ysabetwordsmith: Damask smiling over their shoulder (polychrome)
[personal profile] ysabetwordsmith
This poem was written outside the prompt calls, inspired by the "forced to participate in illegal/hurtful activity" square in my 7-31-14 card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest. It has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the series Polychrome Heroics. Note that this poem takes place several decades prior to the contemporary time when most of the series is set.

WARNING: This poem features some intense topics and graphic descriptions. Some of the warnings are spoilers; highlight to read them. Topics include organized crime, violent death, corpses, street children, homelessness, child abuse and exploitation, tragic memories, use of telepathy for mental influence, and other challenges. Both vengeance and a happier ending are supplied. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your mindstate before deciding whether to read further.


"Whose Conscience Approves"


It was autumn when the bodies began to appear
and the Boss took note of the matter.

"Go and find out why this is happening,"
he said to Il Dottore. "I trust you
to get to the bottom of this."

"Yes, sir," said Il Dottore,
motioning to his bodyguard Ciottolo.
The tall thin man fell into step beside him.

They made their way to the squalid alley
where Giuditta stood over the latest corpse,
her patchwork leather coat pulled close
against the cold, cutting wind.

Ciottolo had pulled up the collar
of his long woolen coat, and Il Dottore
felt grateful for his own cashmere overrobe.
The half-mask kept his cheeks warm
but did nothing for his chin.

The corpse lay coated with frost,
diamond over the waxy skin,
ruby where blood had frozen
before it had time to dry.

Probable cause of death: exsanguination.

Il Dottore moved closer, circling the body,
and noticed oddities in the way it lay --
hollows at pelvis and chest, yes, and
a flattened spot where head met pavement.

Possible cause of death: blunt trauma.

"Let me show you something," Giuditta said solemnly,
picking up a slat of wood to shift the dead man's jacket.

Below the stiff cloth, Il Dottore could see a wound
as if something small but incredibly powerful
had punched through the ribcage.

He shivered, but knelt to take a closer look.
"Ciottolo, shine a light on this, if you would,"
he said, and the narrow beam revealed
disturbing new evidence beside the rupture:
knuckle marks, a clear row of rounded bruises.

From a tiny hand, barely half the size of his own.

Il Dottore withdrew a ruler from his pocket
and measured the marks, just to be sure,
but the evidence was incontrovertible:
the tall, beefy man at their feet
had been beaten to death by a child.

Il Dottore snapped a few pictures
to document the scene for the Boss.
These streets were theirs to protect.

Then he moved away, wedging himself
into a nearby doorway for protection and support.
"Stand guard," he told Ciottolo as he closed his eyes.
"I need to scan the area for our perpetrator."

Hundreds of minds filled the neighborhood,
most of them occupied with everyday concerns.
Il Dottore filtered them out and concentrated
on the most sad, anxious, and angry ones.

Here was a widow grieving her husband's death,
a little girl terrified of the rats in her apartment,
a bitter young man beating his wife.

Spiraling outward, Il Dottore found
a cluster of children, one of them a tight knot
of fear and anger and guilt wrapped around
a solid, shining core of integrity.

"I have a direction," said Il Dottore
as he opened his eyes and pushed away
from the sheltering embrace of the doorway.

Ciottolo and Giuditta followed him to
an abandoned parking lot behind a closed shop,
yellow grass peeking through its broken pavement,
where several street children scavenged amongst
the splintered wooden crates and broken glass.

None of them were dressed properly for the weather,
boys in shirtsleeves and girls in summer dresses,
several of them without socks or shoes.

One boy stopped to stare at them, half hiding
behind a flagpole and clinging to it for support.
He wore a man's undershirt hanging off his scrawny form
and tattered pants held up with a piece of twine.
Still he faced them with a solemn, piercing gaze.

Il Dottore plucked a handkerchief from his pocket,
its Roman baroque design of dark gold and indigo
showing boldly against the yellow Italian silk.

