Londo has had the gift of making Vir profoundly happy and profoundly miserable right from the start, but his reaction to Centauri Prime wanting to replace Vir as his assistant takes this ability to new heights. Finding out Londo offered his own resignation if Vir should be transferred is wonderful; being told by Londo in the same breath that Londo contacted Vir's uncle to sing Vir's praises is stunning; finding out that Londo invited Vir's entire family to visit them on Babylon 5 for a month is frightening beyond words.
Of course Londo has no idea what he just did. What it will mean. After all, the only members of Vir's family whom Londo actually met were his young cousins, Kiron and Arya, who were far too caught up in the fear and excitement of running away from home to talk of anything other than their own romance. And besides, they had no way of knowing the truth.
Ansalon Cotto, whom Vir will never call anything but his uncle, has made sure of that.
House Cotto was never more than minor nobility. It did not produce a single emperor in the long history of the Centauri Republic, not even in the infamous Year of The Five Emperors, when one of the five in question had not been from nobility at all but had started as the previous Emperor's barber. No, the closest House Cotto ever got to an inside position in the Royal Court was when one of their daughters became the third wife of one of the Emperor's sons, and not even the eldest son at that. Still, this one success gained House Cotto their seat in the Centaurum, and its members have been clawing on to this seat ever since, always trying to ally themselves with one of the greater Houses in order to achieve more, and always managing to choose the unsuccesful losers of the great game. It has become an unkind proverb of sorts: you can never go wrong allying yourself with a family not allied with House Cotto.
Still, they keep trying. At the very least, they never lack children, and the willingness to marry them off in hopes of finally locating a winner. When Ansalon Cotto is told about the birth of a daughter by his second wife, he's not displeased. She can be useful, and besides, he already has several sons to choose his heir from by his first wife. The girl is named Mulier after the current favourite wife of the Emperor and disappears in the nursery; Ansalon expects not to have to pay any attention to her existence until she becomes old enough to serve as a tool in bargains and negotiations.
Then two of his three sons die, and the third is a sickly fellow without much intelligence. Ansalon's finances mean he can't afford a new wife, and his current ones show no sign of getting pregnant again, as if some malicious god has cursed him. This makes Ansalon remember he has a daughter. He demands to see her and is appalled. For starters, she's pudgy. That is undoubtedly the nurse's fault, but it also speaks of an unfortunate lack of willpower in the girl. Even children know that gaining influence in your husband's household is impossible if you're not the very least pleasing to look at. Secondly, Mulier is running around in her brother's leftover trousers and waistcoats. This makes House Cotto look cheap, and it's not very seemly, so the nurse's explanation that the girl is more comfortable in boy's clothing than in the tight dresses female children are expected to wear does not wash. And thirdly, even if one mentally discounted several pounds and imagined her in an expensive dress, the girl is not pretty but plain. Far from being useful to seal an alliance, she will be a burden on Ansalon's purse. If he's ever going to get rid of her, he'll have to pay a double dowry, and even then, her future husband will probably be some desperate fortune-hunting offspring of a house even more obscure than House Cotto.
Ansalon buries his face in his hands. His daughter, until then too shy to open her mouth in his presence, steps forward.
"Don't be sad, Father," she says in a voice that is at least neutral as opposed to ugly like the rest of her. "I'll be a good boy, I promise I will!"
"A good girl," the nurse chides her, and adds that Mulier sometimes lets herself be carried away by flights of imagination, and that playing out some of the legends of Centauri history is one of her favourite pastimes. "All for the glory of House Cotto," the nurse adds desperately, having become aware of Ansalon's increasing displeasure from the moment she hurried his daughter into his presence.
"What glory?" Ansalon explodes. "We never had any to begin with, and now we've sunk to a weak idiot and a fat little toad!"
Mulier's lips quiver, and he can see the tears welling up in her big eyes. But to his surprise, she doesn't run away.
"I'm not a toad," she whispers, and her little fists clinch.
Ansalon stares at her, and the beginning of an idea starts to form in his head.
The statue of the goddess Li Londo has in his suite hails from the early days of the Republic; she's presented not just with the attributes of both genders - breasts and tentacles - but also as a voluptuous figure, which dates her to the second Emperor's reign, the first one to take place entirely in an era of peace instead of constant warfare, when people could enjoy wine and food long enough to reflect on their shapes.
