Nothing like a good argument to get the adrenalin flowing. Or so G’Kar tried to convince himself, pressed flat against the palace wall to escape detection by the guards. It was pure Londo, of course, to pick the worst possible moment to exercise his right for privacy. Not that G’Kar failed to understand the need. After two weeks of trailing Londo like (he grimaced at his own bad pun) a shadow, the thought of solitude was more appealing than ever. But G'Kar, at least, had not gone running off merely a day after the failed attempt on their lives, which was precisely what Londo was doing. He’d insisted on G’Kar not following him around, claiming he would go insane if he did not get at least an hour by himself. G’Kar had given in eventually, only to slip outside right after Londo had left. No one had ever claimed a Narn always kept his promises – although Londo, for some reason, seemed to believe it anyway.
The last guard turned the corner, and G’Kar used the opportunity to narrow the gap between Londo and him. For a moment, the rustle of his steps seemed to be echoed by someone else’s. But when he stopped and peered behind him, there was no movement at all.
It was uncanny, Londo thought, how well he remembered the doorway. How much of the memory was real and how much the product of his imagination, he had no way of knowing. Either way, all he would find inside were ghosts. The room had been cleared out months ago, along with its collection of severed heads and any other trace of Cartagia that remained.
Ghosts, then, were what drew him here. Cartagia’s, and perhaps his own. Londo hadn’t returned home since appointing the Regent; while he’d tried to convince himself it had simply been inconvenient, deep down he knew the reason was memories. It was time to put some of them to rest. Grasping the gilded knob, he had a flash of stumbling through the door on a night very much like this one, a madman’s laughter ringing in his ears and visions of ruin crowding his mind. He remembered how, irrationally enough, his first thought hadn’t been of himself but of Vir, and that seeing G’Kar tortured must have felt rather like this to him. Of course Vir wasn't here now, but G’Kar was. That thought finally gave him the courage he needed to swing open the door.
The room was empty.
Londo wavered between disappointment and relief. He hadn't expected to find much that was tangible, but there wasn’t even a dust mote on the floor that hinted at the space’s last use. Unless... There. Over in the far corner, almost as an afterthought, a rickety cupboard stood sagging against the wall. Londo moved towards it and pulled it open. It hadn’t even been emptied properly; not that the contents were all that interesting. A few dishevelled piles of paperwork, assorted bags and tins of food, a picture frame with Cartagia’s portrait that had miraculously escaped destruction... And on the top left shelf, a small wooden box that looked very much like a safe of some sort. Londo fingered the combination lock, gave it a random turn and pulled. To his surprise, the little door gave way instantly, but there seemed to be nothing inside, apart from –
He frowned. Taped to the inside of the door was that same portrait of Cartagia, all gestures and smiles and gleaming teeth, and two words, written across it in curling, florid Centauri script.
There was a flash of movement from inside the safe. The next thing Londo knew was a sharp stab of pain somewhere in the vicinity of his left heart, making him wonder, for a moment, if Franklin had failed to patch him up properly after all.
By the time he registered his heart had nothing to do with it, his body had already taken the clue.
It was the tiniest noise, barely even a gasp. A human might have missed it altogether, but to G’Kar it screamed of trouble, and he shouldered through the door without pausing for breath.
For a moment he thought he had got it wrong. Right there in the corner was Londo, poised rather stiffly in front of a half-open cabinet but looking, at first glance, perfectly fine. G’Kar wavered in mid-stride, bracing himself for the requisite hissy fit about matters of risk, paranoia and privacy. Yet nothing of the sort followed. Nor did any reaction at all.
A little pale, G'Kar thought, as he peered at Londo through the gloom. Of course, so were all Centauri, but... Yes, definitely paler than usual, and wearing the most curious of expressions: slack, with half-lidded eyes and a frown that looked puzzled more than anything else.
It was only then that he spotted it: polished metal, maybe three inches long, protruding from just above Londo's left vest pocket. G'Kar stuffed down his shock before it could show.
“G'Kar?" Londo muttered. "What are you... doing here?”
