The first thing Nakia noticed was the quiet.
Her squad had settled down to sleep in the back of the van they were using to cross through the gently sloping, grassy countryside of Mozambique, parked carefully in the shrubbery to avoid detection. They travelled light, one backpack each, and were mostly travelling at night. Nakia had selected the group herself, four of the most trusted spies Wakanda had produced in the past decade. N’Basa and Nakia had trained together as teenagers (which was absolutely the only reason he had ever bested her in hand-to-hand combat, she was adamant.) Ifa was an agent from the generation preceding both Nakia and N’Basa, and teased them like little kids in that quiet, sharp way of his. Amondi and Khamisi were hardly five years younger than her, but Nakia teased them the way Ifa teased her, like little siblings. Amondi “I-can-disable-bombs-so-don’t-call-me-umntwana” had seemed to appoint herself as Nakia’s protege, however, which meant Nakia could call her by as many nicknames as she liked. The five of them had been working together for the past year as part of Wakanda’s outreach program, running intelligence missions designed to help combat burgeoning terrorist organizations in neighbouring nations. From February to April, they had been shutting down weapons trading in Greece. Now, it was tracing illegal arms manufacturing in Mozambique.
Nakia had fallen asleep with her head balanced on N’Basa’s shoulder, while he flipped through a novel he had stuffed in his backpack. He had joked as she settled down that he was going to have to explain this to her king when they returned home, and Nakia had given his chest a good-natured swat as she closed her eyes and told him to keep his nose out of the king’s personal business. Then she had let herself slip into slumber, peace and quiet radiating through the van along with the scant air conditioning.
She had woken by tumbling to the floor of the van. Nakia’s eyes snapped open, and she was pushing herself to her feet, in a defensive crouch in the confined space, before she had even registered what was happening. Her gaze darted to the wall, where N’Basa was now absent; his novel lay discarded on the floor. She was alone in the van.
Peering outside, Nakia could see no figures moving in the bleary early light. She slowly slipped out of the van’s back door, her feet soundless on the ground as she looked around. No one, anywhere. Not a sound but the insects waking for sunrise, and a bird twittering nervously in the distance.
As she turned, something in Amondi’s voice told her she was already too late. Nakia caught a glimpse of the girl’s face, thin and strained with fear, just as her torso crumbled to ash.
But as she took a single step forward, her outstretched hand too far to reach Amondi where she stood braced against the van, the rest of the girl dissolved before her eyes. Flakes of what was left fluttered away, volcanic ash on the wind. Nakia flinched when some of it drifted to land on her arm, her skin crawling.
She stood alone, countryside sprawling around her for miles, the dust of her team mingling with the soil. In the distance, that same nervous bird let out a startled cry.
The world was ending, and Shuri could just barely see Okoye emerging from the treeline.
All around her, aliens and Dora Milaje alike crumbled, gone in an instant. Shuri knelt in the grass, panting; the aliens that remained were still attacking, and she shot another blast directly into an oncoming, scaly chest, sending the creature flying backwards. She doubled over, trying to breathe for a moment. She didn’t know how long she had before she, too, turned to ash.
M’Baku was gone. She had seen him go, seen him cry out as his hand vanished before his eyes. Shuri threw herself at another creature to block out the memory, now singed in her brain. It went down hard, and she tumbled with it, striking it across the face. It burned without much of a fight; it was almost disappointing.
But Okoye was walking towards her, and Shuri waited with bated breath for the General to dissolve. She didn’t. For a split second, Shuri almost laughed - leave it to Okoye to refuse the will of Infinity Stones.
But as she neared her, Shuri could see something was wrong. Her body was stiff, awkward, as she speared an alien when it lunged at her; she hardly broke her course, extracting her weapon from its limp body like the feel of it made her want to be sick.
“Okoye,” Shuri called, because she had never called her General before, and she wasn’t going to at the end of the world, “Okoye!”
Okoye crushed Shuri into her arms for just a moment, and the contact felt like hugging a statue. She removed herself from Shuri with a shake of her head, and turned to order the remaining Dora Milaje to return to the city once the final few creatures were rounded up. There were perhaps thirty Wakandans left on the battlefield. The lack of bodies almost made it worse.
“What’s happening?” Shuri asked. She felt like such a child, asking questions she knew the answer to, but she wanted someone to have the chance to tell her it wasn’t true.
Okoye was marching back to the city, spear clutched in her fist, the Dora Milaje following suit. Shuri trailed after them, watching the last few aliens fall prey to the tired soldiers still on the battlefield. None of the Avengers could be seen.
T’Challa could not be seen.
“Okoye,” Shuri said, catching up to the General, “Where is my brother?”
Okoye’s mouth tightened, but she remained silent. The Dora Milaje were casting Shuri long, guilty glances, and she avoided looking at them. She didn’t want their quiet apologies, she wanted to know where T’Challa was.
Shuri grabbed Okoye by the elbow, yanking her backwards like a little kid until Okoye halted, her footsteps uneven on the road. They had barely entered the city, but already Shuri could see people stepping outside, searching desperately in alleys and hiding spots, mothers calling for their children, children calling for their mothers, a little girl saying her brother’s name over and over, a chant that might bring him back.
“Where is our King?” Shuri asked, injecting as much authority as she could into her words; but her mouth trembled, and her voice betrayed her with the hitch that dragged the word “King” out of her throat like a prayer.
Okoye’s face spasmed, then crumpled. For just a moment, Shuri remembered watching her mother cry at her father’s funeral, the first time the Queen Mother had shed tears in front of her daughter. Shuri shook her head, though she didn’t know if it was in answer or in desperation to get Okoye to stop looking at her like that.
“I could not - there was nothing -” Okoye stopped, started, stopped, shook her head slow, like she was dislodging whatever had a vice-grip on her brain. Her face smoothed back out, save for a painful little pinch at the center of her brow. “I am sorry.”
The world was ending, and Nakia was alone.
Trekking through the rest of Mozambique proved to be a long, grim task, the van silent in its tragedy. She had not touched N’Basa’s novel, but let it bump along against the floor in the back as she drove. Amondi’s backpack was open, and an hour of driving down a long, bumpy country road had spilled its contents. Nakia had climbed out and slowly, carefully repacked all of her clothes, her toiletries, letters from her sister and father. There was a bracelet tucked between the letters that had skittered across the floor; a good luck charm. Nakia tucked it into her breast pocket for safe keeping, and got back behind the wheel.
The van had run out of gas as the afternoon began to spill into evening. Nakia had not seen a single soul since she began her journey, and was starting to wonder if she ever would again. The vehicle sputtered admirably, but forced Nakia to pull over into the underbrush and climb back out. She stood on the road, taking stock of her surroundings: to the east, more sloping grasslands; to the west, trees; to the south, back where she had come from; to the north, an endless road home.
Nakia gave herself five minutes, and she screamed. She swore, and cried, and yelled herself a little hoarse. Ifa would have been scandalized by the vehemence in her voice, the fury Nakia spat out like dragon’s fire, but she also knew he would have been impressed by her vocabulary. Even she had not realized how many ways she knew how to curse out the universe.
Then, wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand, Nakia had taken a long, slow breath, and gathered the van’s contents. They had travelled light, and she could carry what was left of her team. She put the four of them on her back, and she started walking towards the sunset.
Wiping sweat from her brow, Nakia surveyed the city of Dar es Salaam, confusion and panic rising in her chest, knotting her stomach. She had not visited the city in quite some time, her work keeping her busy elsewhere. But she remembered the sprawling metropolis as brimming with life and noise, casting the glow of civilization across the glittering turquoise coastline.
Now, that odd, unsettling quiet that had stalked Nakia through the Mozambique countryside seemed to have descended over the city.
She trudged further into its streets, hitching her burden higher on her back. The sun beat down, hot and heavy, but the breeze off the ocean was a welcome reprieve. The past two days had been spent walking up the eastern coast, following its trail up to a city Nakia knew she could secure passage to Wakanda from. She could find answers, if she just headed to a city.
But as she made her way through the streets, she was met with stares and growing distress. People were scarce, most seemingly hiding away in their homes. Shops were shuttered up, the parks deserted. An elderly woman passed Nakia, and hobbled away quickly the moment she moved to speak to her. Small children peered out of windows, watching her as she passed their homes. All that could be heard was distant shouting, the occasional engine of a car a street or two away, the shuffling of a metropolis curled in on itself. The city felt wounded.
Nakia had made it twenty minutes in her wandering investigation when she found the first wreck. The car had crashed headlong into a house, and seemed to have caught fire; it was cool to the touch now, and when she peered inside, no bodies were visible. The house, too, seemed abandoned.
She noticed more destruction: streetlights shattered, two cars lying like broken toys where they had crashed, a city bus turned on its side. Sirens sang violently somewhere nearby, and Nakia shuddered at the sound.
She managed to snag the attention of a man passing by, his head down like he did not want trouble. He moved to slip away as he saw her approaching, but Nakia shook her head desperately. “Please,” she begged, remembering to switch to Swahili, clutching her pack closer to her, “what happened here? What’s - what’s happening?”
The man regarded her for a long moment, his eyes wide and sad. He seemed to be carrying half his life on his back, more than even her load, but he carried it in a huge duffel bag that dragged on the ground, not meant for travel. There was something sudden and desperate about everything she saw in the city that had dread pitting her stomach.
“They’re gone,” the man said simply. “Millions, all over. Just -” he reached up, snapped his fingers, then recoiled from his own action in revulsion. “Gone. They all turned to ash.”
“Ash?” Nakia echoed breathlessly.
The man nodded. “My -” he paused, frowning. “Both my parents, my wife. Half the city, gone in an instant.”
Nakia nodded slowly. Amondi flashed through her brain for the thousandth time, and she just kept nodding. Nothing was fitting together in her head, but maybe she just did not want it to. The answers she came looking for seemed to be worse than she had anticipated.
