Easter holiday here. And I'd hoped to take a week off from writing too to relax but now I don't want to because I've had a week absence due to my mother. We're having a big family day today anyway, so I'll be rushing this out early.


Cover Art: Aristeo Storm

Chapter 24


"So, are you dating now?"

Qrow sighed. "I told you, Summer. It wasn't really a date."

"Then what was it?"

"It was me hanging around with Willow and trying to make sure she had a fun time."

"Sounds like a date to me."

"Then me, you and Raven must be the kinkiest motherfuckers in Vale because we've hung out loads of times. I didn't realise we were a poly."

Summer tossed him a scowl and Raven didn't look any more impressed. They were in the girls' hotel room waiting for Ozpin to show up and take them to the first day of the Vytal festival and, despite it only being yesterday, they wouldn't stop pestering him about Willow.

"The only one who went on a real date here is Ray," he said. "And I don't see you badgering her about it."

"I did that last night. We had girl gossip time in bed."

"And…?"

Summer smirked. "Girl gossip time is sacred and secret."

"Damn. Well, boy bonding time is as well and me and Ozpin are tight, so I'm afraid I can't tell you about Willow."

"No fair!"

"He wasn't too annoying," Raven said, ending the matter entirely. "Less than I thought. Still not gonna like him, though. He's too soft. Couldn't even beat you." Her eyes narrowed. "In a real fight."

Qrow sighed. Not being able to beat him wasn't fair when he was cheating so badly, but he'd take "not too annoying". That was high praise coming from Raven, and as for softness, a couple of years would work that out of Taiyang. He'd been a little soft in his first year of Beacon as well, but hard work and fighting Grimm soon filled him out both physically and mentally. It would also mellow Raven out.

A knock came at the door for politeness' sake and a few moments later Ozpin stepped in. "I trust you're all ready for the tournament to begin. Oh, and you've even managed to stay out of trouble. I'm impressed."

"You make it sound like we're dangerous animals you can't trust to be left alone," Raven snapped.

"That's not true, Miss Branwen. I happen to know Summer is a trustworthy individual."

Qrow snorted at the absence of their names.

"That's why you can't trust her," said Raven, crossing her arms.

Summer paused.

Ozpin smiled. "Oh?"

"Anyone that acts innocent isn't. Everyone is a bit of a shithead inside, even you, and if someone acts all nice and kind then that means they're putting it on. People like Qrow and I are better. What you see is what you get."

Summer's mouth was hanging open. "You're making me sound like some kind of serial killer!"

Qrow couldn't help join in. "They always do say it's the quiet ones."

"I'm not quiet, though! I'm the most sociable one of us here!"

Raven delivered the killing blow. "You're the only one who didn't have a date this holiday."

Summer staggered back as if she'd been struck in the face, eyes wide and reeling. With a cry, she fell to her knees, staring up at the ceiling with a horrified expression. Ozpin simply chuckled from the doorway, his eyes crinkling in mirth as he observed their easy banter.

"Very wise words, Raven – though I mean on the trustworthy part rather than poor Summer's non-existent love life." There was no way that wasn't intentional, and poor Summer slumped onto her side, twitching. "Though it's a rather cynical thought to see in someone so young, you're not wrong that many people will look to exploit you. However, you shouldn't assume it of everyone. What about the matrons in the orphanage?"

Raven's eyes narrowed. "They don't count."

Ozpin's smile grew. "It does my heart good to know that. You hear so many horror stories about orphanages that it's a relief to know good ones run by good people still exist."

It was true. Qrow had heard his fair share of bad stuff, though he had to wonder how accurate it all was. Sure, there were bound to be some criminals taking advantage of the chance to get close to children, but that was rare cases. Most of the time, orphanages just looked bad when compared to a normal childhood, but such was the reality of having to look after so many children on a budget.

"Let's not get sidetracked, however. We need to be at the arena early. There will be plenty of time for talk once we're there.

/-/

Amity Colosseum was one of those things Qrow had to pretend to be awed by, because a floating island stadium wasn't something most children raised in the wilds were used to seeing. He made sure to gasp and stare, but Raven seemed determined to outdo him, along with Summer, and both pressed their faces to the Bullhead windows.

Honestly, the whole thing was just a little tacky in Qrow's eyes. Maybe it was the subtle anti-Atlas sentiment in him (any kingdom pushing all their people into the military like that was dodgy in his eyes) or maybe it was growing up and having young nieces that turned him off it. He'd had to stop Yang and Ruby sticking their tongues in power outlets and trying to commit suicide via table, so the idea of a floating island with a fatal drop being used as an attraction for an event with a lot of kids made him shudder.

