Chapter 2: The Royal Couple
For the first time in its glorious history, the nation of Wakanda teeters on the brink of collapse, reeling from famine, pestilence, diseased crops and worst of all, a culture poisoned by outside influence.
Once a proud warrior nation, Wakanda has betrayed its heritage of ten thousand years. Has allowed its vision to stray from the shining pathway of destiny. Has been abandoned by its so-called 'rulers' and left to suffer at the hands of the witch who shared the bed of our former king. No crime is more heinous than that of allowing evil to flourish. The time for such sinful idleness has passed. The Desturi have returned peace and order to our land and all that remains is to expunge the last traces of foreign corruption.
Memories of her 'trial' echoed in Ororo's head. The loathsome voice of the Desturi leader pounded against her temporal lobe, reminding her that no place, not even Wakanda, was without people who hated and feared those who were different from themselves.
Ororo tried to clear her mind of the days, weeks, and months that led her to this moment. So much had happened, too much to hold inside, too much to reconcile in one day. Her heart dropped at what she was considering doing just as she soared through the darkening gray skies above Wakanda.
The wind goddess levitated on the air currents, absorbed in the beauty and tranquility of her humbling surroundings. The clouds shifted and parted, granting her access to their little piece of heaven, welcoming her home, a home that was safe, trustworthy, rejuvenating.
Ororo cleared her thoughts and saw only the elements in their most natural form. The electrons, protons, and neutrons danced for her, their streaks of effervescent energy galloping, trotting, and swimming along her spine, embedded in every molecule that comprised her unique body. Her eyes shone white, her majestic hair wading in the air like a dove of the soul—peace, gentleness, purity.
Mindlessly, Ororo floated miles away from the palace and the bustling of Wakanda's central city. She landed in a calm, grassy field of white and yellow wildflowers, Goliath size trees—strong and protective— and an idyllic river of stone paths. Ororo solemnly made her way along a perfectly angled path with gray, black, and white finely laden stones to a rectangular building.
The building was erected at the apex of a hill from which a discreet valley, the lush green and brown home of small, furry creatures, and a narrow brook with its knee deep, tepid water could be respectfully admired. And when the sun rose in the morning, its' bright, forgiving rays illuminated the body of the Panther God statues guarding the entrance to the mausoleum.
Eight marble columns and one granite door led the way to the internment space, an ancient Wakanda spear and shield carved on the stone slab at the entrance. Ororo knelt on the slab, whispered a prayer to Bast, stood, and gently opened the door and went inside.
An hour later, Ororo exited the sanctuary, feeling more at peace than when she'd entered.
"I thought I would find you here."
She knew the voice instantly, although the owner of the deep, baritone vocals was nowhere to be seen.
"Is this where you were last night, visiting S'Yan's final resting place?"
Ororo pulled the door gently behind her, sealing in the dead, allowing them to find their hereafter with the gods of old.
"It's a strangely peaceful place. Besides," she said, walking down the hill and to a bench conveniently placed under a fully bloomed Baobab tree, "your uncle was a good man. He didn't deserve to die at the hands of a madman. He survived being the Black Panther only to succumb to a lunatic."
"You feel guilty about his death?"
"If you want to speak with me, T'Challa, please come down from that tree," she said, unwilling to have this conversation with only the air as a visual.
Ororo heard nothing but felt the slightest movement in the air, and then he was beside her on the bench.
She looked at him then, his strong chin and broad nose, his lips, full and smiling, and his brown eyes, shadowed with regret . . . fear. He knew. Bright Lady, he knew.
T'Challa reached for Ororo's right hand with his left, taking it in his own and bringing it to his lips. He kissed the back and then the palm before resting it securely on his thigh.
"I love you," he said, shifting to his left to see her more fully, her hand warm in his sweaty palm. He was nervous, she thought. T'Challa was never nervous.
She said nothing, her throat tight, mouth dry. It was the truth and she loved him too. But that changed nothing. She needed to do this, if they were to make it out of the dark, bleak tunnel they now found themselves.
"I know," Ororo finally said and she heard him suck in a breath of air, waiting for her to return the sentiment, the way she always did. She said nothing and he involuntarily gripped her hand tighter, a drowning victim holding on to a half-inflated life preserver.
"So, where are you going?" he asked, releasing her hand and standing. He started to pace, around and around in a small dizzying circle.
"Not far. Kenya, to visit my grandmother, she's quite worried about me. The last news report she heard was of my death sentence. Naturally, she wishes to assure herself that I'm fine."
"I see," T'Challa said, never losing step, his eyes focused on the ground, his body tense, anxious. "For how long?"
"A week, maybe two," she answered, wishing he would stop pacing and sit back down. But he needed to move, do something to focus his mind and energy on something other than the fact that his wife was, in essence, taking a break from their marriage. One, he clearly didn't agree with, blamed himself for.
