“Who the hell is he?”
“That's the problem,” said Coulson. “We don't know."
"If Rogers hadn't been so thorough in bringing down our database...” groaned Hill.
Inside the interrogation room, the man was sitting on the chair, handcuffed to the table and starring at his hands. He looked very calm, almost serene, with a curve to his lips that wasn’t quite a smile yet looked like one. His black clothes were torn and crusty with filth. His bottom lip was split and he was absolutely covered in bruises. He sat there like he didn’t feel any of it.
Hill quirked an eyebrow at his battered state. “Did your team do this to him?”
“We actually wiped off most of the blood,” Coulson said. “He was dripping on the carpet.”
“Is he speaking?”
“Not a word.”
“Have you told him we were SHIELD?”
“He doesn’t believe me, or he doesn’t care,” said Coulson. “I don’t even blame him. We could be Hydra, for all he knows.”
“He could be Hydra, for all we know. This guy took out all of the Kingpin’s men,” Hill reminded him. “He was the last man standing in that garage.”
“Wobbling,” Coulson corrected. “Last man wobbling in that garage. I think he passed out a little bit while we transported him here, too.”
The man hadn’t resisted at all when they’d taken the mask off, hadn’t blinked, hadn’t reacted in any way. He looked utterly exhausted, actually—sitting heavy on that chair like the weight of his aches could sink it into the concrete. Coulson wanted to like him. He didn’t look like a bad man.
But Coulson had learned not to trust his own judgment when it came to the good and bad in people.
“He obviously had a long night,” he went on. “If not for that, we might have not caught him at all.”
“But we did catch him,” Hill said. “And he’s all we caught. He’s our only lead to the Kingpin, now.”
“Well, he can obviously take a lot of punishment, and I left my boxing gloves in my other suit anyway,” Coulson said dryly. “So what do you suggest?”
“Call Barton,” Hill said. “He’s in town.”
“No,” he said after an imperceptible beat. “Not for him.”
“We don’t know if he’s Hydra, Maria.”
“Yes,” she snapped, “that’s the point. We have to find out now.”
Coulson crossed his arms tighter. For a second, they both stared at the man hunched in the interrogation room. Coulson wasn’t seeing him, though. He was seeing Bakshi handcuffed to that same table and stammering anything, I will do anything you want.
Hill must know what he was thinking about, because she spoke again, suddenly. “You keep saying Barton went overboard last time, but—”
“We knew without a doubt that Bakshi was a Hydra head,” Coulson said quietly. “This man might be innocent. Might be a civilian.”
“You sent out,” Hill said just as calmly, “a full tactical team tonight to apprehend the Kingpin’s men. This guy shows up, does the job for us single-handedly, leaves no one in any state to be questioned, then tries to vanish in the night and nearly succeeds. Innocent, Coulson?”
Coulson said nothing.
“Call Barton, Phil. We’re running out of time.”
The room they’d put him in was small and absolutely soundproof. His own breathing bounced off the walls to reverberate into his ears, telling him nothing but what he already knew—bare cement walls, door at his back. The sound he got was very even; the walls must be remarkably smooth. One of them might be a two-way mirror.
It had been a long, long night, and the pain in his back would not settle, as though fists were still pounding up and down his spine, flaring each time he breathed in. His head was slightly fuzzy. Going back to Venice Taxi had been a mistake; he hadn’t found anything new except for this unexpected third party. Stupid. He didn't know what they planned to do. For now, he was happy to rest, half-dozing on his chair with his eyes open.
He had no record, he kept telling himself, he had never drawn anyone’s attention—not as Matt Murdock in any case—and he had no online presence. They could not find out who he was. Even if one of his clients happened to be in the room, they might be hard-pressed to tell it was him with the blood crusting his face. His lips and brow stung, dammit.
The man—the soft-voiced man who’d been in earlier—had told him they were SHIELD. Matt couldn't fathom why anyone would say that and expect him to cooperate. SHIELD could be Hydra, or they could simply be SHIELD and at this point Matt wasn’t sure which one was worse. He had heard stories about SHIELD, about iron muzzles and iron gloves forced on people with inhuman voices or inhuman hands. What could they do to him, he wondered. Put him in an iron maiden? He didn’t want to find out. Echolocation and enclosed spaces did not mix well at all.
