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The Merchant of Death

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The palace halls were quiet as the soft light of dusk filtered gently through the windows. T’Challa stood staring out one such windows, watching as the people below began to close their stalls and retire to their homes.

T’Challa had never hated being a prince or begrudged his position, he was honored to be able to serve his people and he tried constantly to do everything he could for them, but even he got tired sometimes.

Baba had been giving him more freedom to make decisions and he had been attending more council meetings. He finally felt like he was nearing the end of his preparation as a future king and wielder of the gift of the Black Panther, but the transition was hard. Suddenly he was not only expected to speak at council meetings and other gatherings, but for his words to hold weight and sway. The weight of his invisible crown had never felt so heavy.

T’Challa sighed as he turned away from the window and adjusted his robes. He wished to speak to his father before retiring for the night. Though Wakanda remained hidden and posed as a farming nation they remained an active part of the world and as such T’Challa was expected to keep himself informed and up to date on foreign policy, trade and relations. He had been pouring over the notes of the last European Union meeting but had found himself confused by the wording of a particular point. It was rather minor information in the larger scale of current events, but the little details were what often held his waking mind and kept him awake long into the night.

His shoes, another stealth prototype he was testing for Shuri, made only a slight whisper on the polished floors as the young prince made his way to his father’s office. As he approached T’Challa could see the lights on through the cracks as he knew it would remain far into the evening as his father swore he did his best work in the stillness of the Wakandan night.

It wasn’t until he was within a few meters of the door that T’Challa paused in his stride ears straining at the unfamiliar sound. Voices.
Frowning the prince moved slightly closer recognizing his father’s deep, rumbling tone, but the other voice was unfamiliar, smoother with an unfamiliar accent something about the voice made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Moving slowly T’Challa reached to his hip where he kept a small collapsible blade and freed it from its sheath allowing it to extend to its full size. Though he had never needed to use the weapon before he had always kept it on his person, now more than ever aware that he could need to defend himself at any time.

Moving slowly, he approached the closed doors to his father’s office. He kept his arm lax at his side, taking advantage of the loose material of his over coat and it’s natural folding to hide the blade in his hand. Bracing himself just outside the door he decided his course of action. He could burst in and take the potential enemy by surprise, but he was still not even sure this was an enemy. He took a steadying breath and reached out, he would trust his father to be able to respond quickly should this stranger be a threat.

Raising his free hand, he rapped his knuckles on the sturdy wood. Immediately the voices within cut off and a few tense moments later his father called for him to enter. Tightening his grip on the knife T’Challa let his hand fall to the handle and opened the door.

He stepped over the threshold and immediately picked out the stranger, letting his gaze quickly sweep the other man. A foreigner, it was obvious from his lightly tanned skin and casual suit. Baba had allowed him here?

The other man was short, with dark eyes and neatly styled hair and facial hair and the way he nearly slumped in the chair showed a complete relaxation and ease, strange. T’Challa could feel the other’s gaze reciprocating the analysis, but the other’s posture didn’t even tighten leading the prince to the conclusion that this man felt no threat in his presence, so either arrogant, confident or felt he had no reason to feel threatened here.

“I apologize, I had not realized you would be hosting a guest tonight, my business may wait.”

T’Chaka rose from his seat with an easy smile and physically waved the comment away.

“Nonsense, I believe it is high time you two met.”

The other man remained seated as T’Chaka approached poured himself a glass of spirits and a second which he handed to the strange man.

“That means you can put away the knife kid, me and your dad go way back.”

T’Challa felt himself bristle at the casual tone the other took as he subconsciously noticed a slight American lilt to the others accent, but there was still something off. He glanced at his father to see if the other was offended by this man’s familiarity, but the older man just smiled with a twinkle in his eye and retook his seat behind the large desk. T’Chaka pointedly looked at the seat next to the strange man and T’Challa slid his blade back into its sheath and moved to take the seat, his posture stiff.

“So, this is your kid, I’ll admit he grew up way faster than I thought he would, or maybe it just seems like that to me.”

T'Chaka chuckled with a rueful smile and sipped his drink.