With deft gestures he shaped it into a puppet
and began to perform, capering about the lot.

The boy watched in rapt fascination
but did not approach, even when
the puppet beckoned to him.

Il Dottore reached out with his power,
touching the outermost edges of the boy's mind,
to see how the child would respond.

He swayed against the flagpole, yearning forward,
held back only by his grip and fear born of bitter experience.

Il Dottore touched him again, a gentle caress
to feel for the lines that held him together,
deftly sorting through the fears to nudge them aside
and wrapping the boy's desire around a mental fingertip --
there, too, a thread of hope, fine as spidersilk --
he gathered that up as well.

Il Dottore gave a gentle tug on the strands he held.
urging the child to come toward them.

This time the resistance came from a deep well
of sorrow and a sense of worthlessness,
shored up by determination not to appear weak.

The boy has backbone, Il Dottore thought fondly.
There are not many who can resist me.

The telepath smoothed away the child's concerns
to reveal more of the longing and hope, and
buried so far below that it was all but forgotten,
a strand of skin-hunger which Il Dottore added
to the growing bundle in his grasp.

He beckoned again, drawing the strings
as delicately as those of a marionette.
Come to me, Il Dottore coaxed.

The boy finally let go of the flagpole
and ran to meet them.

The impact of the slight body knocked Il Dottore down.

"Boss! You okay?" Ciottolo exclaimed,
reaching down to help him up.

"Nothing bruised but my pride and my backside,"
Il Dottore assured him, tucking away his handkerchief.

The boy had let go instantly and backed away.
"I'm sorry I'm sorry I didn't mean to it just happens,"
he babbled, pressing himself against the wall.

The telepath furled his power around the panicky child,
taking a firmer grip this time. "Hush, my boy,
nobody is angry with you," Il Dottore assured him.

"Heard that before." Little fingers
plucked at the short sleeves of the t-shirt,
trying to pull them down far enough
to hide the bruises just above each elbow.
Rings of fading blue mottled the wrists, but
fortunately no injuries in need of immediate care.

"You've been keeping some rough company, then,"
Il Dottore observed. He tucked a fingertip inside
the V-neck of the shirt, shifting the collar to show
more marks where the boy's neck met his shoulder.

The child flinched but did not pull away.
After a moment, when the stranger's hand
offered no threat, he drifted toward the touch
until he came to rest against Il Dottore's front.
Even that slight, voluntary contact made him shiver.

"You're cold," Il Dottore observed. "That's no good.
Here, you may borrow my robe." He shrugged off
the black cashmere and wrapped it around the boy,
using that as an excuse to gauge his size more closely.

According to the child's memory, he was ten years old, but
Il Dottore could see that he stood well under 130 centimeters
and wouldn't have weighed 20 kilograms soaking wet,
The hands were small, but the wristbones above them
jutted out and the feet were enormous, hinting at
future size like a mastiff puppy tripping over his own paws.

Yet there was no mistaking the wild surge of power
whose strength had sent them both sprawling.

"It's too good for me," the boy whispered,
but he clung to the soft cashmere anyway
as if trying to lose himself inside it.

"I think it looks very fine on you," Il Dottore said,
"though I admit you may need time to grow into it."
The hem nearly touched the ground, and the sleeves
covered everything but the grubby fingertips.

A faint giggle reassured him that
the child's sense of humor had survived
whatever horrors life had thrown at him.

"I am Il Dottore, and these are my friends
Giuditta and Ciottolo," the telepath said.
"Will you tell us what to call you?"

The soft mumble made Il Dottore shake his head;
surely no one would name a child Satan.
He coaxed the boy into lifting his head and said,
"How about you try telling me instead of my shirt?"

"Gaetan," the child said, scarcely louder.

"That's a good strong name," Il Dottore said,
noting the flinch over 'strong' again.
"What bothers you about strength, I wonder?"

