"You're not serious." "I assure you I am, Mollari."
Londo squinted. He still felt dizzy and weak, which, given everything that had happened to him within the last twenty four hours, was only natural. Maybe the bizarre visions which had followed his heart attack had never stopped, and he was still trapped in the torturous mess his own mind had devised for him.
On the other hand, he was quite sure the food which Dr. Franklin had permitted him to eat, the food he was still trying to digest, was real enough. It had all the disgusting tastelessness only a dedicated healer could come up with. No, this was undoubtedly real. He was lying in Babylon 5's medlab, recovering from a heart failure which could have killed him, and had the doubtful pleasure of seeing G'kar waving one of his thick, dusty volumes at him.
"You," said Londo, slowly, because he still suspected G'kar was setting him up for a joke, "you want me to - meditate."
"Exactly," G'kar said, with a thin smile. "You obviously had an epiphany last night, Mollari. This is a rare thing, and to be frank, something I thought would be quite beyond the likes of you. It cannot be treated like a minor inconvenience. You have to."
Londo stopped listening. He should have known G'kar wouldn't let this go. While he still wasn't sure what exactly had happened during the night, he did know G'kar had been here, together with Vir, watching him fight death. G'kar had still been there when Londo had come out of his struggle, which was fortunate since there had been words which needed to be said. And they had been said. Why couldn't the blasted Narn be content with that? But that was G'kar for you. Give him an opening, and he pounced.
"You know," Londo said when he noticed G'kar had finally needed to stop in order to breathe, "I think I liked you better before you decided you were a prophet. At least then you were only trying to kill me."
G'kar harrumphed. "If I had ever tried to kill you, Mollari, you would be dead." His red eye, the one natural eye the mad emperor Cartagia had left him with, glinted.
"No doubt," Londo replied drily, with just enough scepticism in his voice to annoy G'kar, though secretly he was inclined to believe the same. Actually, he knew it to be true. The vision came back, the vision which had haunted him for years; his death at G'kar's hands, and G'kar's death at his. For a long time, he had feared it and thought it would be the inevitable conclusion of their feud. More recently, death had stopped being quite such a frightening prospect, and G'kar had stopped being his enemy. Londo wasn't quite sure what they were to each other now, but the old hate was gone, and he did not want it to return.
"I have every intention of meditating," he said, forcing himself to be as light-hearted as he could, "but not by contemplating rocks and books written in a truly dreadful prose. I am a Centauri, G'kar, not a Narn. Our ways of approaching our gods are somewhat more refined."
"You mean you get drunk until you pass out," G'kar stated, put his book down on the table next to the rest of the meal Dr. Franklin had declared fit for his patient, and crossed his arms.
"Naturally. And if you go on being high-minded, I shall be forced to remind you I still have recordings of you getting drunk as well, with a number of ladies, and without one tenth of my style."
G'kar's fists clenched and unclenched. "Mollari," he said. "I'm trying to help you. But you really don't make it easy."
Londo shifted his weight and privately decided the décor in medlab wasn't the only element which was wanting; the mattresses could use some refurbishing as well.
"Why bother, then?" he asked congenially. "Because you had a revelation," the Narn repeated patiently, as if talking to a child. "Because you can't go on with your empty life as if nothing has happened. I'm not letting you get away with this."
"My life isn't empty," Londo muttered. "If anything, it is obviously overcrowded."
For a moment, G'kar looked as if he was ready to strangle Londo. Which, Londo decided, would really make all the effort which Dr. Franklin, Vir, and not least of all himself had gone through in the previous night somewhat superfluous, and one couldn't have that. He closed his eyes and permitted something of the darkness to return, the darkness dogging his every footstep, the darkness which bluster and sparring and things like Vir's hand on his shoulder or the memory of Adira's smile hardly held at bay. Then he looked at G'kar.
"It happened," he said. "And there was a rightness in it. But believe me when I say that I do not want another revelation. This one is quite enough. Can't we leave it at that?"
Evidently not. G'kar sighed, pulled a chair, and sat down. It occurred to Londo that he would actually try to finish Dr. Franklin's bland meals and take whatever disgusting medication the doctor prescribed. Regaining his health had never seemed so important as now, when he was trapped with a Narn determined to save his soul.
It was Vir who gave Londo the ideal face-saving excuse. They went over the inevitable and ever growing list of supplicants, complaints and requests from Centauri Prime which had only become more numerous during Londo's sickness, and Londo distracted himself from the dawning certainty that his life as the Emperor would consist of more, not less of these annoyances by muttering something about G'kar's new-found zeal as a missionary.
