A/N: i fell in love with the flower shop/tattoo parlor trope and i just had to write it for today's prompt :)))

[TaiQrow Week 2020] Day 3 - AU

Qrow is working on a large floral arrangement when the sharp cry of a bell rips him out of focus.

He is balanced precariously atop a rickety ladder, nearly toppling over when he is jerked out of his reverie. He rears back a bit, holding a few heathers close, and glances back to the clock to see that it is half past closing. There is only one person that would bother coming in this late, so he takes his time fixing the last bunch of heathers in place before he finally descends.

He discards the clippers and ribbons on the desk in the back room before he emerges. The sunset pours into the shop, as warm as the bed of gold that melts out across the sky above. Despite the technicolor expanse of displays around them, it is always Taiyang that catches his eye first.

Taiyang has always had a way of doing that. Throughout the years, that is the one thing that doesn't change - he has always been fierce, unrelenting, all-encompassing.

There are patches of snapdragons that simmer in their pots, bursts of cornflowers that glow a rich purple in the dying sunlight, tendrils of lilies that curl upwards as if reaching for the ceiling above them; there isn't a single portion of the shop that Qrow doesn't know like the back of his hand, and there also isn't a single flower that stands out more than Taiyang.

Well, there is, but it doesn't outshine him, necessarily.

Qrow claps the dirt off his hands and pulls out the stool from beneath the desk. Idly, he comments, "I'm not done yet."

"Another big order?"

Qrow lazily shrugs. "Yeah. A baby shower or whatever; lots of pink, they said."

As always, Taiyang reaches out to run the pad of his thumb along the thick petal of one of the strawflowers that Qrow keeps at the register. The only thing that is different is the gleam in his eye and the grin that is etched onto his lips. The exhaustion in him is evident, still, no doubt wrought from the eight-hour session he talked about that morning before they left their home, but the energy is enough to pique Qrow's interest.

"Something interesting happened today," Qrow guesses.

Guiltily, Taiyang laughs. "How'd you know?"

"You're practically vibrating, Tai." Qrow leans against the counter. "Spill."

Taiyang pulls his hand away from the strawflower, beaming in its vase as brightly as he does, and rests both of them atop the counter. His fingertips dance across the glass, tapping from pinky to index and back again.

"So I got a call from James a few minutes ago," he states. Already, Qrow is fighting off a smile. "He says he's looking for a guest artist."

There are two responses that follow, one of which makes Qrow wish the ground beneath his feet would split and swallow him whole.

The first is genuine, irrevocable joy, because this was an opportunity that Taiyang has been waiting ages for. He is unbelievably popular around Sanus, booked until far into the next year, but his touch stops at its borders. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain from a trip to a high-ranking parlor in Solitas.

Qrow supposes there really are benefits to having friends in high places, or so Taiyang puts it on those extremely rare evenings where James stops by during his travels.

That isn't to say that Qrow wouldn't benefit, as well; the groundwork was laid out for him, passed on to him from Summer all those years ago, and it was opportunities such as these that only helped. After all, he isn't considered Patch's trusted go-to for marvelous floral arrangements and stunning last-minute gifts for no reason.

If you ask Qrow, it is because of all the hard work he has poured into making sure Summer's pride and joy thrived after she passed.

But if you ask Taiyang, it is because of Zwei, who likes to lounge on the windowsill above a tiered display of marigolds and sunflowers.

The second response isn't as prevalent, but it is there, lurking in the back of his mind, skulking in the crevices of his skull. Taiyang has been invited as a guest artist before, and he has spent weeks staying in various parts of Sanus.

Except Atlas is a long way from Patch, and somehow, it feels like Qrow has taken this last decade and a half for granted. He swears it wasn't even that long ago that he was moving back in with Taiyang, picking up the pieces each morning, holding them all together until he was staggering with the weight of it all.

In a way, it is harrowing, this realization of just how quickly time passes when he isn't paying attention.

"So you're finally moving up in the world," Qrow says. He is grinning, and it isn't anywhere near hollow, but something still rattles, still quakes in the space that is suddenly opened up in the wake of Taiyang's statement. "Will you even think about little old me once you make it big?"

Taiyang's laugh is soft, a pleasant rumble in his chest, one that always spills forth to fill the miles that stretch out between them. It is different from the reverberant laughs that echo throughout the parlor when Oobleck or Port tell some grandiose story, from the easy little chuckle he makes when his clients are particularly chatty.

There are a lot of things that are different when it is just the two of them.

"I'll always think about you, Qrow," Taiyang tells him. It is an innocuous statement at its core, Qrow knows, and yet it is those kinds of statements that always linger, fester, bite at him until he is nothing left but mangled flesh and bone. "Who else will provide all the flowers at my guest events?"

Qrow snorts, rolls his eyes, pretends the ache in his chest isn't there. "I'm sure you'll find someone in Atlas willing to make a few displays for you."

Taiyang makes an effort to look horrendously scandalized. "Buy someone else's flowers? That's sacrilege."

"And that's a big word, coming from you."

Taiyang nudges him on the shoulder with an indignant scoff, and Qrow can't help the way he melts a little.

"I can't buy anyone else's flowers. It's law at this point." He grins, points to Qrow with enough determination to make Qrow challengingly quirk his brow, and states, "Just like how you can't get a tattoo from anyone else."

Qrow shrugs and drawls, "Come up with a design that'll impress me, then."

As if there is a design Taiyang can possibly create that wouldn't make Qrow swoon in one way or another. At this point, it is more of a game to them; it is a confession masked in mirth, a promise edged with a smirk when Taiyang says, "I'll figure you out."

(The first time Taiyang asks to tattoo him, they are still in college.

The thing about Taiyang is that he is always covered in some kind of paint. There is a rose-tinted haze that lingers in the valleys of his knuckles and fingers, a blue-tinged lining around the beds of his nails, smears of purple that seem to always go forgotten at his elbows and forearms.

He is always one walking splash of color, one breathing canvas that never fades.

That night, he is in the bathroom for a long time, trying his best to scrub off the paint that dried against his skin. There are a few sketchbooks piled up on the tiny dresser at the foot of his bed, and over time, Qrow stops trying to resist the urge to snoop through. It is incredibly invasive, he knows that full well, but he can't help it.

And in the rare moments that Taiyang catches him, it seems as if Taiyang can't help but preen.

It feels like a secret, sometimes, something that they both acknowledge individually, but it always goes comfortably unsaid between them. A lot of things get that way eventually.

This time, what catches Qrow's attention are the flowers. There is no clear arrangement, only a small handful of sketches crammed onto one page. There are peonies that bunch at the center, the expanse of pink as light as the breath of dawn across the sky. Stems of roses frame the paper, all coalescing at the corners with feathery splotches of red and gray.

The spaces in between are filled with a flutter of flowers that Qrow doesn't immediately recognize, and he supposes those were requested by Summer specifically. Flowers were just her thing. They all have their own dream, and flowers are hers. One day, she swears, one day she will open a flower shop, and there won't be a single soul in Patch who has not heard of it.

From the very beginning, Qrow believes her.

Inevitably, he grows a liking to flowers, as well. That is just how it goes when every bit of joy in Summer never fails to spread to the rest of them, when she invites him over to the gardening club she is in every now and again and tends to those flowers like they are her own.

It is the flowers that remind Qrow, this time; Taiyang, despite how brash and hot-headed he is, brings nothing but gentle, captivating life to the pages beneath his fingertips. Sketches as light as a whisper that is breathed out into muddled air, full pieces that are as vibrant as the velvety echoes of a sunset.

It has always been that contradiction that called to Qrow. It has been that way ever since the day they met, years ago when Raven was still adamant on keeping Qrow's friends out of her life, and they all had yet to meet Summer.

He doesn't realize the water has stopped running until it is too late. He glances up towards the restroom, and Taiyang is leaning against the door frame, a towel wrapped across one forearm. There is an odd look on his face that Qrow only catches glimpses of, late into the night when Summer and Raven had long since fallen asleep, early in the morning when Taiyang leaves for his class and Qrow comes back from his.

"Would you let me tattoo you one day?" Taiyang asks.

There is a stillness to his voice, lingering like a wish, a hope, a prayer. This is the first time they have addressed it, the first time an offense has not gone by silently. It is that dream again - it is a couple of dreams, Qrow eventually realizes, the dream for a tattoo parlor of his own, the dream for his work to one day shine on Qrow's skin.

It isn't just a dream, though, in the same way that Summer's flower shop isn't just a dream that will forever go by unfulfilled. Qrow glances back to the sketchbook, to the flowers amongst the myriad of corvids and dragons, to the remarkable delicacy that sits right before his very eyes.

It isn't a dream, but a promise. An inevitability.

The permanence of tattoos has always been what deterred him, but that apprehension tends to melt just as the paint does against every canvas. Taiyang is a flame, a point that draws attention, a magnet that attracts every pretty thing in Remnant. He is the one thing Qrow is sure of, one of the very few people he can entrust everything to.

If there is anything that should be etched onto his flesh forever, it is this.

If there is anything that should be immortalized, it should be the undeniable devotion that Qrow fell in love with first.

It takes a few years, a few losses, a few scrapes with the wrong people, but Qrow eventually realizes that it was love from the start. He realizes that it was love that had him answer that night, "One day."

