There was too much blood. It was all he managed to focus on: big splatters of it dotting the marble floor, staining the white of his shirtfront and sleeves and the Imperial crest around his neck. Another drop of it fell as he was watching, hitting the inside of his wrist.
Not his own blood; Great Maker, if only it was. If only he could turn the knife he was holding and pierce his own heart instead – but no, they had forced him to use it on the one person in the universe who might yet save their people. Who had come here today to try and save him.
Londo stared at the blade's edge, which was glittering with red, refusing to blink until his vision cleared and he could register something beyond the horror he felt. Finally, laboriously, he managed to focus on the young man in front of him. He was injured badly, Londo saw: his left arm dangled at his side, right hand squeezing his shoulder to stop the blood from flowing, but when his lips parted, his voice was surprisingly strong. "Londo… Fight it. Please."
"I will kill you if I have to, Vir." The words emerged in a snarl. Londo's jaw shook with the effort of trying to hold them back, but it was no use. The abomination on his shoulder was in full control, keeping his hand clenched around the knife hilt as it forced him to threaten his closest friend. It wasn't bluffing, he knew. Unless Vir had another gun hidden on him somewhere – the first had gone sprawling the moment Vir had mentioned the Drakh, causing the Keeper to go berserk – there was no way he would survive.
And yet there was no fear in Vir's tight-lipped stance. He stood his ground as Londo advanced, blood still dripping from between his splayed fingers. Londo could hear his breathing, harsh and rapid, and wondered in a daze of horror why in the gods' names the fool wasn't running yet, or shouting, or making some move to defend himself.
Just for a moment, he thought he saw Vir's eyes flick sidewards. Then the Keeper reacted, flinging Londo's arm upwards to hurl the knife.
The body that slammed into him from the side knocked him off his feet and sent the blade flying. Hands grabbed at Londo's wrists, twisting them behind his back in an attempt to pin him to the ground, and there was a brief instant where his Keeper thrashed in panic, relinquishing muscle control for just long enough that his assailant might have gotten the upper hand. Londo felt something tear in his back as the Keeper rallied, wrenching back control a fraction of a second before he'd be fully immobilized. Somehow he managed to turn around, one hand yanking free, the other still held in that iron grip. He could not get away, or launch a proper blow, but that didn't matter. His Keeper had seen its chance and took it. Both of Londo's hands moved upwards, reaching to squeeze his attacker's throat.
Only then did the shock of recognition hit him. His own thoughts became jumbled whenever the Keeper took over, but he could feel its grasp slipping now, all its will bent on his straining thumbs as they burrowed between folds of leathery skin. The sensation clicked in his brain like muscle memory – a lifetime of dreams compressed into a single moment halfway between terror and relief.
"G'Kar…" he whispered. It came out a plea.
That, and a look, was all that passed between them. Then G'Kar raised his own hands and, wheezing, clamped them around Londo's neck.
A low noise of distress reached him from the background: Vir was staggering towards them, clearly intending to interfere. Londo wanted to tell him it was all right, that this was how things were meant to be, but G'Kar's grip on his windpipe was too strong. Dimly, Londo registered the object in Vir's outstretched arm: the handgun, which he must have just retrieved from the floor. Vir's breathing was frantic, his chest rising and falling rapidly as his fingers spasmed around the trigger. Once, Londo would not have thought him capable of pulling it. But he knew better now.
He closed his eyes and braced for the bite of metal, already feeling his head beginning to spin. Perhaps it did not matter how he died. Perhaps G'Kar had always been meant to survive, and Vir to be the one to end his misery by putting a bullet between his eyes. As long as this was the end, both for him and the Drakh, he could hardly object to the form it took. Especially if it meant G'Kar would live.
Bright spots were flickering behind his eyelids; his lungs were straining for air, and he could barely feel his own hands, nor the press of G'Kar's against his throat. In his daze, it took him several moments to realize the gunshot still hadn't come.
There was a moment of almost reverent silence – then the racket of what sounded like breaking glass as something shattered against the back of his skull.
Londo went down, releasing G'Kar and toppling backwards between a rain of shards. The Keeper struggled to force him back to his feet, but this time it wasn't quite fast enough. The last thing Londo saw was Vir's mortified expression as he brought down another vase on Londo's head.
