Actions

Work Header

First Blood, First Victory

Work Text:

 

There's an odd moment of silence after Hanekawa translates Shimizu's suggestion. The slightly disgruntled air hanging over the Koreans after losing the first round dissipates, replaced by something Ryuji can't quite read. Strangely, most of them turn to look at each other, and then turn almost in unison to look at Go Gun-Hee.

 

No, not Go Gun-Hee. The tenth Korean S-rank Hunter next to him. Sung Jin-Woo.

 

Sung Jin-Woo blinks back at them, head tilting in an almost puzzled manner. His posture is still as laidback as it was when he'd first walked in, and while he doesn't seem outright disinterested, there's certainly no notable indication of excitement or determination or nervousness either, which is rare for a Hunter so young, rarer still for someone who'd just been Reawakened and shouldn't be used to interacting with other S-ranks on an equal level.

 

Is he underestimating them? Well it's not surprising. Neither Kei nor Shimizu look particularly intimidating. Kei tends to get self-conscious around people he doesn't know, but his ice magic is the strongest Ryuji's ever seen from anyone, even without items to boost it. And Shimizu is a Healer, which automatically slaps her with the stereotypical label of weak fighter, no combat abilities. A mistake of course. She'd volunteered herself for the next round without any prompting, and her usual choice of weapon is a battle axe, enough said. People who judge either of them at face-value are bound to regret it in the end.

 

On his part, Sung only glances between Shimizu and Kei, brief enough that it feels dismissive, and Ryuji can see the way Shimizu bristles. But then Sung glances up at the mezzanine where Choi Jong-In is still standing, cocking an eyebrow that Choi looks surprised by but also smiles back at, and a moment later, the Mage has vaulted himself over the railing and joined them on the ground floor.

 

Baek Yoon-Ho stalks over, a grin spreading across his face, looking more eager for this fight than he had his own. He seems to quip something at Choi, who returns it in the same passive-aggressive vein, and then they both look at Sung, who contributes something in far more even tones.

 

Ryuji glances at Hanekawa for the last bit, who quickly paraphrases, "Sung-san will provide support since Choi-san is a frontline Mage."

 

"Guess he's my opponent then," Shimizu pipes up, something sly lurking around the smile she's sporting. "How boring. He'll probably be pretty stationary." She glances over her shoulder. "Come on, Kei, you're up. Don't worry, I'll give you plenty of buffs, free of cost."

 

Kei huffs as he strides forward, adjusting his mask. "I won't need them. That guy has fire magic, right? It won't matter. He's weaker than me."

 

Ryuji listens to their exchange, and Kei isn't wrong. Ice is naturally weak against fire, but there's a significant enough gap between Kei and Choi Jong-In that it won't matter. On the other hand…

 

He finds his gaze drawn back to Sung Jin-Woo, hands in his pockets, almost docile in the way he follows Choi Jong-In onto the gym floor, nothing out of the ordinary about it - newer S-ranks tend to follow the lead of those with longer tenure. But the power he's radiating without even visibly trying…

 

Ryuji closes his eyes for a split second longer than necessary, narrowing his awareness and honing all his senses towards Sung Jin-Woo, and-

 

-and the sheer amount of mana that roars back at him makes him feel like he's standing on a rock in the middle of a storm-tossed ocean at night.

 

He snaps his eyes open. His right hand itches for his blade. "…Shimizu, take this more seriously."

 

Shimizu spins around and blinks up at him, startled. "I'll be fine, Goto-san. I know they have two Mages but-"

 

Mage my ass, Ryuji snorts inwardly. Out loud, he simply tells her, "He might be like you."

 

Even if he's really a Mage, he can't possibly be a typical one. Of that, Ryuji is certain.

 

Shimizu considers that for a moment before shrugging, still too carefree in Ryuji's opinion. "More fun for me then!" She says cheerfully. "Let's go, Kei!"

 

Ryuji sighs but says nothing more. Sung has less experience at least; his mana levels are definitely higher than Shimizu's, but Shimizu has been an S-rank longer, and her skills are nothing to scoff at. That should balance things out, so long as she's careful.

 

"We'll keep the same rules," Go Gun-Hee announces as Hanekawa translates. He holds out four ribbons. "But since physical contact is harder to come by, instead of touching the back or grabbing the wrist, let's have all the participants tie one of these on their arm. Whichever side collects the most ribbons wins. You can also destroy them directly. How does that sound?"

 

Nobody protests. The ribbons are tied loosely enough that grabbing one tail of it would undo the whole thing. Likewise, a well-aimed spell could destroy them just as easily.

 

"Alright, let's get started!" Shimizu cheers, and then she's off, blurring into a streak of colour as her mana coalesces around her and she hurtles straight for Choi Jong-In, bathed in the glow of a speed buff.

 

Choi's eyes widen, and he leaps out of the way just in time, then has to spin on his heel and snap out a lance of fire to counter the wave of ice rushing towards him. Shimizu grins, darting forward immediately as Kei keeps the Mage occupied. She's right behind him in an instant, one hand reaching out to snatch the ribbon-

 

-and then she yelps and barely manages to backpedal as something large and bulky erupts from a patch of black on the ground, forcing Shimizu to abort as it plants itself at Choi Jong-In's back. Choi spares a fleeting glance over his shoulder, smirks with the beginnings of that inborn violence almost all S-ranks possess, and then his half of the pseudo-arena promptly bursts into flames, leaving Kei scrambling to throw up more ice barriers under the sudden blazing barrage.

 

"You're a Summoner?!" Shimizu demands as the bear summon glares down at her, a creature wreathed in shadows and ghost-light, and giving off the mana levels of an A-rank monster.

 

Standing slightly to one side, Sung Jin-Woo has not moved an inch. Ryuji's kept an eye on him since this whole spar started, so he knows Sung never so much as twitched even when he called up his beast summon.

 

Shimizu hesitates, taking a step towards the elemental war being waged behind the bear, and then she has to flip backwards when it lunges at her in response.

 

"Fine," She huffs, turning to Sung instead. "Guess I'll have to take care of you first."

 

She stacks three more speed buffs on herself, now essentially invisible to the naked eye of anyone below an S-rank. She shoots towards Sung, practically on top of him in the blink of an eye, and she gives him no warning as she lashes out with one leg, obviously aiming to break his concentration and force-cancel the summon.

 

Sung blinks. And dodges. Shimizu strikes again, and again, and again, and Sung dodges, again, and again, and again.

 

She's too slow, Ryuji thinks, but then, no, he's too fast, and then one more, the pounding certainty of it bleeding into his pulse and unfurling in his chest, I want to fight him.

 

A Mage with the footwork of an Assassin. Who would’ve thought someone like that could exist?

 

Sung moves like he's dancing, silent and weightless and utterly effortless, and the realization that she's outmatched paints itself on Shimizu's face, followed quickly by frustration. She casts yet another speed buff and an attack buff on herself before hurling out four barriers at Sung - left, right, above, and behind to fence in his movements, and then a Slow debuff at his feet to delay him, the perfect cage she'd tweaked and refined for situations exactly like this - but that turns out to be the game-ender.

 

Sung raises an eyebrow. Stops. And then disappears.

 

Ryuji barely manages to follow it. He's pretty sure most of the S-ranks in the room couldn't at all. One moment Sung was standing in front of Shimizu, just a few feet ahead as she raced towards him. The next, he was moving too, shredding right through the spell chaining his feet down like it might as well be tissue paper before flashing out through the path that Shimizu had inadvertently left him - straight towards her, at speeds so fast Shimizu couldn't even react before Sung had whirled past her and landed once more, light as a cat behind her with her ribbon draped innocuously over one palm.

 

He still has one hand in his pocket.

 

"That's my win, I think," Sung says lightly, which Hanekawa belatedly translates after another five seconds of stunned silence.

 

He turns, gaze moving towards the other half of the stage, and it's only then that Ryuji realizes he'd completely forgotten to keep track of Kei, too absorbed in watching Sung. He frowns, abruptly irritated with himself, but he pushes that away in favour of checking Kei's progress.

 

…Wait.

 

Sung steps up beside his bear summon, patting it once on the shoulder before it disappears in a billow of black shadows. It never joined either fight aside from that initial lunge at Shimizu, and now that Ryuji thinks about it, maybe its job had just been to keep her separated from her teammate and unable to help him.

 

Because without her, Kei is losing. Badly.

 

Power-wise, Kei is stronger than Choi Jong-In. His battle should've been easy. But that's only the case if it was a one-on-one, and it hasn't been. And Shimizu had been too distracted by Sung to notice.

 

The floor is littered with the scorch marks and ice shards left from multiple previous clashes, but the match is still going strong. Because for every ice spear or ice blast Kei sends out to attack and defend against the coils of flame that keep twisting towards him, a black-armoured soldier rises from the floor to counter it, either shattering it with a sword or axe or shield, or simply taking the blow head-on, dispersing on impact but also nullifying the magic as they go.

 

Ryuji clocks a dozen of them at first glance, even as more appear out of the shadow-soaked arena.

 

They're all summons, he thinks with more than a disbelief as he looks between the soldiers and Sung. That's ridiculous, how much mana would this require?

 

Another blockade of ice creaks into existence as Kei desperately fends off both the fire and the summons, and that's the problem, his problem, but probably the angle Sung and Choi were aiming for all along - there's too much ice around him, walls of it that have hemmed him in with no escape, and he's realized far too late to melt it all down.

 

He falters, floundering. His opponent does not, and a final snap of Choi's fingers sends a spiral of fire snaking through the single remaining path that the soldier summons have left open for him, snagging one end of Kei's ribbon and burning it to ash in a heartbeat.

 

The gym falls silent. The summons disappear. Everyone stares.

 

"I believe the second round goes to us," Choi Jong-In declares, reaching up to adjust his glasses with a hand that does nothing to hide the smug smile on his lips. He turns as Sung meanders over, and they share a few words too quiet for Hanekawa to pick up. But Choi looks very pleased, not even out of breath, and unable to hide the lingering elation leftover from the spar. Beside him, even Sung looks faintly content.

 

"Is Sung Jin-Woo in the Hunters Guild?" Ryuji asks in low tones. "Their teamwork is very good."

 

And he would've had to be blind not to notice the parallels in their respective battles. Sung - and Choi - had basically reproduced Shimizu's own tactic and used it against Kei, without a single word exchanged between them.

 

"I don't think- no," Hanekawa replies, fumbling through her tablet. "He's a freelancer. And there's no record of him being contracted for individual raids either, by any guild."

 

Ryuji frowns again, but he doesn't have time to ask anything else before noise returns to the gym, the Korean S-ranks all gathering around Sung and Choi while Kei and Shimizu make their way back over.

 

"…Sorry, Goto-san," Shimizu mumbles, looking shamefaced and more than a little sullen. "I underestimated him."

 

Ryuji grunts noncommittally, because yes, that was her fault, but at the same time, it was pretty clear - Sung Jin-Woo was stronger than her in every way possible. She could've gone in no holds barred and on high alert, and it wouldn't have made a single difference. Still, at least she's self-aware of her shortcomings, and Ryuji will have to keep this in mind for their next training sessions - Shimizu has to remember to keep an eye on her teammates on the field. Ryuji doesn't care if she wants to fight, he even encourages it because one-trick ponies don't survive very long. But at the end of the day, her job is support, and if she forgets that in situations more critical than a spar, it won't just be her life on the line.

 

"I didn't think anyone could call up that many summons at a time," Kei pitches in, still looking vaguely dazed. "I think he had over twenty of them out at one point. But-" He glances back at Sung with obvious confusion. "-he doesn't smell bad."

 

"You can't smell anything from him?" Ishida asks. The others have all drifted over, understandably curious.

 

Her eyebrows go up when Kei blushes.

 

"I- no," He mutters, tugging on his mask. "…He smells good."

 

A slightly awkward silence descends. Kei scowls at all of them and turns away abruptly. "I don't know why, alright? But he doesn't make me want to retch. Why can't any of you smell like that?"

 

"Stop making it sound like we don't bathe!"

 

Ryuji tunes them all out as they begin to squabble. His gaze returns to Sung Jin-Woo, who’s extracted himself from the group and is speaking to Go Gun-Hee. Ryuji stares at him, remembers the strength of his mana, the foxfire light in his eyes, the way he moved, nimble and soundless and absolutely devastating should he ever go on the offensive, should he ever truly attack with the intent to kill.

 

And Ryuji wants him to, wants to see it, wants to fight him and push him and force him to match his strength against Ryuji's own.

 

Would Ryuji win?

 

Would Ryuji lose?

 

"Um, Goto-san," Hanekawa stammers, and it takes a moment for Ryuji to realize his guild has gone quiet around him, and he's emitting enough bloodlust to attract even the Koreans' undivided - and somewhat alarmed - attention.

 

He can't find it in himself to care about that though. Not when Sung Jin-Woo is also finally looking over, straight at Ryuji, eyes glowing once more as his mana flares with an echo of Ryuji's own interest.

 

And that. That's enough.

 

"Hanekawa," Ryuji says roughly, never looking away from Sung. "Translate for me. Ask him if he wants one more match. One-on-one, me and him."

 

He knows the answer even before Hanekawa conveys the question. Sung Jin-Woo smiles at him, his gaze turned sharp and focused and awake for the first time since Ryuji laid eyes on him, and maybe he would've missed it under any other circumstances because Sung is clearly not a terribly expressive person, but Ryuji just watched him smack down two of Japan's best S-ranks while practically half-asleep and with the bare minimum of help, the latter only because it was required, so all his senses have been attuned to this Hunter since the second round began, and the fact that he looks like this, feels like this, when he looks at Ryuji - it means he's taking Ryuji seriously.

 

Good. Ryuji will afford him the same respect.

 

"Wrist is fine?" He asks, gesturing to his own as he steps forward. He wouldn't suggest it to any other Mage, but Sung Jin-Woo is different.

 

Sung seems to understand, nodding readily as he takes his place opposite Ryuji. Everyone else clears the area for them.

 

"Then," Go Gun-Hee glances between them, looking pensive. "You can start-"

 

Ryuji lunges.

 

He's not surprised at all when his hand cuts through air, Sung Jin-Woo already gone. He comes to a stop and looks over at the other Hunter, several feet away and watching him right back as their respective mana roils around them, hungry for battle.

 

Ryuji notes, with some satisfaction, that Sung's finally taken both his hands out of his damn pockets.

