Qrow knew something was wrong, in the minutes before it happened.
The air thinned, no longer supporting him as it always did.
The ground below faded from focus, details no longer pin-sharp to his red eyes.
His wings became heavy, flapping erratically in the chill air...
The fall to earth took forever, yet not long enough. He hit the ground far too hard, the recoil from Harbinger's gun too little, too late, to slow his descent.
"What do you mean, we can't trace him? There must be something on his scroll, something—"
"There's nothing, Clover." James pressed a clenched fist to his forehead. "As you can see, the scroll is no longer known to the system. It must be completely drained of power, or damaged in some way..." He tailed off, staring helplessly at the other man. "I just don't know."
Clover's eyes glistened. "What's the point of winning the war, if Qrow—"
"Don't say it. It's only been a few hours. Let's just—"
The door to James' office burst open, and a dark-haired woman pushed past the guard outside.
"I don't care, we're going in whether you like it or not."
At her shoulder was Yang, her face ashen as she followed her mother into the room.
James hauled himself to his feet, and Clover swung round, his hand automatically going to Kingfisher as he saw who it was.
Yang ran to Clover, clutching his arm. "Something dreadful has happened to Qrow! Mum knows... as least—"
Before she could continue, James raised his voice. "What is the meaning of this?"
Raven spoke over him, her eyes travelling between the two men.
"Qrow is in serious trouble. I— where is Oz?"
James shook his head, blinking at the unexpected question.
"Oz has gone. He battled Salem, at least... it was Osma, really. They fought, and then—"
"They both vanished." Clover spoke up. "We still don't know exactly what happened, it was only a few hours ago..."
Raven's shoulders sagged. "That explains it."
"Explains what?" James and Clover spoke in unison.
"The magic has gone. Oz's gift. It's gone."
They stared at each other, the silence in the room seeming to stifle thought. Finally, James spoke.
"How do you know?"
Raven laughed. "I can't assume my bird form any more. And that means Qrow can't, either."
Clover stared at her, before turning to James.
"He was out on a mission..."
Yang tugged on his arm. "If he was flying back when it happened..." She rounded on Raven.
"Why didn't you go straight to him, if you knew?"
A look of anger flashed across Raven's face.
"You think I chose not to? I couldn't... find him. I don't know why... So I came here. To you."
"Can you... sense him now? Have you tried?" Clover felt bile rising in his throat. If he's gone, I'll... I don't know what I'll do.
"We came straight to you, Clover. Try again, Mum."
Raven turned away from the desk, her jaw clenched as she held up her hand. Her eyes closed, her forehead creasing as she focussed. After a long moment, the familiar red portal opened before her. She glanced over her shoulder.
"I have him."
Clover pushed forward. "I'm coming. In case... in case there are Grimm, or something."
Raven nodded. "Come on." She took his arm, and they stepped through.
As the portal closed, Yang turned to the General. "Did you know that when Oz went, this would happen?"
James had aged ten years in the last ten minutes.
"No, I never imagined... Oz never said it was temporary."
"There's a lot of things that bastard never said." Yang's voice was bitter as she slumped into a chair. "I need to tell Rubes..." She pulled out her scroll and began tapping on the screen.
Qrow was aware of the cold. It seemed deeper, sharper, than usual. His bones were chilled, and any attempt to move was agony. So he lay still, his sluggish brain trying to make sense of what had happened to him.
I was flying back to Atlas. And then... I wasn't.
He tried to reach for his scroll, finding only a crushed mess in his pocket.
Great, no comms. What now?
No answer came readily to mind. Thankfully, there were no Grimm nearby.
Lucky me, huh?
Qrow smiled despite his pain and discomfort. Thinking about Clover had that effect.
Clover... the kids. How will they know where I am?
He tried to shift his position, and was rewarded by a searing pain in his shoulder.
Okay, bad move. I guess I'll have to wait it out... they knew where I was... they'll work out the route I was on... I'll just rest here for now...
His eyelids fluttered closed.
Qrow did not stir when the oval of red swirling light appeared a short distance from where he lay. He did not hear the faint crackling of energy, or Clover's shout as he and Raven stepped through onto the snow.