Whether he wants to admit it or not, the acceptance is a confession at its core. It is a secret, vulnerable and raw and aching somewhere deep between his ribs, because if there is one thing he wants, one person he wants intertwined in both soul and flesh, it is Taiyang.

It is always Taiyang.

For his own sake, he forces a smirk and taunts, "If I'm drunk enough, that is."

Despite the quip, Taiyang breaks into a smile that has Qrow's heart beating hard, pounding relentlessly against the back of his tongue. There is a promise in there, however Qrow wants to play it off; there is a promise that will not fade, that will stay vibrant and breathing and living just as each one of Taiyang's artworks did.

Taiyang slings the towel over his shoulder and folds his arms over his chest with one quirked brow. He teasingly presses, "Only when you're drunk?"

It is more of a loaded question that he realizes. There are a lot of things Qrow will do when he is drunk. A lot of things that sobriety never gifted him with, a lot of things that the drunk version of him would sprint head first into and never look back from. Liquor thrumming like fire in his veins is what lets him speak his mind and take those chances he wouldn't take otherwise.

Except Taiyang isn't one of them.

Taiyang is one of the few people he doesn't want to risk losing. This thing between them is one of the very few things he can't handle shattering under his fingertips with one single mistake.

Qrow only shrugs and says, "You know me. I make all my bad decisions when I'm drunk."

Taiyang scoffs, his smile growing wider, because despite how good Qrow is at running away from the things he has said and the implications he has made, Taiyang has always been better at seeing right through it all.)

The languid transition between spring and summer has always been largely uneventful, but this year, it is accompanied by Ruby and Yang's graduation.

Qrow doesn't realize it until it is too late.

That morning is just as uneventful as any other; he is awoken by the sunlight again, filtering in through the blinds, somehow finding a way to burn against his eyelids until he has no choice but to get up. Outside, he already hears the water running in the kitchen and the undeniable murmur of Taiyang's voice as he speaks to someone on the phone.

After picking a small assortment of rings for the day, Qrow emerges from his bedroom - his bedroom, not the guest bedroom, and it is always disarming, this realization of how closely he has weaved into Taiyang's life. It is a simultaneous convergence and divergence, the way their paths twine like wire, how they mould together like the threads of fabric, the tightly packed yarn of a skein.

There is a large gap in between, a space in the timeline that is long and nebulous, but Qrow doesn't like to think back to that.

The water that flows between them calms from the tumultuous rush it once was into an unhurried trickle. The beginning is rough, but it is always like that. An easy start doesn't pave the way to progress; it is the difficult ones that make him appreciate the lull of a quiet life in the end.

Taiyang hangs up the phone by the time Qrow walks in. He is swathed in the earthy smell of coffee, his hair still sticking up in odd directions, his pajama pants riding low on his hips. He didn't bother throwing on a shirt that morning, and on one bicep, the sigil he got tattooed sometime during his sophomore year still burns strong against his skin.

On the other, the scales of a dragon shine bright in the early morning sunlight, curving across the tantalizing stretch of muscle until the head reaches his shoulder. It encases his arm with an embrace like that of tropical water, smooth and warm; it swathes him in the heat of gold, in the sear of crimson, igniting every inch of skin it graces.

Qrow was there when he got it. That is how he met James - sitting through every session, making easy small talk while Taiyang just breathed through it. At first, it was a distraction for Taiyang. About a year later, he ended up with another friend.

It wasn't too bad, Qrow supposes, even though James disappeared for a few years when he moved back to Atlas to take up the spot that was offered to him at a Solitas-renowned parlor.

Taiyang hums something under his breath, the sound soft and gravelly, the taut stretch of his biceps unfairly enticing as he reaches for a couple of mugs. He turns, his lip pulled into a faint grin, sleep-rough and pleasant, and gestures Qrow over for the coffee that awaits him.

It is another one of those offenses, the one both of them are guilty of, where one catches the other staring, where they take it in stride and never speak of it. It has been like that for a long time. Since Signal. Since Beacon. Since Qrow came back.

"The girls need to get to school earlier today," Taiyang says, his voice like silk against his bare skin, like fresh linens pressed to his face after a tiresome day. Qrow wants to drown in it, wants it to consume him as wholly as the dragon consumes Taiyang's arm. "Normally, I'd take them, but I've got a client stopping by earlier, too."

Qrow shrugs and accepts the mug that is offered to him. "Do your thing, Tai, don't worry so much about it."

And it isn't that Taiyang worries; he hasn't worried for years, they both know, but Qrow isn't a blessing he takes for granted. A blessing - it is odd that Taiyang would consider him such, but Qrow won't turn it away. He has done enough damage by refuting every bit of kindness thrown his way. He has caused enough stress for a lifetime.

They have both had enough stress for a lifetime, it seems.

Taiyang rests a hand on his shoulder. The dragon shifts, poised to strike, readying its maw. Taiyang squeezes, and Qrow can't help but follow the twinge of its tail at his wrist, the curve of its back over his bicep.

"Thanks, Qrow."

He says it as if it is some secret, and if he speaks too loudly, the world itself will hear, the sky will bear down on them and their quiet moment. It has always been that way since their paths converged once more through sheer circumstance. The pieces were broken back then, mere jagged edges that they didn't know where to fit back together.

It is a while before Qrow realizes that they aren't jigsaws with pieces that were purposely crafted to fit. Rather, they are the remains of glass that had long since shattered, put back in place and swathed in a heat that bends them from their original form and moulds them together once more.

It is healing that has been done over the years. Mending and replacing what has been torn open, leaving something uniquely raw in its wake.

Both of the girls wake up a few minutes later, and soon enough, they're both ready to go. Taiyang is gone before them, out the front door while Ruby panics over her lost shoe and Yang chases Zwei after he snatches her hairband. Qrow can only watch as Taiyang makes sure to say goodbye to them both, not as an outsider looking in, but as a moment of clarity that always keeps him rooted to the spot.

Taiyang is captivating, with his easy smile and even easier banter.

He is captivating when he shoots a fleeting glance over to Qrow, mouth crooking higher on one side, eyes crinkling at the corners.

It hits Qrow very suddenly that the girls are graduating when he checks the mail before they leave. There are packets upon packets of seeds, envelopes from Signal, reminders about dates to come and invitations that have been sent. Ruby skipped a couple of grades, grew up faster than either of them were prepared for.

Next, he is hit out of nowhere with the realization that Taiyang will be booking a flight to Atlas soon, while the girls and their friends plan for a road trip to Beacon just across Vale.

It is both harrowing and liberating, knowing he will have an empty nest soon. Him and Taiyang both.

(One time, they stumble home from a party. It is late at night, and exam season is right around the corner, but miraculously enough, it is Summer who ultimately convinces them to go.

Taiyang needed a lot more coaxing than Qrow did. Raven wouldn't even hear it.

He remembers that night vividly, painted in technicolor detail like the flowers Taiyang likes to sketch. They are all drunk as hell, and they will regret it the next morning, but Qrow can't care less about that. It is fun egging Taiyang on until it is difficult for him to stand. It is even more delightful to play beer pong against Summer until she forgets why she is there.

Raven says he is a bad influence, but he thinks he is a riot.

Raven takes in Summer first when they all get home. She rolls her eyes, a scowl permanently etched onto her face, but it softens immediately when Summer drapes herself against her and hums something sweet. They disappear into the restroom, and the water starts to run, and Qrow and Taiyang somehow make it into the kitchen.

Taiyang only watches as Qrow rummages through the cupboard for a bottle of whiskey and a couple of shot glasses. It is a deep, rich amber, and it reminds him of Taiyang, reminds him of everything that snatches his heart from where he left it.

Taiyang takes a moment to process it before he snickers, "Really, Qrow?"

Qrow doesn't have the time to respond before Taiyang is pressed to his side. There is the faint scent of cologne that clings to his skin, drawn away from the cool night air on the walk home. This close, Qrow can smell the hint of sandalwood, the tang of salt, the stale traces of old paint that Taiyang failed to wash off completely.

It takes everything in him not to turn his head and tuck his nose under Taiyang's jaw.

It takes strength he doesn't know he has to keep his hands to himself when Taiyang takes the shot glass from him. Taiyang has to think hard to coordinate, but he eventually knocks back the shot that is handed to him. He does it like it is the only thing he is good at, like it is the only thing he is made for, the twinge in his throat the only thing Qrow can focus on.

He has never looked more beautiful.

Taiyang sways a bit before he stumbles, and Qrow catches him, lets him lean on his shoulder for support. He mumbles something with a faint laugh, and his arms wrap loosely around Qrow's middle, and his breath ignites a fire against Qrow's collarbone. It is headier than alcohol ever was, more exhilarating than any game of beer pong that he dominates, and at this point, he is too drunk to think about anything else.

He is too drunk to think about consequences when Taiyang pulls back. Touchy, always touchy, that stupid fucking sap, touchier than usual when he is drunk, touchier than he has the right to be. His eyes are too blue, too deep, too captivating; his fingers are too warm, too hot, almost scalding where they brush against his neck, tracing the smooth length of his cross necklace.

"Stop looking at me like that," Qrow grumbles before he can think twice about it.