"I didn't see any other way, Ororo," he stated firmly, suddenly halting his cadence and returning to the bench. This time, however, he straddled it, his entire body facing his wife's side. Ororo also turned, leaning back against the sturdy tree, pulling her legs to her chest.
"The nanites had a self-destruct feature to them. I was afraid if I told you and you tried to manipulate your body to destroy the invaders, you would accidentally trigger the mechanism."
Again, he spoke the truth. But did it really matter?
"Or," she said methodically, "you could do nothing and allow Doom to think his plan was working perfectly, that you had no idea about the nanites, that you were a broken man whose pride had been battered beyond repair."
And that was a secondary truth. She didn't need the words, Ororo knew her shrewd husband all too well.
"I wouldn't have given a damn about my plan if I could've gotten those things out of you safely, Ororo. Yes, I wanted to lure Doom into the open and all his Wakandan spies, but I would've come up with something else if I could've safely rid you and everyone else of those damn nanites."
"I do believe that to be the case, T'Challa. But it is also the case," she said, pinning him with a knowing glare, "that once you realized you couldn't safely remove the nanites that you and Shuri put your minds together to figure out the best way to use everyone else's contamination to your benefit, to lure Doom from his black hole."
"That's true," he admitted, not that she needed his confirmation. T'Challa let out a deep breath and scooted closer to his wife, her raised legs yet another barrier between them. "If it wasn't the nanites, Ororo, if would've been something else, I couldn't foil one semi-known plot only to open Wakanda up to another attack I may not have been able to foresee."
And that was the truth as well. And damn all of his truths and damn his logic. Everything did not have to be so logical, so black and white. There were no contingency plans for the heart. What was his contingency plan for their marriage? Once Wakanda was saved from the likes of Doom and the Desturi, what of them, what of her?
And this was where they differed, where they parted ways in philosophy and strategy. He was the constant cost-benefit calculating genius, where one plus one always equaled two and there was no room for probability. Whereas, she was more fluid in her thinking, moved to action by her heart and soul, where one plus one could equal three or zero as long as it solved the problem.
"You know I would give my life for you, Ororo. There is nothing I wouldn't do for you, beloved. Even if you didn't go to limbo and back for me, I would still sacrifice all that I am for you. You're the absolute best part of me, my soul, my conscience, my white lioness."
Ororo's heart nearly stopped at those blatantly honest words. She knew T'Challa wasn't trying to charm her, but his melodious voice invariably had that effect when he took on that low, soft bedroom tone.
"But you would sacrifice me for Wakanda," she heard herself saying.
He hesitated and looked away. A minute later, he turned back to her, his expression grave. "Yes." That was it, a simple three-letter word. And it hung between them like a decaying corpse, strung on a tree for all to witness and mourn, its flesh rotting and foul-smelling.
Of course, T'Challa would place Wakanda above her. He was bred to do so. She was but one to the thousands of people who called Wakanda home. He may have loved her, his wife, but he had a responsibility to every Wakandan man's wife, children, and parents. And that responsibility didn't end when his plane went down and his legs refused to hold his weight. If anything, it made him more determined, more rigid, more distant.
But she couldn't truly begrudge him. In fact, he wouldn't be her T'Challa if he didn't put his people above his own needs and wants, but that acknowledgment took none of the sting out of it.
"There were so many times," he began when the silence grew and spread wings, "when I wanted to tell you all. It was extremely difficult for me to be in the same room with you and not open my heart, my soul. I felt wretched each time you tried to reach out and console me, not understanding why I had withdrawn into my shell."
T'Challa took a chance and touched the arms around Ororo's legs. He ran a gentle finger from her bare wrist to her elbow and back again. Up and down he went, his light touch playing across her cinnamon skin, sending small shivers of pleasure through her, an old but familiar sensation. She wanted to move, to put space between them, but his touch, his eyes, kept her spellbound, firmly rooted to the bench.
"There were many times I came to you," he said.
"When?" Ororo asked, for there were endless days in which she nor Ramonda knew where he had gotten off to. T'Challa had long since stop coming to their bedchamber, preferring to sleep elsewhere. And even that, Ororo had no idea where he laid his head at night. During one of her darker, more insecure moments, she envisioned him in the arms of one of his Dora Milaje. These "wives in waiting," were bred and trained to be the king's consorts. They were acceptable to the people of Wakanda; whereas, she was not—an outsider, a mutant witch. And during one of these weak moments, her blood would burn fiery hot with unfounded jealousy.
"When you slept," T'Challa clarified, his fingers still mapping her arm with tender ministrations. "I would enter after you had fallen asleep. Your face was so beautiful, unguarded," he said, reaching up to touch the object of his affection, but he stilled his hand—uncertain.
Ororo caught the hesitation, frowned, and wondered if she would have turned away from him, the way he clearly feared she would. The way she had yesterday, on the balcony, when he had sought only to touch her leg, to bring her closer to him both physically and emotionally.
"There were so many nights I would lie awake in our bed and pray for you to come to me. For you to put aside your fears and pride and let me help you, but you never did."
