He had to sleep. Admittedly, just the thought that he'd ever sleep again still felt like the worst joke in history, but it was either get some rest or break something and scream. Since most of the breakable objects in the house weren't his, Vir had done his best to avoid the latter. Instead he'd been hovering around the comm, hoping for news about Lennier and David. So far he'd heard nothing. He was trying not to worry, but that was more easily said than done, especially with Londo's warning churning through his head. If Londo knew Vir had ambition to the throne – not even ambition, just the wild hope he could fix some things Londo couldn't – then why, after everything, would Londo want to support him? None of it made any sense.
Outside, night had fallen, even though these days it was never truly dark. Vir couldn't see the fires from here, but the red glow on the horizon left no doubt they were still burning, despite the rain that had started to come down. He felt strangely responsible. Not that he could control the people's anger; for a while, maybe, but not forever. In that sense Londo was right. If Vir didn't act soon, the people might act for him, and there was no way that would end well for anyone.
What couldn't end well either was staying awake; he'd be no use to anyone reeling with exhaustion. Just putting his head down would never work, so he padded to the storeroom that held Lennier's supply of medicinal herbs. Of all the things Lennier had studied here, Centauri herbal lore was still the thing Vir was most grateful for – not just for himself, but for the lives it had saved. He settled for a pinch of sura leaves, hoping they'd work better for him than they did for Lennier. Lennier was a terrible sleeper; lately, he'd been taking the leaves almost every night. Vir wasn't sure if that was wise, but he was hardly in a position to criticize Lennier's choices. Not in this. His own nightmares were vivid enough.
His bed was an old mattress in the corner of the living room, basic but comfortable. It seemed the sura worked quickly, because by the time he made it there, it was all he could do to stay on his feet. He collapsed on top of the blankets, clothes and all.
The dream started like it always did: with fire and the smell of charred flesh, making his eyes water and his stomach turn. He was running through a hallway, smoke curling in thick tendrils around him. His feet hammered against the floor, but he couldn't hear any footsteps. Only the crackle of flames and the ragged sound of breathing that he didn't know was his own or someone else's. The terror was crushing, pervasive. No matter how many times he had this dream, it never got any better and he never, ever got used to it.
The end of the hallway came on him abruptly: instead of smoke there was a door, parting for him with a hiss. Vir already knew what he would find. Sometimes it would be a room; other times, it was a temple or crew's quarters or a garden under the open sky. Sometimes it would shift and ripple as he watched – the corridor would become the Royal Palace's curtained hallways, the room would hold the Emperor's throne – but it would always turn back into what it was now. A crippled, dying White Star's bridge. And in the center, clutching at the console as it came apart under him, Lennier, face covered in blood.
Vir had never believed it. It was a metaphor, his subconscious come to haunt him with all his worst fears about the people he cared about: Lennier, but also Londo and Lysandra and Timov, even the family he hadn't seen in years. He dreamed about all of them, and none of it had ever come true. But it felt real, it always did. As real as the sweat congealing on his skin and the roar of the ship's engines as it strained to maneuver. Vir staggered when the deck shook beneath him, sparks erupting from every station until the smoke was everywhere and he was coughing and coughing until he felt as if his lungs would give out. Lennier didn't even hear; he was looking right through him. "They're coming!" Lennier cried, and then everything happened at once.
On the viewscreen, Vir could see the ship moving in, the rush of plasma billowing towards them. Lennier's fingers flew across the controls, right up to the point where the weapon hit and the deck heaved violently, and even then his hands didn't stop moving. The sickening lurch that meant they had jumped to hyperspace came one second before the console erupted into flame. Lennier went down without so much as a whimper. Vir lunged for him, but he was grabbing at air and then the ship was not a ship but the blazing ruins of the Royal Palace, and the body in his arms wasn't Lennier's but Londo's, clawing at Vir's hands as he struggled to breathe.
