A/N: i find that i adore writing merfolk aus so much ! this got long enough for me to eventually break it off to make it more manageable, so expect the second chapter sometime soon :)))) this takes place in the same universe as shadows dissolving in oceans deep, for those who are curious, but both of these are very much their own independent stories

for reference: qrow is a great white shark !

* fan art available on AO3

Deep enough into the abyss, where even Qrow's eyes cannot pierce the unmoving void that surrounds him, he finds the first clue that he's been searching for.

He is on his way back to Vale when it happens. He loses track of how long he's been swimming for; that occurs often during these missions that Ozpin sends him on. Whether it be through the yawning channels of interconnected trenches or the narrow-lipped caves of a branching reefside, there's one thing that he's meant to keep an eye out for.

There are places where no mer can travel to: the endless sinks of the ocean where the pressure is too much to bear, the jagged-mouthed crevices of a magma fissure, the sloping valleys that are too dense to see through.

That is where the Grimm reside.

Once upon a time, Qrow thought that was a good thing. The vastness of the ocean is unfathomable, even to him, as he slinks through an endless expanse of water with no landmark in sight. There is no harm in the terrors that lurk in the unexplored depths of the water, in the pressurized sinks that keep them tethered to the gravelly floor.

Except, as Ozpin predicted, they're steadily starting to emerge from the crevices they've lurked in for so long. There has been increased sightings throughout all five ocean basins. In shallow sinks, in trenches, hidden in caves, crawling along the spindly tendrils of odd flora that flourishes in the void. They're still far, all things considered. They're still largely out of sight. They're still pitifully low in numbers. But they're moving .

Qrow isn't the only mer that Ozpin and his associates are working with. And so far on the current mission, he's found nothing. From what he's heard, that seems to be the pattern throughout Remnant as of late. He isn't sure whether Ozpin will be pleased or not. Inactivity is perilous - the calm before a storm, the momentary stillness of a tide after it recedes fast and far away from the mouth of a beach.

Then again, Grimm aren't a coordinated peril. Not really.

Finally, once Qrow's eyes start to ache, he sees the dim outline of a cliffside. He lurks long enough to find an armful of sargassum that he manages to pick out from the crevices of the wallside. Further up, once the faint beginnings of sunlight starts to lighten the water, he finds the gaping mouth of a cave.

He nestles in the sargassum. It doesn't take very long before sleep starts to sway him, but true to his abysmal luck, that's when he hears it. Faint in his ears, just a bit distorted, the echo of a cry resonating deep from the water. There's a long stretch before it returns, louder this time, a booming shudder through the abyss that sends a shiver wracking down Qrow's spine.

He slinks just ahead enough to peek back out of the cave entrance. There's an endless string of silhouettes that nearly overtake Qrow's view, pitch-black and distorted within the murky water, calling to one another as they swam languidly onwards. With how muted their calls are, they're far away. Far enough for Qrow to go by undetected, he knows, but the sheer size of their silhouettes despite the remarkable distance has him shrinking back into his makeshift bed.

Their voices are distorted. Pitched too high. Figures morphed, bodies too large to belong to any whale Qrow knows of. It makes sense when he catches the scent; it is just barely there, permeating the water slowly, the telltale stench of Grimm, of rot and ash and tar.

They're too coordinated. It's as if they're following some lure, drawn forth to a voice that beckons, all called to the same place further into the deep where Qrow cannot hope to follow. At the very least, Qrow knows why there's been a lack of Grimm sightings as of late.

He doesn't like the dread that follows. The shiver with every echoing call, the odd lurch in his gut at every glance out into the deep. He's dealt with Grimm before, but never to this degree. Sleep isn't an option, anymore.

He leaves the cave once the last of them pass.

When Clover is called into Ironwood's office, it's barely daybreak, the first weak rays of sunlight melting gently over the pink-hued horizon. His superior looks as if he hasn't slept - which isn't anything new, really, but his eyes are sunken, the look in them haunted, like he's been dragged out for miles, stretched far beyond his limits. For once, he appears as something other than the infallible being that Atlas believes him to be.

Ironwood's typing on his Scroll when Clover enters. He glances up to Clover, then back to his Scroll, typing a few more words before he finally sets it aside. He straightens, the steadying breath he takes quick, subtle. He doesn't quite pull himself entirely together upon the soft exhale, but it's close enough. It always was, starting when the embargo did.

As always, Ironwood states, "There's a new assignment for you and your team down by the coast."

Clover nods and subconsciously steels himself, because it isn't often that they're given an arduous enough task to require the entirety of the Ace Ops. Honeyed sunlight finally starts to pour in through the large window behind Ironwood's desk, only further accentuating the bags that hang under his eyes.

"There's someone I need you to keep an eye open for. A contact of mine, if you will. I've sent the relevant information to your Scroll already," Ironwood smoothly tells him, gesturing idly with one hand, an encouragement enough for Clover to retrieve the device from his pocket. "The rest of your team is assigned to neighboring cities across the coast in pairs."

Clover swipes through his Scroll. Standard descriptors, addresses, a handful of names that he'll no doubt have to pry into later. Then there is the mentioned associate. There is a dangerous allure to him; pale red eyes that bleed a subtle sort of confidence despite the thin line his lips are pressed to - unimpressed, perhaps just the slightest bit displeased.

"Be warned," Ironwood says, his voice a notch softer, eyes a little less strained, "he's something of a thief."

Curiously, there are no active bounties on the man's head, no prior crimes to take into consideration, only academy records that were just shy of impeccable. There's hardly any information on him at all beyond that. Clover carefully points out, "That's an interesting detail, sir."

