Erik didn’t believe in the gods of his people. So he went on a bad trip thanks to some freaky purple flower, whatever. He’d been on a bad acid trip once too, that didn’t mean the San Francisco Bay was actually full of fucking giant friendly octopuses and evil squids. All that flower ritual shit was just a primitive holdover from ancient times, and Wakanda’s gods were no more real than the god his ma had prayed to.
That vision he had, seeing his dad—that wasn’t real. Wakanda’s panther god wasn’t real. He was dying, and no ancestral spirit plane would welcome him. He would simply end.
He thought he wouldn’t be afraid, but now, with his life ebbing away from him, the frantic animal fear of death scrabbled and whined inside of him, an instinct he couldn’t fight. Every beat of his heart boomed through his awareness. He understood abruptly, viscerally, that the heart was a muscle that could give out, understood that it would stop working sometime soon. Every beat took more effort than the one before it. He was going into shock, probably. Even the fear began to ebb on a tide that wouldn’t surge back.
The sun was setting and he should have been able to feel its last warmth on his face, but he couldn’t. T’Challa was holding him, his grip tight, but Erik could only register it distantly, like his body could only spare attention to the pain of the mortal wound in his gut. The strength the heart-shaped herb offered couldn’t conquer this. He didn’t want it to conquer this.
He would die free.
He hoped, vaguely, that T’Challa was the kind of stupidly honorable person who’d actually honor his last wish. And then it all went dark.
YOU ARE NOT DONE YET, N’JADAKA.
N’Jadaka didn’t believe in the gods of his people. But belief was not a prerequisite of the gods’ attention, and the blood of the Panther tribe ran in N’Jadaka’s veins. Bast took hold of his soul in her mighty jaws and lifted it free of his body. She gave him a warning shake, just as she would a misbehaving kitten, and set him back. With one careful claw, she tweaked his path through time into a twisting loop. Wayward and abandoned though he was, N’Jadaka was still of her tribe. He could set things right, if given the chance.
Erik woke up.
“I fucking told you not to save m—”
“Told me not to what?” mumbled Linda. “Go back to sleep baby, the tracker on Klaue hasn’t gone off yet. Fuckin’ jet lag…”
What the fuck.
He didn’t go back to sleep. He patted at his chest, his stomach: no injuries, sure as hell no fatal gut wound, and only the scars Erik himself had put there. He looked across the bed at Linda, who had an early morning grumpy frown on her face. He’d shot her, hadn’t he? She’d been in the way, Klaue had thought she counted as leverage, as if Erik let anyone have leverage over him, and he’d been so close to getting to Wakanda, so he’d shot her, left her there, because it wouldn’t matter soon enough, soon he’d be king of Wakanda, soon he’d remake the world, and Linda had known what she was signing up for—
Linda was dead. Erik was supposed to be dead too. But he wasn’t dead, obviously, and neither was she, and he wasn’t king of Wakanda yet, so...it was just a really fucking detailed dream. Had to be. He’d take a shower and order some room service breakfast, and then they’d get to work, and it wouldn’t be anything like his fucked up dream at all.
Except everything was exactly like his fucking dream.
Erik had never experienced so much deja vu so often in his entire fucking life. Everything was familiar, everything went just like how Erik had dreamed it. Busting Klaue out of jail, getting to Wakanda...all of it might as well have been the cut scene in a video game he’d already played. When Klaue held a gun to Linda’s head, for just a second, Erik wanted to put it all on pause, take a few extra seconds to run the numbers. Could he shoot Klaue without shooting Linda, or without Klaue shooting her? Could he make that shot? Could Linda break out of Klaue’s hold just long enough to let him make the shot? Probably not. The half-resigned, half-terrified look on Linda’s face said she didn’t think he could either. She was smart that way.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and Erik took his shot. He aimed for Klaue, but just as he pulled the trigger, they moved. The bullet hit Linda instead, just like he’d known it would. Just like it had before. He had that extra split-second to make the shot on Klaue though, and he took it.
“I’ll make this worth it, I promise. We’re gonna free our people,” he told Linda’s body, as if she were still in there. Then he grabbed Klaue’s body, and headed for the plane that would take him to Wakanda.
When he crossed the border to greet the wary border guards, he waited to feel something, some sense of homecoming or belonging as he stepped foot on his father’s unconquered homeland. The most beautiful country on Earth, his dad always used to say. And it was beautiful in the light of early morning, like the sun was shining on the plains for the very first time, gilding them with wonder and adoration.
That wasn’t relevant to the mission, though.
And anyway, the shackles on his wrists put a damper on his appreciation for the scenery. The restraints rankled, made rage start to simmer in him, because wasn’t he a prince of this nation? And he was being welcomed with chains? Fuck that. Erik had had enough of chains. He was ready for a crown.
Chains or no, he couldn’t help but notice that the hidden capital city was as beautiful as the landscape surrounding it, and just like he’d imagined it: a city tucked snugly beside water, like Oakland, with elevated trains, like Oakland, but that was where the resemblance ended. Vibrant green growth twined with futuresque buildings that looked like something out of Star Wars, all mingled with ancient-looking structures everywhere, a timeless kind of harmony. The trains hovered and hummed instead of clacking and clattering.
It was just like his dad’s stories, all the wistful, fierce love of his home made real. Erik reached for even an echo of that love, or a dim reflection of it. This is it, Stevens. This is the homeland. This is where you belong. And yet, no sense of homecoming rose up in him. The joy and comfort and safety he distantly remembered failed to reappear. The capital city might as well have been a pretty fantasy, still just the stuff of bedtime stories.
“The Golden City,” said W’Kabi, something smug and triumphant in the smirk on his face, his eyes cold and assessing.
Erik wanted to punch that look off his face, and maybe would have if not for the shackles on his wrists. What the hell had W’Kabi done to earn this shining city, huh? Ride around the gorgeous plains of Wakanda on giant rhinos, just in case some dumbfuck stumbled across the border, while Erik and his brothers and sisters around the world suffered and died? Did any of the people walking these streets have to worry about being hassled by cops, or worse? Did any of the smiling and laughing people on those maglev trains ever think about the rest of Africa, their struggling and starving brothers and sisters? Did they think of the men and women who shared their skin, being executed on the streets for the crime of being Black?
Erik doubted it. That was okay. He’d change all of that. He’d start with W’Kabi.
W’Kabi’s buttons were obvious, and didn’t even require much pushing. This was a man hungry for war. Erik knew the type, because they were the same all over. They got to Iraq or Afghanistan, or whatever other hellhole was on the brink of exploding into violence, and the thin veneer of discipline and civility cracked. Something hungry for blood and glory climbed through the broken places. W’Kabi was just the fucking same: not made for peacetime. Erik could relate.
All it took was a couple goads about Klaue and T’Challa’s failure to catch him, and some suggestive comments about what an unleashed Wakanda could achieve, and Erik had something like an ally. Wakanda, for all its advancement, wasn’t so different from any of the other countries Erik’s unit had wreaked havoc in. He told himself that was why all of this kept feeling more and more familiar.
When he got to the throne room, that too was familiar, and again, Erik felt the disorienting lurch of deja vu. How the fuck had he known what the throne would look like? What the queen mother would be wearing? He’d meant to swagger into this place like he owned it, because he was gonna own it, but now he stumbled as W’Kabi led him up to the throne’s dais.
He locked eyes with T’Challa. It should’ve been a stare down, Erik meant for it to be a stare down, but instead T’Challa was frowning at him in confusion, head cocked, like he could tell something was wrong here. The day’s fucked up deja vu swept over Erik again in one skin-crawling wave. He bit the inside of his lip, hard, and focused on the here and now.
You’re just remembering your dream wrong, applying what you’re seeing now to what you saw in your sleep, or maybe in Dad’s journals, he told himself, even as he parroted his dream-self’s words, and heard the council’s familiar responses echoed back to him.
After T’Challa accepted his challenge, W’Kabi took him to an actual room in the palace, not the cell he’d half-expected. Erik knew what he should have been doing right about now: he should have been driving a wedge in the small crack that T’Challa’s failure to catch Klaue had formed. He should have been reminding W’Kabi of just who had actually won him justice. He felt too fucking jittery though, equally thrown off by every moment of familiarity and of strangeness.
He just wanted this shit to make sense again. So he ran his damn mouth. It wasn’t a good habit, Erik knew it wasn’t. Every bit of his training told him it wasn’t. There’d been so many goddamned years when he couldn’t, not without risking every single thing he’d worked so hard for. But here, in Wakanda? Well, he was already unwelcome, and he was about to do way worse. Might as well let his mouth run some more.
“I figured a bastard cousin like me would get tossed in the dungeons.”
“We don’t have dungeons.”
“For real? Nah, course you don’t. No prison-industrial complex here in Wakanda, no sir.”
W’Kabi gave him a sideways look and a shitty little smirk. “Accustomed to prisons, are you?”
“Oh, fuck you. That what you think all Black men in America are like?” he asked, and W’Kabi shrugged.
“I would not know.”
Erik switched from English to Xhosa. “We’re not all slaves, no thanks to Wakanda,” he said, but W’Kabi’s haughty sneer stayed in place. Erik was starting to regret needing this asshole for his plans.
They stopped in front of a door flanked by stern-faced Dora Milaje at parade rest, their spears planted in front of them. The door opened with a wave of W’Kabi’s wrist to reveal a perfectly nice room, but Erik wasn’t fooled. It was a cell, sure enough, or at least it would be as long as the Dora Milaje were on guard at the door.
“You may stay here until the challenge,” W’Kabi told him, in English. What a dick. Erik’s Xhosa was pretty good, but apparently it didn’t meet Wakandan standards. “Food will be brought to you.”
“What, no tour?”
“Win the challenge. Then you will get a tour,” said W’Kabi, and after a long, exaggerated pause, he added, “my prince,” and showed him into the room with deliberate courtesy.
The door closed behind W’Kabi silently, and then Erik was alone. He killed some time doing a circuit of the small room and its attached bathroom, both of which had the impersonal feel of a usually vacant hotel room. Apart from the obviously Wakandan design, it wasn’t all that different from the room he’d had in Busan, and the thought was weirdly disquieting. The view from the window was at least entirely different, and after he’d searched the room for any unpleasant surprises, he killed some time staring out at the bustling and colorful Golden City.
When he succeeded, this would be his home.
Sure didn’t feel like home though. It felt the same as when he’d looked out other windows, onto other cities: Baghdad and Kabul and Mogadishu. Just another mission. The last one, hopefully.
He should have spent the night resting up for the next day’s fight, but he couldn’t sleep. He was too worried about having some new fucked up, overly realistic dream. He paced the small room instead, then stretched and exercised, going over his plan the whole time. Everything hinged on getting the orders and cargo out to the War Dogs. That had to be the first real thing Erik did as king. His dad’s version of this plan had been too slow, too cautious, but then his dad hadn’t had all the War Dogs at his command. His dad hadn’t had Wakanda at his command.
Erik would, and he was done with caution, with words and appeals to dignity and high-minded justice. Violence and power were the only things the rest of the world understood. That was what Wakanda had to show the world, what Erik would make Wakanda show the world.
When it came time for the challenge, he changed some stuff up, just to shake off that goddamn deja vu: he killed Uncle James quicker, didn’t wait to hear any bullshit about how Erik ought to leave T’Challa out of this, then he won the challenge against T’Challa within minutes, easily anticipating what moves were coming. No way could T’Challa survive that gut wound and that drop, that was the fucked up dream talking.
Eerie deja vu or no, it didn’t matter: he was finally king.
He entered the quiet chamber full of the glowing heart-shaped herb, and it was just like he somehow already remembered it, the same terrible familiarity he’d felt in the throne room. How could he know what it would be like? Had his dad told him? He must have, that must have been it, how the hell else would he know about it. He drank the weird herb juice, the strange and bitter taste familiar. The pain of it was familiar too, like the aches from the worst fever he’d ever had, but worse even than that. When the dirt closed over his head, hot and dry, it was almost a relief, and then he ended up right back in that old Oakland apartment to face his dad’s wide, tear-filled eyes.
This isn’t real, he told himself. It’s just a fucked up, bad trip.
“My son, what have you done? Why are you here again?”
“Again? This isn’t real,” he said, and heard the note of hysteria in his voice. He locked that shit down. “None of this is real,” he insisted, angry now. This herb was fucking with his head, and he did not sign up for that.
Something growled, low and ominous and as loud as thunder.
He woke up again. The superpowers were nice, but he was done with this bad trip bullshit. Breathe, all the priests and priestesses told him, like that was the problem. He shoved them all back.
“Burn it all!” he ordered (again?), and he got to work. He had a war to win, and an empire to build.
Except apparently, he still had to get rid of his goddamned cousin. How the fuck was he still alive?
The battle outside the mines wasn’t like any other op Erik had run. The Wakandans didn’t use guns, for one thing, and Erik was really missing his right about now. He didn’t give a damn if it wasn’t honorable. He’d won the challenge: this was just a war, and wars were brutal. He didn’t see any reason to pretend otherwise. Let W’Kabi and his men understand just what it was they were so hungry for. Let them get a preview of the months and years to come. All that mattered was that the planes and their cargo went out.