 

He's very fast, Ryuji shifts his weight and draws more mana into his hand. Fine then, I'll just treat him like an Assassin. It wouldn't be fun if you summoned a creature to fight for you anyway, would it?

 

And indeed, Sung makes no move to call up a summon even as Ryuji attacks him again, a flurry of strikes that Sung weaves around with enviable grace. The two of them tear up and down the length of the gym as Ryuji does his level best to maim the bastard, because anything less and Ryuji may as well just forfeit.

 

He has never met anyone this fast in his life.

 

Sung is smiling again, Ryuji notices, and the slightest of flutters in the other Hunter's mana is all the warning he gets before Sung lashes out as well, going for Ryuji's throat. Ryuji twists away, barely tapping the ground as he changes direction almost before he lands. He uses the momentum to whirl himself around and attack again, lashing out at Sung's eye in the next breath, baring his teeth in triumph when he draws first blood, just a thin line of red along Sung's cheek.

 

He doesn't waste time basking in such a negligible victory though, immediately following it up with his other hand now that he's close enough to do damage.

 

He's stopped cold when a hand closes around his own in a bruising grip, and as their mana stalls for a moment, shuddering in the air as their hosts come to a temporary standstill, Ryuji meets the blue-white gleam of Sung's eyes, and he can feel his own bloodlust rise even further.

 

Sung says something in Korean, still with that smile playing around his lips, but Ryuji gets the gist of it when he takes into consideration the fact that his hand was grabbed instead of his wrist.

 

His loss then, even if Sung chose otherwise. But Sung chose otherwise, because he doesn't want the fight to end like this, and Ryuji grins.

 

He kicks out with one foot, not even skimming cloth before Sung is gone once more, and Ryuji doesn't even bother looking for him with his eyes, tracking his mana instead as he dashes after him. This time, half the blows he deals are met with solid blocks and parries, and he finds himself dodging just as many as Sung finally begins attacking back. Throat, ribcage, kneecap, a mana-coated stab that probably would've cut Ryuji's stomach open if he'd let it connect. And then throat again, and this time, Ryuji is a beat too slow to prevent the skin along his jaw from splitting open. Just a shallow gash, but bloodied nonetheless.

 

As if by unspoken agreement, they leap apart in the next second, putting a few feet between them as they assess each other once more. Ryuji's mana surges around him like it wants to break loose and run wild, and exhilaration pumps hot and hungry through his blood with every rapid hammer of his heartbeat. He barely even remembers the original parameters of the spar anymore as he sprints forward at the same moment that Sung moves as well. He certainly doesn't care, and if the searing light in Sung's eyes is anything to go by, his opponent doesn't either.

 

They crash together like waves against the shore, pull back, and then crash together again, exchanging a whirlwind of jabs and kicks and punches that miss more often than they connect. Sung is faster, but Ryuji has more experience in taking down monsters above his level - and paygrade - even if it's not a common occurrence.

 

And Sung. Sung really is a fucking monster. He's been an S-rank for what, a week? And he was an E-rank before that. He's practically a baby with zero high-ranked Dungeon experience, and he's fighting Ryuji to a stalemate.

 

No, not a stalemate.

 

Ryuji takes another cut along the temple, one more along the back of one hand, and his right shoulder's going to come out of this wearing a map of bruises. On the other hand, he's only managed to slash through Sung's coat and into his arm. Everything else has merely grazed him, missed entirely, or been deflected.

 

And he can feel it - he won't be able to keep up with Sung's speed for much longer. He's barely clinging to it as it is.

 

If I don't fight him like I'm going to kill him, I'm going to lose.

 

He leaps back, lands, then jumps again, evading the hand that slices through the space where his head had been a fraction of a second ago. He swiftly widens the distance between them, knows Sung can cross it in an instant, does it any way and looks up in time to catch Sung's eye.

 

There's blood on his face from the earlier injury, but it only serves to make him look like something wild and untamed, and the smirk curling at his lips looks like it should have fangs in it. His hair and clothes are a bit ruffled, and half his coat is in tatters from the bite of Ryuji's mana, but it's been made perfectly clear that he's more than enough of a match for Ryuji.

 

And even as Ryuji watches him, his smirk only grows, and he doesn't need to speak for Ryuji to hear what he's saying.

 

Done yet?

 

Ryuji's mana floods the room, and his blood sings.

 

Fine, I'll just fucking kill him then!

 

Sung disappears and reappears, taking a swipe at Ryuji, who deflects the blow before dodging and twisting out of the way, even as he searches for an opening.

 

A variant of Illusion Blade might work.

 

It’s a skill he managed to develop several years back, one he doesn’t bring out often because it usually isn’t necessary, aptly named: Illusion Blade - a physical manifestation of mana in the form of his katana that would look and feel no different to his opponent but would ultimately still be just a reflection, concealing the real blade behind it so they'd never see the actual strike - a moment late and a few inches off from where they expect it - coming at them. Ryuji can’t hold it for long - it’s an absurdly large drain on his mana - but when you’re fighting high-paced battles in A-rank Dungeons, even a few seconds is plenty of time.

 

Obviously, it’s something he uses in conjunction with his sword - he doesn't have a skill that doesn't require his sword, and on hindsight, that seems unforgivably foolish, he's going to have to fix that - but he doesn’t have his weapon here, so instead, he uses it on himself. He’s never tried it before so he has no idea if it's even going to work, but he didn’t ask for this fight because he wanted to play it safe.

 

Fighting a Hunter like Sung Jin-Woo could never be considered safe.

 

He reaches for his mana, reels it in, shapes it with the ease of long practice, if not exactly in the same way. Sung seems to notice immediately, that Ryuji's doing something, because he picks up his pace and his attacks become even more vicious. Ryuji grins and keeps running, keeps dodging, because if he stops again, Sung will put him into the floor in an instant.

 

At the edges of his awareness, mana signatures that are neither his nor Sung's flicker forward, and with a jolt, Ryuji realizes he's all but forgotten their audience. It's his guild, or a few them, moving to stop him, probably thinking he's about to really go too far and do permanent damage that even Shimizu can't fix. He doesn't know who - doesn't have the concentration to spare to identify exactly which of his subordinates are about to cut in - but he does bark out through the thick haze of mana and destruction around them, "Don't interfere! This guy can take it!"

 

And then he moves, throws himself forward, angles in at a curve even as his mana fuses into a body double of himself, identical in every way as they hurtle towards Sung in tandem.

 

Sung, who hasn't noticed.

 

His reflection attacks, Ryuji a half-second behind it, keeping low while his reflection comes in high. Sung moves to block the latter, and he's wide open-

 

-and then foxfire eyes widen before narrowing just as quickly, and then they begin to slide from the fake to the real.

 

"Too late!" Ryuji snarls and throws all his strength behind the uppercut he delivers straight to the other Hunter's face.

 

It connects, a clip to the jaw that snaps Sung's head back, solid and satisfying even as realization dogs its heels - Sung was already moving out of the way. It had connected, yes, but not fully, not enough to down him.

 

Ryuji rises, already preparing to leap away, put some space between them again-

 

-but then-

 

It's like plunging into the ocean and sinking to the bottom without a chance of light or breath again. Dark, suffocating mana slams into him like a sledgehammer. He chokes on his next breath, on a lungful of ice and a throat full of blood, on shadows too deep to see through and a chill so cold that the shock of it feels like death.

 

For the first time since this fight began, Ryuji feels fear, unfamiliar and all-consuming, freezing him in place, and between one blink and the next, he loses track of Sung Jin-Woo. He can't even track his mana anymore - can't tell up from down from left from right either - because there's just so much of it.

 

And then, just as abruptly, the sheer weight of that mana lifts, still there, still present, but bearable. Ryuji doesn't have time to do anything except suck in a much-needed breath of air, and then he's being thrown backwards, clean off his feet, before something snags him around the middle and slams him right back into the ground, hard enough break bone if it was anyone weaker than Ryuji.

 

A heartbeat, two, and his vision clears, along with the reeling vertigo spinning through his head. He finds himself gasping for breath and Sung Jin-Woo crouched on top of him, one hand wrapped around his wrist and pinning it to the floor, another at his throat, that same cool touch of death that had almost drowned him, and a knee in his gut to keep him still.

 

There is silence all around them.

 

Ryuji doesn't move, can't move, but wouldn't even if he could. His chest is heaving with exertion, but all he can do is stare, at the flush in Sung's cheeks and the fresh bruise already blooming along his jawline, at the barely-there breathlessness that parts his lips and - most of all - at the way Sung stares back, eyes burning with the same heat and adrenaline still coursing through Ryuji's body. And even now, Ryuji can feel an echo of that instinctual terror Sung had triggered in him, but that somehow just adds to it - to the fury of his pulse thundering away under Sung's fingers, to the savage thrill rushing through his veins, to the feral heat churning between them, fit to devour - and in that moment, with Sung's weight pressing down on him, Ryuji doesn't know if he wants to fuck him or rip his throat out or get up and go for round fucking two, just to see if the two of them can tear the whole damn world down while they're at it.

 

As if sensing his thoughts, Sung's fingers twitch against Ryuji's skin, and a noise - hungry and almost startled - trips out of his throat, quickly stifled, and so quiet even Ryuji barely hears it. Neither of them blinks. Neither of them looks away.

 

Until-

 

"Goto-san!"

 

"Hunter Sung!"

 

"Are you alright?!"

 

"Is anyone hurt?!"

 

A chorus of voices shatter the moment, and for a second, Ryuji thinks he could kill them all himself. Then rationality reasserts itself, and it seems to hit Sung at the same time because the other Hunter grimaces, rolls off, and finally lets go.

 

Ryuji very firmly ignores the bereft sense of displacement that comes with the loss of Sung's hands on him. When this much mana gets thrown around, it can mess with the head. It doesn’t help that he’s also ridiculously turned on, but at least his pants aren’t tight enough for it to show much, and the interruption serves as a neat enough distraction.

 

Sung gets to his feet first, and Ryuji pushes up after him a moment later. Sung doesn't try to give him a hand up, which is good, because it's bad enough that Ryuji has well and truly lost, but if Sung had offered to help him to his feet like an invalid, Ryuji might have to gut him on principle alone.

 

Once he's up though, he has to lock his knees and force himself not to stagger. He can feel the unpleasant tug of mana exhaustion, but it's not serious enough to need medical attention so he ignores it in favour of arching an eyebrow at the summons just disappearing back into the floor, having been blocking the way of a few of the Korean S-ranks a moment ago.

 

Huh. They must've tried to stop the spar as well.

 

He glances at Sung, who's already looking back, and gets a shrug in return, one that pretty clearly conveys I didn't want us interrupted either.

 

Ryuji grunts his approval and turns away again to survey the rest of the room.

 

The gym is a mess. The walls and floor are decorated with signs of their spar, holes and debris scattered around the room. Any damage accumulated before his fight with Sung has been almost completely erased by worse damage.

 

Ah well, not his gym. The nice thing to do would probably be to offer to pay half the repair bill, but no one in their right mind would ever accuse Ryuji of being nice. Besides, if he was the host, he'd be offended if his guests offered to pay, as if he couldn't even cover their stay in his own country.

 

Not offering then. He glances down at himself instead and has to bite back an irritated sigh. His jacket is ruined, although at least Sung's coat is barely any better. He shrugs out of the shredded remains and uses a part of it to wipe the blood still leaking from the cut on his temple.

 

"Are you okay, Goto-san?" Minoru asks in tentative tones. He's the closest, almost hovering, with the rest of the guild behind him. Likewise, the Korean S-ranks have clustered behind Sung Jin-Woo, who's busy taking off his own coat and shaking his head at something one of them - Cha Hae-In - is saying to him in somewhat anxious tones.

 

Ryuji waves Minoru off, waves Shimizu off as well when she raises her hands with a questioning look. He's tired, and he can feel the pain begin to register, but it's nothing a day or two of rest won't fix. He doesn't need a Healer.

 

Instead, he glances at Sung once more, straightening when the younger Hunter takes two steps in his direction.

 

Ryuji almost rolls his eyes when the entire room goes tense. He's done for the day, and Sung isn't poised to attack at all. What are they so worried about? It's not like they even injured each other that much to begin with.

 

Sung speaks first, without much inflection but his tone is light enough to be almost friendly. A pause, and then they both look at Hanekawa, who jumps and then hastily translates for Ryuji, "Uh, Sung-san- he says your last attack was very good but it didn't seem complete. He asks if you created it on the spot just now."

 

Ryuji arches an eyebrow, then looks at Sung. "…Something like that." Then he sighs and relents a little, because he's never been in the habit of taking more credit than is due, just as he would never stand for taking less, "It's not new. I usually wield a katana, and Illusion Blade is a sword technique."

 

Hanekawa relays that, and Sung blinks once in response, taking in the answer without expression. But then he gives a short verbal reply too, and this time, Hanekawa translates more easily, "He says it's still very impressive."

 

Ryuji scoffs. He doesn't need backhanded compliments, especially not from someone that that "very impressive" attack missed. Not entirely, and it had felt good at the time, to land it on someone whose speed would make top-ranking Assassins weep with envy, but in the end, he'd hit him with the heel of his palm instead of the mana-sharpened tips of his fingers, and it hadn't even broken the other Hunter's jaw. With the force Ryuji had put into it, it should've been enough to - at the very least - snap his neck, but - at best - skewer the bastard through the underside of his jaw. Not that he wants to do either. Mostly, now. But either way, Ryuji would call that a failure.

 

"It's not," He says flatly. "But it will be next time."

 

He knows he can do it now, and it's an oversight he should've corrected ages ago because what if he ever has to go without his sword? So far, when he didn't draw his blade in battle, it was only because whatever he was fighting wasn't powerful enough to force him to draw it. When he did have to draw it, he was always strong enough to defeat his enemies, and nothing had ever been able to take the weapon from him.

 

But the possibility is there, and this spar was the wakeup call he needed. He'll perfect the skill if it kills him.

 

Sung smiles when he hears Ryuji's response, a quicksilver flash of something fierce and provocative behind it, like a gauntlet thrown, and Ryuji feels an answering hum of it spark in his own chest. Sung says something else, longer this time, something that has most of the Koreans behind him stiffening or stifling exclamations, and Ryuji makes an impatient sound when Hanekawa hesitates too long after Sung finishes.

 

Hanekawa's expression looks a little strange, but she dutifully recites, "Sung-san says, 'After the raid, before you go home, if you have time, let’s spar again.'"

