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Steal the Stars

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Erik knows his Great Aunt Sophie would probably be disappointed in him. He will always be grateful to the woman for taking him in after his father was found murdered by unknown assailants. Not that the cops put much effort into finding a killer, Erik realized that even as a boy. Their patronizing remarks that he had been lucky to be helping Sophie at another complex stoke his rage when he hears them. If it weren't for Sophie, entering her late sixties; more than done raising kids, as well as grandkids stepping up despite her ill health, Erik would have been just another kid in the system.

 

Great Aunt Sophie was a godsend to an angry and confused kid. She took no shit, had dragged him down by his ear to the bus stop and sent him off to school even when he raged against it. She would insist he was a smart kid; he needed to get an education and get a safe white collar job. She would try to inspire him with the reminders of his father, never knowing why Erik would shut down. Never knowing that Erik was certain that on a continent across the Atlantic there was a nation more advanced than anyone could imagine, an African country that had avoided the effects of colonialism. Where Erik was a Prince, the proof hidden tucked beneath his shirt, a ring on a gold chain.

 

She may have wanted those things for him, but Great Aunt Sophie was also the one who taught Erik how to hotwire a car after she lost the keys to hers.

 

Erik may have gone to school. Erik may have gotten his engineering degree and gained some questionable skills in the SEAL’s; when the opportunity to shift fully shift said skills into black ops and working with the CIA comes up, Erik drops off the grid. He has taken what they have taught him and made it his own. He's played his cards right, making sure to hide his best ones up his sleeves.

 

Great Aunt Sophie may have wanted Erik to be something else, someone else. Maybe it's best she found her peace right after Erik started at MIT, with dreams he would be the next Tony Stark or some great scientist. Erik knows he would be a disappointment to her, but the money he can throw at actually making the lives of others and his city right? It more than makes up for the risk.

 

He doesn't live with illusions of grandeur. He's not a modern day Robin Hood; he’s not anything that noble. Erik has his indulgences, a love of collectible Jordans and designer clothes that's hard to shake. He sees nothing wrong with taking from those who oppress others be it intentionally or systemically, and turning their ideals on a bias and spinning it. So yeah, Great Aunt Sophie may have clucked her tongue and shook her purse, but Erik is going to right wrongs where he can. Besides, it's not like he's ever been caught.

 

Not until Wakanda becomes involved.

 

---

 

Any good heist is an inside job. Or at least is committed with intimate knowledge. It requires working with others who can play their roles and keep their mouths shut. Being in the military required playing a role and working as a unit; it's something Erik’s good at even if it isn't his preferred style. He never works with the same exact group too many times; he vets each person delving deep into their past and present to make sure they pose no risk. He’s turned down jobs that don't pass his smell test, no matter how lucrative. Erik's not risking jail time, or worse being recruited by different agencies as a way to avoid jail time. No, there are people who count on the mysterious donations popping up at their doorsteps, the money in sealed envelopes with instructions for its use.

 

If Erik can take the money, stolen art, or corporate secrets from oppressors and steal a bit of their joy while doing that he will. So long as at least he has a way out even if the job may sink. Still, he has to balance high risk with a high reward like anything else.

 

Right now he's seriously questioning his choices in even agreeing to attend this little gathering.

 

“The Wakandans are just dangling this in front of us mate, it's itching for the taking,” Klaue says, his crazed smile filling his entire face as he leans towards Erik. There are just over half a dozen of them meeting in this drafty abandoned warehouse (could it get any tackier?) on the outskirts of Marseille. Erik knows that Klaue probably has another half dozen men patrolling outside to make sure there are no disturbances.

 

“Sounds like a trap for you, if we’re bein’ honest here,” Erik says bluntly. Klaue’s wide smile somehow grows wider; the man is clearly unstable. “So Wakanda is showing some art. Art, that according to you is going to be made from Vibranium, in an African Arts Charity tour through several museums in Europe. Somethin’ they’ve never done before, only a year after your ass nearly gets caught by them while trying to sell Vibranium to the CIA.”

 

Erik’s done his research on Klaue. He knows the man is good, that he's evaded Interpol and the Wakandans wanting him dead for over 25 years spoke to that. Erik also knows that Klaue is his best chance at getting into Wakanda under the radar so that he can find out what happened to his father. That potential is what brought Erik to this meeting, and it's what is stopping him from walking away.

 

“A job I tried to recruit you for,” Klaue remarks pointedly as if Erik’s presence could have altered things. It’s likely, Erik’s skills in the circle of high caliber thieves are well known. Erik can fill many roles: getaway driver, point man, dismantling security systems, the muscle. None of them know how great of a shot Erik is though, that along with his name and military career is information he keeps locked down. Erik’s a ghost without a past as far as they know, and that's how he wants to keep it.

 

“Didn't take it because your plan to get rid of the goods was shit. Just like you ain't got one now for what's an obvious trap,” Erik retorts. Klaue claps his hands together, rubbing them gleefully.

 

“But you came anyway,” Klaue sing songs. Erik raises his shoulders in a shrug, it's against his better judgment, but he is here. There were times he regrets not picking up that previous job, so close to the death of a monarch would have been a time of turmoil, just the right time to slip in. There had been something about the plan that set Erik on edge.

 

If Erik is going to touch anything involving Wakanda, he needs to be able to call all of the shots. Know all of the variables.

 

“Maybe I'm just here to see if you’re as crazy as I thought,” Klaue cackles. Erik’s hypothesis is confirmed. “Payment upfront, plus a percentage of the haul? You know how to get a man interested.” Which made Erik even warier. Never trust a thing too good to be true, he had learned that as a boy hoping that his family in Wakanda would come get him. The cold press of the Vibranium ring tucked beneath his shirt burns when he thinks of that.

 

“Knew that would get you,” Klaue points at him with the same crazed grin, “you're a hard man to track down. Couldn't even get your name and for someone like me not to be able to find that, I knew you were as good as advertised.”

 

“You still ain't gettin’ my name,” Erik retorts. Erik makes sure he isn't an easy man to reach for a reason, he keeps even ‘trusted’ old contacts at a distance. He has drop boxes and safety deposit boxes in several countries, services to then forward anything to other locations around the globe at the drop of a dime. Being a good thief is an expensive endeavour, but it's also what keeps Erik untouched.

 

“Mate, I can hardly see your face,” Klaue says, pointing at Erik’s dark hoodie and sunglasses. They're a modified version of Stark’s Smart Glasses tech that Erik has reworked, he can see Klaue in the dark warehouse clear as day.

 

“Can never be too careful,” it's why Erik’s armed beneath that hoodie at a no weapons meeting. Just like everyone else in the room.

 

“So why bring Mr. Mysterious in at all Klaue,” it's a lithe woman speaking. She's pretty, propped up on a crate with her ankles crossed. She wears simple black fatigues and a navy blue shirt tucked in, she looks at Erik with undisguised wariness. Erik flashes her a smile.He’s wearing caps over his gold teeth to hide how distinct they are and seem less intimidating, she scowls in return.

 

“Linda, play nice!” Klaue chides as if this is all a game. It probably is to him, Klaue definitely has more than a few screws loose. Anyone who wants to rob the Wakandans under their noses after being branded as a thief would have to be. “We need someone with a plan, a plan they won't see coming. Me, I show my pretty mug around there and,” Klaue slams his hand down hard on a nearby crate. The loud bang causes Linda to flinch.

 

Erik doesn't even blink.

 

“Anything that smells like me they'll descend like a pack of hyenas, or cats!” Klaue laughs at his own joke, uncaring that no one else follows suit.

 

“Make it an inside job, something subtle so they won’t see it coming even though they know it’s going to happen,” Erik can translate crazy pretty well. Klaue has a distinct style of smash and grab; the man makes headlines when he robs a place. Erik can appreciate that when there's no way some rich asshole can deny they've been had.

 

“Got it in one,” Klaue snaps his fingers.

 

Erik mulls this over. It's a risk. Working with someone as volatile as Klaue is always a risk, Erik has tried in the past to find someone with a way into Wakanda that apparently went unnoticed. He needs that knowledge if he's going to find his way in, and the truth of what happened to his father. Erik knows the answer’s in Wakanda, and he's going to find it.

 

“I'm feelin’ it,” Erik agrees, pushing himself up to his feet. He reaches into his pocket, more than one hand goes for a gun, but Klaue sits there grinning like a fool. Erik pulls out a simple burner phone and hands it to Klaue, “I'll text you the routing information. Once it clears, I'll call you with the plan.”

 

“Half, you'll get half now and half when we agree on a plan. Teamwork,” Klaue gives him a feral grin as he takes the phone. “Think it goes without saying, but if you screw me over--"

 

“Likewise,” Erik cuts in as he moves to step past Klaue to walk out of the warehouse.

 

“See you around...Jordan,” Klaue decides with a quick glance down at Erik’s shoes before moving out of his way. They're this year's re-release of the Air Jordan 1 Royal; he's got a pair tucked at home for safe keeping.

 

“If it makes it easier for you,” Erik shrugs. He walks out of the warehouse and slips away, past the car he had stolen earlier and wiped of prints heading out on foot. Klaue probably has someone tailing him, Erik has a plan to evade them though. He's not even staying in this city tonight.

 

The exhibit’s first stop is in London. He'll make his way there to start. He has a background to establish and a few ideas of where to start. Erik has a mission now, and a chance to use Klaue as his in with Wakanda. They want the man dead, Erik wants answers.

 

Erik only needs to find a way to get both things accomplished and make some money doing it.

 

---

 

Erik avoids showing his face around a job if he can. He’s a tall, athletic, black man; eyes are on him with much more scrutiny than any thief would want. Even when he shows up wearing a bespoke suit and on his ‘best’ behavior, it doesn’t matter. He draws attention; he draws questions, people note his presence in their memories more often than not.

 

This time though, his presence won’t be unusual. It’s African Art, and while Erik would prefer to pass himself off as some PhD candidate who is just 'so excited’ to even be there, he knows it won’t fly. He can teach himself many things, but presenting an academic’s level of knowledge in a field he has minimal experience in is borderline impossible. He’s smart, but he knows his limits. Erik needs to blend in as best he can while inserting himself into this tour.

 

He knows the layout of each museum the exhibit will occupy. Erik knows the ins, the outs. None of that means anything if he isn’t aware of the Wakandans though and where they may place their guards, even if it is not meant to be noticed. Erik has a discerning eye, and he’s done details like this before for politicians. The key part of being good security is to blend into the background, part of the exhibit more than anything else. He suspects that will be part of their strategy; he needs to take advantage of that with his own role.