"Now that's how you represent the goddess of passion," Londo says with a trace of irony but otherwise quite sincerely when he catches Vir staring at the statue. "Timov's father gave her one of those ghastly modern skeletons as part of her dowry. If it wasn't Timov herself in an attempt to give me nightmares before the wedding night, which is of course quite possible. I think I ended up donating it to the official Centauri set of gifts for President Clark on the occasion of his inauguration. Such is the use of diplomacy, Vir."
"I thought you didn't believe in the gods," Vir says, because that's easier to say than to beg Londo to disinvite everyone from House Cotto again. "Why does it matter what they look like when they don't exist?"
Londo chuckles. "Now when have you ever heard me doubt the divinity of Passion?" he asks and flips through the latest reports from home. A bit more seriously, he adds, without looking up: "We might as well be dead without passion to drive us, yes?"
"But you don't believe the stories themselves, do you?" Vir asks, and with every word, the question gains in actual importance for him. "You don't think there once was a god Mal, and a goddess In, who burned for each other so much that they became one being rather than stay a man and a woman?"
"I think it's a charming legend and part of our marvelous heritage," Londo says a bit absently, reading, still not catching on that Vir isn't just making idle conversation. "And a far better story, I might add, than the ones I've heard from the humans. They have one that involves some complication about the gardening of apples and the abuse of a serpent which gets trodden upon, and really, if that doesn't make your tentacles shrink in sympathy..."
"Well, I think it happened!" Vir bursts out. "I think In really went to the Maker and asked to become a man, and that Mal asked to become a woman, so they could love each other better and be really one. I believe their sigh as they beheld each other changed and realised what the other had done really did create the first hurricane! And I believe that there was no beauty in the world until they made love in their new shapes and melted into one being and showed that being only a man or only a woman always makes you long for more and it's right to!"
At last, Londo put his reports aside, leans back on his couch and regards Vir thoughtfully, which always makes for a bit of a disquieting sensation. "Sometimes I wish I was that young again," he says. "And then I look at you and remember all the disadvantages. You will get to six one day, Vir. More than once. As opposed to what legends claim about certain other gods, virginity is a misery which can be overcome."
Vir throws his hands up in disgust and wishes he could stalk off, but unfortunately, he still has actual business to discuss with Londo, and also, Londo has invited him to dinner, which in the absence of a restaurant reservation means he expects Vir to cook. Vir usually enjoys preparing a meal for Londo nearly as much as he enjoys sharing it, because no matter how disturbing Londo's decisions are growing these days, it's still a fact that he's the first person to give Vir the feeling of being wanted and needed in both small and big ways. But there are also times where Londo makes him wish someone could give Londo a good shake, and this is definitely one of those times. He's about to fall into a sullen silence when Londo suddenly adds:
"I don't believe there was a Mal and an In, Vir, no, or that there is a Li now who looks like my statue. But if you do, then I find I have a reason to envy you."
Centauri females are the ones with the sex-determining chromosome. A standard male has a set of two, referred to as Ergon Ergon after a letter in the Centauri alphabet. A chromosome set for a female consists of two different chromosomes, Ergon Disergon. While both genders, after reaching a certain age, are able to experience a vision of their own death, the vision usually remains very vague for the males. Only females develop the gift of precognition far enough, and detailed enough, to become seers. There are, however, exceptions; the so-called "children of Li", males with an additional chromosome, a set of Ergon Ergon Disergon. The majority of them are physically male in all other regards; a third also displays female pyhsical attributes. All of them are infertile, and all of them are gifted with above average precognition that usually qualifies them to serve as seers.
Mulier is not a child of Li. Like all Centauri children whose parents aren't beggars, she has been tested shortly after her birth, and she displays the normal set of chromosomes for a female. She shows no sign of prematurely achieving her death vision, either, which would have indicated her capacity to become a seer, the one position a Centauri woman can achieve without marriage that still elevates her status in society beyond all others but the Emperor himself, the one position where her looks would be of no relevance whatsoever.
"So you see," Ansalon Cotto says to the doctor he has approached, "an operation would really be no loss to anyone, including the gods."
The doctor, a man fallen on hard times since botching up an operation on Emperor Turhan's late sister, coughs.
