Shinwoo flipped off the television and scowled, glaring moodily at the blank screen. Downtown had been destroyed – again. That was the third time this week, and it was only Thursday. School had been closed for an indefinite amount of time, and citizens were encouraged to stay indoors, and to not venture out into the downtown areas. The residents in the immediate and surrounding areas had been evacuated, but nobody was giving any actual answers. Terrorist attacks, or exploding pipe lines, or crumbling infrastructures and shifting earth.
The redhead wasn't an idiot, despite appearances. He got decent grades in school; he just didn't like it. He wasn't much for structure and authority, anyhow. He preferred to hang out with his friends and play video games. And visit Rai and Principal Lee. The Principal's house had become quite crowded lately, what with Regis and Seira, plus the three older men that served as Ye-Ran High's Special Security Force. Tao, Takeo, and M-21.
Shinwoo snorted to himself; what kind of name was M-21? Sounded like a codename, rather than a real one. He rather suspected that he shouldn't be aware of the slender man's name, since the others never addressed him as such while he and his friends were present. Then again, they just called him "Ahjussi", or Mister, so he couldn't really say anything. At least the other two men had names they could be linked to.
His phone vibrated in his pocket, and Shinwoo pulled it out, glancing at the text. Ah, it seemed like Ik-Han had work to do for his uncle. Suyi was working, and Yuna had gone out with her parents for the day. There was nobody at Principal Lee's place, either. All of which meant that he was on his own for the day, with nothing to do. Great.
Deciding that whatever he was going to do, it wouldn't involve staying indoors to die of boredom, Shinwoo stood up and headed for the front door, grabbing a t-shirt on the way and slipping easily into his sneakers. Who cared if he didn't dress nicely? It wasn't like it was a school day.
Walking out the front door, Shinwoo stretched his arms, enjoying the weather. At least, if the school had to be closed, it was during the warm season. Without really putting any thought into where he was going, Shinwoo set off at a light jog. Contrary to what his physical education teacher thought of him, he was in excellent shape. But he was usually up late at night playing games, and then didn't have time for breakfast in the morning, so his energy was severely lacking. The only thing that could get him going on those days was a healthy shot of adrenaline, usually caused by idiots trying to pick a fight.
Shinwoo reveled in his strength, because it gave him the power to protect those who were close to him. It attracted the girls, too, but that was just an added bonus, though it was the reason he gave most often when people asked him about it. It was nobody's business but his own why he did what he did. Besides, he enjoyed the opportunities that arose to use his strength. Was it pride? Probably. There was some arrogance mixed in there as well, his friends often teased him.
And that might have been true, until he had met Rai. It didn't take him very long to figure out that the quiet, intense man was a lot stronger than anybody Shinwoo had ever met. He wasn't sure if it was instinct or something else, but the man's aura had attracted the redhead almost instantly. And the others had come, following him, all of them strong, powerful, and determined. Even that silver-haired shrimp, Regis, exuded power, though at a much lower level than either Rai or Principal Lee.
Shinwoo had often gotten the feeling that things were being hidden from him and his friends. He also had the horrible sensation that he should know more than he did, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't remember anything that might have revealed the truth. But he sometimes had flashes of glowing eyes and inhuman strength, of screams and fear and rage, of his body crumpling to the ground, not strong enough to protect his friend, not strong enough to even protect himself.
But nothing was clear, and he wondered if maybe he was just going crazy. Ik-Han seemed perfectly fine, as did both Yuna and Suyi. They never said anything about waking up from nightmares, their heart pounding, eyes searching wildly for a threat that was never there. He could never recall the details, just faint impressions that left him shivering until he convinced himself that he was safe, that his friends were safe, that there was no need to panic. He hated himself in moments like those, but they passed, and as time went on, they grew less vivid.
A loud rumbling noise, the sensation of flying through the air, and an angry voice yelling, "What do you think you're doing, stupid child?" brought Shinwoo back to himself. He was dropped to the ground a moment later, grunting as his knees impacted on the asphalt. Looking up, he stared at the empty space next to him, where he could have sworn Regis had been standing just a moment before.
