“I hear my mother offered you the Herb,” T’Challa said.
“Did she also tell you she knelt before me when she did?” M’Baku tilted his head, his grin lazy and sharp.
T’Challa didn’t stiffen, but his jaw clenched, and M’Baku laughed harshly, turning away. He sat at the lip of a chasm that overlooked jagged teeth of melting ice, the droplets falling to meld eventually into a gash of rock, cut against the old stone by ever-running water. The quickening stream formed the head of the river that eventually bisected Wakanda.
“What are you doing out here?” T’Challa asked.
The lights from the Jabari Tribe’s fastness were blinking on behind his sloped shoulders, winking bright against the snow and stone, too far away for definition. T’Challa was wrapped in a red patterned shawl over black robes, apparently impervious to the cold. M’Baku knew better. The fanged necklace T’Challa wore. His bracelet, his shoes. Rampant technology. M’Baku looked away.
“I come here to think.” M’Baku waved a hand over the ice.
T’Challa looked from the light globe at M’Baku’s hip to the small cave beyond, hollowed out by hand into an uneven dome, at the bedding, the books. At the staff hung over the doorway, a tooth of vibranium cut along the seam, unadorned. “Alone?”
“I don’t need guards to feel confident. Your Highness.” Besides, M’Baku was wearing his armour, his staff close by.
To his irritation, instead of excusing himself, T’Challa sat down beside him on the rock, feet dangling out in the air. He looked… tired, for want of a better word. But not exhausted. Worn. “You disagreed with my decision to open ties with the world.”
M’Baku sniffed. “That was a surprise? Your cousin must have knocked you harder on the head than I thought.”
“The Jabari are an isolationist tribe within an isolationist country. We like the world as it is now.”
“And yet you challenged me for the throne.”
“The reason I challenged you? In part it was try to put a stop to what you are doing now. There is nothing good down this path. You can’t fix the world. Through strength of arms or through soft diplomacy.”
“We have no choice but to try.” T’Challa nodded down at the river. “Look at that. The earth is growing warmer. All the technology we have cannot fix it. Every year more of the mountain will melt. Even the Jabari cannot ignore the world.”
“Watch us,” M’Baku said, and scowled as T’Challa merely chuckled. “I saw the broadcast of your speech in Vienna. They laughed. And then they were afraid.”
“That will change.”
“You’re harbouring an outsider whom they have marked as their enemy. Did you think we wouldn’t know?” M’Baku said, impatient, as T’Challa stiffened. “He is in a river village. You will regret that.”
“The world, it is not as bad as you think.”
“The world powers have gone mad. Look at the people they have named as their kings. And even if they hadn’t. Once many of those powers scoured the world, taking people from this continent to their lands as slaves. Do you think their descendants look at us without knowing this?” M’Baku poked T’Challa’s arm. “Many of them will never look past the colour of your skin. You are blind like your father before you.”
“Unlike my father before me I do not believe that the failings of a few mean that I should ignore the suffering of the many,” T’Challa said, and he had said these words a hundred times now, probably, given how comfortably they were spoken. “Power is evil when meted on the weak. But it is also evil when withheld from helping the weak.”
“So you sneak up a mountain to what, talk at me?” M’Baku had never had much patience for philosophy.
“I want you to join the Tribe Council.”
“Tell me something new.” T’Challa had sent several requests, several envoys. The last envoy had been the Queen Mother herself.
“My mother said you were thinking about it.”
“I said that just so she would go away.” The Queen Mother was incredibly persistent.
“She talked you into coming to my aid.” When M’Baku merely scowled, T’Challa smiled and shook his head wryly. “She is better than me at this.”
“She’s had more experience.”
“So I thought I would come myself.”
“And you’ve wasted your time. Go away.”
T’Challa smiled. This was the problem with the panther-blessed, a problem that the Jabari Tribe had always known. The big cats could smell weaknesses, sniff out chinks in any armour. Then they struck. Ruthless and efficient. For years the Jabari had been content to let the panthers herd the rest of the country in circles. Until the wrong child had been born to the wrong bloodline. There was no room for compassion in a panther. In T’Challa there was much that should be, and much that should not be. Yet his eyes. They were hunting eyes, flawed by a gentle soul bruised into the shape of a cat.
“Your cousin would have made a better king,” M’Baku said, just so that T’Challa would eat his smile. “By our rules.”
T’Challa sighed. “Ritual combat, a society that traditionally prizes the ‘strongest warrior’… tradition is one thing, but—”
“You’d best not complete that sentence. Your Highness.”
“M’Baku.” T’Challa reached over, patting M’Baku’s knee. “Tradition is one thing, but the world will change. It must. So change with it.”
“Go away.” M’Baku got to his feet, turning his back pointedly and heading into the cave, sitting cross-legged on the pallet. The cave was kept warm by insets, but those and the light globe were the only tech M’Baku usually allowed within here. A place to think, for him, for his father before him, his grandmother before that. A reminder of their roots.
T’Challa didn’t enter, lingering by the cave entrance. “Why didn’t you take the Herb?”
“You’d rather I let you die?”
“Packing me in snow wasn’t exactly what I would call medical treatment,” T’Challa said dryly.
“I don’t have any need for the Herb. The Jabari never have. The Herb wasn’t the reason why I challenged you for the throne.”
“Erik… N’Jadaka… was going to do worse. But you refused me when I asked you for aid.”
