Erik is standing across the street from the Oakland Marine Corps Recruitment Center on the morning of his eighteenth birthday when he gets the call.
He’d waited up the night before, watching as the red dots on the clock blinked up to midnight, willing them to go faster. He’d grinned himself silly when eleven rolled over to twelve, even though eighteen didn’t really feel any different from seventeen. It was different, legally at least. It was old enough to join up, to get shipped off to other countries to blow people up. And that was all that mattered.
Even sleep deprived and nervous, he can’t stop smiling. It’s 6 am, and the stucco strip mall is cast in a blueish purple light. The recruitment center isn’t open yet, but it will be, soon.
His paperwork is in his hands; his heart is in his throat.
This is it. This is how he begins his story, this is how he finally takes his life into his own hands. Instead of getting thrown around from foster home to foster home at the mercy of the system, he’s going to be someone. He’s been whispering the plans to himself at night, every night, like a rhythm: the marines, then college, and then that final, mythical goal: Wakanda. He’s been too scared to write any of it down, like that might jinx him. But now he’s eighteen and he can do what he’s been dreaming of doing for over a decade.
Across the street, the fluorescent lights of the recruiting center flicker on behind the blinds. He takes a deep breath and steps from the curb into the crosswalk.
In his pocket, his cellphone rings.
He swears and jumps back onto the curb. The ringtone is a tinny mp3 ripped off a friend’s mixtape; it sounds unbearably loud in the stillness of the dawn. He juggles his papers into one hand and fishes around in his pockets for the phone, cursing as he tries to flip it open one handed. The song is almost up by the time he finally manages to wrestle it open and cradle it between his jaw and shoulder. “Sup, Erik here.”
There’s a pause on the other end of the line. “I am looking to speak to N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu.”
The name hits him like a bullet to the gut.
No one’s called him that in ten years, not since his dad. He whispers it to himself in the night so that he doesn’t forget, but that doesn’t really count. It sounds strange over the phone, coming from a stranger’s mouth.
He hears a slight exhale on the other end of the line and scrambles to remember how to talk. “Uh, who is this?”
“Adanna daughter of N’Didi, chief outreach officer of the Wakandan State Department.”
He feels ice in his veins and a strange buzzing in his head.
There’re a million things he wants to say, but all he can manage in the moment is a weak “oh.” Wakanda… it’s been this mythical place off in the clouds for so long: he’d almost stopped thinking of Wakanda as a real place, a physical space that exists in the same plane as he does. In the darkest moments of his life, on the darkest nights, he’d let himself entertain the fear that perhaps Wakanda was only ever a dream, a sop made up by his dad to comfort him when the world seemed to cruel, too unfair, too stacked against everybody that looked like him.
But even after he’d accepted that Wakanda was real and banked his life on getting there, it had never occurred to him that Wakanda could just pick up a cell phone and call him.
He hears the shuffling of papers, and then the woman on the phone presses on in that same flat tone. “Am I given to understand that this is in fact N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu?” It’s like this isn’t some earth-shattering revelation, but instead he’s just another caller on the list. She sounds about as thrilled as a doctor’s receptionist. Hello, you’ve reached Wakanda, our hours are 9 to 5 on weekdays…
“Yes,” he croaks. “That’s me.”
“Ah.” More paper shuffling. “We are reaching out on behalf of King T’Chaka. He invites you to return to Wakanda.”
The fury blindsides him, and he has to pinch his eyes shut before he can respond. The king invites him. Invites him. Eric wasn’t in the room when his dad died, but he didn’t have to be. When a Wakandan stealth ship slips in and the King’s brother ends up dead, it doesn’t take a genius to know who gave the order. T’Chaka murdered his dad and left Erik to die in a gutter, and now he has the fucking gall to invite him back.
He would rather die than accept a fucking cent from T’Chaka.
But it’s a way into Wakanda.
He won’t bow to his father’s killer.
But he might not get another chance.
On one hand, it’s an impossible choice. On the other, it’s barely a choice at all.
Adanna, daughter of N’Didi informs him that he can expect a transport ship at his home address in approximately two hours, and then promptly hangs up. That spawns a million questions, of course. For one, how the hell does she know where he lives? He tries calling back three times but no one answers, and on the third try a robotic voice tells him that the number he wishes to call is no longer in service. He shoves the phone back into his pocket with a curse.
He takes one last look at the Marine Corps recruiting center. There’s a moment of vertigo, when the future splits and twists off the path he had set it on. And then he’s turning his back on the run-down little strip mall, turning his back on the plan he’s been building so carefully for the last ten years. He shoves his papers into his pocket, and then he’s sprinting home.
He runs as fast as he can, until it feels like his lungs are bleeding. He only lives a few minutes away, but he can’t help the fear: what if he’s not there when the ship arrives? What if they leave without him?
He bursts through the door. His foster jailer- he refuses to call her mother- is sitting in the kitchen in a faded pink bathrobe, glaring at him through a haze of cigarette smoke. “I’m being generous, letting you stay the week until you’re the army’s problem,” she sniffs. “Don’t make me change my mind.”
He kicks a kitchen chair out of his way and flips her off. “I’m leaving today, you dumb bitch.”
He ignores her furious squawking and hurries to his bedroom. He takes a moment to look at it, really look at it: a sad, dark closet with barely anything in it other than a mattress on the floor and a banged-up chest of drawers with a few books on top pressed against the far wall. He’s done with this. He’s not going to live like this anymore.
He shoves his few belongings into a duffel bag he picked up at Goodwill after he got tired of toting his stuff from foster home to foster home in trash bags. It isn’t like there’s much to pack, anyway: clothes, toiletries, a few books- all dog eared and falling apart. It only takes about three minutes, then it’s back through the kitchen and out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him.
He paces up and down the stairs for a few minutes, then relocates to the front stoop, where he spends the next hour bouncing his leg, foot vibrating enough to make the whole block move. What if this is all a mistake? What if they aren’t coming?
He’s on the verge of a panic attack when the ship arrives. It’s silent as it phases smoothly out of a low-hanging cloudbank, a vision of polished silver and ice-blue lights against the grey of the sky.
Erik watches as it flickers in and out of its cloaking shield before settling onto the parking lot of the abandoned gas station on the corner. He has to wonder whether the ship was already en-route when they called him, or whether their tech is really good enough that the ship was able to travel ten thousand miles in two hours. That would be a hell of a lot faster than the X-15 or the SR-71 or whatever other tech is floating around the Pentagon these days.
Even disregarding speed, it’s a hell of a ship. The frame is smooth and bright, even under the dull sky. The wings and engines are twisted and folded like flower petals or bird wings, thinner than paper in places, but harder than steel. Vibranium: what a gift.
He slings his duffel over his shoulder without taking his eyes off the ship and begins to walk down the sidewalk.
The pilot is waiting at the entrance as he walks up. She pulls down her lip to show off her tattoo and nods as Erik fumbles to do the same. “I am Folade, daughter of Ayo.”
“I am N’Jadaka,” Erik says. “Son of N’Jobu.” The name feels unfamiliar on his tongue.
If the pilot notices his discomfort she doesn’t say anything. She gives him a sunny smile and waves him aboard the ship; Erik follows her and takes a seat in the copilot’s chair next to her.
Takeoff is a dream: barely any rumbling or turbulence and they’re off, lifting higher and higher through wisps of cloud and fog. He keeps his face pressed to the glass as the ship arcs over the bay, drinking in the view as the hills of San Francisco turn into anthills beneath them.
“Pretty amazing, yes?” Folade says, and then launches into an enthusiastic monologue about the history of her plane.
He looks back at the pilot and can’t help the way his lip curls in disgust. “Yeah. Really something.”
With ships like this the Wakandans could have taken over the world. They could have driven every brutal police officer out of Oakland. And not just out of Oakland, but also New York and LA, and the rest of the country. The rest of the world. They could have ended slavery before it began. And they certainly could have dropped by and picked him up any day of any of the past ten years.
But they never did.
It takes them just over three hours to reach the mountains outside of Wakanda. So not world-record fast, but still very respectable, especially for a passenger vessel. They probably have fighter jets that go faster. He’ll have to see if he can spy out the tech when he gets there.
He’s in the midst of a daydream about what he could do with jets like that when Folade clears her throat. “We begin our descent.”
He looks out the window and screams as he jumps from his chair; the ship is aiming straight at the side of a mountain. They’re going to crash; they’re going to be charred corpses in three, two, one-
The mountainside bursts into color and light, and suddenly there’s a city stretching before him as far as the eye can see. He falls back down into his chair and stares.
“It always gets visitors,” Folade says with a little chuckle.
Erik grits his teeth. “I’m not a fucking visitor,” he mutters. “This is my home.”
Folade blinks like this hadn’t occurred to her. “Oh, I mean- yes. Of course!”
He’d like to stay mad at her but he can’t; the city is too beautiful. He drinks in every view, marvels at every building, and when the pilot nears a landing pad adjoined to the largest building in sight he’s almost sorry the flight is ending.
The landing pad is almost entirely empty; he can just make out a huddle of three or four people standing to the side, watching the ship as it eases down. Folade sets the plane down in the middle of the pad and opens the main hatch. “Safe travels, my prince,” she says with a big smile, and then she’s turning back to her data pad, Erik already forgotten.
He stands hesitantly and walks down the steps onto the tarmac, pausing for a moment before he heads towards the waiting figures.
His heart starts beating faster as he scans them- could one be the king? But no; they’re all women. He can’t decide whether to be pissed off or relieved.
One of the women steps forward. She’s older than the others, around the age of most of his foster moms if he had to guess. She’s tall and wears a robe of deep purple cloth pinned from her shoulders. She radiates disapproval, and as her eyes flick from his hair to his clothes to his shoes he gets the sense that she’d rather be anywhere than here.
He tries for a charming smile and reaches out his hand. Might as well play nice, at least to start.
The woman eyes his hand but does not take it. Maybe they don’t do fist-bumps or handshakes in Wakanda. Maybe they just glare at each other. “I am Nneka, daughter of Adichie, she says in a stiff voice. “I have been appointed your valet while you stay with us.”
“While I stay with you?” Erik flashes her a grin. “I’m here for good.” If the king thinks he can just toss him out after bringing him here he’s dead wrong.
Her nostrils flare, but she doesn’t respond, just turns on her heels and waves him into the palace with a curt gesture.
He follows a half step behind her. He’d normally try to get a rise out of her- nag her or charm her or both- but for once he’s silent, too overwhelmed by the beauty of the palace to do anything but stumble after her with his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open.
He’s never had luxury like this, just seen pictures of it in magazines. Everywhere his eyes look there are lush colors and the bright sheen of metal. And even better, it’s all in African patterns. Each hall is different and more beautiful than the one before it.
