Chapter 1: Londo - 2262
In which Londo struggles to deal with his Keeper, and attempts to warn Vir without saying too much.
Through some quirk of fate, the main wing of the palace had survived the bombardment. Amidst its overwrought splendor, Vir had looked gray and anxious, and Londo couldn't decide if that was a good sign or not.
Vir's instincts were keen ones, that much was true. And the Maker knew there was reason enough to be frightened, with half the planet in ruins and Drakh infesting the capital like the foul parasites they were. But Vir didn't know that. No; seeing the unease in the set of Vir's shoulders, Londo had known all too well that he himself was to blame. Not because he was about to become Emperor – Vir had known that for a long time – but for what it might change between them. For what it had changed already. That was not a good sign at all.
His own reaction hadn't helped, Londo knew. Vir had come rushing here from Babylon 5 to make sure he was all right, and how had he expressed his gratitude? By chiding Vir like a child for walking in on him as he was dressing! The irony was thick enough to choke on. How often had Vir helped him dress under conditions far less dignified, with alcohol dulling his senses to the point where he could barely button his own coat? Of course Vir would not hesitate to walk in on him now that he was Emperor. Why should he?
One thing was clear: he had to talk to Vir again, and soon. But Vir had disappeared after their earlier confrontation, wandering off in the direction of the gardens. Sending a guard after him would hardly inspire trust, so Londo hurried outside at the first opportunity, hoping to locate his friend before the Drakh ordered him back.
The walk in the open air was almost soothing. It had been several hours since he'd been given his Keeper, and his head was finally starting to clear. The Keeper's surface thoughts were chaos, as disorienting as they were primitive, but Londo was beginning to learn how to tune them out. He still felt faint and unsteady, but they had told him those symptoms would ease as his nervous system adjusted. As long as the Drakh named Shiv'kala – his Keeper's keeper, the one who spoke for the others – did not touch his mind directly, he was finding he could keep the confusion at bay.
In a flash, he caught a glimpse of Vir ahead of him. As he started to call out, he stumbled over a loose step, his focus slipping. The wave of weakness that assaulted him, crackling through every nerve in his body, was intense enough to drive him to his knees. He was forced to huddle on the rough tiles, struggling to hold on to the contents of his stomach as his Keeper writhed with undisguised glee. Shame and fury burned behind his eyelids, but to his relief, his eyes remained dry. Which wasn't surprising. After Adira, he did not think he had many tears left.
The good thing was that Vir seemed to have spotted him as well. Londo heard, rather than saw him coming: nervous, shuffling footsteps that faltered and then broke into a run.
"Londo, are you all right?" Vir practically flung himself at him. His cheeks were red and puffy, but Londo couldn't tell whether the cause was fatigue or concern. It seemed Vir was getting better at hiding his emotions – which, given the circumstances, could only be a good thing. "I thought you were preparing to address the people. What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," Londo replied truthfully. "And I'm fine. I was just... catching my breath." That wasn't quite so true, but it couldn't be helped. "I did not mean to snap at you earlier, Vir. I was preoccupied. I should not have taken it out on you." His Keeper squirmed as if in warning, but Londo gritted his teeth and worked up a faint grin. Vir would have to leave soon, so it would not do to taint what little time they had together. It was a good thing that people who did not know Vir tended to underestimate him, but even so, every hour that he stayed increased his chances of being noticed by the Drakh. Londo could not risk that.
"It's all right." Vir's hand, which had been plucking at his trousers, came to hover over Londo's arm. "I'm sorry for leaving. I – I needed some air."
"I see," Londo said, sitting very still. With the Keeper held in check and the sunlight trickling down through a thin layer of cloud, he could almost pretend everything was as it should be. At least as long as he did not look at the heaps of rubble where the Narn and Drazi weapons had hit, or at the pillars of black smoke still rising from the inner city. "You always enjoyed the garden, did you not? I remember in the days after Cartagia you often came here."
"I remember I once threw up on one of Cartagia's prize orchids." Vir smiled faintly. "The night of G'Kar's whipping. It all seems so long ago."
Londo nodded, but his own smile felt forced. Already he regretted bringing up Cartagia in the first place. The whole affair had brought the two of them closer together, yes, but it had also shown him how different they were. In the end it was Vir who had taken Cartagia's life, an act which Londo knew continued to haunt him. More than once over the past year, Vir had brought him his breakfast looking red-eyed and disheveled, and Londo was far too familiar with the ravages of nightmare not to recognize them on sight.
As for himself, he did not dream of Cartagia's murder, or the other ones – like Refa's, or Morden's – committed in his name. Unlike Vir, he was capable of killing in cold blood without feeling remorse later. That didn't mean he did not dream at all. Images of the Narn bombing still disturbed his sleep, as did his death dream, and one other nightmare that had been plaguing him of late: that of Centauri Prime in flames. Now that it had come true, Londo wondered just how cold his blood would prove to be once the Drakh started ordering him to do their bidding. He remembered the Regent, forced to turn off the defense grid, watching the city burn as destruction rained down from orbit. He thought of the fusion bombs, seeded across the planet. He could not give the Drakh an excuse to detonate them. The question was, how could he fight them?
Beside him, Vir straightened and cleared his throat. "Londo, I – I realize many things have happened here, things that can't be undone. The attacks, the Shadow technology that was stolen and used on our ships. And now the Alliance wants us to make amends, and I understand that, but surely you aren't just going to give in? If the Regent acted alone…" Vir bit his lip. "Gods, Londo, I can't even begin to understand how the Regent could be capable of that, but if he was, then why can't we be truthful about it? Surely if we extend a formal apology, President Sheridan and Delenn would reconsider –"
"It's not that simple," Londo cut him off. He pushed himself to his feet with a hiss. The maneuver nearly sent him sprawling, but Vir caught him by the shoulder just in time.
"Why can't it be that simple?" Vir pressed, as he steered them both up the steps and across the rubble-strewn path. "Londo, what are you hiding? After everything we've been through, I thought you would trust me by now." His voice was hurt, indignant. "I mean, I – I know I don't have much experience in things like these, but won't you even consider what I just said?"
Londo sucked down air through his teeth. Of course he had considered speaking with Sheridan, possibly even telling him the truth. But the Drakh would never allow it. If there had ever been a chance for him to speak out, it had been taken from him the moment he accepted the Keeper. And even if he could somehow reveal the Drakh's presence, he had no idea how numerous they were and what they were capable of. Great Maker, the damage they might do before it was all over...
No. He had one hope, one vision of a better future: the one where Vir became Emperor after his death. It might take years to come to pass, but one thing was certain: it would not come to pass at all unless Londo played his part. If it meant having to carry a Keeper for the rest of his days, he would not shy away from bearing that burden. Centauri Prime was crippled, which meant his only other option was putting his world at the mercy of the Alliance. And look at what mercy their precious Alliance had dispensed so far, asking for reparations when they were well aware the Centauri could not pay. No. If they were to overcome their plight, they would have to do it themselves - not by bending their knee like Sheridan wanted. It was the only way.
Londo slowed, groping for words. He had to come up with an explanation that would seem inconspicuous to the Drakh, yet leave Vir with more than hollow excuses. "I do trust you, Vir," he said softly. "But there are other considerations here." A glance to his side confirmed he had Vir's attention. "There are… forces at work here too strong for one man to oppose. Even for a man who might call himself Emperor. The Regent tried but failed, and I am not at all certain that I can succeed. As long as that is the case, I cannot keep you safe except through silence."
Vir's eyebrows knitted together as he pondered that. "With 'others', you mean someone at court? Someone other than the Regent? But... you told everyone he acted alone."
"I did," Londo admitted. "Not every word you hear from my lips will be the truth, Vir. You must remember that. I am endangering you even by telling you this. The moment Delenn and Lennier leave with Sheridan, you must go with them. G'Kar too. I have not told him any of this, but he has seen and heard much; I wouldn't be surprised if he has written it all down in that wretched book of his. You should talk with him, but not here. You have duties to attend to. Our people on Babylon 5 will have need of you." His Keeper twitched restlessly on his shoulder. Had he said too much? No, surely not; just vague words and riddles, nothing the Drakh would concern themselves with. Yet.
Vir nodded, and for once his expression betrayed nothing. "I understand. Or, well, I don't, really. Not all of it. But I will. At least I – I hope I will. Thank you, for telling me as much as you did." He looked across his shoulder at the palace, his face clouding over. "We've been out here for a while. We should go back before they miss you."
"Oh, they will hardly miss me," Londo said, resisting a dark look at his Keeper, which he suspected was reporting to its Drakh masters even now. "But you are right. I must address the people, and Delenn and Sheridan will be wondering where we are. We should go to them." If only to make sure the Drakh kept their promise and did not have them executed anyway, in a dark, damp corner of the palace where no one was watching. Londo suppressed a shiver at the thought.
Beside him, Vir pressed his lips together and returned his hand to where it had been at Londo's elbow. He only removed it when they passed through the gate that led out of the sunlight and back inside.
Chapter 2: Timov - 2262
In which Timov refuses to stay on the sidelines, and Londo has no defense.
For the first time since the firing had stopped, Timov was grateful the streets were deserted. Otherwise she'd never have made it in time. Not that she owed Londo anything, least of all to come running at his summons - but that was unfair, she knew. Apart from the fact it hadn't been Londo's summons to begin with, it had also sounded alarmingly like a plea.
"It's bad, Lady Timov," Vir had blurted over the comm link. "The Regent is dead, and Londo... they're preparing for his inauguration now. The Narn and Drazi have stood down, but there's proof that our fleet has been attacking the shipping lines. Londo's going to address the people, and then he's sending us all away: Sheridan, Delenn, even me and G'Kar. He wants us off-world for our own safety, he says." Despite Vir's distress, there had been a sharpness to his tone that sounded nothing like the nervous youth Timov used to know. "I don't think he should be alone right now, and I don't know who else to trust. If there's anything you can do, anything at all…"
For a moment, the old impulse had kicked in, and she'd actually pretended to think it over. But really, there had been no need.
How the wheel turned, she thought, as her transport sped across the city. Not three years ago she had wanted nothing more than to be rid of Londo, and now here she was, riding to his rescue. If a rescue was what it deserved to be called. News from inside the court had become so hard to obtain that she might as well be going in blind. Still, it helped that she had her own contacts inside the palace, and Londo himself had been refreshingly candid of late. Timov suspected he found distraction in the sting of her barbs as much as in the sharpness of her wit, so she took care to keep him well supplied with both. Vir was a healthy influence, that much was sure; whenever he joined Londo on his visits, the difference in mood was palpable. Which brought her back to the matter at hand: if Londo had stopped confiding in Vir, it could only mean trouble was brewing.
It dawned on her how much trouble, exactly, when Londo's projection appeared in the sky.
You proud, stubborn fool, what have you done? There was a time for pride, to be sure; Timov would be the last to deny that, but pride would hardly serve them now. They didn't need the Alliance, Londo was saying. The Alliance had betrayed them, and they were stronger alone. Such pretentious, empty talk. Timov had met Sheridan once, when he was still commander of Babylon 5. He had struck her as a fair man, reasonable enough that he might yet reach out to the Centauri if they made a gesture of good faith. But given that Londo had just blown up their last bridges, such a gesture seemed unlikely.
She told her driver to head for the cathedral, where emperors had been crowned since memory served. They pulled up at the foot of the staircase just as Londo was climbing the last few steps. Timov considered calling out to him... but no. If he wanted this to be a private moment, who was she to deny him that? She could wait. Besides, in his speech, he'd said nothing about walking from the ceremony alone.
Timov climbed the steps slowly, cloak billowing around her shoulders. From this vantage point, the devastation looked even worse than it had from the ground. Whole buildings had been flattened, including the main hospital and the central archives, and several patches of the city were still burning, vomiting thick plumes of smoke.
"Stop!" A guard appeared above her, weapon raised. "No one is allowed here, on the Emperor's orders."
"I see." Timov shot him a withering glare. "And did the Emperor order you to point a blade at his wife?"
When the guard blanched, she actually felt relief; she hadn't been sure she still had it in her. Only after he'd left, muttering apologies, did the whole truth of it sink in.
She was the Emperor's wife now. His only wife, at that. All her life she'd loathed being a nobleman's woman, a pretty trinket to parade in front of others. She'd long stopped thinking of herself as pretty, but the rest was no less true today than it was in the past. Except that where once she'd defied Londo openly, flaunting her insolence for everyone to see, right now she felt strangely protective of him. Centauri emperors did not generally lead long, joyful lives. Whatever part she'd be expected to play, Londo would be playing an even more difficult one. Not that there wasn't some poetic justice in that.
She spun around. Londo was just leaving the cathedral, blinking down at her from the top of the stairs. He couldn’t have looked more dumbfounded if she'd been stark naked.
"Hello, Londo." She kept her own face impassive. "Or should I say 'Your Majesty' now?"
Londo was still staring, as if trying to figure out if she was real or a mirage. Then he shook it off and hurried towards her. "Don't be absurd! What are you doing here?" he snapped.
"Why, talking to my husband." Timov smiled thinly. "I wasn't aware that would be considered a crime. Though I'd prefer to be closer to the ground; the view from here is hardly uplifting." That, and the cursed wind was cutting the flesh right off her bones, but that was none of Londo's business. She wasn't about to show weakness now.
They started the descent in an uneasy silence. It was Londo who broke it. "Are the children all right?"
The children, of course, were not theirs but Urza's. Timov had never known the whole truth about the business with Urza Jaddo, or why Londo had taken in his family after his death. There had been whispers, confirmed by no one, that Londo had killed his friend himself. But he and Urza had always been close – close enough to spark some rather imaginative rumors – and it was clear that Urza's death had affected Londo deeply. With that, she'd decided, she knew enough.
"As well as they can be, considering. They're frightened, of course. Mila barely slept last night." Mila was eight and Timov's favorite, loud and impetuous and always getting into trouble. "But I told them about our new emperor, who will make it all better with a wave of his hand."
Londo's head snapped up. "You said no such thing!"
"No, I didn't," she said wryly, meeting his eyes. The circles under them had deepened since the last time she saw him, and there was a stiffness to his movements that made him look almost fragile. It look less than a moment to make up her mind. "I'm coming with you. To the Royal Palace."
Londo stiffened. "Come with me? Why!?"
Because you need me, you idiot, was what she thought, but she toned it down. "Because I'm your wife. I could think of more far-fetched notions than our occupying the same building – though few more unpleasant, I agree." There. Let Londo pretend she was doing it to spite him, if that would help him accept the thought.
"Out of the question! Since when do you even care to be close to me?" It was a fine piece of acting, but not good enough to fool her. One of Londo's hands had clenched into a fist, and the sight of it only strengthened her resolve. If he wasn't strong enough to bend without breaking, then it was up to her to be.
"Maybe I care now," she said, as neutrally as she could. Irony had been her shield for so long that she felt exposed in dropping it. She took a deep breath and added, "Please."
Londo's mouth opened, then closed again. He sucked in a breath as if to protest, but instead it emerged in a long, unsteady sigh. "Fine. Have it your way. I'll have chambers prepared, under one condition: the children and Lysandra stay where they are." Lysandra was Urza's younger sister, who'd taken charge of the household when his widow died. "These are turbulent times, and the Royal Court is not safe. I will not have anyone else subjected to your folly, and you would do well to be on your guard too."
"Why, Londo," she needled. "If I didn't know you better, I'd think you were concerned for me."
"Concerned for your sanity, yes, seeing how you suddenly want to be at my side!" The sarcasm in his voice was cutting, but instinct told her it wasn't directed at her. Something had Londo truly rattled. She hated not knowing what it was.
Her driver was waiting at the foot of the stairs, and she signaled at him for some privacy. The air was fouler here than up by the cathedral, cloying and thick with grime. Timov covered her mouth to keep from coughing. She'd never been fond of this stiff, turgid city, but it brought her no satisfaction to see it reduced to this state. The same was true when it came to Londo. It was surprisingly hard to look him in the eye.
"Being at your side doesn't bother me," she told him. "What I resent is being forced to by tradition, but I don't see anyone forcing me now. Stop trying to make my choices for me. I'm perfectly capable of making my own."
"Yes." Londo swallowed. "Yes, I see you are." This time, his voice was raw with a very different emotion. Oh, dear. Every moment now, he was going to say something foolish and sentimental and utterly irreversible, and it would undo them both.
"Don't," she said. "We're too old for regrets. You have nothing left to prove to me, and I certainly don't need to be wooed like a maiden to feel like I have value to you." That was far more sincerity than she'd planned for, but just this once, she thought she could take the chance.
"Great Maker... You're impossible, you know that? Magnificent, but impossible." Londo gave her a faint smile. "I promise your chambers will be ready by morning. I take it... there is no need for them to be near my own?"
"We're too old for that, too." Timov rolled her eyes. But she hadn't actually said no, and there was no way Londo would fail to notice that - would he? A small part of her was still wondering when he reached out to kiss her hand.
"Stop that," she said, wriggling out of his grip. "You know I take no pleasure in being treated like a lady. I'll have to tolerate it often enough in the future, I think."
Londo drew back with a wounded expression. She wasn't quite sure what possessed her to do it; surely not something as silly as a husband's bruised pride. But some impulse made her reach out and, just briefly, press her lips against his cheek. Londo had to bend over to let her reach him. He smelled like expensive soap and cologne and somewhere behind it, almost too faint to make out, the cold, sour sweat of fear.
"I have to go," she said. "I will see you tomorrow." It took a genuine effort to turn away.
She could feel Londo's gaze on her as she walked towards the transport. Her eyes stung viciously – from the smoke, no doubt. Still, she made sure to hold her head up and her spine straight until she'd climbed all the way inside.
Chapter 3: G'Kar - 2262
In which G'Kar and Vir share drinks and say goodbye.
What was life, if not an exercise in letting go? It was a truth G'Kar had known for many years, but the full weight of it had never hit him quite this hard before. He'd thought he had made peace with the prospect of leaving; not simply the life he had built here on Babylon 5, but his life on Narn and everything else that was familiar. What he'd told Lyta wasn't a lie. He was looking forward to the adventure. But every so often, the tidal wave of loss would come crashing down, and it was all he could do to not to lose himself in it.
He'd planned to walk through the station one last time, visiting the places he most wished to remember, but after the recent debacle in the Zocalo the impossibility of that was clear. There was no other option but to stay in his quarters, whiling away the hours by gathering his belongings. With luck, the ship he'd purchased would arrive tonight. After it did, he and Lyta could leave within a day. G'Kar still wasn't sure whether to long for that moment or to dread it.
When the door chimed, he was busy cleaning out his bookcase, taking the time to inspect each tome before packing it away. He'd been examining Mr. Garibaldi's parting gift: a bound collection of antique "graphic novels", a concept still quite new to G'Kar, but no less fascinating for that. He gently returned it to its shelf, steeling himself before he answered. "Yes?"
"It's Vir. Vir Cotto. I hope I'm not interrupting?"
Chuckling, G'Kar went to press the lock. Leave it to Cotto to worry about interrupting someone who'd been cooped up in his quarters for days.
The door slid open on a hassled-looking Vir, who was struggling with two glasses and a bottle under his arm. "G'Kar. Hello," he muttered, straightening. "There's, ah, something of a mob outside, did you know?"
"There was, yes." G'Kar sighed. "At least until Captain Lochley posted guards. If they have left, I should probably alert her – "
"Oh, no, the guards are still here," Vir said. "Outside your quarters, that is. The mob is at the entrance to Green sector now. They're very enthusiastic. Not that that's… Well, I got through eventually, and this coat needed new buttons anyway, so…"
G'Kar resisted the impulse to rub his temples. Dear G'Quan. Will this madness never end? "Please forgive my people. My presence here seems to have stripped them of all reason; I can only hope they will come to their senses once I am gone. How can I help you, Mister Cott–" He corrected himself. "Ambassador?" To him, titles might no longer matter, but to the young they often did. Though in Cotto's case he wasn't sure if...
"Just Vir. Please," Cotto finished that thought for him. "I heard you're leaving tomorrow, and we didn't get a chance to talk, so I brought this." He held out the bottle to G'Kar. Brivari. Of course. "It's one of Londo's. He was always telling me to practice holding my liquor, but I'd rather not drink this all by myself."
G'Kar mustered a smile and accepted the bottle. He'd been trying to take his mind off Mollari ever since his return to the station, but so far he hadn't had much luck. It seemed Vir was having similar trouble. They could help distract each other, then. "By all means," he said, waving Vir in. "I haven't left this room for the past forty-eight hours, so I'd enjoy the company. As for enjoying the brivari, I will give it my best effort. You brought along your own glasses, I see?"
"Yes. About that." Vir found himself a seat, his cheekbones turning faintly pink. "I think… this belongs to you." Holding on to what seemed like a random half of the pair, he offered the other glass to G'Kar.
G'Kar turned it around in his hands with a frown. It was small and squat and unimaginative; not crystal or even fine glass, but the same synthetic material all mass-produced glassware on the station was made of. All that set it apart was a printed label on the side. "This is from –"
"The Zocalo, I know. That's what I told Londo after I tried to return it. It didn't stop him from yelling at me until I went and got it back." The melancholy behind Vir's smile was impossible to miss. "He said you shared your first drink with him out of that glass. He'll hardly have use for it on Centauri Prime, so it's only fitting that you take it. I'm sure Londo would agree."
G'Kar had thought himself skilful at masking his feelings, but this time they must have been plain on his face. He regained his composure while Vir fussed with their drinks, taking ample time to pour and re-seal the bottle; clearly the lull in the conversation was meant for G'Kar's benefit rather than Vir's.
Vir raised his glass slowly. "To new beginnings."
G'Kar mirrored the gesture and drank deeply, not quite trusting himself to reply. The brivari tasted fine, but its potency surprised him. He coughed, then winced when his ribs protested at the jolt.
"Londo told me you were injured during the bombardment." Vir had to stifle a cough as well. "I hope it's healing all right. Cracked ribs can be nasty, I know. I broke three when…" Flushing crimson, he groped for his drink.
It wasn't hard to guess at the reason for his discomfiture; no doubt it had been G'Kar's Dust-induced madness which had left Vir with some battered ribs of his own. But there was little use in dwelling on that now. Taking Vir's cue to drop the subject, G'Kar nodded politely. "It's healing fine." That was only half true, but what other reply was there? He could hardly tell Vir that whenever his chest twinged, he would think of Mollari all dressed up in white and feel like he might never breathe again.
For a moment, Vir seemed about to press further. Then he bit his lip. "I'm sorry this is how you have to spend your last days here. Are your people really this angry you don't want to rule Narn?"
"They are disappointed," G'Kar said. "They've grown convinced I possess the answers to their questions, and they feel rejected now I've told them that they need to find their own answers instead. I cannot blame them, but neither can I allow them to influence my decision."
"The man who tried to kill you in the Zocalo…" Vir fingered his glass. "He said you betrayed your people."
"He is hardly alone in that. Some of my people feel it is my duty to comply with everything Narn asks of me." No matter how often he'd laid out this argument to himself, it still took an effort not to feel like he was failing his people. Instinct cut so much deeper than wisdom, even now. "Even if what they ask is not he same as what they need. Or what I need. I must do what I feel is right, not only for my people but for myself."
