Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "The Breaking of the Shell"

This poem came out of the June 2015 Creative Jam. It was inspired by prompts from [personal profile] dialecticdreamer and [personal profile] chanter_greenie. It also fills the "torture" square in my 7-31-14 card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest, and the "worry" square in my 6-1-15 card for the June Relationship Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the Pain's Gray thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

WARNING: This poem is heavy-duty hurt/comfort with content that some readers may find disturbing. Highlight to read the more detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. It contains betrayal by a friend, interrogation by means of crude physical torture, kidnapping, nonconsensual bondage, traumatic manifestation of a superpower, uncontrolled use of a superpower which winds up hurting several people, temporary resistance to desired help, some messy medical details, a crappy non-apology, deliberate use of a superpower for harm, revenge, angst over potential drawbacks of the change in power status, and other challenges. Conversely, once the backup arrives there is some really sweet aid-and-comfort. If those are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"The Breaking of the Shell"

Gray had been running errands
for Ricasso all morning, working
in tandem with Marcus. As he
scrolled through the project list on
his smartphone, his stomach growled.

"What say you make the last delivery alone,
and I'll go steal us some lunch," Marcus offered.

"Sure," Gray said with a nod. His friend was
fast enough not to get caught, and it would be
nice to have lunch waiting after the errand.

"Dropoff's right down there,"
Marcus said, pointing to an alley.
"I've done this one before."

Gray gave him a jaunty wave and
set off down the old brick lane.

He recognized the fat man who
came to meet him -- Lardass had
the Shock Absorber superpower --
and it made Gray wonder what
Ricasso was doing trying to make
a deal with one of the wilder gangs.

Then someone hit Gray over the head.

He staggered, one hand scraping
against the wall of the alley.
His smartphone dropped
to the ground at his feet.

It took a lot to put him down,
though, and he managed to block
the next blow as it came toward him.

Meathead was bigger than Gray and
had the advantage of Super-Strength,
even if his level wasn't very impressive
compared to what stronger soups could do.

Gray managed to land a few hits anyhow, and
got the satisfaction of splitting Meathead's lip.

Lardass joined in, and the two of them
pummeled Gray so hard that he had no chance
to shout for Marcus or recover his smartphone and
push the panic button programmed into it.

Meathead picked up a pipe, then,
and his next blow cracked something
in Gray's right forearm. It was all Gray
could do bring up his left arm in time
to keep the following blow from
smashing his head open.

The shattering pain made his vision blur
as he slumped against the wall.

"Tell us about your boss," said Meathead,
clenching a fist in Gray's white shirt.
"We want to know his schedule."

Lardass picked up Gray's smartphone
to probe for information. "Busted," he said.

Gray really started to worry. He might not
be able to get out of this on his own, and
the lost signal would alert Marcus of trouble.

If Marcus came in without a warning --

Gray struggled, trying to see the entrance
of the alley and catch a glimpse of Marcus.

Meathead snickered. "Don't worry
about your friend," he said.
"Boy's got what he had coming."

Cruel hands hauled him around
to where Gray could see their boss
Shakedown counting bills into Marcus' hand.

No wonder they wanted Gray.
Ricasso trusted him more than Marcus,
so Gray had the whole schedule for the week,
but it was written in code just in case.

"You'll tell us what we want to know,"
Meathead said, shaking him.

"Won't," Gray said through lips
already starting to swell.
He swallowed the blood.

"Might take some time
to break this one," Lardass said.
"We should take him somewhere quieter."

"Good idea," said Meathead.
He slung Gray over his shoulder
like a sack of rice, the motion
jarring Gray's broken arms
so much that the pain dizzied him.

They took Gray to a garage, where
they roped him to a support post and
started working him over in earnest.

Lardass slapped him back and forth
across the face until the room spun.

It reminded Gray weirdly of that time
he'd worked for Lupê Hêdonê, and how
she'd flogged him up against her wall,
which had been amazing until she got
tired of him and cut him down without
any warning whatsoever.

Gray let himself drift on the rhythm
of the heavy hand hitting his face,
and that wasn't so bad.

Then Meathead took over again,
and he was better at interrogation,
harsh punishing blows that never
set up a pattern for Gray to follow.

"The schedule," Meathead insisted.
"When does your boss go to lunch?
When does he switch offices?"

