Warning: This poem is hurt/comfort with emphasis on the latter. Highlight to read the detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. It contains the ouchy aftermath of a serious beating, minor symptoms of traumatic stress, needing (and accepting) a lot of help from friends, embarrassment, self-blame, mixed feelings about a new superpower, accidental use of said superpower, struggling to gain control of it, persistent hunger, trust and intimacy, power exchange, mild kink, exhaustion, and other challenges. Overall the tone is very sweet. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"Strong at the Broken Places"
A low buzz at his wrists
woke Gray from a heavy sleep.
"Who set my alarm?" he grumbled,
trying to sit up and shut it off.
Moving his arms hurt like hell.
Oh right ... he'd gotten tortured, and
gotten superpowers, and you'd think
they'd let a guy sleep it off after that.
When Gray opened his eyes,
he found both forearms encased in
what looked like metallic black lace,
with something like a vidwatch or
possibly a control panel attached
along the back of each wrist.
"They're not alarms, and it's
kind of a long story," said Thriver.
"Last night I just put on splints, and
today I was going to print casts
if the swelling went down enough."
It had only been yesterday?
Gray felt like crap, but more like
he'd gotten beat up a few days ago
than just the day before.
"But then World Worker asked
why you weren't on BlackSheep, so I
told him what happened, and he sent
this stuff over," said Thriver. "It's a new
prototype for a smart metal support system
with ultrasonic stimulation for the bones
and electromagnetic for the muscles.
He claims it'll cut the healing time
about in half, if it works right."
"Great," said Gray. "Why do I feel
so weird? I mean, my whole body
hurts, but not as much as it should
after the beating I just took."
"Oh hey, you got it!" Thriver exclaimed.
"Most soups heal well, remember?
I thought you probably would, given
how tough you were to start with.
Kind of surprised that isn't what
souped up for you, but the Pain Ray
is pretty impressive. You never know,
Toughness might grow in later after all.
Some lucky folks get more than one gift."
It all seemed so overwhelming that
Gray didn't know what to make of it.
He stared down at his hands, trying
not to make eye contact in case
the gaze attack theory proved true.
When his stomach growled, Gray
pounced on the distraction.
"Breakfast?" he asked.
"Let's check your hand function first,"
Thriver said, reaching for him.
It went fine for a minute, no more than
gentle tugging and pressing, but
as soon as Thriver hit a sore spot,
Gray's new superpower zapped him.
"Sorry, sorry," Gray muttered
as he pulled away from his friend.
"Don't worry about it," Thriver said,
wringing his hands as if trying
to rub the pain off his skin.
"How are you not upset by that?"
"You don't mind me using
my power on you," Thriver said.
"Yeah, but yours feels good," Gray said.
Thriver smirked at him. "Under the right
circumstances, yours could too," he said.
"For now -- come on, Gray, we're supervillains.
That's not a job that tends to attract people
who are afraid of a little pain."
"Point," Gray conceded. Maybe
he'd learn control before they
got tired of him slipping.
"I think you've got enough mobility
to manage in the bathroom," Thriver said,
much to Gray's relief. "I'll get you some clothes,
and make breakfast that won't be too demanding."
So Gray fumbled his way through
his morning routine as best he could.
Combing his hair proved impossible,
and he wound up just staring at
the wild fluff in the mirror. Ricasso
was right; it did look like pewter,
and he didn't hate it the way he had
expected to from the description.
It actually looked cool on him.
Thriver had left a pair of soft pants with
an elastic waistband and a V-neck shirt
easy for Gray to scramble into, even
given his currently limited dexterity.
"Here, I brought you something
that doesn't need a spoon, so you
can just put the glass on a tray
and steady it with your hands,"
Thriver said, and helped Gray
get situated in the bed.
There were also two pills
in a paper cup, which Gray
eagerly accepted before sipping
at the glass of something thick
and vaguely orange-colored.
He could taste yogurt and
apricot and what might be oatmeal.
It was utterly wonderful.
As Thriver promised, it didn't require
any stress on his broken arms, nor
embarrassing assistance with eating,
and it didn't hurt his sore mouth.
"This is great," Gray said.
"Can you do other flavors too?
And maybe soup for a few days?"
"Sure, I looked up a whole list
of foods that help bone growth,"
said Thriver. "I figured I could make
blueberry-banana-almond milk for lunch.
I'll see what I can find in the way of
soup recipes for supper." He headed
out, presumably in search of his laptop.
