Tai woke up five minutes to midnight. He checked on the girls as he made his way towards the kitchen for a glass of water. As usual Yang’s bed was empty and she was curled up around Ruby with a comic book and a flashlight in hers. He tucked her in carefully, replaced the flashlight on the nightstand with the comic books. By the time he was turning off the light Ruby was curling towards Yang in her sleep like a flower drawn towards the sunlight of her hair.
The light was on in the kitchen. Tai stopped for a moment, a lifetime’s worth of Huntsman experience crackling down his spine.
Then he saw a cape hung up by the door on a peg he’d installed for just that purpose, and just as quickly as it had appeared the trepidation turned to relief.
“I told you no weapons on the table,” he said without even looking as he walked into the kitchen.
A chair screeched out from its place by the table, followed by unfamiliar footsteps that made Tai wish he’d been looking after all, because that wasn’t Qrow.
There was a girl in his kitchen, unfamiliar, backed up all the way to the counters. She had a pair of swords in her hands that she was holding with a more than competent stance. She bared her teeth at Tai, raising the swords higher.
Qrow hadn’t even moved from where he was slouched in his own chair.
“I forgot,” he lied remorselessly. Qrow didn’t forget, he just disagreed with the idea and pretended that he didn’t remember every time he was over. “Cinder, come sit back down.”
He was sitting at his usual spot, nursing an amber-colored bottle. There was an upended cup in front of the empty space the girl had been sitting. Water was spreading across the table, spilling over the side.
The girl’s eyes flicked to him, liquid gold, and then back to Tai. She didn’t lower the blades so much as an inch.
Qrow reached over slowly. It was the slowness that caught Tai’s attention, because Qrow was an expert Huntsman in a way that meant he didn’t have to be conscious of most of his movements. If he was telegraphing as he reached over and wrapped a hand around the girl’s wrist, he was doing it for a reason. She twitched away from his hand, clearly uncomfortable with it, but didn’t fight it.
“It’s fine, Cinder. Come on.” Eyes still on Tai, she let him tug her back over to the table and into the chair again. Her swords thunked on the table next to Harbinger.
“And now you’re teaching the next generation your bad habits,” Tai said, looking at the girl glowering warily at him. He nodded at her. “No weapons on the kitchen table please.”
She lifted them in something that was clearly more warning than obedience, lips pulling back into a snarl. There was a ring of bandages around her throat that was tied the way the Branwen tribe taught its young to tie them. Qrow’s handiwork then. He hadn’t had dealing with the Tribe since they’d graduated, but some traces never quite left him.
“That’s closer to listening,” conceded Tai mildly, and her glare faltered with confusion. She turned to glance at Qrow, like she was hoping for an explanation. The weapons lowered until they were in her lap. Tai wasn’t sure that was much better, but she was clearly ill-at-ease and reluctant to put them down. He wasn’t about to make it harder for her.
“Welcome back home,” he said after a few minutes, once it became clear that neither of them was particularly interested in explaining anything to him.
“Good to be back,” Qrow echoed lamely. The girl didn’t say anything at all, jaw tight.
“I thought it would be much longer before you’d come back around.” When Qrow had first told him about the new mission he was being called on, it had sounded like it might take months.
“Thought you were all the way in Atlas, hunting down whoever killed that Huntsman,” he said to Qrow, wondering how this related to their new nighttime visitor.
The girl threw herself out of the chair.
This time Qrow had anticipated it; his hand was already on her shoulder, dropping her back into the seat, and there wasn’t much slow about it this time.
“Back off,” she ordered Tai in a tone she was clearly trying to make a threat, one blade up and pointing at him, “You stay away from- let me go, Qrow!”
“Calm down,” he ordered. The girl- Cinder- was vibrating with adrenaline. From the way she was staring at him, a mixture of betrayal, resignation and fury, she didn’t trust Qrow much more than Tai. Qrow’s expression didn’t change. It was the way his face went when he was trying to be reassuring, because he wasn’t very good at that. He didn’t take his hand off her shoulder. Tai didn’t blame him; she was clearly ready to bolt. From the way she was eyeing his hand, Tai wouldn’t be surprised if she went after him with those blades.
“Yeah. I found them.” The girl’s other blade scraped the underside table as it twitched up involuntarily.
Qrow blinked guilelessly at Tai, with an innocent expression that hadn’t worked past their first week at Beacon and certainly wasn’t going to work now.
“On a completely unrelated note, this is my new apprentice, Cinder.”
Tai looked at the girl. She looked every bit as feral as Qrow and Raven had been that first week at Beacon, before they’d gotten a chance to look at the other kids their age and start imitating them.
“Completely unrelated,” Tai repeated. The girl bared her teeth at him.
Qrow was mild as milk. “That’s right.”
Tai shook his head, raising his hands out and open in front of him. “I changed my mind, I don’t want to know after all.” He said and the girl turned her ire on Qrow.
“You said you wouldn’t tell anyone!”
Qrow was unbothered. “I didn’t tell him anything.”
“If that’s you not telling him you might as well just execute me yourself!” she snapped, vibrating with fury.
“My new apprentice,” Qrow said louder, and then “You helped me file the paperwork for her,” Qrow added carelessly, as if to grind in the fact that he was lying.
“You wanna try that again?”
Qrow winced because he recognized that deceptively mild tone.
“…will you help me file the paperwork?”
Tai kicked Qrow in the ankle lightly and turned to look the girl over.
There was dirt in her hair and thin scratches on her face that looked like they’d come from branches. Her clothing was thin cotton, a pale white under the dirt and blood streaked into it. Thin enough to tear under Grim claws, as it looked like it had to the side, despite the Aura he could sense humming under her skin. There were bandages under the shirt too, climbing up to wrap around her throat.
Tai had thought she was a child, but now that he was looking more closely she looked more like a teenager, a few years off from a Huntsmen academy still. A teenager skinny less in the way of teenagers shooting up in every direction too fast and more in an underfed, malnourished way, who someone as emotionally stunted as Qrow thought needed careful handling.
She jutted her chin out at him in challenge but he could see the gleam of bone in the white-knuckled grip on her blades. He hadn’t seen a child so closed off and full of fury since Qrow and Raven had lurched off the airship to Beacon.
