Chapter 2: Corralled Hearts
A soothing hum of magnetic energy pulsed quietly inside Ororo, each thump of elemental awareness steadily increasing, pulling her from her slumber until it crowed as loudly as any rooster on a Texas farm.
Sunrays sneaked in from a slither of revealed space between the hastily drawn green stripped curtains. Between Ororo's internal clock, the relentless path of sunlight casually flooding her right side, and the smell of . . .?
Slowly, Ororo opened her groggy, blue eyes, hands coming up to rub them, then push pearl colored hair off her forehead and out of her supple, brown face.
The stomach-growling scent was still there, not her not-yet-awake olfactory system misfiring. She did indeed smell a wonderful confluence of flavors, the rumbling in her stomach true and impatient.
Rising, her oversized T-shirt fell into her lap, a scent from the cotton shirt so delicious it had the power to drown out all the others, eliciting more than a growling stomach demanding to be fed. No, this smell pulled at a part of Ororo much deeper and fragile than a mere morning hunger. Yet she did hunger, but not for food, her rebellious mind threatened to be corralled by her cowboy of a sentimental heart.
And the slow circling of wagons began last night after she and T'Challa had retired to their separate rooms. Two hours later and still restless, Ororo decided to take a cool shower, her mind full of her husband's unexpected visit and his sixty-day, divorce on hold proposal.
She smiled, shaking her head as she remembered finding T'Challa's black T-shirt folded neatly on the marble bathroom sink counter. Ororo hadn't noticed it when she'd first entered. But it shone like a shooting star when she pulled back the shower curtain, cool, refreshing water soaking her, eyes scanning the modest bathroom for a towel. And there it was, her eyes, then hands inexplicitly drawn to the innocuous garment.
Ororo looked down at herself and grimaced. She wore her husband's T-shirt, the familiar aroma too much for her to resist. And the fact that she'd been able to fall into a deep, peaceful sleep after donning it and returning to bed, was a thorny path of emotional self-reflection she wasn't quite ready to have with herself. And damned if she'd let T'Challa know. Not even a day into the agreement and she'd already swathed herself in his irresistible masculine scent.
Then Ororo's stomach grumbled again, reminding her of another irresistible scent, or rather scents. Standing, Ororo's bare feet met solid hardwood flooring, and she walked to the small table, knowing the Spiderlegs red mahogany card table and matching chair, before her, belonged in her grandmother's quaint library, not sitting prettily in front of the casement window in her bedroom.
But Ororo ignored that with a mental shrug, lifted her hands, pulled back the curtains, then used the metal crank to open the window, the glass swinging out like a door. The air smelled of the citrus trees that grew heavy, thick, and green, Ororo's room overlooking her grandmother's backyard garden.
With the curtains pulled to the side and the window open, the sun shown even brighter, the entire room illuminated in its morning glory, warmth and contentment following, making Ororo feel one with herself.
Every morning had been like this for Ororo once coming to stay with her grandmother three months ago. The room she now claimed as her own once belonged to her mother. It had taken Ororo a very long time to muster the courage to enter, and even longer to sleep within its supportive embrace. Now, she couldn't imagine awaking in any other room of the old but well-maintained house.
This placed belonged to her and she to it, the land and the people. And while Ororo wasn't born or raised here, her unfathomable connection transcended such pointless realities, the bond of kinship knowing no such trivialities.
Yet not until she'd spent uninterrupted time in the ancient land of her mother's birth did Ororo begin to understand, if only slightly, how deeply Wakanda ran in T'Challa's heart, soul. But those were thoughts for another day, perhaps a conversation she and T'Challa could have during their sixty-days together. The thought of having his undivided attention for the next two months filled Ororo with a wary joy.
One day at a time, Ororo. One day at a time. Let's first see what King T'Challa has brought as an offering to the Temple of Ororo.
She laughed, feeling like a smitten teenager again, then returned her attention to the card table and the contents sitting atop its glossy finish.
Uji, a thin porridge Ororo had developed a taste for sat steaming on the side of the table, next to a carafe of what smelled like chai spiced tea. Both traditional breakfast items in the east African country, Ororo's maternal ancestral home, the small, remote village thousands of years old, her grandmother queen to Ororo's princess.
