A/N: to no one's surprise, i've written a tattoo parlor au. in my defense, watercolor tattoos are so, so lovely, and i think clover deserves one. kudos to my wife for motivating me to finish this
notice: although this fic does not warrant a v7ch12 warning, this still gets heavy at certain points, as it usually does when it comes to clover's injury & subsequent recovery.
Fair Game Week Day 6 - Cold/Recovery
Clover knows from the moment he walks in.
He's known for a while now, but that doesn't stop his pulse from jumping to the back of his throat the moment he hears the chime of the bell. It's almost overshadowed by the dull, mechanical hum from somewhere deeper inside. Clover holds his breath. It aches, it always does, aches when he fills his lungs at much as they can handle, but that isn't new. It hasn't been new in a while. This decision isn't new, either.
On the front desk, where the glass is pristine and bright with an assortment of jewelry, there's a speaker that plays some old rock band that Clover almost recognizes. Just behind that speaker is a man with the heart of the ocean in his eyes and the warmth of the sun in his smile when he waves Clover over.
"Hey! What can I do for you?"
Somehow, that seems like an impossible question.
It seems impossible when his heart's pounding as if it's trying desperately to burst out of his chest. He's hyper aware of it, just as he's aware of the blood in his veins, aware of the way it scalds, the way it races, the way it rushes to his ears when he speaks.
It seems even more impossible than before when the man regards him for one long, quiet moment. Then, he's instructed to sit on one plush leather couch in the waiting lounge, and the man - Taiyang, he quickly introduces, a name that Clover recognizes from the brief look he took at the parlor's website - disappears into one of the back rooms.
Clover's known from the moment he walked in. He's known for a while, but that doesn't stop him from thinking, from dreading. Although he's known for so long, known for months before he finally walked into the nearest tattoo parlor, there's still the apprehension that comes with the permanence of the tattoo.
He knows he wants this, though.
He knows he wants peace. He knows he wants to mend. He knows he wants a permanency that he chose, not a permanency that he was stuck with after the dust finally settled. He knows what he wants, knows it like he knows what it means to live and what it means to die - to almost die.
Clover also knows that he wants roses.
That much he told Taiyang, whose specialty is apparently nature, and the watercolor paintings of flowers and birds on the wall is a testimony to that. He can't help but start to lose confidence as quickly as rushing river water the longer he sits and waits. Once he's just about ready to get up and leave and never look back, the next artist walks in, and for a moment, he almost forgets what he even came there for.
It's a moment, only a moment, but for all Clover knows, it could've been a lifetime. It could've been an eternity. It could've been seconds or minutes or hours spent staring, because his eyes immediately land on watercolor, on flowers, on life. Sleeves rolled up to his elbows, a V-neck that dips low, the cut of his jaw sharp enough to draw blood, and amongst it all, there is ink.
Amongst it all, there are flowers.
The colors are soft, breathed out against skin, blossoming to life like the light of nebulae that streaks the cosmos. It's as if the colors of the sky had been snatched from above and placed onto skin, onto bone, onto the flowers that move with each twinge of muscle. There's flowers on this artist's forearms, flowers on his collarbones, flowers in his eyes when Clover finally meets them.
They're rose-tinted, pink, a color that calls to Clover by the fibres of his being, the iron in his veins, the lingering ghosts in his chest.
This is exactly what he's been looking for, and there has never been a surer moment in his life after the wound healed enough for him to walk again.
The introductions are short, fleeting. What matters more is the request, the desire, the one thing that'll mend the wound that refuses to knit back together. Clover repeats what he said once Qrow takes him to the back, presumably to his office. When Qrow hears this, he sits back with a thoughtful hum, the chair groaning in quiet agony beneath him.
Clover can't help but be drawn to the curve of dragon lilies over his pulse, burning embers and molten golds against his pale skin before they disappear past his clavicle. Idly, he wonders how much watercolor Qrow has blossoming to life on the canvas beneath his clothing.
