Disclaimer: Characters and situations owned by JMS, Babylonian Productions, Rockne O'Bannon and Jim Henson Productions.
Timeline: post-Peacekeeper Wars for Chiana, decades pre-pilot for Londo Mollari. (The incident from Londo's youth referenced to Garibaldi in A Voice in the Wilderness and to Sheridan in The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari.)
Author's note: This year, Andraste let it slip that the idea for the Multiverse ficathon years ago had been due to her wish to see me write Londo/Chiana. Of course, she never requested this. Which is why she gets it anyway. This is for you, Andraste.
Shades of Grey
She needed a crystal, pure and simple. Chiana had no intention of remaining in the part of the galaxy a freak accident had delivered her into, and she didn't have the intention of leaving without some reward to herself, either. Maybe there would have been easier ways to achieve both goals than to steal some fabulous jewel from the Royal Collection on Centauri Prime. But they sounded like far less fun.
Her cover was playing a dancer in a tavern. According to her contact, this particular one was frequented by a lot of young nobles. Chiana's first idea had been to get hired as a dancer by the palace itself, then steal the Tear of Bistas, but security for any employees of the Royal Court was surprisingly tight. Poison as a regular way of getting higher office do that to a society. On the other hand, the Centauri aristocracy seemed to put great weight to its dignity, and Chiana was willing to bet they wouldn't give some noble's arm candy more than superficial investigation, if any, if he brought her along. She just needed to find the right mark: someone who didn't rank so high all eyes would automatically be on him, just enough to get her inside the palace without too many questions, and someone who wouldn't be bright enough to question a dancing girl's desire to attend the royal court just once.
Unfortunately, her first choice let her down. She had underestimated just how proud these Centauri were. Young lord something or the other sobered up post haste and removed his hands from her breasts as soon as she as much as breathed a hint of "take me to court". All she got out of it was the pleasure of twisting one of his brachiarte in retaliation. Knowing how to deal with a guy's tentacles really paid off sometimes. But this still left her no closer to the Tear of Bistas, and without the Tear of Bistas she wouldn't get home.
She did her fire sticks routine with a bit more anger than usual that evening, and found herself cheered by everyone in the tavern. Everyone, that was, except for a young man sitting gloomily in a corner, the hair crest these Centauri wore almost drooping. If there was one thing Chiana was more than familiar with, it was young male adolescent sulking. She pushed away memories of Jothee that made her still feel guilty and thought about young John Crichton instead, calling her "Karen Shaw". Smiling, she went to the brooding boy, chucked her fingers under his chin, lifted it and kissed him on his shaven Centauri forehead.
"Whatever it is", she murmured, "it can't be that bad."
The boy looked at her. He wasn't handsome, but he had an interesting face, with his beaky nose, generous mouth and dark eyes that widened at the sight of her. Then he surprised her. The skin around his eyes crinkled. He gave her a quick smile which she didn't have time to measure as he got up from his chair and kissed her back, on the mouth this time. What was more, he actually knew how to kiss. Not quite the clumsy virgin she had pinged him as, then.
"Not anymore", he said, once they let go of each other. "How could it be, when a goddess graces me with her presence?"
Bombastic, like most Centauri, but he kept smiling at her while he said it. Either he really had just been sulking, or he covered up whatever he had been upset about as fast as Chiana herself would have done in his place. Whatever was true, he just could be her ticket into the palace. Judging by the quality of his waistcoat which she let her fingers explore, he wasn't anyone's servant, and if he had been of truly high rank, he wouldn't be here alone. The question was whether he would turn out to be as snobbish as his predecessor.
"Do Centauri have non-Centauri goddesses?" Chiana asked, only half teasing. She had considered altering her skin colour for the heist but ultimately decided it wasn't worth it. Nobody here knew the Nebari, which was refreshing, or that she had been an escaped criminal for the longest time of her life.
