Ramonda knows as soon as T'Chaka steps off his ship behind his Dora escort that something is wrong.
For one, Zuri is stiff and though the boy has been a War Dog for a number of years, he has always been jovial when stepping back onto Wakandan soil. He bows to her as a formality before requesting to meet with his superiors, and then he is gone. She doesn't begrudge him this; War Dogs have a hard time of it outside of home. It is possible that this mission was more difficult for him than he anticipated.
When she sees the little boy, no older than ten, no older than T'Challa, Ramonda understands Zuri's guarded expression and the way T'Chaka does not look her in the eye when he comes to meet her.
Around the boy's neck is a golden chain, a ring of vibranium and obsidian, too large for a child's fingers. Ramonda thinks of her brother-in-law in the field, and she understands.
His name is Erik Stevens, but his name is N'Jadaka. He is N'Jobu's son. He has no mother to speak of; N'Jobu was raising him on his own. That is enough to make Ramonda pause.
She was a lioness by birth, a priestess in Sekhmet's temples in the plains of Wakanda. Children are raised communally there, with many mothers and fathers to take care of the work. The fact that Erik, that N'Jadaka has no mother, and now that he has no father, makes her heart clench painfully.
She is happy he is here now. Erik is not.
He is angry, of course he is. He is a boy, a child, and he has lost his father only a handful of years after he lost his mother. Though she is his family, though T'Challa and T'Chaka are his family, they are strangers. Ramonda does not begrudge him his sharp temper or the way he vacillates between rage and grief the way only a child can.
T'Chaka weeps for him, but moreso he weeps for his brother. Fratricide is sometimes necessary, to protect the pride. Ramonda knows this. But T'Chaka loved his younger brother, and so he weeps.
Ramonda takes charge of overseeing Erik's education because T'Chaka finds it hard to look at the boy. She arranges for him to have the tutoring of a prince of Wakanda. He will be somewhat behind T'Challa, but they are of a similar build so when Erik is a more skilled fighter, he will join T'Challa in combat training.
Erik does not take well to his classes.
At first, he is moody and quiet and pays little attention. He cares little for the history of Wakanda, for politics or economics. When he can be coaxed to response, he gives abysmal answers to questions on math and science. They only know his Xhosa is fluent when a tutor made a snide comment about his intelligence, and he snapped back with several colorful English curse words intermixed with perfect Xhosa grammar.
She cannot keep him away from T'Challa because they are boys of a similar age, and T'Challa is curious about the new ward whose education is so similar to his own. Erik is rude to him at first, then says nothing to him. T'Challa is a sweet boy and when Erik discovers that silence hurts his cousin more than barbed insults do, there is no end to T'Challa's wobbly lips and confused questions about why Erik doesn't like him.
He's even worse with other children.
The young girls training to be Dora when they are older are sometimes seen around the palace, and Erik teases them about their shaved heads. Okoye, who already strikes fear into the hearts of those twice her age, will have none of it.
Her reasoning, when she breaks Erik's wrist, is that she is loyal to the throne and Erik is not the sitting king. Also, he tried to touch her head and she reacted on instinct. She's still put on a temporary probation for raising a hand to a member of the royal family, but she comes from a long line of women who dedicated their lives to the sisterhood.
And they are children. And it is a lesson that Erik would have had to learn sooner or later.
W'Kabi is T'Challa's friend and therefore stays away from Erik out of loyalty to T'Challa. The children training to be priests of Baast are not even remotely interested in entertaining him when they don't have to be in the same room as him. Nakia, a girl from the river provinces is occasionally seen at the palace because she shows promise as a tribal diplomat. She asks Erik what happened to his wrist, and he tells her to leave him alone.
He constantly tries to give his Dora guard the slip. He fails every time to his consistent irritation, and he stares up at Oluchi, the woman charged with his maintaining his safety as if he's sizing her up for a fight. Oluchi looks at him like he's a wet cat; more yowl than claw.
He has been in Wakanda for a year with zero progress when Ramonda looks her husband in the eye and asks what is to be done about their nephew. T'Chaka shakes his head.
"I don't know," he says. "But he is my brother's child. He is my family. And I -,"
He stops looking her in the eye, preferring to stare at the space between her eyebrows.
"Look at me," she demands.
