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my spirit swims right to the hook

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“You know Lord M’Baku, if you’d given me some to work with, I could have tried making you a kimoyo bracelet out of your precious Jabari wood,” said Princess Shuri, all sweet guilelessness. “If it is as strong and as versatile as vibranium itself, as the Jabari say it is, then surely it would work and you would not have to adorn yourself with ‘subpar’ vibranium.” 

M’Baku snorted and crossed his arms. The princess’s attempt at manipulation was clumsy, but judging by the mischief dancing in her eyes, she knew it was, and was inviting M’Baku in on the joke. 

“You want to waste our most precious, sacred wood on such frivolities as this kimoyo bracelet?”

Shuri narrowed her eyes, her mischief disappearing in favor of tart and sharp rebuke, and the expression brought her resemblance to the queen mother in stark relief.

“Kimoyo beads are not frivolities,” she said. “They are necessities. Emergency beacons, medical care, communication, access to public and private lands...all are managed with the beads, and have been for centuries. This is no frivolous gift, Lord M’Baku, nor is it a chain of binding. It is welcoming you and your people back into Wakanda and its tribes, after so long set apart. Will you reject that welcome? If so, you are free to go back up to your mountains and stay there.”

M’Baku suppressed a smile. It was well-said, though it was also said with a heaping measure of intemperate, impertinent haste. He would have been well within his rights to take offense. But he had long since come to the same conclusion Shuri had, which was why he was here at all. If the Jabari were to survive, they needed the rest of the tribes, and if Wakanda was to survive as well, it would need all of its tribes united. Or at least, as united as they were ever going to get. M’Baku had sat through enough Council meetings by now to know that what united peace they had was quarrelsome and fractious, like siblings bickering for an elder’s favor. 

He took the bracelet. “Peace, little princess. We know you offer the kimoyo beads in good faith. But before my whole tribe receives your gift, I intend to use and understand it first.”

“Fair enough,” said Shuri, her expression relaxing into her habitual good cheer again. “I’m happy to teach you.”

She was a patient enough teacher, to M’Baku’s surprise, and the construction of the bracelet itself was thoughtful.

“I have made the beads larger for you, as you have large hands and fingers, not all will need to be so big. If any among your people have issues with fine motor skills, or if they are amputees, the beads may be adjusted to meet their accessibility needs. Now, the prime bead is most important, and it is the one I will insist on your people having…”

Shuri showed him each bead and its use in turn: the prime bead that held all of one’s personal identification and records and which could be used in an emergency to summon aid, the medical bead that would assist in any medical emergencies, the recorder bead to record images and sounds whether for personal or public use, the communications bead allowing contact between all Wakandans…

“Can someone contact me at any time, for any purpose?” asked M’Baku with a frown. 

He disliked the presumption inherent in the idea: that he could be interrupted at any time, by anybody, for any purpose, rather than petitioned as Lord of the Jabari through his council, or via a message that M’Baku could respond to at his leisure.

“Not if you don’t want them to. Here, there are many privacy options…”

And finally, Shuri showed him what she called the fun beads. “That isn’t their official name, of course, but these beads will give you access to all of the fun things: entertainment, music, the Wakandan internet, the global internet—though there is still a firewall set up there, so don’t go uploading all of Wakanda’s secrets…”

“We have the internet up in the mountains,” M’Baku told her, amused. 


“Satellites, you know?”

What?” she repeated.

“We have held ourselves apart, Princess, but we have not ignored the rest of the world. That would be the height of foolishness.”

There had always been those among the Jabari who have wandered and roamed beyond the mountains. Sometimes they came back, and sometimes they didn’t, but those who came back always brought something with them: new wood, new ideas, new foods, new people. Such a wanderer had brought the Jabari their god Hanuman, even. They didn’t disdain new things or the world beyond their mountains on principle, though in recent years, their isolation has been edging dangerously close to such fearful disdain. M’Baku intended to change that. Their survival depended upon it.

“Well, obviously, but what do you mean—”

“I thank you for the lesson, Princess Shuri,” he told her, bowing formally. “I will advise you if the Jabari have need of more kimoyo beads.”

M’Baku left the princess in her mountain laboratory and rejoined his retinue who awaited him outside. Together they made their way into the Golden City, to the Citadel where the Council was about to meet. Months after the usurper’s war, the plains surrounding Mount Bashenga bore no trace of battle or bloodshed. M’Baku remembered it all the same. Brief battle though it had been, it had still been M’Baku’s first, skirmishes with would-be intruders and poachers aside, and the memories sat bright and heavy within him: bright with pride, for the Jabari had acquitted themselves with honor in defense of T’Challa and Wakanda, but heavy with solemn sorrow and regret too. It was no easy thing to fight against kin, even distant and estranged kin. His younger self had hungered for such a battle, eager to avenge ancient slights against the Jabari, eager to prove himself. A taste of real battle, real war, had turned that old hunger to sour bile in his stomach. There would be no more war within Wakanda, if M’Baku could help it.

 He murmured prayers to Hanuman on his path through the fields, in remembrance and in thanks for his new knowledge, until they reached the Golden City.

Today’s meeting of the Council of Elders was an important one: after months of preparation and debate and detailed reports, the tribes were to cast their votes on whether Wakanda would reveal its true self to the world. M’Baku had skipped a good half of these meetings, after announcing the Jabari have already decided what our vote will be. We have no need to keep coming down the mountain to hear you lot bicker. T’Challa had nodded in acknowledgment, his jaw going tight, his mouth almost frowning with disappointment. He thought he knew what the Jabari vote would be. Hah. Arrogant of him to assume. M’Baku was looking very much forward to his surprise. 