“Hm. Say please.” He told Qrow and smiled at the girl. “It’s nice to meet you, Cinder. I’m sorry you have such an idiot as a teacher.”
Slowly, the hatred on her face blurred into confusion. She looked from him to Qrow, grip loosening on her blades.
Tai started heating up water, reaching for the packets of hot chocolate. “What’s her last name? For the paperwork.”
“Branwen,” Qrow said without pausing, and the girl’s head jerked around to stare at him.
“It is?” she whispered as Tai pretended to be occupied.
“Or you can choose your own. It’s your choice, kid.”
“My choice,” she echoed, like the idea was completely novel to her. Tai put a rag on the table to soak up the water. Cinder twitched as his hand came near her, but then her eyes fell on the cloth and stayed there, going perfectly blank. She hesitated, fingers curling up under her palms, but then reached for it.
Qrow intercepted, hand swinging out in front of her and snagging the cloth right out of her hands, mopping up the water carefully. Cinder looked at him oddly for that too, searching his face for something, but Qrow didn’t even look at her, just cleaned up the water and tossed the rag in the sink without standing.
Tai wasn’t sure why that made the girl relax, if the slightest bit of tension leaving her shoulders could be called relaxing. He added it to the list of things that he would have to shake out of Qrow later and set the mug of hot chocolate down on the table in front of her.
She stared at it, surprised. Like she wasn’t freezing in that thin shift in the middle of the night.
“Drink up. It’s cold tonight.”
She only stared at him, then at the cup. Tai sat down on the opposite side of the table and started his rundown of usual questions with Qrow- how many Grimm there were on the mission, what Qrow had missed at Signal so far this semester. Just words to fill the air as they sat there.
Slowly, Cinder put one of the blades down on the table, eyes flitting to Tai warily. When he didn’t react she picked up the cup.
Some color came back into her face as she drank. Qrow’s eyes rested on her while she was distracted, then he nodded thanks at Tai. Tai kicked him under the table again just for the hell of it.
There were footfalls on the stairs, clumsy with youth and sleep. Cinder went rigid, hands shooting for the swords but Qrow pinned her wrists to the table.
“No. Drop ‘em.”
She glared at him. “I’m not allowed to leave weapons on the table,” she said in a rough, clipped voice.
She looked even more startled when Qrow barked a laugh. “Humor me.” In a much lower voice, he added, “They’re not a threat.” She looked doubtful. “I’ll protect you.”
If that was supposed to help it didn’t. Her face hardened. “No one protects me,” she said, the coldest and most hateful Tai had ever heard a child’s voice.
The teasing expression Qrow had been wearing was dying a painful death. “I guess I get to be the first then.” He said with an absolutely awful, pained smile. Cinder blinked hard, head tilted, but then the girls had reached the kitchen door.
Qrow caught Yang and Ruby one-handed as they threw themselves at him. The other hand stayed firmly around Cinder’s wrists.
“Hey kiddos. You’re just as small as I remember.” He ruffled one head and kissed the other, grin sneaking up the side of his face. Yang backed up, protesting that she wasn’t a little kid anymore so she was not small but Ruby stayed clinging to him like a monkey until her sister said- much too loudly for the time of night- “Who’s that?”
Cinder was staring at the girls. Her face was back to being blank, but there was an undercurrent of something in it, something almost afraid. She was leaning away from the girls.
“This is Cinder. She’s going to be living with me now. She’s training to be a Huntress.”
Cinder’s expression twitched. She looked down and away. A beat later and she yanked her swords off the table down into her lap. She didn’t, Tai noticed, let go of them.
Ruby almost fell off Qrow’s lap trying to get a look at them. She was getting too big to do that, but Qrow didn’t say anything about it so Tai didn’t either.
“Ooh! Those are so pretty!” she exclaimed. “Are you good with them?”
Cinder’s eyes narrowed. “Yes.” She bit out in something that could only be described as a threat.
It was a threat that flew completely over Ruby’s head. She lit up.
“Wow! I bet you’re going to be such a great Huntress! I’m going to go to Beacon to be a Huntress when I’m older too! Maybe we could work together one day!”
“Me too!” Yang put in and then they were both clamoring to describe their weapons, eager to get the input and approval of a Huntress close to their own age.
Cinder stared at them both. There was still alarm in the way her fingers curled around the hilt of the blades.
“She isn’t a Huntress yet,” Qrow said over the din, “She’s got a long way to go.” Cinder gave him a dirty look. Qrow’s lip twitched. “A shorter way than you two though.”
“We should spar sometime!” Yang declared, punching her fists together. With her hair sleep-mussed, dressed in a nightshirt with a cereal mascot on it, it fell several steps short of intimidating.
“Not right now. Go back to sleep. We’ll still be here in the morning.”
The girls protested but after a few more quick hugs left. Tai had realized Cinder was tense, but it wasn’t until the girls were up the stairs and her shoulders slumped that he realized how tense she’d been. Her eyes followed their path.
“My nieces,” Qrow said softly, “They’re years younger than you. If you do end up sparring on them, go easier than when we practice together. They’re not up to your level yet.”
Cinder’s head twitched towards him, coming just short of meeting his eyes. “I could hurt them.” Her voice was oddly blank. It made the hairs on the back of Tai’s neck stand up.
“You could,” Qrow said, just as easily. He knocked back the rest of his drink. “So you better be careful if you train with them.”
Cinder visibly mulled that over. Her eyes dropped to the empty mug. She rolled it around in her hands.
“They’re good kids,” Tai said, because Cinder’s expression had gone pinched and vaguely hunted, and she stared at his daughters with…something. It made him uneasy. That was the way people looked at Grimm, not at girls in their pajamas. “Just…enthusiastic.” Her eyes flicked to him, then down to the mug again. She didn’t say anything to that at all. “They could be like your sisters,” Tai said, because the girls had an ocean of kindness between them, and Cinder looked like she could benefit from that.
Only her head jerked up to stare at him with something empty and hollow in it. “Stepsisters?” Cinder asked quietly in a very strange tone. Her eyes had gone very wide and blank. Her voice was hoarse.
