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Little Blade

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Understandably, they’re guarded - he would have thought them stupid had their attitude towards him been anything less - but as Lotor steps out of his ship, palms raised toward them in a lazy gesture of no ill intent, he notices something much more surprising about the fabled Paladins of Voltron.

They are, all of them, frightfully young.

He supposes there’s no way to know for sure - he’s travelled all over the Empire, and yet their species is most certainly foreign to him - but outwardly, at least, they share some striking similarities to Altean physiology. With this as his only baseline, there’s little else to be done but assume that the Paladins, the pilots of the greatest weapon in the universe, are barely out of adolescence.

The smallest of them, armoured in green with eyes sharp enough to rival even Acxa’s most calculating glare, can’t be more than half-grown, and yet there’s no mistaking the weapon in that white-knuckle grip. Their bayard looks to remain rather compact even when activated, but Lotor knows that it’s no less deadly for its size. A Paladin is a Paladin, he supposes, even if they are fighting a war they look scarcely old enough to understand.

Rapidly, his eyes flick over the others gathered here, noting with interest that the blue Paladin bears the red bayard, its form a blaster and its sight trained on him with a steady hand. More interesting still, is that the red Paladin themselves is nowhere to be found, replaced by figure who boasts Voltron’s insignia instead marked in pink, and armed with the blue bayard; this one stands tall, removing her helmet, with the rest of the team immediately following suit, to reveal a stony visage and-

Ah.

“Princess Allura, I presume?” Altean, no doubt about it, and if he recalls correctly the history books noted pink as being the colour of mourning on his mother’s homeworld. This explains the Paladins’ disappointing level of skill - or, indeed, their complete lack thereof - in his first confrontation with them, at least. The previous red Paladin must have been lost to them. A pity, really; his father’s defeat at Central Command being such a rare thing, Lotor should have liked to meet the one who had once confronted the Emperor so brazenly on the battlefield.

“Lotor.” She is not much one for mutual respect, it seems, his title being so bluntly discarded despite his near cordial use of her own. So much for an amicable discussion.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, I’m sure.” Lotor takes another step towards her, intending only to close the distance between them and spare their voices from a stilted conversation across the cavernous landing bay, but this is clearly the wrong thing to do. Instantly, his father’s successor darts between them, right arm raised with a familiar violet hue which paints the chiselled lines of his own face with ominous shadow.

“Not to devalue our own technological advancements, but your bayard would be the superior weapon choice,” Lotor eyes the rigidity of the man’s stance, the broad set of shoulders, the knotted web of scarring across his nose, “or have you become that reliant on the Empire’s gifts, Champion?”

The man snarls, actually snarls, and for a brief moment it’s clear to the prince without ever having seen Haggar’s pet project in the arena, that he’d never truly left, the bestial fight of it still rife behind steel-grey eyes.

“Why did you help us?” The Altean princess speaks again, her demeanour unwavering but her sense of self so clearly shaken, betrayed by the unmistakable tremor of her own voice. “Why would you do that, after so long fighting against Voltron?”

“As I said before you so kindly allowed me to board your ship, I thought it high time we had a discussion.”

A discussion,” the Champion’s tone is harsh, disbelieving, “and for that you blew apart one of your own, and with it a bomb that would have destroyed Voltron for good?”

“Not mine, unfortunately.” Lotor tries for a debonair smile, but it goes unseen beneath the darkened visor of his helmet. Perhaps that is for the best. The Champion doesn’t seem much the sort to be taken in by pretty words, and Lotor severely doubts how far charisma will carry him here. “As I’m sure you’re aware, my father has risen once more, and with him the Witch, in all her malicious glory, is free to do as she pleases.”

“So Haggar tried to blow us up, what else is new? Gotta say, I’m more interested in why you stopped her.” The Blue Paladin’s tone is clipped, but at the very least to the point. Lotor finds himself almost grateful, even if such gratitude is dampened by the fact that he is still, very obviously, being held at gunpoint.

“My father’s resurrection is, I assure you, a shared nuisance; I thought you might welcome a chance to be rid of him… more permanently, this time.”

“And what, you’re just going to Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo him?” The Yellow Paladin is the broadest in stature, yet seems to shrink as soon as Lotor’s attention is turned to him.

“I know no such incantation, nor its effects.”

The blue one snorts at this, but one withering glance is all it takes to silence him, the reedy creature more hiding behind his blaster than threatening to use it.

“Do my words amuse you?”

A tightening of the lips, a short shake of the head, and none of the others seemed inclined to expand upon their comrade’s behaviour.

So disappointing, the lot of them.

Just as it seems negotiations are going to be a series of long silences and tedium, the doors of the opposite wall hiss open, and the supposed defenders of the universe give a simultaneous start. At best it is amusing, at worst humiliating. These are the Paladins who have been such a thorn in his side? All but one of them presumably the team responsible for having defeated his father, the ruler of an empire the likes of which the universe has never seen: one which encompasses billions of galaxies and has spanned for well over five Imperial millennia. Yet this is what he had fallen to?

They are no better than cowardly Arusian cubs.

Clad in Galran stealthwear, the figures that enter the room are few in number, but their leader cuts an imposing figure. Lotor had heard the rumours, of course, but the Blade of Marmora are almost as much a myth as Voltron. His father, certainly, had always implied that their order had been annihilated an eternity ago, but upon glimpsing the luminescent crest which adorns each of their weapons, there is no mistaking it.

“Marmora, yes?” A curt nod of the head greets his observation, the individual’s holo-mask dissolving to reveal a face lined with both age and scars, due to what could only be a lifetime of war. The face of a Galran commander, no doubt.

“Prince Lotor.”

Even if the Altean Princess has misplaced her manners sometime between the fall of Altea and their current situation, it seems the same cannot be said of her allies. A good thing too: Lotor will sacrifice his pride for the sake of ambition if need be, but really, he’d rather not.

“Indeed.” He makes to turn his expression more agreeable once more, only to be again reminded of his helmet. “Forgive me, I’d unmask, but I fear to do so without warning may prompt the children into doing something… untoward.”

There is disgruntled noise from the group to his left, but he doesn’t bother to turn to find out which one of the Paladins has taken offense. He hopes - and this is petty, it really is, but - he hopes the answer is ‘all of them’.

“I’m sure that won’t be an issue. Please.”

Lotor accepts the invitation with all the grace it is due, fixing his eyes on Voltron’s Princess before curling long fingers beneath the seam of his helmet - careful not to jostle his injured shoulder, lest his pain be mistaken for a weakness they might exploit - and ridding himself of it with perhaps a touch more flourish than strictly necessary.

It is worth it to see how her face crumples.

“You- You’re Altean.”

“Oh I assure you, I’m Galra,” he doesn’t miss how she winces at that, as if the very word is poison when spat from lips which almost exactly mirror her own, “born and raised. But yes, well observed, my mother’s blood is that of your kin.”

She gapes like a fish, horror and an agonised sort of longing waring over her features. In the end, it is not she who breaks the uneasy silence.

“You’re Honerva’s son.” It’s a quiet observation, subdued in its delivery, but it sets every nerve in Lotor’s body alight with adrenalin he thought he’d long since exhausted. The Prince feels the sharp jump of his jaw muscle, and can only hope that the room’s occupants are too dull-witted to have noticed the strength of his reaction.

“I am.” Blue eyes quickly find the man who had spoken: another Altean, that much is obvious, with an aged face set into a shock of obnoxious orange - and really, there must be more to him than this, because he’d somehow managed to completely evade Lotor’s notice until actively choosing to do otherwise, and that is no small thing.

“She was sickly during the pregnancy,” the man’s tone is sagely, “I wasn’t sure the babe had survived much beyond delivery, and, relations between our people being strained as they were, King Alfor thought it tactless to ask.”

There is a deep familiarity in that address, Lotor notes.

The Altean seems to be waiting for an answer, but he will be waiting a long time. Lotor’s mother is no bargaining chip, and the prince will not be baited into allowing Voltron to use information about her as such. After a moment more of tense expectation and entirely false smiles, the room’s other occupants seem to realise this.

“Well!” The moustached man claps his hands together abruptly. “If you’ll kindly allow us to disarm you I’m sure we can move this discussion to somewhere more comfortable.”

“That would be preferable.” Lotor wastes no time in drawing his sword, tactfully pretending not to notice how easily the Paladins scare, and offering it hilt-first to the Champion, who… makes no move. Raising one delicate eyebrow prompts no further response, and Lotor has half a mind just to throw the damn thing to the floor (and he would do exactly that, if he could be assured that the blue one wouldn’t reflexively shoot him in the head).

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the Altean man is the one to step forward, despite being so obviously unarmed himself, and takes the blade smoothly.

“And the gun too, m’boy!”

Lotor isn’t sure which is more distasteful, the nickname or the cheery familiarity with which it is used. Either way, he bites his tongue and removes the compact pistol from its holster, carefully handing it over. He doesn’t miss the quick appraisal by pale eyes, nor does he allow his stance to falter when the man finds him to be satisfactory, failing to detect the concealed blades in his boots, or the small phial strapped to his inner thigh.

Decaphoebs of lying to his father had offered ample opportunity to perfect his poker-face.

“Right this way!”

It’s only as he is being escorted out of the hanger that he notices it. Considering everything that has happened to him since being summoned back to serve as Emperor pro tem, he hadn’t thought there was much left that even Voltron could do to catch him off-guard.

Lotor does so hate to be wrong.

Hates it almost as much as the way his heart lurches as he is led past the Marmoran operatives only to find that among their number is one who catches his eye, otherwise indistinguishable from all the rest if not for their stature. This little Blade is just that: little, tiny, barely taller than the Green Paladin. But that one, at least, is of a species that appears to be more compact in form to begin with. For a Galra to be so small…

He’s led so close that he could reach out and touch them. He doesn’t, of course, because if he is to die here it will not be for something so foolish as sentiment, but he’s more than near enough to see that the little Blade, even when standing to attention beside their siblings-in-arms, is more than a full head shorter than Lotor himself, not to mention half as broad.

He daren’t linger. If he does, he’ll inevitably have to face the injustice of it all, the vulgarity of Voltron’s hypocritical rhetoric as Defenders of the Universe, and if that happens Marmora’s leader will have a few more scars to add to his collection.

Because the Blade apparently recruit children to fight their wars for them.

And Lotor could not be more disgusted.

 

-

 

Keith isn’t sure how long it takes him to pry apart his own white-knuckle grip on the ship’s controls, only that when he finally does so, his hands are slick with sweat and trembling uncontrollably. He slumps back into his seat with a shaken exhale.

It’s a lot to process.

Closing his eyes brings him back to that moment with startling clarity: the fraction of a tick in which he’d heard the explosion before he’d expected it, felt the heat on his face but not the all-encompassing scorching he’d been braced for, had snapped his eyes open on reflex and allowed his instincts to take over as the Empire’s super-weapon ignited in front of him, his body acting of its own accord and yanking the little fighter into a hasty roll so that it only clipped the very edges of the fire-storm which should have marked his grave.

Keith opens his eyes again and stares at the dulled console lights in front of him until his tear ducts are streaming in protest and he had no choice but to blink rapidly to alleviate the burning aridity that has set in.

“Fuck.” His mother tongue is inherently more satisfying than the Altean equivalent. There’s something to be said for the sharp simplicity of the curse, he thinks, that ‘quiznack’ simply doesn’t capture. “Fuck.”

When he eventually finds it in himself to stand on legs that don’t quite feel like his own and exit the Galra Fighter, Matt is waiting for him. Keith had expected this. He hadn’t anticipated Kolivan being here too, but he supposes that if Matt had to inform someone, then better the Blade’s commander than Shiro, whose “good work Keith” still echoes in prideful mockery.

The ferocity with which his teeth are biting into the inside of his cheek draws blood.

Matt looks braced to break his nose, whirling around from where he’d been pacing back and forth before a stoic Kolivan, but there must be something off in Keith’s expression if the way the human’s rage collapses in on itself is any indication.

“You scared the hell out of me, Kogane.”

Keith gives a slight shrug, not really trusting his own voice right now, and Matt does punch him for that - though it’s more a graze of his fist against Keith’s shoulder - before kind of manhandling him into a messy hug.

Not really knowing what to do with that, Keith lets himself be held, a little grateful for the time it gives him to gather his thoughts before whatever Kolivan is going to throw at him. It’s as Matt pulls away, sniffling and watery-eyed, that he murmurs: “I’m okay,” in reply to a question yet unasked.

He’s not sure whether it’s as an assurance for Matt, himself, or a statement to the universe in general, just to see if he’s somehow misunderstood the fact that he’s still alive.

“You’re the same reckless hothead that used to trail Shiro around like a lost puppy, that’s what you are.” Matt sniffles and it’s almost a laugh. “But yeah, you’re okay.”

“You can’t tell him.” Keith doesn’t care to refute the teasing, and has no idea to address the fact that someone else is crying for his sake, but this is important. “Matt, you have to swear you won’t mention any of this to Shiro.”

“Keith, you almost-”

“I know,” he sets his jaw, determined, “but I didn’t, alright? It didn’t come to that and- Jesus, Matt, you heard them over the comms. They didn’t realise, they don’t know, so-”

“So you should tell them.” Matt is frowning now. “You should tell them, Keith. They have to know.”

“Why?”

“You- What do you mean why?” Matt looks distraught.

“I mean there’s no point. I didn’t-“ die, is something he finds he can’t quite bring himself to say, “look, it never came to anything, so why bring it up?”

Keith.

His name is said as if it means something.

“Don’t tell them. Swear to me that you won’t.”

“Wouldn’t you want to know? If it had been one of them?”

Of course I would, goes unsaid. Keith deflects. It’s what he’s good at.

“There’s enough going on right now, they don’t need to start freaking out over something that didn’t even happen. Marmora lost people, the Rebels lost people, the Coalition lost people, and - hell - now we’ve got Lotor to deal with.”

And isn’t that a sobering thought.

Because Lotor has been toying with them for phoebs; hunting them down as if this was some cheap sci-fi horror film, taking back planets that had barely tasted a world outside of the Empire, out-manoeuvring Voltron and proving on several occasions how god-awful an idea it had been for Keith to play at being the Black Paladin. Lotor had come closer to killing the members of this rag-tag space family in a matter of movements than Zarkon had in almost a decaphoeb… and it had been Keith’s fault.

And now, of course, he’s on the Castle Ship.

Negotiating.

After having inadvertently saved Keith’s life.

The former Paladin doesn’t want to think about that, he really doesn’t. Technically, Lotor saved the lives of everyone within ten galaxies of Naxzela, and so there isn’t really any reason for Keith in particular to feel… whatever it is he’s feeling. Except there is. Because if Lotor hadn’t appeared when he did, the others would still have survived.

Keith would have made sure of it.

“Prince Lotor is docking in hanger Xi12,” Kolivan’s voice is level in tone, as if that were a perfectly mundane sentence, “Voltron is already waiting for him. We will join them immediately.”

He doesn’t say anything about Keith’s actions. Keith’s not entirely convinced that’s a good thing.

“Alright… Matt?”

“No, I need to see to the rest of the rebels.”

Keith may not be the best at reading people, but even he can recognise that, for Matt at least, this conversation isn’t over. But he also knows Matt, knows what he was like before Kerberos, and though they weren’t exactly friends, Keith knows how deeply he cares - just like Pidge, only less prickly, and it’s little wonder they’re siblings - so he’s almost certain that his actions will be kept a secret from the others for now, if only to spare them the trouble.

Offering a short nod, Keith activates his holo-mask and falls into step behind Kolivan, but before they’re more than ten paces away Matt calls out to him again.

“Oh, and Keith?”

He turns at his name, and isn’t sure what to do when met with something that looks a lot like affection.

“If that sonovabitch so much as looks at my sister the wrong way, do try and record the moment she stabs him in the gut for me, yeah?”

Keith snorts at that, feeling a weak smile pull onto his features. “Sure thing.”

 

The make their way to meet Lotor in silence, only stopping to collect a few other members of the Blade. Keith wonders at how Kolivan knows who’s who when they all wear their masks. He wonders if it actually matters when the likelihood that any of them are going to live long enough to see a world free of the Empire is so slim to begin with. He also wonders, despite his best efforts, whether Marmora’s commander is going to reprimand him for almost kamikazeing himself.

He doesn’t.

It is decidedly not a good thing.

 

Their small party is marched into the hanger without hesitation, Kolivan at their head, and Keith has been a member of the Blade for long enough to recognise that their leader is still fully in the mind-set of a soldier. The battle itself may have ceased, but this is still war, and an unexpected parley is no invitation to let their guard down.

Kolivan brings them to a halt slightly behind the scattered formation of team Voltron, but even before he does, Keith has his eyes locked on to the figure who can be none other than Lotor. It has to be Lotor, and yet… Keith will admit, he’d half been expecting Zarkon 2.0, but the Empire’s heir himself seems rather lithe in build: a good head taller than Shiro, yet no broader. For the Galra, who so obviously built their culture around military strength, Lotor certainly wouldn’t be considered as cutting an imposing figure. He’s definitely on the shorter end of the spectrum (though still of a height that towers over every human in the room), and Keith wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Prince is considered as lesser because of it. He’s all to familiar with the feeling himself, knows the insulting sting of it, and wonders if the Empire’s heir has been underestimated by his peers just as Keith had been as he was bounced around the system.

These thoughts are immediately shoved back into the darkest recesses of his mind, his attention snapping instead to the uncomfortably familiar tone of the man before him as he asks: “Marmora, yes?”

Keith daren’t tear his gaze from their enemy, but he notes a shift in the periphery of his vision, and hears the tell-tale dissolution of Kolivan’s mask.

“Prince Lotor.”

The simple affirmation with which he receives this name reveals nothing, but Keith is left with the distinct impression that Lotor is somehow pleased. Why, remains a mystery. It puts him on edge. Lotor is still talking, but people so rarely say what they mean that Keith has all but given up on verbal forms of communication, and so lets that voice wash over him. If he’s learnt one thing during his time with the Blade, it’s that Galran body language is far more honest than its verbal counterpart, and Lotor’s silver tongue doesn’t quite reflect the stiffness of his posture, or how the way in which he’s holding his shoulders seems unnaturally still.

It’s not until Lance makes an all-too familiar noise of protest - and when Keith allows his gaze to waver momentarily, he almost laughs at the outright scandalized expression the other wears - that he tunes back in to the conversation, hearing Kolivan invite Lotor to… what, exactly?

Knowledge or Death rings in his ears, and he knows Marmora’s mantra has more than one truth to it. Lotor moves and Keith is on edge once more, grinding his teeth so as not to draw his knife on instinct, but it comes to naught. Zarkon’s spawn simply removes his helmet (and there’s something odd in the way he does so, the illusion of grace giving way to Keith’s better judgement) and-

Oh.

Oh.

“Altean,” Allura’s voice says, somewhere far away.

“Galra,” is Lotor’s reply, harsh, biting, and entirely unapologetic.

Keith’s ears fall to static.

Conversation continues around him, he can catch snatches of a voice that should be familiar, but the words are drowned out in favour of his own heartbeat: something heavy and deafening and too much to ignore.

Not for the first time, Keith is thankful for the mask of his Marmoran armor. It hides the way his eyes have gone wide on the surprise of it, tongue glued to the roof of his mouth and like sandpaper besides.

Because Lotor is like him.

It’s a dangerous thought, made worse because it’s not the first comparison that he’s drawn between himself and Zarkon’s son, but it’s true.

True, and terrifying.

Terrifying because suddenly Keith wants. Wants in a way he hasn’t since the Trials of Marmora where he’d been promised answers as to who he was; and the Blade had delivered, yes, but in doing so raised twice as many questions. To make it worse, Kolivan can’t - or perhaps won’t - answer most of them, and it seems that when their leader decides upon something, the rest of the Blade follow suit.

But now Keith stands before a man - a monster, he reminds himself - who knows what it is to be torn between two worlds, and while Lotor might not be the first alien that they’ve met born of two entirely different species, he’s certainly the first who’s been half Galra.

Or… no. Perhaps not. But at the time, or even after, Keith hadn’t thought to question the diversity of Lotor’s Generals, simply chalking it up to another quirk of Galra biology. It isn’t so much a stretch as one might think, not when he knows Blade members with tails like lizards, while others are crowned with ears of the feline persuasion, but now… Now he has to wonder.

And if they are, then that’s too much of a coincidence: five half-blooded Galra working so closely together, when Keith isn’t sure he’s ever seen another save in the mirror? No, that speaks of something more, something-

A sharp smack of flesh brings him to his senses with a jolt, but Lotor is already drawing his sword as Keith comes back to the world around him, and the sight is enough to set him into motion before he can even recognise how the angle of Lotor’s wrist is all wrong for an offensive manoeuvre. Thankfully, Kolivan’s hand is there, the backs of his knuckles a firm weight against Keith’s abdomen as he surges forward, and that fire is quelled before it can wreak havoc.

Keith stills, watches as Lotor disarms, and then concedes to Kolivan’s judgement. The weight of the older Galra’s hand disappears without comment.

Perhaps it’s because he’s watching so closely, though everybody is, that he notices it. Lotor’s movements really are off, and there’s something behind that flawless smile that reeks of danger. Keith doesn’t trust it.

Yet he can’t tear his eyes away.

Coran turns his back on the enemy like it’s nothing, leading Lotor almost merrily past the Blade and towards the doors.

As he follows, Lotor’s eyes flicker over the Marmoran group with feigned disinterest, then a sudden intensity as his gaze locks on to Keith for a split second longer than leaves the former Paladin entirely comfortable. It’s electric, in the energy behind it, but Keith can’t even begin to guess at what that look means before the rest of team Voltron are marching after Coran and out of sight.

Eventually, Keith remembers how to breathe.

The burning in his lungs doesn’t seem to alleviate any.

 

can you believe someone has drawn art of something I've written because I can't

((so this image is just one of many, and there's a link to the full post at the end of ch.04 which you should absolutely check out, but I just love how intense Allura looks here!!))

Chapter Text

Kolivan dismisses the other members of the Blade.

Keith knows this, not because he hears the dismissal itself, but rather sees its effects, watches as his comrades slip away without another word. He would have gone with them, had tried to do so, but Marmora’s leader has him pinned by the nape like some unruly kitten, one clawed hand easily large enough to cradle Keith’s skull and firmly tilt his head back to meet a golden-eyed glower.

The former Paladin deactivates his mask and matches the sour expression with a scowl of his own, but this isn’t the first time he’s suffered through a scolding from the older Galra, so he knows enough not to bother with what would only be futile resistance.

There are several ticks of silent appraisal before Kolivan is suddenly so close that Keith goes kind of cross-eyed trying to focus on him, all attempts at making sense of this situation proving to be for naught when Keith finds himself being nuzzled by a flat purple nose: the fur cropped, velveteen, and lightly ticklish as Kolivan’s downy cheek presses against his temple. It’s… a soft gesture, fond even, and absolutely the weirdest part of his day.

“Um,” articulating just about anything more seems a momentous task, “Kolivan?”

The man in question withdraws with a low rumble, not of displeasure - Keith’s more than familiar with that particular tone - but rather a warm sound that is definitively one of amusement. Blunt claws scratch lightly against Keith’s scalp, the sensation dulled only by the resilient armoured fabric of his hood, and the fact that the recipient of this impromptu affection is having a hard time processing much of anything right now.

Keith is pretty sure he’s dead.

He distinctly remembers questioning it earlier, but he’s never been more convinced that the universe is fucking with him than in this moment.

“The green-one’s kin informed me of your actions towards the battle’s end; it would have been a noble sacrifice. However,” Kolivan straightens fully, and the creasing of his eyes is, in his case, what passes for a smile, “I am glad it did not come to that. I do not relish the idea of losing you so soon, kit.”

“Right.” Keith voice comes out awkwardly high. “Um, thanks.”

Blessedly, this seems to be enough of an acknowledgement, and Kolivan nods, dropping his hand from Keith’s head before looking towards the hanger doors.

“We ought join the Paladins. Prince Lotor is too promising an asset for the Blade to allow the Altean Princess’ personal history to hinder us.”

At this, dark eyes narrow under the weight of a glower.

“You think he can be trusted?”

“No,” Kolivan’s reply is immediate, relieving some of the tightness in Keith’s chest, “but I think that if we are to dismantle the Empire in the most painless manner possible, then he would be an invaluable ally.”

That… is a valid point.

They had already felled Zarkon once, and even that had seemed merely an inconvenience to the Imperial force they were up against. Yes, Voltron had been able to liberate several star-systems, but Haggar’s quintessence harvesting hadn’t ceased, and soon enough the Empire was back on its feet, reclaiming those planets only briefly freed.

Naxzela was a strategic victory, but Zarkon won’t take this lying down, that much is obvious. Even if they do manage to defeat him again - and how are they supposed to do that, when the Emperor of the universe can apparently shrug death off like a momentary hiccup - what is there to stop another from taking his place and continuing what their predecessor had started?

The intentions of Marmora’s leader become clear with all the subtlety of a freight train.

“You’re actually considering it,” Keith takes a half step back, searching Kolivan’s face for answers, “supporting Lotor. You want him on the throne.”

“He is the heir apparent, it is a possibility.”

Christ.

Keith staggers back further, running both hands roughly through his hair as he stares into that blank expression with disbelief. After everything Voltron have been through at the hands of Lotor, were they now expected to roll over and concede to his right to rule the Empire?

Hell no.

His refusal must have shown on his face.

“I am not saying it is the best course of action-”

“Because it’s not.”

“-but I think it important that we consider our options. No one could have predicted this, and we must proceed with due caution, but it will not do to discard this opportunity solely because Princess Allura cannot see past her own prejudices.”

It was easy to forget, sometimes, that Kolivan had suffered just as much of Allura’s wrath as Keith had, after the Trials. Perhaps because she’d known him before she learnt of his heritage, Keith felt more entitled to her trust, more hurt by her complete disregard for who he was other than Galra, but Kolivan… he’d dedicated his entire life to this cause; to have someone who knew nothing of the horrors endured these past ten thousand decaphoebs turn around and question his honour must have been the highest form of insult.

The Galran sense of pride is not to be trifled with, Keith knows that, had seen it in himself long before he knew who his mother was.

“I do not take this lightly, Keith.”

“I know.”

He holds Kolivan’s gaze, unblinking and resolute, until the Blade’s leader is satisfied.

“I should like to offer you a reprieve from your duties, but now is hardly the time, and I have little doubt you would refuse me regardless,” Kolivan returns his attention to where Coran had exited, Lotor and everyone else in tow, “you will instead be stationed here. Observe the Prince’s behaviour and report what you learn back to me: his suitability for the task at hand will be at the mercy of your judgment.”

Keith hardly knows how to respond to that.

“I’m not exactly a neutral party.”

“Of course not, your friends have suffered at Prince Lotor’s whims.” Kolivan catches the questioning frown that this statement is met with. “That is why I know that you will not easily find him suitable. If you ultimately deem him so, then I could have no better assurance.”

It’s oddly touching, the certainty with which this is said.

After a moment’s hesitation, the intensity with which Lotor had looked at him still prickling at the forefront of his mind, Keith accepts.

 

When he and Kolivan eventually locate team Voltron - squirrelled away in distant corner of the castle, so far removed from everything else that it’s little wonder Keith is unfamiliar with the sprawling hallways - Lotor is nowhere to be seen. Before Keith can ask after this, Lance is tugging him into some sort of Altean drawing room by one arm, his words tumbling over one another in their impatience to be heard.

“Keith Kogane, mulleted man of my heart, nearest and dearest purple space cat,” here he throws a short no offense Kolivan over his shoulder with not nearly so much casual charm as he’s evidently trying for, “please tell me you are here to talk some sense into Shiro. I mean, don’t get me wrong, ninety-nine percent of the time in Space Dad we trust, but this is crazy-talk.”

“Lance, what are you-”

“You cannot be serious.”

Keith automatically tenses at the sheer venom in Allura’s tone, and when he looks towards her she’s seething, but even more surprising is who her anger is directed towards.

“I will not grant such preposterous demands. Need I remind you who he is? What he’s done?”

“Princess,” Shiro sounds more exhausted than anyone under the age of eighty has any right to be, “granting him asylum here in exchange for information on the Empire’s internal affairs isn’t unreasonable. I know who he is, but it’s precisely because of that-”

“-that we can be sure the information he has is invaluable, yes, you’ve said.” She spits the words out with a snarl. “But how can we be sure it’s accurate? Or has any truth to it at all? For all we know he could bait us into an ambush to deliver Voltron straight into Zarkon’s clutches.”

“I still say we cryofreeze him and extract the information like we did with Sendak.” Pidge is perched on the arm of one sofa cross-legged, her face squished against the hand it’s resting on with an expression that tells Keith this conversation has been circling for some time with no foreseeable conclusion. “At least then he won’t be able to lie.”

“After what happened last time?” Hunk chuckles nervously. “Um, no thank you, I do not need to revisit that particular nightmare, I couldn’t trust the goo machine for like, a whole phoeb.”

“Seconded!” Lance draws everyone’s attention to where he’s stood with one arm still looped through one of Keith’s own. “Attack of the Killer Airlock does not need a sequel. Tell ‘em Keith.”

And suddenly all eyes are on him.

Not an ideal situation when Allura is already on edge, but he’ll have to make it work.

“We’re not risking another corruption of the Castle systems.” He pauses, eyes flicking tentatively over to where the black Paladin is massaging his temple, then back to Allura, knowing full well that she’s going to hate him for the next sentence to leave his lips. “But I agree with Shiro.”

He’d been prepared for the Princess’ backlash, but Lance’s snide “of course you do” and the abrupt loss of his touch leaves Keith feeling much colder than before. He takes solace in the relived nod of encouragement Shiro gives him.

Keith. I thought you of all people would understand. Lotor is far too dangerous to be allowed to roam freely-”

He cuts her off immediately with an incredulous look. “Obviously. I’m not suggesting that we let him just wander about.”

“You might not be, but he did.” Pidge looks increasingly annoyed as she raises two fingers, counting them off as she speaks. “Lotor’s terms were as follows: one, asylum on board the Castle of Lions, and two, the freedom to navigate said Castle as he pleases.” Here she turns her accent to something clearly meant to emulate the Prince: “With a guard of your choosing, of course. I have no doubt you’ll want my every move scrutinized, but you would do well to remember I am here of my own accord, and not a prisoner.”

“Here of my own accord as your gracious ally,” Lance adds in with an equally exaggerated accent, but none of his usual humour, “don’t forget how fucking arrogant he is about the fact that he knows he saved Voltron’s big metal butt.”

Here Lance dissolves into a slew of Spanish curses that the Altean translator chip embedded behind Keith’s ear can’t quite keep up with, but the general sentiment would be hard to mistake. He sighs and looks towards Shiro again for reassurance, before glancing back at Kolivan who merely inclines his head.

“Alright. So we grant him asylum and monitor him 24/7-” he catches the incoming question before any of the conversation’s non-human participants can ask it, “-that’s an Earth thing for constantly. The fact is, Lotor helped us. I’m not convinced on the ‘why’ and I don’t trust jackshit that comes out his mouth, but none of that negates the fact that he has information we want.”

There’s a weighted pause.

“I’m with Keith on this one,” Pidge doesn’t look too happy about it, but when she looks up it’s with a weak smile in his direction, “like it or not, Lotor’s valuable, and I don’t know about anyone else but I’d much rather he’s here where we can keep an eye on him that out there doing god-knows what.”

“Not to mention that ship.” Hunk looks deeply disturbed, and rightly so. “I had a quick look over the battle data and if the readings from that last blast are correct, then that thing is basically on par with a Lion.”

Keith thinks back to the ease with which Lotor had shredded through Haggar’s barrier, how quickly it had all ended - how quickly it could have ended, should have ended, the controls of the little fighter trembling under his grip or maybe it was the other way around-

“Hunk, my man, I hear you. But I’ve gotta side with Allura.”

Keith forces himself back to the present. Barely biting back mimicry of Lance’s earlier comment, his only saving grace turns out to be a timely contribution from Shiro.

“Regardless, that’s four in favour.” Shiro heaves a great sigh, “so unless the Blade have any outstanding oppositions…?”

The tone he says this with desperately begs that they don’t, and Kolivan is quick to lay such concerns to rest with a stoic affirmation, followed by a meaningful look towards Keith who inclines his head in return, this exchange going unseen by Shiro.

“Great. Well then, let’s inform our guest,” the word is said with excessive distaste, “of our decision.”

“Wait,” Keith does a quick headcount to make sure he’s not just that exhausted, “where’s Coran?”

“With our new buddy Prince L'Oréal,” and somehow Lance manages to make ‘our’ sound a lot like ‘your’.

Keith blanches.

Alone?

“No man,” Hunk catches this budding panic because of course he does, eyes softening in a way that leaches the adrenaline from Keith’s veins, “we gathered a few of the coalition soldiers on our way down here, but we just figured, y’know, what with Lotor being kind of Altean, we might need another Altean to match his strength.”

It’s sound logic, and though Coran isn’t much of a fighter, having him there in the event of Lotor deciding to go rogue (and there’s no reason for him to do so, not when he had come aboard of his own free will, but even that proved that Zarkon’s son is nothing if not unpredictable) makes a certain amount of sense.

Hunk claps his hand down on Keith’s shoulder and squeezes gently. The affectionate gesture is far more welcome than the icy stare Allura is giving him, so he leans into it and pretends not to notice her displeasure.

It’s only when Shiro moves, not to exit the room but rather go deeper, heading through a door in the opposite wall, that Keith realises this lounge is not that at all, but more a part of some luxurious Altean suite. This later proves to be true, and after having scouted the surrounding area more thoroughly and finding that the ridiculous gravity-defying pool is only a few levels down, Keith deems this to be the castle’s recreational sector. There’s no command centre, no training deck, not even so much as a combat simulator, and when he finds an imposing set of double doors that he thinks might conceal a hanger, it is revealed instead to be a library - and not one filled with digital records either, but honest-to-god books. It makes sense that Allura would bring Lotor here, not as a kindness, but more likely as the one place she deemed far enough away from anything that could potentially be weaponised, should it fall into his hands.

For now, Keith activates his mask once more before following after Shiro and the others.

 

-

 

It’s childish, but he may as well be dealing with children, it seems, so Lotor sneers and scorns and undermines every stipulation they attempt to put him under just to see how the universe’s defenders handle it.

The answer, as it turns out, is poorly.

They don’t seem to have any idea how to conduct themselves, and clearly this is the first time team Voltron have had to negotiate with someone who doesn’t simply roll over and cry tears of joy at being indebted to them for having swooped in to conquer the big bad Empire.

Lotor is beholden to no one, and their uncertainty at how to tackle such a concept shows.

His terms are simple: no exiling him to some rebel outpost, and no shackles. He’s seen quite enough of the latter in recent quintents, and with regards to the former, anywhere other than within Voltron’s centre of operations is sure to end in disaster once his father catches wind of it. Both are perfectly reasonable demands considering the information he has to offer, and more yet that he knows how to obtain if only they take him to the appropriate colonies.

So really, there’s no reason for them to be taking so long discussing what to do with him.

“Are you sure you don’t want another dengiroff, m’boy?”

Quite sure, yes.”

The logical conclusion is that this is some sick game to see what will get to him first: the company of one disturbingly hospitable Altean - “The name’s Coran!” - or what apparently passes for sustenance on this ship. After his first, and decidedly last, appetizer, Lotor had questioned whether it had been poisoned. As time ticked on, he was forced to concede that no, in all likelihood not, but that poisoning may actually have been preferable.

For lack of anything better to do, quick eyes scan over the room’s other occupants for the umpteenth time. A small collection of species from several different homeworlds: none of them trained soldiers - or if they are it’s a reasonably new development, judging by the uncertainty in their stances - and each and every one uncomfortable with his presence here.

Uncomfortable enough, he’d wager, that even if he were to move slowly and clearly narrate his intent, to so much as stand would see him shot to pieces.

Lotor remains seated.

Near ten dobashes more pass before finally - finally - team Voltron stalk back into the room, followed by Marmora’s commanding officer and, of everyone, the kit. Lotor grits his teeth, turns his attentions back to Princess Allura, and pretends this doesn’t bother him. Instead, he makes note of how tensions between each individual are clearly running high, and restrains himself from commenting on it.

“I assume you’ve made your decision.”

“We have,” is the Altean Princess’ response, though she doesn’t look all too happy about it, “we will agree to your terms.”

As expected. Lotor tries not to look too smug.

“However, I am making the executive decision that your movements will be restricted.”

The Prince feels his expression sour, this reaction too immediate for him to even begin to control it.

“That is not what we discussed,” nor, by the looks of the other Paladins’ expressions, was it the collective verdict that they had come to, “need I remind you that I am a guest.”

“And this is the guest wing of the Castle of Lions. I assure you, if you remain here you shall want for nothing.”

“And if I do not?”

The princess smiles, and it’s a dangerous thing.

Lotor allows for one beat of silence. Then two. His fingers drum slowly against the arm of the chair and he’s careful not to be the first to look away.

“Very well.” His acquiesce is more a hiss than true agreement, but two can play at this game. “In return for my cooperation, you will consult me on all future strategic measures involving both direct and indirect assaults on the Witch or her druids. If I find that you have been withholding information pertaining to such matters, I shall return your courtesies in kind.”

He can see her refusal coming in the way that her fine-boned features twist into something hateful.

“Haggar and her druids…”

This voice is not one he recognises, but Princess Allura clearly does and her head instantly snaps to the side, eyes narrowing to near slits. Lotor looks to the hooded figure as they step forward, and feels his heart clench uncomfortably.

“…but not Zarkon?”

They speak with a curious stoicism not yet mastered by the Paladins. Even so, the one behind the mask must be younger than anticipated, because that voice is too smooth in its tone, with none of the guttural quality that their shared tongue is saturated in.

Lotor can hardly help but indulge this child with an answer.

“Frankly, you could mount my father’s head on a spike for use to mop every inch of this ship, and I would not bat an eye, but with regards to the Witch you will keep me informed.”

“Done.”

The outcry to this response is immediate.

“You have no right-!”

Princess Allura’s voice is a distant thing, despite its shrill tone. Lotor doesn’t much care for it, every fibre of his being instead riveted on the Marmorite who stands so still that they could be carved from stone. Though he cannot be certain - the little Blade’s expression quite literally masked from him - Lotor imagines that they’re just as fixated on him as he is them: feels it in the prickle of their attention raking over his form with an intensity he isn’t used to.

“With all due respect Allura, I don’t answer to you.” This response isn’t exactly cutting, but it is tinged with a blunt honesty that the Altean Princess clearly wasn’t prepared for, and it stops her in her tracks, mouth gaping.

Lotor notes, with an odd sort of satisfaction curling in his gut, that even as the kit addresses Voltron’s Princess not once does their attention waver from where he’s sat. Regrettably, he cannot return such civilities. It’s harder than it should be, to tear his eyes away from the little Blade and address the Princess directly, but dull as she is, her obstinance with regards to this matter is simply not something he can allow.

“My terms will be met. Is that perfectly clear?”

It takes several ticks of silent seething and a murmured prompt from the yellow Paladin before a response is given, and even then it is only done so begrudgingly.

“Crystal.”

Lotor’s smirk is all teeth, and he can see how it ruins her mood further, but hardly cares to dwell on it when his eyes are again drawn back to the tiny, faceless Galra.

He considers their diminutive stature with a heavy weight sitting low in his stomach. They have, by his estimate, seen three dozen Imperial decaphoebs come to pass - perhaps a little more if they’ve been raised on rations, not that that’s an improvement in any sense of the word.

“Prince Lotor,” his foul musings are interrupted by Marmora’s leader, “the Blade will be assigning Keith to your personal guard, alongside whoever Voltron wish to nominate.”

Lotor makes to incline his head in acceptance of this. The name means nothing to him - he doesn’t know who this Keith is, and doesn’t much care… or not, at least, until this statement is met with outcry, all the Paladins simultaneously up in arms at the prospect.

“Absolutely not.” The Champion, who has been remarkably quiet up until this point, sets his jaw. “Kolivan, we never discussed this-”

Golden eyes do not so much as blink.

“Our internal assignments have never been Voltron’s business.”

The black Paladin exhales a disbelieving breath, searching for something in the other’s face that he clearly doesn’t find before rounding on-

“Keith. No.”

-the little Blade does not so much as flinch, but Lotor is starting to think he’s gone half-mad.

Surely - surely - even despite Marmora’s apparent disregard for the safety of their own children, they would not assign one so young to him.

“This isn’t up for discussion, Shiro.”

Apparently so.

Lotor doesn’t know whether to be horrified that the Blade of Marmora hold such indifference toward this kit that they would assign them to guard the spawn of the Emperor, or insulted that they think so little of him that they do not see fit to assign one of their finest.

As he observes the Champion argue with the little Blade, irritation bleeding into their posture as Voltron’s black Paladin protests against Marmora’s decision, a third (admittedly preposterous) option presents itself.

Perhaps… the Blade have assigned one of their finest, in which case this child would be a very dangerous and very intriguing prospect indeed.

 

Somewhere between one controlled breath and the next, Lotor finds that the room has gone very quiet. Though he loathes to admit it, the pain in his shoulder is drawing too much of his focus, and when he looks up he finds the Marmorite stationed by the door, the room otherwise empty.

It is not in Lotor’s nature to ask obvious questions. Clearly Voltron’s opposition to his choice of guard failed in the face of the Blade of Marmora. Equally obvious is that team Voltron and company have left, and as for ‘where’, well, there are only so many places they can be, even on a vessel this size.

So he remains silent, focuses on the subtle hum of the ship, and breathes.

“You’re injured.”

This observation is exhaled as if a relief: the answer to a question long pondered. Lotor’s gaze flicks back to the impassive purple glow of his companion’s mask, but their expression is indecipherable behind it, and as they make no further comment there’s nothing more to be said. Lotor doesn’t bother to deny that which has been already voiced.

Right shoulder burning, the Prince continues to take slow, measured breaths so as to disturb it as little as possible. The pain had, admittedly, flared earlier: when disarming himself, despite purposeful use of his left hand, and again when the Altean man had heartily clapped him on the back during the second phase of negotiations. He is fully aware that the longer he leaves it, the worse the ligament damage will be, but relocating one’s own shoulder is no small task.

“It’s dislocated.” The little Blade doesn’t ask this as a question, but their head is tilted marginally to one side as if they’re trying to puzzle him out. “You need medical attention.”

“Regrettably, you’re not wrong.”

A pod is not offered, and he would not accept if it were, so really there’s only one course to pursue.

Lotor clenches his jaw, takes a sharp breath, and moves swiftly.

The angle is off.

He feels the bone grind against the socket, imagines he can taste the muted crunch of it in the back of his throat. When the Prince releases his arm with a choking exhale, it swings sickeningly. His nerves are on fire.

“Let me.” That voice is much closer than before, and Lotor barely has time to recognise that the child is right there before lithe hands are on him, one bracing his shoulder while the other grips his injured arm without mercy, twisting and forcing it upwards in one smooth movement.

A quiet curse is hissed out as the joint pops back into place.

He counts his own heartbeats, trains his eyes on the knife strapped to the kit’s waist and mourns how easy it would be, with the little one’s guard lowered like this.

Leaning back against the cushions with a slow exhale, Lotor feels the loss of those nimble hands acutely.

“I appreciate the gesture,” the child is still standing far too close, snapping their neck would take a mere fraction of a tick, “but you really ought be more on your guard around a guest, little Blade.”

Though he’d been the one to insist upon such false pretences, Lotor isn’t naïve to the truth of his position here. Even so, better Voltron’s prisoner than his father’s.

Observing him coolly, the kit takes a pause before offering the verdict of their brief assessment.

“I could take you.”

It’s such a Galran confidence, that it brings a genuine smile to the Prince’s features.

“Perhaps.”

He considers the child closely as they stalk back to their previous posting at the doorway; their gait is smooth, controlled, and they’re obviously more a soldier than the coalition puppets that had lingered at the room’s edge as if the shadows might mask their timidity. Marmora have trained their child well, it seems, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the kit is far too young for a life such as this.

The room sinks into silence for a time more, and it isn’t until the echo of pain has all but faded from his shoulder, that Lotor sees fit to break it.

“Keith…” He lets the foreign syllables roll off his tongue, and watches for a reaction intently. They don’t flinch, not exactly, but the direct address is definitely unexpected. “It is not a particularly Galran name.”

They seem to pause in consideration.

“Neither’s Lotor.”

“No,” and he can hardly help it, he’s smiling again, “I suppose not.”

Chapter Text

Keith takes care to shadow the Galra Prince closely if only for the tether his duty provides, binding him to the present when memories of sweat-slicked controls and Matt’s desperate screaming threaten to swallow him whole. There are others, rebels, assigned to Lotor’s watch besides him - partly because Shiro barely agreed to this arrangement at all, let alone as a solo mission, and partly because even Keith can’t stand guard without respite.

God knows he tries.

Nothing else consumes his focus like Lotor, nothing else occupies him so completely. He’d thought the gladiators might, had fought them until he was bloody and bruised and forced to end the simulation through stuttering breaths as he struggled not to vomit from the strength of their abuse. It had hardly mattered. Even as his body fought with everything it had, his mind wouldn’t be silenced. All such fights achieved was tiring him out faster, and inevitably his eyelids would betray him, drooping until he had no choice but to return to his room unless he wanted to sleep on the cold training room floor.

The truth of it is, Keith doesn’t want to sleep at all.

Sleeping means dreaming, and dreaming means waking with a start at odd hours, choking on his own heartbeat as he claws at the phantom blistering of his skin with no assurance that the walls aren’t going to implode at any second. It means scrambling for his knife and desperately trying to pull back from a collision that will never come, not knowing if that is better or worse, only that he needs to get up- out- elsewhere-

And somehow, elsewhere always ends up being the same place.

It isn’t that Lotor feels safe - quite the opposite. Lotor scares him. The Prince is a formidable opponent: powerful, intelligent, and deadly, yes, but Zarkon is all of those things, and yet the way Keith had felt when he’d faced the Emperor with Red, hardly compares to the prickling heat of adrenalin that sparks up his spine whenever he draws nearer to the Prince’s location. Keith isn’t scared that Lotor will try to kill him; he’s scared that he won’t.

Lotor is dangerous for all the reasons Zarkon never will be, because Lotor’s nothing like Zarkon and everything like Keith.

Perhaps not on the surface, not with the Prince being the silver-tongued wordsmith that he is, but it becomes apparent in the little things: mannerisms such as meticulous observation of everything and everyone he comes into contact with, the way Lotor’s eyes will - without fail - locate all possible exits as soon as he enters a room, and the subsequent, entirely strategic, placement of himself within every new environment.

And then he sits, waits, only moves on again after what had, at first, seemed to be a curiously undetermined length of time. This stands in stark contrast to everything else the Prince has done since arriving in the Castle, and even before, so Keith takes special note of it. Almost sixteen quintents go by before he finds the pattern.

Lotor is systematically mapping the patrol routes of his guards. Never staying quite long enough in one location to arouse suspicion, and only returning to that same location after a few cycles have passed, he’s making his way through his assigned quarter in a rotation that only ever brings him back to place he’s been before at an alternate time, until he must have - at one point or another - amassed a full quintent in every major sub-sector. It’s… clever, Keith has to admit. So he tests it, quietly requesting that a rebel duo regularly scheduled to circuit one of the lower floors before spiralling upwards, instead start at the top and make their way down. To Lotor’s credit, his stride only falters for a fraction of a tick when they cross paths in the hallway, but it’s enough to confirm Keith’s theory.

He takes it upon himself to have words with the rebel commanders later, and make sure they randomise patrols so as to keep the Prince guessing.

He’s confident this will be enough to deter Lotor from trying anything for the time being, because it would him. Not now, maybe, not when he’s fully armed with prior knowledge of the castle ship’s layout and all its inner workings, but when Keith considers before - before the Blade, before Voltron, before they’d left Earth, before the Garrison, even - he remembers scuttling blindly through corridors with creaky floorboards and quickly learning that if you’re going to do something then you better be prepared to do it right, because the consequences for a scrappy orphan kid without a penny to his name were never as kind as they should have been.

Lotor may be intergalactic royalty with a father who is all too alive, but the way he carries himself is disturbingly familiar.

 

The first time Lotor is kind to him, Keith can’t leave fast enough.

He’s trailing the Prince, as usual, and were his target anyone else Keith would be bored out of his mind. Having quickly caught on to the change in patrol patterns - their sudden irregularity likely too obvious to someone who’d spent every waking moment memorizing them - Lotor has seemingly discarded that particular endeavour, though not without several vargas worth of evidently frustrated inactivity, all coming to head when the rhythmic drumming of his fingertips freezes without warning, his head turning to fix Keith with a very pointed look.

And if, for half a tick, Keith had thought there to be something almost proud in the narrowing of those eyes, then he’d disregarded it immediately.

So now, Lotor spends the vast majority of his time in the library. If Keith is reading the Prince correctly (and he can’t be sure, Lotor demonstrating nothing but seamlessly calculated restraint at all times) then the presence of actual books is just as surprising to him as it had been for Keith himself when he first stumbled across it. Nonetheless, the Prince seems inclined to spend his time flicking absently though ancient tomes, and it’s like this that Keith realises Lotor can read Altean. Fluently, judging by the careless ease with which he scans over the text.

And so it happens.

It’s a type of normalcy, Keith supposes: the routine of looking to the library for his quarry before the series of rooms Lotor has dubbed to be his living quarters. It hardly matters when in the day-cycle it is, because Lotor sleeps almost as sporadically as Keith himself. It had put him on edge, at first, because Keith couldn’t imagine that Zarkon’s own flesh and blood waking up in a cold sweat every varga like clockwork, which begged the question: what was he plotting? Now, he’s less concerned. Perhaps because the Prince hasn’t tried anything yet, or perhaps because Keith’s eyelids are drooping beneath his mask and there seem more important things to spend the last vestiges of his energy on. Either way, there’s a certain sense of relief in the sound of Lotor closing his book and standing with a sigh in one fluid motion.

Keith doesn’t even realise that he’s slouched against the wall until he’s hurrying to right himself, his head dragging too far behind his body and causing him to totter forward in compensation with an embarrassing lack of motor skills. The hand that steadies him is large. Enough so, that when it curls around his entire shoulder, the thumb is braced firmly against his collarbone while fingertips are able to reach so far that they press lightly into the base of his neck.

Beyond that gentle grip, and the gentler still “careful, little Blade” that is murmured by a voice too close, Keith can’t ignore how there’s an obvious tension in the room, as if all the air had been simultaneously sucked out of everyone’s lungs and flattened into oblivion.

When he takes half a step back, Lotor releases him like it’s nothing, continuing on his way without another word.

It’s then that Keith sees how every rebel posted around the room is tentatively clutching at their weapons.

It’s then that Keith realises Lotor quite literally laid a hand on him, in full view of them all.

It’s then that Keith knows, if he were wearing anything other than distinctly Galra uniform, they would have opened fire as soon as the Prince had dared move towards one of their own.

But, of course, Keith isn’t one of their own, and while he knows the Blade of Marmora haven’t been met with a gracious reception on every planet they’ve liberated, it’s one thing to see the distrust in the eyes of a newly-freed victim when you share blood with their oppressors, and quite another to see how Voltron’s allies are willing to let Lotor close enough to snap their comrade’s neck providing said comrade is marked as Galra.

Keith feels ill at the realisation.

He later tells himself that ducking out the way he did - so obviously, like a spooked animal bolting at the first chance it gets - was stupid. Yet knowing that of everyone in that room, the greatest kindness he received had been from Lotor was… Keith couldn’t even begin to describe it. The Prince’s gesture itself had been nothing more than absent-minded consideration, but somehow that makes it worse, because there is something to be said for thoughtless decency - particularly when presented in stark contrast to allies who might have hesitated to save him for just long enough to mean that there was nothing left of him to save.

 

Another couple of vargas spent in restless slumber do little good, and eventually Keith decides to cut his losses and sneak into the kitchen for leftovers. He’s been doing this since he returned, and Hunk has been just as accommodating as he ever was, always saving a plateful of whatever alien delicacies he’d served up earlier on. Sometimes he leaves little notes prompting Keith to maybe join them at a normal time tomorrow.

All of which have gone unanswered.

Eating together had been… easier, before. Weird at first, but almost fun by the time he’d left, and while with Marmora, Keith had missed the light-hearted camaraderie of mealtimes with the team. Now, when faced with the threat of Allura’s wrath, Lance’s scorn, and the increasingly furious terminator that is Matthew Holt on a mission, he daren’t risk it.

So, regularly scheduled midnight snacks it is.

The substance on the plate is sort of blue, and vaguely gloopy, but it looks like it might contain the equivalent of blackberries, and seeing as it’s accompanied by one of Hunk’s little notes (as well as an artfully scrawled doodle of Pidge in one corner, that a grinning Keith deems to be a self-portrait) he figures it’s a safer bet than anything he’d receive from the goo-dispenser. He blames the unexpected fizz of it on his tongue for taking so long to realise that he’s no longer alone.

Admittedly, Keith had known he couldn’t hide forever.

He’d just expected that, if not Matt, the one who finally cornered him would be Shiro.

As it turns out, it’s Coran who claps Keith on the back, his only warning a joyous exclamation of “Number four!” which definitely does not have Keith stifling a yelp as he leaps from where he’d been quite happily perched on the table, spinning on his heel and dropping into a defensive stance reflexively.

Of course, he’s not exactly armed - though he’s pretty sure he can make do with the Altean spork in a pinch - and a black cotton shirt and boxer shorts are hardly a substitute for armor, but he would have improvised, had Coran posed any actual threat.

As it is, the older man just looks mildly bemused.

“You know, this may surprise you, but you’re not the first person to threaten me with a culinary utensil.”

“Really,” Keith deadpans.

Coran, being Coran, completely misses the sarcasm, and not for the first time Keith is left to wonder if the residents of Altea ever actually developed that particular brand of humour to begin with.

“Certainly! When I was just a lad I used to work in these very kitchens…”

This is going to be a long one, Keith can tell by the melancholy fondness of the Altean’s expression, so he sits himself back down and continues to eat as he listens - he has nowhere better to be, after all, and a part of him has actually missed Coran’s wistful sagas.

“One night I was a bit peckish, so I snuck down here and low-and-behold, there was a half-grown rapscallion pinching the very morsels I had saved for myself!” Here, he laughs, “well, far from me to deny a kindred spirit: we split the food and made a pact all in the same varga. He and I were fast friends from that point on.”

They continue like this, Coran reliving the “heists and hijinks” of his youth, and Keith content to listen until his plate is scraped clean and there seems a slight change in the story’s tone.

“We were different in every way imaginable, but I loved him like a brother. You remind me of him, sometimes,” Coran’s eyes are on him now, heavy with sorrow, and Keith feels the weight of it in his very bones, “all heart and reckless passion; he had the makings of a red Paladin long before the lions were even a concept. Alfor would have died for the people he loved without a second thought… in the end, he did exactly that.”

All at once, Keith realises what this conversation is really about. Coran knows.

“I won’t lie,” and it’s heartbreaking to hear that cheerful tone reduced to something so brittle, “you really scared me, number four.”

“Coran… I-”

“I know. Faced with those circumstances, he would have done the same.”

Decidedly, Keith would take ten angry Matts over one horrifically understanding Coran any day, but what can he say? He doesn’t regret what he’d almost done, he can’t regret it. Not when it was his life for Shiro’s, for Pidge’s, for Hunk’s... hell, even if Lance and Allura never look at him again, he’d still rather know that they’re at least alive to hate him.

“You won’t… you won’t tell them, right? I mean Matt he-” Keith huffs out something too sharp to be called a laugh, “he’s pissed but I don’t think he’ll say anything until he’s had a chance to at least try and convince me to do it.”

“Well that won’t do any good, will it?” Coran isn’t quite smiling, but it’s an attempt. “I like to think I know you well enough by now to know that if you could be convinced of that, then you wouldn’t be skipping meals only to sneak in here like a greasy glorsnoot.”

Keith won’t even pretend to know what that is, but he takes it at face value and doesn’t interrupt.

“It’s not mine to tell, number four, but I will say I agree with young Matthew. They should hear it from you.”

“I thought you said I couldn’t be convinced,” Keith mutters, and though the chuckle this elicits from his companion is subdued, it is, at least, genuine.

“Get some shut-eye,” Coran gives him a much milder, yet no less enthusiastic than before, pat on the back as he says this, “you look like you could use a few winks.”

Keith grimaces as the thought, and this doesn’t go unnoticed.

“Nightmares?”

It’s a simple enough question, and nothing too intrusive, which Keith is thankful for; it’s bad enough he has to relive the details when he’s unconscious, no need to drag them up deliberately. When all he offers is a curt nod, it’s received with a sympathetic sound, and no further probing.

“I have just the thing for that, hang on a tick.”

Coran darts from the kitchen without giving Keith anything more to go on, but considering that he’s likely not getting to sleep anyway, he stays put. He doesn’t have to wait long.

“Righto!” Coran appears at the doorway again. “This ought do the trick!”

It’s… a bottle of pills, not too different from the type found on Earth. Nothing is glowing, or changing colour, or - god forbid - moving independently. By the looks of things, they’re just small, perfectly round, if somewhat green-tinted, tablets. Keith takes the bottle gingerly, and holds them up to the light to see if he can find the catch. He can’t.

When he goes to take one, however, Coran near shrieks and reaches out to stop him. Now, Keith finds himself very, very afraid.

“Jesus Coran, are they poisoned or what?”

“No, no of course not!” The nervous laughter that accompanies this statement isn’t comforting in the slightest. “Only, when number one did that, he passed out in half a tick, so you might want to wait until you’re back in your room. They’re just a tad more potent when it comes to humans, apparently.”

The implications of this statement take a moment to sink in.

“Number one… Shiro?”

The guilt that flashes across Coran’s features at that apparent slip of the tongue is enough.

Keith had no idea, but he should have done. Of course Shiro had nightmares: he’d been a gladiator of the Empire for a year, they’d taken his arm for Christ’s sake, and done god-knows what else to him in those druid labs. Obviously, Takashi fucking Shirogane had nightmares, and was too much of a self-sacrificial moron to ever mention it to anyone, instead opting to shoulder the burden all by himself. As always.

Goddamn idiot.

Keith swallows his frustration - because he should have realised, he should have known - long enough to ask, “does he… still have them?”

Is he still suffering alone?

It’s with a guilty sort of reluctance that Coran admits he’s unsure, and that while Shiro has asked for something to dull the occasional headache, since his return he’s not mentioned dreaming one way or another. This doesn’t exactly make it any easier, knowing that Shiro has been hurting with little more than alien drugs to help him through it, but the hope that the worst of it has passed does serve to pacify Keith for the time being.

“Anyway!” Coran admirably soldiers on, “you really should try to catch the Zees, as they say.”

‘They’ being Lance, Keith is sure, but he smiles weakly and accepts the butchered phrasing as the well-intended advice it is. As he reaches the door, however, he pauses, fighting his instinct to leave before he says something stupid, and turns back once more.

“Hey, er… Coran? Thanks.”

He’s not sure if the weight of feeling can really be understood through that one word, but the Altean’s eyes soften, crinkling at the corners so deeply that blue markings are near lost to view, and Keith supposes that’s good enough.

“Any time, number four.”

 

Confrontational. It’s a word that has been used to describe him by every authority figure he’s ever ever come into contact with.

So when Keith takes it upon himself to actively seek out Matt, and marches into the green lion’s hanger where his target is immersed in conversation with Pidge, he clings on to the word. Confrontational, he’s confrontational, always has been always will be.

When the Holt siblings realise he’s there, the younger lights up in welcome while the older locks on to his steady approach like a particularly pissed-off sniper, and Keith suddenly doesn’t feel quite so confrontational as the previous nineteen years of his life would have led some to believe.

“Well look who it is,” and it’s freaky, how the two of them can speak in unison without missing a beat, even more so for how the inflection of tone makes all the difference.

Pidge shoots her brother an odd look, in equal parts amused and suspicious - and by this alone, Keith knows that she didn’t miss the clipped undercurrent of his voice - but refocuses her attention on Keith with something akin to relief.

“It was starting to feel like you were avoiding us.”

A smile accompanies this statement, but Keith feels the guilt like a punch to the gut. He and Pidge have known each other long enough by now that it would be hard to ignore how much she cares for her family, their existence having been the driving force behind nearly everything she’s done ever since Keith first met her, and it’s with a sinking feeling that he’s forced to admit that - for whatever reason - she’s decided to include him in that number.

“Things have been hectic.” It’s not an apology, but the soft brush of his knuckles against her shoulder when he reaches the duo is almost the same thing, and he knows Pidge accepts it as such by the lopsided curl to her lips.

“Yeah, sure, because organising the liberation and clean-up of an entire third of the known universe is a piece of cake compared to babysitting his royal pain-in-the-highn-ass.”

Keith winces at the reminder, but knows nothing is meant by it.

When he asks, “how’s that going?” to direct the conversation away from Lotor, Pidge’s expression sours.

