Actions

Work Header

All the Stars

Chapter Text

When M’Baku was eighteen and had grown taller than his father and his father’s father, he saw the golden city of Birnin Zana for the first time. The sun was setting over the mountain’s teeth, drawing harsh lines over the huge sculpture of a panther, prowling out of the rock.

“What do you see?” his grandmother had asked.

Even in the twilight of her life, Ngozi stood light-footed on the narrow stone ledge outside the tunnel inset to the sheer cliff. She wore a longbow strapped to her back and no other weapon. In all eighty years of her life no one had ever gotten close enough to her in battle to scratch her.

“The city of our enemies.”

Ngozi huffed. “Stupid boy. Every day I pray for Hanuman to grant you wisdom.”

Stung, M’Baku tried not to scowl. Tomorrow Ngozi would announce her retirement as the Great Gorilla of the Jabari, clearing the way for M’Baku’s father, a health decision that she had come to only after pressure from her Council. She started to cough, an awful hacking sound that pressed her briefly against the rock, though she waved M’Baku back as he stepped quickly to her side. “What should I see?” M’Baku asked instead.

“The Golden City and its people are not our enemy. We are Wakandan. They are Wakandan too.”

“They are not our allies,” M’Baku said, bewildered. “No King has come to see us in centuries.”

“They are not allies,” Ngozi said. She smiled, gap-toothed. “They are family. Family may stop speaking to each other, may hate each other, quarrel, hurt one another. But in the sunset of all things, at the very edge of the cliff, when there is no-one else to turn to, nowhere to go, they are blood. Our blood.”

“Father said—”

“Your father! Pah. He too failed this test.”

“You and your tests,” M’Baku muttered, though not softly enough.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, Grandmother.”

“We lost your mother too early and your father has sworn to take no other wife. You will one day be the Great Gorilla. It is my wish—my hope—that you will take that role to heart. Remember that the Jabari are not just one tribe, but one of five. You must care not just about the Jabari but about Wakanda.”

“What have you done for Wakanda?” M’Baku shot back.

Ngozi laughed. “Careful. You are not so big now that I cannot put you over my knee.” She looked over the steep drop, watching as the sun dropped the sky into night, the stars blinking slowly into its absence. Birnin Zana glittered even in the dark, vibrant with light that pulsed in a hundred laughing colours. It was, M’Baku thought guiltily, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

His grandmother had been watching him closely. She smiled, amused. “Incredible, isn’t it?”

“The Fastness is more beautiful,” M’Baku lied.

Ngozi let out a derisive hoot. “Are you blind as well as unwise?”

“Birnin Zana is beautiful,” M’Baku said, annoyed now, “but its beauty is hollow.”

“Yes. Yes, that’s right. What else?”

“It feeds itself from fieldlands annexed from Niganda centuries ago. It reaches for the stars, but humanity’s race for better and better technology has always merely meant better and better weapons. It is ruled by a panther, an apex predator. One day the panther will tire of its nest and go forth to eat the world. It will not care that the world will lay waste to Wakanda in return.”

“Yes. And that is why we watch the golden city from afar. For one day, when the panther goes forth,” Ngozi spread her arms wide, palms up, as though trying to hold up their half of the sky, “we will be there to stop it.”

#

“So why did you kill him?” M’Baku asked, when T’Challa walked noiselessly to his side. They stood on the granite disc of the Roost, an overlook high in the spine of the mountains that cradled the Fastness. The stone was cold even through M’Baku’s furred boots, the wind icy. Below, the Fastness was slowly waking into the gray morning.

“Who?” T’Challa asked. The Dora Milaje stood respectfully at the single exit of the Roost, the red of their armour fierce against stone.

“Prince N’Jadaka,” M’Baku said, and smirked as T’Challa flinched.

“I offered to heal him. He refused.”

“And so? He was your blood.”

“I was going to,” T’Challa admitted, looking away. “But he pulled…” T’Challa trailed off, miming pulling a blade from his chest.

“You could have stabilised that with a bead.” At T’Challa’s blink, M’Baku said impatiently, “We may reject rampant technology but we’re not blind to it.”

“You think I should have saved him? He killed Zuri. He nearly killed my sister. He assaulted an elder. Killed others. Started a civil war, nearly declared war on the entire world—”

M’Baku yawned. “Death, blood, war, all that is nothing new to the panther.”

“For centuries there has been peace.”

“Tell that to your uncle.”

“My uncle drew a gun on Zuri,” T’Challa said, though he looked troubled.

“And? The Black Panther suit has been made bulletproof ever since the outsiders invented bullets. Your father could have stepped between them. Deflected the bullet. Captured your uncle. But he did not. He chose to use his claws because it was easier than dealing with the consequences. Like father, like son.” M’Baku folded his hands behind his back, watching the sun pull itself past thinning clouds. “What do you want now?”

T’Challa’s lip curled, then he made a visible effort to smooth down his expression. Interesting. “You weren’t at the last Council meeting.”

M’Baku made a show of considering it. “Wasn’t that the one about, hm, inviting a delegation from the UN to visit Wakanda?”

“Yes.”

“Boring.”

“Come on, M’Baku. I know you care.”

“Then you also know what I think.”

T’Challa had the temerity to smile faintly. “So I thought I would come here and let you tell me what you think to my face.”

“‘Let you’, eh?” M’Baku glowered at T’Challa. Despite being a head taller than T’Challa and broader, M’Baku didn’t intimidate T’Challa in the least. He suspected that very little likely did. More fool the panther.

“Okoye said everything you’d have said,” T’Challa said lightly. “Outsiders are dangerous, a threat to national security, a destabilising influence, they’ll steal our secrets, and so on.”

“You should listen to your General.”

“A sentiment that she no doubt shares.”

M’Baku glanced over T’Challa’s shoulder. “So where is she?”

“Talking to the Border Tribe.”

M’Baku sniffed. “At least you didn’t execute W’Kabi as well. Or is that a work in progress?”

“He’s one of my oldest and dearest friends. Friends can… disagree.”

“And start civil wars in the process, hm?”

“Regardless, it was a tribal matter, not mine.”

“And what do the tribes think of your decision?” When T’Challa didn’t answer, M’Baku let out a harsh laugh. “Let me guess. Every member of your Council objected.”

“They’ll come around.”

“And you think I will?”

“If the Jabari come around, the other tribes may decide to have a little more faith.”

Ah, so there it was. “Some of my people died on your behalf,” M’Baku said flatly. “Don’t you think that’s enough?”

T’Challa looked him over, assessing, his face still as he swept his hunting-gaze from M’Baku’s face to the Fastness and back. He was years older than M’Baku but he did not show it: time had been kind to T’Challa in all ways but wisdom. “I honour your losses,” he said.

“If you do, then ask us for nothing more.”

“And I hope that in doing what you did for me it has not made trouble in your house,” T’Challa said, watching M’Baku’s face again, keenly.

“Tribal matters,” M’Baku said, as coldly as he could. Panthers always had good instincts. T’Challa inclined his head, folding his hands behind his back.

“May I at least state my case?”

“Go ahead. It’ll amuse me, if nothing else.”

“Now that the world knows what we are, we must either meet them on their terms or ours. I would prefer it to be the latter. Outreach in their cities, a curated exchange of ideas, and a curated exchange of people. People fear what they cannot see and what they cannot understand.”

“People also fear what they see and misunderstand,” M’Baku shot back. “Just you wait and see.”

“We are going to approach integration with the global community in a way no one else has. Not on our knees but from a position of strength. And we do this for the good of the world.”

“What happened to your friend? Captain America?” When T’Challa blinked, M’Baku sneered. “Wasn’t he once a hero of the world? Handsome bright-haired white man, saved his country and the world and all that. What is he now in the eyes of the world?”

“Fear is not a good reason to withdraw and hide.”

“You think the Jabari live apart because we are afraid?”

“I think the Jabari have cause to be afraid,” T’Challa said lightly, “as do we all. Change is always frightening.” When M’Baku rolled his eyes but said nothing, T’Challa stood by his side, looking over the Fastness. Watching. Their breaths steamed in the air until the sun came up. Then T’Challa said, “What were their names?”

“Whose?”

“Those who died.”

“Gored by rhinos, stabbed by your enemies, trampled into the dirt?”

T’Challa’s jaw tightened. “I would like to know.”

“Their families have no interest in your condolences.”

“I would like to remember them,” T’Challa corrected himself. “And remember, in turn, that all my decisions have blood-consequences.”

He looked tired as he said it, finally weighed down by his years, drawing lines in his handsome face. M’Baku exhaled loudly, praying to Hanuman for patience. T’Challa was a destabilising influence, now and before. This close, M’Baku could smell him again, that warm animal smell, read the panther’s strength hidden under his fine clothes. His cock stirred, to his irritation, and he wished he was elsewhere.

“…I’ll forward the names to you.” There would be no budging T’Challa on this. And it would be a small gesture.

“Thank you.”

“Is there anything else you want, O King?” M’Baku asked acidly.

“The next Council meeting—“

“I’ll try to clear my schedule.”

“That’s what you said the last time.”

M’Baku smirked. “Your point being?”

“And I would like you to visit Birnin Zana more often,” T’Challa said, in a lower voice, his eyes flicking up and down.

M’Baku stared at him evenly. “I said I’ll try to clear my schedule.” He chuckled as T’Challa sighed. It was tempting. “What happened to Nakia?”

“She’s in Washington D.C. giving a talk at Howard University. Why?”

“You and her?”

“There’s no more of that,” T’Challa said, wry. There was no pain in his tone, and if there was regret, it was a gentle one. Instead, he looked amused. “Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering whether I should now press my suit. She would make a good Queen,” M’Baku said, and let T’Challa startle and scowl at him for a heartbeat before he started to laugh.

“You have a cruel sense of humour,” T’Challa told him, shaking his head in mock reproach. “I’ll see you at the next Council meeting.”

“You’ll have to kidnap me and drag me there.”

“Don’t tempt me,” T’Challa said, and it was his turn to laugh as M’Baku gave in, reaching out to haul T’Challa over. He was warm to the touch, yielding, his grin inviting, but M’Baku didn’t rise to the bait this time. His had been perhaps a slower journey towards wisdom than his grandmother would have liked, but M’Baku learned his lessons. He kissed T’Challa on the forehead instead, a mocking kiss that made T’Challa tense, then relax with a soft huff, and as T’Challa tried to pull him down, M’Baku stepped out of reach and waved him away.

Once T’Challa and his Dora Milaje were gone, M’Baku stared down at the Fastness until he heard a faint step behind him at the doorway. “Yes, yes,” he said impatiently. “Enemies at our door and in our midst.”

His cousin Ce’Athauna sniffed. “And now you can read minds? Amazing. The effects of this magical panther herb are sexually transmissible?”

Ce’Athauna.”

She snickered. Fully garbed in Jabari armour and skirts, Ce’Athauna had daubed war paint on her face, her spear strapped to her back. She was M’Baku’s age, born days apart, and like their grandmother before them, she had a fey humour. “So what new war do we fight in the King’s name?”

“No more wars. You heard the Elder Council.”

“Since when have you cared what the Elder Council said?”

“Of course I care what they say. Sometimes they are wrong and we disagree, but in this matter we have the same opinion.”

“Grandmother never cared what they said,” Ce’Athauna said, leaning a hip against the doorway. She mimicked Elder N’Gamo. “You’re not getting any younger, O Great Gorilla. When will you make like a fish in the river and spawn many heirs?”

M’Baku tried to scowl, but it was a losing battle. The laughter shook out of him until he was leaning against the wall, clutching his sides as Ce’Athauna smirked, pleased with herself. “Now I’ll never be able to take his advice seriously ever again.”

“They’re not all against this new development in your life. Elder Babalwa told me just this morning that you might as well marry the King and be done with it. Easier way to get to the throne and all that.”

“Does everyone know?” M’Baku grumbled.

“Nothing travels faster than the speed of rumour. I’ve heard at least ten different stories about what you guys did in the cave.”

“Hanuman preserve me,” M’Baku said gloomily. He should have known. Small wonder T’Challa and his procession had been let through the gates with little fuss. “That was a lapse.”

“Is that what we’re calling it now?”

M’Baku pretended to glare at her, pushing away from the wall and heading down the narrow stone stairs, Ce’Athauna a few steps behind him. “By the way,” she said, once they were nearly at the base, “Lulama wants a word with you about the new cultivars.”

“I’ll talk to her.” Last year’s food crop had been poor, ravaged by an outbreak of disease. The Jabari’s Chief Botanist, Lulama, liked to talk M’Baku’s ear off with grave predictions about the world ending every few weeks or so.

“There’s also the matter of the Fishers.”

“We can’t afford to overfish our river—“ M’Baku cut himself off as a Jabari Prime hurried up towards them, out of breath and pale. “Silumko, what’s the problem?”

“You’d better see this, Chief.”

#

The Primes crossed spears before T’Challa, but even as the Dora Milaje behind him started forward, he raised his palm to stay them, looking soberly over at M’Baku. “By your leave.”

“Let him through,” M’Baku said, and tried to ignore the disapproving frown that instantly creased the faces of the closest Godkeepers. T’Challa inclined his head politely to them all, stepping past once the spears were grudgingly raised, the Dora Milaje thankfully staying watchful by the corridor instead of storming through behind their king.

Beside M’Baku, the god was dying. Anathi had come down from the mountains into the Fastness in the later years of his grandmother’s rule, a great Wakandan gorilla, revered as one of the living avatars of Hanuman. Like many other Wakandan fauna the gorillas of the mountains had been affected for centuries by the effects of vibranium in the heart of the stone, and they had grown huge. Anathi was nearly as tall as M’Baku on his knuckles: on two feet his silver shoulders towered over M’Baku’s head. His sheer size hid a gentle soul. To see the usually grave, dignified creature curled on his flank and breathing painfully hurt in M’Baku’s gut in a festering ache.

“Poisoned,” M’Baku said curtly, as T’Challa stopped at a respectful distance. M’Baku sat on the fresh bedding beside Anathi, holding one of the gorilla’s great leathery palms. “The Godkeepers say he doesn’t have long left. Most of his organs have failed.”

“If I can help you in any way—”

“Don’t say it,” M’Baku snapped. Was T’Challa truly so blind? “Don’t you know who this is?”

“He is Great Anathi.” T’Challa said, choosing his words carefully. “That is the name your people have given him. It is the closest translation of his true name, which he told your grandmother in a dream.”

“The Godkeepers think he was poisoned not long ago. He may have fought off his attacker.” M’Baku nodded at the Godkeepers, who were applying treated snow and poultices to the jagged gash on Anathi’s flank. It was a futile effort and all of them knew it.

T’Challa finally caught on, his eyes narrowing. “I was met at the Ascent by Primes and escorted directly to you. And of course my people and I will be happy to remain in the Fastness to assist in any investigation.”

M’Baku patted Anathi’s knuckles as the great fingers squeezed his palm weakly. Before him he could see nothing but ugly endings. “Silumko will show you to the guest quarters,” M’Baku said, and added, with calculated ungraciousness, “your Majesty.”

T’Challa inclined his head again. For a moment he looked as though he was going to say more. Tell M’Baku to take the gorilla to his sister’s labs, perhaps. M’Baku hoped not. There would be blood if he did. The Godkeepers and the Primes were tense enough, and M’Baku was in no mood now to play peacekeeper. Thankfully, T’Challa retreated instead, the Dora Milaje closing ranks, Silumko leading them away.

Once T’Challa was out of sight, M’Baku exhaled loudly. “You should’ve chased him out of Jabari lands,” Ce’Athauna said, crouching down by Anathi, grim-faced.

“You know how that’d look.” M’Baku had had enough of being accused of kissing the ring. If he let T’Challa go, unchallenged, the rumours would only fester.

“You know how this will look. Are you trying to start another war? Anathi dying, King T’Challa detained with his Dora Milaje?” Ce’Athauna retorted.

“Not detained. Here as a guest.”

“People will see that as a convenient fiction.”

“And what do ‘people’ want?” M’Baku growled. “Anathi was attacked around the same time that he was here.”

“Which gives him an unbreakable alibi. He was in full sight of the Fastness and at least four Primes on his way up.”

“So he won’t mind staying to help us find the culprit!” M’Baku flinched as Anathi made a low moan, and hastily lowered his voice. “I know T’Challa wouldn’t do something like this. Which makes the timing of the attack interesting.”

“You think one of our own would attack Great Anathi? I find that even harder to believe.” Ce’Athauna curled her lip.

“Peace. Have your quarrels elsewhere,” said a Godkeeper, her voice cracking as she gestured at Anathi’s body. Ce’Athauna grimaced in embarrassment, bowing deeply. At M’Baku’s nod, she backed hastily out of the chamber and fled.

“Nothing can be done?” M’Baku asked again, once she was gone.

The Godkeepers glanced at each other and shook their heads. “He would be dead already if not for what he is.”

“Let him go.”

“Better here than in the lands of the panther.”

M’Baku swallowed his temper with some effort. Anathi squeezed his fingertips as though in encouragement, breathing with terrible wet gasps, but in his dark eyes there was only an unbroken familiar calm. M’Baku met his gaze. He would keep the god’s vigil to the end. Then it would be time for answers.

Chapter Text

Aren’t you tired of nearly dying?” Shuri’s voice rose steadily as T’Challa explained the situation to her via his communication bead.

“Calm down, sister.”

“Calm? He asks me to be calm,” Shuri growled, turning offscreen towards one of her assistants for a moment. “My dear brother. It was not so long ago that you got thrown off a waterfall.”

“Don’t forget I was also shot at repeatedly in Busan, attacked by all of the Border Tribe, and was nearly run over a few times by your trains.” T’Challa thought things over. “And before that I was attacked by some of the Avengers in a car park.”

“You see this?” Shuri pressed her fingertips to her forehead. “This. This is a stress line. I’m sixteen.”

“I don’t see anything. Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Oh, I’m dramatic? Who decided to randomly accept a stranger’s throne challenge after Challenge Day was already over, eh?”

“It wasn’t random.” And T’Challa had been too confident: he thought he’d be able to force N’Jadaka to yield. Work the violence out of both their systems before sitting down for a more private talk about family. He would have apologised for what T’Chaka had done. Instead, T’Challa’s mistakes had cost others their lives. He would remember that.

Shuri frowned at him. “Are you in prison? Do I have to come and break you out?”

“I’m not in prison, Shuri.”

“Well that’s not fun.” Shuri’s grin, however, was uneven: she was trying determinedly to sound flippant, but her eyes were bright with worry. “At least you have Ayo with you. Mother had to repeat that twice to Okoye before she could be persuaded not to personally storm the Fastness.”

The Queen Mother always had good instincts. Better than her own son. “Exactly. Ayo and the others are with me and I’m being housed in the guest quarters.” Like much of the Fastness in general, the guest quarters gave the impression of being cored out of granite. Ribs of prized Jabari wood formed rippled seams over the stone. Fur pelts were draped over solid stone furniture, patterned rugs over the cold floor. As with Jabari construction in general, it was built in defiance of eternity, functional and subtly defensive.

“It’s… nice there?” Shuri sounded suspicious.

“Yes. It. Is nice.” There was even a view of the Fastness. Like the chamber that housed the Seat of Hanuman, it opened out unbroken over a sheer drop. T’Challa stood by it now, only a hand’s breadth away from a plunge to the darkening street. It was strange to have stayed the whole day in a single space, though T’Challa had been allowed the use of his Kimoyo Beads. He’d spent the day in remote conference with his Tribal Council.

“Is there, you know. Plumbing? Toilets?” Shuri stage-whispered.

Shuri.”

“What? I was just asking. You hear things. Terrible things.”

T’Challa exhaled. He could guess. The Jabari had only been every other tribe’s second favourite bogeyman for centuries, right after outsiders. T’Challa had found the sparse design of the Fastness visually confronting at first, used as he was to Wakanda, but he had to admit it was growing on him. There was an untempered beauty to the Fastness, a raw energy reflected in its people. And its simplicity was misleading. The stone furniture was all subtly textured, and through some trick of architecture and heating T’Challa could not immediately see, the chamber was pleasantly warm despite the open view.

“I’m sorry about Great Anathi,” Shuri said, sobering up. “Mother would like to offer her condolences too.”

“Yes. A profound loss for the Jabari.” There would probably be a period of mourning. Then, a time for anger. T’Challa wished his father was here. T’Chaka would have known what to do. What to say to ease M’Baku’s evident grief, to soothe tempers politically, extract peace out of nothing. He had spent all his life in the shadow of his father and somedays T’Challa felt that he had learned nothing.

“Mother tells you to be careful. And to tell M’Baku that she requests permission to attend the funeral rites.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” To put his own safety at risk was fine by T’Challa, but Ramonda had been through enough.

“She wasn’t asking you,” Shuri said, and flashed him a sharp grin.

“And what does Okoye think about that?”

“Okoye? Come on. Okoye might try to boss you here and there because you guys grew up together, but she’s always been scared of Mother.”

“So suffering in silence it is.” Okoye was a master of reproach, silent or otherwise. “How are the outreach efforts?”

“Fine. I was enjoying myself today, even. Until a certain brother of mine decided to tell me that he was maybe-or-not the prime suspect in the death of an avatar of Hanuman and staying indefinitely in the Jabari lands. That kind of minor detail.”

“Great.”

“They’re feeding you, right?”

“For the last time, I’m here as a guest—” T’Challa paused as the Dora Milaje at the doorway to the guest chambers rapped their spears on the stone. He shut off the communication bead, turning to see M’Baku beyond, studying the Dora Milaje with amusement.

“Do we have to go through this every time now?” M’Baku asked, the edges of his eyes crinkling in dry humour. T’Challa waved him through, and as an afterthought, sent the Dora Milaje in the chamber out with a gesture. They closed the door behind them, though Ayo shot him a reproving glance before she did so. M’Baku noticed—he made a show of looking around. “So we are no longer friends?”

“I’m glad to hear that you considered me a friend at some point.”

“Don’t push it.”

But for the tension to M’Baku’s jaw, his grief was not immediately visible. “How is…?”

“Anathi has returned to the Ancestral Plane.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. On behalf of—”

“Save it.”

“—Queen Mother Ramonda,” T’Challa said, and waited as M’Baku blinked, “she too offers her condolences and regrets and requests that you grant her permission to attend the funeral rites, if it would be appropriate.”

“Really?” M’Baku asked, skeptical.

“Why, what do we have to fear?” T’Challa kept his voice gentle.

M’Baku studied him thoughtfully for a long moment. “No, it would not be appropriate,” he said formally. “Though I thank her for the sentiment.”

“Any progress?”

“That’s none of your concern.”

“Considering I appear to be a suspect, I should think it’s my concern.”

M’Baku glowered at him. “You’re not a suspect. The moment you entered Jabari lands we were already observing you. Whoever attacked Anathi likely did it while you were still on your way here.”

“And this sentiment is common among your people?”

“Common enough.” M’Baku was being evasive. At T’Challa’s steady stare, he clasped his palms behind his back and looked down over the drop. “You can’t erase centuries of mistrust so quickly.”

“Mistrust and neglect,” T’Challa said, because he had loved his father and his grandfather, but love could no longer blind him to their mistakes. Not since Killmonger. “I find it hard to believe that one of your people would attack Great Anathi.”

M’Baku sniffed. “You hardly know us.” Before T’Challa could temporise, he added, “My cousin said the same thing. But like the other Tribes, the Jabari are not a monolith.”

“I know that Great Anathi is not the only one revered as an avatar of Hanuman.” T’Challa pressed his palm lightly over M’Baku’s arm, high over the fur trim of his vambraces. M’Baku tensed, and for a moment looked as though he would pull away. He curled an arm around T’Challa instead and hummed as T’Challa pressed close.

“So says the chosen of Bast.”

T’Challa shook his head. “The Heart Shaped Herb isn’t as discerning as all that.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard.”

“It gave N’Jadaka powers.”

M’Baku laughed. “He was more panther than you, O King. If Bast had her choice of champions I doubt you would have been closest to her spirit.”

