They used to joke about these things. At least Urza had joked about it; Urza with his offhand humor and flair for the dramatic, and the wild, stubborn conviction he would die a hero's death. He'd dreamed it, he had always claimed. He'd go down defending his family's honor, with a blade between his hearts. "Pray I'll die before you, Paso Leati; that way, you'll at least win some duels again." He'd laughed every time he said it, and Londo had joined him, secure in the belief they were young and untouchable and still had many decades left.
But decades passed quickly, did they not? And Urza had been right… although not in a way that either of them had imagined.
The service was brief, thank the gods. Brief and solemn and crowded, which was unusual for a Centauri funeral, but then, the Morago ritual combat was no everyday thing. Tradition demanded the victor was present at the service, lighting the first torch to burn the body. Londo could still feel the heat of the pyre on his face as he made his way off the burial grounds, ignoring the way heads kept swiveling towards him. He'd planned to stay and talk to Urza's family, but given how they'd watched him from their side of the pyre, he suspected they'd have preferred to set him on fire rather than engage in conversation. Not that he could blame them for that.
When he heard his name, he almost kept right on going. But something about the voice sounded familiar, drowned out as it was by the general chatter, and Londo looked up despite himself.
Her smile was just like he remembered: warm and sweet and wistful, and quite possibly the most comforting thing he'd seen in his life.
"Adira?" Londo froze in his tracks, abruptly enough that someone slammed into him, cursing. He barely registered it as he pushed his way towards her, ignoring the sounds of protest from the crowd. For a brief, heart-stopping moment, she vanished from sight… and then she was there, squeezing into the space beside him.
A hand slipped into his, delicate fingernails grazing his palm. "Hello, Londo." Her cheeks were tinged pink, perhaps by the wind – just a small detail, but enough to drive home the reality of it.
Great Maker, she was truly here.
"Adira, how…" He cut himself off, grappling with the impulse to take her in his arms, to bury his face into her shoulder and let the scent of her drown out everything: the fire, the war, the memories. But he had made her a promise. He'd agreed to give her what space she needed, for however long it took. "My dove," he whispered, "what are you doing here?" He kissed her knuckles chastely, brushing across them with his thumb.
She squeezed his hand. "I heard what happened. You know how it goes with these things: the more tragic the story, the faster it spreads. This Urza Jaddo… they say he was your friend, so I wanted to come and see how you were."
"My friend," Londo repeated dully. "Yes, and a fine friend I was to him. Had I realized what Urza intended, I could have…" He grimaced, acid flooding his mouth. Of course that was the question. Was there anything he could have done, or was his fate set in stone, as his dreams kept insisting? "Either way, he is dead by my doing. I told Vir that the blood is on my hands, that there is no way back, but I still wonder…" He glanced at Adira, unable to read the expression on her face.
"Ah," a voice cut in, "I see the light dawns slowly. Still, any progress is better than none."
Londo jerked back his hand as if burned, staring at the woman who'd just appeared out of nowhere. The look she was giving him, half scorn and half tight-lipped suspicion, was as daunting as he knew it was justified.
Timov sniffed and then nodded at Adira, neither woman expressing shock or even surprise. In fact, Londo could swear something had just passed between them: a tacit look of understanding that made no sense to him at all.
He gestured vaguely from one to the other. "Timov, this is, ah… I never had a chance to introduce you..."
"Oh, Londo, save yourself the trouble. Of course I know the girl. She came to me and told me everything. What, did you think I would be shocked to find out?" Timov's lips puckered, not quite in a smile but in something no less bewildering. "You've had other women in your life; some I even believe you've loved. I was surprised that the girl cares for you too, but then I'm biased. Marriage does that to you."
Somewhere in there had been at least one insult, but surprise overrode any urge to protest. Adira, who'd gone silent at Timov's appearance, nodded as she touched his arm. "I had nowhere to go after you freed me, no one to take me in. I tried, but it was hard, and I didn't want to be a burden to you… so I contacted your family instead. Timov was very kind when I told her. She helped me find a job and a place to live."
"You two are… friends, then?" Londo asked. The word tasted strange, inappropriate somehow. For the first time, he realized he had never taken the time to meet his wives' friends, or even to wonder who they were.
From the look on Timov's face, she knew exactly what he was thinking. "You say that as if it's a crime. A woman needs allies in this world; especially since our men keep insisting on making such a mess of it. You more than most, Londo. I wouldn't wish your company upon my worst enemy, let alone on a young woman I have no cause to resent, but clearly she cares about you, so who am I to tell her otherwise? All I can do is support her in this madness and hope you don't give her cause to regret it."
"I won't," Londo protested. "I will treat her right." What was possessing him to make that promise to Timov, he could not even begin to grasp. But whatever he'd said seemed to make an impression, judging by the look in both women's eyes.
"Well," Timov said, more gently, "you already buried Urza today. I don't know what provoked him to fight you, but I hope it serves as a reminder to tread more carefully with your loved ones. They're a rare enough breed as it is." With a last, critical look, she started to turn around. "Come by the house tonight. We need to talk about Urza's family. What you do until then is your affair; just be sober enough by the time you get home."
Watching Timov's retreating figure, Londo offered Adria his arm. The crowds remained thick as they made their way off the grounds, passing through the exit gates to find themselves on a busy street. When he spotted a restaurant that looked blessedly quiet, Londo sighed with relief and opened his mouth.