“Ye-” began Tai but he didn’t get to finish. Suddenly an elbow appeared in the exact spot his stomach was, knocking the wind out of him.
“Nope. No stepsisters,” Qrow said over him firmly. “You’re my apprentice. That was the deal, remember? They’re…they’re your teacher’s partner’s kids. That’s like, emotional cousins at the most.”
Recovered, Tai opened his mouth to snap at Qrow but relief was washing away the blankness on Cinder’s face, turning her back into a person from whatever she’d been just a moment ago.
“I’ve never had cousins,” she admitted quietly, flushing slightly, “That might be…fine.”
“Cousins it is,” Qrow said easily, waving away Tai’s questions. Tai was going to shake so many answers out of him later. “You can sleep in my room; I’ll take the couch.”
“Take the couch,” echoed Tai dubiously. There was a reason they called Yang’s habit of falling asleep in Ruby’s room a Branwen trait. Qrow would be stealing his blankets in under an hour.
Qrow flashed a grin at him, the same crooked grin that he’d always given at Beacon right before he’d come up with some idea that would earn them a week of detentions.
Cinder looked back and forth between them. Now that no one was focused on her the anger and defiance she’d been clinging too were starting to melt away to reveal the uncertainty underneath. Tai saw her mouth start to open- probably to say she could take the couch- but then she closed it again before Qrow noticed, shuffling her feet.
“We can take the ferry in to Vale tomorrow,” Tai conceded, “The girls need to get some gear for school anyway, we can pick up some extra for Cinder as well. Ozpin should be able to get the paperwork backdated if you need the timeline of this apprenticeship muddled for completely unrelated reasons.”
Qrow blinked, surprised, but just in the corner of his eye Tai could see the girl’s jaw drop.
“I always knew we’d make a criminal out of you yet,” Qrow said, recovering, and there was a note of pride and pleasure that Tai probably shouldn’t be encouraging but if the absolutely floored expression on the girl’s face meant anything about her past experiences with getting help when she needed it, he was willing to let it slide, “That’s why you’re the brains of this operation.”
“Well we couldn’t leave it to you,” retorted Tai before turning back to the girl, “Welcome to Patch, Cinder. You can leave the mug in the sink, I’ll get to it tomorrow.”
She blinked, the cup held loosely in her hands. “Tomorrow?” she repeated, close to scandalized, and Qrow laughed.
“This is a pretty laid back place, Cinder. Just leave the cup.” She hesitated for one more second but put it in the sink after that, following Qrow to the room she’d been promised.
Tai waited until she was locked in the bathroom and he could hear the shower to say, “This better not become a regular occurrence.”
“Come on, Tai, it’s me. What would I do with a bunch of kids?”
The first thing out of Qrow’s mouth was this: “I can explain.”
Tai looked from his old partner to the girl at his side. Cinder was three months into her apprenticeship at this point, and the shadows under her eyes were less pronounced already. She’d been painfully thin when Qrow had first dragged her to Patch but the waifish, desperate hunger was out of her gaze now. She looked like a healthy young woman now, one who knew how to use the black-glass blades lined up neatly on her belt.
There was a boy peeking out from behind her, wearing a wrap shirt that Tai was pretty sure was Cinder’s. It was too big on him. His mouth was set into an uncertain slant. Another child with a mop of fiery orange hair was perched on Qrow’s shoulders, arms wrapped haphazardly around his head. She grinned at Tai.
Tai looked back at Qrow. “Can you?”
He opened his mouth to start and then thought about it. Glanced at Cinder.
“Well I’m not doing it,” his apprentice said peevishly. She crossed her arms. The boy behind her had to lean back to avoid getting elbowed in the head, but he stayed pretty close to Cinder regardless.
Ruby’s newly unlocked Semblance almost took him off his feet. The kid on his shoulders went flying. Cinder stepped seamlessly to the side so they passed through the air next to her instead of slamming into her. They hit the ground hard enough that Qrow winced but bounced up again without their smile even faltering. The child behind Cinder lurched towards them, distressed, but they were already picking themselves up, dusting themselves off briskly.
Qrow was occupied with Yang and Ruby. Tai caught Cinder’s eye. She bristled slightly. “I didn’t have anything to do with this!” she warned.
He smiled at her. “Welcome back.”
She went pink, looked away hard with a stubborn frown. But after a few minutes to looking at anything but Tai she muttered, nearly inaudible, “Thank you.”
It was really a shame she didn’t like hair ruffles.
“So now’s your chance to tell me what really happened before Qrow tries to lie his way out of it. Catch him in the act, as it were.”
She scowled. “Oh no. This is all on him.”
True to her word, Cinder disappeared into her room before anyone tried to wrangle any questions out of her. The one Qrow had been carrying fell in with his daughters almost instantly, barely even noticing Tai. The boy hesitated but let Qrow shepherd him into the family room with a murmured, “Not yet,” that Tai probably wasn’t supposed to hear.
Tai went into the kitchen and sat at the table, waiting.
Sure enough, Qrow came slinking in within a half hour. He sat at down in the chair opposite Tai.
“So.” He said, and then stopped again.
“So,” Tai echoed, “What’s all this about you being able to explain?”
Qrow gave him a dirty look that would have been more at home on his apprentice’s face. But after a bit of prodding…
“Kuroyiri.” Qrow didn’t look up but he also wasn’t drinking yet. That was something. “That’s where the kids are from.”
“Maybe it was.” Tai went cold. “Grimm overran the town, destroyed it a few weeks back. From the kids’ description it was a Nuckelavee.”
Mistral was the largest of the kingdoms. Uncentralized. Too large for calls for help to be answered in time. And a Nuckelavee…it would be hard for even seasoned Huntsmen to take one of those.
“Are there other survivors?”
Qrow reached for the bottle automatically. Tai pressed his hand down on the table and tried not to think about how Qrow used the same gesture to suppress Cinder’s worst habitual urge to lash out if someone moved too close around her. He really hoped Qrow had learned it from him and not the other way around.
“Kid tried to stab me when we found them. Told the girl run.” Tai felt a deep sense of foreboding. Qrow tapped at the corner of his eye. “Apparently bandits had been picking off the stragglers, looting the place.”