Sure, they had barriers up and everything, but he knew how kids were. They could find injury or death in a room made of puppies.

They'd gotten there early thanks to Ozpin – before the official opening time, even. It was meant to let competitors get in ahead of the crowds, so they didn't have any awkward cases of matches being delayed because someone got stuck in a queue. Ozpin saw them though the checkpoints by flashing his ID, then took them to the stands at the front meant for teachers and students. It was a damn good view for a bunch of kids that weren't competing.

"I need to go have some last-minute talks with my teams," he told them. "Give them some advice and help them get over their nerves, but I'll be back afterwards."

"Don't you need to sit in the VIP box?" asked Qrow.

"No. No. That's reserves for the headmasters. I'm but a lowly combat instructor. My place is here among my students as they compete. Either way, I'll be swinging back by a food stand on the way back." He brought out his scroll to take some notes on. "What would you all like? My treat."

"Grape soda!" said Summer. "Please."

"Fizzy orange," from Raven. "And I want one of those big foam fingers."

"Whisky and lemonade."

"Grape soda, fizzy orange, lemonade and a foam finger." Ozpin smiled as he took the order down, easily ignoring Qrow's sulk. "I assume you've all had breakfast then. You can access the special cafeteria for competitors for lunch or, if you'd prefer, I'm happy for you to go out into the main grounds and to the food courts. The queues will be a lot longer, however." He fished into his pockets. "Here." He handed a decent amount of lien to Summer. "Enjoy yourselves if you do, but make sure some of that is spent on food. I won't help you if you come back for the afternoon matches hungry."

He would. Ozpin talked a big game, but he wouldn't let them sit miserable for the sake of a little lien. Qrow didn't say it, though. It didn't really matter. Raven and Summer were too excited to see the matches. The overpriced stalls and such outside weren't even on their radar. This was a chance to see the best of the academies duke it out.

Once Ozpin had gone, Raven scowled at him. "Whiskey? Seriously?"

"It slipped out. And I've been teetotal for ages now. Give me a break." And a bottle. Or at least a shot. "What do you even want a foam finger for, anyway?"

Raven smirked. "Poking people in the back of the head as they try and watch the matches."

"You're such a bitch."

"Yeah. And?"

"Guys." Summer shrank in her seat a little as the various eyes of other, older students turned their way. "Don't make a scene. People are staring."

"They're probably wondering what kids our age are doing here," said Qrow.

"More like they're afraid we might be competing," said Raven. One student nearby, probably from Vacuo given the amount of bare skin they were showing, and how cold they looked, snorted. Raven heard it. "You got something to say!?"

The student rolled her eyes, refusing to even rise to the bait. To be fair, she was between ages seventeen and twenty-one, and Raven was fifteen. The huntress-in-training would have looked immature for responding, no matter how snappy her comeback. Raven didn't like that and flipped the huntress the bird.

"Team of losers anyway," she grumbled. "Not like they're gonna win. Who ever heard of a team from Vacuo achieving anything?"

One quarter of the student stands turned harsh glares on them.

"Thanks Raven. Thanks a bunch." Summer whispered, shrinking in her seat. "Qrow, help."

"Vacuo isn't so bad." Qrow said it loud enough for the students to hear and calm down a little. "Now, Atlas on the other hand." A fresh set of eyes bore down on them. "Arrogant, elitist pricks. I don't care who wins as long as it isn't one of those shitheads."

Raven fist-bumped him while Summer hid her face in her hands.

When Ozpin eventually came back, he took note of the cold atmosphere of the box and looked to them. "What did you two do now?"

"Hey," said Raven. "It might have been Summer."

"What!? I—"

"It wasn't Summer," he said, sighing. "I leave you alone for five minutes." He handed the drinks out, and also a big finger made of foam to Raven. She immediately used it to poke the Vacuan girl from earlier, until Ozpin yanked it off her hand with a stern glare. "Everyone here is quite nervous enough to be competing in front of thousands of people without your brand of help. It may well be you all here one day, you realise. Facing down your fear as crowds chant your names. You'll be just like them."

"Nah." Raven smirked. "The difference is, we'll be winners."

Ozpin couldn't quite hide his smile. "Such overwhelming confidence. I'll be sure to remind you of that statement when the times comes. Especially if you end up being knocked out in the first round."