"I wish…" Vir swallowed. "I wish Londo had done that. Thought about himself." He smiled faintly at G'Kar's startled look. "I – I know what you're thinking, and you're probably right. Londo doesn't have much of a history of selflessness, but it's different when it comes to Centauri Prime. At the end, I don't really think he wanted the throne anymore, but he accepted it anyway. He never even considered the alternative, because –"
"Because, in his mind, there was none." G'Kar inclined his head. "I know. I was with him on Centauri Prime. If I ever harbored any doubts about his devotion to your people, they were stripped from me then and there. But you are right. We are not the same, he and I. I was raised to question the world I grew up in, to fight for a better future. Mollari was taught to hold on to the past and to do his duty, and never to question how misguided that duty might be."
"He did question it. Not often enough, maybe, but still. He just… He couldn't…"
"He couldn't refuse," G'Kar said. "And he couldn't break with tradition. So he accepted a gilded cage for the sake of his people, just as I am leaving the known universe for the sake of my own. Each in our own way, we believe we are doing what we must, yet the outcomes couldn't be more different. Tell me, Vir, how ironic can life be?"
"Very." Vir sighed, rubbing his eyes as if they were hurting him. "About as ironic as the two of us sharing Londo's brivari, I suppose." A weak grin. "So, is this a good vintage, you think?"
"It is rather good," G'Kar admitted. "Stronger than I remember, although I'm not complaining. Do you like it?"
"I don't know. To be honest, I'm getting a little queasy. But Londo said that would pass if I kept on drinking." G'Kar watched him suppress a shiver and, very consciously, compose himself. "I need to ask you something. I spoke to Londo just before we left Homeworld. I think he was trying to warn me, but for some reason he couldn't talk freely. He told me to come to you instead."
G'Kar nodded. He'd wondered when the question would come. "I had the same impression when I last saw him. He told me his behavior might change in the years to come, but not by his own choice. And we witnessed disturbing things on your world. Things that even Mollari admitted frightened him." He proceeded by telling Vir all that he could, from Lord Jarno's murder and the Regent's apparent madness to the failed attempt on Londo's life. The longer they talked, the more Vir's shoulders sagged – not that G'Kar failed to see why. There were far too many questions, and no easy answers he could give.
Afterwards, Vir poured himself two more inches of brivari and sat nursing it silently. G'Kar refused the offer of another drink. His head was throbbing already, and he needed his wits about him if he wanted to be of any use to Vir.
"If Londo was afraid..." Vir said thickly. "If Londo was afraid, how could I ever –" He started to get up from his chair, wobbled and abruptly sat down again. G'Kar resolved not to let him have another glass; he didn't know much about Cotto's tolerance for alcohol, but something told him the boy was in for an unpleasant morning. "Did Londo…" Vir winced. "Has he ever told you about the lady Morella's prophecy?"
G'Kar shook his head. He and Londo had had some discussions about prophecies, but none of them had ended well. G'Kar had never believed in Centauri prophecy; for all his efforts, some prejudices were still hard to overcome.
"Morella said… I'll be emperor after Londo is dead." Vir folded his hands into his lap. "I don't know if I should believe it – I don't even know if it would be a good thing to believe it, but what if it's true? Londo thinks it is, and you know how stubborn Londo can be." He gave a short, hoarse laugh. "Then again, Londo has many years ahead of him. He'll probably live to be a hundred and fifty, so chances are I don't have to worry just yet, but…"
G'Kar flinched and squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn't tell Vir about the dream – Mollari's dream, the dream G'Kar had plucked from his mind that day the Dust had raged inside him. The dream where they squeezed the life out of each other. It would be wrong to place that burden on Vir. Then again, Centauri dreams were as fanciful as the Centauri themselves, so perhaps this was just a figment of Londo's imagination… Except G'Kar didn't truly believe that. He didn't know how, but he could feel the truth of it in his bones. One day, he would return to Centauri Prime to die. And Londo would die with him.
"I'm afraid, G'Kar," Vir whispered. "I wish I wasn't, but I am. Don't you ever get frightened?"
A shiver traced its path down G'Kar's back, like a tendril of ice against his spine. "Of course I'm frightened," he said quietly. More than you may ever know. Not of death, but of waste, loss, futility; of making the wrong choices and not being able to undo them. In that sense, Vir was not that different from him. "But when you feel like you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, it may help to remember this: our shoulders were made to bear burdens. I suspect you'll find yours can carry much more than you believe."
For once, Vir was almost smiling. "It doesn't feel that way right now… but I'll make sure to remember that."
"We will meet again, Vir Cotto." G'Kar smiled back. "Until that time, I hope you will thrive here on Babylon 5. Be well. Be strong." G'Kar held out his hand and Vir stood, with some effort, as if to shake it. It wasn't truly a surprise when Vir threw his arms around him instead.
Chapter 4: Vir - 2262
In which Vir reflects on his first weeks as an ambassador, finds out why Lennier is missing, and foreshadowing ensues.
When they offered him Londo's old quarters, he laughed.
He felt terrible later, of course. Captain Lochley meant well, and she was trying so hard to make him feel appreciated. It wasn't even that he thought about Londo that much; with all the work he had on the station, most of the days Vir barely had time to think. But the thought of those huge, silent quarters, still filled to bursting with Londo's old stuff… It was a scary thought, and not funny at all. Which is why he shouldn't have been too surprised to find his throat closing up or his eyes burning – except that he was, he was mortified, and the only thing that kept him from crying in front of the whole command staff was to burst out laughing instead.
Afterwards, he realized just who he'd learned that strategy from. Londo had used it all the time: in the face of despair, laugh and be merry, or at least pretend you were.
Not that things were going that badly. His first week had been the hardest: Centauri Prime might have withdrawn from the Alliance, but Babylon 5 was still teeming with Centauri traders, impatient to get on with their lives. Vir had spent a frantic few days hammering out an agreement that ensured their protection. Even with the war over, there were still plenty of grudges to go around. As inexperienced as he was, so were the new ambassadors to Narn and Minbar, and Vir was rather proud of the deal he'd struck. Ta'Lon was a quick study, though. As for the new Minbari representative Leninn, Vir had little doubt she'd learn soon enough.
In the end he did move to Londo's quarters, if only to keep anyone else from claiming them. Besides, Ta'Lon got G'Kar's quarters, and Leninn got Lennier's, so there was a certain symmetry to it. And it gave him something to do with his little free time. Sorting out Londo's things might not be the most exciting of hobbies, but it helped get his mind off politics for a while.
He still couldn't get used to the evenings. As much as he had thought he'd enjoy the quiet, Vir missed Londo's chatter, just like he missed taking care of someone other than himself. It would help if he'd actually manage to sleep, but the more tired he was, the more tricky that got. These days he was lucky to catch a few hours at best. Of course, Londo had a cure for sleepless nights: visit the Zocalo, perhaps ply his charms on a lady or two. Vir didn't think that would work for him, but he was beginning to understand why Londo used to do it. Anything better than staring at the ceiling and replaying the day's negotiations in your head.
The one other person he missed as much as Londo was Lennier. Lennier, with his soft words and quiet strength, who'd been struggling so hard to find himself – and who had now vanished from the face of the universe, it seemed. Vir kept telling himself not to worry, but he couldn't help it. All he knew was that Lennier had escorted Delenn and Sheridan to Minbar, and after that, nothing. Vir had tried to contact him through the Rangers, with no luck. He'd even called Delenn directly, but all she could tell him was that Lennier had left and she didn't know where he was. There had been something in her face that told Vir not to press. That was six weeks ago, and there had been no news since.
The call came through in the early morning. Vir had returned around midnight after the umpteenth dispute over shipping taxes – which, plain and simple, the Centauri could no longer afford – with his nerves worn thin to the point of snapping. It would have been a joke to try to sleep. Instead he'd forced himself to finish the Brakiri children's novel he'd been reading to brush op un the language. It was rather silly, but silly was good. Silly was soothing. Still, it was several hours before he felt calm enough to go to bed.
When the comm system chimed, it took him a moment to find his bearings. He staggered out of bed, clumsy with fatigue; one look in the mirror made him abandon any thought of making himself presentable. Ah, well. There were few enough people who would call him in the middle of the station's night, and most of them had seen him looking worse before. Vir settled for putting on a nightgown and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Then he pulled up a chair and activated the terminal.
The face on the screen was the last one he'd expected.
"Lennier!" he said – shouted, was more like it. His voice was too raw, too loud, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that Lennier was safe, alive and well and… Was he?
"Vir." Lennier inclined his head. Only then did Vir realize how haggard he looked – not just solemn, but ill. There was a dark blotch beneath his headbone that looked suspiciously like a bruise, and the skin fit so tightly across his cheeks that it seemed like it could crack at any moment. He seemed to be calling from some kind of trading post: in the background, laborers were bickering and shouting at each other as they hauled crates of goods across the floor.
"Lennier, where have you been?" Vir breathed. His hands were sweating; he resisted the temptation to wipe them on his sleeves. "No one could tell me where you'd gone, and I didn't know... I was worried."
"I know," Lennier said, not meeting Vir's eyes. "When I learned you had tried to contact me, first on Minbar and later through the Anla'Shok… I could not remain silent. I have done enough harm already. I could not bear to hurt you as well, so I wanted to let you know I am safe."
"Safe," Vir repeated, dully. "But not… well. Are you? Done harm, you said, what… How?"
"I had resolved not to tell you. I did not want anyone to know, but… You have a kind soul, Vir, and you have always been understanding of others. Perhaps, if I tell you, you would not judge me too harshly. Even though I am sure I deserve all the harshness anyone would wish to direct at me, and more."
"You can tell me," Vir insisted. "I promise, whatever it is, I won't think any less of you."
"I would not be so certain," Lennier said. He looked paler than before, if that was even possible. "Even you cannot be so forgiving, Vir. You see, while we were on route to Minbar… I attempted to take President Sheridan's life."
"What? I – I’m sorry, I didn't –" Vir sputtered, then cut himself off. He forced himself to take a deep breath before continuing. Keeping his voice steady was as hard as anything he'd ever done. "Lennier, surely whatever you did, that's not what it was. I'm not saying I don't believe you, but… Please, just tell me what happened and we'll talk it through, all right? I know we can."
Lennier's jaw tightened. "It's true I was not responsible for the precipitating event. But failure to prevent a thing is no more forgivable than acting to achieve it."
The knot in Vir's stomach eased fractionally. If Lennier was saying what he seemed to be saying, then maybe all wasn't lost. Maybe they could still get through this. "So, what you're saying is President Sheridan almost got killed… and you left Minbar because you failed to help him?" Vir only hoped he was phrasing it gently enough.
"No. What I am saying is I left Minbar, and the Anla'Shok, because I refused to help him." Lennier swallowed, and for a moment Vir saw the young novitiate he had known all those years ago, so eager to serve and to prove himself. Then the mask snapped back into place. "There was a coolant leak. Sheridan, along with a member of the crew, was trapped when the room sealed itself. I only needed to press the lock to free them, but for a moment my heart betrayed me. I turned around and… fled. I went back for him moments later, after I realized what I had done, but he had already freed himself."
Vir felt dizzy. Of course he knew about Lennier's feelings for Delenn, but he'd never thought it would come to this. Oh, Lennier, how could you? To love someone, then try to take from them the person they cared about the most… Vir couldn't wrap his mind around that even if he tried. Vaguely, he was aware of his mouth opening and closing, but he couldn't get any words out.
"You are repulsed by me," Lennier said. Then, softly, "I cannot blame you."
"No, I'm – no. I could never be repulsed by you, never!" Vir blurted. Great Maker, he should have slept, why hadn't he slept, he was barely keeping his thoughts together. A single wrong word and Lennier might sever the connection, and Vir would never see him again. He tried again, keeping his tone as neutral as he could with his hearts pounding in his throat. "I'm… shocked by what you did. Disappointed. I think anyone would be. And I know how I used to think some things are unforgivable, but after five years with Londo... Well, I think everything can be forgiven, as long as there's remorse." Vir had no idea if he was even making sense, but at least he had Lennier's attention. Good, that was good. "You said... you went back for Sheridan, didn't you?"
"Yes. But he does not know," Lennier said. "Even if he did, it wouldn't change anything. Whether for a lifetime or for a moment, I wished Delenn's husband dead. I am not worthy of her respect, much less her love."
"I was there when Londo was conspiring to the destruction of Narn," Vir said. "He did terrible things, but it didn't make me stop caring about him. It never did." He stared hard into the viewscreen, willing Lennier to return his look. "Delenn knows you. She'll find it in her heart to forgive you, too."
"Perhaps." Lennier's voice was a whisper. "But I must learn to forgive myself first. That is why I must leave, Vir. And why you cannot tell anyone we spoke today."
Vir swallowed, sadness tightening his throat. "Where will you go?"
"I do not know. I cannot return to Minbar. And I have betrayed the Anla'Shok as surely as I have Delenn. To Earth, perhaps. Or wherever the fates take me." The image flickered; Lennier gestured to someone off-screen. "I must go, Vir. Please do not worry about me. As you see, I hardly deserve it."
Vir shook his head, groping for something to say. He thought about G'Kar, who'd chosen to leave rather than widen the rift with his people. As for himself, he'd never felt at home either here or on Centauri Prime. Gods, what was it with all of them that made it so hard to fit in anywhere? And was it just them, or what Babylon 5 had turned them into?
He supposed he'd never know, but right now it wasn't important. What was important was Lennier, and that this didn't become the last conversation between them. "Promise me one thing," Vir said, clenching his hands in his lap. "If there's ever a time when you feel there are no options left, I want you to promise… you'll find me. Please."
A flicker of emotion passed over Lennier's face. "I… promise," he said, after a moment. "You've been a good friend, Vir. Be well."
Vir opened his mouth to answer, but the screen winked out before he could reply.
He didn't know how long he sat in front of the screen, seeing nothing except Lennier's face on the back of his eyelids. He understood Delenn's reaction now. Part of him wanted nothing more than to contact her again, reassure her that Lennier was alive. But he'd made a promise. Still, for a moment, he actually found himself reaching out to the terminal… but no. He couldn't. Unsteadily, he shut off the screen and stumbled back to bed – not because he had any real hope he would sleep, but because he was too exhausted not to try.
Impossibly, he drifted off the moment his head hit the pillow.
He couldn't breathe. That was the first thought that went through his mind. He couldn't breathe, and there was smoke everywhere, thick, cloying tendrils seeping into his lungs. His footsteps thumped against the floor as he pushed his way past silk curtains and through gold-studded doors. The Imperial Palace was in flames. Vir didn't know how, or what he was doing there, but one thought drifted to the front of his mind. Londo. He staggered on, coughing, fire snagging at his coat. He glimpsed it at the end of the corridor, where the flames were thickest: a flutter of robes, vanishing into the throne room. Vir tried to shout but the roar of fire swallowed his voice, and all he could feel was the blistering heat of the flames as he burst through the door.
A heavy object blocked his way. Not the throne, as he'd thought, but what looked like a ship's console. Beside it was another console, and a third, all crackling and hissing under his touch. Here too, the fire was everywhere. Vir collapsed against the nearest console, chest heaving, running his fingers across the florid script on the screen. Not Centauri, but… Minbari? A Minbari ship? In a flash, he knew why he was here.
"Lennier!" he called, and then "Londo!" because the robes he had seen before hadn't been grey, but white. They were here, both of them. They were close. There was still time to get them out.
He blinked to clear his eyes, and almost cried out loud. Suddenly he was in the throne room, and Londo was on his knees on the dais, wreathed in flame. He wasn't even struggling, which was bad, bad, but before Vir could react, his vision blurred and he was back on the Minbari ship. A flash of movement behind him, and then Lennier was there, diving for one of the ship's consoles. His hands flew frantically over the panel, the flesh searing off them as Vir watched, horrified.
"Lennier!" Vir screamed again. "Take my hand! I can save us – Londo!" He whipped his head around. "Londo, get up, get up, please, I can –" He tried to reach out, tried to move, but he couldn't, his legs wouldn't obey him, he was stuck in this place with no way to save his friends and no, no, please...
Lennier never looked up from the panel. But Londo raised his chin, and for a moment, Vir could swear he was smiling. Then the flames rushed up and devoured them both.
Vir woke choking on a scream, bedsheets tangled around him. He scrambled out from under them, sucking in breath after shuddery breath until his head stopped spinning. Gods, not this. Not again. He had thought his dreams about Cartagia had been painful, but this was worse. He remembered Londo, the nights he used to wake up shouting and only a large glass of brivari – sometimes two – would help. At times, Vir felt like he was becoming more like Londo every day.
He tried to lie back down, but that only made him dizzy again; the dream kept swirling around in his head. Londo's dreams had been more than just that, he knew. There was no way to be sure, but this dream... it had felt so very real. In an impulse, Vir padded back to the comm screen and dialed Londo's private code. The screen remained blank. Of course. Vir hadn't spoken to Londo in over a month now, so he could hardly be surprised. At least during the first few weeks someone had answered, even if it was just an aide telling him the Emperor was unavailable, or, a few times, indisposed – which had done nothing to improve Vir's spirits. Lately, though, there had been no answer at all.
Vir shivered in his nightgown. Of course, if Londo was here, he'd be tutting and telling Vir not to fret, and then sending him to the kitchen for hot jaala to settle his nerves. But Londo wasn't here, and there was no use wishing he was. Besides, it was almost morning. What was it that ancient Earth writer had said, the one Mister Allan recommended he try? You can only come to the morning through the shadows. Vir stood and straightened his shoulders. For now, he was just going to have to believe that was true.
Chapter 5: Timov - 2263
In which someone takes matters into their own hands, and Timov is surprised but takes it all in stride. Most of it, anyway.
There were more dignified pursuits than sneaking into one's own house at night, but that couldn't be helped. Her dignity was hardly what mattered here. That much was clear when Timov stepped through the heavy wrought-iron gate – one of House Mollari's many heirlooms and as presumptuous as most of its members – and absorbed the scene before her. It was a good thing she'd come quietly. The Royal Court had eyes and ears everywhere. Not that there was anything illegal about her being here, but her life outside the palace walls was no one's business except her own. And perhaps Londo's, but even that wasn't a given.
Lysandra had sounded upset on the comm line. Not panicked; the girl had Urza's temperament, and Timov had never seen her panic before. But like her older brother, she had an impulsive streak that tended to get her into trouble, and she had sounded slightly in over her head. No wonder, Timov marveled. What had the girl been thinking?
She could feel every eye on her as she crossed the courtyard, heels clicking painfully loud against the stones. Lysandra came running just when she reached the front stairs.
"Timov!" Lysandra skidded to a stop, braid swinging. Timov took in the state of her: disheveled, gown spotted with stains which might have been mere grease, or something far less appetizing and more alarming. "I'm so glad you came. I should have told you before, but you were at the palace and I just… I was afraid you'd say no. I had to do this, Timov. Please don't be angry."
"With 'this', I take it you mean turning our home into a… How would you even call this? A barracks? A free-for-all?" That was harsh, but harshness was often the best way to deal with Lysandra. With her twenty-one seasons she was hardly a child, but still prone to whimsy, and whimsy was the last thing Timov needed right now.
"A shelter," Lysandra said. She gestured at the people scattered across the courtyard, some curled up on blankets, some huddled together under crude woven tents. "They all lost their homes in the Alliance attack. We're supposed to be rebuilding, but have you seen that happen yet? I haven't, and it's been months now."
"It has," Timov admitted. "Londo's ministers have turned prevarication into a fine art, I'm afraid, no matter how hard he tries to intimidate them. As long as their own incomes are secure, they don't care where the rest of the money goes. And we owe the Alliance a great deal of money, that much I know. But politics are always distasteful. You still haven't explained to me how all of these people came to be here."
Lysandra clenched a hand into the fabric of her skirt, but she held Timov's look without flinching. "It was only Indri at first. She's an old family friend. We used to be close when I was little, but I hadn't seen her in ages… until she turned up on the doorstep. Her house was flattened in the attack. She and her son barely escaped with their lives. They'd been living on the streets all that time, and her husband was – is – still missing. We've got a cellarful of food and water, so of course I took them in. It was only going to be for a few days, until we'd found them a different place to stay, but… well, there isn't any. The hospitals are a ruin, even the shrines and the libraries are gone. There's nowhere at all. There hasn't been since the bombing."
"Then I assume word of your generosity got around?" Timov said. "I count more than two people here, and I'm taking it there are others inside."
"The healthiest ones sleep in the courtyard," Lysandra said. "It's only early autumn, so the nights are warm enough… for now. The sick and injured are in the house."
"How long has this been going on?" Timov pressed. For her, of all people, to be preaching against rashness was almost too surreal to bear. She'd always been the rash one, the one who missed no opportunity to put Londo on the spot. Rashness had been her weapon, and she'd worn it as proudly as her husband had ever worn a blade. But things had changed, and she'd learned since then that restraint had its uses. As did playing by the rules.
"Indri arrived three weeks ago," Lysandra muttered. "Like I said, I… I should have told you before."
Three weeks, Timov thought. Had it really been that long since her last visit? Not half a season gone by, and she was letting the palace walls confine her already. She couldn't let that happen. As much as she believed Londo needed her, she was needed here too. "The children?" she asked, meaning Mila and her two older brothers. They'd last spoken on the comm, but even that was over a week ago.
"They're fine," Lysandra said. "They're in bed now. They've been helping me as much as they could, but it's hard, Timov, that's why I called you. I can't keep doing this on my own. People keep coming in, some of them sick or hurt, but I'm not a doctor. I'm hardly even a cook. I can keep them from starving, for now, but…" Unexpectedly, she stepped forward and caught Timov's hand. "I should have told you from the start, and I'm sorry. I'm sorry I broke your trust by taking strangers into your home."
But you're not sorry you took them in in the first place, Timov thought. Good. It meant this might not turn out a total disaster after all.
"It isn't my home," she said, surprising herself with the harshness of her tone. "I don't think it was ever Londo's either. It's a house, nothing more. A house, and supplies, and money. And you're right: that's a great deal more than many others have right now." Her decision was made. She supposed it had been the moment she came through that gate. "Show me," she said. Then, affectionately, "Show me, Lysandra." She squeezed the girl's hand.
Lysandra showed her around the house, past groups of rowdy children and wide-eyed adults, some with injuries that made Timov's teeth ache. The families in the courtyard seemed better off, but even they were underfed and filthy. They all looked shell-shocked. Timov wasn't surprised. She could say many things about the Great Centauri Republic, starting with the fact it hardly excelled at greatness these days – if it ever had, which she doubted. Not that Londo would agree. But one thing they had been for a long time was wealthy: there hadn't been poverty among the general population in centuries. None of these people had ever needed to fend for themselves.
Well, that would have to change. The prosperous years were over, and nothing would ever be accomplished by sitting around waiting.
"Lysandra, you know as well as I do we cannot keep this up," Timov said, pulling the girl aside in an empty corner of the courtyard. "Not like this. You've been doing a fine job, but it's not going to be enough. Not if more people keep coming in. This family has to pay taxes just like everyone else, and you know how it is: as long as the reparations to the Alliance haven't been paid, those taxes will be stifling for anyone with a scrap of wealth left. We are not going to have much room to maneuver. So we will need volunteers: nurses and doctors and cooks. And we will need purses, other than our own."
