If someone had told him, all of two years ago, he’d ever return from the Zocalo sober, Londo did not doubt what his reply would have been. It would have involved the mention of several body parts, as well as a heartfelt suggestion to their owner of what to do with them after spouting such madness. Even now, he didn’t quite understand the gloom that had come over him. Yes, he had had a few drinks tonight, but barely enough to take the edge off. Two or three more glasses might have done more to quiet his nerves, or dispel his lingering unease at the nasty state of affairs back home. But these days, the forced calm brought on by alcohol held little appeal, and so, as he walked the long corridor back to his quarters, it was with a head that felt strangely clear.
In one thing, at least, he was lucky: since they’d returned from Centauri Prime, G'Kar and his followers had been providing ample distraction. At first it had merely been a very good joke, although even Londo had to admit things were getting a bit out of hand. More than a bit, perhaps. Since losing his eye, G’Kar’s patience had been almost boundless; quite vexing, really. It made it much harder to bait the man. But recently even G'Kar's stubborn faith in the integrity of his people (oh, Londo had faith in his own people, if less in their integrity than in their capacity for ruthlessness) seemed to be failing him. Chances were things would turn interesting before this was over.
Londo keyed open the door to his quarters, unbuttoning his coat as he entered – and narrowly avoided a collision with Vir. A very hassled-looking Vir, at that. The bags under his eyes rivaled those he’d worn after the business with Cartagia, and he seemed to have been pacing at the doorway, waiting for Londo to return.
"Vir, what is..." Londo began, but Vir made a frantic shooing motion and Londo’s mouth snapped shut again. He let Vir draw him aside by his elbow, but not so quickly that he couldn't catch a glimpse of a leather-clad figure sprawled across the couch. He did a double take. "G'Kar is here?" Not that that in itself was so exceptional – one of the perks of his new and strange relationship with G'Kar was the sort of thing that required a bedroom – but tonight G'Kar had refused his company, stalking off to his own quarters instead. Supposedly to be alone and think, though Londo suspected it might have something to do with the young Narn who had accosted them today, referring to Londo as 'that murdering Centauri bastard'. Bah. Thinking was overrated, but G'Kar was welcome to it. It was the reason why Londo had found himself heading for the Zocalo; it had been muscle memory more than anything, but at least it was an improvement over the silence in his own quarters. Silence that was now interrupted by G'Kar's deep and rather labored breathing.
"He's been here for a while," Vir said, stealing an agitated look over his shoulder. "He said he'd tried to go to his own quarters, but his people wouldn't leave him alone. One of them even tried to chain himself to G'Kar so he wouldn't be able to leave. Some of the others stopped him, but…" Vir's voice dropped to a whisper. "Londo, I think something's wrong. He was very upset when he got here, and I, uh, might have offered him a drink to calm him down. Maybe more than one drink. Anyway, I don't think it made a difference, he was already pretty far gone when he arrived."
"G'Kar? Drunk?" Now it was Londo's turn to turn and stare. G'Kar could handle his liquor better than… well, anyone, with the possible exception of Londo himself, although so far they hadn't put that to the test. The worst he'd ever seen G'Kar was tipsy, which was an amusing state for him to be in – G'Kar could giggle quite endearingly – but not in any way alarming. From Vir's expression, he gathered this was not at all the same. "Did he tell you where he went?" he asked Vir. "Not to the Zocalo, or I would have seen him." These days, all one had to do was look for a flock of bowing Narns to find G'Kar in the middle of them. Did G'Kar even keep alcohol in his quarters? If he did, it must be well-hidden; Londo had never found any apart from the brivari he took there himself.
"I don't know," Vir said. "He came in with a bottle, three quarters empty. Something from Earth, I think. I tried to take it from him, but he, uh, didn't seem very inclined to let me, so I gave up." He let out a nervous chuckle. "One broken rib is really enough for me. I'm serious, Londo, I'm not sure he knows his strength right now."
"Well, I can only hope with all the efforts he made as my bodyguard to protect me, he will not inadvertently kill me now." Of course Vir flinched, and Londo worked up a grin, forcing a calm he did not feel. G'Kar still hadn't stirred from his hunched-over position, and the fact he was not already throwing barbs at them both was somehow more frightening than if he had been. "It's fine, Vir, I will deal with him. You have done quite enough already. Go to your quarters and sleep, I will call you if I need you." With a final nudge, he sent Vir towards the exit, turning his back on the boy's pinched expression.
As the door slid shut again, he made his cautious way towards the couch and G'Kar. His eyes were closed, so Londo busied himself examining the glasses and bottles on the table. One set was jála, which Vir must have poured. The other looked unfamiliar. Bourbon, the label said, produced in Syria Planum, so Vir had been right: a human drink. But where would G'Kar get...
"Mollari." Londo jumped and spun, finding G'Kar watching him through dark slits of eyes. It made him look almost predatory… but no. G'Kar would not hurt him. With words, perhaps, but with nothing else.
