Thankfully Banner explained to John that JARVIS was the AI that ran the tower, before John made a fool of himself by asking at reception. That forewarning didn’t make the whole talking-to-thin air thing any less bizarre. Nor did it make the disembodied voice any less startling.
“Um? JARVIS?” John had asked the living room once he’d returned to his suite of rooms after breakfast.
“Yes, Doctor Watson? Or would you prefer Captain Watson?” an English accented voice replied, although it wasn’t apparent where the voice came from.
“John’s fine, although if you’re programmed to speak with an honorific, I’d prefer ‘Doctor’,” John said. Banner had mentioned that JARVIS was the type of AI that the majority of computer programmers could only dream about making, but that hadn’t really helped John in understanding how human the AI was.
“I do not need to use the honorific, but I do prefer to unless insisted otherwise.”
Which, ok, that was weird. Did programmed AIs normally have preferences about what they call people? “Dr Watson then,” John told him. “What about you? Do I call you Mr Jarvis? Miss Jarvis?”
“Just JARVIS is fine, Doctor.” And John was absolutely positive that there was amusement in that voice. “What was it you wanted my help on?”
“Pepper mentioned that you’d be able to help me finding a set of car keys? She said something about helping myself to one of the cars in the garage.”
“Yes. Would you prefer the Mercedes or the Jaguar?”
John swallowed the sigh that threatened. “I don’t suppose there’s anything inconspicuous I could use?” he asked, thinking of Iron Man’s glitzy red and gold design, as well as Stark’s penchant for making headlines.
“No sir,” JARVIS replied, sounding amused again.
“Are they manual or automatics?”
“Manuals. Although there is an automatic Lamborghini if you-”
“Oh my God no,” John stopped him. “You have a terrible sense of humour.”
“On the contrary, Dr Watson, I do not have a sense of humour.”
John eyed the sofa knowingly, but did not actually call bullshit. There was no point getting into an argument with a building. “Just give me the keys to the Jaguar,” he said instead, and headed for the elevator.
“Certainly sir,” JARVIS replied, sounding smug now, as well as amused. “If you head down to the lobby a member of staff will have your car ready for you. It is my duty to inform you that all of Mr Stark’s vehicles have tracking devices installed in them, as well as GPS. Any attempt to steal the car will trigger an automatic alert to the police, and similarly any accident you have will alert an ambulance. The latter alert may be turned off at your discretion although I would not advise it.”
By this time, John was already in the elevator heading down, JARVIS’ voice having followed him. It was only when he was two floors away from the lobby that the thought struck him; “Did Stark program you with Paul Bettany’s voice?” he asked.
This question brought JARVIS to a halt that on a human would have been stuttering. “Yes?” the AI answered, sounding confused now.
John laughed, shook his head and chose to keep his comments to himself. There were various reasons why Stark might have chosen an English accent; he might’ve been basing the AI on some English person he’d actually known, he might have a flamboyant gay crush on Paul Bettany, or he might have been trying to impress someone (either romantically, or by the fact that he didn’t need the stereotypical English butler, because he’d programmed his own, thank-you-very-much). Whatever the reason, it was something to keep in mind for if - or when - Stark did decide to take his ‘war’ one step too far.
But John quickly forgot his musings when he got to the ground floor and was presented with the keys to a slick black car that purred in the way only really good cars do. John didn’t care much for cars. He had a license, of course, but he’d gone from home, to University, to the army, to London. So he hadn’t had much of a need to drive and the last car he had driven was a beat up old VW Golf, which really did not compare.
Needless to say, John took the long way back to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ
One of the advantages of meeting Pepper and getting what John was fast starting to think of as the proper briefing, is that she seemed to know just about everything and was more than happy to share the majority of that information. She hadn’t been able to properly contact S.H.I.E.L.D. since Hill had quit as the Avengers’ handler, but she still knew a fair deal more about the organisation than someone who was not technically involved with it should do.