Erik fought, and it came so easy with the power of the heart-shaped herb coursing through him. No fucking wonder Wakandans believed in gods when the herb and the panther suit could make a king feel like this. He fought the Dora Milaje to a standstill, and he fought the princess off until her brother showed back up, and he fought and he fought and he fought, like he could do it forever here in the bowels of Mount Bashenga.
Erik could have sworn he heard an otherworldly growl, but that was probably just some machinery in the mine. T’Challa sure as hell didn’t seem to hear it, because he wasn’t distracted in that split second like Erik was, and that split second was all T’Challa needed to slam his dagger home in one vicious, gutting tear, as neat and brutal as an actual panther’s claws.
Well, shit. He’d been so fucking close too.
Just like the dream, T’Challa was kind in victory. The terrified part of Erik, the part that was desperate not to die, desperate for just one more moment, clung to that kindness. Mostly though, it just gave him one last burst of angry energy.
“Oh, now you’re gonna be all nice, cuz? Didn’t see you rolling the welcome mat out when I walked into the throne room.”
Through a field of vision that was growing ever darker, Erik saw T’Challa bow his head.
“And I was wrong. I am sorry. My father, Zuri, they were wrong for what they did to you. If I had known—”
Erik didn’t find out what T’Challa would have done if he had known. Not even the heart-shaped herb could keep Erik’s struggling heart working when he was bleeding out. The Wakandan sunset went dark.
And then Erik woke up again.
He was back in the hotel room in Busan, uninjured, Linda alive and asleep. What the fuck. He checked the date on his phone: four days ago, again. No way was all that just a dream. Or some sort of dream within a dream? A delusion? Did he get dosed with acid and not notice? No fucking way.
But the alternative was…Erik didn’t even know how to classify what the alternative was. It wasn’t possible.
Whatever, he’d stick with the plan. He had a plan. Even now, some kid in some backwards town in the South was probably about to be killed by the cops; even now, thousands of men and women sat in American prisons, land of the supposedly free, enslaved in all but name for the crime of selling drugs white people bought from them with no consequence. Even now, every minute, every second, people, his people, were dying in misery Wakanda could lift off of them with so little effort it was laughable. Erik was done wasting time, waiting for that long arc of history that everyone told him bent toward justice.
Hundreds of years of slavery, decades of second class citizenship, and the broken parts of what the white man raped and pillaged scattered across the globe, and he was supposed to wait? No.
Wakanda had what it took to bend that arc towards justice all on its own, but they’d been sitting pretty for centuries, ignoring the misery and evil outside their borders. Erik had every right and responsibility to take hold of the power they’d failed to use, to grab hold of that arc and make it bend towards justice.
That was the plan. Everything else was a distraction.
He made sure to kill T’Challa during the challenge, and didn’t leave it to the fall and the river below: he went for the heart, and watched T’Challa take his last breath, as the queen mother and princess screamed and cried. But the challenge was won, fair and square, so the priestess passed the mantle on, and Erik became king.
His dad was pacing in the apartment this time.
“N’Jadaka, what are you doing?” he asked, in his sternest dad voice. Part of Erik, a very small part, wanted to automatically apologize. The hell if he’d apologize to a ghost his own tripping brain was conjuring up though.
“Taking back my rightful place. Winning freedom for our people! Isn’t this what you wanted?”
“Not like this!”
Erik figured it’d be more or less easy sailing from there, but there was still a damn battle when he was sending the cargo planes out. The Dora Milaje broke ranks when some vaguely familiar looking chick came after him, fury and grief burning in her eyes.
“I am Nakia of the River Tribe, and I challenge you, Killmonger,” she said. Now where the hell had she learned that nickname of his?
“We’re done with that challenge shit.”
“You do not get to overthrow thousands of years of tradition at your whim, usurper. Or are you already afraid that you will lose the mantles of king and Black Panther the same way you gained them?”
“Nah, I’m not afraid. But it’s some backwards bullshit, isn’t it, deciding who rules based on single combat?” Maybe it’d take some more object examples for the lesson to set in. People would see soon enough that challenging wasn’t worth it. “C’mon then, one more challenge,” he said, and beckoned her to start. She came at him with no hesitation, and the battle erupted, both between them and around them.
He thought he’d have the advantage easy enough, what with the heart-shaped herb, but she must have gotten a hold of some, because she matched him strength for strength, and she was faster too, sneaky and vicious, deflecting blows and shifting his momentum in unexpected ways so he was constantly off balance. It ended in the dark mine shaft again, when he failed to keep track of what the hell she was doing with both those circular blades of hers. She did it quick and neat, at least, two fast strokes, one to his carotid and one to his femoral, the blades so sharp that the pain was almost sweet. He felt cold already; shock was setting in fast. His hands gripped uselessly at his wounds, too weak to stop his life blood pulsing out of him.
“Empires fall, Killmonger. What I hope Wakanda can build is better than an empire,” she said, and then the blood loss took him.
Or maybe it didn’t, because Erik just woke up again, right back in that Busan hotel room.
In Iraq, it used to be a grim joke, calling day-to-day operations and missions Groundhog Day. Even Erik’s team, ostensibly handling high-risk, high-difficulty missions, fell into the habit, because there was no better way to describe the monotony of a mission that repeated again and again, across different cities and countries and terrorist cells. The details changed, but the mission stayed the same, and none of it seemed like it was making any difference worth a damn, judging by how many fucking times they ran the same kind of mission in different locales.
This, though, was something different. This wasn’t just a joke. This, maybe, was an actual goddamn time loop. Which, what the fuck. Erik wasn’t goddamn Bill Murray. He wasn’t some schlubby reporter trying to fix his sadsack life. He was a fucking Navy SEAL and prince of Wakanda.
He could figure this time loop shit out, if that was what was going on. He could beat this, he could become king of Wakanda and stay king, then rule over a new world built in Wakanda’s image.
That was probably the whole point of the thing, right? Some glitch in the universe giving him a chance to get things right. Or maybe this was what hell was: failing and dying again and again, over and over. Given his current circumstances, that was an uncomfortably plausible scenario. There’s no such thing as hell, he told himself. There had to be a rational explanation for this, he just had to find it.
He started by testing the limits of the loop: he ditched Linda, holed up in another Busan hotel room, and just waited it out, doing nothing apart from watching the news and living off the rations in his pack, interacting with only the bare minimum of people. This would be his scientific control: eliminate as many variables as possible and observe what was left.
It took four days, the same amount of time of the first loop, then it reset at some point after midnight. Though he should have been able to stay awake—24 hours without sleep was nothing compared to a Navy SEAL’s SERE training—he couldn’t seem to hold onto consciousness on that last night. One second he was awake and waiting, and the next he was waking up back in bed with Linda. Erik let a couple loops pass that way, testing the limits of that fourth night and taking the opportunity to gather more intel on Klaue and Wakanda. Maybe he was getting a chance to do this right, to get the throne and keep it. He’d succeed the next time, he was sure.
He didn’t. This time, the goddamn princess blew him the fuck up. So okay, next time, he’d kill her too, he thought, as the flames overtook him.
Small mercies, it turned out you didn’t really feel anything when you died in an explosion. Erik had a nanosecond to feel grateful for that before he stopped feeling anything at all.
He went for the princess after winning the challenge against T’Challa, then took out Nakia too, and figured he was free and clear. Except then General Okoye got him with a spear to the throat during the fight by the mine that was starting to seem inevitable. She’d gone through W’Kabi to do it too, which Erik honestly kind of respected. So okay, lesson learned, Erik would deal with her next time.
No joy. The rest of the Dora Milaje just fucking swarmed him.
Alright, a purge of the guard and the royal family, that was more than Erik would have preferred, but it wasn’t exactly unheard of when it came to overthrowing a government. Too bad that pushed W’Kabi past his breaking point. Getting trampled and gored by a rhino was absolutely Erik’s least fucking favorite way to die so far.
He really thought he had it the next time: no T’Challa, the princess and queen mother dead too, Nakia killed in another challenge, the Dora Milaje and General Okoye killed with a pretty goddamn hard to arrange ambush and explosion, and then W’Kabi imprisoned, his life collateral for the rest of the Border Tribe’s loyalty. All that had to fucking do it, right? And it almost did.
Except then some giant motherfucker with a wood stick showed up, him and his entourage all making weird barking noises.
“I, M’Baku of the Jabari, challenge you, foreign usurper!”
And then M’Baku straight up fucking tossed Erik down the mine shaft. He had way too much time to wonder if it was true that you passed out before impact on a long drop like this.
Then he learned that it wasn’t.
At the bottom, in the suffocating dark, the very small part of him that wasn’t made up of a pain so huge he didn’t know how the world even had room for it, much less his body, kept replaying the terrible sound of his bones breaking on impact.
When he woke up again, whole and unhurt, the sound followed him. He stayed in bed, not moving, for a long time.
“Erik, you up?” asked Linda. He didn’t open his eyes. He felt Linda’s fingers brush at the wetness on his face. He didn’t know when that had happened. “Baby, why are you crying?”
He got sloppy after that, fucked up his shot to take T’Challa out, and ended up back in the mine, the fucking mine, with a dagger to the chest. It was mutually assured destruction this time, at least; he’d gotten in enough claw swipes at T’Challa to ensure he’d be dying in this mine right alongside Erik.
“I’m sorry,” gasped T’Challa.
Erik turned his head to look at T’Challa where he was collapsed on the other side of the mine’s mag lev tracks. “What? What for?”
“For how we failed you, how—no one brought you home.”
Erik had spent years with what-ifs and might-have-beens, had played out dozens of happily-ever-after scenarios before he’d learned there was no such thing. It was strange to hear someone else raise one of those might-have-beens now, stranger still to have someone to share a what-if with.
“What would you have done, if your pops had brought me to Wakanda?”
T’Challa reached his hand out across the humming tracks, as if to take Erik’s hand.
“I would have welcomed you with joy, cousin,” said T’Challa, voice thick with tears and probably blood.
T’Challa’s hand was still reaching out to him, and Erik almost wanted to reach back. It was years too late for this might-have-been, and their fathers had decided it for them anyway, but here T’Challa was, reaching out anyway. Even after all the fighting, even after a goddamned attempted coup and inciting a civil war. That, more than anything, convinced Erik he wasn’t just feeding a dying man a kind lie.
“Yeah? Even if I was the weird, angry American kid who didn’t know shit about Wakanda?”
“Even then. I would have loved to show you Wakanda. It is so much more than a fairy tale, Erik. We could—”
Erik didn’t hear what T’Challa thought they could have done. The mine’s train came, and everything went dark. Erik woke in Busan knowing that it didn’t matter anyway; Erik had no intention of indulging T’Challa’s soft, coddled heart, not in this loop, or in any other. All that mattered was liberating his people, by any means necessary.
The failures and deaths went on for more and more loops, until they all started to blend together. He’d change some part of his plan, take out different players, consolidate power in different places, but it always ended the same: someone challenged him or killed him right after he sent the cargo planes out. If he took out any of the women, that left him with M’Baku, and if he tried to take M’Baku out before it even came to a battle, the side trip to the mountains left him too vulnerable to attack on the way back to the palace. He gave up on it after the third time he got thrown off the damn mountain by a horde of Jabari tribespeople. Fuck it. He didn’t like the cold anyway.
When some random middle-aged white guy in a suit took him out with what was probably a goddamn head shot judging by the brief explosion of pain in his head followed by darkness, he figured it was time to regroup. He needed a new plan. Maybe it was time to try something totally different. Maybe he should devote some more attention to how the hell he was stuck in a time loop at all.
The next loop, he let T’Challa take custody of Klaue, left Limbani with the CIA, and grabbed the other middle-aged white guy instead. Erik was still kind of pissed about the head shot, so he wasn’t gentle about the grabbing, or about the search and pat down. Gun, wallet, pen, knife, a couple crumpled up receipts, a handkerchief...no weird, suspicious devices or glowing artifacts. Figured it wouldn’t be as easy as that.
“Now what does the CIA want with vibranium, Agent Everett Ross?” he asked when the guy came to again.
Ross shook off his confusion with admirable speed, and just raised an eyebrow, seemingly unbothered by the restraints he was bound with, or the bruises blooming on his face, or the rocking of the van as Linda drove them in circles around Busan.
“Sorry the deal fell through and everything, but if you didn’t need to know that before you sold it to me, you don’t need to know it now.”
“A’ight. But that wasn’t the only misidentified artifact kicking around museum exhibits full of stolen goods. I can get you more, but the price just went up on account of all this inconvenience. New price includes an explanation.”
Ross studied him, pale eyes sharp in his unremarkable, mild-mannered face. The CIA loved guys like this, the bland white guys who looked like any boring middle management suit, easy to underestimate and ignore. Erik knew better.
“There’s not really much of an explanation,” said Ross with a studied shrug. “Vibranium is the rarest metal on earth, and Wakanda says it hasn’t got much of it left. The US government is interested in pursuing alternative sources.”
