When the dusting of snow covering T’Challa’s face shivers with his last long exhalation of breath, Shuri stares at the white expanse and waits, traces the cracks in the hastily assembled shroud covering her brother as she waits, desperately, until her eyes blur, her vision dulls, and her heart empties.
Her mother wails beside her, she thinks, but she cannot be sure, is not sure of anything until Nakia’s shaking hands carefully clear the cold powder from his face, until her mother leans forwards and lifts him into her arms, struggling with the limp heaviness of her son’s body.
Body, her numb mind prompts, unnecessarily. T’Challa’s not there anymore. That’s just his body.
The truth she lives now is the same as the one she had lived hours ago, as the one she had lived in and with five minutes ago, but it feels crueller.
Heavy, she thinks, as her big strong brother falls from her mother’s grief-weakened arms, as her mother collapses onto his body.
Corpse, her mind corrects, clear and accurate as always, and then showing its usual good judgement, it slows until it stops, refuses to process any more of the world-ending catastrophe unfolding in front of her.
But the world doesn’t end just because it should, and behind her M’Baku says, “At least now we know.”
“What?” she asks.
They’ll have to bury him, now. It has been fifty-six days since they buried her father, not that she’s been counting.
“That he was not Wakanda’s rightful ruler,” M’Baku says.
“What!” Shuri demands, springing to her feet, Nakia solid and warm at her back.
Cold, her mind suggests.
M’Baku doesn’t back down in the face of her anger, though Ross stumbles trying to avoid it. She had forgotten he was there.
Her mother’s quieting sobs underscore M’Baku’s words as he says, “Bast refused him deliverance from Anubis.” To, she thinks. Bast delivered him to Anubis. “She has made her decision.”
“No.” She isn’t usually this fierce, she doesn’t think, but the rage inside her chest is clawing to get out.
“She rejected his challenge,” he points out, as her mother’s voice rises to direct, “We have to bury him, we have to prepare—“
“Not now,” Shuri snaps. She isn’t usually this rude, either. She can’t deny either of their claims, though, much as she wants to.
“Sorry, what does that—“ Ross starts, before M’Baku’s elbow winds him back to silence.
“She has chosen her champion.”
“No!” Shuri shouts, because that she can deny, that she will always deny. “She has rejected T’Challa, yes, but I refuse to believe she means to choose our—“ She chokes on the words, on the very thought. “—that man to lead Wakanda.”
“What ma—“ Ross begins, and the meeting of his stomach and M’Baku’s elbow is not as gentle this time.
M’Baku’s voice is, almost, when he says, “He beat your brother in fair combat. The mantle is his.”
“It cannot be,” Nakia protests, though this was what she had wanted, wasn’t it? A pioneer. A ruler who would challenge their kingdom’s comfortable inertia. That was something her brother had never been, really, a challenger. Challenged, too much, unfairly so, but—
“M’Baku,” her mother appeals, “you can—“
She knows his answer before he shakes his head. He had fallen to T’Challa, and had accepted the honourable defeat for the sake of his people; it would be foolish for him to challenge the man to whom T’Challa fell, and M’Baku is no fool.
“I refuse to accept this,” Shuri says. “I refuse.”
M’Baku’s eyes leave her mother and return to hers as he asks, mildly, “Then what are you going to do about it?”
He refuses to relinquish her gaze as she thinks, as she calculates, as her mind whispers cold as her feet scuff the snow that surrounds them. She isn’t: the fury that burns inside her could keep her warm until Necropolis itself was nothing but ashes.
“First,” she decides, “I’m going to get you to take us to Winter.”
“Sorry, to where?” Ross inquires politely, and M’Baku lets him, probably because he wants to know too. “Isn’t all this snow already your nation’s version of—“
“Not where,” Shuri says, rolling her eyes. “Who.”
And she leads them outside, away from the cold, away from her brother and all the rest of the parts of herself she had never imagined she would have to leave behind.
Shuri knows she should have told everyone about Sergeant Barnes’ presence before they reached the lake, but it’s a complex situation, difficult to explain, and since T’Challa is no longer here they’re probably going to blame her for it. And try to talk her out of her plan. And panic. And complain. Really, she just didn’t want to listen to any complaining. Nobody has time for that.
“Okay, go in,” she tells Nakia, and then decides, “Wait, no, come in after me.”