"Sometimes I'm too strong," Gaetan said.
His memory filled with larger boys and men
holding him down and hurting him -- and then
the crunch of bone under his small brave fists,
the shocking spray of blood. The wounds from
that abuse ran all the way to the core of him,
leaving his mind sore and fragile.

It was like seeing a classic statue defaced.

Il Dottore did what he could to soothe the worst of it,
but repairing the damage would take time and care.
"When people are hurting you, then you can and should
do everything in your power to stop them," he said,
splicing the message into the boy's mind where it
would start to stabilize the shifting pieces.

"But I can't control it," Gaetan whispered.

"You can learn to control it, just as you
learned to walk when you were a toddler,"
Il Dottore promised him. "I had to practice
a long time to master my talent, too.
Mind powers can be slippery things."
Another tender caress demonstrated
the finesse he had achieved.

"I like when you do that," Gaetan said,
clinging to Il Dottore both physically and mentally.
"It feels good inside my head."

The telepath stroked him more firmly,
feeling the potential for great compassion and
resilience under the layers of wreckage.

"I'm glad I could help," said Il Dottore.
"Shall we walk you home now, or
do you have somewhere else safe to go?"
That was fishing, plain and simple,
because all the signs pointed out
the unlikelihood of any happy answer.

"No thank you, sir, I'm fine here," Gaetan said aloud,
but inside he was wailing, Don't leave me!
I wish I could go home with you
.

Jumbled memories of a poor but loving family
lost to tragedy tumbled over more recent ones
of scrabbling for survival on the streets.

The harsh emotions shook his conscience --
the Family hadn't done enough to keep a lid on things
in this area -- and left the telepath reeling.

This time it was the boy who kept Il Dottore upright.

"Are you all right? I didn't hurt you, did I?"
Gaetan asked, his voice tight.

"You didn't hurt me, you were just thinking out loud --
very loud -- and I didn't like what I saw," Il Dottore said.

"I know I'm no good," Gaetan said, backing away.
"I'm a thief and a murderer. I got no job, so I have to
beg and steal to survive, and the big men are always
telling me to make myself useful but I don't wanna --"

Il Dottore pulled him right back into a hug. "Nonsense,"
he said firmly. "There is nothing wrong with you.
If people forced you to do things which were
illegal or hurtful, then the blame is theirs, not yours.
I do wonder if they're all dead, though?"

They weren't.

Two more images floated to the surface
of the boy's mind, gross faces distorted with rage.

Il Dottore memorized them, then sent them
carefully to Giuditta with the message,
Check with the Boss first, but I expect
these fellows will wind up feeding the fishes
.

Her silver half-mask with its pink-painted cheeks
hid much of Giuditta's expression, but
her lips thinned and Il Dottore could feel the
anger rolling off her as she gave him a grim nod.

"I will take care, and warn those on patrol," Giuditta said.
Her hand touched the hilt of a hidden blade.

"You really don't care that I'm a ... I mean,
about what I've done?" Gaetan said,
looking up at Il Dottore.

"I wish you hadn't been pushed into it so young,"
Il Dottore said, "but plenty of people have done
difficult things to stay alive. A person
whose conscience approves the necessity
can learn to make peace with it."

"Oh," Gaetan said softly. "I think I'd like that."

"Come home with me," Il Dottore invited,
patting Gaetan on the shoulder. "I will
keep you safe, and the house where I live
belongs to a large Family so there is
plenty of room for you there."

"What ... what would I have to do for you ...
to earn my keep?" Gaetan asked in a small voice.

Il Dottore knew that his first reaction -- nothing! --
would never convince a street child, so instead
he said lightly, "The same chores as the other boys,
setting the table or fetching firewood, I imagine."

That sparked a sudden, fiercely treasured memory
of lying in front of a warm hearth playing marbles
with a stuffed toy for companionship.

Il Dottore brought out his handkerchief again,
this time shaping it into a doll. He took off
his plain gold ring and popped it over the head
to hold the simple design in place.

"Here, this is for you -- a little company
for sleeping in a strange bed tonight, hmm?"
Il Dottore said as he held it out.