“And that’s got nothing to do with any recent alien invasions?”
Ross’s forehead wrinkled up in confusion before he could retreat to bland impassivity. “Alien invasions? Like, what, the thing in New York?”
Ross opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. “Yeah, I’m not following.”
“Alien tech. You want vibranium for weapons to use against alien tech.” It was a shot in the dark, the kind of wild ass guesswork Erik would have reamed anyone in his unit out for. But he was in a pretty unprecedented situation right now, and shots in the dark were all he had. “Or are you already using the alien tech?”
“No? I really have no idea what you’re talking about. The CIA just wants a source for vibranium, that’s all. Klaue’s the best option right now, so I’m here to make a deal.”
Ross’s confusion seemed genuine. If there was any alien shit involved in this somewhere, it was going on over Ross’s head, and it almost certainly wasn’t any part of his current op. So this was just the usual CIA bullshit. Fuck. There went Erik’s one halfway plausible explanation for being stuck in a time loop.
“Can’t find any reason to invade Wakanda, huh? Just fake up some intel about weapons of mass destruction, it worked before.”
Ross smiled thinly. “That’s above my pay grade.”
“And if I told you Wakanda’s sitting on an entire mountain of vibranium?”
“I’d want confirmation.”
“Say I got you that confirmation.”
“Then I’d take it to my superiors, and I imagine the United States would hope for a more open economic and diplomatic relationship with the recently crowned king of Wakanda.”
Yeah, right. There’d be a few years of diplomacy, maybe, but eventually they’d send in someone like Erik, and Wakanda would become one more country pillaged by the white man. Only thing that’d keep that from happening was a preemptive strike.
“I’ll think about it,” he told Ross, then opened the van’s rear door, and threw him from the still-moving van.
When the loop reset again, he went back to the original plan of busting Klaue out, with a few changes: he made Limbani and Linda switch so Linda was driving, and when it came time to drag Klaue out of the CIA black site, he accidentally-on purpose pushed Limbani in the way of a bullet. Might as well get rid of Klaue’s henchman sooner rather than later.
“Keep driving around in circles,” he told Linda when he shoved Klaue in the van. “I got some questions Klaue’s gotta answer.”
Klaue pouted. “Not fair! Another interrogation after you just rescued me from an interrogation? That’s not what teammates do.”
“We aren’t teammates. You wanna stay alive? You want your money? Then you’re gonna answer my questions.”
Erik was pretty sure Klaue wasn’t right in the head, and fuck, that laugh. It was annoying as hell, and more than enough to justify murder. But crazy or not, money was money, and Klaue wanted his. He’d give up some answers if his cash payout was on the line.
“Who was your buyer for all that vibranium you stole back in the day?”
“You’ll have to specify, I have stolen a lot of vibranium.”
Erik poked at Klaue’s neck with a gun, and shoved the gun’s barrel into the rough scarring there. “The vibranium you stole that earned you this brand.”
Klaue made an exaggerated, bug-eyed face of offense. “You wanna undercut me, steal my buyers out from under me? No way!”
Erik opened the case with the diamonds, grabbed a handful, then opened the van’s rear door and threw them out onto the road.
“Hey! That’s coming out of your cut!”
“Answer the question, or the streets of Busan are gonna keep getting paved with diamonds.”
Klaue moaned in dismay. “The streets don’t need bling, I do!” he whined. God, it was going to be so satisfying shooting this nutjob in the fucking head. Erik grabbed another handful of diamonds. “Okay okay okay! Fine! My buyer was the prince of Wakanda! So I was just keeping it in the family, huh? Nothing wrong with that.”
The prince of Wakanda? He couldn’t mean T’Challa, who’d been around Erik’s age back then. That left N’Jobu. So that was where Pops had gotten the goods for his plan. Erik had always wondered, but he’d figured some other Wakandan War Dogs had smuggled some vibranium out. There hadn’t been any vibranium or weapons in the apartment when Erik had found his dad, so T’Chaka and Uncle Zuri must have taken it back with them after murdering N’Jobu.
“Why would you steal it from Wakanda then sell it right back to them?” Surely Klaue could’ve gotten more money by selling elsewhere.
Klaue snorted. “I was selling it to the prince, not to Wakanda. Seems baby brother had his own plans that his big brother the king didn’t know about.” Klaue shrugged, a lopsided gesture that nearly tipped him over. “No business of mine, those African countries are all the same, always fighting and overthrowing rulers. Savages, all of them.”
“Yeah, and white folks like you got nothing to do with overthrowing any rulers, huh? Is the prince the one who paid you $10 million to kill T’Chaka?”
Erik knew N’Jobu hadn’t. At the time, his dad had been a War Dog without access to that kind of cash. According to SHIELD’s leaked files on Klaue, someone else had ordered that hit, and Klaue had failed miserably at it, then cut and run with the money. Klaue scowled now at the reminder.
“None of your business! And I made good, didn’t I? They wanted Wakandan resources, I got them Wakandan resources!”
“Anything else you steal for people? Alien tech, maybe?”
Klaue narrowed his eyes. “I’ve had enough of the Avengers, thanks! No spacemen tech for me, no way.” Klaue started shaking his head furiously back and forth. “Too risky, too too risky. Learned my lesson when I lost my fucking arm!”
Erik snorted. Yeah, okay, fair enough.
“And you thought this was gonna be less risky?” Erik shook his head. “Bad call.”
So much for the possibility of Klaue being the source of this time loop. But if there was no alien tech via Ross or Klaue, that left Wakanda as the only option.
He shot Klaue in the head, one clean bullet through his forehead. Erik now knew from experience that it didn’t hurt, which seemed too easy a death for Klaue, but anything else would have left too much of a mess. He still had to present Klaue’s body to the border guard, after all.
The van swerved and lurched, then rocked to a stop.
“What the fuck is happening back there?” screamed Linda. Shit. He’d forgotten about her. “Erik!”
“Everything’s fine! Just get to the airfield, and—”
Linda came to the back of the van, her gun already up as she scanned for threats. “You shot him?!”
“Yeah, he was starting some shit, so—” Linda’s gun settled on him. “Hey! What are you doing?”
“You got Limbani shot too. I saw you push him, Erik,” said Linda, her voice shaking. Her hands were steady though, the gun aimed solidly at his head. Goddamnit. Taking off the mask earlier had clearly been a mistake. “I know what’s happening here. You want all the money, you wanna tie up all the loose ends, and I’m gonna be next—”
“Or this is a double cross—”
Linda’s eyes were wild and furious. Shit. That wasn’t exactly a crazy assumption, and he had been about to ditch her at the airfield, or even kill her if he had to. Now wasn’t exactly the time to let any of that slip, obviously. Linda had a clear shot at his head, and from this close, she wasn’t likely to miss.
“No, no it isn’t, I swear, he was the one who was gonna double cross us, I had to—” he tried.
Linda’s face twisted with fear and fury; she wasn’t buying it. Time to cut his losses. He started to bring his own gun up, but he wasn’t fast enough. Linda shot first.
He heard more than felt the impact of the bullet on his skull in one explosion of sound and sensation too shocking to be pain, and then it was over.
Erik came awake with a convulsive shudder that nearly sent him off the bed. His hand went up automatically to his forehead, but of course, there was no bullet hole there, not anymore.
Well alright. So he’d finally managed to find a way to get even Linda to kill him. Maybe next up, Limbani would just run him the fuck over in the van and then Erik would have been killed by every single damn person involved in this whole fucked up scenario. Achievement almost unlocked. Maybe he’d manage it now, on loop number—shit, how many loops had it been? Over thirty? Yeah, definitely over thirty. He counted in his head, went over each loop—there’d been more than forty, no, fifty—how the fuck had he lost count, there couldn’t have been enough loops to lose count—
Whatever the count was, it had been weeks. Not just weeks, months.
Long-delayed panic slammed into him. The plan wasn’t working, no version of the plan was fucking working, he wasn’t any closer to becoming king of Wakanda and surviving it, and what if he finally did succeed? What if he took the throne and secured power and got the cargo planes out and founded an empire, and still, he ended up right back here? After all, it wasn’t like Erik had any fucking clue why he was stuck reliving the same four days over and over again anyway. Everything he knew about physics said this shouldn’t be possible.
That’s what you have to figure out, Stevens. How the fuck this is possible. He breathed, in and out, slow, until the panic started to pass. He had a plan. He’d ruled out Ross and Klaue, so now he just had to try the next possibilities. That was the new plan.
Maybe it was some Wakandan technology, some bizarre last resort safety measure, like Wakanda knew how to hit the reset button if shit really hit the fan for them. He spent a few loops running down that possibility, playing nice with T’Challa and the elders, asking them questions, digging around on the Wakandan internet. When the subtle approach didn’t work, he just straight up asked.
“Y’all have any weird alien shit happen here?” he asked while he was getting an awkward tour around the Citadel from T’Challa and Okoye.
He’d played nice this time, in the interest of using his three days in Wakanda to get some answers, so he’d dumped Klaue’s body on Wakanda’s doorstep with some bullshit story about Klaue having killed N’Jobu too. He didn’t really think anyone was buying it, but no one had kicked him out yet.
“Excuse me?” said T’Challa.
“Aliens. Don’t know if you noticed that time they invaded New York. Was Wakanda gonna do anything about that, by the way? Or were you just waiting to see how that was gonna shake out?”
“We were preparing a response, but the Avengers were victorious before it became necessary,” said Okoye, giving him some real obvious side eye.
“Yeah, okay, sure. So, aliens? Weird alien tech lying around, anything like that goin’ on here?”
T’Challa and Okoye exchanged concerned, baffled glances. T’Challa’s face was too damn honest for any lies, that much Erik had learned by now. If he did know something, he’d have gone blank, not baffled. Okoye was just pretty obviously coming to some unfavorable conclusions about his sanity level.
“No,” said T’Challa carefully. “Is there a reason you’re asking, cousin?”
Erik sighed. “Not really.”
When he was left alone in a set of pretty nice rooms, he looked up time travel and time loops and aliens on the Wakandan version of the internet. He didn’t find anything. Well, nothing apart from Groundhog Day references and the same kind of thing he’d have found on the rest of the internet. Isolationist or not, Wakanda still got American movies. He wouldn’t give up yet though.
He spent the next loop with Princess Shuri, barricading them both in her lab to interrogate her.
“Is this a kidnapping attempt?” she asked, sounding more excited than scared, her eyes sparkling with way too much interest. She had some sense though: her interest gave way to wary fear when she saw his weapons.
“Nah, princess. I’ve just got some questions I wanna ask.”
“You don’t need to lock us in my lab for that.”
“Don’t wanna be interrupted. Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”
Not this loop, anyway. She was just a kid, really. Not the first one he’d killed, probably not the last, but still. Erik didn’t take any pleasure in killing kids.
“I am pretty sure that every bad guy who has ever said that has, in fact, been lying,” she muttered. He ignored it.
“So Wakanda’s a few centuries ahead of the rest of the world: you guys got time travel yet?”
Her eyebrows flew up. “Uh, no. Time travel is not possible. Not without breaking the speed of light anyway, and that is not possible either. I am a genius, and vibranium can do a lot, but…not that. I mean, maybe if we found a way to create stable wormholes big enough to—”
“What about time loops? That’s not time travel, that’s just time manipulation. Like, I dunno, a mobius strip in four dimensions.”
“That’s an interesting idea. Yes, a time loop would be a little like a mobius strip, wouldn’t it? And anyone can make one of those. But manipulating time itself…” she shook her head. “I won’t say it’s not possible, but Wakanda certainly hasn’t managed it. Manipulating the perception of time, sure, and extending lifespans, but time itself? I am not certain it is possible, given human biological limits. Maybe you could loop time, but what’s the point if you don’t remember because you’ve looped your own body too? All your cells would revert to the earlier point in time, including your brain cells. The effect would be like putting yourself in a kind of stasis.”
That was a good point. Erik’s body reset with every loop, injuries disappearing, but his memories stayed intact. That shouldn’t have been possible, not if time was truly looping. Memory formation was a physical process that should have been undone along with everything else. Groundhog Day had never mentioned that fucking plot hole, now had it.
“Isolate the subject somehow, take ‘em out of the closed system at reset then dump them back in it,” he suggested.
“Maybe. But there isn’t any system outside of time. Not any that humans can understand or access, anyway.” Shuri looked at him closely. “If you want me to build you a time machine, I am sorry to disappoint you. I am very, very smart, but not totally-transcend-the-laws-of-physics smart.”
“Yeah, same,” said Erik absently, pacing as he thought. Maybe no earthbound technology could explain the loop Erik found himself in, but there’d been an alien invasion not that long ago. Had he unwittingly run into some alien tech at some point…?
They were both silent for a long moment. The “stuck in hell” theory was starting to feel way too likely.
“Being kidnapped for thought experiments is interesting, I will admit. Is there anything else, or can I have you arrested now?”
Shuri’s voice was still casual, but her hands were restless. Erik wondered if he should get his takeover plan back on track. He’d have to kill Shuri if so. She was too much of a threat to his rule. Maybe if he just trapped her here for long enough…before he could formulate a plan, Shuri blasted him with some small thing on her wrist, and then T’Challa was on him, leaping in from out of fucking nowhere. Could that panther suit go invisible?
