James chuckled from where he stood, washing their salad bowls. “Why thank you, I’ve had fifteen years of practice.”

“Really?” asked Qrow, looking over his shoulder. “You didn’t cook for yourself before Penny was born?”

“No, an old roommate of mine used to do most of the cooking,” said James. “She was good at that.”

Qrow turned around completely, measuring cup in one hand and a smear of flour on his nose. “Penny’s mother?” guessed Qrow.

James’s ears pinked. “In the loosest sense of the term, yes,” said James. “She is Penny’s biological mother.”

“Bad blood?” guessed Qrow. He paused when he saw James press his lips together. “Sorry, I’ll stop.”

“No, no,” said James. “I’m not upset. It’s just, ah, an interesting story.”

Qrow raised an eyebrow and turned back to his brownie mix. “Oh?”

“I always wanted children, but because I moved around a lot, I never thought I’d get approved for adoption,” said James. “Of course, after the accident, I stopped moving because I needed a stable environment to raise Penny in and also to recover.” He laughed, soft.

Qrow stirred his mix, throwing in the chocolate chips. “No biological option?”

There was a moment of silence. Then, “I thought you realized I was gay.”

Qrow shrugged. “Not one to assume.” Even if Bart had told him, it was nice to get confirmation. Even if it did further his proof that James really didn’t have romantic feelings for him. And even if it did hurt quite a bit.

“Right, well,” said James, clearing his throat.

“I am too, by the way,” said Qrow when James seemed to remain silent a moment longer. “It doesn’t bug me.” He looked over his shoulder to see James looking back at him, eyes soft and mouth quirked in surprise.

He nodded. “I never would have guessed,” murmured James, the surprise evident in his tone. Qrow laughed, just as soft. “Anyway, I proposed to my roommate that if she was willing to carry a child for me, I’d deal with all the financial obligations, the paperwork, the hospitals and healthcare, the raising of the child, and I’d pay for her college education.” He shrugged. “She agreed.”

Qrow turned around fully again, leaning back against the counter with the brownie batter covered spatula held in one hand. “Does Penny know?”

“Oh, of course,” said James. “She rarely visits, but Penny and her mother exchange emails quite often. She considers her more like an aunt than a mother, though.”

Qrow raised an eyebrow. “So who is this mysterious mother, anyway?”

James laughed, rubbing the back of his neck and ducking his head slightly. A slight blush worked its way across his cheeks and jaw. “Do you know of a pop singer named Helium Glitch?”

For a long moment, Qrow was silent, his face transforming into a wide grin as the words registered. “Helium Glitch?” echoed Qrow. “Doesn’t she sing Bang the Best and Dance On Your Dick?” His grin was so wide it hurt.

“Yes,” said James, softly. “Yes she does.”

Qrow cackled, positively cackled at the words, leaning hard against the counter and doubling over to hold his stomach in pain. “Oh my god,” he choked out.

“It’s not that funny,” said James, but even he sounded like he was about to start laughing. Then, “…It’s a little funny.”

Qrow grinned, straightening up as he managed to stop himself from laughing. “It’s hilarious.

James sighed. “Get baking,” he said, but his words were good natured and his tone teasing.

Qrow gave an exaggerated salute and a cheeky grin before turning back to his baking.

In the end, he made two plates of brownies and an apple pie before dinner. By the time he was done, James was preparing dinner – spaghetti with meat balls, apparently a favourite of Penny’s.

Qrow and James worked in the kitchen together once more, swapping jokes as they worked. Qrow ended up with sauce on his face as he worked, but he didn’t mind. Once the sauce was on the stove and the meatballs were in the oven, the two put the dishes into the sink.

“Qrow, you have sauce, right there,” said James. He tapped his cheek with his right hand, the metal catching the light. Qrow swiped at his cheek and James shook his head. “No, here.” Qrow tried again and James laughed.

He stepped into Qrow’s space, eyes soft. “Here, let me…” He trailed off, reaching up with his right hand to wipe at Qrow’s cheek, his other hand gently cupping Qrow’s jaw to hold it still. Qrow stared up at James, feeling his cheeks heat at the proximity.

“Got it,” said James, his voice barely above a whisper. He didn’t pull away from Qrow, and Qrow didn’t either. They stared at each other for a long moment, silent. Slowly, ever so slowly, Qrow leaned in and James did the same. Qrow’s eyes fluttered, half closing as James’ breath ghosted his lips.

Qrow’s phone rang, the sudden sound of Ruby’s personal ringtone making them jump apart in surprise. James cleared his throat and looked away. Qrow took a deep breath and yanked his phone out of his back pocket.

“Ruby?” he asked.

“Dad!” came her voice. Qrow’s heart stopped. “Dad, help. Penny and me. We were on our way home. Some boys found us. Penny’s hurt. She’s… oh my god I don’t know if they’re coming back.”

“Where are you?” asked Qrow, his eyes wide. James jumped at his fearful tone. “Ruby.”

“The alleyway on Beacon Drive by the pharmacy. Please come get us.”

“We’ll be right there,” said Qrow. “Stay out of sight and stay safe. Is Penny okay?” James’ lips parted in surprise. One of his fists clenched.

“Yeah. Yeah she’s hurt, but she’s okay? She’s up and talking and stuff,” said Ruby. “Please help.”

“We’re on our way. I love you.”

“Love you too.” Qrow hung up the phone and looked to James.

“Something happened to Penny and Ruby. They’re in the alleyway on Beacon Drive by the pharmacy. We need to go,” said Qrow.

James was already grabbing his jacket and keys. “I’ll drive,” he said. Qrow nodded and followed James out into the driveway, his chest tight and his breath caught as he tried not to imagine the worst.

Chapter Text

Ruby and Penny giggled as they walked to the store from school. It was a cool day, but they both had jackets, and Ruby kept asking about all the different buttons on Penny’s.

There were dinosaur buttons, superhero buttons, robot buttons, and a button with a pretty set of five stripes in three colours – Ruby liked the pink stripes best.

As they passed by the pharmacy, Ruby chattering away about how exciting it was that it was starting to snow, Penny paused and stared into the alleyway.

“Penny?” asked Ruby. She stopped and turned, head tilted at her friend.

Penny walked into the alleyway, brow furrowed and lips pressed tight together. After a moment’s hesitation, Ruby followed after her. The wind was picking up, and clouds were starting to gather overhead. Ruby figured it would probably snow soon.

“Penny?” Ruby called again as she followed Penny into the alleyway.

Penny stopped and turned back to Ruby. “I thought I heard something,” said Penny, softly. She frowned, eyes sliding toward the garbage container in the alleyway.

“Maybe it was the wind,” offered Ruby.

Penny nodded and started forward just in time for Ruby to see a figure come out from the shadows of the alleyway. It was a tall boy with broad shoulders and a look in his eyes that made Ruby’s heart stop.

“Penny, get over here,” whispered Ruby. Penny looked back and sucked in a sharp breath at the boy. She stumbled back toward Ruby and Ruby forced herself not to reach out and draw Penny close.

“So that’s what they’re calling you now,” said the boy, his voice low and sharp. “Stupid name.”

Penny trembled next to Ruby, a soft whimper slipping from her throat. “We need to go,” she whispered. “Now.”

“Where’re you running, freak?” asked the boy. He grinned, all teeth. Slicked back his ginger hair with one hand. Sharp in a way that Ruby had only ever seen once before. On Yang. Just before Yang got expelled from their last school.

“Ruby,” whimpered Penny, tugging at Ruby’s sleeve. Ruby nodded and followed Penny backward toward the mouth of the alley.

Another chuckle. This time from behind. Ruby turned to see a pair of boys – one with brown hair and one with smoky blue hair – blocking the alleyway entrance. From the fence at the back of the alleyway came another sound, and a green haired boy with a Mohawk clambered over the fence to join the first boy.

Penny let out a noise that was so close to a closed mouth sob that Ruby started. She glanced from Penny – her eyes welling up with tears and her hands shaking – to the four boys.

“What do you want?” asked Ruby, stepping in front of Penny. She turned them sideways so that Penny was close to the brick wall and Ruby could look at both pairs of boys without ever putting the other pair completely out of view.

“Your little friend, kid,” said the ginger, who Ruby figured was their leader. Ruby bared her teeth, shifting into a defensive stance that Yang had taught her. “Hand it over.”

Ruby bristled. Snarled. Brought her fists up and twisted at the last possible second, just as the brunet lunged for her. She caught the blow across one raised arm and swung. The pain already shot up her arm and made her stumble. But she connected with his jaw and he jerked back.

Then the green haired boy was attacking and Ruby had to block him. And the brunet redoubled his efforts and lunged at Ruby, taking her in the gut. She cried out, bringing her hands up to shield her face and chest as they battered her into the brick wall. Penny screamed somewhere off to Ruby’s right – the ginger. No.

“Penny!” cried Ruby. She got socked in the jaw. Her back hit the wall. Her head snapped. She saw stars. Pain bloomed alongside the stars that spotted her eyes. She could barely breathe. Barely think. Why were they doing this?

“Please.” Penny’s voice. “Please leave me alone.”

“You can’t play dress-up forever, freak,” said the ginger. He chuckled. The two stepped back from Ruby and she slumped to the ground, curling her knees close to her stomach. It churned and churned until she was sure she’d be sick. And in her spinning vision, she saw the ginger backhand Penny to the ground and take her bow. His sneer stuck out from everything else.

“We’re done here,” said the ginger. His voice echoed a dozen times in Ruby’s head. He walked past Penny and Ruby, chuckling all the while.

When the four were gone, Ruby crawled over to Penny, who was sobbing quietly into her hands.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she babbled between the tears.

Ruby reached out, hesitated, and drew her hand back. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay.”

Penny shook her head and curled herself against the wall, knees drawn up and arms hugging them close. Her face disappeared into her skirt.

Ruby pulled out her cell phone and punched the first favourite on her contact list.

Two rings. Then three.

Then, “Ruby?”

“Dad!” The word was out of her mouth before it even registered. “Dad, help. Penny and me – we were on our way home and some boys found us.” She looked at Penny, who was still crying. From what Ruby could see, a bruise was blooming on her cheek. “Penny’s hurt.”

A glance down the alleyway. Ruby jumped at a shadow that was only a cloud passing over. “Oh my god,” she croaked. “I don’t know if they’re coming back.”

“Where are you?” came Qrow’s voice. She was silent, staring at the shadows. “Ruby.”

“The alleyway on Beacon Drive,” said Ruby. “By the pharmacy.” She let out a soft sob and bit her fist to keep from breaking down. She had to be strong. “Please come get us.”

“We’ll be right there. Stay out of sight and stay safe. Is Penny okay?”

Ruby glanced at Penny. Debated telling the truth. That Penny was sobbing into her skirt and kept babbling “I’m sorry” over and over again.

She bit it back and lied. “Yeah, yeah she’s hurt. But I think she’s okay. She’s up and talking and stuff.” A pause. “Please help.”

“We’re on our way. I love you.”

Ruby blinked back tears. Her entire body trembled. “I love you too.” She hung up and sat next to Penny, keeping her distance and watching. Penny’s sobs were starting to peter off and Ruby wanted desperately to ask her what had happened. Why those boys hated her so much.

But she knew it was rude. Knew it wasn’t the time. So she sat and she waited. And she watched for… her Uncle? Her father? And for Mr. Ironwood, while Penny’s quiet cries pierced every inch of self-control and strength that Ruby had left.

The car ride took far too long for Qrow’s liking. He watched the streets until James pulled over and hurried after him. A tension hung between them that Qrow ignored. He needed to make sure the girls were okay. Both of them did.

As they hit the alleyway, Qrow saw Penny and Ruby curled up beside each other on the wall, about six inches between them.

“Dad!” said Ruby as he came into the alleyway. She was on her feet in an instant, wrapping her arms around him in a tight hug. Qrow placed a hand on her hair and hugged her with the other, pressing his lips into a thin line.

He watched as James crouched in front of Penny, holding out his hand to her. She took it and let herself be pulled to her feet. Then she threw herself at him, wrapping herself around him like she never wanted to let go.

“Are you all right?” asked James.

Penny nodded against his shirt.

“Are you?” asked Qrow, looking down at Ruby. She was watching Penny, a pain in her eyes that Qrow was far too familiar with.


He pulled her closer, pressing a kiss to her hair.

“I’ll be okay,” said Ruby, softly. She was leaning to one side and as she pulled back from Qrow, she wrapped an arm around her middle. She’d been hit pretty badly, now that Qrow could get a good look at her. Her cheek was already swelling, her lower lip was split, and there was dried blood under her nose. Bruising had already started to bloom around one eye and across her jaw. She’d taken quite the beating, apparently. The fact that only her middle seemed to be bothering her worried Qrow. He’d check her out when they home, make sure nothing was hurt in there.

“What happened?” asked James. Penny said nothing. She didn’t let go of James, but she didn’t look anywhere near him either. Her lip trembled.

“Four boys attacked us,” said Ruby, stepping forward. “They took Penny’s bow and… and they called her an it.” She wrinkled her nose.

Cardin Winchester.” The amount of venom James managed to get into those two words made Qrow’s eyes widen. “I’ll kill him.”

Penny pulled back from James. “That’s illegal,” she said. “Please don’t break the law.”

He sighed. “Of course, Penny,” he said. He glanced at Qrow, a shadow in his eyes that made Qrow drop his gaze. “Let’s go home.”

“Ruby’s house, please,” said Penny, quietly. James nodded and the four left the alleyway. As they did, snow began to fall gently from the sky, the large flakes whiting out the world and sticking in Qrow’s hair and eyelashes.

The ride back to the house was awkward and painful. Qrow sat in the back with Ruby and kept an arm around her shoulders. Penny sat in the passenger’s seat, head rested against the glass and eyes staring unseeing out the window. The snow was picking up, thick and swirling in the wind. Already it coated the roads.

When they got home, and inside, Yang was already there, and she took one look at Ruby and Penny and dragged them – verbally, in Penny’s case – up to the bathroom to clean them up.

James faltered, already going after them.

“I’ve got this,” said Yang. “Promise.”

James rubbed his face and Qrow sighed, leaning sideways against the wall. One shoulder against it, arms folded loosely in front of him.

“Yang’ll clean them up,” said Qrow. “She’s good at it. Done a lot of it for me and herself.” She’d remember to check them for injuries too. She remembered that better than he did, most of the time.

James clenched his jaw, his hands flexing at his sides.

“Besides,” said Qrow, eyeing James’ hands. “I think you need to calm down before you sit her down.”

“What would you know?” snapped James. Qrow raised an eyebrow. There was a low warning in James’ voice that he’d never heard before. Not even in the store, that one day. “Penny’s hurt and I almost didn’t know. If Ruby hadn’t been with her, she wouldn’t have called!”

“James,” said Qrow.

“Fuck off,” snapped James. He spun, faced Qrow head on, and stalked toward him. Qrow took a step back, hands raising in surrender and shoulders dropping to look as small and non-threatening as possible. James grabbed him by the shirt collar. “This is your fault.”

“What?” asked Qrow. His gaze flicked down to James’ hands. He swallowed.

James slammed him back into the wall, dangling him a good four or five inches off the ground to bring their faces level. Qrow’s ears rang and his head spun. He stared, wide-eyed, at James.

“This is your fault,” he repeated, teeth bared and eyes dark. “She never talked about school before you and your damned daughters showed up.”

Qrow bristled. “Don’t you insult my-”

“Shut up.” Qrow’s jaw clicked shut audibly. The snarl in James’ voice had every inch of his body screaming to run and hide. Told him that James could – and would – put Qrow throw a wall if the thought struck him. “If you’d never shown up, she never would have wanted to go to school. She never would have been there today. And Cardin Winchester would never have hurt my daughter again!” His voice rose to a shout and Qrow heard something break upstairs.

He stared into James’ eyes, his own wide and shaky with fear. His breath came in sharp, short gasps. Soft but pronounced. “Again?” echoed Qrow.

James said nothing. His jaw worked instead.

“You pulled her out of school the first time over him, didn’t you?” guessed Qrow. Shut up Qrow, he told himself. This was a bad idea. He was going to get punched. But he had to know. “Because of the autism?”

“We didn’t pull her out of school because she’s autistic,” said James, his voice low and dangerous. “There were… other circumstances. Things that aren’t my place to discuss with you.” Another sneer. Another snarl. His hands tightened on Qrow’s shirt collar. Qrow could feel his armpits bruising and the shirt slowly ripping.

“There will always be assholes,” said Qrow, slowly.

“You don’t get it!” Voice raised to a shout again. “But you never fucking did. Because your kids don’t deal with half the shit that Penny does just to feel like a normal girl!” He slammed Qrow harder into the wall. Qrow’s head snapped off the drywall. He winced. Knees weak. Head spinning. “And that’s why none of you get why I took her out of school. It was to keep her safe! To keep her alive. And you all ruined that in a matter of months!”

James was panting now. Tears prickling the corners of his eyes.

“This is your fault.” Bared teeth. “I wish you’d never come here. Everything was fine before you showed up. You ruined everything.

Qrow’s heart stopped. His breath caught. He tried to find words, tried to think, and found nothing.

“Father?” Penny in the doorway.

James dropped him. Qrow slid to the floor, all the way down until he was sitting. He stared blankly at the couch in the next room.

“Let’s go, Penny,” said James, the growl gone but the anger still there. “And Qrow?” Qrow looked up at him. “I don’t want you or your damned daughters to ever come near us again. Not now, not ever. Got that?”

Qrow nodded.

James led Penny out of the house. The door slammed shut behind him.

There was a long moment of silence, then Qrow clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle a sob. Tears prickled his eyes and spilled over before he could stop them.

He’d ruined everything. As always.


“Uncle Qrow?”

The girls in the doorway now. They saw him and ran toward him, dropping down on either side of him and hugging him close.

And with his girls at his sides, safe if a little bruised, Qrow allowed himself to break down. To sob into their hair and cling to them as if they were the only thing keeping him afloat.

And they were. Just like they had been so many nights before.

Chapter Text

Neither Penny nor James said anything on the short drive back to their house. In fact, James noticed, Penny didn’t say anything until they were safely back inside their house.

“I think you should get cleaned up and head to bed,” said James, rubbing a hand over his face. “We’ll figure out the rest in the morning.”


James started, turning to face Penny, she stood with her hands clenched at her sides and her entire body shaking. He frowned. “Penny?”

“No. I won’t go to bed. I won’t sort this out in the morning,” said Penny. Her voice was tight and low, trembling with the unshed tears in her eyes. “What you did was wrong and you need to apologize.”

James blinked. “What?” He couldn’t keep the incredulous tone out of his voice.

“You yelled at Mr. Branwen – you hurt Mr. Branwen – and you called his daughters names. That is not right,” said Penny. “It wasn’t their fault that Cardin Winchester was in that alleyway.”

“You could have been hurt – you were hurt, Penny,” said James.

“Ruby called you,” said Penny. She gritted her teeth. “Ruby called you and Ruby saved me. She protected me. Did you see her? She may need to go to the hospital because of me.”

James softened. “It’s not your fault.”

“It’s not hers either!” Penny’s voice rose almost to a shout, breaking on the last word. “She’s my best friend, Father. They are my support network. You are the one who always said I needed one.” She swallowed visibly, entire body trembling. “You cannot take that from me. Not now.”

“Penny, you don’t understand,” started James.

“Then make me understand,” said Penny. Tears slipped from her eyes and splattered onto her cheeks. “Tell me what I did wrong. Tell me what I did to deserve to be punished!”

James drew back, eyes wide. He wasn’t punishing her. He was trying to keep her safe. Why couldn’t she see that? “Penny, you could have died. Cardin Winchester is…”

“A monster,” said Penny, firmly. “I know. I’ve survived him twice now, remember?” And there was something so angry, so sharp, so Yang in her voice that James took a step back. Felt guilt pool in his entire body as she lashed out at him.

Why couldn’t she understand?

“And you almost didn’t,” James threw back. He flexed his right hand. “You’re the only thing I have in this world, Penny. What would I do if something happened to you?”

“I’m a person, not a thing,” said Penny. “You’re the one who always tells me that.” She glared up at him. “Ruby saved me today.”

“And you never would have been there if you weren’t going to school again,” snapped James. He stood his ground as Penny growled at him.

“I like school! I like friends! I like having people that love me even if they don’t have to!” shouted Penny. “You’re my father, why don’t you understand that? Ruby and Yang are amazing. Mr. Branwen has helped me so much. Because of them, the other neighbourhood people are starting to like me.” Penny gave an awful noise as more tears spilled from her cheeks.

James reached out only for Penny to step back, swiping at her tears. He recoiled his hand, a pit in his stomach.

“You’re happy too,” said Penny. “Or, you were. Mr. Branwen and you are very good friends. Why would you want to get rid of that?” James swallowed. The fear about his relationship with Qrow returned in a wave, leaving his body shaking. He licked his lips, flexing his right hand again.

“What Qrow and I are is not relevant to this conversation,” said James, slowly.

Penny narrowed her eyes and folded her arms across her chest. Her gaze remained resolutely to the left of his head, looking at the tick-ticking clock in the kitchen.

“You told me not to keep secrets,” said Penny. “You shouldn’t either.” Her voice was so calm that James couldn’t quite believe it. It was the exact voice he’d used less than an hour earlier, when he’d walked out on Qrow. The steel in it sharp enough to cut.

God, what had he done?

“You need to go to bed,” said James. He wasn’t dealing with this, not now. He needed to sort out his head. He needed Penny to sort out hers. If they were going to fight – and god, they were, weren’t they? – then he needed a firm defense. Penny was tearing through everything he had with only a handful of words.

“I’m not going to school tomorrow, am I?” There was something resigned in her voice. Something small and scared that made James wonder what answer she actually wanted.

“No, I don’t think so,” said James.

Penny nodded, her gaze dropping to the floor. She walked over to the stairs, every step heavy. But she paused, only a few steps up.

“What are you so afraid of?” she asked, without looking back.

“Last time I made a mistake about someone’s well-being, I lost half my body,” said James. “I don’t want that to happen to you.”

Penny sighed. “I like your prosthetics.”

So did James, most days. But that didn’t make looking in the mirror on bad days any easier. Didn’t make the knowledge that he’d never have another intimate relationship any easier.

And a tiny voice in the back of his head asked, wasn’t that the exact reason he kept jerking back from Qrow? Fear of the reaction? Of the inevitable rejection?

He shook it off. He’d deal with it later – or never, preferably.

“I just want to keep you safe,” said James.

“And I want to live my life – as a person, as a teenager.” She clenched the banister, entire body tense. “As a girl.”

“You’re not like most girls, Penny,” said James.

“I know,” said Penny. “I’m the one that has to look at myself naked, remember?” And then she was heading up the stairs and disappearing, and James wasn’t sure what to say to that.

He leaned against the front door, his head in his hands. He took a few deep, sharp breaths. Tried to keep himself calm. All he wanted to do was punch something. To scream and punch until he collapsed from exhaustion. But he bit it back. The aggression was unnecessary and a little bit terrifying.

He’d never laid his hands on someone before.

James pulled his hands from his face and stared at them. Clenched both fists and swallowed hard, eyes suddenly burning.

“Shit,” he breathed. “Shit.

What had he done? What was he going to do?

How much had he just ruined?

He’d sort it out tomorrow. Maybe.