 

Ryuji stills. He looks at Sung again, studies him, and senses nothing but a genuine anticipation flanked by teeth and claws.

 

He looks, and he wonders, when was the last time I fought an S-rank who could push me right up to the brink like this? When was the last time I lost to another S-rank Hunter?

 

Never. The answer is never. He's self-aware enough to know that the likes of Liu Zhigang and Thomas Andre are probably out of his league, even though the knowledge of it chafes, but he's never had the chance to actually fight them. There's no S-rank in Japan who can beat him though - he's literally fought every single one of them at one point or another, so he knows that's true - and one doesn't usually go and fight S-ranks from other countries unless they want to start a war, but even then, the ones he's shaken hands with - Liu Zhigang aside - all had less mana than he does.

 

He's never fought an S-rank who could match him. He's never fought an S-rank who could defeat him.

 

And he finds that he… he wants to keep that.

 

He wants to fight Sung Jin-Woo again, wants to see how this Hunter fares against his katana, wants to see how far he can push him before he snaps and pushes back, wants to see what he's still hiding because Ryuji is certain he hasn't seen even half of what Sung can do.

 

(And perhaps too, he wants to see how far Sung can push him before he breaks or he dies, because… well, logically speaking, he shouldn't have been able to pull that skill out of his ass the way he had. He's never heard of anyone able to produce an actual magic skill on the fly like that. But he also hadn't had time to really think it through, to think about how impossible it was; he'd simply thought the mechanics of it could work and then did it, and he'd pulled it off, somehow, clumsy and inadequate, but with the potential to exist. So he wants to see what else Sung can pull out of him when he's forced to fight at his very best, because if Ryuji is anything at all, it's that he's a really sore loser. He might break in the process, or he might die, but he absolutely will not yield.)

 

The excitement from their fight is still simmering under his skin even now, a low-grade burn he can’t quite quell. He knows he wants this in a way he has rarely ever wanted anything. And what he wants, he has always pursued.

 

There will be more chances to become a National Level Hunter, and his country doesn’t truly need the extra source of income from South Korea, even if it would boost Japan’s standing on an international scale to even greater heights. The Association won't be happy, but since when has Ryuji ever cared about that? He’d gone along with what they wanted because it aligned with his own ambitions, but now that he’s found something more interesting, their plans will just have to be scrapped.

 

"…Fine," He says at last, wishing his guild wasn't so damn obvious with their shock. "After the raid." He pauses. "You'll be joining of course?"

 

Because it occurs to him that he hasn’t heard so much as a whisper of Sung Jin-Woo at all since the joint raid was proposed, not until today. And what kind of country wouldn’t ask their best Hunter to at least sit in on the negotiations once or twice, especially with Ryuji on the other side of the table? He’d figured that was Go Gun-Hee, but with Sung’s Reawakening…

 

Well, whatever the reason, with Sung on the raid, it shouldn’t drag on too much. The faster they sweep that island clean, the sooner Ryuji can get another fight. Also, he only has an allotted amount of vacation time, so to speak. He and his guild do need to get back home before the month is out, so if the raid takes too long, he won’t be able to stay in South Korea for anything except to wrap up business.

 

Sung listens to the translation, then - for some reason - glances over his shoulder at Go Gun-Hee. The KHA's Chairman has been watching their exchange carefully all this while - Ryuji suspects the man can understand Japanese just fine - but at this, he visibly perks up, looking hopeful, if subtly so, and Ryuji gets the sudden sense that maybe Sung hadn't been planning to join the Jeju Island raid team after all.

 

…Good god, the ants would probably wipe out the rest of the Korean S-ranks without him there. Ryuji almost regrets changing his mind. Almost. Too late now. And he supposes it is in bad taste to backstab the country that the Hunter who’s caught his attention is from, even if Sung wouldn’t ever find out about it. Also stupid, considering said Hunter’s strength. Even without the promise of another fight of this calibre, Ryuji would’ve told Matsumoto to back off. Messing around with a country that now finally has its own top-tier S-rank isn’t conducive to one’s long-term wellbeing. In this, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

 

Sung murmurs something to Go Gun-Hee, and the relief that spreads amongst all the Koreans is almost palpable. His answer is obvious even before he turns back to Ryuji and nods.

 

That's that then. Ryuji's going to have to spend the rest of his evening making a few very annoying phone calls though. After a shower, a change of clothes, and some food. He's not dealing with Matsumoto's complaints on anything less than a full stomach. But just thinking about it sours his mood.

 

He glances back at his guild. "We're done here. Time to go."

 

The obligatory parting words are conveyed, Ryuji gets Hanekawa to offer his thanks to Go Gun-Hee for opening the gym for them today, and a few of his guild members who'd participated in one of the spars even drift forward to mime a challenge (Tawata) or some kind of appreciation (Tanaka) to the Korean S-ranks now that they know they can afford to be a little friendlier. Ryuji doesn't care so long as they mind their manners and don't cause trouble in a foreign country.

 

His gaze falls to his left hand where a bruise has formed from when Sung grabbed him. It aches when he flexes it, but nothing's broken, and he still has full mobility. Should be fine by tomorrow. He glances at Sung again as he waits for them to finish up. The other Hunter is… also standing back, although Shimizu has approached him and is currently half-growling, half-hand-gesturing her ire at him, much to Sung's visibly nonplussed mien. He's patient enough to indulge her though, or at least stand still and let her rant, which is more or less what Shimizu wants anyway.

 

But he seems to sense Ryuji watching him again because he glances up a moment later, eyebrows going up in question, a trace of his mana glinting in his eyes. Ryuji… doesn't actually want anything else from him right this moment, but the power this man gives off is… terribly distracting.

 

Because even now, Sung's mana feels a bit like fog, cloaking the entire gym under a shroud of darkness. Ryuji doesn't understand how nobody else seems to notice it. Not even Kei, not exactly, despite how he's discreetly positioned himself just a few feet away from Sung and has actually taken his mask off in public for the first time since Ryuji met him, looking equal parts bewildered, incredulous, and delighted.

 

…If Sung's not careful, he might get himself kidnapped back to Japan. Is there really that much of a difference between their mana and Sung's? Why though? It can't just be that he's strong; Kei met Liu Zhigang once, in passing, when their guilds had been attending the same conference - he'd gagged and then made his excuses for the nearest restroom.

 

Ryuji had the brief thought - when Sung had first shown up and Hanekawa had told him he was a Mage-class Hunter - that maybe South Korea was hiding the man's skills on purpose. But maybe it's not South Korea that's hiding them. Maybe it's Sung himself.

 

Ryuji doesn't know why. While no Hunter worth their power would show off everything they're capable of, there aren't many who wouldn't at least flaunt some kind of specialty to push themselves into the spotlight, and loudly enough to catch the world's eye if they think themselves strong enough. Sung seems to be the opposite. Ryuji would've walked away today with nothing more than the knowledge that the Koreans have a new S-rank Mage with the agility of an Assassin if Shimizu hadn't suggested a second match. And then nothing beyond his summons and perhaps a mind for strategy if Ryuji hadn't requested a third, and even then, Sung had only offered enough to make Ryuji wonder if it was possible for someone to obtain the abilities of more than one class.

 

And no matter what he showed, it was always quiet. There's nothing flashy about the way Sung fights, except maybe the colour of his mana, and in that, he's exactly like an Assassin. No chants for his summons, no unnecessary fanfare accompanying his attacks, and of course not even footsteps when he moves. More than capable and more than willing to dole out his fair share of destruction, but the way he goes about it is… contradictorily restrained.

 

It doesn't really matter in the end of course. Sung is interested in more fights between them, so Ryuji will have ample opportunity to reveal all his secrets, one by one.

 

It's too bad South Korea got him. If Sung was Japanese…

 

Actually, that reminds him.

 

He looks back at Sung, whose gaze Ryuji has been very aware of since the other Hunter hasn’t looked away even once after their eyes met earlier. Ryuji can't help smirking a bit even as he motions for Hanekawa to come with him as he walks over to Sung.

 

Everybody notices. For all that they seem oblivious to the density of Sung's mana around them, everybody's been keeping at least half an eye on the man since his spar with Ryuji ended, and doubly so now that Ryuji's approaching him again. Shimizu stops talking. Kei puts his mask back on. There's a sense of tense expectation in the air, as if they think another fight is about to break out.

 

If Sung notices, he pays them no mind. Neither does Ryuji.

 

"I hear," Ryuji says instead. "That Hunter Sung Jin-Woo has not joined any guild in South Korea."

 

Hanekawa translates. Sung doesn't react beyond a slow blink in Ryuji's direction.

 

Ryuji's smirk widens a touch. He knows it's a bit rude, but-

 

"If you ever decide to move to Japan," He continues, even as half the Korean S-ranks seem to guess his intention and their faces go black with outrage, while the other half are quickly catching on. "The Draw Sword Guild will have an opening waiting for you."

 

As one, the Koreans' metaphorical hackles all rise like they've been personally insulted, and there's a hard look on Go Gun-Hee's face that may or may not make things a bit difficult for Matsumoto. But Ryuji has to get his fun in somewhere, and it's not like he doesn't mean it. It's just-

 

Sung huffs a laugh and shakes his head, a knowing gleam entering his eyes even as he refuses, as Ryuji knew he would.

 

In this, Sung Jin-Woo is exactly like him. There is nothing that any guild in the world can offer him that could possibly entice him to join them, not if it means he would have to answer to someone else.

 

It's a bit rude, but Ryuji knew Sung would never say yes anyway.

 

Pity. Sung deserves more than South Korea can give him.

 

"Then, my guild will take our leave for the day," Ryuji says brusquely. He nods at Sung. "I will see you at the raid."

 

Sung nods back, acknowledgement and farewell in one. Ryuji nods once more at Go Gun-Hee, perfunctory and just within the range that etiquette dictates, and then he gestures for his guild to follow as he makes his way out of the gym.

 

The sun is already halfway below the horizon line, but the evening breeze is comfortable as they make their way back to the hotel their guild is staying at. Ryuji reaches up and presses fingers into his twinging shoulder muscles. His entire back is probably black and blue by now, but at least he's stopped bleeding.

 

It was one hell of a fight. He can't wait to do it again.

 

"Goto-san?" Minoru falls into step beside him, wearing an apprehensive frown.

 

Ryuji drops his hand and glances at him. "Hm?"

 

"…Are you really okay?" Minoru finally blurts out. "I mean that guy- You were going easy on him, right?"

 

Half his guild is going to get eyestrain with how hard they're looking at him while pretending they aren't. The other half is listening just as hard.

 

Ryuji snorts, and yeah, yeah it's infuriating, because goddamn it he lost, and he hates losing. And yet…

 

"Did it seem like I was going easy on him?" He asks, vaguely interested in the answer. What did their fight look like to an outsider? Could their eyes even keep up?

 

Minoru stares at him the way he used to whenever Ryuji quizzed him before a test back when he was a kid, as if every question was a trick. And here Ryuji thought he would've grown out of it by now. They're only distantly related, with a good ten years between them, but their parents were close, so they saw each other a lot growing up.

 

"It seemed like you were having fun," Minoru says at last, turning to look ahead again as the hotel comes into view. "I've never seen you like that in a fight before. Not even inside a Dungeon."

 

Ryuji says nothing. What can he say? He did have fun, even if there was a moment at the end when he was certain he was going to die. Maybe even then.

 

He'd lost, and some part of him still wants to kill Sung Jin-Woo for that humiliation. His first defeat at the hands of an S-rank came from a brat who's probably half Ryuji's age, with a fraction of his tenure, and it rankles.

 

But a much bigger part of him - the part that remembers the thrill of fighting someone who neither needed nor wanted him to hold back, the part that can feel the sting of his own bruises and recall the ones he'd left on his opponent, the part that can't forget the ghost of Sung Jin-Woo's hands on him, relentless and immovable - that part can't bring itself to regret the loss at all.

 

Ryuji still wants to kill him, but he thinks Sung doesn’t actually mind. They’d both been having fun, after all.

 

They reach the hotel steps. The top floors are reserved for them, but there's still other guests around. They're not too overt about it, but there's stares and whispers all the same as they head inside towards the elevator bank.

 

Ryuji turns to his guild as they wait for the lift to arrive. "We're going with Plan B," He tells them sternly. "I'll sort everything out. You just be ready for the raid." He pauses, glancing at Minoru before turning back to the elevator. "…I wasn't going easy on him. South Korea's tenth S-rank is the real deal."

 

The elevator dings open, and Ryuji motions for half of them to shuffle inside. The second one comes, and Ryuji doesn't have to say anything for most of the rest to pile in, Hanekawa included, leaving Minoru with him to wait for a third.

 

The doors close.

 

"Were you serious about inviting him to our guild?" Minoru asks as they watch the floor numbers descend.

 

Ryuji shrugs. "It wouldn't hurt. But it doesn't matter since he'd never join."

 

Minoru scowls. "Because he thinks he's stronger than you?"

 

Ryuji frowns at his jacket and absently folds it up to hide the bloodstains. There's no other guild members around, and no one else within hearing range. "…You know he's stronger than me, Minoru."

 

It's a bitter admission.

 

Minoru huffs indignantly. "You don't know that. You didn't have your sword."

 

Ryuji glances over this time, more than a little exasperated and reluctantly just a touch amused. "Minoru."

 

Minoru deflates. "Fine. Still. The Draw Sword Guild is better than any guild Sung could find in South Korea, and you're still one of the best Hunters in the world."

 

Ryuji scoffs a short laugh as the third elevator finally arrives. "He wouldn't join another guild even if Liu Zhigang or Thomas Andre personally came and begged him. It wouldn't matter whether the guild master was stronger or weaker than him." The doors slide shut behind them before starting its ascent. Ryuji tips his head back and feels the burn of deep bruising roll down his back. "That guy… wasn't made to bow."

 

Which would make it that much more satisfying if Ryuji manages it one day. He wants to, feels the itch of it in his fingers, in his teeth, in his blood. He wants to know what it's like to put all his skill and reflex and instinct on the line and claw a victory from the grasp of the strongest monster he's ever drawn blood from, the only one who's managed to overpower him and make it look fucking easy.