This came in handy when John pulled up to the front doors of the headquarters without any idea as to where he ought to park the car, or where he should head once he was inside the building. But Pepper had presented him with a micro SD card compatible with either of the tablets he’d been given, that contained her version of the ‘need-to-know’ files, including a map of HQ. It still took John longer than it probably ought to have done to find what he was looking for.
It hadn’t been until the previous night on the edge of sleep when he’d recalled the original conversation with Fury. The Director had said that Coulson wasn’t dead yet, that he has been in surgery. Which had made John wonder if, maybe, Fury had kept the news to himself for more reasons than just that Coulson wasn’t able to do so himself yet. It was a month after the attack on New York, after all, and that Coulson had still had surgeries he needed wasn’t exactly a good sign.
So John had decided that the first thing he was going to do was to track down exactly where Coulson was, and take a look at his condition personally. Regardless of whether Coulson was still on the brink of death or not, John was still going to tell the Avengers - they deserved to know - but how he told them would have to change depending on the likelihood of Coulson surviving his latest surgery.
There was nowhere marked on the map of the quarters that said that it was medical, exactly, but John was sure of two things: The first was that there was no way Coulson would have been taken to a public health care service when S.H.I.E.L.D. was more than adequately equipped itself. The second was that he’d worked in enough hospitals, surgeries and medical barracks to know what part of the building was most likely to be S.H.I.E.L.D.’s medical area, based on the layout of the rooms. John was also pretty certain that Fury wouldn’t have Coulson being treated on his helicarrier - flying and delicate operations did not a happy combination make.
Ridiculously extravagant car parked, and the keys tucked carefully into an inside pocket of his jacket, John headed to the elevator and up to what he hoped was the correct floor. The headquarters was busier than it had been the day before, maybe just because of where it was he was travelling to and from, and John couldn’t help but notice the skin tight blue uniform or run of the mill black suit and black tie that everyone wore. Given that he was wearing a black and white stripped jumper and a pair of tatty jeans, John was going to assume that they all knew who he was.
The idea that they didn’t know, and were so unobservant not to notice someone so clearly out of place was one that he didn’t want to entertain. What with S.H.I.E.L.D. being a spy network and everything.
Either way, he wasn’t stopped and his hunch paid off when he wandered into what was clearly a medical area. It was only once there that he was stopped.
“Sir, only medical personnel are allowed access to this area,” one of the men in white lab coats said.
John pulled out the ID badge Hill had given him the day before and didn’t look at the man, instead looking at the corridor behind him. “I served as an army medic in Afghanistan for eight years,” John told him. “What did you do?” Which wasn’t fair of him, he knew, especially since when it came to S.H.I.E.L.D. John probably didn’t count as medical personnel, but he didn’t have time for this. He had a number of objectives for the day that he wanted to see done.
“Fury warned us that you might be coming,” the man said, apparently not at all flustered by John’s rudeness. “He said you were pals with Coulson, that you’d probably want to know how he was.”
John finally turned his attention to the man who was talking at him and tried not to scowl. “Well?” he asked. “What are you waiting for? Where is Coulson, and how’s he doing?”
With that prompting, the man started leading him down the corridor nattering almost excitedly about Coulson’s recovery. Apparently the blow that Coulson had received should have been a fatal one, but he’d had the dubious good luck of not only being hit by a magical spear, but it had also happened on the helicarrier where they’d been playing around with some new techniques that weren’t really supposed to be used for human testing yet, but had been his only chance of survival.
What had followed was a month of going in and out of surgery, Coulson hovering somewhere between simply being unconscious, in a coma, or dead the entire time. He had died, in medical terms, four times in the last month, not including the initial ‘death’ at the hands of Loki. He’d been revived each time pretty quickly, but he had yet to wake up since the initial incident, so there was no way of knowing how much damage his brain might have sustained from the periods without oxygen.