"Gods, what has he done to himself now," she muttered, treading briskly towards her brother.
Clover had to resist the urge to push past her, a sick sensation rising within him at the sight of one of Qrow's arms, angled away from his shoulder in an unnatural way.
Raven crouched beside him, Clover hovering just behind. "What's happened to him?" His voice caught in his throat as she glanced back over her shoulder.
"He must have been airborne when... when it happened. And then he fell..."
Clover's horrified face gazed at his mission partner, as he considered what Qrow's last few moments of consciousness would have been. "Is he—"
"He's taken a battering, and I don't like the look of that arm. He's very cold, but there's still a pulse." She pushed herself to a standing position. "We need to get him back, but—"
"I need to secure his arm; I think the shoulder could be dislocated." Clover unbuckled his belt, kneeling in the snow beside the stricken huntsman. "Qrow, I'm really sorry, but this will probably hurt." He rubbed his face impatiently, before taking Qrow's outflung arm and drawing it carefully down to lie alongside his body. A spasm passed across Qrow's face, but he did not wake.
"Here, pass the belt round him." Clover raised Qrow's shoulders as gently as he could, allowing Raven to thread the belt beneath him. She looped it around his arm and across his chest, fastening it snugly with trembling fingers.
"He's so cold, we should have brought something to wrap him in." Clover's eyes searched their barren surroundings as if he expected to see a suitable blanket lying on the ground.
"Let's just get him back quickly." Raven turned away, manifesting the fiery portal once more.
Clover gathered Qrow up in his arms, wincing as he sensed bones grating against each other in Qrow's shoulder. He took a lurching step forward before steadying himself, then Raven took his arm and they stepped through.
Never had Clover been as thankful for Atlas' medical efficiency as he was that day.
As they stumbled through into James' office, staff from the medical wing were waiting with a trauma trolley. They guided Clover to place Qrow's limp body upon it, then took over as they quickly examined him, covering him with a heating blanket before wheeling the trolley from the room. Clover was about to follow, but James caught him by the shoulder.
"Leave them to take care of him. You can see him later, Clover."
Clover stared at James blindly. He felt a brief touch on his arm, and Raven spoke. "I won't stay, but I'm not leaving Atlas. I'll come tomorrow." She turned to Yang, who was standing to one side, her arm about Ruby. Raven opened her mouth, but did not speak. She nodded to Yang, then created her portal, and vanished.
Ruby ran up to Clover impatiently. "What happened? What was wrong with his arm? Will he be alright?"
Clover looked at her helplessly. "I don't know. We think he fell... it looks like a dislocated shoulder. But he must have taken a severe tumble..."
She stared up at him, silver eyes bright with tears. Clover hugged her— not a thing he would ever have imagined himself doing, but... it's what Qrow would do, if he were here.
In the frantic days prior to the confrontation with Salem, Clover and Qrow had found a closeness, a growing intimacy between them. The knowledge that you might lose your partner crystallised every moment, every thought. Casual interactions became heavy with meaning, and they both knew, if they were still standing when it was over, there would be a halting, emotional conversation between them.
Now it was over, and Clover's heart ached for his partner. For Qrow's pain, and for the words which might now never be spoken.
The General had firmly, but kindly, told Yang and Ruby to leave. "You could wait for news in the medical wing, but I think it would be better if you went to your teammates... your friends. This has been a momentous day, and we have a lot to reflect on. We will all need to support and help each other in the coming days."
Yang opened her mouth, a frown on her face, but James continued. "I will get any news the moment there is any. Yang, Ruby... you will be the very next people to hear it. I think your uncle would want you to look after yourselves, and your friends, above all else. I know he loves you dearly."
Yang stared at the General, as Ruby's tears fell once more. She glanced at Clover, a questioning look on her face.
"Your scrolls are both working and charged up, right? Then you'll get a message the minute we hear something." He smiled at them, and Yang nodded briefly.
"Okay, but I doubt we'll sleep until we know he's going to be alright." She took Ruby's arm and they left the office, heads close together.
