The first time Erik knelt in front of his throne, T'Challa could not breathe. His arms were spreed out, and he was on his knees, but his eyes were blazing on T'Challa's face.
“Isn't this what you wanted?” and T'Challa could not breathe.
Erik had arrived at court with a dead body and a swagger and T'Challa wasn't certain he'd had a solid night of sleep since then. He had come with their grandmother's ring on a chain around his neck, a match for their grandfather's that T'Challa wore every day and had since his father had given to him. He came with canine teeth covered in gold and an anger that he spat out on the whole court.
“Who is this?” the queen mother had asked when Erik had waltzed into the throne room, W'Kabi at his shoulder.
“We found him at the border of space,” W'Kabi said and there was something dark in his expression T'Challa was not used to seeing.
“Then why did you bring him here?”
T'Challa stared at him from atop his throne, frowning, because there was no reason to know the man or to recognize him, he was an outsider, but there was something to the tilt of his chin and the arc of his smirk that spoke of familiarity.
“Because he brought us the body of Ulysses Klaue,” W'Kabi said and the court erupted into murmurs. “He also has our mark,” and the murmurs turned into something louder.
“A War Dog tattoo?” Shuri asked, from beside T'Challa's throne. “Do we have record of him?”
“No,” Okoye said, having opened a screen, scrolling through their records. “There is no one who fits his age or description.”
And he had not spoken, he kept smirking, his eyes on T'Challa and the emperor felt something crawl up his spine.
“Brother?” Shuri asked, her braids draped in purple and gold and silver on both her wrists. “Brother, what do you think?”
“I am curious if he has anything to say for himself,” T'Challa said, in his heavy dark robes and the smirk on the man's face only became more pronounced. “You did us a great service, bringing us a criminal we had been unable to catch ourselves.”
“Yeah, and I'm all about the service,” the man said, tilting his chin up, and his accent was rough, different, making T'Challa's fingers twitch. He glanced at his mother, wondering if she knew the accent. “As to what I want? I'd like your throne,” and the court went dead silent for the first time since the stranger appeared. T'Challa blinked once, too shocked to even react. “But it's not like you have an easy path there, is it? No duel for the throne business so I guess I'll have to satisfy myself with something else.”
“Something else?” T'Challa asked, still surrounded by complete silence.
“Yeah, I'll have to let you know. I'm planning on sticking around for a while.”
“You are?” Shuri asked. “After a statement like that? After saying you want my brother's throne you just think you'll have a right to stay around court?”
W'Kabi shifted, and T'Challa registered it from the corner of his eyes, but he had not broken eye contact with the stranger since his pronouncement.
“Yeah,” the stranger said. “Why not? I'd have the same right to the throne as he does,” and no one had moved.
“How?” Shuri asked and W'Kabi lifted his hand, a chain dangling from it.
“He had this,” W'Kabi said and T'Challa finally broke the other man's gaze to stare at the ring, recognizing it as a mate for the one he wore on his own finger.
“How—” Ramonda asked, rising to her feet.
“Because I am the son of N'Jobu,” the man barked, lifting his chin. “Left out in space, abandoned by your empire even though I share the royal blood of your ruling family. Nice to meet you aunt,” and he meet T'Challa's eyes again. “Cousin.”
“N'Jobu had no children, he was lost,” Ramonda said, having returned to her seat, though her hands were white as they gripped the arms of the chair.
“More like murdered,” the man said. “But maybe that story can wait for a while, huh, cousin?”
“Yes,” T'Challa said, rising, and he could not remember the last time his court had been so silent. “Release his bindings.”
“But, majesty,” Okoye started.
“Do it,” T'Challa said, an edge in his voice. “Escort him to the royal chambers. This discussion should be continued in private. Mother, sister,” and he swept from the room, expecting Okoye to follow his orders and bring the stranger to him.
“Brother, do you believe him?” Shuri asked, as his sister and mother fell in beside him, a pair of Dora Milaje behind them.
“He has grandmother's ring,” T'Challa said. “And the mark.”
“That doesn't mean he is N'Jobu's son,” Ramonda said.
“He is Wakandan, though, that seems certain,” Shuri said.
