One thousand, five hundred, twenty one day in a cage on the bottom of a copper mine in China. Akela counts every one of them, multiplies them with the number of steps it takes her to cross from one corner of her cage to the opposite. One, two, turn. One, two, turn.
The workers throw obscenities at her in a rainbow of languages, and she distracts herself by trying to guess their meanings. Sometimes she hears a familiar word and damn, hearing “you nigger bitch!” shouldn’t be comforting. In turn, she watches the men work themselves to death and envies them only a little.
Why am I here? she asks herself on day two hundred and thirty six, when the temperature drops below freezing point and one of her jailers throws a grimy blanket into her cage. Why are you keeping me alive? She tries asking, but the guard just looks at her and says nothing. She tries it in Russian the next day, and Spanish the day after that, and then she gives up.
From day four, when she finally manages to fall asleep at night despite the never-ending roar of engines and shouting of the night shift, she sees the faces of her team. Anh with her wide toothy smile, her weakness for trashy romance books, and aim almost as good as Barton’s. Vinitzky in hist too-tight shirt, with that stupid macho bravado that was bound to kill him one day. Didn’t get time to, did it though - no, that was all Akela. Just one moment of doubt, one “can I really trust them?” and then, a spatter of red on that stupid shirt of his, and a hole the size of a fist in Anh’s smile.
One thousand, five hundred, twenty one day.
Sixteen days on an op with Garret’s team, and Akela catches herself counting every hour. Coulson shouts at her to trust her team, dammit, but there is something wrong with Garret’s boys and girls, and it makes Akela’s skin crawl. They have wide smiles, and sharp eyes, and Akela knows how those look on real people. Not like this. She’s green enough to try to tell Coulson. “Trust in the system”, is what she gets back, and it’s a lesson she learns well - although maybe a different one than Coulson tried to teach.
She goes on her own when things heat up, and she earns a gunshot wound for it.
“I told you so,” Coulson tells her cheerfully, unmoved by Akela’s condition.
“I’m feeling better, thanks for asking,” she snarks back from her infirmary bed.
One thousand, three hundred, forty four days of SHIELD Academy. Akela counts the first few in amazed wonder. She’s just a Florida kid with a high school diploma, a string of odd jobs and a knack for lying. How did she earn all this? The only people that will ever give anything to you are the ones that owe you, her mami had taught her, and hell as she knows, the Amador household isn’t owed anything by an alphabet agency.
Soon, though, she knows better. SHIELD wants talent, and so SHIELD gets talent. If you’re not good enough, you get the boot.
Akela is good enough.
She counts the days, and every day the classrooms are a little emptier.
On day one fifty three, she breaks the nose of a girl who hisses a racist slur at her in the showers. She waits almost a week for the right moment to do it, and nobody can prove a thing. Everybody knows though, and they don’t forget it. She isn’t invited to join any of the little clusters that slowly form in the class, and she tells to herself that’s how she likes it. Sure, there is safety in numbers, but she’s there to become a spy, not a soldier. She can make do by herself.
On day eighty two, she’s paired on a project with a sharp-eyed girl with blond hair in a tight ponytail. “Okay, I know I look like the image of a white supremacist,” she tells Akela with a serious expression, “but trust me, my family would disown me if I even thought about it. If my cousin didn’t kill me first.” She smiles hopefully and sticks her hand out. “So, what do you think - can you work with me?”
Akela shakes her hand, too endeared against her better judgment to tell her that she’s much more worried about being lumped together with “that Carter girl” than anything else.
Sharon grins at her. “We’re gonna ace this.”
“Oh, you bet,” Akela smirks back.
It’s day one thousand, three hundred and forty four, when Akela graduates the SHIELD Academy with the third best marks of her class.
Sharon gives her an excited hug, gold hair flying everywhere. “Two points Amador, that’s so not fair!”
“Should’ve crammed harder, instead of relying on all those family tales, Carter,” Akela laughs at her.
Sharon just rolls her eyes. “And who passed SHIELD History 201 thanks to the same tales, huh?”
“I literally fed you just so you could finish that Soviet Tactics essay, you ungrateful woman!” Akela complains in mock outrage, and then they fold down laughing, propped up on each other’s shoulder.
When Akela catches her breath, she’s inches from Sharon’s face. Sharon looks her in the eyes and there it is again - the quiet, loaded look, one from many in these last three years - but then it’s gone and Sharon is dragging her to introduce Akela to all the members of the extended Carter clan.