“Being paranoid,” G’Kar said, and moved just in time to keep Londo from toppling clean over.
“Poison.” G’Kar squinted. “With your species’ penchant for cowards’ weapons, why am I not surprised?”
Cowards’ weapons. Londo clenched his teeth and hoisted himself a little higher up against the wall. Like mass drivers, yes? As for poison – but no, no, he wasn’t going there. Great Maker, his head was spinning. For a moment he let himself give in to it, tilting his head against cool stone and wondering if all of this was real. Perhaps he’d snap out of it any minute now, to find G’Kar watching him from the bedside with that vaguely irritated look which meant Londo had shouted himself awake again. Yes, that had to be it. Because this – the gloved hands on his torso, G’Kar’s face hovering inches from his chest – felt rather less like reality than like a very curious dream.
G’Kar fingered the dart, causing Londo to hiss and pry open his eyes. “Not barbed, at least. Be grateful for Centauri inefficiency, Mollari, a rare thing as it is.”
The cynicism was thick enough that Londo caught it even in his befuddled state. “Yes, yes,” he said, and waved his hand feebly. “I applaud your grasp of technicalities, G’Kar. But if it is all the same, I would rather you stop fiddling and fetch a d– AH!” He stared at the dart as G’Kar held it up for inspection.
“A doctor?" G'Kar said, tossing the dart aside. "And how long will it take to get you to one, you think – one who can be trusted, who wouldn't slip in an extra bit of poison for good measure? You have no idea who your enemies are.” With brisk efficiency, G’Kar rid himself first of one glove, then the other. “No. Besides, if this was meant to be lethal, I doubt you would have lasted this long.”
Londo groped for a retort, but was distracted by the uncommon sight of bare Narn hands, smooth and long-fingered and curiously unscarred. Of course he knew about the scars. He'd known it ever since that night G’Kar had stripped down to change, and it was Londo, not him, who’d averted his eyes. His stomach cramped weakly – from the poison or the memory, Londo couldn't say. He struggled to focus on the facts before him. “That is very comforting, G’Kar, but there is little logic in Centauri poisons. Poison-making is an art here, and Cartagia’s tastes...”
“... were about as artful as a three-year-old pulling wings off insects," G'Kar interrupted. "So forgive me if I don’t propose to visit a museum, Mollari, I’m rather primitive that way. Open your coat.”
Londo blinked at the apparent non-sequitur. “Open – what?” Hew swallowed as G’Kar flicked out a small blade. “G’Kar, I – I grant you your old-fashionedness, truly – scrolls, ancient books, religion, leeches, blood-letting, all quite charming, but..."
“Basic Centauri first-aid,” G’Kar said, voice softening. “Requisite learning in my days. Not that I took the lessons to heart, but I was always one to retain useless information.” A hand grazed Londo’s arm and lingered there for a moment. “And the knife is sterile, in case you doubted that.”
This wasn’t real, Londo thought, watching G’Kar tug at laces and buttons to reveal an angry red blotch that already looked inflamed. The flash of the knife was quick, but still he felt his gorge rise as G’Kar covered the wound with his mouth – and he knew common Narn bacteriae couldn’t harm a Centauri, he knew it, but still – drawing out blood along with the poison before spitting and sucking and spitting again, until Londo felt so dizzy he could hardly see anything anymore.
Which was why he didn’t register the door swinging shut until a second after it was too late.
“Stop pacing, G’Kar. You are making me seasick.”
G’Kar paused in his scrutiny of the room’s nooks and crannies to peer at Londo over his shoulder. He was looking worse. Doing his best not to show it, of course, each remark infused with a fair amount of peevishness, but something in the words dragged, and a sheen of perspiration now covered his face. It didn’t help, of course, that the only place available for sitting was the floor.
“Seasick?” G'Kar said. “Really, Mollari, the nautical metaphor has its uses, but –”
Londo pulled a face. “Well, whatever you wish to call it...” He blanched and squeezed his eyes shut, breathing heavily through his mouth. For a second he looked utterly helpless, and G’Kar turned away, pretending he hadn’t seen. Londo was as attached to his dignity as anyone.