"How about Lon – the Emperor?" Lysandra said. "Can't he do something? Even if there isn't enough money for the rebuilding effort, I'm sure there are provisions in the palace, doctors, medicine, …"
That was a fair question, and Timov had considered it. Asking Londo for help seemed obvious, but she didn't know if it would be wise. Ever since his coronation, he'd been acting strangely; it was one of the reasons why she'd been loath to leave the palace. He'd taken to drinking again – though not for pleasure, as she'd known him to do in the past. She knew few people who held their liquor as well as Londo, and yet several times now she had entered his chambers and found him too drunk to even stay on his feet. Even his health seemed weaker, and as talkative as he'd become earlier, so secretive did he seem now. Timov wouldn't have minded if he'd had matters in hand. But all her sources told her otherwise. Already his Ministers and the Centaurum were plotting behind his back, strengthening their own positions while Londo seemed powerless. When Timov had confronted him about it, all he'd said was he was doing her a favor by not involving her in politics. He'd said it with a grin, but it had been a dismissal nonetheless.
Distracted, Timov checked the time. Almost midnight. She would have to go, and soon, or they'd start looking for her. "We'll see about the Emperor," she said, as neutrally as she could. "But I'll find you other help. There are still some people in this city who aren't frightened of dirtying their hands. I can help you organize this, get you the resources you need, but the rest will be up to you. If you still want to."
"Oh, I do!" Lysandra exclaimed, flinging herself into Timov's arms. "Thank you, lady Timov! I promise I won't disappoint you."
Touched, Timov returned the embrace. "Leave off the 'lady', please. I must tolerate the title often enough at court. Now, I wish I could stay the night, but I can't. Londo will wonder where I am, or if not him, then someone else who has even less business knowing." Letting go, she stroked the girl's cheek with an affection she didn't often permit herself.
"I understand," Lysandra said, and then, "Oh! There's something else. Vir Cotto called – it was such a chaos here that I forgot. He said he'd been trying to reach the Emperor for weeks. I told him you'd moved to the palace, which reassured him a little. He was still very worried, though. And I thought he seemed… sad. Lonely, maybe. You really should contact him. He seemed like such a kind person when he visited; I would hate to see him unhappy." She smiled and gave Timov's hand a last squeeze. "Now go. Be careful. I'll see you soon."
As she walked out the gate, Timov couldn't suppress a smile of her own. She still remembered how giddy Vir had been around Lysandra, those few times when he'd visited the house. Of course Londo, with his raucous japes and less-than-subtle hints, had been no help at all. But it wasn't hard to see that Vir had liked the girl. As for Lysandra's remark about Vir looking lonely...
And now she was being ridiculous. Lysandra had never expressed interest in any relationship, and Timov had no intention to force her. Not with Vir, or anyone else.
Still, the issue would have to be broached one day. She and Londo wouldn't live forever. And Lysandra had the children to care for, children who weren't even hers but Urza's. Timov hated herself for even thinking it, but life on Centauri Prime was hard on a single woman; it had been even in prosperous times, and things weren't likely to improve. No doubt Lysandra realized that too. They all knew what would have happened if Londo hadn't taken her in: for a highborn lady, there weren't many ways to bring money on the table. In fact Timov was only aware of one, and the thought of Lysandra having that as her only resort was enough to make her feel queasy. Marriage would be a kinder fate. But it hadn't come to that yet.
It was past midnight when she arrived back at the palace, letting herself in through an unguarded side door. Instead of returning to her quarters, she found herself walking down the long hallway towards Londo's suite. He would be there, but not asleep. It seemed he never slept these days, no matter which time of day or night she went to see him.
In an impulse, she gestured at the guard to let her in unannounced. Her scowl must have been threatening enough, because after a moment he keyed open the door and beckoned her inside.
Londo was at the window, his back turned towards her. He was bracing himself with one hand against the windowsill, a large pitcher of amber liquid beside him. Timov bit her lip. For all his boisterousness in public, Londo was as vulnerable as anyone, and his moods had become increasingly erratic these days. Suddenly she felt guilty for intruding on a private moment. She should have knocked, but it was too late for that now.
She cleared her throat.
Londo spun wildly, drink sloshing from the glass in his hand. "Timov!" he gasped. "Great Maker, I – I thought – do not ever sneak up on me again! I could have –"
"Done what, exactly?" Timov said. Something was wrong, but aside from Londo's skittishness, she couldn't put her finger on what. "Are you quite all right?"
"Of course I am all right!" Londo's demeanor changed like a switch had been flipped. "What could possibly be wrong that a little brivari cannot cure, hmm?" His grin flashed, broad and theatrical, but just then the façade slipped and he swayed. He turned back with a jerk, breath hissing through his teeth.
Timov joined him at the window with a few angry strides. "You're drunk," she said sharply. For an irrational moment, she almost felt relieved.
"Drunk?" Londo parried, recovering. "Pah! Not nearly enough to forget that I am surrounded by fools and hypocrites every day of my life! But let us not talk of that. You look tired." He peered at her over his drink. As much as the change of topic irked her, she knew Londo well enough to hear the concern in his voice. For a moment, she considered making up an excuse, but...
No. Forget what she had told Lysandra. If she couldn't trust her own husband, what was she even doing here?
To his credit, Londo didn't interrupt while she was talking. It was only afterwards that he dashed her hopes. "Timov, what you ask… " He winced, then seized his glass and took a long swallow. "To give you money for this… shelter, while the Alliance is wringing us out for every credit… You know I cannot. The Centaurum would never stand for it, and I –"
"The Centaurum!" Timov bristled. "Since when do you care one whit about what the Centaurum thinks? You're the Emperor. Surely you can –"
"And what would you have me do, Timov?" Londo snapped. "Hmm? Threaten to have their heads as Cartagia did? I am not that kind –" He trailed off and swallowed convulsively. It was a strange enough moment that Timov wondered just how much he had drunk, but he caught himself before she could call him on it. "I am not that kind of emperor yet. Pray I never will be. I will do my best; that is all I can promise you."
Other times she might have argued, but Londo was right: she was tired. The whole affair with Lysandra had taken more out of her than she'd thought. Let Londo have a chance to convince the Centaurum; there'd be enough time to argue should it come to that. And there was still the matter of Vir. "Did you know Vir has been trying to reach you?" she asked. " Lysandra told me he'd called her at the house. He's been worried sick about you, the poor boy."
"Ah," Londo muttered. "Yes." He set his glass back on the windowsill. "In these times, being associated with the Centauri Emperor is hardly a blessing, so I thought it would be better if I did not speak with him for a while. Perhaps… perhaps I was wrong."
"I would think so!" Timov said, allowing a hint of reproach to creep into her tone. "You know how much he cares about you."
"Rather too much, I think," Londo said, almost under his breath. "But you are right; he ought not to be alone on that wretched station. I will contact him, ask him to visit when he can."
There was something in his tone that cut deeper than it should have, but Timov smiled anyway. "I'd like that. And I expect it might please Lysandra, too."
If Londo caught her meaning, he didn't show it. Instead he groaned and rubbed at his temples. "Great Maker. Lysandra… You know we cannot protect her forever. Bad enough for her to be the Emperor's ward; now she wants to save the world as well? It would be better if she had a family of her own. Less conspicuous, at least."
"Better for her or for you?" Timov retorted. Never mind that she'd wondered the same thing today; it was Londo's business even less than it was hers. "What would you have us do, marry her off to some noble with more brawn than brains? I won't stand for it! She's happy, she loves the house and the children, she's done a wonderful job with the shelter, and…" She trailed off when she felt Londo's eyes on her, twinkling with something that was almost amusement.
"Why, Timov. You surprise me. Do not tell me you have been thinking about this as well?"
"Thinking, yes," she admitted reluctantly. "But not condoning it. Lysandra would never forgive us! She needs her independence, not to mention she's stubborn and headstrong and –"
"– reminds you of someone we know, does she not?" For a moment, Londo's arm wavered when he raised his glass. "I have no intention of forcing her, Timov. Not even if she'd been my own child. Believe it or not, I have learned something from our marriage." With a weary smile, Londo held out his hand. Timov lifted hers with some apprehension, but he just grasped her fingers ever so lightly. "Though perhaps, in the end… we did not do quite so badly, you and I."
She couldn't say if it was regret or longing in his voice, or neither, or both. But Londo's skin was warm on hers, his thumb brushing her knuckles as if he was afraid to break them. Or break something, at least. She was no longer certain nothing would.
"Perhaps not," she said, and squeezed his hand tight.
Chapter 6: Londo - 2264
In which Vir comes to visit, Timov spills a secret, and Londo has to pay the price.
"Oh, this is… Oh." Vir's eyes grew huge like saucers as he swallowed a mouthful of jurbeen stew. When he blinked down at his plate, the look on his face was one of pure bliss.
"Well?" Londo pressed - not out of any real impatience, but because watching Vir's face light up like that uprooted his defenses faster than he could rebuild them. It was bad enough with only Timov to consider. When she and Vir were in the palace together, Londo felt even more anxious about letting his guards down. His Keeper was always looking for weakness. "Do not tell me that your time on Babylon 5 made you forget the taste of fresh-smoked treel?"
Across the table, Timov's expression turned wary at his forced tone. But if Vir had noticed the same, his – what did the humans call it? – poker face was better than it used to be. "Actually," Vir said, chewing, "I think it did. Centauri food is getting hard to come by on the station, what with more of the traders leaving the business each month." He picked at his food nervously. "Not that it's for me to say those export taxes aren't necessary, but… Londo, they're just too high! I know we have reparation payments to make, but at some point we'll have no traders left and then what will happen to the export? If there's any way –"
Scowling, Londo waved Vir into silence. Those were very good points, but he knew the Drakh's answer to them, just like he knew there was nothing to be done. The more weakened the Centauri economy became, the easier for the Drakh to carry out their plans. "The taxes stay, Vir," Londo said, beckoning for more wine. Vir opened his mouth to protest, but Londo shushed him into silence. "No – Vir, I said no! Eat your jurbeen, and let us hear nothing more of it! Now, when you return to the station, we will make sure you have some proper food with you, hmm? You are not still eating at that dreadful Minbari place – what was it called again?"
"McBari's," Vir muttered. "But it's not really Minbari food, it's human, it's just made to look Minbari, and… no, I'm not eating there anymore." He took another spoonful of stew, cheeks flushing. "Just very occasionally. As an Ambassador I try to visit all the restaurants on the station, you know, and I rarely even get sick anymore after eating there, so..."
"Ah, you are getting better at dissemination," Londo said. "Good! Still, you should–"
"Never mind him, Vir!" Timov threw Londo an exasperated look. "My husband always had odd ways to express his affection; you shouldn't hold it against him. Tell me, have you missed anything else on Babylon 5? Something you would like to catch up on while you're here? The two of you hardly need to discuss politics all the time."
"Do I have to pick one thing?" Vir blurted, then bit his lip. "Sorry, I'm sorry, that sounded worse than it is. It's just… it's harder than I expected, sometimes. When I'm here I miss life on Babylon 5, but then once I'm back on the station I already know I'll miss… everything, really." He put down his spoon and worked up a faint smile. "There is something, though. Last month I was listening to Trantaro's collected arias – yes, Londo, I know he can't hold a candle to Dorva, we've been over that – and I thought… Well, I've never seen a real opera before. Not since I was a child, but that was different. I, uh, would very much like to see one, if I could. Maybe before I leave, we can–"
There was no way Londo could brace against the hope in Vir's eyes. "No. We cannot," he said, each syllable wrenching at his heart. "There is no opera, Vir. Not anymore."
"What?" Vir said. "I knew the Royal opera house was destroyed, and the others damaged, but I thought... Surely some repairs have been done? It's been– "
"– years! Yes, I am quite aware, Vir," Londo snapped. Somehow, the thought of millions of struggling families had never hit as close to home as the one of having robbed Vir of the experience of a lifetime. The irony was almost too much to bear. "There is no money," he said bitterly. "If there was, we would spend it on more practical endeavors than opera, I would hope, but the sad fact is we do not even have the luxury of choice."
"Don't be so modest, Londo." Timov sipped her wine with a strangely sly smile. "You keep saying resources are scarce, but you've still found ways. Haven't you? I realize, officially, I'm not supposed to know, but surely we can speak freely here?"
There was something in her tone that made Londo swallow back the retort on his lips. Great Maker, Timov, we cannot speak freely anywhere! But Vir was already nodding at her to go on.
"There's a shelter," she told Vir, "here in the capital. Lysandra started it – Urza's sister, I'm sure you remember her." Londo watched her flash Vir a meaningful look. "We have a small network now, and we're trying to coordinate efforts throughout the province. I wasn't supposed to ask where the money came from, but really, Londo." Her eyes didn't lose their twinkle as she directed them at him. "It's your doing, isn't it? You took care of the funding, behind the Centaurum's back."
"Timov, no," Londo pleaded, trepidation turning rapidly into despair. His Keeper was stirring on his shoulder, sparking his nerve endings with tendrils of fury. No doubt it was already in contact with the Drakh, reporting on Londo's treachery. He had been so careful, never discussing the money with Timov, making the arrangements only after consuming copious amounts of alcohol. He'd even managed to block the memories from the Keeper afterwards. It could hear his surface thoughts, yes, but there were certain things it could not read. It had taken him a long time to find out, and more than once he had misjudged and paid the price... But this time he had actually managed to trick it, to siphon away money to support Timov's effort, and a few others as well. A small act of defiance, but there would be punishment. There always was.
"I do appreciate it," Timov was saying, "but why all this stealth? Why not oppose the Centaurum openly?"
"Because they do not need me," Londo said. It took all of his discipline to focus on the question, and not on the Keeper writhing against his skin. "They would replace me with someone far worse, on a whim, if I give them even the slightest excuse." None of that was a lie, even if the them didn't refer to what they thought it did. "So I do what I can to appease them, and fight my battles in different ways. Believe me, I–"
He felt the words even before he heard them in his mind, shuddering through him like a shiver across his spine. Unsteadily, Londo pushed himself to his feet. "My apologies. There is something I must do before we continue." He saw Timov's eyes narrow, but turned and marched out before his courage could fail him. He knew all too well what would follow.
When he entered his chambers, Shiv'kala was waiting, hovering in the shadows like a pale, scaled wraith. Londo could sense the Drakh's anger, flooding in through his link with the Keeper – a fierce, searing rage, as white-hot as those thin slits of eyes seemed cold. Londo's hands curled into fists at his side.
"You defied us," the Drakh said. His lisping voice betrayed no emotion, but through the link, his displeasure crackled and sparked. "You were told not to assist those in need, or to tolerate any initiatives which did. We need the people's anger to fester, so they remain witless and easy to mold. And yet you have been supporting precisely such an initiative. Do you deny this?"
"No," Londo admitted. Any refusal would only make this harder, not to mention put Timov at risk – the Maker help them if they decided to question her as well. "But it is a pitiful operation, no danger at all to your plans." He tried to coat the words in indifference, but his hearts were racing too fast for the Keeper not to notice. And Shiv'kala had always been able to read him too well. "Let Timov have the money, as little as it is. She will be content, and refrain from meddling in affairs that do not concern her."
"She would not meddle if she were dead," the Drakh said.
Londo swallowed back bile. There was no way to know if he was merely being baited or the threat was real. He thought of Timov, the way she never looked more alive than on the days she returned from the shelter, exhausted but so full of hope and anger. "If you hurt her," he whispered, "we are at war."
Shiv'kala tilted his head from side to side, as if tasting the air. "And how would you fight this war, I wonder?" His expression remained unfathomable. "Very well. We will allow this 'pitiful operation' to continue… not because you wish it, but because it will amuse us to see her fail."
It was all Londo could do not to sag with relief. Instead he said stiffly, "I give you my gratitude." Would it be this simple? He could barely believe it.
"Do you, I wonder?" Shiv'kala said. "You see, there is still the matter of your… transgression. We will have your respect, in the future. And your obedience."
"You will have it," Londo said, taking a ragged breath. Then the Drakh flicked his hand, and he couldn't take another if he tried.
This wasn't real, Londo thought, as the Keeper stabbed its tendrils down. None of it was real. It was not truly his windpipe being squeezed shut, nor did his hearts hold any blame for the searing tightness in his chest. It was the Keeper, taking hold of his nervous system, stripping him of muscle control. It could make him do anything, feel anything the Drakh told it to. And so, even though he couldn't be choking, he was, and when his hands came up to clutch and tear uselessly at his throat, that was not the Keeper's doing at all.
Londo staggered, groping for something to take hold of. His lungs felt like they would burst in his ribcage, and the pain in his head made him want to vomit, except he couldn't find the breath. He might have found breath for screaming, but he could not. Vir and Timov were only a room away. Any noise would bring them running. He collided with an armchair and clutched it with both hands, but his legs chose precisely that moment to buckle; he went down with a crash, chair and all. Even then, the Keeper didn't loosen its hold, and Londo fell to hands and knees, retching.
It felt like an eternity before he heard doors slamming from the next room, although it could not have been more than seconds; he was clinging to consciousness by a thread. Vision blurring, he saw the Drakh vanish into the shadows.
The door flew open. The Keeper relinquished control a mere heartbeat later, and Londo wanted to cry out, but the first breath he sucked in dissolved in a racking fit of coughing.
"Londo!" Footsteps pounded across the floor, and then someone was kneeling beside him, hands reaching down to support him as his lungs strained frantically to take in air. "Londo, what is it, what's wrong?" That was Vir, sounding terrified. "Guards!" Vir shouted, voice shrill. "We need a doctor here! We need –"
Londo's fingers found Vir's sleeve. "No," he managed. "Vir. No doctor. Promise me…" His head was spinning. "No doctor," he muttered again, then doubled over into another spasm of coughing. From somewhere, a different set of footsteps came running, followed by a strangled gasp. With an effort, Londo lifted his head. Timov was standing in the doorway, hand at her mouth, as shocked as he'd ever seen her. Part of him was expecting her to rush in and take charge, but instead she just stood there, frozen. As if, seeing him like this, all her coping strategies had failed her at once. "Timov…" he began, but had to squeeze his eyes shut as the dizziness washed in.
When he opened them again, the floor was cold against his back, and Vir was fumbling at the buttons of his collar. Londo stopped him with a feeble wave of his hand. "Vir," he rasped, "Don't. It's all right." His Keeper might be invisible, and safely hidden under his coat besides, but it was not immaterial. If Vir should feel it on his shoulder, there was no telling what the Drakh would do.
Vir drew back with a jerk. He was looking very pale, and so was Timov, leaning in behind him. "Gods, Londo… You scared us." Vir dragged a hand through his crest, which was sagging dangerously. "We did what you asked, we didn't call a doctor, but… What happened? Did you become unwell? Do you need anything? Has this happened before?"
Londo ignored the barrage of questions, none of which he could answer truthfully. Instead he focused on getting his elbows under him, which proved much harder than it should have been. His throat and chest felt raw, and his stomach was churning with nausea. "Help me up, Vir," he muttered. "Please. I am… rather attached to my dignity. There is very little in being on the floor." For a moment he thought Vir would refuse, but then a hand closed on his wrist.
His legs nearly gave way again as Vir helped him to his feet. For a brief, breathless instant, Londo was convinced they would both go sprawling, but then Timov slipped in under his shoulder. The closeness of her made him feel no less dizzy. But there was a wiry strength in her small frame, and she barely flinched when he clutched at her and Vir both.
"The couch," he muttered, when Vir made to steer him towards his bedchambers. He could barely get the words out without slurring. "I do not need to be put to bed like a child." Vir and Timov exchanged skeptical looks, but they did what he asked. By the time he was sitting down, he was trembling, and the Keeper stirred restlessly on his shoulder. A new wave of nausea swept through him, like a reminder – or a threat. Sweat broke out across his forehead. Then Timov took his arm and said: "Lie down, you stupid man, before you hurt yourself."
"I can't." Londo shook his head. "The others… they mustn't see me like this. If I seem weak, the Centaurum will–"
"– take advantage of it," Timov said, sitting down beside him. "Yes, I know how the Royal court works. But it's just me and Vir here, so don't be foolish! You need rest far more than you need dignity."
No, I don't, Londo wanted to say, my dignity is all I have left, but he still let Timov push him back into the pillows, and didn't protest when she kneeled to remove his boots. Sleep seemed an absurd, far-fetched delusion, but somehow it swept in before he could say another word.
He woke up once, during the night, to the sound of voices from the side room. "You should rest, lady Timov." Vir's voice trickled through the fog of sleep, low and worried and barely audible. Dazed, Londo struggled to make out the words. "I'll stay with him for a while. How is he?"
"Asleep." Timov's voice sounded oddly subdued. "Snoring, too, I should add, so it doesn't seem like there was any permanent damage." She sniffed, then drew in a breath that, to Londo's utter shock, trailed off into something very like a sob. "I didn't know what to do," she said dully. "I'm so used to watching him prance around the palace, berating everyone in sight, that I didn't… If you hadn't been there…"
"It's all right," Vir said. "He's all right, and there's nothing that says it will happen again. It could have been anything: coincidence, exhaustion…"
"A panic attack?" Timov breathed. "A few years ago, I'd never have dreamt it possible, but I wonder…"
"It happened after we discussed the money," Vir said. "It's possible. That trouble with his heart was stress as well. Gods, Timov, we should help him. If the Centaurum's interference has him this shook up…" Either the conversation stopped there, or Vir was now speaking too softly to hear. Londo fought against sleep for a few minutes longer, but in the end he drifted off again.
The next time he woke, Vir was dozing in an armchair beside him. Londo dug for a handhold among the pillows, struggling to get his muscles to cooperate. They did, though rather less smoothly than he'd hoped.
"Londo!" Vir's chin jerked up. "Are you all right? How are you feeling?"
"Better." Londo took an experimental breath. His throat felt raw and his head was throbbing, but he knew from experience the sensation would pass. This was hardly the first time Shiv'kala had chosen to discipline him, although it was the first time someone had seen. That might come back to haunt him yet. "Do not gawk at me, Vir," he said sharply. "I said I am fine!"
Vir could not have looked more appalled if Londo had stood up and struck him. "Londo, you're not fine! Do you have any idea how you looked when we found you? I – I thought you were dying. Timov thought you were dying! She told me–"
"Nonsense!" Londo said. "I couldn't catch my breath-"
"You were choking!" Vir blurted, shrilly enough that Londo shrunk back. "You were choking," he repeated, in a strangled tone. "I was terrified – what if you'd been alone, if we hadn't been there? You should take better care of yourself. If something would happen to you…"
"I'm not ready," Vir cut him off. "I'm not ready, Londo, please, don't think I am..."
"Ready?" Londo felt disoriented, as if he was slipping into some strange dream. "I don't understand."
Vir shuddered and sagged back into his chair. "Lady Morella," he said, eyes fixed on the floor. "The prophecy, that I'd become Emperor after… After. I know you believe it, you always have. And I just – I'm not ready yet. Please don't ask me to be. I know these are hard times, but you can't stop fighting, you shouldn't. We will help you, just – hold on. Please."
It dawned on him with a sick horror, flooding his throat like acid. Great Maker. Vir was afraid Londo was giving up; that he was counting the days until Vir would succeed him as Emperor. Counting the days until he could die. "Vir, no!" He swung his legs down to the floor, wincing as the room tilted. "Whatever you are thinking, it isn't true. I will not deny it brings me comfort to imagine you taking my place one day, but I am not giving up. Not yet." Unsteady, he reached out to touch Vir's knee. "As for what happened last night… you mustn't worry, hmm? It will be all right – as long as no one knows. You must promise me that. Can you?"
"Yes," Vir said. "I – I promise." He still looked upset, but some of the panic had gone out of his eyes. That was something. For now, it would have to do.
Shakily, Londo sagged back onto the pillows. "You are still wrong, you know," he muttered under his breath.