Clover took a deep breath, exhaling slowly as he turned back to James. "Permission to go to the medical wing, sir?"
"Of course. Keep me updated, won't you?"
Clover saluted wearily and turned on his heel. Rigid military etiquette seemed anachronistic at present, on the day when the fate of the world had taken an unexpected turn, and his partner lay severely wounded in a hospital bed.
A light touch on his shoulder startled Clover into wakefulness. He straightened himself up in the waiting room chair, looking around in confusion.
The light level was low, a bright pathway stretching out across the floor from the open doorway. "Huntsman Branwen is awake, and he asked for you."
Clover squinted up at the nurse, rubbing his face as he tried to take in the words. "Qrow's awake? How is he?"
"Weak, and very sore. Irritated by his situation." The nurse smiled. "When I mentioned this to the General, he seemed to feel it was a good sign."
"James is here?" Clover stood up, rolling his shoulders and rubbing the small of his back.
"He's on his way. But please, go and see your partner. And try to convince him he's in the right place, given his condition."
Clover laughed shakily, running his hands through his unkempt hair as he walked along the corridor and past the nurses' station. They turned down a side corridor, entering a room towards the end.
Qrow was propped up on several pillows, his arm swathed in a sling and secured across his chest. His other arm was folded across it, and his face wore a surly look.
The nurse bustled about the room, before saying, "Please speak quietly, most other patients are asleep." They went out, and Clover approached the bed.
"Are you likely to start shouting, Qrow?" He tried to keep his voice light, but his question ended in a gulp as he stood looking down at his partner. Qrow's brow cleared, almost, as he looked back.
"They seem to think so, don't know why... I didn't complain that much." A small grin reached his mouth. "But gods, Cloves... I ache everywhere. My whole body is one big bruise. And I still don't know what happened."
"Your face isn't too bad, at least... as handsome as ever." Clover smiled widely, and sat on the arm of the chair nearby. A faint dizziness washed over him as he realised how utterly relieved he felt, that Qrow hadn't been critically hurt.
Qrow glanced towards the door as someone entered. "Jimmy! The gang's all here, let's have a party."
James threw a glance at Clover. "Seems the patient is in good spirits."
"I will be, when someone tells me what actually happened." Qrow's voice became a little louder, and Clover cast a worried look at the door. James closed it quietly, before turning back to the bed.
"I've informed your nieces, Qrow. They were keen to come at once, but I persuaded them that you'd be more inclined to welcome visitors in the morning. Clover and I will not be staying long—"
"I think Clover can decide how long he wants to stay." Qrow fixed his eyes on his partner, who flushed slightly.
"It's up to you, Qrow. I don't want to tire you out."
James looked from one man to the other. "Well, quite so. I'm sure the presence of your partner will aid your recovery. I won't stay, however. I just wanted to be sure you were back with us, Qrow." His face softened as he looked at the patient. "We made it. She's gone. I'm sorry it led to your accident, but thank the Brothers you're here and getting treatment."
Qrow's brow creased as James spoke. "Led to my accident? How—"
"I'll explain, Qrow. Just let me grab a coffee; I need to wake up a bit." Clover yawned as he left the room, retracing his steps to the waiting area where he'd noticed a coffee machine earlier.
When he returned to Qrow's room, James had gone. Qrow's face was pale, and Clover sat down, frowning. "You sure you're up to this? It could wait until morning."
Qrow shook his head. "If it's okay with you... I don't feel tired, just a bit... odd. That could be the painkillers, though. Jimmy filled me in on what happened with Salem and Oz— as much as he could. But I'd like to know how that caused my accident."
"Okay, then." Clover recounted what had happened, as far as they knew. Qrow's eyes widened as he heard of Raven's role in his rescue.
"She came? My sister must love me after all." His twisted smile didn't reach his eyes, and Clover put out a hand, resting it on Qrow's good arm.
"If it hadn't been for Raven, you probably wouldn't be here. I know you and she don't always see eye to eye—"
"Hah! That's a euphemism-and-a-half."
"Well, anyway. She did, and she's still in Atlas. Might even visit, you never know."