“We will find out,” T'Challa said, sweeping through the door that slid open as he approached, keyed specifically into the bio signature of the royal family.
“He wants something from us,” Shuri said. “That much is obvious, no matter who he is. He brought us Klaue, knowing the Empire has been seeking him for years.”
“He might just be looking for family,” T'Challa said. “He might be looking for home.”
“Does he truly seem like the sort of person looking simply for a home?” Ramonda asked and T'Challa had no answer.
When the stranger arrived, T'Challa stood alone waiting for him.
“Nice place,” the stranger said, looking around the rooms and finally focusing the same intense stare he had displayed in the throne room on T'Challa, who gestured with his chin for the Dora Milaje to wait on the other side of the door.
“What is your name?” T'Challa asked, feeling like the stranger was trying to get him to rise toward some bait.
“Depends on which name you want. N'Jadaka was the name my father gave me. Stevens was the name my master gave me. Erik Killmonger is the name I took for myself.”
“I recommend you not call me that,” Erik said, an edge in his voice.
“Erik Killmonger then,” T'Challa said. “You came here, now. Why?”
“Well, I found my way in, didn't I?” Erik asked, and started walking back and forth in front of T'Challa. “You wouldn't have just let me stroll in, tattoo or not. Besides, Wakanda is not on any of the starcharts. You made yourselves hard to find on purpose.”
“True,” T'Challa said, watching Erik pace in front of him, his eyes constantly moving around the room, to T'Challa's face. “We have made ourselves hard to find.”
“Yeah, you and your empire, hiding in the middle of space, like no one is going to notice you,” Erik said.
“No one has,” T'Challa has. “Or at least they haven't found us.”
“You have all this wealth,” Erik said, gesturing around the room. “All this power. And your solution to all of that is to hide? Unify what, five worlds—”
“Four,” T'Challa said, though Jabari technically belonged to the Empire it was a technicality only in name.
“Four, whatever. You unify four worlds and just stop right there. You hide away here, hidden in plain sight and that's enough for you? Doesn't matter what happens in the rest of the galaxy, so long as you remain pretty on your throne? It was luck of the draw, that you ended up here, in this hidden place, with these resources. You could burn the rest of the galaxy down and rebuild it, if you had any ambition.”
“Why would I have that ambition?” T'Challa asked, voice mild though his heart rate had kicked up the longer Erik talked. “We have everything we need here.”
“Maybe because the people of that galaxy deserves your help,” Erik said and T'Challa noticed as he talked that his bottom canines were covered in gold.
T'Challa blinked again, dragging his eyes back up. “You mentioned you had a master.”
“Yeah, well, there's not many systems that outlaw slavery,” Erik said with a shrug. “Poor little lost boy. I did what I had to to stay alive. I got caught, I killed him, and I've fought my own way across the galaxy, and now I came back to where my blood came from.”
“Do you want safety?” T'Challa asked and Erik laughed, stopping his pacing for the first time.
“Safety? I came into your throne room and said I wished I could challenge you for the throne, why the fuck would I want safety? No,” and he stepped forward, making T'Challa's spine tighten. “I want Wakanda's power. I want to show you you're wrong. I'm going to convince you to have ambition.”
“And how exactly are you going to do that?” T'Challa asked, meeting his eyes.
“Don't know yet,” Erik said, voice suddenly light. “What method of persuasion works on you?”
“And what if you can't,” T'Challa asked. “Persuade me?”
Erik's mouth twitched. “I don't know. I'm not an assassin, if that's what you're asking.”
“Can you prove that you truly are N'Jobu's son?” T'Challa asked.
“You want to run a test, don't you?” Erik asked and T'Challa inclined his head. “Run any tests you want. Take what blood you need, it doesn't matter to me. But,” and he took another step closer, T'Challa's brows twitching up because since he became emperor no one dared stand so close to him anymore. “I am your blood. I expect that to be known.”
“Once proven conclusively, yes,” T'Challa said, hands curled loosely into fists at his side.
“Good,” Erik said. “Then do what you need to do. I can wait.”
