His dreams are black and red, and the shadows are everywhere. They come out of the darkness at him, and sometimes they are infected, and sometimes they are clear-eyed humans, but he shoots them anyway. They speak, and he struggles to wake because they're begging but he can't stop, and he can't breathe and they're saying-
"-not long, ma'am, I promise. I wouldn't ask-"
"-administered atropine, but there was severe smoke inhalation in addition to the nerve gas.... new ACU mostly protected him from third degree burns-"
"-understand, but there were reports that he was seen with.... essential we round up any strays-"
The last thing he remembers is fire, and when he draws a breath, the burn is still there, distant and foggy. Everything is white. Maybe he's still in the gas - the gas. He tries to raise his head - there are voices, the kids-
"Andy?" he calls. His voice comes out as barely a whisper, but the voices stop.
"Sergeant Doyle?" a woman asks, closer now. "Oh my god, he's awake. Don't touch him, quarantine is still in effect. I'll get the doctor." A door opens and shuts, and he blinks his eyes but there is nothing but white and he can't move his head.
"Doctor?" he rasps. Scarlet - she'd know where the kids were; they were the important thing.
"She's gone to get the doctor." A man steps into his line of sight, and Doyle focuses on his face, traces the details - plain, receding hairline, a serious set to his lips, but laugh lines around his eyes - and something relaxes in him because he can still see, his sight is still good. "Just lie still, he'll be here in a moment."
He? No, that was wrong. "Scarlet," he croaks, trying to shake his head but there's something there, pressure around his skull. "Kids?"
The man's eyes go sharp. "The others? They're still alive? Where were they going?"
He opens his mouth to answer, but stops, and remembers the free fire order. "No," he says, forceful, and it sets him coughing, and god, it hurts now, the burning, but he can't tell, they'll kill them. "Fuck you," he gasps.
Oddly, the man just smiles a little. "I'll take that as a 'yes, they're alive, but no, I won't tell you where'. Which would be understandable, if I was with the Army. My name is Phil Coulson, I'm with an agency called SHIELD. We've taken charge of the situation, and our priority right now is removing all survivors from the area. If your friends are not infected, I promise you we'll bring them in alive."
Doyle closes his eyes, exhausted already. He wants to believe. He would have, last week.
Coulson doesn’t read like an Army man. What if he’s telling the truth? What if Flynn didn't make it, or refused to take them without Doyle, and the kids are stranded in the stadium? What if- oh god. His eyes fly open. What if Scarlet didn't survive? The kids didn't know about their mother being a carrier. Someone needed to know, this couldn't happen again.
"Th're alive," he slurs finally, praying it's true. "Carriers."
The man's eyes widen, just a little. "Where are they?"
Good poker face, Doyle thinks, and hopes he hasn't made a mistake. "Stadium," he whispers, and even that burns, the pain making his vision swim. "Flynn- ‘cross the Channel." There are sounds at the door, but he can’t keep his eyes open. "Please," he says, and everything fades away.
He doesn't dream.
The next time he wakes up, he can move his head and his lungs are only mostly fucked, but he's handcuffed to the bed, the man from SHIELD is gone, and no one will tell him shit, because he's being court-martialed for abandoning his post.
At least he's not a zombie.
A colonel comes and debriefs him, but refuses to answer any questions. He is close to begging for news from anyone who will listen, when a doctor comes in with a clipboard and asks for volunteers.
"Volunteers for what?" Doyle asks.
"There's a vaccine," the doctor says, and Doyle misses the rest because he can finally breathe again. Coulson found the kids; Scarlet had been right. The kids are alive, and they might eventually make it out of a lab at some point, because they’re alive.
He signs up to test the vaccine, because he's already survived the zombie apocalypse and being lit on fire, and no syringe full of rage juice or whatever the fuck they came up with is going to kill him now.
He lives, though he hallucinates for a few days before his immune system integrates the new information. Or so he's told. Doyle just remembers blood on his scope, the smell of death in his nose, and slick red coating his hands.
