That night, Shinwoo finally got around to asking his questions. He figured that he should probably be embarrassed, but none of the others had ever made him feel uncomfortable, and had gone out of their way to help him. He just hoped he didn't insult them.
"Umm…are you and Takeo…together?" he asked tentatively, trying to be tactful. Tao just laughed at his weak attempt at subtlety. Behind him, Takeo chuckled, and even M-21 seemed amused. Shinwoo scowled. "What? Was I wrong?"
M-21 shook his head, cuffing both men upside the heads as he answered Shinwoo's question. "No, you weren't wrong. You're just the first person to actually call them out on it." He looked at Shinwoo carefully. "Does it bother you? I'm sure we can make other arrangements. I mean, I know you like Yuna, so if having us in bed with you is too…uncomfortable, I'm sure we can figure something else out."
Shinwoo smiled, appreciating the offer. "Nope! Doesn't bother me at all, as long as they're not hitting on me!" Tao batted his eyes at Shinwoo, and the redhead just laughed at him. Takeo tugged on Tao's shirt collar, sending him tumbling to the floor, his eyes wide with surprise. Shinwoo nearly fell over, and probably would have if M-21 hadn't steadied him on his feet. He chose to ignore that comment about Yuna; he still wasn't sure what he felt in regards to her anymore.
M-21 seemed distracted as he moved about the room, and Shinwoo watched as he paced. Tao and Takeo seemed completely unfazed, so this must be normal for the other man. M-21 caught him staring, and slowed down, finally coming to a stop in front of him. "Ah, sorry. The moon's almost full. It makes me restless," he admitted with a small frown. Shinwoo blinked, then thought back to all the legends and stories regarding werewolves. Since finding out that M-21 had the heart of a werewolf, he had done some research of his own.
"Will you transform?" he asked, his eyes glowing bright with excitement. M-21 stared at him like he'd grown three heads. "What? If you've got the heart of a werewolf, and you can sort-of transform when you're fighting, then wouldn't you transform on the nights of a full moon?" He was sure he was sparkling by now, but he couldn't help himself. That would be the coolest thing ever.
M-21 just gaped at him, utterly speechless. Tao stepped in and took over for him. "Nah, he doesn't change into a wolf or anything," he said. Shinwoo's shoulders slumped in disappointment. "But…he does have a tendency to behave more like a wolf."
"Tao," M-21 growled, his eyes flashing amber for a brief moment. Shinwoo expected his claws to come out, but his hands stayed as they were, the fingers curling into fists.
The younger man just laughed good-naturedly. "See?" he winked, clapping Shinwoo on the back. The redhead just grinned impishly, wanting to tease the older male. Tao yawned then. "Well, we'd better get some rest. You've got classes tomorrow, remember?"
Shinwoo nodded. Another thought occurred to him and he sighed. "What's the story this time?" he asked as he climbed into bed, feeling the other men settle around him. "I mean, I just got back to school, and then I disappeared again. So what did you tell my friends?" Because they would have asked, and probably pestered everybody until they got some answers. They were his friends, after all.
Takeo shrugged. "I'm not sure, actually," he admitted. "But I believe that the general story was that you were with the Boss. Since he was missing, too." Shinwoo nodded, that made sense. He'd talk to Frankenstein in the morning, then. He still hadn't gotten an answer about further enhancements, but that was a problem for later. For some reason, Frankenstein was avoiding talking to him about it, but at the same time, he hadn't outright refused, either. Shinwoo had no idea what the man was thinking.
That night, Shinwoo had his first full-fledged nightmare. Not about when he had first met M-21 and M-24, nor even about the experiments he had just been subjected to. Instead, he remembered his first time meeting DA-5. The way M-21 had nearly died to protect them. And Regis, as well, even though the Noble barely knew them. There had been so much blood. Shinwoo's body was nearly paralyzed, his breathing coming in gasps as he felt his throat working, trying to breathe around the damage done to it. He was lucky his larynx hadn't been crushed.
He saw the rage and bloodlust in Shark's eyes as the man stabbed his blade through an already injured M-21. He heard Suyi's and Yuna's frantic cries as they tried to stem the blood flow. M-21 lay motionless on the ground, but his lips were curled up in a smile. Shinwoo wondered what he was seeing to put that expression on his face.
He watched as Krantz absorbed Shark, then tried to do the same to Tao. He saw Tao break Krantz's hold to defend them, watched him slam into the wall, slumping to the floor, all but unconscious. He heard Ik-han calling to his hyung, begging him to wake up. And then, suddenly, Rai was there, the blood field surrounding him and Krantz. And when the blood field dissipated, the only one left standing had been the Noblesse.
