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Pushing Up Daisies

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It's not like Ken isn't aware that he's a soft touch. He's a sucker for old ladies, abandoned kittens, and evidently, his worst enemies as well. On a scale of one to ten, this is a fifteen of phenomenally stupid things he's ever done. Hell, he's warned other people to avoid this very thing. Girls with abusive boyfriends, friends that take advantage... he wrote the book on trusting too much and already paid for it big time.

So what are you doing, Hidaka? he asks himself. This snake isn't any different than all the rest. He feels compelled, in a way, but he's fairly certain that Schwarz's telepath is still unconscious and incapable of forcing that sort of mental impetus. Frankly, he could use the kick start. The water froze his fingers long ago and even floating, Schuldig isn't light.

He's swimming towards the shore, or at least he thinks so. The light is poor, but the city glows in the early dusk. Ken isn't especially concerned that he won't make it. He is a strong swimmer, and the currents aren't bad. He's more concerned that once he gets them to the shore, it won't be a beach they come against, but a cliff or something. He tried to visualize the area as it had been before the explosion, but he's pretty sure that isn't going to help. There is no telling what the coastline looks like now.

It's fully dark by the time he pulls Schuldig to shallower water. There isn't a beach, but there is a slope of soft earth where the hillside fell into the sea. Ken hauls Schuldig up, slipping head first into the mud when his feet can't find purchase on the slick mud. He coughs up saltwater and dirt, dragging Schuldig the last few feet and making sure his nose and mouth are uncovered.

There is no way he'll be able to pull Schuldig the rest of the way up the hill. He does the best he can, leaving him above the waves by a few feet in case the tide is coming in instead of going out. He will find a payphone, he tells himself, crawling on hands and knees up the hill, and he will call his teammates, and he will come back for Schuldig. Because it is one thing to kill someone for a mission, or in the heat of battle, but Ken can't allow anyone, even an enemy, to simply die from exposure.

The payphone becomes decidedly moot when a flashlight beam slashes him across the face. He stares into the light until Yohji flicks it away. Omi is there, too, with a blanket across his shoulders. Aya and Aya and Sakura are nowhere to be seen, but that is probably for the best.

"There's -- I saved one of them," Ken says, cradling the thermos Yohji shoves in his hands.

Yohji sighs, as though he was expecting it, and lets the smoke from his cigarette curl around his head without inhaling. "Too much to hope it's the little one," he says. "Redhead?"

Ken nods. His fingers are beginning to warm again, the full chill of the water seeping slowly out of his bones. "We can just leave him with Kritiker, or whatever. But, uh, he'll probably drop dead if we leave him."

Yohji strolls over to the edge of the slope, shining his flashlight down to the shore. "What a pain," is all he says, and then gestures for Ken to join him.

It takes the two of them nearly twenty minutes to haul Schuldig's unconscious body up the hill. They dump him in the passenger seat. Omi and Ken curl together in the back and Yohji drives. Ken is still cold. He thinks Schuldig is probably worse, but at least he's breathing. He can't bring himself to care more than that.

Yohji forces them into the ER when they reach the hospital so they can all be treated for shock and hypothermia. They want to keep Ken overnight but Omi and Yohji are free to go. They were closer to shore and not stupid enough to try and rescue one of their enemies. The sun is rising before Ken feels warm enough to sleep. He doesn't wonder what became of Schuldig.

When he wakes the next afternoon, there is a vase of bright red and orange gerbera daisies next to his bed, and Omi curled in one of the uncomfortable guest chairs with a book.

"From Crawford," Omi says, as though it's nothing out of the ordinary. "He came and got Schuldig a while ago. I didn't think you liked daisies."

Ken is still staring at the flowers as he tries to shake the sleep from his eyes. "I don't. Not the common ones. I like gerberas because they're colorful. Though... they're a little early this season, don't you think? Did he get them from our shop?"

Omi shrugs, setting his book aside. "Might have. I think Momoe is working so it's not impossible."

Omi fetches the nurse who in turn fetches his doctor. Evidently, they are afraid he might develop pneumonia due to some kind of fluid in his lungs. Ken doesn't bother listening. Of course my lungs are damp, he thinks, admiring the daisies some more, I swallowed half of the Sea of Japan.