"Maybe so," he says, "but it would still be illegal."
Cotto sighs. "How much?"
The law that regulates gender change has never been of interest to him before. There was a time when crossing gender lines had been legal, if regarded as somewhat perverse if it involved males choosing to become female, for that meant volunteering for a lower status, and not even non nobles would regard this as desirable. But then the legal status of birth females choosing to become males had become an issue of hot debate; if they had the same rights as citizens born male, an increasing number of Centauri of both genders argued, why then did Centauri females who remained female not have those same rights?
According to historians, it had been a revolution in the making, which finally led the Centaurum in a rare display of unity among the noble houses, all of whom, of course, were led by males, to issue a law summarily forbidding gender change operations. Which isn't to say the law is obeyed in all regards now; no Centauri law ever is. Anyone who is rich enough, noble or not, can simply bribe a physician or have the operation done off planet by an agreeable non-Centauri medic, even if that involves the risk of lack in competence due to inexperience with Centauri physiology.
Anyone who is desperate enough but poor can try to threaten or blackmail a doctor, and hope not to get caught. They usually end up with hacks and a physiology involving constant pain for the rest of their lives. As they officially don't exist, there are no statistics about depression or connected suicide rates.
Ansalon Cotto isn't rich, but he can count. What an operation now would cost him is still less than the dowry he'd have to pay to marry off his daughter, or the expenses her existence would cause if she were to remain in his house for the rest of her life.
"My lord, consider the risk we'd both bear. You may not be among the better known members of the Centaurum, but the number of sons born to you was registered, as is the law. You can't suddenly claim to have a acquired an additional son while your daughter disappears."
"I won't," Ansalon says impatiently. "The sons born to the head of a noble house are registered, true, and it is horrendously expensive to have those records altered. But who cares about some nephew who is the son of a third or fourth brother? This is who the girl will become. As for my daughter, with two of my sons dead already, nobody will be stunned by surprise if yet another of my children dies, and everyone will understand if I start to look among my siblings' children for potential heirs, given the state of my remaining son's health. Nor will this new nephew be the only one whom I'll order to live with me. There will be several cousins, and their parents, Great Maker, no matter how annoying my siblings tend to be. We shall see who does best when they grow up."
"And your daughter? This is not a simple cosmetic operation, Lord Cotto. The child will have to be treated with hormones for months, she will have to remain in seclusion until the last operation is done with, and most importantly, afterwards she - he - will have to remain silent about what was done for the rest of his life. Or else both you and I are doomed, and so would the child be. Does your daughter have the strength? Children are naturally rebellious, my lord, and if she would rather stay a girl..."
"She's useless and borderline revolting as a girl," Ansalon says. "But thankfully not insane. Or disobedient. She'll do as I say, always."
The acknowledged members of House Cotto currently able or willing to travel to Babylon 5 include Ansalon as its head, his surviving wife who is the mother of the son who, to everyone's surprise, is still clinging to survival as well, that son's two wives, neither of which has yet produced a child, two of Ansalon's surviving brothers who due to a limited income have only ever had one wife each, and a total of ten nieces and nephews, a number which includes Kiron and Arya, both of whom are in high spirits when they arrive at Babylon 5, boasting a little about their knowledge of the station and the fact Ambassador Mollari, whose status has altered so much since their last visit, has taken enough of a personal interest in them to arrange fostering and their marriage.
At least Vir is able to smile at them with fondness without having to feign anything, and that's a relief. Besides, they don't know. None of his cousins do; they consider him the son of Ansalon's conveniently dead and somewhat disgraced youngest brother whom nobody ever met due to his shameful behaviour; the man not only freed his Narn slave near the end of the occupation but had the perversity to marry her, which predictably ended with him getting his throat cut and his first, proper Centauri wife dying of a broken heart after raising his sole son for years in secluded shame and despair. That is the story everyone knows, and while Kiron and Arya were kind or foolish enough to call it romantic once, they have never doubted it, nor has anyone else.
But there is knowledge in the pale, coughing Corin's eyes as he stands behind Ansalon as is proper for the sole surviving son and heir of House Cotto. There is knowledge in the simultaneously disdainful and irritated expression of his mother Chani.
There is nothing but satisfaction on the face of Ansalon Cotto as Londo greets him, which is an expression Vir has never seen there at all.
