The condom breaks in the throngs of mantric sex. Fuck, girl.
Two months later Cheyenne throws a positive pregnancy at his chest. He recoils in disgust and lets her speak while truth needles it way into his reality. He'll finish school. He'll return. This isn't going to stop him. He's silent on the couch as she cries; expressing between sobs about abortion and adoption. Her family opposes abortion. She opposes adoption. His first instinct is to snap at her tears, but instead, he lies back and accepts it. When all she can do is hiccup pathetically, he tells her their fuck was a one time thing, "Fine, keep it. I'll be around."
Grandchildren do something to furious parents. Their eldest daughter refuses to marry, and she refuses to give birth. Adolescent isn't an opportune time period for child rearing, but they're pleased with her decision to keep the child. Erik joins on doctor visits, purchases clothes from his part-time job, checks out books from the library. His classmates question his motives. It doesn't make sense to stay when he's given an out. Her parents want to raise the baby as their own, which is in their right. "This baby mine," he says plainly. "They go know me."
He doesn't tell them about his father lying on the carpet, blood soaking through his shirt. He remembers panther claw shaped scars in his chest.
The ultrasound technician confirms it’s a girl. He doesn’t leap for joy but stares at the embryo now fetus moving about in the uterus.
Nine months later she mewls in his arms staring at him with unseeing golden flecked brown eyes. Beautiful. Mine. All mine. Tiny. Small. He presses his chest against her ears. She'll know him. She'll know his heart. She'll know his soul. He wants her to know where she comes from. He walks around the room as her mom sleeps, smiling in fascination at her grip around his finger.
Her grandmother insists on Lunella, a family name. He actually likes the name. It's unique. He hates the idea that he didn't come up with it first. Some fairytale shit, nah. I'm her daddy. He signs her birth certificate Luna Lafayette and keeps her true name in his heart. This is the name he chose the second the ultrasound technician told him what to expect. This is the name that haunts his dreams. This is the name he puts his stars into. When they're alone, mom sleep, grandparents down the hall, he sits in a chair and whispers softly, "You come from me. This is who you are. You won't forget it." He thinks she might've smiled, or it could be gas.
You say you gon' protect her, but how you go do that? Worry sobers his joy. He returns to an empty apartment. He sits in his bed and looks around. This is the world his daughter has inherited; a terrible, selfish, cold world where her prospects are few to none. She's a girl. Strike one. She's below the poverty level. Strike two. She's black (more black than anything else too). Strike three.
Black folks are statistics. (It's fucking ugly to admit this, but anyone who ain't white and rich is a statistic.)
Take the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Erik reads, "One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime." He frowns. He should stop there, but he's a masochist. And knowing makes him more powerful; he knows where he needs start. The Census Bureaus informs him, "An increase of African-American children raised in a single mother household in comparison to census’ from the sixties." Okay. He needs to break statistics, and he needs to break them fast.
Annapolis sends his acceptance letters in the middle of the year. He doesn't waste time walking to Cheyenne. Luna plays on the floor, surrounded by blocks and coloring books. Normally, their business is short and curt, and Cheyenne simply leaves, knowing she'll be safe with Erik, but the toddler raises her head, sensing anger ahead.
“You can’t leave.” Cheyenne hisses, “We need you here.”
“I told you what was I go do.” He doesn't regret spitting this back at her, "I got shit to do, and this ain't stopping me."
This is for her. Don't get it twisted. Erik loves his daughter with an unknown passion, but she's a secondary priority. This isn't solely about her.
She mentions her parents. He shrugs. (What Cheyenne doesn't know is that her parents report to him. She leaves too often. She stays out too late. She isn't a momma. She isn't ready.) She begs for him to stay, pleased, but he leaves anyway on his seventeenth birthday. He spends his late day tickling her, reading to her, and she lies on his chest, listening to his heartbeat.
They're alone. He says her name, and she fall into a sweet slumber, a ghost of a gummy grin on her lips.
He sails up to the point he joins Black Ops. He is still Erik Stevens. Anger and destruction fills his soul. He is a man of grief and horror, but it's Black OPs where he is changed, with absolution. He doesn't become less human until then, and it's hard to say when exactly? His first? His thirtieth kill? He knows keeping count is the respectful thing to do.
This is death. His grasp isn't quite human. It holds until breaks. It holds until it constricts. He feels their pulse race erratically - out of whack, desperate; it's like hearing the beat drop in the club. This is a different kind of dropping. His heartbeat follows theirs, and that's all fine until they realize his is the last one beating.
Resistance. Fear. And nothing. Or alternatively - Fear. Resistance. And Nothing. Or you'll have the first two at the same time, but that doesn't matter. Nothing wins every time.
Her grandma sends photos. Occasionally. They know he works for the government, not sure what he does, and that's for the best. The pay is good, and she's taken care of. That's all that matters.
His mission is completed and reclines on the makeshift bed. Her sixth birthday. Her dark skin permeates through the photo. Her hair is parted down the middle with a pigtail on each side. The tip of his fingernail outlines her face, the smile of her ivory teeth. A Birthday Girl crown sits on her head, and behind her is an oversized chocolate cake she will finish at the end of the week.
He sends letters to her. The cities he’s seen, the people he’s met. He works for the government. It's a very important job. This is what she knows, and he plans to keep it that way until he can't.
She sends requests in her grandmother's letters. A journal? Sure. A French book? Whatever. Dolls, toys, things children normally ask for are interestingly absent. He accomplishes these tasks too. Candide sits on a target's desk. (Erik shits on Voltaire, but finds his work worth analysis.) A sweet leather bound journal in Geneva makes her smile. (Yes, it may have belong to their child and was supposed to be given to them after their tenth birthday, but he's positive they'll do fine without it.)
The next letter he receives, he recognizes her choppy six year old cursive writing. He chuckles. "Thank you, Baba," she says. "I'm going to start Korean soon, so may you get a language book on that please?"
He smiles, "Sure thing, baby."
He starts a journal. Why? It isn't for her. It isn't for him. It isn't for his father. It is something, he realizes, he should do. One day she's going to have questions, and she's going to want answers. He doesn't want her living with that. This isn't a key as much as a guide, and he knows she'll make sense of what he's left behind. Someday.
