For the current blurb/promo of this work, read this post on patreon. I’m not copypasting that massive thing here lol.

This is the second chapter from part one of what will be a full-length novel when I finally get it finished. If I post more chapters as I finish them, they’ll be linked at the bottom of the post for flow and comprehension. If I post enough of them I’ll make a Chapter Index and retroactively edit the posts to link to the Index.

WORDCOUNT: 6.4K
CONTENT WARNINGS: violence, persistent hand trauma.


CHAPTER TWO

Kenji comes into the office the next morning wearing the same jeans he had on two days ago. His shirt and underwear and socks are clean, but the jeans have dried ghoul stuff soaked through the right knee that crunches if he bends the leg too far.

He drops down into his designated chair at the desk he and Gabriel share and flakes a bit of the stuff off his leg with his fingers. He really needs to do laundry. Maybe buy a couple new pairs of jeans while he’s at it, everything he owns is five years old or older. If he asks Gabriel to tell him what is fashionable he might look less old in the mornings.

Or he might look like an aging guy trying to fight off irrelevancy. That’s probably the more likely outcome.

The fluorescent lighting in the office is really bright today, jabs a little at Kenji’s eyes. He probably shouldn’t have done in that six pack at home last night. Now his head feels like it’s been swaddled in a fraying beach towel and he doesn’t even have sunglasses to pretend to be cool behind because a slewworm broke his pair last week.

At least the bandages are off now, shiny skin and bone all healed and fresh in his hand. Sitting in the middle of his bed this morning he carefully cut the edges with some dull office scissors and then peeled them off layer by layer until the onion-core of his hand was finally free. Then he washed his hand for ages to get the phantom feeling of the slimy Goo off his skin.

“That’s not a usual M.O., is it?”

Kenji stops staring at his own hand like a moron and instead stares at the next desk over. Agents Long and Hammond are in their chairs, shuffling through the morning’s print-outs. Hammond has a frown on her face that doesn’t bode well, she only stops smiling when she’s upset about something. Really upset, like murdered children or a dog locked out of its house while its raining.

“The one they brought in last night was thrashing around and making a lot of noise. I don’t think stealth is in their nature,” Long says.

Hammond’s frown deepens a little. Then she looks up and sees Kenji watching her. She waves a little at him. “You do ghouls sometimes with Agent Ferros, right?”

Kenji feels his eyebrows go up without his permission. “You’re talking about ghouls?”

Long turns in her seat to talk to him too. She nods. “Look at the morning sheets. Someone at a noodle shop found ghoul juice and human blood in the back alley this morning. There are all-night bars on that street but no one heard anything.”

“Or no one is coming forward with the blood-curdling screams info,” Kenji says. He takes the stack of papers off the table from Gabriel’s side and starts to flip through them anyway. It’s the second page, a summary report from the responding non-SWC police officer, and a slightly more detailed report by the follow-up done by Seely, one of their nightshift agents.

The guy who called it in thought the ghoul juice was acid, and that someone had been dissolved behind his shop. Not far from the truth, if acid were sentient it could absolutely be a ghoul. Kenji got backhanded by one once, abraded the hell out of the skin of his jaw where it hit him.

“Yeah, you’re right, this is weird,” Kenji says. He looks up and Long nods at him, then goes back to her own stack of papers.

“Ghouls can be controlled, right?” Hammond asks. She’s not frowning as hard now. Probably makes her face hurt using muscles she’s not used to.

Kenji shrugs. “For an odd qualification of control, sure. Mostly someone can summon them right in front of what they want destroyed, and they make sure they keep far back so the ghoul doesn’t see them and go at them too.”

Hammond wrinkles her nose. “That’s horrible.”

Ted Grove comes out of his office, skinny tie thrown over his shoulder from the windforce of his run, and he slams a piece of paper with his writing on it up onto the whiteboard against the wall divider that keeps the main room partitioned from the stairs and Yadira’s Infirmary. Then he whips around and hauls ass back into the bowels of his dark pit of an office and clunks the door closed behind him.