Qrow swivels in his chair to reach for one of the sketchbooks that are splayed open on the nearby counter. "So this is your first tattoo, huh?"
It'll be the only tattoo, really. There's only one thing he wants to cover. One thing he wants to accept. He's known from the start. He knows what he wants etched onto his skin, because already, there's a mark that won't heal. A memory that won't stop echoing.
A scar that will never fade.
"Where is it?"
That, Clover can't bring himself to answer just yet. He bites his lip. Tries to ignore the way the action draws Qrow's eyes. "Well. About that."
He knows, but that doesn't mean he's ready. He knows, but that doesn't make it any easier. It happened a long time ago, but that doesn't mean he's forgotten. He can't forget, not when the late nights are still commonplace and the memories still echo, still weep.
He can't forget, and he's accepted that he can't forget.
Because it's not about forgetting, anymore. It's about mending, healing; it's about changing, growing. It's about the way he looks in the mirror and winces at the thick, jagged-edged scar that runs down his sternum, sometimes remembering, sometimes not.
It's been a long road to recovery, but this is the one roadblock that no amount of therapy can help him overcome. At the silence, Qrow glances back at him from the sketchbook, and immediately, he softens. But it isn't pity in his eyes, or his voice, or the small nod he makes. It's sympathy, and now, Clover sees why it is that Taiyang directed him to Qrow.
Finally, Clover tells him, and he isn't sure what it is that jumps between his ribs at the low whistle that earns him.
"This'll be a pretty big tattoo," Qrow needlessly warns, "and it's gonna hurt."
Of course it'll hurt, but Clover doesn't mind. He'll take a thousand ink-laced pinpricks against scar tissue if it means that there will be roses. He'll take the pain of roses being torn into his skin, red deeper than blood, crimson sharp and lethal within every gentle petal, every curved edge over the scar that still haunts him.
Clover can't help but smile and quip, "Probably because of the bone there."
Qrow rolls his eyes with a snort. "All right, hotshot. Let me see it."
The tension doesn't finally snap, doesn't shatter with a sound like breaking glass, but it still cracks just enough for them to get to work.
Clover's never been a particularly self-conscious person, but this is different. Everything is different. It's been different from the moment he learned how to walk again, the moment he left the hospital, the moment he first stepped into a therapist's office after weeks of quaking and gasping and clutching at his newly reconstructed chest to hold himself together.
He doesn't look down. He doesn't look at the mirror. He doesn't do anything but glance out the window, out into the nothingness of the street outside, already emptying out now that the sun is beginning to set. It's a scar, nothing more, nothing less - that's what he tells himself, over and over again, a mantra that plays louder than the sound of tearing flesh and breaking bones.
There's fingers against his bicep. He glances sharply back at Qrow. It's only then that he finds himself taking shuddering breaths. It's only then that he realizes just how silent it is now, a silence fit to splinter at any moment, a silence more suffocating than the blood that once filled his lungs to bursting.
But Qrow doesn't touch him like he's porcelain, doesn't do much more than soothe, "Breathe."
And he does. He breathes, once he's able to. He breathes until he forgets. Breathes until he remembers. Breathes while Qrow sets his camera side, flips through his sketchbook, murmurs onwards about everything and nothing. Clover doesn't keep track of what he says, but the lull of his voice is grounding enough.
It's just a scar, Clover tells himself. There's ghosts in his chest and phantoms in his ribs and whispers in his remaining lung and metal-plated spine, and in the end, there's a scar.
And soon enough, there will be roses.
There will be roses to soothe what can't be mended. There will be roses to heal what can't be replaced.
They'll replicate a watercolor painting, Qrow eventually promises, which Clover idly comments on; it's the only time he brings up Taiyang, now that he's throwing his shirt back on and Qrow is scrutinizing the photo. It's the only time he brings up all of the paintings that are hung up on the walls in the waiting lounge, blossoms of reds and purples and blues, all of them softer than the break of dawn.