Vir swallowed. "Wrong about what?"
"Being ready. You were always more ready than I ever was, Vir. One day you will see it too."
Chapter 7: G'Kar - 2265
In which G'Kar mourns Lyta, and meets an old friend on Minbar.
"Right this way, sir," his Ranger escort said. G'Kar nodded his thanks and, stretching stiff muscles, stepped out onto the landing pad. His breath caught in his throat as he took in the sight.
Dawn was breaking on Minbar, a million crystalline surfaces reflecting the light; the combined effect was so brilliant G'Kar was forced to shield his eyes. It was spring on this hemisphere, the pilot had told him, but still his breath formed puffs of vapor in the air in front of him. Crisp, fresh air, teeming with life. G'Kar drank it in greedily and, for the first time in months, felt almost like himself again.
Once, he would have called Minbar cold. Not just in temperature but in temperament, the discipline of its people as stark as the crystal spires crowding the horizon. Little about the Narn homeworld had ever been cool or disciplined, even before the Centauri stripped it bare. The heat of its sun had always been amply surpassed by the fire in its people's souls, and every other world had seemed frigid in comparison. But G'Kar knew better now. He had met Delenn and Lennier and the warriors of the Anla'Shok. The Minbari calm of spirit, he had learned, was less the absence of heat than the tempering of it. Not unlike the calm he had found for himself. Or thought he had found.
When he left Babylon 5 over three years ago, it had been Lyta's soul which needed mending. G'Kar had wanted to help her more than anything – to save her, like he himself had been saved. Like he had failed to save one Londo Mollari. As long as it had taken him to admit it, that particular failure still gnawed at him. Some nights on his travels he would think of Mollari, sitting on that loathsome throne which had become his penance. The day Mollari accepted the throne was the day he'd asked G'Kar to leave, and up till this day G'Kar wondered what would have happened had he refused. If staying would have made a difference.
But he had left, and only regretted it afterwards. He'd resolved not to let the same thing happen with Lyta: he would stay at her side for as long as he had to. Except Lyta had not asked him to leave. She had left him, to join her people in their fight for freedom. There had been nothing G'Kar could do or say to stop her. And yet, when he heard she was killed in a strike against Psi Corps, he had felt as shattered as if he'd killed her himself.
He'd wept like a pouchling when the news reached him. He had wept, and screamed, and damaged a heavy stone jar and two knuckles before he regained a measure of control. That was when he knew the peace in his soul was more fragile than he'd thought. Solitude had its value, but too much of it and the heart grew brittle. He needed a change, a fresh purpose. Most of all, he needed a friend.
"It is good to see you, G'Kar." Delenn joined him on the landing pad, robes fluttering in the breeze. "This is your first time on Minbar, is it not?"
"Quite so," G'Kar said. He gave her the traditional Narn greeting, hands pressed to his chest. "Already I am wondering why I waited so long to visit. In all my years on Narn, I've never seen such a sunrise."
"John told me the same during his first days here." Delenn's smile was warm and genuine. "He claims he used to be an evening person, but here on Minbar, mornings are his favorite part of the day." She pointed at a sleek open-topped vehicle which sat waiting beside the pad. "Come. You must be tired from the journey. We can watch the sunrise together on our way to Tuzanor, and then you can tell me how you have been."
G'Kar had expected a driver, but there was none. Delenn steered them through the city herself, rarely speaking except to point out the landmarks: temples, sculptures, a sprawling terrace garden. Later, she poured them tea in the spacious rooms that were her and Sheridan's living quarters. John was working, she explained, but they would see him when he came home tonight.
"My apologies for arriving ahead of time." G'Kar stirred his tea distractedly. "I was forced to leave Narn sooner than expected." He suppressed a smile as the youngest occupant of the room, three-year-old David Sheridan, bumped into his leg and Delenn scrambled to take hold of him. The child giggled and squirmed in her grip, and something inside G'Kar's chest clenched unexpectedly. He fought it down. "It's quite all right," he told David gravely. "It's difficult to keep one's balance while chasing battle cruisers across the room."
"It is," Delenn conceded, "but the Tenth Fane of Elleya is revered for its wisdom in religious matters, not for its prowess in battle. David does not share that view, I fear."
"How striking," G'Kar said. "You see, the reason I did not stay on my homeworld is that they still insist on revering me as something I have no desire to be. It is a frustrating burden to bear."
"Three years, and they still will not leave you in peace?" Delenn sidestepped his jest easily, but not without a glint of dry humor in her eyes. He had missed her, G'Kar realized. Her strength, her wisdom, that utter lack of pretense which he had never quite found in anyone else – apart from Na'Toth, perhaps, whose honesty was of a more brazen kind altogether. But Na'Toth was back home on Narn, and after his recent experience there, he did not know if he would ever see her again.
"One month, three years, there appears to be no difference." G'Kar steepled his hands with a sigh. "I went to see Na'Toth at her family home. I believed no one would have the impertinence to disturb us there, but it seems my followers are as zealous as ever. In the end, I left as much for the sake of Na'Toth's privacy as for my own." He drank deeply of his tea, which was hot enough to scald. The heat was a welcome distraction from the turmoil in his mind. "I suppose it is time to face the truth. One day there may be a place for me again on my homeworld, but that day is not likely to arrive soon. If ever."
"I'm sorry." Delenn pulled David against her, stroking his hair. For once, the boy submitted without protest. "Things must have been difficult after your return. I heard Lyta was killed in the Telepath War..."
"She chose her own fate." G'Kar cradled his teacup in both hands. The fragrance was clean and spicy, like humid soil after a rainstorm. He couldn't remember when he had last watched a rainstorm on Narn, but rain was common enough on Minbar, he knew. "I have tried to find comfort in that knowledge, but I…" He faltered. Even now, the thought of Lyta was an open wound, aching and raw. "I fought for her with every fiber of my being. I talked to her, worked with her, pleaded with her to find another way, a way that would not end with her drowning her rage in rivers of blood. But I underestimated her anger… and her stubbornness. Her powers changed her, Delenn, more than I had thought. Perhaps it was a losing battle from the start, who can say, or perhaps I tried too hard to turn her into something she was not. I believed I could sway her with words, but I was wrong. I still wish I had fought harder." His chest tightened; it was all he could do just to breathe.
Delenn reached out, brushing his sleeve with her fingertips. "If I were Lyta," she said softly, "there is no one I would have rather had fighting for my soul than you, G'Kar. No one would doubt you did all you could for her. And Lyta got her wish. The Psi Corps has been disbanded, and steps are being taken to reintegrate telepaths into society. But the price…"
"… was too high." G'Kar nodded. When he met Delenn's eyes, they were as bright as the morning sky, and filled with the same emotion he knew was burning in his own. "We would know about prices, you and I."
"It is said…" Delenn began, then hesitated. She let go of David, gazing after him as he darted away. "It is said one of those who joined Lyta, who lost their lives during the last days of the war… was Lennier." Her eyes were still averted. "Do you think… Is there any way it could be true?"
"All I heard were rumors, and vague ones at that." G'Kar made no attempt to hide the effort in his own voice. He'd wondered about Lennier too, but he had been afraid to ask Delenn, afraid to risk opening unhealed wounds. He did not dare to guess what had come between her and her one-time aide, but it was clear that something had. "I know Lennier was in a dark place after leaving the Anla'Shok. Lyta told me as much. But I never knew why he left, or what led him to join the telepath cause. I never asked Lyta, and once she returned to Earth, that was the last I heard of both of them."
"I see." Delenn grasped her own teacup, and for a moment she looked as vulnerable as G'Kar had ever seen her.
"Delenn," he began. "If there is some way I can help, any way at all..."
"I know," Delenn replied. "This… helps already. Simply to talk about him, to say his name again to someone who knew him…" The unspoken implication, that Lennier's name had not been mentioned in this room for a long time, was not lost on G'Kar. "I cannot tell you what caused Lennier to leave the Anla’Shok," she said softly. "That would be betraying his confidence. But he promised me one day he would earn my forgiveness, and I had hoped he would keep that promise. That I could have seen him again, talked to him once more before…"
"I understand," G'Kar said. He did, all too well.
"It has been less than five years since we won the Shadow war", Delenn murmured. "Can you believe it, G'Kar? Five years, and already the shadows are moving again. Except this time it's our own shadows coming to haunt us, our own anger and fear turning against us. It is happening everywhere." She let out an unsteady sigh. "You have heard the news from Centauri Prime?"
"Some of it," he said cautiously, "and none very heartening. I considered going there to see with my own eyes… but perhaps that would not be wise."
"It would not," Delenn agreed. "The Centauri have been withdrawing from interplanetary affairs, recalling their ships and traders, even evacuating some of their colony worlds. The word is they can no longer afford to maintain them. John and I pleaded with the rest of the Alliance to review the reparation demands, but they will never agree unless the Centauri ask first. And they are not asking. Some say it is death for an outsider to visit the Centauri homeworld these days."
"That has been said before," G'Kar said. "But you are right, things seem bleaker than I thought. Have you heard from Mollari at all?" He tried to keep his tone as neutral as he could, but Delenn must have caught the urgency behind it. She moved as if to grasp his hand, then drew back, hesitant.
"Not in person, no. The last time we saw Londo was almost four years ago. He visited us here, some time after you left with Lyta."
"Here? On Minbar?" G'Kar said, surprised.
"Yes. It was all quite strange," Delenn said. "He had heard we were expecting a child, and wanted to wish us well. I was suspicious at first, but he didn't act hostile or threatening at all. If anything, he seemed… lonely. He even brought a gift for David; I could not find it in my heart to turn him down." At G'Kar's perplexed expression, she called her son to her. "David, would you bring G'Kar the urn that's in your father's study? You know which one I mean."
David carried it in a few minutes later: a colorless, shapeless metal jar, strangely plain for a Centauri ornament but with nothing else to set it apart. Still, a trickle of ice was crawling down G'Kar's spine. "The bottom is sealed," he said, more to hide his distress than because it seemed like a useful observation. "What's inside?"
"According to Londo, water from a sacred stream," Delenn said. "He told us to give it to David when he turns sixteen." If she noticed the turmoil in G'Kar's eyes, she didn't call him on it. "You look tired. I can show you to your quarters, if you like."
G'Kar nodded gratefully. He was tired, that much was true. Tired and more than a little confused. Mollari had been here, on Minbar? The man G'Kar had left three years ago had seemed too resigned, too weighed down by duty to leave his homeworld on a whim, simply to bestow gifts on old friends. Or had he? Perhaps Mollari was not doing quite as badly as he imagined. Perhaps it was just him, aching to be useful, conjuring up demons just so he might help vanquish them. After Lyta, he was aching for a chance to do some good. And Delenn was right: this was not the time to go rushing to Centauri Prime. Not yet.
He would speak with Delenn, he thought later, as he sat in his quarters with the midday sun warming his face. She could help him find purpose again. The Rangers were the obvious choice, but perhaps there were others. His fate might be bound to Mollari's, but if they were truly, as Londo once said, comets which flared as they passed too near the sun, their orbits would not cross for many years yet.
Still, the years were growing shorter. And it was not as if he could ever forget. Closing his eyes against the brightness, he let the familiar image wash over him: brittle, white-gloved hands, squeezing his throat like an embrace.
Chapter 8: Vir - 2267
In which Earth is in shock, and so is Vir, though not quite for the same reasons.
If Vir was sure of anything right now, it was that he shouldn't be drinking. He was hopeless at ever at holding his liquor, so drinking was risky business at any time, but when he was upset it was a worse idea than usual. To say he was upset… Well, let's just say worse attempts had been made at understatement. The Drakh Plague wasn't something to get upset about. It was a nightmare; the kind that didn't stop after you opened your eyes.
Funny, how he used to think he knew about nightmares. Even his worst dreams about Cartagia, the ones where he screamed himself awake with his breath sticking in his throat, had been laughable compared to this. No, this was the real thing. Billons of human lives in danger, all because a ragtag band of Shadow servants had been out for revenge. With Earth still recovering from the Telepath War, no one had even seen the threat coming. From what Vir had heard, it was a small miracle the initial attack had been fought off, but the virus… The virus was a different story.
Five years, they were saying. Five years until the entire population of Earth would be dead, wiped out of existence like so many specks of dust, unless someone found a cure. Vir still couldn't wrap his head around it. Even thinking about it made him queasy.
A pointedly cleared throat snapped him out of his thoughts. The Zocalo was near-empty tonight, but the waitress still looked restless as she waited for Vir to order his drink. He could understand why. These past days, the station had been too quiet, like a fuse waiting to blow. Everyone was still in shock, Vir supposed, the same as he was, but what would happen when that shock wore off was anyone's guess.
"One orcha juice, please; extra sugar." Vir named the first non-alcoholic beverage he could think of. Generally, this was the point at which whoever was with him would smirk and try to order him a Jovian Sunspot instead. Ta'Lon in particular would do it just to needle him. But Captain Lochley, who was beside him at the bar, just gave him a tired smile and said, "Sounds good. I'll have one too."
The juice was flat and rather tasteless, which was fine to Vir; it would help settle his stomach. He glanced at Lochley from the corner of his eyes. By all rights she should be doing worse than him – it was her world which was under a death sentence, after all – but so far Vir hadn't seen her façade crack even for an instant. She looked exhausted, though. He'd swear the smudges under her eyes had grown deeper since yesterday.
"Any news?" he asked softly. "I heard the President is back on Minbar, gathering resources to look for a cure."
"He is," Lochley said, making a face as she sipped her juice. "We're trying to coordinate the whole thing between us, which is chaos, as you can guess. We should be grateful: most of the Alliance worlds have offered some form of support – funding, research material, labs, you name it. Some offered nothing, which I think surprised the President more than it did me. Not everyone in the Alliance is as enthusiastic about upholding its values, especially if it costs them. That's politics for you. It's at times like these you learn who your friends really are."
Vir was sure that last remark hadn't been directed at him, but he fidgeted in his seat anyway. "I talked to Lon – the Emperor. He told me the Centauri Republic sends its condolences, but cannot afford to provide practical aid. I'm sorry." Vir didn't mention Londo's first reaction to the news of the Drakh plague, which had been rather more surprising. The one other time he'd seen Londo blanch that quickly was when they brought out Adira in a body bag. "Londo said –" Vir gulped. "He said he hoped you would make good use of the reparation payments, seeing as you're getting those anyway."
"We are," Lochley said ruefully. She finished her drink in one long swallow. "Don't worry, Vir. I understand."
She couldn't, Vir thought, as he took the long route back to his quarters. He hardly understood it himself, so how could she? It was no secret the Centauri Republic was struggling, but no one knew exactly how dire things were. Londo kept trying to hush it all up, supposedly not to tempt the Alliance into exploiting the situation, but Vir had often wondered if it wouldn't be better to come right out and ask for help. Only it was too late for that now. With the situation on Earth, the Alliance had bigger worries than what was happening on Centauri Prime. In the grand scheme of things, the Centauri could count themselves lucky: that might be the strangest feeling of all.
Back in his quarters, Vir found a message waiting: a small red light was blinking beside the comm screen. Londo, he thought tiredly. Or another one of his Earth contacts, calling to ask for help Vir couldn't give. Great Maker, if he was going to get through that, he did need a drink.
He heated up some jála in the kitchen, warming his hands over the fire. Not for the first time, he wished he had someone to talk to. The other ambassadors all had aides, and Vir knew everyone wondered why he insisted to get by without one. But an aide meant paying wages, and even if Vir had the money he would have felt guilty spending it. Lately he'd been transferring most of his savings to Centauri Prime, to help Lysandra and Timov keep the shelter running. It made him feel at least slightly useful. And it gave him an excuse to keep in touch with Lysandra. No matter how bleak things got, talking to her always made him feel better, even through the cold glare of a comm screen.
He padded back to the comm, sipping his drink cautiously. Best to get this over with. "Play message," he said, taking a breath.
And almost spilled jála all over himself.
"Hello, Vir." There was no image, only audio, and the crackle of static meant he had to strain to make out the words. But the voice… the voice was unmistakable. And impossible. Unless every piece of information he'd thought he had was wrong, but that was – that was –
"No," Vir said, feeling dizzy. This was no recorded message, he saw with a jolt; the console indicated a live feed. "No, it can't be, you're dead, they said you were dead, they..." He hurried to put down the jála before he dropped it. His legs felt like jelly, but if he sat down now, he didn't know how he'd ever get up again. Instead he leaned into the desk, barely feeling its sharp corners dig into his back. "Lennier?" he breathed.
"Yes." Lennier's voice sounded ragged even through the static. "Forgive me, Vir. I have no right calling you, certainly not at a time like this, but –"
Vir fought down something very much like hysteria. "They said you died, with Lyta, in the Telepath War; everything we heard confirmed it. Great Maker, Lennier, I – I said the prayers for you!" It had been one of the hardest things he'd ever done: to admit to himself Lennier was gone, and perform the Minbari rites to mark his passing. It had almost undone him. "We thought you were dead," Vir repeated, hoarse.
There was no reply for several seconds; then the comm crackled. "I know. It was… necessary at the time, but I do regret misleading you, Vir. I truly – "
"It wasn't just me." Vir's tone rose shrilly; he clenched his teeth together and composed himself with an effort. "It was everyone. Me and G'Kar and Captain Lochley and Delenn –"
"I said I know!" Lennier snapped, then broke off, coughing. A harsh, rattling noise crackled through the speakers, making Vir flinch. "I did join Lyta. I survived the final assault on Psi Corps, but I was badly injured. Had they found me, I would have been arrested and extradited to Minbar. I would have shamed my clan, shamed Delenn… I could not let that happen."
"So you just… disappeared?" The worst of it was that it made sense. From Lennier's perspective at least. That didn't mean Vir wasn't entitled to feeling angry, but he knew himself, and how well he usually did at sustaining anger. Already, he could feel the worst of it fading, giving way to concern. "Why? How?"
"Lyta's people took me in. They gave me a new identity, hid me for the authorities on Earth. In return, I pledged myself to them." There was a long pause, broken only by the sound of unsteady breathing.
"Earth," Vir muttered. "Oh, gods... You're still on Earth?"
"No. I was off-world when the Drakh released the plague. Now that the planet has been quarantined, I cannot return there. I am..." The speakers exploded with another bout of coughing, violent enough it made Vir's hearts clench in his chest. The one other person he ever heard coughing like that was Londo, and then only for the past two years or so, when he was very tired or very angry. But Londo had the best medical care on Centauri Prime. If Lennier was sick, stranded on some colony world…
"What do you need?" Vir said. "Tell me. Please."
"I once promised you that, if there was ever a time when all before me was darkness, I would come to you. Do you remember?" Lennier's voice cracked. "All is not darkness yet… but the light is growing dimmer, Vir. I do not know how long I can keep running."
Vir bit his lip. "You want me to help you disappear again."
"I am not in a position to want anything," Lennier said. "I am only asking. I will not blame if you are unable, or unwilling, to help; Valen knows I have done nothing to earn it, but..."
"You're my friend," Vir retorted, indignation winning out on shock at last. "You're my friend, and you're sick and alone and asking me to help… What kind of a person would I be if I didn't at least try!?" But the rush of adrenalin left him just as quickly. Trying was one thing, but succeeding… that was something else. For one, it would mean perpetuating the lie Lennier had fabricated, the one about his death in the war. If Delenn found out, she would never forgive him. And there were practical matters too, like finding Lennier a safe place to stay – and stay hidden. "I'll help you," Vir said finally. "I'll find a way, but I need to think about it, talk to people. Just… give me a little time. Tell me where I can contact you."
In the end, Lennier gave him a code and the name of a contact on Io. Vir didn't ask if that was where he was staying, and Lennier made no attempt to explain. They said their goodbyes in strained tones, with Vir struggling to keep his emotions from betraying him. Then Lennier cut the link.
It was only later, as Vir sat sipping the dregs of his now-cold jála, that the reality of what had happened caught up with him. He'd made Lennier a promise, but how could he keep it? He was the ambassador to a bankrupt world, and he had no talent for subterfuge. Yes, there was that one time he'd managed to 'misplace' a few thousand Narns, but back then he'd had money to spend and the added advantage that no one suspected him. Now, he had nothing.
Except... that wasn't quite true, was it? If there was a single world the Alliance wasn't watching, where a person could disappear without a trace… Centauri Prime was all of that right now. And there was Lysandra's shelter. If she agreed, Lennier could stay there and help; wasn't Timov always complaining they lacked strong hands? The hard part would be to get Lennier there in the first place. Vir would have to book him passage under a false name, but there were ways to get that done; a decent bribe worked wonders these days.
He could do this, Vir thought. He could make this work. There was a chance, just a chance, that Lennier was going to be all right.
He was still chanting it like an incantation the day he arrived on Centauri Prime. Please, Lennier. Please be all right. His flight had been delayed by half a day, and Vir's nerves were shredded by the time the transport touched down. During the ride through the capital, he yelled at his driver twice before clamping his lips shut and staring fixedly through the window. He couldn't be late, not today. He had to be there when Lennier arrived.
The shelter was just as hectic as Vir remembered, but it almost felt like coming home. He found Lysandra doing paperwork in the study. Her back was towards him, and for a moment Vir hovered in the doorway, acutely aware of just how sweaty and rumpled he must look. He squared his shoulders. "Lysandra?" he began. "Lennier didn't arrive yet, did he? Are you well? You look –" He was going to say lovely, but just then, she turned and Vir's gaze dropped down. "Oh."
Straightening, Lysandra smoothed down her gown. For a moment she looked as shy as Vir had ever seen her, her smile as strained as the fabric stretching across her tight, round belly.
"You're – you're –" Vir stammered.
"You can say it, Vir. 'Pregnant' isn't a dirty word." She gave him a cautious chuckle. " Or was it 'huge' you were looking for? That's all right too, I won't blame you."
"No! No, gods, I – you're not, you're – beautiful!" Vir felt a flush creep up his neck. Here he was, the Ambassador to Centauri Prime, reduced to incoherence by a girl ten years younger than him. But whatever he'd stuttered out must have helped, because Lysandra relaxed visibly.
"I don't feel very beautiful right now… but thank you." Vir tried not to stare like a fool as she walked up to him. "Your friend isn't here yet, don't worry. Come, let's sit down. Then we can talk."
Vir followed Lysandra to the kitchen, where she poured him ice-cold water from the tap. He drank it gratefully, trying to breathe through the pounding of his hearts. "So, uh, congratulations. Who is…?"
"His name is Sylvio. Sylvio Deradi. Maybe you saw him here, when… No, you couldn't have. He arrived some time after your last visit." Lysandra's forehead wrinkled in thought. "He's a baker's son. He lost his family in the bombings. My father wouldn't have approved of the match, and even Timov looks worried when she thinks I'm not watching. But he's a good man, and he's been good to the children. Mila adores him, and Noro…" Noro was Urza's oldest son, a wiry boy of thirteen who hardly ever smiled. "You wouldn't believe how much he's changed with Sylvio here."
"Is he good to you?" Vir said, surprising himself.
"Well – yes." Lysandra's eyes widened. Then a real smile found her eyes. "He is, Vir. Really. But there's something else. Something I have to tell you. I know you've been away for over a year, but you need to know what's happening here. Sylvio – he's involved in the Resistance. He already was before he came to us, and the truth is –"
"Wait, wait, what?" Vir said. "Resistance? You mean, as in–"
"As in: our people are tired, Vir. Tired and hungry and desperate; they don't like what our homeworld has become, and they want to do something about it." She entwined her hands nervously. "Sylvio lived in the suburbs. They had a resistance movement less than a year after the bombings. It's different in this part of the city, but even the nobles are starting to open their eyes. It is happening, Vir. Not just in the capital but everywhere. I wanted to tell you because… well, if the Emperor knows, he'll try to stop it. And I don't want that. The people deserve better than this. We all deserve better."