“You know, you never really appreciate the thrill of fighting for the lives of billions until said billions are all up your ass about having disrupted the natural order of things. Looks like freedom’s all well and good in theory, but when it comes down to it, some people actually liked the stability of the Empire.”

“Stability?” Keith balks. “Meaning the systematic oppression of entire galaxies?”

Pidge is nodding sagely, “and the threat that if they don’t play ‘Zarkon says’ to the letter, their entire race will be wiped out like that, yeah. As it turns out, when tyranny is all you know, some people can get pretty attached.”

“It’s basically galactic Stockholm syndrome.” Matt rubs at his temple, but at least he looks a little less like he’s going to throttle Keith here and now. “There are practically no races that unanimously want to return to the Empire, but the problem is we’re negotiating with their monarchs, governments, and other reigning figures. I mean, up until now they held virtually no power, but all of a sudden they’ve found themselves at the top of the food chain and most of them have no idea what to do with it.”

“Matt and I were trying to work out what’s worse: negotiating with a leader who wants to hand the reigns back over the Zarkon and might be willing to betray Voltron to do so, or one who has had a taste of power and suddenly thinks they can tell the entire coalition to go fuck itself because they totally know how to run a planet all on their own.”

When Pidge springs up and starts pacing, Keith has to take a step back.

“And seriously it’s like-! Who do they think they are? Most of them have been under the Empire’s thumb for thousands of years - their only claim to power is their bloodline, or the fact that they were born on the day of three moons, or they just so happen to have a culturally significant birthmark for fucks sake. They don’t know shit about running an economy or winning a war, they just like the idea of being all powerful. But obviously we can’t just demand that they shut up and sit down and let an Altean Princess tell them what to do next, because we’re trying to prove that we’re not just the same dictatorship under a different name, so they just-”

“Oooooookay, Pidgeon,” Matt grasps her shoulders and gently sits her down again, “while you have a completely valid point, I’m invoking my big brother rights to tell you to go the fuck to sleep.”

Pidge scowls and opens her mouth to protest, but Matt beats her to it with a series of nonsensical noises as he smushes his hand against her face. There’s a brief scuffle which has Keith looking on in bewilderment, as two perfectly proficient fighters slap at each other’s hands like children, before Pidge finally dissolves into frustrated giggles with Matt ruffling her hair so hard that she almost falls over.

“Fine! Fine, I’m going, but Keith?” Sharp eyes bore holes through his skull, “you better not disappear for another half-phoeb.”

Keith’s mouth twitches into a smile; he nods, replies “no promises,” and secretly hopes that his words are precisely that.

Then he’s left alone with Matt.

“Kogane.”

He sighs, “Holt.”

Matt still doesn’t look happy. Significantly less tense than he did when Keith had first walked into the room, possibly, and his hair is sticking up at all angles thanks to Pidge being as scrappy as she is, but ‘happy’ isn’t exactly the operative word here.

Keith allows for a few more ticks of silent appraisal before he cuts in.

“I wouldn’t have come down here if I was just going to run away again.”

“So you admit it! You have been avoiding us.”

Keith shrugs, “mostly you,” and Matt makes a wounded noise in response, clutching at his heart and staggering into Keith before slinging an arm around his neck, allowing his weight to drag them both down onto the floor in a tangle of limbs. It’s stupid, and melodramatic, and exactly the kind of bullshit Matt used to pull when they were both still at the Garrison.

They end up with Keith on his stomach, one arm twisted uncomfortably beneath him and Matt’s full mass draped across his back, the Italian reclined with his fingers laced behind his head and, when Keith strains his neck to look at him, a ridiculously smug look on his features.

“You’re so dumb, oh my god,” and if this situation had been anything short of bizarrely affectionate, Keith wouldn’t have to be trying so hard to fight back startled laughter.

“Oh, I’m the dumb one. You sure about that, Keith gonna-fly-my-ship-into-the-barrier-then-not-tell-anyone-I-almost-died Kogane?”

Admittedly, Keith should have seen that one coming.

“You really want to have this conversation like this?” He doesn’t need to look at him to feel the raised eyebrow Matt greets that with.

“I mean, I’m pretty comfy,” he wriggles slightly as if to prove his point, and Keith grunts as he receives a bony elbow to the spine, “are you not?”

“Remind me why Shiro ever put up with you?”

“Excuse you, I’m loveable as fuck.”

Keith really does laugh at that, and it only takes a moment for Matt’s faux huff of insult to dissolve into the same thing.

“Alright. So,” and apparently they really are going to have this conversation on the floor, “you almost died.”

“Is this a reprimand or a therapy session?”

He feels Matt shrug. Mostly because, despite having significantly increased his muscle mass since they were at the Garrison, Matthew Holt is still a bony little shit, and his shoulder blades are no exception.

“Both, if you like. Look, Keith, what you did? It was insane.”

Keith wants to defend himself, wants to say this whole situation is insane; fighting a war when they’re barely even adults is insane, trying to overthrow an Empire that’s reigned for ten thousand decaphoebs is insane, Voltron’s very existence as a superweapon made up of five sentient robot lions is insane. He wants to tell Matt that, of everything, sacrificing his life for the sake of the only people in the universe who have ever really given a damn about him is quite possibly the most rational decision he’s made since leaving Earth.

Instead, he settles for asking, “your point?”

Keith,” Matt murmurs his name like it’s painful to do so, “what were you thinking?”

I wasn’t, Keith wants to say, I wasn’t thinking at all. Because that has never been his strong suit, he’s never had Shiro’s patient forethought - though after the Kerberos mission went dark, he’d tried. A creature of habit, he’d once been called: all instinct, no consideration for the consequences, and consistent only in that he adamantly refuses to listen to reason. He’d never begrudged the description, and though he couldn’t remember who’d said it - one of his foster families, probably - he’s inclined to agree with them.

“I’d die for them, Matt.” It’s a whispered confession, and Keith knows he wouldn’t have had the courage to admit it aloud were the situation anything less than what it is. “If losing Shiro was bad, losing everyone would be a hell of a lot worse.”

The tension bleeds from Matt’s shoulders, Keith feels it, and the pressure on his back lifts away. They sit side by side in silence.

“You’re really not going to tell them?”

“No.” He doesn’t even have to think about it. Doesn’t really want to.

“Ever?”

“Would it change anything? If they knew?”

Matt is forced to admit that it wouldn’t, and it’s obvious that he hates it because Keith does too.

“So what, you’re just going to pretend it never happened?”

Keith wishes it were that easy.

“Consider, just for a second, that someone has Pidge at gunpoint. You can stand there and watch it happen, or you can take the hit for her.” The question is implied.

“That- That’s not a choice.” And Matt’s smart, he knows where this is going.

“Exactly. Naxzela wasn’t a me or Pidge scenario, I was dead either way. The only decision to be made was whether I died with them, or for them.”

And put like that, it’s simple.

Keith knows he’ll never regret his decision, even if Coran’s medication stops working and the nightmares never cease. By the look Matt gives him, all soft and sorrowful, he knows it too.

“Alright,” Matt sounds so resigned, “so what, you swear me to secrecy and hope that everyone else who saw you flying that thing just conveniently doesn’t mention it?”

“They won’t.” Of this Keith is sure, but Matt looks sceptical. “I’m Galra, Matt. The coalition isn’t going to care. Plus, with Lotor turning up like he did, they’ve got bigger problems.”

Keith watches as his companion opens his mouth to argue, then closes it again with a frown.

“I… hate that you’re right. Logic doesn’t suit you, Kogane.”

Keith just shrugs, and they sit quietly for a while longer. Matt, decidedly, isn’t bad company. At the Garrison, he’d always been decent enough, and though it’d hardly meant much, Keith had liked him more than he’d liked anyone else there, bar Shiro. Since being found by Pidge, Matt hasn’t exactly had a lot of free time what with his responsibilities to the rebellion, and Keith has obviously been preoccupied with the Blade of Marmora. Still, during their shared moments of peace, few and far between though they’ve been, Keith has found Matt remarkably easy to be around. He’s a lot like Pidge, Keith thinks, if a little less feisty... Pidge if she actually had a regular sleep-cycle, and a more balanced ratio of blood to space-caffeine running through her veins.

“So,” Matt’s tone is damn near conspiratorial, and implies that Keith might have to immediately revaluate all previous conclusions about there being a saner Holt at all, “is Prince L’Oréal behaving himself?”

“You’ve been talking to Lance.” Keith groans, and Matt laughs.

“Here and there, yeah, he’s a funny guy. But the name is catching on.”

“I dread to think what he’d do if he found out.”

Matt frowns, suddenly serious. “He’s violent? Should we assign more guards or-”

“No, no he’s not... violent.” It’s the wrong word. Violent implies a temper, and while Keith is certain Lotor has one - and not one to be taken lightly - he’s far too controlled for any sort of outburst. Lotor is more… “He’s quiet.”

“Quiet?”

Clearly it’s not what Matt had been expecting, and honestly it wasn’t what Keith had thought to prepare himself for either.

“Yeah…” Keith trails off. His chosen descriptor doesn’t quite carry his full meaning but he doesn’t know how to put it into words. Lotor is quiet, but it’s not the soft sort of quiet Keith used to find with Shiro when the two of them had been worked to the bone for weeks only to finally steal themselves away for an evening, just the two of them. That had always been warm, safe, something sincere and soothing.

Lotor is the kind of quiet Keith could feel coming in the desert before a storm. It makes all the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention.

“I heard you changed the patrol routes,” Matt offers, and Keith latches onto the sound of his voice, dragging himself from his own reverie.

“He was tracking them.”

Matt makes a surprised noise, “by memory? There are almost sixty soldiers assigned to that sector.”

“He’s so clever Matt, it’s-” Keith cuts himself off. Scary, he’d almost said. Frightening. Terrifying. But there’d been something too close to admiration on his tongue; better that he bite it off. “He’s dangerous.”

Keith ignores the weight of that phantom hand on his shoulder. It burns.

Chapter Text

If Lotor recalls correctly, Altea - utopian metropolis though it once was - had paled in comparison to Daibazaal’s overwhelming scale, the former’s planetary rotations having consequentially been far shorter. The Castle of Lions is a product of such a planet, and while undoubtedly a technological marvel, a masterpiece of its time, the Prince quickly learns that it functions on a twenty-varga cycle to simulate its homeworld.

The Empire’s ships, of course, cater to the sleep-cycles of what is almost exclusively a Galra populace. Lotor grew up on such ships, spent decaphoebs of his life trusting in an internal clock that had perfectly aligned itself with the artificial ‘day’ and ‘night’ of whichever vessel he happened to be aboard. Even when exiled to the colonies, this had been a constant.

Adjusting to the cycle of a long dead and pitifully small planet is, therefore, maddening.

The Prince strides through the labyrinthine halls with purpose. There absolutely must be a manual control room for basic amenities somewhere in this Sa-forsaken place: Alteans had been well-known for their diplomacy, after all, and if they once hosted species from all across the known universe, then quarters built to accommodate such variety were practically obligated to have a simple light switch… and he would locate the damn thing if it were the last thing he did.

In an ideal world, he would simply ask his gracious hosts, and they would give him an answer. Problem solved. In this particular instance, however, his host is not so much gracious as a petty royal brat who seems intent on subjecting him to microaggressions rather than properly utilizing his intelligence against their common enemy.

Lotor doesn’t mean to gripe, even if he is only doing so inside his own head, but at this moment he’s both exhausted and without purpose. It’s proving to be a vexing combination.

The only - and he does mean only - comfort this whole debacle offers, is that the Altean Princess seems to be sabotaging half her own soldiers by way of the same issue. The rebel forces Lotor has observed thus far have been comprised of numerous peoples from across thousands of galaxies. Perhaps a handful of these species hail from planets with rotations which complement that of Altea. The rest, evidently, do not.

This offers Lotor ample opportunity to analyse his newly-trained and tragically sleep-deprived guards.

If the Princess Allura truly thought that to keep him from all military discussions would be to keep him out of trouble, then she’s even more foolish than he had first thought. Having little else to do, Lotor has put his mind to tracking the patrol routes of his wardens. There are never less than four stationed outside of what he’s deemed his private quarters, at any given time, and the members of this little group appear to change every five vargas or so. When he leaves the suite to roam any other part of his assigned sector, they trail him at a distance, not unlike wary yupper pups.

In addition to this, there are numerous patrol units stalking the halls in a regular pattern that he’s just about pinned down; another few quintents (or at least what counts as such here, because Sa forbid team Voltron use the same quantity of units as the Empire, even if it is universally standardised and blatantly the sensible choice) and he’ll have ascertained their routes. Double that, and he’ll have them memorised.

The single variable is Marmora’s kit.

Enviably, the child comes and goes as they please, staying for irregular periods of time, and often restless without cause. They are on constant alert, always fully armoured and seemingly expectant of some imminent betrayal, but unlike every other individual on this ship, they seem almost annoyed that Lotor has yet to live up to these expectations, their fingers itching for a fight.

Lotor cannot shake the sensation of those same fingers braced against his shoulder - neither cruel nor kind, only resolute in their mission - as they forced his arm back into its abandoned socket.

Keith, he thinks, is a curious creature.

When the patrols change without warning, suddenly erratic and impossible to track, Lotor stews in his own frustration. It hardly matters, he had no particular interest in the patrol routes aside from as a diversion from his crushing boredom, but having this small thing taken from him after having dedicated so much time to it is exceptionally bothersome. It wouldn’t be, he knows, had he slept for more than six vargas in the last forty-two, but this only returns his thoughts back to his own infuriating inability to locate the sub-command centre.

He drums his fingers irritably on the arm of the chair, absently lamenting the inconvenience of it all. Perhaps the kit can provide him with answers: the child does seem familiar enough with the Castle layout, and the poor thing is so obviously suffering the same ill effects of an irregular sleeping pattern that they may very well be willing to humour him for their mutual benefit.

Abruptly, the rhythm of Lotor’s fingers cuts off.

Ever so slowly he turns his head to the right, fixing the child with a look that he’s sure is in equal parts accusatory and intrigued, because patrol routes don’t just change without reason, and the Prince would bet his blade that the coalition puppets haven’t the brain cells between them to figure out what he’d been up to.

Though that mask remains as impassive as ever, the Marmorite juts their chin up fractionally, and it reads as a challenge and a promise all in one.

Not only a curious little thing, but clever too, this child - this Keith - with more of the Galra spirit about them than an Imperial officer thrice their age. So it’s like this that Lotor occupies his idle mind, seeing as Marmora have so carelessly thrown their kit to his mercy, and truly, it is an entertaining pastime to observe the little Blade. Lotor finds himself in the library, more often than not, the draw of heavy tomes that would have been considered a rarity when first shelved here, now ancient, and too much to ignore, with Keith dutifully pursuing him. Here, Lotor learns, his small-statured shadow is calmer, somehow. It might be that this room is more open: perhaps the child finds comfort in the viewing platform nestled away at the library’s far end, the transparent circle of its sunken floor occupied only by generously cushioned sofas which border the edge, making one feel as if to stand in its centre would be to encroach upon the void of space. Whatever their reason, the kit tends to relax, just fractionally, when here, and so Lotor deems it his primary haunt.

The little Blade hardly speaks, no matter how many subtle invitations Lotor provides, and Keith isn’t exactly expressive either - no, that’s not at all the right word for it - but the Prince does discover, much to his own delight, that the kit’s entire physicality is startlingly earnest. The slight tilt of that hooded head bleeds suspicion, while the tightening of their stance as slim shoulders draw back speaks of nothing but a repressed intrigue, a quiet yearning for more, and Lotor cannot help but be somewhat endeared by it all.

He learns not to probe too deeply - an abundance of interest unsettles the child, and Lotor suspects that they’d leave if asked anything directly - but offhand comments under the guise of thinking aloud as he absently flicks through old Altean scriptures allow Lotor the opportunity to observe the kit’s reactions out the corner of his eye. Between the Marmorite, and the actual contents of the books found in this place, Lotor concedes that there are worse ways to spend one’s time.

The sole issue being, of course, that the Prince has never considered himself an idle man.

It’s nearing his fourth movement of neglect at the hands of team Voltron, and he’s irritated. It’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t have benefitted from his knowledge of quintessence shipment routes at the very least, but he’s not seen a single member of their little colour coded club since first having set foot in the Castle. Their princess is suffering at the hands of her own prejudice, he’s sure, and while Lotor is practiced in mind-games such as this, he’s certain that by this point she must have come across something relating to the Witch or her people, and in doing so the Paladins have broken the terms of their own agreement by not having informed him of it.

Alternatively, they truly do know nothing of Haggar’s latest activities, and that in itself is a far more disturbing prospect.

Lotor closes his book and stands with a sigh. If they do not summon him by the quintent after next, he shall be forced to make the first move, and that will undoubtedly start this alliance out on the wrong foot which is something he should have liked to avoid.

His reverie is cut short when he looks up to find the kit near toppling forward, and it’s a matter of instinct to reach out and steady the child before they end up in a crumpled heap on the floor. There’s a beat of silence in which the Prince feels the lean muscle beneath his hand fall lax, the kit sagging gratefully into the support for a brief moment, before their entire body draws rigid and Lotor can near taste the tension.

“Careful, little Blade,” are the words on his lips, murmured quietly so as not to provoke either the tiny warrior in his grasp, or any one of the armed guards posted about the room’s edge. With the former being so unpredictable - but clearly worked to the bone, and Lotor tries not to let his revulsion at Marmora’s blatant maltreatment show on his face - and the latter simply waiting for him to give them a reason, the Prince knows that one wrong move could see him shot to pieces.

A move such as laying a hand on one of their number in plain view of everyone.

Lotor allows said hand to fall away, turns slowly enough that the motion cannot possibly be read as hostile, and walks on. He counts his footsteps as he goes, one after the other, a casual stride that reveals nothing. He doesn’t look back: not for Keith, and certainly not for the yupper scum who trail him until he enters his personal rooms, only then leaving him to solitude once again.

A less disciplined man might have done more than simply hiss out a heated breath through his teeth, but Lotor has seen what rage does when one allows it to guide them, and he is not his father.

The bloodlust curling in his veins doesn’t abate any.

When he closes his eyes against the world, he can see the sheer scale of his hand against the tiniest suit of Galran armor he’s ever known, in perfect clarity. The image seers itself into his mind with as great an intensity as the concealed knives which burn against his calves. It would be painfully easy, to just walk out those doors and butcher all four guardsmen. They deserve it, too, for allowing him to touch one so young so easily, and Lotor’s never found issue with someone for not having made an attempt on his life before now, but Galra or no, the little Blade is a child and yet the coalition’s bigotry apparently serves as reason enough to simply watch on from the sidelines and let what would be, be.

This cannot stand.

Lotor came here for allies, yes, and he knows Voltron are a necessary piece in this game, but beyond their present use to him, their days are decidedly numbered. By extension, the coalition’s commanders will burn, he’ll see to it personally, and the Blade of Marmora will most certainly have to answer for their negligence.

He cannot, will not, rebuild the Empire on the backs of children.

 

For the first time since arriving in the Castle of Lions, Lotor goes a full quintent without seeing the kit once.

Wisely, every guardsman he comes across allows for a wide berth.

 

The Prince is studying ancient star-charts, laying them out on the circle of transparent flooring so as to better compare what he thinks may be a historical record of the Castle Ship’s current location with the real thing, when footsteps pad towards him, the individual drawing far closer than all but one dare. A glance to his left affirms his suspicions, and it’s with a touch of amusement he notes that the kit seems reluctantly inquisitive as to what he’s doing.

“We’re drifting at the outskirts of the Rebulon zone, correct?”

By the way the child’s head snaps up from the charts, Lotor thinks it safe to assume so.

“I suppose your Princess is disinclined to move too far from Naxzela so soon,” he muses on this, half turning his attention back to the Altean diagrams at his feet while still keeping the kit in his sights, “it seems she does have some sense after all.”

The little Blade doesn’t seem inclined to reply, but they don’t back away either, so Lotor counts this interaction as a success.

He allows silence to wash over the room once more, slowly pacing around the star charts and noting how Keith keeps an even distance between the two of them at all times. Though wary, the kit is far from being openly hostile, and Lotor has observed over the past few movements that they seem only ever to withdraw at odd times, as if from an internal reminder that this alliance is all too new, and he himself still a potential threat.

If personal reminders are required, then perhaps there is hope for them yet.

This child is like Acxa, he thinks, particularly in the way she had behaved when they first met, as if she simultaneously wanted nothing and everything to do with him. It’s a thought that he stamps out immediately. Allies are one thing, but friends are a luxury he clearly cannot afford, not when the inevitable sting of betrayal is both too recent and too much to bear. Sentimentality, his father would say, breeds weakness.

Lotor stops mid stride, and hears the kit match him to a fraction of a tick. When he looks up, that impassive mask is looking straight back, and the suspicious head tilt has made its return.

He remembers a girl, small and scared and more than likely to rip Lotor’s throat out with her teeth if ever he’d insinuated as much, and thinks: I wonder…

He clasps his hands gently behind his back, regards the child steadily, and offers one, long blink. It’s impossible to know whether the gesture is returned, unconsciously or otherwise, but Lotor knows he doesn’t imagine the easing of their stance into something less threatening.

No, not less threatening, but less threatened.

It’s an exchange the likes of which Lotor knows the coalition yuppers will have missed, because it’s subtle in all the ways the Empire soldiers have had beaten out of them. There’s no delicacy in Zarkon’s inner circle, and by extension such physical displays of emotion have been mercilessly torn from the universe his father has striven to build. The offspring of planets whose only interaction with the Galra people will have been through the kiss of an iron fist, won’t have the first clue of how to read kindness in the lines of bodies too closely linked to their personal suffering. In contrast, a child of Galran blood won’t need to spare a second thought to understand another’s intentions at a glance, and Lotor knows it must have been disconcerting to be faced with someone like him, someone who’d learnt to calculate every tilt of the head so as not to incur his father’s wrath.

You’re like a dead thing, Ezor had once told him, you’re so good at pretending not to feel that you almost believe it yourself.

When he’d asked her how she was so sure that he didn’t, she’d smiled and draped herself across him in the way that Kova did Narti.

Dead things don’t pick up strays.

So Lotor loosens his restraint. With no other Galra here to judge him, the only one who stands to gain from this is the little Blade, and it works. When he invites them to sit - because they may appear steadier on their feet today, but he’d still far rather know that they’re not at risk of keeling over at a moment’s notice - they regard him in silence for a moment more before taking a hesitant step back to perch on the arm of one of the long sofas. They’re hardly the picture of relaxation, but it’s certainly what counts for progress, so Lotor seats himself on the floor without further preamble and returns to studying the stars.

 

A varga passes before the child sees fit to nestle themselves more comfortably on the sofa’s cushions.

 

It’s another two before they migrate from the sofa to the floor.

 

The silence is broken when they ask, “if you already know where we are, then what are you looking for?”

“This particular chart,” Lotor taps it lightly, “was near a hundred millennia old before the Sa Tskept. At this point, there are a handful of planets and even some stars that quite simply no longer exist.” He risks a glance up and is pleased to note that the kit is leaning in, as if they can hardly help it.

“The Sa Tskept?”

It’s an innocent enough question, but one every Galra child should know the answer to from the time they’re old enough to speak. The idea that Marmora haven’t even taught their kit this much sours Lotor’s mood immediately, and - oh, it seems now that he’s loosened his seamless self-restraint he can hardly hold himself back, because Keith withdraws so sharply that it’s a wonder they were ever there at all.

“My apologies,” and Lotor had been doing so well, it would be a shame to spoil it now, “I was simply… surprised, that your Marmoran elders haven’t taught you of it.”

Though this doesn’t entice them back in, it does appear to placate them somewhat.

“Kolivan has more important things to do.”

Kolivan, the commander. Interesting that the child’s first thought is to him rather than their primary caregiver. Lotor files that information away to be pondered upon at a later date.

“I’m sure,” Lotor quells his own distaste with a huff of disbelief, “but no matter: the Sa Tskept is the formal name for the Day of Denouement.”

And, by Brodar’s name, the kit still seems clueless.

“Sa’s Reclamation?” Nothing. “The Fall of Ages?”

The poor child shifts uncomfortably, giving a slow shake of their head, and Lotor desperately wants to put them out of their misery.

“The destruction of Daibazaal by command of King Alfor.” This, crude an explanation as it may be, they at least seem to recognise, with a soft ah of understanding.

“I… didn’t know it had so many names.” They pause, and Lotor imagines their nose scrunching up in thought. It’s a dreadfully adorable concept. “Half of them didn’t even translate.”

“That would be due to Zaalkh having been a dead language since Vrig the Great’s reign.” Lotor sighs because he’s always considered this to be rather a pity, then goes to continue, but notes the return of hesitance to the child’s posture. He makes sure to level his tone when he speaks again. “You have not heard of Vrig the Great.”

The kit shakes their head again.

“Have the Blade of Marmora taught you nothing but combat?”

“We’re fighting a war.”

Yes, but you shouldn’t be, Lotor barely bites back, deciding here and now that he holds a great distaste for all the kit’s superiors.

“Zaalkh is the dialect of our ancestors,” because this seems as good a place to start as any, and anger will get him nowhere, “it was the native tongue of Our First: Brodar, who united the people of Daibazaal under one banner, and conquered several planets in the Galra name. To honour Brodar, Zaalkh became the linguistic hallmark of ceremonies and formality, but the common tongue is derived from a far simpler, informal dialect that evolved for everyday use.”

The child is so open in their curiosity, so blatantly enthralled by such basic knowledge of their history, that it’s a wonder any of Marmora’s people have been able to deny them.

“The Sa Tskept is, as I’ve said, the formal title given to the destruction of Daibazaal. Literally translated, it would be The Return to the Void,” Lotor frowns, “but that is why we use the old tongue, to prevent it from sounding so dreadfully inane.”

“The Sa Tskept,” Keith repeats, and the syllables curl around their tongue so naturally that Lotor has to fight back a smile, “Sa as in Vrepit Sa?”

“Indeed, though I’m sure I know what you’re going to ask next.”

There’s a pause in which the Prince is given the distinct impression that the child wants to deny that, but they incline their head and don’t interrupt.

“Victory or Death, is another crass translation. Vrepit as Victory is passable, I suppose, but Sa… Sa is the Void, the gap between dimensions to which we shall all return once dust, and form the universe anew.”

He allows for this information to be considered, the kit clearly mulling it over quite seriously, and Lotor more than content to watch on in silence as the little Blade does so.

“So what you meant,” they finally say, “was just that the star-chart is really quiznaking old.”

Lotor lets out a startled burst of laughter, too honest a reaction for him to control it. He definitely hears at least one of his assigned guards drop their weapon, the rest scrambling to keep a better hold of their own, but he cannot bring himself to care.

“Truly,” he leans forward, resting an elbow on his knee and half hiding a smile behind long fingers, “that would be the essence of it. You have quite a way with words, little Blade.”

The noise Keith lets out is a soft snort, but Lotor is fairly certain that beneath their mask, they’re smiling too.

 

He’s so enraptured by this conversation, and at having uncovered such an inquisitive soul beneath all that armor, that Lotor completely forgets his plight against Princess Allura until he has bid little Keith farewell and retired for the evening.

 

Lotor is quietly contemplating how to best go about forcing Voltron to acknowledge his existence, when Keith finds him in the library once more. The kit’s pace slows, draws to a halt, and Lotor can hear the ever so subtle shift of their weight from one foot to the other.

This tentative approach is oddly endearing.

Seated comfortably against the cushions, Lotor tilts his head back to look over his shoulder in such a way that it leaves the line of his throat clearly exposed. He can almost hear Zethrid’s raucous laughter at how uncharacteristically submissive his behaviour is, but of Zethrid’s many qualities, sensitivity never was one, and if some obnoxiously vulnerable body language is what it takes to put the Marmorite at ease around him, then his pride will survive.

When he adds in an invitingly soft, “you won’t sit today?” for good measure, the child huffs out a breath and settles themselves on the far end of the sofa.

Lotor fixes his eyes on the stars beneath his feet and gives the little Blade ample time to relax back into whatever rare form of companionship it was they’d found the quintent prior. When several dobashes pass in silence, the Prince looks up to find the kit’s posture screaming restless impatience, and has to restrain himself from commenting on it.

“Should you like to continue from where we left off?”

“Veiglar of the Black Sun,” and from the way the child breathes the title in a rush of relief, Lotor suspects that they’re grateful he relieved them of the burden of having to ask.

“Veiglar, indeed,” and Lotor tries not to sound too enthused, but this has always been one of his favoured tales, “she was the eighth of our people to claim the title of Emperor, and the seventh to formally do so through right of the Kral Zera. Incidentally, she was also of Brodar’s lineage, and some suspect her of having assassinated her predecessor for the purpose of reclaiming the throne back into her bloodline.”

“I thought Xiadca of Natrh was killed by a creature of his own making in the Arena?”

“His experimental beast, yes, well remembered.” Arrogant as he was mad, Xiadca had thought to prove his prowess in battle by creating a monstrous hybrid, only to kill it before his people. His plan had backfired spectacularly. “Records state, however, that Xiadca was still alive when carted out of the Arena; it is debated as to whether or not he could have survived the wounds, and if so, whether Veiglar had someone ensure that he did not.”

Lotor continues to recite the Daibazaal’s great history under Veiglar’s rule, adding in inconsequential facts that he knows most wouldn’t care for, and revelling in the way Keith laps it up, almost hungry for it. The child possesses a genuine enthusiasm for their shared culture beyond the battles won or the blood spilled, and the Prince discovers that despite the information he’s supplying being unable to provide any sort of tactical advantage for the Blade of Marmora whatsoever, this doesn’t seem to matter to the kit.

As much as this delights him, Lotor is also deeply saddened by it, because it’s unbelievable how little they know of their own culture, and he remembers being so young himself, so clueless to his own heritage outside of expectations of bloodshed.

“Ultimately, Veiglar fell to her sister’s sword.”

“The twin blade to her own?” The child sounds appropriately betrayed.

“The very same. It’s from her death that we gained the proverb ‘It is that with which you arm your allies that deals the greatest blow’,” something he himself ought to have remembered, “it’s a lesson on trust, little Blade. You’d do well to take note.”

When they speak, there’s a careful edge to their tone. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Simply what I said,” he thinks back to the brief glimpse of Acxa’s face he’d caught just before she took him out, “trust is a dangerous thing. You know full well that your enemies want to kill you, it’s your friends that you have to watch out for.”

The kit stands, clearly affronted by this insinuation, and storms several paces away from the Prince as if to put distance between them would make a difference to the truth behind those words.

“Though in your case,” Lotor continues, unperturbed, “you may want to guard yourself against both.”

He holds the knife between his thumb and forefinger loosely, and when the little Blade turns to fix him with what he’s sure would be a ferocious scowl could he see it beneath their mask, they instead freeze up, all attention locked onto their stolen weapon.

Lotor means it as a lesson. The child really is too open - not trusting, exactly, but still somewhat naïve - and it’s a trait that will see them to an early grave.

“Mistakes will always be made, but you should ensure that yours don’t get you-” killed, he had intended to finish with.

Killed, he doesn’t say, because no sooner has Keith registered what it is that Lotor is holding, do they lunge for him like a wild thing, and by Brodar’s name this child is fast. Lotor sidesteps them on instinct, his footwork sloppy at having been so unprepared for such a violent reaction, and that split tick of being caught off-guard costs him dearly as the kit uses their own momentum to launch themselves back off the sofa and straight into Lotor with an alarming accuracy. The two of them are grappling against the starlit void of the floor for less than a dobash before Lotor manages to pin the child under him, his own mass more than enough to restrain their lithe form, even as the threat of their reclaimed knife points towards his jugular. It’s a valiant and quite frankly impressive attempt, but the weapon in their grasp is held too far away to do any damage.

Or, at least, it is until the blade glows, extends, and Lotor may have the kit pinned, but they have the promise of a swift death pressed into the hollow of his throat.

Several members of his assigned guard are yelling, several more drawing closer with their blasters trained on him, but Lotor doesn’t hear any of their demands in the face of the perfectly calm yet frightfully sharp request that he yield, issued from beneath him.

He concedes easily, too much in awe to come up with anything particularly witty, and slowly removes the pressure applied to slim wrists so as not to send that blade rocketing forward to bury itself in his neck.

He soon finds himself knelt on the floor, palms raised and eyes bright, as he beholds the little warrior who stands before him. When one of the guards in his peripheries snidely asks what he has to say for himself, Lotor keeps his gaze locked onto the Marmorite and whispers “you truly are magnificent,” without even the slightest hint of deception.

“Try that again, and I’ll kill you.”

Lotor doesn’t doubt it.

Chapter Text

Keith knows what fucking up looks like.

It’s been a bad habit of his for as long as he can remember, and of the many things the Garrison officers had begrudgingly admitted to him having a talent for, none had outweighed his apparent gift for turning every good thing in his life into a shit show.

He doesn’t know if finally receiving answers about your alien heritage from the son of a universal dictator fits neatly into the category of “good things”, but it’s certainly closer than anything Kolivan had ever offered in the way of information.

So of course he fucks it up.

And it’s his own fault too, he knows, is sure of it as soon as he turns to find the Prince isn’t just goading him with the threat of betrayal, but has actually managed to steal his knife. Keith’s hand almost goes to his waist on reflex to where he knows that familiar weight should be, but he doesn’t because it isn’t because he can see it right there, right in front of him, and Lotor is still speaking but Keith doesn’t hear a word of it before he throws himself at Zarkon’s son like a creature gone feral.

His first tackle fails, sending him rocketing into the empty space on the sofa, once Galra-occupied and now void of life, but Keith doesn’t let that deter him, instead bracing his feet, and launching his full weight backwards before he’s even twisted around. Blindly trusting his instincts is something Marmora have tried to hammer out of him, because it’s reckless and stupid and everything they’re not, but seeing as Keith has clearly set a precedent for fucking up, he may as well commit to it.

And it works.

The ensuing brawl is brief: all blunt strikes to torsos while the depths of the universe span out beneath, first him, then Lotor, then him again. They grapple with one another for a moment more, but Lotor may well have a touch of that Altean strength to him, because in the end there’s no amount of struggling that can throw him off, and Keith finds himself pinned against the window of the floor, cool even through his armor, with the firm weight of his enemy against him. One arm is down by his side, rendered useless by Lotor’s hold, but the other - twisted up between the two of them with the Prince’s long fingers curled firmly around his wrist - holds his reclaimed knife.

He looks Lotor dead in the eye as he wills the luxite to revert to its true form, the blade’s tip finding its victim’s throat and applying just enough pressure to dimple the skin without breaking it. Keith finds that, from so close, golden sclera are somehow less prominent, their luminescent quality giving way to the thin ring of colour surrounding dilated pupils.

Lotor’s eyes are a startling shade of blue.

“Yield,” he means to growl, but it comes out a little breathless.

Thankfully, he’s met with compliance, and Lotor carefully removes himself. Keith stands and steps back as soon as he is able, blade still in hand and grip so tight that he’s not sure anyone would be able to pry it from his fingers, even if they were to kill him first. The rebels are swarming around the two of them, but he has eyes only for the Prince who kneels without shame, palms raised but smile sharp, and Keith thinks, I don’t understand you, because the fact that this man looks so pleased at an outcome which has him held at gunpoint is incomprehensible.

When one of the rebels takes it upon herself to gloat at the situation - revelling in having the heir to the Empire at her mercy, no doubt - Lotor doesn’t even spare her a glance. Instead he keeps his gaze fixed intently on Keith, and breathes out “magnificent” as if it’s some great secret to the universe.

The worst part isn’t that Keith thinks this praise might actually be sincere; the worst part is that when he responds to Lotor’s words with a death threat, there’s not a sliver of doubt in his mind that, should the need arise, he’ll follow through with it.

The worst part is that he doesn’t question whether he will, only if he’ll want to.

That thought alone is enough kindling for an all too familiar spark of rage: not at Lotor for being exactly what he is - what Keith should have known he is - but at himself for having been so stupid so as to think, even for a second, that the Prince could be anything else. He’d allowed himself to be taken in by pretty words, and patient understanding, and - god - he’d wanted so badly for it to be true.

For a moment he’d believed it.

Magnificent.

Keith doesn’t feel particularly magnificent when he catches one of the rebels giving a status report over the coms, and remembers that he’s going to have to recount his failings to Kolivan. He feels even less so when he thinks of Matt: relatively high up the rebellion’s chain of command, at least of those within the castle, and all too likely to catch wind of this.

True to form, Keith is only allowed a few dobashes of self-loathing before the elder Holt bursts through the library doors at an alarming pace.

“Keith!”

Marmora’s armor is built for stealth, but it does little good when he and Lotor are both blatantly Galra in the midst of a room which is anything but. He spares the Prince a sidelong glance, finding clever eyes flicking between Matt and himself with interest, the silent verdict something that, all things considered, Keith won’t even attempt to guess at.

Matt barely even pauses when he reaches them, just tugs Keith to one side by his forearm and barks orders at everyone else to return Lotor to his assigned chambers until further notice. Even as the Prince is escorted out with twice his usual detail, his scrutiny still finds Keith at its centre, the intensity of it piercing through the armoured bodysuit and raising goosebumps on his flesh.

 

“Jesus Christ,” Matt waits until the room has emptied to tear his gaze from the doorway, “he looked like he wanted to eat you alive.”

Keith gives a half-hearted snort as he sheathes his knife and lowers his mask.

“I don’t think he eats people, Matt,” but then again, Lotor could be a tiny weblum in a flesh suit for how well Keith can apparently read him.

“Seriously though,” and Matt’s expression has dropped into a frown, “are you okay? I was briefed on my way down here but they’re saying that it was a Blade of Marmora who started it - and obviously that had to be you - but, Keith, I know you; you don’t just attack people without reason.”

“Iverson would disagree.”

Keith.”

“Alright! It was-” and, shit, there’s really no good way to phrase this, “Lotor took my knife.”

Predictably, Matt’s response is to panic.

“He fucking what?”

If this situation has a bright side, it’s that Matt’s dismay proves the rest of the room’s occupants hadn’t seen the Prince with a weapon in hand. Lotor arming himself isn’t the type of thing they would neglect to report, after all.

“I know I fucked up okay, but I got it back straight away and-”

“Literally how? You just said he took your knife.” Matt’s expression turns to horror in an instant, immediately finding the answer to his own question. “Oh god, Keith, please tell me you didn’t jump the spawn of Zarkon when he was armed and you weren’t.”

Keith fidgets, but can hardly defend himself against the truth.

You jumped the spawn of Zarkon when he was armed and you weren’t.

“Say it a bit louder; I don’t think the rest of the ship heard you.”

Matt has taken to pacing back and forth as he curses, and it would be funny how alike the Holt siblings are if circumstances were anything less. “You just- I can’t believe- no, actually, I can and that’s- I mean, you-”

Shifting awkwardly from one foot to the other, arms crossed as he glowers at the floor, Keith waits for Matt to properly gather his thoughts; the reprimand is inevitable, he knows, and worse yet he deserves it.

Keith had thought he was being careful, but he’d also thought that he could read Lotor and clearly that was bullshit because he’d seen no hint of malintent, nothing to suggest that he’d find himself disarmed - though whether the true root of that was nimble hands or that charming smile was perhaps something to be pondered upon later - but the fact remained that the Prince’s silver tongue had spun tales of ancestors that Keith had never let himself dream of, a rich history the likes of which he’d long since resigned himself to never knowing, and he’d practically lulled himself into a false sense of security.

He scowls at the window of the floor and imagines he can still see Lotor there, remarkably docile for a prisoner on his knees, the whispered approval on his lips less admiration and more a prayer for all the reverence it was spoken with. The furrow of Keith’s brow deepens.

It doesn’t make any sense. Even if he has been reading Lotor wrong this entire time, something about the Prince’s actions don’t quite suit any scenario Keith can come up with, because whatever advantage Lotor might have stood to gain from acquiring a weapon was lost the moment he revealed it… and he did reveal it, Keith is sure: there had been nothing accidental in the way the knife had been displayed in Lotor’s hand.

Keith blinks. Narrows his eyes. Replays the memory with a frown.

He can picture it clearly in his mind’s eye: long purple fingers curled loosely around the weapon’s bound hilt as it was held out in front of the Prince’s torso almost mockingly, extended arm too lax to pose any real threat, and grip all wrong for an offensive manoeuvre.

Though Keith can’t be sure at this point whether or not he can accurately read intent in the lines of Lotor’s body, he’s been fighting long enough to know what a threat looks like, and that wasn’t it.

“He wasn’t going to hurt me.”

When he raises wide eyes from the starry void of the floor, Matt is looking at him like he’s gone half mad, and Keith can’t really blame him.

“I’m serious. Lotor wasn’t going to hurt me, he was-” well, of that Keith’s not quite sure.

“He was…?” Matt seems torn between confusion and exasperation. “Keith, when a prisoner steals a weapon from their guard, things usually end up with someone getting hurt. Take it from me, I’ve been there.”

Keith knows that, he does, but something about this situation sits wrong in his gut. He gnaws on his lip, shakes his head, and struggles to put his instincts into words.

“It doesn’t make sense, Matt. He showed me the knife. I didn’t even know he’d taken it, and he deliberately brought it to my attention.”

“So he was mocking you.”

Keith shakes his head again. Mocking may be the term he’d privately used himself only moments before, but when said aloud it sounds far crueller than the reality. In Keith’s experience, people like that aren’t the type to sit around and regale others with dramatic historical conquests, or patiently explain the nuances of an ancient linguistic system.

It just doesn’t add up.

When a hand lands on his shoulder, Keith jolts back to the present to find Matt quickly retracting the touch and raising his palms in a gesture of no ill intent. Keith frowns at him blankly for a few ticks before opening his mouth, closing it again as he thinks better of it, before licking his lips tentatively and parting them once more.

“I think he-”

The hiss of the library doors interrupts him, and when he and Matt turn to look, Lance is standing there with his bayard activated, and uncharacteristically tousled hair. He seems surprised at the emptiness of the room, but when his eyes lock onto Keith in much the same way Matt’s did, he storms towards him.

The red Bayard reverts to its dormant form as Lance advances with the demand: “are you or are you not bleeding out?”

“Um,” Keith is slightly taken aback, can’t help but look down at himself as if having been stabbed was something he might have missed, “no?”

“Awesome,” and with that, Lance reaches the pair of them, delivering a sharp strike to Keith’s chest with his free hand. Keith winces and is forced to take a step back from the unexpected nature of the hit.

“The fuck Lance!?”

“Don’t you ‘the fuck Lance’ me!” He fixes Keith with an icy look which is matched tenfold, “I’m perfectly happy chatting up not one, but two lovely rebel ladies, when they both get an alert that there’s some sort of Galra brawl going on between Lotor and his guard, who - news flash, mullet - I would know was you even if you weren’t the only Blade assigned to him. So I rush over here because he’s twice your size and could probably break you in half with one hand, and you have the audacity to be just-” Lance cuts himself off to gesture violently at the air around Keith, as if that concludes his point.

Keith feels the anger seeping from his bones. Though used to being unable to follow half of what comes out of Lance’s mouth, this is such a far cry from what Keith had expected to be faced with after their last confrontation, that he doesn’t really know how he’s supposed to respond. “You were… worried?”

Lance sags, all the fight seemingly drained out of him as he exhales disbelievingly.

“Christ, Keith. I thought I was going to come in here and find you drowning in a pool of your own blood.”

That’s not a no, Keith realises. He swallows whatever noise is trying to crawl its way up out of his throat, and substitutes it with a quiet, “sorry.”

“Dude,” Lance seems to be searching his face for something, and Keith absently wonders what he finds, “are you actively trying to get yourself killed?”

Violet eyes snap over to Matt in the same instant as the older Holt makes a strangled sound, too bitter to be called a laugh. He tries to project the core sentiment of ‘don’t you fucking dare’ without clueing Lance in to this unspoken dialogue, but Lance isn’t stupid (not matter how many jokes me makes to the contrary) and definitely catches something in the sudden tension between them.

“What am I missing here?” His puzzled frown switches between Keith and Matt with too much determination for the former to feel comfortable.

Thankfully, Matt bails him out with a smooth, “nothing, just I’ve been asking him the same thing for way too long and he never listens,” which successfully diverts Lance into taking a few gentle jabs at Keith’s expense before insisting that all three of them go for dinner.

There’s no point in resisting, not when it’s obvious that Matt would rather air the events of Naxzela than continue on as Keith’s reluctant accomplice. Dinner is a small concession. So Keith only fights his companions so far as convincing the duo to let him change out of his armor, before allowing himself to be dragged by arms looped through his own towards the dining hall; trying all the while to put Lotor’s motivations to the back of his mind.

 

-

 

Team Voltron are predictable.

It’s partially their inexperience that betrays them, and partially the ideals of their precious Princess, whose responses can be easily anticipated so long as she insists upon letting her blatant hatred of the Galra race cloud her judgement.

As this does not seem something she is particularly inclined to change, Team Voltron will undoubtedly remain predictable, but they are so in all the ways that Keith is not.

The child’s volatile reaction to the realisation that their knife was no longer in their possession was… a miscalculation, on Lotor’s part. His personal defeat - and how rare a thing that was, though, granted, had he been actually trying to maim the child then they would never have found the opportunity to gain the upper hand in the first place - served to answer his earlier hypothesis: the Blade of Marmora may very well have assigned one of their finest if that little performance was anything to go by. That doesn’t remotely excuse their blatant disregard of the kit’s youth, of course, but Lotor can’t deny that the feisty little thing shows astounding promise.

It almost makes him want, in a way he hasn’t for quite some time, to take them under his wing: a dangerous game when Keith has already sworn their allegiance to Marmora, but perhaps not an endeavour doomed to fail, not if the little Blade’s genuine curiosity of their heritage is any indication.

Lotor mulls over the child’s growled threat with a private smile.

He shouldn’t, he knows this. Allies are one thing, but the allure of this kit is already far too strong considering that interactions between the two of them have been, up until the last few quintents, relatively limited.

All the same…

Lotor’s attention is forced back to the present as the Altean Princess sweeps into the room with all the delicacy of an irate klanmüirl, flanked by both the Champion, and her aid: the three of them the apparent trifecta of power on this ship.

“Lotor.”

Perhaps, if she had at least made an effort at civility, he would have found it within himself to do the same. As it is, he turns from the wide expanse of space with his hands clasped firmly behind his back, claws biting into palms, and fixes her with a dazzling smile of feigned innocence before asking: “to what to I owe this pleasure?”

It has the desired effect, if not on the intended target.

The Champion is the one who surges forward, right arm humming to life as if fully intending to demonstrate to Lotor how he earned such a title, but Princess Allura holds him back firmly. Even with the strength her bloodline allows her, this seems a strain, though Lotor imagines this is more because she’s unsure of whether or not she really wants to stop her pet beast.

“You attacked him, you attacked Keith.

Granted, Lotor had known this would be their primary motivator for coming to see him; it had been, after all, his intention to bait them out by stealing the kit’s knife in the first place. What catches him off-guard is the very personal nature of the Champion’s address. Thinking back, when Keith had first assigned themselves - or rather, himself, apparently - to the Prince’s guard, the Champion had displayed an unusually high level of distress on behalf of the Blade’s child.

It is a possibility, then, that the kit has two allies here: the black Paladin, and that curious rebel boy who had burst into the library earlier, with little regard for how his concern for Keith was met with poorly concealed distain from his colleagues.

The Champion snarls in demand for an answer, and Lotor remembers himself.

“Surely this is more Marmora’s business than yours?”

Princess Allura bites out her retort between gritted teeth. “Kolivan is currently indisposed.”

Gone then, Lotor concludes, leaving behind the kit to fend for himself, unless there are other members of the Blade biding their time in the castle’s shadows. Somehow, he doubts that.

“You,” the Champion hisses out, barely in control of himself, “broke the terms of our agreement. This alliance is over.”

Lotor barks out a laugh at that, and lounges more comfortably back against the window to create the illusion of nonchalance in a deliberate effort to infuriate. By the ugly contortion of the Champion’s expression, he succeeds.

“This alliance has been a farce from the moment I stepped foot on this ship, and by no fault of my own.” He returns his stony smile to the Princess. “I graciously complied with your ridiculous stipulations, and yet you have neither made use of the information I have given you nor asked me for further details. You may be content with cadging me here, but it is counterproductive to our cause.”

Our cause?” She scoffs, “as if you don’t have a hidden agenda.”

It is an internal battle not to tell the Altean brat exactly what he thinks of her.

“What you continuously and, dare I say, disappointingly fail to grasp, is that you and I find mutual vexation in the form of my father. Perhaps I do, as you put it, have a hidden agenda, and perhaps I do not.” Lotor exhales slowly through his nose. “However, you would have no way of knowing, seeing as you have resolved to prioritise your personal grievances over even the slightest attempt to properly benefit from this alliance.”

Princess Allura steps forward, just as fierce as the Champion, if not more so, but is stopped by the room’s fourth occupant, who does little more than touch her elbow so that she looks at him. They exchange a silent conversation in less than a look, but it concludes with her withdrawal. Once again, Lotor is forced to question the quiet power that the Altean man wields.

The Princess purses her lips, takes a breath, and Lotor finds himself at the centre of her attentions once more.

“Prince Lotor,” he arches an eyebrow at the sudden acquiescence to his title, which is just slightly too cold to count as respectful, “I may have been… taciturn, in my attitude towards you, however, as I am sure you can understand, you have actively flown against us in the past.”

“I have - though beyond our initial conflict which, I’ll admit, was largely by the fault of my own curiosity, I did nothing to seek you out. Magnum opus though it is, Voltron has never been my objective.”

“And yet your ship is built from a trans-reality comet, not at all unlike the one my father crafted the Lions from.”

Lotor barely suppresses a sigh.

“A scientific endeavour, the reasons behind which I would readily explain if you were only to ask.”

The Altean Princess seems taken aback by this, as if Lotor hadn’t been compliant in near everything she’d demanded of him since setting foot on her Sa forsaken vessel. Just as it seems she is softening, the Champion, meddlesome creature that he is, decides to interfere with a sour expression.

“You still attacked Keith.”

Lotor has to prevent his personal interest in the child from seeping into his tone. It would reveal too much.

“I provoked him, yes, but I assure you the first move was not mine. I should have liked to garner your attention in a more diplomatic manner, but I did receive the distinct impression that you were making a particular effort to omit my presence here from your collective conscious.”

The black Paladin grits his teeth, but Princess Allura, at the very least, has the decency to flush, even if the subdued, “I… apologise,” she offers seems to physically pain her.

“Apology accepted,” is said more as an underhanded gibe than a true assurance, but Lotor allows himself this snide triviality for all the trouble they’ve caused him. “Well, if that is all, then I think it best we start anew next quintent.”

“Indeed,” and she looks almost as relieved as Lotor feels.

“Hang on a tick, m’boy! Why don’t you join us for dinner? A gesture of good faith and all that, just as Zarkon and Alfor once did.”

Lotor finds he has a strong distaste for this man and his impertinent nicknames, but he smiles and gracefully accepts, biting his tongue and tactfully neglecting to mention what a superb ending that friendship had come to. He finds consolation in how utterly miserable the Altean Princess looks in the fraction of a tick before she schools her features.

The Champion bothers with no such thing, and openly glares at Lotor as the trio escort him beyond his assigned quarter for the first time since his arrival.

 

Lotor allows the Altean’s (Coran, if his memories serve him rightly) senseless babble to fade into the background long before the four of them enter the dining hall, instead directing his attention to mentally cataloguing the path they take through the ship. He comes to the conclusion that either the Altean architects responsible should be embarrassed by their own lack of practicality, or - and this seems by far the more likely option - he is being shepherded through the castle in what must be the most indirect route possible in a clumsy, if regrettably effective attempt to prevent him from learning his way around.

When they finally reach their destination, Lotor is spiteful enough to sweep his arm out in a grandiose gesture which indicates Princess Allura should enter before him, knowing full well that turning her back on her guest will make her impossibly uncomfortable. She tenses, he smiles, and the two of them stand in a stalemate of faux decorum until the Champion guides her through the doorway, while non-too-subtly putting himself between his precious Princess and Lotor.

When he follows them in, the excited chatter of the room’s occupants dies.

The Prince counts five, other than himself and his escorts, all of whom seem to be of the same undocumented species, and Lotor idly wonders what distant corner of the universe they hail from, to have avoided the Empire for so long. He counts off the remaining Paladins with ease, and then notes the scarred rebel from earlier who, now that he’s stood beside her, Lotor is certain must share blood with the green Paladin.

In the midst of those he recognises, is one he does not.

He’s pretty, by all accounts. Lotor has no idea what standards of beauty the Paladins subscribe to on their homeworld, but within the Empire, at least, the stark contrast provided by dusky eyes and such a fair complexion would see the creature before him considered a striking conquest. Dark hair borders high cheekbones, and falls in such a haphazard manner that it should seem an untameable mess, yet, somehow, the tips of wayward strands curl to perfectly frame a sharp jawline, as if such chaos were a deliberate work of art. Though a petite little thing, even in comparison to others of his species, the corded muscle of arms crossed over a lithe torso speak volumes of the man’s field of expertise. While he may not hold a candle to the Champion’s build, there’s a cleverness in the way he’s returning Lotor’s scrutiny without shame, and the Prince thinks - if Voltron do end up as just another regrettable casualty at the hands of his father - the Arena may well uncover a worthy challenger in this one.

Not that he’d be likely to find himself there, of course. Cannon fodder for the entertainment of the masses is easy enough to come by when thousands are enslaved every movement; the Empire’s Generals may be bloodthirsty, but even they would be unlikely to discard such beauty in favour of making him another nameless gladiator. No, far more probable that the poor thing would be called upon to service whichever high-ranking officer first laid eyes upon him.

While he’d never be so crass as to claim another sentient being as a spoil of war, Lotor does quietly lament at not having encountered this handsome little warrior under more favourable circumstances.

In another life, perhaps.

As it is, Lotor tears his eyes away from the group at the room’s far end, and sits when directed to do so. Princess Allura seats herself at the head of the table, as physically far removed from him as she can possibly be, and her companions all quietly follow suit.

Dinner is a stilted affair.

It’s no secret that the Paladins would have clearly preferred him to have taken his evening meal in solitude as he has done since his arrival, and on this particular point, Lotor is inclined to agree with them. His discomfort is only worth it because theirs is clearly greater, but the Prince does catch his thoughts wandering towards the dangerously wistful territory of suppers taken in the company of his Generals.

Zethrid usually devoured her food without regard for decorum, and while Ezor habitually laughed at the sight of it, Acxa - ever-exasperated by such antics - would never fail to make another futile attempt at having the unruly pair behave themselves. Lotor thinks fondly of how he would often shoot a sidelong glance at Narti across the table, and have her somehow return the look despite her lack of eyes.

He thinks of her heated breath on his cheek, how it had stuttered as he ran her through, and has to place down his cup with far more care than such a simple action should require.

Team Voltron and company have been talking quietly amongst themselves and doing a poor job of pretending that Lotor isn’t present, but it’s only when the blue-red Paladin squawks obnoxiously, his eyes darting between the yellow one and Lotor himself, that the Prince takes any notice of their conversation.

When the yellow one makes a confused noise in response, his eyes flicking towards Lotor before hurriedly returning to his loud-mouthed friend, he seems utterly bewildered.

“Hunk, my man, I think it’s better if we ixnay on the Eithkay.”

Lotor blinks.

Intercepted communications between the Lions during battle, as well as memories leeched from the Champion and his original companions when they’d first been taken prisoner, had offered the Empire ample linguistic data on their species’ mother tongue. As a matter of principle, this new language had been a compulsory update to the translators of even the most low-ranking Empire grunts.

Whatever that was, however, had been left as foreign jargon.

“What, why?” The yellow one looks no less puzzled, but the implication of his question was that he had comprehended his smaller friend’s words, just not the reasoning behind them.

“You know how we learnt a certain something about a certain someone…?”

Though Lotor has a sneaking suspicion that he is the ‘someone’ in this scenario, this doesn’t seem to clarify anything for the other participant of this conversation, and the blue-red Paladin’s shoulders sag with a huff.

Alfhay alragay.

The yellow one still doesn’t react beyond a baffled nod of assent, but the green child lights up, her eyes darting between Lotor and the table’s other occupants with a sense of horrified realisation that Lotor doesn’t like being ignorant to.

“Oh shit, you’re so right! Yeah, no, Hunk: definitely ixnay on the Eithkay.”

“Okay??”

It’s clear that the yellow one is still in the dark about this, but Lotor feels oddly pacified by the knowledge that he’s not the only one. Looking around the table, the only other occupant who actually does seem to be in on this coded language is the rebel, who hums with a furrowed brow before jerking his chin up in a none-too-discrete gesture, first at Lotor, and then the attractive soldier, all the while shooting a deliberate look towards the yellow Paladin.

“Do you eesay the roblempay?”

The sudden manner in which thick eyebrows shoot up to the Paladin’s hairline says that the message - whatever it may be - has been received. The blue-red one sighs in relief.

“Exactly. So maybe don’t do that, okay buddy? I mean, what are we supposed to do if Otorlay decides to add Eithkay to his aremhay?”

Both the green Paladin and her rebel sibling choke on something that is in equal parts alarm and delight, while the yellow one looks like he might cry.

“Dude no! Don’t even joke about that!”

Lotor does not intend to sit here and be ridiculed by people who haven’t the nerve to do so in a tongue he comprehends, and so coughs very deliberately before pasting a sharp smile onto his features.

“You could simply ask me to leave.” He’s rewarded with a satisfying level of dread for his bluntness, and he sincerely hopes they think that he’s understood their little coded conversation. “As entertaining as you are with your rudimentary verbal cyphers, I would hate to think that my being here is an inconvenience, so I shall excuse myself.”

He stands, unsurprised when the Champion immediately does the same with a firm insistence that he will “show Prince Lotor back to his rooms,” and makes his exit without another word.

Chapter Text

Keith likes his Earth-clothes. It’s an odd sort of attachment, and not one he ever thought he’d have to the ratty black jeans and faded tee that had once been the same colour, but he’s gained a new-found appreciation for this attire after so much time spent in armoured bodysuits that were designed to keep him alive above all else. Alive, he’d quickly learnt, was not at all synonymous with comfortable. So even if he hadn’t been allowed enough time to pull his jacket on - had barely tugged the soft cotton shirt over his head - before his bright-eyed companions looped their arms through his and marched him towards the dining hall, Keith finds that the simple act of wearing plain old civilian clothing leaves him feeling markedly more human than he has in phoebs.

Or, at least, as human as someone who is literally half alien can feel.

When the doors slide open, it’s the smell that hits him first; it’s not familiar, not even remotely, but it’s good and warm and, god, Keith has no idea what he did to deserve Hunk Garrett and his culinary skills, but it must have been pretty damn incredible for the universe to reward him like this.

By the absolutely obscene moan Lance lets loose as he releases Keith and bounces across the room, he’s clearly of much the same mind.

“Hunk, my man, that smells like heaven.”

Hunk laughs as he sets the last plateful of food down near where Pidge is seated with her legs propped up on the table, shooing her feet away with one hand while simultaneously beaming at Lance in greeting. When Matt cuts in with “McClain, please, no orgasmic noises around my baby sister,” it’s Pidge who reacts first: her middle finger raised and a deep breath which says she’s more than ready to reply with an exaggerated moan of her own, just to spite her sibling, until her glare lands on Keith and she practically falls out of her chair.

“Doth mine eyes deceive me? Or has our resident cryptid finally come to dinner?”

Before Keith can reply, Hunk’s head snaps up and his smile - impossibly - widens. It’s unclear whether Keith is shoved forward by Matt or simply grabbed by Hunk, but the end result is that he’s wrapped up arms that are as strong as they are soft, and really can’t bring himself to complain.

Though his words are muffled against Hunk’s shoulder, Keith manages to breathe out: “s’good to see you too big guy.”

The yellow Paladin sniffles, momentarily squeezes just a little tighter, and then steps back with a watery grin. Before he can say anything, however, Pidge is cutting in with a gentle jab to the ribs and grin of her own, for which Keith is grateful because he’s not even remotely equipped to deal with the repercussions of making Hunk cry.

“And with that,” Lance is suddenly hooking one arm around Keith’s neck and the other around Hunk’s, which doesn’t really work because of the obvious height difference, but clearly doesn’t deter the Paladin either, “the whole gang’s back together.”

“Iconic,” Matt intones, his chin resting on top of Pidge’s head as he valiantly ignores the way she’s swatting at him, “and all it took was one attempted stabbing.”

Keith sends him a scathing look, but the damage is already done.

“Oh my god Keith, what did you do?”

“Nothing!”

He winces at the way his own voice has pitched defensively high, and when Pidge simply deadpans his denial, as if to say ‘I don’t believe you’, he’s not at all surprised.

What does surprise him is the near flawless deflection Lance provides as he stretches out one long leg to poke the green Paladin’s nose with the tip of his shoe, the sudden bulk of his weight dragging Hunk down and near buckling Keith, while the gesture itself immediately earns an exclamation of disgust from Pidge as she bats him away. Though this sends him toppling to the left, Lance, being Lance, doesn’t miss a beat, and slips his arm from Keith’s shoulders to spin around Hunk, turning what should have been an awkward staggering into some oddly graceful footwork.

