A limited amnesty for the People wasn’t popular, but it had to be done. T’Challa spent weeks shuttling between the cities, soothing down feathers, engaging in talks, opening up listening halls to hear questions from anyone who wanted to attend. He worked harder than he ever had, and every night he slept like the dead and woke up to do it all over again.
On the eve of the second Council vote about the UN delegation, T’Challa felt dead on his feet as he dragged himself back to his chambers, stifling yawns, barely listening to whatever Okoye was trying to tell him. He felt like he was sleepwalking when he waved the Dora Milaje out and closed the door, finally alone—
“Has this always been your room? Or did you upgrade once you became King?”
T’Challa startled so violently he nearly fell back against the door. “M’Baku?”
M’Baku smirked briefly. He was standing by the shelves at the arc of glass that served as a great window overlooking Birnin Zana by night, studying the titles of the books. “Books? Really.”
“I like books.” T’Challa strode over, unable to help his grin despite his weariness.
“Wakanda outgrew physical books a long time ago.”
“I know. A pity.”
M’Baku sniffed. “Is that what you think? Every book here is a dead tree. This entire thing is an insult. An abomination.”
“I… I didn’t realize that you’d feel that way—” T’Challa cut himself off as M’Baku started to laugh. He groaned, rubbing his eyes. “M’Baku.”
“You’re too easy.”
“What are you doing here?” T’Challa asked, walking over, looking M’Baku over appreciatively. M’Baku was wearing just his layered vest, breeches and boots, his arms bared, and T’Challa ran his fingers over the packed muscle appreciatively, admiring the intricate ink that banded M’Baku’s skin.
“Tomorrow happens to be some sort of important Council meeting, apparently. Or has it been cancelled?”
“No, and don’t sound so hopeful. I thought you weren’t going to attend.”
“I grew bored of waiting to be kidnapped,” M’Baku said, grinning as he drew T’Challa close. They kissed like lovers did, finally, without the world and everything between them, T’Challa’s hands stroking up over M’Baku’s beard, to his cheeks. M’Baku’s palms were squeezing his ass appreciatively, chuckling as T’Challa growled and plucked at his vest.
T’Challa backed M’Baku over to the bed in a meandering trail of distracting kisses and shucked clothes. By the time he got to straddle M’Baku’s powerful thighs they were down to their breeches, shoes and boots littered at the archway. M’Baku hummed, pulling him down, T’Challa’s necklace grazing his chest as they kissed.
“You should have told me that you were here,” T’Challa said, in between breaths. “I would’ve come up to see you earlier.”
“Shuri said you work too hard.” M’Baku turned them onto their flanks, petting his back as T’Challa nuzzled M’Baku’s throat. This was good too, lying like this, just them, skin to skin and sharing each other’s air.
“You talk to Shuri?”
“She talks at me, most of the time. I’m thinking of returning you your bead.”
“Speaking of that.” T’Challa raised his eyes. “We never did talk about what happened. In the Vault.”
“Oh, you mean where you thought you saw me talking to insects and gorillas?”
M’Baku’s mischievous grin faded. “Eh, what’s the fun in that.”
“I was… I thought I was in the Ancestral Plane.”
“The spirit world does run close to the Vault.”
“So it was the land. Jabari land.”
“Not just Jabari land.” M’Baku said mildly. “There was a resonance in Birnin Bashenga. Birnin Djata.”
“Everywhere,” T’Challa acknowledged, narrowing his eyes, “especially through Kuvele. Which we haven’t recovered.”
“What a pity.”
“So what happened? Wakanda in general wasn’t affected that much, as far as I can tell? People got a broadcast on the royal band, but most just thought it was an error. Heard ‘forest sounds’.”
“Wakanda is watching,” M’Baku said, after a moment’s thought.
“The Jabari watch the panther,” T’Challa said slowly, “and the Jabari believe they are one with the land.”
“We try to be.”
“You talked… things down, didn’t you? Stopped everything.”
“Not at all.” When T’Challa started to frown, M’Baku kissed his forehead. “Think of it as a trial period. Keep that in mind tomorrow.”
“Great,” T’Challa said, if without any heat. They lay together, sharing warmth, breathing for a while. “I’d like to visit the Vault again someday. And the Ancestor Tree.”
“Anything you want, your Majesty, your wish is my command, I’d love to spend another few weeks being roasted by my Elder Council, Godkeepers, and all manner of concerned citizens, just to let you do some sightseeing.”
“Well, not right now,” T’Challa said, solemn. “When your people think I’m worthy of the honour. I see why you treasure the land as much as you do,” he added, as M’Baku huffed. “I’ll welcome a Jabari voice in the land stewardship council.”
