A/N: a gift for /Renabe4Life on twitter

Fair Game Week 2021 Day 5 - Hands/Breaking Rules

loving yourself is reaching out

There's a lot of things that Qrow expects when they arrive to Atlas.

He expects the bone-deep chill that becomes more prominent as time goes on - either his own lacking Aura or general sensitivity to the cold, neither of which matter when it's freezing all the same. He expects the military drones and their ever-present influence, the impeccable architecture and picture-perfect atmosphere, the military's figurehead and the company he keeps.

But Qrow never expected to meet someone like Clover.

He doesn't expect them to flow as smoothly together as they do. He doesn't expect them to work together and naturally as they do. He doesn't expect things to go as well as they do, and for the first time in what might be years or decades or a lifetime, he doesn't have to worry about what might happen next.

He never has to worry when it's Clover who meets him in the middle.

He doesn't know what tethers them to one another like Remnant to its star. He doesn't know when the flirting begins, or which one of them started it, or how it even got this far. He doesn't know what it is that balances out like the inherent give and take between the shattered moon and its languid tide.

All he knows is that it's certainly something magnetic, like opposites made to attract - strong, natural, inevitable.

Or at least, it feels like an inevitability, with one thing leading to the next before Qrow realizes it. It feels like something as unavoidable as fate when Clover's lips find his, white-hot and frantic, not like a supernova but like the star that ignites one.

It's what Qrow wanted. It's what he's dreamed of, what he's been gunning for, what he's craved when he's cold and alone, but at the same time, it isn't. His head's spinning, lungs are aching, heart's pounding hard against his ribs like it's trying to break free. One thigh hitches higher on Clover's hip, and it's everything he needs, but nothing that he wants.

They're stuck in a broom closet with only fifteen minutes to spare and it isn't how Qrow imagined this happening. It happened naturally, instantly, a spark made to ignite its gunpowder, all the flirting and teasing leading them to this point, but this isn't how Qrow wanted it to go.

He's the one to break away first. Hands pressed to Clover's chest, not pushing but also not giving, something of a barrier when there aren't any left. Clover's panting hard, but he's no better; Clover's flushed and wanting, and he's no better, has never been any better, but for once, he wants better. For once, he lets himself believe that there might be better.

He lets himself believe a lot of things when it's Clover. Because softly, breathlessly, Clover laughs, incredulous but never anything close to judgemental, then guesses, "Too much?"

Qrow doesn't answer. Not verbally, not yet, not if he tried. He doesn't think he can trust it in himself to speak, not when his pulse still hammers, blood still scalds, heart still aches like it's tearing itself apart.

Instead, he nods. He nods, because he isn't good at this. He isn't good with words, isn't good with relationships, but he's always been spectacular at ruining what he's got going for him. He doesn't know what to expect next. He never does, even if the outcome is always the same, even if he always ends up cold and empty and alone once everything is said and done.

But instead, Clover reaches for his hand and weaves their fingers together.

It's almost painful, how gently he holds Qrow's hand, not like it's fragile but like it's something worth holding. Despite being pressed flush together, he somehow feels impossibly closer. Even with his clothes still on and weapon still close by, Qrow can't help but feel exposed, laid raw and bare for the world to see. Or rather, for Clover to see.

And Clover does nothing but smile that same crooked smile that snatches the moon and its scattered pieces out from above them.

"I'm sorry," he says, softer than snow and painstakingly honest, and Qrow finally remembers how to breathe evenly again. "Things sort of just . . . happened." He presses his lips to Qrow's knuckles, brushes a promise or two there before he quietly adds, "But that doesn't mean we can't slow down."

It shouldn't hurt, but it does. Except it hurts in the same way that a sore tooth might hurt until pressure is applied; it aches for the moment before it's gone, either alleviated or masked, Qrow isn't sure, but he's willing to find out.

He squeezes Clover's hand, and instantly, Clover squeezes back with another petal-soft kiss.

seeking care when you need it

Qrow's Aura is always lacking.

It's not obvious at first. It's the barest hint of drainage on the indicator below his name, not enough to be questioned, not enough to send the sirens blaring. It's the bags under his eyes and the glasslike stare into the mug of coffee in his hands, an exhaustion like any other, a small crutch like Clover's own.