James sighed and headed into the kitchen. He had to pass Penny’s door to get to his own room. He’d wait until he was sure she was asleep. Then, perhaps, the door – open or closed – wouldn’t tempt him as badly.

When Penny didn’t come back to school the next day, Ruby started to get worried. She knew it showed, Yang kept looking at her funny, but she didn’t let it bother her. Instead, she kept an eye on Mr. Ironwood and Penny’s house until she saw the SUV pull out with Penny’s light still on.

Ruby headed out of the house, cookie tin in her backpack. She didn’t bother to call that she was leaving, Yang was doing homework with Sun and Dad was out at work.

And at some point, she really needed to deal with the fact that she kept calling her Uncle Qrow her dad. Yeah, he was her dad, but he got this funny look on his face whenever she said it. And so did Yang.

Ruby marched down the street, bag slung over one shoulder, and stole away into the backyard of Penny’s house. She grabbed onto the lowest branch of the tree and pulled herself up into it, easily scaling the branches until she was level with Penny’s window. Then, she shimmied out onto the branch toward Penny’s window, leaned forward, and rapped on the glass.

Penny looked up from the book she had open in her lap, eyes wide. Ruby offered her a smile and waved. Crossing the room, Penny pushed open the window, still looking more than a little surprised.

“Ruby,” she said. “What are you doing here?” Her head swung toward her door. “You can’t be here, what if my father comes back? He said-”

“I know what he said, Penny,” said Ruby. She held out her backpack. “I brought cookies.”

Penny stepped aside, letting Ruby come into her room as she shut the window again. She seemed lost as Ruby set down her backpack and sat down on the end of the bed. Ruby offered her a smile and patted the space next to her. Hesitantly, Penny crossed the room and sat down on the opposite end of the bed, pushing her back into the headboard and wrapping her arms around her knees.

“My father says I shouldn’t talk to you anymore,” said Penny.

Ruby nodded. “I know. I thought it was stupid, so I came anyway.” Ruby rubbed her face. The bruises were still there, one of her eyes slightly swollen and her lower lip scabbed over from where it had split. Her ribcage looked about the same – a myriad of purple and green bruises that left her looking like a half-beaten piñata.

Her entire body ached. The painkillers she’d taken made her vision blur every now and again. Guilt clenched her stomach and made her entire mind twist and tumble upon itself. Ruby bit it back as best she could. Ignored it every way she knew how.

It was a losing battle. That was why she was here. Part of it, anyway.

“I needed to find out how you were doing,” said Ruby. She looked at Penny, eyes sliding over to Penny’s backpack. To the flag button with the pink stripes.

She’d looked it up. She knew what it meant. Had had a hunch since Cardin Winchester had commented that Penny’s “real” name wasn’t Penny. Ruby thought that was stupid. If Penny said her name was Penny, her name was Penny.

“You know,” said Penny.

“I do,” said Ruby. “I want you to tell me though. In your words.”

Penny took a deep breath. With slow deliberation, she looked up at Ruby, gaze immediately darting over Ruby’s shoulder. She dropped her gaze and stared at her knees again.

“Cardin Winchester hates me because I’m not a real girl,” said Penny. Ruby’s heart thudded hard in her chest in sympathy. In pain. “Because when he first met me, I thought I was still a boy.”

Ruby nodded, slow and careful. She didn’t want to upset Penny. “But you are a real girl,” said Ruby.

“No, I’m not,” said Penny. There was a bitterness in her voice that made Ruby think she’d had this conversation not long ago. Tears prickled in the corners of her eyes.

Ruby spun on the bed and crossed her legs so she was facing Penny. “Yes, you are.” Ruby smiled at her. “You think just because we don’t have the same… bits and pieces, means you aren’t a real girl like me?” asked Ruby. She reached out and hesitated, thinking better of it. Penny reached out and met her halfway, tangling their fingers together.


“Penny,” said Ruby. She tightened their fingers together. “There are plenty of girls like you in the world, just like there are plenty of girls like me. Being one or the other doesn’t make you more real. It just means that some girls have a harder time convincing people that they are girls.” She smiled, eyes warm even as it hurt her lip. “But you are a girl. You told me you were a girl. You keep telling me you are a girl. And I know you are.”

There was something in Penny’s eyes, soft and sad, that made Ruby want to reach out and hug Penny. She knew it was a bad idea. So she kept their fingers together. Kept her smile warm and inviting.

Penny was real. Penny was amazing and smart and beautiful and the greatest friend that Ruby had ever had. She wasn’t about to let Penny think she was anything less than that.

The sadness in Penny’s eyes turned to fear. “Cardin Winchester…”

“Cardin Winchester is a bully and dumbass,” said Ruby. Penny jerked at Ruby’s words, eyes wide.


Ruby shrugged. Retracted her hand as Penny retracted her own. “I know, I know, I shouldn’t swear. But he deserves it. He came after you. He deserves everything I can throw at him.” She bit her lip. He deserved more. He deserved everything Yang could throw at him. But Ruby wasn’t one to endorse permanently destroying someone’s body. Although…

Ruby shook it off and returned to the task at hand. Another thought had occurred to her, on the way over. One that had Ruby silently seething.

“Is that why you got pulled out of school the first time?” asked Ruby. “Did you… transition back then?” Had Mr. Ironwood pulled her out of school because she’d transitioned? Was that why he was so overprotective? She didn’t quite get it.

“When I started transitioning in middle school, a lot of people didn’t like it,” said Penny. “No one around here, of course. Everyone around here is great, and that’s even though most of them know.” She sighed. Ruby was struck by how similar they sounded now. How Penny’s stilted speech was slowly giving way to Ruby’s speech patterns. And how quick it was to turn back.

“And?” prompted Ruby.

Penny’s fingers went for her bow, only to hesitate when she realized it wasn’t there. She drew her hand back down to her knees. “But Cardin Winchester and his friends bullied me. They called me names that I will never repeat, and they tore my clothing and threw me into the boy’s bathroom.” Penny’s lip trembled, her eyes filled with tears. Ruby had never ached more to hug her. “He and his friends were expelled, and Cardin spent the last two years in juvenile hall. I think he was released several months ago.” Then, so quiet that Ruby almost didn’t hear her, “I never should have gone back to school.”

Bullshit,” said Ruby. Penny jerked again. Ruby really need to stop swearing. But the want to fix everything – to smash and hug and help – was too strong to deny.

The words tumbled out of Ruby before she could stop them, two days of anger and frustration and pain spilling over into the bedroom. “You wanted to go back to school, I didn’t force you. I didn’t force you to go down that alleyway. You chose everything in your life lately that you wanted to do. And just because your dad doesn’t agree with that, doesn’t make it wrong.”

She leaped to her feet, pacing. “If Cardin Winchester comes back, we’ll be ready for him. I’m not going to let him take you away from me and I am especially not going to let your dad do it either.” She smacked her fist off her palm. “If that means learning how to fight? I’ll do it. If that means learning to be angry? I’ll do it. I’m not letting anyone take the best friend I’ve ever had from me!”

Penny stared, eyes half full of wonder and fear. Ruby wondered which part was directed at her.

She needed to dial it down.

“What if Cardin tells the school? I went to a special school across the city before. No one at the high school knows about me,” said Penny. She hugged herself tighter. “What if they find out?”

“They won’t,” said Ruby.

“But what if they do?” asked Penny.

“Then I’ll fight them too,” said Ruby, easily. She folded her arms, working her jaw the way Yang did when she was angry. She wasn’t sure she liked being angry, but it made her feel powerful. It made her feel strong. She wanted to be strong.

And if it meant she could protect Penny? She’d hang on to it.

“What do you want, Penny?” asked Ruby. Penny stared at her, eyes narrowed and head cocked in confusion. “Out of all this, what do you want? Do you wanna stay home? Do you wanna go back to school? Do you wanna disappear into the woods? Whatever you want, I’ll help, but you have to choose.”

Penny seemed to think about it. Then, in a surprisingly serious tone, she said, “I want to go back to school. I like school. I worked hard to be in school.” She clenched her fists on her knees. “I want to learn sign language with Neo and learn how to understand jokes from Yang. I want to each lunch with you and play with clay in art class.” She took a deep breath. “I want to go to school.”

“Then you need to tell your dad,” said Ruby. “Can you do that?”

“Yes,” said Penny. She gave a firm nod, a glint in her eye that had Ruby grinning. “He wants to protect me, and I understand that. I want to be protected. I am very, very scared. But I want to go to school. And maybe that’s a bad idea, but it’s my idea.” She swallowed. “We argued last night, and I did not continue because I was unsure.” Her eyes were soft as she looked over Ruby’s shoulder. “But I have you now. I can do this.”

“Yes, you can,” said Ruby. She grinned. “I know you can. You’re the strongest person I know.” And it was true. Penny was so amazing. So incredible. And Ruby wanted to give her the world on a silver platter. Show her friend just how amazing the world was when you weren’t scared.

She’d wanted to do it for Yang and Dad too, but they were often off in their own world.

“You’ve survived Cardin twice now,” said Ruby. “Third time? He survives us.” She emphasized the word by punching her fist into her open palm again. Penny was smiling now.

Then, her smile faltered. She frowned. “There was… one other thing.”

“What?” asked Ruby.

“My father blames you for what happened.”

Ruby snorted. “Oh, I know.” And she sounded scarily like Yang as she said it. This was the part that was hard for her. The part she’d gone over a thousand times in her head.

Ruby started pacing, throwing her hands into the air. “But it’s not. I feel like it is, but I know it’s not. I have the bruises to prove that it’s not.” She spun to face Penny, one finger in the air. “I’ve seen what happens when you let guilt consume you. My dad did it. My sister did it. My dog does it sometimes. I’m not like them. I may be their family but I won’t let my guilt consume me.”

And she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. They needed her. Penny needed her. She needed her. She could fight against the guilt and the self-pity and the frustration at herself. Channel it into something bigger and better. Into something she could use to fight the world that wanted to hurt the people she loved.

She took a deep breath. “Maybe I blame myself, but I’m doing something about it. I’m not going to wallow. I came here with a plan and I accomplished that plan. You don’t seem to be mad – you aren’t mad at me are you?” Penny shook her head. “Right, you’re not. So, everything is fine. Even if my stomach is still in knots, everything is fine.” Ruby took another deep breath. God, her stomach hurt. And her head was starting to spin from moving too much, the bruises on her ribs pressing at her.

“I’m not my dad – my uncle – I’m not. And I need to be stronger than both him and Yang if I’m gonna pull them both out of their guilt,” said Ruby.

“Why does your uncle feel guilty?” asked Penny.

Ruby leaned against the wall, looking at the floor. This part was always hard. But she wanted to tell Penny. She could do that.

“He blames himself for how my parents – my biological parents – died. But he saved me and Yang. It wasn’t his fault.” The world blurred as tears gathered in her eyes. “It wasn’t. And people keep telling him that Yang’s motorcycle accident was his fault too, but it wasn’t. She just wanted to meet her biological mom and Dad said no and she ran.”

Ruby hiccupped. “If I hadn’t gone after her…” She trailed off. She could still smell the blood, some nights. Still feel Yang’s body warmth draining away in her hands. Still hear the sirens and her screams as they took Yang away.

It had been a long night in the ER, waiting for answers.

It had been a longer night once they’d been sent home, and Dad had destroyed the house and she’d gone to stay with Asper and Pearl.

She didn’t like thinking about those nights.

“The point is that I may be their family, and I’m proud of it,” said Ruby. She scrubbed at her eyes to clear the tears and took a deep breath. “But I’m stronger. I had to be. Always have. And I still am. And I’m gonna be strong for you too, okay?”

Penny nodded. Hesitantly, she climbed out of bed and stood across from Ruby. “May I ask for a hug?” she asked, holding out her arms.

Ruby nodded. “Yes.” She approached Penny slowly and enveloped her in a warm hug, holding her close until Penny tapped her shoulder to get her to pull back.

“We’re stronger together than we are alone,” said Penny, holding her at arm’s length. “A book taught me that. So, I’ll be strong for you too.”

Ruby wiped at her eyes again and smiled at Penny. “Thank you,” she said. She grabbed her backpack off the floor and pulled out the cookie tin. “So, cookie?”

It had been a long night at the bar, and as Qrow pulled away from the curb, he was grateful it was over. His eyes were starting to burn and his head spun a bit. He was tired. He was sore. He was still shaky and upset and he just wanted to drown himself in alcohol and sleep for a week.

He hadn’t wanted a drink this badly since… since Yang’s accident, actually.

Qrow swallowed hard and forced himself to count to five. If he kept up like this, he was liable to swerve off the road and end up buried in a telephone pole. That wouldn’t be good for anyone, even if he didn’t feel much like dealing with his head right now.

He kept driving, forcing himself to count and watch the road instead of letting his mind drift to James. To his anger and his snarling. To the light bruising Qrow now had because of him. To the way he’d been so terrified at what James would do to him. To the way the girls had stayed with him all night long…

Qrow shook his head and forced himself to take a breath. He stopped at a stoplight and squinted, seeing someone running down the street on his passenger side.

A girl with long black hair and golden eyes. Short sleeves and a scarf wrapped around one arm. It was too cold out for that, and Qrow wondered why she wasn’t wearing a jacket.

The girl skid to a stop next to his car and banged on the window. Qrow rolled it down.

“Please,” said the girl. Her face was streaked with blood and dirt and tears, a purple bruise hung under one honey golden eye. “Help me, please.” A broken sob passed her throat. She looked back. “He’ll find me. He’ll find me.”

Qrow unlocked the door. “Get in,” he said.

The girl stared at him. Blinked. Tears slid down her face. She opened the door and climbed into the car. Qrow rolled up the windows and drove off again, turned the corner toward his house.

“My name’s Qrow,” said Qrow. He dug out his wallet and handed her his driver’s licence. “Qrow Branwen.” A picture of Yang and Ruby fell out of his wallet and the girl picked it up, stared at it curiously. He handed her his phone, as well.

“Blake,” she said. “Are these your daughters?”

Qrow nodded. “Yeah, you know them?”

“Sort of,” she said. She was frowning, rubbing at her bruise with one free hand.

“You wanna go to the police?” asked Qrow.

She shook her head, sharp and sudden. “No. He’ll… he’ll find me there. They’ll let me go and he’ll find me again.” She rested her head against the window. Stared like a deer caught in the headlights at nothing. “He always does.” There was a haunted tone to her voice that made Qrow go cold. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw she wore a choker.

On closer inspection, he realized it wasn’t a choker.

It was a cat collar, complete with bell.

Qrow felt the bottom of his stomach drop out. Felt his entire body heave for a second.

He’ll find me, she kept saying. He always does.

Who was this man, Qrow wondered, and how could Qrow keep him away from Blake?

“What about my place?” asked Qrow. “I’ll keep all the doors unlocked, tell you every street we go by and how to get back to downtown, and I’ll let you choose who goes in first. You can even meet my daughters before you make a decision.”

Blake looked at him, eyes shimmering with tears. Slowly, painfully, she nodded, lip trembling. Qrow noticed it was split. Just like Ruby’s. His heart ached for her.

“Okay,” she said.

“Okay,” echoed Qrow, and he turned another corner toward home, hands clenched on the steering wheel to keep himself from seething with rage.

Chapter Text

Qrow pulled into the driveway just as the snow stopped falling. There was maybe a foot of it total now, with drifts along the edges of the streets a few inches higher. He cut the engine and took another glance at Blake, who was clutching at his cellphone as she stared up at the house. Qrow had gotten her to text Yang as they drove, telling her to meet them outside.

The front door opened and Yang came out, dressed in her boots, coat, and pyjamas. She flashed Qrow a worried smile, brow furrowed.

“Ready?” asked Qrow.

Blake nodded, the gesture slow and shaky, and got out of the car. She was still clutching his phone.

“Hey, you’re the girl from the pet store,” said Yang. “Blake, right?”

Blake nodded again. She looked around at the house, eyes welling up with tears. Qrow swallowed hard and flashed a smile to Yang, double checking that the car doors were locked before he padded up to the front door, careful to let Blake keep him in her peripherals before he passed her.

“I’m Yang,” said Yang, holding out her hand. Blake’s eyes focused on the yellow metal for a second. “Whatever you need, we’re here.”

“Thank you,” said Blake, voice barely above a whisper. She fidgeted with the phone, still gripping it tightly. “I…” She looked away from both of them, hair falling across her face. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” said Qrow. Blake shivered, rubbing at her arms. Qrow made a note to get her a jacket in the morning. Even if she ended up taking off, he wanted to make sure she had something to wear. “You want to go inside?”

Blake stared at the house. She swallowed visibly and gave a terse nod, eyes wide and breath coming in slow, sharp inhales and exhales through her nose.

“Okay,” she said. “Where’s your other daughter?” She looked at him, brow furrowed.

“Sleeping, I assume,” said Qrow. He glanced at Yang, who nodded in confirmation. “Ruby needs the rest, she’s had a rough couple of days. But she’ll be happy to meet you in the morning.”

Another nod from Blake. Her entire body was one long line of tension. Bunched up and hunched over like she was trying to take up as little space as possible.

Qrow opened the front door and gestured into the house. Blake studied him closely, then nodded to him. Qrow stepped in first, Yang behind him. He turned to see Blake slink through the door, curled around the cell phone like it was the only thing keeping her alive.

Qrow could relate. He and… his sister had been runaways once. The only thing that had kept them going some days had been each other. Until Tai and Summer, that was. But that was in the past. It didn’t matter anymore.

It didn’t.

“Welcome to my humble abode,” said Qrow, gesturing to the living room. “Lemme get you some blankets from upstairs.” When he got a little nod from Blake, he headed up the stairs and toward the linen closet.

As he reached the closet, he took a deep breath and stopped, leaning heavily against the door with his forehead pressed into it and one hand fisted against the wall.

There was a homeless girl – definitely abused, probably traumatized – standing in his living room with Yang. He had no idea who she was beyond her first name, and that was assuming she had given him her actual name, and there was some kind of man – probably a predator – after her.

This definitely wasn’t how he had expected his evening to go. But she was here. Yang was willing, and Qrow was fresh out of ideas.

So he took a breath to steel himself, dug out some sheets, a blanket, and a pillow, and then ducked into Yang and Ruby’s room for a second to grab a t-shirt and some purple pyjama pants. That done, he headed downstairs and tried to make himself look as non-threatening as possible.

Yang was leaned against the couch, hands moving swiftly as she regaled Blake with the story of how she’d vanquished a hornet’s nest last week. Blake seemed somewhere between amused and lost, but her shoulders were looser than before, so Qrow took it as a victory.

“Didn’t know if you wanted to wear pyjamas or not, but I grabbed some of Yang’s,” said Qrow, holding them up. “They should fit you.”

Blake’s eyes flicked, almost imperceptibly, to Yang’s chest. “Right,” she said. “Thank you.” Qrow fought the urge to react. It had been a while since someone had made a crack about that particular aspect of Yang. And it was the first time he’d never seen Yang notice. Maybe she was too busy trying to make Blake comfortable.

“Powder room is that-a-way,” said Yang, pointing. Blake nodded and took the bundle of clothing, then disappeared down the hall. Once she was gone, Yang flashed a grin at Qrow and helped him make up the couch for Blake.

“You know her,” said Qrow.

“Vaguely,” said Yang. “Saw her with the guy she’s running from.”

“Think she’ll be here in the morning?” asked Qrow.

Yang sighed and fluffed the pillow before dropping it onto the end of the couch. “I dunno,” she said. She rubbed her left hand across her right arm. “I really don’t know.” Yang bit her lip. “Uncle Qrow, Ruby looks really rough right now.” Her voice was soft, just barely above a whisper. “If Blake sees her, she might get the wrong idea.”

“Right,” said Qrow. He’d forgotten about that. He rubbed the back of his neck and sighed deeply. “We’ll figure it out in the morning.”

Yang nodded. Qrow wanted to say more, but, a moment later, Blake reappeared, wearing the black t-shirt top and purple pyjama pants. Qrow spotted bruises and scrapes on Blake’s arms, most of them hand-shaped, but didn’t ask. He also saw Yang swallow and lick her lips, a glaze appearing over her eyes and a flush reddening her ears. She shook it off a moment later.

“Hey, they fit well,” said Yang, voice a little hoarse.

Blake nodded and tugged at the top. “It’s a little loose, but I like it.” She looked at Qrow and Yang and offered them a shy smile. Qrow noted that she was holding her clothes under one arm, but the collar was still around her neck. He tried not to grind his teeth at its existence.

“We’ll be upstairs if you need anything,” said Qrow. “Kitchen’s through that door,” he gestured, “so if you get hungry or thirsty, help yourself to anything in there you want.” He was glad that the alcohol was currently stuffed under his bed. Even if it wasn’t something he was terribly proud of.

“Thank you,” said Blake, voice small.

“Sleep well, Blake,” said Qrow. “We’ll see you in the morning.”

Yang nodded. “Night, Blake!” She followed Qrow up the stairs, where she paused and slumped against the wall next to her room.

Qrow raised an eyebrow. “You all right?” he asked, voice soft.

She groaned and rubbed her hands over her face. “Oh my god, I’m so fucking gay,” she hissed. She put her hands over her face and looked at Qrow between her fingers. “We gotta keep her safe, Uncle Qrow.”

“We will,” he said. “I promise.” Yang nodded and headed to bed, and Qrow hesitated a moment longer at the top of the stairs, watching the light go out. Then, he headed to his own room.

He’d figure out what to do in the morning.

James awoke just after seven to a pounding on his door. He stared at the ceiling, squinting. The pounding ceased for a few seconds, then it resumed again almost immediately. He sighed, rubbing his face, and rolled out of bed.

He followed the pounding to his front door, still squinting at the sun streaming in through the curtains. From this side of the door, he couldn’t tell who was on the other side, and he couldn’t guess either. He’d told Qrow not to come around – something he was regretting more and more as every day passed – and Yang and Ruby hadn’t come around either, to his knowledge. It could have been Glynda, or Ozpin, but the knocking didn’t suit either of them.

It was too rhythmic. Too measured.

James opened the door, dressed in only a t-shirt and sweatpants, and came face to face with Winter Schnee. She stood in parade rest, entire face firm and eyes forward. They flicked upward to look at James, the rest of her head following shortly after.

“Sir,” she said, voice clipped.

“Winter,” said James, voice fond. A slow smile spread across his face. “I didn’t realize you were back in the country. Come in, come in.” He stepped aside to let Winter into his house and shut the door behind them both. “How are things?”

Winter swallowed, glancing around the house. It had changed a bit since she’d last been there, almost a year and a half ago. He’d painted the living room light blue at Penny’s request, and the kitchen had a new backsplash. New pictures and new certificates were scattered around the house, and he’d bought a new loveseat as well, after the old one had been worn down from one too many movie nights with Penny.

“I…” Winter stopped, dropping her gaze. “Well. You see.” She licked her lips. James frowned and tentatively reached out, resting one hand on Winter’s shoulder.

“Winter,” said James, “you know you can tell me anything.”

“I forgot I didn’t have a home,” she croaked. She wouldn’t look up from the floor. “My father disowned me while I was overseas, and when I returned, I forgot to make arrangements.” She grimaced, shoulders shifting as she flexed her hands behind her back. “Apologies.”

James nodded slowly. “That’s why you came here.”

“Yes,” she said.