“Well someone didn’t get his coffee this morning,” Kenji mutters. Grove isn’t normally that obnoxious.

Gabriel appears in the break of the wall, immaculately dressed and hair beautifully styled as usual. He absolutely does not have ghoul juice dried on his pants, and it looks like he even washed his face this morning, which is also something Kenji forgot to do.

He checks the paper on the white board, then comes over to the desk he and Kenji share. He gives a small smile to Kenji as he sits down.

“The list says we’re getting another ghoul job,” he says.

Kenji waves the paper with the report on the subtle ghoul attack in Gabriel’s direction. “We gotta nickname this one Whisper or something. That way when we catch it I can make noise jokes in the report.”

“You can contribute to Grove’s breakdown on your own,” Gabriel says, plucks the paper out of Kenji’s grip to read it himself. “I’m not going to enable you.”

Kenji flexes his left hand in his lap. Fully healed for all of an hour and just this close to Gabriel its already tingling. He better keep his jacket on today so he has a deep pocket to shove the hand into, keep it out of the way. He can worry about it getting worse later when he has time for a psychological crisis.

“You’re no fun. No spirit of adventure or creativity,” he says.

Gabriel snorts, then shuffles through the rest of the stack on the desk to find something to read next.

Grove reemerges from his office, significantly more composed than last time. He carries a bright pink cardboard folder in one hand, and a ceramic mug in the other.

He comes straight to Kenji and drops the folder onto the desk. “Got a puddle of ghoul juice behind an udon shop over on Flange Street. Considerable amount of human blood is nearby.”

Gabriel takes the folder and flips it open. “What’s considerable?”

Grove shrugs, takes a big slurp from his mug.

“You’d think a murderer would respect a good bowl of udon,” Kenji says. He flexes his healed hand and grimaces at the tightness in the tendons.

Gabriel puts one of the pages from the folder in front of Kenji. It’s a black-and-white printout of a photo of the scene. Nothing but piles of garbage and a couple distinct puddles on the asphalt. “Maybe the broth was oversalted,” Gabriel says.

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Grove says. “Get over there and see what you can find.”

“I don’t see a forensics report in here,” Gabriel says. He lifts the rather thin stack of papers up and wobbles them a little. “Have they not gotten there yet?”

Grove rolls his eyes. “They’re out at a different scene for now.”

Kenji doesn’t like Grove and Grove doesn’t like him, but at least they can be civil to one another. He doesn’t have a clue as to why Grove is being pissy to Gabriel today, but as always when it comes to his partner, he doesn’t like it. “If the geeks haven’t gotten there yet how do you know the blood is human? Why not chicken?”

Now Grove is looking annoyed at Kenji. Redirection achieved. Mission accomplished.

“I think someone in the surrounding area would hear the racket of a chicken being slaughtered in the middle of an entertainment zone.”

Kenji raises his eyebrows, nudges Gabriel with his elbow. “Hey, this guy thinks chickens are louder than humans while they’re being murdered.”

“That’s not what I said–“

“Should we do a study?” Gabriel asks. He takes the printout back from Kenji’s side of the desk and carefully slides it back into the folder with the rest of the flimsy report. “Sonic measurements, control groups, the works?”

“Very funny,” Grove says. Now he’s glaring at both of them. The grip on his mug is trembling a little.

“Can we add goats?” Kenji asks. “I fucking hate goats, bet they’re loud when they’re being murdered.”

Gabriel’s face goes from serious to confused. “Why do you hate goats?”

“A goat ate my new jacket at a petting zoo when I was seven.” Kenji shudders from the memory. “Garbage pits of the animal kingdom, they eat anything.”

Grove coughs. They ignore him.

“Yadira had to give you that stuff that makes you purge your stomach because you ate a convenience store lunchbox out of the garbage,” Gabriel says. He’s got his fingers hooked on the edge of the desk, they’re twitching a little. Kenji would reach out and put a hand on his shoulder or something to try and calm him, but, well. The buzzing awareness of his left hand is definitely reminding him how bad an idea that is.

