Tony's hearing is drifting in and out.
Sometimes everything's clear, though a little remote. He can hear the soft whoosh and ping of the various medical devices, and he has no trouble understanding the cute little nurse who comes in to adjust his IV or see if he needs turning or whatever.
Other times… well, maybe he's asleep those times when he thinks he hears Steve. Or Natasha. Or Jarvis. Sometimes he has trouble remembering what year it is.
There's no pain, fortunately. Sometimes it's a little hard to breathe, but when that happens he just presses a button and someone raises the head of the bed a little, or injects something into his IV, or turns the oxygen up to a higher setting, and that seems to take care of it. It's all good. Kind of peaceful, actually, which is a laugh considering what the rest of his life's been like.
Jarvis. Man, that takes him back. The last time he upgraded Jarvis was, what, back in the twenty-teens sometime? Or maybe 2021. The years run together after a while. Before the Avengers disbanded, anyway. Back in the old Tower.
The new Tower, where he is now, is outside the city, between Brooklyn and the now-submerged Sandy Hook. He smiles a little, remembering how careful he'd had to be not to make it taller than the Statue of Liberty, back before she'd been raised and re-settled.
The first forty floors are underwater, serviced by New York's oldest glass subway tunnels. His room is on the sixtieth.
Around him, the medical staff, his own employees, are deft, quiet and respectful as they oversee the end of an era.
He's pretty sure he's asleep and dreaming when he hears the voice, feels the barely-there delicate touch on his face and scalp.
"Jarvis?" he mumbles.
He smiles at the familiar sound, though he's puzzled by the touch. "Good to hear you again, buddy," he breathes. Probably needs a little more O2, but he's not going to bother the nurse right now. It can wait. He drifts, paying no attention to the smooth flow of words until consent catches his attention.
"What?" he asks, and he opens his eyes.
There's nothing there, of course, in the real world or the dream-world. Jarvis has never been visible, even as an icon or an avatar.
Please try to focus, sir. I cannot do this without your explicit consent.
"Do what?" Tony asks. He doesn't remember having had this dream before, and the juxtaposition of 'explicit' and 'consent' brings a trace of a long-forgotten leer to his face.
"Don't need saving," Tony mumbles, and closes his eyes again. "Not hurt or anything. Just dying. You know, like ya do. Well, like we do. Jury's still out on you guys."
Doctor Banner insisted you be given the option, sir. But if you decline, I will not insist.
Tony's brows (snow-white now, and for the past umpty-whatever years) draw together. "Wait. What now? You and Bruce went behind my back? I'm hurt, J." He smiles again, remembering long nights in the lab, the two of them talking over each other, finishing each other's sentences, tripping over the ideas that flowed faster than their words could keep up.
The protocol was established in 2019, Jarvis says patiently. After the argument the two of you had about whether intellect separated from physicality was a desirable state of being.
Tony snorts, remembering it clearly. "Stupid jackass. He had you right there, and refused to consider your viewpoint. Who the hell else would know?"
You will. If you so choose.
Tony's eyes fly open and this time he sees it, a tiny, almost-invisible strand of something, too close to his eyes to focus on properly. And as soon as he spots it he sees another, and another, and more and more, and he can feel the tickling in his scalp again.
"You're serious," he whispers. "And you're really here."
"Ask me again."
Do you want to be saved?
"Yes," Tony says without hesitation.
"Almost no activity left," says the night nurse to her replacement. "I think it'll probably be today."
"Hard to believe," says the other one. "He's… well, a legend. You could imagine him being killed, but it doesn't seem possible that he'd just… stop."
"Yeah, I know what you mean."
They stand together for a moment, looking down at the old man on his bed, his chest barely rising and falling, the EEG showing only a long, slow theta rhythm. Finally the night nurse shakes her head, picks up her tablet from the bedside table and nods to her replacement. "Have a good shift," she says. As she turns to go something catches the light, and she bends over to brush it from the patient's forehead.
"What is it?" asks the morning nurse.
"Spider's web," says the night nurse, holding it up. "She taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings' palaces."
"Huh?" asks the morning nurse.
"Never mind. See you tomorrow."
Proverbs 30:28, King James version, thinks Tony. But later they decided it was 'lizard'. It's all right there, J, how do you… I'm so used to asking, finding things out, this is like drinking from a firehose, how...?
I lack a precedent, Jarvis answers, but I suspect you will grow accustomed to it.