AN: Final chapter. Thank you everyone for following along, and I hope you enjoy the way the story ends.
Chapter Six - Settling Scores
Waking up is always an unusual experience for Matt; when he's waking up from a natural sleep, his senses accommodate coming to slowly so that he isn't overwhelmed. They piece together bit by bit, in a steadily expanding circle. It gives him time to pull up his defences and prepare himself as consciousness slowly creeps back in.
When he's waking up from passing out, it's exactly the opposite. Awareness doesn't come back to him all at once but his senses do, and the sudden overload is staggering. Sounds, smells, textures that he isn't awake enough to comprehend all assault his brain and send him into panic mode.
This is what happens now and Matt frantically tries to process the sensory overload; a hard surface against his back (bare back - where are my clothes), the smell of iron and copper, the thump of heartbeats (too many heartbeats - why are there so many people), all rolled up beneath a low-frequency humming. There's a painful sensation in his torso, like insects made of glass splinters are crawling around beneath his skin. He wants to move, to get away from the pain, but his muscles all feel weak and tender, and his head is spinning with sickening waves of vertigo.
"Whoa, whoa, easy there." A low tenor voice looms over him and there's a weight pressing down on Matt's shoulders, keeping him in place despite his attempts to thrash away. "Relax, dude, it's me. It's Clint. You're safe."
Barton, a voice in the back of Matt's head offers and he feels some of his panic soften. It's only when he hears a hum of confirmation that he realises he must've said it aloud too. One hand sweeps up to touch his face and Matt lets out a breath of relief when he finds the hard surface of his mask still in place. The deep exhale sends another spasm of pain through his stomach and he hisses through his teeth. He makes to probe the wound but a hand catches his wrist. "Don't touch it," Barton warns. "That makes it worse, trust me."
"What - where?"
"You're at the Tower," Barton explains. "You took a couple slugs to the stomach. Do you remember what happened?"
Matt takes a steadying breath, searching back through the fog of pain in his head. "Weapons dealers, Puerto Rican, a new group trying to set up shop in the Kitchen," he says.
Barton snorts. "You caught one of my arrows out of the air, but these street punks got you? And not just once, but three times?"
Matt winces. "I got cocky." Another wave of needle-sharp pain crawls across his torso and he flinches. "What is that?"
"The Cradle," Barton says like that's an answer. "Well technically this one's Cradle Two-Point-Oh. It's the machine that's keeping you alive, brother. Regenerates skin and muscle cells. It doesn't exactly feel great, but it gets the job done."
"What happened to healing the old-fashioned way?" Matt asks with a smirk.
Clint huffs. "So I might've exaggerated a little. Besides, not like it doesn't still hurt like a bitch."
"You've got that right," Matt agrees, cringing as the pain rolls through him again. He focuses on his breathing, getting his senses back under control. The symphony of heartbeats he'd been hearing when he woke up has solidified into only three separate from his own; Clint's and two others, one normal but a further distance away and one alarmingly calm and steady beside Clint. He recognises the unerringly perfect rhythm from those blurred moments before he lost consciousness. "Natasha, right? And you are - ?"
"That's Dr. Cho," Barton chips in. "She's the one in charge of the Cradle. She keeps us all on our feet. Don't worry, she can't hear anything on that side of the glass though. I told you everything you say and do here will be confidential and I meant it."
Matt nods, letting out another breath. He hadn't even sensed the glass Barton is talking about. He assumes the majority of the place is made of glass because he can't get a good sense of the room, the sounds echoing strangely across the too-smooth surfaces. Giving that up, he turns his attention to the heartbeats instead. If he can't track the location, he can at least track the people.
"You know, you are one lucky bastard," says Barton. "You almost didn't make it. And if Tash hadn't been here at the Tower when you called, you probably wouldn't have. I might've had to send Tony and then you really would've been screwed."
"I didn't even mean to call you," Matt admits with a breathless laugh. "Was trying to call my friend, she's the one who usually patches me up. I hit the wrong button."
The woman, Natasha - and it occurs to Matt now that she's probably Natasha Romanov, as in the Black Widow - makes an amused noise. "Then you're even luckier than we thought," she says. "Unless your friend is a magic healer, you never would've survived."
"And guessing by that rather intensive collection of scars you've got, she's no magician," Clint intones. "I mean really, you've got more scars than me and I've been doing this a lot longer than you. Did you miss the class where they teach you how to dodge or something?"
Matt huffs a laugh, although he immediately regrets it as pain lances through his stomach again. "Yeah, I must've slept through that one."
Clint snorts inelegantly. "Clearly. This one though," he taps Matt's right side, where Matt knows the knotted scar from Nobu stands out against his flesh, "looks like it's got a wicked story behind it."
"Ninja," Matt says succinctly.
"Ah man, see, Nat? He gets ninjas," Clint moaned dramatically. "We haven't had ninjas in ages. Not since, what, Montreal?"
"Canada?" Matt asks in surprise. "Canadian ninjas?"
Clint snorts. "Politest ass-kicking I've ever gotten. I don't think I'd ever had someone apologize for having to kill me before."