Vir can avoid talking to any of them alone for a while. Londo being Londo, there is a great party planned in their honor, which gives Vir the excuse to vanish as soon as he has escorted them to the suite Londo has rented for Ansalon and his entourage.
"Last minute preparation" and "terribly busy" are among the things he mumbles as he flees. Though he feels guilty about it, he hopes for one of those mad events to happen which are almost an daily occurrence on Babylon 5. Maybe a mad bomber can threaten the station again? Of course, he would have to be caught without killing someone, but not before a general lockdown, shutting off Vir's family in their suite and Vir anywhere else has taken place.
But today of all days, nothing whatsoever even the slightest bit alarming to station security happens on Babylon 5.
When the party starts, Vir feels sick enough to throw up, and barely listens to what Arya asks about whatever became of the crazy humans who were marking all non-humans the first time she and Kiron visited. Somehow, he manages to give a reply, and when Arya frowns at him and asks whether he's alright, looking nothing but kind and concerned, he feels just the slightest bit better. Maybe he'll survive this visit, and maybe, just maybe, it will really make a better farewell to his family than the one he took when leaving for Babylon 5, because he has no intention of ever returning to the Cotto home again.
"Still useless," Ansalon had sneered, "still fat. Well, at least House Cotto won't have to pay for your existence anymore. Playing attaché to that fool Mollari is a joke, but it's one financed by our government, so off you go."
His first wife, dedicated to her sole surviving child's interests but able to show a certain benign indifference when Vir isn't a threat to Corin's position anymore, actually wished him well as he left. Now, everything has changed. Her worries paint a constant frown on her face which even Londo's efforts at charming her don't erase, while Ansalon, puffed up more and more as Londo continues to praise Vir's service to the Centauri Republic, can't stop beaming. Vir's uncles and aunts just look in differing degrees surprised and confused as he's called "indispensable", "dedicated" and "a treasure". His cousins soon stop paying attention and start to make overtures to Londo's other guests, Centauri who live on the station, who in turn like to hear the news from the homeworld and are not averse to flirtations, either. Far from being a catastrophe, the party is quite the success, and another part of Vir starts unclenching when the dancing starts. Londo is courteous enough to ask Lady Cotto to open the dances with him, and Vir thinks he'll ask Arya, Kiron surely won't mind, when Ansalon puts a proprietary hand on his shoulder and pulls him away. With everyone whirling around, nobody notices Lord Cotto guiding Vir into a corner.
"Well," Ansalon says, "it seems you are a worthy son of House Cotto after all."
Vir stays silent.
"So tell me," Ansalon continues approvingly, "just how good is your blackmail material on Londo Mollari?"
Of course Mulier wants to be a boy. She always has done. Who'd want to be a girl anyway? Girls are never allowed to do anything. When she's a boy, she'll get to wear trousers all the time without anyone complaining, and her father won't hate her anymore; he'll love her and he will be proud of her.
So she doesn't complain about the injections, even though they make her sick for days sometimes. She doesn't complain about not being allowed to leave her new rooms anymore, even though they're in a house she doesn't know and far smaller than the already not very large nursery she's used to. There are vids and books to read, for the first time all the books she asks for, and her nurse doesn't tell her this or that book isn't suitable for a girl anymore because, after all, Mulier is a future boy.
Vir. Mulier is Vir. She tries out the new name her father has given her, and decides Vir Cotto will be the bravest boy on Centauri Prime, even if her nurse won't tell Mulier just what will be cut away and where Vir's tentacles will come from.
"The doctor knows," the nurse says, but the doctor won't say, either. He's a man but he still comes across as afraid and harassed every time he visits, pokes and probes.
Then it's time for the first big operation. There is no more Mulier in the mirror when Vir is allowed to look into it, which is days later, and he still feels aches and tingles all over. But what's worse and more bewildering than having to figure out how to stop his tentacles getting smaller or larger at random is that his nurse has disappeared. She's not with him when Vir wakes up; nor is she ever again. A new nurse is, one he's never met before, who got hired only recently by Lord Cotto and has no idea what became of her predecessor.
After the third and last operation, Ansalon Cotto shows up to inspect the result, sighs and declares "I suppose that is the best we can hope for". This is also the last time Vir will encounter the doctor who operated on him; he, too, disappears and is not seen again.
