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Commensalism

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The schoolyard was empty, students piled inside their classrooms or the halls to avoid the rain. Thunder echoed across the muddy campus, and wind drove sharp needles of raindrops into the prone skin of the three boys tucked away beneath the bleachers. Kai leaned against a metal beam, rubbing the blond tips of his hair between his thumb and forefinger. Takeshi and Haru were quiet, minds distant in the way they tended to be when there was nothing immediate to talk about. The peace was nice when the most distinct sound was the clanging echo of rain against aluminum.

“Someone tell me their lighter didn’t crap out on them,” Haru said suddenly, glancing towards Kai. He was a small, thin framed boy from the year below that started following Kai around after he’d rescued Haru from the local morons on the wrestling team. Kai had, eventually, smiled sheepishly at Takeshi on one of their occasional bouts of class skipping sessions, arriving with a smaller, doe-eyed kid in tow. Takeshi was a patient person.

Kai shrugged, head tilting towards Haru. “It’s wet.”

“Figured that out smartass, now share your magic lighter.” Haru held out his fingers, and Kai chuckled when a gust of wind flipped a stray lock of hair into the other boy’s face. He grumbled, pushing it away before reaching his fingers out towards Kai again, a cigarette poised between two fingers.

Kai flicked the lighter, protecting the flame with his other hand. It lit the paper somehow still dry, and the small puff of smoke confirmed their success. The bleachers provided some cover, enough that this smoke break was feasible, if not a small challenge. Still, they’d sat out here through worse.

“Betcha Takeshi could light one under the ocean,” Haru said, which, to his credit, got Takeshi to glance sideways at him.

“Bet he could light ten,” Kai added, which did actually get Takeshi to lift his brows slightly. Kai still couldn’t quite get how he did it, but the slightest of facial expression could portray oddly specific phrases. In this case, Kai’s inner Takeshi asked, “why the fuck would the number of smokes change anything in that equation?”

Takeshi moved his head slightly, gaze off into the downpour muddying the football field, which was the equivalent to shaking his head in exasperation. Kai crossed his legs, ever grateful to the little patch of pavement that acted as an island in the little sea forming in the dirt around them. Unzipping his bag, Kai tossed Haru a protein bar, warming slightly when the smaller boy’s face lit up.

“Cookie dough, fuck yes,” Haru said, already halfway through ripping the packaging open. A daily ritual between them, the reasoning behind which was never discussed. Kai only needed to see the boy’s ribs outlined beneath paper-thin skin once when Haru was washing his clothes using the shower in the locker room, along with the embarrassed panic that Kai saw it all.

A long, tight hug later, Kai adopted a kid.

“Are you guys coming to the hold tonight?” Haru asked through loud smacks of chewing, though his dark eyes drifted more towards Kai. Takeshi shrugged, which meant he’d rather throw his entire body beneath a snow plow than be dragged out into a social setting.

Shaking his head, Kai offered an apologetic shrug. “Sorry, I’m busy. Got a group project I can’t avoid anymore if I don’t want them to rip my earrings out and shove them in my eyes.”

Haru laughed, and Kai grinned, trying to focus on the slower drips of water from the benches above them. Somehow within ten unfortunate seconds, he was outed to the wrong person about his plans and reluctantly prepared for a very pointed scrutiny.

Kai felt Takeshi’s eyes then, could imagine them sharpening and focusing in on him like crosshairs. It was beyond suspicion — there was the glare of someone who was absolutely, positively sure that Kai was planning something monumentally stupid.

Which, you know, he was.

Lying wasn’t a weakness in Kai. He’d been doing it for years, just by living the way he did. Or, rather, living at all. There was exactly one person who could see through every one of them, and Haru may as well have gleefully screamed, “TAKESHI, KAI IS PLOTTING.”

Complete with sirens and four pointer lasers.

“That so sucks dude. Let me know if you wanna get out early,” Haru was saying, although Kai admittedly only just tuned in to whatever fun evening adventure he’d been talking about as an alternative to schoolwork. Fighting the urge to clear his throat, Kai leaned back and looked up, just as a drip fell from one of the bleachers above. It landed smack in the middle of his forehead, ignoring the way it burned against his skin there.