 

That's why the Association can take their schemes and shove it. It's one thing to become a National Level Hunter by using South Korea as a stepping stone when it was just their seven remaining S-ranks in play - Ryuji knows there isn't a single one amongst them that he can't beat, so letting the chimera ants get them out of the way wouldn't be a big deal. But it's another thing entirely to take that title when Sung Jin-Woo exists. Even if Ryuji succeeds, he'll always know - there was still one man he couldn't defeat on his way to the top, he'd simply been lucky enough to avoid the necessity of a confrontation, and becoming a National Level Hunter like that would only make him a fraud, even if the world never realizes it. And that's something Ryuji can never accept.

 

He has his pride. He wants to stand at the top of the world with the best of the best, but once he's there, he has to be able to say that he earned it, and have the strength to back it up. It doesn't count if he only gets there because he managed to avoid the biggest obstacle in his way.

 

"Well," Minoru says when they reach the top floor, drawing Ryuji back out of his thoughts. "This is fine too, isn't it? An alliance with South Korea - now that they have Sung, they'll probably make a pretty decent ally. With China as high-and-mighty as ever but practically our next-door neighbour, it's better to make nice with this country before China catches on and sticks their nose in too."

 

Ryuji hums his agreement as they step out into the hall. Even a country made arrogant by the possession of its very own National Level 7-star Hunter wouldn't be able to resist going after Sung if they find out about him. Then again, they might not. There's a reason China has no foreign Hunters within its borders. To them, Liu Zhigang in particular and their many other high-starred Hunters in general have always been enough, so they might just as easily dismiss Sung out of hand.

 

Either way, an alliance with Korea isn't bad; with Sung around, it isn't even a consolation prize. Plus they'll be making plenty of money from the raid.

 

Now he just has to talk the Association around to it. He can feel a headache coming on already.

 

"I need a shower," Ryuji says abruptly. He’s sweated through his undershirt, and there’s blood caked in his hair. He’s come out of A-rank Dungeons less dishevelled. "You and the others can eat wherever, but order room service for me. I have work to do."

 

"Yes, sir," Minoru nods, and then tacks on, "Get some rest too, Nii-san. If the Association won't shut up, you can just sic Sugimoto-san on them."

 

Ryuji snorts, waves a hand over his shoulder, and heads for his room.

 

Shower first, then call Sugimoto while he eats. He'll give Matsumoto an hour afterwards, and if the man's still not satisfied, Ryuji can transfer him to Sugimoto while he gets started on the backlog of paperwork his vice will have no doubt sent over already.

 

It’s going to be a long night, but at least it won’t be as excruciating as he’d first thought.

 


 

Back at the gym, as soon as the doors swing shut and the Japanese Hunters’ footsteps can no longer be heard, Hae-In bursts out, "Sung Jin-Woo hunter-nim, you- you won't move to Japan, right?"

 

She wouldn't normally ask. What he does with his life, for his career, isn't any of her business, even if no country in their right mind would want to let a Hunter of Sung Jin-Woo's calibre go, and he'd already said no anyway. Except-

 

Sung Jin-Woo turns to face her. There's still a faint half-smile on his lips, and his eyes are bright with more than just mana.

 

She has never seen him look this happy before, not even when he was solo-raiding an A-rank Dungeon. There's an almost sated air about him, like he's eaten his fill for the first time in his life.

 

"Hm?" Sung Jin-Woo's smile fades, replaced by something more perplexed. "Of course not. He was joking anyway."

 

Was he? How could he tell? She couldn't tell! Goto Ryuji looked completely serious to her. Also laughing at their expense, but still serious. What guild out there wouldn't be serious about acquiring a powerful Hunter? And he'd completely bypassed the Association too. It would be a pretty big faux-pas in any other setting, but with a tentative alliance between them, in the middle of a warm-up practice session, it could be taken more casually. Still rude though.

 

"Yeah," Sung Jin-Woo nods, but he doesn't explain. Instead, he turns back to the door, and he doesn't smile again but his eyes positively gleam with something like challenge and something like glee, both underscored by a familiar thirst for battle that she's seen in her own guild master from time to time.

 

"That guy lives up to his reputation," Sung Jin-Woo remarks, and it's the first time she's heard him volunteer his opinion about anything. His hands move to fold up what's left of his coat, but it's distracted at best, mind clearly still on Goto Ryuji. Another smile pulls at his lips like he can't help himself. "That fight… was really fun."

 

Fun, huh?

 

She's not the only one who glances over at the rest of the gym, at the gouge marks in the floor and the dents in the walls and the broken fragments of metal and concrete scattered all over the place, some still trickling from the ceiling. It looks like a warzone. It looks like two people had done their level best to kill each other with extreme prejudice. The amount of killing intent during the fight had been insane. The power they'd radiated had been enough to make the A-ranks' legs buckle.

 

"I thought he was seriously trying to kill you," Hae-In admits. Especially that last attack, when even Goto Ryuji's guild members had started looking nervous. She'd been about to cut in with Baek Yoon-Ho before those summons had stopped her.

 

"Oh he was," Sung Jin-Woo assures, and Hae-In stares wide-eyed at him because he sounds completely fine with that. "He wouldn't have been able to touch me if he hadn't come at me like that."

 

It would sound like egotistical nonsense from anyone else, but… well, the results speak for themselves, don't they? Goto Ryuji was the one who lost. It was a spar, sure, but could a spar at that level still be considered as such?

 

She watches as Sung Jin-Woo reaches up and rubs a hand over the mottled bruise splayed along his jaw, already almost healed. He looks… pleased, of all things.

 

"He's very strong," Sung Jin-Woo murmurs, then finally seems to remember exactly where he is and whose company he's in because his expression smooths over, all excess emotions tucked away again, and his usual aloof indifference returns like a well-worn mask.

 

Is it any wonder Hae-In thinks he might leave with the Japanese contingent? She's not so delusional that she isn't fully aware by now that there's no Hunter in South Korea capable of standing on equal ground with Sung Jin-Woo, and maybe Goto Ryuji can't either, but that man obviously has something going for him, even if Hae-In doesn't quite understand what it could be.

 

Goto Ryuji just tried to kill his opponent in a spar. Most people would take exception to that, wouldn't they?

 

Sung Jin-Woo looks at her again, then at Baek Yoon-Ho. "Sorry about the summons," He offers, looking vaguely awkward about it. "I just really wanted to finish that fight."

 

Hae-In startles before hastily waving her hands. "Oh, um, no- They didn't do anything."

 

It had been a surprise, and there's just something naturally intimidating about the way they rise from the ground like silent phantoms, but all they'd done was stand in the way.

 

"It's fine," Baek Yoon-Ho says gruffly. There's still a few streaks of white in his hair, and he's studying Sung Jin-Woo with an expression more thoughtful than Hae-In's ever seen on him. "Good fights shouldn't be interrupted." A sudden fanged grin crosses his features. "To be honest, I was just trying to stop you in case you slipped and killed Goto Ryuji. He's still the one who has to lead the Japanese Hunters in a few days. There's no way we'd be able to take responsibility if he accidentally ends up dead in our country."

 

Sung Jin-Woo blinks at that, before glancing around as well like he's only just noticing the devastation he and Goto Ryuji had wrought. "…I guess it did get a bit out of hand." He admits. "But it ended fine, and I don't think Goto Ryuji minded too much either."

 

"That surprised me actually," Choi Jong-In remarks. "I didn't think he was the type to take a loss that well, especially in front of so many people outside of his guild."

 

"Well?" Sung Jin-Woo looks mildly taken aback, if only for a moment. "He was pretty angry about it though."

 

At that, Baek Yoon-Ho barks out a laugh, Lim Tae-Gyu and Ma Dong-Wook exchange a smile that's more rueful than anything else, and even Go Gun-Hee releases a faintly aggrieved sigh. For once, Hae-In can tell that Sung Jin-Woo is exactly as confused as she is.

 

"If that had been someone like Hwang Dong-Su or Thomas Andre or even Liu Zhigang you'd just put through the floor," Choi Jong-In tells them dryly. "This gym wouldn't even exist anymore, and there'd probably be injured bystanders at best and casualties at worst. S-ranks have a temper, but especially high-level S-ranks. All those rumours you hear about them destroying buildings or killing people because they took offense to something someone said or did? Most of the time, those aren't rumours." He glances at his fellow guild masters before adding, "Losing an S-rank to America weakened our country's standing, but at the same time, I don't think anybody who knew him here was that upset to see the back of Hwang Dong-Su. Goto Ryuji's reaction was positively tame in comparison."

 

Sung Jin-Woo absorbs this information in silence. To Hae-In, he still doesn't look like he fully understands, but all he does in the end is shrug in response. Hae-In inspects his expression for a moment longer before asking carefully, "You're not worried about Goto Ryuji being angry at you though?"

 

Maybe that man isn't as strong as Sung Jin-Woo, although she heard he fights best with a sword. But he also has more political pull than Sung Jin-Woo, so he could make trouble for him that way if he felt spiteful enough.

 

"Worried?" Sung Jin-Woo smirks at her, and Hae-In feels her cheeks go warm. Ugh. He shakes his head. "The angrier he is, the more effort he'll put into our next spar. I'm looking forward to it." He pauses and rubs at his jaw again. "He said he uses a sword. I hope he brings that next time. That last skill he used was pretty neat. I want to see what he can do with it when he has his weapon on him."

 

…And there he goes again. Hae-In has never heard so many words from this man all at once.

 

"That was actually kind of weird," Lim Tae-Gyu suddenly interjects, scratching his head. "I didn't know you could just… twist a skill like that."

 

Sung Jin-Woo blinks at him. "What do you mean?"

 

Lim Tae-Gyu looks slightly disconcerted at being addressed so directly, or maybe at the question itself because the answer should be obvious, but when Sung Jin-Woo's expression doesn't change, the Reapers' guild master expounds, "If you're a high enough rank - occasionally C-rank, but usually starting at B-rank - you would Awaken with a set list of skills you can learn. Uh, how should I put this… it's not something that's a literal list that's just randomly dumped in your head one day, but you can sort of get a sense for what you can do and even what they're called, and if you work long enough at it, it would become a proper skill, and skills are always stronger than just flinging unstructured magic around. More power, more control, less mana output, so on and so forth. Not counting mana enhancement of course; that's a whole other thing. You and Goto Ryuji both seem to prefer that one though, since you spent most of your match chasing each other around with your mana. But stuff like… Master Choi over here can tell you - his fire spells are a lot more powerful than if he just drew his mana out in the form of a fireball or something and threw it at his opponent, even if both are technically fire magic. That's something you'd usually only see from lower-ranking Mages. Obviously, the higher your rank, the more skills you'd be capable of learning."

 

He lifts a hand, mana glimmering around his fingers. "What Goto Ryuji did though was really weird. For example, one of my most basic skills is Arrow Rain." He flicks his wrist, and a shower of pale blue arrows arches from his fingertips before raining down again at the far side of the gym, eliciting startled cries from the other Hunters still in the room. "I could… picture it? In my mind when I first started, then I practiced it enough times to perfect it, and it became a set skill in my arsenal. Way better than if I just shot a bunch of arrows at the same time. But, this is the only way I could do it." He frowns a little, flexing his fingers. "I have a similar skill that I use in conjunction with my bow, but I wouldn't have the first clue how I'd go about combining this particular skill with my weapon, or use any of the skills I'd need my bow for, without it. I don't know how Goto Ryuji managed it."

 

He stops there and peers at Sung Jin-Woo. "How come you don't know this? You're an S-rank now. Don't you sense this sort of thing? You have so many summoning spells."

 

Sung Jin-Woo frowns and looks away. He doesn't quite fidget but there's an uncomfortable slant to his shoulders now. "…Kind of. I didn't know it was like that. Thanks for telling me."

 

Now it's Lim Tae-Gyu's turn to look a little awkward. It's like being thanked by an adult for explaining the basics of multiplication. "You'd have figured it out sooner or later anyway. It's no trouble."

 

Sometimes, Hae-In forgets that Sung Jin-Woo used to be a E-rank Hunter. It's almost unbelievable, really. Completely unheard of for a Hunter to jump so many ranks upon Reawakening - she herself had only risen from an A-rank to an S-rank - but she'd looked up the little information that was publicly available on Sung Jin-Woo, and he'd not just been an E-rank, he'd been, by all accounts, one of the weakest E-ranks the world had ever seen.

 

And yet, even for an average E-rank, Sung Jin-Woo had gone on a lot of raids. More than that, he'd survived a lot raids. She knows B-ranks who don't have as much Dungeon experience as he does. Everything about him just… doesn't add up, or at least he doesn't align with any kind of normal she's familiar with. And the more she learns about him, the more questions she has.

 

She's not going to find out anymore today though, no with the way Sung Jin-Woo seems to retreat into himself without ever actually moving, clearly ready for this whole conversation to be over.

 

"I guess that's it for today then," He says, looking out at the gym once more before inclining his head at the Chairman. "I apologize for the damage to the gym, Chairman."

 

Go Gun-Hee waves a dismissive hand. "It's a little worse than I expected, but you can't have this many S-ranks in a room and not be prepared to redecorate." He smiles, and it's a fonder expression than Hae-In expects. "You gave me something good to watch. It was a wonderful match."

 

Sung Jin-Woo doesn't react beyond a single blink, but something in his face eases a little even as he continues watching the Chairman like he knows he's not finished.

 

And indeed, Go Gun-Hee's countenance sobers. "About the Jeju Island raid, you are truly willing to join this operation?"

 

To be honest, it had never even occurred to Hae-In that there was a possibility of Sung Jin-Woo not joining.

 

Sung Jin-Woo's features shutter slightly but he nods. "I said I would. But…"

 

Go Gun-Hee straightens. "All Hunters raiding the island will receive a cut of the profit once the mana crystals and monster corpses have been collected and processed. But any additional terms of payment you wish for, the Association will of course do its best to meet."

 

That's a slightly differently line than the rest of them got - each participating guild with a member who will be stepping foot on the island has been promised an equal share of 50% of the remaining mana crystals and monster corpses after Japan gets their half of the whole - but Hae-In can see why. She'd watched the first three raids on live TV; she'd had nightmares about it for days afterwards. And while she knows - intellectually - that the Draw Sword Guild is strong, probably plenty strong enough to clear Jeju Island on their own if push came to shove, she'd still feel… safer if Sung jin-Woo came along.

 

He'd cleared a high-level, A-rank Dungeon all on his own. He'd beaten Goto Ryuji. Being on a team with him would be… very reassuring, and their chances of surviving the raid would be that much better. She's sure Go Gun-Hee is thinking the same thing. She's also sure that if Sung Jin-Woo asks for the same cut of profit that the major guilds have been guaranteed, the Chairman will agree to it on the spot even with four guild masters watching on.