Gaetan hugged the doll to his chest.
"Thank you, sir," he said,
sounding steadier now.

"Come along, then," Il Dottore said, urging
him gently in the direction of the safehouse where
the boy could be cleaned and fed and assigned a room.

Gaetan's small, grimy hand slipped into his
as if it was always meant to be there.

* * *

Notes:

Il Dottore (Giuseppe Mondadori) -- Giuseppe is Italian, short and thin. He has olive skin, brown eyes, and black hair. He can make a puppet out of anything, even a handkerchief. He loves children and genuinely enjoys entertaining them. He'll empty his pockets for street children.
His strength lies in subtlety. Il Dottore works for the Puppetmaster, who manipulates world politics and the world of organized crime, not with raw power, but with superior planning and influence. Il Dottore uses mind powers to influence people, but also heal mental or emotional injuries. The Family is known to be soup-friendly, and they act to quash mistreatment of anyone with superpowers. They also help provide a safety valve for human mischief while keeping a lid on the more corrosive aspects.
Origin: Giuseppe was a street child, selected and trained as an apprentice of the Puppetmaster.
Uniform: On duty he dresses as Il Dottore, The Doctor, in dark clothes and a long-nosed mask which is dark leather with silvery swans over the eyes. Off-duty he wears street clothes, usually trousers and a button-up shirt with a hat. Giuseppe dresses so that he almost blends in, just a little formal or quirky, as performers often do. He adores brightly colored scarves and ties, particularly Italian paisley or scroll patterns. He always has some kind of puppet with him, from elaborate marionettes to simple glove puppets.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Puppeteer, Good (+2) Gentle, Good (+2) Organized Crime, Good (+2) Wealth
Poor (-2) Coping with Chaos
Powers: Good (+2) Mind Powers
Motivation: Control is strength.

Giuditta (Annetta Criscenti) -- She has fair skin, brown eyes, and long straight black hair. She comes from Buseto Palizzolo in Sicily. She excels at Paranza Corta, Sicilian knife fighting. She is married to Pulcinella, and they do not get along with Pinocchio. Giuditta serves the Puppetmaster as a spy and manipulator.
Origin: Her father was a gambler who carried around a flask of "lucky" oil to rub on his hands, which she drank when she was a small child. It made her sick, but she gained superpowers.
Uniform: She wears a silver half-mask with pink painted cheeks that matches Pulcinella's gold one. She favors varicolored clothing; even her leather coat is patchwork.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Trickster, Good (+2) Leader, Good (+2) Limber, Good (+2) Paranza Corta, Good (+2) Political Intrigue
Poor (-2) Trust Issues
Powers: Good (+2) Luck Control
Motivation: One with the courage to laugh is master of the world almost as much as the person ready to die.

Ciottolo (Onofrio Baggio) -- He has olive skin, hazel eyes, and wavy brown hair. He is tall and thin. He comes from Milan, Italy. He is a fan of European football (what Americans call soccer). His power works by giving his skin a hard, pebbly texture when he feels threatened; it lasts up to an hour. This serves as Super-Armor and also increases the damage he can do with attacks. That's how he got his name, which means "pebble." Ciottolo serves as bodyguard for Il Dottore.
Origin: When he was a young man, he intervened in a mugging, and the muggers tried to beat him to death with cobblestones. Some of the Marionettes interrupted and brought him to their healer. Although Onofrio did not show signs of his new power immediately, it emerged the next time something frightened him, and he decided to join the Family.
Uniform: Usually an Italian business suit; he favors navy blue.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Bodyguard, Good (+2) Fast, Good (+2) Football Fan, Good (+2) Urban Navigation
Poor (-2) Sense of Self-Preservation
Powers: Good (+2) Stoneskin
Motivation: To protect those who can't protect themselves.