T'Challa nodded, taking a step back, planning on leaving. He paused. “How did you find Klaue anyway? We had our war dogs search for him for years.”
“Sometimes to find scum you simply have to already be where they are,” Erik said with a smile, showing all his teeth and T'Challa was struck by the gold again.
“Please stay here,” T'Challa said, heading for the door and knowing that if Erik really was of their blood, he would be able to pass through it without escort. Perhaps it was a minor test, to see if Erik meant what he said.
“I ran every test,” Shuri said a few hours later. “I invented a couple new tests just to make sure the old ones were up to snuff. His genetics are ours.”
“So N'Jobu did have a son,” T'Challa said. “And he grew up out there, alone. How? How did this happen?”
“We lost N'Jobu,” Ramonda said. “We did not know what happened to him. We did not even know he had a son. The galaxy is large.”
“So there is another prince,” T'Challa said. “Who was raised in slavery, who became a soldier out there and now has come home. He says he wants to convince me to take Wakanda out into the galaxy at large, to use our influence.”
“You must not give him the chance,” Ramonda said. “He is dangerous, and not one of us. In body, in blood, yes, but not in spirit or soul.”
“You would have me send him away again.”
“Reward him,” Ramonda said. “Give him gold and technology for his trouble but to allow him to stay in Wakanda would be madness.”
“He is one of us,” T'Challa said. “He is our cousin. Your nephew. I will not send him away if he does not wish to go.”
His mother stared at him a long moment before she slowly nodded. “It is, of course, your choice, my son.”
“I agree with mother,” Shuri said, holding her holoprojector. “He will be dangerous.”
“He seems convinced he can persuade me,” T'Challa said. “Perhaps I can turn the tables and persuade him instead.”
Neither his sister nor his mother looked confident in his abilities.
“You are who you say you are,” T'Challa said, meeting Erik again, finding him lounged out across a couch, his legs kicked out and arms folded behind his head.
“Of course I am,” Erik said. “Don't think I'd actually be stupid enough to come here lying, did you?”
“I am starting to recognize that,” T'Challa said. “You are welcome to stay. You are a member of my family. There are certain protocols, however, in this court. You shall have to learn.”
Erik's smile was obviously feral and it made something slither up T'Challa's spine. “Learn how to fit in at court? Maybe your court just needs to be shaken up,” and T'Challa had a sudden sense of the magnitude of the change entering his life.
Two days after Erik first arrived Shuri looked over at her brother. “He did want to come here, correct?”
“Yes,” T'Challa said, his arms crossed over his chest as they watched Erik prowl around one of the gardens below them.
“So why does he look like a caged jaguar?” Shuri asked, and T'Challa found it almost impossible to take his eyes off Erik down below.
“He said he came looking for power,” T'Challa said. “I'm not certain he knew what it would be like to actually be here.”
“I thought he said he wanted you to agree with him,” Shuri said.
“Through lack of an easy way to the throne himself,” T'Challa said.
Shuri snorted, her head shake swaying the beads strung over her hair. “So no one's told him about the position of consort then?”
T'Challa froze, still watching Erik below them and slowly turning and looking at his sister. “Shuri,” he hissed and she gave him back a wide eyed stare.
“You don't think he would actually try something like that, do you?”
“I know nothing about him,” T'Challa said.
“Consort comes with a lot of responsibilities,” Shuri pointed out. “And he has barely gotten a hold on court protocol. In fact, he's actively rejecting court protocol.”
“Yes,” T'Challa said with a sigh. “He is. It's causing even more of a fuss than his arrival did.”
“What does he think he's going to gain by angering literally everyone?” Shuri asked. “There's no power in that, no glory, no success.”
“Perhaps it is the simple act of submitting that angers him so,” T'Challa said. “He said he was enslaved at one point.”
Shuri startled, the beads clanking again. “What?”
“He said after his father died he was enslaved, but that he killed his master,” T'Challa said. “He hasn't elaborated beyond that.”
“That's a pretty significant deal,” Shuri said. “Has he explained anything more than he did on the first day?”
“He's become quite private,” T'Challa said.
“Surly you mean,” Shuri said and T'Challa sighed.
