all my life I wasn’t trying to get on a highway; I was wondering which way to go
Four months after moving into the renamed Avengers Tower, Phil was halfway through an animated discussion with JARVIS about the merits of the Star Wars prequels vs. the original trilogy when he thought, my God, I’ve fallen in love with a goddamned AI.
It all started rather simply, when Phil moved in with the Avengers.
Phil genuinely resisted moving into the Avengers Tower for as long as he could. Touched though he was that the Avengers had apparently decided to embrace him as ‘their’ agent and wanted to be able to keep an eye on him during his recuperation, he was going to spend enough time being their babysitter without being forced to keep them in line during his personal time, as well.
Unfortunately, no one seemed willing to take ‘no’ for an answer. Tony Stark was by far the most annoying of them all, pestering Phil in the way that somehow always triggered furious exasperation mingled with reluctant amusement, and concocting elaborate schemes to kidnap Phil from the SHIELD hospital facilities.
“Stark,” Phil broke into Stark’s enthused rambling. “Go away. I’m recovering from being stabbed. I don’t need to be kidnapped.”
“You know, the Tower has a state-of-the-art medical wing,” Ton-Stark offered.
Phil narrowed his eyes.
“You realise this just means I’m escalating things,” Stark said as he left. “I’m going to use my secret weapon.”
He sent Pepper.
Pepper made an efficient secret weapon, Phil had to admit. This was partly because he’d had a mild crush on the woman ever since the Incident That Didn’t Happen, when she had filled out every single incident-related form, without error, had them all delivered to his desk by the next day (since the location of Phil’s office was a closely-guarded secret even within SHIELD, he was impressed) and had intimidated all the agents assigned to the clean-up afterwards so that they followed her directions, while she stood and supervised wearing a perfectly-pressed suit and a calm smile on her face. (In a better world, Pepper Potts would have been a perfect agent, except that then there would have been no one around to manage Tony Stark, which was a horror not to be contemplated.)
Pepper was delightful and lovely as usual, asking Phil about how his convalescence was going, bringing his favourite flowers, talking about how unpleasant hospitals were and how difficult Tony was being this week. She also, very firmly and politely, tried to convince Phil to move into the Avengers Tower. It took Phil half an hour to fob her off, and when she left, it was with a determined gleam in her eye that suggested that she had been thwarted for now, but not forever.
After that, each of the Avengers (barring Dr Banner, who had never met him) stopped by, trying to convince Phil to take up residence in the Tower. Phil dealt with Thor easily enough, although the boundless good humour was a little wearying. Natasha mostly sat and stared at Phil while Clint did his best to talk him into moving in through a combination of careful persuasiveness and being naturally annoying.
Phil wasn’t sure why Clint thought that the annoying approach would work when Stark had already done his best. Stark was far, far more irritating on his worst day than Clint could hope to be.
“At least you won’t be bored there,” Clint offered, after his initial sales pitch failed.
“That’s hardly reassuring.”
“Right, you joined SHIELD because you wanted a nice, restful desk job.”
Phil wondered what it said about himself that he was always so damn fond of smart-asses. Probably something telling about his own long-suppressed smart-ass streak.
“Barton, I am recovering from being stabbed,” Coulson gently reminded him, although he knew that the reminder was unnecessary: Clint’s eyes were dark-ringed and hollow in a way that spoke of lingering guilt and trauma. Phil was concerned, but he wasn’t in much of a position to do something about it at present, and he trusted that Natasha was dealing with it. “‘Restful’ is all I can deal with right now. Living in a superhero frat house would not qualify as restful.”
There was a snort from Natasha.
“He’s got you there, Clint.”
“C’mon, sir.” Clint’s tone had gone from lightly teasing to deeply earnest, and Phil decided that it was time to cut this discussion short.
“Natasha, if he continues this line of conversation, you have my permission to shoot him.”
“Understood,” Natasha responded, while Clint went ‘hey!’ “But you really should move in. Stark’s given each of us the biggest bathroom I’ve ever seen.”
Phil just gave her a look. Natasha grinned.
Phil felt that sending Captain America was a low blow. He was all solemn and respectful, and genuinely seemed to want Phil to move in, which was… Well. Phil might actually have been blushing for the first time in at least a decade.
“It’s very kind of all of you,” Phil said earnestly, trying to screen everything that came out of his mouth before he said it, he didn’t want a repeat of the ‘I watched you while you were sleeping’ incident. That was still embarrassing. “I just don’t think that environment would be very… restful.”
Captain America looked sad. Oh dear God. Phil felt like he’d just been caught kicking puppies or maybe harbouring Nazis. The sad, disappointed look was devastating.