Gaetan Costa -- He has olive skin, brown eyes, and straight dark brown hair. He is small and skinny for his age, but with big wrists and feet suggesting future growth spurts. Gaetan has a knack for languages. He has little control over his Super-Strength so far.
Origin: A family tragedy left Gaetan alone on the streets of Italy as a young boy. He survived by begging, stealing, and committing other crimes. Sometimes he fell prey to older, larger people who wanted to take advantage of him. Around ten, the stress of one particularly awful struggle triggered his Super-Strength. At first, he had little control and left a few mangled bodies from people who tried to hurt him. This attracted the attention of Giuseppe Mondadori, then working as Il Dottore for the old Puppetmaster, and who later became the current Puppetmaster. Giuseppe took him off the street, brought him into the Family, patched up as much of the psychological damage as possible, and encouraged him to develop his skills.
Uniform: Street clothes.
Qualities: Good (+2) Backbone, Good (+2) Compassionate, Good (+2) Durable, Good (+2) Languages, Good (+2) Secret Codes
Poor (-2) Needs Assurance
Powers: Average (0) Super-Strength
Motivation: Survival.

* * *

"I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death."
-- Leonardo da Vinci

The climate of Italy ranges from mild and warm, through temperate, into cold alpine depending on locale. Most places have a chilly winter with snow or at least frost.

Cashmere comes from goats and makes warm if expensive coats.

(Graphic links.) Causes of death include exsanguination and blunt force. Bruising from a fist can show as an oblong blob (whole fist), a set of lines (from the fingers), or a row of dots (knuckles).

Mind Powers include such things as Telepathy and Persuasion. Il Dottore prefers finesse over force. A telepath may have a psychic shield, but a similar effect may come from someone with a Tough or Iron Will quality. In general, people with superpowers have a better chance to resist because they can fight back on a similar level even without the same talent, whereas ordinary people without special training in mental skills tend to be a pushover. Gaetan's resistance demonstrates a strong mind and good potential.

Italy is just one of many countries with a population of street children. They typically suffer from abuse and neglect, which makes them reluctant to rely on adults even if help is offered, but those with some kind of positive family background have a better chance of capitalizing on such opportunities. Gaetan may be kind of a wreck at the moment but he has enough of a foundation to build on.

A handkerchief may be used to make a variety of instant puppets. You can even make a marionette out of a hankie or scarf. See the Roman baroque handkerchief.

A marionette is a puppet manipulated with strings, requiring both delicacy and dexterity. They perform in Sicilian puppet theatre.

Skin hunger is the human need for touch. Touch starvation has terrible effects.

Child abuse causes a lot of harm. There are ways to help abused children recover, especially for grandparents or other guardians.

Child Sizes
A normal 10-year-old boy weighs between 40 to 90 lbs, and his height is between 50 and 58 inches. In the metric system used in Italy, 40 pounds = 18 kilograms and 50 inches = 127.00 centimeters.

A Neapolitan Mastiff is a giant breed of dog from Italy.

Children may be exploited by adults, especially on the street. Begging, stealing, drugrunning, and prostitution are just a few of the crimes that children may be forced to commit.

Italian martial arts include the Paranza Corta of Sicily. Watch a video of Sicilian fighting.

You can use a handkerchief to make a doll with the aid of a ring or by itself.

Gaetan

Date: 2014-12-25 03:39 am (UTC)
dialecticdreamer: My work (Default)
From: [personal profile] dialecticdreamer
Wow, I love this. It's dark, but only at the /beginning/. It ends VERY hopefully, very practically. It's difficult, and maybe impossible to lie to a telepath, after all.

Interesting /day/ to post it, but I will definitely ask for more stories in the arc next year!

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-25 04:27 am (UTC)
stardreamer: Meez headshot (Default)
From: [personal profile] stardreamer
I like this a lot.

Interestingly, I would trust the Puppetmaster far more than I do most current American leaders, simply because he is obviously capable of considering the long view. And in the long view, you don't consider even peons expendable or worthless; you don't eat the seed corn if you want to continue to have a harvest.

In elementary school, I had a friend of Italian extraction whose last name was DeGaetano. Just one of those odd coincidences...

