T'Challa sat back in his throne, trying not to wince at the ache in his shoulders as he looked around the circle. His councilors looked as harrowed and haunted as he felt--but for the first time in weeks, he saw hope there, too. For the first time in weeks, he let himself believe that they might at last have reached a conclusion.
When he looked to the Border Tribe, T'Challa saw a familiar hardness in M'Kathu's eyes. He'd been the fiercest voice against opening trade at all, and much of the last few weeks had been spent countering his dire predictions. But this time, the debate had tended toward approval, so M'Kathu kept his expression placid--he knew how precarious his place was on the council.
The Border Tribe could rightfully have challenged the proposal. It was their place to challenge it, if they felt it threatened Wakanda's security. Perhaps, in a world where W'Kabi hadn't thrown in his lot with a usurper, M'Kathu would have kept voicing his objections even against the full force of the council. But this was not that world, and today, he said, "The Border Tribe approves the tariff proposal."
The Elder of the Mining Tribe dipped her head, letting her clay-red locks slide down her shoulders. She'd pushed hard for protections on the vibranium trade, and judging by her sphinxlike smile, she'd never expected the rest of the council to let themselves be pushed so far. "The Mining Tribe approves the proposal, without further amendments."
A single kimoyo bead lay on the River Tribe Elder's seat, with his face projected above it. He was in New Orleans now, working with local leaders to redesign their levees. It was still morning there. He'd been on the call since a few hours after midnight, and the strain was starting to show in his face. "The River Tribe approves," he said, and rubbed his eyes.
Immediately, the Elder of the Merchant Tribe said, "The Merchant Tribe approves the proposal." She'd shepherded this proposal through the council for the last few weeks, making deals over coffee, chatting with wives and husbands and brothers and aunts to find where pressure could be applied. T'Challa had received such a relentless stream of drafts and amendments that he'd given up reading them until she told him the version was final.
And that should have been the end of it. For hundreds of years, those four approvals had been enough for a king to pass a proposal into law.
But this was a new era, and Wakanda spoke not with four voices, but with five.
Everyone looked to the newest seat in the council chamber. The Mining Tribe Elder's smile became brittle; the Merchant Tribe Elder looked skyward, like an abbreviated roll of the eyes. M'Kathu's hands tightened on his knees.
M'Baku sat sprawled upon his vibranium chair, with his thick legs splayed wide and his hand set like an offering in his lap. He met T'Challa's eyes. His smile made T'Challa's pulse leap. "I've taken this proposal of yours to the Jabari. We had some questions about the protections for our timber--"
The River Tribe Elder was on mute, but T'Challa thought he could see a tiny groan escape.
"--and we are satisfied with your answers." He brought his knobkerrie down on the earth with a hard, final sound. "The Jabari Tribe approves your proposal."
The whole room relaxed. T'Challa smiled back at M'Baku and fantasized about retribution. "Then let it be so. At long last, my friends, this council is dismissed."
The councilors rose from their seats with a collective noise of relief, saluting each other, bowing to T'Challa with arms crossed over their chests. The Merchant Tribe Elder caught the arm of her counterpart from the Mining Tribe, and the two of them left deep in conversation; the River Tribe Elder made his farewells and then vanished into his kimoyo bead. M'Kathu left with a bow so precisely correct that it made T'Challa's hackles go up.
Ramonda's lips tightened, but she said nothing. What was there to be said? They both understood the fissures that remained in Wakanda's political landscape; they both knew that the decisions that the Border Tribe had made after Mount Bashenga would have to be remade a thousand, thousand times in the years to come.
She rose from her chair in a rustle of fabric, a delicate chime of earrings. "Rest well, son," she said. "This meeting was a beginning. There is more work yet to do." Then she made an elegant bow, and departed.
And then only T'Challa and M'Baku remained, ringed by the Dora Milaje.
"You didn't have to tease them like that," said T'Challa.
M'Baku's eyes glittered with mirth. "I told them the truth. The Jabari will have a voice in the new Wakanda. We will not have politicking in the cities, in secret, behind closed doors. We will not have it!"
"Then ask the Jabari to come sit for eight hours to debate tariffs. But I don't think they will thank you for it." T'Challa stretched his hands over his head until his back cracked, but still his shoulders burned with a low, insistent fire. "Ah! I've been sitting here too long. My spine has fused to the chair."
M'Baku grinned. "You want some help with that?"
