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Monica & the White Panther

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Dr. Chanua Kirwa, head of Wakanda’s astrological research, takes in the opulent banquet hall of the Golden City, Birnin Zana. The floor of the banquet hall is naught but cool, smooth cobalt marble; its deep, interloping white veins weave and shimmer through the material like fine ocean froth. It is only every several feet of space where there are groups of fine, plush futons, chaise lounges, and armchairs for the weary converser. In these areas one will find the marble floor covered by a plush, ornate rug.

Though she’s arrived within just twenty minutes of the party starting, the hall is already near full to bursting with just about every kind of Wakandan citizen imaginable and the noise, amplified by the celebratory music, is just short of deafening. Her people create a sea of colorful, festive khangas and kitenges, and dresses and suits with ties and every combination of evening dress in between. There is not a single person whose outfit is not decked out with flashy accessories; just about everywhere one looks, multiple huge, golden hoops hang from many an ear and gaudy, diamond bangles adorn many a wrist. Hair runs the whole gamut of styles: they range from vast, crowning afros and tight, multicolored locs to zigzagging cornrows and curly, bouncy micro braids.

Chauna need only look to her left to see the massive, sprawling banquet table. Already it has a wrap-around line of hungry and enthusiastic guests. She inhales deeply to scent fesikh and Sukuma wiki and baba ghanoush and samosa and seswaa and kedjenou and literally nearly a hundred other dishes. The delicious, enticing scent of food blends with the scents of brand new outfits and sweat and cologne and perfume.

Truly, Wakandan lavishness and grandeur is rivaled by none other on the earth.

It is the third banquet to be thrown by their prince this month.

The third.

Chauna’s stomach rumbles the more she inhales the smell of food, but the wrap-around line deters her. It’s been an enjoyable, but long, long day at work; she’s lucky to have even remembered to stop at home to change into her favorite khanga and heels for the party.

And the noise only climbs higher and higher the more guests that pour in.

She concentrates through the din in an effort to find her friends and colleagues. She’ll sit and visit with them for a good while before getting up to weather the hopefully shorter line at the banquet table-

“Pardon me, Dr. Kirwa, but is there any discernable reason why a highly-honored guest such a yourself would arrive and immediately forgo the banquet table?”

Chauna turns and finds herself face-to-face with Prince T’Challa. The prince is as radiant and regal as ever. His sharply pressed and tailored suit complements the robust lines of his muscled, chiseled body. Over his suit is the deep purple sash adorned by a great many in the royal family; it is pinned over his right shoulder with the honorary crest of the Black Panther. In one hand, he holds a heaping, steaming plate of food and in the other he holds a glass of wine. A warm, musky cologne emanates from his body. There is a teasing, playful smile on his lips and twinkling warmth in his eyes.

Propriety and decorum overcome her initial shock and so she collects herself to curtsy.

“Good evening, your majesty.”

He returns her greeting with a bow. “And to you, doctor.”

“As for your question, your highness”, she says. “I am afraid that the discernable reason would be that this highly-honored guest thought she would sit and visit with her friends and colleagues before attempting to stand in line for the banquet table.”

“Ah.” Prince T’Challa smiles even wider. He holds the plate and glass higher up. “Then perhaps you’ll find it convenient that I have already procured you refreshments.”

Chauna blinks. Her composure is lost yet again. “B-but, your majesty. Y-you needn’t have-you shouldn’t have.”

“Nonsense, doctor! We all require and desire nourishment. And, really, as much work as you conduct for Wakandan scientific advancements you are particularly in need of such tonight.”

He holds the plate and glass up higher and jerks his head towards the royal table. “Would you care to refresh yourself with me?”

Chauna looks behind the prince to glance at the royal family’s table on the raised dais and sees that it is…empty. Her eyes slide back to the prince. “Your mother and sister are…?”

“Unfortunately unable to attend this evening. And so my table is left abandoned and I humbly ask that you keep me company, doctor.”

For the third time this night, Chauna struggles to remember propriety and decorum enough to properly reply.

“W-well. I suppose I cannot resist an offer from the prince himself”, she says. “If you would lead the way?”

Prince T’Challa’s face brightens even more than the lights. “It would be my highest honor.”

And Chauna is following Prince T’Challa to the table reserved for the royal family. She glances out of the corner of her eye to find her colleagues and friends, like a great deal of the rest of the guests, barely pay any more attention to her than is polite; indeed, she is far from being the first woman Prince T’Challa has publicly entertained.

Far, far from it.

Chauna’s heart pounds as they approach the royal table. “You know, your majesty, many other kingdoms would find it untoward that a member of the royal family is serving and inviting an ordinary citizen to dinner at the royal banquet table.”

