Luke hated coffee, which was strange considering more of the time he found himself sitting in the middle of a café, coffee in hand, and a puzzled scowl on his face. Strange was starting to become Luke's entire life, and he had seen a lot of strange things since coming to New York. A woman with super strength, a man who could control people's minds, a giant green monster who rampaged down the street. But this was something different all together.
Harlem was considered the jewel of Black American life. Hopeful. Hardworking. A beacon for all to aspire towards. From the new barbershop that opened down the block, to the club Harlem's Paradise that drew the eye of so many. There were streets named after Black leaders, and street songs sung in honor of black triumph.
So, no one was surprised when King T'challa, the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, walked into the coffee shop that afternoon. At least, they would have been had they known it was him. Harlem was filled with cats trying to pass themselves off as the heir to the Wakandan throne. Dudes who let their hair grow out, who tried to fake a Wakandan accent, and really only came off looking like morons. Dudes who claimed to be of Wakandan royalty, but couldn't even say "Hello" in Xhosa. To most Harlemites, a black man walking into an old coffee shop wasn't anything special.
But Luke knew differently. Being around Harlem, and Hell's Kitchen, had made Luke so very aware. While most people would rather turn a blind eye to the things that defy their logic (a woman who can bench press a car over her head, or a man with a magic hammer) Luke had no choice but to face those realities head on. He too was a part of that world now. He could recognize it instantly, the way the air shifted around whenever someone with…abilities…walked by.
The café buzzed with the low hum of Kanye West, and arguments over which Avenger was better.
"Naw nigga, Falcon's the best."
"Yeah, the best at taking Captain White boy's shit, War Machine is a national treasure."
Luke never understood why it was a competition. That was like comparing Jazz to Blues. Weren't they both heroes in their own right? It never dawned on Luke to compare either hero, because the joy on every black kids face when they looked into the sky and saw Falcon soaring through, and gazed at their TV sets and saw Colonel James Rhodes smile, made Luke feel like he could whether a thousand Juda bullets.
Still, as much as Luke loved both those guys, they couldn't hold a candle to-
"Is this seat taken?"
Luke Cage—the man with the bulletproof skin—shook. The man by his side, who smiled warmly and grasped his paper cup as if it were a panther cub. King T'challa…Sweet Christmas. Luke had seen enough pictures, and listened to enough of the king's speeches online to recognize his voice. There was a deep timber that shook the floors, a commanding presence that only royalty was blessed with. When Luke was still imprisoned at Seagate, one of the few things that kept him going was Reva's soft reassurance…and the small news clipping of Prince T'challa that Luke had somehow smuggled past the guards. Seagate was a place created to break any man who was unfortunate enough to walk through its prison cells. Freedom was a memory, like the taste of a beer on a hot day, or the gentle kiss of a woman's lips. But T'challa, and all of Wakanda, was free. Always free. There was no place that was any freer. Black men did not fear the boot of American policy, or have to listen to the clank of loose handcuffs, and gun fire. T'challa was more than just a man…he was the dream personified.
"Uh..sir?" T'challa repeated. "Are you alright?"
King T'challa was standing right in front of him, and Luke Cage couldn't say anything. Was this how kids felt when they met Tony Stark? No…of course not. Tony Stark wasn't even fit to tie T'challa's shoelaces.
"N-no," Luke said. He scrambled to his feet, unsure if he should thrust out his hand for a handshake, or get on his knees and bow. "I-I mean…no, this seat isn't taken, and yes, I-I'm fine." Luke Cage—the man with the bulletproof skin—was stammering.
"Please, don't go to any trouble on my account," T'challa said as he slipped in between the chair and the table. He placed his coffee cup as gently as a gazelle landing on grass. How could no one tell who this was? Every move T'challa made was calculated, every twitch, every blink, every word, measured. But at the same time, he was so beautiful. The gentle gap in his front teeth, the gentle ease in the way his eyes captured the light. The authority he commanded, but the serenity in which he gave orders.
"I've been hearing a lot about you, Mr. Cage." T'challa took a sip of his coffee, and smiled. "It seems all of Harlem is buzzing with anthems, and ballads of its newest hero."
"B-ballads?" Luke Cage asked. True, he had been getting a little recognition throughout the city, but he could hardly believe others were writing ballads.
"Oh," T'challa said surprised, "You have not heard Bulletproof Love? If memory serves, Method Man released this new single yesterday. It is quite…" T'challa waved his hands around, as if trying to grab the correct phrasing from the air, "…lit. Is that how you Americans say it?"
Was this really happening?
"Uhm…" Luke Cage began, "…your majesty. M-may I ask…what is it you're doing here?" It wasn't every day a royal came down to New York (well, not unless that royal had blonde hair and a magic hammer).
"Well how could I pass up a chance to see Harlem? The jewel of Black American culture and art? Was this not the place where Jazz was created?" T'challa asked.
