A/N: i've been meaning to write a psychological horror au, and i'm lucky that it happened to fit one of today's prompts ! kudos to andy and my wife for helping me figure this one out 3
this was loosely inspired by apathy and how they work in canon, and although the entities in this fic aren't corporeal, they certainly are a . . . thing. idk, it's meant to be symbolic, just trust me.
Fair Game Week Day 3 - Charms/Dreams
Qrow doesn't leave everything behind, but he comes close.
It takes a week of frantic searching for something within his budget before he takes the first offer and leaves. There isn't much to his name to begin with, anyways. He brings the essentials: clothing, kitchenware, entertainment, furniture. All that matters to him is getting out of Patch, leaving nothing behind but empty shelves and empty dressers and an empty half of the parking garage that doesn't go by unnoticed.
He doesn't pay any mind to the missing calls or unread texts. Instead, he focuses on the apartment itself. It's small, unremarkable, potentially homely if he tries hard enough to decorate. The very first time he unlocks the apartment and steps inside, he's hit with a chill that he doesn't expect. It's nothing like home - barren walls and stained carpet and a hallway that the light inexplicably can't reach the end of.
He supposes it could be worse, though. He didn't expect to find something so generous when he left Patch. It's on the very outskirts of Mantle, just far enough away from Atlas to avoid the four digit rent but close enough to scrape that dangerous threshold. Apparently, it's a discounted price.
Qrow mentions it fleetingly to the neighbor down the hall who helps him move his furniture up the stairs about halfway through. He's been interesting company so far - pretty green eyes and a damnably contagious smile and enough puns up his metaphorical sleeve to make Qrow feel a little less ragged, a little less empty.
"Might wanna be careful, then," his neighbor - Clover, apparently - tells him, half-smiling and half-joking and half of something Qrow can't quite put his finger on. "I hear a lot of interesting things come out of this apartment."
Qrow only shrugs. "I'm sure it just needs some TLC."
Clover laughs at that, smooth and easygoing and just as gentle as the seafoam green of his eyes. It takes a moment for Qrow to remember how to breathe.
But soon he's gone, and now Qrow is alone in an empty apartment with an empty pocket and an empty space between his ribs that he isn't sure how to compensate for. By the time he finishes reassembling the dresser and the bed frame, the sun is already setting, and the apartment is somehow more foreboding than it was before.
He was never good with change. Or rather, he isn't good with sudden change, isn't good with the kind of change that feels like a hammer to glass rather than the gentle sigh between one season and the next. Hell, it was change that ran him out of Patch in the end; it was broken promises and mistakes left to fester and constant reiterations of you can't keep doing this to yourself that had him leaving it all behind.
Qrow can almost hear it. The questions, the demands, the hurt - if he glances at the ever-growing number of missed calls, he thinks he might be able to hear the pain in Taiyang's voice again.
He turns his phone off and tosses it onto the heap of blankets he fished out from one of the boxes earlier. There's only one box with him, filled with nothing but bedding and perhaps a day or two's worth of clothing before he gets to the rest of it. As he's digging through, he almost flinches when his fingers touch the cold stretch of stainless steel at the very bottom.
Despite the nagging little voice in the back of his mind that advises against it, he still takes out the flask. There's the slightest tremble in his fingers as he holds it up to the honeyed sunlight that bleeds in through his curtainless window. Once upon a time, its gleam was mesmerizing, tantalizing, bright silver against the crimson of the sigil painted onto it.
Now, he feels dangerously fragile, as if holding it any longer will shatter him anew.
There's a faint pinprick at the back of his neck. A chill that runs its nails down his spine. He glances over his shoulder, but there's no one in the room or in the hallway to greet him. Not anymore, anyways - he left his family behind. Left Taiyang, left the girls and their friends, left his co-workers who used to carry him home when he couldn't walk anymore.
He places the flask in the bottommost drawer of his dresser but doesn't close it just yet.
He swallows thickly. He knows he should stop staring. Knows he should continue pretending it doesn't exist.
It's not that he doesn't want it; he just hasn't wanted as badly in a while. He hasn't quaked and gasped and cried through long nights of wanting and wanting and wanting - but that isn't to say that he doesn't still sometimes struggle with the urge. He still finds himself reaching towards an empty breast pocket for a flask that isn't there.
He would say that he doesn't know why he keeps an empty flask, but that wouldn't be true. He knows why he keeps it. He knows why he still has it, just as he knows why Taiyang still has a full dresser tucked away into one corner that he doesn't use.
And he knows why he still wants, just as he knows why Taiyang still has a hard time sleeping at night.
Qrow shoves the drawer shut with a cold finality.
He breathes in slowly, carefully. Holds it long enough to hurt, exhales with the slightest tremor. There is a glasslike silence that settles, thin and fragile as if something within it is ready to shatter. Maybe it's the atmosphere. Maybe it's him.
Faintly, he feels the urge to glance over his shoulder again. There still isn't anyone in the hallway there to greet him, nothing but an empty corner and a looming shadow that only stretches further into his bedroom as the day comes to a rapid end. He steps out into the living room again, taking one long, withering look at the heap of moving boxes and half-assembled furniture scattered about.
He turns on his heel and swings his bedroom door shut with another sigh, heavier than before but still just as fragile.
He'll get to unpacking. Eventually.
Qrow doesn't know what it is that makes him so wary.
The walls are thin, he finds early on, and that's probably it. He can hear the voices of the neighbors next door, always too incoherent for him to understand. He can hear just about everything, and it brings a feeling that he can't quite put his finger on. Eventually, he chalks it up to being in an unfamiliar environment, and to the fact that it's the first time he's left home in years.
The first night, he can't ignore the nagging itch at the back of his head that refuses to allow him to sleep. The second night, he manages to doze off for about an hour before that same feeling nudges him back awake. It's on the third night that he faceplants into his pillow, ignores the urge to turn back around, and falls asleep.
He dreams about impossible truths and unfathomable lies, none of which he remembers when he wakes up a few hours later feeling more exhausted than he did beforehand.
