The title of this chapter refers to a comic by Alison Bechdel, a formula by which she chooses what movies to see. To pass, a work has to have: 1. At least two women in it with actual names. 2. They must talk to each other. 3. Their conversation must be about something besides a man. The Bechdel test has made its way into popular culture and gender studies classes. It is not a reliable indicator that a work is feminist, but the number of works that fail the test sure says something about our storytelling.
Extra-special guest star Dead Switch belongs to Swordstitcher, and I hope I do her justice.
There was not much Ruth could do without clothes—well, there actually was a lot she could do without clothes, including pan-frying fish, but once you learned how much grease spattered and how painful hot grease is, only the very masochistic would try that twice, and she wasn't that much of a glutton for punishment. Wandering around the halls of a museum turned into a fortress was not one of the things she was about to do unclothed, not when most of the building wasn't heated and there were a lot of heavily armed convicts also roaming the halls.
Since exploring the Pinkney was not an option, which also neatly avoided the question of how far the Penguin's declared protection really extended, or whether she was allowed out of his rooms at all, Ruth first rearranged his wardrobe and dresser to make room for her things, when they would arrive, and that being done, she found a copy of an old, old friend among his books: The Count of Monte Cristo.
She could mentally slip into and out of Dumas as easily as a well-broken-in pair of loafers, and that was what she did, curling up in his chair until a knock at the door called her out of Edmond Dantes' world.
"Excuse me. My name is Dead Switch. Penguin had me go get your things for you—." The voice was female.
"Oh! Just a moment," She retied Oswald's robe around her (the satin was slippery and wouldn't stay put) in case someone else was lurking out in the hall, and opened the door.
Dead Switch was in her twenties, lean almost to the point of being undernourished, fox-wary expression on her face—will it be a kick I get or a kindness? Or nothing at all? A bright green muffler emblazoned with question marks at her throat explained both why she was in Arkham City and how she survived. The young woman blinked as she looked first at Ruth's cleavage (yeah, the robe had slipped again). Male or female, gay or straight, when the girls were on show, that was where the eyes went first—then up at her face.
"You are not what I expected," she said bluntly.
"What were you expecting?"
"Somebody who looked...I don't even know. Either traumatized or tougher. More teacherly, anyway. Not a plus-size lingerie model, and not…happy. Although probably I should have expected the first part of that, because there had to be a reason Penguin—."
A draft from the corridor chilled Ruth's legs, and she opened it wider. "Can you come in and stay for a little while? It's freezing out there, and I'd…really like to talk." Another person with an XX chromosome pair? In here? Damn right she wanted to talk.
"Thanks. I can hardly remember what it's like to be properly warm. Besides, I haven't been paid yet."
Switch sidled past her, avoiding body contact. Dangling off her shoulder was that horrible Disney duffle Ruth had stuffed under the bed. Well, what else was there left in the house to pack things in? Evan had taken all the luggage. She passed it over as Ruth closed the door. "Here you go. I think I found everything on the list."
"Thank you—I'm just going to step into the next room and put on some clothes."
"That's okay with me…Um, were—are you fond of your next-door neighbor, the woman who looked like she slept in her clothes?" Switch raised her voice to be heard through the door.
Switch had been neat and careful in packing. Ruth had no problem in laying out her things. A favorite sweater, a knee length skirt, underthings…Ah, there was a full-support bra, just the thing to get the weight off her chest and redistributed over her shoulders and back. She put it on back to front around her waist to make clasping it easier, then slid it around, looping her arms through the straps, and shrugged it up into place. Much better!
"Mrs. Cook? No. She's as honest as the day is long, but she's..." Ruth thought of all the things she would like to say about the woman, and went for the most charitable. "not in the best of health and her children don't visit often, so she's lonely and…resentful. Which is sad, but she overstepped limits. We let her put her trash and recyclables in with ours because she was so old, but I'm sure she took advantage of that to snoop on us through what we were throwing out. And I think she took a pair of clippers to my clematis vines even though they were growing on my trellis and not on her fence. Why? Did she say something to you? I wouldn't be shocked to hear she did."
"She knew you were rousted out by Tyger guards in the night and brought here," Switch said. "but she didn't seem to know why or to have done anything about it. And she also knew you chucked your husband out for doing something filthy, but she was hazy about the details."
"She did—? All I ever told her was that we'd grown apart. Oh." The day she'd confronted Evan had been warm. She had opened the windows to air out the house, and if Mrs. Cook had hers open too… "She must have been eavesdropping. I wonder how she managed not to pry it all out of me. Except that the last six months have been…unreal."
There, she was dressed, down to tights and shoes. ` She went back into the office to find Switch warming herself on the floor by the heater for all the world like a cat her family had when she was a child.
"The good news is, you won't have to worry about her prying any more," Switch said, getting to her feet. "The bad news is that, um." She winced. "Did you know she had a weak heart?"
"Yes, it was one of her health problems and…she's dead. That's what you're trying to tell me." Ruth shook her head like she was trying to oust some cobwebs.
"Yes. It was an accident…but I did have my hands around her throat at the time."
"I've been tempted to do that myself a few times," Ruth muttered in reply. "Nobody will miss her very much, sad to say."
"Was everything in the bag okay? Nothing broken, nothing important left out?" Switch asked.
"No, it was fine." An awkward silence sprang up and grew until they punctured it with a laugh.
"So—how did you manage to wind up in here?" Dead Switch asked.
"I wrote something Professor Strange didn't like," she shifted her weight from one leg to the other. "I'd go into further detail, but I believe Oswald is going to unveil it in a special peace conference and I don't want to spoil it. You know…if this was a regular day, right about now I'd be with Miss Walters' class of second graders, getting them settled down. My life has altered so much."