As he grappled with T’Challa on the ground, he heard Shuri clap. “Oh! Multiverse theory! A time loop could, theoretically, not be a loop in spacetime at all, but instead be a matter of traveling from one universe to another—”
Turned out T’Challa was pretty fucking protective of his baby sister. Erik, more interested in what Shuri was saying instead of the fight, didn’t block the claws striking at his carotid in time. Death by rapid blood loss wasn’t bad as ways to die went, at least. Messy, sure, but it was fast. A few frantic pumps of his heart, and everything went dark and cold.
He woke up in Busan again.
This loop, he ditched Linda and Limbani, and holed up in a different Busan hotel room to spend four days reading up on multiverse theory and quantum physics. There was no point in trying for a control group anymore; it didn’t seem to matter who he interacted with, if he interacted with no one at all, if he made big changes or small changes or no changes. The same four days looped no matter what, as inexorably as time had used to march forwards and forwards and forwards.
So this time he went all out, got a room at the nicest hotel, asked for the best suite. Why not, right? It wasn’t like the money mattered, and he might as well live it up while he could. He wasn’t a dirt-poor MIT grad student anymore, he could pull his all-nighters in style and comfort.
“Treat yoself,” he said to himself, and emptied the entire minibar fridge onto the enormous, plush bed.
He started with the legit, reputable academic databases and a couple of books that hit the basics. Physics, theoretical or otherwise, had never been his thing, but he could catch up enough to get by. It brought back the old rush of learning something new, the thrill and joy of using the intellect no one credited him with having when they first saw him. He could forget about the time loops and Wakanda and his plans, and just live in that rush, pretend he was starting on some project or paper for school, at work on something that would make his coddled white classmates and his racist professors look at him with respect, that would make them realize Erik Stevens wasn’t just an affirmative action charity case, that he hadn’t been given anything. That he’d taken every last fucking inch, and turned them into miles.
The rush didn’t last. Current physics had no answers to offer him about what to do when the arrow of time turned into a circle. He sent some emails to a few professors and researchers on the slim hope that he’d get a useful response before the loop reset, but he doubted any help would come from that quarter.
If he was out of legit sources of information, it was time to turn to the internet’s crackpot theories. He cracked open a tiny bottle of whiskey from the minibar and started drinking, then he washed it down with coffee. He got four pages deep into his results before he needed another tiny bottle of whiskey. Then he hit a rabbit hole of theories about aliens and Captain America being a time traveler instead of just a thawed out meat popsicle, and it was time to try a tiny bottle of vodka. The “we all live in a computer simulation, wake up sheeple!!!!” blog posts demanded yet more vodka. These bottles, thought Erik, were frustratingly fucking tiny.
He just kept drinking after that. The steady buzz was pretty much all that kept him from throwing his laptop into the room’s lavish hot tub. That and the fact that some of these wild-ass theories were pretty fucking funny. A sorcerer supreme? Yeah, whatever. And Erik was goddamned Harry Potter. He kept looking until he passed out from the booze, and then he got up, downed some coffee and looked some more, and didn’t find anything but a bunch of theories and thought experiments, no hard data, and what wasn’t theory was just straight up science fiction.
So whatever. Maybe he’d try some bullshit solution out of a movie or TV show, why not. He looked at the mask he’d re-appropriated from the museum, sitting innocently on the end table he’d left it on. It was just a mask, probably. There was no such thing as magic, or curses. But if this time loop wasn’t the result of any Wakandan tech, maybe…it was worth a shot.
He destroyed the mask, broke it apart and burned it. Nothing happened other than the smell of burning hair and leather making him cough. He waited and watched as it all burned down to ash and charred bits of leather and bone anyway.
The loop ran down, then it began again, back in Busan in a hotel bed with Linda. Erik turned his face into the pillow and screamed.
Erik went back to the original plan, or at least a variation on it. He wasn’t going to find any answers for what was happening to him in Busan. He had to get to Wakanda.
So, process of elimination: what other catalysts could have started this fucked up, recursive reaction? What other weird shit had happened to him the first time around? It wasn’t the mask, and everything he’d come into contact with in Wakanda had just been technology. Really advanced technology, but just technology, wholly explicable via vibranium and nanites and a new form of quantum computing. Everything he’d come into contact with, except for the heart-shaped herb.
He set a new objective: learn everything he could about the weird glowing herb.
This time, when the priestess offered him the cup of eerily glowing liquid, he put his hand up. “Hey, wait up. I’m not putting some weird glowing shit into my body without knowing more about what the fuck it is.”
“This is a preparation of the heart-shaped herb, an ancient recipe first given to us by Bast—”
“Uh huh, that’s the fairy tale. What’s the real story?”
The priestess narrowed her eyes at him. “That is the real story.”
“Thought Wakanda was better than believing some backwards bullshit like that. How’s the herb work? And your answer better not be magic.”
“It is some combination of the properties of the plant itself, and the vibranium-enriched soil of Wakanda. This is the only place the herb grows, and thus far, we have found no way to synthetically replicate it.”
“Okay, I get that. Makes sense. Is it safe for me to take?”
Now the priestess hesitated. “I cannot answer that.”
“Wrong answer,” said Erik, and stepped closer to her, an unspoken threat. “Try again.”
She glared at him, and didn’t back down. “I have no control over how your body and spirit respond to the herb. There is a reason the herb is not given to many people. Some respond well, some do not. Some have died. Taking it is a risk, and an act of faith.”
That sounded like some woo-woo bullshit, but whatever.
“So what happens when I drink this?”
“We will bury you there,” she said, gesturing toward the pit of red sand. “And you will visit the plane of the ancestors. I cannot tell you what form that will take for you. Once the vision is complete, you will have the strength of the Black Panther, granted by the herb, and by Bast.”
He didn’t see how a bad trip plus super strength could possibly lead to his current time loop situation, but maybe his subconscious would have some answers for him in the “vision.”
“Alright,” he said, and drank from the small cup.
The mixture didn’t taste good, but it didn’t taste notably bad either, and felt weird going down, something like a simultaneous overdose of caffeine and a shot of strong liquor. The sensation was somehow a surprise every time. It hit fast too: by the time the sand was closing in over his head, he was gone.
When he opened his eyes, he was standing in front of apartment 1401 again, and when he walked inside, his dad was still there, just like he always was, pacing back and forth in front of the windows. His shadow was strange, and the view outside—
“What are you doing? You have been here over dozens of times, and that should not be possible.”
“Yeah, well, you’re dead, and there’s no such thing as ghosts, so I don’t appreciate you telling me what is and isn’t possible. You’re not even real, just my subconscious or some shit.”
“I am very real, my son.”
Erik crossed his arms. “Prove it.”
“Where are you, right now? Your body, I mean. In Wakanda?”
“Yeah. In the Hall of Kings.”
“When you return to the Citadel, find my old room. Inside, on the left side of the window sill, there is a tile that will slide loose. There’s a small hollow there, where I put a tiny, ancient vibranium panther. I found it in the gardens when I was a child, and I always thought it was a present straight from Bast and my ancestors. There is your proof.”
Erik returned to his body, gasping for air. Breathe, said the priests and priestesses, as if to remind him, and Erik breathed.
He asked to be shown N’Jobu’s old room in the Citadel, fully expecting to hear that it had since been turned into an office, or a storage room or something. But no, there was still a small suite of rooms, kept clean and untouched, as if awaiting his dad’s return. There were even old clothes in the closet still, old enough now that they hadn’t held on to his dad’s scent, and a few books in various different languages stacked neatly on the dresser, scraps of paper sticking out of them to mark some of the pages.
The suite of rooms being preserved like this pulsed with some meaning, like infrasound on the edge of Erik’s awareness. Was it T’Chaka’s grief, or his guilt, that left these rooms feeling like a museum exhibit? It didn’t matter, there was no advantage or intelligence to be gained in wondering about it. T’Chaka and his dad were both dead now.
There was one long, wide window that took up most of the room’s outward facing wall, so point one for the bad trip. Erik went to the left side of the window sill. He ignored the sweeping view of the Golden City spread out beneath him, and felt carefully under and around the sill for a loose tile. It didn’t take long to find it.
Breathe, Erik had to remind himself.
The tile slid free, and just as his dad had said, there was a small hole there, and nestled inside it was a rough and expressively hewn little black panther statue, dense with the weight of vibranium.
“Do you believe me now?” asked his dad the next time around.
“Yeah. Yeah, I do,” he answered, bereft of any other explanations for what was happening. So okay. The afterlife or whatever was real. Was that any weirder than this goddamn time loop?
Dad sat down cross-legged on the floor, the way he used to when it was time to help Erik with his homework, or when they read together. “So tell me what is happening.”
Erik sat down with him, and did. He only had time to see the dismay and regret dawn on his dad’s face before he was called back to life again.
The second he walked through the apartment door the next time, Dad told him, “You must stop this, Erik.” He was still sitting on the floor, now with his head in his hands.
“If I knew how to stop this fucking time loop, I would!”
“That is not what I mean! This—this war you have begun among our people! You must stop it!”
“Oh, that is some bullshit coming from you. Wasn’t this what you wanted? I read the journal you left! You were gonna start a war too, arming our oppressed brothers and sisters! I’m just doing it bigger and better. Faster. A change is gonna come, they kept saying. Well, how long we been waiting? How long we gotta wait? Nah. I’m making that change come. No more fucking waiting.”
Dad shook his head. “This is not what I wanted. I wanted Wakanda to give others the weapons to free themselves, I had no intention of conquering Wakanda. Maybe I would have challenged T’Chaka, eventually, but—”
Erik laughed. “Then you were lying to yourself, Pops. You were working with Klaue, come on. You know he was hired to kill the king, right?”
Erik didn’t know if his dad had known that, actually. SHIELD’s files hadn’t said who’d hired Klaue, so either they didn’t know, or it was HYDRA. Or maybe even his dad.
“And he didn’t succeed. I offered him an alternative that would save his life, and would get his employers what they really wanted. It would have made no difference to my plans, letting Klaue have a tiny percentage of the vibranium, and Wakanda would have been safe, T’Chaka would have been safe—”
So, not his dad. But holy shit, that was some naïveté. No goddamn wonder he’d gotten his ass killed.
“He blew up a bunch of Wakandans!”
“Don’t tell me that matters to you, I see some of what you’re doing out there,” said his dad, jerking his head towards the apartment’s TV.
“What, you get cable in the afterlife?” Erik shook his head. “I’m willing to make some sacrifices for freedom, and I ain’t lying to myself about it. This is a war, and it wasn’t Black folks or Wakanda that started it. We’re sure as hell gonna finish it though.”
He saw Dad’s face twist in anger and pain, and then Erik returned to the sandpit, gasping.
“What did you see?” asked the priestess.
It was the first time in who knew how many loops she’d ever bothered to ask. So, you know, fuck her. Why was she interested now and not before?
“I didn’t see anything,” he told her.
Her hands were tight on his shoulders, her nails digging in, claw-like. “Nothing? Not T’Chaka, or N’Jobu? None of the other Panthers?”
“No,” he said, still off-balance and breathing hard. He pulled away from her, but was caught from behind by one of the other priests.
“Then you are not fit to be a king of Wakanda,” said the priestess, and then, before he could react, she slid a dagger into his heart.
So this is new, he thought, perversely excited by the change of pace, and watched his blood turn the red sand black.
The next time Erik entered the apartment, Dad was standing at the window, looking out at—Erik blinked, and really noticed the view outside for the first time. It was Oakland and the Bay, yeah, but the sky was something else, swirling with purple and blue auroras, their lights reflecting strangely in the Bay. The dark sky glittered with more stars than he’d ever seen shine through the light pollution of the real Oakland. He looked, and didn’t see any of the panthers the priestess had mentioned. But when he focused on the reflections in the water, or the negative space of darkness between the shimmering blue and purple waves in the sky—
“This isn’t what I wanted for you,” said Dad, and Erik jerked and turned away from the unsettling view outside.
“What, the throne? Think I’ve got as much a right to it as you did, or as T’Challa does.”
“Not the throne. The projects, then all this war, all this fighting...I wanted better for you. I should have sent you to Wakanda after your mother went to prison. Ramonda would have kept you safe—”
“Yeah, I don’t think Auntie likes me much. Uncle James sure as hell didn’t. Uncle T’Chaka didn’t. They left me.”
“Ramonda would have welcomed you, had I sent you to Wakanda,” insisted Dad, clutching at his head and beginning to pace.
“Sure. Then I’d have grown up with a vibranium spoon in my mouth while my mom was in prison, while all my friends in Oakland, all the other kids like me all around the world, suffered under the yoke of oppression. I’d have been, what, lounging around that palace, when cops shot Sean Bell for nothing, at his damn bachelor party. Would I have even known his name? Or Amadou Diallo’s? Or Oscar Grant’s? Huh? Would they have mattered to me? Or would I have been living large in Wakanda, doing jack shit for anybody not stuck in this pretty glass bubble with me. That ain’t better, that doesn’t fix shit. It’s just living a lie.”
