Cartagia had been dead less than a week, and already the palace felt different. At first glance, of course, the atmosphere was appropriately muted by the dreary routine of funeral preparations. Yet beneath all of that, an almost giddy cheer was taking hold, like a wave of relief swelling just below the surface and bubbling up higher as the hours passed. It was as if the entire court, noblemen and servants alike, were collectively letting out the breath they’d been holding during those months with Cartagia in power.
Through this whirl of confused emotions, Vir Cotto marched, filled with confusion of his own. Distracted, he paused for a moment to let a group of young Centauri women, chattering, cheeks rosy with excitement, flutter past him.
Look at them. They’re – everyone is so happy! Vir winced, tugging at his collar in a futile attempt to make breathing easier. The mood that was brewing should have caught him in its wake – should have left him, if not exactly celebratory, at least with some measure of satisfaction about his role in recent events. Instead, ever since he and Londo had returned from Narn, his mind had been flailing, unsure of what exactly he was supposed to feel. Deep down in the rational part of his brain, there was the conviction that he had done a thing that was not only necessary, as Londo put it, but right. After all, the Cartagia who died by his hands was the very same man who’d thought nothing of torturing and mutilating G'Kar – who would have left Centauri Prime in cinders had they not intervened. Yet the other part of Vir, the part that still had firm ideas about right and wrong, could not wrap itself around the fact that killing a man, however great the need, could ever be the right choice.
On top of that, there was still the mixed disorientation and embarrassment from their flight back to Centauri Prime, now over a day ago but still fresh in his memory. Well – to be honest, the first half of it he barely remembered, apart from consummating his second-ever hangover throwing up in the ship’s head. The latter part was clearer, but if anything more shameful, given that it involved him lying, nauseated and pitiful, on the couch in Londo’s expensive private cabin. If Londo had been harsh to him, or cynical, or in any way unsympathetic, Vir could have borne it a lot easier. But Londo had been so very gentle, almost guiltily so, tending to Vir much as Vir had tended to him on more than one occasion: bringing him jala and a slice of bread to settle his stomach, and not saying a single judgmental word. It had left Vir feeling vulnerable, ashamed and moved, all with an intensity he had not expected. And so, as he crossed the curtained, pompous corridors of his homeworld’s palace, he felt more in doubt than ever – though, perhaps, no longer as alone.
Rounding the corner toward Londo’s chambers, Vir barely missed bumping into a man he recognized, after a moment’s thought, as the Minister of Intelligence. “Ah, M-minister Durano!” Inwardly cursing himself for the stutter, Vir made an effort to straighten his spine, but he still had to tilt his head back to meet the man’s eyes as he turned. “I take it you’ve been to see Lon- um, Prime Minister Mollari? Is he … in?”
He fought the reflex to look down as Durano raised an eyebrow in that insufferable way of his: not quite disdainful, but with a touch of mock surprise at being spoken to. “Oh, yes,” he drawled, “he is ‘in’, as you so succinctly put it. Though I might add, not in a state to… entertain, right now.” Vir frowned at that, and suddenly Durano was peering at him with uncharacteristic sincerity. “Cotto.” The voice was deep, pronounced, and free for once of the customary slickness. “I came to bring the Prime Minister some… information… that I believe you should hear as well. It involves a late acquaintance of his, named Adira Tyree.”
“Adir– What?” Vir jumped. “What about her? She was killed, wasn’t she? By–”
“Killed, yes”, Durano cut him off, “but not by the person you were led to believe was responsible.” He glanced meaningfully in the direction of Londo’s quarters, and Vir swallowed.
Oh, no. This is going to be bad. This is going to be –
“He believed it was Refa, while in fact a man named Morden gave the order.”
Vir closed his eyes, feeling helpless. He’d known. Or – well, no, not known, but strongly suspected. For a short while, he’d believed that Londo suspected it too, that he would have had the sense to at least wait it out and look for some proof before moving against Refa. But Vir’s belief had evaporated almost before Adira’s body was cold, as he’d realized Londo was too far gone to care about proof – or justice.