"Hmph, I know." Qrow's voice was a growl, but as he looked down at Clover's hand, his face brightened. "Thanks, Clover. For... worrying about me."
"What else would I do?" Clover looked into Qrow's face. "I care about you, Qrow. You do realise that, don't you?"
"Well, we're partners, right?" Qrow's face reddened as he gazed at Clover's hand. "Or, are you trying to say something else?"
Clover drew in a deep breath. "Only... only if you want me to. But," he patted Qrow's arm and took his hand back, "that's for when you're better. Now, you have to rest and get yourself mended."
Qrow sank back onto the pillows. "I do feel a bit fuzzy... and there was something you said, I didn't quite get it." His forehead wrinkled in thought. "You said— the magic has gone, now Oz has gone, and that's why I fell. That means... I can't transform any more? Not at all?" He stared at Clover, his face paling.
"I don't think so." Clover's voice was gentle. He yearned to reach out to Qrow, to reassure him, but he held back. It's too soon.
Qrow lifted a hand to his mouth, pressing the curled fingers against his lips. "I think... I need to sleep a bit, now." His voice faltered, and his eyelids flickered shut for a moment.
Clover stood up. "I'm sorry, I've tired you out. Can I— is there anything you need, before I go?"
Qrow shook his head, a mumbled, "No thanks," just reaching Clover's ears. His eyes drifted shut, and Clover paused by the bed for a few moments, before moving to the door. He turned off the main light as he left, leaning against the doorframe briefly before setting off for his quarters.
The following morning Qrow was woken by urgent whispering in his room. He opened one eye, to see Ruby and Yang hovering in the doorway.
"Come in, kids," he croaked.
They smiled at each other and approached the bed. Ruby burst into tears.
"We didn't know if you'd come back, Uncle Qrow! But you did!" She almost flung herself across his chest, but Yang pulled her back.
"Rubes! Watch out for his arm." She smiled at Qrow, her eyes glistening.
"You made it."
"Yeah, thanks to your mum. I owe her one."
"You do. I was never so glad to see her, as when she came back with you and Clover."
"They saved you." Ruby clutched at the bedcovers in lieu of Qrow's chest.
"They did, and thanks to the docs here, I'm on the mend now. So no more tears, eh, pipsqueak?" Qrow ruffled Ruby's hair with his good arm, while Yang leant on the end of the bed.
"You heard all the good news, Qrow? The witch is dead! Or vanished, anyway. As good as dead."
"Let's hope so. I don't think we'll be seeing her again."
"Good riddance." Ruby frowned. "But Ozpin went, too. And now your magic has gone, Uncle Qrow."
"It's a small price to pay." Qrow's voice was light, but there was an edge to it which Yang heard. She narrowed her eyes as she looked at him, but said nothing.
"Anyway we have to go now, there are still plenty of Grimm to get rid of, and we haven't had breakfast yet."
Qrow laughed. "Make sure you do, you don't want to go out on missions on an empty stomach."
"We won't," said Yang. "And we'll call in later to tell you all about it. Come on, Rubes."
The two girls kissed their uncle and left the room, Ruby chattering eagerly. Qrow listened as her voice faded down the corridor, a small smile on his face.
He had just finished his breakfast when another visitor arrived. She stood in the doorway, one hand against the doorframe and the other on her hip.
"Still alive, then."
"Seems I have you to thank for that. So... thanks, Rae."
She drew closer to the bed. "It was nothing." Her eyes narrowed as she considered her brother. "You know, then? About the magic."
"Lack of it, you mean." Qrow nodded. "Yeah, Clover filled me in. It's true, then? You're sure?"
"Why else did you plummet to the ground out of nowhere? And yes, it's true. I've tried and tried... there's nothing there, Qrow. Just— emptiness."
He looked at her, saying nothing. After a long silence, Qrow said, "How do you feel about it?"
"Glad, of course. No-one has a reason to use us now... and we're not beholden to anyone. It's a release from a lifetime of other people's expectations." Her voice was harsh as she finished, fixing Qrow with a challenging stare. "Don't say you're sorry."
