The wind had picked up again during the night, pouring steadily through the open windows. Vir was awake before he felt the cold. Blinking sleep from his eyes, he turned on the lights and hobbled over to the desk in the far corner; unsurprisingly, the dawn was still hours away. When he was younger, he hadn’t really appreciated mornings, but time had taught him otherwise. Those first few hours were everything, the seeds from which the day would reap – and here, in the room where Londo had slept mere weeks ago, those seeds seemed even more delicate than usual.
He hadn’t asked for these quarters, hadn’t wanted the memories that came with it – or rather, he did want the memories, wouldn’t give them up for the world, but living among them day and night was a little more than he thought he could bear. Not that any of it had been open to argument. The position of Emperor, it seemed, held all kinds of privileges, but not the freedom to pick one’s own sleeping space. And so, giving in to tradition because that was what they needed now, he’d just had the bed switched and the shutters removed, and resigned himself to sleeping among demons.
The first night in a dead man’s (several dead men, once he thought about it) bedroom, he hadn’t slept at all. The second was only marginally better. The third night, as he was digging through the room with the fervour given to madmen and insomniacs, he had stumbled across Londo’s journals. They were tucked away at the bottom of a rickety desk that looked like it couldn’t bear the weight of a finger, let alone several tomes of Londo’s heavy prose, and Vir had thrown himself upon them like a drowning man diving for a raft. As he’d flicked through the pages of what looked like the most recent volume, the cold ball of despair in his stomach had slowly unknotted, and he’d sat up reading for the rest of the night and most of the following morning. Oh, they weren’t happy writings, but neither were they the scribblings of the broken man he’d feared to find. This was still so much the Londo of old, wordy and sarcastic and passionate, and Vir had been moved to find his own name prominent on at least some of the pages – his name, and one other, too.
No surprises, he thought wistfully, stretching his knees to hear the familiar pop and crackle as he reached the page where he’d left off. How could the name not have been there? He still hadn’t dreamed his own death – which was unusual for a Centauri his age, and he didn’t quite know whether to be relieved or alarmed – but he’d known about Londo’s for a long time now, including the man who featured in it, and understood. When death was a promise, as it must have been for Londo at the end, the man fated to deliver it was really not someone to fear. And apart from that, he and G’Kar –
Great Maker, who was he mincing words for, really? Those two had history, plain and simple. And it was clear even from those short references on paper, the mild jabs and little puns that showed up every other page or so, that years of isolation had done nothing to erase that history from Londo’s mind. Here, right here – what was that little side-note again, scribbled in unruly letters near the bottom of the sheet? Humans, he read, squinting to make out the words, as Mister Garibaldi told me once, have this joke of pet owners starting to look like their pets. So is there another joke, I wonder, one the Maker plays on us, that makes a man resemble those who most grate on his nerves? And then, less readable still: I swear if I write one more line, have one more profound thought today, I will grow spots this very instant!
That sounded so much like the Londo he’d known that Vir had to quit reading in order to breathe. He didn’t even remember putting down the journal; only that, a few seconds later, he found himself surrounded by half a dozen guards armed to the teeth, each grinding to a stop to stare at him as he sat panting in his nightgown. For a moment he wasn’t sure what to make of it, why they’d just come storming in like that, until he realized it was him, laughing hysterically for no reason he could think of, and quite beyond his power to stop.
II. The Coming of Shadows
The station walls – they were quite massive, weren’t they? Even more massive in the ambassadorial wing, where security was a bit of a delicate matter. Vir knew, because Commander Ivanova had explained it to him the day he first arrived here, and he always trusted Ivanova to know what she was saying. “Impenetrable,” she’d grinned at him, giving the door of his quarters a hard rap with her knuckles. “A fortress if ever there is one! Not that it would’ve done you a whole lot of good, with some of the stuff we’ve seen happening here – but I’m sure you’ll be quite safe in there, from Londo if no one else.” At which she’d winked conspiratorially and marched off, leaving Vir not the least bit reassured.
A fortress, then, and well soundproofed too, because the Gaim ambassador’s wife had quarters just next door to Vir, and despite Londo claiming high and low that the woman snored (information which Vir absorbed without daring to ask for the source) he’d never heard as much as a peep at night. So either the walls had grown thinner somehow, or lack of sleep had shot his eardrums altogether... Because how else could they be in here, and still able to hear G’Kar screaming in the hallway?
Vir paced helplessly, each echoing word a stab in his chest. He felt breathless, torn between fury at Londo for his ambition and Refa for playing on it, and Morden... Morden he hated for everything else, up to that smug little smile in response to Londo’s summons.
“He’s going to kill me, you know.” Londo’s voice was odd, flat and far less confident than it had been just an hour ago, before he’d gone out to tell Refa the deed was done, only to slink back in muttering about G’Kar and ill-timed revelations.
Reluctant, Vir turned towards where Londo sat perched on the sofa, stifling a pang of irritation that he couldn’t quite stop from showing in his face. He’d never understood Londo’s fixation with the Narn ambassador, even found it slightly undignified – though at least, he thought wryly, hearing G’Kar’s bellowed cries of MOLLARI!! filter through the walls, it seemed the feeling was mutual.
“Well, he can’t scream his way in here,” Vir answered, equally flatly. “And the Captain is out there now. I’m sure… I’m sure he’ll sort this out.” Supposing any of this could be sorted out; supposing it wasn’t too late to –
“Not here,” Londo glared up at him with a hint of the old peevishness. “Later. Twenty, thirty years from now. He is going to strangle the life out of me with his bare hands –”
“Londo, don’t –” make this about you, he was going to say; only G’Kar chose just that moment to wail they’re going to kill everyone!, which broke his resolve quite efficiently. When he looked back down, Londo had buried his face in his hands.