After about ten minutes, Nneka outside a set of double doors and yanks them open. “These are your rooms.”
He enters, wide eyed. Rooms. All the spaces he’s ever had to himself are cramped closets or tiny boxes barely big enough to fit a mattress. And now he has rooms, plural.
Intent on exploring, he barely notices when Nneka and the others leave, shutting the door behind them. These rooms are huge. The main one is bigger than most of the apartments he’s ever lived in, with a high cantilevered ceiling that makes the space feel like a church. The bed in the corner is huge, and there’s chairs and couches and bookcases strewn about like in some fancy hotel. Off of the main room there’s a bathroom and a study and a whole room with nothing but clothes in it.
The novelty wears off after the first half hour. Yeah, it’s all very pretty. But he wants to see the king.
He tries the door. It’s locked.
That sets off alarm bells right away. He tries the door again, twisting on the handle harder this time until his fingers ache. No dice.
“Hey lady!” he shouts. “What the fuck?”
There’s no reply.
By nightfall he’s ready to break his way out if he has to. He actually tries it, but the chair he throws at the door bounces off with a mighty clang and he realizes with a sinking heart that the door and the hinges are all made of vibranium, Great. He considers the windows, but the room is too high up. He’s not going to risk falling to his death today. Maybe if they don’t let him out by tomorrow.
With nothing else to do, he practices the speech he’s going to give to the king, whenever it is he actually gets to see him. There’s a million things he wants to say, number one being some variant of “how fucking dare you?” He wants to know what happened the night his father died. He wants to know why T’Chaka abandoned him, why no one ever came for him. Why, why, why?
But as he paces up and down the apartment, scowling at himself in the mirrors, the words keep breaking down.
He’d only ever planned to get here.
The Marines, college, the special forces… it was only ever a means to an end. He was going to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get to Wakanda, and then… and then…
He’s here now. What does he do next?
He wants to stab the king, see the life drain from his eyes. He wants to sit on the throne and finally have the power to make others love and fear him. He wants to save his people. He wants to save the world.
First things first. He needs to decide what he’s going to say to T’Chaka once they meet face to face. There’s no paper in his rooms so he writes it in his head, repeating phrases until he remembers them, tweaking words until it all sounds just right.
Pacing back and forth, he works on the speech for hours: sometimes mumbling the words to himself, sometimes shouting them. He stays up late into the night, staring at the locked door and willing it to open.
But the king does not send for him.
Erik finally falls asleep in the early hours of the morning, slumped on the top of the bed, still wearing his clothes. He sleeps fitfully as the dawn filters through the grates on the windows.
The door opens a few hours later. He jumps up out of bed, but it’s only a pair of maids carrying a platter of food for him. He glares at them with bleary eyes as they set the food down on a low table by the window. “I want to see the king.”
They do not reply.
He repeats himself, louder and angrier this time.
They glance at each other but otherwise do not react. They move about him as if he were not there, or else were some piece of furniture to be noticed but not treated with any special attention.
He’s contemplating screaming in their faces when the door opens again and Nneka arrives with a gaggle of men and women behind her.
“When the fuck do I get to see the king?” he grits out. Behind him the two maids seem to come to the joint decision that he’s no longer their problem, and beat a hasty retreat to the door.
“When you no longer look like a pauper,” is Nneka’s curt reply. “The king has graciously allowed us to make use of the royal tailors.”
That gets his hackles up, no way around it. Okay, his clothes are worn, and mostly second hand. But if the king wanted him to wear nice clothes maybe he shouldn’t have murdered Erik’s dad and left him to grow up in foster care. So yeah, letting him borrow the royal tailors: really nice of him.
The tailors ignore his scowl and swarm over him, whisking measuring tapes over his body and poking and prodding at his limbs. They mutter between themselves and to Nneka, and he can catch enough to know that as far as they’re concerned, he looks like shit. “I am burning these pants,” one of the seamstresses murmurs, to snickers all around.
“It was fine if I wore sweatpants Oakland,” Erik snaps.
Nneka raises an eyebrow. “Then feel free to return to Oakland and continue doing so,” she says in a flat voice.
He’s not getting kicked out over a fucking pair of pants, not when he’s come all this way. “I want to speak with the King.”
She doesn’t look up from her tablet. “He’s busy.”
“Doing what?” he asks with gritted teeth.
She does look up then; her eyes might as well be steel. “Kingly things.”
He wants to ask if that means he’s planning covert assassinations of family members, but manages to bite his tongue. Of course it has to be like this; of course it was a dream to think that people here might actually respect him. He squares his shoulders and marches over to Nneka’s chair, glaring down at her. “I am a prince of Wakanda and I demand-“
In a flash she’s pushing into his space; he takes a step back before he can help it. “You’re not in any position to demand anything,” she hisses. “You think they brought you back out of goodness of their hearts?”
He hadn’t. He hadn’t given any thought as to why they’d brought him here. But of course it wouldn’t be because they wanted him. No one ever did.
He can’t deal with any more of this. He shoves his way past Nneka and the tailors and stomps out the door into the hallway outside his rooms. “Try and stop me!” he calls over his shoulder.
To his relief and disappointment, neither Nneka nor any of the tailors try to stop him. He runs down the empty hallway outside his door, slamming his feet down against the marble tiles so hard he’s almost disappointed when they don’t break.
He takes a left at the end of the hall, then a right, then a left. He picks the turns at random, no longer really caring where he ends up, just wanting to move, to run away from all the things clawing up inside him. The palace seems to go on forever, each plaza and passage more unfamiliar than the last. He passes through cavernous ballroom, snaking corridors, twisting staircases. Everything gleams with vibranium accents and the fall of colored light. He has no idea where he is.
An archway comes into view as he turns a narrow corner, with two guards leaning at either side. The one on the right looks bored. The one on the left is asleep. Erik can’t help but stare at them; he hasn’t seen any people since he left Nneka and the tailors behind in his rooms.
He glances around, but there’s no one else they could be talking to.
“Yes, you,” the guard says with a long-suffering air. “Do you want to go out?”
Erik eyes the door. “Out where?”
“To the city,” she says, slowly, emphasizing each syllable like he’s too stupid to understand otherwise.
There’s a clap-back on his tongue but he swallows it. Because yeah, he wants to go out to see the city. The king and Nneka and all the rest of them want to keep him holed up here, but these guards don’t seem to have any idea who he is. He wants to see Wakanda from the ground. He wants to feel the earth beneath his feet, hear the people, taste the air.
The guard sighs, poking at a crack in the floor tiles with the butt of her spear. “Well?”
Erik gives her a winning smile. “Yeah, I want to go out.”
Erik slips through the door with an awkward smile to the guards. He picks his way through ornamental gardens lined with stately government buildings, carefully not looking at any passersby.
After ten minutes or so the ceremonial buildings end and the city- the real city- begins. He finds himself on the sidewalk of a busy street and lets the crowd of people going about their day carry him in this direction and that with no destination in mind, content to just take it all in. The city swirls around him in a riot of color and scent. He takes his time, reveling in the sun on his face and the open air in his hair. The light seems different here: brighter, more saturated, almost tangible.
He finds himself in a market square before long, with shops filled with bright fruit and clothing. The scent of cooking meat makes his mouth water, and the rhythms of a dozen competing radios blend with a hundred conversations to make a beat he can feel in his bones.
It’s amazing, until it’s not.
He can’t put his finger on when things change: maybe it’s when he realizes that people are snickering at his clothes, maybe it’s when he tries to follow the threads of conversation around him and finds everyone’s speech too fast for him to follow.
He belongs here, he’s of this earth, this city is his birthright- so why does he feel so lost?
Suddenly he wants to leave. He’s spent all his life trying to get here, but it’s not home. He wants to go- where? He has no home; he hasn’t had one since his dad died. The only comfort for him is ten years dead and gone, and it’s never coming back.
He’ll have to settle for his bed. He can hide underneath the blankets and punch the pillows until he doesn’t feel quite so hopeless and helpless anymore. But how’s he going to get back into the palace? He can’t go to the front gate; he isn’t sure they’ll even let him in.
He begins to walk around the edge of the palace, looking for a door. There are plenty, but they’re all locked or guarded, and as the sun sets he gets the sinking feeling that he’s going to be sleeping on the streets tonight.
It’s dusk when he finally finds a way back in. He’s by the back of the palace when he sees it: an unassuming door propped open with a crate of metal scrap. There’s a light on inside.
He peers in, but there’s no one to see or hear. After a moment’s hesitation he ducks in: if he runs into anyone he’ll deal with them then.
The room is huge, and very cluttered; he thinks it’s some kind of lab. There are low tables strewn with tools and fragments of machines hugging the walls. Scattered throughout the middle of the space are bigger works-in-progress: bikes, jets, what he thinks might be part of a space ship.
A footstep echoes from behind the space ship and he freezes. If it’s a guard he’ll have to run, if they try to catch him he might be able to fight them off with a wrench-
A little girl walks out from behind the space ship, engrossed in her tablet. She looks up and starts when she sees him, then she’s stomping over with a glare, her fists planted on her hips. The effect is kind of funny, considering she’s about three feet tall and can’t be older than eight.
“What are you doing here?” she asks.
“I’m a prince,” Erik says with a grin. That’ll dazzle her; girls love that Disney shit. “I can be wherever the hell I want.”
She doesn’t look very impressed. “My name is Shuri and I’m a princess. Being a princess is just as good as being a prince. And mother said that only narrow-minded people use bad words.”
He racks his brain. “Well, I’m going to be king one day. Of all Wakanda.” He isn’t going to touch the part about the bad words.
Her tiny eyebrows knit together and she shakes her head, her braids flapping back and forth. “No, big brother is going to be king of Wakanda.”
The gears turn. His dad had mentioned a nephew once, son of T’Chaka, but Erik can’t remember his name. He hadn’t realized the king had a daughter as well. “Your brother?”
She nods seriously. “His name is T’Challa and he is big and strong and he’s going to be king one day. Everyone says so.”
T’Challa. It’s nice to finally have a name to go with his enemy. Because of course that’s what he is: he doesn’t hate T’Challa like he does T’Chaka, but the prince is between him and the throne and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. “Not if I beat your brother.”
“You can’t beat him,” Shuri says like it’s obvious. He has the power of the black panther! Father is going to give him the magic ring and everything!”
He’ll be a lot less impressive once Erik rips his ring off and shoves it down his windpipe, but he’s not going to tell a little girl that. “We’ll see how it goes, I guess.” She looks suspicious, and Erik racks his brains on a way to change the subject before she runs off to tattle on him. “So what’s a little girl doing with all these machines?”
That finally gets a smile from her. “I built them!”