There's a fire in Qrow's eyes when Clover looks back at him - under the shine of the sunlight pouring through his window, they're red, like the velvets that a late summer sunset bleeds into the sky. He finally laughs, the sound ragged like gravel, heady like a sin, and already, Clover doesn't remember how to breathe.
"Those are mine, actually," Qrow says. "Tai can't pull off watercolor even to save his own life."
It's just a scar.
That's what Clover has been telling himself for the past few years.
It's just a scar, he thinks, it's just another scar. He has many of them - almost all of them imperceptible, mere white streaks and pinpricks of puncture wounds forgotten. He isn't fragile, so much as he's antique; he isn't breakable, but he is malleable, and he doesn't think much of anything is left out there to tear him anew. Nothing but this scar.
It's just a scar, he thinks, and sometimes, says to himself when he can't bear the silence anymore. Raised skin, discolored, mangled, indents where the staples and the needles and the tubes draining his lungs and his chest cavity used to be. There's many of them there, most of them small, most of them insignificant, but the one that runs jagged down his sternum is the most prominent.
It's just a scar, he reminds himself. It's just a scar.
But at the same time, it isn't.
Each glance brings a fleeting memory, ringing like the toll of a bell until they become unbearable. It isn't as prominent as it once was, and he no longer sleeps as light as a feather for the constant reminder that he can still wake up again, but that never stops the echoes from resurfacing.
It's a scar, and with it comes the lingering pains, sometimes a twinge, other times a panging ache as if his sternum is once again being wrenched wide open. It's a scar, and with it comes the quaking breaths, each faster and lighter than the last, as if any moment without breathing will allow them to fill with more blood. It's a scar, and there's days where he can't remind himself, nights where he remembers, moments where he's back in white rooms and glasslike silence and narcotics simmering in his veins.
It took Clover a long time before he finally addressed it, both to his therapist and to the friends he still has left. It took an even longer time for him to figure out that acceptance isn't the problem, here. He's come to terms with what happened. He's grieved and he's learned, he's ached and he's healed, and the problem isn't what initially happened.
It's the reminder that comes with each glance in the mirror.
"You needed this," is what Elm tells him when he brings up the tattoo to her. "Really, Clover. It's been so long, I think you'll do just fine."
Her words aren't particularly soothing, but then again, nothing ever is when he gets like this. It's late at night, and he has his phone balanced between his ear and shoulder, because his hands are too busy quaking where they clutch the fabric of his shirt above his chest. His voice is steady, breaths are mostly even, but that's never helped him, either.
"It won't just go away," Clover says out loud, mostly to himself, but Elm sighs all the same.
"It won't," she agrees, "but that isn't the point, is it?"
It isn't, that much he knows, it never is; he's past the point of trying to hide what lies beneath his shirt. He's past the point of pretending, past the point of ignoring the problem, and yet still, it feels like a poorly weaved bandage. It feels like he's hiding, feels like he's trying to forget, and time and time again, he wonders.
He wonders, and he aches, one endless and the other timeless, but that isn't new. It hasn't been new for years now.
The next morning, Qrow calls him back into the parlor to review the sketch. Clover doesn't pointedly avoid looking at the edge of the scar that peeks out from his low-riding collar in the mirror. There'll be more to accept than this. There'll be more to tolerate than this.
When he walks in, Qrow is the one at the front desk. There's already the dull thrum of a tattoo gun from deeper in the parlor, the speaker playing nothing this time to drown it. Qrow's sleeves are rolled up to the elbows, but there's still smears of paint against the fabric, teardrops of color that stick to his skin and blend with one another between his knuckles.
When Qrow notices him, his gaze delves lower just a bit, just for a moment, and Clover wonders what it is that he's looking at. He doesn't have to wonder for long when Qrow gestures him over with the sunset in his eyes just a notch heavier than it was before.
