He should have gone easier on the wine.
Not that he’d thought so at first, finally taking his eyes from the waitress for long enough to realize she was filling his glass far more often than she should. He’d never been much of a casual drinker, not even on Babylon 5 when he could have afforded the luxury, and recent years had left him out of practice. Except for a few times with Lyta, but he tried not to recall those in public. Not with the memory of her still so fresh. But as a rule, he resented the loss of control that alcohol brought on, and he’d never understood why others – even Mr. Garibaldi, whom he felt he knew so well in other respects – would find it such an appealing distraction.
Tonight, however, he had wanted to indulge.
He was among friends, after all, for the first time in ages. Though he’d never set foot in this city before, entering this house had felt soothing, almost like coming home. That probably said more about him than it did about this place. In any case, he hadn’t refused the wine that was offered to him. It would make the waiting more bearable. Or at least that’s what he had hoped.
In reality, that effect had been short-lived. Oh, the initial giddiness had been pleasant, but in its wake had come disorientation followed by melancholy, and finally nervousness again, strong enough that he’d had to slip away from the buzz of after-dinner conversation to catch a few minutes of solitude.
Pacing from window to curtained window, G’Kar smiled over the picture frames scattered across the sills. It was an ill-fitting assortment of sizes and colors, some outright garish, all looking as if they’d been bought at some tourist attraction, most likely at an outrageous price. Several contained an image of a very sheepish, very familiar Centauri ambassador. In most of them he was posing beside a soft-faced woman, dressed human style except for the traditional shaved Centauri scalp. Both seemed as happy in the pictures as they had a few hours ago, being pronounced man and wife under a cloud-packed sky from which it had miraculously managed not to rain. Crammed under a too-small tent, pressed shoulder to shoulder with Susan Ivanova and – to his surprise – a haggard-looking Lennier, G’Kar had felt suddenly, tremendously grateful that one kind soul was getting his wishes granted, at least.
Drawing aside one of the curtains, he looked out over the city Vir Cotto had, apparently, lost his heart to.
The name’s local pronunciation was still strange on his tongue. In English, it didn’t sound like anything special at all, but French lent a hint of challenge to the word. A hint of mystery, he might have said, but that would be the alcohol speaking again. The name certainly fitted the dimly lit cityscape below, with its sprawling boulevards and rues and allées as well as its bridges, statues, museums and parks, which seemed appealing without being artificial. He could see what attracted Cotto to the place.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” a soft voice offered, making him wheel around to find Vir watching from the door. “When I’d just moved in here, I spent hours watching from that window. Well, the other windows, too, of course, but… anyway.” A breathless pause. “Did I tell you this was the first European city to be restored to its twentieth-century condit...”
“Oh, yes. Repeatedly, over the past few hours,” G'Kar replied, then chided himself for his lack of patience. But Vir didn’t seem at all offended.
“I just came to see if you were all right. Is there anything you need? Anything you want brought to you, some more food, another drink?” As G’Kar shook his head, Vir added: “I hope you don’t mind my saying, but… you look a little nervous.” Vir held up his hand in a soothing gesture before G’Kar could even begin to protest. “That’s okay. To be honest, so am I. It’s been... Gods, I can hardly remember how long it’s been.”
“Eight standard years and five months, for me,” G’Kar supplied. “Less for you, I suspect.” Abandoning the pretense, he leaned back against the windowsill and rubbed his temples. “Are you sure –” he began, then discarded the question as counterproductive. “What was it again he told you? He would be able to make it to the wedding, didn't he?”
Vir grinned a bit darkly. “Oh, not necessarily the wedding. You know Londo, he’s never been much of a wedding type of person, but he promised to be here for dinner, at least. Well, not at first. At first, he gave me a whole sermon about the terrors of marriage, then told me his advisors – he calls them advisors, in this dirty, condescending tone, but I have no idea who they are – would not agree to him travelling off-world. But the next week he contacted me to say he had convinced them, and he’d come, no matter what. When I asked how he'd persuaded them exactly, he muttered something about having threatened them with a rather large ceremonial sword.” Vir let out a very high-pitched, nervous chuckle. “It’s funny, but… for a moment, it didn’t even sound like he was joking.”
Recalling those weeks spent as Londo’s bodyguard, G’Kar scowled but stayed silent. With the amount of backstabbing and double-crossing he’d witnessed there, not to mention the look on Londo’s face before he took the throne, no amount of madness in the Centauri High Court would surprise him. But all of that was moot now. He was just about to ask Vir a polite question about the pictures, to make up for his earlier rudeness, when the noise of slamming doors made them both jump.
“My dear lady, let me offer my sympathy... no, my congratulations, on this memorable event!” Londo's voice echoed down the corridor, interspersed by giggles and answering noises from what G’Kar surmised was Cotto’s wife. G'Kar met Vir's eyes and pursed his lips, a mute signal of If I were you, I’d get out there before he starts chatting up your spouse. Sure enough, the next thing that reached their ears, along with the approaching footsteps, was: “Let me tell you, while I have not always trusted Vir’s tastes as I do now, on this occasion he has made an exquisite choice! Speaking of Vir, where has he run off to? He’s not… ah. There you are, Vir!”
