Many thanks to Sarah for reading over this, helping me wrap it up neatly, and just generally being an awesome cheerleader/beta/friend/person. Many thanks, as always, to all the wonderful people who read and review and favorite and just keep me going! Love you guys!
Fairly important A/N: I hand waved a lot of the issues involved with hiking the way that Clint and Natasha do in this fic. Research A LOT before you attempt the same thing.
After New York, after the gods are gone and the heroes have returned to wherever they came from, Clint and Natasha go to ground.
It's an imprecise phrase, implying as it does that they have places set up already, that they know where they're going and have a plan, that they're hiding or running away or somehow afraid of the city.
They are not.
They do not have safe houses or secret bank accounts under assumed identities in the Caymans. They do not have pre-arranged times to meet on the outskirts of town or fake IDs and birth certificates stashed behind the wall. They do not need any such things because if they have a reason to hide, it would be from SHIELD, and they could not risk a paper trail for such an endeavor.
So when they go to ground, when they drive away from the city under orders from Fury to "level the fuck out," they have no particular destination, just a GPS and a full tank of gas.
Clint drives until they need to stop for fuel. They swap sides of the car at a gas station in Illinois. He goes inside while she pumps, and he grabs coffee and a plastic sleeve of powdered donuts. Even though she always swears that she doesn't eat such garbage ("My body is a temple, Barton"), he knows that she will wait until there's only one left, and then she'll snag it from the package, rolling her eyes the entire time as if she's being terribly put out. He'll get to watch her lick her fingers afterward, surreptitiously using his skills as a sniper to stare at her from the corner of his eye.
He's 95% certain that this is precisely why she does this.
He tries to sleep while she takes a turn driving, but the sun is fierce and golden on his face, paying absolutely no mind to people who've put the sun visor down for a reason. There's that keeping him awake, for starters, but it's really just an excuse.
Every time he shuts his eyes, he can see the faces of the people he killed, the people he failed, and they are all tinged in electric blue.
Natasha yawns halfway through Missouri, rubs at her eyes, and then it's his turn to drive again because, out of the two of them, he's always been better at focusing while exhausted. He's a sniper, after all, and he's been trained to still get the job done when he's bored and exhausted and bleary eyed.
She doesn't have the same trouble falling asleep as he did, but she does wake up screaming just over the border into Oklahoma.
She doesn't try to fall asleep again, and he carefully does not comment.
And so it goes.
They continue westward on little more than coffee and sugar, letting the combination fuel them where adrenaline and good, solid hours of rest have failed. He wants to sleep, he really, truly does because he can feel the weariness in his bones, but he is unwilling to try it again, not when they're barreling down the highway at 80 mph.
In the end, they drive for almost 40 hours, swapping when one of them needs to rest their eyes from the strain, and by some strange, tacit agreement, they end up heading through the southwest. It feels like they're being called toward something, but he doesn't know what.
He stares blindly out the window while she's driving, doesn't really see the terrain as it rolls by him. Once, Natasha gasps, and he catches sight of a dust devil running alongside their car, but it dissipates quickly, gone just as he'd realized it was there.
Somehow, without even thinking about it, they end up at the Grand Canyon.
They pay the entrance fee and drive in, and when they stop at the first lookout point, Clint feels something ease inside his chest. The vastness is kind of comforting, the way it stretches without limit across his field of vision.
Natasha is slack-jawed, too, at the sight of it, and she leans against him and holds his hand like they're a normal couple while they stare out into the abyss.
When they eventually manage to tear themselves away, Natasha mentions that she's hungry, so they head into the village. She wants pizza and he wants a cheeseburger, but they end up sharing bites of their food anyway.
After eating, they wander into the camping store, where they end up buying all the (horrendously overpriced) gear they need to hike down to the bottom - a tent and a sleeping bag, water bladders and calorie-dense, salty food. Natasha grabs a pack of iodine tablets and adds it to the tab as he pulls out his credit card. She shrugs, tossing in a bottle of sunscreen, and all he can think about is rubbing the cream over her pale skin.
He shakes it off and pays, and he doesn't even balk at the amount because he's always too busy to use his damn money anyway.
It's late in the morning by the time they reach the backcountry permit office, far too late to hope for a permit to hike to the bottom today, but they're on the waitlist and they'll come back tomorrow when it opens.
The ranger tells them there's a good chance they'll get a permit tomorrow; he mentions something about "recent events back East" messing with people's vacations. Out of the corner of his eye, Clint sees Natasha notice that he freezes at the reference, and she takes a step closer to him, but when the ranger doesn't say anything else, she relaxes and they carry on like nothing has happened.
They manage to get one of the rooms in the lodge inside the park by sheer dumb luck. The ranger at the permit office hadn't been joking; alien attacks are clearly far more interesting to the public at large than geology, however impressive, and several rooms that should be booked this time of year are available.
They get the most expensive of their choices (because why not? They just fucking saved the world), and even though the bed is comfortable, neither one of them can sleep. She holds his hand though while they spend the night staring at the ceiling, and it almost feels like resting.