For some reason, the doctor seems to think that talking down to Omi will make his point more clear. Ken entertains himself by getting dressed while Omi puts the doctor in his place. They take the bus back to the shop; Omi finishing his reading and Ken staring out the window as the scenery passes. The daisies are in a plastic cup that he grips slightly too hard.

Yohji is out in front of the shop, smoking and presumably flirting with the small collection of girls gathered around him. He waves to Ken but doesn't let his attention waver for more than a second. Ken greets him with a nod, but he's more interested in finding a place he can sit and close his eyes. He offers Momoe an absent smile before slipping around to the back and climbing the stairs.

The apartment is dead silent and unlocked. He wonders for a moment if Aya ever came back. Not yet, he decides. Aya will be finding a safe place for his sister before he can come back to the shop. Maybe by the end of the week, if he returns at all.

Ken sets the daisies on the coffee table and nods off contemplating them. When he wakes again, it's to a blanket being draped across his shoulders and low voices. He rubs his fingers across the soft fleece edge of the blanket and gathers his thoughts. Even without opening his eyes, he knows what his roommates are doing.

Omi is at the stove. A book in one hand and the spatula in the other. Yohji, since he can't use the sofa while Ken is sleeping on it, is also in the kitchen, probably lounging against the counter and stealing bits of food when Omi lets him. If Aya is home, he'll be in the recliner near the window.

Ken opens his eyes and takes a few deep breaths to see if he can detect any phlegm or fluid in his lungs. The doctor might have been a dick, but that doesn't necessarily make him wrong. Before he can join Omi and Yohji in the kitchen, Yohji brings out a tea tray "compliments of the chef".

"In the way again, eh Yohji," Ken says, grinning for the first time in days.

Yohji returns his smile. "It was a tactical retreat, that's all." He pours the tea carefully and his long fingers curl artistically against the clay pot. Ken doesn't have the delicacy to make those types of movements look graceful. His hands are blunt and strong. They have all the grace of a shovel.

"Live to fight another day," Ken says. His hands warm with the ceramic cup and he brings it close to his chest, savoring the feeling.

"Unlike certain people we could mention," Yohji says, with just enough tease to take the edge off, "who have the survival instincts of a lemming."

Ken frowns into his cup because he knows it was a stupid thing to do and he doesn't exactly need reminding thank you very much. "Hey, my karma is off the scale by now," he protests feebly. "Maybe they'll even think twice about killing us next time."

The weird thing is, there isn't a next time. Schwartz drops off the map, as though they weren't even there to begin with. Ken personally takes it as a good sign, but everyone else in Kritiker is waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it does, it isn't the shoe anyone expected.

Ken runs at the track of a nearby gym three times a week, minimum. He likes the springy feeling of the rubber beneath his shoes. He feels like he can run forever. At the beginning of his third kilometer another jogger settles in at Ken's five o'clock, just far enough out of his line of sight to make him wary.

He doesn't startle when a voice says, "Mind if I join you?" because he'd been expecting something. It does surprise him that he recognizes the voice. Schwartz.

"Go ahead," Ken replies. His instinct is to go for a weapon, but he doesn't actually go to the gym expecting to get into brawls.

They run in tandem for another 500 meters. It's obvious that Crawford is matching Ken's pace, but it's not obvious what he could possibly want. There are a lot of witnesses if it's some kind of assassination thing. Ken doesn't actually consider himself important enough for that to be a reasonable motivation.

If they weren't running Ken would be wound up, about to explode. He can't carry that kind of tension when he's in motion though. It's frustrating trying to relax when he'd much rather be face to face, ready to dodge.

"I'd like to take you out some time," Crawford says without preamble, "as thanks for rescuing my teammate. Your chivalry is perhaps inadvisable in your line of work, but I appreciate it."

It takes Ken three tries to get his vocal chords working. "No thank you. I don't think that's really appropriate. I just did what I think is right." He wants to end his run right there, if only to get away from the freaky, freaky conversation. It's not in him to back down. Or to quit.