Still, it took far too long for his breathing to even out, which was not a good sign. G'Kar distracted himself by attempting to force the lock again. Without success, of course.
“Great Maker, G'Kar,” Londo said faintly. “You’ve tried everything at least twice now. A third time is not going to make a difference. This room was designed sound-proof; the door is locked, the key is on the outside…"
“And neither is acceptable!” G'Kar said, feeling his temper flare along with his tone and making no effort to stop it. “Neither is excusable, Mollari! You could have taken Cotto as a body-guard and been better off –”
Weary sigh. “G'Kar, you did warn me not to come here."
“Then I should have foreseen the extent of your foolishness!” Furious, he wheeled around to where Londo was propped against the wall, only to have his anger evaporate like smoke. “Someone closed that door on us,” he said flatly. “They may have been trailing us all day, waiting for just such an opportunity, and I allowed them to take it.”
“Well, none of us are perfect, and a good thing, too, hmm? It would make life rather dull.” Londo shrugged and patted the floor beside him. “Come, G’Kar. It is clear we are not going to get out, so perhaps someone will find us and get in instead. If not… Well, I see no reason not to pass the time as pleasantly as possible."
Pleasantly. G’Kar clenched his teeth until they ached. And how 'pleasant' do you expect this to be, once the poison takes hold and you find yourself writhing on the tiles? In the past, it might have pleased him to witness such a thing, but that instance of G'Kar had long since vanished. As this G'Kar, he could only pray – for a stroke of luck, or, failing that, for an end that would at least be merciful. Knowing Cartagia, he feared mercy would be in short supply.
As if on cue, Londo sucked in a breath, keeping G’Kar from moving in with a raised hand. “Never mind, G’Kar, just… nautical metaphors, yes?” He forced a small smile. “Did you know that brivari was invented by a sailor from the island of Celini, to combat seasickness in stormy weather? It was effective, too – as long as the storm abated by morning, of course, because the after-effects... Well, I do not need to paint you a picture, hmm?”
G’Kar suppressed a chuckle despite himself. “Leave it to a Centauri to rationalize a state of inebriation. Unfortunately, there is no brivari in this room.”
"Ah, yes, that is a pity." The smile vanished. “You know, G'Kar, I was thinking... perhaps this was fate. Perhaps the universe has a penchant for locking us up in spaces that are barely one foot across, and nothing you did could have prevented this." Londo winced and, in an impulse, G'Kar knelt on his haunches to face him on level ground. When Londo spoke again, his voice was thick. "You saw it, that day, in my mind. Didn't you, G'Kar? That we are meant to die at each other's hands..."
“You don’t know that," G'Kar said, shoving away the encroaching image as he had done a hundred times before, although it never became any easier. "It's a dream, nothing else.”
“Oh, no." Londo laughed softly, but without a trace of humor. "No, it isn’t a dream. Or perhaps it is – but only if we die here, today." He pulled in an unsteady breath. "Who knows, G'Kar... perhaps this way is better. There are worse fates than this, after all."
A chill crept slowly up G'Kar's spine. “No," he heard himself say. "They will find us. You will be all right." But the words tasted hollow, as if speaking them was all it took to make them a lie.
The water tasted foul; foul enough that Londo found himself wondering for how long G'Kar had been carrying it around. Better not to know. One canteen was all they had, and he should be grateful for it, but gratitude was hard to muster when it was all he could do just to rinse his mouth without gagging. He chucked the canteen out of his sight with a grimace. At least the worst of the sickness seemed to have passed, but in its place had come plenty of new symptoms: shortness of breath, fever, muscle cramps. Wincing, he turned towards G’Kar in hope of some distraction.
