||Chapter 17||
"Love and Hate"

The night passed uneventfully for the assassins under the roof of the Koneko no Sume Ie. Ran was up early, after a restless night's sleep, and padded downstairs to start breakfast for their guests.
He wasn't surprised to see Crawford at the table, already sipping coffee and scanning the morning paper. Ran remained silent as he walked over to the fridge and began pulling out eggs and cheese. He was still in a foul mood; Crawford, sensing this, tactfully kept his mouth shut.
Ran scowled to himself as he began tapping the eggs against the side of a mixing bowl with unnecessary force, getting eggshell pieces into the mix, unnoticed. He was furious that they were going to be hiring the untrustworthy Adir'avar. He was mad at Crawford for siding with Ken. He was frustrated with everything about this fight they were hurtling towards. And he was irked that the Jackal had chased him down last night and argued with him until he'd stormed home.
Crack! More eggshells in the bowl. He reached blindly for another egg, still glaring murder at his dim reflection in the window above the sink. He was oblivious to the beaming sun and the birdsong coming from outside. Crack! There was almost as much shell as yolk in the bowl by now. Stupid Ken. There was no way they could trust an unknown player like the Adir'avar. They could handle this just fine on their own. Everyone had ignored his opinion, opting to go along with Ken's plan. What were they thinking?? He reached for another egg, still distracted. Everything was, as Ken put it, going to shit. Ran hated not being in control, not knowing exactly what they were up against. It made him want to grind his teeth.
He almost jumped out of his skin when a hand landed on his shoulder.
Crawford's dry voice checked him from swinging back instinctively with a fist. "Crunchy omelettes. My favorite."
Ran's eyes flitted down, and his scowl darkened when he saw the mess in the bowl. He tilted it irritably over the sink, glaring venomously at the goop as it slid down the drain. Crawford took his hand away and leaned his side against the counter to take the weight off his bad leg, giving the younger man a steady look. "You need to calm down, Ran," he said quietly but firmly.
Ran's smoldering glare found a new target. Crawford offered an unimpressed look. "You could melt lead with that look," he said mildly. "But if you don't calm down, you're going to slip up. No one likes what's going on. But this is all we can do to prepare for it."
"Hiring a pack of Vampire rejects is a bad idea," Ran snarled, slamming the aluminum bowl down in the sink and turning on the hot water with a wrench of the knob. "If they turn on us, we'll have even more trouble on our hands than we already do."
"I have an idea," Crawford said drolly, arching a brow. "Why don't we save the panic attacks for after breakfast?"
Ran opened his mouth for a sharp retort, and started when Crawford reached up to capture his chin in between thumb and forefinger. Crawford leaned in, and- unthinkingly -Ran immediately swayed backwards, his heart thudding in his ears and his face flushing.
Crawford hesitated, but didn't release him. A moment later he tried again, moving a little slower. Forcing his body to remain immobile, his nerves screaming with anxious tension, Ran closed his eyes tightly, as if preparing himself for a blow.
Crawford's mouth on his was gentle and firm at the same time; it was a slow, coaxing kiss, and gradually Ran's body began to relax, though his face felt like it was on fire. The pressure against his mouth grew firmer, and something wet touched his top lip. Opening his mouth for a quiet gasp, he unwittingly allowed the other man's tongue entrance.
Before Ran could decide whether he should respond or not, there was a knock on the back door. Ran jumped, and Crawford drew back, giving an impatient sigh and flicking an annoyed glare towards the door. Dodging around him, Ran hurried to open it.
Manx was standing on the doorstep, smiling in greeting, dressed in a professional looking green dressuit. She hefted a familiar black cane. "Somebody lose this?" she asked with a quirk of her brow.
Ran accepted it in surprise, turning slightly to show it to his partner. "Isn't this yours?"
Crawford frowned and took it from the younger man. "Aa. It went missing sometime yesterday." He leaned his weight against it with some relief, looking towards Manx as she stepped inside. "Where was it?"
She gestured towards the front end of the shop, taking her sunglasses off and slipping them into her handbag. "Spotted it in the gutter out in front of the shop. I figured either you dropped it outside or Ran went berserk and hurled it out the window." She smiled. Ran did not look amused.
But Crawford was frowning, looking displeased. "I don't know how it got there," he muttered. "But I'll bet I know who does." Ran heard his call over the mental bond, sharp and irritated. Schuldich.
There was no response. Ran's eyes moved unconsciously towards the clock. No way the German was up this early in the morning. His sister would be up soon, though, and so would the two youngest assassins. He fetched some more eggs from the fridge.