"Are you looking for worshippers?" he asked back, instead of answering the question. He took one of her hands from his waistcoat and raised it to his lips. "Londo Mollari of the House Mollari is volunteering", he continued, "but currently out of money. If you are content with a song or a poem, you have an adorer, my goddess."
As ways to make clear he wasn't going to pay for her company went, this one didn't make her want to slap him but kept her smiling. Still, if he was hopelessly in debt, he wouldn't be going to any court parties soon. Ah well, thought Chiana. He did give the impression of being fun, and one night of fun before going back to planning her heist might just be what she needed.
"I'm a dancer", she said. "How could I resist some music?"
She had one of her bad dreams that night, not the one about D'Argo dying but the one where everyone else did. And the worst thing was that Crichton was there and let Scorpius shoot her, and she was somehow Aeryn, too. It didn't make any sense, but waking up, she found her face covered with tears. Reminding herself that it was only a frelling dream, that she'd get back home where everyone would be alive didn't help, because everyone wasn't. She tried to remember what D'Argo had smelled like and for a moment she couldn't, and the tears her stupid dream had left her with became more. Then she felt a hesitant hand on her face, someone's thumb trying to stroke her tears away.
"Whatever it is," the boy from last evening said, "it can't be that bad, hm?"
"Oh, but it is," she said before she could stop herself and become careless Chi the dancing girl again. She had forgotten he was still there, and hadn't left after what had been some fun exploration into new possibilities. They weren't exactly matched biologically, but she had slept with a lot of people who were different from her, and finding out how to put his six tentacles to good use despite the fact she had a single vagina instead of the matching organs had been a mutual game of discovery. He had muttered something about never having gone all the way to six before proving he hadn't been joking about poems, making one up about her mouth on the spot. But she still hadn't expected him to stick around for the rest of the night.
"Maybe you should go", she said, and had to wait until his name came back to her, "…Londo."
"That would make me a faithless worshipper", he said, with that odd mixture of boyish sincerity and polished courtly jesting. He didn't ask her what was troubling her, though. Instead, he put an arm around her and held her while she cried the last of her tears and pushed the past and the longing for a different present back where it belonged, hidden under her skin so she could do what she did best, run and never get caught.
It wasn't until the next morning he started to become trouble, and revealed how young he really was. That was when he told her he was in love with her and would like to marry her.
Chiana didn't have any false modesty; she wouldn't know the meaning of the word. Running, fighting, dancing and stealing weren't the only activities she was really good at; frelling was definitely near the top of that list. She also knew some guys were impressionable. If she was honest with herself, she had to admit that one of the reasons why she had taken her chance and slept with John Crichton's younger self during that time travel experience was because she knew he'd never forget it and would know what it was like every time he looked at her in the present. He and Aeryn were made for each other, she knew that, and she didn't really want from him what Aeryn had anyway. But she still wanted him to know, and now he did.
All this being said, she had never expected one night with her to result in a marriage proposal from a Centauri noble. All she had originally wanted was someone to get her inside the palace, and then some fun. Marriage proposals freaked her out, not just because of D'Argo but because of memories of The Establishment. She had seen how Centauri wives were treated on this planet, or rather, she hadn't; they weren't around in any taverns, having fun, for starters. Men were allowed several wives but women seemed to have no choice in the matter. Even if for some horrible reason she wouldn't be able to return to the Unchartered Territories, there was no way she'd settle for something like this.
At first, she refused to take the whole thing seriously, but that otherwise lethal weapon to the pride of young men, laughter, did not work. Then she decided to get him talking, because for all his vows that lightning had struck and he had fallen in love with her at first sight, she sensed there was something else to this sudden proposal. Finding out what it was, Chiana thought, might rid her of the problem. As it turned out, Londo was currently going through some kind of youthful rebellion she'd have empathized more with if she hadn't been chosen as its instrument. He was expected to marry some rich girl he had never seen to improve his family's finances.