“Perhaps,” he agreed, already making plans for later that night, when he had insisted on having dinner with his cousin. There had been many things left unexplained as he tried to give Erik the space to settle into Wakanda, the home he was always supposed to have.
But it did not seem to be working, as Erik started lashing out more and more.
“Brother, you are being careful, aren't you?” Shuri asked.
“When am I not careful?” T'Challa asked and Shuri just laughed at him, except she didn't fully look amused.
However, Erik avoided dinner that night, and T'Challa did not find him until midmorning the next day. “You avoided me last night,” he said, approaching Erik at the edges of the training ground, his Dora Milaje trailing behind him.
“Did I?” Erik asked, giving him a cocky grin. “Was I scheduled in for some time with the king? I mean, is that a crime here to miss? I mean, I might have made more effort if I knew there were going to be consequences.”
T'Challa pressed his mouth together. “There is no consequence. I am simply confused.”
“That must not be common for you either,” Erik said. “How annoying.”
“You said you wanted to persuade me,” T'Challa said, in his black robes. “And have avoided me since. Interesting strategy.”
Erik slid his eyes over, his mouth twitching but he stopped it before he could actually smile. “Yeah, well, your court thinks pretty highly of itself and I can only stand so much pretension in a given day.”
“Am I pretentious?” T'Challa asked and Erik looked sideways at him again.
“Yeah, you can't avoid it,” Erik said. “Comes from all that privilege. You can't avoid it, it's like woven into your DNA now.”
“Is that why you're not going to have dinner with me?” T'Challa asked, and his eyes were drawn over to where several of his guards were practice sparring together.
“Mean that much to you?” Erik asked.
“I want to understand you better,” T'Challa said, the corner of his mouth twitching up. “That's oddly difficult to do surrounded by the eyes of the court.”
“And you think those eyes aren't also in your private chambers?” Erik asked, and T'Challa tilted his head at him, his brows twitching.
“Are you're hoping to shock me somehow?” T'Challa asked.
“Is it working?” Erik asked, and he rolled his shoulders before walking away, leaving T'Challa watching him. He frowned, watching Erik leave, going over to where W'Kabi was talking with several other members of the border patrols. T'Challa was on the very of following him, feeling like their conversation was not over yet when Erik started pulling his shirt off over his head.
T'Challa froze, and realized that was far too obvious of him.
He wondered if he could cover it up with shock at seeing all the scars on Erik's chest and arms. They were small raised bumps, covering his skin and a neat pattern, like Erik had planned them all out.
Before he could fully process what those scars might mean, Erik was stepping into one of the sparring rings, having obviously set up a match with W'Kabi before T'Challa arrived. Rolling his shoulders, Erik smirked over at T'Challa as he casually dropped into a fighting stance.
T'Challa crossed his arms over his chest, sharing a look with W'Kabi. “What's this?” he asked.
“He asked to be allowed to spar with some of my men,” W'Kabi said. “He said he was a soldier out there, and did not want to lose any of his skills.”
“We do not know what those skills are,” T'Challa pointed out.
“You think he has a chance to best my men?” W'Kabi asked. “We are highly trained. It would not be bad to know how skilled or unskilled he is.”
“You want to test him,” T'Challa said.
“Don't you?” W'Kabi asked.
T'Challa's lips thinned but he turned with W'Kabi back to the sparring circle, in time to see Erik casually flip the border patrol agent over his shoulder, like lifting the man had meant nothing. “Is that honestly the best you have?” he asked and W'Kabi blinked once, T'Challa biting the inside of his cheek and hoping it wasn't obvious.
Erik cut through the rest of those willing to spar with him like they were butter, barely worth his time or effort.
“Perhaps all of you have rested on your laurels for too long,” he remarked, stepping out of the ring and lifting his shirt back up, though he did not put it back on.
T'Challa felt like his chest was too tight again, like breathing was something his lungs no longer wanted to participate in. “You obviously aren't resting anything,” and he could practically feel the look Okoye was giving both his back and Erik. “Are all soldiers where you come from so skilled?”
“No,” Erik said, with a smirk. “But maybe you should spend less time with your fancy tech and more time with the basics. And what about you, king?”