Through it all, Shinwoo's own helplessness gnawed at him, driving him to distraction. He might have lost against Jake, but at least he had been able to do something at that time, keep the other man busy and away from his friends until M-24 had interfered. Against Shark, he hadn't stood a chance. If it hadn't been for M-21 and Regis, they would have been dead.
Shinwoo woke to a dark room, hands running frantically up and down his arms, three sets of eyes peering worriedly down at him. Once they realized he was awake, M-21 sat back, pulling away. Takeo and Tao were biting their lips, and seemed almost nervous. Shinwoo wondered if they had any idea what he'd been dreaming about.
"Are they always so vivid?" Takeo was the one to ask, to break the heavy silence. The sound of his voice sent shivers down Shinwoo's spine, but it wasn't of fear. Takeo had asked Frankenstein to save them. He hadn't done anything to try and stop his teammates, but he hadn't participated in the beatings, either. And perhaps his leaving was what had saved them in the end.
Shinwoo swallowed, but nodded. "Yeah," he said, embarrassed now. "When I have those memory-dreams, they're always really vivid. It's been like that for as long as I can remember," he admitted. The others still looked worried, but there was also curiosity there, and Shinwoo was glad that his attempt at distraction had sort of worked. "That's how I improve after every fight. I see them over and over again, in detail, and I learn from them. It was useful when I was little, but as I grew older, I stopped really paying attention. Until Yuna was kidnapped. Then I started having the dreams again."
M-21 looked terribly guilty, his eyes sad, and Shinwoo sighed. He'd seen that expression a lot when the other man looked at him, and he didn't know how to make it better. Except maybe by telling the truth. "Tonight I remembered our encounter with DA-5," he murmured. Tao and Takeo flinched. "Ah, I already remembered that meeting," he reassured them, "and you already know I don't hold it against you. It was Shark this time, mostly. And Krantz. Not the guy you called Hammer, though, since he didn't hit me," he snorted. That was probably a good thing, or else he just might have died with that much weight thrown behind an attack.
"Perhaps, but we are still sorry for what you and your friend suffered because of us," Takeo said, and Tao nodded, his hand hesitating before coming to rest on Shinwoo's shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.
Shinwoo smiled. "And now look at us," he chuckled, his breathing back under control and his heart rate slowing to a steady beat. "Comrades in arms, right? All enhanced against our will, and all under the protection of Rai and Frankenstein. Ironic, isn't it?" He was laughing now and couldn't seem to stop. M-21 was looking at him warily, like he'd cracked. He didn't think he had, but then again, he didn't have anything to compare the feelings raging inside of him with. Anger and fear and happiness and loneliness and companionship all bundled together and tangled up inside of him, so that he could no longer differentiate one feeling from the next.
The slap, when it came, was completely unexpected. Shinwoo froze, wide-eyed as he stared at the man who had just slapped him. "What the hell was that for, Ahjussi?" he demanded. Gray eyes just stared at him pointedly, not backing down, and he flushed. Flopping back down in the bed, Shinwoo buried his face in the pillow. "Got it. Sorry about that. Not entirely sure what happened there. I'm going back to sleep now, okay? I'll…go home tomorrow," he promised.
A hand touched his shoulder, but he shifted, shrugging it off. The hand didn't return, and after a moment, Shinwoo felt the other men settling down around him, careful not to touch him. He felt bad, wondering if he'd hurt M-21's feelings, but his embarrassment and anger at himself was too strong right now. Maybe once he was under some semblance of control, he'd be able to apologize. Surely things would look better in the morning, right?
Careful not to let his mind wander aimlessly, Shinwoo forced his body to relax. Eventually, he drifted off into a fitful sleep.
He was awoken the next morning by M-21 unceremoniously dumping him, mattress and all, off the bed. Grumbling half-hearted protests, Shinwoo crawled out from under the mattress and staggered to his feet, stretching. The others were already dressed, and Takeo tossed his school uniform his way and pointed silently towards the hall. Yawning widely, Shinwoo stumbled off to the bathroom to take care of his morning ablutions.
More awake now, he quickly dressed and hurried down the stairs, grabbing his schoolbag on the way. Silently, Seira handed him a breakfast sandwich, and then they were off to school. Shinwoo realized that he would actually be on time for once. Halfway to the school, the three men split off, since they'd have to be at the school before the children started arriving. Shinwoo continued on his way with Seira and Regis, cursing to himself as he realized that he hadn't seen Frankenstein this morning to ask him what his friends had been told.
Seira looked at him with that calm, steady gaze of hers, and he smiled brightly at her. Her lips curved up in a small smile of their own, and Shinwoo counted the victory as his. Regis watched the byplay and just rolled his eyes. Amused now, Shinwoo reached out and ruffled the Noble's hair before throwing an arm around him companionably. "Aww…don't sweat it, kid," he teased. "I'm just that popular with the ladies."