He bent to kiss T’Challa as T’Challa huffed, finally, a brushing kiss that turned demanding as T’Challa leaned into it, reaching up to thread his arms around the back of M’Baku’s neck. He liked that he had to reach for it; liked that M’Baku towered over him with his imposing build, but what he hunted against M’Baku’s mouth was his intemperate wit, his uncompromising tongue. Like Nakia before this, T’Challa had always been drawn towards the unbreakable.

M’Baku caught T’Challa’s wrists when he reached for M’Baku’s belt. “This isn’t why I wanted to see you,” M’Baku said, lowering his voice.

“What do you need from me?”

M’Baku studied him again, silent and solemn. T’Challa had to look up to meet his eyes, and he read no anger in them. M’Baku did not seem to be a man driven easily to anger: the Jabari would not love him if he were. Hanuman’s followers revered strength, but not in the way the rest of Wakanda did. The silver Wakandan gorillas were worshipped as the avatars of Hanuman not because of their size and strength but because of their grave and uncommon intelligence.

A trait that they also respected in others. “Apparently you are a genius,” M’Baku said, with a touch of humour in his eyes.

“You don’t sound so certain.”

“Let’s say that recent events have not been so convincing.”

“Do you want to ask me for help or keep insulting me?” T’Challa asked dryly.

“Eh, I am thinking.” M’Baku brushed a kiss over his temple, breathing him in, nuzzling his hair. Then he stepped away, his palms stroking down T’Challa’s sleeves. They sat on a fur-covered stone divan, knees close, angled for a view of the snow-capped peaks instead of the Fastness. “You are not Jabari. And I am certain that you did not do it.”

T’Challa nodded slowly. “What reason would I have to do something like this?”

M’Baku shrugged. “Perhaps you are learning from your cousin. To foment chaos, to find a way to annex us. Bring the so-called ‘lost’ tribe back into the fold.” He smiled, with little of his usual humour.

“You’ve heard all that before.”

“It is not such a big city.”

“I am sorry.”

“It is a tribal matter,” M’Baku said, and stared keenly at T’Challa.

“I give you my word.” T’Challa crossed a palm over his chest, pressing it over his heart. “Whatever happened to Great Anathi, it was not by me or mine.”

M’Baku stared at him for a moment longer. He looked away, over at the mountains, his shoulders relaxing. “I believe you.”

“But not everyone does.”

“Do you blame them? Your Majesty.”

“It hurts me that I can’t. And I will do better.” T’Challa reached over and took M’Baku’s palm, clasping it the way he had seen M’Baku hold Anathi. He felt a shiver go through M’Baku’s frame. “And I know you did what you did for the sake of both our people.”

“My people, your people…” M’Baku shook his head. “My grandmother would have called that nonsense. She always felt there was only one Wakanda.”

“She was a wise woman.”

“Is that what you believe? That there is only one Wakanda?”

“More than that, I believe there is only one world. It may not always have been what I believed, but a wise man is not afraid to mend his ways when he is proved to be wrong.”

“And is that what you are? Wise?” This time, M’Baku grinned, amused, as though at some secret joke.

“I hope to be,” T’Challa said, as seriously as he could. M’Baku’s grin faded. He looked at their palms, distracted by a memory T’Challa could not read. T’Challa listened to the background noise, ever-present, of people making their way within the Seat, going about their business. He had always found the heightened senses from the Herb soothing.

Eventually, M’Baku said, “So what do you think happened?”

“To Great Anathi?” At M’Baku’s impatient huff, T’Challa said, “I would follow motives. Play out as many scenarios as I can. Who stands to benefit from chaos in the Jabari?”

M’Baku laughed. It was a harsh sound. “You.”

“Me,” T’Challa acknowledged. “And your direct successor. Your uncle, Elder Damola. Then your cousin, Ce’Athauna.”

Instead of getting angry or impatient, M’Baku nodded. “Damola was with the Fishers, negotiating catch quotas. Ce’Athauna was with me. Regardless, neither have a real motive. The Jabari will turn on anyone who killed Anathi. Regardless of whether the culprit wielded the knife. They would be banished from our lands.”

“You mentioned… dissatisfaction. With the deaths… with the deaths I caused.” Saying the words hurt, but it was a necessary hurt. “What of those?”

M’Baku snorted. “They call themselves the People. They’ve been around for a while. Every so often they’ll protest some decision of mine or other. Usually they’re a nuisance, nothing more.”

“What do they want?”

“They want the Jabari to move away from being effectively a monarchy,” M’Baku said wryly. “Our Elder Council is elected, and is an equal branch of our government, but they want the position of Great Gorilla reduced to something ceremonial.”

“That’s… democratic.” T’Challa blinked.

“The monarchy is generally seen as an outdated form of government,” M’Baku said, amused again. “Especially by the colonisers. Even though their own governments often reflect monarchial rule. A lot of power, held hostage by the character of one person, often a man.”

“You sound like you sympathise.”

“Of course. They are Jabari too. They can say what they wish and I will hear their concerns.”

“And you don’t think they’re behind this.”

“Fisher folk and grieving relatives? No.”

T’Challa held his tongue, thinking. “Another possibility. The Jabari Tribe borders the Mining Tribe. I hear there are occasional skirmishes.”

“Usually when young men from the Mining Tribe decide to take silly dares and try to see how far they can get into Jabari lands. We always return them to the border.”

“Bruised?”

“A little.” M’Baku smiled, showing his teeth.

“I assume you’ve already interviewed the Godkeeper on duty at the time and the Primes in the vicinity.”

M’Baku nodded. “It happened when the Godkeeper went to relieve herself. Cebisa ate something at breakfast that upset her stomach, but she didn’t want to miss her shift. She’s devastated by what happened. Blames herself. Her mother was also a Godkeeper.”

“She was the one who found Anathi?”

“There was a great roar from Anathi’s chamber that brought her and the Primes running. He collapsed quickly.”

“Anathi usually suffers strangers to come close?”

M’Baku nodded again, tightly. “He’s never had any cause to fear humans.”

“Apparently he defended himself?”

“His knuckles were a little bruised.”

“A serious blow from Anathi would have killed a normal person.” The Wakandan gorillas matched strength to their sheer size.

“Oh yes,” M’Baku said heavily, and stared at T’Challa again. At his necklace. “A normal person. Many people in Wakanda have not been ‘normal’ for a while.”

T’Challa bit down on the retort at the tip of his tongue. “I would like to make my own inquiries. Not here,” he said, as M’Baku started to object. “I’ll have the War Dogs look into it.”

M’Baku wrinkled his nose. “Your spies.”

“Spies are good at solving mysteries.”

M’Baku considered this for a while. “If they find anything, let me know.”

“Of course.”

“And the culprit. I want them found alive. Not.” M’Baku curled his fingers into a claw.

Again T’Challa swallowed his temper. “Of course.”

“Enjoy your stay,” M’Baku said, with wry irony, starting to get to his feet. He paused as T’Challa caught his elbow, and straightened as he read something in T’Challa’s face. “I’m not in the mood,” M’Baku said quietly.

T’Challa ignored the implication. “I truly am sorry about Anathi.”

“So you’ve said. Many times.”

“I’ll like to attend the funeral.”

“That would not be wise.” M’Baku said, after a pause, though he sounded apologetic.

“All right. When will it be?”

“You’ll know. You’ll hear it.” M’Baku cocked his head. “Most of the Jabari will be there.”

“I presume so, yes.”

“That does not give you leave to go sneaking around the Fastness,” M’Baku said, though he smiled tiredly.

“I presume that as well.”

“Should you happen to ‘lose’ your way and we catch you outside these chambers during the rite, that will make many people very unhappy. There would most certainly be a diplomatic incident.”

“Of course.”

“That being said…” M’Baku began, then exhaled, staring hard at the Fastness. “That being said. The Godkeepers will be away and Anathi’s nest will be empty. Some of the poison was leached for study and a sample will be in a laboratory close by.”

“Good to know,” T’Challa said. If he could get a scanned copy of the sample to Shuri, they could perhaps at least trace where it might have come from. And who might have made it. “I know of very few poisons that act so quickly.”

“Very few poisons could have killed a Wakandan gorilla within an hour,” M’Baku said, his jaw clenched. Hiding something, perhaps. T’Challa wished for a moment that the War Dogs’ file on the Jabari wasn’t so patchy. They were good at rooting out spies. Any information they did have had to be scrounged by remote drones, which the Jabari were also very good at rooting out. “You spoke to your Tribal Council.”

“I did.” T’Challa patted M’Baku’s shoulder. “They are your Council as well. I believe they will send their condolences directly.”

“Already received. Tch. I have too many Councils in my life.” M’Baku rose to his feet, and this time, T’Challa made no move to stop him.

Once he was alone, T’Challa accessed his communication bead. Okoye picked up instantly, her face set into a worried frown. “My King?”

“No need to storm the Fastness,” T’Challa said mildly. Okoye sighed, hardly reassured. “I know W’Kabi has contacts within the Mining Tribe.”

“As do you.” Okoye narrowed her eyes.

“I need a question answered quietly, and I don’t want it to come from me. Tell him it will be part of his debt repayment plan.”

“He maintains that he owes no one a debt,” Okoye scoffed, though she nodded, and made a smacking sound of mock disgust. “Younger men. I don’t know why I bother.”

“We don’t know why you bother either,” T’Challa conceded, with a faint smile that Okoye didn’t reflect, her face still creased with concern. He related the question and the context. T’Challa shut off the bead, walking to the edge of the chamber to sit at the drop. Legs dangling, T’Challa waited for the city beneath him to mourn.

Chapter Text

Within the Vault of the Sky, the wind was so cold that it burned the lungs, but in the forest just below the peaks, between the great Jabari trees, the air was thin but pleasantly crisp. A gift from Hanuman, to the people named after his sacred forest. Evergreen despite the altitude and cold, the trees swept a deep emerald mantle down from the peaks towards the northern approach to the Fastness, nurturing life in the cradle of their crowns where no life could otherwise exist.

Anathi’s body would normally have been buried in a suitable clearing, whole, to nourish new Jabari trees, starting the cycle anew. The forest was full of burial mounds turned into trees. Yet with the poison still in Anathi’s flesh, the Elder Council had come to a reluctant conclusion with the Godkeepers: the body would be burned. The ash, scattered. M’Baku faced the trees, his palms folded behind his back, and absorbed the grief and shock and anger of his people. Moans and prayers followed the Godkeepers as they cast the ash over loamy ground.

Ce’Athauna stood beside him, jaw clenched tightly. The Elder Council watched in a loose line behind them, murmuring benedictions. Ash to ash. There was so much of it, and yet when it was over it felt too soon. Anathi had been part of all of M’Baku’s life: he had been presented to Anathi when he had been born. The huge gorilla had laughed. Ngozi had considered that a good omen.

For a moment M’Baku felt like a child again, lost against the decades of his life, searching for his grandmother among the trees, Anathi hooting worriedly behind him as he scaled a trunk. She was buried under the trees as well, along with the bones of all their people. Somewhere in the warmth was her tree.

Anathi would have no tree. M’Baku clenched his hands tightly behind him, digging his fingertips into his skin. He startled as Ce’Athauna gasped, grasping his elbows. Others exclaimed, only to be pointedly shushed by the Godkeepers. Pointing.

From the Vault of Heaven beyond the forest the gorillas had come. Huge and silver, elders and their young. They watched in a silent rank at a respectful distance, surveying the Jabari with a solemnity that felt like indifference. For a moment there was nothing but dead silence, between both of Hanuman’s chosen. Then wind pushed a rustling funnel through the leaves above, and the gorillas departed as silently as they had come.

“An omen,” Elder N’Gamo said behind him.

“A bad one,” Chief Botanist Lulama muttered, only to be hushed by Elder Babalwa. She refused to be shushed. “Hsst! You know what will be said.”

M’Baku swallowed his temper, ignoring them both. There was no space for that here. He waited in silence, instead, until everyone else began to leave. It was a long wait. The sun had given way to dusk by the time the Godkeepers began to make their way back to the Fastness, leaving M’Baku and Ce’Athauna behind.

“Go,” he told her.

Ce’Athauna shook her head. She hugged him instead, briefly pressing her cheek to his breastplate. Then Ce’Athauna stepped away, sitting down wearily on a large tree root. “Aiii! What a mess.”

“You could say that.” M’Baku leaned against a tree, scrubbing a palm over his face. He felt drained.

“It might be the Mining Tribe. I’ve—” Ce’Athauna said.

“This is not the time or place,” M’Baku said, if gently. As Head of Security, Ce’Athauna had always taken her work extremely seriously: usually at the expense of things like tact.

Ce’Athauna frowned at him, then she exhaled loudly. She stretched out her legs, rubbing her knees, looking over at where the scattered ash was now invisible in the undergrowth. “Do you know. When I was three years old I broke my father’s prized astrolabe.”

“I remember.”

“It was an accident. I was just trying to see how it worked. Wah, he was so angry. While he was shouting at me I ran away. I told him I was going to live in the mountains and be a hermit.”

“We had to search the Fastness up and down for you.” That had been fun. Not. “Father was ready to actually send out search parties into the Vault.”

“I really was going to run away. But when I was stealing things from the kitchen for my pack I turned around and Great Anathi was there. I hadn’t even heard him approach. He could barely fit through the doorway to the central kitchen, you know. He stared at me and stared at me and I don’t know why, I stopped being angry. I ended up walking with him back to his chamber and we ate all the fruit I had stolen.”

“I remember your father tried scolding the Godkeepers for not telling them that you were there.” It had been a passing Prime, late in the evening, who had chanced by and found Ce’Athauna asleep in a sprawl on top of the gorilla’s furred flank.

“They said Anathi told them not to.” Ce’Athauna laughed. “Hah! He did no such thing. Mama Esihle, she was such a good liar.”

“When I was eight, my grandmother caught me trying to teach Great Anathi to be a war mount,” M’Baku said. He tried not to look closely at the trees. His grandmother’s spirit might have been drawn closer to this Plane by the story, listening. He could nearly feel her close by: she had always loved stories, especially stories about her. “I’d bribed Anathi out to the Vault with bananas.” A rare treat in the Fastness, traded from the Mining Tribe on occasion.

“Why would you…” Ce’Athauna trailed off with another laugh. “Oh. Like the Border Tribe and their rhinoceroses.”

“Like them,” M’Baku admitted. “Only days ago Grandmother had taken me to observe them.” He liked the Border Tribe. They were an uncompromising people because they were the first line of defense for Wakanda. He didn’t blame them for siding with Killmonger. The view from the borderlands was pitiless.

“Was she angry?”

“What do you think?”

“Eh, I think she probably climbed right up onto Great Anathi’s back behind you.”

“She did. The Primes were scandalised. I was scandalised. Never did that again.” Anathi had been long-suffering but bemused about all the fuss, content to sit and eat bananas while people climbed over his shoulders. “Then the Godkeepers and our parents found us. Father was very embarrassed.”

“Your Father was embarrassed by everything, rest his soul.”

M’Baku nodded. “Something he shared with yours.” His father and uncle were serious souls. Too serious for Hanuman, Ngozi used to joke. They chuckled, sharing memories. It felt good to mourn Anathi with laughter. To remember him as he was. They told stories until the light globes were the only stars they could see. Then they made their way back home.

#

“All right, what has he done now?” Nakia asked, striding into Shuri’s lab within the heart of Mena Ngai. The laboratory usually existed in a state of flux: it wasn’t uncommon for Shuri to have a fit of inspiration and have every piece of furniture and instrument redesigned abruptly within days. Nakia sidestepped a vaguely dolphin-shaped submersible, held within a cradle of cabling, ducking around the ArcSCAN.

“Nakia! Wait. Wait. I’m in the middle of something very explosive.” Shuri was encased in a full suit of shock-absorbent blue and gray scaleplate, her eyes hidden by a silver visor as she tooled something within a stasis field. Assistants nodded at Nakia before turning back to their consoles, recording, calculating. Carefully, Shuri slotted a small silver bearing into a pale floating globe. Nothing happened.

“Huh,” Shuri said, squinting at the bearing. “That really should have—” She yelped as the bearing suddenly burned white. There was a whistling sound, and the bearing and the globe were gone. As was the shielding closest by. The glass panel facing outwards to the vibranium core shattered.

“Oops.” Shuri raised her visor. “Lower vibranium infusion percentage by an eighth percentile.” An assistant nodded, and as they dispersed, two hurrying over to start sweeping up the glass with gravsets, Shuri’s armour peeled away into her bracelets, leaving her in a white tunic and skirt.

“Isn’t that glass bulletproof?” Nakia stared.

“Yes? Not that ‘bulletproof’ glass means anything now. Repulsors can get through bulletproof glass. Even the old-school repulsors by Tony Stark.” Shuri looked Nakia over. “Flew straight from Washington?”

“Once I got the call from Okoye, yes.” Nakia pulled a face. “We really can’t leave T’Challa to his own devices for even a few weeks?”

“You’re the one who once thought about marrying him.”

“Ah! I never said marry. Never.” That was a bridge Nakia had never been prepared to cross. Not with Wakanda and the world as it was.

“How are things in America? I saw your speech to Congress.”

Nakia rolled her eyes. “If you saw that then you know how it is.” She had been trained for covert ops and diplomatic ops and more, but actually having to spend marathon twelve-hour sessions before a panel of mostly old white men explaining patiently that yes, Wakanda intended to share its tech, no, that didn’t mean freely sharing vibranium, and no, that didn’t mean sharing state secrets… Well. She was glad to be home.

“Okoye thinks the Americans will say we will have chemical weapons and invade. Like they did in Iraq.”

“The UN did suggest sending through a diplomatic delegation, yes. Which I hear the Tribal Council declined.” Nakia grimaced. “And of course now everyone is asking us for money and resources. And protection.”

Refugee applications had been pouring in, by phone and by letter and more, an endless prayer for relief from everywhere in the globe. The Council had rejected each one. But at least they had been willing to set aside a fund for Nakia’s use. Matched by T’Challa’s personal resources.

“That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? To do more for everyone.”

“I suppose…” Nakia trailed off, taking a moment. “I always knew it would be difficult. I didn’t realize how overwhelming it would be. Not even War Dog missions prepared me for the sheer scale of everything that Wakanda cannot fix by itself. But we have to try. What is wealth if there are people out there who have nothing? Still. That is not why I am home.”

“Right.” Shuri brought up a series of panels on the remaining intact glass screens. One of them was a string of data with panels of images. Plants and a gray box of a facility. “T’Challa sent me a scan of the poison used. It’s a Gelsemium hybrid. Someone’s bioengineered Heartbreak Grass to become even more deadly.”

“That’s a start,” Nakia said, staring at the readout. “Gelsemium’s a popular poison with the Russians and the Chinese. I can contact our War Dogs in Moscow and Shanghai, see if they can find anything.”

“There’s one other thing,” Shuri said grimly. “Heartbreak Grass isn’t native to Africa. But this variant was grown on infused soil. Like the Jabari trees. That’s possibly why it was so deadly.”

Not the Russians or the Chinese then. Maybe. “So it was very likely grown in Wakanda.”

“Not just in Wakanda. Flora has to be growing on intensely infused soil to mutate. That means Jabari soil. Or the Mining lands. Even so, the Jabari trees only got to the variant they are now after centuries of growing and propagating on infused soil. This? This is new.”

“Wakandan technology?”

“Possibly. I’ve been reading up on infused herbs, but the consensus—on our side anyway—is that it’ll take time to grow this mutated variant.”

“On our side?” Nakia asked.

“Well… we don’t know what the Jabari are fully capable of. Maybe they do have the tech to fast-mutate a plant. Or. Maybe some of them have been growing a crop of Heartbreak Grass all this while.” Shuri sounded unenthusiastic about the latter possibility.

“A murder plot decades in the making to kill a gorilla six decades or so old?” Nakia didn’t like elaborate conspiracies. They usually didn’t turn out to be the reason something was going wrong.

“Maybe Anathi is only the first. Heartbreak Grass is usually ingested. That means they hadn’t found a way to get it into Anathi’s food undiscovered. They had to make a concentrated coating of it instead. The murder weapon’s probably still out there.” Shuri gestured at another panel, which was a mosaic of quick-running scans of locations. “I’ve gotten some drones out to look for the plant signature.”

“Shuri. You know those drones aren’t meant for something like this.”

“Rather than for what, taking remote pictures of the Jabari? Like my brother would say, reee-lax,” Shuri said, mimicking T’Challa’s drawl. “They won’t be caught. They’re mine.”

“In the meantime—” Nakia paused as her communications bead pinged her. She picked up.

Okoye smiled at her in relief. “Sister Nakia. You are back.”

“Recent events have not made me confident in the ability of certain people to solve their own problems,” Nakia admitted, though she grinned in return. “Women again to the rescue?”

“Always, always.” Okoye held her smile for a moment longer, then grew sober. “Come to Birnin Djata. There is something you should see.”

#

Birnin Djata, unlike the other smaller Wakandan cities, was more of a fortress than a city. It had been built over the mountain pass on the western border, and the same chameleon shielding used over Birnin Zana mapped impassable peaks and cliffs as its skin. While the tribes technically held no cities in their own names, Birnin Djata was by default the Mining Tribe’s city: it was majority Mining, and its main commerce was the rich metal mine beneath it, from which the Tribe unearthed seams of gold and other elements.

The Mining Tribe also operated Mena Ngai, which made it technically the wealthiest tribe overall in Wakanda. Not that the Tribal Council or T’Challa liked to look at things that way, but not even Wakanda could avoid having a system of currency. That was Nakia’s experience with every society on earth, however well-intentioned. Inequality was always built-in.

At least Wakanda tried to handle it better than most: profits from Mena Ngai meant every Wakandan had a universal basic income. The Mining Tribe paid their people a share in the profits above that, which always made walking into Birnin Djata a gesture in contrasts. Through the gates, past the chameleon shields, Birnin Djata looked unassuming. The buildings were blocky, built into the stone, decorated with red buntings and snapping flags, several walls painted with the Mining Tribes’ intricate mosaic patterns. It was a far cry from the gleaming city of Birnin Zana, at least on the surface.

Some Wakandans greeted her as she passed, but for most her presence gathered no more than a polite nod, or a word of wry condolence about the American Congress. Many were Mining Tribesmen, in their bright orange and red outfits, rubbed with otjize paste, the butterfat and ochre mixture that reddened their skin and hair.

Nakia found Okoye and W’Kabi waiting for her near the raucous souq. Given the day was nearing lunch, the marketplace was in full swing under the red and yellow buntings, a roar of laughter, song, and trade. Nakia could smell spices and cooking grease and incense. Someone close by was frying plantains, the scent making Nakia’s mouth water. She smiled at Okoye and nodded politely at W’Kabi, who inclined his head, impassive. Only Okoye looked starkly out of place. There were no Dora Milaje here, and while the bright blue of W’Kabi’s blanket was usually a rare sight this far north, there was a contingent of the Border Tribe stationed within Birnin Djata.

“How was America?” Okoye asked, as W’Kabi motioned for them to follow. They went around the souq, through a side street hung with beaded signs.

Nakia sighed. “Every time I leave Wakanda I remember the joy of coming home.” It felt good even to be back in her Wakandan gear, the close-fitting gold and leather armour-robes of her people.

“That bad?”

“Seventeen people died in a school last week. Many children. Another gunman. Bought his weapon legally. And I don’t know if anything will change. Again. It amazes me.”

“They are a violent people,” W’Kabi said curtly. “We waste our time.”

Nakia swallowed her annoyance. Okoye had no such compunctions. “Oh, and who decided to help an American usurp the throne?”

“He was Wakandan. Son of the previous king’s brother,” W’Kabi shot back. “T’Challa accepted the Challenge.”

“Wakandan-American,” Nakia said, placatingly, as Okoye sucked in an irritated breath. “Okoye, what am I here to see?”

“I don’t want you to have any impressions before you see it,” Okoye said. They came to a block draped with Border colours, and W’Kabi led them in, his tribesmen falling at ease once they recognised him. It looked like a barracks to Nakia’s practiced eye, all clean lines, carefully organised. W’Kabi took them to a jaunt lift, and they sped downwards to a well-lit antechamber with a checkpoint manned by Border Tribesmen.