At first, Clover isn't sure what to expect. He gave Qrow the freedom to do what he thinks is best, and all he's been left with is his imagination over the past couple of days. Maybe a stem down the center, proper utilization of the scar rather than total coverage; maybe petals freed from the scar entirely, left only for the background of faux-watercolor to mask as best as it can.
There are indents pressed to the edge of the paper, pinpricks of a removed staple, a boxed outline that Clover knows must have held one of the photos that were taken. He isn't sure what it is that twists deep inside him, something like dread, another thing like discomfort.
But there are no photos in front of him.
There is only watercolor.
It's nothing that Clover expected - whisper-light strokes, splotches that bleed rather than spatter, colors that blend and burst to life. There is a bouquet of roses on the paper, blooming from the scar itself, gentle enough to have been crafted by the shattered moon's light. There are blossoms of crimson, a faint background blotted to velvety perfection, droplets that weep from the frayed edges of the lower petals.
Down the center of the bouquet, Clover recognizes the vague outline. He knows what it's there for, of course. He knows what it's supposed to be, knows what his artist is taking into consideration.
And somehow, when his heart starts to race, when he glances back to Qrow and forgets what it means to have oxygen in his veins, he knows that it isn't fear.
"What're we feeling?" Qrow prompts.
He isn't looking for praise; he's looking for reassurance, for an answer, with nothing but hope in those stunning eyes of his. Fleetingly, Clover feels the bloom of roses in his chest, the flutter of fallen petals in his stomach.
Qrow brightens, almost imperceptibly so. If anything, it's a challenge to him, and somehow, Clover's okay with that. He's okay being the canvas rather than the science experiment. He's okay with being just another client rather than a medical miracle. He's okay with the normalcy of it all, up until he notices the photo that's been set aside on the countertop.
Qrow must notice where his eyes linger, as well, because quietly, he says, "Scar tissue's a hassle to tattoo. On your end, I mean - we'll need a touch up or two in between all the swelling before you're officially ready to go. It won't be pretty, at first."
Fleetingly, Clover wonders if things like this are ever pretty. It wasn't pretty to begin with, nothing but a gaping trench and two jagged-edges peaks stapled back together around the equipment. It wasn't pretty from the start. It isn't pretty now. But the painting before him is prettier than the starlight that the cosmos breathes, and for once, Clover can let himself hope.
He averts his gaze once he sees the way Qrow presses one red-stained fingertip down the length of the painting. Right in the center, where he knows the roses bloom and the roots delve deep into the phantoms that still haunt him. He's terribly aware of the heart that races in his chest. He's painfully aware of the blood in his veins, the bones in his body, the breaths he takes.
Wearily, he says, "I didn't think it'd be easy."
"It never is," Qrow answers with a petal-soft sigh.
It's personal, but at the same time, it isn't.
It should be personal, with how tentatively Clover bares himself to the world, to Qrow, but it isn't. He almost doesn't expect this to be so clinical. He removes his shirt, settles back against the chair, and for a while, he waits. Watches the fluorescent light above and waits until he isn't sure if it's the clock or his own heartbeat that he listens to.
Soon, Qrow is by his side. It's almost overwhelming, the shock of cold leather on Clover's back, the sticky press of a stencil to his chest, the cool glide of gloved fingers against his skin. It smells like ink and memories, disinfectant and promises, spectrums and gradients. It feels like an inevitability, but not in the same way that a death sentence is an inevitability.
It feels like two edges of a wound pulled back together. It feels like stitching and stapling and wrappings left to keep him from falling back apart. It feels like the inevitability of healing, almost, because all wounds must heal, and all scars must fade.
At the very least, Qrow doesn't treat him like he's a bomb waiting to ignite or like glass on the verge of shattering.
Qrow's fingers don't hesitate to press against Clover's skin. Qrow's hands don't remain feather-light and weary where they rest over either side of his chest. Qrow doesn't flinch away from him, doesn't stare needlessly at the length of his scar, doesn't even bat an eye once he peels the stencil off.