Not far ahead, he could see the remains of what had once been a high rise apartment. Smoke and dust was everywhere, kicked up by the rubble that resulted from the men fighting higher up, on the remaining buildings. Squinting, his eyes watering, Shinwoo tried to make sense of what was going on. There was Takeo and Tao, circling a shaggy monster, their movements unsteady. They were hurt. Principal Lee was there, too, surrounded by two cloaked figures, blackness hissing and snapping around him. And…was that Rai? And Seira. Regis, too. What the hell was going on?
A vague memory of being slammed through a wall like a ragdoll, the insane laughter of a monster who reveled in violence. Speed faster than he could keep up with. Perhaps there was some truth to them after all.
"Why are you here?" a deeper voice asked, and Shinwoo finally realized that someone had missing from the tableau playing out high above his head. He turned his head to stare at the man he had always referred to as Ahjussi. The older man was in horrible condition, blood everywhere, evidence of a hard battle. His hands and arms were what drew the redhead's attention, though. Coarse grey fur, and long, lethal-looking claws. Without thinking, Shinwoo reached out to touch, but stopped when the other man flinched.
Looking up at him, he blinked. "M-21?" he asked. "What's going on? And why does it feel so familiar? Like it's happened before." M-21 stared at him, surprised, but any forthcoming answers were interrupted by a hiss of black energy that slammed into the ground next to them.
"What are you doing?" the Principal snapped. "Get him out of here!" He looked nothing like the mild-mannered, tolerant man that he did in school or at his home. His face had a maniacal expression on it, bolts and curls of darkness flashing across his face, throwing it into harsh relief. His opponent took advantage of his momentary distraction, and Shinwoo watched as he leapt, barely missing getting stabbed through the chest.
M-21 grabbed him, his hands back to normal. "Let's go," he said simply, yanking on his arm. Shinwoo followed numbly at first, but then stopped, forcing M-21 to either pull him forward or stop with him. The older man stopped.
Shinwoo met the other man's eyes. "What's going on? Who are you? What are you? And Takeo and Tao? Why are Rai and Principal Lee fighting? Who are those guys?" He knew he was babbling, but he didn't care. He felt the slow stirring of anticipation low in his stomach, that feeling just before a fight, when your body knew what was coming and braced itself for the coming adrenaline rush.
"There's no time to explain!" M-21 snapped back, tugging on his wrist. Shinwoo just dug in his heels, whirling around at the sound of a pained cry. Takeo crumpled to the ground, his purple hair free from its ponytail. Tao leapt to defend him, but wasn't fast enough. There was a flash of silver and the sharp strike of metal on metal, and Takeo was safe. For the moment. "Get out of here," M-21 ordered, then ran off, heading for the fight. Shinwoo snorted; there was no way in hell he was leaving his friends here to fight the enemy on their own. All he'd do would be to worry about them, anyhow, so he might as well stay here and watch the fight to its conclusion.
The fight didn't last much longer, though, once Rai stepped in. The other man had been standing back, watching as the others fought, stopping whoever came his way, thinking he'd be an easy target. There was a huge ball of red something, then a loud crash, and smoke and bricks and bodies everywhere. Shinwoo's eyes closed against the dust as he coughed, covering his mouth and curling into a defensive ball.
Unfortunately for Shinwoo, his presence had not gone unnoticed. Sensing movement to his right, the redhead tried to shift himself out of range. The hand missed, but the foot that spun around didn't, knocking him back six feet into a brick wall. Pain exploded across his back and head, and Shinwoo groaned, sliding towards the ground. He managed to get his feet under him and avoid most of the next attack. He felt ribs crack where the other man's foot grazed him, and he swore, lunging forward and attacking, trying to catch the man off-balance.
A low chuckle, and the man suddenly wasn't there anymore. Shinwoo sensed him behind him and hit the ground, rolling away as soon as he felt the breeze over his head. "You're quick, for a human," the man commented mildly, his foot catching Shinwoo's ankle and stepping down. Shinwoo bit back his cry, wondering where the hell the others were, and hoping they'd stay away. They were all injured, and his current situation was nobody's fault but his own. He shouldn't have come here.