Everything feels different and off balance when he walks now, but in time, he gets used to that. And true enough, he doesn't have to wear stifling dresses anymore; his hair, which he has been allowed to start growing as soon as the injections began, is cut again, but leaving a tiny crest, not round as for a girl, but linear, straight. The first time Vir can run, he feels wonderful and free.
There is not much chance of running once he's brought to the capital residence of House Cotto and introduced as cousin Vir, son of the late Antono, from the provinces. With the frankness of the very young, the smaller children tell Vir he looks "weird".
Corin doesn't talk to him at all. So Vir approaches him.
"Are you better now, Corin?" he asks, because when Mulier was last living in this house, Corin was going through one of his everlasting illnesses again and unable to say goodbye because of that, so Mulier's nurse said.
"I'm in mourning," Corin says stiffly. "For my sister. Who is dead."
Vir's eyes widen. "But..."
"My sister," Corin continues, not looking at him, "was a sweet girl. She'd never want to take away my place. Never. Nor anyone else's. So why don't you just go away?"
Ansalon has chosen to take Vir's refusal to talk to him at the party as a sign of discretion and warning of the possibility that they could be overheard by accident. But when he shows up at Vir's quarters with a debugging device in hand and a hard expression on his face, there is no more escape.
"House Mollari hasn't had any power to speak of for eons," he begins, "and..."
"They did produce an Emperor," Vir points out because he knows that will irritate Ansalon, and because it happens to be true. Ansalon frowns, but is unfortunately too set on what he has to say to be distracted.
"...and Londo Mollari was just as much a joke as this entire station used to be. If what I've heard is true, he also managed to gamble away at least two of his wives' doweries."
"The Lady Timov manages her own fortune," Vir corrects. "Londo says it was in her marriage contract and..."
"I don't care!" Ansalon explodes. "How did he get from a Nobody to someone everyone important in the Centaurum wants to have as an ally? You must know! He'd have kicked you out in two heartbeats if you didn't!"
What Vir knows is that he's sworn to himself not to care about anything Ansalon says, not anymore, and yet here he is, feeling cut open and reassembled all over again. Because of course it's true. Londo did something. And Vir can see the results of what Londo did every time wounded Narn show up on the station, every time Mr. Garibaldi, who used to regard Londo with fondness and smile whenever the two of them talked, goes stern and cold at the few occasions he still approaches Londo. He has heard the results that frightening day when G'Kar roared Londo's name outside the ambassadorial quarters and Londo, inside, was ashen and didn't move. He has lived the results in his own nightmares of Mr. Morden's eternally smiling face and the hate he has started to feel for a man who, technically speaking, never as much as laid a finger on anyone.
Whether Ansalon is also right about the fact that the only reason why Londo wants Vir around are those shared secrets, Vir doesn't know. Sometimes he believes it is. Then Londo does something like asking Vir about his favourite opera or singing a duet together with him, and Vir who used to believe his voice was as unsatisfactory as everything else about him throws himself into singing with Londo without a second of embarrassment and is convinced, really convinced, that Londo cares for him.
"Don't you mean he'd have me killed?" Vir asks tightly. "Because I thought this is what the heads of noble houses do if someone of lower station shares secrets with them."
Ansalon doesn't even flinch, nor does he bother to deny it.
"Don't tell me you're still sulky about that nurse of yours. You should have grown up at least that much."
She had a name, Vir wants to say. She was a person. So was the doctor.
So were all the Narn and Centauri who have died in the war Londo has started, and yes, Vir is a hypocrite to hate Ansalon for killing two people and still love Londo who is responsible for the death of many more. But however guilty Londo is, this still doesn't justify anything Ansalon has done.
"I grew up," he says instead. "That's how I know I don't have to tell you anything. Uncle."
Ansalon's face is starting to get purple with barely suppressed rage.
"I am the head of your house. I am your father. You will tell me everything I wish to know. It's your duty, damn it! What kind of a son are you?"
The words have formed themselves in Vir for years, but he isn't sure he'll be able to say them until after he has heard them out loud, with his own ears, becoming his own echo.
"I'm not your son. You had a daughter once, but she is dead. My father was Antono Cotto, who died believing in Narn reconciliation, and I am proud."