Gray swallowed more blood, and said nothing.

He began to worry that he might die here,
that nobody would come for him in time.

Meathead slid his hands over Gray's arms,
thumbs seeking out the broken ends
of bone underneath the skin.

Gray whimpered.
His vision tunneled, faded,
going gray and then black.

He groped his way through
the darkness and the pain.

Something like cobwebs
brushed against his fingertips.
He tried to push it away, determined
to see the man who was killing him.

Someone shrieked.

Gray jerked awake to find himself
staring into the white-rolling eyes
of the enforcer who staggered away.

Inside him was all lightning and icewater
and sharp edges like the breaking of the shell
that had held back something which
could be contained no longer.

The power lashed out again
and found a target in Meathead,
who wailed again and then
collapsed, unconscious.

Lardass stepped forward and
yelled, "Whatever you're doing,
you stop it or I'll fucking kill you!"

He slapped Gray across the face,
and the sense of it rebounded,
snarling across his nervous system.

It was pain, Gray realized,
pure simple pain that he was
pushing out and into the nerves
of the people around him.

He worried about killing them, then,
because he knew it could happen --
superpowers that reached into the body
were chancy things when uncontrolled.

Gray wrestled with the unfamiliar sense of it,
struggling to control an ability that had
only just come to him, and under
the worst possible circumstances.

It slipped through his mental grip
like quicksilver, refusing to obey him.

Gray thought about the things he'd read
or heard about using superpowers.
He tried imagining a wall. He tried
to focus on his breathing.

As he watched, Lardass
slumped to the floor and
lay there, twitching feebly.

Only when the screaming stopped --
theirs as well as his -- could Gray hear
the distant sounds of a scuffle.

He writhed in the ropes, desperate
to escape. The last thing he needed
was to get picked up by the cops.

Gray could hardly move his hands,
but blood and sweat slicked his skin,
helping him to slide out of the ropes.
Finally he pushed away from the post.

He slunk toward the source of the noises,
pressing himself against the wall, hoping
to catch a glimpse of the interlopers before
they could see him, so that he'd know
who they were and where they came from
and maybe even how to avoid them.

When Gray saw the glossy black silk of
Ricasso's jacket, he almost fainted in relief.
"Boss," he croaked, "over here."

"Gray!" said Ricasso, hurrying toward him.
"My god, what happened to you?"

"Got beat up," Gray said.
"Wouldn't tell your schedule."
He waved off the hands that
reached toward his swaying body.
"Uh ... don't anyone touch me."

Ricasso froze in place.
"Why not?" he asked.
Then he shouted over
his shoulder for Thriver.

"Some kind of superpower
that causes incredible pain,"
Gray said. "I can't control it.
Meathead and Lardass are
out cold, back there -- whenever
they touched me, it went off."

"Almost nobody can control
their superpower right away,"
Ricasso said gently. "You'll learn."

Thriver trotted over to join them.
"Gray, I'm seeing a lot of injuries here.
It looks like both your arms are broken.
I can't do much for you if I can't
even touch you," he said.

"I don't want to hurt you," Gray said.

"How about just a little touch?"
Thriver bargained. "One fingertip,
to see what happens."

"Okay," Gray agreed, because
he hurt all over and really wanted
for Thriver to be able to fix it.

Thriver barely made skin contact
before he jerked away, wincing.
"You were right, no touching,"
he admitted to Gray.

"Have you tried shielding?"
Ricasso asked.

"Yeah, that and breathing,"
Gray said. "Didn't work."

"Hmm," Ricasso said.
"Try closing your eyes."

"You think it's a gaze attack?"
Gray wondered.

"It could be," Ricasso said.

"It's worth a try," Gray agreed.
He closed his eyes. "Thriver ...
are you willing to test it again?"

One fingertip touched the back of
his hand in reply. "Huh," said Thriver.
"Now it's no worse than static electricity.
I can work around this, no problem.
How'd you feel about a blindfold?"

"Good idea," Gray said. He didn't
want something to startle him
into opening his eyes and
hurting his friends.

A whisper of silk, and Ricasso said,
"Here, you can use this."

Thriver wrapped the handkerchief
over Gray's eyes as carefully
as if bandaging a wound.

"There you go, all safe now,"
he said as he finished it.