He snorts before he can help himself. “Yeah, an eight year old built a vibranium space shuttle-“
She stamps her foot, and it really shouldn’t be as adorable as it is. “I am eight and three quarters,” she snaps. “And it is not a vibranium space shuttle, it is a dual stage triamese reentry vehicle made of vibranium-electrum alloy.”
He blinks. He got most of that, but it took him a second. “You really built that?”
She rolls her eyes. “Yes? This is my lab, you know.”
He glances around again, just in case he missed something and all the machines are actually made of Barbies or something. But no: that’s definitely a rocket ship- or whatever the hell she had called it- and the thing in the corner is definitely some type of half-assembled car engine.
Well. He’s still not one hundred percent sure he believes her, but he’s not going to turn down a chance to get his hands-on cutting edge Wakandan tech, even if it is engineered by a girl that hasn’t gone through puberty yet. He puts on his best smile. “Mind giving me a tour?”
He spends the next few days letting Princess Shuri drag him around the Royal Labs. He expresses all the appropriate excitement over her designs and to his surprise, actually means it- the kid’s a genius. What he doesn’t tell her is that he’s mentally cataloging everything he sees, deciding how it fits into his grand plans of world liberation. She doesn’t need to know that part, not yet.
And even though Nneka radiates disapproval whenever she sees him, and even though the king still won’t see him, some of the tightness begins to ease in his chest. The palace is not a home, but it could be. One day.
On the fifth day, everything changes.
He slips back into his rooms just after sunset, jeans scuffed and muddy from an impromptu tour of the vibranium mines with Shuri. When he flicks the lights on, he sees that Nneka is seated at the window with her ever-present tablet. She’s glaring daggers at him.
He returns her icy look with one of his own. “Jesus Christ, don’t you knock?”
She strides over to him, lip curling as she takes in the stains on his pants. “You have an audience with the king.”
An audience-? “When?”
She walks past him through the door without waiting for him to follow. “Twenty minutes ago.”
Fuck. He stumbles after her, belatedly turning back to close the door behind him and almost tripping over his own feet in the process. “Should I change? I don’t-“
“There’s no time.” She sets off down the hallway, widening her stride so that Erik has to work to keep up. “You will be respectful,” she says as they walk, her eyes fixed straight ahead. “You will not talk back. You will not be…” she waves a hand in his direction, “…like you are.”
Well. That’s really helpful. He does in fact want to talk back right about now, but on the other hand he’s not going to give her any reason to call the meeting off and send him back to his rooms like a kid who won’t eat his vegetables. So he glues his mouth shut and offers her a simpering smile instead.
Somehow she seems even less impressed.
They walk to a part of the palace he hasn’t seen before. The hallways are wider here, the ceilings higher, the vibranium ornamentation on the walls more elaborate.
Even with Nneka at his side, people are looking at him. Everyone is dressed impeccably in rich brocades and weaves. He sees raised eyebrows and whispered words behind hands, and everywhere on his body he feels the drag of eyes. He straightens, meets their gazes and smiles wide, all teeth. Let them look. Let them see their new prince. Let them fear him.
“You are being like you are again,” Nneka mutters as they come to a stop in front of a tall set of double doors flanked by four of the Dora Milaje.
“A panther can’t pretend to be a mouse,” he shoots back, too high on the attention to care much what she thinks.
Nneka looks like she wants to argue the point but already the doors are spreading open before them. Two of the four Dora melt away from their posts and flank Nneka and Erik as they step into the throne room.
It’s a beautiful room but Erik isn’t here to look at the décor. All that’s important is this: In the middle of the room is a chair chair. And there, seated on the Wakandan throne, is the king. T’Chaka, son of Azzuri. His father’s murderer.
The hate comes out of nowhere, so hard it frightens him.
His father used to tell him magical, wonderful stories about T’Chaka, king of Wakanda. Of his great justice, of his superhuman strength, of his deep wisdom. Erik had imagined him as a kind of superhero: larger than life and perfect in the way only children can imagine.
And then T’Chaka had descended out of the sky on a cold Oakland night and killed Erik’s father. After his betrayal, T’Chaka had become the evil uncle of every fairy-tale, the fratricidal brother, the monster under the bed. When Erik’s third foster mother, the religious one, made him read the bible, it was T’Chaka and his father he imagined in the roles of Cain and Abel.
But the man before him is not some eldritch monster or a leering super-villain. He’s just a man, and an older one at that. His flesh sags. His hands are wrinkled.
He’s a disappointment, and Erik hates him even more for it.
T’Chaka’s head is turned towards the far windows. Erik figures he just hasn’t noticed him yet, but then he speaks, still turned away. “Do they not have punctuality in America?”
The words hit him like a slap and he feels his cheeks burn. Nneka had told him to be respectful. On the other hand, fuck that. He bares his teeth and stares up at the king, daring him to look him in the eye. “From where I’m standing you were ten years late.”
T’Chaka sighs. “I did not bring you here to talk of the past.”
It’s a retreat; it means Erik has won this sally- so why does victory feel so hollow? “Why did you bring me here, then?”
Still, the king won’t look at him. What a privilege, to be able to ignore everything that bothers you. Those eyes were averted when King died, when X died, when Rodney and Trayvon died. Those eyes were averted when a little boy suffered and bled on the streets of Oakland. He wants more than anything to spit in T’Chaka’s face.
At length, T’Chaka speaks. “You need to marry.”
Marry. Erik blinks. What. “Not planning on getting married just yet,” he says finally. Hadn’t really planned on getting married at all, but he wasn’t going over that with his arch-nemesis.
“It is not a matter of what you have planned.”
Erik bares his teeth. “Sorry, don’t follow.”
T’Chaka sighs again, still staring steadfastly out the window. “Lord M’Baku of the Jabari Tribe has requested your hand in marriage. You will accept.”
There’s a roaring in his ears. “You think- you can just whore me out-“
And at that the king finally explodes. “If you wish to be a part of this family you will serve it!”
“You mean serve you!” Erik screams, and he cannot help it, he’s lunging forward, arms up and hands clenched into brittle fists.
There’s a swift fluttering of red at his sides, and suddenly two Dora spear-blades are pressed against his neck: one at the base of his skull and one at the soft flesh just beneath his jawbone. He can feel the sharpness: death-in-potentia. Fuck, but he’d almost welcome it. He shudders, panting, struggling to get his breathing under control. Fuck them. Fuck them all.
And as they hold him he remembers: it is a crime to attack the king, a mortal crime. T’Chaka could order his head struck off right here and no one could lift a finger to stop it. Of course, who would want to? He is utterly alone.
His ragged breathing is thunderous in the silence around him.
T’Chaka tsks, and in that moment Erik hates him more than he ever has ever hated anyone in his life. “We will have a civilized discussion about this. Are you ready to behave in a manner worthy of your blood?”
Blood. All Erik can think of is his father’s blood: the way it had pooled beneath the body, rust-dry at the edges and a murky purple where it still ran wet. Erik can almost see it, cherry red and sticky, lingering beneath the neat crescents of T’Chaka’s fingernails.
The spear at his neck twitches in warning and he winces. “Yes,” he growls, barely above a whisper.
T’Chaka leans back in the throne, steepling his fingers in thought. “So: I will not force you into a marriage, but neither will I allow you to shirk your responsibilities and bring dishonor to the family name.”
Erik barely holds in a harsh bark of laughter; T’Chaka is one to talk about dishonor.
“-And so you must decide: marry M’Baku as a prince of the blood, or abjure your title and citizenship and return to America. The choice is yours.”
Erik lets out a shaky breath. T’Chaka can’t do that to him; Wakanda is in him; Wakanda is in every muscle, every breath of his body. But of course T’Chaka can. He’s a king. And the powerful will always dominate the week. He thinks of every time he got beat up by a kid bigger and stronger than him; he thinks of every time one of his foster parents would slap him for crying.
He thinks of the scene in the market, of that feeling of rootlessness, helplessness, homelessness.
It's his choice to make. It’s a choice that is not a choice.
“Fine, you sack of shit,” he hisses, “I’ll marry him.” He’s almost disappointed when the Dora don’t slit his throat and kill him where he stands.
T’Chaka gestures towards the door. “Prince N’Jadaka is overwrought. Take him back to his quarters to rest.”
As the Dora haul him away, even the close brush of death is not enough to dull the pain of the fact that the king had not once looked him in the eyes.
After the shitshow of a meeting with the king, four of the Dora Milaje escort Erik back to his rooms in bristled silence. Any other day, he’d needle at them, see if he could get a smile or a grimace from their stony faces. But now he can’t bring himself to do any more than trudge silently, staring at the mirror of his face in the polished sandstone floor tiles.
Marriage. He’s getting sold like a whore- like a slave. To some old man he’s never met. To a man. That part finally hits him, beneath the shock.
He’s not like, gay or anything.
Sure, there’s been a few fumbled handjobs between friends here and there- but only ever because it was convenient. And yeah, he’s sucked dick a few times, but it was always a quid pro quo kind of thing. You do me, I do you. He never sought out guys specifically or anything. He’s never let anybody fuck him.
This is different.
He doesn’t know shit about this guy M’Baku, but if he wants to marry Erik, he’s probably into guys. And if Erik gets suckered into this he’ll be in M’Baku’s turf, in M’Baku’s bed. M’Baku will have the power to do whatever he wants to him, and Erik will have no say, none at all.
The head of the Dora keys his door open with brusque motions, waits for him to step inside, and seals the door behind him without saying a word.
As their muffled footsteps draw away Erik falls back against the door, letting himself slide down to the ground with a groan.
“Well, it could have gone worse.”
He starts, but it’s only Nneka, still sitting on the low couch by the window. She’s hunched over her tablet; light from the display casts the planes of her skin an eerie green.
All he really wants to do is collapse face first in the bed. Maybe if he pisses her off enough she’ll leave. He picks himself up off the floor and ambles over to his bed before throwing himself down on the pillows and shooting her a glare over the cross of his arms. “Why are you always in my fucking room?”
She doesn’t take the bait, just sets her tablet down in her lap and fixes him with a cool look. “I hear you tried to kill the king.”
It’d been like five minutes ago; how had she even heard about that? “If I’d been trying for real I’d’ve done it.”
Ignoring him, she leans her head back against the glass of the window and rubs at her temples. “And you are to marry the lord of the Jabari.”
“Yeah,” he mutters as he traces the stitching of the bedsheets with his thumb. He’s getting sold off to some creep he’s never met. And everyone here is overjoyed to be rid of him. Some small part of him had hoped that coming to Wakanda would be a homecoming in truth, that the people here would want him and love him and treasure him the way his foster families never had. But it looks like it’s just going to be more of the same.
“Fuck, what a mess,” she says quietly.
