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Et Amo

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The last time she'd put a grown man to bed was... Come to think of it, had she ever? Tonight might actually have been a first – unless she counted those times in the first years of their marriage, which had been in a category of their own. Londo, when drunk, could barely remember what a bed was for. But she'd never put a man to bed with something like tenderness... and yes, Vir was a man now, even if he still possessed some of that youthful innocence. She hoped he’d never lose it entirely, but these days that seemed like an idle hope. Being with Londo was stripping the innocence from him, whether he wanted to or not. Timov would know. The same had happened to her, after all.

Today had been interesting, to say the least. Lately that was true about most days, and somehow Londo seemed to be tied up in all of them. She didn't know if she found that alarming or a comfort; trusting Londo still felt like trusting a leati not to pounce. But at least he seemed to be making an effort. Just a few days ago, the news of Cartagia's death had reached her, and only this morning that strange ship had appeared in the sky. Then Londo had arrived, a tight-lipped Vir trailing behind him, bearing news that was as shocking as it seemed surreal. He had told her about the assassination – not that his role in it truly came as a surprise – and she had scoffed loudly at his scheming, of course, but not with the conviction she’d intended. Just for once, the end might have justified the means. Even Vir seemed to believe that. Poor Vir, who had quaffed wine at dinner as if it were water; a measly two glasses, but it had been enough. Londo had been ready to help him to bed, but the look on Vir's eyes had been so full of pain that Timov had found herself taking the boy by the arm instead.

She’d expected it to be easy. Drunk men were well within her experience, even if, like today, she’d had quite a bit to drink herself. What she hadn't expected was for Vir to break down, telling her what she felt sure was far too much. About himself and Cartagia's murder, but also about Londo and… what was she called again? Adira. A dancer girl. Always dancer girls. Londo had taken her death hard, Vir had said. And she was still mulling over the last thing Vir had told her, the words slurring all over themselves, eyes bright with tears: “He told me to kill him to save us, when the Vorlon ship arrived. I would have done it, too, Timov. What does that make me?” He had slipped into sleep before she could reply, but as she was drifting through the hallways to her private bedroom, it was those last words that kept churning through her head.

The light was on in Londo's chambers. That was the first thing she noticed when she entered the anteroom which traditionally connected spouses' sleeping quarters. The doors to the male's chambers were, of course, far wider than those of the women; it was just one of the many traditions that used to drive her up the wall. The doors were slate glass – not quite transparent, but translucent enough with the proper lighting. She'd often thought the house's architect must have been a romantic: there were few enough marriages where the partners even wanted to catch a glimpse of each other at night.

She was sweeping past it with the disinterest born of years of habit, but a movement inside made her pause.

Londo was undressing. Just a few years ago, the mere thought of that would have had her turning away in disgust; husband or not, she had never felt any inclination to sleep with the man apart from what had been legally required. It wasn’t even that he had been a selfish lover. But the mere knowledge that sex was needed for their marriage to be valid had been enough to put her off it once and for all.

Except she was watching him now, pacing the room like a caged animal as he shouldered out of his coat and flung it down, then stripped down to his shirt. Through some impulse she couldn’t even explain, she couldn’t tear her eyes away. All she could see was a silhouette, but there was a tight, tormented quality to his movements, as of emotion barely contained. Which emotion, she couldn’t begin to say. But when Londo sagged onto the bed and put his head in his hands, something twisted inside her that she never thought she’d feel again. Not pity – she could handle pity, pity was an old, familiar friend – but… sympathy?  No. It couldn’t be. Whatever was haunting him, he’d brought it upon himself when he became involved with Refa and his cohorts. Yes, he seemed to have changed in recent times; he was making an effort to be decent to Vir, and he seemed to be keeping his promise to free Narn… But compared to what he had done, that was meager redemption.

No. It wasn’t sympathy, she was certain, that made her move towards the door; if anything, she intended to make sure that was not a factor. The hinges turned with barely a noise, and then she was inside, closing the door behind her and watching the hunched-over figure on the edge of the bed, his shirt open to expose his bare chest and his crest sagging at the edges… and there it was again: that same, sharp, utterly unfamiliar twinge below her breastbone.