When he came around, he felt almost peaceful. There was silence, punctuated by a sound that could have been anything from gentle breathing to the roll of waves against the shore. The weight on his mind where the Keeper ought to be was conspicuous in its absence, and he couldn't feel or move his limbs. Nor most other parts of his body, really. He found himself thinking, with some amusement, that while he did not believe in the notion of Heaven, he would hardly object if this turned out to be it.
That thought lasted for about two seconds, right up until the point where he tried to blink. Then the pain that exploded behind his eyelids made it clear he'd been wrong. He was either in Hell, or very much alive.
He was in bed, he realized, in his own suites in the Royal Palace. The chandelier overhead was lit far too brightly, but he'd recognize it anywhere: a big, ugly thing which the servants had insisted was an heirloom of Emperor Mollari I. Londo only wished he'd gotten rid of it already. When he tried to shield his eyes against the glare, he found that his muscles refused to obey. Was he in restraints? Not that he could tell, but he didn't know if his senses could be trusted. Nor could he quite remember who had brought him here and why, or what had happened that had left him battered and unable to move. Londo cursed, more to dispel his own growing dread than because he thought anyone would hear.
Someone heard anyway. There were hurried footsteps, stopping abruptly at the side of the bed, and then Vir was bending over him, his face pale but flooding with relief.
The sight of the bandaged left shoulder brought it all back: Vir marching into the throne room, claiming he'd brought allies to defeat the Drakh, followed by the Keeper's panicked reaction and the altercation that might have led to Vir's death if G'Kar hadn't interfered just in time. And then... while he was unconscious, what had happened? Londo tried to ask, but his throat was parched; he started coughing before he could get the words out.
"The Drakh," he rasped. "Vir, you are in danger. You must leave, before –"
"The Drakh are being dealt with. Don't worry. It's going to be all right." Vir sat down, jolting his injured arm in the process. His face contorted in pain, violently enough that Londo flinched at the sight. The thought of how narrowly they'd escaped disaster hit hard enough to leave him reeling. Vir was the only hope he had left, the only reason he himself had fought so hard to stay alive. Vir had to survive him, so that one day he could become Emperor like Morella had prophesied, the Emperor who would lead their people to freedom…
The prophecy. Great Maker. This was all wrong. Vir was alive, yes, thank the gods for that, but Londo shouldn't be. His death dream had been crystal clear: he should have died today, through G'Kar's doing. So why hadn't he? The moment he'd seen in his dreams had come and gone, yet here he was, still alive, still a puppet in the Drakh's cursed hands. Or was he?
For the first time since waking up, Londo looked down at the Keeper on his shoulder. Its one eye was closed, its tendrils hanging uncharacteristically limp… but his surprise at finding it so docile was eclipsed by the look of disgust on Vir's face. Londo flinched, certain that at least some of the sentiment had to be directed not at the creature but at him. How could it not, after what he had done?
"So you know," Londo muttered, his eyes averted, "the reason I have not been… myself, these past years. I will not claim it as an excuse. Certainly, some might think I should have died rather than allow the Drakh to control me. I would not blame you if you agreed. Death would be fair punishment for what I have done. Perhaps… perhaps I would even welcome it." Saying it out loud only drove home the truth of it. Dead, he would be of no more use to the Drakh; he would finally be free of their influence, as well as of the crushing guilt that had plagued him for the past decade of his miserable life. The thought was frighteningly appealing.
"Londo, don't." Vir's tone was a jumble of conflicting emotions. "You're a victim as much as anyone. I won't let you take the blame." His voice caught. Londo heard him take a long, deliberate breath, as if he had to force himself to continue. "I knew about the Drakh," he said flatly. "I've known for a while now. I wanted to act sooner, let you know help was coming, but I – I couldn't. I had to find allies first, tell the President what I'd learned, then give the Alliance time to prepare. They already had some experience in dealing with the Drakh, what with the nanovirus infecting Earth and all, and they'd been working on a way to screen for people with Keepers. But all of that took time, so... I couldn't tell you, or the Drakh would have known they'd been exposed. I'm sorry."
Londo struggled to take it all in. "The… President?" He latched onto the familiar title, entirely aware of the person it stood for but certain he had misheard. "You mean Sheridan is involved in this?"
