New Clothes and Old Wounds

"I like that," Imoen said. "What is it?"

"Let me check," I said, while mousing over my dock to see what was playing. "Ah. Unpayable Silence, by Mittnatsol. How are you feeling?"

"Bored," Imoen said. "Lada introduced me to Final Fantasy, but it's just not the same as real life. In real life, I would have backstabbed Seymour the first chance I got."

"I know what you mean," I laughed. "He oozed slime, right from the first meeting. So what do you think ...?" The sound of someone knocking on the front door interrupted us. "Maybe that's UPS. Let's go see."

"Fred!" Lada called from the living room. "It's UPS!"

"Coming!" I called back. I grinned at Imoen and said, "Our first shipment of new clothes. Let's see what you and Lada think of them."

Imoen snorted, grinned at me, and bounced down the hallway ahead of me. Good. She's doing better than she was yesterday. That's a big relief. At the front door, Lada was signing the delivery form for the UPS man. Once he was gone, I picked up the box from the porch and brought it in, then set it down in front of the TV. I sat in the recliner, and Lada and Imoen sat on the sofa, while I cut open the box.

"So, let's see what we have in here, eh?" I said, grinning. I picked up the packing list, and laughed. "Oh dear. This isn't Walmart. This is Pegasus Publishing. Looks like the shipping website was confused. Still, there's some good stuff in here."

"Oh no," Lada groaned, hiding her face in her hands. "You didn't stock up on lab coats and MU stuff, did you?"

"Maaaaaybe," I shot back, grinning. I began removing items from the box and piling them in three different stacks. Lab coats, mad scientist shirts, Miskatonic University t-shirts and sweatshirts, and caffeine shirts for me. Chocolate, Jack Skellington, Zim, and Buffy shirts for Lada. A couple Green Linen Shirts, +5 t-shirts, a shirt that offered espresso and a free kitten to unattended children, and a Godzilla World Tour t-shirt for Imoen. And finally, a couple "Captain Jack Harkness never slept here" shirts for each of us.

Lada looked at the pile of clothes, then at me, and squeaked, "All this? How?"

"Like you said, we don't need all those meds any more," I said. "The way I figure it, the only meds we need for sure are your glaucoma meds, so we'll be saving this much money every month now."

"I don't understand that," Imoen said. "When I made my wish, I wished that everyone in the house would be in perfect health."

"I was born with glaucoma," Lada said. "Every medical problem I developed after I was born is gone now. But the glaucoma is still here."

"I think that's it," I said. "Since she was born with it, it's as much a part of her as her missing eye."

"But it's not perfect health," Imoen said.

"It is for me," Lada said. "And I'm grateful. Really."

"So, who's going to try on a new shirt first?" I asked.

"I will," Imoen said, peeled off her tunic, and slipped into her Godzilla shirt. "Wow. This is nice. I've never had a new shirt that was this soft and comfortable. They always scratch when you first get them."

"I know," I said. "T-shirts are great that way. Even polo shirts scratch around the seams when you first get them, but I've never had that problem with a t-shirt."

I peeled off my own – four sizes too large – shirt and replaced it with one of my new Miskatonic shirts. "Yeah, this is better. Lada? What's wrong?"

Lada was looking at Imoen. At my question, she jumped, then looked at me, blushing. "I need new bras. I wish I could get away without them, like Imoen can, but I can't."

"What's a bra?" Imoen asked.

"It's an undergarment," I said, when Lada sputtered and didn't get any words out. "It supports your breasts, without binding like a corset or bodice."

Imoen looked down at her chest, then at Lada's, and hmm'ed thoughtfully. "You know, that's one reason I still wear my armor, even though it interferes with some of my spells. When you're doing something really physical, it can be really uncomfortable if you don't have support."

"So, we'll have to measure you for bras, then," I said. "We'll have to do that for Lada, too, given how much smaller she is now. We should have done that when we were measuring you for other clothes."

"We couldn't think of everything," Lada said. "And what we needed most was clothes that would keep us from being arrested when we leave the house."

"And that don't require a bungie cord to keep them from falling off," I said, grumbling as I looked at my pants, currently held up by a bungie cord that was wrapped twice around my waist.

"But that means it'll be harder to get them off," Imoen teased. Lada squeaked and hid behind her laptop, and I snorted and stuck my tongue out at Imoen. "You know what that means," Imoen shot back. "Of course, given how well you demonstrated your knowledge yesterday, I'm not going to complain."

Lada let out a weak whimper, and Imoen shifted her attention away from me as she reached out a hand to Lada. Lada looked at her, frozen for a moment, then took Imoen's hand. I scooped up my collection of shirts and lab coats and retreated to my room. It looked to me like I'd have plenty of time to level my own toon.

"What do you call this kind of cheese?" Imoen asked.