“I thought you could handle things yourself,” M’Baku conceded.
“Just me, my sister, and Nakia against all of the Border Tribe and possibly the Dora Milaje?”
“Just one day and the foundations of your throne tremble, leaving you nowhere to turn but your traditional enemy. You are bad at this.”
“I’ve never thought of you as an enemy.” T’Challa took a step into the room, tentative at first, then another, when M’Baku rolled his eyes. “And I would prefer you as a permanent ally.”
“You, your father before you, all the way back to the first Panther.”
“None of them managed to draw the Jabari to their side during a time of war.”
“Don’t let that go to your head.” M’Baku exhaled loudly as T’Challa sat down beside him on the pallet. “I’ll think about it.”
“That’s what you told my mother to make her go away, hm?”
“So what do I have to do to make you go away?” Besting T’Challa in his panther-blessed form was going to be difficult, and besides, M’Baku was in a meditative mood.
“What do I have to do to get you to listen to me?”
“A mystery forever more,” M’Baku said. Panther-blessed, T’Challa had a warm animal smell, a sleek grace that commanded the eye. And he was handsome, which didn’t help. T’Challa narrowed his eyes, studying M’Baku, then, abruptly, he leaned over, pausing a finger’s breadth away from M’Baku’s mouth. Waiting.
“What are you doing?” M’Baku said. He didn’t jerk back. If this was a game, M’Baku had never cared much about rules.
“Considering a detail that I overlooked before,” T’Challa said, trailing his fingertips down M’Baku’s knee, past the fur trim of his boots, over the inseam of his breeches. M’Baku caught his wrist tightly.
“Have some dignity.”
Annoyingly, T’Challa started to chuckle. “I know you’re not going to join my Council. Yet.”
“Then neither of us have anything to gain. Or dignity to lose.” T’Challa squeezed M’Baku’s thigh.
M’Baku sucked in a slow breath. The gorilla spirit had infused its chosen people with an unending breed of curiosity, one that had allowed them to find innovative ways of living apart from Wakanda without privation. Although M’Baku’s didn’t often awaken, when it did, it was usually inconvenient. Like now. He let go of T’Challa’s wrist slowly, looking him full in the eyes, and T’Challa smiled, leaning in.
T’Challa didn’t kiss with the ruthlessness of a panther or the presumption of the king he was. It was a nervous kiss, brushed against M’Baku’s mouth, and T’Challa relaxed as M’Baku grumbled and hauled him closer. He rolled on top of T’Challa on the pallet, licking into his mouth as fingers tickled carefully through his hair and dug against his shoulder.
Without vibranium claws, all T’Challa could leave on his skin were bruises. Faint marks, then a mottled ring over M’Baku’s arm, as M’Baku fumbled off skins, grass skirt, breeches, then the catches on T’Challa’s clothes. Beneath him, T’Challa growled, a rumbling guttural sound that no human throat could make. M’Baku chased it against his skin, against the give of his jaw, the rasp of his beard. T’Challa gasped as M’Baku nipped him, spitting on his palm, reaching between them to grasp M’Baku’s cock, tugging once, pulling a hiss from M’Baku, then the both of them, stroking.
T’Challa’s cock was more slender, a little longer, and for a moment M’Baku thought about taking it into his mouth, pressing his tongue hard against the slit, curling it around the folds. He bit T’Challa harder instead, over the collar of his shirt, drawing blood. T’Challa jerked against him with a moan, squeezing his palm over the thickened heads of their cocks, rubbing the sensitive caps together, then he thrust against M’Baku, impatient, until M’Baku hissed and rocked his hips, shoving T’Challa against the pallet. He felt T’Challa lick the blood from his lips, panting. Fingertips scoured down his back, over his armour, and for a moment M’Baku was glad that he hadn’t bothered to strip down. The panther was still hunting.
Jagged words scraped against his ear, a moan, a war cry. T’Challa shoved up against M’Baku. His eyes were intense with concentration, shivering, soiling them both with a jerk of his hips. T’Challa kissed M’Baku roughly before M’Baku could speak, swallowing his groans, his curses, and thankfully, his promises. When he spent himself, M’Baku had learned quiet.
It figured. “You give her too much leeway.”
“She is a Princess.” T’Challa lay comfortably against M’Baku on the pallet, an obnoxious fit.
“Her work has made wonders for Wakanda.”
“Wonders and horrors both.” M’Baku mimed a pulsar glove being fired, and T’Challa frowned, twisting until he could look over, side by side. “This is pointless. You won’t sway my mind. I won’t change yours.”
“We’ll see.” T’Challa leaned up onto his elbows. He tickled fingers over M’Baku’s shoulders, then he touched his fingertips to his own throat, where the mark M’Baku had bitten onto his skin was reddening and would bruise. “The Tribe Council will hold a High Summit in a week.”
“Where a lot of time will be wasted and nothing important decided.”
“Not this time.” T’Challa nuzzled his cheek, and smirked as M’Baku jerked away and pointedly shoved at T’Challa’s shoulder. “I’ll see you there.”
“You presume much,” M’Baku said, if wryly. The Jabari could be gracious in defeat. Unlike those trapped in the shadow of the panther.
“I am, after all, your king,” T’Challa said, and smiled, a hunting-cat’s teeth-grimace of a smile, and rose to his feet as M’Baku shook his head and sniffed.