 

Certain people are easy to bribe and manipulate. Erik keeps both a mental and physical log of such things. Knowing which route to take to best achieve his goals is an essential thing. It just so happens that the Director for the South African delegation owes Klaue (or rather, his ‘friends’) more than a few favors. It makes it easy to bring in an American with an ‘interest in contemporary African Art’ and military experience as a guard. Building a background takes time, creating one that will stand up to scrutiny takes longer.

 

Stealing one is easier.

 

Jordan James (Erik does not doubt Klaue dug to find that name), recently deceased United States Marine Corporal, part of the Marines Special Ops. Died in a car accident two months prior, no living relatives to question. The man didn't even have a Facebook. Klaue’s people have the death records scrubbed and honorable discharge papers issued in their place. Their work is clean. When Erik puts it through a stress test, it passes.

 

Just like that Erik finds himself with a new passport, work visa, half a decade shaved off his age, and a ‘new job’.

 

---

 

Erik is bored.

 

Watching movers unload art was boring enough, but Erik’s military experience has it's uses. The ability to do a mind-numbing task with an impassive face, watching everything. The part of the exhibit belonging to Wakandan art has already been set up, no chance to see their procedure of set up this time. Erik makes mental notes of everything he can see, the spacing and the way curators move around instructing the movers where to place things. The museum guards are there as well, but they would hardly be an obstacle. Every bit of information Erik can glean has value, he keeps his eyes and ears open even as he seems uninterested.

 

That first part of the job isn’t the problem. No, what’s boring him to near tears is this pre-opening gala. Where Erik has to stand off to the side, hands folded in front of him like some G-Man, wearing a stylish but simple black suit and some uncomfortable dress shoes that make him long for his sneakers. Erik adjusts his fake glasses, a simple enough gold rimmed pair that he’s grown rather fond of. No one will question when Erik eventually shows up with a thicker pair with a hidden camera.

 

Erik’s playing the long game, but fuck if he (at least in his head) isn’t tempted to just handle this shit now. Erik keeps his eyes on the crowd, men and women dressed in evening wear. They laugh and smile, all patting themselves on the back for supporting a ‘good’ cause for ‘developing’ countries. As if their ancestors weren’t the ones to rob those countries of lives and resources, as if their ‘charity’ isn’t cloaked in a guise of superiority and fucking bullshit--

 

“You look as if you would rather run out of the nearest window than be here,” Erik doesn’t turn his head at the voice clearly addressing him. It’s lightly accented, African but not South African.

 

“It’s a job,” is all Erik says in response. He keeps his eyes forward on the displays, sounding as dry and uninterested as he can. Erik has a role to play; it’s in the background where he can be as unnoticed as possible. The last thing he needs to be seen doing is standing out, Erik needs to be as forgettable as possible.

 

“Ah, yes. The South African delegation, no? Forgive me, you sound--”

 

“American? Yea, born and raised. Buddy hooked it up after I got out of the Marines,” Erik cuts in as he keeps his eyes forward on a couple looking over a piece of Zulu pottery. They remark with fascinating commentary about the beauty despite its ‘rudimentary’ production. It all sets Erik’s teeth on edge. Finish the job, complete the mission. Find out what happened to your father. He repeats his internal mantra over and over.

 

“A good friend,” the voice observes. The owner still has not left despite Erik’s clear dismissal and focus on other matters at hand. He glances to his left a bit incredulously, seeing a man just a hair taller than him standing beside him wearing an immaculate suit, a glass of red wine that looks untouched in his right hand. He’s a good looking man, dressed in an all black suit with the only pop of color being a piece of beautiful cloth draped over one shoulder. He looks vaguely familiar to Erik from that quick glance he gives him, raising alarm bells in Erik’s brain. Erik takes note to proceed with caution.

 

“JJ!” Erik nearly rolls his eyes as he feels a meaty hand slap his back. Junior Khumalo, the head curator of the South African Art is a shorter man in a slightly ruffled suit. His eyes hold the slight glaze of intoxication, so does his breath.

 

“Sir,” Erik keeps his voice professional. Junior is technically his ‘boss’ after all, a boss whose wife's fondness for drinks and cards makes him vulnerable.

 

“Stop standing all stiff, go! Have fun! Plenty of the museum staff to keep an eye on things,” Junior tells him. Before Erik can cut in that no, things are fine the way they are the other man speaks again. “Your Highness! It is such an honor to have Wakanda include itself in this exhibit, really…”

 

Erik doesn't hear anything after that. Everything clicks into focus, the handsome man standing next to him listening politely as Junior drones on is T’Challa, the King of Wakanda.

 

The Black Panther.

 

That just added a very serious problem to Erik’s previous plan. He was anticipating spies, War Dogs like his dad. Not easy to spot, but manageable as a threat. His dad told him stories of the Black Panther, his voice hinting at the pride when he discussed his brother’s strength in battle. Erik has seen the cellphone videos from Busan, the claws ready to cut Klaue down regardless of the audience.

 

He needs to reevaluate, now. If Wakanda is already suspicious of him, the whole job is in jeopardy. Erik’s chance to find out the truth of what happened to his dad is in danger.

 

“Why not let the King show you around a bit, JJ? Get to see more than this old crowd,” Juniors voice comes back into focus.

 

“Sir, it's fine--"

 

“I must insist,” T’Challa says, and Erik is quickly accounting for every available escape route he has should he need it.

 

“I must as well,” Junior says with another slap to Erik’s back before he finds some other poor soul to torment. Erik’s jaw tightens a fraction in irritation before he composes himself and turns to face his cousin. Erik isn't sure what he expects, recognition? Accusation?

 

“Would you like a drink?” T’Challa asks instead, holding up his own glass of wine in a gesture to the waiters walking by with trays filled with glasses.

 

“Don't drink,” Erik replies immediately. He isn't going to risk any impairment around the man. “Look, I appreciate the offer and all--"

 

“As I said, I insist,” T’Challa speaks with the conviction of a man used to getting his way. He gestured for Erik to follow him, Erik’s mind is racing. If he protests too much that risks raising suspicion, but if T’Challa knows even a hint of the plan Erik is walking into a trap.

 

Erik has an ace in the hole though, and it's the tattoo inside of his lip. He doesn't want to use it, if his father's family played any role in his death Erik isn't going to give them the heads start to cover it up.

 

“Alright man, if that's how you wanna spend your night,” Erik says with a shrug. He isn't pulling any of that ‘Your Highness’ bullshit; he's got as much claim to the title as T’Challa.

 

“It is,” T’Challa sounds amused and Erik nearly bristles. The King of Wakanda gestures for him to follow, moving through the crowd with an almost feline grace. People seem to part instinctively for them as they walk through the main crush towards the Wakandan part of the exhibit. They're hardly the only people there, but it is much quieter than where Erik had been standing all evening.

 

“Do you know much about Wakanda?” T’Challa asks as they step in front of a beautifully woven blanket. The intricate details of the pattern are stunning, and to the naked eye are perfectly symmetrical.

 

“Landlocked isolationist country, eastern Africa. Exports textiles,” Erik replies. Is T’Challa trying to assess how much he knows? If Erik gives away too much, it will be clear his information comes from elsewhere.

 

“That is all true,” T’Challa agrees as he stands just to the side and behind Erik. “We have...four tribes within our borders who contributed.” There’s a moment of hesitation in T’Challa’s voice, barely noticeable when he says four, Erik knows he’s thinking of the Jabari. Erik steps away from the blanket and moves along; he may as well scope out what pieces are likely to contain Vibranium now that T’Challa has given him a cover.

 

Or he’s trying to see what Erik knows.

 

Erik’s eyes are immediately drawn to one of the smaller pieces, but it's no less stunning. It's a small statue of a panther in mid strike, and there isn't a doubt in his mind that it's made of vibranium. He walks forward to get a closer look at it, leaning forward and--

 

And Erik can definitely see the King of Wakanda checking out his ass in the subtle reflection of the glass case that surrounds the statue. Erik flicks his eyes back to the statue, that was certainly not what he had expected when T’Challa had approached him. He straightens up, hands sliding into the pockets of his dress pants turning to the other man who knows he has been caught but doesn’t look the least bit embarrassed by it.

 

“Really? That was your play? Lemme show you some art?” Erik asks with a smirk. He can manage this, T’Challa has just given him a potential opportunity that Erik is in no way above exploiting. He doesn’t trust that T’Challa doesn’t have ulterior motives, trying to get Erik to let down his guard. Still, Erik can play if that’s the route he’s given.

 

“Did it work?” T’Challa asks, finally raising the glass of wine to his lips in an attempt to hide a smile that fails miserably. Erik’s eyes are almost instantly drawn to the ring he wears, identical to the one on a gold chain tucked under Erik’s shirt.

 

“You ain’t that smooth...your Highness,” Erik retorts. So he isn’t above using the royal title if it’s a bit mocking, he can’t be blamed for that. T'Challa doesn't look offended by the slight jab, in fact, he stops trying to hide his smile.

 

“I will take that into consideration...JJ?”

 

“Short for Jordan James, mom was big on alliteration,” it's an easy lie to tell. Erik has his stories down, background memorized, he's not going to slip up just because someone smiles at him.

 

“Well, JJ, perhaps you will allow me a different opportunity? Since my country’s art did not seem to work,” T’Challa says. Erik glances back at the small statue that much vibranium has dollar signs ringing in his head and he knows it's not even a scratch in Wakanda’s wealth.

 

“Nah, the art’s pretty sick,” he admits as he turns back to T’Challa. “Still think you can do better though.” As tempting as it is to keep going through the exhibit and accounting for everything the Wakandans have, Erik isn't going to risk his plan to keep himself at a distance and not draw suspicion.

 

“Is that a yes?” T’Challa asks; Erik smirks a bit as he moves past T’Challa. He can feel eyes on him, more than just those of the King.

 

“More of a maybe,” he says as he lightly bumps into T’Challa’s shoulder. He keeps walking away turning slightly so he walks backward, “let's see what you can come up with when I ain't wearin’ these awful shoes.”

 

Erik turns back and disappears into the crowd. He needs to account for this new development and adjust accordingly.