“He will, Vir.” The voice was barely audible. “I have dreamed it for as long I can remember. Twenty years, and I still will not be rid of that man.”
Vir blinked, groping for an answer, any answer, but nothing came. Outside, the shouting was trailing off at last, and something inside him loosened along with it, despite his best intentions not to. In an impulse, he moved over to pick up Londo’s coat, offering it to him like some kind of truce.
“Come on,” he sighed, “they’ll call a Council meeting soon. Let’s get you freshened up.”
III. And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place
Heat blasted Vir’s face the moment the door opened, and he winced, feeling sweat pop out in beads under his hairline. Or perhaps that was just him and not the temperature – after all, telling G’Kar of his old aide’s imprisonment would be uncomfortable even if it wasn’t a lie. What fate would befall the man if he believed the story, Vir couldn’t even think about; not, at least, if he wanted to have this conversation with the contents of his stomach in place. It didn’t help that, since he’d learned from Vir’s illicit operation on Minbar, the Narn had begun to treat him with much less contempt than he continued to reserve for Londo. That, and the fact that the last time he’d been eye to eye with G’Kar, he’d been dangling three feet above the ground, made for ample reason to be nervous.
“Hello, G'Kar,” he offered feebly. “I n–need to talk to you. It's… about Na'Toth.”
The Narn expression turned from wary to concerned, and G’Kar beckoned him in with a nod of his head.
Cautious, Vir followed him across the doorstep and into the room, blinking at the multitude of candles – most burnt out, a few still flickering – spread out across every surface. Glancing up, he found G’Kar watching him with an odd look, and in a flash, he recalled that moment in Med Lab when the Narn had barged in, eyes still wide with the effects of Dust, carrying an unconscious Londo in his arms. They’d had to pin him to the bed, Vir remembered, frantic as he’d been to get to Londo despite his own battered state, and G’Kar had turned his head towards him with just the look he was wearing now, eyes flicking from Vir to Londo and back again, as if seeing them both for the first time.
Seeking G’Kar’s permission with his eyes, Vir lowered himself into a seat; his knees were shaking so hard that to remain standing would be a dead giveaway. “A contact on Minbar… passed on some information.” He gulped, watching the Narn’s cheeks clench in anticipation. Great Maker, this was hard. “Na’Toth… She’s still alive, G’Kar. She’s being held on Narn.”
The look in G’Kar’s face almost made him slip. It was only the thought of his family, and Londo’s bellowed threats of stripping them bare, that kept him from losing it altogether. For a moment, he wished fervently that G’Kar would lose his composure, would holler and rage and scream at him about his race’s inbred indecency. The truth was, he would rather face that than spend one more second thinking about Londo. How long had it been, that day, when he’d told Franklin Londo needed him there, cracked ribs or not, when he woke up? Just a few months – but apparently, he thought with a sick feeling, sometime during those months Londo had stopped needing anything beyond prestige and revenge.
He peered up furtively, expecting an outburst any moment. But instead of the hoped-for onslaught, G’Kar just bent his head and let out a brittle sigh. “Alive?” Vir forced himself to nod. “Dear G’Quan, I… stopped hoping for that months ago. Do you know where she is?”
Vir blinked at the softness of the tone. It must be true what they said: G’Kar had changed. He had no idea what those hours spent picking Londo’s mind, or the weeks stuck in a holding cell, had done to the man, but that they’d done something was beyond doubt. Mechanically, he repeated the details as Londo had laid them out to him, incredulous at how easily G’Kar swallowed the fabrication. Either he was a better liar than he thought, or the Narn really did trust him on this, which made him feel even worse.
It was only when G’Kar ushered him out a good ten minutes later, thanking him with a smile that was almost genuine, that he glimpsed, in the corners of the full Narn mouth, something that looked strangely like pity – not for Na’Toth, but for him. The door slid closed, though, before he could be certain, and in the maelstrom of the hours that followed, it slipped from his thoughts entirely.
By the time he learned, days later, that Refa and not G’Kar had been Londo’s target, that particular memory was still the last thing on his mind. It only came to him in the darkness, lying on the bed in his quarters stiff and wide-eyed and sick to his stomach, unable to grasp how Londo could have used him like that. He’d been trying to comfort himself with the thought that at least G’Kar was alive and well, and not rotting in a Centauri prison cell because of what he’d done, when it hit him: G’Kar had known all along. Not only that, but, rather than loathing Vir for being the coward he was, there had actually been a sliver of sympathy in the Narn; though not, it seemed, enough for him to have refused cooperation. Of course, Vir told himself, one lowly aide’s dignity hardly outweighed the freedom of a thousand of G’Kar’s people – but that didn’t soften the sting in the least.
He shuddered, twisting onto his belly to crush his face into the pillow. He didn’t know what was more painful: Londo’s manipulations or G’Kar’s complicity – or, he thought, feeling bitterness rise in his chest like bile, that Londo would be fairer to G’Kar than he’d be to his own fr – to his own aide. Because, through all the anger and loss and disappointment, that one question kept churning through his mind: what had Londo said to G’Kar to gain his trust? For that matter, why had he even bothered to keep his word, when he had G’Kar right where he wanted him; why not catch him and Refa both? Given that the last thing they’d had that even resembled a conversation was that enforced trip through Londo’s mind – why would either of them have trusted the other?
Whatever the reason, Vir supposed he’d never know; not now he wasn’t even sure if he could face either Londo or G’Kar again. He would, of course, eventually. That stupidly mellow nature of his always had a way of betraying him, as he knew only too well. And maybe, just maybe, that was the worst of it all: that the sight of Londo, standing frozen in the corridor as Vir stormed off in rage, had still managed to tear at his hearts.