The prompt turns up empty; Ironwood merely chuckles and responds, "Just something to look out for." He reaches for his Scroll again and leans back in his chair, swipes through for a moment before he continues on, "As you know, there's been trouble with a few tradesmen. Poaching and the illegal trade of such products. Normally, we'd leave these matters in the hands of their respective cities, but. . . ."

He lets the implication linger in the air that Clover catches immediately - both inadequacy and indifference alike. It's mildly interesting, this apparent interest in coastal affairs, but it isn't Clover's place to question it. Instead, he says, "We'll do our best."

Relief passes vaguely over Ironwood's face before it's quickly replaced by the tension that never seems to stray too far from its host. "It may be a . . . sensitive topic, but these products aren't exactly - conventional ." Needlessly, he instructs, "Read over the report and instruct your team accordingly. I expect you all at your appropriate stations by the end of the week."

Clover halts on the warning. He would pry if he could, allow these questions that emerge on his tongue to spill forth, but the cold edge to Ironwood's stony expression advises him otherwise. He nods and says, "Of course."

Ozpin is dead.

Only a small handful of people know. It was a diving accident. A cave collapsed somewhere along the way, they tell Qrow when he arrives. He ran out of oxygen before help could arrive. He shouldn't have gone diving at such an old age, anyways. We told him to stick to surface-level research. We told him not to.

Qrow knows better, of course.

It's oddly convenient that Ozpin's death came just a short few months after the discovery of coordinated Grimm activity in the yawning depths of the ocean. It's also convenient that his death occurred just before Qrow managed to make it to Vale under the promise of information.

A poacher near Atlas, Ozpin had prompted, and left it strictly at that. Anything else was deemed too sensitive to be conveyed over a letter. To anyone else, it's a painfully standard case; to Qrow, it's anything but. The implications are enough.

He's seen these products. Fins, scales, teeth, crafted and warped, strung up and bejeweled. None of them fake. None of them belonging to actual fish. It's no surprise that Ozpin wants him to put a dent in such a trade so close to Atlas. He tries not to dwell on it. He also tries not to recoil from the inevitability that is bloodshed.

An eye for an eye, as Raven once put it.

It would be easier to sympathize if she hadn't used the lure for sport.

His only course of action now is to talk to James, but it isn't very long after he finds out about Ozpin that the embargo starts. It isn't the first time that James refuses to listen, but it is the first time that people have gone and called him paranoid for it. Again, Qrow knows better, and calls it fear instead. It's fear that follows closely behind Ozpin's death. It's fear that has James calling all of his military drones home.

Trade and travel alike is disrupted. The added security also makes travel directly to Atlas increasingly difficult, but he supposes he can figure out a way in through Mantle, assuming the strait between it and Argus is left unsupervised, as usual. At the very least, that means he'll get to spend some time with Taiyang and the girls.

The waters grow steadily more dangerous in the following months, from Grimm and humans alike. Stolen ships, entire captive crews in opposing kingdoms thrown overboard, death and gore alike casting murky ribbons across the glittering surface of the water - it's no secret that the chaos is what stray Grimm are drawn to.

He's well past the point of exhaustion when he finally makes it to the reef. The path of coral is thin at first, jutting out sporadically from the gravelly ocean floor. He knows he's home when he follows the patchy slope upwards, then down into a winding landscape that bursts into color. Schools rush past him, circling the coral, flitting through the long tendrils of sargassum that litter the ground.

He finds Taiyang soon enough. The patch coral he tends to is dull, some yellow-tinged gray, brittle and uneven. Qrow isn't all that close by when Taiyang finally catches his scent.

Taiyang glances upwards, his expression blank, and then it melts into that familiar strained joy that makes Qrow wary. When they finally meet, Taiyang flatly states, "You've been gone for months."

The contradiction is there, as glaringly obvious as the faded yellow of the coral under his hands against the technicolor landscape that surrounds them. He's happy - always is, undoubtedly - but the reproach follows, simmering in his tone, lying low like the eels that burrow into the sand.

"Nice to see you, too," Qrow responds. "I would've sent a card, but, well." He gestures needlessly around them.

Taiyang makes the effort to seem upset for just a few seconds longer before he gives in and yanks Qrow into a hug. It is crushing enough to draw a strained laugh, and then he hugs back, as well. He really is home.

"Gods, the stress you put me through," Taiyang scolds, but there isn't any bite to it. "At least warn us when you're going to be away for so long."

"I didn't travel between Vale and Atlas twice for nothing," Qrow grumbles into his shoulder. When Taiyang pulls back, he says, "Ozpin's dead and Jimmy's up there making an ass out of himself. That makes travel kind of difficult."

The punctuation is meant to be largely sarcastic, but the attempt fails, missing the target by a mile. There's still ash lodged in his throat. Tar burning under the curves of his claws. Rot seething in his nostrils, coating the roof of his mouth. It fades, of course - all parts of Grimm wither and disappear into the water, but the feeling remains.

Taiyang stares. Blinks. A moment passes before he asks, incredulously as if he didn't hear Qrow correctly the first time, "Ozpin's dead?"

Qrow rolls his eyes and waves a hand like it's nothing. Like Ozpin's associates aren't still scrambling to figure themselves out, like James isn't afraid of the Grimm activity steadily spreading closer to Atlas, like Qrow didn't have to sit down and reassure the boy that Ozpin left everything to. He has neither the time nor the energy to dwell on it now.

"A story for another day." Taiyang, as stubborn as ever, opens his mouth to object, but Qrow interrupts him by prompting, "And the girls?"

"Well. Ruby's visiting Weiss." A grin spreads across his face, endearingly toothy, just a bit mischievous. "And Yang's out hunting for someone."