Prince T’Challa smiles at her. “You speak of nonsense yet again, doctor. There is nothing wrong with inviting a citizen to dinner-particularly a citizen such as you, who is far from ordinary.” He smiles even wider.
“And how exactly am I ‘serving’ you dinner? I neither prepared nor garnished your meal. I do not even know if any of this food is your favorite.”

“Well, you went and made me that plate and drink, did you not? And now you are carrying that plate and drink to your table for me.”

“But is that not common courtesy? When you invite someone to be with you, do you not carry whatever you can of theirs?”

“Perhaps”, Chauna agrees. A smile of her own begins to dawn on her face. “But surely certain rules of etiquette do not so easily apply to royalty.”

“Ah. Well, you will pardon me if I suggest that certain rules of etiquette do apply to this royalty, doctor.”

Chauna can’t help a little laugh escaping. “You are henceforth pardoned, Prince T’Challa.”

The prince laughs with her.

They reach the royal family’s table and Chauna blessedly does not embarrass herself as he sets her plate and cup in front of her and pulls out her chair. He sits beside her and Chauna finds herself inhaling deeply of that enticing cologne until she can draw it deep into her lungs and into her memory. They settle in to eat and she’s almost surprised by how very nearly ordinary it feels.

“Is everything to your taste, Dr. Kirwa?” Prince T’Challa tentatively asks at one point. “I’m afraid that I picked a bit randomly, as I do not know your preferred cuisine.”

“Ah, now you speak nonsense, your majesty. On the contrary, this is a delightful selection. And there are quite a few of my favorites to begin with”, Chauna counters, gleefully gesturing to the pilau meat with her fork.

The smile the prince gives her is nearly brighter than all the lights of the banquet hall.

“That is good, doctor. Very, very good. I am pleased with that.”

A comfortable silence falls over them as they resume eating. Servants come forth to refill their glasses and Chauna does her best not to look to obvious in inhaling Prince T’Challa’s cologne again. But if the prince notices, he looks not at all uncomfortable.

He soon breaks the silence again. “I trust, doctor, that were this evening party to continue, you do not have any immediate obligations in the morning?”

Chauna thinks with a smile on her face. “Other than waking up to a good drink of tea and curling up with a good book? No, Prince T’Challa.”

She dares to venture a bit further. “And…yourself?”

He spears an asparagus and gives her yet another blinding smile. “I have but one appointment to attend to in the mid-morning. We are not in any rush here.”

“Oh, is that so?” Chauna asks, idly swirling her wine around. “A prince with only an ‘appointment in the mid-morning’? Who would’ve thought?”

“Who, indeed? Truly, I can scarce believe it myself at times”, T’Challa remarks.

They smile at each other again.

And when Chauna next blinks, she’s arm-in-arm with the prince, touring through the magnificent gardens around and behind the banquet hall. They stroll slowly, easily through the lush and abundant flora that’s alighted by the golden hanging lamps around and by the full moon above. Their wine flows warm and invigorating through their veins and their bellies are heavy and full with dinner.

“It is such a beautiful, beautiful night out”, Chauna remarks as they pass an elaborate ivy vine.

“Yes, it is”, Prince T’Challa agrees. “And so it is a night best experienced with an exceptional companion.”

Chauna laughs. “You are sweet, your highness.”

T’Challa gently squeezes her arm. “As are you.”

“It is good for me to enjoy time out like this on occasion”, she sighs. “I do adore my work and everything that comes with it-my colleagues, my students, every new discovery and every new question. But I do forget how tiring and demanding that it can be. This is a good break.”

“Looking at the stars can be tiring and demanding for you? Truly?”

She nods. “Yes, it can be. Very much so. There are times when I believe that I look into my telescope far, far more than I look at anything else. But I must look into my telescope if I am to find, study, and categorize stars.”

Prince T’Challa frowns and tilts his head. “What, you do not simply gaze into a mirror?”

Chauna bursts out laughing so loud that were anyone else around, they would’ve stared. “You are sweet!”

“On the contrary: just honest.”

Chauna comes to a stop and so does the prince. She searches his face and sees twinkling amusement dancing in his eyes and a mischievous smile across his lips. He is a handsome prince.

One of the handsomest princes in the world.

A mischievous smile comes to Chauna’s own lips even as she slowly shakes her head at him. “…You do know what they say about you, yes?”

Prince T’Challa maintains eye contact with her. “They say a great many things about me, Dr. Kirwa; I’m afraid you will have to be more specific.”

Chauna raises an eyebrow. “Do I?”

“Yes, you do.”

“Very well: they say you ‘like to catch, but not to keep’. You love the chase, but not the finish line.”

“Ah”, he says quietly. “Is that what they say?”

“Yes, that is what they say. They also say that it has since gotten to the point where a woman can slap you in plain view of the Dora Milaje and not one bit of harm will come to her.”