“What’s the fastest way to the Ilala district? I need to speak with your City Council.”
The morning air was brisk on Okoye’s face as she watched the sun rise over a Wakanda cleaved in two.
She didn’t know what to tell her people. As General of the Dora Milaje, she was responsible for the well-being of her country, and she shouldered that burden with pride. But what could she do to salvage them in this wreckage? What balm could she use to ease their suffering, when so much had been snatched from them?
Walking through the city streets after the battle had been the hardest thing Okoye had done in a very long time. She had remembered standing at her post as she watched T’Challa - her prince and new King, her friend, her ridiculous but kind hope for Wakanda’s blossoming future - tossed to his death. She had stood, spear poised to strike, against her love during what nearly became a civil war. But holding herself upright as she watched their people grieve in the streets? She could barely manage to walk.
Especially with Shuri clinging to her, demanding answers that would leave an ache behind once they left the safety of Okoye’s chest. The sights - her King, his face bewildered in the face of death, dissolving between her fingers, her husband trying to call her name and failing, the last syllable vanishing along with the rest of him - had lodged themselves right there between the chambers of her heart, and she had not wanted to relinquish them.
Shuri herself had made it to the palace before she broke. They had stood in the hall, quiet and gasping, hands braced on each other for a moment. Finding Ramonda gone, too, had sent Shuri walking to her room, locking the door behind her. She hadn’t emerged since.
Okoye leaned further over the railing of the balcony, staring out at the horizon. The sunlight gleamed on the bright innovation of their city, their Wakanda - but it was hollow now. People had spent the last two days retreating into their homes, holding together whatever was left of their families. This was the first day Okoye had decided to emerge from the security of the palace, to look out at what they had left.
She had to start rebuilding.
Reports lay neatly on the balcony table, organized by continent. Countries trying to contact Wakanda, and each other. It seemed as though things had become chaotic outside the odd, stilted peace of Wakanda’s grieving, and Okoye knew they had to help; they had a part to play in putting things back together. But what of the gaps? What of the spaces they could not fill?
The soft snick of the sliding door opening caught Okoye’s attention, pulling her gaze from the sunrise to the princess marching out into the balcony in a striking outfit of royal blue formal attire.
Shuri nodded briskly to Okoye as she came to lean against the railing next to her. She glanced out at the city, but her look was brief and pained. “We need to call a Council meeting.” Shuri was frowning, but her jaw was set in determination. “I need to take my spot on the throne, and the sooner we get that done, the sooner we can get started on . . . fixing things.”
Okoye followed Shuri back inside, worry flaring up inside her. She knew she ought to be pleased that Shuri was willing to continue the line of succession, that she wasn’t shirking her responsibilities to their people - but the tension that radiated off of her was disturbing. Okoye had not seen this furious intent in her since the day her brother plummeted to his presumed death.
“Princess, we can wait -”
“We will not wait .” Okoye had not expected the shade of scorn in Shuri’s voice, and it silenced her completely in her surprise. “We must act. We can’t sit around here waiting for the right time. Our King is dead, the Queen Mother is dead. Someone needs to sit on the throne, so that the rest of us can start rebuilding.” As they reached the door of the Council room, her Princess already tapping away on her tablet to send summoning requests to its members, Shuri turned to face Okoye. That determined anger burned just below the surface of her eyes.
“It may as well be me.”
Nakia had managed to secure a meeting with the City Council, and had immediately been told she was stranded. The airport had been shut down following the nosedive an incoming flight had taken on the runway three days ago. She had listened to reports of the survivors just long enough to catch the cause of the crash: the pilot and copilot, one moment joking right next to each other, the next dissolving into a mess across the dashboard of the cockpit. A flight attendant choked out answers on a phone recording, the only tech anyone could scramble up in the immediate aftermath; Nakia watched her wipe her cheeks fiercely as she explained what had happened to half the passengers. Behind her in the video, where the blackened hull of the plane still smouldered, the ashes of those passengers mingled with the ashes of the crash. Nakia had shut off the video with a lump growing in her throat.
The Dar es Salaam City Council had been cut in half: two of the four Councillors remained, and had greeted Nakia with shell-shocked expressions after she had spent three hours pacing the lobby of their administrational building. The Mayor had also vanished, they explained; no one quite knew how to proceed. So many government officials, so many department heads, so many workers maintaining the public sector - all gone. Roads were clogging with crashes and confusion, violence was running amok, looting had begun in shops whose owners had turned to ash. The power grid was barely working and drinking water might be next. They had lost all communications satellite signals an hour or so after the incident, but feared what the rest of the world might have become.
Nakia could not tell if the Councillors were worried that the rest of the world had also seen this phenomenon, or if they were afraid to be alone with the weight of it.
She had moved on with a new vehicle, borrowed from an embassy in the city, and supplies she had gathered at a local supermarket. It was the only shop open in the entire district, it seemed, and the cashier’s gaze had followed Nakia’s lone figure as she wound her way through the aisles, selecting food and spare batteries.
Nakia could make it to Wakanda within the week. She could not wait around two nations over, hoping a cell tower or communications satellite might start working again on a whim. As the Councillors rallied together enough workers to get the city’s power grid up and running again, Nakia had promised them to send aid once she returned to Wakanda.
As the thick forests of northern Tanzania whipped past her borrowed car, she hoped there was enough of a Wakanda to send aid from.
Dust flew by the windows as she hit a long stretch of empty road in Kenya, crossing the border without seeing a single soul. It was as if people had given up on security, now that the worst had happened.
But just how worse could any of this get?
Nakia crossed the Wakandan border without being stopped, and her heart began beating violently in her chest, struggling, it would seem, to return to her people. Where were the border patrols? The families that tended to the sprawling farmlands Nakia drove by, where animals grazed all alone?
When she reached the edge of the city, half-stumbling out of the car, Nakia could hardly breathe. Everything was so empty, it was like moving through a bad dream. She needed to find T’Challa, find Shuri, find Okoye, find the Queen Mother. She needed to see that they were alright.
A pair of Dora Milaje approached her warily, but one froze upon seeing her face. Nakia was taken through the barren streets, supported by the two women as they made their way to the palace. She kept stuttering questions, trying to figure out how to ask the impossible, the dreaded question: where is everyone?
The palace was blissfully cool after the long, hot drive from Dar es Salaam, and Nakia took a long, strangled breath. She was seated in the Council Hall, the two warriors disappearing through the door to get help. She wanted to tell them to stay; she didn’t want anyone else to vanish from sight.
Okoye entered, marching with the authority that Nakia had needed to see in someone since the outback of Mozambique. The thing inside of her that had been crumpling ever since she saw Amondi leave her, words still hanging on her ashen tongue, finally caved in completely. Nakia held Okoye’s hands in hers, not caring who saw, peering up into the General’s face as though she might be able to wake her from this.
“Where is T’Challa?” Nakia whispered.
Okoye closed her eyes, and the rest of Nakia finally caved in, too.
The ground was hard under Shuri’s feet as she ran, and the world around her was a tapestry, streaks of lush, forest green and the grey shadow of twilight. She leapt deftly over a fallen log, swung from an overhanging branch to clear a rushing stream. She landed on the balls of her feet, her momentum carrying her back into a sprint. Her heart pounded in her ears, and the sound was a welcome, furious metronome.
Her claws flashed in the darkness, and she marvelled at the silver slash of them as she swiped her hand through the air, slicing a leaf from its twig and letting it flutter to the forest floor behind her. She did not look back to see it fall.
She ran by a serval lounging in the branches of a cork oak tree, its eyes flashing vivid gold in the dimness. It reared back with a loud hiss. Shuri locked eyes with the cat, swinging over its spot in the tree branches; its claws skated over her armour, useless. She kept going, sprinting through the trees, narrowly missing the branches that sprung up out of the darkness in her path.
Okoye was calling her, and Shuri came bounding to a stop, panting as she leaned over to catch her breath. Spending her adolescence in a lab had not exactly kept her fit, but she was pleased to feel the endurance of her heart rate increasing, the gradual lightness of her chest as she ran drills, feeling stronger and steadier in her body by the day. Six months of non-stop practice would do that for a girl.
Shuri answered the call with a tired “Answer, please,” and Okoye’s voice rang through the earpiece that she insisted Shuri wear while out in the wilderness alone. (The argument of “A Queen can come and go in her jungle as she pleases” hadn’t worked as well as she’d hoped.)
“Your Highness,” Okoye said; she was excellent at sounding both very sarcastic and yet infallibly honest. It was the tone of a teasing elder sibling - Shuri hated it. “It’s getting late.”
“I’ll be back soon,” Shuri said, having finally caught her breath. “Just on a run.”
“The Council -”
“Wants this week’s report,” Shuri finished for her General, not hiding the irritation in her voice. “My notes from the meetings are on my desk in the lab. Ask Nakia to inform them in my stead.”
“I do not think -”
“They can manage without me for one meeting,” Shuri interrupted her again. “Tell them I’m on official crown business.”
“Running around with the jackals is crown business?” Okoye snapped, and Shuri rolled her eyes.
“It is if I say it is. Just give Nakia the report, she’s better with them than me anyway.”
“I’ll see you when I get back,” Shuri said, exiting the call with only the slightest twinge of regret.
The sprint to the lake was a short one after that, Shuri’s muscles pumping with renewed vigour. Somehow, talking to Okoye always made her want to just start running, and never stop.
Twilight had deepened into a starlit tapestry when she emerged from the thick of the trees, bursting onto the lush, grassy cliffside she knew so well. These cliffs were small, secret; they were tucked away from view by miles of jungle that no one had a reason to trek through. The rush of the waterfalls roared around Shuri, frothing down the cliffsides and pooling together, their currents mingling at their feet. She took the cliffside at a running start, her heart leaping into her throat in a way that was nearly pleasant. The violet-and-pearl glow of twilight swallowed her whole as she plummeted, reflected from the sky above. She saw the ivory of her own eyes before she hit the lake’s surface: the delicate power carved into every contour of the Black Panther’s impassive face.