When he arrived in the Throne Room, he gave T’Challa a toothy smile, which T’Challa returned with a thin and nervous smile of his own. M’Baku took his seat and settled in. He fiddled with his new kimoyo beads while he waited for the meeting to begin, swiping through the assorted informational displays that were projected above the bracelet in a discreet hologram: the time, a little map of his current location, the weather...M’Baku snorted. All information that could be just as easily gleaned by taking a step outside or exerting one’s own abilities. The time-wasting served its purpose though: when M’Baku looked up, he saw the other tribes’ representatives casting glances at him and murmuring, eyebrows ever so slightly raised at the sight of a Jabari with kimoyo beads on his wrist. He smiled back at them, settled more comfortably in his seat. I belong here too. 

The vote itself was largely a formality, at this point. The tribes’ positions were well-known by now, and no vote save M’Baku’s was likely to be a surprise. The Panther Tribe would say yes, of course, as would the River Tribe given their close alliance to the Panthers, and the Border Tribe would too, having neatly trapped themselves into such a vote thanks to their brief rebellion. After supporting a usurper who had planned to go to war with the world, the Border Tribe could not now claim they sought to stay hidden, not without losing even more face than they already had. The Mining Tribe would say no, thinking only of protecting their precious vibranium, and the Merchant Tribe would follow. T’Challa would, therefore, anticipate a tie, believing the Jabari would vote no too. As king and Bast’s avatar, T’Challa would be the tiebreaker, but M’Baku knew T’Challa did not relish the role. A tied vote was a badly divided vote, and it was far from a strong foundation for such a fundamental change. T’Challa would find himself more indebted to M’Baku and the Jabari for breaking the tie. Which wasn’t the whole purpose of voting yes, but was certainly a significant consideration.

If M’Baku was to bring his people back into the Wakandan fold, and out into the world too, he would not do so with half measures. They would take the strongest position they could among the tribes of Wakanda.

Once the ceremonies and traditions and greetings had been observed, the vote began. It went just as expected, and just as expected, when it was M’Baku’s turn to speak the Jabari vote, T’Challa’s expression was one of grim resolve.

“The Jabari say yes,” M’Baku said, leaning back in his seat as if it was his own throne.

T’Challa blinked rapidly, his mouth falling open in shock for long seconds before he gathered his control again. M’Baku basked in the expression as if it were the first ray of sunshine after a blizzard.

“The Jabari, who have lived apart in the mountains for centuries, say yes,” said the Mining Tribe elder, in tones of stark disbelief.

M’Baku nods. “We do.”

Why?” demanded the Merchant Tribe elder.

“It is one thing to choose to live apart, to keep to our ways and traditions, to limit those we will allow onto our lands and into our tribes. It is another to hide, to cower for fear of discovery. What honor is there in that? What pride?” He looked around, met each elder’s and representative’s eyes. “Wakanda has been hiding for many long centuries. The world has grown smaller and smaller, while the universe has proven itself large and full of dangers, attacks being waged on our Earth from beyond the stars. Better to choose now, to reveal ourselves now, on our terms, united as a people, then to wait until the choice is made for us. So say the Jabari.”

M’Baku thought this reasoning carried some weight with the Merchant Tribe, but he only spared their elder a glance before locking eyes with T’Challa. M’Baku had said little that T’Challa hadn’t already said. But M’Baku’s words had their own gravity apart from T’Challa’s, and they might catch others in their orbit where T’Challa had failed. M’Baku wanted T’Challa to know it.

“And the king and Panther Tribe say yes. So it is done. Wakanda will reveal itself to the world. Now, let us speak of how…”

The practicalities and specifics took up the rest of the day, until they adjourned for the evening to finalize the proposed course of action the next day. As the assorted council members beat hasty retreats, undoubtedly to return to their tribes with all the news and gossip, T’Challa put a hand on M’Baku’s arm to hold him back.

“Thank you, Lord M’Baku.”

M’Baku shrugged. “What is there to thank me for? My vote was in the best interests of my people.”

“Of course,” said T’Challa with a gracious tilt of his head. “If you had won the challenge, would you have chosen this course of action? Would you have opened Wakanda to the world?” 

“Yes,” said M’Baku, and had the sincere pleasure of seeing T’Challa surprised again. “I said it earlier, my king. There is no honor in continuing to hide. There may come a time, too soon, when it could cost us everything.”

“Do the priests and priestesses of Hanuman prophecy so?” asked T’Challa, his voice mild but his eyes sharp.

“No, they watch the world’s news. Alien invasions leave an impression, you know? If the entire planet is conquered, Wakanda will not receive a reprieve.”

“No, we will not,” agreed T’Challa. “I thank you anyway, Lord M’Baku. Your support is meaningful to me.” His eyes took in M’Baku’s new kimoyo bracelet. “I hope my sister’s gift is well-received?”

“It is. Whether it’s all that useful to the Jabari…” M’Baku shrugged. “That remains to be seen.”

There was a grand feast in the evening, because of course the day had not had enough pomp and circumstance already, but the food was good, the vegetarian options plentiful, the beer not as good as Jabari brew, but tolerable. M’Baku and his retinue dined well, and then retired to the suite in the Citadel provided for them.

“So? Have we served the Jabari well?” M’Baku asked his tribespeople, and when they spoke, he listened.

By the time they finished, it was late enough that they were all yawning.

“Ey, so when do the rest of us get one of those fancy bracelets, eh?” asked Ifedayo, flicking her fingers at M’Baku’s kimoyo beads.

“Once I’ve used them properly,” M’Baku said. 

“Let’s see then!” said Mobori, and the others chimed in, their exhaustion fading in favor of interest.