And, as wonderful as it sounded, Luke Cage knew there was something more pressing than simply sightseeing around Harlem before white people turned it into another hipster infested tourist trap. "Is that all?" Luke Cage pressed. He did not know why he questioned him so. T'challa was a king after all, for all Luke knew, T'challa's mission could be of national security. Perhaps there were more people out there like Killgrave who sought to harm others. Or perhaps…T'challa was here for something more personal.
"Ah," T'challa said, "You are as astute as you are bulletproof I see. Yes, there is something I had wished to set my eyes upon before I departed America." The king's eyes burned as those words cascaded out into the air. There was a quick silence between them, a small moment when the music of Harlem lulled. Was this the power of a king? To command even the most rowdy streets to hold its breath?
"And I take it it wasn't the Jackie Robinson park?" Luke rubbed his hand against the back of his neck. Was that supposed to be a joke?
"No my friend. I, instead, wished to gaze upon the new hero who defended this city. The bulletproof man who wore his hoodie proudly, and showed no fear." T'challa rapped his ring against the table. It was such a strange contrast. The royal jewel of the world's most powerful nation, crossing ties with an ordinary piece of wood that had seen more spittle and vomit than sugar packets and coffee cups. The extraordinary did not belong here, and yet here it stood.
"You came to see me?" Luke asked. His voice was a strange hybrid of high-pitched squeal and terror-induced confusion. What would a dishwasher like Luke possibly have to interest a king? Was it his bulletproof skin? From what Luke had heard, Wakanda could reproduce any bio-enhancing formula the US could make, and improve it. If King T'challa wanted bulletproof skin, he'd have had it decades ago.
"Why so surprised? Mr. Cage, you are an incredible man. Even Wakanda has heard of your heroism."
There was that word again.
"You Majesty," Luke looked around, as if trying to spot eavesdroppers, "I'm no hero. I-I'm just a guy who-"
"Who stood up for what he believed in, regardless of the consequences," T'challa finished. "I'm not sure what you Americans call that, but in my country, that is a hero."
Luke simply shrugged, "Well, it's easy to be brave when you're bulletproof."
"Oh?" T'challa asked, "So when the American police department decided to hunt you down with Judases, special weapons designed for your destruction was that not courage?" T'challa sipped his coffee (something Luke had forgotten all about). "You sell yourself too short." T'challa turned his face to the outside, the streets of Harlem were alive in the New York day. Sometimes, Luke believed, if you listened real close, you could hear Louis Armstrong giving a private concert from somewhere beneath the concrete.
"You're too kind your majesty."
"No, your country is not kind enough. I've seen the news reports, the Bugle and such, saying you're some kind of super-powered thug."
Luke had seen those reports, heard those interviews. It was bad enough the country feared black people (men, women, and even children) but it as bad as it then, it only got worse when the country found one who was bulletproof. Sometimes, Luke wondered if what he was doing was right. If putting on a hoodie, and trying his best to rid whatever criminal element plagued his city was the right thing to do. Misty Knight had it right when she told him that Harlem wasn't bulletproof. Bullets might bounce off his skin, but that wasn't so for Pops, or Misty, or even Claire.
"Stop," T'challa said as he placed his hands on Luke's shoulders. "I know that look. That furrowed brown is the look of a man whose mind is weighed down by the wellbeing of his people. That is the look of a king, but do not allow those fears to control you." T'challa's mouth gaped, and his gaped teeth gleamed. "My father always used to tell me, 'A king who allows fear to control him is little more than a puppet'."
"Your father must have been very wise."
"He was." T'challa tapped his ring, and for a brief second, he shivered. "I hope I carry his legacy well." Still, T'challa waved his feelings away, "Still, I did not come to bore you with my family. I came to congratulate you. To bask in your heroism."
Sweet Christmas, this couldn't be happening. Right? King T'challa, pretty much the guy every person in the city wanted to be, couldn't be complementing him, right? He had had this dream countless times at Seagate and every morning he was awoken only to realize his own confinement.
"W-well, thank you…your majesty." Luke tried to keep his composure, but there was something about King T'challa that made him want to melt into a puddle.
"No," T'challa said, grasping Luke's big strong hand into his own, and placing it to his lips. "Thank you."
The cash register from the front desk rang, and T'challa crushed an empty coffee cup in his hand. "I have heard you are a fan of coffee. And from this fine establishment, I can see why. The atmosphere is…quite charming."
Luke smiled, "I always thought so." That was a lie…Luke had always hated coffee.
"Perhaps on my next visit, you could show me more of your kingdom? Harlem is quite a city." T'challa liked to tease, it seems all cats did.
"Yeah, that sounds pretty dope."
And with all the grace of a tiger disappearing into the night, King T'challa was gone.
Luke had never really been one for coffee, but perhaps he might learn to like it.