“You do not seem surprised.” The minister cocked his head appraisingly. “In any case, I would go to him, if I were you. But –” Another look that was impossible to read. “Ah, now, I suppose you know him better than I do. Good luck, Cotto. You may need it.”
At that, Durano turned on his heel, leaving Vir at Londo’s doorstep with dread clawing tiny fingers up his throat.
Mere seconds later he was leaning, speechless, against the wall of Londo’s quarters. Only it no longer looked much like anybody’s quarters at all, but more like a small country that had just been flattened by a hurricane. Vir’s dread had turned first to panic and then to utter stupefaction, but now he could only stare dully at the destruction around him: the upturned chairs and tables, the shattered vases, the bent and splintered picture frames. Amidst the chaos Londo was slumped, motionless, at a low table – the only piece of furniture still whole in the room, apart from the chair he was sitting on.
Vir approached slowly, on the balls of his feet. For a moment, he wondered if Londo was crying, but no, there were none of the customary sounds or movements to accompany such an act. In fact, he was lying so perfectly still that it almost seemed –
His hearts stopped.
Adrenalin racing, he sprinted across the room and around the table, banging his hip on the edge but oblivious to it as he caught Londo’s shoulders and shook him, hard, until finally, blessedly, the head came up and –
“Amb– Minis– Londo?” Vir sputtered, caught halfway between relief and panic. “What – You’re –”
Bleeding. Dear gods. Londo was bleeding. There was blood on his face and hands, and more had pooled down from the cuffs of his sleeves onto the tabletop. Frantic, Vir fumbled for a handkerchief and used it to dab at Londo’s temple. To his surprise it came away nearly dry, and he stared at it for a long moment before realizing that the gruesome head wound he’d imagined wasn’t there. Instead, all of the blood came from a cut on Londo’s forearm that he’d been lying on.
“Vir?” Londo’s voice was thick, the red-rimmed eyes focusing only with difficulty. “What are you doing, you infernal – mph.”
Guiltily, Vir glanced up from where he’d taken Londo’s arm and started to strip away the sleeve. He gave Londo’s hand a reassuring pat, but didn’t let go.
“I’m sorry, Londo, you – you cut your arm. Here, see? It doesn’t look too bad, b-but I’ll have to take care of it, all right?”
Without waiting for a reply, Vir gathered the ruined sleeve and pressed it down to stop the bleeding, which had already slowed down to a trickle. More from habit than out of any conscious thought, he braced himself for a long string of expletives on Londo’s part, but the expected onslaught was delayed for long enough that he paused to reconsider. Londo seemed intoxicated, down to the grogginess and widening of pupils, and for obvious reasons Vir had assumed he’d simply drunk himself into a stupor like so often before. But there was no hint of alcohol on his breath, and the room seemed empty of broken glass or bottles. It was almost as if Londo had collapsed right here at the table, after destroying the rest of the room enthusiastically enough to rip himself up in the process.
Vir shuddered. Now that he thought of it, that was probably exactly what happened.
He squeezed Londo’s wrist again, gently. “Do you know where you are? Can you remember–”
A pained chuckle, and Londo’s eyes snapped open again, locking onto his with perfect clarity. Vir flinched from the anguish in them but did not look away. A year, a month, even a week ago, he almost certainly would have. But not now. Now he only had to remember those hours in the transport on Londo’s couch – or that final night on Narn, where Londo had watched him drown his guilt in brivari – to keep right on looking.
“Remember?” The chuckle turned into a dry cough that took a moment to taper off. “Ah, Vir. Still trying to ask tactful questions, are you? I would think you’d know by now that only the hard questions are ever answered.” Londo pursed his lips, shaking his head as if trying to clear it. “You see, the problem is not with what I don’t remember – but with that which I do!”