He could not afford to talk to SHIELD. He could not afford to talk to anyone. Secrecy was all he had, and he simply did not know who had caught him. There was no sense in thinking too far ahead anyway. Sit. Rest. Practice your breathing. Wait for an opportunity.
The door opened again. Matt didn’t flinch. It was easy; he was too tired anyway.
Clint put his bag down without a sound, then leaned against the wall and looked at the man.
He seemed tired, more than anything, but there was a tension in his shoulders and thighs which screamed of awareness. The night was not over and this man was very much aware of it. Clint detailed the bruises marring his skin and the blood on the side of his face. The way he held himself; bruised or even broken ribs, which he hid fairly well. He was used to take a beating.
Clint took a silent breath. The excitement was steadily rising in him like he was being filled with dark water; something inside him was stirring awake, tilting its head, smelling blood. This one was special. All of his subjects were special, each in their own way. But this one…
Bakshi had been an easy job. He had no real strength. Only stubbornness and arrogance, and those only made the humiliation more acute when the subject realized he was human after all. Clint loved that—he lived for that cruel moment of awareness and the deep animal fear it brought. This man, though, had strength and endurance written in blood all over him. No arrogance about it, either. He wasn’t posturing, wasn’t even acknowledging Clint’s presence. He was looking at his hands with a soft, distant gaze. Clint was pretty sure that faraway, detached look wouldn’t change even if Clint ripped off this man’s clothes and took him on the table right this second.
Clint straightened up and walked around the table to face him. The sound of his boots was very loud on the bare concrete. The man didn’t move, didn’t look at him.
Clint slipped a finger under his chin to make him look up.
He felt rough stubble under his fingertips, a cut along the jaw, a tender bruise around it. The man’s eyes were unremarkable, vague and dully colored. They didn’t quite meet Clint’s gaze.
“Look at me,” Clint said softly.
The man did no such thing. Clint raised an eyebrow. Maybe this wasn’t strength; maybe this was lockdown. People in lockdown he couldn’t work with. He moved his fingers, dug his nails in the cut along the jaw and got a hiss and a flinch in return. Good—he was awake.
“Look at me,” he asked again.
Under his fingers, the man’s heartbeat picked up. He looked up. Slightly too much on the left. His pupils did not shrink in the light even as the bare light bulb was reflected in them.
Clint blinked, then let his chin go and reached into his pocket for his phone. He turned on the flash and directed the piercing light into the man’s gaze.
He did not flinch, did not look away, and his pupils didn’t react.
Holy shit, thought Clint, and snapped a picture so Maria and Phil would be none the wiser. They might still be looking through the two-way glass at this point; Coulson would just think Clint was starting a scrapbook of his victims or something.
Clint pocketed his phone again, then walked around the table to prop a hip against it. He wrapped his hand behind the man’s head, feeling blood-crusted hair under his fingers, and made him lean forward until he could rest his forehead against Clint’s side, in a parody of comfort. The man tensed, but went pliantly. He really was exhausted.
Clint ducked his head and talked low into his ear, slowly petting him as he did. “We came across another blind fighter last year.”
The man stiffened very slightly. Clint lowered his voice until he couldn’t hear himself. “But it turned out she used her eyes after all—she had infrared vision artificially installed and could see through her eyelids.”
The man was listening with great intensity.
“Better say it if that’s your case,” Clint breathed, mouthing the words rather than actually speaking them. “They’ll cut you up and find out.”
Another very slight increase in tension. Clint grinned. This man should not have been able to hear him but he obviously did. No infrared vision, then. He was genuinely blind. Must have been for a long time.
“Did you trade your sight for better hearing? That’s some deal with the devil you made.”
Yet another minute flinch. Clint smiled. No way had this man taken out nine trained men with enhanced hearing alone. There was much, much more to be dug out of him. It wasn’t what SHIELD wanted, but that didn’t matter. Coulson understood nothing to what Clint was doing. He thought he was getting off on the pain. But Clint craved the truth that comes out at the end of a session. When all pretense had been ripped away to leave the subject bare, in every meaning of the word. It was easy to make them talk then, to retrieve the petty information SHIELD wanted. But getting there was a process which allowed absolutely no shortcuts.