"Feta," Lada and I answered, practically in stereo.

"It's good," Imoen said. "Tastes like goat's milk. That's one of the things I remember from Candlekeep. We kept goats, and made cheese. A lot of cheese. It's the best way to keep milk, you know?"

"Yogurt's good, too," I said. "I make it sometimes, when we have enough money to buy three or four gallons of milk at once."

"Yogurt?" Imoen asked. "I don't think I know what that is. Does it go with olives the way this cheese does?" She grinned, a cheerful, shameless grin that brought a question to mind – one that I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer to.

"Imoen," I asked, "how old are you? Seventeen? Eighteen? Nineteen?"

"Oh, I just turned sixteen at Shieldmeet," Imoen said.

I groaned. Yup. I really had not wanted to know the answer to that question. Lada squeaked. Imoen looked between us, confused.

"Is something wrong?" Imoen asked.

"Stupid laws," I said. "According to our laws, Lada and I are both criminals. Me, since yesterday. Her, since this afternoon."

"Because of my age?" Imoen asked, confused at first, then a look of understanding filling her. "That's the most stupid thing I've ever heard! If you're old enough to carry a sword and kill a goblin, you're old enough. Period." She grumbled under her breath for a moment, then added, "Besides, it's not as if you were my first. Well, you were my first man, but the only thing Lada was first at was being the first woman who didn't rapeme!"

Lada reached out to Imoen, who looked at her hand, then into her eyes, then cuddled against her.

"Penny, I take it?" I asked. "How long?"

"Since I was ten," Imoen said, clutching Lada's arm for support, while Lada held her close. As she started speaking, the words poured out of her like water from a broken dam. "The monks always congratulated themselves on introducing us as soon as I came to Candlekeep. What they didn't know was that the very first day, Penny took me to her secret hiding place, down in the crypts, tied me up, and raped me until ...," she took a deep breath. "She raped me until I broke. Every day, from that day until the day we were imprisoned, she repeated it. Even when we were on the road, hunting Sarevok." Imoen looked at me, rage burning in her eyes. "I had to wear a diaper under my armor! Because of her! Because of what she did! And everyone thought I was this cheerful, innocent thing, who looked up to her like she was my big sister! I didn't look up to her! I was terrified of her! She was my Mistress! She owned me! Everything I did, everything I was, hell, even everything I thought, I was entirely her property! She wouldn't let men touch me. If a man even looked at me, she would beat me until I passed out. But that only applied to men. You know, humans, elves, dwarves, orcs ... four-legged males were another matter entirely."

"What did she make you do?" I asked, as gently as I could, while she squeezed Lada until her knuckles turned white. It seemed to me, what we were doing was like lancing a wound, and like lancing a wound, all the poison we could possibly express had to be forced out, so it didn't stay hidden deep inside, where it could fester and cause more infection.

"Dogs," Imoen hissed. "She kept a pack of guard dogs down there, and they were all male, of course. And she kept a stallion. A riding stallion that was so agile, it could walk down the stairs to the crypts without losing its footing. And whenever she summoned something, she always managed to make sure it was male, and if it was built for it, she would offer me for its pleasure." Imoen was looking into the distance by now, her eyes glazed over as she spoke. "I've been had by imps and quasits, by wolves and bears, by lions and tigers and boars and stags and ...." She trailed off, then laughed bitterly. "I think the only woodland creature I haven't been had by is a unicorn. As if a unicorn would have me." She looked me in the eyes and added, "Did you know, she once got her hands on some scrolls ... the spells on them were way beyond her ability to use without the magic of the inscriptions, of course ... and summoned up a succubus to teach her better ways to torture and use me. And then, just to make sure she had learned everything she could, she summoned an erinyes to teach her the same lessons. And, of course, I was the demonstration model for both sets of lessons. Both the demon and the devil were so amused that someone would summon them to learn such a subject, that the only price they demanded was the use of me. Penny allowed each of them to do with me as she wished, for a full month, as long as I was returned to her without any additional visible scars, with my soul intact, without any new insanities, and immediately after the user was dismissed to her home plane." She shook her head and finished, "Somehow, I don't think that what we have shared here even compares to that. And for some idiot rulers to make laws forbidding it? Just because of what? My age? I would sooner have my memories of the last tenday – especially the last two days – than any of my memories of the previous six years."

OK, I had been trying to help with this, but Imoen had managed to surprise me so thoroughly I just sort of sat there, stunned, until Lada squeaked, "Ow? Fred? Pillow? Please?"

I jumped, surprised, and saw that Lada's hand was spasming and turning blue, all the way back up to where Imoen's arm was wrapped around hers. I looked around and grabbed Sergei, my stuffed tiger, then offered him to Imoen. "Imoen? Why don't you hug this, OK? His name is Sergei, and he's had plenty of practice at being hugged."