Manx watched him destroy the eggs for about two minutes before she pushed him aside and took up the task herself, debriefing the two men as she worked. Ran gratefully stepped back, unwilling to admit he was so flustered from Crawford's advances he couldn't even hold an egg without crushing it.

The first omelette was just about done when Aya came tromping down the stairs, calling cheerfully, "Ohayo~"
She bounced into the room- ever the morning person, Ran thought sourly -and beamed at them all. "Ah- Ohayo, Manx-san," she greeted. She went over to kiss her brother on the cheek, glancing at the mess in the sink. She took one look at her brother's face and decided not to ask. She darted Crawford a pointed Look as she walked past him to get the silverware.
A few minutes later Omi and Nagi entered the kitchen, laughing quietly about something, fingers interlaced.
"Ohayo," Aya said cheerfully.
Omi smiled back. "Ohayo, Aya-chan." He sniffed the air appreciatively. "Omelettes!"
Nagi's lips curved in a small affectionate smile at his lover's enthusiasm, moving to help set the table.
The Jackal stumbled in next, and Schuldich came last, after Aya stuck her head down the basement door and hollered at him to get his ass up before they ate without him.
Ran shot a dangerous glare towards the door, fists tightening around a spatula as if he were choking someone. "I told Schuldich to stop using that language around her," he muttered darkly. Omi smothered a giggle in a piece of toast.
They all seated themselves, and Aya moved to help Manx transfer the omelettes to the table. As she stood with the frying pan in one hand, she found herself facing the full table, studying the young men seated there.
Her beloved brother, even now scowling at Schuldich as he played absently with his knife.
Crawford-san, seated beside the redhead, asking the two youngest assassins about their progress on finding anything useful on the web.
Nagi, face solemn as he answered his leader's questions, at the same time offering the salt to his koibito with his Gift.
Omi, caught between exasperation and amusement as he scolded Schuldich for falling asleep in his clothes and looking like hell.
Schuldich, carelessly waving off the young boy's words and demanding food loudly, his firey hair a tangled mess.
Tomás Hannigan, newest member of the team, still looking somewhat uncomfortable as he sat in his chair, glancing at them all in silence.
She thought of the ones who weren't there:
Yohji, the infamous playboy who always had a smile and a compliment for her, and could be so kind and amusing.
Ken, who she wished she could know better. He seemed kind and strong, and because Farfarello cared for him, and Ran was fond of him in his own quiet way, she loved him too.
And Farfarello, the strange man who was like a long-lost brother to her, who showed a merciless and terrifying face to the world but whose scarred hands could be surprisingly gentle when he guided her arms in the self-defense and knife throwing he'd insisted she learn.
She realized with a sudden sick feeling that this could well be the last time she saw some of them. The thought made her throat close up in sudden fear and grief, her eyes smarting. She stared helplessly at her adopted family and felt something in her chest constrict painfully at the thought of losing them.
"Aya-chan?" Omi was looking at her quizzically.
Ran saw the look on her face and started to rise, a look of concern crossing his face. "Aya? What's wrong?"
"Ah-" She blinked and shook herself, forcing a smile onto her face. "Nothing! Um... who didn't get an omelette yet?"
Manx avoided Schuldich's reaching hands and plopped an omelette neatly on Nagi's plate, calmly ignoring the German's protest.
Aya laughed and tilted the omelette in her pan onto Schuldich's plate. "Hungry, Schu-san?"
"Starving," he managed to say before he shoved a forkful of egg into his mouth. Ran made a face at him across the table. "Duly noted and ignored," Schuldich said in response to whatever thought had crossed the swordsman's mind. Ran made a "ch" noise of disgust and attacked his own omelette with knife and fork in a way that made Aya consider taking the appliances away from him before he hurt someone.
Manx was quick to get to business, leaning against the counter and waving off the food Aya offered her. "Hopefully this Himeno woman will have an answer for us today," she said. "Though I'm assuming she'll go to Hidaka and Farfarello before she bothers to tell us the answer." Crawford nodded slightly in confirmation, and she continued briskly, "I refuse to be caught off guard like we were last time. This time we have some intel, thanks to Hidaka taking steps with Elsie and Sam. We know our enemies. We know what they want. We have a rough idea of the size of their 'army'. Our main concern now is to go out to meet them and present them with a force that has a chance."
"Go out and meet them?" Aya repeated incredulously.
Omi nodded seriously as he reached for the juice. "It's the only way to keep from falling into their traps again. They won't be expecting us to make such a bold move."