“Why are you all pissed off?” he asks. What right does she have to be mad; she’s not the one getting sold like a fucking dog.
She tilts her head back up to glare at him. “I am not-“
“Yeah you are,” he snaps. “So what is it? Think I’m not good enough for whatever the fuck his name is? Think I’m going to embarrass the family with my shitty American ways? Just mad that someone else gets to push me around now?”
She’s silent. Finally, she speaks in a quiet voice. “It is wrong.”
He lets out a bitter laugh. “Which fucking part?”
She makes an agonized sound. “All of it. I have been biting my tongue since you arrived, trying to keep my disapproval in check-“
“-you’ve done a shit job of that, at least,” he puts in.
“-but this is cruel, this is immoral, and though I will follow my orders I cannot say I have any good feelings regarding them. He is forcing you into this, and you are little more than a child. It is akin to rape.”
Okay, that’s… not what he expected. Every time she’s talked to him, she’s been cold and bitter. Erik never would have guessed that he wasn’t the reason for it, that her anger was aimed at someone else entirely. He isn’t really sure how to react to someone being angry on his behalf. It’s never really happened before. There’s a part of him, the skinny kid that’s been nothing but overwhelmed since he got here, that wants to thank her, maybe even ask for a hug. “I’m not some fucking kid,” he snarls instead.
Nneka raises an eyebrow. “Oh? You are a man? A man does not lash out every time he is afraid. A man does not resort to vulgar insults every time he opens his mouth.”
Yeah, he can’t really debate any of that. But still. “He can’t make me marry anyone,” Erik mutters, conscious of the fact he really does sound like a whiny kid now.
She has the grace not to mention it. “If you are Wakandan, he can,” she says instead. “If you renounce your citizenship, he has no power over you.”
His eyes fall shut, and he lets himself have the fantasy, if only for a moment. He could go back to Oakland. The army would take him. And then it would be back to his original plan, the one he’d had his heart set on for years. It would work. He would be free.
Freedom. He’d be free from this palatial cage, from the fanged glares of the Dora, from the guilty silence of the king.
And in exchange, all he’d have to do is abandon the one thing that’s kept him going all these years, that’s given him a will to keep on living when the darkness around him told him it wasn’t worth it anymore. All of his dreams, gone. His fantasy of belonging, of making a difference, of saving his people: gone. He’s been willing to kill anyone and everything for that dream. Should he not be willing to die for it?
“I will not let him strip me of my soul,” he says at last.
She sighs, and he can tell she’s disappointed but not surprised. “You are sure?”
“I am,” he says, with a steadiness he does not feel.
If she notices, she has the grace not to mention it. “The Jabari lord is not said to be a cruel man,” she says after a moment’s silence. “Perhaps he will not be so bad.”
“Bad enough that he wants to fuck a teenager he’s never met.”
She coughs delicately. “Ah. He asked to marry a scion of the blood. Not you specifically.”
Erik frowns and sits up on the bed. “What?”
She bites her lip. “Truly, I think he had his sights set on T’Challa.”
Wonderful, one more way he has been measured against his golden cousin and found wanting. His perfect cousin, who won’t even stoop to meet him.
“My prince…” Nneka sighs. “There is one matter I wished to mention. it is customary for a noble marrying into a new house to bring an attendant with them: a handmaid or valet.
“I don’t need anyone’s help,” he snaps.
“It is not about needing, but about how it looks. T’Chaka must provide you an attendant, else people will whisper that he is cheap. And T’Chaka certainly does not want to look cheap.” Her wry smile says she’s perfectly aware how fucking low that is, considering all the ways T’Chaka has fucked him over lately.
“Too bad for T’Chaka,” Erik says shortly. “There’s no one that would go with me.”
She bites her lip. “I have been given permission to continue to serve you, if you would have me.”
He blinks. “You would go?”
She bows slightly. “It would be an honor, my prince.”
Despite everything, there’s a twinge of warmth in his chest. “You can call me Erik, I guess. You know. If you want.”
She smiles. It’s a small smile, but a smile all the same. “Of course… Erik.”
And it’s stupid, but he can’t help but feel like maybe, just maybe, the world isn’t falling apart beneath his feet.
That feeling goes away very quickly.
The next day his rooms are mobbed with still more seamstresses and stylists and terrifying women barking orders and stabbing at their tablets with alarming degrees of force.
The ceremony, he is informed as he is measured for what may as well be the fiftieth time, has been scheduled for the following week. Which means that a royal wedding, which normally is in the works for months if not years, has to be coordinated, designed, and catered in a matter of days. This has apparently made a lot of people very angry.
“I can just marry the guy in whatever,” he offers, wincing as a particularly vengeful seamstress stabs him in the thigh with a pin. “It doesn’t need to be like, nice.”
That gets him a full house of incomprehensible stares. “I mean,” he tries again, “I have a clean sweatshirt I haven’t-“
“My prince,” the chief seamstress hisses. She manages to make the honorific sound like the worst kind of insult. “You will not marry the lord of the Jabari in a sweatshirt.”
The pins are getting uncomfortably close to his crotch, so he decides it might be a good time to shut his mouth. Wouldn’t want his future husband getting damaged goods, after all. Well, more damaged than he already is. The Jabari guy is getting a poor-ass foster kid from Oakland with a raft of psychological issues, and if he thinks Erik is going to be any good at polo or diplomacy or whatever the fuck Jabari nobles are supposed to do, he has another thing coming.
The guy will probably be pissed. He’ll probably be disappointed. Whatever. It’s nothing Erik hasn’t dealt with before.
He stands in stony silence as the seamstresses finish their work, and makes no sound when pins accidentally stab into his skin. He thinks of it as practice.
They finish what feels like ten hours later. The chief seamstress pauses as the team is filing out the door. “We are preparing for a wedding, my prince,” she says with a jarring gentleness, “not a funeral. It will be all right.”
It’s an easy thing for her to say; she isn’t alone, without friends or family, about to be married off to a creepy old man she’s never met. She isn’t living in a country she aches to belong to but, no matter how she tries, feels like the furthest thing from home.
He sees it all reflected in her eyes, in the crease of her brow, and if that isn’t the worst fucking thing: pity. “Yeah,” he croaks, turning his back to her. “It’ll be just fine.”
Time moves too fast and too slow. He’s dying for the wait to be over, anything to end this waking death. In his nightmares he’s running through molasses, legs burning as he tries to move them. And ahead of them is his father, eyes widening as bullets fly towards him. But he is always too late, too late, too late.
But at the same time the days move inexorably forward. He’s wheeled through a dizzying and exhausting circus of fittings and tastings and groomings that Erik has no ability to control and even less ability to understand. No one explains anything to him, it’s just rapid fire decisions and answers made over his head as he glares and tries to forget the past night’s bad dreams.
But the one silver lining is that he has time to formulate a plan.
He isn’t going to run away, but he isn’t going to submit either. Oh, he’ll marry M’Baku alright. He will go to the Jabari.
And then he’s going to kill his husband. When the Jabari howl chaos down on the other Wakandans in retaliation, the king will know he made a mistake when he fucked with N’Jadaka.
All in all, it’s almost a relief when the wait is over.
He doesn’t sleep the night before the wedding, just sits by the window, staring out into the dark as the lights of the city blink off one by one.
Since the ceremony is to be at dawn, the preparations begin well before the sun comes up, in the shadowed quiet of the morning. There’s some symbolic reason for all this but he’d been too nervous to listen when Nneka explained it to him.
He’s awake when the attendants slip into his rooms; he hadn’t managed to sleep at all the night before anyway. Four young women, crowned in flowers and painted with luck-signs on their cheeks and foreheads. Fuck, he’d much rather he was marrying one of them.
They dress him in soft linen robes and a veil of purple silk. There are flowers for his hair, paint for his face and chest.
As they work, he thinks about marriage. So, there’s two things. Marriage in general, and this marriage in particular.
Marriage. He hadn’t thought about it, or if he had, he’s just assumed he’d never get married. Marriage sounds permanent and binding. It means giving some other person power over him and a stake in his life. He’s never loved or trusted anyone enough to want to give them that kind of hold over him. Maybe he could, one day.
But then this isn’t any marriage, to some girl he likes well enough or whatever.
This is not a marriage of equals. He’s getting sold off to some creepy old man like a fucking slave. When he closes his eyes he can already see his future husband. The man in his head is old like T’Chaka, with lecherous eyes and a cruel smirk.
The revulsion churns in his stomach, and he’s glad he hasn’t eaten anything yet today.
A soft tap on his shoulder. “It’s time,” one of his attendants whispers.
Erik follows the attendants as they exit his rooms and walk to the main hall of the palace, where the rest of the envoy to the Jabari will gather. Most haven’t arrived yet, but Nneka is there.
He lets the attendants tug at his robe and hair one last time before he goes to stand beside her. The pins in his hair stab his scalp whenever he moves his head; the weight of the jewelry on his neck and wrists and ankles is already enough to make his bones ache. All in all, he feels like a doll, or a prized cow: something to be prettied up and then sold, with no rights of its own.
Nneka looks him over with an appraising eye. “Good morning,” she whispers. “You look very nice.”
“Do I look valuable?” he says before he can help himself.
“Erik…” Nneka says, and hesitates. There’s an apology on her tongue, he can tell. But she isn’t allowed to say it, he isn’t allowed to hear it. It’s almost funny: neither of them are free, not really.
“I’m fine,” he whispers, because even if it’s not true he can’t really say anything else.
He stands in brooding silence as the last few members of the wedding party drift into the hall. And then it’s time to go.
They make a pathetic little group, really. There’s perhaps two dozen people all told, besides him and Nneka. The King is not present. Erik had asked Nneka about that, and guessed from her scowl that his absence is irregular, if not outright rude. Well. Maybe the Jabari will be so mad they’ll kill Erik and then he won’t have to deal with getting married after all.
And of course T’Challa and Shuri aren’t here either; of course they have better places to be. The only royal to come is the queen, and he’s fairly sure that’s just because otherwise Erik would be the ranking member of the family present, and no one wanted that. Fuckers.
The group sets out on foot. It seems like it would be a hell of a lot faster to fly or ride, but Nneka had explained that walking was a gesture of humility and deference to the Jabari’s disdain of airships. Erik can’t see it as anything but a sign of humiliation and defeat. A literal walk of shame.
They make their way out of the city limits as the sun rises. Some of the guards talk amongst themselves, but the queen and Nneka are silent at his sides. It’s not like he wants to talk to them anyway. It’s not like he has anything to say. Still, as they pass into the long shadows of the mountains the silence becomes suffocating, and Erik can’t help but feel like they’re going to a funeral. Maybe they are.
Noon finds the party entering the foothills; as the hours pass the hills become mountains along the sides of the path. The rocks become more jagged, and snow begins to coat the peaks.