"He has an entire planet of eager converts to choose from," Londo said, looked around for some brivari to drink and noticed, not for the first time, that Vir must have confiscated the entire lot. Dr. Franklin had much to answer for. Or maybe Mr. Allen had, pretending to look for more poison. Yes, Zack Allen was the most likely suspect. Garibaldi would never have done this to Londo. Garibaldi knew that sometimes, a man needed his drink. Garibaldi should never have stopped being Chief of Security.
"Why me? Why not enlighten other Narn? He wouldn't even have to leave the station. Sometimes I believe the entire scaly race has decided to settle down here."
It was only a mild exaggeration, these days. Even during the Narn/Centauri war, when Babylon 5 had been flooded with refugees, there had been places, no, entire levels which a Centauri could stroll through without encountering them. They had been desperate then, desperate and angry; now, they had taken to awed mutterings in G'kar's general proximity and seemed to be multiplying by the minute. They dogged G'kar's every footstep, and since G'kar was apparently determined to practice his newly found prophetic skills on Londo, this meant Londo was constantly tripping over them as well. It was not a pleasant experience. They knew very well who he was, and what he had done. Whenever G'kar ambushed him, they withdrew a bit, puzzlement, hurt and silent accusations in their eyes.
Vir's puckish face wore a frown. "I think," he said, carefully, "I think that is the problem, Londo. I think maybe he's lonely. I mean," he made a vague diagonal movement with his left hand through the air, as if to grab the explanation he was looking for, "he's not. he doesn't like being treated as a god."
"Well, who does?" Londo said irritably. They looked at each other and the memory came back, the memory of Cartagia, whom they had conspired to kill together, before Cartagia could turn Centauri Prime into a pyre. Cartagia, whose death had robbed Vir of the innocence which he had miraculously maintained until then. Londo sighed. He had not meant to remind Vir; it had been necessary, heroic, even, but Vir had never been able to accept this as a complete justification for murder.
"Very well," Londo continued, hastily, "he doesn't like it. So why not stop handing out his wisdom altogether? No offer, no buyers - simple, yes?"
Vir looked grateful, or maybe he had not thought about Cartagia at all. For all his deceptive simplicity, Vir sometimes managed to surprise Londo. And in his own way, he was as tenacious as G'kar when he had started with a subject that interested him.
"He wants them to find wisdom," Vir said doggedly, "but not because they just do what he tells them to. But you don't treat him this way. You don't. well, worship him."
Londo snorted, and opened his mouth to deliver a scathing remark about G'kar's utter lack of divinity, when the idea hit him.
"Of course!" he cried, and slapped Vir on the back. "Great Maker, it's so obvious."
For the first time in this conversation, Vir was the one who looked confused. "Never mind, Vir," Londo said, his mood having improved infinitely. "But there are some things you'll have to do for me, once we're finished with this", he looked at the list of petitioners flashing on the computer screen, and distaste crept up in his voice again, "this list of imbeciles whose family trees haven't managed to produce a single functioning brain cell in over a century."
The light in G'kar's rooms, with its reddish glow and eternal duskiness, would normally have reminded Londo of Narn and why he never wanted to see the planet again. As it was, the anticipated pleasure at the results his idea was going to produce carried him over the murky ground of his memories like a wave. He even managed to ignore the other Narn who radiated distaste and hatred from every pore. Some hissed as he entered in his most boisterous fashion; others grew silent as the unforgiving stone of their homeworld.
"G'kar!" Londo exclaimed, beaming, and was thrilled to see G'kar looking somewhat confused for the first time in years. "My dear friend G'kar! I've reconsidered."
"Indeed", G'kar said flatly.
"Of course I have. You want me to meditate and rethink my life? Well, why not. Never let it be said that Londo Mollari isn't open to new experiences. I've already made reservations."
"Reservations", G'kar repeated, and narrowed his eyes. Apparently, he started to catch on.
"You know, for a writer you are dreadfully monosyllabic, G'kar. But never mind. Yes. Reservations. A table at the Wa'tia'ru, tonight", Londo concluded, waiting for the realisation to hit as he named one of Babylon 5's most infamous night clubs. They still held the record of having been shut down by Security for the violation of virtually every station rule there was no less than six times. The Zocalo was a pristine haven of respectability in comparison.
The other Narn stared at G'kar. G'kar stared at Londo, with a flinty gaze. His face might as well have been set in granite.