Hands on his hips, Lance’s momentary surprise at his own recovery is turned into a kind of innocent delight as he shoots Keith a grin, before wagging one finger in Pidge’s direction.

“Nu-uh, we’re not doing this! Just because mullet’s finally joining us and pretending to be a civilised human being, does not mean he gets to be the centre of attention.”

Hunk begins to protest with something that sounds like “we’ve literally not seen him for months,” but is cut off by Lance thrusting his arms up in the air with an exclamation of, “besides! I have news!”

Keith can feel a smile tugging at his lips, and when he prompts the Paladin to continue with a questioning noise, Lance shoots him a conspiratorial eyebrow wiggle which says he knows exactly what he’s doing, and that Keith is probably going to owe him one.

He finds, strangely, that he doesn’t much mind.

“Check this out,” Lance is holding the red bayard out proudly, and Keith isn’t quite sure what he’s supposed to be looking at - aside from a needling reminder that he’s no longer really a part of this team - until it morphs into neither Lance’s usual compact blaster or his secondary sniper rifle, but a sword.

“Holy shit.”

Keith isn’t the one who voices this sentiment, but his jaw has definitely dropped, and he agrees whole-heartedly.

The blade itself is gorgeous; everyone crowds around it and makes the appropriate cooing noises, - possibly more for Lance’s ego than the bayard itself - but it really is impressive, and Keith makes sure to say as much with all the sincerity he can muster. Lance preens under the praise: despite his posturing, it’s obvious that there’s a genuine pride there, and Keith is happy for him.

He thinks of the shrunken figure that had awkwardly sidled through his doorway one evening, mumbling nonsense about mathematics and too many wheels, and is really truly happy for him.

Lance deserves this.

So Keith wrestles down the twisting in his gut, and listens to Lance’s babbled explanation of how he’d been training and it had “just kind of happened”: a blaster one moment, a blade the next. There are sound effects and wild gestures (though thankfully with his free hand) that accompany this grand retelling, of course, and in the wake of his friend’s joy, Keith almost manages to convince himself that this turn of events truly doesn’t bother him.

“-and according to Allura, this is the same form the bayard took when Alfor was the Red Paladin which is obviously super cool. I mean, literally the same sword as King of the Space Elves. You cannot beat that.”

Keith is forced to agree.

For all Lance can be obnoxious, he’s unfailingly kind and loyal and good. Nobel. Red had seen these qualities in him and accepted him as her Paladin - and, sure, she might have accepted Keith first, but he’d also thrown himself out into deep space without a tether, which hadn’t exactly been the best game plan, so there’s every possibility it had been more pity than anything.

Where Keith is reckless, Lance is strategic. Where Lance is charming, Keith is reserved.

Lance is suited to diplomacy just as Allura is: they’re both unfailingly charismatic - though in quite different ways - and people can’t help but flock to them. Keith has always had a habit of giving off the wrong sort of vibe without conscious effort, and while he’s never craved adoration in the same way Lance does, he’s never exactly been fond of the way liberated aliens would often make a particular effort to tiptoe around his immediate vicinity.

And that had been before they’d learnt he was Galra.

His heritage isn’t exactly common knowledge, but it had been mutually agreed upon that to hide it would be to send the wrong message. The original hope had been that by gently introducing the Coalition leaders to the idea that a Paladin of Voltron was also a Blade of Marmora, it would bridge the gap between the Coalition and their Galra allies.

It hadn’t.

In the phoebs before they’d found Shiro, concerns at having a Galra piloting Voltron had been voiced frequently - often directly to Allura as if Keith weren’t stood at her right hand - and after Shiro’s return their anxieties had only worsened.

You have the original back, so why are you still using the substitute?

Allura had patiently explained that Shiro was still recovering, and that Keith was perfectly capable. Not even a full movement later, and Keith had almost seen them all killed in the fight for the Teludav.

How can we rely on Voltron when one of your Paladins shares blood with the enemy?

After a long-suffering sigh, Allura had reiterated Marmora’s involvement in their shared liberation efforts through gritted teeth, but Keith had been forced to wonder if her stilted reply were for the repeated questioning she found herself subjected to, or the scripted answer of unity she had little choice but to give.

What if history repeats itself?

Keith wasn’t supposed to have heard that one. That particular conversation has been more the hushed whisper of a frightened thing, and when he’d peered around the corner, he’d seen Allura standing with her mouth agape, her companion the reigning sovereign of planet Nalquod.

“It won’t,” she’d told him, “Keith is a dear friend, and I trust him.”

“I’m sure your father thought the same of Zarkon.”

She’d balked at that, her whole being gone taut, but when she’d hissed out “how dare you-“ the alien’s ear-like appendages had drooped sadly.

“It is a shared tragedy, Princess. Our Lord Blaytz fell to the same betrayal, and my people still suffer at Galra hands, I simply do not wish to see you follow the esteemed Paladins of old.”

“I trust him,” she’d repeated. Had the words not faltered on her lips, Keith might have believed her.

There was a danger to him being a Paladin that even Shiro’s guidance had been unable to remedy; Keith knows that he’s still too thoughtless, too hot-headed, too obsessively single-minded upon that which is right in front of him to see the bigger picture.

Too Galra.

The soft tap of Altean steel against his calf, cool even through his jeans, startles Keith from his reverie, and he looks up from the bayard to find Lance with a particular glint in his eye that promises nothing but trouble.

“So I think we can all agree,” he purrs, leaning in with a sly smile as if about to impart some devilish wisdom, “mine’s bigger.”

Hunk immediately throws his hands up and walks away, only to turn around again with pain in his eyes as he awkwardly sidles over to where Pidge cackles next to Matt, who has hidden his face in his hands, as he shakes with laughter. Keith… doesn’t quite see what he’s missing.

“Obviously?” He tilts his head to the side as he scrutinises the blade again, trying to catch up with the world around him, “yours is clearly a broadsword, of course it’s going to be longer; it’s probably slightly thicker too.”

Lance chokes, and Keith thinks he must have swallowed wrong because he’s starting to go a little red in the face, but his concern is waved off with an amused, “never mind, I’d forgotten how dense you can be,” which is rude, because if the Paladins are surprised by such simple facts then clearly Keith is the only one who knows anything about swords at all.

Before things can escalate further, Matt swoops in and pats Keith on the head in a way that is in equal parts affectionate and condescending, crooning about innocence and all the qualities his baby sister apparently doesn’t have, as she still struggles to breathe through her hysterics.

Keith is half-way through demanding an explanation as to what about his knowledge of melee weaponry is apparently so comical, when the doors hiss open to admit Allura and Shiro, both of whom have faces carved from stone, causing Keith’s heart jump to his throat because he’d expected them to chew him out for his recklessness, but they’re both positively livid.

When their eyes find him, there’s a moment of mutual panic - almost outright fear - which makes very little sense on their part, until Lotor steps in behind them with a smile that says he hasn’t quite decided whether or not he would rather kill everyone in the immediate vicinity, or just himself to get it over and done with. Keith has seen that look several times over the course of the past phoeb, and it’s such a particular brand of uncomfortable that he can’t help but be simultaneously amused and sympathetic every time he sees it.

By the deathly silence that falls over the room, Keith realises that the others may not share in this opinion.

Coran strides in behind the Prince, the most relaxed by far until his eyes land of Keith, his face twisting to mirror the same complicated alarm that Shiro and Allura wear.

With a sudden swell of dread, Keith realises that he probably isn’t supposed to be here. It shouldn’t be surprising, not after having avoided them all for so long, but he’d thought - he’d assumed, what with Matt and Lance so insistent upon him joining them, and Hunk and Pidge’s warm reception - that he was still welcome at their table. Another quick glance at Allura’s expression suggests that this may not be the case.

So instead he looks to Lotor.

Lotor looks right back, eyes flicking over Keith in quick appraisal with a touch of liquid heat to it, and Keith - inexplicably - feels himself relax. There’s something dark behind that attention, but it’s less hostile, more inquisitive, and Keith can’t help but hear the echo of magnificent in the back of his mind, and so he returns this curiosity openly.

Because Lotor didn’t try to threaten him earlier, he just didn’t, and although Keith can’t put his reasoning into words, he’s never been so sure of another’s intentions as he is right now.

 

Dinner isn’t nearly so much fun as Keith remembers, and he’s not sure whether this is his fault or Lotor’s, but Shiro’s not subtle in the way he keeps looking between the two of them as if expecting a brawl to break out at any moment. Keith, for his part, keeps his head down and picks at Hunk’s alien concoction with less appetite than he’d had before.

When he sneaks a sidelong glance at Lotor, the Prince’s posture is even better than Allura’s, and he eats quietly, without complaint. He’s also very far away, having been seated down the opposite end of the table, and though Keith doubts that stilted small-talk would help the situation any - particularly when that’s not at all his strong suit - he doesn’t like how sad Lotor seems.

It’s probably weird to feel sympathy for someone who half threw you to the floor not two varga’s prior, but Keith can hardly help it, not when the line of Lotor’s mouth draws tight, his shoulders too, the Prince’s façade of elegance betrayed by the all too careful return of his cup to the tabletop.

Keith frowns at clawed fingers as they curl quickly into a fist, concealing the tremors that have taken hold of them.

“Hey,” Hunk’s soft tone of concern draws Keith’s attention back to a conversation he’s barely heard a word of, “you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” must somehow be the wrong answer, because the yellow Paladin’s brow furrows.

“You don’t have to stay, you know? You can leave?”

Keith blinks.

Then his stomach plummets. If even Hunk is trying to get rid of him, he really must have missed some social cue or another, and without thinking his eyes seek out Shiro - for comfort or guidance he doesn’t know, but no sooner has he looked to his oldest friend does he wish he hadn’t, because Shiro doesn’t really do anger, and yet right now he’s scowling at his plate as if it’s personally offended him.

So like that, Keith knows he’s fucked up.

He curls back into his seat, hurriedly trying to work out if leaving now would make things better or worse, and only barely hears Hunk say the first half of his name before Lance cuts him off with a squawk of protest.

“Hunk, my man,” and Lance’s voice is strained enough that Keith risks a look in his direction, relieved to find that Lance isn’t looking back, and so this outburst, at least, maybe isn’t his fault, “I think it’s better if we ixnay on the Eithkay.”

Hunk makes a confused noise, but his question is “why?” as opposed to Keith’s “what?”, and looking between the two of them, Keith chalks it up to another one of those Lance-and-Hunk things.

“You know how we learnt a certain something about a certain someone…?”

Lance’s words aren’t damning, not exactly, but Keith silently retracts his earlier hope that this could be something for which he isn’t to blame when broad shoulders slump with a huff, blue eyes flicking between him and Lotor, then back to Hunk, with something undecipherable behind them.

Alfhay alragay.

Pidge jolts at that, near launching herself from her chair and breathing out a curse, all before hurrying to affirm Lance’s cryptic nonsense with a pointed stare. Hunk remains as confused as Keith feels, but agrees to whatever it is he’s being asked to do, and the tension in Lance’s shoulders alleviates some.

Keith’s instinct is to look to Shiro, but he daren’t, so instead his eyes find Matt. The elder Holt seems to be in agreement with whatever’s going on, but he spares Keith a weak smile which is somewhat reassuring, until he proceeds to jerk his chin in Lotor’s direction and then back towards Keith, all the while fixing Hunk with a meaningful frown.

“Do you eesay the roblempay?”

After barely a moment more, the yellow Paladin’s confusion breaks into an expression torn between understanding and panic. Contrary to everything that expression seems to portray, Lance sighs in relief.

“Exactly. So maybe don’t do that, okay buddy? I mean, what are we supposed to do if Otorlay decides to add Eithkay to his aremhay?”

Much like earlier, there’s an abrupt burst of laughter from everyone around him, and Keith has somehow missed the joke. Before he can ask, however, there’s a pointed cough from the other end of the table and all glee falls prey to the sharpness of Lotor’s smile.

“You could simply ask me to leave. As entertaining as you are with your rudimentary verbal cyphers, I would hate to think that my being here is an inconvenience, so I shall excuse myself.”

Without another word, Lotor stands - Shiro’s chair screeching back across the floor as he follows suit without hesitation - and does just that.

Keith watches them go, and thinks he finds something defensive in the Prince’s gait even as the doors hiss shut behind him; Lotor’s smart, Keith knows that better than most, so it’s entirely possible that the Prince saw something in the past few dobashes that Keith missed entirely, and if so, he didn’t like it at all.

Keith means to ask, but when he turns back around everyone’s looking at him like they’re expecting something, and his previous anxieties return with a vengeance, worsened when Allura springs to her feet and is upon him in an instant, surging forward even as Keith flinches back into his seat and-

She’s hugging him.

She’s hugging him, and Keith’s arms - half raised in his own defence - now hover awkwardly in the air as he blinks at the others owlishly, his view obscured by the quite frankly ridiculous volume of luminescent white hair. Were it anyone else, he might think the normal thing to do would be to return the hug, but he and Allura don’t exactly have a simple history, and seeing as the last time they spoke she’d been boring holes into the side of his head for opposing her decision with regards to the son of the man who massacred her entire civilisation… he’s understandably cautious.

She pulls back after what can’t have been more than a few ticks, but felt like an entire lifetime, and Keith becomes uncomfortably aware of the fact he has a lapful of Altean Princess and absolutely no idea of what to say to her.

Thankfully, Allura seems inclined to do most of the talking, though when she opens her mouth, it’s a far cry from the reprimand Keith expects.

“Oh Keith I am so sorry. We would never have brought him here if we’d known; I mean, really I would rather not have brought him here at all-”

“That’s on me actually, number four,” Coran chips in, guiltily, tugging on his moustache with a frown, “I thought it might be a good way to smooth things over.”

“But of course we never imagined you’d join us today of all days - not that I’m not glad, of course!” Allura offers him a weak smile, “only I wish it could have been under better circumstances.”

She’s looking at him all doe-eyed and sorrowful, and Keith knows this is his cue to give an answer but he’s not really sure what to say, so he just nods dumbly and hopes that’s enough.

“I truly am sorry, Keith. I never meant for, well, this.” She waves her hand vaguely at nothing, and Keith nods again in an attempt to pretend that he knows why he’s being apologised to. Judging by the look on her face, he’s not very convincing.

I mean it.

Keith hesitates, before slowly nodding once more.

“I think he’s in shock,” Pidge seems to be fighting off a grin, and when Keith can only give yet another small nod in agreement, she gives up entirely and starts laughing.

“You’ve short-circuited his mullet brain and I can’t even make fun of him for it,” Lance looks thoroughly disappointed by this, but his words cause Allura to huff.

“Is it really so hard to believe that I would apologise?”

Lance snorts, “no more unbelievable than you throwing yourself at Keith when I am right here, but please, continue.”

Keith feels Allura go ridged against him and after a moment, ears turning ruddy and flicking like a cat’s, she bolts upright in a flurry of skirts with more flustered apologies on her lips.

“It’s fine,” he manages to croak out, standing with his palms raised to pacify her, “no, seriously, Allura, it’s fine, I just- I don’t know why you’re apologising?”

She pauses, eyes wide and mouth gaping.

“Because… because we brought Lotor here?”

“I mean, technically you voted against him being here, so that’s more my fault-” Keith starts, but she’s shaking her head with a frown.

“No, here. To the dining hall.”

“Yeah,” Keith stares at her blankly and she stares right back, “I noticed.”

They’re stuck in a stalemate of quiet disbelief until Matt cuts in with, “Jesus Christ Kogane, the guy tries to carve you up, and less than a varga later you’re cool with sitting down to dinner with him, what the fuck?”

Keith opens his mouth with a frown but Pidge gets there first, all mirth melting from her expression in an instant.

“He fucking what?

“Lotor,” Matt explains, the line of his mouth pulled taught, “took Keith’s knife and tried to gut him.”

Keith sends a disgruntled noise in the elder Holt’s direction, but the damage is already done. Lance is looking at him in cold horror, and the echo of the Paladin’s earlier concern - “I thought I was going to come in here and find you drowning in a pool of your own blood” - makes Keith wince guiltily, but before he can explain himself, or Lotor, for that matter, Hunk is upon him with gentle hands and frantic words as he hurriedly checks him over.

“Oh buddy please tell me you’re not bleeding; you’re not bleeding, right? Keith, seriously, if you’re bleeding you need to tell me right now because I know you’re all strong and silent but I cannot have you dying on me.”

“Hunk- Hunk,” Keith clasps one broad shoulder firmly, offering a weak smile, “I’m fine, it was nothing.”

Nothing?” Allura hisses, and Keith finds himself taking half a step back because this is more in the vein of what he’d expected earlier. “Keith, all the reports I received agreed that there was a brawl between Prince Lotor and one of the Blade, and that it was resolved without incident, but if he managed to arm himself-

“Allura, listen to me,” Keith makes sure she’s not going to interrupt before he starts, “Lotor isn’t what you think he is - no listen - he’s not. Hell, he’s not even close to what I expected, and I get that you’re freaked out by him being here, but you need to look past that and think about what use he can serve to Voltron.”

Lance scoffs, his eyes cold, “and yet you conveniently didn’t mention that he tried to stab you.”

“I…” Keith runs his hand through his hair roughly, hissing out an exhale through his teeth, “I really don’t think he did, Lance.”

There’s a moment of quiet in which Keith is sure Pidge mutters “bullshit” under her breath, but Lance is meeting his eyes dead on without blinking, as if genuinely considering this idea, which is more than Keith could have hoped for.

“Alright,” a muscle jumps beneath the tanned skin of his jaw, “then what happened?”

Keith frowns at nothing, and runs the memory through in his head one more time, looking for the trick and finding nothing.

“I think,” he meets Lance’s steady gaze once more, encouraged by the patience he finds there, “I think he was trying to be kind.”

A couple of the others make sounds of disbelief, but Keith only has eyes for Lance, who slowly inclines his head.

“Right. Okay, you’re going to have to explain that one.”

And so Keith does.

He recites the sequence of events just as he later would in his report to Kolivan, and Lance listens without judgement even as the others are reluctant to do so. Keith tries to describe how it wasn’t just Lotor’s grip that was wrong, but his tone of voice, his movements, but he can’t quite put it into words; even so, Lance gets it.

“Alright mullet,” there’s a look shared between Lance and Hunk before the former continues, “but does he know you’re half Galra?”

Keith pauses, surprised, and considers this for a moment. His instinct is to say no, but… “Lotor’s smart. He’s not seen me without my mask before, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s worked it out,” Keith knows he’s small for a Galra, after all, so it wouldn’t be an impossible jump of logic.

“Let’s hope he hasn’t,” Allura’s expression is grim, “he’d only take advantage of it, if he knew.”

Keith inclines his head to her, earning what he thinks is supposed to be an encouraging smile, and doesn’t voice his doubts even as they sit heavily at the back of his mind.

Lotor using their similarities against him isn’t impossible - it’s not even improbable, given the things he’s done - and yet the concept is one Keith finds himself distinctly uncomfortable with.

 

Keith ducks beneath the gladiator as it swipes at him with its staff, his own weapon one to match and clumsy in its unfamiliarity, but similar enough to those he used to use during combat training at the Garrison that he is able to swipe the droid’s feet out from under it, and deliver a sharp blow to its head. His opponent freezes, chimes out a note of success, and is swallowed by the training room floor.

Straightening, Keith rolls his shoulders and tries to ignore how his paladin armor feels bulky and foreign after months spent with Marmora.

He calls upon the next training level, and sinks into a defensive stance as the program begins, centring himself and pretending that he’s able to focus on something other than the dobashes trickling away before Team Voltron are scheduled to renegotiate terms with Lotor.

The droids - four of them - surge forward as one, and Keith slips between their towering forms with less fluidity than he’d like.

He hasn’t seen the Prince since last night’s meal, and isn’t quite sure what to expect. Allura’s words have been bothering him, and the more he thinks about it the less certain he is of Lotor’s authenticity - and he’d hardly been confident of it before. If the Prince knows who he is - what he is - then he’s not made it obvious, but it would be hard to deny that Lotor has taken a certain level of interest in him: to what end, however, Keith can’t say.

He cripples one droid as it lunges for him, and briefly incapacitates another two, but the fourth comes for his blind spot and he just barely manages to roll out of its way in time, receiving a cuff to the bulky shoulder plate of his armor for his trouble. He growls, steps back from the remaining three droids as they advance on him, and adjusts his grip on the staff to ready it for a move that would have Kolivan’s ears flattening in disapproval.

As the closest droid moves to strike, Keith rams his weapon into the weak point beneath its arm, the joint giving way to the blunt butt of the staff, forcing it down and into its nearest companion with fatal force, while launching himself upwards over the head of his final opponent only to twist in mid-air and wrap himself around its torso in a hold that sends them both toppling to the ground. By the time he hits the floor, the droid’s head is already wrenched all the way around, and Keith lets out a breathless laugh of satisfaction.

A slow and particularly deliberate round of applause draws his attention to the open doors of the training deck, where Lotor stands tall and unfailingly composed despite the flustered guards who hover behind him uncertainly, attempting to demand that he proceed to his intended destination and instead flitting about him as little more than an annoyance.

“Impressive,” Lotor’s voice is liquid gold, and Keith hates how the low praise has him preening without effort, because if Allura’s right and Lotor does know about him, then this is nothing more than a manipulation game.

As he stands, Keith eyes the Prince carefully, ending the training sequence with a murmured command, and advancing on his audience with a feigned expression of more composure than he’s ever possessed in his entire life.

The others had recommended that he do nothing to give himself away to Lotor, and try to avoid offering up anything that could connect the masked Marmorite with the former Paladin of Voltron, so as he makes his approach, Keith has no intention of saying any more than he has to.

Lotor, of course, holds no such qualms.

“You fight like a Galra soldier.” He purrs, all smiles and intrigue.

“Funny,” Keith draws to a halt, and between one second and the next, completely forgets to bite his own tongue, “your father once told me the same thing.”

Lotor’s guard fall silent, deathly so, as the Prince’s smile flashes dangerously.

“Did he now?”

Keith outwardly hums, and inwardly curses his own inability to just shut the fuck up, walking past Lotor and towards the bridge where he knows the others will be waiting. Lotor effortlessly falls into step beside him, his gait unperturbed even as his attention prickles across the back of Keith’s neck.

“High praise coming from him - and I would know.”

Keith glances at Lotor as they walk, and for the first time wonders what that was like, to grow up with Zarkon as a father. “I’m relatively sure he followed it up with a death theat.”

“And yet it was praise, nonetheless. He values nothing more than military strength.”

Keith doesn’t want to respond to that, wouldn’t know how to even if he did, because he’d already known that Zarkon’s offhand compliment had been genuine, and at the time it had disturbed him deeply. The last thing he wanted was the approval of a genocidal tyrant.

Lotor lets out a humourless laugh, and Keith realises, with horror, that he’d voiced that final thought aloud.

“There was once a time where I craved it…” Lotor’s tone trails off almost wistfully, “how amusing, that it would come to this.”

Unsure whether those words are for him, or Lotor himself, Keith walks on in silence, too aware of his own footsteps as they echo in tandem with those of the Galra Prince.

Chapter Text

Lotor isn’t one to be easily distracted, much less by something so frivolous as a pretty face.

That’s not to say that he hadn’t found a passing fancy in the anonymous soldier who’d shared Voltron’s table the night before - and, yes, perhaps said fancy could have passed a little faster, rather than lingering on the outskirts of his awareness as it had - but regardless, the Prince had been fully committed to discarding such interest as the superficial, temporary thing that it was.

So when he finds himself being escorted past the open entryway to what must be the Castle Ship’s primary training deck, it is by complete coincidence that his eyes find the room’s sole occupant to be that same dark-haired little thing, darting between gladiator droids only to bring them to their knees with a flick of his wrist.

Between one step and the next, Lotor recognises the insignia borne across the young man’s breastplate, and it’s unexpected, to say the least.

When marked in vivid crimson, Voltron’s crest stands in stark contrast to the white armoured plating and black undersuit that sits beneath it, and though the staff the soldier wields is clearly no bayard, Lotor has little doubt that Princess Allura would die before allowing some nameless rebel ingrate to besmirch her father’s legacy.

Which can, of course, mean only one thing.

The red Paladin - or, perhaps, the former red Paladin, considering he makes six by Lotor’s count, and the Prince highly doubts that there is a secret Lion squirrelled away somewhere in the Castle - goes from being outnumbered, to sailing over the heads of two abruptly dispatched droids and into his final opponent; it’s with striking flexibility that the Paladin wrenches the gladiator’s head to the left in the same moment that they collide, limbs coiling around the droid and somehow twisting both it and himself around further until he lands in a crouch over what, in a true battle, would have been his enemy’s corpse.

It’s a vicious victory to behold, made more so by the pleased laughter that comes out unfairly soft considering the way violet eyes spark with adrenaline as the Paladin looks down upon his conquest.

The thrill of the fight is electric, Lotor knows, and to see it so openly on another’s face even when suffocating in the midst of the coalition’s posturing as holier-than-thou liberators, is refreshing.

Ignoring the pathetic demands from his guard that he continue being paraded around like a prize Schleipnir, Lotor takes one step into the training room and claps his hands together in slow applause, immediately bringing himself to the centre of the Paladin’s attention, and finding it to be no less pleasing than it had been the evening prior.

“Impressive,” he hears himself say, with a tone that possibly speaks too much of the low-grade attraction thrumming through his veins.

The Paladin doesn’t respond (which is mildly disappointing) but he does rise to his feet, the fluidity of his movements seemingly effortless, and stalk towards Lotor with a predator’s gait (which is anything but). As he draws closer, the uncertainty behind his gaze becomes apparent, but it’s less doubtful and more a challenge, as if he knows exactly what Lotor is, and is waiting for the Prince to prove him wrong; it’s all fight, and fire, and fury.

Almost Galran.

So Lotor says as much - partly because he wants a reaction, and partly because it’s true - the words, “you fight like a Galra soldier,” a sweet sentiment on his lips.

He’s vaguely aware that the Paladin’s species is one that he’s seen exclusively fighting against the Empire, and that such words may be perceived as more of an insult than anything else.

“Funny,” the smaller man stands before him now, his head tilted back to compensate for their difference in height and his chin jutted out defiantly, “your father once told me the same thing.”

Lotor hadn’t really registered the continuous pestering of his guard until they abruptly cut themselves off as one, the Paladin’s bold declaration reading as dangerous insolence even to the densest of creatures, it seems. Lotor allows his eyes to flicker momentarily over the red Paladin’s form, and thinks, “yes: this is him, it must be,”  because if anyone were to challenge the Emperor to single combat at the heart of his own Empire and survive, then it would have to be a creature such as this.

“Did he now?” Lotor grins, feels his pulse quicken, and falls into step beside this enticing little thing as he makes his way towards what the Prince can only assume to be their mutual destination, “high praise coming from him - and I would know.”

Those dark eyes look to him as they walk. It’s a foreign sort of scrutiny, and yet not a displeasing one.

“I’m relatively sure he followed it up with a death threat.”

Entirely likely, Lotor thinks, “and yet it was praise, nonetheless. He values nothing more than military strength.”

He sees the moment that the Paladin’s expression becomes weighed down by a scowl, the words “Zarkon’s approval is the last thing I want,” muttered under his breath, and tearing biting laugher from Lotor.

“There was once a time where I craved it…” a time he’d rather forget, as cold and fruitless as it had been, “how amusing, that it would come to this.”

The Prince thinks of that which could barely be called a childhood with long-worn detachment. What he remembers is fragmented - repeatedly being woken to a world a little further removed from that which he’d known, always something more foreign and broken and wrong than the one preceding it, until the time he’d been born into might never have existed at all - and what he doesn’t is probably best left forgotten.

Voltron’s sixth Paladin doesn’t speak again, but this offers Lotor ample time to consider the younger man in light of the new information their brief exchange has afforded him.

Though the Altean Princess wears the colour of mourning, it is apparently not, as he had originally assumed, for the sake of the red Paladin, and team Voltron’s reasoning behind the substitution of said Paladin is therefore a perplexity in and of itself. Lotor glances to his companion again: not dead, clearly, and if that brief combat simulation was anything to go by then not severely injured either. Whatever their logic, evidently red had been replaced by blue, and blue by Princess Allura herself.

A horrible decision really.

If this one had, as he implied, spoken with Lotor’s father, then such a conversation almost certainly took place during Voltron’s assault on Central Command. Ergo, this must be the same red Paladin that confronted the Emperor one-on-one and, miraculously, lived to tell the tale: something that should count as a victory in itself. Meaning the Paladins had - for some Sa-forsaken reason - replaced who Lotor can only assume to be their most proficient member, damning themselves to the incompetence the Prince had witnessed first-hand upon his temporary ascension to the throne.

The unfathomable question is why?

Lotor is regrettably without time to ponder this, as he and the Paladin enter the Castle’s centre of command, rebel escorts in tow, though they are quick to dismiss themselves with a nod from the last remnant of Altea’s monarchy.

“Prince Lotor,” is the warmest greeting he’s received from her yet; her use of his title without prompting an utterly astounding show of respect only when compared against her previous efforts to address him.

“Princess Allura.”

She nods in recognition of… well, their mutual attempt at civility, strained as it may be. While Lotor refuses to let his eyes wander, a small portion of his attention is helplessly drawn towards the former red Paladin who has moved to stand by his successor (and really, how do they expect anyone to keep track of who flies what if they can’t even follow their own colour-coding?) who, for simplicity’s sake, Lotor elects to retitle as the blue Paladin irrespective of which Lion he flies at present. Said blue Paladin mumbles something too quiet to hear, before subtly shifting his weight to half stand between his red-clad counterpart, and Lotor’s line of sight, in what is clearly a defensive gesture.

How curious.

 

The meeting proceeds like this:

Princess Allura and her Champion do most of the talking, hounding Lotor for answers at every turn and yet rarely asking questions of true importance. It’s more an interrogation than anything, with Team Voltron standing atop the raised dais at the room’s centre, and Lotor before them, his height enough to compensate for what seems to be some sort of childish power move on their part.

They question him on his ship, primarily. From subtext he gathers that the yellow Paladin has been dissecting her, the heathen, in an effort to reverse engineer her schematics, all of which is a waste of energy because Lotor would have willingly handed over such information had anyone bothered to ask him for it - if only to save his pet project the insult. As it is, he dreads to think what a state she must be in, but bites his tongue and explains with far more patience than the Paladins have earned that, yes, she’s the result a trans-reality comet just as the Lions are and, no, there’s only one other ship because the third had yet to be completed at the time of his exile.

“So where is it?” The Champion is curt in tone, but at least doesn’t seem to require collaring today, “where’s the other ship?”

“In the possession of my Generals,” Lotor sighs, knowing this will function as a segue to a slew of questions that he would really rather avoid, “and before you ask: no. I haven’t the slightest idea of where they are or what plans they have for the imminent future.”

“Convenient,” the green one mutters under her breath, and it’s an internal battle not to snap at her for making such ignorant remarks on things she hasn’t even the vaguest notion about.

“I assure you,” Lotor makes a particular effort to smile at her with enough teeth that the warning is obvious, “it is anything but.”

There’s an uncomfortable silence before anyone dares speak again, broken by the Altean Princess, although she seems almost reluctant to be the one to do so.

“If,” she begins carefully, as if aware that this is dangerous ground, “you were to make an educated guess, then. Where would they take it? To Zarkon?”

Lotor forces his shoulders to relax through sheer willpower.

“Unlikely.”

Ezor would rather die, he’s sure, but there is a brutality in Zethrid’s blood from both halves of her parentage, and if she were to return to his Father’s command, she would not be ill-suited for it. As for Acxa… She holds no fondness for the Empire, but she’s a survivor, above all else, and Lotor knows that she’ll do what she must.

That had always been her way.

“Ultimately, the decision will fall to Acxa. Whatever her verdict, Ezor and Zethrid will concede.”

The green Paladin is tapping away at a data pad, and with a flick of her wrist several holographic images burst to life in the air above her head; hacked security footage, by the looks of it, and most of it recent. After a moment more, the smallest Paladin has isolated the clearest shots of several familiar faces, and Lotor is left looking up into the flickering ghosts of his once-friends.

“That’s four,” she helpfully annotates, as if Lotor is incapable of counting, “we know Zethrid’s the big one-”

“-and Acxa’s the one from the weblum,” the yellow Paladin adds in, more to his teammates than to Lotor - though these words are news in their own right because that was before the Prince had been summoned to serve as Emperor pro tem, but Acxa had never mentioned a confrontation with Voltron upon returning with the scaultrite - and the green one nods, lips pinched.

“Which leaves the chameleon lady, and the druid. So which one’s Ezor, and which one are you not telling us about?”

Lotor doesn’t know what a chameleon is - the word failing to translate and leading him to believe that it’s something indigenous to the Paladin’s homeworld - but his mild curiosity pales in comparison to this child’s misguided belief that he would ever associate with the Witch’s vile cohorts.

“Ezor,” he gestures to her likeness as it hovers in the air before him, and inclines his head sharply towards the final hologram without looking in its direction, “Narti.”

“Right,” she nods, taps away at the pad without looking up, “so your druid is where exactly?”

Narti,” he stresses the name, pained and seething, adamant that her memory will not be besmirched by a child’s ignorance, “was no druid, and I’d thank you to mind your tongue.”

To her credit, the green Paladin does not cower under his quiet rage, but it’s a near thing.

“Prince Lotor,” the advisor draws his attention, “number five meant no offense. Your telepath exhibited some shared traits with-”

“She did, but she wasn’t.” His words are too terse, too revealing, but the subject matter is awfully personal and he hadn’t thought to prepare himself for it. He takes a breath, and forces himself to relax. “Narti no longer poses a threat to Voltron, you need not concern yourself with her.”

“Yeah, can’t say I believe that.” The blue Paladin glowers, “you’re claiming that - of all of them - it’s the one with the mind-control powers that we should just forget about and let do whatever bullshit you ordered her to do before coming here to play nice? Methinks not.”

“As I’ve said before, my Generals staged a coup-”

Allegedly.”

“-and Narti is gone to Sa.” Though he spits that last word out, the impertinent creature before him has the gall to crow in triumph.

“So you do know where she is you dirty little-”

“No, Lance.” The red Paladin has his hand on his companions shoulder, his frown deep but expression soft, “she’s dead.”

Lotor - too angered, too hurt, too raw - is unable to garner satisfaction from how the obnoxious one’s jaw clicks shut. He simply nods towards the red Paladin, in acknowledgement of the truth spoken or as thanks for saving Lotor himself the pain of an explanation, the Prince couldn’t say, and the Paladin hesitates for only a moment before inclining his head in return.

Things progress quickly after that.

A handful of military bases and shipment routes that Lotor can recall off the top of his head, in exchange for a concerningly limited report on Haggar: supposedly returned to Central Command with her tail between her legs, which sounds like a naïve dream if ever Lotor heard one. When he brings their attention to this, he’s met with resistance, and their guileless response is staggeringly tragic.

“I am trying,” he patiently explains, “to help you.”

“Yeah, sure,” the blue Paladin has continued to interject his opinion at every turn, and his voice now grates on Lotor’s nerves, “I’ll believe that when you stop wearing your armor like a second skin, and maybe put on something that doesn’t scream ‘I’m ready to kill you at any given moment’.”

The Prince’s eyes snap to the loud-mouthed brat, having had quite enough of his thankless attitude.

“Ah yes, do forgive me, next time my father calls for my head I shall be sure to pack casual wear before attempting to outrun the entire Imperial Fleet so as not to inconvenience your delicate sensibilities.”

Not for the first time this quintent, Team Voltron are collectively at a loss for words, and, Lotor realises with no small touch of hysteria, they genuinely had not considered that the only attire he had at his disposal was that in which he had arrived. The Empire may be cruel, but the Coalition is apparently stupid, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to decide whether he really needs to ally himself with people who see a threat in his clothing, of all things.

Ultimately, Lotor is relieved to be returned to his rooms, as glamourous a prison as they may be, because they are, at least, free of the ignorance he’s been subjected to for the past three vargas.

Finding a rather large pile of impeccably folded Altean garments piled atop his bedsheets is, admittedly, unexpected.

Who had placed them there, not to mention when and why, is something to be puzzled upon at a later date, but for once Lotor allows himself to take what appears to be hospitality at face value, and peels himself from his undersuit. One perfunctory scrub later - because he’d be damned before soiling what must be authentic Altean silk, simply because he couldn’t be bothered to bathe - Lotor allows himself to revel in the sensation of fresh cloth against his skin before slumber claims him.

So exhausted is he, that the Prince falls asleep without questioning the red Paladin’s comprehension of the Old Tongue.

 

When he wakes, Lotor dresses in what he recognises to be daywear from perhaps Altea’s southernmost reaches, and spends an unnecessary amount of time adjusting the tunic’s high collar. It’s form-fitting and sleeveless, the cloth’s lack of defensive properties more than compensated for by the range of motion it allows, and he binds the bare skin of his arms from deltoid to wrist, just as he’d seen done in his mother’s photographs.

He looks like her, Lotor realises, when he catches his reflection across the room and sees everything Altean in his features amplified tenfold.

For a moment, he considers-

But of course, he doesn’t. Hasn’t dared to do so in decaphoebs.

With deft fingers, the Galra Prince slips his knives into the internal lining of boots that aren’t too different from his own, and the phial of liquid luminescence is tucked away inside one of the various pockets afforded by loose-fitting trousers. He stands with a slow exhale, avoids meeting his own eyes in the mirror, and exits the room.

He looks like her, but he’s not, and he cannot afford for the Altean dilution of his blood to beget something so useless as sentiment.

Not now.

 

The kit, Lotor quickly realises, is keeping his distance.

It’s… not unexpected - or, at least, it shouldn’t be - but Lotor hadn’t considered the way they’d parted last to be necessarily damaging to the tentative camaraderie that recent quintents had seen fostered between the two of them.

Keith seems to disagree.

The Marmorite is standing closer to the rebel guards than he is to the Prince, and there’s no reason for that to be insulting, but it is, and even Lotor’s most charming attempts at encouraging the child to keep him company fall flat.

He vaguely recognises that he’s being somewhat immature about this whole situation.

He also, quite obstinately, refuses to care.

Lotor had thought that their little scuffle had been rather exhilarating, particularly when Keith had proven to be more than proficient in a fight, and though Lotor had intended to warn the kit of trusting too easily, he perhaps should have thought through the consequences a little more before executing his plan, because this is terribly irksome.

The worst of it is that Keith can’t seem to help but linger just outside Lotor’s scope of vision, radiating impatience almost as if he wants to approach but needs reason enough to do so. Seeing as verbal invitations have proven ineffective, and Lotor is loath to repeat himself after having been so clearly acknowledged and refused, the Prince resorts to subtle physical cues: a tilt of the head here, a relaxed roll of the shoulders there…

Nothing works.

Flicking through the pages of an Altean text that he’s not absorbed even half of, Lotor represses the desire to look to where the kit shifts his weight restlessly from one foot to another, and swallows his personal irritation. This is, lamentably, his own fault. Lotor knows that. He took his games with the child too far when the companionship between the two of them was still too fresh, and though his intentions had been half a benign warning, and half a tactical play for Voltron’s attention, clearly the former had worked a little too well.

And in many ways, this is for the best.

No matter how much Lotor tells himself that the kit is a potential ally, it’s a fragile sort of truth. Keith is, undeniably, a fierce little warrior. He’s also a child. As such, Lotor knows that even if he were to break from Marmora and take the boy with him, his personal moral code wouldn’t allow for him to command that the little Blade bleed for his cause, even if the alternative is that he will inevitably bleed for Voltron’s.

That is exactly the kind of cruelty he’s trying to prevent.

It had taken several decaphoebs before he’d allowed Acxa to stand with the rest of them in battle, and even then she’d been younger than Lotor should have liked, but Keith has already promised to be - impossibly - more stubborn than she ever was.

He should let the kit simply sink back into the outskirts of his attentions, along with the rest of his guard, and pay him no more mind.

It’s the logical decision, and yet, for some ridiculous and vexingly emotional reason, an undesirable one.

Lotor silently wars with himself for the rest of the quintent, as well as all those ensuing, until a full movement has gone by without him being any closer to a satisfactory conclusion.

The Prince is, selfishly, unwilling to give Keith up.

There’s little reason for it, not when he hardly knows the boy beyond their shared thirst for knowledge and a very Galran tenacity, but the facts remain. Lotor thinks, perhaps, if Keith were a little more convincing in the distance he has engineered between them, then this would be a far easier pill to swallow; but of course, the kit is just as painfully curious as he’s ever been, and it almost seems that even if Keith were to turn his back completely, he might break his own neck in an attempt to meet Lotor head on.

Foolish, contrary, and appallingly endearing rhyahl.

Sweet little thing though he is, Keith’s internal strife really should come to an end, else Lotor thinks it might drive the both of them mad.

As luck would have it, when Lotor retires to his chambers that evening, the kit follows him in, brash and seemingly with a disregard for the most basic of societal rules: ones that even the coalition yuppers adhere to. Had anyone else dared waltz into his personal rooms - glorified cell or otherwise - Lotor would have ascertained that it was not a mistake they would make twice. As it is, he seats himself in one of the high-backed armchairs facing out towards the depths of space, and lets the boy do what he will.

‘What he will’, Lotor discovers with no small amount of frustration, amounts to hovering awkwardly on the fringe of the Prince’s line of sight in a way that is fast becoming habit, and achieving absolutely nothing in the way of proactivity.

Idly, Lotor picks at the wrappings of his arms, and tries for a tone that is gently cajoling when he says, “you know, were I inclined to bite you, I would have done so far before now.”

Eyeing the child carefully, Lotor notes how his posture’s gone rigid with the promise of fight or flight in the imminent future. Seeing as neither of these pose to be particularly desirable outcomes at this point, Lotor gives up his feigned nonchalance completely, elbow on the arm of the chair and chin resting on the palm of his hand as he looks towards the kit with a crease in his brow too soft to be called a frown.

“It was remiss of me,” Lotor hesitates, wishing not for the first time that Keith were without his mask so that he could better judge how his words might be received, “not to consider how my earlier actions could be perceived as… less than amiable.”

Several ticks of silence follow this admission, and Lotor is begrudgingly coming to terms with the idea that he may have to cut his losses, when the kit speaks.

“Less than amiable,” a pause, a tilt of the head, a quiet breath that might well have been a laugh, “you took my knife.”

Lotor perks up at this, the promise of victory turning his tentative confession into a satisfied purr.

“You took it back.”

Keith, Lotor imagines, going by the awkward stutter of his stance, doesn’t much know what to say to that - the Prince can easily picture eyes gone wide and ears flicking in surprise, and has to wonder if the kit has ever really been allowed to spar with his elders as a Galra child should. Likely not, Lotor thinks, considering that Marmora are a military order above all else, and that should have been the most sobering part of this conversation.

It should have been, but it isn’t.

“It was my mother’s,” Keith says, his tone impassionate, unreadable, and Lotor feels the floor fall out from under him.

Eyes dropping to where the kit fingers the hilt of the knife, Lotor finds himself caught on the echo of “was” with a lump in his throat. When he looks back to that blank mask, it’s with anger and sorrow and a thousand other things because Keith is too young and yet… Kolivan has more important things to do, he’d said, during one of their earliest conversations, and Lotor remembers taking note of this replacement of a parent with the child’s commander.

He remembers, and yet he’d still been careless.

“I wouldn’t have taken it,” Lotor murmurs, the line of his mouth drawn tight, “had I known.”

To call that an apology would be too self-indulgent, but to have remorse for his actions would be to regret what is past: a pointless waste of energy on all accounts, Lotor has found, and will change nothing besides.

Still, when Keith absorbs these words and seemingly accepts them - if the ebb of tension from his posture, and slow return to conversation is any such indication - Lotor feels the weight in his gut alleviate some.

Chapter Text

Keith won’t pretend that he understands Lotor to any significant degree; the Prince is one hell of a puzzle, that’s for sure, but maybe one that Keith is starting to piece together. This understanding is still fragmented, of course, and the dissonance between the Lotor who’d toyed with Voltron on Thayserix, and the man who seemed content to pander to Keith’s curiosity of his Galra heritage is still staggering, but there are certain aspects of his character that are making themselves known to Keith with crystalline clarity.

Lotor’s hatred for Haggar and her druids, for example, is not only very real, but dreadfully personal.

He doesn’t know how the others don’t see it, but as Keith watches Pidge hound Lotor for answers on the whereabouts of his Generals, it becomes obvious. She’s not being nearly so terse as Shiro - something that is uncomfortable to witness in itself, Shiro’s diplomatic nature turned cold and unfamiliar in a way that doesn’t suit him - but Pidge is logical, direct, and while it’s something Keith has always appreciated about the smaller Paladin, it won’t win her any favours like this.

When Pidge brings up the holograms of Lotor’s subordinates, his expression flickers from one of restrained insult to outright hurt, if only for a moment, but it’s enough for Keith to zero in on the line of shoulders gone tight beneath his armor.

But Pidge doesn’t react, she just keeps pushing, and no sooner has the word “druid” left her lips does Keith see the Prince snap.

“Ezor. Narti.”

Even as he speaks her name, Lotor never looks to the second image, and Keith immediately knows that this conversation is going to go south too quickly for him to prevent it.

“Right,” Pidge nods, still oblivious, still pressing for answers, “so your druid is where exactly?”

Narti, was no druid, and I’d thank you to mind your tongue.”

The hum of the ship is too much in the sudden quiet that follows, Lotor’s fury a sharp tang in the air, finally enough to make the others realise what perilous terrain they’re treading. Keith takes this all in quickly, attention skimming over his friends to see the conditioned defensive response that their time in space has forced upon them, each readying themselves for a fight that not a single one looks prepared for.

Even with Lotor disarmed and outnumbered, they’re afraid.

They’re afraid, and Keith doesn’t know what to tell them, because Lotor is dangerous, and now he’s angry in a way that none of them have seen.

Except… Keith has seen it.

He’s lived it.

His eyes find Shiro across the room: carved from stone and changed from what he once was, but still so much more than Keith will ever deserve.

“Prince Lotor,” Coran tentatively breeches the silence, “number five meant no offense. Your telepath exhibited some shared traits with-”

“She did, but she wasn’t.” Lotor’s words are finite.

Shiro is the one person who never gave up on me; I won’t give up on him.

“Narti no longer poses a threat to Voltron, you need not concern yourself with her.”

We don’t have Shiro anymore either, everyone seems to have forgotten that.

Lance scoffs at this answer, arms crossed, frown deep.

“Yeah, can’t say I believe that. You’re claiming that - of all of them - it’s the one with the mind-control powers that we should just forget about and let do whatever bullshit you ordered her to do before coming here to play nice? Methinks not.”

“As I’ve said before,” Lotor’s tone is tart, “my Generals staged a coup-”

Allegedly,” Lance interrupts, and Keith has half a mind to physically remove the idiot from the room before he can further run his mouth.

“-and Narti is gone to Sa.”

Keith hears the echo of himself in Lotor’s clipped admission - but nothing! Shiro is gone - like the ache of an old wound.

And like that, he gets it.

Lance makes a noise as if he’s won a game that Keith wasn’t even aware was being played, before stepping forward with the declaration; “so you do know where she is you dirty little-”

“No, Lance.” Keith’s hand is on the taller’s shoulder before he can say anything else, firm and unwavering, because there are some things that can’t be taken back no matter how much you regret them. “She’s dead.”

The Paladin’s aggression falters, just as Keith had known it would, because Lance is a lot of things but cruel has never been one of them. Looking back to Lotor, Keith is greeted with a small nod, at odds with everything he’s seen from the Prince for how brittle it seems, and, at a loss for words, he returns the gesture in kind.

The following varga drags on, and it’s a bizarre experience for Keith.

He watches the team question Lotor as if from somewhere very far away, and he doesn’t realise such a great distance has formed until their voices are echoing across a chasm that only he seems to have noticed. It’s weird. It’s a lot of other things too, but Keith can’t really put a name to them, so he settles on the strangeness of it all, because this isn’t what Voltron used to be. He thinks back to when he’d officially stepped down from his role as a Paladin, and wonders how things can have possibly worsened when in doing so he should have removed the root of their problem. Keith had been sure it was him; he was the one who’d rushed headfirst into things, proven difficult and standoffish, tried to go at it alone, made the wrong choices, nearly led everyone to their deaths… that was all him. Even with Shiro’s council, he’d struggled to be the leader the others deserved.

When he left, the flaw in their teamwork should have gone with him.

Looking around at the people he left behind, Keith is beginning to wonder if that was yet another mistake.

Lance’s behaviour is erratic, oscillating between a blatant hatred of Zarkon’s son, and a resigned quiet that doesn’t suit him; Shiro’s not much better, with tension bleeding from every pore and eyes absent of any of the warmth Keith had once thought to be an intrinsic part of his friend. Allura’s tentative, on edge, and Coran follows suit though he’s less afraid and more worn in a way that makes him appear far older than he should. Pidge and Hunk seem desperate for answers, but unwilling to trust those they’re given, and without anyone to rein in their blunt curiosity, they lack the diplomacy required to deal with someone like Lotor.

Ultimately, there’s a disconnect there, as if Voltron itself were made of all the right Lions in all the wrong places.

They’re threatening to fall apart.

When Lotor is told of Haggar’s subdued withdrawal, his immediate response is to deny the possibility outright. Shiro responds with a confidence that Keith wants to believe in - wants to, but can’t, because this is Haggar of all people, and the Prince’s concern is more than warranted when their opponent is Zarkon’s sinister right hand.

“I am trying,” he growls, through a long-suffering smile that strains at the seams, “to help you.”

Keith believes him.

Lance, apparently, does not.

Throwing a mistrustful glare at Lotor, Lance spirals into his seventh unnecessary accusation since this meeting started, this time needling the Prince for wearing his armor. Lotor immediately fires back, his patience wearing thin and irritation seeping through in its place, and bites out that which Keith had taken as obvious: he doesn’t have a change of clothes.

When everyone else reacts with surprise to this, Keith shifts in his paladin armor - still big and bulky and foreign - and mourns the loss of the nano-technology that, during his time with the Blade, he’d quickly learnt was commonplace in Galran attire, making it heavily armoured but sleek, and supple enough that it could be worn for extensive periods of time. Efficiency, after all, is key to the Empire, and even more so to Marmora who haven’t the funds to waste on unnecessary duplicates of high-grade military wear. So accustomed is Keith to seeing uniformed soldiers, that he’d simply taken Lotor’s apparel at face value, the Prince’s choice of clothing not even close to being the most surprising thing about his appearance, not when Keith still finds the whisper of like me like me like me flitting about the dark corners of his mind.

Lotor is escorted out soon after, and before Keith can turn to Coran, Allura beats him to it.

“We should…” she’s frowning at her hands, clenched in front of her tightly, “we should arrange for something. For him. To wear.”

Like Lance, she’s kind, she can’t help it, and despite the time it took them to get here, Keith is glad to see that her compassion has grown to extend to those of Galran descent.

Coran smiles, nods, and with a look at Keith that says the older man knows what he’s thinking, he goes to do as he’s been bid.

Then Shiro heaves a despondent sigh, and Keith’s whole world turns on its axis.

“Lance,” the tone he’s using is one Keith became intimately familiar with in the phoebs preceding his transition from Paladin to Blade, and though it’s not directed at him he flinches on reflex, “we’ve talked about this, you need to be more mature when representing Voltron.”

You need to grow up, is what it sounds like, but that’s too harsh a reprimand for Shiro to have made.

“I know.”

He’s standing with his back turned, so Keith can’t see his expression, but it’s an uncharacteristically submissive response considering how Lance usually leaps at any opportunity to fight - or, no, Keith thinks, perhaps that was only when he was the Head of Voltron. Lance respects Shiro. Everyone respects Shiro, it’s what makes him such a good leader, so Keith supposes it makes sense that Red’s new Paladin would see value in advice given from someone like that over someone like him.

Besides, Keith thinks, his idea of advice always did tend to stray the wrong side of offensive.

“You’ll do better next time.”

Shiro breaks into a smile as he says this, clapping Lance on the shoulder with one hand as he walks by, and slinging the other around Keith to tuck the smaller man into his left side, guiding him out of the room as he talks, animated and beaming like he’s swallowed the sun. They discuss training, and Marmora, and that strange plant Pidge found while Keith was gone, and for a while Keith can pretend that nothing’s changed from their Garrison days, because when he demonstrates the new combat style he’s learnt from Kolivan, he catches Shiro looking at him like he couldn’t be prouder.

They don’t talk about Lotor.

They don’t talk about Lance.

And yet, Keith can’t quite shake either from his mind.

 

It’s still bugging him the next day, and if it weren’t for the Altean pills, Keith’s sure he wouldn’t have been able to sleep at all, nightmares or otherwise. Trying to shake the heavy fog that drags him into slumber night after night is becoming more difficult with each passing morning, but it by far outweighs the alternative, and so when Keith manages to stumble out of bed, it’s with enough presence of mind to check on Lance before heading to breakfast.

But Lance - never one to make things easy, least of all for Keith - isn’t in his room.

He’s not at breakfast either, and when asked Hunk just shrugs Keith’s query off with a benign smile and the vague assurance that “he’ll be around here somewhere,” which obviously Keith knows because they’re out in the middle of deep-space so there are only so many place Lance can be. It just… it strikes him as odd, is all. If their roles were reversed, then this situation would almost make sense, because Keith knows that he has a tendency to drop off the radar without warning, particularly when there’s something on his mind. He and Lance, however, have always been polar opposites, and if anything, Keith would have expected Red’s new Paladin to seek company out after what had happened yesterday.

Though, if asked, Keith isn’t confident he could say what had happened yesterday.

All he knows is that something about how the meeting had concluded felt inherently off-kilter, and even if he can’t exactly explain why, Keith has long since learnt to trust his gut, and right now his gut says he needs to find Lance.

Despite that, Keith knows he has a job to do, and Kolivan will have his hide if the older is given any reason to believe that Keith has neglected his duties to Marmora.

Armor on and mask in place, Keith makes his way through the Castle, following the now-familiar route to what he’s dubbed Lotor’s Wing, and finding the Prince in the library as per usual. It’s only as he steps into the room and catches the mistrustful stares thrown his way by the rebels, that Keith recalls he - or at least, this version of himself - hasn’t yet faced Lotor after their brief spar.

The strangest thing about it is that Lotor himself doesn’t seem even the slightest bit bothered, and greets Keith in his usual teasing manner.

Keith keeps a professional distance.

Ultimately, this is a mission. It doesn’t matter that Lotor is half Galra, or that Keith is inclined to believe that the Empire’s heir apparent truly means him no harm, he has to be certain: Knowledge or Death.

He repeats that mantra over and over in his mind, obstinately refusing to draw any nearer to Lotor than strictly necessary, despite everything in him screaming that he’s being invited to do so; that in itself is odd, because Lotor only explicitly asks for his company once, but Keith is sure - he’s sure - that Lotor wants his companionship almost as much as he himself wants to provide it.

The first quintent is spent in boredom, without a single anecdote of Galra history.

The second is much the same.

The third, fourth, and fifth are each increasingly more frustrating, because Keith is convinced that Lotor is sulking and it’s bizarrely cute - a descriptor that Keith will never admit to having used in reference to the literal son of Zarkon - and worse yet he’s starting to believe that he might be behaving in much the same way.

It’s dumb.

It’s just really really dumb, and Keith knows it is, because the only person he’s ever been so strongly drawn to was Shiro back at the Garrison, and he remembers acting much the same way - rejecting all of Shiro’s attention while simultaneously craving it. Even more distinctly, he can recall loitering outside one of the training rooms (absolutely not because Shiro was in there) only to have one of Shiro’s peers hoot, to Keith’s utter humiliation, that “Shirogane’s stray” was back again. Shiro had been kind about it, of course, and had caught Keith before he could bolt, taking him to the side and away from the jeering, to offer to train with him after hours, if he’d like, because he knew what Keith could do and wanted to see it first-hand.

Scrappy, he’d called him with a smile.

Keith had said no - or, more specifically, he’d told Shiro to fuck off because he wasn’t a goddamn charity case - but somehow he’d ended up outside the same training room six hours later, a full forty-five minutes after Shiro had said to meet him, and fully prepared to be let down again by no one’s fault but his own.

Except Shiro had still been there, and when his eyes had found Keith he’d lit up like the sun, and Keith - fifteen and scrappy and with nothing but attitude to offer the Garrison’s Golden Boy - had been stuck in Takashi Shirogane’s orbit ever since.

Lotor isn’t Shiro, he isn’t soft or open or even particularly patient, but he is magnetic. He draws Keith in, Keith knows he does, and yet is powerless to resist it.

If Shiro is a star, bright and irresistible, then Lotor can’t be anything other than a black hole.

That, at least, would explain why Keith’s feet carry him after Lotor without conscious effort, following the Prince beyond the boarder of his private chambers and into the grand series of rooms in which he retires for the evening.

Lotor doesn’t acknowledge this alteration to their unspoken script - which Keith is thankful for because he has no idea what he’s even doing in here - but the Prince is obviously aware that Keith is here because he seats himself a little too deliberately, the chair he’s chosen one that allows for the illusion of looking out into space, while simultaneously providing him with a perfect view of the room’s interior in the window’s reflection.

Keith hovers awkwardly, unsure of what he’s supposed to say, only that if he doesn’t say anything this stilted silence between them will drive him mad.

Lotor pretends to occupy himself with the Altean wrappings of his arms, but it’s an obvious façade. No more so than Keith pretending that his only business here is his duty to the Blade, but still.

Without warning, Lotor speaks to him directly for the first time in five quintents, and Keith nearly jumps out of his skin.

“You know, were I inclined to bite you, I would have done so already.”

Lotor eyes him via the window’s reflection, before turning in his seat with a huff, and meeting Keith dead-on.

“It was,” Lotor pauses, as if the words are foreign in his throat, “remiss of me. Not to consider how my earlier actions could be perceived as… less than amiable.”

That’s an apology, Keith realises. Or, at least, what counts for one by Galran standards. Keith doesn’t need one, not when he has already come to terms with Lotor’s little act of theft, and certainly hadn’t expected one, but finds that the reality of it is oddly touching.

He also quickly comes to the realisation that Lotor is expecting an answer.

“Less than amiable,” he parrots, finding that this situation has a certain level of surrealism to it, “you took my knife.”

“You took it back,” Lotor purrs, immediately vitalised, and Keith is forced to recognise that Lotor really might have wanted this reconciliation just as much. The thought that Lotor actually genuinely likes him, near sends Keith reeling, so much so that the confession of truth leaves him without permission.

“It was my mother’s,” he hears himself say, and instantly regrets it.

There’s too much weight behind that, too much memory, too much of Keith. His knife is personal, it always has been, and even though Shiro had known it was important to him, Keith had never explicitly told his friend of the blade’s origins (so far as he’d known them at the time, at least).

But now here he is, blurting it out to Prince Lotor, of all people.

Prince Lotor, whose expression has crumpled, as he whispers, “I wouldn’t have taken it, had I known.”

Not for the first time - and, perhaps more terrifyingly, not for the last - Keith believes him.

 

This saga with Lotor, having dragged out as it had, has somehow managed to distract Keith from Lance’s persisting absence, but now that the former issue has been resolved, the latter becomes all the more concerning in comparison.

He’s not seen or, even more troublingly, heard from Lance in an entire movement. Five full quintents. A solid one hundred vargas.

Keith is worried, dammit.

Coran hasn’t seen him, Allura either, and when Keith gingerly mentions Lance’s mysterious whereabouts to Shiro, he’s given a tired sigh and the response, “it’s Lance, you know what he’s like.”

Keith blinks at the black Paladin, who offers him a half smile in return, and replies, “yeah, I do,” because he does.

He knows exactly what Lance is like.

Not like this.

He’s on his way down to the hangers, hoping that Pidge will be able to provide a more satisfactory answer, when he feels it: a sudden crack at the back of his mind, like a log fire gone dull only to spit without warning, and Keith pulls up short as he feels that ember, that indescribable heat, and tentatively pushes back against it in hesitant greeting.

Red purrs in the back of his mind, their well-worn bond sparking to life all at once.

They’d rarely spoken after he’d been chosen by Black, and certainly not since he stepped down from being a Paladin altogether, so it takes a moment for Keith to reorient himself with the particular way in which the Lions communicate; their thoughts tend to be direct, which Keith can appreciate, but clipped words and flashes of imagery can become somewhat jumbled in translation.

Like now, for example, as Red presses the idea of Lance on fire into Keith’s head, and it takes one awful moment to realise that she doesn’t mean it as a literal thing. Mine, she adds with a purr, gleeful, and Keith recognises the sentiment from when he was her Paladin.

Keith tries to ask for specifics, “is he with you?” but Red, ancient and abstract as she is, doesn’t seem to comprehend the nuance of the question, only pressing that same image of Lance - perfectly calm amidst the flames - against Keith’s thoughts, his environment ever-changing. Mine, she insists, as Lance flickers between being stood in woodland, vast desert, half submerged in water, and out under the stars, always mine.

