It’s only her second day of college, but Shuri learns quickly that college isn’t any different from high school. The freshmen are at the bottom of the social pecking order, upperclassmen still don’t appreciate being told to their face that they’re wrong, and she still gets stares for the colour of her skin or the curve of her hips, like it’s somehow a crime for her to study theoretical physics if she’s not a white boy. (She’ll do whatever she pleases, thanks.)
It’s frustrating. But at least the professors are more willing to debate experimental quantum theory with her than high school teachers.
Shuri settles down on the campus green in the shade of a tree, flipping open her algebra textbook and uncapping a highlighter. She’s just starting to attack it when a group of upperclassmen walk by, laughing and talking loudly.
“Man,” one laughs, “did you hear? They let a baby into the Science faculty this year!”
“I bet you it’s connections,” scoffs another. “Cass told me she’s the dean’s kid.”
Shuri cringes, and tries to press herself more against the trunk of the tree. Damn it, that was the exact reason she’d refused her mother’s offer to stay on-campus with her – she wanted to be known on her own merit, and not as Professor Ramonda’s daughter.
A sigh, then a third girl speaks, voice low and dry. “Don’t spread baseless gossip. Cass makes things up so that people will listen to her and you know it.”
“Oh yeah? She’s a tiny kid, why else would they let her into college so early?”
The voices are past the tree now and fading, so Shuri chances a peek out from behind the trunk. It’s a gaggle of girls, two of them preppy and one with a wild riot of curls and a flannel shirt around her waist. It’s the flannel shirt girl who speaks next, her voice identifying her as the third speaker.
“Maybe she’s smart? I heard Professor Stark telling Professor Banner that they had an hour-long debate on string theory and that it was fascinating.”
“String what now?”
Flannel Girl snorts. “See? Don’t spread rumours about someone if you don’t know how smart they really are.”
The girls round a bend, and disappear out of earshot. Shuri stares after them for a moment, surprised that (good) gossip about her is already spreading. Then she shrugs and turns back to algebra.
In her second week of classes, someone slides into the seat next to her in Quantum Field Theory. It’s a pale boy with a quicksilver grin and a head of hair that looks like birds could nest in it.
“Hey,” he says. “Mind if I sit here?”
She shrugs, and pulls her bag over to her other side to make space for his long legs. “Shuri,” she says. “I’m the sixteen-year-old physics nut, in case you haven’t heard.”
“Peter,” he replies, tapping his pen to hers like some sort of secret handshake. Without any remorse whatsoever, he continues: “I’m a sophomore, but I failed this last year so I’ve got to re-take it if I wanna graduate.”
She appreciates that he doesn’t react like he’s heard all the gossip going around about her, so she does the same and tries not to judge. Even though – who fails a first-semester module on quantum, seriously?
Peter must see the expression on her face, because he laughs. “I’m better at fluid physics,” he says, “but quantum? What’s that, man? Come on.”
He’s funny, and Shuri finds herself laughing along. It’s even funnier when halfway through class, he looks across the table and sees her detailed note-taking, and gapes.
“What the hell is your handwriting,” he hisses when Professor Stark’s back is turned. “And how did you understand all that? Are you a robot?”
“That’s right,” she deadpans, reaching to change her red pen for a blue one. “Meep. Morp. Zeep. Robot student.”
It takes him a second to get it, but then Peter gapes at her again and drops his pen. “Was that Brooklyn Nine-Nine?!”
Shuri flashes him a grin.
“Sure was. I see you have good taste.”
After class, she packs up her things and hightails it out of class, intending to get a good library seat, but Peter catches her elbow before she can leave her seat. “You’re cool,” he says. “Let’s be study buddies?”
“Sure you don’t just want my notes?” she teases, wry, and he laughs. “Well, I was hoping you could teach me your ways, oh mighty robot,” he says. “As a trade I can offer…great life advice and long, soulful discussions about how much I love Rosa Diaz.”
“I’ll pass on the life advice,” laughs Shuri. “But a definite yes on Rosa. God, she’s such a queen.”
“How was school?” Uncle W’Kabi asks, as he puts the vegetables he’d bought for the week into the fridge. Shuri starts from where she’d been lolling, half asleep, on the kitchen.
