Chapter 3: Private Garden

N'Dare and T'Chaka walked solemnly in front of Zola, hearts raging in their tiny chests, emotions open like an ancient Egyptian tomb and easy to decipher. And while she hated to see them so afraid of what was to come . . . the unknown parental judgment that awaited them, Zola was more afraid of what they could grow into if they didn't learn to master themselves.

By the time she'd returned to the twins' bedchamber, they had removed their wrinkled school uniform and replaced them with more comfortable afterschool gear.

T'Chaka wore a simple dark blue, short-sleeved athletic shirt with matching long pants and spotless black Nike running shoes. N'Dare, for her part, still wore her orange Taekwondo belt, but completed the ensemble with an all-white, heavy, kick snapping cotton gi, feet covered in, of course, a suede pair of pink and white "barefoot" sports sneakers with a Velcro Z strap closure.

Suitably attired for a walk in the garden or a tumble on training mats, Zola marched her charges out of their room, down the winding hall and staircase, and out to their mother's private garden. Which, the three of them now stood in front of, the children having stopped just shy of the entrance.

"This place is forbidden to us." N'Dare glanced up at Zola, beautiful blue eyes sharp and intelligent. "Did you know that, Zola?"

Zola nodded. The entire enclosure was surrounded by twenty-five feet high, thickly green shrubs, that gave the appearance of a dense rainforest dropped in the middle of civilization, but was in truth nothing more than an elaborate privacy fence with invisible sensors.

Yet what Zola found most interesting about the private garden was its lack of discreet security cameras, an unfortunate staple of post Desturi life in and around the royal compound. As much as the triumvirate promoted positive, open relations with the citizens of Wakanda, rebuilt the economy after the theft of the cache of vibranium, restructured the country's military, and introduced the most democratic regime the small African nation has ever known, they were a shrewd and cautious threesome.

Unknown to all except the most trusted few—the Ohene Aniwa, the Dora Milage, and the Royal Council—video and audio devices populated key locations throughout Wakanda. No, the triumvirate would take no more chances; they'd lost too much, suffered personal and political defeat, forced to question self and others, yet emerged from the darkness stronger and wiser for it.

Wakanda was no longer what it had been for thousands of years; it could never be that again. But it was more, different but better in many ways; their rulers making it so. In this, Zola trusted; in them, she believed.

And so the queen's private garden was one of the rare locations on the royal compound free of cameras, the queen its only honored guest. And, of course, the king, who'd designed the garden himself, overseeing the entire project down to each blade of grass and blossoming petal.

Palace gossip was that King T'Challa initiated the project upon his return from his lengthy sojourn to New York City's Hell's Kitchen , a place Zola heard much about, but one the queen refused to take her to whenever she accompanied Ororo on one of her many visits to her grandparents' home in the same state. Apparently, it had taken three months before the king was satisfied with the results, pushing himself and his hand-selected crew to their limit.

And, of course, there was more gossip that followed. Like the two months the king had spent in Kenya before returning with his queen, many in Wakanda having concluded—with both of their extended absences in different locales—that the short marriage had come to an end.

No one really knew what transpired while the king was in Kenya, but it was clear that whatever happened, the union of the two was stronger and better for it, as was the state of the nation.

Now the twins and Zola waited patiently on the outside of the garden, a stone path leading from the small temple of Bast, which only the royal family used, was a simple but exquisite marker, its blue and gold octagon cut stones standing out against the lushness of the green grass, linking the two.

And Zola remembered the stoned path well, for she'd traveled it more than once in search of her queen. But it was the first search that was most memorable, the training game dubbed "Where in Wakanda is Storm?" her more difficult empathic challenge.

But it wasn't only Zola who was trained in this "game," but all the Ohene Aniwa. At anytime, anywhere, under extreme circumstances, Storm's watchers must be able to track, locate, and if necessary, rescue their queen. And it wasn't enough to use Wakanda's finest technology to do so. No, the queen insisted on them using all within their arsenal, maximizing every advantage, leaving nothing to chance.

And by that she meant their mutant ability. An ability many of the guards initially shunned, but have grown to value, appreciate, even love, under the queen's insistent yet empowering tutelage.

So they trained, working individually and collectively, honing their skills, feeling proud, prepared, deadly.