A year later she cracks the code of his scars. Arriving earlier than anticipated, he stops at her grandparents. He's waiting on the porch when she walks down the street, Hello Kitty bookpack bouncing, and she pauses. She smiles. She runs. He meets her halfway and scoops her up in an embrace tighter than he remembers.Light as a feather, she giggles, grasping his cheeks, and he presses his forehead against hers.
His arrival is opportune. Her grandmother has to work late at the hospital kitchen. Buttered biscuits are her favorite. He puts floured porkchops on the stove. He bakes potatoes in the oven, their favorite, and stuffs them with bacon bits and cheese. He’s grateful she isn’t a picky eater. They eat quietly at the dinner table.
He reminds her to slow down when eating. He pats her back when she eats too quickly. She tells him about school, about Jeremy who was kicked out for bringing a gun to shoot Mr. Lyon. Her friend Marcia moved away with her mom and stepdad, and seemed really sad about that. Her grades are fine, she guesses. Her grandmother insists they're more than fine.
“We can’t stay here anymore, Erik.” He likes the old lady. She's strict, nonsense, firm lipped. She stares him straight in the eyes, no fear, and tells him like it is. They know they can't stay. He knows. He isn't ready for them to leave. The apartment flashes. He closes his eyes, and bites into his potato.
She beats him to it, “Nana says we’re going to move to Manhattan where her cousin is. She says they have better schools,” she cuts into her pork chop, humming as warm juice fills her mouth.
“She told me.”
“I like Oakland.” She says softly. She reads into her plate, into the food, “Are you trying to make me feel better?”
“Nope.” He drinks from his glass of milk, “Just hungry. Now, finish those potatoes. You gonna take your bath next.”
She eats her potatoes quietly. Almost too quietly. Erik doesn’t have the parent intuition her grandparents have or what his father had. He can read people. He reads her adeptly. She licks her teeth and blinks at him, kicking her feet underneath the table, “Baba, where’d you get your scars?”
“Where’d you get your scars?” She repeats and points her fork to his shirt, “I see them sometimes. You got a lot of them, where they come from?”
A normal parent deflects. A normal parent protects. He doesn’t want to cripple her, and stares back at her flatly, “I did ‘em myself.”
“Keeps tally.” He raises the shirt. His arms are adorned with tattooed scars, and she stares at them, transfixed. Her legs stop swinging. She stops chewing, and she gets off the chair to walk to them, wiping her hands on a napkin. He keeps the shirt raised for her observe. He gasps at her soft, callus free touch.
“Why do you need to keep tally, Baba?” Her pleading brown eyes ask for what they cannot handle. He jaw tightens as he debates, grows into conflict, “Why do you hurt yourself?”
"That's not an answer."
He gives her a look. "You sass your grandma like that?"
"No." She pauses. He doesn't know how, but she gets it. She does. Nausea fills him briefly, and tilts her head, "But people do that for a reason."
“A total of kills.”
She doesn't pull back. She doesn't flinch. It takes three seconds for comprehension to sink, and when it does, all she can do is stare at him blankly, "Damn, you killed a lot of people."
"Yeah," he says.
"Why?" She rubs another scar like a scab ready to be picked, "Why, Daddy?"
They fight. They don't want to die.
Erik calls it crippled resistance. They know they're going to die, and they can't do anything about it. He's there to do a job, and he does it well.
He sees her face. He sees her face and sees she's hiding something else under her curiosity. This pisses him off. She's seven. And for this reason, because she's fucking seven and not seventy, he whispers so lowly she barely makes out his response. Her ears are good, and they catch the name.
"That's not fair, Pops," she pulls back as if he's struck her with the palm of his hand, which it never has (and never will). "You shouldn't do it. I don't care what it's for."
She goes back and cleans her dishes.
There isn't guilt. He isn't strong enough for shame or regret. Call him vindictive. Call him a sociopath. He may be both.
He does feel something when she doesn't slam her bedroom door. He does feel something when he finds her asleep in bed, leaving the stack of unwatched Pixar films on the TV stand.
"Do aliens exist," she asks in her next letter. Their previous conversation is abandoned, and honestly speaking, it's for the best. "Maw insists they do not, and I cannot accept it," she writes to him indignantly. He hears it in her words, "All I'm saying is if people like Tony Stark exist and countries like Wakanda exist, why can't there be aliens?" She mentions about an award she earned - Stark Industries sponsored contest. Her award isn't the main feature of her letter, but she includes the design of her project on the back. He rereads her letter like a church lady reads the Bible. Sand browns the paper, but her meticulous writing scrawled in black ink stands out.
The dictator pleads for his life on his knees, offering his first born daughter, his wife, and all the money in his country. He shakes his head. What a disappointment. He prefers the anger, then fear, not the blubbering mess that was.
His discovery is accidental. He sneaks away in the night. He takes on a ghost approach, going unnoticed until he passes a store selling old, boxed television sets. These TVs still have the giant backs, and his grin falls when he sees the monstrous whale creature smashing through buildings. Alien attack in New York reads in Arabic. He pauses, sucks in a breath, and moves.
His next assignment is accepted without question. By time he reaches contact, there are instructions awaiting for his return to America. He cannot stay where he is. He cannot reach the old woman or the child. All is dead. His stomach quivers. Yo’ my kid’s in New York. He rocks back and forth, unable to sit still, and waits, counts.
Her hair leans close to russet brown, reddish under pure sunlight. He eyes are the color of black, American soil. They water easily although she isn’t much of a crier. She inherits his daddy's skin, and glows blue in midnight. He pulls at his hair. What else? She loves to read. Her favorite books are Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter. Her favorite movies are The Princess and The Frog, Sleeping Beauty, and A New Hope. She tears things apart and reconstructs them with improvements. Better, stronger, improved is her goal. She hums when she eats. She hiccups when she cries.
So many stars died on that night in Oakland.
The surviving ones burned in her.
