In the moments following the end of battle, M’Baku plants himself like a mountain and refuses to be moved.
The blood of the creatures who attacked is foul—it mingles thick and cloying with the dust of the fallen and the churned earth beneath his feet. He braces his stance wider, unwilling to panic, and begins the call and answer to rally those who remain. Brave warriors begin to answer, faltering but gaining strength from his immovability—Jabari and River, Plains and Border. They finish their enemies, and come to his side.
He commands them all, in the absence of their leader, their King. He doesn’t allow himself to contemplate T’Challa’s absence from the field. The lithe form of the Black Panther had gone into the treeline, and Okoye had followed where he led, and there was no reason to assume—
He had watched his warriors turn to dust on the wind, and M’Baku is not a fool. He carefully does not think of T’Challa at all.
They begin the lengthy process of collecting the dead.
He is carrying a fallen warrior from the field when Okoye emerges from the trees. A small blonde woman stalks her like a shadow, and there is something in the Dora Milaje’s gait that makes him swallow hard against the not-knowing. He sets down his burden and stands, tries to reclaim the immovability of the mountain.
She takes a stumbling step and rights herself, shoulders going back and neck erect and unbowed. Her shadow closes the distance between them but remains apart and watchful. M’Baku watches the treeline behind her.
The Black Panther does not emerge.
Okoye stalks the breadth of the battlefield with her eyes empty and burning, fixed on the distant walls of the Royal Palace. She registers her surroundings as if through a veil, her perception muffled by shock. She knows she’s in shock, but there is no time to wait, to process. She has a duty to protect the ruler of Wakanda, and he—
She takes a harsh breath flavored with blood and the dust of the fallen and chokes it down. Her steps do not falter again.
The halls are quiet. Bodies of fallen guards, soft drifts of ash; the few who remain are hollow-eyed and uncertain. She has no reassurances, but commands them to secure the building.
The lab whistles with the wind through the shattered windows, echoing and still. Her eyes scan and she is aware, suddenly, of the careful footsteps at her back. The assassin has followed her, but does not interfere, and so she leaves it be.
Shuri stands on the lower level, shaky and resting a hand on a table, a shallow gash on her delicate cheek. Okoye has to lock her knees against the wave of relief—she had not dared to hope, to even allow the thought to form, had only allowed singular purpose to drive her here.
The young woman looks at her, eyes wide and startled, and holds out a hand streaked with dust. “Ayo,” she chokes out, bewildered.
A twinge goes through Okoye, muffled under the larger loss. She will have to make an accounting of the Dora Milaje when this is done, record the survivors and the missing.
Shuri’s eyes look her over, stray to the doorway behind her, come back with the whites exposed from encroaching panic. “Where is my brother?” she demands. “Where is T’Challa?”
Okoye tries to find words to tell her—The King is dead, you must lead us now—but how do you fix your mouth to speak words for one who is gone as if they never were? There was no threat she could have guarded against, no sacrifice she could have made. He is gone, and they must shoulder this loss as they shouldered the loss of his father.
The King is dead, but Wakanda lives. Wakanda must live.
“My Queen.” Okoye goes to one knee, head bowed, hand tight-knuckled on the haft of her spear.
Shuri makes a choked sound of denial. “Don’t.” A sound of pain. “Okoye. Don’t say this to me. Where is he?”
Okoye shakes her head, stands, comes to attention. The armor of the Dora Milaje is streaked with dust, oily dust like that which has caught in the crevices of her palm. “He is gone. You must lead us, now.”
“No! Where is my brother?” She screams, hoarse with grief, wild with emotion, her body bent with it. She has always been headstrong, impulsive, brilliant, and wild with it. Wild enough to give her mother white hairs. Wild enough to give headaches to a tolerant brother.
She lunges at Okoye, and the woman releases her spear, catches her, holds her tight. She needs someone to hold her together, because reality has come unraveled and nothing will ever be the same. She might come undone. She can’t. She has to be strong, and smart, and powerful.
“He can’t be gone. Okoye, tell me. Tell me he’s not gone.” She wishes tears would come and flush out this burning in her eyes and her throat. There is a fire of grief burning in her belly and trying to escape her.
Okoye grips the back of her neck, shakes her gently. “I’m sorry.”
Moments pass, and Shuri forces herself to pull away. To stand and brace herself for this altered reality. “Is the battle over?” she asks, voice still thick.
Watches Okoye retreat into herself, into duty. “Yes. M’Baku has the field, and is overseeing the collection of the dead.”
That dumb gorilla, Shuri might have said, scornfully. Before everything came undone. There was nothing to stand between her and the Jabari leader’s disdain now.
“He’ll challenge me.”
Shuri forgets herself, nearly wipes her hand on her tunic. Her hand, which is covered in the ashes that are all that remains of Ayo. Somewhere out there, all that remains of her brother, her vibrant, silly brother with his droll humor and his sweet smiles, all that remains is a pile of ashes. The fire in her belly lurches, and she chokes back sickness.
She looks down at the ashes, flexes her hand. “I need my mother. And the priests. There are rites.” She had to keep herself contained. Had to be strong, smart, powerful.
T’Challa was gone.
Wakanda was forever.