“I see you’re intent on introducing more councils into my life,” M’Baku said, though he relaxed.
“And tomorrow, I hope you’ll vote with me on the matter of the UN delegation. Even if I know that you won’t.”
“Eh, well, you’re not doing a very good job of trying to convince me.”
T’Challa laughed, rolling on top and pecking M’Baku on the nose. “As though you’d be convinced by something like this.”
“I don’t know. It’d be funny to watch you fail,” M’Baku said, and smirked as T’Challa snorted and leaned up for a kiss.
“Shuri? What are you doing here?” Nakia started to rise from her desk, then she blinked as Ce’Athauna wandered in after Shuri, smirking at Nakia’s surprise. Ce’Athauna was wearing a black dress, one that bared her legs to mid-thigh and hugged her curves.
“I thought I’d come and see what all this fuss about the outside world is,” Ce’Athauna said, making a show of looking around.
“And your opinion so far?” Nakia asked, amused.
“It smells. Do all non-Wakandan cities stink? I don’t know how they can stand living like this.”
Shuri grimaced. “I know, right? But the food’s not terrible… some of it… and there are things like Sundance. Which we’re going to right now. C’mon, Nakia. T’Challa managed to wrangle some VIP passes for us through Tony Stark.”
“I have a TED Talk tomorrow,” Nakia said, gesturing at her notes.
“So? I’m sure you’d nail it,” Shuri said. Ce’Athauna looked mildly perplexed. “She has to talk to an audience of mostly colonisers and convince them to like us more,” Shuri translated.
“Oh. What for?”
“T’Challa calls it ‘soft power’? Come on. Sundance. Pleaaase. T’Challa said I couldn’t go by myself, like, seriously, as though I really need a chaperone, so I said fine, I’ll take Okoye, but Okoye said no, then Ce’Athauna said she’d go, then T’Challa frowned like this,” Shuri scrunched her face up, “and said ‘I really don’t think that’s a very good idea’ so I said you’d come and he said okay.” Shuri breathed out.
“M’Baku was fine?” Nakia asked, amused.
“M’Baku says he doesn’t see why he should have a say in the lives of his relatives,” Ce’Athauna said, and smirked, which meant that M’Baku had probably said this within earshot of Shuri.
“Jabari diplomatic efforts are progressing well, I see.”
“Oh yes, a lot of… efforts,” Ce’Athauna said, raising her eyebrows, and Shuri laughed.
Nakia looked at her desk. The paperwork could wait. She gave in, grabbing her coat. “All right. We’ll go.”
“Yes!” Shuri whooped.
On the way out, towards the airship, with Shuri having gone ahead, Ce’Athauna asked, “So who exactly is doing a sun dance?”
“Nobody. It’s a film festival.”
Ce’Athauna wrinkled her nose. “Why is the Princess so excited over something like that?”
“I suppose we’ll find out,” Nakia said, because she’d been too busy as a War Dog to watch any non-Wakandan films.
“You look good,” Ce’Athauna said, grinning, looking Nakia slowly over.
“I usually do.” Nakia smiled warmly back. Why not. It had been a while.
“Better with a dagger in your hands.”
“I’d prefer my ringblades.”
“We should try each other. Your ringblades against my spear.”
“Are you asking me to spar, or for something else?” Nakia asked lightly.
“Depends,” Ce’Athauna said, brash as ever. “What would you say ‘yes’ to?”
Nakia laughed, linking her arm with Ce’Athauna’s. “We’ll see.”
“Finished?” W’Kabi asked.
“Nobody got stabbed?”
“It wasn’t that sort of talk,” T’Challa said, gesturing at his beads, “and you could have watched if you wanted to.”
W’Kabi sniffed, turning back to the Wakandan rhino, petting its nose. It breathed in great warm gusts, the pen thick with its animal stink, and it eyed T’Challa with a solemn thoughtfulness. “What’s the point?” W’Kabi said. “I knew the two of you weren’t going to agree. You won’t abdicate. And he doesn’t even have any concept of what his ‘new government’ should be. Waste of time.”
“I don’t think that it was. Not when disillusionment with the kingship is more common than I had thought.”
“What did you think? Mosa told you. The Border Tribe values strength. You lost Klaue, a man who killed his way out of Birnin Bashenga. You lost to N’Jadaka in a fair fight. Are you surprised that we don’t respect you?”