Erik had wanted that once, sure. He’d spent the longest time thinking someone would come back for him, that one day he’d be stolen away by Wakandan royalty and go live as the prince his dad had always told him he was.
Then he’d read the police report on his dad’s murder, and the autopsy report. Put them together with his dad’s journals. It didn’t take a detective to figure it out after that. Wakandans had killed his dad. He’d held out some hope that it was all some kind of mistake, had considered all kinds of fairy tale explanations about evil advisors and people plotting against the royal family. That hope had died a little more every week, every month, every year, and it had died for good after the first time he’d tried to get to Wakanda only to be turned away.
The police, knowing nothing about undercover princes or Wakanda, had pinned his dad’s murder on Uncle James for lack of any other suspects, and Uncle James had disappeared. Erik had almost gone to the cops to tell them the truth, that Uncle James couldn’t have killed his dad, that his dad had been a prince and it must have been Wakandan traitors who’d killed him, because maybe then Uncle James would come back, would come get Erik...but who’d believe him? And maybe Uncle James hadn’t killed his dad, but he was the only other person who’d known where the vibranium was, and it had all been gone by the time the cops turned the place over. And since Uncle James hadn’t been found dead on the floor too…
Still, he’d hoped, he’d waited...maybe Uncle James would come back for him, once the heat died down, maybe...But he’d never come back, and no one in the neighborhood, or in the crew he used to run with, had heard a fucking thing from him.
Erik had realized it eventually: no one was going to come for him. He’d been left behind on purpose. Now Erik knew why.
So fuck his dad’s woulda coulda shouldas.
“No, I suppose it wouldn’t have fixed anything,” said his dad. He looked up at Erik, tears already rolling down his cheeks. “But can you blame a father for wanting a kinder life for his son?”
He opened his mouth to argue, to call bullshit, but it was too late. Breathe, he heard, from the world of the living, and he was back in the sandpit.
“Did you see the Panthers?” asked the priestess when he woke. She stood over him, and no one helped him up out of the sandpit. He stumbled to his feet, coughing out dust.
“I—maybe. No. I don’t know. I was in me and my dad’s old apartment in Oakland—”
“The ancestors have abandoned you. You are no king.”
Her mouth went tight and flat, and okay, Erik knew what was coming, so he lunged for her, but this time, the blow came from behind, something heavy and hard to the back of his skull, an explosion of pain. He heard a sickening crunch, god, that fucking horrible crunch, too close, and then everything went dark.
“Killed by the priests and priestesses. That is new,” said Dad when Erik walked in during the next loop. Dad was on the couch, like he was watching TV, but the screen was dark.
“At this rate, every single person in Wakanda’s gonna kill me at least once,” said Erik. He collapsed onto the couch beside Dad, and marveled at how real it felt. It even had that spot that sagged from that time Erik had jumped on the couch and broken a couple of the springs.
“You don’t consider that a sign that you are perhaps doing something wrong?”
Not really. Systems were chaotic. But Erik had gamed other, harder systems, and won. He’d beat this one too.
“I’ll get it right,” he assured his dad. “Got nothing but time, don’t I? Why’re you here instead of with the ancestors or whatever? Or are you with the ancestors when I’m not here?”
“No, I am always here,” he answered, looking out the window. “I am not sure why though. I suppose I never…believed, as my brother did.”
“And that’s reason enough to be stuck here for twenty years?”
“Has it been so long? Time is…I don’t think it flows the same here. You know, sometimes you are a child when you walk through that door. My little boy.” Dad smiled, a brief and pained grimace compared to the bright thing he used to greet Erik with after school. “Sometimes you are an adolescent. Sometimes a young man, as you are now. I am sorry to have missed so much,” he whispered.
“Then maybe you shouldn’t have tried to run a revolution out of our apartment,” snarled Erik, and got up off the couch to pace the too-small apartment. He wondered where he’d end up if he walked out the door, if he broke the windows and jumped. Somehow, he got the feeling it’d be a bad idea to try.
Dad looked at him, more pain than love in his eyes. “What did they make you into, my son? All these scars, this rage, this violence—”
“What did they make me? Who the fuck’s they? I made myself!” he said, pounding his chest with one fist. “Wasn’t anyone else there, was there?”
Dad took that like a blow, but Erik wasn’t about to stop now.
“Don’t you dare look at me like I’m the monster here. I was an orphan, in the projects. I had nothing. And I still made it to Annapolis. MIT after that. Got into the Navy SEALs. I had to be better than perfect. I had to do every single thing right! I had to be the smartest and the strongest, and all along I had to keep my mouth shut and not upset any of those official white folks in charge, and still—”
Still he’d watched mediocre white guys get ahead of him, still he’d been stopped by cops all the damn time, still he’d been condescended to every step of the way. Decorated officer and graduate degree from MIT, and goddamn prince of Wakanda, not that anybody else had known that, and still: he was just another thug to white America. In America, nothing mattered but the color of his skin. Dad may have spent a few years in America, but that obviously hadn’t been enough to really hammer home that truth.
“You think any of that was easy? You think I’m a failure? Well fuck y—”
He came to in the sandpit, heart pounding and a scream fighting to get out of his throat.
The next time, Erik didn’t bother going inside the apartment. He tried going outside instead, but the architecture of the familiar apartment building turned Escher-like, and always deposited him right back in front of Apartment 1401.
Fuck that. He still wasn’t going inside. He sat outside the door instead, as if he’d come home from school and had forgotten his key.
Which was when he learned that, apparently, there was a way to fail this fucking ritual, and he just did it. He could hear, distantly, the priests and priestesses urging him to breathe, to get up, but he couldn’t, the sand weighed so heavy on his chest, and he just couldn’t find the strength to lift it, to fill his lungs.
It was the easiest death so far: a gentle, inevitable sinking into darkness.
He walked through the door the next time.
“N’Jadaka—Erik. Come here, please,” said Dad, in a terribly small voice.
His father had not been an old man when he’d died, but right now, the lines of regret carved deep on his face made him look ancient. Dad looked bigger too, for some reason, and when he opened his arms, Erik’s feet were moving before he could think better of it. When Dad’s arms came tight around him, Erik realized: he wasn’t in his adult body right now. It didn’t feel as strange as it should have.
“You are not a failure, my son. I am proud of all you have accomplished.”
“Yes,” he said, and kissed the top of Erik’s head. Erik couldn’t remember the last time someone had done that. Maybe Dad himself, when Erik had been doing his homework before Dad had sent him outside to play that last night. “I love you. So many times you have returned to me, and I have not yet said it. I will say it now, and hope you know the truth of it, that you know that it will always be true. I love you.”
For just a few seconds, everything in Erik’s universe was aligned just right; the past and future didn’t matter, irrelevant to the innocent and perfect present of childhood, the sweet lie that nothing could possibly go wrong as long as his dad held him. The moment didn’t last long. Erik wasn’t a child anymore.
But it was still his child self’s voice that asked, “Then why’d you leave me?”
“I didn’t know…”
Erik pulled away, and now he and his dad were the same size again. “Yeah, you did. You knew you were starting a war.”
“Do you say I was wrong to do it? It is what you are doing now. Wakanda must help free our oppressed brethren, we cannot hoard our power and knowledge. You said it the first time. We are not the lost ones.”
And yet, here was Dad, stuck in afterlife-Oakland in the same apartment he’d died in. Here was Erik, stuck in the same four days. They weren’t wrong though. They weren’t. They just had to get the plan right.
“You weren’t wrong, you just fucked it up, got caught. You’re not the first person to be fucked over by counterintelligence.”
Dad winced. “Ah yes, ‘James.’ That did catch me by surprise, I admit. T’Chaka outmaneuvered me.”
“Nice euphemism. He murdered you.”
“That too.” Dad didn’t seem too upset about that. “But I pulled a gun on James—Zuri. T’Chaka acted to save his life. I cannot entirely fault him for that.” Erik sure as hell could, but before he could say so, Dad shrugged and continued, “What’s done is done.”
“Would you do all of it again, if you had the chance?”
“Not if it would mean leaving you alone.”
It was a kind lie. But Erik knew what he’d sacrifice in the name of this fight, and he saw it now in his dad too. Sentiment was for other people, not for them. They couldn’t afford it. Dad was lying to himself if he thought they could.
“Yeah, right. Shoulda thought of that the first time around, Pops. If you’d succeeded, you didn’t wonder what it would mean to throw me into a war?”
Dad closed his eyes and nodded, looking old and sad again. “The war seems to find you no matter what, my son,” he said, and then the war called Erik back, saying breathe, breathe.
He was spinning his wheels, just going back to Dad again and again, but he didn’t care. He had the time, didn’t he? He had an eternity of the same four days until he figured this out. Might as well ask his dad everything he’d ever wanted to ask him while he could.
“What would you do if you were me right now, living your own personal Groundhog Day?”
“I would not plunge my people into civil war. I would not kill my own kin.”
“Right. Cuz your plan was gonna be so bloodless. There’s no such thing as a bloodless coup. Someone always bleeds.”
“Oh, I see how it is.” Erik laughed. “Everyone else was supposed to fight and die, Wakanda was just gonna sit pretty behind its jungles and its mountains and its walls, and let the proxy wars burn themselves out. Wakanda was gonna keep its hands clean. Well, Klaue killed Wakandans to get you your vibranium. Your hands aren’t clean, Wakanda’s hands aren’t clean. They aren’t ever gonna be clean, not after hundreds of years of hiding and doing nothing.”
His dad didn’t deny it, but he didn’t say anything either, and Erik’s disappointment burned, bitter and choking like bile.
“I thought you’d get it,” Erik said. “But you don’t.”
Erik got up, and walked out of the apartment, and then the world tilted. He rose up from the sandpit, shoving past the priests and priestesses, throwing torches on the heart-shaped herb plants as he went.
Fuck this. His dad didn’t have any answers for him. Not about the loops, and not about how to do this right. He’d have to find answers somewhere else. Maybe Uncle James would have some answers in the next loop.
He got himself in front of T’Challa and the rest of the council on autopilot. Erik had some sympathy for the internet nut jobs who were convinced the world was a simulation now; after so many loops, Erik could manipulate events as easily as if he was playing a video game.
“Who are you?” asked one of the council members.
“N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu.” Disbelief bounced and echoed around the throne room, though T’Challa stayed silent, something like fear in his eyes, and denial in the way he clenched his fist. Yeah, he knew something about what had gone down between their dads. “Ask Zuri. Bring Zuri here. He knows who I am.”
“Lies! Why should we humor this interloper—” said the Queen Mother, furious, already raising her hand to gesture at the Dora Milaje guards.
W’Kabi held out the ring with the royal seal. “He had this, Queen Mother.”
There was a moment’s silence as everyone studied the ring, twirling lazily on its chain, shining in the light. Some of the council members murmured in disquiet and others shouted, and T’Challa stayed silent.
“And who’s to say he hasn’t stolen it!” cried the Queen Mother. It wasn’t the first time she’d made that accusation, but it pissed him off every time.
“Who’s to say he has?” asked the guy with the fuck-off big lip plate.
The tiny old lady banged her cane on the floor. “Bring Zuri, let us see what he has to say. Then we will know what to do with the interloper,” said one of the elders.
The others nodded and murmured in agreement, but Erik didn’t care about them. He watched T’Challa. T’Challa watched him back. Erik kept his back straight and his chin up, like always, like he was at parade rest. T’Challa looked like a statue on that throne, one that would crumble with one hard hit. Erik was tempted to try.
T’Challa tapped and twisted at his bracelet. “Zuri. Please come to the throne room immediately. W’Kabi, take...N’Jadaka to a holding cell. We will question him before the council later.”
After a quick questioning glance at Erik, W’Kabi moved to comply. So W’Kabi wasn’t gonna stick his neck out for Erik just yet, alright. That was fine.
But this wasn’t going to work if they questioned Zuri without Erik here. Erik could see how it’d play out from here: they’d ask Zuri some questions, Zuri would lie, and T’Challa wouldn’t call him on it. They’d leave Erik in holding, or turf him out of Wakanda, and the status quo would be preserved, and he’d have wasted a loop. He had to be here when they questioned Zuri.
“No! I want to talk to him,” said Erik as W’Kabi started to guide him out of the throne room.
“You are in no position to make demands, or to bargain,” said the Queen Mother.
Damn, Auntie really didn’t like him, huh? But she had a point. He’d had enough interactions with T’Challa by now to know how he responded to Erik’s demands. Sentiment though...that worked on his soft-hearted cousin.
So Erik kept his focus on T’Challa. “Please,” he said. He couldn’t manage to soften his voice enough to make it a real plea. “He was like an uncle to me, and I never saw him after—”
T’Challa interrupted him before he could finish the sentence, and Erik almost smirked. Yeah, I’ll bet you don’t want to let me finish that sentence with “after the Black Panther killed my dad.”
“Fine. You may stay,” said T’Challa. Awkward silence descended for long seconds while they waited for Zuri to arrive. “You called him uncle?” asked T’Challa.