James nodded again. “The guest room will need a bit of cleaning out, I have some supplies there, but it’s nothing I can’t move to the basement. We should be able to set it all up before night time with any luck,” he said, rubbing his face.

“Pardon, sir?” asked Winter. She furrowed her brow, chin raising enough to look at least partially at him through her severe bangs.

“You need a place to stay, do you not?” asked James.

Winter nodded.

“So stay here,” said James. “As long as Penny is fine with it, so am I.”

Winter seemed to stare at him for an impossibly long amount of time. She was as silent and as still as she ever was, but her eyes betrayed her emotions. They flickered between a dozen things – eyebrows and lips twitching with them – before finally settling on something close to relief. Tears welled up in her eyes, a broken sob slipped from her throat, and she clapped a hand over her mouth to hide the rest of them.

Hesitantly, James reached out with his other hand and set it on Winter’s shoulder, then he drew her close, allowing her to rest her forehead on his covered chest. She went tense for a moment, before her hands fisted his shirt and she collapsed against him, crying quietly.

James held her close, rubbing her back and murmuring words of comfort into her hair.

“You’re family,” he whispered. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” He pressed his face into her hair and held her there for a minute. Let her cry until she seemed to calm.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you so much.”

James slowly guided her into the living room and onto the couch. She clung to him, her careful bun coming undone with the shaking of her shoulders.

“Family is a lot more than just blood, Winter,” said James. “Remember that.” He drew back to tilt her chin up and look her in the eye. “I will always be there for you, especially after what your father did to you.”

It was something James had too much experience with. A father who had gotten rid of him when he’d made his preferences known. He’d vowed, from that day forward, to always be accepting of people and their differences, and to always do his best to understand them.

He’d managed pretty well with Penny, until their recent fight. Then he’d mis-stepped, misspoke, and hurt her enough that James didn’t know if she was going to forgive him any time soon.

Speaking of which, James heard the telltale thump-thump of Penny coming down the stairs. He looked up, Winter pulling back to sit on the opposite side of the couch, and saw Penny appear at the doorway into the living room. She was wearing her backpack and her shoes with the lucky laces.

“Penny, what are you doing?” asked James.

“I am going to wait for the school bus,” said Penny. She tugged at a strand of hair. She looked odd without her bow, James noticed. He was far too used to seeing her wearing it. “Hello, Miss Winter.”

“Hello, Penny,” said Winter.

James cleared his throat. “Would it be all right if Winter stayed with us for awhile?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Penny. She turned and faced Winter, gaze flicking to her impeccable white outfit. “We will clean the guest room for you. I will talk to you after school. I must catch my bus.” She nodded to James. “Father.”

James was on his feet in an instant. “Penny, I told you I thought you should stay home.”

“I recognize that,” said Penny, “but given that I disagree, I have decided I will be attending school today.” She put her hand on the doorknob. “Good day, Father.” And then she was opening the door, stepping out, and shutting it behind her before James could recover.

What just happened?

“She’s certainly changed,” said Winter, a touch of amusement in her voice.

James rubbed his fingers through his hair, still staring in shock at his closed front door. “Yes, she has,” he murmured. And, if he was honest with himself, he had no idea how he felt about that.

What was going on with he and Penny lately? And how could he fix it?

James sighed and headed into the kitchen to make coffee. First, Winter. Then, Penny. He could handle this.

Chapter Text

Morning came with the shrill shriek of an alarm clock and a low groan from Qrow. He rolled over, slapped off the clock, and squinted into the darkness. The sun was rising later and later each day, and with his curtain down, Qrow could only just see the shifting lights of the sunrise through the slits.

It was seven in the morning.

He rolled out of bed and pushed himself upright, ensuring he was fully clothed before stumbling out of the bedroom, one hand on the wall.

He had to wake up the girls for school. Had to make sure they had breakfast and lunch. Had to…

Last night returned to him.

There was a girl on his couch. A homeless girl wearing a cat collar named Blake. A homeless girl named Blake who had a predator on her tail, so to speak.

Qrow grimaced and rubbed his face. Oh, this was going to be a fun morning.

He turned around and headed back for Yang and Ruby’s bedroom as he made a checklist for the morning. First, talk to Ruby and make sure she knew what was going on. Second, double check that Blake was still here, or that she’d at least made off with all the good silverware, so that Qrow didn’t have to worry about her going hungry. Third, talk to Blake if she was still here and figure out what she wanted.

After that, well, he’d figure it out. Eventually.

Sighing, Qrow rapped lightly on the bedroom door and waited for it to open. Yang squinted at him, her light still off, and sighed. She flicked on the light and shuffled past him, rubbing at her eyes. Qrow ducked into the bedroom just as Ruby sat up, and he took a spot on Yang’s bed across from Ruby.

“Dad?” mumbled Ruby. Qrow bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from correcting her. She’d been calling him that ever since the phone call, and Qrow wasn’t sure what to make of it. He wasn’t her dad. He’d raised her, but he wasn’t her dad. But then, did she even remember her parents?

Qrow didn’t know. He didn’t think she did. But then, they never talked about Summer and Taiyang.

“Morning, kiddo,” said Qrow, keeping his voice soft. “You wanna sit up? I have a few things to tell you.” At Ruby’s frown, Qrow added, “Nothing bad, just some news. C’mon, up you get.”

Ruby rubbed her eyes and scooted against the wall. She curled her arms around her knees and rested her chin on them, watching Qrow with wide, silver eyes that were still marked with sleep.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“There’s someone downstairs,” said Qrow, slowly. “Her name is Blake. Yang said that you two ran into her at the pet store, once.” Ruby furrowed her brow and nodded, lips pursed. “She spent the night. She’s…” Qrow wasn’t sure how to explain it.

He looked at Ruby. At the scab on her healing lip and the bruises under her eyes that were starting to fade. At the marks along her arms that were hidden from wearing hoodies in the cold weather. She looked rough.

Yang was right, Blake wouldn’t take this well.

“She’s had some bad things happen to her,” said Qrow after a moment of silence. He leaned forward, elbows rested on his legs and hands clasped together between his knees. “I don’t know the extent of it, but I know she needs help.”

“Okay,” said Ruby. “How can I help?”

“For starters? Wear a hoodie, and make sure you explain to Blake what happened to your face without scaring her. Can you do that?” he asked.

Ruby nodded.

“And, I don’t think you and Yang are going to school today,” said Qrow. “If Blake is still around, I want to get some things for her, and I think it’s best if you come with me.” He ran over the bills in his head as he spoke. There was enough wiggle room for Blake to fit in if he cut back on other things, and, over time, he figured that’d get better. He’d gotten a payment behind on his car, which was frustrating, but next month…

He shook it off. No, he shouldn’t have been thinking long term. Even if he wanted to, it was up to Blake. Besides, what if the girls didn’t like Blake? What if they wanted her gone? Just because she and Yang had gotten along last night didn’t mean it would last long term.

But he wasn’t going to let her walk out of this house without something to wear for the winter and some idea of how to protect herself from this guy.

“Okay,” said Ruby. She climbed out of bed. “Downstairs?”

“Yup,” said Qrow. He got up and headed downstairs, letting Ruby get dressed.

The living room was empty, although Blake’s original clothes and the blankets and pillows were still on the couch. Qrow narrowed his eyes at the couch and tilted his head. He could hear voices coming from the kitchen, and he followed them through the doorway.

Yang was leaned against the kitchen counter, grinning, no doubt having just said some terrible pun. Blake was seated at the kitchen table, a look on her face that Qrow would describe as somewhere between horrified and incredulous. Cradled in her hands was a cup of what he figured was tea, seeing as the coffee machine was still slumbering and the drink was steaming.

“That was terrible,” said Blake.

Yang grinned. “’Course!” she said. “I specialize in terrible puns. I’m a pun master.” She stabbed a thumb toward herself, still grinning. Blake just shook her head.

“Morning,” said Qrow. “Nice to see you’re still here, Blake. I was worried you’d take off.”

Blake shrugged, looking away. “I didn’t wake up until Yang came downstairs,” she mumbled. “Thanks for letting me stay, um…”

“Just call me Qrow, if you want,” said Qrow. “Or Mr. Branwen. Either is fine.”

“Qrow,” said Blake, voice soft. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” said Qrow. “Listen, I was wondering if you’d be bothered if I wanted to buy you a winter coat. Just looking at that shirt of yours in the living room is making me cold.”

Blake seemed to falter, mouth opening and closing several times without saying a word. She pressed her lips together and looked away.

“If it makes you uncomfortable, I won’t,” said Qrow. His voice was gentle. “But you don’t need to pay it back. You don’t need to do anything for it. I’m a father, Blake, I don’t like seeing people go cold.”

“If it makes you that uncomfortable, you could always wash dishes,” said Yang. “You know, if you wanted to stay for a while.”

Qrow narrowed his eyes at Yang. “Isn’t dish washing your chore?” he asked.

Yang gave him an innocent look. “Maybe.”

Qrow shook his head and turned his attention to Blake just as Ruby walked into the kitchen.

The reaction was instant. Blake’s eyes went wide, one hand went over her mouth, her shoulders tensed, and she shifted her weight to one foot, instantly ready to run.

“Hey, Blake, I’m Ruby,” said Ruby in her usual perky tone. She was in her favourite red hoodie, hands jammed in her pockets. “Don’t worry about my face, I got in a fight with a bully last week.”

Blake kept staring. Gaze flicking from Ruby to Qrow and back again. She didn’t relax, but the fear in her eyes seemed to minimize.

“Hey, come on,” said Yang. “Does he look like he could beat someone up?” She gestured to Qrow and he scoffed, more than a touch offended. “He’s a noodle. Our noodle-y uncle.”

Blake’s eyes narrowed. “He said he was your dad.”

“He is,” said Ruby. “He’s also our uncle. It’s a long story.”

“Evidently,” murmured Blake, raising an eyebrow. There was a tension in her now, pulled across her shoulders and her face, that made Qrow swallow hard against the pit in his stomach. He didn’t want to scare her. He only wished there was an easier way to make that evident to her. But there wasn’t, so he’d just have to be patient.

“Please let us buy you some clothes,” said Ruby. “If you stay or go doesn’t change that you need clothes.” Her voice was soft, her eyes inviting, and there was a warmth in her smile that Qrow and Yang had never managed to master. They were Branwens, after all, built to fight and built to take hits. It had been Summer that soothed rough edges, Summer that people easily trusted, and Ruby had inherited every bit of her huge, compassionate heart.

“Okay,” said Blake, quietly.

Ruby nodded. “Then it’s settled. Uncle Qrow, go get dressed. We’re going to Walmart!” And really, thought Qrow as he headed up the stairs, no one should have been that excited about going to Walmart. But then again, it was Ruby.

She loved everything and everyone.

Ruby and Yang were not at school. That was the first thing Penny noticed upon arriving at the school. The second thing she noticed was that Pyrrha Nikos had bandages on her dominant hand and her boyfriend, Jaune Arc, had a black eye. Those who did not know Pyrrha or Jaune would assume that she had hit him. However, Penny knew enough about them both to deduce that someone had hit Jaune, so Pyrrha had hit them.

It made much more sense, that way. Pyrrha would never hurt Jaune. She would, however, hurt many people for Jaune. The question, then, was which person Pyrrha had hit.

Penny would keep an eye out for absences today. It would most likely be someone not at school.

She headed into the school, following her usual path and holding on tightly to her backpack. At the edge of the hallway, she wasn’t jostled, but her backpack was, and Penny practiced her breathing to keep it from bothering her. Usually, Ruby and Yang stood next to Penny to ensure she wasn’t jostled by anyone. But they were not there today, so Penny had to make do other ways.

She could handle it. She knew she could.

Her first class went well. She sat in the corner, near the sun, and took notes for Ruby and Yang, ensuring they did not use the shorthand she was so fond of. In second class, she spent several minutes clicking a pen as her classmates got louder and louder in their discussions, and excused herself quietly to pace around the hallways until she was sure their discussion was over.

By the time lunch came, Penny was unsure of what to do. The cafeteria would be far too loud without Ruby and Yang to focus on, and Penny didn’t know if there were other places she was allowed to eat.

She ended up sitting on the stairs near the back of the school, munching on her sandwich and sipping her juice while sitting halfway up the stairs. For several minutes, she was alone, and then the clunk-thump-clunk of Mercury Black’s boots came up behind Penny.

She shifted to one side, looking up through her bangs to watch as he went by. Instead, he paused and looked down at Penny. He had one raised eyebrow and his lips were pursed, though Penny wasn’t quite sure what that meant.

“Hello, Mercury,” said Penny. She let her gaze follow his bangs, then it darted down to the silver chain that disappeared into his shirt. “How are you today?”

“I’m good Penny P,” he said. Penny smiled, very small. She liked that nickname. It came from when she first introduced herself to her homeroom class as Penny Polendina Ironwood. Polendina was her middle name, and Mercury had said he liked the alliteration. He was in her homeroom, with Emerald, because they’d both been held back. Penny did not know why. “What’re you doing, sitting alone?”

“Ruby and Yang aren’t here today, so I am not eating in the cafeteria,” said Penny. “I do not know why they aren’t here, but I am worried.” She dropped her gaze to her half-eaten sandwich. “They have not answered my text messages.”

Mercury hummed. Penny didn’t know what that meant. “Come on, get up.”

“Why?” asked Penny. She stood up, frowning slightly, ensuring that her lunch was secured.

“You can eat in the art room, with me and Emmie and Neo,” said Mercury. “No point eating alone. Come on.” He started back up the stairs, giving a sweeping gesture for Penny to follow.

She followed him up the stairs and to the hallway, where she walked alongside him.

“Can I ask you something, Penny P?” said Mercury as they walked. Penny nodded, her gaze darting to his uneven hair and the scar over one eyebrow.

“Yes,” she said.

“What is up with you?” asked Mercury. “I don’t mean that in a bad way, don’t get me wrong. You’re cool, but you’re also weird as all get out.” He glanced over at her and Penny frowned slightly. “Is there something up with your head or…?”

“Oh,” said Penny, finally understanding what he was asking. “I am autistic.” She smiled a tiny smile at Mercury, swinging her arms as she walked. She knew enough about Mercury to deduce that he would not react in a horribly detrimental way, but her stomach fluttered and her heart beat fast in her chest, even as she spoke the words.

“Huh,” said Mercury. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked at the ceiling. “I never would’a guessed.” He looked over at Penny, but she kept her eyes forward. “Sorry for any offense, don’t know the language.”

Penny nodded. “I have some pamphlets if you would like me to photocopy them for you,” said Penny. Her gaze followed the cracks in the ceiling. She wondered if they broke the building code for this hallway.

“I’d like that,” said Mercury. He stopped, resting one hand on the big, steel door next to him. “Here we are.” He pushed open the door and gestured with a big, sweeping bow. Penny hugged her bag close and stepped into the art room.

She didn’t know this room. There were two art rooms in the school and this one was for the junior and senior students, as opposed to the freshman or sophomore students, like Penny. It had enormous floor-to-ceiling windows along the wall opposite to Penny, and the large tables had four to six chairs around them. The room was full of pictures, paintings, sculptures, and many art supplies. It had a bitter smell, like drying paint, but the smell wasn’t strong enough to bother her.

At one table sat Neo and Emerald, whom Penny had talked to several times before.

“Hey, Penny,” said Emerald. Neo waved, smiling.

“Hello,” said Penny. She sat down at the table and Mercury sat next to her.

Neo waved again and Penny focused her attention on Neo’s moving hands.

“Why alone?” signed Neo.

“Ruby and Yang are not here today,” said Penny. “They also have not answered my text messages.” She was worried, terribly so, even though there was no logical reason to be worried. Yang and Ruby were most likely sick and sleeping in order to ensure they healed quickly. When Penny got sick, she slept a lot.

They were probably fine. But without confirmation, Penny worried. They were her friends, she didn’t want them to be hurt, especially not after Ruby had been hurt on her behalf less than a week ago.

“They’re probably fine,” said Emerald. “Don’t worry about it.”

Penny was still worried about it. She wondered if it was really that easy for Emerald to stop worrying. That must have been nice.

Penny tugged at the bread on her sandwich, frowning. She wished she had Mr. Branwen’s phone number, at least then she could call him and see what was going on. Perhaps she’d go to the house after school. But then, her father didn’t want her to be around Mr. Branwen or his family.

Even now, Penny still thought that was one of the dumbest things her father had ever said. She tore up the small pieces of her sandwich bread, focussing on the movement underneath her fingertips. Rip and shred, rip and shred.

“Hey, Penny P,” said Mercury. Penny tilted her head to look at his shoulder through her bangs. “Did you understand that English assignment at all? I didn’t get what the prof was asking us for.”

“Dumbass,” muttered Emerald. Penny saw her roll her eyes. “It’s not that hard. You just-”

“I didn’t ask you,” said Mercury. “I asked Penny. So?” He was looking at her, Penny knew, but she couldn’t bring herself to look near him. It had been a while since people sat so close to her. They did not touch her, but they were close. Penny wondered if it would be rude to ask Mercury to move back.

Then, Mercury went sliding back on his own, wobbling on his chair. Penny glanced over and saw Neo wink at her. She did not know what that meant.

“Hey! Neo!” snapped Mercury. Penny frowned. Still unsure what had happened. Her gaze fell to Neo’s hands, then Emerald’s boots, then to the sculpture near the blackboard.

Neo signed something that Penny could not make out.

“Personal space,” echoed Mercury. He rolled his eyes and folded his arms. “Yeah, yeah.”

Penny cleared her throat. “I can explain the assignment if you would like,” she said.

Mercury grinned. “Please.”

“The English assignment is poetry analysis,” she began. “There were seventeen poems to choose from…”

As she continued on, discussing the assignment with as much detail as she could, Penny felt herself begin to relax slightly. She still was not quite sure why Mercury had invited her to lunch, nor what it meant for their relationship, nor did she know if Emerald and Mercury counted as friends, or if they wanted to be counted as friends.

However, they were willing to listen to her, and they didn’t ask Penny to look at them while she or they spoke, nor did they get close to her again. Neo kept her signs simple, or had Emerald translate through her, and they had a lovely conversation.

If nothing else, it was better than spending lunch alone, even if Penny’s mind was still partially consumed with thoughts of what had happened to Yang and Ruby.

Chapter Text

James heard the water in the bathroom turn on just before the door shut, and he knew Penny was taking a bath. Usually she mentioned something before she did, but with everything else going on, James wasn’t surprised that that had changed as well.

With a soft sigh, James headed into the living room, where Winter was seated on the couch, reading a book. James recognized it as a modern retelling of Carmilla, which James had bought for Penny before realizing how… sexual the story was. She looked up when James stepped into the room and he sat down in the easy chair across from Winter.

“Is everything all right, sir?” asked Winter. Her careful bun had a few loose hairs, and if she’d noticed them, he knew she’d go redo the bun.

“I don’t know,” said James, his voice soft. He combed his fingers through his hair, musing the usually cared for appearance. The TV was off, leaving the house in silence except for the thin strains of music from the bathroom and the running water in the pipes.

James shook his head and stared up at the ceiling, his eyes tracking to where the bathroom was, just behind the stairs. “I have no idea what’s going on with Penny,” said James. “We’ve never fought this long before.”

“May I ask what happened?” asked Winter. She set down her book and rested it on her lap, closed. “You two were very close, last I was here.”

James frowned, his gaze flicking from Winter to the book in her lap, then to the lamp near her right shoulder. Exhaustion clung to him like an old, unwelcome friend. A sinking thing that latched on and refused to let go. Between Penny, Qrow, and Winter, James found himself more emotionally drained than he had in years, and with no true solutions in sight.

He wanted to sleep. He wanted to apologize. He wanted to turn back time and change everything so that he never spoke those harsh words he did not mean to either of the people he’d spoken them to. But time was a cruel mistress with a heavy, suffocating embrace, and she had no plans of letting go of James in the near future.

“I said a few things I shouldn’t have,” said James. You’re not like other girls. He grimaced. Stay away from my family. Rubbed his mouth. “To both Penny and to the… father of some friends she cared quite a bit about.”

“Father,” echoed Winter. She set the book down on the coffee table and crossed one leg over the other, hands in her lap and head tilted curiously. “Were you two… close?” There was a weight to her words that James knew he wasn’t imagining. A shift in her expression – a pulled brow, a pursed lip, a quiet frown in her eyes – that James saw clear as day.

“No,” said James. “But… we almost were. We were almost something.” He licked his lips and looked away from Winter. Stared down at his uncovered metal hand. He curled his fingers, once, then twice, then let his hand relax again. Ran the tips of his fingers over the smooth texture of the easy chair. “Now, we’re nothing.”

“Are you certain?” asked Winter. She leaned forward, only slightly. “Perhaps you are mistaken.”

The water upstairs shut off. The faint echoes of Jason Derulo through several walls and a floor reached James’ ears. He couldn’t make out the lyrics, just the telltale sing-song of the man’s name before the song began.

“You don’t pin someone to a wall and threaten them with physical violence and expect them to forgive you so easily,” said James, slowly. He looked at Winter, whose eyebrows were raised. “I said terrible things to Qrow, Winter. I do not expect him to want to see me any time soon.”

Winter hummed. She ran her fingers over the ring she wore on one hand. A ring from her time in service. “Indeed,” she said. “Often, I forget you’re capable of such things.”

“I have a temper, Winter,” said James.

“I’ve never seen it,” replied Winter, a challenge in her voice. “It cannot be so bad if you can control it, can it?”

James shook his head. “It’s not like that. That’s the second time I’ve done something like this to him. The first time he only forgave me because I was wrong. Because I apologized.”

Winter frowned. “Forgive me, I don’t know the entirety of the circumstances, but what kind of friend wouldn’t accept an apology if the apology is genuine?” she asked. She tilted her head at James, her asymmetrical bangs hanging in her eyes. She fiddled with her ring again.

“A man who knows the apologizer does not deserve forgiveness,” said James.

Winter’s frown deepened. “And what man believes he can make such assumptions?” Her voice was sharper. Her expression tighter. “What man believes he can choose who deserves forgiveness and who does not?” She sat up straighter, teeth bared. “If this Qrow believes such things, do you truly believe that he deserves to be your friend?”

“Winter.” James’ voice was hard.

James.” Hers was harder.

James faltered under her snarl. “You used to be more obedient,” he said, after a few long moments of silence. Her expression changed, falling from anger and frustration to sadness-tinted neutrality. She glanced at her ring, flexing her hand. Then, she glanced up at James, eyes as soft and distant as he’d ever seen them.

“I used to be a lot of things,” said Winter, her voice as soft and vulnerable as her eyes. “Funny, how one bad commanding officer can change all of that.”

James felt his stomach lurch. “Winter…”

“I didn’t leave the army, James,” said Winter. “I was kicked out.” She glanced up at the ceiling, eyes tracking to where the soft music was coming from. “You should talk to her.”

The subject change threw him, and he was unable to speak for several long moments. “What?”

Winter’s gaze turned to James. “You should talk to her. She deserves an apology, and she deserves to know what you’re thinking. Penny is a wonderful girl, James, don’t let one fight ruin your relationship.” She looked back at her ring. “Don’t let things go unsaid, sir. Don’t create a chasm between the two of you that you cannot cross.”

James was silent. Unable to find words.

Winter glanced up at him again, eyes shimmering in the low light, and then she stood, clearing her throat.