He tries not to remember any more than that, but his dreams are full of screaming every night, and he wakes up with cuts on his wrists where he fought the cuffs in his sleep. The nurses make disapproving noises and pad the metal, but he sleeps less and less. He wonders about the kids, wonders if he was wrong and Coulson lied and they were cut open to give a vaccine to the world, wonders if Flynn is locked up somewhere away from his daughter because Doyle sold him out.
He wonders, but he stopped asking questions a while ago, because trying to talk to people sucks when no one is talking back.
When Coulson finally shows up, Doyle thinks he's dreaming again, because he wakes to find the man sitting in a chair next to his bed, wearing a perfectly cut suit, and holding Doyle’s medical chart. He looks surreal against the grey concrete and institutional plastic. Doyle struggles to sit up - the worst of the burns on his feet, face, and hands are fading, but he's still under treatment for the nerve gas, and things don't move quite right yet.
Without any preamble, Coulson says, "Thank you for the intel about the Harris children. I'm happy to report they were found in France and detained without incident; I see you're already aware of the vaccine." He pauses, and adds gently, "I'm sorry, but Major Ross didn't survive. Her father and sister have been notified. She wasn't infected, if that helps."
It does, a little. He can scratch that nightmare off the list - though there's plenty more where that came from.
Silence stretches out between them, until Coulson lifts his eyebrows expectantly, obviously waiting for a response, and Doyle realizes that this man, at least, seems to want to answer his questions. "Are the kids still...detained?" he asks. His voice sounds like hell, and he swallows the word he meant to use. Coulson cocks his head, eyes sharpening, like he heard it anyway.
"Yes. Andrew Harris was bitten before they left London. Fortunately, he and his sister both inherited the Z1A mutation, and our team was able to isolate the sequence and produce a vaccine. Andy is still contagious, but Dr. Pym assures me that a cure is possible.” A faint smile tugs at Coulson’s mouth. “They're all very eager for Ms. Harris to vacate the premises with her brother.”
Doyle huffs a laugh. Yeah. When Tammy grew up a little, that girl was going to be a real force of nature. He imagines not a lot will scare her ever again - even if it should.
Unasked, Coulson continues, "I interviewed your friend Flynn. He had remarkably little to say about why he returned to base with bingo fuel, but I thought it wise to give him a full, updated briefing on quarantine protocols, just in case." Coulson smiles, shark-like. "I'm fairly certain he didn't enjoy it."
Doyle closes his eyes in relief. Three out of four, safe and sound. He's going to go to prison for a very long time because of it, but he'd fully expected to die, so he'll take that miracle. And Coulson had kept his word, even for Flynn, and come here to tell Doyle himself.
“Thank you,” he rasps. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Neither did you,” Coulson replies calmly, and Doyle clenches his jaw against a wash of sudden anger.
“No, it was the least I could do, after-” he chokes on the words, a week of nightmare images rising up like bile. He makes himself breathe through it, and unclenches his hands from the sheets when he’s calm. “I know exactly how many people I killed in that courtyard,” he says, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Which ones were infected, and which ones were human. I don’t miss.”
He used to be so proud of that.
Coulson is silent for a long moment. When he finally speaks, the words aren’t what Doyle expected.
“I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but you’re the only surviving member of your sniper unit.” Doyle feels sick to his stomach, because he hadn’t know. He’d suspected, when no one tried to visit him. “If you’d stayed at your post, you’d probably be dead now. But you got away, you extracted vital civilian assets, and you did what was necessary to protect them in the face of one of the worst operational clusterfucks I’ve ever had the displeasure of fixing. Unfortunately, you’re taking the fall for it, but sometimes not following orders is the right thing to do, from a tactical perspective, and a moral one.” He stands, neatly hanging Doyle’s chart back on the end of his bed. “You did the best thing you could, under the circumstances. I know it’s hard, but try to remember that.”
He nods stiffly, afraid that if he opens his mouth he will scream, or worse, cry. He doesn’t look up, but he can see Coulson’s hand where it still rests on the chart, sees his fingers twitch uncertainly and go still again.