“Hmm.” His voice becomes even quieter. “Well, doctor, would you…believe for just this one night that perhaps that is not all that they say? And that even if it was, it has no place between you and me tonight?”

Chauna searches his face yet again. Her voice is just as quiet. “I would, your highness-”

“‘T’Challa’. Just ‘T’Challa’.”

“T’Challa, then”, Chauna quietly obliges before continuing. “I would believe as such for just one night…if you only you would give me a reason to believe.”

His eyes shine and a glimmer of that smile comes back to his lips. “Would you mind terribly if that reason to believe can be found in the palace?”

“Ah, ‘the palace’, T’Challa? Would that not easily be translated into ‘your chambers’?”

T’Challa pretends to be affronted and gasps, “Doctor, you-”

“‘Chauna’, if you please.”

“Chauna. Yes, my chambers are where you can…start to believe something. However, my chambers do not just include where I sleep; they also include my sitting room, my lounge, my balcony, and my laboratory, among other chambers.”

Chauna beams. “Your laboratory, you say? You do love the physics disciplines, do you not?”

“I do!” He confirms. “But I admit that I indulge myself every now and then in the arts of astrology.”

Chauna only beams wider and tugs on his arm. “Then do lead the way to your chambers, T’Challa.”

He returns her beam and does just that. They take his car all the way back to the palace. Once they reach the palace’s grand double doors guarded by three Dora Milaje that meet neither of their eyes, they head for T’Challa’s chambers hand-in-hand.

Chauna has only visited the palace on the same occasions that every other ordinary Wakandan citizen has: during royal coronations, publicly-held royal birthdays, royal weddings, and the like. And now as she zips through the many hallways and rooms and foyers with the prince, she finds the palace impossibly dizzying in its spacious grandeur. She can hardly pause to take in a huge, splendid painting of a past queen before they’re taking a right; she only just manages a glance at a sacred, glass-encased relic of the Bast before they’re hurrying up yet another flight of stairs.

They come to a stop and-

“By the Panther God…T’Challa…” Chauna breathes.

“Yes. But I assure you that this in all its entirety was my mother’s idea and at my mother’s insistence, Chauna”, he replies.

They’ve reached a garden that’s more diverse and more beautiful than Chauna could’ve ever imagined. She is a proud, born-and-bred citizen of Wakanda and so she thought she’d seen every single kind of gorgeous garden with every kind of lavish, lush bounty there is to see. But here…in this palace’s gardens, she’s never…

They stand on the beginning of a cobblestone path that weaves and winds through and around the garden. All around them is a mosaic plethora of shades of greens and purples and pinks and blues and yellows and every single kind of color in-between. High, high above their heads stretch stout, verdant vines of ivy that cling to the palace walls with timeless strength and dexterity; their ivy leaves wink with the moonlight. Just lining the edge of the cobblestone path right at their feet are meticulously potted mixtures of chrysanthemums, lilies, and sunflowers. Right next to Chauna’s head is the softest, silkiest spherical inflorescence of wild verbena she’s ever seen. She inhales deeply to take in the freshest, floral scent deep, deep into her lungs.

On and on and on the garden seems to go like a maze, save for the fact that one can easily see the large double doors ahead…the large double doors that must lead to T’Challa’s personal chambers.

And every last thing that stretches before Chauna’s eyes is bathed in moonlight. To see everything bathed in the soft, milky-white glow nearly makes her think that they ascended right into the realm of Bast Herself.

Chauna gently fingers the petal of an impala lily. “Your mother…insists on very good things, T’Challa. Very good things indeed.”

T’Challa chuckles softly at that and then leads them down the winding path through the gardens and to the door. “Yes, she does. And I am pleased that you enjoy it, Chauna. Very pleased. Although…would you see it fit to judge me if I told you that I do not-cannot-maintain these gardens at all?”

“Hmm…” Chauna lets a coy smile grace her lips. “Would you think it worse than judging you if I admitted that I expected as much?”

“…You were waiting to say that. I can tell.”

“No, not at all! It was simply a truth that you so generously gave me the opportunity to express!”

“Ah, yes. I ‘generously gave’ you the opportunity to express that truth. But I am afraid that this truth itself is not so kind”, T’Challa says sheepishly.

Chauna’s eyes glitter with mirth. She slows her steps and T’Challa matches her. “What? Was there actually a point where you tried to garden, but…?”

T’Challa glances at her and then looks away three times. He then clears his throat and confesses, “The hydrangea. I wanted to be extra careful. I ended up drowning them. They died within three days. It was the opposite story with the tulips not one week later.”

He clears his throat again. “Mother banished me from ever having a watering tin and hoe in my head ever again. The entirety of the palace-including my traitorous sister-stood by her.”

Chauna can’t help it-she throws her head back and laughs, laughs, laughs. She’s sure that her laughter could reach all of the country and it’s just as well.