“Don’t move,” Clint said. “I’m giving us some privacy.” He tilted the man’s chin up again and kissed him, tasting blood from his split lip; he pushed his tongue into the small wound to taste more and was rewarded with the jangle of the handcuffs’ chain suddenly tensing.
He heard the slight scratch of static which meant the two-way glass had turned opaque. As always, Coulson didn’t want to watch what he had hired Clint to do.
What the fuck, thought Matt, again and again and again. What the fuck. What the fuck.
The man’s tongue pushed into his split lip again and he had to check himself not to whimper when the pain lit up his brain like a Christmas tree. The handcuffs were hurting him with how hard he was pulling at them, but it was easier to focus on that pain. Then the man bit his lower lip and Matt gasped for air in his mouth, felt his tongue push inside to make him taste his own blood.
And then it was over.
“Sorry,” said the man right into his ear. Matt realized, now, that he was talking too low for a normal person to hear. He’d been careless. He was too tired for this, losing his grip on himself.
“I think we’re alone now,” the man went on. “Very few people like to watch me work, especially when it takes this turn.”
His voice was creeping Matt out. It was casual and even a little bit amused. None of it was faked. His heartbeat sounded a little quick, but out of excitement rather than any stronger emotion. Not like the soft-spoken man, who’d been tense and smelled of uneasiness. This man—this man was having a wonderful time.
“I’m Clint Barton,” he said easily. “Nice to meet you.”
He was holding Matt’s chin again, and dug his nail back into his split lip. Matt hissed, just a little. The man—Barton?—inched closer, shifting his hips forward on the table. Matt’s heart rate was picking up again. He smelled a faint tang of arousal, a hint of musk barely perceptible through the thick combat pants.
Matt swallowed, throat dry and raspy with blood. He knew how to take a beating, but he’d never been raped before.
He swallowed again, then willed himself into relative calmness. This might be intimidation, and he couldn’t afford to give in to it. And if it wasn’t—well. He already knew how to go away in his own head. If it came to it, he’d endure it like he endured all the rest.
Barton laughed a little and it occurred to Matt he wasn’t just digging his nail into his split lip for fun—he was taking his pulse there, right into the throbbing wound. He must have felt it slowing forcefully back down.
“You’re good,” he said with genuine appreciation in his voice. “God, I’m fucking glad they called me in. It’s hard to find a competent dance partner out there.”
His other hand wrapped around Matt’s and a thumb rubbed over his scraped knuckles. “You know how to dish it out,” he said. “But do you enjoy it?”
Matt must have tightened his lips. The man laughed again. “You don’t? Aw, that’s a shame.”
His finger was digging into Matt’s lip again, prodding at the raw flesh, at the raw nerve endings, firing them up like long-forgotten light behind his dead eyelids. “Taking it, though,” he said, and his voice lowered again. “You like taking it.”
What the hell, thought Matt again, slightly more desperately. This couldn’t be SHIELD after all. This wasn’t an interrogation. Matt pulled at his handcuffs again, heard the jingling sound bounce off the walls, right back into his ears, telling him there was no way out no way out no way out, just him and this man alone in a cube of cement with no one to watch.
God, he was so tired.
“Experiment,” Barton warned, and he pushed his face into the crook of Matt’s neck to bite at the muscle leading to his shoulder. Matt tensed, panted, unable to think with the pain so bright and loud in his brain, like fireworks in a shoebox. He whined loudly, unable to keep it in. He felt Barton smile against his neck, then release him.
“Sense of touch enhanced as well,” he said, “figures. Is this why you let yourself get pounded like this? Trying to numb the pain by taking too much at once?”
Matt’s breathing was getting shaky; he smoothed it back down again, but he was losing ground here. This was no good; he shouldn’t have been so flustered. Barton hadn’t even drawn blood. Maybe that was the reason, though. Matt knew the thumping pain of fists and the fiery pain of stabs. But this pain was in between, too sharp to be ignored yet too mild to be agony. It was exactly the kind he couldn’t handle.
He heard a smooth silky sound—a blade unsheathed. Matt exhaled. At least this would be familiar ground.