 

However, Sung Jin-Woo shakes his head. "I don't care about that. Just… will the list of Hunters participating on the raid be announced to the public?"

 

Hae-In can practically feel the bafflement buzzing between them all.

 

"Yes," Go Gun-Hee says slowly. "It will probably be released by tonight."

 

Sung Jin-Woo's expression tightens. "Is it alright if you could hold it off? Just until tomorrow."

 

…What an odd request. Hae-In doesn't get this person at all.

 

Go Gun-Hee blinks, obviously as puzzled as everyone else. "We can do that, of course, but is there a particular reason…?"

 

Sung Jin-Woo sighs. "…I don't want my mom hearing about it on the news. If you could hold off until tomorrow, I'll have time to talk to her tonight." He pauses, then admits almost too quietly for even them to hear, "She doesn't know I'm a Hunter. I need to talk to her first."

 

…There's someone in this country who doesn't know Sung Jin-Woo is their tenth S-rank Hunter? And his own mother at that? That's… unexpected, to put it mildly.

 

But in contrast, Go Gun-Hee's features settle into one of gentle understanding. "Ah, I see. Of course. I'll make sure the list won't be released until morning. Would that be enough time?"

 

Sung Jin-Woo nods. "Thank you."

 

"No," Go Gun-Hee refutes solemnly. "Thank you, Sung Jin-Woo hunter-nim. I will send you the briefing once I get back to my office. We look forward to your participation."

 

Sung Jin-Woo nods once more, nods at the rest of them, and then - clearly not one to waste time on drawn-out goodbyes - he turns and strides away. Hae-In sees him push open one of the gym doors, and then he's simply gone before it even starts swinging shut again.

 

In his wake, "His mother doesn't know?" Ma Dong-Wook asks in mystified tones that match the rest of the group's expressions.

 

"There were extenuating circumstances," Go Gun-Hee replies vaguely, which might as well be a bright neon sign telling them to shut up. They all obediently move on.

 

"Well, there are still preparations to make," Choi Jong-In says. "We'll be leaving as well, Chairman."

 

They all bow out after that, but the atmosphere is lighter as they go.

 

Korea has Sung Jin-Woo now, along with ten Japanese S-ranks willing to help, and the rest of them are no slouch.

 

The fourth Jeju Island Reclamation Raid - they'll finally get it right.

 


 

[4 Days Later, 4th Jeju Island Reclamation Raid]

 

Whoever suggested starting this operation at seven-thirty in the morning should be - in Ryuji’s generous opinion - stood up and shot. He’s been awake since five, dealing with his guild since five-thirty, and coordinating with the Koreans since five-fifty-two. Now it’s seven-thirty-six AM and he and his guild are standing on the tarmac beside the helicopter that will fly them in, and the day hasn’t gotten any better.

 

Several dozen feet away, a second helicopter is waiting for the Korean Hunters to assemble. They’ll fly in only after Ryuji’s guild has been dropped off, but a few of them have yet to arrive, probably still giving last-minute instructions to their respective guilds on the ships.

 

So long as they’re here by eight sharp, Ryuji doesn’t care, but there’s something about the whole situation that’s making him almost antsy anyway.

 

…And now he’s just punned. Fantastic.

 

Maybe it’s the lack of coffee getting to him. It can’t be pre-mission jitters - he hasn’t gotten those, ever. His guild’s even been relatively well-behaved, if a little too relaxed for his liking, but they're like that most of the time, and he's given up on reprimanding them for it - it's on their heads if they die. The weather looks good for a raid too. And there've been no major problems with the operation so far.

 

He looks towards the island in the far distance. He can sense the ants even from here, if faintly, a swarm of muted activity that hasn’t changed since Ryuji got within range. Nothing stands out. Everything is proceeding as it should be.

 

Ryuji scowls, double-checking his katana and gloves. Everything is fine. He just… can’t shake the uneasy feeling in his gut.

 

He looks up again for something to distract him, counting the heads of his own guild for the third time before looking over at the Koreans to do the same. Choi Jong-In and Cha Hae-In have finally arrived, leaping from ship to ship before landing on the deck of theirs.

 

Sung Jin-Woo is the only one missing now.

 

It is 7:44 AM.

 

Sung Jin-Woo is not there, and then he is. That unique swirling chill of mana Ryuji couldn't forget even if he wanted to enters his awareness, swift and unexpected, and his gaze snaps up in time to spot a large creature flying towards them from the coast.

 

It's a dragon. Wyvern to be exact. As big as the frigate they're standing on - that becomes clear enough once it's practically on top of them. Height-wise, it never comes within three hundred feet, but the gusts of wind from the flap of its wings still sweep across the deck like the advent of a storm. It's the signature black and blue-white of Sung Jin-Woo's summons, and even as Ryuji watches, it simply disperses midair, and Sung himself drops onto the ship, light-footed as always and completely heedless of the gawking stares he's getting.

 

He's also… not wearing any kind of armour or other protective gear, and there's no weapons on him that Ryuji can see, although maybe he just doesn't use any. He's in a simple shirt and pants though, with another baggy coat thrown over it, long enough to fall below his knees, and none of it is in the least bit appropriate for a raid, especially an S-rank Dungeon Break. He's wearing sneakers, for god's sakes, the same pair he'd been wearing four days ago, scuffed with regular usage. If someone told Ryuji this guy was just going down to the convenience store to pick up a snack, he'd believe them. He can't decide if Sung is just this confident in his own strength or he just doesn't know any better. Even Ryuji's guild members are partially armoured and wearing uniforms designed to protect them from the elements, with some minor defensive properties woven into the fabric.

 

Sung doesn't join his fellow S-ranks right away, glancing around instead with a focused intent that has Ryuji following his line of sight. He's looking at each Hunter… no, at their legs? At their feet? For reasons unknown, but he doesn't miss anyone, going through every Korean Hunter like he's counting them, even that cameraman who'll be tagging along with the Korean team, ludicrous as that seems to Ryuji. Then he does the same for Ryuji's guild, all ten of them, and he doesn't stop until he reaches Ryuji himself, finally lifting his gaze again to meet Ryuji's own.

 

The moment stretches, seconds long, and Ryuji can feel an echo of that same electric thrill from their spar snap between them, can feel the heat of it in his blood. Sung's eyes flash with mana like he can sense it too, but before either of them can decide how to respond - or not respond, considering this is no time for a fight between Hunters to break out, and Ryuji has more discipline than that - Shimizu jumps in, and before he can stop her, she's already made her way over to Sung, poking at his arm like that's any way to treat an S-rank from another country. Ryuji doesn't need his Hunters to act deferential or even particularly respectful, but surely basic decorum isn't too much to ask for? They're trying to ally with South Korea now, not antagonize them. Too much.

 

Sung just blinks at her though, finally looking away from Ryuji again.

 

"Why aren't you wearing any armour?" Shimizu demands. Ryuji wonders if she's genuinely forgotten Sung doesn't understand Japanese. "Does your Association not pay you enough so you can't afford it?"

 

Ryuji closes his eyes and counts down from ten. "Minoru."

 

"On it," Minoru sighs, hurrying forward to drag Shimizu away before she can say anything worse, and she goes, complaining the whole way.

 

She's not usually that… much, to outsiders, and Ryuji's pretty sure she's not trying to start an incident. But she normally reserves her taunts for guild members and stays silent around everyone else, so it's strange to see her brasher side here. Strange and headache-inducing, and they don't need that before a raid.

 

Someone from the Korean contingent finally comes over to hustle Sung back to their group, and Ryuji figures that's that.

 

It is 7:52 AM. They'll all see each other again only after the raid is over.

 

He stands and turns to his guild, most of them already angled towards the helicopter. "We're up first. Let's go."

 

He frowns as he takes his seat.

 

The uneasy feeling in his gut is still there.

 


 

As promised, all ten Japanese S-ranks flare their mana at four different points around the island, and the ants come pouring out of their nest in droves.

 

Just the sight of them makes Byung-Gyu's hands shake. Shake even more. God, what is he doing here?

 

Oh yeah, because Yoon-Ho is a stubborn ass, and Byung-Gyu can't let him come back to this godforsaken place alone.

 

There's seventeen S-ranks on this mission though, he thinks as he takes a deep breath and gets to his feet to join the others at the rear hatch of the helicopter. If even seventeen S-ranks can't clear this Dungeon Break, there's no hope for South Korea.

 

It would've been sixteen, but their newest…

 

He glances sidelong at Sung Jin-Woo, who's leaning against one wall of the aircraft with his hands shoved in his pockets, watching the fiery spectacle outside as Choi Jong-In does what he does best. He's young, around Cha Hae-In's age probably, but with only a few months of experience as an S-rank. He doesn't seem at all anxious though.

 

…Mostly, he looks bored.

 

Well, this close, even Byung-Gyu can feel the massive amount of mana Sung Jin-Woo possesses. And Yoon-Ho had told him in private earlier that they wouldn't have to worry so much with Sung Jin-Woo on their team. Byung-Gyu's not quite sure how to take that. It's rare for Yoon-Ho to so readily put his faith in someone else's strength.

 

He doesn't have time to think about it further before Choi Jong-In calls out the all-clear.

 

Byung-Gyu takes another deep breath. And then he jumps.

 


 

The Japanese Hunters had promised an hour of drawing aggro for them.

 

Killing the Ant Queen takes fifteen minutes. If that. Ten of those minutes were spent walking through the maze-like tunnels to find the boss. It's nowhere near the race against time they'd planned for, and Byung-Gyu can only watch in stunned astonishment as a couple dozen summons race off in every direction to exterminate any ants still in the cave, while Choi Jong-In leads them straight to the Queen's chamber. They stumble on the breeding grounds and meet the royal guards before that, but Sung Jin-Woo simply summons a knight clad in black armour and shadows and wielding a longsword that releases a crackling storm of lightning with every swing - definitely an S-rank weapon - and it tears through two of the Ant Queen's guards like they're made of paper before diving into the breeding grounds to reduce the eggs to ash.

 

Sung Jin-Woo himself takes on the other eighteen guards, moving almost too quickly for Byung-Gyu to follow as he forces them back from blocking the entrance to the Queen's sanctum, leaving afterimages of himself and the flash of two daggers in his wake.

 

"I'll deal with them," He says, the first time he's spoken since they hit the island. He beheads one with almost casual ease before crushing its arms and legs as well, and then bisects another when it tries to ambush him from behind. "Get the Queen."

 

"We'll leave this to you then!" Yoon-Ho shouts, his grin already edging into feral as his beast transformation begins to take over, and he and the rest of the team surge forward to confront the Ant Queen.

 

Byung-Gyu hesitates, wondering if he should toss a few buffs Sung Jin-Woo's way, but… the guy obviously doesn't need them. He should prioritize. The others probably need him more, especially with Yoon-Ho's tendency to rush in headfirst.

 

The cameraman likewise dithers a little, camera trained on Sung Jin-Woo, panned out to capture the way he's absolutely massacring some of the strongest monsters Byung-Gyu has ever come across.

 

"You don't have to worry," Yoon-Ho had told him, full of a certainty Byung-Gyu hadn't understood at the time. "This raid won't end the way the other three did. Trust me."

 

This is why, Byung-Gyu thinks, staring for a moment longer as Sung Jin-Woo kills ant after ant like they're D-rank monsters. Then he gives himself a shake and drops a defense buff on the cameraman. "Come on, I'm pretty sure the audience will want to see the end of the boss monster."

 

"Oh! Yes of course!" The cameraman races after him, camera at the ready even as Byung-Gyu casts an array of buffs ahead for the rest of the team.

 

For the first time since his return to Jeju Island, even as the Queen screeches at them and attacks, his hands finally stop shaking.

 


 

Fifteen minutes, and it's over. That last ear-piercing cry the Queen had let out before they could finish her off had been concerning, but nothing had happened, and she now lays dead at their feet, her corpse cooling in a pool of her own blood.

 

"Is it over?" Cha Hae-In asks breathlessly, shaking the blood from her blade.

 

It should be. The boss is dead so-

 

And then Sung Jin-Woo appears, so quickly it's as if he teleported.

 

"What was that?" He demands, urgently enough that the rest of them are on instant high alert. He rakes an eye over the dead Queen. "Did she call for it?"

 

"What do you-" Lim Tae-Gyu starts, only for Yoon-Ho to cut him off even as Choi Jong-In's head jerks up to stare at something above them.

 

"The ants are coming back!" Yoon-Ho snarls. "Hey, I thought the Japanese Hunters were keeping them occupied? They couldn't even do that for fifteen minutes? We took way less time than planned!"

 

"That's not the problem," Sung Jin-Woo interjects, also looking up in the same direction Choi Jong-In is facing. "There's something else on this island. Something really strong. And it's coming this way."

 

"He's right," Choi Jong-In says grimly. "We have to go. My Flame Net has been breached. We have to go now-"

 

A heavy miasmic wave of mana slams down on them all as something walks out of the darkness of one of the tunnels. Byung-Gyu chokes on his next breath as he stares at the thing - tall and humanoid, with an armoured body and clawed hands and wings on its back.

 

"What the fuck?" Yoon-Ho breathes, just as the new ant monster screams, the terrifying pressure doubles, and a veritable cloud of smaller ants rush into the cave behind it, all geared to attack.

 

Sung Jin-Woo is the only to react, the only one able to react. He hurtles forward, flipping through the air and mowing down the first line of ants trying to blitz them, but that's about all Byung-Gyu manages to see before the giant ant - the Ant King? Is this the thing that hatched from that huge egg? - attacks.

 

Cha Hae-In gags, stumbling back a step, but that proves to be a mistake. The ant disappears from sight, and a fraction of a second later, it’s behind her. One of its hands slam into her, shredding through her waist, and then she's being thrown backwards, slamming into the far wall of the chamber before dropping to the ground, unmoving.

 

Someone shouts, but it's gone again, and it takes out Ma Dong-Wook next, ripping both his arms and one of his legs off in the blink of an eye before moving on to Baek Yoon-Ho and Choi Jong-In and then even Lim Tae-Gyu who's desperately firing off arrows from the rear. The ant just catches them all before punching Lim Tae-Gyu and sending him clean across the room into another wall with a nasty crunch of rock and broken bones.