“I made a friend this week,” she tells her godfather. “What’s for dinner today?”
See, T’Challa had said that she wouldn’t have the full student experience if she didn’t stay on-campus. But her godparents’ house was near school, fancy as hell (she now has a queen-sized mattress for herself, like hell yes), and most importantly, the cutest dog in the world is there. Of course she’d jumped at the chance the moment Aunt Okoye and Uncle W’Kabi had offered to put her up in their guest room.
“Hmm,” says Uncle W’Kabi. “How do you feel about pasta? Okoye’s working late tonight so it’s just the both of us and the TV.”
“Sounds good,” says Shuri, peering at the cutting board and knives that he begins to set out. “Can I help?”
Uncle W’Kabi looks up and eyes her suspiciously, and abruptly Shuri remembers that the last time she’d tried to help they’d ended up with pieces of onion all over the floor, below the sofa, and (somehow) on top of the blades of the ceiling fan.
“…Or I could take Rhino for a walk,” she says quickly, and the black Lab looks up eagerly at the mention of her name, tail beginning to wag. Uncle W’Kabi laughs and waves a hand, which Shuri takes as a signal to grab Rhino’s clip on leash.
“We’ll be back in an hour!” she calls, and then they’re out the door.
Rhino is clearly thrilled to be out of the house, and they traipse around the neighbourhood happily. There’s a new coffee shop on the corner road just after the turning for college, and Shuri wanders closer to investigate. There’s an iron sign outside that reads The Better Ground in neat block letters, and upon peering in she sees it’s half-full, the ponytailed barista sitting at the counter staring at his phone.
There’s also a park nearby, and when they get there Shuri flops down onto the soft grass, grabbing a fat stick and throwing it for Rhino to catch. She likes fetch because it doesn’t really require brain power – all she needs to do is chuck the stick as hard as she can in a random direction, and she’s free to zone out while Rhino chases after the stick. She takes the stick, sticky with dog drool, and throws it with all her might again-
Shuri winces. She watches, almost in slow motion, as the stick flies in a spinning arc and strikes the head of an Asian boy.
“Sorry!” she shrieks, and runs over. “That was for my dog, I didn’t see you-”
“It’s okay,” says her unwitting victim, smiling and handing her back the stick. “Good arm you’ve got there.”
His friend is next to him, squatting down and laughing so hard he’s wheezing. Shuri blinks, and squints at the vaguely familiar bird’s-nest hair.
He startles, falls on his butt, and looks up at her. “Shuri!” he says happily. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“Fancy is what you are,” she replies, jerking her chin at him. “I didn’t know you owned jeans without holes in them.”
“It’s fashion,” he snaps, almost on autopilot – they’ve had this argument 6 times in the past week.
“Your friend is funny,” says Peter’s friend, and turns to Shuri. “Hi, I’m Ned. Peter and I go way back.”
Shuri shakes his hand.
“I’m Shuri, nice to meet you,” she grins. “I wish I could say Peter and I go way back, but really it’s more that our one week of friendship feels like an eternity with how much he talks.”
Ned laughs that, and Peter crinkles his nose in protest, scrambling to his feet. “I regret letting you two meet already,” he says, and then continues as though he hadn’t just said that: “We’re going to a party at our high school friend’s house. Wanna come? MJ’s real nice, she won’t mind an extra.”
“MJ?” she asks.
“Y’know, top astrophysics student? Kinda tall, curly hair, looks like she knows your deepest darkest secret and will blackmail you for it if you don’t submit to her?”
She snorts. “I’m a year below you, you know that.”
“Doesn’t matter! It’s gonna be really fun, you should come.”
Shuri doesn’t know this MJ person, barely knows Ned, but Peter’s easy invitation has her tempted to agree. Then Rhino snuffles into her hand and she remembers Uncle W’Kabi and his magical pasta waiting for her at home.
“I gotta get this girl home,” she tells Peter, scratching Rhino behind the ears. “Maybe another time?”
“Sure thing, girl,” he says, lifting his fist for a fistbump. “In that case, we gotta go. See you in class tomorrow!”