Erik tries not to gawk at the views. He’s seen mountains in the distance, but never this close. The sharp white canvas of the snow is new too, and the thin taste of the air.
A part of him wants to shake off all his veils and jewelry and just run. Let the mountains take him, let them find his body in some frozen crevasse weeks later or not at all. But he can’t bring himself to do it, and he hates himself for his weakness.
It’s twilight when he finally sees it. At first he thinks it’s a trick of the light but he looks again, and no, that’s definitely a giant gorilla head carved into the side of the mountain. The path threads into its gaping maw, and no way Erik is going in there. No fucking way.
He’s about to vocalize this to Nneka when he hears the chanting. He thinks it’s just wind echoing off the rock at first. But as he listens it gets louder and louder, until it’s unmistakably a chorus of human voices.
Beside him, the Queen sighs. “Here they come.”
And then men begin to pour out of the mountain, each one chanting in a deep rhythm. Some come from the maw of the gorilla, other melt out of the rocks on either side of the path. They spill down to circle Erik and the others until they’re totally surrounded by a bristling mass of warriors.
They’re all carrying weapons, some clubs, some spears. Their chests are bare other than swirls of black paint. And each and every one wears a hideous gorilla masks.
Erik’s stomach churns. He’s being sold to these- these brutes. How could they do this to him? How is this his life?
One of the masked men steps forward and raises a clenched fist; the rest of the warriors fall silent.
The queen steps forward and inclines her head. “I am Queen Ramonda of Wakanda, daughter of N’Yami, consort of T’Chaka son of Azzuri.”
The warrior tilts his head. “You come with a mighty host,” he says in a booming voice, loud enough to echo off the mountain rock. Behind him, the other warriors murmur to each other behind their masks.
Erik swallows. So the size of their party is an insult. Maybe Lord M’Baku will be so offended that he’ll kill Erik on the spot. He isn’t sure whether it’d be entirely unwelcome at this point.
The masked warrior tilts his head. “Tell me, was king T’Chaka busy with more important matters?”
The Queen raises an elegant eyebrow. “Nothing could be more important than the friendship between our peoples.”
The monster laughs. “You hold us in such high esteem,” he says, sarcasm dripping off every word. “But no matter. Let me see my intended.”
It takes a second for Erik to process what he’s saying, and then- terror. He gasps before he can help himself, and hopes to god his veil is thick enough that no one noticed. This is M’Baku. This- monster is the guy he’s getting sold off to.
The queen offers the warrior- Lord M’Baku- a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. “My lord, may I present my nephew: prince Njadaka, son of prince N’Jobu, son of King Azzuri.”
The attendants that stand at his sides reach up and peel the veil back over his head. The sudden bite of the mountain air on his skin is bracing. The bite of M’Baku’s eyes on him is even harsher.
Erik immediately stares at the ground. It isn’t real until their eyes meet, some part of him seems to think. It’s like he’s a kid squeezing his eyes shut to avoid the monsters in his basement again. As long as he can’t see them, they can’t get him.
He can’t help it anymore; he takes a tiny peek.
M’Baku has taken his mask off and tucked it under his arm. He’s staring at Erik with an unreadable expression. He isn’t what Erik expected. He’s young, for one: probably mid-twenties. And beyond that, he doesn’t look like some pervert monster. He’s got even features, clear skin, nice eyes. If they’d met under different circumstances…
M’Baku snorts. “This is not Prince T’challa”
Erik’s cheeks burn, and he wishes he were darker, dark enough that the blush of his humiliation does not show. It shouldn’t bother him like it does. He should be used to being second best by now.
The queen nods in stony faced agreement. “You are correct, my lord. Prince Njadaka is my son’s cousin.”
Erik can’t help but sneer. Stupid bitch. She’s probably grinning on the inside, thrilled beyond thrilled that it isn’t her son that’s getting sold off like a fucking cow.
Meanwhile, M’Baku is frowning at her, eyebrows raised. “I have never heard of prince N’Jadaka.”
“He has lived abroad for many years,” the Queen says. “He has only recently chosen to return home.”
Erik clenches his teeth together hard enough that his jaw starts to hurt. It’s all he can do not to start yelling. Lived abroad. Chosen to return. Because of course she leaves out all the important parts, the lies, the murder, the exile. Like he ever had any choice at all.
M’Baku’s mouth twitches. “How convenient.”
“My lord, I assure you-“
“Calm, calm, woman,” M’Baku says, waving a hand. “I meant no disrespect. Allow a man a moment of disappointment: T’Challa is very handsome.” He chuckles and steps forward, resting his hand on Erik’s shoulder. “But still, this one is handsome enough.”
Erik stares at the ground, wanting more than anything to rip the man’s hand off his body and beat him to death with it. That settles it. He’s going to kill M’Baku, and he’s going to do it tonight.
Everything that happens next is a blur. They pass through the maw of the gorilla and then through the streets of the city on the other side. He’s ushered into a massive building that juts off the mountainside on wooden supports carved to resemble gorillas. He figures it’s the Jabari palace, but he can’t help but think of it as a fortress instead. Everything is made of pale wood or black cloth; there’s none of the color or light of the Wakandan palace.
The Wakandan delegation is herded into a room and he’s pushed onto a dais next to M’Baku. A shaman robed in black linen speaks to them as Erik and M’Baku stand facing each other. Erik stares at the ground the entire time. He can’t stop shivering, and it has nothing to do with the cold.
Forever and ever… in this life and the next… will serve… will cherish…
He tries not to listen. He focuses on how he’s going to kill his husband instead.
His original plan- kill M’Baku the second they get left alone with each other- is not going to work. He’d come up with that when he’d assumed M’Baku was just another creepy old man, like his uncle. No, if he tries to kill M’Baku outright, M’Baku is going to kill him instead.
A weapon might even the playing field. He could shoot M’Baku, or stab him. Except he has no idea how to get a gun here, or if they even have guns here. All the guards and the Dora Milaje have spears, but somehow he doubts they’re just going to lend their weaponry to him. He could steal one. But planning that will take time.
In fact, all of the plans he can think of, the ones that might have a snowball’s chance in hell of working- take time. Time he doesn’t have. Or rather, time he will have in abundance, but not tonight. Not until after the wedding night. The thought sits like a ball of lead in his gut. Because if he can’t kill M’Baku tonight, he’s going to have to go through with it. Sex.
Okay, it’s not like a virgin or anything- he’s fucked girls before. He’s even exchanged awkward handjobs with a few boys in the locker room, and threatened to kill them if they told anyone. But he’s never- he’s never been fucked.
Well. There’s a first time for everything. He’ll let M’Baku fuck him, just once. It doesn’t matter how bad it hurts; Erik’s tough. He can handle pain. And then, once M’Baku falls asleep Erik will have the upper hand. He can smother M’Baku with a pillow, or strangle him with a belt, or find a spear and cut his head off, or push him off the side of the damn mountain.
He’ll do whatever he needs to do. Whatever it takes to survive. He always has, and he always will.
The shaman finally finishes, and that’s it: they’re married. He braces for a kiss, but apparently that’s an American thing, not a Wakandan one.
Instead M’Baku just reaches out and offers a hand. Erik stares at it for a second. Fuck, he doesn’t want to- but he doesn’t have a choice. He extends his own hand gingerly and lets M’Baku intertwine their fingers. His skin is warm against Erik’s clammy palms, and M’Baku’s hand dwarfs his: he could probably choke Erik one handed. The thought makes him shiver. It’ll be bad if Erik messes up and has to fight him outright.
He’ll worry about that later. In the meantime, he lets M’Baku guide him out of the room and through a different door down the hall. As Erik’s eyes adjust to the dimness of the hall, he hears a loud hum of voices. He blinks rapidly, until he can make out shapes in the darkness.
Before him extends a long hall. Low tables laden with food run from the door to the far wall, and between them, the hall is packed to the gills people. So many people: tall, short, young, old, men, women…it’s more people than he’s seen in one place since he snuck into a raiders game in eighth grade. And every one of them is cheering and whooping in delight.
“Did everyone you know come?” he whispers to M’Baku before he can stop himself.
M’Baku doesn’t seem to take offense. “Yes,” he says with a shrug. “And many I don’t know. They came to see you. After all, it is so rare to see a Wakandan prince in these lands.”
There’s a barb in his words, but Erik can’t tell why, or what he’s done wrong. Not that he cares. “Yeah, well, I’m here now,” he mutters, staring at the floor.
“And I am very glad of that, “M’Baku says smoothly. “Come, none can eat until we sit down.”
Erik walks closely beside M’Baku through the throng- regardless of how it looks, he does not cling.
At the end of the hall someone has set out a lush black pelt, easily large enough for both of them to sit on. The pelt is ringed with bright piles of red and yellow flowers.
M’Baku hops over the ring of flowers to a resounding cheer from the audience. He extends his hand to Erik, and Erik hesitantly takes it before stepping into the ring after him. Once again, the crowd cheers.
M’Baku kneels, and Erik hurries to copy him. Once he’s arranged his legs comfortably, he sees M’Baku is fixing him with a considering look. “You have not been to a Wakandan wedding before?”
“No,” he says shortly. He doesn’t owe M’Baku an explanation. Or anything else, for that matter. This man is his jailer, not his husband.
M’Baku nods, with the unsettling sense that he understands more than he seems to. “I see.”
Someone in the crowd begins to whistle, and before long more take it up, until the hall is a cacophony of noise, with the trills and whistles echoing off the high arches of the ceiling.
M’Baku holds up his hand, and the crowd quiets down. “My people,” he booms. “May I present to you my consort, Prince N’Jadaka, son of Prince N’Jobu, son of King Azzuri of Wakanda.”
Next, he picks up two small bowls resting on the pelt by his side. Both are made from polished wood; the grain seems to move whenever Erik moves his head. M’Baku plucks an ewer from the spread of food and drink, and pours the right bowl full to the brim. With infinite care, he pours half of the right bowl into the left, until they are equal. Then he turns and offers one of the two to Erik, who accepts it hesitantly.
The wood is smooth in his hand, and feels almost warm to the touch.
“I will count to three, and then we will offer our cups for the other to drink from,” M’Baku murmurs. “You only need take a sip. Don’t spit any out.”
“What happens if I spit it out?” he hisses back.
“The gods will not let you fall pregnant,” M’Baku says blandly. “And so our people will be very sad.”
He can’t… what? Yeah, he knows Wakanda has advanced tech, but…
At Erik’s horrified expression, M’Baku’s eyebrows shoot towards the roof. “It was a joke, husband. Do they not teach biology in America?”
Erik scowls and looks away, flushing with embarrassment. Asshole.