Then, at some point, something gives.

It gives, it breaks, it splinters beyond repair, and Clover finally learns what it is that starts to take such a heavy toll on Qrow.

Rarely, very rarely, Clover finds himself with a shaking armful of his new partner, but he doesn't mind. He never minds, not even when Qrow's quaking and crying and gasping out for something he hates to name. He never minds, not even when the tremor in Qrow's hands gets a little more volatile, a little more desperate, a little more broken.

He doesn't mind, because at the very least, there isn't that all-too familiar sting in Qrow's breaths, his clothes, his skin. There isn't, because there were promises made, Qrow tells him once, promises made that he'll be damned if he doesn't keep. Except sometimes, it's too difficult. Sometimes, it's too heavy of a burden to carry on his own, and Clover can never mind.

One thing that stays the same is how often Qrow reaches. He's reaching, always reaching, that much Clover notices from the very start. Always reaching for an empty breast pocket, sometimes pressing flat against it, other times stopping halfway when he remembers that nothing is there.

But on these nights, he wants with an ache and reaches with intent, and Clover is the one to intercept him.

Clover reaches for two quaking hands and holds them in place. He holds Qrow's hands and squeezes gently, tentatively, waiting and waiting until Qrow is finally capable of squeezing back. It's a little thing unique to them, a habit that neither of them meant to pick up, but they did.

So Clover holds Qrow's hands and waits for the worst of it to pass. He waits, and holds tight, and reminds Qrow that it's okay, reminds him that he's still going, reminds him that the sun will rise again.

He waits, and gradually, with tear stains down his cheeks and a bone-deep tremor that takes its time to calm, Qrow remembers to squeeze his hand back.

love is holding on

Qrow is cold.

He always is, but now, with a shattered Aura and the remains of his pant leg moulded with torn flesh, it's more prominent than ever before. The contrast is sudden, jarring; there's a cold nose pressed against Clover's neck, cold hands quaking against his shoulders, a cold thigh against Cloer's hip that weeps slick heat into his uniform.

A hot pulse hammers in Clover's throat, something like adrenaline, everything like fear. He wonders if Qrow can feel it against his nose and under his lips, wonders if that's the only thing he clings to now - the echoes of life, the thrum of fear, the warmth to make up for his broken Aura. He isn't sure how it happened, but then again, neither of them are sure how things happen between them.

All Clover knows is that his back was turned, and by the time there were ashes in the air, there was also a spatter of crimson against the snow. By the time they get to the transport, Clover's uniform is unsalvageable. By the time the thread and needle are found, Qrow is pale and quaking hard enough to nearly fall apart.

Neither of them know where the lingering Sabyr came from. Usually, Clover is the one who watches out for the both of them. He's the one who catches Grimm by the neck with Kingfisher's line before any damage is done. He would mull it over if he had the time, but there is no time left. There are both seconds and decades, fleeting moments spent threading the needle and centuries spent patching Qrow back together.

Maybe later, when the dust settles and crimson no longer weeps from the jagged-mouthed trenches dug into Qrow's thigh, Clover can consider what luck really entails. He can consider what it is that allows him to remain unscathed, what it is that cares not for casualties or collateral damage.

For now, he focuses on the task at hand.

He must, even when the fabric of Qrow's trousers cling and tug at the wounds as it's peeled off. He must, even if he wishes that the slick warmth trailing down to Qrow's knee wouldn't smear pink against his fingertips. He must, because this is his job, because Qrow is his partner and he will take a ruined vest and blood dry beneath his nails if it means that Qrow will be okay.

It's silent, save for the hitch in Qrow's breath at every knot, every thread, every tug of two glistening edges pulled to meet once again. Skin doesn't mend cleanly when there's no Aura there to pave the way; flesh does not give so easily when it trembles and flinches under each hole torn anew. Clover is used to living canvases, used to split-second injections and stitches weaved frantically, but he isn't used to it being Qrow.

He isn't sure if he'll ever be used to it being Qrow under his fingertips like this.

