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Heart in the Mountain

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Only a handful of hours after returning to Birnin Zana from the disastrous, tragic, and revenge-fueled weekend that saw him chasing men he wanted nothing to do with all over Europe, T’Challa leaves his city once again.

Home is no comfort to him. After he’s carried out his duties and seen to his sister, his mother, he cannot settle. His father is dead and the thought of staying in the city on this night makes T’Challa’s skin itch.

With two broken white boys settled in a guest room, his father’s body laid in the temple in preparation for burial, his mother deep in her meditation, and Shuri shut away in her lab,  T’Challa needs to be somewhere else. If he spends even one moment more in this home that is so drastically altered from when he left it a few days ago, T’Challa is sure he’ll shake apart, with no clear path to put himself back together again.

He won’t go far, or stay gone long. Tomorrow at sunset they will give his father a proper burial and arrangements need to be made for the day that will see him crowned king - Bast willing - including shoring up support for his rule from all the tribal leaders. And after all that he will need to set about the business of actually ruling this country decades before he anticipating needing to do so, at a time when the outside world has never been closer, but for this night there is only one place he wants to lay his head and it is miles away from his rooms at home.

It would be more practical to take a Dragon Flyer and more comfortable to use the Royal Talon Fighter, but instead he digs out a glider from the hanger, the one he used as a child before he learned to pilot anything more complicated. Shuri’s tinkered with it over the years and it’s fast enough now to get him deep into the mountains in very little time.

The cool wind on his face as he flies helps ease that tight, angry thing that’s been dwelling in his chest since he slipped his father’s ring onto his own finger on the steps of the destroyed UN building, sirens screaming around him and the taste of ash in his mouth. Now, he takes deep, even breaths of crisp air and by the time he lands in the mountains, he’s burned through the anger that drove him drove him for days, leaving only grief in its wake.

There has not been one spare moment for T’Challa to truly feel the weight of his father’s loss but now he finally allows himself to mourn.

The sun is just beginning to set when his feet touch down on the gravel path and it will be fully dark by the time he reaches his destination. Movements long practiced and smooth, he folds up the gilder and hides it between two boulders, takes a fortifying breath, and sets off. He’s journed all over Europe in the span of a few days - Vienna, Bucharest, Germany, Siberia - and this the last leg of his travels now. At the top of this stepped, graveled path, T’Challa may finally rest.

The path is well worn and equally well hidden, a track T’Challa can only find so easily because his feet have the way memorized. Not a season has gone by since he was seventeen without him making this trek at least once.

His thighs ache as he climbs, the absurdity of the last few days catching up with him. Even with the strength of the Black Panther, the physical toll of all the fighting and the lack of sleep hits him now. The confrontation at an airport, the frantic flight across Siberia, the revelation of who was truly responsible for his father’s death; it all settles on his shoulders, each step agony, every breath sharp with his sorrow.

He’s thankful that he meets no one on the path. T’Challa’s well aware that he looks as bad as he feels and explaining his presence here, in this state, to any random Jabari is more than he is capable of handling at the moment.

His mother had frowned when upon his return, running a finger over the bruised, tender skin beneath his eyes, asking when he last slept. “Cat naps,” Shuri joked when he explained he’d managed to get a few minutes here or there since Vienna. It was a brave attempt at humor but her smile was brittle and cracked, her lip trembling. When he hugged them both, the three of them with their arms around each other for long moments, he first noticed the pain of his bruised ribs. It barely registered as hurt, over the tide of his grief, his mother’s stoic tears and his sister’s hiccuping sobs.

Given everything his body has endured these last days, this climb is a foolish endeavor. He makes it anyway.

The sun seems to drop faster than it does at the end of a typical day, as if it recognizes T’Challa’s dark mood and has adjusted its light to match, but the moon is full, his way illuminated enough to make do without aid of lantern light.

After half an hour’s climb he reaches the fork in the path. The main branch veres north, a more gentle elevation gain that will wind gradually higher until the last half mile, the legendary and treacherous Golden Staircase that leads to Jabari City. The path is ancient, sacred, and still used daily by fishermen, hunters, all manner of Jabaris. Apparently, it is much easier to use the elevator, build back up through the mountain, but those who can take the steps tend to do so, as a matter of pride. For the connection to their ancestors.

M’Baku refuses to tell T’Challa where the elevator is located or how it works or when it was constructed, but it hardly matters. T’Challa’s never been to Jarabi City. If his rule is anything like his father’s, he never will.

Although it is a rule that will never happen, if M’Baku gets his way.


This is the first time T’Challa’s thought of him explicitly since his father died, despite his current desperation to see him, and it hits T’Challa swiftly, that depending on the results of the challenge, this could be his last time hiking this familiar path.

In a matter of days, they will be facing off at the falls, fighting each other for a throne they’ve both been raised to covet. Just imagining it goes so against T’Challa’s ever instinct with M’Baku, that the horror of it bowls him over for a moment, his stomach dropping out and his organs seemingly rearranging themselves in his gut, going all in the wrong order and making it hard to breathe.