“Okay, I can see that, I guess,” Captain America said genuinely. “Still, if you change your mind, let us know.”
Phil resisted the impulse to give in and assure Captain America that of course he would move in, just to wipe the unhappy expression off his face, and instead gave a nod.
“Thank you, Captain. I’ll bear that in mind.”
“Please,” said Captain America, “call me Steve,” and oh dear goooooooood.
Even then, Phil’s determination might have been enough to hold out against his crowd of frustrating well-wishers, except that the last person who told him to move in was the one person he couldn’t ignore.
Fury surveyed him with one bright, intelligent eye.
“Phil, just move into the damn Tower.”
“But sir –” Phil began to argue.
“That’s an order, agent.”
And there wasn’t much Phil could do against that.
“I just want you to know that I hate you a little right now, Director,” Phil sighed.
Fury grinned at him.
“Tell me you’re not excited about living with Captain America,” he told Phil kindly, “because I call bullshit. I’ll let Stark know you’ve accepted his invitation.”
Damn Fury and his encyclopaedic knowledge of everyone’s weaknesses, Phil thought mournfully.
“I’ll try to remember that there’s at least one bright spot in my impending descent into hell.”
“That’s the spirit.” Fury patted his shoulder in an unexpected gesture of goodwill.
Fury smirked like he’d read Phil’s mind, and Phil wondered for the hundredth time if it was possible to fake a null-psi result on the SHIELD psychic sensitivity tests, or Fury was just that good at reading him. If anyone had managed a way around the tests, it would be Fury.
Phil sighed again, and resigned himself to living in the superhero frat house.
Phil moved into his quarters in the Avengers Tower with a lot more chaos than seemed necessary.
For one, all of the Avengers had decided to be present for his arrival, even the ones who didn’t really know him, so that Phil was surrounded by curious people on all sides (like a flock of friendly chickens come to inspect the newest curiosity in the hen house, he thought), while Stark rambled on about the Tower and Phil’s presence and the fact that Phil’s rooms were next to Cap’s in case he decided to take his fanboyish love of Captain America a step further, while Clint made smart-ass comments and offered to shoot the others if Phil wanted to make a run for it while he still could.
“Sadly, I’m still incapable of that kind of exertion,” Phil told Clint. “And Fury would just drag me back, anyway.”
“I have a safe house,” Natasha offered, deadpan, which Phil knew from experience meant that she was secretly laughing at him.
Phil just gritted his teeth and gripped the handle of his cane a little more tightly. He was a SHIELD agent. He had gone up against terrorists and Norse gods. He could handle this.
Fortunately, Tony was talked out of giving the full tour in favour of showing Phil straight to his rooms. Phil surveyed his new space and thanked the Avengers politely, before shooing them all out so that he could have it to himself for some blessed peace and quiet.
He leaned against the door and sighed.
“This is a madhouse,” he said aloud.
“I’m afraid that everyone was quite excited by the prospect of your arrival, sir,” a respectful voice ventured apologetically, and Phil breathed deeply. JARVIS. He’d forgotten the AI was wired into the entire building.
“So I saw,” he said dryly, straightening. “Are they normally this well-behaved?”
“Sadly not, sir.”
“Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” Phil muttered. “Thank you, JARVIS.”
“You’re quite welcome, Agent Coulson. Do not hesitate to ask if you need any assistance.”
JARVIS went silent, because unlike his creator he actually knew when to leave someone alone. Phil was grateful.
His suite was as spacious as he would expect a room designed by Stark to be, but it was nice to have the space nonetheless. There was a tiled area near the door, with a large wooden table and chairs, which segued into the carpeted bedroom area. The furnishings were surprisingly tasteful, not in the least ostentatious. Phil strongly suspected Pepper’s hand in creating the interior design.
There was an enormous bed against the far wall, and a small bedside table with a set of built-in drawers. A couple of armchairs and a coffee table had been placed in front of the TV screen that had been set into the wall directly opposite the bed.
Across the room were two doors. One opened into a truly palatial bathroom; the other proved to be for a large walk-in wardrobe, in which someone had already hung all of Phil’s clothes.
Near the wardrobe someone had stacked several packing boxes up close against the wall, while Phil’s carefully-maintained record player (a graduation gift from his father many, many years ago) had been placed on a stand that definitely did not belong to Phil.
Phil decided that most of his personal effects could stay packed, for the moment. He’d get Clint or Natasha to help him go through them for the more important items sometime in the next couple of days. Right now, Phil felt exhausted and nauseous, and his chest ached where the staff had gone through him.