“I’ll head to bed now, I think,” said Winter. “Goodnight, James.”

“Goodnight, Winter,” said James, softly. He didn’t watch as he left the room, only listened to the precise, and soft, thump of her feet as she headed up the stairs.

Once he was sure he was alone, he put his head in his hands and took a few deep, shaky breaths.

He needed to talk to Penny. He needed to talk to Qrow. He needed to do something, and soon. But would they even want to listen to him?

Qrow arrived home sometime around two in the morning. It’d been a late night at work and he was looking forward to washing up, climbing into bed, and sleeping until the girls woke him up when they got up for school.

God, he was tired. The kind of seeping exhaustion that came from the fear of the unknown. It clung to him like a monster, eating away at his bones and his mind until all he could do was look at the next ten seconds. And then the next. And then on and on until he felt like he could make it through the day.

Blake. James. Yang and Ruby and Penny. School work and work-work and everything in between.

There was just too much going on in his life right now. He needed it all to slow down before he got caught up in the movement and ended up being pulled under. Down and down until all he could do was claw his way toward a surface that might not even be there.

Qrow rubbed at his head and stumbled into the kitchen, squinting in the darkness. Blake was asleep on the couch. Or was she in Yang and Ruby’s room? Or the spare room? He didn’t know anymore. He didn’t really know much beyond the exhaustion that clung to his limbs and the headache that split his skull down the centre, distorting his perceptions and his senses until he could scarcely see straight.

He got the fridge open, clicked on one of the under-cabinet lights, and poured himself a drink. Vodka, straight. There was soda in the fridge, but he didn’t feel much like mixing alcohol at the moment.

Qrow leaned against the counter, one hand curled against its lip, and drank deeply. Poured himself a second drink and drank until a comfortable warmth settled across his body. Until his headache and his troubles seemed a little further away.

“He used to hate drinking.” Qrow looked up from his glass and saw Blake, wearing Yang’s pyjamas, leaned against the door frame. She was hugging herself tightly and Qrow’s eyes went to the collar around her throat. His eyes always went to the collar around her throat. Outside, snow fell softly in the dark of the night, blanketing the world.

Christmas was coming. Qrow didn’t know what to make of that.

“Who?” asked Qrow, thought he had a feeling he already knew the answer. There was only one unnamed “he” in this household. A whispered word that seemed poisonous to all those who spoke it.

“Adam,” said Blake. It was the first time Qrow had heard her speak the name of the man who’d driven her to run. He found he didn’t much like the name. Short, unassuming. It wasn’t the name of a man who’d do terrible things. It wasn’t a name you heard and thought you should run. No. It was a perfectly ordinary name.

Qrow found he hated that most of all.

“He used to hate drinking,” said Blake. She padded into the room, silent as could be on her feet. “Said the smell made him sick to his stomach. Said it made people stupid, easy.” Her lips curled. “Said if you needed to drink, then you weren’t strong enough to deal with life’s problems.”

“Yeah?” asked Qrow. He set down his glass. “And how’d he deal with them?”

Blake tilted her head, tugging at the shirt to reveal a thin scar on one shoulder. “Violence.”

“I figured,” said Qrow. He glanced at the vodka bottle on the counter. Remembered the soda in the fridge. “I’ve got 7-Up in the fridge. You want a mixed drink?”

“I’m seventeen.”

“And?” asked Qrow. “You’re capable of making your own decisions.”

Blake seemed thoughtful for a moment, then she nodded, sitting down at the kitchen table. “Sure,” she said. “Nothing too strong.”

“’Course,” said Qrow. He grabbed the soda and poured Blake a drink, topping up his own before handing it off to her. They stayed there, in relative silence, drinking their drinks. Blake sitting and Qrow leaning on the counter. Blake made a face at her first sip, but kept drinking it, a look on her face that alerted Qrow to exactly why she was doing this.

Spite was a beautiful thing, after all. It could move mountains if it had to. But tonight, all it did was convince a seventeen-year-old girl to drink vodka in some kind of twisted salute to a man who had seemingly nearly destroyed her.

Qrow didn’t really say anything. He wasn’t sure what to say. He didn’t know what to think about this teenage girl, in his kitchen, drinking vodka and 7-Up. He didn’t know where she’d come from, or who had raised her, or anything about her beyond what he’d learned in that initial night. He and Ruby had bought her some clothes, but she still seemed to prefer wearing Yang’s, and despite having been in his house for several days now, Blake had yet to leave the house.

Maybe she was scared to.

Who was he to judge?

“He hated a lot of things,” said Blake. “He hated me having friends. He hated me going out on my own.” Her voice was slower now, smoother. “He hated everything I liked, but he said he loved me.” She stared at her drink. “He didn’t love me.”

“Doesn’t sound like it, no,” said Qrow, softly.

Blake sighed. “I was an idiot to stay with him.”

“You didn’t know,” said Qrow. He wasn’t sure what else to say. Wasn’t sure what else he could say. It wasn’t his place. He didn’t want to overstep. If he overstepped now, then maybe she’d shut down all over again. Or else run. Qrow didn’t think he could handle either.

“I did, sort of,” said Blake. She took another sip, grimaced, and tossed the last third back in one go, as though she’d been going it for years. But her face said she hadn’t, so Qrow figured, again, that it was spite.

With a second grimace, she swallowed and set down the glass. “I knew he wasn’t… I mean I knew…” She put her head in her hands and sighed. “I don’t know,” she said, voice cracking and shaky. “I don’t know.”

There was a sob on that last sentence. A choked noise that made Blake tremble and curl in on herself, feet on the chair and arms wrapped around her knees. She took a few shaky breaths, her near-sobs echoing in Qrow’s ears.

He swallowed hard and set down his glass. Crossed the room and sat down in the chair across from her. Hesitantly, he held out his hand, palm up, on the table.

It took a minute, maybe two, but Blake uncurled herself in the chair and reached out, curling her fingers in his. Qrow tightened his hand as much as she tightened hers, smiling softly at her.

“I’ve got you,” murmured Qrow. “I’ve got you.”

“Thank you,” whispered Blake. And they stayed like that, each with one hand curled into the other, for a long while.

James tapped on Penny’s door, sometime around seven in the morning. When he received a gentle “come in”, he opened the door and found Penny standing in her pyjamas in front of her mirror, picking out a shirt.

“Good morning, Father,” said Penny.

“Good morning, Penny,” said James. He took a deep breath. “How would you like a ride to school? I think it’s time you and I talked.”

Penny looked up at him, her gaze on his hairline. “Of course, Father. I require twenty minutes to get ready.”

James nodded and left the room, shutting the door behind him. Soon, he’d have everything sorted out with Penny. Then, he could worry about Qrow.

But right now, he just needed to get dressed and find his car keys.

Chapter Text

It was a little after midnight and Yang, Ruby, and Blake were home alone. Uncle Qrow had called a little while ago to let them know he was working late tonight, and to not wait up for them. Ruby had been a disappointed, but hid it well, but Yang hadn’t minded. He was working hard, after all, and she figured he needed some time to be away from the house. What with Blake and James and Ruby and everything.

She wasn’t a problem. Since Ruby had started… being more Ruby, Yang had tried to be the good kid for a bit. It was weird, to say the least. She wasn’t used to staying out of trouble, but Uncle Qrow had enough to deal with right now that didn’t involve her or her problems.

Even if her arm did hurt lately. Even if she wasn’t sleeping properly. Even if some of the other kids at school were being dicks. But it was fine. It was nothing Yang couldn’t handle. There was no reason to bother Uncle Qrow. She’d just keep helping out where she could and hope he felt better soon.

Yang frowned as she flicked off the bathroom light and headed down the hall back to hers and Ruby’s bedroom. The guest room light was still on, and the thin bar of yellow light cast long shadows across the hallway. Yang hesitated in front of the door, one hand raised to knock. Just as she lowered her hand, unable to knock, there was a quiet sob from behind the door.

Yang froze. She stared at the door, lips parted and eyes wide and tender with concern. Should she knock? Should she risk it? Yang pressed her palm flat to the door and closed her eyes, resting her forehead on the cool wood. She took one breath, then two, then three.

She knocked.


The room beyond the door went perfectly silent. There were a few impossibly long moments where there was no sound and no movement. Then, the door swung open, and Yang came face to face with a bloodshot eyed, trembling lipped, Blake.

“Hey,” said Yang, softly. “Mind if I come in?”

Blake stepped aside. She wore one of Yang’s old pale nightgowns with a black housecoat, and she had on a pair of Yang’s black shorts. They stuck out just passed the nightgown, and the housecoat was open. Yang swallowed hard.

Shit. She was too gay for this. Far, far too gay for this. But Blake had enough to deal with right now. So she swallowed it down and shoved the thoughts aside.

Yang cleared her throat and looked away from Blake as she scooted into the room. Blake started to shut the door behind her, paused, and then left the door open a crack. She sat down on the edge of the bed closest to the door, and Yang took the spot furthest from. She crossed her legs on the bed and smiled at Blake, soft and encouraging.

“So, uh, what did you need?” asked Blake.

“I wanted to know how you were doing,” said Yang. “I know Ruby and I were back at school today, and I wanted to know if you were okay, and how your day went.”

Blake seemed to falter. “How my day went?” she echoed. Her words were slow and halting, disbelief tinging each lift in her voice. “Why?”

Yang shrugged and leaned back on her hands. “Because you’re cool and I like you,” she said. “So I want us to be friends.” She grinned. “If you don’t want to tell me, you don’t have to, I’m just curious.”

There was another long moment of silence. Of Blake staring at Yang with an unreadable look. Her lip trembled, her eyes watered, and Yang waited patiently, an easy smile on her face. Then, without warning, Blake burst into tears.

Yang let out a soft, sharp exhale and twitched back as Blake buried her face in her hands. Sobs raked her smaller frame and the housecoat seemed to consume her until she was swallowed whole by it.

I’m sorry,” croaked Blake between sobs. “I’m so sorry. I can’t…” She broke off again, burying her face into her hands.

With a great about of hesitation, Yang reached out toward Blake. Six inches from her, she hesitated, frowning slightly. “Is it okay if I touch you?” asked Yang.

“Yeah,” said Blake, her voice a whimper. Yang scooted across the bed and put her arm around Blake’s shoulders. Then, slowly, she drew Blake forward into a hug. Blake buried her face into the crook of Yang’s neck and sobbed. Her tears soaked Yang’s shirt, her quivering shook Yang’s frame, but Yang held her through it. She stroked Blake’s back and whispered soothing words into Blake’s ear.

Quietly, she swore to kick the ass of the man who did this to her. But for now, she was needed here, and that was more important than her anger.

It was a little after two in the morning and the bar was still packed to full. Qrow stood behind the bar, chatting up the regulars, including a cute redhead with a penchant for terrible puns and overdramatic flair, while he mixed drinks.

As Qrow kept one eye on the bar itself, he kept chatting and mixing drinks, and he became aware of a second figure at his bar. Qrow looked over and cracked a smile at the guy. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses and he wore a worn, black leather jacket.

“What can I get for you?” asked Qrow, wiping down part of the black counter.

“Jaegerbomb,” said the man without looking up at Qrow. His gaze traced the bar and Qrow saw it linger on a few college girls who were regulars. Saw the way his gaze, hidden as it was, slid up and down the black-haired girl. His tongue darted out and slowly ran over his lower lip.

Qrow nodded, eyes narrowed. He grabbed the Red Bull – disgusting stuff, but it wasn’t in his nature to judge people based on their drinks. He would, however, judge the guy based on how he was eyeing up those girls across the bar like they were pieces of meat.

“Everyone all right, Qrow?” asked Roman, said cute redhead, from where he sat at the bar. “You look a little squinty.”

“Fine,” said Qrow. He finished the drink and slid it to the man with a nod. “Just thinking.”

“Yeah?” asked Roman. He leaned forward on the bar, elbows on the counter, head propped in his hands, and batted his eyelashes at Qrow from underneath his bangs. “It’s a good look on you, handsome.” He winked. “Maybe you should think more often. I like it.” His voice was a purr, a sly grin on his face. Qrow smiled back and leaned forward, already ready to return the flirtations.

The man at the end of the bar scoffed, a sneer on his face.

“Everything all right?” asked Qrow.

The man rolled his eyes – visible through the lift on his eyebrows and the shift of his head. “No. You mind? Some of us don’t wanna puke in our drinks.”

Qrow saw Roman bristle out of the corner of his eye. “Excuse me?” asked Qrow.

“Yeah, you heard me.” The man straightened up, sneering. “I don’t wanna deal with you freaks while I’m trying to have a drink. Keep it in your fucking bedrooms.”

“This is a free place,” said Qrow.

The man scoffed. “And this is freedom of speech, dumbass. Bad enough I think my girl is some fucking lesbian, I don’t need to see this shit at my bar too.”

“Your girl?” echoed Roman. The amusement in his voice was half masked by annoyance, but all was wrapped in a carefully absent tone. Qrow saw Roman clenching one first against the black bar counter. He fought the urge to put a hand on Roman’s shoulder. Didn’t need to antagonize this guy further. “What happened?” asked Roman.

“She ran,” said the man. He shrugged. “Took off in the middle of the night. But it’s all right, I’ll find her. Not many girls wear collars, after all.”

The glass Qrow was holding shattered.

“Qrow!” Roman’s voice was sharp and horrified all at once.

“You got a name?” asked Qrow, just barely able to keep his tone level. He systematically picked the tiny pieces of glass out of his hand, not looking at the man.

“Adam,” said the man. “Adam Taurus.”

Qrow nodded. He picked the last piece of glass out of his hand, dropped it on the counter, and then picked up his cloth. He didn’t speak as he wiped off his hand, nor as he set it down. Then, without warning, he let out a snarl and launched himself across the counter, grabbing Adam by his lapels and dragging him to the ground.

They hit the ground with Adam on his back and Qrow straddling him. Qrow drew back and slammed a fist into Adam’s face. The sunglasses went flying. Adam swore and grabbed Qrow by the wrists. Shoved him back and booted him in the chest. Qrow toppled over, Adam coming down on top of him. Stools fell over as they went tumbling down. Fists flew and so did snarls.

Qrow took a hit to the face. Then another. Then a third. Adam took one to the gut. Blood gushed down Qrow’s face as his nose cracked. He hit the ground, head snapping into the wood. He swore as he saw stars and tasted blood.

Qrow kicked at Adam, got him back far enough to shove himself upward and launch himself at Adam again.

“Enough!” The shout split the bar in half, quieting the cheering crowd around Adam and Qrow. Two of the men from the back room pulled Adam and Qrow apart, hauling them upright. Adam’s eyes, Qrow could now see, were bloodshot and shadowed.

Lisa Lavender, Qrow’s boss, stepped into the room. She had her hands on her hips, her severe bob throwing deep shadows across her throat and collarbone. Qrow could see stars dancing around her.

“Brutus, take this man outside. I do not want him back here,” she said, sharply. The man dragged Adam outside, grumbling lowly. “And Qrow?”

Qrow looked at her as the other man put him down. The sharp, coppery taste of blood flooded his senses and his right eye was already swelling shut. He didn’t know what was up with his nose or his lips.

“Go home,” said Lisa. “And don’t bother coming in tomorrow. You’re fired.”

Qrow nodded, the entire world slowly going out of focus. The words echoed around him without setting in.

He stumbled outside to his car and slid in behind the wheel, locking the doors. Then, with his hands pressed to the wheel, he bent his head forward and let himself breathe. Tried to focus on something other than the sinking horror of realizing that he was out of a job.

That had been his only shot in town.

Now what was he going to do?

He looked in his mirror and saw how beat-up he was. Swollen eye, crooked nose, fat and split lip. Not to mention the bruises, minor cuts, and blood that smeared most of his face. He grimaced, felt the way it pulled and screamed at his face.

He couldn’t go home like this.

Qrow started the car.

The talk with Penny, and the three others that followed it, had gone well. They’d discussed quite a bit – Penny wanted to stay in school, James had relented; Penny wanted to talk to Ruby and Yang again, James had, reluctantly, relented. She’d brought up him talking to Qrow and James had shut her down, though with more than a touch of sadness in his voice. He’d deal with Qrow on his own time.

And that time was, apparently, two-thirty in the morning on the weekend.

James had been about to go to bed – Winter and Penny having long since fallen asleep – when the soft knock at his front door drew his attention. With a frown, James stepped out of his kitchen, setting down his mostly-empty tea mug, and padded, barefoot, to the door.

On the other side was Qrow, looking as bad as James had ever seen him.

“Qrow!” He couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice, despite his soft tones. “What are you – are you all right?”

Qrow flashed him a weak smile, despite the blood and bruising on his face. “Yeah, I’m…” He slumped. “Not, not really.” The words were soft. A confession if he’d ever heard one. James stepped aside and let Qrow into the house.

“Kitchen,” he said. “There’s a first aid kit under the sink. I’ll put you back together.”

“Thanks,” said Qrow. He followed James into the kitchen and perched himself on the kitchen table. James felt Qrow’s eyes on him as he grabbed the first aid kit from under the sink, and as he wet a cloth under the tap.

James set the first aid kit down on the table and took Qrow’s face in one hand, using his right one to dab at the blood on Qrow’s lip with the cloth. Qrow was tense, that much was obvious from the long line of tension that made up his body. The way he clenched the edge of the table and the way he wouldn’t quite look at James.

With a soft sigh, James wiped away the blood from Qrow’s face, careful around his black and swelling eye. He didn’t speak as he worked, just focused on the small gestures of his right hand as he wiped away the blood, until the cloth was redder than Qrow and he had to run it under the tap again.

While it was rinsing, he grabbed an ice pack from the freezer, wrapped it in another face cloth, and handed it to Qrow, who pressed it over his eye.

“Thanks,” murmured Qrow. He still wouldn’t look at James. James wrung out the cloth, now only slightly pink, and got back to work. He cleaned off Qrow’s hands, noting the split knuckles, before wiping at the rest of the blood on Qrow’s face. His nose had obviously been crushed, but it didn’t seem broken, and when James set down the cloth, he straightened it out easily enough.

“Figured you’d know how to do this,” said James, his voice barely above a whisper. He ran his fingers across Qrow’s cheekbones, down his jaw, and across his throat, checking for injury. Nothing serious. Just the nose, the eye, and the split lip. “How’re your ribs?”

“Fine,” said Qrow. He was breathing easily enough, so James didn’t push it. “And I do, but mostly for other people.”

“Oh?” asked James. He raised an eyebrow at Qrow, tilting his head to look down at the other man. Qrow’s eyes were half-hooded and James tilted Qrow’s chin up. “Follow my finger with your eyes.”

Qrow did. “Yeah,” he said as his eyes tracked James’ moving finger. “Yang used to get in a lot of fights. I patched her up a lot. And Summer…” He trailed off. James released his chin. “She picked a lot of them too, over a lot of things.” Qrow grimaced. It split his lip again, the blood starting anew. “Both better fighters than I am.”

“Why fight, then?” asked James.

“Guess I just needed it,” said Qrow. There was a sharp edge to his voice that had James cringing and looking away. Then, in a softer voice, Qrow said, “You know it hurt, what you said. I know I fucked up, James, but…” He sighed.

“I’m sorry,” said James. He stepped back and leaned against the counter, folding his arms – short sleeves, he was now noticing – across his chest. “I shouldn’t have said what I did.”

“Doesn’t change that you did,” said Qrow.

James sighed. “No, it doesn’t,” he agreed. “I’m sorry.” The words hung between them, heavy and small, all at once.

“The girls miss Penny,” said Qrow.

“And she misses them,” said James.

Qrow seemed to hesitate for a moment before he spoke again. “And I… I miss you.”

James’ gaze found Qrow, but Qrow was staring at the floor, hands drumming on the table quietly. “Qrow.”

“We were friends, Jim,” said Qrow. His voice cracked a bit. “Good ones, at that.” He looked up at James through his bangs and through his eyelashes. “I thought… you and me… I thought we had something.”


James swallowed hard and rubbed a hand across his face. “Qrow,” he began, unsure how to continue.

“I know, it’s stupid,” said Qrow. “Forget it. I’m being stupid.”

“It’s not stupid.” James wasn’t sure who the words surprised more, Qrow or himself. He crossed the empty space between them to stand in front of Qrow. “You’re not stupid. Don’t say things like that about yourself.” He rested one hand on Qrow’s cheek and felt the way Qrow leaned into the touch. Qrow set down the ice pack and stared up at James, the swelling around his eye already lessening.

“Just tell me I’m wrong,” whispered Qrow. “Tell me there’s nothing between us. That I’ve been imagining everything that isn’t just friendship.”

James stared down at Qrow, his right hand cool against Qrow’s fac. And in a tiny whisper, so soft James barely heard it, he said, “I can’t.” And in the soft light of the yellow kitchen lamp, he leaned down, tilted Qrow’s head up, and met Qrow’s lips in a gentle, tender kiss.

It didn’t last long, only a few, scant seconds of contact as Qrow kissed back. James tasted blood from Qrow’s split lip but found he didn’t mind. When he pulled back, Qrow’s eyelashes were fluttering, and he stared up at James with flushed cheeks and dilated pupils.

Slowly, Qrow smiled, confused but warm.

“I wasn’t imagining things,” whispered Qrow, his voice hoarse and barely there.

James swallowed hard, feeling his heart beat fast in his chest. He stared at Qrow. At the bruises. At the smile. At everything that had happened between them. And, as quick as the softness of the night had captured him, a panic seized him back.

He swallowed.

“You should go,” said James, stepping back from Qrow.

“Jim?” The confusion in Qrow’s face was mirrored in his tone, and James looked away from Qrow so he didn’t have to see the hurt.

“Ruby and Yang are probably wondering where you are,” said James. “You should go.”

“Okay,” said Qrow. James heard him slide off the table. Heard the padding of his footsteps toward the door. Heard, “Goodnight, Jim,” just before the door clicked open and shut.

Once he was sure Qrow was gone, he crossed the room, the hallway, then locked the door. And then he slid down against it, back pressed to the door, and let out a soft choked noise.

Winter was in his guest room. Penny wanted to see Ruby and Yang again. His boss was on his case about being behind on jobs. And Qrow, beat-up and bruised, had waltzed his way back into James’ heart.

They didn’t know enough about each other, he told himself. They’d been fighting for almost two weeks, he told himself. Qrow didn’t know about the extent of his prosthetics, or how he’d gotten them, or even what his family outside of Penny was. And he knew little about Qrow beyond the drinking and the accident that had put his nieces under his care.

It was a bad idea. It was a terrible idea. It made complete, logical sense to stay away from a relationship with Qrow.

But deep down, James wondered how much of that was logic, and how much of it was his own hang-ups, his own fears, and his own past clawing its way to the surface to tear apart what little confidence he’d regained in himself in the last few years.

Chapter Text

Qrow waited until the girls were at school before he dug the booze out of his bedroom and started drinking. Didn’t even bother checking the label, just twisted off the top and drank straight from the bottle. It burned all the way down.

Probably whiskey, by the taste. He didn’t care. Just kept drinking until the world blurred out and his senses felt a thousand miles away. It didn’t matter, anyway. He didn’t have a job. He didn’t have a chance. He’d fucked everything up and lost the best friend he’d ever had. Lost everything they’d ever had.

They were going to have to leave again – him and Ruby and Yang. Blake wouldn’t be able to come with them. She’d end up grabbed again. He’d lose all his friends. They’d lose all of theirs. And how was he even going to get the money to move? Or to sell the house?