Taiyang blinks, and those stunning eyes of his refocus a little, enough for him to ask without too much of a slur, "Like what?"

"Like you care," Qrow says, bursting out of him like water from a dam, shattering everything in its calamitous rush. "Like I matter."

"But I do."

Taiyang leans forward, and he is too close, too close, and there is not enough air, not enough atmosphere, not enough time. He wonders if Taiyang can feel the way his jugular is pounding in his neck, wonders if he can hear the thrum of blood when his lips brush against his skin.

Muffled against his throat, Taiyang mumbles, "And you do. You mean the world." Then softly, as if in an afterthought, he breathes, "Like dragons."

Qrow snorts, loud and jarring, but the world is spinning too fast for him to care about how he sounds at the moment. "Like dragons?"

"No, actually," Taiyang sleepily corrects, "I like you more than dragons."

It is not a confession, but it shoves the planet off its orbit anyways, sends it reeling far into the abyss. Or maybe it is racing closer to the sun, with how the heat flares low in Qrow's gut, skittering faster than he is prepared for to his extremeties, sending a white-hot flare coursing through his veins.

"I like you more than dragons, too.")

There aren't many secrets between them, anymore.

There are things that go by unspoken, things that they simply don't address, but they are not secrets. They have not been secrets in a long time.

Qrow would say they are trivial, but there is nothing trivial about the sketchbook Taiyang still keeps tucked away in his nightstand. He has only seen it a few times, slightly dented at one corner, dusted with stray fingerprints, its pages thick with paint and dedication alike.

There are corvids smeared crimson, jewelry etched in silver, flowers that blossom in spectrums. They are ideas, little peeks into what goes on in Taiyang's head, just as all his sketches were, but these were ones that were brought to existence for Qrow in particular.

There is something exquisitely lovely about that, something so captivating in the things that Taiyang paints when he is considering what tattoo Qrow would like best. Taiyang creates with such stunning ease, like he is the one who dots the cosmos with blinding lights, like he is the force that brings nebulae to life and galaxies into relevance.

He never mentions those sketches to Qrow, but they are ready, every idea under the glistening face of the universe laid out bare for Qrow to choose from. They are the beauty of constellations, the breathtaking stretch of the sky, snatched out from above them and poured out onto paper, but none of it is what Qrow wants.

It is nothing personal. It just isn't what he wants.

And Taiyang understands completely, but that doesn't discourage him. Qrow has seen him stuck on sketches before, staring blankly at the image before him, looking back between the paint and the little notepad he keeps for the requests of his clients. He has seen Taiyang struggle. He has seen the roadblocks that other people throw his way, and he has seen him overcome them.

It is never that way when it comes to Qrow.

Taiyang gives him that look sometimes - looks at him like he is the thing that scatters a spectrum of starlight across every planet, like he is the force that pulls the universe past its limits. Taiyang glances over sometimes when he thinks Qrow isn't looking, and then he sets eagerly to work, and always, without fail, Qrow catches him.

"You should take a picture," Qrow tells him one time after he remembers how to breathe.

Taiyang only flushes, eyes flicking between him and the sketchbook, and then says, "But pictures make your nose look funny."

It is a poor excuse, but Qrow takes it regardless.

He takes it because he can see the thin line they are balanced on. He can see that edge, on the verge of collapsing, never once thickening and drawing them apart as the years go by. They are both miles apart and inches together, both within each other's reach and far past it.

It is an inevitability, almost, with how frequently Qrow feels the urge to shove them both head first off of that edge and into something keenly different.

But he doesn't.

He doesn't, even as Taiyang stops by his shop that evening right before closing, a bag of takeout in one hand, his Scroll in the other. Ruby and Yang are both out with their friends, probably staying the night at the Schnee manor, and it is just the two of them, again.

It is just the two of them a lot these days. Enough for Qrow to muse over a forkful of rice, "The girls are graduating soon."

"They are, huh?" Taiyang heavily sighs. A smile tugs at his lips, faint, fleeting. "Could've sworn they just started at Signal last month."

For once, he sounds his age. Looks his age. Glances out the window with a different kind of exhaustion in his eyes, weathered and frayed, but not beaten. Not cracked. Never anything close, not since Qrow came back. Not since they both sweeped the shattered remains aside and started on something new.

Qrow brings it back to the surface, drags them away from the yawning abyss when he grumbles out, "And you know who's in charge of all the floral displays at Signal's graduation ceremony."

He isn't bitter, isn't anywhere close, and Taiyang knows. Of course he knows; there isn't a thing he doesn't know, isn't a single trace of doubt when he rolls his eyes and quips, "Shut up, I know you're excited for it."

Qrow isn't sure if excitement is the word he would use for it. Excitement is something that courses through his veins, fills his lungs to bursting, sends his nerves alight. Whatever it is that he feels is stuck in the pit of his gut, caking the inside of his throat like the dirt that coats his forearms, turning his blood sedimentary.

What he is excited for is the progression of the celebration itself, with his work on display in every corner, with his camera ready for Ruby and Yang both to walk down that stage.

What he dreads is the empty home he will return to with no place left for him to hide. With no excuse to hide from this thing that has long since blossomed between them, to delay the inevitable collision that has been there from the start. It is a coin toss at this point, whether it flourishes like a strawflower under the sun or wilts like a rose left to dry in the blazing summer heat.

It has been years, but he still isn't sure if he is ready to handle that kind of loss again, not when there is no guarantee that everything will go well afterwards.

And something tells him that Taiyang isn't, either.

Taiyang has lost two loves in his life already. There is room for a third in his heart, but there isn't enough left of him to handle a third loss. They are comfortable, and for a long time, they can pretend that it is enough.

(Qrow offhandedly flirts with him for a long time after their freshman year. It is a game, really - it is thrilling in the same way that playing with fire is thrilling. There is always a peril, always the risk of getting burned, but it never happens.

Taiyang, despite all of the blushing and stumbling, flirts back, as well.

They never progress past that. They come close, sometimes, long into the night after they stumble home from a party, but they don't cross that bridge. It is too rickety to pass, too uncertain to step into, and while they have years of a friendship between them to keep the waters from muddling, they have no experience whatsoever with romantic permanence.

So it fleetingly happens every now and again, and it is fun while it lasts.

They are close to graduating when Taiyang finally manages to get Raven to stop scowling. They are two weeks away from their graduation ceremony when Raven rests those deep, seething eyes on him and finally softens. It is the party on the weekend afterwards when they're all readying to say goodbye to Beacon that Taiyang and Raven leave before the others do and don't return that night.

The flirting stops, because while there is a rift between Qrow and Raven that grew in size over the course of their stay at Beacon, Qrow has enough respect for himself and for her to leave some barriers untouched.

One time, some few months later, after Summer starts a little garden on her windowsill, she sighs and asks, "Hey, Qrow?"

Qrow is lounging on her bed with his Scroll opened to some fighting game. He waits until he loses before he rolls his eyes and snaps it shut. He shifts to glance over to her, watching as she waters the little buds that are just starting to flourish, and hums, "What?"

"Have you ever been in love?"

Ah. So it is that conversation.

She is a sap like Taiyang - she is the one that talks about that simultaneous push and pull, that plunge into the ocean and upwards soar into the clouds, that emotion too complicated to understand. She is the one that knows how to handle these kinds of things, has always been the sentimental one that just knew what to say.

Yet somehow, she is asking Qrow like he has been the one with the answers this entire time, and Qrow wants to roll off of her bed and hope he falls somewhere dark and impossible to crawl out of.

"Kind of," Qrow lazily drawls like the actor he has become, like the liar he has always been. "Why?"

Summer doesn't even have to say it for Qrow to know what it is. He has known for a while, with the glances he is all too familiar with, the sighs he has mirrored far too many times. He knows what it is when Summer looks at Taiyang and bleeds with so much want that it aches.

So he doesn't press when she murmurs, "I don't know."

It is obvious she is upset, but it isn't because Taiyang is content with where he is. It is a peril, almost, something that should come with a warning label, how strongly and wholly he loves, how easy it is for him to get caught up in it. It seems to be contagious, with how Raven gradually begins to put off one obligation at a time.

They are not happy, but it is close.

It is close enough, and the hurt Summer feels - the hurt Qrow feels - is irrational. It is that kind of displeasure that simmers for a small while before it is accepted and moved on from. That is just how things are; love isn't rational, Summer tells him once while she toys with the band of silver he has on his ring finger, love never thinks clearly.

Qrow is nothing if not obvious, though, and it is only a matter of time before Summer says one night, "I knew you were lying, you know."

The movie they have on is still playing. There are blankets and pillows left on the other side of the couch for Taiyang and Raven, who are running late, as usual. Qrow's heart is in his throat, on his tongue, threatening to burst out of him. This would be the first time he has outwardly acknowledged it, and in a way, it is liberating.

In another, it is terrifying.

He finds it in himself to mirthlessly joke, "Is this the part where we come to the mutual agreement to pretend that neither of us ever fell for that idiot?"

Summer smiles. Smiles. A small, melancholic smile, because she knows that this is the closest Qrow will ever get to a real confession. She idly shakes her head and counters, "Pretending gets really easy after a few years of doing it, huh?"