"How'd you find me?" Gray asked.

"Marcus came home without you,"
Ricasso said. "I convinced him
to tell me the whole story.
He swears he didn't know
they meant you real harm."

"He's an idiot," Gray said.

"This is not news," Ricasso agreed.

Thriver's gentle hands moved over
Gray's body, cataloging the injuries.

"Know they broke my arms," Gray said.
"How bad's the rest of it?"

"Not good, but nothing that seems
likely to leave permanent damage,"
Thriver reported. "Do you want us
to drive you to the hospital, or would
you rather I take care of you myself?"

"You do it," Gray said quickly.
"I'd rather you than a doctor who's
probably never even seen a soup before."

"Okay," Thriver said. "Let me just
top up your energy supply. You're
running low on fuel again. What did
I tell you about remembering to eat?"

"They jumped me right before lunch,"
Gray said as Thriver fed him power.

Gentle fingers ruffled through his hair.
"Look at this," Ricasso said thoughtfully.
"The color is changing, too slow to see
while we're watching, but faster than just
replacing the hairs with new growth."

"What color is it now?" Gray fretted,
worried about what he couldn't see.

"I'd say pewter," Ricasso reported,
tenderly stroking his head again.
"It's kind of a metallic gray."

"My hair is going gray?
I'll look like an old man!"
Gray said, his face crumpling.

"No, you don't," Ricasso said.
"You just look like a soup now.
It's very distinguished. Actually,
I think it suits you better than
that ashy-blond color did."

Thriver probed the hidden break
in Gray's right arm, making him moan --
and then Thriver sprang back with a yelp.

"What happened?" Gray said.

"Your superpower just flared when
I hurt you," Thriver said. "It hit me back,
that's all. Not your fault. Hey, let's move
this to the van. I've got the good drugs
in the big first aid kit there. I think if I
dose you up enough, it'll be safer."

Gray was all in favor of that.
"Yes, please," he said.

If Gray looked down the sides of
his nose, he could just make out
the shapes of a few fallen enemies.
Nobody complained, so maybe it was
okay for him to peek just a little.

Thriver helped Gray to step over
the slouched form of a bodyguard,
who sat propped against the wall with
each hand clutching the opposite arm
where two neat cuts near the armpits
let out an impressive amount of blood.

The same devastating precision
had cut the legs out from under another.
Ricasso wasn't someone that a sane person
really wanted to risk pissing off.

"Somebody roll out the crash mat
in the back of the van," Ricasso ordered.

Gray could hear the snap of straps
and the flop of the foam uncurling
to slap against the van's floor.

While Thriver popped open his kit,
Ricasso pushed Marcus forward.
"Don't you have something to say
to Gray?" the boss growled.

"No hard feelings?" Marcus said,
his voice wavering a little.

Gray tilted his head back until he could
see Marcus. He managed to raise an arm
high enough to pat Marcus on the cheek.
"Not now," Gray said, and triggered his power.

Marcus flopped to the ground, screaming.

Ricasso sighed. "Somebody pick that up,"
he ordered. "This place may be a dump,
but that doesn't mean we should
leave our trash in it."

One of the other enforcers grabbed
an ankle and towed Marcus
toward the waiting van.

"He was supposed to apologize,"
Ricasso said to Gray.

"He wouldn't have meant it,"
Gray said softly. "I guess he
wasn't the friend I thought he was."
That hurt more than the broken arms.

"We're lifting you up," Thriver warned,
and they scooped him up to lay him
carefully on the foam mat. In Gray's
current condition, that was easier
than trying to climb in by himself.
"As soon as I get your arms splinted,
we'll head back to headquarters."

"Thanks for coming for me," Gray said.

"I don't leave my people in the lurch,"
Ricasso said firmly, patting Gray's knee.

Gray sighed. He'd picked a good boss.
Even as fucked up as he was right now,
he felt better just knowing that he was safe
and they'd take proper care of him.

"I've got your pain relief ready,"
Thriver said. "Hold still, this'll sting."

The faint twinge of the needle
was negligible under the all-over ache
from the rest of Gray's injuries.

Then another worry hit him.
"Will that stuff still work on me?"
Gray asked. "I know for some soups ...
their bodies change so much that
nothing works like it used to."

