Face Me, You Coward!
The year is 2040. But hindsight is 2020.
Years ago she had fought gods. Saved empires. Razed Hell itself. And even, with her powerful, mighty, hands, rescued the smallest of kittens from trees. Her rest was truly and well earned. Her time to fight was over.
This is what Pam thought to herself as she rode her lawnmower across her lawn. While the infamous villainness Deathshrike yelled at her. Yelling from the sidewalk was all she could do. Legally she couldn’t cross from the sidewalk into Pam’s lawn.
‘Give up this charade!’ and ‘Don’t you ignore me!’ echoed through the neighbourhood dome. Pam shook her head. Deathshrike. She’d suspected since day one that there’d been a typo involved in naming her former nemesis. She didn’t impale her victims, but she sure was loud.
“Thunderbelle! This is your last warning! Should you fail to heed it, the results will be on your head!” screamed Deathshrike, proving Pam’s point. Pam wasn’t sure if it was the lack of volume control, the fact that she was pushing eighty (or past? Deathshrike and she were close in a battle to the death kind of way, not in an exchanging birthday cards way), or the years and years of cigarettes had given Deathshrike a hell of a rasp.
“It’s just Pam now. Pam ‘I have the bylaw officer on speed dial’ Lawson. Just to remind you,” she said, making another turn on the lawnmower. She loved her riding mower. She’d had to put a new seat in so it would hold all nine feet of her but she never tired of riding it around, chances of tipping aside. Lawns were passé these days – most people had rock gardens or spectral wave pools since Mars had really started importing the good stuff in the ’30s. But Pam had wanted a nice, normal, lawn her whole hero career and now that her life was her own, she was having her damn lawn.
She was considering going truly nuts in the spring and adding a gnome or two. She was fairly certain she’d seen a gnome painted with her old costume on a roadside stand a few months back, and the memory gnawed at her a bit.
“I,” said Deathshrike, “am challenging you. I will have satisfaction.”
“That leather has to be propped up,” said Pam as she whirred down another row of grass. “There’s no way your rack can still do that. I know mine can’t.”
Deathshrike looked down at her classic skintight leather costume, something that had kept her in certain public eyes even during her darkest hours. And she’d had a lot of those, before she’d gone away to prison. Pam had thought, forty years ago, that Deathshrike was on the cusp of… something. And then she’d thrown it all away.
Their battles had been epic. There had been times when Pam had really doubted she would win, which – not to brag – rarely happened in her career. The time Deathshrike had sent Pam slamming through sixty whole stories – roof to floor – of a skyscraper during a particularly painful battle. She’d used her staff to heal Pam. Said she didn’t want to give the building the satisfaction of having defeated ‘the great Thunderbelle.’ A weird one, that Deathshrike. Then there was the time with the busload of orphans. Pam’s hair had gotten trapped in the driveshaft and– well, the point was they’d been on even footing.
And then, Deathshrike simply went away one day.
And now she was back. Usually on weekends. Sometimes she’d escape on a weekday. Looking a hell of a lot better than any woman her age had any right to be, in Pam’s appreciative opinion. Pam was old, not dead.
“I don’t know what you could possibly mean,” Deathshrike said stiffly.
“Right, right.” Whrrrrrr. The lawn was nearly even again. Almost time to stop for the day. Shame.
“I came all this way,” said Deathshrike.
“I know. How did you escape the nursing home this time?” said Pam.
“It’s called jail, Thunderbelle. I’m a wanted criminal.” Was that the tone of injured pride? People who had lived their lives and made it to eighty rarely had much to feel vulnerable about. The closest Pam had to regret at the moment was not stopping for that damned gnome.
“Well it has nurses and Jello in little cups so forgive me for being confused,” said Pam. She checked her watch. Deathshrike had been ‘visiting’ her for ten minutes, which meant the nurses would be arriving in about thirty. They knew where Deathshrike was and that she had to calm down on her own or things would get iffy. It was that magic staff of hers.
“You owe me this battle,” said Deathshrike.
“I don’t owe you anything,” said Pam as she stopped to survey her work. “You’re the one who chickened out of that battle forty years ago, not me. I was right there. I waited all night. You turned yourself in. No take backsies.”
“I changed my mind.”
“I’m just trying to enjoy my retirement, Deathshrike. You can come in and have coffee if you promise not to try to destroy my house and chihuahua.”
“It’s not right,” muttered Deathshrike as she walked up the path (not on the grass! Not after last time) to Pam’s front door. “We have unfinished business, you and I.”
“I think it’s done. Deathshrike, we’re old. We’re done. I have a great lawn. I have a hover car that actually fits me. I have a little dog I take for walks every night. I have a pedigree for that little dog. I’m not Thunderbelle anymore.”
Deathshrike stood in the doorway to Pam’s house. She had that look again, the look that Pam had seen forty years ago before Deathshrike had gone away and out of mind for a very long time. It was… thoughtful? Sad?