The door swung open partway, though not enough for G’Kar to get a clear view. A flash of white and gold closed in on Vir, only for Londo to grind to a stop and stare at the waiting form of G’Kar.
The change was as abrupt as it was unexpected, all pretense dropping away for one long, breathless instant. Londo's arms fell limp while he stood there, blinking, lips parted but no sound coming out.
He didn’t know, G’Kar thought. Cotto hasn’t told him I’d be here. The realization tore at his wine-saturated veins, causing blood to rush up to his scalp with a speed that made him feel suddenly light-headed.
It was Vir who broke the moment, darting forward in a quick maneuver of his own to pull Londo into an impetuous hug. “I’m so glad you’re here,” G’Kar heard him whisper, prompting Londo to return the embrace, gingerly at first, then patting Vir’s back with increasing conviction, as if finally having made up his mind that all of this was, indeed, real.
“So am I,” Londo muttered, voice rough; then, picking up in strength as he let go, “It is very good to see you, Vir.” He kept Vir at arm’s length to look him over, eyes shining with something like pride. “Well, you are looking fine! And so does your wife, Great Maker! You’re…” Londo swallowed, then turned away as if unable to hold the moment. Unfortunately, that brought G’Kar straight back into his line of vision.
Gloved hands tugged at the elaborate gown. “Hello, G’Kar.” Londo's lips pursed in that still so-familiar expression, of mockery with an undertone of something far more real. “And here I assumed you had turned to a life of contemplation and dedicated service to the people, hmm? Do wine, fair company and song even fit into that picture?” His mouth pulled into a grin, but his eyes told a whole different story.
G’Kar’s legs weren’t quite obeying him – the alcohol a convenient, though not entirely truthful excuse – which must be why it took him so long to cross so short a distance. Narrowing his eyes in challenge, he shot back an appropriate barb in return. “Surely there’s no greater service to the people than agreeing to go dressed such as this.” He inclined his head meaningfully. “Judging by all the gleam and trinketry your people adorn their rulers with, one would think they prefer to blind themselves to the rest of you.”
“Yes, they do,” Londo muttered under his breath. A fleeting dark look passed over his face, and for a moment he looked every single one of his years. One hand fluttered, ever so briefly, to the top of his coat, compulsively straightened the fabric around his shoulder. Then he shook it off, and his face broke into a genuine smile. “You haven’t changed, G’Kar. Insolent, but hardly blind, hmm?” He shot a quick glance at G'Kar's artificial eye. Before G’Kar knew, Londo had crossed the remaining few feet between them.
He should have had less wine, he thought. Either that, or have his heart valves checked, because his blood was suddenly flowing slow and thick as syrup. Surely it had nothing to do with the man in front of him, the man whose gloved hands had just reached out and grasped his forearms, breath escaping him in a deep, incredulous gasp.
The sound of a throat being cleared made them both jump and step apart.
“Um. Well.” Vir beamed at them, fidgeting a little. “I – I really should go and see if the guests are all right, so I’ll leave you two some privacy. There, ah… there’ll be dessert in half an hour. I’ll see you then.” Still wearing that nervous half-grin, he eased backwards out of the room and was gone.
“Privacy? Pah.” If Londo’s eyebrows could creep any closer towards his hairline, they would have done so. “What do you suppose he means by that, hmm? Another quaint human notion regarding some obscure taboo or other, I am sure. ”
“Oh, I wouldn’t underestimate Cotto’s long-term memory,” G'Kar interrupted, pressing down a rush of something that felt dangerously close to loss. Lowering his voice he added, deliberate, “Nor mine.”
“Ah, yes…” A long pause. Then, softly, “I did not intend to, G’Kar.”
G'Kar nodded acknowledgment, then turned towards the window to retrieve the glass he’d left out on the sill. He swirled the contents around and took a delicate sip, the liquid velvety-sweet as it slid through his throat. “I was just recalling the last occasion we met,” he said, taking care to keep his voice clear of the turmoil that memory irrevocably brought. “I must say, I believe you look …” He frowned. Better? More focused? At peace? None of those seemed true – in fact, dark circles around Londo's eyes hinted at the opposite. And yet there was something different about him. The barely concealed anguish G’Kar had seen in him last time had vanished, replaced by a quiet, stubborn resolve. That, and a hint of... anger, perhaps?
Londo made an impatient noise. “Go on, G’Kar, how do I look? Stunning? Regal? Like I am in need of a good glass of that wine? Hmm? Personally, I am voting for the latter.” He gave G'Kar a crooked, teasing grin, plastered on a bit too thick to be convincing.
“I am unsure about the sight, but there is no doubt as to what you sound like,” G'Kar countered, switching back to irony. “Which is precisely as you used to: loud and relentless.” He lifted the wine to his lips in punctuation, only to find his glass empty.
“It seems we will need a new bottle,” Londo offered, not very helpfully.
G’Kar pursed his lips. He truly, truly shouldn't...
“For once, Mollari,” he heard himself say, “I agree with you.”