It was hopeless. Useless. Stupid. He was stupid. Everything was fucking stupid. And it was all his fault. Because he couldn’t be happy. Couldn’t keep everything the same.

He’d ruined everything for everyone. Again.

He always did. Sooner or later.

God, he was such a fuck up.

Qrow kept drinking until the thoughts blurred out and all that was left was blurry self-hatred that couldn’t solidify.

James waited until Penny was at school and Winter went out for the day before he allowed himself to break. He went down to the basement, mostly used for storage, and dug out an old family album.

He pulled it open with shaking hands and stared down at the picture on the first page. James, at seven years old, his father on one side, his mother on the other. James let his right hand fingers trace his mother’s face, then pulled back. The silver looked wrong against her beauty.

The picture was taken a year before her death. If he looked closely, he could see the shadows in her eyes, beneath the wonder and the optimism, that betrayed her hidden illness. She wouldn’t tell James or his father about her illness for another four months. By then, it would be too late to do anything about it.

Staring at the album, James thought of his mother. Of her soft laughter and gentle smiles. Of her easy-going nature and selfless attitude. Of the way she’d minimized herself, over and over again, and tried to build James up into a better person than he thought he deserved to be.

She hadn’t been perfect, he knew that, logically. But she’d died before James had gotten past that stage in life, the one where a child thought their parents were perfect. He hadn’t thought that way about his father since he was seven years old.

It was hard to adore a man who thought you were a disgrace, after all.

And that’s what it all came down to, wasn’t it?

James had always been too emotional. Too prone to helping others with a bleeding heart. He liked baking, even if he did like football. He liked gardening, even if he did enjoy rough-housing. That combination, rough but soft, athletic but tender, was something his father always despised.

He claimed it made James too close to a woman. James still remembered the way the man had twisted the word around until it felt like a curse, like a slur. And then he’d start on about ‘the gays’ and how they were ‘ruining society’.

James hadn’t gotten out from under him until his father died of a heart attack when he was nineteen years old. He’d inherited the money, and run. Gone into a liberal arts school with an engineering program. Then there was the military, and the accident, and Penny, and everything that came after.

It was another five years before he came out. It was several more after that before he stopped hating himself. By then, Penny had been Penny. Small and sweet, and he’d fought hatred of both his heart and his new body in order to keep her safe.

It was hard to hate yourself when your daughter loved you so much.

The day Penny was born he’d promised to keep her safe. To accept and love her no matter who she was. Of course, back then, her name hadn’t been Penny, and James hadn’t known she’d grow to be his daughter. But when she’d told him, he’d accepted her without question. Bought her new clothes, got her out of school when it got bad, and ensured the neighbourhood took it well as well.

The advantages to living somewhere liberal, after all.

And now there was Qrow.

It wasn’t that James was scared of dating a man. It wasn’t even that it was Qrow. It was Penny. It was him. Qrow’s girls were Penny’s best friends, the first people she’d connected with in years. And even if James was attracted to Qrow, and even if James wanted to be closer to Qrow, the man obviously had a lot of baggage – then again, so did James – and James didn’t know half of it.

He couldn’t risk it.

What if they ended up hating each other? What if they got to know each other better and it turned out they clashed on some fundamental level?

He didn’t know enough about Qrow. Qrow didn’t know enough about him. They needed to talk. They couldn’t risk it. He couldn’t risk Penny losing her friends.

James looked down at the album. At the stern look of his father. At the soft eyes of his mother. At the way that he looked more like his father but took so much more after his mother. His stance, his smiles, his eyes – they were all hers.

He didn’t hate himself. Not for his prosthetics and not for his sexuality. He could handle both of those, he knew it. Especially with Penny at his side.

No, he was more scared of the rest of what he’d inherited from his father. The anger. The anxiety that came from being part of that anger – both receiving and giving. He’d worked so hard to tap it down and Qrow drew it back out without even trying.

James didn’t know what to make of that. But it scared him.

What if he hurt Penny? What if he hurt Ruby or Yang? Or Winter?

What if, what if, what if.

James closed the album and curled up on the couch in the basement, his head in his hands.

There were no easy answers. Just like there were no easy questions.

What the hell was he supposed to do?

School sucked when your fingers didn’t work right, as Yang learned throughout that day of school. She scowled down at her twitching right pinky, which refused to move when she wanted it to, and sighed softly. She wondered how Blake was doing.

Blake’d left the house that morning with Yang, Ruby, and Penny, when Penny had joined up with them. Yang figured she was hiding in the library of the school with a book, waiting for them to get out for lunch.

Hopefully Blake would be all right on her own. She hadn’t really spent much time alone since Uncle Qrow had taken her it. It was a little worrying, but Yang tried to keep a positive face about it all. Blake was fine. …Okay, maybe not fine, but she was alive and she was mostly stable. That was just as important.

“Ms. Xiao Long.” The voice came from the front of the room. Yang looked up from her twitching pinky to the professor. “Can you tell us the significance of mustard gas in the war?”

Yang frowned. “I mean, the stuff was completely poisonous, wasn’t it? Plus, it started something with the war laws, right? Started all the stuff about gases being illegal.”

The professor sighed. “Yes, Ms. Xiao Long, that’s technically correct.” Before he could finish though, the bell rang, and everyone scrambled for their bags and was gone within the minute, including Yang, who ducked out before anything else could be said to her.

The rest of the day passed slowly, and all Yang could think about was her Uncle Qrow. His drinking, his panicking, his lack of sleep and eating. The way he came home last night so late that Yang had woken up, even though she usually stayed up to see him.

Something had happened last night. Penny had noticed the same thing with Mr. Ironwood. He’d been sad that morning and hadn’t spoken much. If it was enough for Penny to notice, then it was a big deal.

Not that she wasn’t observant. Just that she noticed different things. Made it easier to tell when something was a big deal. Super handy.

The school day ended and Yang got ready to climb back onto the bus with Blake, Ruby, and Penny – Blake had spent the day with books in the library, like Yang had thought. Ruby and Penny chattered excitedly behind Yang. Mostly about presents and snow and decorating. Christmas vacation started in three days.

As Yang went to get on the bus, she saw a flash in the crowd. A red-headed guy with… a pink bow in one hand.

Yang’s eyes scanned the crowd for the others. Blue hair and green stood out. The guy whose eyes were mostly hidden was there as well. Cardin Winchester. She’d stalked his Facebook page enough to know who the four were.

“Yang?” Ruby’s voice was behind her. Yang stepped off the bus steps and flashed a smile at Ruby.

“I forgot something in my locker, go on without me, I’ll take the city bus,” said Yang.

Ruby nodded and climbed onto the bus. Penny followed after. Blake, however, hesitated, and Yang made herself smile brighter, hoping it reached her eyes.

“Yang?” The worry in Blake’s voice was mirrored in her eyes.

“Don’t worry, Blake, I’ll see you back at home,” said Yang. She put a hand on Blake’s shoulder and flashed her a smile. “I promise.”

Blake nodded, though she still seemed to hesitate, then she climbed onto the bus and was gone. With the three of them gone, Yang turned her attention back to Cardin Winchester. If he had the bow on him, then he was looking for Penny. And Yang wasn’t going to let him ruin school for Penny, especially after finding out why Penny had left her old school to begin with.

She was just as much of a girl as her or as Ruby. Anyone who told her otherwise was wrong. Including that jackass, Cardin Winchester.

Yang was going to get that bow back.

She followed Cardin through the crowd, keeping her senses peeled for the others. Dove, Sky, and Russel. They were smaller than her, but that wasn’t saying much. She wasn’t that much smaller than Uncle Qrow, after all.

Cardin’s trail took her back behind the school and toward the tree-filled side streets that led to the homely residential area that was just beyond the school. Yang followed him in the shadows until they were relatively isolated, her fingers on her right hand twitched, still not responding properly. All she needed was to form it into a fist.

“Hey, Cardin!” Her voice echoed through the trees. Cardin stopped in the middle of the street and slowly turned around to face her.

“Do I know you, blondie?” he asked. The smirk in his voice was mirrored on his face. Yang flexed both hands. Her right one locked into a fist. Good.

“No, but you know a friend of mine,” said Yang. “And I want her bow back.”

Cardin raised an eyebrow. They were maybe twenty feet apart. The others hadn’t followed. Yang didn’t care either way. She could have taken all four of them in that moment. All around them, the snow muffled the sound and insulated the wind. Yang’s hair blew around her, her toque not quite holding it all. Her scarf blew with her hair.

She almost wished she had a camera. If only to show Penny what Cardin looked like when she was done with him.

“You mean the freakazoid?” asked Cardin with a laugh. “Man, some people are just crazy.”

Yang ground her teeth together. “Give me the bow, Cardin.”

Cardin grinned, all teeth, all predatory. “Why don’t you come and get it?”

Yang didn’t need to be told twice. She charged at Cardin and tackled him around the waist before he could flinch. Took him into the snow in the street and drew back. Right hand still locked in a fist. Drew it back and slammed it into his face. The crack of his nose, the gush of blood, Yang saw red. She wanted more.

Cardin swore and booted her hard. Kicked her in the ribs but Yang didn’t slow down. Tackled him again and punched. One. Two. Three. Blood. Bruises. Scratches. Right arm jarred and then cracked. Lost mobility in it and switched to her left. Cardin got another punch in. Got her hard in the cheek and pain exploded across Yang’s vision.

The bow hit the snow. Yang got to her feet, snagged it with her left hand and scrambled backward. Cardin caught her ankle. She went down. Twisted over and booted him in the face.

“Bitch!” Cardin’s biting curse followed her up the street as she ran for the main streets to get home.

She had the bow. She couldn’t feel her right arm. She couldn’t move it. Pain bloomed across her right side and behind her eyes, spotting her vision.

But she had the bow. That was what mattered. And Winchester wasn’t in any shape to go after Penny any time soon. And if he did, she’d be there. Next time, she’d put him in the hospital. Preferably in the ICU.


Chapter Text

Pain. Blooming and blistering as it split across her bicep and ripped up her shoulder, dancing down her spine. It blotted her vision, leaving spots of light and dark that scattered the world around Yang, leaving it out of focus as she stumbled up the steps to her home. The door was two, no three, no five feet in front of her. Three missed tries with her left hand before she managed to grab it.

Her right hand was tucked in her hoodie. Her coat hanging around her shoulders like a cloak. It was easier to wear it like this. Easier because then she didn’t have to try and take off her coat with a hand that didn’t work.

Cold. Deep, shaking cold that had her teeth chattering and her entire body trembling. The metal of her arm ached. The connections burned. As she opened the door Yang grimaced hard against the bright light of the hallway and the loud sounds of the living room. Movie, maybe. She couldn’t quite make out the noise.

Deep breath. Straighten up. Hang up the coat with her left hand. Done.

Just in time. Ruby and Blake both appeared from the living room, each wearing looks so similar that it took Yang a moment to figure out who was who.

Considering they were different ages, heights, and ethnicities, that probably wasn’t a good sign.

Fuck, she hoped she didn’t have a concussion.

“Yang, where have you been?” asked Ruby. The wind outside whistled hard, marking the increasing storm. “We were worried about you.”

How long had she been gone? It was getting dark. But that didn’t mean anything. After all, it got dark around four these days. But then, school let out at two-thirty.

Two-thirty. Four. An hour and a half. Had it taken her that long to get home?

God, why was everything so out of focus? Why wouldn’t her arm stop hurting?

Deep breaths. Straighten up. Don’t let them see.

“I missed the bus and had to walk home,” said Yang. The words were smooth and warm, rolling off of her tongue like water. Keep it simple. They wouldn’t know anything was wrong if she kept it simple. “Are you guys okay? Did you get home all right? Is Penny okay?” The questions fell before she could stop them. She’d left them alone. Cardin’s friends – Sky, Dove, Russel. There was some weird bird shit going on with them. – hadn’t followed Yang and Cardin. Had they come after these three?

“We’re fine,” said Ruby. “Nothing happened. Where’d you go?”

The bow in Yang’s hoodie pocket felt infinitely heavy. It dragged her forward until she was convinced she’d stumble into Ruby and Blake’s arms and they’d know she was in trouble.

“I forgot something in my locker.” Her backpack was heavy on her shoulders. “Didn’t want to leave my gloves behind.” Never mind that she wasn’t wearing them.

“If you’re sure,” said Blake, slowly. She watched Yang with pressed together lips and worried eyes. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

Keep it simple. Tell as much truth as possible. Deep breaths. Stay upright.

“It’s the cold,” she said. Truth. “It’s bugging my arm. Kind of the problem with having a half metal right arm, you know?” Also truth. “It’s nothing to worry about.” Lie. Big lie. Huge lie.

But they bought it. Both of them nodded and stepped aside as Yang mumbled some excuse about being tired and wanting to sleep.

She stumbled up the stairs and dropped onto her bed, right arm to the wall so that no one would notice she couldn’t move it out of her pocket.

And then she passed out. Unable to stay awake any longer.

She’d be fine.


The stars were hidden by the clouds, but the snow had stopped by the time Qrow made his way to the roof. It had been a long time since he’d come up to a roof for a night. The ice and snow on the roof made it dangerous, but Qrow didn’t care. He needed the air. The perspective. The silence.

Besides, it was the only way he ever talked to Summer and Taiyang.

“It’s been a while,” said Qrow, softly, as he stared up at the cloudy night sky. He wondered if the clouds would dissipate before he went back inside. “A lot has happened since we moved here, and I don’t even know where to start.”

He sighed. The wind brushed around him, almost like it was asking him to go on. But that was part wishful thinking and part alcohol. He wasn’t sure where one began and one ended anymore.

“I miss you two,” said Qrow. He planted his feet on the roof and raised his knees, resting his arms across them as he stared up at the clouds. “The girls are great, and they’re just like both of you, but there’s a wildness in them that I can’t tame.” He shook his head. “Yang’s… fuck.” He combed his fingers through his hair. “She’s a lot like Raven. The older she gets the more she turns into Raven and…”

He sighed again. “I don’t know what to do.” The words were whispered, soft and frustrated, almost a confession. He remembered when he’d first seen that anger in her. The way her hands quivered when she got angry, the way she snapped and snarled when she got backed into a corner.

Qrow wondered how bad it would get. It had already led to the motorcycle accident. To running off once. To pushing herself into last place ever since.

If there was a person in this world with less self-preservation than Qrow, it was Yang. And Yang didn’t even come close to Raven.

Qrow’s hands shook. He needed a drink. He needed answers.


“I don’t know what to do,” he said again. He combed his fingers back through his hair and let out a bitter laugh. “I wish you two were here. You were great parents.”

Summer had been the best of the best. She’d been kind and sweet and loving. She’d pulled Qrow and Raven out of the darkest parts of their lives and shown them the beauty of the world.

Especially the stars.

Summer had always loved the stars. The way they glittered and sparkled in the night sky, always there even when you couldn’t see them. She’d known every damn star and constellation in the sky and had spent months – years – teaching him and Raven.

And when Raven and Taiyang had fallen in love with Summer, Qrow had been happy for them all. He’d loved the three of them dearly. Summer was like another sister. And Tai?

Qrow grimaced.

“I loved you, you know that, Tai?” said Qrow softly. “I never told you, but I did.” He looked up and watched some of the clouds part. A few stars glittered overhead. Aries and Perseus. He smiled. It was tight, painful, but a smile all the same.

“Summer knew.” But then, Summer had known everything. She hadn’t judged Qrow. Just held him close when it all came tumbling out and told him she was there for him. Let him cry until he ruined her favourite sweater. She hadn’t been upset. Hadn’t even faltered when Qrow had asked her if he should tell Tai.

She’d agreed with him when he wanted to.

And then…

Qrow shook his head, a flicker-flash of memory of smoke and heat and screaming toddlers.

He sighed and scrubbed his fingers back through his hair.

James. Penny. Blake.

What was he supposed to do?

“I just…” His voice cracked. His eyes blurred. “Please, I just need a sign of what I’m supposed to do next. Just tell me what to do.” He looked up at the stars. The lights blurred until they bled into the night sky. “You were always better than me. You all were. You two should have raised these kids. I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I just keep failing them.” His voice broke. No more words forming for a moment.

He curled forward into himself and wrapped his arms around his knees, burying his face in the fabric of his jeans.

“Just… tell me what to do.”

There was a long moment of silence.

His phone rang.

Qrow jumped, his cell slipping from his pocket and onto the snowy roof. He stared at its glowing screen for a long moment, eyes wide, before picking up the phone with shaking fingers. Wiped his eyes with the back of one hand as he stared.

Unknown Number. Private Caller.

Qrow swallowed hard.

What the hell?

He put the phone to his ear and hit Call. “Hello?”

“It’s been awhile.” The voice sent a chill down Qrow’s spine. Had his heart beating fast and his eyes growing wide. He clenched the phone hard to keep from dropping it again – or throwing it.


Qrow swallowed hard and tried to find his voice, his mind, something. “About eight years.” The frigid coolness of his voice matched the weather around him. He only wished he had the howling wind to go with it.

She’d contacted him before. Back around Yang’s ninth birthday. He had screamed himself hoarse into the phone and cried himself to sleep that night. The girls blissfully unaware.

After that, they’d moved. Changed states. Phones. Everything. Worked so hard to ensure that Raven couldn’t find them again. Couldn’t try to tear his family apart again.

The girls had never known. He’d never told them. Never saw a reason to hurt them. God, Raven was his sister, his twin, but he didn’t understand her. He’d been scared and he’d ran with his tail between his les, hoping all his problems with her would disappear.

He should have known they wouldn’t.

She’d contacted Yang, in secret, just over a year ago. Qrow could feel resentment and worry churning together in his gut. He licked his lips and found them dry and bitter.

God, he didn’t want to get sick up here.

“Give or take,” said Raven. There was a carefully measured absence in her tone. He could almost picture her checking her nails, lounged somewhere with a cigarette. That is, if she wasn’t fifty feet from his house.

She’d done that before too. Twice.

“What do you want, Raven?” snapped Qrow. He glanced over his shoulder, back toward the street and toward the darkness of the night. Was she out there? Lurking? Hiding? He didn’t know. He didn’t know if he would unless she wanted him to.

But he hadn’t understood Raven in over a decade. Not since Summer and Tai had died.

“Can’t I just call to check in?” asked Raven. There it was, that touch of annoyance masked by amusement. It was a tone they’d both learned from their uncle’s girlfriend. She’d mastered the damn thing by the time they were nine years old.

God he hated that woman.

Why the hell was Raven using her voice?

“Not your style,” said Qrow, tightly.

A soft sigh. “You’re right, it isn’t.” A shift, a rustle, like she was readjusting herself. Qrow clenched his phone tightly and stared into the night. Let his gaze dance up to look at the stars. They were beautiful as they watched him, judging his every reaction.

God, he missed Summer. She’d known Raven better than he ever could. Twins or no twins, they were far from being the same person. Even Tai hadn’t really understood her, not the way he’d understood Qrow. But Raven had always been an enigma. Summer had cracked her code in the end, but it was always a game – the password shifting with the movement of the sun.

“I wanted to ask a favour,” said Raven.

Qrow snorted, loudly. Swallowed around the lump in his throat and tried to bite back his screams and shouts. It wouldn’t do well to alert the girls to what was going on. Besides, Blake was already jumpy and the roof was slippery. Both were accidents just waiting to happen.

Keep control.

“You don’t get favours after everything you’ve done to this family,” said Qrow. He clenched his free hand into a fist. “How the hell did you get this number?”

“I called in a couple favours,” said Raven. “Qrow, it’s not what you think. What happened with Yang…”

Qrow dropped into a snarl, his face contorting around his nose until it hurt. “What happened with Yang could have killed her! If you weren’t such a heartless bitch-”

“Don’t you pin this on me!” The roar on the other end of the line made him flinch.

In that moment, she sounded exactly like their uncle. That was a voice Qrow wished he’d never hear again. Not after everything else.

“I tried to contact Yang, to get to know her. I was… I was scared, Qrow. Scared of what would happen if I spoke to you. Scared of how you’d react. I didn’t mean for her to get hurt. Or to run out on you. I… fuck.” Shuffle of movement. She was combing her fingers through her hair, then. Qrow could picture the gesture like he’d seen it yesterday.

One of the few things they had in common, beyond being colossal fuck-ups.

“She almost died,” snapped Qrow. “If you hadn’t been so dead set on meeting her.”

Raven growled. “If you hadn’t kept her from me-”

“-If you hadn’t tried to take them away from me-”

“-I just wanted to be part of the family again!”

“By creating a lawsuit? Fat fucking chance, I almost lost those girls because of-”

“I didn’t think that would happen!”

“Why is everything always about you!” The words were shouted by two voices, two people, however far apart, in perfect unison. Both fell silent at their echoed words. Harsh breathing filled the phones. Neither one spoke. Qrow’s entire body was coiled tightly, trembling in his curled up position.

“I just want to be part of this family.” Raven’s voice cracked as she spoke.

“You had your chance,” said Qrow, “and you blew it. Now leave me and my girls the hell alone.”

“They’re not your girls!”

“Good night, Raven,” said Qrow tightly. “If you call again, I will call the police.” And he hung up without another word, not even waiting for her response.

For a second, he stared down at his phone, clenched tightly in his hand. He half expected it to start ringing again. Raven never did follow anyone’s rules but her own.

With a curse, he drew back, already poised to whip the phone into the fence down below.

“Dad!” Ruby’s terrified shout stopped him short. His phone slipped from his fingers and he grabbed it just before it hit the roof. Stuffed it into his pocket and scrambled off the shingles, sliding back into his room via the window just as Ruby burst through the door.

“What’s going on?” asked Qrow.

“It’s Yang. She’s…” Ruby shook her head. “Come on.” She ran back out of the room and Qrow followed quickly after, running into Ruby and Yang’s room.

On the bed, shivering and sweating with fever, was Yang. In her unconscious state, she tossed and moaned, clutching her right arm just above where it attached to her prosthetic. Qrow reached over and rolled up the hoodie sleeve, sucking in a harsh breath at what he saw.

The metal arm was ruined, shattered and cracked through and through. The skin above it was molted and bruised. It looked like she’d broken something. Bone, most likely. Probably didn’t feel it because of the break in the metal.

It looked like she’d been in a fight.

For a split second, Qrow wasn’t in the bedroom with his girls. Instead, he was crouched in an alleyway, staring up at Raven, bruised and bloody, as she stood down a man twice their size and over twice their age. He could smell the gunpowder, the steel. Hear the screams. Hear the gunshot.

Qrow blinked and was back in the bedroom. He swallowed hard. Grounded himself.

Yang looked just like Raven, except for the hair and eyes. She even was sick like Raven. Shivering and sweating from a fight she never should have been in.

What had she done?

Had it been worth it?

“What do we do?” asked Ruby.

“Get James,” Qrow managed.

Ruby stared. “What?”

“I can’t-” Qrow’s voice cracked. He rubbed his hand over his mouth. The words, the confession, heavy on his tongue. “I can’t drive. Get James. Call him. Bang on his door. Something. We need to get her to the hospital, now.

Ruby nodded and was gone.

Insurance. They didn’t have insurance.

What the hell was he supposed to do though? Leave her here to die?

No. He could deal with the bills later. When Yang was safe.

If Yang was going to be safe.