She was a priestess before she was queen of Wakanda. The priests of Sekhmet were warriors and healers, and they owe their fealty to a goddess who bathed the world in blood to right its wrongs.
Ramonda is a lion. And she will not have a husband that cannot look her in the eye.
T'Chaka takes a breath, and his gaze meets hers.
"I killed my brother, Ramonda," he says. "I killed his father. What is there for me to do?"
She narrows her eyes at him.
"You are his uncle," she says. "And you shame N'Jobu's memory when you stand by and watch his son destroy himself in his grief."
Her words strike T'Chaka the way she intends them to. Even now, she knows that he will take no action with Erik. He will not take part in the boy's education, he will not try to speak with the boy; they all know full well how Erik turns hostile when T'Chaka or Zuri are in the same room with him. It is part of the reasons why the boy takes his meals in his room, though he sits at the table with the family when they come together for meals. He will eat nothing and say nothing in front of his uncle.
T'Chaka is grieving his brother while Erik grieves his father. Though they mourn the same person, their grief stems from different wells. Erik is the evidence of T'Chaka's fratricide, and T'Chaka is the man who stole Erik from the only home he ever knew.
It will take time for them to build a bridge to one another. Ramonda was always expecting it to.
But there is a child in her house that is suffering, that has been suffering for a year. And she had assumed, wrongly that her guiding influence on his education and his socialization would be enough. Clearly, it has not been.
She has made a mistake. She will rectify it.
"Erik," she says, interrupting his lesson on the merchant clans. She knows from his tutors that he hates this course the most; it will endear him to her, taking him out of it.
"Come with me."
The boy looks over his shoulder at her, then back at his tutor, an infinitely patient man named Mamadi. Then he scrambles to his feet to join her.
"I'll return him to you later, Mamadi," she says, inclining her head to him.
"Of course, my queen," he replies.
Erik tries to keep a wide berth between them, but Ramonda lays her hand on the back of his neck. It stills him, and he lets her tug him over to her side.
"Where are we going?"
"You will see when we get there."
She guides him through corridors, downstairs. The air gets cooler until they are in the domain of Wakanda's spiritual advisors. There's the sound of running water, and the whisper of priests brushing robes against the floor. The smaller footfalls of the young acolytes, following behind their mentors.
The light is low, and the soft glow from the purple flowers fills the little cavern. It is a beautiful place; the sacred cove of Sekhmet is an airy temple surrounded on all sides by water. The columns that hold up the temple are made of the goddess herself in her lion headed form, as welcoming as they are fearsome. There is always some kind of song, some kind of lion song pouring out of the open aired temple walls.
Baast's cove is quiet and filled with her acolytes.
"My queen," Zuri says, approaching with a shy but boyish smile on his face. It falls when he sees Erik.
"How can we be of service to you?" he asks, tone immediately more formal.
She has always found Zuri to be a good man, a good priest for Baast's order. They have had countless conversations about the differences between Baast's acolytes and Sekhmet's, how sister goddesses can give rise to such different yet similar practices.
There is no such academic delight on his face today. His face is closed off. He has not come to forgive himself either, for what happened to N'Jobu. Another thing that must take time.
"Go about your work," she says. "We will stay out of your way."
Zuri nods and ducks backwards to go back to his work. Ramonda looks down at Erik, whose eyes are on the ground. He did not look up at Zuri. Little surprise there.
She guides him to a grove where a patch of the heart shaped herb grows. She sits down on the red stone floor, sweeping her skirt beneath her. She pats the ground beside her, and Erik sits there as well. He keeps some distance between them, the way he keeps everyone at arms length. Little surprise there as well.
"It is a common belief that when our loved ones die, that is the end of them. That death separates us, keeps us on one side of the veil and them on the other. We do not believe this in Wakanda."
She sweeps her legs beside her thighs, bringing her skirts up with her. She dips her fingers into the cool mud that supports green leaves and purple flowers. Erik is silent.
"In Wakanda, we believe that the ones we love who have made their transition are never far from us. Our ancestors are with us always, watching over us, guiding us in all that we do."
"They never stop loving us, and they wait patiently for each of us to join them when our time comes in the place where the plains roll on forever, where the water is sweet and cool, where there are only harvests and never famines."
She runs her hands over the bells of the purple flowers, peering into one after the other. The herb doesn't always grow in every flower; the sterile ones are used as decorations for ceremonies that celebrate births and deaths of those in the panther family. Several decorated N'Jobu's body when it was prepared for burial.