He'd have to rethink his opinion of wine. It was incredible how the substance shifted the mood from the awkward to that warm tingle of the familiar. In G'Kar, tipsy as he’d already been, the intensity of it wasn’t unexpected, but seeing that same change in Londo was a first. In the past, the man had hardly been more ebullient drunk than sober; there was hardly any margin for it. But this time the effect on Londo seemed spectacular, his spirit rising to new heights with every glass.
“So there I was,” Londo boomed, gesturing wildly with the bottle, which was far emptier than either of their glasses by now. “Giving a speech in the cathedral square, guards stacked so close I could have given it standing on their heads instead of a stage – and suddenly, there is this woman old enough to be my grandmother –“
“No!” G’Kar cried, sensing encouragement was expected here.
“Yes – standing right next to me! And when I turn to see what people are pointing at, she jumps at me and kisses me straight on the mouth –“
“ – and then proceeds to take off her dress!”
“Ye... Ach, that didn’t make such a good climax, did it?” A peevish frown. “I should have turned the story around, kept the most shocking part till last. See, I am already losing my touch!” Exchanging the bottle for his glass, Londo rolled his eyes. “Of course, the poor thing was quite mad.”
G’Kar cocked his head, pausing to pluck a tear from his eye. “Oh, I concur – quite mad indeed.” He took another sip from his own wine, which tasted finer every time he drank. “What happened to her?”
Londo's glass froze mid-gulp. “Well. That is…” A long beat. “Let us just say that – physical assault on the Emperor is not a charge taken lightly.” His voice had turned flat. “And the Emperor himself has no say in any of it.”
“Oh.” G'Kar blinked, knowing he should offer some kind of opinion on the matter, but the alcohol made all thoughts feel as sluggish as if they’d been dragged through mud. Instead of saying something profound, he settled for a neutral question. “How long will you be staying?”
That didn’t have quite the cheering effect. “Only tonight,” Londo muttered, gloved hands fluttering in his lap. “There is a guard at the front door, waiting to take me back to the ship in the morning.”
“In the morning?” G’Kar sputtered and wheeled around, which wasn’t the best of ideas. He held himself up with a hand on Londo’s arm. “But Cotto invited us all for a tour of the city! Surely you can –”
“Oh, yes, G’Kar!” The voice that sliced through G'Kar's head was sharp and furious, burning with an intensity that took him by surprise. Londo jerked back his arm, then turned and started pacing. “‘Surely I can’ ignore my advisors’ concerns about my safety, abandon my people for five days in a row while traipsing around on Alliance soil! It is not as if I have pressing matters to attend to, hmm? It is not as if your mighty Alliance left us with any kind of mess to clean up, no? Great Maker, if you knew what it cost me to be here even one day… There will be a price for that, when I return. There will be –”
And as quickly as that, it was over, and Londo stood breathing heavily, hand at his temple as if to ward off a dizzy spell. G’Kar watched quietly as he shook it off and turned towards the couch.
“Well.” A feeble grin. “It seems running a monarchy is not quite beneficial to one’s manners, hmm? Or perhaps... perhaps it is the wine.” He shook his head and sat down, slumping against the pillows. After a moment, G'Kar went to join him.
“The wine, most likely,” G’Kar conceded, not quite able to keep the concern out of his tone. “But – I don’t understand. You are the Emperor; can’t you simply tell the guard you wish to stay another few hours? Surely they can manage without you for that long.”
“I do not doubt they can.” Londo gave him the most sarcastic of smiles. “But you see, G’Kar, I ordered the guard not to allow me to leave this house, and to take me back home by morning. I also instructed him, should I countermand those orders at any point after our leaving Centauri Prime, to simply ignore it as the ravings of a madman.” He let out a sigh. G’Kar wondered how the man could be so coherent a mere three minutes after sounding totally, deliriously drunk. “Believe me, G’Kar. It was the only way I could convince my advisors the security risk was acceptable.” Perking up a little, Londo elbowed G’Kar in the ribs. “Of course, they had to account for the possibility an overeager Narn would convince me to take to the streets, where all sorts of crazed killers would be free to finish me, no?”
G’Kar made sure to laugh heartily at that, for Londo’s benefit as much as his own. “Yes, it seems they had to,” he rumbled. “Either that, or they were fearing some type of old Earth horror-movie scenario like Mr. Garibaldi showed me once, the kind where you would be taken over by some sort of alien spirit, which would then cause you to go completely mad...”
Londo wasn’t smiling. In fact, he was positively scowling at the joke. Odd, G’Kar thought. He found it rather funny himself. But of course there was no accounting for tastes. “You know…” he whispered conspiratorially, in a wild attempt to salvage the mood. “We could sneak down the fire stairs.”
Londo turned and stared. “There are fire stairs?” His face was unreadable, but for a moment his eyes had flashed with genuine interest.