He bends over, hands on his knees, eyes closed as he imagines what it will sound like, when his fists collide with M’Baku’s body.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where they can continue this strange, ill-defined relationship, no matter the outcome of the coming challenge. If T’Challa beats him in combat, prideful fool that he is, M’Baku will probably not even be able to look at him after. And if T’Challa becomes the first in his family to lose the throne in a millenia, his own pride might get the best of him as well.  

T’Challa stands up and looks at the mountain before him, breathing deep and even until his legs are once more steady beneath him.

No, is thinks as he continues his climb. There is not a thing in this world or the next that would keep T’Challa from wanting to see M’Baku, be it as a lover or a friend. Nothing so far has inspired T’Challa to move on from this relationship, complicated and fraught as it's sometimes been. M’Baku breaking his heart and then T’Challa falling in love with Nakia did not change his desire to keep M’Baku in his life. Watching M’Baku take the throne would not either.

Even if T’Challa has no plans to let that happen.

T’Challa keeps going, feels the ache in his shoulders, his legs, his ribs, his heart. He does not turn north toward the Golden Staircase, instead going west, finding the narrow path between rocks, hidden from the main route. It’s impossible to see without knowing its there but T’Challa has walked it many times.

Now, he relies on muscle memory to carry him higher, the gravel beneath his feet slick and precarious, the path so steep he feels for a moment that if he leans back too far he’ll fall right off the surface of the earth. He’ll get lost in the orbit.

He climbs, the path switching back and forth, again and again, and T’Challa doesn’t notice that his face is wet with tears until the terrain flattens out again, just a short walk now along the curved edge of the mountain before he reaches his destination. When blinking does not sucessfully clear his vision, he pauses to blot his eyes with the end of his sleeve.

The mouth of the cave is unassuming, the opening low enough that T’Challa has to crouch slightly to enter. M’Baku has to bend nearly in half to get through the entryway, a sight that never fails to make T’Challa laugh.

Just inside the opening of the cave is the lantern, right where they always leave it. T’Challa lights it and does not hesitate to place it on the ledge above the cave’s opening, stretching up on his tiptoes to push it far enough from the edge that there is no chance of it falling before M’Baku can see.

T’Challa pauses before going inside, looking out at the vast darkness of the mountains, to the peak directly across from where he stands and the warm glow of lights from the city build in and around its jagged edges.

Somewhere, amongst those lights, is M’Baku. Maybe he’s already seen the lantern. Maybe he won’t see it at all. Maybe it will be a friend or someone who works in his house that will tell him the lantern across the way is lit. T’Challa once showed up in the cave at two in the morning and M’Baku still managed to be there before sunrise.

Years ago, T’Challa gave M’Baku kimoyo beads, showed him how to use them, told him to contact him at any time for anything, halfway hopeful that they could speak more often that way, rather than waiting for occasions when they were both free to come to the cave. M’Baku grumbled something disparaging about vibranium obsessions and Bast, but he tucked the beads away safely in a pouch attached to his belt. He’s only used them a handful of times to contact T’Challa, most memorably on the night of his mother’s death, but when it’s T’Challa who needs to see him, M’Baku prefers to rely on tradition. T’Challa always lights the lantern.

Now he looks at Jabari City and catches his breath from the rigorous climb. It would be easy to fly up here instead of going by foot, just glide up to the mouth of the cave or perch a Dragon Flyer on the steep edge of the mountain, the long, nimble propellers twisted around and holding on to the rock, but he likes the climb. He likes that it takes work to get to M’Baku, as if it is something intentional, something he’s earned. Otherwise, it would be too easy to leave his home and end up in this cave all the time.

The urge to come here could seize him like the wind, and he’d blow up the mountain too often, neglecting his life and his duties to tuck himself away with M’Baku among the rocks.

With his breathing is steady again, his tears drying tacky on his cheeks, T’Challa ducks his head and slips inside the cave. Around him, lights flicker on, illuminating the tunnel. The ceiling here is much higher than the mouth of the cave, and T’Challa straightens up, his back popping and creaking as he does so. Another reminder that he’s pushed his body past the limits of its endurance.

At the end of the tunnel is an ancient staircase, carved into stone, spiraling even higher. The stairs lead up only a story, maybe two, but T’Challa is suddenly so weary that he considers for a brief moment simply curling up at the base of stairs for M’Baku to find later.

At the top of the stairs, the cavern opens up into a decent sized room with a glass ceiling built between the gaping holes in the rock, offering views of the moon and the stars unlike any T’Challa has ever seen elsewhere. There is also a small sitting area, a kitchen, and most importantly, a divinely comfortable bed.

T’Challa would very much like to be in that bed. The thought of it is the only thing that gets him moving again.

He makes the final climb up the stairs like there is a lead bar braced over the span of his shoulders, too tired to even look at the pictographs and hieroglyphics carved into the rock wall on the inner spiral of the stairs. M’Baku’s family started leaving their marks here before vibranium was first mined, a detailed and elaborate history going back even farther than T’Challa’s own.

When M’Baku is in a particularly good mood, he’ll even indulge T’Challa, walk him through each picture carved into the rock and relay his family’s lore, stories about people who did great and terrible things, who loved and struggled and build a vibrant community among the harshness of the mountain. The walls at the top of the stairs are still smooth, untouched. One day, M’Baku says he may do something worth putting up there, next to his mother’s marks and all their ancestors marks before her.