“No, no it is the same for me. I see feel like his was just a babe just a week ago.”

The two smiled and T’Challa felt his heart tug at just how old his father looked in that moment, but he focused his attention back to the man next to him.

“You speak as though you knew me as a child.”

The other man smiled at that, though he looked as though it was far more amusing then it should have been.

“Sure was, now seeing as it seems daddy dearest didn’t bother to tell you about me till now and we have established I’ve essentially known you your entire life, I think we should do a proper introduction.”

The other placed his drink on the desk and pushed to his feet in a quick motion. He unbuttoned his suit and tugged it straight before holding out his hand with a grin.

“Good to meet you your highness, my name is Tony.”

T’Challa eyes the hand for a moment before standing and shaking it hesitantly as he heard his father give a small contemplative hum from behind him.

“‘Is that the name you walk under these days?”

Tony turned his smile on the king and shrugged as he and T’Challa regained their seats.

“I’ve found I get a little better reaction with this name when I’m not on the job, the other was a little intense for casual conversation don’t you think? Plus, your name for me always made it seem like I was way more powerful then I really am.”

The king shook his head amused by his old friend’s words.

“I’ve known you too long to believe any of your humble ways iqabane.*”
T’Challa tilted his head a little.

“Do you often change your name? Are you a foreign agent of some sort?”

Tony actually laughed at that and took another large gulp of his drink.

“I guess you could say that, your highness would you like to explain what I am or should I?”

What he is?

T’Chaka seemed to think on the question for a moment before straightening.

“I will tell him, you can correct me should I get any details wrong or something no longer applies.”

Tony nodded and settled back in to his chair as T’Chaka turned a serious gaze on his son, who straightened, recognizing the importance of what he was about to be told.

“What I tell you never leaves this room, this secret and knowledge has been passed down since the first of our ancestors and could be extremely dangerous not only to Tony, but the world should this information reach the wrong hands.”

“I understand.”

T’Chaka smiled softly and nodded before folding his hands in front of him and looking at Tony.

“This story begins back near the beginning of Wakanda, not long after Bast first gave the first black panther the heart shaped herb. The other forces of the celestial plane began to take an interest in Bast’s chosen people, watching and observing as the world evolved around us. But one such being decided to take action. Asase saw how brutal the world was becoming and recognized the peaceful ways the people of Wakanda were trying to achieve so she sent one of her own to help us.”

“The ancestors called them Ukufa uThixo** and this creature bound themselves to the first Wakandan chief. Ukufa uThixo was Asase’s*** judge deciding the fate of mortal souls, but they decided to become a protector of the people of Wakanda and the bond has been passed through the line from chief to chief. I now hold the bond and when I am gone, it will pass to you, my son.”

T’Challa was silent as he absorbed this new information. Asase’s, Old Woman Earth’s, judge, a celestial of that power bound to the Wakandan people?

“What does this have to do with Tony?”

Even as the prince said it he caught sight of the look on the foreign man’s face and everything fell into place. Tony seemed to see the moment T’Challa figured it out because he gave a sharp smile.

“I like to think I look good for my age.”

T’Challa was speechless, he was sitting in the presence of a literal god and his father was sharing a drink with him. T’Chaka was giving him a sympathetic look as he sipped his drink.

“Take your time my son, I know just how much this information is to take in, I accused my own father of lying when he first told me of the bond.”

T’Challa’s frown lessened a little at that, he often forgot that his father was supposedly quite a hot head in his younger days, truly unbelievable given his father’s current warm steady demeanor.

Tony, it seemed wrong to call a celestial something so, casual sounding, perked up at that.

“Oh, he told me about that! He didn’t think you would take it well, but you straight up refused to believe it till he made me come visit and prove it. Your face when I actually did was hilarious, one of the best reactions of all of time, and that’s a really long time for me.”

T’Chaka and Tony were both smiling brightly now, but T’Challa had gotten caught up on something Tony had said.

“How did you?”

The celestial turned his gaze to the younger man and cocked his head.

“How’d I what?”

“Prove to my father you were what you claimed?”

Tony’s grin was almost predatory as he flowed to his feet and placed his hand on his popped hip.