Still, perhaps he could buy the others some time. Glaring up at the other man, Shinwoo snapped out his free foot, aiming for his opponent's kneecap. A light hop, the grinding of bones, and the other man landed back on his leg, higher up this time. Shinwoo couldn't bite back the cry as he felt his knee pop. The next kick caught him in the forehead and sent him flying, across the street and into another wall. "Care to try that again?" the other man sneered. Shinwoo struggled to his feet, pride and determination warring with the need to try and escape. "Oh? You're tougher than I gave you credit for," the man murmured, almost approvingly. "Good. Then perhaps I won't get bored so easily."
With no further warning, Shinwoo had the sensation of flying again, the sudden movement leaving him feeling dizzy and sick. He thought he heard someone call his name – M-21, perhaps – but he could feel himself losing consciousness, so he couldn't be sure.
Well, he thought, blood slipping down his temple and into his hair, at least now he knew the truth. Not that anybody would believe him, of course. After all, a bunch of monstrous human-looking beings destroying entire city blocks wasn't exactly a common occurrence. Well, unless one lived in Korea, apparently, he thought wildly, laughter threatening to well up and choke him.
The man carrying him faltered, then skidded to a stop, and Shinwoo was dropped to the ground. Again. This was starting to get old. Trying not to call attention to himself, Shinwoo eased himself away from the other man. Dark eyes glanced at him, then dismissed him, turning back to face the other person on the rooftop. Shinwoo didn't recognize her. Long, dark hair, and equally dark eyes. Her bearing was regal, commanding. Shinwoo shivered; he got the same sense of power from her that he did from Rai, although his friend's strength was usually much quieter, though no less intense.
The redhead was ignored as the two combatants stared at each other. Two more bodies landed on the roof, taking up posts on either side of him. "Lord," Seira greeted diffidently. Rai said nothing, and Shinwoo looked at him in concern. He wasn't looking too steady on his feet. Red eyes turned to meet his for a moment, then turned back to face the woman that Seira had called Lord. Was she their leader or something? And if so, why didn't Rai address her similarly? Or was he not one of her people?
"What had you intended to do with that human child?" the Lord asked the trapped man, who scowled, but refused to answer. Shinwoo opened his mouth, but was silenced by an impassive look from Seira.
The man shrugged. "I had intended to use him to ensure my escape. You Nobles would not risk endangering a human child, and would have allowed me safe passage in exchange for the boy's life. Alas, it seems that won't be the case any longer. I shouldn't have dropped him, I suppose," he answered ruefully.
Seira stepped forward then, and Shinwoo's knees buckled as an oppressive power surrounded him. When it calmed, the silver-haired beauty stood there, holding a wicked looking black scythe. Death God, Shinwoo's mind supplied unhelpfully.
"I will finish him. There is no need for you to fight," she said, her voice that same calmly assured tone that she used in the classroom and at the Principal's place. Neither Rai nor the Lord said anything to the contrary, and the two combatants faced off. Rai turned and walked towards the edge of the roof, and Shinwoo found himself following. Without saying anything, Rai seemed to indicate that he wanted the redhead to do something. Moving to the very edge, Shinwoo looked down. About two stories down, there was a fire escape landing. He looked up at the other man, who said nothing, then turned back to look at Seira, who was locked in battle.
Looking down again, Shinwoo frowned, but didn't argue. He was just in the way here, and as much as he wanted to protect Seira from getting hurt, he was only making things more difficult. He was only human, and they were…not.
He shook away the thought as soon as it crossed his mind. That was wrong. They were human. They were just…stronger than most. A hand settled on his shoulder, and Shinwoo looked up at his friend – now also his protector. Rai spoke softly. "Thank you for that," he said.
Shinwoo just nodded, confused. A loud rumble, and the roof cracked between his feet. Deciding he had better move, unless he wanted to fall instead, Shinwoo braced himself and jumped, landing hard on his feet before immediately collapsing to the landing. Shit. He had forgotten momentarily about his knee.
The fire escape swayed dangerously a moment later, as dust and chips of stone rained over the edge of the building. Shinwoo coughed, then reached down to feel his knee, grimacing. Getting a solid hold on either side of his knee, he straightened his leg, feeling it click back into place. It hurt like hell, but it was better than leaving it alone. He'd probably have Principal Lee take a look at it later, or go to the hospital. Overall, he rather suspected he'd prefer the Principal. The blond seemed to be the one that all the other men went to when they got the crap beat out of them, so he figured the man must know what he was doing. Right?