It takes nearly a week of oddly sleepless nights and fleeting dreams before Qrow unpacks more than just his laptop and charger.
Though in his defense, the passage of time always eludes him, and unpacking and reassembling furniture is a daytime endeavor, he wearily tells himself. One minute he's being forced back awake by the alarm he has set for himself, and in the blink of an eye, it's late into the evening and he has yet another chunk of progress in his work that he isn't satisfied with.
A few moving boxes stacked on one another plays as his new work desk, up until he has to pry one of them open to find the coffee machine. There's a bone-deep exhaustion that lingers heavier with each passing day, and it isn't doing anything to help the roadblock he's hit in the novel he's been working on. He's already been given time to get his bearings together and move across the country. His editor is growing impatient, and his deadlines are arriving faster than he's prepared for.
Despite what the advice columns and motivational books say, the change of scenery has done nothing to help. If it can be called a scene, anyways - all that's left is a mess around his living room and a painfully empty kitchen that starts to collect cartons of takeout as the days drag on. He'll get to unpacking his kitchenware eventually. And buying groceries. Eventually.
In the end, he just relocates to his bedroom.
He supposes writer's block is going to follow him no matter where he goes. Whether in Patch or in Mantle, in Taiyang's cluttered living room or in his current desolate bedroom, no amount of time or effort makes the words come any easier. He knows what he wants to happen in the grand scheme of his novel. He knows which dynamics to play, which conversations to craft, which elements to weave together by the time the final chapter rolls around.
But everything that he types out onto the document feels like tin between his teeth, and no amount of deleting and rewriting scenes or bits of dialogue changes that.
The hours come and go and so do the cups of coffee, and two days before his deadline, someone knocks on his door.
It takes a long while for him to get out of bed and answer the door. Truth be told, he expected whoever it was to have left, but the moment he opens the door, he's met by striking green eyes. The name doesn't click immediately, but his eyes do; they're bright and lighter than spring, than seafoam, than the cool kiss of dew against glass before dawn breaks.
It's perilously easy to stare when there aren't any boxes to move or furniture to haul up the staircase. Apparently, the man - Clover, his mind belatedly supplies - is just as surprised as Qrow is, because lingers for one too-heavy heartbeat before finally catching himself.
"Morning!" he greets, and already, Qrow has to blink twice against an enchanting smile. His voice is a heady sunrise over a languid oceanside, bright and pleasantly warm when he says, "I know it's been a while, but I wanted to stop by and say hello properly. I don't have much of a housewarming gift, but - well, here, I thought you'd appreciate a little pick-me-up."
It's only then that Qrow realizes what Clover's holding - a brown bag in one hand and a styrofoam cup in the other. It's held up in offering, and when Qrow accepts, he can already catch the muted scent of freshly baked cookies from the thin paper bag.
"From the coffee shop down the street. Best cookies in Mantle, I can promise you that." Clover wavers for a second, then prompts, "Long night?"
Qrow blinks. The realization that he hasn't been responding to much of anything dawns on him then, but like the sunrise, everything else tunes back into relevance with it. Maybe it's the late nights, the growing lethargy, the inexplicable chill he feels running down his spine, but he finds himself glancing fleetingly into the apartment with a sigh.
"Yeah," he admits when he turns back to Clover, who seems mildly conflicted. "Long week, more like."
Somehow, Clover cracks a smile at that. It's small, lopsided, but a smile nonetheless, and Qrow forgets what it means to have a sun, a sky, an expanding cosmos.
"TLC didn't work, then?"
Qrow rolls his eyes, but for the first time since arriving there, he finds himself smiling in the wake of Clover's pleasant laugh.
Clover doesn't stay for very long afterwards. They both have obligations to tend to - Clover with an appointment that he only talks vaguely about, and Qrow with a looming deadline that does nothing but suck the joy of coffee and freshly baked cookies out of him. Soon, the door shuts, and the click of the lock falling back into place pangs as loud as a bell, as final as a death sentence.
The apartment, as always, is just as barren and weightless as it has been since he first moved in. Moving's rough, Clover had idly said before he left, it always takes a lot out of you, but Qrow doesn't remember it being like this.
Then again, it's been years since he'd last moved. Him and his twin both. They both didn't have much to bring with them to Beacon, anyways. It was only two trips from the car to their dorm room for each, their side of the room desolate and impersonal while they waited for their other two roommates to show up.
There's bitter familiarity on the first bite Qrow takes. The cookie is sweet, soft, still warm on his tongue; it's soothing, it's grounding, it's something dangerously close to home.
Inevitably, he thinks about them again. It was just the two of them, him and Raven - for the longest time, it was just the two of them, but then they went to Beacon. Because then they met Taiyang, who came in stumbling that day with too many bags in his arms to see over. Only about half of them were his, though. Half were his, and the other half was Summer's.
Qrow remembers in bright, technicolor detail, the way Summer broke the ice by baking them all cookies.
In the end, he throws the bag away.
The day Qrow's first draft is due is the day he's jerked awake from convoluted lies and indiscernible truths.
The remnants of whatever nightmare he had fall quickly from his grasp, becoming steadily more obscure until he can't remember why he's aching. He sits in bed and presses the palm of his hands to his eyes and strains desperately to remember what it was, what it still is, what barrier was breached, but all the clarity of the waking world does is numb him.
Soon, he doesn't remember why his chest is aching or why his heart is pounding in the back of his throat. Soon, he's taking steady breaths and holding his head in steady hands, but the following crash of the adrenaline rush isn't enough for him to go back asleep.
He tries, though. He tries, but it isn't enough. He tries, but sleep refuses to take him.
He tries, but now, when he closes his eyes, he can't shake the feeling that he isn't alone.
So he throws the blinds open, allows moonlight to pour through, and ignores the way it inexplicably misses the dark corners of his room. He knows he's alone, of course. He knows, and if he wasn't so exhausted, he might laugh at himself for returning to long-conquered fears of the dark. If he wasn't so exhausted, he might also pick up the phone and see a doctor about this newfound insomnia.
For some reason, the thought of making a phone call makes the too-empty room and too-cold floor and too-dark corners all the more unbearable.