Gray had gotten hurt before, but rarely
this bad, and not since he'd joined up
with Ricasso. His chest felt bruised,
maybe a crack or two. This wasn't
anywhere near as miserable as
the time a strongman had swatted
him and broken a bunch of ribs.
He poked at the black lace
that wrapped around his arms.
The mesh closed into tiny loops,
strong at the broken places, but then
opened up into longer lattices elsewhere,
just like an ordinary cast. But this material
felt warm and tingly to the touch, almost alive,
giving a little bit when he pressed on it.
Clearly Gray owed World Worker
a favor, and had no idea how to pay it.
Gray spent most of the morning
either napping or watching television.
Thriver kept urging him to rest and heal,
and he wasn't inclined to argue.
When his stomach rumbled again,
Gray complained, "Why can't I
get full and stay that way?"
"First, you need more fuel to heal --
around three thousand calories a day,"
Thriver said. "Second, most people with
superpowers eat more in general, even if
their abilities don't run directly on calories.
Anyone who can frontload or backload needs
even more, and the high-burn powers such as
Super-Speed and Super-Strength take the most."
"How do I know how much I need, or
what I can do?" Gray asked.
He felt lost all over again.
"Eat whenever you feel hungry,
as much as you want. I'll help you
keep track. Ricasso's coming by at
lunchtime to start you on control lessons,"
Thriver said. "I can give you an energy boost
for now, and then make a blueberry smoothie."
"Okay," Gray said. "Just ... be careful,
my power is still all twitchy."
"You know, that happens to most people
after they get roughed up," Thriver said
as he spread his hands over Gray's chest.
"Don't harsh on yourself about it. Chances are
you'll settle down after a few days or weeks,
and if not, there are ways to fix it."
"I hope so," Gray said, enjoying the feel
of Thriver's energy pouring over him.
He could sense it so much better now,
running through the network of nerves,
although it snagged and sparked in places
where it caught against his own ability.
That felt like nothing so much as the time
he'd experimented with electrical play
and hadn't been able to decide whether
he loved or hated the odd blend of
pleasure and pain it created.
"Weird," Thriver said. After he finished,
he rubbed his hands on his pants
and then trotted back to the kitchen.
Gray was engrossed in a cooking show
about how to blind-bake pie shells
when Thriver came back with a glass
full of bright purple smoothie. That one
was as just as good as the first had been.
By lunchtime, Gray had also watched
a show on carving fruit garnishes (meh),
a bake-off that was mostly verbal abuse (ugh),
and a tutorial on cream fillings (fascinating).
He was halfway through a peanut-butter smoothie
and a carton of chocolate protein bagels when
his boss showed up for the lesson.
"I'm glad to see you eating properly,"
Ricasso said. "Did Thriver give you
the basic lecture on soup nutrition?"
"Yeah, and he's finding things that I can
feed myself without hurting my hands or
my mouth," Gray said, waving his bagel.
"How are you doing on power control?"
Ricasso asked as he sat in the nearby chair.
"Not so good," Gray said. He glanced
up and then quickly back down. "I keep
zapping Thriver when he touches me.
He insists that he doesn't mind, but I mind."
"Self-regulation is a vital skill," the boss agreed.
"I think our powers are similar enough for me
to help you out here. Let's see what I can
teach you. If it doesn't work, then we
can find you someone else."
"Okay," Gray said.
"What do I have to do?"
"We'll start with sensing," said Ricasso.
"What does your superpower feel like
inside you, or look like if you can see it?"
"It's not in me," Gray said at once.
"It's in you, or in other people.
Like cobwebs or netting or something.
I think I can feel people's nerves.
I don't know ... it's really bizarre."
"Can you sense my power?" Ricasso said.
"Some soups can sense others, some can't."
"Yeah, it's a lot clearer now," said Gray.
"Used to be, it just felt like static or
something that made my hairs stand
on end, if you got mad enough
to start swinging it around."
"I'm going to try touching you with it,
not to hurt, just to make contact,"
said Ricasso. "If we're lucky,
you should feel a little pushback
against your own gift, and that will
help you figure out where the 'edge'
of it is in relation to other people."
"And if we're not lucky?" Gray said.
setting aside his empty glass.
"The worst that's likely to happen
is that I'll trigger yours again, and
I'm the one who'll wind up wearing
the backlash," Ricasso said. "I can
guarantee that I won't slip and nick you."
"Okay," Gray said, holding out a hand.
Even that much motion sent a warning throb
through the broken bone that made him wince.
Ricasso clucked his tongue sharply.
"Keep your hands in your lap," he said.