IV. Falling Toward Apotheosis
“I have it,” Vir panted, letting the door snap shut behind him and sagging against it as he caught his breath. He wasn’t quite sure why he felt so skittish – it was hardly a crime to be purchasing antibiotics, though of course, the reason why they needed them could get them both flayed alive for high treason. “B-but it wasn’t easy, trying to explain that we needed one suitable for Narns. And in the dead of night, too – the man must have thought we had bad intentions with it. Which, f-from Cartagia’s point of view, I guess we have, but…“
He trailed off, caught off guard by the lack of response. The light was muted, and a draft came streaming in from an open window, its shutters clanging abysmally against the outer wall. Suppressing a shiver, Vir moved to close it.
“No, leave it open!” The Londo-shaped form at the far end of the room twisted around, pausing in what looked like the process of vigorously washing his hands. That was odd enough that Vir frowned and moved in closer, only to almost trip over a bundle of clothes – jacket, waistcoat, even the ceremonial neck scarf – tossed in the middle of the stone floor.
“What’s going on?” he asked cautiously, stifling the encroaching feeling that something was very wrong here. “Are you –” He skidded to a stop beside Londo, registering the ruffled shirt and ditto expression, and wrinkled his nose as he caught a whiff of something cloying and sweet and faintly nauseating. “What’s that smell?”
Shaking the water from his hands, Londo looked furtively for a towel, and Vir ducked into a drawer and handed him one.
“Get used to it, Vir; it’s everywhere in the room by now,” he grimaced, exchanging the towel for a glass and bottle, both of which clinked dangerously in hands that were less than steady. In a reflex, Vir reached over to pour the drink for him and press it into his palm. “You know there is this rumour about Cartagia?” Londo asked, drinking long and deep before plunking the glass back down. “That he has a room somewhere, where he keeps the severed heads of those who – piqued him? That he speaks to them, as if they were his friends?”
Vir sputtered. “I – no, I haven’t.”
“Well,” Londo ploughed on, oblivious, “it isn’t a rumour. They are quite real – and they smelled rather like this.” A disgusted shudder. “Ugh. Great Maker, I need these clothes washed.”
“He showed them to you?” Vir gulped; the smell had suddenly become much more offensive. Fighting the reflex to pinch his nose shut against it, he just settled for breathing heavily through his mouth. “That’s – that’s horr-“
“He’s mad, Vir,” Londo whispered, the bluster dropping away so abruptly it left Vir blinking. “May the Maker help us – he is going to destroy us all.” Shoulders sagging, Londo slumped back against the basin like a puppet with its strings cut. “A Vorlon fleet is on its way here,” he said, flatly. “They have been eliminating every planet under Shadow influence. And Cartagia intends to let them, as a – as a monument to his godhood.” Vir shook his head helplessly, wordlessly, until Londo, with a renewed surge of intensity, grabbed hold of his shoulders, squeezing hard. “We must stop him, Vir. Quickly. We are running out of time.”
Knowing better than to squirm free from Londo’s grasp, Vir nodded fitfully and waited for the other man to let go instead. “We’ll stop him,” he managed, with more certainty than he felt. “That’s why you called me here, isn’t it? We’ll find a way; we’ll just have to move faster.”
Londo returned the nod, not looking altogether convinced, but putting up a good show of it. “Yes. Yes, we will.” Then, with a glance at the vial Vir was still holding in his hand, “Well… I should take that to G’Kar now."
“How is he?” Vir chimed in, relieved at the change in subject, even though this one wasn’t really much more pleasant. Thoughts of G’Kar irrevocably led back to thoughts of Cartagia, prancing through the gardens with hands dripping Narn blood, and to the still-fresh recollection of thirty-nine whipstrokes – two images that clung to him so tightly they might as well have been plastered across his eyelids. Oddly, the memories strengthened his resolve rather than petrified him, as he was sure they would have done a few years ago. Once again, Vir felt that vague sense of wonder at how much he’d changed – the same way he’d felt after telling Morden he wished him dead and realizing, with more surprise than guilt, that he meant it.
Londo let out a sigh, interrupting his thoughts. “He is holding out… as well as could be expected, I suppose. But I cannot treat his wounds, or Cartagia would notice. The man is far too perceptive for a lunatic; it is a dreadful combination.” He leaned back against the basin to rub at his eyes, and Vir fought the impulse to drag him to bed then and there. That wasn’t an option, of course. It was only Londo’s position as Cartagia’s confidante that provided him access to the prison complex, and there was no chance for Vir to be allowed in there alone. But it was clear that the now almost-daily visits to G’Kar’s cell, combined with the obvious stress of – Vir gulped, pressing down a rush of terror of his own – planning regicide, were taking their toll. That Londo failed to care, Vir had long since stopped believing. If anything, the tone in which he’d sent Vir for the medication had been proof enough to the contrary.
Pushing himself up, Londo took the vial from Vir and eyed it critically. “I hope this will be sufficient – it is meant as a single dose, yes?” And, as Vir nodded assent, “Great Maker, I never believed I would say this, but… we should be grateful for that cursed Narn stubbornness. Irritating as it is, it may yet be what saves us all.”
V. No Surrender, No Retreat
In the end, they drafted the statement together. Or, well... Not quite together, seeing that eighty per cent of the conversation during that first meeting, held in the neutral ground of Vir’s quarters, ended up going through the equally neutral ground of Vir himself. Not that this made things go in any way smoother – less than an hour into the proceedings, Vir had already gobbled down two headache pills, and tossed in a sip of brivari for good measure. It was exhausting enough to listen to Londo and G’Kar haggle over everything from the use of semicolons to the choice of drinks Vir had purchased earlier that day (with Londo’s own shopping list, too) without having to repeat every word. Fortunately, the number of barbs and insults had grown quickly enough that soon they bypassed him altogether, if only because he didn’t manage to keep up.