Regis snorted. "Or maybe they just don't want to hurt your feelings," he retorted. Shinwoo grinned, and allowed as that could be the case. Regis just looked askance at him, but Shinwoo wasn't really in a mood to pick on the shorter boy. He was safe, surrounded by comrades, and was going to school with his friends. What more could he hope for?
For it to never have happened at all, his mind supplied unhelpfully. Shinwoo merrily squashed the tiny voice in the back of his head, strangling it until it gave up and fell silent. What was done was done, and there was no changing it, so he'd just go with the flow like usual, and see what happened.
"Shinwoo!" Ik-han called out to him, and Shinwoo spun around to greet him, not noticing the odd look he got from his best friend, until Regis hissed at him to tone down the speed a bit. Ah, oops.
Yuna and Suyi were there as well, and all three hurried up to him. Regis and Seira excused themselves and continued on their way, keeping slightly ahead of the human children to afford them their privacy, but staying close enough to take care of any problems that might arise. Shinwoo appreciated their concern.
Ik-han was staring up at him with wide eyes. "Where were you?" he demanded. "Tao hyung only told us that you were with Principal Lee." Shinwoo grumbled under his breath. He'd hold the other man accountable later. He had yet to test his enhanced strength deliberately, after all.
He decided that he wasn't going to deal with this, and effectively dumped the whole mess into Frankenstein's lap. "Ah, I can't tell you. I was with Principal Lee, though. You'll have to ask him for details." That way, they wouldn't be giving two different stories. He wondered what Frankenstein would tell them, though.
His friend looked at each other, then smirked. "Okay, then we'll ask Principal Lee! Let's go visit him tonight! He hasn't been home for a few days, so I'm sure he misses us. Rai, too." Shinwoo laughed with them, letting their excited chatter flow over him. It was so different from the curt monotones the scientists had spoken in, or the wary tones of the Nobles and modified humans. His friends spoke with a carefree attitude that he basked in. He didn't envy them their peace of mind in the least, and just hoped that it would be enough to shield them from the scary things that were out there.
Pedro was at the gate again, looking as irritable as always. Shinwoo just grinned at him as he sauntered past. The look he got in return was priceless. That made him on time twice now. Would wonders never cease? His friends just rolled their eyes, and congratulated him on avoiding a run around the track. Shinwoo thought for a moment, then grinned. He was going to be soooo late tomorrow morning. He wanted to know how fast he was, and what better excuse than a ten lap punishment around the school's track?
His friends, unaware of the direction his thoughts had taken, continued into the school. The hallways were filled with laughing, chattering students. Shinwoo caught the eyes of some tough-looking guys and grimaced. They looked like they wanted a fight, and while he'd normally be happy to give it to them, he was afraid he might kill them by accident. He made a mental note to avoid them after classes. Once they were at Frankenstein's house, he could shake them easily enough. After all, he doubted they could keep up with him if he decided to run for it. He just hoped they weren't stupid enough to try and ambush them between school and Frankenstein's place.
Rai was already seated, and Shinwoo spent a moment wondering how he always managed to be early. Then he realized that the Noblesse probably came with Frankenstein, to insure that he didn't get lost. He chuckled, remembering a singular visit in the hospital. "What's so funny?" Yuna asked him, and Shinwoo turned his brilliant smile to her.
"Ah, just thinking that Rai must come here with Principal Lee. Remember when we were in the hospital after I got hit by that car?" Yuna nodded, and then her eyes lit up with amusement. Ik-han laughed, and then had to explain the story to Suyi, who hadn't been there for that particular incident.
"Five hours? For real?" Suyi asked, staring at Rai in utter disbelief. The dark-haired Noble didn't turn around, already staring out the window as Shinwoo informed his friend that yes, Rai had taken five hours to make a ten minute trip to the hospital. After that, Rai had been given a cell phone with GPS capabilities. He hadn't mastered the GPS function, of course, but he at least knew how to call or text if he got lost now.
Pedro walked in then and ordered them all to their seats. Shinwoo took his time, listening to Pedro's teeth grinding in frustration. Regis gave him a warning look, but couldn't seem to help the spark of amusement at the teacher's predicament, either. Shinwoo shot him a quick victory sign, then ducked the piece of chalk flying at his head. He had been tempted to see if he couldn't catch it in mid-air, like M-21 had done with the plate, but thought that such an action might be pushing it, just a little. So he settled for side-stepping the chalk without bothering to look behind himself.