"I haven't had time to even think about it," Qrow lied.
"It's a blessing." Raven's voice was firm. "Believe me, Qrow."
"Yeah... you're probably right." Qrow felt tired even though it was still early in the day. "I think I need to rest now, if that's okay."
Raven smiled in amusement. "I'm dismissed, am I?"
After a moment, Qrow smiled back. "Yep."
She bent forward, resting a smooth white hand on his shoulder. "I'll be around Atlas for a bit... just until I know you're not going to die."
Qrow raised a hand and touched hers briefly. "Such concern."
Raven let out a short laugh, before leaving the room and striding down the corridor.
Qrow spent several more days in hospital, until neither he nor the nursing staff could bear it any longer.
"I'm happy to discharge you, but you must rest at home. I'm not signing you off to resume training, missions, anything of that nature... you will be back in here again, if you try to run before you can walk." The doctor frowned at Qrow, who frowned back.
"Yeah, okay, doc. I'll be a good boy."
"I'll make sure he behaves himself, doctor... thank you." Clover picked up Qrow's small bag and cocked an eyebrow at him. "Ready?"
"Yep. And... thanks, doc. Sorry if I wasn't the model patient."
The doctor smiled. "Believe it or not, we've had worse! I'm just glad you're back to your old self."
Clover and Qrow left the room, the doctor letting out a relieved sigh as they went.
"What I told the doctor— I meant it."
"How d'you mean?" Qrow cast a sideways look at Clover as they waited for the lift.
"You're not going back to your room... you're stopping with me."
Qrow stared at him. The lift arrived with a ding, the door opened, and Clover entered. Qrow didn't move.
"I can't— what do you mean, I'm stopping with you?"
"Get in, Qrow." Clover's voice was firm as he held the lift door, smiling benignly at the other man.
"Hmph." Qrow stepped into the lift, his eyes on the floor. "I'm not a kid, you can't order me around."
"I'm not ordering you, as such... well, maybe I am. But Yang and Ruby agree—"
"Gods, am I not in charge of my own life any more? Everything changes and you just tell me where I'm going, and—"
The lift stopped, and Clover nudged Qrow through the open door. "What do you mean, everything changes?"
"Doesn't matter," Qrow mumbled, as he allowed himself to be guided by a light hand.
Clover glanced at him with concern. "I think we need to have a conversation. I've got the day off today; let's get in and I'll put the kettle on." He tapped his scroll on the entry panel and gently pushed Qrow through the door.
Qrow sat on the sofa, his hands wrapped around the mug of tea, watching the coils of steam rise slowly from its surface. He remembered flying across green meadows in early autumn, when the rising sun still held enough strength to evaporate the overnight dew from the grass. The mists would slowly rise, and the trunks of trees were the tall masts of sailing ships, emerging from the sea fog to greet him... never again would he be privileged to see that. His hands shook, the tea spilling onto the carpet. With an oath, he put the mug on the low table.
"Sorry, Clover, I've made a mess..." Qrow's voice faltered, and he swallowed a sob, looking away from the younger man.
"No worries, I'll dry it." Clover fetched a cloth from the kitchen and blotted the carpet. He glanced up at Qrow from where he was crouched, noting the bright eyes and the bitten lip. Tossing the damp cloth across the room, he took a seat beside Qrow and put an arm about his shoulders. "What is it, Qrow?"
Clover's concerned voice was all it took. The harsh sobs rattled Qrow's bruised body, as he slumped against Clover. Wrapping both arms around him, Clover held him gently, one hand quietly smoothing Qrow's untidy hair. Quiet slowly returned to the room, the occasional sniff against Clover's shoulder all that could be heard.
"It's stupid." Qrow's muffled voice thrummed against Clover's chest, and he rested one finger under Qrow's chin, tilting it up a little.
"Look at me, Qrow. Please."
Qrow reluctantly raised puffy eyes to Clover's face, the lashes flecked with teardrops. "Oh, Qrow. My poor man." Clover kissed Qrow's eyelids softly.
