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Edie Blake is sitting on the corner of Adrienne Veidt's desk, and Adrienne is emphatically not looking at her.

She's still, fingers steepled, gaze entirely focused on the ad copy laid out before her. It's for her cosmetics line, and the pictures are all peaches and seashell-soft pinks, the colors of little girls dressing up as princesses, of their tired, middle-aged moms dressing up for their monthly trip to the local restaurant, playing at being Marilyn Monroe on rainy, suburban Saturdays. Soft, dreamy, escapist colors. They'll probably sell a million powder compacts.

Edie flips open the Vogue that's beside her on the desk, pages through to the New Scientist that's tucked between facing shots of glossily titless models. The cover carries a picture of Doctor Manhattan (kept tastefully head-and-shoulders), the main feature profiling his newest project, a renewable energy source for the future. Edie skims it, catches the note of cautious optimism, the mention of involvement by Veidt Enterprises halfway down the second column. She tilts her head, exhales a puff of cigarette smoke. Adrienne doesn't look up, and her gaze becomes a little more fixed.

Leaning across the desk, Edie narrows her eyes at the piece of paper Adrienne is staring at. "'Today's woman can be strong without sacrificing the feminine glamour that gave the past its mystery,'" she reads. "'Is it time to put a little romance back into your life?'" She snorts.

Adrienne raises a manicured eyebrow. "Is there a problem, Edith?"

"Come on. As if you believe any of this crap."

"People enjoy the idea of a holiday from the mundane. From everyday jobs, everyday lives. The chance to become somebody else for a little while. And that's what we're selling." Adrienne smiles blandly. "Who am I to disagree with that?"

"You're selling a heap of bullshit to a bunch of dumb suburban housewives painting their faces for a night at the movies so they don't have to think about their own pathetic little lives." Edie makes a face, flicks ash onto polished wood, watches Adrienne's expression for twitches of annoyance. "They gotta be dumb as fucking rocks to swallow that stuff."

Adrienne just sniffs. "You'll forgive me if I don't trust your marketing expertise. Besides, difficult as you may find it to believe, not all of us feel most comfortable looking as though we've just been dragged kicking and screaming from the set of a Russ Meyer movie." Her gaze snaps upwards, taking in Edie's leather jacket -- she's in civilian clothes today -- her tousled hair, her defiant grin. "Lesbian Biker Chicks From Planet Cliché, perhaps?"

Edie gives an ironic toss of her head, shampoo-ad style, and sneers. "Don't worry, I'm sure there's a role in there for you. The lesbian biker chicks need a little blonde virgin to corrupt, right?"

Of course, Adrienne doesn't dignify her with a response, just turns back to her papers. Edie shrugs. Sure, she kinda has a point. Every time Edie shows up here, Adrienne's secretary -- a perfectly-groomed little blonde thing who's a clone of her boss in pretty much every way, except the brains -- gives her this appalled look, like she can't believe this crazy old harpy in her scuffed leathers and combat boots and haze of cigarette smoke is allowed to set foot in the building, let alone invited right up to speak to the queen bee.

Edie thinks it's fucking hilarious. If only she knew.

 

It's 1960, and Edie is alive with violence. A woman who calls herself Cleopatra is pressed to the ground beneath her, breathing in harsh, defiant gasps, refusing to turn away her head from the next punch.

Cleopatra's lipstick is the color of dark fruit, and the bright lick of blood running down her chin looks like paint beside it. Edie twists fingers in her long hair and calls her a pretty little thing, just to watch her bridle and narrow her eyes.

Gesture and expression are both controlled quickly -- but not expertly, not yet, and Edie sees them, and that's enough. Cleopatra's no more a princess than she is.

 

Fucking hilarious. Edie grins to herself for a minute.

But Adrienne is still looking down, still ignoring her in favour of the pages of promise-filled nonsense on her desk, and that's just un-fucking-acceptable. Edie hops down off the corner, saunters around to where Adrienne is sitting, and plants herself firmly on top of the papers. Something crumples underneath her, and she shifts her weight and hears the resulting sound of tearing with firm satisfaction.

An eye-roll. "Sometimes I think you actually take pleasure in distracting me."

Edie unzips her leather jacket halfway, shrugs it off of one shoulder, just far enough to show that she isn't wearing anything underneath. "Believe the hype, ladies and gents. She really is that smart." She leans in closer, waits for Adrienne to meet her eyes. "Smarter, actually."