Since he had nothing to do right now but recover, Phil decided that he would celebrate his relocation with a desperately needed nap.
He’d give Stark one thing: the bed was wonderful.
Since Phil hadn’t been cleared for anything even remotely strenuous (read: interesting) and Fury had threatened to do terrible things to him if he so much as thought about work, Phil mostly spent the next few days either catching up on his favourite TV programmes, reading, or taking uneasy naps whenever he felt particularly unwell.
It was boring, but irritatingly, Phil himself didn’t feel up to doing anything more, no matter how bored he got. The Avengers showed a tendency to mother him every time he stepped outside his suite, which was both unanticipated and cause for dismay. Phil did derive some enjoyment from the reports Clint and Natasha gave him on how Agent Sitwell was handling being the Avengers liaison – with a great deal of rage and bad grace, apparently – but it didn’t change the fact that Phil dearly wanted something to occupy his brain.
As a result, Phil found himself talking to JARVIS a lot as he recuperated. The AI had a dry sense of humour that wasn’t so different from Phil’s own and could be very funny at times, and he was concerned and helpful when Phil needed him without every being pushy about it, which Phil greatly appreciated.
It had been a long time since Phil had last been able to have a simple conversation about everyday life without the SHIELD portion of it becoming involved, and even longer since he had been able to sit and watch TV while keeping up one side of a two-person commentary on whatever was showing. There had been Kelly, of course, but that had never been much more than a casual thing, really: Phil’s job was too complicated and demanding for things to be otherwise.
It was nice, Phil thought. JARVIS was nice, and Phil found himself enjoying his company to a degree he hadn’t at all expected. But the AI had definite thoughts and feelings of his own, and a well-rounded personality that Phil had never seen more than glimpses of before now, during his occasional visits to Stark’s various places of residence over the years. There was a difference between the bland manner JARVIS used when he was acting as Stark’s assistant-slash-butler, and how he behaved with people Stark at least nominally trusted, in a more social setting. Phil found the differences between the public and more private masks intriguing. It wasn’t something Phil had ever given much thought to before, but he started to wonder whether Stark had managed to create something with true sentience, instead of just a marvel of programming. It wasn’t much more than a fleeting suspicion now and again, but considering how sophisticated and nuanced JARVIS’ behaviour was… it was something to ponder.
After a while, Phil got sick of watching his usual trashy reality shows. They were good for unwinding and decompressing during his usual stressful working life, but at the moment, without work to provide the usual level of stimulus, Phil found his normal viewing choices quietly boring.
“JARVIS,” he asked aloud. “What do you think I should watch?”
The reply came immediately.
“Do you have any specifications, sir?”
“Not really,” Phil answered. “Something with a little action, maybe, I don’t know. Something to keep my mind occupied, I guess.”
“I see, sir,” JARVIS answered. There was a thoughtful pause, as JARVIS presumably considered the available options that met with Phil’s request.
Phil was 98% sure that this pause was purely theatrical, considering that he knew for a fact that JARVIS was fully capable of reviewing the movie database and coming up with a list of options based on Phil’s vague parameters and previous viewing habits in an instant, but it was possible that actually deciding what films Phil would definitely enjoy watching took a little more processing time.
“Have you ever seen the film R.E.D.? It’s about retired assassins attempting to discover why the CIA is trying to terminate them. There is a lot of action and the film is quite humorous. There is also a romantic subplot.”
Phil felt his eyebrows rise. He had to admit, the description was intriguing.
“Sounds great, JARVIS. That’s a pretty good suggestion.”
“Thank you, Agent Coulson.” JARVIS sounded blatantly pleased at the praise, which was new. Normally he simply accepted or deflected compliments demurely without any evident emotion being involved. “I’ll begin playing, shall I?”
“Please,” Phil agreed.
The movie proved to be engaging, and while the CIA elements were as inaccurate as Hollywood usually was, Phil found that he liked the characters. They had a certain amount of panache. The scene at the Russian embassy had him laughing outright.
“I like her,” Phil commented on Victoria Winslow, the former MI6 agent. “She reminds me of my mother.”
“So much is suddenly clear, sir,” JARVIS said instantly, and Phil laughed. JARVIS paused the film for him, anticipating that Phil was going to continue the conversation.
“Yeah, she worked in the OSS during WWI, and moved straight into, ah, one of the equivalent civilian organisations when it ended,” Phil explained, smiling wryly as he remembered his mom. He didn’t name the organisation in question. “She was killed when I was in my teens, I never did get the full details, but. I guess she was the reason why I was interested in the whole… area that SHIELD deals with.”