While Tai was processing all the implications of that he seized the opportunity to grab the bottle and start drinking.
“Took them a while to believe we were Huntsmen. I don’t know if they would have stayed long enough to learn better if the girl wasn’t hurt.”
Tai’s mouth was dry. “How did she get hurt?” he asked, trying not to think about bandits and the way Raven had never quite shed the casual violence she’d been raised with, the way he always suspected that it had been part of the reason she’d seen her own child and left. She wouldn’t go out of her way to hurt a child, he knew that. But on her worst days, she wouldn’t stop them being hurt by someone else.
“Hmm? Oh no, that didn’t have anything to do with Raven.” Qrow waved a hand dismissively, “No apparently she got hit by lightning. Luckily it was about three seconds after her Semblance of being resistant to lightning kicked in. That was a few days before we found them. We were looking for survivors, and they were holed up while they recovered.” He didn’t notice Tai staring at him for a couple minutes. When he did he shrugged apologetically. “Yeah. It’s been like that.”
This time Tai didn’t stop him from reaching for the booze.
“They imprinted on Cinder like tiny little ducklings. It’s hysterical, she hates it. Doesn’t know what to do with it.”
Tai firmly pushed the image of Cinder being trailed by two over eager children out of his head. It wasn’t cute. “You need to make sure that it isn’t triggering her.”
“I’m being careful,” Qrow dismissed, flapping his hand in a way that did not evoke carefulness, “It’s good for her. To see kids who need it get help. To be the help.”
“It you’re sure.” Tai wasn’t going to flat out say it, but Cinder had suffered. If he saw kids getting the help he needed at their age, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to hold back his jealousy, not young as she was.
“She wouldn’t let me take them to an orphanage.” Tai stopped rubbing at the bridge of his nose to stare at him. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, she didn’t think I was going to bring them here- I didn’t even think that. But she said I couldn’t bring them to an orphanage. She doesn’t remember the orphanage she was in before Atlas but she knew it was somewhere out in the sticks in Mistral. She insisted on vetting wherever we were planning on sending them.”
Tai blinked, surprised. They had pieced together what they could of her childhood, through the things she didn’t quite realize she should keep to herself and the things she let slip when she was sick or too upset to remember, but for her to actually discuss it of her own accord was…it was big. For her to do it on behalf of someone else was astronomical.
Cinder was passing the kitchen on her return from putting her things away. Qrow raised his voice to say, “She’s a big softy now.”
Cinder flipped him off without pausing on her trip.
Tai gave a warning look to Qrow, because for all this talk about it being triggering to Cinder, Qrow finding a pair of children a half step away from being press-ganged into a bandit tribe couldn’t have been good for his own mental health. Usually something that reminiscent of his own childhood would have sent him down a spiral into a bottle, one that would take weeks to fully claw his way out of.
There was a tension around the corner of his eyes and mouth, little tells that showed he wasn’t as immune to the similarities as he was acting, but nothing as bad as Tai would have expected.
Maybe helping the kids out hadn’t just been therapeutic for Cinder.
“Ruby and Yang can double up until we can get some cots,” Tai said in a low voice, “As long as the two are alright with it as well.”
“They’d probably insist on it,” admitted Qrow, “They’re very close.”
“Do not make a habit of this,” Tai warned as he stood, “I’m being nice this one last time, but we absolutely can’t take any more kids in.”
Qrow crossed his heart with the hand holding the bottle. Tai rolled his eyes, fought a grin, and went to go check on the kids.
Ruby and Yang didn’t seem at all bothered by the appearance of the new children. They were taking it with the same cheerful stride as they had Cinder, only without the slight hero worship her age had lent her. When Tai poked his head into the room, the redhead was in the middle of an arm-wrestling match with Yang. From their stance, they were going to go absolutely flying if Yang actually threw her hand down.
The other child was sitting close to them but he’d been watching the door to the kitchen. He stood hastily now as Tai entered the room.
“Hello Mr. Xiao-Long,” the boy said in a soft voice, the words precise and careful. He bowed with the same deliberation. He glanced behind him and hissed. “Nora!”
The other child- Nora- was now heaving on Yang’s arm with both her hands. Yang was doing the same so it wasn’t quite cheating. At the boy’s hiss she looked up, concentration broken, and Yang won the match with enough force that she skidded halfway across the room.
She bounced back to her feet with the elasticity that kids managed to possess. Gods, Tai was getting old.
“Hello!” she said brightly. The boy nudged her in the side, and she added, “Mr. Xiao-Long!” as winningly as she possibly could, clasping her hands in front of herself and visibly trying to be adorable.
Tai got the feeling the greeting was rehearsed. He wasn’t a huge fan of being manipulated, but the kids looked every bit as worn and tired as Cinder had been that first night in the kitchen, and they were young. If they were older than Yang he would eat Qrow’s sword. “If Qrow told you to call me that, he was giving you a hard time. Just Tai is fine.”
The boy shook his head, looking scandalized, but the other child- Nora- grinned. She was missing a tooth.
“I’m Nora Valkyrie!” she said, “And this is Lie Ren. Thank you for letting us stay here!”
The other one elbowed her again. “He didn’t say we could stay yet!”
She blinked at him. “But Qrow said-”
“Mr. Branwen,” he corrected, and in the kitchen Qrow choked on his drink. Cinder scoffed without taking her eyes off the page. And then the boy’s eyes went to Tai. He stopped talking abruptly, cheeks going as pink as the streak of color in his hair.
“Mr. Branwen said,” the girl restarted agreeably. The boy stepped on her foot to get her to be quiet.
“Qrow,” Tai called, putting a hand over his eyes.
“Look at their cute little faces!” Qrow called from the other room. The girl immediately beamed winningly again. She threw her arms around her friend. “You can’t say no to that!”
“You can’t even see them,” Tai said, more to argue with Qrow than anything else.
“He knows what we look like. He helped us practice!” Nora assured him earnestly. Ren looked mortified.
Tai broke. “Welcome to Patch,” he told them, and the girl cheered. The boy looked so relieved that Tai felt a little bad for accidentally misleading him.
Cinder was on the couch, book held in her lap. She looked up as she felt Tai’s eyes on her.