“Yeah. He was my dad’s friend, he was always around. Picked me up from school sometimes, helped me with my homework.”
Fury settled on T’Challa’s face, though Erik didn’t know why. None of that was a lie. He tensed, waited for T’Challa to lash out at him, maybe say the Wakandan equivalent of off with his head! But T’Challa didn’t.
“In prison. She died there when I was still a kid.”
“My comfort for your loss,” offered T’Challa, his eyes still furious, but his voice soft and sincere. “Your losses.”
“Uh, thanks, cuz,” said Erik, eyeing the way T’Challa was gripping the arms of the throne. The thing had to be made of vibranium, but Erik still almost expected it to crack.
They all waited for Zuri in increasingly tense silence, T’Challa’s palpable, miserable anger filling the room more than even words could. When Zuri arrived, it became clear that Erik wasn’t the target of T’Challa’s anger: Zuri was.
Erik waved with his still bound hands. “Hi, Uncle James. Remember me?”
Zuri’s face went slack with shock, and his stride into the throne room faltered.
“Zuri. This man claims to be N’Jadaka, my uncle N’Jobu’s son. He says you can confirm his identity.”
“And he claims N’Jobu is dead,” added the Queen Mother.
Zuri’s eyes darted around the room, and never rested long on Erik. “T’Challa, I told you—”
“Is this man who he says he is? As your king, I order you to answer. Truthfully.”
Zuri finally looked at him. The almost 25 years since Erik last saw Uncle James—Zuri—seemed to have weighed him down: his shoulders slumped and his face drooped in pronounced wrinkles. The disconcertingly kind-eyed gangbanger was gone, as surely as a younger and more innocent Erik was. Zuri did recognize him though. Erik could tell by the way Zuri looked at him like he was a fast-approaching natural disaster.
“Both your father and N’Jobu wanted it kept quiet, but…yes. N’Jobu had a son while on assignment in America.”
“And Prince N’Jobu?” asked one of the elders.
“Killed in America,” answered Zuri.
“Now why was that kept quiet? Or was it covered up?” demanded the small, old woman swathed in robes, banging querulously with her cane.
“The King—T’Chaka, I mean, commanded it. I obeyed. No one knew but us, and two of the Dora.”
“And me,” said Erik. “When I found my dad’s body lying in our apartment.”
Yeah, he was twisting the knife now. Watching Zuri flinch was almost as satisfying as killing Zuri had been, that first time. Seeing T’Challa glare at Zuri in furious betrayal though...Erik didn’t know what to do with that.
“Was he at least buried properly?” asked the Queen Mother. She was sitting now, as if in some shock.
An old anger rose up again in Erik, and the bitterness of it still tasted fresh, still made him want to scream and break things the way he had when they’d first told him there would be no funeral for his dad.
“Dunno what you consider proper. But I don’t know. I didn’t get to go to his funeral. They never told me what happened to his body.”
“What,” said T’Challa.
“I was an orphaned kid, you think they told me shit? I got shuffled off to a group home, and the coroner held onto my dad’s body for the autopsy. Took forever, ‘cause they were backed up, and who cares about one more Black man dead in the projects? They did the autopsy eventually and no one claimed the body, I guess, so he probably got cremated, or buried in some mass funeral.”
Shit, was that why Dad was stuck in afterlife-Oakland? Was he gonna be stuck in afterlife-Oakland forever unless he was buried in Wakanda? Maybe so, judging by how horrified his aunt looked, and the cries of dismay from the council.
“A prince of Wakanda, buried in some pauper’s grave, in America—it’s not right.”
“Yeah? But it’s right for all the rest of our Black kin all over the world? It’s right for my ancestors who drowned in the ocean trying to get off slave ships? It’s right for my ancestors who were hung from trees and left to rot there?”
“Enough!” shouted T’Challa.
Erik wasn’t going to shut up just because T’Challa didn’t want to hear it, and he was about to say so before he got a look at T’Challa’s face. T’Challa’s wrath wasn’t focused on him, it was on Zuri. And Zuri—
“I have known, for some time, that there would be no forgiveness for this,” whispered Zuri. “I will ask for it anyway. I am so sorry—”
“And I will not grant it!” said T’Challa at the same time as Erik said, “Fuck you.”
“You left him there. A child, who had no one else!” continued T’Challa.
Shit, T’Challa wasn’t just mad at Zuri, he was mad at Zuri on Erik’s behalf. Maybe that was just T’Challa’s weakness for sentiment again. Weakness for sentiment or not, a small part of Erik appreciated the validation.
“It was the King’s will,” said Zuri, bowing his head.
“It was wrong! Royal or not royal, orders or no orders, it does not matter! It was wrong! Unshackle him,” ordered T’Challa. “Cousin, I know there is no way to make this right with words. If there is some justice you would seek for the wrongs done against you, know that I will do whatever is in my power to grant it.”
The terrible thing was, T’Challa meant it. Anyone else, and Erik would have said it was an offer meant for show, a platitude. But not with T’Challa. He wasn’t a great liar, and he just about glowed with honor and goodness, all big earnest eyes. He was too fucking naive by half, or maybe just impulsive. If Erik could’ve had more than four days, he’d have taken advantage of it, strung this out slower and longer to get on T’Challa’s good side, then put his plan in motion. But he didn’t. He had four days, and that wasn’t near enough time for a long con.
“I challenge you for the throne. That’s my justice.”
Denials rang out in the throne room, but T’Challa took Erik’s challenge with calm sorrow, the patronizing asshole. He could have at least looked a little worried.
“Very well. I suppose that is the least of what you are owed. Tomorrow, then.”
“But my king, a new challenge cannot be arranged on such short notice!” said one of the council members. T’Challa dismissed the complaint with a wave of his hand.
“A large audience is not required. Is there anything else you need, cousin?” he asked, all courtesy, as if Erik hadn’t just challenged him to a duel to the death. Was it manners, idiocy, or confidence? He couldn’t tell. Whatever it was, Erik would take advantage.
“I want a word with Zuri, alone. Promise I won’t lay a hand on him.”
“We have more questions for him now, I think. But once we are done, of course. W’Kabi, show N’Jadaka to—to N’Jobu’s old rooms please. You may stay there for the night, if that’s acceptable.”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure.”
It was hours later when the Dora Milaje brought Zuri by. He looked shrunken in his grand robes, and the past few hours must have been rough, because he looked about ten years older too.
“Hey, Uncle James.”
Zuri flinched at the name, but he met Erik’s eyes. “I am so sorry, Erik. Truly. I thought of you often—”
“Like that matters. You’re a priest or something now, huh?”
“Shaman is perhaps the better word.”
“Alright, Shaman. Tell me about the plane of the ancestors. Tell me what I’m supposed to see.”
This clearly wasn’t the conversation Zuri had expected to have. Whatever. Erik wasn’t here for a heart to heart, he needed intel. The ancestral plane was the only other thing close to the level of weirdness that was living the same four days over and over again, and it had to have some answers on how to break out of this loop. His dad obviously didn’t have those answers, not when he was stuck in the room where he died.
“So certain of winning? You are already planning to take the heart-shaped herb?”
“I like to be prepared. And I’m at a disadvantage here, so c’mon, level the playing field for me some. It’s literally the least you can do for me. What’s it supposed to be like?”
“It is meant to be different for everybody. But the usual guidance is to think of your most recent ancestor, or whoever you have the strongest connection with, and then you will be able to speak with them, see their spirit at peace.”
Erik didn’t think his dad’s spirit was at peace, but whatever.
“That’s it? I just gotta think about who I want to see?”
“Mostly, yes. Bast has some say in it as well, of course. There are some who have not been allowed entry to the plane of the ancestors at all. A prayer would not go amiss.”
Praying to a cat goddess. Yeah, right. “Thanks, that’s all I wanted to know,” he said, and nodded to the guards.
The Dora Milaje moved to escort Zuri out, but Zuri stopped them. “Wait, truly? That’s all? Erik, there is more that I would like to—more that I need to tell—”
“What the hell do you think you can tell me that I don’t already know, huh? You knew I didn’t have anyone else, but you followed your king’s orders and left me alone in Oakland anyway, I get it. The king told you to leave me behind, and now the king’s telling you to say sorry. All part of the job, right? None of it was real.”
“It was real. I did care for you, Erik. A great deal,” said Zuri, his voice low and shaky.
This is when he brings up old times, this is when he tries the old ‘remember when?’ play to get on my good side, just in case I’m his new king. ‘Remember all those times I took you to the library, remember how I didn’t leave your side after your mama got locked up when your daddy was too messed up to look after you, remember how I took you to the barbershop with me and let you make a mess with the shaving cream?’ But Zuri didn’t say another word, and the memories just welled up in the silence between them, fast and deadly, like a boat taking on water.
“You think that makes it better? That makes it worse. Get out! Get him out!”
He won the challenge, of course. By now, beating T’Challa was easy. Erik had a pretty huge advantage, after all. It had stopped feeling especially satisfying a dozen or more loops ago.
This time, T’Challa was bleeding out at his feet. “Please…”
“Too late to yield,” said Erik. Who knew how many loops, and T’Challa hadn’t ever yielded. Erik respected him for that.
T’Challa shook his head with one labored jerk. “No. I know…you have…reason to be angry. I know. But please…take care of our people.”
They aren’t my people, Erik almost said, reflexive, because this wasn’t about Wakanda, this was about the world, because T’Chaka had abandoned him and Uncle James had abandoned him and even his fucking dad had abandoned him—but it was too late. T’Challa was already gone.
When it was time to take the heart-shaped herb again, Erik kept his thoughts focused on his uncle T’Chaka. He wasn’t really all that interested in talking to him—he’d probably give Erik some weepy apology that didn’t mean shit—but T’Chaka was the only other recent Wakandan ancestor Erik really knew. If he wanted to get to the real ancestral plane, to look for answers there, he’d have to start with T’Chaka. Which was fine, Erik could do whatever it took to get answers. But he didn’t bother to pray to Bast.
When he stopped feeling the weight of the sand covering him, he stood up and opened his eyes, not to that old apartment in Oakland, but to the rumble of thunder and the pounding of rain on a wide, grassy plain. The sky was dark with heavy clouds, still swirling with the deep blues and purples he’d seen out of the apartment window all the other times, and there were restless panthers pacing around a tree, some of them yowling and screaming.
One of the panthers resolved into a white-haired old man: T’Chaka. He looked old and small, feeble, the furthest thing possible from the Black Panther boogeyman of Erik’s old childhood nightmares.
“Hey, Uncle. Recognize me?”
“Who…?” Erik walked closer, and saw understanding dawn on T’Chaka’s face. “N’Jobu’s child.”
“Yeah. The one you abandoned after killing your brother.”
“That’s what my momma named me, yeah. My dad named me N’Jadaka. Taught me about Wakanda, how I was a prince, part of the Panther Tribe. I didn’t grow up like a prince though, not like your boy.”
“You did well though. I…checked up on you, every so often.”
“Yeah? So, you checked up on me after my ma died in prison? No one told me, y’know that? I got together the money to finally call her, and that’s how I found out she was dead.”
T’Chaka closed his eyes as if in pain. Erik wasn’t about to give him any mercy now.
“You checked up on me, when my one of my foster families wasn’t feeding me enough? You checked up on me, when I was getting my ass beat ‘cause I wouldn’t run with the gangbangers, ‘cause I was fixing to make something of myself?”
“You achieved much. Even in such dire circumstances. I was...proud to learn of that.”
Erik laughed, and he knew it sounded ugly, only a bare step up from a screaming sob. “So that makes it okay? Leaving me behind? Just ‘cause I clawed myself out of the projects and made something of myself, it’s okay?”
“No. No, I know it is not. My son has shouted at me many times now telling me just that. Why are you here, Erik? How?”
“Because I challenged your son and won.” Erik spread his arms wide and smiled. “You’re looking at the last Black Panther, Uncle.”
“No,” said T’Chaka, shaking his head. “No! You cannot be, or I would not keep seeing T’Challa again and again. What is happening among the living, what have you done? T’Challa comes to me, and says the same things, as if he has not already told me…”
Huh. That was good to know. The only ones who knew about the loop were Erik and the dead. That had to mean something…didn’t it? It maybe ruled out Shuri’s multiple universes theory…
“Yeah, I keep living the same four days over and over,” he said, and watched T’Chaka’s reaction carefully.
T’Chaka blinked at him, confused. “Like the American film Groundhog Day?”
“Gonna stay isolated from the entire rest of the word, but still watch American movies?” Erik rolled his eyes. Fucking hypocrite. “Whatever. Yeah, like Groundhog Day. You have any idea why the fuck that could be happening?”
“That should not be possible. The flow of time cannot be stopped, or diverted—”
“So that’s a no. Great talk, I’m glad you’re dead, sorry I wasn’t the one to do the deed,” he said, and turned to walk away. He should’ve known he wouldn’t find any answers here.
“Wait! Erik—N’Jadaka—I am sorry. You, your father—you are my greatest regrets. My gravest sins. I know there is no forgiveness possible, but I must say it. I am so very sorry, nephew.”
