Applegate was burning the carpet with his pacing. Literally, every step leaving a scorch like a hot iron. Lola had never seen him this angry. No ranting, no threats, no breaking things with his stupid cane. Just the pacing and the heat rising off him in waves, turning the cheap motel room into an oven.
And that wasn’t the only reason she was sweating. She was really in for it this time. Though she was still seriously weighing getting up for a glass of water. Not being strictly mortal anymore didn’t make her immune to heat stroke, and she was already feeling faint. But she didn’t think she could risk it.
At first when he’d hit her with her old face she’d thought it was over. It’s not like there was much worse he could do to her than that. At worst she’d spend a few decades on broom duty making potions in hick towns until he got over it. He was Applegate, a little betrayal here or there just happened sometimes.
But this was different. He’d come back from his last try at Joe without a single word, and melted a polyester suit off entirely before switching to cotton. That was starting to smoke too. There was absolutely nothing he hated more than love, it was why he liked her so much. Liked, past tense. And why, just now, she was in so much trouble.
Well, Joe was safe and the Yankees Fiasco would be the laughing stock of the angels for at least a hundred years if she was any judge. That was what mattered. And as for the rest, well, here was the punishment part of good deeds. Which, on the one hand, was terrifying.
On the other? Well, actually, it’s not like things could get much worse could they. Combined with the nerves singing in her chest, it was intoxicatingly freeing. Or maybe it was just that she was about to pass out. Bless but her head hurt.
“You know, boss, if you wanted to burn down the place I could just get you some matches. Some petty arson seems about your speed right now.”
It was only when he rounded on her with solid yellow eyes that she realized she had said that out loud.
“Boss? Boss?” He gave a dry, mirthless chuckle. Exactly like a rattlesnake. “I thought you made it quite clear, Lola Nana Krystal, that you don’t work for me anymore.”
Oh that was bad. Without the employee protection clauses…
“Hey, now this might have been a bit of a screw up…”
Applegate smiled. That was worse.
“Oh, a screw up. That’s what you think this was? This wasn’t just a screw up, Lola. This was a COMPLETE AND UNMITIGATED DISASTER!”
His sudden shout drove her back against the wall, and she heard the rum bottle behind the couch shatter.
“All that hope and faith fulfilled,” he continued in disgust. “All that excitement and happiness! The only bright spot is the Yankees fans, and even they’re already looking forward to a rematch next year. Do you have any idea what this means?”
“You could always try again with the Cubs.”
“And get into it with Gwynn ap Nudd? Are you actually trying to get me killed now?”
Yes, actually. Crap.
“No Lola, this is the last straw. You say you still work for me? Fine. You’re fired.”
Fired? But that would mean...she’d be mortal. And, more importantly, over a hundred years dead. She shuddered. She’d seen all those years catch up to someone, once before. It had been an ugly way to go.
She looked at him, and his grin which didn’t reach his eyes. Saw him watching the realization dawn on her as he slowly raised his hands to clap them and seal the proclamation. And she realized that he wanted her to try to stop him. Beg for her life, and say she'd do anything. He might even give it to her.
Well. Nuts to that. She looked him square in the face.
“You can’t fire me. I quit.”
A tremor went through the room.
Lola looked wildly around the room. What was that? Applegate, meanwhile, had completely frozen. Then he rounded angrily on the ceiling and started to shout.
“No! No, that doesn’t count! She’s still mine, damn it! I have rights!”
Lola stared at him. What was happening? Whatever it was, it was definitely above her now-nonexistent pay grade. The room started to shake again, and this time it didn’t stop.
“Don’t give me that that, you sanctimonious feather duster. We had a deal, and rules are rules. You don’t just get to break them because you feel like ‘it would be the right thing to do’. WHAT? You do not cite the Louis Precedent with me, fluff for brains. That was for ME, you don’t get to… since when? Oh you did not just…leave my mother out of this! Well you know what? Fine. Just...fine...”
A truly sinister smirk crossed his face, and this time the smile did reach his eyes. And that was the worst thing Lola had seen all night. He turned back to her, but despite the expression she refused to back up now.
“So, bad news from upstairs?” She managed to ask, and was was rewarded when he actually bared his teeth before he recovered.
“Oh yes. Awful, really,” he said, sarcasm dripping from his tone. “You are indeed free of my service. You get to live out the remaining years of your mortal life.”
She could wait for the catch without getting her hopes up. She’d had practice.
“Why, I even have to send you off with my… best wishes.”
Ah, there it was. Hundreds of possibilities flashed through her mind, each more horrible than the next.
“So I think I’m turning you into a used car.”
She blinked. That...was not what she had expected.
"That's right," he advanced on her with a snarl. "A car. An old, used car, out on a lot in the middle of nowhere. You’ll just be stuck there, staring across the asphalt at the lights. Where no one will even look at you as your price keeps on lowering until, maybe, someone takes you for a ride. Only to drop you off and leave with another one completely." He gave his rattlesnake laugh again. "Hey, that would almost be a metaphor. Wouldn't it."
She was trying to keep up a brave face. It wasn't easy. Never mind the insult, she was used to that. Fifty or more years of complete isolation and paralysis as she slowly rotted away? She could think of worse fates, but honestly not many. And she was quite sure this was the kind of thing that would only get worse with time.
“It is isn’t it?” He was glowing, sickeningly pleased with himself. He looked to the ceiling again. “Well? You wanted the Louis Precedent? You got it buddy. Take her away.”
There was a smell of ozone, and white began to flood the room. A sense of inevitability and crackling power.
But, despite that, an inexplicable feeling that all would be well.