"Perhaps another time, then," Crawford says. Crazy fucker. He takes out a business card in presses it into Ken's hand. It's a low-down, dirty trick because Ken doesn't know how to politely throw it away and some manners are just too deeply ingrained.

Ken keeps the card in his hand for the rest of his run and then puts it in his wallet when he goes back to his bike. There is a crease down the middle, and sweat stains around the edges, but the name and number are still legible. In roman letters and in katakana it says "Brad Crawford". His cell number and address are both on it.

The next best thing to throwing the card away is handing it off to someone else. Ken puts the cell number in his own phone and gives Omi the crumpled cardstock to do his computer magic.

Omi pulls up a satellite map of Crawford's apartment building. Hacking and some good old-fashioned detective work find that none of the rest of his team seem to live with him in his surprisingly modest 1DK. Though, as Yohji cynically points out, it's entirely possible that the address they have is just a decoy.

On Sunday, Omi and Ken go to the park to play soccer with some of the local kids. It's not the group that Ken usually coaches but a few junior high boys that want to go pro. They play three-on-three for a few hours and afterwards Ken buys everyone ice cream.

"I finally got into the phone company last night," Omi says as the boys wander away. He flops down in the shade and stretches out in the grass. He's hit a growth spurt recently and his limbs look awkward on his body, like he isn't quite put together correctly.

Ken eats his ice cream slowly, letting it drip over his fingers. "What exactly are we going to do with them once we find them? It's not like we can fight them. Maybe we could take down the crazy one," he licks some of the ice cream off his hand, "but the rest are impossible. We don't have any advantage. I don't think righteousness will get us far enough in that situation."

Omi sighs, scrunching up his face. "I haven't figured that part out yet. Do you think they're mercenary enough to work for us? I mean, Kritiker pays pretty well."

Ken wants to say it's absurd. He really wants to think it's the worst idea he's ever heard. The problem is that he can see what sort of asset those powers would be in their nightly battles. "If they joined Kritiker," he says, slowly sounding out the words, "they could betray us."

"However, if we don't approach them, they could just as easily attach themselves to some other plot to take over the world," Omi counters.

They're merely playing devil's advocate for each other now. The idea has merit, if they can find a suitable draw. Of course, they have to sell it to the rest of their team, too.

Aya returns almost a week later, as Ken had predicted. He still refuses to talk about his sister, or Sakura, except to say that they're both fine. Omi vaguely collaborates his story and Ken, frankly, doesn't particularly care. His concerns are with the former Schwartz and Crawford's strangely persistent behavior.

After meeting at the track, Ken "accidentally" (as he absolutely doesn't believe that a man who can see the future and works with another man who can read minds does anything by accident) sees him again at the grocery store, and then again in the park while he's on his way home. Crawford never appears to be doing anything suspicious, except for vaguely stalking Ken. Ken is honestly doing what he can to ignore it but he knows he's going to snap.

The decision is quickly taken out of his hands when Omi comes up with… well, not a plan exactly. It's more of a vague idea that may or may not coalesce in reality. It's the best thing they have going for them right now, though, so the entire team (Aya grudgingly so) agrees to run with it.

Ken stares at his cell phone with some trepidation. The number is already in there; all he has to do is sort through his contacts and press send. He really doesn't want to press send. Omi, Aya, and Yohji are all sitting around him, staring up with soulful basset hound eyes. He sighs and flicks open the phone.

Crawford answers after two rings, and thankfully doesn't automatically acknowledge whether or not he knows Ken is the person on the other end. "It's Ken, uh, Hidaka. I was just calling about the dinner or whatever. If that offer is still open."

"Hidaka?" Crawford sounds momentarily thrown, which is nice if slightly unbelievable. "Yes, yes of course. It was a standing invitation. I wasn't expecting you would call."

"Yeah, me either." He doesn't add "I suppose I'm feeling suicidal" which is his next thought. "Anyway, I don't know if there was some place in particular you wanted to go, but I'm free this weekend."

"This weekend?" Crawford "hmms" a little bit and Ken hears pages turning. "Well, I have some time Saturday. We can meet for lunch, if you like."

