Like many things, it starts with Shuri.
She notices the way T’Challa looks at M’Baku, how M’Baku looks back at him, a word sly on his tongue. The way they touch, long enough for it to be something — a hand on the elbow, gentle against the back, even the quiet way M’Baku stays over after Council meetings after the rest of the tribe leaders have left. Curling up in her lab chair, she watches their conversations sometimes, sees the way they both risk recognition before slipping out into Wakanda’s streets and often returning late enough that nobody looks at them twice.
Sometimes they come back sweaty, T’Challa stripping his jacket off with a laugh, skin chafed and eyes bright, happy in a way Shuri hasn’t seen in a while. M’Baku’s steps are measured beside her brother’s, but there’s a fondness in the way he looks at him, the softening of his features, a gentleness she can’t ignore.
She feels like she’s trespassing sometimes, watching footage of them from her security cameras, even when they part modestly outside the throne room. No hugging, no kissing. Not even a handshake. Tonight is no exception: M’Baku kneels briefly, and T’Challa says something that verges on embarrassment. Shuri cackles, zooming in on his face.
“Goonight,” he says, seeing M’Baku out the door. “Travel safe.”
“You two seem very close,” Shuri notes over breakfast one day, ignoring the way T’Challa’s fork warps under his grasp. She raises her eyebrows, shoveling another spoonful of fruit into her mouth.
“M’Baku is a member of my Council,” he says, voice forcibly even. “I should hope we get along.”
“Politics often do not hinge upon fraternization.”
T’Challa’s fingers twitch, and he purposely looks away to avoid meeting her eye. “Is there something you’d like to say, sister?”
“Oh, you know,” she says airily, “Just this and that,” she coughs, “Enjoying the palace night life…”
“Come on,” she bursts out, mask cracking. She points her knife at T’Challa from across the table with a laugh. Both of them know she’s got the upper hand now, and his expression shifts until he looks like he’s eaten a particularly sour lemon, lips pinched together. “Are you guys together yet?”
T’Challa looks at her for a while, before replying: “No.”
“Are you serious?”
“He’s a member of the Royal Council,” he says, “I cannot sleep around with just anyone—”
“Brother, he’s not just anyone—”
“—you know what I mean!”
“If I have to sit in on another meeting with the two of you making googly eyes at each other for three hours, my ass is going to set itself on fire!” she yells. “On fire!” she repeats. “By itself!”
“I don't think that’s possible."
“To googly eyes or setting myself on fire?”
“Brother,” Shuri cries, jumping up from the table so she can wrap her arms around T’Challa’s neck, shaking him back and forth. “Why are you like this?”
“Physical agitation won't change my person, Shuri.”
“That was never my intention,” she says, jabbing her chin into his shoulder, still latched onto his neck. “I’m just trying to get you to see that there are possibilities on the horizon,” she sighs. “You think Okoye and Nakia got together in a day?”
T’Challa sends her a look of disgust. “Do not bring them into this conversation.”
“I’ll do whatever I want,” she shoots back, patting the top of his head. “I’m just saying there are more options out there than being single and mopey.”
“I’ve heard what you’ve been saying, sister,” he says, “For the past month,” he says. “Sister.”
Shuri brightens, “So that means you’ll consider it?”
“No,” T’Challa says, getting to his feet with Shuri clinging to his shoulders. She shrieks, giggling, but doesn’t try to dislodge herself. “It means that I’m still King, and there are more important issues to attend to rather than my love life.”
“Brother, come on,” she says, kicking her legs to be let down.
“No,” he says tightly, hoisting her higher up on his back.
They make it as far as the door before Okoye spots them. She cocks her head to one side, but decides to join the entourage, listening to Shuri’s complaints with faux gravitas. The door to one of the upper level rooms slide open when T’Challa freezes in the doorway, shoulders tensing.
“My King,” someone says, dropping to one knee.
“Please, rise,” T’Challa says, embarrassed, one hand closing into a fist, opening up again. Shuri strains to see who it is. “Good morning, M’Baku,” he manages, even as his voice is drowned out by her shriek of laughter.
♛ ♛ ♛
“He froze?” Nakia laughs, almost falling out of her chair.
“Like an antelope in the headlights,” Okoye says, dutifully repeating what she’d said months earlier. “You should’ve seen him. He couldn’t even move.”