“Yes, yes. It’s hilarious”, T’Challa dryly notes. “It is the most hilarious thing you and everyone else have ever heard.”

Chauna wipes at tears in the corner of her eyes with her free hand. It’s a moment before she can catch her breath to wheeze, “I-I am sorry, T’Challa. I am sorry. It’s just…just…our famed, prized warrior prince? Son of King T’Chaka, the Black Panther, and Queen Nyami and now Queen Ramonda, and elder brother to Princess Shuri? Our prince that is a genius and a leader a-and…he cannot garden?!

T’Challa nods resignedly. “It is hopeless, is it not?

“Absolutely hopeless, indeed. But fear not-you are quite intelligent, and so you may very well pick up the talent someday.”

“I suspect that you are ever the optimist.”

“Well, I do try to be.”

They resume their regular pace on the winding path through the gardens. But they’re halfway to the double doors when Chauna sees something that brings her to yet another stop.

“T’Challa”, she whispers. “I imagine that this was your idea and your insistence. In fact, you may have even done this yourself…”

“Yes, I did. It pleases me that you seem to like it very much”, he softly replies.

“It” is the most shining, statuesque armillary sphere sundial Chauna had ever seen. It rests proudly upon a pedestal made of white, blue-veined marble that glows bright under the moonlight. Each of the circular, bright brass rings of the sundial look to have not a single sign of age and time upon them; the brass is as smooth and genteel as ever. The insignias denoting every single ring from the equinoctial A to the solstitial H have been meticulously, painstakingly etched into the designated rings. And within the very center of the spheres, the brass model of planet Earth is perfectly sculpted, perfectly tilted on its actual axis.

Chauna reaches a reverent hand out to the sundial, but she does not touch it. Her voice is hushed. “T’Challa. You built this…yourself?”

T’Challa’s voice is just as hushed, but with much bashfulness. “Yes, I did. You appear to be entranced with it; that delights me.”

“I love it”, Chauna insists. She tears her eyes away from the sundial to beam at him. “It is quite often that we in the arts of astrology enjoy something that is both as beautiful and useful as a sundial. That holds true even though our country has had much more advanced technology for our arts for thousands of years.”

“And I agree with and understand you wholeheartedly on that matter”, T’Challa says, nodding happily. “That is exactly the reason why I built this sundial: there are times when the technological wonders of our home can suffocate and so I indulge in more ancient arts and methods.”

Chauna can only smile wider. “How long did it take you to build?”

“From the time I learned how to the completion? Two years.”

“You are a diligent, talented worker.”

“Ah. I am only what I am expected to be as a prince, dear Chauna.”

“Well…you do rise to your expectations in that”, she insists.

He smiles at her and then jerks his head to the double doors. “Shall we?”

She takes one last, admiring look at the sundial and then nods. “Yes!”

T’Challa tightens his grip on her hand and they take off. They move even faster to get to T’Challa’s chambers, running and zigzagging until the garden merges into a delightfully dizzying maze. Once to the double doors, they continue. Chauna becomes breathless with renewed awe as she takes in the huge, winding ornate staircase leading up, up, up to the prince’s rooms. Around the staircase and around themselves are huge, echoing hallways and tall, double doorways surely leading to a great many other parts of T’Challa’s chambers.

But Chauna desires to go upstairs and see the innermost, personal parts of T’Challa’s chambers as much as T’Challa wants to show them to her. And so they ascend up, up, up. Fleetingly, the thought occurs to Chauna that this would be faster if they took an elevator, but the exhilaration of following T’Challa up the steps feels far, far too good to pass.

By the time they stand at the top, Chauna is breathless and winded while T’Challa is hardly breathing any differently.

He’s still smiling, but looks at her with concern. “Would you like me to carry you the rest of the way, Chauna?”

A thrill goes through her at the offer, but she replies, “Oh, no! Thank you! I’d like to continue; please, lead the way.”

“As you wish! I…hope you do not mind that I do have a surprise in my labs for you.”

Chauna is sure that were she to smile any wider, her face just might split. “A surprise? Why did you not tell me?!”

T’Challa chuckles and squeezes her hand. “Because it is a surprise, Chauna.”

She can’t help but chuckle back. “Well, lead me to your labs and reveal it, T’Challa!”

“Much obliged!”

T’Challa heads straight down the hallway right in front of them. Instead of ending in yet another double door, the hallway opens up into a huge, cavernous room that houses T’Challa’s labs. Her heart pounds as she looks all around in wonder and appreciation. Her heart then jumps into her throat as he veers to a huge sliding glass door that leads to a wide, wide balcony overlooking all of Birnin Zana in its glory.

And on that balcony, pointed straight up to the stars is a highly-specialized, steel-covered telescope with her name emblazoned in gold upon its side.