"Where in Wakanda is Storm, Zola? It's your turn to locate the queen."

Zola sat on the mat of the training room, still breathing hard from her sparring match with Wanjiru, the highest-ranking Ohene Aniwa. Taking a hand towel to her sweaty face, Zola looked up at the petite woman, her diminutive stature a fool's gamble. The woman was as lethal as a viper, her unassuming size and pretty, delicate features disarmed many, an underestimation they soon regretted. Zola had never been so foolish, the graceful pixie with bubbling brown eyes and an infectious laugh would sooner take a blade to your throat as wish you a good day.

"I'm exhausted, Wanjiru, besides," Zola had complained, dropping fully on to the mat, her legs feeling like jelly, "I hate that game. Storm can block me." Zola gestured to Nia beside her, the girl also breathing deeply, Wanjiru having taken on both of them, at the same time. The woman was a tiny fighting machine. "Telepaths like Nia here and an empath like me always get the least honorable scores on this training. Anyone trying to get into her head, Storm can block. How in the hell do you expect me to use my powers to find the queen?"

Wanjiru had frowned down at her, Zola too tired and beat up to care that she'd just argued with her commanding officer, the woman's rank giving her the power to speak for the queen in Storm's absence.

Like a viper going in for the kill, Wanjiru was on Zola, her pretty pixie face a snarl of indignation, her voice low and dangerous. "You will find our queen. You will use the power the Panther God has blessed you with, and you will locate Queen Ororo. This is your mission, Zola, you will not shirk it, you will not run away, you will not give up without even trying."

Wanjiru pushed herself off of Zola's chest, where she'd been straddling her, the force of her legs and words keeping the young guard bolted to the mat.

Standing over top of Zola, Wanjiru's eyes were now a deep shade of disappointing brown. "Storm would find you, Zola, no matter the difficulty, no matter the danger. We protect her, but she also protects us. If you can't do that, then by all means, stay where you are, on your back, showing the enemy your belly."

Wanjiru was a hard woman to like, Zola had thought as she pulled herself from the mat, shame weighing her down. Wanjiru was a hard woman to please. Zola walked around the warrior, unable to meet her gaze. Wanjiru was the best of Ohene Aniwa, and Zola, having exited the training facility in search of her queen, knew she had a lot of growing up to do if she ever hoped to be as good as Wanjiru.

An hour later and Zola stood outside of the queen's private garden, inordinately pleased with how swiftly she'd been able to track down Storm. The queen's unique electrical current, which Zola used to tap into the queen's mutant pulse, was strong and wide open. It had never been this easy before, and Zola thanked the Panther God for her good luck. No one had ever tracked Storm so quickly. Even the great Wanjiru, with her canine senses, had only managed a time of ninety minutes.

And here Zola was, thirty minutes under her commanding officer's boastful time. She grinned—big and wide—thinking about how many training points she would receive for this coup.

But all wasn't won yet; she had yet to breech the private garden and "save" the queen. But first she had to make sure the pulse she'd been tracking for the last hour was indeed Storm's and not one of Wanjiru's many diversionary tricks.

Opening her senses to full capacity, Zola sent out a wave of empathic energy, searching for the queen's answering energy. And she'd found it. Oh, hell no. Stumbling back, Zola tried to shut down her power, quickly erect the mental barrier before the queen felt the invasion, knew what she had done.

Too late.

I'm so fuc-

A blast of arctic psy hit Zola, throwing her to the ground, every neuron in her brain shivering under the psychic shield, the defensive attack from the queen quick and immediate.

Then Zola heard it, like a cackle of hungry hyenas.

Laughter. Lots and lots of laughter.

Then they appeared. Her sisters. Her friends. Trained, deadly women, looking more like college girls on spring break than the queen's royal guards.

And heading the group was, of course, Wanjiru, her pixie face alight with humor.

God, she really did dislike that woman.

"Did you think it would be that easy to beat my record, Zola?" Wanjiru stepped closer, extended a hand, and Zola, reluctantly, took the offer, her head just beginning to thaw. "You did a good job, but honestly, you should've known better. The queen would never make it that easy on you. Hell, she makes nothing easy for any of us; that's why we're the best."

Zola struggled to make sense of it all, pushing past the psychic pain. "Apparently, the queen didn't organize this little session, Wanjiru, you did."