"You're part of this Resistance?" For the second time that day, Vir felt the world tilt underneath him. Lysandra was part of Londo's family, by heart if not by blood. How could she be involved in this? "Lysandra, if this is about staging a coup–"
"It's not," she cut him off. "Not yet, at least. But it might be one day, if things don't start to change." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Do you know that, for several months now, the military have been rounding up telepaths? Quietly, mind you; blink and you might miss it, but they're disappearing all the same. What does that mean, Vir? Why imprison telepaths unless you have something to hide? And there have been other disappearances too, they say."
Vir wrung his hands together. The news about the telepaths was a surprise to him, and a troubling one if it was true, but… "Why tell me this? You know I'm close to Londo, I can't –"
"You were going to find out sooner or later, so I'd rather you heard it from me." Lysandra bit her lip. "You're close to the Emperor, like you said, so if there's anyone who can influence him it's you. You're a good person, Vir. Please tell me you won't betray us."
Vir swallowed. What he wanted to say was that Londo wasn't to blame for any of it, that he was fighting the Centaurum tooth and nail, but that would hardly help his point. Deep down, Lysandra was right. If he didn't know Londo as well as he did, he'd be probably be saying all the same things, and being less calm about it, too. "No," he said, finally. "Of course I won't betray you."
"That's good." Was he imagining it, or did Lysandra actually look relieved? "I knew we could trust you, Vir." She gave him a smile that looked almost fragile. "Enough about me. Tell me about your friend Lennier. I had to tell Timov about him, of course, but she vowed to keep it a secret. What's he like?"
"I, um…" Vir muttered, not sure if he should be grateful for the change in subject; just thinking about it made his stomach twist up again. "I wish I could say. It's just, it's been six years, and I don't know how much he's changed since then. Much, I think. He went through hard times, and some of them… well, I guess you could say some were of his own making. But I'd trust him with my life. I think, when it comes down to it, so can you."
"Well, we'll try to make him welcome, give him time to heal. If he wants to stay, he can. We can always use another pair of strong hands."
"He'll stay," Vir said quietly. "He has nowhere else to go."
"Most of us don't," Lysandra said. Her eyes met Vir's for just a heartbeat, but in that moment he understood more about her than he ever had. Lysandra might be better off than most people in the city, and she was making the best of what she had, but that didn't change the fact she was stuck here all the same – in this place, in House Mollari – through no choice of her own. She missed her freedom too.
"Lysandra…" Vir began, but just then a door slammed in the next room. Automatically, Vir straightened.
"Lady Lysandra?" A man poked his head inside. "The Minbari has arrived. He's waiting in the courtyard."
Vir jumped, hissing as he banged his knee against the table. Lysandra was on her feet before him, but he caught up with her before she reached the door. He sprinted down the corridor, through the heavy front doors and down the steps… And froze in his tracks when he saw the cloaked figure waiting at the gate.
"Lennier?" Vir said, his mouth turning dry. His mind was a jumble of emotion, and for a second all he could think of was rushing up to Lennier and throwing his arms around him, but some vestige of rationality held him back. He swallowed. His eyes were stinging, and when he swiped at them to clear his vision, his hand came away wet.
"Vir." Lennier's voice was a broken thing struggling to keep itself together. "Please do not cry for my sake. If there is anything I can do, any way I can repay you…"
Vir emitted a high-pitched giggle that he couldn't have gulped down if he tried. In an impulse, he closed the distance between them. "You're here. You trusted me. I think –" His hands found Lennier's shoulders. "I think we're good for now."
Chapter 9: Timov - 2271
In which Timov bends her principles, and there is some quiet before the storm.
"Here. You hold her, will you?" Before Timov could protest, Lysandra had pressed the squirming infant into her arms, then squared off against her son. "Luc Deradi!" she called, hands on hips. "Come here and let the doctor give you your medicine. Your little sister isn't crying, so why are you?"
Naturally, the girl in Timov's arms chose that instant to invalidate her mother's point. Much of it had to do with the court physician, a gaunt-faced man possessed of more ennui than empathy, who'd just stuck another needle into the child. Timov opened her mouth to berate him, but to her own surprise found herself making shushing noises instead. Impossibly, that did the trick. The baby sobbed for a few more seconds, hiccupped and blinked up at her with watery eyes.
Noro was up next for his injection, and Timov nodded approval as the boy rolled up his sleeve. He was Urza's oldest, a solemn child who spoke little and complained less; at sixteen, he was firmly in a phase where showing weakness was an unforgivable lapse. For all his sullenness, Timov loved him dearly. Out of Urza's three children, Noro alone was old enough to remember his father. Urza's death had been a huge blow to him, and Timov understood all about armoring oneself with indifference.
She stood rocking the baby until Lysandra returned with Luc on her heels.
"She likes you," Lysandra observed, as she lifted Luc onto the examination bed. The child in Timov's arms coughed feebly. "Look at her. She seems calm. Usually she hates being held by strangers, especially when she's sick."
"Perhaps I intimidate her," Timov sniffed, hiding her annoyance behind a prickly retort. As much as the 'strangers' stung, it was true: it had been months since her last visit to the shelter. Part of it was her own paranoia. Whenever she left the palace these days, she couldn't shake the fear of returning to find Londo with a dagger in his back. But it wasn't just that. She was the Emperor's wife, and the people's patience was wearing thin. The last few times she went to the shelter openly and in daylight, she'd drawn far more hostile looks than respectful ones. Since then she'd taken to visiting at night, but that only made her feel like an intruder in her own house. Even Lysandra seemed uncomfortable around her. And as dedicated a husband as Sylvio was, he didn't bear her or Londo any love.
These days, she only ever left the palace for two reasons: to see the children, and to keep the promise she'd made to Vir, to make sure his Minbari friend was all right. She'd tried to coax Lysandra into letting the children spend more time at court instead. In winter, with disease rampant in the city, they'd be better off living in the palace than out among the refugees. But Lysandra didn't share that view.
"Lysandra, I'm asking you again." Timov cradled the baby against her chest. "The shelter is no place for a child, especially not one as frail as Lyssa. She's already had pneumonia, and now ralla fever. What if…"
"I know what she's had, lady Timov." Lysandra stroked Luc's hair as he held out an arm for his injection. "And I know how fragile she is – or isn't. I'm raising her, remember?" She never called Timov 'lady', except when she was losing patience. "We had an agreement. I bring them here when they're sick and for their inoculations; the rest of the time they're with me, where they belong. Most of the children in the city aren't privileged like this. I'm sure you know that."
She did. Of course she did. She'd have to be a fool not to realize what a fine line she'd been walking. They should be inoculating every child in the city, every child on the planet, but there was no money, of course. There never was. And so Timov did what she believed any parent would do as well: try to take care of her own. Except Lysandra wasn't 'any parent'. Lysandra had principles; the same that Timov used to have, except Lysandra's hadn't been eroded by years of disillusion. Or maybe Lysandra was just stronger than her. They had fought about it for years, and in the end Lysandra had relented only under one condition: that no one, not even Sylvio, could know.
Timov shifted Lyssa to her other shoulder. "Will you stay a while longer? Londo would love seeing the children, I'm sure. I'll have some food prepared for you, so you can get warm before the trip home." She wouldn't plead, she'd told herself, but lately she had been coming perilously close to it.
"Thank you, but no," Lysandra said. She lowered Luc back to the floor. "Give the Emperor my regards. Tell him the children have been ill, and knowing how fragile his own health has been, I would not dare to impose on him. We have to go." She held out her arms for Lyssa.
Timov swallowed a pang of loss when she handed back the child. She knew better than to try and stall for time, so she hugged Luc and mussed Noro's hair, which he allowed with a guarded smile. Lysandra smiled as well, tight-lipped and strained, then turned, the boys hurrying behind her. Then they were gone, and Timov found herself alone.
Strange. For all the years of her life she'd spent by herself, 'alone' was not a word she would have used before. She'd never relied on company or even enjoyed it; in fact, she'd spent much of her life wishing she'd have less of it, especially with Mariel and Daggair around. All this time, she'd been thinking it was Londo who had become isolated. That she would be immune to it. She wasn't. It had just taken her longer to reach the point where it became impossible to ignore.
Usually whenever her thoughts turned dark like this, she would grit her teeth and shoulder through it, but saying goodbye to the children had taken more out of her than she'd thought. She would go and find Londo, she decided. Ironically, unless Vir was here, Londo was the only one in the palace to whom she could talk.
She found the throne room deserted, which wasn't surprising; Londo had told her more than once he'd come to loathe the place. That left either his study or his private chambers. The former seemed more likely, but when she arrived Londo wasn't there. She felt tired, though, and her head was throbbing. Just for a moment she gave in to it, sitting down behind the desk to lean her forehead on her arms. If she could just rest for a little while…
"Timov?" Her head flew up. Londo was in the doorway, looking startled. "What are you doing here? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she lied, squinting up at him. He was holding an empty glass, which meant he'd been drinking again, but Timov knew better than to upbraid him about it. These days he seemed more lucid with some alcohol inside him. At least he was looking well, which was a welcome change. She'd had another scare a few days ago, when the news about the Drakh plague reached them. She'd thought Londo would have been relieved to hear about the cure – some of his friends had been human, after all – but he'd looked more shocked than anything. Later, she had found him curled up on top of his bedsheets, coughing pitifully. Just a chill, she'd thought, and had let him sleep it off, but the next morning his pillow had been flecked with blood.
All of that seemed behind them, thank the gods. Londo showed no sign of weakness, apart from a slight lurch in his step which only confirmed what she already knew. "Lysandra was here?" he asked, putting down his glass.
She nodded faintly. "Lyssa was sick again. Ralla fever." Just thinking about the children made her throat close up. Londo must have noticed, because suddenly there was a hand on her shoulder, and it was all she could do not to flinch.
"Londo –" she began, but he ignored her, his other hand sliding up to the back of her neck. It was an intimate gesture, touching a Centauri woman's bare head, and Timov surprised herself by not just slapping the offending limb away.
"There, hmm?" Londo murmured from behind her, just the tiniest hint of a slur in his voice. "You must not be so hard on yourself. You are doing what you can for them; that is all any of us can do, after all." He sounded almost tender, and something twisted in Timov's gut. Great Maker, not now. Please. All this time, she'd taken care not to depend on anyone; it had always been Londo who needed her. She told herself it was a matter of principle, but these days it was self-preservation as well. Emperors seldom lived long in the best of times.
"So affectionate, Londo?" She threw back her head. "Is that the brivari speaking again?"
Londo snatched his hands away as abruptly as if she'd slapped him after all. She forced herself to turn and meet his eyes, just to prove to herself she could do it without flinching. The pain in them was a dagger through her hearts.
"I'm –" sorry, she began, but swallowed it down. She had never apologized to Londo in her life; if she started now, it would be the end of her. "I asked Lysandra to stay so you could see the children," she said, trying to soften the sting. "I know you wanted to, but..."
Londo's spine was so straight she was afraid it might snap, but there was no anger on his face. Only regret, and a joyless smile. "Allow me to guess, hmm? She said she would not dream of disturbing me in these troubled times."
"Something like that," Timov admitted, not even wondering how he knew. Londo always seemed to know how people would react, sometimes even before they reacted; it was what raised him above others in the political game. "You mustn't blame her. It's not easy, being in her position."
"Oh, I do not doubt that." A muscle twitched beneath Londo's jaw. "Plotting a revolution under the Emperor's nose… I am sure that is not an easy task at all."
There was something ragged in his tone, a whiff of despair that struck her even before the words did. Then their meaning hit home.
"What?" Timov gasped. "Londo – what are you saying?"
" 'Revolution' is too strong a word," Londo said, peering at her as if to gauge her reaction." 'Resistance' is what they are calling it now. Uninspiring, I confess, but even you cannot failed to have heard of it." A beat. "Have you?"
"No, I – yes, but...." Timov made no attempt to hide her bewilderment. She'd heard rumors, yes, some of them sounding authentic enough to be true, but never any names. "I heard something was happening, but you're not actually saying that Lysandra... That she would..." But it made sense, she thought, stunned. It would explain so much: the hostile atmosphere at the shelter, the secrecy whenever Lysandra came to the palace, the way she refused to see Londo at all.
"They say her husband started it. It was a small thing at first, a rabble of desperate people flocking together, but of late it has been growing more organized. I did not think you were aware of it… but I had to know." Londo leaned against the desk, which made him look fragile again. Or maybe she was mistaking drunk for fragile; at this distance she could smell the alcohol on his breath. "You must not speak of this to anyone, Timov. Not that it exists, not that I am aware of it, least of all that Lysandra is involved. No one must know. Do you hear me?"
"You're going to stop them," Timov said dully. Of course he would. He had to. The Emperor might tolerate insolence, but not treason; not if he was in any way attached to his life.
"Ah," Londo said, "no. I do not intend stop anything – only control it, if I can." He picked up the glass he'd put down earlier, cradling the stem between his fingers. "You are aware I have been… struggling to put things to rights. Struggling, and failing, I fear. This Resistance… perhaps one day it can accomplish what I could not. I will not live forever, Timov. Once I am gone, it will be up to the people to fight for our world."
"What are you saying?" Timov said, with growing horror. "This Resistance, you're just… grooming them for your death? Waiting for them to make their move so the people can… Rise up? To do what, exactly? Great Maker, Londo –" She felt queasy. "Why not just swallow poison and be done with it now?"
"So little faith, Timov. Do I truly strike that pathetic a figure?" Londo clucked and shook his head. "No, you mustn't answer that; we both know the kind of figure I strike. But I am not helpless either. At least I do not intend to be."
Timov nodded faintly, not convinced but trying. "The telepaths," she said, remembering another rumor she'd heard. "Was that your doing too?"
"Telepaths?" Londo blinked. "I don't understand…"
"They're disappearing. All over the city, telepaths have been rounded up and taken away, in secret. Did you give that order?"
"No," Londo said, going pale. "No, I did not even know… Why would they want to – Great Maker." He swayed unsteadily, then held up a hand as Timov stood, alarmed. "It's fine," he muttered. "I shall ask my… associates what is the meaning of this. I did not mean to worry you." He forced a smile. "You are married to an old man, Timov. I attempt to fight it, but as one grows older, one finds oneself more willing…"
"… to compromise." Timov nodded. "I know." Was it a compromise to grow fond of her husband, she wondered? When had that feeling snuck up on her?
"Do you?" Londo blinked down at her, as if seeing her for the first time. "You know... I used to think you were stubborn and harsh and rebellious and incorrigible... and I still think you are all of those things, so you must not have changed much at all, hmm? Except that where it once aggravated me…" His voice cracked, and Timov swallowed a rush of tenderness that hit her like a blow in the ribs. "The truth is... I could no longer imagine myself spending a day without you. I do not know if it is wisdom or folly, but there it is."
The skin around Londo's eyes was parched and dry, his cheeks threaded with broken capillaries, but his look hadn't lost any of its intensity. Timov found she couldn't quite catch her breath. "When I moved into the palace all those years ago… I didn't do it because it was wise," she said, with an effort. "In fact, it may have been one of my more foolish decisions."
"Do you regret it?" Londo said thickly. He reached out to brush her cheek with his hand. He was so close. All she could see was his silk collar and the pale, brittle skin of his throat. "Sometimes I wonder..."
"Don't," she said, and moved to tug down his head.
He tasted of brivari; surely that explained why her eyes were stinging.
Chapter 10: Londo - 2274
In which Londo gambles and loses, and the wheel spins.
The first thought that came to him when Shiv'kala flicked his hand was I am growing tired of conversing on my knees. The second thought was rather less coherent, and mostly involved attempting not to cry out as his legs gave way.
He supposed he should be grateful to be on his knees and not in some other, less dignified position. The Drakh permitted him that much these days. Not out of any pretense at courtesy, of course. To say his health had grown delicate would be a sad attempt at understatement, but at least they were making an effort to treat him like the breakable toy he had become. They still made his Keeper… intervene, on occasion, but it was merely a reminder of who was in charge. It would not suit their plans to have him dying just yet, it seemed.
Good. It did not suit his own plans either.
"Enough," Shiv'kala said. The Keeper's hold eased abruptly; Londo slumped forward, scrabbling for control.
Shiv'kala moved closer, looming over him, and not for the first time Londo wondered if the Drakh was looking older too. He had long been the pinnacle of restraint, but these past years he'd grown more erratic. Becoming impatient, Londo thought. Certainly the Drakh had done less well than they'd hoped. Their first attempt to destroy Earth had been unsuccessful, forcing them to deploy the virus they had intended for Minbar instead. Then the humans had worked their magic and found a cure. Londo had borne the brunt of the Drakh's anger, but he'd still savored the sweet taste of their defeat.
For now, though, Shiv'kala's eyes betrayed nothing. "You must enlighten us, Londo." His voice was low and dangerous, a hunter closing in on prey. "It has come to our attention that the Centauri people are no longer as… impotent as we desire them to be. You have heard of a movement called the Resistance, we take it?"
That was dangerous territory, and Londo chose his answer carefully. "Every world half as shattered as ours has a movement called the Resistance. It does not mean someone is doing any resisting, or being efficient at it even when they try."
"But this movement is efficient, we are told." Shiv'kala narrowed his eyes. "And hardly as desperate for funds as might be expected. Perhaps you can tell us why."
He has learned, Londo thought, a chill passing through him. The first time he spoke to Shiv'kala, the Drakh had been austere and literal-minded, but no longer. Londo scowled, pretending ignorance. "I do not know what you mean."
Shiv'kala smiled – something else he had never done those first few years. "Shall I tell you where this Resistance meets... to refresh your memory? Their base is a shelter in the capital, in a residence belonging to House Mollari. A shelter we allowed to continue at your request, I do believe. Is this how you repay our generosity?"
"I know nothing of this," Londo protested, even as he realized it was no use. The Drakh weren't just guessing. They knew. They had operatives outside the palace now: other Drakh, and Keepers to do their bidding. Londo had suspected it for years, although he hadn't been certain until he heard about the telepaths – wherever a telepath was killed, he did not doubt the Drakh were walking. Not that the killings would expose them. Every day people were murdered in the streets.
"You know nothing, you say?" Shiv'kala's smile had turned predatory; it frightened Londo more than any display of rage ever could. "You do not know Sylvio Deradi and Lysandra Jaddo? Both of them are close to you... or so our sources would have us believe."
"Lysandra runs the shelter," Londo said thickly. Lying was no option; if he claimed not to know Lysandra, the Drakh might well decide to put it to the test. "But she is family! She would never betray me." That, too, wasn't a lie. It wasn't betrayal to serve the people at the expense of the Emperor. He had done the same in Cartagia's day. "Sylvio Deradi I have never met. He is a poor man, coarse and common –"
"Yet he leads the Centauri Resistance." Shiv'kala's voice had dropped to a whisper. "And you are funding them, Londo. I would not advise you to deny it, or to claim you did not realize what you did. You would find yourself... regretting it." He waved his hand again, vaguely. Londo gasped and dug his nails into his palms. "They must die," the Drakh continued, as if nothing had happened. "The Jaddo girl, and her husband too."
"Not the girl! She is no threat to you. Killing her will accomplish nothing, it is her husband you want!" Londo realized what he'd said a heartbeat after the words were out. Great Maker, had he sank as low as that – to discard one life for another, on a whim? But he must. He had promised Urza to keep his family safe. "Without Deradi, the Resistance will be crippled," he pressed. "You do not need to kill his wife as well."
The Drakh studied him intently. "You are right, of course," he said, after a moment. There was a glitter in his eyes that made Londo's stomach turn. "If the girl is so important to you, it would be a shame to dispose of her... yet. We will spare her, in case we ever have cause to question your loyalty again. But Deradi must die. And you will give the order. To prove your –" He chuckled, "– obedience."
Londo clenched his hands into fists. It was a small price to pay. No price at all, in fact, knowing Sylvio Deradi's life was forfeit whatever he did. So why did he feel like a monster anyway?
"Kill him," he said. He even managed to make it sound convincing.
"As you wish. We will take care of it." Shiv'kala extended one hand from the folds of his cloak. "Ask, and I will help you to your feet." It was a ritual they'd had for years; Londo's answer was always the same, yet the Drakh kept on asking. Another habit he picked up from me.
"No," Londo said, and averted his head.
The Drakh chuckled again and stepped into the shadows, leaving him alone and on his knees.
For a while, Londo heard nothing. He was braced for disaster the next time Timov returned from the shelter; then later, when reports came in of protests in the streets. But nothing happened, not then or for several weeks after. By the time Vir came to visit from Babylon 5, the Drakh still had not acted, and doubt was starting to creep in. Perhaps they had been goading him. Perhaps they didn't truly believe Sylvio Deradi was a threat.
He had convinced himself to the point where, the night a guard came to tell him he was needed in the throne room, his first response was irritation, not fear. He was tired; even the short walk from his chambers exhausted him. He gestured at the guard to open the door to the throne room, then froze in place as he stepped inside.
"Timov? Great Maker, what..."
She was sitting on the steps at the base of the throne, her robes in disarray. Crying. Timov was crying. Dry, breathless sobs shuddered through her, muffled behind a sleeve. Vir was kneeling beside her, but at Londo's approach he got to his feet.
"Vir?" Londo said. "What is the meaning of this?" He had meant to sound commanding, but the sight of Timov had caught him off-guard.
"Londo, there's… there's been some bad news." Vir took a step towards him. "Lysandra sent me a message. Her husband, Sylvio… he went missing last night. They found him this morning with his throat slit."
Londo didn't know what he had expected to feel; guilt, perhaps, or anger or regret. But when he reached inside himself, he came up dry. "Great Maker," he muttered. The words fell from his lips like so many slick, sickening lies, but even they didn't make him feel anything.
It only dawned on him when he met Timov's eyes.
He had never seen Timov cry in his life. A decade ago, he wouldn't even have thought her capable, and even now he could barely believe it. She was close to Lysandra, yes, but not to Lysandra's husband. She would never shed tears for a man she had barely spoken to. Only for…
"No," he croaked. "Vir –" Tell me it isn't true.
"Londo, I'm so sorry," Vir said softly. "Sylvio wasn't alone. Urza's son was with him. Noro. They killed him too."
He would not break, Londo told himself, even as he felt the Keeper stir on his shoulder. He would not give the Drakh the satisfaction. Somehow he made it to the throne without assistance, swatting away Vir's outstretched hand. He felt sick enough to vomit, but he squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed and swallowed until the nausea turned to rage. They tricked me. They made me beg for Lysandra's life, but not for the lives of the children. They'd changed the rules on him, and because of it, he'd failed Urza a second time. He might as well have plunged the blade into his friend all over again. They will pay for this. Great Maker, they will.
"Londo." From somewhere, Vir's voice drifted in. "There's another thing you have to know. I should have told you before, but I didn't… Lysandra asked me not to…"
"It's all right, Vir," Timov said faintly. "He knows."