He barked out a mad laugh that made Vir want to rip off his skin and cower under it. Looking from Londo to the maelstrom surrounding them, he wondered for the first time if this was it; if his friend had, finally and irreparably, met his breaking point and snapped. But then he turned to face Londo once more, and there was no trace of insanity there – only a bone-weariness anchored so deep it made Vir feel the burning of his own despair all over again. If he squeezed his eyes half-shut, he could almost see his own eyes staring back at him, just like they had done from the mirror every morning since that final day on Narn – the day he became a killer.
With an effort he shoved the memories away, forcing his mind towards more constructive things, like getting them both out of here. He glanced at Londo, who was starting to assess the extent of the damage to the room, face rigid with that same horrified detachment Vir himself had felt when he entered. The condition of the furniture, along with the blood pooling on the tabletop, left painfully little to the imagination, and Vir tugged at Londo’s shoulder with sudden urgency. “Here, let me –” He bit his lip, waiting until Londo tore his gaze away from the general destruction and focused, dully, on him. “I – I should really look at that arm, but – well, we need two chairs for that, don’t we? Or a couch; a couch would be even better, I’d say –” He was babbling, he realized, but never mind that; at this point he would have done anything, up to and including singing Narn opera, if it only kept Londo distracted long enough to get him away from this chamber of horrors.
Keeping up the chatter, he managed to pull Londo to his feet and get an arm around him. It still took a long time to reach the sanctuary of the sleeping room, what with the remnants of chairs and antique vases cluttering the floor, but in the end he manoeuvred Londo into an armchair – not as good as a couch, but it would have to do – and ducked into the washroom to get the first-aid kit.
When he came back, Londo was staring numbly at the carpet as if expecting it to burst into flames.
“Great Maker, Vir –” He shuddered, grinding the palm of his good hand into his eyes. Then, softly, “You know. Don’t you?”
Gingerly, Vir lowered himself onto the chair opposite him. “I met Minister Durano on my way here. He told me – the same that he told you, I suppose. So yes, I know.” He blinked, the heaviness in his belly tightening into a fist. “I’m… I’m so sorry, Londo.”
Londo shrugged off the expression of sympathy as if he hadn’t heard. “Ah, yes – Durano. So I gathered. And also,” he shot Vir a sharp look that belied the exhaustion on his face, “that you are less surprised at this – development – than you might have been, no?” He paused, leaving Vir to fidget for a moment, before letting out an unsteady sigh.
“Tell me, Vir. How would you react if I told you that, this entire time, I have had doubts about Adira’s–” He faltered; the word ‘death’ hung in the air, but remained unspoken. “– murder.” A shaky breath. “But when Morden came to me, claiming he knew who was responsible, I… I wanted to believe him. I wanted it so terribly, because I did not know how to–” He gulped, hard, unable to finish the sentence and struggling to start another one. “Because I thought that revenge could, if not bring her back, at least fill this – this hole inside me, if only for a while.”
Vir nodded silently, hearts clenching at the words but unsure of what comfort to offer. What was there to say, really? That he understood how much Adira had meant to Londo, how hard it must have been to lose her? Platitudes, nothing more. That he knew Londo still dreamed about her at times – like that morning some weeks ago on the station, when Vir had come to rouse him, only to end up hearing him shout himself awake? He could hardly tell Londo that, now, could he?
Londo’s hand plucked idly at his sleeve, and when he continued, his voice was harsh with effort. “So… yes, Vir, I did doubt. But in the end, I swallowed those lies Morden fed me, packaged as sweet trifles – swallowed them all, because it was so much more convenient–”, he winced, averting his eyes, “–to blame Refa instead.”
The fist in Vir’s gut stirred at the mention of Refa, and he leaned over to accommodate a sudden rush of nausea. It was a name he tended to avoid thinking of; not because of any deed of the man himself, but for the memory of Londo and how he had used Vir in taking Refa down. In fact, the day Refa met his end, Vir had almost been ready to give up on Londo altogether; and while he was glad by this time that he hadn't, the association was still painful enough to knock him off guard.