Shuri leaned back, bracing her weight on her palms, letting her fingers dig into the grass. She’d let the gloves of her suit peel back, revealing the soft brown of her hands to the earth; it was nice to be able to touch it directly after such a long trek through the jungle, hidden in the confines of the suit. Her mask, too, had fluttered away, and she tipped back her head to let the early moonlight shine on her face. The air was heavy with the scent of juniper and vlei-lily, and the crisp coolness of the waterfalls, which left a delicate mist hanging all around the shoreline. Shuri lay back on the grass and let herself breathe it in. It was barely eight, and she had plenty of time to get back to the palace before Okoye panicked and sent out a search party or something equally embarrassing.
A rustle to her left had Shuri bolting up, her gloves rematerializing over her hands - but it was just a serval, slipping out of the typha that had overgrown and spilled from the water’s edge onto the grassy shore. It peered at her with its wide, glassy eyes, and Shuri stared back.
The serval yawned, stretching its legs out in front of it, never breaking eye contact with Shuri. Then it picked its way through the grass and took a seat on a large rock next to Shuri, watching her from above. She lay down, unconcerned, and watched the clouds dance around the constellations overhead. She could see Orion, his segmented body, the spindly branches of his arms. To people across eastern Africa, the Greek hero had been multiple things, all nameless: a hunter, a dog. Shuri could make out the bow so clearly that she didn’t understand how anyone could have seen a dog where there was obviously a hunter - weapon aimed at nothing, darkness on his every side. Her gaze returned to the serval, which contemplated her with sleepy eyes. Reflexively, Shuri dragged one long, vibranium claw through the soil, upturning the old earth.
“What time did you get home last night?”
Shuri spun around, frowning as Okoye marched into her lab. She never had the awe or the entertaining wariness of most visitors, so Shuri took little pleasure in watching her peruse her private projects with that air of formal stoicism.
“I don’t know, nine? Not too late.” She took a long sip of her coffee to avoid speaking, and switched off her desktop monitor. Okoye looked equally as uncomfortable.
“Good.” She tapped her foot rhythmically on the floor, and the sound carried in the brightly-lit lab. “There will be a Council meeting tomorrow night. You should be there for this one.”
“Another one?” Shuri tried to laugh it off. “I thought Nakia gave them this week’s report.”
“She did. They just need to ask you about some state matters that can only be overseen by the Queen.”
Shuri still had to hold back her displeasure at being called Queen, even nearly half a year into her reign. Especially coming from Okoye or Nakia, it was deeply disconcerting. She could grin and bear it in crowds, or at Council meetings, with politicians and strangers. But the people she had grown up with bowing to her as ruler of Wakanda was something Shuri had no intention of getting used to.
The world spun around Nakia, and she hit the training mat with a hard thump.
“Your form is terrible,” Okoye said, but her grip was soft as she helped Nakia to her feet again. For the hundredth time in the past hour, it seemed.
“I’ve been busy,” she replied with a hollow laugh, shifting back into a fighting stance. “Ambassadors don’t do much fighting, you know. It’s kind of antithetical to the whole ‘diplomacy’ thing.”
Okoye laughed, and it was genuinely cheerful, if brief. Those glimpses of joy were a relief for Nakia to notice; dread and fear had hung over the palace like a stormcloud for so long that she had begun to worry they would never be rid of it. Occasionally, when the sunlight peeked through that hazy gray overcast, Nakia would remember the kind of life they could try and return to.
And then she would think of T’Challa, and the clouds would resume their positions as before.
“Foolish, I think,” Okoye said, moving to mirror Nakia’s stance. “I think diplomats should be required to learn how to fight.” She looked so oddly casual in her plain black shirt and shorts, Nakia could almost remember the sight of Okoye and the other Dora Milaje initiates training as young teens, battling it out with each other in the training center in pyjama-like workout uniforms. Nakia remembered peering through the window to see them, just a few years older than herself, and watching in awe as they went through the motions of their backflips, their strikes and blocks, the absolute power of their spear-wielding.
Now, Nakia trained alongside their General, and silently grieved the same losses with her.
“You think there ought to be more violence in diplomacy?” She questioned, going for a tentative jab; Okoye blocked her with ease and raised a sardonic eyebrow.
“Not more violence. Just another means of communication.”
Nakia defended herself from a kick, and Okoye barely missed swiping her legs out from under her. Sweat was beginning to bead on her brow, and Nakia wiped it clean with the back of her wrist.
“Should I try kickboxing with the Swedish Prime Minister next week? We’re supposed to have a meeting about a possible renewable energy agreement for what’s left of the EU.”
“I don’t not support that idea,” Okoye said, barely containing a smirk. “Besides, isn’t that the tall man who kept calling your lone assistant quaint ?”
“It is,” Nakia confirmed with a roll of her eyes. She dodged another blow, and came up under Okoye’s outstretched arm to try and pin her down; they rolled on the mat for a moment before breaking apart and leaping to their feet. “Maybe I should kick his ass.”
“After he signs the agreement.”
Nakia was getting tired of the people she had to deal with in Wakanda’s attempts to get the rest of the world back on track after the devastation of the snap. But she knew it had to be done - which was why she wouldn’t kick the Swedish Prime Minister’s ass next week. His cooperation was paramount to their current green energy efforts across the northern hemisphere. Nakia would take her presentation to the conference, her “quaint” assistant by her side; she would slip on her formalwear, the emerald silk crowning her a ruler more than many of the delegates could understand, taking the colours of the lush Wakandan forests and grasslands with her wherever she went; and she would spend the entire trip wishing T’Challa was there with her. She didn’t need him to lead, as was suggested by some speculation on the news, or to hold her up when she delivered her speeches. Nakia could plant herself like a tree anywhere she needed to, stand on her own.
She just couldn’t help thinking about looking across a crowded room, and having someone to look back at her with the same thought running through his head. She missed having someone to share an expression with in silence, someone to understand her implicitly.
Nakia could hardly breathe from laughing so hard, but she managed to duck behind the door and into the hallway before anyone could see her. It was a very important presentation, and she was a very mature and capable student. She knew how to give a thesis presentation, even to the head professors of Wakanda’s central university’s political science department.
But Lulit had insisted on accompanying her, and she had made a stupid joke that had caught Nakia off-guard, and her nervousness had let control of her laughter slip through her fingers. She coughed, hard, into the crook of her elbow, trying to get herself back under control. Lulit, for her part, couldn’t stop giggling, and wasn’t helping matters.
“Okay, okay,” Lulit said, shaking her head, “you need to calm down.”
“What do you think I’m trying to do?” Nakia asked, rolling her eyes, finally wiping the last of her grin from her face. “Okay, I’m alright. I can do this.”
“Yes, you can,” Lulit urged, giving Nakia’s shoulders a gentle push forwards as the professors called her forward to give her presentation. “Bast be with you, Nakia.”
“Don’t be dramatic,” Nakia replied, striding out to face her fate.
As she stood there, assembling her notes and introducing herself, she caught sight of T’Challa lingering at the back of the presentation hall. She bit the inside of her cheek gently to keep from smiling; she hadn’t really believed him when he said he’d come.
“And you’re discussing the hypothetical ramifications of Wakandan humanitarian outreach, based on available intelligence data?”
As she caught T’Challa’s gaze across the room and held it, she saw the slight upturn of his lips, the burst of warmth there, the exasperation. She let it all rest inside her, put its roots down right next to her heartbeat.
“That’s right,” she replied to the professor with a smile. If it was a little exasperated, she couldn’t help but let it be.
“Have you spoken to Shuri at all this week?” Okoye’s question snapped Nakia out of her brief reverie, and she frowned.
To be fair, no one really spoke to Shuri anymore. She was always on the move, so most of the words anyone exchanged with her were tossed after her retreating back, or hurled from open windows as she sprinted down the walkway towards the city. She moved with harried speed, slamming doors closed and disappearing for hours at a time. She still managed to pull off all of her Queenly responsibilities, which Nakia was grateful for; someone needed to keep Wakanda’s government from falling into disarray, especially with so many other nations relying on them for stability. But outside of meetings with the Wakandan Council or other international visitors, Shuri was hardly seen.
“She hung up on me again during training the other night,” Okoye said. Worry lined her face, and she tapped her practice spear restlessly on the mat in a stilted rhythm. “She won’t even tell me where she vanishes to when she goes off into the woods like that.”
“If she needs to tell us,” Nakia said, “then she probably will.”
“You’re talking like a diplomat,” Okoye snapped. “Teenagers don’t think diplomatically.”
“Teenagers also don’t often run nations,” Nakia said with a deepening frown. “And she’s nearly twenty-one - hardly a teenager anymore.”
“Oh yes, the difference between nineteen and twenty-one is going to make a massive difference.” Okoye sighed, spinning the spear in her hand with ease, turning and throwing it with all her might; it pinned the target across the room, and slammed it to the ground for good measure. Nakia let herself be a little awed by the display.
“I think she wants to start going on missions,” Nakia said, and Okoye stiffened. “I mean real missions, not scouting. She’s been training for nearly a year now, and she’s getting good.”
“You think it wise to send our only Queen out on dangerous espionage missions?”
Nakia paused, considered Okoye’s unmistakable frustration. But then she thought of Shuri, of her late nights in this very training room: leaping down from the rafters, rolling with the falls, the grace of her kicks. The way she held herself in here, her shoulders tall, like she had something to accomplish.
“I think it would be good for her to try,” Nakia said carefully. “She might need to feel productive. And keeping her caged up here won’t be of any help.”