And there it was--that twist of inflection that promised. T'Challa's blood heated. Thirst rose in him like a tide, and his mouth was dry with want. He forced his tone light. "I hadn't realized that you were a doctor as well as a statesman."
"Doctor, no. But the Jabari have some arts for this."
T'Challa knew what he was being offered, and he ached for it. But things were different here in Birnan Zana, far from M'Baku's throne. The other four elders understood how the king's favor tipped the scales of power out of balance. "I shouldn't," he began. "You sit on my council--"
"Do you trust them?" M'Baku rose from his chair and strode to the center of the circle, arms spread as though he was a supplicant. He gestured to the half-dozen empty chairs with a sweep of his hand. "These people. Do you trust them to serve Wakanda?"
T'Challa remembered the Mining Tribe Elder with her self-satisfied smile, M'Kathu with his doubts unvoiced, the Merchant Tribe Elder with her quiet backroom dealings. They all believe they serve Wakanda, he told himself. And between the four of them--the five of them--perhaps that's even true. "I do," he said.
"Then fuck me," said M'Baku. "And trust them to tell you if Wakanda will suffer for it."
T'Challa sighed. "You trust them more than I do. Not everyone has the Jabari disdain for politicking behind closed doors." But he stood and closed the gap between them all the same. His palm grazed the soft fur ruff over M'Baku's shoulders, then lit along the back of M'Baku's neck. He pressed their brows together as M'Baku's broad hands found his waist. "Understand that this is not a weapon you can wield against them if they cross you. This is something precious to me. Something that I want to protect."
"I have enough weapons already," M'Baku laughed. "Now, are you going to kiss me, or are you just going to--"
T'Challa didn't let him finish. He dragged M'Baku close and drank down the rest of his words. M'Baku grinned against his lips, then kissed him back open-mouthed and eager. His teeth grazed T'Challa's lower lip, and the sweet sharpness sent a thrill of pleasure through him. "I've missed this," he said, low. "Things were easier, in Jabariland."
"Things were the same in Jabariland." M'Baku tipped T'Challa's chin up. His eyes were dark and intent. "In the jungle, you said that you would always be my equal. Did that change, just because I came down the mountain to listen to old men argue about tariffs? Or is it just that you have a bigger chair now?"
"That wasn't what I meant," T'Challa said, but he realized that he had thought it all the same. Hadn't he treated M'Baku differently, once he had joined the council? Had he let himself be alone with M'Baku even once, since the debates had begun?
M'Baku didn't blink. "What did you mean?"
T'Challa held himself very straight. They hadn't pulled apart; M'Baku's palm was still hot upon his waist, T'Challa's hand curled at the back of his neck. It felt as though they could spiral at any moment into a battle--hands straining against hands, thighs wrapped around throats, raw and desperate as their first meeting. A part of T'Challa craved it; it was an intimacy that the people of Wakanda could witness and understand.
He traced his thumb over the high curve of M'Baku's cheekbone, the well-groomed edge of his hairline. "In Jabariland, I had no one else to satisfy. I could devote my days to you."
Then M'Baku grinned, and the tension bled out of their embrace. "You could marry me," he said, as lightly as though it was a joke. "Then you'd have an excuse."
"Are you proposing?" laughed T'Challa.
Still lightly--too lightly--M'Baku asked, "Would you accept?"
"I might. If you were offering." T'Challa leaned up for another kiss. "But Nakia has a vision for what she will do as Queen of Wakanda. I suggest you let her include you in that vision."
"She had a few ideas," M'Baku admitted. "The woman is an avalanche. You let her sweep you away, or you let her bury you."
He asked her for my hand, T'Challa realized, and all at once the proposal became real. He could all too easily imagine them sitting in some coffeehouse together, or taking a hovercraft skimming over the river--talking of the state they might shape and the husband they might share. Plotting on how best to raise the question to ensure that T'Challa answered yes.
He imagined that it had gone differently in their heads.
"I'm sorry that I let you believe you were less than my equal," said T'Challa. "You sit on my council because you are a leader to our people, and the throne is not a greater chair than yours."
"It's already forgotten." M'Baku clapped his shoulder warmly. "Now, are you going to let me work out what that big chair has done to your back, or are we going to stand here apologizing to each other all night?"
T'Challa stretched, feeling every single vertebra screech a protest. "Please," he answered. "Or I may never be able to sit down again."
* * *
There, M'Baku laid T'Challa naked upon a table, his head pillowed on his crossed arms. "This will hurt," he warned.