M’Baku chuckles. “Ah well, on three: one, two…”
He lifts the cup to Erik’s mouth and tilts it back as Erik mirrors his motions. Erik feels the liquid against his lip and takes the tiniest of sips.
The drink is bitter and burning; it feels like fire going down his throat. He chokes and lets out a hacking cough against his will, and the hall seems to roar with laughter. M’Baku, who has taken a deep sip with no difficulties, sets his cup down on the pelt beside him. “No babies,” he says mildly. “What ill luck.”
The feast begins as the crowds turn to their food. M’Baku ignores Erik for the most part, instead laughing and joking with the warriors seated next to him.
Erik stares at the platters of food in front of him and tries not to hyperventilate. He hasn’t eaten since the night before, but he’s the furthest thing from hungry right now.
He gulps down another sip of the drink from the bowl, prepared this time as the fire laces down his throat. It sets a heat in his veins and a languidness in his fingers and toes.
This is a bad idea. In the near future he’s going to be attempting to murder M’Baku, who is a hell of a lot bigger and stronger than Erik is. He needs to be alert and agile. He needs to be in control of his body and his mind.
He takes another giant gulp, and then another. Getting wasted is beyond a bad idea; it’s a terrible one. But the drink is the only thing settling the terror in his stomach and keeping him from having a panic attack in front of every man, woman, and child in the hall.
M’Baku turns back to him a few minutes later, and Erik does his best I’m-not-drunk impression that his friends in middle school used to perfect behind the corner store. By the quirk of M’Baku’s lips, he’s out of practice.
“If you have not been to a Jabari wedding, may I assume you have not had Jabari food either?” M’Baku asks.
Erik scans the array of food laid out before them and notices quickly that there’s no meat. “We are vegetarians,” M’Baku explains, with just a hint of challenge. “Is that a problem for you?”
The only vegetarians Erik has ever met are stuck up San-Fran white kids that were willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for shitty weed, but he isn’t going to tell M’Baku that. “Not a problem,” he says, staring at his hands.
“I see,” M’Baku says, though he sounds puzzled.
M’Baku explains each of the dishes before being pulled back into a discussion with the warriors sitting at his side. Erik hesitantly tries each of the dishes in small bites. They’re probably great, but he can’t taste anything. His fear twists and roils in his stomach; every bite sticks in his throat as he swallows. He gives up on the food shortly thereafter and sticks to the bowl of liquid fire, sipping at it as the walls of the hall begin to swim.
M’Baku is by now a mass of motion, drinking heartily, boasting to his friends, gesturing enthusiastically towards the crowd, the ceiling, himself, his friends.
Erik is silent at his side. No one speaks to him or looks at him, and he hopes with every bone in his body that they’ll all just forget he’s here and he can slip away at the end of the night.
No such luck.
“My lord,” one of the drunker warriors booms, “you’ve neglected your bride!”
There’s a smatter of cackling; Erik wishes he could sink into the floor. His cheeks are burning. Fuck, he’s going to kill these guys too, not just M’Baku. He’ll sneak down here after ripping M’Baku’s head off and stab each and every one of them in the gut. That’ll show them.
One of the other warriors elbows M’Baku in the side. “If you aren’t up to the task I can satisfy him for you.”
Raucous laughter, and Erik is seized with fear that M’Baku really would pass him around like a party favor. What could he do, if they tried? He could try to fight them off, but he’s drunk, and besides, he’s been in enough fights to know that one against three, against four, against ten… however many of them there are, there’s no way he would win. He’s helpless, just like he was the night he found his dad’s body. It’s the worst feeling in the world.
M’Baku reaches over to pat the warrior on the knee. “But Folu, to do that you’d have to get your cock out of your own ass first.”
And once again everyone is howling with laughter.
Erik keeps his eyes fixed on the fur of the pelt, trying to get his breathing under control. His vision is swimming, whether from the drink or the blur of tears he can’t quite tell.
He jolts when he feels a finger slip beneath his chin and gently raise it. M’Baku is looking at him with a steady gaze. His hand is warm against Erik’s skin. “Well, husband? Shall we retire?”
It’s all Erik can do to give a jerky nod. But of course: he isn’t getting fucked by all the warriors in the hall. Just by one of them.
Standing is hard: he has to cling to M’Baku’s arm to pull himself up. M’Baku doesn’t mock him at least, although maybe he’s just waiting until they’re in private. In M’Baku’s bedroom.
In M’Baku’s bedroom, where M’Baku is going to fuck him. He’s going to hold him down and do whatever he wants, and no one is going to do anything to stop him. Abruptly Erik’s stomach turns; he stares at the floor as he tries to steady himself and get his breathing under control. He is not going to vomit. He is not.
When he looks up, M’Baku is watching him. “Alright, husband?”
Erik fakes a shaky smile. “Just excited.”
“Hmm.” M’Baku’s face is blank. “Well. Shall we?” he says.
At Erik’s shaky nod, he wraps Erik’s hand in his own and with a gentle tug he’s leading Erik back through the feast, into the dark halls beyond. There’s a roaring in his head, whether from the cheers of the crowd or his own terror, he can’t tell.
The walk seems to go on forever, and Erik’s pretty sure if he wasn’t drunk it would be the most awkward fucking thing in the world. Instead, all of Erik’s attention is focused on his feet: one in front of the other, steady, steady. M’Baku’s talking to him but he can’t really hear any of it. When he closes his eyes, he sees himself stabbing M’Baku, or M’Baku stabbing him. There’s blood, but he can’t tell who it belongs to: his husband or his uncle or his father or himself. He thinks he’s going to be sick.
M’Baku stops beside him, and Erik realizes they’re standing outside a set of double doors flanked by two attendants. One of them says something laughing and low to M’Baku, who replies in kind.
And then the doors are opening and M’Baku is stepping inside. He turns and helps Erik over the lip of the entrance- like a bride over the threshold, Erik thinks hysterically. The room is a blur around him, he can’t focus on it, or on anything, really. There’s a sick feeling in his stomach and his heart is beating fast enough to burst out of his chest. The only thing that isn’t spinning is M’Baku, who radiates a steady heat at his side. Some part of Erik wants more than anything to just lean against him, let him do whatever he wants with him. He’s been holding himself up for so long, too long. He can’t do it anymore. But he can’t lean on M’Baku, because he has to kill him.
Right. He should probably get on with that. He stumbles around so that he’s facing M’Baku, who is looking down at him with a funny look on his face. The floor seems to shift, so Erik reaches out and steadies himself by resting his hands on M’Baku’s shoulders. M’Baku mutters something under his breath and reaches around him to cradle the back of Erik’s neck.
They are suddenly very close. He can see each of M’Baku’s lashes, and beneath them, warm dark eyes. His lips are very full, and quirked in a slight smile. “Yes, husband?” M’Baku murmurs.
Erik lets out a shaky breath. He can do this. He’s a prince of Wakanda. He can do anything. It’s simple: be easy, be pliant, get his guard down. It’s a simple equation: M’Baku fucks him and then, once M’Baku falls asleep, Erik finds something sharp and fucks M’Baku up in return.
Thinking isn’t going to make it any easier. Fuck it. Angling his head up, he closes his eyes and goes for it.
M’Baku meets him halfway, and then they’re kissing. M’Baku’s lips are soft beneath his, they taste of liquor and cardamom. M’Baku parts his lips, raises his hands to cradle the side of Erik’s face.
He can do this, he can do this, just don’t think about it, don’t think about it-
But all of a sudden M’Baku is pulling away.
“Husband,” he says, as Erik blinks up at him. He reaches out and strokes a hand over Erik’s temple; Erik leans into the touch, his mouth falling open before he can stop himself. “It is not that I am not flattered, but…”
Once again: terror. M’Baku has figured it out somehow; he knows exactly what Erik is planning. He’s going to kill Erik first, right here, right now.
Or maybe M’Baku has no idea. Maybe M’Baku just doesn’t want him. Maybe Erik just isn’t good enough, hot enough, whatever enough. He never is. Erik’s cheeks are burning and he hates it, hates that he feels this way. He doesn’t want M’Baku to like him. It would just be nice if for once, someone did.
M’Baku brings his other hand up to rest against Erik’s cheek. He rubs the pad of his thumb over his cheekbone gently. “I am flattered. Truly. Do not mistake my meaning; I meant what I said: you are handsome. And I would be lying if I said I did not want you. But I do not know you. I do not know what your favorite color is or how you like your tea. And also…” he leans forward, with a conspiratorial air. “I think you may be drunk.”
Okay, Erik really can’t argue with the latter, considering he’s barely standing up on his own. He seizes on the former. “It doesn’t matter how I like my tea,” he grits, on the edge of hysteria. “I don’t even fucking like tea.”
M’Baku shrugs. “So now I know that.” He takes Erik’s hand and leads him gently across the room, to a massive bed that takes up the far wall. He sits, patting the mattress alongside him gently. “Rest. You have had a long day. When you wake we will talk, and the next day, and the next, until we know each other well enough to become husbands in truth.”
Erik sits frozen as M’Baku helps him out of his jewelry and shoes. His breath catches as M’Baku’s hands brush the tie of his robe. But M’Baku doesn’t try to take it off, just drops the pile of jewelry on the bedside table and gently eases Erik onto his back.
Erik closes his eyes and listens as M’Baku pads around the room. The lights turn off. The bed creaks and the mattress dips beside him. He waits, and listens, until M’Baku’s breathing evens out into the steady rhythm of sleep. He keeps waiting, just to be sure. He waits and waits and waits, counting minutes out clumsily in his head.
He opens his eyes and turns over. M’Baku is fast asleep at his side.
That’s it? He’s been in a state of panic all day, and now M’Baku just… goes to sleep?
He can’t waste this opportunity. He pushes himself out of the bed, tiptoeing around the room. There has to be a weapon somewhere. M’Baku probably has an armory somewhere else in the fortress, but he’s a warrior; he must keep at least one weapon close. There has to be something in the room that he can use.
Erik eyes the cabinets on the walls and picks one at random. He grips the handle and tries to turn it. Locked. He goes to another. Locked as well. He moves to a third, trying not to panic. And yes- as he presses down on the handle it turns, and he lets out a gasp of relief. He eases the handle all the way down and pulls the door open.
A loud creak breaks the quiet of the room. Heart in his throat, he whips around to look at M’Baku. Had he heard? If he wakes up and finds Erik digging through his stuff…
M’Baku lets out a loud snore.
Erik turns back to the cabinet with a shaky breath. He looks inside. It doesn’t have to be guns, he’ll take a sword or a club or anything, really.
The cabinet is filled with fluffy towels.
For fuck’s sake. He runs to check the next cabinet, and the next, not bothering to be quiet this time. But it’s all useless shit: linens and clothing and books.