"Him and Delenn, yes. I went to Minbar to ask for their help. Actually, it's the President who helped me made sense of it all. I suspected someone was controlling you, but I didn't know who or how. It wasn't until President Sheridan remembered something he'd seen… well, in the future, where he ended up during the secret mission to send Babylon 4 back to the past, that we realized you'd been given a Keeper, which meant the Drakh had to be behind it, so –" Londo's bewilderment must have been plain on his face, because Vir hurriedly cut himself off. "But that's… a very long story. What's important is Sheridan and Delenn are here now, coordinating an armed strike on the Drakh bases of operation. The Rangers should be rounding up the Drakh as we speak. Of course, isolating everyone who has a Keeper will take longer, but –"
The Keeper. Somehow it had slipped his mind for a moment, but Vir's words made it all come rushing back. Londo tried to gesture at his shoulder, but found he was still unable to lift his arm. He hissed in frustration. "Why can't I move? And what was done to this… this thing," he spat it out like the abomination it was, "to put it to sleep?" No alcohol, clearly, or he would be feeling far less lucid than he did. A pity.
Vir's face, which a moment ago had been lit up with purpose, clouded over. "You were given a sedative. The Minbari developed it; it incapacitates the Keeper without inflicting permanent damage on the host. The only problem is…" He swallowed. "Its nervous system is intertwined with yours, so whatever affects it, affects you too. That's why you're paralyzed from the shoulders down. But we can't risk lowering the dosage, or the Keeper might wake up and try to flee, which would kill you."
Londo registered Vir's distress with a strange kind of detachment. So. This was it, then. They could hardly keep him sedated indefinitely, and even if they could, he had no intention to allow it. Centauri emperors ruled until death, and the prospect of remaining in power was unbearable enough even without what he'd just learned about his physical condition. No, better for it to end here. Granted, it would be painful – he'd never forget the agony in the Regent's eyes as his Keeper slithered out of him, just seconds before he died in Londo's arms – but at least it would be quick.
He looked up at Vir, wondering what to say that could make this any easier. "It's all right, Vir," he said softly. "I never expected to survive this day."
"Londo, no. This isn't over yet." Vir reached out as if to grasp Londo's arm, then seemed to think better of it. Instead he smoothed down Londo's pillow with sharp, jerky movements. "The Alliance has had some success with a procedure to remove Keepers from their hosts. They say there's a fifty percent chance of survival. Those aren't bad odds, are they?" The look on Vir's face said otherwise, but he was doing an admirable job of sounding optimistic. "There's a doctor standing by to perform the surgery."
"No." Londo's reply was pure instinct, a pained whipcrack of a word. "No surgery. And no more of this… sedative, either. I have no desire to postpone the inevitable."
"But…" Vir sputtered. "You're going to give up, after we've come this far? It's true the procedure is risky, but as long as there's still hope –"
"There is no hope for me." Londo turned his head on the pillow, away from the pain in Vir's eyes. "I told you I have seen my death in dreams. I know you believe it is simply a metaphor, and perhaps you are right, but that does not change the truth: I was supposed to die today. And you are supposed to succeed me – no, Vir, let me finish," he snapped, realizing Vir was about to argue. "I know it is true, not just because the lady Morella saw it, but because my hearts tell me so. The knowledge has sustained me ever since I took the throne: that one day, you would take my place and mend what I have broken. All my life, I have brought ruin to everything I touched: my loved ones, the Narn homeworld, our own homeworld's future. But if, through enduring, I have made it possible for you to survive and lead our people… perhaps, then, there is one good thing left that was not poisoned by my actions. Don't you see? I cannot risk endangering that chance. As long as I am alive, and Morella's prophecy left unfulfilled, our people's future is not safe, and neither is yours."
The heavy silence that followed told him Vir was at least trying to understand. "You're right," Vir said finally. "I do believe that dreams are metaphors, and that prophecies only show a possible future. And I know you believe something different, and that you want to do everything in your power to make sure our people will be saved. But they are saved, Londo. The latest reports said most of the Drakh in this province have been apprehended or killed, and those that are left are on the run. That doesn't mean the work is finished: the people will still need help rebuilding their lives. We need you. I need you. Isn't that worth taking a chance for?" The forced calm of Vir's demeanor wavered, genuine anguish beginning to seep through the cracks.
"No," Londo insisted. There could be no other answer. He had spent over a decade convincing himself he had been right in accepting a Keeper, that it was the only way to safeguard the future. While part of him longed to watch his people regain their dignity, his interference could ruin everything. Nothing was worth that risk. "I have made a sacrifice, and now I must see it through. I'm not afraid."