“Well, yes…” G’Kar replied, confused by the apparent seriousness of the question. “They’re at the back. Cotto has been going on for some time about how they were kept as an authentic part of the architecture. I didn’t quite see the appeal, but…” He blinked, incredulous. A giddy little smile was tugging at the corners of Londo's mouth, and G'Kar wondered how much exactly he had drunk. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“Serious?” There was that look again, sharp and triumphant and suddenly very, very much like the Londo of old. “Why, of course I am not serious! That is by far the most insane idea I have heard in years, and trust me, I have heard a great many of them. No, no, G’Kar, I am not serious at all! In fact –” Abruptly, Londo was on his feet, grabbing G’Kar’s arms and hauling him up before he could protest. “I am so completely not serious that I intend to do just what you are suggesting.” The hands moved from G’Kar’s arms to his shoulders, thumping them as if he’d just won some kind of victory in battle. “You know, G’Kar, you have an extremely bad influence on me!” There was another rumbling laugh, before the hands pulled away. “Stay here. I will be right back. Do not move, you hear me? Not a muscle!” And in a flash, he was gone.
When his feet hit the cobbled sidewalk, which was slippery from the earlier rain, G’Kar still didn’t quite grasp how they got there.
He had retreated back to the sofa, to try and gain some semblance of calm. He'd been managing, too, until Londo had burst in again, sporting a new bottle of wine and a suit that, if anything, resembled the one Vir Cotto had worn earlier today. Only this one wasn’t beige but a dark, almost berry-like type of burgundy, a mix between Centauri and Earth styles that was surprisingly pleasing to the eye.
“Is that part of the imperial dress code?” G'Kar enquired, curious. “It looks – ” Better on you than the white, he’d wanted to say, only Londo was rolling his eyes at him and he bit back the remark.
“No, no, no – this is from Vir’s wardrobe, not mine! I’ll grant it looks dull in the extreme, but at least it isn’t screaming ‘Centauri Emperor’ at every sentient creature in a ten-mile radius, hmm? Come!” And in a flutter of hands and coat, G’Kar had found himself on his feet and being dragged towards the door. The mad dash down the hallway had been as exhilarating as it was ridiculous, not to mention unnecessary, and by the time they’d climbed out of the window and were balancing their way down the rickety stairs, he felt strangely alive – more alive than he’d felt in years.
“Great Maker.” Londo took the last step to land beside him, regaining his equilibrium with a hand on G’Kar’s back. “I am getting too old for this...” The voice hitched, and G’Kar stole a look over his shoulder to find him breathing shakily, taking in their surroundings with wide-eyed fascination. He looked overwhelmed like a youngling fresh out of his pouch – a sight that made G’Kar feel suddenly self-conscious, like he’d intruded on a private moment. Averting his eyes, he let the evening air seep into his lungs and focused on the cityscape around them, trying not to wonder when Londo had last left the palace grounds. That too, he guessed, was best left unasked.
To the right of them he could glimpse the river, to the left a maze of stately buildings, pressed one against the other across streets that seemed barely wide enough to contain them. The clouds that had hovered for most of the day were dissipating, baring an extravagant swath of pink and purple that turned the rain-saturated streets into a splash of color. It only lasted for a few seconds, before the last of the sunlight dipped below the horizon and the colors became muted, but the sense of wonder, of luxury almost, remained. For a moment G’Kar had to fight a surge of jealousy that was utterly irrational. Yes, Earth had sprawling cities and nurturing rains and various other possessions his people were lacking – but they’d also just survived one of the greatest crises in their civilized history. Somehow he doubted all those fountains and gardens, the museums piled high with cultural treasure, the offices and entertainment centres, had been much comfort to the city’s inhabitants with the Drakh plague upon them.
A hearty thump on his shoulder made him spin around to find Londo’s out-of-focus look had made way for a broad grin. Too broad, perhaps, to be natural, but once again G’Kar took it in stride.
“Quite a city, eh, G’Kar? A bit pompous, perhaps –” G’Kar twitched but bit his tongue, “and I must say the state of the sidewalks is abominable, never mind the authenticity, but… Ah, bless Vir. I did not know he had it in him. Wait...” Unabashed, Londo fished in his left jacket pocket – a maneuver that caused G’Kar to squint and banish impending thoughts of human clothing style cross-referenced with Centauri anatomy – and withdrew a tattered piece of paper. “Ah. There! I asked Vir for a list of things to see, but...” He scowled as he read through it. “I do not recognize any of these.”
“Leave that to me.” G’Kar snatched the list away. “I just spent an entire evening listening to your good friend Cotto describe every square inch of this city, up to and including public restrooms, weather control systems, and recycling plants. Let’s see what...” He blinked in surprise, then shouldered Londo away as he tried to catch another glimpse from behind G'Kar's back. “Ah.” He felt a grin spread slowly across his own face as he turned Vir’s suggestions over in his head. “This proves to be an enlightening experience, Mollari. I don’t believe I will ever underestimate Cotto again. Follow me.” G'Kar wheeled around and made for the river. “It says to take the metro. Closest stop is down there.”
“ ‘Metro?’ ” Londo frowned, then hurried to catch up. “I have heard of those. Transport, aren’t they? Good – I could do with a seat and another glass of wine! They do serve drinks in this metro, I hope?”