“Wait, you ate bento from the garbage?” Long asks. Her and Hammond both are twisted in their chairs and shamelessly eavesdropping. “Kenji Masuda, you’re disgusting!”

“Don’t sound so delighted,” Kenji says. They snicker at him in response.

“All right!” Grove shouts.

Kenji leans back, makes a “go on” gesture with his right hand.

“All right,” Grove repeats, quieter. “I’ll sign off on a portable scanner so you can identify the human blood.”

“Or the chicken blood,” Kenji says. “Or hell, the goat.”

“Just take the scanner and get out of here,” Grove says through grit teeth.

Kenji looks at Gabriel, who has a bit of a wild thing going on with his eyes. The guy loves the portable scanner, he’s probably in carefully contained raptures while he sits there.

“You going to be good with this?” Kenji asks him.

“Good with what?” Gabriel asks back. He closes the folder and taps his fingers on the tabletop.

Kenji keeps his left hand in his pocket and stands up to stretch as well he can with his self-inflicted restriction.

Grove looks down at Kenji’s jeans. His jaw goes tense at the dried ghoul juice down the one leg. He slurps again at his mug without taking his eyes off Kenji’s knee.

“There a problem?” Kenji asks him. He’s daring the man to say something, but he knows very well Grove won’t rise to it.

Grove rolls his eyes again. Kenji totally has him pegged.

“See what that good old lucky intuition gets you on this,” Grove sneers. Then he stomps off, shoulders square and neck bulging with tension.

Kenji stood up too quickly, his stomach swoops a little and he tastes a hint of bile on his tongue. He’s entirely too hungover for this heavy a foray into office politics, he needs to eat and sober up and not puke before he can be even baseline functional.

“A scanner and a wireless tablet should definitely be enough,” Gabriel mutters. He stands up too, carefully picks up the pink folder and holds it close to his chest. “We can call it in if more is needed.”

Kenji rubs a hand over his mouth, glances at an angle to see if Yadira’s door is open. It is! Not by much, but that’s definitely a gap between the door and its frame that he can see.

“Hey, I need to see Yadira before we go,” he says to Gabriel. “Can you get the stuff?”

Gabriel blinks at him.

“Really? I mean yes, I can get the stuff.”

Kenji claps his right hand on Gabriel’s shoulder, gives it a shake. “Hey, pick me up a restock of cartridges while you’re in supply, okay? I’ve only got one left.”

Gabriel nods slowly, which Kenji grins at, then he carefully saunters off to Yadira’s Infirmary. He understands Gabriel’s hesitation, normally Kenji would sooner eat a jar of tacks than subject himself to one of Yadira’s “frequent check ups” but he’s got a healed hand and she has a bracelet to hand over.

Inside the infirmary Yadira stands at one of the two beds inside. On top of the plastic sheet over the thin mattress is an open cardboard box with vacuum-sealed bandage rolls inside, and five zipped-open medical kits strewn around. Each kit already has squeeze bottles of antibiotic ointment and medical scissors dumped into it.

Hopefully she plans on putting more into them before she hands them out. Like thermometers. Or capped syringes already loaded with pain meds.

Her computer behind her has a video playing off the internet droning on about serene meditation. The narrator doesn’t sound serene, she sounds already dead, but Kenji knows he shouldn’t judge.

Not judging doesn’t stop him from gesturing at the computer as he says, “You’re already serene, what do you need that for?”

Yadira starts to dump the gauze rolls into the medical kits. One, two, three per pack. “It was recommended to me by a woman I dated recently. There isn’t going to be a second dinner but I’m curious about what she was talking about so I’m trying it anyway.”

“Ah,” he says. “Why no second dinner?”

Cardboard box now empty, she removes it from her improvised workspace and starts to break the box down. “Because she wouldn’t stop rambling about the quiet of the mind.”

Kenji snorts. “Fine, don’t tell me.”

She twists her mouth to one side and rolls her eyes. The flattened box drops to the floor beside her, she steps away from the bed and holds out a hand towards his left arm.