But Barton only grabbed Matt’s shirt and cut it up in one fluid movement, from navel to neck. He tugged it over Matt’s head, forcing him to duck his head, then made quick work of the sleeves to get past the handcuffs. Matt sat there, bare-chested, only too aware of the cold air moving in crisp waves over his skin.
“You don’t need me to tell you this is too thin fabric,” Barton said distractedly. “Doesn’t protect you and doesn’t keep you warm.”
The tip of the blade poked at a deep cut along his rib. “You should see yourself.” He sounded amused. “You look like a modern painting.”
And then he got to work on Matt’s pants. He almost literally ripped them off him, slashing with the knife whenever they resisted, then mercilessly cut up his underwear as well, tugged it all off. Matt had been sitting on this chair for quite some time, yet it felt still cold under his bare ass.
He swallowed again. Calming down was getting easier with each road bump. He was too tired for panic. He tried to make his peace with whatever would happen next, like he’d been taught. Mind over matter.
He’s going to rape me, he thought experimentally, and he almost didn’t want to throw up.
Clint was more and more interested, settling deeper into the subtleties of his subject. He was beginning to make out the main outlines of the clockwork, but it was a complex system. The man wasn’t exactly without fear. It was rather that he didn't let his fear matter to him. There was something greater beyond it—a cause, maybe.
Bakshi had thought he had a cause, but he had been quick to prioritize himself over it, crying when Clint hurt him and begging when Clint forced him. This man—he wasn’t even saying anything yet. Clint couldn’t imagine he’d cry or beg. He was obviously resigned to endure whatever would come next. Clint could work with panic and anger and despair, but apathy was a different kind of challenge.
He needed to find a chink in his armor. He sat there, thinking, dispassionately looking at his stripped victim shivering with exhaustion and cold. A cause, then.
A blind man—a gifted vigilante with a flimsy, useless suit. Artisanal—he worked on his own. The suit was probably to be worn under his clothes. He had a day job then, and an important one at that; he wouldn’t have needed such utterly discreet clothing under a garbageman uniform, or if he worked from home. He had tiny scratches over his Adam’s apple, as if he’d hurt himself taking off a tie in a hurry. A banker, maybe? An accountant? Possible but not likely; he was blind. A job where he didn’t need his eyes, only his voice. Strong sense of justice. Well-dressed. Using his voice. A lawyer?
Clint took out his phone again; the screen cast a blue glow over the naked man’s skin. He was very well-built, which did nothing to help with Clint’s hunger. He wasn’t exactly trying to hide himself—being undressed wasn’t enough to break him, unsurprisingly; but the humiliation still made him hunch slightly on himself. Clint let him soak it in and googled Lawyer firms Hell’s Kitchen.
And there it was, third result on the first page—the picture was blurry, but the round black glasses were clearly visible.
They did say justice was blind, after all.
The man froze, then ducked his head and smiled, humorlessly. It was a dejected, crooked little smirk, as if mocking himself for thinking he could hide his identity for very long.
“We’ll send out for this Mr… Franklin Nelson,” Clint said, scrolling down. “I have a feeling he’ll be more talkative.”
“Foggy doesn’t know anything,” Murdock said tiredly.
Clint smiled in the corner of his mouth. “Hey, it speaks. This calls for a celebratory drink.” He grabbed a bottle of water in his bag, cracked off the lid and pressed it against Murdock’s lips. Murdock's head jerked back a little like a spooked horse; he froze, hesitant.
“I have needles if I need to drug you,” Clint said calmly. “Drink.”
Murdock parted his lips; the water mostly trickled down his chin and dripped onto his thighs, which flinched with each drop, but he managed to swallow a few mouthfuls. He ducked his head again, as though it was too heavy to hold upright. Somehow, Clint was fascinated by these unmoving eyes which didn’t follow any of his movements.
Murdock licked his lips. “You do realize,” he said quietly, “that I won’t buy the good cop bad cop routine.”
He had a soft, tired voice, low-pitched as though not to scare anyone.
“You’d be surprised what people will buy when I’m the one selling,” Clint said, twisting the lid back on, “but that’s a story for another time.”
He put the bottle back on the table. “I’m going to slap you,” he said. “On your right cheek. Ready?”