Past that was a cell block, an administration area, and a coldroom with drawers set into chilled stone. Nakia paused at the doorway, breathing in the sterilised air. She steeled herself, walking in. There were other people waiting: another Border Tribesman—a tall woman, taller than W’Kabi, draped in blue and visibly unarmed, gold rings looped in stacks over her ears. And a Mining Tribesman, a petite, elderly woman a head shorter than even Nakia, scowling, her gold-capped dreads and skin rubbed with otjize. Nakia knew them both by reputation.

“Shieldarm Funeka. Truthseeker-Commissioner Khethiwe.” Nakia greeted them both in turn. The head of the Border Tribesmen garrison in Birnin Djata and the head of the Criminal Investigations Division in the city.

Khethiwe inclined her head. “Sister Nakia.”

“Why do we need the help of one of the War Dogs?” Funeka told W’Kabi, who shrugged.

“Nakia is here to provide another perspective, given the sensitivity of the situation,” Okoye said pointedly, staring hard at Funeka until she dropped her eyes with a scowl.

“Well, have at it then,” Khethiwe said, resigned. “Ancestors know it can’t get any worse.”

On steel floats beside Khethiwe were two bodies, a man and a woman, both of them scarcely into adulthood. They were both dressed like Mining Tribesmen, though their red clothes were torn and soaked with blood. As far as Nakia could tell they had been beaten to death, and whoever had killed them had kept at it until there was nothing left of their faces. She sucked in a slow, tight breath. Nakia had been all over the world, seen every manner of human suffering, but violent death was never easy to witness.

“Killed with blunt weapons,” Funeka said grimly, “and left where the Jabari usually dump the idiots who run off on dares into their territories.”

Funeka,” W’Kabi said sharply, even as Okoye opened her mouth.

She scowled. “What? This was going to happen sooner or later. I’m surprised it hasn’t before.”

“Two children are dead,” Khethiwe said, flat.

“Hardly children. And as adults they should have known better.” Funeka bared her teeth. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t find their murderers and exact retribution if we can.”

“Punishment for the sake of punishment has not been part of Wakanda for centuries.”

“Oh, and you think the Jabari will happily submit to forwarding whoever it was to your low-security rehabilitation centres? Play nice and make beadwork?” Funeka muttered something rude under her breath.

“Aren’t we assuming it was the Jabari?” Nakia asked. “Do we have any other evidence? I know what it looks like,” she added, raising her palms, as Funeka narrowed her eyes, “but I’m rather tired of civil war right now, and don’t want to start another one over circumstantial evidence.”

Funeka looked at Khethiwe, whose shoulders slumped slightly. “There’s footage. We have a sensor map and a hidden focal cam on their favourite ‘dump’ sites. Just so we know to come and pick up the people they return.”

“I’ll like to see the footage.” Nakia’s heart sank.

“Of course.” Khethiwe stared at the bodies, then looked at each one of them. “We can’t keep this quiet forever. I won’t stand for that.”

“Of course not.” Nakia said.

“Okoye explained matters to me and I’ve talked to the victims’ families. They’re willing to let us handle things discreetly for now. Until the King leaves Jabari lands. That’s why the bodies are here and not at the city morgue. But they won’t be patient forever.”

“I understand that too, and thank them for their sufferance,” Nakia said gently.

Khethiwe nodded tightly. Funeka stared at her, unflinching, and said, “Let’s see what you War Dogs can do.”

Chapter Text

After two days of meeting requests being returned politely declined, or with Ce’Athauna showing up in M’Baku’s place to smugly offer T’Challa tours of the Fastness, T’Challa was starting to lose his patience. “This is all very interesting,” he told Ce’Athauna, as they stood upwind of racks of drying fish, “but I do need to speak personally with M’Baku. In an official capacity.”

Ce’Athauna grinned toothily, executing a playful bow. “And I speak on his behalf and in his place.”

“Really.”

“Oh yes. I can imitate the voice. And the height.” Ce’Athauna leaped nimbly up onto a crate, puffing out her chest. For all her playfulness, though, her eyes were hard. “Witness. The Jabari Fishers,” she growled, in a close approximation of M’Baku’s gruff tone.

“I thought the Jabari are vegetarians.”

“We are.”

“So what is the fish for? Why do you even have fisher folk?”

“Why, O King, we developed the practice of fishing, centuries ago, such that one day, one of our humble fisher people would have the dubious honour of finding you washed up on the river shore.” Ce’Athauna struck a dramatic pose.

Ayo rolled her eyes. “Have some respect. This is your King.”

Ce’Athauna leaped off the crate, prowling closer, until she was eye to eye with Ayo. Ayo stared back unblinkingly, her lips compressed together. “So your guard dogs do bark,” Ce’Athauna said.

“Ayo,” T’Challa said quickly, before there was an incident.

“He is no King of mine,” Ce’Athauna said, with a curl to her lip, but although Ayo stiffened, she said nothing. After a heartbeat, Ce’Athauna stepped away, seating herself on the crate, visibly bored.

“Come now,” T’Challa said, “you are the Head of Security for the Fastness. Surely you also have better things to do than show me racks of drying fish.”

“We drew straws and I lost,” Ce’Athauna admitted.

“Who? You and M’Baku?”

“Me, my parents, other cousins, Elder Council and all that. What are the chances, eh?”

“I apologise for being a chore,” T’Challa said, “but all I wanted to do was talk to M’Baku about a serious matter.”

“And I said you could talk to me about it. We are not like you, O King,” Ce’Athauna said impatiently, when T’Challa started to protest, “M’Baku is the Great Gorilla, yes. But he is one with the tribe. Don’t you even listen to the way he speaks, when he would speak on our behalf?”

“… My mistake,” T’Challa said, though he was not convinced.

“So. What do you want?”

Ayo scowled with irritation, and frowned at T’Challa when he gave her a faint shake of his head. “Two members of the Mining Tribe were found beaten to death. There is footage of Jabari Tribesmen dragging their bodies to a usual dumping spot.” When Ce’Athauna didn’t even blink, T’Challa concluded, “You people have been watching my chambers.”

“Well, not watching exactly, but your chambers do open out into the wind, and sound can carry,” Ce’Athauna said, smiling sweetly.

“And so? Were they killed by the Jabari?”

“They were intruding on our lands. We would have been within our right.”

“You have been within your right before but have never killed.” T’Challa bit down his temper. “Anger about Anathi is all very well, but to kill in return? When we aren’t even sure who the culprit is?”

“You’re very quick to blame us,” Ce’Athauna said, cocking her head.

“You aren’t exactly denying it.”

“Why bother? You people will believe what you want about us. You always have.”

“And that’s what M’Baku believes?” T’Challa found that hard to take. He didn’t anticipate this… this indifference. He’d been prepared for angry words and denials. Or perhaps belligerence.

“M’Baku believes he has nothing to say to you at present.” Ce’Athauna said, and looked over T’Challa’s shoulder at the steep ascent to the Fastness. They were alone down here, T’Challa noted with a start—the Fishers had scurried away quickly when they had descended on this area. He finally understood.

Ayo and the Dora Milaje caught on quickly too—they turned off their Kimoyo Beads a moment after T’Challa raised his arm to do so. Ce’Athauna smiled. “Not bad,” she conceded. “To be honest, I was a little surprised that my cousin was even… interested.” Ce’Athauna gestured in T’Challa’s direction. “Didn’t think he was the sort to get turned by a pretty face. Maybe there’s something more to it.”

“Thank you,” T’Challa said, amused. Ce’Athauna rose to her feet. She started to walk without beckoning, past the racks of fish, going downwind by the river. This part of the river was fast-flowing, icy, but the occasional dark shadow still flicked within the depths, sometimes sparking, as though a globe flashed within. The same colour as Jabari light globes. “You use vibranium-infused wood for much of your armour, furniture, and tech,” T’Challa said, nodding at Ce’Athauna’s armour. “And you use the infused fish for your light globes.”

“Among other things. Took you long enough to notice, O King.” Ce’Athauna waved upslope in the direction of the Fastness. “Your people dig into the earth, melt down her bones, forge things beyond the Gods. We prefer another way.”

“And yet M’Baku challenged me for the throne.”

“He thinks Wakanda isn’t yet past saving.”

“I wasn’t aware that we needed saving at all.” M’Baku paused as Ce’Athauna snorted derisively. “At least, not most recently.”

Ce’Athauna clearly didn’t think that warranted an answer. She fell silent as they followed the river, until a tributary connected to it from within a tunnel of water-carved rock. Once within, Ce’Athauna’s light globe at her hip lit up, providing a warm, pale glow across dripping stone. It was a slippery, cold walk up, often treacherous, but Ce’Athauna didn’t hesitate.

It took half an hour or so of walking through forked tunnels before the narrow space opened abruptly into a cavern as large as T’Challa’s throne room. Insects glittered overhead in a winking constellation, and in the corner of T’Challa’s eye, something slithered hastily away from the light. On a platform of rock above the stream there was a large dark stain, thick with glowing worms.

“Is that…?” T’Challa asked.

“It’s human blood,” Ce’Athauna said, blunt. “Whose blood, we don’t know.”

“May I?” T’Challa motioned over his Kimoyo Beads, and Ce’Athauna’s expression tightened.

“This is the Arteries. Centuries and we’re still mapping its depths. We come here to listen to the heartbeat of the world.”

“How far does it stretch?”

“Far enough,” Ce’Athauna said evasively.

“As far as the Warrior Falls?” T’Challa asked, his mouth quirking.

“And farther yet.”

“It sounds to me that the heartbeat of the world is not all that your people use the Arteries to listen to.” That would explain some of the stranger aspects of the War Dogs’ Jabari file. That they could appear wherever they liked in Wakanda, even without airship technology.

“Everything is part of the heartbeat,” Ce’Athauna said, though she smirked briefly. “One of our scouts found this. We didn’t touch the scene, but the glow worms have already come.”

“My King,” Ayo said. She’d been circling the cave, and pointed behind a spiked rock close to one of the cave exits. Nearly unnoticeable, caught against the rock, was a scrap of red and orange beading.

Ce’Athauna said nothing as T’Challa activated his Kimoyo Beads, though she looked away in annoyance. He sent a DNA scan of the stains to Shuri, and searched the cave with the Dora Milaje. There wasn’t much to find. “They were alive when they were brought here,” T’Challa said. Ce’Athauna nodded. “Footprints. No scour marks from dragged bodies. After they died there was a small boat, likely moored here.” T’Challa pointed at faint scuff marks on a large rock. “They were rowed down the river into the Mining lands.”

“Obviously.”

“So it was your people.”

“Possibly.”

T’Challa exhaled. “Why won’t M’Baku speak with me?”

“He isn’t obliged to give you any of his time.”

“But you are?”

“I am not the Great Gorilla.” Ce’Athauna followed the tributary downstream with her eyes, her arms folded. “My time is somewhat less valuable.”

“Do you know who the killers are?”

“Killers? These two invaded our lands.”

“And they have died for it,” T’Challa said evenly. He shut off his Kimoyo Beads. “Their parents will have no children for their old age. Or grandchildren. It was an unwise thing they did, but not one that the Jabari have killed for before. Don’t you people believe that Wakanda is one family?”

“I don’t know what I believe right now,” Ce’Athauna said, and made a face. “Sound carries from the guest rooms. But not from some others. Take that as you will.”

#

“Our Nceba would never have run off into Jabari lands like that,” Nceba’s mother Nomuula repeated, low and firm, as though by repeating the words enough she could make it true. Nakia made a soothing noise, patting Nomuula’s wrinkled palm gently. Nceba had been a miracle birth: even with Wakandan tech, Nomuula was old enough that a pregnancy was very risky. Nceba’s father Lwazi was a younger man, a carpenter. He had been silent through the whole interview, sitting in an armchair, his head buried in his hands.

“And Nkokheli?” Nakia asked, naming Nceba’s boyfriend.

“We… we always thought they were good for each other. They were good children. I knew Nkokoheli’s parents. They finished school and set up a jollof rice stall together, it’s just down the block—” Nomuula broke off into tears. Nakia hummed again, soothingly, until she calmed down.

“The day they disappeared,” Nakia said gently.

“They were going to the souq. Early in the morning. To buy supplies.”

Nakia nodded. The spice merchant had been the last person to see Nceba and Nkokheli alive in Birnin Djata. Not even the gate guards had noticed them leaving. Nor had any suspicious flight paths been tracked out of the city. “They’ve never shown any interest in the Jabari before?”

“No, never. They were good kids. Concentrating on making enough money to buy a flat. They were going to get married.”

Nceba and Nkokheli definitely didn’t sound like the sort of people who would run off into Jabari lands on a lark. About to assure Nomuula, Nakia paused as Lwazi said, “You should tell them about Feze.”

Lwazi.”

“What—or who—is Feze?” Nakia asked. As Nomuula stiffened, she patted her palm again. “It sounds like Nceba would not have gone into Jabari lands by her own will. So if there is something more… if we could prevent this from happening to other people like Nceba…”

Nomuula let out a shuddering breath, sobbing with great, heartrending gasps. Nakia mumbled nonsense words, patting her back. This was War Dogs training, to gain trust, to steel herself against the pain of others and yet Nakia’s teachers had never been able to make her unlearn empathy. Nomuula’s grief was absolute. Nceba’s death had shattered her parents.

“Feze was Nceba’s best friend when they were growing up,” Lwazi said, without looking up from his palms. “She grew up, he did not.”

“And you think Feze had something to do with this?”

“Feze would not,” Nomuula said fiercely.

“Just because he is your sister’s son—”

“He would not. I would not hear it.” Nomuula stumbled up from the couch, and dashed from the room, pulling at her hair. Nakia started to get up, then sat back down instead, clasping her hands over her knees as Lwazi rocked himself in his chair.

“Why do you think Feze might be involved?” she asked carefully.

“It’s not that he’s still just on Basic. Many people in Nceba’s year are. There aren’t that many jobs in Birnin Djata for anyone not interested in the mines. It took Nceba and Nkokheli years to save up for a stall,” Lwazi said dully. “The cost of living here is high. Even with the Mining Tribe’s bonus. Some people, they feel lost. Feze was one of them. Nceba used to complain about him. She said he was going down a bad path. That’s all I have. I know it’s not much to go on.”

“Where can I find him?”

“I know that he—and some others like him—meet under the souq sometimes. I don’t know when.” Lwazi rubbed his eyes, exhaling. “They call themselves the People.”

#

“When I said I had a lead I didn’t mean everyone and their mother had to show up,” Nakia hissed.

“Whose mother?” Funeka asked, even as W’Kabi shrugged. Okoye shot them all an annoyed glance.

“I was going to come alone, W’Kabi and Khethiwe insisted on following, and Funeka said she was ‘bored’.”

“What? I was.”

“This is my city,” Khethiwe said, eyeballing Nakia pointedly. “Two deaths is enough.”

“I wasn’t going to kill anyone,” Nakia said.

“The reputation of the War Dogs precedes you. Now are we going to talk to this Feze or what? It’s going to rain. My knee aches.”

“You should get that looked at in Birnin Zana, old woman,” Funeka said, though she moved over to Khethiwe’s side.

“This old woman has years yet, thank you. Well?”

“I didn’t want this to become a procession,” Nakia complained, but she gave in, tapping her communications bead. “Shuri, any luck?”

“I’ve had a drone scan the souq. There’s a way down through what looks like an old well in a courtyard a block down.”

“That old thing? It’s an old temple to Bast. There was a structural problem in the walls. Termites, I think. They were going to rebuild it.” Khethiwe pushed past, marching down the street, trailing Funeka and W’Kabi behind her. Nakia exchanged a long-suffering glance with Okoye.

“Next time I’ll tell you people after I’ve already done it,” Nakia muttered.

“I want to get all this nonsense over quickly so that the King will be able to return safely to Birnin Zana.” Okoye paused. “At least, until the next mess he gets himself into.”

“Himself? Pssh. When Kings get into a mess, they get everyone into it.”

The temple was barred shut by stasis locks and marked as condemned. Thankfully, Khethiwe had debarr codes, and as she drew an unlock sequence over her Kimoyo Beads, the pale lines flickered away from the door. Within, the temple was emptied out and dusty, mosaic patterns of Bast and her chosen Panthers going discoloured over the ceiling.

The garden was overgrown, and as Funeka and W’Kabi moved the covering away from the well, Okoye said, “Strange that this place wasn’t rebuilt more quickly. The Shamanate in Birnin Djata is better funded than Birnin Zana's.” Second to only the Shamanate in Necropolis, who tended the Heart Shaped Herb. Or used to.

“They are,” Khethiwe said sourly, “but they haven’t been able to decide on whether to rebuild here, or closer to the mine, or nearer the souq, and so it’s been in a deadlock and they’ve all moved into ‘temporary’ facilities within Indlovu Square, so who knows.”

W’Kabi was peering into the well as Funeka leaned the heavy cover to the side. “Stairs down,” he said. “No dust on those.”

“I’ll go first,” Okoye said, and climbed in before Nakia could argue. She went next. Down into the dark, her Kimoyo Beads lighting up as she went. It was a long way down a narrow shaft, and when Nakia finally dropped down into an antechamber, she let out a soft sound of relief.

W’Kabi was next, then Funeka and Khethiwe. “This might be dangerous,” Nakia told Khethiwe. “Maybe—”

“I’m armed,” Khethiwe said, and grinned sharply as Nakia sighed. “Lead on, girl.”

Okoye was at the single door leading out of the antechamber. “Locked. Shuri?”

“It’s an old school lock. Needs an actual physical key and everything.” Shuri sounded mildly scandalised, from Okoye’s bracelet. “Who still does that?”

“Here.” Nakia palmed a set of picks from the kit at her belt. It took some fiddling, but eventually the door eased open on oiled hinges.

“Huh,” Khethiwe said, as the door opened out to empty tunnels. “Looks like we’re in the old aqueduct.”

“Didn’t that get filled in?” Funeka frowned. “I didn’t know about these.”

“I’m going to get a full survey team down here after this.” Khethiwe grumbled for a moment to herself. “The paperwork is going to be horrendous.”

“Hssh,” Nakia shushed them. There was a faint susurration, near inaudible, pinging down the tunnels. They walked towards it, Nakia scouting ahead on lighter feet until they came to a closed door. Behind it, Nakia could hear snatches of conversation. Someone laughing, a man.

She drew back, lowering her voice. “Shuri, scan for—” Okoye stalked past, pounding on the door.

“Okoye!” Nakia hissed. Okoye ignored her. When there was only dead silence, she drew her spear, ramming the tip into the lock, then kicking the door open.

Within was a large chamber that looked like it had once been a water processing plant. Empty silos sat beside disused filter machines, bracketing in a cleared space with a mancala game and mugs of umqombothi. Rising to their feet, startled, were a group of three men and two women. The youngest was a man around Nceba’s age, the oldest was a woman around Okoye’s, who recovered first. “What? Who are you people?”

“Feze?” Nakia asked.

“Who’s asking?” demanded the youngest man, narrowing his eyes.

The man beside him tapped his communications bead. “It’s the Truthseekers! We’re not going out quietly!”

“Let’s talk about this,” Nakia said, holding up her palms, even as Okoye glowered.

“Do I look like a Truthseeker? All of you. Sit down. I won’t ask again.”

Feze opened his mouth, only to flinch as his Kimoyo Beads started to glow a bright green. There were startled oaths from the others as theirs too, began to glow, then the women began to laugh, drawing blades from their hips in a blur. The man who had spoken bared his teeth, lifting the heavy table with no visible effort, heaving it right at Nakia. She dived, angling to roll, the table shattering against a silo.

Okoye roared. She charged, spear upraised, but a Mining Tribesman was there to meet her, his own spear a blur as he swung, hard enough to drive Okoye back several feet and almost off balance. Nakia ducked a swing from a scimitar from a bearded man, deflected another against her ring blades that made her arm ache to the elbow. Enhanced speed. Enhanced strength. One of the women pounced on Funeka, driving her back with a club. Nakia caught the scimitar in a ring, twisting to disarm the Tribesman. Even as the blade went flying, the Tribesman punched her, his fist a blur, knocking her back with a crash into a chair.

The beads. His bracelet had brightened fractionally just before the punch. “The Kimoyo Beads!” Nakia called to the rest, trying to catch her breath. “Shuri! Shuri if you can, shut these off!”

“Whose?” Shuri asked, frantic.

“Everyone’s!”

W’Kabi was wrestling on the floor with Feze, twisting to get the younger man into an arm lock. Funeka deflected a blow of the club with her scimitar, sidestepping the next, kicking her attacker in the stomach. As the woman doubled over, Funeka cut off her arm at the wrist. Screaming, the woman collapsed on her knees. Nakia rolled as the Tribesman slammed a chair down on the ground where she had been, cracking the concrete, and swept out his legs. He snarled, somehow managing to fall into a graceful crouch, and lunged, tackling her, trying to get his hands around her throat.

“Don’t make me kill you,” Nakia gasped, kneeing the man in the stomach, and as he jerked back, she brought her ring blade down hard on his beads, cracking two. The glow subsided, and as he started to cough, Nakia twisted, reversing their positions, cracking his head against the ground.

Okoye had pinned her first attacker to the wall with her spear. W’Kabi had pulled Feze’s beads off, tossing them away, ignoring him as he cursed and struggled. Outside, one person lay in an unconscious heap at Khethiwe’s feet. The old woman still looked visibly unarmed.

“Got it!” Shuri said, just as everyone’s beads turned gray.

“Wonderful,” Khethiwe said sarcastically. “Now backup won’t be able to find us and we’ll have to haul all these idiots to the surface by ourselves.”

Nakia caught her breath, shaking her head. “I didn’t mean for her to take that literally.”

“I could go up and get the garrison,” Funeka said, pursing her lips, then she tensed as the ground shuddered beneath their feet. “What was that?”

Under W’Kabi, Feze began to laugh. “You can’t stop it now. No one can.”

“Stop what?” W’Kabi demanded, shaking Feze’s shoulder roughly.

Another tremor. There was a cracking sound, high above, stones grinding and breaking. Nakia yelped, grabbing Okoye by her sash and shoulder, pulling them both under the reinforced doorframe, just as the ceiling started to sunder, the sky, falling.

Chapter Text

“What is politics?” Ngozi had asked, on the eve of M’Baku’s fourteenth birthday.

M’Baku had been exhausted, in no mood for his grandmother’s trick questions. He’d spent the whole day ranging the Vault with Ce’Athauna and a handful of friends: they’d volunteered to check on the Wakandan gorillas. It was usually a make-work task—the gorillas were subtle and hardly ever chose to show themselves to anyone.

“Politics is what you and Father do.”

“A trite answer.” Ngozi had plopped herself down on the lip of stone in M’Baku’s room, feet dangling out in the chill. Like hers, the wooden ribs in M’Baku’s room were angled to absorb sound: nothing in this room would leave, even through the door. “‘What we do’ is a symptom of politics, not politics itself.”

M’Baku tried a yawn, but Ngozi was unfazed. He sat grumpily down beside her. “Politics is the art of wrangling the Council to do what you want.”

“A dictator’s answer.”

“Then?”

“Politics is the art of compromise. Between the Elder Council, yes. Between the people, both the people as a whole and the people who are few. Majorities, minorities. Between us and Wakanda. And between everyone else and what you feel is right.”

M’Baku mulled this over. “Should I not always do the right thing?”

“What is the ‘right thing’?”

This was why M’Baku didn’t always enjoy talking to his grandmother. She talked in expansive circles. “A good choice.”

“Which is measured in?”

Sentiment, M’Baku nearly said. “Consequences,” he said, after a pause.

“Yes! Yes.” Ngozi beamed, and despite himself, M’Baku smiled. His grandmother’s praise was usually difficult to earn. “The best consequences, for everyone. And yes, that means usually nobody will get everything that they want. And sometimes they shouldn’t. To do the ‘right thing’ can be a difficult thing. A slow thing. It will often need courage. You will not be the Great Gorilla to do the ‘right thing’—not for yourself. But for everyone. And for that you will have to compromise.”