By some miracle, T’Challa makes it to the top of the stairs without his legs giving out and moves to stand in front of the odd shaped door, made of one solid hunk of Jabari wood. He rests his palm against the surface of the ancient door, closing his eyes as he feels the wood vibrate and respond to his touch, moving against the ripples of his fingerprints and recognizing him as a friend. The door shakes as it unlocks and T’Challa pushes through.

He kicks off his shoes before he’s fully inside and for once he doesn’t pause to marvel at the stars visible through the glass ceiling as he moves directly towards the plush bed in the corner of the cavern, pulling off the rest of his clothes as he goes. By the time he collapses into the pillows, fully naked, he’s already mostly asleep.

T’Challa dreams of being in this same cavern at age twenty, bowing deeply as he - foolishly, earnestly - asks M’Baku to marry him. And, in the dream as he did in real life, M’Baku laughs in his face.

Somehow, his laughing shifts into the whole of the UN, laughing as they watch T’Challa cradle his dying father in his lap. Laughing as T’Challa feels the last time his father’s heart beats under his fingertips. Laughing that continues to echo, long after T’Chaka disappeared beyond T’Challa’s reach.

It’s the morning light that wakes him, streaming in with strange shadows and patterns between the craggy rock at the top of the cave. T’Challa blinks, is nearly blinded, and deeply regrets waking up, even with the unsettling dreams he found in sleep. His eyelids are heavy, the skin around them tender and raw from crying. The rest of his body is no better, every joint stiff, the ache in his thighs deep and persistent. Every part of him hurts, from ears to toes. Already, a headache is thrumming at his temples.

Closing his eyes against the offensively bright light of the morning, T’Challa groans.

“Ah, you are alive. I’d wondered.”

Nothing in the world could compel him to lift his head - a truly superhuman feat in this moment -  with exception of that deep, familiar, perpetual-taunting-him voice. For that, T’Challa even manages to sit up on his elbows and open his eyes, both at the same time.

And there is M’Baku perched on the bed by T’Challa’s feet with his legs folded beneath him, eating a passion fruit. He makes being awake and sitting up slightly worth the pain.

“Did you have sweet dreams, my prince ?” M’Baku says the title like he always does, with a wide grin and an eye roll, gently mocking.

T’Challa typically does not mind the way M’Baku never misses an opportunity to scoff at T’Challa and his family and the Wakandan throne - it keeps him humble - but at sunset T’Challa will commit his father’s body to the ancestral lands. M’Baku’s dismissive tone scalds now, has him wincing and flinching away.

Prince is not a title he will hold for long, now. Soon, barring a successful challenge from the man currently sitting naked at the end of the bed, it will be king .

Perhaps he should reconsider this decision to open his eyes.

“You look horrible,” M’Baku continues, happily licking juice from his fingers and completely obvious to T’Challa’s distress. He tosses the rind of the fruit across the room and then whoops when it lands neatly in the wastebasket, his arms raised high above his head in victory.

“I promise I feel worse than I look,” T’Challa says, his voice thin and creaky, like he swallowed the gravel from the path on his climb up last night.

He blinks around the room, noting that the blankets at his side are disheveled and that there are now two sets of clothes, neatly folded and stacked on the table across from the bed. M’Baku’s obviously been here long enough to tidy up, as he is wont to do. In all likelihood, T’Challa was so exhausted last night he did not even notice M’Baku crawling into bed next to him.

“Are you having problems with your women again?” M’Baku continues, shaking his head and smirking. He could be be disparaging Shuri or Okoye or Nakia or all three at once, a tactic that never fails to get T’Challa riled up. And getting T’Challa riled up is one of M’Baku’s favorite past times, just after kissing T’Challa and sex with T’Challa and trying to convert T’Challa to a vegetarian diet with admittedly delicious meals cooked right here in the cavern’s small kitchen.

T’Challa lacks the emotional energy to get riled about anything right now, even telling M’Baku off for using a phrase as infuriating as “your women.” Instead he just takes a shaky breath and whispers, “ Mhibu .”

The term of endearment, rarely used outside of love-making, finally gets M’Baku’s attention. His spine snaps straight as he sits up, not a trace of humor lingering in his gaze as he stares at T’Challa, critical and concerned now. He gets up on his knees to move up the bed, huge and looming, and then settles next to T’Challa, once more crossing his legs beneath him, always impressively and elegantly flexible for a man his size.

Eyes narrowed, M’Baku lays a hand on T’Challa’s cheek, calloused fingertips comforting in their familiarity. T’Challa takes a shuddering breath and reaches up to lay his own hand over M’Baku’s wrist.

At first, T’Challa doesn’t understand why this simple gesture has M’Baku’s mouth dropping open, a strangled, shocked gasp coming from between his parted lips, but then T’Challa remembers his father’s ring on his third finger. T’Challa closes his eyes and they burn, a few tears escaping. M’Baku keeps a hand on him, thumb sweeping along his cheek and T’Challa’s grip on his wrist must be painful, but he does not wince.

“T’Challa,” M’Baku whispers, pressing into T’Challa’s side, his free arm coming around his shoulders. “Say this is not so.”