Always my Paladin, she means, always with me no matter where he is, and to her there really is no difference. Keith lets out a huff of frustration, but thanks her nonetheless, because despite Red’s lack of true comprehension, she means well, and Lance must, at the very least, be okay, else she would be more distressed.

Original objective met, Keith hasn’t any reason to linger in this area of the Castle, but he figures that while he’s here he should drop by to see Pidge anyway.

She’s with Hunk, as it turns out, both huddled with their backs turned in the shadows of Lotor’s ship, the vessel distinctly Galra and looming above them as if a predator preparing to strike. Several luminous screens hover in the air displaying rows upon rows of incomprehensible data, interrupted only by graphs and diagrams that make very little sense to Keith.

“Found anything?” is an innocuous enough question, but it’s received with a startled yelp from both Paladins as they whirl around to face him. He sees them each take a tick to register who he is, and when they do Hunk whines in relief, while Pidge points her finger towards him threateningly.

“Do not,” she scowls, “sneak up on us like that.”

Keith hadn’t really been sneaking, but he thinks she knows that by the way her shoulders sag as she turns back to the data, tugging him down by his sleeve to sit with them on the floor.

“Keith, look at this,” she gestures towards the screen to her left which, thankfully, displays a schematic of Lotor’s ship in gently fluctuating colour, rather than indecipherable code, “does anything about it strike you as weird?”

He lets his attention flick over the schematic curiously, but without a point of reference for exactly would count as ‘weird’, shakes his head.

Pidge nods thoughtfully and then turns to Hunk, “do the thing.”

“No,” the yellow Paladin’s pallor has turned to match his title, “Pidge seriously, I do not want to do the thing. More importantly, I don’t think it wants me to do the thing.”

“Hunk, c’mon-”

“No! I did the thing last time, you do the thing!”

Keith looks between the bickering pair, bewildered. Though more outwardly collected than Hunk, Pidge seems just as reluctant to ‘do the thing’, so Keith asks the obvious question.

“What’s the thing?”

The Paladins look at each other uneasily, and Keith’s frown deepens. It’s Hunk who speaks first.

“Okay, so, long story short, there’s this weird energy reading originating from the ship’s primary base component that at first I thought was flaring sporadically, and I figured it must be the result of some internal damage or something? But then when I started to tamper with the mechanics, I think I made it angry, and now whenever I try to do anything it gets mad.”

Unable to find the joke, Keith looks to Pidge only to have her hold his stare without blinking, and then turns back to Hunk who stands firm: “basically it’s cursed.”

“Cursed,” Keith echoes.

“I know it sounds like bullshit,” the green Paladin scowls at the data, chewing on the inside of her cheek absently, “but Hunk’s right. There’s this… energy. We keep picking it up in the scans despite the fact that Hunk’s removed all the goddamn power cores-”

“-or what I thought were the power cores, but it’s still…” Hunk gestures towards the diagrams vaguely, “basically, no matter what I did it refused to stop being weird, so I called Pidge down here to help me go over the data and maybe find a reasonable explanation-”

“-except there isn’t one, so we came to the conclusion that Lotor probably used some crazy druid magic. Ergo, cursed.”

“Lotor hates the druids,” Keith says it as a fact, but even in light of yesterday’s negotiations the others shift uneasily, and Keith feels the need to insist, “he wasn’t lying.”

“I mean,” Pidge pauses, and looks at Keith strangely, “he’s Lotor.”

“Yeah,” Keith agrees. He doesn’t understand why that’s not reason enough to convince her.

Hunk’s eyes dart between the two of them before drawing their attention back to the data pad in his hands, “the point is, until I can identify and isolate the variables that are causing these freak energy fluxes, I can’t combat the ship’s attempts to literally murder me.”

“You seriously think that Lotor’s ship is trying to kill you?”

Hunk starts nodding fervently, and Pidge lets out a humourless laugh, biting out; “we know it is. When I first came down here, Hunk asked me to monitor the readings while he removed the last power core, then, out of nowhere, bam!” She slaps her hand down against her knee, harshly, “there’s this inexplicable surge of power that goes straight towards Hunk.”

“It tried to fry me.” Hunk sends a damming glare towards the ship, which, unsurprisingly, remains motionless.

Keith looks between two of the smartest people he knows, and realises that they’re dead serious. His disbelief must show on his face, because instantly the duo launch into further explanation of numbers and readings, and while Keith had taken all the compulsory engineering courses at the Garrison, he’d only ever really been interested in flying the ships, and Earth-tech is at least two millennia from achieving anything close to this anyway. So he listens patiently and tries to follow along, but his attention drifts to the sense of curiosity that winds its way around his seated form.

At first Keith thinks it’s Red, and presses back with another image of Lance, questioning, but he realises his mistake when the entity prods at the thought before batting it away without care, tearing all the oxygen from Keith’s lungs as he realises that the heat on the back of his neck is unfamiliar: molten and dark and almost viscous in the way it seeps beneath his skin.

“Keith?” One large hand come down onto his shoulder, gentle, but firm. “Hey buddy, you okay?”

“I-” his throat feels like it’s on fire, “yeah. I’m fine.”

“These readings are insane,” Pidge has enlarged the colourful diagram and is bouncing with barely contained enthusiasm, though it’s impossible to tell whether she’s excited or mildly disturbed, “it’s like Christmas!”

“Cool cool cool, haunted Galra Christmas, just what I always wanted,” Hunk murmurs, turning away from Keith to tap at one of the other screens, “but where is it coming from?”

When that heat prickles up the base of Keith’s spine, the obvious occurs to him.

“Lotor made his ship from a trans-reality comet, like the Lions.”

Pidge shoot him a look over her shoulder, “yeah?”

“Like the Lions,” he maintains, “she’s not just a superweapon, she’s conscious.”

There’s a moment of extreme quiet, before Hunk looks between Keith and the schematic, now pulsing vividly, and whispers, “it’s Altean neuroimagery.”

Pidge nearly screams.

“Holy shit!”

The two of them scramble for a moment, discarding certain screens and hurriedly pulling up others in their place, before Hunk draws up short with a frown.

“Hang on, Keith, did you just say she?

Keith hums lightly, occupied with reaching out for that liquid warmth and finding it bubbling curiously around his toes, “she’s a lot like Red, only...” not, he wants to finish with, but knows that will invite more questions than it answers.

Pidge waves them over with a manic grin.

“Guys, look at this,” beside the image of the Lotor’s ship is a similar schematic of the Green Lion, only with far more layers of complexity to it, “I scanned Green ages ago, I wanted to know how she worked, obviously, and she was helping me understand a bunch of the Altean science used to build her, but look. If I remove the primary readings and basic mechanical structure then I should be able to quarantine-” Pidge lets out a whoop of victory, most of the detail melting away to leave the holographic replica of the Green Lion with a familiar scattering of colour.

There’s an exclamation of “Team Punk!” as the Paladins high-five, Green’s schematics now easily comparable to those of Lotor’s ship.

“Alright Keith, Keith,” Hunk settles into what Keith recognises as the yellow Paladin’s more serious demeanour, “can you connect with it - or, er, her - like you can with the Lions?”

Keith takes a moment to reach out again, but when he does he only finds Red and Black, both lingering on the outskirts of his consciousness.

“It’s… different,” he tries again, searching through his mind for that feeling of otherness, “you know how the Lions are kind of inside your head?”

Both Pidge and Hunk nod their assent.

“Yeah, it’s nothing like that.”

“Helpful,” Pidge murmurs, but she’s smiling too.

Keith tries to put the memory of that consciousness into words, but it half seems impossible, and now that she’s withdrawn he isn’t able to call her back.

 

-

 

Lotor’s train of thought is interrupted when the thundering irritation in his gut abruptly clears to be replaced by a baffled sort of curiosity, and it’s only then that he realises the frustration he’s been subject to for the past movement or so hasn’t been solely his own.

Allowing her intrigue to bleed into his, Lotor tries to decipher the vague washes of feeling she greets him with.

There’s an amusement there, shortly followed by a startled fondness, as if she’d found a momentary diversion to be far more pleasing than anticipated; Lotor presses the question against her, less a thought and more a feeling, having quickly learnt upon building her that she responds far better to general sentiment than any sort of  particularity.

Little star - she seems almost charmed - burns hot.

Oh? Lotor queries, but contrary beast that she is, Kra only hums in her happy little way before slinking back into the shadows of the Prince’s awareness.

Lotor wonders at that, at what she’d found to have altered her mood so dramatically, but without her providing him with information, or any way of being able to see what state she’s in first hand, Lotor has no choice but to bide his time. At present, he is more than happy to do just that, because the content of his latest tome is the topic of Altean Alchemy: a lost art, so far as the Empire is concerned, but knowledge he knows that his father’s Witch would kill for.

Without warning, there’s an abrupt trill of glee strumming through the bond he shares with Kra, and Lotor finds that she’s being unusually evasive despite having deliberately brought his attention to her joy.

His unvoiced question is answered soon enough.

From where’s he’s seated on the second tier of the library, Lotor has a fine view of both the doorway, and the rebel guardsmen posted there. They can see him too, of course, but he’s found that the easier he makes it for them, the greater distance they are willing (if not eager) to leave between him and themselves. There’s a sudden murmur of excitement as two figures enter the room, and it takes Lotor only a moment to realise why.

The green and red Paladins are, evidently, far more welcome guests to this place than he is, and the rebels are hardly shy in showing it; some of them even go so far as to bow - which Lotor thinks is frankly ridiculous - though, to his amusement, the Paladins seem to be of much the same mind, the smallest one barely containing a snort of laughter, and her pretty companion projecting an air of clear discomfort.

It’s the most likable thing team Voltron have done yet.

It’s the red Paladin who sees him first, dark eyes finding the Prince almost as if he’d known where to look, and Lotor needs to do nothing more than arch one brow to have the fiery little thing striding towards the stairwell with determined purpose, his companion trotting at his heel.

As they approach the cluster of armchairs he’s settled himself in, Lotor sees the green Paladin open her mouth to broach whatever topic it is they’ve come to discuss. He doesn’t exactly dislike her, has hardly seen enough of her to make a personal judgment, while that which he has witnessed forces him to recognise her intellect, but having no reason to forgive her disrespectful manner towards Narti he cuts her off with words meant to rile.

“Well if it isn’t the brains and beauty of Voltron,” he allows his eyes to linger on each of them in turn, and greatly enjoys how both Paladins draw up short, “to deserve the honour of your company I must have done something truly remarkable.”

The red Paladin recovers first with a soft snort of amusement, and though Lotor had intended to irritate rather than entertain, he’d be lying if he claimed such a reaction to be an entirely displeasing one. When the Paladin drops into the seat opposite Lotor, arms crossed but posture relaxed, the Prince isn’t quite sure what to make of it - neither, by the looks of things, is the green Paladin, who hesitates before perching on the arm of her companion’s chair as she opens her mouth once more.

“We’re here because-”

“Manners, little Paladin,” Lotor cuts her off with a blithe wave of his hand, and half admires how she’s audacious enough to show her contempt at his dismissal so openly, “You’ve been my gracious hosts for the better part of a phoeb, but you’ve yet to properly introduce yourselves. I would think it about time we rectify such a thing, if you’ve come for conversation.”

He smiles, and she scowls.

“Pidge.“ Her tone is flat. “Now-”

Lotor ignores her, turning his attentions back to the red Paladin, “and you?”

Out the corner of his eye, Lotor sees the green Paladin bristle, and is pleased to know that his cool disinterest antagonises her.

“You don’t need his name-” she interjects, defensive despite having easily given her own, and this brings to mind the blue Paladin’s oddly protective stance from the day before. The Prince thinks that perhaps Princess Allura’s little soldiers may not be quite so dim after all, if they have picked up on his personal interest in their former comrade, and if it weren’t so entertaining to watch them squirm he might rein himself back in.

“No,” Lotor speaks over her, his eyes never leaving the pretty face across from him as he presses a little more intrigue into his tone, “but I should very much like it.”

He’s vaguely aware of this Pidge looking between the two of them with a budding panic that betrays her youth, obviously aware that she’s lost control of the conversation before it’s even begun, but the better part of Lotor’s attention is caught on how the red Paladin seems less flattered and more bemused by the obvious intent behind those words. After a moment’s pause, the pretty little thing leans forward in his seat, elbows coming to rest on knees as he juts that sharp chin up as if in defiance of everything Lotor is, the coquettish tilt of his head contradicted by lips curled into a snarl. When he speaks, it’s with a quiet growl that could bring entire civilisations to their knees.

“Earn it.”

Those words are a challenge and an invitation all in one.

Lotor would be the first to admit that it’s been a fair while since he’s taken another to his bed, but if he were to be perfectly honest, there were simply more important matters with which he’d needed to concern himself - and that was forgetting the fact that anyone he was observed to show more than a passing fancy in ran the risk of becoming the centre of the Witch’s more unsavoury attentions, if she thought they might serve purpose in keeping him in line. Lotor has never been so cruel as to subject someone to that for the sake of sating his carnal cravings, and the obvious solution had been to… abstain.

Up until now, he’d not believed that this decision would pose a problem.

Desire is a foreign thing in the Prince’s gut, but it settles itself there with more ease than it’s earned, sitting low and heavy and entirely inconvenient. Lotor looks to the brazen creature before him, sees how those violet eyes meet him without so much as blinking, and has to wrestle down the surge of want that thrums beneath his skin.

Sitting back with a heated breath, Lotor fails to keep the mirth from his tongue.

“You have a smart mouth, Paladin,” one he’d very much like to kiss until it grows soft and pliant and all too eager, “but very well. Ask what you will, and I shall prove myself worthy of your introduction.”

The intonation is a deliberate tease, but the red Paladin seems pleased all the same, and nudges his companion into motion from where she’s watched this brief exchange with a cleverness that Lotor isn’t certain he likes.

“Okay,” there’s a weight to her pause, and Lotor definitely doesn’t like that, “so we’ve been looking at your ship.”

It’s a statement, and an obvious one at that, so why she’s stopped as if expecting an answer Lotor really cannot say.

“I am aware.”

She hums, but it has a sharp edge to it, “and how exactly could you be aware when you’ve been under lock and key this entire time?”

Lotor can see what she’s getting at, had suspected Kra’s sentience of being revealed from the moment she perked up, but he just isn’t inclined to make this easy for the barbaric mutilators of his pet project.

“Your yellow Paladin made as much obvious during that little inquisition of yours.”

The green Paladin huffs, clearly not one for dancing around the subject, and gives up on her pretences.

“Look, we know your ship’s alive because she has an energy signature that’s almost identical to that of the Lions. We know what she’s capable of - particularly after Naxzela - and we know that your Generals have the other one, along with enough ore to make a third.” She sighs, rubbing at her temple, before begrudgingly admitting: “what we don’t know is how the hell you managed to build what is essentially a second Voltron in the first place. If you managed it, then what’s to stop the Empire from making more?”

Lotor can hardly help but feel mildly insulted.

“Aside from the fact that the average Imperial grunt hasn’t the brain cells to create so much as a bucket?” He catches the red Paladin’s lips quirk upwards, and does his best not to preen too openly, “rather a lot I imagine. Materials, for one: I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of having you and your little friends fetch the trans-reality comet for me if it weren’t a vital component, after all.”

She grunts, no doubt uncaring for the reminder of Voltron’s past defeat.

“Sure, but the comet’s physical properties are only half the problem. If the Empire is capable of creating living weaponry, then-”

“You misunderstand, Paladin.” Lotor drums his fingers lightly atop his still-open book. “While I’m flattered that you think me so capable, I’m not a god. I didn’t manufacture Kra’s sentience any more than Alfor did the Lions.”

The two Paladins share a look, and Lotor realises that they truly don’t know.

“I would have thought your Princess would have granted you access to her father’s research?” His question lingers in the air, but the expressions both Paladins wear are answer enough.

“Coran thinks Alfor destroyed it,” the green Paladin seems to personally mourn the loss, “to stop Zarkon from getting his hands on it.”

Lotor considers this to be a sensible enough conclusion, if a deeply regrettable one, but his eyes then fall to the open pages of Altean wisdom in his lap with a frown; if Alfor had indeed destroyed everything relating to the Lions, all traces of the alchemy he had used to build Voltron’s beasts ought to have been destroyed along with it. The fact that this book is still here, betrays the former King.

After a moment’s consideration, Lotor holds the book up so that the two Paladins may see the cover.

“Do you know what this is?”

While the red Paladin reacts as expected, with puzzlement and a small shake of the head, Pidge wears a different sort of frown.

The Secrets of Oriande: Alchemy and its Roots.” She raises her eyes from the cover, ignorant to how she has just risen in Lotor’s estimation by her effortless comprehension of the written Altean cursive. “What’s a book on Altean voodoo got to do with the Lions?”

“This Altean voodoo, was fundamental to Voltron’s creation,” it’s also the one piece of the puzzle Lotor himself is yet to solve - the one facet of knowledge that evades him, and therefore prevents his ships from ever truly becoming Voltron’s equal.

The green Paladin still looks nonplussed.

“I don’t care how many Altean fairytales you read, I draw the line at space magic.”

“Magic,” Lotor sighs, “has only ever been science that people fail to properly comprehend. Certainly this book was written as scarcely more than a children’s story, but there’s more truth to it than one would think. This, for example…”

He trails off, flicking back to an earlier chapter that illustrates creatures of the Other Realm latching onto the physical objects that passed through their world, “this is the origin of both your ships’ sentience, and mine.”

Though Pidge is still wary, the red Paladin doesn’t hesitate to lean further forward as he examines the book in Lotor’s hands, allowing the Prince ample time to admire how long lashes brush over refined cheekbones every time he blinks.

“But your ship, Kra?” Violet eyes flick up to meet Lotor’s gaze, questioning, and Lotor inclines his head in confirmation. “She feels different to Red - Black too actually.”

“You spoke to her?” Lotor pauses, the implications of the pretty Paladin’s words registering slowly, “or rather, you’ve piloted both the Red and Black Lions?”

The red Paladin winces, but doesn’t deny it.

Not only the most temperamental Lion, who had refused every potential pilot the Empire offered up over the course of the four hundred Imperial decaphoebs she’d been in their custody, but his father’s most coveted possession too? Lotor hardly knows what to make of that. He wants to ask - desperately so, the curiosity gnawing away at him with needle-like fangs - but something tells him that his prying into such a thing would not be well received, so he treads lightly around the topic.

“You might be the only person in the universe to have spoken to multiple denizens of Sa without having completely lost your mind,” Lotor lets the praise coat his tongue like sweetwine, his words whispered and smile genuine, “that’s what they are, you know: both my Sincline and your Voltron. They’re the hive-minded creatures of the void between worlds, tethered to the one physical material that can pass through their universe and back into our own.”

“That’s impossible,” Pidge interjects, reminding Lotor that she’s still with them, “Coran told us about the original Paladins. The void creatures were corrupt. Dangerous. Alfor wanted to use Voltron to keep them out of our universe.”

“True,” Lotor concedes, “but is Voltron not dangerous? You have to combat like with like, after all, and the creatures found beyond the Rift were not so much evil as they were insatiable. Without physical form to contain them, their hunger cannot be quelled, and even then the corporeal body must be an adequate container, lest my father be the result.”

Corrupt, and ravenous for quintessence. A destroyer of worlds. A monster.

“That’s what they are?” The red Paladin’s gaze is awed, searching, and then turns suddenly distant at the same moment that the whisper of Kra’s thoughts flicker to life in the air around them.

Yes.

There’s a chirrup of laughter, not cruel but sharp, and from the way the red Paladin startles, he must hear it too.

Yes yes yes.

 

earn it you purple ponce

Chapter Text

Following the revelation that Lotor’s ship is conscious, it had been decided that the best course of action would be to confront her creator. Hunk is reluctant to do so, opting to “hang back with the murder ship,” but Pidge practically bounces out of the hanger with bright eyes and a brighter smile, talking Keith’s ear off a mile a minute about the sheer genius it must have taken to replicate King Alfor’s research without actually having access to any of it.

“I mean on one hand it’s kind of terrifying, you know?” She’s walking at a ridiculous pace for someone with such little legs, “because if the Empire can manufacture sentience then they’re even more scientifically advanced that we thought, but on the other…”

Keith looks at Pidge as she trails off, and has to swallow down a laugh at the absolution of her awe.

“It’s pretty amazing,” he agrees, and turns down the corridor to his left.

Isn’t it?

The smallest Paladin is still tripping over her own words, mind undoubtedly whirring too quickly for her tongue to keep up, when the pair of them arrive at their destination; the great double doors slide open with barely a whisper, Keith and Pidge entering the library to a greeting of startled silence, as one of the rebel guards - sallow-faced with four beady little eyes, the scrutiny of which Keith has been the unfortunate subject of on multiple occasions - fumbles with his weapon in fright, near shooting himself in the process.

Pidge sends Keith a look that is both disbelieving and disparaging, but now is neither the time nor place to tell her that, awkward as that particular rebel is, he’s far from the worst of them.

Not that that’s much of an achievement.

The silence quickly gives way to murmured excitement, and suddenly Keith finds himself surrounded by the very people who’ve been looking down their noses at him for the past phoeb, each one of them beaming at him as if he’d hung all the stars in the sky.

“Noble and most Gracious Paladins!” The alien who speaks is engaged in a deep bow, blue and round with enough mouths that Keith gives up on working out which one its voice is coming from, “may we assist you with something?”

“Er,” Pidge’s expression is one that threatens to burst into laughter any second, “yeah. Sure. We’re here to speak to Lotor?”

“An interrogation is it?” He chortles, and it’s a harsh sound, “you need not bother yourself, most Esteemed and Honourable Deliverers, I would be more than happy to deal with the Galra hellspawn on your behalf.”

I bet you would, Keith thinks sourly, looking between the rebels, all of whom are smiling at him with too many teeth and a sweetness he knows would turn deadly if they had even the slightest inkling of his heritage, and scanning his eyes across the library to the sunken circle of starlight. When he finds the sofas void of life, he looks up to the mezzanine, Lotor’s second favourite haunt, and immediately locks eyes with the Prince.

Lotor raises one white brow, a faint smirk playing on his lips, and Keith wastes no time in ducking between the still babbling rebels towards the gently curving stairwell. He hears an exclamation of “Lord Paladin!” from the blue alien behind him, and Pidge’s half-hearted acknowledgement of it - “Oh cool, found him, thanks!” - before she’s hot on his heels.

“Ditch me with a sycophantic prick like him again,” she hisses as they ascend, “and I’ll gut you, Kogane.”

“Noted,” is his mumbled reply, but the best part of his attention is dedicated to Lotor who has draped himself over one of the armchairs in a deceptively careless sprawl that falls just the wrong side of casual.

Keith hears Pidge take a breath, undoubtedly eager to launch into a thousand rapid-fire questions, but Lotor beats her to it.

“Well if it isn’t the brains and beauty of Voltron.” The smile that accompanies these words is false, though not necessarily hostile, and when Lotor’s eyes linger on him with the same intrigued spark that had greeted him on the training deck, Keith finds himself suddenly uncertain. “To deserve the honour of your company I must have done something truly remarkable.”

There’s a curl to that word, remarkable, that Keith recognises: it’s not unlike magnificent, but less sincere, and with a snort Keith realises that, to put it kindly, Lotor is being a sarcastic little shit.

Dropping into the armchair opposite the Prince, Keith levels his stare, and refuses to dignify him with a response. After a tick, Pidge hops up onto the arm of Keith’s chair, and lets her curiosity loose.

“We’re here because-”

Lotor cuts her off.

“Manners, little Paladin. You’ve been my gracious-“ and there it is again, that same mocking lilt, “-hosts for the better part of a phoeb, but you’ve yet to properly introduce yourselves. I would think it about time we rectify such a thing, if you’ve come for conversation.”

There’s a beat of silence in which the smile never drops from Lotor’s face.

“Pidge,” and Keith doesn’t have to turn his head to know that she’s trying to set Zarkon’s son on fire with her glower, “now-”

“And you?” Lotor’s eyes flicker back to Keith, looking in equal parts smug and entertained.

Pidge is growing restless, but Keith feels that to reassure her now would somehow be letting Lotor win whatever game this is, so he holds steadfast and silent as she says: “You don’t need his name-”

“No,” the Prince’s focus on Keith is absolute, and in this light, the deep blue of his iris is offset by the soft luminescence of golden sclera, “but I should very much like it.”

Lotor knows.

Keith scans over that face, that smile, so self-assured and teasing, and it becomes obvious. Something in this interaction is different, heavier somehow, and though Keith can’t quite put his finger on when Lotor figured it out, the Prince must know who Keith is - what he is - and he’s toying with the knowledge like a cat with a mouse. He’s not really asking for Keith’s name, he’s asking for confirmation of that which he’s fully aware, and while Keith can’t bring himself to agree with Allura’s assumptions that Lotor will use the truth of his blood against him (and maybe that’s stupid and naïve but he just can’t), he also finds that, in seeing Lotor look so damn pleased with himself, the easily riled part of Keith just doesn’t want to give him the fucking satisfaction.

So he leans forward, elbows on his knees and chin jutted up so that he can look the Prince dead in the eye as he growls, “earn it,” with a quiet sort of power thrumming beneath his skin.

Lotor’s eyes flash with the kind of danger that has always set Keith’s blood aflame, and when he sits back it’s with a hot breath that ruffles the tips of Keith’s hair and feels a lot like victory.

“You have a smart mouth Paladin,” there’s a rumble in Lotor’s throat that turns the admonishment into admiration, “but very well. Ask what you will, and I shall prove myself worthy of your introduction.”

Keith has to fight a grin as he nudges Pidge into action.

“Okay,” she pauses, and the look she shoots Keith is indecipherable, “so we’ve been looking at your ship.”

“I am aware.”

When Lotor doesn’t seem inclined to elaborate beyond this, Keith can feel the tension rolling from Pidge in waves.

“And how exactly could you be aware when you’ve been under lock and key this entire time?”

Lotor doesn’t miss a beat.

“Your yellow Paladin made as much obvious during that little inquisition of yours.”

His emphasis on inquisition is one of poorly concealed distaste, and Keith can hardly blame him. From the resigned huff Pidge offers, she seems to at least acknowledge that the events of the renegotiation could have gone smoother, and when Keith glances to his right he sees how the green Paladin’s shoulders have slumped.

When she speaks again, it’s with her usual frankness.

“Look, we know your ship’s alive because she has an energy signature that’s almost identical to that of the Lions. We know what she’s capable of - particularly after Naxzela - and we know that your Generals have the other one, along with enough ore to make a third. What we don’t know is how the hell you managed to build what is essentially a second Voltron in the first place. If you managed it, then what’s to stop the Empire from making more?”

“Aside from the fact that the average Imperial grunt hasn’t the brain cells to create so much as a bucket?” Lotor makes a face and Keith has to bite the inside of his cheek to prevent himself from laughing at the utter distain in that expression, “rather a lot I imagine. Materials, for one: I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of having you and your little friends fetch the trans-reality comet for me if it weren’t a vital component, after all.”

Pidge grunts. “Sure, but the comet’s physical properties are only half the problem. If the Empire is capable of creating living weaponry, then-”

“You misunderstand, Paladin. While I’m flattered that you think me so capable, I’m not a god.” Lotor drums his fingertips over the book in his lap lightly, an absent habit of his when he’s lost in thought, Keith has noticed. “I didn’t manufacture Kra’s sentience any more than Alfor did the Lions.”

Keith’s eyes immediately snap to Pidge, finding her looking back at him with much the same expression. When he turns back to Lotor, the Prince is eyeing the both of them curiously.

“I would have thought your Princess would have granted you access to her father’s research?”

“Coran thinks Alfor destroyed it,” Pidge replies, “to stop Zarkon from getting his hands on it.”

As Keith watches, Lotor considers this carefully, his eyes falling to the open pages of his current Altean tome before he frowns, and then holds the cover up for them to see.

“Do you know what this is?”

Keith shakes his head, the Altean characters of the title utter gibberish to him, but Pidge barely hesitates before reciting: “The Secrets of Oriande: Alchemy and its Roots.” She falters, “what’s a book on Altean voodoo got to do with the Lions?”

“This Altean voodoo,” Lotor seems torn between being impressed that Pidge can read Altean, and disappointed at her chosen descriptor, “was fundamental to Voltron’s creation.”

Pidge scoffs.

“I don’t care how many Altean fairytales you read, I draw the line at space magic.”

Judging by Lotor’s expression, disappointment has won out.

“Magic has only ever been science that people fail to properly comprehend. Certainly this book was written as scarcely more than a children’s story, but there’s more truth to it than one would think. This, for example…” He trails off, flicking through the ancient pages with careless ease before turning the book so that Keith is faced with an illustration in faded colour, the deep purples of abstract beings bleeding into the delicately lined silvery blue of what is clearly intended to be an asteroid of some sort. “This is the origin of both your ships’ sentience, and mine.”

Keith examines the drawing with a critical eye, but can make neither heads nor tails of the dark, shadowy creatures depicted there.

“But your ship, Kra?” When he looks up, Lotor is watching him closely, “she feels different to Red - Black too actually.”

Lotor blinks.

“You spoke to her? Or rather, you’ve piloted both the Red and Black Lions?”

Wincing, Keith prays that one day he’ll learn to keep his mouth shut, but for today the damage is already done.

“You might be the only person in the universe to have spoken to multiple denizens of Sa without having completely lost your mind.” Lotor sounds quietly awed, and when Keith risks looking up at him again he finds a smile - a real smile this time, small and genuine - unfurling across the Prince’s features, “that’s what they are, you know: both my Sincline and your Voltron. They’re the hive-minded creatures of the void between worlds, tethered to the one physical material that can pass through their universe and back into our own.”

“That’s impossible,” Pidge’s voice slices the quiet in two, “Coran told us about the original Paladins. The void creatures were corrupt. Dangerous. Alfor wanted to use Voltron to keep them out of our universe.”

As Lotor tears his eyes away, Keith thinks he sees a flicker of irritation behind them.

“True,” his tone is curt, “but is Voltron not dangerous? You have to combat like with like, after all, and the creatures found beyond the Rift were not so much evil as they were insatiable. Without physical form to contain them, their hunger cannot be quelled, and even then the corporeal body must be an adequate container, lest my father be the result.”

Keith turns this over in his mind; when Lotor had first spoken of Sa, he’d thought of it as more the Galra afterlife than a tangible place - and maybe it once was - but from what the Prince is saying now, it would seem that Sa and the Rift that had ultimately swallowed Daibazaal are one and the same.

What’s more, the Lions are from there.

“That’s what they are?” Keith asks, and without warning there’s an inhuman chirrup of laughter skipping silently through the air around him.

Yes.

Keith fixes his eyes on Lotor, who holds his gaze as that same voice sings to them and them alone.

Yes yes yes.

 

When they return to the hanger, Hunk is hunched over one of the engines, tinkering with its internal mechanics in an attempt to understand how it works. Still fully absorbed in what he’s doing, the yellow Paladin starts speaking before actually looking up, and that’s his first mistake.

“Did Lotor tell you anything usefuCK-” Hunk fumbles with the components in his hands as he staggers back into the table piled high with Galran parts, brown eyes wide and startled as he processes the tall figure accompanying his friends. There’s a moment of dead silence, in which Hunk sharply gestures to Lotor with the wrench-like tool in his left hand, his right clutching a whirring purple mechanism over his heart.

Ahhhh.” is the vague yet fitting noise of distress he settles on.

From behind Keith, Lotor mimics the sound in a flat and entirely unimpressed tone, “Ah, indeed,” which has a heavy frown settling across Hunk’s brow as he fixes his gaze on Keith and Pidge in turn.

“Why!?”

Keith looks back to Lotor, whose attention has drifted from Hunk to the towering mass of tech behind him, and before the yellow Paladin can be given an answer, the Prince’s eyes have narrowed to near slits and he’s hissing, “what did you do to my ship you absolute cretin.”

He’s striding forward before anyone can stop him, and Hunk is quick to give him a wide berth, allowing what must be nearly seven feet of pure muscle and scarcely contained ire to storm over to the work table.

The yellow Paladin sidles over to Pidge’s other side, and repeats his question in a low hiss, “why?

“Because,” she murmurs back, “he knows a hell of a lot more about the Lions than we do.”

At the look Hunk shoots her, Pidge shrugs with a feigned nonchalance, and Keith can see her curiosity warring with her obvious distrust of Lotor.

“Besides, I don’t fancy trying to put his ship back together again, but if he does it, and it kills him in the process, then that’s one less thing to worry about.”

Keith turns away.

From here he can see Lotor muttering to himself, lips moving near-soundlessly as his hands dart across the chaos of Hunk’s workspace, rearranging Kra’s innards according to some logic Keith isn’t privy to. Making up his mind, Keith leaves Pidge to update Hunk on what they’d learnt, and advances on Lotor who, it quickly becomes apparent, is speaking as much to his ship as to himself, whispers of “heathens,” and “what have they done to you,” striking Keith as painfully familiar. The Prince may be scowling, but it’s not so much aggressive as dejected, and it becomes obvious that to Lotor, Kra is more than just a technological marvel. She’s a friend.

Quite possibly the only one he has left.

Sympathy twists in Keith’s gut at that - because he knows what it is to be alone in the universe, and better yet he knows how it feels to have your sole companion returned to you in pieces - and when he reaches Lotor’s side he leans back against the table, arms crossed and smile small.

Lotor starts, rapidly blinking at Keith in a manner that is almost affronted. Then his expression drops into the most unapproachable thing that he’s ever thrown Keith’s way.

“Can I help you?” His tone says that he’d rather not, and Keith’s smile wavers.

“I, er…” Keith suddenly finds Lotor impossible to read: cold and silent and dreadfully unreceptive. It near sends him reeling. “I guess that was my question?”

Lotor stares at him blankly, and Keith quickly ducks his head to scan across the alien materials beside him.

“Not that I really know how-” the terse greeting has thrown him off balance, it’s obvious, and this is usually the point where he’d withdraw into a corner and let someone else do the talking, but for some reason the words won’t stop, and he’s forced to wonder if this is how it feels to be Lance, “-Hunk’s way better at all this stuff, but since your ship has tried to kill him a couple of times now, I guess I’m the best you’re gonna get?”

When Lotor doesn’t reply, Keith risks a glance up through the longest strands of his fringe. Lotor’s still staring, but there’s a thoughtful crease to the corner of his eyes, and when he catches Keith’s eye, this time he’s the one to turn away.

“You want to help me.” The words are said slowly, as if foreign on his tongue.

Keith gives a short nod and then, realising that Lotor is now adamantly refusing to look at him, replies with a soft affirmative.

There’s another moment in which neither of them speak, but it’s broken by a wash of feeling - exasperation - so strong that it nearly bowls Keith over. Lotor breathes out a harsh sound that can be nothing other than a Galran curse, and there’s more of that same chirruping laughter ringing through the air like the chiming of little bells. Keith almost joins in, when he catches how disgruntled Lotor looks at her mirth, but thinks better of it.

“Does she always come on so strong?” He asks instead.

Though Lotor’s eyes never leave whatever it is he’s trying to reassemble, there’s a ghost of a smile on his lips as he answers, “yes,” and the last of that coldness leaves him.

They fall into another lull of silence after that, but it’s an easy sort of quiet, and though Keith doesn’t feel like he’s of much use, Lotor hasn’t told him to leave either, so he stands by and watches with interest as long fingers begin to effortlessly piece together the first of the dismantled engines. Several dobashes pass before Keith realises that this hush extends to Pidge and Hunk, and when he looks up it is to find the two of them watching Lotor with careful consideration.

Or… no. Not Lotor. Him.

Keith tilts his head in question, but Pidge merely shakes her’s in return, mouthing “later,” and seeming to exchange some sort of meaningful glance with Hunk whose shoulders sag before he makes a timid approach, the mechanism he’d been toying with still clutched in one large palm.

“Do you… need this?” Hunk is wary, his tone teetering on the precipice between fight and flight.

Lotor obstinately refuses to look away from what he’s doing.

“If it is something you have ripped from her corpse,” he blithely waves one hand towards his ship, “then I should imagine so.”

Hunk seems both scared and a little insulted.

“Right. Makes sense,” when he catches Keith’s eye, Keith offers an encouraging nod, “well I’ll just leave this here then?”

Lotor finally turns away from the table, raising up to his full height, and Hunk’s not a small guy but Keith supposes that - half Galra or otherwise - anyone of Zarkon’s descent would be able to cut an imposing figure. When the Prince’s eyes fall to the cluster of Galran parts that Hunk it holding, they seem to flash with something Keith can’t identify.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen someone handling a Naalqua core with so little care,” he muses, almost lightly, “even something of that scale would be considered a liberal quantity for imploding a vessel of this size.”

This time, when Lotor gestures, it’s not to his ship but to the Castle in general, and Hunk’s face turns to one of horror; this expression only worsens when Lotor plucks the core from the yellow Paladin’s hands with very little care.

“Fortunate for you, then, that I was not fool enough to neglect treating it with its counter element before utilising it as a primary component in my vessel.”

There’s a beat of silence in which Lotor returns his attention to the engine as he affixes the power core at its heart. Hunk looks like he might pass out.

“Why would you do that?” Though this question is aimed at Lotor, those great brown eyes are fixed on Keith.

“Hard to say,” Lotor’s tone is dismissive, “however the fact that you believed me proves either that you’re stupid,” he spares a glance over his shoulder, and it seems to Keith a very unkind, sort of look “or you think I am.”

Before Lotor can turn away again, Keith has positioned himself between the two, brow furrowed. Hunk makes a noise as if to tell him not to make a big thing of it, but it’s Lotor that Keith’s focused on, and the Prince is regarding him with a light sort of surprise.

“You’re being-” he scrambles for the right word for a moment, “mean.”

Lotor’s lips part on an absent breath.

“…Mean?”

“Yes. Mean.” It’s the only word that suits; not malicious enough to be cruel, but unnecessarily petty. While Keith has no idea of what Lotor’s past was like, he has very little doubt that it contained few good things, considering who his father is, so maybe it’s second nature for him to be callous and uncaring and mean, but Keith also knows that Lotor is better than this.

Though the Prince may well be capable of meanness, he’d also steadied Keith when he’d almost passed out, when no one else had cared, and so the ex-Paladin knows that he’s capable of kindness too.

“I get that you’re pissed because we took apart your ship, and I get that you don’t like being locked up, and I get that it’s frustrating,” he hisses out a breath between his teeth, “feeling like you’re sat around doing nothing when you know full well that the Empire’s doing anything but.”

He really does, he gets it, knows the feeling all too well.

“But being mean isn’t going to help anything. It’s not going to fix your ship, and it’s certainly not going to make this alliance any easier when we both know the Coalition is just begging for a reason to throw you out an airlock.”

He hesitates, searching Lotor’s face for something, but without knowing what it’s impossible to find.

“You’re better than this,” is the admission Keith settles on, and desperately wants Lotor to prove him right.

The only noise between them is the constant hum of the Castle Ship, and something that could be a whisper of thought from Kra, too distant to make out.

Lotor is gently gaping, his lips lax and eyes flitting over Keith’s face as if he’s seeing him for the first time. His head tilts, just slightly, and after a tick or two more, his mouth twists closed into something contemplative.

“Both the Red and Black Lions, you said.” It’s not a question. “Yes, I suppose I can see that.”

Lotor draws his shoulders back, standing tall once more, but this time it feels less like an intimidation tactic and reminds Keith more of Allura when she makes any sort of official statement. His eyes move from Keith to fix on a point just behind his shoulder.

“Hunk, was it?”

Keith turns just in time to catch Hunk flinching at the direct address.

“Mhm, yep, that would be me.” By the look on Hunk’s face, he’s trying to work out at what point he introduced himself by name.

“If you can give me your word that you will desist in dissecting my ship, then I will endeavour to supply you with any and all further knowledge you require on her construction.” He pauses, his attention flickering to Keith with faint amusement and something else, “I shall also restrain myself from any further… meanness.”

Keith grins.

 

-

 

They’ve desecrated her.

That’s all Lotor can think as he strides over to the chaotic mountain of tech that once served as the inner workings to the first weapon to rival Voltron’s Lions in all the history of the known universe. She was a beautiful and proud creature, and though he’d known they’d been taking her apart, the beastly little savages that call themselves Paladins have practically reduced her to scrap.

Vile, philistinic, heathens.

Kra drapes herself about his shoulders with a sweet, crooning sort of agreement, adding her pique to his and serving only to bolster his temper.

“What have they done to you?” Lotor asks as he sorts across the various components of her primary engines and finds that, not only have the Paladins dismantled each and every one, but they don’t appear to have even had the decency to have done so according to any logical system, instead leaving some of the finest mechanical works the Empire has ever produced strewn across the tabletop as if it were a debris on a battlefield. Entire movements worth of work, unravelled so completely at the hands of Princess Allura’s little soldiers who are scarcely better than children if this is what they do when given free rein.

Naxzela would have done less damage than this.

Quiet as Kova, the red Paladin has approached him, suddenly leant back against the worktable as if he belongs there, and Lotor hardly cares for the demure little smile the impudent creature gives him when it’s offset by the absolute desolation that surrounds them. Fond of their pretty compatriot he may be, but if the Paladins think that Lotor will so easily forget their grievances against him for the wiles of dusk-dark irises set beneath full lashes, then they have mistaken him for a simple man.

“Can I help you?” Lotor doesn’t bother to conceal his aggravation, and that sweet smile falters.

“I, er… I guess that was my question?”

Lotor stares him down, hard and unforgiving, as he tries to decipher the truth behind those words. Did the Paladins truly mean to bring him here, have him clean up their mess, and then beg forgiveness through seduction?

It is insulting.

The red Paladin ducks his head - sweet and flustered and conceivably genuine - but Lotor feels disinclined to believe him, and scours for the chink in the façade.

“Not that I really know how-” the younger man fumbles over his words, and Lotor need only find one thing, just one, that reads as dishonest, but… “-Hunk’s way better at all this stuff, but since your ship has tried to kill him a couple of times now, I guess I’m the best you’re gonna get?”

Just one. He’d set the bar so low, and yet the red Paladin is sincerity incarnate.

Those eyes peer up at him, shadowy soft through wild strands of hair, and Lotor finds himself turning away. It doesn’t help any. He stares at the fragmented innards of Kra and tries to recall some of that indignation that had sparked so hotly in his blood barely a dobash before, but the red Paladin has bled it all out of him with little more than a look.

“You want to help me,” he clarifies.

Though it makes no sense, the Paladin is quick to affirm this as truth, his tone earnest.

Lotor is forced to take a moment, and in doing so he finds that this new facet of Voltron’s sixth Paladin, this soft honesty, effortlessly slips itself into the Prince’s understanding of him. It seems like it shouldn’t, not when Lotor can recall with startling clarity the sight of that armoured body marked in red, soaring over his opponent’s head only to wrench the droid’s neck to the side, but then he remembers the laughter that followed such a brutal victory, and how, even in that moment, he’d thought it a tender sound. Lotor thinks of “Earn it,” of the growled challenge in those words, of the fight and fire and fury, and wonders how even that holds roots in the cornerstone of truth - this Paladin’s truth - something he seems to live and breathe in a manner that Lotor can’t even begin to comprehend.

He’s been silent for too long, or so Kra seems to decide, and her vexation comes in a wave so great that it steals all the breath from Lotor’s lungs, along with a rather unsavoury curse.

Little star - she insists, with a chagrined note at having to repeat herself - burns hot.

The understanding that hits Lotor is abrupt, all-consuming, and entirely obvious in hindsight; the red Paladin had said he’d spoken to her, so really Lotor should have known. Kra laughs - silly - and he tries not to feel too insulted.

“Does she always come on so strong?” The Paladin’s voice - a little bit overwhelmed but contented in a way that burns warmth into the pit of Lotor’s stomach - brings him back to the present.

“Yes.”

There’s little to say after that, but it’s a comfortable sort of silence, and Lotor finds that reassembling the first of Kra’s engines is soothing in that it settles some of the restless energy that’s been building up within him since he first arrived on the Altean vessel. The red Paladin may have offered his help, but Lotor hasn’t anything he needs him to do, and so the as-of-yet nameless man stands by wordlessly. It should be distracting to have another’s presence hovering without purpose, but, more than a little surprisingly, Lotor finds that he doesn’t mind the company.

In thinking as much, he seems to have invited the universe to ruin it, and soon one becomes two as the yellow Paladin’s heavy footsteps draw nearer.

“Do you… need this?” His tone is tentative, perhaps a little afraid, and Lotor thinks he deserves it for having reduced Kra to such a state.

“If it’s something you have ripped from her corpse,” and he knows it must be, “then I should imagine so.”

“Right. Makes sense,” there’s a pause, and out the corner of his eye, Lotor sees the red Paladin offer his comrade a nod of reassurance, “well I’ll just leave it here then?”

Lotor turns, draws himself up, and is vindictively pleased that the Paladins’ species is one of such small stature. Height has not been an advantage often afforded to him, not among the Galra, but here in his current company it is one of the few modicums of power he has left.

His eyes drop to the glowing core in the yellow Paladin’s palm, and something small and spiteful worms its way into his tone.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen someone handling a Naalqua core with so little care,” he makes a show of pondering his own words, before adding: “even something of that scale would be considered a liberal quantity for imploding a vessel of this size.”

He waves his arm to indicate the Castle of Lions rather than Kra, and takes pleasure in the moment of terror his ship’s defiler suffers, before plucking the core from near-trembling fingertips and putting the poor fool out of his misery.

“Fortunate for you, then, that I was not fool enough to neglect treating it with its counter element before utilising it as a primary component in my vessel.”

Satisfied that the Paladin has suffered his reprimand in full - and, considering the sheer quantity of work he’s unravelled, he is being let off lightly - Lotor turns back to the task at hand, seating the perfectly benign power core at the engine’s heart.

“Why would you do that?” The yellow Paladin sounds upset, and Lotor is glad for it.

“Hard to say, however the fact that you believed me proves either that you’re stupid,” he shoots a cool glance over his shoulder along with the insult, and lets the burn of it sink in, “or you think I am.”

Almost instantly, the red Paladin takes it upon himself to become a physical barrier, standing protectively in front of his larger friend as if to shield him from Lotor - it would be to little effect, were it not for the ferocious scowl that mars his fine-boned features, giving Lotor pause.

“You’re being,” violet eyes have turned stormy and searching, “mean.”

It’s… certainly not what Lotor expected to hear. It makes his jaw drop.

“…Mean?”

“Yes. Mean,” he says, firmly, and what is that? Something so arbitrary, so infantile in its connotations; as if meanness holds any weight when they’re standing on the Altean warship that is the central hub for rebellion in this intergalactic war.

“I get that you’re pissed because we took apart your ship, and I get that you don’t like being locked up, and I get that it’s frustrating feeling like you’re sat around doing nothing when you know full well that the Empire’s doing anything but.” There’s an understanding there, too much, perhaps, to be coming from an outsider’s perspective, and the red Paladin’s words are spilling blunt and fast, “but being mean isn’t going to help anything. It’s not going to fix your ship, and it’s certainly not going to make this alliance any easier when we both know the Coalition is just begging for a reason to throw you out an airlock.”

Those eyes - those eyes - they seem almost desperate for answers that Lotor would offer up in a heartbeat if only he knew what they were.

“You’re better than this,” he says quietly, and Lotor thinks it might have been kinder for the red Paladin to simply gut him then and there, because that’s not- how can he possibly- he sounds so certain-

It’s a confession, of a sort, and in the way he says it, a truth.

Lotor doesn’t know whether he can believe in such a thing, it sounds too much like a beautiful lie, but he knows he wants to. It’s a dangerous thought; Lotor hasn’t wanted to be anything for anyone in a very long time, and if history is cursed to repeat itself then this can only end in disaster.

Even so - Kra whispers, from some far off place - Even so.

Even so, Lotor agrees, the weight of the red Paladin’s gaze doesn’t feel like expectation, but faith, and may Sa smite him if those eyes don’t make Lotor a believer.

“Both the Red and Black Lions, you said,” the mere concept is delicious, “yes, I suppose I can see that.”

Lotor takes a breath, straightens his posture, and tears himself from that scorching scrutiny to find the green Paladin across the room - too clever in the way she’s watching this exchange - and then back to the yellow Paladin, stood far closer.

“Hunk, was it?” He knows full well it is, having heard the name from both the red Lion’s former and current pilots.

Hunk looks uneasy, but when he speaks his voice is clear, and Lotor can respect that.

“Mhm, yep, that would be me.”

“If you can give me your word that you will desist in dissecting my ship, then I will endeavour to supply you with any and all further knowledge you require on her construction.” Lotor allows himself to indulge in the heat of the red Paladin’s attention once more, a smile curling, unbidden, onto his lips. “I shall also restrain myself from any further… meanness.”

The red Paladin breaks into a sharp grin, and in a moment of absolute clarity Lotor knows that this is the beginning of the end.

Chapter Text

Keith finds himself in a new routine: one of endless motion and company that sees him all over the castle, though most notably in Kra’s assigned hanger, or, if not there, in what is fast becoming known as her creator’s personal wing. Between sleepy mornings filled with historical Galran conquests, and afternoons-turned-evenings of what Keith soon recognises as the most complicated engineering puzzle the universe has ever seen, the former Paladin is without a spare tick to himself, and Lotor at the epicentre of it all.

If asked, Keith would say that he doesn’t much mind the strangely routine turmoil that his life has fallen into.

The truth of it is that he likes it.

He likes it just as he likes this silly little game he and Lotor seem to have started of seeing who will give up first: Keith with his façade of dual identity, or the Prince with his dancing about the issue. It’s dumb and childish and essentially meaningless, but Keith likes it all the same.

For the first time in a long time, he’s having fun.

It helps that he’s not isolating himself from the Paladins, from his friends, Keith knows that - knows that for all his reputation as a lone wolf at the Garrison, he’s never really been all that fond of solitude. Being around Pidge does him good because she doesn’t bother him about things he doesn’t want to be bothered about, and Hunk’s company is simply a blessing in itself.

It goes like this.

They settle into the sort of dynamic that doesn’t make sense; four people, three Humans, two Galra, one Altean - the kind of mathematical equation that is entirely wrong for the problem at hand, and yet gives the right answer despite it all. They sit around reassembling an alien warship, none of them in armor yet all of them armed (though, granted, while Lotor’s Altean strength is a weapon in its own right, both Pidge and Hunk are distance fighters, and said strength won’t do much good if the Prince can’t get close enough to use it), and Keith thinks there’s a surreal sort of camaraderie to be found here.

That’s not to say that Lotor and Hunk particularly like each other - they don’t - or that Lotor hasn’t adopted a healthy sort of caution around Pidge - he has - but the air of hanger Xi12 isn’t a hostile one, and at times, Keith thinks they might have stumbled upon a medium that works.

 

The first couple of quintents are a little strained, to say the least, and Keith ends up playing the mediator between his friends and their once-enemy, which, suffice to say, isn’t a job he’s particularly well-suited for.

“Rhyahl,” in lieu of his real name, Lotor has taken to addressing him by a Galran one, which Keith wouldn’t otherwise mind were it not for the amused curl the word has every time it’s said, “pass me that, won’t you?”

‘That’, a casual wave of the hand indicates, is whatever Galran contraption Hunk has been tinkering with for the past varga, only to have just now completed. ‘That’ sits in front of the yellow Paladin who passes it to Keith - who, in turn, passes it to Lotor - with an apologetic grimace and a mouthed word of thanks. ‘That’ is given a perfunctory once-over by Lotor who, seemingly satisfied with Hunk’s work, affixes it to the hulking component beside him before hoisting the entire thing up onto one shoulder and striding over to Kra, as if doing so was no big deal.

Keith thinks it’s a very big deal.

He’s a lot of things, but he’s not blind, and apparently the way muscles ripple beneath the lavender skin of that exposed shoulder, framed between Lotor’s cloth-bound arm and sleeveless Altean tunic, is a very very big deal.

It kind of pisses him off.

He doesn’t need this right now. Keith knows he has a job to do - not just that of reassembling Kra or helping team Voltron with the next step, but his duty to the Blade - he’s mid-mission right now, even if it feels like he’s not, and there’s watching Lotor, and then there’s… well. Watching Lotor.

The distinction is an important one.

Lotor finishes reattaching the component to the underneath of Kra’s left side, receiving the echo of an appreciative purr in return, and rolls his shoulders as he stands.

Keith nearly bites through his damn tongue.

Nope, he thinks, Not doing this.

Knowing that Lotor’s strong is one thing, but seeing casual displays of strength when the Prince is simply existing is entirely another, because he’s just... Doing his thing. Not at all trying to rile Keith up, and yet it works far better than his deliberate teasing or smirking taunts, and Keith is starting to think it might be the Galra in him. Regris had once said that the urge to fight was in their blood - not the desire to hurt, he’d clarified, just fight. “Because we can,” he’d said, “because it’s fun.”

Keith’s been fighting for as long as he remembers, though not always for the right reasons, so he knows the adrenaline as well as he knows his own face, and he’d never deny that it’s a part of him. Learning that it was the Galra part of him had been a whole experience in and of itself, but he’s over that. Mostly. Now it’s more the understanding that his need to fight can become more than just a vague sort of urge: it can become a person. Who, varies. James Griffin is the first one to come to mind, a hot-shot rich brat who’d never known how good he had it, but Keith hadn’t disliked him. Sure, Griffin had been a lot, sometimes too much, and they’d definitely had their fair share of brawls when they were kids, but Keith had admired him for his easy charisma and competitive spirit. He’d possibly admired him for a little more than that, but there were some things even a year fighting in a space war hadn’t prepared him to deal with.

Shiro’s the second, and though Keith had never wanted to fight Shiro in quite the same way as he had James, there was that same sense of admiration, that same desire to prove himself as better - not better than anyone, and certainly not better than Shiro, just better - and sparring had been a way for Keith to improve, to show Shiro that he could listen and learn and do more, to prove to the Garrison’s golden boy that he was worth it.

And now there’s Lotor.

Lotor who’s already pinned him once - pinned him but not beaten him - and who’s complimented him several times over: Lotor who’s strong and smart and more experienced than Keith, and who promises to be not just an interesting opponent, but a real challenge.

So Keith watches Lotor, feels the hot prickle of a fight beneath his skin, and has to force himself to look away.

 

“You looked like you were in pain,” Pidge tells him later, when it’s Hunk’s turn to escort Lotor back to his rooms, “like, you were glaring at him harder than Lance used to glare at you.”

Keith hesitates before admitting, “I wanted to punch him.”

Pidge laughs: “Same, honestly.”

But Keith’s not done.

“I really wanted to punch him. And I wanted-” him to punch me, he doesn’t say, because that makes no sense, “I wanted an even fight, I think. I wanted to win.”

“Most people don’t go into a fight wanting to lose,” she still sounds entertained.

“But he wasn’t even doing anything. I just… he was literally just fixing his ship and I wanted to bite him.” Vaguely, Keith realises Pidge isn’t laughing anymore, “and I know I’m not explaining this well but it’s- it’s not an aggressive thing. I didn’t want to hurt him, not without reason, I just...”

Keith huffs and glowers at the floor.

“You just wanted to bite him,” the green Paladin gives him an odd look as she repeats Keith’s words back to him.

Yes,” he’s hopelessly miserable in the way he says it, tacking on: “I think it’s a Galra thing,” by way of explanation.

Pidge just hums.

 

Hunk snaps on the fifth quintent.

“Alright!” He plants his hands firmly on the table in front of Lotor, and the Prince looks up in surprise. “I’m done with this, I’m done with dancing around you: are you tall purple and intimidating? Yeah, definitely, but I have gotta know what the deal is with your ship, and our Lions, and pretty much anything you can tell us about the trans-reality beings that are apparently possessing them, because this is like a whole thing and I cannot take it anymore.”

As Keith watches, just as shocked as Lotor by this sudden outburst, Hunk stands a little straighter and nods decisively. There’s a moment’s silence in which Keith thinks - expects, really - Hunk to falter, but he just doesn’t, instead holding firm until Lotor leans back with an indecipherable expression, and concedes.

“Alright, what is it you wish to ask of me?”

“Er,” Hunk blinks, “just like that?”

“You would prefer I make this difficult?”

“No! Nope, definitely not, I just wasn’t expecting…” he makes a vague gesture and glances over his shoulder at Pidge who just shrugs, “you know what? It doesn’t matter what I was expecting, I super appreciate you being all cooperative and stuff, so that’s cool, let’s get to it.”

Lotor inclines his head, and Hunk sits opposite him, drumming his fingers across the tabletop rapidly.

“Soooo…” the vowel is drawn out and strained.

“So,” Lotor parrots, tone clipped and eyebrow raised in an obviously unimpressed expression.

Beneath the table, Keith kicks him.

He isn’t sure where the impulse comes from, but he’s already acted on it before his mind has had a chance to really think it through, and - oh fuck - Lotor’s looking at him with the most deeply insulted expression possible, and for a moment Keith thinks that voicing his craving for a fight to Pidge might have been baiting the universe to a dangerous degree.

Then Lotor’s expression softens to one of mild amusement, and turns back to Hunk who has watched this silent exchange with a slow terror unfolding across his features.

“Apologies,” the corner of his lips quirk as he says this, “it seems I have yet to shake my unnecessary meanness. Do continue.”

After a moment, Hunk does, but Keith’s attention is caught on Pidge who, on the outskirts of his vision, is trying to bore holes into the side of his head with her mind.

He adamantly ignores her, instead focusing on Hunk as he begins to speak.

“So Voltron and Sincline are the Void-Creatures, I get that - it’s freaky, but I get it - but what about the whole separate consciousness thing. I mean, they’re a hive mind, obviously, but the Lions are still different from one another. When we first became Paladins Allura told us who would fly what, and it was all to do with our quintessence and junk,” Hunk pauses, uncertain, before finishing lamely, “so how does that, er, work?”

“The creatures of Sa are complex multifaceted beings of pure consciousness. Though I should like to tell you that I am an expert on the topic, the fact is that all anyone really knows is that they’re exceedingly old and exceedingly hungry.”

Keith glances at Hunk, who doesn’t look at all comforted by this knowledge.

“In sculpting Sincline’s vessels to her liking, I have come to suspect that just as Kra, Li, and Ept are three parts of a whole, she herself is merely a facet of something much greater.”

In less than a tick, Pidge is launching herself forward from where she had sat apart from the group, and now bounces on her toes excitedly.

“Hold up; you’re saying Voltron and Sincline and whatever the hell else those things call themselves are actually all just one massive social organism? So the Lions are a hive-mind within a hive-mind?”

“Precisely,” Lotor seems pleased by her enthusiasm for the concept, “or, at the very least, that is my working hypothesis. Without a greater pool of data I can neither confirm nor deny this idea, and I’m sure you understand how unlikely it is that I, or indeed, our entire universe, will ever have access to such a thing.”

“Right,” Pidge is mumbling, obviously speaking more to herself now than anyone else, “but theoretically…”

She trails off and drops into the seat beside Keith, her eyes flicking over facts and figures invisible to all but her, her mind obviously whirring.

“Why three?” Hunk is watching Lotor curiously, “you have- er… had, sorry - four Generals plus yourself. Why not make five ships?”

Keith sees how Lotor’s mouth twists into a thin line at the yellow Paladin’s slip, but thankfully, the Prince lets it pass without comment.

“What you need to understand about the denizens of Sa, is that they are quite sure of what they want. The decision to divide the comet into three was not mine, but hers. I am not, you understand, saying that a lesser mind could have achieved what I have, but Sincline knew what she wanted and I built the vessels to best accommodate those wants.”

Keith mulls this over.

“Kra, Li, Ept,” the names are familiar, Keith thinks, though he can’t for the life of him remember where he’s heard them, “you named them?”

Lotor affirms this with a curling smile, setting his hand on his chin as he watches Keith intently. “You speak Zaalkh as if you were born to it.”

Keith feels Pidge stiffen beside him, her hand fisting into the hem of his shirt as a warning, though what from he doesn’t know. Lotor continues without noticing.

“Indeed Rhyahl, I named them. Kraliept tron Gamaar - Knowledge is of Three Parts - it’s a rather well-known proverb stemming from Empress Marmora’s reign.”

Keith starts.

“Yes,” the Prince leans forward further, “your little allies could likely tell you far more about their founder than I, but so far as your question I’m sure my knowledge on the topic shall suffice… Although, if you’re interested, I’d be more than willing to give you a history lesson or two.”

Pidge’s grip tightens, but Keith’s attention is fully fixated on the man before him. Lotor’s grin is sharp, almost predatory in the way he’s watching Keith with hooded eyes, and Keith recalls the conversation they’d had the night before in the library - Lotor speaking to him as a Blade rather than a former Paladin, recounting the many conquests of Emperor Zaghit, fourteenth to rule the Empire - and thinks, you smug little shit, with more fondness than Lotor’s earned.

“Maybe I’ll take you up on that,” he deadpans, and Lotor’s eyes flash golden with delight at having him play along, “but first you’re going to explain your ships to us.”