“Ah the little prince believes, but wants a show, is that it?”

The prince looked horrified and began to sputter a denial, but Tony suddenly laughed, and his entire posture shifted to something much friendlier and more playful.

“Alright, just this once though.”

T’Challa felt like he had whiplash with how quickly the other would swap moods. As he watched Tony cast a quick glance at T’Chaka who nodded before turning back to T’Challa.

“Okay, since I know for a fact you already actually believe what I am I won’t go too flashy for both of our sakes. How bought I show you my real form? That got your dad pretty fast.”

“True for-”

“You didn’t think an age old being actually looked like this right? Nah, I just have taken a liking to this form and it seems like mortals get a little overwhelmed by anything not generically human looking. No, my real form is a little much for the average human to handle. Now, I’m being completely serious here, you can only look at me for a second or two, no long gawks or your eyes may literally melt. My real form is pure energy okay, that’s how I can do the things I do and exist on any plane I’m needed. So, you have to swear to only glance at it because I really like you so far and I would hate to literally blind you this young.”

T’Challa took a moment to process this new set of overwhelming information before nodding resolutely. Tony also gave a serious nod and then stepped back.

“Okay, close your eyes and when I tell you open them for just a second.”

Father and son both nodded in unison and closed their eyes. T’Challa waited in the darkness of his own eyelids for what felt far longer than it probably was before it was suddenly bright, the light nearly blinding even with his eyes still firmly clenched closed.

“Okay, just for a second.”

Tony’s voice was completely different, gone was the normal male tones and instead his voice didn’t even seem like a voice, more of just words impressed into reality itself. Bracing himself T’Challa blinked his eyes open for a moment before closing them tightly again, but even that brief glimpse had been enough to show him something he would never forget.

He felt that no language could describe Tony’s true form, at least not accurately. It was beautiful and horrifying and huge, and the prince had never felt so small and humbled before.

“Okay you can open your eyes again.”

T’Challa did and before him stood Tony again, looking plain and human once more, but the younger man knew better now.

“I so often forget how beautiful you are like that iqabane.”

“Are you saying I look ugly like this, I’m wounded your highness, truly!”
His father laughed heartily and turned his gaze back to his son.

“You likely have many questions and much to think on, but I’m afraid there are important manners upon which I must speak with Tony about that cannot be discussed even in front of you. We will talk more in the morning my son.”

T’Challa was reluctant to leave but recognized that there were still many things he did not and would not know of for some time. Nodding he gave a short nod to his father and Tony.

“Of course, Baba, I will see you in the morning.”

“Goodnight, my son.”

“Nice to meet you kid, I’m sure we will talk again soon.”

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T’Challa clutched his father to his chest tears streaming from his eyes. How, how had this happened? His Baba couldn’t be dead, he wouldn’t accept it!

All around him the building was in chaos, emergency workers were starting to appear, there was screams and cries from survivors, but T’Challa could only feel numb. Suddenly the world quieted and when the prince opened his eyes he found the colors around him dull and muted.

Before he could even question what was happening, he felt a gentle touch on his shoulder causing him to flinch violently and whip his head around to look over his shoulder.

“Hey kid.”

Tony stood just behind him, looking just as he had that night they had met in his father’s office, but gone was the carefree smile of that night, instead the other looked stricken and tired.

“Tony.”

T’Challa flinched at how raw his voice sounded.

“Ya, it’s me. I’m sorry.”

The ancient being was staring down at the body of his father and for once T’Challa could believe he was centuries old.

“What is happening, where are we?”

Tony tore his gaze away from his father and glanced around.

“I temporarily pulled you onto my plane of existence so that this would be more private. I-I felt the bond break, so I came here to do this personally. He deserves at least that.”

“Do what?”

“Help him to the plane of the ancestors.”

T’Challa stared down at his father as a new wave of tears welled in his eyes.

“So, this is it, he is truly gone.”

Tony did not reply as T’Challa curled over his father’s body with a low keening sound as he allowed himself one moment to drop his usual restraint and mourn for his father openly. He stayed like that body trembling as he allowed all his grief to pour from his heart.

