Disclaimer: All things Babylon 5 owned by JMS and Babylonian Productions, all things Sandman possession of Neil Gaiman and Vertigo.
Thanks to: Andraste, both for the original inspiration and the beta- reading. It's not her fault that she challenged me to write Londo meeting one of the Endless, and I ended up introducing him to all seven.
He sat in front of the huge mirror that adorned his dressing room, all his energy spent in the final, furious argument with his father.
"You will be dead to me, do you understand?" his father had raged.
"And if that means nothing to you," his father's second wife, an eminently practical woman, had added, "consider what awaits. Who is Londo Mollari without status or title? Nothing. What skills do you possess that are of any use to anyone save to the heir of a great House? None. Unless you count on your dancer wife to support you. If she'll have you, instead of the heir she imagined herself catching."
"Londo," his father's third wife, who prided herself on her negotiating skills, had added, "you had a wonderful youth. Surely your father was more than generous. But now it is time to grow up, and assume the duties of your position, not just the privileges. If that dancer means so much to you, why not keep her around as a concubine? Who knows, in a few years she might even be acceptable as your second or third..."
"No!" his father had thundered. "No son of mine will ever be married to a dancer. He will marry Algul's daughter to restore our fortune, and that is humiliation enough."
Now they were all gone. Londo had shouted, pleaded and cursed in turn, but he might as well have been silent for all the good it had done. There was just one thing he had not said, had not so much as whispered, though it would have been his key to freedom with the girl he loved.
Then I am no longer your son.
With a poisonous, overwhelming sense of defeat he realised he had not even considered the possibility.
For who indeed was Londo Mollari if not the heir of House Mollari? His second mother's words still hung in the room like yesterday's perfume. Who could he be?
He had faced opponents in battle, had fought duels with swords and words, and nobody who knew him would have called him a coward. But as he stared into the mirror, the bitter taste of defeat in his mouth, he understood that he feared the answer.
He would have to tell her now, of course; his bride, his wife who had trusted him when he had sworn he would find a way. He imagined her face, the round, soft cheeks, the smooth feeling of her skull in his hand. Her eyes, which had looked at him with such amusement and affection when he had proposed to her, loud and clear, as he had done everything so far.
For a moment, he imagined he could see her face in the mirror instead of his own. But it was changed, so bitterly changed. Her eyes stared at him, wounded and greedy; her cheeks were no longer smooth, but plump, and instead of dimples caused by laughter, he could see a thousand little scars. Even worse, he could see blood, for she had raised a finger that bore a hook, a silver hook of the kind the Emperor might use when indulging in fishing, and with that hook, she tore open her own flesh.
He recoiled in guilt and horror, and the image vanished. There was nothing in the mirror but his own face.
Despair had claimed him.
Londo was in his late twenties, and his death dream had not presented itself. Most Centauri would have taken this as a sign of good fortune. Those who didn't dream their own mortality until their thirties were usually considered to be blessed by the gods.
But Londo found himself growing impatient. The suspicion that his might not be the heroic destiny he had hoped for, the destiny he needed to justify his choices, had been growing in him. It was as if every cup of brivari, every kiss from a stranger held a question for him, and the question was always the same: Is this all? Will there never be more to my life than that?
After quarrelling with his wife Timov yet again, he spent an entire night walking through the capital instead of wiling the hours away in a more agreeable fashion. He could not have said why. Finally, he sat down in a pavillion built to overlook the lake Cami. The marble felt cool and comforting under his hot and damp skin, and he decided to rest for a while, to await the sunrise.
He must have dozed off, for when he opened his eyes again, the sun was already there. In fact, it shone so brightly that he hardly could see the man standing in front of him. He was tall, clad in the imperial white, and for a moment Londo feared he had insulted the Emperor himself by staring at him like an uncouth child.
But the Emperor was hardly taller than Londo was, a stocky figure of a man; whereas this fellow was a thin, long blade erect towards the sky. His hair crest was of a feathery white as well, and the snow on the mountains of Biala was not as bright and smooth as his skin. The only colours on him were the green pendant he wore around his neck, a jewel strangely unadorned, and the blackness of his eyes. They held the night sky in them, without any promise of light.