Londo opened his eyes just in time to see Vir's apprehension turn to shock. "Wait, what…" Vir sputtered. "You knew about the Resistance? Both of you? I – I thought –"
"You thought if Londo knew, he would have no choice except to stop them." Timov's eyes were swollen and red-rimmed, but she was on her feet, straightening her gown with sharp, angry tugs. Londo didn't think he'd ever loved her more than in that moment, rage and tears and a fierce kind of pride mingling on her cheeks. "I'd tell you not to underestimate my husband, but then I made the same mistake. Londo has been supporting the Resistance, Vir. He even used to fund them, until the Centaurum found out."
Not the Centaurum, but close enough. Londo forced himself to steady his breathing. It wouldn't do to let Timov fight his battles for him; not when she was hurting more than he did. "It's true, Vir," he said. "These days, the Resistance feels more like an ally to me than those whose meddling I tolerate at court. I still care about our people… even if they do not believe it."
Vir's mouth had fallen open. He closed it and swallowed, the sound painfully loud in the too-empty space. "Gods, Londo. I – I didn't know –"
"If I could be trusted?" Londo snapped, wincing at the harshness of his own voice. "Good! The walls have ears here, Vir! You must never trust me unless I tell you to, perhaps not even then. Urza trusted me with his family's life, and look where it led them!" His stomach turned; he spat out the words only to keep from gagging on them. He still did, though: something wet and sticky lodged in his chest, and he doubled up coughing. He almost relished it, just like he relished the guilt washing over him: his faithful companion, threatening to choke him by day even as that other companion did by night. Recently, he had been dreaming his death dream more and more often. It did not feel like a bad thing.
"It's not your fault," Timov said, surprising him. For a moment it was all he could do not to scream at her. Great Maker, you know nothing! You'd never trust me again if you knew what I did! Instead he dabbed at his mouth with his handkerchief, blinking down at the ugly little specks of red against white. Which was ever so fitting, really. Blood on my lips as well as my hands.
Timov and Vir exchanged harried glances, and Londo forced himself to breathe deeply before he dared to speak at all.
"Well, Vir. Let us hear it. What made you decide to tell me about this Resistance? If you made Lysandra a promise, I did not think you would break it lightly."
"I wouldn't," Vir said. He squared his shoulders, and somehow all the unease flowed out of him when he did. He is still the ambassador of the Centauri Republic, Londo thought. I tend to forget that when he is here. But Vir had not forgotten, it seemed. "You said the Resistance is an ally, but they have no love for you, Londo. I know. I've been out there."
"You've been to the shelter?" Timov sounded stunned. "Today?"
"Yes," Vir said. "They know me there. Lysandra trusts me, and I've… I've got friends there." He exchanged a look with Timov that was impossible to read. "Lysandra doesn't want violence, but she can't control the people with Sylvio dead. He was the only thing that kept them in line, and now whoever killed him and Noro made martyrs out of them both. This whole thing is a tinder box waiting for a spark, and the moment it blows... They'll come for you, Londo. You need to be ready… or the mob will tear you to pieces, and the whole court along with you."
Londo nodded, the words trickling through as if in a dream. Dimly, he wondered how it could be that people still trusted Vir, despite his obvious ties to the court. Something told him the answer might be simpler than it seemed – that they trusted Vir simply because he could be trusted – but while that would matter a great deal one day, it didn't right now. What mattered was that Vir and Timov were on his side. He would need them before this was over. If this was where the end game started, it would take all his strength to see it through.
"I'm ready," he said, and prayed he was right.
Chapter 11: G'Kar - 2276
In which G'Kar comes to Centauri Prime and there is a reunion of sorts, in the most fitting of places.
He remembered the color of the sky.
In a way it was ironic because, his first time on Centauri Prime, daylight had been in short supply. His cell had been down in the lower levels, and the first time he had seen the Centauri sky was when they led him to the cruiser bound for Narn. The skin under his eye patch had itched and burned, and after so long in darkness, even his good eye had been all but useless. He would never forget that sky, however: a clear, impossible shade of blue that had struck him as too garish for words. Much later, he had stood with Mollari under that same sky, watching the sunlight fall across his soft, pinkish skin, and told himself he could get used to this. The colors… and the company. But that had been almost fifteen years ago. Before everything fell apart.
The last time he had seen the Centauri sky, it had been black with the ashes of his people's vengeance.
If he had expected one thing upon his return here, it was that conditions in the capital would have improved, at least. But as his ship – a small but adequate craft he had purchased soon after leaving the Anla'Shok – touched down behind the Royal Palace, the sense of déjà vu was almost too much to bear. This function of this district was largely administrative, he knew: cathedrals, shrines, galleries and libraries used to fill the streets, crowding in against each other like so many spoiled children vying for place. Between them had been ornate fountains and elaborate gardens. Today, there was no building left undamaged. G'Kar did not know if it was the result of his own people's assault all those years ago, or of some newer tragedy. Most likely both. Some of the crumbling structures were overgrown with vegetation, but others were smoldering as if they had burned only yesterday.
It was a good thing Vir Cotto had tried to prepare him for this. It was their meeting on Babylon 5 which had prompted G'Kar's coming here, and he still couldn't shake the memory of the haunted look in Cotto's eyes.
"I wish I could come with you," Vir had said, voice raw with doubt. "But Londo's made it clear he doesn't want me there. He can't afford having to worry about my safety, he said. The gods know Londo has enough on his mind right now, what with the Centaurum disbanded and the army having turned against him, so I don't want to be a distraction to him, but… I worry about his safety too. Sometime I think he forgets that. It would be different if he had things under control, but his choices these past years haven't been all that – well, rational. Truth be told, G'Kar, some of them have been disasters." Vir had looked so wretched that it had burned away what little trepidation G'Kar still felt. And so here he was, on Centauri Prime. If anyone would ask why he had come, G'Kar wasn't even convinced he could answer. Vir's story was one part of it, and Mollari's death dream was another, but so were a mass of conflicted emotions he could barely begin to make sense of, let alone explain to others. Vir hadn't asked about his reasons, though. G'Kar was sure the gist of them had been plain on his face.
They hadn't told Mollari he was coming. Vir had made all the arrangements through Londo's wife, including the codes to enter Centauri space and special permission to land his craft in the palace grounds. G'Kar hadn't expected a welcoming committee… but neither had he expected what he saw as he stepped out: a dozen guards scuttling to meet him, weapons drawn.
Being marched through the palace at gunpoint was hardly a new experience, and so G'Kar submitted without complaint. But there was something ominous about the emptiness of the hallways, which had once been bustling with activity. The large, bronze doors to the throne room were still the same, however, and by the time the guards had opened them and shoved them through it, G'Kar's heart was racing and his throat had gone dry.
A statue. Rigid and sallow and brittle, a phantom wrapped in silks – that was his first thought when he saw Londo on the dais, his face as white with shock as the gloved hand pressed to his chest. Cotto hadn't been overstating. The man seemed to have aged a lifetime in the past fifteen years. Not just physically, even though his cheeks looked mottled and sunken and his hair was threaded with white. It was the eyes. With Londo, it was always the eyes. They were the one part of him he couldn't control, the part G'Kar could still read like a book, and always had. The whole weight of the world was in those eyes now, and for a moment all G'Kar could think of was the look on Na'Toth's face when they had found her in that prison cell. The look of someone so shrouded in darkness they had forgotten how it was to walk in light.
"G'Kar?" Londo chewed the name like gravel. His mouth opened, then closed again, his throat working spasmodically.
G'Kar inclined his head. "Mollari." He had wanted his arrival to be a surprise, but for the first time he doubted the wisdom of that decision. Londo's breathing had grown erratic and his eyes were wild. Unbidden, the dream flashed before G'Kar's eyes, but he pressed it away. Even if his purpose here was to bring death, it would hardly be in this place or at this time.
"Great Maker," Londo muttered, regaining some semblance of control. "Have you taken leave of your senses? To come here, now, without warning – "
"I did give warning," G'Kar said. "Only not to you. Vir Cotto was so kind as to arrange passage for me; a good thing, or my ship would have been blown out of the sky before I even entered the atmosphere. What has happened here, Mollari?"
"Vir?" Londo said, agitated. "I sent Vir away because I cannot protect him, so now he sends you instead? Our world is in ruins, that is what happened." His voice dropped to a low growl. "If you value your life, you will leave, G'Kar. Leave now, before it is too late." For all the threat implied by the words, they came out very much like a plea. Londo's face contorted; with a jerk, he turned away and descended the steps towards the window, where he stood staring out, hands clenched into fists at his side.
After a moment, G'Kar moved to join him. The guards raised their weapons but didn't intervene, not even when G'Kar went to stand at Londo 's back. Still, he didn't doubt that one word from their Emperor would bring them running. He leaned forward and said into Londo's ear, "There are some things I value more than my life, as you very well know. My curiosity, for instance. That, and I had the strangest thought you might be glad to see me. As I am glad to see you." In an impulse, he put a hand on Londo' shoulder – and flinched, at the exact moment Londo did the same. Just for a moment, he had felt something beneath his fingers, something slick and organic and ... "What in G'Quan's name –" he sputtered. "Mollari, what –"
"No." Londo was shrinking away from him, panic on his face. G'Kar stepped forward, but Londo batted him away as if he was a wild animal. "No, don't touch me! Guards!" he cried, shrilly. "Take him away! Lock him in a cell! He must not –" A fit of coughing seized him and he doubled over, unable to continue.
The next instant, hands had locked onto G'Kar's arms from behind. His first impulse was to fight, to wrench himself free, but then he looked up again and froze in place. Londo looked pale as death – one hand scrabbling at his collar as he panted, heavily, mouth twisted into a rictus of horror. In his split second of hesitation, a guard drove an elbow into G'Kar's stomach while another rifle-butted him in the side of the head; his skull cracked and his artificial eye went rolling across the marble. He tried to call out but the guards didn't listen, and Londo was looking straight through him. Dazed, G'Kar allowed himself to be led away.
The cell they put him in was an improvement over the one he'd been given the first time he was here. There was a stone sleeping bench, a modest table and chair, and a latrine in a corner. There was even fresh water from a faucet in the wall; G'Kar tried it suspiciously, sucking the liquid from the palms of his hands. It was lukewarm, but tasted decent enough. Wincing, he fingered the lump on the side of his head and the empty socket where his artificial eye had been. It felt strange, tender in the open air.
He paced for a while, then forced himself to sit down on the bench, trying to get his tattered nerves to relax. Londo had snapped the moment G'Kar put a hand on his shoulder, feeling … what, exactly? A lump? A tumor? Whatever it was, the mere thought that G'Kar had felt it had been enough to send Londo over the edge. Of course, speculation would bring him nowhere as long as he was locked in a cell. His only hope was that Londo would come to his senses at some point.
G'Kar didn't know how long he had waited before there was the sound of a key turning. The door swung on its hinges, an Imperial Guard standing stiffly at attention in the corridor. A familiar white-clad figure entered a few seconds later, shooing off the guard with a wave of his hand.
Londo hovered at the door, somehow managing to look as apprehensive as G'Kar was feeling. He was clutching the Imperial seal that hung around his neck, as if its weight alone gave him strength. "Great Maker, G'Kar..." He swallowed as he looked down into G'Kar's face. "I cannot tell you how sorry I am about your eye. My guards retrieved it, but it was… damaged beyond repair. I should have ordered them to treat you kindly, but I – I was not thinking as clearly as I should."
"It is merely a piece of machinery," G'Kar said. He chose not to remark on the odd choice of topic given the situation; losing the eye was a nuisance, yes, but for the moment, he considered having been imprisoned to be the greater predicament. He peered up at Londo's hunched form. "Have you merely come to tell me this, or did you intend to explain why I am here?"
"Ah, yes. You are here… for your protection," Londo said, fidgeting. "You were about to ask a question I could not answer and hope to keep you alive. Instead of keeping my cool and sending you away quickly, I… panicked. Through that, I sealed your fate, I fear. They will never let you leave now that you know there is a secret here."
Somehow, G'Kar managed to refrain from asking who 'they' referred to. Instead he cut right to the core. "When I touched your shoulder, I felt… something. I could not see it, but it seemed… alive." He let the silence stretch out for a terse few heartbeats. "You say they will not let me leave regardless of what happens. I assume that means you might as well tell me what it was that I felt."
"I… suppose it does, yes." Something in Londo's posture relaxed fractionally; after a moment, he lowered himself onto the bench beside G'Kar. Up close, the ravages of age were even clearer than they were in the throne room. Londo's cheeks were limp and sagging, the whites of his eyes clouded with red, and with every breath he took, something wet and ugly-sounding rattled in his chest. But his eyes were alert and clear. "If I tell you, you may never speak of what you know. I believe they will spare you as long as you remain silent, but if you ever tell anyone else, that person's life would be forfeit as well as your own. Do you understand me?" At G'Kar's nod of consent, Londo leaned forward and peeled back the heavy white scarf he'd worn around his neck.
It is called a Keeper," Londo said, with a calm that struck G'Kar as bordering the surreal, given what he was seeing. There was something on Londo's shoulder, grey and shapeless and unspeakably, indeniably wrong. As Londo spoke, it shivered and its one red eye turned on G'Kar, blinking slowly. "They can choose to remain invisible when they wish," Londo explained. "I have asked it to show itself to you. It controls me. Not directly, nor can it read my mind, but it has… ways to force me to do its bidding. It, in turn, is controlled by a species known as the Drakh. You have heard the name before, I take it?"
"Yes," G'Kar muttered, feeling ill. "It was the Drakh who released the nanovirus on Earth." He swallowed, caught between shock, loathing and rage. "How long have you carried this creature? Since…"
"Since the day before I became Emperor," Londo said. He was having difficulty meeting G'Kar's eyes. "When I came to say goodbye to you… I carried it. As did the Regent before me. The Drakh forced him to order the attacks on Alliance shipping lines, and later to drop the defense screens when the Narn and Drazi fleets arrived." He tucked down his chin and whispered something. The air around the Keeper seemed to ripple, and then it vanished as if it had never been there at all.
G'Kar struggled to control his reaction. If Londo had been in the Drakh's power for so long, it would explain a great deal – like why he had been so adamant about sending them all away before his coronation. It would also mean Londo had been living inside a nightmare for too long to even contemplate. "But… that was fifteen years ago," G'Kar said feebly. "I would have thought you would have been able to rebuild some of your world since then, but the devastation –"
"– is unspeakable. I know. Would you believe me if I told you you have come on one of the good days, G'Kar?" Londo' voice had turned bitter. "On a bad one, it seems like this entire part of the city is in flames. The work of Resistance cells, attempting to drive their point home. It has been like this for the past two years. Ever since my… associates were reckless enough to assassinate the Resistance leader."
"I did not think your people would be of the type to start a rebellion." G'Kar regretted the words as soon as he'd spoken them. Subject any world to enough misery, and of course its people would rebel. Even as spineless a people as the Centauri used to be… but might not be anymore, it seemed.
"Ah, but that was the Drakh's mistake as well, you see?" Londo said. "They believed they had crippled the Resistance, but instead they turned the entire planet against me. Even the military was on the verge of rebelling – they are common people, tied to the common cause more than to the Royal court; not like the Imperial guards who serve for life. For a moment, I actually considered allowing the military to take over, for all the good it would do. But there are Drakh outside the palace grounds as well, and they have too many hostages against me. I sent Vir away, but he is not the only one. Timov is still here, and there are… others, whom I have sworn to protect. Instead I assembled the military leaders and told them to take their men and leave. My… associates had not expected that. It was quite a spectacle, I must say. Especially when I then disbanded the Centaurum as well." Somehow, talking had seemed to energize Londo; the despair on his face had made way for a grim determination.
"This Resistance… They haven't tried to storm the palace?" G'Kar asked. It was inevitable, or so he would think.
"Tried but failed, repeatedly. This palace was built to withstand sieges, so we are relatively safe here. As safe as we are powerless, in fact. Ironically, the Drakh now rely on me for protection – while I, of course, rely on them for not destroying everyone and everything I hold dear. They claim they have planted fusion bombs, but what good would it do to detonate them? It could only inflame the people further. Of course, the Drakh might simply have killed me and replaced me with another, but I rather believe this has become… personal. They wish to break me, as much they wish to break my people. That, and I have always suspected a Keeper must be taken voluntarily. I cannot imagine there are many volunteers left here, so… a fascinating stalemate, hmm? Though, of course, it cannot last."
"So, G'Kar said. "You have maneuvered the Drakh into an untenable position, but –"
"– my own position is no less untenable. Yes. I know."
G'Kar blinked. "What will you do?"
Londo harrumphed, with more vehemence than G'Kar had expected. "What can I do? Pray for a miracle, I suppose; anything to change the game. I bought my people some time, but as long as this foul creature clings to me, reporting on my every movement, then – mph." Londo cut himself off with a strangled noise of pain. G'Kar moved in instinctively, but Londo waved him off with a white-gloved hand. "It is all right. It is simply my… associates, warning me to guard my tongue. They do not like to be reminded of my defiance. They want –" He gasped and stiffened, fingers digging into the rough stone of the bench.
"Are you saying," G'Kar whispered, "the creature is doing this?" He leaned in closer, but the Keeper remained invisible no matter how much he squinted. So this was what Londo had meant when he said they had ways to control him. G'Kar swallowed down a surge of bile. "By G'Quan, Mollari… Is this what you've been enduring every day?"
"Bah, no!" Londo said, his voice a rasp. "They are merely... showing off, for your sake. It is not…" Another spasm went through him – as if the Drakh were proving a point, G'Kar thought. Londo swayed dangerously, and G'Kar steadied him with an arm around his waist. For a moment, Londo sagged against him, gasping feebly into the leather of his coat. Then he pulled away and hunched over, face averted. His shoulders were shaking.
G'Kar didn't know what made him reach out and touch Londo's back, only that he couldn't resist the impulse if he wanted to. "Mollari…"
Londo responded with a hiss of indrawn breath. "G'Kar, don't… I am an old man, foolish and weak. You shouldn't –"
"There is a difference between weakness and grief." Slowly, following an instinct he had not known he still possessed, G'Kar ran his hand down the curve of Londo's spine. Londo shuddered, but didn't pull away. "This Keeper you carry. No one else knows about it." G'Kar didn't make it a question.
"No," Londo said thickly. "Though if someone did… I do not doubt they would call it punishment well deserved."
"Some might," G'Kar admitted. "But I am not one of them. You did your penance long ago, and I have no desire to see you suffer any longer."
"For my old crimes, perhaps. I have committed many new ones, G'Kar; would you like me to list them for you?"
"If you want to," G'Kar said. "But not for my sake. Only for yours." He had never felt so much pity for anyone, yet Londo didn't sound like someone who had given up. The old cynicism was still in his voice, which was a miracle in itself, G'Kar thought. He still had so many questions – about the Drakh's plans, the meaning of the urn on Minbar – and he did not doubt Londo had many more things to tell him. But all of that could wait for now. "Look at me, Mollari," he said, his voice a whisper. "I promise you, I will not flinch from whatever you say."
One, two, three shuddering breaths, and Londo turned to face him. He was close enough G'Kar could feel his breath against his neck, coming in short, shallow gasps from between those pointed teeth. For a moment, he could swear he felt a twinge of… what, exactly? Nothing as strong as arousal, nor would he have called it – G'Quan help him – love, or need. Melancholy might be the right word. It had been so long since he had felt the warmth of a body against his. This particular body he had not touched for fifteen years, but that did not mean he had forgotten.
"Why, G'Kar." Londo's voice was strained. "I did not think I would ever see that look in your face again. Or in anyone else's, for that matter."
"Not even your wife?" G'Kar said, breathing through the effort it cost him. He could see every line in Londo's face, could see what the ravages of time had done to it, yet it no longer disturbed him.
"Timov?" Londo started to laugh, then caught himself. "There was a time when I did not care. Now that I do, I am afraid to even look. For some reason she still trusts me, but I – I cannot believe – "
"Perhaps you should look," G'Kar said, putting a palm on Londo's chest – cautiously, not touching anything that would make this more painful than it had to be. He still remembered precisely where to touch, if he wanted to. But the time for that had passed long ago. "Perhaps you'll find something you weren't expecting."
"Great Maker." Londo looked down. "I've missed you." His tone was brittle, laced with surprise. Under G'Kar's hand, his ribs rose and fell rapidly. "I always believed you would come back, you know. That you would be here… before the end."
G'Kar nodded. "Because of your dream."
Londo breathed out sharply. "You know?"
"It was one of the images that has always remained with me after I … entered your mind," G'Kar said. They had never discussed that particular experience before, and not for the first time, he wondered if it had been an error in judgment.
"But –" Londo swallowed. "The dream says we will both die here. You knew, and you still came? Why?"
G'Kar shrugged, if only to hide the turmoil in his own mind. "Does there have to be a reason? Because I was curious. Because I wanted to see how you were. Because the dream may only be a dream. Because even if it is not, I would have preferred seeing you die by my hands over never seeing you again. I have always tried to question the tasks the universe sets us, but sometimes one simply needs to have faith."
Londo's lips twitched in something that wasn't quite a smile. "With everything that has happened, you still speak of faith in the universe? You haven't changed."
"Oh, I have," G'Kar said. "But the universe is a bigger place than you and me, Mollari. Even in the face of despair, there is always something worth having faith in. Wouldn't you agree?"
"I don't know," Londo muttered. "Yes. Perhaps." He took a deep breath. "You are here, so I suppose... the universe has not done that badly by me after all."
G'Kar nodded. "I believe we both know I am not going anywhere." Somehow, the prospect did not seem nearly as terrible as it should.
Chapter 12: Timov - 2278
In which Vir raises the stakes, and Timov is forced to choose her allegiance.
"They're in bed?" Timov had never been skilled at whispering, but she still pitched her voice as low as she could. The governess – one of Lysandra's charges, young and nervous and far more serious than anyone of her age should have to be – nodded meekly, eyes on the floor. Timov resisted the urge to grab her chin and force it up with her own hands. Curse it, girl, look at me! It was no use, though. The girl was afraid of her, so snapping would do more harm than good. There had been a time where the mere act of snapping would have made her feel better, but those days were long gone.
Cautiously, she opened the door a crack. Luc and little Lyssa were fast asleep, the muted light from the hallway spilling across the twin beds. Timov watched them for a long moment. The palace was hardly a place for children, yet somehow they'd thrived during their time here. As exhausting as they were, Timov was glad for their company. Some days they were all that kept her going.
Londo, uncharacteristically, had refused to see the children at all. Simply convincing him to take them in had been agony, even after Lysandra had come to plead in person. Lysandra herself still lived at the shelter, but that situation was fast becoming precarious. Rebel groups had turned half the neighborhood into a warzone, and the house was far too close to the palace grounds. Lysandra had refused to leave, however. Just like she'd refused to cut ties with Timov entirely. It had earned her the scorn of some of the resistance members, who were calling her a weakling and a traitor; only a few months ago, a group of them had tried to torch the shelter, refugees and all. Lysandra had barely discovered the fire in time. She'd turned up at the palace gates the next day, the children in tow.
Timov couldn't blame her. In Lysandra's place, she would have done the same: principles be damned, the palace still seemed the safest haven for any of them to be. Lysandra hadn't lost any of her principles, but she had grown milder with age. Not that she had picked a good time for that. She was trying to walk the line between her family and her people, but these days that line had shrunk to the width of a sharpened blade.
Londo, too, was walking a fine line. Not that Timov understood how or why. She still didn't know why he had refused for so long to take in the children, any more than she knew what had made him change his mind. All he had told her, in a tired whisper, was something about the danger not being that much greater inside the palace than out. If that made any sense, Timov had yet to find it. But it didn't matter. Luc and Lyssa were here, and they were safe. For now.