M’Baku obliged them with a demonstration of each kimoyo bead. The prime bead and medical beads received the most approval, for they would surely prove a blessing in the mountains, where avalanches and rockslides were not uncommon. The rest, M’Baku was not yet certain of. They were either duplicative of Jabari technology, or simply unnecessary, and he said as much.

“What’s this one?” asked Oson, poking at one of the kimoyo beads. M’Baku frowned down at it. He didn’t think the princess had offered an explanation of this one, at least, not beyond it offering a connection to the internet. Was this one for Wakanda’s internet, or the rest of the world’s? He toggled it on, and squinted as the unnecessarily bright hologram beamed up, proclaiming it to be Hathor’s List. A little message offered an explanation: let Hathor guide your search for a partner, not your elders’ matchmaking! Find a perfect match, or a night of pleasure! 

Oh, that little brat, thought M’Baku.

“Oh ho ho, you said the Princess gave this to you? It seems she thinks you need some help in matters of love!” chortled Ifedayo.

Mobori didn’t join the chorus of laughter, instead peering at Hathor’s List with intent interest. “Well, this is part of why we are rejoining Wakanda’s tribes, is it not? If we don’t supplement our population, our bloodlines will die out for lack of people in the next couple of centuries.”

Somehow, M’Baku doubted that Princess Shuri had thoughtfully included a matchmaker kimoyo bead for the sake of diversifying the shrinking Jabari gene pool. And yet, Mobori wasn’t wrong. The tipping point was still far in the future, but it undeniably existed: there would come a point where there were too few Jabari to sustain a healthy tribe, and it was M’Baku’s duty to avoid that fate. The Jabari could not survive and thrive if they stayed isolated in their mountains.

“You are ruining it,” whined Oson. “This seemed like good fun until you made it about the survival of our people.”

M’Baku thumbed the kimoyo bead’s display off. “It is just the princess’s ill-considered joke. To bed with all of you, we are in for yet more meetings and conferences tomorrow!”

With the pivotal vote decided, the next day’s business was of the boring yet necessary sort. Each tribe would need to make its own preparations for Wakanda’s unveiling, even the Jabari. T’Challa had other matters of state to present to the Council as well: there was the matter of the Sokovia Accords and the trial of T’Chaka’s murderer, among other matters.

“I believe Wakanda should withdraw its support for the Accords,” said T’Challa. “After the events in Vienna, I have grave misgivings about their implementation…”

M’Baku sighed. Why T’Chaka had ever thought the Accords were a good idea, M’Baku didn’t know. The so-called superheroes popping up all over the world were warriors if they were anything, and no battle was won by committee. Either way, it was none of the Jabaris’ concern. They would fight by the superheroes’ side if some fresh disaster or alien invasion rendered it necessary, and no UN-drafted Accords would matter then.

It was only after the mid-day break that matters became marginally more interesting.

“I would like to petition the Council to grant sanctuary to an outsider,” said T’Challa. With one twist of his kimoyo beads and a flick of his fingers, he sent a file to the whole of the Council. Convenient, thought M’Baku, and let the file scroll across his own bracelet’s display. “Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, who is currently in the care of Princess Shuri and Healer Thandiwe.” 

A genteel sort of uproar followed, and T’Challa raised his hand for silence. “Please, review the materials I have provided for you first.”

There was silence then, at least for a few minutes before the murmurs of dismay and discontent began again. M’Baku did not join the chatter, and just read the material provided instead, though the information contained in it did draw out a groan from him. Of course T’Challa wanted to grant sanctuary to the man who’d been falsely accused of T’Chaka’s murder, and who, incidentally, was a former brainwashed assassin. Was the man ever capable of doing things the easy way, wondered M’Baku.

Still, he couldn’t help but note that it was the most honorable course of action, given that T’Challa’s actions had helped get the unfortunate man captured for a crime he was innocent of. There was some recompense owed to this Sergeant Barnes for that. Sanctuary in Wakanda though...he continued reviewing the file. 

“A sad story to be sure. You do not need Council approval, even if he is a wanted fugitive,” remarked the River Tribe elder, his words neutral enough, but his expression disapproving.

T’Challa nodded, accepting the point. “I believe the evidence is clear as to his innocence. He is wanted for actions not under his control, and will likely find no justice or healing in the world outside these borders. But it is as you say, I am within my rights as King to offer him personal sanctuary. So I will clarify: it is not only a temporary sanctuary I wish to offer Sergeant Barnes. I wish to grant him citizenship.”

M’Baku looked up from the file, which even after a brief perusal made for stomach-turning reading, his mid-day meal churning unpleasantly in his gut. 

“What, because you almost murdered the man in error? You can buy him a home in the city of his choice, you needn’t burden Wakanda with him for the sake of your own guilt,” he said.

“It would be no burden,” insisted T’Challa. “And it is the right thing to do.”

The Council continued looking through the file, murmuring in shock or disgust or dismay every so often, but otherwise silent. Even lacking in detail as it was, clearly reduced down to a spare summary, the file was a chronicle of depravity and brutality, all visited on a once-honorable soldier who could not have deserved any of it. The world outside Wakanda’s borders was a place of unimaginable cruelties, and M’Baku couldn’t help but wonder now if unveiling Wakanda was a good idea at all. Tragic as this Sergeant Barnes’ situation was, it didn’t need to be Wakanda’s business, especially not if it would expose their people to such dangers and cruelties.

The other tribes’ representatives barraged T’Challa with questions about the security and political implications of harboring Barnes (potentially complex, but resolvable along with the Sokovia Accords, was T’Challa’s answer), whether he was dangerous (as dangerous as any warrior, but thanks to Princess Shuri’s work, no longer bound by HYDRA’s mental shackles, came T’Challa’s ready response), and why this particular man. T’Challa’s answer to this last question caught M’Baku’s attention. 