Qrow refuses to answer. He shrugs, tunes her out in favor of the movie, and continues to pretend. They can both learn how to find peace with the way things are. They can learn how to be happy, because Taiyang is happy, and that is all that matters in the end.

They are at a rickety peace up until Yang is born.

There was an argument. Qrow only hears the details of it later out of Raven when he finally forces his way through pristine glass doors and long, winding halls of marble. Something about the family business, something about priorities, something about how it's about loving you too much, Tai, you idiot, what are you doing to me?

Qrow doesn't understand what that means until later.

Yang is brought into this world almost a year after they graduate, and Raven is gone shortly after.)

Over the years, the offenses start to pile up.

Qrow is used to them. The lingering glances, the fleeting touches, the breaches in personal space that are almost second nature at this point. They are just a part of life, a part of them, and he has learned to be content with that.

Though it has gotten increasingly difficult to ever since Weiss and Blake came along.

The girls met Weiss first. Qrow has only heard whispers of the Shnee name; he isn't one for politics, never really cared for it, and that seemed to be the one thing that Weiss found cathartic. This was the one place where she wasn't expected to uphold some image. This was the one place where she could be a kid with impunity.

Blake came some time later. Conveniently enough, Yang went quiet for a while, showing up later than usual and dishing out every excuse under the sun, and if Qrow wasn't there to keep the peace, Taiyang would have lost his mind. After a few months, Blake entered the picture, her hand in Yang's, and that was that.

Everything else fell into place from there.

The four of them are too observant for their own good. The offenses go by unaddressed between Qrow and Taiyang, but the same can't be said for them. It shouldn't have surprised Qrow as much as it did when he realized that.

It is during a sleepover when it happens, almost a year after they all started hanging out, and it is Qrow's turn to check on them before he heads to bed. Only Zwei is there to witness his crime; he brings a tray of sweets for them despite it being half past eleven, because Taiyang is the responsible one, not him.

Right before Qrow knocks, he hears Weiss say, "So he's not your father?"

He halts, his knuckles a mere inch away from Ruby and Yang's door. Weiss sounds incredulous, and Blake seems just as perplexed when she murmurs, "I wondered about that." Quieter, almost impossible for Qrow to pick up on, she adds, "They really do look like they're in love, though."

"But do they realize it?" Weiss snorts.

There is a small sigh. A dreadful pause. And then Yang says, "I think Qrow does. I heard him tell Oobleck once that strawflowers make him think about Dad."

"And they're everywhere," Ruby points out with a snicker.

Since then, it has been difficult, because it is one thing if Qrow is obvious with how badly he is pining.

It is another beast entirely when the girls see it in both of them.

(A couple of years pass before Summer opens a flower shop next to Taiyang's tattoo parlor.

She has been planning for months, and just like Taiyang, she comes to Qrow first about it. There are a lot of headache inducing details to wade through, but it works out well enough in the end; one morning, she stands outside of the lot that is soon to be hers, barren and broken, but it is nothing she can't fix, she tells them.

And Qrow believes her. There really aren't many things she can't fix.

He stops by the parlor after his trip to the office to drop off his next report on Ozpin's desk. He finds Summer outside of her shop-to-be with her hands in front of her eyes as if framing a photo, tilting and resizing. Despite the late winter sky above drenching the street and parlor a miserable gray, she is nothing but vibrance and energy, the warmth from her unfurling like the petals of a rose.

It takes a bit to coax her back inside, but once they are seated on the twin couches in the waiting lounge, Summer asks him, "What do you want to name it?"

The abrupt question yanks Qrow's attention from the bright fish tank. He tears his gaze away from the betta he was tracking amongst the flurry of pseudo seaweed, and at the other side of the lounge, Summer is smiling. It is that giddy smile that brings a blossom of life to the room, that genuine smile that outshines every trinket and framed artwork that Taiyang has hung up on the walls.

"Why are you asking me, petal?" Qrow slumps against the seat once more, peering back into the fish tank for the elusive betta. Unsurprisingly, it is gone. Damn. "It's your shop, after all."

"You're the writer here!"

"Journalism is different from creative writing, you know."

"Didn't you minor in business or something?" Summer still presses.

Qrow pins her with a flat look. "That doesn't make me a professional at naming businesses."

Summer sticks her lip out in a petulant little pout. "Well, you're my last hope. You know what Tai told me?" Qrow hums, and she groans, "Summer's Roses."

"That's not too bad," he snorts.

Since Summer likes being dramatic when she doesn't get what she wants, she throws herself back to lay against the length of the couch with a disgruntled whine. Qrow gives up in his search and instead looks over towards where Taiyang is perched, the tattoo machine in his hand still humming faintly.

He has always been a marvel to watch. Every mesmerizing press and stroke of the needle, the methodic swiping of the cloth he holds in his other hand, the meticulous attention to detail that never fails to draw Qrow's eye. Underneath his hands, color bursts to life along a canvas of flesh, spreading with the same languid ease as a droplet of blood that dissipates into water.

It is breathtaking, the serenity that bleeds from every pore as Taiyang finally pulls back to examine the strawflower tattoo. Orange blends with yellow, gray coalesces with brown, feather-light and impeccable, all sitting upon a bed of muted burgundy. The strawflower starts at the center of the upper back, its stem sitting along a short length of the spine, executed with such care, such tenacity that Qrow could never hope to mirror.

That is one thing about Taiyang that makes Qrow feel like Remnant has come to a standstill - the beauty he breathes into this world, stretching and contracting along flesh, sinking and smearing across paper. Taiyang regards his client with an easy smile, his gloves stained with blood and ink alike, his voice a soothing murmur.

In most ways, he is fierce, all-encompassing like a wildfire that shreds through several acres in a single hour, smouldering like the midsummer sun that scorches the streets. In this way, he is gentle, speaks as smoothly as the flow of water, wears a smile that can bend silver, shatter diamond, melt gold.

That is another thing that makes Qrow feel like he is far too high above the ground, stuck in some point of the atmosphere where breathing becomes entirely too difficult.

Quickly, Qrow realizes how perfectly strawflowers compliment Taiyang. They're strong. Persistent. Beautiful.

It is as if this lone flower was made specifically for him, created only for him to embody, crafted only for him to coexist with. Each petal shines a lovely shade of gold, and it's fitting, Qrow thinks; it's fitting when Taiyang is as captivating as every precious metal that snatches his attention in a heartbeat.

"Golden Everlasting," Qrow suddenly states after a while. Summer blinks, glances up at him, and he clarifies, "That's my suggestion."

"Golden Everlasting," Summer repeats with a delighted hum. "Poetic. I like that.")

The night before Taiyang leaves, he helps make dinner. There is a vase of strawflowers on the table and a stew that smells heavenly simmering atop the stove.

All four of the girls are over that night, sprawled out across the living room, which is separated from the kitchen by the counter alone. They are getting ridiculously rowdy despite it being only their second game of the night, but neither he nor Taiyang mind all that much.

Qrow stirs the pot, and idly, he grumbles about something under his breath, some complaint that Taiyang only half-listens to. With a small laugh, Taiyang points out, "You sure do complain a lot for someone who's making good business."

Qrow sets the ladle aside with a shrug. "Well, Ruby and Yang are gonna be gone soon. Who do I complain to, now?"

Even through the thick heat of the kitchen, rolling in waves from the stove and the light above, Qrow can feel the shift in the air. The tension is lethally tangible before he hears Taiyang mumble, "They really are leaving. I never thought they'd grow up this fast."

It is almost contagious, all of their giggles and giddy smiles, talking excitedly about the adventures to come. Qrow leans back against the counter, watching idly as Ruby, for the second time that night, loses by a miserably large margin to Yang. Zwei isn't even phased when she plops down next to him on the carpet in defeat.

"Finally running off to Beacon," he says after a while. "Kind of like we did, huh?"

Taiyang's smile is both a melancholy and a joy, a contradiction that Qrow understands deep in his core. The four of them were like that, once, all elated when they got their acceptance letters to Beacon, endlessly hopeful for the years to come.

"I almost miss it," Taiyang tells him. "Beacon. That raggedy apartment we used to live in. All those stupid parties Summer dragged us to."

Qrow rolls his eyes and teases, "Nothing like cheap beer and paper-thin walls to keep you company, right?"

Taiyang pins him with a playfully exasperated look. "That's not what I meant and you know it."

Of course Qrow knows. In a way, he understands it; he remembers those late nights, those quiet moments, the times when they were too drunk to care, the nights where nothing in the world existed but them. Vaguely, he can see them all in the four girls in their living room.

He remembers the movie nights, the game nights, the nights when all of their schedules miraculously aligned and they had no obligations to attend to. The nights where Summer would drape herself across Raven's lap and giggle to no end, and Raven would pretend she wasn't having a good time, and Taiyang would endlessly spout the dumbest jokes that made Qrow fall even harder than before.

A lot of things about Taiyang made him fall harder than he thought possible.

It has been years since he has felt that way - since he has felt like there was nothing but the atmosphere below him and the vast expanse of the cosmos above him. It has been years since he has felt his blood rush, both lighter than air and heavier than smoke, thrumming in his veins fast enough to send him reeling.

It has been years since Taiyang has spoken with that uniquely raw vulnerability when he says, "It'll just be us for a while."