“Then… then you should call me Linda,” said Deathshrike suddenly.
“My name is Linda,” said Linda. She held her staff in front of her, arthritic fingers nervously clutching.
Pam nodded slowly. “Linda. I’ll get the coffee. I put the pot on before I went out.”
Linda sat down, leaning her staff, which once reduced all of Cleveland to the size of an anthill and turned London into a dimension of light and sound, in the umbrella stand.
Piper, Pam’s chihuahua, tried to investigate it and got lightly zapped. With a yip he decided to avoid this whole rigmarole under the ottoman.
“So. Linda,” said Pam, setting down the cups of coffee. Hers was actually the coffee pot. Linda’s was a much daintier one in comparison with a cartoon cat explaining his distaste for mondays on the side. “I thought you were done with your visits after your parole officer came and said you were very sorry. But here you are, yelling again on my doorstep while I try to maintain a decent lawn.”
“I’m not yelling now,” said Linda to her coffee.
“Okay, true. But why? We haven’t been nemeses ever since you turned yourself in forty years ago, Linda. Now these past few months you’ve been coming and challenging me to a rematch and getting yourself arrested over and over again. Whatever you wanted us to fight about forty years ago is over. Everything’s been sorted for years. This whole new crop of heroes hasn’t even heard of us, I bet! There’s no old beefs. We’re just a pair of old bats. Though you’re the battier one.”
“I think we should have had our battle, that’s all,” said Linda. She looked at her coffee like it had all the answers.
“We’re eighty years old. If we battle now it will be very very sad and someone’s hip is going to go out.”
“Did you really mean it about my chest looking great?” said Linda suddenly.
Pam blinked. “Well, yeah. You’ve always looked great. It’s part of your whole ‘you’. I’ve always been a giantess and you’ve always been, well, you could have made a fortune just posing for posters instead of any of those crimewaves, you know.”
“I was going to tell you something very important at that battle. Once I defeated you,” said Linda.
A thousand encounters raced through her mind, where Deathshrike – Linda! – had surrendered by flinging herself into Pam’s arms, or artfully torn her costume right before being captured, or the number of times she’d put Pam in chains in front of her throne.There had been a lot of chains.
And suddenly, that was it. That was the moment when Pam realized that whenever Linda had said ‘I will destroy you and your pitiful earth’, what Linda had really meant was ‘I love you.’
“You wouldn’t have defeated me,” said Pam firmly. It was the only thing she could think to say and she didn’t want to push Linda quite yet. Maybe she’d misunderstood.
“I guess we’ll never know since you keep chickening out when I come here to finish it,” said Linda.
Pam looked out the window. The nurses had come early.
“I’ll tell you what, Linda,” she said. “How about I come visit you tomorrow? And we can really hash this out when you’re not a fugitive from the Care. And we’ll… we’ll find a way to do our battle, okay? For you.”
Linda looked up, eyes glistening. “You mean it?”
“I mean it,” said Pam, and she really did. She put one huge hand over Linda’s. “I’ll be there.”
“They don’t let me wear my costume there,” said Linda. “I just have my pants suits.”
“I bet they look great on you,” said Pam.
Linda’s smile could have lit a lighthouse.
“See you soon,” she promised Linda.
Her old costume fit. Not well, but it fit. Thunderbelle flexed in front of the mirror, feeling the old power flow through her tired bones. The old white costume and pink ruffles and ribbons moved in the invisible breeze that was part of her powers. Still had it. Time to keep her word.
And so, Thunderbelle took to the skies once more to face her nemesis, Deathshrike.
Thunderbelle decided to make her landing in the middle of the courtyard of the nursing home (she knew it catered to people like Deathshrike so it was, technically, a jail but it was mostly a care home) with her usual thunderous landing blast. She paused, for effect. She stood up. Her knees did not like that.
Deathshrike, in a pale pink pants suit, looked at Thunderbelle, dropping the fork full of something brown back onto her plate.
“We have business,” said Thunderbelle.
Deathshrike’s face split into a wicked smile and she let out a powerful scream. Suddenly the air warped around her and standing in front of Thunderbelle wasn’t an old woman in a pants suit, but an old woman in skintight leather and a magical staff that was — oh crap.
Thunderbelle leapt to the side as it blasted the ground. A moment later she’d be dust. The other inmates/residents cheered.
Blast. Dodge. Dodge. Blast. Like riding a bike, you never forgot how to avoid certain death.
Thunderbelle hadn’t had a workout like this in years. Deathshrike didn’t let up. She threw lightning. She warped pockets of reality. She threw her fork.
Thunderbelle’s joints ached with each dodge, each leap. This was easy. Actual contact with Deathshrike wouldn’t be. Thunderbelle didn’t want to break her. She had a feeling Deathshrike didn’t feel the same compunction about her. And… it made her blood sing to think of it.