 

---

 

“Jordan James, from Brooklyn, New York. An honorably discharged United States Marine, age 29,” Shuri’s voice comes through clearly as her hologram moves through the hotel suite T’Challa sits in flanked by Okoye and Ayo. “Robbing the cradle a bit, aren't you older brother--"

 

“Shuri,” T’Challa chastises. He regrets wearing her newest bit of surveillance tech, camera and audio hidden as a suit button. She laughs anyway, far to amused by her own joke. She waves a hand and a static image of JJ in US military fatigues appears.

 

“MARSOC, special forces, multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was unexpectedly added to the South African security detail two weeks ago,” another motion of fingers and a payroll list shows up. Shuri’s expression turns a bit more serious, “We know multiple individuals involved are susceptible to blackmail, there is a very real possibility he is a plant for Klaue.”

 

“I do not trust him,” Okoye says darkly. Her eyes study the man, younger and clean shaven in the image Shuri has given him.

 

“You don't trust anyone,” Shuri remarks with a bit of a laugh.

 

“I agree with Okoye,” T’Challa leans back in his chair. He rests his chin upon his steepled fingers, “keep digging Shuri. See what more you can find, send the report to me--"

 

“So you can use it to plan your date?” Shuri shoots back. Her image vanishes with the sound of her laughter before T’Challa can come up with a retort.

 

“You should allow us to question him,” Okoye says and Ayo nods in agreement. “I do not like the idea of you getting close to a man who could very well be in Klaue’s pocket.”

 

“I think I can take care of myself in this. There is a chance he is merely who he claims,” T’Challa says. He has his doubts of course, ones he would be a fool to dismiss.

 

“That, I very much doubt.”

 

T'Challa takes a deep breath mulling over his options. He had been drawn to the man before the name had registered with the briefing he has received. He had stood out in the crowd of wealthy patrons and other on duty guards. Poised, his eyes cutting through the crowd with an occasional hint of disdain and irritation he likely thought was well hidden. T’Challa was good at reading others, a monarch needed to be in order to maintain the blessings of his people.

 

“Follow him, at a distance,” T’Challa adds as both Dora Milaje move to leave. “Regardless of what we may think of the Americans and their military, he does have training.”

 

Both women nod, arms crossing their chests as they bow their heads before taking their leave. T'Challa rolls his father's ring with his thumb, eyes fixed on where the image of a younger Jordan James had been.

 

“Who are you really?” T’Challa muses aloud.

 

He’s going to find out, and were it not for the anticipation of finally ending Klaue, T’Challa thinks it would be his most interesting venture yet.

 

---

 

It actually takes Erik a while to be sure he's being followed. It's not that he sees anyone, nor is it possible for a car to tail him in London traffic when he goes for a morning run. No, Erik notices when a few CCTV cameras seem to turn his way and follow him. It makes him certain that even if he can't see them, the Wakandans are observing from a distance as well. Is it because of his interactions with their King? Or suspicion due to Klaue?

 

That T’Challa is even present shows how serious they are taking their pursuit of Klaue. They know their trap will draw in the madman, and they're not taking any chances. It presents a definite challenge, Erik knows the background will stand up to scrutiny. If he has the Wakandans on him, cutting and running will tip them off, and send them in pursuit of him. Planning a job that won’t be a complete clusterfuck will be impossible then. Staying put is the only viable option, even if it is a risk. Erik can't exactly shift from flirting to ignoring T’Challa without raising suspicion either. He has to play the game.

 

It’s oddly exhilarating, a challenge to best those that ignored him. The payout from this job is more than enough to set Erik up for some time, and with that time he's going to find out the truth. He’ll play his cards close to the chest and come out on top, he usually does.

 

For the next few days, he keeps things as dull as possible without being a shut in. Erik runs, showers, guards the exhibit during museum hours, some days he eats dinner with ‘co-workers’ at the museum, other nights he eats alone before going to a MMA gym a few tube stops away. He’s not risking letting himself get soft. Erik doesn't contact Klaue more than a cursory text to ‘Joy’ in his phone, saying that London is fine but there's ‘some stray cats’ that seems to be in the area around his apartment that's irritating his allergies. Klaue’s crazy, not stupid, he'll understand.  The one thing he does do though, with great reluctance, is lock away his necklace with the ring. Erik keeps it in a locked box that he hides under a floorboard he pries up.

 

He’s close, so fucking close, and he can't take a risk of being discovered.

 

“I'll find the truth dad,” he whispers to himself when he's sure he is alone. Subtly sweeping the flat for any surveillance equipment had been done with the guise of cleaning but he's still careful. Erik glances briefly toward where the loose floorboard is beneath his bed. “Then Imma kill whoever's responsible.”

 

Silence is the only reply the world gives him.

 

---

 

Erik thinks that maybe T’Challa’s presence was a fluke. The Wakandans don't make a show of protecting their art; they have to have remote surveillance because it's like an inviting trap. Several of the other delegations have guards like Erik, hired on in addition to the museum staff. Not Wakanda, though.

 

Someone remarks it's unlikely such a poor country can even afford it, lamenting that they don't even accept foreign aid. It makes Erik want to laugh his ass off. Wakanda is sitting on more money then the world can even begin to comprehend.

 

The exhibit is only in London for another week, then the move to Paris begins. Erik suspects that during a move would be the easiest time to grab the Vibranium, the most guarded time as well. Erik doubts the Wakandans will be lulled into complacency; they'll know Klaue is planning something.

 

But they don't know about Erik; he plans to take full advantage of that even if he doesn't see T’Challa again.

 

Erik walks out of the museum wearing his street clothes, phone in hand with his earbuds halfway to his ears when he sees T’Challa. The King of Wakanda is still wearing an all black suit, Erik wonders if the man has anything else in his wardrobe. He’s leaning against a new sleek Lexus LS 500, the black paint seems to gleam despite the overcast weather. Both of Erik’s eyebrows shoot up and he lowers the earbuds and tucks his phone into the pocket of his dark jeans.

 

“‘Sup?” He smirks at T’Challa. His eyes flick briefly to where a tall woman dressed in a deceptively simple black dress stands giving him a cold once over. Her strength and power is evident in the way she carries herself; Erik doesn’t doubt she’s armed somehow. At least he has the benefit of looser clothes to hide his own piece when he is armed.

 

“You are wearing more comfortable shoes,” T’Challa observes. It’s true, Erik hates dress shoes and forgoes them for Jordan’s or boots at the soonest opportunity. Today he’s wearing well worn black boots, he supposes he shouldn’t be surprised T’Challa remembers that little bit of their conversation.

 

“Thought you wasn’t around anymore,” Erik replies, making his way down a few more steps before he stops an arm’s length away.

 

“As you can see, that is not the case,” T’Challa takes a step away from the car, “let us give you a ride home.”

 

“Ma always said never get in a ride with strangers,” Erik quips as his mind races through the possible scenarios. If they know, he’s got major issues. If they don’t, he’s got an opportunity. Erik will roll the dice. “Never was good at listenin’ to her though.”

 

T’Challa smiles and opens the door for Erik. Erik doesn’t think his eyebrows can get much higher as he steps forward sliding into the backseat of the car. Everything about the car is already top of the line, Erik doesn’t doubt for a minute though that it has been enhanced by Vibranium and tech. T’Challa moves in to sit beside him as the woman standing guard moves into the driver's seat.

 

“If you would prefer though,” T’Challa says as they pull away from the museum, “we could perhaps share a meal, get to know one another perhaps.” Erik tilts his head back against the headrest, his smirk widening as he looks over at T’Challa.

 

“So that’s what you come up with? You the wine and dine type?” Erik asks with a laugh as he shakes his head a bit pushing back his dreads. “Yea, yea alright. ‘Til a bit ago I was eatin’ in a chow hall and MRE’s, food works for me.” He needs a feel of how much T’Challa knows, what he suspects and adjust accordingly. Besides, Erik’s got eyes.

 

“Excellent, the hotel please, Ayo,” T’Challa instructs.

 

“Yes, my King,” the woman replies as she drives. Though to Erik it seems she’s looking at him in the rear view mirror more than the road. Self driving or remote driving technology then. The look she’s giving him is one full of contempt and mistrust, Erik grins back before looking at T’Challa.

 

“C’mon then, impress me.”

 

---

 

Despite his fondness for collectible shoes and designer clothes, Erik isn’t typically fond of displays of wealth. It irks him, the reminders of what people take for granted when others can’t even put food in their kids’ stomachs. When they roll up to The Dorchester, Erik can practically feel his fingers itching. It’s the kind of swanky hotel that he wouldn’t be allowed in dressed as he is if he was not with T’Challa who is clearly a VIP guest. The kind of place where he could pick some pockets and so long as he was careful no one would even notice the money was missing.

 

How no one can see the truth of Wakanda blows his mind. The King of a poor country staying in one of the nicest hotels in London, in what’s definitely their best suite? The arrogance of Western nations is truly staggering.

 

The suite has a stunning view from the balcony off the sitting room of Hyde Park. He stands out there with T’Challa for a bit, taking a few pictures on his phone of the view before they head back inside. Another woman is present, dressed identically to the one who had driven them there. She watches Erik like a hawk, with undisguised suspicion as they make their way to the dining room.

 

I do not feel his presence here is wise, my King,” she tells T’Challa in Xhosa. Erik’s is rusty, he hasn’t spoken it in 25 years to another person, but he can understand it well enough. Of course, they have no way of knowing that.

 

Relax, Okoye. Please, check with Ayo to ensure everything is going well,” T’Challa replies as Erik takes a seat in one of the strange green chairs. It’s not his style but it’s comfortable enough. The woman, Okoye, gives a curt nod fixing Erik with one last look of heavy suspicion before she steps out of the room.

 

“I think if she could kill me with her eyes she would,” Erik remarks. T’Challa turns his head a bit sharply and Erik rolls his eyes, “I got eyes man. Don’t need to know what y’all talkin’ about to be able to figure out context.”

 

“They are doing their jobs,” T’Challa sounds apologetic, Erik waves it off.

 

“Man, I get it. Nothin’ personal, just part of the job yea?” Erik shrugs and T’Challa gives him an odd look, “I was a Marine, spent months at a time looking at anyone not in the same uniform as me as a potential danger.”

 

“Why did you join JJ?” T’Challa asks curiously. Erik thinks he can see the play now, the man probably has JJ’s background memorized or has someone cross referencing it while he speaks to Erik.

 

“Ahhh shit, you wanna pry into the personal shit now?” Erik asks, giving a slight protest before he rubs the back of his neck. There’s a balance to be struck, being too eager and perfect will raise as many alarms as being standoffish. “I started getting in trouble after my mom died, hung out with the wrong crowd. Juvie a couple of times. One of the school counselors suggested structure in the military would be best for me once I was done with High School. Not like I was goin’ to college anyway even if my grades hadn’t gone to shit.”