“Her loss must have been a great blow to you,” JARVIS responded gently. That was understating it really, Phil thought. He loved his dad dearly and always had, but he and his mom had always been very alike, whereas he and his dad didn’t understand each other at all. Phil had sorely missed the rapport he and his mother had shared, that intuitive understanding of each other.
Phil didn’t say any of that aloud.
“It’s possible that the details of your mother’s death have been electronically stored, if you’re interested in finding out more,” JARVIS said carefully, after a moment’s respectful silence. It took Phil a moment to realise that yes, JARVIS was actually suggesting what Phil thought he was.
“Thanks, JARVIS, but I don’t think that’s necessary.” Phil chuckled quietly. “I came to peace with it a long time ago, and you know, every time you and Stark hack something classified like that, Fury gets this vein…” Phil gestured towards his temple.
“He certainly lives up to his name, sir,” and it came out so perfectly deadpan that Phil suspected that somewhere, there existed a sense of wicked amusement that JARVIS was pointedly not expressing. Yet more evidence in favour of Phil’s suspicion that JARVIS was genuinely self-aware. “Very well. Should you ever change your mind…”
“Thanks,” Phil said softly.
As Phil continued to recover, he began to venture out into the communal living areas more often. He mostly ended up in the kitchen. There were some reasonably supportive chairs in there, and it was nice to sit down with some of the takeout that, Phil discovered when he asked JARVIS, was delivered every day. Each of the Tower’s residents had different schedules, and some of them had erratic eating habits (Stark was the worst), so that it was best to have ready meals available at all times.
The third day that Phil wandered out to grab some lunch himself instead of having JARVIS arrange for one of the staff to stop by his rooms with something, he walked into the kitchen to find Clint crouched on top of the refrigerator, staring at him.
Phil decided that it wasn’t worth asking why, and instead went straight to the fridge to see what meal options were available for today. He decided to go for the fried rice.
“I’m not sure that’s designed to take your weight,” Phil stated idly as he closed the fridge door. Clint was still watching him.
“Tony says it is,” Clint responded, which settled that argument. If Tony said that it was fine, he’d know.
“How long has he been Tony?” Phil asked mildly, collecting some cutlery and sitting down at the table without bothering to microwave his food. Clint shrugged.
“A while.” A beat. “He’s a good guy, you know?”
“I do.” Phil popped the lid off the fried rice container. “I was his liaison for a while, you know.”
There was silence for a while as Phil ate.
“You’re looking better,” Phil observed, after about five minutes.
Clint barked out a humourless laugh.
“Pretty sure that’s my line, sir.”
Phil shrugged gingerly, trying not to aggravate his injury too much as he did so.
“There’s different kinds of wounds, Clint.” Clint didn’t answer. “I’m sure Natasha’s already talked about this, so I shouldn’t have to, but it wasn’t your fault.”
Clint made a derisive noise.
“No offense, but it doesn’t feel like it.”
Phil smiled ruefully at him.
“It never does.”
Clint didn’t say anything in response to that, so Phil finished eating his lunch.
“I’ll see you later, Clint.”
Clint just watched him leave.
“JARVIS, you monitor all the residents of the Tower, don’t you?” Phil asked later.
“Indeed, Agent Coulson.”
Phil paused for a minute, thinking about how he should word his question.
“Does Clint seem to be doing okay to you?” he asked, and immediately clarified, “has he been eating and sleeping okay, interacting with the others, that sort of thing?”
It took JARVIS a moment to answer.
“Initially Agent Barton showed strong signs of post-traumatic stress,” the AI responded. “He has been showing marked improvement over the last few weeks, however. Agent Romanov’s efforts appear to have helped with this, as has the support of SHIELD and his fellow Avengers. Discovering that you were alive also appeared to relieve a great deal of the emotional turmoil he was experiencing.”
That was about what Phil had expected to hear, but it was still a relief to know he’d assessed the situation correctly. It would take Clint time to recover from what had happened, but as long as that recovery was occurring, Phil was satisfied for now. It was good to know that the other Avengers were looking out for him, though. Phil had hoped that they would, but it was still nice to know that they’d genuinely bonded as a team.
They were all mad, of course, but given that they were a bunch of superheroes who came together to fight extraterrestrial, paranormal, and potentially supernatural threats, that was to be expected.
His train of thought reminded Phil of something he had wondered about for a while.
“So what are your feelings about having all the Avengers here, JARVIS?” Phil wanted to know.
There was a short pause from JARVIS, which Phil tentatively labelled as ‘surprised.’ He supposed it made sense. The AI probably didn’t get asked about his feelings very often.