Not taking his eyes from Ansalon, he notices Ansalon's fists open and close. He'll hit me, Vir thinks, which is the one thing Ansalon has not done, not least because it would necessitate physical contact, and the head of House Cotto has been unable to hide the slight revulsion the mere sight of Vir has caused him both before and after the operations.
But Ansalon takes a deep breath and steps back instead of forward.
"If I don't have Mollari's secrets on file by tomorrow morning," he says, and the fact he doesn't shout but speaks very evenly makes what he says more chilling than any shouted threat, "he'll be informed about yours instead. As will the Royal Court be. And don't think this would incriminate me. As you said - you are my brother Antono's son. And Antono, well, Antono has proven he was perverse enough to try just about everything. Including having his baby daughter altered into a boy."
Vir enjoys food, always has done, but that's not the only reason why he keeps eating more than he needs to. It's something to do at family meals to escape the silence. It's something to do in taverns where he doesn't know anyone and doesn't have the courage to approach strangers. It's even something to do at parties thrown by other minor noble families who are imitating the lavish feasts at the Royal Court as best they can and where Ansalon Cotto still, after all these years, hopes to find allies to advance his family. Vir gets taken to a few of those gatherings until Ansalon gives up and resorts to dragging Corin along again, if Corin's health permits it.
"Sometimes I think the reason why Corin is sick so often is the same why you eat so much," Vir's last nurse says; fortunately for her, she is only fired for this as another servant reports the remark to Lord Cotto. Vir knows because he sees her years later at one of the taverns where she has become a barmaid and refuses to talk to him at all.
Then, one night, he ends up in a tavern where something nags at him for a while until he can identify what it is. Several of the men don't quite move like men, and their hips are a bit too round, their waists a bit too small. Conversely, some of the women have decidedly square chins, even if they carry their dresses with elegance, or hardly any hips at all. One of them sits down next to him.
"Haven't seen you here before, have I?" the manly woman says in a friendly manner and in an accent that betrays she's not from the capital but from one of the northern provinces.
Vir nods shyly. He keeps seeking out new taverns, both to escape his home and because coming to a new place means not a single person will look at you and think "oh no, not him again".
"Welcome then," his new acquaintance says and introduces herself as Nelia.
For all his shyness, Vir listens well when people tell him things, and there is something in him that encourages others to do so. So it doesn't take too long before Nelia hints at her story, and explains about the tavern.
There aren't any nobles here, other than Vir, not this night, though sometimes some show up, mostly for entertainment. But the majority of guests are people who can't afford to break the law in an expensive and medical fashion. So they choose their appearance at least in clothes and demeanour, and come here to find like minded society. In her other life, Nelia is a baker whose customers would be shocked to see him - her - in a dress. But here, she is who she wants to be.
"You really want to wear a dress?" Vir asks, fascinated, and because this is the first time he has had this kind of conversation with anyone at all, he continues without thinking: "I always hated..."
Then reality catches up with him again, and he abruptly shuts up, in horrified silence.
Nelia remains calm. "Don't worry," she says soothingly. "I already figured out you have to be one of us. You're among friends here, there's nothing to fear."
But there is. There always is. It was the last thing Mulier heard before getting the operations and the first thing Vir woke up with: to never, ever tell. Or his entire family would be shamed, his father would have to take his own life in order to avoid the embarrassment of prison, Corin would spent his few remaining years in disgrace, and as for Vir himself, well, Vir would be lucky if he was employed as a street cleaner, if that.
Abruptly, he rises. "I'm sorry," he mutters, "I'm so sorry."
"Stay," Nelia calls after him as Vir hurries away, half stumbling, half running. He never returns to this particular tavern again.
Two weeks later, he's told that Lord Ansalon has at last secured a position for him. A joke of a position, but a position nonetheless.
Maybe it's saying something about Londo these days that he's not in his nightgown, in female company or passed out in the aftermath of a party, but still in his clothes and despite the brivari he must have consumed instantly alert when Vir shows up at three in the morning, station time.
"Don't tell me," he says after a look at Vir. "Timov has returned to the station."
"I told you," Vir says, even though he didn't, because Londo never gave him the opportunity. "I told you not to invite them. Him. Them."