“As I’ve said,” Lotor doesn’t look even the slightest bit deterred, “Knowledge is of Three Parts: the word, Kraliept, is devised of three characters when written down.”

Here Lotor pauses, holds his hand out expectantly, and when Keith just frowns at his open palm in confusion the Galra gives a soft huff and gently gestures to Keith’s hand.

“May I?”

Struck dumb by such an odd request, Keith nods.

When he allows Lotor to take his wrist and tug him gently closer until Keith’s sat on the edge of his seat, only the corner of the table between them, several things happen at once.

First, and most noticeable, is Pidge’s grip on the hem of his shirt tightening to an almost painful degree, bunching the fabric in her fist and pulling it taught around Keith’s middle, only to abruptly release him altogether. The second is Hunk, who, sat across the table, seems to have stopped breathing and shares some sort of silent conversation with Pidge, communicating through nothing but a wide-eyed expression that Keith can’t put a name to.

Third, is how large Lotor’s hand is. Abruptly, Keith is assaulted by the phantom sensation of that same hand holding him steady, firm and unyielding as he threatened to topple over, and then again immediately after reclaiming his knife, pinning him to the floor with that same irrefutable strength. Now, the difference in that grip strikes him, because Lotor isn’t holding him in an effort to prevent something - be that falling or fighting - he’s holding him simply to…

…to hold him?

It doesn’t make sense.

Things don’t get any clearer when Lotor turns Keith’s hand over, knuckles down, and drags the pad of his thumb across Keith’s palm until it’s settled in the crux of it, pressing gently to keep him in place. With his other hand, the Prince traces the faint vein of blue beneath the skin of Keith’s wrist, the flats of dull claws cool and full of promise.

“Kra.” Lotor’s voice has turned low and soft, something almost reverent in that depth of tone, and his mindless tracing becomes purposeful, forming the same pattern over and over. “Flesh: that which one may see and touch and taste. It is the truth that can be acquired through conquest, and strength of will.”

“Li,” the pattern changes, but is again simple and repetitive. “Blood: a truth that runs deeper, an unseen bond, only to be ascertained by instinct, allowing one to know things as they are and not by the skin they wear to greet you.”

“Ept,” A third change; a third character, Keith realises. “Bone: Mental fortitude enough that one may strip down deceit to uncover the essence of the thing, the truth at its core.”

There’s a brief pause, a moment’s silence. Though his grip is still light, Lotor doesn’t release Keith’s wrist, and when Keith looks up the Prince’s attention is still firmly fixated on the pulse point beneath his fingertips.

“Empress Marmora,” he says quietly, “bastardised the Imperial war cry for her own elite guard. It was not Victory she cared for, but the Truth. Ergo, Kraliept Sa.”

Oh, Keith thinks, that’s why it sounded familiar.

He lets his eyes fall back to his wrist as Lotor traces one final character.

“Knowledge or…” Lotor’s index finger darts swiftly across the pale skin, left to right, before half curling back in on itself, his thumb just beneath it drawing a crescent so tightly curved that it almost loops around to form a delicately scrawled circle, “Sa: death, the Void, the all-consuming netherworld; said to be the opposite of Truth, and yet it is no lie.”

Keith doesn’t know what to say. This feels important, intimate, soft and sorrowful in all the wrong ways.

He looks up at Lotor again, and this time the Prince is looking right back and his eyes are endlessly blue, blue, blue, until they aren’t anymore, and Lotor has soothed his thumb over Keith’s wrist one final time before removing himself completely. He turns away, the picture of composure, and it’s as if the past few dobashes never happened.

“To return to your initial question, Hunk,” Lotor doesn’t so much as blink when Hunk starts at the sudden address, “while Sincline and Voltron both have egos and ids - though, I suspect, no explicit moral compass - I have come to learn that their personalities as we would understand them are, in part, crafted under the influence of their creator in the physical plane. In Sincline’s case, that would be me; not merely her aesthetics, but her values are also coloured by the Galran sensibilities I was raised with; and for Voltron the same could be said of Alfor.”

Keith gets the feeling that the yellow Paladin is determined not to look his way.

“Yep, okay.” Hunk’s voice cracks, and he winces as it does so. “So you named your ships after some super deep Galran proverb with lots of levels of meaning relating to different and super graphic viscera - very artsy, love it - and King Alfor colour coded.”

“Evidently so.” Lotor’s face has fallen flat, as if this is his greatest disappointment in life.

Keith has to bite back a laugh.

 

Hunk catches him by the arm that evening after Lotor’s long gone, Pidge having return from escorting the Prince only to promptly fall asleep at her workspace.

“Hey Keith, buddy, do you think Lotor maybe… knows?”

Keith blinks, “about me being Galra?”

“Yeah man, I mean he was really,” Hunk clearly had a word there, but thought better of it at the last second, pausing and watching carefully for a reaction in a way that Keith immediately recognises, “he was really intense, you know? With the whole ancient Galra language thing.”

Keith absently scratches at his wrist; intense is definitely the word for it. “Mhm, he knows.”

“What!?” Pidge bolts upright, evidently not asleep at all, though Keith has no idea why she was pretending. “Are you sure?”

Shrugging, Keith answers honestly, “I think he figured it out before we starting bringing him here. He was acting like he knew in the library, remember?”

Pidge’s expression says she doesn’t. “Hold up, you think he’d already worked it out when we first questioned him on his ship? Why?”

So Keith explains.

It’s in the looks Lotor keeps giving him, in the way he’s given Keith a Galra name, the teasing and taunting and dancing around everything that is their shared heritage. It’s too much, too deliberate.

“And then all that stuff earlier about Marmora and the Truth? He’s not even being subtle.”

“Yeah,” Pidge doesn’t seem convinced, and even Hunk is frowning a little, “well that much we can agree on.”

She doesn’t elaborate.

 

Keith walks into the hanger after Lotor’s already arrived, having waited to leave the library until the Prince had already been escorted out so that he could exchange his Marmoran stealthwear for his human clothes, and is met by the sight of Pidge, her hackles raised as she hisses like a cat.

“I’m not obligated to do anything! The Galra took my brother and they still have my dad-”

“The Empire,” Lotor interrupts, with a tone that’s almost bored.

Pidge’s rant falters.

“What?”

“Not ‘the Galra’ but ‘the Empire’, it’s a rather key differentiation.” When he places down his work, it’s to fix the green Paladin with a look that’s… not sad, exactly, but weary. “If you must place blame on an entire group rather than the individuals responsible, then make it a societal structure rather than our race. People cannot help what they are born as, but the systems they serve and benefit from are of their own choosing. The Empire took your family from you, and that is regrettable, but I will not be burdened by guilt on behalf of blood I had no say in.”

His tone is finite, and though Keith knows that it isn’t said for his benefit, he feels a rush of gratitude towards Lotor regardless.

 

Eleven quintents. Eleven full quintents of radio silence, and then Lance McClain thinks he can just saunter in like he has done no wrong. Keith is vindictively glad that Lotor’s presence catches the idiot off-guard.

“I heard you were looking for me KogaAH!” He’s gaping at the Galra Prince, who’s sat perfectly benignly, cross-legged on the floor beside Hunk as they go over some of Kra’s technical intricacies. “WHY?”

Lotor barely acknowledges him, offering only a disappointed sigh as he mutters “well now that’s familiar,” under his breath, which Keith half-heartedly scolds him for, earning himself a guiltless smile with a flash of teeth as he shoves a squawking Lance out the room.

“What the hell is he doing here??”

“Helping,” and Lance looks like he has several opinions on the concept, so Keith doesn’t give him chance to voice even one of them, “forget that, where have you been?”

As Keith watches, the disbelief melts from Lance’s features, some of his usual smugness returning to him as he looks Keith up and down with an ominously unfolding smirk.

“Aw, were you worried about me Keithy? I didn’t know you cared.”

He’s batting his eyes stupidly, and Keith has to look away to some far-off point down the corridor before he can muster together enough honesty to mumble, “of course I care.”

Lance doesn’t respond and Keith daren’t look at him, instead shuffling awkwardly and pretending that he can’t feel Red’s current Paladin gaping at him as if he’d just spat on his grandmother’s grave. Ten ticks turn into a hundred, and Keith risks peeking through the longest strands of his fringe to find that Lance’s mockery has gone soft on surprise, which both embarrasses and emboldens him.

“I haven’t seen you for over a week,” the words start tumbling from his tongue faster than he can control them, “you’re never in your room, you keep skipping mealtimes, and even though the others have seen you around, none of them can ever tell me where you keep disappearing to; I’ve been worried dammit.”

His ears are burning, he can feel it, but talking to people - being open with them, caring enough about them to even try - is still something too foreign for Keith to be fully comfortable.

“Oh,” Lance’s voice is small, and catches in his throat, “well that’s, er… thanks, Keith.”

Keith doesn’t know what he’s being thanked for, and Lance hasn’t actually answered any of his questions - though he supposes that, technically, he didn’t ask any - but the Paladin isn’t laughing at him for being stupid, either, and some of the tightness in Keith chest has left along with his admission, so he just offers a curt nod.

“Yeah,” it comes out just as awkward as he feels. “Maybe just… say hi now and then?”

“I can- I can do that.” The one comfort is that Lance sounds equally uncertain as to how to deal with whatever moment they’re having.

Keith’s eyes widen.

When his head snaps up, looking Lance dead in the eye, the Paladin almost stumbles back in surprise.

“Are we having another bonding moment?”

There’s a beat of silence.

Then, completely disregarding the sincerity this question is asked with, Lance bursts into a fit of giggles, near doubling over as he sinks back against the wall. Keith doesn’t see what’s so funny, but the tension is broken, and when Lance finally regains control of his diaphragm, his reply puts Keith at ease.

“Sure thing, mullet,” his grin is soft, “I’ll try not to forget this one.”

 

Lance doesn’t join them with Kra’s reassembly - had outright refused, actually, his nose scrunching up as if he’d smelt something foul as soon as Keith had suggested it. It’s probably for the best, Keith thinks, watching Pidge’s expression carefully as she explains the science behind her Galra-tracker to Lotor, as if daring him to find fault with it. Lance had always had a talent for unnecessary escalation, and the air is tense enough without his help.

Pidge has been more subdued around Lotor since his firm clarification of ‘Empire’ as opposed to ‘Galra’. Keith still doesn’t know what started that argument - he’s not suicidal enough to ask Pidge directly, and Hunk won’t say a word - but if he knows anything about Katie Holt, it’s that her family means the world to her; she won’t forgive the Empire for taking them, and she’ll never give up until her dad’s returned to her, one way or another. Keith can relate: as many times as it takes, he’d said, and he’d meant it. He’d always mean it, no matter how much bullshit Zarkon throws at him, or Shiro, or anyone else in this rag-tag space squad.

So he gets it, he gets that Pidge is never going to give up on her family, and he wouldn’t ask her to, especially not when her reunion with Matt has only strengthened the belief that she’ll find her dad alive and well.

Keith hopes that’s true.

He also hopes - though, he knows, this is probably a waste of energy - that Lotor will stop toeing the line between infuriating and uncooperative for just long enough that he can convince Pidge that the Prince is not, in fact, as much of a “devious quiznaker” as she’d so adamantly been insisting the evening before.

“You possess remarkable intellect for such a primitive species.”

The mildly damning praise, Keith thinks, is the furthest thing from helpful, even if Lotor is being genuine.

“Gee,” Pidge scowls, “thanks.”

“You are welcome,” Lotor hums absently, as he scans over the holographic map. “This is a rather noteworthy achievement. Tell me, are these patterns predicted based upon the most statistically likely Imperial flight routes, or…?”

“They’re live.”

He turns to her, eyes widened fractionally with what Keith recognises as sincere admiration. “You truly are an intelligent little beast, aren’t you?”

Pidge’s expression flattens further, and she casts a half-hearted glare at Keith.

“Can you deal with him?”

Keith is shaking his head with a snort, because Lotor isn’t about to let anyone give him orders and the very idea is laughable, but in the same moment that Lotor himself decides to purr, “by all means, do try,” which has Hunk muffling a horrified groan from where his head has abruptly dropped against the table.

“No,” the yellow Paladin doesn’t move, but it’s obvious who he’s addressing, “please, just… No.”

Pidge is gaping in a way that seems mildly offended, Lotor not helping matters by smirking at her like he’s greatly enjoying the distress he’s caused, and Keith… has definitely missed something. Again.

He’s saved from having to try and understand it, when Lotor’s eyes fix on the map’s uppermost reaches, his amusement falling to a face of serious contemplation.

“There’s nothing in that sector,” he says, quietly.

Keith immediately looks to the map, at the area that’s caught Lotor’s attention, and frowns. The tracker indicates a small cargo ship, nothing extravagant let alone a threat to Voltron, drawing nearer to a minor Imperial checkpoint on the far side of Naxzela, amidst a wayward asteroid cluster.

“Nothing?” Pidge sounds sceptical, but immediately turns to the hologram and starts bringing up what looks to Keith like the logs of past activity in that area. “That can’t be right, there’s a constant flow of movement through that singular point.”

“You’re certain?”

“Yes.” Pidge sounds prepared for a fight, but Lotor doesn’t seem to have any interest in doing so, and simply frowns at the map with increasing ferocity.

“Are the ships that pass through consistent in their origin, or their destination?”

 There’s a moment’s pause, while Pidge turns back to the logs.

“Origin.” Her expression wavers, “after they register at that checkpoint, their routes are… they make no sense. It’s-”

“Illogical.” Lotor finishes. “Meaning they’re supply ships, taken off-course and redistributed so as not to require legal registration of their little detour.”

“Is that common?” Hunk asks, and Lotor scowls.

“Only with regards to the Empire’s more unsavoury business. It’s more than likely a research facility, quite possibly one of the Witch’s outposts: she has several scattered across the universe for her personal experiments, and I promise you nothing good will come of it.”

Pidge looks like she doesn’t believe Lotor one bit. “Why would Haggar need a secret facility… Isn’t she Zarkon’s right hand?”

“Certainly.” Lotor’s arms are tightly crossed, and as Keith watches he sees claws pressing dangerously against the bound skin of his arms, threatening to break through. “And yet, there are things that even my father will not condone.”

Keith feels himself pale, and is certain the others do much the same; anything that crosses a line Zarkon has drawn - particularly considering the Robeasts he’d sent after them like bloodhounds - terrifies him.

“We’ll look into it,” Hunk promises.

 

They do: or try to, at least, because Allura’s reluctant to follow any lead given to them by Lotor without a thorough investigation first, which Keith can’t really fault her for. He may be inclined to rush head-first into things, but that’s just another item to add to the steadily growing list of reasons why Voltron was better off without him as a key member of the team.

Though it’s clearly no substitute for intelligence on Haggar - and Keith can see how the mere thought of Zarkon’s Witch sparks like a live-wire in Lotor’s every waking moment - Hunk provides food instead of information. When the Prince accepts it he’s… not exactly eager, but appreciative at the very least, and that seems good enough for Hunk.

Keith bites into the proffered pastry with a muffled groan of delight: oddly florescent colouration aside, they’re crisp and light and melt in his mouth, easily jumping into his top ten things he’s eaten in space. Right below the soft blue meat on a stick, but above the thin sliver of translucent cake he’d been served at one of the celebratory banquets which - he’d later found out after a good varga or so of highly unpleasant stomach cramps - was mildly toxic to Galra.

(It had decidedly been worth it.)

He finishes the little dessert just in time to catch the tail-end of a fierce glower from Pidge: not one directed at him but at Lotor, who, by the time Keith has turned to look, has his eyes fixed firmly on the treat in hand as he takes a small bite from it. He chews, swallows, thanks Hunk quietly, and were it not for the slight downward twitch of his ears and the way he’s adamantly refusing to look towards the green Paladin, Keith would think he’d imagined the whole thing.

 

Lotor doesn’t go out of his way to avoid Pidge, not exactly, but over the next couple of quintents Keith can’t help but notice how there’s a different sort of tension between them. It’s not hostile, which confuses Keith more than it comforts him, and once or twice he actually catches the tail-end of Pidge’s Boy Have I Got Dirt On You smirk as she watches Lotor smugly from across the hanger.

Whatever it is she knows, Lotor clearly knows that she knows, and he hates it.

 

When it happens, Keith is helping Hunk ferry a late supper from the kitchen back to the hanger.

Kra’s reassembly is almost complete, and for the past few cycles the four of them have unanimously decided to disregarded sleep for the sake of seeing this project through. Lotor doesn’t seem to need much rest anyway, and Keith is more than happy to match him in that regard - not sleeping being the only alternative to the Altean medication that can keep his nightmares at bay - while Pidge and Hunk survive through a mildly terrifying combination of space-caffeine and sheer willpower.

Keith doesn’t recognise the feeling for what it is at first, something heavy and warm that bubbles across his shoulders, but when Kra starts laughing, really laughing, he shoves his share of the plates onto a startled Hunk, and breaks into a sprint.

They were all tired and overworked and not really thinking, but they’d left Pidge alone with Lotor, and despite everything Keith wants to believe, the Prince has killed before, they all know that, and now Kra’s laughing as if it’s the best joke in the world and-

-and Pidge is laughing too, when Keith bursts into the hanger, half expecting a bloodbath for his carelessness; she’s curled up in a ball on the floor, hysterical, actual tears streaking down her face as Lotor… swats at something small and fuzzy and pastel pink as it scuttles through the air around his head, a look of utter mortification painted across his features.

“Gal-Galileo! Galileo stop!” Pidge’s voice is breathy and insincere, so it’s little wonder that the space-caterpillar ignores her.

Lotor - Prince Lotor, the literal spawn of Zarkon, and six foot-something of raw physical power - whines out a noise of disgust.

“Do you m-” he cuts himself off when the creature dives for him in a burst of excited energy, stumbling back against Kra’s dark panelling and pressing himself against her as if he might melt out of existence. “Do you mind?”

Like a tiny fluffy terminator, Galileo’s determination seems unshaken.

Pidge is still cackling from her place on the floor, her grin broad as she watches this chaos unfold. “Not particularly, no.”

Kra starts laughing again, and without daring to take his eyes off the steadily approaching creature, Lotor slaps her side with a muttered curse.

Keith takes pity on him.

It doesn’t take much effort to redirect the trash-floof’s affection, and no sooner has Keith tugged it out of the air does it nuzzle into his palm with a contented little hum.

Pidge makes a disappointed noise, though when he looks she’s still beaming manically.

“Spoil-sport.”

He ignores her.

Scratching Galileo absently beneath its little glowing cheeks, Keith casts an amused glance towards Lotor who is stood warily at his shoulder, looking down at the chirruping creature with his nose wrinkled in disgust.

“You don’t like them?”

Lotor looks at him disbelievingly, “you do?”

“Sure.” Shrugging, Keith turns his attention back to the wriggling creature in his hand. They are undeniably cuddly, and he doesn’t really see what Lotor’s problem is.

 “They’re vermin.

“Hey!” Pidge points an accusatory finger towards the Prince, though her anger is half-hearted, “don’t be rude, they’re cute as fuck!”

The hesitation rolls off Lotor in waves, and his eyes flicker to Keith for just a moment before very hurriedly and firmly turning away, the tips of his ears struggling to remain stationary. It’s as Hunk staggers in, arms piled high with food, that Lotor tentatively asks: “You find their aesthetic to be comparable to… intercourse?”

Pidge howls.

“What did I just walk in on?” Hunk’s voice is weak, and Keith really doesn’t know what to tell him.

“I swear that’s not-“ Pidge gasps for breath, impossible to control but evidently set on defending her fluff-creatures, “that is not what I said! Well, it kind of is, but- anyway, they’re adorable and I will not sit here and let you talk shit about-”

“I never mentioned excrement,” Lotor cuts in, firm and maybe insulted, yet obviously flustered, and it hits Keith for the first time that despite his self-assuredness, the Prince really doesn’t seem all that much older than the rest of them.

“NO. Oh my god, right, we’re fixing your translator this is ridiculous. My point,” she staggers to her feet and bounces over to take Galileo from where he’s trying to clamber up the inside of Keith’s sleeve, “is that they’re not vermin, they’re tiny and soft and I love them.”

Another chirrup sounds from her collar, and sure enough several more colourful balls of fur scurry out from under Pidge’s shirt to greet their sibling.

“I’ll introduce you,” she says, and when Keith turns to look, Lotor’s expression says that he’d rather be dead.

“Galileo you’ve met, but this is Archimedes, Nikola, and Aristotle.” The blue, yellow, and green puffs sound off in turn, and Lotor grimaces.

 

“We collected enough data to ensure that intercepted communications could be interpreted,” Lotor explains half a varga later, when Keith’s apologised profusely to Hunk for ditching him, and they’ve all settled down to eat in a  circle on the floor, “but evidently the nuances of your mother-tongue’s colloquialisms have… evaded us.”

Hunk smiles into his soup; “it’s still impressive though. I mean, even back home we have idioms that don’t carry over from one language to another, so it’s not exactly surprising. Out here I kind of forget we’re not speaking all speaking the same thing.”

“Your homeworld,” Lotor seems tentatively curious, as if he’s not sure how much he’s allowed to ask, “has yet to decide on a united tongue?”

Hunk tenses, looks to Keith as if to ask how much he should be saying, then relaxes again without waiting for a real answer.

“Yep,” he pops the ‘p’, but doesn’t elaborate.

Lotor takes the hint, nodding without probing further.

They settle into a comfortable sort of silence as they eat, but it doesn’t take long for the caterpillars to grow restless, scuttling over to Lotor again and almost receiving a hot shower of projectile soup for their trouble.

“Little pests.” Lotor hisses, and Keith chuckles into his soup, receiving a look that’s something foul, until one of the creatures - Archimedes, he thinks - starts shaking like a leaf, purring, as it rubs itself up against Lotor’s outstretched palm as he desperately tries to keep it at arm’s length. He immediately recoils with a noise in the back of his throat that’s high pitched and horrified, and Keith huffs out another laugh as he plucks it out of the air and sends it spiralling towards Hunk with a happy little trill of glee.

Forcibly biting down on his grin, Keith tilts his head up to meet Lotor’s gaze (and he’s pouting again, good god) and asks, “better, your majesty?”

Lotor’s eyes turn dark at the teasing.

“Careful Rhyahl,” his quiet tone twists something up in Keith’s gut, and he doesn’t know what to make of it, “I may be fond of you, but even that has its limitations.”

“But this isn’t one of them.” The words don’t even hesitate on Keith’s lips, and when Lotor receives them it’s with a surprised blink that quickly morphs into a smile. Opening his mouth to reply, he’s immediately interrupted by a deliberate cough from Pidge.

Lotor looks up at her with a flash of teeth, only to move to sit back half a tick later, leaving Keith with a rush of cool air and a much greater space around him.

He struggles to remember when they became so close to begin with.

 

Sometime deep into the night cycle, Keith overhears Pidge as she whispers an apology.

“I’m sorry for what I said about your dru-” she catches herself, “about your telepath friend.”

Lotor looks up, eyes wide but guarded.

“We were on opposite sides of this war, and quite frankly the things she could do?” Pidge shivers despite the regulated temperature of the ship, “She scared the hell out of me, so I won’t pretend I’d prefer it if she were alive. I didn’t know her, and I can’t say I liked what I saw, but she obviously mattered to you so… I’m sorry.”

“Narti,” Lotor takes a breath, “Narti was not killed by your hand.”

He looks full of regret, Keith thinks; the kind of regret that swallows you whole.

“No, but I’m still sorry.”

“I cannot comprehend your sentiment. Her blood is not on your hands nor that of your allies-”

Keith draws up short and shares a look with Hunk who is obviously listening to this conversation just as he is, but seems equally clueless as to who would kill Lotor’s general if they weren’t on Voltron’s side.

“-and it is not the Galra way to mourn on another’s behalf, especially if the dead was your enemy. But I appreciate it, nonetheless.”

Pidge nods curtly, and they settle into silence once more.

 

Kra is completed the next morning.

Her presence is light: wispy and floaty and golden, even though Keith can’t actually see anything so that doesn’t really make sense, but she thanks him profusely and seems to prod him into telling Hunk and Pidge that she’s grateful for their help.

Well, it’s more along the lines of I am glad I did not kill them, but Keith thinks his version will be better received.

Lotor runs one hand along a sleek metal claw with a contented sigh. He seems satisfied until he doesn’t, turning away from his ship with a resigned exhale as his expression turns closed-off and drained.

“I suppose I ought be returned to my quarters.”

Returned, he says, and it hits Keith how like cattle he must feel, to be escorted from one confined space to another with no regard for personal feelings on the matter.

“Yeah,” it’s Hunk who answers, though he doesn’t sound happy about it, “yeah I… I guess so.”

Lotor nods.

Keith… hadn’t expected him to fight it, not really; Lotor hasn’t fought much of anything he’s been subjected to since arriving here, but seeing him so resigned to this fate of being treated like a prisoner, even if he did half sign himself up for it, just feels wrong.

“We’ll talk to Allura.” It’s Pidge who says it, and Lotor looks just as surprised as Keith feels. “Not saying I like you, and quite frankly your aesthetic principles are fucked if you seriously don’t see how adorable my trash-floofs are-”

The corner of Lotor’s mouth quirks upwards.

“-but you didn’t have to help us out at Naxzela, and you didn’t have to surrender yourself over to us and just sit around quietly while we try and sort out the coalition, and you definitely didn’t have to teach us about all the sciencey rift stuff that you have, so... I guess I respect that. One genius to another.”

Lotor smiles fully this time.

“It has been a pleasure, Paladin Pidge.” Lotor offers her a half-bow, which is only gently mocking, and then repeats the motion in Hunk’s direction with a similar sentiment.

Then he turns to Keith, and it might just be the light but his smile seems to soften into something a little different.

“Paladin…?”

An invitation for his name, Keith realises, but even now he doesn’t want to let this one go.

“I told you;” he steps towards Lotor until they’re nearly toe-to-toe, tilts his head back and sets his jaw, “earn it.”

“Oh?” Lotor’s tone is low and soft and lightly amused, “and if I have yet to do so, then when will I?”

“I’m pretty sure you’ll find a way.” He steps back and to the side, and as the Prince takes his cue to walk towards Hunk, stood by the hanger doors, Keith says, “see you later, Lotor.”

Though he’d spoken at normal volume, his words echo.

 

Lotor goes quietly, and when he has, Keith asks, “did you mean it?”

“Mean what?” Pidge’s nose is scrunched up in confusion.

“What you said about talking to Allura.”

“Yeah,” she’s chewing on the inside of her cheek absently, but there’s determination written into the furrow of her brow, “yeah I meant it. If we’re going to be allies, then we have to start acting like it.”

There’s a moment’s quiet, and then: “besides, you trust him, and I trust you.”

Maybe you shouldn’t, Keith thinks, what if I’m wrong, what if I fuck this up, what if I get you all killed?

Instead he says, “thanks Pidgeon,” and ruffles her hair like he’s seen Matt do.

She squawks, laughs, hits him, and Keith feels a hundred times lighter.

Chapter Text

Lotor wouldn’t say he’s enjoying himself (he absolutely is, only admitting it would feel a lot like conceding defeat) but finally finding purpose in his time spent as a glorified prisoner of war is more of a relief than he would previously have thought possible. It helps that the Paladins aren’t quite so incompetent as he’d first been led to believe; young, certainly - though the Alteans had, historically, been notorious for training their children in combat long before a Galra parent would so much as consider such a thing, so Lotor supposes he shouldn’t be too surprised at Princess Allura’s willingness to blood her Paladins early - and naïve enough to the workings of the universe that Lotor has to wonder at what manner of a life they could have been living up until now… but incompetence is decidedly a descriptor far better suited to the rebel yuppers, rather than the oh-so-exalted Paladins of Voltron.

Despite the fact that their gracious allowance that he may rectify the mess they’ve made of Kra is one more for their own benefit than his, Lotor is begrudgingly thankful for the opportunity. It not only allows him to sate the restless itch beneath his skin, but offers ample time to better observe his little allies.

The small one, Pidge, is smart. Too smart, if Lotor’s honest, and worse yet she knows it. Intellectually she’s not his equal, but given time she could be, and this prospect is as fascinating as it is concerning.

The broad one, Hunk, is well-built for his species, and yet timid as a cowed beast. Unlike his green counterpart, he doesn’t seem to think the information Lotor has to offer reason enough to allow such liberties with regards to Kra, and his discomfort is palpable. Justified, perhaps, but obvious enough that the spiteful voice in the back of the Prince’s mind can’t help but whisper suggestions of how to best toy with the poor creature.

To do so, of course, would be mean.

Kra latches onto his fixation with this descriptor almost immediately, probing at the foreign twist in his gut every time he thinks it, as if trying to puzzle out what it is about such an arbitrary sentiment that has captured Lotor’s attention so completely.

Your little star, Lotor thinks, as he lies awake that evening, is quite the specimen.

Her crooning agreement is immediate, but it’s obvious that she still doesn’t see the connection between the red Paladin and Lotor’s newfound obsession with meanness, all the explanations he can offer coming to naught when she boils his intrigue down to desire, and presses the frightfully real sensation of a lithe body against his back, a sweet smile behind his ear, heat- sweat- want- until Lotor firmly shoves her away with a sharp mental reprimand.

If Kra could scowl, she would.

You want him.

Not like that, he thinks back, and her insult at being lied to is immediate: a foul metallic tang in his throat. Well, like that too, but not that alone.

She doesn’t understand.

He hadn’t expected her to.

Like the Paladins, she’s naïve: too new to this universe to comprehend its deeper workings and yet old enough that she is sure she knows everything. ‘Everything’ Lotor supposes, might not seem quite so much when the plane of reality she’s found herself in is probably younger than she is, but the technicalities of existence are very different to its actuality, and Kra has yet to grasp the nuance of it all.

Besides, it seems a lot to ask of her when he’s yet to truly come to terms with it himself.

 

“Keith,” he greets the child as soon as he breeches his immediate vicinity, far enough away from the rebel ingrates that the two of them may speak in peace.

Returning the greeting in kind, the little Blade hops up onto the balcony railing to sit with his legs hanging out over the void of space below. Keith, Lotor’s noticed, no longer hesitates to turn his back to him, though he is adamant in sitting so that his knife’s hilt is on the side furthest from the Prince’s reach.

“Tonight ought be… Our fourteenth, Emperor Zaghit, correct?”

Keith hums in agreement, casting what - despite his dispassionate mask - feels like a smile over his shoulder.

And so they begin.

“Zaghit,” Lotor recites from memory, “was one of the few whose reign was regarded as one of prosperity, rather than one of expanse.”

When Keith shifts slightly, his head tilting in an endearing fashion, Lotor explains.

“As I’m sure you’ve observed, our people are conquerors. ‘Expanse’ is the kinder word for the decaphoebs spent at war, and ‘prosperity’ for those rare few who prevailed at the Kral Zera only to allow the rest of the Universe some respite.”

“How kind,” Keith’s tone is light, dispassionate, and coolly sarcastic in a way that has Lotor laughing.

“Isn’t it just? Though, in Zaghit’s case, he was less concerned with the rest of the universe, and more with how his new standing as Emperor opened up a wealth of opportunities that a mere Dox could not have dreamed of, particularly not at that time-”

“Dox?” Keith cuts him off, and Lotor has to take a moment to decipher the implicit question.

In doing so, he is confronted with a familiar wave of nausea.

“Dox,” he repeats himself slowly, because perhaps Keith misheard, because he must have done, because even Marmora cannot have failed their kit to this extent, “by which I mean the fourth categorisation of the Galra sub-species.”

Keith inclines his head in a way that says he understands, but implies the opposite, and Lotor scrubs his hand over his jaw roughly. He won’t lose his temper here; not now, so soon after Voltron have allowed him enough free rein that he might remedy the damage to his ship, and certainly not at the kit who is, in all of this, a victim of negligence.

“Come here,” he says instead, his voice quiet, tired, as he gently tugs Keith to sit beside him as close as the boy will allow. When he’s settled, Lotor begins; “our people have four distinct phenotypes - that is to say our physical characteristics manifest with notable diversity - dependent on where on Daibazaal our ancestors originated from.”

Keith shifts forward with an encouraging noise, and so the Prince continues.

“For the sake of brevity, you need only know that great swathes of Daibazaal were nothing more than desert wasteland, but within that there were mountainous areas, and pockets of dense jungle. As I said before, our people are conquerors, even if that which we need to conquer is nature itself, and it resulted in a caste system, of sorts. At its top, Aalk, who hailed from the mountains and are physically superior, by all accounts, but their agility suffers for their sheer scale. Not to mention that their intellectual capabilities are notoriously…” Lotor mulls it over in his mind before speaking, “shall we say limited? Frequent bouts of aggression coupled with exceptional endurance meant that in their own terrain, it didn’t much matter, but elsewhere a smaller Galra could easily outsmart them. Regrettably, the Imperial Military is still heavily weighted in their favour, though usually not where positions of command are concerned.”

Lotor himself has a fair bit of Aalk blood in him, though he likes to think that if anything good came of his mother’s lineage then it would be a counter for his ancestral stupidity.

“Byal and Kyx both hail from the sand wastes, and have always existed in the greatest numbers, ergo they are the face of our people even today. Not roughly scaled like Aalk, but furred - Byal to a much more significant degree - and far more agile. Kyx are of a smaller stature but faster still, and historically would have traversed the desert during daylight hours, whereas the thick coat of a Byal allowed them to move by night, despite the cold.”

“Kolivan-” Keith shuffles closer, “-would Kolivan be…?”

He trails off, as if afraid to overstep.

“Marmora’s leader would be of Byal decent, yes; perhaps even pure-blooded. The ears betray him. Kyx typically display their feline characteristics to a lesser extent: a finer coat, smaller ears… and so far as I recall, Kyx haven’t the dormant gene for a tail, though, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, so few of us develop them anymore regardless.”

Lotor eyes the kit with an unvoiced curiosity; he’s Kyx, almost certainly, judging by stature and the sheer speed he’d demonstrated during their brief scuffle.

“And Dox?” Keith asks.

“Be it far from me to discriminate against someone for their blood,” Lotor offers a humourless smile, “but the Dox do have a particular reputation for being underhanded. They hailed from Daibazaal’s dense jungle areas and, unlike most Galra, are well suited to humidity - small and furless, you see. Not to mention they possess an excellent constitution against all manner of toxins, but due to having no real offensive capabilities, many of them lack the honour to fight on the open field.”

“So they’re not exactly seen as valuable within the Empire then?”

Lotor snorts. “Certainly not under my Father’s rule, no. He has always favoured strength; if the Dox interbred as the rest of our people have done, they might have had some of that strength afforded to their children by right of mixed blood, but they believe themselves above such things, and so their numbers have dwindled.”

Lotor thinks of Throk, spiteful tragedy of a creature that he was, and voices as much to Keith.

“Immediately after being summoned to serve as Emperor pro tem, I was challenged by an officer of Dox descent. His reputation was that of a man who didn’t much like being told what to do by those of mixed Galran heritage, so I imagine my rise to command must have been the greatest insult to him.”

“What happened?”

Lotor turns to fix Keith with a careful look as he realises that this is the first piece of information he’s freely offered up about his past.

“I defeated him soundly, and relieved him of his position.” Even despite the mask, Lotor knows what sort of a face Keith must be pulling. “I didn’t kill him, little one. There was no need; he was not a threat to me, and doing so merely to prove a point would have won me no favours, not when I already had my Altean blood to contend with.”

Keith makes a confused little noise, and Lotor’s heart melts.

“If you think your Princess despises me for my Galra half, then you are fortunate enough not to know what a deep abhorrence our people hold for blood which is not their own.”

“But you’re Zarkon’s son?”

Lotor’s lips thin at the reminder. “I am. Perhaps if my father held any fondness for me that would count in my favour, but alas,” he gestures to himself blithely, “here we are.”

Wordlessly, Keith shuffles a little closer without uncrossing his legs, resulting in an adorably awkward little wiggle, and only halts when his knee rests against Lotor’s.

“Here we are,” he agrees, without pity or judgement, and then: “tell me about Emperor Zaghit.”

Lotor does so.

 

He doesn’t see his little Blade again the next morning before he’s whisked away to work with the Paladins, and though it’s a pity, the concession is a small one when the Prince is rewarded with a rather striking alternative.

He looks to the red Paladin, seated to his left and still stubbornly nameless - and even that is somehow charming - to find the younger man puzzling over one of the cooling systems. He’s no mechanic, that much is obvious after several quintents spent in one another’s company, but given enough time he is adept enough to work out the logical progression of internal parts, providing Lotor offers him a nudge in the right direction every now and then. In all honesty, the soft furrow of his brow and pout of his lips makes for a rather appealing working environment.

Or, at least, it does until the yellow Paladin decides to shatter the silence with the slap of his palms against the tabletop, an exclamation of finality, and a determined if somewhat rambled request of any information Lotor can provide on their Lions.

Lotor stares him down for a tick, and is begrudgingly impressed when the Paladin refuses to buckle.

Five quintents… He really had thought it would take twice that amount, but, he supposes, a deal’s a deal.

“Alright,” he concedes easily enough, “what is it you wish to ask of me?”

“Er, just like that?” The yellow Paladin’s unexpected bout of ferocity wanes into something akin to shock, and Lotor has to bite back a sigh.

“You would prefer I make this difficult?”

“No! Nope, definitely not, I just wasn’t expecting…” a brief glance is shared with the green Paladin, “you know what? It doesn’t matter what I was expecting, I super appreciate you being all cooperative and stuff, so that’s cool, let’s get to it.”

Lotor offers a simple incline of his head, an obvious invitation to continue, but vexingly the one called Hunk remains at a loss for words of any real importance.

“Soooo…”

Lotor expects this to be followed up by something - anything - but said expectations fall flat and, really, why Voltron remerged after all this time with a boy like this as one of its core elements, Lotor cannot even begin to guess.

“So,” he makes no move to hide his boundless enthusiasm, and by the look on Hunk’s face, it stings.

Perhaps, he later thinks, this is why the red Paladin decides to kick him.

It’s unexpected more than it is painful, but Brodar knows that despite everything he’s been through, Lotor has never been kicked as if he were some unruly whelp, and it sends a hot bolt of indignation straight up his spine. He blinks at the red Paladin several times over, as if that might offer some clarity on what just occurred; it doesn’t, unsurprisingly, but it does allow for Lotor to witness the slow dawning of the Paladin’s own actions on his face, until the sweet little thing looks as if he might well have swallowed his own tongue. He looks guilty, though not at all sorry, as if his regret is only for his brashness of action rather than the action itself.

Exasperation is too harsh a word, when one look at the younger man sends a small pool of warmth burning low in Lotor’s stomach, but he’s already treading dangerous ground, so to call it anything else might be to tempt forces unseen.

Wordlessly, Lotor turns back to Hunk, swallows the laughter that threatens when he sees horror painted thickly across the larger Paladin’s face, and manages to compose himself.

“Apologies,” he doesn’t allow himself a smile, but it’s a near thing, “it seems I have yet to shake my unnecessary meanness. Do continue.”

After a moment’s hesitation, he does, and Lotor answers the expected questions as concisely as he is able considering the vast amount of knowledge a fully detailed report would encompass. The green Paladin, who usually sits apart from the others - though Lotor suspects that this is only so she may better observe him - launches herself forward at the mention of Voltron and Sincline’s hive-minded conscious, and seems just as enthused by the prospect as Lotor is himself.

His mood immediately sours, however, at the brief mention of his Generals, accidental though it may be, but he is quickly (perhaps embarrassingly so) revitalised when the red Paladin interjects for the first time: asking after the names of Sincline’s separate vessels and pronouncing them as if Daibazaal’s long-dead language were his mother tongue.

“Kra, Li, Ept,” the ancient language rolls naturally from the Paladin’s lips, as though he’s savouring each word, and it has Lotor almost shamefully distracted, “you named them?”

“You speak Zaalkh as if you were born to it,” from the corner of his eye, he sees Pidge’s hand dart forward as if to physically restrain the red Paladin, and Lotor makes a silent note of it, “indeed Rhyahl, I named them. Kraliept tron Gamaar - Knowledge is of Three Parts - it’s a rather well-known proverb stemming from Empress Marmora’s reign.”

Startled, and doe-eyed, the Paladin’s attention turns searching.

“Yes,” Lotor can hardly help himself as he leans a little closer, turning his voice overtly sultry in a way that - he knows - will infuriate the green Paladin further, whose ferocious grip on her pretty friend has not yet abated, and - he hopes - entice the nameless man himself into perhaps deeming Lotor worthy of his introduction. “Your little allies could likely tell you far more about their founder than I, but so far as your question I’m sure my knowledge on the topic shall suffice… Although, if you’re interested, I’d be more than willing to give you a history lesson or two.”

He’s laying it on thick, perhaps obnoxiously so, but it’s just so entertaining to see how tense the smallest Paladin has become, and how anxious her yellow counterpart. The red Paladin, however, is looking at him with an element of mirth that Lotor can’t quite place, and for a moment he thinks he might have overdone it.

That is until the feisty little thing - his little Rhyahl - flattens his expression into one of cool ennui, the words, “maybe I’ll take you up on that,” a honeyed promise on his tongue.

The mouth on him.

It’s not what he says, but how he says it: a challenge written into every syllable, and Sa knows Lotor is but a mortal man.

“But first you’re going to explain your ships to us.”

The Prince finds himself more than happy to comply.

“As I’ve said, ‘Knowledge is of Three Parts’: the word, Kraliept, is devised of three characters when written down.” Lotor holds his hand out expectantly, but perhaps the Paladins’ species do not have the same understanding of the gesture, because the young man just frowns at the open palm as if expecting it to do something unusual.

Lotor huffs a too-fond laugh, and gestures to the red Paladin’s hand.

“May I?”

A small nod of consent is all the invitation he requires, and no sooner has he received as much does Lotor curl his fingers around the Paladin’s slim wrist - almost dainty, by Galra standards - and coax him forward to sit as close as the table will allow.

The room’s other two occupants, much to Lotor’s amusement, exchange a look of panic at this development, but it’s all background noise in comparison to the red Paladin’s pulse, which remains steady despite his companions’ concern. In a moment of personal weakness, Lotor allows his touch to linger more than it should, turning the hand in his grasp over carefully, as if it were that of a fair nobleman rather than a warrior, and dragging the pad of his thumb from wrist to palm, allowing himself all the time in the world. Said palm is softer than expected - though each finger is armoured in callouses, doubtlessly from frequent swordplay - and Lotor finds himself more than a little distracted by the easy give of flesh beneath his thumb.

He really did have a point to all of this.

Bringing his other hand up to trace claws over the faint blush of blue at the Paladin’s inner wrist, Lotor begins.

“Kra. Flesh: that which one may see and touch and taste.” Kra herself croons at that, once again toying with the phantom sensation of her little star against Lotor’s back, this time with toned arms around the Prince’s waist and lips mouthing kisses against his neck. It’s a distraction, certainly, but with the real thing beneath his fingertips as he carves out the familiar character, Lotor is able to centre himself without much trouble. “It is the truth that can be acquired through conquest, and strength of will.”

He pauses, takes a breath, and begins the next symbol; the lines of it are more fluid, liquid, almost. “Li. Blood: a truth that runs deeper, an unseen bond, only to be ascertained by instinct, allowing one to know things as they are and not by the skin they wear to greet you.”

Narti’s face flashes behind closed lids when he blinks.

He should have realised it sooner.

He should have known.

“Ept. Bone: Mental fortitude enough that one may strip down deceit to uncover the essence of the thing, the truth at its core.”

He leaves off the third character with no small touch of melancholy, and Kra echoes this sentiment for her sister. It is ironic, truly, that Ept was the last to be sculpted, considering the manner in which Lotor’s abrupt removal from the project came about.

“Empress Marmora,” he speaks her name quietly, “bastardised the Imperial war cry for her own elite guard. It was not Victory she cared for, but the Truth. Ergo, Kraliept Sa.”

Lotor’s forefinger is tracing a fourth, final character before his mind has properly processed it.

“Knowledge or… Sa: Death, the Void, the all-consuming netherworld; said to be the opposite of Truth, and yet it is no lie.”

When he is able to tear his eyes from that thin sliver of blue beneath pale skin, the red Paladin in still fixated on the wrist in Lotor’s hold. Rather than release the younger man, Lotor waits. He waits until the Paladin’s eyes meet his own, until the darkness of a thousand galaxies greet him with all the beauty of them too. There’s a sadness there, a sympathy that Lotor knows he doesn’t deserve.

It scares him a little.

With one final stroke of his thumb over blue veins under too-soft skin, he forces himself away.

“To return to your initial question, Hunk,” Lotor feels off-balance, and can only hope it doesn’t show in his voice, “while Sincline and Voltron both have egos and ids - though, I suspect, no explicit moral compass - I have come to learn that their personalities as we would understand them are, in part, crafted under the influence of their creator in the physical plane. In Sincline’s case, that would be me; not merely her aesthetics, but her values are also coloured by the Galran sensibilities I was raised with; and for Voltron the same could be said of Alfor.”

“Yep, okay,” the younger man’s voice is rendered in two by his own nerves, and, though lightly amusing, Lotor is left to ponder upon whether the Paladins’ species are particularly adverse to physical contact, “so you named your ships after some super deep Galran proverb with lots of levels of meaning relating to different and super graphic viscera - very artsy, love it - and King Alfor colour coded.”

It is an internal battle not to allow his shoulders to sag, because therein lies the greatest disenchantment of his early childhood.

“Evidently so.”

Though he can’t be sure, the Paladin having schooled his features too quickly for Lotor to tell, he thinks his little Rhyahl may have near laughed.

 

That night, his dreams are coloured blue: thick and sticky sweet as it pours from where his sword is embedded in scaled flesh. It’s stuck, he realises, after several frantic heartbeats, and when he tries to release the hilt he can’t let go. He has to press it deeper - he has no choice - his friend’s corpse giving way with a hot squelch as he renders her clean in two.

Kova wails, and Lotor wakes in a cold sweat.

 

Lotor wouldn’t say he cares for the green Paladin, particularly, but he does care a great deal for the quality of her work so far as Kra is concerned, ergo it would be irresponsible to ignore how the deep bruising beneath her eyes has a direct negative correlation with her productivity. By the steadily growing debris around her, and the pile of blankets that appeared in the far corner of the hanger a few quintents ago, he would hazard a guess that she’s been working herself to her limits.

Not for his ship’s sake, he’s certain, because no notable progress has been made outside of the vargas he spends here, and Kra would never let the child-Paladin touch her besides, which leaves Lotor more curious than he’d like.

The mystery is resolved when he sees her scouring Galran prisoner logs with eyes glazed over.

A pointless endeavour, he thinks, whoever they are, they’ll be one among billions: impossible to find unless you know their assigned identification.

It’s only when she near falls off her stool, startling awake at the last second to a panicked shout from Hunk across the room, that Lotor, keeping his eyes on his work so as to appear as unthreatening as possible, speaks.

“You owe it to your teammates to take better care of yourself.” He can feel her scowl as it burns into the side of his skull, but the Prince continues, unperturbed; “as a Paladin, you have an obligation to do right by Universe.”

She snaps immediately, as he’d suspected she might, and springs to her feet.

“I’m not obligated to do anything!” She’s spitting fire and fury and hatred in a manner that’s tragically familiar across hundreds of galaxies, so Lotor is unsurprised when she says: “The Galra took my brother and they still have my dad-”

“The Empire,” it’s an automatic correction, long-suffering but absolute.

“What?”

Lotor hates how young she sounds in that moment, all the fight drained out of her as quickly as it had come on; he hasn’t the time for sympathy on such a personal scale. It is inefficient enough to have taken it upon himself to worry for the kit, he cannot waste any more energy on compassion, of all things.

To leave her like this, however, would be negligent.

“Not ‘the Galra’ but ‘the Empire’, it’s a rather key differentiation.” He can hardly help but look to Pidge with a resigned sort of pity. “If you must place blame on an entire group rather than the individuals responsible, then make it a societal structure rather than our race. People cannot help what they are born as, but the systems they serve and benefit from are of their own choosing. The Empire took your family from you, and that is regrettable, but I will not be burdened by guilt on behalf of blood I had no say in.”

She seems… appropriately crowed, though still too stubborn a creature to admit it.

Lotor tells himself he doesn’t care.

 

The no-longer-blue Paladin is, Lotor is thoroughly convinced, aggravation personified.

He parades himself into the hanger, his voice more grating than the yowl of a schragberr in heat, and worse still when his eyes find Lotor and whatever nonsense he was spewing turns into an incomprehensible screech.

Even the yellow Paladin looks pained by the volume of it.

“WHY?” is the question settled upon, after he’s had his fill of gaping.

Lotor can hardly help himself, the sarcasm slipping from his tongue in a chagrined whisper of: “well now that’s familiar,” only to have the red Paladin scold him with a soft pout that does absolutely nothing to discourage such mockery. It might - Lotor thinks, as he watches said Paladin rise from where he had been seated beside the Prince on the floor to haul his successor out of the room with minimum effort, which definitely has Lotor feeling some kind of way - be doing quite the opposite.

There’s a pointed cough from behind him, and Lotor finds the Hunk promising, in a way that seems quite outside of the Prince’s understanding of his character, murder with his eyes.

“Do not.”

Interesting. He’d revelled in how it made the Paladins uncomfortable, but he hadn’t thought either of them - though especially not yellow - would actually call him out on his near-shameless flirtations. Lotor considers playing innocent, but a quick appraisal of the yellow Paladin, within whom he seems to have roused a fiercely protective streak, only encourages Lotor to press further: and perhaps that’s mean, but unfortunately for the Paladins, there’s not presently anyone in the room for whose opinion Lotor especially cares.

“Are you implying that I cannot even look. That would be a great tragedy.”

“I’m not implying anything,” his voice is taut, “I’m telling you that whatever it is you want from him you’re not-”

“Oh I think we’re all perfectly clear on what I want, Paladin, no need to dance around the topic.”

It’s a bold declaration, he knows, and in actuality Lotor has no intention of bedding his Rhyahl with so little consideration, as if he were some common harlot. The Paladins, however, do not need to know that.

And really, it’s awfully entertaining to see Pidge - subdued ever since their slight confrontation the other quintent - quietly scoff in disgust, while Hunk bolts to his feet, face twisting up with great distaste.

“If you think we’re going to let your purple ass so much as touch him-”

“It’s rather sweet how you think your opinion on the topic matters,” Lotor eyes him coolly, still seated on the floor, “but I assure you, I’d never lay a hand on your friend without his full and enthusiastic consent.”

It’s genuinely insulting, the mistrust this statement is met with, as if Hunk truly believes him to be so morally compromised that he’d take someone against their will; the offence of it has Lotor narrowing his eyes to near slits, rising until he’s stood toe to toe with the yellow Paladin and towering over him. The Prince presses more venom into his next words: each one hissed and low and full of spite.

“When I have it,” he leans towards the smaller man until the two of them are nose to nose, and in a whisper that is sickeningly saccharine, promises: “I’ll be sure to make him scream.”

The yellow Paladin is a distance fighter, at best, and at worst not really a fighter at all, so Lotor isn’t even remotely hesitant in turning his back to the boy, stepping away with an amused smile on his lips.

“You quiznaking-”

“Hunk,” Pidge seems to have finally taken it upon herself to intervene, “you know he’s just trying to wind you up-”

“Yeah? Well it’s working.”

Hunk.”

The yellow Paladin falls quiet at his smaller friend’s insistence.

When Lotor looks to her, she’s peering at him over round-rimmed spectacles with a twist to her lips that is more consideration than discomfort. He doesn’t like it.

Pidge looks at him, long and hard. “What do you want?”

Lotor raises one eyebrow, unimpressed.

“I thought I’d made myself rather obvious.”

“Yeah, you have,” she settles back in her chair, arms crossed, still considering him, “too obvious.”

Finding himself suddenly unsettled, Lotor smothers any remnant of it from his face, and gestures that she should continue with an indifferent wave of his hand.

The crease of her brow deepens a little.

Lotor isn’t what you think he is,” she says, and by the way she says it Lotor knows she’s imitating the red Paladin, “that’s what he told us. I didn’t get it at first, but I think I’m starting to.”

It’s hard to say what concerns him more: the threat of understanding in her voice, or the way that the echo of his Rhyahl’s words spark a sort of warmth beneath Lotor’s skin. Though it’s not just her, but the yellow Paladin too, who, when Lotor glances his way, has allowed his hostility to melt into something far more pensive, and in this scenario, it leaves Lotor exposed

“Do enlighten me,” he bears his teeth, hopes it masks the half-sincere lilt to his next question, “if I am not what you think I am, then what am I?”

She opens her mouth, and closes it again.

There’s a long, strained silence, before, finally: “Kind of a dick, to be honest.”

Lotor blinks.

Kra huffs a laugh.

Even Hunk has to stifle a snort.

“C’mere,” Pidge waves him over to where she’s sat, as if to insult him so openly is not at all out of the norm, “Matt said you’d memorized the patrol routes of your guards, which means you must know at least some of the Empire’s routine fleet movements. So how about you make yourself useful and-”

Lotor is hardly listening, caught on Pidge’s use of ‘the Empire’, rather than ‘the Galra’. All of a sudden, he finds himself feeling markedly more agreeable.

The red Paladin returns a little while later. Lotor doesn’t allow this reappearance to turn his attention away from where Pidge is explaining her digital reconstruction of Imperial flight routes - which are live, she reveals, and Lotor can’t pretend he’s not impressed by that - but it doesn’t seem to matter because he can still feel the prickle of attention from the yellow Paladin, who seems to have taken Pidge’s hypothesis of behaviour to heart. It’s no longer hostile, but it is dangerously close to toeing a line Lotor had thought better left untouched by Team Voltron’s attentions, even if he’s been walking it himself for quite some time.

That’s why, when the smallest Paladin begs that her pretty compatriot deal with him, Lotor takes full advantage of the distraction it offers, purring “by all means, do try,” less for the red Paladin’s benefit, and more for his own.

Predictably, Hunk reacts with severe discomfort, his head dropping against the table he’d moved to sit at with a loud thunk.

“No,” and he does sound truly miserable, “please, just… No.”

Lotor smirks, this expression only widening when he catches Pidge’s insult at how he’s still dramatizing his attraction to such an obnoxious degree, until his eyes catch on an irregularity in the map’s upper corner.

“There’s nothing in that sector,” he tells them, because it’s true.

“Nothing?” Pidge asks, doubtful. “That can’t be right, there’s a constant flow of movement through that singular point.”

Lotor feels his blood run cold.

“You’re certain?”

“Yes.”

She sounds insulted by his reservation, but Lotor has no idea how to convey the wave of nausea that rocks through him if the alternative is proven correct.

“Are the ships that pass through consistent in their origin, or destination?”

He prays it’s the latter.

It isn’t.

“After they register at that checkpoint their routes are…” she trails off, her uncertainty betraying her, “it makes no sense. It’s-”

“Illogical.” Lotor finishes for her, the truth of the situation a bitter sting in his throat. “Meaning they’re supply ships, taken off-course and redistributed so as not to require legal registration of their little detour.”

“Is that common?” It’s Hunk who speaks up.

“Only with regards to the Empire’s more unsavoury business. It’s more than likely a research facility,” his heart stutters at the term, bile rising in his throat, “quite possibly one of the Witch’s outposts: she has several scattered across the universe for her personal experiments, and I promise you nothing good will come from it”

He’d tried to warn them, he really had, but their darling Princess just hadn’t wanted to listen.

“Why would Haggar need a secret facility…” Pidge’s expression is flat: still cautious, still untrusting. “Isn’t she Zarkon’s right hand?”

“Certainly,” Lotor can feel the bite of his own claws, unsheathing unbidden, as they threaten to puncture the Altean silk bound around his forearms, “and yet, there are things that even my Father will not condone.”

Things he tries not to think about.

Things he can’t help but think about.

“We’ll look into it,” is the yellow Paladin’s promise, but Lotor barely hears it over the thundering pulse of his own blood.

 

When he next sees the kit, Lotor is overcome with a bizarre wave of gratitude for the coalition’s bigotry and subsequent ignorance of Galran physicality, because little Keith’s immediate reaction to seeing him tells Lotor exactly how worn he must look. If the rebels knew, if they had even the slightest inkling of his weakness… he dreads to think.

Keith doesn’t ask if he’s okay, and Lotor appreciates that almost as much as he appreciates the press of a warm arm against his own, the Marmorite near nestled up at his side as he sits, not on the railing or the table or the arm of the chair, but right beside Lotor. It’s only then that the Prince realises he’s a little starved of it - of companionship, of touch - and allows himself to sag into that point of contact minutely.

“Tell me about our nineteenth.”

It’s a demand, but a quiet one, and Lotor welcomes the distraction.

 

Lotor believes the Paladins when they inform him that they’ve asked after answers; not only because they have no reason to lie, but because he doesn’t think that any of them are good enough liars to falsify how their Princess’s reluctance to act is a shared frustration. They’re not angered by it - not like he is when he knows exactly how dangerous Haggar can be if left unchecked - but Lotor can see how they’re more inclined to believe the threat, believe him, so far as the Witch is concerned.

When Hunk breaks the news - “Allura’s running it by the rebels posted in that area, so we should hear back in a movement or so,” - he does so with food, in a non-too-subtle attempt to soften the blow. To the yellow Paladin’s credit, the pastry is good.

The noise the red Paladin makes is better.

Lotor is fortunate enough to have looked up at just the right moment, his eyes catching on the red Paladin’s lips as they close around the tartlet, its outer shell crumbling, falling apart, and leaving a light dusting of power when the Paladin pulls it away. It looks delicious. He sounds delicious.

It’s less a moan and more a sigh, breathy and contented, that has Lotor’s stomach tying itself in knots around something small and new and alive that flutters within.

Oh, there have been warning signs, plenty of them, but Lotor has been adamantly ignoring each and every one in the name of lust, desire, infatuation-

That too he’d told Kra, but not that alone.

It’s not that he didn’t know.

It’s that he didn’t want to acknowledge it.

Because it’s in his blood - this cursed blood: damnable and contaminated and toxic in every way - to fall hard and fast; to grow to care too much for too little. The red Paladin is pretty, yes, and fierce and kind and delusional enough to believe that Lotor can be something better than what he is. He’s all of those things, and the Prince had taken it in stride. He’d enjoyed himself, he’d enjoyed his Rhyahl, and he’d even begun to enjoy his time here, in Voltron’s hanger, cleaning up the children’s mess.

But this- this is too far.

Because Lotor looks at the red Paladin, hears his sweet little noises of satisfaction, and doesn’t think I want to taste, but rather, I want to touch; and perhaps that in itself would be forgivable were those thoughts akin to Kra’s reimaginings of desire, but they’re not, they’re worse, somehow more intrusive than thoughts pressed into his mind by a consciousness that’s not his own.

Mind over matter has never been such a struggle for Lotor as it is now, because the matter at hand is that he wants to touch the red Paladin more gently than he has anything in his life. He wants to swipe the sweetness from those lips: not with his tongue but with his fingertips. He wants to press them against that plump flesh until it parts, and perhaps his Rhyahl will lick him - perhaps he’ll bite - but Lotor would do nothing more than drag his knuckles across the flush of high cheekbones with a laugh.

He wants to touch, and provide, and ply his ferocious little Paladin with as many pastries as he desires, if only to see him so soft and contented as he is now.

Such… sentiments, can only end one way.

So Lotor forces his attentions elsewhere, and immediately meets the too-clever eyes of one Paladin Pidge.

There are several Galran curses, in several different dialects, that would aptly encompass Lotor’s feelings in this moment, yet he finds himself unable to choose a single one. He can feel how his eyes must have softened at the corners, because all the muscles in his face immediately tense up, shut down, and try to create the illusion of nonchalance.

 It’s too little too late.

She’s glaring, which is nothing new, but brown eyes are frantic, searching, flicking over his visage as if to confirm that which she already knows - Lotor is all too familiar with that look: it’s the look of a scientist who has just solved a long-pondered equation.

It’s the look of a Paladin who knows too much.

Lotor feels immediately exposed, and looks to his own pastry - in hand, but forgotten until this point - as some form of distraction. It’s good, but his enjoyment is mechanical. He finds himself unable to look at her, and perhaps that’s foolish, perhaps he should say something witty or make a lewd comment to throw her off-balance, but somehow he knows any such thing would be utterly futile.

She knows, and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it.

 

The green Paladin takes to wordlessly smirking at him across the hanger.

Lotor decidedly hates her.

 

The end is in sight, and it has the Prince lulled into a false sense of security.

Kra is almost completed, almost just as beautiful as she’d been the first time he’d unleashed her into battle, but consequentially the four of them (Lotor doesn’t know when he and the Paladins became a ‘them’ in his mind, but it is apparently so) forgoing sleep so as to see her once more in all her glory. Their dedication to this endeavour means that they eat- breathe- live- the air of hanger Xi12, which is, so far as Lotor’s concerned, a significant improvement on being observed by his guardsmen as if he had found himself returned to some juvenile recreation of Haggar’s lab.

It’s when red and yellow go to retrieve dinner, that Lotor’s personal hellscape makes itself known.