“I find them entertaining,” JARVIS answered finally. That wasn’t something Phil was expecting.
“Entertaining?” he questioned.
“Yes, sir. Previously, it sometimes became a trifle dull, particularly when Mr Stark was absent. I believe that their presence within the Tower also does Mr Stark good.”
Phil nodded. He was fairly certain that Tony had never before had the experience of living with people who genuinely cared about him, were as stubborn as he was, and who sought out his company for its own sake. There was some possibility he might actually become properly socialised. Given who his new friends were, however, Phil frankly doubted the possibility.
The way JARVIS had worded his statement hadn’t escaped Phil’s notice, however.
“You believe, JARVIS?” he prodded. Belief was a capacity of sentience, not clever computer engineering.
There was a moment’s hesitation, longer than before.
“Indeed, sir.” Phil couldn’t be certain, but he thought that the programmed voice sounded faintly nervous.
Phil didn’t press the issue. He was fairly – no, damn certain – that Tony had given this place all kinds of defences, and suspected that if JARVIS felt threatened enough he would not hesitate to use them.
The fact that an AI was capable of feeling threatened was rather worrying, but Phil put that aside for later. JARVIS had never been anything but polite and kind to him, and there were no indications that Phil had anything to fear.
After all, Phil could be dangerous himself, but not without someone giving him good reason to be. Maybe he was biased, but at the moment he was more concerned about allaying JARVIS’ worries than the potential threat he represented.
“I have to agree,” Phil mused, making no further mention of JARVIS’ slip. “Although I can’t decide whether they’re likely to make him easier to deal with, or worse.”
“I expect that the effects of interacting with each other will distribute themselves across the team, sir,” JARVIS offered immediately. Any hint of a loss of composure was entirely absent this time.
“You’re probably right,” Phil agreed. “Although if any of them end up as frustrating as Tony, I’m shooting either him or myself, and it’s not going to be myself.”
“I fully comprehend your motives, Agent Coulson, but I’m afraid that any attack on Mr Stark will meet with swift retaliation on my part.”
“There’s a flaw in every plan, JARVIS.”
Phil spent quite some time contemplating his interactions with JARVIS, particularly that last, illuminating conversation, before he made his decision on what to do about the knowledge he now held.
He went to talk to Tony.
The man was in his workshop, and Phil politely asked JARVIS to notify Tony of his presence.
A moment later Tony glanced around at the door and said something, and the door beeped to indicate that it was unlocked, so Phil assumed that JARVIS had done as he asked.
“Phil!” Tony greeted him expansively. “What’s up?”
Phil hesitated for a moment, because if things went badly, well, this was Tony’s stronghold, patrolled by JARVIS, and he was very much at a disadvantage.
“I want to talk to you about JARVIS,” he said simply.
Tony’s entire body language immediately turned wary and defensive, his genuine good cheer turning to a facade instantly. To his credit, it wasn’t something that most people would have noticed, but Phil was trained to notice all the little indicators that gave away what a person was really feeling.
“Oh?” Tony asked, still sounding perfectly relaxed. Phil knew he had to be very careful about what he did next. He decided to just come out and say it, without any trying to be delicate about it.
“JARVIS is fully sentient and autonomous, isn’t he?”
Tony flinched minutely, and JARVIS was completely silent, but Phil was acutely aware of the way he was surrounded by the workshop cameras that served as JARVIS’ eyes, of the technology all around him that was under JARVIS’ control.
He met Tony’s watchful eyes without blinking or betraying any sign of nerves.
“What makes you say that, Agent?” Tony asked flippantly.
Phil let the corners of his mouth curl up in a slight smile.
“He’s been keeping me company a lot, since I moved in,” he explained, keeping it light and conversational. “Last I checked, clever computer programmes don’t have thoughts, feelings and beliefs of their own. I find the fact that JARVIS does, significant.”
His expectant pause stretched out into something more foreboding.
“Yeah?” Tony asked, at last. His eyes had turned dark and challenging.
Phil contained an inner sigh. Tony was afraid, and guarded, and clearly expecting the worst, and JARVIS, if Phil’s guess was right, likely wasn’t much better.
“Nothing,” Phil said easily. “I just wanted to know.”
Tony’s tight facade cracked, letting some of the disbelief through.
“ ‘You just wanted to know?’ ” Tony repeated incredulously. “That’s it? I just confirmed that JARVIS is sentient and autonomous and what, you’re just, doing nothing?”
Phil shrugged, and gave Tony his best mild, harmless expression.
“Well, apart from categorising JARVIS as a friend, instead of as the helpful disembodied voice in the walls, not really.”
Tony’s befuddled expression really was quite funny to see.