He picks up his laptop, discarded on the nightstand just a couple of hours prior, and gets to work once again. He puts on his headphones and ignores the next door neighbors' argument when it begins, incoherent and frantic and nothing that he wants to hear.
He works on his project until his eyes start to ache.
He writes until he can't keep them open any longer.
Until he's left reaching for his phone to set an alarm that he knows won't wake him. It's a habit, more than anything. One of the last few habits that he has yet to break. He stares at his lock screen for a long while. It's the first time he's let himself since - since he left. Since he hid his flask. Since he promised himself he wouldn't.
He should say something. He doesn't know to who or to what, only that he should. He knows , but that doesn't make it any easier to find the right words or the right people. He knows he should keep those promises, knows he shouldn't think, knows that she would want him to say something.
If only he remembered how. If only she told him how.
He stares at his lock screen, and Summer stares back at him.
He falls asleep with dry patches under his eyes.
(He's small and hollow.
His bones are made out of glass. His eyes glow crimson, but all he sees is black.
He turns to the door. Tall, looming, sealed tight, but he doesn't have to look to know that It lingers somewhere behind it.)
Once again, Qrow wakes with a fleeting ache in his chest.
His first instinct is to reach for his phone laying on the nightstand. He hasn't been answering calls or texts at all since moving in, but it seems like no amount of ignoring the outside world will break him out of the habit. It isn't the first time that he wakes to several missed calls, but it is the first time that they're from someone other than Taiyang.
When he comes to the realization that he has two missed calls from his editor, he scrambles to call back. Not that it's the first time that he's slept through Ozpin's calls, but he doesn't need the disapproval of that piled on top of whatever issues with his work were bad enough to warrant a phone call rather than an email.
Apparently, it's late into the evening, and he doesn't remember falling asleep. He only has a vague recollection of reaching for his laptop, and everything else fades into obscurity. Maybe it was a dream, maybe it wasn't - he's in the middle of pondering the vague recollection of doors and hallways and a splinter in some obscure barrier before Ozpin answers.
"Sorry about that," Qrow says, his voice still rough from sleep.
"You haven't slept in this late in years."
"Yeah, well." Qrow sits up in bed, somehow keeping a tired groan from surfacing as he says, "Moving's rough."
There's a faint huff, close to a laugh, nearly overshadowed by the idle typing of a keyboard in the background. "It's already been a couple of weeks. Are you all right?"
"I'm great," he answers - another habit that he doesn't think he will be able to break out of. "How bad was it? You never call."
"So you agree that what you submitted isn't up to your usual standards."
Truth be told, Qrow also doesn't remember submitting his work before falling asleep, but he supposes he should be grateful that he remembered to. Interestingly enough, Ozpin doesn't sound particularly upset or accusatory. If anything, he's intrigued, and Qrow can't pinpoint what's so disarming about that.
"Like I said. Moving's rough."
"I can tell." Swift typing finally comes to a full stop, and then there's the scrape of a chair, the faint creak of the desk. With what Qrow can guess is a smile, Ozpin says, "Maybe you should try going out more. Take a walk, maybe talk to a neighbor."
Qrow snorts at that. "Seriously, Oz?"
"Yes, seriously. I know you've been holed up in your apartment." There's a pause as if he's giving Qrow the chance to complain, but upon receiving nothing but silence, he says, "I think it would do you some good. Believe me when I say that fresh air never hurts."
Despite the brief flare of irritation that digs its nails beneath his skin, Qrow mumbles, "Okay. Fine."
Ozpin only makes a non-committal noise before he hangs up.
Company over the phone is different, Qrow realizes now that he sits in bed and stares blankly at his home screen. It's only then that he looks at the endless list of missed calls from Taiyang, the heaps of voicemails left behind, the text messages he can't bring himself to read. If he reads them, he knows he'll answer, and he doesn't need that.
He doesn't need an excuse to come back running.
Maybe one day, he will. Maybe one day, when the ache isn't so strong. Maybe one day, someday in the far future, when the house isn't so empty and the atmosphere isn't so heavy and the sight of dead rose bushes outside doesn't hurt so terribly.
Until then, he heeds Ozpin's advice.
It's unnecessarily laborious to gather himself and leave the apartment, but eventually, he does. He decides he'll check out the coffee shop down the road that Clover mentioned once. The coffee is better than what he has at home, and in a new city with new faces and new streets he still doesn't remember the names of, he can't bring himself to explore any further than that.
Miraculously, he runs into Clover, who steps out of his apartment just as Qrow is passing by. He's in full uniform, sleek white and blue with enough red to draw Qrow's eyes to the swell of his chest, and it takes a moment or two for Qrow to remember what it is he left the apartment for.
Clover's the first to laugh, just a little breathless, a little crack in the impeccable mask he has plastered to him like a second skin. They talk briefly then, Clover about his position as an overnight security guard at an establishment nearby and Qrow about the rough draft that his editor hated, and in a way, Ozpin was right.
In a way, it is a breath of fresh air; even with the weight on his shoulders, the ache in his bones, the gnawing urge to go home and sleep, he finds himself mirroring Clover's easygoing smile.
It's difficult not to smile, not when Clover speaks like sunlight across the sky, like starlight across the cosmos. It's difficult not to lose time, either, because soon, Clover's checking the time with a sharp breath sucked in between his teeth. Their paths officially diverge when they reach the sidewalk, and once again, Qrow is alone.
He's used to being alone. Or at least, he should be used to it, but the days only grow longer and the nights grow more suffocating and the coffee he buys is hardly sweet enough to make him forget about it.
Everything else, he can forget about quite easily - the moving boxes that still sit in his living room, the empty corners of his bedroom that seem to grow a little darker with each passing night, the hours that crawl by before he realizes it. It's almost the new day when he finishes tending to the edits sent over via email, and he can't compel himself to do more.
That's for another day, he tells himself once the words on the screen bleed into one another, his story can be told another day when he doesn't feel so ragged.
He glances wearily out of his bedroom before he decides that unpacking is for another day, well.