Murdock said nothing, but he didn’t flinch when Clint backhanded him hard enough to make his head jerk to the side. The force of the blow reopened his split lip which had never really stopped bleeding anyway.
“Again,” Clint said. “Left cheek this time.”
He slapped him even harder, left him reeling for a second—not reeling exactly; Murdock could take much worse. This pain simply gave him pause. He had a tiny crease between his eyebrows, and he was losing his breath more easily, though hurriedly smoothing it back down every time, trying to keep himself under control.
“I’m sure you have a way to feel them coming,” Clint said. “Is it the air moving before my hand?”
Murdock spat a bit of blood and said nothing. His breathing had gotten deeper still. Clint licked his lips, then grabbed his bag. He was really glad he’d brought his stuff with him this time around.
Matt didn’t know what he expected as he listened to Barton dig into his bag. Barton was still sitting on the table, facing him; yet Matt got taken off guard when strong thighs wrapped around his neck to keep his head upright. He let out a surprised sound and tugged at his handcuffs, but he couldn’t move without Barton threatening to break his neck.
The next thing he knew, his head was getting stuffed in a hood.
It was thick leather and covered his whole head—his eyes and his mouth and his ears, clinging to his skull, flattening his hair. There were only two holes poked in there for his nose. His breathing picked up at once, even as Barton released him from the stranglehold. Another second and he was losing control of his heartbeat as well. This was like being stuffed in a box. This was worse than being stuffed in a box. There was a metallic zipper over his mouth, digging into his split lip, adding an iron tang to his blood.
Barton grabbed his neck and forced him to get up, as much as his handcuffs allowed; Matt was so disoriented he almost lost his balance. Somehow, he’d managed to forget he was naked, but he was acutely conscious of it now. Barton pushed him forward, made him bend over the table.
God. Matt tried to tell himself to endure, but the leather hood was too tight, too constricting, suffocating. The chain of his handcuffs was tense, a cold hard line against his bare stomach. Barton kicked at his legs to spread them. Something cold touched his calf, then tightened like a vise. Matt realized Barton was chaining his ankles to the legs of the table.
The hands went away, and Matt stayed there, trying to breathe in the hood, hyper aware of the chains holding him down, of the table under his stomach, of his bare ass and his spread legs.
He felt like he’d been left there for several minutes before a hand rubbed the back of his neck before going down his spine.
The gesture was soothing, yet the touch felt like a lick of fire. In his claustrophobic aquarium, Matt could hear nothing, feel nothing, save for what his skin was telling him. He couldn’t control his heart rate anymore. His ribs hurt, his whole body hurt, and he tried to find a calm place in his head, somewhere he couldn’t be reached. But he was too tired, too panicked, thinking despite himself, despite decades of blindness I can’t see I can’t see I can’t see—
Barton’s hand weighed on his neck again. There was a fumble around the hood; then Matt heard Barton’s voice, too close—he was talking with his lips against the leather.
“You’re freaking out,” he said, voice muffled through the thick cloth. “Is it some kind of echolocation? Is that how you do it?”
Matt exhaled shakily. Barton knew his name, knew his face, knew he was blind and knew what he could do. He had gutted him open in less than an hour. Matt hadn’t said a word and yet he’d somehow given him everything.
He should have spoken up when he had the chance, engaged and deflected, but he’d been too tired to think; he hadn’t paid attention, hadn’t realized how much this man was getting to him until it was too late. Sloppy. Belatedly, Matt realized he couldn’t talk with the zipper pressed against his mouth. He struggled a little, but his legs were chained widely spread, and his hands still firmly bound to the table. He tried to calm his breathing again and failed. He wanted this thing off. He wanted it off.
Barton’s hand sneaked under Matt’s chest to grab one of his hands. Matt didn’t expect that, and didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t hold onto it, but couldn’t really push it away, either.
He felt Barton’s other hand leave his neck, then go down his back and sides. It was so hard for Matt to keep himself in check that he only realized after a minute that Barton was examining his wounds—old and new. He wasn’t being exceedingly gentle about it, pressing down on the bruises and slipping his fingers into the cuts to check how deep they were. Matt found himself clutching at his hand after all. Whenever he squeezed too hard, Barton relented. Or it felt like he did. Maybe it was just a series of coincidences.
