Smoother than the stone that has been washed over by the strongest river. That is how they must be. Outwardly placid, unreadable, stoic, statue-like, only to become hard and invincible when pressure is placed upon them. Unyielding, unbreaking, unfeeling.
The Dora Milaje are well known to the people of Wakanda. Fierce warriors, protectors of the king, master strategists that make up a tightly knit clan of the best women that each tribe has to offer. They are both terrifying and awe-inspiring, and almost untouchable in a way that the King and Black Panther never will be.
To the outsiders, the colonizers, they are nothing but women dressed in flattering, smart-looking dresses with shaved heads that accompany the royal family wherever they go. Woe to those who underestimate the power and wrath of the Dora Milaje.
Stones, however, have the distinct advantage of neither thinking or feeling.
This was where Okoye was grateful for the many hidden nooks of the royal garden. Night had fallen in Wakanda. The palace was much like a tomb, without all the advisers and servants moving through the halls. Only the night guards, also members of the Dora Milaje, moved through the palace now, and woe to whomever might be stupid enough to try and break in.
Okoye, of course, was just a call and quick run away, should things really fall apart. However, night shift was a frustration that she was promoted out of many years ago, and she was grateful for the shadows and silence of garden. She sat on a bench under one of the many trees --not too far from the palace, she knew better--and she let herself stop being a stone, just for a moment.
She thought, she felt, and, yes, she cried.
Of course, her friends and sisters among the ranks of the Dora Milaje would've stepped up to comfort her if she asked them to, but there were times when one just had to do some things in private.
She had loved W’Kabi, loved him in a way that she hadn’t loved anyone else. He had been so earnest with his animals --not just the rhinos, that man had an entire farm that he cared for--and so gentle with her. He was so warm, so loving, so different to the stone she had trained, struggled, and worked for years to become. Stepping into W’Kabi’s arms, on her few days and nights off, was like becoming human again.
Okoye grimaced as she wiped bitter, angry tears away from her eyes.
Of course, losing the warmth wasn’t the worst of it. It was never the worst of it. Maybe, if Killmonger had taken W’Kabi’s life, she wouldn’t hurt as much. Yes, she would’ve mourned him, grieved for him, but it would have been so much... cleaner.
Okoye drew in a shaky breath as she glared up at the branches of the tree that she sat under. For Bast’s sake, he made a mess worse than one of his rhinos ever did.
Because it wasn’t just about losing W’Kabi. No, instead, he’d gone and betrayed the King, betrayed T’Challa, and backed a foreigner, the bastard son of a traitor prince. He’d indirectly caused T’Challa’s near death, and forced her to live to the word of her vow as a Dora Milaje and serve a homicidal maniac that wanted to use vibranium to launch an attack against the colonized world. All because T’Challa had lost Klaue.
Okoye clenched her teeth together as she tried to hold back more tears and leaned back against the rough bark of the tree. Maybe I should have let the King kill Klaue, cameras be damned. Maybe we would’ve avoided this whole mess.
Never mind the fact that T’Challa went out of his way, by thousands of miles, to find Klaue. Never mind that T’Challa had gone toe to toe with the American foreign intelligence agency --a massive pain in the neck that no one should ever have to suffer or bear witness to--to try and make sure that Klaue was brought back to Wakanda and to justice. Never mind that T’Challa had jumped on top of a fucking grenade to keep her and Nakia safe --never mind the fact he had the Panther suit, that man needed a crash course in thinking things all the way through--and chased the attackers into the alley --in the direction of gunfire; again, he really needed a crash course in thinking things through--to try a recapture Klaue, only to be hit with the full force of the stored energy blast.
The King had done his best. He was panther-blessed, not the goddess Bast incarnate!
And then, to add insult to injury, after all of T’Challa’s efforts, W’Kabi had backed N’Jadaka. Just because the maniac had presented him with a dead body.
Okoye pulled her knees to her chest and tried to quiet her sobs.
The final burn, the final dash of salt on an already gaping wound, was the damage it had dealt to her reputation. The royal family had forgiven her with ease --T’Challa had actually issued a formal statement, outlining what happened and stating that neither the Dora Milaje or the members of the Border Tribe who had acted under the orders of W’Kabi were to be judged or condemned for following the traditions that had been the backbone of Wakandan society for centuries. Nakia, too, had forgiven her easily, and chalked the whole thing up to an impossible, horrible situation that no one could’ve anticipated.
Unfortunately, the word of the King and the forgiveness of the future Queen only went so far.
The stares, suspicious looks, and hushed whispers were still there. She was easy to pick out as the General, with her gold armor and elaborate scalp tattoos. After years of serving as the King’s guard, she knew when people were watching the King and when they were watching her.
Everyone knew that the Dora Milaje followed the orders of the General. If she had left, all the others would’ve followed.