"You found enlightenment in a dungeon, did you not? Are you telling me a night club is so much worse?"
Now the other Narn began to watch them with a certain expectation. They knew, they had to know, that G'kar had been tortured on Centauri Prime. Surely, they were convinced that to talk of such a time frivolously, to show such disrespect would cause G'kar to turn his back on Londo for good.
"The first time I found enlightenment", G'kar replied, very slowly, very precisely, "was actually in your suite."
It was something they had never, ever talked about. Abruptly, Londo felt cold, despite the Narn-type-temperature in the room which was higher than a Centauri could stomach for very long. His smile didn't leave his face; he was too well trained for it to be otherwise. What had happened then had been far worse than G'kar using his superior physical strength to exact revenge, to vent some of the hatred Londo's actions in the war had caused. The bruises, cuts and broken bones had healed in a short time. But G'kar had taken Dust before coming to Londo's suite, the drug which enabled even non-telepaths to assault another's mind, to tear it to pieces. Londo had expected G'kar to kill him that day, and sometimes his survival on that particular occasion still mystified him. The whole affair had ended with him in Medlab and G'kar in one of Garibaldi's cells for some weeks; in retrospect, it was true that G'kar had begun to change then.
It still didn't bear thinking about. Londo had felt helpless on other occasions, true, but the memory of the utter violation, of having every bit of his mind turned inside out still horrified him more than anything else. To live with a mind you could no longer claim as your own, to have even this last refuge, which on Centauri Prime the worst criminals were entitled to, taken away - what fate could be worse?
He hadn't expected G'kar to remind him, surely not now, with all his newly gained sanctity. It just went to show one should never underestimate G'kar. But Londo did not intend to; and besides, he could never resist following an idea through to its logical conclusion once it had occurred to him.
"Yes, yes", he said briskly, and stepped closer, "quite true. Then a night club should be simple in comparison, shouldn't it? Much less distraction."
G'kar said nothing. The edges around his eyes and mouth crinkled, though it was impossible to tell whether in indignation or amusement. Shrugging, Londo dropped his voice and hoped Vir had been right with his estimation. "Of course", he continued, sounding slightly bored, "if you want to remain here, with your estimable followers..."
He gestured at the disapproving Narn around them, and G'kar followed his gaze. Their hungry eagerness, only slightly repressed under their hatred for Londo and their stiff endurance of his presence, leapt at him; one could feel it, Londo thought, even without the slightest bit of telepathy. He almost shuddered in sympathy. At least this was something he himself would be permanently safe from.
"I'll come with you, Mollari", G'kar replied at last, voice rumbling, and if you didn't know him very well, it would be possible to miss the relief beneath the condescension. Londo tried not to grin. As they stepped out of the room, G'kar added, very low: "But if you think I'm letting you turn this into a joke, you are mistaken. You will change your life."
Leave it to G'kar to turn a dinner invitation into a threat.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that two middle-aged ambassadors in possession of credits must be in need of companionship. The Wa'tia'ru prided itself on having "everything, for every taste", and pointed out that that even Pakh'mara returned from their establishment, all needs satisfied, which took some effort and not a little bribery, considering their rumoured cannibalistic eating habits and their mating preferences. It hadn't taken Londo long to figure out one of the ways the Wa'tia'ru managed to achieve this. After all, he himself was what Sheridan, in one of his less diplomatic moments, had called "a con man who would sell used star furies if they hadn't made him ambassador". They used human telepaths, of course. Telepaths who were on the run from the Psi Corps and would do anything for some cash and a place to hide; anything would include suggesting to customers they had consumed one thing, when it really had been another, no matter how one defined consumption.
Londo didn't mind a clever pretense every now and then, as long as he was the one pulling the strings. Which meant that Vir had made it clear to the management they would be monitored the entire time by an independent telepath. This, naturally, was also illegal, but given that President Sheridan currently indulged a considerable sized group of illegal telepaths on board, and would do anything rather than call in the Psi Corps, there was not much the management could do about this.
All of which meant that the young women who draped themselves around Londo and G'kar the minute they entered had to be the genuine article. The intermingling of perfumes and warm skin, of silk and, so alien, long, rich hair was a good way to remind oneself one was alive again. Londo sighed and repeated what he had said to G'kar all those years ago, when they had cordially despised each other, but before there had been any blood shed between them: "Of all good things in life, are females not the finest?"