Matt focused on his breathing and clung at Barton’s hand through the body check. He waited for it to be over. It was what he did best.
Murdock was getting used to the hood; after a moment of utter panic, he started paying attention to Clint’s touches, flinching violently every time Clint brushed a cut. The leather mask looked great on him. He was just a warm body chained to a table now, anonymous and spread wide. Clint was getting hard, couldn't exactly help it, but Murdock expected to be fucked and this wasn’t what he was getting. Not today. He was a truly rare one, and Clint didn’t want to rush the job.
He reached out to open the zipper over his mouth. Murdock gasped for air, twitching in his restraints, involuntarily jerking his hips against the table.
“You know,” Clint said, with his lips to the leather so he could hear, “there’s a good chance we’re on the same side.”
“SHIELD isn’t on anyone’s side,” Murdock let out. His voice was still calm and pitched low even as he hyperventilated; he’d done an intense effort on himself to let the full sentence out in a neutral tone before he started gasping again. Clint liked him even more for that—and also for what he’d said. Murdock was clever, unsurprisingly.
“Tell me about it,” Clint smiled. “Jesus, the shit they’d do to you if they realized you’re gifted.”
Murdock panted against the table for a minute.
“Don’t worry about SHIELD,” Clint went on, rubbing a cut below his shoulder blade, looking as the muscle twitched in small tremors. “They don’t realize what they caught. All they expect from you is the Kingpin’s name.”
“I don’t know it,” Murdock managed again, still quiet and calm but a bit too quick.
“I do,” Clint smiled. “He tried to hire me once. Said no—people like me are better off on the side of the angels. Seriously, don’t worry about SHIELD, I'll tell them what they want to hear."
He idly dug into a dark bruise on Murdock’s side, making him tense and exhale shakily. “I was talking about myself. We’re two halves of a whole. I really, really want to hurt you. And I think you really, really want to be hurt.”
Murdock huffed a hoarse laugh through the open zipper. Blood was shining on the metal ridges. “I don’t need your help for that," he said in his low, smooth voice.
Clint stuck his thumb into a cut, worked his nail along the edge. “Guess you don’t.” He pressed down, eliciting a strangled whine. “But I’m better at it than they are.”
Murdock was panting again, focusing on the pain Clint was giving him, ankles straining against the restraints. Tied like this, he should have been obscene, but there was nothing sexual about his nudity. Not to him, anyway. Clint took his limp cock in hand and Murdock stilled, breathing in quick little gasps.
“You’re not getting hard,” Clint said, releasing it and lining up their hips together, slowly moving against Murdock’s ass. God, the friction felt good; he was very much aroused by now. “This really isn’t about sex, isn’t it? It’s the pain. You’ve taken so much you never really stopped to wonder why. Did you know seventy-five percent of professional boxers can clinically be considered masochists?”
He’d pulled that number out of his ass, but it might actually be true, for all he knew. He pressed the hard line of his erection against Murdock’s exposed ass, grinding down, rough fabric against bare skin.
“I’m going to zip the hood shut again and give you a hard caning,” Clint said, lips moving against the leather. “Ass and thighs. Fifty blows. You’re allowed to scream but I know you won’t want to. After that you’ll go home.”
Murdock took a breath as if he wanted to say something, but Clint zipped the hood shut before he could get the words out.
Matt could not move and could not think and could barely breathe in the constricting hood. This was taking yet another unexpected turn and he didn’t know where to go from there. Exhaustion and pain and the anticipation of pain were wracking him from the inside. He could endure. He could. He could. He would always get back up. This was what he did.
When the first blow cracked across his ass, Matt jerked bodily and tugged at his handcuffs, gasping for breath while his brain lit up like the Fourth of July. The hood deprived him of all senses and turned them inwards—except for the sense of touch on the bare surface of his skin, crackling with static, and the line of pain was hot hot hot like a branding iron, burrowing into his flesh, pushing what little air he had out of his lungs. Another blow came, and another, and another, and Matt was going blind again with lights firing up and away under his skin, pain skittering in waves up his nerves to set his brain aflame.