"More than being stabbed, or falling off a cliff?"
M'Baku gave a low, warm chuckle and flexed his hands. "Depends on whether I do it right."
"Are you trying to scare me, or excite me?"
One of M'Baku's heavy hands came to rest at the small of T'Challa's back, just beneath where the pain lay coiled. "Are you excited?"
T'Challa shivered despite himself. He loved those hands; he loved how sure they were on his skin. "Yes."
M'Baku spread his palms on either side of T'Challa's spine, fingers splayed like wings over the tight muscles. Everywhere skin met skin, warmth kindled and flared, licking along raw nerves and suffusing T'Challa with a kind of soft, sleepy pleasure. He closed his eyes and let those slow, steady touches map his back--the knot just above his coccyx, the tension beneath his ribs, the knife-sharp ache between his shoulderblades. He groaned at each new pain M'Baku discovered, but those hands brought no relief.
"You need a more ergonomic throne," M'Baku said as he began to smooth a sweet-smelling lotion over T'Challa's skin. "Lumbar support."
"As though yours isn't just an elegant slab of rock."
"It distributes my weight." T'Challa felt the table shift, then the familiar heavy warmth of M'Baku's thighs on his own as M'Baku settled behind him. His cock lay hot in the cleft of T'Challa's backside, only half-hard; it felt like an offer, more than a promise.
This time, there was nothing gentle in M'Baku's touch. He traced slick hands down the long muscles that paralleled T'Challa's spine, steadily building pressure as he worked his way toward T'Challa's hips. He drove in deep with his thumbs, his fingertips, the heels of his hands; his palms swept in slow, relentless arcs, and beneath them, pain flared and died as muscles unknotted. Every touch was tender, insistent. The pressure ached, and T'Challa wanted that ache to go on forever. He smothered a cry against his wrist and arched up under M'Baku, chasing a still deeper pressure.
"How does that feel?" M'Baku asked, so close against T'Challa's shoulders that he felt breath ghost over his skin.
T'Challa couldn't remember how long he had been hard. Each moment bled into the next, warm and aching and sun-golden. "Good."
"Does it hurt?"
Another knot worked loose under M'Baku's hands, and T'Challa shuddered in relief. "Yes."
M'Baku pressed a slow, savoring kiss to the back of T'Challa's neck. "Do you want me inside you?"
Again, M'Baku's hands skimmed down his back--shoulders to hips, then at last to the swell of his backside. M'Baku rolled his thumbs over the taut muscles there, stroking and kneading, spreading him open. By now, T'Challa's skin was so sensitive that even the faintest touch sent pleasure singing through his nerves. He pressed his ass up into M'Baku's hands, shameless and desperate for release. "Please," he said. "Please, my love--"
M'Baku's slick fingertips slid down to circle his entrance. That steady touch unmade him; T'Challa opened beneath it. Two fingers slipped in easily, and he rocked back onto them to draw them deeper. "I need more," he breathed. "I need you."
"Always so impatient for my cock!" M'Baku laughed.
"Always," said T'Challa, because he didn't have words for what he wanted. There was something deep within him that M'Baku's most forceful touches had only brushed, something raw and vital that was simpler than pleasure or pain--and with M'Baku's fingers inside him, driving him toward the edge of rapture, he could almost grasp it.
There came a stronger scent of lotion, a quick brush of knuckles as M'Baku worked himself slick. Then his cock slid along the cleft of T'Challa's backside, just a few teasing thrusts before the thick, blunt head eased in.
It barely hurt at all, compared with the constellation of aches fading from pain to relief in T'Challa's back. Instead there was only the glorious burn of being stretched, the bright flare of ecstasy each time M'Baku's cock brushed his prostate, the heat of their bodies and the rush of their breath. Every thrust brought him closer to that thing within him that was deeper than joy--that thing that felt like life itself. He pushed himself up on his elbows, driving himself back again and again onto M'Baku, until pleasure crested in him like sunlight spilling over the mountains. He came across the table with a shudder and a cry, and M'Baku chased him over the edge.
* * *
"To the end of those fucking tariff debates," said the elder of the Merchant Tribe with great feeling, downing her glass in a swallow.
"Bast, those fucking debates! If the Jabari Tribe Elder had introduced one more timber amendment--"
"He wouldn't have dared," the Merchant Tribe Elder declared with a faint smirk. "The king has that young man wrapped around his finger."