Now that catches Qrow's interest. It doesn't help that Taiyang is obviously withholding information. "Someone?"

"A story for another day," Taiyang tells him, because he's a bastard like that. "Go get some rest already. We'll catch up when you don't look like you're going to roll over."

Qrow would complain, but his head's starting to pound now that he's stopped moving, and his eyes feel heavier by the second. Despite Taiyang's insistence, he returns to his end of the reef.

It's been a long time since Clover last visited Mantle. Both duty and loss of familial ties some years back alike are what keeps him harbored in Atlas, but that isn't to say that returning is unpleasant.

They all forego their standard uniforms in exchange for more casual wear. Keep quiet , Ironwood instructs, stay alert . At first, it's unclear why the secrecy was so adamantly insisted upon, but the report says it all. Poacher isn't an incorrect term, but it isn't right, either. It implies that the products traded belonged exclusively to aquatic animals.

It also diminishes the lives of merfolk, both the living and the ones that fell victim to such a trade.

Merfolk aren't a secret, but they also aren't common. Clover grew up in a coastal city. He's heard the legends, he's listened to the stories. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees how Marrow pauses, reads over the report again, pauses, and then puts it down. In a way, he sympathizes. There's no real way to start believing in myths until you find one lurking in the waters near home.

His team stays for a bit, a small moment of respite amidst all the travel. They speak of nothing of importance for that short half hour. Marrow guilts Vine into buying him coffee. Elm and Harriet both nudge at Clover's sides and make those small town jokes that he hasn't heard in years. It's one of the rare few moments where Clover wonders why they rarely ever talk outside of work.

His first stop after they're gone is the cove at the other side of the city that was assigned to him in Ironwood's report. He barely catches the small passageway that breaks off from the main cobblestone road, disappearing between a few buildings and over a hill. The entrance is slightly obscured by a few overhanging branches, but the trail becomes clearer once he starts the descent.

Soon, the short walls on either side, eroded and covered in leafy vines, give way to the cove. There's a large stretch of sand that eventually breaks off into two separate platforms of rock that rise just a few feet above the shoreline. Water flows in the small valley between them, thin and frothy, rocking idly with the yawn of the tide.

The sun is setting over the horizon, pouring gold out into the water, smoldering blood orange along the line where the sky meets the ocean. Clover glances up at the arching cliffs that surround the cove, lined in more vines, tinted by the sunset. A small cabin is tucked away between a few palms, largely vacant save for the few essentials and the fire pit just outside. Coupled with the serenity of the cove that harbors him, Clover can come to appreciate it. He's had much worse before.

He has just enough time to clean up the area surrounding the bed and nightstand before it becomes too dark to see. There's wood tucked into one cobwebbed corner, a few matches hidden in one of the drawers, and he supposes he could start a fire. Lounge nearby for warmth, maybe check in on his team if his Scroll gets any service.

There isn't much that escapes him, even when he's swiping through the files in his Scroll. He hears how the fire catches and picks up, burning brighter, crackling hard, nearly masking the splash of water nearby. He turns his head just so, hyper aware of the heavy drag against the sand, frantic as if retreating.

He doesn't catch what it is by the time he makes it to one of the slopes overlooking the water. What he does see is the glimpse of a dorsal fin before it dips beneath the surface, shielded by the tide that melts back over the sand with a low hiss.

What makes it difficult to look for a recluse is just that - their tendency to stay hidden.

The hours between meetings and patrols are spent searching. There's official registries with the local authorities, documenting notorious faces, frequent traders, standard merchants. What's odd is that not one of them, despite Ironwood's insistence, has any mentions of a Qrow Branwen.

His closest bet to a lead stems from a bartender who, when shown the picture, snorts, "Check by the piers."

Clover isn't sure what to make of that.

He spends the next couple of nights by the fire pit, making notes to himself, marking off places of interest. He fills out subsequent paperwork, prepares for morning debriefings - at the very least, transferring to Mantle hasn't changed his schedule much. Marrow checks in a few times with updates of his own, sometimes accompanied by Harriet whenever he calls.

Interestingly enough, when he starts the fire, there inevitably comes the splash of water by the rocky platforms, accompanied by the lingering gaze of something just above the surface. Both times, it disappears just as quickly as it arrives, naught but a murky silhouette shifting below the water before it vanishes once more.

Clover isn't sure what to make of that, either.

He knows he isn't alone. He has a nagging feeling about what it is, but if anything, that just makes him more curious. It's almost playful, how he catches the glimpse of a thick tail on the third night, flicking in the water before it vanishes as if to goad him further. Fine, then. He'll play along another time.

The fourth day is much more eventful; finally, he catches whispers at a bar of a man with pale red eyes who has been remarkably interested in coastal affairs. I'd help him, one girl says to another, but why would anyone want to get into Atlas?


The inn he's led to rests at the corner of a relatively vacant street, hidden behind a large birchwood tree that spills leaves out onto the sidewalk. Cool air washes over his skin the moment he enters, a reprieve from the muggy heat. The innkeep takes a lingering look at Clover's scroll when it's presented to her, and then she nonchalantly shrugs and points him towards one of the tables with a nod.

The man in question sits with a slouch, idly tracing the lip of his glass with one finger. A waitress passes by, slides a dark drink in front of him, winks and says something before she walks off. Clover notices how he favors the water he's been sipping instead.

Qrow's more ruggedly attractive in person - not that Clover minds, really, but it's difficult to keep his mind on track when that lazy gaze is turned to him. He wears several rings on each finger, a cross necklace, studs in his earlobes that glisten in the lamplight. Somehow, it isn't the jewelry that keeps Clover's attention - it's the pale red of his eyes. They widen, almost imperceptible, a flash of something close to recognition in them.