He hears the neighbors next door again. The murmur of their conversation, louder than before but still too incoherent for him to understand. He sometimes hears footsteps, as well, light and fleeting as the floorboards creak beneath their weight. It's nothing new, but inevitably, he lies awake for hours and he thinks.
And when he thinks, he always wanders back to Summer.
The housing unit they all lived in had painfully thin walls and discolored floorboards that whined high beneath their feet. He remembers it clearly, back in the day when no amount of tiptoeing was actually enough to go by unnoticed, not even from Raven. But somehow, Summer managed. Somehow, she'd find a way to sneak up on Qrow, sometimes unintentional, other times not.
Half the time, she'd quietly laugh, partially incredulous, mostly apologetic.
But when it was intentional, when she'd jump up from behind him with a hug, her laugh was brighter than the splendid sun. It was only those rare moments where he'd hear the creak of the floorboard, and already, he'd know that it was too late.
He opens his eyes when he hears it again.
He's always a hair-trigger away from waking, and it's infuriating when he was just about to doze off. He glances at the time and finds that it's very nearly daybreak, and even that's enough to make him wince. He doesn't remember how the time went by. He doesn't remember when he put the laptop away, either.
He closes his eyes and tries his hardest to fall back asleep now that's so close to it, but he hears the noise again. Hears the echo memory, and he knows it's a memory, a mere memory of her now that the only thing he has left of her is the flask she gave him.
But then he hears the whisper, hears the slightest creak of a floorboard. It comes again, and again, and slowly, he realizes that it isn't a dream or a memory or from the neighbors next door.
Slowly, very slowly, he realizes that it's the floorboards in his own apartment, one by one until it reaches his bedroom door.
(He's small and hollow again.
There's a vague sense of recognition here, trapped in an endless void, an abyssal eternity. Unmoving and unforgiving like the depths of the ocean, tugging him along, dragging him further with an unspoken current.
It brings him closer, but to what, he doesn't know. To where, he can't see. To do what, he isn't sure.
He doesn't know anything but the way It calls.
He's small and hollow, and before him, there's a familiar door.
The doorknob turns for him.)
Qrow jerks awake with his heart hammering in his chest.
It's become a common occurrence. It's also become common for him to forget when he fell asleep, or what he was doing before that. He never remembers what plagues his dreams. All he knows is that he's tired, and that he has a document sitting on his laptop that refuses to write itself, and that no amount of cheap coffee he brews helps him.
Though sometimes, early in the mornings after Ozpin gently nudges him over text, he finds it in himself to leave the apartment.
And miraculously, around the time he leaves to go pick up coffee down the street, he also runs into Clover.
The days bleed together and the nights become indistinguishable, but these moments, Qrow can remember clearly. If there's one good thing to have come out of moving, it's this; it's the way they talk, the way they coalesce, not like oceans but like the currents that flow between them.
It never lasts very long, but during those moments when Qrow leaves for coffee and Clover gets home from work, they can't help but talk.
And Clover can't help but ask Qrow about his work.
It's innocent, for the most part. Quick, fleeting, up until it's not. Small, insignificant, up until it's not. Dark fantasy novels aren't Clover's thing, but that doesn't make him any less willing to listen to the small bits and pieces that Qrow tells him. Each visit gets a little longer, a little more deliberate, a little more intentional.
Qrow isn't blind enough to say it's entirely innocent, but he doesn't know exactly what it is that keeps drawing him back. Maybe it's how liberating it feels, staying out of his apartment. Maybe it's how gratifying it feels, having someone show genuine interest in his work.
Or maybe it's just Clover, who leans just a little closer each time, whose smile is enchanting enough to bring the world to a standstill.
But then Qrow returns to his apartment, and the passage of time resumes to elude him.
He doesn't remember when he submits the next portion of his work, or when he even got around to writing most of it. He doesn't remember when he got into bed, or when he last ate. But he does remember setting his laptop aside and reaching for his phone, and with a weight heavier than gravity sitting in the pit of his stomach, he answers Taiyang.
It's a single text, sent just a few days ago. A single message, because eventually, Taiyang stopped trying to reach him. But it isn't that he's given up, because not once in the time that Qrow knew him has he ever given up on anything - Qrow recognizes this as acceptance, and for some reason, the realization hurts.
Taiyang was the same way with Raven, once upon a time. He reacted the same way when she left. But she left because she was afraid, and Qrow left because he wasn't. She left when she couldn't handle it, and Qrow left because he'd handled it for too long.
He left the night Taiyang brought home a bouquet of Summer's favorite flowers without breaking down into tears, and he hasn't said a word since.
He doesn't think he can if he tries. He was never good with words, never the one who knew what to say, never knew how to even talk about it. One thing he hates with sobriety is clarity. Another thing he hates is his inability to stop thinking, because when he thinks, it inevitably comes back to Summer.
So Qrow thinks about Summer, and finally, he answers.
He answers the way she might have - says he's doing okay, tells Taiyang not to worry, and then throws his phone into the nightstand as soon as the message is delivered.
He ignores the notification that comes in mere seconds later.
(He's small and hollow.
So is the room, the call, the abyss. Hollow and broken and filled with nothing but dread - but that doesn't stop him. He scratches, and the doorknob turns, and the hallway is somehow deeper, thicker, darker. A void that was made to fall into, made to fill, made to pull as nothing short of an inevitability.
He steps into the hallway, and only then does he see It.
Faint and distant, but It's still there. A vague outline that stands miles away in his living room, tall and thin and curled in on itself as to avoid touching the ceiling.
He doesn't move.
Even so, It knows he's there.
It always knows where he is.
It knows, and It turns to him.)
Despite it being so early in the morning, Qrow isn't asleep when Ozpin calls this time.
Except he isn't necessarily awake, either. He's taken to laying in bed and doing next to nothing when he isn't writing. Not that he can fall asleep, anyways, when the neighbors next door take to arguing as incoherently as they always do. So when he gets a call, it jerks him out of his reverie, and he reaches blindly into the nightstand for his phone.
"I thought I was doing pretty good this time," Qrow jokes the moment he answers.