Beside the empty teacup, waiting to be filled, was a rose lined plate heaped full of sliced mangoes, watermelon, and avocadoes. And in the center of the array of items was a single Euphoria flower, as exotically orange and red as a Kalahari sunset.
Finally, she noticed a folded note propped in front of the tray.
Good morning, beloved,
May this breakfast fill and give you strength.
Prepare to be courted by your king, your husband, your eternal mate.
Day one of infinity.
Refolding the note, Ororo sat down to enjoy the meal, refusing to let the tears fall. It was only the first day and T'Challa could be a charmer. Ororo already knew that, so why did she feel her heart being pulled in two? like she was unworthy of the gesture.
Sipping the spicy brew, Ororo knew the answer, and what needed to be done. She had to set things right with Abasi, clear the foul air she'd created with their ill-advised kiss. How could she accept T'Challa's courting in good conscience with that still hanging over both their heads? Simply put, she couldn't.
Having settled on a plan of action, Ororo felt better, lighter. She would give T'Challa his sixty days, using that same time to make amends for that stupid kiss, knowing no matter how sincere his proposal had been his pride and faith in her had taken a big hit. That was inexcusable and one Ororo couldn't let stand.
An hour and a half later Ororo was dressed and standing in her grandmother's kitchen. Alone. It was nine-thirty and her grandmother was normally engaged in village business, tending to one concern or another, her spaciously bright kitchen an informal gathering place. Yet she was conspicuously missing, as was T'Challa, his bedroom door open, room vacant, house drearily quiet.
Ororo glanced down at her watch. Abasi's clinic would open in an hour. It was a mere twenty-minute walk, but if Ororo flew, she'd get there in less than five. And she really wanted to get there and back before T'Challa or her grandmother returned from wherever they'd gotten off to so early in the morning. And it would give her enough time to speak quickly with Abasi before his first patient arrived.
She glanced at the empty kitchen again, suddenly grateful no one was home, for she hadn't exactly figured out how to slip away unnoticed. Now she wouldn't have to.
Feeling relieved, Ororo opened the back door that led to the garden, and ran smack into Abasi.
The good doctor, with surprisingly fast reflexes, caught her by the shoulders, preventing a head-on collision.
"That was close," he said with a laugh Ororo had never heard before. It held a hint of anxiety, nervousness, feelings he'd never exhibited around her before. But they had never kissed before last night either. Nor had she ever run from him. Although, the way she scurried away last night had less to do with him per se than the overpowering need to flee the scene of a horrible crime.
"Abasi," Ororo said with a wan smile as nervous as his laugh. "I was just on my way to see you. I thought we needed to—"
"Talk," he finished, removing his hands from her shoulders. "I think that would be an excellent idea. Shall we sit?" He moved to his left, allowing her to walk past him and to the black, cast aluminum butterfly bench placed decorously and conveniently between the two citrus trees.
They sat, each silently taking the furthest most position, leaving the middle open. No matter the awkward, unspoken intention, the bench was barely eight feet in length, meaning they were still rather close. The bench meant to lazily accommodate one, or to intimately hold two.
Ororo watched as Abasi took two deep breaths, his wide nostrils expanding on the release, newly formed locks neat against his head, eyes Ororo knew to be brown cast down at long surgeon's fingers that gently—albeit worriedly—fidgeted with the hem of his button-down, gray collared shirt.
Feeling awful about her actions the night before, Ororo sought to fill the oppressive silence. "I apologize for running off the way I did last night. I" –Goddess this was difficult—"should have never accepted your kiss. I was in no position to accept or return such an intimate overture. If I gave you the impression that I was . . . that I wanted you to—"
Goddess, how do unfaithful women do it? I can't imagine living with the guilt, the immorality of living a double life. And for what? A moment of pleasure? A second of revenge? A lifetime of regret.
"You're a very nice man, Abasi, and while T'Challa and I may be separated, he's still my husband, and that kiss last night was inexcusable. I don't know what I was thinking, but it can and will never happen again. That's just not who I am, the person I want to be. I was wrong and I most humbly apologize."
Ororo closed her eyes, seeing the aching way T'Challa looked at her when she'd returned last night. There was fury in those chocolate deep brown eyes of his, but also pain, hurt, disbelief. And she was the one who put it there, a fresh scar to add to his old scabbed-over wounds.