“No, no, no,” G’Kar bristled, thumping his finger on the parchment as if that would magically transform it into the finished product. “ ‘Join forces for a better future for both our worlds’? That won’t do, except to win a prize for pomposity in speechmaking – a discipline I’m sure your people hold in high esteem, but not mine. Not to mention it’s a lie; everyone knows that our worlds would not grant each other anything apart from a speedy demise. No, we’ll need something else, something more neutral.“
Londo rolled his eyes, beckoning at Vir for another snack and a refill. Fighting exhaustion, Vir staggered to his feet to comply. “That was what you said about the last sentence,” Londo raged on behind his back, “and the one before that! If this statement becomes any more neutral, we might as well have copied page six hundred of the Encyclopaedia of Interstellar Diplomacy in Warfare. It would have been more inspired than this.” Pulling a face, he set the glass down on the plate Vir was holding before him, reaching automatically for the nearest bowl. Weaving his way around the table towards G’Kar, Vir only remembered which bowl was the cooked one after he heard the sounds.
“Bah–” Londo coughed, spitting fresh spoo into his handkerchief in a manner that was only mildly dignified. "Great… VIR!”
Mortified, Vir half-dropped the plate onto the table to hurry towards him, grabbing the bowl before it could hit the expensive rug he’d brought back from Minbar. Across the table, he spied G’Kar grinning none-too-subtly into his collar as he thumped Londo’s back while he gagged and sputtered. “I’m sorry, I’m… That was G’Kar’s portion, I – I wasn’t paying attention. Are you – did you swallow any of it?”
Having caught his breath enough to manage a head-shake, Londo shot him a lethal glare before turning his wrath towards G’Kar. “Well,” he croaked, topping up his glass again before emptying the contents, “I hope you are happy – your attempt to poison me quite nearly succeeded.” He coughed again, pushing away his plate with a shudder of disgust.
“Oh, spare me the poisoning debate,” G’Kar countered. “The one time I touched that stuff,” he gestured towards Londo’s brivari, “the taste lingered for two days. The most horrid thing –”
Londo huffed. “I thought Narn stomachs were indestructible.”
“They are; I am stomaching you, after all.” The Narn teeth glittered dangerously. “I must say, Mollari, I’ve never understood how your people could have the stomach for war, seeing as you don’t have a working one to begin with! In fact – ”
Vir groaned and staggered over to the sofa, praying to the gods for patience or oblivion.
Either of them must have found him eventually, because he started awake another two hours later, scrambling up to find G’Kar at the door and Londo ushering him out.
“So,” the familiar voice drawled, “you will take this to Sheridan, then? Console yourself, G’Kar; however great the burden, I believe we have done a good thing today.” And, in a motion that was clearly pure reflex – the automatism, Vir knew, of a man used to touching for whatever reason – he proceeded to clap G’Kar squarely on the shoulder.
The silence that followed was thick enough to hear a pin drop. Having realized what he’d done, Londo quickly pulled his hand away, and for a moment Vir found himself holding his breath. In a flash, he had a vision of one of them lunging for the other’s throat, sending them both tumbling across the floor, or – he thought, not knowing where he got the idea and stomping it down with some embarrassment – into each others’ arms. But G’Kar just took a step back, and Vir could almost swear his one good eye was smiling.
“However great the burden,” he echoed, then turned on his heel and was gone.
VI. The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari
Vir didn’t even realize G’Kar was there until he noticed the reflection: the sharp-angled face, overlaying his view of a convulsing Londo on the other side of the safety glass.
He glanced aside surreptitiously, pulling in a breath through his teeth. Great Maker, he wasn’t good at this… Hospitals, injections, tubes, wires, monitors: they all gave him the shivers, not to mention that the smell of analgesics tended to make him queasy. Unsurprisingly, the fact that it was Londo being held down on the gurney did nothing whatsoever to alleviate that fact. G’Kar, it seemed, wasn’t much affected; he barely spared Vir a glance before taking up position next to him, face carefully impassive.
Carefully? Tuning out Franklin’s barked commands with an effort, Vir gave the Narn a good, long look. Surely the face was far too rigid, the neutral look too meticulously crafted, to be in any way real. And the simple fact that G’Kar was here, now, in what might be Londo’s final minutes –
Vir squeezed his eyes shut against the thought, trying to focus on memories instead. Not for the first time, he wondered how the impossible had happened – how those two had grown so close in so short a while. Granted, it had been a long time since that day when, as Londo had recounted to him with some bewilderment, G’Kar had cackled with glee at the thought of dying alongside him in that lift. But the step from mere tolerance to something decidedly more – well, that one had gone surprisingly quickly. Oh, to all outward appearances they still acted like rivals, still barely past the point of respect, but Vir knew better than to be fooled by the charade. He still remembered what Londo had told him the morning after Sheridan and Delenn’s wedding, hungover and melancholy even to his standards: that there was something liberating in having seen the worst in one another, and being forced to move past it. What exactly that made them, Vir wasn’t quite sure, but –
Franklin’s shout was lost in the general cacophony of voices. Disoriented, Vir looked up to the sight of a tangle of arms and legs, being strapped to the bed by three – three! Great Maker, for one sick man? – rather scared-looking medics. The monitor’s tone went flat just seconds later, after which there was more shouting as the defib pads were being pulled out and someone tore open Londo’s shirt. Vir witnessed the melee through a growing haze, feeling his stomach churn as Franklin gave the first shock, followed by another, then a third, fourth, until he lost count and just panted feebly in time with the rhythm. Beside him, G’Kar was breathing slow and deep, betrayed by nothing but the hands, gloved fingers balled into fists at his side.