Qrow shut the thought off before it could fester and focused himself on the world before him. He scooped up Yang, only stumbling a little from the weight, and carried her down the stairs to the door.

“Blake!” he shouted. “Get the door!”

Blake ran into the hallway, staring. “What happened?”

“She got in a fight. Get the door. We’re going to the hospital,” said Qrow. Together, the two ran outside, where James, Ruby, and Penny were pulling up in James’ SUV.

Together, they loaded Yang into the back and Qrow held her head in his lap with his heart in his throat as they drove to the hospital. All the while, he could only keep one thought solid in his mind.

Let her be okay. Please, god, just let her be okay.

Chapter Text

Ten steps left, pivot, ten steps right, pause, pivot, start again. Over and over, Qrow paced the waiting room floor, hands clasped behind him, then in front, then behind again. He shoved back his bangs only for them to fall in his eyes again and again. Stomach churned, bitter taste sharp in his mouth. Low growl building on his lips but never falling.

Ten steps left, turn, ten steps right. Rinse and repeat. The clock overhead ticked the seconds by. The smell of anesthetic and medicine burned in his throat and nose, blocking out all other scent. Bright fluorescent lights had him squinting at the white on white on grey. Blinking hard to keep his vision from spotting.

Ten left, ten right. Start again.

It had been three hours.

James had driven Yang to the hospital and now waited in the surgery waiting room with Qrow. Glynda had shown up an hour ago to take Penny and Ruby back to James’ to sleep. Blake had refused to leave. Frankly, Qrow didn’t blame her. She didn’t know Glynda, but she knew Qrow.

Even if he was a mess. A bruised and shaking and terrified mess who was half positive he was going to vomit on this stupid squeaking tile if he was left here much longer.

Ten left, ten right. Keep going.

“Qrow.” James’ voice, soft and reassuring. “This is one of the best hospitals in the city. If anyone can help her, it’ll be these doctors.” Qrow wondered how he knew that. Qrow wondered if they could help at all.

Mostly, he wondered how he hadn’t noticed Yang’s damage. Yang’s pain. Yang’s lack of self-preservation and what it was doing to her.

Mostly, he wondered when he’d become such a failure.

He wasn’t a father. He never would be.

A father would have noticed.

“You know.” Blake’s voice was quiet as well, but there was no gentleness to it. Just the sharpness that had followed her since the day she’d shown up next to Qrow’s car. “Your family is really fucked up.”

“Yeah,” said Qrow, he scrubbed his hands through his hair as hard as he dared. “We are.”

“Good.” Qrow stared at Blake with a furrowed brow. She was curled up tightly in the chair, arms around her knees. She wouldn’t look at him. “Means I’m not alone.”

Qrow didn’t know what to say to that.

“Mr. Branwen?” A woman’s voice. Qrow turned and spotted a nurse standing in the doorway to the waiting room. “You’re Ms. Xiao Long’s legal guardian?”

He nodded, sharp and sudden, a hard lump in his throat choking out his words.

The nurse gave him a reassuring smile. “She’s stable. We’ve… well, the doctor will explain more to you in a moment. For now, she’s resting.” The nurse stepped aside. “Would you like to see her?”

Qrow nodded and looked over his shoulder.

“Go,” said James.

Blake watched them both and shrugged. “I’ll be fine.” She didn’t sound fine. “Just make sure she’s okay.”

Qrow nodded again and followed the nurse through the doors, down a hallway, around two corners, and to a series of rooms for post-op recovery. She paused in front of one marked “0802” and gestured through the cracked open door.

“She’s in here,” said the nurse. “She’s sleeping. The doctor will be in shortly.”

With shaking hands and shaking breaths, Qrow stepped passed the nurse and stepped into the little room.

White walls, white bed, white sheets. Yang’s golden hair pale and limp where it lay around her like a curtain. Her left side was to Qrow, but he could already see what they’d done.

The prosthetic was gone, her stump was bandaged, and Qrow could see where they’d strapped her arm to her side with a sort of sling. At least it couldn’t move and get further injured, that way.

He swallowed, entire body tense and breaths coming in short, shaky inhales and shuddering exhales. His eyes prickled and blurred and he blinked hard as he settled himself in the chair on the right side of Yang’s bed.

Black eye. Swollen lip. Stiches up near her shoulder where it was uncovered.

For a moment, Qrow wasn’t in this hospital, but another, a year ago. He saw Yang, with more weight, Yang, with more marks. Yang, an inch from death and still fighting, even as the doctors shouted that they would sedate him if they had to. Remembered screaming as they dragged him from the room and told him to go home.

Qrow blinked hard and rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. Felt his palms come away wet.

She was alive. She was healing. She was stable. That was what was most important.

But even as he thought that, his mind swarmed with possibilities. He remembered what Yang had been like, when she’d first woken up. Desolate, unresponsive, guilt-ridden. Apologetic, eventually. She’d sworn to never disobey him again. Qrow remembered feeling sick when she’d said that. Had sworn to himself to lighten up to make sure those words didn’t cause Yang any changes in her lifestyle.

Maybe that had been the issue. Maybe if he’d just kept them closer. But no, it was never his style. It was never in him to do that. He couldn’t punish them or take away their freedom or hold them close. He wasn’t like James, who used his protectiveness in some desperate attempt to control the people around him. He wasn’t like Summer, who believed that if you let people go, they’d come back if they loved you.

That had backfired on her. Twice.

He didn’t like thinking about the second time. Screaming, shouting, Summer’s begging, Taiyang and Qrow snarling. Walking away.

That’d been the last time he’d ever spoken to them.

Qrow put his head in his hands and took a deep, shaky breath.


“Mr. Branwen?” Qrow looked up, trying to steady himself, and saw a doctor standing in the doorway, holding a tablet. “I’m Doctor Burg, I’ll be overseeing Yang’s treatment.” His voice was soft, almost comforting, in a way. But Qrow couldn’t shake the fear that clung to him.

Qrow nodded all the same and stood, rubbing at his face to hide the tear tracks on it.

“We’ve removed the damaged prosthetic, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, and her arm has been immobilized while the bone heals,” said Doctor Burg. “There was some nerve damage from broken fragments of the prosthetic pushing up into the stump. That’s what caused the slight infection we found, and what forced Ms. Xiao Long’s body into a fevered state.” He looked to Yang and so did Qrow. God, she looked so small and pale in that bed. “Other injuries include two cracked ribs, some mild bruising in the face and torso, and minor abrasions on her right arm.”

There was a long moment in which Doctor Burg didn’t speak. Then, “Ms. Xiao Long looks like she was in a fight, Mr. Branwen. Do you know anything about that?”

Qrow felt the bottom of his stomach drop out. His legs buckled and he grabbed at the footboard of the bed to hold himself up. “You don’t…” His voice cracked. “You don’t think I…” He couldn’t finish.

“I’m going to have to ask you to show me your hands and take off your shirt, Mr. Branwen,” said Doctor Burg. “Ms. Xiao Long’s prosthetic injuries were caused by blunt force trauma, typically caused by overtaxing the arm.”

Qrow stared for a long moment at Doctor Burg. Adam. Adam Taurus. Adam Taurus had bruised him. It would look like he’d been in a fight, recently. Even his knuckles were still scraped.

He looked like he’d been fighting. He looked like he was guilty. He couldn’t take of his shirt.

“I can explain,” croaked Qrow.

Doctor Burg stepped to the side and gestured out the door. “I’m going to have to ask you to step back into the waiting room.”

Qrow opened his mouth to protest and realized, a moment later, how that would look. Closing his mouth, he gave a shaky nod and followed Doctor Burg back to the waiting room, tossing one last look over his shoulder at Yang.

What had he done?

When they reached the waiting room, both Blake and James looked up. James looked hopeful, but the moment he locked eyes with Qrow, every inch of happiness drained out of his face.

“Qrow, what happened?” asked James.

Qrow shook his hug and headed himself, horror dragging every inch of heat from his body. How did he explain the last few weeks of his life? How did he explain that he wasn’t a bad father? Guardian. Uncle.

Fuck. Whatever the hell it was that he was.

“I’m sorry, who are you?” asked Doctor Burg. “Do you know Mr. Branwen?”

James looked from Qrow to the doctor and stood. In that moment, Qrow saw every inch of the soft hearted man that James was vanish, leaving behind the cool calculations of a soldier. It was in his eyes, that calculation, but the rest of his body language was neutral.

Blake watched the three from her spot in the chair.

Qrow was grateful she’d covered the collar with a scarf. He wished she wasn’t wearing it at all.

“Yes, quite well, actually,” said James. The low defense in his voice made Qrow narrow his eyes. “What’s going on?”

Doctor Burg looked from man to man, his eyes lingering on Blake, who straightened up in her seat. “I have reasonable evidence to suggest that Ms. Xiao Long’s injuries are a result of physical abuse by her guardian, Mr. Branwen. As you know him, I must ask, did you ever suspect such a thing?”

“No,” said James. And there it was, the military voice. “Qrow Branwen isn’t capable of such a thing. I’ve spent more than enough time with him to know if he were raising his hand to those girls, and he’s given me no reason to believe he is.” James looked at Qrow over Doctor Burg’s shoulder. “In fact, seeing as I was with Qrow for the entirety of today, he cannot have been the one to hurt Yang.”

Qrow’s eyes went wide and he barely kept himself from twitching. His expression fell neutral just as Doctor Burg looked back at him.

“I see,” said Doctor Burg, slowly. He looked at Blake. “And who are you?”

“Blake,” said Blake. “I’m a family friend.”

“Do you live with Mr. Branwen?” asked Doctor Burg.

Blake stood. “No.” She shrugged. “I spend a lot of time at his house though.”

Doctor Burg nodded and checked his tablet. “All right.” He turned so he was half facing the three of them equally. “Mr. Branwen, I suggest you go home for the time being. You will be free to return in the morning, under supervision of course. And I will be contacting child services to inspect your property and the other girl under your care, Ms. Ruby Rose, was it?”

Qrow managed a weak nod.

“Right then, get some sleep, and you’re free to come in during visiting time tomorrow.” His gaze Qrow a hard look over his glasses. “But if I find any reason to believe that you’re responsible for anything that has happened to Ms. Xiao Long, believe me, I will be taking legal action. Am I making myself clear?”

Qrow swallowed. “Yes, Doctor Burg.”

“Good, off with you then.” Doctor Burg gestured to the door. Together, Blake, James, and Qrow headed out of the waiting room, through the hospital, and out the door.

It wasn’t until they were halfway across the parking lot, the biting late night December air digging into his cheeks, that anyone spoke.

“Why did you do that?” asked Qrow, hugging himself. “Why did you two lie for me?”

James stopped just in front of his SUV and looked Qrow in the eye. “Did you hurt Yang?”

“No!” said Qrow, his voice cracking. “I would never.”

“And I believe you,” said James. “Frankly, I’m not convinced Yang wouldn’t punch you through a window if you tried.”

Qrow nodded. “She would,” he said, softly. Not that he’d ever try. Ever. Why the hell would he hurt his girls? All he wanted to do was protect them. All he ever wanted to do was raise them right. But god, he couldn’t even do that now, could he? And if it hadn’t been for his stupid fucking bar fight he could have proven that he was telling the truth.

God damn it.

“Why not just roll up your shirt and tell them it wasn’t you Yang was fighting?” asked Blake. She leaned against the car, hugging herself. “Why not just show you don’t have bruises?”

Qrow took a deep breath, unzipped his coat, and rolled his shirt, revealing the line of bruises beneath his ribs.

“Where did you…?” started Blake.

“Adam,” said Qrow. Blake froze, eyes growing wide as she stared up at Qrow. “I met him in my bar. He started talking about you and I…” He shook his head. “I lost it, lost the fight. I got fired, but I fucked him up a bit, I think.” A shrug. “I’m no fighter.” He dropped his shirt.

“Who…?” started James, but he didn’t finish. Blake threw herself at Qrow and hugged him tightly, burrowing her face in his chest. He fought a wince at the pain, but wrapped his arms around her, holding her close but loose. His shirt was growing damp, but he ignored it.

“Thank you,” whispered Blake. “No one’s ever…” Her voice cracked, she swallowed against his shirt. “Thank you.”

Qrow met James’ gaze over Blake’s head. Realization dawned in James’ eyes as he mouthed a silent “oh”.

“We’ll need to clean up the house and find a place for you to hide when child services comes around,” said Qrow. Blake stepped back and nodded, rubbing at her eyes. She sniffled. “Ruby’s all healed up, so we don’t have to worry about that, but we need to figure out who Yang got in a fight with.”

James sighed softly and combed his fingers through his hair. “I think I have an idea about that, actually,” he said. He opened his car door and reached in, pulling out something. It took Qrow a moment to realize what it was.

Penny’s bow.

“Cardin,” said Qrow. Blake let out something close to a growl.

“I knew she didn’t forget something in her desk,” she said. Her entire body seemed to bristle.

James nodded. “I think it’s time we paid Mr. Winchester a visit, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I think it is,” said Qrow, his voice as hard as it had ever been. Cardin Winchester.

Fuck, Qrow wanted that boy dead for what he’d done to Qrow’s family. To Qrow’s girls. Tomorrow, he’d go after him. After he visited Yang. Tomorrow, he’d put the fear of god into that smug, bigoted asshole.


But tonight, he had scared teenage girls to deal with and a house to clean. Everything else could wait until morning.

With that, the three piled into the SUV and headed home, plans, worries, and thought spinning between the three as they debated, sleepily, what to do next.

If it was the last thing he did, Qrow was going to make sure he kept his daughters home and that no one ever hurt them again.

Chapter Text

Ruby awoke sometime around dawn to the sounds of people in the kitchen. She lifted her head from where she laid with Penny, still surprised that Penny had wanted to cuddle last night, and frowned into the dark room. It took her a moment to remember why she was in Penny’s room and not her own, but then everything came back.

Yang, the hospital, Dad. Going home because she couldn’t stand not knowing, couldn’t stand reliving the same hospital events that had happened a year ago.

Slowly, Ruby peeled herself out of Penny’s grip, somehow not awakening her, and padded out of the room and down the stairs, perfectly silent. She paused at the last step and leaned against the wall, listening.

“Qrow, I’m just not sure what we’re going to do.” It was Mr. Ironwood that was speaking. There was the clink-clink of dishes brushing one another. Ruby pressed her lips together. “Cardin Winchester is old money. I can’t help but wonder if his father won’t just try to bury this. I know Rick, I know he’s a reasonable man, but this could put Cardin in jail.”

A sigh. Ruby didn’t think it belonged to Mr. Ironwood. It was a too soft, too high. Blake?

“So we don’t hit his father, we go after Cardin.” There was her dad. Ruby bit her lip. Why were they talking about Cardin? Had something happened? He’d attacked Ruby and Penny, though the physical bruises had mostly faded, but had he also gone after Yang?

If he had, Ruby wanted him to pay. She wanted him to end up in jail for what he’d done. Maybe get smeared on the news so that he couldn’t ever hurt anyone ever again.

“And what are we supposed to do?” Mr. Ironwood again. Ruby stared at the wall, pressing her lips together. “He’s a teenager, Qrow, if we touch him, we’ll go to jail.”

“I wouldn’t.” Ruby flinched at the harsh tone. Blake. “Let me go after him, I’ll teach him a thing or two about messing with people.” The coolness in her voice, despite its roughness, made Ruby swallow hard. She could almost see it, too. The way Blake would pin someone to the ground and snarl.

“Blake.” Mr. Ironwood.

“Not a chance.” Dad.

“Why not?” Her voice was tight. The chair scrapped back. Ruby imagined she was standing now. “He deserves it! He hurt all three of them. He should be dead for what he’s done.”

Ruby slid down the wall, blinking hard against the sudden tears in her eyes. She sat down on the stairs and stared at the wall. Hugged her knees and sniffled quietly.

“Blake, we can’t do that.” Mr. Ironwood. His voice soft and sad. “We need to approach this diplomatically.”

“Like he did?”

“Blake.” Dad now. “We’re better than he is.”

“Doesn’t mean I want to be.”

A sigh from Mr. Ironwood. “We’ll talk about this later. We should go wake up the girls.”

Ruby got to her feet and tip-toed back upstairs to slide herself back into Penny’s bed. She couldn’t get back to sleep, too many thoughts spun around in her head, and she was grateful when Dad came upstairs and woke the two of them up.

Blake knew she shouldn’t have been here. Honestly, she knew that if Qrow or James or anyone knew she was here, they’d probably be incredibly upset with her. Not that they’d shout or anything, just look disappointed and explain in those soft voices what they were trying to do.

Blake wished they’d yell. She understood yelling.

But she also needed answers. So instead of going with Qrow to the hospital to visit Yang, she claimed a headache, snuck out of the Ironwood house, and caught the bus to the upper class area of town, where she’d tracked Cardin Winchester’s address.

Blake was grateful for the outfits that Qrow had bought her about now. Sure, she still felt weird wearing clothes a grown man had picked out for her, but they fit better and allowed her to blend in more than Yang’s clothes, which she’d been wearing before.

Without a sound, Blake leaped up from the lawn she stood on and latched onto the branch above her head. Used her momentum to swing herself up onto the branch and half crawled across it toward the second storey window she sought.

Even from this distance, Blake could see the bedroom within the window, illuminated by a singular overhead light. In the afternoon shadows, with the clouds heavy with snow, the world was cast in late evening light. It didn’t bother Blake. The darkness was more comfort than burden. A place to hide and to watch, instead of be watched.

The window was cracked and, with ears long since honed to the shift in footfalls and breathing, Blake could hear every word Cardin Winchester spoke.

“Look, they’ve got nothing on me,” said his low, nasally voice. “They lose. I win. That’s how it works.”

Blake couldn’t see anyone else in the room. He must have been talking to someone on his laptop, which she could see over his shoulder. He had his back to the window and Blake used that to her advantage, creeping closer and closer.

“So what if my dad finds out, he’s not gonna believe them,” said Cardin. He leaned back in his chair, arms folded behind his head. There was a long pause. Blake stepped off the branch and leaned against his window sill, blood pounding in her ears.

“Okay, so what if I got railed for taking out that freak before, it’s not like…” Blake didn’t catch the rest. She was too busy sliding open the window and watching Cardin, her heartbeat so loud it blocked out all other noise.

Blake stepped into the room soundlessly, the handle of the folded butterfly knife pressing into her hip. She didn’t bother to pull it. She didn’t have to. Not yet.

“Look, I gotta go. I’ll talk to you guys later,” said Cardin. There was a long pause, then Cardin sighed and leaned back, the telltale sound of a call ending ringing in Blake’s ears.

She said nothing. Waited.

“Fuck,” he muttered. “I don’t need this. Don’t need to go to juvi again.”

“Should have thought of that sooner, hm?” said Blake. She leaned back against the wall next to the window.

Cardin whipped around in his chair so fast it was a wonder he didn’t get whiplash.

“Hello, Cardin,” said Blake, a touch of amusement in her voice, but still mostly cool and calculated.

He stared at Blake, jaw dropped and eyes buggy. “Who the hell are you?”

Blake only smiled and stepped forward, letting her stance shift to something a bit more aggressive. “We need to talk.”

“Who the hell are you?” asked Cardin again. He got to his feet. Blake kept smiling. This part was easy. She knew Cardin was a coward. A sheep in wolf’s clothing, so to speak. Adam could have snapped her in two. Qrow could have snarled her into a corner if he wanted (she was fairly certain he wouldn’t). But Cardin?

Cardin was the muck on her shoe after a five mile run.

Not even worth the god damn effort.

But Yang was.

“My name is Blake. And you hurt my friends,” said Blake.

Cardin snorted. “And what are you going to do about it?” He towered over her, but even that wasn’t enough to shake Blake.

She would, later, when she got out of here. She’d shake and she’d cry and she’d probably vomit. But for now, she was rock solid. The hunger for vengeance and justice and fear deep in her bones and gut as it drove her forward.

“Nothing,” said Blake. “You’re going to turn yourself in.”

“Or else what?” asked Cardin.

Blake reached for the knife, a sneer ripping her face in half. “Or else…”

“Come on, baby girl, show me what you’re made of.” Cardin loomed. Blake froze.

Baby girl.

She reached, but her hands wouldn’t move. Couldn’t think. Her breath froze in her chest. Her body shook and froze all at once. She wanted to scream. She couldn’t make a sound.

She was frozen. She was falling. She was…

Twelve years old the first time she met Adam. He’d been twenty, then. He’d told her that her skirt was too short for a little girl. That she was beautiful.

Fourteen years old the first time he backed her into a corner and tried to put his hand up her shirt.



Now seventeen. Free. But not free.

She’d never be free.

Blake stumbled backward. Breathed hard and fast and shook with the force of it. Cardin came at her. But it was Adam. But it was Cardin. She shoved. Screamed. Launched herself out the window, grabbed the tree, and fell.

Hit the ground and rolled. Bolted.

Baby girl. Baby girl. Baby girl.

Blake didn’t stop running until she collapsed. Curled herself against a wall in an alley and sobbed.

Baby girl. Baby girl. Baby girl.

“Shut up! Shut up!” she shouted, hands over her ears. But the memories kept coming. The torrent she’d held back since she’d escaped finally coming free.

For the second time that day, Ruby found herself listening in on someone else’s conversation. She leaned against the stairway wall and listened to Mr. Ironwood on the phone, talking quietly with someone that Ruby couldn’t place until the end of the call.

“Thank you, Rick. I’m glad we could come to an agreement. Qrow and I will see you on Tuesday,” he said. A tap. A sigh. The sound of a phone being set down. He’d been talking to Mr. Winchester then, Ruby remembered the name ‘Rick’ from that morning. Ruby went to step into the kitchen, only to hear a hiss behind her. She looked back.

Penny was at the top of the stairs, looking rather worried.

Ruby climbed the stairs and followed Penny into her room, shutting the door behind them both as Penny sat down on the bed.

“Ruby?” asked Penny. She fiddled with her hands, staring at them in her lap. “What’s going on?”

Ruby thought of everything she’d been told today. Everything she hadn’t. She bit her lip as she tried to decide how to phrase all of this.

“From what I can tell? Something happened at the hospital that scared my dad,” said Ruby. She sat at the end of Penny’s bed and hugged her legs. “And he has to get a hold of Cardin to make sure we all stay safe.”

Penny nodded. “Okay,” she said. She twirled her fingers together over and over. Clicked her tongue in sets of three.

“Penny, everything will be okay,” said Ruby. “Yang and Blake and us and Dad and your dad. We’re gonna fix all of it. I promise.”

“I trust you,” said Penny. She stared out the window beyond Ruby’s head. “Can we go for a walk with Zwei?”

“Sure,” said Ruby, grateful for the change in topic. They both stood. “Let’s go.”

It was late before Ruby got back to her own house, reluctant to leave Penny behind even as Penny insisted she wanted to spend some time with her father. It wasn’t that Ruby didn’t trust Penny to be on her own, no.

It was that she didn’t trust herself to be alone. Not when the bed across from hers would be empty and cold.

Christmas was in a week and a half. But Ruby wasn’t feeling very festive.

As she stepped into the house, Ruby toed off her shoes and hung up her coat, shivering slightly. Dad had the heat turned down again, but she doubted he noticed.

Ruby passed by the kitchen and paused, noticing the light was still on. She peeked in and saw her dad sitting at the table, surrounded by envelopes and letters.