Although it didn't excuse her action, he'd hurt her too. An old song began to tumble around in her head, her heart, reminding Ororo that even the most loving, committed couples inevitably hurt each other. "You always hurt the one you love, the one you should not hurt at all; You always take the sweetest rose, and crush it till the petals fall; You always break the kindest heart, with a hasty word you can't recall; So if I broke your heart last night, it's because I love you most of all."
Abasi placed his hand over the one she had resting on her knee, and Ororo opened her eyes, grateful to have the opportunity to purge her soul.
The doctor opened his mouth to speak, but it wasn't his voice that echoed in the garden.
Oh no, Goddess no! Ororo thought bleakly. You couldn't possibly be this cruel.
"I told you I would have you back before ten, Nana."
"So you did, T'Challa, but you didn't have to drive me to Nairobi. I could have waited for—"
A hush descended over the garden, T'Challa entering through the privacy fence, his eyes of realization casting a cloud darker than any Ororo could ever form.
And before anyone could move or utter a word, those cold, icy eyes of T'Challa's slid from Ororo's face, down her body, and to the hand linked with Abasi's.
Belatedly, the doctor's trembling hand released Ororo, and she swore she heard his heart explode in his chest. She knew the feeling, for her own heart was suddenly pounding with a ferocity that threatened to tear through her heaving chest.
Hands that once held bags from a home furnishings store Ororo had never heard of were now empty and balled into two deadly fists, dangerously thumping against T'Challa's leg as he fought against the murderous storm brewing in his eyes.
Ororo knew she had to do something so she jumped from the bench, surprised her quivering legs held her, and said, "Dr. Abasi only stopped by to—" Ororo paused, then looked backed at Abasi, whose face was taut, eyes bulging, and realized she didn't actually know why he'd come to see her this morning. So anxious to apologize and set the record straight, Ororo hadn't given the man an opportunity to speak. And now, cast in T'Challa's intimidating shadow, Abasi appeared nothing like the competent, confident professional Ororo knew him to be.
She shook her head, turned back to face her husband, and caught her grandmother's disapproving glare. Great. Last night all over again.
"I guess you're one of those village doctors who still make house calls," T'Challa said sarcastically, taking powerful strides, quickly closing the distance between them. "Or perhaps," his voice was thick as any panther's snarl now, "you're here to claim another kiss from my wife."
"A-another k-kiss? Ah, no. N-no, not at all."
Gracious, T'Challa had already reduced the doctor to a babbling idiot and it was obvious he was rearing up for more. And just as obvious was the fact that Abasi had clearly just lied. In spite of the fact that Ororo had fled after she'd allowed him to kiss her, mumbling an inadequate apology, the man had still come here this morning with the delusion of picking of where they'd left off. This made no sense to Ororo. Then again, she reasoned, her own judgment had been just as questionable the night before. Perhaps Abasi thought she was playing hard-to-get and wanted him to work harder, seek her out, prolong the chase. After all, he had no idea T'Challa had seen them together last night. If he had, Ororo was pretty sure Abasi wouldn't have waltzed, like a man on a mission, to her grandmother's house this morning. No man was that brave, or, Ororo corrected, that insane.
"T'Challa, stop this," Ororo demanded, knowing if she'd detected Abasi's lie, T'Challa had as well.
Ororo's words went unheeded; in fact, T'Challa ignored her completely, not breaking his stride until he stood a mere five feet from them, Abasi still huddled behind her on the bench.
"Are you Catholic, doctor?" T'Challa asked, the thick vein in his forehead large and imposing.
"W-well . . . yes. I'm Catholic."
" 'You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.' " T'Challa took another step, Ororo immediately placing herself between the two, her hands going to T'Challa's hard chest, the beating of his heart surprisingly slow. Too slow.
The calm before the storm, Ororo thought, willing T'Challa with her eyes to not do something he would later regret. But he wasn't looking at her. No, his eyes had never left Abasi. Ororo glanced to her grandmother with a mouthed: Do something. And she did. Her grandmother picked up the two bags T'Challa dropped, shook her head at the pathetic scene playing out in her once tranquil garden, and went inside her house, presumably to call a priest followed by a marriage counselor.