“Let me see.”

He allows her to take his hand and inspect it. She prods where the hole was, presses both of her thumbs into the back to test how the bones have healed. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s always weird now for someone to manhandle him. He’s too used to hiding this hand now.

Yadira hums, flicks his palm with her nails out to make him hiss, then drops his hand and steps away to the back wall. She has an array of locked cabinets with no labels on the doors, anyone looking to break in for drugs will have a hell of a hunt ahead of them.

She places her fingers on the handle of a drawer handle; the warded nail polish that dots her fingernails glows green, then orange. A soft click and the drawer pops open into her waiting hand.

What she retrieves from the drawer isn’t so much a bracelet as it is a heavy bangle from one of those ancient civilizations. The band has the flat width of a watchband and is made of metal links that are woven together so tightly that the circle flexes only slightly in her grip.

She does something to the band it and it clicks open. It retains its shape, but a gap appears wide enough to slide a skinny wrist in, if you’re determined to jam it through.

Determined she is. The edges scrape his skin as it goes on, leaves red marks that look like scratches but aren’t deep enough to stay. As soon as it’s down far enough she presses on one edge and it clicks closed. His hand is trapped inside now, no getting out without assistance.

He shakes his arm out. A low buzz seems to be going into him from where the bracelet touches skin. Not terrible, but not easily ignored either.

“Is the buzzing normal?” he asks.

Yadira nods. “Yes. If it gets worse and never stops then I probably need to take it off you.”

He shifts it up and down his wrist. It’s not loose enough to go all the way up his forearm, but it can slide around a bit. “Rigged to explode?”

“Mhm,” Yadira agrees.

“Fantastic.” He stops fussing with the bracelet and drops his arm to his side. “You want to see me at the end of the day with this too, right?”

“It’s like you read my mind.”

He holds his hands up as if to ward off her evil aura.

“Please don’t tempt the gods, I don’t need telepathy on top of everything else.”

A light knock on the door, then it opens gently with Gabriel on the other side. He’s got the strap of a portable scanner over his shoulder, a tablet in his free hand, and a soft knit drawstring bag dangles from his wrist.

“Ready to go when you are,” Gabriel says.

Kenji makes a grabby hand at the bag; Gabriel eyeballs the new jewelry acquisition but doesn’t say anything as he hands it over.

Inside the bag are the standard agent’s allotment of six double-packs of taser cartridges. Every agent, even if they’re Kenji who doesn’t bother to carry a taser, are given a weekly supply of these small battery-sized boxes. One cartridge is worth two shots from the Agency’s proprietary model.

Kenji hates tasers, hates they’re used on the more benign folklore demons on the island by his co-workers, hates they’re used sometimes on random people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. But damn are the ammo packs good to making things explode. Blowing doors off their hinges, too. One time two years ago he stripped two cartridges, tied them together with wire, and used the blast from him chucking the entire thing at a rebar-strengthened wall of ferrock to break up a riot.

He got written up for the last one, but a group of enraged construction workers were trying to rip a Fiery Underhog and her human woman protector apart limb from limb, so he never has bothered to feel regret over the property damage and light injuries to some of the onlookers.

He takes the six cartridges out of the drawstring bag and crams three each in his jacket pockets. The edge of his new bracelet clanks against the ammo as he withdraws his hand from the pocket, makes a jolt of numbing sensation travel up his arm like a shock.

Kenji blinks. Suddenly he has a very good theory of what concepts Yadira utilized to make this bracelet he’s agreed to wearing.

“Okay, great,” he says. He drops the empty bag on a table near the door that’s covered in shopping bags with the Golden Royal logo on them, then throws a salute towards Yadira’s disinterested face on his way out the door. He crowds Gabriel back and into the hallway.

“Let’s blow this noodle joint.”


Kenji rejects modern devices in his day-to-day working environment, mainly because he almost always breaks them and then the cost of replacement comes out of his pay. But since they have to analyze blood spray and consistency of ghoul juice at every new scene lately he now has to interact with Gabriel’s tablet much more often than he’d like to.