It's stern, firm, and immediately, Qrow knows that something is wrong. His smile quickly falters, and he musters the strength to sit up in bed. "What happened?"
"What you sent me -" Ozpin cuts himself off, and instead, tries again in a more patient tone, "Are you sure you're all right?"
Qrow scowls. "I am, what're you -"
"I beg to differ." There's a cold finality to Ozpin's zone that makes whatever Qrow wanted to say fall flat on his tongue. With a slow, steadying breath, Ozpin states, "Taiyang tells me you've been ignoring him."
Qrow's heart slams against his sternum. "What does he have anything to do with -"
"He says he hasn't heard from you in weeks. That's alarming enough. And with what you sent me last night, I'm inclined to believe that you weren't joking."
The implications are enough to send a flare of indignation prickling under his skin, but it's also enough to compel him to reach for his laptop and pull the document back up. What he sent wasn't much of anything, really - fifty pages and more coverage than he's gotten done in months, however difficult it was for him to get out.
'Look. I haven't been sleeping. Probably caught something, I don't know, but I -" He wavers, pulls the breath back into his lungs, and no amount of scrambling for words to say helps. But Ozpin remains patient, nothing but silence thinner than glass and just as ready to break over the phone, and eventually, Qrow relents with a sigh, "I just . . . haven't been writing. Not like I used to."
He listens to the faint static of the call and wishes desperately that Ozpin would say something. He'd take castigation if it meant that he wouldn't be drowning in the tension that jumbles like white noise in the air. But Ozpin doesn't say a word, not yet, not while Qrow's still sifting idly through his work.
Eventually, Ozpin says, "You've never talked about Summer."
Qrow halts. His heart pounds, but he doesn't hear it. He breathes, but it doesn't filter, doesn't flow the same way blood does. He opens his mouth once, twice, says nothing under the sharp twinge in his chest. It isn't a lie, and he won't claim that it is. It isn't anything but the cold, disgraceful truth, and he finds himself idly shaking his head.
"What's there to talk about?"
His voice is quiet, not quite broken but certainly close to it. A lot of things haven't broken, not in the way he thought they would, not in the way they should have. If anything, they've been torn, something close to bloodstained glass and copper-lined agony in his hands from all the times he's tried to hold together something too splintered to support itself.
So Qrow never had time to talk about it. He never had the time, not when Taiyang was still grieving and struggling to support his two children. He never had the time, not when he never allowed himself a moment of sobriety, because sobriety means thinking, and thinking means hurting.
He never had the time to talk, to mourn , and Ozpin knows this.
He knows this, and he gently says, "Perhaps running away isn't the greatest coping mechanism."
"I didn't -" Again, he struggles to find the words, and with the paper-thin silence on Ozpin's end, he knows that it's futile. There's no fight left in him when he reluctantly admits, "Okay. Okay, maybe I did."
"I'm not asking you to go home, Qrow. I'm also not asking you to talk about her before you're ready to. But I am asking you to talk to Taiyang. And review your work, while you're at it. I have no deadline for you until you sort yourself out."
Ozpin lingers for a few moments longer before he hangs up.
Qrow sighs, long and slow, but it does nothing to alleviate the bone-deep exhaustion that only seems to mount higher the longer he sits upright. But he carries through anyway, because this is his job, because this is his livelihood , and the weight of that seems to matter less and less as time goes on.
Somewhere along the way, he does as Ozpin advised him to. He doesn't call, mostly because he doesn't think he can handle that confrontation just yet, but he does answer another message.
One message turns into two, then five, and soon, he loses track.
But at the very least, he stops running, and he tells Taiyang where he went.
It's the first step to . . . something. To what, Qrow isn't sure, but it feels as if some of the weight on his shoulders have been lifted. Usually, it's Taiyang who brings him back from wherever he drifted off to, Taiyang who tethers him back to Remnant and reminds him why he's still going.
Once upon a time, it was Summer, long ago when she was still able to.
He tosses his phone back into the nightstand and goes back to work.
He remembers a lot of what has been written. Perhaps it's not his best work, but he knows what he wrote. He's had these notes for months, had them planned out in his mind, knew how he wanted to execute each scene. It needs refining, of course, but all things do. It needs a change of pace, probably, but that's something he can figure out quickly if he needs to.
But it's still his work, and he doesn't understand what Ozpin meant.
He doesn't understand until he comes across the page that wasn't planned.
Quick, jumbled, nearly incoherent - it's his, but it isn't. It's his document, his work, his, but it isn't. He doesn't know whose touch this is, whose words tainted his own, but it's his, and no one else has access. No one else has the audacity.
But even so, he finds the portion of his own novel that makes no sense to him, nothing beyond doors and roses and It.
Ultimately, he deletes the page.
And later, when he finds more bits and pieces of unintelligible work that isn't his, he deletes the document altogether.
It's a joke. It has to be.
He leaves the apartment, and on his way out, ignores the dark end of his hallway that the light still refuses to touch.
Qrow doesn't expect to run into Clover, even if it is the usual time he leaves for coffee. The door is still ajar, keys still withdrawn, and when Clover sees him, he pauses.
He doesn't expect Clover to forgo the usual sunny morning greeting, instead asking him, "Are you okay?"
He doesn't know how to answer that. And it's almost painful, seeing the unadulterated concern on Clover's face. That's the one thing that Qrow finds himself increasingly fond of, if he has to be honest. Not once has Clover hidden in a space where he could not find. Not once has Clover been anything but honest, outright, outspoken.
So it shouldn't be as big of a surprise as it is when Clover guesses, "Is it the apartment?"
Qrow blinks at him. It's almost as jarring as Ozpin's question was, except he knows that this isn't meant to corner him, isn't meant to shove the truth out of him. Clover regards him with nothing but understanding, and weakly, Qrow wonders why it is that he suddenly stands on two uneven feet.
"What do you mean?" he croaks.
"Nothing, just . . ." Clover glances fleetingly down the hallway, presumably to Qrow's door, and tentatively admits, "People don't usually stay for long when they move in there. Never asked why, but . . . it makes you wonder." He shrugs. "Maybe it's just Mantle. I know I had a hard time when I moved in."