The school bell rang, and Kai watched Haru not so much as stand, but pop up unto his feet. The boy shouldered his bag up, flashing them a quick peace sign. “See ya later. Text me if you wanna hang this weekend, yeah?” Haru said.

“Yeah, we can probably do something,” Kai answered, refraining from getting up to join the younger boy in leaving. Avoiding Takeshi and his all-knowing gaze was a fool’s act, and that doing so would result in problems later on, he groaned and looked at Takeshi.

“Yeah, okay, quit doing that.” Kai switched the criss-cross position of his legs to shake off the soreness, tapping the edge of his cigarette with a flick so ash fell to the concrete.

“I am not doing anything.” Takeshi met his eyes with a blank look, but Kai was used to the odd lack of emoting going on there.

Given the fact that Kai was being secretive, the intensity with which Takeshi’s shark eyes beheld him was fair. In a way, Takeshi was easier to read than most people. He either liked what what someone was doing or he didn’t, and almost seemed to communicate that with gut feel. And if Takeshi didn’t like it? Kai knew by osmosis.

“The suspicious judgement can stop,” Kai said, because his Displeased Takeshi Osmosis Senses were tingling, and bent his knee to throw a lazy arm over. “I’m not doing anything crazy. I’ll text when I get there if that makes you feel better.”

Takeshi huffed, expression contorting slightly towards something like offended. “I don’t care what you do.”

“Here.” Kai flipped out his phone and shot off a giraffe emoji. “See? Not out of data this time, I can contact you if I need.”

A scoff was his only answer, and Kai grinned brilliantly at him. If Kai needed it, he’d have backup. Unwilling, grumpy backup, sure, but that worked fine for him.

Kai felt his smile wane as the seconds passed watching the rain catch the light, and he wondered if there were windows in the scion containment facilities. He doubted it.

“Giving you the information you asked for wasn’t express permission to jettison your common sense,” Takeshi said.

Kai let out a long, slow breath. “Thanks for helping me.”

Takeshi shrugged, looking out to the tiny rivers forming from the deluge of rain. If it didn’t stop, all the better for Kai to go traversing around the city in loose jeans and a fabric mask. Takeshi didn’t like what Kai was doing, but still helped him. Takeshi explained it once, that he knew Kai was going to romp around the city at night whether Takeshi was involved or not, so he might as well assure that he didn’t get killed doing it.

Crushing the blunt under his sneaker, Kai stood and stretched his arms into the air. His shirt pulled up over his stomach as he yawned. It was starting to get cold, and he really didn’t want to have to ward off the sniffles whilst breaking into a surveilled office building.

After taking a long, lazy drag, Takeshi stared off somewhere past Kai, interest waning. “Get in and out before ten. Security gets there early.”

“Yeah, I’ll try not to die,” Kai said, and winked back, though Takeshi’s patience seemed to have long since withered in trying to deal with a rogue scion lacking a sense of self preservation. Part of that attitude is why Kai so appreciated his company — Takeshi cared, in his own way, but never doubted Kai’s skill and let it go when it was clear he wasn’t changing his plans. Kai prioritized his personal mission, and deviating wasn’t part of it.

His father needed a jailbreak.

There was a pointed silence from behind him as he readied himself to dart through the rain, and when he turned back to wave, Takeshi tossed his cigarette into the mud.

 

***

The rain continued its conquest of the suburban streets, water slowly rising to the curb when the drains filled up. Kai stopped home first, dropping his backpack in a soggy heap on the floor of his room. He didn’t dare open it to see what papers had been hit the worst, but then, he hadn’t really planned on turning them in anyway. It was the principle of the matter — at the very least, his unfinished homework should be clean and properly undone.

He grappled for his smaller black bag under his bed. The words “utility belt” were strictly avoided in his head due to superhero lingo he was absolutely not partaking in, but it did happen to carry his mace, switchblade, and lockpick kit. A complete set for a thief, and Kai claimed one more trait his father had passed down to him.