Ken mouths "Saturday lunch" at Omi who nods enthusiastically. "Uh, sure, that's fine. I guess we can meet at the restaurant, right? So, do you have a place in mind? I don't really eat out much." Which is a small lie, but Ken is fairly certain that ramen and oden are not really up to Crawford's standards, whatever they may be.

They settle the details and Ken offers a completely awkward goodbye. He's not sure how he's supposed to have any sort of discourse with Crawford, much less convince him that he should join Weiss. At least he has until Saturday to figure it out.

By Saturday, the restaurant is under some obscene amount of surveillance, but Ken didn't really ask for details. He's nervous enough without dwelling on all the ways this plan could go spectacularly wrong.

The place they're going has a dress-code, but Yohji assures Ken that the blazer and jeans he's been shoved into are fine. Ken doesn't like the jacket at all. He can't move his arms freely or carry his weapons. He wishes, for a fleeting moment, that he'd requested they go for ramen after all. At least then he could have brought a backpack with essential things, like his bahg nahks.

"If any other Schwartz members show up, I want you to leave immediately," Omi says, and Ken pretends he's been listening the whole time. Hopefully he didn't miss any vital information like "feel free to stab Crawford with your fork if he gets fresh". And then Ken has a whole new burst of panic because it hadn't occurred to him until just that the maybe the ulterior motives they'd been considering aren't the ones they should have been.

"Supposing he propositions me or something?" Ken interrupts. "Can I punch him?"

Omi stares at him for a moment, clearly flummoxed by the question. Aya chimes in -- entirely sincere -- to say, "I'll cut his heart out for you." Ken can't decide whether he should be more charmed or creeped out. He settles for an uneasy mixture that sits in a heavy lump next to the rest of his anxiety.

"Seriously, you guys, stop mothering him or he's going to get a complex," Yohji says as he picks microscopic lint from Ken's jacket. Ken doesn't bother to say he already has a complex, one that is growing exponentially larger by the second.

He doesn't quite know why he's going on this mission. Obviously, it's merely a matter of opportunity because Ken's brand of diplomacy begins and ends with his fists. Granted he has a sort of "innocent appeal" (Manx's words, as he'd never apply that kind of stereotype to himself) but Omi probably has just as much. Omi is also capable of having friendly-ish discourse with people he wants to punch in the mouth. Ken is still working on that skill.

He looks at his watch, deciding that he's dithered long enough that he can be fashionably on time instead of obscenely early. Going for breakfast might have been a good idea, because he would have had less time to stress out. He straightens up, ducking away from Yohji who appears to be going for another bit of fuzz. Fuzz is not actually a big concern at the moment.

There had been a huge discussion about how to get Ken to the restaurant until he'd vetoed them all, deciding that riding his motorcycle was going to be the most comfortable to him regardless of what anyone else thought. He doesn't allow himself to think about getting in an accident (not a bad one, just enough to get him out of lunch) because the irony doesn't actually appeal to him that much. He even resists weaving in and out of traffic the way he normally would

Everyone said this was going to go "by the book" but Ken is pretty sure he was sick the day the books were handed out. He has no idea what the hell that means, and has been far too nervous to consider it for more than a few moments. It's a sting to his pride as an assassin (yeah, he does have a little bit) that Crawford freaks him out so badly. When they clashed before, it was never like that, but he's never had to play nice with someone who has superpowers either.

Due to various traffic-related shenanigans, Ken is actually five minutes late once he's parked. The maître d' eyes Ken's artfully rumpled appearance with a sneer and leads him to the table where Crawford is already waiting. Crawford seems to be staring absently out of the window, but Ken has a similar "look, I'm very non-threatening" pose so he doesn't buy it for a second.

"Uh, hey," Ken says, the epitome of suave.

Crawford turns and stands halfway, as though Ken is a girl or something. He had his back to the door, but Ken doesn't automatically assume his arrival was a surprise. He knows there are an ungodly number of Kritiker agents loitering around the restaurant and figures that Schwartz must be making some kind of presence as well.