His classmates laughed, welcoming him back, and teased him about being in trouble with the teacher already. Shinwoo just shrugged, completely unconcerned, garnering more laughter. Pedro brought the class to order by banging his fist on his desk as Shinwoo settled in his own seat, tipping it backwards. The first thing their teacher did was collect their homework. He nearly bypassed Shinwoo, but the redhead held up his completed, albeit sloppy, homework. Pedro just looked at it for a moment, then glared suspiciously at Shinwoo, who gave him an innocent face in return.
Pedro took it, and Shinwoo grinned, wondering what he'd make of that, especially after the rumors that had probably been circulating. Of course, he'd probably believe that Principal Lee had made him do the work, which wouldn't be too far from the truth.
When lunch came around, his friends joined him outside, waving to their three guards, who came over. Tao was smiling widely, and even Takeo offered them a friendly grin. M-21 didn't smile, but Shinwoo could see that he was content. There was only a minor mishap as Shinwoo snapped his first two pairs of chopsticks, attracting teasing from the others, but after Tao showed him how to hold them properly, so his strength wouldn't break them, he managed to eat relatively quickly, and without making more of a mess than usual.
Before they headed back to class, Tao leaned over and muttered to Shinwoo, "Meet us after school, okay?" Shinwoo nodded, confused, but agreed to do as the older boy had asked. On the way back to the classroom, Shinwoo again saw the punks from this morning out of the corner of his eyes, and suddenly understood. One of the others must have seen them, too, and realized that they were out for Shinwoo's blood. They intended to cut them off before they even started. It was a good plan, though part of Shinwoo had actually been hoping for a fight. He wanted to see what he was capable of now, but they were right; he shouldn't use his strength against normal humans. Not until he had more control.
After school, Shinwoo gathered up his friends – all of them – and met the three men outside. Ik-han greeted Tao with a cheerful description of a hacker that had tried to break through his security system. Tao asked him a question, and the conversation quickly degenerated into hacker slang. Shinwoo didn't even bother to listen; he wouldn't understand it anyhow.
Yuna and Suyi had bracketed Takeo and were asking him what he used for his hair. The poor man looked completely overwhelmed, but Shinwoo figured he'd manage on his own. The girls were well-meaning with their flattery. Besides, the purple-haired man should be used to it by now.
That left Shinwoo to walk with M-21, while the three Nobles trailed just slightly behind them. Shinwoo realized now that they did that so they could keep an eye out for danger. More than once, they had disappeared between one breath and the next, leaving the rest of them wondering what had happened. Shinwoo understood now that they were heading off threats.
"Any problems?" M-21 asked solicitously, his voice a low murmur that neither Ik-han or the girls would pick up on. Shinwoo, however, heard him quite clearly. He shook his head, and M-21 nodded. "Good. Takeo noticed some older boys eyeing you this morning." Shinwoo had wondered about that.
He grinned. "Yeah, they were looking to start something. Since I've been gone, they seem to think I was sick or something, so everybody wants a piece of me now." His eyes sparkled with amusement; those guys had no idea what they were gearing themselves up for. As soon as they came after him, they'd be in a world of hurt.
M-21 opened his mouth, probably to warn Shinwoo to behave, but then closed it again and shrugged. "Whatever. Just don't kill them, okay?" And with that, he gave the younger male his blessing. Shinwoo cackled, garnering the attention of his friends. He just winked at them, and they went back to their conversations, dismissing his antics as his normal hyper-active self.
Shinwoo settled down, content; he felt more like his normal self than ever. He hadn't realized until just now that his perceived lack of strength in the face of those who would hurt them had been bothering him so severely. He'd never thank Crombell for what he'd done, of course, but at least some good had come out of it. Now if he could just get Frankenstein to help him out a little more.
When they arrived, Frankenstein was already waiting for them, a smile plastered on his face, his menacing aura well-concealed. As Shinwoo walked past him, Frankenstein handed him a water bottle and two pills. Not bothering to question the other man, Shinwoo swallowed them. He saw the three modified humans staring at him in horror and frowned. "What?" Shouldn't he have swallowed them? He didn't feel any different, and he didn't think that Frankenstein would do anything that would hurt him. Probably.
Frankenstein kept smiling, but there was something decidedly chilly about it now. "Yes, what is it?" he asked. The three older men just swallowed and backed down, making their excuses as they followed the students into the other room. Blue eyes twinkled at Shinwoo before Frankenstein swept off after them, leaving Shinwoo to stand, bewildered, in the hallway.
Shinwoo stood there for a long moment, just soaking in the sounds and scents of the place that he now considered his home. He had his friends, both old and new. He would one day be strong enough to protect them against any threats. And he was alive and free. What more could he ask for?
"Are you coming or what?" Ik-han demanded, sticking his head back out the door, his eyes already bright with anticipation for an evening of fun and games. Shinwoo shook himself out of his daze and moved, walking towards his friends.
"Yeah, yeah, hold your horses. I'm coming!"