The cane was cruel—rattan or bamboo, Matt wasn’t sure. A calloused hand rubbed at the inflamed skin of his ass, working the pain deeper into the flesh. Matt was getting dizzy with exhaustion and oxygen deprivation and a first rush of endorphins. He tugged at the chain of his handcuffs and desperately tried to breathe or even think, but he was losing himself. The hand went away and the blows started again, this time on his thighs. With his legs spread, there was nothing Matt could do to protect himself—Barton worked over the left thigh, again and again and again until he finally switched to the right one, filling Matt with unwilling gratitude for the fake reprieve. It hurt so bad, and the numbness which usually came along with the pain wasn’t there; because of the hood and because Barton wasn’t actually injuring him, Matt’s awareness was cranked up to the max, and he felt each blow with sharp, horrible acuteness. He hadn’t thought of counting. Barton had said fifty blows. How many had it been? He didn’t know. He couldn’t think past the pain—he could do nothing but take it; he could do nothing to keep it from ripping through him.
There was another pause during which he desperately tried to breathe a little. Then the cane came down hard on his upper thighs again and Matt arched, straining in the hood. He had reached a new stage somehow. His head was buzzing with something hot and feverish. He felt like he was dying with each blow and coming back to life in between—constantly switching between can’t take it can’t can’t can’t and could do this forever, with the endorphins pushing him forward and making him crave more, more of this exertion which didn’t injure his body—only hurt, masterfully so. Barton was right—Matt had never stopped to process the pain. It had always been there, always a background buzz to bigger problems. But right now, there was nothing he could physically do but feel it. There was nothing else to focus on.
Another strike, sharp, right under the meat of his ass, like a jolt of electricity, like a battery plugged right into his nerves—his world narrowed down to the line of agony across his oversensitive skin, expanded again as he breathed, then tunneled right back down with the next blow, even harder, sharp across his ass. Quick waves of flames licked up his nerves into the clutter of his spinal cord every time, like a lightning bolt ramifying in reverse to shoot up right into his brain. Matt’s thoughts were running wild, completely disjointed, jumping from one idea to another without any connection in between, bursts of sensation chasing each other in the maze of his frying neurons. He wondered how it would be to be actually burned, pictured Clint pouring alcohol over his body and flicking a lighter—setting ablaze the top layer of his skin, flaying him with fire, dousing more alcohol over the raw flesh to disinfect it and make him scream—it was insane to think like that, he knew, mad mad mad he’s driving you mad, but there was no one to save, no one to take down, nothing to face but the pain and what it did to him.
Matt felt like the hood was shrinking around his head. He tried to breathe, couldn’t do it—it didn’t matter as pain exploded like fireworks in his head yet again, just as loud and just as bright—he had lost his sight so many years ago, but the lights he was seeing now were a fiery nova—he wasn’t screaming, only gasping desperately for air, because he was focused entirely onto himself and into himself, utterly mesmerized by the enormity of what was happening in him. His entire body was buzzing with pain, almost vibrating with a manic exhilaration. He was shaking, shaking so bad, rattling the chains holding him down, like a demon shaking its cage, be careful of the Murdock boys, they’ve got the devil in ‘em the devil in ‘em the devil in ‘em and he could feel it now, the devil in him, howling with rage at the darkness they’d locked him in, howling for the heavens and for paradise lost, for the skies he couldn’t see, down in Hell’s kitchen, more pain, more pain, more pain, for this body which wasn’t enough, for this miserable body built to endure and to take, so take it, take it, take it! He was desperate for more and he got more—another blow, and then another one and another one and another one, it didn’t stop, he couldn’t have taken that only a few minutes ago but his endorphins levels were through the roof and the pain was roaring up his nerves in a dazzling blaze, and it was perfect, lighting him up just right, just right, shaking off the numbness and the exhaustion to leave only pure bright glory, firing up behind his dead eyelids again and again and again and again—
“Breathe,” someone was saying, and had he stopped breathing? The constricting leather was gone. He was still cuffed, but someone was bringing him down on the cold cement ground, heaven against his skin—his ass and thighs were on fire, and he was so certain the skin had been ripped off he was surprised to feel no blood. He was hyperventilating, eyes wide open, still sightless, clutching at smooth fabric with his bound hands.