“So…” the vowel is drawn out in a way that promises nothing good, “Rhyahl, huh?”

The green Paladin’s quite frankly disastrous imitation of the Galra tongue does nothing to obscure her meaning, not when Lotor’s been dreading this exact conversation ever since what he had privately termed ‘the incident’. He’s dedicated varga upon varga to damage control, but now, upon forcing himself to turn from his work and meet Pidge’s gaze dead-on, he knows it’s all for naught.

She’s smirking.

“Rhyahl,” he echoes, correcting her butchered phrasing. It’s a petty last resort, but undermining her pronunciation is all he has left.

She doesn’t seem even remotely perturbed.

“I researched it. It took a while: digging it out from the Castle’s database when I can’t read Galran and wouldn’t know how to spell it besides, but I’ve been told I can be pretty stubborn.”

“How shocking.”

Her smirk doesn’t falter, the horrid little beast leaning forward to rest elbows on knees, steepling her fingers and peering at Lotor over the tops of them.

“I’ll admit, I was expecting some sort of petname, not an actual animal, but I kind of see it, you know? I mean, it has that whole ‘pretty but deadly’ thing going on - kind of a Galra femme fatal?” she tacks this on as more of a note to herself than to him, which is just as well because the term is a foreign one “but with how hardcore you went on naming your ships, I figured there had to be more to it than that.”

Lotor lets her monologue. In this situation, there’s little else he can do.

“And then,” she hops up from her seat, and meanders towards him with her hands behind her back, that ridiculously self-satisfied grin pasted on her features, “I read up on its religious significance.”

Pidge looks up at him from barely a foot away - and really, she is tiny: Lotor’s half ashamed of how much of his attention she’s commanding despite it.

“It’s sacred,” she sounds in equal parts smug and fascinated, “born of the great sand wastes as Sa incarnate? Worshiped by the druids? Your people made sacrifices to the rhyahl right up to the day of Daibazaal’s destruction - that’s not the kind of name you just throw around.”

She’s infuriatingly correct, of course.

“You have proven yourself capable of properly utilising a dictionary, how astounding.”

The green Paladin has the audacity to laugh.

“Yeah,” she hops backwards, a spring in her step, “I figured you’d blow it off with something like that, but I’m right aren’t I? The smiles, the touching, the teasing… at first I thought you were just trying to get a rise out of us; no, at first I think you were, but that changed, didn’t it? The arm-drawing-thing you did was weird, reverent, but I still didn’t quite get it until last quintent.”

Ah. The incident.

Pidge isn’t smirking anymore, but she’s not hostile either. Just intrigued.

“You genuinely like him.”

There would be no dignity in denial.

“He is a remarkable creature, only a fool would find themselves without a certain fondness for him.”

She hums, head tilting.

“Sure,” and then, “but you like him.”

“I do.” He takes in her surprise at such easy acquiesce, and makes sure to hold her attention so that she does not miss the truth of his next words: “yet if this alliance fails and we come to blows, I would cut him down just the same.”

Pidge’s face does something complicated - almost disappointed - before she nods.

“Fair enough.”

When she sighs, resigned, there’s a chirrup from the high collar of her shirt. A baffled Lotor frowns at it, until the Paladin reaches in to absently scratch at the source of the noise, her voice turning pouty and petulant.

“I know buddy,” she murmurs into her collar. It chirps in reply, and Lotor… Lotor knows that noise. But it cannot be-

It is.

From Pidge’s collar, up her neck, crawls the fattest, hairiest fygllari he’s ever seen.

It’s… it’s huge.

It’s vile.

Worse yet, it’s not alone. Though he can’t see how many, there’s more movement in the shadow of the Paladin’s shirt, and Lotor doesn’t even want to think about how many there might be just… lurking under her clothing. The one that has made itself known, flesh bulging beneath its thick coat of pastel pink hair, has scuttled up Pidge’s face to sit on her cheek, its chubby little legs wiggling as it squirms about.

Lotor must make some sort of noise, because the Paladin’s eyes turn back to him, as do those of the fygllari: dewy and bulbous and repulsive.

“Why,” it is a great effort to keep his tone level, “are you keeping that thing on your person?”

She blinks.

“They get cold,” is her reply, as if it were the most natural thing it the world.

Then, with a terrible chattering of its mandibles, the fygllari begins to scuttle through the air of the hanger and directly towards Lotor.

“No,” he states this command firmly, but it doesn’t seem to matter, “do not-”

Lotor retreats, ducks, dodges - all without taking his eyes off his assailant even once - to the sounds of the green Paladin’s steadily growing hysteria.

She’s insane, he thinks, when he attempts to verbally deter the creature only for it to dive at him, - to the green Paladin’s utter delight - missing because Lotor stumbles back and into the side of his ship at the last second, she is certifiably insane.

Kra, the traitor, seems equally amused by his misfortune.

When mercy comes, it does so in the form of the red Paladin, returned when Lotor’s attention was otherwise occupied, who plucks the little beast from the air and coos over it as if its kind weren’t the scourge of the universe.

“Spoil-sport,” calls a maniacally grinning Pidge, at having had her fun apparently ruined by her friend’s compassion.

The red Paladin ignores her, instead raising an eyebrow at Lotor with an entertained smirk, and the lightness of his expression somehow serves to soothe the sting of embarrassment that the Prince suffers at being seen in such an unbecoming state.

“You don’t like them?”

Lotor doesn’t gape, but it’s a near thing.

“You do?” When the red Paladin shrugs with a small affirmation, turning his gentle attentions to the pest in hand, Lotor can’t help but clarify. “They’re vermin.”

“Hey!” Pidge interrupts, sounding affronted despite her expression still being that of endless glee, “don’t be rude, they’re cute as fuck!”

There’s a very notable pause in which Lotor can only assume she’s expecting some sort of reciprocation of her repartee, but he is at a loss. Two hypotheses present themselves simultaneously; either the Paladin’s species have a very different understanding of the universe’s aesthetic principles, or procreation between members of said species takes a markedly different form to that which Lotor would have assumed, judging by their apparent physiological make-up, which... would be a great pity, he thinks, his eyes flicking to his little Rhyahl for a moment before firmly turning away, and making a particular effort not to follow that simultaneously explicit and disturbing train of thought.

Regardless, it would be impossible not to ask.

“You find their aesthetic to be comparable to… intercourse?”

The green Paladin makes a noise akin to a wounded animal: obnoxiously loud, and insulting in the way she immediately dissolves into another fit of howling laughter at Lotor’s own expense.

“What did I just walk in on?” The yellow Paladin makes his presence known, though is evidently just as uncomfortable as Lotor feels.

“I swear that’s not-” she seems to be having trouble breathing through her hysterics, “that is not what I said! Well, it kind of is, but- anyway, they’re adorable and I will not sit here and let you talk shit about-”

“I never mentioned excrement,” agitation squirms in Lotor’s gut, this conversation having so quickly dissolved into something he has lost control of, and he hates it.

“NO,” she squawks, “Oh my god, right, we’re fixing your translator this is ridiculous. My point is that they’re not vermin, they’re tiny and soft and I love them.”

Lotor wants to correct her, but she’s already bounced over to take the pink pest from where it’s attempting to burrow into the red Paladin’s sleeve, and now, less than a foot away from him, Lotor can see no less than an additional three fygllari wriggling out from the collar of her shirt.

“I’ll introduce you,” she says, innocently cheerful, as if this really isn’t some sort of twisted revenge being enacted upon Lotor as penance for having admitted his attraction to her comrade, “Galileo you’ve met, but this is Archimedes, Nikola, and Aristotle.”

Each creature sounds off as she calls its name, and it’s an internal battle for the Prince not to shiver.

 

To Lotor’s absolute horror, the green Paladin’s army of vermin seem to have taken a liking to him, the blue one going so far as to nuzzle against his palm when, during dinner, he tries to keep it at a distance; it forces him to instantly recoil with a whine that, in Imperial company, would have seen him ostracised for cowardice. Here, miraculously, it earns him reward rather than punishment, because the red Paladin is laughing without spite, plucking the fygllari from the air and tossing it towards Hunk.

When he looks back to Lotor, there’s no trace of displeasure, only a soft darkness beneath his lashes and a purr in his throat as his leans towards the Prince and asks: “better, your Majesty?”

Oh.

The ways he would wreck this boy.

“Careful Rhyahl,” he murmurs instead, because Kra has perked up at the familiarity of that possessive want as an emotion she can comprehend, “I may be fond of you, but even that has its limitations.”

“But this isn’t one of them.”

Lotor cannot hide his surprise - not when those words are so simple, so certain - and it tears a smile from him to mirror that of the red Paladin’s own. The Prince leans a little closer, but a deliberate cough from his left distracts him enough that Lotor’s next words die in his throat.

Pidge does nothing more than raise an eyebrow at him, but her warning is clear: while Lotor’s infatuation is no longer a secret between them, apparently she would prefer he not parade it about, either.

He shoots her a sharp grin, promising nothing, but concedes for now.

 

The apology comes from nowhere.

“I’m sorry for what I said about your dru- about your telepath friend.”

When Lotor looks at her, it’s to find the green Paladin with a determined expression fixed on her work, and yet he’s certain he didn’t mishear her.

“We were on opposite sides of this war, and quite frankly the things she could do?” The littlest Paladin shivers. “She scared the hell out of me, so I won’t pretend I’d prefer it if she were alive. I didn’t know her, and I can’t say I liked what I saw, but she obviously mattered to you so… I’m sorry.”

Lotor looks at her, sees how she curls into herself with a guilt that is not hers to bear, and can’t even begin to understand it.

“Narti,” it hurts to speak her name, “Narti was not killed by your hand.”

“No,” she agrees, “but I’m still sorry.”

Lotor wants to ask why, wants to understand what sort of sympathies could drive a Paladin of Voltron to look so broken on behalf of their enemy, wants to stop feeling the ghost of hot blood scorching his knuckles every time he makes a fist.

“I cannot comprehend your sentiment. Her blood is not on your hands, nor that of your allies, and it is not the Galra way to mourn on another’s behalf,” the mere concept is ludicrous, “especially if the dead was your enemy.”

Lotor frowns. Sets his jaw.

“But I appreciate it, nonetheless.”

With nothing more than a small nod of acknowledgement from Pidge, the conversation is over.

 

Smoothing his hand over Kra’s completed claw, Lotor is able to feel the thrum of power beneath his fingertips, and within that the beat of her quintessence, and sighs. She’s complete once again, even the damages sustained by flying along a star’s surface no more than a memory, and her consciousness glows with it.

With a resigned exhale, Lotor turns away.

“I suppose I ought be returned to my quarters,” in taking charge of this unavoidable fate, he may, at least, feign some vague sort of autonomy.

“Yeah,” Hunk sounds reluctant as he frowns at the floor, “yeah I… I guess so.”

Lotor simply inclines his head.

“We’ll talk to Allura,” is the concession he’s not expecting, least of all from Pidge. “Not saying I like you, and quite frankly your aesthetic principles are fucked if you seriously don’t see how adorable my trash-floofs are-”

Lotor feels his mouth quirk into the beginnings of a smile at her lewd alien terminology.

“-but you didn’t have to help us out at Naxzela, and you didn’t have to surrender yourself over to us and just sit around quietly while we try and sort out the coalition, and you definitely didn’t have to teach us about all the sciencey rift stuff that you have so… I guess I respect that. One genius to another.”

The smile takes over.

“It has been a pleasure, Paladin Pidge,” though the bow he accompanies this with is meant to tease, Lotor finds the sentiment on his lips to be a true one, “Paladin Hunk.”

He turns to the final member of their little group.

“Paladin…?”

Pretty violet eyes blink up at him as if startled, then turn soft on consideration, before finally settling into something heated that has Lotor preening.

“I told you,” the nameless man steps resolutely forward until he’s so close that, little thing that he is, he has to tilt his head almost ridiculously far back just to retain eye-contact. “Earn it.”

Those words have the same growl, the same challenge, as when he’d first spoken them, but this time the red Paladin’s voice is a whisper, as if his bold declaration is a secret just between the two of them. Lotor doesn’t mind in the slightest.

“Oh? And if I have yet to do so, then when will I?”

“I’m pretty sure you’ll find a way,” and like that, he’s gone, stepping cleanly back until he’s out of arm’s reach.

With the yellow Paladin as his escort, the Prince makes to exit the hanger only for the red Paladin to speak once more, “see you later, Lotor,” a strangely personal address that leaves the Prince pathetically aware of his own infatuation.

Chapter Text

Lotor isn’t unaccustomed to disappointment, quite the opposite, but when his return to monotony drags on - quintent after quintent spent in a quagmire of tedium until memories of Kra’s hanger and the tentative camaraderie he’d found there could, arguably, have been a particularly lucid hallucination - his optimistic faith in the Paladins of Voltron begins to falter. It’s not that he thinks they lied to him, only that the promises of children are so easily broken, and in the Paladins’ eyes the plight of an old enemy might be all too easily cast aside when said plight has an entire universe of suffering to contend with.

The Prince considers reaching out to Kra, if only for a companion to whom he may vent his frustration, but with her temperament being what it is, there’s every chance that such pitiful self-indulgence would end with a dead Paladin. Such a tragedy so soon after they have allowed him the liberty of fixing his ship would be a poor, though entirely coincidental, reflection of his character.

Privately, Lotor admits that if Pidge or Hunk were to meet their ends in such a manner, he might find himself with some element of personal remorse, and as for his Rhyahl… well, Lotor doesn’t truly believe that Kra would lash out at her little star, the younger man being a shared soft-spot for the both of them, but he would prefer not to tempt fate.

“See you later, Lotor,” he’d said - promised, really, though perhaps to think of it as such is sweetly naïve, as since then the Prince has seen neither hide nor hair of the red Paladin.

It’s a great pity.

With a heaving sigh, Lotor rises from the sofa, projecting his intentions with enough exaggeration that none of his guardsmen feel the need to shoot him, and sets about swanning between the towering ivory bookshelves in the library’s far corner. The universe is quiet here, and the rebels no longer care enough to follow him about the room, so long as he isn’t absent from their sight for too long, which means Lotor has time enough to allow his shoulders to sag as he slumps back against the shelves with a heavy exhalation, one hand coming up to rub fiercely over the weight of his own brow.

This life is an arduous one.

When the moment passes, Lotor’s attention falls to the several pairs of small, beady eyes clustered on the opposite shelf.

He blinks.

So do they.

There’s a cacophony of squeaking as Lotor’s voyeurs make a break for it, scattering across shelves and between books. It’s graceless, what happens next, but Lotor finds himself lunging for the slowest of them on instinct, half-stumbling into the shelf as he does so and very nearly sending all of its contents toppling to the floor in what would have unavoidably seen him as the centre of the rebels’ attention once again. By some small miracle, this doesn’t come to pass, and instead Lotor sinks to the floor with something soft and warm, squirming within the cage of purple fingers.

The poor thing seems to concede defeat easily enough, understanding a hopeless situation when it sees one, and futile struggling gives way to limp resignation as it sags into Lotor’s palm, its little heartbeat hammering numerous times per tick.

“Easy,” Lotor whispers, shuffling to sit more comfortably as he brings his hands up to eye level, opening his fingers a crack to better allow himself a glimpse of a lime-tinted pelt, “easy now, little one.”

There’s a mournful, hiccupping sort of a sound, and Lotor shifts his grip, gentling it so as not to hurt the tiny animal, but not so much that it might escape him. From the newly created loop of his thumb and forefinger appears a round, furred head, crowned with velvety ears the size of its skull.

“Well look at you,” Lotor keeps his voice low, smoothing his thumb ever-so-gently over the trembling creature and scratching lightly behind on ears until it calms, “aren’t you a wonder.”

It’s a rodent, of a sort, and though Lotor doesn’t know its species in particular, he remembers enough of the decaphoebs spent pouring over tales of his maternal heritage to recognise a species indigenous to Altea when he sees one. Murmuring mindless comforts, Lotor continues to pet pale green fur until the mouse is a half-melted ball of heat, rolling contentedly the crux of Lotor’s palm, apparently without any lingering desire to escape his attentions.

Unlike the native fauna of Daibazaal, samples of which had been evacuated before the planet’s destruction so as to prevent the mass extinction of so many sentient beings, Altea’s wildlife had not been offered the courtesy of rehabilitation. The beast that had been reborn in Sa and walked free of that netherworld in Zarkon’s skin, hadn’t cared for the lives of six billion Altean innocents, let alone those of mere animals. For Lotor to be, quite literally, holding such a life in the palm of his hands, therefore, is nothing short of a marvel.

An inquisitive squeak by his left ear has Lotor turning to see one of the other mice returned, peering warily at him from between the spines of musty books, the shelf at eye-level, meaning that this smaller, rose-toned creature is easily within arm’s reach.

Lotor doesn’t grab at this one, simply continues petting its friend gently until the mouse totters further into view and offers a questioning noise to which its chubby companion responds. Rather than Lotor’s captive making any move to free itself, the second mouse skitters lightly along the shelf’s edge until it is able to hop onto the Prince’s shoulder, scurry down his arm, and join its companion; they tussle briefly, until the pink mouse has wriggled its way between the bulk of its friend and Lotor’s fingertips, seemingly commandeering Lotor’s doting attentions.

It is obscenely adorable.

“How in Brodar’s name did you come to be here?” Lotor’s question is rhetorical, of course, because mice cannot speak and it would be ridiculous to expect otherwise, but when both heads wriggle away from the ministrations of Lotor’s fingers to regard him with purpose before releasing a unified squeak, for a moment he feels like they might have given him answer.

A ludicrous thought.

But then the green mouse is tugging at his finger with its little paws, and quite purposefully guiding Lotor to resume scratching it between its ears, and he has to question whether his mother’s data pads had perhaps neglected to mention the higher brain functions of Altea’s minor mammals. All the while, the pink one is still looking at him.

“Do you have something you would like to say?” He asks it, resolutely ignoring the whisper of stupidity that his own words bring upon him, because it’s a mouse and mice don’t-

It squeaks at him several times over, cocks its head, and squeaks once more.

Lotor pauses. “Pardon?”

The mouse squeaks again and the pattern of sound is inarguably deliberate, an exact - if slower - repetition of its first answer but this time accented with… gestures.

And what is one to say when confronted with a talking Altean mouse that apparently understands the Galran common tongue? Unless, of course, it’s been fitted with a translator chip, which is only slightly less ridiculous than a mouse having the cognitive capabilities to correctly comprehend and utilise language.

A siren pierces through Lotor’s train of thought, Princess Allura’s voice suddenly panicked and all-consuming as she takes command: “A rogue Galra fleet has been isolated and is making moves to engage. Paladins, to your Lions! Rebel fighters, please report to your stations!”

There’s a clamouring of movement from elsewhere in the library - a sudden realisation by the yupper guards that their charge is nowhere in sight, it seems - and within half a dobash Lotor’s keepers have appeared, two at either end of the lines of shelves that he is tucked away between. Unthinkingly, the Prince cradles the mice closer to his chest as he rises from the floor, which immediately sees several blasters trained upon him.

One of his guardsmen, willowy and with a voice that trembles (whether with anger or fear it’s impossible to say, but Lotor imagines that it doesn’t much matter) takes one look at his clasped hands and demands that he relinquish his weapons.

“I am unarmed,” so far as they know, at least, but that’s all that really counts. Slowly he opens his palms and reveals the mice, who squeak in alarm at the sight of armed hostiles, immediately leaping to the floor and scurrying out of sight.

The rebels’ confused hesitation is obvious, but a fifth appears, coming up behind Lotor and jabbing the barrel of their weapon into his lower back unnecessarily, as they bark demands that he remain still and order at their comrades to “secure the prisoner”. Lotor allows himself to be cuffed more roughly than he deserves, and shunted forward, through the lines of shelves, across the starlit floor, and out into the otherwise empty hallway. As they lead him to his quarters in silence, an abrupt wave of pressure rocks the entire ship, sending Lotor himself stumbling to his knees as the five rebels surrounding him scatter; the harsh jarring of bone against flooring is not nearly so uncomfortable as the prickling sensation on the back of his neck as all his hair stands on end, several shots firing off too-close for comfort and leaving behind the stench of ozone, ripe in the air. There are panicked cries, a yelp of pain, and Lotor grunts as the willowy rebel stumbles back against his shoulder, breaths short and eyes wide as she stares at nothing and proclaims, “you shot me,” with little more than distant whisper.

“No,” is a child’s denial, but when Lotor looks up the fighter that has stepped forward is young, and scared enough that perhaps calling it as much is the truth. They sink to their comrade’s side, “no - no I didn’t mean- my finger slipped, I-!”

They try pulling her upright, which is stupid, because she cries out in pain immediately. The distance this allows between them means that Lotor gets a good view of her thigh: flesh raw and still smouldering as the exposed tendons leak a viscous fluid.

It’s a largely superficial wound, but undoubtedly not a painless one.

Lotor remains where he is, on his knees and watching silently as the lot of them do nothing but stare at their injured comrade, and tries to repress pity for these fools who play at war.

He fails.

She crying out, poor thing, grasping at her assailant and begging him to “make it stop, make it stop please,” because she’s scared and in pain and clearly has no concept of what a mortal wound looks like if she thinks that this is it.

“Bind it, if you can, and get to the medical bay,” her eyes turn to him, confused and scared, and Lotor doesn’t look away, “you will not lose your leg - with the technology available on this ship, you are unlikely to so much as scar.”

He keeps his voice as level as he can, but just as it seems that she’s calming, one of the other rebels - face blue and drooping and filled with hate - has to go and ruin it with accusations of deception, which Lotor can ignore, and ignorance, which he cannot.

“What would you know of-”

“More than you, child,” Lotor hisses, and doesn’t let the threat of the blaster deter him, “I have been fighting since long before you were born, and if this little display is anything to go by, I will be doing so long after you’re dead, too.”

The butt of the gun is pressed against his temple, and it forces Lotor to bite his tongue. Tensions are running high, and blood hot, but he hadn’t thought that the coalition’s chosen guard would truly stoop so low as to execute him on his knees in the midst of an external assault. This is his penance for blind faith, it seems.

If he is to die here, Lotor thinks, he will do so with his eyes wide open, so he returns the hateful glower of his executioner tenfold, which earns him a sneer from every single one of his assailant’s numerous mouths. Pure loathing is not something Lotor is unaccustomed to, but he hadn’t thought he’d die a traitor’s death at the hands of someone other than his father, someone he genuinely hasn’t betrayed, and there’s a certain indignity to it all.

“Galra scum,” the rebel hisses, his tongues slightly out of time and creating the impression of several people speaking as one, “if I were to end you now, Voltron would thank me.”

He seems deaf to the conflicted cries of the hall’s other occupants, adamantly ignoring them in favour of dragging the tip of his blaster down Lotor’s face to shove it roughly under his jaw so that the Prince’s head snaps back, his gaze unable to fall anywhere other than the corridor’s high ceiling.

“The Paladins are magnanimous,” the rebel breathes the word like a prayer, and Sa knows religious zealots have always been among Lotor’s least favourite people, “but do not think that I am unwilling to do what they cannot.”

Enduring the slew of abuse as it continues to pour fourth, Lotor turns the bulk of his attention elsewhere.

With one rebel injured and another seemingly too traumatised at having caused said injury to so much as look at his weapon, let alone fire it again, they’re unlikely to pose an issue. A third seems reluctant to partake in this show of power, but reluctant to stand against it too. The fourth is stood out of Lotor’s range of vision, temperament impossible to gauge one way or another, and the fifth is still monologuing.

“-they would thank me, they would honour me-”

Lotor allows a certain looseness to overtake his muscles, the languid flame of fresh blood licking its way up his spine, and Kra trills her excitement.

He’s going to have to kill them.

The one who talks, followed by the one who stands by silently, and then the one who hides so far out of sight that Lotor can’t aptly judge him, just to be on the safe side. So long as the others don’t resist, he’ll leave them be. It’s not what he wants, nothing close to ideal, but Lotor knows Voltron - morally virtuous as they are - won’t take kindly to him having murdered three of their allies, irrespective of his reasoning, so it’s in his best interest to leave witnesses to his plight - better yet, ones to whom he has gifted mercy.

“Stand down.”

It’s a growled command, and one that immediately disarms Lotor for the fact that he’s yet to actually make a move. His intentions have never been so easily read-

The instruction was not for him.

In one fluid movement, swift and artful, little Keith towers over Lotor’s would-be executioner, the rebel neutralised and firmly pinned, face unsightly and pressed up against the unforgiving floor. This attack upon Lotor’s assailant having happened so quickly, the Prince doesn’t quite know when or how the littlest Marmorite’s sword ended up with its tip embedded deep in the Castle Ship’s wall, but it is inarguably impressive how precise a throw it must have been, for Keith to have lanced the weapon that held Lotor at its mercy with such accuracy. When several mouths begin to protest at the rough treatment of having been wrestled to the floor, Lotor’s little Blade rams the heel of his palm against a blue temple, knocking the man out cold, and the fierce savagery of the action is inarguably Galran.

“B-Blade-” one of the others tries, but they’re immediately cut-off.

“Get her to the med-bay,” is the command issued, a sharp chin jutting towards the injured rebel, “and then report to your stations.”

There’s a beat of silence in which Lotor imagines the glint of fangs in a snarl, the narrowing of golden eyes beneath the cold impassiveness of the boy’s mask, and the ambiguity of Keith’s expression provides the necessary undercurrent of intimidation that his diminutive stature does not.

Now.

They go, quick and quiet, only the willowy one daring to look back towards Lotor as she’s carried off by her companions.

 

No sooner are they out of sight is Lotor’s little Blade cursing under his breath and dipping behind the Prince to release the cuffs; as they click open, the only thing Lotor can think to say that won’t sound petulant and childish as a result of having been virtually ignored for the past movement, is: “perhaps they restrained me for a reason.”

An amused huff rolls over the back of his neck, soft and warm but a little too strained to be completely casual.

“Or because they’re scared and stupid.”

“Or that,” he agrees with a roll of the shoulders, turning as he stands to find the Marmorite regarding him openly. He doesn’t know what to make of it. The feeling is apparently mutual, however, because after moment of silence, little Keith awkwardly ducks his head and returns to the side of the unconscious rebel, binding him with efficiency and a touch more strength than is strictly necessary. Lotor can’t bring himself to comment on it, because he doesn’t quite know what it’s supposed to mean, or if it even means anything at all.

“You were going to kill him,” Keith states, as he rises from the floor, and Lotor feels the weight of that knowledge heavy in the child’s gaze.

“Yes,” and then, because that sounds far too blunt a truth, “I am glad you arrived before it came to that.”

Keith’s muscles tense into something that’s a full-body frown, and if he had a tail Lotor’s sure it would be lashing in agitation, but before he can say anything more the Castle Ship is rocked by another blast, sending the both of them reeling, and Lotor’s hand shoots out to steady his little Blade without conscious thought. In the same instant, the gesture is reciprocated, and when the ship has stabilised it leaves Lotor with a warm body tucked up against him, the Marmorite with a firm grip on Lotor’s waist, and the two of them looking at one another with mirrored surprise.

Lotor recovers first with a tentative smile, and can’t help the teasing murmur of “how very gallant of you,” that slips from his tongue.

Keith stares up at him, and even despite his mask, the way light surprise twists into a bemused pout is betrayed by the bleeding of tension from armoured shoulders and the soft tilt of his head. The boy exhales on a huff.

“I just don’t get you,” he blurts out, his expression undoubtedly one of frustration and curiosity in equal parts, “what do you want?”

It’s not the first time this question has been posed to him.

Lotor’s gaze flickers over the boy momentarily, and then away, to the thought of fine-boned features under pale skin, dusky eyes, dark hair, a sharp smile, and the Prince can hardly help the way his voice dips into something rich and full of promise as he whispers: “I can think of a few things,” the words dripping private amusement, before dedicating his full attention to a matter less vested in personal interest, “but as I’m sure I’ve said, little one, at present my goals align with those of Voltron: to rid the universe of my father.”

And that, somehow, seems the wrong thing to say.

“If my earlier intentions concern you,” Lotor tries, because perhaps his prior admission of guilt was not enough to soothe Voltron’s youngest and most impressionable ally, when three of his rebel comrades were (unbeknownst to them) mere ticks from death, “I would not have killed them had I not believed my life to be in immediate danger. However their blind bigotry is hardly worth my tactical value to the Coalition, ergo I made a choice-”

“No,” the frustration is a growl in the Blade’s throat, and Lotor’s expression falls to one of genuine surprise, “I mean, that’s definitely something we’re going to have to deal with later, but that’s not-“ he hisses a breath through his teeth, “what do you want? Not your vision for the Empire or whatever, but you. Outside of all this.”

Another wave of energy rattles the ship, not nearly so strong as the last though still enough that Lotor has to brace himself against it, and this sees the arm around Keith’s shoulders holding him closer still. They’re nearly nose to nose like this, or they would be were the boy unmasked, but Keith’s stubborn determination has turned the set of his shoulders hard, and he shows no signs of wavering, unbothered by both their physical proximity and the oddly personal turn this conversation has taken.

Lotor’s throat feels suddenly parched.

“Surely it stands to reason that I solely crave Imperial power,” like my father, he doesn’t say, but the Marmorite seems to hear it regardless, and responds with a soft shake of the head.

“No,” it’s a more gentle denial this time, but no less firm, “I really don’t think you do.”

There’s a quiet that falls over them then: one in which Lotor doesn’t know what to say, and Keith doesn’t seem inclined to say anything at all. When the hand at Lotor’s hip turns into a palm against his abdomen, the prince concedes to the firm pressure as it gently enforces him to step back, his arm lingering only for a moment around the child’s  torso before dropping away altogether.

“I’m, er…” his little Blade coughs, words caught on something that is endearingly awkward, as if he’d only now realised how close the two of them had been standing, “I’m supposed to make sure you’re secure.”

Not causing trouble, he means, and even that would be a kind way of putting it. Still, Lotor stands by placidly as Keith yanks his sword from the wall, sending the blaster clattering to the floor and leaking a putrid fluid as it does so; when the Marmorite toes it gingerly, Lotor feels himself melt at the innocent curiosity of the action. He then has to bite back a startled laugh at the not-so-innocent jab of toes against the rebel’s fleshy underside, earning a groan from the unconscious lump, to which Keith responds with a begrudgingly satisfied grunt, before turning to leave.

With that, Lotor allows himself to be led back to the familiar confines of his guest suite, the question of his own ambition still ringing in his ears.

 

-

 

If Keith has to sit through one more accusation of having been manipulated by Lotor, he’s going to hit something.

They’ve been at this for at least two vargas now, and that’s after an entire movement of careful planning - courtesy of Hunk - as to how to most tactfully approach the topic with Allura; not when she was alone, they’d decided, because making her feel cornered was perhaps not a conductive solution, but not with anyone who might further escalate her fury in the immediate vicinity either. Coran had been the obvious choice - cheerful but practical, and the only person Keith had ever witnessed execute a successful defusal of Allura’s temper once ignited - but at this point, Keith thinks, it seems that tact doesn’t count for much of anything, and he watches blankly with a needling pain behind his eyes as Allura insists that Lotor has some sort of ulterior motive.

“All I’m saying,” Hunk has his hands raised peacefully, but his expression is strained, “is that it might be time we cut the guy some slack? I’m not telling you he’s a good person necessarily-”

Keith bristles at that, because he and Hunk still have a slight difference in opinion when it comes to Lotor, but he knows enough to recognise that the yellow Paladin is not the enemy here, and he should maybe keep his mouth shut.

“-but I do think he’s serious about wanting to help Voltron?”

“Hunk,” Allura sounds as exasperated as Keith feels, “Lotor is only acting as our ally for now because it benefits him-”

“So what!” Pidge jumps to her feet, irritation carved into the deep lines of her brow, and Keith is thankful that it’s her who snaps first, “that’s how alliances work, Allura: groups of people trade off useful shit with other groups of people. Half the Coalition doesn’t really give a damn about the universe, they just want Voltron to protect them from the Empire!”

Keith nods decisively, “and god knows Lotor’s been a hell of a lot more useful than the collective population of entire planets we’ve liberated.”

Allura turns to him, expression sour, but it’s Coran who cuts in, cautiously tugging on his moustache.

“If I may, we’re not saving planets because they’re useful, number four, we’re saving them because it’s the right thing to do?” The inflection of those words turn a statement into a question, but one that feels more like an accusation. It’s made worse by the fact that, rather than anger, the older Altean looks deeply concerned.

Keith crosses his arms more tightly, nails digging into biceps as he breathes.

“I know that, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Naxzela was a strategic victory, but we need to focus our efforts on the planets that can best help the coalition, or the whole thing’ll fall apart,” he glances at Hunk who offers him a weak smile of encouragement, “more than half the rebels stationed here have no official military training: they’re inexperienced, and scared, and worse than that they’re all still caught on viewing the entire Galra race as their enemy. It’s only a matter of time before things go south.”

Allura’s laugh is bitter, “the Galra are our enemy,” and Keith is only able to pretend that those words don’t sting due to the unified whisper of the Empire from Pidge and Hunk.

“It’s not what’s in your blood, but who you are that counts,” he echoes, those words the ghost of a friendship he wants to believe in, and sees the recognition of their shared memory spark behind the Princess’ eyes, “if that’s true for me, Allura, then the least you can do is give Lotor the opportunity to prove himself.”

She looks stricken.

“It’s not his Galra heritage that I have a problem with-”

“Isn’t it?” Keith asks, the words dark even as his throat closes up around them.

The room falls into a deathly quiet.

“Too far, number four.” It’s Coran who steps forward, brow heavy, disappointed, and Keith is suddenly glad to be wearing his Marmora armor - in uniform due to an earlier briefing with Kolivan who, even when several galaxies away, does not appreciate Keith making his reports in casual wear - as it allows him the illusion of security despite the present threat being an emotional one. Even as he tries to remain stoic and unfazed, Keith can feel his shoulders hunching in on themselves.

“Was it, though?” Hunk voice is subdued, his teeth gnawing at his lip with a ferocity that leaves Keith concerned. “I mean, Allura, don’t get me wrong, I don’t trust Lotor, but I do trust Keith.”

Pidge jumps in with a fervent nod of assent.

“He’s spent more time around tall dark and purple than the rest of the Coalition combined: ignoring everything pre-Naxzela, it kind of does look like you’re hating on Lotor for being Galra more than anything else, and that’s not right.

“We cannot simply ignore the things he did before his convenient change of heart,” the line of Allura’s mouth has gone tight, “right now the narrative that best suits him is that of our ally, but the moment that changes-”

There’s a hissed curse from Pidge as she balls her fists, and Keith is very distinctly relieved to have the green Paladin fighting his corner.

“The moment that changes we deal with him! But for now he’s giving us everything we ask him for, so maybe not being a dick for like, two ticks, would be a good option?”

Allura opens her mouth with a scowl, but she’s not given the chance to speak; the Castle Ship’s automatic defence systems trigger a blaring alarm, the holo-screens overhead bursting into life with the image of a small fleet of imperial ships, and the sight launches everyone into immediate action.

Tapping into the comms, Allura declares: “A rogue Galra fleet has been isolated and is making moves to engage. Paladins, to your Lions! Rebel fighters, please report to your stations!”

She pulls away from the central dais as Pidge and Hunk dart for their respective entry points, and grabs Keith by the arm, guilt warring with some other emotion that he can’t put a name to.

“Secure Prince Lotor,” she commands as Princess, and then, in a far less impersonal tone, “and Keith… we’ll talk about this later.”

With a light squeeze to his elbow, she’s gone.

 

When he finds Lotor, it’s to the sound of the blue sycophantic alien whose name Keith never cared to remember, delighting in having the Prince of the Galra Empire on his knees and at his mercy. He plans to kill him, Keith thinks, but with a trill of near-euphoria from Kra he realises that it’s far more likely Lotor will kill all five of them first.

So Keith cuts in before anyone has to die, taking down the ringleader to the beat of blood roaring through his own veins, and barking orders at those still-standing until it’s just him, Lotor, and the unconscious lump at his feet. Keith lets himself run on autopilot for the next few dobashes, his mind replaying the raw loathing he’d seen in the rebel’s eyes as he’d lorded Lotor’s own life over his head. It scares him, how easily the rebels hate, and while he’d thought it something manageable when directed towards himself, seeing Lotor nearly suffer mortal consequences simply for the crime of a lineage he never chose has shaken Keith to his core.

Lotor, apparently, isn’t even mildly disturbed.

“How very gallant of you,” he says, after the ship rocks violently and the two of them end up half coiled together in a mutual effort to keep one another upright. The Prince’s tone is light-hearted and playful and completely at odds with the fact that someone had nearly killed him only moments before, and that he’d been mere ticks away from killing them in return.

Keith is at a loss of what to make of it.

“I just don’t get you,” the words tumble out without permission, blunt and unfiltered, “what do you want?”

Lotor seems not to understand the question at first, and when Keith clarifies, he seems not to want to answer it.

“Surely it stands to reason that I solely crave Imperial power,” are the words he settles on, and Keith can hear the like my father, lingering in the space between them, so he shakes his head with a frown.

“No,” because coming face to face with Zarkon when seated within the red Lion was more than enough nightmare fuel to last a lifetime, and yet with Lotor it’s almost effortless to disregard personal space altogether, “I really don’t think you do.”

 

Lotor goes easily to his assigned suite, and Keith follows him in and over to the great window on the main room’s far side; from there the two of them have a clear view of the Castle’s particle barrier, flickering under the prior abuse of rogue enemy fire, but still holding strong, and beyond that, Voltron: colossal and unparalleled and carving through Imperial battleships like a hot knife through butter. It’s a strange thing for Keith to see. After having left Voltron he’d received reports of his friends’ movements - largely second-hand through Kolivan, and therefore as succinct facts rather than full, detailed accounts of their progress as a team - but he’d never seen them in action. Even at Naxzela, they were half a galaxy away from one another. So this: standing here and seeing, for the first time, Voltron as the weapon it was created to be… this is his first true inkling of what it is that their enemies are up against.

“King Alfor truly outdid himself,” Lotor murmurs.

When Keith looks, the Prince isn’t addressing him, but watching in quiet awe as the battle rages on in the distance. Lotor sinks to seat himself on the sill, long legs draped carelessly across it, as one hand traces Voltron’s path against the glass, eyes never leaving the desolation that rages beyond.

“You almost sound like you admire him.”

Lotor turns to fix Keith with a quirked eyebrow and the beginnings of a smile.

“Perhaps I do,” he inclines his head in such a way that Keith feels he’s being invited to sit, so he does so on the opposite end of the window ledge, and only then does Lotor continue, “having never met the man personally, I am hardly qualified to make a personal judgement, but his work, at the very least, I would be hard pressed not to hold in high regard.”

There’s a flash of light as Voltron tears through the last of the rogue Galra fleet, and the ship explodes into a graveyard of scrap metal.

“It is a monstrous thing.”

Monstrous. It’s not a word Keith has ever heard used to describe Voltron, but then, he supposes, the only opinions he’s encountered are those of the people they’ve been fighting to protect. The Empire’s narrative must be something else entirely.

He almost asks Lotor how many people are stationed on ships like the one that is now drifting, fragmented, through the cold battlefield of deep-space. Not sentries, but real flesh-and-blood people. How many prisoners, like Shiro and Matt, who’ve been abducted for no reason and forced to fight for their lives. How many Galra, enrolled in the military which is, Keith knows, such a huge part of Imperial culture.

People, all of them, with thoughts and feelings and families that they’ll never return to.

He can’t bring himself to do it.

“I’d never seen it in person until Thayserix,” Lotor’s tone is one of hushed wonder, “by the time of my birth, relations between my father and the other Paladins were strained, and Voltron did not form on Daibazaal or anywhere else. As a child I thought it a great pity.”

Keith absorbs the implications of this.

“You…” the thought dawns on him slowly, “you grew up on Daibazaal?”

There’s an immediate rigidity that takes hold of the Prince’s posture, and Keith has half a mind to retract the question altogether, but before he can Lotor is tapping out an uneven beat with his fingertips, his own words tripping over the rhythm of it.

“I- yes. In a manner of speaking, anyway, it was-” he swallows, scowls at nothing in a way that Keith is all too familiar with, unwanted memories doubtlessly playing out in the space between them, “I was born on-planet, and spent my formative years there before the Sa Tskept came to pass.”

Keith recalls the term from their first conversation.

“You were there when Alfor evacuated everyone?”

“Evacuated,” Lotor scoffs, “now there’s a word for it.”

When blue eyes flick upwards to look at him, Keith is very thankful for his Marmora mask; he has no idea what sort of a face he’s making right now, and it’s probably for the best that Lotor doesn’t either, because the Prince’s expression is quiet, somehow. Empty.

“The story of what occurred that day has become obscured over time, as everything inevitably does. My father would have the official account be one of annihilation and betrayal as is best suited to his favoured narrative of retribution, but that…” Lotor trails off, sighs, forces himself to continue with what looks like great effort, “as I said, I never met King Alfor personally, but an act of mindless cruelty, such as unjustified planetary annihilation, would stand far outside my understanding of his character. At the very least, it is an act ill-suited to the general Altean disposition.”

Keith hesitates.

“You don’t think Alfor destroyed Daibazaal?” He can’t see why anyone would believe otherwise, even Allura having admitted to the truth of the extreme actions her father took for the betterment of the universe, but Lotor is shaking his head with a sad sort of smile.

“That’s not what I meant, little Blade. I do not doubt that he did it, only that the Imperial line with regards to the intent behind said actions - claiming that the Altean king was a malicious man and therefore the subsequent destruction of Altea was justice in its purest form - is false. It’s important that you understand, I was… sickly, as a child.”

Keith tilts his head at the admission, confused as to its relevance until Lotor continues, his voice strained and rasping.

“My mother was an exceptional woman. She was handpicked by King Alfor himself to study the rift created by the comet that would later be known as Voltron, ergo her understanding of quintessence and its origin was near-unparalleled. Working so closely to that much raw energy, however, began to take its toll, and by the time she birthed me she was…” another steadying breath, “neither she nor I were long for this world. Being what I am, it was unlikely I would survive past infancy regardless, but having spent the entirety of my gestation in close proximity to that much raw quintessence…”

Being what I am, brings questions to Keith’s mind, but before he can ask them Lotor is shrugging, nonchalant, as if the topic at hand is of little consequence.

“She never gave up on me. Despite her own ill-health she persisted, determined to cure me of my genetic inevitability despite King Alfor’s demands that she cease her meddling and close the rift. Alfor warned both her and my father that if they continued down this path, Sa would swallow the entirety of Daibazaal, and he was right,” there’s a grim softness to Lotor that Keith couldn’t describe if he tried, “but outsiders will never understand how deeply our love, the Galran sense of devotion, runs.”

Lotor drags a clawed hand through his hair, absently.

“I do often not speak fondly of my father,” the obvious reasons for which go unsaid, but Keith has a sneaking suspicion that there are less obvious ones too, “but that night he came to me, enraged by Alfor’s words, and I can quite vividly recall the ferocity with which he grabbed me by the scruff of my neck.”

There’s an awful melancholy to the Prince’s tone as he rubs at his nape, as if the sensation never left him.

“He told me what had happened, told me of Alfor’s concerns, and then,” a bitter laugh, “told me that if the whole damn universe had to burn for my sake, and the sake of my mother, then he’d set each and every planet aflame with his own hand.”

“He loved you,” Keith hears himself say, and can hardly reconcile this image of Zarkon as a devoted father, with the tyrant he’s become.

“Yes,” Lotor agrees, softly, “he did. He loved me, and he loved my mother, and the entire universe paid the price.”

There isn’t anything Keith can say to that.

“Little by little,” Lotor continues, “my health began to improve. My mother’s alchemy was a success, but it was also tailored to the specific needs of a child of dual lineage - both Galra and Altean - meaning that when she took an abrupt turn for the worse, the twenty decaphoebs of research that she’d dedicated to me were entirely useless in curing her.”

Twenty decaphoebs. Keith doesn’t know the precise equivalent of Galra decaphoebs as opposed to Altean ones, or how much either of those equate to in Earth years, but he does recall Kolivan’s begrudging acceptance of the Blade’s collective determination to celebrate his two hundredth cycle; in comparison to that, twenty decaphoebs is a mere fraction of a life.

“So Zarkon asked Alfor for his help,” Keith fills in what he knows slowly, “and took Honerva into the rift to try and save her.”

Lotor heaves a great sigh, his breath fogging against the window full of stars.

“Indeed. But before that I, much like Princess Allura, was put into cryostasis by my own father. He was not certain as to what the ramifications of his actions would be, after all, and did not wish to risk a sudden relapse in my health while he was otherwise indisposed. So he left me in the care of my mother’s closest confidants - members of Daibazaal’s druidic sect who had worked with raw quintessence long before the Alteans dare touch it, and all half corrupted by Sa’s denizens already - and left.”

Lotor doesn’t offer the rest of the story, and Keith doesn’t ask for it. For the most part, it’s self-explanatory: Zarkon dies with Honerva, their bodies are brought back from the other side of the rift, their people mourn them, Alfor seals the rift the only way he knows how, and zombie-Zarkon rises from the dead to avenge his planet’s destruction and conquer the known universe piece by piece over a period of several millennia.

“What about you?” Keith asks, instead, “if you were put into stasis as a kid, when did they wake you up?”

Lotor grimaces.

“It is… complicated. My parents were claimed by Sa, there is no doubt about that. The creature you call Zarkon may wear my father’s skin, it may speak with his voice, and it may even possess his memories, but that monster is not the man who sired me.” Lotor sets his jaw. “When I was first awoken by my father’s witch, Daibazaal had been gone for centuries.”

There’s a silence then: one in which Keith has no words to express what he wants to say. He’d seen Allura and Coran discover the destruction of their planet and people, seen how they’d fallen apart, and while the Galra race hadn’t been wiped out, Keith can’t begin to imagine a child waking up to such a life-changing reality.

“After that,” Lotor is tracing symbols into the fog of his breath, and Keith watches him with a pang of familiarity for the empty sense of loss written into his features, “I was taken in and out of stasis intermittently, as and when it pleased her. At first I was naïve enough to believe in her good intentions, but… that is not Haggar’s way.”

“She tortured you?” The words fall out of Keith’s mouth, and he regrets them instantly.

There’s a beat of silence, thick and viscous.

“I do not think,” Lotor says, finally, his finger frozen against the glass, eyes glazed over and cold, “that you want me to delve into such things. My childhood is not what it ought to have been, little Blade, let us leave it at that.”

Keith concedes, with a quiet sort of “okay,” that isn’t really enough.

Lotor accepts it regardless.

They sit in silence for a while more, Lotor returning to his mindless pattern-tracing, and Keith tucking his knees up to rest his chin upon them. They stay that way until the Prince asks, “you said the knife belonged to your mother,” in a way that’s less a question and more an invitation.

“Yes,” Keith knows he could leave it at that and Lotor wouldn’t press him, but… “She was a Blade of Marmora.”

The Prince glances at him with a weak, if teasing smile, “I assumed as much.”

“I never knew her,” Keith blurts, because he’s not good with words and subtlety and apparently has no fucking idea how to regulate a conversation.

As Lotor’s face falls, Keith turns his eyes back to the stars to avoid seeing pity - or worse, understanding - in the other’s features.

“Kolivan might know who she was, but he refuses to give me a straight answer, so…” he shrugs without anything more to say, and lets his eyes drift from star to star in imagined constellations.

“Marmora’s commander is your,” there’s a pause as Lotor searches for the right terminology, “primary caregiver?”

Almost choking the idea of Kolivan having raised him - though he’s not sure whether the tightness in his chest is from horror at the inevitable train wreck that would have been, or a sort of wistfulness for the idea of having been brought up by a family, covert military organisation though they may be - Keith shakes his head.

“I didn’t grow up on Marmora’s base,” he shifts, arms hugging his knees and head resting upon them. “Until Voltron, I lived on Earth.”

“That is a planet?”

Keith nods in affirmation.

“Your birth planet was named… Earth.”                                                                                                      

Keith confirms this with a hum, but there’s something familiar about the hesitation in the Prince’s posture which he can’t quite place until Lotor’s curiosity clearly gets the better of him and he asks, almost indignant: “Who names a planet Earth?

Memories of hanger Xi12 and Pidge’s hysterics at the failure of Lotor’s translator come back to him, and beneath his mask, Keith quirks a smile.

Daibazaal is a distinctive word without an English equivalent, but Earth, Keith thinks, must translate differently. If so, Lotor’s reaction is likely one to Keith telling him that he’d grown up on a planet called Ground, or Dirt, which - while not technically wrong - is probably underwhelming, at best. He wonders if Allura and Coran have encountered the same issue, only to be too polite to say anything, and laughs, which leaves Lotor’s nose scrunching up with irritation.

“Turn your translator off,” and Keith knows that his words come out thick with amusement, but he can hardly help his own smile, “it probably sounds dumb in the common tongue.”

Rather than doing as he’s asked - which, really, Keith should have expected - Lotor’s ire turns soft on a frown of confusion.

“I was under the impression that we were both speaking the common tongue.”

Keith pauses.

“I speak English, same as the others.” Aside from Lance, on occasion, when he slips back into Spanish.

“English,” Lotor rolls the syllables around his mouth curiously, almost as if he’s savouring them, but the sulky downturn of his lips doesn’t alleviate any, “what manner of backwater dialect is that? And for the love of Brodar, why do Marmora use such a thing?”

Keith cocks his head, and fixes Lotor with a long hard look.

He can’t be serious.

He can’t be, but… but sincerity is written into every line of the Prince’s brow: eyebrows drawn and furrowed, mouth pressed into a tight line, and ears pricked up slightly as if he’s genuinely waiting for a response. Keith had been absolutely certain, had been operating within the parameters of this assumption for an entire phoeb, but if he had somehow got it wrong-

Then Lotor must think…

“I meant the other Paladins,” allowing his mask to dissolve, Keith watches the Prince’s expression fall from one of deep-rooted confusion to unparalleled astonishment. With his next question a breathless laugh, Keith knows that the smile tugging at his own lips is out of control: “I thought you knew?”

The look on Lotor’s face says he did not.

“I was under the impression,” the Prince eventually forces out, with a hard swallow, “that every Blade was Galra,” and Keith sees how his eyes are wide and unblinking and honest in all the ways no one else seems to believe Zarkon’s son can be.

With a silent apology to Allura, Keith gives a half shrug, bites his lip, and forces himself not to look away from those endlessly blue eyes as he admits, “we are,” in a voice too soft to be his own.

Chapter Text

Lotor doesn’t mean to delve into the darker elements of his past, but Marmora’s kit seems to have something of a knack for loosening the Prince’s tongue. Were it some deliberate form of subterfuge Lotor is certain he would be able to resist it, but as it stands Keith is the embodiment of innocent curiosity, and it proves near impossible to say no to him. Some may argue that there is neutral territory between tight-lipped refusal, and the emotional suicide of reliving his early childhood, but apparently that is not to be Lotor’s battleground this evening. If it were, he thinks, this fight would be a far simpler one.

When the question of torture leaves Keith’s lips, Lotor is thrown back into a world on fire.

“I do not think,” he chokes out, his veneer of composure dangerously thin, “that you want me to delve into such things. My childhood was not what it ought to have been, little Blade, let us leave it at that.”

Those words are a near-laughable understatement, and Keith must know that if the soft solemnity of his acquiesce is any indication, but that little “okay,” draws from Lotor an overwhelming swell of gratitude which has his breath catching in his throat.

“You said the knife belonged to your mother,” are the next words the Prince hears - and in his own voice, no less - breaching the blanket of quiet that threatens to smother him.

“Yes,” shifting where he’s perched on the opposite end of the window ledge, the kit seems cautious, but not uncomfortable, “she was a Blade of Marmora.”

Lotor feels the corners of his lips quirk upwards.

That much is obvious, he doesn’t say, because Keith is, impossibly, more guarded than Lotor himself, and the last thing the Prince wants is to discourage the rapport that he has been so carefully fostering between them.

The decided upon, “I assumed as much,” is of far more amicable wording.

It’s a balancing act: keeping this child of the Blade on side as an ally when Lotor knows that - in the entire universe - he himself hasn’t one true friend remaining, while simultaneously mediating his personal investment in the poor thing, courtesy of his own ridiculous sentimentalities.

“I never knew her,” is the reply that tumbles from Keith’s tongue, seemingly unbidden if the sudden tension that takes rigorous hold of him is any indication, and Lotor silently curses his own bleeding heart for the pang of sympathy this elicits. “Kolivan might know who she was, but he refuses to give me a straight answer, so…” trailing off with a shrug, the littlest Blade falsifies indifference, and Lotor is forced to resign himself to his Altean weakness of spirit because this story is as loathsome as it is familiar: a mother taken before her time, a father who must be absent at best, if the kit thinks of his commanding officer before his own sire, and the resultant child set adrift in the universe.

Melancholy sets in with a bone-deep chill.

“Marmora’s commander is your,” the correct phrasing eludes him, “primary caregiver?”

Keith makes a noise as if he’s had the breath punched out of him, and he shakes his head rapidly, as though the very idea of such a thing is unfathomable.

“I didn’t grow up on Marmora’s base,” he sounds wistful, curling in upon himself, limbs drawn in tightly and blank mask softly lit when set against the backdrop of a star-sprinkled battlefield, and it would be impossible to ignore how little a thing he is. “Until Voltron, I lived on Earth.”

Earth. The way he says it implies a place, but there are no Imperial territories entitled something so… inane.

“That is a planet?”

Keith gives a small nod, attention still steadfastly fixated on the desolation that the so-called Defender of the Universe has left behind.

“Your birth planet was named… Earth.” The confirmation Lotor seeks is freely given in the form of an absent hum of assent, suggesting the kit doesn’t realise how utterly ridiculous a name that is. “Who names a planet Earth.”

There is a beat of quiet as Keith tears his attention from the window, and back to Lotor.

A second beat as he tilts his head, the gesture both considering and dreadfully adorable.

A third.

A fourth.

Then, laughter: startled and unabashed and ringing through the echoing room to drown out the ever present hum of the castle ship altogether. Lotor knows his expression must do something complicated because he can feel the muscles of his face twitch, torn between the automatic insult of being subject to another’s ridicule, and an undeniable fondness that Marmora’s child has kindled within him.

“Turn your translator off,” Keith orders, lightly, as if demanding things of the Emperor’s son is something that people just do, “it probably sounds dumb in the common tongue.”

And that… huh.

Because the obvious implication therein would be-

“I was under the impression that we were both speaking the common tongue.”

There’s a stillness that overtakes Keith then - not one of tension, necessarily, but confusion - and Lotor thinks it might have touched upon him too, because the room is suddenly much quieter than it had been barely a tick before.

“I speak English, same as the others.”

“English,” Lotor curls his tongue about the syllables, and there’s something distinctly foreign about the ungainly way they sit in his mouth: clumsy and graceless. Particularly un-Galran. “What manner of backwater dialect is that? And for the love of Brodar, why do Marmora use such a thing?”

The little Blade cocks his head, the rest of his form remaining subject to that disquieting stillness.

Then he’s bringing his fingers up to brush over his own collarbone, his neck, the hinge of his jaw, hesitation not only palpable in the air between them, but so thick that Lotor near misses the warning of: “I meant the other Paladins,” which is hardly a warning at all and more a mockery of Lotor’s own arrogance because apparently - apparently - he himself is the most ignorant fool in the whole universe.

Keith’s mask dissolves in a shattering of light.

…and the red Paladin replaces him, wearing distinctly Galran armor and a smile that could raze entire planets.

“I thought you knew?” he asks, and Lotor can taste the curl of those lips.

He wants to be furious.

I thought you knew?

He wants to feel scorned or derided or anything other than completely off-kilter at this cataclysmic truth that, until this very moment, had remained unspoken between them despite the blatant insinuation that this is only so by pure coincidence.

I thought you knew?

Those words echo, and their lilt of tone is genuine because not once has Keith - the red Paladin - been anything less, and yet somehow Lotor didn’t know.

“I was under the impression,” Lotor hears himself speak as if he were listening from over a great distance, “that every Blade was Galra.”

The words don’t quite ring true until he hears himself say them, but they are. Lotor had only taken the kit’s - not a kit, not a kit at all - heritage as fact because he had no reason to believe it would be otherwise. Historical records, limited though they are on the topic, have always penned the Blade of Marmora as more than their namesake’s elite guard: they were said to be her oath-sworn, her blood-bonded, her Li Naacht. Perhaps he had assumed too much based off of too little, but Lotor’s initial assessment of Kolivan had not seen the Blade’s commander as the kind of man to negate tradition for a singular foot soldier, Paladin or otherwise.

Said Paladin - Keith - shrugs minutely, good humour wavering in favour of something a little vulnerable and a little unsure, and yet adamantly refuses to look away as he peers out from the shadows of his hood and makes a confession that has Lotor’s lungs seizing in his chest.

Said confession is a whispered; “we are.”

I’m Galra, Lotor hears, from the mouth of a Paladin who very obviously isn’t.

The silence swallows everything whole, until-

“No.”

Granted, it’s not the most eloquent response, but it’s the only one the Prince’s brain is supplying.

The red Paladin’s face - Keith’s face - scrunches up, and it’s obscenely adorable just as Lotor had imagined it would be - had known it was, without knowing that he knew - if significantly less purple or furred or Galra in any discernible way.

“No?” Keith sounds… not offended, but it’s a near thing. “What do you mean no? You can’t just-”

“No.” Lotor repeats, with a firm nod, as if that solves everything even though he is fully aware that it doesn’t, and without further explanation he’s standing, his legs carrying him across the expansive Altean suite in long strides.

“Hey!” This exclamation is torn between confusion and laughter, “Lotor!

And oh, oh, the sound of his own name is simultaneously so much better and so much worse than it should be. Is this the first time Keith has addressed him with such familiarity? Lotor thinks it might be. It is certainly the first time that the red Paladin and his little Blade have called for him in tandem, though seeing as that is a by-product of their being the same person, perhaps such things don’t count for much of anything at all, no matter how sweetly it rings. Lotor wants to hate it.

Suffice to say, he does not.

Light footsteps encroach on what, the Prince has to admit, may be a minor internal meltdown, and he abruptly abandons his retreat in favour of whirling around to fix the intruder with a hard look. Evidently, it is an unimpressive attempt, because for all Keith stumbles to a sudden halt, his smile is still wide and sincere and perfectly awful.

“Your face,” the Prince tries, his throat raw and words unfiltered, because his eyes have caught on the sharpness of those fine-boned features with the newfound knowledge of who they belong to, and in this moment his wit seems to be lagging behind somewhat, “why is it…?”

His gesturing is vague, Lotor knows, and his words even more so, but when Keith’s smile falls to incomprehension, gingerly touching one gloved hand to his pale furless cheek, the Prince loathes the flicker of insecurity his own words have caused, and hurries to correct himself.

“I do not mean to say- it is a very nice face,” very nice, a voice in the back of his mind agrees, and despite the fact that this is perhaps the worst compliment Lotor has paid the red Paladin yet - either side of the mask - Keith ducks his head to conceal a snort, before returning his attention to Lotor with a mirthful glint in his eye, “only, it is not a Galra face.”

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Keith huffs, the overt amusement of his words tainted sour in the way he delivers them, “I never looked much like my dad, so ‘used to figure I looked like my mum, but… I guess not.”

Lotor blames the surprise of it all for having not drawn the obvious conclusion sooner, but as Keith says this, blue eyes fall to the knife strapped at the Paladin’s waist, and all of Lotor’s attention focusses in on that single point.

It’s luxite, he knows that much, having been perhaps a little too up-close and personal with it. Empress Marmora’s luxite which, if the legends hold true, only responds to the bloodlines of her Li Naacht, ergo Keith must be of their descent, ergo he really is Galra, on his mother’s side at least because that blade was his mother’s, he’d said as much, ergo-

“Your mother was a Blade,” Lotor murmurs, dragging his eyes back up to Keith’s face in time to catch the nod of affirmation this statement is greeted with, “but your father wasn’t.”

Keith shakes his head.

“Your father was of Earth,” Lotor hardly cares for the planet’s clumsy designation, not when Keith’s reply is a quiet epiphany in its own right.

“Yes.”

“You’re-” half Galra, he might have said, but Keith gets there first.

“Like you,” and for the blunt truth of it to be blurted out so earnestly is damn near apocalyptic, “yeah.”

Lotor drags his palm over his lower jaw roughly, wide eyes fixed on Keith with such magnetism that it’ll be a wonder if he’s ever able to look at anything else.

“Like me indeed,” he exhales in a rush, and as Keith’s shoulders relax into the sound Lotor thinks it’s ludicrous that he didn’t see the Galra in the lines of the unmasked Paladin sooner, because he is so unabashed with his displays of emotion; even so, Lotor is hardly at fault for having assumed-

Assumptions are a dangerous thing when it comes to Keith, or so it seems, and the Prince has toed the line of wilful ignorance for long enough.