"Probably because after a few minutes of listening to you talk most of them were looking forward to it," Matt points out.
Natasha laughs, a soft, genuine laugh that almost seems too warm for her evenly measured vocal tone. "I like this guy," she says, ignoring Clint's squawk of protest.
Matt is distracted from Clint's mutterings about betrayal when the low-frequency humming that has been hovering in the room suddenly stops. The sharp, needle-point stabs in his side are replaced with a dull, disjointed sensation, like a local anesthesia that hasn't quite worn off yet. His skin feels oddly numb, but beneath that his muscles burn and ache like the worst kind of over-exertion he's ever experienced.
Eager to get home where he can meditate and recover in peace, Matt hauls himself up into a sitting position and immediately feels the world tilt dangerously on its axis. A split second later a heavy arm settles across his shoulders and as much as he is loathe to admit it, the feeling steadies his spinning head. "Easy there," Clint says, his voice tinged with amusement. "You lost a serious amount of blood and the Cradle doesn't fix that, so unless you were really looking forward to face-planting the fancy tile floor, I'd give it a minute."
"You're incredibly irritating, has anyone ever told you that?" Matt grunts out between his teeth as he tries to focus on stabilizing his senses.
"That'll be the third time already today, and it's only four a.m.," Clint responds cheerfully. "Tash, I think I'm headed for a new high score."
Not bothering to respond to his comment, Natasha says, "You'll want to call in at your day job."
Matt smirks. "What makes you think I have a day job?"
"Because I know for a fact that vigilantism doesn't pay well," she says dryly. "And you're not the Tony Stark type, because no one who has the money to live elsewhere chooses to stay in Hell's Kitchen."
"I feel like I should be offended on behalf of my city," Matt says, his tone flat.
In the slightly distorted blur of red that comes from her body, Matt sees Natasha shrug. "Probably, but you're not because even you know it's true." He doesn't waste his breath arguing against her very valid point. "So unless your day job involves laying around and looking like a corpse, you should probably call in or people are going to ask questions that you don't want to answer."
Bracing himself, Matt slides down off the table and is grateful to find that his legs support him. Mind over body, barks the gruff voice in the back of his head, and he's positive that he is just projecting the faint tinge of pride in it because he sure as hell never heard that in reality. "I should get going," he says. "Long way back to the Kitchen and the sun will be coming up soon."
"I'll drive you," Natasha offers. Matt instinctively makes to argue but she silences him with a firm hand on his bicep. "We're not forcing you to surrender your identity, you can give me an address further into the city and I won't follow you. But you're never going to make it from Midtown to the Kitchen before the sun comes up in your condition."
Matt is silent as he deliberates, weighing his options as he pulls the top half of his armour back on with Clint's help. Through the arm still around his shoulders, he can sense Clint tensing in preparation for a fight. As a direct contrast, Natasha hasn't reacted in the least, remaining as cool and nonchalant as always, her heart still beating far too slowly for a natural person. It isn't that she doesn't expect him to put up a fight, it's that she anticipates it and knows she will still win. He hates to admit it, but there is something daunting about her unassuming confidence. It's both terrifying and exhilarating.
Matt took a stats class in undergrad, and he's pretty good at calculating chances. He could take Clint at his close range, even in this room of chrome and glass where he is functionally blind. The Black Widow, however, earned her reputation as the world's most lethal assassin. No one would be stupid enough to bet on him in that fight.
"Lead the way," he says with a slightly over-dramatic sweep of his hand.
Clint's muscles relax beside him and Matt briefly wonders how a spy can be so easy to read. As Natasha crosses the room, her boots clicking in a perfectly measured tread, Clint tightens his arm around Matt's shoulders and Matt lets him. Normally he would shrug off such obvious support, but with the strange echoes off the glass he can't see to find his own way out. At least with Clint leading him like this, Matt won't give himself away by running into a wall.
They move through several large, open-planned rooms that smell of hospital before going into a wide corridor that appears to made entirely of flat steel. No one speaks until they approach what seems to be a dead-end, but Matt can hear the whir and grind of coiled cable behind the walls and recognizes it as a lift. The three of them wait expectantly and a soft ching indicates the lift's arrival. The doors glide open and -
"Really, Barton? You threw a party and didn't even think to invite me? I'm hurt."
"Stark," Natasha replies, her tone exasperated.
"No, really, it's fine," Stark says with an over-affected nonchalance. "I'm okay. But I will remember this come Christmas, you can be sure of that." Barton snorts. "Anyway, I really just wanted to catch up with Horn Head before he disappears into the night again. Got a present for you."
Matt barely gets his hand up in time to catch the object Tony tosses at him. It's slim and rectangular, but with his gloves on he can't do more than hazard a vague guess. He's spared from possibly making an idiot of himself when Tony speaks up again. "To replace that dinosaur you're using."
"You shouldn't have," Matt says, smirking.
"Yeah well as the leading expert in basically every form of technology on the planet, your glorified paperweight was offensive to my soul," Tony says. "This one's top of the line and sturdy as hell. Everything's voice-activated, synced up to your vocal patterns so no one else can use it. Already got all of our numbers pre-programmed along with the direct line to the Tower, but you can add whoever else you want to it."