“God, I wish I was there,” she sighs.
“I did too,” Okoye says. She drops her cleaning cloth on the table and gets up, offering Nakia a hand to pull her to her feet. “But enough of that, love. If I wanted to know our King was useless in romance, I would’ve gone to Shuri.”
“Where to then?” Nakia asks, tucking her hands into the crook of Okoye’s elbow.
“Out,” she smiles.
They wander the hallways, talking of everything and nothing — the weather, the politics, what missions they’ve been on recently. It isn’t long before they’re out on the monorail, legs dangling off the edge of the track as the train comes to a halt by the training grounds. It’s late enough that they’re deserted; even the weapons range is quiet.
Okoye wasn’t planning on bringing them anywhere in particular, but Nakia doesn’t seem to mind the change in scenery. They make their way through the open fields and down to the shooting range, poking listlessly at the wooden staffs and dismantled blasters.
Then: “Wait,” Nakia says, arm shooting out before Okoye can turn the corner. They’d meant to visit the open studio — the one with padded floors and big mirrors and a killer view of the mountains out the window — when she hears the sound of skin hitting skin. The door’s half-closed and far enough off that it’s hard to tell what’s happening behind them, but they’d know T’Challa’s voice from anywhere.
“Harder,” someone says.
“Like this?” T’Challa asks, breathless. He swallows audibly, the sound traced by the break in his words, followed by a grunt.
Is that M’Baku? Nakia asks, mouthing the words at Okoye. She has one hand sprawled against the wall, and her mouth’s since dropped open with shock. They sound like—
I know, Okoye grimaces.
T’Challa hisses, the noise pitched high and edging pain. M’Baku says something, but the words are muffled, too quiet for them to make out.
“Should we leave them?” Nakia asks, searching blindly for Okoye’s hand. She steps backwards. “I think we should leave them.”
“I think we should leave them too,” Okoye agrees.
They make their way hastily through the weapons room and the shooting range and back into the open, climbing the winding staircase until they’re back at the main grounds, falling over themselves with laughter.
T’Challa has a hard time walking the next day. Okoye stands dutifully by his shoulder while he holds meetings, but she doesn’t miss the way he winces with every step, lowers himself carefully onto his throne. M’Baku looks inordinately pleased from his seat, but T'Challa ignores him, turning to address the other elders instead.
When Okoye leaves the two of them alone, he turns to M’Baku, tone accusing. “Did you really have to throw me over your shoulder last night?”
“You said you wanted to spar.”
“I didn’t think it meant working on uppercuts for three and a half hours,” he says, “Or whatever it was you had me doing. Everything hurts.”
“You’re out of shape.”
“No, I’m not,” T’Challa says, nose crinkling. “But you love me anyway.”
“Against better judgement,” M’Baku sighs, sliding an arm around his waist and bringing his free hand up to cup T’Challa’s cheek. He leans down to kiss his forehead, then his nose, his mouth last — lips curling up into a smile. “Yes, I do.”
♛ ♛ ♛
“We need to move fast,” Shuri says, bursting into the dining room. “Come on,” she says, tugging impatiently at Erik’s shirtsleeve when he refuses to get to his feet.
“What?” he asks, spoon still halfway out of his mouth. “Where the hell did you come from? I just wanna eat my lunch, man.”
“I am not a man,” Shuri says distractedly, shoving something into his arms. She pulls the silverware from between his teeth and lobs it across the kitchen so hard it wedges neatly into the dishwasher. “And I need you because we’re going to break into my brother’s room.”
“Your brother’s r—are you serious?”
“Very much so.”
“And you realize he’s like, the King of Wakanda right?”
“As I am certain I just saw M’Baku headed down to his quarters.”
Erik trips over his own feet, Shuri sticking an arm out to prevent him from faceplanting. “You what?”
“M’Baku,” she repeats impatiently, “My brother. His bedroom.”
“Holy shit,” Erik says, “You think he’s gonna try and kill him?”
“No!” Shuri yells, despairing. “I think they’re going to,” she gestures vaguely with both hands, then makes kissing noises.
“Would you stop being so crass?” she hisses, karate chopping his arm out of embarrassment. “I mean— no, but yes. This might be the only chance I get to,” she gestures vaguely with her arms again, “Catch them together.”