He found him crunching on a bag of crackers – retrieved from Cartagia's cupboard, most likely. Londo did not even need to feign his distaste. “Is food the only thought that fits into that brain of yours? Now if it were decent food, but this...” Trailing off, he gave the sweets a better look. Small, round and syrupy-smelling, they looked only vaguely familiar, until he realized with a jolt what that smell reminded him of. “Those are…”
“‘Snicks – the Original’,” G'Kar intoned in flawless Centauri. He held up the bag for inspection while popping another cracker into his mouth. "I believed you were a patriot, Mollari. Doesn’t that include supporting your countrymen’s taste in snacks?”
Londo forced himself to breathe through his mouth. The smell was bringing it all back, in that curious way smells had: Dugarri’s severed head, the stink of rotting flesh mingled with that same cloying sweetness, and Cartagia spouting talk of pyres and godhood and victory. G’Kar was right, he thought. He should never have come back here. Distantly, he noted he could no longer stop his hands from shaking. They felt chilled to the bone like the rest of him, even though his clothes were soaked with sweat and clung to his body like an unpleasant second skin.
There was no warning. Suddenly, every muscle in his body was screaming, and he was too stunned to do anything other than double over and pray for the spasm to stop. Hands tightened onto his biceps, pressing him down, and then it passed and he found himself flat on his back on the floor, wheezing for air like a drowned leati. An orange, vaguely Narn-shaped blob loomed into his field of vision.
“Quit staring, G’Kar,” he managed, in a voice that sounded not at all like his own. “One would think... you had never seen a Centauri whimper in your life, hmm?" G’Kar’s eyes widened at that, and Londo allowed his tone to soften. “Please. We both know you have seen much worse things, and so have I. And do not tell me this is different because we know each other, because –”
That did not stop you before.
G’Kar blinked, pulling away as if burned, and Londo averted his eyes. Neither had finished the thought aloud, yet there it was nonetheless, hovering between them. For some reason they had never discussed G’Kar’s Dust-induced rampage before, not properly. Perhaps, Londo thought, that had been a mistake. The floor pressed cold and hard against his skull, and he shifted a little, trying to find a position that wasn’t quite so uncomfortable. To his surprise, he found his head roughly lifted and a coat wedged underneath.
“Don’t,” G’Kar said, fingers digging into his neck. “Don’t presume to know me, Mollari, or judge me by rules that no longer apply. What would you have me say? That I’ve seen worse things, done worse things, not just to strangers, but to you?” He chuckled, cheeks dimpling with sudden mirth, although Londo couldn’t for the life of him see what was amusing. “You see, I am saying it. Only it doesn’t change anything, does it? We are not the same people now as we were then, and that makes all the difference in the world.”
Londo blinked, feeling more disoriented than when G’Kar had been carving into his skin. “Does it? Make a difference?” A lump was lodging in his throat, and poison had nothing to do with it at all. “If we die here, now –”
This time, it was G’Kar’s eyes that smiled. “You could live a hundred years and try to set right the universe, and fate could be against you and turn it all to dust. Or you could die, be it here or twenty years from now, and your death could have some consequence you had never imagined. It’s like that for all of us. Isn't it?”
“Yes – Yes, of course,” Londo said, drawing aside muddled thoughts of fate and emperors and visions of death, and of Vir and G’Kar, and futures that might never come to pass. He was feeling very light-headed. Blinking furiously, he tried to stop his eyelids from shutting themselves. “Tell me something, G’Kar,” he muttered, “something to distract me. A story – a joke? Do they not have jokes on Narn?"
“Go to sleep,” the Narn voice offered, almost as a truce. “I won’t be going anywhere.”
Londo’s eyes were fluttering closed despite his best attempts, and for a moment he had the most ridiculous thought: that now, perhaps, was when he was supposed to say goodbye. Then the thought passed as G’Kar settled himself, legs crossed, beside him on the floor.
G'Kar breathed – out, in. A breath to cleanse the soul, sliding clean and cold towards his waist, emerging moist as he blew it back into his hands. Out, in; searching for calm, to press away the air that scratched his skin with icy fingers. Digging for silence. For a moment he almost had it. Then it slipped away again, replaced by the noise of too-weak lungs straining for air, and the hard click of chattering teeth.