"You seem to be taking it pretty well," Switch observed. "I mean, you may be about to have a huge psychotic break and start laying into people with a sharpened ruler at any moment, but I doubt it."
"A sharpened ruler?" Ruth snorted.
"It was the first teacher-like thing I could think of." Switch shrugged. "And don't knock it until you're desperate and there's nothing else at hand. I've used worse shivs than that."
"Hm. That's…something I'll keep in mind. Anyway, as far as breakdowns go—Since Friday night, I've been stripped of all my civil rights and liberties, left entirely alone in a cell for over forty-eight hours without food or anyone looking in on me at all, thrown into Arkham City, selected by some thugs as a present for their boss, and become the kept woman of a notable black marketer and crime lord. By all rights I should have had a meltdown of some kind by now, and…I keep thinking, all right, so it hasn't really sunk in yet. When it does, I'll cry and rage and storm…yet with every moment that goes by, with every hour that passes and it doesn't happen, I wonder if it's going to happen at all. Is something wrong with me? Or…I don't know what."
"As I said, you seem to be taking this pretty well," Switch said. "Maybe too well." She glanced around the office. "Somebody has to tell you this, and it might as well be me. Your life as it was is over. Even if Batman or a SWAT team crashed in here right now to rescue you and take you far, far away from here, you'll never get back the life you had before.
"You're part of this life now, with the Rogues' Gallery and the villains fighting the Batman, and you'll never be free of it completely. Things will happen that draw you back in, like it or not. I know: I've been there. I was involved just marginally with something that had to do with Clayface. Then Joker picked me as a hostage, framed me as an accomplice, and his lies were more plausible than my truth. Now I'm henching for Riddler and moonlighting as an errand girl for Penguin on the side. The only way I'll ever get out is dead, and maybe not even then."
Ruth smiled wryly. "Would you like something hot to drink? I think there's hot chocolate mix in the kitchenette."
"I'd love that. Thanks." They took the conversation into the next room, where Ruth put water on to boil before continuing.
"I've been dead these last six months," Ruth began. "Or at least locked in a sensory deprivation chamber. When I decided to divorce Evan, everything just stopped. I haven't felt a thing. I'm sure I got hungry, thirsty and tired, but I can't remember it, nor what I ate, drank or dreamt. Maybe it was depression, but I wasn't sad. Six months of going through the motions—until the Tyger guards showed up at my door.
"That was Friday night. Since then I've been miserable, afraid for my life, overwhelmed by the change from there to here, and I have no idea what will happen next, but at least I feel something. I'm alive again. The only question is, how do I stay that way?"
"Look, I …know psychotic. I am psychotic," Switch admitted. "That's part of how I stay alive in here and elsewhere. Because I'm not shy about showing it. Anyone who tries to lay hands on me will find I'm ready to mess him up bad. They all know it, and it makes them think twice or even three times. You don't have that advantage. With your build—you 're not a martial artist, are you?"
"No, just basic self-defense moves that I learned twenty years ago." The kettle was whistling, and Ruth went about preparing their beverages.
"Any enhancements or super powers?" Switch asked.
"I can get an entire class of behaviorally challenged students to sit quietly and read for an hour. Also when I cuddle small and overwrought children my breasts put them to sleep in seconds."
"Impressive," Switch nodded thoughtfully, "and potentially useful, but not quite what I meant. Whoa, wait a minute. What did you just say you could so?"
"I pick them up and hold them close so they feel safe as when they were babies. Works like a charm on the ones who are worked up past exhaustion. Better than a tranquilizer. Honestly, I'm not making it up."
"Oookay. Anyhow, you're probably wondering how I got out and back in with your things. Don't think about getting out of here. If Strange is after you, you're safer in here than you are out there in the world. This place is a fortress, the most secure in Arkham City. Whatever arrangement you have with the Penguin, I can tell you that you represent a significant investment, between what he's paying me to retrieve your things and what I overheard on the way here. He always gets full value for his dollar, one way or another. Whatever it is that makes you worth it to him—and Idon't want or need to know the details—you're going to earn your keep. I couldn't do that. Not with…um."
"You've never been married, I can tell."
"No, but I'm not an innocent either," Switch bristled a little at that.
"Nevertheless, it makes a difference," Ruth handed her a steaming mug of cocoa. "It's different from dating, hooking up, or just living together. Imagine that you are on your honeymoon with the spouse of your wildest dreams, the love of your life, alone together in paradise. Now imagine that your spouse has come down with a terrible and disgusting, but not life-threatening, case of food poisoning and you are the only person in hundreds of miles. You will take care of them, because you have to, and it will strip away all your illusions about them being perfect. Yet it will be okay in the end."
"I'm not sure how this connects, but if you say so…Back on topic. The first thing about survival, don't jeopardize your place here. Second, you need to know who the players are and where they stand. Right now, they're Two-Face, the Joker, who by all accounts is dying, and your man…"
It was, as they say, the beginning of a (potentially) beautiful friendship.
A/N: This took me far too long to write and post: holiday prep, extra work, and such. I want to share something with you folks out there reading: Last chapter was, in terms of number of times read/number of individual readers, the most popular ever.
People went back to read it two or three times…and yet, I don't know why. Was it because it was a cross-over? Was it something I wrote? Was it Swordstitcher's excellent contribution? The people who reviewed it are my most constant and faithful commenters (Thank you, Bat-teen28, Tevinter of our Discontent, and Swordstitcher!) and I am particularly glad that Bat-teen and Tev commented on both halves.
Anyway, it would be nice to hear from some of the other folks too. Since apparently you really liked something. Off my soap-box now, back to plotting. Also, I have posted a link in my personal profile to a pic from an ad by Debenham's showing a swimsuit model built like Ruth next to a more conventional model. Just because.