T’Challa would be annoyed with her if she let anybody accidentally kill Sergeant Barnes out of surprise, and everyone with her is very good at killing people, so it’s likely enough to happen.
She considers the group, and asks, “Agent Ross, will you escort my mother inside?” He murmurs his agreement and takes Ramonda’s arm, and when Ramonda begins moving towards the doorway she adds, “At the back of the group, please,” and ducks into the hut, ignoring her mother’s narrowed eyes and suspicious, “Why, Shuri? What don’t you want me to see?”
She wants her mother to see Sergeant Barnes, she just doesn’t want her to hurt him, and her mother is exceptionally good at hurting people, as she is at most things. Not science, though. Science has always been Shuri’s alone.
“Please don’t over-react,” she calls, because she always hopes, even when she knows better.
Ramonda’s curious suspicion hurries things along, and soon the small hut is filled to bursting with people pressing forward to get a better view of Barnes. Her mother uses Nakia’s shoulder to hoist herself up so she can see past M’Baku’s furs, and makes a disgusted noise in her throat.
“Calm down, he’s unconscious,” Shuri says.
“I don’t care if he’s unconscious,” Ramonda replies, deeply annoyed. “He still shouldn’t be here.”
There’s silence for a moment while everyone stares down at Barnes crossly, and then M’Baku turns to her and asks, “Where do you keep getting these white boys?”
Shuri tries to respond, but her mother interrupts, “And why?” with the intensely judgemental tone that only she possesses.
“White boy?” Ross pipes up from the back, because he’s too small to use Nakia’s shoulder to see over M’Baku.
“I know!” Ramonda agrees, taking Ross’ words for censure, and Shuri tries to settle things down by offering, “He’s not mine. He’s T’Challa’s.”
But, “What,” Nakia asks, eyes wide, voice flat and angry, and then things really kick off.
“Stop shouting,” Ross hisses again, because hope does spring eternal, as Shuri well knows, and apparently he thinks one of them might pay attention to him if he repeats himself for the dozenth time. “You’ll wake him up.”
Shuri takes pity on him. “He’s not asleep, idiot,” she tells him. “He’s unconscious. We can’t wake him up.”
“Even so—“ Ross says, because she suspects he is not a fan of confrontation, and is perhaps developing a headache.
Shuri herself is not a fan of shouting, because the only thing people who shout ever hear is their own voice, and it is hers that should be heard, here.
“We should take him to the border and leave him at the doors of the nearest hospital,” Nakia says again, and Shuri is halfway through rolling her eyes to heaven when her mother decides, “No. That’s too much trouble.”
“Yes,” Shuri agrees happily, because if laziness will get her what she needs she’ll take it.
She’s about to explain the next step in her plan when her mother nods in agreement and says, “We’ll just kill him where he lies.”
“Yes, and then—wait, no,” Shuri says.
“Yes,” Ross agrees brightly. “Before he wakes up and kills us all.”
Even Shuri is lost for words when confronted with that level of stupidity, but Ross just keeps nodding happily, apparently taking their silence to mean they share his fear.
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” he explains. “If we don’t stop shouting he’s going to climb out of his sickbed and kill every last one of us just to get us to shut up, if he even needs any kind of reason at all.” He catches M’Baku’s eye, and then gets distracted. “He’d probably kill you with your wolf fur,” he suggests, like that’s the thing that’s distracting about M’Baku, and then adds, earnestly, “The Winter Soldier can kill anybody with anything.”
M’Baku, Nakia and her mother scoff as one.
“Nobody is killing any of us,” her mother instructs sternly, throwing a gimlet eye Ross’ way, and smiling when he quails under her patronising stare.
“Shuri already told you he is unconscious,” Nakia says, with almost as much condescension as her mother.
“We do not have wolves in Wakanda,” M’Baku corrects. “This is a gorilla skin.”
“Do you actually think one half-dead little boy like that could step to me?” her mother asks, tone creeping towards the honestly offended. “He only has one arm!”
“I know Americans are familiar with the medical concept of unconsciousness,” Nakia says. “Please do try and keep up.”
“Do you have neither wolves nor gorillas in your nation?” M’Baku asks, his sympathy for America’s deprivations warring with the group’s burgeoning belief that Ross really is an idiot. “Or is that just something else that you don’t know, like how consciousness works?”
