Qrow does not know when it started.
It hits him suddenly like a singularity that bursts and swells, igniting everything around it, burning to ash before he can save it. He is used to the lingering ache by this point, though, and for the most part, he can ignore it. That is one thing that he is good at - leaving things to fester, allowing them to fall apart, breaking whatever fragile thing was left in his hands.
Nothing is the same. He expected just as much, but it is different than any other time. It is different when he left a part of himself in Atlas. It is different when there is a hollow inside him that he cannot quite fill, when something was left to rattle precariously with every step the moment he left Solitas with his kids. It is different than any other time, because while he is prepared to abandon living spaces and people alike, he was never prepared for this.
He was never prepared to leave someone like Clover.
He was never prepared to love someone like this.
He was prepared for nothing but loss, but then he met Clover, and he is every contradiction that Qrow cannot help but be drawn to. He is charismatic, and lethally alluring, and most of all, optimistic - he was like that from the start, when they first met and tomorrow was not guaranteed. Back then, Qrow was the one to whisper about some false promise of tomorrow, but now it is Clover.
Now it is Clover, who tells him on one of those rare calls in the dead of night while it is daytime for him in Atlas, “We’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”
It is odd, this tomorrow they speak of, this inevitable thing that comes and goes and takes all of the problems with it. Or at least that is what Qrow believes, up until the problems start to prevail despite the shift between day and night. He knows there is a tomorrow, and he knows what it will bring. He knows how the next call will go. He knows how many hours will pass in between texts, and that is fine.
They both have responsibilities. They both have promises to keep. Clover has a city to rebuild, and Qrow has a flock of students to teach, and he is not upset by that.
He is upset because he does not know where this fragile thing started.
Qrow does not know when the distance grew between them. All he knows is that the texts are slow, and the calls are rare, and the actual conversations are even rarer. He can blame it on responsibilities, on the timezones, on the distance itself, but none of that stops the pain that pounds between his ribs with each passing week.
Clover knows when it started.
It comes to him gradually like a breeze through an open window, an echo memory that he barely grasps before it is gone. It does not come in the form of feathers and hollow bones, in crimson eyes and a beak filled with some stolen trinket, but he leaves his window open anyways. Out of habit, out of hope, out of some false sense of comfort, he is not entirely sure.
Qrow is a perilous thing. Tall, elusive, lithe, as lethal as he is beautiful, just as Harbinger was when it would click and curve into something wicked. From the very start, he has been nothing but an enigma, a jigsaw left shattered, but he is a puzzle worth solving.
He is a silver lining worth reaching for when he would settle in bed after a long day and murmur, “We’ve got some catching up to do.”
“That’s what you call it?” Clover laughs, barely above a whisper, allowing Qrow to pluck the Scroll from his hand and snap it shut.
There is always a mission report, a duty to uphold, a schedule to pore over, but one thing Qrow teaches him is to let go. That some responsibilities are worth saving for tomorrow, however nebulous it may be. That tomorrow can come and go if it chooses to, but tonight is what they have - every night, the same routine, the same comforts, the same rush as it flourishes into something neither of them were prepared for.
He was never prepared for something like this.
He was never prepared to love someone like this.
He was prepared to say goodbye, but now, when he reaches over to the empty space besides him, he is not prepared for the cool glide of the untouched sheets against his fingertips.
It starts with an empty bed and an even emptier space beneath his sternum. It starts with an ache that swells with every breath, nearly bursting where it presses against the walls of lungs, searing along his waterline where it refuses to spill. It starts once Qrow is gone, and the title of General is bestowed upon him on his way to helping rebuild Atlas.
It starts once contact becomes infuriatingly rare, and neither of them can do much to help it.
Qrow knows where the tension comes from.
He sees it on the news after world communication is established. He understands where the newfound hatred for Atlas and its inhabitants come from, however unwarranted, because the sins of the former General bleeds out into the current one’s reputation. He understands, of course, but that does not make this any easier.
That does not make it any less calamitous when his clothes stop smelling like Clover.
That does not make it any less painful when the rare calls start to end on a wrong note. Arguments over small things that Qrow does not remember hours later, bickering over nitpicky details, white noise in the background that strings itself tight until Clover finally says, “I’ll let you go.”