The woman had the audacity to not only laugh but to look so unrepentant that Zola wanted to scoop her tiny body up and slam her face first onto the ground. But common sense and self-preservation stilled her twitchy limbs.

"If you're going to serve as the prince and princess' primary protector, you have to know what you'll be in for. They are hell in booties. They'll do far worse to you and everyone else if you aren't careful. They're deceptive, highly intelligent, and silver tongued—unassuming but deadly.

Like Wanjiru, Zola thought, finally comprehending the true nature of the training session.

"So this wasn't about finding the queen?"

Wanjiru shook her head. "Not exactly. But it was fun." Wanjiru leaned in closer, so close that her words were clearly only meant for Zola's ears. "It's true, telepaths and empaths have no chance of locating the queen by using only their mutant powers. She just isn't wired that way, something about her own mutant powers." Wanjiru had shrugged as if she couldn't quite explain it herself.

"But I found her. She is in there."

"Foolish, young, naive Zola, you just discovered what I learned three years ago. There is only one thing that distracts the queen so completely that she lowers her mental guards enough to be tracked telepathically."

Yeah, Zola had gotten that point. And she so did not need that particular sexual emotional blowback.

Like that time I walked in on mom and dad. Damn, parents really need to lock their doors.

"Sex with the king," she'd said, mortified at her intrusion and horrified at the thought that those sensually graphic emotional pulses were now permanently burned in her psyche. How could she ever face her king and queen again without turning an interesting shade of damn the queen's lucky red?

"Exactly." Wanjiru laughed. "No one else is allowed in her sanctuary, just him, only ever him." Wanjiru slapped Zola on her back, the woman's sense of humor not at all funny. "God, Zola, you have to be the only one of us who didn't know how the king and queen spend the two hours between council meetings."

Wanjiru looked back at the private garden. "Not always here, of course, but it's a nice, warm, sunny day so I took a chance." She laughed again, renewing Zola's hatred at being the youngest of Storm's guards. "Damn, Zola, the thunder claps should've been a clue."

Now that was said loud enough for everyone to hear, the riotous laughter starting anew.

Lightning crackled, loud, hard bursts and they froze, including the obnoxious Wanjiru, for that was no lightning of passion.

The sky grayed over, storm clouds moved in, blocking the mid-day sun. Instinctively, they all looked up, and released a collective gasp.

Thunder boomed around them, lightning split a tree, sending branches hissing to the ground. Then she was there, a cape of white hair whipping in the wind, her red silk dress a vicious beacon of light in the frightful sky, glowing white eyes focused on . . . Wanjiru.

Then the commanding officer was gone, a cold windy hand having snatched her from beside the empath, the chill of the gust knocking Zola to the ground. And never in her young life had Zola been so grateful not to be the eldest.

And as much as she loved and respected her queen, vying for her attention the way they all did, Zola, for once, was pleased not to be in Storm's sights, the target of her attention. No, that dubious honor would be all Wanjiru's. And Zola, like the other relieved guards, turned their back, and with no remorse, left their commanding officer to fend for herself. Sisterhood be damned.

With barely a whoosh, an improbable vine-covered door slid open a fraction, and Zola wondered, not for the first time, how the king had crafted such a technological wonder, one that seemed to be intimately linked to his wife's mutant abilities. For short of a fire or a severe explosion, there was no delicate way of gaining entrance to the private garden. The king had planned well, his gift perfect in its design, a symbol to the nation that Ororo, Princess of Kenya, an outsider, a mutant, was truly a daughter of Wakanda as much as T'Challa was its son.

Zola watched as the twins took tentative steps, soft, small feet crossing the threshold of the garden, a warm gust of air closing the door behind them. She smiled at their timid hesitation, nothing of the hell raisers she knew them to be visible in the presence of their parents.

And there they were, sitting beside each other on a bench, a man-made pond with languorously swimming koi fish circumnavigating their oval home a few feet away, blue, white, red, black, and yellow fish, resembling living jewels.

Zola quickly took in her queen's sanctuary, seeing why Ororo spent so much time in this place. In was indeed glorious, a flower lovers paradise. Besides three canopy benches surrounding the pond, a Hexagonal gazebo with mosquito netting, and a chic guesthouse style cabana, the spacious area was divided into smaller sections, each one dedicated to one or more type of flower. Roses. Heathers. Violets. A riot of colors and smells vied for dominance, Zola's limited knowledge of horticulture obvious in the light of such decadent flora.