It wasn’t the danger to his life, or that night spent in darkness, exhausted and scared and furious at himself for being such an easy target. It wasn’t having his mind turned inside out by Refa’s telepath – even though it had left him feeling violated, and physically ill, and sometimes he still sensed what resembled dirty fingerprints on the inside of his skull. No, the truth was he would have endured all those things, had Londo only asked him to. But that was the point, wasn’t it? Londo hadn’t asked. Instead, he had just tossed Vir into the slaughterhouse like any piece of cattle, even threatening his family in the process; then, when Vir confronted him, he had simply tut-tutted that he wasn’t ‘important enough to kill.’
In truth, Vir still didn’t know how he found it in himself to face Londo after that. He’d actually managed to avoid him for several days, until that one morning when they crossed each other in the corridor. It was the look on Londo’s face, ashamed and frustrated and hopeful all at the same time, which had loosened something inside him, and he’d stumbled back to his quarters and cried as if he would never be able to stop.
The next day, he had taken up his duties just like before, and they’d never discussed any of it again.
"Vir?" The voice was low, cautious. "Are you–"
He stopped just short of the "all right", but it was enough of a lifeline for Vir to pull himself together. He forced himself to breathe out through clenched teeth, raising his head to find Londo watching him like one would a wounded predator, wariness overlaid with regret.
Shivering a little, Londo slowly extended the bloodied arm to him. “I suppose–" a sharp intake of air, "we should get this fixed, hmm?” His lips tightened, and for a moment he looked almost afraid. “Wouldn’t you say – Vir?”
Vir blinked, taken aback. The way Londo had said it, Vir couldn’t tell if he meant just his arm, or the room, or Morden, or everything else that was wrong, but the earnestness in his eyes told him all he needed to know. Putting down the first-aid kit he was still clenching in his hand, Vir leaned in to grasp Londo’s shoulder. He’d meant to sound firm, reassuring, but his voice, when it came out, was a hoarse whisper.
“Yes. Yes, we’ll get it fixed. Of course we’ll get it fixed, Londo. I promise.”
He saw Londo shift uncomfortably in his chair, as if he wanted to say something more – an apology perhaps – but couldn’t. Redoubling his grip, he was rewarded by a nod as fragile as it was hopeful.
“Vir,” Londo muttered, equally hoarse, “at this point, you are probably the single person, myself included, whose promise I still trust.”
Vir looked down, swallowed. Tears stung his eyes, but he made no attempt to blink them away. Instead, he just focused on cleaning and binding Londo’s cut, a task that felt oddly soothing once he’d set his mind to it. He must have been clumsy with the bandage, though, because Londo gave a faint hiss of pain.
“Agh. Great Maker, Vir, you’re just like Franklin, aren’t you?”
Vir jumped, felt his ears turn bright pink at the remark. “Oh, I– I’m sure I’m not, Londo. But…” A feeble attempt at a joke, “Don’t tempt me to try.“
Londo suppressed a tired grin; Vir smiled hesitantly. Suddenly, they sat together in a silence that was easy again, Vir finishing his ministrations while Londo leaned back against the headrest, some of the colour creeping back into his face. Though they’d lived through endless runs of this experience before – Vir tending to Londo after a hangover, or a fight, or an encounter with Morden – this time felt different in some way. For the first time, Vir realized, they weren’t sharing the moment as employer and aide, or even as mentor and pupil, but just, plain and uncomplicated, as a friend helping a friend.
It felt good. Right, somehow. And in the part of his mind that was strong enough for the both of them, Vir could sense that, from now on, things would always be like this. Londo regarded him as an equal now, because of what he had seen and what he had done. That felt right, also. It made his hands look a little less like the hands of a murderer and a little more like his own again.
And for the first time in what seemed like ages, Vir found himself thinking: We’ll be all right. It might take months – years even – to set everything straight, but Great Maker… one day, they were going to be all right.
He would make it all right.