“You want footage of them fucking?”
“No!” Shuri shrieks, this time coming at Erik with both elbows and knees. “I just need some evidence that they’re,” another incoherent noise, “because Mom doesn’t believe me, and the only stuff I have of them is all “oh, my King” kind of nonsense—”
"You realize they might not be wearing clothes,” he says, voice pitching high.
“Not if we hurry,” Shuri says, latching onto the front of his shirt with surprising strength. “Which is why I was telling you to get moving," she grunts, yanking impatiently at his collar until he gets the message, heading reluctantly out the door.
She breaks out into a run, forcing Erik to keep pace as they scrabble down hallways, Shuri slamming her palm into every scanner in their path.
They’re both breathing hard by the time she skids to a stop and sets about disabling the locks to the foyer and the entrance hall. Shuri holds a finger up to her lips as they close in on T’Challa’s bedroom, spreading her fingers across the door’s surface. Erik hears a series of locks slide quietly open and she yanks the door open: one arm locked in front of her and storming the room.
“So you two are having sex!” Shuri yells into the silence. Erik slides in awkwardly behind her.
From the bed, T’Challa looks up, face blank. His stack of papers lowers a fraction, one hand tracing the rim of M’Baku’s ear. M'Baku's curled up over the covers, head in his lap.
“We are?” he asks drily, tilting his head to the side. “M’Baku why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve put my book down.”
♛ ♛ ♛
The next UN meeting is a disaster.
M’Baku arrives early with Okoye and Nakia, and twiddles his thumbs while he watches a strange number of white men slip into the room. They eye him with caution, but he doesn’t bother to look away, enjoying the silence. Not even the Ross boy comes to speak with him when he passes by.
“You’re scaring them,” Nakia says, slapping his thigh. He raises his eyebrows, but doesn't say anything.
“Let them be scared,” Okoye snorts, leaning back in her chair. “I have no respect for those who mock our crown.”
“They have yet to learn,” Nakia says patiently, even when Okoye smiles, baring rows of sharp teeth. “I highly doubt they will act the same way again.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” M’Baku says, finally.
“Don’t you start too,” she says, right as the opening speaker leaves the stage. The other delegates have risen from their seats to clap politely, filtering through to the lobby for wine and asinine conversation.
T’Challa fits himself into their group as soon as Nakia makes it out onto the open floor, clutching a flute of champagne to his chest. He looks irritable and exhausted, even when M’Baku ghosts a hand over the small of his back, hovering but not yet daring to touch.
“How were the negotiations?” she murmurs, picking white wine off a passing tray.
“Long,” T’Challa says, knowing better than to scrub a hand down his face. He wants to escape to the bathroom and stick his face in a sink full of cold water. “The Americans are more annoying than I remember.”
“They are overzealous idiots,” Okoye butts in, equally as quiet.
T’Challa snorts, shooting her a tired grin. “Cogent as ever, General,” he says, “I’ve missed your wit in court.”
The four of them wind their way across the lobby, sparing small talk with passing politicians. Until M’Baku leans down and says, “Is there a reason they ignore you?”
“Nothing rash,” T’Challa says, reaching back to touch his arm.
“They think I am King,” he says, annoyed. “Not you.”
“You command attention.”
“And you do not?”
“Not in your presence, it seems.”
M’Baku grits his teeth, and glares down the next person who so much as glances in their direction. “I don’t like it.”
“That’s just the way it is,” T’Challa says, mirth coloring his voice. “There’s not much you can do it about it. Relax.”
“Perhaps,” he shrugs. He looks up at M’Baku, eyes fond. “Yet I’ve bested you twice now.”
“I didn’t know you were keeping count.”
“I do when it comes to you,” M’Baku shrugs.
Nakia drills a heel into his foot. “Can we stop the flirting?” she asks.
T’Challa’s about to reply when he hears commotion behind them. He turns, as does the rest of the delegation, Okoye automatically sliding her weight into the balls of her feet.
Then the ceiling caves in.
They are separated in the chaos.
T’Challa cannot hear out of either ear from being so close to the explosion, and the smell of smoke and ash and dust remind him too much of Vienna. He cannot find Nakia or Okoye, not even M’Baku in the dark. He hopes against hope that they haven’t been killed; he was saved by Shuri’s suit. T’Challa doesn’t think he’ll survive losing them too.