Like right now! He’s got the information on how thick the matter from the aggressor ghoul was when it was found at the first scene, and real time information from the scan Gabriel is doing is overlaying on that and running a comparison. All Kenji has to do is stand back and hold the thing.

Well, hold it and absolutely do not drop it again.

The overlay of the two scans are extremely similar. Ghoul matter thickens when left alone in the air, so if they measure the consistency they can time when the murder happened with reasonable accuracy. There are other ways to figure it out too, but scanning doesn’t require touching the stuff. If Kenji never has to stick his fingers into that chunky oil slick ever again it’ll be fantastic.

One thing they can’t scan for though are clues on who is facilitating this, because leave a ghoul alone and it’ll rampage through walls and buildings and leave more than one victim in its wake. This subtlety of one death and then vanishing before the cops arrive indicates a controlling party.

“The blood is O Negative,” Gabriel announces.

Kenji stares at the screen of the tablet. The bracelet on his left wrist keeps buzzing whenever Gabriel is within ten feet of him, but he can’t very well consistently stay that far from the guy. They’re partners, they work together.

“Are you sure it’s negative? Because I’m positive the guy’s missing it,” Kenji says absently as he shakes his wrist a little to see if that affects the buzzing.

“Wow,” Gabriel mutters. He switches the knob on his scanner, does another sweep with the wand. “That was low effort, even for you.”

Maybe if Kenji pretends to look at that pile of garbage over there he’ll be out of range and he can have a break from the magical vibrating bracelet of doom. He takes a step back, hesitates, takes another step.

The thing about trash bags is they shred in the weather the longer they stay outside, so this mountain of garbage must be shiny new. This particular back lot is easily accessible by six different businesses so this must be a reasonable amount. Maybe. Probably reasonable.

Kenji takes a final step back and lifts his hand up to check the bracelet. Is it heavier? It hasn’t stopped buzzing, maybe his wrist is just getting fatigued. 

Gabriel clicks his tongue and starts to pack up the scanner. Little wand goes into the slot on the side, a piece of plastic on a hinge goes over the dials and buttons, tiny little actions that hide the soft parts of equipment away and turn the scanner into an impenetrable brick easily swung around on a canvas strap.

Once Kenji used a scanner to take down a ghoul that was rampaging through a shipping warehouse over by the interior docks. Overhand swing within range, crack right into the back of the head, and down the creature went. It was beautiful. The paperwork after, less so.

Gabriel finishes with the scanner and slings the strap over his shoulder like a purse. He looks over at Kenji, standing there like a gormless idiot, and tilts his head to the side.

“Nothing?”

Kenji fumbles his fingers around one side of the tablet. The screen has gone dark while he was staring. “Hmm?”

Gabriel jerks his chin towards the pile of trash bags next to Kenji.

“In the garbage. Nothing?”

“Ah!” That’s right, he’s supposed to be poking at packaged refuse. Too concerned with the buzzing, he needs to get his head on straight. He waves his unencumbered hand like he’s swatting an imaginary fly. “Haven’t looked yet.”

Now Gabriel’s eyes are narrow and he’s shifted his weight forward, like he can spring forward at any moment. He takes a slow step forward.

Kenji feels the muscles in his neck and shoulders tense up at the closing distance.

“Are you all right?” Gabriel asks. “Is your hand not healed yet?”

“I’m fine.”

Gabriel reaches out towards Kenji’s hands. Maybe to take the tablet, maybe to touch Kenji, but he jerks away all the same. The buzzing from the bracelet is making the skin where it touches him numb, he’s sure Gabriel can hear it.

Gabriel’s face goes from suspiciously concerned to blank on one melting motion. Kenji swallows down one apology but doesn’t manage to swallow down the next.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean–“

“Boundaries,” Gabriel says. He sounds like a robot, all flat and mechanical. “They’re fine. Everyone has them.”