"Those of us who prove themselves worthy may visit the ancestral plane before their time, the place from which our deceased loved ones watch over us."
That catches his attention. She's abruptly aware of Erik's wide gaze on her face. She carefully plucks a sterile purple flower and brings it to her lap.
"Those people are the Black Panthers."
"The Black Panthers?" he asks. His voice is loud, but he quiets himself to a whisper to accommodate the quietness of the space around them. "Like Brother Huey?"
Ramonda smiles at him and nods.
"A little bit," she says. "The Black Panther is the ruler of Wakanda. They dedicate their lives to protecting our land, our people, and our way of life. They train in statesmanship, diplomacy, combat, and many other things from the time they are children to ensure that they are worthy of the mantle of Black Panther."
She brushes the dirt off the stem of the flower back into the flowerbed. Erik watches the way her hands move reverently over the sterile blossom, and the way she packs the earth around the place where she plucked the flower from it.
"All those born into the many tribes of Wakanda have the right to become the Black Panther," she says. "But the mantle has been passed within the panther clan for generations, since Baast, glory to her name, gave the power to him."
She hands the flower to him. Erik looks from it up to her. He hesitates for a moment, and then takes the flower into his small hands.
"You are the firstborn of N'Jobu, son of Azzuri," she says to him. "You, like your cousin T'Challa are born of the clan that was chosen by Baast herself to wield the power of the Black Panther."
Erik runs his fingers over the flower, its rubbery looking shell but its velvet soft bloom. He brought it to his nose and gave it a curious sniff.
He doesn't speak, but the silence now is not strained with his rage or his grief. Now, it is only the silence of a curious child, trying to decide what question he should ask next.
He peers up at her and asks, "My dad could've been king?"
"Yes," she says. "Your father N'Jobu chose not to challenge his brother for the mantle of Black Panther when he claimed it. But if he had so chosen and had proven himself in combat, your father could have been king."
Erik nods and looks back down at the flower.
"Could I be king, too?"
His voice is small, hesitant. As if he's never even thought of imagining such a thing for himself. N'Jobu raised his son as an American and a Wakandan; Erik knows his rights as his father's son, but he is also a boy of ten. Adults and their matters seem very lofty when you are not even five feet tall yourself.
"Yes, Erik, you could be."
They sit there for some time. Ramonda knows that she is keeping Erik not only from his lessons with Mamadi, but from others as well. It is no matter. A child needs an education, but they need support as well.
"Where I'm from, anyone could be a Black Panther," he says softly. "All kinds of folks were. It wasn't just one guy. Women were panthers, white people, and Asians, too. Being a Panther meant taking care of your community. It meant helping our people rise up."
Ramonda places her hand on his shoulder. Erik doesn't flinch. Progress.
"Then that is something that these panthers of ours have in common."
Erik nods. He jerks a little bit, then abruptly puts his head against her side. A miracle.
Ramonda wraps her arm around the boy, and holds him close for as long as he needs it.
He begins taking his lessons seriously after that.
He starts asking questions about economics and trade in an isolationist country. He asks about the Jabari in the far north, about the river people and those that guard the border lands. He asks about Ramonda's people in the plains. He asks about policy and traditions.
Though he was resistant in his lessons, he has a wealth of knowledge that he readily calls up in his classes now. It is clear that N'Jobu gave him a prince's education to the extent that he could, before his death.
He pesters his Dora guard with questions on how they operate, how long they train, and their fighting style. Oluchi is amused by him; she begins calling him a hellcat, which is affection for her.
The first time he challenges T'Challa to a footrace, W'Kabi thinks it's a trick. T'Challa still takes up Erik on the challenge, and T'Challa wins. The boys run grass sprints for the rest of the day until they are exhausted.
When Ramonda asks him why he's been chasing her son around all day, Erik gives her a toothy grin.
"I'm checking out my competition, auntie."
It is the first step to their lifelong friendship.
Erik begins to seek her out. She tells him stories from her childhood, from her people. Stories about his father when she knew him as a boy. He calls her auntie. It is progress, leaps and bounds from where he was when he first came to them.
He is less shy with Zuri than he is with T'Chaka. He does not warm to them as he does to her. But that, too, is only a matter of time. He goes down into the gardens of the heart shaped herb to think and to pester the acolytes and priests of Baast. He is endlessly curious, and they have endless knowledge to give to him.