Timov shut the door again, taking care not to let it slam closed behind her. She should try to get some sleep as well, but instead she found herself drifting towards the throne room. She froze at the sound of raised voices from inside.
"Where is he, Londo?" That was Vir, sounding frantic. He'd come over from Babylon 5 a few days ago, but Timov had barely seen him since he arrived. "He's here, he has to be! G'Kar told me – he swore to me he'd come to you, and that he'd contact me as soon as he could. So why haven't I heard from him in months? Was he captured? What happened to him? Did he –"
"Vir." Londo's voice was steel. "You are being ridiculous. If G'Kar were here, I would have shown him every courtesy. I am telling you: he did not come."
"I don't –" Vir began, breathing hard. "I don't believe you." Head whirling, Timov pressed back against the wall. She hadn't heard about any recent visitor to the palace – least of all a Narn, least of all this Narn – but the moment Vir voiced his doubt, she could sense it as well. Londo was lying. He wasn't even trying very hard to hide it.
"I see," Londo said. Timov could hear the effort behind it. "So you are calling me a liar now?"
"I don't know what to call you… or what to believe." For a moment, Vir's anger seemed to deflate. "Londo, you keep telling me how you have everything under control, how you don't need me here, don't even want me here, and – you can't expect me to just take your word for it. Not when every single thing I've seen here contradicts you. Don't you see? It's chaos out there! We could be looking at civil war here, and I just – I don't even know if you're still trying."
"Oh, I am trying, Vir." Londo's voice was raw. "Do not delude yourself. I am trying harder than you know."
"To do what? Londo, the people want your head on a pike! The only reason why they haven't tried harder to get their wish is because they've been too busy starving and dying! I could help, if you let me. I still have friends outside the palace. It's not too late. I know you remember Lady Morella's prophecy. I'm still not sure if I ever believed it, but maybe it's time… Maybe if you'd step down willingly, I could convince the people –"
"You could convince the people?" Londo spat, or tried to: a spasm of coughing transformed his rage into a struggle for air. Timov could not begin to guess what prophecy Vir was referring to; for a moment, she felt galled that Londo had never told her. Then Londo's coughs trailed off, and she had to strain to catch his words. "I do not need your help. And I most certainly do not intend to step down. If you cannot say anything useful, then leave! Go back to Babylon 5 if you wish, but stay away from me!"
This wasn't anger she was hearing, Timov realized. It was fear. Couldn't Vir hear it? Of course, Vir hadn't spent the past fifteen years trading barbs with Londo the way she had, but still…
"I won't leave," Vir retorted, even as Timov edged closer to the door. "I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt, but this has gone on long enough. Maybe you no longer care, but I do." His voice rose shrilly. "If I have to take matters into my own hands, then that's how it's going to be, but there's no way I'll let you –"
"Out." The word emerged as a growl. It was low and hoarse and desperate, and it made every hair on Timov's skin stand on end. "Get out," Londo repeated. "And until you've finished talking treason, do not come back! Do you hear me? Do not dare to show your face to me again!"
There was a sudden crack, followed by a gasp which Timov echoed reflexively. Then hurried footsteps came clattering across the tiles. She stepped forward just in time to intercept Vir, who was storming out of the room, coat flapping behind him.
"Lady Timov?" Vir did a double-take. His cheeks were a blotchy crimson, his eyes wild. "Oh. Oh, gods. You heard all that?" When Timov nodded, he exhaled shakily. "That noise, it was nothing. Well. Not nothing, but I just – I threw my glass at him. Not even at him, really, at the floor, but I was so angry, I don't know why I lost control like that. I'm sorry. I – I should leave."
Timov caught him with a hand on his arm. "Don't apologize, Vir. I've been known to throw worse things than glasses at Londo's head, and I've never felt guilty, so neither should you." She was only half joking. "Come. You look like you could use a drink." Without waiting for an answer, she tugged him away and towards the small sitting room that had become her customary refuge at night. Sometimes Londo would join her for drinks, although that happened less and less often. Most nights, she would simply sit there alone, trying to order her thoughts before going to sleep.
She pointed Vir to a chair, then examined the contents of the liquor cabinet for something suitably potent. Vir held his liquor well enough these days. After a moment, she decided against brivari; better for Vir not to be reminded of Londo with every sip. Instead she poured them both a goblet of strong, red wine.
She handed Vir his drink before sitting down herself. "You said something about a prophecy. What did you mean?" Perhaps she was being too direct, but better that than dawdling. Vir was hardly a fragile flower.
"It was… a long time ago," Vir said, staring into his glass. "Did you know the Lady Morella? Emperor Turhan's third wife?"
"I met her once, not long after Londo married me." A striking woman, far too intelligent for the life she'd ended up in. They said that while he lived, Turhan had done everything to keep the truth about her powers a secret. Timov could well imagine it. All of it to protect her, to be sure, but Morella had not given the impression of wanting to being handled with velvet gloves. Even then, she'd had a way of pointing out uncomfortable truths: Timov still remembered Morella's expression when Londo had introduced her, calling her his beloved wife. "That was before she was known as a Seer, though. She only went public after Turhan died."
Vir nodded. "Londo asked her to See for him. Like I said, I - I'm still not sure if I believe it, but she said one of us would be Emperor after the other was dead." He raised his glass with a jerk, taking a long swallow as if to drown the memory. "I don't even know why I mentioned it just now. To get through to Londo, I suppose. I know he's always believed in prophecies, so I thought it might make him listen."
"Oh, he listened." Timov sipped her own drink a little less sparingly than she'd intended. "Rather too well, I would say. I haven't seen Londo this agitated in months, so you must have done something right."
"Yes, but…" Vir slumped back against the pillows. "You heard what he said about G'Kar, about not needing any help… It all seemed so wrong. Maybe I'm being paranoid, maybe G'Kar never did make it here, but Londo's piling up one half-truth after another, and I don't understand why. It scares me. He could at least tryto reach out to the people, before the rebels manage to sneak in and slit his throat while he's sleeping. But instead he's just…"
"Waiting," Timov finished for him. "I know. For what it's worth, Vir, I can't imagine G'Kar would be in the palace without me having heard." Something niggled about those words, but she ignored it; pressing down her unease was something she had become all too skilled at with time. "But you're right. Londo worries me too. Not that long ago, I asked him: what do you think you'll accomplish, barricading yourself behind the palace walls? What are you waiting for? 'A chance','he said. What does that even mean?"
Vir shook his head wearily. "He had a chance to win the people for him, but now… he has nothing. Centauri Prime is nothing. We can't even defend ourselves if we have to. The fleet is in shambles, we don't even have an army left. He's given up, Timov. Either that, or he's just stopped caring. Londo isn't a cruel person, but that doesn't mean he can't tolerate cruelty. I know what he's capable of. I thought he'd changed, but maybe I'm deluding myself. Maybe I care about him too much to see the kind of person he's become."
"He's tired. Like I am." The words were out before she realized. But they were true. She felt for Londo, not because she was that convinced he was right, but because she couldn't imagine he had stopped caring. She could see it in the lines of his face, in the look of despair when he thought she wasn't watching. She knew how tired he was, because she felt it too. "He's still fighting, Vir." She leaning over to rub her eyes with her hands. Even with what little she'd drank, the sudden movement made her dizzy. "And I know you do too. Please, tell me how you've been. I've seen so little of you since you arrived here."
As changes of subject went, it was pitifully transparent, but Vir indulged her anyway. "I know. I've been seeing some people outside the palace, getting a feel for what's going on. I saw Lennier just this morning. I couldn't believe how well he's settled in. He's lonely, I know that, but he's handling it better than I thought he would. Did you know he's been making a name for himself as a healer?" Vir was babbling just to settle his nerves now, Timov knew. "Oh, and Lysandra sends her regards. She said she misses the children, and so far the rebels have left her alone, but she isn't sure if it will last. She still has many supporters with the people, though. And I've been making some friends of my own."
"I see," Timov said. The wine churned uneasily in her stomach. "Vir. Tell me, honestly. Do you want to rule?"
To his credit, Vir didn't just blurt out a denial, as blunt as the question had been. Instead he let out a shaky sigh. "I don't know. I have no ambition, but if push comes to shove, I – I think I could."
He could, Timov thought. If she had to put her money on anyone, it would be Vir – even though this was not a life she would have chosen for him. Neither would he, it seemed. The color had drained from his face, and his hand was unsteady when he put down his glass. The worst rulers are always those with ambition. They could do much worse than having Vir in charge. And she hardly believed in prophecies; as symbols, perhaps, but not as truths that were carved in stone. So why was she terrified anyway?
As tired as she was, sleep came fitfully that night. She didn't dream, but wherever she looked, the shadows seemed to be moving. Still, she must have dozed off eventually, because when the knocking began, she woke with a start.
"My lady?" A pause, leaving her just enough time to rub the sleep from her eyes. Then another sharp rap of knuckles on wood. "My lady, you must come! The emperor has summoned you."
The Emperor? Since when does Londo summon me at night? Shivering, she wrapped herself in a robe, then padded unsteadily towards the door. Two guards stood in the corridor, each attempting to look more grave than the other. There was no need. Her hearts were already in her throat.
Even in sandals, her footsteps carried eerily in the empty hallways. She had expected the guards to take her straight to Londo, but instead they led her to Vir's chambers instead. The reason, when she entered, was clear enough.
His breathing was ragged – harsh, frantic gasps punctuating the silence, cutting through any qualm she might have had about entering uninvited. Vir was curled up on the huge four-poster bed, the sheets in disarray. The room smelled vaguely of sickness and sweat.
"Timov?" Vir stirred when she bent over him, then made a strangled noise of pain between his teeth. "I can't-"
"Shh." Somehow, her hand was in his hair and stroking it gently. Great Maker. He was burning up. There was a glass of water on the nightstand, which she took and offered him just to feel useful. "Here. You should try to drink."
"I can't," Vir repeated, between clenched teeth. "Can't keep it down. I tried, I just –" He panted feebly. "I need – help. I can't – breathe right."
Her hearts twisted at the helplessness in his voice, but she forced herself to consider the options. All in all, there were far too few. The court physician was long gone. Some of the guards were trained in triage, and they had a well-stocked supply of medicines, but what good would those do when she didn't recognize Vir's symptoms? Perhaps Londo would know - but where was Londo anyway? "Vir, did you send the guards to find me? Does Londo know?"
"The Emperor knows, my lady," one of the guards interrupted. "It was him who ordered us to find you. You are to take Ambassador Cotto to a hospital; a carriage is waiting outside. You are to leave quickly, under cover of darkness. But he wants you to go see him first."
"Go see him?" she said, puzzled. "Why won't he come here?" When the guard remained silent, the twinge of unease in her stomach intensified. "Vir - do you have any idea of what caused this? Did you feel ill before? Did you eat or drink something we didn't? Did you –"
Vir pointed feebly at the dresser. A bottle was on top of it, about three-quarters full. "A guard brought it to me. I thought –" Vir's breath wheezed in his throat. "I thought it was Londo's way – of apologizing. But I don't think – that was his intention – after all."
Timov took the bottle, uncorked and sniffed it. Brivari. A fine vintage, from Londo's personal stock. "I don't understand..." she began, then stopped herself. "Vir, no. You don't really think..."
The pain in Vir's face was answer enough.
She was trembling by the time she reached Londo's chambers - with rage or exhaustion, she couldn't say. It didn't matter. A pair of guards were flanking the door, but they let her in without a word.
Londo was at his desk, his back towards her. Timov slammed down the bottle in front of him. "This. You did this?" She could barely get the words out.
"Please, Timov." Londo sounded breathless. "It is not your style to ask questions you know the answer to. You know I did it. Let us not mince words."
"Why?" She felt dizzy. "Have you lost your mind? Vir could do so much for you, if you let him. Why make him your enemy? Why risk his life?" She couldn't even say what appalled her more: what Londo had done, or the utter lack of remorse he seemed to be showing. "Get up, curse it! Look at me. You owe me that much, at least." Before I walk away from here.
"I owe you... somewhat more than that, I think." Londo's eyes were fixed rigidly on the curtains in front of him. "I cannot stand up, however. I am... rather too drunk to do so. But you may ask anything, and I will answer what I can."
"You've been drinking? Now?" Somehow, that flimsy detail was the one that stuck in her mind. With an effort, she steadied her breathing. "You poisoned Vir." Just saying it made her feel queasy. "Because of what he said today? That if you won't fix things, he will do it for you? Vir would never betray you. He is your oldest friend."
"My oldest living friend. We both know what has happened to the others." Between one breath and the next, Londo's voice had turned raw. "Which answers your question: I would very much like to keep him alive. Except he has suddenly decided to make himself a target, and I would rather see him alive and loathing me than see him lose his head, or worse."
"You set this up?" Timov said, stunned. "For whose benefit?"
Londo shook his head sharply. "What is it they say on Earth? 'I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you'? Never ask me that question if you value your life."
Timov bit her lip, struggling to make sense of it. She could not imagine who could want Vir dead, yet somehow Londo believed it; she'd known him long enough to tell truth from lies. That made him either a madman or Vir's only hope. Despite her anger, she actually found herself considering the latter. "Your guard said to take Vir to a hospital," she said. "But there are only a few working ones left, and who is to say if they can even help us? Vir's is in a bad way. If he –"
"Ah. This will help." Londo opened a drawer, retrieving a small vial from inside. "You did not truly think I would poison someone without having an antidote on hand? I am an old man, not an idiot. Give him this within the next few hours, and he will be all right. But wait until you are outside; we must put on a good show for whatever eyes are watching." He pressed the vial into her hand. "A hospital will not be needed. Simply take him somewhere safe, but do not tell me where."
For a drunk man, Londo sounded chillingly lucid. Timov nodded, racking her mind about where to go. Not the shelter, which was far too exposed; to one of Vir's close friends, perhaps. Possibly Lennier. Vir trusted him implicitly, and he was not Centauri, which made him about as neutral a party as one could find. She put the vial into her robe pocket. "When Vir recovers, what do I say?" It seemed she had already made her decision. Gods help me, I must be as mad as him.
Londo stifled a cough behind his hand. "Tell him... that the palace gates will be closed to him if he tries to return. Apart from that, say whatever you wish. It is out of my hands in any case. But do not dull his anger. He will need it if he is to get the people at his side. Better if they believe I betrayed him... and for them to believe it, Vir must too."
Timov stared. "You want him to take the throne from you?"
"Not now. But when the time is right. Supposing... it ever will."
"It will," Timov said, suddenly feeling more hopeful than she had in weeks. She had purpose again. Vir needed her. Yes, she would be misleading him, but she could not deny Londo seemed to know what he was doing. And, the Maker help her, Londo needed her too. "What about me?" She steeled herself for the answer. "If I go with him and come back... will the gates be closed to me too?"
For the first time that night, she saw Londo falter. "No. No, of course not." He sagged and closed his eyes. "You surprise me, Timov. After tonight... I did not think you would wish to come back at all."
"You stupid man," she said, and left him there.
Chapter 13: Londo - 2278
In which Vir is shocked; Timov has the last word; G'Kar makes a promise; and Londo prepares in the only way he can.
Dawn hadn't come today.
Oh, of course the sun had come out. He could see it through the lone unshuttered window in his chambers, the one through which he'd been staring all night and most of the day. But dawn was more than just the sun coming up. It meant another day, and the promise of more days and nights to come – which, for him, was a prospect as unwanted as it was unlikely. He could not begin to guess how many days he had left: a few, perhaps, or perhaps not even this one. The thought did not distress him nearly as much as it should have. Naturally, if Timov was here and able to read his mind, she would have told him to stop being dramatic. But Timov wasn't here, so he could indulge as much as he wanted. It might be the last chance he got.
He hadn't slept; not with the city outside in flames again. Admittedly, ever since the rebels had pulled back from the palace, that was a less common sight than it used to be. Londo had wondered if some of the change was Vir's doing. He knew Vir and Lysandra had been rallying the people, and if they'd managed to placate some of the rebel groups, that could only be a good thing. Last night, though, explosions had rung through the city, and today the smoke was so thick Londo could barely see the sky. It seemed he was not the only one with a flair for the dramatic. The universe had one as well.
The boy had arrived yesterday. It had been Shiv'kala who brought him the news, a hard glint of triumph in his eyes. "The boy has come," was all he'd said. "His Keeper led him here." There had been no need to ask who he meant. There was only one boy who mattered to the Drakh, and his name was David Sheridan. The boy I doomed. Londo might not have had much choice when the Drakh sent him to Minbar, bearing the urn with the Keeper inside, but that didn't make him any less guilty. Or any less likely to forget.
He tensed when his own Keeper hissed into his ear. As basic as its intelligence was, Londo had learned to understand every nuance of every noise it made, and this particular hiss could mean only one thing: its master was here. Sure enough, Shiv'kala stepped out of the shadows. Londo felt his chest tighten. He had been forbidden to see David until the boy had served his purpose – to lure his parents to Centauri Prime – so if Shiv'kala was here, it could only mean one thing.
"Delenn is here," Londo said. At least the Drakh had the decency to look startled. "Oh, it was not so hard to guess," he went on. "She is the boy's mother; she considers herself more expendable than the Alliance president; and she is Delenn, of course. I never doubted that she would come for him, and quickly." Londo swallowed down something that felt strangely like pride. Outside, the sun was dipping towards the horizon, but the light trickling through the smoke looked more eerie than beautiful. He couldn't have wished for a more fitting backdrop. "I assume my guards have apprehended her, as I ordered? Then I will see the boy now. You promised me you would not harm him, but you'll understand if I do not take your word for it."
To his surprise, Shiv'kala didn't even protest. "We are… keen to inspect the boy as well. You may see him, but you must take me with you."
The palace was a maze of hidden passages and doorways, so it was simple enough to reach David's cell unseen. Londo dismissed the guard posted at the door, unlocked it and called Shiv'kala in. For a moment, all he saw was darkness. Then his eyes adapted, and he blinked down at the unmoving shape on the floor.
"He is unconscious," Shiv'kala said. "We told his Keeper to sedate him, so he would not harm himself. The boy would have taken his own life rather than be imprisoned. He is a fierce one."
He takes after his mother, Londo thought, again with that odd surge of pride. He took a few steps, looking down at the boy in horrified fascination. The headbone left no doubt about his Minbari heritage: more slender than Delenn's, it sat like a thin grey crown atop his head. From this distance, Londo could not make out the boy's – David's, he reminded himself; he could not make out David's features, let alone tell if he resembled either one of his parents. But he was breathing, his ribcage rising and falling rhythmically. That was a start.
"Why him?" Londo said. He couldn't take his eyes off David if he wanted to. "You never did tell me. Why not give a Keeper to Sheridan or Delenn, instead of drawing them here through the boy?" He had his suspicions, of course, but so far they were just that.
"This was the only way," Shiv'kala said. For once, the Drakh seemed quite inclined to talk – distracted, Londo guessed, by the prospect of what they would do to Delenn now they had her. "A Keeper cannot be forced on an unwilling subject. It must be… accepted, for the merging to succeed. As you so eagerly accepted yours. There is one exception: the mind of a child is pliant enough to be coerced. Even a child as well-trained as this one. Did you know he flew a fighter here single-handedly?" A strange hunger had crept into Shiv'kala's tone. "The boy has spirit. No doubt he will fight well before he dies."
It took a few seconds for the words to seep through, but when they did, it was all Londo could do not to scream. "We had an agreement," he said, hoarse. "In exchange for my cooperation, you would order the Keeper to release the boy and wipe his memory. You said, once you had Delenn, there was no need for him to die."
"We lied. He will die – not because he needs to, but because we wish to see him dead. Preferably with his mother watching. It would give us… great satisfaction." Shiv'kala tilted his head, eyes narrowing in a way that made Londo's blood run cold. "Surely you appreciate the pleasure of… how would you call it? Entertainment? We have been without it for many years. So why would we indulge you? Why keep our word, when we can have the boy killed anyway and taste the sweetness of revenge?"
Londo took a strained breath. Part of him had been expecting this: there had been no guarantee of the Drakh honoring their promise, not when he had so little leverage against them. Which made him weak, but not helpless. There were other ways to win than by sheer strength. "Because… there is one thing you would enjoy more than revenge," he said, choosing his words carefully. A single wrong one could ruin it all. "A challenge. You do not believe I can save the boy, or that I could get him off-world without your help. You are convinced I would fail. But you would still enjoy watching me try."
"Perhaps." Shiv'kala's eyes glittered. "We do not think you have a chance, this is true. You have a ship, but no one to fly it. The boy will not be able to, I assure you; not after his Keeper is done erasing his memory. And you have no allies outside the palace. We, on the other hand, have both." A slow, predatory smile found its way to Shiv'kala's lips. "Very well. We accept the challenge." Almost absently, he flicked his hand.
Repulsed, Londo looked on as the boy's Keeper became visible, its one red eye opening wide. For a moment it remained motionless, but then it shuddered, tendrils squirming. David moaned hoarsely, as if a scream was stuck halfway down his throat, and when the convulsions began it was all Londo could do not to turn away, or vomit, or both. As it was, he forced himself to watch, just like he had watched the destruction of Narn and the whip cracking across G'Kar's skin, and later, his own world going up in flame. It couldn't have been more than minutes, but it felt like a lifetime until the Keeper withdrew.
"It is done." Shiv'kala bent and picked up the creature, stroking it with one long, scaled finger. Londo suppressed a shudder of disgust. "The boy will not remember anything, just as we told you. You have one hour to attempt whatever pitiful plan you have thought up. Then he dies regardless." With a last contemptuous look, the Drakh vanished before Londo could reply.
Londo took a few moments to check David's breathing: it was frantic, but evening out. He would have stayed longer, but that was no option. Instead he told the guard to keep a close watch on the boy, then hurried out of the prison compound, resisting the urge to stop at Delenn's cell. His guards had been questioning her all through the night: about the Minbari planetary defenses, key persons in the Alliance, a thousand other things the Drakh wanted to know. She had, of course, told them nothing. Based on what he had gathered, she was not aware her son had a Keeper; she simply believed David had been captured in order to lure her in. That was something of a complication. If his plan was to work, he would have to find a way to tell her the truth. But all of that could wait. The boy had to come first.
Back in his chambers, Londo retrieved the comm code Timov had given him. For emergencies, she had said. So far he had never used it, although, truth be told, he had been tempted on many a brivari-soaked night. This time he was sober, and would have to be for a while longer: when the time came, every minute free of his Keeper would be precious. Sobriety did nothing to settle his nerves. As he approached the terminal, punching in the code with shaky fingers, he could barely even think over the pounding of his hearts. If he is not there, or refuses to speak with me, I have lost.
For another few heartbeats, the screen showed nothing but static. Then the face he had hoped to see – the face part of him had been dreading to see – materialized, and it was all Londo could do not to sag in relief.
"Londo?" Vir's expression was a punch to the stomach: shock, pain and anger, all wrapped in one. "Gods, I – how did you –"
"Find out where you were? I didn't. Timov gave me a code to reach you, which I used, nothing more." Keeping his voice steady was proving to be a struggle, as was meeting Vir's eyes. "I need your help, Vir," he said softly. "I swear, that is the only reason for this call."