Qrow could actually remember their festival performance. It happened every two years, so Team STRQ had been to two. They hadn't qualified for the first, however. There'd been an internal selection tournament in Beacon to dictate who got to fly off to Atlas for the actual one, and they'd failed to make the cut. To be fair, they'd been first years. In their third year, when it rocked up in Vacuo, they'd made it all the way to the semi-finals before losing to a team from Mistral. Raven hadn't taken that well, and it actually caused her and Taiyang to break up for a few weeks.

Though, by that point, that wasn't unusual. She and Taiyang would be on and off about twenty times a year, in a relationship so tumultuous that they pretty much defined the term "it's complicated". That was before Ozpin recruited them proper in their last year, which was when things started to go wrong.

Maybe we'll be able to win the tournament this time around.

If not, Ozpin was going to have fun reminding Raven of this moment.

With Ozpin among them, they were forced to settle down and watch the opening ceremony. Qrow spent it glancing around the stands and wondering how Taiyang was doing. It was a shame he couldn't be with them, but Sanctum would absolutely have rented seats for all their students to make this into an educational field trip. The problem was, given school budgets, those seats would be up at the top and back. Ozpin's position as teacher and guardian had granted them an exception to be here, but Taiyang wouldn't be allowed.

Hopefully, meeting us will be reason enough for him to come to Beacon. He did in the past anyway, but now he has even more reason to. He'd have to check Raven's scroll later and see if she'd added his number. Raven wouldn't thank him for it, but it was that she got for having her PIN be 6666. She relied on the threat of violence to keep people out.

It took over an hour for the first fight to begin. The festival had a lot of talking. When the first rounds of 4v4 finally did begin, Qrow found himself in the awkward position of being among gasping and excited students as idiots butted heads down below. To Raven and Summer, the competitors were incredible – and any one of them could absolutely beat him as he was now. Qrow wouldn't deny that fact. But they weren't good. They were amateur, and the mistakes they were making had him wanting to pull his hair out.

"Use the arena!" he howled. "The arena is half forest for crying out loud! Do something with it!"

One of the teams even had a long-range fighter with a bow, and instead of taking to the woods for cover and to keep his enemies with longer weapons away, he was sticking behind his three teammates like they were ancient legionaries. It was formation on formation, and it drove Qrow up the wall.

He was a huntsman, but he was also a teacher – an educator. It was his job to critique and help people improve, and right now he wanted to find their teachers and have some stern fucking words with them. Assuming their teachers weren't already planning the same and banging their heads on a wall at the sight of this. He wouldn't be surprised if they were.

"No, don't break off into one-on-ones," he said, almost weeping. "You're a team! Work together— What is he doing? Why are you fighting near the edge when you can be—"

"DOUBLE RING OUT!" announced the commentator.

"What did that achieve!?" he wailed. "You accomplished nothing! Yes, the tree! Uses the trees!" The archer had been kicked into the forest by his foe, and now had the perfect opportunity to vanish into them. Instead, the archer charged into melee. "WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU!?" Qrow howled. "Arghhhh!"

He noticed Raven, Summer and Ozpin staring at him.

"What!?" he demanded. "It's not my fault they're so stupid that tying their own laces is an exercise in teamwork!"

A team nearby snickered.

"Is this some prank? Did you take us to the Vytal Rejects Tournament? What is this? Why is an archer running into melee? Why give them a full arena if they're only going to use half!?" He was hyperventilating. Sue him. This was a travesty in huntsman form. "I can't look," he said, taking the foam finger and covering his face with the hand. "Tell me when it's over."

"Their tactics leave a little to be desired," Ozpin admitted, "but they're not that bad."

"You're a combat instructor!" Qrow accused him. "Stop sugar-coating!"

Ozpin sighed. "Okay, it's a tragedy, but that's why they're getting knocked out in this round. It might just be a bad case of stage fright. Not everyone performs well in front of an audience and—" He sighed. "Don't look. Just don't look."

Qrow groaned. "What happened?"

"Archer boy just tried to tackle a guy twice his size," said Raven, smugly. "He's being carried to the edge of the ring like a baby Aaand—"

"RING OUT. We have our first winners, ladies and gentlemen!"

The crowd went wild because the crowd was easily impressed. Show some cool weapons, show some aura, have people fight for honour and they'd lap it up. In the box reserved for competitors, every Mistral student was quiet. Most had heard Qrow's rant and silently agreed with it. Atlas, Vale and Vacuo were remarkably smug.

"I hope Mistral can do better than this," said someone behind them. "Or maybe they should hire this kid to compete in their place. He could probably do better."

"Mr Barker, I know that's you!" Ozpin snapped. "Be polite to our hosts!"