Okoye pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed again.
“I suppose it can’t hurt too much,” she relented. “Besides, her brother used to go on missions all the time.”
The mention of T’Challa was like a shadow, dropping a caress across each of their faces. Nakia and Okoye both paused, holding themselves in the moment, allowing themselves to remember openly; so often, they had to hold that longing out of sight.
Blinking away stray tears, Nakia took Okoye’s upper arm and led her from the training room. “Come on, we can still find dinner this late. My treat.”
Shuri rolled with the force of the strike that managed to catch her across the chest, and she flung herself backwards through the air, the same maneuver she’d pulled off a thousand times in training. Her heart hammering in her ears, she carved long wounds in the packed dirt of the road where her right hand and feet dug into the ground to keep her steady and standing. She rose, feeling the power in the spread of her shoulders, the graceful rise of her spine as she flexed. Her eyes narrowed behind her mask, though she knew the Black Panther remained as still and stoic as ever to the view of these assholes.
“I know where these weapons are going,” Shuri said, her voice a resounding call that lifted birds from the trees around them. “And I suggest you hand them over to me instead.”
One of the hired gunmen spat on the ground where she had left her marks. Shuri felt her mouth quirk into a grim half-smile almost like it was the action of another person, someone she very much wanted to become.
“Alright then. We’ll see if I can convince you.”
Shuri threw herself forward, bullets ricocheting off her armour, and pinned the spitting gunman against the side of their van. It shook, and she heard the weapons rattle inside in their crates. She picked him up by his shirtfront and flipped over, hauling him through the air to bring him crashing against one of his friends, knocking them both into the dirt. The third aimed again, but she kicked the machine gun from his grip with a single, fluid movement, tackling him and rolling with him on the ground, shoving her elbow into his throat. He choked beneath her, struggling to fling her off of him. Shuri dug in harder, and his eyes rolled back into his head.
The other two were moving towards her, and Shuri climbed to her feet, turning to face them. If they wanted to keep going, she wasn’t going to say no.
Nakia was calling on her communicator, and Shuri ignored it. She could handle her Queenly duties when she returned to the palace, as she always did. She didn’t need to be handled like glass, or kept on a schedule. She kept her own damn schedule, and she had never slipped up.
Instead of answering, Shuri lunged back into the fight.
“And will the Queen be making an appearance?”
Okoye could not help but notice the humorous tilt to the Canadian ambassador’s voice, and she and Nakia exchanged the briefest of glances when the woman turned to shake hands with the German Prime Minister. Nakia’s expression was clear: do not instigate an international incident. Okoye settled for the promise of a spar later that night, if Nakia had time. The two of them had been taking out their frustrations more and more in the training center as the many months of intensive rebuilding wore on.
And as the Queen of Wakanda became harder and harder to handle.
“Queen Shuri will be joining us shortly,” Nakia replied with a gracious smile; somehow, she always managed to get it to meet her eyes. Okoye had always harboured an odd relationship with the War Dogs, but watching Nakia’s espionage skills haul them out of potential scraps with foreign dignitaries, she had developed a newfound respect for the occupation. Okoye rarely bothered to muster up congeniality for these kinds of ambassadors.
As the Canadian woman and her partners wandered off to take their seats in the reception hall of Egypt’s convocation center, Okoye gave Nakia’s arm a brief but nervous nudge.
“Has anyone heard from her yet?” She asked.
Nakia shook her head, but kept that smile plastered onto her face. “No, but try not to seem so nervous - if anybody notices, the meeting will already be off to an awful start. And you know how little most of these people want to be told what to do from a twenty-something from a quaint African country.” Despite her smile, Nakia could not keep the sarcasm from her little reminder.
“I’ll do my best,” Okoye assured her, trying to fake a smile herself. It felt odd, and uncomfortable; she owed these people nothing. “But somebody better find her, now .”
“You know Shuri,” Nakia said. “If she wants to be found, she will.”
Their feet hit the ground at the same time, but Nakia noticed Shuri’s made no sound. She had been meaning to ask her about the soundproof technology, and maybe producing versions of it for the War Dogs and other intelligence agents, but the Queen of Wakanda had been busy lately - cleaning up the mess of the world’s underground weapons manufacturing industry.
Klaue had not been the only one stealing vibranium for use in weapons manufacturing, and it seemed that Shuri had made it her personal mission to root out the people using it in the wake of the snap. Nakia understood the impulse: watching these people take minerals out of the Wakandan soil, and use them to inflict harm upon an already wounded world, created a unique sort of ache. But the fervour of Shuri’s hunt was noticed by many in the War Dogs, and anyone who had set foot in her lab in the past two months.
This was only their third mission together, though Nakia noticed Shuri’s movements were much more practiced than that record would suggest. Was it the power of the Black Panther, coursing through her atoms, pushing her forwards? Or was she going behind Nakia and Okoye’s backs, as both women had suspected for some time, to conduct missions alone?
“We must keep her safe,” Okoye had said to Nakia over breakfast as they watched Shuri’s back, retreating to the safety of her lab, hunched and tired. “Wakanda cannot lose another ruler so soon.”
Nakia knew there was more to her concern than political ramifications. She and Okoye had spent many nights in the memorial garden, pretending not to see the other’s heaviness as they gazed on at the placards commemorating those lost to the snap and the Battle of Wakanda. T’Challa’s engraving sent an ache through Nakia every time, like a fresh loss. She had seen that same loss in Okoye’s eyes when she looked at W’Kabi’s memorial, the devastation burning in her gaze. The idea of looking at a placard with Shuri’s name on it, nestled between her brother and Ramonda, chilled the both of them.
So she kept her eyes on Shuri’s figure as she darted forwards, always the first to leap into the fray. She struck with precision, and Nakia settled into her role as support for the time being, while her Queen slammed into the side of a still-moving truck with all her might. Energy had been stored up in her suit from the first guards she had taken out, and Nakia shielded her eyes for a moment during the blast that toppled the truck onto its side. Shuri sliced through its exposed flank with her claws, revealing the shining weapons hidden in its belly.
“Shuri, be careful!” Nakia yelled, sprinting forward to throw aside an oncoming attacker headed straight for her Queen.
Shuri rolled with the force of a kick to her side, and took the second guard with her, tossing him into the underbrush on the side of the lone highway. She turned back to look at Nakia for just a moment, and that impassive mask held Nakia in place as she stared back. It was difficult to imagine Shuri, who she could still picture as a wildly giggling child playing with experimental tech in the lab, concealed by that face. The pearly eyes seemed to size Nakia up before Shuri gave one curt nod and darted alone into the underbrush, after two of the guards who fled from the wrath of the Black Panther.
Nakia tried to follow, but it was too late; she couldn’t see hide nor hair of Shuri as she searched through the countryside. The sunrise crept slowly above the horizon as Nakia sent another signal to Shuri from their jet, worry piercing her heart.
A knock on the side of the jet startled Nakia, and she whipped around to see Shuri leaning casually against the transport’s entrance. The mask had unfurled to reveal her face, and she gave Nakia an absent smile as she hauled an unconscious guard onto the jet, his hands tied behind his back.
“Didn’t want to lose this,” Shuri said with a shrug.
Nakia’s phone buzzed to life a few minutes later, and she felt a swift wave of relief when she saw it was Shuri calling. She gestured for Okoye to head into the meeting without her as she hurried to an empty stairwell to answer the call.
“Shuri? Where the hell -”
“Can you meet me in the hotel rooms they gave us? And pull out whatever fancy outfit you wanted to put me in.”
Nakia frowned, but complied with her Queen; Shuri certainly had requested stranger things from her and Okoye lately. She bid a few ambassadors a moment as she fetched the Queen, who had “just wrapped up a minor issue with members of the EAC” (one of the vague lies Nakia had at the ready for the recurring incidents like this one), before sprinting across the street to the rather grand hotel on the opposite end of the block where most of the foreign dignitaries were staying. The Wakandan rooms were on the fourth floor; Nakia took the stairs two at a time.
When she swung the door open, having collected the formal dress for Shuri, she was met with a hand braced against the other side of the polished wood, and a voice hissing, “Don’t come inside , give me a moment -”
“Shuri?” Nakia paused, letting go of the door and letting Shuri close it. Scuffling issued through from inside the room, and she heard Shuri mutter a curse. “Shuri, are you alright -?”
Nakia swept the door open to find Shuri leaning against the arm of the plush couch, clutching at her thigh. Her thin brown hands couldn’t hide the blood seeping from the wound, the same colour as the rich, crimson upholstery of the room. Nakia’s head spun for just a moment before she came rushing across the room to kneel in front of Shuri.
Shuri jerked away from her touch, swearing. “You don’t need to - ugh, fuck - Nakia, don’t worry about it -”
But Nakia simply took both of Shuri’s hands in hers and pried them from her thigh. Shuri was still dressed in a tight black tank top, and the Black Panther suit was crumpled in an inky heap on the couch. The wound wasn’t deep, and Nakia let out a long sigh, trying to calm herself.
“You need to -”
“No!” Shuri successfully jerked away from Nakia’s ministrations, her face twisted in pain and panic. “No, I don’t need anything. If I had brought anything useful - ugh, it doesn’t matter. I’ll clean it and dress it with something, and we’ll be at the meeting in ten minutes.”
“Shuri -” Nakia began, worry gnawing at her stomach.
“The Queen of Wakanda will be at the meeting in ten minutes.” Shuri’s voice, so unlike her expression, had gone ice cold. Nakia rose to her feet, not wanting to kneel for a sound like that.
“Don’t worry about me, Nakia,” Shuri added, though the slight rasp of her voice made Nakia worry even more; had she been yelling? Where had she been? Who had done this to her? “I’ll be fine.”