 

All a lie, but it’s JJ’s truth. This is the tricky part; the best lies are always those told with a hint of truth. Here Erik has no choice, he doesn’t doubt Wakanda can unseal some juvenile records.

 

“Why not?” Erik laughs at the question, he can’t help it. He remembers his father telling him Wakanda does not understand the outside world, they may have their spies but they don’t get it.

 

“Money, college is expensive. GI Bill can help pay for that now, just don’t think it’s my scene,” Erik looks over at T’Challa, “how ‘bout you? What’s the story behind the King.” The longer the subject stays on things that are strictly JJ’s past, the higher the risk of Erik slipping, however slightly. Besides, T’Challa is turning out to be much more interesting than Erik would have expected.

 

“Perhaps I'm not that interesting,” it's not really evasive. Not with the way T’Challa smiles. Erik snorts a bit just as the food arrived, a harried looking butler clearly not used to the close supervision of others comes in with a cart. He’s flanked by Ayo and Okoye who immediately look to ensure T’Challa is unharmed, before fixing Erik with identical looks of suspicion.

 

“Now I know you're full of shit,” Erik smirks at T’Challa. T’Challa smiles in return though the others look at them oddly, they don't see the game for information the two have initiated.

 

Erik plans to win.

 

---

 

They talk for hours. Erik learns that T’Challa is fairly familiar with England having gone to Oxford for University. The food is good and Erik allows himself to be persuaded into a single glass of wine. He knows fuck all about wine, but it’s good and works with the food they’re being served. The explanations from the butler fly over his head, mostly ignored as he explains to T’Challa in painstaking details the reasons Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all time and the ridiculousness of comparing him to Lebron James.

 

Erik has a lot of thoughts on basketball; it’s the one thing he’s kept from when he was a kid.

 

T’Challa is intelligent, oddly thoughtful. Naive as hell and brimming with a privilege that he acknowledges shapes every part of him. He grew up knowing one day he would be King of a nation, though T’Challa is careful in how he discusses Wakanda. He speaks of his younger sister with exasperated fondness, and of the natural beauty of Wakanda with wistful homesickness. The last part clutches at Erik’s chest, twists his heart and stokes his anger. It reminds him of his dad, how he would tell stories of Wakanda with that bit of sadness.

 

Erik has a mission; he isn’t going to rage that it isn’t fair T’Challa got to have what he never did. Life isn’t fair. He knew that long before his dad died.

 

“So why art?” T’Challa asks hours later, they’ve moved to the sitting area now. Both of them have long ago removed their jackets and are sitting across from one another on plush designer seats.

 

“Elaborate,” Erik says, leaning back and stretching. Ayo and Okoye stand on guard at the entrance to the suite, their stances have not relaxed despite the length of Erik’s presence.

 

“You mentioned using the GI Bill to go to University, why change your mind and take a job guarding South African Art?” T’Challa asks, returning the conversation to the start. Maybe hoping that now it’s later and Erik’s eaten he won’t be as on guard. As if Erik’s some sort of amateur.

 

“I like art,” Erik says simply. “What, it can’t be that easy?”

 

“I do not think many things really are,” T’Challa replies a bit more seriously. Erik grins at him as he moves out of his seat to sit beside T’Challa on the couch, he turns to him making sure their thighs brush against one another.

 

“I do like art,” Erik says and it’s not a lie. “It’s cool ya know, seeing African Art from the different nations. When you go to a museum, when kids in America can even go to a museum it’s all this...clusterfuck together.” This is a risk, revealing too much of himself and his own views. It makes everything more real though, more believable.

 

“You ain’t gonna get it,” Erik adds looking over at T’Challa. “We have no roots. We have no homeland. We’re just grasping, and then they all treat that shit like it’s just the same. But there’s a difference, what y’all produce ain’t what other countries do. They wipe out the inherent culture, so yea. I had a chance to actually see it treated differently.” T’Challa’s staring at him as if he’s seeing him for the first time, Erik knows he has the King hooked.

 

“I mean yea, I ain’t gonna lie and say money had nothin’ to do with it. Decent money, and a chance to see countries beyond just sand everywhere with people shootin’ at me? Sign my ass up,” Erik shakes his head pulling off his glasses folding them easily on the coffee table as he leans into T’Challa’s ear. “I’d be askin’ ‘em to step out if I was you. I don’t care what they see but if you do…” he trails off as his mouth moves along the King’s ear before moving down his jawline.

 

It’s one way to end this particular line of questioning, and Erik’s pretty confident if that sharp breath is any indication. Erik smirks a bit, slipping a hand along T’Challa’s inner thigh and---

 

Leave us,” T’Challa barks. Both women look at them sharply, Erik’s hand is damn close to T’Challa’s dick and he can’t help but grin wider.

 

They leave without question, but not without looks of intense suspicion.

 

“You better have lube and condoms, cause no glove no love--” Erik begins when T’Challa kisses him roughly. The King of Wakanda is straddling his hips and grinding his ass against Erik’s cock shamelessly as Erik grabs his hips and pushes back.

 

Yea, Erik’s pretty damn sure he won this round.

 

---

 

“You know, I could have been traumatized,” Shuri tells T’Challa dramatically as her hologram points an accusing finger at him.

 

“I covered the camera on the jacket,” T’Challa dismisses his cheeks feeling a bit heated. Shuri’s eyes narrow as if she can sense his discomfort, and like a shark, she goes in for the kill.

 

“But not the audio, thank Bast you moved it to the bedroom or the amount of therapy I would need--"

 

“Did you find anything that raises any concerns?” T’Challa interrupts, he can see both Okoye and Ayo are not bothering to hide their amusement at the exchange.

 

“About your dating habits? Yes. Would you like an itemized list of suggestions? I can see what I can manage. It may take a while as you have given me a great deal of material to work with--"

 

“Shuri,” T’Challa says, closing his eyes for a moment to suppress a groan. His sister thinks she's far smarter than she is, and his own bodyguards have been hoodwinked into agreeing.

 

“Fine, fine,” she sighs as if put upon. Shuri gives him one last smile as if she's won before switching back to their mission at hand. “I found no deception, even the juvenile records match, though it was a bit more than a ‘couple’ times. Nothing too bad,” she adds quickly at Okoye’s sharp look.

 

“I will be the judge of that,” Okoye says seriously. Shuri sighs pulling up the sealed records and turning them to face them.

 

“Petty theft, possession of marijuana, and loitering do not make a hardened criminal,” Shuri says glancing back at T’Challa. She shrugs her shoulders, “I can keep looking, but so far it seems everything lines up.”

 

“That would be wise,” T’Challa nods. “I will see what other information I will be able to gather.”

 

“Ah yes, just remember to be aware that your little sister is listening in when you go ‘gathering information’,” Shuri raises her fingers in air quotes. “With your tongue.

 

She disconnects immediately after. T’Challa is going to have to find a way to stop that, Shuri is growing far too used to having the last word.

 

---

 

Erik has no problem doing the ‘walk of shame’ into the museum the next day. He had meant to sneak out of the hotel early with enough time to shower and change. However, that plan was foiled when T’Challa proved to be a very light sleeper and more than a little interested in a repeat of the previous evening. It was well worth the sidelong looks he gets when he changes into his suit.

 

T’Challa is suspicious of him, yes. Not so suspicious that he won't take Erik to bed though, and Erik can work with that. It's not exactly a hardship either, T’Challa is intelligent and working against him presents a challenge different from any Erik has faced. It doesn't hurt that the sex had been great. If T’Challa wants a repeat as they dance around what the other knows, Erik’s fine with that.

 

If he can use it to his advantage to complete the job...all the better.

 

---

 

The full nature of Wakanda’s surveillance tech is a mystery. For a job like this, it should be easy: take over the surveillance feed and make it a constant loop to erase the theft. Yet when Erik sneaks in a small device meant to detect the frequency of data being transmitted he only picks up the museum's own. Erik knows they have to have remote tech, he has watched day after day and no one stands out as a guard. No one returns or lingers long enough, it makes him all but certain that they're surveilling remotely with T’Challa and his guards ready to strike.

 

Erik has an engineer’s mind, he goes methodically through his options. Each is dismissed due to the mystery of Vibranium and the tech within. If he could get his hands on a bit of tech, a bit of anything maybe he would have a chance. As it stands he is forced to dismiss everything, he doubts even an EMP would work; it would only serve to alert them all the sooner.

 

So, the subtle plan he had hoped to devise is probably a lost cause. Erik holds out a bit of hope for a chance during the transfer of the exhibit, but Okoye and Ayo are there standing vigilantly on guard of the Vibranium art as they do over T’Challa. He's seen enough of them to know they won't relax their guard.

 

Alright, subtle is out. Klaue’s brand of chaos is going to have to do; they need only figure out the when and how. It already sets Erik’s teeth on edge just thinking about it, alarm bells warning of all the ways this is a bad fucking idea. He knows he let himself get in too deep, Erik should have listened to his instincts and never taken the damn job to begin with. He doesn't even have his fucking gun on him--

 

“Is something wrong? You seem tense,” T’Challa asks. They're in T’Challa’s new suite at some high-end Parisian hotel, Erik took only enough time to find a new hiding spot for his ring before coming over. He tells himself it's because good sex is what he needs to unwind after realizing his best laid plans are fucked.

 

“Stop being perceptive,” Erik complains into the pillow without much heat. He should have known agreeing to see T’Challa was a bad call, the man isn't stupid and Erik isn't doing the best job of hiding right now.

 

“I am not the one who seems ready to crawl out of his skin,” T’Challa quips reaching out and touching his arm. Erik closes his eyes for a moment as the warm hand spreads over his smooth skin and sighs. A touch of a lie, a hint of truth. It's his only chance of getting out of this without raising suspicion, and it means opening wounds.

 

“It’s going to sound dumb as hell,” Erik says as he rolls over to look at T’Challa who looks expectantly at him. Erik let's out a breath and sits up in the bed, drawing his knees up a bit and resting his forearms on them as the sheet pools around his hips.

 

“Try me.”

 

“I hate not having a gun,” Erik admits with a grimace. He has a gun, of course, he has more than a few of them hidden away but he doesn't have one now and he avoids carrying them unless it's for a job. He’s not getting caught or landed in jail for possession of an unlawful firearm just walking down the street. It's not worth the risk.