"Yes sir." Qrow could hear the roll of the eyes in the boy's tone. "But let's be honest, sir, that was piss poor. Even the children can see it. If we fought like that, you'd have us up in front of class to be made fun of."

"Even so, you ought to keep in mind variance in quality. Mistral will have some very strong teams here, and those teams will now be going into your match with a grudge."

Sure enough, the teams from Mistral, which numbered far greater due to the homefield advantage, looked murderous. After such an embarrassing display, they were determined to regain honour by cracking skulls. It was always the case that the home team sent more teams in, which naturally meant some of those extra teams weren't as ready for it as the top ones chosen from other academies.

"As for you, Mr Branwen…" Ozpin trailed off, and then sighed. "I won't say you were wrong but please try not to be so critical when that team comes back. They're probably humiliated as it is. Have some compassion."

"Hey, I'm not a bastard," Qrow grumbled. "But if I were their teacher, I'd be having words." He raised his voice. "Seriously, I get that having your arena chosen at random means there's no time for planning, but the whole point of it is that you can use it to your advantage. Maybe plan in advance for that."

Several teams rolled their eyes at having a child try to preach to them.

"Wise words," Ozpin said. "If delivered a little harshly. Maybe you should become a teacher when you grow up. You have a knack for noticing mistakes, if not foe kindly lecturing on them."

"No way." He'd been a teacher. Done that, lost nights to homework, and sanity to idiots. "I'm becoming a huntsman and sticking with my team." And they would all survive this time. "That and nothing more. I'll retire when I'm too old to move."

"Hmm. Not so bad a goal, but who knows, perhaps you'll have children of your own to teach one day."

"Yeah, no. More likely I'll be teaching Taiyang and Rave—"

Raven snatched the foam finger and stuck it in his open mouth. "Enough about that guy!" she growled. "I went out on a date with him because you forced me to! There's no way I'm letting him and his micropenis anywhere near me!"

"Mmmblmmm."

The second fight was Vale against Atlas, and that fight was better. Still not ideal, but "good enough" in a way that had Raven and Summer shrieking with delight and Qrow giving slow nods. They'd obviously heard him and were determined to prove it when it came to the arena, fighting among the ruins of a city on one side and a snowy plain on the other, and using the snow to kick up an obscuring storm to mask their movements.

Clever. Qrow would give them credit for that even if the audience probably didn't appreciate not being able to see what was going on. In the back of his head, he knew it wasn't smart to appear so collected and clinical around Ozpin, but it was much too late to care. Also, he didn't think he could fake the kind of excitement the girls were showing without slitting his own throat from sheer embarrassment.

Let Ozpin think what he would. It would only be that Qrow was a once-in-a-lifetime prodigy, which would be annoying but not nearly as annoying as him knowing the truth. Oz was going to groom the three of them anyway – thankfully not in too creepy a manner – so it wasn't like being any more of an attractive agent was going to ruin his chances.

/-/

Yet again, Ozpin found himself intrigued by the boy sitting beside him. Young Qrow Branwen didn't show the same amazement as others his age, including his sister. He watched with an almost bored expression, broken only by frustration when the competitors below did something questionable or slow nodding when they did well.

Had he been physically capable of besting them, Ozpin would have considered the boy a spy.

But, as it was, he knew Qrow couldn't beat them. The boy was exceptional for his age, but he was still young, and lacked in speed and strength. Skill and intelligence did count for a lot in life, but raw physicality mattered a lot more when you were still growing. The difference between a child and an adult was pronounced.

Still, such an analytical mind, and in one so young, was a rare thing.

The boy was determined to stay with his sister and friend rather than move up a year, and Ozpin both respected and was glad for that. But that didn't mean he couldn't be tested in other ways. There was a team or two in Beacon he felt could be trusted to give the bot a good spar, and to comment on him. Perhaps he should arrange something like that.

The Schnee patriarch adored him too, which was an unexpected boon. He'd gone so far as to ask Ozpin to keep him informed of how the boy was doing – and had even implied he would be willing to adopt him if Ozpin were to let him go.

Which he was not.

You're a curious one, Qrow Branwen.

So very curious. His agents had, of course, tracked down the tribe they had come from a few weeks ago. A group of bandits who roamed about killing any they could get away with. Ozpin had mentioned it to Leonardo, to have him dispatch a few huntsmen to "take care" of the issue once and for all.

He would not judge them by their past, however, especially when it was clear they had run away from it for a reason. Such an odd start to life creating two little survivors too stubborn to die. They deserved better, and they would have better, but so too did the many innocent people of Remnant deserve better than to suffer under Salem.

The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few.


Next Chapter: 30th March

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