Then there were the plants, green and healthy with new buds, thriving under the queen's care, her ability to commune with them not general knowledge. But one Zola could appreciate, for Ororo took the same care with her Ohene Aniwa, especially the youngest among them. Yet it was her children who she shone most of her light on, the ones that were hovering about Zola's legs, knowing they'd finally pushed their parents too far.

"Come." With that solitary command from their father, the twins peeled themselves from Zola's legs and crossed the twenty feet to their parents.

Hanging back and knowing the twins were safe with their parents, Zola moved to the bench on the other side of the pond, giving the family some semblance of privacy. If they wanted to her leave, Ororo would told her to do so. The fact that she hadn't done so meant that whatever the king and queen had been discussing before they came in, was meant for her as well.

Great. Just great. Where was the annoying pixie wannabe when Zola needed her?

The twins sat at their parents' feet, their little eyes looking up at them.

"We're sorry," T'Chaka said, his voice soft but it didn't quake.

"Are you really?"

"Yes, Baba, we are."

"What are you two sorry about, son?"

T'Chaka, the boy genius with all the answers, looked to his sister for a clue. Seeing she had none, he shrugged and said, "We got into trouble at school. We're not supposed to so we're sorry."

T'Challa's gaze hardened even more when he said, "Not good enough, son. Not nearly good enough." Those brown orbs turned on N'Dare who sat cross-legged, legs nervously shaking up and down. "What do you have to say for yourself, N'Dare, or do you think to allow your brother to stand alone?"

"Of course not, Baba," the girl said with quiet ferocity, her father intentionally pricking her pride. "I . . . well, Mrs. Bantu insulted Mother."

"And that made you mad?" Ororo asked, already knowing the answer, for N'Dare's fuse was shorter than the child's chubby pinkie finger.

"Yes."

"And you think that justifies your actions?" Ororo didn't wait for an answer. "You could have killed that woman, N'Dare, with your lightning. We've talked about this, about what we are, what we can do. But more importantly," unexpectedly, Ororo stood, her winds gently lifting N'Dare with her, bringing them face-to-face, "what we can never become."

Zola sat up straighter, knowing the truth of Ororo's words but cringing at the stern tone she'd taken with her daughter. Although Zola knew Ororo would never hurt her child, and that this was undoubtedly a lesson long overdue, she couldn't help but sympathize with the little demon with the angel face.

Then there was T'Chaka who'd risen to his feet with his father's stern prodding.

"I saw the footage from the hallway, T'Chaka."

The boy looked down, taking a sudden interest in his running shoes, fingers, the grass, anything but his father's glowering face.

"You think yourself a panther, son?"

"No, Baba."

"I think you do, T'Chaka. I think you believe yourself faster than the quickest antelope, the swiftest of predators."

"No, Baba." The boy shoved his hands in his pockets, twisting with discomfort.

"Show me."

The child looked up; his eyes alight with confusion. "Show you what, Baba?"

"How fast you are. Show me." T'Challa pointed to the other end of the garden, nearly a hundred feet away. "Show me how fast a black panther can run."

Withdrawing his hands from his pockets, T'Chaka's face transformed, the challenge dimming the fear. And off he went, the blur at his best.

Then another blur, a bigger, swifter one followed. Zola blinked, once, twice, maybe three times, and T'Challa was ahead of his son, T'Chaka ramming into him, the child bouncing off his father's solid chest, falling onto the ground, a heap of skinny limbs and bruised pride.

"Again," T'Challa roared. "Show me, T'Chaka. Show me your panther."

The boy dusted himself off and was off again, running in the opposite direction, his breath heavy, steps still light and swift.

Then he was slamming into his father again, T'Challa an impenetrable, moving wall.

"That's not fair."

"Don't complain, son, beat me. Show me your claws."

Hitting his balled fists against the prickly grass, T'Chaka stood again, sighted down his father, and with the speed of Hermes, took off, zig zagging, trying to make it to the east quadrant before his father.

No luck. Slam.

"That's not fair," the young prince wailed, his cool calm finally breaking.

"What's not fair, T'Chaka?"