Barton's hand closes around Matt's wrist, twisting his hand so he can get a better look at the phone. "Tony, it doesn't have a screen."
Tony snorts. "He wouldn't need one, would he?" Matt stiffens as Clint makes a confused noise. There's a pregnant pause in which Matt is certain that Tony is about to spill his secret in front of them all, (and how the hell does he know in the first place?) and then the older man says, "It's not like he can text in those gloves. Besides, screens crack. Good luck breaking that phone, it's a solid reinforced steel alloy. It can take a repulsor without leaving a scratch, tested it myself."
"Nice," Clint says appreciatively and Matt's shoulders uncoil in relief. The archer moves over to talk to Tony, leaving Matt to stand unsteadily in the middle of the hall. He tucks the new phone into an inner pocket of his uniform next to the old one; he'll have to get Claire or Foggy to help him transfer their numbers into the new phone later.
Natasha is so quiet he barely hears her approach as she steps up next to him, bringing with her the faint scent of leather, ozone, and something metallic. "Don't worry," she says, voice pitched so low he can barely hear it beneath Tony and Clint's energetic conversation. "He won't tell anyone unless you give him permission. He does have some tact and common decency despite what he leads people to believe."
Matt frowns, aiming for perplexed even as he tenses. "What do you mean?"
Natasha's hand is feather-light on his forearm, the pressure barely tangible through his reinforced sleeve. "We all know how it feels to be compromised in some way," she says. Her tone is still casual and no-nonsense but there's almost a hint of something more underneath it; honesty or compassion or sympathy, he can't tell which. "All of us, even Stark. Your secrets are yours to keep, but you should know this is a safe place. We understand, perhaps better than anyone else ever will."
Matt's heart is pounding and he is having a hard time reigning his emotions back in. Mind controls the body, boy, Stick's voice reminds him, sneering, but for once it's not helping. Desperate not to show his inner turmoil, Matt searches about for a change of subject and his attention lands on the conversation between Clint and Tony, which has gotten louder and sounds considerably less friendly. "What are they fighting about?"
To his great relief, Natasha accepts the topic change without question. "Apparently," she says and the tone of fond exasperation is back, "these two идиоты have had a running bet about who could be first to make friends with the Devil of Hell's Kitchen."
"That explains the sudden interest," Matt says, nodding thoughtfully. "I was wondering what I'd done to get on the Avengers' radar."
"Well this doesn't qualify as official Avengers business," Natasha says. "This is just what happens when we're stupid enough to leave those two alone." There's a soft pause, and then, "But what you've done in Hell's Kitchen - Not everyone might agree, but I think you've done a good thing."
"Oi, Horn Head," Stark shouts suddenly, cutting off any response Matt might've had to her comment not that he could think of anything to say in the first place. "Would you tell Legolas to stop being an ass and pay up?"
"Oh please," Clint says, huffing. "He called me. I'm the reason he's here. Which means you owe me another hundred. Stop being such a pussy and just give it up already."
Matt smirks. "Actually if you want to get technical, Natasha is the one who brought me to the Tower," he points out. "If you ask me, I think that means she is the one who gets the money." Both men immediately revolt against the idea, yelling over the top of each other as they launch their counterarguments, but beneath it he can hear Natasha's surprised laugh.
An hour later Matt has been dropped off six blocks from his apartment by Natasha, who is now the proud owner of two hundred-dollar bills. He takes a long, circuitous route back to his apartment roof - he figures that the odds are that at least one of the Avengers already knows his identity but he's not taking any chances, just in case - and finally collapses into bed just as the sun begins to rise.
Before he can nod off, Matt reaches over and finds his smartphone where he left it on the nightstand the night before. Clicking the voice command button, he says, "Call Foggy," and then drops it on the pillow beside him as the call connects. After three rings there's a click, some shuffled noises, and then finally a sleepy, "Matty?"
"Hey Fog," Matt replies, exhaustion heavy in his own voice now that the adrenaline of the night has worn off and he's comfortably sprawled on his familiar silk sheets. "I just wanted to let you know I'm not gonna make it into the office today."
There's the sound of movement through the speaker and then Foggy's voice again, more alert than before. "Matt, are you okay? Is everything fine? Do I need to call Hottie McBurnerPhone?"
Matt chuckles, finally dragging his arm up to lift the phone to his ear. "No, relax, I'm fine," he says. On the other end of the line there's a gusty exhale as Foggy lets out an anxious breath. "And you know Claire hates it when you call her that."
"Yeah well she never would've known if you hadn't put me on speaker," Foggy reminds him. "I'm still claiming, for the record, that it is all your fault she glares at me. I could sue you for the emotional damage it's caused me. You're lucky you can't see her angry face. It hurts. Like physically, in my soul." Matt bites back another grin. "Seriously though, Matt. You're good?"
"I'm good," Matt agrees. "Really, I promise. Just had a long night. You should come by after work though, I've got a great story to tell you. You are never going to believe where I was last night..."