"When my father told me", he said, "that was when I realised. My whole life is going to be just like his, and his father's, and all our ancestors' except for the one who actually managed to become Emperor, the only one House Mollari ever produced. I will do my duty and marry and attend the royal court, day in, day out, I will scheme to get close enough to the Emperor to be deigned worthy of a sentence or two, and that will be the highlight of my life, and then my son will go through the whole thing all over again. Bah. I might as well be a puppet! Nothing I will accomplish will ever make a difference to anyone, and when I die, I will be quietly forgotten. I want to be alive, Chiana, and you – you make me alive. This is my last chance to follow passion's call, not duty's!" he finished, having worked himself up into speech that might as well be thundered from the city walls, complete with grand gestures. One could see he had been trained for a life in politics.
"You are young," Chiana said with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. "There will be plenty of other chances. And hey, why not try running away of your own if you can't stand your life? That's what I did, and trust me, my people make yours look like the best thing ever. You don't need me for running away, just your own two feet."
"But I love you," he said, looking at her soulfully. "You are beautiful, and kind, and the goddess of passion herself."
"You don't even know me, and you know nothing of love", Chiana said, exasperation winning out. Unfortunately, Londo Mollari seemed incapable of understanding the word "no". Not that he grew violent or unpleasant; she could have dealt with either and shown him a few things about male anatomy he didn't expect. No, he just made himself into her shadow, showing up at the tavern whenever she did, showing up with flowers and delicious food each morning, finding new words to rhyme "Chiana" with, and making it utterly impossible for her to meet her contact or find a new mark or make any kind of progress in her planned heist. At last, she thought: Fine. You have it coming.
If he insisted, she would use him then, and maybe finding out he had been her dupe would cure him from the habit of confusing a good frelling and some shared comfort with love. So she accepted his proposal, and was about to add that she wanted to be taken to court as an engagement present when he threw her by asking her for the names and current addresses of her friends and family, so they could be invited to the wedding.
"I told you I can't stand my people, and what makes you think I have any family or friends I want around?" Chiana demanded, trying to cover her surprise and the unwanted pain that tried to get through her barriers.
"Because you miss them", Londo replied, and at that moment didn't look naïve or stubborn at all. "You miss them every day, and it hurts you. Don't you think I can see that, my dove?"
"You don't know anything about pain, either," she said angrily, and then took a breath. "Look. I've said yes. But if we don't do this quickly, I'll change my mind again. Or maybe you will. If you talk with your family and friends. Whom I haven't met."
As she had hoped, this made him look guilty, because he understood the implication. "I am not ashamed of you", he protested. "I just – you're right. We should marry now, and then meet everyone."
So much for her engagement present. Well, she would make it a wedding present instead. Centauri weddings, as it turned out, were gloomy affairs, which was surprising considering the Centauri loved to party on every other occasion. Or maybe it was just this wedding; she was busy telling herself it was just a sham and didn't mean anything, two Centauri officials holding swords through which she and Londo walked radiated disapproval, and the only person other than herself and Londo in attendance was Londo's friend Urza Jaddo, whom she didn't meet until shortly before the ceremony. He looked as if he was ready to burst into tears. He also wore some kind of uniform, and Londo explained Urza served in the army and would return there after the wedding.
"I did not betray you to your father," Urza said to Londo, "but you know he will never forgive you for this. Nor will his second wife, or your mother."
"I know," Londo said, and Chiana expected him to add some grandiose declaration about his being his last chance again, but he didn't. He didn't let go of her hand, either. After the wedding, he took her to the opera house of the capital, not because there was any opera currently performed but because, as he said, the sight from the roof was one of the best over the city. It was early afternoon, and the opera house was closed, due to rehearsals, but Londo's family were patrons, and so he and Chiana were let in by the porter who knew him well.
"I am not in a position to give you the world", Londo said with a rueful smile, as they climbed upwards, "but I wanted to show you the best of it on this most wonderful of days."
She was glad to be under the open air again once they had reached the roof, and she had to admit that the Centauri did know how to build; the view that greeted her was spread out like jewelry on velvet. They heard some of the singers and the orchestra rehearsing from downstairs, just fragments of notes.