“…T’Challa…”

She can hear the smile in his voice. “It is yet another thing that you like, yes? But this time, it is something especially made for you. Come, we have all night to play with it.”

-

“Oh…my”, Chauna sighs.

T’Challa rolls over, making the bedsheet slip low, low, low on his hips. He grins at her and props his head up on an elbow. “Yes, I do believe you made it yours several times last night.”

She grabs one of his many silk pillows and playfully lobs it at his head. “Oh hush, you! You are so ridiculously generous that I barely had to ‘make it mine’ to begin with! And I cannot believe that our prince enjoys being on his back so often.”

“Of course I do!” He tucks the pillow against his abs and then reaches up to gently caress her face. “You’ve no idea the pretty sight you make!”

Chauna leans into his touch and pulls the sheets up higher over her breasts. “As do you, T’Challa. As do you.”

He only smiles at her again. His hand trails up her face and into her hair (her hair covering fell off early in the night) and tenderly strokes through her mass of tight corkscrew curls.

Chauna indulges herself in exploring every last bit of hard, ribbed muscle on his torso.

“We should…perhaps get up. Our days are starting soon”, she whispers.

“Agreed”, T’Challa says. “A shower is the first thing in order?”

Chauna’s eyes glimmer. “…If a shower in your chambers would not take too long? Then yes.”

T’Challa’s eyes glimmer right back. And indeed, their shower doesn’t take too long, though what they do in the shower stall before they wash themselves does.

Chauna finds her clothes from last night freshly laundered and packaged for her on a chair. She tells T’Challa to fervently thank whichever servant attended to her clothes and he assures her that he will. Once dressed, she stands in front of his huge, oval mirror to do quickly braid and put up her hair.

She’s nearly done when T’Challa, freshly dressed himself, comes up behind her. Chauna smiles broadly at him in the mirror as he leans down to plant sweet, soft kisses all along her neck. Each kiss brings forth arousing memories of last night and Chauna halfheartedly leans away from him.

“Now, now”, she chides. “If we have any more of that, we will never leave this room.”

He obligingly leans away from her. “As you wish, Chauna. No more of that. But how about more of this…?”

T’Challa produces a necklace out of thin air. It is a beautiful, ornate necklace made loud and garish with enlaces of sparkling diamonds all across its design and sterling white silver making up the entirety of its flawless chain. Chauna is rendered silent and still as he casually slips it around her neck and clasps it closed.

His hands settle on her shoulders and he smiles at her in the mirror once more. “I think that is a perfect fit. How about you?”

Her hand goes to the necklace, caressing and exploring it. Every time Chauna thinks she’s seen and heard all that there is of royal Wakandan splendor, she’s proven wrong every time. Gloriously, mind-numbingly proven wrong.

She slowly turns around to face T’Challa, eyes sparkling as a disbelieving smile comes to her lips. She speaks just as slowly. “You…T’Challa, I cannot possibly accept this latest gift.”

“You most certainly can!” T’Challa protests. “It suits no other but you, Chauna.”

Chauna lifts her hand from the necklace to bring his head down for a kiss. A nice, long kiss. “You are so-”

“T’Challa! T’Challa, where are you?” A voice excitedly calls out.

Chauna stops in confusion as the voice begins to sound closer, sounds louder.

“It’s me, Imani!” The voice calls again.

A woman rounds the corner and walks right into T’Challa’s rooms. She is a woman that is about the same age as Chauna and her whole face is set warm and alight with a wide, wide smile. In her hands, she cradles an expensive square box. She looks to be dressed for a special occasion.

“I got your tiara all the way from Libya!” Imani gushes. “It is so very precious! Fit for a…a…princess…”

Imani trails off and comes to a stop as she takes in the scene before her. The delight on her face vanishes like a wisp of smoke, her mouth going slack. Her eyes blankly dart between Chauna and T’Challa.

Chauna slowly disengages and steps back from T’Challa. Her face is in much the same state as Imani’s. As Imani’s eyes continue to look between her and T’Challa, Chauna can only stare at Imani.

Stare at the box with the tiara in her hands.

Stare at the dawning hurt on the blankness of her face.

Imani’s eyes carefully, deliberately trail from Chauna and back to T’Challa one final time. Her voice is hoarse, hushed. “…Your ‘late night appointment’?”

Chauna freezes as nausea roils, hot and heavy, in her stomach. She swallows down bile, perhaps futilely. Her eyes snap to T’Challa’s face, hoping that…that there’s been some mistake-

T’Challa is peering down at her sideways with an eyebrow raised and his lips pursed. And a hint of deep amusement in his eyes.

Amusement.

Chauna clenches her jaw. The frigid beginnings of a glare come to her eyes. She maintains eye contact with him as she jerks her head towards Imani. “…Your ‘mid-morning appointment’?”