Not knowing what else to do, Londo bowed, for no matter his nature, the stranger was clearly no commoner.
"My lord," Londo said.
The white man inclined his head.
"Often have you travelled through my realm, Londo Mollari," he began, "and I have marked you as my own. Yet you would seek a boon from me that your kind would be better without. Why?"
Londo then understood, in the sudden and complete way one does in dreams, that the young man was none other than the Lord of Dreams, no god, but something else altogether.
"Because," he answered truthfully, "this dream will be mine, and this fate will be mine. I will not inherit it. I will not receive it because of tradition. I will not give it away for the sake of status and family."
The Dreamlord sighed, and his youthful, ancient face changed for a moment, as if a wind had blown over a field covered in fresh snow.
"You do not know what you are asking for," he said. "But then this is true for most mortals. So be it. Receive your boon."
When Londo Mollari awoke, he had dreamt his death for the first time. No Centauri alive could claim such detailed, rich knowledge of his own doom awaiting. In the following years, he dreamt it again and again. He also was visited by other dreams, but their ruler did not speak to him again for as long as he lived.III. Desire
After the strange young man with his question of wanting and his career-saving gift had disappeared without a trace before Londo could thank him properly, the urge to celebrate was left unsatisfied. Consequently, Londo went to the Dark Star on his own. The unexpected return of the Eye had left him in such a good mood that even the sight of G'Kar, huddled away on one table with not one but two dancing girls, couldn't spoil it. For a moment, he was tempted to ruin G'Kar's day by inviting every single guest currently in the Dark Star to drink to the renewed luck of the great Centauri Republic.
Then he spotted a most unusual person, and the urge to taunt his rival was forgotten. It was a Centauri, without a doubt; the hair crest and the most elegant suit in purple velvet led Londo into assuming it was a man at first, until the person came closer, and he could discern a most shapely bosom and hips that spoke of a woman. In fact, this Centauri resembled no- one as much as the goddess Li whose statue adorned Londo's quarters.
The person came closer still. There was a smell of starlaces about her, or him, which brought back memories of Adira. The eyes, though, held nothing of Adira in them. They were golden, as enticing, compelling and cruel as passion itself.
"So this is Londo Mollari," said the creature and laughed, with a sound as clear and cutting as diamonds falling to a floor of glass, "who does not believe in gods yet thinks he knows their voice."
"Who are you?" Londo asked, bewildered and fascinated. In earlier days, he would have at least tried to believe that Li herself had appeared to him, but those days were over.
The person laughed again.
"Wrong question," it said, and was now close enough that he could notice the white, soft skin which did not seem to have any pores at all. It reminded him of something, but all memories had fled before the present.
Suddenly, he felt the lips of the stranger on his own, warmer than fire, and then the grazing of sharp teeth.
"Don't pay any attention to what the others say," the voice, low and rich, murmured in his ear. "You're mine, and you always will be. I am Desire."
From one heartbeat to the next, it disappeared. Londo stood alone, an untouched glass in his hand, and felt slightly foolish, especially since G'Kar, who had apparently watched the entire encounter, was smirking at him from the corner.
But the words had been spoken, and he never forgot them.
Mr. Morden had a penchant for meetings in the artificial gardens Babylon 5 boasted of. At first, this had pleased Londo; he was fond of gardens as well. Now, however, with the news that the Centauri would not, after all, have to concede yet more territory waging an uneasy war in his heart with the thousands of Narn who had died when Mr. Morden's associates made this possible, Londo wished the conversation they were about to have would take place elsewhere.
It was so easy to get lost in this garden; doubtlessly some human architect had thought it charming and quaint to arrange for a labyrinth. And so it might be if one strolled through it arm in arm with a lady; but not in a situation when urgency was of the utmost importance.