And yet, she had stayed and served N’Jadaka.
Okoye rubbed her cheeks harshly and sniffed inelegantly. He made me betray my friend, my family.
With one choice, W’Kabi had thrown her world into turmoil and not spared her a second glance.
Pain shot through her chest, as though she had torn open a wound anew.
Okoye gritted her teeth, clenched her hands into fists, and did everything within her power to hold in the pained, grieved screams that were clawing at her throat.
“And here I thought the night-life of the Milaje general would be more interesting.”
Her spear was out and pointed at the throat of the stranger in a minute. Okoye launched herself to her feet, blinked away the salty tears stinging her eyes, and Bast dammit.
M’Baku stared down at her, seemingly neither annoyed or ruffled by her attack.
Okoye drew in a ragged breath through her teeth and forced herself to retract her spear. “Chief M’Baku. I did not realize you would be in the gardens tonight.” She should’ve known, dammit. The Jabari were isolationists and prideful in the simplicity of their life. The natural, unmarred lushness of the garden was a welcome respite to the modern Wakanda.
M’Baku smiled faintly up at the tree they were standing under. “It’s nice to know that the rest of Wakanda hasn’t completely lost its taste for nature in its purest form.” His smile faded as he looked at her once more. “You seem less content here than I do, though.”
Nope. No. Absolutely not. She was not talking about her ex-lover with the leader of the Jabari.
I would rather chew on my own teeth.
Okoye set her shoulders. “I was just leaving.”
“No, you weren’t.” M’Baku sat down on the other end of the bench and motioned for her to sit as well. “If you need to speak, I am willing to listen.”
“And why would I talk to you?” The question came out sharper than intended, and for a moment Okoye was worried he might be offended. Not that she cared of what he thought of her, but offending political leaders generally wasn’t a good idea in her line of work.
Instead, M’Baku laughed. “Who better than the leader of the isolationist tribe who wants as little to do with the rest of Wakanda and the world as possible? Your secrets have nowhere to go after me.”
He has a point, she admitted to herself. After a moment, she sat on the other end of the bench.
“So, what has the General of the Dora Milaje weeping like a schoolgirl?”
Okoye glared at him. “I was not weeping like a schoolgirl.”
“Bawling like an infant, same difference.”
“Do you want me to use my spear on you, or do you want me to talk?”
M’Baku laughed again. “I would rather you talked.”
Okoye glared at him for a moment longer, then stared down at her hands. “It is... it is about W’Kabi.”
“The Border tribe midget that backed the outsider? Why are you crying over him?”
Because life isn’t simple, Okoye thought bitterly. She swallowed hard. “He was my lover,” she admitted in a muted voice. She could practically hear the gears in the large man’s head turning as his mind tried to process the statement.
M’Baku let out a sigh. “Well, that... was not the answer I was expecting.”
“You’re not the first person to say that.”
“He must’ve been one hell of a lover if you’re crying like this over him.”
Okoye let out a startled snort, then let herself cackle into the night air. “He was very proficient, yes.”
“Right, which is why you are laughing like a hyena.”
“I just wasn’t expecting you to say that!”
“Mm, that’s what they all say.”
She found herself laughing again, clutching at her gut as the pain from crying so hard mixed with the pain from laughing so hard. When she calmed down enough to look at M’Baku, she realized that he was grinning at her. “Well, I wasn’t,” she defended herself. “And I’m not crying over sex.”
“There’s no shame in it. You wouldn’t be the first.”
“Oh, stop it!”
Once she had calmed down again, he nudged her shoulder. “So, if not over sex, then what does Okoye, mighty General of the Dora Milaje, cry over in the royal gardens during the dead of night?”
She rolled her eyes at his dramatics, but smiled nonetheless. “When you are a Dora Milaje, you are a stone, a stone that has been washed over by the strongest river. You are smooth and strong, and you feel nothing.”
M’Baku grunted. “Sounds boring.”
Okoye rolled her eyes at him. “I have seen more of the world than you ever will.”
“And I can feel the full spectrum of human emotions whenever I choose. Your point?”
Okoye sighed and shook her head. “Being with W’Kabi...” She felt her throat constrict as her pain threatened to overwhelm her once more. “It was like being human again. No formality, no discipline, just... me.”
M’Baku clasped her shoulder with his massive hand and rubbed his thumb in small circles against her skin. “There will be others out there that you can be human with. W’Kabi is not the end.”
“It’s not just that,” Okoye said as her voice shook. She clenched her teeth together and stared up at the canopy of the tree as she tried to hold back her tears.
“Then what is it?” M’Baku asked, voice soft and gentle.