"Something I can do for you?"

Qrow's voice is low, gravelly, rough and delightfully pleasant in Clover's ears. He smiles and says, "Just looking to talk." He gestures to the seat in front of Qrow. "May I?"

Qrow glances fleetingly between him and the chair, and after a brief pause, he says, "I don't see anyone else there."

His face is largely enigmatic, but it's the way he shifts in his chair that gives him away. While Clover doesn't mind small talk, he saves them both from the growing tension and explains, "I suppose I should start this out by telling you that it was General Ironwood who sent me."

Qrow doesn't even seem the slightest bit surprised. "Oh? Now the police are on my tail?" he snorts. He sets his glass of water aside, as well. "What does the bastard want now? I know he got my letters, he can't pretend he hasn't."

Well, at least he's straightforward. Clover suppresses an amused grin. "It's more about an arrangement. An investigation, if you will." That catches Qrow's attention; he straightens from his slouch, leans in with his forearms pressed to the tabletop, and it's then that Clover notices how the first few buttons of his shirt are undone, dipping low over his chest. "There's been a problem with a few tradesmen down here by the coast."

He lingers on the word tradesman - poacher would perhaps be more accurate, however insensitive - but nevertheless, Qrow hums in understanding. His lips press to a thin line, and he returns to his slouch, his lip hitched into a loose scowl. Clover catches the glimpse of surprisingly sharp teeth.

"As much as I'd love to run an errand for him, I've got my own obligations out in the ocean." Briefly, Clover wonders what those obligations are - fishing, probably, with mating season just around the corner, if he remembers correctly. "But I might be able to take a look at some of these ships if I have the time."

"Of course." He offers his hand and says, "I should've introduced myself sooner, I apologize - Clover Ebi."

The pause that follows is short, hardly a second, but it isn't apprehension that stops Qrow. He takes Clover's hand, his grip firm, the gravel in his tone somehow more devastating than it already was when he needlessly says, "Qrow."

Clover's almost reluctant when he pulls away. Curiously, he presses, "I also hear you've been trying to find a way into Atlas?"

"Well, I was," Qrow huffs. "Then you came barging in here."

Clover arches one brow and points out, "I was much more pleasant than that."

A smirk finds its way on Qrow's lips, and again, Clover's attention is drawn to his teeth. Sharp, bright, almost more delectable than the dip of his clavicles just barely visible past his loosened collar. "As polite as ever, boy scout," he drawls. The nickname is ridiculous, and yet still, Clover's already fond of it. "When did Atlesian cops get so nice?"

Clover can't help but wink and tease, "Maybe it's just me."

Qrow pins him with a flat look. "I'm used to working alone, you know."

"That's a shame," Clover earnestly tells him, "I think we'd work well together."

Qrow's gaze trails dangerously low, a simultaneous challenge and settlement, the intrigue in those captivating eyes of his striking. He's deceivingly nonchalant when he says, "Maybe that isn't such a bad idea."

It shouldn't be so easy for Qrow's voice alone to burrow under his skin, but it does anyways. It simmers through muscle, sinks into bone, spreads through every capillary - Clover can keep himself in check, of course. He can ignore it, for the most part, as they talk briefly over semantics.

He knows how to control himself, even if the sight of Qrow leaving is unfairly enticing.

The ascent into the surface is a gradual one. Qrow weaves through the peaks of the staggered cliffs that surround his territory, decorated sparingly in coral that dwindles the higher up he goes. The sun has already set, making way for the stars to glimmer, the moon to hang high and unobscured, but that isn't what catches Qrow's attention.

It's always at this time of night that Clover starts a fire. The first time Qrow emerged to investigate wasn't deliberate; he'd been on his way to his hunting grounds at the time, stopping only when the distorted flicker of the flame caught his eye. He lingered by the shoreline, entranced by the mellow dance of the light over the expanse of Clover's bared skin.

In his defense, Clover is stunning, especially after they finally met properly. It's different, having Clover right in front of him, wearing a smile that's nearly impossible not to mirror, speaking with a contagious levity that makes Qrow inexplicably giddy. He has no right to be so attractive, what the hell.

Not to mention that it had been months since Qrow's last seen any human other than Ozpin's associates back in Vale, and he isn't ashamed to say that he's curious as to what brings a human to the cove that he frequents. Vacation, maybe, but with how Clover would pour over documents projected by his Scroll, it's clear that this trip isn't meant for leisure.

It is almost a game at this point. He breaks through the surface, caring little for masking the sound, but it doesn't seem like it would matter if he did. He is met with those lovely green eyes when he emerges, sudden enough for him to freeze where he floats in the water. Some odd mix of awed wonder and genuine surprise passes over Clover's face for the brief moment that they merely stare at one another.

He startles when Clover says, "All this time I spent looking for you out in the city, just to find out that you're the one who's been teasing me this entire time."

Clover doesn't sound upset. The wonder fades, the slack in his jaw is gone, replaced by that same pleasant smile that he wore around Qrow when they spoke at the inn. He sits by the edge of the rocky platform, his legs crossed, the shine of the moon lining the strong cut of his jaw, the bright seafoam of his eyes.

Qrow somehow finds it in himself to respond, "What can I say? I like bright and shiny things."

He would also attribute it to how captivating Clover is - submerged in his work, doused in the honeyed glow of the fire, illuminated by the pearly gleam of the moon - but he wasn't about to dig his own grave.

"And here I thought you were a fisherman home on vacation."