"You're bigger and stronger than me, Baba. I can't beat you."

"Why not?" the king asked, helping his son to his feet. "Everything in me is in you, all my speed, my heightened sense of smell, hearing, and taste. And on top of all that, your mother's genes have spiked each and every one of those Panther God given attributes."

King T'Challa dusted off his son's dirty jeans, swatted him lightly on the bottom, and commanded, "Now run, show me."

And the child ran, up an back, up and back, up and back. Until the blur was no more, until he ran no faster, moved no more gracefully than an aging, overweight tortoise.

Out of breath, T'Chaka collapsed, reminding Zola of how she'd felt every time she sparred Wanjiru.

"Have you had enough little panther?"

T'Chaka peered up at his kneeling father and nodded.

"Now answer my question, son. Why are you sorry?"

T'Challa waited, moving from his knees to his bottom, and then to his back, mirroring his son's exhausted posture on the grass.

T'Chaka slid closer to his father, and Zola strained to see and hear, so caught up in what was going on with the father and son, she'd basically missed when Ororo lifted herself and N'Dare into the sky, leaving the males of their family behind.

"I'm sorry because Mrs. Bantu was prey I should've left alone. Not because she's a woman, or old as Wakanda, but because of who I am, what I can do, who I want to be."

"And who do you want to be, son?"

"A man. A protector. A King." T'Chaka turned to his side, facing his father. "I was a bully today, wasn't I, Baba?"

"Yes."

"And real men aren't bullies, are they?"

"No they aren't, T'Chaka."

"Real men don't let pride and anger make decisions for them, do they?"

T'Challa shook his head, then pulled his son to him, sitting up, cradling the child in his lap.

"But that doesn't mean that a real man never make mistakes. We do, T'Chaka, and I've made my share of them. A king isn't infallible, a protector doesn't always win, and a man can be humbled by his own errors in judgment."

"I think," T'Chaka said sheepishly, "that I've had a lot of errors in judgment."

"I believe you are right, son, but you are, after all, only seven. Certain errors can be excused; others are not so easily dismissed. Today with Mrs. Bantu is one of those times."

The king kissed the top of his son's head. "And while I love that you and your sister work together, support one another, it's no good pooling powerful resources for the wrong cause. Sometimes, son, it's the stronger man who can pull back instead of plunging forward. And an even wiser man who knows when to tug his sister from the edge instead of helping her go over it, possibly destroying them both."

"I understand."

"I thought you would."

T'Chaka snuggled in closer, the back of his head going to his father's sturdy chest, his eyes lifting upward.

"What is Mother doing to N'Dare up there?"

The king's eyes also traveled skyward, a grin blooming on his handsome face. "Just be happy that I was the one to teach you your lesson and not your mother."

"Believe me, I am. Why do you think we never prank Mother?"

"Because she's the big bad wolf and will blow your house down."

Zola laughed, knowing the truth in the king's words. And then she was airborne, the security of the garden floor shrinking the farther away she moved, the bun she'd meticulously wrapped her braids in disentangling, falling about her shocked shoulders.

She was soaring, without the aid of a plane or hovercraft, Ororo's steady winds the only thing preventing a plummet to her death. Zola really hated heights, suddenly feeling guilty about taking so much pleasure when Ororo did this to Wanjiru. Payback was truly a bitch—a cold wind snapping bitch.

"Glad you could join us, Zola."

As if I had a choice.

She brought her next to N'Dare, who Zola knew had absolutely no fear of being hundreds—she looked down—thousands of feet in the air. The girl was born to soar with the eagles, Zola, on the other hand, was not, and wanted nothing more than to be set free from this horror show.

She sighed, giving in to whatever the queen had in mind. Whoever said the king's bark was more vicious than the queen's bite was a damn liar, or perhaps a brain dead fool.

"Do you know how old I was, little one, when I came into my mutant powers?" Storm asked without preamble.

The princess shook her head, her own eyes gone white, although Zola was pretty sure she wasn't using any of her mutant abilities.

"Twelve. I was twelve, N'Dare. Just a kid."

That made sense; Zola had come into her powers two weeks after her thirteenth birthday. The other royal guards had similar experiences. Puberty seeming to awaken the sleeping X gene.

But then there was N'Dare . . .