T’Challa simply turns the look he gave her onto Imani. A down, sideways peer. An eyebrow raised. Lips pursed. And even more amusement.

Imani’s quiet, pain-filled gasp is thunderous to Chauna, who finds it harder and harder to control the nausea creeping up her throat.

T’Challa finally clears his throat and smiles at both of them in turn. He steps back from Chauna and spreads his hands in a faux-hopeless gesture.

“Well!” He chuckles. “Look what happened here: I certainly did have two appointments, which I am usually good at juggling. However, it appears that I overshot my time terribly and so-”

CRACK!

T’Challa’s head snaps back from the force of Chauna’s stinging blow.

“I have never in all my life!” She roars in his face. She furiously rips his necklace off her neck and hurls it at his chest.

Chauna then walks to Imani, immediately softening with her eyes tearful and apologetic. But before she can apologize, Imani walks closer, too and shakes her head.

“I am so sorry”, Imani laments. “I swear to you, I had no idea-”

“No, no, no! Please! Neither one of us knew; neither one of us need to be sorry to the other”, Chauna assures her. She gently rubs up and down Imani’s arms.

T’Challa snickers behind the two women. “Chauna? Imani? You know, this would be all the better and more entertaining if you two would fight instead of-”

CRACK!

This time, T’Challa’s head snaps back the other way from the force of Imani’s stinging blow.

Imani launches the tiara, box and all, at T’Challa’s chest. The tiara falls out of its box with the impact of the force, tumbling to the carpet in a shower of gold and gemstones.

Imani then warmly wraps an arm around Chauna’s shoulders and leads her away. “Come, Chauna. Let us get away from this disgrace and to any other place other than here. Somewhere clean and with integrity.”

Chauna squeezes Imani around the waist as they walk away. “I am right with you.”

T’Challa rolls his eyes and doesn’t bother to rub either of sides of his face. He spreads his hands out again. “Come, now! This is not that bad! I only-”

Imani turns around and levels him with a scorching glare. She bellows, “You call yourself prince and heir to the mantle of the Black Panther?! Filthy whore!

Chauna sneers at him with deep loathing and disgust. “You bring shame upon Bast Herself! Not even She would want to touch you, even if it was to take your sorry self away from this world!”

T’Challa rolls his eyes again. They leave his rooms, leave his chambers, leave the palace. The Dora Milaje quietly escorts them down his stairs, their usually stoic faces displaying nothing but sympathy for the two women.

He glances down one of the hallways and sees his mother and sister standing there. They watch him.

As they have often done after yet another night like this, another morning like this. They stand rigid and still, at all times vulnerable and yet unyielding.

His mother’s eyes are stone. His sister’s eyes are wet.

He averts his.

He carelessly kicks at the necklace and tiara out of his sight. He does not bend to pick them up-a servant can come and flush them both down into the sewers for all he cares.

-

After his mandatory briefing meetings, lessons of state, silent, tense meals with his mother and sister, and personal lab experiments, T’Challa locks himself in the palace gym for the rest of the day and well into the evening. Every now and then, he lets his mind go blank with the blazing beauty of the sunset shining through the massive bay windows.

He derives quiet delight in the routine burn of his muscles as he bench presses 200 pounds…500 pounds…700 pounds. The only sounds filling the expansive, spacious gym are the clinking of the weights as he lifts and pulls back, lifts and pulls back, his carefully-paced breathing, the air conditioner that his mother insists on-

“Shameful prince…”

T’Challa startles and nearly crashes 700 pounds worth of weights right onto his neck. He immediately, forcibly holds the barbell steady over himself even as he blinks with disorientation. When he decides that nothing is amiss, he continues his reps as though nothing ever happened.

He’s thoroughly tiring himself out; he’ll sleep well tonight and tomorrow, he’ll-

“Such a shameful, shameful prince...”

This time, T’Challa comes much, much closer to crushing his neck with 700 pounds worth of weight; it’s by sheer force of will that he keeps the barbell up and away. Telling himself that the new trembling in his muscles is from exhaustion and from nothing else, T’Challa slowly settles the barbell in the holder and just as slowly sits up. His eyes dart frantically all around the gym.

“Who is there?” He calls out.

But there is nothing and no one.

His eyes then snap to the bay windows and he freezes at what he sees.

Heavy, dark cumulonimbus clouds have entirely covered and blotted out the sunset. The clouds roll and roil against each other, like something unspeakable unfurling out of control. Shards of lightening in shades of indigo, greyish-blue, and stark white illuminate the clouds with bright spider-like shadows. Thunder sounds.