"Wakandans have no Ten Commandments but we do have morals and values that guide our lives. Clearly, your commandments are optional or merely convenient, for you've already coveted my wife. But why stop there doctor, I can have a Wakandan ox flown in and you can covet that as well."
"Or perhaps you prefer a donkey. As a doctor I'm sure you're most fond of asses." T'Challa tried to take another step, his forward progress halted by Ororo's resolute hands. "You do like asses, don't you, Dr. Abasi? Or perhaps it's only my wife's a—"
Another gasp, but Ororo wasn't the only one shocked by what T'Challa had been about to say.
Baited, Abasi jumped to his feet, full of a prey's stupid bluster. And then he was flush against a citrus tree, gray shirt fisted in T'Challa's unrepentant hands, feet dangling inches from the ground.
Ororo had never seen T'Challa move so fast. One minute he was in front of her, permitting her to hold him back with her much weaker hands, the next he was a blur of movement, leaving Ororo standing in front of an empty bench.
Before Ororo could reach them, T'Challa had already slammed Abasi's back against the hard, unforgiving tree. He winced from the pain, his hands going up to T'Challa's shoulders, then falling slack to his side.
T'Challa leaned in close, their noses almost touching, his voice as dangerously sharp as a Navy Seal Team Knife.
"That little kiss you so coveted last night, and thought to repeat this morning, was nothing more than a momentary lapse in judgment from a woman whose ideals and sense of morality are otherwise above reproach."
"I know that now," Abasi mumbled, looking first to Ororo and then to T'Challa. Then a spark of something Ororo couldn't quite identify lit his eyes, followed by a slow, sly smile. "You can't really blame a guy for trying. She's beautiful, bright, and kind. A real sweetheart wrapped in a regal, sexy package."
A slow growl emanated from T'Challa, Abasi stupdily provoking the former Black Panther, his honest words doing more harm than good. A shake, and then another hard slam, Ororo barely having time to soften Abasi's contact with the tree, her winds just reaching him in time.
Then T'Challa's voice came again, menacing and heart breaking.
"Perhaps when you find a woman whose happiness and love means more to you than your very soul, your own beating heart, you will understand the significance of this moment, the gift I'm about to give you."
T'Challa released him. And for a moment, they all stood frozen—T'Challa by his anger, Abasi by his fear, Ororo by her shock.
"Go now," T'Challa began, the first to speak and move, "before I regret not having ripped your throat out."
And Abasi went, if possible, moving swifter than T'Challa had earlier.
Ororo watched him go, images of the time they'd spent together over the last few weeks flashing before her eyes. Every conversation pulsed through her mind, Abasi's eager smiles and attentive ears, his gentle way of coaxing more time out of her, his uncanny knack for popping up wherever she was.
And then Ororo felt like a fool, a first-class dupe. He had been working her the entire time, slowly and purposefully building her trust, creating an illusion of friendship to hide a much more carnal plan. And she'd fallen for it, mind so full of T'Challa and her heartache, she failed to see the doctor for who he truly was. Not a vile or bad man. No. But simply a man who saw what he wanted, and set out to get it.
Ororo spun around. "T'Challa, I—" He was gone.
Ten minutes later Ororo let herself into T'Challa's bedroom without knocking. He turned and scowled at her, his suitcase on his made bed, Ororo's heart suddenly jumped to her throat.
Was he leaving? Going back to Wakanda?
"You know, Ororo, doors have locks for a reason. It's impolite to break into someone's room, especially when they're in the middle of changing."
Changing? Yes, yes, she saw it now. The dark brown dashiki and matching drawstring pants he'd had on only minutes ago were folded neatly on his bed, baggy blue jean shorts and a short-sleeved, white and navy polo shirt having replaced them. Still, he looked as if he was packing, abandoning his sixty-day plan.
Squelching the fear that thought brought, Ororo tried to lighten the mood.
"I do believe, King T'Challa," she said with the best smile she could muster, "that I'm not the only one in this house proficient in breaking and entering." She took three steps further into the room, the rich blues of the walls and carpet reminding Ororo of the Caribbean Ocean at high noon. "Thank you, by the way, for breakfast. It was delicious."
A frosty, "You're welcome," was T'Challa's curt reply before he turned back to his suitcase.
Okay, Ororo, now what?