"We need to stay off your arms until they heal,
because right now your superpower will feel
hyperprotective of the injuries, as it should be.
Pull up your pantleg so I can see your calf."
Gray obeyed, and his boss reached out
to hold one hand above his leg.
A moment later, there it was.
Gray could feel it so crisply now,
Ricasso's power lying cool and smooth
against his calf, like the blade of a pocketknife.
Ricasso slid his gift delicately over Gray's skin,
not leaving a scratch, just shaving
the hairs off one at a time.
"That's amazing," Gray said,
even though he knew that Ricasso
trimmed his own beard the same way.
"How did you ever learn that kind of control?"
"Practice," Ricasso said. "I started out
with lemons, then apples, and finally
got down to where I can peel grapes.
You'll get there in time. I have faith."
Gray had seen him supreming orange slices
for fruit salad before, which was just
a ridiculous display of skill given that
his superpower could eviscerate people.
"What am I supposed to feel for?" Gray asked.
"Where your power ends and mine begins,"
Ricasso said. "There should be a boundary,
like a drop of oil floating on water. What we
want to avoid is one power sliding into the other,
like when Thriver is sharing his energy."
"Yeah, I can feel it," Gray said.
"Now concentrate on keeping your energy
on your side of that barrier," Ricasso said,
and lowered his hand to Gray's leg.
Gray managed to hold out for a few seconds
before his ability sputtered loose, and
Ricasso pulled away.
"Sorry," Gray muttered.
"You're doing very well," Ricasso said.
"Try again, and see how long you can go."
They repeated the same exercise several times,
which Gray found frustrating because he could
stretch only a few seconds longer each round
before the power slipped his grip again.
"I suck at this," he grumbled.
"It takes practice," said Ricasso. "You're not
going to learn it all in one afternoon. I just
want to introduce you to some different things
that you can try to see what works for you."
That was scary, not knowing how long
it might take for him to learn enough control
that he'd feel safe leaving the sanctuary
of the gang's own holdings.
Gray really didn't want to risk
hurting people, though, not by accident.
He wasn't one of those whackjobs
who'd swing at anyone in sight.
"I'll work on it," he said.
"What else is there?"
"You said that you tried
shielding and breathing,
and those didn't help,"
said Ricasso. "Think of
something that makes you
feel secure, that you can
hang onto with your mind."
Gray's thoughts went right
to bondage. He loved being
tied up, especially suspension.
"Oh, that's a good one, you're smiling,"
said Ricasso. "Now I want you to hold that
in your mind, and look me in the eye."
Instantly Gray closed his eyes
and tucked his chin to his chest.
"I don't want to," he said.
"Were you planning to walk around
with your eyes closed forever?"
Ricasso asked gently.
"No," Gray whispered.
A fingertip stroked the edge of Gray's chin,
making him lift up just a fraction, until
Ricasso could reach underneath.
"Come on now, look at me,"
the boss coaxed. "I know that
you're scared of your superpower,
but that's not helping. Think about this.
It's not actually attacking anyone you
care about -- no worse than a little jolt
here and there, nothing like what happened
to those thugs who beat you up yesterday."
Gray had to admit that was true.
His power didn't feel as savage and wild
as it had at first, more like skittish and nippy.
He opened his eyes again.
Soft pressure under his chin
tilted his head up to meet
Ricasso's warm hazel gaze.
Gray felt like he was falling in,
captured by intricate beautiful lace
in threads of green and gold
and deeper brown.
Then Ricasso pulled away,
his hand coming up to rub his head.
Gray closed his eyes and wished
that he could just sink through the bed
and disappear into the floor.
"Did it again, didn't I."
"I'm all right, Gray, it's
just a touch of headache,"
said Ricasso. "It faded as
soon as you broke eye contact."
His hand settled over Gray's eyes.
"I think this holds up the theory
that you're leaning toward optics
rather than skin contact as
your primary mode."
Gray sighed and went limp
under that strong, confident touch.
"Yeah, that seems right," he said.
"You're a lot more relaxed now,"
Ricasso said. "Something about this
is really working for you. What is it?"
"You covered my eyes," Gray said.
"Besides, I like it when you take control."
Ricasso's warm chuckle made his hand
vibrate a little. "That's fine," he said.
"Now let's see if you can make this
work for yourself, without my help."
He let go. "Imagine yourself tied up
and blindfolded. You feel safe.
You feel securely held."
"Mmm-hmm," Gray murmured.
"Hold onto that image," Ricasso said,
"and open your eyes again."