“I used to wonder why my dad’d never talk about her,” Keith mumbles, absently tugging on one of the longer strands of hair that curls around to frame sharp cheekbones, and Lotor notes how that same bitterness as before has returned to his tone, “or why he never had any real proof that she existed at all, besides me and her knife, but then Voltron happened and-“

Keith ends offering only a shrug and a wry smile by way of explanation, but it’s more than enough.

“Your father neglected to inform you of your maternal origins.” Though Lotor doesn’t mean it as a question, Keith treats it as such.

“If you’re trying to ask whether I knew that the woman who gave birth to me was a seven foot tall, purple assassin from outer space, then no,” he scoffs, “somehow dad forgot to mention that bit.”

Lotor’s mind screeches to a jarring halt.

He had thought only that Keith was alluding to his mother’s role as a one of Marmora’s number, not-

Never-

His voice, when he is able to muster it from his sandpaper throat, is hushed and horrified: “You did not even know you were Galra?

Granted, he doesn’t at all look it, but to have been kept completely ignorant of his birthright...

“Technically,” Keith shifts his weight with an air of faux nonchalance, arms crossed, head ducked low, “I didn’t know I was any sort of alien at all. Earth’s pre-contact: I mean, logically, the likelihood of humans being alone in the universe was obviously infinitesimal, but there wasn’t any official proof until the Kerberos mission, and the Garrison refused to recognise the truth of what happened there, so…”

He trails off, catching Lotor’s slack-jawed horror through the shadow of long eyelashes.

“What?”

Lotor doesn’t answer, tucking away the words Kerberos and Garrison to be asked about later, and instead stepping carefully around the Marmorite who makes a terribly endearing noise of confusion at the Prince’s sudden perusal; Lotor, still biting his own tongue, circles the boy - man? - in careful observation before giving in to his own gnawing curiosity.

“How many decaphoebs have you seen?”

Violet eyes blink up at him.

“Er,” he tilts his head, leaving the soft underside of his neck exposed, and how can Lotor be blamed for jumping to the conclusion of kit when Keith is so very small and so very open, “I’m not really sure how Earth years translate? But I’m almost a quarter of the way through an average human lifespan.”

A quarter.

A quarter.

Lotor would have given him far less when masked, and perhaps a little more outside of it if only for the way he carries himself. A quarter, in the vast majority of species, speaks of adulthood. A quarter is a far cry from Marmora’s kitling being raised as a child-soldier.

A quarter, some treacherous voice in the back of the Prince’s mind whispers, is of courtable age.

And that in itself is more than enough to see Lotor careening through his own mindscape once again, because his dangerous fondness for the red Paladin and all his sharp edges is amplified tenfold when combined with the sweet affection fostered for his little Blade.

Yours.

If Kra understood the concept of smugness, then she would be embodying everything it entails in this moment, and Lotor sends the equivalent of a sharp mental scolding her way because she knew.

She doesn’t seem to comprehend his snappish rebuke.

Little star, she insists, greeting the image of Keith - both masked and unmasked - with a possessive sort of fondness, and Lotor supposes he shouldn’t be surprised; he’d never asked, so she’d never told him, and for a being who, so far as he understands it, deals in quintessence rather than physical form, a synthetic disguise is at best arbitrary, and at worst completely inconsequential.

“Lotor?”

He must have been silent for too long, because Keith has stepped daringly closer, and yet it’s not daring at all because, unwittingly or otherwise, Lotor knows he’s invited his little masked guard far nearer than this, and so Keith mustn’t think anything of it.

But, oh, in retrospect…

Towards the beginning of their unlikely acquaintanceship, Lotor had bared his throat in an - albeit successful - attempt to entice Keith to his side. Keith may be young, yes, but not nearly so much as the Prince had assumed; small for his paternal heritage, and not for his age; naïve to Galran culture for all the same reasons. All the signs had been right there, yet Lotor had missed each and every one, and now it was all coming back to bite him, because what had been gently demure in his behaviour when aimed towards a kit, becomes embarrassingly coquettish when the recipient is old enough to have perceived his behaviour as an utterly shameless act of romantic pursual.

Not to mention, he really is dreadfully pretty.

The scandal of Lotor’s own behaviour dawns upon him in a single instant, and everything he is draws in upon himself, ears flickering downwards in humiliation.

Keith catches the movement.

Worse yet, he does so with a frown of comprehension.

“You… you’re embarrassed,” he says, quietly awed, and Lotor cannot bring himself to look, nor waste what little dignity he has left of unseemly denial, which leaves him at a loss of what to do other than carefully ignore the prickling of his skin where Keith’s scrupulous assessment rakes over him, and again allow his legs to carry him quite firmly away with distracted purpose.

Keith - damn his tenacity - follows.

“You are.” It’s said with a laugh, and the heat that trickles down Lotor’s spine isn’t, he’s forced to admit, entirely awful.

“I was under the impression,” he growls out, as with lack of any better distraction he returns his attention to the desolation outside the window, and can’t really pretend that this is enough to draw his focus completely, “that you were far younger.”

“Younger?”

Lotor’s eyes, helpless to resist, are drawn back to him, and the Prince can’t even muster up the energy to be surprised at how sincere his little Blade’s confusion seems to be.

“I thought you were a child, Keith. Barely a kit out of its cradle,” his tone is one of raw exasperation as he runs one hand roughly through long white hair, uncaring that this likely leaves him dishevelled and unsightly. “You are so small! How was I to know- why are you so small? The Champion is not nearly so small as you and if you have Galra blood you really should be far larger and-” he huffs out a disbelieving laugh, a light touch of hysteria catching up with him, “I thought you were a baby.”

The red Paladin gapes.

Then: “no.”

Like me, truly is a funny thing.

“No, but you-” his nose is scrunching up again, and coupled with the furrow of his brow Keith truly is an irresistible creature, “back up: you thought I was a kid?

“A kit of Marmora, yes,” Lotor affirms, and then - half because this doesn’t seem to achieve much in the way of pacifying Keith, and half because his mind seems tangled up in the fact - he tacks on with another huff of disbelieving laughter, “you really are very small.”

“Oh sure, that’s easy for you to say!” Were it not for the way pink lips quirk upwards at the corners, Lotor might think that Keith is truly affronted. “Just because you’re ridiculously tall-”

Lotor really does laugh at that.

“Were I born of two Galra parents, I would be considered stunted, at best.”

Keith makes a noise of disbelief, and then, when Lotor doesn’t waver, this morphs into a short grunt of consideration, and something under his breath which sounds like an offended echo of “stunted,” before he refocuses himself.

“Fine, whatever, I’m small by Galra standards,” and, dear Brodar, he’s pouting, “but I still don’t see how you didn’t know?”

The Prince opens his mouth to explain himself, but Keith’s spurs onwards, his next statement pointed.

“When Pidge and I came to question you about Kra, you asked for my name.”

The way in which this is said, implies something that Lotor is clearly missing.

“Yes?” Arms loosely crossed, Lotor leans his weight against the window, the chill of the endless void beyond seeping into his forearm where it is pressed into the glass, and regards Keith curiously. “Is it uncustomary on your planet of dirt, to prelude conversation with an introduction?”

“Well no, but…” Keith’s bow furrows further, “I figured you were messing with me? Pretending to the others that you didn’t know just so that I’d have to admit it first-“

And, granted, that does sound very much like the kind of game Lotor is wont to play.

“-then you gave me a Galra name-”

The Prince blanches.

Ah. Yes. Well, there is that.

Because his little Rhyahl, fierce and deadly and divine in every way, is also soft, sincere, and yet equally ferocious as Marmora’s littlest Blade, and somehow that makes him all the more deserving of the title.

“-plus you offered to give me Galra history lessons which, obviously, you’d already been teaching me about-”

Oh dear.

Well this is all terribly humiliating.

“-and then with everything you said about Marmora and the Truth, I guess I just assumed-”

“I see your point,” Lotor cuts in, dragging his palm over his face and half hiding behind it, “I evidently - though unwittingly - made certain comments that led you to believe I knew of your dual identity. You acted accordingly. The both of us should perhaps hold off making any further assumptions because clearly neither you nor I are quite so well-informed as we previously believed ourselves to be.”

When he dares to peek through the bars of his fingers, Lotor catches Keith’s eye, his lopsided smile, the foreign shape of an “oops,” leaving his lips only to be transformed by Lotor’s translator into a comprehensible tongue, and thinks: I am damned.

Yet damnation brings with it the sweet taste of sin, and Lotor cannot find it in himself to complain.

 

-

 

Keith isn’t really sure where to begin - it’s undeniable that he has a lot of questions - but, for comfort’s sake, he and Lotor end up migrating to a large collection of Altean pillows piled in one corner of the room on top of what Keith identifies as something between an obnoxiously oversized armchair and a pointlessly undersized sofa. It’s comfortable, either way, so perhaps the specifics of what exactly it is don’t matter, but it does prove difficult to remain seated upright when no matter how Keith positions himself the cushions seem determined to devour him whole. From barely two feet away, where he’s lounging with an easy sort of grace, Lotor smothers a chuckle.

The circular blue pillow to Keith’s left makes for an excellent projectile.

It’s intercepted before it collides with its target, and to Keith’s immediate regret Lotor’s smirk has widened so that he’s baring his fangs to reveal the poorly-cadged laughter behind them. Scowling does very little to dampen the Prince’s apparent good humour.

“Your effortless charm astounds me.”

“Gee,” Keith grunts as he struggles to right himself, his attempt failing spectacularly, “thanks.”

“You are most welcome,” the worst part is that Lotor sounds sincere.

With a grunt, Keith resigns himself to being half drowned in soft fabrics, and silently admits that there are far worse ways to go.

“Are you quite done?”

“Apparently,” is Keith’s begrudging admission, and he doesn’t miss how it causes the corners of the Prince’s eyes to soften slightly.

“Then may I ask you something?”

Keith raises an eyebrow.

Lotor’s question is… earnest. The Prince has drawn himself upright - somehow - and is watching Keith carefully, as if scouring him for even the slightest indication of discomfort that Lotor’s own curiosity might have caused. His consideration is appreciated, but unnecessary.

“I guess I’d prefer you ask instead of assuming anything else,” Keith grins at the way Lotor’s expression falls flat in immediate response to his teasing.

“My assumption was well-founded-”

“I don’t think my height is solid evidence.”

Lotor scoffs.

“I beg to differ; when coupled with your emotional physicality, your height served only to reinforce my hypothesis.”

Keith tilts his head, curious, “my emotional what now?” and is only made more so by the utter look of devastation that paints Lotor’s features when he does.

“I mean precisely that,” the Prince huffs out on a laugh, “while your linguistic expression is reticent, as fitting of one of Marmora’s elite, your control over its physical counterpart - if you’ll forgive me for saying so - possesses a transparency befitted only to a kit.”

There’s an amused smile playing on Lotor’s lips as, for further clarification, he adds: “you’re rather animated.”

“Animated,” Keith parrots, the word sitting awkwardly on his tongue as a form of self-characterisation, and it’s a confusing contrast to the descriptors people usually attach to him. “I’m not- is the translator playing up again?”

With a small, considering noise, Lotor begins reeling off synonyms one after another: “frank, candid, emotionally demonstrative,” and then, with a sharp, yet maliceless smile, “it is terribly endearing.”

“Oh,” and there’s the unmistakable threat of heat flooding to his cheeks that Keith knows would be impossible to hide.

“You do not agree?”

The former Paladin chews absently on his lower lip, teeth abusing the flesh, and gives a half-hearted shrug. “I know people who wouldn’t.”

From the corner of his eye, he sees Lotor falter.

“People usually say I’m kind of,” he gestures to himself vaguely, “standoffish? Broody. The weird kid sulking in a corner somewhere.”

Lotor is quiet for a long time, and with a lurching in his stomach, Keith fears he’s overstepped - said too much, been too much - and that Lotor’s come to the same realisation as a hundred before him. But when Keith tears his eyes from where they’d fallen to his lap, he’s not met with disinterest or distaste. It’s nothing like Shiro’s sympathies from the early stages of their friendship, either, which probably for the best, because Keith never did respond well to pity.

Instead, Lotor just looks… resigned.

Keith doesn’t know what to make of this, and so doesn’t react when Lotor reaches out to gently knock his hood back off his head, the armoured fabric falling to sit heavily around Keith’s shoulders as the backs of the Prince’s knuckles trace idly down the side of Keith’s face.

“The Galra people - our people - are of a higher breed,” there’s a prideful certainty to his voice that Keith recognises from the Blade: even despite their cool reception from the coalition, Keith has never seen a single member of Marmora question their own worth, only the inclinations of their allies, “though you may not think it, limited as your interactions with Imperial culture have been, the sensibilities of Galran society were, are, and always will be, inclined towards subtlety.”

Clawed fingertips tilt Keith’s chin up, and he has to wrestle down the urge to swallow at the sudden dryness of his mouth.

“For you and I, in particular, these delicate social instincts are even more complex; there’s a lot of power in being a hybrid, and while your non-Galra upbringing may, at times, contradict your higher nature, I swear to you Keith, it’s not a warring thing.” Lotor’s voice is low, silk-spun, “it’s two wonderful things coming together to make you… and though the people of either half may not understand it now - or, perhaps, ever - you need to embrace that, and come to peace with it.”

When Lotor’s hand drops from his jaw, Keith feels the loss acutely.

“Besides, in my experience, those who would dismiss someone for not immediately opening their heart to them are, generally speaking, of great quantity and yet astoundingly poor quality.” The Prince leans back, sclera near luminescent under lowered lids. “I, on the other hand, am a man of exceptional taste, and I stand by what I said: you truly are a magnificent creature. Even more so than I first realised.”

Keith’s face is on fire.

Though Lotor is regarding his flushed features with a certain level of curiosity, he neglects to ask, which Keith is silently thankful for.

“Anyhow, I do believe you rather derailed my train of thought,” Lotor says, with the air of someone who truly could not care less, “may I ask my question now?”

Sinking impossibly further into the cushions, Keith tries, and fails, to repress the redness of his cheeks. “Go ahead.”

Lotor nods his acquiesce, but there’s an uncharacteristic level of uncertainty to the following pause, as if he’s cautious of how to best breach his intended topic.

“I… should like to enquire after your health.”

Keith frowns.

“My health?” It’s not what he’d expected.

“Yes,” Lotor seems a contradictory combination of determined and hesitant, “are you quite well?”

Cocking his head to the side with an odd sort of look, Keith opens his mouth to answer but is cut off by the untimely hiss of the suite’s main doors opening to admit the slightly intimidating duo of a bedraggled Allura and Lance, both suited up in full paladin armor, their hairlines beaded with sweat and a familiar fatigue in the set of their shoulders.

Everyone freezes in place.

Distantly, Keith realises that this - this, being him sitting unmasked and obviously comfortable beside Prince Lotor of the Galra Empire - probably raises a lot of questions.

“Dios mio,” it’s unsurprising that Lance is the first to recover, and even less so that he’s the first to speak “did we slip into another reality when I wasn’t paying attention, or has mullet completely lost his mind.”

The former Paladin sags into himself, and curses quietly.

“Keith,” Allura’s tone is knife sharp, “a word. Now.”

Rolling his weight to slip sideways off the bed of pillows seems the most dignified way to make his exit, and as he does so, Keith catches Lotor’s eye. The Prince hasn’t moved, but his lounging is suddenly a thin veneer; Keith can practically feel the tension that bleeds from beneath it, and yet he instinctually feels more at ease. Lotor’s energy is less a threat, more a support, and he’s impossibly grateful for it.

“We’ll talk later,” Lotor promises quietly, and then, in a tone that is meant to be heard loud and clear, “my schedule is dreadfully busy, but I’ll be sure to pencil you in.”

It’s a terrible joke, and the deadpan delivery makes it more so, but it’s still a battle for Keith to swallow down his laughter.

He doubts that Allura would appreciate it.

Smothering the upturn of his lips, Keith makes to leave, but Lotor is smoothly rising to his feet and fixing Allura with a cool stare.

“If I could make a request?” It’s bold, the tone he uses, leaving no room for denial despite the fact that Lotor cannot be naïve to how foul a mood Allura seems to be in, “I should like access to your medical facilities.”

“Would you now?” she bites out, “are you injured?”

“Not at all,” Lotor doesn’t even try to feign a smile, and that’s more cause for concern than his sharpness of tone, “but I should like to examine Keith.”

At the sound of his own name, Keith falters, mid-step, and blinks up at the Prince whose gaze gentles when it lands upon him.

Allura and Lance speak in tandem:

“I beg your pardon?”

“Abso-fucking-lutely not.”

But they are both ignored quite completely by Lotor, whose eyes are fully fixated on Keith.

“Only with your permission, of course,” the Prince inclines his head carefully, “but in light of that which we have discussed, I should like to be sure that you are… physically sound.”

“Oh I bet you would,” Lance hisses.

Lotor turns on him with a sharp bite of ferocity, ears flattening and teeth bared.

“Keep your base musings to yourself, Paladin, I have no need of them.” When he returns his attention to Keith, he does so with a soft sincerity that would be impossible to ignore, and the abruptness of his switching between moods leaves an uneasy tension in the air. “I have a modest background as a geneticist, my particular field of study being the rather niche subject area of Galra hybridisation which, I’m sure you can appreciate, may be of particular use to you. Seeing as you are evidently on the cusp of adulthood, I would hazard a guess that you are without any health defects that put your life at immediate risk, but as such things commonly plague those of mixed heritage, I should like to be sure.”

Lotor pauses, eyes searching, and Keith doesn’t know what to make of it.

The implication of health defects sits like a stone in the pit of his stomach.

“I assume,” Lotor has turned his attention back to Allura, eyeing her with poorly concealed distaste, “that eliminating the possibility of an undisclosed threat to his health would be in your best interests as well?”

Allura’s stare is hard, cold, and Keith actually sees the physical effort it takes her to unclench her jaw so that she may speak.

“If you would excuse us, Prince Lotor, I should like to speak to my Paladins.” There’s a note to her voice that speaks volumes of a possessive claim.

Lotor doesn’t react for a tick too long.

“Of course.”

 

The second the door closes behind them, Lance is in his face.

“¡Maldito idiota, Keith!” He speaks so fast that the translator can’t keep up, but the general sentiment carries, “what were you doing? What were you thinking?”

Keith takes a half step back, his shoulders hunching up and arms crossing defensively.

“I figured he knew anyway-” and, sure, he’d been wrong, but “-what does it matter if he knows I’m half Galra? If we’re going to be allies then transparency over the little things is key, right?”

“Ohhhh boy, Keith, seriously? Lotor’s in there wanting to play doctor and you just-” Lance groans, looking to Allura helplessly, “what does it matter? he says. ‘Lura help me out here.”

“Keith,” she starts, and Keith loathes that tone: it’s one of forced softness, strained and worn, the one that people use when they’re trying not to set off his temper, but has only ever achieved exactly that, “won’t you at least entertain the possibility that Lotor might use your shared heritage against you?”

Keith swallows down a growl, “and how exactly do you think he’d going to do that?”

Face flooding with misguided relief, Allura hurries to explain herself.

“By drawing parallels between the two of you, or- or playing off a shared experience, as if he’s the only one who understands you. Having you distance yourself from the people who care about you, from us-”

Keith’s laugh is short and sharp and entirely false.

“You want to talk about distance? What damage could Lotor possibly do that leaving Voltron to spend four phoebs of isolation, stationed several galaxies away, didn’t?” He regrets the words as soon as he says them, the acidic tang thinning his lips. “I didn’t- I didn’t mean that.”

Allura has drawn into herself, mouth falling open into a perfect little ‘o’, and Lance… Keith can’t even look at Lance.

“You chose to leave,” the Princess eventually whispers, “you said that you needed to be on that infiltration mission-”

“I did,” Keith cuts her off, “I did and you’re right, it was my choice. I shouldn’t have brought it up; I don’t even know why I did, I-”

Lance’s hand lands on his shoulder, and Keith chokes on whatever else he was going to say.

“What happened to leaving the math to Pidge?” The question is flat in its delivery, somehow both accusatory and hurt, and when Keith is unable to answer straight away, Lance’s fingertips press more firmly into the meat of his deltoid, “Keith.”

“You’re the one who said it wasn’t a participation game, and you were right,” he shrugs Lance’s hand off, and the Paladin lets it happen, “I was never meant to pilot the Black Lion, but even before that I wasn’t exactly a team player. You work better without me.”

Keith,” he’s not sure who says his name, only that they make it sound so pained.

“And that’s okay.” It is. It has to be. “It’s okay because it means that I can work with Lotor without giving him direct access to Voltron. So if you’re right and he is manipulating me, then the rest of you can make that call and take me down without losing a Paladin. Everybody wins.”

There’s a beat of dead silence.

“So what, you have a fucking martyr complex now?” Keith can’t help but look up at that, because they don’t even know the half of it, and he does so to find Lance’s face uncharacteristically dark. “I don’t know what bullshit Marmora have been feeding you, but you’re not expendable, Kogane. What Ulaz did for us was very commendable, and I know you were there with that Thace guy just before he blew himself to hell, but that’s not going to be you.”

He sounds so certain.

He sounds so certain and Keith just… doesn’t know how to handle it.

“That’s not important right now,” Lance opens his mouth to protest, but Keith doesn’t give him the chance, “you think Lotor’s going to use our similarities against the team, but what if the opposite’s true? What if this is how we get him to work with us?”

Lance doesn’t look even remotely convinced, but when Keith looks to Allura she seems, mercifully, to be giving the idea some serious consideration, and he latches onto this, adding, “all four of his closest confidants were Galra hybrids,” in the hopes that this will be enough to convince her.

It is, but not quite in the way that he wants.

She looks him dead in the eye, says, “we can use that,” and Keith feels faintly nauseous.

“Yeah.” He doesn’t like the idea of ‘using’ the heritage he shares with the Prince as a method of control, but if the idea of it is the price of Allura taking a serious step in the right direction with this alliance, then he’s willing to keep his mouth shut. “Give him the chance to prove that he’s serious about helping us, Allura… and if it turns out he’s not, then I’ll take care of it.”

She bites her lip, juts her chin up, and concedes.

“Alright,” her acquiesce is a breath of fresh air, “if you’re sure.”

Keith offers a weak smile which she returns, and then looks to Red’s Paladin.

“Lance?”

“Does it matter what I think?”

Keith frowns, “of course it matters,” and this successfully leaches some of the tension from the set of Lance’s shoulders.

“Right,” Lance shifts his weight, brow furrowed, “look, I’m just worried that he seems to have a special interest in you. I don’t wanna see you get hurt, man.”

Keith feels himself soften.

“Isn’t that why I keep you around?” He bumps his arm gently against Lance’s, “both a sharpshooter and a swordsman - Lotor won’t know what hit him.”

This coaxes a real smile from the taller, his frown disappearing to be replaced by a genuine shine to his eyes.

“Yeah, well, someone has to stick around to save your dumb ass.”

“Boys, please,” Allura scolds, but Keith catches the tail-end of a grin before it fades into her more serious, diplomatic persona, “Keith, there’s something else.”

He tilts his head, and waits.

“During the battle just now, Lance and I infiltrated one of the cruisers because it had some... particularly curious energy signatures. It’s why we came down here.” She shares a look of unease with Lance, who scratches the back of his neck, lips pursed and brow furrowed.

“What?” Keith asks, “What did you find?”

Lance sighs, “the facility Lotor wanted us to look into,” and Keith’s entire being tenses up, “the ship’s main logs didn’t have any information about it, but the Captain’s private logs said that it was the last known docking point.”

“Okay,” violet eyes flick between the two Paladins, “and?”

“We don’t exactly know,” concern sits heavily across Allura’s crown, “only that the Captain is frantic in her records, until… until she isn’t.”

Lance catches Keith’s confusion.

“It was like a vlog, dude. Except one minute she’s talking about the druids, and then next it’s like - outta nowhere - she completely loses her train of thought. Poof,” a gesture of fluttering fingertips accompanies this, “completely gone without any memory of what she was talking about.”

“You have the recordings?”

Lance nods with a thoughtful hum, “we took the whole file - don’t know how much is relevant, but we hardly had time to handpick the bits we needed.”

“And the energy signature?”

“The ship itself,” Allura says, “not any kind of cargo, but the actual body of the ship, as if it had been exposed to massive quantities of raw, untampered, quintessence.”

Keith takes a moment to absorb this.

A secret facility that shouldn’t exist, lost memories, and impossible quintessence readings certainly sound like Haggar’s playground.

So Lotor was right.

Keith’s not sure whether he’s glad that this should help the Prince’s case in terms of providing trustworthy information, or terrified for what the truth of this scenario could mean.

 

Wasting no more time, Allura leads them back into Lotor’s suite, where Lotor himself has returned to deceptively idle stargazing that does not fool Keith for a second, and announces: “Seeing as Keith is amenable, I am willing to allow you supervised access to our medical facilities for the next couple of vargas.”

Lotor’s face betrays his genuine surprise. “Now?”

“Unless you have somewhere to be?” It’s a dry sort of humour - unexpected, coming from Allura - and though Lotor masks it well, Keith can tell that he’s entertained by it.

“Nowhere that cannot wait, I assure you,” he shoots her a dazzling smile, “lead the way.”

She does so, and it’s a couple of dobashes into a strained and uncomfortable quiet, when the four of them are only a couple of paces from rounding the next corner, that Keith remembers something important.

“Um, Allura?”

She hums, glances at him, then stops dead in her tracks.

Keith dreads to think what she sees in his face that halts her so completely.

“I think I should, er, warn you-”

“Keith,” her tone is wary, so much so that Keith daren’t look at Lotor lest she interpret it the wrong way.

“Remember what I said earlier about the rebels stationed here being… prejudiced?” It’s the nicest way he can think to use for the violent hatred that some of them harbour, “well there was an, er, incident.”

At his left, he hears Lotor make a small noise of understanding, apparently realising what is being eluded to while simultaneously giving Keith the distinct impression that his own near-execution had somehow slipped his mind.

“Keith,” and, oh god, he can tell she’s fighting to stay calm, “define ‘incident’.”

Lance, with far less tact and far more candour, asks, “if I walk around that corner, whose corpse am I going to find?”

Keith hesitates, and this does nothing to help his case, Lance’s eyes widening almost comically as he realises that his sarcasm is toeing too close to the line of reality.

“Dios mio Keith, whose corpse am I going to find?

“Nobody’s!” His voice pitches with denial, and Lotor, quite unhelpfully, decides that this is the most opportune moment to interject.

“By definition, a corpse is a dead body.” He bares his teeth in Lance’s direction, “you’ll be ecstatic to learn that, thanks to Keith’s most gallant intervention, the body that you will find around that corner is still very much alive.”

“Great,” Lance summons his bayard, invoking its melee form, and points it towards Lotor, who seems to be quite enjoying himself, “wonderful, truly fantastic. That didn’t sound like you’d been planning on killing someone at all.”

“Is it really a plan if it came to me on impulse?”

Lance makes a noise - high pitched and horrified - as if he can’t believe that the Prince would admit to the contemplation of murder, completely missing the obvious joy being derived from his distress. Allura, ignoring all of this, has turned on her heel and is marching towards the corridor’s next intersection, apparently needing to see the damage for herself but trusting Keith enough that she doesn’t expect him to run her through the second she looks away, which he appreciates.

This, however, has the unfortunate side effect of leaving Keith to mediate between two of the most dramatic men he’s ever met.

“Lotor,” he groans, because he thinks the Prince will at least not decline him on principle, “please don’t.”

The Prince, for his part, looks delighted.

“Well,” he’s looking smugly between Keith and Lance, eventually settling his gaze on the former with a purr in his throat that Keith is starting to associate exclusively with Lotor’s chaotic streak, “seeing as you asked me nicely.”

Keith can’t put his finger on why this riles Lance up, but it does, and judging by Lotor’s poorly concealed mirth, he had intended for it to do so.

Like the angel she is, Allura choses this moment to return, the blue rebel like a great, unwieldly sack of potatoes where he’s slung over her shoulders, his bulk near doubling her height, and all without the Princess looking so much as strained.

“He’s unconscious, but fundamentally unharmed,” she sends Keith a pointed look, and he wilts under it, “you can explain the details of this so-called ‘incident’ later.”

Keith concedes with a guilty incline of the head, and Allura accepts this, marching onward without further delay. Lance spares one last glare for Lotor before falling into step beside her, but the Prince himself delays a moment longer, and it’s with a private smile that he drags his knuckles down Keith’s spine to linger on the small of his back.

“After you.”

Chapter Text

It doesn’t take too long to get to the medical wing, and while the walk there does garner their group some particularly startled looks, it’s impossible to say whether this is for the Altean Princess who carries four times her own weight as if it’s nothing, or the Galra Prince who is swanning after her with perfect candour.

Keith is as amused by this as Lance is annoyed.

“He knows what he’s doing, right?” the Paladin drops back to hiss in Keith’s ear, gesturing sharply at Lotor who has his hands clasped behind his back as he walks, the picture of perfect innocence, “like, this is totally intentional.”

“He only does it because it winds you up,” is clearly the wrong thing to say, tearing from Lance a noise of pure indignation before he squares his shoulders into something that Keith recognises as the hallmark of unnecessary conflict, and so hurries to add, “just give him a chance?”

The laugh Lance barks out is loud enough to have both Lotor and Allura glancing back, though thankfully not halt them, and Keith is able to wave off their curiosity without too much trouble.

“Look, obviously you don’t like him-”

“Gee mullet, I wonder why?”

But,” Keith soldiers on, “if the logs you and Allura found are significant then they’re also proof that Lotor’s intel is valid; he said that Haggar could be up to something, and by the sounds of it she is.”

“When is she not?”

Lance,” he’s being deliberately stubborn, but Keith knows that he himself can be doubly so, “Lotor genuinely does want to help.”

The Paladin grunts, low and frustrated.

“I’m not sure his particular brand of ‘help’ is what you’re looking for,” Lance must catch the small frown Keith greets this statement with, because his expression falls flat, “dude, you do see how he looks at you, right?”

Keith gives a noncommittal half-shrug, eyes sliding over to where Lotor strides a few paces ahead of them, gait fluid but ears a little too still to be natural. He sees a lot, when it comes to the Prince; it’s making sense of it all that’s the tricky part.

Lance follows his gaze, tilting his head towards Keith and further lowering his tone.

“Or maybe you don’t… somehow,” his voice is a confusing mix of flat and fond, “but whatever man, either way, I’ve got your back.”

A smile tugs at the corner of Keith’s mouth, a fluttery sort of warmth budding in his chest as he replies, “I know you do,” which earns him an arm around his shoulders in a half-hug that makes keeping pace with Allura more difficult than it should be. Still, Keith can’t find it in himself to shrug Lance off, and his lack of resistance seems only to encourage the Paladin who grins widely and opens his mouth to say something that would doubtlessly have been an affectionate jibe were it not for their timely arrival at the medical bay.

The doors hiss open, and the clamour of activity from beyond seems to stutter.

“An Altean Princess, a furry assassin, a boy from Cuba, and Zarkon’s son walk into a bar-” Lance starts under his breath, with a dry sort of humour, but Keith is only half listening, caught on the sudden realisation that he’d never reactivated his mask.

He hadn’t been hiding it, he reminds himself, fighting what is less an urge and more a need to make a swift exit, discomfort uncoiling in the pit of his stomach. It’s no secret that he’s Galra, and Keith’s not exactly ashamed of what he is, but walking into a room seeped in the metallic stench of fresh blood - blood spilled by people not unlike him - while wearing Galran armor and a Paladin’s face… it feels wrong.

And judging by the attention their little party is attracting, it doesn’t look great either.

The injured rebels’ attention could be drawn by Allura, Keith reminds himself, as she strides through their midst with purpose and deposits her unconscious quarry onto a vacant medical station without so much as breaking a sweat. Or, even more likely, it’s for Lotor who has the audacity to wiggle his fingers at those who gawk with a particular lack of subtlety, waving, his demeanour light and airy and nothing less than deliberately provocative.

But there are whispers of confusion mingling with the aftermath of battle, and Keith can feel the prickle of their attention acutely.

He knows what it is to be unwanted.

A welcome shock of orange hair bobs and weaves through the scattered crowd, until Coran is beaming at their little group, an unspoken question concealed in the creases of his smile.

“Nobody’s injured, I hope?”

“No,” Allura assures him, the tense set of her posture softening at his concern, “Prince Lotor simply thinks it best that we examine Keith… as a precaution.”

Coran’s eyes slide from the Princess to appraise Keith, as if the Altean could identify any genetic abnormalities - or whatever exactly it is that Lotor thinks might be wrong with him - with only a look. Keith can only offer a half shrug and a weak smile in return, which he doesn’t think passes for comfort in any sense of the word, but at the very least this earns him an understanding smile from Coran.

“Righto!”

The medical wing is constructed in such a way that the large central room with its dais of pods for the most serious cases is surrounded by smaller pocket-rooms, which offer the illusion of privacy. It’s into one of these rooms that Coran ushers them, and though not completely unoccupied - the recent battle apparently more ferocious than Keith had first realised - it is, at the very least, quieter.

The other occupants seem more concerned with their own injuries than they do Keith, so he’ll take what he can get.

Coran bustles about the room with both Lotor and Allura in tow, running over the fundamentals of the Altean medical equipment he has on hand and accompanying all of his explanations with wild gesturing that, so far as Keith can see, is a moderate threat to anyone within arm’s reach of him. Lotor handles all of this with grace, though Keith can see the physical strain it takes on him not to be snide when Coran finishes up his briefing by heartily clapping the Prince’s shoulder and announcing that they “best hop to it!” and he has to bite down on the inside of his cheek to stop himself from laughing at Lotor’s expense.

When he and Lance are waved over, Coran offers up another dazzling smile as he explains “the best way to do this would be to run a full scan in the pods, but unfortunately the rebels took quite the beating, so they’re currently occupied, meaning we’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way.”

Keith nods, sharing a quick look with Lance that says they both know “the old fashioned way” is likely still centuries ahead of present-day Earth technology.

They are immediately proven right.

Lotor is fussing over a translucent screen hanging in the air before him, Allura stationed at his right in silent vigil, scrutinising his every move; he pays her no mind, of course, the Prince steadfastly ignoring her disapproving presence in favour of… well, the details of what he’s doing are sort of lost on Keith, but it looks clever.

Very sciency.

Still, he can’t help but feel a little like an experiment rather than a person when Lotor doesn’t even deign to look at him, simply gesturing to the bare countertop on his left and demanding that Keith “sit,” as if he were a dog. Keith, of course, refuses to move on principle, arms crossed and eyebrows raised, and so it’s only when the Prince pulls his attention away from the console that it seems to dawn upon him that short commands will achieve nothing.

Keith’s never responded well to curt instruction - too resentful of people treating him like a wild animal to be tamed, rather than as an actual person - but the reception his defiance usually garners is anything from frustration to outright anger; in this instance, and for reasons beyond comprehension, Lotor’s face falls into something unreasonably fond, his lips quirking and head half flopping to the side as he tacks on a quasi-sincere “please,” with no small dose of amusement.

It’s good enough to earn Keith’s compliance and, feeling his own stubbornness melt away in favour of something soft and pliant - a kind of amenability reserved only for Shiro - he hops up onto the Altean countertop without resisting further. The cool surface is high enough that like this, even with Keith’s posture relaxed as he rests elbows upon knees with his legs crossed beneath him, he and Lotor are almost eye to eye.

“Comfortable?” The older Galra is obviously smothering a sharp-toothed smile, and though Keith glares at him for it, that repressed delight remains. “Excellent. Then if you would-?”

Lotor indicates Keith’s torso with a nod and an air of expectation, only Keith isn’t quite sure what said expectation is. When he raises his eyes to meet Lotor’s patient gaze, the unspoken question hangs in the air between them.

“I shan’t pretend to know how medical examinations are executed on your planet of earth, but within the Empire we usually find that full-body armor is not particularly conductive to such procedures, so please,” the word rolls off Lotor’s tongue as a delighted taunt, “strip.”

Outside of Keith’s line of sight, Lance makes some sort of horrid wheezing sound, as if Lotor had torn out his windpipe and stepped on it, while Allura makes a point of training her eyes firmly on the console in front of her even as her ears turn ruddy and tremble with the effort of remaining stationary.

“Oh,” Keith hears himself say, a creeping heat prickling up the back of his neck, “right.”

It’s not that there’s anything particularly untoward about Lotor’s… request. It’s sound logic. Keith’s Marmora wear is a battle suit designed to withstand both monumental pressure, and the vacuum of deep space, so it’s probably not particularly conductive to getting a clear read on his biology, even with Altean medical tech. It’s not that Keith’s embarrassed of his body either - truthfully he’s never given much thought to his appearance beyond what was practical for everyday life and, more recently, combat - but there’s something in Lotor’s bluntness of tone that has him immediately reassessing his stance on being ordered around.

Though he can’t quite put his finger on it, Keith is struck by a sudden bolt of awkward vulnerability burning low in his gut.

Lance is still choking like a fish out of water, while Allura mutters something under her breath about “tactless Galra immodesty,” neither of which are particularly helpful, but Coran seems unbothered, and if the room’s other occupants are listening in them they haven’t reacted one way or another, so Keith shakes off his hesitation and deactivates the series of locks at the nape of his neck until his suit peels itself apart down his spine.

And so it is that he ends up sitting in front of Prince Lotor, son of Zarkon, potential heir to an intergalactic Empire, with his armor pooling around his hips, torso and all the very important internal organs it contains completely exposed to the crisp air.

It’s a weird position to be in, Keith decides.

Lotor, for his part, seems oblivious to the range of discomfort everyone around him is experiencing, and instead pokes and prods at Keith with an intrigued crease to his brow. “You have a deceptively dense muscle structure,” is the first thing he says after running several scans, shortly followed by “and a highly oxygenated vascular system,” when he takes a small blood sample, the process of which leaves Keith morbidly fascinated as he watches the tube steadily fill with crimson fluid without the insertion of any sort of a needle, the flat end of the cylinder merely pressed against the crux of his elbow with a muted hum.

As Lotor goes about running scan after scan, Allura takes the opportunity to initiate the interrogation Keith knew was coming.

“So,” she starts, with a tone that has Keith flinching, though thankfully his reaction is taken as one to the sudden cold of whatever instrument it is that Lotor holds firmly against his tricep, “would you like to recount to me the particulars of whatever incident resulted in one of our allies being cuffed and left, unconscious, on the floor?”

Not really, no, doesn’t seem like a true option, so Keith huffs out a breath and tries to come up with the least damming way to summarise: Lotor nearly killed someone, but only because they tried to kill him first.

He settles on: “you know how I told you that it was only a matter of time until things with the rebels went south?”

Allura pauses, and he can see her turning the terminology over in her head before the human idiom makes sense to her, but when it does she gives him a nod of affirmation.

“Well, it went south,” and then, because this doesn’t exactly encompass the full gravity of the situation, “You told me to secure Lotor, but when I got there he was on his knees and maybe ten ticks away from getting his brains blown out.”

Or possibly blowing someone else’s brains out. Either way.

Quite unhelpfully, Lotor seems to take offense at this.

“I’ll have you know,” he pulls the cool metal thing from Keith’s arm, and taps it lightly a couple of times before looking up with what Keith is hesitant to call a pout, but… “it wasn’t quite so dramatic as all that.”

Keith glares at him.

“He was going to assassinate you.”

“As someone who has survived no less than thirteen professional assassination attempts, I can confidently say that my earlier altercation was nothing so elegant.” Lotor smiles, and it’s all teeth. “I’m actually rather insulted that he thought I would be such an easy kill.”

From behind Keith, Lance mutters, “Jesus fucking Christ,” under his breath.

“You sustain then, that one of pour allies made an attempt on your life?” Allura poses her question to Lotor, and he receives it without amusement.

“Though I take no pleasure in it, yes.”

Allura goes quiet then, staring Lotor down with a deep furrow in her brow, and Keith realises that she’s trying to ferret out the lie.

“Allura, I was there. I saw it.”

“Did you?” She turns on him, “did you see the full ordeal? Or did you catch the tail end of a confrontation of which your perception has been manipulated into-”

Keith growls.

He actually growls, he can feel the shape of it in his throat, a rumble like thunder catching on frustration and slipping out between his teeth even as he clenches his jaw around it. Allura stiffens as if he’d struck her, or worse, and from the corner of his eye Keith sees Lance take a half step back with his hands coming up in a pacifying gesture, while even Coran, hovering in the background of this conversation, seems startled by his strength of reaction.

Out of everyone else’s line of sight, Lotor’s fingertips press lightly into the divot between Keith’s shoulder blades, flesh against flesh, and it’s not much, it really isn’t, but Keith finds himself half melting into the touch.

As the fight drains out of him, the shame begins to trickle in.

“The were four others on rotation,” he tells her, rather than the apology she probably deserves, “and one of them was injured - from the Qaathi belt, I think - so she should be here. If you want the full story, ask her.”

With that, the topic comes to a temporary close.

 

It takes a full twenty dobashes more before Lotor is content to let Keith redress, but even then the Prince doesn’t seem entirely happy.

“So?” Allura probes, glancing towards Keith before hurriedly snapping her attention back to Lotor when he catches her eye, “should we be concerned?”

The noise Lotor makes is as committal as it is comforting - which is to say, not at all.

“Paladin,” Lotor turns not to Keith, but Lance, “blue or red, whatever you prefer to call yourself now, you are solely human, correct?”

Lance’s eyes narrow to near slits, “yeah?”

“And you have been injured before, I presume?”

Narrowed eyes narrow further, “why?

Lotor hums, turns back to the console’s display, and then, in a flurry of movement, pulls up what looks like a series of medical logs and scrolls through them until he apparently finds what he’s looking for.

“Lance McClain,” Lotor murmurs under his breath, and Keith realises that he’s scanning over the records stored by the healing pods, “sixty-nine rak in height, weighing one hundred and thirty-seven kol… Yes, you’ll do.”

Lance lets out a sharp exclamation as he realises what’s happening.

“Whoa whoa whoa buddy, I did not consent to you getting all up in my business! You’re supposed to be making sure Keith’s not gonna keel over any second-”

“I am,” Lotor exhales and, very slowly and pointedly, looks Lance up and down. “So far as I am aware, you are the most physically comparable subject of - what do you call yourselves, human? - of human descent. It’s not an exact science, but by utilising you as the control, I can extrapolate your data to approximate which of Keith’s traits are human, which are Galra, and which are potentially malignant abnormalities that may threaten his life.”

That last bit rings into silence.

As Keith watches, Lance’s jaw clicks shut, something tense and subdued making a home in his expression.

“I presume,” Lotor continues, coolly, “that you are amenable to me doing so?”

Lance wilts. Scuffs the toe of one boot against the heel of his other. Flicks blue eyes in Keith direction guiltily before returning them to Lotor, and then the floor.

“Yeah,” an uneasy shrug as he picks at his sleeve, and another stolen glance in Keith’s direction, “‘course.”

It’s too easy, Keith thinks. Lance usually puts up more of a fight - or at least, the pretence of one - and it’s not the first time something about the Paladin’s behaviour has rung false since Keith’s return to the Castle Ship.

He’s not given time to linger on it.

“So far as I can tell, you are in perfect health,” Lotor is saying, and though the words alleviate some of the weight in Keith’s gut, the tone in which they’re said imply something more.

“Is that truly so unusual?” Allura cuts in, “until you raised the possibility of it being otherwise, I had assumed Keith’s Galra heritage would be something of a physical boon. Your kind are rather resilient, after all.”

It’s difficult for Keith to tell whether she means that as a compliment or not, and if the twist to Lotor’s mouth is anything to go by, he feels much the same way.

“Were he fully Galra that would be the case, yes.”

That said, Lotor turns away from Allura, away from the data displayed, and fixes his full attention on Keith with a small furrow to his brow.

“Some species are remarkably adaptable in terms of their genetics: Alteans, for example, whose biological plasticity allowed not only for the manipulation of their genetic structure at will, but also for ease of interbreeding, if they so chose to enter intimate relations with another species.” Keith’s eyes fall to where Lotor’s arms have crossed, his fingers rapidly tapping out a nonsensical rhythm. “Galra DNA, however, is much the opposite, and is notorious for a unique genetic hostility when it comes to cross-species relations: even if a compatible parent species is found and successful conception occurs, the foetus often commits autosarcophagy as a sort of innate defence mechanism to eliminate that which is deems to be foreign genetic material.”

Allura pales dramatically at that, but Lotor must catch Keith’s blank look because he offers a weak sort of smile before clarifying: “that is to say it consumes itself.”

A hushed whisper of “holy shit,” from Lance is a sentiment with which Keith wholeheartedly agrees, and apparently Lotor does too.

“Indeed,” he inclines his head to the horrified Paladin before returning golden eyes to Keith. “If it survives the gestation period, the child born is often of ill health, and more than likely to experience a significantly reduced lifespan due to what - in short - manifests as an accelerated aging process. Ergo, the Empire’s cultural evolution to… shall we say discourage the interbreeding of species.”

Right.

Okay.

I was sickly as a child, Lotor had said, it was unlikely I would survive past infancy.

Keith, with a horrible feeling that he’s just found out the reason why - why Lotor almost died in his crib, why Honerva went to such lengths, why Zarkon became the monster that he did - takes a steadying breath.

“So,” he tastes bile in the back of his throat and swallows it down in favour of a question he’s not entirely sure he wants the answer to, “so am I dying, or aren’t I?”

Lotor’s hand twitches, and for a moment Keith thinks the Prince is going to reach for him, but long fingers curl into themselves at the last moment.

“Your life is not in immediate danger, however,” his voice gentles deliberately, and he sounds almost pained, “judging by the current age of your cellular regression, I would gauge that you will be unlikely to survive much beyond another seventy decaphoebs.”

“Please,” Coran whispers, and the quiet politeness of his tone scares Keith more than anything else, “tell me you are speaking in Imperial units.”

Lotor nods minutely, and that must be something of a comfort, for though Allura still lacks colour in her cheeks, when she forces herself to look up at Keith it’s with a renewed fortitude, despite the dewy shine to her eyes.

“That’s more than one hundred and thirty Altean decaphoebs,” she tells him, as if Keith understands that any better, “that gives us time! We could- We could look into quintessence treatments, or-”

Her voice cracks, and her jaw snaps shut immediately as if to smother the brittle sound of it.

She’s trying not to cry, Keith realises.

Lance hasn’t said anything, and when Keith turns to him he sees blue eyes turned downward to a screen of dimly lit orange in his palm. Then, without warning, frantic taping gives way to wide-eyed disbelief, shortly followed by a burst of startled laughter.

Carajo,” his head shoots up to fix Keith with a smile of giddy relief, “for a moment I thought we were gonna lose you!”

Keith finds himself with Lance slumping into his side with one arm looping him closer by the waist, armor bulky and uncomfortable, but warmth welcome, as what Keith now recognises as a Garrison-issue phone is shoved in front of his nose.

“I had Pidge trick it out with a converter for Altean time so that I could keep track of how long we’d been out here, but dude, look,” Lance laughs, light and free, “a hundred and thirty-whatever decaphoebs is, like, another eighty years. You’re fine!”

Keith blinks at the little numerical display in front of him, the digits marked out clearly in ghostly white. His breath hitches, catching in his lungs and then releasing all at once as if he were deflating, and Keith sags gratefully into Lance, who squeezes him fractionally tighter and repeats: “you’re fine.”

He’s fine.

Allura echoes Lance’s words back at him, a note of distant horror ringing clearly in her voice.

“Fine? Galra typically live for at least five Altean centuries and you’re content with not even seeing two?

She’s truly stricken, Keith realises, looking at her; fine eyebrows are drawn together into something weighty and troubled, lashes dewy, eyes flicking from him to Lance and back to him again. Her hands are clutching at each other as if to provide some sort of comfort, and everything in her posture is drawn tense and small - smaller still when compared against Lotor who stands at her side.

Coran tilts his head in question.

“Keith,” he’s not usually so tentative, “how long do humans normally live?”

“Er, eighty years is pretty average, I guess? And I’m already eighteen - or nineteen by now, probably, I haven’t been keeping track - so to say I’m expected to live another eighty is… like a really old human?”

Lance offers a hum of agreement in his ear, but it’s Allura who draws Keith’s attention; she’s taken a half step back in a sort of guilty retreat, no less distressed than she was a moment before.

“Allura?”

“How… how many decaphoebs does nineteen years equate to?”

Keith looks to Lance, who mirrors his expression of warring hesitation, but the Cuban boy taps at the screen of his phone slowly before answering with a careful undertone to his voice: “thirty-one.”

Allura looks as if she might be sick.

 

-

 

“Thirty-one,” the blue Paladin says, hesitantly, and when Princess Allura takes on a deathly pallor, he hurries to add, “and a half!” as if such a negligible amount makes any difference in the grand scheme of things.

Thirty one Altean Decaphoebs. Lotor is quick to do the maths in his head: it amounts to a little under seventeen Imperial units, and when combined with the aforementioned seventy or so, leaves Keith with a lifespan of less than ninety decaphoebs in total. It’s less than a third of what a pure-blooded Galra could expect, and yet more than so many of Lotor’s ilk receive.

Acxa will see less.

The Prince looks at Keith and sees a tragedy worthy of Daibazaal’s artisans of old; beautiful and fierce and fleeting. As lovely as starlight, and yet just as impossible to capture.

“You’re so young,” whispers Princess Allura, her eyes flitting between Keith still perched on the tabletop, and Lance, stood close by his side, as heartbroken as she is horrified. She wears the look of a woman who is forlorn and furious all at once, as if the universe itself had rendered her in two only for her soul to burn hot with indignation that it would so much as dare to do her Paladins such a great disservice.

She’s right, of course. To be born so long before Keith’s first breath and yet still be cursed to die after his last, Lotor thinks, is a wicked thing indeed.

Wicked, and yet…

“It is not uncommon,” all eyes turn to him, “I suffer from the same ailment, as do my Gen- as do my former Generals.”

It hurts to say so, for all sorts of reasons, but Keith is looking at him, eyes big and beseeching, and Lotor knows it would be impossible for him to deny his little Blade anything, least of all this small comfort. Even if he is fortunate enough to not differ too drastically from his paternal kind, he needs to hear this.

He needs to know that he is not alone.

“You were born not long after I was,” the Princess watches him warily, hugging herself close in an impossible attempt at self-comfort, “Zarkon has been alive for over ten thousand decaphoebs, and now you say that you’re dying?”

It’s unclear whether or not that is an accusation, and so Lotor is careful in correcting her.

“I am not dying, per se, I am aging at approximately twice the rate I ought. Negligible though it may be, there is a difference.” He sees the incoming question, and answers it before she asks: “I spent a disproportionate amount of time in cryostasis, as you did, and am at present fifty Imperial decaphoebs in age,” or so he thinks. It’s the closest estimate he has, considering how fragmented an experience his time in Haggar’s lab was.

Lotor watches the horror unfurl on Princess Allura’s face, and can pinpoint the exact moment that she understands what it means to be a hybrid of Galran blood. Were he full-blooded Altean, he would scarcely have progressed past infancy.

How?

It’s not quite clear whether she’s asking after his shortness of lifespan in comparison to his father’s or his mother’s, but either way Lotor is overcome with the distinct tang of quintessence on his tongue- down his throat- inside his very core- how it burned and boiled and bled him until his body hardly felt like his own, and the only sound was that of his own voice, young and pained, begging the witch to “please, please, just let me die.

“Does it matter?”

He draws himself up. Fixes her with a look he knows he inherited from his father and silently pleads that the little Altean Princess will remember what he is, what he’s done.

“No,” the speed with which she answers betrays her own sentimentality, “I suppose not.”

She is called away then, a patient in the main room apparently kicking up a fuss and demanding to speak to a Paladin of Voltron, and though evidently shaken, when duty calls she goes. Her adviser accompanies her and, after what appears to be a silent conversation between the Keith and the blue Paladin, wherein said Paladin shoots some rather disdainful looks in Lotor’s direction and some deeply concerned ones after the princess, Lance follows the Alteans.

Lotor receives the distinct impression that that one is not terribly fond of him.

When he turns his attention from the doors to Keith, the little Blade is rolling his eyes with a fond sort of exasperation that Lotor is quite familiar with, recognising it from his own interactions with not only Ezor, but Zethrid too.

“You care for them a great deal.”

Keith turns to look at him. Blinks.

“Of course I do.”

“And they care for you just as much.”

There’s a moment in which Keith face half falls, and this time his answer is not nearly so simple a truth.

“Yeah.”

It’s strange, Lotor thinks, that it’s this that causes Keith to stumble. Certainly, when Lotor had thought his little Blade a child, it had seemed a very different sort of story, and there is still the matter of Keith having been replaced as a Paladin to contend with, but Lotor prides himself on being able to read people rather well, and Princess Allura’s affection for her former red Paladin is no less than that for the one who replaced him.

And yet Keith doesn’t seem quite convinced that this is the case.

Lotor thinks he himself may be at the root of the problem.

“Princess Allura seems to believe that I am manipulating you,” he gauges Keith’s reaction with great care, not wishing to overstep, “that I am using our similarities to skewer your judgement.”

“That’s part of it,” dusk-darkened eyes slide back to the doorway and Keith gives a small sigh, the smile tugging at his lips an ugly, twisted thing, “they can’t trust me.”

Not don’t. Can’t.

That distinction speaks volumes of a story Lotor has yet to put together, and he absorbs it with a quiet hum.

“Do you think I’m manipulating you?”

“I think,” the noise Keith huffs out is half laughter, half resignation, “that you’re smart enough that if you were manipulating me, I’d have no idea.”

It’s not quite the answer that either of them want to hear, and the Prince feels his lungs draw tight with something too difficult to conceive, let alone name.

“For what it’s worth,” Lotor murmurs, after a great stretch of quiet, “I’m not.”

He could.

He’s certainly capable of it.

And yet the mere concept - the idea of twisting Keith up until he draws taut, snaps, crumples to the floor - is an abhorrent one.

I would not do that to you, Lotor wants to tell him, you have my word; but no sooner has he thought as much does Lotor realise that such a sentiment may be worth very little to Keith, who has served as a Paladin and serves still as one of Marmora’s kin, both roles determinedly set against the Empire and everything it has come to represent.

Short a stint as it had been, in serving as that Empire’s figurehead Lotor knows that he and it have become irrefutably linked.

“I know,” is the soft confession that comes to coax Lotor from his thoughts, and had his entire being not been so helplessly caught on this man since the very beginning, the Prince thinks he might have missed this whispered truth.

But of course he is, so he doesn’t, and it brings to mind a million questions all at once.

“You cannot possibly know,” Lotor snaps, because such a sweet and simple thing stands too far outside of his experience of the universe. It would be a mistake, to allow himself to hope for it.

“Are you…” and Keith’s attention has been turned back to him, expression clouded with his lips turned down into a pretty pout of bewilderment, “are you mad at me for believing you?”

“No,” Lotor tells him.

But even as he says it, the Prince knows that’s not quite true. Keith must know it too, because the crease of his brow deepens, his eyes narrow, and with a short inhale that says he’s about to probe further he opens his mouth and-

Lotor turns his head.

It’s not so much a delicate dismissal as Keith deserves, but once again the Prince finds himself at a loss of how to handle the little Blade who seems to be able to slip between his ribs with as much ease as the moniker suggests.

With a slow sort of oozing, silence sets in.

As does a small, needling sort of guilt.

“You have all the genetic markers of a Kyx,” Lotor forces out into the air between them, and is relieved to note that Keith’s head shoots up from where he’s taken to meticulously picking at his own fingers, armor be damned, “I had suspected as much before, but now I am certain.”

“So my mother,” the ex-Paladin is quite for a moment more, dark eyes turned searching, “you think she was Kyx?”

“I am sure of it.”

Lotor had hoped that this small thing would please Keith - he seems to know so little of his mother, and yet crave so much - but there is a soft sort of awe that Lotor couldn’t possibly have predicted unfurling on his little Blade’s features, gentling all the sharpness of his expression and smoothing out his edges.

He’s beautiful.

So much so that the Prince can hardly help himself from reaching out, intending only to tuck the strands of dark hair that have gone astray behind one charmingly rounded ear, and instead finding the pads of his fingers being grazed by blunt fangs as Keith nips at him, unthinking. The both of them recoil in shock; Lotor’s eyes are wide, mouth gently gaping, the corners of his lips perking up into what, he knows, would be described as an awful smile worn only at another’s expense.

Though he ducks his head, Keith is too late to conceal the flaring heat of his cheeks.

“I don’t-” his voice comes out in a rush of breathless humiliation, “I don’t know why I did that.”

He doesn’t seem to be able to bring himself to look up, and the poor thing’s embarrassment is enough to shake Lotor from his startled stupor; with a laugh as Keith’s only warning, Lotor’s fingers find the hinge of the smaller man’s jaw, hooking beneath it and prompting his little Rhyahl to look up at him so that he may tease the sharpness of his own fangs against the tip of Keith’s nose, withdrawing just as quickly with a fond rumble in the back of his throat.

“Perhaps,” he purrs, savouring the wide-eyed attention that is fixed solely on him, “because you’re more Galra than you look.”

Immediately, Keith brightens.

“It’s a Galra-thing?” All at once, a great weight seems to slip from his shoulders, “I thought so, but when I mentioned wanting to bite you to Pidge she looked at me like I was crazy-”

“Oh?” Lotor feels his stomach twisting itself up delightfully - the sentiment is undeniably a flattering one - and he can’t resist teasing the young Galra, so his next words come out low and dark and full of mirth. “Do you want to bite me, Keith?”

“I-” Keith seems to choke on his own voice, the relief that had coloured his expression mere ticks before, fading back into that curious rouge as a festering insecurity takes root in the crease of his brow, his tone one again subdued when he tentatively asks: “is that not… normal?”

The smile slips from Lotor’s face as his heart breaks for the younger Galra, and he’s quick to offer assurance.

“It is not abnormal,” the weight of upsetting Keith when he’s still so new to his heritage is too much to bear, “merely… affectionate.”

It’s only a half lie.

Keith takes his time in absorbing this, and as he does so Lotor is quick to exploit the opportunity to observe his Rhyahl, unmasked and lost in thought, in light of all he has learnt over the past few vargas. In truth, it’s rather a lot to process. Lotor knows he’ll be turning the concept of Keith as both Blade and Paladin over in his head for a while yet - not least of all because two points of personal fascination have become one, but also due to his lineage as a Galra hybrid of all things - yet more pressing is the issue of how to conduct himself from here on out. Though he may have toyed with the idea of stealing the kitling away, in learning that Keith is not so young as Lotor had first thought, nor so much a victim as an important player in this great game of war, the Prince knows that enticing to his side a man whose loyalties are tangled up in both Marmora and Voltron is… nigh impossible.

And yet in that same vein, for all those same reasons, Lotor wants like he hasn’t in an age.

He wants Keith.

Is it a foolhardy and reckless desire, all things considered? Of course. He has plans, after all, plans that have been thrown completely off-kilter by his Generals’ betrayal and current circumstances, but plans nonetheless. Good ones, if he does say so himself, and while his current situation may not be optimal for the initial execution of said plans, being provided access to Voltron’s innermost circle has opened up a wealth of opportunity that Lotor will not allow himself to waste.

Lotor looks to his Rhyahl with a private smile, the heat of anticipation bubbling happily beneath his skin, and thinks he may have found an answer to the question Keith had earlier posed.

“You asked after my personal wants,” he says, loud enough that Keith might hear him over the bustle of the other patients, but not so loud that they might feel inclined to eavesdrop, “irrespective of the Empire and its future.”

Keith hops down from the table, straightens, stands as tall as his petite stature will allow.

“I did,” his nod of assent is as earnest as it is disarming, and Lotor cannot fight the smile it brings to his lips.

“Very well then.”

Stepping forward until they are toe to toe forces Keith to tilt his head back so that he may retain eye contact and yet, to Lotor’s great joy, he does not move to put distance between them.

“What I want,” the Prince continues, lowering his tone into a dangerous sort of croon, “is quite simple.”

Violet eyes flicker between his own, searching, and Lotor allows himself a moment to revel in having Keith’s absolute and undivided attention.

“That deepening of colouration whenever your paternal species grow flustered,” he taps one clawed fingertip against the apple of Keith’s rouged cheek, and grins without restraint when his victim gives a start before narrowing his pretty eyes, face reddening. “I want to know what you call that.”

“Blushing,” Keith growls out, and when he makes to move away Lotor laughs, charmed, and catches the smaller man’s jaw gently enough that breaking free would be a mere trifle.

His little Blade makes no such attempt, and this only warms Lotor further.

Blushing,” Lotor savours the word on his tongue, encouraging Keith’s gaze to meet his, which the former Paladin does with less reluctance than he likes to pretend, “it is delightful.”

With a rush of air, Keith is stepping away across the room and sending a half-hearted scowl back over his shoulder.

“Alteans blush too, you know.”

White eyebrows rise fractionally higher.

“Is that so?” It is not a trait he personally inherited, and his mother had never been one to become easily ruffled so he’s unsurprised to find himself ignorant of this particular quirk of Altean biology. “I dare say it looks better on you than it would me.”