“Because we can help him where others cannot. Because we can offer him safety he would find nowhere else.”

M’Baku narrowed his eyes at T’Challa. He thought he saw now the shape of what T’Challa was attempting, the bold yet seemingly innocuous opening gambit on a complex board of Go. And yet, for all that this was a calculated political machination, it was also a wholly earnest gesture. T’Challa truly did think offering this man a home was the right thing to do. That it was also forming the first support for a bridge to allow more refugees in equally dire straits in was a bonus. The other tribes must have realized the same thing, or something similar, because the discontent eased into something more neutral.

Eventually, the Mining Tribe elder said, “The Mining Tribe would not gainsay the King’s offer of sanctuary.”

The other tribes added their agreement, and, after dismissing the grim and distressing file, so did M’Baku. T’Challa could afford to indulge his guilt by offering Barnes sanctuary. And one convalescing soldier could not possibly pose too large a threat to Wakanda, even if he had been some sort of superpowered assassin. They could always kick the man out if he proved too much of a risk.

“And of citizenship?” pressed T’Challa. “I will not grant it without the Council’s approval, given my personal interest in the matter.”

“Such decisions are premature, surely,” demurred the River Tribe, and the others agreed.

M’Baku raised a wry eyebrow at T’Challa. He couldn’t blame T’Challa for pushing his advantage while he had it on the heels of the vote for unveiling, but the Council was right: to grant some foreigner with a sad story citizenship now was premature. And Wakanda was likely not yet ready to speak of taking more people in, no matter how impatient T’Challa was for the conversation.

T’Challa accepted the Council’s mild rebuke with a chagrined nod.

“I accept the Council’s wisdom. Sergeant Barnes will remain in the Panther Tribe’s charge.  A few final matters for your attention: the next roster of War Dog assignments will need adjustment in light of our tentative timeline for unveiling…”

At that night’s feast, when M’Baku was watching the dancing, T’Challa joined him.

“You surprised me yet again today, Lord M’Baku,” he said.

“Did I, now.”

“I did not think you would support offering Sergeant Barnes sanctuary.”

M’Baku shrugged. “It is your tribe’s business who you take in. Me, I would have discharged my debt and my duty by setting the man up safely elsewhere, but I am not king, now am I. Nor am I seeking to convince Wakanda to take in more outsiders.”

“It was that obvious?” said T’Challa with a smile.

“It was.”

“And what do the Jabari think of the idea?”

“We think you are asking a great deal of us as it is,” said M’Baku, making sure to imbue some warning in his tone.

T’Challa accepted this with a nod. “I know. I, and Wakanda, are grateful for your support and your return to the tribes. We welcome you for more than your support in battle, you know.”

“Good,” declared M’Baku. “Wakanda should have no more need for battles, not among our own at least.”

“Hopefully we will have no need of battles at all,” said T’Challa.

M’Baku couldn’t quite share such optimism, but he offered T’Challa a toast to it anyway.  

M’Baku asked nothing of his people that he was not willing to give or do himself, at least so long as it was within his abilities. Which meant that even after the Council meetings were over and adjourned for another couple of months, he periodically returned to the Golden City, unaccompanied, to learn more of what Wakanda had become during the Jabari Tribe’s long absence. For though most of the Jabari intended to stay in their beloved mountains and mountain valleys, some would seek knowledge and novelty and partners here in the rest of Wakanda, and M’Baku wanted to know what they would find. 

His trips taught him that they would find a bustling, vibrant city, full of colorful markets and a thriving, busy university, and people from all four of the other tribes of Wakanda. They would find a thrumming sense of excitement and anxiety over Wakanda’s upcoming unveiling, and many lively debates. They would not find Hanuman or Jabari wood, nor would they find the stillness of the mountain’s high places. But nor, M’Baku thought, would they find disdain either. Some judicious questioning and conversation with assorted city denizens revealed that Jabari support of T’Challa, and T’Challa’s support of the Jabari, had eased many old suspicions and prejudices.

And too, M’Baku noted wryly, there were plenty of younger folks who had no idea why the Jabari Tribe’s separation had even begun nor why it had persisted. The tribes’ memories were long, but a taste of real civil war had galled many, just as it had M’Baku. The Jabari would find a welcome here, M’Baku concluded: a cautious and hesitant welcome, perhaps, but a welcome nonetheless.

On his last trip before Wakanda’s unveiling, it occurred to M’Baku that there was at least one more thing he needed to scout for his people. For though it may have simply been the princess’s mischief, the fact remained: the Jabari might well have need of the matchmaking nonsense that was the Hathor’s List kimoyo bead. If this was how the rest of Wakanda found partners now, the Jabari would need to adapt.

So when he was alone in his room at one of the Golden City’s guest houses, M’Baku thumbed open the program, confronted yet again by the bright colors and not-so-sly insinuations, and the baffling use of a deity Wakanda had never worshipped. While gods traveled as they liked, or were carried by their faithful, Egypt’s Hathor had never reached Wakanda. To use her smiling, sun-crowned face for the purposes of a frivolous lovematch artificial intelligence struck M’Baku as insufficiently respectful, even if the goddess in question was no longer an object of worship.

He cast up an apologetic, silent prayer to poor, diminished Hathor, and perused her eponymous program. It seemed straightforward enough: people would fill in an assortment of information, as detailed or vague as they wished, and the artificial intelligence named Hathor would suggest potential matches. Choosing one of these matches would alert the match, and then a conversation or meeting would follow from there. It all seemed like an unnecessary technological complication of what should have been a matter of personal connection. If M’Baku wanted a partner, whether long term or for a few nights of mutual pleasure, he could find one at any festival or cafe or meeting place. He had no need for some construct of artificial intelligence to do it for him. And if he was so inclined, he could even leave it to the tribal elders to secure a match for him. This Hathor’s List seemed wholly unnecessary, to his mind.