Qrow almost laughs at the ludicrousy of the idea. He sidles closer, intrigued in how Clover merely watches. There isn't fear that lingers in Clover's eyes - it's something tamer, perhaps along the lines of vague unease, but the pure interest is undeniable. He muses, "You're taking this well."

"I've seen worse," Clover responds with a soft laugh. The sound is more enticing than the clatter of jewelry, the metallic click of silver against gold. He tilts his head back to gesture towards the fire pit, the stretch of his neck absurdly tantalizing. "You can join me by the fire, if you want."

It almost aches, how Qrow yearns to jump at the offer, but he painstakingly shakes his head. "Would if I could." He slinks onto his back, his tail flicking with a thin spray of water, but Clover doesn't shy away. He pointedly says, "Clothes sold separately."

Clover huffs out something close to a laugh, the words leaving him as gently as the whisper of the receding tide, "Wouldn't that be a sight."

There is heat that rushes to Qrow's face, faintly there, smoother than the current, faster than a tidal wave. It is perilous, this giddy rush that makes him want to egg this on, keep up the banter, flirt back just as boldly. And yet he can't help it, not with how Clover's eyes shine bright, how he waits ever so patiently for an answer.

"At least take me out first," Qrow says, the beginnings of a purr rumbling low in his words.

"And cut into time we could be spending catching some notorious poacher?" Clover teases.

Qrow merely shrugs. "What Jimmy doesn't know won't kill him."

The grin that earns him is worth every inch of gold that he stashes away in his cave, every shiny band of silver that wraps around his fingers. Clover straightens a bit, props himself back against his arms, the flex of his biceps immediately drawing Qrow's attention. There's no way he isn't doing that on purpose.

Clover curiously prompts, "Jimmy?"

"We go way back," Qrow offers. He makes a show of toying idly with one of his bracelets, seemingly indifferent as he says, "Met him back in the academy. I can't say he's been the greatest associate - as Oz used to put it - but he's a decent friend to have."

The crinkle at the corners of Clover's eyes fade. The palpable shift in the atmosphere isn't expected, but Qrow already knows exactly where it stems from. The tension pulls itself taut, hangs heavy in the air, lurks dangerously in every corner when Clover carefully tells him, "He's been . . . different since the incident."

"To be fair, everything has." Qrow laughs, rough and mirthless, forcing itself through its teeth like water that squeezes through the cracks of a dam. "Tell me. You ever heard of Grimm before?"

"I grew up in Mantle," Clover states, simple enough of an answer. "Taking that into consideration, this embargo coupled with the ramped-up security measures makes sense, however drastic it is."

The yawn of the ocean draws Qrow further out into the deep, but he doesn't make a move to right himself, to bring himself back. Qrow knows, just as Ozpin knew; there's wounds to mend, scars to soothe. Really, they're no different - Qrow fights his own battles, hidden in the deep with tar in his sinuses and ashes in his lungs. James trudges onwards, raw and seething, with the pressure of the Council on his back and the ever-looming threat that grows in frequency around Atlas' borders.

They wouldn't be a problem, normally, but contact with other merfolk around each basin has grown scarce since Ozpin's death. It's too deliberate to be coincidence, too convenient to be mere circumstance. Qrow doesn't have much time to dwell. At least not on the surface, where the fire's distracting flicker lingers in the corner of his eye.

"Let's talk in the morning," Qrow prompts. "There's something I need to look into."

Thankfully, Clover doesn't push. There's an understanding that he holds, as willing as he can manage, as patient as he can afford. He smiles, alluringly soft, mind-numbingly genuine. The agreement leaves Qrow flitting back beneath the surface, though he lingers just out of sight, tethered there by some unknown wonder. It doesn't take long for the fire to flicker and vanish into the night.

There's a balance that they find.

Qrow doesn't accompany him on patrols by the piers or in his searches, but he does keep an eye out. Points out tradesmen he recognizes, gives Clover a name or two when he sometimes asks, but for the most part, he stays out of sight. On the rare moments that they do work together, they blend well. It's a coalescence instead of a crash, a pull instead of yank.

And if they flirt, well, that was no one's business but their own. It's remarkably unprofessional, but Clover can't help but play along anyways.

It's been a small while since Qrow has approached him at the cove. Clover still lingers long into the night, listening to the crackle of the fire and the whisper of the tide, his thoughts always inevitably falling back to Qrow. It's an ethereal kind of beauty, the leathery skin at the back of his tail that stretches up to his shoulders, arms, hips - mostly black, tinted red in some portions; it's a dangerous allure, the claws that curve at the ends, teeth that are larger, sharper than they are during the day.

On one hand, Qrow is a peril, lurking in the deep once the sun delves over the horizon. On the other, he's a stunning enigma, his eyes rose-tinted and heavy, his simper lecherous enough to draw a flare of heat racing up Clover's spine. He'll attribute the absence to what Qrow calls business in the ocean.

One morning, Qrow snatches his Scroll. Clover doesn't realize it isn't in his pocket until he returns to their table, drinks in each hand, finding Qrow swiping lazily through the Scroll as if it's his. Vaguely, he understands where Ironwood's warning came from.

Clover can't say he's upset, though. He sets Qrow's coffee down on the table in front of him, saying, "That's a breach of privacy, you know."

"What're you gonna do," Qrow drawls, his tone dropping into that silvery purr that digs right under Clover's skin, "arrest me?"

That creates a lovely image in Clover's head, but he pulls himself away from that dangerous train of thought. Now definitely isn't the time. "No, but I am curious as to what you're looking for."

Qrow glances briefly up at him, then averts his eye. He slowly prompts, "It's just interesting to me that other mer on the front lines have gone missing."