He should have known, G’Kar thought wearily, squashed between Londo and a group of noisy Pak’Ma’Ra adorned with “I Love Paris” hats. The words ‘charming’, ‘authentic’ and ‘top tourist attraction’ combined with ‘public transportation’ should have rung the alarm bell three times over. Four, considering they’d come from Vir Cotto’s mouth. Even the argument with which he’d mollified a protesting Londo – that surely the metro trip itself would be brief, seeing as they’d already traipsed through underground corridors for twenty minutes, and how long could it take to cross a few miles by train, really?– had proven too optimistic. After a dozen stops and ten times as many passengers squeezing in and out of the carriage while poking various types of limbs and tentacles into his ribcage, he almost felt as if he was back in the shelters of his childhood, being jostled about in one of the endless bombardments.
Still, the trip was worth it, if only for the look on Londo’s face as he stood trapped between G’Kar, a metal support pole that looked as sticky as if a dozen of pouchlings had suckled on it, and even more Pak’Ma’Ra on the other side.
G'Kar leaned over and shouted into Londo’s ear: “You don’t mind I wasn’t able to procure you an aisle seat, do you? I’m sure this experience was what Cotto had in mind when he called it an ‘intimate’ and ‘unique’ form of transportation!” Resisting the temptation to chuckle, he settled for a mock-concerned frown. “Are you certain I shouldn’t have enquired for some space-sickness – I’m sorry, metro-sickness – bags from that charming store at the entrance?” He started to nudge Londo’s side, was surprised by a rush of melancholy at the old joke, tied as it was to that first joint trip to Centauri Prime and its muddled web of memories. The sensation was strong enough that he had to close his eyes, just briefly, to keep the emotion out of his face. Which he had to, for Londo’s sake as much as his own. After all, what comfort was there in bringing up a past they could never return to?
Glancing up, he was greeted by the comforting sight of Londo rolling his eyes at him. The silence that followed was atypical, however, and G’Kar peered at him from the corner of his eye. He did seem a little pale, but that in itself was no reason for alarm. Though most of his lamenting about it was for dramatic effect only, Londo’s dislike of small spaces wasn’t feigned. G’Kar had never found out how much of that was an old fear, and how much was the result of those hours spent with him in an elevator cabin, but it was definitely there to stay.
Still, G'Kar couldn’t shake the feeling something wasn’t right. Londo’s posture, for one, and the odd lack of gestures. Not that there was much space for gesticulation, but such constraints had never stopped him before. Rather than holding on to the support pole, which would have been wise, Londo's hand was hovering somewhere between his right collarbone and what G’Kar knew to be – another flash of memory, which he pressed back even more quickly than the last – the base of his first brachiarte. For a brief, irrational moment his mind supplied heart attack, but of course that was ridiculous. The Centauri right heart was located quite a bit lower, and as far as he knew, there weren’t any other obscure organs in its vicinity. Besides, Londo didn’t seem in pain. Instead he was breathing slowly, deliberately, almost as if he was – concentrating on something? Keeping control over something? Over what, though, G’Kar didn’t have the faintest idea.
The train’s brakes screeched, and G'Kar made a wild grab for the railing to keep from pitching backwards. Londo collided with him full force. Getting his wind back took longer than it should have, and it wasn’t until they had pulled to a stop and he was no longer being jostled from all sides, that G'Kar registered Londo was still clinging to his coat.
“Mollari?” Alarm bells went off in his head as he looked down at Londo, who was showing no initiative to let go of G'Kar garments. He considered the witty approach, then changed his mind and just stood quietly until the doors had closed and the carriage was moving again. “Honestly, Mollari, I am all for saving space, but…”
“G’Kar...” Londo said, in a voice that would have been more neutral than his if not for the slight tremor behind it. “Charming as all of this is, both the facilities and the company , I, ah…” He took a shuddering breath, and the mask dropped away for just a moment. “I would very much like... to step outside.” His grip on G’Kar’s coat hadn't relaxed, and the unease hardened into a sharp little knife in the middle of G'Kar's chest.
G'Kar glanced up at the overhead board to check on their progress, then back at Londo. “Two more stops. But if you want to get off at the next one –” The train gave another lurching spasm, and G’Kar’s hand moved to steady Londo's shoulder, only to have him flinch violently at the touch. It couldn’t have lasted more than a second, a flash of what looked like fear and rage mixed in with something else, something indescribable – and then Londo was pushing away from him, forcing a grimace that was a shadow of his usual one. By the time the speakers blared out their destination, G’Kar couldn’t have been more relieved to get them both out of there.
Shouldering through the crowds with Londo in tow, he tried not to wonder if it was reflex left over from those days as a bodyguard, or something far more complicated, that made him so ridiculously protective. After all, Mollari was the highest authority among his people. Not that this stood for much in G’Kar’s book, but the position had to mean something, didn’t it? At the very least, it meant Londo was perfectly capable of protecting his own skin in the snake’s nest of murder and intrigue that was Centauri Prime. It also meant he hardly needed a Narn to fuss over him on a planet as harmless as Earth.
Damn him thrice over, G’Kar thought, and steered Londo towards the first bench he spotted, forcing him to sit. Bracing himself for a barrage of protests accompanied by the requisite barbs, he was surprised not to get either. Instead, Londo leaned over and muttered something through his teeth.
“I need a drink.” His voice was thick, the words sticking in his throat.