Compromise. M’Baku let out a long breath in between supplicants, rubbing a hand wearily over his face. Sometimes he did wish he was a King, instead of an avatar. Fewer lines to balance. He straightened up as Silumko came into the Seat, striding over to bend to his ear. “Downstream,” he murmured. M’Baku nodded, and Silumko stepped aside, taking a guarding spot by the wall. So Ce’Athauna had thought she couldn’t stall T’Challa any longer. Pity.

The next supplicants were Elder N’Gamo and Godkeeper Cebisa. Cebisa still looked shaky, supported in by N’Gamo, and M’Baku hastily gestured for Primes to bring chairs. N’Gamo smiled wanly as he sat—he had been M’Baku’s father’s closest advisor and friend, a slight man with a head that always looked a touch too bulbous for his body. Cebisa was sturdily built, her hair unwoven, and like the other Godkeepers, was dressed in mourning whites. They exchanged muted pleasantries.

“Any progress?” Cebisa asked, once perfunctory formalities were over.

There hadn’t been much since yesterday, when Cebisa had also been here, but M’Baku was patient. He reiterated details, discussing Heartbreak Grass. Primes and Ce’Athauna’s Prowlers were still searching Jabari lands. N’Gamo said nothing, nodding solemnly at times, until Cebisa was satisfied and led away by Silumko. Once she was out, N’Gamo said, “You’re doing well.”

“It doesn’t always feel that way,” M’Baku said. It had been a long few days on a tightrope, trying to keep a lid on his tribe’s grief and demand for answers, his Council’s increasing wariness of the Jabari’s reintegration into Wakanda as a whole, and now this new nonsense with dead Mining Tribesmen.

“Ah, that’s how you know you’re still trying.” N’Gamo smiled. M’Baku wasn’t reassured. N’Gamo might be his most reliable ally in the Elder Council when M’Baku needed votes swayed in his favour, but the old man had his own mind, and was most hawkish on matters of tribal sovereignty. “So King T’Challa thinks Anathi was killed by one of our own?”

“He has drawn no such conclusion,” M’Baku said, and not for the first time in days.

“Is giving him tours of the Fastness wise?”

“We are allies now. And as I told the others, better that than giving him the time and opportunity to stick his nose into tribal business.”

“Surely the King would make the Mining Tribe matter a priority.”

“Until—unless—it escalates? No. As is evident, since he’s been content to go on the tours with Ce’Athauna rather than throw his weight around the Seat demanding answers.” Thank Hanuman Ce’Athauna appeared adept at herding panthers.

“I heard he did demand meetings with you.”

“Demand is not the word I would use.” M’Baku yawned. “As you can see, he is not here.”

N’Gamo nodded. “As Babalwa and I told you from the start, we’ll continue to back your efforts to rebuild bridges with the other Tribes. We do still back your decision to go to the Black Panther’s rescue. But the Great Gorilla must always place their tribe above the others.”

“And have you seen me do otherwise?” M’Baku said, allowing some of his exasperation to seep through.

“Not to date,” N’Gamo said, rising to his feet. “As I said. You’ve been doing very well. Your father would’ve been proud.”

M’Baku nodded. The rest of the day was equally interminable, though thankfully consumed with tribal matters beyond Anathi or dead Tribesmen. M’Baku settled disputes, discussed education policy, and had a meeting with Jabari surveyors about the quickening icemelt. He rounded off the day by talking to the Godkeeper initiates who’d been checking in on the gorilla troops. One out of three known troops in the Vault had been found, safe and mildly bewildered at the fuss.

The day felt somewhat less depressing by the time M’Baku dragged himself back to his quarters, tired enough that he racked his gear and lay on the divan, thinking he’d close his eyes for a moment, and woke to someone lightly shaking his shoulder. Confusion and combat reflexes made him jerk away, nearly unbalancing off the edge of the divan, then M’Baku sniffed. Only one person would dare. “You’re late.”

“Do you normally sleep on the couch?” T’Challa was wearing panther gear. From this angle, the armour melted into the night sky, bisected by the strange highlights that hugged T’Challa’s hips. M’Baku sat up, yawning, rubbing his face.

“What time is it?”

“An ugly hour. Are you all right?”

“Well enough. Given everyone’s been breathing down my neck for days. Now it’s your turn, hm?”

T’Challa sat on the couch beside him, the armour ebbing away in an unsettling wave to his necklace, leaving him in his sleek jacket suit. “I understand the need for appearances, but people are dead. We should have spoken sooner.”

“And what would that have done? Besides, appearances are everything. You have not been King for very long. I’ve been the leader of my tribe for five years.” His father had passed too soon.

“I’ve been preparing for the throne all my life.”

“As have I. Does it feel like it helps?” M’Baku grinned, baring his teeth. T’Challa offered a self-deprecating smile.

“All right, I take your point.”

“Take this point also, for free. Do you know how old I am?”

“You’re in your thirties.”

“I’ve seen thirty-one winters. I’m the youngest Great Gorilla ever named by far—my father was only named to the Seat on his fiftieth year, which is about the usual average age. I wasn’t meant to take the Seat yet, not for another twenty years, at least.”

“You’re not just the youngest Great Gorilla,” T’Challa said softly, “you’re also the youngest tribal leader ever named, I think.”

“That’s right. Five years I’ve spent convincing my people and my Elder Council that I was worthy of the Seat. There was a deadlock after my father’s death: half the Elder Council preferred to see my uncle named to the Seat in my place. At the end, the deadlock was only broken because my uncle decided to cede his right to the Seat. He didn’t want a messy succession.”

“You’ve spent political capital—and the lives of your people—on me, I know that,” T’Challa said gently. “I’m not asking for more. I’m just asking for justice.”

“For people who invaded Jabari lands?”

“Not by choice. When was the last time the Jabari had to ‘return’ people to the Mining Tribe?”

M’Baku frowned. “It’s been a while. Before I was named to the Seat. But it’s never predictable.”

“Your people are proud of their lands. Don’t you think you would have found someone willing to admit to the murders by now? Especially since the Great Gorilla and his Head of Security appear indifferent?”

M’Baku stared at T’Challa for a long moment, then he started to laugh. “Indifferent enough to fool the Panther?”

T’Challa blinked, actually startled into silence. Then he began to chuckle. “I appear to have made a habit of misreading you.”

“Ce’Athauna is making other inquiries. Which is how we found the stains. If someone confesses, good. If no one does? Interesting. That’ll be convenient. Given the timing of other matters. Investigations take time, regardless, and we’re curious to see how this one plays out.”

T’Challa sobered. “There’s another problem.”

“Now what?”

“A bomb went off in Birnin Djata. Hours ago. Truthseeker Khethiwe is in critical condition. Shieldarm Funeka is dead, as are thirteen other people. At least forty injured.”

“How did that get past security?” M’Baku blinked.

“The Border and Mining Tribes are still investigating. The priority’s been on the search for survivors.” T’Challa’s face grew briefly tight. “General Okoye, W’Kabi, and Nakia were also caught in the blast, but W’Kabi activated his shieldcloak in time over the three of them. It saved their lives. They were investigating a lead on the two deaths.”

M’Baku grimaced. “I was actually hoping it was a Jabari Tribesman who overstepped.” Things would’ve been so much easier. If anything Ce’Athauna could deal with that herself.

“I think someone is trying to start a war. But for sheer luck more people would be dead.”

“People whom at least two tribes would start wars over. And the throne, hm?” M’Baku could see that. “So how was this bomb linked to us? Were ‘Jabari Tribesmen’ seen fleeing the scene?”

“‘Vengeance for Anathi’ was spraypainted on several walls close to the blast zone.”

M’Baku pinched at the bridge of his nose. “Of course it was.”

“Nakia’s still unconscious, but Shuri was monitoring her investigation. She said that Nakia went underground to investigate a lead on ‘the People’.”

M’Baku narrowed his eyes. “What.”

“So have we moved from ‘good’ to ‘interesting’?” T’Challa asked, if with a tired, mirthless smile. “Whatever happened to Anathi isn’t common knowledge. Not outside the Jabari lands and our Councils. And it’s a big coincidence for factions to share the same name.”

“No need to beat me over the head with the point. I’ll have Ce’Athauna look into things again.” M’Baku hesitated. A bomb going off in a major city was going to need T’Challa’s attention. More than M’Baku’s appearances. “And if you have to go…”

“I’ll leave tomorrow morning.” It was not a request, not that M’Baku had been expecting one. He nodded anyway, and T’Challa shifted closer, then leaned in as M’Baku curled an arm around his waist, pulling him bodily onto M’Baku’s lap. They kissed with the unsubtle urgency of new lovers, tentative until T’Challa squirmed flush against M’Baku, fingertips carding down M’Baku’s hair, over the thick cords of his throat.

“I wish things were simpler,” T’Challa gasped, in between deepening, slowing kisses, M’Baku fumbling with the clasps on T’Challa’s jacket, T’Challa rucking up M’Baku’s undershirt.

Teeth nipped M’Baku’s ear, and T’Challa buried his mouth over his throat, breathing in, scenting him. A shudder burned through him as M’Baku got him to shed his jacket. M’Baku ran his palms slowly up T’Challa’s back, searching for scars. Most of it had healed because of the Herb, leaving only ridges from where the waterfall had broken T’Challa, where Killmonger had stabbed him.

Unlike Ngozi, T’Challa was no undefeated warrior, not an indomitable legend. He had been made mortal by his mistakes. M’Baku was sorry for that, even as he hunted mortality with greedy nips over T’Challa’s throat, down his chest, lifting T’Challa easily to press his tongue over the angry scar over his ribs. Killmonger’s scar. The ones M’Baku had left had been mapped to thin lines by Bast.

“How much simpler do you want this to be?” M’Baku breathed, rumbling into laughter as T’Challa sighed and bent to swallow his mirth with a demanding kiss. They bruised laughter onto each other and lust. As M’Baku reached for the clasp on T’Challa’s trousers, T’Challa shifted away, slipping off the divan, going down on his knees.

M’Baku stared. “You’ve done that before?” He couldn’t really imagine that. The dignified, grave Black Panther. King of Wakanda. One of the richest men in the world.

T’Challa laughed. “And more. There are benefits to age.” He worked out M’Baku’s belt, then nuzzled M’Baku’s thigh, rubbing his cheek against the hard muscle.

Catlike. There was nothing to T’Challa but grace, and as he had before, M’Baku wondered whether that was the panther or the man. Was it the panther that made the low purr as T’Challa rubbed his cheek over the swell in M’Baku’s breeches? The panther that breathed deep, that scratched his thighs and made a rumbling hungry growl as T’Challa drew out M’Baku’s cock. The fingers that clasped him were gentle, as were the laps that swept in neat swathes up thickening flesh until M’Baku closed his fingers around the back of T’Challa’s throat. T’Challa gasped, stretching his jaw wide as he tried to take in as much as he could. Choking himself.

Even here T’Challa tried to handle more than he should. He was surprisingly noisy about it, compressing moans over the cock down his throat, fighting his gag reflex, squeezing weapon-roughened fingers over the rest. He rumbled as M’Baku hissed a curse, rocking shallowly against T’Challa, into that delicious wet heat.

“You should learn to take more,” M’Baku said, in between gasps, “fit all of me down your throat.” He trailed fingertips over T’Challa’s neck, chuckling roughly as T’Challa groaned and sucked harder, purring, until it was M’Baku’s turn to growl, holding T’Challa against him, watching him cough and dig fingertips into M’Baku’s thighs as he had to swallow everything down. That would bruise.

M’Baku licked excess spend off T’Challa’s lips, kissed him until T’Challa was squirming and pushing the swell in his trousers pointedly against M’Baku’s hip. He pushed fingers into T’Challa’s mouth to suck as he fumbled down T’Challa’s trousers and underthings, spat on his palm, grasping T’Challa roughly. T’Challa yelped, thrusting into his grip, whining as M’Baku pressed a finger into him. Slowly. The second finger was already a tight fit, and from the way T’Challa ground eagerly down against M’Baku’s knuckles, a welcome one.

T’Challa kissed him. They swallowed each other’s urgency, pressing away hoarse promises that reality could not keep. When T’Challa finally spent himself between them he dug his fingers into M’Baku’s shoulders. The new marks they left on each other could only be made where no one could see. They would belong always to far more people than each other. M’Baku could not regret that. Nor did T’Challa, for all his wishes for simplicity: he nuzzled M’Baku’s jaw with a contented sound, curling over his thighs as M’Baku stroked his back.

“I’ll be sorry to leave,” T’Challa said, and it was the panther that could lie like that, to mix the truth so gracefully. T’Challa shook himself, correcting, “I will miss you.”

Better, and said with all the hushed gentleness of the man beneath the shadow of the panther. M’Baku did not want to reply in kind, not when he might make promises he could not keep. He kissed T’Challa instead, until T’Challa was rumbling and pliant. M’Baku shifted, lying on the divan with T’Challa in a lazy sprawl on top. They breathed together.

T’Challa stirred with annoyance as his Kimoyo Beads pinged him. “It’s Shuri.” He pecked M’Baku on the nose, uncurling, pulling on his jacket before pinging the bead, angling away from the divan. “Yes?”

“Umm, another thing happened. Maybe nothing much? I sent Ross a message and he said it’s normal now, everything is a trash fire over there anyway and he’s going to break out a new bottle of whisky. He suggests we do the same.”

“What? What now?”

“Best you look.” The holo of Shuri adjusted something on her beads, and a screen popped up over T’Challa’s beside her face. It was a portly white man in a suit with pale hair, red faced, gesticulating at the camera. The audio cut in.

“I’m telling you the Wakandans are hiding something. They’ve been hiding all this while, don’t tell me there’s no reason for that. No reason. No reason. They got to have nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, you tell me what weapons. They’ve said no to the UN delegation, no to an investigations team. What do they have to hide? You tell me. You tell me. You can’t trust those kinds of people. Maybe the FBI, the CIA, they should be looking into Wakanda instead of this fake news Russia investigation.”

The video cut to a man and a woman in suits, also white, sitting at some desk. A red news chevron ran across the base of the screen. “Breaking news,” said the man, looking serious. “President Trump has announced plans to issue an executive order within the week condemning Wakanda’s closed borders.”

“Whether executive orders can even be used in that fashion remains to be seen,” said the woman. “Or if sanctions would even be effective on a highly advanced country that, for all appearances, seems to be self-sufficient.”

The news feed paused. Shuri sighed. “You see?”

“Who is that? That angry man,” M’Baku said.

“The current American President,” T’Challa said absently, frowning to himself.

“Who are you talking to? Wait. M’Baku is there? At this hour?” Shuri’s face moved from surprise to a mischievous grin. “Greetings, O Great Gorilla.”

“Stop it,” T’Challa told her, even as M’Baku sniffed.

“What? We’re friends now right? Very, very special friends?” Shuri’s grin widened.

“Compile a dossier on international sentiment and send it to me.” T’Challa paused. “And copy in Mother and the Tribal Council.”

“Got it.” Shuri offered him a little wave. “Have a good night, eh?”

T’Challa shook his head, dismissing the call with a gesture. “Sisters,” he told M’Baku.

“I stand by what I said about the inadvisability of putting a sixteen year old in charge of your weapons program.”

Tech program.” T’Challa looked tired. He sat on the edge of the divan, kneading the back of his head. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve done the right thing. For the right reasons.”

M’Baku yawned. “You know what I think about that. If they can, the Westerners will do to us what they have done to so many other African countries rich in resources. If you want to offer an open hand to the world, do it encased in a gauntlet.”

T’Challa shook his head. He leaned over, to take another kiss, his hands wandering over M’Baku’s broad shoulders. “I’ll leave you a bead. Stay in touch.”

“You don’t have the right to tell me what to do,” M’Baku said, though he smirked.

“I know.” T’Challa’s fingers drifted teasingly over M’Baku’s throat. “And I like that.”

Chapter Text

Nakia woke up ready to punch someone, and so it was perhaps unfortunate that W’Kabi’s was the first face she saw. Thankfully, he was out of range. “So you live.”

“What happened?” Nakia asked. Or croaked, really. She was wincing, sitting up gingerly from a reclining bed under one of Shuri’s ArcSCANs. Every Wakandan hospital was equipped with them, capable of using the mutagenic qualities of pure vibranium to accelerate and enhance the human body’s self-repair. The process did, however, always give Nakia a splitting headache.

“Things exploded,” W’Kabi said, and Nakia was busy wondering, yet again, why, of all people in Wakanda, Okoye had fallen in love with someone like W’Kabi, when Okoye herself walked into the sleek hospital ward with a smile. She was already dressed in Dora armour.

“Nakia. How are you feeling?” Okoye walked over to embrace her.

“I’ve had better days.” Nakia was a little dizzy as she sat up. She knew that would pass.

“There was a bomb. I think you sensed something? You pulled me to the door. W’Kabi used his Shieldcloak over us. It took most of the impact before it shattered.”

“The stasis isn’t meant to take that much force. It’s a wonder we survived. Funeka didn’t.” W’Kabi looked grim.

“‘Justice for Anathi’ was scrawled over the walls around the blast zone,” Okoye said, sitting down by the side of the bed. “T’Challa’s left Jabari lands with Ayo and the others. He’s going to be here for a day or so. He’s in an emergency meeting right now with Acting-Shieldarm Letsha and Elect Palesa, along with other officials from the Mining Tribe.”

“Why aren’t you there?” Nakia asked W’Kabi. “You’re still the First Shield.”

W’Kabi shrugged. Annoying man. It was Okoye who rolled her eyes and said, “He only regained consciousness when the meeting was already underway, and just stopped throwing up about an hour ago.”

“I hate the ArcSCAN,” W’Kabi said.

“Khethiwe? What about her?”

“She’s expected to make a full recovery. She’s undergoing critical treatment in Birnin Zana,” Okoye said.

Nakia grimaced. So it was that serious. “Give me a debrief.”

There wasn’t much to say. Okoye went through the casualties, the initial findings—the bomb had been a crude thing, a fertiliser bomb, low tech enough that it’d possibly been assembled in the city itself. It had also been packed with nails for maximum shrapnel. The only reason it hadn’t killed as many people as it should’ve was that it went off during the quiet lull before lunch.

“What a mess,” Nakia said, rubbing her eyes. So many dead.

“Acting-Truthseeker-Commissioner Naleli thinks they realized a lot of big fish were coming to a single spot and couldn’t resist.” Okoye said grimly. “Naleli’s taken Nceba’s parents into custody.”

“I don’t think they intentionally had anything to do with it.” Nakia said slowly. Their grief had been genuine. “The bomb was probably an existing failsafe. And taking them into custody isn’t a good look.”

“That’s what I said,” Okoye said, with a hard look at W’Kabi.

“What? I don’t have any say in Truthseeker policy.”

“Letsha would’ve backed you up if you’d said something,” Okoye muttered. Of all the Tribes, the Border Tribes were the most clannish.

“I’m getting up,” Nakia said firmly. She still had to be helped to the washing facility by Okoye, and it took her a while to be steady enough to dress. She walked around the ward until she felt the nausea settle, then she nodded and strapped her ringblades back to her hips. Some people weren’t affected by a thorough ArcSCAN at all, but she wasn’t one of them. Nakia envied such people sometimes.

It was late in the afternoon. How long had Nakia been out? The hospital wasn’t too far from ground zero, and Nakia insisted on the walk. She was easier on her feet by the time they got there, pushing through a scattered crowd that was watching crews of Truthseekers comb the rubble. The cordon of holo tape was manned by several Border Tribesmen, who nodded at W’Kabi as they passed.

The bomb had been within a shop in a line of two-storey shophouses, one of the few districts of Birnin Djata not built directly into stone. Where colourful windcharm-and-bunting draped shophouses had been was now a crater of stone and rubble. Only the Wakandan support beams had stayed intact. Above, one of Shuri’s silver fish-like drones hovered, scanning the site.

Nakia checked the network on her Kimoyo Beads. Local news stations were running clips of T’Challa visiting survivors, touring the site, going into conference. Damage control. There was also a clip of a group of protestors gathering outside the Heart of Stone, where the conference was being held, the seat of government for the Mining Tribe. Nakia paused the clip. “What’s that about?”

“They want Nceba’s parents released,” Shuri said from her communications bead. “Um, also, they want justice and the Jabari held to account.”

“Fast organisation,” Okoye said, raising her eyebrows. “Very fast.”

“Not really,” W’Kabi said, with a nod at the city behind them. “This is Birnin Djata.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Wealthiest, safest tribe-city in Wakanda. Despite proximity to Jabari lands. People here like to complain.” W’Kabi was looking at the crater, his arms folded over his chest. “We should send an inquiry into Jabari lands. Not headed by T’Challa.”

“Headed by a Shieldarm with a full garrison?” Nakia asked dryly. W’Kabi shot her a cool stare.

“T’Challa wasn’t a believer in so-called ‘soft power’ until you.”

“I would call that a definite improvement,” Nakia said, bristling.

“It hasn’t made him a better king,” W’Kabi shot back.

“Enough.” Okoye banged her spear against the ground. “Nakia, what were you here to see?”

“Did Feze survive?” Nakia asked. W’Kabi shook his head. That made things complicated. “Shuri, whatever was happening to their Kimoyo Beads, have you figured that out yet?”

“It’s some variation of what we do with the ArcSCAN.” Shuri perked up. “It’s really exciting? I didn’t know we could do that with just the small amount of vibranium in the beads? Okoye sent over a pair of the recovered bracelets to my lab, we’re all still running tests.”

“But where was it from. That was what I asked,” Okoye said pointedly.

“They didn’t use any of the local broadcast networks. It was a short range tightbeam. Whoever did it was within Birnin Djata.”

“That’s still a lot of ground to search,” Nakia said, resigned, “and whoever it is could be anywhere by now.”

“I’ve been studying the local power grid. When I shut off everyone’s beads there was a blowback. An address went dark. T’Challa got Naleli to send a team there, but it was just an abandoned house.” Shuri said apologetically.

“Another abandoned house?” W’Kabi narrowed his eyes. “There can’t be many of those in Birnin Djata.”

“More importantly, I don’t even know how a blowback like that could logically happen. The beads aren’t made that way. It’s as though they were used as a focus point for some sort of channeled energy. Of. The non-logical sort,” Shuri said sourly.

“Magic?” Nakia grimaced. In a world with beings like Doctor Strange and the Asgardians, magic most certainly existed, but it didn’t mean Nakia had to like it.

“Ugh.” Shuri shared the sentiment, at least. “Hope not. I don’t like things I can’t begin to understand and by definition magic is definitely way in the realm of Things You’re Not Meant to Get.”

“Keep looking,” Nakia advised her, turning on her heel and shutting off the communications bead.

“Now where?” Okoye asked.

“The parents. We should get them out. Before things get worse.”

#

T’Challa was back on the main Wakandan airwaves, maintaining a front of what Ngozi would have called Nothing To See Here. Yes he’d been a guest of the Jabari for the past few days. Yes, because of diplomatic matters, the Jabari had, after all, only recently decided to reintegrate. Yes, they were the soul of courtesy and very misunderstood. M’Baku listened to a few of the casts during breakfast and was still skimming network news when he met Ce’Athauna at the Seat’s entrance to the Arteries.

“Father said the other Elders were ambivalent about the King leaving,” Ce’Athauna reported. “He’s been here long enough. And some of them sympathise. Sent their own condolences. Along with our official statement. Heard you called in to talk to the Mining Tribe’s bosslady personally.”

M’Baku had used T’Challa’s bead this morning to call on Elect Palesa. She’d been rather surprised to receive his call on the royal band, but she’d been polite enough. If obviously wary. “Her people have lived with ours for centuries in relative peace. I told her that wasn’t going to change under my watch.”

“Thanks to T’Challa’s ex at least we know there might be something more than a series of bad coincidences.” Ce’Athauna smirked knowingly. “Maybe you should marry her instead. She seems to get things done.”

M’Baku made a show of rolling his eyes. “What did you want to show me here? I’m not exactly rolling in free time right now.”

“When are you ever?” Ce’Athauna started to walk briskly through the tunnels, lit only by their lightglobes. They left the Primes at the entrance: some parts of the Arteries weren’t meant for many heavy feet. “One of my Prowlers sent me a message from within the Arteries. They think they found the weapon used on Anathi. I told them not to disturb the scene until we get there.”