Storm widened the gap between them, forming a triangle, her winds holding them all aloft, steady and secure.

"I was alone at the time, N'Dare. I had friends, true, even a mentor of sorts, but I was essentially alone."

N'Dare nodded and so did Zola. They both knew, everyone knew the queen was orphaned at the tender age of six, parents killed violently, no bodies, no tombstones, only a child's heartache, a woman's claustrophobia.

"And you know what I did to survive back then."

"You stole. You were taught to master all types of locks, and you stole from those who had far more than you."

"And do you think that made it right, N'Dare? To use my skill to take from others?"

The child seemed to give her mother's question considerable thought, and Zola did as well, wondering if she would've been able to survive such a horrible fate, her parents forever ripped from her. An only child left to the mercy of a cruel world. She shuddered at the revolting thought.

"If you were hungry, or hurt, or in need of a safe place to sleep, then yes. You had nothing, Mother, you did what you had to do to survive."

"But stealing is wrong."

"But a village that fails to protect its children is even worse. Baba says, in Wakanda, there are no orphans, because all children are wanted, all children are cared for, all children are loved."

"He is correct, but not every place is Wakanda, my sweet, and not every adult is like your father."

Storm widened the triangle even more, making Zola very nervous.

"And so if it's acceptable to steal for survival, when is it acceptable for us to use our mutant powers?"

"Whenever we want, it's our power; no one can take it from us."

Ororo shook her head, then turned those creepy white eyes toward Zola.

"What's the answer, Zola?"

Hell, when did this interrogation shift to her? Sometimes she really hated this assignment, the queen treating her like . . . well, her daughter, if she'd become a teenage mother at seventeen—Ororo's thirty-eight to Zola's twenty-one.

Not knowing what Storm wanted to hear, and yeah, she was definitely Storm right now, the queen having disappeared along with the sight of the garden, Zola said the first thing that came to her mind. "As infrequently as possible."

"Disappointing," she said, before catapulting them through the sky, the wind cold and biting.

Zola tried to open her eyes, searching the rushing landscape for N'Dare. And there she was, next to her mother, unafraid of the height or speed. Then they stopped, came to a careening halt.

"If I released Zola, N'Dare, would you be able to catch her, take her to safety."

"W-what," Zola squeaked, unable to believe her ears.

Storm ignored her.

"Would you?"

Zola's head whipped to N'Dare, her face grim and ashen with fear. She understood the feeling.

N'Dare turned those white eyes to her, squinting, and looking far too intense. Arms raised and hands opened, pointed in Zola's direction. Those eyes squinted even more, and her mouth began to move, but no words made it past her mother's winds.

"I can't."

"Why not? Zola is your friend, your protector. You want to use your powers whenever and however you see fit. Then use it now, send Zola back to the garden, she doesn't like the way we play."

Play? She'd be damned if this was play. More like an aerial training session no other Ohene Aniwa ever had to take. She was so going to get mad points for this, and shove it right down arrogant Wanjiru's throat. That was, if she survived.

"I can't," the princess yelled over the howling winds.

A fierce reply of "Why not?" crashed into them both, sending the three of them higher at a G-force Zola didn't even want to think about.

Gasping for breath, the child finally stammered out, "Because I'm not strong enough. Because I can't control the weather the way you can. Because I could hurt Zola or myself."

The howling winds slowed and settled; the sudden silence eerie.

"Now, little one, tell me why you are sorry." Storm's voice was as calm and gentle as her winds.

N'Dare swallowed hard and so did Zola, for she prayed the child would get the right answer this time. The child was stubborn as hell, but she'd met her match in Ororo.

Storm brought her daughter closer to her, close enough to stroke the white hair that matched hers, loving fingers pushing untamed bangs out of the child's eyes, a downy softness entering her voice. "Tell me why, sweetheart."

"Like you said, I could've killed her. I didn't think about it, didn't try to do anything more than scare her. But I wanted to hurt her, make her feel some of my pain, know that mutants are not evil, but people with feelings and hearts."

"And did you accomplish your goal, N'Dare? Do you feel vindicated?"

"No, I feel that I proved her right, that mutants are nothing more than out-of-control monsters."