 

Byung-Gyu swears viciously under his breath and gets to work, frantically casting healing spell after healing spell at all his teammates, regrowing limbs and repairing bones, pausing only long enough to cast Camouflage on himself. He can't fall here; the others still need him. He checks on Cha Hae-In - too many internal injuries to heal all at once, bone fragments in the blood, fuck, but she's still breathing at least, and then Yoon-Ho and Choi Jong-In are getting stabbed again so he has to heal them first. He doesn't even know where the cameraman has gotten to at this point, if he's fainted or not, just that he's somewhere behind Byung-Gyu, and if he has any sense at all, he'll stay there.

 

High above them, Sung Jin-Woo is still keeping all the other ants at bay. Byung-Gyu catches him glancing back down at them before he's lost again in a throng of chittering insects.

 

That's fine. Byung-Gyu has more than enough stamina for as many heals as necessary. It doesn't look like the swarm is giving Sung Jin-Woo much trouble - there's just a lot of them - so if the others can hold on just long enough for Sung Jin-Woo to finish, then maybe-

 

Byung-Gyu freezes. The Ant King is looking at him, but that's impossible. He's not moving at all. No monster should be able to find him. Unless-

 

I'm going to die, he thinks dimly, just as the Ant King vanishes, and he knows even before he senses it that the monster is right behind him.

 

" BYUNG-GYU!!" Yoon-Ho roars, his panicked terror clear.

 

And then-

 

The shadow under Byung-Gyu - the shadow he's casting in the light of Choi Jong-In's flames - writhes, and a bear of all things rises from its depths, sending Byung-Gyu sprawling across the floor right before it takes the Ant King's clawed hand straight through the stomach.

 

It dispels in a burst of shadows, only to reform almost instantaneously, bellowing a war cry before barrelling into the Ant King with all its sizable bulk behind it.

 

"Byung-Gyu!" Yoon-Ho is at his side in the next heartbeat, helping him up, patting him down, words both frantic and a little distorted by his beast form. "Are you alright? Are you hurt?"

 

"Y- Yeah, I mean no, I mean I'm fine," Byung-Gyu stutters out, teeth chattering from the close brush with death. Jesus fucking Christ, he's pretty sure he just had ten years taken off his life and he's used up all the luck he's been allotted for the next three lifetimes.

 

He pulls himself together - he's still an S-rank, damn it, traumatized or not - and looks around. Out of the shadows, more creatures appear, soldiers, more bears, one that looks like a High Orc, another knight that screams Tanker, and in the next moment, Byung-Gyu and the others are surrounded.

 

Sung Jin-Woo lands in a crouch, just a few feet away. He's splattered with purple blood but there's not a scratch on him, and over their heads, white lightning jumps and leaps through the shrieking army of ants as the knight from before takes over for its master and begins dispatching them.

 

"Are you alright?" Sung Jin-Woo asks, and it takes a second for Byung-Gyu to realize he's talking to him.

 

"I'm fine," He forces himself to stand, Yoon-Ho still hovering beside him. "I- Thank you. These summons are all yours, right?"

 

Who the hell even has this many summons? He's pretty sure there's not even any below B-rank, a few are A-rank, and that High Orc one is definitely S-rank. And they just keep reviving every time they die? How is that even possible?

 

Not that Byung-Gyu's complaining of course.

 

Sung Jin-Woo nods, then looks at his summons even as he points at Byung-Gyu and the other S-ranks. "Protect the humans. Everything else in these tunnels - you can kill them all."

 

The summons launch into battle, and those with visible faces even grin. They're no match for the Ant King though; their only saving grace is the fact that they always regenerate after they're killed, so they basically dogpile the Ant King to stall it. But there are also more ants spilling in from the various tunnels so there's no shortage of enemies to pick from.

 

"Take care of Cha hunter-nim, and focus on the other ants," Sung Jin-Woo tells them, already turning away, a dagger in each hand. "I'll deal with the big one."

 

No one argues. Considering none of them had landed so much as a single blow on the thing, they can only hope Sung Jin-Woo will be able to take it down.

 

No wonder the Ant Queen's mana levels dropped so drastically. An S-rank monster creating an S-rank monster - it's the first time Byung-Gyu has heard of something like this.

 

Sung Jin-Woo takes a step forward, then stops again. They all do. Because somewhere beyond this nest, far out in the open space of the rest of the island, someone is flaring their mana in clear challenge, a burst of power equivalent to a red flag waved in the face of a bull, loud and unmistakeable, and the Ant King zeroes in on it in much the same way, head snapping in its direction like a dog on a scent.

 

"Is that Goto Ryuji?" Ma Dong-Wook asks, limping closer. "What is he doing?"

 

The Ant King guts the Tanker summon when it lunges, and then it's gone, taking off into the air in obvious pursuit of that mana signature. Some of the soldier ants weave almost drunkenly through the air as well, like they don't know whether to stay or give chase again, especially when nine other mana signatures - weaker than Goto's but still a conspicuous taunt for the monsters - erupt once more up and down along the length of the island one by one.

 

All around them, ants begin to take flight again. Not all of them, not even half, but some of them go, even as others resume divebombing the Hunters in their midst. The summons take care of the first wave - that lightning sword is really useful - and those that slip past are swiftly cut down by Sung Jin-Woo. A minority of the ants don't do either, simply hovering in the air like they suddenly forgot how to do anything else.

 

"The Japanese Hunters must be trying to draw them back out for us," Choi Jong-In concludes with a hint of surprise, absently snapping out a whip of fire that scorches through five ants gone stationary with indecision. "But that Ant King - can even that Goto Ryuji-"

 

"I'm going," Sung Jin-Woo says abruptly, and in the next second, shadows surge up from the ground, swallowing him whole, and when they dissolve again, a soldier summon has taken his place, one that immediately starts fighting as well. Sung Jin-Woo is nowhere in sight. Even his mana signature is gone, just like that.

 

"Let's not waste time," Yoon-Ho growls in the aftermath. "The strongest Hunter will take care of the strongest monster. We just need to clean out this nest."

 

A murmur of agreement sweeps through the group as they rally once more, and they branch off in different directions once Byung-Gyu has tagged them with a bunch of buffs again. With Sung Jin-Woo's summons still around to help, pushing back the ants is much easier despite being temporarily trapped in the Queen's chamber.

 

Byung-Gyu spares a moment to check on the cameraman - still alive and still recording, lucky man, though very shaken - before hurrying over to Cha Hae-In. Critical condition, but nothing he can't heal now that he has the breathing room.

 

Maybe they really will make it out of this alive after all.

 


 

[Two Minutes Ago]

 

It's been easy so far. A little too easy, so when Sugimoto tells him that all the ants are heading back to the nest despite the fact that they're only fourteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds into the operation and the interference wave is still in effect, Ryuji knows something has gone horribly wrong.

 

I hate gut feelings, he seethes even as he checks in with all the teams. All alive, all accounted for, but everyone reports that the ants have just up and left.

 

Are they connected to the Queen even more deeply than they'd thought? Does something happening to her automatically call them back instead of needing a direct command?

 

If they were still going with the old plan, then this would probably be the point where the Draw Sword Guild withdrew. It's an unexpected development, much earlier than even the plan dictated, but they're free and clear, not a single ant left to delay them, and they haven't even stopped the jamming signals yet - the ants overrode it somehow and left all on their own.

 

But they're not going with that plan anymore, and no matter what's happening inside that nest right now, the fact of the matter is the Draw Sword Guild is failing to do their job. They're supposed to keep the ants off the Korean team for an hour; it's not even been a quarter that. What does that even look like?

 

It fucking looks like my guild is incompetent, Ryuji thinks darkly, and then calls it in. "All teams release your mana again in thirty seconds. We'll just lure them back out." He switches channels. "Sugimoto-san, the Korean team is being broadcasted live, right? Turn on the news and tell me what the hell is happening in there."

 

There shouldn't be any trouble. Sung Jin-Woo is in there. Honestly, seventeen S-ranks on this mission should've been overkill, S-rank Dungeon Break or not.

 

He tunes back into the team comms. "I'll go first. The rest of you stagger in order in five-second intervals."

 

A chorus of affirmatives answer him, and Ryuji turns to glance at Minoru and Ishida, who both nod back.

 

Right then. Let's see just what secrets this island is hiding.

 

Ryuji turns back to stare up at the ant nest. And then he flares his mana once more, pushing it as high as he possibly can.

 

Surely that should be enough to attract-

 

Ryuji freezes as a bone-deep chill sweeps over him, and the only reason he sees it coming at all is because he happens to be facing the direction it comes from. He gets a glimpse of something large and black hurtling towards him, and then he's kicking Ishida to the ground - too close to him, practically right behind - and yanking his katana up just in time to deflect a killing blow as it tears past him, right through the space where Ishida had been standing, too quick for even his eyes to perceive.

 

He's only faced off against one person with speed like this, and he's suddenly very grateful for the experience.

 

"Minoru, Ishida, get back!" He barks, swinging around as the creature - is that a goddamn ant what the fuck this was not in the briefing - veers back for a second attempt. Ryuji flicks a look at his blade. There's a crack in it. Shit, this sword is S-grade. "You two get outta here. Leave this to me. Rendezvous with the Bravo team, deal with the other ants. Go."

 

"But-!"

 

"You're in my way," He snarls, not taking his eyes off the ant, all his senses honed in on it. " Leave."

 

And then he has no more time for them as the monster attacks once more, lunging at him through the air at frightening speeds.

 

His katana won't take another blow like the first one.

 

Ryuji grits his teeth, slices his palm - right through the glove - along the blade, and activates Crimson Blade. The metal of the sword collapses into liquid, and Ryuji dodges at the last moment, more on instinct than anything else, and lets his katana follow, the new whip-like blade slashing through the air and scoring a deep laceration into the monster ant's shoulder.

 

The screech Ryuji gets in response is almost deafening, but he doesn't let that slow him down as he dives behind a tree, just in time to avoid the ant's third sweep. Ryuji hits the ground, rolls to his feet, and sends his katana out again, the length of it snaking through the air, fast as a striking cobra and just managing to catch the ant's ankle before it can get out of range.

 

Ryuji braces himself, tightens his grip, and then hurls the monster straight back the way it came from, only letting it go when his blade can't stretch any further, and then watching as it crashes through three trees before the side of a cliff face stops its impromptu flight.

 

Unfortunately, there's no way that killed it.

 

His shoulder stings, and when he glances down, he finds blood soaking into his uniform. Damn. Guess he didn't avoid that third attack as well as he thought.

 

A shower of dust and rubble drags his attention back up, and he retreats further into the copse of trees around him, hoping that might buy him a bit of cover. His katana has reverted back to metal, and there are more cracks in it now - it'll be able to handle one more skill, but it'll shatter immediately after.

 

The ant stands up. Its red eyes glare straight at him, its mana thrashing angrily against his own, and it feels like claws reaching for his throat. It feels like death.

 

Ryuji bares his teeth in a facsimile of a grin as he readies himself. He's certain of one thing now - the weight of Sung Jin-Woo's mana was heavier than this.

 

The ant shrieks and dashes towards him. Ryuji raises his katana just as the monster slams into it.

 

The blade snaps. Ryuji can almost taste the ant's triumph.

 

Firefly Blade.

 

And the rest of the sword shatters into countless fragments even as Ryuji leaps out of the way. The pieces embed themselves into the ant's exoskeleton just as pain explodes in Ryuji's chest and he's flung headlong into another tree.

 

But the damage is done, and somewhere behind him, the ant screams as all the sword fragments simultaneously detonate.

 

It's not enough though. Ryuji's head spins from where he's slumped on the ground, wheezing through who knows how many broken ribs and probably a punctured lung even as more blood gushes out through the puncture wounds in his chest.

 

What a fucking monster, Ryuji thinks with a detached sort of morbid amusement as a shadow falls over him.

 

He blinks.

 

Shadow.

 

It flickers in his peripheral. He's pretty sure his shadow isn't supposed to move like that.

 

The ant - burned in places, its shoulder still sluggishly leaking blood - stares down at him. And then its clawed hand comes down for the killing blow.

 

The next second, Sung Jin-Woo appears out of nowhere - appears out of Ryuji's shadow - and catches the ant's wrist just before it can finish Ryuji off. Half a blink later, the thing is gone, sent flying with a punch so hard Ryuji can feel the echo of the impact from where he is.

 

Rapid Korean spills from Sung's mouth as he drops to a crouch beside Ryuji. He pulls a vial of red liquid out of… is that spatial magic? Sung says something again as one of his hands curl around the back of Ryuji's neck to support his head. It's clear he wants Ryuji to drink it.

 

"Healing potion," Sung finally says, this time in English, and for fuck's sake, this brat knew English all along?

 

Ryuji grimaces and manages a jerky nod, and then he's swallowing the thing, along with the copper tang of his own blood. It doesn't really taste like anything, but the effect is near instantaneous. His breathing clears as his organs and bones mend themselves, and a second potion knits his shoulder injury and even the cut on his hand back together again.

 

Why the hell has he never heard of an item like this? Has South Korea been hiding it? No, that can't be right. Any country with half a brain would share it with the world. They'd just also never share where they got it or how they made it, and they'd share it for a price. The money and offers they'd receive for it would make them a giant on the global scale even without a National Level Hunter.

 

So it can't be South Korea. Then it must be something unique to Sung Jin-Woo. Of course it is.

 

"I'm going to go kill the ant," Sung says once Ryuji is sitting up under his own power.

 

A part of Ryuji immediately bristles. Sung says it so easily, about a monster Ryuji knows he himself can't defeat, even if he has his whole guild behind him and swords to spare, as if its death at Sung's hands is a done deal. It's infuriating. Even more so because Ryuji knows it's true.

 

But he breathes through it and focuses on what's important. The strongest Hunter takes lead when confronted with a boss monster like that ant. And that's not Ryuji this time.

 

He nods instead and prioritizes. "Is your team alive?"

 

Sung makes an affirmative noise. "They're fine. My summons are helping them, but they're still in the Ant Queen's chamber."

 

Ryuji nods again. "I'll coordinate with my guild and we'll start making our way to the nest."

 

The Koreans can clean it out from the inside, the Draw Sword Guild will press in from the outside, and they'll meet in the middle with that many more ants dead.

 

Sung nods back, and then glances over his shoulder. Shadow-like mana flickers over his shoulders, curls through his hair, dances across his face, and Ryuji finds himself staring.

 

He averts his eyes. He doesn’t need to ask to know what’s caught Sung’s attention; he can feel the ant’s mana coming back just as well.