Vir jolted awake, kicking at the blankets, barely registering the sound of pounding on the door. For a second, he thought he was still dreaming. But the light that filtered through the window was dim and steady, nothing like the harsh blaze of fire from his dream. Vir pushed himself up to a sitting position. A nightmare. It isn't real. Lennier and David weren't on a White Star, but in a patched-up fighter that barely fit the two of them, and the Royal Palace wasn't burning. If it was, one of his contacts would have warned him by now. Somehow, none of that felt reassuring. He'd had plenty of dreams like this one, but waking had always felt like a relief. This time, he was still shaking and he couldn't seem to stop.
"Vir?" someone cried, and the knocking at the door turned frantic. "Vir, it's Timov! Are you there?"
"Yes! I'm here!" Vir scrambled to his feet. Timov hadn't been here in weeks; she wouldn't show up in the dead of night unless something was wrong. Not just a little, but very. His hands kept slipping when he tried to turn the key, but he managed to unlock the door on the second attempt. "Lady Timov?" he began, then jumped to catch her as she stumbled. She was soaked through, and cold as ice.
"I'm sorry." Timov straightened. Her arms were wrapped around something Vir couldn't quite see, and her breathing was ragged. "I walked here… from the palace. Couldn't risk… transport. The rain…" She was shivering so badly Vir found himself putting an arm around her, guiding her to the couch where he helped her get rid of her sodden cloak. Timov allowed it, tightening her grip on the bundle in her arms. A stack of papers, Vir thought, or a book of some kind. "Where is Lennier?" she said, her voice tight.
Vir shook his head. "Lennier is… he isn't here." It would take too long to explain, even if he'd felt up to it, which he didn't. He was barely holding it together as it was.
Timov frowned at him. "You look terrible, Vir. Are you all right?"
"Yes. No. I – I don't know. It doesn't matter." It had to be the sura that was making him so queasy; that, and running on less than an hour's sleep. Vir swallowed, squinting down at the stack of papers on Timov's knees. "Is that… Do you want me…"
"It's for you." She drew in a breath. "It's why Londo sent me here. He said you had to read it, quickly, that it would explain everything. Take it, please."
Vir reached for the bundle, weighing it in his hands. It wasn't even all that heavy: forty, maybe fifty sheets of parchment, bound up with a piece of string. He untied it with unsteady fingers. "I don't understand. After all this effort Londo made to get me out of his life… why is he sending me this? Did he tell you?"
"Londo tells me very little," Timov muttered. She sounded oddly strained. "Read it, Vir. If you read it, so will I. I don't know what it says, but Londo begged me to get this to you, so it must be important. Please." She took the first, empty page and put it aside, then handed Vir the next sheet. This one did hold some writing, the words jotted down so clumsily they were barely legible. Vir steeled himself and began to read.
My good Vir, it said. Surely you have given up on me by now. I do not blame you. I have done abominably, both by you and by our people. I have lied, plotted, caused pain to those I loved, endorsed murder, abandoned even those few principles I still held dear; and yet, if I failed as Emperor, it was never for lack of trying. You see, Vir, the enemies that I spoke of are not a fabrication. They are as real as you and me, and they are here in the palace. Controlling me. I have not been myself, Vir. I was not able to be myself for sixteen years. I have my Keeper, you see – a Keeper which, in turn, is kept by masters of its own. You already know their name, because it is not only Centauri Prime they tried to bend to their will. They are called the Drakh, and they have been here forever.
"The Drakh?" Vir repeated, meeting Timov's eyes. It was the Drakh who had released the plague on Earth, the nanovirus which would have ended all life there. But the Drakh had been defeated. Hadn't they? No Drakh vessel had been seen in Alliance space for years. Except this isn't Alliance space. It hasn't been since… Bile rose in his throat. Sixteen years, Londo had said. It had been sixteen years since Centauri Prime left the Alliance, sixteen years since Londo took the throne. "A Keeper. What does that mean, 'I have my Keeper'?" He thrust the page into Timov's hands and fumbled for the next one.