He turns to the side and focuses on the pile of garbage bags Kenji was supposed to be going through. He grabs a cardboard poster tube off the top of the pile and uses it to shove around the bags, a sharp clench to his jaw flexing with every shove.

Fuck. Fuck. Kenji tries to think. This bracelet really is going to explode if he touches Gabriel but he might have to just deal with it if this is the only way to salvage things. Just a firm hand on a shoulder? He can do a hand on the shoulder without the string showing, right?

Maybe he can fake being sick convincingly enough that Gabriel will buy Kenji just not wanting to share germs. He’s never cared about getting Gabriel sick before, but first time for everything. There’s something that smells rotten in a bag Gabriel has just rolled away from the pile, just a dab of that on his tongue and he’ll be puking in no time!

Before Kenji can actually follow through on his vomitous plan the cardboard tube Gabriel is using makes a loud popping noise and Gabriel responds with a little “what?” He pulls the tube up to examine the end and finds the entire thing collapsed three inches up from the end.

“You weren’t shoving that hard,” Kenji says.

Gabriel looks at him, eyes wide. “No, I– I really wasn’t?”

The pile of bags shift, a seismic tremor that sends wet squishy masses encased in cheap plastic to the edges of the pile. A deep exhalation comes from somewhere in there, then tapers off into a groan.

Kenji cups his right hand before him to force astral energies to pool in his palm. “Out of there. Now.”

Gabriel takes two steps back, just in time to make room for a massively gooey ghoul to rise up from under the trash heap and tower over them. It’s shiny and slick, the color of the void of space in all its glorious inky blackness and dark purple swirls, and at least two heads taller than Kenji.

Somewhere near the top of the thing a crevasse splits and opens. The innards exposed are fleshy and contracting in time to an alien pulse Kenji cannot hear. Goosebumps raise on his skin, the sweat at the hairline on the back of his neck goes cold.

Kenji snaps his right hand out, flings the astral energy gathered there right into the maw. The top half of the ghoul saws back in impact, the opening crackles and closes.

The ghoul rights itself. Now there’s smoke eeling out from new cracks and holes in the head. The oilslick of goop morphs and melds and writhes.

“Cover,” Gabriel says from down the sights of his taser. 

Kenji ducks back a step to get out of the way and Gabriel squeezes off a shot. His aim is true, the pellet smacks into one of the new cracks and sparks arc out on impact. It’s not enough to make the ghoul stagger back again though; its formation in the fresh air is making it tougher, hardening it from assault.

The ghoul leans to its side, slams into a four-by-four storage shed constructed next to the backdoor of the nail salon that’s closest to the trashbag pile. The shed falls over onto its side, the door cracks open, bottles of bleach and lemon-scented solution tumble out of the gap and splat onto the pavement.

Gabriel takes a quick step back but is hit in the ankle by a rolling gallon of bleach. He falls back, lands on his ass.

The ghoul takes a sloppy step forward. Kenji twists his wrist and flings another blast of astral energy at it, this time lower, where the legs are forming. He wants it to trip. What he gets is a pause and a wobble.

Right now it’s too soft and malleable. Once it solidifies more they’re going to be in trouble.

Kenji needs to get more space between them and the ghoul. He readies an astral blast in his right hand and begins to back up, grabs Gabriel by the shoulder as he goes. His fingers snag the material of Gabriel’s suit jacket and his knuckles press hard into the bare skin of his neck.

A sharp pain shoots up his wrist from where the bracelet presses against his skin all the way up his arm past his elbow. His grip on Gabriel’s jacket falters, spasms, but Gabriel has already regained his feet and his taser is up, aimed, focused on the ghoul.

Kenji wheezes and grits his teeth against the pain, half-guides and half-drags Gabriel further from the ghoul glooping towards them. He swallows against the pain in his arm, but it’s receding, he can do this.

Gabriel shoots again in the ghoul’s face, makes it flail back and half-crunch the overturned shed under its bulk. He pops the spent cartridge and swaps in a new one from his pocket in a practiced motion. When the handle pops back into place behind the new cartridge the light at the butt of the handle glows red.