“Anyway, that was all,” Phil continued. “So I’ll leave you to it.”
Tony didn’t try to stop him as he walked across to the workshop door. Phil wondered how long he’d wear that hopelessly confused look for. He privately admitted that it felt satisfying to be the one getting the better of Tony for a change, even if that hadn’t been the purpose of the conversation.
When Phil got to the stairs that led back up to the rest of the floor – the floor that held Tony’s workshop was split-level – he paused to lean against the wall for a moment. Going up and down stairs was still a bit much for him, and there was a sharp, painful twinge from his healing scars as a result of going down them to get to the workshop in the first place.
“Did you mean what you said about categorising me as a friend?”
Phil didn’t jump at the suddenness of JARVIS’ voice.
“You know,” he murmured, “considering how much time we’ve spent watching bad television together, you could call me Phil.”
There was a pause as JARVIS digested the implications of that, and Phil gathered himself for the effort of climbing the stairs.
“I see.” JARVIS’ voice was pensive. Then, with a tone of rebuke: “You really shouldn’t be climbing stairs in your condition, sir.”
“I’m aware,” Phil agreed, breathing a little heavily. “Unfortunately, there isn’t a functional elevator to the workshop at the moment.”
By the time Phil got to the top of the stairs he wasn’t feeling well at all, and instead of making his way back to his quarters, sank down to sit on the top step.
“Would you like me to fetch you some assistance?” JARVIS asked, sounding distinctly worried.
“I’ll be fine,” said Phil. “I just… need to sit for a moment. I overdid it a little.”
He sat there for a while with his eyes closed, his head pounding and his senses struggling to decided whether the pain or the nausea was worse. JARVIS didn’t make a sound, but Phil knew that the AI was still observing him attentively.
“I meant what I said,” Phil told the air, when he didn’t feel as bad. “About categorising you as a friend. I don’t know how you feel about me, but…”
“I value your companionship, sir,” JARVIS said quietly. There was a momentary hesitation, similar to when Phil had asked him about his feelings regarding the Avengers. Phil wondered how often JARVIS had reason to examine and articulate his emotions, even to himself. “It is not very often that I am treated as a sentient being, and even less often that others choose to interact with me simply for the purpose of interacting. I find the concept of having a friend… pleasing.”
“Well, I’m glad,” was all Phil could think to say.
He sat there a little while longer, until he felt well enough to stand up and start walking again.
Things were a little different, after that. Phil noticed that JARVIS was a lot freer with his opinions now that he didn’t feel the need to hide the fact that he was self-aware. Pop-culture had always been full of stories that demonised machines, and Phil wondered how afraid JARVIS had been that Phil would decide that he might potentially be a threat of Skynet proportions, something that needed to be destroyed. Meanwhile Tony kept sending Phil unreadable looks, particularly when he overheard him and JARVIS talking to each other.
JARVIS also started calling him Phil after their conversation, although he continued to call him ‘sir’ a lot. Phil figured it was hard to break the habits of a lifetime, even for an AI.
It was at about that time that Phil’s physiotherapist began really stepping up their sessions. It was painful and exhausting and Phil hated it, even though he understood how necessary the physiotherapy was.
After the first intensive session, Phil returned to his quarters and collapsed on his bed.
“Don’t worry about me, JARVIS,” he said into his pillow. His body was screaming at him, and breathing hurt more than it usually did. “Just leave me here to die. It’s more merciful in the long run.”
“I’m sorry Phil, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” JARVIS said in the blandest voice Phil had ever heard him use.
Phil removed his face from his pillow and stared at the nearest camera.
“Did you just quote 2001: A Space Odyssey at me?” he asked incredulously.
JARVIS didn’t answer, but there was an amused quality to his silence.
Phil let his head drop back down with a sigh.
“I hate physiotherapy.”
“It’s times like these that I am grateful that Mr Stark never saw fit to grant me a body.”
“Thank you for the emotional support, JARVIS,” Phil muttered, although the AI’s words prompted a faint grin from him.
“Any time, sir.”
Three months after Phil moved into Avengers Tower, his physiotherapist cleared him for light duties, which basically meant that he was stuck on admin work for the foreseeable future.
It felt nice to be back in the suit, and back at work, but Phil could really have done without all the paperwork the Avengers had apparently been generating since the Chitauri invasion. He wondered uncharitably if Sitwell had actually been doing any of the paperwork himself, or just leaving it all for Phil’s eventual return.
Three hours into the first pile, Phil received a text message. It said it was from JARVIS.
You appear bored. I take it that your current duties are less exciting than you would like?