“Anything Qrow said about me is a big fat lie,” she said, but there was red creeping up her neck, nearly hidden by her high collar.
“Really? He said you did good work.”
She flushed slightly, which undercut the haughty look she was going for. “Qrow has low standards,” she muttered, and covered her face with the book.
“It’s good to have you back, Cinder.”
The book cover wasn’t quite big enough to hide the curve of her mouth as she smiled. Whatever,” she muttered.
“I’ve got to say, this is not the reception I thought I would be getting.”
Tai looked up as Qrow dropped into the seat for their post-mission gossip session. He was looking forward to this one; he’d heard a lot of gossip from Oobleck and Qrow was going to love it.
“You think I’m not used to you changing plans every time the wind blows? Getting an apprentice didn’t turn you that responsible.”
Qrow gave him an odd look. “Yeah, but still. You know.”
“Cinder told me how you got called onto another mission on the airship. I’m semi-retired, not stupid. I remember how it goes.” Not like you could say no, not when some Grimm was terrorizing a village or a homestead somewhere. That was part of the Huntsman’s job- you got called and you answered. It was the reason Tai had taken the job at Signal; aside from research projects and conferences, it was rare for him to get assigned fieldwork. It provided stability the kids all needed.
“What kind of mission was it?”
“Birdwatching,” he said, which was code for Ozpin’s work.
Qrow shifted in his chair like he was expecting one of the kids to be at the doorway. They weren’t; they were testing out the Dust he’d brought them as a present while Cinder and Ren supervised. His lip ticked up- probably at the noises of the kids wreaking havoc on the training area- before his eyes flicked back to Tai.
“Figured you’d be mad at me.”
Tai wrinkled his nose. He hadn’t been out of the game that long. “Cinder is going to be Beacon-age in a little over a year. You’ve been taking training her seriously. She’s perfectly capable of getting from the port to here on her own now.”
“On her…own,” echoed Qrow. His eyes slid behind Tai’s shoulder.
“Honestly, I’m just relieved you didn’t bring home another kid this time,” he teased, “I guess third time is the charm.”
He expected Qrow to at least grin at that, make some kind of sharp remark. But Qrow had gone a little too still in his chair, his eyes just a touch wilder than normal. He blinked, staring hard at Tai, and then his gaze flicked to the side again.
Then Qrow moved, in the uncanny, too-fast way of a predator he and Raven had perfected even before coming into Beacon, lurching in his seat so fast he almost spilled right out of it, and then there was a kid in the kitchen where there hadn’t been one before, pinned in place by Qrow’s grip on her wrist. From the way his grip was pulling at her, it looked like she’d been sprinting from behind Tai but that was impossible because they had been the only ones in the room.
Qrow tugged her forward
“Emerald, why doesn’t Tai know about you?” The girl shook her head wildly, trying to pull out of his hand. “Hey. You tried that back in Mistral. Did you forget how that worked out for you?” She stomped her way to the end of her struggles. Qrow was looking her over slower now, but Tai had a feeling that was more because he was avoiding looking at Tai.
This one was another girl. She was small, maybe the same age as Yang but thin. Her hair was a vivid green. Qrow tried to tilt her chin up with his free hand and she glared at him.
“Hey. I gave you a note to give to him.”
“You gave me a piece of paper that said IOU on it,” she snapped, “Cinder thought it was dumb too.”
“So what, you used your Semblance to hide from my partner for an entire week? You thought that was a smarter plan?”
The girl flinched hard, faltering. She tried to back up a step but Qrow’s hold prevented it. “You- you said I could use my Semblance,” she said. “You said you wouldn’t be mad.”
Qrow glanced at Tai. Tai raised an eyebrow at him.
“In my defense,” he began, the absolute worst three words he possibly could have said, and even the girl knew that was bad because she started trying to yank out of his hold again.
“In my defense,” he repeated louder, valiantly ignoring both Tai glaring daggers and the kid, “I didn’t bring this one home. I got called on another mission. I sent her ahead with Cinder, so technically I didn’t bring this one home.”
Tai felt his eyebrows fly so high they might have departed his forehead entirely. “Is that the contingency you’re basing your case on? That you weren’t-” Wait a minute. “Did you take a mission to get out of having to explain this to me?”
“…No.” It might have been more convincing if he hadn’t been awash with guilt. Or just if Tai hadn’t known him.
The girl bit the hand Qrow was using to keep her in place. He jerked her instinctively up, and honestly Tai was surprised that was the extent of his reaction so close to the end of a mission. Even Ruby and Yang knew to give him a few hours of destressing before they charged him.
The kid made a sharp, startled sound at the movement and went suddenly, perfectly still.
“Kid, you are your own worst enemy,” Qrow said with something like amazement in his voice, “And this is coming from someone who would know.”
She shrank into herself. “You said I could come home with you,” she said in a small, wounded voice. And then, trying to shore it up the hurt with anger, “I’m not going to an orphanage again!”
Qrow sighed. “Come sit at the table with the big kids,” he said, and guided her over to the closest chair.
The girl slammed her hands down on the table. Tai’s eyebrows rose but she just sat there, rigid, a frozen pantomime of someone about to yell.
Qrow deflated, ran a hand through his hair. “Put your hands away, Emerald,” he said, sounding tired, “We don’t do that here.”
She didn’t look up but slowly she took her hands off the table. One of them scruffed under her cheek roughly. “You said you wouldn’t be mad if I used it.” She forced the words out, stilted and clumsy with fury, “You said!” Her breath hitched so hard it was nearly a sob. “You said it wasn’t bad to- you-”
“Emerald no one is saying you’re bad. We’re upset that used your Semblance to lie to Tai, not because of what your Semblance is.” Tai’s eyebrows shot up. Qrow glanced at him, made eye contact, and grimaced. The girl fell silent. Jerkily, she drew her knees up in front of her on the chair and hid her face in them.
“So where did you pick up this one? Did you even get to Lionhart?”
“I mean, we got to him eventually.” Qrow’s voice was distracted. His attention was fixed on the new child. She wouldn’t look up at him.
He turned to Tai again, helpless.