 

“Go,” Ryuji tells him with a tired sort of irritation, and with one last unreadable look at Ryuji, Sung disappears in a rush of mana, racing off to confront the ant. The clash of power when they crash into each other ripples out across the entirety of the island like a shockwave.

 

In his wake, Ryuji lets his head tilt back against the trunk of the tree behind him, and he gives himself a moment of quiet, a moment to enjoy being alive.

 

He would’ve died today if Sung hadn’t arrived in time to save him.

 

To save him. Ryuji can’t remember the last time he had to be saved.

 

“I’m weaker than I thought,” He murmurs out loud, cynical and self-deprecating. He’s alone, so it’s fine. Just for a moment.

 

Then he heaves a sigh and gets back to work. There’s been an incessant beeping in his ear since halfway through his battle with the ant, and he finally answers it just to hear his vice cursing him out, “-to Ryuji, if you don’t answer this comm right now you inconsiderate bastard so help me-”

 

“I’m here, what do you want?” Ryuji cuts him off as he hauls himself to his feet. His mana levels are somewhat depleted, but they're recovering quickly enough, and all his physical injuries have been healed.

 

There’s a beat of silence before Sugimoto snaps back, “Your head on a platter would be nice but I suppose I’ll settle for an update. What happened?”

 

Ah, Ryuji must’ve really worried him. Whatever was happening in the ant nest must’ve been bad.

 

He quickly summarizes his fight in a few clipped sentences before asking, “Did you check in with the others? And what happened in the nest?”

 

“Everyone’s alive. They’ll be glad to know you are too. As for the nest…”

 

Sugimoto trails off for a moment, long enough to make Ryuji frown.

 

“You told me he was strong,” Sugimoto says at last. “But I didn’t expect… To be honest, Goto-san, from what I saw in the playback, Sung probably could’ve raided that whole nest on his own and come out perfectly fine.”

 

Well, that’s not that surprising, not to Ryuji, not anymore.

 

“I lost count of the number of summons he called up,” Sugimoto continues as Ryuji toes at the remains of his katana - just a broken hilt now. It was his favourite weapon too; how disappointing. “Well over a hundred. And his best summons are at least A-rank, possibly S-rank. And then there’s… Goto-san, I thought you said he was a Mage? I mean he has summoning magic but-”

 

“-but he fights like an Assassin, I know,” Ryuji says. He probably should've mentioned that. “Did he take down the Ant Queen?”

 

“No, he left that to the other Korean Hunters. But he took care of her personal guards. All twenty of them. It was… You’d have to watch it, I can’t describe it.”

 

Ryuji can’t even say he doesn’t want to. He’ll watch it once the raid is over. “Then what else?”

 

He finally gets an explanation for why the ants had suddenly returned to the nest, including the Ant King and how it was birthed. Apparently, the thing had been away from the Queen as well, hiding its presence and most likely stalking Ryuji's guild like prey. If the Koreans had taken any longer in reaching the Queen and pushing her to the point of calling for help, it probably would've started taking heads, and Ryuji is under no illusions about how well the rest of his guild would’ve fared against that monster.

 

As it was, the Ant King and the soldier ants had just about done the Korean team in anyway, would've if Sung Jin-Woo hadn't been in their numbers. Nobody had been killed, although their S-rank Healer had apparently had to work overtime and had almost died himself, and then Ryuji had gone and released his mana, and the Ant King had left to hunt him down.

 

…Maybe he shouldn't have done that after all. It seems largely pointless now if Sung had been about to take care of the monster anyway, which is annoying. Ah well, too late to change anything at this point.

 

"Sung left almost immediately after it," Sugimoto finishes. "I don't know what kind of skill it was but he just disappeared in a bunch of shadows."

 

Ryuji pauses and glances down at his feet, at his shadow, remembers the way Sung had done the same back at the ship, for all of them. Some kind of teleportation then? And it seems pretty limitless if all he needs is a… connection of some sort with another person's shadow.

 

What a versatile bastard.

 

"I didn't know if he managed to catch up to that monster," Sugimoto adds quietly. "Hoshino was a bit… distraught when he reported in. Ishida wasn't much better. And you weren't answering your comm. I thought something had happened."

 

Ryuji grunts. "I was just busy, obviously."

 

"Yes, obviously," Sugimoto sighs. "Alright, I won't nag anymore. What do you want to do now?"

 

Ryuji checks the time. It's almost unbelievable that barely five minutes have passed between the ants returning to the nest and now. It feels like it's been far longer.

 

A rumbling explosion erupts in the distance. Ryuji can already feel the ant's mana signature weakening. In contrast, Sung's mana is only rising.

 

Ryuji walks out of the forest area and narrows his eyes at the ant nest. He can faintly sense the Korean team, still fighting. "I'll contact the rest of the guild. We'll start making our way to the nest and rendezvous with the Korean team. I know the plan was to kill the Queen, and then leave and wait for all the other ants to die, but since it's come to this, we might as well just wipe them all out at once."

 

"Understood. I'll let the Association know."

 

The line cuts off, and Ryuji patches into the team comms. "All teams, respond."

 

There's a burst of static and relieved exclamations, but they pipe down again almost as quickly without Ryuji needing to remind them.

 

"Bravo is alive," Tawata says briskly. "With the rest of Alpha."

 

"Charlie is alive," Fujishimi follows.

 

"Delta is alive," Izawa confirms, and then, "Sugimoto-san filled us in about the Ant King and Sung Jin-Woo. Is that them fighting right now on the north side?"

 

"Yes," Ryuji says tersely. "Don't engage. We're going to make our way to the nest and join up with the Korean Hunters. Make sure you kill any ants you see along the way. Minoru, Ishida, stay with Bravo. I'll come to you."

 

A string of acknowledgements answer him, from everyone instead of just the team leaders. Ryuji rolls his eyes but lets it go. He straightens his uniform as best he can instead - this one will have to be binned too - and then sets off towards the ant nest at a steady clip.

 

A group of soldier ants appear over the treeline, making a beeline towards him, claws outstretched.

 

Ryuji strips his gloves off and gathers mana to his hands.

 

He lost to the Ant King, and while frustrating, it was still at least an S-rank monster practically designed to hunt Hunters, but these small-fries? It doesn't matter what phase of evolution they are - if he loses to them too, he wouldn't be able to show his face in Japan ever again.

 

He leaps into the air and tears through them - crushing heads, arms, and legs - and then he's moving on before they even hit the ground.

 

This raid is getting tiresome, and Ryuji's about had it with these ants. It's much better to just kill everything in sight.

 


 

Four hours later, two-thirds of the island is a graveyard of ant corpses. Sung Jin-Woo has long since killed the Ant King, so there's nothing else around that the S-ranks on Jeju Island can't deal with so long as they're careful.

 

Still, Ryuji can tell his guild is flagging. The Korean Hunters too, and the last thing they need right now is a mistake that might get someone killed.

 

He looks up at the sky. Three and a half hours ago, he'd watched Sung wade his way into a sea of corpses, wreathed in shadows and eyes gleaming with barely contained fae-light, looking every inch like something eldritch and powerful. And then he'd held out a hand and said a single word that - even though Ryuji had had to ask Sugimoto for its meaning later - had resonated with so much power that just being in the vicinity had made it difficult to breathe.

 

"Arise, " Sung had said, and out of the corpses, shadow creatures in the form of those very same ants had risen at his command.

 

Ryuji had known then, had seen the evidence for himself a second time when the ghostly shade of the Ant King itself had appeared and bent the knee to Sung before taking off to murder its way through the ant colonies still darkening the skies and attempting to leave the island.

 

Ryuji had known then. Sung Jin-Woo doesn't have summoning magic, or at least not the traditional kind. Sung Jin-Woo's magic ability is power over the dead.

 

And by what Ryuji has seen today, Sung already had an army, even before the addition of the ant troops. How? Ryuji had double-checked after leaving the gym that day - Sung Jin-Woo was officially re-evaluated as an S-rank less than two weeks ago. Even if he'd kept it hidden for a while, it can't have been that long. Where did he get so many monsters? When did he kill so many monsters? Even if he'd been raiding nonstop since his Reawakening, it seems beyond the realm of possibility.

 

And yet here they are, four hours later, and Sung and his summons are still going strong. Even Ryuji would like to take a breather, but he stubbornly pushes on because the work's not done. His guild though…

 

It started to rain three hours ago, a far cry from the nice weather this morning.

 

He glances up again upon hearing the rumbling growl of that dragon Sung had resummoned to help with the cleanup. The man in question leaps from its back when it passes over their area, and the dragon flies on, carving another line of blue flame through the flying ants.

 

Sung doesn't waste time, just comes right over to Ryuji. He's soaked to the bone and stained with fresh ant blood, although the rain is quickly taking care of most of the latter.

 

"The Korean team will be heading back to the mainland now," Sung tells him succinctly, in English. "A helicopter is prepping to come pick them up. If any of your guild members also wish to go, there is room. But if you want your side to send anything to you, they can also do that before the helicopter takes off."

 

Ryuji considers that for a moment, glancing over his shoulder at where most of his Hunters are resting. Kumamoto's about hit his limit, mentally if not physically. Kei's looking grey around the edges after four hours of nonstop exposure to so many high-level monsters. Tanaka used up too much energy at the beginning so he's been slowing down, and Shimizu stopped using her axe and fell back to support as of an hour ago. All of them could do with some food in them. They'll keep going if Ryuji tells them to, but the situation isn't so urgent that that's necessary.

 

He turns back to Sung and nods curtly. "I'll send them all back." He looks the other Hunter over. "You're not leaving though, are you?"

 

Sung blinks, then gestures around them. "It's not over yet."

 

No, it's not. And Ryuji's never liked leaving a job unfinished either if he can help it.

 

"I'll contact my vice and get a few things sent out," Ryuji says. "Tell your chopper to wait ten minutes."

 

Sung nods and pulls out his own phone, and they both step away from each other to make their calls.

 

"Send me my backup katana," Ryuji tells Sugimoto after relaying the latest development. "And a towel and a change of clothes." He hesitates, flicking a look at Sung. Then he sighs. "Two towels, and two changes of clothes, one in Sung's size. You have ten minutes before the chopper leaves."

 

Ryuji's favourite thing about his vice-guild master is the fact that he never asks needless questions. "No problem."

 

That done, Ryuji strides over to his guild. "Pack up and head over to join the Korean team. You're going back."

 

"All of us?" Tawata frowns, looking ready to object. "I'm still good to go."

 

Several of the others open their mouths, no doubt to add their protests. Ryuji does not have the patience for any of it. "It's not necessary. Go back, get some rest, and if there are still ants to kill afterwards, you can come back."

 

He glares them into obedience before nodding. "If the helicopter arrives before I get there, just drop off my sword and clothes before you leave."

 

"You're not coming with us?" Shimizu demands.

 

"Job's not done," Ryuji says simply. He's the guild master, and the face of Japan. Even if it's not necessary, there are some things that still need doing.

 

Besides, no way is he going to bed when Sung is still fighting.

 

He makes his way back over to Sung when he sees that the other Hunter has hung up. Sung turns, arching an eyebrow in question.

 

"I'm staying too," Ryuji informs him, pausing a beat to gauge Sung's expression. The Hunter doesn't so much as blink, waiting for Ryuji to continue. He expected it then. Good. "A lot of the remaining ants are just trying to hide now. It would be more efficient if we each start at a different point on the coast, and then sweep inland from there."

 

He stops there, giving Sung an expectant look. He knows this Hunter has a head for strategy.

 

Sung seems to mull that over for a few seconds before gesturing at the sky. "My flying summons are doing fine; they'll take care of any ants still in the air so there's no need to waste energy on that. But on the ground, it's a good idea. Even better if we can form a net and close it around them." He pauses, watching Ryuji carefully. "I have four boss summons capable of leading their own armies. You can take one end of the island, I'll take the other, and I can spread my summons out on either side between us."

 

Reasonable enough. Ryuji nods briskly. "I have a map. Come take a look."

 

They spend the next five minutes under the dubious shelter of some tree branches with a map spread out between them. Sung, as it turns out, isn't terribly familiar with the island's geography. Ryuji, forced to sit through far too many meetings about this raid, knows it well enough to at least outline the places - mostly abandoned urban areas with sewer systems and other underground locations - where the ants will no doubt have taken refuge in at this point. They've swept most of the forests already, their nest is an empty husk still being patrolled by Sung's soldier summons, and any attempts to leave the island only end in death for them. There's nowhere else they can hide.

 

Sung listens attentively as Ryuji gives him a rundown of the layout of each town and city, quite a few that can be difficult to get into even, what with the deteriorated infrastructure everywhere. The younger Hunter doesn't seem to need it explained to him more than once, thankfully, and Ryuji is wrapping up just as the helicopter soars overhead and lands in a clearing not too far away from their location. His guild's already gone to meet it.

 

He and Sung agree on where they'd each start their sweep on the coastline, and then they head over as well, in time to see the other Hunters off.

 

Minoru hands him his sword and a whole duffel bag too heavy to just contain clothes. For god's sakes, Sugimoto.

 

There's food and water, because of course there is, but there's also enough to feed two S-rank Hunters.

 

Ryuji scowls, waits until the helicopter has taken off, and then stalks over to where Sung is instructing his summons. That does give Ryuji a bit of pause.

 

Two knights, an Ice Bear, and a High Orc. Igris, Iron, Tank, and Tusk, if Ryuji has heard correctly, and very close to S-rank, if not S-rank already. And that bear… it feels stronger than even just four days ago.

 

He wonders if all these summons can get stronger over time.

 

He wonders what that says about their master.

 

A Hunter who can continuously grow stronger… But that's impossible, isn't it?

 

Ryuji shunts that thought to the back of his mind. He can brood over it later.

 

Instead, he takes his sword and his half of the bag's contents - neatly packaged and labelled with his initials even, because his vice is meticulous like that - before thrusting the rest at Sung. Sung stares at it, then at Ryuji.

 

"Supplies," Ryuji says irritably. "My vice prepared extra. Use them or not; it's up to you."

 

Sung stares for a moment longer, like he knows perfectly well that the Draw Sword Guild's vice-master wouldn't randomly offer food and clothing if the guild master hadn't given his say-so. Ryuji glares back.

 

Sung's mouth twitches, and his hands finally come up to take the bag. Ryuji scoffs and busies himself with wrestling out of his shirt and coat. There's no chance of saving either.

 

When he turns around again, absently peeling back the wrapper of a bread roll, he stops dead upon catching sight of what Sung has changed into.