The nurses were panicking and getting the residents out of the courtyard. Thunderbelle steadily worked her way closer and closer to Deathshrike. She hadn’t seen Deathshrike look this alive since she’d come back into Thunderbelle’s life. It was beautiful.
An electric bolt sizzled past her head, burning off a lock of Thunderbelle’s hair. Well. That was enough beauty.
She grabbed a white, wrought-iron patio table and flung it at Deathshrike, sending her toppling out of the air, then leapt to catch her. She pinned Deathstrike to the ground with one huge arm.
“You lose, Deathshrike. I told you that you would.” She hoped it wasn’t obvious she was checking Deathshrike for broken bones.
“Did I?” said Deathshrike. Her eyes lit up red. Her staff shot into the air. It glowed a vivid gold, then burst into energy, aimed downwards at Thunderbelle and Deathshrike.
“This is it, Thunderbelle! The end!” screamed Deathshrike as they were bathed in light.
Despite everything, Thunderbelle tried to shield Deathstrike’s body with her own.
“I… I win…” said Deathstrike, closing her eyes.
Thunderbelle sat over her, head bowed.
Dammit, she thought, I didn’t hit you that hard. You don’t get to die like this. Not now.
She held Deathshrike in her arms as the deadly staff floated down beside them.
And then, finally, Thunderbelle said: “I think we’re fine, actually.” She could feel Deathshrike’s heartbeat strong and steady between them.
Deathshrike’s eyes snapped open. They were clear.
“I feel pretty good, actually,” said Thunderbelle. “My back hasn’t been this painless in decades.”
“What setting did I use!?” yelled Deathshrike, reaching to grab her staff. It turned to dust in her hands.
“You feeling okay?” said Thunderbelle. She noticed that, nostalgically, Deathshrike’s costume had become strategically ripped. No visible injuries, she noted next.
“That should have been our end!”
“Is that what you planned forty years ago?” said Thunderbelle wearily. “Normal people ask their crushes on dates, they don’t try to annihilate them.”
Deathshrike crossed her arms and glared at Thunderbelle. “Pam! Don’t you dare mock me.”
Pam learned forward, pulling Linda close to check her. So small in Pam’s hands… “You’re focused,” said Pam.
“Of course I am.”
“You healed your mind. I think that was the very right setting.”
“It was not. It was the wrong setting. The right setting meant that I didn’t have to deal with these stupid feelings.”
“You have so violated your parole, Linda,” said Pam, brushing back Linda’s hair.
“I’ll visit you,” said Pam.
“Fine! Good! See if I care.” Linda curled against Pam’s chest.
“It’s good to have you back, you crazy old bat,” said Pam.
“You didn’t visit me before,” said Linda. Oh my God, was she pouting? She was pouting! It was… adorable.
“I will this time.” And Pam meant it.
In the distance, police sirens howled.
Pam kept her promise. After the sentencing she was a regular visitor to Linda’s new home, talking to her via intercom, a glass pane between them.
“So. How’s this week been?” asked Pam, resting her hand against the glass. Linda pressed her hand to the other side.
“Being alert sucks. I should have just annihilated us,” said Linda.
“Well, I appreciate the healing. You wouldn’t believe the progress I’ve made on my vegetable garden now that I can kneel again. What are you up to in the slammer? Do you get hobbies in here or what?” said Pam. She made a mental note to bring Linda something baked from said garden. Her mostly vegetarian lasagna was pretty great. Her ‘special’ brownies weren’t that great, but once you got a couple in you, you didn’t care.
“We started a craft circle. Basket weaving. They won’t let me have anything sharp. A younger villainness said she was grateful for my wisdom as an elder.”
“What did you do?”
Linda wrinkled her nose. “My shiv isn’t done yet.”
“Linda YES. How is your precious lawn?”
“Spectacular, thank you,” said Pam. She wished the glass between them… wasn’t.
“You know,” said Linda, “if you marry me, we can have conjugal visits.”
Pam grinned, just a bit triumphantly. “So you’re admitting you do have feelings.”
“I’m admitting I am a grown woman with needs.”
“You haven’t even kissed me yet,” said Pam.
“Well how exactly am I going to do that?” demanded Linda. She started to stand. “Never mind, clearly I was–“
Pam reached out, dug her fingers into the framework of the interview stall, and ripped out the glass pane. Then she leaned over, gently taking Linda’s shoulders, and kissed her. Several of the other inmates applauded.
Behind them a guard was saying ‘Ma’am, you can’t just DO that’. She didn’t care.
“Son, I am old enough to be your…aunt. Don’t ‘ma’am’ me.” She returned her attention to Linda. “Clearly you were what?”
“Clearly you’ve changed. A little. Just don’t change too much,” muttered Linda. Then kissed her again.