His kimoyo bead chimed, and he startled. A message beamed up from Hathor’s List: you have a match! He frowned down at it. How could he have a match? He hadn’t actually provided the damned bead with any information. And yet, upon closer examination, it seemed he had: there was a profile prepared for him, complete with a photo—one M’Baku certainly hadn’t been aware of even being taken—of him reading over a report in the Citadel, and other information he had never provided.

Parts of the profile were accurate enough: his height, that he was a vegetarian, that he enjoyed hiking and other vigorous physical activity, that he enjoyed working with animals, that he was a traditional sort of man, devoted to his tribe, and that he preferred a simpler kind of life, free of excessive technological enhancements and in harmony with the land. Other parts were sheer fabrication: the sort of partner he was looking for (fun! modern! ready to show me new things!), his courting activity preferences (let’s go on an adventure! or let’s stay in if you know what I mean and I think you do), and all other manner of trivial nonsense that did not sound like him at all. What it did sound like though, was Princess Shuri.

He stood, fully intending to stride out of the guesthouse and up to Mount Bashenga. He would give that presumptuous brat a piece of his mind, and he’d make sure her brother the king heard about it too. How dare she sign him up for this Hathor’s List nonsense, as if he either required or wanted assistance in finding a partner—

Another message chimed: you have a match! 

M’Baku paused, considered. If he stormed into the princess’s lab, he would surely be doing just what she’d expected him to do. She would cackle at his outrage, tease him more, and only if M’Baku made a show of being offended enough would she turn contrite, assuring him that she’d only meant to show him how to use Hathor’s List. 

The bead chimed again: yet another match.

M’Baku didn’t like being predictable. And shouldn’t he fully test Hathor’s List, to see if it was suitable for the Jabari? If he was to reject the princess’s attempt to meddle in his affairs and needle his temper, should he not do so from a position of strength, with complete knowledge? 

He opened Hathor’s List and perused his matches. The AI had selected a number of attractive people as potential good matches. M’Baku was even forced to grudgingly admit that the AI had chosen well enough, given its incomplete information. Mostly though, he was pleased to find that those using Hathor’s List seemed to be accomplished, serious-minded people, who were clear about their desires and expectations. There was an even enough split between those seeking a few nights of pleasure and those seeking a more serious commitment, information that was either stated plainly in their profiles, or implied by the use of a pseudonym rather than a real name. Shuri, M’Baku noted with annoyed amusement, had given him a pseudonym that wasn’t much of a pseudonym at all: Lord of the Mountain.

As he wondered whether surprising Princess Shuri and performing some reconnaissance for his tribe were sufficient justification for actually following up on one of his matches, another match notification appeared. He’d gathered by now that the AI prioritized mutual interest; it would provide possible matches, but only once all parties chose such a match would any more significant interaction begin.

He would at least check those matches who had indicated an interest in him, M’Baku decided. If he liked any of them, maybe he’d even confirm the match. All in the name of gathering information for his tribe, of course. Though a night of mutually pleasurable companionship wouldn’t go amiss either…

Hathor’s List had a half-dozen mutual matches waiting for him, and M’Baku perused them carefully: a university professor with a too serious face…no, she was seeking a partner to raise a child with; a Merchant Tribe artist with a reckless sort of grin and laughing eyes…maybe. His next match genuinely shocked him: it was Sergeant Barnes, the king’s tragic white man. His profile was under the pseudonym of White Wolf, but M’Baku recognized him easily from the files T’Challa had provided. 

Was this more of Princess Shuri’s mischief? Or had this foreigner truly initiated a match with M’Baku? He was caught between being offended at Barnes’ presumption and being impressed by his boldness. 

M’Baku perused the man’s sparse and understated profile, examined the single image on it, of Barnes outside somewhere, caught in a candid moment of calm as he looked out at a serene lake. Once one got over the shocking whiteness of Barnes’ skin, he was handsome enough, M’Baku supposed, and he had truly lovely eyes, in a rare, pale shade like ice over deep water. Those eyes were sorrowful things, but they had wrinkles in the corners that spoke of joy, and there was a quirk to his lips that seemed to invite you in on a secret jest.

It was the message in Barnes’ profile that made M’Baku’s decision for him: pretty sure a friend set this thing up for me as a joke, but joke’s on her, because I’m absolutely using it. Do you want to have the exciting experience of being my first date in 70+ years?? If so, send me a message. 

Bold, thought M’Baku. Foolhardy too, perhaps, given the man’s status as a fugitive who was here in Wakanda for sanctuary. But M’Baku was undeniably interested, curious: both about the man himself, and whether this was all some plot of the princess’s, taken too far. And if it was no plot or prank, well…never let it be said that M’Baku of the Jabari shirked from either change, a challenge, or his duty. If he could use Hathor’s List to make an agreeable match with a white foreigner, however temporary, then surely the Jabari could manage to use it to find good matches with their fellow Wakandans. And if he managed to shock and surprise Princess Shuri and the king, that would only be a potentially hilarious bonus.

M’Baku confirmed the match.

After exchanging a few straightforward messages, M’Baku and Barnes—Bucky, rather, for that was the name he’d gently insisted on—met at the park nearest to M’Baku’s guesthouse. 