Kai tightened the loops of the small thigh bag around his waist and buckled it to his leg to keep it in place, donning the black shirt and dark pants required to sneak around like a guilty person. A mask went on next, knot tied tight. The stretchy black skirt his mother folded neatly in a box intended for charity went to a worthier cause, nabbed by an overzealous boy in order to fight crime. Though, he admitted he may need to work on his sewing skills — the eyeholes he cut into the strip of fabric were frayed, held in place only by hand-stitched seams of leftover blue thread. He tried, and he thought he should get points for it.

The arts-and-crafts mask came into existence shortly after realizing he had powers. He was lucky he hadn’t been caught and sent away like all the others.

Sent away like his father.

If anyone looked at him, Kai was an athletic boy with muscle hidden beneath the lean and still somehow skinny body as was typical of a growing teenage boy. Except, he could run like a track star, punch as hard as Bruce Lee (or, Kai would like to think so), and successfully pass the random letter eyesight test without squinting. Whatever senses could be normal, Kai’s were ramped up to a near inhuman degree. He avoided even the most vague references to modern interpretations of vampires.

Tucking the mask into his back pocket, he locked his bedroom door and slid the window open. While he didn’t have much in his room to begin with—not counting the fifteen empty water bottles and decaying ramen noodle cups littered around the floor—there was enough furniture in the small room to make him feel claustrophobic.

Leaping out from the side to the yard, Kai hit the ground in a sprint. The wind smacked his face like an angry bitch-slap with the zooming speed he was going, but it became a prickly, tingling sensation that eventually faded to a cold sort of numb.

Kai climbed the nearest ladder and made his way to the top of the building, where it was easy to make his way around the city in a somewhat less lame way than running around on the sidewalk. It just wasn’t the same thinking about intense crime-fighting when it involved stoplights and unimpressed pedestrians. And so, Kai went up. In the manner of all superheroes, amateur and experienced vigilantes out on the night watch. For good and for evil, they all had one thing in common.

They all really liked to crouch on top of roofs.

Perched up top a three-story apartment building, Kai whipped out his phone to check the directions. A giraffe emoji was sent. It took another seven minutes to get from there to the train station, fifteen to reach downtown Fukuoka. Here, the buildings stretched high into the black sky, lights enough to block even the brightest stars.

He tied the mask around his head, back straightening as he finished the double knot. Something about wearing it, the anonymity, or maybe the thrill of being one of those disguised celebrities running across the city at night fueled him to do more than covertly scrounge for information. While he didn’t go around looking for trouble, usually, Kai happened across a couple crimes in costume. Then a few more. He saw a lot from his roof-perch.

The city was darker, grimier than Kai remembered it being as a kid. The crime in the city climbed with the rise of scions running around, getting into tiffs with each other and authorities. Apparently, upon the self realization of being a scion, it was common to then think, “Oh, I know what I could do with this beautiful gift of incredible, inhuman capabilities. I could rob a bank!”

Those who wanted to clear the slate and give their kind a halfway decent name were either caught because of poor judgement, or they were the competent vigilantes who knew that morally grey was the way to go if they wanted to live.

But Kai wasn’t giving up his morals just yet.

“Well, this seems right,” Kai said, arriving at the base of a nondescript office building, flanked on either side by shorter, almost laughably suspicious buildings that, as far as he could tell, served as warehouses.

Never a good thing.

Masked vigilante plus warehouse. The combination usually went spiralling downhill in a whoosh of handcuffs, bullet wounds, and a swarm of police and/or villainous laughter echoing in the aftermath. Kai read enough superhero comics to be aware of particularly obvious no-fly zones.

So, stay out of the sketchy warehouses, focus on finding paperwork and facility information. Perfect plan in which nothing could go wrong.

There was a grey-haired man, asleep, huddled against the building that was otherwise devoid of life, and much too dark. That was how Kai knew this building was the one he was looking for — too few security lights shone through the windows. If it was a normal, totally not secretive, functional office building, there was no way it would be left in the dark. It instead seemed to thrive on as few lights as was probably legal.

Kai picked the lock. It took fifty seconds, which was his first clue to a deceptively protected building. He didn’t break into places often, but he wasn’t that bad with locks if they were run of the mill. This wasn’t run of the mill. He cracked it open, a foot inching forward onto the carpet. Assured that there wasn’t an alarm he missed, Kai’s body followed until he was inside. Breathing slow, he pulled air into his lungs and let it out again.