Tai knew the damage the tribe had left on him for his Semblance, remembered the way he’d confessed it to him and Summer at the end of their first year at Beacon like it was some kind of sin. Even now, he was so careful around the girls because of it, reluctant to spend more than a few weeks around for fear of hurting them.
The girl wouldn’t look up, curled tight into a knot of angles and emotion. That was familiar too.
This was the tipping point, Tai knew with absolute certainty. Qrow was going to keep seeing himself in these kids and keep bringing them here because even more than Beacon this was the place that was home, and safety, and he knew the kids deserved it.
And Tai couldn’t quite begrudge that, not if it meant kids got help. That wasn’t something you could rely on others to do. Every one of them had known that before stepping foot in Beacon. Sometimes you had to step up yourself.
Qrow still relaxed as Tai leaned over towards the girl, reading acceptance in the way he did it.
“So your name is Emerald?” he said, “That’s a pretty name. My daughter is named after a gemstone too.”
Slowly, the girl looked up. She had blood-red eyes, the same shade as Qrow’s. As Raven’s. It hit like a punch to the gut, but it always did. Yang had eyes like that too sometimes. Tai had learned to cope. She nodded once.
Qrow stepped in then. “Did you really hide from everyone the whole week?” he asked, and oh no. Tai was not hearing the thin thread of amusement in his voice.
The girl- Emerald- peeked up at him suspiciously, so she heard it too. “I- are you mad?” she asked warily.
“You’re in trouble for lying,” Qrow said, still entertained, and her face fell again, “But that doesn’t mean I’m mad.”
“I-” she started, and then Ruby skipped into the room. Her eyes fell on the girl but instead of surprise she beamed.
“Oh, hi Emerald!” She kept heading towards the fridge, “You’re not playing hide-and-seek anymore?”
The girl looked shiftily between the two grownups. Ruby finished getting her snack from the cabinet and put opened a second pack for Emerald, swapping out flavors like she already knew which ones the girl did and didn’t like.
Qrow snorted. Emerald bristled.
“I can’t do it on two people!” she snapped heatedly.
“Not yet,” Qrow acknowledged, “Not before you train more, at any rate.” And the girl’s mouth snapped shut, eyes going big.
“I can train?” she asked, small and surprised and wistful. And coupled with the anger she’d had before, the way she’d been daring Qrow to punish her for using it, and Tai had an idea of why Qrow in particular would be so soft on this girl. “I- Really?”
Qrow was deliberately misunderstanding, “I said you’d be a good Huntress with it, didn’t I? You think you can become a Huntress without training?”
The tension was draining out of the girl, now she just looked young and excited, thrilled at the idea of fighting Grimm. “Oh. I- I mean. Ok.”
“We’ll figure out where to put her up,” Tai told Qrow as the girls started eating the snacks, “We might have to reshuffle the bedrooms.”
“Emerald’s been sharing with Nora and Ren,” Ruby said helpfully, “But she can share with me if she wants!”
It wasn’t quite fair, but Yang and Ruby were used to sharing a room, and Nora and Ren were as well, and Cinder hadn’t had a single thing she could call her own before she’d made it to Patch, and Tai knew she was waiting for the moment what she had here got taken away.
“I swear this is the last time this is going to happen,” Qrow promised, “No more kids. You can hold me to that.”
After that things just kind of spiraled.
“Qrow, have you been a Faunus this whole time and you never told me? I’m hurt. I thought we were friends.”
Qrow tried to smile winningly.
“You’re not Nora, that isn’t going to work.”
He tried to stroll into the house like nothing was wrong, but he was also very clearly trying to not trip of the appendage whipping around his ankles and that cut through his cool guy image pretty soundly.
There was a tail sticking out from the hem of his cape.
“And here I thought there were no secrets between us.”
“I’ve never hidden anything!” Qrow declared, with a casual gesture that swept the cloak more tightly around himself so that the tail nearly disappeared. The cloak started laughing. “Nothing in my entire life. I’m an open book.”
The boy was still laughing when Tai tugged the cloak away.
“He said you’d be cranky,” he said cheerfully.
At least this kid didn’t look malnourished. He had blond hair even brighter than Tai’s, and a deep tan all across his skin.
“Qrow’s the cranky one,” Tai told him, because it was important that the kid understood how things were around the house.
“Yeah, I know. He was cranky when he found me on the boat.”
Qrow was already raising a finger to forestall him when he looked up.
“Now for real this time; this one isn’t on me.”
“I’m next to him!” put the boy. Tai fought a smile.
“Well, it wasn’t Cinder’s fault. She was here with us.”
“He followed me home.” Qrow continued as if Tai hadn’t spoken. “Without permission, which I feel should make me exempt from any punishment you might be thinking of bestowing.”
Tai rolled his eyes. By now there wasn’t much else to do-it wasn’t like he could turn away these kids who needed help. Qrow had reached out to Ozpin and they’d been getting a stipend to keep up with growing expenses. Tai felt that it was the least he could do for sending Qrow on all those secretive missions.
“I hid on the ship,” agreed the boy, “He didn’t even see me until the last day!”
Tai glanced up at Qrow, who was rolling his eyes. He held up two fingers to let Tai know that it had taken him two days on the trip. That was still pretty good, for a child. Good enough that Tai was going to give Qrow shit about it.
“I’m a great stowaway!” the boy said cheerfully, glowing with pride.
This boy and Nora were going to get along like a house on fire. Specifically his. His house would be on fire. Tai could already tell.
“He’s a good kid,” Qrow said in a low voice as Cinder got fed up with the newest addition and threw him bodily at the others, “Parents are gone. He’s got a cousin but she’s enrolling in Shade soon and they can’t offer housing to family. No room. And there’s not a lot of food to spare in Vacuo, they couldn’t-”
Qrow gave him a beady side-eye. “Yeah? You’re not going to yell at me? Tell me I need to get it together? That I can’t keep doing this to you?”
“I mean I tried all that. It didn’t take.” Qrow deflated. Tai clapped him on the back. “Let’s figure out where this one’s going to sleep.”
“What, no small kids this time?”
“He tried,” Cinder said, “There was this little girl who looked like she might be alone. This guy basically started beating Qrow off with a stick when he tried to check if she was alright.”