It is an inevitability at its core; it is the force of gravity that tethers all things together, drawing them steadily closer until the collision is absolute. Qrow has seen it coming for a while now - and Taiyang has, as well, forever on the same page, indefinitely tethered to him despite never once daring to shake this balance - and yet his skin still sears, his heart still aches, his lungs still quake as if it is something that appeared out of nowhere.

Every offense comes to a head, every crime filters through for judgement, and with the resolve to shatter glass, to move planets, to scatter galaxies far into the unknown, Qrow asks, "To pick up where we left off?"

". . . Something like that."

He almost doesn't have enough strength left over to meet Taiyang's eye, but he does. He does, because for some reason, it is always when Taiyang is about to leave that he is honest. It is always the realization that he has run out of time that has him scrambling to get the truth out, to get the final words in. Come morning, Taiyang will be gone, and it'll just be Qrow for a while.

Vaguely, he remembers what Summer told him once. He remembers a lot of things that Summer said, and this must be what she meant when she said that distance makes the heart grow fonder. He doesn't know why he has never heeded the warning.

"You'll be gone for a while," Qrow needlessly states.

It is just above a whisper, barely audible, but Taiyang still hears it. It is impossible not to, not now that they have drifted closer, playing this dangerous game that they have delved into far too many times to count. It is too much and not enough, too close and too far, too heavy and too light, and Qrow can't think, can't breathe.

"You know I'm going to call home," Taiyang says. "You know I will, Qrow."

It is painfully familiar. They have been here before, many times in the distant past. They have been here late at night, every other month when Qrow would visit, gone as suddenly as he arrives. They have been here, leaning just as close, breaching as far as they can without splintering the thing between them like lightning across the sky.

They have been here, back when Qrow would always tell him, you know I'll come back, Tai, I'll always come back.

"Yeah," Qrow murmurs. Holds his breath, exhales slowly, but it doesn't help. "But it won't be the same without you here."

It is never the same without Taiyang.

It is never the same, either back then or in the near future; it will never be the same without Taiyang at his side, without Taiyang to wake up to, without Taiyang.

"Three months, right?" Qrow takes another breath. Still, it doesn't help. "Don't get me wrong, I'm happy for you, Tai. I'm happy that you're happy. It's just - more than any other time."

"I know." Taiyang pauses. Pulls his lower lip between his teeth. Qrow hates how easily the action draws his attention. Taiyang tries to say something, but ultimately, he only manages to breathe out, "I know."

Taiyang's hand comes up to rest on his hip. It is almost enough to split the ground beneath them, bring the sky crashing down, scatter the remains of the planet across the stretch of the solar system until there is nothing left in sight.

This isn't an offense; this is deliberate, this is necessary, this is right.

There has been moments like this before, moments where they have gotten dreadfully close, but it is never been this intense. Never been when Taiyang is about to take a flight to the other side of the planet, never been when they are both watching their girls grow up faster than they are ready for.

All that is left is each other, but it is not in a way that is a last resort. Not in a way that is helpless.

All that is left is this thing between them to finally pinpoint, to finally address, and flesh out now that they have the time to. There is all the time in the world. Time they have spent getting their lives together and raising Ruby and Yang right. Time they have yet to spend to figure each other out.

Qrow wants so badly that it aches. He wants in a way that he has always wanted, but now it has reached a boiling point, gotten to a height where it beads along a ledge and finally spills. He wants to reach out, pull Taiyang in, and hold him close. Closer than before, closer than he has ever had the right to.

It is calamitous, this urge to slot them together like pieces of a puzzle, edges of glass melded to fit, two parts of an imperfect whole. Breathe Taiyang in until it hurts, taste him until it is the only thing he remembers, fill every space that has been empty for so long.

Taiyang's eyes still haven't left him, a striking blue encasing his pupils; they are an abyss to fall into, a void to fill, an ache to alleviate. He wants, and Qrow wants, and the years finally catch up, and that is all they have, all they need.

He has never been closer to saying the words, to shattering the glasslike stillness of the comfort they have found. He has only confessed twice, and this is it, Qrow thinks, this is it, this is the point where stars collide, where the universe gives in and sends a spectrum blossoming in every direction.

With the suddenness of a riptide that sweeps away everything in its wake, he realizes that the girls are deathly silent. Qrow doesn't need to look to know where their attention is turned to. He tremulously clears his throat, averts his gaze, and it seems to snap Taiyang out of wherever he drifted off to.

With a painful regret, he steps away and returns to the simmering pot atop the stove.

(After all is said and done, Qrow isn't upset.

He never is. Not at Taiyang, anyways.

It stings, in a way, like the thorns of a rose, embedding itself in his throat and along the lining of his veins. It stretches further, into the very stem of his heart, curling into every chamber, and despite it all, he can't be upset at either of them.

It sort of comes to a head when Zwei is introduced.

Qrow has been helping Summer out around her flower shop for a while now, usually for a few days after he finishes a report. It is mundane, and he complains to no end, and eventually, Taiyang gives in and takes in the pup Oobleck has been pestering him about.

Zwei is a delightful little thing, his tail wagging furiously while Summer cooes endlessly over how cute he is. He is bundled up in Taiyang's arms, pressing up eagerly into the fingers that scratch the top of his head. Over Summer's bubbly croon, Taiyang says, "I bet he'll bring in new customers. Look at him; who can say no to that face?"

They look happy that way - fawning over Zwei, discussing how they'll teach Yang how to handle him properly, sharing these looks that Qrow recognizes in an instant.

There is a different sort of calm that comes with watching two of his best friends find happiness in each other. There is a different kind of clarity to the quiet moments and the none-too-subtle glances between the two people he cares for the most. It is healing he sees in Taiyang, in the tired smile and hushed voice; it is hope he sees in Summer, in her soothing words and her roaming fingers.

Qrow glances between the two. He isn't upset that they are on their way to their own happily ever after.

He is upset at himself for craving it.

For craving Taiyang despite it being years since he fell in love, for wishing for all the things he can't have.

He is even more upset at himself when he catches Taiyang's eye. There is something in them, something elusive in oceans deep, something calamitous in the too-bright gleam in them. Something lurks just underneath the surface, as fleeting as the instances of light that flash above storm clouds, and it isn't difficult to understand.

Qrow understands immediately, because it is wounded, helpless, as if he is looking at something unobtainable. As if he is looking at something that he can't hope to have.

And for some reason, it is directed towards Qrow.

It is that one calamitous word that digs into his chest. The one word that curls its talons into either side of his sternum and cracks it right open. It is that one word that makes him feel bare and raw, that shatters him at his core and leaves his heart out for the world to see. For Taiyang to see.

He leaves shortly after.)

Summer was the first Qrow confessed to.

The second, miraculously enough, ends up being Yang.

It isn't intentional, but it isn't unintentional, either; it is one of those things that merely fell into place, coming out gentle and unhurried, with Yang as the unwitting catalyst. It is during the summer before her senior year, shortly after she comes home late from the mall one day, with Blake in uncontrollable tears and her in tattered, bloodstained clothing.

Yang is fierce, strong, unrelenting - in many ways, she reminds Qrow of Raven, with the fire that seethes bright in her eyes. They both possess a different kind of strength, a different kind of peril.

Yang returns with a busted lip and a bruise that knits one eye shut, but Adam returns to wherever he crawled out from with much worse. Taiyang is the one that deals with the legal matters later. It is Qrow who deals with Yang a week after it happens, still healing and hurting, but in a different way, now.

A week passes before Yang is inconsolable, locked inside her room with an array of break up songs mutedly bleeding out from the walls. Taiyang is helpless when she finally unlocks her door, so Qrow takes the reins. He tries not to fret over Taiyang when they switch places, whose waterline shines and breaths come out stilted.

He has always been a crier. That must be where Ruby gets it from.

Qrow sits gingerly on the edge of Yang's bed. He doesn't try to speak to her like Taiyang does. He merely sits there, runs his fingers through her hair, and allows her to sob for as long as she needs to.

It is the touch that calms her enough to finally say, "She just left." Her voice comes out thick, heavy, and he pauses. "She said she needed space and she just - she just blocked me. On everything." Her shoulders start to quake once more, and Qrow resumes the touches. A dull ache pounds in his chest when she tremulously asks, "What am I supposed to do?"

Qrow takes a slow breath. "You grieve. You pick up the pieces. And when the time comes, you two make it work."

"She said . . ." A slow breath, a trembling exhale. "She said she loved me. And then she - she just left. Like a liar. " The last word comes out harsh, broken. "You don't hurt people you love."

"Not intentionally, no, but when you're scared and don't know what else to do, you end up with casualties." Yang is glassy-eyed when she finally looks up at him, smaller than he has ever seen, raw like the length of a freshly unbandaged wound. "She told you she loved you, and I think she meant it enough to leave when her crazy ex came after you."

She regards him with a wilted look before she looks away. In this way, she looks devastatingly similar to Taiyang, all those years ago when he'd gaze blankly ahead of him, unblinking, unseeing. The tears still seep out into the pillow, but she doesn't quake as badly as before when she says, "It's how she told me, too. Like it - like it hurt to say it or something. Like it was too much."