“No,” Ross splutters indignantly.
“No,” Shuri tells them all.
“I know what uncon—“
“The Winter Soldier is not going to kill any of us.”
“Oh, he definitely—“
“Sergeant Barnes is going to help me kill N’Jadaka.”
Blessed silence falls while the group considers this.
“Sorry, who?” Ross asks.
“N’Jadaka,” she says, because she can think that part of his name, if not the rest. Son of— her mind prompts. Son.
Son, like T’Challa, who had seen their father again, who could have asked for an explanation, could have demanded one, if they had known. T’Challa had never been a challenger, but maybe he would have challenged their father, over something so important. Shuri wishes she knew whether he would have.
She hopes. Shuri always hopes.
“That wasn’t really my question,” Ross clarifies.
“Do you really think this man would be enough?” M’Baku asks, turning slowly towards the hut that houses Barnes. “Is this one right that he might be strong enough to kill one of Bast!”
His leap backwards sends him crashing into Shuri, but she manages to steady them before they tumble to the ground in a tangled heap. His gorilla skin is warm against her cheek as she helps him regain his footing. It’s really rather nice to experience some warmth and softness on a day that’s been filled with so much coldness and pain, and M’Baku’s skin is as smooth as his body is strong, and M’Baku is really very—
“I thought you said he was unconscious!” M’Baku accuses, voice shooting higher than she’s ever heard it.
Their heads whip around.
“He was supposed to be!” she defends.
“I told you!” Ross cries, vindicated. “I told you he was going to—“ He breaks off, rethinking his words, obviously afraid of giving the Sergeant ideas. “—wake up and join us. For some tea.” He clears his throat. “Do you have tea in Wakanda?”
“How long have you been there?” Nakia asks. Her mother obviously wants to know that too, judging from the way her hand is creeping towards her hip, on its way to one of her weapons.
“Wait, no, that’s a stupid question—“ Ross realises. “Do you have lavender tea? This man needs to relax.”
“We all need to relax,” Shuri says.
“Were you listening to our confab?” Nakia demands. “That’s rude.”
"We need this man to relax,” Ross continues.
“Sergeant Barnes has been recovering under my care,” Shuri reminds them all. “And look! He is recovered! I am even more talented and efficient than we all knew.”
Four heads turn to look at her sceptically; Barnes’ placid stare doesn’t waver. Her mother’s hand doesn’t stop moving.
“Mother,” she protests, frustrated.
“What?” her mother asks, eyes wide. “Somebody has to take care of business.”
“Yes,” Shuri agrees. “Me.” When she smiles at Barnes, the corners of his lips rise. “Sergeant,” she greets, and waits to see if he’s shaken off the haze of healing enough to respond to the title.
“Call me Bucky,” he says, and walks towards her to gaze out at the melting gold of the sun as it glints off the water of the lake. He stays a good two metres away from her mother, and keeps Shuri between them, because he’s no dummy. That’s going to work out well for her, she thinks.
“Bucky,” she says. “We have a lot to talk about.”
As it turns out, Bucky is much more sensible than the rest of her ridiculous friends, but wise counsel turns out not to be the best development for the survival of her plan to rush back to the palace and slaughter N’Jadaka where he stands, cackling triumphantly as she bathes in rivers of his blood before finally allowing herself to fall to her knees and sob her heart out as everyone but her mother politely pretends they cannot see her.
She had thought it a solid enough battle plan for her first, but, “Wait,” Bucky says. “Far be it from me to suggest that trauma caused by the death of a loved one is at all incapacitating to reason and sense, but wasn’t it just last week that your brother was prowling around clawing his way through half of Europe and threatening to tear the rest apart too because of his grief over your father’s death?”
“No,” Shuri says, not at all sulkily. “That was like two months ago, keep up.”
“Ah,” Bucky says, and hums thoughtfully. “So things have quietened down, maybe gotten a little boring, and in your grief you’ve decided that causing maximum chaos might offer a little distraction. I mean, I get that, but surely there’s a way to do it without destabilising an entire nation and risking upsetting your poor mother again.”
“Well,” Ramonda inserts judiciously, “I would only be upset if she died. If she beat N’Jadaka, retook Wakanda, and squashed that dung beetle under her heel as she avenged her brother’s death, I would be very pleased and proud.”