"If it doesn't work, you tell me,
and I'll figure out something else,"
Thriver assured him.

"I can trade for a healer if you need one,"
Ricasso said. "I didn't think it was necessary
given Thriver's preliminary report, but if
that changes, it won't be a problem."

"Wonnerful," Gray mumbled.

"Oh yeah, that's working,"
Thriver said happily. "Let me
just check the contact again.
Gray, how do you feel?"

Fingers prodded at his right arm,
but Gray couldn't tell much more
than that. "Floaty," he said.

"That's good," Thriver said.
"Take a nap if you can."

That sounded like the best idea
Gray had heard all day.

Something occurred to him,
just on the soft edge of sleep.
"Hey boss, m'all souped up now,"
Gray said. "C'n I getta raise?"

Ricasso's startled laugh rippled through
the van. "Yes, Gray, you can have a raise --
if you mind Thriver while you're recovering."

"Promise to," Gray said.

The last thing he felt before falling asleep
was his boss' hand in his hair again,
and somewhere subtly beyond that,
the cool edge of Ricasso's superpower
like a perfectly honed razor, the sense
of it sudden and intimate alongside him.

Gray wondered how long it would take him
to learn that level of control and precision.

It didn't matter, though.
He knew that Ricasso would
wait patiently for him to return to duty,
no matter how long it took.

* * *


Pain's Gray (Gray Agamau) -- He has fair skin, gray eyes, and ash-blond hair swept up toward the crown of his head. He's on the slim side for a fighter, but still has nicely defined muscles; they're just not overbuilt. He is heterosexual, but omnisensual, and often mistaken for homosexual. He tends to take out his temper on the homophobes when they pester him. Gray is popular among supervillains for combat support and running errands. He works for Ricasso, who sometimes loans out his services. He's prone to low blood sugar after stress or exertion, and needs to be careful to eat often enough.
Uniform: Charcoal dexflan suit piped in reflective silver, with a cape of Payne's grey capery. His utility belt contains a well-stocked first aid kit; he's known for treating both sides in a fight, and for having the best bleeding-edge equipment from friends in zetetics.
Origin: Torture. He was an ordinary mook until someone decided to get information out of him the hard way. That really did not end well for them. Gray escaped, returned to his boss, explained his new talent, and got a raise.
Qualities: Good (+2) BDSM Switch, Good (+2) Cook, Good (+2) Observant, Good (+2) Supervillain Henchman, Good (+2) Tough
Poor (-2) Low Blood Sugar
Powers: Good (+2) Pain Ray
Limitation: This is a gaze attack that requires eye contact for maximum effect. Without that, it's only Poor (-2). It becomes combat-ineffective, merely uncomfortable, if the target is nearby but he can't see them.
Motivation: "You're not as tough as you think you are."

Omnisensual means that while Gray prefers to copulate with women, he enjoys nongenital activities such as cuddling and kink with partners of any sex/gender.  
Marcus Arnold -- He has ruddy skin, brown eyes, and brown hair buzzed short at the sides but left longer on top. Marcus is a supervillain henchman belonging to Ricasso, mostly for running errands and stealing things. He wants more, but doesn't want to work for it. He was a friend of Gray Agamau until Marcus betrayed Gray.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Fast, Good (+2) Manipulating People, Good (+2) Observant, Good (+2) Thief
Poor (-2) Toxic Friend

Meathead (Nixon Richards) -- He has tinted skin, brown eyes, and brown hair buzzed short. His huge muscles make him look like a complete badass. This hides the fact that he's actually a coward. He only likes to pick on people weaker than himself. He consistently runs from a fair fight. Meathead works for a supervillain, Shakedown.
Origin: Nixon used to shoot up steroids to cheat at sports. One day, a "new, improved" batch gave him superpowers.
Uniform: Street clothes.
Qualities: Good (+2) Enforcer, Good (+2) Home Repairs, Good (+2) Interrogation
Poor (-2) Coward
Powers: Average (0) Super-Strength
Motivation: To intimidate people.

