Surprisingly, it was Maria Hill who pushed Clint firmly on the path to recovery.
There was no doubt that the rest of the team, especially Natasha, made that push possible. They drove him to the edge but he kept holding himself back for so long that they ran out of words to say and things to do to make him get over his mental block.
Not even the positive report on Coulson's recovery had fully sparked that snap back to normalcy.
It was hard for everyone to watch, mostly because they weren't actually watching it. Whenever possible Clint avoided everyone. It was infinitely worse having to imagine what the guy was doing to himself.
When they managed to catch a glimpse of him they hated what they saw.
They saw the red welts on his arm, bloody fingertips, and a stiff posture. Natasha confirmed Bruce's guess that Clint had taken to the range without his protective gear, letting his bow dish out punishment he felt he deserved.
They saw dark circles under his eyes and a dead look as he stared into space. Tony informed them later that Clint had accessed a computer to review the footage from the attack on the Helicarrier.
It wasn't hard to infer that he'd also looked over whatever records from medical and autopsy that he could get on the personnel who had been onboard for the attempted take-over.
Natasha had disappeared for a day and came back looking slightly calmer than before.
Two days later, Agent Hill dropped by for a visit. She ignored everyone but Natasha, who said quietly, "The roof."
She nodded and left.
No one wanted to ask but there was a silent hope lingering.
Hill had to look over the roof twice before she saw him. He was positioned tightly against the building, invisible from most angles and situated with the perfect view of the area below him.
He was tense and got worse when he heard her intentionally loud footsteps approaching. She knew he was listening so she said firmly, "With me, agent."
Maria turned and didn't need to look behind her to know that he was following her. They passed through the Tower silently and she directed him to the training area.
Stark had spared no expense or imagination in the design, and Natasha had given her the specifics when she'd asked. She was confident as she briefly inspected the area and was pleased to see everything set up as she'd requested.
She didn't speak as they walked over to the gun rack.
He didn't question her, a sign of his trust in her and he retrieved his favored gun and checked it over briefly before nodding to her.
There was a single target positioned towards the back of the room, the traditional image of a torso and head with lines indicating difficulty levels and kill zones. Hill moved to stand to the far side and pointed to the other side of the room.
"Walk towards me. I will give a signal, I want you to stop, turn, and fire at my command. One kill shot."
He didn't get it yet but she knew he would soon.
Clint started walking towards her and when he was directly in front of the target she gave the signal.
Turn. Sight. Fire.
She observed him carefully as he holstered the gun and walked over to her, a bit of the usual fire coming back to his eyes.
A glance at the target brought a triumphant smirk that she quickly hid.
"Do I get to know what this is about now?" he didn't sound irritated, or even really concerned.
"No. We have two more scenarios," she moved over to the next one and he followed.
This setup was something Stark wasparticularly proud of; she'd heard him boasting about it often enough.
It projected a 3-D person capable of being programmed to execute pre-determined actions. The facial features were neutral and unimportant. The simulation had already been told what to do and would run through the motions. An accompanying program recorded any damage the simulacrum took in the process.
She pointed to the platform across from where the image had started to form.
"Start on the same level, just opposite the program. At my signal, jump down to the lower level and open fire. Minimum of four shots. Assume the target is an armed hostile."
He nodded and moved over, still not really seeing what her intentions were. She gave the signal again and he exploded into motion.
Despite the program's quick dive for cover, Clint's first shot was to the chest. His second got the lower torso. The program kept going, now crouched behind the wall and its head poked out as if looking to make a shot back and Clint's third and forth shot were through the forehead.
She held her hand to signal a stop and Clint lowered his gun again.
"End program. Give feedback," she commanded.
The image presented itself to them and red dots show where each bullet entered. They didn't need the computerized voice to tell them what damage those shots would have done to a human but neither interrupted as the injuries were listed and the prognosis was delivered.
"The first wound presents a thirty-two percent chance of survival with immediate medical attention. With the addition of the second injury, survival rates fall to less than two percent. The third and fourth wounds are irrelevant as the target would be unable to stand after taking the first gunshot wound, but both are immediate kill shots."
She looked over at him, wanting to drive it through his stubborn head before they went to the last one.
"Natasha told me that you remember most of what you did and what happened around you when you were under Loki's control."
His jaw locked and his frame immediately got back the tension that had bled away. He looked down and didn't answer.
"Agent Barton," she snapped, shifting into command mode.
His head jerked back up and he ground out, "Yeah. I remember everything. Everything I did, everyone I killed. It's fucking burned into my mind."
"What about the things you didn't do?"