"Come in, Vir," Londo returns with his talking-to-Lord-Refa face, and maybe that should worry Vir, but right now it doesn't. He follows Londo inside and sits down, unasked, on Londo's couch, which is warm, meaning that this must be where Londo has spent the night so far.
"I," Vir says, looking straight ahead, somewhere to the left of Londo's shoulder and not at Londo himself, "I wasn't always called Vir. When I was born, they called me Mulier. Actually, they called me this for some years. I mean, my nurse did. Also my brother. Who is now my cousin. Only not. And his mother. Not that she talked to me often. But sometimes. My mother died when I was two. I think. They didn't talk much about her, either."
"You're not making any sense, Vir. Which isn't that unusual, but your usual babble tends to be more on the side of telling me what to do, so..."
"I was a girl! Don't you understand, I was a girl, and he wanted a spare son, so he had the operation done, and now he wants your secrets because that's all I'm good for, keeping secrets, and if he doesn't get them he'll tell everyone, so I'm doing it first!"
By now, he's shouting. He hasn't meant to. He has meant to say it calmly, and then go, as quickly as he can, before the look in Londo's eyes turns into disgust as well, but with every word it felt more as if something pent up inside him for years finally burst, wanting the noise, wanting all the noise ever, wanting to fill the universe with it.
Which, given that the vacuum outside the station will stifle any sound, is probably not a practical idea, but Vir doesn't care.
Londo purses his lips. Then he crosses the room, sits down next to Vir and in his usual, disconcertingly intimate manner grabs Vir's chin with his big, warm hands.
"Vir. I may not have a hangover yet, but I did get pleasantly drunk this night, so I really, really would appreciate it if you would lower your voice, yes?"
"Don't you understand what I just said?"
"Of course I did," Londo replies. "Your so called uncle is even more pathetic at child raising than he is at blackmail. And in dire need of a lesson about either. Now actually I would have said he's in need of ridding the universe of his presence, but knowing you, this would result in more sleepless nights on your part, which means more untimely interruptions of mine, so I'll have to think of something less pleasantly final, I suppose. And really, Vir, why didn't you tell me this before the man ever got here?"
"Because you don't listen," Vir whispers. "You never do."
Then the part of Londo's reaction which has nothing to do with Londo's infuriating tendency to ignore the part where people tell him "no" and "don't do that" catches up with him.
"You - you don't mind?"
"Not being able to arrange a most fortunate accident for your uncle? Of course I do. If ever there was a man destined to explore the outside of this station without a space suit..."
The only reason why Vir is reasonably sure Londo is joking about this is that Londo is far too much a traditionalist to kill another Centauri of noble status by airlocking them. He'd employ poison instead.
"That I am - that I used to be..."
Londo lets go of his chin, but doesn't move away.
"Did you ever wonder why I have neither son nor daughter?" he asks. "And, may I add, not for lack of effort and four wives who were all, whatever their other characteristics, exceedingly healthy."
In truth, he hadn't. He'd known that Londo had expected his nephew Karn to succeed him as the head of House Mollari until Karn had been captured by the Narn, had been forced to make that speech and, after being freed thanks to Commander Sinclair's efforts, had committed suicide months later because of the disgrace, something which Vir suspected Londo had blamed the late Emperor Turhan for. He'd marvelled at the fact Londo never showed any disappointment in Karn, instead of washing his hands of the young man and seeking for an alternate heir as soon as that speech was broadcast. But it had never occurred to him to find it strange Londo had no son of his own, nor a daughter.
"I really would make a bad seer," Londo says. "Not least because I've increasingly come to the conviction that white isn't my colour. Call it the result of bad dreams."
Despite his own misery, Vir for a moment feels simple amazement. Wide-eyed, he asks: "Londo, are you saying you are a child of Li?"
"No, I am not, Vir. Nor was my father, when he told everyone concerned that no son of his would end up as a priest. Which was a rather fortunate decision on his part, given that I've yet to develop belief in any of our gods, a topic I think we already exhausted. I am also not saying that while a son may have duties towards his house and his father, fathers also have duties towards their children, which include being grateful for the fact they exist exactly like they are. What I am most definitely not saying is that the current head of house Cotto will not remain in a position to make decisions affecting anyone's lives for much longer, and the reason why I am not saying any of this is that all these self evident facts are something even your tired mind will comprehend once you've stopped keeping me awake and gone to sleep, an activity for which, as I can testify, this couch is eminently suited. So do get on with it, yes?"