Apparently, G'kar also remembered, for he replied as he had then, with some regretful nostalgia: "On that, Mollari, we can agree."
In those days G'kar had had what Vir, blushingly, had described as "a vivid social life". Michael Garibaldi, who was not the blushing type, had once complained that "this guy scores more than any of us", a remark which wasn't that difficult to translate even without expertise in Earth slang. But the war which had changed so many things also brought a rather obvious dilemma for G'kar. Transforming himself first into a resistance leader and then into a religious icon was a distinct drawback if one was also burdened with ethics which forbade the exploitation of admiring female followers. And these days, pretty much every Narn had started to turn into a follower. Londo admired the way Sheridan, who was faced with a similar dilemma, dealt with this; he had married the only woman on the station who was as venerated and could not possibly be called an underling. But there was no similar solution in sight as far as G'kar was concerned.
Now, given that the blackmail material they had collected on each other when blackmail was still the name of the game had revealed G'kar to have a considerable fondness for females outside of his own people, the problem should not have been that big, for G'kar's messianic reputation had not yet jumped species, but Londo had a hunch those pesky followers weren't exactly encouraging non-Narn females to give G'kar more than a look.
The girls were too clever to pretend not to recognize them, or to appear over-awed; they struck a nice balance between teasing and proper respect, and still managed to get drinks ordered before they were properly seated. Londo was impressed, though he could tell already he wouldn't follow up on it. Not that he had G'kar's problem. Far from it. An imperial future positively encouraged people, up to and including the wives he had already divorced in mutual loathing, to show up in his bed at the most surprising times, and nobody expected him not to take every advantage of them. But for all the opportunities, he found himself less and less interested. Perhaps it was simply age, that and good old fashioned precaution, given that being murdered in the throes of passion had a grand tradition among candidates for the throne. Perhaps it was because the one woman he truly longed for would never return to him, not ever. In any case, he still enjoyed the sounds of female laughter, the way women moved, the lights reflecting on their skin and the sparkle in their eyes. And he could tell G'kar did, too.
After the girls had declared they would order the food since they could judge best what was fit for two such extraordinary gentlemen, and had rushed off to corner the waiter, G'kar leaned back. They were seated in a corner, well-positioned to watch the show on the small stage which consisted of an expert mixture of holograms and actual performers. As far as Londo could tell, the fertility dance presented right now was anatomically possible, but only just.
"You know," G'kar said, "I can never make up my mind whether you are extraordinarily foolish or just intermittendly inspired, Mollari. Did you really think you can distract me with this?" He gestured. "There is nothing here I haven't seen when you were busy running away from your debts."
Londo shrugged. "You have this strange idea, G'kar, that one has to start a new life in the most unpleasant manner possible, just because it happened that way to you. I don't see why. Not that I blame you if you got another impression, under the circumstances, but we Centauri celebrate life. By living."
The ever changing lights from the stage turned to a bright yellow then, and the contrast of G'kar's two eyes, the natural red and the artificial blue, was as startling as ever. He looked at Londo and shook his head. "You are not living. You are still running away."
Unexpectedly, this stung. "Oh, I stopped running a long time ago", Londo replied quietly. "Believe me."
The girls returned then, with some more drinks and the promise of delicacies to come. The one with the purple hair, whose name was Dina, sat next to Londo and kissed him, and her lips had the taste of purple, too; fading sweetness which only comes when you no longer need it.
"Is it true somebody tried to kill you the other week, Ambassador?" she asked, her fingers deftly trailing inside his jacket.
"Somebody always tries to kill him," G'kar interjected sourly before Londo could reply. "He finds more people who want to kill him by the hour. He makes them. It's what he is best at."
Londo raised his eyebrows. "Ah, but there is one talent I lack. Somehow I don't manage to get myself captured by asking the most dangerous maniac of the galaxy for directions."
Dina looked from one of them to the other, and her friend, who showed great talent for exposing a considerable amount of skin next to G'kar's armour without getting scratched, burst out laughing.
"How long have the two of you been married?" Dina asked, amused.
G'kar glared at her. Londo's first impulse was to glare as well, but then he realized the opening she had provided him with.
"Oh, we're not married. He only slept with my wife a couple of times."
The whole evening was already worth it, if only for G'kar's priceless expression. The girls both looked intrigued.
"Mariel isn't exactly noted for her discretion," Londo added drily, ostensibly addressing them. Was it the stage music, or did he actually hear G'kar grinding his teeth? Probably the former, but oh yes, this had been one of his better ideas. He was prepared to bet any sum G'kar was now rapidly calculating when Londo had found out, and whether any of Mariel's actions had been on Londo's instructions.