Bucky flinches at the word avenged, but Shuri doesn’t have time to deal with his issues right now.
“It isn’t me that’s causing all the chaos,” she objects. “N’Jadaka’s doing that. I’m just going to put a stop to it.”
“Sorry, but I never actually got an answer on who N’Jadaka actually—“ Ross butts in, before Bucky asks, “N’Jadaka?”
“Yes,” Shuri tells him. “N’Jadaka. The outsider who killed my brother and took the throne. It is his by right now, but only until I kill him in ritual combat and take it back.”
“Oh,” Ross says, and muses, “That explains so—little.”
“I see,” Bucky says. “And who is N’Jadaka?”
“She just told us,” Ross says crossly, and Shuri nods primly in agreement. “I’ve been trying to get that answer for ages.”
“Who is this outsider that has been allowed to breach Wakanda’s borders, kill her king, and claim her throne?” Bucky asks, quiet but insistent. “Who is N’Jadaka?”
The other members of the Golden Tribe shift in discomfort behind her, but Shuri refuses to drop Bucky’s gaze as she swallows, offers, “N’Jadaka. Son of N’Jobu.”
“And who,” Bucky sighs, “is N’Jobu?”
“N’Jobu was my uncle,” she states firmly, and moves onto the relevant information, explaining, “which made N’Jadaka’s challenge for the mantle of the Black Panther and the throne of Wakanda valid. And as T’Chaka was my father, N’Jadaka will likewise be forced to accept my challenge.”
“Ah,” Bucky begins thoughtfully, “I see,” and then explodes, “Oh, come on, lady! You can’t seriously expect everyone to just ignore the fact that you’re playing out your family drama on a kingdom-ruining scale here.”
Father, her mind offers, with a flash of rubble and drifting grey dust settling in spilled blood. Avenge.
“I don’t want to—“ she starts, but she doesn’t want to use that word and make this nice boy flinch again.
“World-ending,” Nakia corrects. “N’Jadaka plans to use Wakanda’s stores of vibranium to free the African diaspora from its systemic disadvantages and bring the racial oppressors to their end.”
“Oh, God no,” Ross says.
“Okay, cool,” Bucky says. “What’s the problem, exactly?”
“I don’t want to punish N’Jadaka for killing my brother,” Shuri decides. Lie, her brain informs her, as if she doesn’t know, and flashes up T’Challa, rising, stretching to his full height from his crouch over their father’s body— “I just want to stop his plans for—“ Avenge. “—punishment.”
“Not racial oppression,” Nakia clarifies. “Racial oppressors.”
“Stop counting your black friends in your head, Agent,” M’Baku rumbles at Shuri’s side, far too amused for this situation.
“I’m not!” Ross squeaks. “I couldn’t! I have—too many to count!”
“So?” Bucky asks, “What’s the difference?”
“Well, all white people benefit from systemic oppression,” Nakia explains, “so he’s pretty much just planning on killing all white people. And as Wakanda has kept its riches, its power, its scientific brilliance and its enormous stores of the strongest and most technologically advanced metal completely hidden—”
“Right, got it,” Bucky says, and turns back to Shuri— “Why does your uncle’s son feel that he needs vengeance?”
—who feels like she might be losing control of this conversation.
“Wait, how can a metal be technologically advanced?” Ross asks.
“—they won’t even see it coming,” Nakia continues, “and since Wakanda’s people remain so thoroughly isolated—“
Shuri turns away from Barnes as her mind insists she see T’Challa, standing over their father’s body, hands red with his blood—
(Avenge.) “English doesn’t have words for it,” she tells Ross crossly. —and N’Jadaka, a child whose face she has never seen, sitting at the side of her uncle’s body, not understanding why. And she’s so angry— “And even if it did you wouldn’t understand.”
“—they won’t expect the nuclear warheads coming back our way,” Nakia finishes.
Ramona haltingly begins explaining N’Jadaka’s grudge against their family, and Shuri lets her try, because she can’t. She doesn’t understand any of it, even though N’Jadaka seems to have decided that he does now, or maybe just doesn’t care.