 

It makes sense for Sugimoto to send a fresh set of the guild's raid uniform to Ryuji, seeing as Ryuji is the guild master.

 

In what universe does it make sense to send the same thing to Sung Jin-Woo?

 

Ryuji thanks every deity in existence that that cameraman is already gone. No money in the world would be worth the migraine of putting up with the questions and demands and interrogation that would no doubt come his way from the Association, the government, and all of South Korea if they saw Sung Jin-Woo dressed in the Draw Sword Guild's colours.

 

Sugimoto clearly has too much time on his hands. Ryuji will have to fix that when they get home.

 

"It's light," Sung remarks, looking surprised as he tugs at the coat.

 

"Of course it's light," Ryuji grumbles as he goes back to eating. His gaze slides back to take in the other Hunter again. It's not a bad fit. At least Sugimoto got the size right, and Sung seems to prefer dark colours anyway. "I don't make a habit of forcing my Hunters to carry extra weight on raids."

 

Sung hums thoughtfully and says nothing more, taking a seat on a nearby rock instead and starting on his food as well.

 

The silence is surprisingly comfortable. But then, Sung was very obviously not a chatterbox from the beginning, and Ryuji is the same way. And when neither party expects the other to talk, or even cares if the other does expect it, the pressure of striking up conversation simply doesn't exist. The steady drizzle of rain provides a nice enough background anyway.

 

Ryuji takes a few minutes to scroll through his phone, checking articles and social media. Japan's news is happily singing his guild praises despite the fact that none of them have been filmed much - something one of the Korean Hunters said has made them out to be very decent allies because apparently they'd "put their lives on the line to lure the Ant King away from the Korean team" - but South Korea's news is of course focused on their own Hunters, and of those Hunters, Sung Jin-Woo is headlining almost every newscast.

 

One of the youngest S-ranks to ever exist, Reawakened from E-rank to S-rank only very recently, and then his feats on Jeju Island - even if not all of them - were clearly broadcasted to the rest of the world. And while the cameraman hadn't managed to capture Sung's fight against the Ant King, people still got to see how powerful that monster was, and it's common knowledge by now, just who defeated it.

 

Sung will earn a lot of goodwill and a lot of status with this raid. And a lot of offers of employment from other countries too.

 

Ryuji switches over to a video clip of Sung's fight against the Queen's guards, and… yeah, he can see why Sugimoto had found it difficult to explain. If he hadn't already fought Sung himself, Ryuji would find it hard to believe too. A Mage with combat skills like that… and apparently he uses twin shortswords. Ryuji hadn't known that.

 

The clip ends, and he watches it again, at the way the camera can barely keep up, at the ruthlessly economical way Sung deals with his enemies, at that ever-moving sure-footed fighting style that makes it look like gravity doesn't even register, as elegant as it is deadly. And all the while, the shadows writhe around him like living flames.

 

He lowers his phone and looks over at Sung, who's already observing him with mana-lit eyes.

 

"You really like to fight," Sung remarks, finally breaking the silence between them.

 

Ryuji smirks and doesn't bother curbing his own bloodlust. "Don't we all."

 

It's what makes an S-rank after all. And some S-ranks just… take it a step further. Feel it a step further.

 

Sung smirks back, and the light in his eyes shines even brighter for a moment. "When we spar next time, you should bring your sword."

 

Ryuji's eyes narrow. "Only if you bring your shortswords."

 

Sung's smirk widens, too dark for the cameras, too violent for the public, equal parts threat and promise even as living shadows curl over his cheeks like ivy, and Ryuji has to tear his eyes away from the sight before he does something he might regret.

 

"If you're done," He huffs, wrapping up his own meal and getting to his feet. "We have work to do."

 

The assenting noise Sung makes in response sounds a little too much like laughter for Ryuji's tastes, but he supposes that's what he gets when his only decent challenge is - at the end of the day - still an unrepentant brat.

 


 

It's past seven in the evening by the time the two of them can drag themselves back to the mainland, and even Sung Jin-Woo looks ready to turn in for the night. Still in better shape than Ryuji though, and normally, that would piss him off, but at the moment, he mostly just wants a shower and a bed and maybe some real food in-between.

 

On the bright side, every ant on Jeju Island has been exterminated. All in all, the fourth reclamation raid for this S-rank Dungeon Break can be considered an unprecedented success, with not a single casualty to their name.

 

And Ryuji could not possibly care less about that either. He's about ready to drop.

 

The reporters literally parked on the shore waiting for their ship to dock is also a very unwelcome sight. Judging by the stiffness in Sung's expression when he notices them, he is in full agreement.

 

"Can't you teleport?" Ryuji mutters, checking over his state of dress. There's signs of battle, but it's nowhere near as bad as the damage his first uniform took.

 

Sung glances sidelong at him, perhaps wondering how Ryuji knows, but he doesn't bother denying the skill. There's a tired slouch to his frame, more pronounced than his usual casual stance. "Do you want me to teleport you?"

 

Ryuji scowls. "Unfortunately, I can't just ignore the reporters. I'm the head of my guild. I need to at least answer a few questions and be seen on camera for the people back in Japan. The press release can wait though."

 

Sung frowns. And then he pulls out his phone and calls someone. It picks up after two rings.

 

Ryuji still can't understand Korean, but he can recognize Go Gun-Hee's voice. A minute later, Sung hangs up. "Just stay on the ship for a few minutes," He tells Ryuji. "The Chairman's sent the Monitoring Division over; they'll stop the reporters from approaching so you can just walk past them. If they can't ask questions, you don't have to answer any."

 

Ryuji stares at him, then away. It must be nice to have the Association Chairman wrapped around your finger, to the point where he's apparently willing to mobilize an entire division on Sung's request. Why can't Matsumoto be half as accommodating? The only reason Ryuji gets what he wants most of the time is because the man literally can't force him to do anything, but for the sake of public relations and investors and extra funding, even Ryuji has to play nice once in a while. It helps that the Association doesn't usually ask too much of the country's strongest guild, but at the same time, by virtue of being that strongest guild, Ryuji has duties he can't neglect too much to maintain a certain reputation.

 

"You can just leave though," Ryuji reminds him. Sung is South Korea's darling right now, he can afford to be willful, but even if he wasn't, Ryuji's gotten the sense that Sung doesn't much care about other people's opinions.

 

Sung shrugs. "My sister wants to see me on camera. Boasting rights or something."

 

Ryuji snorts, and he'll blame exhaustion for a looser tongue. "Kid sister?"

 

Sung tips a smile at him, and it's startlingly soft. "She's sixteen." His smile turns wry. "Also, when I retested as an S-rank, I ignored the reporters then too and just left. Jin-Ah scolded me for it."

 

Ryuji smirks briefly. It's an entertaining mental image.

 

They're both standing near the side of the ship, so when it pulls in, they're all but blinded by a thousand flashing lights from the cameras, and all previous humour Ryuji felt drains out of him in an instant because it's then that he belatedly remembers - Sung is still wearing his guild's uniform.

 

His first reflex is to tell Sung to take it off, but they're already in full view of the public so there's really no point, and it would probably be worse if these vultures saw Ryuji demanding the jacket back.

 

"What's wrong?" Sung asks, eyes gone sharp and focused.

 

Ryuji glowers. He's not exactly known for smiling anyway, even in front of the cameras. Especially in front of the cameras.

 

"Nothing," He grits out, and anyone else would back off at this point, but Sung also isn't one of his guild members, so all the younger Hunter does is arch an eyebrow. Ryuji releases an annoyed breath. "…I forgot to tell you to take off that jacket. Anyone who knows my guild will recognize that uniform. It's my oversight."

 

Sung blinks, glances down, then shrugs again. "It's fine. Just ignore them." He looks past Ryuji's shoulder. "They're lowering the ramp; let's go."

 

He breezes past Ryuji, entirely unconcerned, and for possibly the first time in his life, Ryuji is rendered speechless, if only for a few seconds, at the sheer level of nonchalance Sung is showing. Does he not realize the implications here? Even someone who doesn't care about public opinion should show a little caution in this situation.

 

Ryuji closes his eyes, then opens them and stalks after Sung. Fuck it. Whatever. He's too fucking tired to care. Fine, Sung wants to just ignore it? Ryuji will too. Don't blame him if the country starts accusing Sung of being a traitor like that other S-rank Hunter Korea lost half a decade back.

 

True to his word though, two lines of suited agents have forced the reporters back far enough to clear a path for both of them to pass by unhindered. Neither of them smiles for the camera or falters in their steps, but they do keep a slow enough pace so that it doesn't look like they're in a hurry. Or at least Ryuji does, and Sung matches his gait and even copies the way Ryuji doesn't let any of the shouting reporters make eye-contact with him.

 

They leave the crowd behind as quickly as possible, and it was far less tedious than Ryuji had braced himself for.

 

"When are you leaving?" Sung asks as they reach the private lot where two cars are waiting to pick the two of them up. Sugimoto's behind the wheel of one of them.

 

Ryuji flips through his mental calendar. "End of the week. Sunday." Any later and the other big guilds in Japan might start getting ideas about Ryuji's territory. "I'll be in meetings at your Association buildings all week. If you want that spar, come find me."

 

Sung gives him an amused look, and they both know that the other knows that even if Sung doesn't, Ryuji will track him down himself. They've both been looking forward to another match too much to give it a pass.

 

But, definitely not tonight.

 

Sung walks with him to his car, pausing for a moment to talk to the driver of the other vehicle. Sung steps back, and the car pulls away from the curb without its designated passenger. Ryuji can guess why.

 

"I'll wash this and return it the next time I see you," Sung promises, gesturing at the uniform he's still wearing.

 

Ryuji nods shortly even as he flicks a glance over Sung again. It really does fit him well, and not just because Sugimoto somehow got his measurements just right in the span of ten minutes. Sung's about Sugimoto's own height after all; it's probably the spare he'd brought along, just in case he needed to join the raid. But that aside, Draw Sword's colours suit him better than Ryuji had expected, all solid black with dark red accents along the hems that look crimson in the right light.

 

Not that he'd ever expected Sung to wear them of course. But maybe he had imagined them on him when he'd made his offer after their spar, however impossible he'd known it was even then.

 

He slants a brief glare at Sugimoto through the car window. Sugimoto of course keeps his gaze pointed straight ahead.

 

Ryuji's always been a little obsessive about the things he considers his - his power, his pride, his guild, his country - all his to keep until he chooses to discard them and not a second before. Sung Jin-Woo is not - still practically a stranger, and after their spar, after the Ant King, after being saved, a part of Ryuji very much wants to make him bleed for the gall - but Ryuji has also never fought anyone like him before, never fought with everything he had and lost and still wanted to go back for more.

 

Sung Jin-Woo is not one of his, nor is he something that even can be kept-- but Ryuji finds himself obsessing anyway, and seeing him in Draw Sword's colours, in Ryuji's colours, makes it difficult to remember why he shouldn't.

 

Ryuji sighs, passes a hand over his face, and then makes the executive decision to just stop thinking about it, at least for today.

 

"I'm leaving," He says abruptly, opening the passenger door and tossing his katana and bag into the back. "Do yourself a favour, brat - you're an S-rank now, so dress like one. I don't know anybody who'd go on a raid dressed like you did today."

 

He makes the mistake of looking at Sung again, and they're standing close enough now for Ryuji to catch every nuance of the minute curl of Sung's lips and the foxfire flare of his eyes and the shroud of mana swirling around him with lazy but watchful intent.

 

"Is that what the clothes were for?" Sung asks, his smile nowhere near as innocent as his voice, his gaze still riveted on Ryuji's face like he's trying to see right through him. "They're more comfortable than I thought, especially this coat. I'd wear it if you let me keep it."

 

Ryuji stares back, wondering if this brat even knows what he's implying, if he's serious at all or if he's just screwing around, and then he decides that it doesn't matter because tired or not, he's had enough of being on the backfoot today.

 

So he steps forward instead of retreating into the car, and Sung doesn't startle but he does blink twice too quickly to pass for calm. He doesn't budge an inch either when Ryuji's hand shoots out to curl around the collar of the coat, but his eyes do flash when Ryuji's thumb presses ever-so-slightly into the hollow of his throat.

 

Ryuji smirks, sharp satisfaction and even sharper hunger surging through him with too much teeth behind it. "Join my guild and I'll buy you a whole wardrobe. Otherwise," He presses harder, Sung's eyes burn hotter, and a fraction of a second later, there's a hand wrapped around his wrist, just tight enough to bruise. Ryuji grins and lets his mana lash out and isn't at all surprised to feel it glance off the unyielding strength of Sung's own power. "Otherwise, give it back."

 

There's a long moment of silence as neither of them moves. Neither of them looks away either, and that same simmering heat from the last time they'd been this close, on the floor of that training gym after the best fight of Ryuji's life, is back.

 

For a moment, Ryuji thinks this time it might really boil over.

 

And then of course, Sugimoto clears his throat, very loudly, and Ryuji is going to fire him or gut him or put him on cleaning duty for the rest of the year for this.

 

Sung blinks and jerks back, letting go, and Ryuji snarls - at himself, at his vice, at Sung Jin-Woo - as he too releases the other Hunter like his hand's been burned.

 

Sung clears his throat, actually managing to get all the way to awkward before the emotion slips back behind his guard. Something feral lingers in his eyes though, something that looks a lot like how Ryuji feels, and Ryuji has to look away before he answers it with his own.

 

"I'll find you later," Sung says, putting another careful foot between them, hands slipping into the coat pockets. He offers a wry smirk this time, coolly distant. "With your uniform."

 

And that's the last thing he says before he disappears in a burst of shadows, not a trace of him left behind.

 

What a convenient skill. Ryuji's almost jealous.

 

He exhales, harsh and frustrated, and then finally climbs into the car, slamming the door after him before shucking his jacket and strategically draping it over his lap. "Sugimoto-san."

 

"You were in public," His vice reminds him in tones that brook no argument even as he starts the car. "And everyone within half a mile could feel both your mana; it was just a matter of time before someone showed up, probably afraid you two were about to kill each other."

 

Ryuji glares viciously out the window at the scenery blurring past. He flexes his wrist and feels the muscles twinge.

 

"…Should've just told him to keep it," Sugimoto advises.

 

"Shut up and drive."

 

Ryuji needs to get out of South Korea. This place is messing with his head.

 

But.

 

One more fight first.

 

At least one more.