Is it possible to feel exhausted, needing to cry, needing to laugh, needing to breathe and, yes, needing to sleep, something Vir hasn't really managed ever since the night before his family showed up, all at once? It seems to be.
He can't find any more words, so instead, he just puts his arms around Londo, because apparently the compromise between the need to cry and to laugh and to breathe is to hug someone. Londo, who is an immensely physical person for whom personal space rarely, if ever, exists, does not appear to regard this as in any way unusual and returns the hug before Vir, still a bit embarrassed, draws back.
"Just promise me you won't kill him," he says, with the ability to speak returned to him. "Please, Londo. Please."
It's not that he has any love left for the man who isn't any more his father than Vir is his son. But so many people have died already whose death he couldn't prevent, or didn't, and this one death he can.
"Now who doesn't listen? I distinctly recall already mentioning that I would not. Great Maker, one would think you acquired deafness which would explain your ability to remain naive after years in politics. Let me just state that some people actually know how to use subtlety. Go to sleep, Vir. You have my word."
Vir sees Corin one more time before the various members of House Cotto leave the station. His former brother shows up to announce that due to his father's sudden decision to become a hermit in the mountain retreats on the island Celini, leaving behind all worldly responsibilities to listen to the voice of the gods, he's now the new head of House Cotto.
"I wish you well," Vir says formally, and pointedly doesn't ask why Ansalon Cotto, of all people, would choose the hermit life. Conditional trust in Londo notwithstanding, he has checked with customs to be sure that Ansalon did indeed leave the station alive, but this is as far as he will go. He has his suspicions about what Londo's idea of subtlety involved, though, not least because the Centauri telepath guild has sent a bill for unnamed services rendered which gets settled by Londo's personal account instead of the ambassadorial budget.
Maybe it's Vir's imagination, but Corin stands a bit straighter.
"I never thought I'd live to see this day," Corin says bluntly. "Even though I was raised for it. But then, nobody else thought I'd live to see it, either."
This is more than Corin has said to Vir in a single speech for a long, long while. Maybe there's a reason Corin doesn't show the slightest bit of curiosity about Ansalon's sudden enthusiasm for retirement in the mountains, either, and maybe that reason is not difficult to guess.
"I always hoped you would," Vir replies and thinks of the silence between them after Corin told him his sister was dead. "I never wanted - anyone else to be the new head of House Cotto. Never."
Corin bites his lips, and the gesture feels familiar to Vir even though he doesn't associate it with Corin. It takes him a moment before realizing the reason why it feels familiar is that it is his own habit. Or it used to be. "Then it's true what our - what Lord Ansalon always said. That I'm an idiot."
A heartbeat passes, two, and then Vir says: "I don't think anything he ever said was true, you know."
Corin hesitates, then asks, in a low voice: "I hope that's true. Because before he left, he said that Ambassador Mollari is a vicious bastard who'll bring the entire Centauri Republic to ruin if someone didn't stop him."
There is another, deeply uncomfortable moment of silence while Vir tries to decide whether Corin is only fishing more subtly for information than Ansalon was, or whether the new head of House Cotto is actually worried for Vir and trying to warn him. He also can't help remembering the technomages, and Londo's dreams.
"Ambassador Mollari," Vir says at last, and this is something he can swear to with honesty and reveal without betraying anyone, "loves the Centauri Republic with all his hearts. There's nothing he wouldn't do for Centauri Prime."
"Well, then," Corin says, takes his leave, and as he reaches the entrance to Vir's quarter's, turns around again.
"I had a sister once," he says. "I was always sorry I never asked her what she wanted - what she wanted her life to be."
Asking what anyone wants is something that carries a price, Vir thinks, but Corin never met Mr. Morden, has never been of interest to Mr. Morden's associates, and with some luck, he never will be.
"Nobody can change the past," Vir says instead. "Only the present, and the future. I'm not a seer, and predictions are just for scaring people, if you ask me, but I - think your sister would say that she found a place where she wants to be in the end, and maybe, just maybe, she also figured out she can become who she wants to be there."
"I'm glad," Corin says, and taking Vir's past with him, he is gone.