“It was a cane,” Qrow said with as much dignity as he could muster, nursing the bruise on his temple. Emerald poked at it and he poked the one she’d gotten from sparring in retaliation.
Cinder rolled her eyes. “That makes it so much better, of course.”
“Surprised you didn’t try to adopt him too.”
“They didn’t stick around long enough,” Cinder said, “Probably figured out he would do exactly that.”
“The guy didn’t look that old,” Qrow said, which was absolutely the wrong part of that sentence to defend. “He was like, your age at most.”
“Do I want to know about this one?” Tai asked as he opened the door and was greeted by Cinder holding a the youngest child yet. They were still only a few years younger than Ruby, but Cinder was holding them in a piggyback like she’d regretted it every step of the way. The boy glanced at Tai and then shifted slightly so his head was huddled behind the girl’s.
“No.” Cinder said shortly, and in one swift movement let the boy drop.
He skidded, one foot wrapped in stiff bandages, and nearly fell. Just before he tipped over Cinder’s hand shot out and steadied him.
He looked up at her, searching. Cinder wouldn’t look at him. She wouldn’t look at any of them.
“Thank you Cinder,” he said quietly.
Her whole face contorted. She whipped her hand away like it burned.
The boy looked a bit younger than Ruby, and several inches shorter. There was dirt in his hair and like Cinder he smelled faintly of smoke. He had familiar bandages wrapped around his neck.
“Whatever,” she muttered. When she glanced at Tai she went all over red in a way that was partially embarrassment but a lot of it was anger.
“This one’s on Cinder,” Qrow announced as he came up the path, “So jot that down. I want it on record.”
She went- if possible, redder.
“I’m going to my room,” she said in a particularly battle-ready tone and shouldered past Tai. Emerald had taken up residence in her room the second night Cinder and Qrow had left on the pretense of needing more space, but it had been a feeble excuse. Everyone knew how much she looked up to the older girl, and it was hard on her when Cinder was gone.
Tai hoped that Cinder handled it with grace.
He turned to the boy. He looked past Tai with alarm, like he couldn’t believe Cinder had left him there to his own fate. When it became clear that she wasn’t coming back to help him out of this predicament, he swung around to look at Tai.
Tai swore his eyes got bigger. “Hello Mr. Xiao-Long.” He said and plastered on a faintly panicked smile.
“Hello.” Tai fought a grin. “So they gave you coaching too huh?”
The kid shook his head rapidly and unconvincingly. “Um…” he reached into his pocket for something and came up empty.
“You lose the paper kid?” Qrow asked, as spectacularly unhelpful as always.
“Um,” he said in a slightly higher voice.
“Would that perhaps be a paper that says IOU on it?” Tai asked, to put the kid out of his misery.
“I think I dropped it on the ferry,” he said, sounding so crestfallen that Tai had to bite down on a smile.
“Cinder wanted to make sure that she covered all her bases,” Qrow gloated to him over the kid’s head. He looked incredibly smug. “She was very concerned. Because, and I cannot state this enough, this was her idea.”
“Well it looks like she’s your student after all.” While Qrow sputtered about how he’d been teaching Cinder for years now thank you very much, Tai turned to the kid. “Sounds like you already know my name, but what should I call you?”
“Oscar. Oscar Pine.” He flushed a little across the bridge of his nose, highlighting the freckles there. “It’s nice to meet you. I- I mean, it really is. Not just because they said to say it.”
“What about that one?” Tai asked, pointing to the blond kid just behind him, who was struggling to hold a sword the right way.
“Is…is this where people go to be Huntsmen?” the older boy asked uncertainly.
Qrow deflated, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Yeah, this one’s on me.”
“Are you working through some kind of childhood trauma?” Tai asked weakly, “Is that what this is?”
Qrow shrugged weakly. “I don’t think so? I swear this just keeps happening.”
It was a pair again, a girl and a boy. Each one looked angrier than the last. The anger and the wary way they were pressed up against each other, ready to guard each others’ backs the second they needed it, the uncertain, hostile gaze. That had Beacon first-year Qrow and Raven all over it, in a way even Nora and Ren’s helplessness against bandits hadn’t.
Qrow was definitely working through some trauma.
The boy was Cinder’s age, much less of a child than the girl pushed into his side. There were small horns poking out of his hair. For all his anger he looked pale and drawn, and Tai suspected part of the reason he was leaning against the girl was to stay upright without wobbling. Tai didn’t like the look of the bandages wrapped around his eye.
“We’re not staying here,” the boy snapped, tugging the girl out of arms reach.
“This is a pit stop,” clarified Qrow, “So you can all stop looking at me like that. We’re resting up and then going to Menagerie.”
But he wouldn’t quite meet Tai’s eyes as he said it. Tai was reminded vividly of the last time Zwei had broken a glass, because the dog had looked just as guilty.
His old partner spread his arms helplessly. “How about a compromise? I won’t take any more orphans from Atlas. I promise on my life.”
“I mean, are there any left?”
“He’s banned from Atlas,” Cinder explained, mercilessly undercutting him, “They were putting up pictures of him behind the checkpoints when we left. You should know that before you agree to any terms.”
“Betrayed by my own apprentice,” he lamented, “And they put up a picture of you too, so don’t act all innocent.”
Cinder startled, surprise quickly giving way to glee. “Really?” she said, pleased, and then caught Tai’s eye. “I mean,” she started to backtrack, and then immediately gave up, going huffy. “It’s not like I’d even want to go there. I didn’t even want to go this time. That’s not a loss. Atlas sucks anyway.”
“I’m starting to feel like you were more involved in this than you’re letting on.”
“It was Atlas!” Cinder said, like that should have been enough of an explanation, and fair. “You can’t expect us to just leave them in Atlas, you know what happens to kids who don’t-”
“I know, Cinder,” Tai said gently and she stopped, flushed.
The boy jutted his chin out. “Of course he wouldn’t want any Faunus in his house,” he spat with all the poison he could muster. The girl backed up too, eyeing him distrustfully. Color was sweeping over her skin, angry reds, and oh. Tai had heard of chameleon Faunus, but this was his first time seeing one. She reached for the boy’s hand, out of her depth, and the boy stepped firmly in front of her as a shield.