Qrow heaved a shuddering sigh, before resting his head against Clover's. "Cloves, I'm sorry. I shouldn't be—"
Clover held him close, causing Qrow to wince, a sharp hiss of pain sucked between his teeth.
Clover loosened his grip. "Oh gods, I'm not helping, am I?"
"You are, believe me." Qrow raised a hand to the other's cheek. "But didn't you say something about waiting until I was better?"
Clover gave a small smile. "I did, and that's probably still a good idea... I just hate to see you so unhappy."
"Trust me, I'm not enjoying it much, either." Qrow sniffled as he rubbed his face.
"Here, be gentle with yourself." Clover rubbed a thumb softly across Qrow's cheeks, wiping away the last traces of tears, before kissing him on the forehead. "Now, tell me what's going on in that head of yours." He sat back on the sofa, drawing Qrow carefully in and taking one hand in his.
After a short moment, Qrow spoke. "It's daft, honestly. Oz only gave us the ability so we could be useful to him. If wasn't a benign gift, an act of altruism. It was shaping us into tools that he could use..." He fell silent, before continuing. "But Clover, the exhilaration... the freedom, to be separate from the pull of reality, from everything that dragged me down... I'll never have that again. It's lost, forever. I'm not sure I can bear it."
Clover said nothing. He held Qrow just a little closer, as he tried to imagine what this loss meant to the man at his side.
"Raven said she was pleased, that we should be glad. Not sure she meant it. And I guess I'll get used to it, eventually... But I feel like part of what made me who I was, has gone. I'm diminished." He laughed bitterly. "Gods, listen to me. What a drama queen."
"No Qrow, don't say that. I can't imagine how this feels for you. I only wish I could help in some way." Clover lifted Qrow's hand and kissed the knuckles gently. "But in no way are you diminished. You were a complete person before Oz did what he did, and you're still complete. You're a special man, Qrow. So many people love you..."
"How do you always know the right thing to say?" Qrow huffed out a sigh. "And you're right, of course. It's just gonna take me a while to get my head round it."
"I hope it isn't too soon to say this." Clover's tone was hesitant. "I want to help you, Qrow. To be there for you, to support you in whatever way you need. You... I think a lot of you, you know."
"I'm starting to get that vibe."
"And— gods, I've just had a thought!"
"Qrow, you're going to have to be so careful! No more launching yourself from high places, or... anything like that. Now you can't transform..."
"Yeah, too right. It'll be just my luck to forget it at a vital moment."
"Well." Clover's voice was determined. "This makes it even more important that there's someone at your back. And... I hope you'll let it be me."
Qrow was quiet, and Clover felt the older man's body relax against his own.
"I'd like that, Cloves." Qrow twisted his head and peered up at Clover, who was biting his lips, his eyes glistening.
The kiss was thistledown light, Qrow's fingertips barely touching Clover's face. The younger man moved his hands down to Qrow's waist, caution preventing him from pulling Qrow closer. "I don't want to hurt you. Your bruises—"
"They're on the mend. I can take a little pain, you know."
"That's as may be, but I can wait. In the meantime, I'll be very, very careful." He kissed Qrow on the nose. "Now, which side of the bed do you like to sleep on?"
"Getting a bit ahead of ourselves, aren't we?" Qrow smirked at Clover, watching the blush creep over his face.
"I didn't mean— this will be platonic, as least as far as— gods, stop laughing at me!"
"Sorry, but it's so easy. I promise I'll be good, and once I'm all better, your quarters will be your own again."
"Let's cross that bridge when we get to it, shall we?" Clover smiled at Qrow. "For now, I'm just going to look after you like you deserve."
Qrow smiled back. "I like the sound of that."
Clover stood, taking Qrow's hands and pulling him to his feet. "Starting with, you can come and rest on the bed. I'll bring in your tea." He looked at Qrow's face, the bruises almost gone from the pale skin. A slow smile curved Clover's lips.
"What?" Qrow looked at Clover, his forehead wrinkled.
"Nothing really. I just like looking at your face."
Qrow blushed fiercely. "Daft idiot," he muttered. But he smiled as he followed Clover into the bedroom.