G'kar's companion for the evening, who had introduced herself as Lyris, apparently arrived at the conclusion it was time to demonstrate some solidarity and came to his rescue. Or maybe she decided that since Londo provided the cash, it was worth playing up to him, and he would mind less being teased.
"Did you join them?" she asked breathily. Londo, who had just started to drink from the glass Dina had handed him, spluttered and coughed before he caught himself.
"My dear, that would have the murderous exercise."
"Station gossip missed this completely", Dina said to G'kar, whose continued glower was only slightly marred by the fact one of his eyes could not really express anything. "We didn't know you were interested in. Centauri, Citizen G'kar. In that way, I mean."
"I was interested in a great many things before realising I was squandering my life," G'kar replied, "but until certain other people, I grew up."
"That was when he decided we should both die in an elevator, together, while he was singing songs for me," Londo added helpfully.
At this point, dinner arrived. The girls had chosen wisely, though G'kar probably would have eaten anything just to prove his disdain for the topic at hand. While he crunched a couple of Orion nuts, Londo treated himself to some ripe, decaying spoo and felt better by the second.
"Are you still sleeping with Ambassador Mollari's wife?" Lyris asked innocently.
"They are divorced," G'kar returned, and would undoubtedly launched into another homily on having grown beyond affairs for political benefits, but Londo was quicker.
"So that is why you aren't seeing her anymore?" he asked, faking indignation. "Poor Mariel. Well, you know, if it has to be one of my wives, you could try Timov, though that would really mean crossing the line between bravery and suicide. Mariel needs poison if she wants to kill someone, but Timov? She can eviscerate anyone merely by using her tongue."
Dina made a face. "And here I thought the Drazi were the ones into tongues."
G'kar ignored her. "She could have done us all a great favour and eviscerated you years ago", he said archly. "What a great benefit to the universe that would have been."
"Why didn't you?" Londo asked. The laughter, whistles and chatter around them from everywhere else in the room continued, but the girls, sensing this wasn't part of the game anymore, grew quiet. G'kar inclined his head.
"Is that why you brought me here?" he asked back, sounding genuinely curious.
"Maybe I just wanted us to have a pleasant evening," Londo replied, and signalled the girls to withdraw, which they did, without any fuss or bother. They really deserved an extra tip. "Maybe I can sense there won't be too many of those left. We Centauri can, you know. Maybe I wanted to return the favour of your efforts in regards to my soul. I never claimed I wasn't petty. And yes, maybe there are some questions I want to ask."
"Questions are a good start on the path to enlightenment", G'kar said neutrally, but he leaned forward, and Londo, who had years of experience reading G'kar, knew he was hooked. "Not that I actually expect you to go there, I suppose. There are few constants in this universe, but your spectacular ability to make the wrong decisions is one of them."
"Well then. I am a gambler, so let us play a game. An earth game. Truth or Dare, G'kar."
It took them a while to negotiate the rules of the game, since Londo wanted to modify them, and G'kar refused to participate in any game where Londo could set the parameters.
"I might take that as a slur regarding my gambling ethics," Londo said.
"What ethics?" G'kar asked.
In fact, at first G'kar accused him of having made the entire game up, claiming that neither Sheridan nor Garibaldi had ever mentioned any such game as Truth or Dare. Since Sheridan had started his tenure on Babylon 5 bothering them all with a variety of Earth games - they shuddered in rare unity at the memory of baseball -, and Garibaldi had to know every game there was, Earth or otherwise, G'kar concluded triumphantly, it could not exist.
"Well, call him and ask," Londo said, exasperated. "And if you want my opinion why neither of them ever mentioned it to you, it's because they both had secrets they didn't want to share, and they definitely didn't want to be dared into suicidal rescue missions for Narn."
The existence of Truth or Dare proven, they proceeded to argue about the modifications.
"It would be just like you to take Dare the entire time," Londo remarked. "And since your epiphany in my suite which you kindly brought up earlier today, I don't have any secrets you don't know about anyway, so I could take Truth all the way without having anything to lose. Which would make for a dull game."
G'kar muttered something about the novelty value of Londo telling nothing but the truth for an entire evening making up for any monotony, but in the end they agreed that one shouldn't be allowed to take the same option for more than three times in a row, and that dares were not allowed to include anything that would endanger Centauri Prime or Narn.