"G'Kar," he replied in a neutral tone. Gingerly, he lowered himself onto the couch. "I thought you said you wanted solitude tonight? I did not realize that that –" He pointed at the bottle, "– was what you meant by it. Where did you even get it? It looks expensive."
"It is," G'Kar muttered, sagging back abruptly; the movement made him hiss and grab the armrest. Londo found himself reaching out, but held back when G'Kar lifted his head and glowered at him. "Mister Garibaldi bought it from a trader. He claimed it made him feel like home." His voice cracked alarmingly on the last word.
"You were with Garibaldi?" Londo blinked. That at least made some sense, but this bourbon affair was worrying. In all the years he had known Garibaldi, the man had refused to drink anything but water and concoctions fit for children. Not even that, as Centauri children were taught to drink wine from an early age. For G'Kar to visit Garibaldi and return with a bottle of strong liquor, half-empty at that… No, this smelled of trouble.
"Going to my quarters was a mistake." G'Kar's voice was thick, and slurring slightly. "My people kept calling for me, and when I told them to leave, they refused. Emphatically. It seems I bought them their freedom only to have them attempt to take mine. Not that they see it that way, which is even more alarming." He made an uncoordinated grab for the glass of jála. In an impulse, Londo put a steadying hand on his shoulder, surprised when it wasn't shrugged off or batted away. "I ran into Mister Garibaldi on my way back here. He seemed troubled as well, so I offered to keep him company. He said he didn't need it, but that he would make an exception for me, so we went to his quarters where he poured us both a glass of this." G'Kar waved at the unfamiliar bottle. "Several glasses, I should say." He gulped down his jála, his eyes not leaving Londo's, as if daring him to intervene. "He became very agitated when Captain Lochley called him. He told me to go and take the bottle with me, so I did. And came back here."
G'Kar's tone had acquired that brittle quality again, and Londo pressed away his misgivings about Garibaldi to focus on the here and now. "Vir let you in, of course. And plied you with jàla, hmm?" He peered at G'Kar's face, which had contorted into a grimace. Great Maker, were those… Surely those dull streaks were not the remnants of tears? They could not be. It wasn't that handling drunks was outside his expertise; he was Centauri, after all. Handling melancholy drunks, however, was a skill Vir had mastered far better than him. Well, there was the rare time when Vir indulged in a Jovian Sunspot and had to be dragged back to his quarters, but it had been long enough since the Cartagia incident that it barely happened anymore. And in any case, Vir was a gentle drunk; with G'Kar, he wasn't all that certain.
Londo bit his lip. What would Vir do? Well, he knew what Vir would do, but the only drunk person Vir was used to respond to was him, and who was to say what G'Kar even wanted right now? Despite himself, he raised a cautious hand towards G'Kar's arm.
This time G'Kar did shake him off, with a frantic shrug that caused him to list dangerously. He was trembling, Londo saw, though whether it was merely the alcohol or something more, he could not tell. "Cotto didn't 'ply' me with anything," G'Kar said, the syllables slurring. "He just mentioned this drink calms you. I told him that whatever you use to calm yourself is sure to exasperate me, because that is how the universe works. But he didn't believe me and decided a demonstration was in order." He leaned forward, lips pulling back from across his teeth. "Tell me, Mollari. Do I seem calm to you?"
"This is a trick question, yes?" Londo shrugged as noncommittally as he could. These days G'Kar's mood held few mysteries to him, but right now, it seemed to be swinging so wildly between anger, sarcasm and despair that it was all Londo could do to keep pace. "You are not shouting, nor are you in the process of driving your fist through either me or that table over there, so I have certainly seen you looking worse. That said, something is troubling you, hmm?" Londo couldn't tell if the light tone was helping. G'Kar had sagged back into the pillows, blinking at him as if he hadn't understood a word of what was said. "Do you wish…" Londo swallowed; this was Vir's line, not his. "Do you, ah, wish to talk about it?"
The look G'Kar gave him was, if anything, more blank than the one from before. With a sigh, Londo reached for the bottle of jàla and what looked to be a reasonably clean cup. Clearly, Vir's way was getting him nowhere. No, this had been a bad idea. The only reliable way to handle drunks was to indulge them, join them in the game; he had applied the technique countless times, first with his own father and then later at court, and Daggair had been champion in doing it with him. Tonight, though, it held a particular irony. That he would return home sober, only to get drunk in order to get G'Kar to… What was it the humans said? To open up. Not that he gave it much hope to begin with. Oh, they talked about many things these days, and Londo was not complaining, but he also knew G’Kar’s defenses weren’t any closer to coming down than his own. No, the only thing that might lead to either of them opening up to each other was still, in his opinion, a very sharp knife.
He had just finished pouring when G'Kar, in a rasp almost too soft to hear, said, "I understand now."