It should be personal, with how long it's been since Clover last willingly exposed the one part of him that he can't look at for too long. It should be, but it isn't, because Qrow doesn't look at him like he's been split open and patched back together. Qrow doesn't look at him with a pity reserved for those who had to be brought back five times before they finally stabilized.
Qrow glances up to him with what might be ambition and asks, "Ready?"
But that's an unfair thing to ask, Clover helplessly thinks. Qrow's eyes are a wine-colored sunset above an oceanside, a rose-tinted coalescence fit to drown in, and it's so unfair of him to ask when Clover's too focused on keeping his head above water.
"Yes," he finally answers.
Qrow's gaze lingers for a moment longer before he finally sets to work.
He's prepared, but he isn't.
Clover knew what to expect. Knew it was going to hurt, knew that there would be no reprieve, but this is different. He isn't a stranger to pain; he grits his teeth, takes slow and careful breaths, knows that the time will stretch just as the cosmos does up until their ten hour session comes to an end. He isn't a stranger to pain, but this isn't steel between his ribs or parted flesh or bones shattered beyond repair.
This is an ink-laced needle tearing beauty into his skin. This is the near-endless prick of a needle before it's pulled off for a second, just a second, a mere second for Qrow to wipe away the blood and ink before he sets to work once again. This is a price he was willing to pay, an agony he's willing to endure, but then the needle finally digs daggers down the scar itself.
Scar tissue is especially sensitive, Qrow warned him once, scar tissue is fragile; scar tissues hold memories, and with Clover's, it holds far too many to keep track of. With Clover's, it holds the echoes of ribs shoved apart, of a lung far from saving, of wavering monitors that still ring in his ears.
He wasn't prepared when it happened. It's a blur, but it isn't. It was quick, seamless, but at the same time, it wasn't. It ripples like broken lake water, which is both a blessing and a curse, because the memories are just as clear once it finally settles.
He's there but he isn't, in the same way that he was awake but wasn't - white rooms and glasslike silence and familiar voices and a monitor that quivered terribly before flatlining again and again and again -
"Cloves - Clover, are you okay?"
"Yes," he says, but even to his own ears, he sounds like he's been dragged out for miles.
He closes his eyes, takes a heavy breath, opens them again - or at least, he swears he does, but there's white, nothing but white, white and hot and sticky against his skin - he's opening his eyes for the first time again, blinking for the first time again, trying to gasp out against the tubing down his throat, the monitors overhead -
"Hey." There's fingers firm around his wrist. The gloves are off, tattoo machine forgotten, one ink and bloodstained cloth crumpled alongside it. "Let's take a break, yeah?"
Somehow, Clover finds it in himself to nod.
He isn't the one that does the talking, and on one hand, he's grateful for it. He listens to Qrow talk about things that don't matter, things that aren't dire, things that have nothing to do with hospitals or bandages or needles or lost time. There's a pleasant drag to his voice, a rasp at the end of his sentences, a lull that Clover can't help but lean into.
Qrow talks about the past, mostly. About how he met Taiyang, over a decade ago now, Qrow with an undecided major and Taiyang running full speed ahead in the arts. How they later met Summer and then dragged Raven into the mix, and how the four of them coalesced, not like celestial bodies but like oceans or rivers, lakes or ponds, something fluid and natural and right.
It doesn't take long before Clover's heart stops pounding. It doesn't take very long at all, not with the stores that Qrow tells, grand when they need to be, quiet when they should be. Qrow has enough stories for a lifetime, it seems, and really, it's no secret that he loves to tell them.
And if Clover enjoys watching the way the dragon lilies twinge on his throat and clavicle as he speaks, that's nobody's business but his own.
Eventually, Clover apologizes. Whether it's for Qrow or himself, he isn't sure. But Qrow only shakes his head, only sits back in his chair and says, "Don't be."
He sounds so easy, so casual , even with blood and ink and sweat muddling the air. Clover can't do more than nod and swallow back every other apology that begs to be uttered for the both of them.