Gray obeyed. It was as if
that mental image of a blindfold
kept some kind of film between them.
He could still sense the graceful lace of
Ricasso's nervous system, but without
stumbling into it like a clumsy spelunker
flailing at a spiderweb in the dark.
"There you go," Ricasso said, and
moved his hand back over Gray's eyes.
Gray melted again. "It worked," he said.
"It sure did. We'll stop while we're ahead,"
Ricasso declared. "How do you feel?"
"A little light-headed, almost queasy,"
Gray said. "Starting to get a headache."
His stomach growled a demand.
"How can I be hungry again?
I just finished lunch!"
"Gray, that was two hours ago,"
Ricasso said. "I'll ask Thriver
to bring you more food."
He ducked out of the room.
Gray's casts activated with a soft buzz.
It wasn't annoying, now that he knew
what it was -- kind of soothing, actually,
like a cat purring but without the weight.
When Ricasso came back, he said,
"We're having seafood chowder,
it's already in progress, and --
what's that noise?"
"Gizmotronic casts," said Gray.
"Thriver got them from World Worker.
They're supposed to speed the healing."
"Impressive," said Ricasso. "May I touch?"
"You can try," Gray said. "I think
you're right about my superpower
being overprotective of my arms."
Ricasso confined his exploration
to the lacy black lines that stretched
over Gray's hand to keep him from
bending his wrist too much, and
as soon as the tingling energy
started to build up, he let go.
"You know, there's another exercise
we can do, just teaching your superpower
that we're not going to hurt you," he said.
"I know you won't hurt me,"
Gray said. "I trust you."
"You know that, but your power
doesn't know it yet," Ricasso said.
"It's part of you, but believe me,
superpowers can have a mind
of their own, kind of like your cock."
Gray laughed. "Yeah, that explains a lot."
"Well, your superpower woke up with
someone torturing you," Ricasso said.
"So it tends to think of people as a threat,
and the only reason it hasn't really hurt us
is because the rest of you does trust us.
Traumatic manifestation often means that
the power reacts defensively for a while."
"But it'll calm down?" Gray said.
"I don't want to be stuck like this."
"Watch," Ricasso said. He touched
the tip of Gray's middle finger,
then slid slowly upward.
When he reached the edge of the cast,
Gray's power stirred, and Ricasso let go.
"I don't see how that's helping,"
Gray said with a sigh.
"Be patient," said his boss.
Ricasso repeated the same motion --
and this time got an inch farther
before he had to stop. "There, see?
Your power is learning that I'm safe,
that I'll back off when it tells me to."
"Huh," Gray said. "That's ... neat.
Like a safeword, but with your hands."
"Nonverbal safewords work,"
Ricasso said, smiling.
Just then, Thriver came in
carrying a tray with two bowls
and a mug of seafood chowder
trailing fragrant wisps of steam.
"Dinner is served," he said.
"Why are you guys eating
the same stuff?" Gray asked.
"You're not injured."
"Because it's good food,"
Thriver said as he handed it out.
"Here, take these first." He added
two pills to Gray's lap tray, along
with a glass of water.
Gray swallowed obediently, and then
turned his attention to the food.
The salt stung Gray's lips where
all the slapping had made his teeth
cut into the inside of his mouth.
The chowder tasted so good, though,
that he didn't care about the small pain.
There were breadsticks to go with it, too,
light enough to lift and soft enough to chew
without stressing his damaged body.
He was hurt, but he'd heal.
The beating had shaken him up
pretty badly, messed with his head
as well as messing up his body, but
he'd also gotten something out of it
that he had never expected.
His superpower might be prickly
until it calmed down, but Gray
didn't regret getting it.
His life, like his casts, was
stronger at the broken places.
Beside him, Ricasso and Thriver
chatted quietly about the varieties of
seafood that had gone into the chowder.
Gray savored his home-cooked meal
and his gently purring casts, and
thought about how lucky he was
to have such fantastic friends.
"Thanks for taking care of me," he said.
Thriver nodded, and Ricasso brushed
his fingers over Gray's shoulder.
"You're worth it," said the boss.
* * *
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. He is discovering a knack for making fancy pastries. Now that he has superpowers, he heals better -- as many soups do -- although not enough to count as a separate superpower.
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) Observant, Good (+2) Pastry Cook, 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.
Thriver (Alec McKinney) -- He has fair skin with freckles, green eyes, and short wavy brown hair. He is slender and graceful. He can go for a long time without resting, if necessary, because of how his body stores energy.