“You need a...” Half-convinced this was a feeble attempt at a joke, G'Kar sputtered: “Mollari, don’t make me question your sanity as well as your physique. I think you’ve had quite enough...”
“I need a drink, curse it!” The sheer volume was enough to turn heads everywhere. G’Kar winced and sat down quickly. Centauri, even characteristically drunk and loud Centauri, had to be a rather uncommon sight on Earth nowadays, so it would take less than a public hissy fit for Londo to be recognized. But before he could make his point, Londo's anger evaporated as quickly as it had come. “Never mind,” he muttered, rocking back and forth in a slow rhythm, “never mind, G’Kar. We do not want to wake anything, do we?” He let out a high-pitched chuckle, not so much giddy as hysterical. G’Kar felt a shiver running through him that had nothing to do with the cold and everything with the sound of that laughter.
“What is there to wake?” G'Kar pitched his own voice to a whisper, more to calm Londo than because he believed the answer would make any sense. For the first time he realized he had nothing except Vir’s address and some credits – no communications device, not Vir’s comm code, not even an emergency service to call should it turn out Londo was having some kind of breakdown or fit or whatever this was, right here in the city’s congested belly.
“Oh, shall we say – my conscience, perhaps?” Londo shot him another crooked grin, then visibly pulled himself together. In a voice that was low and intense and suddenly, chillingly sane, he said: “G’Kar, mad as this sounds, you must believe me. I need that drink. And quickly. Before it is too late.”
“Too late for what?”, G'Kar whispered, taking Londo’s hand from where it had found his knee and squeezing it in his own without thinking. “Mollari, will you at least tell me what’s happening?”
“I can’t.” Londo shivered, his eyes fluttering shut. “Please, G’Kar, do not ask me to explain. Perhaps I can find a way to tell you… something. But not here, not now. It isn’t safe. Now get that drink. Hurry!”
G'Kar was halfway to the shop – a crowded, touristy affair that still managed to look grimy – before he realized Londo hadn’t even said which drink to buy. After a frantic minute of scouring the racks for brivari, he ditched the idea and went for whisky instead. He hoped Londo had some credits on him; this stuff was expensive enough to make even a Brakiri peddler blush. But the human at the counter didn’t bat an eyelash, and G'Kar made his way back to where he’d left Londo with a vague sense of having been, as the humans so colorfully said, ‘ripped off’.
“This is the best I could find...” He broke off, interrupted by Londo all but snatching the whisky from him and downing about a fifth of it in one long gulp. G'Kar scowled when the bottle was pressed back into his hand, but, remembering his promise, he set his jaw and stayed silent.
Londo breathed a long, shaky sigh and nudged the bottle closer towards him. “Here. Take a sip, G’Kar. Or two. It, works wonders on the nerves.” As Londo leaned back to wipe sweaty hands on his – Vir’s,G’Kar corrected himself – trousers, the relief in his eyes was unmistakable.
“Isn’t it your nerves we were worrying about?” G’Kar countered. Without waiting for the answer, he took a long gulp of his own.
“Well, you have my permission to stop worrying.” Londo worked up a ragged smile, but his eyes brooked no resistance. “Ah, there now...” He clucked his tongue with renewed fervor as he heard G’Kar start to clear his throat. “We had an agreement, did we not? Tonight, we only talk pleasure! So, tell me.” Londo pried the whisky from G’Kar’s grip and downed another inch or so. “After the worst in transportation Paris has to offer, did Vir intend for us to have some fun as well, hmm? Did he find us any stimulating entertainment? Or are we condemned to creating our own?”
‘Stimulating’ was one word for it, G'Kar admitted, squirming in the plush, awkwardly angled, tourist-tailored seat. ‘Inspired’ might be another, as was ‘decidedly unsubtle’, but the description that applied more than any other was ‘red’. Red walls, red fluffy carpets that sucked and clung at his soles, red curtains trailing from a burgundy ceiling. All designed, no doubt, to lend the place an air of luxury – and to human tastes it might very well succeed – but to him it was the color of Narn, the color of chapped earth and scorching sun, which didn’t quite serve to lift his spirits.
“Truly, G’Kar, I will never understand these humans.” Londo’s voice was an indignant hiss, far too loud to pass for a whisper, and G’Kar muttered a silent prayer of thanks to the deity who had granted them balcony seats. The view might not be spectacular, but at least it was private. “Tell me,” Londo continued, unperturbed. “Was there ever as unpoetical a name for an establishment such as this? ‘Mill’, in the Maker’s name! ‘Red Mill’, for that matter! Why, they might as well have called it ‘yellow barn‘, for all the difference it would make!”
“It does sound better in French,” G’Kar muttered, more to needle Londo than to placate him. As it turned out, Londo hardly spoke a word of the language, and of course G’Kar hadn’t hesitated to showcase his own – admittedly modest – knowledge. At least his accent was hitting the right note, he’d thought, catching the glance of the lady at the ticket desk.