“Which part of the Arteries?”

“Undervault.”

“That’s a long walk from here. Why not meet at the Vault and do the Descent there?”

Because, O Great Gorilla, there are a few ways to get from the Vault to here, and it’s possible the killer used one of them. We’re going to map a route that hasn’t already been charted as we go.”

“Fine, fine.” M’Baku resigned himself to a long trek. To be Jabari was to be an endurance runner: although they had enhanced skiffs that could cut down a river as quickly as a Wakandan hoverbike, for the most part the Jabari relied on their feet to get anywhere that they wanted. Even children could run for hours if they needed to. And the Arteries were nothing new to them: M’Baku and Ce’Athauna made their way northeast with little effort.

“We’ve been going the rounds of names on our known list for the People,” Ce’Athauna said, as she kept pace beside him. “So far, everyone’s been accounted for. Alibis and all.”

“Anything from the footage T’Challa provided?”

“I’ve sent out images from the enhanced zoom to all Prowlers. We’ll check the Fisher villages as well. And the Cultivar farms. The graffiti in Birnin Djata wasn’t by us, though. We don’t write Nsibidi like that.”

M’Baku nodded. He’d told T’Challa as much, when the images had been forwarded over. A small error on the part of the People’s faction in Birnin Djata, perhaps. Or maybe they didn’t care. Having been isolated for centuries, Jabari society had developed its own version of Nsibidi, albeit one with subtle differences for most of the glyphs. “T’Challa himself hadn’t known that.”

“Good. I’ll pass on my regards to our border security. The less they still know about us the better.”

“We’re meant to be reintegrating,” M’Baku said, amused.

“Well, you can ‘reintegrate’ with His Majesty as much as you like, but leave our language out of it.”

Despite Ce’Athauna’s optimism, they didn’t pick up anything on their way to the Undervault. They did pass the occasional Prowler, who would pause, give them a brisk report, and move on. There were fewer than usual: M’Baku had sent some out to observe the other Tribes. Closer to the Undervault, they encountered no one for stretches of time.

Passage into the Undervault was marked by a temperature change. It wasn’t as obvious as walking into the Jabari forest in the Vault of the Sky, but the air did grow a couple of degrees warmer. Ce’Athauna pursed her lips, looking around the low-ceilinged, wide chamber with annoyance. “Ata is meant to be here to meet us.” She tapped her wooden bangle, then pressed her palm to it, concentrating. After a moment, a small Jabari woodmoth emerged from a hidden slot, the size of Ce’Athauna’s thumb, the colour of untreated bark. It turned this way and that for a moment, searching for Ata’s bangle signature, then it shot off into the dark.

The moth returned quickly. Too quickly. It settled on Ce’Athauna’s bangle, wings fluttering. Ce’Athauna closed her eyes, breathing in. Then the moth crawled back into its entry slot within the bangle, out of sight. Ce’Athauna grimaced. “Not good.” She started walking briskly down a forked tunnel, then broke into a jog.

They found Ata’s body stuffed down a crevasse and covered with rocks—M’Baku nearly stepped on Ata’s woodmoth, which had been waiting patiently on top. It scurried through gaps in the stone back into the crevasse as they unearthed the body, gently pulling it up. Ata hadn’t been dead long. The corpse was still warm. The armour had been stripped off.

M’Baku held out his bangle to Ata’s woodmoth, which was resting over Ata’s open, blank left eye. Ce’Athauna closed Ata’s eyes as the moth climbed on, and M’Baku pressed his palm to his bangle, forming a query in his mind, not to his moth but Ata’s. He wasn’t sure if this would work, but after so many centuries co-existing with the Jabari forest and its sacred denizens, the Jabari still did not fully understand what the Vault’s creatures were capable of. The moth flicked its antennae, then it started to fly in short hops, away from the room.

“We’ll come back for Ata,” M’Baku said. Ce’Athauna nodded, crossing Ata’s palms over his chest and sending her woodmoth with a message back towards the Fastness.

They were moving deeper into uncharted Arteries. The Undervault was notoriously difficult to map: it was a living set of Arteries, the rock threaded through by great roots, new tunnels made all the time by the Old Ones that fed blind around the heartbeat of the world, consuming raw vibranium. Twenty minutes in, Ce’Athauna was looking visibly strained, even though her woodmoth had found its way back to her with an assurance of aid. If they got lost in here, they might be lost forever.

Voices, then light, threading past a network of old roots. Ata’s woodmoth settled on a root, going still. M’Baku exchanged glances at Ce’Athauna, who motioned for him to wait. She crept forward on silent feet, drawing her spear silently from its bracket on her back.

“—General Okoye survived. More’s the pity.”

“Tetu won’t be pleased.” Whoever it was, two of them were speaking with a Jabari accent. M’Baku grimaced. He slunk as quietly as he could to Ce’Athauna’s side, ignoring her irritated stare. “You’re late.”

“Caught a rat sniffing around the Paths earlier. Had to take care of that.”

A third voice sucked in an irritated breath. “Tuma! There was to be no unnecessary violence. The Prowlers are getting closer every day.”

“And they’ll never get close enough. Relax. I hid the body. It’s impossible to find anything in the Undervault unless you know where you’re going.”

Ce’Athauna pressed her palm to her bangle. Her woodmoth flit out, crawling through roots. When it returned, she raised three fingers. M’Baku nodded, making a cutting gesture, and she clenched her jaw, circling around the knot of roots until they found a narrow entryway.

M’Baku charged through. He knocked out the first man he saw, seated with his back to M’Baku before a workbench snarled with wiring and silver cases. Ce’Athauna pounced on the next, sweeping out his legs with her staff, knocking him smartly on the skull to keep him down. The third man was dressed like a Border Tribesman—he touched fingertips to his Kimoyo Beads just as M’Baku strode over.

“Tetu, preserve me!” The Tribesman ducked M’Baku’s swing of his club, drawing his scimitar to parry the next with a ringing blow.

A sharp cry of surprise from Ce’Athauna nearly cost M’Baku his arm. He parried the Tribesman’s strike, backing off. Then he stared. Roots were tangling up Ce’Athauna’s ankles, curling up her thighs. She was frantically trying to free herself with a knife, but more roots twisted up her wrists. Impossible. M’Baku hesitated, staring, and only when Ce’Athauna snarled, “Watch yourself!” did he catch himself, hissing as he twisted away from a strike to earn just a gash across his arm. He clubbed the Tribesman in the belly, then reversed his swing and hit the Tribesman smartly in the small of his back, causing him to fall face-first into the writhing roots at Ce’Athauna’s feet. There was a muffled scream. Roots burst into the Tribesman’s mouth, through his ears. He clawed blindly at the ground for a moment, then grew still, twitching.

“M’Baku!” Ce’Athauna’s voice rose into a note of terror. M’Baku dropped his club and drew his knife from his boot. He hacked at the roots around Ce’Athauna’s left leg, and swore as he had to jerk his wrist out of a curling roots. It was spreading. Roots lapped at his feet, twisting up around his legs.

“Just leave me,” Ce’Athauna said, gritting her teeth. “Go, go.”

“No.” M’Baku looked around wildly. There, at the workbench. A forbidden thing for the Vault. A cylindrical firestarter unit, probably for soldering the cases. He wrenched himself free of the roots, swiping the unit off the table. The flame herbs powdered into its core lit up as he depressed its catch, creating a lance of fire from its nozzle. He held it close to the roots, which flinched away from the heat, ebbing back. Ce’Athauna struggled free with a snarl, stumbling back, M’Baku chasing back the roots until the soil itself crumbled away, revealing a large metallic charm that had been embedded in the wall. It glowed a bright green, fading as M’Baku pulled it loose.

Vibranium. M’Baku sat down, breathing hard. The roots hadn’t managed to penetrate his boots, at least, but his and Ce’Athauna’s hands and bared thighs were lashed and bleeding. Against the walls, the roots had grown still.

“What in the name of Hanuman’s hairy balls was that?” Ce’Athauna demanded, leaning against the workbench, shaking.

M’Baku shut off the firestarter. “Something that shouldn’t be possible.”

Chapter Text

M’Baku looked impassive when he answered T’Challa’s conference ping on the bead. “King T’Challa. Elect Palesa.” They exchanged curt pleasantries. Palesa looked tired, straight-backed on her chair in the war room within the Heart of Stone. Palesa had insisted on a private conference, just her, T’Challa, and M’Baku: T’Challa had been reluctant, but he ceded to Palesa’s age and experience. M’Baku, surprisingly, had agreed with no fuss.

“What happened?” T’Challa asked, astonished. M’Baku was sporting fresh bandages on his arm.

“Ran into trouble during an investigation. Someone used a piece of vibranium as a sort of focus point, to cause a highly localised mutagenic reaction with Jabari tree roots.” M’Baku briefly sketched the events of an underground investigation that had led to the death of a Jabari scout, and the unsettling events after. M’Baku’s words were terse—he was probably glossing over details about Jabari technology—but he went into careful detail about the roots. And the vibranium.

“Your people appear to be familiar with this… phenomenon,” Palesa said carefully.

“We have our own scientists.” M’Baku said. He looked to the side, his jaw tightening. Then he exhaled. “There is an old Jabari shamanic practice. Lost to time, or so we thought. Like all Jabari practices it melds nature with technology. It was forbidden because it forced things beyond their natural ambit and was abused by the unwise.”

“It reacts somehow with vibranium? With magic?” T’Challa asked, doubtful. He hoped not.

M’Baku’s mouth twitched wryly. “We don’t believe in magic, O King. Officially. Unofficially, yes, the process is rather like magic. You can temper Jabari heartwood in a certain way that reacts with vibranium to create certain effects. Rather like your ArcSCANs. We thought the process forgotten.”

“So it is one of the Jabari.” Palesa said, pursing her lips. “Behind all this nonsense.”

“Not just us. This cell that was found in Birnin Djata was Mining Tribe. And we found a Border Tribesman here. We’ve preserved his body: we presume his tribe will want him back. He’s the one who gave me this.” M’Baku gestured at his bandage. “We have Jabari prisoners to question as well, though unsurprisingly so far they haven’t been cooperative.”

“Were they involved with the bombing?” T’Challa asked.

“Perhaps. We’re still investigating the cache we found, but components of a shrapnel bomb was found. And a hoverbike.” M’Baku scowled. “That got through our border somehow.”

“Give them to us,” Palesa said. She narrowed her eyes when M’Baku raised his eyebrows. “Let us question them.”

“They’re Jabari. They’ll answer to us,” M’Baku said, neutral.

“People are dead! Three of them children,” Palesa snapped, her hands clenching on the arms of her seat.

“This is not a problem for just the Mining Tribe. Question your own people. If you can find any.”

“M’Baku. Palesa. Peace.” T’Challa held up his hands, palms up, waiting until Palesa settled back down with a glare. M’Baku simply stared, impassive still. “M’Baku, will you be willing to accept a representative from the Mining Tribe to be present during further questioning? A Truthseeker?”

“Depends on whether this Truthseeker will be arriving with a small army or by themselves.”

Palesa bristled. “So you’d have a hostage to our good behaviour?”

“Palesa, peace.” T’Challa said, raising his voice a notch.

“Here is what I will say,” M’Baku said, after a pointed pause. “The Jabari remain indifferent to the Tribal Council. Our new presence within it is a matter of courtesy extended to the new King that we will withdraw should it prove inconvenient to our interests. We acknowledge your recent losses, while noting that while Jabari lives were spent to ensure the current integrity of the throne and the Tribal Council, no Mining Tribesmen were observed on a certain recent battlefield.

“That being said,” M’Baku continued, when Palesa opened her mouth to interject, “in the interests of peace, we are willing to accept as honoured guests a reasonable number of Truthseekers to attend our justice proceedings. At the same time, I would like to send the same number of our Prowlers to Birnin Djata for the same purpose.”

“Of course. I’ll have the names forwarded to you within the next few hours. And your people will be welcome here, I’ll make sure of that personally.” Palesa looked a little mollified. “How long have you been aware of this organisation called ’The People’?”

“They’ve been a harmless fringe group in the Fastness for years. At the very least, since my father was Great Gorilla. Perhaps longer. My father…” M’Baku trailed off for a moment, then he exhaled. “My father did not always make popular decisions,” he said delicately. “And he was often unwell. As far as we are aware, until recently ‘The People’ have only limited themselves to protests and demands. Which I have tried to accommodate where reasonable.”

“So it’s possible that they were pushed to the brink by your military losses against Killmonger,” Palesa said.

“Possibly. That doesn’t explain why there appears to be a well-embedded faction of them within Birnin Djata,” T’Challa pointed out. “That takes time.”

“That’s true,” Palesa conceded. “As much as I dislike jumping to conclusions, I’m beginning to think there’s a larger conspiracy at work. Have you seen the Wakandan Times’ newscast this morning?”

“No,” T’Challa admitted. He’d been busy talking to Okoye and Nakia, and then he’d been embroiled in answering unrelated queries from the River Tribe about trade law. “I did read the news brief sent from my office. Most of the newscasts are, naturally, focused on the blast in Birnin Djata.”

“Not that. Here.” Palesa linked T’Challa’s and M’Baku’s beads to hers, then brought up a saved recording. It was a newscast of an interview. T’Challa recognised the interviewer—Aphiwe was a River Tribesman in her late forties, a friend of Nakia’s and a veteran at the channel. She was seated with a young Border Tribesman, dressed in armour, without his shieldcloak.

“I’ll like to begin by saying I’m sorry for your loss, Mandla,” Aphiwe said gently.

Mandla nodded. He was a grave young man, tall and long-fingered, his hair shorn down. One of the Shieldguard, judging from the scimitar at his belt. “That’s how war is. King T’Challa killed my brother when he threw that spear into my brother’s warbird, but I don’t hate the king for that. There was a war and the First Shield and I were on the wrong side. I know that. That whole mess, it just got me thinking, that’s all.”

“Tell us about yourself.”

“I’m uh, Shieldguard Mandla, son of Shieldguard Themba. I’m twenty-three years old, it’s my first year in the Shieldguard.”

“For all listeners tuning in, we have Shieldguard Mandla here, author of the essay titled ‘A More Perfect Union?’ which went viral on the datacast networks. Here’s an excerpt:

‘King T’Challa killed my brother, but I don’t hate the king. I hate the kingship. When two kings fight, the people suffer. I understand that. Just like I understand the First Shield’s instinct to side with King N’Jadaka. King N’Jadaka wanted to change the world, though he also wanted to burn down Wakanda to do it.

I understand wanting change. Centuries, we’ve had the monarchy, an unbroken line of Black Panthers. Most of the world’s moved on, and we haven’t. Don’t you people think that’s strange? The average Wakandan can speak seven languages. We’re the most educated, most literate society that’s ever existed. But we’ve got a system of government that only exists in third world countries.’” Aphiwe paused her reading. “Many would say our government works.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen the replies. Does it, though? Look at what just happened. We just had civil war not so long back. And you could say sure, people can challenge for the kingship during Challenge Day, if they can beat the king. Who’s had the best tutors, the best training since childhood. And challengers have to have royal blood. The rest of us? We can’t have a seat at the table if all the seats are reserved.”

“You make a fair point,” Aphiwe said, smiling encouragingly.

“And as is obvious from recent events, anyone who’s just a better killer than the king has a fair shot at the throne.”

“Ritual combat has been part of our traditions for centuries. For the most part Challenge Day is just meant to be a ritual,” Aphiwe said, “unless the king is not judged to be the one of highest merit.”

“Why isn’t Princess Shuri the Queen, if we’re going by merit? Those machines she invented saved my father when he had a bad accident years back. Has T’Challa done anything like that? Besides, having a monarchy means the rest of us didn’t get to have a say in whether we want Wakanda to reveal itself to the world. Not even the Tribal Council. I think we deserve a better, more representative mode of government,” Mandla said firmly.

“Democracy? That hasn’t worked out particularly well for the rest of the world.” Aphiwe wrinkled her nose.

“Because they’re running off systems from the colonisers. Ancient systems, out of date for the modern world. Surely we can do better. That’s what I’ve been thinking about. Instead of exporting better tech to the world, we should export a new way of thinking. We could take what works from the world’s governments and find a way to fit it into something better. Not just from the Western governments, but from the stable countries in Asia. And other places.”

“So we should just… deconstruct our government? Try something new? Won’t that throw Wakanda into turmoil?”

“Well, not immediately. I think we should think about it. Have the monarchy continue for now until we get to something better. Hell, we could keep the monarchy if you like as a token symbol—some of the rest of the world does. Not that I’m in favour of that either. King T’Challa’s probably richer than most of the people in Birnin Zana combined, did you know that? That’s crazy.”

“I can’t imagine that there’d be a one-size-fits-all solution for the world, but it’s an interesting idea,” Aphiwe said, forever diplomatic.

“A wise man once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I say, the arc only bends because people bend it. Our institution of monarchy, the limited succession in the Tribes, we’ve got to change it all. Not just for us, for everyone.”

Palesa switched off the newscast. “The rest of that’s irrelevant.”

“Good timing. Or bad timing, from our point of view,” M’Baku said. He still looked impassive.

“He does have a point,” T’Challa said quietly. He should have thought. The others who had died, they too had died in his name. He’d have to make peace with W’Kabi and his people.

And it was true. In Wakanda, the seats at the table were reserved. Even Palesa, who was called ‘Elect’, was allowed to run for high office only because she was the head of a core mining faction within her Tribe.

Palesa frowned at him. “Personally, I’m more inclined to think it’s convenient.”

“Convenient or not, if it’s been resonating with people on the network, that’s a problem for you,” M’Baku told T’Challa. “I’ll keep investigating the presence of ‘the People’ here, and this ‘Tetu’ person. Whoever they are.”

#

Nakia found T’Challa sitting on a spur of rock some distance away from Birnin Djata, close to the upward ascent into Jabari lands. The Dora Milaje were keeping watch close by—they nodded at her as she greeted them, but kept an eye on the horizon as she climbed up to sit beside T’Challa.

“You seem to like finding great big slabs of rock to brood on,” Nakia said, with a teasing smile.

T’Challa didn’t even look up. “I told Shuri I wanted some peace and quiet.”

“Shuri wasn’t the one who told me where you were. Okoye’s worried. She said you took that young man’s newscast to heart.”

“How could I not? I killed his brother.”

“He doesn’t hate you for that. By his own words. Neither does W’Kabi blame you. Or himself,” Nakia said, rolling her eyes. “I don’t understand why Okoye still gives him the time of day. If there was some world award for the worst friend ever, W’Kabi would be it.”

“He’s not that bad.”

“He ordered an army to attack you? Not that bad?”

“By tribal law, technically, N’Jadaka was the legitimate king. Since I would’ve died but for the Heart Shaped Herb. That’s what W’Kabi said.”

“W’Kabi is an ass. Look. Palesa talked to me. I think the timing’s very convenient as well.”

“N’Jadaka burned all the Heart Shaped Herbs. There will be no more Black Panthers.” T’Challa smiled wryly. “A system of monarchy does have obvious flaws.”

“You’re a good man,” Nakia persisted.

“My father said that it is hard for a good man to be a king.” T’Challa sighed. “I’m beginning to see what he meant.”

“So what, you abdicate? In favour of what? The Tribal Council? Or some other system that we don’t yet have? T’Challa, think. Isn’t this what ‘the People’ want? You know, whoever bombed Birnin Djata, killed Great Anathi, and tried to kill M’Baku? Just because a monster says things that make sense doesn’t make it less of a monster.”

“Mandla might have nothing to do with all this. And no, I don’t intend to abdicate. Not while there’s nothing else that can take my place. I just wanted to clear my mind for a while.” T’Challa stared down at the sheer drop. “There’s still the problem of the UN. They’re thinking of making a resolution about our closed borders.”

“So what? The UN’s a hobbled institution.”

“Symbols matter in the world. It doesn’t help that some of the world’s most powerful governments are—”

“The world’s most powerful coloniser governments.”

“Be as that may.” T’Challa’s mouth twitched. “An exercise in soft power is going to be necessary. I would go myself, if I could, but with the situation in Wakanda as it is now, I think it’s best that I remain.”

“So send the Queen Mother. With some of the Dora Milaje. She’s had experience helping King T’Chaka wrangle the tribes.”

“I… yes. Mother did volunteer.”

“‘Volunteer’?” Nakia repeated dryly. “She said she was going to go and you’d have to deal with it, you mean.”

“…Yes. I’ll hear from her after she lands in Washington DC,” T’Challa conceded, shaking his head with a helpless chuckle. “She’s going to reach out to some possible allies in America.” The previous President and First Lady, perhaps.

“Good. Don’t worry about her. She knows what she’s doing. Probably better than you would.”

“I’m trying not to.” T’Challa glanced at her. “I heard you rescued some people from the Truthseekers.”

Nakia sucked her teeth. “They were clearly innocent.”

“I heard they didn’t quite appreciate the sentiment either.”

“Oh yes. Feze—one of the people who died when the ceiling collapsed—was the nephew of the victim Nceba’s mother. But at least the protests have cooled down for now. And I’ve talked to War Dogs in other Wakandan cities. If the People are some sort of organised conspiracy, as Palesa seems to think, they might have cells in other parts of Wakanda.”

“The Jabari appear familiar with whatever it was that amplified the people you fought.”

Nakia studied T’Challa, but his face was sober. Blank. “I’d be more careful with the Jabari if I were you.”

T’Challa sighed. “They’re really not that bad.”

“You think W’Kabi’s ‘not that bad’ either. Let’s say I think your judgment is easily impaired,” Nakia said, with a quick smile to steal the sting from her words. “You grew up with W’Kabi, that’s blinded you to his many, many flaws. As to M’Baku, well, I think I understand what it might have been that blinded you to the Jabari’s many, many dangers.”

“Not you too.” T’Challa pulled a face.

“Every tribe has an army. The Border Tribe’s more militant than most, but the Jabari are on another level. We don’t know how big their military really is. Or how well-equipped they are, or what tech they even have. Whether this ‘shaman magic’ thing is widespread in different ways or really a forgotten art.”

“They also have tunnels that can take them anywhere in Wakanda.”

“Great. That’s one for my nightmares.”

“I do think they’re misunderstood. And they do have their reasons for keeping to themselves. The same reasons that we had for keeping to ourselves against the world, I think.”

“I doubt that. Is that what M’Baku told you?”

“No. I deduced.”

“I think there’s another reason that they keep themselves apart from Wakanda. It can’t be tech—they have their own tech. Or traditions—every tribe in Wakanda is still distinct on their own terms. I think they’ve decided that they have some other agenda. One that possibly involved getting their hands on the throne.”

“M’Baku yielded.” T’Challa frowned at her. “And came to my aid.”

“I don’t think he’s behind this, no. But I think the sentiment that drove him to do either might be reflected in whoever this ‘Tetu’ was. Through a different lens.”

“It’s possible. He’s clearly not the only one intent on changing our form of government. Assuming that’s the motive.”

“I’d like to go with the Truthseekers into the Fastness,” Nakia said, and grinned as T’Challa stiffened. “This ‘Tetu’ is probably a Jabari shaman, yes? The end of this riddle is probably in the Jabari lands.”

“I’ll… speak to Palesa and M’Baku.” T’Challa paused as his Kimoyo Beads pinged, along with Nakia’s. He picked up. “Yes, Shuri.”

“I did an analysis of the confiscated Kimoyo Beads and the shard that M’Baku forwarded. They’re made from a particular alloy of vibranium, one that we deemed too unstable for general use. Even where pure vibranium in general is concerned. This alloy, Vi-158, we used to transport in stasis canisters. There never was that much made. We sealed the crates in storage for a long time.”

“Vi-158. Isn’t that the vibranium that Klaue stole? Years ago?” T’Challa straightened up sharply.

“That’s right! He managed to make away with the cache nearly scot-free because they’d been stored in a relatively low security area. Not that he would’ve known that without, um, inside knowledge.” Shuri looked visibly uncomfortable.

“I always did think Klaue’s attack was too well organised. Even with inside information. It was too surgical,” Nakia said.

“Shuri, forward me the existing information package on Klaue’s theft.” T’Challa frowned. “We never did trace where that cache went. What my father found at N’Jobu’s apartment wasn’t all of it. We always assumed Klaue had sold his share to people who didn’t know how to use it.”