When Franklin said they had a beat, Vir couldn’t quite grasp it. Pressing a hand against the glass, he only half registered the monitor picking back up, didn’t notice Londo’s eyes had opened, until he heard him say the words.
As he followed those eyes back to G’Kar’s face, there was nothing impassive about it at all.
VII. Day of the Living
“Vir? Is that you?” The voice that emerged from the sleeping room sounded barely awake, and Vir paused in stirring the jála, wondering if this was such a good idea after all. Breakfast with Londo was delicate business, a hit-or-miss event at the best of times; for every fond memory of a morning spent over fine food and stories, there were at least a dozen others he’d rather not recall. Well – it was all relative, of course. Those first few months on the station, simply having to deal with Londo hungover, ill-tempered, and bewailing his latest amorous escapade had seemed like an insurmountable thing. Then the war started, and the meaning of the word “insurmountable” wasn’t quite the same again.
Rather than shout something back, Vir continued tinkering with pots and pans and cutlery, hoping the noises would explain themselves. Soon enough, there was the sound of padded footsteps, and he turned to the sight of a somewhat rumpled-looking ambassador, squinting from inside a hastily tied nightgown. With a tug of satisfaction, he watched Londo’s eyes widen as they slid across the food set out across the kitchen, to finally land on Vir himself. “What’s this?” A pause, as Londo blinked while Vir stifled a grin. “Vir, I appreciate your boosting the local economy, but–” the hands gestured vaguely at the various piles of supplies, and well, Vir thought, maybe I did overdo it a little – “what army exactly is all of this for?”
The jála burbled dangerously, and Vir jumped to take it off the fire before it splattered all over them – it had a way of doing that, as he’d found out the hard way. “Well, I – I thought I’d make us breakfast,” he began sheepishly, reaching to pour them each a cup. “Seeing as we haven’t had any – well, not together, anyway – since you left for Homeworld with G’Kar, I wanted to, um… surprise you.” He didn’t mention that, after a month of eating breakfast out (or not at all), he was craving some conversation to go with it. “Of course –“ he hurried on, “I thought you’d be awake by now. Only, well, you weren’t, but I was already here with all this stuff, and I could hardly take it back, I mean – it didn’t fit in the bag anymore, so…”
“Ah.” Londo’s look was quite unfathomable, apart from a slightly flustered smile. “Well, that’s – thank you, Vir. I am properly surprised.”
“I made your favourite,” Vir went on, encouraged, and pointed at the pot brewing on the stove. “Hot linfra berries on toast! They’re almost done, so you got here just in time. Otherwise – well, they would have been linfra pulp, I guess. Not that I –”
“Vir…” The awkward look on Londo’s face deepened, and Vir trailed to a halt. “I, ah – this isn’t a very good time, really.” A skittish glance back in the direction of the sleeping room. “That meeting with the Gaim ambassador? I’m already overdue, and–”
“But that was postp – Oh.” Getting the hint, Vir lowered his head, cheeks burning. “That’s – that’s fine,” he managed, feeling the old fear of inadequacy rear its head at the brush-off, but trying to take it in stride. “I’ll just… Some other time, then.”
Londo fidgeted a bit uncomfortably, then bent over to inspect the food on display on the table. “Great Maker!” he exclaimed, having apparently spotted Vir’s disappointment and trying to make up for it with ebullience. “Are those litari cakes? I haven’t had one of these in ages...” He reached for a pastry in exaggerated delight, leaving Vir to turn back to his now-overdone linfra, only half convinced.
It was the sound – just a hiss, nothing more – that made him pause, wheeling back again to find Londo sitting down with a grimace. Abruptly he was on full alert. “Lon – are you all right?” Glancing down, Vir noted the dark smears under the eyes, the slightly stiff posture, as if he was favouring his chest. He gulped. “It’s not… your heart, is it? Do you need –“
“I’m fine, Vir.” Londo rolled his eyes at him. “Really, between you and G’Kar, I’m surprised I’m still allowed out of my own quarters!” He cocked his head, squinting when it became clear Vir expected a better answer than that. “I just –“ An exasperated sigh that could hardly have been faked. “I strained a muscle, that is all.”
“Strained?“ Vir frowned. “How could you strain… Oh.” He blinked, realization dawning. “You had – company last night?” He glanced at Londo through his lashes, wondering now why he hadn’t noticed it before. Well, of course it had been a long time since Adira, and things hadn’t been quite the same after that… But now he thought about it, Londo’s complexion was uncommonly – rosy, for one who’d apparently hardly slept.
Sipping his jála, Londo threw him a nod that was more mellow than smug. “I recommend you try it more often, Vir.” A crooked grin. “It makes one far less nervous, you know.”
“Well, I’m – I’m happy for you, Londo,” Vir muttered, intending to just deflect attention away from himself, only to realize he meant it. Stifling a smile, he lowered his eyes as Londo rubbed his chest a bit gingerly. “She, um… She must have been quite something, then.”
Londo looked, if anything, wistful. “Hmm. It was – certainly something.”
Vir bit his lip, waiting for the inevitable foray into detail, complete with added instructions on how to please this type of woman or that, but nothing came; instead, Londo had gone back to looking mildly ill at ease. A less-than-quiet thud from the direction of the sleeping room told him why.
“She’s still in there?” Vir blushed furiously. “I’m – I’m sorry, I… Why didn’t you just say so? I mean –” Calming himself, he quickly swiped the rest of the cooking gear from the fire and arranged the various dishes on the table. “I’ll just leave this here,” he mumbled, managing a sheepish grin. “You two – you two help yourselves, okay? I’ll see you at the Council meeting this afternoon.”