What the hell. As everything went white, she decided to use her last moment as a human to do something worthwhile for once.
She kicked Applegate square in the balls.
Agent Phil Coulson was not having a good day. And, despite his best intentions, eating lunch while hiding from the desert sun in the shade of a quinjet wasn’t helping.
He could be underground in the air conditioning of course, eating with his friends and coworkers. It’s not like there was much on the surface of this facility anyway, just a glorified top secret used car lot. And he knew that they’d welcome him. But here he was, after making his excuses. Spending time dead, he had quipped to them, had left him restless. Not to mention all that time recovering in Tahiti.
It was a magical place.
But that was also only half true, which was why he was out in the dry New Mexico desert. Old vehicles stretched in every direction, to the red hills painted green with brush. While a massive hologram sketched a mundane illusion from the outside, the lot held everything from black government vans and helicopters to chitauri wreckage.
Miraculous recovery or not, spending a few seconds dead had left the world feeling hollow. Almost unreal. And the people? The exact opposite problem. Spending any time with them was almost overwhelming in a way he couldn’t really explain. He’d never had this problem before.
He’d talked to his counselor of course, and been told that it was post traumatic stress. Not necessarily easy to deal with, but not uncommon or untreatable either. He’d already been cleared for desk work, and with luck and therapy would be in the field again soon.
He hoped they were right. The time outside wasn’t working, and he was tired of looking at the horizon and seeing set pieces and facades.
He was startled from that depressing line of thought by the sound of a starting engine.
He stood quickly, unlatching his holster, and peered over the cars. But between the heat haze and the other cars he couldn’t see what was happening. He pulled out his comm set.
“Control, this is Coulson. I’m investigating a situation in vehicle storage.”
“Say again, Agent Coulson?”
“Someone just started one of the cars.”
A horn rang out, and the engine revved randomly before stalling out and then sputtering to a second start. He raised an eyebrow as he headed into the rows, following the ruckus.
“Possibly a squirrel. Or a teenager who doesn’t know manual transmission. I thought these vehicles weren’t fueled.”
“Well someone must have really over-tipped the valet parking.”
He ducked between the cars, being careful not to touch the burning hot metal. Between that and the baking sun it really was pretty darn hellish out here… ah! There, hidden behind a cluster of trucks. The sounds had become less random, more experimental. He heard it shift up and down through the gears. Hesitant at first, then with more confidence.
“I need an ID on the vehicle in space...666 Delta Victor Lima. Well, that’s in no way ominous."
“Yes sir. Looks like a prototype Stark hovercar. Sorry, Howard Stark. From nineteen sixty two. I think the number must have been his idea of joke.”
“Hovercar huh. It have any kind of self navigation, or AI? Learning algorithms?”
“It has the capacity but this says it was never fully implemented. Why?”
“Because,” he said, peering around the corner to reveal a really nice red convertible. It was flashing its lights, independently moving the wipers, and hesitantly turning it’s wheels. It was also completely empty. “I think I’m about to have a conversation. Have a robotics containment team set up a perimeter, but don’t engage unless something happens to me.”
“Yes sir. Be aware though, that car is armed. Special Stark load out. Now, it’s supposed to have no ammunition…”
“But it wasn’t supposed to have fuel either. Understood. Coulson out.”
He stood up, and slowly and carefully walked around the corner.
The car froze as soon as he came into view, the engine sputtering out in it’s rush.
Visual acuity, intentional reaction, he noted to himself. Unfamiliar with it’s own systems, but learning fast. Also, it’s scared.
“Hi!” He said in his most harmless voice. “My name is Phil Coulson. And I promise, you don’t have to hide.”
There was no response for a moment, so he went on.
“I’m sure you’re scared and confused. Waking up, in a place like this? It must be pretty disorienting. But whatever you are, wherever you came from, I’m here to help. I’m an Agent of SHIELD, do you know what that is?”
There was a moment, and then the engine started again. And the headlights flashed once.
“So we’re doing the one knock two knocks thing? Great. I don’t suppose you know Morse Code?”
Two flashes. Well, it usually was too much to hope for. No one knew Morse Code anymore.
“Alright, that’s fine. Now, I should warn you, I have a gun. I’m going to put it down, okay?”
One flash, and the wipers swiped sarcastically. How could windshield wipers be sarcastic? That was a neat trick. He put the gun on the ground and walked over. Coming closer he could see the cameras, tracking him as he approached.
“Okay, I think I know people who can help you with the language barrier if you would like. But for now, do you mind answering some basic questions?
Two flashes, and a puff of exhaust that clearly translated to ‘whatever’. Definitely learning fast.
“Thank you. Now, were you created by Howard Stark?”
Two flashes again, and revs from the engine that were unmistakably laughter.
“But you know him.”
The windshield wipers smirked. He really had to figure out how they did that.
“And do you know how you got here?”
One flash, two flashes, repeat. A frustrated growl.
“Well, that’s alright. Once we figure out a better way to communicate you can tell us what you know, and help you figure out the rest. Now sorry, but I have to ask. You’re not planning on killing all humans or anything are you? No crush kill destroy?”
Two flashes, and another amused rumble from the engine. Coulson smiled, glad the joke had gone over well, and discretely tapped his comm twice to signal that things seemed peaceful and they could move in.
“Well then, that should be enough for the initial interview. We’ll have a chance to talk more once we get over the language barrier. But just a quick personal question, you have a name?
One flash, and then to his surprise the sound of the radio tuning in. And he couldn’t help but laughing when the tune began to play. It was, he realized, the first time he'd really laughed in a long time.