Turning a deaf ear, Londo focused his attention back on the stage, and G’Kar followed his cue with some reluctance. There, too, the red was all-pervasive: red tiles, red lights, red feathers in the dancers’ dresses as they twirled around in a feverish rhythm, causing his head to spin along with them. In a way he was stunned that a thing like this still existed on Earth – was promoted as a tourist attraction, of all things – even though, as Vir had explained in great length over dinner, most of the girls had been replaced by holographic projections a long time ago. Oh, it was a sight to behold. About that he and Londo had agreed wholeheartedly. So why was it that, instead of enjoying a rare chance to indulge, he felt steeped in melancholy so deep he could barely move?
The dancers – or projections of dancers, it was impossible to see the difference from here – switched to a furious skirt-waving, foot-stomping beat, and G'Kar leaned over towards Londo, hoping for more distraction of the verbal kind. But the steady flow of witticisms had stopped, and at first he didn’t realize why; not until the lights flared bright to announce the end of one dance and the beginning of another, and even then he had to blink repeatedly to convince himself of what he saw.
A tear had slipped down Londo’s face.
His expression was halfway between rapture and anguish, and for the first time G’Kar registered the crisscross of lines and mottled patches where once there had been healthy, puffed Centauri skin. His first instinct was to turn his head, to keep up the pretense, except he couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away, or think of any clever line to snap them both out of it.
“Mollari?” Londo turned too-bright eyes on him, and there it was again, that fierce protectiveness, uprooting his defenses like one of those desert storms from when he was a child. “Are you all right?” G'Kar added, but Londo’s face had already closed down again, surprise transformed into an irritated scowl.
Londo's brow knotted as if he’d said something absurd. “Of course I am all right. Except that this floor looks like has not been dusted in the last two centuries, which is...” He gave an exaggerated sneeze. “... terrible for my allergies! Not to mention those pillows. Bah, dreadful! We should ask for our money back, don’t you think?” Londo's voice cracked slightly, and the next moment they were both blinking down, to where G’Kar’s hand had covered Londo’s wrist on the armrest. He didn’t even remember putting it there.
Londo’s hand shifted a little under his, but didn’t pull away. “You haven’t changed, G’Kar.” Londo took a shivery breath, then another. “Do you know I had almost convinced myself that neither had I? But I was wrong, wasn’t I?” The hand freed itself, unexpectedly, and before G’Kar quite realized what was happening, it was on the back of his scalp and drawing him close, closer...
The kiss itself was a flood of memory, too-soft lips and yielding skin and the smoky taste of whisky making his head swirl and his heartbeat shudder through his skull. Cupping those cheeks in his hands, letting his own lips trace the outline of the jaw, the chin, down to the little hollow at the base of the throat, G'Kar could almost forget how much older they both were, how much less likely to ever do this again.
It was only as Londo’s hands slid towards his waist, began to tug at the fastening of his belt, that he remembered where exactly they were.
“Mollari.” Breaking away, it was all he could do to keep his breath from hitching. “Really, this isn’t… We’re in a public space, watching a public –”
“Are we?” Londo was panting a little, seeming less annoyed than regretful at the interruption. “I was under the impression we were on a private balcony, no? And as far as I heard, ‘making out’ in the back row of a theatre is practically an Earth tradition.” There was a not ungentle pat on his knee. “Of course, if you insist on being paranoid, what can I say? Come. Let’s go outside.”
Afterwards, G'Kar remembered nothing of leaving, except that the glare of cheap neon outside – another attempt at historic accuracy, no doubt – had sent him fleeing into the first unlit street. Steep and uneven as it was, it nonetheless felt good to walk there, more real in a way than the rest of the city had been. They wandered in silence, for the most part, stopping occasionally to comment on a building, a street name, a quaint little shop, but otherwise not saying much at all. Londo had bought more wine at the bar, an expensive Bordeaux the name of which was more impressive than the taste. They passed the bottle between them in a comfortable rhythm, even though it was Londo who did most of the drinking and G’Kar most of the carrying. For some reason he felt drawn to go up, to climb the winding little streets, some instinct leading him towards higher ground. Londo seemed content to follow, and it surprised both of them when they turned a corner – an ordinary corner of a perfectly ordinary alley – to find themselves looking down on an endless staircase, the whole of Paris glittering at their feet.
“Sacré-Coeur,” G’Kar murmured, wheeling around and wondering how in G’Quan’s name they’d missed the towering, whipped-cream-white structure in coming up the hill. “It means ‘Sacred Heart’,” he added. “It’s a church, quite famous here.”
Londo followed his look, then shrugged and turned back towards the cityscape. “Centauri churches do not have names,” he said, almost dreamily. “Mansions are given names, yes, and taverns, and brothels – but religious buildings, never.” A sigh. “These humans are strange creatures, are they not? Giving their cathedrals names they should give their brothels, and their brothels names that... well, that shouldn’t be given to anything, if you ask me.” There was no disdain in his tone. If anything, he seemed wistful.
Somewhere down in the city, a bell started tolling, the sound carried up towards them by a cool autumn wind. Lower down, a group of youngsters sang loudly, accompanied by wooden instruments and vigorous clapping of hands, with more groups sprawled across the rest of the stairs. Londo had wandered down a few steps, head tilted a little as if to better hear the tolling chimes, and G’Kar moved to stand beside him.