"I love Centauri Prime," Londo said enthusiastically, and her mood had improved enough for her to tease him.
"Ha. I knew where was someone else in your life."
He grinned but didn't refute it. Instead, he said: "That is the beauty of a life of passion. I can love you both, yes?"
She could have told him something about loving different people, but she wasn't there to teach him lessons, except one. Though sometimes she found it more difficult than on others. Right now, she wondered, just for a second, what it would feel like to jump, and whether she could fly for a while before she splattered. She remembered taking the stone, and how furious Crichton had been with her. But he got why she had to, in the end.
"You know what I'd love for a wedding present?" she asked Londo.
"Those people you cried for", he said, all traces of a smile gone. "If there is a way to find them and bring them back to you, I will. I promise."
She couldn't possibly ask him for a trip to the Royal Palace right now, damn him. "A dance," Chiana said. "Just a dance on top of the world."
He wasn't nearly the dancer she was, but between being a sword fighter – and pushing thoughts of D'Argo and his Qualta blade back on Centauri Prime had become hard at times when Londo mentioned he was in a duelling society – and being very musical, he wasn't bad, either. They swayed to the music from the rehearsal below, and if Londo was afraid of the edge of the roof they moved to every now and then, he never showed it.
Three days after the wedding, Londo's friend Urza, looking very guilty, showed up with a stranger in tow and made himself scarce very quickly after introducing the man as Londo's father Karn. Londo himself wasn't there, and hadn't been since early in the morning, when he had left to tell his family the news.
"I will speak plainly," the Centauri noble said, looking at her with a mixture of disdain and concern. "How much money do you want for disappearing and never approaching my son again?"
Frell you, Chiana thought. Not that she didn't intend to disappear; in fact, she had secretly packed her belongings for a while now. But this high-handed manner reminded her far too much of home.
"Is that any way to speak to a member of House Mollari?" she asked sweetly, and the expression of Londo's father grew thunderous.
"Take care, woman. You are not even a citizen of this planet, and you do not belong to any species we have treaties with. You could disappear tomorrow, with no one the wiser, and not out of your own free will. We have a long tradition of forgetting people in cells here on Centauri Prime."
"Londo wouldn't forget", she said. "Which is why you are here. So cut the dren. You want me to do the dumping so there is no danger your son tries to step out of the family line again, is that it? I bet you've been at him this entire day. Can't be going too well since iyou/i are here instead of whatever you people have as Peace Keepers."
The elder Mollari looked at her with pure loathing, but his voice remained even. "You don't understand," he said. "You can't possibly, and this is why he must divorce you and we will have to do everything to make sure this entire episode is forgotten as quickly as possible. If he is not Londo Mollari of the House Mollari, my son is nothing. He has been raised to this life, and he knows no other. If he tried to play merchant or, gods help us, poet, he would soon starve, and you with him, and in the meantime, our family would suffer. His cousins would never gain any office at court, and his mothers would live through their old age in poverty and shame. Life is not about passions, my girl. It is about doing one's duty, to one's House and to Centauri Prime. He needs to marry Algul's daughter to restore us to what is our due, and Algul rightly will not accept his daughter to be co-wife to an alien strumpet."
Suddenly, she wished she didn't regard marriage, any kind of marriage, as a trap, and didn't have friends to get back to. Just for the sake of battling it out with this walking set of traditions. Maybe even a little for Londo's sake. Looking at his father, she wasn't sure anymore Londo hadn't been right about one thing: that this was his one chance to break out of a life prescribed and pre-ordained, and oh, she knew how that felt like.
But Karn Mollari was right about something, too. Life wasn't all about passions. She had learned that. She had her own loyalties, not to the Nebari, except her lost Nerri, but to her friends in the Unchartered Territories. She needed to make sure D'Argo's little name sake was alright, and that Crichton hadn't done anything crazy lately, or Aeryn. She needed to look after Jothee, because much as what happened would always stand between them, they were the debt each owed D'Argo, and she really wanted to see Rygel as Dominar. She needed to go home. Londo had to fight his own battles.