The landing jolted slightly as Shinwoo stood up, M-21 leaping down next to him. "Are you all right?" he asked, and Shinwoo smiled at the concern he could hear in the other man's voice. Ahjussi might act cold and aloof, but he had a soft spot for Shinwoo and his friends. The whole lot of them did.
"Just fine," he grunted, testing his footing. His leg seemed to be holding, so as long as he didn't jump down another two stories, he should be all right to get out of here. There were still things that needed to be settled, but Rai had been right; he was just a human. All he'd do was get in the way, and prevent the others from fighting at full strength. The best he could now was to retreat, to give them room to do what needed to be done. M-21 nodded at him approvingly, and Shinwoo gave a cocky grin before taking off down the stairs, which swayed and shook dangerously, threatening to come unbolted from the side of the building.
No sooner did Shinwoo's feet touch ground than the building collapsed. He threw himself to the side, curling up and covering his head with his arms, wincing as he was pelted by bricks and glass, the dust kicking up in a thick cloud around him as the ground shook underneath him. Coughing, he squinted his eyes open, trying to reorient himself so that he could get away from the fighting. Hands grabbed him, making his cracked ribs protest, and he yelled, twisting his body sharply and lashing out with his fists, stopping just before he connected with the nose of the man holding him.
M-21 stared down at him in surprise, and Shinwoo offered up a sheepish grin. The older man just shook his head, but didn't put his burden down, and they were off and running. M-21 must have had a better sense of direction, because less than a minute later, they were well away from the bulk of the destruction. Rai and Seira were on either side of him. There was no sign of the other four or the Lord, and Shinwoo hoped they were okay.
"Uh…could you put me down now? Please?" Shinwoo asked. M-21 didn't even stop to consider, just kept moving, and Shinwoo flushed in mortification. He could run just fine on his own! He wasn't that weak! He said as much, rather rudely at that, but M-21 just cuffed the back of his head and kept moving. Shinwoo stopped protesting, mostly because even that light tap had sent his head reeling. M-21 would deserve it if Shinwoo threw up on him right now. Bastard.
Fifteen minutes later, Shinwoo found himself flat on his back on a table in something that resembled a lab. His clothes were little more than rags by this point anyhow, so removing them hadn't been an issue, and Shinwoo scowled. His irritation and embarrassment faded once he got a look around. Takeo and Tao were lying on two more tables, hooked up to tubes and monitors and looking like hell. They looked like they'd had the crap beat out of them, and should probably be dead by now. Shinwoo swallowed.
The Principal – Frankenstein, according to Rai – was looking a bit rough around the edges, but he had taken the time to clean up. Rai looked as calm and collected as ever, but judging by the way the blond kept shooting him anxious looks – which he effectively ignored – there was something wrong. Seira was sitting on the edge of the bed where Regis laid, the shorter boy looking just as rough as Takeo and Tao. Still, even as banged and busted up as they were, they had obviously come out on top, or none of them would be here. As it was, every one of them was still alive.
Shinwoo didn't protest when the blond started examining his body. M-21, satisfied that the redhead wasn't going to put up a fight, moved to settle himself on another table, waiting patiently for his turn. Personally, Shinwoo would have preferred it if the Principal had started with the other three men who appeared in far worse shape than he was, but considering the other man could kill him in about two seconds flat, he wasn't going to kick up too much of a fuss. Except…
"How many times?" he asked, curiosity overriding his limited sense of self-preservation. Principal Lee – Frankenstein – didn't even look up, pressing lightly on his ribs. Shinwoo grunted at the pain that flared up in his side, then asked again. "How many times?" He was getting impatient already.
"I'm not sure I understand the question," the blond said at last. "How many times have we fought? How many times have we kept secrets? How many times have you and your friends been caught up in our fight?"
Shinwoo blinked. He really only cared about the last, but if the older man was offering…"Yes," he said simply. The blonde chuckled. "And while we're at it, can I call you Frankenstein, too?" he asked.