Armed with some Earth whiskey, they started at last. G'kar, perhaps to make a point about not being as predictable as Londo claimed, picked Truth.
"Hm. Let's see. It occurs to me that you never asked me who he was, so you must have met him. Tell me, G'kar, what did you reply to Mr. Morden?"
G'kar steepled his fingers. "How do you know I gave him any answer at all? Delenn didn't."
"No," Londo said, feeling the warmth of the evening drain away, "Delenn didn't. And Kosh didn't. But I did, and if you tell me you didn't, I won't believe you."
"I told him," G'kar said slowly, "I told him I wanted to see every Centauri dead. I told him I wanted to carve flutes out of their bones."
And why didn't he take you up on it? Londo wondered. Why did he pick me instead? You weren't then what you are now. You would have gone through with it, too, if he had given you the chance. The eternally selfish part of himself wished Morden had picked G'kar, no matter the consequences, because then it would be G'kar who would have the blood on his hands, G'kar who would still hear Morden whispering to him at night about retribution yet due and services rendered, with the human's charming smile looking grotesque on a skull.
But if Morden had picked G'kar, the Centauri would be dead, and Centauri Prime would have been a pyre not only for Cartagia, but for an entire people. No. Anything but that. Londo had made his choices, and no matter the regrets, no matter what the future had in store for him, he would accept it all if it meant the Centauri were safe.
G'kar met his gaze, unflinching, and the silence between them bled with might-have beens. Londo sighed.
"Dare", he said.
"Invite your wife Timov to visit you here," G'kar replied, and Londo's eyebrows shot upwards. "I was joking earlier, G'kar," he said, and drank some whiskey to cover his surprise.
"I'm not," G'kar shot back and took the bottle from him.
"Ah. Now that dare , but within the rules. Very well then. I shall invite Timov. May I ask.?"
"No," G'kar interrupted firmly, "since I'm taking Dare next."
The suspicion grew in Londo that he had started to lose the upper hand which he had so pleasantly maintained since they arrived in this establishment. Which was annoying, but then again, he had wanted the game to be a challenge. Covering his irritation, he let his gaze wander through the Wa'tia'ru. There weren't any other Narn in sight, and only two or three other Centauri, who kept a well-advised discreet distance and pretended not to notice him and G'kar. Naturally not a single Minbari raised his bony crest. He felt a brief pang at the thought of Lennier, who was the only Minbari one could even vaguely suspect of showing up in such an establishment, albeit only if dragged here by certain bored ambassadors. Vir had told him about Lennier's departure. It would be a pity not to see the boy again.
He spotted Lyris and Dina with two wealthy-looking humans, both of them female. They were by far the prettiest sight in the room, Londo decided, including the stage show, but he wasn't surprised to find a Kaibiri staring with rapture at a rather tired and plain looking boy. Whatever the Kaibiri thought he was getting was probably produced by one of the Wa'tia'ru's telepaths. Which brought another idea to mind.
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather take Truth, G'kar?"
Londo smirked. "In that case, I dare you to pick out the most attractive male in the room and kiss him."
Gratifyingly, this brought G'kar on his feet. "Mollari!"
"It was your choice, remember. If you thought I'd tell you to do something crashingly dull and heroic, you obviously know me less than you think. Besides, you had your chances with the girls."
G'kar managed to look both mortified and ready to kill at the same time. Even the soft cushions they were sitting on squeaked in protest when he slumped down again, seething.
"Don't tell me you're conceding defeat that early, G'kar."
"No", returned G'kar through clenched teeth, "but I will postpone fulfilling until this is ended. I certainly won't wish to remain here afterwards."
Londo shrugged. If this were Garibaldi or anyone else, he'd accuse them of trying to weasel out of it, but G'kar, at this point at least, was the honorable type.
"Suit yourself. A Truth for me, then."
As he had remarked earlier, he believed this was a safe option for him, given everything G'kar already knew. Besides, G'kar's next idea of a Dare would probably involve something even more painful then inviting Timov on board. Actually, it wouldn't be that unpleasant to see Timov again. She wore her hostility and disdain for him proudly, like a banner, which was why he had chosen her as his remaining wife, and would never stab him in the back, which was more than one could say of any other Centauri except for Vir. Sparring with Timov was almost as refreshing as sparring with G'kar, and the idea of her face if he organized an honour guard to greet her as the future empress made him smile in anticipation, so much he almost didn't hear G'kar's question.
"Among all your deeds, which is the one you are most ashamed of?"