"I didn't invite him here, if that's what you think."
"I told Abasi the kiss was a mistake."
"I'm sure you did."
"Is that all you can say to me? Hell, T'Challa, you're not even looking at me. I thought you forgave me last night."
That did it. He spun and glared viciously at her.
"After what, Ororo? An apology and a few guilty tears? Have you forgiven me for running off to Hell's Kitchen and scolding you every time you tried to help me? Hell, every time you wanted to visit. Have you, Ororo?" T'Challa's arctic voice sent daggers into Ororo, chilling her to her core.
"How many times have I apologized? How many letters and flowers have I sent you? And what did you send me in return? Divorce papers. Why?" He answered his own question, Ororo opening then quickly closing her mouth. "Because you haven't forgiven me. Because while you may still love me, you don't know if you can trust me. If I'll up and leave again when things get tough."
Goddess, what could she say to that? He was right. What made her think that he would or could—in a single night— get over what she'd done simply because she offered him a sincere apology.
"If you haven't noticed, Ororo," T'Challa said, harsh lines fading into something much softer, "I'm still here. I have no intention of leaving this village without you. I meant what I said to Abasi. You're the best part of me. Only a fool would let you get away."
T'Challa reached for Ororo, nothing but tenderness and love in his gaze now. She went to him. How could she not? He was the best part of her as well.
"I may be many things, beloved, but I've never been a fool."
And neither had Ororo. She wrapped her arms around his waist, accepting her husband's strong embrace, the heat of his love surrounding her, knowing he was fighting valiantly to not allow the confrontation with Abasi to ruin his day . . . their day.
"So," Ororo said, pulling back and smiling up at T'Challa, "I'm full, dressed, and ready to be courted. What do you have planned?"
T'Challa returned Ororo's smile, all bright eyes and mischievous intent. Goddess, how she loved this man—faults and all.
"You'll see, my queen, you'll see." T'Challa grabbed her hand, sweeping her from the room and into their future.
Ororo opened the door that adjoined her bedchamber to that of the twins'. After closing the door and turning, her eyes met a very awake T'Challa. He looked at the clock radio on their nightstand, and then back at her.
"Two-thirty. She's getting better." T'Challa slid over in bed, and folded down the coverings, his intention clear.
Ororo moved to T'Challa then, smiling down at him, her memory of how they'd more than made up for a disastrous beginning of what turned out to be the most romantic and fun sixty days of Ororo's life slowly faded.
"Only two and a half hours." She slid into bed next to T'Challa, huddled snuggly against his solid, beautifully bronzed chest. "When I first started our midnight flight, it took twice that time for N'Dare to finally fall asleep."
T'Challa swept his hand through her hair, moving to the bottom of her braid, his sure fingers undoing the wind-swept design. He always preferred Ororo's hair down, especially when they made love. "I like the way it feels against my chest, curtains my face when you're astride me, taking your pleasure," he once told her.
"Where did you take her tonight?" He finished with her hair, then began a slow, sensual scalp massage.
"The Bashenga Botanical Garden, the Temple of Bast, and the mausoleum."
"Ah." That was all T'Challa said. The last leg of her journey always ended with the mausoleum, and her husband had long since given up arguing the morbid nature of taking a baby into such a solemn place. But it wasn't morbid, not to Ororo. It was a much-needed reminder of the frailty and importance of life.
For so long Ororo had been afraid of death, afraid of life, afraid of forgetting, and even more afraid of remembering. Her parents were lost to her too young, but not lost at all she'd eventually come to understand, only reformed, re-conceptualized in those that came after—Charles Xavier, Jean Grey, Kitty Pryde.
Ororo raised her head, eyes meeting that of her husband's. T'Challa, Shuri, Ramonda, and now the twins. Her life overflowed with love, with fullness, with immeasurable contentment and joy that Ororo hadn't felt since those last, silent, unassuming minutes with her parents before a burning plane ripped her world and heart apart.
"You weren't really asking for sixty days, were you?"
T'Challa leaned up and rolled Ororo onto her back, his right hand fisting in her hair, pulling Ororo's face to his. T'Challa's answer came on a whispered kiss, "No. I'm selfish. I always want more, as much as I can get."