Nakia could only nod, stiff and curt, and turn on her heel to march out of the hotel room. She kept her hands clasped at her sides, holding herself upright as she walked back out into the balmy night air.
T’Challa, she thought with a pang, I’m sorry.
Shuri took the shield wall at a running start.
She was glad she had cleared away most of her more expensive lab equipment, given the blast that followed: not enough to take down the building, but enough to send her skidding across the floor on her ass and make the lab walls tremble a bit.
The Black Panther mask fluttered away from her face, and she gasped in the cool air of the lab. The material of the suit wasn’t restrictive, yet more and more she felt trapped when she wore it. She let it fly away from her, panting, on her nighttime jaunts in the forest.
She probably just needed another redesign. Something must be wrong with the suit.
Shuri pulled herself to her feet, pacing in a tight arc in front of the shield wall. It had defended itself well enough against each of her tests that morning, but she was worried that it wouldn’t hold up under any real pressure. The swipes and blows she had delivered seemed powerful here, in the safety of her clean lab, but she didn’t know what kind of weaponry could drop out of the sky anymore. Shuri had seen alien armies descend from the clouds, had seen creatures mindless enough to use their own deaths to tear through Wakanda’s old defenses, regularly had correspondence with a woman who carried the energy of a star inside of her. She had to find bigger, stronger tests for these defenses.
The door to the lab slid open and she glanced at the intruder with a dismissal already on her tongue, ready to be deployed - but caught herself when she met Okoye’s furrowed gaze.
“Are you alright?” Okoye asked, marching further into the lab. Her General’s uniform stood out against her surroundings, a vivid splash of fire against the stark white of Shuri’s lab. She wasn’t armed with her usual spear, but Shuri could see where her hand rested on the knife at her hip. Trust Okoye to remember to bring weapons to the breakfast table.
“Everything’s fine,” Shuri said with a half-shrug, turning her attention back to the shield wall. Perhaps if she altered the outermost layer, applied the same power-absorbent tech that she had used to alter the suit so long ago . . .
“What happened?” Okoye was still there, firing off questions like this was an interrogation. Shuri tried to hold in her frustration; she was the Queen, after all, and getting a handle on her emotions was vital to her role.
“I was just running some tests,” she explained, waving at the sheet of shield wall that she was experimenting on. “It went well, in case you were wondering.”
Shuri heard Okoye sigh, and turned to see the General watching her with that same odd, intense frown that she had been wearing for months. Okoye’s hand had left her knife and rested against the edge of a nearby desk, which she leaned on as she studied Shuri’s stiff, defensive glare.
“As long as you’re okay,” Okoye said, watching Shuri’s face.
Shuri nodded once, a sharp movement that left a slight twinge in her neck. She kept her mouth flat and impassive; her hands rested on her hips, the edges of the suit’s claws just barely scraping the material that protected her sides.
“Everything’s fine,” she repeated herself, standing at attention until Okoye removed her hand from the desk, straightening into her usual battle-ready stance.
“Everything’s fine,” Shuri muttered to herself as the lab door slid shut behind Okoye’s retreating back.
Nakia drew herself up to her full height, stretching as far as she could, her hands reaching for the burning sun in the clear blue sky above. Its warmth cascaded around her, and she bent at the waist, dipping her arms down to brush her fingertips along the soft tresses of the wild grasses that grew in such wild abundance in the royal garden.
It had gone untended for a long time now, and most of its flowerbeds and pots looked overgrown, untamed. The branches of the greenheart tree bowed with the weight of its abundant fruit, mupfununu clustering its faint aroma at its base; sunlight illuminated the golden spill of kalanchoe and yellow bauhinia all along the garden’s edges, climbing up the delicate fence that encased the bubble of vivid plantlife that bloomed in the center of the palace grounds. Palace staff had offered to tend the garden in the absence of the Queen Mother and the King, but Nakia and Shuri had both waved off their efforts. Let it grow, Nakia thought. Let it reach the heights of the wilderness. Let it grow thick enough for predators to lurk in, for prey to hang off its leaves and scurry through its underbrush. Let it outlive those who would still be tending it.
Nakia twisted to the side, touching her calf, when Okoye stepped through the doors that led to this green sanctuary. Okoye didn’t come out there much, claiming to be busy with running the nation in Shuri’s stead. Nakia privately wondered if a garden too closely resembled a farm, but knew better than to ask. Though they could stitch things closed well enough to keep Wakanda afloat, some wounds would take longer than two years to truly heal. Nakia understood this intimately.
“I knew I’d find you here.” Nakia couldn’t keep the smile out of her voice as she leaned against the doorway that led into the Eden-like royal garden, the pocket of wild that the Queen Mother and other tribe representatives tended and occupied in their free time. The sun poured in through the open roof, bathing the neatly-trimmed grass plants and freshly-watered flowers in soft afternoon light.
T’Challa turned slowly, but wore a small, tired smile when he faced her, which was a relief; Nakia had been beginning to worry he didn’t want to see her. He had withdrawn somewhat after receiving news of her acceptance into the War Dogs, and Nakia had prepared an entire speech on how childish he was being if her career was going to prevent them from speaking to each other. She was going on her first mission to another country, not another planet, after all.
“And you’ve found me,” T’Challa said, turning just slightly on the small bench, inviting her with a tiny nod of his head to come join him. “What do you plan to do with me now?”
Nakia sighed, lowering herself onto the bench; it was small enough that they had to sit thigh-to-thigh, his side warm and steady next to hers. She wanted to lean into him, but was not sure if she was welcome in his embrace at the moment.
“I wanted to see you, that’s all,” she said. “Is that alright?”
“Always.” His eyes flickered to the flowerbeds sprawled out before them, and he gestured to a patch of delicate blue blossoms that were sprouting up in earnest from the soil, clusters of vivid periwinkle. “You know I suggested these to my mother?”
“Did you?” Nakia tilted her head, studying them. “They’re beautiful. I did not know you were a botanist,” she added with a small smile.
T’Challa laughed under his breath, shrugging. “They are for you. They remind me of you.”
Nakia curled back against the bench, her cheeks warm. Even now, with his disappointment and nervousness and heartbreak, he managed to make her stomach flip with these gestures. T’Challa Udaku was an expert on offhanded feats of love, of moving through life as if he were meant to do nothing but lift up those he loved. Nakia marvelled at this as much as she had the first time she had noticed it.
T’Challa’s hand came to rest on her knee, and Nakia’s heart thudded. Her gaze snapped up to his, and his mouth twitched into a sudden frown. His hand stuttered away from her knee, his tone rising with nervous uncertainty. “I - sorry, unless you don’t wish -”
Nakia, without breaking eye contact, took T’Challa’s hand in hers, and guided it back to its spot on her thigh. Her fingers rested between each of his, an interlocking puzzle. She gave him a teasing smile, though she worried she couldn’t keep the very real affection and very, very real wistfulness from it. Judging from the look in T’Challa’s warm, dark eyes, she was right to worry.
“I’m always going to come back,” she whispered. “I promise. I just -”
“You have to do this.” T’Challa was not asking a question. He knew where she stood, how she felt about this. He had stood there, teasing her over her thesis topic, pressing hesitant, tender kisses to her forehead and the backs of her hands as she explained her place in the world to him, the sky overhead twinkling with constellations. Nakia knew she needed to leave Wakanda to make Wakanda worth living in, if not for everyone then at least for her. She had to do this.
“When you come back -”
“T’Challa,” she warned, frowning, “I do not want to make promises I cannot keep.”
“When you come back,” T’Challa repeated, a soft, forlorn laugh in his voice, “you can think about being Queen. I would give that to you, if you wanted it.”
Nakia pursed her lips, feeling the burn of oncoming tears in her eyes; she blinked them away, wanting to focus on the clear memory of T’Challa’s face, his eyes so open and earnest, so nervous in his declarations. He knew her, he had held her heart in his palms like the creator, had seen each and every corner of her. He still offered her the throne. He still wanted her at his side when he took it. The thought stole her breath for a second.
“I cannot make promises,” Nakia said again, a hint of desperation to her words. The last thing she wanted was to get his hopes up, to disappoint him. T’Challa, so good and well-meaning, ready to leap off of cliffs as he was doing right now, trusting those he loved to catch him.
T’Challa nodded, raising her hand to his lips, pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “You do not have to. I know you, Nakia, you do not need to promise me anything. I know you.”
“I knew I would find you out here,” Okoye said, dropping onto the small, woven bench. She wore a simple dark orange tunic, her formal General’s gear abandoned for a day free of meetings and excursions. Nakia and Okoye had taken the opportunity of this national holiday to settle themselves down in the palace and breathe, scheduling this time earlier in the week. Now, however, it seemed Okoye had changed their plans.
“Is everything alright?” Nakia straightened up from her stretches, walking to stand next to Okoye’s crumpled form. The grass under her bare feet was warm from bathing in the sunlight all afternoon.
“I’m worried about her,” Okoye said. “Again.”
Nakia nodded, her agreement implicit in letting Okoye have this conversation with her again. It was a subject they could never seem to move past, always circling around the same points, vultures eyeing the same carcass, its bones already picked clean. Nakia found the whole thing hopeless; Okoye found it infuriating.
“She’s gone off on another mission,” Okoye said, exhaustion tainting her voice. “Alone. She spent the whole night setting up new equipment at the border, that shield wall technology she’s been working on lately.”
“She’s always been a perfectionist,” Nakia said, though the explanation felt hollow even to her ears.
Okoye seemed to agree, with the look of exasperation she gave Nakia. “It’s the third upgrade in the past month. Not to mention the weapons plans I found in her lab, all sorts of things, and defenses meant for the atmosphere -”
“Space.” Okoye dug her heel into the soft, rich soil of the garden, displacing the grass. “She’s designing weapons for outer space. I think talking to those aliens is messing with her head.”