“Maybe most of the cache never left Wakanda.” Nakia said, grim. If that was the case…

T’Challa met her eyes. “Then all this might have been a long time in coming.”

Chapter Text

The Truthseeker delegation arrived via royal airship with T’Challa. Formalities were exchanged. Ce’Athauna and her Prowler delegation commandeered a stateroom to have a debrief with the Truthseekers, at which point M’Baku cut T’Challa out from the herd to discuss ‘state matters’.

T’Challa was amused as they made they way up the narrow stairs to the Roost. “People will think that you’re trying to get me alone.”

M’Baku shot a pointed glance over his shoulder at the Dora Milaje and Primes trailing behind them. “For a given definition of ‘alone’, O King. And did you really have to bring a War Dog along?”

“You approved the delegation list.”

“It’s not exactly politic for me to pick and choose, is it? Especially when Palesa approved my list instantly.”

T’Challa chuckled. “You make such a good show of not caring about tribal politics. But you do.”

“Of course I do. I wouldn’t be a good leader if I didn’t. We care about every aspect of Wakandan politics. Even the parts that don’t appear to have any relation to the Jabari. Don’t the others?”

“Nakia told me that she felt the Jabari have a different, secret agenda. Hopefully now that she’s here again for less trying reasons she’ll change her mind.”

Nakia had better instincts than her King. M’Baku shrugged. “As long as she understands that she’d be more closely watched than the others. Nothing personal. She’s a spy.”

At least T’Challa had the grace not to deny that. “Of course.”

They left the Dora Milaje and the Primes in the stairwell, ascending to the Roost alone. T’Challa pushed M’Baku back towards the stone once they were on the viewing platform, and M’Baku let himself be pushed. The stone was cold through his armour as T’Challa leaned up on the balls of his feet for a kiss. M’Baku curled his arm around T’Challa’s waist. It felt strange to step outside time like this, to kiss someone whose name held as much weight as M’Baku’s own. Complications, Ngozi would have said, laughing, Hanuman loves complications. He kneaded T’Challa’s ass through his sleek jacket, chuckling as T’Challa groaned and thrust eagerly against M’Baku’s thigh.

“I don’t think we have the time,” T’Challa said, though he was grinning slyly, a hunting grin. M’Baku sniffed and kissed it away, trying to stay quiet, conscious of the Primes and Dora Milaje not far away. Fingertips curled into his hair, stroking over his throat, running teasingly over the edges of his wooden breastplate. M’Baku growled, and T’Challa nipped him, scratching blunt nails down polished, tempered armour.

“Do you still carry that device of your sister’s for clothes?”

“Really? Now?” T’Challa asked, though he nodded, breathless. M’Baku turned them around, bracing T’Challa against the wall, burying his mouth against T’Challa’s neck, breathing in the warm skin-scent behind his ear. Grass skirts crinkled as he pushed the swell in his breeches against T’Challa’s ass, rubbing himself against it as he fumbled open T’Challa’s trousers. He spat on his palm. T’Challa stiffened with a gasp he stifled against his own arm as M’Baku grasp him and started jacking him off roughly.

“Pity about the rush,” M’Baku whispered against his ear. “If we had the time I’d open you up. Do it slow. That night, you took my fingers like you couldn’t wait to take more. Think you’d look good on my cock.” He laughed as T’Challa groaned and shoved his hips back against M’Baku’s. “Your Majesty.”

T’Challa made a panther’s hoarse and guttural hunting moan. M’Baku pressed his cheek against T’Challa’s throat, curling his free arm around T’Challa’s waist, holding him closer. He listened to the rumble shake through T’Challa as he rocked against him, let an ancient impossibility seep down through his skin to his bones. Bast’s spirit always simmered close enough to touch through violence and sex, twin base emotions that were just different shades of hunger. M’Baku let T’Challa thrust against his grip until he grew abruptly still, locked up in ecstasy, soiling M’Baku’s fingers, the wall.

Shuri’s device was convenient. M’Baku inspected his clean palm and the wall, then caught T’Challa’s wrist as he reached for M’Baku’s belt. “No time for that.”

“Doesn’t seem fair,” T’Challa said, his eyes still hot.

“Oh, now you’re interested in ‘fair’?” M’Baku smirked. He did want more. He wanted to push T’Challa to the ground, strip them both to the skin, taste him in intimate places; M’Baku wanted to hustle them both back to his chambers, spend the whole day in bed. But there would never be time for something like that. Not with who they were. “Now get going. We both have a lot of work to do.” He pinched T’Challa’s ass, making him flinch and yelp.

T’Challa pretended to scowl, catching M’Baku by the chin, rubbing his thumb through the bristle of his beard. “You don’t get to tell me what to do either,” he said, and pulled M’Baku down for a bruising kiss. M’Baku hauled him closer when they broke for air, and they kissed until General Okoye politely cleared her throat from the stairwell. T’Challa startled back with a badly stifled laugh.

“Until next time, O Great Gorilla,” he said, with a quick smile.

M’Baku rolled his eyes. “Get out of my city.”

Back within the Seat, the Jabari contingent had already left—they were hitching a ride to Birnin Djata with T’Challa. M’Baku found Ce’Athauna chatting animatedly with Nakia and Truthseeker-Captain Gcobisa. The other four Truthseekers who had come with Gcobisa were studying readouts transcribed for their Kimoyo Beads. Everyone fell silent as M’Baku walked into the room. The Truthseekers looked wary, Nakia, curious.

“So I hear you people have come to do my cousin’s job for her,” M’Baku told Gcobisa, who drew herself up quickly.

“Not at all, O Great Gorilla. We are here simply to observe. And provide advice, should your Head of Security require it.”

“And do you think she’d require anything from outsiders?” M’Baku growled. Gcobisa stiffened, the other Truthseekers tensing up.

Ce’Athauna started to laugh. “Stop it.” M’Baku grinned at her, snickering, even as Nakia raised her eyebrows and Gcobisa thinned her lips. “Forgive my cousin,” Ce’Athauna told Gcobisa, “for he is young and has a terrible sense of humour.”

“I’m not young, we’re nearly the same age,” M’Baku said.

“You’re young in the head. Cursed like all men.” Ce’Athauna made a shooing gesture. “Go away, you’re just… just taking up air and space right now. Don’t you have a backlog of supplicants to work through?”

M’Baku allowed himself to be chased off, still chuckling. He was in a sober mood by the time he got to the audience chamber, and as he sat down, he was composed again. He nodded at Silumko. “Send in the first supplicant.”

#

Nakia didn’t remember much of her first visit to the Fastness. She’d been exhausted, heartsick, running on empty. Going to the Jabari had felt like a betrayal. Coming back was like deja vu, picking up details that she’d seen before but hadn’t catalogued. The War Dogs knew that Jabari technology was nature-based, but seeing it in person was startling, even if the Jabari were clearly trying to hide as much as they could from their visitors.

Something was keeping the Fastness at a pleasantly cool temperature despite the snow. And Nakia was sure that the Jabari had some way of communicating with each other long distance. Strangest of all were the Godkeepers, the all-female shamans of the Jabari, tasked with their rituals, keeping traditions, and taking care of ‘the sacred creatures’. With no gorilla now in residence in the Fastness, Nakia wasn’t sure what other creatures the Godkeepers were referring to.

It was difficult not to gawk. The Godkeepers were dressed starkly, in plain white fabrics, barefoot, their arms, throat and ankles encased in wooden bangles. They had powdered their foreheads with the chalk that M’Baku and his Primes had worn to the Warrior Falls. Other than that, the Godkeepers wore no other decoration, their hair shorn almost down to their scalps, and they stood in a neat file behind the oldest of them, who was mixing something solemnly in a earthenware jar.

Ce’Athauna had pointedly herded Nakia and the Truthseekers to a corner of the dome-like room that she’d called the Resonance Chamber. The walls were ribbed with Jabari wood in unsettling, strangely even whorls that hurt the eye to follow. At the centre, cuffed to stone chairs, the two Jabari prisoners were stiff with unease and fear.

Truthseeker-Captain Gcobisa nervously cleared her throat, though she pitched her voice low. “What exactly is going to happen here?” she asked Ce’Athauna.

“The Godkeepers heard we hadn’t gotten anywhere in our questioning and wanted to have a turn,” Ce’Athauna replied. “Hush now. You’ll get a chance to ask your questions.”

Gcobisa subsided, if reluctantly. Nakia tried to appear unobtrusive and relaxed, clustered with the other Truthseekers behind Gcobisa. The Godkeepers were spreading out around the chamber, taking up even positions close to the walls. They pressed their palms over their chests. At some hidden signal, they began to hum, a stuttering cadence that grew louder, louder, somehow refracted from the wood in the walls, until Nakia’s jaw ached, the sound rattling in her skull. One of the Truthseekers clapped her hands over her ears. The old Godkeeper before the prisoners reached into her jar, flicking some sort of ground powder from it across their faces.

The prisoners began to thrash, gasping, heaving against their cuffs. The Godkeeper raised her hands, palms up, and the prisoners arched in their seats. Then they sat down, limp, breathing shallowly, drool collecting at the edges of their mouths.

“Speak,” the Godkeeper told Ce’Athauna. Gcobisa flinched.

“Why did you kill Anathi?” Ce’Athauna demanded.

“Not us. Not us.” said the prisoner known as Tuma, in a listless tone. “Tetu.”

“Why did Tetu kill Anathi?” Ce’Athauna corrected herself.

“For chaos. For chaos.”

“Who is Tetu?”

“Shamanic. Within the Arteries.”

“All Jabari shamans are women,” Ce’Athauna said.

“This is a different path.”

Ce’Athauna ignored the frown of the elder Godkeeper. “Where in the Arteries?”

“Everywhere,” Tuma said, with a dreamy smile. “Tetu is everywhere.”

“What is his goal?” Ce’Athauna asked.

“The goal of the People.”

“So he’s behind the bombing in Birnin Djata?”

“A bomb was made. But there was a mistake. Bad structural collapse. It was only meant to kill the marks. Not civilians. A man has died for his mistakes,” Tuma said, shuddering. “Still more will die.”

“What do you mean, more will die?” Gcobisa demanded sharply.

“There are bombs. Other bombs,” said the other prisoner, known as Eki. “In all the cities. A big one, under Birnin Zana.”

“Where?” Nakia asked, a chill finger curling up her spine.

“We know not. Only Tetu knows. There will be no more mistakes. Only the unnecessary will die.” Tuma smiled again. “This is what Tetu has promised. A clean slate to begin again. To grow a new garden.”

“One that we deserve,” Eki mumbled.

“Why were two Mining Tribesmen kidnapped and killed here?” Nakia asked. “Nceba and Nkokeli?”

“Their cousin was unwise. Brought them into the plan. Misjudged them. They were not ready for a war. They wanted to report the People to the Truthseekers. They were taken here and we killed them here. Left them in the Collection Place,” Tuma said.

“We were merciful,” Eki said, bowing his head. “They never woke up. Nothing personal.”

Gcobisa’s fists were clenched tightly. She exhaled, and took in a slow breath. “Where is Tetu now? Can you take us to him?”

“Everywhere. Tetu is everywhere. You will all understand this. Soon.” Tuma grinned, so broadly that Nakia winced. “Tetu's work is already here.”

Ce’Athauna started for the door, snapping orders at the Primes beyond. They scattered in different directions, even as Ce’Athauna sprinted for the closest stairs. Nakia hurried after her, Gcobisa at her heels, though Gcobisa waved for one Truthseeker to remain with the prisoners. “M’Baku?” Nakia asked, keeping pace beside Ce’Athauna.

“Holding court at this hour.” Ce’Athauna took the stairs up two at a time. They dashed past surprised Primes, past staff who stopped to stare, past the waiting chamber of supplicants, until they were on the audience floor of the Seat, all but tumbling past the perimeter guard. Beyond, by the open view of the Fastness, M’Baku was rising to his feet in surprise.

“What—” he began, even as one of the supplicants who’d been in the chamber beyond darted past Nakia, bowling a metal sphere towards M’Baku which began to glow a bright green.

Nakia reacted, because War Dog training was indelible. She leaped forward, twisting into a slide, scything the ball away from M’Baku with a kick and out into the open air even as Ce’Athauna pounced on the supplicant. There was an ugly, whispering sound as the ball hovered impossibly in mid-air. Primes cried out in surprise as their spears leaped from their hands like errant fish, striking the ball. As did the decorative shafts hung over the throne. Festooned, the ball sang, a shrill sound, then it was falling, dulled, to the ground far below.

Had the ball rolled behind M’Baku… those spears, every sharp piece of wood in the room—

Slowly, Nakia got up. The supplicant was a Jabari woman, snarling in Ce’Athauna’s grip. “Freedom!” she cried, as Primes grabbed her from Ce’Athauna. “Freedom for the People!”

“Take her down to the Godkeepers,” Ce’Athauna said curtly. “And search the others.”

“My thanks,” M’Baku said, glancing at Nakia.

“Count my debt to you paid,” Nakia said, with a nod. But for Jabari intervention on the fields above Mena Ngai, she would be dead.

#

The rest of the day passed less dramatically. Whatever the Godkeepers were using to get the prisoners to talk, by the time Nakia and Ce’Athauna returned, they had already passed out. And would take days to recover, apparently. If at all. The new prisoner was left in a cell to ‘cool down’. Ce’Athauna took Gcobisa and the others through the existing evidence, even showing them the chamber in the Arteries where the murder had likely taken place.

Late in the evening, they were all invited to dinner at Ce’Athauna’s house. Like most of the houses in the Fastness, it was made of Jabari wood, its door intricately carved: no two doors in the Fastness were the same, as far as Nakia had seen so far. Dinner was with Ce’Athauna’s family: her father, Elder Damola, and her mother, Aisa, who had cooked a feast of jollof rice, fried plantains, fattoush, a lentil bobotie, and roast vegetables. There was even umqombothi, Damola’s recipe. The homemade brew was strong: it made Gcobisa cough—but it relaxed everyone, at least. Gcobisa ended up discussing some intricate honey fraud trial through dinner, and afterwards, Ce’Athauna escorted them back to their guest chambers in the Seat.

“You were quiet during dinner,” Ce’Athauna said, once Gcobisa and the others had been packed off to separate rooms.

“I was intrigued. Honey fraud in Wakanda, who would’ve thought.”

Ce’Athauna grinned. She wasn’t easily fooled. “Easier to let others talk so you can observe.”

“As you say.” Before walking into her room, Nakia paused. “About what the prisoners said. The bombs. There’s likely one in the Fastness.”

“Yes, I heard as much. I have Prowlers combing the Arteries. And we’ve twice-checked the Seat.”

“Either way, it’d be safer for M’Baku to move elsewhere for now.”

Ce’Athauna sniffed. “I’ve told him. The answer is no.”

“Pride is ill comfort if everything goes up in an explosion. Speaking as someone who was only just recently caught within one.”

“He’s not inclined to run, he says. Besides, the Seat is probably as safe as we can make it. That’s why they used that sphere. Anything else wouldn’t have gotten past our security.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Nakia said, with open skepticism.

“Good night, War Dog,” Ce’Athauna said, with a smirk. “See you in the morning.”

The guest quarters were comfortable, albeit not as lavish as what Nakia was used to back home in the River Tribe’s lands. She did a slow circuit, used the washing facilities, and allowed herself to marvel at whatever design allowed an open-air drop without the chill coming in. She was studying the wooden ribs in the walls when Shuri pinged her.

“Shuri? Is something wrong?”

“No? I was really just checking in. You?”

“Someone tried throwing a ball made of that vibranium alloy at M’Baku.”

“Is he okay?” Shuri’s hologram blinked, concerned.

“Yes, he’s fine. Stubborn but fine. How’s everyone else?”

“I’ve been using drones to scan Wakanda for the alloy. It’s a diffuse signature, hard to pick up in small quantities. T’Challa, W’Kabi, and Okoye are going to investigate what looks like a larger resonance in Birnin Bashenga.”

“W’Kabi?” Nakia grimaced.

“I know, right? I told T’Challa, look, W’Kabi is obviously a trash fire, you guys should just dump him back at the border, but T’Challa was like well, he’s an old friend and he had his reasons.” Shuri made a disgusted sound. “I guess Okoye will be around to keep them in line.”

Okoye would have her hands full. “I suppose W’Kabi would be useful in Birnin Bashenga. It’s a Border Tribe city. Having the First Shield around would be able to open some doors.” And smooth down some feathers.

“Ugh. T’Challa’s still on speaking terms with Shieldchief Khosi. He would’ve been good enough.” The leader of the Border Tribe was a philosophical and quiet soul. Albeit one who had also sided with Killmonger under the advice of his First Shield.

“Could you find a resonance for this alloy anywhere else?”

“Not yet, no. I can’t pick up small instances of it.”

“There’s one more thing. I sent T’Challa an emergency brief earlier, so I’m sure you’ve seen it. About the bombs.”

Shuri nodded grimly. “I’ve had drones out, scanning, and everyone’s on high alert. So far, we haven’t found anything.”

That was good. Or not. “Keep looking. I don’t think it was bad information.”

“There’s one more thing. I’ve managed to isolate the frequency of the tightbeam that resonates with the alloy. If it happens again, I’ll be able to trace it more accurately.”

“Good.”

“I feel like everyone gets to go on a mission but I’m stuck here,” Shuri said, a little enviously.

“You’re doing great,” Nakia said, with a tired grin. Shuri was still a child—Gods willing, she would never be in direct danger again.

“I hate it when you guys say that.”

Chapter Text

Birnin Bashenga was a Border Tribe city that connected the ‘villages’ that sat on the Wakandan border between the mountains and Lake Nyanza far to the east. It was, by that measure, possibly one of the strangest cities in the world: fully underground, fully defensive, highly segmented, an underground firewall of residential and commercial districts, manufacturing plants, and garrisons.

Most of Birnin Bashenga was centralised in the western sector, on the southwestern Wakandan border by the mountains, which also contained the Academy that trained the Border Tribe’s military, retail and residential districts, the Justicar HQ, and the Hexarch, the seat of tribal government for the Border Tribe.

T’Challa had never felt comfortable in Birnin Bashenga, even though he’d spent part of his childhood here, training in the Academy. The walls of the city were fully tiled with chameleon technology, allowing them to project anything from beautiful views of far-off lands to films. At present the vast walls and ceilings were running an installation from a Wakandan artist who was a favourite of his mother, an eye-watering, animated pattern that looked as though the city was inverted around some a colourful scaled serpent, slow-breathing. It was giving T’Challa a mild headache.

Okoye shot it barely a glance as they walked up onto the basalt slab that anchored the ground floor of the Hexarch. Shieldarm Mosa was already waiting for them, a silent, imposing figure around the usual administrative chaos within the Hexarch. Age had turned her hair silver, and her prosthetic left arm looked a fraction more slender, but as T’Challa greeted her she smiled a faint, secretive smile that he remembered from the Academy, where she had been his favourite tutor.

“My King,” Mosa said formally, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Shieldarm Mosa. You’re all dressed up,” T’Challa said, unable to help a grin as Mosa made a face. She was in ceremonial armour—which, since it was Border-made, was functional—draped with her shieldcloak, affixed with her silver and gold coils of office over her arms and breastplate.

“Needs must.” Mosa inclined her head at the others. “First Shield W’Kabi. General Okoye.”

Once pleasantries were done with, she gestured for them to follow, heading past the lobby of the Hexarch. Like the other buildings in Birnin Bashenga, it was built defensively, with narrow windows and straight corridors, solid furniture. Patterned tapestries and chameleon plating that had been tuned to a view of Lake Nyanza softened its edges, but with everyone visibly armed, it was a meagre illusion.

“You should come back to the Academy for a refresher,” Mosa said, once they were crowded into the jaunt lifts, heading further underground. “I saw a recording of your fight with Prince N’Jadaka.”

“Not good?” T’Challa asked, swallowing a wry laugh. Beside him, W’Kabi was staring at the ceiling, while Okoye had gone suspiciously stone-faced.

“Permission to speak frankly?”

“Always, Mosa.”

“It was a disgrace,” Mosa said, though she smirked faintly. “Your footwork has degenerated. In fact, it’s even a wonder that we’re not currently living under Jabari rule. I felt embarrassed having to watch that particular bout with my own two eyes on the Warrior Falls. If you can’t afford the time to come here, perhaps General Okoye can teach you the refresher in our place. I’ll forward her a lesson plan.”

“Maybe after all this has settled down, eh?” T’Challa carefully didn’t look at Okoye. “I suppose I’m lucky that I was only attacked by the garrison stationed at Mena Ngai.”

Mosa sniffed. “If you’d decided to have your little war on top of Birnin Bashenga it would’ve been over quickly, and not in your favour. Although,” she conceded, “I hear the Jabari fight well. Overall. Though it still fell to General Okoye to defuse the situation.”

“That’s what Generals are for.” T’Challa listened to Mosa complain about his footwork all the way down, until the lift disgorged them all on the Isihlangu floor. Like the lobby, the floor looked as though it was made of a single slab of dark stone, the chameleon-patterned walls hung with bars of light between mounted shieldcloaks and weapons from famous Border Tribesmen over the centuries.

Shieldchief Khosi met them in a stateroom alone. T’Challa tried not to feel impatient, as much as this was a formality. Khosi had already read Shuri’s brief: the meeting was just a matter of political etiquette. T’Challa exchanged polite pleasantries with Khosi, following rote, though he was nearly thrown off balance when Khosi said, “About Shieldguard Mandla.”

“A very thoughtful young man, judging from his essay,” T’Challa said carefully.

Khosi glanced at W’Kabi, then back at T’Challa. “Unfortunately, Mandla’s sentiment is not without its support. Especially here in Birnin Bashenga.”

T’Challa nodded. “No doubt. It does make a great deal of sense. The King of Wakanda is meant to serve Wakanda. If a better system evolves, then let it evolve.”

“Does the King serve Wakanda or himself?” W’Kabi said, his tone flat. “You’ve gone against the Tribal Council’s wishes, opening Wakanda to the world.”

“And Killmonger did not?” Okoye snapped.

“The Council offered no objections to King N’Jadaka’s plans. We were both there. We saw.”

“Because they were afraid!”

Across the table, Khosi sighed. “Peace,” T’Challa said, raising his voice. “What’s done is done.”

“As I told you in the Council, the Border Tribe does not apologise for the choices it made during the… recent matter of succession,” Khosi said evenly. “In our opinion, King N’Jadaka is—was—the true king. By our laws. Now that he is dead, you are King, yes. I support that. I support bringing the Jabari into the Tribal Council. And I respect your choice to reveal Wakanda to the world, even if I continue to disagree with it. But do not think that you are popular in Birnin Bashenga right now, your Majesty.”

“I didn’t think I would be. Shieldchief Khosi, I am sorry that matters came to pass in such a way. I am sorry for the losses your people suffered by my hand. But I am still King, for all that entails. I am not here to be popular. I am here to do what I think is right for Wakanda.”

Khosi eyeballed T’Challa with a steely stare for a while, then he grunted. “Good. Now. About this matter of ‘Tetu’. You are convinced the Jabari can deal with him on their own?”

“I think the Jabari will be very inclined to view the arrival of a Shieldguard garrison as an invasion,” T’Challa said, keeping his tone mild.

“Our Shieldguards have been searching the city since we received your warning,” Khosi said, “and we’ve found nothing yet.”

“Shuri believes she has narrowed down the resonance. With your leave, we’ll release her newest set of specialised drones within Birnin Bashenga and conduct a more thorough search.”

“Do what you must.” Khosi inclined his head. “May this insanity end quickly.”

“And if it’s possible, I would like to someday meet Shieldguard Mandla. In an informal setting,” T’Challa said, as casually as he could.

“Apologies will only serve to demean the loss he has suffered,” Khosi pointed out.

“I’m aware of that.”

“May I ask why you wish to see him?”

“This whole… trial… with N’Jadaka has made me realize that my real enemy is privilege,” T’Challa said, earnest. “My privilege. I’ve been oblivious to that in the past. It scarred Wakanda in return. I’d like to remedy that. Shieldguard Mandla might be able to help.”