Cinder jabbed him in the elbow before he fully settled into his fighting stance.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” she ordered, and then, “Sun!”
There was a rattling on the roof, and then a bright yellow head poked out from much higher than they were allowed to be on the roof.
He grinned so wide his eyes squeezed shut.
The boy threw himself out of the upper window and probably would have broken his arm if not for his tail hooking into the gutter at the last moment. “Hey sis!”
“Don’t call me that!” she ordered but the girl was staring at Sun in open, broken relief.
Sun’s eyes went to them and brightened. “Hey! More Faunus! That’s great!” He flipped off the gutter and landed bodily on Qrow, swinging over to them. “I’m Sun! It’s nice to meet you! You’re staying too right?”
The boy hesitated, glancing at Qrow.
“I’ll still get you to Menagerie if you want,” Qrow said patiently, “It’s your choice. No one’s going to take it away from you.”
“Oh, don’t leave!” Sun pleaded, “We’ll almost have enough for a team! I’ve been having to make one myself or I’m outnumbered!” He activated his Semblance before Qrow could stop him and suddenly Qrow staggered with the weight of two extra Suns perched on his shoulder.
The girl looked more interested than scared now but the boy’s jaw tightened.
“Is that a bad thing here?” he asked in a low, intent voice, “To be outnumbered?”
Sun understood what he meant instantly but his smile didn’t even flicker.
“Nah, they’re fine about Faunus here! There’s some other Faunus families down the road and they have block parties and everything! They invite me over for holidays sometimes too!”
“Why don’t you live with them?” the boy asked.
Sun blinked. “Why would I want to live anywhere else?” he asked blankly. “It’s great here!” The boy opened his mouth angrily but didn’t seem to know where to go from there, stunned in the face of Sun’s honest confusion.
Sun shrugged and grabbed both of their hands. “Come on! I’ll show you the treehouse!” and tugged them both towards the backyard. Tai could hear a chorus of greetings that meant the other kids saw them. He was pretty sure Nora was chanting “one of us.”
“Long story?” Tai asked as Qrow dragged a hand down his face.
“If I say yes do I get to avoid telling it?”
Qrow sighed. “This was more fun when you weren’t on board with it.”
“Good news!” Qrow said cheerfully, plunking the surly boy onto the welcome mat in front of him, “This one’s not an orphan.”
“And that makes it better that you brought him here.”
Qrow nodded judiciously. “I found a loophole.”
The boy gave him an odd look. “You killed my dad,” he pointed out, “Pretty sure that makes me an orphan.”
“It’s not like I’m complaining or anything,” the boy backtracked quickly at the expression on Tai’s face. Like he was talking about Qrow forgetting a favor, not killing someone. Like he was hoping he could talk Qrow out of getting in trouble for it.
“It’s a very long story,” Qrow said.
The boy side-eyed him again. “I don’t see what’s so long about it.”
“Shut up, kid,” advised Cinder, looking bored, “You’re not helping anything.”
The boy whipped around to scowl at her. “You shut up!” he snapped back, “You’re not the boss of me! I could take you right now-”
Cinder flushed red with anger. “Maybe in your dreams-”
“I will knock both of your heads together,” warned Qrow. Cinder rolled her eyes but the boy tensed slightly, eyes flicking to Qrow’s hands. Heads were popping up around the side of the house. Tai saw reds greens and yellows: Emerald, Nora, and Sun. Ilia poked her head over for a second, but then lost interest just as quickly.
The boy finished sizing Qrow up through the shock of grey hair flopping into his eyes. “I’ll take you too,” he said, but he sounded a lot less confident in this challenge.
“Because that went so well for you the other times,” Qrow drawled. Cinder snorted; the boy flushed with anger.
“Other times?” Tai spoke over the boy before this could devolve more than it already had. The boy fell quiet, squinting at him suspiciously. “How many times did it happen already?”
Qrow gave him an empty, thousand-yard stare.
“Too many,” he said firmly, “It happened too many times.”
Over in the corner of his eye, Tai could see Emerald perk up with interest by the door. Absolutely nothing good was going to come of that.
Despite that, he could feel amusement worming its way through him. All those times during Yang and Ruby’s toddlerhood that Qrow had teased him about being run ragged were coming home to roost with a vengeance.
Cinder would be starting at Beacon in a few weeks, and for all her annoyance Tai could tell from the way she was relaxing now, even just on the doorstep. She caught Emerald’s eye- and Oscar, who had appeared with Ruby to investigate- both of them clearly delighted to see her. The tension in her shoulders dropped even further.
“Alright,” Tai said, fighting back a smile, “We’re out of beds but I’ll think of something. Just have to do a bit of reshuffling in the meantime.”
“Who needs a bed?” the boy scoffed, “I can sleep outside, it’s plenty warm here.”
Tai gave the kid another once over. He was all scraped elbows and sharp edges, healing scabs creeping up the corner of his mouth. “Patch gets Grimm,” he explained, deciding he wasn’t even going to argue the point.
The boy wrinkled his nose, grimacing. The movement re-opened his split lip, but he didn’t seem to notice. “It’s not like there aren’t Grimm outside the kingdoms,” he said with just as much scorn. “My old man locked me out of the house plenty of times; I know how to handle it.”
Emerald’s eyebrows were rising higher and higher, caught between amusement and disdain. Sun was intrigued in a way that never boded well for structural support. Cinder looked irritated.
Qrow smiled sheepishly at Tai, with that same crooked tilt of his lips that Tai had first seen at Beacon, that had hardly made an appearance since Raven had left, since Summer had never come home. It hadn’t been until a few weeks into Cinder’s stay that Tai had realized how long it had been since he’d seen it, and how often he was seeing it now.
“It’s nice to meet you, kid,” he repeated once again.
The kid gave him a look like he didn’t believe that for a single minute. “My name’s not kid. ‘s Mercury.”
It had been almost two years since Tai had come down the stairs and found Qrow at the table with a bedraggled, angry teenager. The intervening time was littered with children and chaos and what felt like hundreds of broken promises that this was absolutely the last child and Qrow would never do this to him again.
Tai wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Let’s get you all settled in,” he said, and ushered them through the door.