M’Baku made sure to arrive at the park early to secure one of the benches with the best vantage of the whole park, which meant that when Bucky arrived, M’Baku had plenty of time to appraise the man while he approached. He was dressed in the mishmash of modern and traditional styles that M’Baku had come to recognize as the norm among those living in the Golden City or near it, the sort of thing that likely would not stand out too much even outside Wakanda’s borders: pants and boots, with a black long-sleeved tunic stitched with one of the Panther Tribe’s patterns and a boldly blue scarf draped around his left shoulder where his arm was missing. Each item of clothing told its own story, and M’Baku wondered if Bucky knew quite how much he was giving away: that the tunic he wore said he was a ward of the Panther Tribe, entitled to its protection, that the handwoven blue scarf around his shoulders spoke of at least one member of the Border Tribe’s affection, that his boots and pants marked him as someone who had traveled outside Wakanda’s borders just as surely as his pale skin marked him as other. 

It was nothing M’Baku had not already known or guessed, so he turned his attention to the rest of Bucky. He moved with an easy, loping grace, as unhurried as the best of predators, and even from a distance, his pale eyes caught M’Baku’s attention. Yes, he would do, thought M’Baku. M’Baku wouldn’t be opposed to passing a night or two of hopefully vigorous pleasure with a man like that, if he was willing.

And if he wasn’t, well, M’Baku expected the conversation and the knowledge he could glean from it would be more than worthwhile.  

“Hi, M’Baku, right?” Bucky asked when he was within speaking distance, and M’Baku nodded, standing to greet him. 

Bucky was shorter than him—most people were—but only by a hand length or so; his only acknowledgment of the height difference was to give M’Baku a swift, appraising glance, part warrior’s assessment and part pure appreciation. So it’s like that, eh? thought M’Baku, pleased desire beginning to curl low in his belly.

“Yes, and you are Bucky Barnes,” M’Baku said, careful with the unfamiliar rhythm of his name.

There was a moment of awkwardness as they negotiated different greetings—Bucky offering his hand for a handshake as M’Baku pulled him in for a proper warrior’s handclasp—but it passed easily enough when Bucky grinned, fast and shy.

“Sorry,” Bucky said. “Figure that’s not going to be the first thing I mess up, this is all pretty new to me.”

M’Baku tipped his head towards the park’s walking path in silent invitation, and Bucky nodded. They fell into step, Bucky matching M’Baku’s leisurely pace through the park’s lush greenery, some of the noisy bustle of the city slowly being replaced by birdsong the further they went.

“Wakanda or dates?” 

“Both,” said Bucky with a wry smile. “Especially with, uh, this Hathor’s List thing. I guess this is how people do it now? With, um, apps and things?”

“Apparently,” said M’Baku, unable to entirely keep the disapproval out of his voice, which Bucky clearly noticed.

“And yet you’re using it,” he said, raising his eyebrows.

“For much the same reason you are. I was provided with Hathor’s List as a joke, of sorts, and I found I didn’t wish to be the butt of said joke.”

“Yeah, me neither. And I figured, you know, why not give it a try, have some fun for once. Used to do this kind of thing all the time.”

The stubborn determination on Bucky’s face and the sudden steel in his voice belied his casual words. M’Baku suspected that just as he himself did, Bucky had more motives for this assignation than a simple desire to have fun and confound the princess. 

“What, walk in the park with a stranger?” asked M’Baku, and Bucky shrugged.

“Not exactly,” he said, an almost secretive smile turning the words warm. “Went dancing, did a lot of drinking, went places I had no business going to do things I definitely shouldn’t have been doing: the usual kinda thing young idiots get up to.”

“Ah, and now you are a venerable elder who can only manage a sedate turn about the park. Time is truly the greatest thief.” 

In the second of silence that followed, M’Baku had enough time to worry that the joke had been ill-considered enough to cause Bucky to take offense, but then Bucky laughed, the sound as shockingly sweet as dawn’s birdsong after a long winter night.

“Venerable elder, that’s me,” he said, then he tilted his head up to meet M’Baku’s eyes, an inviting and sly curve to his lips. “Think I can manage something a little more strenuous than a walk in the park though, if you’re up for it.”  

The promise of heat in Bucky’s eyes and low voice got M’Baku’s blood up. It really had been some time since he’d shared a few hours of uncomplicated pleasure with a partner. His duties had kept him too busy of late. And, M’Baku recalled, Bucky was stronger than his lean frame suggested, if he had been able to meet the Black Panther’s strength. They could have a strenuous night together indeed, in the best way.

“That’s a challenge I’ll gladly accept.”

They took their time in making their way to M’Baku’s room in the guesthouse. There was a pleasure in letting anticipation build, in walking close enough to feel each other’s warmth, in casting quick glances at each other, catching each other at it, and then letting their eyes linger. There was no point in playing coy, after all; they knew what they wanted from each other. 

It was only when they reached M’Baku’s room that Bucky hesitated, lingering at the threshold as he fidgeted with his tunic.

“We don’t have to fuck if you don’t want to,” M’Baku told him bluntly, for he had no interest in an unwilling or even undecided partner.

“I want to,” said Bucky, eyes wide and worried. “Just—it’s been a long time. For me. And I haven’t, since—” he gestured at his left shoulder.

“Ah,” said M’Baku. “It makes no difference to me. I believe we can find plenty of ways to please each other with only three hands between us.”

They had done plenty of looking at each other on the way here, and yet now, Bucky looked again, and it was a different kind of stare, long and intense and searching, nearly unnerving with those pale eyes of his, the color of a cloudy twilight sky. M’Baku bore the scrutiny and looked right back, and saw that what should have been a carefree assignation, free of any expectations beyond a shared physical release, was demanding more bravery from this man than M’Baku had expected. It was evident in the way Bucky was biting his temptingly red lower lip, in the restless wringing motion of his hand in his tunic’s hem. He remembered, then, the files he had so quickly perused, the cruelty they had contained. Yes, he understood why this one step might demand more courage than entering battle.