She doesn’t pay attention until her mother finishes, until Bucky asks, “So this really is a family thing? I mean, this selfish quest for vengeance gig. First T’Challa—“
—so angry with her brother for letting her father die, for not thinking of anything or anyone but himself afterwards, for making everything so much worse. It had been five days until he’d brought her father back to her, too late for her to be allowed see his body, though that hadn’t made a difference. She had known what decomposition looked like, and her mind hadn’t let her forget.
Her mother and Nakia break into vociferous protest, and Ross just looks stupefied, but M’Baku is silent, his eyes on her face understanding, though she doesn’t know what she’s giving away. She barely knows what it is she’s feeling.
“The point is,” Shuri says, furiously enough that even her mother falls silent. “That none of this matters. N’Jadaka has to be stopped. If he isn’t, he will bring Wakanda to ruin, and I won’t let that happen. I won’t let him hurt any more of our people, or anyone else either. Why doesn’t matter, not when what is so harmful. And we’re running out of time. So are you idiots going to help me or what?”
There’s some awkward shuffling, but she gets three mumbled assents, and a nod from Barnes, and she turns on him with a sudden rage that baffles even her.
“You don’t have to come because you think you owe it to my selfish brother,” she snarls, and oh, poor Bucky, getting just a lick of the flames she’d never let herself unleash on T’Challa, grieving as he was too. “You don’t owe him a thing. He didn’t owe you a thing, either. He was a fool to think so.”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, the side of his lip curling, twisting as it tries to decide whether to smile or frown. “I expect he was. People we love usually are.”
She gives him a minute, but he doesn’t finish his thought. “So?” she prompts impatiently. “Are you coming or not?”
“Oh!” he says. “Yeah, of course. I don’t want the world to end, I live in it too. Kind of. Maybe. I’d like to.”
“We can discuss it,” Shuri decides crisply. “Once I’m Queen.”
His smile is slow, but there’s nothing uncertain about it this time, and when she turns to M’Baku he’s smiling at her too.
“Well?” she asks.
“I can’t right now,” he replies, though his smile doesn’t fade. “I have to go to my people.”
She nods, accepting the necessity though she doesn’t want to, and is turning to Nakia to begin preparations when M’Baka’s hand on her shoulder draws her back.
“Shuri,” he says, quiet and serious. “N’Jadaka is strong. Stronger than me, than T’Challa. Stronger than you.” His fingers rise to touch the side of her head, thumb on her cheekbone. “Clever, too, when it comes to battle, though nobody’s cleverer than you. But that isn’t what matters. The why is what matters. You might not want it to matter to you, but it’s what matters most to him. Think about that. Please.”
He moves closer as his thumb draws over the soft hollow of her cheek, pressing into flesh as he nears her mouth, already drifting open in anticipation.
“Shuri!” her mother snaps.
“What!” Shuri says, springing halfway across the hut away from M’Baku for no reason at all. Her mother just startled her, that’s all.
“Just because he’s not a white boy!”
“No, what, nothing!” Shuri objects.
“He’s still the leader of an enemy tribe!”
“Not your enemy, Ramonda,” M’Baku says, bizarrely jovial.
“Hmph!” Ramonda responds, eyes narrowed and arms crossed. “We’ll see about that.”
“Okay,” Shuri huffs, and turns to get things moving. Her eyes widen in horror. “Stop looking at me!” she says, and everyone else turns to make a break for freedom at once, eventually vanishing through the door with much bumping and muttering and whispered complaining that Shuri still does not have time for.
“Bast,” she says, dropping her head to the ground, though whether in appeal or reproval only Bast herself knows.
“I know,” her mother agrees. “She has sent me such a trial with you!”
“Okay, let’s go,” Shuri says, grabbing Ramonda’s arm and towing her towards the door.
And it isn’t as if Shuri needs to be reminded to think about unpleasant things, those pink tigers her mind always eventually forces her to confront and process purely because she doesn’t want to deal with them. But M’Baku is a skilled warrior, that was a strategic tip, and she hates N’Jadaka too much to consider his motivations without a hard push, even if the importance of knowing your enemy had been drilled into both of T’Chaka’s children since they were old enough to hold a dagger.
Plus, she thinks M’Baku might be worried about her, though she isn’t sure whether to be flattered or insulted by that.
Hesitating on the threshold, Shuri glances back over her shoulder. “I’ll think about it,” she says, and watches M’Baku’s smile blaze back to life as she hurries onwards.