That catches Clover's interest quickly. "That does ring a bell, yes."

"And there's no real way of knowing who these people are without access to the records that only Ozpin's inner circle has," he says. Clover understands the implications; he takes a sip of his coffee, but it weighs like lead, tastes like soil. "Now, I'm not one to jump to conclusions, but you and I both know it isn't a coincidence."

"The General's aware," Clover tells him. He tries not to pay too much attention to Qrow's humorless laugh. "The only connection we've made between each one is the association with a certain Arthur Watts. Though, as you can assume, that name belongs to a man who died about a decade ago."

"So our culprit's fucking with us," Qrow concludes. He eventually pulls up a map that Clover has been frequenting, marked in red, blotted with virtual thumbtacks. He halts over each one, saying, "Looks like this stretch of the coast is part of the endgame. I guess that means I'm next, huh?"

Clover watches how Qrow thumbs his necklace - a new one yet again, though he thinks it's endearing that Qrow makes sure to switch out his jewelry by the day - with a disinterested look on his face. He comments, "You're remarkably casual about that."

"It wouldn't be my first time settling things with tradesmen like this." Qrow shrugs and closes the map. "It'll be just my luck if I actually end up on the chopping block this time, though."

There's a lurch in Clover's gut that has him reassuring, "Not if I can help it."

Qrow's eyes widen just a bit, but he quickly catches himself, teasing just as nonchalantly, "And you're awfully confident about that."

"Things have a way of going right when I'm around."

"Not to preen your own feathers or anything, right, lucky charm?"

That's a new one. It's said with a certain fondness that has Clover feeling inexplicably warm, his chest both filling and sinking, his lips melting into a smile that he can't contain. He taunts right back, "Ironic, coming from you."

Qrow snorts. It breaks this tension that Clover doesn't realize is there. He laughs, as well - short, fleeting. He feels airy, like the world is spinning faster, like he's breathing at a high altitude.

Clover is the first to sober. He's firmer when he says, "Well, if anything, this is all the more reason to pick up this investigation. There's a new ship arriving later, mostly cargo, I hear."

Qrow waves a dismissive hand. "I'm not much for big crowds," he says. Upon the outstretched hand directed to him, he hands over Clover's Scroll. "But if you know which direction it's coming from. . . ."

Although the idea is appealing, Clover still scolds, "We can't use evidence obtained illegally, Qrow."

Qrow rolls his eyes. If he catches the way Clover hides a small laugh behind the back of his hand, he doesn't comment on it.

At some point, Qrow finally accompanies Clover.

It's subtle, the way Qrow straightens, how he sniffs lightly in the thick air of the hold. The bored look he throws Clover's way says it all, but Clover still makes a show of snooping before they leave. The process is still tedious, but overall, a lot less time consuming with Qrow there.

It's also a lot more entertaining.

The flirting is mild, at first, and really, Clover shouldn't encourage it, but it comes naturally. They work smoothly with one another on the patrol, bounce off each other with their banter, and the way Qrow flushes at a cheeky wink Clover sends his way is delectable.

The next few days are just as uneventful. Qrow is an enigma, but that just makes him that much more interesting. He has his moments where he's intentionally difficult; he shoots Clover a sideways glance from where he stands on the pier, facing outwards towards the sunset, saying with a cheeky grin, "I'll have to do a perimeter check soon. Try not to miss me too much while I'm gone."

"You're surprisingly arrogant today," Clover idly comments.

The flash of teeth he sees when Qrow's grin widens is unfairly attractive. "You haven't seen arrogant yet."

"You say that like it's a threat."

There's a spark in Qrow's eye for a brief moment, as bright as the point where the sun melts into the ocean, bleeding red and orange into the rocking stretch of water. That seems to happen often around Clover.

"Maybe it is."

Clover shakes his head. He can't help the way his smirk delves into something sinuous, something deep and heavy when he says, "It's not if I actually enjoy it quite a bit."

For a moment, there's a yearning, a hunger, like Qrow is trying desperately not to step in close. Not to pull Clover flush against him, shove his face into his throat, drag his teeth over the stretch of skin where his jugular pounds. And by the Brothers, did Clover want that - except Qrow only steps away, and he lets his gaze trail down low, and the want is almost tangible, visceral.

From then on, it's a coin toss as to whether Qrow approaches him or not. Clover never stops lighting the fire, and Qrow's apparent interest in it never fades. They both know it's an excuse, and a welcome one at that.

Qrow really likes to tell stories, it seems. He recounts a few with time, ranging from Ozpin, to the reef, to his nieces, to his best friend - and Clover listens, endlessly entranced by the gravel in Qrow's voice. He notices how it lightens when he speaks of his nieces, how it's blessed with the low simmer of a growl on the rare occasion when he speaks of his misadventures.

One night, once the firewood starts to dwindle and the flame starts to die down into a simmering pulse against the ashes, Qrow emerges. The splash that Clover hears from inside the cabin catches him off guard, but he approaches one of the platforms anyways. Qrow floats in the deep just off shore, looking almost apologetic. He isn't wearing any jewelry this time.

"A new ship pulled into the harbor late, probably trying to avoid a search," Qrow explains. "It's got some cool stuff, but something in there smells a little off to me. I think it's worth checking out."

Clover merely stares at him before he flatly states, "Qrow, you can't just trespass."

Qrow quirks his brow as if he's genuinely confused by the remark. "Yeah, I can," he points out like it's the most obvious thing in the world, "I just did it."

The fleeting urge to drop into the water with Qrow and kiss him until they're both breathless is sudden, frantic. Clover takes a slow breath. Holds it in his chest, clings to it like it's the only thing anchoring him to the ground, lets go once he knows he can manage it.