Londo hastened his step when he spied a shape ahead of him, only to find it was not Mr. Morden at all. Yet he did not grow angry; the figure suddenly standing in front of him, hooded and cloaked in simple brown, could be none other than a technomage. A good omen if ever there was one. Perhaps his doubts had been misguided. After all, he had been offered a chance to restore the Republic to its old glory, and could not afford to be squeamish. He had not known a technomage was on the station, but then, mystery was the technomages' way.
Londo was about to greet the technomage with the utmost courtesy when he noticed something else. It might have been the fault of the artificial lighting, but try as he might, he could not see the tall, hooded figure cast any shadow.
"You do belong in my garden," said the man, and his voice sounded like the rustling of leaves, like the pages turning in the book he carried with him, and from which he barely glanced up, which was not exactly polite. "I am sorry."
Irritated, Londo snapped: "Sorry for what?"
Pity from strangers was even harder to bear than derision, and he had assumed those times were finally over.
Then he heard his own voice call for Mr. Morden, and turned around in confusion and surprise. There was no one. He turned back to the technomage, but he, too, was gone. It seemed there was nothing to it but to continue on his way. Perhaps this entire encounter had been Morden's idea of a joke, and had been engineered by the young man's mysterious associates.
Shrugging, Londo went on and for the second time in a day met Destiny.
He saw the accusation in everyone's eyes, ever since his return, and it maddened him. It brought back the other sight, the one he couldn't erase anymore, not even in his dreams. The planet Narn, bombarded by mass driver after mass driver, just as Refa had ordered. And his own face, mirrored in the ship's window. Saying nothing.
The only being on the station still talking to Londo for non-professional reasons right now was Vir, and Vir's eyes held the same horror. Which made the invitation he received not just a surprise but a miracle, of sorts.
Londo had arrived at the bar with the firm intention of getting drunk. He had expected the usual mixture of Centauri who wanted favours from the newly powerful ambassador and guests from other races bent on giving him a wide birth.
What he had decidedly not expected was a Narn sitting down next to him, in the most casual manner possible. There was no hatred in the red eyes, either. Most incongruously the fellow was dressed in the garments human dock workers wore. When the first words out of his mouth were "Mollari, how about a drink?", Londo was ready to bolt.
His first idea involved an elaborate revenge scheme of G'Kar's, but panicked as though Londo was, his common sense reasserted itself long enough to point out that this was unlikely. For one thing, the draconian punishments threatened for any Centauri death at a Narn's hands made it rather certain even the Narn with their primitive directness would not initiate a murder by letting one of their own approach the ambassador of the Centauri Republic in the open. For another, Londo was willing to bet any sum that G'Kar would not allow anyone but himself to kill, torture or otherwise abuse Londo Mollari. One could always count on G'Kar's sense of offended possessiveness in these matters.
"I'll take that as a yes," the odd Narn said and, after placing his order to a stunned barkeep, added: "You don't happen to be interested in art, do you, Mollari? I could give you some tips about a career change."
"Are you sure you are a Narn?" Londo said, his own words sounding clumsy and completely unfitting in his ears, while he wondered whether the whole thing could be explained by a changeling net.
The Narn shrugged.
"Nah. I can't help it if you see me like that. Your choice, my friend."
Talking the glasses from the trembling hand of the barkeep, he pressed one into Londo's fingers and raised the other one. His cheerful, unconcerned voice suddenly grew very serious.
"And speaking of choices – don't."
"Don't what?" Londo asked back and decided to go along with the flow until things made sense again. He downed the glass in one shot. The unfamiliar form of alcohol burned somewhat bitter but not unpleasant in his throat. And here he had assumed he already knew all Earth drinks worth knowing.
"Don't assume there isn't one anymore. That's what the others tell you, of course. They told me, too, but here I am, having quit anyway. And so can you."
Downing his own glass, the Narn rose from his barstool and clapped Londo on the back.
"If you insist on following me, think about that career change as well, Mollari. Being Destruction just isn't worth it."
Once, only a few years and yet a lifetime ago, his mind had been invaded and turned inside out by G'Kar. Then, Londo had believed there could be little worse than this enforced intimacy.