And so, they were beginning to flake off. Shine at their brightest and fade into dust. It's a short process. He knows she's dead. She has to be. She is wonderful and kind and good, and folks like her don't live in a world like theirs. His stars are dying, and he has to accept it.
Another notch for his agenda. No one can blame him. His soul is emptied. It's starved and riddled with dark holes where no light can enter. In his back pocket, a small communication device vibrates. He takes the call and nods. He leaves that night and makes it to New York in the afternoon.
"My daughter is dead," is what he knows. They don’t tell him what’s happened. He sits in the seat and thinks and tries to build a picture of what he may find. Is it horrible he can? He’s seen flaps of skin hanging on the back of the head by a thread. There are eye sockets void of the actual eye. Lifeless, bloody. Destruction wins. He’s seen ripped, amputated limbs. This is nothing new to him.
He wonders how long was this attack. Really? It's surreal to see what's become of his country. Yeah, his. He shakes his head at the thought and continues out of the airport where a government vehicle awaits. Neighborhoods are leveled, forgotten and buried under rubble. The military has done a good job getting the majority of the bodies out of sight. He sees a severed leg from his owner, and a river of blood ashen with concrete on the streets. There is a difference, and as they come upon it, he tells the driver to stop.
A black, purplish ooze swims out of a hole in its chest. It’s skin is armored plate. He takes hold of its collar and raises it up, checks the face and sees the face can be removed. Huh. He burns this to memory. Takes piece of its skin and puts it in his jacket pocket. They arrive at the hospital in five minutes.
Internal bleeding. A shattered right leg. Her elementary school did their best to protect the children, but the school came apart at the first hit. By time she’s rushed to the hospital, she’s entered cardiac arrest. She spends sixteen hours in surgery, and is heavily medicated when he steps through the threshold of her hospital room.
It isn't about small. She was already a small kid. When Erik enters her room, she looks like a doll. A malnourished, battered black porcelain doll. Last time he visited she was around seven to nine, not yet ten. The doctors tell him she's improving, but everything is tentative. Anything can change. Anything can happen. What they're telling him, "Don't make your bets on a miracle."
If she survives, this is a big if he understands, she'll require special care. Rehabilitation. Physical therapy. He sits beside her bed and stares. This is my child, and this is my my heart. And...she is going to die, and she will never be - no. No. The nurses and doctors have done their job better than normal. Her bandages appear more cast like, wrapped around her legs and arms and waist and around her head.
He doesn't leave. He rests his hand in front of her fingernails.
At seventeen hours, there's a stirring. A groan. A sob. He feels it before it comes, and presses a red button. Nurses and the head doctor rush in. "Where's Maw," she croaks. They don't mean to be unkind, but they have to check her pulse, blood pressure, and other pertinent details. Through their movement, she sees him, and tears blur her eyes as she gazes ahead, unable to restrain her grief from spilling over.
“I’m going to live with Auntie.” Sedative slurs her vocabulary. She's quiet, comprehensive, and has to pause before she speaks. This is more than she's used to.
“Yeah.” He plays with the buttons on his jacket, “She just got in. She’s talking to the doctor now.”
Her brow furrows. She tries to raise her head, thinks better of it, and lies flat on the bed, “You got here first. That’s weird,” the raspiness doesn't fit her.
“Took me a few hours.” He shrugs, “Comes with the job.” He plays in his pocket and feels the skin. It’s sharp, jagged, and a sharp cool prickles the inside of his palm. His body heat cannot penetrate it, “Hey, wanna show you something.”
She waits as he pulls the rock out of his pocket, showing it to her. She stares at it in confusion, and he grins softly, baiting off his anger for a while, “Y’know what it is?”
“Do you know what happened?”
She thinks, “No, the school, it happened really fast.”
“Aliens.” There's dumb shock. Relentless dumb shock. Then disbelief. But she chuckles weakly, chest wheezing as each laugh sputters. "Damn aliens...killed my Maw...ruined my hair," she hums. She rasps and begins to cough lightly. It isn’t fair...why...it isn’t fair! Her thick, voluminous hair has been chopped to the skull, shaved. This is a tragic necessity. The rescue team finds her and her classmates; her hair is drenched in blood and other identifiable contents. They had to chop and shear to get their work done.
He doesn't tell her this. She already knows.
He recalls his adept fingers parting her hair. He’d dig in a can of grease, mix it with shea butter, and braid until her the mass is contained in over forty-five micro braids. Neon colored beads tip the very ends of the braids. In her excitement she stands and whips her hair back and forth for him. She’s relieved she didn’t have to sit for the hot comb special.
She begins to cry again. Aware of the weight of his hand, he rests it on top of hers, “Hey, what’d I say? Remember what I told you?”
“Bout what?” Glass shard were picked from her knuckles in her undamaged hand, and she wipes her face angrily, “What are you talking about?”
He can’t find it in him to smile. He needs to do something.
“The Dora Milaje.” He tells her, “Remember what I told you about them?”
Her breathing slows. The rise of her chest flattens, and she thinks, gathering information from distantly buried memories, “You said,” she smacks her lips in irritation, “you said they are Wakanda’s best warriors. They’re all women, and they have shaved heads.”
“Right.” Underneath his shirt lies Azzuri’s ring, clanging against his skin, “And they’re the baddest bitches around, y’hear me?”
“I’m not a bad bitch,” she whimpers.
He smirks, says her name, and she closes her eyes, nodding as tears stream freely. He lets her weep. He wipes away her tears, whispering the name over and over again. She quiets, stares at him, as the medication puts her to sleep. Her aunt and her husband and their children finally arrive. He raises his head to her and glares, warning her not to make a peep while they’re in there. They’re quickly ushered out into the hallway.
Shitty daughter. Bitchy daughter.
"You know she needs you here," her aunt spits. Erik almost wishes she was like her sister, almost. She hates making accommodations for anyone who isn’t her, “You need to stay with your daughter.”
“It’s my insurance paying for the surgeries.” Her ability to piss him off in less than five seconds is a marvel in itself. Her husband senses the tension rising, pushing his way as a barrier to keep them separated. She needs you both.
“She’s coming with us to Ponchatoula. She’ll be safe.”