The thread is snipped for the final time. Black against red, angry, pulsing, and Clover's first instinct is to apologize. He can't find the words, instead setting his hand against Qrow's bare hip. His trousers are torn and vest pushed aside, and soon, the bandages will be unraveled and set out to hold him together. But for now, Clover rubs in idle circles with his thumb above the topmost wound. A reassurance for who, an apology for what, he isn't entirely sure.

The pause doesn't go by unnoticed. Qrow stirs, emerging slowly from wherever he drifted off to. Clover looks up at him and into a glassy pink, into irises lit only by the lights of the transport, hazy and dim but still focused. Still there .

"You didn't have to." Clover's words are softer than first powdery blankets of early snowfall. Gentle, so gentle, but not because Qrow is fragile; he's anything but fragile, an antiquity to him like that of a building long since battered but still standing strong against the tide. "I would've been fine."

Qrow averts his gaze, both unspooled like yarn and drawn tight like wire when he distantly rasps, "How do you know that?"

Clover smiles, or tries to. Smiles a not-smile, smiles the way he's trained to. "Things usually have a way of going right around me."

It only occurs to him that the question was rhetorical once he sees the way Qrow sets his jaw. It occurs to him that there's a point he probably missed when he catches the slight twinge of a tendon in Qrow's neck. Anger, maybe, if there was any fight left in him; frustration, most likely, if the energy hadn't left him as quickly as the blood that soaked into Clover's uniform.

"And things have a way of going wrong around me," Qrow grumbles, "so excuse me for caring a little about what might happen when you aren't looking."

Something shifts in the wake of his words, splintering but not quite breaking, slipping but not falling just yet. He tentatively rests his head back against the wall of the transport with a weary sigh rattling in his chest. It's then that Clover sees the weight on his shoulders, hears the weight of his words, catches the weight of indescribable loss.

Loss is a universal thing, and here, Clover hears it as clear as Atlas Academy's morning bell; decades of blame placed solely upon himself, years of patching both himself and his partners back together, a lifetime of things going wrong.

This is a sacrifice Qrow willingly takes, not as punishment, but as a necessity. This is a pain he willingly endures, not for the first time and certainly not for the last. This is an unspoken promise, not just for Clover but for himself, because a near-impeccable partnership doesn't erase what time and experience has wrought.

There's no reassurance that Qrow won't relive a loss like this; there's no reassurance when reassurance was never given. Sacrifices are never a given, but they will still seem to be when there's a lifetime of misfortune to make up for.

Qrow doesn't immediately stir when Clover nudges at his hand. His palm is coated red, sticky against Clover's, glistening under the lights above them. Clover weaves their fingers together slowly, allowing Qrow to pull away if he wishes to, but he doesn't. His eyes flutter back open, and blearily, he glances down to where their hands are joined.

"Thank you," Clover says.

Qrow doesn't respond, but he doesn't need to. It's not out of anger, if the brief flash of incredulity on his face is anything to go by. Perhaps he can't find the words, either because he doesn't wish to or because he's not used to being thanked, but that's fine.

Clover squeezes his hand, and gently, tentatively, Qrow nods and squeezes back.

accepting that hand when it is offered

It isn't the first time they miraculously find themselves alone together.

But Clover supposes there's a difference between being alone and being stranded.

The windows are too dusty to see clearly through, but he doesn't have to look to know that the world outside is bleached white. The floorboards creak terribly under his feet, but even that is drowned out by the melancholic howl of the winds that beat against the walls. There's a wicked chill that bleeds into the abandoned outpost they've found shelter, and it's just his luck that they're able to start a fire.

That much he utters, as calm and collected as he always is, fully meaning the hilarity behind it to lighten the mood. At first, he isn't sure what it is that lingers in Qrow's eyes, both a wound left to weep and a scar left to fester.

Though it never takes much guesswork to figure out that Qrow's most likely pinning the blame on himself.

It's in the way he curls in on himself, not like a receding tide but like the tsunami that causes it. It's the way he averts Clover's gaze, instead turning to the flames that slowly start to catch and flare. It isn't guilt that Clover sees, though - at this point, there's only quiet resignation, because to him, there can only be one reason that their tire burst and why a snowstorm followed so quickly afterwards.

Except snowstorms aren't uncommon and neither are flat tires. The spontaneity of the field is never blame enough for a single person, but there are only so many ways to go about saying so without being dismissive.