Khosi glanced at W’Kabi, who shrugged. “W’Kabi will make the arrangements,” Khosi said, if with clear reluctance.

Outside, on the lift up, Mosa said, “Not bad. At least you still have a spine. I was getting worried.”

Okoye growled, but said nothing. T’Challa chuckled. “I’m glad to see that you still care enough about me to be worried, Mentor.”

“I care about all my students. The brilliant ones,” Mosa nodded at Okoye, “the stubborn ones,” a nod at W’Kabi, “and the forgetful ones.” This last she levelled with a sharp smile at T’Challa. “The Border Tribe respects strength, T’Challa. Your father understood that completely.”

T’Challa sighed. “This city was named after the first of my bloodline, the first King of Wakanda. I understand. I am not here to repeat my father’s lessons. Or his mistakes.”

#

Shuri’s drones took them under the city proper, to the the central station for the magnetic trains that ran every couple of minutes along the border-city, as well as to the other Wakandan cities and towns. The Bright Terminus was busy with people, and T’Challa tried not to think about how explosives might be close by. The carnage. Judging from the grim look on his companions’ faces, he wasn’t the only one.

It was slow going, since they were all easily recognisable, but the Dora Milaje warriors’ forbidding stares and W’Kabi’s sharp, “Official business. Move along,” managed to hustle them past the crowds.

Okoye breathed more easily once they were through to the service network that ran along the tunnels. As the drone flew before them, its silver eye scanning the corridor, W’Kabi said, “I think I know where it is taking us.”

“So do I,” T’Challa said.

Years ago, not far from here, with N’Jobu’s help, Klaue had accessed the tunnels within Wakanda through a service entrance just outside Birnin Bashenga, tunnels that led eventually along the train tunnels to the storage chambers close to Mena Ngai. They had taken what they wanted and returned the same way, tripping the alarm by accident when they were nearly on their way out. The skirmish had taken the lives of W’Kabi’s parents, the Shieldguards closest by. There had been nothing left of them to bury. In Birnin Bashenga T’Challa had watched a laughing, cheerful boy become a solemn and serious one overnight. And the pain had only festered. He should have seen that.

“W’Kabi,” Okoye said, concerned. He stared at her for a moment, then back at the drone, lost in thought, his hand clenched on the hilt of his scimitar. It was a long walk. At the intersection between the tunnel further to the next station along the Bashenga Line and the tunnel leading towards Mena Ngai, the drone paused, turning this way and that.

“Shuri.” T’Challa tapped his communications bead.

“Hang on,” Shuri said, her hologram frowning intently at a screen. “These readings. That’s strange.”

“If we have to walk to Mena Ngai that’s a very, very long walk,” Mosa said, staring down the tunnel. “I’d prefer to head back to the Terminus and charter a train. Or take a warbird.”

“Huh,” Shuri peered closer at something. “That’s weird. Apparently Okoye’s standing on chameleon coating.”

Okoye startled backwards quickly. It took a few false attempts before they found a hidden switch under the coating. A panel slid away, revealing a dark mouth in the floor, leading downwards. “Well, that’s just depressing,” Mosa said, with a glance at W’Kabi, who set his jaw, scowling.

“A security breach, yes,” T’Challa said.

“Not just that. The Border Tribe always wondered how Klaue managed to get from Birnin Bashenga to Mena Ngai and back unnoticed. We have sensors in the service tunnels. Klaue and his people were like a ghost. At least until they tried to get from Birnin Bashenga across the border.” Mosa rubbed her jaw tiredly. “So Prince N’Jobu wasn’t the only… wasn’t the only person working with Klaue.”

“Wasn’t the only traitor, no.” T’Challa would not gloss over his family’s mistakes.

“Why not just dig a tunnel all the way out? Then they would never have been caught,” Okoye said.

“I think they were meant to be caught,” T’Challa said, thinking it over. “We branded Klaue that night, though he managed to evade custody in the chaos.” That part had been suspicious as well, on hindsight. “We were meant to think that outsiders got away with the entire alloy cache. To focus our efforts on him all this while.”

“Then I am glad that we are here,” W’Kabi said evenly. “If Klaue was only a tool, my revenge is incomplete.”

“The safety of our cities is at stake,” Okoye said sharply. “If bombs go off—”

“We kill these people, no more bombs. Right?” W’Kabi interrupted. “Good.” He started to climb down into the drop, bars of light on his belt starting to glow as he went.

“This is going to get crowded,” Mosa said, with a look at the Dora Milaje, “and I have a bad feeling about the Terminus.”

“Go back and issue a temporary evacuation order. Call it a drill if you have to. We’ll keep in touch,” T’Challa said. He, Okoye, W’Kabi, and the Dora Milaje should be enough for whatever was in there anyway.

Mosa nodded, crossing her palms over her chest. “It’s good to see you,” she said, then looked at Okoye. “Good to see you both.” She turned, heading back down the tunnel.

One below, T’Challa activated the suit, which quickly adjusted for the low light. “I’ll scout ahead,” he told the others, which didn’t sit well with Okoye, judging from her frown, but T’Challa headed down the corridor before she could object. It was old, and had been crudely dug with mining tools without being properly shored up. Still, it did look like it’d been used recently. In the dust, there were footprints.

Shuri’s pod hovered over his shoulder, keeping pace. Her voice routed into his ear through the suit. “Okay brother. We’re getting closer to the resonance. I don’t detect any life signs.”

“Keep searching.”

“The tunnel looks like it just runs straight through.” The pod sped on ahead. There was a pause, as the pod hovered closer to the ground. “Picking up old DNA traces. A hair? Cross-referencing… eh, it’s Klaue all right. He came this way once.”

“Patch that to W’Kabi and keep moving.”

“Shuri do this, Shuri do that. How did all of you manage without me?”

“Very badly,” T’Challa said, just to hear her laugh.

The pod eventually came to a stop outside a heavy door. “Okay. I think this is it. The resonance is coming from behind it. But I don’t actually read any life signs,” Shuri said.

“Explosives?”

“Not that I can tell from here either. You’ll have to get the door open.”

“Ask the others to come on through,” T’Challa decided, inspecting the door. It was made of vibranium. No way of opening that with his claws—or Okoye’s spear. He pushed it, making the hinge creak loudly. Hm. “There’s no way of opening this remotely?”

“Not that I can tell, no… hm, no, wait. There’s a hidden sensor.” The pod floated down to the centre of the door, just as Okoye and the others caught up.

“We’re trying to—” T’Challa began, just as Okoye jabbed her spear into the seam of the door, near the top. At her command, the other Dora Milaje also shoved their spears into the seam between the door and the wall. There was a blue pulse, then a shearing sound as metal shook free from the rock around it. The doors fell with loud, booming thuds. “—open the door.”

“And now it is open.” Okoye said, even as W’Kabi laughed, then seemed to catch himself.

T’Challa shook his head. The room was some sort of old storage space. Shelf brackets lined the walls. They had once held boxes, recently moved—clean squares on otherwise dusty shelves were all that were left. Some of the squares closest to the door were cleaner than most.

“They might have stored some of the caches here,” W’Kabi said, inspecting the brackets. “Which would explain the vibranium door and its security.”

“Right under our noses,” Okoye said.

“But if they moved the crates away, then what is giving off the resonance?” T’Challa asked. The room looked empty. “Maybe there’s another hidden floor here? Shuri?”

“Coming through, coming through, I’m here.” Shuri’s pod floated in, and turned to do a slow circuit of the room. “Mosa’s evacuating the Terminus, by the way. They’re calling it a fire alarm. Pretty orderly evacuation so far, no panic. Not that anyone believes it’s a fire alarm. You guys were pretty obvious walking in here.”

“Couldn’t be helped,” T’Challa said, with a glance at Okoye and the other Dora Milaje.

“Well, it’s a good thing. I’m checking in on the general chatter, people think between you, Okoye, and W’Kabi, you’d probably be able to handle whatever it is. Confidence in the monarchy, eh?” Shuri giggled again.

“Pay attention, Shuri.” Okoye said, though she smiled.

“Yes, yes. Okay. There’s something here.” The pod floated down, nearly to floor level. “Under one of the shelves? Scanning… wait. Wait. What’s that feedback? It’s… how is it hacking us? Zintle, shut down the… it’s what? How’d it get past my security? The doors, they’re all opening—”

Shuri’s voice cut off, the pod going dark, falling onto the ground with a clang. T’Challa tapped his communication bead. “Shuri? Shuri!”

Okoye was tapping at hers. No avail. “No answer from the Dora Milaje stationed at Mena Ngai.”

“Some sort of EMP?” W’Kabi frowned. “That shouldn’t be possible.” He grabbed T’Challa as T’Challa growled and started for the door. “What are you going to do, run there? Without backup?”

“My sister!” T’Challa shook W’Kabi’s grip off roughly.

“Calm down. Follow me up. We’ll charter one of the trains. Take a garrison. There’s a Border garrison there and some Dora Milaje. They’ll hold out against whatever it is.”

So he hoped. T’Challa forced down a harsh breath. For Shuri’s sake, he had to be calm. “Lead on.”

Chapter Text

T’Challa had been dreading what he would find. They emerged from Mena Ngai station into chaos. The Mena Ngai garrison looked like it was fighting people from every Tribe, all at once: T’Challa picked out Merchant Tribesmen with stinger bows, other Border Tribesmen, River people with their ringblades, Mining Tribesmen wielding staves, even a scattering of Jabari. The air was thick with war cries and screams.

Mosa glanced at W’Kabi, who nodded, then at T’Challa. “You take General Okoye, find the Princess. The First Shield and I will handle this.”

“Try to minimise casualties,” T’Challa said. It was hard to watch. His country, turning on itself. Because of his decisions? Or because of who he was? Perhaps there were no decisions he could make that weren’t paved in someone’s suffering. Gods, it ached.

“Just go,” W’Kabi snapped. At his gesture, the garrison that had deployed with them arranged itself into a defensive wall, advancing forward in a shielded phalanx. Later there would be time to grieve. A time for questions. T’Challa nodded as Mosa clapped him on the shoulder before falling into step with the garrison. He kept close to the wall of the station as the garrison advanced over the sprawling underground station platforms.

There was a shout as he was recognised. A Jabari Tribesman lunged over, trailed by a couple of Rivers; Okoye swung her spear in a tight arc, deflecting a stinger bolt. “The King!” she snarled. The Dora Milaje took up a defensive perimeter, spears out, the line barely buckling under the clash. Glowing Kimoyo Beads—the People were fighting with enhanced strength and speed. T’Challa tapped his communications bead on habit, to tell Mosa to focus on the beads—but the bead remained dark.

“The shieldcloaks!” one of the Dora Milaje exclaimed. The shieldcloaks weren’t activating. Whatever was suppressing comms was also suppressing Border tech. Incredibly, while the survivors of the Mena Ngai garrison were regrouping behind W’Kabi, the combined garrisons were being slowly pushed back.

“I need to get to Shuri’s lab,” T’Challa said, even though it hurt him to give the order instead of trying to stay and fight. Another Shieldguard fell, choking on a stinger bolt in his throat. He was quickly dragged behind the defensive line, which closed behind him. Okoye grit her teeth, looking away from W’Kabi. She called another order, and the Dora Milaje started to move as a unit, clearing T’Challa’s path to the closest platform exit.

“Wakanda First!” The cry bubbled somewhere in the centre of the platform and spread into a rumbling roar, reflected in the eyes of the Rivers who attacked them with new fury. Wakanda First! Okoye swept out the legs of one of them, cracking him smartly on the temple with her spear. Another grabbed her spear, yanking her off balance with superhuman strength, but T’Challa darted forward, landing a precise punch that threw the attacker back into a Merchant Tribesman.

Mosa howled. It was a deep throated wolf-sound, a pack cry. T’Challa recognised it. Okoye, picking herself up, tensed. Anyone who had graduated from the Academy would know the sound, from the play-days, the cross-class ‘pack’ games that Mosa liked to coordinate, to build friendships. Respect between packs. Okoye, Nakia, W’Kabi, and T’Challa had been a pack. One of many. The Border garrisons firmed up, actually pushing back against the assault. Some howled in response, a joyous keening. Some of the Border Tribesmen in the People’s ranks visibly faltered in their attack, hesitant. Regretting. Look! Many of us went to the same school! T’Challa wanted to shout at them. Why are we fighting each other? ‘Wakanda First’? Listen to yourselves!

He was at the platform exit. “Hold the line,” Okoye told the Dora Milaje, and they fell into an arc around the archway.

The lifts weren’t working, so they took the stairs. It was unsettling to see Mena Ngai so empty. Thankfully, there wasn’t any evidence of carnage: the People hadn’t come here to kill civilians. The sprint to Shuri’s lab was a painful blur. He’d gone ahead of Okoye, pushing himself to his limit. A security check, the doors left open. Another untended security post. Then, finally, the clinical corridor with its barred lights.

T’Challa burst into the top floor of Shuri’s lab. The lab was in disarray, workbenches overturned, tools and half-finished gear strewn everywhere. There were screams as he leaped down onto the next floor, then gasps of “The King! King T’Challa! Oh, we are saved!” as Shuri’s assistants slowly lowered weapons they had clearly grabbed off workbenches. They’d been clustered around consoles plugged to a generator.

“Shuri? Where is Shuri?” T’Challa demanded. Everyone tried to talk at once. “Zintle?”

Zintle pushed forward. Dressed in her usual stark white robe-jackets, she was Shuri’s chief aide, also a young prodigy, only a few years older than Shuri. Her eyes were red with tears, her hands shaking. “Your Majesty! Oh Bast, your Majesty—”

“Calm down, Zintle. Breathe. Where is my sister?”

“She’s gone! She hid us in the new chameleon coating in the storage fridge and she said she wasn’t going to hide, she was going to do something, she couldn’t just let them leave with Kuvele.”

“What? Went where?” Shuri. “Zintle, start from the beginning.”

Zintle took in a deep breath. When Shuri had realized they’d been hacked, all the systems in the lab went down and the security doors all opened. There’d been some sort of attack? The Dora Milaje had gone out to check. They hadn’t come back. Instead there’d been a man in wooden armour and gray robes, accompanied by many guards of different Tribes. Shuri and the other scientists had hidden in the medical pods until they’d gone. Then they’d realized that the armoured man had taken Kuvele, the royal family’s server-pod. Kuvele didn’t just host the encrypted royal band where holders of royal beads could speak privately, it also had a direct link to everyone’s comm beads, for emergency purposes only.

“He only took Kuvele?” At Zintle’s nod, T’Challa frowned, just as Okoye slowed to a stop at the top of the stairs. She glanced at them, then turned around, checking the corridor.

“We’re up!” One of the scientists crowed. Zintle and the others clustered around the console as she typed furiously.

“The invaders somehow shut down vibranium-based technology in Menu Ngai,” Zintle explained, “but we had some things we confiscated from Agent Ross that were low tech enough that they weren’t affected. I think the outsiders call it ‘a phone’? It is big and ugly. We dug up this old pre-vibrachip console from storage and uplinked it to their ‘internet’.”

Audio patched in. It was Shuri, hissing, “Well that took you guys long enough!”

“Princess!” Zintle cried out in relief. There was a constant snarl of wind in the background, as though Shuri was in mid air.

“Shuri? Shuri, where are you?” T’Challa shouldered through.

“In another castle!” Shuri started giggling, her voice nearly stolen by the wind.

“What? What castle?”

“You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to say that,” Shuri said gleefully. “Is this what it’s like to be you? I’m wearing some prototype spare armour. Eh, it’s actually very warm in here even with my mods. Kind of tight around the hips. I’m going to have to install more upgrades after all this.”

“Shuri. Where. Are you.

“I’m under a warbird. I think this Tetu person is flying it. We’re heading towards the Jabari lands? I got on when he took off. He’s got some sort of jammer on board. I think once we get out of range the systems in Menu Ngai will come back online. Around. Now.”

The dimmed emergency lights in the lab flickered, growing brighter. People were now pinging T’Challa’s bead. Khosi, Palesa, even M’Baku. T’Challa ignored them for now. “Looks like we’re up,” Zintle said, scurrying over to the main consoles.

“Activate suppression turrets. Shoot to stun,” Shuri said. There was a scraping sound, barely audible. “Okay. I’m going to try and stop this thing. We’re getting close to the mountains.”

Shuri.”

“Relax, I know what I’m doing.” There was another scraping sound, then Shuri yelped. “Wah! I think he just realized I’m here. Trying to throw me off. Access panel. Access panel!” Something clanged dully, then the sound of claws ripping over metal. Then only the wind, whistling, and a loud crack.

“She must have dropped the phone,” Zintle said, typing furiously, “but we can track its last known location. I’ll twin the location to your map and open access to the warbirds on the top floor. Lifts are back online.”

“Right.” T’Challa gathered himself, bounding from the floor up to the stairs in a leap. As he charged down the corridor to the jaunt lifts, followed by Okoye, he pinged W’Kabi. “Status?”

“Under control. Turrets are back up. Shieldcloaks back online. Shuri?” W’Kabi asked.

“Not here. I’m going to follow her.”

“Go. Mosa and I will handle things here.” There was a pause, then W’Kabi said, his voice edged, “This time, don’t let them slip away from you.”

T’Challa swallowed his first retort. “I don’t intend to.”

#

M’Baku caught up with T’Challa and Okoye upwind of the warbird crash site. “Long gone,” T’Challa said. He was in his black panther suit, his fingers curling and uncurling. “And Tetu is jamming our tracking. Shuri’s signal went dead near here.”

“We’ll spread out. Tetu’s probably headed towards the Vault of the Sky. There’s a few ways he can get there from here. I’ll have some prowlers check overland routes. The rest of us should take routes in the Arteries. I’ll go with Nakia and a Prowler can go with General Okoye,” Ce’Athauna said.

“I’ll go overland with T’Challa,” M’Baku said. At T’Challa’s nod, Okoye and Nakia dispersed with Ce’Athauna and a handful of Prowlers. Other Prowlers started spreading out over the rocky slopes.

Enhanced by the Herb, T’Challa at least didn’t seem affected by the thin mountain air or the chill, keeping up easily as M’Baku picked his way in a tireless jog towards a hidden pass. “Nakia debriefed us on the way up. I’m sure Shuri is fine,” M’Baku said.

“I’m not looking for comfort.”

“I’m not offering any. Just stating an opinion.”

T’Challa glanced at him, the seamless mask an unsettling look before it faded away in a ripple of vibranium chips, revealing his face. He looked tired. “I don’t know how Tetu or the People managed to get around Shuri’s systems.”

“Jabari shamanic abilities revolve around Jabari wood,” M’Baku said, struggling to find the words to explain. “Which is in turn naturally infused with vibranium. Jabari wood doesn’t break against vibranium because it’s resonant in turn with vibranium. It has a kinship. Used in certain ways, it can even manipulate vibranium. Especially unstable alloys.”

“Any vibranium,” T’Challa said, grim again.

“Yes.”

“Can your Godkeepers do this?”

“Is that relevant to what we’re doing now?”

“Obviously,” T’Challa bit out, then made a visible effort to moderate his tone. “Perhaps they’d be able to contain whatever Tetu is doing to our equipment.”

“The Godkeepers have never faced something like this before. They don’t even understand it. They say it’s almost as though Tetu is channeling the powers of the land itself. They’re trying to see what they can do, but I wouldn’t rely on it,” M’Baku said, as delicately as he could. Thankfully, T’Challa didn’t push, continuing to follow M’Baku down towards the ravine.

“I’m surprised your Primes aren’t here,” T’Challa said, as they descended down to a narrow ledge. A mountain stream cut a deep chasm next to it, at a bonebreaking depth below, steep and loud.

“Prowlers are more familiar with the Vault. Besides, we actually have a limit on the number of people permitted per month into the Vault. The Godkeepers aren’t happy about this as it is.”

“A quota? Why?”

M’Baku shot T’Challa an incredulous look. “Because it’ll disturb and damage the forest?”

“Oh. Yes. Of course. That’s laudable, but isn’t this an emergency?”

M’Baku snorted, annoyed despite himself. He knew T’Challa was stressed. His sister was lost somewhere in the Vault, facing someone with powers T’Challa didn’t understand. “The Jabari don’t place the welfare of ourselves above the welfare of the land,” he said, neutral. “We think the two are intertwined.” Unlike Wakanda at large, he did not add.

“That’s why you sent Okoye and Nakia underground,” T’Challa said, reflective now. “You didn’t permit me to attend the funeral in the Vault before. It’s closed to outsiders, isn’t it?”

M’Baku nodded curtly. “You are the King of Wakanda, which includes the Jabari lands. Even if my people might not like it. You may enter the Vault, especially if you tread with care. General Okoye and Nakia have no such special dispensation from the Godkeepers. In the unlikely event that we’ll need their aid, Ce’Athauna will take them to the surface.”

“Shuri and Tetu may be in the Arteries.”

“A happier prospect.”

“Birnin Bashenga must have been a trap.” T’Challa thought out aloud as he followed M’Baku along the narrow ledge. “Menu Ngai is highly secure. He must have needed a way in. He knew we’d investigate the resonance in Birnin Bashenga. Somehow he used his Jabari shaman affinity to infect Shuri’s security. But why take Kuvele?”

“That thing links you with all Wakandans who have Kimoyo Beads, doesn’t it?” M’Baku gestured at his wrist, where T’Challa’s bead was tied with a simple string.

“Yes?”

M’Baku picked up the pace. “Jabari shamanic powers get stronger around Jabari wood. Stronger yet, if it is still a living tree. If he can amplify his resonance with vibranium, even normal vibranium…” M’Baku trailed off.

“What else can your shamans do?” T’Challa asked. “Nakia said she saw your Godkeepers compel two men to speak the truth.”

“And yours can give and take away the powers of a Goddess. Cause a living person to visit the world of the dead.”

“The Ancestral Plane.”

M’Baku sniffed. “If it is an Ancestral Plane, then why are Panthers all that you see, O King? Where are the rest? Those of your blood who never took the Heart Shaped Herb? All other people who have come before you? The place you people think of as the Ancestral Plane is not quite what you think it is. There, you’ll see only what you are willing to see. Africa, with the Panther Ascendant.”

Visibly stung, T’Challa said, “How did you even know about that?”

“We’ve been watching Wakanda for a long time. And its panthers.”

“Nakia was right, wasn’t she? The Jabari have their own agenda.”

M’Baku’s mouth quirked, but he said nothing. The ledge rose into a sharp climb, one that M’Baku made with no effort. This was his world after all, where he belonged. T’Challa, to his credit, handled the climb with careful grace as well, light on his feet, and if the situation wasn’t so grave, M’Baku might have liked to take the time to admire it.

The ledge squeezed through a narrow crack within sheer rock, where they could only walk one apace. “Keep close and watch your feet,” M’Baku said, as he took them through.

“The ground’s unstable?”

“No. But kill nothing here, if you can help it.”

The passage opened from rock to forest in a shock to the senses. The Vault of the Sky swept down from the slopes in a a wealth of beautiful, massive trees, each wider than T’Challa was tall, their leaves in rich verdant hues of green. There was a earthy, loamy scent, cut across the crisp air, and close by, something brilliantly coloured flashed through the branches with a liquid, warbling cry. Above, the sky was an unbroken blue, bisected by the crowns of ancient trees. Here was Wakanda too, living, older than cities.

M’Baku watched T’Challa closely. T’Challa looked overwhelmed, his eyes wide and growing bright as he looked slowly from tree too tree, breathing in deeply. It took a moment for T’Challa to collect himself, then he said, “Thank you.”

“For?”

“Your trust. The Vault of the Sky is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

M’Baku let out a short laugh, turning away to look at the trees. “It is, isn’t it.”

“Why do you laugh?”

“A long time ago, when I was young and unwise, I looked on Birnin Zana and thought the same thing.” M’Baku started to head down the slope.

“It’s a different sort of beauty.” T’Challa followed, careful of where he set his feet. He stopped as M’Baku raised his wrist, then stared in surprise as a moth alighted on a wooden bangle. M’Baku pressed his palm to the bangle, staring intently at the moth as it fed him snatches of impressions. After a moment, the moth took flight.