It’s day one thousand, three hundred and forty five, when they get their first assignments, and Sharon is fast-tracked into the Special Operations Division while Akela is placed on a low-level Transnational Observation and Analysis team. Sharon, the idiot, tries to refuse the assignment, until Akela yells at her for playing a martyr. She wants to explain to her that it’s not her fault, that if she wants to help she needs to climb the ladder and do it from the inside, but what comes out is bitter and sharp and it’s like a grenade in a china shop. Sharon runs away and avoids her until they’re shipped ayway.
Akela knows it’s for the best. She does, really.
Nine hundred, ninety six days of being someone’s living puppet. She tries not to count them, but the habit is now ingrained too deep.
On the surface, they’re not hard days. She has food, she has sleep, she has warm clothes when she’s cold and a shower when she’s dirty. The work is almost too easy for someone of her skills.
Underneath, though, it’s almost worse than the cage. The cage is inside her head now, and the iron bars are the pain that Englishman administers to keep her in line. Now, more than in the cage, she is someone’s dog.
On day two hundred and seventy three, she catches herself thinking about suicide. It would be easy, wouldn’t it - pick up the phone and call somebody. SHIELD. Her mom. Sharon.
The longing hits her with almost physical pain. To hear a familiar voice, only for a moment.
But when she thinks about them, she already knows she won’t. Her mami would tell her to suck it up and wait for a chance to pay them back. Sharon would give her one of those patented Captain America pep-talks, and damn it if she wants to hear one ever again.
Two hundred, seventy three days, Akela thinks. Tomorrow it’s going to be two hundred, seventy four. And the day after, seventy five... and one day, it will be over.
Forty five days of in the SHIELD holding cell. Every single one of them, Akela wakes up, looks at the ceiling, and thinks: “I’m free.”
Yes, there are guards behind her doors, and SHIELD is just as obstructionist with its bureaucracy as she remembers. But when she looks at her face in the mirror, she is the only one watching, and that is enough.
The interrogation is half-hearted at best. She answers, over and over, that no, she didn’t recognize any of the people who took her from ShangXi and gave her the eye, and no, she didn’t even see the Englishman’s face before Coulson found him.
She asks if she can call her mother, and they tell her to wait after the trial. She was pronounced dead seven years ago, wouldn’t it be better to break the news in person?
She asks if she can call Sharon, and they tell her she’s undercover and unreachable. All classified, of course.
With every new day without any news, it all smells fishier and fishier.
She asks if she can call Coulson. She doesn’t want to talk to him, not really. The man that fought for her life against the protocol isn’t the man she knew. SHIELD always ran on secrets, but this was the most unsettling one yet. And while she is grateful for her second chance, she would rather stay away from it.
She doesn’t have to worry - their answer is no.
She doesn’t ask anything else. She knows how to wait.
Ninety two days in a hospital with equipment that looks like taken from a scifi movie. They bring her in straight from the cage, four years of dirt caked on her skin and her body pushed to its limits. In ninety days, they give her back her muscles, her voice, and her sight. When she sees the world with with two eyes again, she cries.
Everybody is so gentle to her, even though they don’t tell her where she is or who they are, and she desperately wants to believe her luck has finally turned.
It’s day ninety one when the first message appears in her vision and she learns the rescue has come at a price.
Four long days of SHIELD imploding on itself all around her, and Akela has to work hard for every minute.
She’s lucky, one of the sides decided to open the cells, hoping to get more people on their side. She doesn’t bother figuring out which one. She’s long past allegiances, all she wants is to survive one more day.
In a spare moment, she remembers her first conversation with Sharon. She hears the Heil Hydras and hopes she wasn’t lying.
She gets out of the facility, breaks into a random flat, steals some money and clothes, and runs as well as she can. She watches the TV in dirty motels and observes in fascination as SHIELD burns down in live coverage. Captain America blows up Triskellion and three Hellicariers she hadn’t even knew SHIELD has, played again and again in seemingly endless loop.
The news doesn’t bother counting the dead, but Akela can make an educated guess. What is it like to become a sanctioned mass murderer? she wonders idly. There is something perversely soothing in knowing that Captain America probably killed more innocents than her.
On day four, Akela sits in an internet cafe in Nairobi and considers her choices. As a SHIELD agent, she’s an international fugitive. But who is going to hunt her down? US Army? NATO? OSN? Will anybody care about a woman who is legally dead? And what will she do?