 

“Not having a gun,” T’Challa repeats. He doesn't understand, how could he? The man's damn body is a weapon.

 

“Most people walk around what we were doing today, they see just moving an art exhibit. Expensive art yea, but it's under guard so everything's good, right?” Erik takes a breath because here's the tricky part, deception with a touch of truth. “Me though? All I see is up on buildings where someone would perch, where someone would lay an IED to cause maximum damage.” All of these things run through Erik’s head on a regular basis. He's gone through scenarios of robbing the exhibit over and over, for maximum or minimum collateral damage. The anxiety about lack of a weapon is not untrue though, Erik knows Klaue isn't the only game in town.

 

“I used to basically cuddle my service rifle at night, for years. Getting used to civilian life ain’t the easiest thing.” Erik had in fact, bypassed it entirely.

 

“JJ…” T’Challa trails off and Erik looks over to glare at the man.

 

“If you apologize or something equally stupid, I'm gonna bounce,” he threatens. He doesn't mean it, not really. T’Challa holds his hands up in surrender, just as well. Erik wants to leave this too close to home topic of conversation behind.

 

Especially when he has a perfectly good means of distracting himself right in front of him.

 

---

 

It's another exhibit opening, another stupid party for rich people. Everything about it makes Erik want to call Klaue now and have them burn this shit down, maybe take some of these rich bastards for all they have while they're at it--

 

Erik’s mind screeches to a halt, backs in reverse, and he smiles.

 

---

 

“You lost me,” Linda says irritably. They're meeting in the back of a damn dry cleaning van driving through Paris traffic. The ride is far from pleasant as they all bounce around the back. So where her irritation lies, the ride or his plan Erik doesn't know nor care. “Why the hell would we bring in another crew?”

 

“If you'd let me finish, you would see that,” Erik replies with a smirk. He leans over the sketch he has drawn of the exhibit’s layout, any display piece containing vibranium is marked in red with a brief description of the item and how many are in the case. “As I was saying, they got these big opening galas. Rich people dressed to the nines, wanting to donate for the cause,” Erik circles the part of the Wakandan exhibit that has the panther piece he had admired with T’Challa.

 

“We get a crew, expendable but good. Y’all tell ‘em it's just a standard robbery, diamonds and that shit. Just a little slip that this one piece may be made of Vibranium,” Erik explains setting his pen down, “they take that and it should be enough to draw the Wakandans away.”

 

“What's to stop them from taking everything? If one thing may have Vibranium, why not all of it?” Linda asks, she sounds much more interested now though.

 

“The King and his guard usually roll in when the party is close to winding down, but I'm sure they stay close. Once whatever security protocol they have is tripped the Wakandans will stir up enough shit that the distraction crew will have to run for it, and that's where you come in.” He nods at Linda who leans in, definitely interested now. “We don't know what kind of tech Wakanda is using, but we do know the museum's. We disable their lockdown mechanisms and silent alarms, just like normal and put a loop on the security footage. While everyone's screaming and trying to run, we smash and grab everything else while the Wakandans are distracted. So long as you're fast, there should be a decent head start on them, especially if we hit in Amsterdam.”

 

Erik looks across the small makeshift table at Klaue who is studying the rudimentary map with intense focus. Erik knows it’s a good plan, it's the only shot they have that won’t lead to a repeat of Busan by default. Amsterdam offers access to waterways, tight paths only motorcycles can fit down. They can split a crew up and force the Wakandans to spread themselves thin.

 

“It’s absolutely fucking crazy,” Klaue declares with a crazed grin. “I think it might actually work, ‘specially if I let myself get spotted nearby. They'll make the assumption that the first crew works for me.”

 

“Probably,” Erik agrees with a satisfied nod. Klaue claps his hands together rubbing his real one against the false hand rapidly in anticipation.

 

“Amsterdam then lads? And lady,” Klaue adds, and the small crew looks amongst themselves, one by one they nod.

 

It’s almost time Dad, almost time.

 

---

 

“He knows we are trailing him,” Okoye announces as she shuts the door behind her. T’Challa does not turn to her, his eyes still crossing the Parisian cityscape gesturing for her to approach. “I lost him,” the words are spat out with frustration. Okoye is not one to lose a target when acquired, it clearly stings.

 

“We knew there was a chance he would realize it,” T’Challa says evenly. He does not placate her; he would never disrespect her in such a way.

 

“Only now? No, that I doubt. He went somewhere today he did not wish to be followed, why we must continue this charade, I do not understand,” Okoye’s frustration is evident. She does not understand why T’Challa will not move, why he will not take what could be their chance to catch Klaue before he acts by interrogating JJ.

 

If he is honest with himself, T’Challa is not entirely sure why he does not either. Perhaps, because it is not a charade to him. T’Challa cannot deny that he is fascinated by JJ, the way the man speaks evasively at times and openly in others. He’s intelligent, strong in the convictions he holds though he does not share them often with T’Challa. Only hinting whispers of a man who sees injustice in the world and is infuriated by it.

 

T’Challa is fascinated, he cannot deny it. He and JJ dance around it, this inexplicable magnetism that keeps them drawn to each other as they each play their own game.

 

“Klaue will not slip away,” T’Challa replies, finally as he turns to look at Okoye. “We will not spring any trap too soon and push Klaue back into hiding.” It took over two decades for him to surface the last time, that they have a chance so soon with what is a blatant trap is an opportunity they will not have again. Klaue is arrogant now, having bested them once.

 

They will not get the same chance again.

 

Okoye bows her head before departing the room; she does not argue with her King. T’Challa wonders if she should, he has never felt such doubt and conflict in his own decisions before. Is it the wrong choice? Is he allowing his fascination with JJ, if that’s even who he truly is, to blind him?

 

“If you keep making that face I think it will stick that way,” he hears Shuri’s voice from his right. T’Challa turns to see his sister’s hologram standing beside him, arms crossed over her chest as she looks at him. He can see the concern in his younger sister’s eyes, he offers her a smile but she does not return it, in fact, her small frown only deepens.

 

“I am fine Shuri, really.”

 

“Liar,” she accuses.

 

“Only a little,” T’Challa acknowledges with a smile she does not return. If his own sister, more prone to mocking him than anything else is looking at him like that perhaps matters are indeed dire.

 

“Maybe he is who he claims, everything I’ve looked says he hasn’t been lying. I’ve dug too,” Shuri says. How predictable is he that she can read him so easily? She always has been able to read him though, when it came to Nakia it had been much the same.

 

Nakia. His heart does not constrict as it once had, when he had let her go to pursue her true passion because he could not deny her the dreams she held. He hears from her at times, in reports from the War Dogs and he knows though she wishes for more help from Wakanda that she is living her dream. She is helping others.

 

“Perhaps,” T’Challa finally agrees though he does not feel the truth in his own words. He knows that there is more to JJ than what he presents, but regardless of what it is...it does not matter. He is an outsider, and T’Challa is King. His obligation is to his people, not his own fancies no matter how tempting they are or enticing their smiles.

 

Yet despite knowing this, T’Challa can not bring himself to step away.

 

“You always seem to find yourself in a mess, big brother,” Shuri observes with wisdom beyond her years. T’Challa almost misses her mocking words, her jokes.

 

It is much preferable to this truth.

 

---

 

Erik rarely allows himself to think of his father outside of his quest for revenge. Thinking of his father, dead and alone in their old apartment serves only to fill him with rage and regret. Regret that he was not there, as if a ten year old boy would have been able to do more than get in the way. He dreams though, dreams of being able to save his father, dreams of taking his rightful place as a Prince of Wakanda.

 

Sometimes even, in his darker and more vengeful moments, he even dreams of himself sitting upon a throne made of Vibranium with T’Challa at his feet.

 

Erik has let himself get drawn in too deep, drawn by a pair of pretty dark eyes and full lips. T’Challa suspects him, he must. They dance around one another, a precarious game of lies and deceit that will eventually come crashing down around them. Yet Erik still returns, wrapped up in strong arms.

 

T’Challa intrigues Erik, despite the King’s failings.

 

Erik pushes it all aside, none of it matters. He must succeed, he must find out what happened to his father, and he will avenge him. It doesn’t matter who stands in his way. Sacrifices must be made, have already been made as Erik cuts a little piece of his soul away. He will burn it all if it means he can have the justice that has been denied.

 

There are days he cannot help but think of his father. Cannot help but let images of him consume his mind. Erik wonders if he holds on tightly to those if it will prevent him from fading away, when there are days he struggles to summon even a memory of what his father’s voice truly sounded like when speaking Xhosa.

 

The consequences do not matter, all that matters is revenge.

 

---

 

“So this is a date,” Erik says flatly as they trek along side the River Danube. The exhibit moved to Vienna, Austria over a week and a half ago but this is the first chance Erik has had to meet with T’Challa. It’s the longest length of time in the few months they've known one another that has passed without them falling into bed with one another. So it surprises Erik when he walks out of the museum and T’Challa is there, his guard a respectable distance away announcing that they should go for a walk.

 

“Is that not what we have been doing?” T’Challa asks. Erik snorts, flashing T’Challa a lascivious smirk.

 

“Actually, what we've mostly been doing involves a whole lot less clothes,” which suits Erik just fine. The early spring air is still a bit crisp; it feels refreshing though after being cooped inside of a museum all day.

 

“That is...well, there is nothing wrong with adventuring out,” T’Challa coughs seemingly embarrassed. Erik glances behind him seeing that the two women, T’Challa’s shadows are trailing behind. Likely close enough to overhear, not that they show any reaction.

 

“Suppose not, haven't gotten to see much of the city.” The move to Amsterdam, the end of this charade is rapidly approaching. Erik thinks he's going to miss the little dance he and T’Challa play with one another. “Where you been lately, anyway?” At the exhibit opening, there had been no mingling T’Challa, only one of his guard had been present in his stead watching. It makes Erik curse that they had not seized this as the opportunity.

 

Erik pauses when he realizes T’Challa has fallen a few paces behind him. He frowns slightly as he looks at the man. T’Challa’s gaze is distant, lost in a way Erik has never seen in their time together.

 

“This is the city where I lost my father over a year ago,” T’Challa answers. His words are quiet, but with the river's edge oddly empty they seem to echo.

 

“Fuck,” Erik breathes out running a hand over his face moving his glasses up for a moment. “Fuck, I'm an idiot man, I'm sorry.” He only knows what his father told him of his Uncle, always speaking so highly of his elder brother with such pride. Erik knows all too well the pain of losing a father. He doesn't want to think what he would have done had the murder occurred in front of him. If he had been the one to hold his father's body.