“The others haven’t found Shuri or Tetu yet, but some Prowlers stumbled on another cell of the People and subdued them,” M’Baku said.

“How… what? Your people talk to each other with moths?”

“Moths? What moths? That’s crazy. Who talks to other people using insects?” M’Baku said, and started to snicker when T’Challa scowled at him.

“… Nevermind.” T’Challa tapped his bead again. “Shuri’s not responding. Either she’s turned off her Kimoyo Beads or…” T’Challa shuddered. “Let’s keep moving.”

They walked for a while, deeper into the Vault. Then there was a crack ahead, like something stepping on a branch, and a thumping sound, a low, loud hoot. M’Baku stiffened. “Wait here,” he told T’Challa, jogging on ahead. M’Baku heard T’Challa hesitate behind him, then follow, annoyingly enough.

They came to a tree, surrounded by silver gorillas, young and old, the adults as huge as Anathi. They were gathered around a tree, glancing up, and turned to look at them with gentle curiosity.

“I told you to stay put,” M’Baku said, without looking over his shoulder.

“I’m staying.”

M’Baku sighed. He raised his palms up. Then he walked over, slowly, until he was at a respectful distance, waiting. Eventually, one of the largest gorillas ambled over, looking at M’Baku with the same mild curiosity. Great fingers touched M’Baku’s head, tentative, then the furs over his shoulders. The gorilla bent, to look M’Baku straight in his eyes. Satisfied, the gorilla turned away, the troop dispersing silently into the forest.

Looking up now, M’Baku could see the scratches on the trunk, disappearing into the leaves. “Shuri,” T’Challa said dryly, “you can come down now.”

There was a long pause, then, Shuri said, “There are some seriously giant animals here. Sorry M’Baku. I didn’t want to accidentally hurt anything, so I thought I’d stay in a tree until they went away.”

“Just come down,” M’Baku said, resigned.

“I um. Actually don’t know how to? Wow, this is a long way up.”

M’Baku rubbed a palm over his face. “Didn’t you crash out of the sky along with a warbird?”

“Ooh, don’t remind me. Right. Uh, here goes.” Shuri dropped out of the tree, landing hard with a yelp, the suit rippling in pale orange colours, absorbing the impact. Once on the ground, Shuri hugged her brother tightly, her suit ebbing into a large golden necklace over her shoulders, her arms encased in vibranium bracers.

“I managed to hurt him, I think. He was limping? I chased him into the forest and then I don’t know how, but he just disappeared. Before I could triangulate his position, the giant gorillas appeared and well. They’re cute, just really big. Sorry M’Baku.”

M’Baku shrugged. T’Challa frowned down at Shuri. “Why didn’t you answer your Kimoyo Beads?”

“He did something to them.” Shuri gestured at her wrist, where the beads lay dark. “Think he tried to do the same to the suit, but it didn’t work. Possibly because I made the suits out of a new alloy. A liquid mesh.”

“Don’t worry me like that again. I think I aged ten years,” T’Challa said.

She made a face at him as she stepped back. “What was I supposed to do, just let him go?”

“And where is he now?”

Shuri grinned. “I tagged him with a micro tracer when he was leaving the wreck. He’s still in the forest.”

Chapter Text

“They’ve found Shuri and she’s safe and sound,” Ce’Athauna said, as M’Baku’s woodmoth flit back into the dark. Okoye and Nakia were staring at her. “What? You people never seen a moth before?”

“Not people using moths as… as messengers, no,” Nakia said, blinking. Somehow she hadn’t seen that in the few days where she’d been a guest here. How much more was there to the Jabari? It felt like they weren’t just a distinct tribe, they were a completely separate people. Different philosophy. Completely different technology. Had centuries driven the Jabari so far apart from the rest of Wakanda?

“Telepathic moths?” Okoye looked skeptical.

“Wow, magic moths! Now that’s an interesting idea,” Ce’Athauna said, and smirked when Okoye muttered something darkly under her breath. “M’Baku, T’Challa, and Shuri are going to keep tracking Tetu above ground. The rest of us will just need to keep searching the Arteries.”

“We should regroup with the King,” Okoye said, clearly unhappy about being underground and separated from T’Challa.

“They’ll be fine,” Ce’Athauna said, patting the hump of a tree root that arced out from the wall beside her. “The Vault won’t let anything happen to M’Baku.”

“What do you mean by that?” Nakia didn’t quite share Okoye’s unease. T’Challa and Shuri were both wearing Shuri’s Panther armour, after all. They were about as protected as they could get.

“M’Baku is an avatar of Hanuman,” Ce’Athauna said slowly, as though trying to speak to someone purposefully obtuse, “and this is Hanuman’s forest.”

“You speak as though the forest is sentient,” Nakia said, jogging to keep pace with Ce’Athauna.

“Not the forest,” Ce’Athauna said. She looked as though she wanted to say more, frowning to herself. Finally, she said, “We bury all our people here. Without exception. It is a sacred place. A memory place. A living vault, where death feeds new life.”

Nakia glanced at Okoye, who returned an impassive stare. She did always admire Okoye’s single-mindedness. For as long as there was something to work towards, Okoye would not be distracted by anything, be it sentiment or culture. “Where are we headed?” Okoye asked. “This tunnel network feels immense.”

“We’re mirroring M’Baku’s route underground. We think we know where Tetu might have been headed, judging from Princess Shuri’s tracking signal,” Ce’Athauna said, grim.

“Not good?” Nakia asked, careful to sound unthreatening.

Okoye had no such compunctions. “We’re walking blind here. What’s wrong?”

Ce’Athauna grumbled a word Nakia could not catch. “Right. As you both might have guessed, you’re both down here in the Arteries because we don’t want outsiders trampling around the Vault and damaging things by accident. The place where we’re heading towards is extremely sacred. If the Godkeepers knew we were taking more than the King there… they won’t make it comfortable for M’Baku.”

“We’ll be careful,” Nakia promised. “My word on it.”

“Mine too,” Okoye said. She sighed. “I know we haven’t been on speaking terms for very long. But I agree with T’Challa. The Jabari are part of Wakanda. We respect your customs as much as we’d respect any of the other tribes.”

“Good talk,” Ce’Athauna said, with a wry smile, “but we’re still going to get in trouble. There’s a tree here that we call the Ancestor Tree. It’s near the centre of the Vault, one of the biggest trees you’d have ever seen. And the oldest. The Godkeepers say it is the oldest living thing in the world, older than some of the stars.”

“Is Tetu planning to do something to it?” Nakia asked, horrified. To even think of damaging something like that…

“I hope not,” Ce’Athauna said darkly.

“Or something with it,” Okoye guessed. “This Ancestor Tree, and Kuvele.”

“Probably. You’d know when we get close. Vibranium reacts strangely there. Vibranium-based technology stops working, or has a different reaction. It is from the Ancestor Tree that the Godkeepers learn how to be Godkeepers.”

The air began to grow warmer as they headed deeper through the tunnels, winding this way and that until even Nakia’s training was confused. They could only trust Ce’Athauna to know the way, and even then she occasionally stopped, inspecting roots. Occasionally a moth would alight on her bangle, which she’d stare at before sending it on its way.

Okoye sucked in a tight breath. Her vibranium bracers were glowing with a pale blue fire, as were the chips in her armour and her spear. Nakia’s ringblades were dull, though the chips in her boots glowed an odd shade of lime green. Both their Kimoyo Beads lit up in shades of cherry red, icy cold to the touch. “Resonance,” Ce’Athauna said. Nakia backed off a few steps, and the glow on her boots and beads faded.

“This Tetu can somehow channel this? Over long distances?” Okoye asked, skeptical.

We’re still waiting for the Godkeepers to explain that,” Ce’Athauna admitted. “If you want to come, come.” She walked down the narrowing tunnel, to where roots thickened out of the earth, crossing the tunnels in thick jags. At one point, they had to crawl to get through, twisting under unyielding roots. The tunnel bent at sharp angles, then, just as abruptly, opened downwards into a well-lit space. Ce’Athauna blinked, then squeezed herself against the wall to allow Okoye and Nakia to have a look.

Below, there were Wakandans from different tribes, walking around, studying readouts on consoles, tending to odd, organic-looking machines that blended wood and vibranium both. The chamber was well-lit, and banks of light had been suspended over hydroponic booths of various plants. Including a tell-tale plant with waxy leaves and bright yellow flowers.

“That’s gelsemium,” Nakia whispered, pointing. “The poison that killed Anathi.”

“Right.” Ce’Athauna pressed her palm to her bangle. The moth emerged, antennae flicking for a moment before it flit over Nakia’s shoulder, resting on a tree root several feet away. More moths emerged out of nowhere, from other roots, until they became a small swarm, twisting on the wood in tight circles. Then they flew off, scattering into the tunnel behind them.

“They’re all trained?” Nakia tried not to gawk.

“Train? Insects can be trained?” Ce’Athauna said, with mock innocence.

“Shh. Look.” Okoye gripped Nakia’s elbow. A tall man with an ascetic face and silver sideburns in Jabari armour was limping across the floor, cradling a familiar vibranium and gold case, etched with the royal crest on the lid, and cicada patterns along its flank. Kuvele.

“We really should wait for backup,” Ce’Athauna said, though she grinned wolfishly.

“But we’re not?” Nakia asked dryly.

“Eh, I hear General Okoye here is the best warrior in Wakanda. Me, I think I am the best warrior in Wakanda. So why don’t we test that out? First person to knock Tetu out wins.”

“Is this really the time?” Nakia hissed, even as Okoye nodded and said, “Done.”

“Here.” Ce’Athauna passed Okoye a dagger, and Nakia a boot knife, which she turned out from hidden sheaths. “Not sure how the resonance might work down there, but just in case. That’s Jabari wood. I made them myself and I expect them returned.”

“A fine weapon,” Nakia said, admiring the piece. It was beautifully balanced, the edge somehow as fine as her ringblades.

“For a fine woman,” Ce’Athauna said, and winked as Nakia hastily stifled a laugh. “You know, you could do so much better than that panther king.”

“Tell that to the Great Gorilla,” Nakia said, though she had to stifle another chuckle, flattered despite herself.

“I have, believe me.”

“Whatever T’Challa and I had is in the past.”

“Good to hear.”

“Can you both please do this later?” Okoye asked, though she smiled. “We have a matter of pride to settle.”

There were cries of alarm as Ce’Athauna dropped down, rolling with the fall and coming up swinging with her spear, clubbing a Border Tribesman with its shaft, knocking him off his feet and out cold. Okoye was next, Ce’Athauna’s dagger in her belt, opting for her own spear for now, letting out a war cry as she charged quickly out of sight. Taking in a breath, Nakia dropped.

They were in a large open space, larger than she’d thought, with the hydroponic banks of plants on one side, some sort of laboratory on another, living spaces curtained off with patterned cloth on the left. Great roots bisected the chamber, sinking from ceiling to floor at uneven intervals like pillars.

People were recovering from their shock. Some fled out of the chamber with yelps. Most grabbed their weapons. Nakia counted six still standing, including Tetu, past the roots, turning around to stare in surprise. She grabbed a metal pipe from the workbench beside her, bouncing it off the forehead of the closest person in an overarm throw, dropping them unconscious to the floor. Okoye tripped up a Mining Tribesman with her spear, leaping high, spear upraised.

Tetu brought up a palm. Okoye’s spear glowed a bright yellow, freezing in the air for a second, then twisting about, earthing itself in the nearest root. Okoye kicked off the root in mid air, arresting her fall and turning it into a graceful leap, plucking the dagger from her belt. Tetu sidestepped her swipe, bringing up the box to deflect a strike.

Nakia shoved the workbench beside her into the belly of a charging Border Tribesman, knocking the wind from him, leaping up and skidding along the table to bringing him to the ground with her weight as the fulcrum, bouncing his head off the dirt. Ce’Athauna stabbed a Jabari Tribesman through the shoulder with her spear, kicking him back against the wall. A slice of a scimitar caught her across her back, ringing against her wooden armour, and she snarled, reversing her spear, ramming its base against her attacker’s throat.

Tetu. Nakia darted quietly behind roots, trying to get behind Tetu as Okoye drove him back. As Okoye stepped between two overhanging roots, Tetu raised his palm again. Root tendrils burst forth, tangling over Okoye’s arms, twisting towards her neck.

“Okoye!” Nakia scrambled over, but Ce’Athauna was there, landing a sharp blow from the shaft of her spear against Tetu’s elbow. He dropped Kuvele with an oath, wincing and scrambling back, grabbing a Jabari staff resting against the wall.

Okoye cursed as Nakia sawed her free, pulling roots off her shoulders and thighs. Once free, Okoye lunged for Kuvele, only for Tetu to bring up both his hands. Her bracers glowed, skidding her back as though hauled by an unseen force. Roots burst out of the ground, tripping Ce’Athauna into a sprawl, then jabbing into the earth as she rolled hastily clear.

Kuvele’s lid snapped open, revealing a large string of custom-made Kimoyo Beads, inset over an amplifier. Tetu picked it up even as Nakia sprang on him with a war cry. He raised an arm to deflect Nakia’s first strike with his bracer, then doubled over as she kicked him in the groin. As Tetu stumbled, Nakia buried her knife in his throat.

Tetu gasped, drowning in his own blood. He staggered back against the wall, still clutching the inset beads to his chest. “You are… a true warrior,” he gasped, choking the words out somehow, “but you are already too late.”

“You’re dying,” Nakia shot back. “Surrender and we’ll get you to medical care, Tetu.”

“Tetu?” Tetu started to laugh, hacking, coughing blood onto his chest. “Tetu is a God, one that the Jabari know by another name. It is not mine.” He sank against the wall, grinning through bloodied teeth, as roots curled over his body, pulling him slowly into the earth, Kuvele and all. Then he was gone.

Slowly, Nakia turned on Ce’Athauna, who looked visibly stunned. “What did he mean? The Jabari have another God?”

Ce’Athauna shook her head. “Only Hanuman. And I don’t think that’s what he meant—” She yelped as a tremor shook through the ground, bowling her off her feet and into Okoye. The ceiling shook, fragments of earth flaking loose.

Now what?” Okoye said, hauling them both up.

Ce’Athauna was already running for the exit. “The Tree!”

#

In the Vault of the Sky, the trees were singing. M’Baku had no other way of describing it. The Ancestor Tree was groaning, a hollow rumbling dirge that shook them off their feet, making Shuri cry out as she clapped palms over her ears.

“What’s happening?” T’Challa yelled at M’Baku, but M’Baku shook his head, just as confused. The Ancestor Tree was… flowering. Pale flowers were blooming in sudden profusion over the branches, like snowflakes, and as the Tree groaned, shuddering, pollen shook loose in a torrent, flooding the air, plastering over their skin.

“Our beads!” Shuri’s note had a high note of wonder and fear. The communications bead was lighting up on the royal band, turning a deep purple. The dirge rang from it, broadcast on all their beads, then Shuri was doubling over, sinking on her knees, coughing and choking. T’Challa too, clutching at his throat.

M’Baku breathed in. The cloud of pollen before him drifted away instead of being sucked into his mouth, despite the lack of a breeze. “T’Challa. Shuri! Your suits, activate your suits!” He grabbed Shuri’s wrist, pulling off her beads and tossing them aside. Then T’Challa’s. Shuri curled up, gasping, the panther suit ebbing over her skin. T’Challa was coughing wetly, his eyes rolled up in his head, unresponsive even as M’Baku compressed his chest and breathed into his mouth.

“No. No.” M’Baku breathed for T’Challa. One, two. Again. Again.

“M’Baku.”

That voice. M’Baku stiffened. He looked up, into a different world. The forest, silent, the sky above a thousand colours of blue and purple. The Ancestral Tree stood still, its pollen translucent in the air, barely visible. Perched on one of its great roots was Ngozi, light of feet as she leaped off, approaching with the grace that his childhood remembered, a grace that had been stripped from her at the end as her sickness drowned her.

“Grandmother.” M’Baku looked down. He was cradling T’Challa still, and for a moment it looked like T’Challa wasn’t breathing. Hastily, he pressed a palm to T’Challa’s throat. There. A pulse, but weak.

“So the panther has come,” Ngozi said, kneeling down beside them, “and you hold its life in your hands.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time. Grandmother, why are you here?”

“You know why.” Ngozi said, gesturing to her right. Yes, of course. Her tree was close by. In the halfway world that opened for would-be Godkeepers, who came to the Ancestor Tree to dream deeply for the truth of the world, the spirits stood with one foot here and in the next.

M’Baku had a hundred things to say. About saving T’Challa, about the pollen, about Tetu and shamanic magic, but what came out of his throat was a whisper. “I missed you.”

“I know.” Ngozi reached over, ruffling his hair playfully, the way she had even when he had grown so tall that she had to reach to do it. “I miss you too. Even though I know that one day, you will be here with me. With everyone.” In the halfway world tenuous within the Vault, everyone who died Jabari was here. He could sense the weight of their presence beyond the trees, watching. Death for the Jabari was the great equalizer, the counterweight in the cycle.

“One day,” M’Baku said, and added reluctantly, “but not yet.”

“I know that too.” Ngozi glanced down at T’Challa. “Huh. I thought he’d be taller.”

Despite himself, M’Baku started to laugh. The laughter shook from him, torn from his throat, and he laughed until there was no laughter left within him, the sound shredding into a hoarse sob. He’d missed her, Gods, he had missed her. “I thought so too. When I first saw him.”

“Pretty, though, if that’s what you like.” Ngozi grinned slyly, and laughed as M’Baku coughed, looking away. “I see Hanuman has not yet granted you wisdom. Life is short.”

“Grandmother. A shaman is poisoning the world. I think he’s using the royal band on the Kimoyo Beads, somehow, to reach all of Wakanda.”

“Singing to all of Wakanda,” Ngozi agreed. “A good song has a special kind of magic in itself, to move minds, change hearts. A song sung by the Ancestor Tree, though, by the land itself, now that is something beautiful. Something terrible.”

“The land itself?”

“Would one man have convinced people from all Tribes to follow him, so devoutly?”

“I don’t understand.”

“For centuries we have buried our people in the Vault. This forest is thick with spirits. Rich with the love that we feel for Wakanda. And the fear. I know the fear, I have seen it. Even when I was alive.” Ngozi reached over, pressing her palm over M’Baku’s chest. “The Ancestor Tree speaks to the Godkeepers, but they do not listen. So the land had to find others. Its own avatars. All this is Tetu, the equilibrium, the arbiter.”

“So how do I change its mind?” M’Baku asked, off-balance. How did you change the mind of the land itself?

“This is the Vault and it is also still Hanuman’s forest,” Ngozi said, poking M’Baku in the chest. “Who are you?”

Who was he? The Great Gorilla of the Jabari. The grandson of Ngozi the Undefeated. A son of Wakanda and its servant. M’Baku breathed out. “As Jabari I am also the land, and the land is me,” he said slowly. “And so I am also an arbiter. As you were. As we have been. We watch Wakanda and the panther.”

“Wisdom at last,” Ngozi said, grinning broadly. She leaned over, to kiss him on the forehead. Then she was gone.

M’Baku sat back. He rubbed his eyes, composing himself. Then he bent, to breathe the air of the halfway world into T’Challa’s lungs, to take them elsewhere within it.

T’Challa woke with a start, scrambling to his feet, and nearly balancing off the edge of the cliff with a yelp. M’Baku steadied him as he looked around wildly. “What? Where are we? Where’s the forest?” T’Challa paused, looking around more slowly. “That sky. This is the Ancestral Plane? Isn’t that Birnin Zana?”

M’Baku nodded. “What do you see?”

“M’Baku? What is all this? I was choking on pollen… Shuri? Where is Shuri?”

“What do you see?” M’Baku repeated. The land itself was listening. Quiet. It had fed on M’Baku’s memories, on Ngozi’s, and it knew to wait.

T’Challa stared at him for a while, frowning as M’Baku stayed impassive. Then he looked away, back at the golden city. “Birnin Zana.”

“What do you see?”

“M’Baku…” T’Challa trailed off. Then he straightened up. “The city of my birth.”

“You are a son of Birnin Zana.”

“I am a son of Wakanda,” T’Challa said. He looked behind them, into the swallowing dark, then forward, at the lights of the city.

“You are a panther. And it is the nature of the panther to want to eat the world.”

“That is not what I am doing. I love Wakanda. Deeply. For me, there is no other home. My blood was shed here. I will be buried here. But there is a world beyond Wakanda, one that I want to help. Wakanda cannot be separated from the world, not when the whole world is being poisoned. The world is growing warmer. All over the world, creatures are going extinct. People wage war over the land, creating suffering on an immense scale. How can Wakanda look away?”

“The panthers will destroy us all. One has already tried.”

“And I stopped him. He was my blood and I stopped him. I wish that none of it happened. He was maddened by his pain. But it was still his hand on the blade. There is a difference to us. We are wealthy by chance. But how can you enjoy wealth at the expense of others? To do so blindly, to do so despite everything we could do for those without our wealth, that I now know is evil. And evil will poison us more quickly than the dying earth.”

Ah. It was an impression, fed through M’Baku like the woodmoth’s whispers made large. On the halfway world there was only enough room for the truth. T’Challa began to fade, though he blinked and tried to speak, raising his palms. When he was gone, M’Baku was in the heart of the Vault again, alone but for the Tree.

“We have not forgotten,” he told the land, as it stayed silent, “and if you wanted my life it has always been yours.”

no more panthers, the murmur came, through M’Baku’s bones, weaker now, no more great gorillas, no more people, no more people

“What would come in our wake would be worse. You’ve made plans for a long time. Sourced a secret cache of vibranium. Built your own army, across all of Wakanda. I can see that. And I know why you did it. The fear. T’Challa was right. The Jabari withdrew from Wakanda because of fear. Fear of change.”

and now change, whispered the land, it is here and we have died

“And so you made your move. You hoped that removing Anathi would turn my people against me. When it didn’t, you tried something else. War between the tribes would have withdrawn the Jabari to the Fastness. Unrest in Wakanda at large would have withdrawn T’Challa to Birnin Zana. No more threats.” M’Baku sat down, stretching out his legs. “Yet you’ve now seen the truth of T’Challa’s words. As have I. I think we are stronger than our fear. We can meet the world, without changing who we are.”

the panther, said the land, the panther is the shadow of death

“Death is part of the cycle. The panther is a son of the land as well. And he will learn to love the land the way we do. I promise you that.”

The Tree fell silent. The sky above was waking into a normal even blue, and as M’Baku blinked, he felt someone anxiously shaking his shoulder, fingers pressed to his throat. Groaning thickly, he swiped at the hands, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. The forest was still, the pollen swarm gone.

“I’m not sure what just happened,” Shuri said, wide-eyed.

“I think I know,” T’Challa said, his eyes intent on M’Baku’s face.

“We’ll talk some other time,” M’Baku told T’Challa, getting to his feet. “You should get your people home.”

“Our people,” T’Challa corrected, and after a moment, M’Baku nodded. Beneath them, the land lay quiet.

Chapter Text

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?”

“Be serious.”

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.

#

Nakia was busy reviewing her notes when Shuri burst into her office, dressed colourfully in a red blouse and a spotted skirt. “Nakia let’s go!”

“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.”

#

Mandla was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a rather pleasant young man. Earnest. T’Challa had a long conversation with him, broadcast for anyone interested to watch, and at the end, while not quite agreeing to disagree, at least agreed to keep in touch. Afterwards, T’Challa called in on W’Kabi at the rhino pens above Birnin Bashenga. The herd belonging to W’Kabi’s clan wasn’t here, but W’Kabi was admiring those belonging to Mosa’s clan, feeding one carrots. He looked up as T’Challa walked over, growing reserved.

“Finished?” W’Kabi asked.

“Yes?”

“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.”

“I understand.”

“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.”

#

T’Challa grumbled and rolled onto his flank as M’Baku nuzzled his throat. “Wake up.”

“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.

“How soon?”

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.

#

“What is love?” Ngozi asked, as they settled beneath the Ancestor Tree with a basket of stolen bananas, now mostly eaten, lying on top of Anathi’s sleeping bulk.

“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.