When Crawford smiles at him, Ken's stomach clenches. It's not the "I'm a fucking lunatic and going to take over the world" smile that he's used to. Crawford is actually really ridiculously good looking. If there is any such thing as a god, the telepath won't be anywhere near to catch that thought.

Ken sits and they stare at each other for an endlessly long time. He should be reading his menu, which is probably in English or French or another language that he doesn't know. It takes more willpower than he has, though, to move his concentration off of Crawford.

Ken frowns a little, tapping his foot anxiously against the table leg. "Okay," he says finally, annoyed that he's giving in but tired of their staring match, "I'm not exactly sure why anyone thought this was a good idea but we'd like to hire your team."

Crawford takes a slow sip of his water and then straightens his napkin a little. "For what, exactly?" He asks, obviously not surprised at all.

Ken finds Crawford's imperturbable demeanor more annoying by the second. He has a vague urge to muss the white suit, break the glasses. Anything. Just to see if that boring expression will change.

"Don't be an asshole," Ken tells him, tapping his foot impatiently.

"Supposing I'm interested," Crawford says, toying with his water glass again. Light reflects off of his glasses in a particularly ominous way that must be practiced.

Despite all of Ken's misgivings, their meeting can only be termed a success for Weiss. And perhaps for Schwartz as well. Ken just hopes that they haven't screwed themselves by trusting too easily. It's a particularly bad habit that he's never quite been able to shake.

By the time he is home and has debriefed everyone (as if they don't have the whole thing on tape), it is nearing midnight and all Ken wants is a shower and to sleep for about six years. His throat feels coarse too, as though he's getting sick, but maybe it's just all the talking he did. He has a glass of orange juice before his shower, just in case.

Unfortunately, six years is a bit much to hope for in terms of uninterrupted sleep. Ken wakes with his alarm at eight and blearily prepares for work. His zombie-esque stare must be especially horrid because even Yohji doesn't harass him as much as usual when they pass each other on the stairs.

He opens the shop by himself, pulling up the grate and setting out a variety of potted plants and cut flowers on the sidewalk. The new shop is quieter than the one they had in Tokyo, but there are always girls who will be attracted to pretty boys. His first shift should be with Aya, but as usual, Aya is nowhere to be found in the early part of the day. Ken assumes it's something to do with Aya's sister and doesn't ask and doesn't scold. It's none of his business, so long as Aya shows up before things get too busy.

The daisies Crawford gave him have dried and been discarded but new ones fill the plastic cup next to the register. Ken tries not to be nostalgic about it. He tries to be rational but all he can think of is Crawford's perfect smile. It frustrates him and follows him throughout the day; as he waters or takes orders it comes back to him in sepia tinted memory.

The situation with Schwartz is out of his hands now. He doesn't want to pursue it, doesn't even want the fleeting remembrances of his lunch with Crawford. He doesn't ask Berman "how's Crawford?" or "do you want to punch him in the jaw as much as I did?" but he's always tempted to.

A week later, another unpleasant surprise is waiting for Ken when goes to open the shop. The redhead; whose name Ken knows (but can't pronounce) and whose face he can't forget.

"It's awfully early for flowers, don't you think, Schwartz?" Ken asks as he shoves up the grating. It's easier and easier to treat them like rivals as opposed to enemies. Obnoxious but no longer fatal. Ken finds that both frustrating and relieving.

"Just stopping by for some belated thanks," Schuldig replies as he fingers some bleeding hearts. The irony is probably not lost on him.

"I'll take my thanks in the form of you not stabbing us in the back," Ken says. He receives a shrug and a smile of questionable sincerity for his trouble.

Schuldig continues his way through the shop and Ken forcefully ratchets his tension down a level. A daunting task, given their early morning interloper.

"Kittens on the hunt with the dark beasts," Schuldig says in a teasing parody of Persia's deep desire for justice. "Fighting for good, or at least fighting against questionable morality. It's a little poetic, don't you think?"

"What of it?" Ken asks, watering the roses that have just begun to bud.

"Do you like metaphor? No, you wouldn't." Schuldig smiles to himself, interrupting before Ken can get past "not really" in his thoughts.