“Londo?” she said. To her horror, her voice came out hoarse.

If the scene felt surreal to her, Londo’s reaction only made it worse. She’d fully expected him to do a double-take, then recover with some sarcastic retort, a tactic both of them excelled at. But the look on his face was pure surprise, and when his eyes widened it wasn’t with annoyance but… Relief? No, surely he could not be grateful to see her. But he looked so pale; brittle skin was stretched over his cheekbones and sagged visibly around his throat. He had aged. That shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it did. For a moment, she was gripped by the strangest impulse to go and put an arm around him, but years of habit held her back. All of this should have given her a sense of power, but instead she felt almost exposed; as if it had been her who’d walked in half-naked.

“Ah, Timov.” His tone, at least, held some of the old alacrity. “I trust Vir didn’t give you too much trouble? He still cannot hold his liquor; I am beginning to think it is a hopeless affair.”

She sniffed. “I was thinking of it as cause for hope. You may have dragged Vir into your conspiracies, but at least he hasn't picked up all of your vile habits." The mention of Vir made her remember what he had told her, half-delirious with exhaustion and drink: “Adira was everything to him, Lady Timov. I found him after he heard who’d ordered her death. He’d torn the room to pieces. I've never seen him upset like that.” She hadn’t known what to feel while Vir was telling the story, and she didn’t feel any closer to knowing now. Surely nothing as silly as envy. Londo’s attention had never been exclusive, and in any case, she had preferred to be rid of it most of the time. But she had to admit, knowing he was still capable of caring… changed a great deal. Not that she could have put her finger on what.

She seemed to have hit a nerve, because Londo’s face grew tight, and he blinked at the hands folded into his lap. “Ah, yes. Of course. Let us all pile blame on Londo Mollari for ridding the world of a dictator, hmm?”

“A dictator you helped put on the throne in the first place." She lowered herself onto the edge of the bed beside him. “Or had you forgotten that?”

He glared at her through bleary eyes. "Well, I do not intend to apologize for getting him off it. Your disapproval is noted, Timov – you have been dripping with it since I set foot in this house – but what I did was necessary. I have made…” He sucked down a breath. “… errors of judgment, but I will not beg for your forgiveness for the one thing I have done that was right.”

"Good,” she said, and realized she meant it. He still hadn’t used the word ‘mistake’, but it was close enough. “And I don’t intend to apologize for thinking all this scheming petty and undignified, and that you brought this on yourself when you sided with that swindler Refa. So that makes us even. For now." For the first time, she met his eyes. “Really, Londo, since when have you even considered needing my forgiveness? You’ve never cared about it in your life, why start now?”

“Because I –” Londo sputtered, but she shushed him with a raised finger, suddenly fighting the impulse to place that finger across his mouth. Great Maker, she was drunk, she had to be. Surely that was the only explanation for why her hearts were pounding in her throat like this. But she had no doubt that, for once, Londo was going to say something perfectly sincere and altogether too emotional, and she couldn’t bear that. Not now.

“Don’t.” She snorted. “Vir seems to believe you did the right thing, and I learned to trust his judgment, the way I learned not to trust yours.” The touch of cruelty still came so easily that she wasn’t prepared for the pain flooding his face. With an effort, she allowed her voice to soften. “In fact, Vir told me quite a number of things. When that strange ship came… It was the Vorlons, he said, come to wipe us all out.” She couldn’t quite keep the skepticism out of her tone. Part of her still had trouble believing it, but Vir had sounded as if he did, and even as drunk as he was, he had been strangely adamant about not giving any more details. Except for one. “He also said… that you asked him to kill you.” Somehow, that came out far less steady. Londo had been many things in life, but suicidal wasn’t one of them. “He said you’d have done it to stay the Vorlons’ hand. Why? What would it have mattered if you were dead?”

She didn’t know which answer she’d expected, or even if she’d hoped for one at all. The Londo she used to know would have laughed in her face, or brushed her off with a sneer, or exploded in rage. This Londo only shook his head, letting out a long, shuddering sigh. “The Shadows…” he began, then cut himself off. “I was… involved with them, early in the war. I didn’t know what they were at the time, and when I found out, it was too late. The Vorlons were destroying everything touched by the Shadows. I thought... if I were dead already, they might not wish to kill us all.”