T’Challa opens his mouth, but a sob comes out instead of any words. Turning towards M’Baku, he reaches out blindly until he can get his arms around the barrel of his chest, only settling once he has his face hidden against M’Baku’s neck. M’Baku whispers comforting words to the top of T’Challa’s head, calls him kipenzi - his own endearment typically reserved for love making - and T’Challa focuses on breathing, on the gentle sweep of M’Baku’s hand running up and down his back.

“My baba,” T’Challa finally manages, choking on his grief. “He’s dead.”

Given M’Baku’s preference towards antagonism and general distaste for the Wakandan throne, one might expect more scoffing. Or an immediate challenge to T’Challa as the next king, but as arrogant and infuriating as M’Baku can be at times, he’s also kind. He’s also gentle. He’s a person T’Challa has loved and trusted since he was thirteen. He is steady and safe and no matter their differences, T’Challa can always rely on him.

And T’Challa believes he means every word when he says, “Oh, T’Challa. I’m so very sorry. All my comfort for your loss. May his memory be a blessing.”

It’s an old pattern, but for more than decade T’Challa has told M’Baku all important things, good and bad, personal and political, big and small. And for more than decade, none of these things have felt truly real to him until he’s been able to share them with M’Baku, as if the act of getting the words out and watching M’Baku’s reaction (eye-rolling, laughter, delight, shock) is the filter through which T’Challa now processes the world.

So if M’Baku is here, wrapped around him, touching the ring that still feels so strange on his finger, and crying with him, then T’Challa’s father must truly be dead.

“I am not ready,” T’Challa confesses. It is something he could never say to anyone but M’Baku. And perhaps also Nakia, before she left, but certainly not his mother or Shuri. “I am not ready to be without him.”

“We never are ready to say goodbye to our parents in this world,” M’Baku says. “Will you tell me what happened?”

T’Challa takes a deep breath and starts at the beginning, with the explosion in Lagos a month ago that left three Wakandas dead, even if M’Baku already knew of that. T’Challa had been here, in this very bed, when he received the news, but it is the true beginning of this story so that is where T’Challa starts.

It’s cathartic. It’s horrible. It’s T’Challa’s way of processing the world, working out what happened and how he feels about it, what he did wrong and what he did right. M’Baku stays silent as T’Challa talks of the last few days, but his ever expressive face speaks for him and T’Challa sees horror and outrage and sorrow there.

“You are a good man, T’Challa,” M’Baku says as T’Challa concludes his story with his capture of Zemo, turning him over to the Americans. “Better than me. If I could pull apart what killed my mother with my hands, I would.”

M’Baku’s mother was crushed by a boulder, when a rock slide on the outskirts of Jabari City trapped seven children in a cave. She died trying to get them out before they suffocated.

If anyone could tear down a mountain through sheer determination and force of will, it would be M’Baku. T’Challa is grateful he didn’t attempt it.

“The cycle must stop somewhere,” T’Challa says, his throat raw from the painful combination of talking and crying. “Revenge begets revenge. Violence begets violence. Until someone says enough.”

M’Baku says nothing, just presses a kiss to T’Challa’s temple and holds him close.

“And this is a better punishment,” he confesses, because the decision to keep Zemo alive was not wholly motivated by noble reasons. “He wanted to die. And I wanted him not to get what he wanted.”

“In that case, I hope he lives to old age,” M’Baku says. “I hope he sees a century of life in a jail cell. And I do not like what happens when you leave Wakanda. The world is too small now.”

T’Challa nods, knowing full well that the ever shrinking distance between Wakanda and the world will be what defines his rule. He has no energy left to give the subject the consideration it deserves in this moment.

Assuming he even becomes king. Assuming M’Baku does not beat him in ritual combat.

T’Challa’s been doing a admirable job in keeping himself from thinking too much on their coming fight, but it’s creeping up on him now, like it’s been creeping up on him since he was fourteen and M’Baku came to Birnin Zana, informing T’Challa that one day he would defeat T’Challa for the throne before kissing him in a secret alcove in the palace, mere feet away from the room where their parents were discussing the possibility of a representative from Jabari taking a seat on the elder council.

M’Baku’s always been these two things to T’Challa, the lover, friend, and confidant, and a murky, distant threat to T’Challa’s future. The second never truly mattered to T’Challa, before now.

He cannot bear to think of it.

“What do you need?” M’Baku asks. “Will anything help?”

Years ago, the night after M’Baku’s mother died, T’Challa asked those same questions. It had been the first time they’d seen each other after M’Baku’s rejection of T’Challa’s marriage proposal, and T’Challa had been on three dates with Nakia. M’Baku stared at him, eyes red rimmed and wet, and T’Challa thought he needed something T’Challa could no longer give. In the end they’d sat together out on the rock ledge, holding hands as the sun went down over the mountains of M’Baku’s home, the same ones that took his mother from him.

Sitting outside seems a horribly inadequate activity now, and nowhere near enough to distract him from obsessing over all the ways they might hurt each other as they fight.