Qrow swallows thickly around the knot in his throat. He opens his mouth once, feels how the words jumble and falter, glue to the roof of his mouth until he has to collect himself. But Clover does not hang up, even with the weight of the world on his shoulders, even when there are pressing matters that he no doubt has to tend to the moment he is gone.
With a twinge in his neck that mirrors the wire-tight twist in his chest, Qrow answers, “Yeah.”
There is another pause, another dreadful eternity, what feels like a lifetime spent waiting and holding his breath. Then, Clover says, “I love you.”
There is hope in the words, said quietly as if something will splinter if it is uttered too loudly. Not a secret, but not a declaration, either - a reassurance, Qrow realizes, a reminder of what they have, of what they agreed on, of what they are still fighting for despite the duties that come first.
He wishes it would stop feeling like a thin bandage over an unclean wound.
“Love you, too.”
Clover is not entirely sure where the tension comes from.
Gradually, he pinpoints it, on the rare occasion when he is not asleep and not at work. Except he does not know how to alleviate it, not like before, not when Qrow is thousands of miles away and increasingly unresponsive to the texts he sends.
The days grow longer and the nights get shorter. The calls become scarce and the meetings turn into a near-daily obligation. There are connections to reestablish and treaties to reinforce, but there is only so much Clover can do when major world nations turn their backs on Atlas. There is hardly a military left, barely any power left, nothing but rubble and animosity and inhabitants who leave the city in increasing numbers.
Things must get worse before they get better, Winter once tells him, but she is also worn ragged. She is not infallible, but she is not movable, either; if there is one person who can uphold his duty just as well as he does, it is her, and for a while, he considers it.
He considers it when the conversations start to end with arguments more often. Little things that he does not remember, snippy comments that he regrets making the moment he makes them. Neither of them are perfect, and they are both exhausted, and it is not a fault he can pin onto one or the other.
“I love you,” is what Clover says, time and time again, because he believes it. Because it is true, despite the hurt, the distance, the days spent silent.
Something cracks but does not quite shatter when Qrow grumbles before he hangs up, “Yeah.”
Qrow forgets how it was before.
He wishes he did not.
They are more calamitous than they have the right to be, these fleeting memories that slip past his fingers like sand through a sieve. He finds a cologne similar to Clover’s; it is a heady sandalwood that smoulders with hints of honey, a scent that he grew dreadfully accustomed to. It is strong in his nostrils when dabbed onto his throat, but it is not enough, not the same, not anywhere near what it used to be.
The scent would cling to his clothes, to his sheets, perhaps even seeped onto his skin with how easily Clover moulded to him. They were one in the same, at some point, two halves of one whole, perfect in every way when Clover would slot into him and steal the breath from his lungs.
He aches in so many ways. He aches in an empty bed, no longer warm regardless of the pile of blankets he keeps, no longer finding solace in strong arms and slow, steady breaths. He aches in an empty home, no longer brightened with the scent of sandalwood and honey, no longer filled with whatever nameless dish that Clover would frequently make at the end of a long day.
He aches for the low murmur of a voice in his ear, the glide of skin against his own, the warmth in his chest that he never knew before. Aches for the quiet words and gentle touches, the fire beneath his skin that simmers and sparks, the noises he could not stifle in time.
He plays with the hem of his trousers, finally delves his fingers beneath, and aches.
It is all the same, this ache, this hollow, this odd thing that festers like poison the longer it continues. It comes in waves - bearable until it is not, imperceptible until it quickly becomes too much. Exam season approaches quickly, but he is already exhausted, and something already feels like it is on an edge that crumbles quickly under its weight, and the only thing he can do is ache.
Ache for respite. Ache for comfort. Ache for Clover.
All of which he knows he will not get anytime soon.
Clover remembers how it was before.
He wishes he did not.
They are more calamitous than he is ready for, these echo memories that bleed out into his life like the surface of a broken lake. He finds a discarded feather, smooth and long and darker than pitch, laying forgotten just beneath the dresser next to the windowsill. He strokes the feather a few times, holds it up to the moonlight to marvel in its gleam, but it is not enough, not the same, not anything similar to how it used to be.