He’s on the verge of tearing his hair out when he sees something gleaming on the windowsill. He pads over, and his heart jumps when he sees it. A knife. A small one, the kind you’d use to peel fruit or carve wood with. But a knife all the same.
He picks it up and feathers his thumb down the edge of the blade: it’s sharp.
He turns to face M’Baku. It would be easy. Easier than smothering him or strangling him or bashing his head in. Just a little push. In and out.
He’s never killed anyone before.
Oh, he’s seen death- plenty of it. One of the guys he used to play ball with got hit in a drive-by a few years ago. Erik had been standing on the other side of the court, and he’d seen the bullets hit him, the way his body had jerked back and forth like a marionette before crumpling to the ground. The year before that, his second foster mom- one of the decent ones- had had a heart attack in the kitchen. And even before that, one of the homeless guys down by the station had gotten hit by a drunk driver in the fog. He hadn’t actually seen those two die, but he’d seen the bodies afterward. It counted.
But he’s never killed anyone himself.
He walks to the bed. He’s gripping the knife so hard his hand hurts. Beneath him, M’Baku’s chest rises and falls gently. His head is leaning back, so that Erik has a perfect view of the column of his neck. All he’d have to do is reach out and push.
He stands frozen.
He can’t do it. Fuck, but he can’t do it.
Frustration and helplessness well up: this may be his only shot, his only way out- and he can’t do a damn thing. Stupid, stupid. How the fuck is he supposed to avenge his dad and save his people if he can’t even kill one random guy?
Below him, M’Baku shifts. He freezes, but he’s only shifting in his sleep. Erik lets out a shaky breath and forces himself to breathe. It’s okay. He doesn’t need to do it tonight. M’Baku said he wasn’t going to fuck him just yet. He has time.
He puts the knife back where he found it and climbs onto the bed, curling up in a ball as far from M’Baku as he can. His sleep is dreamless.
Erik wakes to light streaming through the windows and an empty bed. He drifts in that warm haze of half-sleep for a while longer. Once the sunlight becomes too bright to ignore he rolls himself upright, stretching as he looks around the room. M’Baku is nowhere to be seen.
Fear lurks in the back of his mind: what if M’Baku knows Erik’s planning on killing him? He bites his lip. But no, how could he know, unless he’s seen Erik with the knife. More likely he just has important things to do and doesn’t want to deal with Erik on top of it.
With nothing else to do, Erik gets out of bed and explores M’Baku’s chambers with a curious eye. He hadn’t had a chance to look around the night before, too drunk on terror and wine. The bed is raised on a platform and offers a good vantage point to see the rest of M’Baku’s quarters. The main room is vast, with curved arches lifting the ceiling far above the floor like the buttresses of a church. The walls are interspersed with alcoves that lead to other rooms. Everything is built of the same pale wood; the grain shines as the sun strikes it. The far wall of the chamber is a huge pane of glass, so perfect that Erik assumes at first the wall is open to the air. Beyond the glass the snow crowned mountains gleam in the morning light. Erik threads his way through the groupings of elegant furniture that are scattered through the space. Investigating the alcoves, he finds a bathroom and a linen closet, and finally, a pool.
The latter is built against another wall of glass and paved with smooth black stone. He hesitates, then steps to the edge of the pool and sits. He can feel heat rising off the water and see thin trails of steam rising up into the eaves. He leans down and lets his fingers skim the surface. It is deliciously warm.
His last two foster homes had only had showers. His rooms at the Wakandan palace had had a pool as well as a shower, but he’d been too anxious and restless to use it.
Behind him, footsteps. He jumps to his feet, hastily wiping his hands on the fabric of his wrap.
It’s only Nneka.
She steps into the room hesitantly, looking around at the pool and the mountains outside. “My prince,” she says cautiously. “How are you feeling today?” There’s concern writ on her face, and it really shouldn’t make him feel warm and fuzzy, but it does.
He kicks at the surface of the pool. “I’m fine.”
If anything, she just looks more worried. “Are you certain? Was he... courteous?”
She trails off into embarrassed silence, and it takes Erik a second to get what she’s going on about. Then it clicks, and he’s staring at the pool like it’s the most interesting thing in the world.
“No, he didn’t… He didn’t, ah, do anything.”
She still looks suspicious, and Erik can’t really blame her. Hell, he’s suspicious too. It was nice, all that stuff he said about waiting until they knew each other, but that wasn’t how powerful men worked. If you wanted to fuck someone, you fucked them- especially if that someone happened to be a powerless kid like Erik. Legally, physically, in all the ways that mattered, M’Baku can do whatever he wants to Erik. He doesn’t need to know his favorite color.
“He said he wanted to wait,” he says at last, shrugging. “He’s probably in love with T’Challa still.”
Nneka’s eyebrows shoot up. “T’Challa?”
“Yeah, my cousin? Dresses up like a panther sometimes, thinks he’s too good to talk to me? That guy?”
Nneka chooses to ignore the jabs. “I would deem it unlikely that your husband feels anything at all for T’Challa, considering they have never met.”
Erik blinks. “But- at the wedding, he was talking about how handsome T’Challa was. And then before the wedding, you said M’Baku wanted to marry him?”
“Ah. Well, yes and no.” She glances at the door behind her and lowers her voice. “Traditionally, any of the clan heads may request a consort from the royal family. Though in practical terms it hasn’t been done for years. When T’Challa petitioned the King there was… much surprise.”
“Huh.” Erik thinks for a second. “So M’Baku asked for a consort, but didn’t say who he wanted it to be?”
Nneka nods. “Instead of offering you, the King could have offered him a marriage to T’Challa or a betrothal to Shuri- to be officiated only once she came of age, of course,” she adds, at Erik’s horrified look. “But M’Baku prefers men, so it would have been a grave insult for the King to offer him Shuri.”
Erik frowns. “Why not T’Challa then?”
“Why indeed? The reason given was that T’Challa is already involved with a girl of the River tribe, and likely would not agree to a marriage to M’Baku.”
“Lucky him,” Erik mutters. He can’t help but feel a twinge of bitterness at that: of course T’Challa was allowed to say no.
“But beyond that, T’Chaka never could have endorsed the marriage,” Nneka continues. “T’Challa and M’Baku would have no direct heirs, and on their deaths there would likely be a succession crisis.”
Erik frowns. “So why did M’Baku ask in the first place, if he didn’t want Shuri and couldn’t marry T’Challa?”
Once again, Nneka glances at the door. “In truth, my prince… I would say M’Baku was banking on the king refusing him the hand of either child. It would be a grave and public insult, and by the old laws M’Baku would be well within his rights to duel T’Chaka for the crown in retaliation.”
Nneka is still talking, something about early modern Wakandan legal theory and political philosophy. But Erik isn’t listening anymore. The gears in his brain are whirring, and all the dreams he had of sitting on the Wakandan throne come flaring back to life.
“-but who can say, really? And besides, with you here it will not come to pass.”
“My prince, are you even listening to me?”
“Not even a little bit,” he mutters, staring out at the ridges of the mountains beyond the chamber windows. The peaks that spread out to the horizon suddenly seem not barren, but fertile with possibility.
Ok, new plan: He’s not going to kill M’Baku. He’s going to seduce him instead. He’s going to whisper in his ear, plant suggestions, stoke grudges, offer assurances. He’s going to convince M’Baku that they should sit on the throne of Wakanda together. He’s going to see T’Chaka dead, see himself crowned, see the world changed, see his people freed. And if, to make all this happen, he needs to let M’Baku fuck him a few times, well. It’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make.
Nneka leaves shortly afterwards, muttering something under her breath as she goes. Erik ignores her. He’s got more important things to focus on, chief among them operation charm M’Baku. He can be charming. He’s had to be: to foster parents, to the foster workers, to the older, bigger, badder kids on the streets.
So what kind of guy does M’Baku want him to be? It’s tough since he doesn’t know much about M’Baku to begin with.
He’s still thinking when M’Baku comes back from wherever he’d spent the morning. He’s not wearing face paint or a mask this time, just a sleek black leather cuirass over a dark brown robe. Erik is once again struck by how big he is. Not fat, not at all- just huge and strong. He looks like he could snap Erik in half like a toothpick without trying.
Erik swallows. He’ll just have to make sure M’Baku doesn’t have a reason to. Hopefully he’s not the kind of guy that likes hurting for hurting’s sake, like his third foster mom’s boyfriend.
M’Baku doesn’t look like he’s in a bad mood now at least: he smiles as he nods to Erik. “Good morning husband. Forgive me for leaving you; I had business to attend to and thought you would prefer to sleep in. But I am free now; if you are willing I would take you to meet the ancestors?”
Erik beams, trying to straddle the line between sweet and saccharine. He bats his lashes a few times too, just for effect. “That sounds great,” he says. It doesn’t really; a temple or a graveyard isn’t ideal for seduction, but he’ll take what he can get.
“Good,” M’Baku says, and begins to pull out various bundles and blankets from the cabinets lining the walls. “It’s a two day hike,” he says by way of explanation. “And the terrain is rough.”
That wasn’t what he expected. “We’re walking?” he asks. He can’t quite keep the derision out of his voice. They’re in Wakanda. Why can’t they ride hover bikes? Why can’t they fly?
M’Baku purses his lips. “You are Wakandan, so you think that technology is the answer to everything. But your tech corrupts; it separates you from the earth, from the spirits, from the natural way of life. It is a crutch, and the man that relies on it loses the ability to walk on his own.”
Well, Erik agrees with precisely none of that. It’s very easy to say all that when you don’t have any actual problems. If anyone tried to take over, he bets they’d change their tune real quick. He doesn’t argue though. He’s trying to make M’Baku like him, after all- better be a dutiful meek wife. He plasters on a smile. “That makes sense. Besides, I’ll get to see more of your lands if we walk.”
“You will,” M’Baku agrees. He jerks his head towards the window. “Tell me, do you like the mountains?”
Erik isn’t going to say anything, but honestly the mountains are kind of overwhelming. He’s used to mountains being hazy figures on the horizon, barely visible beyond the freeway smog. “We didn’t really have mountains,” he says. “Or snow either. Didn’t see it until I came here.”
M’Baku frowns. “The queen said as much, that you lived abroad. What was it like?”
“Oakland? Oakland was…” he tries to find some happy fiction but he can’t do it. “It was rough, honestly. We had nothing. People got shot, the police would rough us up and stick us in jail. There were drugs, guns…”
M’Baku’s eyebrows knit together. “But how does a prince of Wakanda end up in such a place?”
Yeah, he’s not touching that one, not now. “Maybe I just wanted to see how the rest of our people live. It’s not like they have a choice.” He hears the anger in his own voice and worries he’s given too much away as it is.