He considers M’Baku, the both of them conveniently naked and in bed. They were here a week ago, but T’Challa’s aged a decade since then, and he wants to remember what it was like, to feel young and free and well loved under M’Baku’s hands. He is suddenly far older than twenty-six and yet somehow still not at all prepared for what comes next. He’s a stranger in his own head, in limbo. A prince no longer and not yet a king. A boy with no father. A man shaped abruptly by tragedy.

He is unsettled in his skin, but he long ago memorized every inch of M’Baku’s, and wants to touch him, to remember who he was just a week ago.

T’Challa shuffles a little closer, turning his head toward M’Baku’s neck, seeking out the strong, muscled shoulder with his lips, and refuses to think of the damage he might inflict on this precious body in just a few days time. He breathes deep and finds himself already trembling. With a hand on M’Baku’s chest, he traces coarse hair and muscle, the birthmark high on M’Baku’s ribs. This is well traveled terrain, and he’s dizzy with wanting to be closer, to crawl right into the marrow of M’Baku’s bones and ensure they’ll never be apart. They’ll never fight. They’ll just stay here forever.

“T’Challa,” M’Baku says, and T’Challa does not understand the concern in his voice so he ignores it, more focused on M’Baku’s hand, warm and heavy on the back of his neck.

T’Challa’s lips find that spot, just behind M’Baku’s ear, that makes him shiver without fail. He does so now, as T’Challa bites there, once, gently. He’s already shaking, and somehow when he tries to move closer his whole body sways out of his control, failing more firmly against M’Baku when he just intended to press a little closer, to encourage M’Baku to lie down with him.

Between one blink and the next, he find himself held upright with M’Baku’s hands on his shoulders, M’Baku’s worried face before him.

“When was it you last ate?” M’Baku demands, eyes narrowed.

T’Challa blinks at him some more, vision swimming, and for the first time he considers the possibility that he is not dizzy with lust after ten seconds with his hands on M’Baku, but rather extreme hunger might be the answer.

“Oh.” And his headache is suddenly back with such a vengeance that he’s forced to lay down as he ponders that question.

Before they parted ways the night previous his mother insisted he eat, but T’Challa cannot recall if it actually happened. He fed the broken white boys on their way back to Wakanda, rations of dried meat and fruit, but he couldn’t stomach food himself. Surely he ate something between now and his father’s death, but he cannot recall what or when.

M’Baku scoffs and hops out of bed, graceful and light footed as ever. He pulls on a pair of loose pants around his hips, securing them with a drawstring before retrieving T’Challa’s dashiki from the neatly folded pile of clothes, tossing it on the bed, and walking away.

Now that he’s no longer ignoring his hunger, his stomach is cramping and demanding, but getting out of bed still seems too daunting a task. He stares up at the ceiling and attempts to summon the strength to lift his arms and pull on one article of clothing.

It’s only the smell coming from the back of the cave that eventually motivates him to stand, pulling his dashiki on over his head on his way.

When they first met, T’Challa had not immediately known who M’Baku was. They were thirteen and for the first time T’Challa, Nakia, and W’Kabi were given permission to go camping without the supervision of their parents. The presence of only one Dora, in a tent far enough away to give them the illusion of privacy, made them all feel grown up well beyond their years.

A group of Jabari kids had a similar idea, coming down the mountain to camp at the edge of the forest, near the bend in a babbling creek.

T’Challa had been fascinated, having never spent anytime with anyone from up the mountain before, and he was particularly taken with M’Baku, a huge personality even then, although he did not yet have the body to match. He’d been scrawnier than T’Challa at that point, and so funny and charming, just cocky enough to be appealing. T’Challa hung on M’Baku’s every word, blushing when M’Baku so much as looked at him and stuttering over his responses, nervous and shy and awkward.

One of the other Jabari’s brought a jug of burukutu, passing it around to everyone seated in a circle around the fire, and one sip was enough for T’Challa to feel the alcohol rush to his head. Three sips and T’Challa snuck off easily and eagerly with M’Baku, despite all his promises to the Dora that he’d stay at the campsite.

They’d walked along the creek, the vibranium in the sand shining pale blue beneath the water and lighting their way. When M’Baku slipped on a wet rock and nearly went careening face first into the water, T’Challa caught his hand to keep him upright. And they just kept on holding hands as they walked, barefoot and splashing through the water, marveling over the night lilies in bloom with the same pale blue glow coming off the creek.

As they walked M’Baku told him stories of a another clearing, half a days walk up the creek towards the mountains, where white gorilla make their nests. They’d even let you watch from the edge of the forest, if you were pure of heart. M’Baku assured him that he was their favorite, he could tell.

The stood on the edge of a waterfall, the shimmering water casting pale light on M’Baku’s face, and T’Challa could not help but stare at his mouth as he talked in hushed tones, matching the peace and quiet of their surroundings. T’Challa was so obvious with his staring that M’Baku laughed and then kissed him, brief and chaste and lovely. T’Challa’s first and M’Baku’s too, he would later learn.

With T’Challa still blushing and too overcome to speak or even move, M’Baku sighed and turned them back to camp, saying, “Do you Wakandans execute people for keeping the prince out until sunrise? We better get back.”

Before that moment, T’Challa had assumed the Jabaris didn’t know who he was.