Lardass (Tito Gutierrez) -- He has tinted skin, hazel eyes, and short brown hair with just a trace of beard and mustache. His eyes are a murky shade of hazel with hints of light brown, gray, and green. He works for a supervillain, Shakedown. Tito's superpower allows him to absorb force, such as a punch or even a blast from a force gun, with minimal effect. He would rather hit people or steal things than actually work for a living.
Origin: Always a husky boy, Tito started gaining weight rapidly at puberty. Then his superpower emerged.
Uniform: Street clothes.
Qualities: Good (+2) Agreeable, Good (+2) Iron Stomach, Good (+2) Supervillain Henchman
Poor (-2) Lazy
Powers: Average (0) Shock Absorber
Motivation: Do the minimum required to get by.

Shakedown (Hernan Gonzales) -- He has tinted skin, brown eyes, and black hair buzzed down to stubble on scalp and face. Gang tattoos cover his throat and chest. His superpower allows him to jostle things, from minor shaking on up to earthquake level.
Origin: As a teen, he was caught in an earthquake and it took rescue teams two days to dig him out. When he recovered from his injuries, he had superpowers. But now he is restless, craving motion, and has difficulty resisting the urge to do whatever pops into his head.
Uniform: Street clothes.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Gang Leader, Expert (+4) Ruthless, Good (+2) Gambling, Good (+2) Intimidation, Good (+2) Strength
Poor (-2) Impulse Control Issues
Powers: Expert (+4) Vibration
Motivation: To shake things up.

* * *

"Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding."
-- Khalil Gibran

Bad friends typically display common traits. Learn how to identify them.

Self-defense apps for smartphones include panic buttons and deadman switches. Some of these are meant to be obvious, others invisible. Gray's version can work in any of several modes; the standard one leaves a small panic button discreetly among other icons on the main menu. Many people with superpowers use this kind of program for security, especially if they work in dangerous areas.

(Some of the following links are gross.)
Defensive wounds happen when someone tries to ward off an attack. Forearm breaks, especially a nightstick fracture, are among the most common. See first aid for fractures, blunt trauma, and violent crimes in general.

Betrayal is a disruption of trust which entails relational transgression and expectancy violation. Understand how to heal from betrayal.

Interrogation and torture may happen for various reasons. Although most often presented as a means of obtaining information, the results are poor. The cruder the methods, the less well they work; subtle psychological techniques are more effective as well as more humane. What happens to Gray is plain old brute-force bullying, so it's no surprise that a victim with a strong will and a nonstandard response to pain winds up spilling exactly nothing.

Furthermore, there are methods for resisting torture and overcoming pain. It still hurts and humiliates, but the effects are less devastating when the victim has some ways of managing it. There are ways for torture survivors to heal, and for other people to help them recover afterwards.

The Pain Ray has both gaze attack and touch attack aspects. Some superpowers have stronger effects in response to eye contact and/or skin contact. There are also ways to shut down abilities.

A thorough knowledge of anatomy helps both offense and defense in a knife fight, or the equivalent with cutting powers such as Ricasso has. What he did was make very precise nicks in the arteries, which required that his opponents immediately withdraw from fighting to concentrate on first aid. They're quite small injuries, not life-threatening if treated promptly, yet the potential threat of bleeding out gives them excellent stopping power for very minimal effort and damage level. It's not about doing the most possible harm; it's about convincing your enemy to quit bothering you.

Sensible people who work in dangerous situations will carry appropriate equipment. Thriver has plenty of medical training and Ricasso is a wise boss, which means their escape van has a heavy-duty first aid kit and a crash mat. It's not quite up to ambulance level but it's a lot less conspicuous.

People may refuse to apologize or fake an apology for various reasons. Marcus doesn't regret his actions, he's just hoping to dodge the consequences. There are tips on how not to apologize.

Leave Nobody Behind appears both as an entertainment trope and a military ideal. Gang practice varies; the higher the cohesion, the more likely they practice this. It's one of the things which distinguishes between genuinely organized crime and loose bands of thugs who hang out to enjoy a mutual hobby of making trouble.

Giving comfort to an injured person includes not just the physical first aid mentioned above, but also verbal reassurance and contact comfort. People in Terramagne are juuuuust starting to notice what a big difference that can make in soup care. Watch for Ricasso and Thriver treating Gray's new ability rather like a traumatized animal. Deciding what emergency care to offer depends on the situation, the specific damage, and the preferences of the injured person. Ricasso and Thriver have the advantage of knowing Gray well enough that they can gauge what he finds soothing. There are also general tips on comforting people.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing

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