"Shall we –" he began, then stopped himself. No, this wasn't right. Taking her out to some place he had chosen, spending money to make her feel treasured… he had done that enough on Babylon 5, thinking he was doing her a favor. A free woman, he'd told her. That also meant letting her choose for herself. "So, my dove…" Londo flexed sweaty hands; he was all too aware that, in the end, she hadn't made her choice yet when it came to him. "What is it you would like to do next?"
Adira's eyes lit up with genuine surprise – and then she smiled, the first carefree look he'd seen on her face today. "Can we just walk?" she asked. "It's not too far to where I live, and it feels good to be outside. My neighborhood isn't as nice as this one, but I'd like to show you around."
"Ah, but the neighborhood has you, has it not? I cannot think of a sight more enticing. By all means, lead the way, my dove."
"You haven't changed." She laughed, then sobered again as they started walking. "Or have you? Before, you were talking about blood on your hands. I know you, Londo. You aren't the kind of man who thrives on violence. At least you weren't in the past; there's kindness in you, even when your work requires you to bluff and hide it."
Londo scoffed, more out of instinct than anything else. It didn't matter if she was right; what he had done was what defined him now, not what might or might not be inside him. "Perhaps," he muttered. "But you know I am Couro Prido, my dove. A duelist bred. Once the first blood has been drawn, the fight must continue. It is one of the first rules we were ever taught."
"But life isn't a duel," she protested, heels clicking against the pavement as her pace picked up. Londo found he had to scramble to match her steps. "Some people insist on turning it into one, but then the choice is theirs, and they're the only ones who can reverse it." Her head sagged briefly, and she sighed. "You're talking to a former slave girl, Londo. I know what it's like to have no choice. You can claim that you didn't, you may even believe it, but believe me when I say it isn't true."
Heat rose to his cheeks, but he didn't know if it was shame or anger. He had choices, yes, but what did they matter if the outcome was the same? He had seen his death: a fixed point in a cycle of hatred that would never be allowed to end. Even the technomage had said he was touched by darkness. How could he ever hope to fight back when his own destiny was conspiring against him? "If it were that simple –"
"I never said it was simple. Being free to make your own choices… it's the hardest thing there is." They came to a stop at an intersection, waiting for a chance to cross. When he looked aside, Adira was watching him with such longing that it made his hearts clench in his chest. "Will you tell me what happened?" she said softly. "Why you had to kill your friend?"
Londo grimaced. "I can't. The things I am involved in… if I tell you, I will make you complicit. I do not want to put you at risk." Not to mention she might think of him far less kindly if she knew what he had done.
"But you will tell Timov?" It came out sounding flat. "So you want to protect me, but not your wife. Because you see me as an innocent, is that it?"
"More because… Timov could hardly think less of me, no matter what ugly truths she learns. You, on the other hand…" Londo swallowed. "Bah, compared to me you are both innocents. Much as it pains me, Timov was right; my loved ones deserve better than this."
"She doesn't think she's one of them, you know that?" They crossed the street together, Adira slipping her arm through the crook of his. "One of your loved ones, I mean. But I saw it when you two were talking: you mean more to each other than you care to admit." She said it in a tone that brooked no protest, and for once, Londo couldn't think of any. He just blinked and held his tongue.
The silence stretched out as they walked on, leaving the stately avenues behind them to weave their way through ever more rundown streets. Londo kept glancing down at his jeweled coat, feeling more out of place with every minute. Adira, it seemed, couldn't care less. She moved through the alleys as if she belonged there – which, he realized, was likely true. She wasn't from a noble House like he was. If her family was still in the city, chances were they lived in surroundings much like these.
At last they turned into a street that looked somewhat more friendly, lined with a long row of houses and shops. Adira stopped him at what looked like a used-clothes store, drawing him closer to the glass.
"Do you like it?" she asked, sounding hopeful. "This is where I've been working for the past few weeks. It pays less than serving in bars, but at least here, men don't insist to treat you as property while you're trying to do your job." At Londo's indrawn breath, her cheeks reddened slightly. "See that dress over there in the corner? It's a designer piece by Morino – in perfect condition, barely worn at all. I think I'll have enough saved up to buy it in a few more months."
Londo peered through the window in the direction she was pointing, trying to think before he spoke. The dress looked pretty enough, no doubt… but Adira, wearing a piece of clothing that had been discarded by someone else? Surely she deserved better than that. Or, if she wanted it this much, he could just buy it for her. There was no need to wait until –
"Oh, don't even think about it." She gave him a strangely tender look. "I know what it is you're thinking: that the life you can give me is better than this one. But I can't be your trophy girl, you know that. I have to earn things for myself, find my own place in this world before I can decide if I can be with you. Just… give it time, Londo. Please."
Londo fought disappointment as she led him along further, stopping at a house just a short while ahead. He glanced up at the façade with its stern, narrow windows – a grim place for a young woman, but if this was what she truly wanted… "Of course. I could not refuse you anything, my dove."
"Thank you." Gently, she disentangled their hands. For a moment he was convinced she would ask him to go, that their ways would part here on the doorstep. Then she gave him a cautious smile. "It's been a long walk. Would you like to come in for a drink?"
The way his hearts jumped into his throat was barely dignified, certainly not for such a chaste request. "I'm parched," he grinned, feeling almost giddy. "So yes. A drink would go down very well."
"Well, come on then, let's not waste time talking." Still smiling, she held out her hand.
Londo only hesitated for a moment before grasping it and following her in. Life was not generous with second chances... but this was one, and he wasn't about to spoil it. He'd do right by her, destiny be damned.