 

“I failed him,” T’Challa says as Erik takes a step back towards him. They stand out looking at the river side by side in silence for a moment. “I couldn't protect him that day. I could not save him. I keep expecting the guilt to fade--"

 

“It doesn't,” Erik’s words pass his lips before he can stop it. Filled with the bitterness and anger he’s harbored for over two decades. “It doesn't matter how much time passes. Decades don't matter. Knowing your dad was murdered is something that sticks with you. You can't turn it off, can't help but think you could have done somethin’ different. If you had stayed home that day, if--" Erik cuts himself off sucking in a deep breath. He’s said too much, let his emotions get the better of him.

 

He's told the truth, more than he's shared before.

 

He doesn't look at T’Challa, keeps his eyes forward watching the slow, languid movement of the water. They stand in quiet contemplation, both lost in a sea of their own demons and regrets.

 

“We should get movin’,” Erik finally says after a while. “Sun's gonna set soon.”

 

---

 

They are perilously close to the end of this exhibit tour, and it has them all on edge. After this stop in Amsterdam, there are only three that remain before their chance to spring the trap will be gone. If Klaue has not been drawn in by such a wealth of Vibranium, T’Challa does not think anything will pull the scum from whatever rock he has slid under. Not until they receive a call from Agent Ross.

 

“Professional courtesy, but Ulysses Klaue was spotted in the red light district yesterday,” the man speaks without preamble. “So whatever you have set up, I would be ready.”

 

“Thank you, Agent Ross,” T’Challa says. He nods at Okoye and Ayo who's expressions have turned sharp in anticipation of the hunt.

 

“Diplomacy is a beautiful thing,” Agent Ross replies before hanging up. T’Challa doesn't doubt that the CIA has eyes everywhere in anticipation of capturing Klaue as well, T’Challa will not allow that to happen this time.

 

“Call in our War Dogs, I want everyone in place--" T’Challa begins when Shuri’s hologram materializes out of nowhere. She looks breathless, panicked even as she looks at him her eyes wide, words spilling from her so fast he can hardly understand them.

 

“His father died of cancer!” She blurts out looking at T’Challa with wide eyes.

 

“What? Who are you talking about? Shuri, we have received news of Klaue--"

 

“Jordan James’s father died of cancer two years ago!” Shuri shouts her foot slamming into the ground soundlessly even as she smacks herself on the forehead. “I can not believe I did not realize earlier! I was going back through his service record looking for deviation and I saw the granted leave!”

 

T’Challa freezes in place. His heartbeat slowing to a crawl before it bursts back with a vengeance as if it will burst from his chest. He hears her words; he replays that day on the river over in his mind. There had been no lies then.

 

Only in every moment before.

 

“I knew it,” Okoye spits out in righteous vindication. Shuri looks almost apologetic, as if she hates to be the one to break the bad news to her brother.

 

“We will go question him now,” T’Challa says when he finds his voice. He had anticipated it, known it was likely true and yet it stings like betrayal all the same.

 

“Don't you have the opening gala?” Shuri questions, as if such a thing matters. T’Challa shakes his head at his sister before turning to the two Dora Milaje who stand behind him at the ready.

 

“Do you have any information on who he is?” T’Challa asks Shuri, nodding to the Dora Milaje who move swiftly to gather their weapons. Who is the man who T’Challa has shared his bed with for the last few months? Who has drawn him in like a moth to the flame?

 

“No,” Shuri admits reluctantly. “I tried running his image through the international criminal databases, but there's nothing. It is safe to assume he has never been caught before, whoever he is.”

 

T’Challa lifts up the deceptively simple necklace that hides his suit and places it around his neck. He lets it hang outside of his suit this time rather than tucked away as he normally would. Whoever JJ truly is, it does not matter. If he has information regarding Klaue, T’Challa will find it. He will not allow what he had felt for who he believed JJ to be get in the way of his duty to his country.

 

“Then we will have to find out.”

 

---

 

Erik is never on edge before a job he has planned. He’s considered his variables, run every possible scenario through his head so he can be as prepared as possible. Erik listens to music as he moves around the rented apartment making the last of his preparations and wiping away all personal touches, he's already had the backups of security footage at every museum he’s been at wiped. It's not a perfect method of avoiding his image being disseminated, CCTV cameras have made that near impossible. Erik’s fondness for shades regardless of the season will help.

 

He is going to miss his hair like this though.

 

Erik takes his father's ring out of the lock box with quiet reverence, turning the black vibranium in his fingers for a moment. He raises the ring to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to the cool metal before he puts the necklace on, tucking it beneath the fabric of his shirt. Tonight's the night. He should be slipping into Wakanda's borders before the sun rises.

 

Erik opens the window near his living room to let in the night air before he moves to sit on the small couch. He has his weapons and extra magazines resting on the small coffee table, along with a few canisters of tear gas just in case gunfire isn't an effective enough crowd deterrent. He reaches down and pulls on his good luck shoes, Air Jordan V Premio’s from the Bin 23 collection. Erik ties the right one tightly, he probably should use more indistinct boots but a man has his vices; shoes are Erik’s.

 

The door flies open and Erik is on his feet with a gun pointing at the door before he ever gets the last shoe tied. Okoye and Ayo storm into his apartment dressed in stunning red armor with their spears raised at the ready. T’Challa steps in just behind them, gone is the ever present black suit instead replaced by some sort of skin tight body armor that emphasizes every muscle T’Challa has.

 

“Drop your weapon!” Okoye commands. Erik finds himself regretting that he doesn't have the best angle to admire T’Challa’s ass, which isn't what he should be thinking of since it's clear now that the charade is up.

 

“Yea, yea,” Erik says as he takes the handgun and dismantles it easily in his gloved hands letting each piece fall and hit the rug on the ground with a distinct thud.

 

“Step away from the guns!” Ayo orders. Erik raises his hands in mock innocence and steps around the coffee table and just in front of the open window. Erik keeps his eyes fixed on T’Challa. He doesn't blink as the King walks forward, stopping an arm’s length away.

 

“Who are you, really?” T’Challa is the first to speak, he hides it well but Erik thinks he can see something akin to hurt in his eyes.

 

“Does it matter?” Erik asks with a shrug. For all his nonchalance Erik’s heart is racing, he has a way out of this. He has to get out of this if he ever even wants a chance at finding out what happened to his father that night in Oakland. Who he is, his true name...he will only use those when given no other choice.

 

“No, perhaps it does not,” T’Challa agrees softly. He sounds almost sad even as he nods to Ayo who slowly lowers her spear, she taps it on the ground, and the weapon shrinks to fit in the palm of her hand instantly. She places it on her belt and grabs a pair of Vibranium restraints.  

 

“I didn't know you was into that. I woulda been down,” Erik quips despite taking a step back. “I wouldn't waste those on me though, not if y’all thinking about getting ahold of Klaue tonight.” Ayo pauses as T’Challa raises a hand to stop her.

 

“You do not even deny it,” Okoye’s disgust is clear. Erik doesn't even look at her. He keeps his eyes on T’Challa.

 

“Why? Just be a waste of breath,” Erik’s fingers itch to grab the gun that's strapped to his back. He has no intention of dying tonight; he’s sure no matter how fast his reaction time, T’Challa’s is much faster.

 

“You work for Klaue.” T’Challa cannot hide his disgust at the statement, looking at Erik as if the weight of the implication is hitting him for the first time. Erik raises his shoulders in a shrug.

 

“For, with. Irrelevant, since I was planning on killing him anyway,” they don’t need to know why. The room falls silent after his declaration, as if they’re uncertain how to respond to such a blunt statement.

 

“No honor amongst thieves,” T’Challa’s words spark anger in Erik and he laughs bitterly. Wakanda, so proud of their honor that it blinds them to the pain of the world. He remembers his father’s frustrations, remembers when he grew old enough to understand that he shared those frustrations. The arrogance of those who hide behind their technology, who won’t come to the aid of others despite what they’ve accomplished.

 

“Honor? Y’all wanna talk about honor? I know what I am, I know what I do puts clothes on the backs of kids and food in their stomachs. I know it pays for the unjustly accused in their defense,” Erik says sneering slightly at T’Challa. “What have y’all done? Lock yourselves away cause it’s tradition. Cause shit is easy. Don’t have to get your hands dirty and deal with the shit of the world--”

 

“Do not speak of what you do not understand,” Okoye’s words are hard. They spark the rage that fills Erik, and he gives her a feral smile showing off his capped teeth.

 

“Don’t understand? Rich comin’ from you. What do you understand? What have you lived?” His voice is rising, “locked inside Birnin Zana like nothing that goes on outside matters ‘cause it can’t touch you--”

 

“You have no right, outsider--

 

“Outsider? Outsider?” Erik’s laugh is sharp and biting. His held up hands seem to move before he can stop them, his anger pushes him before his rational mind can stop. He pulls down his lip, looking directly into T’Challa’s eyes as he pulls down to reveal his War Dog tattoo. The key his father gave him.

 

He watches with satisfaction as each one of them seems to recoil, stepping back with shock as they gape at him. T’Challa most of all, so expressive with those pretty dark eyes that have looked at Erik lost in pleasure.

 

Erik lowers his hands but keeps them where they can be seen. He doesn’t doubt hiding them will cause Okoye and Ayo to attack regardless of what they have seen. They are capable warriors, dedicated in their desire to protect their King. Even as T’Challa stares at Erik as if he is looking at him through new eyes. Good.

 

“Y’all wanna talk now?” He asks baring his teeth in a savage imitation of a smile.

 

“Who are you?” T’Challa asks. It’s a similar question to the first one he asked Erik after he had burst inside. It’s a blessing and a curse that he ensured there would be no neighbors tonight, the one to his left occupied by another hired security member and the other a couple who won an unexpected holiday to the French Riviera. The cops could actually be a welcome distraction, for once.

 

“It ain’t important, you want your last shot at Klaue or not?” Should he tell T’Challa of how when he was younger Erik had dreamed of seizing the throne? Of sending out those weapons and spies to burn the world down and build it anew?

 

“After so many lies, how can I trust what you say?” There is no lack of accusation in T’Challa’s words.

 

“Because otherwise you gonna let Klaue walk out with the last laugh and your Vibranium while you argue with me,” Erik says bluntly.

 

My King-- ” Okoye begins in Xhosa.