When M’Baku walked T’Challa back to the tent, he kissed T’Challa’s cheek and then ran off into the night. W’Kabi was asleep when T’Challa slipped into the ten but Nakia waited up for him, and they stayed up much later, T’Challa recounting every moment spent with M’Baku, the pair of them giggling over the romance of it all. Eventually Nakia fell asleep but T’Challa saw sunrise, suddenly morose.

Young, romantic little fool he was, T’Challa at thirteen had been sure he was in love with a Jabari boy and convinced they’d never see each other again.

It had been a shock, to see M’Baku not six months later, standing to his mother’s right as they welcomed a delegation of Jabaris to the palace. When T’Challa was introduced to M’Baku, son of Machie, leader of the Jabari, it was with wide eyes and a gaping mouth.

M’Baku had simply smirked, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.

M’Baku’s at the stove in the small kitchen. When they first started meeting here regularly, there had been only an old ice box and a fire pit for cooking, but M’Baku is at home in a kitchen the way Shuri is at home in her lab, and he brought in more modern appliances by the time they were eighteen.

Now, he’s stirring something in a pot methodically, staring at the wall with the same, glazed over, dead-eyed stare T’Challa had been using to look up at the ceiling.

“Egusi soup?” T’Challa murmurs, wrapping both arms around M’Baku from behind, resting his head against his bare shoulder blade.

“Leftovers,” M’Baku says. “From last night. Somehow I managed to cook your favorite meal without even knowing you’d need it today. No beef though.”

“It’s vegetarian? I am shocked !”

M’Baku huffs out a laugh, but otherwise ignores T’Challa in favor of putting the meal together.

They eat out on the rock ledge, the sun high in the sky, the foothills beneath them bright and green, with Jabari City gleaming in the distance. M’Baku watches T’Challa intently, making sure he eats his entire bowl before passing over his own serving and insisting T’Challa eat that too. With food in his stomach the rest of him feels better too, his muscles less sore and his headache receding.

When both bowls are scraped clean, they retreat back inside to clean up. T’Challa makes a halfhearted offer to help, but M’Baku just scoffs in response.

“I’m so tired,” T’Challa confesses, leaning back against the counter, sticking as close to M’Baku as he’s able without making a nuisance of himself.

“Yes, you did not stir when I got into bed last night. I should have known then something was wrong.”

“If I could, I’d stay here for at least three days and just sleep.”

“You bury your father at sunset?” M’Baku asks, stacking the clean bowls next to the sink.

“Yes.” T’Challa leans back against the countertop and digs the palms of his hands into his eyes. Body somewhat recovered with a deep sleep and a good meal, it’s his mind that is exhausted now. He wants nothing more than to cease thinking, just for a few hours or maybe days.

But there is much to do, this time with M’Baku an indulgence he can barely afford, and his brain spins on an endless loop, from the burial tonight, to pulling Nakia out of her mission, to meeting with all the various tribal leaders to secure their support for his rule before the ritual at the falls. His thoughts stutter-step over what comes next, the challenge itself. M’Baku fighting him for the throne.

“Well, come back after that,” M’Baku says, as if this is a given. As if T’Challa is, and always will be, welcome.

It’s been over three years since Nakia left, two and a half since T’Challa found himself back in M’Baku’s bed, but he’s been careful to keep his emotional distance from M’Baku even so. He was naive the first time they were together, when they were just children really, thought they were more than they were, let himself hope for a future. It’s not something he’ll allow himself again with M’Baku, so spending two nights in a row here is not something he could allow himself.

Not that he could anyway. As much as he might want to.

“I cannot,” T’Challa says. “Hopefully by the morning Okoye will have figured out exactly where Nakia is, so we will likely go retrieve her.”

M’Baku snorts, shaking his head as he bends low to properly polish the cooking surface, the fire beneath is extinguished. “Oh, lost her, have you?”

T’Challa rolls his eyes, in no mood for M’Baku’s jealousy. “I know she’s in Nigeria. It’s a big country. But I am hopeful we’ll find her in time.”

“In time?” M’Baku echoes, only half paying attention, still focused on making his kitchen shine. “For what?”

T’Challa straightens up, cocking his head to the side as he studies M’Baku.

Over the years, M’Baku’s never missed an opportunity to remind T’Challa that one day they will fight in ritual combat for the throne. It was thrown out so often it became a joke, a quip, said with a fond smile when T’Challa got his way or was particularly annoying. “ Just you wait, ” M’Baku would say, grinning. “One day I’ll meet you in ritual combat and then we’ll see who has the last laugh.”

Just last week, M’Baku grumbed as T’Challa made him get up to turn off the lights before bed, and said, “ You’ll pay for this T’Challa. You’ll regret making me get up when I challenge you for the throne .”

Despite the good humor - born of the misguided belief on both their parts that they’d be practically ancient by the time T’Challa’s father chose to retire - its weighed heavily on the both of them, this inevitable escalation of a thousand years of tension and misunderstanding between two people with more in common than not, even with all the entrenched and stubborn ways they’ve pushed up against each other.