T’Chaka wept as he said it, tears and rain mingling on his face. He seemed genuine. It didn’t matter. Still, Erik wanted to know, wanted to ask now that he could.
“Why did you leave me?”
“I calculated that the risk was not worth it. The stability of Wakanda, of my rule…the maintenance of our traditions…that was all…more important. More necessary. I chose to be a good king, rather than a good man.”
The words dropped from T’Chaka’s mouth like heavy stones, but they sounded almost rote, like he’d said them before. Was this what he’d told T’Challa?
“Bullshit. Bullshit! There were other ways! If you gave a fuck, you coulda made sure I ended up with a decent family, set up some kinda trust. I know my dad wasn’t poor. You coulda left me with some other War Dogs, never told ‘em who I was. Hell, you could’ve lied to me, told me my daddy died in an accident, and brought me back to Wakanda, and no one would’ve known shit. But you left me. You left me because fuck everyone else outside of Wakanda, right? There’s you, and there’s them, never mind that we got the same skin, never mind that we’re dying out there.”
Regret etched itself deeper on T’Chaka’s face, on the slump of his shoulders. “I would undo it if I could.”
“Yeah, I bet you would now. Now that I’ve got a shot at ruling your precious country.”
“That is not the only reason why. But I was not given the gift you have been: the gift of a chance to make things right. You have been blessed, N’Jadaka. I hope you will use it.”
“Oh, I will.”
When he rose up from the dirt, and the priestess asked him, “What did you see, who did you see?” he answered her honestly.
“I saw T’Chaka, and he said I was blessed.” She couldn’t hide the flash of betrayal and despair that crossed her face, and so it felt even more satisfying when he said, “Burn it all,” and they obeyed him.
When Okoye didn’t make a move against him this time, Erik started to hope he was free and clear. Finally, there was no fight on the plains, no need to set the Border Tribe against the Dora Milaje. The priests and priestesses must have spread the word that Erik had T’Chaka’s blessing. Shit, if he’d known that was all it would take, he’d have done it sooner. Not that there weren’t still plenty of points of failure left though. They seemed to multiply, as if he were a juggler and someone kept tossing more and more balls at him. So he sent a couple jets to keep an eye on the mountains and take out the Jabari in case they tried some shit. He had the Queen Mother and the princess kept under guard in the Citadel, alive and unharmed, so no one had that excuse to turn on him.
Shit, he was so close this time.
Then, when he was on the plains surrounding the vibranium mine, watching the cargo planes being loaded up and readied for deployment, the princess showed up to challenge him. Of fucking course.
“Now who the fuck let you out of your castle, Princess?”
“It’s cute that you think you could lock me up in my own palace, usurper. You have been here, what, a few days?”
She cocked her head, a sharp and vicious smile on her war-painted face. He could see the fury in every line of her, and for a second, it was so familiar it gave him a whole different kind of deja vu: that used to be him, skinny and young and vibrating with a rage he could never afford to show, not back then, not the way a coddled princess like her could now. He’d seen that same jaw clench in the mirror. Maybe it ran in the family.
“Sure,” he told her. “Just a few days. And that’s all I needed to take the throne.”
He’d been here a hell of a lot longer than just a few days, if you added up all the loops, so the taunt wasn’t exactly fair, not that she’d know it, and not that she cared. But it wasn’t like he’d taken the time to go looking for secret passageways or whatever the fuck loophole Shuri had used to slip out of the guarded Citadel, so there was another new and exciting avenue for failure, and who knew how many loops it’d take to run it down and figure out how to eliminate it. Fuck, he should’ve just killed Shuri and the Queen Mother. He knew where this was going now: another goddamned challenge.
“I challenge you, N’Jadaka, in the name of my brother, the rightful king of Wakanda!”
Yeah, there it was.
“You don’t want to do that, little girl.”
She didn’t rise to the bait, just repeated her challenge, calm and even, her voice loud enough to reach the Dora Milaje on guard and the men loading the cargo plane.
“Erik Killmonger Stevens, I challenge you for the throne of Wakanda.”
“Smart girl like you, you’re really here for that backwards trial by combat shit? Most advanced nation in the world, and that’s how you wanna do this?”
He shook his head with exaggerated disappointment, but Shuri just smiled sweetly.
She was already starting to stalk carefully towards him with a gawky, feline sort of grace, as if he were her prey, and he went out to meet her on the even ground of the plain. The Dora Milaje and Border Tribe followed, then silently formed a circle around them and planted themselves as immovably as statues, their spears rooted to the ground or their shields at the ready. A not-so-subtle message: if he didn’t accept the challenge, they’d turn on him and this whole loop would be fucked.
So fine. One more challenge.
“Oh, so you’re being a proper American then, overthrowing a perfectly legitimate government with murder and violence, and then expecting everyone to play by your new rules,” said Shuri.
“Works, doesn’t it?” he said, and activated the Black Panther suit.
“For the colonizer,” she answered, flippant, before her voice went deadly, shakily furious, and she activated a suit of her own. “I did not make that suit for you.”
“I’m no colonizer, kid,” he snarled. “But okay, fine, let’s do this.”
It should’ve been an easy fight; she sure as hell hadn’t given him all that much trouble in other loops, explosions and blasts to the face aside. But she must have taken the heart-shaped herb this time around, because she matched his strength and beat his speed, and she used the advantages of the suit in unexpected ways, absorbing all his blows and reflecting them back on him so it felt like he was using himself as a punching bag.
Too late, he remembered that she had made the Black Panther suit he wore. She knew all its strengths and weaknesses. Erik hadn’t even gotten a goddamn instruction manual for his.
“As I said, I did not make that suit for you. I made it for my brother. I prioritized protection from sudden concussive blasts like explosions, and from projectiles like bullets with that version of the Black Panther suit,” she said between blows. Her tone was as measured and didactic as a lecturing professor’s, barely showing any strain when she landed a hit or when she took one. He swiped at her face with his claws and she leapt away. “Western weapons, you know? It’s not optimized or meant for serious combat with Wakandans.”
Erik fell back, retreating to get even more room between them, wary of what it was she was angling for. Over the course of the fight, Shuri and the slowly moving circle of impassive Wakandans around them had maneuvered them so they were near one of the waiting cargo planes.
“So? I’m guessing the same goes for your suit too.”
Before she could finish, he rushed forwards in an attack, aiming to get her in a grapple so he could snap her neck. No way could the suit’s nanites prevent that. But she writhed and twisted and fought like a wild thing until they both fell apart, panting. She was grinning, full of innocent mischief, like this was just a friendly tussle instead of a fight to the death.
“I had time to make some adjustments,” she said, and then she barreled forwards to tackle him.
Their combined weight made Erik stagger backwards, and in his peripheral vision, he saw the circle of Wakandans around them break and leave a clear path to the cargo plane, whose quiet and idling engines suddenly turned on. Shuri blasted him with two fast bursts of the stored kinetic energy from her suit, one pulse of energy to his uncovered head that made his vision white out, and one to center mass that threw him backwards, until he was directly under the plane.
This probably wasn’t good, he thought through ringing ears and a spinning head, and he fumbled to engage the suit’s helmet and face mask. He didn’t know exactly how these planes worked, but whatever the output of their engines was—
“The Black Panther suit is not built to maintain integrity at such high temperatures for long periods of time,” she said, her voice already muffled by the boneshaking hum of the plane’s ignition.
The thrusters and lights began to glow blue, the same blue he’d seen in the sky that night T’Chaka had killed his dad, the brightness filling his entire field of vision and making his head throb. Then the engine’s exhaust hit him. Fuck. He was going to cook under here, he was too close to the engine’s output. If only Shuri had just blown him up this time too.
“Cheater,” he croaked out. He was pretty sure this was against the challenge rules.
“Oh, so now you want to follow tradition? No picking and choosing, usurper!”
He tried to stagger up, or roll away, but it was like trying to push against a hurricane force wind, and the heat...the temperature was rapidly climbing from standing in front of a fire to being in the fire. She was right. The suit’s nanites weren’t keeping up against this kind of sustained heat, not at this close range.
You psycho bitch, thought Erik, distantly impressed. Who would have thought his little cousin was so fucking ruthless. He felt, for the first time, like maybe they really were kin.
Then the vibranium nanite skin of the Black Panther suit started to dissolve on and into his chest and he felt nothing but atavistic terror. The air he could barely drag in seared his throat and lungs. Slowly burning alive in this fucking Black Panther suit wasn’t a thing he wanted to be conscious for. So while he still could, he disengaged the helmet and mask. Better to die quick than to burn up slowly. Everything went white with a heat so profound his nerves couldn’t even process it.
When he woke up in Busan again, he woke up laughing.
“Erik? What…what the fuck’s so funny?” asked Linda groggily. Getting literally roasted alive by his little cousin, that was what. “Erik? Erik!”
He couldn’t stop laughing. Burned up under a plane by his own cousin. How ridiculous, how totally fucking insane. He laughed and laughed, until he couldn’t even recognize the sound, until he could barely breathe, until tears streamed down his face. It wasn’t that funny, it really wasn’t, but he couldn’t fucking stop.
Linda slapped him, hard. He stopped laughing.
“What the fuck, Erik!”
“I’m good, I’m good, sorry. Shit. Sorry,” he stammered, and stumbled out of bed into the bathroom.
When he saw his reflection, he flinched, almost expecting to see some horror movie shit, burned skin and his skull peeking through. But it was just his face, the same as always, a little bit ruddy where Linda had just slapped him. He looked in his reflection’s wide eyes and breathed deep until he could fight the hysterical bubble of laughter in his chest back down, until his heart rate slowed.
Now there was a death that hadn’t even been on his goddamned radar. Lesson goddamn learned. He wouldn’t fuck with little cuz again, not more than he had to.
He maybe didn’t handle this loop so well. He tried to run it the same way as the last loop, because he’d gotten so close, he knew what to do now, he just had to take out Shuri and he’d be free and clear—but the scene in the throne room spiraled out of his control as soon as Zuri tried to make his excuses.
“It was the King’s will,” said Zuri again, and what good were his apologies when this tired, sick excuse was still the only truth at the core of all his guilt. Just following orders, you know how it goes.
The words “You could’ve come back for me!” tore their way out of Erik’s throat. Even with the guards and the chains, he lunged for Zuri, and managed to get one wild blow in before he was restrained again.
Erik hadn’t hit him that hard, but Zuri fell to his knees, and made no move to rise.
“You shouldn’t have left him,” said T’Challa, and all the air left Erik’s lungs. He flailed and staggered in the guards’ grip, and he didn’t know if it was T’Challa he wanted to fight first, or Zuri. “It was wrong! Royal or not royal, orders or no orders, it does not matter! It was wrong!” T’Challa rose from the throne to pace—no, to prowl. He whirled on the Queen Mother. “Did you know?”
“No,” she said, her face so stern and pained that her beauty turned almost ugly. “You should have told me, Zuri. We could have found a way. A better way.”
“What better way,” snarled Erik. She didn’t answer.
“It doesn’t matter now,” said T’Challa, and turned to Erik. “I’m sorry, N’Jadaka. If we can make this right—”
“Only way we can make this right is with a challenge. I challenge you for the throne.”
There was an outcry from Ramonda and the elders, and Zuri was babbling some nonsense about how Erik shouldn’t take this out on T’Challa, but T’Challa just nodded, something infuriatingly close to pity on his face.
“Very well. You have more than earned that right.”
He didn’t sleep the night before the challenge. It didn’t matter. He could sleepwalk through all of this by now. He paced the length of his father’s old room instead, and it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t big enough, there was something inside him that wanted to run, or smash the walls or—he wrestled the feeling down. Save it for the fight. That was how he’d gotten this far in life. He saved everything for the fight.
“I wish my father had brought you home to us,” said T’Challa before the challenge. It was the last thing he said before Erik killed him. He killed Zuri after, just to shut up his keening sobs.
In the spirit realm, he ended up back on that wide, dark plain, where the rain had stopped falling. The air was heavy with damp heat, and oppressively still, like the storm that threatened above them would never break. The panthers prowled restively, and Erik couldn’t tell if they were growling, or if that was thunder.
T’Chaka waited for him, nothing kingly in the defeated slump of his shoulders.
“You must stop this, N’Jadaka.”
“I don’t take orders from you. And hey, I’m not the one who’s making time loop around again and again and again.”
T’Chaka nodded. “No. No, I suppose not. But if you are seeking revenge, my children are innocent. Even Zuri—”
“Zuri followed your orders!”
“He wanted to go back for you. I didn’t let him. I feared—I feared it would reveal your father’s treason, and I could not risk that. For a number of political reasons I suspect you will not find sufficient.”
“Too little, too late.”
“I know. I’m only trying—spend your vengeance on me, nephew. Not on our people,” begged T’Chaka.
“Oh, they’re our people now?” Erik sneered. “Fuck you. And this isn’t just about revenge.”
It wasn’t about revenge. It wasn’t.