He finds a motel. He finds a woman. He buries himself to the hilt. She claws his back, and he doesn’t realize how much he’s needed an outlet until after where she’s asleep beside, money resting on the bed stand. He goes to the bathroom, turns on the light, and his reflection greets. The dirty glass marrs the set of bruised eyes staring back at him. He presses his hands on the surface, absorbs its cool touch, and sees a dark skinned man standing behind him in the corner of the bathroom.
There are tears in his eyes. He is taller than his pops. Older.
The mirror shatters under the weight of his fists. Glass splinters into his knuckles, dripping into the sink, and he takes his things. He bandages his hand at the hospital where a nurse plucks glass shard after shard. She says nothing as he works, having grown used to this type of behavior from grieving parents, and he says nothing in comfort or thanks.
Beautiful sunsets. Actual flying cars. Aircraft faster than any jet in the world.
And how, he asks him. How can they have what he originally believed existed only in science-fiction?
N'Jobu, his Baba, laughs. Stars shine in his eyes when he says, "Vibranium," as if that makes a difference to a kid younger than ten. But it makes all the sense in the world.
Our fantasy is their reality due to technological advancements derived from vibranium. His father laments they will not share their wealth with their world, for good reason. He laments they will not share their wealth with him, and more than that - they will not welcome him, a prince in his own right, for reasons N'Jobu cannot accept.
It'll take about a decade in physical therapy, at best, to correct her posture. At that point she'll hopefully have regained the ability to move without pain, but there is no guarantee. He reads the doctor's expression. There is a very slight chance of this happening, and no one is going to put their faith in it. The best they can do is stimulate some improvement. He sees this kindly white man. He sees this kindly white man standing beside this black woman and Asian woman (Erik heard Mandarin a few minutes ago when she was on the phone. Educated guess, maybe). He sees these people responsible for saving his daughter's life, and all he can think of is the utopia on the other side of the plant that has the power to rebuild his daughter better than they ever could.
Correct her spine. Remove her scars.
But they will not.
Wakanda does not provide foreign aid. They do not accept outsiders, even when they carry their blood in their veins.
From the multitude of surgeries performed to save her life, the limp and scars remain.
“...Of the multiple casualties, one of the identified deaths is King T’Chaka of Wakanda, who was in the middle of giving the keynote address when the explosion occurred.”
Break an arm. Slice a throat. Be quiet, efficient, and disappear into the night. He makes a mess. His anger breathes death all around him. His blade rests at his feet. Glares at the horrified expressions on their faces, and doesn’t smirk when they split, revealing terror.
T'Chaka was always his. He lost much more than his daddy in Oakland. T'Chaka's life was Erik's come claim, and some white boy goes out and pulls this shit. Erik can't accept this. (But he has to. T'Chaka is dead, and no amount of rage will bring him back). So he goes after the wives. He holds them down as he crushes their skulls. He snaps the children's necks. This is easy. He sees them, and he doesn't see them. For added measure (and reassurace), he slices their throats. Needs to make sure they stay dead. He doesn't like leaving loose ends.
He stand in the village’s center. Others have fled, have taken shelter far from him. He pants, unable to scream. He pants, unable to howl. Emptiness wants to swallow him whole. Sand and smoke, burning flesh, mixes into his lungs. He sheaths his swords, putting them back, and disappears in the distance. He doesn’t stop at the extraction point. He removes his uniform, takes what he needs and can’t be tracked. He leaves it all behind.
It’s a dumbass move. Years, years, he had plans, but never acted on them. This is what he gets. And why? He seethes angrily. Why did he wait so long? You know why. Same reason Pops waited so long. And look what it got him. He paces, comes up with a plan, and remembers old names, knows what he needs to do to get what he wants. He’ll be better than his pops. He’ll be better than T’Chaka, T’Challa, all of them.
He doesn’t waste time. He disposes his phone. Let them wait.
Klaue is the catalyst. He’s the one he tracks, finds, and sees right through him the second his face appears on the hologram. He knows what to do with men like him. In the meantime he grows out his hair, letting the dreadlocks sit on top of his head like a misshapen crown. He gold caps his canines. He finds his grandfather’s ring and an old chain, and glares into it.
A grim reflection looks back at him.
“You know you’re really good at going black," she teases. "When you coming back?"
"I dunno." There are no stars. He points to the map, directs Linda as she drives through traffic. It’s a rainy, stuffy morning. Quiet even, “Got some business to take care of, how’s school?”
“Mr. Stark came to observe some of our projects. Weird, right?” A clang of locker doors closing smash in the background, and someone shouts her name, “After all that Sokovia and Accords stuff, we didn’t think we’d see him around. He comes to the dorms every blue moon.”
“It was supposed to be a transporter device, from Point A to Point B. It didn’t go exactly as planned.” She sighs, leaning her back on the wall, “We passed with A’s, but I think Mr. Stark was a little shaken up from it.”
It’s a thirty minute drive from the British Museum. Linda was the perfect choice for driver.
“What about you, Pops? How are you doing?”
“Good, why you asking?” He glances at Linda whose attention sticks to the road. Good. He can’t have her getting distracted.
“It’s just...T’Chaka’s dead, and all.” She says quietly, “I know how...you know...stuff like that. Just don’t do anything extreme?”
“Ain’t gotta worry about me. I worry ‘bout you.” He pushes down the anger. He focuses on the mission, on the raspiness of her voice, “Therapy’s going good?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. Approved for life without the Big Daddy Cane. Still have to take the elevator, but it’s good.” A bell resonates through the phone, and she gasps, cursing lightly for getting lost in her thoughts, “Look, Baba, I gotta go, you’ll call me, later, ‘kay?”
“Right, don’t forget your orthopedic pillow this time.”
“I won’t, and -,” she pauses. Her breathing grows heavy, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but don't...get hurt, alright?"
He smirks, but humors her with a silent nod she seems to feel through the line. Linda spares him a quick glance, moving out to initiate the beginning stages of their plan.
“Things are going to be changing real soon, kid.”
He whispers it softly. And she stops. There’s a crackling silence on the phone before she ends the call abruptly. Teens.