It took a few minutes to get his bearings; it was a big building in the downtown area, but it didn’t take long to find the sea of abandoned, empty cubicles filled with stacked cardboard boxes.

Ah, good, a makeshift warehouse, Kai definitely wanted to be in one of those.

He walked forward, glancing at the words written on the boxes — endless sheets of paperwork sounded like a nightmare in itself, no wonder this was abandoned. There was something ethereal about a silent, shadowed room with a hundred places for someone to hide. Kai got accustomed to the sensation of being alone in the dark after a while of moonlighting, but this felt—

Like he should be ducking into one of those hundred hiding spots.

While there was a strangely imposing ficus in the corner, Kai couldn’t pin down a reason for the sensation. Still, he lowered his head as he moved on, unsure of what room he needed to be in. Takeshi had only told him that information on scion facilities were kept in this building. How Takeshi knew any of this was beyond him, but Kai had long since learned not to question if he didn’t want a disturbing answer.

Boxes obscured his view of most the large room, and even his shoes against carpet made a distinct shuffling noise. He winced, though no one was around to hear him. Kai glanced suspiciously at the ficus.

Kai made for a closed door down the little path around the cubicles. Seeing as the warehouse floor of the building was useless, he followed the soft light of the exit sign above the doorway. Creaking it open, Kai was presented with staircase leading straight up into a black world above, only lit by soft red light of exit signs at each floor. The flashlight on his phone only made it seem slightly less like a zombie apocalypse death trap.

The third floor up, Kai found the first real indication of this place being more than it seemed. A keypad blocked access to the room beyond. Grumbling, he backtracked to the first floor again, out the door he’d managed to open.

Pros to being a scion: Kai could get to the third floor.

Cons to being a scion: getting to the third floor was something he could do, but did not necessarily want to do.

Kai still did not possess Spiderman’s plot-convenient superglue grip and was, frankly, a bit salty.

“Yes, okay, love plastered walls. Super good, more friction,” Kai said, wishing it comforted him more than it did. He took a running start toward the side of the building, felt the rush of adrenaline that came with being able to jump higher than a normal human, and caught his fingers onto the second story windowsill.

“Sticky thoughts, think sticky thoughts,” Kai mumbled to himself, because concrete still hurt when he smashed into it. He pulled himself up, readying himself for another awkward foray up the side of the building. The third story had a bit more of a ledge, upon which he dragged himself in a huff. Eleven seconds to unlock that window — no one protected what they didn’t think would be accessible. Cool beans for him though.

This floor was clearly in use. The stale but distinct eau de mothballs was absent, and coffee mugs were scattered around cubicles decorated in family photos and assorted paperwork, each one with computers that weren’t even close to bottom of the line.

Kai made a beeline for the office in the back. The keypad on this door was one he wouldn’t have a problem with — Takeshi, somehow, he didn’t even want to know — passed it to him on a post-it-note a few days back with the warning that he would find nothing.

There was a satisfying click, and open sesame.

No photos adorned the walls of this office. It smelled vaguely like cigarette smoke, and papers were scattered across the desk. A drinking bird toy sat near the keyboard, dressed smartly in a suit and top hat as he dunked perpetually into the glass ramekin set out for him.

While Kai had expected a placard with a name, there didn’t seem to be one. It was only when Kai sat at the desk and booted up the computer that he saw the account name and confirmed he had the right office. Ogura.

Takeshi gave him the password for the login too — if Kai didn’t trust the guy with his life, he’d expect the freely given information from unknown sources to be a trap. But if Takeshi was the one giving it to him, Kai could be damn sure it was checked and double checked before sending Kai out on a fool’s errand. And Takeshi reminded him at every opportunity of his foolishness; then again, Takeshi also continued giving Kai the specific information he needed to create those same foolish opportunities.

He was never going to get over “SakiNeedsSake” as an important, scion hunting organization’s password.

A desktop littered with a dozen folders scattered in random locations blinked into existence. Kai didn’t stop to look, only to shove a flash drive into the port and copy everything over. Much like being on a stakeout, the break-in was deceptively boring; Kai spun around in the chair a few times while it all transfered. He wondered idly if there were videos from inside the facilities, or actual rosters of patients inside. Locations too, that’d be good.