G’Kar sighed. Stretching cramped legs, he turned towards the mound of Centauri splayed out at his side. Just sounds, he thought, watching Londo stir beneath the heavy Narn coat he’d tucked around him. No more than sounds, and quiet ones at that, even to ears as sensitive as his. So why was it, then, that the room was filled to the brim with them: rustles and coughs and breathless moans, all pressing against each other and vying for his attention like a crowd of starved children? Why couldn’t he help but hear every whimper the man made?
Londo twitched, breath hitching to grate at G’Kar’s already-frayed nerves. The fever had gone up again, he thought, reaching out to palm decadently soft skin. For a moment, he turned his mind to practicalities and considered – but no, no, he couldn’t. The irony was too great. If they got out of here alive, Londo would never let him forget it.
And yet, if they did not, which was starting to look increasingly likely... should anyone have to die like this?
As if on cue, the teeth chattered louder. Dear G’Quan – have I no resilience left, then? But it was logical – no greater waste of body heat than lying on a marble floor – and besides, who and when would the Centauri tell?
Heaving a long-suffering sigh, he pulled Londo up and closer, settling him, coat wrapped tight, against his chest.
The sensation of drowning eased as he felt himself anchored by rough, unmistakably alien fabric. Neither the smell nor the texture were all that unpleasant, though. Even the persistent ringing in his ears had began to sound almost like humming: low, melodious, and quite unlike any Centauri voice he knew.
When the light came streaming in and he thought it was his death, it didn’t even frighten him.
The sight of a Narn hovering within a two-metre radius of the Prime Minister’s bed seemed enough to confuse every medic in the palace. As a result, there was no shortage of odd looks cast in G’Kar’s direction. But so far no one had been reckless enough to protest; not even after G'Kar accosted the hapless medic sent to administer the antidote, snatching the vial out of the man's hands for inspection. Londo, unsurprisingly, had failed to display much in terms of gratitude. Within minutes of coming around he had already been complaining about everything ranging from thirst to the sturdiness of the pillows. He was only now starting to ask mildly intelligent questions – such as how, and by whom, they had been found.
“Wait, G’Kar – I cannot quite wrap my brain around this.” Still lacking coordination, Londo struggled to hoist himself up against the pillows. “The Regent noticed we were missing, and ordered a search? The Regent? Who has been refusing to talk to me except once, and then only to spout nonsense? Who is said to be roaming the corridors at night, drunk and raving like a madman?” Sighing, Londo tugged at the collar of his medical gown, which was pink and pompous and not quite the right size. “Great Maker. First the dagger, now this… It almost seems as if someone wants me alive.”
G’Kar moved away from the bedside to inspect the lock on the door. “If you have a complaint about being alive, Mollari, I’m sure we can find someone to remedy it.”
The still-ragged crest swayed dangerously. “No. No, something is wrong, G'Kar. But we will not learn anything here, not without getting ourselves killed in the process. Perhaps from Babylon 5 I can make some more inquiries...”
“For once, I agree with you," G'Kar said. "This place is a hazard to one’s health. I'll make arrangements.” He pulled up an armchair and proceeded to wedge it against the room’s only entrance before sitting down. “But first, I intend to get some sleep. You may have spent the past fifteen hours doing so, but not all of us have had that luxury.” He glared at Londo, daring him to protest, but nothing came. He had barely closed his eyes, however, when Londo piped in again.
“G’Kar? Near the end, when I was, ah… Did you – is it possible you were…”
Abruptly, G’Kar was wide awake again. Surely Londo had been unconscious when he –
Ah. Relieved, G’Kar leaned back against the headrest. “I was. To keep myself from going insane. Do you have any idea what it is like to spend all those hours locked in a room with you moaning in the background? To be honest, I thought with the snoring I had had it all, but really, Mollari!”
“I see.” Londo had the good grace to look at least a little embarrassed. “But – G’Kar?”
“What?” Prying his eyes open for what he hoped was the final time, he found Londo studying him with a very odd expression. It lasted only for a moment, though; then the Centauri turned his pink-clad back and tugged up the sheets.
"Nothing, G'Kar. Just… nothing at all."