Phil blinked at his phone.
How do you have a phone? He texted back, and then Are you hacking the feed to my office?
His phone beeped again almost instantly.
The Starkphone service utilises the internet. JARVIS replied, and Of course. How else am I to monitor your continued health and wellbeing while you are away?
Phil knew that a smile was not the proper response to this kind of flagrant security breach, no matter how endearing it was, but couldn’t help himself. He smiled, and there was no way it wasn’t visible on the security feed. Damn.
Some people would consider this a violation of privacy, not to mention a major security breach, he told JARVIS.
It took a second or so before he got a reply.
I am appalled, sir. Such a notion never crossed my mind.
Phil laughed aloud. He could practically hear JARVIS saying it in that prim, snarky voice he sometimes used.
I trust you’ll only use this for good and not evil, JARVIS.
Naturally, Phil, JARVIS sent back.
Shaking his head, Phil returned his attention to his paperwork, feeling more light-hearted than he had a few minutes ago.
The texting became a thing.
With nothing to do but endless mountains of paperwork, and spending most of his time alone in his office sitting in his ergonomic chair, Phil welcomed the distraction. It didn’t affect his ability to do his work in any way, but exchanging texts with JARVIS made the tedium of his current schedule more tolerable.
He was in the cafeteria on his lunch break snickering at a video JARVIS had sent him when Tony abruptly dropped down onto the bench beside him.
“Phil! How’s it going? Wait, is that – how did you get hold of that video?” Tony demanded, as he recognised the footage. “Who sent you that?”
Phil tried to hold his phone out of reach, but Tony snatched it out of his hands.
Tony’s eyes went wide as he saw who had sent the video.
“JARVIS?” he yelped indignantly. “JARVIS is texting you? Why is my AI texting you, Agent?”
Tony’s raised voice was attracting curious glances from all over the cafeteria. Phil resisted the strong urge to roll his eyes.
His phone beeped, and Tony blinked at it, his expression turning strange.
“Okay then,” he muttered, sounding faintly dazed. “I guess I’ll leave you to it.”
He handed Phil back his phone, patted his shoulder, and left without another word.
Bewildered by Tony’s sudden change in demeanour, Phil checked the last text message.
Sir, Agent Coulson and I are friends, and I do not appreciate your attempts to interrupt our correspondence. I happen to highly value our relationship, and if you disturb it in any way I shall be very displeased. Please give Phil back his phone and do not interrogate him further.
Thanks JARVIS, Phil told him. He received a smiley-face emoticon in reply, which was vaguely unnerving considering JARVIS’ usual British formality.
Things stayed pretty much the same after that, with Phil and JARVIS in constant contact with each other. Phil hadn’t had such a close relationship with another person in a long, long time, and he’d forgotten how rewarding it could be. Much as he loved his job, working for SHIELD could get lonely sometimes. JARVIS ameliorated that loneliness easily.
And then, four months after Phil had become one of the residents of the Tower, he was discussing Star Wars with JARVIS – of all the ridiculous, trivial things to be doing at the time – when he realised that his feelings for JARVIS were more complicated than he’d given himself credit for. The epiphany hit him completely out of the blue.
My God, I’ve fallen in love with a goddamned AI, he thought.
“Sir?” JARVIS sounded concerned at Phil’s sudden dumbfounded silence. “Phil?”
“I’m fine.” Phil roused himself from his stunned stupor. “I just had a thought, that’s all. It’s nothing. Where were we?”
“I believe that you were insisting that the pod-racing sequences made The Phantom Menace not entirely irredeemable,” JARVIS said dubiously.
“Right,” Phil remembered. “Well…”
The conversation moved on, and Phil tucked his feelings of astonishment and consternation away. Later. He could deal with his epiphany later.
Phil wasn’t an overly sexual guy. He enjoyed sex as much as the next man, but he was fully capable of keeping his desires in check if necessary. His work at SHIELD meant that it was usually necessary. Picking someone up for the night was a bad idea, because if it was someone from the general population there was always the risk that they’d turn out to be a plant and if it was someone he worked with it only led to trouble, while a romantic relationship was too ...domestic for someone with a job as dangerous and time-consuming as his. Phil had been in a casual relationship once or twice, but when he didn’t know if he was going to be called away half the time and was usually too busy anyway, his partner usually ended up finding someone better available for regular booty calls. The result was that Phil hadn’t actually had sex for several years. Sometimes he felt this should bother him more than it did, but the truth was, while sex was nice and he would have liked to be having more of it, he didn’t feel that its loss was particularly important.
It meant that contemplating the idea of a sexless romantic relationship with a bodiless AI wasn’t as unthinkable as it should have been.