 

The next time they meet, the golden tangle is a neat bob -- tamed, restrained, and a hell of a lot more practical in a fight. Cleo's been publicly wooed by enough Hollywood hunks to convince the public that a haircut and a penchant for beating up bad guys are all she holds in common with Silhouette, but the thinness of her smile and the cut of her gaze tell Edie different.

The new Nite Owl has a pretty mouth and an earnest voice that makes Edie want to punch her in it, fingers twitching as she turns the pages of her newspaper without looking at them (like she hasn't read every story a hundred times before) and listens to the costumed kids burble on about petty criminal gangs, murders and robberies, as if any of it actually matters. But Cleopatra is actually listening intently to the earnest girl, shooting her an encouraging smile that nevertheless contains a gleam of something feral, something steely and serrated.

At the end of the meeting, though, she just nods and smiles at Nite Owl and keeps her distance. Wise enough not to get involved, then. She must already know she'd tear that kid to shreds.

Later that night Edie fingers herself thinking about Cleo, about shoving her down against concrete or up against bricks and fucking her until her smooth voice cracks and she isn't pretty anymore.

Later still, she learns that that isn't how you do it.

 

The faint spots of color on Adrienne's cheeks are all that give away any emotion but mild annoyance. She glances back down, refusing to engage. Edie just shrugs, though. Adrienne can look away all she wants, but Edie has her attention now, and that's at least half the battle.

There's an ashtray on the low coffee table at the other end of the office. Edie stands back up, strolls over to it, taking her own sweet time, and crushes out her cigarette. If she really wanted to piss Adrienne off, she'd just stub it out on the desk -- but she can sense that she's onto a winner now, and she isn't dumb enough to cheat herself out of a fuck. She glances over her shoulder, unzips her jacket, shrugs it off by inches. It lands on the couch with a satisfying leather-on-leather slap.

"I have a meeting in fifteen minutes," Adrienne says, without looking up.

But Adrienne's richer than the guys waiting to speak to her. She can see them whenever she damn well pleases, and they both know it. Edie cocks her head to one side. "Keep 'em waiting."

She gets an exasperated look for her trouble, but Adrienne bundles the papers in front of her together and shoves them to one side. She picks up the phone instead.

"Samantha? Hold my calls, please." A pause. "No. Ten minutes will be fine."

 

Edie is bored, pissed, and sinking the beers like they're gonna quench the irritation that runs through her like burning, working its way through skin and vein and flesh right down to the bone. Pulled off her latest assignment at the last minute -- hell, it's not her fault that damn senior officer wouldn't quit making cock jokes about her cigars, and if the guy hadn't been such a pussy he wouldn't have ended up in hospital -- and now she's stuck on this Girl Scout job. Security detail for some mid-ranking politician with a paunch hanging over his trousers and a name she can't even remember. A monkey could do it. A blindfolded monkey.

So she has to amuse herself. That's okay. There are more interesting things in the room to look at.

Cleopatra is Adrienne Veidt now, and she moves among the suits and senators with a measured smile, careful never to take up more than her fair share of the conversation, nodding and listening. The graying men nod back, and stare, and look surprised when she does open her mouth. It's like they can't even see that she's calculating, can't see the thoughts ticking away behind her eyes, the scraps of information being stored away for future use. Can't see that one day she's going to own them all.

Edie has to hand it to her. Cleo might be a fake and a liar, but fuck if she isn't good at it.

She never looks over at Edie, never gives a single hint that she's aware of her presence. But afterwards, when Edie's decided to say 'screw it' to the whole self-congratulatory shebang and just head out to find a decent bar, a sleek, black car pulls up beside her in the street.

The back window rolls down silently, and Adrienne looks at her with a dark glint. "So. Did you see something you liked, or do you just like to sit and stare at attractive women for the good of your health?"

Now, this could be a little more interesting.

But Adrienne doesn't lose control, not even when Edie has her head between her legs on an anonymous hotel bed and is tongue-fucking her like her life depends on it. There's no whimpering, no sheet-clutching, no crying out, just a satisfied little huff of breath as she comes.

Edie sits up, wiping the taste of cunt off her lips in disgust. Dead-eyed bitch might as well be one of her own plastic action figures.

She ain't leaving without payment in kind, though, and that's when she sees what she's been looking for under all the layers of poise and polish, that spark of something sharp and alive and evil. Her fingers are in Adrienne's sleek hair, twisting for purchase, and she suddenly finds herself being shoved back onto the bed with savage force. Adrienne pushes two fingers into her without tenderness or warning, makes her arch back and growl, scrabbling for a hold on the mattress with her bitten-down nails.