On Friday there’s a student life showcase, where a good majority of the school’s clubs open recruitment and do live demonstrations. Shuri’s kind of overwhelmed by all the yelling, but she’d promised T’Challa that she’d join some kind of student club in college, so she bravely enters the breach.
After putting down her name for the astronomy club, she wanders into the hall, and notices that a demonstration by the debate club is about to start. Curious, Shuri wanders down the rows of seats to grab one near the front. There are a couple of debate club members shuffling papers near the stage, and abruptly Shuri realises one of them is Flannel Girl. Except today she’s not in flannel but a sleek pantsuit and sharp eyeliner, and she looks gorgeous.
She’s sunk into a seat before she knows it.
“Hi,” says Flannel Girl, walking up the stage. “I’m Michelle, and this is Liz. We’re going to do a quick exhibition debate today.”
“Yeah!” yells a voice from the back of the hall. “You go, MJ!”
Shuri turns, and sees Peter waving like a dork at the door. Michelle (MJ?) sighs audibly into the microphone, and then proceeds to ignore him and instead go on with the debate.
She feels more than sees Peter slide into the seat next to her, barely responding to his Hey because Michelle has started speaking, and damn, her debating voice is smooth as butter.
Peter waves his hand in front of her face, and she jerks up. “You okay?” he asks. “You looked like you were zoning out there.”
“I’m fine,” she says. “Just- is that your friend MJ? She’s really good.”
“Yeah,” says Peter, grinning. “‘Course she is, she’s the debate captain. I should introduce you guys some time, you’re both super smart and kinda scary.”
“Scary?” she asks teasingly, turning to face him. “Little old me?”
“Yes, and you know it. I’m pretty sure you traumatised Professor Stark last lecture when you stood up and told him to his face that he was wrong, and spent the next 5 minutes explaining why.”
(She’d gotten a stern talking-to from T’Challa from that. So worth it.)
“People who can be proven wrong by college students don’t deserve to be called professors,” she sniffs instead.
“And that’s why your smarts are terrifying. You and MJ’ll get on like a house on fire.”
“Alright,” Shuri says, watching as Michelle sits back and her teammate takes a stage. “I’ll look forward to it.”
She gets home and calls T’Challa, tells him about how cool MJ is.
“…You definitely are having a lesbian crisis,” he says dryly when she’s done talking. She checks the clock. It’s only been less than five minutes. She’s barely started on the list of how cool MJ is.
“Shut up!” she yells (though she doesn’t deny it), and hangs up.
Apparently to Peter, introducing her to MJ means dragging her over to MJ’s table in their favourite coffeeshop, egged on by Erik, the barista who seems set on matchmaking her with MJ.
Okay, so MJ’s super cool and Shuri would love to get to know her and she’s also really beautiful sitting by the window with the soft daylight illuminating the highlights in her hair, but still.
(She’s having a lesbian crisis. Damn, she hates when Erik and T’Challa are right.)
But then MJ asks about her torturing of Mr Stark (he doesn’t get to be called professor if he can’t answer her), and Shuri’s been going on and on for ten minutes and MJ hasn’t yawned once. Instead, she’s actually paying attention, and providing counter-arguments.
She’s dimly aware of Peter backing away, probably to sit somewhere with a slice Erik’s excellent cake (or, really, the cake made by his awesome new pastry chef) and play on his phone; but she’s having too much fun in this discussion to care. Fifteen minutes in, they pause the discussion so Shuri can scribble some diagrams on a napkin before re-launching back into her impassioned argument.
Nobody’s bothered to keep up with her on one of her tangents before. It’s intoxicating.
An hour later, the floor around them is scattered with napkins (half of which have been doodled on) and muffin crumbs, and the two of them are a little out of breath.
“…So, is the nerd talk over?”
Shuri turns to see Peter with a slice of cake in his hand.
“MJ is great,” she says emphatically. “How did you fail quantum if you study with her?”
“MJ doesn’t share her notes,” is the petulant reply.
“You’re a lazy freeloader, is why,” MJ retorts, shoving a curl of hair behind her ear and digging out her phone, which she passes to Shuri. “Here, give me your number. Let’s talk sometime when we don’t have these dumb guys around.”