Schuldich snorted, dumping a liberal amount of salt on his omelette. "Didn't you twits learn anything from the last fight? Rosenkreuz always has an ace up their sleeve. They fight dirty. It's not going to be easy to take them by surprise-- especially with Souma in the mix."
"Well we don't have much of a choice, now do we?" Ran pointed out coolly. "I'd rather go head to head with them then sit around and wait for them to pull all their tricks out of the bag."
Omi nodded in solemn agreement.
The Jackal was frowning slightly. "Are they really that strong? I thought you said you killed some of this.. Rosenkreuz."
"Two of them," Nagi confirmed, eyes on his plate as he ate calmly. "That got rid of some problems, but it still leaves us with two dangerous men who are stronger in their Gifts than we are."
"Listen to the modest chibi," Schuldich chuckled darkly. Nagi was silent.
"What do you mean?" Aya asked, looking over at the slender boy.
Schuldich leaned his chin on his hand, waving his fork in the teen's direction. "Nagi here was one of Rosenkreuz's strongest students." He gave a fleeting but smug smile. "As was I. Actually, Crawford wasn't that great of a student. His Gift malfunctions too much. He can't control it. I was more valuable to them than he was." He was gloating by now.
Ran's eyebrows arched in mild surprise. He leveled Crawford with a Look. Crawford deliberately avoided his gaze, looking over at Schuldich dispassionately.
"He was only put in charge cuz he was older than us and Estet thought he had 'leadership qualities'. And his dear daddy was the First in Rosencruez," Schuldich drawled, grinning insultingly at the American. Nagi glanced at each of them, but didn't say anything. "And Farfarello seemed to think he was interesting in his own twisted way; I guess cause Brad here wasn't too impressed with his psychotic episodes." He cackled.
"Don't call me that," Crawford said firmly.
Schuldich made a rude face at him, and Aya had to cover her mouth with her napkin to hide a helpless little smile at his impudence.
"He's also a better assassin than you are," Nagi said, his voice quiet. Schuldich glowered at him.
"Only because Crawford's conscience is about the size of a pea," he started to say, then shut up suddenly as Nagi's eyes narrowed in silent warning, holding a private converstaion over the bond that the others were not privy to. "And he's better with a gun," he finished a little lamely, suddenly interested in his omelette. "Whatever."
"You're one to talk about conscience," Ran snapped, suddenly annoyed. Schuldich glanced sideways at him from under hooded, uninterested lids. "You don't care about anything but your own sick amusement. You-"
"Crawford's a cold fish, kitty cat," Schuldich said sharply, cutting off whatever the redhead had been about to say and ignoring Nagi's narrow look. "You'll never know just how little he gives a damn about anything but himself." His eyes shifted, and he gazed at Crawford with smoldering animosity burning in the backs of his eyes. For a moment a wave of hatred so strong it was frightening flickered across the bond-- then was gone as quickly as it had appeared.
Crawford was gazing emotionlessly at the German, still silent.
There was a pregnant pause.
"He's changed," Nagi said at last, very softly. His eyes were glued to his omelette, though he held the fork listlessly. "We all have."
Schuldich snorted, finally dropping his eyes from Crawford's. He looked bored once more, his body relaxed as he continued cutting up his omelette. "Dammit, now my eggs are cold."
Ran was staring at Crawford with a strange, unreadable look on his face. Omi gave a distressed murmur, while the Jackal watched it all with a look of confusion and surprise. Manx was glancing from Schuldich to Crawford, brows arched.
Aya sat numbly, gazing at Schuldich. She was not a permanent part of the bond, but even she had seen the burning emotion in the German's eyes. It had scared her for a moment. She glanced quickly at Crawford, biting her lip in consternation. She'd seen the two bicker, she'd seen them goad each other, and even argue angrily.
But never had she seen such hatred on another person's face before as she had seen for a fleeting instant on the telepath's. And Crawford had just sat there and taken the glares and the accusations. He hadn't bothered to defend himself.
For the first time, she felt a twinge of doubt. Was this the right man for her brother, after all? Were his small grins, casual attitude, and patient advances all just an act? She looked towards Schuldich once more, but his smirking mask was back in place, his former rage hidden from the world.
What could Crawford have done to evoke such a dark feeling in the normally carefree German?


Author's Notes: Sorry the chapter is so short @__@;; And if you were wondering why the Parts are so short, too, it's because there are four parts all together, compared to WADtD's three. The next two Parts are gonna be fuuuuun XD wahahaha
(PS- thank god for Rammstein, which helped coax this chapter from my muses.)

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