T’Challa gets up and walks to the bay windows in a daze. It was not minutes ago that there was a glorious, Wakandan sunset in all its glory right outside these bay windows. He’s never…he’s never seen a storm manifest so quickly. There is no way that their local climate has been so damaged that it is changing-his country uses only the cleanest, most efficient energy to be found on earth. There is no way the meteorologist was this incorrect about the weather today. There’s no way…

A chill made of white-hot dry ice crawls down his spine. He whirls around-

A woman sits on the very seat T’Challa just vacated.

A woman unlike any other he could’ve imagined.

Her voluminous, snowy white hair is a cascading waterfall over her shoulders and down her back. She gazes at him with striking, ice blue eyes that he cannot read; her wide, plump lips give him a smile that does nothing to take away the dry ice imprisoning his spine. Over her body is a strapless, flowing blue dress that appears to be a living entity itself as it shifts and shimmers before the eye; one moment, it is as dark blue as the ocean and the next it is as light blue as the summer sky.

She lounges against his abandoned barbell as though it were a divine throne. Her arms are comfortably spread out over the barbell holder and her long, long legs are crossed under her dress and her feet are bare; one of her feet idly dangles over the other.

T’Challa desperately wants to step back from her, but every muscle is seized into frigid stillness. He stands still and stares.

The woman says nothing. She continues to gaze at and smile at him in silence.

The thunder sounds again.

The ice in T’Challa’s spine spreads deep, deep into his every vein until it centralizes in his chest and burns. His muscles somehow unlock enough to allow him to rub at his chest. It is futile; the burning does not cease.

His muscles unlock just a little more again so that he can speak. Hoarsely, brokenly he speaks.

“W-who are you?”

The woman’s smile only widens and T’Challa glimpses a shock of straight, white teeth. “Who are you? Or perhaps better yet…” She crosses and uncrosses her legs. “Who do you think you are?”

T’Challa’s brow creases. “…Excuse me?”

“Who do you think you are?” She repeats.

His chin lifts. “I am Prince T’Challa, heir to the Wakandan throne and heir to the mantle of the Black Panther. Son of King T’Chaka and Queens Nyami and Ramonda.”

Her eyebrows lift. “Is that so?”

The crease in T’Challa’s brow turns into an outright frown. That burning spreads down, down towards his stomach and, once again, it is useless to try to rub away the pain. “It is so.”

“That is quite a long introduction for one person.”

“It is an introduction befitting a person such as me.”

Her eyebrows lift even more. Mocking amusement sets her eyes alight. “Huh. Because today I could have sworn that it was simply ‘filthy whore’.”

T’Challa can’t help the sneer curling his lips. “Oh, you heard and believe that?”

“I hear a great many things; I see a great many things. And of what I hear and see, I know and believe the truth.”

“You may hear and see a great many things, but that was not the truth”, he retorts. “That was merely a foolish thing said in petty hurt feelings.”

She tilts her head. “Then you appear to have the grave misfortune of having many truths said to and about you in ‘petty hurt feelings’.”

“That is not my fault.”

Her head tilts even more. “So you are but a passive spectator of your own life? With neither influence nor control?”

T’Challa swallows heavily. That burning creeps to limbs. He forces himself to lift his chin once more…but can think of no retort to fling back at the woman.

She sits up from his barbell and leans forward. “Look, T’Challa…”

Before he can demand to know how she knows his name when she does not give him hers, she twirls her fingers in a graceful flourish, materializing something into her hand.

It is a rose.

If T’Challa was frozen before, he is absolutely rooted where he stands now. The rose is one that he’s sure cannot truly exist. Its petals are a deep, deep shade of red the likes of which are surely not of this earth; the vibrant green of its leaves and stem is much the same. She has not come closer to him with the rose, but its heavenly, floral fragrance wafts through the whole of the gym. T’Challa unconsciously breathes deeper as though the rose itself demands his breath. And the rose glows in the woman’s hand.

It glows.

It glows with a power that is somehow as ominous as it is entrancing.

Its ethereal glow radiates from the inside out, from an unknown, inner light. The light further illuminates the woman; it sets her ice blue eyes and her cascading white hair and her shimmering, shifting dress alight.
T’Challa reaches out a shaking hand to touch it, but neither he nor the woman walk closer so that he may. In the back of his mind, he feels that the burning has not ceased.

She still smiles at him and idly twirls the rose between her fingers like it were nothing more than a pencil. “Do you like this rose, T’Challa?”

T’Challa nods slowly. He has not lowered his hand. “Yes. It is…beyond beautiful. I have never seen anything like it.”

“Oh, I can tell”, she softly replies. “But tell me something else.”

“What will I tell you?”

She stands up and T’Challa is disoriented all over again as her dress once again shifts and shimmers with different, dizzying shades of blue. He stumbles back as she circles in a wide, wide arc around him, her hand still idly twirling the rose.

“For which woman would you let this rose wilt?”