In his hurry to get out, Vir all but missed it altogether: the glass, set neatly on a corner of the desk, a bright red eye sitting at the bottom.
VIII. The Fall of Centauri Prime
Not all White Stars were the same, it appeared. Either that, or the ship Delenn and Sheridan got married on had been one of a kind, because Vir couldn’t find any of the rooms he remembered from back then. He vaguely recalled a central sitting chamber, sparsely decorated except for the rather extravagant blue-and-purple lighting, that had doubled as a wedding chapel, with a galley not very far from it. Having left the bridge not long after they took off from Centauri Prime, he’d hoped to locate something similar on this ship, but came up empty-handed. Returning to the bridge wasn’t an option either. Though the ship was hardly the President’s – or Delenn’s – personal property, it rather felt like it was, which had left Vir, if not intimidated, at least mildly uncomfortable in their presence. For a moment, he’d considered a visit to Lennier in the medical bay, but Delenn’s look as he mentioned it had been fierce enough that he’d dropped that idea as well.
Londo’s inauguration must be over by now, he thought with a pang, turning into another corridor and finding it empty like the last one. Having reached the next corner, he was relieved to find a sign bearing some words that he recognized, after a moment’s thought, as “place of meditation”. That was something, at least. Though he wouldn’t be able to sleep there, he could still light some candles and try to calm his nerves a little. Making his way towards the entrance, he rang the chime briefly to make sure he wasn’t interrupting some Minbari crewman’s privacy, then keyed the door open.
The face that greeted him from the opposite side of the room was decidedly not Minbari. It did, however, look sufficiently stern that Vir almost backed out again, muttering apologies, before he registered the perceived sternness was not that at all. Rather, the Narn on the couch looked – beaten.
Before he knew it, Vir had taken a step inside. “Hello, G’Kar,” he began softly, taking in the dim, triangular space and equally triangular table, with something that looked like a tea tray perched on its edge. “I’m sorry, I… I was just looking for a bed – well, something resembling a bed at least, and, um, this – seemed like the next best thing.” Then, when there was no obvious reaction, “Is it all right if I –”
“Cotto.” G’Kar’s cheeks creased slightly, as did the lines around those eyes. “Has anyone ever told you that apologies, like good spices–” he gestured loosely at the herbs laid out on the tray, “are best used in moderation?”
Vir grimaced, feeling the inevitable flush rise in his cheeks. “Well… Londo used to mention it every once in a while. Though his style was, um, shall we say… more direct than yours.”
“And what did you answer him?” G’Kar tilted his head, as if actually curious for a reply.
“Answer?” Forcing himself to relax, Vir settled on one of the low Minbari-style benches. “I don’t think I ever did – not about that, in any case. If I had, I guess I would have said… kindness is never a bad thing, no?”
“Ah. That is where I disagree.” G’Kar leaned in closer, breathing out sharply as the movement jarred what must be a couple of badly bruised ribs. “There is a time for kindness, and a time to do the things we must. As you have done before. As I believe –” another breath, harsher now, “– Mollari has done today.”
The change of subject was abrupt enough to make Vir blink, then sag against the couch as reality washed back in. Fiddling with a button on his coat – a childish habit, but one he couldn’t seem to shake no matter how he tried – he rocked back and forth for a moment before letting the words spill out. “I don’t –“ He broke off, started again. “I just – I hate to leave him like that, G’Kar… And I don’t even know why – I mean, he’s Emperor now, it’s what he was expecting all along–” He couldn’t hold back the words, he realized; it was as if a floodgate had opened inside him. “And the next years will be hard, but – things will get better, won’t they, once we’ve started rebuilding? It’s not such a bad life; it’s certainly a worthwhile life, so why do I feel –” Panting, he had to pause to come up for breath. “Why do I feel as if we’ve left him… in some kind of prison?”
The deep Narn laughter that rumbled through the room was as gut-wrenching as it was unexpected. “Because –” G’Kar hiccoughed, wincing as he clutched his ribcage, “– these last months, he has grown into a terrible liar.”
“Did he tell you anything –” Vir trailed off, sensing the turmoil of emotion in the other man, but not quite able to focus on any but his own.
“No.” G’Kar shook his head, sobriety rolling in as quickly as the laughter had. “But he took no great pains to hide anything, either.”
Something in Vir clenched. “He did – from me,” he managed, flinching at the petulance in his own voice.
“He wanted you safe,” G’Kar replied, quietly. Leaning over towards the table, the Narn scooped up a crystal of sweetener, then sucked it delicately as if it had the best taste in the world. It didn’t, Vir knew; Minbari sugar was dreadfully bland, even to the sensitive Centauri palate.
“I – I know. I know he did, but…” Vir sighed, undoing the button he’d just closed for about the twelfth time in a row. Abruptly, he felt selfish again; G’Kar was at least as entitled as he was to feeling possessive, maybe more. “I just… I don’t want to be kept safe!” he blurted, seeing the Narn head come up in surprise at the sharpness of his tone. “I want him to let me help!”
The garnet eyes fixing on Vir’s were narrow but very bright, and for a moment they held a look of respect Vir hadn’t seen in them before – well, not directed at him, at least. Then they softened again as G’Kar stood and bent over the table, peering at the tea-tray as if it mattered. “Do you drink tea, Cotto?” he asked, calmly, and started to gather some leaves in a cup. “I find… it rather helps with conversation – don’t you?”
IX. The Wheel Turns
The concept of a Zen garden was definitely a good one; that, Vir would be the last to contradict. Unfortunately, he thought wryly, fighting the temptation to check his timepiece yet again, applying that concept was not his greatest skill. Oh, he did far better than he used to; he’d hardly have survived three years of ambassadorial duties without at least some measure of stoicism. But when he got the message that brought him here, from a man he’d said goodbye to as many years ago, he might as well have been that stuttering aide again for all the incoherence of his reply.