“Dad?” she asked, half a whisper.

He looked up, staring at her with red rimmed eyes. “Hey, Rubes.” His voice was rough, but his smile was warm. “Good to see you home.”

“Are you okay?” asked Ruby.

“Fine,” he said. “Just doing budgeting. Why don’t you get some sleep?”

She nodded and stepped out of the kitchen. “Okay, night. Love you.”

“Love you too,” he called as she headed up the stairs and to hers and Yang’s room.

Ruby hesitated at the door and bit her lip. Then she shook her head and stepped back, heading to the third bedroom on this floor. Three knocks on the door was her personal signature.

The door opened. Blake stared out of the room at her.

“Hey, Ruby,” she said, sighing. She stepped aside and let Ruby into the room. Ruby pretended not to notice how rough Blake looked. Pretended that everything was fine as she sat down at the far end of the bed and smiled at Blake.

“So, uh,” said Ruby, “where’d you go today?”

“Cardin’s,” said Blake, sitting down.

Ruby froze, eyes going wide. “What?” she asked, voice sharp with disbelief. “How? Why?”

“I took a bus,” said Blake.


“I know,” snapped Blake. “All right? It was stupid. I know. I didn’t… do anything to him. He deserved it, but I didn’t.” She scrubbed her fingers hard through her hair. The tiny silver ring of her collar glinted in the lamp light of the room.

Ruby ignored it and focused on Blake’s face. The tightness around her eyes and mouth. “Why not?”

Blake said nothing.


“I panicked,” said Blake. She curled herself against the headboard of the bed, hugging her knees. “He… he called me something Adam used to. I couldn’t deal, so I ran and I don’t fucking know what to do now.” Her voice cracked and went rough as she spoke. She combed her fingers back through her hair again, then reached forward to wipe the tears from her face. “I don’t fucking know, Ruby.”

Ruby tentatively reached out, but stopped herself short, resting her hand on the bed instead. “Mr. Ironwood was talking to Mr. Winchester on the phone. He’s going to talk to him on Tuesday with Dad.” She bit her lip. “I think he believes Mr. Ironwood.”

Blake nodded, slow and shaky, but she did. “That’s… good,” said Blake, quietly.

“Why did you go after Cardin?” asked Ruby. Her voice was soft, and she thought she might have known the answer, but she had to ask, all the same.

“For Yang,” said Blake. “And you and Qrow and…” She shook her head. “Fuck.” She sighed softly. “I just wanted to help, after all you’ve done for me.”

“You’ve done plenty,” said Ruby. “You’re here. You’re in one piece. You stayed at the hospital to keep an eye on my uncle and on Yang. You never judged Penny. You never judged me or Yang.”

“Judged your uncle.”

Ruby shrugged. “It made sense, given what happened.” She smiled at Blake. “You’re family, Blake. We’ll protect you. I promise.”

Blake returned her smile, though her eyes were damp. “Thank you,” she said. Then, “Can you stay here tonight? I… I don’t want to be alone.”

“Neither do I,” said Ruby, just as softly. She reached out to Blake, palm up, and, hesitantly, Blake reached out and laced their fingers together.

And they stayed like that, in perfect silence, for just a little while.

Chapter Text

The weekend passed with little fanfare. Qrow visited Yang, spent time with Ruby and Blake, and struggled with the elephant in the room that surrounded himself and James. It was easier to ignore when they were around the girls. Taking care of Ruby and Penny, who worried constantly, keeping an eye on Blake, who seemed to be struggling with something she wouldn’t talk about, and visiting Yang kept Qrow busy, especially since the hospital was still keeping a security guard outside of Yang’s room when he visited.

Trying to explain that to her had been an adventure.

“Why are they watching me?” asked Yang, tightly. “What did I do?”

“Yang…” Qrow sighed and rubbed his face, not quite sure what to say. How did you explain to someone that the world was convinced you’d beat her half to death? “They’re just being cautious.”

Yang scowled, her good hand fisting the sheets. “But why?

“I…” Qrow grimaced.

“They think he’s beating you,” said Blake, from her position in the corner, tucked into a chair. Qrow cringed. Yang stared.

“What?” The naked disbelief in her voice had Qrow slumping forward, his hands clasped between his knees. “Why?”

“We’re both bruised and I panicked when they asked,” said Qrow. He stared at the tiles. He shook his head. Swallowed hard around the lump in this throat. “I couldn’t convince ‘im otherwise.”

“So…” Yang’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat. Qrow looked up at her and tried not to let his fear show. “What’s going to happen?”

Qrow sighed. “I don’t know.” Another grimace. “CPS wants to talk to you and Ruby, which is fine, but I don’t know when they’ll want to do that.” He flexed his hands and shifted in his seat. “Jim and me are gonna talk to Winchester’s dad on Tuesday, figure out if he’ll come forward.”

“Would that help you?” asked Yang. She was sitting up fully now, eyes wide. “What if I told them everything that happened?”

“At this point, it’s just your word against his,” said Qrow. “And with the money Winchester has? I don’t think it’ll go our way. We need him to confess.”

Yang scowled. “But he’s got a record, doesn’t he? Shouldn’t that count for something?”

“You’d think,” said Qrow. He leaned back in his seat and rubbed a hand down his face. Off to the side, Blake was silent, but Qrow caught the intensity in her expression. Caught the way she stared at the floor with shadows in her eyes. “But if he turns around and says that you attacked him, we could end up buried in medical bills and lawsuits.”

Yang cringed, teeth bared as she looked away from Qrow.

“Thought as much,” said Qrow, softly. “Not like you to take a beating like that without giving it back twice as hard.”

Yang shrugged, a self-deprecating smile on her face. “Yeah, well…” She tugged at her hair, which was half tangled. Qrow had debated asking if she wanted him to brush it, but it had been a sore topic back when she’d first been in the hospital, so it was probably still a sore topic now.

Only Ruby had ever been able to brush her hair for her. But Ruby didn’t like coming to the hospital. Didn’t like the smell or the sounds or the people. Too many late nights waiting to find out if and when Yang was going to be okay.

Maybe Qrow could get her in here before Yang got out. If things with Winchester didn’t go well, he’d have to. Or else…

He shook his head.

No. They’d figure it out. He’d get it sorted.

He wouldn’t lose them.

“I’m sorry,” said Yang, softly. She was staring at the bed again, her left hand twitching and curling in the sheets. Tears prickled her eyes and her voice, and a sniffle slipped out between words. “I’m so sorry.”

Qrow was up in an instant, crossing the short space to sit on the end of the bed. One hand on her face, thumb wiping away her tears, the other lacing with her fingers. “Hey, hey, this isn’t your fault, all right? This isn’t even close to your fault.”

“If I hadn’t gone after Cardin…” dd

“It’s in your nature,” said Qrow. He combed her hair from her face, smiling gently at her. “I promise you, it’s not your fault, Yang.” It was his. It always was. He’d gotten into the bar fight. He hadn’t gone after Cardin sooner. He hadn’t noticed that Yang was hurting.

The doctor had said Yang had an infection in her arm before it had been injured, which was part of what had caused such extensive damage.

Qrow hadn’t noticed. He’d been too wrapped up in his own head.

No more. The girls were now his number one priority. No more distractions. No more stupid crushes. He and James were friends, nothing more, and that was fine by Qrow.

It gave him more time to focus on his girls, something he’d sorely neglected as of late.

“But what if you lose us?” whispered Yang.

“I won’t,” said Qrow, tightly. “I swear to you, Yang, I will not lose you two. I swear it.” Yang nodded, though she said nothing, and allowed Qrow to pull her into a hug.

After a few minutes, Blake climbed up beside them and put a hand on Yang’s shoulder. Together, they waited for the doctor.

Monday brought Christmas shopping for Ruby and Penny, who got Ms. Goodwitch to take them to the mall. It wasn’t packed yet, what with it being Monday, so Ruby and Penny were planning on spending their time in the mall.

“All right, you two, feel free to take off, but stay together,” said Ms. Goodwitch as she dug through her purse. She pulled out a couple bills and handed them to the two. “Here’s one hundred and fifty dollars each, spend it on gifts for other people.”

Ruby and Penny stared.

“Seriously?” asked Ruby. Ms. Goodwitch nodded. “Thank you so much, Ms. Goodwitch!” They waved to her and too off into the mall, giggling together.

“What should we buy?” asked Ruby as they walked through the first floor together. “We need to get presents for everyone.

There was a long pause. Then, “Knick knack store?” asked Ruby.

“Knick knack store,” agreed Penny. The two took off running through the mall, giggling and grinning the entire way.

Qrow stared out the window as he and James approached the Winchester house. It was in a gated community at the top of the city, with the Winchester house being one of the largest. Qrow swallowed hard as he stared. This house, this community, was so far out of his comfort zone it wasn’t funny. If James wasn’t here…

God, the Winchesters were probably bigots too, weren’t they? And with James and Qrow showing up together, there would be assumptions, and a lot of them.

The car stopped and James looked over to Qrow, his gaze searching and worried. “Shall we?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” muttered Qrow, but he got out of the car nonetheless.

He followed James up the pathway to the enormous house. Prickles danced across Qrow’s shoulders and down his spine, shivering until he had to wrap his arms around himself and rub at his biceps. It wasn’t enough to drag the chill from his bones, but it kept him from going numb.

He swallowed hard when James rapped on the door. Looked up at James and knew that the fear showed in his eyes.

“It’ll be all right,” said James. “He sounded agreeable on the phone.” There were lines around his eyes and mouths as he said, “I’ve… dealt with Mr. Winchester before. He’s conservative, but understanding. Even if he doesn’t,” a grimace, “agree with how I’ve raised Penny, he does agree that Cardin goes too far.” A smile. “Relax.”

Before Qrow could respond, the door opened wide, and Qrow came face to face with a man almost as tall and broad as James, albeit with more wrinkles and brown hair.

“Ironwood, a pleasure,” said Mr. Winchester, holding out his hand. “Though I must say, I wish it was on better circumstances.”

“Winchester,” said James. He gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes and took Winchester’s hand. Qrow looked back and forth between them. A bird amongst giants. “Likewise.”

“And this would be the… father?” guessed Winchester.

Qrow nodded and grasped Winchester’s hand. “Qrow Branwen,” he said. “Yang and Ruby’s uh, yeah. Dad.” The word was foreign and clumsy on his tongue. His handshake not nearly as strong as it should have been. His hands, along with everything else, dwarfed by this man.

“Right, well, come on in.” There was a sigh in Winchester’s voice as he spoke. “Let’s see what the hell Cardin’s done this time.”

Qrow followed James and Winchester into the house – half wishing he remembered Winchester’s first name, if only to put them on semi-equal standing – and grimaced when he saw how lavish it was. Rich wallpaper, expensive furnishings, some kind of rug from a country he probably couldn’t pronounce the name of. It all spoke of money. More money than Qrow had ever thought about in his entire life.

He thought about his dwindling bank account. About Christmas. About the mortgage.


“So, I haven’t seen you around before, Branwen,” said Winchester as he led them into a plush living room. There was a fire already going in the rich fireplace, the windows outside only half visible from their long curtains, and the snow was thick and undisturbed on the side of the house where the glass poked through the fabric. “New?”

“Moved in August,” said Qrow. His gaze flicked from the windows to the door to the chairs. Then to Winchester and James, who were each taking a seat in separate plush leather chairs. Qrow hesitantly perched himself in the chair nearest the door, on James’ right. His fingers danced across the seat of the chair where his slim figure didn’t fill it out.

Gaze to the door, then to the men. Swallowed. Licked his lips. Let James lead.

“Fast for Cardin,” muttered Winchester. He settled back into his seat and exhaled audibly. It sounded more exasperated than surprised. Light with frustration as well. “He came home injured that day, I noticed. Your daughter did well to defend herself.”

“She’s good at that,” said Qrow. He stared at the panelling behind Winchester’s head. One of them was slightly crooked. Maybe half an inch at most.

“I don’t doubt that Cardin hurt her, what I lack is explanation,” said Winchester. He glanced to his right, which Qrow couldn’t see, and gestured. “Whiskey?”

As the word left Winchester’s mouth, Qrow’s tongue went dry.


“Uh-” Qrow stuttered at James’ sharp look. Slumped. “No, thanks.”

“Of course,” said Winchester. He poured himself some and took a sip from a glass that looked as expensive as the room it sat in. “I suspect this has something to do with your… child.” Winchester’s gaze found James’.

James nodded, and Qrow caught the flash of annoyance in James’ eyes. “Yes, Cardin came after Penny and her friend, Ruby, Qrow’s youngest,” he nodded to Qrow, “not long ago. Penny insisted I didn’t make a scene of it, so I didn’t.” A pause. “I’m beginning to regret that decision.”

“As am I,” said Winchester. His voice was soft as he spoke. There was a disappointed twist to his lips that had Qrow scooting toward the door. “Cardin is on probation, Mr. Ironwood. If he steps forward, he will go back to juvenile hall.”

“If he doesn’t, Qrow will lose his daughters,” said James. Winchester’s gaze found Qrow’s at those words, his eyebrows shooting up and expression going slack. Qrow dropped his gaze to the plush carpet. He tried to count the fibers.

“I… see,” said Winchester, slowly. “They think you’re beating her?”

Qrow blinked. Tried to clear his vision. The smell of whiskey had his entire body alight. He wanted, no, needed a drink. His fingers gripped the chair seat tighter.

“Yeah,” said Qrow. His voice half cracked on the word.

Another sigh. “They often think the same of me, you know.” Qrow’s gaze came up at Winchester’s words. What? “The police bring him home and see a man built like myself…” A sip at his drink. “They can’t think of anything else.”

“Do you?” asked Qrow.

James shot him a sharp look.

Winchester smiled, but it was a sad thing, half regret and half frustration. “I can honestly say I’ve never laid a hand on him.” He set down his glass and exhaled slowly. “Qrow, I completely believe that Cardin did this to your daughter, because I know him. But I do require you two to explain what happened so I can have some evidence to back it up.”

“I’ve worked in security for twenty years, you know that?” said Winchester. Qrow shook his head, eyes wide. “I run an entire firm.” A shrug. “People hear that? They think I had to make Cardin what he is. Some say I wasn’t hard enough on him; some say I was too hard. Others say that it’s because his mom died. Or because I was never around.” He grimaced. “I can’t say what it was, I don’t know. But I do know that no one deserves to be accused of child abuse, Qrow, and I will do everything in my power to make sure you don’t lose your daughters.”

Qrow blinked, hard. Tried to clear his blurry vision and ducked his head to hide the tears that gathered in his eyes.

He believed them.

A hand on his knee – James’ right, gloved as always. “Thank you, Rick,” said James. Qrow nodded, unable to look up. Half tempted to lace his fingers with James but knowing that it would get looks. Though from who, Qrow wasn’t sure.

“Now, tell me what happened,” said Winchester. “Start from the beginning.”

So they did. They told Winchester about Penny and Ruby, then about Yang, all taken straight from their recollections of the events. It took time, and Qrow eventually did accept that drink, James’ disapproving look be damned, but by the time they were done, it was obvious that Winchester believed every word.

“Well,” said Winchester, leaning back in his seat. “I suppose I’ll be sending him back to juvenile hall then.”

“Really?” asked Qrow. His entire body perked before he caught himself and grimaced. “I mean…”

Winchester waved him off. “One of these days, I’m going to stumble on someone who can help get him on the right track. Until then, I’ll just do what I do best – keep him away from the good kids of this city.”

“Thank you,” said James. He stood. “May I use your bathroom?”

“Of course, you know where it is,” said Winchester. He waved James off as James disappeared out the door of the room, with only a soft click to betray his absence.

Qrow swirled the ice in his glass, debating asking for a refill. He’d already had one, and he knew much more and he’d start to go sideways. But god if it wasn’t tempting to keep that half haze on his mind, holding everything at bay.

Absently, he ran his fingers over the knee James had held before this discussion. There was no residual heat – no, Qrow had figured out that James’ prosthetics were pleasantly cool at all times – but he imagined the afterimage of James’ hand, ghosting across his.

“You know,” said Winchester, slowly. Qrow’s gaze came up. “James must truly be affecting me if I believe there’s something between you two.”

Qrow faltered, gaping like a fish. “We’re friends,” he choked out. He set down his glass and straightened in his seat, unable to stop the forward curl of his shoulders. “Just friends.”

Winchester smiled, something old and fond in his eyes. “My wife,” he started, “before she passed, whenever I was upset, she would put her hand on my knee and hold me until I felt better.” His gaze went to Qrow’s hand, which still lingered on that same knee. “Seeing him do that for you, it reminded me of her.”

Qrow shifted, not knowing what to say.

“I’m going to guess and say you think I’m some sort of bigot,” said Winchester.

“Aren’t you?” asked Qrow.

Winchester hummed. “Well, yes.” He chuckled, head ducking. “But I’m not the sort you usually think of, I assure you.”

“Penny,” said Qrow. Winchester raised an eyebrow. Qrow cleared his throat. “Penny. You uh, you don’t get it, right? But you haven’t called her anything… wrong.” Qrow hesitated on the last word, unsure, but it was true. Winchester may have never said “daughter” about Penny, but he hadn’t said anything in the other direction, either.

“I’m not about to insult a man’s methods of raising his children, under my roof or otherwise,” said Winchester. “I may not… understand how James is raising… Penny, was it?” Qrow nodded. “But I trust a man to raise his children, and I wouldn’t dream of telling him otherwise.” He glanced toward the door, a faraway look in his eyes. “Perhaps if I’d taken a similar approach as James, Cardin wouldn’t be the way he was.”

Qrow didn’t know what to say to that.

“Regardless, I am of the belief that a child is better off with two parents than with one,” said Winchester. He gave Qrow a long, hard look. “And while I’m not sure how I feel about both those parents being men, at least those children always have someone around.” He raised an eyebrow. “Although, I’m not sure how two men could raise three daughters.”

Qrow wondered, then, when Winchester’s wife had died and how much time Cardin spent on his own.

“We do our best,” said Qrow, slowly.

Winchester nodded. “I can see that.” He stood and extended a hand to Qrow, who took it as he stood as well. “Good luck to you, Qrow. Cardin and I will be in touch with the police as soon as he gets home to sort this out.”

“Thank you so much,” said Qrow. The door opened a moment later and James stepped through.

“Ready to go?” he asked. There was a soft smile on his face as he spoke, and Qrow pretended that his heart didn’t skip a beat in his chest.

“Yes, I believe we have everything sorted,” said Winchester. He offered a hand to James, who shook it quickly. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I can to have Cardin brought to justice for his crimes. Thank you for bringing this to me.”

“And thank you for believing us,” said James. “Hopefully next time we meet, it will be on better circumstances, Rick.”

Winchester smiled. “I hope so as well, James. Have a good night.”

“You too,” said James. He turned, gesturing for Qrow to follow, and led them out of the house and down the driveway toward the car. As he did, he laid a hand on the small of Qrow’s back, sending a pleasant tingle up Qrow’s spine, and Qrow pretended he wasn’t smiling as they circled the car together.

Long after James removed his hand, Qrow still felt it there, a lingering touch to comfort him through the night.

Chapter Text

Blake hadn’t gone back to the hospital since the day she’d gone after Cardin Winchester. By all accounts, she should have. Yang was her friend. Yang was important to her. Blake didn’t want Yang to think she was abandoning her. But it was difficult. It was more than difficult. To go back into that hospital, to admit she’d done something she shouldn’t have, to talk to Yang and either lie and tear herself apart to do it, or to tell the truth and face Yang tearing her apart instead – Blake couldn’t do it.

So, instead, she did what she did best. She avoided everything. She avoided talking to people about that day. She avoided Ruby. She avoided Qrow. She avoided everything. It was easy, really. Qrow didn’t want to push her too far, too fast, Ruby was distracted by Penny and her sister, and James? Well, James hadn’t ever really had much to do with Blake to begin with.

It was a Thursday, two days after James and Qrow had gone to speak with Mr. Winchester, and Blake hadn’t seen Yang in almost a week. She missed her, of course she did, Yang was her friend, but she couldn’t go back.

Instead, she was hiding in a tree in James’ backyard. Ruby was at home, alone, and James and Penny had gone out grocery shopping at some point. That left the backyard a perfect place where no one would find her. Besides, if she wanted to get away, she could hop the fence the moment she heard James’ car coming.

What she hadn’t expected, however, was for someone else to be in the house. From Blake’s perch on in her tree, should could see a woman in the other bedroom of the house. One with white hair in a crisp bun and bags under her eyes visible even from here. Blake watched her with that sort of idle curiosity she watched most women with. Little caution, mostly intrigued.

Blake had been watching her for almost an hour now, not really moving or thinking of much else. The woman had gone from folding laundry on the bed to working on some writing at a desk, to reading a book in the chair. She’d disappeared from her bedroom twice – once Blake had seen her in the bathroom window, which only showed the door, the other time, Blake had seen movement downstairs – only to return within five minutes.

Whoever she was, it was obvious that she wasn’t comfortable in that house. Obvious she didn’t live there, or hadn’t for long, and that she was still trying to get her feet under her. Blake could relate. Blake wanted to meet her.

She wasn’t sure how to approach the situation. How did you explain to someone that you’d seen them in the window and you thought the two of you might get along?

It wasn’t exactly the most normal way to start a friendship.

As if sensing her thoughts, the woman walked over to the window, opened it, leaned out it, and flashed an amused look at Blake. “Are you planning on sitting in that tree all day, or did you want to come in for some tea?”

Blake’s face went hot and she gave a weak nod. “Tea, please.” She climbed down out of the tree and met the woman at the back door.

“I’m Winter,” said the woman as she let Blake into the house. “You’re the one that Mr. Branwen took in, aren’t you?”

Blake nodded. “Blake,” she said. “He’s not home.”

“I’m aware,” said Winter. “Come on, I’ll make you some tea.” She led Blake through the house – Blake caught sight of pictures of Penny and James when they were younger, a picture or two of Winter, and one of a woman that could have only been James’ mother. That, coupled with the blanket tossed over the back of the couch, the flowers on the tables, the keys in their hooks, and the backpack by the door all made Blake relax. The house looked lived in, just like Qrow’s.

Houses that looked like this usually had good people in them.

Blake’s eyes went to the Christmas tree in the corner of the living room as she passed it. It was up, but not decorated. They must have been saving that for later. It reminded Blake that Christmas was in less than a week.

She wondered if she’d be allowed to stay at Qrow’s, or if it was strictly a family affair.

Maybe she’d just hide in the guest room.

As Winter made them both tea, Blake took a seat at the kitchen table, her gaze sweeping the bright room and its little artworks. There were robins painted in the corner of one of the overhead cabinets. They looked like they might fly away at any moment.

Who had painted them? James or Penny? Neither seemed the type. But then, neither did Winter.

“Cream?” Winter’s voice drew Blake back to the present. She blinked.


“Would you like cream or sugar in your tea?” asked Winter. She gestured to the two tea cups in front of her. “We have both.”

“Both, please, just a little of each,” said Blake. Winter added both and handed the cup to Blake, who smiled slightly. Her fingers trembled a bit as she took the cup, from cold or nerves, Blake wasn’t sure. Both were a safe bet, these days.

“So, you’re Blake,” said Winter. “I’ve heard a lot about you from Ruby and Penny.” She gave Blake a soft smile as she sat down across her from. “I’m glad to have finally met you.”