He understands her anger. It's what kids do. She'll understand his sacrifices when she's older.
His plan is to save Uncle James for second to last. A substitutes for T'Chaka, he steps in at the last minute, and Erik isn't one to waste opportunity. He impales him, watches him fall, hears their screams. He lifts his cousin’s bloodied body overhead, and tosses him over. He crashes into the unforgiving waters below.
In another world he'd appreciate his cousin's softness. Hell. He'd respect it. Softness is useless in their world and must be eradicated. He’ll do the same to the system that chains them, and the world will be recreated in his image.
The heart-shaped herb takes root in his stomach. He’s buried beneath the dirt, and he awakens to where it all began.
"No tears for me."
There sits a child in front his father, only a short distance away. N'Jobu is beautiful and warm and all that is good in the world and all he wants to be (and will never be, not even close).
"Everybody dies. It’s just life around here."
N’Jobu smiles sadly, lowering his head. Erik is told that he is lost. Don’t you see? He’s right here. They can find him. They know where he is. He's tempted to touch him, to retreat into his father's embrace, but he stays where he is, silently defiant.
But he asks these questions...will he feel the same...will he smell his old cologne that tickled his nose...will there be a heart beating his chest. His daddy has the answers, but instead he pleads with those too big, too bright darker than earth brown eyes.
"She is a blessing, N’Jadaka," he weeps. "And she is ours, do not abandon her."
He isn't going ask how does the dead know what goes on in the land of the living. He doesn't want to return to that moment in time.
"What life do you want for her?"
"A life," he breathes. "A life where she stands on top of the world. A life where she can better than me, Baba."
His father weeps. He knows his tears aren't just for him.
They are alike.
She is a child.
She is also a child.
She is a child wearing gauntlets aimed to stun instead of kill. Bad move. Her inventions amaze and interest Erik. He can't help gazing in that stunned, too dumb to speak way as portrayed in movies when the white boy finds out he has own personal black man for a toy; he never did like that movie. His awe passes far too quickly for he thinks into the present, stuck in the present. He thinks of what she can do in that lab, of all the brilliant and wondrous creations she'll make if given the chance. He's going to give her that chance.
For that to happen, they have to die. He spars with the woman and claws into her thigh. He sends her flying.
She is a child. She is a child he forces onto her back, leering over her. "You will never be a true king," she spits at him.
"No." He wants to say. He doesn't care about being a true king. Not anymore. He drops his mask. He wants her to see the eyes of her killer, and he wants to see something more.
There it is. Right there. The resemblance is vague, not easily identified, but with what he knows, he can pick out those shared features. Their eyes, nose, ears, and high cheekbones. But there is a jarring difference Erik can't ignore. This girl is whole. She has no scars, no limps, no pain with every step. The other carries herself with dignity as mangled skin clings to her back, draping down to her ankle.
There is pride in killing this child. The jaguar preys on the panther cub while his waits for him to return, but he forgets her brother in the distance. Erik is tackled with a powerful force of desperation and protectiveness. He's pushed over the edge, and they're careening down as the child screams for her brother. Fist collides with fists, and they claw, try to rip into the other’s flesh as they descend together.
“I’ve lost everything I’ve ever loved!”
You lie, whispers an ugly voice. He shouts it anyway with tears swelling at the rim. He can't explain his reasons for saying this. He doesn't understand why he shouts it at him. He's lost more than the average person, but a piece remains chained to his heart. He's afraid to let it go, though he has let it go many times before. He constantly returns to it.
"You are so lost in your hate you’ve become like them" His teeth grinds. He sees her, and it hits him in the chest. His habit does nothing to conceal his rage (but is solid at concealing his inner grief, deeper than T'Challa knows at the time). He returns to fists and claws and knows this will be the end of it.
A pain in his chest. A pain under his ribs, and the vibranium suit solidifies around the vibranium blade rammed into his chest at the very last second. It’s a shock. He’s pissed. He’s dejected. He sighs.
"That's one hell of a move."
His pops tells him about sunsets. It's the most intimate confession he offers T'Challa. It doesn't matter now that he's said it. He's going to die. His mind is made up, but his cousin's stubbornness rivals his misplaced compassion.
His raspy breaths are shallow while blood fills his lungs. T’Challa takes hold under his arms, and lifts him up. He drags them onto the lift, sets it to go up, and they’re ascending. He keeps him close. So close, and he understands what he’s doing. He doesn't feel the need to ask him why.
It really doesn't matter now.
Pops used to tell me about their sunsets. She sits on his laps with her delicate arms around his neck. Her thumb falls on one of the tattooed scars, rubbing it gently. You should take me to see them one day, Baba. An arm wraps around her back. He inhales her bubblegum, shea butter scent, and smiles against her dark skin. Sorry kid, it ain’t gonna happen in my time.
He didn't lie.
It is. The sun spreads overhead, pass the trees, and engulfs the country in an wonderful, warm glow. God fucking damn it it’s beautiful. He doesn't need to pinch his arm to reassure himself that it's real. She isn't standing beside him. She isn't near him, beholding this sight at her father's side. She's across the world, safe and not entirely ignorant.
He wants to weep.
Are you sure? I don't think you are. Who is this voice speaking to him? He doesn't know. I don't think you're ready, child.
She's an Oakland kid who believes in fairytales. She believes in stars and endless adventure and a better world built by humanity's hand. She wants to be a part of it. He wants her to be. He's lost her. He's lost her so many times, and every time he gets her back, he releases her to the wind again.
Why? Why did an Oakland kid believe in fairytales in the first place? Because her daddy told her so. He gave her those stars. He didn't let them fly in, but passed them on with stories and wonder. He bites his cheeks, realizing of his many sins, this hurts the most. Why? Why did he do this to her? He should've known better.
T’Challa kneels beside him, "We can heal you. There’s time to do it." As long as the blade is embedded in his body, there’s a chance they can save his life. Get me a new denim jacket when you return. There's her smile and big brown eyes. There's her grandfather's smile and big brown eyes. This is a plea. This final time, please, give in, just once. He shakes his head with a scoff, and pulls the blade, grimacing as he feels the rush of blood sweeping away. Orangish yellow light pours on him as he fall.