He kissed her more thoroughly then, the air-conditioned room suddenly awash in a flash of passionate heat. Ororo tangled her arms around T'Challa's broad shoulders, pulling him ever closer, and he obliged her, settling perfectly between her welcoming thighs.
T'Challa broke the kiss and asked against her throbbing neck, "During those sixty days, when did you forgive me?"
Ororo didn't have to think about it, but she did roll T'Challa over, pleased to hear a shocked moan when she reversed the power dynamics in their bed. T'Challa's hand went directly to her waist, then her sides, sliding her shirt up and over her head, leaving her upper torso bare. His eyes lingered on her full breasts—unashamed and unrepentant—followed by equally appraising hands, forcing Ororo to moan and lean into his touch, nipples ripe and ready.
Taking advantage of her position, Ororo kissed him, tongue gliding languorously over chin, jaw, then lips, hair falling in white waves around them, creating the curtain of hair he so loved.
"I realized I had forgiven you on the twentieth day," she answered, taking a break in her tasty exploration.
She sat up slightly, palms pressed against the mattress on either side of him, breasts pressed against T'Challa. Oh, yeah, she loved being on top.
"That was the day I realized you truly had no intention of using Wakanda's vast resources to court me. You didn't fly in a cook to make me all those breakfasts for me. You didn't use your jet to whisk me off to Paris, Cancun, or Rome. You didn't use your good relationship with my grandmother or mine with your mother to convince them to support your cause. We talked and walked and laughed and shared. You gave of yourself emotionally, and that was more valuable to you than all the vibranium Doom stole from your vault."
"My wife." He said those simple two words with such love Ororo's heart clenched, and she pushed back the tears that threatened.
"When did you forgive me?" she asked, suddenly realizing how important it was for her to know. Ororo bit her lip, waiting, and the longer he took to answer, the more anxious she became, eventually pushing herself off his chest.
T'Challa pulled her back down, shifting their positions in the process, taking up the role of dominant once more. This time, however, he pulled her arms above her head, locking her in place, his hands strong but not painful. She could free herself if she so desired, but a part of Ororo secretly liked this weak position, knowing T'Challa would never hurt her, although he would possess her, take her the way she liked—his alpha male a match for her alpha female.
"It was the day of your grandmother's birthday party," he replied, drawing Ororo's mind back to the question she'd posed. "Do you remember that day?"
Of course she did. She and T'Challa had planned a seventy-fifth birthday party for her grandmother, inviting the entire village to join the festivities. Shuri and Ramonda even flew in for the special day.
"There was an emergency in Utopia, a schism that threatened to tear them apart; all X-Men were needed." She sighed, remembering how torn she'd felt.
T'Challa released her hands and cupped her face. "You flew all the way to California under your own power and returned by 11:55. I have no idea what you did while you were away, but you were exhausted when you returned. You should've slept, stayed for a few days before coming back."
"She's amost eighty, T'Challa and I've only had her a few years. I don't know—"
"How many years she has left," he finished for her. "I understand. That's why you want to spend every birthday you can with her."
Ororo nodded, although it wasn't a question. Then she frowned. "You forgave me because I left my own grandmother's birthday party?"
T'Challa laughed, the movement sending wonderful sensual flutters through Ororo.
"No, beloved, it was a stunning reminder of how devoted you are to family and friends, even when that devotion is tested or, at times, damned inconvenient."
T'Challa's lips found hers again, gently sucking, nibbling. "Your devotion is what gave me the freedom to go to Hell's Kitchen, and it was that same devotion that allowed me to stay there well after I should've come home."
More distracting nibbles followed, then cool hands on hips pulling her night shorts and panties down enough for Ororo to kick them off her ankles. Feeling him heavy and thick against her, Ororo's brain dimly wondered when T'Challa had removed his boxers.
"Back then, I expected too much and you gave too much. That made us unequal when we were supposed to be partners."
"We're full partners now."
"Just as it should be." Then he laughed again, and began a slow, erotic trek down her body. "Except in the bedroom. Here," he said, laving first her taut nipples then her belly button, "you reign supreme. I'm a mere serf tending to your exquisite field."
Then he moved even lower, causing Ororo to cry out in blissful agony, proving his last statement wrong. Here, in this bed, the one where they'd created life, there were no serfs, no lords, only corralled hearts.