Eventually, he manages to hitch himself a ship out of the rubble and calls Shuri up so she can pilot from her lab. T’Challa can’t hear anything she says, so he collapses in the nearest chair and sleeps the whole way home.
He doesn’t ask if they made it out or not.
♛ ♛ ♛
“What happened?” M’Baku demands, T’Challa stumbling down the landing pad. He’s taken the mask off, but still has the rest of the suit on, looking like he’s about to collapse.
“Nothing happened,” he says, even as M’Baku’s arms shoot out to steady him before he can take a dive. He grits his teeth through the pain of walking, leg likely broken and adrenaline wearing off. Being Panther grants him strength, but not magic. “I was not expecting there to be a cleanup crew involved after the explosion.”
“My King—” T’Challa shoots him a look, even as M’Baku brings a hand up to press against his cheek, running a thumb through the blood under his eye. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he shakes his head, already starting up in the direction of Shuri’s lab. He looks like he’s hanging on through sheer willpower alone. M’Baku refuses to let him go, tightening the hold on his bicep before pulling T’Challa closer to him. “I can walk on my own,” he says, words starting to slur, “Let me—”
“You cannot,” M’Baku says.
“I can,” he argues, stubborn.
“You have a knife,” M’Baku says, “in your thigh.”
“I’ve had worse.”
“I’m not fishing you out from a riverbank again. Come,” he says, cupping T’Challa’s face with one hand before he leans down for a kiss. And another, quick, free arm draped across his back, T’Challa pulling away too fast. “Let’s bring you to your sister. I’m sure she has much to say.”
In late evening, they stand across from each other in T'Challa's quarters. “I thought you were dead,” T'Challa admits, hating the way his voice cracks. He cries easily and he cries often, but he’d rather not have this conversation end in tears. He hooks his chin over M’Baku’s shoulder and wraps arms around his neck, breathing in the smell of his skin — clean from the shower.
“I’m not,” he says, gentle with his arms where they rest low on T’Challa’s waist.
“I know,” he replies, strangely angry with himself. He feels like this is a dream, that any minute he’ll wake up back in that UN building losing sight of Nakia and Okoye, watching M’Baku push him to the floor and then disappear in a rush of broken chandelier. He feels like he can’t protect the people he loves, that he can’t, he can’t—
“Stop that,” M’Baku murmurs, pressing his lips to the top of his head. “I can hear you thinking from over here.”
“You’re shaking,” he says, pulling back to look T’Challa in the eye. T'Challa drops his gaze to the floor and rubs his face with the back of his shirtsleeve, trying to avoid the subject. “Are you cold?” he asks.
“Then come to bed,” M’Baku murmurs. T’Challa sighs, and leans back against the balcony’s railing, pressing the heels of his palm hard into his eyes. There is the stretch of new skin across his stomach, and he pays more attention to that than the question he leaves unanswered.
“Later,” he says, eventually. He can’t look M’Baku in the eye. “I’d like to be alone right now.”
M'Baku considers him for a long moment, and bends down to kiss him — chaste. “Don’t stay out too long."
He turns, closing the door behind him. He knows T’Challa will be back later: smelling of incense and the temple river, soaked in burial dirt. He will visit his father, and he will ask Bast what he should do afterwards, how he’ll survive this and the next and the next. He will grieve, in his own way, for the memories brought back from their morning in Florence.
But he will come back.
♛ ♛ ♛
In the morning, Erik will pull T’Challa into a hug, and refuse to let go for a long time. Raymonda will be there, Shuri will be there. M’Baku will stand awkwardly in the background with his legs crossed, leaning against the sink as he downs a cup of coffee, raising it in a toast instead of going over to join them.
“He’s not a fan of hugs,” T’Challa explains.
“He’s a pretty big fan of you,” Shuri counters, eyebrows raised, ignoring the way her brother flushes at the comment.
M’Baku makes a noise of approval from the kitchen sink, cradling his (T’Challa’s) mug with one hand and shooting finger guns at Shuri. “I’m really starting to like you,” he says.
T’Challa fixes him with a withering look. All Shuri does is laugh.