But no, M’Baku is nodding, his face thoughtful. “It is good,” he says at last.
“It is good,” M’Baku repeats, “for a prince to care so much about his people.”
They set out soon afterwards. As they leave the city and enter the mountains beyond, M’Baku takes the lead and Erik follows. M’Baku peppers Erik with funny monologues about his life, interesting facts about geology, and brief asides about current interpersonal dramas at court as they walk.
In line with operation seduce M’Baku, Erik does his best to follow along, offering smiles and nods where appropriate. It’s not a hardship: M’Baku has a way with words, and seems to know something interesting about just about everything. If Erik pretends that M’Baku is just a friend rather than the guy he just got married to against his will, the hike could even be fun, at least at first.
But as the miles pile on, it gets harder to do anything but put one foot in front of the other. By the time the sun reaches its height, Erik is ready to sit down. By the time it begins to dip towards the horizon, he’s ready to fall over.
He’s always thought of himself as tough- he lifts, he boxes, he runs- but this is different: not the quick violence of the exercise he’s used to, but a long, grueling trance, where his energy seems to slowly leech out of his body hour by hour like water from a leaking pipe. His lungs are burning; no matter how deeply he breathes he can’t seem to get enough air.
Through it all, M’Baku is cheerful, talkative, and not even a little bit winded. Bastard.
His feet ache as they press against the gravel of the path. One after the other. He’s staring down, willing himself to go on, and so doesn’t notice that M’Baku has stopped and almost runs into him.
“We will make camp here tonight.”
Erik barely has the strength to nod. The rocky ground looks pretty inviting, and he’s honestly considering just lying down face first right where he is- but he won’t show weakness in front of M’Baku. He can’t. He grits his teeth instead, and through sheer force of will manages to hold himself up and go through the motions of laying out his bedroll next to M’Baku’s.
It doesn’t take too long, thank god. Back at the palace, M’Baku had insisted that they were in the midst of the dry season and thus wouldn’t need a tent. Erik sits on his pack in silence as M’Baku gets a fire going through some incomprehensible calculus of sticks and rocks. He puts on a pot of some type of grain and really, Erik should help, but his limbs are not cooperating.
At least M’Baku doesn’t seem to mind. “Tired, husband?” he says with a smile.
“Nah,” Erik says.
The corners of M’Baku’s lips twitch. “As you say, husband.”
They eat in silence. After the meal is finished M’Baku stands up and stretches. “Come. There is a bathing pool not far from here.”
Erik’s legs don’t want to get up. Erik’s legs want to stay right where they are. But he’s trying to get on M’Baku’s good side and M’Baku hadn’t given him a choice. “Come,” he’d said. And so Erik has to come. He gets to his feet, wincing as all his muscles scream at him at once. M’Baku waits for him and then gestures him over.
There is indeed a pool nestled in a cleft in the rock, about ten feet in width and length. He can’t tell how deep it is; the water is clouded a milky blue, and a thick mist curls and dances over the surface.
M’Baku walks closer, kneeling by the side of the pool to test the water with his hand. “Bathe with me?” he asks.
Erik hovers behind him, torn. He’s soaked in sweat, every muscle in his body aches, but… He glances at the mounds of snow surrounding the pool. “Isn’t it freezing?” If M’Baku wants to jump in a pond of ice that’s his business, but Erik isn’t going in unless he absolutely has to.
M’Baku smiles, as if he can guess Erik’s thoughts. “It is fed by a hot spring,” he explains.
Hot water: Erik could moan. He opens his mouth to say yes, fuck, he will absolutely take a bath after M’Baku is done bathing-, but before he can speak M’Baku starts stripping off his clothes right then and there.
Erik snaps his head away and stares at the ground, cheeks burning. He can still catch glimpses of M’Baku’s broad back out of the corner of his eye. M’Baku’s muscles flex as he pulls off his armor, and as he walks into the pool the moonlight ripples over the smooth planes of his skin.
Erik isn’t sure whether he’s relieved or disappointed M’Baku is facing away from him. Not that he wants to see. He’s just curious. He’ll have to see it eventually. It’d be nice to know what he’s in for.
Erik looks up; M’Baku is standing in waist deep water which is mercifully opaque. Thank god: it’s hard enough to look at him as he is. As Erik watches a rivulet of water runs over his pectorals traces the line of his abs. That’s… wow. Yeah.
Erik swallows roughly and looks up to see M’Baku watching him with laughter in his eyes.
Well, good. He’s trying to seduce M’Baku, that’s the goal here. Great. He lets out a shaky breath and reaches for the hem of his shirt.
He strips like it’s a challenge and throws his clothes down on the ground, not looking to see if M’Baku is watching him. He doesn’t cover himself even though he wants to, just keeps his hands clenched at his sides instead. Let M’Baku look; this is what he’s getting.
The cold mountain air makes his skin prickle; he feels utterly exposed. As soon as he’s gotten all his clothing off he jumps for the pool, his limbs ungainly as he splashes in.
The heat hits him immediately. Wonderful, delicious, heat: it licks at his calves and thighs, sets warmth in the beds of his toenails and fingernails. It feels so good he could cry; his mouth falls open and his knees begin to buckle below him.
Strong hands catch him before he can collapse. “Careful, husband,” M’Baku murmurs, lips inches from Erik’s forehead. His hands are warm; his fingers long enough to almost completely circle Erik’s biceps.
They stand for a moment, silent except for the gentle lapping of water against the rock. M’Baku does not let go of Erik.
Slowly, hesitantly, Erik brings his own hands up to rest on M’Baku’s arms, savoring the firm press of muscle beneath his fingertips. They don't speak, just stand together, cradled arm in arm as the water swirls around them both.
It’s the most relaxing thing in the world, until it’s not.
He becomes aware of it slowly: M’Baku is right there, inches away from him. He can hear M’Baku’s breath in his ear, feel the heat of his exhales against the shell of his ear. If Erik were to tilt his head up they’d be almost kissing. And of course they’re both naked; there’s nothing between their bodies but water and their own restraint. If Erik swayed forward their chests would touch, their hips would slot together…
Erik feels himself getting hard in the water.
If he got the courage to press himself forward, would he feel M’Baku reacting the same way? Would M’Baku lift him out of the water, carry him back to the bedrolls and take his time? Or would he do it in the pool, all desperation and friction cloaked in heat?
Fuck. He doesn’t want it, but if it has to happen… He lets his mouth fall open and his eyes flutter shut. Then, inch by infinite inch, he tilts his head up towards M’Baku, and waits.
Water splashes and M’Baku lets go of his arms. He opens his eyes to see M’Baku pulling away, blinking like he’s coming out of a daydream. “I should finish setting up camp,” he says at length, staring at Erik for a second before pulling himself out of the pool.
Erik lets him go. He stays in the water, listening to the sounds of M’Baku stowing their cookware and wondering what he did wrong.
The next morning, Erik wakes to darkness and a hand shaking his shoulder. He grunts and tries to turn back into the pillow, but the hand is persistent.
“Come, husband. The sun will rise soon.”
That seems to Erik like an excellent reason to stay in bed, but then he remembers he’s supposed to be ingratiating himself. Begrudgingly he pushes himself into a sitting position with one hand as he rubs the sleep from his eyes with the other.
He dresses with clumsy hands and follows M’Baku from the camp. They walk for a few minutes, Erik trying to blink the sleep from his eyes, before M’Baku stops him. “Look, husband.”
He’s about to ask what they’re supposed to be looking at, and why whatever it is couldn’t be looked at later in the day. But as the path rounds a corner the words die in his mouth.
Before them is a deep valley in the filled with lush greenery. In the middle there grows a massive tree. He thinks it’s big looking down on it, but as they descend he realizes it’s even bigger than he first thought. It’s the biggest damn tree Erik has ever seen, tall as a skyscraper and wide enough he guesses it’d take at least ten people with linked hands to circle it.
But it’s not the tree’s size that awes him.
Every part of the tree is covered with snakelike green vines: they wrap the trunk at its thickest point and hang from the branch in graceful loops. And threaded between the vines are what look like purple Christmas lights. They wink in and out of sight from behind the leaves and branches as Erik draws closer, his breath catching at the beauty. As he nears the tree he realizes that they aren’t Christmas lights at all, but flowers. Each one is a mass of translucent petals cradling some bit of light within.
Behind him, M’Baku’s voice is hushed. “They are very sacred. And very powerful.”
A glimmer of interest, beyond just their beauty. “Powerful?” he asks, keeping his voice light.
“Some men keep them for personal gain,” M’Baku says, “but that is not the Jabari way.” And perhaps there is a bit of censure there, for M’Baku seems able to read all of his intentions in his eyes. Except the ones that truly matter.
He’s about to ask more about the flowers- what kind of powerful does M’Baku mean?- when one of the larger branches rustles suddenly. He tenses, ready to run back up the path, but M’Baku rests a hand on his shoulder. “Be very still,” he whispers. Which, okay, that doesn’t make him any less nervous.
They stand still as statues as the branch rustles again, and again, and then a large shape melts out of the foliage.
It’s a gorilla. Or maybe not: Erik has seen gorillas before at the zoo and on TV. The animal before them is three times the size of them, and its eyes glow purple in the predawn light.
It walks on its hind legs like a man does, out of the foliage and into the shadow of the tree. There it plucks a single purple flower and sits against the trunk cross legged. It brings the flower to its mouth and chews.
Erik can feel it watching him; those purple eyes seem to be staring right through him. It hasn’t said a word, but Erik is sure with every inch of his being that this isn’t some dumb animal. He’s somehow sure the gorilla knows his name, his story, everything about him. It’s terrifying.
He vaguely notes that M’Baku is kneeling beside him. “Glory to Hanuman,” he’s saying, over and over. Erik hastily drops to his knees as well.
They stay like that, watching the gorilla in awed silence as the sun comes up and banishes the mist from the canopy. At last the creature disappears back into the forest. "It is an honor, that he took such an interest in you," M'Baku says as he begins to hoist their bags.
M’Baku exits the grove first. Erik begins to follow him, but pauses. One of the vines hangs a bit further down than the rest; there’s a small purple bud suspended just a few inches above his head. He could take it, if he wanted to. It wouldn’t be hard.
“Husband, are you coming?”
Erik glances up the path. If he finds out, M’Baku will be pissed.
Better make sure he doesn’t find out then. Erik wants to get in M’Baku’s good graces, but he’s not stupid enough to put all his trust in one person. It’s always good to have a backup, and he’s never been one to turn down power. With a last glance at the place where the gorilla had been, Erik stands on the tips of his toes and plucks the flower from the branch. He stashes it in his pocket and zips the pocket shut.
“Coming!” he yells, and runs out of the grove after M’Baku.