Qrow pinches the bridge of his nose. His head aches with a heartbeat, becoming more prevalent by the second, and how it hasn't kicked in beforehand, he doesn't know. He doesn't want to know. He doesn't want to think about anything - not about the document he deleted, not about Ozpin's words, not about the flask or the roses or her, none of it.
"Mantle isn't anything like Patch," he mumbles. At the inquisitive noise Clover makes, he says, "I lived in Patch for a few years after college. Moved in with my sister and her husband and haven't left since - well, haven't left until recently."
He purposely doesn't bring up that there was a fourth person in the mix. He doesn't think he can even if he tried. He doesn't bring up Taiyang's other wife, doesn't bring up the way she held the three of them together, doesn't bring up the way they all fell apart the moment she was out of the picture.
"So this is your first time moving, technically?"
". . . Yeah."
"I remember when I first moved out, too." Clover shifts to lean against the door frame. There's something heavy that lingers in his voice, too melancholic to be nostalgic when he says, "It's been nearly a decade, but I don't miss it any less."
"Why stay in Mantle, then?"
Clover smiles then. Thin, picture-perfect, a smile like any other, but to Qrow, it doesn't hold any of the warmth it once had. He wears a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes, and already, Qrow knows that he isn't the only one running.
"I needed to get myself sorted out before I went back," Clover quietly tells him. "I just haven't gotten around to going back yet. But as it stands, I don't think I will. Atlas is nice, but . . . it's quieter here."
In a way, Qrow understands.
He understands in the same way that a fact may be universal - he understands the inherent quietude of a place far from home. He understands the loneliness of a place meant to hide in. He also understands that there's no running from home, or the things that plagued it, but that didn't stop him.
Something tells him that it didn't stop Clover, either.
"Would you like to come in?" Clover suddenly asks, but it isn't pity in his eyes or grief in his voice. Like Qrow, there's nothing but understanding, and he feels the slight flutter of something soft and far too fleeting to grasp in his chest.
Something is different, and he can't pinpoint what.
Maybe it's the environment, maybe it's the atmosphere. Maybe it's the clutter, the decorations and the knicknacks and the bookshelves filled to the brim, so unlike his own apartment. Maybe it's the personality it all holds, the individuality, the array of good luck charms that Qrow finds in just about every corner.
Or maybe it's Clover, who tells a story for the first time.
Maybe it's Clover and the way he laughs when he reminisces. Maybe it's Clover and the way he speaks softly when he talks about his old teammates in the Academy. Maybe it's Clover and his eyes and his voice and his too-crooked smile when Qrow drops four cubes of sugar in his tea -
Soon, Qrow returns home, somehow feeling both better than he has in weeks and worse than he has in years.
It's then that the exhaustion hits him in full, as if whatever it was that muted its severity has finally been removed. He's in his apartment when it comes flooding back in, but now, he finds no shadows that stretch further than normal. Now, he hears no voices bickering next door, feels nothing other than the weight of the world as he crawls into bed.
He feels so close to breaking, so close to slipping, but at the very least, he falls asleep easier than he has in months.
(He isn't small and hollow anymore, because It doesn't want him to be.
He doesn't want to listen, but inevitably he does, because It wants him to.
It's unstoppable, unavoidable, a call that he doesn't hear but also isn't able to avoid. The faint glow of his electronics do nothing to pierce the night. The curtains are drawn, but there is no moonlight bleeding through the window tonight.
Even with the apartment impossibly dark and quiet, he still recognizes the tall silhouette that stands in his hallway.
It's humanoid, but it isn't. Solid, but it isn't. Back turned towards him, curved and spindly and nothing but bones sharp enough to draw blood, but It doesn't get any closer. It doesn't move, doesn't breathe, but nevertheless, he feels It.
He feels the way It mourns, feels the way It cries.
Slowly, It turns what might be Its head.
Its eyes are hollow. Large and hollow just like hers; silver and glassy and gone.)
Days later, Qrow wakes up with tear stains down his cheeks.
Somehow, he rolls over in bed, even with the weight of an atmosphere heavier than gravity making his limbs feel like lead. He doesn't know what crushes him so wholly, what digs beneath his sternum and wrenches whatever's left free. He doesn't know why, but he curls up with shaking hands and stilted breaths and aches.
It's a familiar ache, at least. An ache he knows, an ache he hates. An ache that is nothing less than a craving, and already, his hands are reaching. Swift, instinctual, reaching for a shirt pocket that isn't there, reaching for a flask that isn't there. He hasn't ached this way in so long, hasn't curled up somewhere dark and quaked and wanted in so, so long.
He doesn't know why it's back. He doesn't know why he suddenly wants like he did long ago. He breathes. He shakes. He squeezes his eyes shut, thinks he sees something tall and looming and tearful behind his eyes, and he hurts.
He hurts when he thinks of the flask he abandoned in his dresser so long ago.
He hurts when he thinks of the day it was given to him.
It was when they were young and happy. It was back when they were still in college, and Qrow was the one who would haul Summer and Taiyang home, not because he wasn't drinking but because he handled it better than they did. It was when Summer didn't know the right words to say to him, and this was her way of saying I'm sorry, her way of saying thank you.
But he made a promise. To himself, to his girls, to Taiyang. He made a promise, and no matter how badly he wants, how badly he hurts, he doesn't give in.
He doesn't know how long he lays there.
He doesn't know how long it takes before he falls asleep, either.
Or at least, he assumes he falls asleep, but it's hard to tell nowadays. Many things are hard to tell when his head is blissfully empty and his body feels as if it's been carved from the inside out. But soon, he hears the undeniable echo of knocking on his door, persistent enough to convince him to get out of bed.
This late into the day, he doesn't know who to expect. It could be his landlord, could be one of his neighbors, could possibly be Clover if he somehow missed work today, but it ends up being none of those.
He opens the door, and the first thing he sees is blue. They're a blue fit to drown in, a blue he's always known, oceans deep and fading tides and tumultuous oceansides that crash and rage. Qrow didn't expect to see Taiyang, and he certainly didn't expect the teary-eyed glare that he's immediately pinned with.