The thought almost made him laugh now.
What had happened with G'Kar had taken a short while, and he had understood the reason all too well. The Keeper, on the other hand, was eternal. Only a few days had passed since Londo had accepted the Keeper to save his people, but it already seemed to be years. There was no corner in his heart or soul the parasite could not pry into when it wanted to, and through it the Drakh Entire. It felt like being flayed alive, again and again, not in hatred and passion but with a cold, alien curiosity as relentless as it was repulsive.
Not for the first time, he considered suicide. Not for the first time, he thought that he might just manage a fatal cut before the Keeper could stop him. Not for the first time, he dismissed the idea.
If it were that easy, the Regent would have chosen this way out long before the Drakh made him turn off the defence grids. Besides, dying now would mean leaving Centauri Prime at the tender mercy of these creatures. No, he could not permit himself to die until he had found a way to ensure Centauri Prime would be free again.
You will never be free, whispered the voice of the Drakh through the Keeper, and Londo shuddered, though it did not surprise him the Drakh had chosen this moment to listen. The creature loved to remind him of his helplessness.
Alone in the room where he had once watched Cartagia talk to a rotting bunch of heads, Londo reminded himself how convinced Cartagia had been of his all-encompassing power. Just like the Drakh. That had to mean something.
He opened another bottle. He wanted to get truly drunk tonight, which he hadn't been since... yes, Sheridan's and Delenn's wedding. Londo recalled getting drunk with G'Kar on the way back to the station, recalled being happy and relaxed and playful, and the brivari grew tasteless in his mouth. Too bad his body was not willing to let him forget that early.
Suddenly, he wondered whether a Keeper would have been waiting for Cartagia if the mad Emperor had not been... removed first. Whether he could wish that thing even on Cartagia, whom he had hated.
"He was one of mine," said a young female voice, "but I didn't like him very much."
Londo looked up in disbelief. Nobody should have been able to get past the guards, and certainly not the person he saw. It was a young girl, so young, in fact, that she had not yet shaved her head. Her wild, red hair was unbraided and uncovered. She wore a tattered dress that could have been beautiful once upon a time, but now looked as if it had been stitched together out of a thousand silken rags. She sat on the desk where the heads had rested, revealing legs covered by stockings that were full of holes and stitches as well. Her eyes wandered vaguely around the room before settling on him again, and he noticed they were of two different colours, one green and one blue.
She clapped her hands together and beamed at him.
"I knew I'd get to play with you, too. All the others did. Have you seen my doggie?"
If he hadn't been wrong about the state of his inebriation, action was called for. He didn't want to imagine what the Drakh would do with this child if they felt threatened by her, and anyone who could get past the guards and all the security systems without raising any kind of alarm could be regarded as a threat.
"Young lady," he said slowly, "you should leave now."
She pouted. Her hair didn't look red anymore. Instead, it carried a multitude of colours, and started to fall out on the left side, as if her head was trying to reach the state of an adult woman, with only limited success.
"But I want my doggie!" she protested. "He's a nice doggie, much nicer than the thing on your shoulder. Did you know you have a spidery thingie on your shoulder? Awful. Sounds like farting balloons when it snores."
By now, he could make an educated guess as to the kind of being she was. Miraculously, it did not trigger a response from the Keeper, or the Drakh. In fact, he had not heard any voice but hers since she had started talking with him. Just in case he was wrong, though, Londo took another drink, then replied:
"My dear girl, there are people here who would hurt you, and I have caused enough suffering for two lifetimes, yes? You should remove yourself from my company."
By now, her head was completely bald, but if anything, it made her look younger. It was probably due to the shadows falling on her face as she moved, but for a moment, her eyes seemed to have the same colour.
"Oh," she said. "Oh. You're not mine at all, are you? Yet you were, when I was Delight. But Humpty Dumpty fell from the wall, and all the Light's horses and all the Narn's men can not put either of us back together again."
Her voice was too old for her now; it should have belonged to an opera singer who had attempted the perfect pitch once too often. It had no business wrapping her slight figure in brokenness and inconsolable grief.