 

This is between your King and I,” Erik snaps back just as quickly. His Xhosa is heavier, more accented than the natural flow of Okoye’s but the sharp message comes across. It cements the tattoo on his inner lip as surely as the mark itself.

 

“Talk,” T’Challa bites out. Finally.

 

“First crew is gonna hit soon. It’s a false flag. They take a small piece of Vibranium to draw you out, when you pull out...the real crew hits, takes everythin’ else while you’re chasing small time,” Erik spares no time in revealing the heart of his own plan. Time is running down, and there’s no point in providing this information if he can’t reap the benefits.

 

“Where does Klaue plan to go--”

 

“Multiple paths to multiple small airports, I’d catch him before he gets too far on a bike or the waterway,” Erik turns his hand slightly keeping his palm open as he looks at his watch, 20:38. “I’d hustle there if I was you. I may be the one that planned it, but Klaue’s a crazy fucker.”

 

T’Challa can take in Erik or Klaue. He can’t take both.

 

“Ayo, stay and make sure he does not leave,” T’Challa instructs. She nods shortly, handing the Vibranium bindings to Okoye. Erik watches the exchange for just a moment but his eyes stay on T’Challa who has not looked away from him, “this is not finished.” T’Challa wants answers, that much is clear.

 

Erik isn’t inclined to supply them, not if he doesn’t have to.

 

“Tick Tock,” Erik drawls as he waves at T’Challa. The King’s jaw tightens, Erik can see how badly he wishes to stay and demand his answers, but his obligation to his country supersedes what T’Challa himself may want.

 

He turns, he walks away. Erik is left alone with a woman holding a spear who looks at him with undisguised suspicion, Erik smiles in return.

 

They really should have used those cuffs on him.

 

“Ain’t gonna ask who I am?” Erik asks after a few minutes of silence. Ayo does not speak, seemingly unwilling to allow Erik to goad her into anything. Erik sees it as a challenge. “Seems like that’s what your King was most concerned with...like he had a lot of questions.”

 

“I see nothing more than a man who would betray his King and country for profit.” Ayo’s reply is cold, but it is a response, and that’s all Erik needs.

 

“Wakanda never came for me after my dad was killed, what obligation do I have to a country that abandons children to fend for themselves?” Months spent hoping, dreaming that someone would come and take him to the country his father always spoke of with such love. “Probably because someone there had somethin’ to do with his death, and they didn’t want the chance I’d find out.”

 

“I will not hear your lies,” Ayo shifts her spear so that it’s lowered in clear threat.

 

“My lies? What ‘bout your country’s lies, huh? Where are the answers about what happened to my dad then?” Erik has her attention, has her angry. No matter how strong the training, angry people make mistakes. His left hand lowers to the chain around his neck and he pulls out the ring holding it up so that it can be seen. Her eyes widen, the shock of seeing a ring that matches the one her King wears jarring Ayo enough to cause her to slip from her perfect stance.

 

“Who are you?” She asks, Erik grins viciously.

 

N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu,” he snarls as his right hand flies behind his back to pull out the handgun in his waistband.

 

He fires before she has the chance to react.

 

---

 

Klaue is dead.

 

It is something decades in the making, and yet to T’Challa, it feels hollow. Klaue dies on a boat trying to escape through Amsterdam, T’Challa’s hands are the one to end him. A snap of the neck, no chance for escape, no trial. Justice for his people, for W’Kabi’s parents, for his father’s memory. It should bring him some sense of relief, and yet his mind is back in that apartment already with a handsome man who has lied to him for months.

 

T’Challa should not allow himself this distraction, Klaue’s death has drawn in the CIA yet again, interested in those who worked with Klaue. Career criminals they hope to persuade to turn on higher clients, arms dealers. Okoye asks again why they are bothering with such things. The illusion of cooperation or not they have completed their mission. She wants to retrieve Ayo and make their way home. T’Challa understands the desire for home, but the mysterious man who Ayo holds hostage consumes him beyond that.

 

“Well that certainly went better than Busan,” Agent Ross remarks, barely looking up from his phone as he walks up to T’Challa and Okoye. They're at another black site, this one only accessible by water and tucked beneath a bridge. “For one, I didn't get shot.” The man's hand goes to his shoulder where he had been struck stepping in front of Nakia.

 

“And there is no concern of escape,” T’Challa says, nodding to the body bag that contains Klaue’s body. Okoye’s phone (such a primitive device, she had scoffed when Shuri handed it to her, but had accepted as a necessity to ‘blend in’) rings and she excuses herself.

 

“Not for him anyway, I don't see any of the rest being able to plan something of that scale--" Ross agrees when Okoye comes charging back.

 

It is Ayo. He escaped,” Okoye sounds infuriated and incredulous as she holds the phone out to him, “she sounds hurt.

 

T’Challa freezes, has he allowed his own infatuation to bring harm to one of his own? T’Challa takes the phone immediately raising it to his ear.

 

“I am,” her words are cut off by harsh, desperate coughs. Ayo’s breathing sounds ragged, “I am not harmed. He shot a canister of...of tear gas on the table.” There is another fit of coughing. It is followed by the most colorful language T’Challa has ever heard from a Dora Milaje. “I am sorry my King. I tried to follow him when I could see--"

 

“There is no need to apologize Ayo,” T’Challa cuts in looking towards Okoye, “she is fine. Go retrieve her and bring her back here.” Okoye does not hesitate, swiftly heading towards the exit.

 

“Someone grab a car and take her where she needs to go!” Ross commands, gesturing one of the agents to follow Okoye. “Is she going to need medical attention?”

 

“Tear gas,” T’Challa explains, his eyes still fixed on the door. He had shot a tear gas canister, not Ayo. How had he even gotten such an opportunity, and why had he chosen not to shoot Ayo?

 

“Tear gas?” Ross’s confusion is clear in his voice and his deeply furrowed brow. “How was she exposed to tear gas?”

 

“She was guarding a man we suspected may have had ties to Klaue,” T’Challa says cryptically. He sees no reason to share all he knows about the man who went by JJ, though what he knows is limited at best. All of those conversations they had had, different stories exchanged...what had been the truth? What had been a lie?

 

“And he escaped? What do we know about him?” It is strange to T’Challa, how quick Americans are to use the word ‘we’ when their involvement overall has been minimal, as if they can claim equal effort merely by word choice.

 

“Nothing, not really. He was using an assumed identity, we know only that he is an American with some degree of military training and technological aptitude,” and he had a War Dog tattoo. He had been Wakandan the entire time, and T’Challa had not had the slightest idea.

 

“You have a picture? Anything?” Ross prompts. T’Challa shrugs his shoulders, holding a hand up as if to stop Ross.

 

“That is not necessary. We will find what information we need.”

 

“Come on, if this guy is anything like you say: technical aptitude, military training, possible criminal connections? We have him in a database,” Ross’s words are confident bordering on arrogance. T’Challa does not think the CIA agent will let the matter go, and it should not matter. He wants his answers, and yet he hesitates. T’Challa cannot let a misplaced sense of loyalty to a man, whose name he does not even know stop him from using a resource all too willing to show off.

 

“If you are willing,” T’Challa says, pulling out his own phone. Shuri has sent him a report on who they had thought JJ to be, attached is an image she captured from that first night in London. JJ, or whoever he truly is, is unknowingly looking directly at the camera without his glasses on. He selects it and raises the phone to Ross, the man's expression shifts from confidence to utter disbelief.

 

“You're kidding me, that's who you had guarded?” Ross asks incredulously, “and your friend only got tear gassed, not killed?”

 

“You know who he is?” T’Challa asks sharply. Ross looks away from the picture and up at him, both eyebrows nearly ready to disappear into his hairline.

 

“Know him? I tried to recruit him,” Ross answers, gesturing for T’Challa to follow him to a desk. He dismisses the agent sitting there taking the seat. “I really shouldn't even be showing you this,” Ross mutters before looking up at T’Challa who is clearly not going to take no for an answer. “Given what happened tonight, I think we can make an exception.”

 

“I appreciate that,” T’Challa replies without humor. His hand grips the desk in anticipation as he watches Ross’s fingers fly across the keyboard.

 

“Erik Stevens, former Navy SEAL. You were right about military experience, this guy was one of our best. Annapolis at 19, post graduate work at MIT, joined the SEALs and then proceeded to score off the chart in every assessment test we have. Expert marksman, tactician...you name it, he blew expectations out of the water. Even his confirmed kill count was insane, borderline video game status,” Agent Ross explains as he pulls up a file. There’s a picture of JJ--Erik pops up, beside it different file tabs and a few small videos of Erik mowing through targets with practiced ease.

 

“You said you tried to recruit him, for what purpose?” T’Challa says once he finds his voice again. That arrogant smile and too handsome face, he would recognize that expression anywhere.

 

“CIA, black ops,” Ross replies pulling up another file. “Lost track of him after I tried, he completely dropped off the radar. Guys like that are trained for that sure, but not like what Stevens managed. Bit of a blow to the ego really.” Ross laughs a bit at his own joke, clearing his throat when T’Challa doesn't respond. “You think he was involved with Klaue?”

 

T’Challa is spared replying when Okoye and Ayo appear. Ayo is unharmed, her face tear stained and her eyes are bloodshot but she is fine. She steps away from Okoye, towards her King despite the efforts of her General and the CIA agent to take her elsewhere.

 

There is something I must tell you, my King.

 

---

 

He should have killed her.

 

Erik stands beneath the cold spray of water in a safe house he had set up upon the finalization of the plan. It’s nothing more than a small houseboat with enough fresh water to clean off the residue of tear gas. He’ll need to move on as soon as he’s done. Escaping on a motorcycle with one fucking shoe hadn't exactly been the most subtle, but considering he had needed to jump out of an open window while fighting the effects of the tear gas. All that shit in basic and the SEAL’s about experiencing the pain to stay rational under it in combat had paid off.

 

Erik reaches up and takes the ring in hand. He forces himself to keep his eyes open to wash away the tears and the gas. He should have killed her. It would have been a cleaner break. Now someone from Wakanda knows who he is, can go to T’Challa who has the power to bury the truth about what happened to his father.

 

He should have killed her, but he didn't.

 

Erik finally shuts his eyes; the mission has him growing soft. He has what Klaue paid him. It's not what it would have been if he had gotten a percentage of the stolen Vibranium, but it's enough that Erik can lay low. Go back home, get his head back in the game.

 

And buy a new pair of shoes, fuck he really liked that pair too.