He feels her. An infant, a child, an adolescent, and the remaining years of her life are darkness. He can't remember the last time he's imagined her future. Her future is a constant in his mind. What she'll have. What she'll be. (The avenues and choices at her disposal.) He doesn't see her at the center (though she is). She takes his hand. He whispers her name. (This he does unknowingly. He is a not a praying man. He has never prayed. But he says her name, softly, quietly, with enough whimper that brings notion of prayer.)
He says her name only once, but this is enough. He speaks it into the wind and collapses.
Does she know? She has to know. He can’t remember saying it. He quickly digs through her memories He had to have said it to her. All he recalls is Baba please, and everything after is...insufficient.
T’Challa wants to respect his cousin’s wishes, but he doesn't. This is not the last time he does this.
Baba, tell me about, Wakanda. She lightly baps his chest. You brush yo’ teeth? She grins up at him, nodding, and he smirks, lifting her in his arms. A’ight, I’ll tell ya what my pops told me. Now, pay attention. He did not know he passed his brightest stars to her on that night. He did and didn't know.
He sleeps for a week and a half. He does not find this out until much later. This is what happens after. And what happens after is that he awakens in a hut. His vision is blurry. His head spins. What the fuck? There is a pain under his ribs, right below his heart. He falls to knees, wheezes, and there’s a sunset. He rises and pulls at the garb he’s wrapped in. Where the blade is a thin, close to invisible scar, among greater ritualistic, tattooed scars adjoining it.
He is too shaken to scream. He rolls over, moving his feet off the bed, and he stumbles to the opening of the hut. Yes, it’s a hut where’s placed in, and he sees her standing near a body of water. She’s dressed in white with braids falling past her shoulders like a waterfall. A million and one thoughts race through his mind in that moment when she turns around, recognizing the stranger in familiar land.
He seethes. She raises her chin in challenge, smirking, and without question there’s pain exploding down his neck, torso, and legs. He collapses to the dirt, body fallen victim to a number of spasms per second. He tries and fails to regain control of his body, but it’s to no use. She walks towards him, stride is a better word, and kneels below, staring at him with a vicious smirk playing on her lips.
“Welcome to the land of the living, Usurper.” Shuri says mockingly, “As you can see, you will not be doing that again without consequence any time soon.”
Out of the corner of his eyes, he identifies an oddity among the others. But after the spasms finally cease, and he’s able to stand, the man disappears inside his hut.
“Why I’m here?” He chokes, gasping for breath. His head spins, and Shuri grips his arm, steadying him, “Why am I here?”
“You know I asked my brother the exact same thing.” She crosses her arms behind her back, and walks back to the water, “He tried to kill you, I said. He tried to kill me, I said. He insisted, so he laid your dirty ass in my lab, and I had no choice but to save you.”
“I didn’t want nobody saving me.” Did he not get the message? Did he not hear his words? All signs point to yes. He knows he did, so why did he push his final desires to the side so callously?
Shuri shrugs, “All I know is that he wanted you to live, and so, I did this for him, not you,” she scrutinizes him from afar, “and in his defense, if you had wanted to die, you wouldn’t have ingested the heart-shaped herb. It’s the reason you still breathed when he dragged you to my lab.”
She has nothing left to say to him. He has nothing left to listen to.
He lives in the village for two weeks. He stays to himself for the most part. Shuri comes and goes, playing with the children, and spending her time with a white man dressed in similar garbs. He slips in and out, but the children love him. White wolf they call him. It isn’t until they step out the same time, and the wind pushes his shoulder brown-length hair to the side that he gets a good look at him. What the fuck. This is what he does. Pity strikes him at the most opportune moments. He finds broken little soldiers, shuttles him to his paradise to where he put them back together again.
He picks at his fish the fishermen provide in disgust. It almost tastes like home but sweeter.
In two weeks, Erik does not become a part of the village like the other one has. The White Wolf is friends with the children. He helps the fishermen. Shuri takes note of him every other day, watching him viligiantly out of the corner of his eye. He stays to himself, guarded, and watches the sunset in the evenings and sunrise in the morning.
T’Challa appears on the fourteenth day. His silhouette looms above him, and he stares up at the tree he’s leaning against to find him there.
“Just cuz you wear a cat themed habit don’t mean you gotta act like one in the daytime.” He’s pissed still. It’s annoying seeing him like that, and when he lands, he’s already walking back to his hut. There’s no privacy, and he doesn’t really care at this point, so he asks him.
“Why you saved me?” He crouches on the bed, glaring at him. T’Challa flinches as if struck as he stands in the entrance. He lowers his gaze slightly, stepping in fully with his arms crossed behind his back. It’s enraging the way he looks at him; not superior, not as if he’s a lowly nobody, but as equals. He can’t think to look away. Looking away means he wins. Mean what? He doesn’t know.
T’Challa says softly, “N’Jadaka.” The way he says his name is velvety, warm, unlike he has heard in ears, and he fights the urge to fall into it. Because he can fall into it. It’s tempting.
“Yo’ daddy took that from me.” He snarls, “You don’t get to call me that.”
It’s the type of pain he hears in his shrieks when he kills Zuri. His shoulders tighten. His lips part an inch, but the gentleness remains. His pops were tender, calm, but filled with an unsteady rage not so unlike his own. His rage eclipses his pop’s now.
T’Challa reminds him of those honey buns Mrs. Johnson would sell on the fourth floor. Homemade and sweet. He’d bite into them, handing her the fifty cents, and the sweetness would fill him. It doesn't fill him now. Only makes him angry.
A thin film of friction brushes against the texture of his tone, “You said you lost everyone you ever loved,” this stare punctures him deeper, more fatally than the blade he struck into his chest two weeks ago.
Baba, please. He ends the call and goes with the mission because there isn’t anything more important than the mission. He knows one day she’ll understand what he was doing for her and their people. Baba, please. He continues to stare, teeth bared, “You ain’t got no right.”
“We had searched for the essentials,” he explains quietly, walking to the other side of the hut to where a small chair is seated next to the bed, “Had we researched deeper -,"
“It wouldn’t have made a difference.” He spits, “I wasn’t gonna stop for that.”