M’Baku only waited. This last step was Bucky’s to take. And, with one deep breath and an almost defiant tilt of his jaw, he took that step and more besides, as he entered the room and swiftly strode to where M’Baku was standing beside the bed, and without hesitation, he brought his hand to the back of M’Baku’s neck and pulled him down into a kiss.

Here was boldness, thought M’Baku, as Bucky pressed hot and urgent against him, his mouth opening for M’Baku without shame or reservation. M’Baku had half thought to be gentle with Bucky, as he would be with any partner who was less experienced or nervous, but there was no gentleness in this kiss, only wild abandon and reckless heat, and oh, it had been a long time since M’Baku had indulged in that, and he gave himself up to it, matching Bucky’s passion. His grip on the back of M’Baku’s neck was so strong as to be nearly bruising, and that sent a thrill rushing down M’Baku’s spine, urged him on to place his own hands on Bucky’s slim waist and hold tightly. This earned him a pleased moan from Bucky, and that was it, that was all they both needed to spark this heat into a conflagration. 

They shed clothes with haste and without care, until they were naked and taking each other in with hungry eyes. The whiteness of Bucky’s skin was shocking all over again, but skin was skin, and his was a tempting expanse of canvas over taut and lithe muscle, to say nothing of his cock, already half hard. There were scars too, of course, all around his left shoulder where some sort of protective cap was fitted over where the joint terminated. The scars were pitted and ropy and less healed than M’Baku had expected, still pink and a little raw looking. 

Bucky noticed him looking, tension making his shoulders rise, and M’Baku said, “You must tell me if I hurt you.”

“You won’t,” he said, and relaxed again, favoring M’Baku with a frank and appreciative gaze as he reached for him.

Then there was the always awkward business of getting themselves situated on the bed and fetching supplies. M’Baku was accustomed to being careful with partners; he was bigger than most, and that demanded caution when his partners were slimmer or smaller, but Bucky, it seemed, was heedless of any such care. He urged M’Baku on top of him, gripped him tight and close as they kissed and kissed, their breath coming fast as it passed between them, until they were rocking against each other, both their cocks hard.

“How do you want it?” M’Baku asked, and lined their cocks up together, taking them both in hand as giving them both one long, leisurely stroke, enough to make Bucky’s eyes flutter closed as he moaned.

When he opened his eyes again, they’d gone dark, only a slim ring of blue showing. “I want you to fuck me,” he said, low and hoarse, and M’Baku grinned.

“It would be my pleasure,” he said.

M’Baku directed Bucky to lay on his side, and took a moment to admire the sight: the curve of his ass, the way his broad, muscled back tapered down to a slim waist, the dip in the small of his back. Then he fetched the oil and spread it on his fingers, and set about working Bucky open. Even with M’Baku using only one finger, Bucky let out one long sigh, all his taut muscles going loose and languid except for the ring of tight heat that surrounded M’Baku’s finger. It wasn’t long before Bucky pushed, impatient for more, and M’Baku gave it to him, relishing the small sounds Bucky made when he pressed in especially deep, each little sigh and moan a goad to M’Baku’s own desire.

“Not that I don’t appreciate you bein’ a gentleman,” slurred Bucky, “But you can just fuck me now.”

“Oh, can I?” said MBaku, and then he bent down to suck a hard and bruising kiss against the tempting spot where Bucky’s neck met his shoulder, and Bucky arched against him, finally moaning long and loud.

“Please,” gasped Bucky, and something about the rawness of the plea drew a groan from M’Baku.

“Very well,” he said, and pulled his fingers free. “On your knees then,” he said, but it seemed Bucky had other ideas, for with a speed and strength M’Baku could scarcely credit, he rolled onto his back and positioned M’Baku on top of him. 

“Uh uh, like this,” Bucky said, and oh, the sight of his face made it very tempting indeed, his pale skin flushed pink, his eyes glassy.

“I’d rather not crush you,” said M’Baku, for there was a reason he didn’t often attempt this position with partners, but Bucky only scoffed and wrapped his legs around M’Baku’s waist.

Bucky narrowed his eyes, that sly and secret smile curving his lips. “You really won’t. C’mon, fuck me.”

Well, if he was going to make it sound like a challenge…M’Baku settled himself into the right position, his too-hard cock lined up to push into Bucky, and with one thrust, he slid into that welcoming heat, and then his hips were moving almost of their own volition, cock seeking deeper and deeper purchase.

“Fuck,” said Bucky, then he wrapped his arm around M’Baku’s shoulder and held on tight. “Harder, c’mon, I can take it.”

M’Baku obliged him, settling into a steady rhythm and thrusting in deep every time, winning a short, gasping moan from Bucky every time, the heat of Bucky’s own cock brushing against his stomach in tempting, too glancing touches. Bucky’s arm pressed him still closer, his strength unyielding, his legs tight around M’Baku’s waist, and that turned M’Baku’s rhythm wild, heedless, had him matching Bucky’s moans with his own. 

For a moment, M’Baku felt as if both of them were one long, hard pulse of need, nothing but the beat of blood and desire pounding through them, until finally M’Baku rocked into Bucky with one last deep thrust and came so hard it turned his vision bright and sparkling. He had just enough presence of mind to avoid collapsing on top of Bucky, rolling to the side instead, and watched with heavy lidded eyes and heaving chest as Bucky stroked himself fast and rough to completion, sighing as he spent all over his own stomach.

They were silent then, save for their still loud breaths, until Bucky made a sweet and satisfied sort of humming sound, and rolled over to kiss M’Baku, and M’Baku learned the shape of that secret smile of his felt against his lips, brought his hands up and traced the way it made the corners of his eyes crease. After a few more kisses, M’Baku fetched a cloth to clean them up.