"Okay," Clover says. He pauses, sighs again, "Okay." He can tell Qrow's trying not to laugh. He reluctantly says, "I'll accept this unconventional method just this once, since you found something so interesting."

Qrow's smirk is blatantly mischievous, like he knows he can get away with just about anything. And while that wouldn't be wrong, Clover will never admit it.

Qrow takes a trip back to Argus. It was James' request, spoken through the speaker of Clover's scroll, and Qrow refrains from being too difficult and accepts.

Argus is some ways off from the reef, flourishing in spindly, multi-colored fauna that drags pleasantly along Qrow's fins. Sometimes, he bobs along the surface, his gills flaring, his sinuses catching the telltale scent of Grimm that permeates the air. It's more striking when he spots the coast of Argus, and he dips back below, the stench growing stronger the further he delves.

The trip takes longer than Qrow intends, but that is hardly his fault. Somehow, Grimm continuously emerge, as gradual as a ship that crawls closer over the horizon. They hiss through the cracks of the caves he searches through, slink dangerously low along the roots of flowery sargassum and algae. The scent never fades, burrowing deep in his sinuses, so potent in his gills that he can practically taste the ashes.

In a lull between hunts, Qrow settles dangerously close to the surface. The small dip of sand he nestles into is lined thinly in seagrass, and above him, the sky calls, beckons. It isn't anything like home, but it'll do. The growing presence of Grimm that slither alarmingly close to the sunlight is off-putting, in the same way that the unmoving sink of a trench is off-putting.

It's a looming threat, one that sits and waits, lurking just out of focus, just shy of Qrow's reach. He remembers the day he first discovered that Grimm had begun to skulk out of the pressurized, lava-ridden sinks that they dwelled under; it was the day Yang lost her arm, slinking at the bottom of a trench that Raven passed by some time ago.

He remembers the tar-like substance that dissipated quickly from the gaps of his teeth, the billow of red that tainted the water. Inevitably, there were questions. He fleetingly blamed it on a barracuda and pushed onwards.

(Taiyang knew better, of course.

He didn't question it, just as Yang didn't, but he still followed Qrow out into the depths. He intercepted Qrow far past the colorful embrace of the reef, butted weakly into his shoulder to get him to stop trying to swim past, and demanded, "At least say goodbye this time."

It was a reminder that he had obligations, both to his family and to Ozpin.)

Qrow's picking out loose teeth at the end of a hunt when he spots the telltale glint of sea glass hidden just under the swaying patch of algae that shields him from the sunlight. He can't help but reach for it. It's partially out of this impulsive urge that always has him chasing after the trinkets he spots, but it's also because of the color of the glass.

He has many different kinds of sea glass back in his cave near the reef - yellows, blues, purples that smolder, reds that glisten - but this one is a stunning green that he can't tear his gaze from.

When held up to the light, it glows the same verdency of Clover's eyes. There's a small handful that he finds, similar in size, but none remind him of Clover as strongly as this one does.

He thinks back to Clover often, it seems.

In the seafoam of the glass that hums against his fingertips, he sees nothing but Clover. He sees the way the sun shines in Clover's eyes, tinting them just shy of white; he sees the small, breathtakingly genuine smile that Clover gives him when he's caught staring, lingering there before he turns away.

On one hand, it's frightening. On the other, it's exhilarating. He slowly starts to understand what Summer meant in those songs she used to sing - the perilous thing immortalized in poems, the lovely thing that weaves itself in his voice when he croons long into the night with nothing but Clover on his mind.

Needless to say, it quickly becomes one of his most treasured trinkets.

It remains nestled in the sea grass while he hunts Grimm for the next couple of days. Surface affairs continue onwards, however delayed they have become, while he continues to scour the gravel, sift through algae, skulk along Argus' rocky perimeter. The stench of tar-laden rot never fades, but it takes him some time before he realizes that it resonates the strongest from one of the ships docked at the pier.

The first time he approaches it, the sun has already begun to set, and the pier is largely vacant. He digs his claws into the wood, wondering how the hell he was going to somehow manage to sneak on board. It's unclear what he'll find, even when the stench that seeps deep into the wood tells of nothing but Grimm, because they weren't known to survive above the ocean.

Qrow belatedly realizes that he isn't alone. He catches the eye of a man who hangs precariously off the ledge of the ship, his braided hair falling over one shoulder. His wide-eyed stare is sharp, the yellow gleam of them almost predatory, and Qrow curses and slinks back into the water.

The next day, Qrow spots the swift beginnings of a storm, rumbling quickly over the horizon and dimming the sky into a bleak, miserable gray. He spends hours searching for Grimm, finding none despite how thoroughly he searches through narrow sinks and wide dips in the sand. There's an unnerving stillness to the water no matter how far he ventures. He isn't sure whether to attribute that to the presence of Grimm or the oncoming storm.

He slinks into the small patch where he's been nesting to retrieve the sea glass before he heads home. He can still smell the ship that has yet to leave, and it probably will remain docked for as long as the storm rages onwards. It's dark when he breaks through the surface, the silence filled with wind that starts to blow, the surge of water that starts to stir.

Qrow takes note of the sigil, has it engraved in his memory well enough to report back to James when he arrives in Mantle. Briefly, he catches movement in the corner of his eye from the deck, and he recognizes the man from before. His grin is unnervingly wide, his stare blatant, following him like he's prey.

Qrow whips back into the water at the sudden glint of steel. He hisses at the searing pain that tears across one hip. The razor-tipped edge of a harpoon rushes past, water billowing in its wake, the thick ribbon it leaves on his skin distorting the water with a deep, ugly red.