"We can be monsters, little one, if we choose that path. That's the very thing I fight against, my child, within myself and others. I never want you to know the kind of pain that burns one's heart when anger and vengeance is taken too far, whether at seven or seventy-seven, the taint never leaves the soul, never allows you to forget."

N'Dare reached out her tiny arms, encircling her mother's waist, burying her face in Storm's mid-section.

"I don't want to become a monster."

Storm stroked the child's wavy white hair. "You won't, little one, I won't allow it. But you're so young, N'Dare, you and T'Chaka both, too young to have the powers that you do. Your father and I understand. As difficult as it was for me to come to terms with who and what I am when I was but a girl of twelve, it must be doubly hard for you and your brother at only seven. And while maturity and mastery will come in time, you must be made to understand now."

Ororo lifted N'Dare's head, making sure the girl's eyes were on her. "Another day like today will not be tolerated. I will not have you or T'Chaka abusing your powers, giving in to anger because you feel entitled, taking matters into your own hands instead of allowing Zola to do her job or telling your father and me so we can do ours."

A kiss to the forehead followed by more sage words. "At times, N'Dare, I stole because I was hungry, because I needed clothes or medicine to survive. But not always. Sometimes I did it because I could, because I was the best, because I thought I was invincible. And while stealing for survival may be the right act at the time, it isn't something one should make a habit of. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

If the child didn't, Zola did.

"You're saying that sometimes people do the wrong things when they're desperate, when it's their life or their death."

"And were you desperate today, N'Dare? Did you feel mortally threatened by Mrs. Bantu? Or should you have simply decided that it wasn't a battle worth fighting?"

"I was in no danger, Mother. I could have handled it differently; I didn't have to hurt her, frighten her."

"Very good. So back to my earlier question. When is it acceptable for us to use our mutant powers?"

"Whenever we want, as long as we use it cautiously and for the protection of ourselves and others."

Not a complete answer, Zola thought, but a very good one, and the queen seemed pleased. As least she did before she turned her glowing white eyes Zola's way.

"And you, Zola the Empath. What am I to do with a protector too afraid to fully use her powers?"

"What do you mean, my queen?"

Ororo's eyebrows shot straight up, even little N'Dare shook her head at her, clearly having figured out her error before Zola did.

"Did you really think I would put your life in the hands of a seven-year old?"

"Well, I—"

"While it's true that you can't probe my mind deeply, you're strong enough to pick up my residual emotional pulses; you've done it before. Did it even once occur to you to try to read my emotions while I was so focused on my daughter?"

"Well, no, but—"

"Did you forget that you also have the power to tamp down more volatile emotions like anger and hurt with calm, soothing ones like happiness and contentment? You could've used those same powers on Mrs. Bantu or the twins today."

"Well . . ." Shit, how had this happened to her again? Damn the queen and her unexpected interrogations.

"Did you really think I didn't know how you managed to best Wanjiru after fifty straight losses?" Amazingly, the queen laughed then, and Zola began to relax. "She still doesn't know what happened to her, one minute she had you nearly pinned, the next you'd bested her, all her natural canine fighting spirit momentarily stripped to the core, leaving behind a silly, tamed kitten."

She chuckled again and began their descent, N'Dare having managed to climb on to her mother's back, enjoying the ride back down to ground zero.

"If she ever found out, Wanjiru would have your—"

Ororo didn't finish, not with tiny, alert ears listening to every word that came from Ororo's mouth.

Yeah, but Zola got the point. Wanjiru would have her ass if she ever found out.

They landed safely in the garden, Zola never so happy to feel solid ground under her as she was at that very moment, the urge to drop to her knees and kiss it a nearly uncontrollable pull.

N'Dare jumped from her mother's back and joined T'Chaka on the west side of the garden, the girl none the worse for wear. And by the looks of the princess, Zola would swear the hell spawn actually liked the aerial roller coaster ride. And to confirm what she thought to be true, Zola heard N'Dare delightfully squeal to T'Chaka, "We were up so high and went so fast. It was as scary as Uncle Logan when he goes a week without shaving, but it was the best flight she's ever taken me on. And you missed it!"

Zola rolled her eyes. Panther God save me from weather controlling mutants.

King T'Challa lay reclining lazily on the bench the queen had snatched her from only twenty minutes ago. God, had it only been twenty minutes?

Now she was the one to say, "That's not fair. Please don't ever do that to me again."