“God, you really are a gentleman,” said Bucky, and reached for the cloth. “Here, I can do that, you’re the one who just did all the work—”

M’Baku only tutted and twitched the cloth from Bucky’s grasp. “Is that what we’re calling it now? Work?”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Effort, whatever, here—”

M’Baku didn’t give him the cloth though; he enjoyed doing this for partners, when he could, had always found it made things less awkward, and it did so now too, as Bucky sighed and went pliant under the strokes of the cloth. Once he finished, he half-expected Bucky to leave; M’Baku himself likely would have, had this not been his own room, but he was pleasantly surprised to find that Bucky instead draped himself over M’Baku and kissed him more, something like hunger in it—not quite desperation, but maybe an intent focus instead, as if he needed to commit each kiss to memory. M’Baku was happy to let him, happy to let his hands roam over the hot skin of Bucky’s back and rest on his ass, kneading the firm muscle there until Bucky moaned into his mouth.

To his surprise, he felt Bucky’s cock harden again.

“To think I called you a venerable elder, and here you are, ready to go again like some eager youth,” teased M’Baku, and yet, he felt his own desire stir in response, though his cock was not quite up to it just yet.

Bucky just pressed down against him, a steady weight. On impulse, M’Baku reached up to bury his hand in Bucky’s hair, marveling at the slippery soft texture as he worked the hair tie holding it back free. With the hair tie out, Bucky’s hair fell in a bark-brown curtain around his face, and tickled M’Baku’s cheeks when he bent down for another kiss.

When he pulled back, he smiled down at M’Baku. “Yeah, let’s just say there’s at least one good side effect of being a goddamn medical experiment.” He kissed at M’Baku’s jaw and his neck, nipping just a little, the sensation like pleasurable bright sparks. “Do you mind?”

“Not if you do the work,” he said, and lifted his hips, tilted them up in invitation, and Bucky grinned, as wolfish as his pseudonym.

“Gladly,” said Bucky, voice a low rumble that made M’Baku suppress a shiver.

M’Baku fumbled for the bottle of oil until he found it, and popped open the lid. “Get to it then, White Wolf,” he said, and Bucky sat back on his heels, threw his head back, and laughed.

“Yeah, alright,” he said, and held his hand out for the oil, then he did indeed set to work, until it was M’Baku who was gasping and demanding he go harder and faster, ferociously delighted when Bucky met the challenge with no sign of flagging.

In the trembling aftermath of his third climax of the night, M’Baku summoned up enough presence of mind to send a most sincere prayer of thanks to Hathor for this small, earthly miracle of an impossibly, delightfully long night of pleasure. 

“Hmm, did you say something?” mumbled Bucky sleepily. It had taken hours, but finally even his admirable stamina was ebbing, leaving him draped over M’Baku’s chest like a very warm, slightly bony blanket. Honestly, was the Panther Tribe not feeding the man? 

He patted clumsily at Bucky’s tangled hair. “Just thanking Hathor. It seems she is not a diminished goddess after all if her namesake can lead to a night like this.”

Bucky hummed, the happy sound vibrating against M’Baku’s chest. “Technology is so great, the future is great,” he said, and then he was asleep, and the even puffs of his breath lulled M’Baku into slumber too.

In the morning, Bucky turned solemn, his changeable eyes the color of a thawing river.

“Thank you,” he said, in that soft and low voice of his.

M’Baku wasn’t often thanked for a night of pleasure, not with such seriousness anyway. “For what?” he asked. 

Bucky rose from the bed and knelt gracefully to fetch his clothing before sitting on the bed. The bruises from their decidedly, pleasurably vigorous night were already gone, his skin a pale, clean canvas once more.

“It’s been a long time since I—since anyone—” Bucky kept his gaze averted, his tangled hair falling to cover his face. M’Baku reached out to brush it back, earning a bare twitch of a smile before Bucky took a deep breath and looked at him straight on. “I was—hurt—or, people hurt me, and—anyway. You’ve been kind. I know people aren’t always, with this kind of thing. So thank you.”

The admission, elided as it was, was like a fisherman’s hook catching in M’Baku’s heart and tugging, as if his heart was being reeled in with such patient gentleness that he almost didn’t feel the pain. Looking at Bucky now, at the quiet bravery of his openness, M’Baku thought that hook and line would stay lodged in his heart for some time. Ah, well. If he was going to be reeled in, he wouldn’t thrash about, lodging the hook in deeper and more cruelly. He would wait, and hope to be caught in a gentle hand, then released.

“You are very welcome,” said M’Baku, because the moment was too heavy to make light of, even if M’Baku wanted to win another laugh out of Bucky. The sweetly shy kiss on the cheek that Bucky gave him was a fair alternative though.

“I gotta go,” said Bucky with a smile.

“I should go too,” he said, thinking of the trip back up the mountain, and began pulling his own clothes on. Having two hands, he managed it quicker than Bucky, so he asked, “May I?” and, once Bucky nodded, helped him with his clothes. 

He settled the shawl carefully over the metal socket of Bucky’s left shoulder as Bucky attempted to finger comb his hair into some semblance of order. Someone must have put his hair up for him yesterday, M’Baku realized. He couldn’t do so with just one hand. So he fetched the bright blue woven hair tie from where they’d discarded it the night before, and pulled Bucky’s hair back for him. He received a smiling kiss in thanks.

They left the guesthouse together, and parted on the street, both of them heading in different directions. M’Baku doubted this would be the last he’d see of White Wolf. If it was though, at least it would be a bright memory. And if it wasn’t—well, if the wolf had caught him with a lucky line, M’Baku could tug back.