"Tai . . . ?" Qrow breathes. "I didn't think you'd -"
He's interrupted by the hand that yanks him into a crushing hug. Faintly, he hears the barking at his feet, feels the paws against his leg as Zwei jumps up to greet him. He grunts into Taiyang's shoulder, feels his body ache under the strain, but somehow, he feels lighter. Somehow, he feels liberated.
"Why wouldn't I?" Taiyang hisses out, halfway to tears, already far past anger, and Qrow genuinely doesn't have an answer for him. "Didi, you idiot, why wouldn't I come see you?"
Somehow, Qrow doesn't feel the inexplicable weight of another presence over his shoulder, and for once, he can breathe freely.
For the first time since moving in, the boxes in his living room are opened.
Items are sorted through. Furniture is put back together and hauled into place. Clothing folded, kitchenware organized, and soon, a trip to the grocery store that leaves Qrow feeling weightless. For the first time in months, he eats something that isn't takeout or a freshly baked pastry, and he must reteach himself how to say no to Zwei's begging.
Gradually, he realizes that he's never felt this fragile before.
Something is different, and he can't pinpoint what. Something changed, something splintered, and he can't see where. Another day passes before Taiyang has to return home, because the weekend is painfully short and the time he has to pick up the girls from their grandmother's house is even shorter. He decides to leave Zwei behind, to which Qrow agrees, as if he had a choice to begin with.
But before Taiyang goes, he states, "It hasn't been this bad in years."
In a way, Qrow expected to have this talk. It's easier to see, now, as if he's wading through lake water rather than drowning in an abyssal ocean. He's tired, and he craves nothing but sleep, and he forgets when his next deadline is, but none of that matters now.
Zwei is lounging in his lap, pressing up idly against the fingers that play with his ears. Taiyang is watching him, he's sure, waiting for an answer, or an explanation.
But Qrow only says, "I know."
He's known for a long time.
He's known since Raven first ran, breaking every promise she made, every tether she's ever clung to. He had stopped going to therapy, because Yang needed someone and Taiyang needed money, and Qrow was the only person he could trust to keep his baby safe. Everything seemed to go downhill from there, but Qrow doesn't blame him.
There's never been anyone to blame. Not for this. Not for anything.
It must have been harrowing, Qrow slowly realizes, seeing the way things were. It must have been terrifying, must have been something, because now, Taiyang urges him. Gently, delicately, but an urge nonetheless, a nudge in the right direction, or so Qrow likes to think. He can't bring himself to be upset by the persistence. He can't find it in himself to be annoyed, not like he used to.
"There isn't anything wrong with needing help, Qrow, you know that." He doesn't look up when Taiyang sits next to him. He doesn't think he can, not when he feels like he's tearing at the seams. "Everyone does. I did for so long, and I still do. So - so stop running. Stop hiding." Taiyang nudges his shoulder, and softly, he adds, "Please?"
This isn't the first time that that's been asked of him, but it is the first time that it's coming from Taiyang. It's so viscerally familiar, and for a moment, he has to pause to let himself remember how to breathe. He has to pause to let himself remember a lot of things, like he used to. Like she once asked him to.
She also asked him to take care of her rose bushes should she ever stay far from home, and they ended up being the first thing to wither and die after she did.
For the first time since Summer died, Qrow tucks his head against Taiyang's shoulder and lets himself remember.
He lets himself grieve, and Taiyang lets him cry until he can't anymore.
Qrow wakes up from fleeting dreams and feather-light aches to Zwei fussing the next morning.
He's used to Zwei waking him up early in the mornings. It was a pain, at first, years ago when they first brought him home. It was Summer's idea, at first, with her crooning endlessly every time the puppy fever set in, up until Taiyang finally caved in and adopted one. Qrow remembers the day it happened, with Zwei squirming in her arms and licking every bit of skin he could reach.
It takes a while for the nostalgia to melt into something painful. It takes a while for him to realize that he'd forgotten to make the phone call he said he would, as well, but he supposes that can come later. It also takes an even longer while to convince himself to get out of bed to see why Zwei is fussing at his door.
It's odd, at first, because Zwei has never been a particularly irritable dog. From the very start, he was a delightful little thing, enough for even Raven to drop her scowl. But then one day bleeds into the next, and Qrow realizes that Zwei only barks the moment the neighbors next door begin their nightly antics.
It's on the third day that Zwei starts to growl into the empty hallway, and that's enough to convince Qrow to take him out on a walk.
He can't shake the ugly feeling that looms just over his shoulder, and ignores the urge to turn back into the apartment as he leads Zwei out the door.
Miraculously enough, he runs into Clover again. That alone is enough to make him feel a little less antsy, a little less fragile.
"Oh," Clover breathes when he sees Zwei, unabashedly starstruck in a way that has Qrow smiling before he realizes it. "Is he yours?"
"I guess he is." Clover quirks his brow at that, and he explains, "My brother-in-law dropped him off the other night. Probably needed a vacation."
In a way, they both needed it. It's different when there's something quite literally nudging him out of bed. It's vastly different when there's another creature's well-being to convince him to pick up the daily routines that he had before he moved.
"I'll keep an eye out for you," Clover says with that same crooked smile that never fails to steal the breath from Qrow's lungs. "You might want to bake cookies to bribe everyone else, though."
He crouches down to scratch behind Zwei's ears, and already, Zwei is tugging on the leash in his attempts to climb up onto his knee. Idly, Qrow realizes that this is the first time since Taiyang left that Zwei isn't irritable to no end. Maybe it's the fresh air, maybe it's the promise of a walk. Maybe it's just Clover, who croons in a way that has Qrow's heart melting.
"I'll try bribing the jerks next door first. Zwei's been losing his mind about them. Maybe he knows they keep waking me up with their bullshit at night." At the silence that earns him, he glances up to Clover, only to see the strained furrow in his brow. "What?"
Clover regards him for one long, withering moment.
"There isn't anyone in that apartment."