“I think someone’s skill at strength of arms is not a great measure on which to decide whether they’re worth listening to. Or following,” T’Challa said gently. “I tried my best with Klaue. I didn’t explain myself to you because I was ashamed. Not just because I lost him but because I realized that my father might have lied. To me, to Wakanda.”
W’Kabi stared at the rhino as it snuffled, nudging his palm for more carrots. “You were a good friend to me for a long time,” he said finally. “I think that’s why the disappointment was so great.”
“And I know now that N’Jadaka sabotaged your capture of Klaue just so that the Border Tribe would sponsor his introduction to the Tribal Council. If I could go back, I would not follow him. Even if I think that his approach is better than your ‘soft power’.”
That would be the closest that W’Kabi would probably get to an apology, T’Challa knew. W’Kabi had always been proud. “I know. So do many people in your tribe. But what is strength when measured merely by strength in arms? You cannot change the world for the better with that kind of strength.”
“You think we’re blind,” W’Kabi said, contemptuous. “You think that by buying up buildings here and there, by offering money and technology, you can change things out there? We stand at Wakanda’s borders. Ours have always been the eyes that looked outwards. At all the suffering out there, all that death. Would the Border Tribe have followed N’Jadaka if it didn’t see the truth of the world? We do. We do want to help the world.”
“Khosi still voted against me.”
“Against your decision to follow their rules. Before the matter with N’Jadaka I offered to send out our garrisons. You don’t even need to look far beyond our borders to see suffering. Look at the Congo, Sudan, more. Schoolgirls disappearing in Nigeria. People rape children. All that is cruel and terrible in the world, how do you stop it without strength? Power is only kept in check by power.” W’Kabi stared at T’Challa, his jaw set. “You’re a good man. I have always known that. And you may be a good king for Wakanda. But you are bad for the world, because you don’t understand the world. N’Jadaka made me understand that. And that is why I raised my sword against you.”
“It’s not all bad out there,” T’Challa said softly. “Waging war to stop all wars? That’s not possible. That only leads to endless war. Everywhere, on all fronts. We must try another way. Teach the world another way. The Queen Mother is making progress and—”
“A rich man and a blind one, that’s what you are,” W’Kabi said, his lip curling. “You’ll see. When your ‘another way’ doesn’t work, because the world is too ugly for good intentions. You’ll come back to us.”
“What time is it?” T’Challa yawned, sleepy, squinting out of the window banks cut against one flank of M’Baku’s sleeping quarters. The sun was slowly rising. T’Challa groaned, rolling over, burying his face in the pillows. “Too early.”
“You’re not really a cat. You don’t actually need this much sleep.” M’Baku nipped the back of T’Challa’s throat. “Wake up. We’ll have to leave soon, if you still want to see the Vault.”
“We have to make the Ascent this early?”
“For what I want to show you, yes.” M’Baku kissed lazily down the arch of T’Challa’s spine, making him squirm and stifle a laugh.
M’Baku rubbed his bearded cheek against T’Challa’s shoulder blades, pushing a thumb between his cheeks. Still stretched from the night before, still slick. T’Challa growled. “You’re looking to go back to sleep, old man?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been convinced not to,” T’Challa said, and arched with a low gasp as M’Baku pressed in a finger, probing carefully, checking to see if T’Challa was sore. Not that he usually was—T’Challa healed supernaturally quickly. Two fingers and T’Challa was grumbling again, impatient, three and he was rocking against M’Baku’s fingers, eager and hungry. It had been years, and this still sometimes took M’Baku by surprise, how sensual T’Challa was, how beautiful. And yet the panther was close under his skin. T’Challa’s fingertips were digging into the sheets in tight claws, and he made a gorgeous guttural snarl as M’Baku slicked himself up with spit and pushed inside, taking it carefully slow.
T’Challa hissed, pushing his thighs wider, then he purred in a low rumble as he arched his back to grind himself up on M’Baku’s cock, taking him balls deep. M’Baku grit his teeth, breathing hard as T’Challa chuckled, full and pleased with himself. In revenge, M’Baku rocked in slowly, easing gradually out, then pushing back in with a slow and inexorable slide. He pinned T’Challa down with an arm across his back and kissed his throat. T’Challa grumbled at first, then he whined, squirming against M’Baku’s grip. He was always demanding like this, always wanting more. Hunting. “M’Baku,” T’Challa complained.
“Hmm? Aren’t you too tired for anything too strenuous?” M’Baku asked, in between gasps of pleasure.