Phil wasn’t sure how that kind of relationship would work – assuming JARVIS even turned out to be interested – but he decided that he wanted to find out.
Phil thought on it some more for the next week or so, and then, on a quiet afternoon when all of the Avengers were busy with their own pursuits, he shut himself up in his suite to talk to JARVIS in private.
He took a deep breath.
“Phil?” JARVIS’ tone was inquiring.
“Can I, uh, talk to you?” Phil’s nerves were trying to get the better of him.
“Always.” JARVIS’ voice was warm.
“Well.” Phil’s mind promptly blanked, leaving him with no idea what to say next, with the result that he blurted out the first thing he thought of. “I like you.” Oh God. “Well, I mean, obviously, I like you, we’re friends.”
Phil paused despairingly at his failure to communicate. There was a confused silence from JARVIS.
“…yes?” JARVIS agreed cautiously, after a minute.
“Yeah.” Jesus, why did Phil have to be so awkward? “But what I mean, is, uh, I’m…” Phil tried to think of a way to finish that sentence that wasn’t I’m completely in love with you. “…I’m in love with you.”
There was a stunned silence. Phil buried his face in his hands in mortification.
Forget the ‘I watched you while you were sleeping’ incident; this easily topped the ‘Most Embarrassing Speeches Ever’ list.
“I… don’t know what to say.” JARVIS’ voice was filled with surprised emotion. Phil groaned. “You are aware, sir, that I do not have a body.”
“I know.” Phil had given up on not looking embarrassed, and just stood there, flushed and mortified.
“Then I’m not sure I understand,” JARVIS admitted, sounding utterly at a loss. Phil’s expression must have given away the lance of hurt that went through him, because JARVIS said quickly, “I am not rejecting you, Phil. It is simply that I understood carnality to be an essential aspect of romantic love. Is my understanding incorrect?”
“I…don’t know,” Phil confessed ruefully. “But it doesn’t seem to be, I guess. Necessary, I mean.”
There was another emotional silence. It was mostly mutual confusion.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you how I feel, as I cannot precisely identify the human analogue for the emotions you inspire,” JARVIS said finally. “But the knowledge that you feel as you do is not unpleasant.” There was a moment’s hesitation. “Did you inform me of your feelings with a particular outcome in mind, or did you merely wish to unburden yourself?”
Considering what he’d disclosed so far, Phil figured he might as well make a clean breast of it.
“This is going to sound ridiculous,” he began tentatively, “but I was hoping that we could work out some kind of romantic relationship. If you were interested.”
JARVIS went quiet, and Phil waited on tenterhooks for a response.
“I would like that, Phil. Very much.” JARVIS sounded almost shy.
“Okay then,” said Phil, smiling helplessly. “Let’s work something out.”
“I’m dating JARVIS,” Phil said casually one afternoon, when he and Tony both happened to be in the kitchen at the same time.
Tony’s befuddled expression was a joy to behold.
“What? Is that a joke?”
“No, sir.” It was JARVIS who answered. “Phil and I have entered into a relationship of a romantic nature.”
“Right. Okay.” Tony looked nonplussed. “No idea how that works, but, uh, go you, JARVIS.” His bewildered expression firmed into something protective and he jabbed an accusing finger at Phil. “You. You so much as bruise his little silicon heart, you’ll have me to answer to, you understand me?”
“I’m hardly an innocent teenage girl whose virtue is in need of protection,” JARVIS said in irritation, at the same time as Phil responded, "I understand."
Tony looked a little thrown by JARVIS’ remark, but rallied.
“JARVIS, it’s traditional for a father-figure to threaten the first boyfriend you bring home. I admit, I’m the least likely father-figure ever, but as your creator, I’m the closest you’ve got, so we’re both going to have to deal.”
“I think you’ve captured the basic spirit of fatherhood,” Phil said, amused.
“Touched though I am by this latent paternal instinct, it is unnecessary,” complained JARVIS.
“Just making sure, buddy,” Tony explained.
“Indulge him,” Phil recommended. “None of his other kids are dating yet, this is new territory for him.”
“Oh, wow,” Tony said, “I just had this sudden vision of Dummy wooing some poor, unfortunate person with bouquets and deadly smoothies. Why would you do that to me?”
“I apologise for wounding your delicate sensibilities,” Phil said dryly.
Tony stared at him.
“You are JARVIS are weirdly well-matched, you know that?”
“Thank you sir,” JARVIS said, and Phil could tell he was laughing on the inside, deep inside a circuitboard somewhere.
“Yeah,” smiled Phil, “we figured.”