They’d argued about it for years, back when they were young and foolish, and even if T’Challa did not understand M’Baku’s reasoning then - obligation to his people, the result of a thousand years of isolation, Jabaris tired of feeling as if they have no voice, a long ago promise to a dead mother - he understands now. For the Jabaris, the symbolism of their leader challenging the Wakandan throne, standing up after centuries of being ignored to demand their voices are heard, is more important than actually winning the challenge.

It’s painful to think of his father just now, and musing on his weaknesses as king is downright unbearable, but T’Challa has long thought that his father’s policy regarding the people of the mountain was flawed, saw that the only way to avoid one day meeting M’Baku at the falls was some radical change in the relationship with the Jabaris, and now it will never happen. T’Chaka is no longer of this world.

When they were young, T’Challa tried to talk M’Baku out of it, made promises. Said that when he was king, M’Baku could have a seat on the council and even if the senior members were against it, he’d make it happen. They’d change things together, and M’Baku would shake his head, saying, “As long as your father insists the Jabari fully rejoin Wakanda like every other tribe and my mother refuses to give any concessions to join the council, we will fight, T’Challa.”

In recent years, since T’Challa started regularly going to the mountains again after Nakia left, he’s stopped trying to change M’Baku’s mind. M’Baku was always going to grow up to challenge for the Wakandan throne and it was the cause of strife in their relationship from the beginning, not to mention the reason it was so foolish for T’Challa to ever hope for something more between them, back when he was twenty and swept up in the throws of first love.

Now that the moment is nearly upon them, real and present in a way it’s never been before, M’Baku has genuinely forgotten.

Mhibu,” T’Challa whispers and once more it gets M’Baku attention immediately. “You know what comes next.”

M’Baku blinks at him and T’Challa can pinpoint the exact moment realization dawns, M’Baku’s expression going from confusion to dawning horror in the span of a heartbeat. He sways a little, catching himself with both hands on the edge of the counter and T’Challa does not know what to do, frozen with his own shock at seeing M’Baku react so viscerally to the reminder of this thing that’s been looming over them for years.  

Closing his eyes, M’Baku takes four deep, even breaths. “Right,” he says, standing up straight. “Excuse me.”

He flees the kitchen without looking at T’Challa. T’Challa watches him go, dread curdling all the soup he just ate. It sits heavy and foul in his stomach.

He puts away their dishes and makes sure M’Baku’s cooktop is gleaming.

T’Challa never intended to keep M’Baku a secret. It just evolved that way naturally, from that first public introduction with their parents watching, when M’Baku acted as though they’d never met before and T’Challa too shocked to do anything but go along with it.

Stealing kisses on those few blissful occasions the Jabari delegation came to the capitol, giddy on the thrill of first love, too youthful to truly pay attention to the possible consequences. It was T’Challa who suggested they ask their parents to arrange a way for them to see each other after the delegation left and it was M’Baku who refused, citing the failure of the council to reach terms to include a Jabari representative and a millennia of bad blood between their families. And yet it was M’Baku who came back, long after T’Challa had given up on all hope of seeing him again, as a part of a summer schooling program focused on cultural exchange when they were sixteen. And it was M’Baku who suggested meeting at the cave, as often as they could manage it, so long as no one knew.

Nakia has always been T’Challa’s sole confidante, for all matters M’Baku. He told her everything, from the first night in the tent to T’Challa’s ill advised, spontaneous proposal. She took him out drinking after the break up, indulged in his grieving and gently, but firmly, focused him to stop moping in bed and continue living his life in the months that followed.

If M’Baku ever had a similar friend who he talked to about T’Challa, he’s never mentioned it.

For years they’ve occupied a huge space in each others lives, and they should not have been able to keep such a massive thing secret, but they did, right up until M’Baku crushed all of T’Challa’s dreams. Until M'Baku laughed and say no, T’Challa still believed that they’d somehow find a way to be together, to rule their people separately and yet live their lives as one.

T’Challa always thought he’d tell his family eventually, assumed that he had time to confess all to his father, imaging that Baba would tutt and scold T’Challa for his being reckless but then he’d see how much T’Challa loves M’Baku and offer suitable counsel. More than anything, he wants to ask his father for advice now, wants to know how he is expected to do this. Wants to know how he is supposed to put love of his people over his love of this one precious, complicated person. That is a true mark of a king, is it not? The people come first, and T’Challa does believe deep in the very heart of him that he is better suited for rule than M’Baku, but he does not have the stomach to do what he must to see that happen.

Closing his eyes, he tries to speak with his father like his mother surely has managed by now, so adept is she at meditation, but he cannot manage to settle. All he feels for M’Baku will remain a secret.

One they’ve been so good at keeping, that the whole of the country is sure to be shocked when M’Baku appears at the falls, everyone but Nakia and T’Challa expecting the Jabari to stay isolated as they have for centuries now.

M’Baku and T’Challa have found their way back together after so much that should have kept them apart but T’Challa truly does not know how they will come back from this.

He finds M’Baku in the bedroom, sitting naked on the side of the bed with his head bowed, hands cupped over his knees. T’Challa’s always been impressed with M’Baku’s ability to be still, how he can go from shaking with laughter to sitting peacefully in meditation so rapidly.

He does not look peaceful now.