It is not long before he catches up to T'Challa academically and physically; they begin combat training together and standing just behind T'Chaka's throne for elders council meetings. The debriefs that Erik gives after these meetings are as polished and nuanced as T'Challa's, with his young American perspective coloring his ideas.
As T'Challa comes to trust Erik, so does W'Kabi, and then the three of them are terrors. They get into everything that can be gotten into, forming mischievous plots to all sorts of ends. They heel under her gaze and when T'Chaka speaks sternly, but little can stop them once they are onto something.
They grow into gangly adolescents, then into young men. When Ramonda announces that she is pregnant with a second child, all of Wakanda celebrates. T'Challa and Erik take it upon themselves to join her increased Dora rotation.
They dote on her. T'Challa is paranoid that the palace is not safe enough for a newborn, and tries to baby proof the place. Erik is convinced that walking is too strenuous an activity; she feels no need to remind him that she was a warrior priestess before she was a queen. It would not change his mind.
They marvel at her growing belly and needle her about baby names. Ramonda takes the attention with all the regal bearing she has. She knows that when Shuri is born, she will have it much worse than Ramonda does now.
(She's absolutely right. The boys fawn over Shuri, each of them convinced that they're going to be her favorite. When she begins to talk, she calls Erik 'Um' and T'Challa 'Ub' for 'cousin' and 'brother' and she drools on them equally. Shuri would one day make a fine queen.)
Erik is there when T'Chaka dies.
He ran for his uncle, too, as T'Challa ran for his father. Neither of them reached him in time.
Erik, who knows the pain of losing a father, takes T'Challa away from T'Chaka's corpse and holds his cousin as he weeps his grief. He helps him hunt Zemo. He helps him bring him in.
Okoye thinks they are idiots for wildly seeking revenge rather than taking a calculated approach. Erik looks her in the eye and tells her that he is following his cousin to keep him safe where she cannot. T'Challa is wily, and he knows how to slip through his Dora guard. But Erik knows how grieving sons think, and he helps T'Challa where Okoye fails.
When they return home, Ramonda has no sense of propriety and neither does Shuri. The boys lack it as well. Ramonda wraps her arms around her three children, her two sons and single daughter and she holds them for as long as they need to be held.
When they pick the sterile purple flowers to decorate T'Chaka's body for burial, Erik says to her, "He killed my dad. But I'm still - I'm still sad he's gone."
She places her hand on his shoulder, and feels him shudder in the beginning of a sob.
"He took from you the person most precious to you when you were a very young boy," she says. "But he brought you to your rightful home and treated you like a son."
She takes his chin in her hand and makes him look at her, even with tears in his eyes.
"He may not have always been a good king, but in his heart, he was a good man. And it is hard to hate good men."
He is taller than her now. And he pulls her in for a hug that is almost too tight. She lets him hold her for as long as he needs.
After the funeral, he tells them to call him N'Jadaka.
He challenges T'Challa for the throne, when Zuri poses the option.
He puts up a beautiful fight. Towards the end, he has his spear to T'Challa's throat and Ramonda begins to lose her breath. She cannot lose a son so quickly after she has lost a husband.
"I concede!" he shouts, loud enough for all amassed at the Falls to hear. "I concede the throne to T'Challa, son of T'Chaka."
Ramonda breathes, and so does Zuri; the panther clan, the golden tribe will see no more fratricide.
He claps T'Challa hard on the back and joins Ramonda and Shuri once the fight is over. When M'Baku and the Jabari arrive, when M'Baku denigrates Shuri, N'Jadaka nearly throws himself over the spears of the Dora guard to fight M'Baku himself.
His concession and his immediate urge to protect Shuri is proof of what Ramonda has known for quite some time, and what she had learned from him a long time ago.
There were many ways to be a Black Panther. One path was by becoming king. But another was Ramonda's route, was Shuri's, and N'Jobu's, and Zuri's, was W'Kabi's, and Nakia's, and Okoye's, and the Dora Milaje's. It was the path born of loyalty, pride, and fierce unconditional love for their land, for their people.
Only one person could rule Wakanda, blessed by Baast with her strength. But Wakanda was a nation of lions and white apes and jungle cats and river spirits and rhinos.
And all of them, every last one of them, were black panthers.