 

---

 

They say you can never go home again.

 

Erik can't, not really. He hasn't had a home since Great Aunt Sophie passed away, but he goes back to Oakland anyway. Erik donates money to charities run by people he knows in the community. He shoots basketball with the younger siblings of people he went to school with, ‘mentors’ some according to people. Erik’s seen as an example, he got out, went to college, overcame the cards stacked against him.

 

They don't know. They don't know that a part of Erik died that day with his father. A part that will never be whole, or right. Besides, he makes his money stealing from people who he feels don't deserve the wealth they hold. By most definitions that makes him a shit example.

 

He does what he can between jobs, and this gap is longer than most. Erik takes care to change his hair, forgoes the dreads for some braids and a newly partly shaved head. He goes around, does what he can since it's not like he's doing shit else. Who the hell is going to be looking for an internationally renowned thief in fucking Oakland?

 

When Erik steps out of the office building where one of his high school classmates runs an after school program, he sees T’Challa standing on the sidewalk, spinning the shoe Erik lost in his escape between his hands, the answer is clear.

 

“Are you for real right now?” Erik demands incredulously. T’Challa is as handsome as ever, wearing the same overplayed perfectly fitting all black suit, a sharp contrast to the grit that still clings to this neighborhood in Oakland.

 

“I believe I am, Erik...or do you prefer N’Jadaka?” T’Challa asks, his voice deceptively mild. Erik looks around; he doesn't see T’Challa’s ever present guard, nor anything that looks like a police presence to concern himself with.

 

It’s just the two of them, and the streets.

 

He does consider running for it; he is more familiar with the area. Erik knows that his chances of outrunning T’Challa are nonexistent though and dismisses the thought as quickly as it arrived.

 

“Erik’s good,” he shrugs, holding his ground for a moment as they stare into each other's gaze. Neither man is willing to be the first to back down.

 

“Shall we walk?” T’Challa suggests, gesturing along the sidewalk. It’s spoken like a question, but Erik’s pretty damn sure he doesn't have much of a choice in the matter. Better to play along for now, seize an opportunity to slip away later.

 

Erik nods and walks down to stand next to T’Challa keeping a careful distance between them. He doesn't know what he expected, to never see T’Challa again? If their pursuit of Klaue over the years proved anything, it was that Wakandans did not let anything go.

 

“Were you ever going to tell me?” T’Challa asks, Erik doesn't need to be told what he’s asking about.

 

“Wasn't part of the plan,” he admits with a shrug.

 

“And what was the plan?” Erik stays quiet for a moment. He has no desire to just tell T’Challa everything. He debates internally for a moment at a crosswalk as they wait for the light to change.

 

“Use Klaue to get in Wakanda, find out what happened to my Dad,” kill whoever was responsible. That part remains unspoken, but they both know that would have been his intention.

 

“How can you be so certain that Wakanda was involved?”

 

“Nothin’ stolen, no forced entry. I read the police reports, the autopsy report, no crime scene photos though. Shit got ‘lost’ in the transfer to digital,” Erik doesn't know whether the police department didn't give enough of a shit. Or if someone had made sure they didn't stay in evidence, both are legitimate possibilities to Erik. “My dad was paranoid, careful. He wasn't gonna let no one in the house he didn't trust, who else woulda been able to get in, kill him and have Uncle James vanish like he was never there?”

 

At first, Erik had suspected his father's friend, the police had as well. When they'd gone to James apartment all his personal items had been there, he had even left the coffee pot on as if planning on coming back shortly. It hadn't made sense.

 

“You could have come to me,” T’Challa suggests. Erik let's out a bark of laughter, looking at T’Challa incredulously.

 

“For real? What was I gonna say? ‘Sup, I'm your long lost cousin. I think some of your people had somethin’ to do with my pops getting killed. Lemme come into your house and take care of that shit?” Erik asks incredulously. Erik doesn't think T’Challa had anything to do with his father's death, or any cover up thereafter. He would have been too young then, and he’s too honorable now. That doesn't mean he wanted to involve someone who could take away his element of surprise.

 

“So Klaue was the answer then?” T’Challa demands, anger finally filtering into that too calm facade.

 

“Means to an end,” Erik dismisses easily, giving T’Challa a pointed look. “Don't go grabbin’ for moral superiority. I ain't dealin’ with that right now.” He does not doubt for a second that Ayo told T’Challa every word of their conversation, he really should have taken the chance to kill her.

 

“No one knew Erik,” T’Challa says quietly. It makes Erik stop a few steps ahead of T’Challa, turning around frowning at the man. “No one knew that you even existed, your father was reported missing years before his death. Your birth was never entered into our records. My mother did not know. I searched my father's handwritten records, the records of his most trusted advisor. The Council did not know.”

 

How could anyone come to get him, if they didn't even know he had been born?

 

Erik doesn't believe it, doesn't want to consider it. Years of bitterness and hurt well up inside him, he pushes them down just as quickly. Erik needs to keep a rational mind; he may not think T’Challa is lying, but that doesn't mean records can't be changed. He knows someone from Wakanda is involved, he feels it to his very bones.

 

“His advisor, whoever the fuck that is, I wanna talk to him--" Erik begins to demand.

 

“He passed away, just before we put the exhibit into motion,” T’Challa cuts in. Erik’s heart squeezes, it feels like a gut punch. Too late, too late.

 

He had been so careful in his planning, so determined to not be noticed (and failing anyway) that he had failed to account for time. Time and death, the one true equalizer of all men.

 

“Fuck!” He shouts, more than one head turns to them as Erik slams his fist into a chain link fence that rattles but does break. It cuts his hand slightly, not even enough to bleed. He wants to hit it again, and again. Wants to hit someone , to do something to vent this anger at his own failure. Erik can feel T’Challa’s eyes on him but refuses to look at him. If he sees a look of pity on the man's face, Erik’s going to try and hit him.

 

“Come home with me,” T’Challa’s offer is quiet. At first Erik thinks he imagined it, but when he turns to look T’Challa’s expression is not one of pity. It's one of determination.

 

“What?” He asks anyway, wants to hear the words again.

 

“Come to Wakanda with me, I will help you in your search,” T’Challa takes a step closer. He's still holding the shoe Erik lost when he ran. “If you are correct and we can find whoever is responsible, you have my word they will be brought to justice.”

 

If he didn't know T’Challa, Erik would have found such a proclamation laughable. In the months they spent together, even though both of them were dancing around lies Erik knows that T’Challa is an honorable man. As foreign of a concept as that is to Erik.

 

“Why?” T’Challa looks away at his question, Erik follows the King’s gaze to a basketball court in front of Erik’s old building where a group of kids are playing basketball.

 

“Despite what you may think, I know that my country is not perfect,” T’Challa says. Erik suppresses the urge to snort. “Wakanda’s failings have been brought to my attention before I met you even. It is true, we hold to tradition so as not to risk losing ourselves. In this way though, we have failed those we should have helped.”

 

“And what? Inviting a thief into your borders is just gonna fix all that? I saw the piece of art y’all left on Klaue, not really my style,” Erik says. His arms folded over his chest as he studies T’Challa, trying to get a read on a man he knows well, yet doesn't know at all.

 

“No, I think bringing a Prince to the home he belongs will be a start,” T’Challa replies. He's studying Erik in much the same way Erik studies him, cautious but also familiar.

 

“Last home I had, right over there,” Erik points with his throbbing hand to a small brick building across the street and down a few hundred feet. “Great Aunt Sophie,” Erik shakes his head with a small laugh. “Wasn't even my Aunt or nothin’, I was just one of the neighborhood kids who helped her with errands and shit. I was with her the night my Dad was killed, had knees and needed help carryin’ her groceries. So I would help, she'd make me some food. Dad couldn't cook at all, so it was that or another sandwich.”

 

Erik doesn't know why he’s telling T’Challa this, but now that he started he feels as if he can't stop. It's almost like the conversations they would have before, where one of them would go off on some sort of tangent as the other listened.

 

“Cops came there to tell me what happened, wanted to put me in foster care then and there. She lied, said she was my Great Aunt. They didn't even look into that shit back then. I woulda been just another kid in the system if it wasn't for her,” maybe that was why they had bought her story so easily. Better to pass him off on someone willing rather than having another young angry orphan.

 

“She sounds like an extraordinary woman,” T’Challa says softly. Erik nods, keeping his eyes on the building.

 

“Yea, she also taught me how to hotwire cars. Nimble fingers, even with arthritis. Never could get her to tell me how a retired teacher’s aide learned that,” Erik shakes his head. He un-crosses his arms, sliding his hands into the pockets of his jeans as he turns to look back towards T’Challa.

 

“You can make a new home in Wakanda,” T’Challa says.

 

“I've got responsibilities here.” There are people who count on his donations, count on his success as a thief. It's an excuse, nothing more. Erik has the money to keep them afloat if he goes to Wakanda to find his father's killer, he just wants to hear T’Challa’s response.

 

“They will be met, and doubled,” T’Challa’s response is decisive. Erik wonders if he already saw this coming.

 

“Do I have a choice?” He asks, because it's not an unreasonable question to him. T’Challa gives him a strange look, as if he hadn't been expecting it.

 

“Of course you have a choice,” he says it like it's the most obvious thing in the world. 

 

“You don't really know me. I don't really know you,” the argument feels hollow. They've both told their share of mistruths, and both tried to manipulate one another. Granted, Erik is more guilty of the latter than T’Challa.

 

“We can try anew,” T’Challa takes a step forward holding out the damn shoe Erik had left behind. Erik looks down at the offer, looks back up at his cousin. “I am T’Challa, son of T’Chaka. Black Panther and King of Wakanda.” It feels like an oddly formal introduction; Erik wants to laugh, but it's a genuine attempt to mend a bridge. Erik’s more used to burning them.

 

“Erik, N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu. I've been known to have some real sticky fingers,” he jokes. Erik reaches out and takes the shoe, checking it over and somewhat impressed there's no damage.

 

“I'm certain Okoye has already hidden the valuables,” T’Challa replies mildly.

 

“Sounds like a challenge,” Erik jokes in return, T’Challa laughs shaking his head, offering no rebuke.

 

“This way, please,” T’Challa says, gesturing down the street. Erik nods, falling in step just behind T’Challa. He can feel his father's ring, his ring, resting against his heart. It has never felt heavier. Erik believes that T’Challa will do everything he can to help him find the truth. For now at least, that's enough.

 

He’ll finally get a chance to see that sunset his father always promised him.