It's not that he doesn't like it, exactly, but there's so much thought required. Layers of hidden meaning on top of more ambiguity. And always about things that Ken doesn't particularly care about to begin with. Yohji would have made a joke about Ken's short attention span there. Not untrue, but not entirely relevant either.

"Your head is such a clusterfuck," Schuldig comments. "If I didn't know better, I'd think they'd trained you for that kind of garbage."

"Who knew ADD would come in handy for something," Ken says dryly. He turns off the hose, but not without sincerely contemplating spraying Schuldig.

"You're not attention deficit."

Ken grins and feels like a moron for getting enjoyment out of Schuldig's company. Better than antipathy, he reminds himself. "That's true."

"I've worked with bigger morons than you, Hidaka. Anyway, thanks for the rescue." Schuldig's look as he leaves is ambiguous enough to make Ken wonder what rescue he means. The swim or something else?

For someone who does a pretty good impression of a professional stalker, Crawford can really make himself scarce. Ken only knows this because Omi keeps them up to date on Schwartz's progress as freelance agents. And instead of following Ken to the park, or sitting creepily outside of Ken's window the way Ken rather expects him to after all that, Crawford has been teaching Kritiker about superpowers.

All things considered, Ken thinks he should get himself some kind of psychiatric evaluation. His preoccupation is getting to be more than he anticipated if he's unhappy to find Crawford actually doing his job. He frowns as he dishes out his lunch, trying to pay attention to Omi's update as he considers his own developing psychosis.

"And then he asked to work with you again, but I'm not really sure how practical that would be, given your, uh, disposition," Omi finishes, with a hasty attempt at being sensitive.

Ken raises an eyebrow, mushing down rice with his chopsticks. "So does that mean yes or no? Only if you think my volatile personality is up to it, of course," he says dourly.

"Of course it means yes," Omi says. He frowns cutely (not that Ken would ever say that to his face), pursing his lips into a pout. "It's not as if we can really say no at this point. Crawford is proving himself fairly indispensable and we have to take advantage of that while we can."

"They won't stay on? No, of course not," Ken interrupts himself. "It's not good for them to work for one organization too long. Have we gotten any kind of permanent ceasefire out of them yet?"

Omi only gives him a rather significant look. Ken correctly takes that to mean that again he is to undertake a ridiculous diplomatic mission. It is entirely outside of his skill set. He does take a moment to wonder what exactly Crawford must be thinking. Ken doesn't consider himself charming or even good company in general. Although they survived their lunch together, it wasn't without snippy words and sarcasm on both sides. Maybe that's the allure, but Ken knows better than to assume. Instead, he simply reads through the mission dossier and plans the rest of his week accordingly.

They meet earlier than scheduled. Or rather, Ken shows up early because he was hoping for a little bit of time to mentally prepare but finds Crawford already waiting. He grudgingly seats himself across the table, giving a sickly smile to the waitress glaring over her thick rimmed glasses.

Crawford offers up a variation on the "yes, I'm a dastardly sexy bastard" smile and Ken sighs miserably. This is going to be a very long night, he can already tell.

"I hope you weren't waiting long," is what he says, even though what he would prefer to say is more along the lines of, "are you fucking insane" or "why the hell can't you leave me alone". Ken knows that he wouldn't actually get the answer to either of those questions if he voiced them.

Crawford looks amused, flicking through the pages of a standard family restaurant menu. "Not particularly," he says.

Of course not, Ken thinks. It was undoubtedly planned to perfection as part of his continuing plot to make Ken feel tremendously awkward. At least this time they're in a restaurant he is comfortable with, even if Crawford will never fit in with those atrocious cream colored suits he favors.

"I'm not sure why you want to work with me instead of a member of your own team. I would think you'd feel more at ease working with someone you already know."

"Think of it as a show of good faith," Crawford replies blithely. "Schuldig tells me you're quite concerned about our intentions."

Fucking telepaths. "With good reason," Ken points out.

They pause their conversation to order when the waitress walks past. Ken asks for curry, Crawford gets hiyashi chuuka even though it's barely June and probably not on the menu yet.