“You're done,” said the voice. Matt felt crushed with an irresistible exhaustion, like a tidal wave of silence rising from the abyss to seize him. "Till next time," the voice whispered, then lips pressed against his forehead and everything went still.
“Completely exhausted,” Barton said absently, tapping at his phone. “He’s not Hydra. He’s not Kingpin’s either. Just another wannabe vigilante completely out of his depth.”
The man seemed to be sleeping soundly indeed, curled up on the cot in the corner of the interrogation room. Coulson pinched his lips. There was no footage to be checked—this wasn’t the hi-tech underground cell of the Playground—but their prisoner didn’t have that frazzled, febrile look Bakshi still had on a bad day. He was just sleeping.
Still—Coulson was pretty sure he wasn’t wearing standard-issued sweatpants two hours ago.
“And how come he changed clothes?” he asked.
“Would you relax,” Barton smirked. “His suit was in tatters.”
Coulson distantly wondered how they’d gotten there—a few years ago Clint Barton was the most promising agent he’d ever known; and now Coulson’s first impulse was to wonder whether he’d raped their suspect or not.
“I’d advise to just let him walk,” Barton shrugged. “He was trying to help, and tonight was punishment enough.”
“Fine,” Hill said crisply, “but do you have the Kingpin’s name?”
“Sure,” Barton said, scratching his nose. “Wilson Fisk. Since when are you bothering with organized crime, though?”
“Since Hydra might be giving them weapons. You’re positive this guy is no threat?”
“To himself maybe,” Barton smiled. “Otherwise, no.”
“And he can’t prove we’re the ones who grabbed him?” she said, looking at Coulson, who shook his head. “Alright. Leave him on a bench in front of the nearest ER at sunrise, standard procedure.” Hill was already tapping away at her communicator. “Thank you, Barton. I’ll see you soon.”
“Take care,” Barton called as she left the room.
He glanced at Coulson and held his gaze for a second. Then he broke eye contact. “Seriously, Phil. I’m not asking for a smile on top of the paycheck, but stop making that face. Or maybe conduct your own interrogations next time.”
Coulson swallowed both his scowl and his guilt. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s been a long night for me too.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose for a second. “Thank you—for your help.”
Clint looked at him for another second, then smiled, the crooked smile which made Coulson want to like him even after—everything. “Always a pleasure, sir.”
The sun was just rising when Matt got home. His apartment must still be dark. Not that it changed a thing.
He stripped down to his boxers, flinching when the soft cloth of his sweatpants slid over throbbing bruises. He traced the hard lines left by the cane. They were the easiest to follow, almost geometrically perfect in a blur of cuts and bruises, layered across his thighs and ass. He wouldn’t be able to sit comfortably for a while.
Outside the window, he knew, the giant billboard for Xining Airways blossomed in an eternal spring, bathing his living room in swaying colors. Matt counted again the lashes across his thighs. Each touch a distant burst of forgotten light.
His phone buzzed low on the couch. Matt hadn't turned the ringtones back on yet; he didn't know who it was. He let it ring for a minute before he answered.
“Hello,” he said.
“Matt!” Foggy. Just Foggy. Matt exhaled. “I’m sorry for calling so early. Though, you usually get up at six, right? Anyway—Karen bought some office supplies and—”
“Foggy,” Matt said. “Did you put up the website?”
“Huh? Oh yeah. Did that just yesterday, actually. Nelson and Murdock, attorneys at law. There’s a picture and everything.”
“Of both of us. Is that a problem?”
“No,” Matt said. “No, that’s okay.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair and sat on the couch. He let the familiar intonations of Foggy’s voice lull him into a calmer state. His hands were shaking, he realized. Not exactly with fear.
Matt shook himself up. "I'm here."
“Everything alright? Did I wake you up?"
“I’m fine, Foggy. Got in a few good hours of sleep, actually.” He infused a smile in his voice. “Thank you. For calling.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah. See you in a bit.”
He hung up and sat there for another minute, gathering his strength for a shower. Sleep, heal, eat, sleep some more. In a few nights he’d put on his mask again. Go out, go back, keep chasing. Keep moving.
Forget about the rest while you still can.