To Zola's dismay, the queen made no promises. Instead, she said, "I'll be traveling to Kenya where I'll meet with the leaders from South Africa, Zaire, Niganda, as well as Kenya. They wish to begin trade negotiations with Wakanda but have no history of working peaceably together."

"We all agreed to keep our bodyguards to a minimal, an attempt at good will, if not outright stupidity. But for the sake of honorable foreign relations, I can't have the Ohene Aniwa at my back, no I'll bring only two of you."

"Me?"

"Of course you my tepid empath, who better to have by my side than a protector who can not only alert me to danger, but calm the more ruffled feathers of pompous diplomats?"

"And your second?"

This time it was the king who laughed.

"Wanjiru."

Hell no, not the militant pixie. Zola wanted to whine, complain, argue, but of course, she did none of those things. She'd already tired the patience of her queen enough today, she wouldn't risk being whisked back into the sky for another lesson.

"Wanjiru," the king chimed in, "is ideal for all the obvious reasons. She looks as harmless as a fly. Men are so taken by her petite frame and obvious beauty that they stumble over themselves, letting down their guards without even realizing. By the time they've realized what fools they are, she's absconded with whatever she's been tasked to find or destroy. And the best part— the king laughed again—"they're too embarrassed to admit that a five foot nothing of a woman has bested them."

The king stood and wrapped his arm around his wife's waist. "And you, Zola, with all the weapons you like to wear, no one will dare look twice at my wife. They'll be too busy making sure they don't say something untoward, forcing you to withdraw that cannon you're so fond of.

What was it with everybody ripping on her gun? Admittedly, no other royal guard carried such a menacing weapon, but a girl could never be too careful, her mother always said.

"How long before we depart?"

"Three days," the queen answered, her attention slowly shifting to the king and whatever it was he was doing to her waist, causing a nice rosy blush to form.

Yeah, it was time for Zola to leave, but she had one more question.

"Who'll serve as primary to the prince and princess while we are away?"

"Nia, she's already their second, and will make a perfect temporary primary. She'll keep them honest, and help them make the transition with their new teacher."

"New teacher?" Zola had forgotten all about Mrs. Bantu, assuming the woman had sufficiently lied her away out of trouble. Perhaps not.

"She'll be taking early retirement." Ororo looked at her gold and diamond watch. "It began, oh, when was it, T'Challa?"

"The moment she took it into her head to humiliate and insult our daughter."

"Oh, yes, that's right, beloved, now I remember."

"I believe Shuri saw to the details. I think I even heard her whistling a little tune when she called Mrs. Bantu to inform her that her services would no longer be required. You know, my love," the king said, nuzzling his wife's neck, the two of them in their own world, Zola slowly slipping away from them, "she's a Black Panther who takes her job quite seriously. But all joking aside, Principal Shona has recieved numerous parent complaints about Mrs. Bantu's unprofessional treatment of their children. Like Zola said, she treats all the children poorly, but she especially dislikes mutant children. It's sad really, she truly once was an exemplar educator."

Zola took one last glance behind her, the twins running about their mother's garden, chasing each other, laughter billowing in the warm evening air. Then she chanced one last look at her king and queen, T'Challa's arms fully around his wife, her back to his chest, his right hand slowly circling Ororo's stomach, softly spoken words whispered into her ear, ripping a girlish giggle from the queen.

Zola smiled at the little but mighty family, realizing that not all rumors were false. The queen hadn't trained in hand-to-hand combat with her guards in nearly six weeks.

There was speculation that after nearly eight years the queen was yet again with child. And the way the king was proudly stroking his wife's belly, Zola now found truth in the rumors. But she knew it would be at least another month before the announcement would be made, Wakandan tradition taking a more cautious approach to pregnancy than Westerners.

No, the royal couple would wait, the first trimester the most dangerous for the child, the time when miscarriages were undeniably common. And the queen would be spending most of the next month away from home, with only Zola and Wanjiru to care for her and the unborn.

She wouldn't fail her . . . fail them. She was Ohene Aniwa, a Storm Watcher, and she would return the queen safely to her family.

Zola waited for the sensors, then she felt the pressure of the door unlocking. She walked through it, the gate sliding back into place, no evidence that it even existed, the king and queen and their prince and princess, secure within their private garden.