He remembers the crow that would appear every other night at his windowsill, preening its feathers and trilling something sweet when Clover would reach for it. He remembers when it would hop into his hand, then onto his bed, nuzzle into his blankets before it became tall and lithe again.
It was always the moonlight that brought out Qrow’s eyes, always the starlight that ignited them to a red like that of oxygenated blood when he’d smirk and say, “C’mere. It’s cold out.”
And every time, Clover would roll his eyes with a smile and indulge him.
He remembers the taunting, the games, the familiarity - he remembers the time when it did not feel like there was a spark on the verge of flaring, electricity thrumming low in warning, gunpowder waiting to ignite. He remembers with an ache that refuses to fade, always looming, always threatening; he aches in so many ways, aches with every reminder and every glance to the feather, and he does not know how to alleviate it.
He does not know what to do when the words stop helping and the sentiments stop feeling genuine. He does not know what to do when yet another kingdom threatens to sever its ties with Atlas. He does not remember when he last slept properly or when he last had a minute to himself, but he does remember Qrow.
He remembers, and he aches.
“You’re not happy.”
It takes a long moment before the words finally register. Qrow looks up from the paper he has been grading, and Taiyang is there, tie pulled loose and a frown etched onto his face. The glow of the sunset is golden on his skin, and it is only then that Qrow realizes how long he has stayed after his office hours have ended.
Qrow shrugs, nonchalant despite the weight on them, apathetic to the flare of incredulity on Taiyang’s face. “What makes you say that?”
“Come on, Qrow. I know you.” Taiyang pauses, takes a steadying breath, and then says, “Talk to him.”
Qrow is not prepared for the seismic shift beneath him, threatening to send him spiraling into a place he does not know if he can claw himself out of. He is not quite ready for the gleam in Taiyang’s eyes, the plea in them obvious, the prayer for something like a miracle hidden amongst his words.
There is no use in denying it, not when it is so obvious, not when it feels like he has been dragged out from the space he has shoved himself into. He is laid bare, left open to bleed, to weep, to ache, because if there is one person who he cannot hide from, it is Taiyang.
And Clover, if he was here.
“With what time?” Qrow grumbles out.
For some reason, Taiyang softens at that. He reaches out to clap Qrow on the shoulder, and gently, he says, “You’ll figure it out.”
“I’m not happy.”
Winter glances sharply over to him. They walk down pristine walkways and marble pillars, impeccable tiles and clean-cut windows, nothing but smooth, frigid perfection that Clover has grown sick of.
This isn’t home, Qrow once said to him, this isn’t anything like home. Clover wonders about that often - what exactly makes a place a home when it was never about that. It is about duty and honor; it is about service and compliance; it is about keeping Atlas safe, and Clover has given everything for that.
He has given his time. His effort. His relationships. His life.
He has given what he could. He has given everything, and it does not feel like a victory when the tide begins to shift. It does not feel like relief when the outside world begins to listen to their pleas and their apologies. It is hollow like the space beneath his reconstructed sternum, painful like the empty bed he returns to, bitter like the silence between him and Qrow as the days go on.
Perhaps it is selfish of him - or at least, with how Winter merely stares at him, it feels selfish despite the amount of times Qrow would insist that it is not inherently selfish to have wants and needs. But something gives when she finally speaks, like tension that snaps, a barrier that crumbles, a dam that splinters.
“I know,” she says. She is quiet, barely audible over their footsteps, but in the silence of empty halls and an even emptier atmosphere, he can hear her all the same. “I was wondering when you’d say something.”
He makes a pitiful excuse of a laugh. “It’s that obvious?”
Winter nods. A long while passes before she tentatively prompts, “What are you going to do?”
Clover knows what he wants. Knows, despite the obligations that still press; knows, despite the apprehension that leaves him feeling like he is just about ready to break. But there is a duty to uphold, and the time is not quite right, and instead, he tells her, “I’ll figure it out.”
Qrow is used to letting things slip away.
That is one thing that he has always been good at - losing the people he holds so dear, leaving things behind, ruining what he has going for him. So it is not a surprise when Clover calls late one evening and says, “We should talk.”