Of course. He should have expected this. With his two hearts, one of them newly mended, pumping in unison, Londo felt some stirrings of his own temper, an old anger rising in him.
"Do you wish a list, G'kar? I told you I am sorry. I will tell you again if that is what you want. But I thought you had accepted."
"This isn't what I have asked," G'kar interrupted him. "You don't listen, Mollari; you never do. I didn't ask you for an apology, or even about your greatest regret. I asked you about your greatest shame. Don't tell me you don't know the difference, or I would have to assume you are even more hopeless than I already think you are."
Cataloguing emotions, fine-tuning them like a harp; how much of a glutton for self-punishment would one have to be to do this on a regular basis? In earlier times, Londo would have dismissed the request with a glib aphorism and thought nothing of forfeiting the game, but too much had happened between them for this. The memories were there, snapping at his heels like they always did, and as in the night of his heart failure, he knew he couldn't outrun them anymore. There were so many to choose from. Shame, was it? There was his first wife, the dancer, whom he regularly described as a harridan he had been glad to get rid off but who in reality had been a wonder he had sacrificed for family ambition. There was stripping G'kar of his rank and title in front of the council after Narn had fallen. There had been no need for this kind of humiliation. Those days were burned in his memory, engraved with acid that ate a little deeper each time he permitted himself to think of it, and it started with watching the mass drivers destroy the planet Narn in silence. Doing he had felt then was too much to call it shame, or anger, or regret. But when he had returned to Babylon 5, finding Garibaldi and everyone else looking at him as if he dragged the millions of dead bodies the victory over Narn had cost behind, he had known fury, and shame, and he had vented both on G'kar, forcing him to leave.
Then there was the shame at being taken in by Morden a second time. He should have known better. He should have known that Morden was the one who had murdered Adira; in retrospect, it was so obvious. But he had allowed himself to be played, and had been made an instrument some months longer. He had killed Refa because of it. Not that he could spare much regret for Refa, even now, but the way he had organized this particular murder, the gloating he had felt at the idea of Refa being torn to pieces by a horde of vengeful Narn, and the use of.
There it was.
"Vir", Londo said bitterly. "The way I used Vir to set up Refa. It was different with Cartagia, later; that, he had agreed to, and knew it had to be done. But with Refa, I put him through hell and let him believe I would use him to murder you, and all so that Refa would be just a bit more convinced."
He stared at his hands; middle-aged hands, with the freckles and blemishes age left, but otherwise spotlessly clean. It was quite disconcerting.
For a while, G'kar said nothing. His posture grew less rigid, and finally, he nodded. "Why this," he asked, and Londo could hear the unspoken "out of all the things you did" repeated. Yet G'kar did not sound accusing, or puzzled; he sounded like someone searching for a way.
"Because Vir trusted me. Because, in the end, and I don't know why, Vir is the only being who ever managed to know exactly what I am and still love me."
"You surprise me, Mollari," G'kar said, but added nothing more.
This time, they each drank an entire cup in silence, before Londo spoke again. "This doesn't mean you're off the hook with your Dare, you know."
G'kar made a little noise somewhere between a disdainful snort and a regretful sigh. "I never met someone so determined to evade."
".Enlightenment? Salvation? Peace? Bah. Keep it. It's not for me anyway."
"Everyone." G'kar began, and Londo shook his head.
"You forget", he said lightly, and smelled a whiff of an unexpectedly seductive perfume as an old woman made her way to a couch the waiters had prepared for her, "I know. We always do. We don't know when, or why, but we know how, and you have seen it, too, that day you broke my mind up like a shell."
Sometimes, he suspected that the Centauri ability to see the moment of their deaths was the ultimate proof that the universe was an evil place, but one with a sense of humour about it. Anyone longed for a bit of their future, any bit, as if it were scraps from a wonderful, eternally unconsumed meal. But what more useless knowledge could one have than this one moment which nobody could evade?
They looked at each other, and Londo wondered whether G'kar, who at the time had not exactly been rational, had even realised that this was what he had seen in the end: the vision of Londo's death at his hands, and his own death at Londo's. Maybe he had assumed it had been one of Londo's dreams. Well, now he knew better.
"So don't talk to me of achieving a redemptive, peaceful state of mind," Londo finished. "I already know how I will."
"A Truth", G'kar said, and it could be taken either as a confirmation of Londo's statement or as a return to the game.
"Why didn't you kill me then?" Londo whispered. "Or any of the times you could have."