After his superpower developed, Thriver lived on the streets for a while. He earned money by selling himself, not for sex, but for the thrill of playing with superpowers. Some supervillains in particular liked the fact that he could juice them up. Ricasso met him in passing, gave him money and food more than once, and tried to convince him to go to a shelter. Thriver always refused. Then one night, Thriver gave away too much of his energy. Ricasso found him passed out on the pavement and took him home. After some coaxing the next day, Thriver agreed to stay with him, and eventually joined the gang. His job is basically taking care of the other gang members, things like food and medical care and a sympathetic ear when they're upset.
Origin: His superpower manifested while he was in paramedic training, probably stimulated by the intense study. They kicked him out.
Uniform: Street clothes. He often wears a black leather jacket.
Qualities: Good (+2) Endurance, Good (+2) First Aid, Good (+2) Loyal, Good (+2) Soup Friends, Good (+2) Supervillain Henchman
Poor (-2) Hates to See His Friends Hurt
Powers: Good (+2) Energy Transference
Motivation: Keep everyone running.
Ricasso (Antonin Torriani) -- He has fair skin, hazel eyes, and short wavy black hair with a mustache joining a complex beard. His eyes are the shade of hazel that blends amber and green toward the outside with darker brown near the pupils. His name refers to the unsharpened part of a sword blade that allows greater precision by placing a finger over it. His father's family comes from Duno, Province Varese, Lombardia, Italy. His other heritage includes French, British, and Spanish. Antonin is first-generation American.
Ricasso runs a supervillain gang, providing muscle and showmanship and other services. His preferred weapons include knives and swords, which he learned to use before gaining superpowers. As a hobby he enjoys kink and other forms of power exchange; he's a talented gentleman dom. He also likes dancing and other fashionable entertainments.
Origin: He inherited a sword pendant which granted him superpowers. It was made during the French Revolution.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Crime Boss, Expert (+4) Power Exchange, Good (+2) Ballroom Dancing, Good (+2) Fashion Sense, Good (+2) Lockpicking, Good (+2) Strength, Good (+2) Suave
Poor (-2) Coping with Crudity
Powers: Good (+2) Cutting, Good (+2) Precision, Average (0) Minions
The Spadonari include both superpowered and ordinary gang members. Their name means "sword dancers." While they aren't as numerous as some other gangs, their quality is beginning to attract attention.
* * *
"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."
-- Ernest Hemingway
3D printed casts are greatly superior to plaster. This style is typical in Terramagne. So are other devices such as braces. World Worker has developed one with additional features to speed healing. Here's a clunky L-American version. Ultrasound can help broken bones heal faster. Similarly, electrical stimulation is used to treat muscle atrophy during recovery. Magnetic stimulation can activate muscles without the discomfort that some electrical stimulation causes. Combine that at gizmology level and you get casts that are secure, lightweight, breathable, fit through sleeves, and feel good.
Arm fractures require attentive followup care and heal in 3-10 weeks, with 6 weeks being typical.
There are more ways to speed the healing of broken bones. Among the best is a healing diet full of things that promote bone growth and reduce inflammation. Here are recipes for the apricot, blueberry, and peanut butter smoothies. Chocolate protein bagels look like this.
Self-criticism, self-blame, and shame often follow a traumatic experience. Shame can be characterological (based on real or perceived flaws in personality) or behavioral (based on poor choices or other failures of action), and Gray leans toward behavioral. Fortunately Ricasso is having none of that nonsense. There are exercises on how to let go of self-blame.
Self-compassion is the practice of treating yourself gently, which is a lot easier if you have people around you doing the same. Here are some guided meditations and other steps toward self-compassion.
Self-control is an essential virtue that develops through practice. Understand that willpower gets tired just like everything else. There are tips for building self-control.
Psychic powers are related to superpowers, such as Gray's new Pain Ray. Methods of turning off psychic powers include ground-center-shield, meditation, calming, relaxation, and breathing. Some of these work better for certain abilities or individuals, so people often have to try different things to figure out what works for them.
A gaze attack is any ability that requires some kind of eye contact to work. Ocular Powers include such things as Optic Blasts. Gray's is actually on the subtle side because it doesn't give off visual side effects like a spray of light.
Eye gazing or soul gazing is an intimate activity useful for attuning two people's energy.
Visualization is a mental exercise that can increase mental toughness or improve skills.
Chowder is a tasty seafood dish. Here are some good chowder recipes. Many chowder recipes can be pureed with an immersion blender if you dislike lumps or have recently been pounded by supervillains.