Blake nodded, unsure of what to say. “Thanks,” she decided on. “It’s uh, nice to meet you too.”

“You know,” said Winter, “from what I’ve heard, you’ve done quite a lot in keeping Ruby and Penny safe and sane. I’m grateful for it. With everything going on, I was worried they might fall to the wayside.”

“They’re at the centre of this,” said Blake.

“True,” said Winter. She stirred her tea, eyes sliding backward in time even as Blake watched her. “But, so often, those that are at the centre of violence oft end up shucked aside in favour of arguing for or against the attacker.” She gave a sad smile. “The victims are oft forgotten and left to fend for themselves.”

Maybe it was the way she said it. Or maybe it was the way Winter’s gaze got that same faraway look Blake’s did when she fell back in time. So far down that it was nigh impossible to bring someone back. Or maybe it was the way she emphasized her words, despite their softness.

No matter way it was, Blake felt her heart clench and her breath catch as Winter spoke, and her entire world zeroed in on that slight twitch of her lips, changing a sad smile to a terrified, remorseful grimace.

Blake reached out and laid her hand across Winter’s.

“We won’t let them get pushed aside,” said Blake with as much strength as she could muster.

“No,” said Winter, laying her other hand over Blake’s. Her eyes, still so far away, lifted to meet Blake’s. “We won’t.”

Ruby had been halfway through making a cup of hot chocolate when she heard the noise. It was a soft ‘thump’ and then a slide. The sound only an opening window could make. She looked down at Zwei, who lifted his head and whimpered quietly, then reached over to the cutting block and pulled the biggest knife she felt comfortable handling.

She and Zwei tip-toed toward the source of the sound, Ruby with her spare hand on her pocket, where 911 was already prepped for dialing. She didn’t want to call until she knew it wasn’t Blake. Sometimes she got weird and came in through the second storey windows. It could have just been her.

Still, it didn’t shake Ruby’s fear as she peered around the corner.

It wasn’t Blake.

The woman standing, frozen and with wide eyes as she spotted Ruby, looked nothing like Blake. But she looked a lot like Yang, and a lot like the singular picture Ruby had found of her family before she’d been born.

This woman could only be one person – Raven Branwen. The woman who had tried to ruin their lives time and time again, and the reason that Yang only had one arm.

Ruby growled quietly, Zwei quickly joining, and her expression dropped from fear to anger as she straightened up.

“What are you doing in my house?” asked Ruby, biting out each word with barred teeth.

“Is that knife really necessary?” asked Raven.

Ruby shifted position, hand moving away from her phone to grip the knife with both. She clicked the home button on her phone twice before she removed her hand, activating an old shortcut for her voice recordings. The familiar buzz against her hip told her that her phone was recording.

“Yes, it is,” said Ruby.

Raven sighed and stepped sideways, her gaze switching from the growling Zwei to Ruby with her knife. “So, you do remember me.” It wasn’t a question.

“I remember you tried to ruin our lives,” said Ruby. Her voice grew louder with each sentence. “I remember that Dad nearly lost us because of you, that you never stopped trying to take us away, and that even though you claim to be part of this family, you’ve never wanted anything to do with Yang.” Her voice dropped into a growl at the end.

Raven bared her teeth. “Qrow is not your father.”

“And you’re not my mother,” said Ruby. “You never have been and you never will be.” She threw her left arm wide. “You were never here. You never wanted anything to do with us. You tried to rip us apart when we were babies just because you had some stupid biological claim to my sister!” Her voice rose to a shrill yell at the end. “Uncle Qrow raised us, loved us, protected us, and did everything he could for us no matter what was going on in his head. That’s why he’s my dad.”

“If I wanted to, I could take you both away from him in an instant,” said Raven, her expression dark.

Ruby grinned, all teeth. “Then why don’t you try? I’d love to see you fail now that I’m old enough to remember it properly.”

Raven faltered visibly and took a step back. “I didn’t come here to be insulted by a child.”

Ruby growled. Fear crept under her skin, hot and horrible. Even if Raven was retreating, she was still bigger and stronger than Ruby. She could take Ruby to the ground in an instant. The knife wouldn’t help her then. Not if she couldn’t use it properly. “You broke into my house when you thought no one was home. I don’t owe you anything except maybe a call to the police.”

Raven growled and clenched her fists at her sides. For a moment, Ruby feared that she might launch herself at Ruby, and that she’d have to use the knife after all. She didn’t want Dad to come home to a bunch of police officers and blood on the floor. She didn’t know if it’d be hers or Ravens.

Would she go to jail? Or juvenile hall? Or maybe just a group home. Then Dad really would lose her and Yang. All because of her.

“This wasn’t how it was supposed to go,” said Raven, tightly. “This wasn’t remotely what I wanted.” She tugged her fingers back through her hair. It was a gesture Ruby had seen a thousand times on Dad. A gesture he only ever had when he was losing control and needed something to ground him. Seeing it on her, it was hard to remember that Raven was more villain that family. That she was only Dad’s twin in name.

“Then what did you want?” asked Ruby. She let her arm with the knife drop. “Tell me, so maybe I don’t call the police and have to stab you to keep you here.”

Raven’s lips twitched, the gesture so Yang-like that Ruby momentarily lost her breath. God, how many similarities were there, just beyond Ruby’s understanding? “You’re just like her, you know that? So small but so brutal. So willing to fight to keep the one’s you love safe.” Raven shook her head. “Does that mean she’s like me?”

“I don’t know,” said Ruby.

Raven leaned back against the wall and sighed. “I came here seeking answers, child.” Raven exhaled slowly, the gesture making her shoulders droop. “I never wanted this. I never wanted to leave, all those years ago.”

“That’s a lie and you know it,” said Ruby. Her grip on the knife tightened.

Raven grimaced, eyes flashing at being caught in her lie. “You’re completely right,” she murmured. She looked to the ground, to Zwei, then back at Ruby. Her eyes were the same colour as Dad’s. But hers seemed colder than his own warm red eyes. The only emotion they shared was guilt. Dad’s eyes had been full of it lately, just as Raven’s were as she stood across from Ruby right now.

Raven continued, “I did want to leave, back then. Everything was too difficult and too overwhelming…” She trailed off and sighed. “I wanted to run, to leave, to disappear into the night and never look back.” She shrugged, arms folding across her chest. It was a defensive gesture if Ruby had ever seen one. “But…”

“But?” echoed Ruby.

“I couldn’t stay away.” Raven shook her head, frowning tightly. There was something in her eyes that Ruby couldn’t place. Regret, maybe. Ruby couldn’t be sure. “I never wanted a family, not the way Summer and Taiyang did, but no matter how far I ran, no matter how much I wanted to leave, she clung to me.” Ruby didn’t have to ask who ‘she’ was. “And I had to know, over and over, I had to know how she was doing.” Her gaze flicked to Ruby. “And yet, it’s you I run in to.” There was something absent in her voice then that made Ruby take a step back.

She steeled herself, took a breath that she hoped Raven didn’t notice. “Then why do it? Why have Yang?” asked Ruby.

“I don’t know,” said Raven. The words were soft, a little frustrated. The tone so like Dad that Ruby found herself gritting her teeth to keep herself from reaching out to touch Raven, to comfort her just as she did with her dad whenever he got upset. “There’s a lot of things I don’t understand Ruby, even about myself.”

“So, why are you here?” asked Ruby. Her hand flexed on the knife, but her fingers hurt. Her brain hurt. Everything hurt. “Why break in? Why come looking for us again?”

Another shake of her head. “I wanted to…” She trailed off and brushed her long hair out of her face. “I wanted to figure out who I was.”

“Through Yang?”

“Through Qrow,” said Raven. “He’s my twin. I’ve always defined myself by him.”

“That doesn’t seem healthy,” said Ruby.

Raven shrugged. “Never claimed it was.” She looked at Ruby. “I called him first, you know. To ask. To see if he’d be willing to take me back.”

Ruby didn’t have to ask to know what her dad’s response had been. Arguing, shouting, screaming, most likely. Everything he’d done that night she and he and had forcibly removed from the hospital. Ruby’s lower lip trembled. She pressed both hard together to hide it. She wondered if Raven knew Yang was in the hospital.

Maybe. Probably.

Who knew.

“But he’s not here, and neither is she,” said Raven. She sighed, body slumping against the window frame. “And here I am, being faced down by a child with a corgi and a kitchen knife she can’t even hold correctly.” Raven’s gaze flicked from Ruby to Zwei again. There was a question there, lingering in her eyes, that had Ruby’s mind screaming at her to run. What if Raven hurt her? Could she? Would she? Ruby had no biological claim to Raven or her dad.

But then, biology hadn’t done Dad or Yang any good, in the end.

Her heart beat hard and loud in her eyes, sending a throbbing through her skull.

“What do you want me to do?” asked Raven. The words startled Ruby. What? Why did Raven care what she did? Why did Raven care about anything related to Ruby? “Come on now, You’re the only one here. What do you want from me?”

Ruby took a breath, ignoring the shaking in it. “I want you to leave,” said Ruby, voice tight. “Preferably never come back. Yang and I are fine without you, and whenever you show up, Dad gets worse.”

“She’s in the hospital right now, isn’t she?” asked Raven. That answered that question, at least. She knew. Maybe that was what had finally driven her to break in. Ruby wondered how long Raven had been in town. How much her dad knew. “What happened?”

“You’re not her mother, it’s not your business,” said Ruby, grinding her teeth together.

Raven scowled and stepped forward. Ruby raised the knife again.

“Fine,” Raven bit out. She stepped backward again. Looked to the window. “Her birthday, it’s July 2nd, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Ruby.

Raven frowned. “I don’t know yours.”

“That’s because you’re not my family,” said Ruby, voice tight and quivering. “You don’t need to know.”

“And he is?” asked Raven. “Neither of us is blood to you. What’s the difference?”

Ruby bared her teeth again. “Intent,” she said. “Don’t send Yang anything on her birthday, and don’t come here again. Next time, I will call the police.” She flexed her hand on her knife again. “And next time, I won’t be so nice about this, either.”

“You know,” said Raven. “I was wrong. You may be Summer’s daughter, but you’re not Summer. You’re far too vicious.”

Ruby smiled, though it felt closer to a smirk. It hid a thousand screams behind her face, all warning her that Raven could hurt her, that Raven was dangerous. It hid the screaming and the fear and the pain and the want to run and hide and never look back.

Smirks were meant to hide. It was part of why Ruby hated them so much.

“Only to the people I don’t like, and only to the people that hurt my family,” she said. “Now, get out of my house.”

Raven growled, low and frustrated, but she climbed back out the window and disappeared over the fence. Once she was gone, Ruby closed and locked the window, then, with the knife in hand, she went around and closed, locked, and double-checked every single window and door in the house.

That done, she headed back into the kitchen. She set the knife on the counter, put her back to the cabinets, and slid to the floor. With her knees drawn up and her face pressed into them, Ruby began to sob.

The water for her hot chocolate had long since gone cold in its mug.

Chapter Text

Christmas shopping was always an adventure, and with everything else going on, Qrow had barely managed to remember to go shopping in the week before Christmas. Now, less than a week until the holiday, he’d finally managed to get out to the mall to buy some things for Ruby and Yang, as well as a couple things for Blake. He couldn’t leave her out, even if money was tight.

Of course, that also meant he should probably pick up a few things for James and Penny too, which was just an entire adventure unto itself.

So, he recruited Bart for help and headed out to the mall that morning while Ruby hung out with Penny and Blake visited Yang in the hospital. Which reminded Qrow of something else he had to deal with, sooner or later.

“Qrow?” Bart’s voice was soft next to his head as they walked through the mall. “What’s on your mind?”

“A lot,” said Qrow, shifting the two bags he held in one hand. Bart had a smaller bag in one hand, apparently a present for Peter. “Yang’s getting out of the hospital tonight. I wanted to be there right now, but she told me to get some fresh air before I went crazy.”

Bart shook his head. “I swear those girls try and raise you as much as you them.”

“They do,” said Qrow, quietly. He sighed. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not most days.”

Bart nudged his shoulder and smiled at him. His glasses slid down his nose as he spoke. “Someone needs to take care of you.”

“It shouldn’t be my kids,” said Qrow, voice tight. He spotted a store up ahead with a lot of tiny figures in it, reminding him of Ruby’s recent love of some series of books about owls. He couldn’t remember what it was called, Watchers, maybe, but it was what she’d been reading for almost a month now.

“Qrow.” Bart’s voice followed him into the store as Qrow studied a handful of owl figurines. “If you need help with anything…”

Bills, thought Qrow, and maybe his own head. But it was mostly bills. Christmas was already a huge blow to his savings, and with the mortgage and everything else, he’d be broke halfway through January. And that wasn’t including Yang’s hospital bills, or the prospect of getting her a new arm, nor anything else going on with Ruby or Blake.

What if one of them got sick? What would he do about Blake?

God, it was all just a mess.

He rolled one of the figures over in his hand and frowned, unsure of what else to do. How could be possibly make all this work? This was never supposed to happen. He was supposed to keep the girls safe and fed and everything a parent was supposed to do. But he wasn’t a parent, and he never had been, and maybe that was the entire reason why he couldn’t do this.

It didn’t matter what Ruby called him. He wasn’t a father.

He wasn’t good enough to be a father.

Qrow bit the inside of his cheek and cut his pity party.

Later, he thought, when he was alone. For now, he had to keep it together until he could get his family taken care of.

Qrow and Bart worked their way through the mall systematically, picking up presents for friends and family. Qrow winced at every bill, but he kept going. He had to keep up the illusion for the girls. They didn’t need to know how bad it had gotten.

It was sometime in the early afternoon, and closer than Qrow wanted to when Yang was being released, when they finally finished. Bart and Qrow were halfway to the doors of the mall when Qrow heard a voice he almost didn’t recognize shout his name.

He half-turned, brow furrowed, and sure enough, there was Roman. A teenage girl trailed behind him, her eyes as mismatched as Bart’s and her hair at least partially dyed to match.

“Hey, Qrow,” said Roman, stopping a few feet from him. He dug into his back pocket. “Listen, I feel really bad about losing you your job.”

Qrow grimaced. “It wasn’t your fault,” he said. And it wasn’t. Roman was just being himself. Qrow could appreciate that in a guy.

“Nah, it was,” said Roman. He pulled out a business card and held it out to Qrow. Qrow raised an eyebrow and took it, hesitantly. “But, I am nothing if not gracious, and I think I know how to make it up to you.” He gestured to the business card. “That, my friend, is Junior’s Place, it’s a sweet little place downtown, super open.” Roman stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked on his heels. “I told ‘im what happened and he wants to interview you. Pretty sure it’s in the bag.” There was a grin in his voice on the last line, and Qrow didn’t know what to make of the twinkle in Roman’s eye.

He looked down at the business card, which read Junior’s Place in looping golden letters. Underneath were a few details – Facebook page, contact number, and the name “Hei ‘Junior’ Xiong”. There was also a tiny rainbow in the corner, which Qrow figured meant it was either a gay club or was an open-minded one with a gay night.

“It’s a gay club,” said Roman. That answered that question, at least. “And I don’t think you ever applied there, because Junior would know.” He shrugged. “Might as well give it a try. You know?”

Qrow flicked the card over and tucked it into his back pocket. “Thanks.” He lingered for a moment, trying to sort out his thoughts. “Listen, Roman, if you ever want to hang out…”

“I have your number?” finished Roman, mouth crooked but eyes soft. “Thanks, Qrow. Really.” He looked over his shoulder, where the teenage girl was waiting with one eyebrow raised. “You ready to go sugar cube?”

She nodded and lifted one had to wave. Qrow waved back, head tilted slightly, and watched them go.

“Looks like things are starting to go your way,” said Bart.

Qrow nodded, the business card impossibly heavy in his pocket. “Yeah,” he said, “looks like.” Then he turned back toward the entrance to the mall. “Come on, I’ve gotta pick up Yang.”

The hospital seemed hesitant to let Yang go, despite the words of Winchester and Cardin, who were there earlier that day. Qrow had spotted Rick leaving with Cardin when he and Ruby stepped into the hospital. The two had nodded to one another, Rick’s lips twitching into a half smile as they went.

The police nodded, but the gestured for Qrow to come close.

“While all charges have been dropped, we are required to do a safety check,” said the officer. “It’ll be in a few months. We have your number.”

“Safety check?” echoed Qrow.

The officer said, “CPS does it for all kids we believed to be victims of familial abuse. Even if you’re cleared, it’s protocol. We’ll call you two weeks in advance.”

Qrow nodded sharply, his chest tight. “So, uh,” he cleared his throat, “can I go get her?”

The officer nodded. “Yes. Go ahead.” Qrow looked to the nurses, who nodded in agreement, and then it was time to go pick up Yang and Blake.

Qrow guided Ruby up to Yang’s room, keeping a close eye on how she looked around with wide, trembling eyes. Her entire body was tense, her shoulders up near her ears and her hands clenched at her sides.

Qrow laid a hand on her shoulder and gave her a smile. “She’s fine,” he said. “I promise.”

Ruby sighed and gave a small nod. “I just wish…” She shook her head. “Never mind, it’s nothing.”

Qrow didn’t respond, just tightened his grip on her shoulder and hoped for the best. There was no way of knowing how Yang would be once they got her out of the hospital. Or how she’d be with only one arm again. All Qrow could hope for was that she’d be open to being helped, and that maybe she’d also be open to talking about things that bothered her.

But if she was anything like his sister…

“We’re here,” said Qrow, tapping on the door with his free hand. He swung it open slowly, careful to watch for people behind the door. Yang and Blake were both perched on the bed, Yang’s bag between them. Yang’s hair was brushed out and pulled back in a high ponytail. He narrowed his eyes, frowning. How had she done that with one hand?

“Ready to go?” asked Qrow.

Yang and Blake both nodded. Blake stood first, shouldering Yang’s bag, and Yang stood second, leaning on the bed with her left hand. Her right stump was still bandaged beneath the plaid shirt that she wore, the sleeve tied at the end.

It had to be a nurse that did that, thought Qrow. There wasn’t a chance Yang could tie a knot that well on her own.

“So, is everything… good?” The hesitation in Yang’s voice made Qrow cringe inwardly. “They’re not gonna like, tackle you to the ground or something if I leave with you?” The joke was there, but it fell flat against the genuine fear that cut across her form – pursed lips, wide eyes, drooped shoulders, and tense figure.

“No,” said Qrow. He reached forward and rested a hand on Yang’s shoulder. “Nothing like that. We’re cleared. Cardin’s dad talked to the cops.”

Yang nodded, gaze at the floor. “So, what’s gonna happen, exactly?”

“Cardin’s going back to juvi, no one’s pressing charges on you, and we’re free to go,” said Qrow. He left out the bit where CPS would be checking in on them in the next couple months. She didn’t need to stress out about that right now. He spread his hands and flashed Yang as easy going a smile as he could manage. “Good?”

Yang nodded, her shoulders relaxing. “Awesome,” she said. “Let’s go.” She pushed off the bed and started forward, wobbling a bit. No one offered to grab her, just waited until she was upright before following her out of the room.

They headed to the reception to sign Yang out, Qrow nodding to the police as he did. They nodded back, the nurses squared away the paperwork, and then it was time to go.

As they piled into the car and headed home, Yang took the backseat with Blake, while Ruby sat up front with Qrow. Ruby turned on the music after half a block, and Qrow appreciated the noise. It distracted from the awkward silence that hung between the four, and the way Ruby kept using her side mirror to check on Yang.

Qrow checked with the rear view mirror and saw Yang’s left hand inch toward Blake’s until their pinkie fingers rested together. He hid his smile, miniscule as it was, and kept his eyes on the road. Something had happened in that hospital room, something he hadn’t seen, and maybe it wasn’t anything significant yet. Maybe it was more of a question than a statement, a ‘what if’ and not a ‘we should’, but it was a start.

Maybe he’d ask her about it, later, when everything else had been sorted and Yang’s eyes were a little less clouded from fear and exhaustion.

As they pulled up to the house, Qrow spotted movement from down the street. It was James and Penny, with Penny holding a cloth bag and James carrying Tupperware. Qrow killed the engine and felt his heart warm. James had been… well, absolutely wonderful these last few weeks, even with everything else that had happened, and now, with Christmas only days away, a question lingered in his mind. One he didn’t dare ask out loud.

“Hi, Penny!” said Ruby, leaping out of the car. She beamed at Penny who beamed right back. “What did you bring?”

“I brought cookies, the DVD set for ‘Kung Fu Warrior Legends’, and a stuffed dragon,” said Penny, holding up the bag with both hands. “Father brought dinner.” She looked at Yang, who stumbled a bit as she climbed out of the car. “They are get well presents.”

Yang nodded, tugging at her hair with her left hand. “Thanks, Penny. That’s great.” She glanced at the bag, then at her right shoulder, and grimaced. “You, uh, wanna bring it in?”

“Of course!” said Penny. “I am happy to be of assistance.” She followed Yang up to the house, practically skipping in the half a foot of snow. Qrow dug into his pockets and tossed Ruby the keys before turning to James.

“Thanks for all this,” said Qrow, quietly. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and forced himself to meet James’ gaze. “It helps.”

James nodded, shifting the Tupperware to one arm. “It’s no problem. If there’s anything else I can do…” He trailed off, gaze darting up to the front door as it swung shut. Qrow knew that look, it was one that he’d seen a handful of times before. James was thinking, the gears in his head spinning as he tried to find answers to questions no one else could solve.

Qrow figured he had a similar process going on. James had designed the last arm that Yang had used. Could he design another? Could he find a way? Qrow knew that 3D printed prosthetics were a lot less expensive than the newer sensory models, but he didn’t know if Yang would want to downgrade. Or if she’d want to get a new arm at all.

It was a conversation to be had sooner or later, but Qrow had a feeling that Yang would want to put it off as long as possible.

“No, this is… this is great. Thank you,” said Qrow. He pulled one hand from his pocket to rub the back of his neck. “Listen, uh, if you wanted to stick around for dinner...” A shrug. “You know.”

“That sounds fine,” said James. If his own body language was awkward, well, James couldn’t blame him.

The front door swung open hard enough to bang into the house. Qrow and James both jumped.

“Dad!” called Ruby. Qrow turned and raised an eyebrow at her, trying to get his pounding heart under control.

“What?” called Qrow back.

“Can Penny be here for Christmas?” asked Ruby.

Qrow faltered. “I…” He cleared his throat. Swallowed hard. “She should be home with her father and…” He scrambled to remember her name. “Winter?” He looked over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow at James, who nodded. “She can’t be here with us and not be at home with them.”

“Well then they should all come over,” said Ruby, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. “We could all open presents and make dinner together.”

Qrow scrambled to find an excuse that wouldn’t take over James. He looked back at James, hoping his confusion was in his eyes. James only smiled in response.

“As long as Qrow is fine with it, Ruby, I think that sounds wonderful,” said James. He turned his impossibly blue gaze on Qrow, warmth coating his entire expression.

Qrow swallowed hard and nodded, turning back to Ruby. He struggled to get the image of those eyes out of his head, but he knew it was hopeless. “Sure,” said Qrow. He forced a smile he knew didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Sounds great.”

Ruby cheered and ran back inside to tell Penny and, just like that, James and his family were coming over for Christmas.

This couldn’t possibly end badly.