"You used to be a better liar." That wasn't Vir's voice but a different one, emerging from the direction of the antechamber. Londo turned his head just in time to see G'Kar enter, dressed in a Ranger's uniform and throwing him an uncomfortably piercing look. Before he could find the breath to react, G'Kar was already addressing Vir. "The palace is secure, and Delenn has just sent an update that the ground offensive is in its final stages. But the people are starting to become restless. It would be best if someone addressed them and explained the situation, to prevent panic from breaking out."
Vir grimaced, then squared his jaw. "I'll make the announcement. I should probably ask Delenn or President Sheridan to join me, to explain about their involvement as well."
G'Kar nodded. "I think they're expecting to hear from you." Then, with a glance at Londo, "There's a medic waiting outside, to administer the next dose of sedative. Should I let him in?"
"I… don't know. Should we?" The resignation in Vir's voice was almost harder to bear than his distress had been. "Londo wants to stop the treatments," he told G'Kar flatly. "He's refusing surgery as well. I – I don't know what else to say that can convince him." The way he was talking, as if Londo wasn't even in the room with them, made the exchange even more unsettling, yet Londo couldn't bring himself to interrupt.
"I see." To Londo's surprise, G'Kar reached out to grasp Vir's shoulder. "You should take care of the announcement. I will stay here until you're finished; Mollari won't be going anywhere." The old, razor-sharp humor made Londo swallow hard at the memory of it. Vir looked shocked for a moment, then let out a faint laugh. With a nod at G'Kar and a last, doubt-filled look at Londo, he made his way outside.
The instant the door had shut behind him, Londo turned towards G'Kar. "Whatever you plan to say, I will not let it change my mind," he began, trying to ignore the fact he was prone on his back and forced to squint up at G'Kar at an awkward angle. "My decision is made. I told Vir my reasons. I can tell them to you, if it would make a difference –"
"Your dream," G'Kar said. "The one in which we kill each other. I know. I saw it in your mind, the day I took the Dust, although I didn't understand the significance of it then. Now I do. You were expecting us to strangle each other, today, in the throne room. Because that did not happen, and you feel it should have, you now believe you must… take matters into your own hands. Am I right?" With a pointed look, he sat down at Londo's bedside, folding his hands together as if to brace himself for the reaction.
Londo wasn't certain what he found most disconcerting: G'Kar's casualness regarding the Dust incident, the fact he'd known about Londo's death dream, or the way he seemed to have grasped Londo's motivation – at least the part that did not involve Morella's prophecy, which of course he could not know about. "You are… not wrong," Londo admitted. "But if you know about my death dream, you also know that I believe it. Even if you did not kill me today, what happened was a clear sign. I am out of time, G'Kar. That is why I do not want the surgery, or have them continue to sedate me."
G'Kar nodded sagely. "Of course. I understand."
"You do?" Londo could barely believe what he was hearing.
"Oh, yes." G'kar bent over the nightstand in apparent fascination, picking up a candle and turning it around in his hands as if to admire the workmanship. Then, almost casually, "You're afraid."
"I – what?"
"You're afraid. I know you, Mollari. You cling to visions and prophecies, no matter how terrible they are, because you prefer a terrible certainty over a future that is uncertain. You've spent all your life believing that you knew precisely when and how you would die. On the throne, by my hands, with that creature –" He gestured at the Keeper. "– controlling your actions. You never expected you would survive to see your people free. And now that you have, the thought of that uncertain future terrifies you so much that you prefer death. At least, that way, you can be confident that you'll never make a wrong decision again."
If Londo could have struck out, or stormed from the room, or in any way acted on the sense of betrayal he felt, he would have done so. As it was, he was reduced to staying immobile, listening to G'Kar spout his infuriating drivel with no way to extricate himself. Anger blossomed inside him. "I'm not a coward!" he spat. "All I endured, I did for my people. If my fate is to die to ensure their freedom, then that is what I must do."
"And if there is no such thing as fate?" G'kar's voice had acquired a feverish intensity. "Mollari, this isn't about cowardice, or the willingness to make sacrifices. The question is, does sacrificing yourself truly serve your people… or does it merely serve to persuade you that justice has been done?" He bent down towards the bed. "You believe you deserve this, don't you? You see it as punishment for what you did."