Frankenstein looked up at him this time, then smiled brightly. "We've fought more times than we can count. We've also been keeping secrets since the day you first met Master," he said. "Well, longer, if you count the fact that I was looking for Master long before he ever came across you and your friends. And you've been caught up in our fight, one way or another, more times than I care to think about. You're just a human, and even as good a fighter as you are, you're no match for the sort of enemies we go up against."
Shinwoo nodded; he had figured that much out pretty damn fast, at least. "Then why don't I remember?" he asked sharply. He wasn't sure if he really wanted the answer to that, but it didn't really matter, right? After all, they were probably just going to do whatever it was again, no matter what his personal feelings were on the matter.
"Because he erased your memory. But then, you already knew that, didn't you?" The soft voice belonged to Tao, who was awake and staring at him with something close to sympathy. "You're a lot more…aggressive than your friends are, so you've probably noticed that things aren't matching up. Am I right?"
Shinwoo frowned and shook his head. "Not really. It's just…I sometimes have these dreams. Only they're not dreams. They're more like memories. And sometimes, I feel things that I can't remember happening. And my injuries? The stories you were giving us didn't make sense. I've been hit by a car before and wasn't hurt that badly." Of course, at the time, he had been leaping on top of the car to pummel the guy who was driving it.
"You have memories?" Frankenstein asked sharply. Shinwoo nodded warily. "Hmm…that's interesting. You shouldn't remember anything except what I gave you to remember. That you still know what happened, even if only partially and in dreams, just confirms what I knew of you before. There's something special about you, even though you're a normal human. You haven't even been enhanced like these guys," he said, indicating the three older men with a negligent wave of his hand.
Shinwoo frowned. Enhanced? Then again…he glanced over at them, and remembered that feeling that he got from them, that they were strong, and had seen and done more in their lives than he might ever get to do. Not to mention that even though they had been quite thoroughly beaten, they had survived against the monsters they'd been up against a short while before.
Frankenstein was examining their bodies now. M-21 slipped off the bed he'd been on once he was cleared and walked over to Shinwoo, holding up a box. Opening it, Shinwoo saw that it contained bandages and grinned. "I'll do you if you do me?" he asked, his smile widening when M-21 snorted at him. The other man nodded, and reached out to start wrapping his ribs, his hands gentle but firm as he bandaged the teenager.
"So…why M-21?" Shinwoo asked as M-21 adhered fastened the bandage. "I mean, that can't be the name you were born with, right? And Tao and Takeo have real names, so why don't you?" He knew it was rude to ask, and the other man might not answer, but since his memories were going to be erased anyhow, he found he didn't really care. Soon, they'd go back to being Ahjussi and the two Hyungs, and Frankenstein would just be Principal Lee again. So they could humor him now, right?
M-21's hands hesitated for a moment against his back, then the other man moved around to kneel in front of him, probing gently at his knee. After he had wrapped the redhead's leg, and allowed the teenager to bandage his wounds, he spoke, and Shinwoo learned the fate of M-24, of all the M experiments. He learned about enhanced humans – with the occasional comment inserted by Tao and the now-conscious Takeo. He learned about Nobles and the Noblesse and the Union. And it didn't matter one bit, because he wouldn't remember a damn thing.
Shinwoo wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all, but he held in his anger, listening carefully. Perhaps, even if he didn't remember everything, some of it would stay with him, like it had before. Only this time, maybe it would be good things. Maybe he'd remember that these men, and the Nobles, fought to protect him and his friends, to protect their way of life. He just wished, briefly, that he wouldn't have to forget anything at all this time.
When the story was finished, silence fell. Shinwoo felt that stir of anticipation again, but fought it down. This wasn't something he could fight, and doing so would only cause problems for his friends, right? He didn't want to do anything that might get Rai or M-21, or any of the others, hurt because of him.
He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, his resolution was firm. "All right, Principal Lee," he said, already reverting back to the more formal title, "go ahead. Erase my memories, or whatever you've got to do. I'm ready."
M-21 watched him with something akin to respect, but also something undeniably sad. Takeo and Tao watched silently, sympathetic. But it was Rai that surprised them most, with a single utterance in that quiet, firm voice of his.