Each movement is a biting agony, a grueling hiss, the junction where his hip meets his fin yawning wide, but he escapes into the deep regardless.

Clover hasn't seen Qrow in a while.

The search Qrow sent them on wasn't fruitless - a smuggler, of course, tethered to the harbor because of the storm approaching, but it isn't exactly what Clover's looking for. The reports he sends to Ironwood are largely uneventful, and so are those from his teammates, if he interprets Marrow's disappointment over their spotty calls correctly.

He doesn't worry for a small while. The ocean is vast, unfathomably so, and Qrow can find his way back, however far he ventures off to. It's once the storm begins that he starts to worry.

It's cruel. It howls deep, sends the water hissing, seething, has the door to his cabin shuddering long into the night. It doesn't calm until well into the next day, and Clover returns to his duties while the daylight is still strong. He doesn't pay much attention during the meetings, but he would never admit that.

He doesn't find Qrow until night falls. He just barely manages to get a fire going, hauling wood back from the city, and the fire burns onwards, flaring bright. Still, Qrow doesn't emerge, and it's once the fire starts to simmer down that Clover decides to stand at the apex of one platform and stare off into the deep. It stares back at him, uncaring to the way his stomach twists and churns, every pull of the tide hissing lowly at him.

It isn't until he turns to retire for the night when he spots the body that curls up against the cliffside. He recognizes it as Qrow, submerged in the water, motionless save for the tide that rocks him. Clover almost trips in his rush through the uneven terrain that narrowly follows the lining of the cliff. There's a flare in his lungs, a rush in his heart that pounds in his ears, has his breaths rattling through his teeth.

He wades through the water, kneeling firmly in place despite the way it shoves against him, throws salt in his nose. He turns Qrow's face away from the water, and blearily, Qrow blinks at him, unseeing, largely unfocused. There's bruises on his torso, and across his hip, a wound still glistens wetly in the moonlight, littered with the remains of what Clover guesses is seaweed.

"Qrow," Clover breathes. "What happened to you?"

Qrow takes a long moment to consider the question. Clover pulls him closer, out of the water and into his arms, and he murmurs out, "Run in with a fisherman or something. Got lost in the storm after." At Clover's tight, bated sigh, he adds, "Not my first rodeo, Cloves, I'm fine, I'm just - just tired . . ."

He trails off, and Clover brushes his hair out of his face, his pulse pounding in his throat at the way Qrow leans into the touch. It's striking just how heavy Qrow is, the process of hauling him out of the water slow and laborious, but as soon as he's well away from the shoreline, his tail morphs, shrinks, parts. It seems to be done at will, because Qrow's eyes flutter shut afterwards, dozing off after Clover lifts him and carries him inside.

Clover sets to work on disinfecting the wound after he throws his jacket over Qrow's shoulders. It startles Qrow awake, and he hisses, stiffens, but he doesn't squirm away. Clover mumbles an apology, and despite how Qrow's breaths catch between clenched teeth, he takes his time. Blood seeps through every thread of the cloth he uses, drips low into the bowl of water he sets down, and the bandage he leaves behind is stark on Qrow's skin.

By the time Qrow's settled with clothes and a blanket, he's dozing off again. At some point, he opened the fist that he had clenched to his chest and handed Clover the sea glass he was cradling. It's curious how he refused to let go until he couldn't stay awake any longer, but Clover wasn't one to judge.

Idly, Clover rolls it in his fingers by Qrow's bedside, asking softly, "Where'd you find this?"

"Argus," Qrow slurs. Even quieter still, airy as if he isn't aware of what he's saying, he adds, "Thought of you."

Clover stares for a long time after Qrow falls asleep. His heart won't stop racing, and the sea glass feels like a brand against his fingertips, and longingly, frantically, he wants to reach for the hand that's outstretched against the blanket. Whatever lingers between them is a beautiful thing, burning fast, sinking hard, and yet still, they have yet to talk about it. All he can do is want, and want, and want , and it's almost painful, how Qrow wants, as well.

All there's left is patience. Patience as each day drags on, patience as he waits by Qrow's side. He fiddles absentmindedly with his Scroll, staving off the edges of sleep even as the light of dawn seeps through the windows. Clover calls in to work that day. He's on his Scroll talking with Vine and Elm, the morning crawling slowly into the orange-hued shine of noon when Qrow finally stirs.

He winces when he shifts, and quickly, Clover ends the call and settles by his side once more. "How are you feeling?"

Qrow blinks up at him a few times. "Tired," he says. He props himself up on his elbows, clumsily starting, "Sorry about this, I didn't mean -"

"Hey, hey, don't start with that," Clover gently reprimands. "You need the rest. Don't ever apologize for that."

That seems to take Qrow by surprise. A flush burns faintly on his cheeks, and it's accompanied by a gleam in his eyes for a moment, bright and captivating. Tentatively, he falls back against the pillow, murmuring, "Okay."

For once, there isn't any banter, any relentless flirting, but Clover enjoys the time they spend together just as much. When prompted, Qrow tells stories about the lava vents at the bottom of the ocean, the over branching arches and pillars of the reef, the winding trenches that stretch further than the eye can see. He soon talks fondly about a certain Ruby and Yang, how they pick out jewelry for him sometimes, how they hound him about the surface.

And Clover listens. He listens to the soothing tone of Qrow's voice, stretching long into the afternoon. He listens until he's slouched back in his seat, his Scroll held loosely in one hand. He listens until he can't focus anymore, until he succumbs to the sleep that's long overdue. Vaguely, perhaps in a dream, he hears the murmur of what might be a song.

Qrow is gone by the time he wakes up.