This time, when he read on, he didn't look up and he didn't stop. Instead he found himself clutching Timov's hand, desperate for something, anything, to combat the rising horror in his chest. Timov seemed to be holding herself together better than he was. When they reached the entry about Lysandra's husband's and nephew's deaths, she shuddered and covered her mouth with one hand, but when Vir turned to her, she shook her head. "Read on," she whispered. "Whatever I say, it's not going to bring back Sylvio and Noro, so just read, Vir. Please." He did, feeling numb more than anything. He felt a brief, irrational rush of triumph when he read about G'Kar – see? I was right after all! – but it lasted no more than a moment. By the time he reached the last few pages, the ones that were dated today, it was all he could do not to throw up. And that was before he read the first sentence.
By the time you are reading this, it said, I will be dead.
Vir was halfway to his feet before Timov stopped him. "Vir." She was white as chalk. "You need to stay. Londo said you had to read everything."
"But Londo is –" Vir's voice cracked. "I have to go to him. How can I stay when–"
"Because he asked." She looked up at him. "Because I'm asking. Because…" She straightened, one hand on her chest, sucking in a ragged breath. "Because chances are he is already dead. I saw his face when he sent me to you: he wasn't expecting to see me again. Nor you, Vir. I didn't understand, but I do now. Why he did… all the things he did, for all those years. I don't think I will ever forgive him for it –" Another breath, even less steady. "– but I do understand. He was trying to save us all."
Vir spread his hands. "Timov, he – he sacrificed others to keep us alive! Did you want that? Do you think I wanted that? Sylvio Deradi, Noro Jaddo… They didn't have to die. If he'd trusted us –"
"But he didn't." She was crying, Vir realized with a jolt, a single tear running down her cheek. "He didn't, and he paid the price. That's something else for which I'll never forgive him, but that was Londo, too. So stubborn, so – so foolishly chivalrous." She dabbed at her eyes with jerky movements. "You never asked me why I stayed with him. Even at the end, even when every bit of sense I had was telling me to get out, I trusted him. The Maker help me, I still do. Don't you see? Everything he did, he did to keep you safe, and he succeeded. That doesn't make it right, but if you owe him one thing, it's to listen to him now."
He had no defense, of course. And Timov was right. As he skimmed through the remaining pages, it dawned on him: despite everything, Londo hadn't given up. Vir read the last few lines with his hearts in his throat. I am sorry, Vir, for many things. If I have hurt you, it was only in my effort to keep you alive. Free our people, if you can. The throne is yours if you want it. I could not tell you earlier, out of fear it would cost you your life, but our people need a leader, and I could not imagine anyone more suited than you. In my chambers you will find a will naming you as my heir; take it or burn it, as you like. Delenn and Sheridan know the truth now: if you contact them, I am certain they will support you. Give my love to Timov. And of course you have it as well.
Vir got to his feet, not sure if the dizziness he felt was from fear or adrenaline or both. "I have to go," he said. Timov nodded, and stood without a word.
He couldn't go alone. If the Drakh were holding the palace, storming in without backup would be suicide. But he had the Resistance; he could have a strike force assembled within the hour. In all the months he'd been planning to make a move for the throne, he'd never imagined it would be anything like this, but for once, he was grateful he'd prepared.
It had been a long time since he'd been near the palace. Up close, the devastation was even worse than he'd thought. The gates were closed when they got there, but when Vir marched up the steps and shouted his name, they opened with a screech. So Londo had left orders to let him in. Inside, a dozen guards were standing at attention; their captain, a thin fellow with an honest face, saw Vir and promptly fell to his knees.
"Your Majesty. We were told you would come."
Vir's jaw dropped. "I – I'm not…" He swallowed hard. "Where is Emperor Mollari? Is he –"
"He is… was… in the throne room. We answer to you now." The guard lowered his head.
Vir closed his eyes, letting the tide of despair wash over him. We're too late, then. He breathed out shakily, then turned to face the people – who were his people now, in more ways than one. Now wasn't the time for him to fall apart. "Emperor Mollari is dead," he said, with an effort. There were gasps of surprise from the Resistance members, some almost triumphant. Vir found Lysandra among the crowd. She, at least, wasn't smiling. "I know this comes as a surprise, but unless we stop the Drakh it changes nothing at all. We have to move, and we have to move now. Seal off the exits, no one gets in or out. Confine every Drakh you find to the cells. Stay together, don't let them catch you off-guard. Now, go!"