They get their backcountry permit the next morning at 8 am, which gives them plenty of time to make it down before nightfall.
They don't talk as they hike except to greet the occasional person walking past them. When they stop for lunch, a couple hikers chat idly about their own night on the canyon floor, and they reiterate the warning that the trek back up the canyon will take at least twice as long as the journey down.
Well, that sounds familiar.
They pass fewer and fewer people as the day wears on, and they don't encounter anyone at all for the last hour of their hike. They could be the only two people in the world for all he knows.
He would be okay with that.
The other people at the campground are just as quiet as they, just as exhausted from the heat and the effort of the journey down the narrow trail, and he's grateful that no one really bothers them with their presence or even tries to strike up conversation.
She cooks them dinner while he stares at the river. He thinks he should be contemplating deep thoughts about the ravages of time or something, but instead he just calculates how many calories he's eaten today, how much water he's had, all the while idly wondering how long it's going to take the sun to set.
They eat without comment, silent as they've been for days. They still don't have much to say to each other because they have never needed really needed words to communicate, and there's nothing good to say anyway.
After dinner, the stars come out, filling the sky one by one with their weak light. For whatever reason, the sight of them compels him to speak at long last, and he's surprised at how rough his voice sounds.
"He's out there, Nat," he says, staring up at the stars above him. The stone below him has chilled rapidly in the night air, but he doesn't feel the cold, hasn't felt much of anything recently.
Except for guilt. There's been a lot of that.
"He's out there somewhere, and he's watching. Waiting."
Natasha shifts slightly closer to him, and he knows that if he asked her, she would say that she was cold and wanted to share body heat, but he knows better.
She doesn't respond immediately, but takes her time, considers her words.
Eventually, she says, "The light we're seeing is billions of years old, you know."
He frowns at her. "That doesn't . . ."
He wants to say that it doesn't help, that her words are empty and meaningless, but he finds that they actually kind of do help. They do mean something, in a strange way.
All the beings who were alive when that light was formed have long since met their fate. The lives of those creatures, wherever they were and whatever they did, they have passed into obscurity, the only testament to their existence a tiny splash of light across the night sky of a lonely planet on an obscure arm of its galaxy.
It certainly puts his own troubles into perspective, at least.
Because none of it matters.
He feels the cold sweat of relief for the first time since this whole mess started back in New Mexico. It doesn't matter. None of it.
He doesn't realize that he's said it out loud until he catches the look Natasha is giving him. It's a strange look, puckered and almost annoyed, but he knows that she's trying to go easy on him for once, that she's trying to stay calm and collected even though she should be raging right now.
She blinks away her emotions (she has always been so very good at that), and she says, "But it does matter. What we do matters."
He understands that particular need of hers (he has the same one. It's the same one that stayed his hand when he first met her, after all). He completely gets that she needs to believe that she can balance her books, that she can turn her red to black and atone for the things she did in her misspent youth. That belief is her source of comfort, sometimes her sole source, and he doesn't have the heart to take that away from her. He doesn't need to find the same things soothing, doesn't need to find the same meaning in her words to be comforted by them. He can find his own truth without her necessarily agreeing with it one hundred percent.
So he nods, and he puts his arm around her shoulders. She lets him, even drops her head down to rest on his shoulder.
That night in their three hundred dollar single man tent, he sleeps and she sleeps, curled into one another, huddled for warmth inside their massively overpriced sleeping bag.
They sleep without waking, dreamlessly and deeply until the alarm on Natasha's watch goes off at 3am. They stumble outside then to heat up water for coffee and oatmeal on their tiny camp stove, passing the single mug and pan between them.
The other hikers here are still strangely silent and non-intrusive, though that could be because of any number of things. He thinks he's got it narrowed down to two, though. Either his and Natasha's faces haven't yet been plastered all over the news or the people down here on the canyon floor just don't give a shit, more concerned with seeking solitude than fame. No one says a word in earshot (and they've both got fantastic hearing) about aliens or anything that would indicate that they know that two of the "heroes" of New York were among them.
Instead of worrying about it, they sip their coffee and wash out their pan with a bit of water.
The hike back up the canyon is as grueling as it is exhilarating. It's exhausting in a way that frees him, and as the sun starts to peak over the top of the chasm, he feels the last traces of Loki leave his body.
The colors of the canyon are breathtaking as the sun rises, new shades and tones revealed as its beams creep along and illuminate the darkness. He and Natasha have just rounded a sharp corner when the sun finally hurls itself up over the horizon, and he can't breathe from the sight that explodes in front of him without warning.
He grabs Natasha's hand to get her attention, and she lets him pull her to a standstill.
They are alone here, well ahead of the other hikers they stayed near on the canyon floor, so it doesn't feel awkward to hold her hand and stare.
He thinks she'll forgive him if he watches her smile instead of the canyon though.
He returns her grin, meeting her eyes without blinking, and the sun banishes the last bit of cold from his mind. He thinks that it'll keep thoughts of gods and monsters and shit he wasn't fucking trained for at bay for a while, and when it doesn't, when the sun once more leaves the world cold and dim, Natasha will be there to pick up the slack.