That night, he woke up in the small hours to find he could barely move. The Queen Mother was standing over his bed, her white locs unbound, her eyes red and furious from crying, a beautiful nightmare. Erik struggled to get up, to scream for the guards, but he couldn’t make his muscles obey, and all that came out was a thin croak. He wasn’t tied up, he realized. He was paralyzed. Neurotoxin, probably, something like curare. He wouldn’t have long, if so.
“Shhhh,” she said, and sat beside him on the bed. Whatever she’d dosed him with, it worked fast. Already, he couldn’t blink.
“When I was a girl, not yet old enough to hunt, there was a small rabies outbreak in the plains. Before we could contain it, a dozen animals succumbed to the virus. My father was one of the River Tribe’s finest hunters, so he was sent out to track and kill the infected animals. He would bring the carcasses back to be burned, and every time, I cried. ‘Couldn’t we try to save them?’ I would ask. ‘It wasn’t their fault they were infected, that they were hurt.’ And my baba would say, ‘No, it is not their fault, and their deaths are cause for sorrow. But it is our responsibility to ensure they do not hurt others, or spread their illness.’ And so, N’Jadaka, I am sorry. You have killed my son, spreading your pain, and it is not, perhaps, wholly your fault.”
She stroked his forehead, gentle, and he could only barely feel it. Involuntary tears spilled out of his unblinking eyes. He saw where this was going. Fuck you, he wanted to say. I’m no rabid animal. But even if his voice were working right now, he’d have had to struggle for the breath to say it.
“But I cannot let you continue. Had my husband just brought you here in the first place…” she said, suddenly vehement, before sucking in a calming breath and continuing, “Well, what’s done is done. I will grieve what you could have been. But I cannot stand by and let you be king, mad with pain as you are.”
Ramonda leaned over to press a kiss to his forehead. “Goodbye, N’Jadaka. May Bast grant you peace,” she said, and closed his eyes.
As the dark closed in, all he could think was fuck peace. I want justice.
The next loop, Erik tried something different. He could have tried honing the last couple loops’ approach, since he’d gotten so close, but then he remembered the silent, ashen-faced Dora Milaje and Border Tribe guards encircling him and Shuri. Their wordless endorsement of Shuri’s challenge was just another kind of rebellion Erik couldn’t afford.
He needed to consolidate some power for real before getting the cargo planes in the air. Sending out weapons to the War Dogs was still the end goal; maybe he was thinking too small though, maybe he wasn’t using all of the resources available to him. There were the weapons—which he was sending out—and the vibranium, which wouldn’t do much good on its own, and there was the heart-shaped herb…. That was it. Maybe he didn’t have to destroy the heart-shaped herb. Maybe it was time to share the wealth.
“I think I’m gonna get it right this time,” he told his dad during the now too-familiar trip to the ancestral plane’s version of Oakland.
“I don’t even know what would count as ‘getting it right’ at this point,” said Dad with his head in hands. “Did you speak with your uncle?”
“Yeah, he’s real sorry, and killing you and abandoning me are his biggest regrets, like I give a fuck. Like it matters now.”
“It matters,” whispered his dad, and then Erik was rising from the dirt again.
This time, he didn’t burn the heart-shaped herb.
“Harvest all of that,” he said, gesturing at the garden full of heart-shaped herb plants. “Harvest it, and make more of that juice. The heart-shaped herb ain’t just for the Panther anymore. It’s gonna be for everybody.”
The priests and priestesses babbled their expected denials and excuses.
“Not all of the plants are ready to be harvested—”
“But—that is against—”
“What, the rules?” he interrupted. “And who makes the rules, huh? Aren’t I your king? There are new rules now.”
“Not everyone will survive it,” warned the priestess.
“The strong will.”
He brought W’Kabi and his warriors to the Hall of Kings, and directed the priests and priestesses to distribute the heart-shaped herb to them. W’Kabi looked nervous as he held the cup full of the dark purple mixture.
“What, you scared?” asked Erik. “Don’t tell me you think this is blasphemous or some shit, like the big cat god’s gonna smite you or whatever.”
W’Kabi smiled thinly. “I suppose I will find out,” he said, then he raised the small cup in a toast, and drank it down.
Groans and gasps filled the dim temple as the power of the heart-shaped herb spread. The ancestors were probably getting a real surprise right about now. Erik grinned, imagining it: all those old fuckers in a tizzy over the slightest disruption to their precious tradition. Tradition, yeah right. More like an excuse to keep up their bullshit hear no evil, see no evil act when it came to the rest of the world. That was all about to change.
The air in the Hall of Kings’ temple was almost too warm now with so many people in the enclosed space, but Erik resisted the desire to wait outside in the open air. He had to see this through, make sure no one pulled some dumb shit. He was so fucking close this time, finally. So he paced as he kept an eye on the priests and priestesses, and the children who he supposed were their acolytes, but none of them tried anything. They all just prayed, or wept quietly, as they waited for the warriors to rise again.
About a third of the Border Tribe warriors didn’t make it. W’Kabi did though, and he looked at his dead tribespeople with an expression of sick horror.
“Wars have casualties,” Erik told him, and surveyed who was left with satisfaction. He knew exactly how few men it could take to bring a nation to its knees. Even two-thirds of W’Kabi’s Border Tribesmen were more than enough. The world thought the Avengers were hot shit? Wait ’til they saw what an entire squad of Wakandan Black Panthers could do. “This’ll do for an army. To start with, anyway. Get ‘em ready, we need to be at Mount Bashenga by tomorrow afternoon.”
He waited, and watched W’Kabi, who had closed his eyes, in prayer or thought or horror, Erik couldn’t tell.
If W’Kabi chickened out now, it’d be inconvenient as hell. But if he followed the order...if he followed the order, he’d be Erik’s for life, in too deep to ever consider turning back.
“Yes, my king,” said W’Kabi, and Erik smiled.
When it came time for the battle, Erik and his warriors cut through the Dora Milaje and Jabari with ease. With an army like this, Erik thought, it would be easy to build a Wakandan empire. Between the vibranium, the heart-shaped herb, and Wakanda’s advanced technology, nothing could stop him, nothing could stop them. This loop was gonna be the one, Erik could feel it. For the first time in more loops than he cared to remember, actual excitement pumped through him along with the adrenaline of battle.
He did a rundown of all his potential failure modes: T’Challa was already out of the picture, he’d made absolutely sure of that this time around. There’d be no miraculous return from a stab to the heart. A rhino had taken M’Baku out, and Okoye was busy taking on W’Kabi. It was just the War Dog Nakia and the princess standing against him now, and they were too late. The cargo planes were already on their way to the War Dog cells all over the world, and Ross wasn’t going to be shooting them down this time, not with the newly super-powered Border Tribesmen about to take him out.
“What did you do?” asked Nakia, looking at the battlefield in horror. He just grinned at her.
“No reason for the royal family to be hoarding that herb, is there? Power to the people and all that.”
“You profane what is sacred,” she said, and lifted her blades to fighting position.
“That so? You see your god out here anywhere? I don’t.”
Nakia put up a good fight, like she always did, and Shuri kept blasting at him with those panther paw cannons of hers. They even got some good hits in. But by now, Erik had too much of an advantage in this particular battle, especially when neither of them had managed to get a hold of any heart-shaped herb of their own. He knew how they fought. He knew the herb running through his veins gave him more stamina. He waited for an opening, and one swipe of his claws to Nakia’s femoral artery took her out.
When he faced Shuri, he was tempted to make her pay for the loop when she’d fried him, to draw this out and make her feel some of what he’d felt, burning under that engine. But he was so close to succeeding. No point in jeopardizing everything for the sake of revenge for something that hadn’t even really happened at all, not in this timeline anyway. He just had to make sure she wouldn’t ruin this again, he had to avoid any unnecessary risks.
“Not too late to yield, Princess,” he offered.
“Never,” she spat.
She fought well, even without the Black Panther suit and the heart-shaped herb. Of course, she wasn’t fighting well enough to actually beat him, and he sure as hell wasn’t about to let her maneuver him anywhere near the cargo plane for a replay of that unfortunate loop. Instead, he drew her out away from the boulders surrounding Mount Bashenga and onto the plains, where she wouldn’t have anything to use against him but the arm cannons whose fire he dodged or absorbed with the suit as necessary. The more he dodged, the wilder her aim got; she was letting her anger get the better of her. Or her grief, he supposed.
He could have told her grief didn’t help you get shit done. Only anger did, if you used it right, if you rode it instead of letting it ride you. But then, when the hell would Shuri have ever learned that lesson, tucked safely away here in Wakanda? He ducked and rolled under one last furious volley of shots, then he got in under her guard, and snapped her neck. Even in the din of battle, the sound was loud, the way the sound of a grenade’s pin dropping or the sound of a gun being cocked was somehow always loud.
Shuri dropped to the ground like a broken doll, and something about the sight seemed obscene. The fear frozen on her carefully painted face made her look even younger than the teenager she was, and Erik couldn’t look away. She wasn’t so far off from being a little girl. Gangly still, like she’d only just come out of her last growth spurt. Fuck. Nausea rose up in him in a dizzying, sickening rush.
Get it the fuck together, Stevens, you’ve done this before.
He’d killed Shuri before, in enough loops that he’d lost count. He’d killed other kids like her too, kids who’d probably been even younger than her. Orders he’d given and orders he’d followed had killed kids: child soldiers and the cannon fodder terrorists sometimes liked to use to fuck with them, and even civilian casualties, the collateral damage of JSOC ops and drone strikes made on bad intel. There were going to be a hell of a lot more dead kids by the time Erik was through with this war.
Erik wasn’t a fan of killing kids.
But then, it wasn’t like Nat Turner had been either, and he’d still known it was necessary to take back his and his people’s freedom. This was just what had to be done.
It was a more merciful death than Shuri deserved anyway, given that death by broiling she’d given him one loop back, Erik told himself. And she’d have killed him just now if she could have.
He still ended up heaving his guts out behind a boulder.
When the battle was over, Agent Ross saw which way the wind was blowing, and came out of the mountain to meet Erik. He barely flinched when he saw the destruction on the battlefield.
“Congratulations, your highness,” he said, like he hadn’t just tried to shoot down Erik’s cargo planes and been dragged out by the Border Tribe warriors. “As a, uh, representative of the United States gov—”
Erik sent a knife through his throat. He didn’t do any of this to become a fucking CIA-backed dictator like all the rest.
The cargo planes went out. The orders were sent to the War Dogs, and for those who refused, Border Tribe warriors were sent after them. Erik could see it all unrolling in front of him: the oppressed overthrowing the powerful, the collapse of empires built on the backs of slaves, Wakanda’s empire ascendant, unbeatable. There’d be a lot of bloodshed, yeah, but it’d be worth it. It would be justice, retribution, the only reparations that mattered for centuries of oppression and slavery. It would be a better world, eventually, even if Erik wouldn’t live to see it.
“This is the revolution,” he said when he was back on the throne, looking out at the gathered council and guards, the priests and priestesses. “This is the beginning of a new empire, a better empire than our world has ever seen. ‘Cause we’re gonna be the ones running it for once.”
The faces looking at him were all grim and ashen, eyes bloodshot and red-rimmed. And alright, that was fair. Victory hadn’t come easy. Rebellion, revolution, they were bought with blood. Wakanda had lived too long in isolated luxury if they didn’t know that. They’d learn.
“What a cost we have paid for it,” rasped one of the council elders. “What a cost we will pay for it still. This is not Wakanda anymore.”
The other council elders murmured their assent, shaking their heads and weeping silently.
“Wakanda is what I say it is,” snapped Erik. “We gonna have a new kind of Wakanda now. No more hiding, no more turning our backs on the world! We’re going out to take the world back!”
He dismissed everybody from the throne room, then he assigned guards to keep a watch on the Queen Mother, and to guard the council elders. Nothing else would happen tonight, and it would take time, still, to get the War Dog cells in place for the right coups, to get the weapons where they needed to go. They could take stock the next day, and then the work would begin in earnest. Erik looked forward to it: a new day. Fucking finally.
The sun set. Erik waited and watched at the sand tables and holographic displays of the palace’s war room, until the cargo planes all arrived at their destinations, and then he stayed up later even than that, checking the Golden City’s defenses and its stock of available weapons. He kept an eye on all the security feeds available to him too, wary of another assassination attempt.
If he could just get through tonight, if he could just finally reach the fifth day—eventually, he couldn’t hold off his exhaustion any longer. The long day and the battle were taking their toll. If he waited any longer, his body would make the choice for him and he’d pass out wherever. He had to sleep, even if—no. He wouldn’t even fucking let himself think it. It’d be fine. It had to be fine. He’d succeeded, hadn’t he? The loop wouldn’t reset again, not now that he’d made it through alive, not when he’d finally, finally gotten it entirely right.
He still had to survive the night though, he supposed.
So he posted guards outside his quarters, different from the guards who’d let his aunt through to kill him that one time. He set some booby traps too, noisy ones, so that if someone did break in to try to kill him, he’d wake up. Only after all that did he finally give in to exhaustion and go to sleep, ready to wake up to a new world, a world he’d made.
He woke up in Busan again.