Vir waited until the teams had fanned out, then turned to his own escort: two guards and a handful of civilians, one of them Lysandra.
"The throne room?" she asked, and Vir nodded. There was no other place that made sense for him to go.
The lighting was strange, surreal; with just a few lamps lit and every window boarded but one, the room felt like a shadow of the one he remembered. Vir gestured at the others to wait at the door. For a moment, when door fell shut behind him, he could see nothing – just the red, ugly glow from the fires outside. Then his vision adapted.
He saw Londo first, his cloak a smudge of white against the marble. He was face-down, one cheek pillowed on G'Kar's outstretched arm. Vir gasped and dropped to his knees between them; blindly, he fumbled for Londo's throat, looking for a pulse, not caring that he already knew what he'd find. He had to be sure. But Londo's skin was cold, and the bruises in G'Kar's neck told the rest of the story. He remembered the image from his dream, but shoved it away. If his vision about Londo was true, the one about Lennier might be as well, and if he let that thought in, he would fall apart.
There was no sign of Londo's Keeper. Torn as he felt between throwing up and crying, Vir couldn't bring himself to care. The tears still came, and he made no effort to stop them. Instead he bent down and touched Londo's back, the way Londo had done with him a million times. He would have given everything to make it a million-and-one. "It's all right," he whispered. "I'm here. You did good. I'm – I'm still angry for what you did, and I think I will be for a long time, but… your plan worked. We'll stop the Drakh, I promise. It's going to be fine." He tried to say something to G'Kar as well, but the words wouldn't come, so he moved over and closed G'Kar's eye. It made him look almost peaceful.
The door creaked open. "Vir? Are you… Are you all right?"
Vir pushed himself to his feet. His legs had gone numb, and he wobbled a little before he found his balance. It wasn't like Lysandra to be lost for words, but then, she was probably wondering how close he was to a breakdown. In his rumpled coat, with tears drying on his face, he supposed he couldn't have looked any less dignified. "It's okay," he said. "I – I was saying goodbye."
She came in, joining him where he stood beside the bodies. "He's really dead, then," she said. Her voice cracked on the name. For a moment, Vir wanted nothing more than to turn and put his arms around her.
Then he saw the Drakh.
It all happened at once: Vir shouted, Lysandra grabbed her knife, and seconds later the room was full of armed Centauri, charging in with their weapons raised. In the chaos, Vir felt almost insubstantial, swept up by the rush of adrenaline and the press of bodies around him. Lysandra reacted before he did.
"Kill it," she hissed at him. "Give the order now, before it tries something. Before – "
"We would not advise that." The creature cocked its head.
A murmur of shock passed through the room. Everywhere, Vir saw fingers tightening on sword hilts and triggers. He understood why. It was impossible to say what was most hair-raising: that soft, rasping voice, or the red eyes that seemed to look right through him. But in the silence that followed, he found his voice somehow.
"Who are you?" Vir took a step closer, ignoring Lysandra's cautioning hand on his sleeve. "I am Vir Cotto, heir of Londo Mollari. Who are you?" He didn't know what made him make that kind of statement, but it felt right.
The Drakh's eyes narrowed as they came to rest on him. "I am Shiv'kala. The true leader of Centauri Prime, before your Emperor saw fit to take his own life. Now I am merely one of many… but we are still many, and you cannot defeat us. Londo learned this lesson. I have come to teach you as well."
Shiv'kala. Vir remembered the name. This was Londo's tormentor – the one who controlled his Keeper, who had robbed him of his free will and his life. For a moment, rage rose in him like bile. No mercy for this one. The thought felt repulsive, but Vir made no attempt to fight it; instead he glanced at the bodies of Londo and G'Kar, which made his gorge rise all over again. Good. If he was tempted to be forgiving, all he had to do was look down.
"Londo learned no lessons from you," Vir said. His voice sounded harsh, distant to his own ears. "He died for a purpose. Your secret is out. We know, and so do Delenn and President Sheridan, the prisoners you let escape. Word is spreading all over the city, and soon every world in the Alliance will know it too. You've lost."