Qrow's jaw twinges, clenches shut. There is a ground-shaking familiarity to Yang's words that he recognizes, something so viscerally similar that it makes him want to crawl further into the hiding space he has retreated to. But Yang is standing on thin ice, and the slightest movement could send her plunging into the abyss, so he remains where he is, exposed like the underside of a picked scab.

"Sometimes, it is," Qrow says. Soft, quiet, enough to draw Yang's eyes back to him. "Sometimes you love someone so much that it hurts. Sometimes, leaving is what makes that easier to handle."

Yang regards him for a long moment before she weakly asks, "Is that what happened? When Ruby and I were little?"

There is no judgement in her tone, only the slightest hint of curiosity, like she is reaching for some sort of comfort in understanding. He almost denies it, almost continues to play this lethal game of pretend, but the confession spills forth, falls heavily like thunder amongst stormclouds and rain against tiled rooftops when he says, "Yeah."

A long pause follows before Yang looks away. She looks conflicted, but it isn't towards him. She settles back against her pillow, a few more tears welling along her waterline, and she asks him, smaller than ever before, "Did you stop loving him before you came back?"


She starts to sob anew, but it isn't staggeringly heavy with grief anymore. They don't speak about that night, but in more ways than one, it was a necessary conversation for the both of them.

(Qrow checks in sporadically.

From the start, Ozpin just knew, and he didn't press too much before sending Qrow to the ends of Sanus and back. For a while, it is the distance that lets him forget what it is like to be in love with someone he can't have.

So Qrow is there with awe-inspiring stories for the press, clear and concise, and then silly stories for Summer and Taiyang, exaggerated and sensationalized over a few drinks. He is there with gifts for Ruby and Yang every time, and Summer eventually teases him for spoiling them, but he just can't help it.

He is there on birthdays, on holidays, on the day Ruby is born, on the morning of Yang's kindergarten graduation - which he thinks is the most hilarious thing in the world, but Taiyang is teary-eyed when he takes several pictures that day, and Summer hangs up a handful of them on the walls later, so he keeps quiet.

They have found their peace.

Slowly, Qrow starts to find peace in that.

He never pinpoints exactly what it is between him and Taiyang. They have drifted apart as time progressed, and they are not the same, not anymore. There is a flask in Qrow's pocket, and a melancholic gleam over Taiyang's eyes when they linger on Qrow, and it has never been this way before.

There is an ache in Qrow's chest, right where his heart is, and every time, it surprises him to acknowledge that it is even there. He forgets that it is until he sees Taiyang. He forgets how fast it can race when Taiyang uses that smile that he has always had reserved for him, speaks in that gentle tone that has always been so disarming.

Sometimes, Taiyang catches him at the door before he disappears. Sometimes, he lowers his voice as if he is sharing some dire secret, and says, "You never stick around anymore."

It isn't an accusation. There isn't enough hurt behind it to be one. It is a clear, concise statement with nothing but defeat in it, nothing but reluctant acceptance. He seems like he has settled - settled for something that was guaranteed, settled for something safe.

And Qrow doesn't like to think about that.

Every time they get there, when they reach that painful standstill, Qrow always tells him, "I'll come back. You know I will."

He will because he loves Ruby and Yang, and he loves Summer, and he loves Taiyang. He loves all of them, loves them despite wishing he didn't sometimes, loves them even after he tries to drown away the ache with all the alcohol he can get his hands on some nights.

Taiyang looks like he wants to say something. Looks like there is a protest on his tongue, a statement in his heart, a wound that can't mend itself somewhere along the way. It is moments like these that Qrow feels that impulsive urge to tug him closer, melt into Taiyang in the same way that his tattoo melts gold across the tanned expanse of his skin. Maybe he can hear the secrets beneath skin and bone, can feel the confession under his lips and his tongue; maybe he can find it lost in oceans fit to drown in, but despite the aching want in them, Taiyang does not give in.

He only ever says, "Call us, at least. Okay?"

"Okay," Qrow says, even though they both know he'll probably forget to call.

And then he leaves before he can dwell any more than he already has. He leaves before he can give in to the urge and stay. He leaves to go find a bar to waste time at, and Taiyang watches as he goes, and it goes on for a long time.

When he returns permanently, it is because of the funeral.)

It isn't very long after Taiyang leaves that a new customer starts to come by surprisingly often.

The first thing Qrow notices are his eyes; they are the verdency of spring, and they notice every detail, focusing on every new piece of jewelry that Qrow wears whenever he comes by. His smile is easygoing and pleasant, as warm as the early kiss of daybreak, his laugh brighter than the sun itself.

Qrow assumes that it is because of Zwei that he comes in to begin with. Zwei is an expert businessman; it only takes about ten minutes of lounging at the man's feet before Qrow sells a rather large bouquet. Except that assumption falls apart very quickly when the man visits again a few weeks later.

On the third visit, which would be the same co-worker's promotion deserving of a celebratory bouquet of flowers, Qrow realizes what is going on. Eventually, after some fumbling and awkward laughter, they become friends.

Before then, though, Qrow laughs about it to Taiyang over the phone. It is still early in the morning, just a heartbeat before dawn breaks, and he is sifting idly through a few rings to wear that day.

"He used the same excuse three times," he says with amused incredulity. "I think it's pretty hilarious. Three promotions? Next thing I know, that co-worker of his will be the next CEO."

For the first time in these past couple of months, there is tension in the odd silence that follows his words. He has Taiyang on speaker, and that only makes the tense atmosphere even more obvious, jumbling like the white noise of the background static of the call. Taiyang makes an odd noise, as if he has suddenly realized that he has been silent, and he shifts, huffs out between his teeth.

"Well, I think it's weird," Taiyang mumbles.

There is something dangerous that skulks in his words, something perilously close to jealousy, dripping like venom, stinging like acid. Qrow lowers the titanium ring he has been holding up to the light, cautiously asking, "Is something wrong?"

Another stretch of silence follows, long and winding like the length of a river, the end of it nearly impossible to see. Then there is another gentle rustle, skin sliding smoothly against fabric, and Taiyang finally says, "No."

Qrow rolls his eyes, and he mockingly stage-whispers over his shoulder, "Hear that, little guy?" Zwei immediately perks up from where he has been laying at the foot of the bed. "That's what lying sounds like."

Taiyang sighs heavily, rustling a loud surge of static in its wake. "Damn it, Qrow, you're making things difficult."

He is suddenly very aware of his heart in his chest, the way it thuds against his sternum, the echoes of it all the way to his fingertips. He has a vague idea of what this is, of what Taiyang means, and he isn't sure if it is exhilarating or terrifying. With a stilted breath, he says, "I don't think we're on the same page, here."

But they are, of course they are, they have always been on the same page, always followed that simultaneous push and pull and kept that delicate balance. Except there is no balance, not in the next pause that follows, tilting horrifically as if the ground has split apart underneath it.

"Qrow," Taiyang eventually starts.

His voice wavers as if he can't figure out the words to say, and Qrow wonders where this came from, how every phone call ever ended beforehand. He doesn't remember it being this precarious, trembling enough to tear itself apart; he doesn't remember when the tension even began to rise in heat, but it did, and it is boiling him alive.

"We never talked. About that night." There is another dreadful pause, a silence thick enough to shatter through bone, and then he adds, "Or . . . any other night. We never talk about - about this."

Qrow hums, in both understanding and agreement, and it is almost laughable, how viscerally he recognizes this. The silence until it is too delicate to hold anymore, the truth that sticks glued to the roof of his mouth until it is forced out at the very last moment. He doesn't know why it always surprises him when he is reminded of how similar they really are.

His mouth is inexplicably dry, and he rests his hand over his hip, over where Taiyang's was all that time ago. Three months has never gone by longer; three months have never been quieter, never been more dull, never dragged on for this long.

And yet somehow, it is still too much. It is too much and it is not enough; it is overflowing and it is empty; it is that singularity before an explosion and that immeasurable expanse of something far too vast to quantify anymore. Qrow opens his mouth once, twice, feels the words crumble before they can get out.

He manages to say, "This isn't a conversation I want to have over the phone."

Not when they are so far apart, not when the ache can't be alleviated, not when he will be left raw with no way to heal afterwards. He hears Taiyang take a breath, slow, almost a shudder where it filters through his teeth.

"Okay." Inhale, exhale, and yet he still sounds like he can't breathe when he repeats, "Okay." He pauses, and he has never sounded closer to the edge, never sounded as if he was a moment away from breaking when he says, "We won't. But . . . but when I get home . . ."

"Yeah." Qrow bites his lip. On his nightstand, there is a vase with strawflowers, a complimentary ribbon tied to a neat bow around its neck. It is enough to bring that sense of familiarity he has been missing, and quietly, he says, "Come home safe first."

Qrow doesn't miss the soft sigh Taiyang makes before he hangs up.

(The memories are muddled, for the most part, both from grief and the alcoholism that it brought.

The day is a blur. The week is a blur. It all becomes a blur the moment Taiyang calls him, barely able to speak, his voice weak, small, broken. Everything muddles together until he is forced to resurface when he leads Taiyang back home. Tugs him along, up the driveway and through the front door, nudging him gently down onto the couch.

Qrow tries to make dinner, tries to make Ruby and Yang happy, tries to make things right, but nothing is successful. Nothing is okay, nothing works, nothing is right, nothing.