The world spins faster before he knows it, the cosmos whirling before he can stop it, the ground beneath him shattering and leaving him reaching tentatively for the nearest chair. He does not know what it is that twists in his gut, lurching until he hurts anew; he does not know what it is that sears on his tongue as he unglues it from the roof of his mouth, his voice damnably thick, careful.
Everything comes to a crashing halt when Clover says, “I’m leaving Atlas.”
Clover is used to making sacrifices.
That is one thing he has always been good at - he is dedicated, and he has given everything that he could, but now, he has done enough. Atlas is a long way from being the power it once was, but it is no longer splintered like lightning across a nebulous sky, and that is enough.
He has already resigned. He has already spoken to Winter. The other Ace Operatives have already said their goodbyes.
Qrow does not protest. He takes one shuddering breath, static flaring in the background noise of the call, and then he says, “Atlas is your home.”
He sounds vulnerable in a way Clover has not heard in a long time. He sounds like he is grasping for something just barely out of reach, as if he is straining to hold on to a ledge too thin to fully grasp.
So Clover meets him halfway and admits with a stilted breath of his own, “I haven’t been home in a while.”
Clover is not the same.
At first, it is nothing but calamitous. At first, Clover turns to him, something like disbelief on his face, and everything seems to crumble. The sky splinters, sun shatters, atmosphere stills and swells into something unbearable; Qrow is nothing but a heartbeat, hard and fast against his sternum, loud and jarring in his jugular until he is forced to remember how to breathe.
Clover is not the same, not with the pristine uniform and a bag nowhere in sight as if he has nothing else to his name. He is not the same, not when there are bags under his eyes and streaks of gray more prominent in his hair than ever before. He is not the same, not in several ways, but when they finally meet, there is nothing but familiarity.
There is nothing but relief that washes over Qrow when he is tugged into an embrace like that of tropical waters and late summer afternoons. He knows this like he knows how to fly, this innate thing, this warmth that floods into him as naturally as the lull from summer to autumn.
There is a sharp breath at his temple, lips against the shell of his ear, a voice that makes him feel as if the world is veering closer to the sun when Clover croaks out, “Qrow.”
He knows this, knows Clover, knows his touch and knows his tells. Even through the time, the distance, the late nights and periods of silence, he knows, and he aches anew. Aches more than before, but it is an ache like that of a bandage finally set in place - it is a necessary ache, because a wound that has not had time to heal will hurt before it is mended.
So he clings tighter than before. Clover squeezes back, makes a ragged noise, and for the first time in over a year, Qrow can believe that things will be well again.
Qrow is not the same, either.
Though Clover expects that entirely. Neither of them are the same, not when tomorrow is a guarantee and there is no desperation of a looming threat to push them together. Except as the days come and go and Clover learns very slowly what a life beyond Atlas is like, he also learns what it means to love again.
It is not that they fell out of love. It is not that the thing between them was shattered. But it is fragile now, more so than it was before, dragged through hell and back for over a year before the distance was alleviated.
That is okay, Clover thinks, that is okay; nothing is the same, and there are new tells to learn, new behaviors to love, and that is okay.
It takes a while of learning and adapting and changing, but it is worth it. It is worth it now that Qrow is here, early in the morning before dawn pierces the veil, just a few short minutes before he must wake and prepare for the day. He is here, and there is no tension from an argument with nebulous origins, no silence that feels like thin ice about to give.
He is here, soon shifting when the alarm sets off, taking a short moment to turn it off before he turns over in Clover’s arms. That is one thing that has not changed, at least. Clover smiles at the fingers that reach up to weave into his hair, the nose that tucks under his jaw, the warm sigh against his skin before Qrow finally murmurs, “Don’t wanna.”
“You have to,” Clover reminds him.
Qrow mumbles something too incoherent for Clover to understand. Nothing is the same anymore, but at its core, at the very foundation of what they have and who they are, it is the same. Now, there is nothing but mending to be done; now, there is nothing but them and the comforts they both slowly relearn, and for the first time in over a year, that is all they need.
For the first time in what felt like an eternity, Clover can genuinely believe that all will be well in due time.