Shuri grins. “Sounds like a plan.”
MJ texts her to invite her for coffee, which turns into an animated three-hour discussion on the merits of string theory. Then one coffee outing becomes two, then three, then spawns a couple of shopping outings, and now this.
“Want to go watch a movie?” MJ asks over the rim of her espresso. “I hear A Wrinkle in Time is out.”
A Wrinkle in Time is Shuri’s favourite childhood book. Her giant lesbian crush on MJ keeps finding reasons to grow even stronger. (Dammit.)
“Yes!” she says, betraying none of her inner turmoil. “When?”
Shuri blinks, then downs the rest of her soy latte in one go.
“Let’s go,” she declares.
The movie is good, but Shuri spends half the time fishing popcorn from their shared bucket and pretending she doesn't shiver when her hand accidentally brushes MJ’s. Later they walk out side by side, busily discussing the movie.
“We should have asked Peter and Ned along,” says Shuri. “I think he’d have loved Mrs Whatsit.”
“Yes,” she says stiltedly. “Of course. I’ll, uh, invite them along next time.”
There’s a strained quality to her voice that gives Shuri pause. Could it- oh.
“Or,” she says carefully, looking at MJ’s expression, “we don’t have to. It could be like, a date. Or something.”
MJ’s smile is definitely rueful now. “You wouldn’t have said yes if it was a straight-up date?” she asks.
“That depends,” Shuri replies, nudging MJ’s shoulder with her own, feeling a sudden boldness bolstered by the unsure quality of MJ’s voice. “You asking?”
MJ fumbles the empty popcorn bucket.
Shuri stops and blinks at MJ. And blinks again. “Yes,” she squeaks, like she can’t believe this is happening. (Spoiler alert: she can’t.) “I’d say yes.”
“Oh! Okay,” replies MJ. “Great. Great!” A pause. “Let’s grab burgers?”
“I’d love burgers,” Shuri smiles.
Ned finds out first. He’s the kind of guy who observes rather than speaks, so two weeks later, he sidles over just as MJ’s plucking the milk carton off Shuri’s lunch tray.
“Hey,” he says, looking at the leather jacket draped around Shuri’s shoulders, “not to be nosy or anything, but um. Shuri, do you and MJ shop at the same places? Because I could swear that I’ve seen MJ wear that exact same jacket before.”
Shuri looks up at MJ, who shrugs.
“It is my jacket,” MJ says. “Shuri looks cute in it, so I lent it to her.”
Shuri furiously pretends that she’s not blushing. Ned looks between the two of them, and suddenly sits up straight.
“Ah! You two are…” He points at each of them, and puts his two index fingers to mime together. “Thought so. Shuri usually can’t stop staring at you, but recently you’ve started staring at her too.”
One afternoon, Shuri’s hanging around outside the library with Peter, waiting for MJ to finish some debate research. Her college is a strict no-Pokemon zone, so she’s resigned to scrolling idly through Instagram and kicking the gravel around.
“Professor!” calls Peter, waving wildly, and Shuri looks up to see their quantum lecturer. He nods in reply to Peter’s enthusiasm, taking off his shades.
“What are you two doing outside the library? Don’t you have midterms to study for?”
“Shuri doesn’t need to study,” Peter says automatically. “And I…uh… I’ll pass this time! Just you see!”
Professor Stark snorts.
“I’m in full agreement that she doesn’t need to study, she’s shown more than enough competence in classes. You, on the other hand, could do well to stop doodling on your lecture handouts or making them into paper planes.”
“I’ve learnt the stuff before, I did quantum last year too!”
“Well, then maybe you’ll pass this year,” he says, and gives Peter a stern look. “Provided, of course, that you answer all the questions on the paper this year.”
Peter has the grace to look ashamed.
“It was one question!”
“That was worth 30 marks, bub.”
Shuri can’t help the incredulous giggle. “You didn't answer a 30-mark question on the paper?”
“It was on the last page,” Peter wails. “How was I supposed to know the flipside of the sheet had a question too? I only realised I’d forgotten it when I turned the paper in and saw printing on the other side!”