A popup informed him of the file transfer success. Kai kicked the chair to a stop and tugged the flashdrive out of the port.

A bang thundered through the building. On instinct Kai dropped to lay flat, cursing when he realized the computer was still on. He reached up, put it to sleep, and prayed there were just some really nice, rambunctious janitors downstairs.

A minute passed. The door to the third floor opened. “In here. Ogura keeps his shit in the most accessible spot possible.”

Nope, not kindly old janitors.

Kai crawled forward, glad he’d closed the office door. He had a few seconds to think, but not enough to give him any brilliant ideas. At least, until he saw the filing cabinet in the corner. It was a risk, moving the thing when it could squeak and ruin any chances he had of hiding out under the desk (because they definitely wouldn’t have seen the sneakers poking out). Kai could lift it up, mostly, with a strength that normal humans lacked. No alarming noises were made, and Kai shoved himself in the tiny space he made between it and the wall.

Voices got closer, and Kai pressed his back so hard against the wall that his muscles burned. The office door opened, and Kai could hear two pairs of footsteps walk in. He didn’t dare peer out to look, and winced when they turned on the light. The filing cabinet hid him, but this made it all that much easier to see, should they come closer and look at the right angle.

Computer mouse clicks sounded like fireworks to Kai’s ears, breathing in as deep and slow as possible — he’d never quite believed when people said they thought someone else could hear their heart pounding when they didn’t want them too, and now Kai understood the panic with the same clarity as a more terrified version of enlightenment.

Times like these, Kai wished there was a way to text Takashi without lighting the room up with a blinding phone screen. As of now, doing so would lead to a probable murder attempt.

“The hell’s his password?” The taller, more intimidating man tapped on a key a few times, hitting it harder with each press. Kai could only just see the top of his dark, slicked back hair from where he dared to peer over the filing cabinet, their backs to him.

“He changed it this morning then. Move over,” said the other voice, too short for Kai to see any details other than a blond tuft.

A derisive snort was returned, but other than that, there wasn’t an argument. Good, they intended to be in and out.

The shorter, more nasally sounding man spoke while he typed. “Wanna get the C4 set up?”

Or not.

Kai’s eyes widened, hand aborting a sharp movement for his cell phone. He couldn’t text, not now, despite how much his fingers itched to do something. They’d be leaving with time to spare, and then he could make his escape.

He winced, remembering he wasn’t the only person that might be caught in the blast if they set off explosives. Even if the building was empty, there were people outside, curled up in sleeping bags against the cold. They didn’t need a building dropping on top of them.

This was all because he went into a warehouse wasn’t it? Kai could have groaned, but valued his life enough to refrain.

He breathed in, slow and steady. His heart slowed, beating a bit more rhythmic, a steadier pattern. Focusing now on the reasoning, not a lot of this evening made sense. It wasn’t necessary to blow up a building if it was just to rob it. Coincidence was too much for Kai to believe, that he happened to show up the same night as these monkeys, that they were after the same information.

“Just hurry up, I can get the charges set in ten minutes,” the deeper voice said, and the click of the door accompanied by retreating footsteps might as well have been the last school bell for the day. Kai peered out to watch the – apparently chubby man with a cane – tap away at the computer. He seemed to have bypassed the security with relative ease and was clicking into folders Kai only glimpsed when he copied them over to his stick. Kai read it from his hiding spot, focusing in on the small text.

Project Foxhound seemed to be a common phrase, with a few of the documents reading a somewhat useless “confidential” watermark in red over the top of the text. From the files he skimmed over, it wasn’t just locations of scion holding facilities.

It was actual, scientific research into scions and their powers.

Kai decided that was all he needed to know. He also decided that these guys really didn’t need this info.

He stepped out from his hiding space, making just enough noise to cause the desk chair to spin in a panicked jerk towards him. Holding up a friendly peace sign, Kai smiled brightly.

“What the fuck?” The spluttering man in a worn-out tracksuit scrambled away from him, chair rolled backwards and leaving the desk wide open.

“Yo,” Kai said, and axe kicked the computer screen.