"I'll leave Centauri Prime tomorrow," Chiana said, "if you take me to the Royal Court today."
Nobody even raised an eyebrow at the sight of Karn Mollari entering the Royal Palace with a pretty woman he wasn't married to at his side. There weren't any important receptions and ceremonies today anyway, just something to honour the veterans from the occupation army on Narn while there was yet another debate about withdrawal. Prince Turhan, the Emperor's most likely successor, was for it, and had been given the duty to decorate the veterans as some kind of punishment or attempt to persuade him otherwise. Chiana didn't really care. All she needed to know was that nobody would pay much attention to her. Karn let go of her arm as soon as possible and disappeared behind one of the seemingly endless series of tapestries and columns. She knew the layout of the palace, and where the jewel called Tear of Bistas was kept, and she had all the tools she needed with her. It didn't take her more than half an hour to get to where she needed to be, and not much longer to incapacitate the bored guard. Tight as the security of the palace was when it came to assassination attempts, apparantly it simply didn't occur to anyone people would want to steal some forgotten Empresses' necklace and its crown jewel. Centauri priorities, Chiana supposed.
She was on her way through the labyrinthine gardens where there according to the layout she had memorized there was one of the smaller exits when she ran into a familiar figure. Her husband of three days. He looked haggard, which was ridiculous given what they both had for breakfeast today, in between Chiana demonstrating how fruit juice could be used in multiple ways.
"I made Urza tell me what he'd done," he said, "when you weren't there. After I came home. And then it wasn't difficult to ask where you and my father had gone."
She opened her mouth to say something without really knowing what it would be when he raised both of his hands, palms open.
"I'm sorry," he said, voice hoarse, and then she understood. He hadn't come to reunite with her, but because his family had worn him down. He had come to tell her he would give in and divorce her. Silence fell between them. She told herself she felt relieved, but all she could feel, really, was the cool crystal of the Tear of Bistas against her skin.
"I told you you didn't know what love was," she said at last. He flinched.
"I should have…" he started, and fell silent again, but before she could say her goodbye, cutting or gentle, they both heard an outcry from inside the palace. Someone yelled about thieves and blasphemy. Londo looked at her, really looked at her, and saw what nobody else had noticed. After all, when one wanted to hide something, the least expected thing was to put it on display. Chiana wore the necklace around her neck and the jewel between her splendid breasts.
"Great Maker," he said, and she could see something changing in his eyes as the realisation hit him. It might have been a spark extinguished or ignited. She could not tell. The steps of guards in their ridiculous golden armour and with their very serious electronic weaponry came closer, and Londo suddenly swept her up in an embrace, kissing her passionately. The jewel cut deeply into her grey skin and was utterly invisible to the guards, who ran past them. Londo let her go.
"Come with me," Chiana said impulsively. "I'll be able to make it home now, with this. You don't have to stay here."
She'd have to forbid him to ever use the world "husband" or her friends wouldn't stop laughing, but between Stark and Crais, he wouldn't be the most unusual passenger Moya ever carried. Maybe he could teach Little D how to use a Qualta blade.
"Yes, I do," he said, sounding resolved, as if the young man who told her he worshipped her was already a thing in the past, all that remained of him was the sadness in his eyes. "This is my duty. This is my home."
This was how she left him; a figure walking through the gardens of the Royal Court, alone. When she looked back, there was a split second when she saw him as an old man, dressed all in white, and still alone. Her new eyes were supposed to have cured her of her visions, but no cure was ever a hundred percent, and there was something so frightening in the sight that the day grew cold around her. Then he was the young nobleman she met again, waistcoat and shirt slightly disordered from their earlier kiss, looking after her. Whatever it was going to be, Chiana decided, it couldn't be that bad. He was young. He had his life ahead. And so had she. Maybe she had forgotten that for a while, with all the grief of the past trapping her, but so had she.
Waving at Londo one last time, Chiana started to run.