“Except she doesn’t talk to them.” Nakia collapsed onto the bench next to Okoye, their sides moulded together in the same pattern of exhaustion. “She’s hardly spoken five words to Captain Danvers since she started communicating with the Avengers, and that blue one -”
“- yes, she hasn’t had a single call with her, or any of them.”
“I don’t know which would worry me more: if she was or wasn’t talking to the aliens.” Okoye braced her elbows on her thighs, bowing her head in thought for a moment. Nakia watched her, thought to place her hand on the small of her back, to remind Okoye that she was not alone in this. They were both losing sleep over Shuri.
But then Okoye was rising again, and leaned back against the bench. “We vowed to keep her safe.”
“I know.” Nakia glanced around, at the untamed splendour of the garden. The green bursting from the soil of Wakanda, the life the Queen Mother had sowed among the towering palace walls. T’Challa, his hand on her thigh, seemed to sit next to her for a moment. “We owe them that much.”
“We owe Wakanda that much.”
Nakia stood, suddenly restless; her legs carried her to the dwaba berry tree, it’s dark leaves and butter-yellow petals inviting, her hand coming up to pluck one of its fruits. It was heavy in her palm, and she split its skin with her fingernails, revealing the soft flesh within. She couldn’t look at Okoye, could only surround herself with the soaring greenery this part of her family had left behind for her to tend.
“You know,” she said without turning around, “I turned down T’Challa’s hand multiple times. He wanted me to be Queen, and I was too worried about what was happening outside our borders to stay rooted here in Wakanda.”
She knew Okoye could not fully understand, knew how deeply the General’s roots were planted in Wakandan earth. But Okoye, tired as she was, could remember Nakia’s departure with the War Dogs, and her fervour for her beliefs. So Nakia continued, trusting that knowledge to be enough for Okoye to understand what she had to say. Okoye knew her.
“Being Queen, or King, or anything, of Wakanda felt like it would be very lonely without anyone to stand with you,” Nakia continued. “I felt bad, after I left, thinking one day T’Challa might be King and not have found someone to share that with yet. And that was with King T’Chaka and the Queen Mother there to help him.” The cloyingly sweet scent of the dwaba berry fruit rose to meet Nakia’s senses, and she wrinkled her nose. “I left because I wanted to see other places, fix other things. But when I saw what ruling would be like for T’Challa, all alone, I began going on missions to help Wakanda, too. I wanted to do what he wasn’t able to, help Wakanda in ways the King couldn’t. I wanted to help him bear that burden, if only a little.”
Nakia heard Okoye rise from the bench, and turned to meet her penetrating gaze. Her fingers were sticky with the fruit she had broken. She licked juice from her hands, let it sit tangy-sweet on her tongue.
“You think she’s lonely?” Okoye asked.
“I think she’s watched her brother try and hold Wakanda up on his own. And I think Shuri has always learned from her brother’s example, whether she likes to admit it or not.”
“She’s going to get herself killed,” Okoye murmured.
Nakia, the image of T’Challa plummeting from a waterfall’s edge playing in her head, could say nothing. Her hand, wiped clean of the dwaba berry, rested on Okoye’s arm, and the two women made their way out of the garden.
Shuri slowly peeled her eyes open, her eyelids sticky with sleep. The world around her was a smudge of vivid colour, tilting uncontrollably. She felt her stomach flip, but found her limbs would not respond to her commands. She stayed splayed on the ground, light exploding across her vision, before she finally lurched sideways and retched into chilled, dewy grass. Soil pressed against the side of her face, and Shuri dug a dimple in the earth with her cheekbone, seeking to cool her flushed skin.
Every inch of her body felt bruised. She struggled to sift through the journey that landed her on her back on this forest floor - her vision had cleared enough to reveal overhanging branches, sunlight filtering through them. Peeking through the treetops, Shuri could just make out the encroaching pink of an evening sky. The memories spiralling through her head were jumbled, and she couldn’t get a hold of them to sort through them. Flashes of a fight, a chase, a fall, ran across her vision, lithe and uncatchable as fleeing gazelles across the grassland. Her hands, tipped with claws, swiped to grasp their hides, but she sliced through the fuzzy, empty air with each try.
She groaned, and it was a relief to know she could make noise. Planting her palms in the ground, she tried to push herself up; on the third attempt, she managed to swing herself into a sitting position without tipping back down. She felt lightheaded from the effort, but stayed up.
“Does mother know you’re trying that?”
Shuri struck the mat of the training room hard, and twisted to the side so she could glare daggers up at T’Challa as he ambled into the room, smirk curling his mouth.
“I almost had it,” she said, clambering to her feet. It was nice to be able to snark with her brother, even if she was being a bit petulant; with every other grown up, on the Council or otherwise, Shuri had to keep herself as respectable as possible to keep working in the labs. The current head of technological development had only just given her permission to study there, and Shuri was not going to mess that up. (Although she did like to think that one day she would be so good at outsmarting that department head that she could say whatever she wanted to whoever.)
“I know,” T’Challa said with a laugh, coming to haul himself up to sit on the balance beam Shuri had been practicing on. He moved with the grace and balance of the Black Panther, though he was barely twenty. “You’re getting pretty good.”
Shuri scowled at him, leaning against the adjacent wall to watch him, arms crossed. “Yeah?”
T’Challa shrugged, but amusement was still written plainly on his face. “You fell better than last time.”
“I fell better?” Shuri echoed, annoyed. “What is that even supposed to mean?”
“You have to learn how to fall well before you can do anything,” T’Challa explained. He had taken on that tone she hated, of “father-told-me-this-so-now-I-get-to-tell-you-as-if-I-invented-it”. He was always doing that when he talked about fighting or diplomacy or politics, like she hadn’t learned about them at the knee of the same man. (But then, she hadn’t - not really, not the way T’Challa had. He was the future Black Panther, the eldest heir, the true warrior, through and through. Shuri’s gifts lay elsewhere.)
Shuri rolled her eyes, but T’Challa only laughed. “You don’t believe me?”
“I don’t understand you,” Shuri corrected him, huffing to herself. “You’re speaking in platitudes, it’s annoying.”
“It’s not a riddle,” T’Challa replied, swinging himself off of the balance beam. “It’s just a good lesson. Father said -” Shuri rolled her eyes again, and T’Challa continued pointedly, “- father said , that you need to learn how to fall, because there’s always the chance you will. If you’re in a fight, and you’ve never learned how to fall, it’ll be harder for you to get back up. But if you took the time to learn -”
“Then I’ll be able to ignore the bruises,” Shuri interrupted him. “Sure.”
T’Challa nodded to the balance beam, a challenge in the glint of his eyes, the set of his jaw. Shuri knew that look: it meant her brother was about to be more unbearable than usual. “Do it again. Show me how you fall.”
“I’m not going to fall on purpose to entertain you,” Shuri snapped, already striding towards the balance beam. She had to haul herself up with both arms wrapped across it, her legs too short to do it properly; she hoped once she hit puberty she might be tall enough to just leap up onto it. Maybe a growth spurt would even make the lab assistants take her more seriously - it might be easier once she was eye-level with their faces and not their nametags.
Shuri stood in position on one end of the balance beam, focusing on steadying herself. Gymnastics had come easier to her than strength training or other sports with emphasis on brute force or exertion; here, she could take her time with her movements, calculate where her feet had to go, how to flex which muscles. There was a strategy to it she liked, that her mother approved of. It may not have been Black Panther-level training, but Shuri wasn’t a total athletic failure at ten years old, and she could prove that to her brother.
“Go ahead,” T’Challa said, as if she was waiting for his permission.
She started forward, leaping off the beam after two long strides, turning in mid-air. She could throw herself around well enough, and got clear off the ground when she had a running start. But it was the landing that evaded Shuri, and it did so now, too: as she twisted into a flip, the training mat came rushing up at her, and she rolled with the sudden impact. She tumbled to a stop several feet from the beam, flat on her back.
T’Challa’s footsteps squeaked across the training mat, and Shuri scowled at the sound. When his face appeared above her, that scowl deepened, but her brother only chuckled. She never was good at intimidation, was she? When T’Challa held out his hand, Shuri took it.
“It’s a good start,” he said, an arm slung over her shoulders; Shuri wriggled out of his grip, but couldn’t help the small rush of pride at his praise. “You’ll be an expert at falling in no time.”
“Shut up,” Shuri said, shoving his side and darting out of the training center, T’Challa laughing with mock-offense and hot on her heels. When he snatched her up, arms tight around her waist, she let him toss her over his shoulder, knowing it would be a better position to tickle-attack him from. Shuri was nothing if not a strategist.
The events of the previous night swirled in a dizzying storm around her brain, and Shuri slowly teased out an explanation for her injuries: she fell, right out of a plane.
The intel she received from the War Dogs was good, and dealt with some arms dealers Shuri had been tracking for months. They were colleagues with the group she and Nakia had tracked down so many months ago, on that night where Shuri had fully given herself over to those instincts: to track, to pursue, to catch the stragglers and those that fled her. When she had hauled that idiot back to the plane, she had done her best not to look Nakia in the eye. She could see the concern brimming there, and that was the last thing Shuri wanted to handle.
Tracking them down had been easy, Shuri slipping past security both in the Wakandan capital and at the border. She moved through the long shadows of the night, headed straight for the drop-spot in the Kenyan countryside.
She had shoved their weapons cache off the plane, letting it hit the forest floor as the vessel lifted off. Shuri had been focused on the two men cowering in the cockpit, and hadn’t even noticed the man who had gotten a grip on her from behind. So many long nights pouring over intel and schematics in the lab, running missions by herself, had taken their toll on her reflexes; though she could still pack a punch, Shuri was tired. She swung to strike her new attacker, but missed, overreached herself, and threw herself off-balance. He had snatched up the back of her neck like a stray cub, and tossed her out of the plane before she had time to realize what was happening.