"I think we'll work very well together," Crawford tells Ken. Ken tries to make it sound like anything other than innuendo in his head but he fails miserably. Too much wishful thinking isn't going to get him anywhere.

The mission does, in fact, go smoothly. Ken stalks silently through the courtyard with Crawford breathing instructions into his earpiece. Telling him where to stop, where the guards are. Ken's bagh nakh are slick with blood before he even enters the house and there is a smear of it drying across his temple. The man waiting inside is some disgusting, drug-trafficking bastard. Ken only browsed the target information enough to know that he deserves justice he would never find in a courtroom.

Crawford guides him through the house; silent killer up the stairs, devil on his shoulder. It's the easiest mission Ken has ever been on. In and out in less than an hour with no witnesses and no sirens following his departure.

Aya is still awake when Ken returns home. He has a kettle on and Ken gratefully makes himself a cup of tea. The blood on his clothes and in his hair reeks of copper death but it's a smell they're all well used to. He leans against the counter to avoid leaving stains on their chairs.

"How was the mission?" Aya asks, cool and crisp as ever.

"Perfect," Ken admits grudgingly. "There wasn't even a hint of trouble. Bastard," he adds, in case Aya isn't aware of Ken's resentment. He can't show it around Crawford who would only be smug.

"Indeed," Aya agrees.

After his tea, Ken excuses himself to shower, scrubbing at his skin until the water runs clean. He throws his clothes into the laundry, starting the machine even though it's late. There will be stains, as always, but he'd rather get them washed before all the blood sets.

In the morning, before his shift, Ken finishes debriefing the rest of Weiss. They're happy but strained, knowing that things went well. That they'll have to give a little more faith. It feels too soon but what else can they do?

When Crawford calls nearly a week later, Ken thinks about ignoring it or at least turning the ringer off his cell phone. There has been more mingling between the two teams, even if they're not specifically required to work together. Omi seems to have developed a most unlikely -- and probably ill-advised -- friendship with Schuldig.

He answers his phone. "Hidaka."

"Have dinner with me tonight," Crawford says, as though it's all very ordinary. Ken opens his mouth to object and is interrupted. "I know it's not particularly appropriate but I'm asking anyway."

Smooth talking bastard, Ken thinks; strangely fond. What he says is, "I'm not getting dressed up," in as final a tone as he can manage.

"You like Italian food," Crawford says, without a hint of doubt in his voice. (Fucking telepaths.) "Come over and I'll cook for you. What about," and Ken hears the refrigerator opening, "beef carpaccio and hm, I could make a nice bruschetta. We can have a picnic."

Against his better judgment, which is obviously becoming a habit, Ken can already feel himself agreeing. "I can pick up some wine," he says, resigned to another evening of staring obsessively at Crawford's impeccable smile.

"There's a nice shop--"

"--Across the street, I know," Ken says, feeling a little like he has the upper hand, if only for a moment. "Shall I bring anything else?"

It takes Ken five minutes to change but twenty minutes before that to pick out something nice that didn't look like he was trying to look nice. No reason to give Crawford a swelled head, after all. Then again, maybe he's the type to use his precognition to look for things like Ken being an obsessive girl.

As he picks up his keys on the way out the door (he'll drive around the block if he arrives even a second early), Schuldig's leer catches him from across the room. He and Omi are waist deep in papers but he has obviously been waiting impatiently to throw a taunt out after Ken.

"Bring flowers," Schuldig suggests, "he'll have a place ready for them."

"Fuck off," Ken suggests, "and mind your own business."

Schuldig gets what he wanted though, which was the interest of everyone in the room. Ken beats a hasty retreat even though it means there will be extra questions when he comes home. And, though it galls him to take Schuldig's advice, he detours through the shop on his way to his motorcycle.

It takes some restraint not to tie a message into the flowers he grabs but he doesn't entirely trust himself to do it right. There is an assortment of peonies that he likes, in a terribly bright pink and small sunflowers, clashing in brilliant yellow. He wraps them in brown paper and ties a raffia bow around the bottom.