They decide to take breaks often. It's easy to fit such short sessions into Qrow's schedule, and it's even easier for Clover to find the time in his evenings.
Over time, the ink spreads slowly, not like an infection digging in its teeth but like blood that weeps into every surrounding thread of a bandage.
The pain never loses its novelty, but then again, Clover doesn't suspect that it ever will. Whether it's the phantoms rearing beneath his sternum or an ink-laced needle digging just beneath his skin, the pain never dulls, and Clover never stops fighting.
He hasn't stopped fighting in a long time. Once, he only knew servitude; now, he only knows quietude. He knows how to maintain it, knows how to bring himself back to it, but for a while, he didn't. For a while, it was only him and a mirror, him and the bandages, him and the countless nameless faces who coaxed him back on his own two feet.
The scar came last. First, it was the fragile silence and the lake water stillness after his sternum and spinal cord were mended. Then, it was lucidity, sometimes for minutes, other times for hours. It was the countless surgeries that followed, no longer to patch him back together but to remove what could never be saved; it was the aches that never quite dulled, the nightmares that never stopped panging, the therapy sessions that helped cope with it all.
Qrow apologizes for the touching often. He apologizes for the needle, for the bite of it, for the caress of the cloth over marred skin, but Clover never minds. That's the cost of being a medical miracle, he half-jokes, that's what happens when you're the product of Atlesian technology and medicine.
These jokes come after their sessions, though.
It always goes that way, once the gloves are taken off and the wrappings are left behind. Clover watches how efficiently Qrow moves, one station to the next, disinfectant and ink heavy in the air. It's almost second nature, every movement, every gesture, Qrow talking to him every step of the way, and he can't help but watch.
That's his favorite part, he thinks, barring the fascination of watching the spread of watercolor over his skin. Seeing the twinge of each flower on Qrow's skin, watching Qrow at work, hearing Qrow talk, Qrow.
If he notices the way Clover watches, he doesn't comment on it.
And when Clover notices the way Qrow is watching, as well, he doesn't breathe a word of it.
He doesn't, even when it ignites a fire under his skin, more than any needle ever could. He doesn't, even when the allure is something magnetic, a pull that neither of them deny but also never address. He doesn't, because he's merely a client, and Qrow is merely an artist, and what comes after is payment and diverged paths.
So he keeps quiet, and grits his teeth through the pain.
Often, Clover keeps his back turned towards the mirror. He doesn't tend to inspect the progress at the parlor, both because he's still busy reminding himself how to breathe evenly and because the tissue is too inflamed to be much of a pretty sight just yet. But like all things, it will heal, and it will bloom, and Clover can only wait for that night to come.
Rarely, Qrow talks about his nieces. Rarely, he talks about their mothers, one missing and the other dead. Rarely, very rarely, Clover can see the way his gaze lingers, both unblinking and unseeing, miles away with a wound that refuses to heal somewhere along the way.
And it's on one of those rare occasions when Qrow finally asks, "Do you want to talk about it?"
Clover wavers, but it's not that he doesn't want to talk about it. He's never had a problem talking about what happened, what went wrong, what miraculously went right. The problem comes with the pity, and pity, he's had enough of. Pity, he doesn't want more of. But with Qrow, it's never pity, and in this parlor, there's never condolement.
So he laughs - how or why, he doesn't know. He never knows. Something tells him Qrow never knows, either.
But he does know why it is that he starts talking.
It's about more than the tattoo itself. It's about more than the inherent beauty of faux-watercolor and roses drawn from blood and ink alike. It's about more than the scar, in the end, because although it's the one thing he can't move on from, it also isn't the only thing that he hopes to heal from.
It's about acceptance. It's about peace. It's about permanency, in a way, and warping it into something uniquely his own, into something beautiful. It's about the petals that begin to unfurl, the sun that begins to set, the ink that begins to spread and create something he's only ever dreamed of.