Wiping sweaty hands on his coat, Vir looked out across the stones and flowerbeds, letting their tight geometric patterns soothe him as he walked. Look at me; I’m pacing as badly as Londo, he winced inwardly, noting the trail in the gravel where he’d been trotting back and forth for the past half-hour or so. He was just about to give in and consult his watch, when the crunch of footsteps made him spin around.
“You’re here,” Vir sighed in relief. Hurrying towards the heavily robed form, he worked up a cautious smile. “I, um – I was starting to get worried. You might have been abducted by those followers of yours – they are pretty devoted, aren’t they?” He started on a chuckle, only to swallow it down at the look on the other man’s face, hidden as it was in folds of garments. “You’re not saying…” he began, noting the robes were Minbari rather than Narn design, “You’re not actually – incognito here?”
Throwing back his coat hood, G’Kar let out a sigh of his own. “I am, actually. It’s either that, or spending my stay here cooped up in a ten-by-fifteen-foot room. Which the past few years have given me quite enough of, so…”
Vir cocked his head in sympathy. “Still as bad as when you left?”
“Worse.” A small, exasperated noise. “I thought a few years’ absence would help – force them all to place things into perspective. Instead, I come back to find more copies of my book than there are people on this station! Which in itself is not a terrible thing, only –” Grimacing, he lowered himself onto one of the stone benches, began to strip off his upper coat. “I never expected to say this, but Mollari had a point: nothing like a long absence to turn someone into a symbol. One month was bad enough; three years… dear G’Quan, I don’t even want to know!”
Vir sat down next to him, the mention of Londo and long absences stripping him of words for a moment. Glancing up, he saw that same rush of wistfulness fill the Narn’s face, before the mask closed down again. “It’s good to see you, G’Kar,” he whispered. “To be honest, when you left with Lyta, I… I didn’t think you’d…”
“Neither did I.” G’Kar inclined his head at him. “But… circumstances change. Lyta has chosen her own path –”, a sliver of pain, brief but not invisible, “– and I have had my years of solitude. It’s time for me to make a contribution other than words on parchment.” The lines in the face deepened, folded into a smile. “But enough about me. Tell me, Cotto, how has life been to you?”
“I’m doing – fine, I guess,” Vir affirmed, with just a moment’s hesitation. “It was difficult at first, after the – the –”, attack by your people, among others, his mind supplied for him, but of course that would hardly be a diplomatic line. “Well, the first months were chaos. Also, people kind of expected me to be an, ah… softer touch than Londo, so I was fooled around with quite a bit at the start. But things have settled now.” This time, he didn’t even have to glance aside to see G’Kar tense at the name. Gently, Vir tried to offer an opening. “I, um… I guess you didn’t hear from him when you were away. Security in the Palace is very tight these days – they hardly let anyone contact him directly.”
G’Kar’s head jerked from side to side. “No. No, I haven’t.” Then, closing his eyes like someone on the verge of a confession: “How… is he?”
Vir shifted a little from where the edge of the bench bit into his thigh. “It’s – hard to tell, really. I barely get to talk to him alone, and when I do, he seems either angry, or drunk.” He pulled in a breath, let it out slowly. Somehow, it hadn’t seemed real as long as he didn’t say the words out loud, but G’Kar’s face made it all tangible. “Do you know that he made me his heir?” he blurted, throwing all caution overboard.
The look the Narn threw him was more guarded than surprised. “Is this – a good thing?” G’Kar asked, quietly.
“I have no idea,” Vir muttered, pushing himself up to start pacing again; it was the only way he could distract himself from the hammering of his hearts. “It’s – not quite like adoption, but the result is similar. It means… when he dies, and supposing I don’t refuse – which I won’t, Great Maker, he knows I won’t, If only because he asked me – I’ll be the next Emperor. I tried to tell him I didn’t want to, but… he was adamant, really. He thinks – it’s my destiny.”
G’Kar blinked. “Did he explain why he believes that?”
“He didn’t have to. I was there.” Stranding at the bench again, Vir fidgeted a moment before plopping back down. “There was… a prophetess. The Lady Morella. Londo asked her to See for him, w-which she did – only, it wasn’t just for him, as it turned out. She said – we would both be Emperor, Londo and I; one of us after the other died.” He stared down at his hands, two pale shapes folded in his lap as if they belonged to someone else altogether. “To be honest, I – I don’t even know if I believe in prophecy. I always thought that in the end, we make our own fate, but… that was before one of those prophecies involved me.” Hesitant, he glanced up to meet the other man’s eyes. “How about you, G’Kar… Do you believe in destiny?”
The Narn’s breath hitched, soft enough to be almost inaudible, and for a moment Vir was afraid he’d asked the wrong question. But when G’Kar spoke again, there was no anger in his voice; only a resignation Vir hadn’t heard in it before. “Those… death dreams your people have,” he asked Vir, with some effort. “How accurate are they?”
Now it was Vir’s turn to be startled. “He told you?”
“This is Londo Mollari we are speaking of,” G’Kar answered, and now there was a sliver of a smile again. “There is very little he does not tell, at one point or another – if not sober, then in a state of sufficient inebriation.”