Imoen gave me a confused look, but took Sergei, and hugged him with both arms, tight against her chest. While she did that, I took Lada's arm and massaged her hand until I was able to make out the blood vessels under her skin again. Once that emergency was taken care of, I looked at Imoen and said gently, "It'll be ok, Imoen. I think you've figured us out by now, and know how likely we are to do anything to hurt you."

"Not likely at all," Imoen snorted. "Back home, you'd both be chewed up and spit out before your first day was over."

"Maybe so," I said, "but at least it means you know we're not ever likely to do what she did, right?"

"I'd be more likely to see you flying without a carpet," Imoen said. She looked at Lada and said, "You need to stop punishing yourself, OK? I seem to recall that I seduced you, not the other way around. And I did it because you're not like Penny. You're so much not like her that it's hard to believe that you could be sitting there and trying to punish yourself the way you are right now." She looked at me and smiled. "You, you're probably sitting there trying to figure out how you could have guessed my age wrong. So what age do you have to be before they admit that you're an adult here? Twenty?"

"Eighteen," I said, while wondering how she'd figured out so easily what was running through my head.

"I'm a thief, remember?" Imoen said. "Between that and six years of having to read Penny's moods, without being telepathic, I've learned quite a few tricks for reading body language. Both of you are so open you might as well have your thoughts printed on the wall over your heads."

"That would make for a messy wall," I said, while doing my best to look innocent.

Imoen snorted, obviously trying to hold back laughter. After a moment, she gave up on the restraint and threw a pillow at me, while Lada looked as if she were trying to decide whether to join in, or protect me from Imoen. I picked up the pillow and began swinging it at Imoen, who grabbed another one to use in her defense. It wasn't long before both of us had fallen off the sofa, and were laying on the living room floor, laughing until our ribs ached.

"Lada?" Imoen asked, once she caught her breath, "why did you think you had to protect Fred from me?"

"I didn't," Lada protested. "I mean, not really, I mean, umm ...."

"It's OK," I said. "Imoen isn't Delia." I looked at Imoen and said, "Just like you and Lada, I was involved with an abusive woman, too. I was married to her for twelve years, before I finally found the means to escape her and end my marriage. That was long before I knew Lada."

"You were ...," Imoen started, trailed off, then shook her head. "How?"

"I was raised to believe that there is never an excuse for a man to hit a woman," I said. "Once she realized I would never fight back, she took advantage of it, and began a systematic campaign to break me down, demean and dehumanize me, until, by the end, I was convinced that I was worthless as a human being, and my only purpose in life was to support her and her whims, no matter how outrageous they were. Luckily, I had friends who wouldn't stand by while she destroyed me, and one day I found myself on a plane to the home of one of them, 3,000 miles away from my wife. I met Lada a couple years after my divorce was final, but even so, she has spent at least part of her time putting me back together."

"So," Imoen mused, "all three of us have been broken in one way or another." She grinned and asked, her eyes sparkling with humor, "So, does that make us a bunch of crackpots?"

"I'm not a crackpot," I laughed. "I'm MAD!" I sat up, threw out my chest, held a finger in the air, and proclaimed, in the most outrageously overdone tone I could manage, "SCIENCE, can SAVE THE WORLD!"

"Uh-oh," Lada said, "Now we're in trouble."

"Why's that?" Imoen asked. "It's not as if he has a laboratory, right?"

"He has a computer," Lada said. "He's probably going to start writing another story."

"Oh?" Imoen asked. "Is that all?" She grinned and winked at Lada. "That just means you and I can sit out here and plot without interruptions."

"Go ahead with your plots," I laughed. "I just got a bunny to feed, that might make us a few pennies."

"I still think you should record your stories for Escape Pod," Lada said. "You might attract publishers that way."

"I just might," I agreed. "I'll have to look through my collection and see what would work best in an audio format."

"What bunny?" Imoen asked, obviously confused.

"A plot bunny," I said. "It's what we call ideas that pop up and insist on being written, just like a bunny pops up and insists on nibbling on your garden. They tend to multiply like bunnies, too, until you have more than you can ever use. I have files that are nothing but lists of plot ideas, that I refer to when I need to work on a story, but am short on inspiration."

"You know," Imoen said, "that actually makes sense." She looked at me and laughed. "I think I'm catching whatever insanity it is that you have."

"Good!" I said, then grinned and started down the hall to my computer. "You and Lada can do whatever it is you have in mind while I do some work."

"We need to start packing stuff," Lada said. "We've needed to move for some time now, and with you here, it's more urgent than it was before. Not that it wasn't already urgent, what with the condition of the house."

"Like the sheets of plywood covering the rotten spots in the floor?" Imoen asked.

"Like that," Lada agreed.

By then, I was far enough away that I couldn't hear whatever their further conversation involved.