It’s dark still, but the stars are disappearing and the sky above the mountains to the east is slowly lightening with the promise of the coming day. The air is warm and humid, with a cool breeze sweeping over the hills, rustling the leaves and the soft material of his clothes. Far off, a bird calls, the sound echoing all around.
T’Challa often finds himself sitting on top of the giant panther statue. Whenever he can’t sleep, or think clearly, or just wants to get away from the palace and the ever-present reminders of his position and responsibilities as king.
There’s a groove worn down, near the end of the snout where he can let his legs hang over the edge, and it’s been there for as long as he can remember. It’s comfortable, stable. He likes to imagine generations of princes and princesses and kings and queens sitting there, watching the sun rise over the plains and mountains of their beautiful country.
He still remembers staring up at the carved panther as a small child, intimidated and in awe and excited all at once. Vowing to Bast that one day, when he was big enough, he’d reach the top. And he did, as a teenager, confident in his strength and agility, venturing further and further from the palace every night, sure his father had no idea. He had, of course, he’d been wise and observant enough to notice the scuffed knees, the dark circles beneath his eyes, the trampled shrubbery beneath his bedroom window.
The night before he’d been sent off to Oxford, T’Chaka had appeared out of the night to sit beside him on the head of the panther, footsteps as silent as ever. They’d talked about Wakanda, about his childhood, about the Black Panther, about the past, about the future. They’d laughed at how oblivious he’d been, about how T’Chaka had watched him sneak through the palace gardens and over the wall, trusting that his son would return safe.
T’Challa thinks about his father a lot, still. Sometimes he’ll wake to the sound of the explosion, his ears ringing, and he’ll reach, screaming, for T’Chaka, his hands grasping at rumpled sheets. He’s reminded of him everywhere. It’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s tough, but it’s slowly getting easier. Harbouring Barnes and, to a lesser extent, the other rogues had helped a surprising amount. Watching him heal, discover new joy in the world, finding a home in Wakanda. Seeing Shuri connect with him, learn from him, seeing the gentle look in Barnes’ eyes around her.
He misses his father every day, but slowly, he’s healing. He’s finding new family, new ways that Wakanda can help the world. Maybe one day, he’ll be as great a king as T’Chaka was.
He’d always been aware of death, been surrounded by it, but at an arm’s length. After the whole mess in America… he’d thought about it a lot more, especially while sitting here. Thought about how close it was, always. How, once you were aware of it, its shadow followed you everywhere. An explosion. A waterfall. A mad titan. A rebel opposing the royal family. Armed smugglers searching for vibranium deposits. A slip, a fall. A loose stone, and he could plunge to his death from up here. The world gives very few second chances, and he’d already been given three.
If the explosion hadn’t made him aware enough of death, the waterfall had. It was months until he could step into the bath or a pool without being reminded of Erik, of the blood staining the water red. Of Shuri’s terrified expression, of the roar of the waterfall, behind him, below him, all around him. The cold. Waking up to a kingdom at war. And then trying his best to heal the wounds that Erik had opened up within Wakanda, trying to reunite everyone. The suddenness of the next conflict, of Thanos, and the Avengers again, and his people fighting for their lives, for the universe, being slain. Failing. Stepping out onto another battlefield, one even worse, and seeing more of them die. Stark, a man he’d never properly respected before that day, sacrificing himself. Returning to a completely different Wakanda, years having past when it felt like only days.
He still wonders why. Why he’d survived so much. Why he’d been sent back, why he’d been saved all those times. What the universe wanted him to do. Why he’d been given another chance when his father hadn’t, when so many others hadn’t.
He’s tried his best to do everything he can. To live life to the fullest. To help as many as possible. To have Wakanda be there for those who need it.
Death comes for everyone, eventually. He’s come to peace with that. Whether it’s tomorrow, two years, fifty years, it’ll come for him.
He’s vowed that he’ll make the most of the time he has left.
The sun has risen, turning the sky and the mountains and the forests a beautiful gold. More birds are calling now, some that he recognises and some that he doesn’t. They sound beautiful.
There’s soft footsteps behind him, and T’Challa turns to see Shuri stepping carefully around the rocks, glancing nervously over the edge every now and then. Here, he’s in his element – sometimes he forgets that others are not.
“Hey, I thought I might find you here.”
“You know me well, Shuri.”
She grins and settles down beside him, crossing her legs. He shifts over slightly to accommodate for her.
“It’s a nice view.”
“It is, isn’t it.”
“What were you thinking about?”
T'Challa shakes his head, and Shuri doesn’t push further, letting her head drop onto his shoulder. Some things are better left unsaid.