Kenji’s hand spasms again on Gabriel’s shoulder from another jab of pain from the bracelet. He releases Gabe and shuffles back a bit. Gabe doesn’t notice, he’s focused on the ghoul.

Something heavy wells up in his throat, like vomit but dryer, scratchier. He coughs, staggers down to one knee and coughs some more. Bent at the waist he braces his hands flat on the ground and heaves.

A disassembled skein of red yarn tumbles from his throat, all tangles and an ethereal glow. He slams his left hand down onto the hank hard enough the bracelet cracks against the pavement.

There’s the clack and whizz of the taser firing again. The ghoul grunts, glops back away from Gabriel, sends bits of trash scattering from underfoot.

Kenji inhales heavy through his nose and bites down on the red string flowing from his throat. The bite doesn’t make the pain worse but he can feel the string push and pile up behind his teeth. His jaw will be forced open if it keeps going like that.

He flings another astral blast at the ghoul, weaker than the last but enough to keep its head smoking. Gabriel follows with another shot of his taser, center mass this time.

He’s calm, takes another cartridge out of his pocket with one hand and flips the taser’s chamber open with the other. He’s focused on the ghoul, he’s not looking at Kenji.

It’s now or never. Kenji quickly gathers another shot in his right hand, then slams it down onto his left hand, burns the shit out of his flesh.

The string dripping from his throat vanishes, his teeth clack together when they chomp into nothing. His hand is on fire, he jerks it up to his chest and tries to breathe through the gasping hitching of his lungs.

Over the roar in his ears he hears the ghoul make a guh noise. It’s been in the air long enough for vocal chords to form, and the first noise it makes is one of pain. Then there’s the crack of another taser shot from Gabriel.

He coughs to clear his throat and looks up in time to see the ghoul’s head catch on fire. It shakes and roils against the flame, then topples back onto the sea of remaining intact trash bags, which burst under its weight and send a cascade of burning garbage up and over to rain down onto their heads. The force of impact is rough enough for Kenji to feel in his knees through the pavement.

It twitches, raises the half-formed arms in the air, then shudders and drops them. The fire isn’t spreading on it, but it remains lit like a little personal tire fire.

Gabriel’s taser goes down, he twists to look back at Kenji. His eyes are bright and his mouth does a complicated routine that Kenji can’t follow right now.

Kenji raises his uninjured hand and throws him a thumbs up.

Gabriel’s face contorts and he rushes forward. His hands are outstretched, he’s heading for Kenji’s shoulder and he’s going to touch him and–

Kenji jerks just out of reach, to the side but still on his knees. He keeps his head down and tries to roll to his feet but it’s more of a struggle with all the rapid swallowing he has to do against the pain.

Gabriel’s shoes have been dulled by the explosion of refuse during the fight. Kenji’s boots are no better off now that his feet are back under him.

He steadies himself, doesn’t try to stand up straight. If he raises to that kind of altitude he might actually puke this time. He angles himself to look at Gabriel’s face, takes in how the concern is gone again and replaced by that blank-faced tense look from earlier. Gabriel’s hands are out, hovering, and the clench to his jaw is something that Kenji has only really seen when Gabriel is ready to snarl in a rage.

Kenji swallows, tries to grin. “What a mess, huh?”

Gabriel’s hands drop to his side, the taser he’s still holding clatters sharp in the post-fight quiet against the holster strap on his thigh. He jerks his head towards the ghoul still smoldering away on the pile of garbage.

“I’m calling for the van.”

Kenji curls his fingers into a fist. Well, he tries to. His right hand goes fine, the left hand gives him a wave of pain that almost makes him gasp.

“Yeah, okay,” he says, breathless and creaky.

Gabriel doesn’t look back at him. He roughly jams his taser back into its holster with one hand and gropes in his suit’s jacket pocket for his phone with another. His jaw hasn’t lost the sharpness, shadows play on his skin as he moves away from Kenji.