A part of her wants to just go home - knock on her parents’ home in Fort Lauderdale and forget about the last ten years of her life.
A smaller part of her wants to go back and fight for the agency she almost gave her life for. She used to believe they were right, didn’t she? That they were protecting people. From people like Vanchat. From people like Hydra.
But then, if Hydra grew within SHIELD since the fifties... what was there left to fight for?
She remembers those kids of Coulson’s, and wonders if they made it. They really didn’t look like Hydra agents, but who knows? Maybe they were just really good.
The curiosity tickles, though. Maybe, she thinks. Maybe I could...
Sixty seven days of being Coulson’s little shadow, and each one brings a new question. Akela wonders. What is Coulson planning? How did he get all these resources? Who is the woman in the flower dress? Where is Victoria Hand? And how did the master of casual observation become so distracted he doesn’t notice somebody tails him for days on end?
When she has to neutralize a team of attackers just so her target stays alive, she knows she won’t let it go until she finds some answers.
She isn’t sure what he’s doing, not exactly. He seems to be hunting for small groups that refused to scatter after SHIELD’s demise and folding them into his own. For a while, she entertains the idea that he is Hydra himself - perhaps the change of mind was brainwashing. Well, that would fit, the only thing able to divorce Agent Philip Coulson and his beloved protocol being somebody tinkering with his brain.
But, no. She listens in on one of his “business meetings” and hears his pitch. For better or worse, Coulson believes to be the good guy. She wonders how he can say something like that without a hint of irony.
On day sixty eight, Akela approaches Jane Hartley at the funeral of her sister.
On day sixty nine, she almost gets her throat slit by Isabelle Hartley, when she makes the mistake to break into Jane’s house to investigate.
“So, empty casket?” she asks lightly, careful to not cut her skin on the blade pressed to her neck.
“Izzy, let her go.” Jane looks over Akela’s shoulder at her sister with an expression of a long-suffering older sibling. Since Akela knows that Jane is the younger one of the pair, it would amuse her in any other situation.
“And why would I want to do that?” Isabelle asks Akela, voice low.
“You know just as well as me that there are no guarantees anymore,” Akela sighs. “I am not Hydra, if that’s what you ask. I am not with Coulson, either. I’m my own woman now.”
“Then why are you snooping around?” Jane asks her.
“At the beginning, it was just curiosity,” Akela admits. “Now... I don’t know. There is something weird happening. With Coulson, with his baby agents, with his naive attempt at resurrecting SHIELD. I want to know what.”
“Weird things happening, really?” Isabelle says, obviously not believing a single word.
“Did you know Coulson before SHIELD fell? And I mean ‘know’, not ‘met once at a mission briefing’?” Akela asks her.
“...not that well, no. Always saw him as your typical SHIELD paper pusher.”
“And can you imagine a typical SHIELD paper pusher telling anyone that SHIELD are the good guys and really believing it?”
Isabelle considers it. She exchanges a look with her sister and then, the knife at Akela’s neck is gone. She turns to Isabelle and notices with a surprise that her left hand is missing.
Isabelle rolls her eyes when she sees her stare. “Yeah, we match. Sit,” she gestures towards the nearest chair. “Talk.”
On day seventy, at three in the morning with a cup of strong coffee in her hand, Akela Amador becomes a member of a conspiracy.
“I’m not much of a team player.”
“Izzy isn’t either,” Jane tells her, while her sister snarls. “We should call ourselves something,” she laughs.
“You need to stop watching so many stupid spy flicks,” Isabelle says.
“You need to stop fake dying every other day,” Jane parries mercilessly.
“How often does that happen?” Akela asks and thinks of her own family.
“Even once was too much. I have seen too many funerals these past few years,” Jane answers.
“I went missing seven years ago,” Akela confesses. “Everybody I love thinks I’m dead.”
“You should talk to them,” Isabelle says, and her voice suddenly sounds wistful. “Before it’s too late. We don’t always come back, you know.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Forty three days of looking for answers, and Akela learns to enjoy each and every one of them.
“Double A Double H?”
“Jane, would you please let it go already?”
“...I actually like that one.”
“I hate you all.”
“You’re just jealous of the eye patch. I could get you a hook, if you’d like,” Akela tells her with a small vicious smile.
Isabelle Hartley, former SHIELD agent, looks just about ready to murder them both.