The wine selection takes somewhat longer. Ken is not, as a rule, a big drinker. He likes beer with his football and chilled sake on hot summer nights but he is not in a position to overindulge. He looks carefully at each bottle, weighing their merits. There is already enough of a discrepancy between them -- he can't choose poorly. He finally finds an adequately aged -- and priced -- cabernet sauvignon. He's never had it before, but the woman at the counter claims it's "marvelous".

When he reaches Crawford's building, he is just barely fashionably late. Or, as fashionably late as he'll allow himself, which is no more than ten minutes. He rings up to the apartment to be let in, hiding the flowers conspicuously behind his leg.

Inside, Crawford's apartment is as nice as Ken imagined it would be. It's not quite at the penthouse, but it's high enough to look out over the balcony and see to the horizon. The city glitters back at them like so many neon stars. As Schuldig predicted, there is a vase for the flowers and Ken's sloppy bouquet actually looks nice once it's settled in the crystal.

There is a checkered blanket spread across the floor, spilling out onto the balcony, and a variety of covered dishes arranged in the center. Several thick candles surround the area, and when Crawford dims the lights it illuminates a horribly romantic scene.

"This is absurd, you realize," Ken says, trying not to turn too unflattering a shade of red.

Crawford shrugs, adding the wine to their "picnic". "That's irrelevant, don't you think? You didn't say no," he says.

Ken wants to say something snappy like, "I expect more than three dates before I put out, you know" but he can't promise that to himself. His attraction to Crawford has grown from a distraction to something more consuming. "I notice you're not wearing white," he says instead. "Are all your matching suits at the cleaners?"

Crawford seats himself on the blanket, stretching out his fantastically long legs as he pours them each a glass of wine. "I thought perhaps I would avoid wearing something that would make you think of work," he says, a lazy, smug smile drifting across his face.

It isn't a great leap of intuition for Ken to realize that he's been caught staring. Nor is that realization enough to make himself stop. He sits cross-legged opposite Crawford's casual sprawl, not bothering to hide how nervous he is. There's no point, with someone like Crawford.

Ken manages an embarrassed grin and says, "That's awfully considerate of you. You, uh, look really good." The smile he receives in return is worth his nerves being shot.

As it turns out, Crawford is a fantastically good cook. By now, Ken feels that it should no longer be a surprise when Crawford displays another talent but he knows he'll continue to be impressed. Once, when he was still with J League, Ken had a chance to visit Italy. Their picnic dinner is nearly that good, Ken can't help confessing.

They eat and split the bottle of wine and Ken doesn't ask any of the questions that have been plaguing him. Like, what the hell do they think they're doing?

Ken checks his watch at half past one and says, "I have to work in the morning."

"Come to bed then," is Crawford's reply.

Later, Ken will blame the wine and the hour and the charming evening they spent together, but for now he only smiles and follows. Crawford's bedroom is as sharp and modern as the rest of his apartment. He pulls Ken forward and their first touch, a clasping of hands, takes Ken's breath away.

"Did you know we'd be here?" He asks while tugging impatiently at the buttons of Crawford's silk shirt. "Have you always known?"

Crawford is serene where Ken expects arrogance. "Only that I wished to have you," he says, tumbling them onto the bed.

The sheets are cool, crisp cotton against Ken's back. He pushes himself onto his elbows to meet Crawford's mouth; tasting hot and sour and demanding. Their clothes are removed, hurried but not frantic. The press of their naked bodies leaves Ken's heart thumping slow and heavy in his chest like the pulse of a drum.

Crawford's hands are broad and smooth, free from the calluses that litter Ken's own. Every gentle touch seems to be restrained, as though fearing to do harm. Ken can't help gripping hard, digging his blunt nails into Crawford's shoulders as they kiss and their bodies press tightly.

"We won't fuck," Crawford whispers in Ken's ear. A promise that Ken already knows he'll curse. "Not tonight, or even this week." He licks a line down Ken's neck, obviously enjoying the shiver it brings.

Ken presses one hand to Crawford's cheek, testing the rasp of stubble on his fingertips. "I won't beg."

Crawford's smile is as bright as the rising sun. "Neither will I."