“You… really sometimes…” T’Challa grabbed M’Baku’s hip, pulling him forcefully forward. He groaned, loud and not bothering to stifle it. Chuckling, M’Baku conceded, setting his palms on T’Challa’s hips, nudging his knees further apart. He took T’Challa roughly, until T’Challa was yowling and clawing at the sheets, every inch of the grave and dignified King stripped down. Lust had never been simple between them but M’Baku had never cared. He set his teeth against T’Challa’s back, making marks that would not keep; gasped promises against T’Challa’s ears, ones that he would. T’Challa curled fingertips against the back of his skull, digging fingers into M’Baku’s shoulder. They kissed, sloppy, too much teeth, and T’Challa was going quiet, trembling.
M’Baku eased up. He pushed T’Challa on his back on a dry spot of the bed, and rocked back in, nudging T’Challa’s thighs up around his waist. Going slow. They kissed as M’Baku ground against him, stretching out stolen moments. Then M’Baku thrust deep, and buried his mouth against T’Challa’s throat.
“What am I here to see?” T’Challa asked some time afterwards, when they were getting dressed after cleaning up.
“It’s a surprise,” M’Baku said, because it was to him still, every year when the Vault butterflies that only lived among Jabari trees unfurled from chrysalises and painted the forest in flecks of gold. The swarm was always especially thick around his grandmother’s tree.
“Another gift, then,” T’Challa said, because he was still learning, still unlearning, and M’Baku kissed him until he purred.
“Really?” M’Baku groaned. He was fifteen, taller than Ngozi now, nearly as tall as his father. Still not too tall to climb over Anathi, though. The gorilla didn’t even wake when M’Baku shifted comfortably over his warm fur, staring up at the majesty of the oldest thing in the world.
Ngozi smacked his arm. “What do you mean, ‘really’? Does my grandson have no soul?”
“Your grandson is sleepy and thinks we’re going to get in trouble with everyone.”
“Pah! Trouble. Some kinds of trouble are worth having.” Ngozi patted Anathi’s flank, and the gorilla made a bubbling, contented sound in his sleep.
“What is love?” M’Baku echoed. “It is a sentiment you feel. An attachment. For other people.”
“Another unwise answer. May Hanuman grant my grandson a soul.”
M’Baku pretended to scowl. “Love is the grace granted to a grandson to endure his grandmother’s endless evil questions.”
Ngozi laughed, startled, and M’Baku grinned as she tried to calm down. At the end, she said, still chuckling, “That’s a good one.”
“You’d want to do right by love. But love will make you do wrong,” M’Baku said, quoting something that he’d heard.
“Yes. It’ll corrupt good men and good intentions. The strongest human force in the world, that’s what it is. Powerful and beautiful and awful all at once.” Ngozi reached over, curling her fingers in his. “I hope that you’ll find people to love. Over and over again. Even if it breaks your heart. Don’t close yourself off, don’t burn the pain away. You’ll leave nothing of yourself at the end if you do.”
“I don’t want it to hurt,” M’Baku said.
“It will. It always will. That’s when you know that it’s love. When it haunts you. I hope you learn to love in a way that haunts you.” Ngozi grinned, turning to look at him. “That’s when you’ll break the world for it.”
“I don’t want to do that. I want to be a good leader. Put the Jabari first.”
Ngozi sighed. She glanced up, petting Anathi’s flank. “A man who no longer knows how to love will be a bad leader.”
“Like Father?” M’Baku dared to ask.
“Like your father,” Ngozi agreed, a little sadly. She squirmed over, resting her chin against M’Baku’s head. M’Baku listened to her breathing, the even thump of her heartbeat. Beneath, Anathi’s flank rose and fell slowly with sleep.
“Not everyone falls in love,” M’Baku said. “Some people don’t feel that way.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Ngozi said, poking his shoulder. “It’s natural that some people don’t fall in love, yes. Or have any interest in sex. Or men. Or women. And everything in between and beyond. Love is a vast and complicated oeuvre.”
M’Baku pulled a face. Sex? The conversation was getting out of hand. As usual. “Well,” he said judiciously, “if I ever meet someone like that, I’ll bring them to you so you can terrorise them like you do my friends. Scare them off.”
Ngozi chuckled. “Eh. Anyone easily scared off won’t be worth your time anyway.”
“I’m going to be alone forever, I see,” M’Baku said, though he grinned as Ngozi made a rude sound.
“And if I’m gone by then, you’d better take them to my tree. So I can get a good look at them.”
“And curse them if you don’t like them?”
“That too,” Ngozi said, and cackled as M’Baku sighed. Anathi hummed, his breathing changing note, though he only scratched his arm for a moment as he yawned and went back to sleep. They listened to Anathi breathe, watching as the sky grew dark through the trees. Above, the stars were rising.