Jane Hartley, an attorney and her current co-conspirator, gives Akela a high five.
“Okay, okay.” Jane takes a deep breath and turns her switch from “fun” to “business”. Akela is still a little in awe of that. “What do we have? There’s Hydra,” she begins, and starts updating their overview of the NewSHIELD-Hydra-Centipede-Raina situation.
“Please, just don’t let it actually be aliens,” Izzy mutters.
On day thirty two, Akela almost gets her throat slit, for the second time this year. It’s a little worrying, and she really hopes it won’t become a tradition.
“Aren’t you supposed to be locked up?” her attacker hisses into her ear.
“Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” Akela snipes back. “Also, could we maybe have this discussion somewhere else? This installation is either US Army or Hydra, and I’m certain none of them will be amused if they find us here.”
This is the moment when Izzy comes back from the file storage room with a bag full of files.
“Jesus motherfucking Christ, Vic,” she gasps, and the bag falls out of her slack grip to the ground. The files spill all over the floor, not that anybody cares.
The blade on Akela’s neck twitches. “Kindly do not cut my neck,” she asks Hand, who ignores her.
On day thirty three, Akela’s little team gains a new member.
“What do you call yourselves?”
“Not you, too...” Izzy sighs.
“Maybe we could call ourselves ‘The Hand’...” Akela cackles.
“Sorry, that one is already taken. Some mafia circle the West Coast,” Victoria says dryly. She slouches deeper into Jane’s couch and pulls Izzy into her arms. Jane smiles at them happily and Akela feels her own corners twitch.
Izzy reaches with her foot and pokes Akela’s side. “You. I remember what we talked about. Anyone you care about who thinks you’re dead? Go and talk to them. That is an order.”
“I thought you don’t a chain of command,” Victoria wonders idly.
“I’m not saying this as a commanding officer, I’m saying it as a friend.”
Akela smiles. “I’ll think about it.”
Izzy makes a face and pokes her again.
On day thirty five, Akela Amador stands on her mother’s doorstep, watching her mami cry with joy.
On day thirty seven, she’s standing in the apartment of Sharon Carter with a knife on her neck, and she doesn’t even care.
“I probably deserve it,” she says, and her voice breaks.
“Shit,” Sharon croaks, throws the knife on the floor and hugs Akela so tight she thinks her ribs might break.
After a long moment, Sharon finally loosens her grip. She smiles on Akela... or at least Akela thinks so, because her only eye is full of tears.
“I heard you’ve met Captain America,” she jokes. “How did you even keep cover and not geek out?”
“Shut up,” Sharon says. She cradles Akela’s face in her hands, but stops, hesitates. “Can I...”
Akela takes a shallow breath and kisses her - a short, fast peck on the lips, just a declaration of intent.
Sharon kisses back like she does everything else, serious and intense and without a shred of doubt.
Five days from their intel finally clicking together to the SHIELD vs Hydra showdown in Puerto Rico. Akela doesn’t have time to count, not between all the running from place to place and trying to not get caught in the crossfire.
“It was fucking aliens? Seriously?” Vic grounds her teeth behind the wheel. Akela isn’t sure if she is furious or disgusted. Probably both.
“Aliens and immortal Nazis,” Izzy mutters and frantically scrolls through digitized maps of San Antonio underground. “When did my life become a piece of bad cinema?” Vic swerves to avoid a crossing tourist and Izzy’s tablet slips from under her stump and ends up on the floor. “And I should have taken you up on that fucking hook, dammit!”
Twelve days of keeping and eye on the survivors and observing Coulson’s team tearing itself apart from the inside. Akela counts the days and knows that sooner or later, something is going to give. Or someone.
On day thirteen, she stands on a deserted street in San Francisco, face to face with a familiar figure.
“Don’t come any closer,” the girl warns her. Her voice is shaking, and so is her body. Even the street seems to vibrate in sympathy, and Akela knows it isn’t just her imagination.
“Hi,” Akela says. “You remember me?”
“...Amador? Akela Amador?”
“Yeah. I once pushed your van into a ditch,” Akela says with a little self-effacing smirk. “and then you helped to save my life. And because I know you want to ask: I’m not Hydra, SHIELD, the Army, or any alphabet agency. I’m not anybody’s puppet anymore.”
“Then what are you doing here?” Skye frowns.
Akela smiles. “I’m here to make you an offer.”