Ultimately, when Clover settles by Qrow's side, he quietly says, "Things happen."

Qrow doesn't respond. Instead, he holds out his hands to the growing fire, long past talking and arguing and insisting that things beyond his control are his to take responsibility over. He's beginning to quake, just as he always does once the chill of the night sets, except it isn't nighttime, and they aren't at the Academy, and his Aura is already low from the mission they were sent on.

There's a distinct vulnerability to him that Clover recognizes, but even so, he doesn't ask for help.

That's one thing that never changes about him, beyond the nights where he shakes and cries and wants with an ache. He's learned not to ask for help, not explicitly, not blatantly, even if he's shivering terribly where he sits. Somehow, the cold has always affected him more than the others despite Aura and clothes tailored for the weather.

And while he doesn't ask for help, he also doesn't refuse it.

So Qrow doesn't shy away when Clover reaches for his hands. He glances sharply to Clover, the flicker of the fire bright like the bleeding sunset in his eyes, but he doesn't pull away. His brows furrow, and there's something close to a complaint on his tongue, lips automatically curved as if to ask why, but he doesn't breathe a word.

Qrow's hands are ice-cold between Clover's own, fingers trembling terribly in his palms, each ring a fang of its own biting sharp into his skin, but he pays that no mind. All he knows is that slowly, Qrow relents, melts like ice held to a burn as he sidles close and rests his head on Clover's shoulder.

"At least we have a fire going," Clover says. He turns just so, and beneath his jaw, Qrow makes an indistinguishable noise - something like a laugh, something like acceptance. "A snowstorm can't last forever."

Though in a way, he idly thinks, he wouldn't mind if something like this lasted forever. In a way, despite the snow-laden winds that cry nameless griefs, he wouldn't mind staying for the faint warmth of the fire, the tickle of feathery hair under his jaw, the gentle squeeze of Qrow's hands in his.

The trembling cedes after a long while. Not that the chill is any more bearable, or the fire is any larger than it was, or the winds any quieter than before, but Qrow seems content enough.

a quiet place in my embrace

Qrow's skin isn't perfect, but Clover never cared for perfection.

He welcomes the sharp contrast. It's different, but not jarring - refreshing, if he has to put a word to it. He's used to infallible figureheads and impenetrable barriers and impeccable structure; he's used to being perfect, because he was made to be perfect, just as all things are, as all things must be when something perilous looms ever closer.

But in a way, nights like these feel just as perfect as anything else.

It feels like it can be perfect when he forgets that the world spins, the moon shines, the cosmos breathes. It feels close to perfect when they slot together so smoothly, so easily, when there's hips against his own and teeth against his pulse and pleasure hotter than blood pooling higher, higher.

Maybe it is perfect, Clover sometimes thinks afterwards when his heart's still pounding and his fingers trace white lines and discolored splotches and the pockmarks that surround them. Maybe it is perfect, but not in the same way that architecture is perfect. It's perfect in the sense that it's natural; it's like the flow of water or the touch of a breeze, these moments where there are no words to be had or wounds to knit or fears to quell.

Qrow stirs just a bit when Clover starts to trace small circles down his spine. He makes a quiet noise into the pillow, his voice uniquely ragged in a way it only ever is when he's still basking in the afterglow. He isn't asleep, but he's close to it, and Clover has learned that soft touches down Qrow's spine are enough to lull him to sleep.

The night is still and quiet. It's cold, but not here, not between them, not with Clover's fingers trailing slowly down ridges and valleys and off-color scars long since muted by time. He pauses at the smooth curve of Qrow's lower back, focusing briefly on the dimples there, then starts the slow glide back upwards.

"Spoiling me rotten," Qrow murmurs into the pillow, almost too muffled for Clover to hear.

Clover laughs at that. He leans down to press a kiss between Qrow's shoulder blades, then another against his nape. Quietly, as if there's a secret to spill, a confession wreathed in moonlight, Clover responds, "You deserve it."

If it wasn't so late and they weren't already sated, Qrow might have bristled. Or maybe if it was weeks ago and their very first night together, he might have laughed as if it's some cruel joke. But time has passed, and both of them have changed in some small, yet substantial way, and Qrow doesn't say a word.