"My help," Vir repeated. His tone had acquired a steely edge. "I just – I don't believe this. You poison me, have Timov take me away so you don't have to face me yourself, then barge into my life again asking for help, and you're not even going to apologize, are you? And you know what's even worse? Not just that you take it for granted that I'd help you, but that there's a part of me that still cares for you enough that I would. That's how stupid I am, so –" There was a noise from off-screen, and Vir spun towards it, raising a hand. "No. No, it's fine. I can handle this." He closed his eyes briefly, one hand splayed across his chest. When he opened them, he looked almost composed again. "All right. Tell me, before I change my mind."
Londo nodded, feeling as unsteady as Vir had looked a moment ago. "A life is at stake, Vir. I no longer have the resources to save it myself, but I was hoping you could." He trailed off, waiting for Vir to respond, afraid to reveal more than he should. For the first time, he registered Vir's surroundings: a dreary room, as cramped as it was Spartan, with uneven walls and chunks of plaster crumbling from the ceiling. At least it seemed clean enough. The only piece of furniture was a tattered cabinet, strewn with an assortment of objects: candles, crystals, a tapestry weaved in a triangular pattern. All of them struck him as strangely familiar, although he couldn't put his finger on why.
"Whose life?" Vir said, still looking torn. His face darkened. "Don't tell me Timov outlived her usefulness too."
That cut rather too close to the bone, but Vir was nothing if not entitled. "No," Londo said, "nothing like that. It is… no one you know personally, although you may have heard his name. He is important, Vir. I need someone to get him off-world, but it will not be easy. My… adversaries want him, badly, and they will not let him go without a fight."
Vir's look wavered between anger and pity. Somewhere in the background, another voice murmured something, but Londo could not make out the words. Vir did, though. He shook his head. "Londo, whatever trouble you're in, don't cover it by blaming it on some elusive enemy. You need to come clean with me, or I can't help you. At least tell me who it is you want to save."
Londo found his hands balling themselves into fists. He thinks every word I say is a lie; either that, or that I have started to believe in my own fabrications. It was no use stalling. "His name is David Sheridan."
"What?" Vir said, at the same time that someone outside Londo's field of vision gasped sharply. Vir turned away, distress plain on his face.
"Vir?" Londo raised his voice. "Is someone there with you?" He cursed himself for not being more careful. The Drakh had operatives among the population; a single word in the wrong ears, and he'd be finished before he had even begun.
"David Sheridan," Vir breathed, ignoring the question. "You mean… Delenn and Sheridan's son? I – I don't understand. Have you been in contact with them? How –"
"That does not matter now, Vir. He is here, his life is in danger, and every minute I stand here convincing you is another minute lost. Simply believe that I wish to save him, and that there are others who would stop me. Can you trust me as far as that?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Yes. I –" Vir's voice caught for a moment before he steeled himself. "To answer your other question: yes. There is someone else here. Someone who might be able to help, I think." He exchanged a look with someone off screen and nodded tersely. In the silence that followed, a figure stepped into view.
Londo registered Minbari before he noticed anything else, and suddenly he knew why the objects in the house had looked so familiar. Minbari artifacts; of course. And the man at Vir's side was no less familiar. His face was thin, the eyes haunted, but the features were quite unmistakable. "Lennier?" he muttered. No. This was impossible. "How can you… Did you –" Come here with Delenn, he almost asked, but stopped himself just in time. Vir had seemed truly shocked at the mention of Delenn's son, and so did Lennier, now that he looked more closely. Under the headbone he had gone so pale that, for a moment, Londo wondered how prone Minbari were to passing out.
"Lennier has been here for a long time," Vir said. "He was looking for a place to live, so I got him passage here, that's all there is to it. I've been staying with him these past few months. But all of that doesn't matter. Londo, I'm still having trouble accepting all this. You have to swear to me it's not a trick."
"No trick," Londo said. "Please, Vir. As painful as the irony is – apart from you, there is no one else I can trust."
"I will do it," Lennier said. His voice sounded ragged, as if from years of disuse. "I will take David Sheridan off-world, if I can. Or give my life trying."
Vir breathed out sharply. "Lennier, I… I understand why you're saying this, but –"
"I'm aware there are risks. And I do not trust him –" Lennier gestured at the screen, "– any more than you do, but in this case I believe he is telling the truth. It explains everything: why I am on this world, what fate has led me here to do. I once told Delenn there would come a day when I would redeem myself in her eyes, and this is that day, Vir. There is no doubt in my heart." He met Londo's eyes levelly. "I will come, as long as you do not reveal my presence here to anyone. That is my condition. I believe you'd find it acceptable."
"I do. You have my word." Relief washed over him, strong enough he had to stop for a moment just to breathe past it. "I take it you will need a ship?"
"No," Lennier said. "My own ship is still hidden nearby. I have not piloted it for some time, but it is operational, and it will serve better than any Centauri ship could."
"Good," Londo said, struggling to ignore the pain in Vir's face. I robbed him of our friendship, and now of Lennier's as well. "If you come to the palace gates, I will tell my guards to deliver the boy to you. You have thirty minutes, so come quickly. After that, you will be on your own."
Lennier's only reply was a curt nod, but when he turned to Vir he wavered briefly. "I must go. I'm sorry. I will contact you as soon as I am able. Thank you, for – for –" His voice cracked.
"It's all right. Go on; we'll talk again soon. Hurry." Vir's voice held that tone Londo knew all too well: the one that meant he was trying to be strong, even if he was holding it together by a thread. Londo averted his eyes, acutely aware he was intruding on a private moment. There was a pause, then hurried footsteps, replaced by Vir releasing a shuddery breath.
"So." A long silence. "You got what you wanted. I - I just hope you know what you're doing, Londo, because if this is another ploy to get to me, I swear I'll –"
"Vir." He had to say it. If he didn't, he might never have another chance. "I do regret what I had to do to you; I was trying to save your life, not throw it away. That said –" He raised a hand even as Vir opened his mouth. "That said, I know you have not been idle either. You and Lysandra, you have been preparing a coup, have you not? The term 'bloodless' has been coined, I am sure, but that does not mean –"
"Londo..." Vir had gone bone-white. That he wasn't already protesting was answer enough.
So it is true. Londo had not been sure until that moment. He didn't know whether to feel relieved or betrayed or both, only that it took all his strength to project even a veneer of control. "Vir, you must listen. I know you believe many things of me. You believe, for instance, I would not approve of your plotting to wrest the throne from your Emperor, but you are wrong. I do approve. As long as you wait for the proper time, which will be soon, much sooner than you think. Our people are counting on you. Be ready. Be strong." He cut off the connection before Vir could reply.
The full weight of it hit him only when the screen blanked out. His chest was burning, and his legs felt so weak he thought they might fail him, but he forced himself to take shallow breaths until it passed. Then he sat and poured himself a glass of brivari, trying to force the memory of Vir out of his head. He had no time for weakness. Not now.
He called in his guards first, ordering them to free David and take him to Lennier at the front gate. In an impulse, he told them to alert Delenn as well; omitting the details, of course, simply telling her David had escaped the palace. He owed her that much. Then he sent for Timov. And then he prepared, in the only way he could.
He was halfway through his first bottle when they brought him the news: John Sheridan had been captured as well. No one knew how he'd entered the palace, and in all truth Londo did not care. Oh, he played his part well enough to Sheridan's face, but his hearts weren't in it. He simply showed Sheridan the destruction outside, taking a small, ugly pleasure in the shock on the man's face, before ordering his guards to take him away. Let him have a few moments with Delenn before endgame started. The Maker knew they would need all their courage for what lay ahead.
Once Sheridan was gone, Londo thought about Shiv'kala. The Drakh hadn't shown himself at all since this started. Perhaps that was a good sign, a sign that they were going to give Londo a fighting chance – or perhaps Lennier and his precious cargo were being blown out of the sky right now, and it was only a matter of time before Shiv'kala came to gloat. Not that it did him any good to dwell on that. He had done what he could for David, as he would for Delenn and Sheridan. The only thing he needed was time.
The brivari was working. Londo drank until his Keeper drifted off, and then he drank more, until his head was spinning. There was no way to know if it would be enough. The longest he had ever been free of the Keeper was a few hours, but that was years ago, before it had grown accustomed to alcohol. These days, he would be lucky to manage one hour. Perhaps not even that.
The fate of a world, decided by one man's capacity for holding his liquor. Phrased like that, it was almost too ironic to bear.
He had not left it all to fate, of course. Over the years, he'd made what preparations he could. One of them was a letter to Vir, compiled over many hours no less drunken than this one: pages upon pages of rambling words that he was not even sure were coherent. But the Drakh had never found it, which had been the point. Londo went to retrieve it now, every step an effort; it was in a hidden compartment that Cartagia, of all people, had told him about. Sick to his stomach, his vision blurring, he still forced himself to fill another page, explaining what had happened the past twenty-four hours. He couldn't think. He could barely even breathe with the weight of it all. When he re-read what he had written, it was all he could do not to tear the whole page and start over, but that was a luxury he did not have. This would have to do.
Timov arrived in a flutter of robes, as flustered as he had ever seen her. "Londo, what's going on? All day I've been seeing guards running back and forth, shouting at me to stay in my chambers, and then suddenly they burst in saying you called for me. What is it? What's wrong?"
"Everything." Londo straightened, pulling himself up by the throne's armrests. "Though, if the universe has any shred of decency, perhaps not for much longer." He held out a hand, beckoning Timov closer. "I wish I could explain, but there is no time. Instead I must ask you once more to trust me. Even if –" His chest spasmed and he coughed violently, nearly spitting up what he had drunk. He fumbled for a handkerchief, dabbing at his mouth with unsteady hands. "Even if," he finished, breathless, "I never deserved what trust you gave me."
For a moment, he could see Timov waver. Then she squared her shoulders. "Londo, don't be a fool. I thought we had both grown past that." She was putting up a good front, but he could hear the doubt in her voice, trying to mask itself as ridicule. That, and she hadn't scolded him for the inebriated state he was in, even though she could hardly have missed it.
Londo leaned forward, ignoring the way the room whirled around him. "I have – kept things from you, Timov. Many things, for many years. Some to protect you, others because I was afraid of what you would think of me if you knew the truth. It is all here, though." He pointed at the stack of papers at his feet. "I wrote it down for you to read. You and Vir. You must take these to him, and make sure he reads them as well. Whatever you do, do not let Vir do anything before he has read every word. Every word. Do you hear me? I know I have no right to ask, but I –"
"Don't." Timov raised her chin, her spine so straight it looked painful. "Don't ask me to trust you only to tell me I shouldn't. If you need me to do this, I will, so don't insult me by begging for it. As if you've ever had to." She bent and picked up the papers, clutching them against her chest. When she straightened, it was all Londo could do not to reach out, but he fought down the impulse like a drowning man struggling to break the surface. There used to be so much time, and now there was none.
"Timov, I –" Do not look at her, or you are lost. "I – I wish –"
"I know." She sounded ragged; enough that Londo wondered just how much she knew. He could not do this, but he had to. The only way he could let her go was by squeezing his eyes shut, so he did exactly that – then gasped when a hand brushed his cheek. "So do I."
When he opened his eyes, she was already gone.
The door creaked in its hinges as it was falling shut, but a guard caught it before it did. "Your Majesty?" He was one of the young ones, one of the few who still seemed to care. Londo didn't know his name; he never asked his guards' names, and they had sense enough never to try to tell him. "The Sheridan boy – we took him to the gate. A Minbari came for him, just as you said."
Londo nodded. The boy's fate was out of his hands now. It all was, except for one thing, and even the outcome of that was uncertain. He would speak with Delenn and Sheridan, tell them the truth, then do what he could to help them get home. Everything else would be up to them. And to Vir, of course. After reading those pages, Vir would show up soon enough. As for what happened afterwards… Well. About that, at least, he would not have to wonder.
"Bring G'Kar…" No. "Ask G'Kar if he would come." Phrased like that, he would not refuse it. "Then return for the other prisoners, and bring them here. Quickly."
His Keeper was restless, so he drank while he waited – first by the glass, then later by the mouthful, afraid to stop but afraid he'd retch it all back up if he drank too much. G'Kar entered so quietly Londo didn't even hear him coming.
"Mollari?" It was less a word than an exhalation, tinged with enough worry that Londo wondered exactly how haggard he looked. Not that G'Kar was looking much better. No matter how well one was treated, a year in a prison cell took its toll.
"It is time," Londo said, the words spilling clumsily from his tongue. He could barely frame his thoughts; thank the Maker he didn't have to. He had talked to G'Kar right after David was captured, telling him what he intended to do. "I sent for Delenn and Sheridan. They will be here within minutes. Delenn's ship was damaged, so they will need the ship in which you came here. Do you think they will be able to fly it?"
G'Kar nodded. "They should. It is a Ranger ship, so I wouldn't expect them to have any trouble."
"Good. Do you…" Londo took an unsteady breath. "Do you wish to go with them? It may be your only chance to leave this place. You could go –"
"I told you before, I'm not going anywhere." Somehow that was all it took: a question, an answer, a look exchanged between them. "What about David? I take it he will be leaving as well?"
"The boy is already gone. A – friend came for him, made a promise he would try to get him off-world. It was a chance, so I took it." Whether it had been a fair chance, the gods only knew. "That leaves only his parents. I will tell them the truth about the Drakh, and then…" Londo jerked up his glass, taking a thoughtless swallow that almost came right back up. He hissed and breathed through it. "I have one last favor to ask of you. When it is done, I will need you …"
"To be your executioner." It came out so neutrally that, for an instant, Londo thought he had misheard. In his worn and tattered coat, a strip of fabric tied over his empty socket, G'Kar looked more like a fearsome enemy than a trusted friend, but his expression was as raw as Londo had ever seen it.
He felt dizzy. This time, the brivari was not to blame. "How did you know…"
"Because you know," G'Kar said. "Because you are not the only one to have had that dream. Or had you forgotten?"
Londo shook his head mutely. On his shoulder, his Keeper was stirring; he did not know how much time he had left. "The Drakh will stop Delenn and Sheridan, unless I…" He couldn't say it. Of course there were other ways, ways that did not involve G'Kar, and of course he had considered them all: it would be a simple thing to drink poison, even simpler to order a guard to knife him down. He didn't know why it mattered so much that it would be G'Kar, but it did. No choices left, except for this one. Suddenly, he could not even keep his balance. His glass slipped from his grasp, and it would have fallen if G'Kar hadn't moved in and steadied it for him, one gloved hand closing around his own.
"Mollari," G'Kar breathed, and then "Londo," the name as intimate as any embrace. "Do you need…" He trailed off, wavering for the first time in longer than Londo could remember.
"I'm afraid," Londo said thickly. "Great Maker, G'Kar, I am terrified." Not of death, never of death – his travesty of a life had gone on long enough – but of what he would buy in exchange for it. If he failed, the past sixteen years would have been for nothing. He did not think he could bear that thought.
"I understand." G'Kar drew back, his fingers grazing Londo's ever so briefly. " If I were in your place, I would be frightened for my people as well. But I am not in your place, and what I see is what you, perhaps, no longer can: there is still justice in this universe, and compassion. Delenn and Sheridan will not let you down."
There was some comfort in that, but not nearly enough. "It will take more than their compassion. Someone will have to take my place, unite my people. Vir could, but I barely managed to warn him in time. If he isn't ready –"
"He will be," G'Kar cut him off. "Cotto is stronger than you think."
"No," Londo said, with sudden conviction; if anyone had proven his strength of late, it had been Vir. "He is precisely as strong as I think." For Vir's sake, if no one else's, he could not fail. When his guards' footsteps echoed down the hallway, he struggled to sit up straighter. "They are here," he whispered, even as G'Kar moved to hide in the shadows.
The nod he received in return was all the comfort he needed.
Chapter 14: Vir - 2278
In which Vir learns the truth and, for once, doesn't wait for the fight to come to him.
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.
Chapter 15: Delenn - 2278
An epilogue; in which we look to the past and hope for the future.
She could not remember the last time she had felt so flustered. Not like this; not in a way that made her wish she could hide her face and wait for the world to pass her by. It was a foolish wish, of course. As Entil'Zha she was a public figure, and it mattered to people to see her act as such. More importantly, it mattered to Vir. He was trying so hard to do everything right. He might have chosen to keep his coronation a quiet affair, as Delenn knew he would have preferred, but instead he had turned it into a public event. Not a celebration; there was still far more cause for the Centauri to mourn than to celebrate. More like a memorial service. John was here for the political part, to announce Centauri Prime's reacceptance into the Alliance, but her own reasons to be here were far more personal. So were David's, who had insisted on coming. Physically, he had almost completely recovered, but the mental scars of what had happened would not fade so quickly.
The sunlight was warm on her face, but Delenn could barely feel it. In front of her, the Royal Gardens looked as damaged as they had sixteen years ago after the bombardment; Vir had refused to begin restoring them until the rebuilding effort was further along. It had not stopped him from opening the gardens to the public today. Judging by the size of the crowds, he couldn't have made a better decision. Delenn, too, would have preferred to be an anonymous spectator, but instead she was on a dais, in plain sight, with David and John on one side of her and Vir and the lady Timov on the other. John would give a speech later, and so would Vir. At the moment, the stage was held by a lone musician playing what Vir had told her was a listra, a medium-sized Centauri harp. Even amplified, the music sounded frail. It was far more subdued than she would have expected from a Centauri performance, but then, these were hard times. They'd all lost something on Centauri Prime. Even her.
When someone dies for you, it changes everything. She would know. For someone to sacrifice themselves for you was the greatest gift that existed, whether it was a stranger or a friend. Neroon had been neither, but she would never forget what he had done in the Starfire Wheel. And John… He died on Z'Ha'Dum, even if he had come back. Not a day went by that she didn't remember, or counted the time that was left to them. So, yes, she knew what it was like, and John knew it too. So did Vir, after what had happened. And now David as well. She would have given everything to spare him the experience, at least until he was older, but in the end it had not been her choice. All she could do was help him get through it. And hope she would do the same.
It had been two weeks since they escaped Centauri Prime, but she still remembered every moment. Impossibly, by the time she got back to Minbar, David had already been there, tattered but alive. She'd thought her heart would burst when they took her to him, but when she'd tried to embrace him he pushed her away. Instead he had said, voice cracking, "Mother, who was Lennier?"
He'd told her, then. How a Minbari had carried him from the Royal Palace, strapped him into a fighter and flown them out into the night. They'd been one small ship against three Centauri cruisers, but somehow Lennier had outmaneuvered them and made it to the jumpgate. Only then their luck had ran out. One of the pursuing cruisers must have hit them from behind; all David remembered was a burst of flame as Lennier's console self-destructed just as the jump point was opening. After that, he must have passed out. By the time he woke, the automatic controls had kicked in and they were well on their way to Minbar; David had flown the craft the last part of the way. Delenn could not even imagine the horror of being strapped into a fighter seat for hours, not knowing if the person with you was alive or dead. As it was, Lennier must have died almost instantly. That was a small mercy.
It was Vir who'd explained her everything, in a voice so raw with emotion she could not find it in her heart to blame him. He had kept Lennier's existence a secret, yes. But if that was what Lennier had wanted, what right did she have to question it? At least he and Vir had found some comfort in each other. And Vir was already blaming himself. "I'm so sorry," he'd said, when she told him of Lennier's death. He had sounded more crushed than surprised. "If I could have saved your son in some other way, I would have. But Lennier… I couldn't have stopped him if I'd tried. I think he – he'd almost given up hope that he could redeem himself to you, and when he heard that David… Well. I'm sure you understand. You knew him better than I ever did."
Delenn was not so certain that was true, but she had understood. Not that it made the pain any less. The news about G'Kar had hit her hard as well. As for Londo, she did not know if she ought to feel pity or admiration for him. Most of all, she felt guilt. As preoccupied as they had been with their own trouble – first the Telepath War, later the Drakh plague and its aftermath – it had been too easy to forget about Centauri Prime.
Beside her, David was fidgeting in his chair, staring hard at the object in his hands. Vir had asked the people to bring mementos of those who'd died under the Drakh rule, and to leave them at a shrine he'd had erected for that purpose. An hour into the proceedings, it was overflowing. Some people had brought pictures, others pieces of clothing or small personal items. Vir was going to leave something for Londo, and Delenn had proposed to do the same for G'Kar; she and Vir would each say a few words during the ceremony. David had insisted on bringing something of Lennier's.
It felt strange, her son's devotion to a person he had never even known. It was natural, of course, but it pnly made her own grief that much sharper. What made it worse was that she no longer even had anything that had belonged to Lennier. Vir did, though. He'd given David a ceremonial candle, the last one Lennier had been burning before he left. David had held on to it all day.
"How much longer?" David whispered, not for the first time. "Everyone else has been to the shrine already, why do we have to wait?"
Of course he knew the answer as well as she did. But he was looking for comfort, so she replied as patiently as she could, "Not much longer, I think. After the performance, Emperor Cotto and I will say a few words, and then all of us will go to the shrine."
David nodded jerkily, turning the candle around in his hands. "Why did he do it? Lennier… You said he used to be your friend, but he didn't even know me. Why would he risk his life for me?"
Delenn clenched her hands in her lap. Beside her, Vir stirred faintly, but gave no other sign that he had heard anything. "He… loved me." She could not believe she was telling him here, of all places, but suddenly she could not have held back the words if she'd wanted to. "He was my aide on Babylon 5, as I told you, and… he had loved me for a long time before it started to consume him." She drew in a breath, feeling as if she might break under the weight of it all. "David, we… we all have our moments where we become someone else. Sometimes those moments turn out for the better, and sometimes… sometimes they are tragedies." And sometimes they are both, as they were for me. The knowledge of what she had done after Dukhat's death would be with her forever. "I believe Lennier saved you because, in doing so… he thought he could find that part of himself that he feared he had lost. Can you understand that?"
David's eyes were very wide, but he nodded. Beside her, Vir made a soft, strangled noise that sounded almost like a sob. Delenn turned towards him.
"I – I'm sorry." Vir wiped his eyes. On his knees was a picture of himself and Londo at a table in the Zocalo; the Vir on the picture was grinning shyly, Londo's arm around his shoulders. They were so young then, Delenn thought. All of us were. "I just – every time I think I don't have any tears left, I –" He covered his mouth. "Gods, I'm – I'm terrible at this. What kind of Emperor am I if I can't even stop crying?"
"A decent one," Timov said, and took his hand. She was looking more composed than any of them – which was remarkable, given that just before the ceremony she had stood weeping quietly in Vir's arms. But this was a public event, and showing weakness in public must be the last thing a Centauri noblewoman was permitted to do. In the end, they were all the product of the society that raised them. Even Vir, although he had resisted it more strongly than some. Delenn hoped he would be happy. Earlier, she had seen him hold hands with the young woman introduced to her as Timov's foster daughter; he had looked more at peace than she had seen him in years. She could only pray it would last. He deserved it.
"Let the people see you, Vir," she said, with sudden conviction. "Londo spent sixteen years playing a part, but there is no reason why you should do the same. To be seen mourning is not weakness. Your people have many things to grieve about; show them that it is all right for them to do so. Only then can they begin to heal."
Vir's face was wet with tears, but he lowered the hand he had been raising to brush them away. "You're right," he said. "We have to heal, and… and for that, we need to grieve first. All of us. Together. There's been enough hiding." He swallowed hard.
Up on the stage, the harpist was playing the final notes, to muted applause from the people. Vir stood, clutching his picture in his hands, and Delenn followed after a moment.
No healing without grief, she thought. She had not allowed herself to grieve for a long time. Perhaps today, she could.