"What, like resist?" His attempt at sarcasm was self-deprecating and she'd had enough.
"Yes, like resist," her voice was iron and she pointed to the image still standing to the side, bright red dots glaringly obvious.
"That was me, Clint."
He moved back as though she'd struck him, eyes wide and looking back to the model. "No."
"Yes," she said emphatically. "I moved the same way the program did and you moved the same way you did in that tunnel. Except today you were four for four and back there you came up empty."
He didn't answer, still looking hard at what he now knew to be her body double.
She continued, "That first target was Director Fury."
Clint flinched again and turned his back to her, his hands clenched at his side.
"You made the kill shot perfectly today. One bullet, right between the eyes. Yet somehow, Director Fury walked away with one slug in his Kevlar. Not even on target for his heart or lungs."
Maria let the words hang, let him fight for some measure of control before she called out.
"Come on, one more."
They moved up a level and looked down over a space teeming with more holographic people.
"No," Clint's voice was deep and firm. "Fuck you, Hill."
"Get in position Agent Barton," she wouldn't let him walk away from this.
The area below bore a passing resemblance to the bridge of the Helicarrier. The images represented everyone who was in the command center at the time Clint fired his explosive arrow down on them.
She didn't show her unease; they both knew that some of those images, though still unspecific in their features, represented people- friends and coworkers- who were dead and several who were still recovering from injuries.
A glance over at Clint showed that he wasn't going to act this one out. He had a good view of the area but his jaw was clenched and he was radiating anger and pain.
Maria sighed but didn't force it. She could still make her point.
"Enter training mode," she commanded the program.
"Begin simulation. Situation: explosive arrow launched from my position. Identify points of maximum damage."
Clint glared at her, furious at having to live through this again but she was unrepentant. The module finished running and the voice announced, "Seven points identified."
"Initiate walk-through for each location."
She made sure Clint was watching the area below as each point was picked out and the shot was imitated.
Three of the points ran along hidden electrical lines and wires and triggered massive explosions while simultaneously overloading the computers and causing them to crash, taking away any hope of landing the ship safely.
One picked out herself and Director Fury as targets of the arrow or the blast, focusing on creating maximum damage by removing the leaders.
The last three involved damaging the supporting beams and windows, blowing out metal and glass and destroying the carefully controlled level of pressure and oxygen in the ship.
The place Clint had shot his arrow was nowhere near any of those points.
They both listened silently as the computerized voice finished the last walk-through and somewhere along the line Clint's body had started to relax a little. She knew there were still too many unanswered questions for him, knew there would probably never be answers.
But this helped.
Her voice was quiet when the program ended, "We both know you could have done a lot more damage. You could have killed both me and Director Fury twice."
"Super," his voice was trembling and his eyes shone with anger. "I guess I'm golden then."
"Shut up Clint," she hissed. "I'm done with this little pity party."
"What the fuck do you want from me, Maria?" he was starting to unravel, his voice getting louder.
"How many missions have you been on where the situation went sideways? Civilians get in the way all the time and shit happens. We both know that," she was trying to push his buttons.
"This was different!" he yelled.
"You're damn right it was," she growled back.
He didn't seem to have heard her and his voice broke, "They shouldn't have been vulnerable. I brought them down. If not by my hand then by my words. It wouldn't have been possible to find, let alone attack, the Helicarrier if I hadn't-"
He cursed quietly, both hands came up to grip his head and he whirled around, moving to put as much distance between them as possible.
"Barton," she went after him and he stopped at the top of the stairs.
"Just because they weren't field agents doesn't mean they were weak. Everyone on that vessel went through the same basic training. Every single one of them understood that entering SHIELD meant the likelihood of an early death," her voice was understanding but no less intense than before.
She shoved his shoulder, forcing him to turn and look at her, "We're all prepared for that day, Barton. Don't kid yourself- every person knew the risks and accepted them. Don't you dare insult them by thinking they didn't. They all died at their stations, doing what they were supposed to do. Not a single one of them would have wanted it any other way."
There was something new in his eyes, something other than anger and despair and she decided that her job was almost done, that this was a good starting point but the rest would be up to Natasha and his new teammates.
"You gave yourself the evidence today, Barton. Go back and look at the shots you made, the shots you could have made, and then try to tell me you didn't resist. That you didn't fight back at all. Because the only person who doesn't think the answer is clear is you. The rest of us see it."
She walked away, leaving him standing there, the targets below still blinking out the damages that might have been.
Maria got an email the next morning from Clint. Just one word.
I like Agent Hill. I'll probably use her some more if she fits in a storyline.