There's ghosts under the needle and echo memories that still reverberate, but it's peace that the ink brings. There's pain under Qrow's gloved fingertips and agony with each passing hour, but it's the final step to healing that they bring.
Clover recognizes that step when he looks in the mirror later. The skin is red, inflamed, seething with a pulse, but that's not what matters.
What matters is that he's looking.
He's watching the roses bloom and nothing more.
Perhaps for the final time, Clover lets his gaze linger on the tattoos that are visible on Qrow's skin.
Qrow has only talked about his tattoos once, during the many instances when he caught Clover staring. They're all his designs, his choices, because flowers have meanings. Flowers hold secrets, and secrets unfurl like the petals of the many roses he has inked to his skin, and one by one, Clover discovers them on his own.
There are dragon lilies against his throat, curving over the pulse point, delving low past the dip of one clavicle. There are strawflowers and snapdragons, neither of which are visible, and Clover only knows because Qrow tells him. There are roses up his arms, reds and whites blended into typical watercolor perfection.
Roses, Qrow later quietly tells him, are his favorite flowers.
They're his favorite because they were Summer's favorite.
That must be why he understands, Clover sometimes thinks. He understands the inherent delicacy of flowers crafted not by ink, but by memories. He understands the beauty of ink torn into skin not to wound, but to heal.
His eyes roam over the bloom of red and white roses, black and gray stems, droplets of what might be blood or watercolor or something a bit deeper. There's a unique coalescence between all of the colors, all of the ink, all of the memories; it's definitive even when the petals fray and the droplets of color bleed into one another, moulding like the convergence of stars, of oceans, of blinding lights.
Helplessly, as Clover watches Qrow idly flip through a sketchbook during a break in their final session, he wonders what it'd be like to smooth his fingers across them.
He's wondered many times before, but never has he felt so helpless, so vulnerable. Before, there was still a painting to breathe into relevance, still watercolor to burn into his skin and heal what still wept. Before, there was time to consider, time to waste, but they've run out of time.
There is no time left, and perhaps for the final time, Clover wonders how Qrow would feel under his fingertips.
He wonders if he'd feel the grooves of each stem, the whisper of each petal, the rush of blood beneath skin once they're pressed close enough. Wonders if the dragon lilies might flutter beneath his teeth, against his tongue; wonders where the snapdragons may lay and if they're as red as ink, as scarred tissue, as the chambers of Clover's heart.
All thoughts of bouquets and beauty and pain and scars with stories to tell come to an abrupt stop when he meets Qrow's gaze.
Clover hooks one finger into his collar and tugs it away from too-hot skin. He doesn't miss the way Qrow's eyes follow the movement. There's something heavier than gravity in them, something hotter than blood - Clover isn't sure what muddles between them. It's not white noise or static or tension stringing itself wire-tight, not like before, not like other nights.
It's something stronger, something heady , something close to gravity or to inevitability; it's one thing leading to a next, one tentative touch of skin and a split-second of a shared breath, some slow collision that started before they even realized it.
He can't focus on anything but the lips against his own. It's almost frantic, almost helpless, yet they mould perfectly together, like shards of glass that melt, mend, become one. Qrow seems to be careful, even when he's drowning, even when his fingers are threaded clumsily through Clover's hair. He's careful not to touch the aching tattoo even if he melts onto Clover's lap, even once Clover's fingers trail underneath his shirt.
Here, it's perfect. Messy, but perfect, hot and heavy and everything he's ever wanted. Everything he's been wondering, everything he's been craving, this convergence, this bloom of something deeper than ink-stained skin.
Everything stops the second Clover feels raised skin against his fingertips.
It's too sudden, too familiar. He breaks away, head still spinning, breaths still coming out hot and heavy, but Qrow's no better - skin flushed and lower lip glistening and thighs splayed to rest over his hips. Somewhere in the muddled space between them, he hears the rough hitch of Qrow's laugh, feels the hand that rests over his own through the shirt that separates them.