He raises his chin slightly. The resemblance is pronounced when their eyes glaze under the sunset’s light, “Why are you so determined to leave your child alone in this world?”
“Alone?” He fixates on him, “I did this for her."
“Is this what she wanted?”
He glares, "She didn't have to." He bares his teeth, "You don't get to say shit about my parenting when yo's took mine. I did what needed to do for my girl. I want her to know she can stand amongst the best, doesn't have to fight for her spot, doesn't have to suffer every day for what's between her legs or the color of her skin."
T'Challa is silent.
Erik loathes his compassion, and the wretched sob coiled in his throat, “Aliens rained hell on Manhattan, and a fucking building fell on my daughter. Where was Wakanda?”
Guilt comes easily to a man so proud. T’Challa's expression crumbles, and Erik delights in his shame, the way he seems to fold. He stands shortly and moves to leave, informing him softly an aircraft will arrive tomorrow morning to return him to the main city.
He feels numb. Weak. Exhausted. And falls back on his bed where sleep proves to be as elusive as ever.
He has quarters. Quarters as in the plural. T’Challa is determined to make him feel like home, he supposes. In actuality, the council could not come to a consensus on his punishment. He had, for all reasonable purposes, exercised his rights as king despite the collateral damage and deaths. It is the death of the Dora Milaje he murders, the death of their sacred heart-shaped herbs that they cling to.
He is not sentenced to prison. He stays in his quarters, heavily guarded by Dora Milaje that do not attempt to hide their contempt for him when he happens to walk past them. Quarters. He has several of them down a private hall, and sure, he cannot go out like he wants to. But it’s better than the alternative due to his cousin’s adamance on his survival.
He’s training when he watches the U.N. Conference. His punches rip the bag apart, sand pouring from the slit, and he turns around to hear those damning words echo the screen. He sucks in a sharp breath. Fuckin’ idiot. He catches the bag in his hand when it pops out of place, and throws the defeated body into the TV, watching it fall and crash to the floor. The images crackles, distorts, and the giant crack on the screen kills it.
Shuri comes to him and says cheerfully, “Lets go, Usurper, we’re going on a field trip.”
She grins cheekily, “Are you confused? I said we’re taking a field trip.”
“I hear what you fucking said.” He observes her cautiously. He guards send him their customary glares, and their fingers twitch around the poles of their staffs, “Where we going?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” She gestures for him to follow, “We’re visiting Manhattan. I’m very excited for this trip.”
T’Challa waits for them at the station. He appears less formal, ever so regal, but casual. He’ll be recognized for sure, but he can blend into the crowd if need be. He smiles in relief when they appear, and claps his hand together, “I am glad she did not have to use the shocker again.”
“No.” He rubs his neck where the microscopic clips stunned him, “Don’t know what you think you’re doing -,” he starts but T’Challa sighs, shoulder sagging a little. He turns his back to him as he boards the ship.
“Where you think you’re going?”
“I intend to meet with Tony Stark, but we are making a brief stop before doing so.” He attentive gaze hovers, “And how long are you going to make her wait?”
It takes them half a day to reach Manhattan. The dormitories are expansive, better than most college universities, and the connected schools, mostly affiliated with Stark Industries to some extent, are even more exquisite. He isn’t here to appreciate the architecture. They walk through the doors into the lobby where a tall, slender woman stands with a weak smile on her face.
“King T’Challa, I did not believe Mr. Stark when he called.”
He shakes her hand, “Ah, he can be humorous, I am here to meet with the student, Luna Stevens.”
“Of course.” She pulls her ID card over the scanner, “Moon Girl is quite a creative character. She will be overjoyed to meet you, both of you.”
Erik elbows T’Challa to the side, “I named her Luna. Why you calling her Moon Girl?”
“It’s something the other students call her, and it caught on.” She walks briskly, “A few months ago she and her team worked on a portable teleportation device. It worked, but there side effects.”
Shuri steps in between them, “What kind of side effects?”
“From what I’ve been told of the demonstration, a portal temporarily opened revealing a dinosaur, and some furry little creature,” her straightened hair shakes in disbelief, “almost out of science fiction, but considering everything that has happened, it doesn’t surprise me.”
She leads them to a room the size of the lecture hall. A wide window stretches from the left and right with the door standing in the center. There are more than fifty desks in the research area. Groups of teens converse with each other, headsets covering their ears, others working on their laptops. Shuri presses her fingers against the glass, almost drooling.
Erik searches. He picks out familiar hairstyles, and settles on one with the box braids parted with a grey scarf. The rest of her hair that isn’t in an up ponytail falls down her back. She wears a denim jacket filled with holes, long-legged blue jeans, and writes at the blackboard. Equation after equation falls in line. She directs the team intently, brow furrowed and mouth set in a thin, concentrated line.
“Hey, don’t you go embarrassing her in front of those people.” Shuri says sharply, “She doesn’t need some dramatic display like you did in the throne room.”
“I wasn’t going to.” I wasn’t. He doesn’t trust himself. Stardust collects, and the stars he thought died so long ago shine brighter than ever. He didn’t ask when she started leading study groups or group project. He didn’t ask about what she was doing exactly at school, the friends she made, the people she met. She certainly didn’t tell him about a teleportation device.
And what’s up with Moon Girl? The woman goes into the lecture hall and reaches her. He steps away, heart suddenly racing, and she walks behind her, pointing to a boy wearing a black and red sweatshirt. He’s a shade lighter than her.
Her limp is noticeable, but not as much as it was in the early months following the attack. T’Challa’s jaw clicks tightly.
She doesn’t pay attention to the window, and steps into the hall wearing her confusion on her face. The teacher gestures to T’Challa and Shuri, “Luna, this is -,”
T’Challa and Shuri are unimportant. Her eyes lock on Erik, and she stares blindly at him. She sees him. He’s different somehow, and he shrugs helplessly. Her stare widens. Her braids shake uncontrollably as her neck turns from Erik to T’Chall to Shuri. She guffaws, loudly, and doesn’t try to cover the astonished horror in her voice when she hisses, “What did you do?”