She can’t think of an answer to that that isn’t snarky. Neither, it seems can Professor Stark – he smirks and puts his shades back on. “Maybe you might want to get those eyes checked,” he says cheerily. “Ask your doctor if reading glasses are right for you.”
He walks off with a jaunty wave, and Shuri stares after him, very amused.
“…Did he just call me an old man who needs reading glasses?” asks Peter, a minute later. He waves his fist at the tiny silhouette of Professor Stark now on the far end of the campus. “Hey!”
MJ comes up behind them. “Hey who?” Peter, who hadn’t noticed her approach, jumps and shrieks.
“Nothing much,” Shuri says, grinning. “Professor Stark shamed Peter for his inability to count the number of questions on an exam paper.”
MJ snorts. “Not one of his finest moments.”
“Wait,” says Peter. “Didn’t you say he didn’t deserve to be called ‘professor’?”
“Well,” Shuri shrugs. “The man can deliver a sick burn. I respect that.”
“So, I was thinking,” Peter says, leaning back in his chair. The four of them are clustered in The Better Ground – Peter and MJ are studying for midterms, and Shuri and Ned are playing Pokemon Go. “I’ve got a friend who thinks you’re pretty, MJ. He’s cute, name’s Flash.”
“Not interested,” MJ deadpans, highlighting something in her textbook without looking up.
“Aww, come on. Give him a shot. You’ve been single since the dawn of time.”
Ned coughs, not very discreetly. “Peter!” he says. “I’m hungry. Can you help us get a couple of muffins?”
He waves a bunch of dollar bills in Peter’s face, and Peter goes. “Thanks for the change of topic,” Shuri whispers to Ned, who nods back.
Peter comes back bearing a plate of glistening blueberry muffins. Within seconds, however, he’s back on the original topic like a greyhound on a scent. “Come on, MJ. It’ll be fun. Liz and I can do a double date or something.”
“Funny,” MJ says. “Last I checked Liz wasn’t interested in you. Also, no. Not interested.”
Peter wheezes dramatically, and grasps his chest. “Liz just hasn’t had the Full Parker Experience! And also, stop changing the subject!”
“Leave MJ alone,” Shuri interjects, sounding a little snappier than she’d intended. “If she isn’t interested in your friend then she’s not interested.”
His head swings towards her with a grin. “Why, Shuri? You interested in Flash? I can set you up since MJ doesn’t want him.”
It’s MJ’s turn to look up from her notes and narrow her eyes at Peter, but Ned beats her to the punch.
“Peter,” he says. “Neither of them is interested. Stop asking.”
“How do you know? Are you dating them both, secretly?”
MJ sighs, and steps in to rescue Ned from the interrogation. “Peter,” she says with the air of someone about to explain to a child that Santa doesn’t exist. “We’re lesbians.”
“And we’re dating,” Shuri chimes in.
“How was school today?”
Aunt Okoye is home early today, and she’s lounging with Rhino on the couch while Uncle W’Kabi stirs a stew in the kitchen.
“It was good,” says Shuri. “Um. I…”
She pauses, trying to find the right words.
“Yes?” prompts Aunt Okoye.
The words tumble out in a rush and Shuri winces. She’d meant to break this to them more gently, but the nerves had hit and she hadn’t known to say. Aunt Okoye blinks slowly.
“Okay. Can we meet her?”
“That’s it?” Shuri asks, stunned. “I have a girlfriend, ummeli. Not a boyfriend. Maybe never a boyfriend.”
“We don’t care who you love,” says Aunt Okoye, sniffing in disapproval as though anyone who disagrees with her should get lost. Or step on a Lego. “Besides, at least you’re bringing someone home, not like T’Challa and his ridiculous song and dance around that girl he’s been courting.”
“You’re still our little star,” adds Uncle W’Kabi.
Shuri sniffles. “Thanks,” she says. “I… um. It means a lot.”
Aunt Okoye dislodges Rhino to get up from the couch, and bring her into a hug. “Any time, Shuri.”
Silence descends upon the kitchen, except for the sound of dinner bubbling away on the stove. Then: “So, when can we meet her?”