Eventually he forced himself to straighten and release the tight grip on his father’s limp form. With immense care he laid his father on the floor and gently folded his arms over his chest, delicately removing his father’s ring as he did so. That done he leaned forward and kissed both of his father’s closed eyelids and rested his lips on the older man’s forehead and a hand on his heart as he whispered a gentle prayer to Bast asking her to watch over him.

Finally, he pulled back and slowly let his gaze drift to Tony who at some point had backed away, respectful of the intimacy of the moment.

“What will happen to him?”

Tony slowly turned to regard the younger man and gave a sad smile.

“Once I send you back to the mortal plane I will start my duties and help the souls of those killed here pass on to the next stage of their existence. Don’t worry, believe it or not they are usually quite happy when they actually pass on, I try to make sure of that.”

He seemed about to say something else, but hesitated before starting again.

“Now that the bond is broken, I will need to forge a new one with you soon, but not now. I will come to you once the period of mourning is over.”

T’Challa nodded and after staring at his father for a few more moments turned his gaze back to Tony and nodded. The other returned the nod and after stepped forward to place his hand on T’Challa’s shoulder and give a brief squeeze before suddenly the world was in motion again, sound and color rushing back causing T’Challa to flinch a little. When he looked around Tony was gone and there was a emergency worker quickly approaching. With a deep breath he forced himself to stand and meet them.

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It was the night before his coronation when he next saw Tony. He fell asleep to find himself in a large field that looked not unlike how his father described the ancestral plane, but instead of the black panthers of the past instead he saw Tony standing a little way ahead of him. Making his way forward T’Challa came to stand next to the other.

They stood in silence for a moment before the prince finally broke it.

“I assume you brought me here?”

The other man finally turned to face him and smiled.

“Yup, from what I hear you are to be crowned king of Wakanda tomorrow, so I think it’s also time for you to form the bond.”

T’Challa nodded as the other drew a small knife and stepped closer holding out his right-hand palm up as the knife in his left took on a faint glow.

“This will actually be much easier than fighting for the right of king, almost like a tattoo. Give me your hand.”

Curious T’Challa did so. Tony clasped the prince’s right hand and then flipped it so T’Challa’s wrist was exposed. Moving slowly Tony placed the skin on the blade on his forearm, just below the crook of his elbow and with a sharp sting and quick motions, carved a small geometric design into the flesh there.

He waited patiently for the other to let go before the prince pulled his arm back to inspect the marking which retained a faint glow.

“That is all?”

Tony barked a laugh, ya that’s it, it pretty simple process, but it’s a permanent bond. You are now linked directly to my power, so I have constant read on your state of being and link to you should anything serious ever happen that would require my interference. It used to involve a lot more ceremony, but I found that it works just the same without all that stuff.”

T’Challa continued to admire the new mark as it began to heal before his eyes, glowing a little brighter. He turned his gaze back to the other.

“You only pass this mark on to the next in line once the previous marked has passed on correct? Does that mean I am the only one with this mark now?”

Tony stopped and got a bemused look on his face.

“No, not anymore at least. There is one other man who has that same mark, though he doesn’t know what it means. I think he’ll have to learn about it eventually, but for now he is just living his life completely unaware that he has an all-powerful being actively keeping tabs on him and feeding him some power.”

“Who-”

“I think it is best I don’t say actually, but I’m sure you’ll get to know him eventually, seems that just how things work out sometimes.”

T’Challa nodded slowly before both turned to look back out over the sweeping fields and colorful sky. They stayed like that for what felt like hours before Tony seemed to ruffle himself slightly.

“Well, my job here is done and you have a big day ahead of you, so I will let you return to your normal sleeping habits, it was nice to see you again your highness.”

“Actually, I would stay here for a while if you would allow, I find it extremely calming.”

Tony stared at him with an odd look for a moment before nodding.

“Sure, thing kid, and hey, be careful tomorrow okay? You never know what can happen.”

T’Challa’s brow furrowed and he turned to ask the other what he meant by that, but he was alone in the field. Confused he pushed the thought aside for now and focused his gaze back at the far horizon, eyes slipping closed as he took the time to ready himself for what was to come the next day.