He doesn't know how to explain to Yang why everyone is crying. He doesn't know what to do with Ruby, who is too young to understand what is going on but old enough to recognize that something is different. She squirms furiously at his hip until he lets her down. They both run over to Taiyang, clamoring onto him, and the look he has in his eye hurts.

Taiyang is there, but he is not. Seeing, but he is not. Breathing, sitting, looking down at the both of them, but he isn't there.

Qrow holds them together until he can't. He sweeps up the broken glass with his own hands to allow Taiyang a safe passage smeared in crimson. There isn't a balance for a while after Summer dies. Everything is hectic, everything is falling apart, and coping is all they can do.

Except coping isn't Qrow's strong suit.

The first time Taiyang has to pick up the pieces, it is a year after Summer died, and Qrow is insanely drunk.

He doesn't remember how he got to Taiyang's place, but he is there. The world has been shoved sideways out of its orbit and the only axis it sits upon now is Taiyang. It is always Taiyang, in the center, in the heart, at the root of it all. It is Taiyang who brings stars together, swirling fast until they collide, sending the spectrum stretching out in the unknown.

That is what Taiyang is - a tether, an anchor, a point in which a supernova ignites, a singularity that sends the universe reeling, expanding, breathing. There are brief glimpses that Qrow can remember, starting on Taiyang's driveway and somehow ending up on his couch.

Breathe, he thinks Taiyang tells him, just breathe. And he does, he is, or maybe he isn't. He doesn't know. He isn't sure, anymore. His chest expands, lungs strain, ribcage creaks, but he doesn't feel any less lethargic, can't seem to get his head to stop swimming.

All he knows is that Taiyang is there. Unfocused, but there. There is something warm on Qrow's cheek, another on his hand, holding, intertwining, squeezing just so. Taiyang is so pretty, haloed in the lamplight, his lips pressed tight. He is so pretty, even when he is upset, even when he is shaking his head.

Qrow watches his mouth move. His eyebrows furrow. His gaze averts. It takes a long while, but he refocuses, and he finally registers Taiyang's words when he repeats them.

"You can't keep doing this," Taiyang says. "Not to yourself. Not to the girls." He pauses for a long while, and the world stops breathing, the clouds come to a standstill, the cosmos itself ceases to expand. Quietly, he adds, "Not to me."

Taiyang finally gets up. His footsteps echo, shattering the earth beneath him, ringing terribly in Qrow's ears like they are on the verge of breaking every bit of glass nearby. Taiyang glances back at him, then down to Ruby and Yang, who are still sniffling, clinging to his hands again, wide-eyed and terrified.

There is bile at the back of Qrow's throat, burning on his tongue, seething in his sinuses. There is an ache behind his eyes, between his temples, jarring now that Taiyang is no longer there to shield him from the lights above. There is a searing pain on his side, just underneath his ribs, a wound that weeps out into fabric, not deep enough to be fatal, but deep enough to hurt.

There is a throb in his chest, encased in his ribcage, shuddering between his lungs as he watches Taiyang herd the girls off. Hides them away from the sight of their beloved uncle, largely incoherent and weeping red, red, red. Later, Qrow is stitched back together and pumped free of toxins, and once he is finally allowed to go home, they talk.

It isn't a farewell, but it almost is.

Taiyang is a hair away from leaving, a breath away from saying goodbye, both for himself and for his daughters.

For Qrow, that is enough.)

In the end, it is not about the tattoo.

It is about so much more than that.

It is about the inevitability of loss and the fragility of life. It is about the uncaring passage of time and the consequences of missing those opportunities. It is about clinging to every excuse not to pursue Taiyang when their lives are only getting shorter and the days are only getting longer.

Qrow isn't resistant to change, but he doesn't like it all that much. He isn't resistant to permanence, but he doesn't like the chance that what he loves enough to get tattooed on him now will become something he hates a decade later.

Except there is one thing that will never change.

Taiyang calls up until the night he is about to take a flight home. He has called a lot in the past three months, always in the middle of the night, but Qrow doesn't mind. Every call serves as a reminder that there is one thing in his life that will never completely change, only grow, and mend, and heal.

There is the vein-deep love he has for Taiyang and the soul-deep love he has for the girls, and that is enough.

That will always be enough.

(No one warned Qrow that the long road to sobriety would be a difficult one.

No one told him that it would be so rewarding in the end, either.

He pulls himself together in time to just barely keep the flower shop from shutting down. He pulls himself together in time to close the rift between him and his nieces. He pulls himself together, and he stays together, and on the nights he can't, Taiyang is there to keep him from falling apart.

Taiyang settles with him on those nights, holds his trembling hands, and says, "Keep me company. Just five minutes, okay?"

And Qrow wants to say no. Wants to shove him away, wants to rip his hands out of Taiyang's grasp, wants to head straight to the nearest bar - he wants and wants and wants and wants so badly that it stings, it aches, it hurts, but he doesn't.

He doesn't, because five minutes pass, and Taiyang murmurs against his temple, "Five more minutes. For me?"

It feels like five years, five decades, five centuries of wanting and hurting and shaking and wanting, but he doesn't. He doesn't, and he breathes, and he quakes, and he listens when Taiyang says, again and again with all the excuses in the world, "Five minutes, Qrow."

It is five minutes upon five minutes until it passes.

Until those nights get less frequent, and those urges become less severe.

The good nights start to far outweigh the bad ones. Sometimes, Taiyang finds him draped on the couch, but he isn't covered in bile or wanting so badly that it hurts.

Taiyang comes home late sometimes, and he finds Qrow dozing off on the couch, Yang under one arm and Ruby against the other, already asleep halfway through the movie they have been watching. He finds Qrow telling the girls all kinds of stories, grand and exaggerated and everything that makes them starry-eyed and hopeful.

The girls love Qrow with all their hearts, and for once, he feels like he deserves it.

He has finally made it, and he would go through hell and back again if it meant that this is what he had to look forward to every evening.

He eventually notices how Taiyang watches. He is always watching, always staring, always lingering. There is obvious restraint up until Qrow becomes the second parent the girls need. There is restraint until there is no reason to have any. Until it becomes evident that Qrow isn't leaving, either to an early grave or to whatever misadventure that would have him missing for several weeks at a time.

Qrow understands that completely. It is another way that he and Taiyang are the same.

So it isn't really a surprise that that is when the offenses begin. The fleeting glances, the little smiles, the lingering touches - it starts when the lull of sobriety does. There is a promise of stability amidst all of the progression, obvious once they get past the rough patches and the general mourning.

In a way, they pick up where they left off. They continue to build something uniquely their own, even if it is different now with time and age and experience. What matters is that at the core, at the heart of it all, it is the same.)

Qrow works tirelessly on floral arrangements for the graduation ceremony.

The sun is already melting against the bumpy horizon when the bell rings. He takes a moment to steady himself on the ladder before he fixes another feathery sunflower into place. Yellows and oranges burst underneath his fingertips, whispering gently over his skin as he pulls back just a bit to examine his work.

He then glances over to the digital clock on the table shoved into one corner of the back room, and he rolls his eyes. Irritation digs under his skin, wedges under his nails like the dirt that cakes the spaces around them, and he doesn't care to mask it when he calls out, "We're closing soon!"

He manages to adjust another sunflower before he hears a painfully familiar voice call back, "I don't remember you being this mean before I left."

The grin is practically audible, lacing Taiyang's words with traces of a pleasant laugh. Qrow descends the ladder in a heartbeat, and just outside of the back room, Taiyang is there. He has Zwei in his arms, who is squirming and licking and wagging his tail so furiously that it thuds against his torso.

The sunset filters through the glass, pulsing strong like the echoes of velvet and blood orange across the sky, outlining everything in his shop. Taiyang is finally there, finally home, haloed in gold, his skin dark and mellow in the dying sunlight. He outshines every flower, every vase, every display.

There isn't enough oxygen in Qrow's veins, replaced only by the want that surges forth and simmers like blood beneath his skin. He only realizes that he is staring when Taiyang sets Zwei down, the movement sudden enough to snap him back to the present, and he teases, "It's been a minute."

Taiyang doesn't seem to register what he says. He only stares, something odd in his expression, something wounded, as if he also can't believe that they are together again, as if he can't believe that three months had already passed. Another moment beats, another painful lungful of air leaves him.

Then Taiyang breaks into a smile and yanks him into a hug. The abruptness of it forces a surprised noise from Qrow's lips. It is suddenly too close, too warm, too much, but then Taiyang breathes, "I missed you."

The tension that has been strewn wire-tight finally snaps. It dissipates with the luxurious pace of a midsummer breeze, and slowly, gradually, Qrow's arms come up to settle around Taiyang's waist.

He doesn't have the heart to joke. He is too fragile, like glass, like paper, like the petals of a flower. He doesn't have the strength to make up some quip that will bring the situation down from the frightening height it has risen to.

"Missed you, too," Qrow mumbles against his shoulder.

They could spend decades there in the sunset, forever trapped in the standstill that the world has come to, and Qrow wouldn't mind. He would give up anything to pull the moment to a crawl, to keep Taiyang from moving, to cling to any semblance of comfort he can possibly get.