Ororo felt an indescribable rush of bile and she abruptly pushed at his chest, hurt giving way to anger, moving his solid frame with the force of her arms alone.
"Damn you, T'Challa, and your pride," she said, and then pushed him again. Ororo stood unsteadily, balancing herself against the solid tree, not giving two cents with T'Challa's shocked expression at her physical assault, admittedly a mild one, but still.
"You, Logan, Scott, even Hank. Pride will be the death of you all and the sanity of the women who love you. Pride can be a double edge sword," she said. "When will you ever learn that? It can only take you so far. We're supposed to be a team, this marriage a partnership," she wailed, thunder beginning to roll a mile off the horizon.
"I know," T'Challa said weakly, but she didn't seem to hear him, too caught up in her mild bout of hysteria.
"I swear, T'Challa, sometimes you make we want to —''
"You're right," he said more forcefully, standing and grabbing her by the waist.
Startled, Ororo's blue eyes widened at their close proximity. "What?" she muttered, captured by the serene depths of his seal brown eyes, the long lashes accentuating their power over her mind, her heart.
"I said, you're right, Ororo."
Goddess, she'd never heard his voice so thick with contrition. Its honey sweet scent lingered above them, the air humid with its taste.
"Too much pride made me visit Namor without telling you or anyone else. Too much pride made me risk permanent paralysis by pushing my body way too hard, way too soon after the plane crash. Too much pride left me open to emotional blackmail."
Ororo knew he was referring to the little cat and mouse game between he and Doom in the vibranium vault. Doom had already secured the precious metal but T'Challa was unaware of that fact. Doom asked T'Challa to choose between the one item that kept his country independent and free from external controls for thousands of years and his queen. T'Challa's silence was his answer—vibranium the choice.
"I didn't think there was any way Doom could enter the vault, not with the Panther God standing in his way. So, I refused to play his little mind game. He was bluffing. I knew he had no intention of killing you. I could smell his lie as surely as I can smell the traces of peppermint oil on your body. He was taunting me, taunting you. He wanted to destroy me completely, by taking my country, my vibranium, and finally, my wife."
T'Challa's hold on Ororo tightened, and he pulled her even closer. Every part of their bodies, save their faces were touching, his breath hot, sweat glistening shiny and wet on his forehead and nose.
"With the help of very good friends, I've managed to save my country, but lose our edge in the world. The vibranium is all but gone. One out of three," he said. "Will I eventually lose two out of the three?" he asked, his fingers digging into her back and waist, not painful, but possessive, yes, very possessive.
And her voice was gone, evaporated with the heat of his love, the fire of his silent, desperate plea.
"Don't go, don't leave me," he whispered, his voice but a cry of help along a wavelength from his mouth to her heart.
T'Challa hugged her to him then, one hand at the small of her back, the other at the nape of her neck. He pillowed his face in the crook of her neck, and said, "I'm so very sorry, Ororo. I never meant to hurt you. In all other things, beloved, you come first. But Wakanda is my home, my responsibility, my legacy to our children and grandchildren. I don't always know how to ask for help or even how to accept it. But," he said, moving his left hand from her neck to her hair, gently caressing, "I put my pride aside when I went to the X-Men for help in saving you, something I would have never ever considered."
It was the truth. She wondered what it must have taken for him to humble himself to such a state. A king, a Black Panther, a man of genius going to a band of misfits, outlaws to some, asking them to help him reclaim what he'd lost, what he was sworn to protect, to honor, to cherish. Those were their vows. And in his own way, the way that only another man could truly comprehend, he had upheld them.
"I need time," Ororo said, her voice crackling with repressed tears.
She held him then too, her long, toned arms reaching up to encircle his neck. Then they simply held each other. Held onto the commitment they had made to each other and their God. Held onto the memory of new, young love, and years of separation in which they both came into their own. Held onto hope for the future and their children who would call Wakanda home, because their parents had fought to make it home to everyone— including mutants.
"I'll give you all the time you need, just come back. Promise me you'll come back, Ororo."
The dam broke then, her tears pooling and dropping like a dusting of sprinkles on a parched Los Angeles lawn.
"I will, I promise," Ororo said, pulling back to look at her husband. And to her surprise, she wasn't the only one with a wet face.
"I love you," T'Challa said. "With all my heart, from this lifetime into the next, that'll never change."
And without pausing or thinking, Ororo said, "I love you as well, T'Challa, on this plane of existence and any other, that'll never change."
And it was true. Today was full of truths. Truths that needed to be spoken, truths that needed to be heard. And out of the darkness came the light, the light of hope, the light of rebirth, the light of forgiveness.
All right, I feel a little better and, hopefully, so do you. Alas, Maberry did our couple a real disservice and I had a somewhat difficult time trying to cover some of my personal "issues" with the mini. I hope I captured and addressed them in a reasonable manner that was character driven. Let me know what you think.