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-25 09:20 am (UTC)
thnidu: Tom Baker's Dr. Who, as an anthropomorphic hamster, in front of the Tardis. ©C.T.D'Alessio http://tinyurl.com/9q2gkko (Dr. Whomster)
From: [personal profile] thnidu
Heh. I've seen the name Gaetano, but not that last name. Are you sure it wasn't DiGaetano instead of De...? Not that I've seen that either, but in Italian I'd expect Di more than De.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-01-01 07:36 am (UTC)
stardreamer: Meez headshot (Default)
From: [personal profile] stardreamer
No, it was definitely DeGaetano. And after being reminded of him, I tried Google-searching him, and there are several people with his name spelled that way. I can't tell if any of them are actually him, because they're all on sites like LinkedIn that make you sign up before you can see anything beyond the name.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-01-01 03:56 pm (UTC)
thnidu: my familiar. "Beanie Baby" -type dragon, red with white wings (Default)
From: [personal profile] thnidu

All right! Thank you.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-25 09:29 am (UTC)
thnidu: my familiar. "Beanie Baby" -type dragon, red with white wings (Default)
From: [personal profile] thnidu
How strange and sweet: a gang as protector, and this telepath/empath underboss so warm and protective.

• The football, of course, is European football (what Americans call soccer).
> A problem of lore and disorder ;-)
Me: "/What/ football?!" There's no "football" till about 20 lines later.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-25 12:41 pm (UTC)
lynnoconnacht: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lynnoconnacht
<3 I loved this. So sweet, even with the dark start and undertones.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-28 03:55 am (UTC)
chanter_greenie: a blue-shaded dyed egg (not enough blue in the world)
From: [personal profile] chanter_greenie
This is simultaneously dark and surprisingly sweet. The drawing out of Gaetan - not quite luring, as it didn't seem that evil - was cause for a case of the subtle creeps, and the references to conscience approving of actions made me immediately leap to Captain Benjamin 'I can live with it' Sisko a la Deep Space Nine (this'll make sense if you've seen the series), which really highlights the fact that the leading adult in this situation really is a supervillain slip-sliding along the greyscale and taking his young charge along at least a little ways. Il Dottore really does care about Gaetan's well-being though, doesn't he? I can't help but like him for the obvious mental and emotional care he shows here. Darn it, there I go liking black capes again.

Unrelated, and like [personal profile] thnidu, I was left wondering. What football?

Re: Thoughts

Date: 2014-12-29 08:45 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] chanter_greenie
Fair points, the lot of them. I may have misread Il Dottore's references to conscience approving as a gradual lead toward darker activities with a clear conscience. I'm not sure if it was a misread; he is involved with organized crime, but then again, he may just be referencing self-defense, which is absolutely valid and necessary for Gaetan to appreciate.

Re: Thoughts

Date: 2014-12-29 01:03 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] chanter_greenie
Huh. Il Dottore's motives were far less iffy than I initially thought, then. My estimation of him goes up a notch or three.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-30 02:51 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
My interest is always piqued whenever there are telepaths and empaths, but...the mention of those strands and people being found by the particular 'flavour' of emotions...that's what evolved when I wrote a character who turned out to be an empath. When merely alive, she was a hypersensitive young woman who started to associate people with colours (a bit like me). After death, this develops into a fuller form of empathy. The colours evolve into auras and eventually, she's able to see strands and use them to amplify or dampen emotions. Another ghost is the empath of the precise kind of knowing the right thing to say or do to get the emotional kick she desires. Both get overloaded by extreme and mass negative emotions (also like me) and both are kind-hearted, which make them very dangerous. It may sound daft, but it feels gratifying to read that a highly-experienced writer also uses the same logic. Thank you,
Nat.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-09-20 09:32 pm (UTC)
helgatwb: Drawing of Helga, holding her sword, looking upset. (Default)
From: [personal profile] helgatwb
Oh, I like this.

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