Except Taiyang doesn't move away, never even comes close; he stays there for a long while, his breath warm against Qrow's ear when he says, "Atlas was nice." His voice is low, a rumble in his chest, honey on the tip of his tongue. "But it's not . . . it's not Patch."

It's not home, is what Qrow hears, it's not my family. And quieter still, subtler than ever before, lighter than smoke between them, it's not you.

He doesn't know how he finds the strength to joke, "Nothing like distance to make you realize how good you had it, right?"

Even lilted, the words hit just as hard, and Taiyang pulls back. His hands rest on Qrow's shoulders, a necessary weight, keeping him grounded when he feels like he is soaring alongside the expansion of the cosmos. In Taiyang's eyes, bright like the glitter of sunlight against the ocean's surface, there is a hope, a wish, a want.

Qrow wants, as well.

The anticipation rises to a boil, tightens like wire, piles on heavily like pressure that inflates to bursting. Taiyang wants but he doesn't move, doesn't come close, just keeps staring, watching, hoping. They meant to talk, but it is different now that the words refuse to lace together and his mouth refuses to form them. Qrow licks his chapped lips, and he watches how the action yanks Taiyang's attention away, ensnares him until it is gone.

"The girls missed you, too, you know," Qrow tries to tease, but it is too quiet, too raw.

Taiyang's gaze rises again. "I already went to go see them." Then, carefully, just above a whisper, he adds, "They said you've been lonely."

"Snitches," Qrow grumbles, because it is true. He is lonely - dreadfully, pitifully lonely - but Taiyang is, as well.

They both are, and they are both tired of it, and that is all that matters.

Taiyang laughs at that, and it hits Qrow just how much he has missed hearing it in person, how beautiful it is when it isn't laden with static. There is mirth in those stunning eyes of his, a breathtakingly genuine smile that tugs at the corners of his lips.

They have been at this edge long enough, balanced and careful, never daring to set foot one way or another. They can still feel it, how perilous that drop is, how delicate that lining is, but Qrow doesn't find it in himself to care anymore. He can't, not when there's been years to overthink, and three months to crave in a way he hasn't craved before.

It is impulsive, this urge, this craving, but Qrow gives in anyways. There is a shared breath, muddled and heady, and then Qrow fists his collar and slots their lips together. There is a sound that is muffled against him, wounded in a way it has never been, raw in a way that stems deeper than tendons and bones. There is the mesmerizing pressure of Taiyang's lips, the smell of his cologne, the bitter edge of coffee, and it is both too much and not enough.

The atmosphere is no longer tight and jumbled like static, instead soft and mellow like the lull of twilight that gradually begins to settle. There is hardly any space when they break away, their noses bumping together, sharing one breath, one thought, one coherency. It is only them, now; it is only Taiyang, pressed against him, brushing against his lips once more.

"I've been -" Taiyang's voice melts into the next kiss, hot and languid, and then he pulls away to finish, "I've been wanting to do that since -"

He lingers, unsure of how to finish it, of where to begin or how to end, and Qrow understands. He has understood since they stumbled home from that first party together, since he first snooped through that sketchbook, since Taiyang first flirted back at him; he has understood it so completely, so wholly, felt it in the depths of his veins, the capillaries under his skin, the chambers of his heart.

"Forever ago?" Qrow guesses.

"Yeah," Taiyang says. His hands trail flames across Qrow's skin where they cup the nape of his neck. "From the start."

There were never any offenses, Qrow belatedly realizes, there has only been a steady rise in heat until they finally moulded together. There are many things that still need to be said, many things that they have long since needed to confess, but touch is easier than talk. It is easier to breathe Taiyang in, to thread his fingers into Taiyang's hair like he has been craving to do from the start, to shove him back against the counter and muffle the soft moan that follows.

Briefly after they break apart, still panting, Qrow grins and asks, "So . . . which one of us is gonna tell them?"

Taiyang blinks, regains some capacity of rational thought, and breathlessly laughs. Qrow presses his lips against his pulse point, wondering if he can feel it through veins, through tendons, through skin.

("I know what tattoo I want."

Qrow's voice is soft in the honeyed glow of the sunset, filling the pleasant ease of the air between them. It takes a moment before Taiyang's fingers halt where they've been tracing mindless patterns against his inner thigh. Then, he shifts, leaning back far enough to get a look at Qrow's face.

His eyes are bright - they are oceans to delve into, jewels encrusted upon a lovely band of gold, stars that burn the brightest in the night sky. The incredulity in them is obvious, but then it shifts into something wondrous like awe, something giddy like excitement.

"Really?" Taiyang breathes.

"Yeah," Qrow hums. He tucks his nose back into the crook of Taiyang's neck, brushes his lips to the bruise he left there. "Been thinking about it for a while now, actually."

Taiyang seems to snap out of it; suddenly, he tenses, and he makes a move to get up, starting frantically, "Wait, but - Brothers, I don't think I have another opening until -"

He comes to an abrupt stop when Qrow threads his fingers through his hair. Anchors him like he has anchored Qrow several times before, brings him back to the present instead of the stress-inducing future.

"That's fine," Qrow murmurs against his skin, "that gives you all the time you need to make up something decent."

Qrow can't help the smirk he wears when Taiyang pushes him back against the mattress. Taiyang slots between his thighs, a flame sparking bright in his eyes, seething deep in his pupils. He asks with the growl of a challenge, "You think I need a year to figure it out?"

And because Qrow likes to play with fire, he confirms, "Probably longer. You're getting a little rusty."

Taiyang mouths against the mark that sits high on the column of his throat, and Qrow can't help but laugh. This is the stupid hothead he fell for. This is what he has been hung up on for so long.)

The low, rumbling hum of the tattoo machine rings out through the parlor for hours on end. It is mind-numbing enough for Qrow to start to drift through it after a few hours. He rests with his head pillowed under one hand, the other gripping tight at the ledge of the table he is laid across.

Pain isn't new to him. What is new is the way Taiyang handles him - it is different when he is the one under Taiyang's care after years of watching from the sidelines. He can feel every swipe of cloth that melds with the fire that laps over his torso, hear every word that Taiyang murmurs to him, recognizes the sheer adoration in Tiayang's voice when he stops every now and again and checks how Qrow is doing.

And every time, Qrow says, "I know I've got bones there, Tai."

The corners of Taiyang's eyes crinkle, and he rests his hand against the curve of Qrow's hip, squeezes gently before he continues. The gesture is intimate, a weight to it that no other client sees, the glide of his thumb over Qrow's skin enough to soothe every pinprick, every bite of the needle through skin.

By the time Taiyang is done, Qrow somehow manages to doze off a little, and the shop comes to life with fluorescent lights and neon blue flickering brightly just outside. The sun dips far past the flat tops of the buildings on the other side of the road, melting velvet across the sky, trickling slowly into the navy-hued beginnings of night.

Ruby and Yang are running late that day, their road trip extended by a few hours due to a blockage on the freeway, but they arrive just as Taiyang is washing off the excess ink and blood. Qrow tries not to squirm under their eyes - they stare incredulously for a long while before Yang finally blurts out, "That's so cool, Dad!"

"Oh," Ruby squeals, absolutely enamored in a way that Qrow knows will probably spurt a sudden influx of tattoo ideas for months to come, "it's so pretty!"

Taiyang's hand squeezes his gently, and he is guided slowly off the table, led gingerly over to the mirror that Taiyang keeps across the room. Immediately, his gaze falls down to the string of color that stretches across his abdomen, curving up against his ribs to mask the scar that he has had there for ages.

All he can do is stare. Stare with his lips just slightly parted, stare with fingers trembling at the frame of the mirror, stare until he finally tears his gaze away from the tattoo. Through the mirror, he sees Ruby and Yang and how widely they beam at him from across the room; just behind him, he sees Taiyang and the pure, unabashed love that shines in his eyes.

That's the thing Summer always talked about, Qrow thinks, his gaze drawn back to the tattoo like the gravity pulls the planets into their orbits, that's what she meant.

There is a string of flowers that cover the length of the scar, light and smooth against his pale skin. Roses are etched in a weeping crimson, the flurry of their petals stretching wide, as bright and lively as Ruby and Summer. Dragon lilies are engraved in a smoldering orange, their curved tips seething red, as fierce and bold as Yang.

And what holds Qrow's attention as strongly as it did all those years ago are the strawflowers that kiss the edges of his ribs, as strong and breathtaking as Taiyang.


Qrow looks back to Taiyang. The giddy energy that seeped from him has died down some, replaced with an unbearable amount of anticipation that jumbles like static between them. Ruby and Yang are gone, their voices filtering in through the waiting lounge, talking enthusiastically with Weiss and Blake about it.

Qrow can't help but return to the mirror, finally answering, "It's perfect."

It isn't even a second before Taiyang's hands are on him again, ginger where they settle at his biceps, as feather-light as the lips that press against the nape of his neck. They brush over his skin, as warm as the sunset when he cheekily asks, "Worth the wait, then?"

A small laugh rumbles from Qrow's chest. All of it was worth the wait; every year they have spent, every bridge they have crossed, every milestone they have reached was worth it. There isn't a thing that Qrow would trade out, not a single thing he is willing to change.. This is a peace he has never known. This is a peace that is reminiscent of coming home after an excruciatingly long day.

That is what this is - home.

"Yeah," Qrow says. "It was."