She had dropped, a useless weight, out of the sky; she must’ve passed by Orion, twisting through the heavens as she fell. Her claws slashed through the air, shone in the late starlight, wicked and pointless. She could not remember hitting the ground, but the feeling in her head alone made her grateful for the gap in her memory.
Shuri knelt in the soil, hands digging deep into the loamy earth. Her suit’s gloves had retracted, as had her helmet; she was free to touch the world, free to gasp in its air as she forced herself to her feet. Her vision swam for a moment, but she braced herself against a tree trunk, waiting out the dizziness.
A distant ringing issued from somewhere in her suit, and Shuri fumbled as she triggered the mechanism to answer the call manually, since she wasn’t sure how well she could restore the helmet. The audio was rife with static, but she could make out a familiar voice, tight with worry.
“Shuri? Shuri are you there? Are you okay?”
Shuri pressed her forehead against the rough bark of the tree, swallowing the lump rising in her throat. “Okoye?”
Okoye’s words glitched, rendered on a loop before finally catching up to her rapid-fire questioning. “Shuri are you - Shuri are you - Shuri are you - Shuri are you -” Shuri bit back a sob. “- out there? Where? I’ll come myself, just tell us where you are.”
“Okoye?” Shuri asked again. “There’s coordinates, a program on my computer, it tracks this suit -” Another wave of nausea washed over her, and Shuri clamped her mouth shut against it.
“I’m coming to get you.”
Shuri curled into her mother’s side, her small legs folded easily beneath her. The sofa was ample enough to accommodate the two of them, but Shuri always insisted on sitting that close to the Queen Mother; Nakia thought she caught Shuri watching the assembled guests at dinners, as though daring any of them to condescend to her about sitting with the adults.
The guests themselves were sparse today, this meeting being an informal one, and many of them having important duties to attend to. She still managed to garner curious, appraising glances from the dignitaries in attendance. T’Challa had not let go of her hand the entire time.
“You know, I think Shuri would want to train with you,” he whispered, taking a sip of wine. Nakia had avoided the stuff, not wanting to rely on it to get through these formal functions every time she attended at T’Challa’s side. T’Challa, she thought, had only accepted the drink because it had been offered by his father. The prospect of being tipsy around most of these people was not an enticing one for either of them.
“Shuri wants to be a War Dog?” Nakia asked, just as quietly, eyebrows raised in surprise. “I thought she was still studying in the labs.”
“She is, and she’s - well, she’s smarter than any of them by a mile,” T’Challa said. Nakia smiled; she was never sure how much of these claims was T’Challa bragging about his sister, and how much was accurate to Shuri’s abilities. Both, perhaps, in equal measure. She wondered just how well those lab technicians were handling Shuri Udaku’s brilliant brain and smarter mouth. “But she needs to - she wants to learn how to do things, beyond gymnastics. You know, flashy stuff. She’s still trying to do those flips.”
“Does the Queen Mother know?”
T’Challa gave Nakia a look of pure amusement. “Of course not. But Shuri wants to learn it, and she isn’t half bad.”
“I could do it.” The pair of them turned around to find Okoye hovering behind them. W’Kabi stood next to her, a hand on the crook of his partner’s elbow. Nakia and T’Challa both breathed a sigh of relief; at least it was someone who wouldn’t reveal Shuri’s secret to her mother.
“You would?” T’Challa asked. “She’s not quite on the level of -”
“It doesn’t matter what level she’s on now,” Okoye said dismissively. “She can get to any level with practice. If she wants to learn to fight, I can teach her.”
“She’s a royal pain,” T’Challa said, and Nakia snorted at his dumb joke. The smile he flashed her turned her laugh into a deep flush; he always did that, staring at her like they were the only two people in the room. She could never bring herself to ask him to stop.
Okoye just grinned, and Nakia watched as the same look spread across W’Kabi’s face. “I think if I can handle one royal pain, two shouldn’t be a problem.”
Okoye sat, curled in on herself, next to Shuri’s bed. Nakia hovered by the door, frowning. She felt at a loss, uncertainty gripping her every nerve. Shuri had been returned to them, but hadn’t spoken a word before falling into a deep sleep. She had been healed, but the injuries had been serious. How she had stayed semi-conscious, leaning on Okoye’s shoulder on the ride home, was a mystery. But then, that was Shuri.
“She’ll be okay,” Nakia said, though she knew the words were empty. None of them knew if Shuri would ever be okay, not with the habits she had picked up. Leaving the city alone at night, not telling anyone where she was going, trying to fix the whole world all on her own. Nakia saw the little girl who demanded to be given entry to the labs, who had spent hours on a balance beam so she could “learn how to fall”, as T’Challa kept calling it. The young Queen, holed up in her room to try and craft new weapons to throw at invisible enemies, shielding her people from the night sky? Nakia did not know that woman. Nakia did not know how to help her.
“I can’t lose her, too,” is all Okoye said, her voice muffled by her palms. Nakia left the same way she came: confused, and more alone than she had been since that morning on a dusty road in Tanzania.
“T’Challa?” Shuri’s voice began as a croak, but the sound still sent waves of relief rushing over Okoye. “Okoye?”
She bolted up from her post next to the bed and helped Shuri sit up against the headboard, her fingers gentle on Shuri’s shoulders, on the small of her back. She felt so small in that moment, fragile in a way that Okoye should have seen coming. She should have seen this coming.
But Shuri was looking up at her, confusion written clearly on her face, and Okoye shoved her grievances aside for just a moment. She just held Shuri’s hand as her Queen whispered, “Did I throw up in the jet?”
When Shuri woke again, it was dark out. She could feel that it was her bedroom - the sheets were familiar, and she could just make out the shapes of her mother’s old regalia peeking out of the closet, hand-me-downs Shuri had had to collect from her mother’s room herself, a Queen’s costuming.
She sat up, and clutched at the sheets for a moment, trying to regain her balance. The floor was chilly under her bare feet, but she padded across the room shoeless, wrapping a shawl tightly around her shoulders. The hallway was empty, and the rest of the palace seemed to be as well; Shuri frowned as she peered through doorways and out of windows. The city was alive in the distance, far enough from the heart of the palace that Shuri couldn’t quite hear it. No guards marched the halls, which she was not expecting: she figured Okoye would have stationed them outside her room for the next decade.
Shuri moved with her muscle memory, letting her legs guide her to the Royal Garden. It was late enough that the place was still, blanketed in darkness, but Shuri could see a figure silhouetted against the soft light of the lanterns that stood at attention along the fence. She opened the door as quietly as she could, but the figure turned when her steps rustled the soft grass.
Nakia’s eyes, wide with surprise and warmth, locked with Shuri’s as she emerged into the cool nighttime air, wobbly but upright. “Shuri?”
Nakia moved to get up, but Shuri shook her head, shuffling over to the small bench. She paused, letting Nakia’s palm rest at her lower back so she could help Shuri lower herself onto the seat next to her. Their thighs pressed together on the small seat, and Shuri barely resisted nudging closer to Nakia’s warmth; tucked so close into her side felt like sitting next to her mother at dinners, nestling into the folds of her gown and studying the little tics of the gathered tribal leaders.
“Are you feeling alright?” Nakia’s voice was a whisper, but it carried in the dark garden.
Shuri nodded slowly. “I - I feel better.”
“But you are not alright.” It wasn’t a question, and Shuri was a little grateful for it. Nakia had asked questions, back in that hotel room in Egypt, that Shuri could not bring herself to answer. She needed Nakia to do what Nakia did best: say aloud what everyone silently understood to be true.
The door opened behind them, a sudden, startling whoosh, and both Shuri and Nakia whipped around to see Okoye framed by the light of the palace hall. She was dressed down in soft pyjamas, cotton the colour of a sunrise.
“I went to check on Shuri, and she -” Okoye froze as her gaze swung from Nakia to rest on Shuri, who could not move a muscle if she tried, her eyes wide like an antelope in headlights. There was a panicked edge to Okoye’s voice that she had not heard in a long time, but brought with it the dream-sounds of crackling interference and the dial-tone of an incoming call. Shuri swallowed the sudden lump in her throat.
“You’re okay?” Okoye marched across the small lawn, her spine stiff; she gathered Shuri’s face in her hands, held it up to the light to peer down at her. “You’re okay.”
Shuri sniffed, and coughed out a small sob.
She didn’t want to do this here, where anyone could walk in and see their Queen crying like a small child, but there was no stopping it once she started. Shuri felt small, felt cracked apart, and she sank backwards, retreating against the embrace of the bench. The bench in her mother’s garden. Another sob wracked her chest, stronger than the last.
Hands fluttered wildly at her shoulders, her back, and she heard a hiss of “It’s fine, she needs -” but Shuri didn’t hear what she needed. She was swept up into Okoye’s arms, strong from years defending their people, defending her father and her mother and her brother - especially her brother, stupid T’Challa, stupid enough to run off after an army from the cosmos that he was not ready for. That she hadn’t been ready for.
And suddenly Shuri was spilling out on the grass, everything she had held together for two years bursting through her. She let it claw her open, just enough to show, enough to let her cry.
Nakia was there, too, hands on Shuri’s waist, pulling herself closer to the embrace Okoye had locked Shuri in. Shuri shook, and let Nakia and Okoye hold her together for several long, exhausting minutes.
“He should be doing this,” Shuri gasped, squeezing her eyes shut. “He should be here, being King, what the hell do I know about being Queen , I can’t even make shields strong enough to keep out some stupid aliens -”
“- and everything is going to hell and he isn’t here!” Shuri looked up, Nakia’s frown swimming in her watery gaze. “He’s supposed to be here.”
Nakia nodded, scrubbing at her own eyes, and pressed a long kiss to Shuri’s temple. Her words were whispered softly against Shuri’s skin. “I know he should. I want him to be here, too. But it isn’t your fault, no one could have done better. No one.”