Then, Qrow moves to lift his shirt up his torso and over his shoulders, and it's then that Clover finally sees the scar beneath his ribs. It's hidden, for the most part, but for eyes all-too familiar with raised skin and gnarled memories, Clover can see it all the same.
There's ink-laced roses there, as well. It's a nebulae of reds and velvets that blossom from the scar underneath, droplets bleeding into skin and petals frayed to perfection. In many ways, they're the opposite - opposites made to attract, and maybe that's what's so magnetic, maybe that's what this is - but here, they're the same.
Here, there's nothing but understanding, and that's the only thing Clover could ask for.
The only thing besides roses, which Qrow has already given him.
It's almost over, he realizes, when there's no outlines to harden and only a few more droplets of watercolor to replicate. It occurs to him then just where they are, what they've done, what lines they've crossed and barriers they've broken, and he stiffly clears his throat. That seems to draw Qrow back from wherever he floated to.
"This is . . ." Clover can't help but feel like he's grasping at straws with the way Qrow watches him with one raised brow - bangs pushed back and a flush still high on his cheekbones and Clover swears his heart isn't where he left it. Somehow, his voice is steady when he settles with, "Unprofessional."
Qrow laughs in that same rough, easygoing way that never fails to snatch the sun from the sky. "It was gonna happen sooner or later."
"This sort of thing happens often?"
Clover struggles with the words. Part of it is Qrow's eyes and the flames in them, not a wildfire but certainly a spark that could ignite one, and Clover wouldn't be able to stop it from burning him to ash. Finally, he finds it in himself to look away and instead focuses on the roses that unfurl against Qrow's ribs.
"I guess I'm asking if this is going to be a one-time thing," he says.
Qrow shifts, and somehow, he's closer than before. Presses his lips to Clover's temple, lingers there as if his heart's on the tip of his tongue and he doesn't want the cosmos to hear. "It won't. Unless you want it to be."
"I was hoping not." Clover tucks his nose just beneath Qrow's jaw, just for a moment before he questions, "What about your job?"
Qrow pulls away, seemingly amused by that. "Unlike some office job or whatever you're used to seeing," he says, the blood beneath his fingertips running white-hot where they trail slowly down Clover's biceps, "people don't care about what goes on between an artist and their client."
He trails off into a murmur as he leans in, but it's not a kiss, just the catch of Clover's bottom lip between his own. There's a hint of teeth that has Clover melting like glass, but then Qrow lets go and slips out of his lap and oh, that's not fair at all.
Qrow's grin is a perilous thing, his voice just a notch more ragged than usual when he says, "Back to work."
The final touch up happens soon afterwards.
It isn't the final time that Clover will come visit the parlor, but it is the final time that he will be the canvas that Qrow tears beauty into. He's become accustomed to the watercolor paintings and the bright jewelry displays and the plush leather seat that sticks to him like a second skin when the session drags on too long, but tonight, he is only there for a short while.
There are only fleeting pinpricks this time. Mild touches here and there until Qrow is satisfied with his work, and Clover doesn't mind how long it takes. If there's any one thing he's learned, it's that time is irrelevant. Time doesn't matter when there's skin to mend and ink to shine and roses to unfurl.
For the first time, Clover willingly wears a shirt with a low-riding collar and doesn't shy away from it. He doesn't baulk under Qrow's eye, or under Taiyang's when he walks out later that night with Qrow by his side. He doesn't waver, because he knows what it is that the world sees, knows what it is that he's finally able to display.
For the first time, when there's skin against his own that night and fingers trailing delicately against raised scar tissue, Clover doesn't hide. There's nothing to hide and everything to accept, and already, he's reached that point. There are still memories, still pains, still nights where he clutches at his chest and aches, but for the first time in years, he looks in the mirror without wincing.
For the first time in this long road to recovery, he sees roses rather than losses, beauty rather than remorse, and knows that nothing will be able to take that from him.