There is tension along every line of his body, shoulders held tight, elbows bent, back curved, jaw clenched. His head comes up when he hears T’Challa enter, his face shadowed and eyes dark. Silently he extends a hand towards T’Challa, beckoning, and T’Challa goes to him, as he always has.

As he always will, if M’Baku will still have him, after.

Moving like they practiced it beforehand, M’Baku spreads his legs just as T’Challa comes to stand between them, M’Baku’s hands coming up to cradle his face just as T’Challa leans down to kiss him.

It is not a gentle kiss. There is agony in it, desperation.

It’s the sort of kiss T’Challa imagined they would have shared if they’d slept together one more time as a goodbye, after M’Baku so thoroughly rejected his proposal.

It’s the sort of kiss T’Challa thought might occur the first time T’Challa went back to the cave after Nakia left, still angry with M’Baku but unable to stay away much longer. He’d been so shocked when M’Baku had not been jealous or cruel, but radiating joy, murmuring how much he missed T’Challa as he lay T’Challa beneath him and touched him gently, reverently.

It’s a harsh sort of kiss, the kind with teeth. It is not sweet and it is not joyful. This kiss hurts, gets T’Challa right in the heart of him, and it seems the only cure for this kind of pain is more; harder kisses and as much of his skin touching M’Baku’s as they can manage.

When T’Challa stretches out on his back and tugs on M’Baku’s shoulder, M’Baku comes willingly to lie on top of him, caging T’Challa’s head between his forearms, propping himself up on his elbows as he covers T’Challa from head to toe.

Their pace is frantic, dizzyingly so, and T’Challa pushes for more, his fingers digging into M’Baku’s back hard enough to leave crescent-shaped marks, but M’Baku still has moments of such potent tenderness T’Challa aches. He gently traces T’Challa’s cheek with his thumb as they move together, even as he roughly pulls T’Challa’s leg up to hook it around his own hip, fingers gripping T’Challa’s thigh with enough strength to leave bruises. He sinks his teeth into T’Challa’s lip and then uses his tongue to soothe the sting.

It is fast and it is hard, pleasure only sweetened by the faint edge of pain, and T’Challa wants this to leave marks on both of them, so when they step into falls to face each other the proof of this happening still lingers on their skin.

When T’Challa gets close, hips stuttering as they come up off the mattress, M’Baku grabs his jaw and insists T’Challa meet his gaze, his voice low and sweet. T’Challa looks up at him, and forgets, for just a moment, everything but this man and how much T’Challa loves him.

“Please,” T’Challa says, after they are finished. M’Baku has not rolled off him yet, his face remaining tucked into T’Challa’s neck as he catches his breath. T’Challa holds him there, unable to say this and look him in the eye. Unwilling to let M’Baku see the tears in his eyes. “Please don’t make me kill you.”

Against him, M’Baku shakes his head and makes no promises.

In the afternoon, after a soak in the vibranium hot springs one cave over, a second meal, and more time in bed, they walk down the mountain, hand and hand. M’Baku is quiet and so T’Challa matches his mood.

He misses his father. And he still would very much like to sleep for three days and he dreads seeing M’Baku again, but he is calmer now, more centered than he was when he made the desperate, delirious climb up the mountain last night. This time with M’Baku is precious, even if loving him so recently is sure to make what comes next all the worse.

“Well,” he says, watching as M’Baku retrieves his glider. “Is it too morbid to say see you soon?”

M’Baku sighs and does not reply, busying himself with setting up the glider for T’Challa’s trip home. It’s like in this moment of goodbye they’ve switched personalities, with T’Challa trying to joke even if his never land like M’Baku’s, and M’Baku silent and stoic, his own dread written all over his face.

With the glider ready for take off, M’Baku sets it against the closest rock and wraps T’Challa in a hug. T’Challa presses his face to M’Baku’s shoulder and wishes he could stay right here forever.

“If I had my way, I would never let you go,” M’Baku says.

“Truly?” T’Challa asks, skeptical of M’Baku’s feelings since they reconciled into this not-quite-relationship.

“How could you not know that? After everything, do not doubt how I feel about you. This would be so much easier, if I did not adore and admire you so.”

“Well, you could always not challenge me to ritual combat.”

M’Baku pulls back, shaking his head again, giving T’Challa a watery, rueful smile

“Don’t be late,” T’Challa says, a poor attempt at some levity, and M’Baku smirks at him, like he just decided that being fashionably late to fight his lover to the death for the throne they’ve both been groomed for since birth is the way to go, just for the drama of it all.

“I love you,” M’Baku says. And it’s the first time he’s said it in recent years. It feels like goodbye and T’Challa had no plans on ever saying this to him again, part of T’Challa’s somewhat fruitless efforts to be more cautious with his feelings this time around, but in this moment he’s compelled to be honest.

“I love you,” he echoes, meaning like he always has.

M”Baku holds him tighter for a moment, before letting him go. He presses a kiss to each of T’Challa’s cheeks, and a soft, lingering, chaste one to his lips.

“I’ll see you at the falls,” T’Challa says, going breathless and terrified at the thought.

M’Baku grimaces, and it’s the first time he’s ever looked anything close to regretful over the fate they both knew would await them since they met. “Yes,” he says. “You will.”