“Excuse me?” T'Challa asked.
“How's your fighting skills?” Erik asked, swaggering up and still holding his shirt in one hand. “You ever train or are you too above that?”
“I train,” T'Challa said, feeling his heart jump as Erik stood too close.
“Like they train, king?” Erik asked, his head cocked and brows raised.
“I have my own training regime,” T'Challa said. “And I do not have to impress you with my physical skills.”
“Oh, did you find my physical skills impressive?” Erik asked with a smirk.
“You know that was impressive,” T'Challa said. “I do not have to prop up your ego.”
Erik was still smirking when T'Challa took a step toward him, freezing Erik's expression where it was. “I would appreciate it if you would join me for dinner tonight. If you keep avoiding it, that is your choice but the invitations will not come forever. Until then, cousin.”
He turned and swept away, the thud of the spears behind him heralding his departure.
He ignored the dryness in his throat or the shiver of fear that went through him when he thought about Erik's easy ability to tear through some of his most advanced soldiers.
“I would like to know more about you,” T'Challa said that night, looking at Erik occasionally as they ate, surprised by the fact he was actually there.
“Shouldn't it be the other way around? Me, interested in Wakanda? You sure seem to like your rules here. Hard to keep up.”
“I will answer any questions you have,” T'Challa said. “But that does not change how little I know about you. You mentioned that you were a soldier, and a slave, and that you consider your father murdered. That is not much to go on.”
“I don't think he was murdered,” Erik said, cutting viciously at the food on his plate. “I know he was. But let's not get into that right now.”
“No?” T'Challa asked.
“Yeah, you ain't ready for that yet,” Erik said, the corners of his mouth curled up. “Ask me something else, king.”
“Your teeth,” T'Challa said, not the question he meant to ask. “It's quite striking. I have not seen teeth covered in gold.”
The smirk he got for that was downright feral. “Felt like I had to honor them, you know?”
“Your teeth?” T'Challa asked.
“Well, I ripped out the throat of my master with my own teeth,” Erik said and T'Challa froze again, staring at Erik's mouth as he talked. “Felt like they deserved something special after doing me such a service.”
“You... tore his throat out?” T'Challa asked.
“Doesn't seem right to own people, does it?” Erik asked. “He deserved nothing less than that.”
“It's not his death,” T'Challa murmured. “It's the method.”
“You gotta be willing to use what you have,” Erik said. “No matter what you have at hand, it's what you have to use to get out of it. You have a stick, you use a stick. You have a mouth, you use your fucking teeth.”
T'Challa swallowed, poking at his food with his utensil but not eating any of it, too distracted by staring at Erik.
“That's a … powerful philosophy.”
Erik laughed, not sounding amused. “Yeah, sure. Not the answer you were expecting?”
“I admit I am learning to not expect what comes out of your mouth,” T'Challa said and Erik's mouth twitched up. “I know nothing about your life. And I learn that more every time we speak. I could not imagine the desperation you must have—”
“Desperation,” Erik repeated. “Yeah, what would you know about desperation? You know nothing about the desperation that I have gone through because you know nothing about what it's like to be abandoned, lost, enslaved, and then used as a fucking weapon.”
T'Challa drew in a breath, still unable to look away from Erik's face, twisted up as it was in rage.
“I,” T'Challa started.
“No, what does it matter?” Erik said. “You'll never know. You never could. It's impossible for you to know, so it's useless for me to explain it to you.” He stood up abruptly, T'Challa's chin jerking back but he remained sitting. “So yeah, fuck your rules, fuck your court, no one deserves the right to contain my behavior, not anymore,” and he flashed his teeth, not really a smile but it showed off his gold capped canines, a threat T'Challa now recognized.
“You are in Wakanda now,” T'Challa said. “Court life is,” and Erik snarled at him, cutting him off so T'Challa snapped his mouth shut.
“I don't want to play by your games,” Erik said.
“I'm not sure what you want,” T'Challa said. “I'm not sure how you could get it.”
“That's my problem, ain't it?” Erik asked, and left the room, leaving T'Challa sitting at his own table, staring blankly at the uneaten food in front of him.