The thought that Coulson’s brain might have been crippled by the incident had John clenching his hands convulsively, to keep the tremor from manifesting. Coulson had been a good fighter - a fantastic one, even - and he’d been a very good shot. But the things that had made Coulson an exceptional soldier was not only how he fought, it was when he chose to. He had already been good at keeping a cool head, but with John’s help Coulson’s ability to calmly assess a situation to do exactly what he needed to see a positive outcome had been astounding. By the end of their stint working together they had become equals in skill, though John still technically outranked him.
Fine motor controls, the ability to chose the right words, those were the first things a person was most likely to lose; two of the things Coulson treasured most highly. If he was unlucky he might not even be able to distinguish his dreams from reality anymore - if he woke up. But John was panicking needlessly. There was hope yet that Coulson would eventually recover to the point where he had nothing but a scar in memory of his time at Loki’s hands.
The man led John to an observation room, looking into a small, white room with a single bed in it. Coulson looked about as pale as the walls, his breathing a loud hiss of the assisting equipment and his heartbeat the piercing beeping of the electrocardiogram.
“He came out of his last operation strongly,” the stranger said. “There’s nothing more we can do for him now, except hope and pray that he wakes up. It should take him a day or two to run through the drugs in his system. After that, he’ll wake up when his body lets him.”
“He’s a fighter,” John said, thinking of the number of scratches and bumps he’d patched up for the other man.
The man nodded his agreement silently and left the room silently. John stood staring at Coulson for long minutes, made vulnerable by this poignant reminder of how very fragile humans could be. In his mind he saw another man in Coulson’s place - a man who’d never made it to the hospital with thick dark curly hair rather than light straight hair. John would not let himself cry for Sherlock, not again, but his chest hitched painfully and his short nails dug impossibly deep into his palms.
“Do you see why I didn’t tell them?” a voice interrupted John’s thoughts. He didn’t have to turn around to know that it was Director Fury who’d entered the room.
“They deserve to know,” John said.
Fury came up to stand beside him, hands clasped behind his back, both of them staring into the other room and their comatose friend rather than looking at each other. “I told them he was dead, and they mourned for him and moved on. Should I have told them he was alive just so that they could watch him fight for it every day for God knows how long?”
“Have they moved on?” John asked. “Have any of them? Barton and Romanova worked with him for several years on dangerous missions. They must have been friends, yet they talk about him coldly as though he was nothing more than a guy they saw at work occasionally. And Stark looked like I’d punched him in the balls when I just mentioned Coulson’s name. That doesn’t sound to me like any of them have moved on.”
“It was Coulson’s idea for me to use him to spur them into acting together,” Fury said. “Maybe I didn’t make the right call, but I’d prefer for the Avengers to hate me and be glad Coulson’s alive than hate me and watch him die again.”
John shook his head. “And what about the third option? What about the one where you told them the truth as soon as the battle was done, and they could be there to help with Coulson’s recovery? It’s not just hearsay that coma victims sometimes hear the voices of those around them, that the voices of the ones they love are sometimes what pull them through.”
“And you think Coulson loved the Avengers?”
“He died for them didn’t he?” John said. Then after a beat of silence - “And they certainly love him.”
Fury released a deep breath that John hadn’t been aware the other man had been holding in. “You’re going to tell them,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“Yes,” John agreed. “I’m going to move them all into Stark’s ridiculous tower, and I’m going to tell them that Coulson is alive. Then I’m going to bring them in here and they’re going to make a lot of fuss and be very irritating, and you’re going to let them because they might just kill you when they find out.”
“And what if Coulson doesn’t wake up?”
John finally turned to look at the man beside him, and part of him recognised that Coulson had been more than just another agent, to Fury. He’d been a friend, too. And having John take this decision off his hands was something that he was actually welcoming, that not telling the Avengers hadn’t really been a decision, it had been him putting off deciding what to tell them. Fury was hard and manipulative and could probably bribe someone to hand over their first born to him, but he was still human.
John turned back to look through the glass and smiled grimly. “He will,” he said. “He’ll wake.”