Consciousness snaps back into T’Challa at the question. His hand slaps down to his side and his eyebrows shoot up to meet his hairline. He turns slowly in place to follow her circling, his eyes wide and incredulous.

“Is this a joke?” He squints at her. “What kind of absurd question is that?”

“No.” As she walks, she looks down into the rose’s petals, as if contemplating their secrets. “It is no absurd jest; I ask you this question in all sincerity.”

He scoffs and lifts his chin yet again. “I would never let a rose such as this one wilt for any woman-not for anyone. On the contrary, I would gift this rose to a woman-”

She throws her head back and laughs and laughs and laughs until the whole of the gym-perhaps the whole of Wakanda-echoes with it. It is laugh devoid of all humor; it is a laugh that sends T’Challa’s heart pounding and his stomach churning. For a flashing moment, the burning in his body becomes unbearable.

“No, you foolish, foolish child”, she chortles. “I am not speaking of gifts. You know nothing of gifts; you know nothing of their true heart and meaning.”

“I asked you: for which woman would you let this rose wilt?”

She keeps circling him and he keeps turning in place to keep his eyes on her.

T’Challa can only manage to slowly open and close his mouth several times for several minutes. When he can finally speak again, his voice is even more disbelieving and affronted than before. “…I ‘know nothing of gifts’? Pardon me, but if you ‘see and hear everything’, surely you saw this morning-”

“The tiara for sweet Imani and the necklace for genius Chauna”, she recounted.

“Yes! Did you not see how beautiful and priceless they were?! And what they chose to do with them?!”

“Oh, I did, T’Challa. I did.” She twirls the rose once more in her fingers and her gaze once again becomes unreadable to him. “And I saw that fine, flowing white velvet dress for brave Kito. Why, she thought that was your proposal itself…until you laughed in her face right in the middle of a crowded banquet hall.”

T’Challa winces. Kito was a whole year ago-he’d forgotten all about her. “I-”

“And then there was lovely Bavana’s brand new, custom microscope just for her. Why, you spent a whole three weeks directing other engineers to build it for you while you wooed her and prepared to dump her right out of the palace front doors.”

That burning becomes unbearable again. T’Challa freezes and she passes behind him, quietly reminiscing on conquests he’d since forgotten.

“There was that diamond rock of a ring for agile Najuma. You laughed yourself sore when she found three other women behind her back”, she sighs. “Ahh, it is lucky that you have accelerated healing to assuage your vanity-she slashed your face with it far worse than Chauna or Imani struck you with their hands.”

The burning is making his eyes water. His legs tremble with the effort to stay upright, to not crumble to the floor in agony.

She lifts the rose and lightly brushes it across her face. “You were generous with darling Zawadi; you let her last three months and gifted her with a whole wardrobe.”

T’Challa sags where he stands. The burning-the burning-spreads all the way to the tips of his fingers and toes, to the top of his head. He barely recognizes his own voice. “I…I-”

She continues as though she did not notice him. “Kibibi was a bracelet and two days. Fikira was a private jet and one week. Andaiye was a pair of earrings and twenty-two hours.”

The burning has brought T’Challa to his knees. Never in his life has he felt such pain and it’s all he can do to stay upright on the floor and just feel. He braces his hands on the floor and struggles to take in ragged, uneven breaths. The world spins and fades in and out around him. The woman’s feet appearing in his blurring line of sight looks to be an illusion, a mirage; if her shifting dress was a live mosaic before, it is all but incorporeal in all its shades of blue now.

T’Challa can feel that unreadable gaze on the top of his head once more. Her voice is the softest it’s been since she first appeared to him.

“T’Challa”, she says. “I ask you just one final time: for which woman would you let this rose wilt?”

All at once, every last trace of the pain in his body vanishes and he can breathe. He takes in deep, shuddering gulps of air, certain that breathing has never felt so good before. The world becomes just a little less blurry, just a little less surreal as his vision focuses again. He blinks away the tears in his eyes. The repeated question echoes over and over again in his head.

He straightens his back from kneeling and looks up into her unreadable gaze. Those eyes entrance him deep, deep into their welling pools and so they compel him to repeat something himself.

To repeat his truth.

“There is no woman that I would let that rose wilt for”, T’Challa confesses.

Just as every last trace of pain in his body vanished, so every last trace of anything unreadable vanishes from the woman. Everything unreadable, everything amused, everything in-between disappears and is replaced with sorrow.

Pure, unrelenting sorrow.

She cradles the rose to her breast and forlornly shakes her head at him. Her eyes shimmer with unshed tears.

“Oh, T’Challa”, she laments. “Then you are truly a shamed prince.”

The burning returns to his body hundredfold, searing and bursting out from his chest and to every single inch of his body. He crumples straight to the floor as a blinding white light blazes and blots out the woman above him, blots out the gym, blots out Wakanda.

T’Challa screams.