"But have we?" Shiv'kala said, quietly. Too quietly, Vir thought, with a sick rush of fear. "You see, you will not find all of us here. That would have been foolish. There are Drakh across the city, across the planet, hundreds of them, and hundreds of Centauri carrying Keepers like these." The Drakh spread his arms, one grey-scaled hand emerging from his sleeve. On it was a shapeless, tentacled creature. The sight of it sent a shudder down Vir's spine. "This one was Londo's. But it could be yours, if you wish. You see, we have… insurance. Years ago, we seeded your world with fusion bombs. Deny us and we will detonate them, and millions more of your people will die. Is that what you want?" Shiv'kala's eyes glittered coldly. "Your friend Londo did not."
"I'm not Londo," Vir whispered. At the mention of the bombs, a gasp had gone up among the Centauri, but Vir saw no hint of fear in their eyes. He looked at Lysandra, saw she was thinking the same thing. We can't give up. We've come too far.
There was only one choice to make, and it was up to him to make it. But not because he wanted to. Because all of them did.
"You're wrong," Vir said, clenching his hands into fists. "You think we have more to lose than you, but we don't. You'd have me give up, like Londo did, deliver the people to you so they can go on living their travesties of lives under your rule. But we've seen what those lives are worth. You've shown us. You've shown us for sixteen years. If you detonate the bombs, millions of us may die – but your own people will die as well. And even more millions of us will live, and they'll be free. Londo couldn't see that, but I can. Whatever you choose to do to do us could never be worse than what you already did." Vir came up for breath, dizzy. The silence that met him felt deafening, but when he looked at Shiv'kala, it was clear he had hit a nerve.
"You will never find us." The Drakh's voice dropped to a growl. "You will need to turn this world inside out before you find every Drakh and every Keeper. Londo has told me of your people. They will murder each other in the streets because they suspect each other. Instead of saving them, you will only bring them more suffering. There will be chaos, and by the time it is over, we will be long gone."
Vir shook his head. "No. Not if we have telepaths."
Shiv'kala's voice dripped scorn. "All the telepaths are dead. Londo Mollari had them tracked down and killed."
"But there are other worlds than this one. Londo never asked anyone for help, but I will. I've already contacted the Minbari government, asked them to alert Delenn and Sheridan the moment they arrive. They'll send Minbari telepaths to help, and then we will root you out and hunt you down and kill every last one of you, just like you did with those telepaths. Give us an excuse, and I swear to you we will. Surrender now, and we might spare your lives."
It was over. Vir could see it on Shiv'kala's face, could see the rage distorting his features while the Keeper in his hands hissed and spat. Londo's Keeper. The thing that had made his life a living hell. Vir had never hated anything half as much in his life. For a split second, all he could think of was to draw his own weapon and kill it on the spot, but then reality caught up with him. He sagged, almost losing his balance; the weapon slipped from his grip and clattered across the floor.
"Take him away," he muttered, gesturing at Shiv'kala. "Just… take him away, and leave, please, all of you. I just – I need a moment."
His chest felt tight. He could barely breathe through the pounding in his head. But they all left, without question, and somehow he managed to keep up a stolid front until he heard the gate click shut. Then he was alone, blinking down at the bodies at his feet. Something inside him clenched at the sight; the vague sickness in his gut turned solid, and suddenly he was fighting panic.
Great Maker, I can't. I can't do this. Vir panted weakly through his teeth. But that wasn't right. He had done it. He had faced Shiv'kala, not as Vir Cotto, but as the person everyone expected him to be. Londo had wanted him to be Emperor, but today, for the first time, Vir could believe the people wanted it too.
His boot collided with something solid: the Imperial seal, its chain broken, but otherwise undamaged. Vir picked it up and cradled it in his hands. It's so heavy. But it had been heavier for Londo than it would be for him. Which didn't mean it would be easy. Vir still didn't feel anything like an Emperor, and he wasn't sure he ever would. Outside, the rain was coming down more strongly, a thin grey veil falling across the burning city. Dawn felt half a lifetime away. But it would come. Just for now, Vir thought that might be enough.