For the first time in their conversation, G'kar looked away. "You forget the punishment your people would have exacted on mine," he said tersely.
"Is that why?"
"Those are two questions."
Which wasn't true, Londo thought, and a rather blatant evasion, even for G'kar. He could press the issue and insist on an answer. And G'kar would ultimately give it. But then the truce between them, the fragile understanding which had spun through necessary alliances and murder and torture and saved lives, would be shattered. It might not be able to survive the glare of that last truth, and Londo found he cared too much to take the risk.
"When a Narn learns subtlety, I know that the end is nigh," he said instead. "My turn then. A Dare."
He was startled when G'kar reached over the small table and touched his shoulder. Londo had seen G'kar pull chains apart with those hands, but it was only a light grip this time, the strength more hinted at than felt.
"Let go of your destiny," G'kar said. "Let someone else become Emperor. Let go of it all, and leave it behind - Centauri Prime, your past, everything. Become a stranger in a strange world. I dare you."
In his youth, Londo had once heard a song, sung by a voice of such overwhelming sweetness that he stopped showing off to his friend Ursa and listened, arrested. While the voice sang, it had seemed to him that everything was possible, that he was absolved from anything he ever did or would do, and that he should go and find the singer, immediately, and devote the rest of his life to this extraordinary person.
Then the song had ended, Ursa had laughed and asked whether he wanted to defeat their opponents at the next fencing competition by staring in the air like a mooncalf, and Londo had laughed as well. It had been an hour or more until he had been able to leave Ursa behind, pretending to have forgotten a task his uncle had entrusted him with. Then, he had searched for the unknown whose face he had never seen, but he never found either the singer, nor heard the song, ever again.
When G'kar spoke, the moment of his youth came back, and the recognition almost broke him. It was utter madness, and yet seemed plausible, and for a moment, he believed it could be. That G'kar had found the one way which would permit him to escape. The overwhelming sense of joy and relief swept him away, and he tried to cling to it, but with the next heartbeats, reality came back.
It wasn't ambition. Londo had stopped hungering for the throne years ago. But he knew very well whose fault it was that the Vorlons had almost destroyed Centauri Prime. He knew who had made it possible for Cartagia to become Emperor and leave his legacy of madness and hate. He knew who had asked to take his people back to the stars, and changed them from the well- liked joke of the galaxy to a feared and distrusted power. The Centauri were the only love in his life he had never betrayed or abandoned. To seek freedom and leave them to the darkness he felt creeping closer in every inch of his body would be the final unforgivable act. He couldn't do it. It was as simple as that.
"I can't," he said, very low, but he knew G'kar understood every word. "I'm sorry. I can't. I concede the game."
The fingers on his shoulder rested a moment longer, and then G'kar let go. "I'm sorry, too, Londo."
The use of his first name, something G'kar had done only once or twice before, was the crowning element of unreality. Like a swimmer gasping for air, Londo decided a quick change of element was in order. And he had got what he wanted, hadn't he? G'kar would not pester him with his ill-judged attempts at conversion anymore. Which was a relief. Indeed it was.
"Not as sorry as you'll be when I change your Dare a bit," he mused aloud. "Don't think I have forgotten about that one, just because you won the game. This", he waved his arms about, "fine establishment has far too small a selection. I should have dared you to take your pick among the council, or the command staff, or."
"You can't do that, Mollari", G'kar said indignantly, and it was such a relief to hear him bluster again. "I knew I shouldn't have let you set the rules of a game. But set they are, and if you think you can make me believe it is allowed to change Dares after the fact, you must have lost what wits you still possess."
"That's a Narn for you. All stiff neck and no sense of humour," Londo muttered. "Fine. What do I care? But the game is over, I, for one, intend to retire, and you still haven't delivered. If you don't go through with this, G'kar, I'll complain to Sheridan. With a detailed explanation. In front of Delenn, too."
G'kar rose, and, after glaring at Londo, looked around. Then, to Londo's surprise, his mottled, scaly face settled into something of a grin.
"This is a rather limited selection," he agreed. "But as opposed to you, I am an honorable man, so..."
If Londo hadn't been busy scanning the room for whom G'kar might pick, and had speculated just how this person would react to having their highly-paid entertainment interrupted by being suddenly approached by a glowering Narn, he would have seen it coming. As it was, he was utterly surprised, and sat in shock long after G'kar had left.
It was really amazing, Londo thought, rubbing his mouth, what some people would do to have the last word.