Timov bit her lip as she took that in. His entanglement with these Shadows should have shocked her, but somehow, she barely felt surprise. What did shock her was his sudden honesty, and the realization, sharp and unexpected, that what Vir had said hadn’t just been drunken ramblings. “But… Vir would never –” she said, incredulous. “Whatever you asked him, he wouldn’t have –”

The laugh that fell from Londo’s lips was bone-dry. “Ah, but you do not know Vir, my dear. What he was, yes, but not what I turned him into. He would have done it if he had to. I could see it in his eyes.” He started on a chuckle, then coughed and covered his mouth. “Not,” he continued, more subdued, “that it matters now. The Vorlons have left, and I will never know their reasons, or if anything I did would have made a difference. But the fact remains I might have destroyed us all. All I have ever wanted was what was best for Centauri Prime, and still –“

"Centauri Prime,” she snapped, with more vehemence than she had intended. "Do you still care about dreams more than you care about people?" Londo flinched, and this time part of her was cringing too. It was easy enough to convince herself that Londo had no capacity for self-sacrifice, but of course she knew it was a lie. The Vorlon story only confirmed it. Oh, he was capable of being selfless, all right. Just perhaps not to her. But then, she was guilty of the same thing.

"No," Londo said, quietly, like a confession. "Not always." He lifted his head, and for the first time she could see no pretense, no pride. Instead he just seemed to be waiting, silent and vulnerable and still – good gods – far too close to naked, watching her in a way she had never imagined he would. Not demanding, but... hopeful? “Not now,” he said, hoarse, but didn’t look away.

Somehow her fingers had found the fastenings of her dress and were untying them even before the rational part of her brain had registered the impulse. Well, wearing a dress in the bedroom was ridiculous, in any case… Wasn’t it? Even if it was his bedroom, not her own. But she was sure she did not imagine the surprise in Londo’s face. Surprise, and… wanting, perhaps? It made her heart flutter briefly, alarmingly, but she pressed it down. Well, it simply wasn't proper that he'd be the only one undressed; all she was doing was leveling the playing field. If she also happened to be touched by his honesty, it was no business of his at all.

“What… What are you doing?” Londo muttered.

Timov ignored the question. "Her name was Adira," she said softly. "Wasn't it?" She felt caught on the edge between power and terror. "She died. Vir said part of you must have died with her.” Her hearts were racing, but the rush of affection she felt was heady and real and right.

"Vir said this?” Londo swallowed, his throat working furiously. “Great Maker… That boy is too honest for his own good."

"I’d rather say he's too honest for yours,” she said, more out of reflex than anything else. “Vir is doing quite well without all the subterfuge. It’s you who can’t manage without it.”

"And I am an expert at subterfuge, is this what you mean, hmm?" Was she imagining it, or was he actually smiling? A sad, broken thing of a smile, but yes, she would have sworn it was there, as real and close as the desire she could see in his eyes. It had been years, but she still recognized it, and for the first time, it no longer filled her with distaste.

"Oh, don’t deny it.” She could barely think, but that could only be a good thing. If she let herself think, she was lost. She snorted, distracting herself by peeling off the top of her gown. “It’s true, even now. You want something from me, Londo, that much is quite clear, and yet you keep pretending you don't."

The obvious retort – that obfuscation was an art she'd perfected as well – remained unspoken. Instead Londo sighed, his lips pressing together. When he raised a hand towards her face, she couldn’t bring herself to stop him.

"Great Maker, Timov…” His palm brushed her temple ever so slightly, then slid down across her cheek. “Did I ever even tell you you are beautiful?"

The smile that found her face felt as if it belonged to a different woman altogether, but she didn’t hold it back. “Too often, when we were younger, though I couldn't say if you were ever sober when you did. And I never listened anyway.” She turned her head into his hand, closing her eyes when his fingers slipped down to cup her chin. “Your hands are softer than mine.” She was aiming for lightness, but it came out a whisper.

“Modern warfare.” His tone was strangled. “It does not leave calluses, my dear.” A haunted look had filled his eyes.

When she kissed him, it was only because she couldn’t bear the sight.