"What?" Londo sat up abruptly. Great Maker, why was he so skittish about this? It was not like anything could truly happen; whatever G'Kar told him now, he was probably far too drunk to remember in the morning. But he could barely even look at G'Kar's face, which was contorting in something that might have been rage if not for the gleam of moisture in his eyes. He would have watched G'Kar's hands instead, but they were gloveless and soft, digging into the fabric of the heavy Narn coat, and in no way easier to watch than the tears. Or perhaps a little. Londo simply did not know what to do with tears. None of his last three wives had ever cried. Well, Mariel used to do so, but those tears were too well-rehearsed to leave even a dent in his armor, and against the tears of his first wife he had had no defense at all. In fact, they had been rather like G'Kar's: not loud or demonstrative, but so quiet you could barely hear. He remembered his own tears over Adira, which had not been quiet at all.
G'Kar stared down at his hands. "After Narn was freed, I thought my people would be free as well," he said, almost mechanically. "But I see that I was wrong. They are as bound now as they were before; not by slavery or bombardment…" If he saw Londo flinch, he didn't show it. "But by the past. By the weight of what they endured. They've been fighting for so long that they forgot the taste of peace; they might remember how to think for themselves, but it frightens them. And they look to me, but…"
"You no longer want them to." Londo swallowed, the words searing his throat. I understand, he wanted to say. I once wished to be Emperor, but now I would give almost everything to escape it. Everything except my pride as a Centauri. It was at the tip of his tongue, but he bit it back. G'Kar's pride as a Narn was of a different kind altogether. And he doubted G'Kar wanted sympathy, especially from him.
"Their looking isn't what concerns me," G'Kar said. "It's what they may do when they grow impatient with looking; they're already far too close to demanding instead. Something your people taught them, wouldn't you say?" Just like that, his voice had dropped to a low, feral growl. "I never believed I could have underestimated the damage your people inflicted on mine, Mollari. Everything they get their hands on they burn, and even after they've stopped, they haven't!" A flash of limbs, far too unexpected for Londo to react, and then Garibaldi's bottle was crashing to the floor. If Londo didn't curse and jump, it was only because the sudden rage in G'Kar's face kept him rooted to the spot.
"Now, G'Kar," he said feebly. "I do not think Mister Garibaldi would appreciate this, hmm? Not to mention Vir, who will have to clean this up in the morning…"
"I tried to contact Na'Toth," G'Kar muttered. His eyes glittered a dark, furious red. "Mister Garibaldi told me a person should always remember their roots, and Na'Toth is..." He swallowed. "They said she was ill, and too weak to speak to me. Her spirit remains unbroken, but it might be months before she recovers. If she ever will."
Somehow, Londo managed to speak past the lump in his own throat. "I'm sure she will be – "
"Don't tell me she will be all right!" G'Kar's hand pounded against the table, his voice drowned in the clatter of glass and silverware. "Not you, not about her! She would not be in the condition she was in if not for your people! She would be all right, if not for your people! Some scars don't heal, and nothing you or I can do will ever change it! Nothing…" He cut himself off to come up for breath.
Londo had lurched to his feet and towards the kitchen, because it was the only way he could keep from exploding in rage – or tears, because to his utter horror he could not say which would hit first. Jála would not help him now. His hands shook on the brivari bottle, but he poured a glass and drank it down, wincing as it burned in his stomach; better that it was brivari than the despair he had felt a moment before. He was just downing his second glass when G'Kar's voice pulled him back.
"Mollari." The name was muffled, and when Londo turned, G'Kar was bent over with his head in his hands. His breathing was harsh and deep and unsteady, the sound tugging at Londo's heartstrings in a way that made his legs feel weak. "You are not your people," G'Kar said, and raised his head. His eyes were dark-rimmed and puffy, narrowed into slits, and strangely free of anger.
Londo squeezed his eyes shut. This was the man who had refused to break under Cartagia, who had not relinquished his pride for anything less than the salvation of his people, reduced a trembling, alcohol-soaked heap on his couch. But there was no shame in G'Kar's face, no desire to hide himself, and no less pride than there had been in that prison cell. No wonder his people were clamoring for him.
Slowly, as if in a trance, Londo made his way back to the couch. For a moment, fear welled in his throat like acid, but then he remembered to breathe. With a lurch, he sat down again.
"You are not your people," G'Kar repeated, more a sob than a whisper, and Londo found himself moving to close the distance. He did not know what to do, but really, there was only one thing he could think of that made any sense. Slowly, carefully, he touched G'Kar's shoulder.
"I am not my people," he admitted shakily. "But when I am emperor, I will be." Hesitant, he allowed his hand to slide down from G'Kar's shoulder towards his back, stroking down in a slow, fluid movement. Then he lifted his hand and did it again.
"No… You won't." G'Kar said. There was no way he could still be sounding as lucid as he was. "They may be your people, but you are not their keeper." Impossibly, G'Kar's head sagged against Londo's shoulder. We should not do this, Londo wanted to say, we will regret this in the morning, but instead he found himself sliding an arm around G'Kar's waist. The gesture felt oddly right.
"When I am emperor, I will do better," he said, picking up his brivari with his free hand. If the words tasted bitter, the alcohol drowned them soon enough.