Vir bit his lip, wondering how much of his friend’s secret he was entitled to divulge. “I, uh… I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows, really. It’s a private matter, so it’s not that there’s research about it, or anything. I haven’t even had my own dream yet – but Londo…” He gulped, hard. “Well, I don’t think he’s ever doubted his.” G’Kar nodded, not looking at all surprised, and Vir wondered how the man could stay so calm, when he himself was almost cracking with tension. “If it’s true,” he stammered, “there’s – really no hope anymore, is there? Then the future is just one of hate, and it will never end; not even –”
“You don’t know that.” G’Kar interrupting him was unprecedented enough that Vir forgot, just for a moment, to feel nervous. “Even if it is true – all we have seen is the future’s face, but not its shape, nor its mood, nor its time.” That smile again, tucked away just below the corner of the cheek. “There is always hope, Cotto; even Mollari hasn’t lost it. He would not have made you his heir otherwise.”
Vir knew he was dreaming even before he opened his eyes – well, assuming one could open one’s eyes while asleep, which, now he considered it, wasn’t a very appropriate thought to have in a dream. But it was the smell that gave it away, an arid tang that tickled his nostrils, and of course the sand, hot and sharp under his bare feet. He’d been here before, he knew, dreamed this before, though the last time had been years ago, and he’d thought he’d finally moved past it by now. But the setting was unmistakable: this was Narn, the place of his old nightmares. The place where Cartagia died by his hands.
Peering through his lashes, Vir braced himself to face the ghost of a dead man.
There was absolutely no one in sight.
Even more strangely, he wasn’t wearing the clothes he had in previous versions of the dream – not even the rumpled coat, with the specks of blood that his imagination had been so keen to add. Instead, he found himself dressed in white imperial garb, except for his shoes which were mysteriously missing. The surroundings looked odd, too; there was sand, yes, dry and ruddy and undeniably Narn, but dotted here and there in the landscape he could see pools, large, clear, square like the one in front of the Imperial Palace, bordered by flowers of the type that he knew only grew on Centauri soil.
The voice that spoke into his ear quite nearly made him trip over his feet. “What do you think, Vir? Granted, it’s not Celini beach, but – it’s decent, hmm? Not a bad place to spend eternity.”
“Wha – ?” Vir gasped, spinning around in a full circle, but he was still alone except for the voice, the sand clear of any footsteps but his own. For some reason, the idea that his dream wasn’t playing by the rules piqued him briefly, until he spotted the figures offset against the red horizon sky. They were too far to reach, too far to make them notice him even if he called out, but the silhouettes were familiar enough: two men, one heavyset, the other slender, and two women whom he didn’t immediately recognize. As he watched, both ladies continued to walk, but the men had stopped and turned to face him.
“Vir…” The voice was mild, and close as life. “It’s all right. You did what you needed to.” A beat as Vir nodded dumbly, still disoriented by the clash between his various senses. “As for me… well, I’m in good company. Difficult company, but – never dull.”
“G’Kar?” Vir managed. Then, in a flash of insight: “Adira? Timov?”
“Oh, I’m not a possessive person,” a second voice, rich with amusement, rumbled in Vir’s other ear, “and I am hardly going to object to the presence of ladies in my afterlife. In any case, he needs me far more than I him – always has, in fact.”
The first voice huffed in protest, then grew serious as it addressed Vir once again. “You see? Nothing new under the sun. Stop fretting about us, Vir; there is plenty to fret about in the world of the living.”
“That’s… what I’m afraid of.” Vir shuddered, feeling the tremor creep from his fingertips up to the crown of his head. “The people – my people, I – I want to do right by them, but –”
“You will, Vir. Trust me – you will.” The light on the horizon was brightening, blurring the edges of the four silhouettes until he could barely make them out against the glare. Something that felt like a hand was pressed into his back, guiding him on, only there was no hand, and the voice that whispered at the edge of his hearing no longer sounded much like Londo at all.
When he blinked, the Narn desert was gone, replaced by a much more familiar setting: the walls of the Royal Palace, windows aflame with the gleam of the midday sun. He was walking towards it on the main entrance road, that same elusive hand still nudging him onwards – only now its touch felt warm and yielding and not all that dreamlike anymore. As he tore his eyes away from the sight before him, he realized there was not one hand but two, belonging to a pair of women, supporting him from either side.
“See, Vir?” the left one whispered to him, shifting to press her hip teasingly against his. She could no longer be called young, but her face was sweet and round like the rest of her, and Vir felt a jolt of affection. “I told you this was a good idea. The people are happy to see you; and if the Emperor’s Day of Ascension isn’t a reason for them to celebrate, then what is?”
He nodded silently, glancing to his right to see the second woman – his second wife, he realized – affirm this with an unfathomable smile and a nod of her own.
A smear of colour passed through his vision – a flower, he saw, confused – to land at his feet, and it was only as he looked up for the source that he registered they weren’t alone. He was following behind a whole string of people, guards and soldiers and young men and women from the court, and the pavement was packed with even more people of every age and class, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of him. The flower had been thrown by a little girl, who was waving at him from where she sat bouncing on her father’s shoulder. He waved back a bit awkwardly, feeling something like happiness bubble up inside him.
A loose tile on the path almost made him stumble, and both the arms tightened around his waist. He felt suddenly tired, bones aching despite the snail’s pace that was all he seemed to manage, but at the same time his limbs were tingling with a hot, fuzzy sensation that wasn’t unpleasant at all. He had also, he realized, become very light-headed – but that was all right, too. He was just an old man who’d had a bit too much to drink, and they would be home soon, anyway.
All in all, he wasn’t worrying a bit – not even when his vision went red and then popped out altogether, nor at the lazy, tilting sensation that told him his legs had given way. He could barely hear the rush of noise from the crowd, couldn’t feel anything except those soft hands latching onto his, and still he felt happy, peaceful, as darkness wrapped him up like a blanket, taking the vision of his last breath with it.
How odd, he thought dimly, slipping out of the dream and back into sleep, that death would be so gentle; like the slumber after making love.