Okoye drew in a stuttered breath and gave M’Baku a pained look. “He made me betray my friends.” She let out a choked sob, and let M’Baku wrap his arm around her shoulders and pull her in into a semi-hug. “He didn’t even think of the position that would put me in! He didn’t even spare me a second glance! He just went and betrayed his King, his friend, because of a failed attempt! He backed N’Jadaka, and forced me to serve that monster, forced me to betray the family that I’ve loved and protected for years!”
“He isn’t worthy of you.”
Okoye shook her head. “I could’ve left! I can make my own choices! I let the rules of my job dictate my actions, instead of serving the people that have been like family to me!”
M’Baku stared at her, expression pained and sympathetic, then pulled her all the way into his arms.
Okoye sobbed against his broad chest as guilt and shame overwhelmed her. She was a Dora Milaje, yes, and she was loyal to the throne. But one question had kept her up many nights over the past few months: Where did the job end and did she begin?
Where did the stone Okoye stop and the human Okoye start?
She wished she had gone with Nakia, had protected the Queen Mother and the Princess, had been by Shuri’s side when Killmonger had attacked her. Instead, she had stayed and done her job.
“It wasn’t your fault,” M’Baku said as he rubbed slow, soothing circles up and down her back. “It isn’t your fault.”
“I can make my own choices.”
“Yes, you can, but that’s not the point,” M’Baku insisted firmly. “You should have never been in the position to choose between your job and the people you care about in the first place. W’Kabi should’ve thought of you before he thought of himself.”
“No, not ‘you.’ You didn’t turn in Nakia or the rest of the royal family, you tried to dissuade the outsider from his plan, and the second the King showed up, you turned against the outsider and fought for the true King of Wakanda. You did your job. W’Kabi is the only one to blame here. End of story.”
Okoye huffed against his shoulder. “You need to work on your writing if that’s your idea of a story.”
“I just happen to be a best seller among my people.”
“Try widening your consumer pool. I guarantee you’ll see more accurate results in days.”
M’Baku leaned back and pressed his hand against his chest, feigning offense. “Is this how the honorable General of the Dora Milaje treats her King’s trusted ally?”
“I’ll send you a colonizer to feed to your children as an apology.”
M’Baku let out a loud, gleeful laugh. “You heard about that, did you?”
“It was hard not to. I think it’s one of the Princess’s favorite stories.” She shot him a look of mock disapproval as he started laughing again. “Cannibalism? Really? For Bast’s sake, who did you think you were fooling?”
“The colonizer. It was fun.”
Okoye sighed, and settled against his shoulder once more. “Fair enough.”
They sat in silence for a moment, and let the sounds of the night wash over them.
Okoye let out a shaky sigh as the cool night breeze dried her damp cheeks. She felt gutted and beaten down, but lighter as well, somehow, as though a great burden had been lifted off her shoulders. After a while, her brain finally started registering the position she was in.
Her head was nestled against the fur M’Baku wore over his thick shoulders. She was pressed up against his substantial chest, and his massive, warm arms were wrapped around her in a hug that was surprisingly gentle, considering his size.
It almost felt like home.
This has probably gone on long enough, Okoye told herself, and she immediately tamped down the inner whine of ‘I don’t want to move!’ She was a General first, and that meant being able to wake up in time for her duties in the morning.
“So, what now?” M’Baku asked, breaking the silence before she could. “What happens next to the great General of the Dora Milaje?”
Okoye didn’t bother to fight the tired smile off her face. “The great General is going to bed.”
“I am in no hurry.”
“Neither am I, but I have training to conduct in the morning, and Ayo likes waking late risers up with buckets of ice water.”
“Something tells me you taught her that trick.”
“I am nothing if not a good teacher.”
“You’re a good person, too.”
Their gazes locked, and Okoye felt her chest constrict as she stared into M’Baku’s dark, expressive eyes. Bast help me. This was not my plan for tonight.
Fortunately, M’Baku seemed equally entranced by her. “So,” he said, his voice barely above a murmur. “You become a stone again.”
“That’s the way of things, yes.”
“And when will you become human again?”
Okoye smiled sadly at him. “When I feel like I can risk it.”
M’Baku smiled back, but caught her quiet hint nonetheless. He loosened his hold on her and shifted back slightly. “Make sure you find someone who is worthy of you.”
Okoye studied him, studied his handsome face for a moment, before answering, “I think I already have.”
M’Baku’s smile broadened into a grin that seemed to light up his face despite the darkness of the night. “You should get some sleep,” he said softly, “lest you risk an icy wake up call.”
Okoye laughed and stood. “Yes. Should I send a guard out to escort you through the garden?”
“I am the Chief of the Jabari. I am capable of protecting myself.”
Okoye smirked at him. “Well then, Chief M’Baku, I will leave you to your wanderings and bid you a goodnight.”
“Rest well, General Okoye.”
Okoye walked back to her quarters with a smile on her face and slept well for the first time in many nights.