"I'm sorry," he found himself saying.
Then she laughed, spun on her heel, and a million butterflies escaped from her outstretched fingers.
"Weren't you looking for something?" she asked, and added: "But you can't have my doggie. He was a present from my brother, and I lost him a million years ago."
Londo was about to reply that he had stopped looking for something altogether when he reconsidered.
"Silence," he said. "A few minutes of silence and freedom. And it seems, dear lady, that you have given me this already."
For he was quite sure now that it was she who kept the Keeper at bay.
The girl laughed again, and her regrown red hair covered most of her face as she shook her head.
"Silly man," she said fondly. "You can find that in the bottle. Did you forget?"
He found he could hardly breathe. So alcohol was too much for that parasite to handle, was it? Well. He had a weapon, then. It might not be much, and could be used only very sparingly, or it would grow ineffective. But it was a weapon. It was hope.
"Or," she said, somewhat distracted by the effort of chasing after her butterflies, "you could visit me. Come to stay. I love visitors. They don't ever leave if I don't want them to, you know. "
Permanent madness did have its allure; it certainly would let him forget the guilt of the past, and the horror of the present. But even if she had not just returned hope to him, Londo would have declined. It would have meant betrayal of the Centauri, as surely as suicide would, and he said as much. The girl wrinkled her nose.
"I don't think that word means what you think it does," she replied. "But I said that to my brother once, when I was really worried about him. He smelled better than you, too."
With that last shot, she turned into a collection of bright lights and disappeared. The guards outside, hearing Londo laugh for the first time since his inauguration, shrugged. It fit with the new Emperor's reputation that he would find amusement only in his drunken delirium.
The young woman smiled at him. She stood where a few moments ago G'Kar had been, a slight figure dressed in black trousers and a tight waistcoat of the kind Cartagia had made popular, though even Cartagia would have been scandalized to see a woman dressed in male clothes. Or, more likely, annoyed that he hadn't thought of it first.
Her black silken braid fell over her shoulders as she put her hands on her hips and said, sounding amused and disapproving:
"For someone who has claimed to have been married to me, you certainly took your time."
Then he knew who she was. Truly, the title had been wasted on Mariel.
"My lady," he said with a bow, "it was you who kept me waiting. But then, that is a lady's privilege, and it makes your appearance all the more welcome."
"I can't believe it, Mollari," said an annoyed Narn voice behind him. "For once in your life you managed to get something right, and saved your people, and now here you are, courting Death all over again."
It was only then that Londo understood, truly understood what had happened. He was free. He did not feel the Keeper anymore, nor did he feel the numbing burden of guilt, soaked in brivari and despair. He was dead now, and so was G'Kar. The Drakh could not touch either of them ever again. Sheridan and Delenn had escaped. They would be true to their word and help Vir to restore Centauri Prime.
Turning around, he felt grief as he watched Vir kneel by the two dead bodies, but it was grief mingled with pride when Vir took the imperial seal and used it to squash the Keeper.
"He will be alright," Londo said fondly, "and he will make a fine Emperor."
"Now that you are no longer around, of course he will," G'Kar returned waspishly. He straightened his gloves, and Londo felt tempted to point out what a profoundly useless gesture this was now, given the circumstances, when G'Kar pre-empted him by addressing the lady in black.
"Let me express my gratitude for your presence, my dear. I was afraid of having to spend eternity stuck with a far worse sight," he finished, glaring at Londo.
"I do not recall mentioning anything about spending eternity with you," Londo returned heatedly.
"That's it," the lady interrupted. "Boys, you've got to learn to cut out the dramatics. Or at least cut them short. Hard as this may be to believe, you are not the only ones in need of my attention right now."
She stretched out one slender, white hand to either side. "Are you coming?"
They looked at each other.
"In truth," G'Kar said, leaving it open whom he was addressing, "I could not wish for a better companion."
As the Narn touched Death's left hand, Londo grasped her right. Without changing the direction of his gaze, he said:
"In truth, neither could I."
Then Death took them both.