“Oh, this is interesting.” Shuri chirps perkily, “Do you want the bad stuff, or the good stuff?”
“Shuri,” T’Challa chides.
The teacher gives them privacy in another, separate room not often used in the dormitories. T’Challa and Shuri decide to take a tour of the area. He reminds them regretfully they cannot afford to stay for long. Erik knows extensions are in mind for the future.
She leads him to her dorm. It’s strange. The last time he’s seen her room there were stuffed Build-A-Bear teddies on her bed and posters of Beyonce on the wall. Her wall is empty except for her calendar where each day is meticulously planned. Homework assignments are circled in pink. Exams are circled in red. Lunch date with Miles is bolded on a Friday.
The bed shifts. “Miles is a friend," she stares suspiciously, "and what did you do?"
He confesses. There's no possible way to hide this from her, and it's easier for her to hear it from him.
She’s going to find out, and it’s easier for them for her to hear it from him. She listens intently about his entrance into the country, the murder of Klaue, the ritual combat. She says nothing to him as he throws confession after confession. He speech speeds through every detail and holds nothing back. She keeps pace, grabbing her orthopedic pillow for some comfort. By time he concludes, he’s staring at her, watching as her face peels emotion into her eyes and lips.
"Fuck, man." She tugs at her braids, "I am not...entirely surprised...so...you're not here to kill anyone else, right? I actually like the white people at this place, except Johnny, and not because he's racist. He's just a misogynist dick."
This is a joke. A poorly time joke, but she needs to grasp on something. Humor is this for her.
“I...I was…” Fuck. It shouldn’t be this hard. The words are caught in his chest rather than his throat. They want to burst out, splattering like blood on her skin. He trembles, “Ndixolele, for everything I have done and everything I did not do.”
Her mouth is left ajar. She blinks rapidly, shaking her head. He almost thinks she’s angry, and she most likely is as she weeps, clutching her arms. He leans forward. Pulls her in. Rests his head on top of the crown of her head. He relishes this moment, relieved she chooses to keep her hands on his back instead of pushing him away.
She does not forgive him. She is not T’Challa. She wipes tears and snot on his shirt, and she laughs at his disgust, shoving him in the chest as she reclines back into her pillow.
“I am not leaving for Wakanda just yet.” She comforts him, resting a hand on top of his, and she stares at him with great brown eyes that plead for him to understand, “I have made it this far without them. Let me finish my program here, and I will come meet you there after graduation, if I get accepted into whatever program is available.”
“You think you won’t?”
“I don’t know.” Her head falls on his shoulder, “But I know that I want to stay and finish this, some projects I’ve been working on.” She digs into her pockets and pulls a small shard out. It’s no larger than a pebble but is misshapen and not at all pebble like.
“You kept it.” He murmurs against her hair, “You kept that thing.”
“I did.” She looks up at him, “The divide that keeps our world and all the other worlds is closing rapidly. That day is proof of it. Wakanda opening its borders is proof of it. I am getting ready.”
He caresses her back, and she shoves him back playfully. He is going to mess up her hair. She laughs, and there are stars in her eyes, circling around her. He knows one day she will truly be gone off this plane and into one he will not be able to reach her.
He whispers into her ear. She smiles and sighs. When he straightens her style, retying the scarf that has gone loose, she murmurs softly into his chest, “For what it's worth, I am glad you're not dead, so thanks, Baba. Thanks for coming back."
“You have hover boards. Like forreal?”
“Yeah, we do.” Shuri grins, “And I have heard you were working on a teleportation device, am I correct?”
She muses, “Yeah, but it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to.” She narrows her eyes supsicously, smacking her lips into a crooked curl, “I don’t think I wanna see my rival looking into my stuff, y’know?”
“Or...or...here’s a thought. I make it better and teach you a few things.”
“Hmm.” She taps her chin thoughtfully, “I suppose hanging out with a princess will freak everyone out, and I am interested in Wakanda’s technology.”
They plead hopefully. T’Challa breaks too easily, chuckling, “You are free to do as you please as long as you do not create any more memes.” He points his finger warningly at Shuri.
“It happens only when you give me good material.” Shuri sends her a conspirator glare that causes them break into a fit of mischievous laughter, “Come on, Luna, we are going to make good trouble for everyone.”
“That sounds fun.” She leads the way, “But I’d like for you to call me, N’Yami. It’s the name my Baba gave me.”
“N’Yami?” Shuri tests the name, “A good name, isn’t it, brother?”
“A beautiful name.” T’Challa adds, “We will meet you there, baby cousin.”
She returns the small smile, and lets Shuri tug her away. Soon, they disappear around the corner, leaving their father and brother behind.
“T’Challa.” He says as they sit in the in-dormitory cafe.
Sunsets in America aren’t as majestic as they are in Wakanda. They sit in their chairs, gazing through the window as the sun begins its daily descent. He drinks his mango smoothie. They’re going to leave in the next forty-five minutes. Laughter and screams travel on the walls, and they’re too concerned to go back and see what’s going on.
For now, they’ll sit. For now, they’ll wait.
“She has a home in Wakanda.” He reassures him, “You and she both. She may visit for the summer if she chooses to.”
“I’ll bring it up to her, but I don’t think she’s gonna bite.” When her mind is made up it’s hard to convince her otherwise. He doesn’t want to force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do. Still, he’ll approach her with the offer, and a tiny part of him hopes she’ll accept.
“T’Challa.” He repeats louder this time. Great, big brown eyes lock on him. You would have been raised as brothers. He was told a long time ago. It’s too long ago. He doesn’t want to remember this, but it’s there now. He can’t take it back.
He swallows the smoothie lump in his throat and says clearly, “Enkosi, for everything you have done for me, and ndixolele, for everything I have done to you.”
Is it surprise? Is it happiness? Erik doesn’t know. He doesn’t say anything else as he finishes the last of his smoothie, throwing it in the trash, and ready to make a hasty exit. But T’Challa points to the sky, The stars are coming out, cousin. Erik sees them blending with the indigo, orange tinted skies.
They all seem to be closer now.