“I know you’ve been debriefed already,” Coulson says abruptly, “but I’d like to do a follow-up session. It’s entirely optional, but I think you would find it useful.”
The words are unexpected, and Doyle doesn’t really want to relive the whole nightmare again - but on the other hand, he’s already doing that in his sleep, every night. And Coulson hasn’t lied to him yet.
Doyle clears his throat. “Sure, sounds like fun.”
The third time Coulson appears, Clint is halfway through picking the locks on his cuffs. He’s not going to make it far on his wobbly fucking Bambi legs, but he can at least make it to the bathroom with a modicum of privacy.
“Don’t stop on my account,” Coulson says from the doorway, and Doyle flinches violently. He hadn’t heard the door open - and he was listening for it.
“Couldn’t stay away, huh?” he cracks, shoving down his irrational anger at being interrupted. He knows has PTSD, okay, but he can at least try not to take it out on the one guy who’s helping him. And Coulson had warned Doyle that he’d be back, only yesterday.
Coulson just smiles politely and sits, resting a manila folder on his lap. Pointedly, Doyle finishes picking the cuffs before looking up and asking, “How are the kids?”
“They’re fine. Andy’s having some trouble with the quarantine lasting so long, but the cure is progressing. They both want to see you.”
Doyle winces. “Good luck arranging that. I think they’re moving me soon, now that I’m off all the drugs.” He wonders if his prison cell will be more or less boring than this room.
“Yes, I wanted to talk to you about that.” Coulson flips open the folder on his lap but doesn’t look down at it. Doyle can see his ID photo on the open page and the familiar outline of his personnel file. “Sgt. Arthur Doyle,” he says contemplatively. “Your parents were Sherlock Holmes fans?”
Doyle freezes, then forces himself to shrug casually. He controls his breathing, and hopes the monitors won’t show the way his heart is suddenly pounding. “Yeah, I guess. I got a lot of shit about it on my first tour.”
“Mmm,” Coulson says, still watching him instead of the file, and pulls another sheaf of paper from the back of the folder. He places it precisely on Doyle’s lap, and Doyle’s heart sinks. Clint Barton’s face and juvenile record stare up at him. “Bit obvious as an alias, although I suppose it shows better taste than most sixteen year olds who join the Army under false pretences.”
Clint - no, Doyle, he’s been Doyle for almost a decade, now - clenches his jaw. “You did your homework.”
“My agency has greater access than most. Do you still keep up with your archery, Hawkeye?” Coulson asks mildly, a hint of amusement crinkling his eyes.
The bastard knows about the fucking circus. Of course. “When I can,” he says - which is almost never. He might not miss being Clint, pathetically naive orphan circus freak that he was, but he misses his bow fiercely. Especially now, when the thought of using a sniper rifle again puts him right back in that courtyard, with all the dead and dying.
Suddenly angry, he says, “So, what? Dereliction of duty wasn’t an interesting enough charge for you? You decided to dig up some teenage identity theft and my fucking carny act, too?”
Coulson tilts his head. “No, I wasn’t planning on sharing that information with your superiors. We’re...somewhat at odds right now, since I’d like to recruit you and they’re mostly interested in finding a scapegoat for their poor contingency planning. But now that I have confirmation that Sgt. Doyle doesn’t technically exist, it makes the paperwork much simpler. Provided you agree, of course.”
“To work for SHIELD,” he says, like it’s fucking obvious.
“Right. Because disobeying orders, faking your identity, and surviving a zombie plague are qualities you guys look for in your employees.”
Coulson smiles enigmatically. “We think of that sort of thing as preliminary training.” Clint honestly can’t tell if he’s serious, but he can’t help laughing. This guy is crazy, but he kinda likes it.
It makes the choice between prison and SHIELD pretty easy.
“Where do I sign?” Clint asks.
Coulson reaches out, and flips over the paper on his lap. There’s a medical release form clipped to the back of the document. Apologetically, he says, “I could have forged your signature, but it seemed rude.”
Clint laughs for the entire time it takes him to fill it out.