 

The snick of the receiver is loud, the quiet in the office suddenly thick. Adrienne raises an eyebrow, expectant-impatient, like she's about to hear a proposal from one of her business associates. Edie just sits down on the leather couch, leans back, waits.

She doesn't need to suck up. She’s not one of the wide-eyed girls who want to be just like the famous Cleopatra, not one of the guys who think she'd make the perfect trophy wife. Edie has nothing to gain here. Nothing to lose, either. All she's looking for is a glimpse of what lies beneath.

A beat, a sigh. Adrienne pushes back her chair, uncrosses her legs, and each click of her heels as she gets to her feet is a punctuation mark, sharp and decisive. She shimmies out of her pencil skirt with no hint of tease or smile on her lips -- as businesslike as though she's signing off a contract -- and clicks over to Edie in patent-leather shoes, silk blouse, silk stockings. Stops in front of her with feet planted firmly, hip-width apart, hands on hips.

Edie smirks up at her. "Ten minutes, huh? You sure that's enough?" She sits up, leans forward, curls a hand around Adrienne's hip and presses her mouth experimentally against the front of her panties. "Wouldn't want your business cronies to see you like this, would you?" she murmurs against heat and peach-pink silk. And there it is, the tremble beneath her hand, so minute she might almost have imagined it, the little hitch of breath that says she's finally getting somewhere. Edie pulls back a fraction, frowns in mock-concern. "Probably a bad idea. I oughta stop--"

"Shut. Up." Adrienne isn't even trying to keep the strain out of her voice now, and Edie grins to herself again. Then she nudges the strip of flimsy fabric to one side, leans forward, and licks. She brushes her tongue just to the side of Adrienne's clit, millimetres short of giving her any kind of satisfaction, rubbing lightly. This ought to get her good and pissed off.

But Adrienne's hands just flutter above her shoulders for a second and then drop to her sides. She isn't ready to give in and demand just yet. So Edie just carries right on teasing.

Okay, so she's far from knowing what the fuck is going on in Adrienne's head, most of the time, except that she's a clever bitch, cleverer than anyone else knows. She does know, though, that there's some kind of a need in there, under all of Adrienne's cool indifference, some desperation to find her own limits, to learn just how far she'll actually go. And since she quit the whole crime-fighting thing, this is how she does it.

Well, Edie isn't one to back down from a challenge. She's gonna find that limit, one day. Maybe soon.

She stops what she's doing, slides one finger back and up, finds something liquid and hot.

"Edith..." Adrienne's hands are on her, then, on her shoulders and in her hair, fingers twisting, little twitches of want that are more honest than any word she's ever said. So Edie leans forward, covers Adrienne's clit with her mouth, sucks mercilessly, pushes her finger in.

"Edie."

And suddenly she's being pushed back onto the couch, pants yanked down, a slender hand finding its way inside. Not teasing, not exploring, fucking her viciously up against the cool leather. There it is, that pissed-off look, that feral gleam; the one thing that makes Edie feel like maybe she isn't the planet's biggest bitch, after all.

 

Years have passed, and amid the fury of their last encounter there is a moment of calm. They both stop moving, just look at one another, breathing harshly. And there's something in the look that Edie's never seen before. Adrienne isn't a pretty pretty princess now, but she isn't Queen Bitch, either. It's something deeper than that, something sadder, something infinitely more frightening.

 

Adrienne dresses with her back to the door, and to Edie. Edie lights another cigarette, blows a plume of smoke back into the office as she leaves. It hangs in the air for a moment, then dissipates. She scowls at it. For all of her violence, all of her brashness and force and savage words, that's all she ever manages to leave behind of her presence here -- and it vanishes quickly enough, like dirt sliding off the surface of Adrienne's perfect world. A few ghostly blue wisps: insubstantial, temporary, gone.

There's a rustle of paper and silk: Adrienne arranging herself behind the desk, adjusting the sleeve of her blouse.

"Your lipstick's smudged," Edie calls after her, forcing a sneer into her voice.

Already looking right through her again, Adrienne blinks, wipes the pink smear off her chin. She doesn't say goodbye.

 

Adrienne looks away, and the expression disappears, and it is the window that shatters.

It’s 1985, and Edie has found the limit.