“Do you know the Earth tale of Cinderella, G’Kar?” Londo asked, out of the blue.
G'Kar shook his head, then realized Londo wasn’t looking at him but at the city and added, a bit nonplussed, “No. No, I have to say I don’t.”
“Vir once gave me a book as a gift: Earth fairy tales. You should read it once. It is quite telling, actually.” He shot G'Kar a look that seemed more serious than the topic warranted. “So this ‘Cinderella’ is a servant girl, hmm? Who is given the chance by a magical creature – don’t look at me like that, I did not invent the story – to attend a ball at the royal palace. The condition is she must leave before midnight, because when the clock strikes twelve, the spell will cease working, taking her clothes and jewels and carriage with it, and she will simply be her plain self again.” A hand trailed lightly across G'Kar's back. “In the end she runs off, leaving her shoe behind on the palace stairs. But you know, G’Kar, what is funny? In these stories, it is always the palace that is painted like paradise, and the world around it like something to escape from. It seems no one has ever stopped to think... it might be the other way around.”
G'Kar took a breath and let it out, the cold molding it into a tiny puff of vapor. “Mollari…” The words stuck in his throat, because of course he already knew the answer. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because it is my time to go now, G’Kar.” The hand on his back wandered, buried in the hollow between his shoulder blades. “Palace stairs, hmm? What more appropriate place, even if this is not a palace, but a church named like a brothel...”
“Go?” G'Kar shivered involuntarily at the touch. “You’re only leaving in the morning. Where do you need to go tonight?”
“To pay… the price that must be paid for a night of freedom.” Londo's palm trembled as it slid down along his spine. “A price I must pay very soon now, G’Kar. Very soon.”
G'Kar caught Londo's forearm and squeezed in acknowledgment, if not understanding. “All right. Then I’ll walk you home.”
“No.” Sharp nails dug into his sleeve, though not nearly hard enough to penetrate the fabric. “I’m sorry, G’Kar, but you cannot. In fact, I must ask you... not to come back to Vir’s house until noon tomorrow. Until after I am gone.”
G'Kar blinked, feeling lost. Londo’s free hand was perched at his shoulder again, and for some reason the gesture filled him with foreboding. “But why? Can you at least tell me –”
“Not here.” Long beat. “But perhaps this...” Hesitant, Londo pulled a folded paper from his coat pocket. “... will explain what I cannot. I wrote it tonight, just before we left, so I do not claim it to be coherent. In fact, I can guarantee it is not, but I believe you will find it enlightening nonetheless.” He held on to the letter even as G’Kar closed his fingers about it. “But you must promise me – swear to me, on your soul – that you will do two things. Under no circumstances are you to read this before I am off-planet, or speak of this to anyone! No one, G’Kar, because if you do, the consequences will be…” A shuddering breath. “Well – what I have written should give you an idea of the consequences. If you wish, if you believe the time is right, you may tell Vir. I trust your judgment in that. But no one else, do you understand?”
“Yes… Yes, I understand.” G'Kar's eyes prickled as he pried the paper from Londo’s hand, because the worst thing was he did understand. Or well enough, in any case. “I swear. Vir, no one else.”
“Good.” Letting go, Londo seemed to steel himself, put his palm on G’Kar’s chest and held it for a long moment. Then he darted forward, his lips brushing G'Kar's in a hurried gesture, and whispered against his throat: “Whatever the price – it was worth it.”
By the time G'Kar could breathe again, Londo Mollari was a burgundy dot vanishing down the staircase.
Cotto looked on the verge of tears.
Of all the observations G'Kar might have made – the eerie silence, hallway cleared of yesterday’s smattering of coats, dinner table still loaded with plates, and of course the jarring absence of all things Mollari – what stuck were the young Centauri’s eyes, how they stared at him from across the doorstep. Not reproachful, but as if he’d been waiting for G’Kar to turn up all along.
Following Vir through the house, G'Kar himself felt strangely hollow, clear of rage or tears or, in fact, any other emotion at all. In the seating room, where the bottles he and Londo had emptied still lined the windowsill, they sat side by side while Vir talked, in a tone that was odd and flat and not at all like him.
Somehow, G’Kar already knew what was coming.
“I just...” Vir shivered. “I didn’t know what to do.” His hands were clenched in his lap, his voice barely audible. “He can’t have been inside the house for more than ten seconds, and then he just... collapsed. Some kind of fit or seizure, or…” His breath caught. “I could barely hold him down. But Londo... he was so calm about it, almost as if he was used to it, if that’s even possible. Then the guards took him away. They didn’t even let me see him when they left for the ship. Gods, I just hope he’s all right. I hope he’s...”
“He knew,” G’Kar muttered, feeling dizzy. “He talked about there being a price to pay. I assumed he meant he’d have to explain himself when he got back, but…”
Vir blinked. “I – I don’t understand.” But it was dawning on him too, G’Kar saw, slow horror tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Do you mean that someone did this to him on purpose? As some kind of punishment? B-but who?”
“I don’t know,” he told Vir, hearing the steel in his own voice and not flinching from it. “But I intend to find out.”
Londo’s note was a world of dread and comfort in his hand.