Kenji slides a step away, looks around the back alley. There are gobs of burning garbage scattered everywhere, shreds of plastic snagged on edges and cracked bottles of bleach and cleaning supplies tumble out from the toppled storage shed.

If there was any evidence left in this crime scene then it’s absolutely ruined now.


Yadira takes the bracelet back with a twist to her mouth but she doesn’t say anything, just slathers the burns up Kenji’s arm with more Goo and wraps it.

He goes home, after. Gabriel has already done the one-page report and filed it without showing it to him, vanishes from the building before Kenji’s Goo has been completely applied. So Kenji just… goes home.

The latest version of Yadira’s Goo has a bit of a numbing agent in it. Makes whatever it’s healing alternate between throbbing and numbness, like a wave. Then when it’s almost done, an unholy itching starts and that’s where things get rough. At least with this kind of injury he’s only got one night of this torture. The bandages will probably be safe to take off tomorrow, he can show off the wreckage of his hand and get sympathy points.

Well, that’s assuming any of his co-workers have sympathy left to give. Gabriel definitely doesn’t. And Kenji’s got to face it sometime, he thinks, that Gabe’s the only one he really cares about getting sympathy from.

Kenji’s apartment is dusty, disused, but otherwise clean. He doesn’t let the dishes stack up or garbage accumulate, and he has boxes he puts any paperwork he needs to keep at hand in.

What he does have a lot of are books. Even when he doesn’t need to research something specifically, he’s always reading at home. Television licensing fees are through the roof with the new regulations, and the advertisements on radio just annoy him, so all he’s left with are books.

Books don’t give him betrayed looks, they’re the best.

There are some leftover booze noodles from his takeout order two days ago. He crams the flimsy bowl into the microwave to reheat them, then leans back against the kitchen sink to wait.

Gabriel didn’t look at him again the entire trip back to the office from the ruined crime scene. He didn’t say a word. To be fair, Kenji didn’t try to begin a conversation either, but he kept an eye on Gabriel. It’s his job to keep an eye on him, even when his hand is on the verge of falling right the fuck off.

He takes the booze noodles from the microwave; they’re under heated but he’s not picky, he grabs a fork from the drawer and settles on his sofa with them. There’s a thick history book about curses on his coffee table he was looking at last week and never re-shelved, he grabs that to place in his lap and put the bowl on top.

All this movement makes his burned arm twinge into the throbbing cycle. He tries to inhale over his booze noodles and gets nothing but the smell of his own cooked flesh, unimpeded from ruining his appetite by the Goo and bandages.

He contemplates his tepid meal. There’s not even steam rising from it, the center of the starchy mass is probably chilled enough to hurt his teeth when he bites into it.

He could probably order something hot from the flauta cart down the street, get a cardboard sleeve full of disintegrating tortillas and cheese in soupy sauce delivered. Or he could go out to eat himself, actually sit down somewhere and pretend to be a normal person who doesn’t scoop leftovers into his maw off a textbook. He could catch a taxi and visit Gabriel at his own apartment, just to talk.

There would need to be a lie in all those scenarios, though. A lie to himself about why he’s ordering food again or why he’s eating by himself rather than seeking out company, or a lie to Gabriel about why he doesn’t want to be touched now.

He has never been big on touching, but Gabriel’s always an exception with brushes of hands on shoulders, sitting close enough to radiate body heat to one another, whoever is more tired leaning against the other during transit to and from the points of interest their job sends them to.

Is there really some way he can tell Gabriel he’s not an exception anymore without looking like an ass?

He curls the fingers on his injured hand without thinking about it, sets off a new round of throbbing. He inspects the mummy wrapping and clicks his tongue. When Yadira did it earlier everything was fully immobilized, but it’s been a couple hours and its already coming lose.

He stabs his fork into the noodles. He’ll come up with a lie and talk to Gabriel later, talk to him tomorrow. Can’t get away from it, he has to eventually come clean or pretend to, but if he tried to talk to the other man now he might just tell the truth no matter what, and that would be a disaster.


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