Instead, he nuzzles further into Clover's pillow, breathes in deep before he finally hums, "Right."

Clover can't help but break into a smile. He taps idly against the hand that rests on the pillow next to Qrow's head. It takes a long moment before Qrow responds, turning his hand over for their fingers to intertwine. Whether the rush in his chest is joy or satisfaction, Clover isn't sure; all he knows is that it's only the two of them and this small respite.

All he knows is that this allowance ends once the new day begins, and all there's left for him to do is bask in this warmth until that time comes.

a haven of safety where I'll dry your tears

Qrow has never been more fragile than this.

And in many ways, neither has Clover.

He feels like he's falling the way Atlas did. Feels like the earth beneath him isn't there anymore, sinking the way the ocean recedes, melting the way the sunset bleeds. Sheets burn and cloth clings, and soon, he's awake again. Soon, he's awake, but the memories never fade.

Whatever is left of him has not had time to heal. Whatever is left of them has not had time to mend itself, either.

But time has passed. The days have come and the nights have gone, some of them quickly, all of them difficult. Qrow sits up in bed with his palms pressed to his eyes until sparks of white burst behind his eyelids. He quakes like his bones are on the verge of splinters, heart aching like it's trying to pull itself apart. His skin is clammy, not with blood but sticky just like it, one memory after another pounding through like the pulse between the bones of his wrists.

He doesn't startle when he feels the arms that wrap lazily around him. He's pulled closer, and although he wears a shirt, he can still feel the chill of metal pressed against his back. He knows it like he knows the grooves of Harbinger, melded along flesh and fluttering like a heart. Lips press to his temple, then lower to pass over his jawline, his throat, his shoulder.

It's too coordinated, too deliberate for Qrow to believe that Clover hasn't already been lying awake that night. But that isn't different; he's always awake, it seems. Either always awake, or sleeps lightly now, as if he needs the reminder that he can wake up again. His hand is an anchor where it settles against Qrow's hip, the other coming up to wipe away the stains on Qrow's cheeks that he didn't realize were there.

"I'm still here," he says against Qrow's skin, right above the too-quick pulse that burns hot in his jugular. The words are muted against the thrum of blood, of fear, of echo memories that refuse to stay quiet.

"I know," Qrow rasps, rougher than broken glass and shattered ruins. He turns to nuzzle into Clover's hair. "I know that," he says again, but he isn't sure who he's trying to convince, anymore.

Qrow wills himself to open his eyes again, his hands still clammy but not shaking as they once did. Tentatively, he rests his hand on the back of Clover's. He won't ask, he never does, but he never needs to ask; Clover knows just as he always does, and carefully, he turns his hand to thread their fingers together.

Qrow clings to his hand like it's a lifeline, like there's nothing left to tether him to the whirling planet, the endless cosmos. He clings, and he sucks in a shuddering breath, and Clover lets him. Lets him breathe, lets him gasp, lets him remember - lets him fall and picks him back up again when he's ready for it. When he needs it.

Like all things, there's a calm that inevitably settles. The thoughts are chased away slowly, fading like ashes in the wind by the feather-light brush of Clover's lips against his skin. He mouths something like promises, everything like reassurance, and maybe one day, Qrow can let himself believe them. There's a chill that melts away slowly, replaced only by the warmth of Clover's chest pressed to his back, no longer gaping, no longer weeping.

For a while, Qrow can forget about the tundra, forget the way it bites and tears. Forget about the days that echo and the tomorrows that leer, about the suffocating Vacuo winds and the sunlight that Clover still flinches against when he steps into it. For now, Qrow can forget, because there's nothing left to remember when it's nothing but him and Clover and the shattered moon spilling forth through the open window.

The world outside stills, the cosmos holds its breath, the atmosphere slows and breathes static, and for now, Qrow can let himself rest. He can rest until the sun rises. He can rest until tomorrow comes. He can rest, because for now, for as long as the night is still and the kids are asleep, he isn't needed.

He brings their intertwined hands into view, if only to remind himself that Clover is still here.

He presses his lips to one wrist, if only to remind himself that Clover is alive.

He squeezes until Clover finally squeezes back, if only to remind himself that they're both here to stay.