Londo clenched his teeth so hard it hurt. "Does it matter? Even if I do believe that, it changes nothing."
"I know the fear, Mollari. I know precisely how terrifying it is to see the completion of the goal you've dedicated your life to, only to realize that the work is not done, that the future is still arduous and hidden. I had the same experience after Narn was freed."
"Ah, yes." Londo made no attempt to mask his bitterness. "Perhaps I should remind you that you solved that difficulty by leaving. Not just your world, but the known universe, if I recall." He knew that was an unfair statement to make, but just now, he could not bring himself to care.
"So I did. But then I should remind you that a few years later, I returned. It seems to me that you intend your departure to be far more permanent." G'Kar looked down at the candle he was still holding, wax clinging to its side in grotesque shapes. "You Centauri have a strange relationship with death," he said. "I don't think I will ever understand it. Would this candle be able to burn any brighter if it knew when its wick would run out? You people catch a glimpse of death and take it as a given, then spend all of your lives desperately looking for ways to give those last moments meaning. To me, allowing one's actions to be driven by death seems like a very poor way to live."
"Oh?" Londo sneered. "And how would you know? If you knew how your life was supposed to end, don't tell me you wouldn't –"
"But I did know, didn't I?" G'Kar cut him off. "I knew you believed we were fated to kill each other. By your logic, that meant my life was forfeit before I even set foot on this world. Except that is where our convictions are different, Mollari. I refuse to believe that life has fixed points. I haven't fought for my people's freedom for so many years to accept that freedom is an illusion, or that my final moments are carved in stone regardless of the choices I make."
"I do believe in freedom," Londo snapped, indignant. Except when it concerns your own, a small, treacherous voice whispered, but another part of him rebelled and pressed down the thought. He was suddenly reminded of a similar conversation: after his heart attack, when he had dreamed about Vir, Delenn and G'Kar, all asking him if he wanted to live. He looked up at G'Kar, finding that some of his anger had dissipated, making room for doubt. "I was near death once before, when my heart betrayed me," he said, unsure of why he was even sharing this. "As I was lying unconscious, I had a dream. In it, I was asked to decide between life and death."
"So…" G'Kar's mouth curved in what Londo could swear was a small, dry smile. "Your subconscious does believe that a choice exists, even when your conscious mind refuses to see it." The look he was giving Londo was oddly triumphant. "Since you didn't die back then, I'm assuming you chose to live. Why can't you do the same now?"
"I don't know. This is different." But he was no longer certain that was true. Perhaps G'Kar was right, and it was fear holding him back… but was his fear warranted or not? And if there was no way of knowing, then how in the Maker's name could he choose, and choose right?
G'Kar must have noticed his indecision, because when he spoke, it was in a tone free of sarcasm. "I once had an experience much like yours," he said, almost gently. "I was shown a vision of my past, and was presented with a choice as well: hold on to the old pain, or give up, or make peace with myself. I believe I made the right decision. It's not too late for you to do the same." His expression softened. "You won't be alone, Mollari. Cotto is very devoted to you – not that I understand why, but then, I will never understand Centauri logic." That spark of humor again, as comforting in a way as the words that had preceded it. G'Kar hadn't mentioned anything about himself, but Londo could hear the unspoken promise in his voice: he did not intend to give up on Londo either.
But would it be enough? To survive meant he would have to face the people, make a public statement explaining his actions, apologize to the families of those the Drakh had ordered him to execute… tasks that, each in their own way, were almost too daunting to contemplate. On the other hand, he would find himself on the receiving end of G'Kar's humor again, be able to spend time with Vir… Those things might give him the strength he needed to see this through. Except –
"Even if I agree to have my Keeper removed… there is still a fair chance the procedure will kill me."
G'Kar looked down at him, his expresson unreadable. "I suppose you will have to take your chances, just like the rest of us who don't have dreams to guide them... or to hold them back."
"I suppose I will," Londo muttered. He was not quite there yet, but perhaps… perhaps if he could compartmentalize, start by focusing on the more immediate concerns, he could work his way up from there. The grand, life-altering decisions could wait until later. "This medic you mentioned, the one who brought the sedative. Is he still here?"
"I told him to wait outside," G'Kar said. "If you want to, I'll let him in."
Londo swallowed hard. "I – want to."
He was not making any promises yet, but as decisions went, it was a start.