Okoye let out a gentle sigh, and Shuri tipped her head back to see the tear tracks that glimmered on Okoye’s cheeks. She reached up and wiped one away with her fingers, and Okoye sighed again.
“You are our Queen,” Okoye said, her thumb smoothing circles across the nape of Shuri’s neck. “You are the brightest girl Wakanda has ever seen. You are your mother’s daughter, and your brother’s sister. We trust you to lead us, Shuri. Wakanda trusts you. You need to trust us back.”
"But I can't - I am not my brother." Shuri shook her head, her voice muffled in the fabric of Okoye's sleeve.
"No, you are not." Nakia tilted Shuri's chin up, her fingers gentle, her gaze firm. "But you know him. What did he teach you Shuri?"
Shuri thought of her body, feeling small as a speck in the sky, dropping from the plane. Tossed to the forest floor like the abandoned carcass of a hawk's prey, plummeting from its talons. She flexed her fingers, felt the absence of her claws, but remembered how little they served her as she fell. Shuri shook her head again, mouth trembling. "I don't think I remember."
"You do." Nakia whispered, her hand resting on Shuri's cheek. Her palm was cold from the garden air, smudged with dirt, smelling of green and sap. Shuri leaned into the touch. "You remember. You remember what he taught you - and what Okoye taught you. You know what Wakanda was built on, what has always made us strong."
"I don't . . ."
"We are together," Nakia said. Okoye's arms tightened around Shuri, protective walls against the gentle breeze. "We are strong because we are together. You know that, no matter how stubborn you've been about doing things on your own." Shuri let out a wet, choked laugh, and Nakia smiled. The rumble of a chuckle echoed through Okoye's chest, and it reverberated through Shuri's shoulder. "You have never been alone, Shuri. You have to let us catch you, sometimes."
"Those ones are beautiful." Okoye's hand came to rest on Nakia's shoulder; she must have finished getting Shuri back into bed, then. "Which are they?"
Nakia turned to stare up at her friend, hand still clutching the watering can like a lifeline. Okoye's eyes flash in the darkness, wide and sad and ready to rest for a moment. When she moves to collapse onto the bench, Nakia takes a deep breath. They must catch each other.
"Lily of the Nile," she said, looking back down at the flowers, their blue luminous in the dim lantern light.
"That was a good speech," Okoye added.
"It wasn't a speech." Nakia rose slowly, leaving the watering can in the grass; soil annointed her knees and hands. "It was the truth."
Shuri and Nakia’s feet hit the ground at the same time, both of them glad to finally be off the jet and breathing in fresh Wakandan air.
“Can I just say,” Shuri said, clearly not planning on holding her tongue, “that you should have kicked the Swedish Prime Minister’s ass?”
Nakia laughed, her head tipped back; the sky she looked up into was awash with the soft pinks of sunset. “You should have met the last one.”
The walk across the landing site and towards the palace was a brisk one, Shuri taking the lead, the bag holding all their official signed treaties and documents swinging precariously over one shoulder as she bounded forward. Nakia watched her go with a half-smile tugging at her mouth; Shuri’s feet moved over the ground lightly, no weight pressing down on her shoulders.
Okoye was waiting for the two of them at the dining table, the day’s domestic reports and Avengers correspondence spread out before her, a carafe of coffee abandoned further down the table. A comms screen was set up at the neighbouring seat, and Natasha Romanoff peered through the screen and gave Nakia a surprised wave.
“Morning - or, evening, right?” Natasha asked, chin balanced on a tight fist.
Okoye glanced up and shared a smile with Nakia, then beckoned for Shuri to come and sign a report.
“Queenly duties, Your Majesty,” she said, the sarcasm in her voice hardly noticeable anymore. “Also, would anyone like supper?”
“God yes,” Shuri said, dropping into the chair at the table’s head, the bag resting at her feet. “Everyone in Sweden kept trying to feed us these fish that smelled like -”
“We’ll take supper, yes, thank you,” Nakia said, nodding to a guard standing at attention by the doorway. He nodded and disappeared, probably to scrounge up something from the kitchens. Nakia would have done it herself if she was not exhausted from the trip. Something about the EU gave her the nastiest headache.
“Look, I gotta make a call,” Natasha said, giving Okoye a quick smile of apology. “But somebody should be on your end soon to talk to you about something important.”
“ Somebody meaning . . .?” Shuri asked.
Okoye frowned. “Could you please tell us who’s entering Wakandan air space so we don’t knock them out of the sky?”
Natasha snorted. “Doubt even that would stop him, but sure: it’s Rogers. He should be there in a couple of hours.”
“Are there any problems on your end?” Nakia asked. “If the Avengers are here to recruit -”
“We’re not,” Natasha said, palms raised in defense. “I swear. Steve just . . . it’ll be better coming from him, in person. You’re gonna want to hear him out.”
And with that, Okoye and Natasha bid each other farewell, and the comms screen went black. Shuri, Nakia and Okoye all turned to frown at each other simultaneously.
“That was . . . odd.”
Shuri rolled her eyes at Nakia. “You don’t have to play the diplomat here - that was fucking weird.”
“Shuri!” Okoye chastised. “I should alert the border patrol, make sure everyone knows Captain Rogers is arriving.” Nakia thought she heard Okoye mutter about “telling us in advance, some of us have plans, too” on her way out of the dining room.
Nakia glanced over at Shuri, who was picking through the loose pile of Avengers correspondence for anything useful. She looked up as Nakia took the seat next to her, bracing her elbows on the tabletop.
“You don’t think they’ve found something else that might end the world, do you?” Shuri asked, tearing absently at the corner of a document. Nakia gently lifted it from her grip and placed it back in its folder.
“I don’t think it’s a Code Red, no.” Nakia paused, thoughtful. “Something to do with Barnes’ things, maybe? I know he asked us to leave them as they were -”
“Maybe.” Shuri stood from the table, a restlessness seizing her movements. Nakia recognized the look on her face: she was thinking about T’Challa. “Do you think I could go on a run, before Rogers gets here?”
Nakia raised an eyebrow, watching as Okoye reappeared in the doorway. “You sure you’re not too tired?”
“I’m good.” Shuri glanced over, spotting the General as well, and looked back at Nakia. “I’ll take Okoye with me.”
“Where am I being taken?” Okoye asked, arms crossed, but a small smile playing across her face.
“Just a run. I need to - you know. Move. Do something. Rogers makes me nervous when he gets secretive like this.”
“It does usually mean conspiratorial nonsense,” Nakia conceded. “Well, Okoye? Are you up for a run?”
Okoye beamed, and so did Shuri.
The wind swept past Shuri in wild tendrils, catching at her and Okoye as they bounded through the thick forests outside the city limits. Sunset had painted the sky gold, which melted into an inky blue as they ran. Shuri, clad in the Panther’s armour, swung over and around hanging branches, soaring through the air before landing on her feet, heart pounding in her ears. Okoye followed in pitch-black clothes that were reserved for training, blending her into the deep nighttime shadows of the trees.
Okoye laughed when a serval hissed at her, raking its claws along her thigh, harmless. Shuri rolled her eyes behind the mask, but huffed out a small laugh of her own.
“He’s a friend,” Shuri tossed over her shoulder as she sped forward, darting through the underbrush. They were nearly there.
“You two seem close,” Okoye remarked, her voice dripping sarcasm.
Shuri burst through the trees and sprinted forward, her momentum carrying her right off of the cliff as Okoye emerged from the treeline. There was that split second of fear as she watched Shuri hurtle forward in the open air - Shuri noticed it every time when she looked back. But then Okoye was rolling her eyes as Shuri dropped, diving straight into the waiting pools below. Tonight, in the darkness, they reflected the stars above her, and Shuri fell into the open vastness of the night sky, Okoye’s exasperated laughter a welcome orchestra echoing off the cliffsides all around her.
“Show off,” Okoye said when Shuri clambered from the water, shaking droplets at her General. Okoye just stared her down, unimpressed. Shuri threw back her head, mask disappearing and letting the cool breeze caress her cheeks, and laughed at the stars.
Steve Rogers was waiting on the landing site, leaning against his quinjet, when they returned to the palace grounds. Shuri was dripping water on the tarmac, and Okoye regarded Rogers with a raised eyebrow and cool half-smile.
“Captain Rogers,” Shuri said, dipping into a quick, sardonic curtsey that made Okoye swat her playfully on the shoulder. Rogers laughed, though the sound was stilted. Odd, Shuri thought. He usually didn’t get weird until after he had visited Barnes’ place.
“What can a humble Wakandan Queen do for you?” Shuri continued, and she could practically hear Okoye’s eye roll behind her.
Okoye spoke up. “She means to say, what do you want?”
“For the record, I did not mean to say that,” Shuri said, “Okoye is just tired because I outran her twice tonight.”
“Once,” Okoye retorted, and Shuri gave her General a sage nod.
“Once, yes, of course.” She gave Rogers a tiny shake of her head and a wink, and he stifled another laugh behind a tight smile.
“This may be better to discuss inside,” Rogers said, getting right to business. At least that felt more like him. “With Nakia, too. You all need to hear this before anyone makes any decisions.”
“Decisions about what?” Nakia’s voice drifted from the palace doors as she hurried across the tarmac, studying Rogers’ clenched jaw, his burning blue eyes. It was the kind of expression Shuri had seen on Okoye so many times in her life, all determination and hidden fire.
“We - well, we -” Rogers paused, uncertain, his lips quirking into a frown before he could continue. He looked Shuri squarely in the eyes when he spoke next, his stoicism slowly peeling away to reveal the embers he was nursing, the nervous excitement. Shuri held her breath, let the words strike her like a falling star.
“We think we have a way to reverse the snap.”