A laugh bursts out of Qrow then, forced through his teeth like water through the cracks in a damn. There's no way, no way that he doesn't have next door neighbors. There's no way, not when he hears them so often, not when he's woken up so many times to their bickering, however frantic, however incoherent it may be through drywall.
But Clover isn't laughing with him.
Why isn't he laughing?
"Do you . . . want to come by later?" Clover asks, hesitant as if he fears crossing some unspoken like. "I've got tonight off. You should bring Zwei, too, little guy probably doesn't want to be alone so far from home."
". . . You weren't kidding?"
Qrow doesn't need to specify what he means. There's many things that Qrow believes in, and many others that he doesn't. This is one of them. This, even if Clover falters and glances down the hallway with what looks astoundingly close to guilt. But at the very least, there isn't pity. It's never pity when it's Clover.
"I'm not superstitious," Clover carefully tells him, "but I'm not calling you a liar, either."
Like always, Qrow doesn't remember falling asleep.
But for the first time in months, he wakes up feeling better. He wakes up feeling alive.
He comes to slowly, very slowly, lost within oceans and seafoam and dreams that don't leave him gasping out for someone that pains him to name. He lets himself float endlessly, weightlessly, carried through by nothing but the fading tide, the endless deep. It isn't suffocating, isn't terrifying, isn't anything that threatens to swallow him whole; it's gentle, it's rejuvenating, and it takes a long time before he realizes that he isn't home.
He wakes with a start, but the too-quick pulse that twinges in his jugular calms when he finds that he isn't alone. He knows this place, knows this clutter and knows this warmth and knows who the rabbit's foot hanging off one of the hooks on the wall belongs to.
Although he doesn't remember when he fell asleep, for the first time in months, he remembers the events that precedes it.
He remembers Clover fitting a sweater onto Zwei, loose on him but still fitting, talking endlessly about crochet and how he picked up the hobby years ago when he was still healing. He remembers what it is that Clover healed from, as well, not in detail but close enough to guess - some accident, some mistake that he still regrets, some name that he, too, aches to talk about.
But it's not about hurting, Clover told him mere hours before, it's about remembering.
And Qrow does remember.
He lets himself remember, because it's meant to hurt, Summer used to tell him. It's meant to hurt, she once said when Raven first left, tears shimmering like starlight in her eyes; remembering is meant to hurt when he cares so much.
He remembers the night she died. Another accident, it's always an accident, an accident that no one meant and no one saw coming. He remembers when Taiyang called him, too incoherent through the tears for Qrow to tell what was going on, nothing on his lips but Summer and gone . He doesn't remember much of the year that followed, only that the flask was never empty, but his head always was.
He remembers the promises he made, even if it's too late to. He's always too late, always running out of time, always left behind; he remembered the rose bushes when it was too late and they had already withered, remembered to pick up the girls too late when they had been out of school for hours, remembered that Taiyang still cared about him despite the anger and the disappointment when he'd already moved to the other side of the country.
He also remembers the promise he made just a few nights ago, this time a promise that can never be too late to uphold.
He sits up on the couch, this time weighed by the lingering tendrils of sleep rather than the moon, the atmosphere, the world itself. The thin blanket that had been thrown over him pools at his waist, and if it wasn't for that, he might have felt guilty. He never means to fall asleep where he does, but that doesn't seem to matter once he isn't standing.
On the couch across from him, he finds Clover. The light of dawn seeping through the open window illuminates his face, peaceful in a way Qrow hasn't seen before. Zwei is there, as well, snoring soundly just under his chin, still wearing the oversized sweater that Clover somehow made during the several hours it took before Qrow convinced himself to take up the offer.
Qrow doesn't know what it is that makes him feel like nothing else exists. He doesn't know what it is that strings itself tight and holds firmly in place like they're the only ones there - the only ones that exist, the only ones that matter.
But something tells him that Summer would have approved.
He steps out into the hallway as quietly as he can and finally schedules an appointment with a therapist on the other side of Mantle.
It's about remembering.
But it's also about hurting.
It's about letting himself hurt, and letting himself remember, and letting himself heal when the time comes. It's about trying, as well, because no amount of medications or therapy sessions or visits to the neighbor down the hall will help without trying.
It's about the bouquet of roses that he always keeps on the kitchen counter, a constant reminder of Summer and the bushes she kept and the dream she always had of one day opening a flower shop of her own. It's about the phone calls he makes when he feels alone, always to Taiyang when they're both remembering, sometimes to Clover when they're both looking to waste some time.
It's also about the smaller things that add up later, like the walks he takes when the apartment is too suffocating, the blinds he opens when he needs the reminder that the sun is still there, the sweaters that Clover keeps making for Zwei. Qrow had joked about that once, laughed about Clover only ever visiting for Zwei, and that had earned him an eye roll and a quick press of lips against his own as another reminder.
There are also the days where trying is difficult, of course.
There are the days where he forgets, days where he curls up in bed, days where the shadows in the corners of his room loom ever so closer. Those are the nights that he dreams again, never enough to remember, always enough to leave him jerking awake shortly afterwards with his heart hammering fit to burst out of him.
But he tries, and tries, and tries, and that's what matters.
He tries. For himself, for Zwei, for the people still in his life. For Taiyang, who still worries endlessly, still calls him didi, still insists that he's loved; for Clover, who understands what it means to grieve and to live and to remember, who holds fast to his hand when he needs it and reminds him that it's okay to hurt.
He's trying, and trying, and trying, and although he never does feel entirely alone, never does know how to explain the dark corners that grow a little smaller over time, it's nothing like it was before.
Maybe it was the lack of sleep. Maybe it was the isolation. Maybe it was something that Clover's still too uncomfortable to address, but Qrow never pushes him.
He's working on the final portion of his novel when Ozpin calls him again. Which is odd, because he hasn't called in months. He's been satisfied with the revisions, with the newfound inspiration, with the progress that they've made.
When prompted, Ozpin tells him, "I just wanted to check in."
Qrow glances over to Zwei, who lounges at the foot of his bed, no longer inexplicably angry at the silent apartment next door.