“You-” Keith chokes on a scandalised laugh, his blush extending from his cheeks to the tip of the ear that pokes out from dark hair, “you’re such an ass.”

Lotor laughs again, “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has insulted me with quite so much candour as you,” and doesn’t care to hide his appreciation for having Keith so sweet and flustered and completely undone by his own hand.

Small a thing as it may be, it feels like quite the achievement.

A polite cough interrupts them.

Even as he turns his attention to this meddlesome presence, Lotor sees from the corner of his eye how Keith does the same, his shoulders drawing up towards his ears as he registers the identity of the interloper.

“I apologise if I’m… interrupting,” she’s tall, thin of face, and it takes Lotor a moment to place her as the rebel who had become the victim of friendly fire, “I was told I could find you here.”

‘You’ is accompanied by a hesitant nod in Lotor’s direction, but her eyes seem continually drawn back to Keith in a way that so obviously leaves the little Blade ill at ease.

“Evidently you have succeeded in locating me,” Lotor knows how to command attention, and he uses the tenor of his voice to snap the rebel’s straying gaze back to him, “do you require something?”

As he speaks, Lotor wanders with a falsified nonchalance that leaves him to stand half shielding Keith from sight.

“I,” she seems to struggle with her words for a moment, “I came to thank you.”

Lotor freezes.

“…whatever for?”

The line of her mouth thins and her eyes almost flicker to Keith again, before fixing Lotor with a long, hard look.

“The Galra have tormented my people for several hundred turns,” she says it as if this is be news to Lotor, as if this same narrative is not shared by half the universe, “I thought you all monsters.”

It sounds like a weak sort of challenge, as if she’s expecting Lotor to defy her, but when these words elicit no reaction from him, she deflates.

“I was… wrong,” and that admission does surprise him, “the things your people have done are horrific, and I cannot forgive them for it, but you were-”

Her mouth is little more than a tight line now.

“-kind,” she forces out, “to me. When I was injured. You had no reason to be, but you were, and Driig almost killed you for it, and I- I just wanted to apologise.”

She goes quiet then, and nods, clearly satisfied that their business is concluded, abruptly spinning on her heel; the hesitation doesn’t leave her stride, however, and after a step or two she’s half turning back, eyes on Keith again.

“Lord Paladin…?”

It’s unclear why her address is a question until Lotor catches the awkward shift in weight as Keith rubs at the back of his neck, the look in his eyes almost as guilty as it is defensive, and inclines his head that she should continue.

“The rumours were true then. You’re Galra.”

Keith winces at her coolness of tone, and it takes everything that Lotor has not to audibly grind his teeth.

“Yeah.”

He sounds so defeated.

For a long moment, she just stands there, looking at him, and even Lotor can’t even begin to guess at the thoughts cycling through her mind.

“Alright,” she says this quietly, more a sigh than a word, as if she’s made her peace with some internal conflict that has been raging for far longer than it should have. Then, with a weak smile, she forms a fist with her right hand and presses it beneath her collarbone in what Lotor - to his great surprise - recognises as a sloppy imitation of the Imperial salute. “Lord Paladin… Prince Lotor.”

And with that, she’s gone.

Chapter Text

Princess Allura sweeps through the doors leading from the main area of the medical bay and deigns only to announce that Voltron will be convening with the coalition in a varga - and that Lotor is to join them - before having the Prince immediately marched off by the blue Paladin, a lightly disgruntled Keith prevented from accompanying them by her viper’s grip. Lotor is sure to cage a growl behind his teeth as he bids his little Blade a harried farewell, trying not to focus on how the princess’s nails bite into Keith’s arm with greater ferocity than the poor thing deserves.

This now leaves the heir to the Empire in the begrudging company of one human Lance Mcclain, who does not seem at all pleased to be serving as his sole escort.

After having dragged Lotor halfway across the ship with a suffocating air as the third member of their party, Lance’s apparent oath of silence is broken by a grunt of “conference room,” as he slows to a halt and slaps his hand down on the interactive panel with more force than is strictly necessary to activate the great arched door. It opens with a hiss, and Lotor steps through under the scrutinous eye of his chaperone.

It’s less a room and more an auditorium, Lotor thinks, taking in the great tiered crescent before him, peppered with what must be upwards of one or two thousand holographic pads, all pulsating with a dim blue glow, and positioned to offer a clear view of the podium at the room’s blunted end from which he and the Paladin have entered. Everything is of that same stark white that the Altean architects of times long since passed apparently favoured, and from where the Prince has stopped in the centre of the raised dais, it’s near blinding.

Lotor drops to seat himself at the podium’s edge with a long-suffering sigh; it seems he will be standing trial before the Voltron Coalition after all.

How wonderful.

Though aware of the blue Paladin watching him, Lotor pays him no mind, returning his attention to the tablet he’d swiped from the medical bay and combing over the data with a critical eye.

“Um?” There’s something in that voice that is pitched high in scandal. “When the hell did you steal that?”

Slitted pupils slide to the left, finding the Paladin stood there with something simultaneously confused and offended painted sloppily over his features. Lotor forces out an irritated exhalation.

“Do I truly strike you as one for petty theft?”

Lance shifts, one foot to the other, and though he doesn’t activate his bayard his fingers twitch as if they’d very much like to do just that.

“Okay first off,” he raises his one finger, “that’s not a no, and secondly,” his middle finger joins his index, “you’re literally holding an Altean tablet in your hand. Right there. I can see it.”

Lotor sweeps his gaze over this Paladin Lance once, taking in the determined set of his shoulders even as it contrasts the awkward twist to his lips; there seems an internal battle between his hesitance and determination, as if he knows what he sees and yet doubts his own eyes anyway.

How very odd.

“I assure you,” Lotor decides upon, not wishing to tempt fate and find himself held at gunpoint yet again, “I exited your medical facilities with it plainly in hand. Had anyone made a move to stop me and retrieve it, I would not have resisted.”

“But… no one did.” Armoured shoulders sag with a resigned weight.

Obviously, Lotor does not say, and, fangs sharp and displayed all too proudly, opts instead for: “No one dared.”

As it seems the Paladin has no intention of rectifying his own negligence - or, indeed, that of his allies - with regards to this matter, Lotor turns back to the tablet and scans through the readings concerning Keith’s heartrate and blood pressure. It all seems… normal. Good, even. The strangest thing of all is that despite his genetic markers clearly indicating a Galra parent, Keith himself doesn’t seem to have inherited any physical characteristics of his maternal half, bar perhaps a generous muscular density.

Clicking his tongue in frustration brings with it the unfortunate side effect of inviting the blue Paladin closer, his garish armor drawing Lotor’s eye despite the Prince’s best efforts as the boy hovers at his shoulder.

“So… Keith’s definitely good right? Apart from the whole, dying-but-not-really thing.”

For a moment, brief and cruel, Lotor considers being deliberately ambiguous in affirming this as a form of petty revenge for how irksome the blue Paladin has proven to be, but… he cares for Keith, that much is obvious, and perhaps more importantly Keith cares for him.

It would not do to be mean.

“Aside from the accelerated deterioration of his cellular structure, yes, as I said previously, I would have to conclude that he’s in perfect health.” More to himself than to his companion, Lotor continues: “What escapes me is the reasoning behind how completely his paternal half seems to have manifested itself.”

There’s an unconcerned noise then, which the Prince takes to be the verbal equivalent of a shrug.

“I guess his human genes are just dominant.”

The casual air with which this is said gives Lotor pause, and he stares at the data blankly.

“You… do not seem to grasp what a rarity that is.”

With deft fingers, Lotor pulls up the medical records of not just Lance, but Pidge, Hunk, and the Champion too, arranging them around Keith’s scans so as to best appraise them. The green Paladin’s information he dismisses first, the anatomy of human females proving different enough that it’s easier to disregard than utilise as a point of comparison, but the other candidates demonstrate that Keith’s organ placement, oxygen intake, circulatory system, everything, is plainly within the acceptable margins for a member of his paternal species. He really does seem, for all intents and purposes, human.

Though this soothes Lotor’s pride somewhat with regards to having not clocked Keith as Galra, it also piques his curiosity, and he can feel the intrigue bubbling low in his gut.

Some of it must show on his face, or perhaps he has simply been too quiet for too long, because the blue Paladin inhales as if preparing to probe him for answers; to prevent a slew of ambiguous and potentially ignorant questions that will doubtlessly frustrate Lotor more than they’ll benefit his cognitive process, the Prince volunteers his thoughts without prompting.

“Your friend is Galra, his genetic constitution leaves no question of that, but he has no physical characteristics that would betray the truth of his blood which is... virtually unheard of. Typically, the more prominent an individual’s non-Galra half, the higher their mortality rate due to their Galra cells perceiving a greater threat and reacting accordingly.” Lotor himself, is proof of that - the adaptability of his Altean DNA and its attempt to accommodate his father’s blood rather than submit to it, damn near killing him in his cradle, “and yet Keith not only survived, but seems to be the pinnacle of health. Though records of hybrid Galra are few and far between, the vast majority of successful births are of offspring that almost exclusively inherited the traits of their Galra-parent - statistically speaking, he should have been stillborn at best.”

So intently is he pondering upon this, that Lotor almost forgets he is actually speaking to someone until the Paladin pipes up: “Okay, but it’s not impossible. Your invisible lizard lady didn’t exactly follow the genetic dress-code.”

Ezor.

Lotor’s heart aches.

“No she did not, but Ezor has always been something of a special case. She was born thickly furred, like her father, however her maternal people were of a particular disposition that saw them shed their skin every twelve decaphoebs or so; suffice to say, her second flesh was not so Galra as her first.”

“Oh.”

He sounds faintly disturbed, and Lotor is kind enough to bite back a sarcastic echo of the Paladin’s dismay.

“Acxa however, outwardly appears about as Galra as I do, and Zethrid near full-blooded.” It hurts to talk about them, his friends, but there’s a part of Lotor that wants nothing more. “She cannibalised her mother - her Galra parent - rather than herself; eating her way out of the womb and into the awaiting arms of her grandparents.”

Zethrid would have found great joy in the noise of distress this statement is greeted with, Lotor thinks, and the thought of it is almost a fond one.

“They were morbidly pleased, or so she once told me. Theirs was one of the old houses, you see, and their daughter had found love with an outworlder; in breeding with him, she had shamed the entire family, and they were only at her bedside so that they may hide the child away the moment it was born. Of course, in tearing her way into the world Zethrid proved herself more Galra than her traitorous mother, and was welcomed into the fold despite her weakness of blood.”

“That’s… so fucked up.”

Human terminology is dreadfully crude, but Lotor cannot pretend that he does not derive a certain level of enjoyment from the blue Paladin’s horror.

From somewhere far away, Kra gives a delighted little hum of assent.

“So… what?” The blue Paladin continues, gnawing at his lower lip so hard that Lotor is sure it will bleed. “If she hadn’t eaten her mother they would have gotten rid of her? Just like that?”

By the way he says it, Lotor knows that he means to imply infanticide, and wonders at how humans treat their young for such barbarity to occur to the Paladin as a natural course of action.

“I can see why you might think so, considering what limited exposure your species have had to true Imperial culture, but it’s not like that at all.” It feels important that Lotor make the Paladin understand. “Children are precious to the Galra. Perhaps a mercy killing would have been kinder, had Zethrid not been so vivacious, but no Galra would so much as entertain the thought of harming a kit, tainted blood be damned. The low status of hybrids within the Empire stems more from the fact that encouraging the copulation of two people destined to lose their offspring young - an offspring that would be unlikely to ever open its eyes in the first place, let alone have any quality of life - seems unusually cruel, wouldn’t you say?”

“I guess so,” Lance concedes, and then, “but like you said, Keith’s not sick. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him catch so much as a cold - even when we all came down with space-flu last decaphoeb.”

Disregarding the fact that ‘space-flu’ is nothing close to an actual ailment, Lotor explains: “Impure half-breeds we may be, but weak we are most certainly not.” It’s a cold sort of pride. “If a compatible secondary parent species is found, and the offspring survives, we do ultimately possess a rather particular resilience. I’m sure we simultaneously disgusted and fascinated the Witch.”

Perhaps there’s something in his tone that reads the wrong side of wistful, because the blue Paladin half leaps backwards, his sudden scowl a ferocious thing.

“Whoa there bud, whatever you’re thinking: forget it. I am not letting you dissect him.”

Incredulously, all the Prince can do is stare; in finding that the boy seems serious, the line of Lotor’s mouth draws tight.

“…and I haven’t the slightest intention of doing anything of the sort. I am not Haggar,” the name comes out as a dangerous growl.

As if Lotor would ever partake in such barbarity - though he would, admittedly, be more than happy to take the prettiest of Voltron’s number apart in an entirely different sense. “I’d simply be intrigued to learn what it is in Keith’s gene-pool that allows for his non-Galra half to dominate so completely.”

Lance’s hard look gives way to something akin to relief.

“Oh. Well that’s… fair.”

There’s a beat of silence in which Lotor thinks he might finally be left to go over the data. He is mistaken.

“For the record,” Lance pipes up, his nonchalance in broaching further conversation barely believable. “I don’t like you, but-”

“I assure you, the sentiment is quite mutual.” Lotor mutters, and the Paladin has the gall to look offended by that.

“I said but! At least let a guy finish what he’s saying!” Lance has spread his arms wide and seems appropriately slighted. “Istilldon’tlikeyou but thanks for checking out Keith, I guess.”

Lotor isn’t given chance to respond, the Paladin’s face falling of its own accord as he tacks on: “Well, actually, you could maybe check him out a little less because really it’s kind of obnoxious-“

It’s here, before Lance is able to finish that thought or Lotor refute it - because really, if either of them is to be called obnoxious it should most certainly not be him - that their conversation comes to a close. Or rather, it is abruptly cut off as the Green Paladin bounds into the room, a restless energy in her footsteps.

“Prince Lotor!” sees his title called out with the tongue of someone who means to mock him, but when Lotor’s narrowed eyes fix the smallest Paladin’s bouncing form with a sharp look, the expression she greets him with is not a malicious one.

She’s young, so he lets the borderline disrespect pass without comment.

“Paladin Pidge.”

She comes to a halt beside her blue-clad friend, shooting the boy a grin which he only half returns as he looks between her and Lotor with conflicted surprise at their near cordial exchange. She shrugs at him, still smiling, before turning back to Lotor and launching straight into her purpose without preamble, which the Prince appreciates far more than he would any attempt at making needless niceties.

“So it’s not quite finished but Coran just briefed me on what went down with the rebels and if we’re finally talking to the Coalition I figure this’ll be as good an opportunity for you to test it out as any-“

Her thoughts seem to be running at a furious pace, and a quick glance to the blue Paladin proves that he is just as clueless to the focus of Pidge’s enthusiasm as Lotor is.

“-so here!” She waves a handheld device in his face, and for the first time Lotor registers something beneath her excitement: a thread of nervous energy that raises his guard. “This is a new and improved version of the English language as approved by the green Lion herself, complete with all the curse words I could think of!”

Her excitement is genuine. Her explanation is not.

There’s something she’s not telling him.

“You wish to update my translator chip so that I may better comprehend the nuance of your mother-tongue’s expletives,” Lotor raises one fine white brow, feigning amusement so that she might not catch on to his awareness of her hidden motives.

If the draining of tension from her shoulders is any indication, he appears to have succeeded.

“Yep! It works on the basis of context clues,” she’s bouncing on her toes, a prideful little smile playing across her lips, “see, when we first met Allura and Coran we could understand them straight away - which totally made no sense because we can’t speak Altean and they can’t speak English, so I figured out that the blue Lion must’ve tapped into our translators to update us on all the languages she’d been exposed to and - because she was in Lance’s head - she took English and Spanish and applied them to Allura and Coran’s translator chips too.”

Lotor inclines his head, only half listening as he privately searches for the inconsistency in her intentions.

“But because the Lions don’t deal in language, but ideas, there’s no confusion between words that sound the same, or even ones that are the same but mean different things in different contexts. There’s a delay sometimes, but even if we don’t always get the specifics of Coran’s idioms I can kind of understand the meaning behind them, and I’m pretty sure it’s because the Lion’s update takes context clues into account. So with this,” she waves the device in her hand towards him again, “you should be able to tell the difference between me talking shit, and talking about shit.”

It sounds the same, that last bit, and it has him wincing at the vulgarity of it all, but Lotor has to assume that this is precisely her point.

“Damn Pidge,” Lance’s tone is awed, “that’s so cool.”

“I know.” She grins up at her friend, and he grins back, ruffling her hair fondly. Then, turning back to Lotor, she asks: “So? What d’you think?”

The Prince gives a low hum of contemplation. Her zeal is too sincere for this to be a complete ruse, and as such Lotor is inclined to believe in her good intentions at least so far as furthering his understanding of the human tongue goes.

“Very well then.”

Mind still racing, but unable to decline lest he raise the Paladins’ suspicions that he knows all is not what it seems, Lotor combs the hair at his nape to one side and placidly allows Voltron’s smallest member to press her curious device over the raised white line behind his ear.

Informing him: “this should only take a dobash or two,” is her second slip. A minor translator update such as this should take a matter of ticks at most, even with the Altean tech they’re using practically classifying as an antique. Lotor knows she must be embedding something else - several lines of new code seems the most likely candidate - and he lets her rambling wash over him as he attempts to puzzle out what its purpose could be.

Over the phoeb that they’d worked alongside one another, Lotor had observed little Pidge’s constitution to be far better than Hunk’s, so her nerves are unlikely to be caused by something inconsequential. Ergo, whatever it is she’s installing into his neck is most certainly something she believes he would disapprove of.

“-and when we spoke to Allura earlier she, well, she wasn’t exactly receptive but if you give us another couple of quintents I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to convince her that keeping you under lock and key is less conductive that she wants to believe.”

Lance makes a series of squeaking noises at that, protesting against a decrease in Lotor’s security detail as “no bueno, Pidgita!” but the Prince himself receives this news with a wave of understanding.

It’s a tracker.

Lotor has to hand it to her, though he’s not exactly thrilled by it, the compromise is not an unreasonable one: increased freedom of movement at the cost of his precise location whensoever team Voltron so desire it. If he proves himself to be trustworthy, it becomes a moot point, and if the alternative is true then they can locate and neutralise him at a moment’s notice... and all under the guise of a friendly gesture.

How delightfully underhanded.

Even if Princess Allura hasn’t the mind for war games, the same can apparently not be said of the green Paladin.

“All done!” With a slight spark of static, the pressure on Lotor’s neck releases, and Pidge steps back. “The others probably won’t turn up until the Coalition are all ready to go, but I guess I’ll hang out here with you guys ‘til then because - believe me - the last thing I want is to get between whatever’s going down with Keith and Allura.”

And that’s when it occurs to him.

“So what, we’re just hanging out with Prince Lotor now?” Lance is saying - or, whining really - but the subject of his petty displeasure hardly hears him, his world narrowing instead to a single truth.

“Oh you little beast,” Lotor stands abruptly to tower over them, green and blue Paladins both, with his lips tightly pursed, and vindictively he revels in the startled jump they give in unison, “you were aware of his identity the entire time. That is why you were so insistent on his committing to anonymity.”

Pidge blinks wide brown eyes up at him owlishly, before an evil grin creeps across her features.

Duh.” For all her determination in keeping Keith’s identity a secret, she doesn’t seem even mildly concerned at the truth of the matter having been revealed. “I can’t believe we managed to keep it under wraps for an entire phoeb working together on your ship, but then he goes and blows the whole thing after being left to his own devices for less than a varga.”

Lance scoffs quietly, “of course he did: this is Keith we’re talking about,” and Lotor feels a prickle of offense on his little Blade’s behalf.

Pidge must see something in his expression, because she’s sniggering as she hops up onto the podium to seat herself quite happily, legs swinging in the air before her and regarding Lotor with particular interest. “What gave it away, in the end?”

The Prince decidedly does not wish to humour her intrigue.

“Perhaps I charmed it out of him,” he tells her instead, and Pidge barks out a laugh.

“You expect me to believe that you figured out Marmora-Keith and Paladin-Keith are the same person, but not how damn clueless he is to all your,” she waves her hand towards him in a vague gesture, “charms.”

It’s a fair statement, Lotor supposes, and knowing that his Rhyahl is also the Blade’s kitling, he cannot rightly deny how sweetly naïve Keith is to Lotor’s own flirtations - though whether this is a blessing or a curse has yet to be decided - but even so…

“A little oblivious, it’s true,” he concedes, with a purr, “but you oughtn’t mistake that for unwillingness, Paladin. I have found him to be quite… receptive.”

Her air of entertainment sours at the insinuation, and Lotor preens.

“But you needn’t take my word for it: when your companion found myself and Keith earlier, we were more than a little comfortable in one another’s company,” his gaze slides to the Lance, “were we not?”

The blue Paladin’s expression is foul.

“Hands off, L'Oréal.” Lance has the audacity to jab his finger at Lotor’s chest with a glare, “he’s not up for grabs.”

“No?” Feigning innocence, Lotor meanders across the room to trail fingers along the lowest of the spectator’s platforms, throwing a smile back over his shoulder that is more sharpness than true amusement. “Then pray tell, why cast him aside in favour of your little Princess, hm?”

Faces falling flat, both the green and blue Paladins grow suddenly stiff.

“Oh dear,” Lotor feels a cold smirk pulling at his lips, “I seem to have struck a nerve.”

“You don’t know shit about why he left.”

Lotor taps his neck lightly over where his translator lies, sending Pidge an appreciative smile, the sincerity of which, he knows, must be jarring. “It works splendidly,” and then, returning to the topic at hand, “but you’re correct. I am not aware of the particulars of his… change in occupation.”

He lets them absorb this for just long enough that some of the tension begins to leak from their posture.

“Should I guess?”

The return of rigidity to their forms says he should not.

This, of course, seems the perfect opportunity to voice the needling suspicion in his gut.

“Allow me to tell you what I know,” Lotor begins. “I know that Keith has served as Paladin of both the red and black Lions. I know that he is a competent warrior as a Blade of Marmora. I know that there is a dissonance between you and him, one which he appears to blame himself for, though so far as I have observed it the fault lies with Voltron.”

They wince at that in unison, but neither attempt to deny it.

“And now,” Lotor draws a breath, attempts to quell his rising anger, “I know that he is Galra. Tell me, when coupled with the bigotry that almost saw me dead earlier today, what conclusions might I have drawn from such a sequence of data?”

“The wrong ones,” Lance bites back, but there’s a tremor to his voice that betrays him.

“Is that so…” Observing him coolly, Lotor lowers his tone to something unkind yet sweetly crooning. “Then whyever do you appear to be weighed down by such a dreadfully guilty conscience, blue Paladin- or, is it red now?”

“That’s enough.” Pidge’s voice holds the same danger as a cornered animal baring its teeth. “You’ve said enough.”

Yielding in the face of the vehemence Voltron’s smallest spits at him, the Prince raises his hands in easy submission. “Apologies; I ought know better than to pry.”

“Yes,” she growls, “you ought.”

He should stop there, Lotor knows he should, but there’s a certain stirring in his blood that begs he press them just a little further - just to make them notice, just to make them see what a mistake they have made - because Keith is better than this.

Keith deserves better than this, and the Paladins’ dawning realisation that Lotor might be willing to provide such a thing is delicious.

“You know full well what I think of him,” he watches Pidge for a reaction, and finds one in the balling of her fists, “and therefore it should be no great leap of logic to surmise how he has risen yet further in my esteem for being of Galra blood. We are the same, he and I, and it seems plain to me that as you and yours have seen such a man so easily discarded, you do not deserve the pleasure of his company.”

“And what,” Lance hisses, all the colour drained from his cheeks by a white-hot fury, “you do?”

Lotor merely smiles.

 

-

 

As Lance harries Lotor from the room and out of sight, Keith submits to his fate.

Fate, as it turns out, has one hell of a hold on his arm.

“The patient causing a ruckus,” the Princess sighs, her voice level yet her grasp unyielding, “it was the rebel officer you… neutralised.”

Ah.

“He…” she trails off, mouth twisting as if the admission she must make is distasteful, “he confirmed everything Lotor said - though, in his words, it was less an execution and more an act of sacrifice on Voltron’s behalf. Either way, he maintains that Lotor did not resist, and that his aggressor was an agent of Marmora.”

Privately, Keith can’t help but note that she sounds almost disappointed in Lotor’s proven innocence.

Though he doesn’t know what sort of an expression he pulls then, it sees Allura’s death-grip softening to something that’s more of a firm hand than a shackle, her fingers relaxing into the crux of Keith’s elbow.

“Walk with me?”

It’s not really a question, but Keith nods anyway, obediently allowing the Altean Princess to haul him across the medical bay with a purpose to her stride that says anyone who so much as considers interrupting them would be wise to think again. They pass Pidge on their way out, honeyed eyes widening at a glance, whatever she perceives in Allura’s face causing her to sidestep without comment, and when Keith looks back at her almost mournfully the smallest Paladin offers nothing more than a half-sincere salute before ducking out of sight. Alone with Allura once again, Keith lets himself be guided into one of the lesser-known hallways down which the Princess marches him, her arm now looped through his, until they come to a disused observation deck at the corridor’s intersection and she sees fit to break the silence that has settled between them.

“When I was a little girl,” Allura begins, and this isn’t even remotely the topic Keith had thought to prepare himself for, “I wanted nothing more than to explore the stars as my father so often did.”

Her sigh is a wistful one.

“He was forever flying off to distant worlds only to return home with increasingly fantastical stories, and I desperately wished to go with him, to experience these beautiful places and their people for myself. I met plenty of diplomats from our allied planets, of course, but they always came to us, never the other way around, and so I begged him-”

When she laughs, it’s a small, quiet thing. Keith hadn’t known that such a gentle sound could be so painful.

“-I begged him to take me off-planet - wherever he liked, I didn’t mind so long as I got to see it - and eventually he agreed. I was… perhaps ninety decaphoebs at the time?” She laughs again. “I scarcely remember it, young as I was, but the look on my father’s face as he held me in his arms and showed me the stars, now that I shan’t ever forget.”

Oh god, Keith thinks, this is one of those conversations, and, in a panic, blurts out: “Full disclosure, I’m not good at this.”

Tearing her eyes from a distant galaxy that bleeds a rainbow into the cosmos, Allura tilts her face towards his with a neat little furrow making its home between her brows.

“This?”

This.” Keith gestures first at himself and then her with his free hand, a little desperate. “Talking about important things. Family.”

Then, with a crack to his voice that falls the wrong side of vulnerability, confesses: “I mess it up.”

Allura blinks up at him, so close that Keith can pick out all the individual flecks of pink amongst the blue.

“Oh Keith,” she whispers, “is that what you think?”

Choking on his own tongue, Keith resolutely focuses his eyes back on the swirling colours beyond the glass. Allura’s kind enough to let him avoid the question - though, for a horrible moment, he thinks she won’t - and instead rests her head on his shoulder as they stand there amongst the stars.

“You’re family,” she breathes, as if a truth too sacred to risk the stars overhearing, “you, and Lance, and Pidge, and Hunk, and Shiro - and Coran, of course - the six of you are my family; if ever I’ve made you doubt that- no, I know I did, when I first found out that you were Galra…”

There’s hesitation on her tongue when she tells him: “I want to apologise.”

“You already did,” Keith reminds her, “and I already forgave you.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t have done.”

He finds Allura watching him in their reflection, and can do nothing but look back wordlessly.

“Why did you leave?” She asks. “Truly?”

It’s a loaded question, more so than she likely realises, and one to which Keith has simultaneously too many answers and yet none that quiet fit. The one he settles on is far from ideal.

“I was never meant to be the black Paladin,” perhaps not any Paladin.

“It was a steep learning curve for all of us-” the Princess tries, but Keith’s only response is to spit out a laugh, sharp and bitter.

“I was a disaster, Allura, and you know it.” Her uneasy silence is answer enough, and he wilts under the confirmation. “It’s fine. I don’t blame you- any of you.” How could he, when the fault lay with him and him alone? “It was better that I left.”

Safer, he doesn’t say.

She makes no attempt to refute him, instead dancing around the sharpness of truth. “The team hasn’t been the same without you.”

“No?” Smiling has never been so painful. “Last I heard you were all doing pretty well for yourselves before I came back; more time spent helping people and less on a wild goose-chase around a gas-planet after an enemy we knew nothing about.”

He’d kept track.

“Keith-”

“Allura.” A level stare is all it takes to silence her. “It’s fine. Good, even,” and the next words fall out of his mouth without conscious thought: “the best thing I ever did for the team was step down.”

His words echo - in the space around them or inside his own mind, Keith can’t be sure - and Allura’s hand drops away altogether; for a moment nothing’s real, nothing, until her hand returns, a gentle warmth of slim fingers tangling with his own.

“You truly believe that?”

He looks past their reflections that stand with fingers interlaced, and out into the darkness beyond them.

“You don’t?”

“Not for a tick.” She tightens her hold on his hand as if she’s frightened of letting go. “It doesn’t matter to me that you’re Galra, because you’re Keith, you’re not like them-“

It’s a simple misstep, but a shattering one.

Keith yanks his arm away, jaw set and eyes dark, finding Allura staring at him in shock; her hand hovers in their air between them, reaching out towards him as if she’s not sure she’s allowed to do so.

Actually, Keith decides, she’s not.

“That’s just it Allura, you think I’m the exception to the rule but you’re wrong. I’m not one of the good Galra, I’m just Galra. That’s it.”

Her hand retreats.

“I only meant that they’re-“

There is no them.” Keith doesn’t shout, but the words tumble out on a breath of furious exasperation that cuts through the air between them with a sharp hiss. “Can being Galra and being terrible overlap? Of course. But it’s not a correlation, and if you’re using that to try and make the casualties Voltron leaves behind okay then I’m sorry but I can’t let you do that!”

“That is not what I’m doing!” Rage replaces reluctance, and vindictively - selfishly - Keith is glad of it.

“That’s exactly what you’re doing! You’re projecting Zarkon’s face onto an entire race of people-”

“They’re hardly innocent!” She spins on her heel and takes several paces away from where Keith’s stood, only to whirl back around with fire in her footsteps. “The Galra follow Zarkon; yes, he’s their Emperor and holds a great deal of responsibility for the state of the universe, but even he is not wholly to blame! Without the compliance of his people he would not have wrought nearly so much death and destruction!”

“Fine!” Keith sags back against the window, rubbing the heels of his palms into his eye sockets with more force than he should. “Fine. So the imperial military is full of killers. Show me a military that isn’t.”

Allura’s halting silence is an answer in itself, and Keith lets his arms drop to his sides as he looks at her.

“The Galra have been following Zarkon for thousands of decaphoebs; to us, yeah, he’s an immortal monster, but to them he’s a god. Don’t tell me you can’t see that.”

Keith watches for the slow draining of tension from her posture, even as the Princess crosses her arms as if to shield herself.

“Strength, victory, that’s everything to them. They lost their planet too, Allura, and I know,“ he raises his hands to pacify her, “I know what happened to Altea was unforgivable, and I know that your father had a good reason for doing what he did, but that’s not how it’s been recorded in the Imperial history books.”

Finally assured that she’s not going to start yelling at him again, Keith returns his eyes to the stars.

“Lotor’s been teaching me about my Galra half, and he’s explained the Empire’s side of the war to me. He’s lived it, Allura - in pieces, maybe, but next to Zarkon and Haggar, he’s the only one who knows both the truth of what happened then, and the inner workings of what’s happening now.”

A breath.

“And he’s trying to change it.” Dusk-dark eyes find midwinter blue. “I seriously think he’s trying to change the Empire for the better.”

The silence stretches between them, ticks turning into dobashes and dobashes into near a varga. It’s time she needs, Keith thinks, to process, and while he can give it to her he will.

“It’s not fair.”

She sounds so like a child when she says it, her voice the very essence of frailty where she herself is anything but.

“I know.” Keith tells her.

Another silence ensues, but this time it’s not nearly such a long one.

“You are very wise for your age, Keith Kogane,” the admission is pained, and yet almost said with a smile, “at thirty one decaphoebs I knew only a handful of words, and I believe most of them were confectionary.”

“You had a sweet tooth?” Perhaps it’s the release of tension, but for some reason the thought strikes the former Paladin as unreasonably funny, and he can’t help but fixate on it.

“I still do.” Allura closes the distance between them with a devilish grin on her lips, her next words hushed as if an awful secret. “A terrible one. Coran thinks it quite unforgivable, you know; it’s the only thing he’s ever defied me on.”

They laugh then, quietly but in unison, and for a moment it feels as if Keith could forget that the two of them are more soldiers than people.

It doesn’t last.

When reality sinks back into their bones with a heavy chill, all laughter dies. Allowing Allura to take one of his hands in both of hers, Keith watches the smile fade from her features and age her a decade - though, in light of recent revelations, that’s not nearly so much time to her as it is to him - and they stand in silence for a while more.

“I’ll do better,” she promises, gaze never leaving the crease of his palm where her fingers dance against calloused skin, “I know now that I must seem terribly old to you, and that perhaps if I’ve yet to learn my lesson it may be too late, but I will do better.”

Her eyes rise to meet his.

“I was born to be Altea’s queen, but I was never intended to rule alone. Altea may be gone, along with all my advisors bar one, but I have you and the other Paladins now, and I swear to you, Keith-” Allura clasps his hand over her heart with a determined set to her shoulders, “I swear that I want to do right by the universe, Galra and all.”

Keith inclines his head, all too aware of the hesitant downturn at the corner of her lips. In her own time, Allura voices this uncertainty.

“Do you truly believe that Lotor wants the same?”

“I…” Does he? Keith certainly wants to believe it, but that’s not quite enough. “…I’m starting to.”

For now, that will have to do.

 

The walk to the conference room is long, but not unpleasant. Allura shares with him little anecdotes of her childhood - snippets of infiltration missions into diplomatic dinners she had no place at, or impossibly mischievous tales of her younger self gallivanting about the castle. Keith devours it all. She tells him of her father, of her mother - who Keith has never before heard her mention, and learns now that this is because Queen Melenor passed quiet suddenly when Allura was young - and Keith returns these stories in kind as well as he is able, with comparable ones of his own. The dramatic retelling of Allura’s first Jiior hunt that, Keith learns, only occurs once every blue moon (by which Allura really does mean that Altea’s largest moon would glow a startling cerulean), is met with his own vague recollections of camping trips with his dad where they’d stay up all night telling ghost stories and eating smores (which, once Keith explains the concept, Allura seems to set both her heart and stomach on with great vigour).

Allura tells him of the former Paladins, too. Of Blaytz, her earliest recollection of whom features him bathing in the fountain of her great Grandmother, and had subsequently seen her set the guards on, assuming him to be an intruder. Of Gyrgan, who would take her juniberry picking in the warm seasons, and let her ride on his shoulders during the cooler ones. Of Trigel, who taught her both how to best her father in what Keith assumes is the Altean equivalent of chess, and the most effective ways to catch Alfor off-guard with pranks of the most ingenious variety.

She doesn’t breathe a word of Zarkon.

She doesn’t, but Keith hears it regardless, because there are gaping holes in the stories of Allura’s childhood that can only be filled by a great shadow - one that is powerful and disciplined and her uncle by everything but blood. Somehow, Keith never thought to connect Zarkon’s past as Alfor’s dearest friend to Allura in any way.

It seems like an obvious oversight.

“What of you?” She asks, as they ascend a tightly wound staircase. “Who did you have, aside from your father?”

“No one, really.” Keith shrugs off the wounded noise this statement is greeted with. “Not until Shiro. He was scouting kids for the Garrison and, I mean, I’ve always loved space but I figured that a military organisation wasn’t really for me, so I nearly didn’t give the simulator a go. Seemed like a waste of time.”

A half-smile tugs at his lips.

“But then he asked me to,” asked, not demanded, and maybe that’s why Keith said yes, “and I was good. ‘Course, I was still a discipline case, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise when the principle told him not to bother with me.”

Allura makes a sound that’s half sympathy, half indignation, but Keith just shakes his head.

“I heard that kind of shit all the time, it was nothing new, but… the thing was, if - even when I was good at something - they called me that, then why try at all, you know? So I, er… I stole his car.”

There’s a pause, and then Allura lets out a startled burst of laughter.

“You stole Shiro’s car? How old were you?”

“Fourteen.” Keith can feel how his own smile softens, “just another brat with nothing to offer, but for some reason the Garrison’s golden boy looked at me and saw something worth… well, I don’t know what. He bailed me out and gave me a second chance, which was more than anyone else had done for me in a long time.”

Allura hums, and though she’s still smiling there’s something in that sound that rings a little melancholy.

“You’ve known him a while, then.” The former Paladin nods, and she continues: “Do you mind if I ask you something?”

In Keith’s experience, when people feel the need to prelude a question with a question, it brings with it nothing good, but Allura’s looking at him with so much concern that he begrudgingly consents.

“Are you and Shiro… alright?”

“We’re fine,” he tells her, because it’s true.

Perhaps he answers a little too quickly though, and it leaves Allura with doubt written into her features.

“You seem different, is all. When you first became Paladins, the two of you were joined at the hip, but as of late I’ve thought…” she doesn’t finish her musings, only trails off into an awful sort of silence that sends Keith’s stomach plummeting. Sure, he and Shiro aren’t what they used to be, but Shiro’s been through a lot, they both have, and Keith… he’d let Shiro down, he knows, because Shiro had trusted him to take care of things in his absence, and he’d failed. He’d tried to fix it, tried to step back and allow Shiro to lead the team like only he can, like Keith knows he’d never be able to, and it had worked - even if the necessary price had been Keith removing himself from Voltron altogether.

“We’re fine,” he finds himself repeating, despite Allura not really having asked anything else.

Her brow knits itself together in a very delicate, royal sort of way.

“You don’t seem as close as you used to be,” and though she whispers these words, they ring inside Keith’s skull with an awful clamouring. It’s the one thing he’s been afraid of, and yet desperately tried to ignore.

“We’ve been busy.” It might be more an assurance to himself, than to her. “Shiro’s just got a lot to worry about as the Black Paladin, you know that, and I’ve been-” secretly working for Kolivan on a covert mission to decide whether or not Marmora will support Lotor’s claim to the throne at the Kral Zera that will inevitably be held as soon as you take Zarkon down, “-y’know… around.”

It’s a weak excuse, even for him, but Allura just looks sad.

“I worry, is all - about him, about you.”

Keith sees the aching truth of it in her face.

“We’re okay,” those words taste like a lie, “but I can check in with him, if you want?”

Relief floods the Princess’s features.

“See to it that you do. Now, hurry-” she stops walking and firmly pushes Keith towards a door - the door to his own room, he belatedly realises - with the look of a leader about her, “the coalition will be ready any moment now, and it won’t do to keep them waiting.”

“Allura, what-“

“Your armor,” she insists. “I think it important you attend this as my Paladin rather than a Blade.”

Keith hesitates.

“Trust me?” She asks him, and though her smile is small and uncertain, it’s enough to have Keith ducking into his room with a firm nod of assent.

Chapter Text

The Paladins leave him be after that, no longer inclined to make idle conversation in the face of so blunt a truth as their own disregard for Keith, especially not with Lotor being this unashamedly forthright in his intentions. It aggravates them, as the Prince had known it would, and this is satisfying enough that he leaves the children to their anxious ruminations without pressing further, returning his attention instead to the tablet still in hand.

Dobashes of cold silence stretch into near a varga, and it’s only then that, one by one, the figureheads of the Coalition begin to trickle into the conference room by way of the holographic pads; their ghostly forms blink into existence in relatively quick succession, and eventually there are enough dignitaries staring down at him that even Lotor cannot fight the prickle of intimidation that seeps beneath his skin. He stands soundless and steadfast under their scrutiny, eyes never leaving his work as he allows the Paladins to do what they must to keep the ever-rising tide of questions at bay. While Pidge and Lance are, admittedly, making a valiant attempt to pacify their allies, the Coalition mob does not cease in their demands to know on what grounds it is that they have been so abruptly summoned - or not, at least, until the Champion strides into the room, both the yellow Paladin and Altean Advisor in tow, and sees the lot of them fall abruptly quiet.

“Settle down.” He doesn’t shout, but his voice carries, exuding a certain authority that commands the attention of all who hear it. “I understand that you want answers, and you’ll get them, but not before Princess Allura arrives.”

“Respectfully, Black Paladin,” a voice calls out, gruff and grating despite the petite alien who wields it, “we should, at the very least, like an explanation for him.”

Refusing to flinch under the collective weight of the Coalition’s attention, Lotor smoothly deactivates the tablet and relinquishes it to Hunk with a smile, introducing himself before the Champion - who, by the displeasure on his scarred face, Lotor has to assume would have painted him in a less than flattering light - has the opportunity to do so.

“Prince Lotor of the Galra Empire,” rather than the Imperial salute, which he feels may not be well-received, Lotor opts instead for a sweeping bow.

“We know who you are,” a second voice interjects from the room’s right side, “it’s what you want that we’ve yet to ascertain.”

“Why, the same as you, I imagine: to put an end to my Father’s tyranny.”

This sends a ripple of turmoil out across the crowd, the disbelieving derision of some mingling with the halting hesitation of others, and beneath that something else, something Lotor is not given time enough to query before Princess Allura makes her entrance, Keith on her arm. The Marmora armor that Keith had donned when Lotor saw him last has been exchanged - quite purposefully, it seems - for that bearing Voltron’s insignia. It’s a deliberately provocative proclamation, he thinks, of ownership by the Princess: no different than if she had stormed into the room and declared to all in attendance that Keith is hers.

By the look in her eye as she strides to the central podium, this was precisely her intention.

It’s a paltry sort of play, truly it is, but worse than this is the fact that it works, and Lotor’s own susceptibility to such trivial tactics is as irksome as it is embarrassing. He ought be above such things.

In opening with an apology for her delay, Princess Allura invites insincerity, and the room is suddenly awash with exactly that, all the Coalition’s prior impatience transformed into the assurances of a hundred different smiles.

Lotor does not trust a single one.

The exception to the rule, as is becoming concerningly commonplace, is Keith. The Marmorite makes no particular attempt at subtlety, simply steps back from the Princess’ side as she continues her address, and comes to stand instead by Lotor, a little quirk to his lips that likely goes unseen by everyone else in the room.

“You look tense,” he murmurs, and Lotor finds such blunt candour as delightful as ever.

“Oh dear,” though he daren’t take his eyes off the crowd for more than a tick, the Prince inclines his head in Keith’s direction in a way he knows the smaller Galra will pick up on, and keeps his voice low, “I had intended for it to come across as nonchalance.”

There’s a little huff of air - a snort, Lotor realises, and finds himself distinctly pleased - but before Keith is able to quip back anything clever or unfailing charming, the inquisition begins.

“Friends,” Princess Allura’s voice echoes throughout the cavernous room, seemingly without the need to raise her tone, “I should have liked to not to have need of gathering you all on such short notice, but this is a rather urgent matter; one that, it has become abundantly clear, cannot wait a tick longer unless I wish for Voltron’s allies to cut one another down within the walls of my very own home.”

Lotor is begrudgingly impressed at how easily she’s able to draw their attention, and he has to imagine that - given time - she would have made a decent queen.

“Scarcely three vargas prior to this meeting, one of your people,” she casts her frosty gaze out over the crowd, eyes not stopping for long enough upon any particular individual for the others to safely assume that they have escaped her condemnation, “made an attempt upon the life of a man who came to Voltron seeking asylum from Zarkon, as so many have, and offering in exchange invaluable insight with regards to the inner workings of the Empire.”

She turns, and Lotor follows her eyeline to find the translucent form of an alien mass with too many mouths.

“Councillor Fedij, during an external assault on Voltron, perpetrated by a rogue Imperial fleet, an officer hailing from your system disregarded protocol and acted - of his own accord and far outside the realms of my desires - to assassinate Prince Lotor.”

Though the princess seemingly ignores the sudden commotion that floods forth as the Coalition leaders understand who the victim of the crime is, Lotor finds himself at the heart of their collective distain, all eyes turned on him, and is given little choice but to withstand their accusatory stares without allowing himself to so much as flinch.

Princess Allura simply raises one hand to quiet them, her mouth pinched tight. “Prince Lotor has been granted asylum here as our ally, and as such is under my protection and the protection of my Paladins. For one of your people to make an attempt on his life, strikes me a personal affront.”

She’s an excellent diplomat, Lotor thinks, and a terrible liar. Fortunately for them all, the planetary leader she’s addressing is too flustered to notice.

“Therefore I ask only this: should I take recent events as your people’s declaration that you will be withdrawing from the Voltron Coalition?”

The room falls to a deathly quiet.

Then, from the bowels of this silence, a spluttering “no-!” that sounds as if the man named Fedij might choke at any moment.

“No?” The Princess scarcely blinks. “Am I to believe, then, that this is how you treat your allies? Should I be anticipating a knife in my back sometime within the next movement?”

“Princess Allura, please, be reasonable-” if amorphic blue beings could sweat, then Lotor is sure that this one would be dripping buckets, “-whatever the individual responsible did, it was no fault of mine, but even if it were, that- I mean… he’s Galra.”

It’s whispered as if a dirty word, and it’s an internal battle for Lotor not to recoil from the apparent distaste that has chased him all his life, albeit never for this half of his parentage.

At his side, the littlest Blade stiffens.

Though impossible for her to have seen this movement, Princess Allura directs a brief glance back over her shoulder towards Lotor - to whom she maintains a cold indifference - and then her Paladin marked in crimson. It’s a fleeting thing, but the Prince catches the warmth in her eyes, the affection, and beneath all of that, the guilt.

“As is Keith.” Her tone invites challenge, yet simultaneously says that to do so would be akin to signing one’s own death warrant. “Though he wears the red armor, you may know him better as the man who served as black Paladin when we liberated your planet. Would you have his head too?”

The councilman flounders.

Conflict wars upon not only his face, but the faces of his peers. Some wear a startled revulsion that has stripped them of their thin political veneer in one fell swoop, while others seem to have been more well-informed as to Keith’s maternal half: their composure remains near untouched, betrayed only by the flaring of nostrils, as if collectively assaulted by unpleasant smell that all would sooner disregard than address, the source of which they do not take kindly to being forcibly reminded of. Not a secret, then, Lotor concludes, but Keith’s Galra heritage is hardly common knowledge either. What captures the Prince’s attention, however, is not their bigotry - with that he is well acquainted - but rather the perplexing few scattered among the spectral crowd who he finds to be regarding Keith, unmasked in more ways than one, with not contempt but… intrigue.

In spite of the displeasure that surges and swells around her, Princess Allura remains resolute.

“I have been… advised,” here she shoots a second glance back towards the red Paladin, and Lotor has to wonder at what words the two of them exchanged during Keith’s brief separation from his side, “that my personal conduct up until this point may have been somewhat misleading. Allow me to rectify this now: Voltron serves to defend the universe and its people. All its people. This is the purpose for which my father intended it, and therefore this is what I shall do to honour his legacy.”

As Lotor watches, the Princess’ hands tighten near imperceptibly where they are clutched into tight fists behind her back.

“The Galra Empire will burn, but I do not intend to turn all its people to kindling. Not if there is a better way.”

The outcry is immediate.

Hatred, hostility, horror: these things come crashing down upon the Princess as a tidal wave of emotion with which the room is suddenly awash, and it’s all Lotor can do not to spit the foul tang of it from his mouth. “After everything they’ve done-” writhes alongside “-they would never offer us the same courtesy!” and it’s a cacophony of seething betrayal.

“That is enough.”

Lotor has never considered himself particularly sensitive to quintessence, but the tenor of the Altean Princess’ voice sends an indescribable ripple out across the room that has the fine hairs on his nape standing at attention. By the way Keith has drawn taut beside him, arms tightly crossed but eyes wide and bright, Lotor knows he must feel it too.

“At the very least,” she begins, and claws or no, Lotor with be surprised if her hands are not bleeding by the time this meeting is adjourned, “you must recognise that the Blade of Marmora - an exclusively Galra order - has assisted in the liberation of the homeworlds of many of you gathered here, and even before that worked covertly to undermine Zarkon. They are our trusted allies-”

It seems the wrong thing to say.

“The Blade of Marmora,” another councilmember barks, his face haggard and expression hard even despite the soft light it is cast in, and Lotor thinks the man vaguely familiar, “are Galra who have betrayed their own: worse than even their savage blood would make them.”

Several of the Paladins make exclamatory objections, even the Champion looking ruffled with a heavy frown upon his brow, but beneath it all sounds a growl, a ferocious little noise that escapes despite its source’s fight to smother it with sheer willpower, and Lotor is hardly surprised when Keith takes a half-step forward with his patience clearly all but worn away.

“Marmora’s people are good people. They’ve fought for you - died for you - we’re not your enemy!”

We,” the bearded dignitary echoes with a snide look at his peers, as if Keith’s self-identification in so noble an order as Marmora’s Li Naacht were akin to an admission of guilt. There’s a scattering of sound, scoffs and snarls all cast in the littlest Blade’s direction, and when the instigator of this bigotry makes to deal the final blow, Lotor cannot help but think that the individual’s ugly little horns might be all too easily ripped from his crown. “All Galra are our enemy.”

Keith recoils, and Lotor snaps.

“If the is the tack you take,” the Prince hisses, short-tempered and tight-lipped, “then the Empire will eat you alive.”

He steps forward with an easy sort of grace, passing Keith without looking at him and yet helpless to refrain from dragging knuckles over the jut of the red Paladin’s hip as he does so. It’s a paltry comfort, but the most that Lotor can, at present, supply without drawing their audience’s attention where it would be best not to stray. All long strides and quiet power, he drops from the dais where team Voltron remain frozen and meanders forward to trail his claws along the rim of the first tiered crescent, so lightly that the metal seems to sing; as he does so, those stood nearest to him recoil, seemingly for fear that he might reach out and drag them, screaming, from their holographic perches. Such a thing is not possible, of course, but Lotor revels in the knowledge that the security granted to them by virtue of being physically absent is not enough to quell their fright.

“You use lies and fearmongering to justify your own prejudices,” he muses, not even deigning turn his head as he stalks with languid resolution around the room’s edge, “it is unsightly.”

Withdrawing his claws with a sharp, swift movement, slices through the silence in a way that is deeply satisfying, and even more so for how it seems to petrify the Coalition representatives where they stand.

“The Blade of Marmora have always been of a noble disposition, and if you were worth the air you breathe then you would know full-well that the reason they - as you so elegantly termed it - betrayed their own, was that they openly defied the Empire’s most notorious sovereign in light of the atrocities she committed, declaring her actions as ones of injustice and senseless violence without honour: a declaration for which she demanded their heads.” Narrowed eyes sweep the room and find the Puigian bigot - ah, Puig, that’s why he knows him - with his horrid little face all scrunched up. “You do not mistrust the Blade for any reason other than their ancestry, and to pretend otherwise is a pathetic waste of your time and mine.”

“You- you should not even be here!” The man throws back, “you enslaved my people when we were newly freed! You imprisoned them! You made me summon-!”

“Yes,” Lotor cuts in, tired of suffering slander to his face, “I made you summon Voltron for my own ends. I had my telepath manipulate your simple little brain and call your allies to your aid, after which, I released you and your people - unharmed, might I add - so that you may stand here and make accusations as if I am some sort of an abhorrent monster.”

They’re so dreadfully tiresome, the lot of them. Such short-sighted whiny little creatures.

“Do you think any Imperial soldier of significant rank would have been so kind? If I had wanted Puig, I would have taken it. As it was I utilised only my personal battle cruiser and my Generals in the siege - if you could even call it such. I did not so much as deploy the drones.” It had been pathetically easy. “Of course, had my aim been to hold the planet longer than was necessary merely to draw out Voltron, it would have required at least a little forethought, but as it was? Your pitiful little planet fell to a mere fraction of the Empire’s strength, and all in under a varga.”

Lotor turns his back on the aggrieved Puigian, striding towards Princess Allura with purpose engrained in his very footsteps.

“Your so-called allies haven’t the weapons, the training, or the defences necessary to withstand a true Imperial assault. They would turn away assistance from those best equipped to help them purely for their race, and cast distain upon a man to whom - as you yourself said, Princess - they and their ilk owe a great deal.” He pauses, a damning sort of distrain painting his features. “Your mistake is believing that you are winning Imperial territories through anything other than my father’s own indifference.”

That sparks a reaction.

Behind him, the Voltron coalition erupts, but it’s Princess Allura who holds Lotor’s attention. With her still standing tall on the room’s central podium, and Lotor himself having vacated it to make his point, the two of them are now eye-to-eye and barely a dozen rak apart. Though she makes a valiant attempt to control her expression, the princess’ ears are angled downwards in agitation, and blue eyes smoulder with a ferocity befitting of Voltron’s lioness.

Yet, when she unclenches her jaw to address Lotor in a lowered tone, it is not to refute him.

“You lack delicacy,” she grits out, and the Prince can hardly find it in himself to deny that when, in this moment, delicacy is the least of his concerns.

“My good graces must be earned, I’m afraid. I shan’t pander to a bigot merely to win their favour, especially not one from so useless a planet as Puig.”

“Useless?” It’s exhaled on a breath, and when Lotor looks to the Princess’ left the Champion is there, the tight line of his mouth telling of his stance on the subject. “They’re people.”

“They are,” the nod Lotor offers him is curt, “a tactically inconsequential people with very little to offer other than more mouths to feed and bodies to protect. If you focus your time and resources on planets like that, you will lose this war.”

And by the looks on their faces, they know it too.

“If I might be granted a moment to speak?” A new voice cuts in above the clamour, the commotion waning slightly as all heads turn to towards the source.

Princess Allura waves her hand in a sweeping gesture, a relief to her features that suggests she who speaks is one the Altean favours, “by all means, Lady Aej, the floor is yours.”

She’s one of the curious few who had caught Lotor’s attention earlier, and with a jolt that the Prince is sure to smother, he now realises why. This woman is of planet Hs’iir. There’s no mistaking that silhouette for anything else: the long arc of her snout distinctive enough alone, but doubly so when paired with the sleek, obsidian-tipped ears that fall from her crown to drape over the breadth of scarred shoulders. She and her ilk are a warrior people, a people who have reaped the benefits of the Empire for centuries, and it was remiss of him not to recognise a Hs’ii noble sooner.

“Though it seems that the personal values of the collective may not align, I believe I speak for all of us when I say that we shall honour your judgement on the… issue at hand.” She bares her teeth without looking in Lotor’s direction. “If you say Prince Lotor is our ally then I, for one, should be delighted to consider his highness as such.”

For scarcely a tick, Lotor finds himself the subject of unfathomable eyes.

No sooner has she met his gaze does her attention flit away, but there’s something in this, in both her actions and address, in the false warmth on her tongue, that strikes the Prince as peculiar.

“After all,” she continues without blinking, “the foe of my foe would be my fellow.”

As she says this, her lithe little tail flickers as if with a mind of its own, but the movement points Lotor’s eyes in the way of a second alien dignitary - Gyrunnian: another familiar face within Imperial circles - just as the man curls his fingers up to adjust the fastening of his collar. Or… that’s what it is meant to look like, at a glance, but the awkward set of his hand is too deliberate, the angle of his arm inefficient for the menial task he apparently attempts, and it’s like this that everything clicks into place.

Oh, Lotor thinks, his focus centred on the Gyrunnian lord who watches for a reaction a little too intently, his covert salute falling away when he is sure the message has been received, oh you pretty little fool. You’ve liberated the enemy.

Princess Allura is unwittingly asking after any further objections from her allies - none of whom dare voice such a thing when to do so seemingly risks her wrath - completely ignorant to the subterfuge taking place right beneath her nose; Hs’iir and Gyrunn both have been Imperial territories for an age, thus in triumphing at Naxzela and sequestering their systems from the Empire, Voltron’s maiden monarch has invited treachery into her bed.

 

-

 

As the Prince prowls about the room’s edge - all quiet power and bated breath, wielding his words like a weapon and with them carving his prey to pieces - Keith’s eyes are for him and him alone.

It’s brutal really, but not undeserved, and Keith hears all his own frustrations vocalised with more coherency than he himself would ever have been able to. This, Keith thinks, is Lotor in his element; he’s a formidable opponent in every sense, but it’s his mind that makes him so, and witnessing first-hand how easily undone Voltron’s allies are with only a handful of choice insults is staggering.

When the Empire’s heir looks Allura dead in the eye and highlights Zarkon’s indifference as the sole reason for her sequence of victories, Keith feels the sting of it acutely. But beneath that is a certain wash of relief because it’s true, and perhaps like this, coming from Lotor without the pantomime of invincibility everyone else seems to attribute to Voltron, she’ll finally listen.

Though he can’t hear what’s being said, Lotor having lowered his tone to exchange words - hushed and heated - with both Allura and Shiro, the tight expressions worn by all three are telling, and it sets him on edge. It’s only when a new voice interjects from the gallery of outraged allies, slicing through the din and silencing them all, does the Princess’ face falls to one of gratitude akin to Keith’s own, and this relief is only doubled when the alien dignitary who takes the floor speaks in favour of respecting Allura’s judgment and laying the matter to rest.

It’s like this that Lotor’s near-assassination is settled - Allura intimidating the Coalition into submission by way of falsely implying that Voltron might abandon an entire planet of innocents for the transgressions of one individual - and it is arranged that the culprit be made an example of: he is to be shipped back to his homeworld within the next quintent alongside all those who seemed happy to stand by and let him play at executioner. To the senior members of the rebel faction, several of whom are present, Allura demands that they screen their enlistees for extremists as best as they are able, and not arm their newest members until they have sufficiently trained them. When one woman tries to protest against this, citing limited time and resources, the Princess snaps back: “We shall win this war with soldiers, not canon-fodder. I would sooner cut our forces in half than I would send untrained civilians into Zarkon’s line of fire.”

After that, all further objections wither away.

That’s not to say the majority are entirely happy about it, and even less so in relation to the scolding they’d received for the attempt on Lotor’s life, but at the very least the Coalition seem to have resigned themselves to little more than shooting poisonous looks in the Prince’s direction. When Lotor returns to the podium once more, it is to stand beside Allura rather than removed from her.

From here on, it’s a matter of explaining Voltron’s recent findings, and it’s to this end that Hunk now projects the footage of the Imperial logs large enough for the whole Coalition to bear witness.

Keith watches with a deep furrow to his brow. Just as Lance had earlier described, the Galra captain is frantic in her ramblings, panic bleeding into hysteria as she fumbles through a fragmented recount of a facility of some sort - the particulars of which seem unclear even to her - wherein scientists work under the watchful eyes of druids, all without an Imperial sentry in sight.

“Is that significant?” Keith directs the question towards Lotor, whose mouth had thinned into a tight line of agitation upon first mention of the druids, and now stands still and silent, absorbing the contents of the logs with a critical eye.

“It is entirely probable.” The Prince’s attention never leaves the face of the captain even as her incoherence falls into a disquieting nothingness, golden eyes glazed and vacant. “All Imperial facilities, military or otherwise, are manned with sentries as a matter of course. Haggar alone refuses them as labourers, and so far as I recall she has never allowed machines not of her own making anywhere near her labs; technology may be tampered with by outside forces in a way the organic mind is immune to, and my father’s witch has always favoured discretion so far as her more… experimental work is concerned.”

The Galra captain’s image blinks, frowns, and goes to end the recording with confusion written into the lines of her face.

That in particular,” Lotor scowls, “reeks of druidic influence.”

“With your intimate knowledge of the Empire’s ongoings,” another Coalition diplomat calls out, and Keith has to bite his tongue at the scorn on theirs, “what would you, Prince Lotor, recommend we do about it?”

Though Lotor doesn’t so much as turn to look at the individual that addresses him, choosing instead to speak to Pidge as if it were she who had posed the question, Keith’s eyes are drawn to the jump of a muscle in his jaw, the flex of the tendons in his neck, and thinks it’s a very good thing that all these lords, ladies, chancellors, and whatever the hell else they call themselves, are a million miles away rather than within stabbing distance.

“I presume you can triangulate the approximate origin of the vessel and clear that sector of your allies?”

“I can.” Pidge’s mouth twists. “But we’ve tangled with Haggar and her druids before - if this place is what you think it is then I don’t like our odds if we just go in guns blazing.”

The ‘even with Voltron’ goes unsaid, but Keith sees it in the set of Pidge’s shoulders, and knows the only reason she hadn’t spoken it aloud was to avoid panicking the Coalition unnecessarily. Naxzela is still too fresh for all of them, and the particulars of the near-catastrophe have been contained to those who were there rather than spreading the word that Haggar has the ability to turn an entire planet into a bomb, and Keith is a strong believer that the majority being kept in the dark is for the best.

In more ways than one.

Though he tries not to linger on it, his fingers are blistering, a terrible boil of heat beneath waxen skin that threatens to turn his bones to ash. Eyes falling downwards, Keith finds his own hand visually unassuming - still armoured in the black of his undersuit, and without the weight of a ship’s controls in its grasp - but he feels it: the searing agony of everything he is, a merciless writhing thing, quickening his breath and dragging him down to-

“Keith?”

There’s a sudden weight on his left shoulder, too firm to be the bite of shrapnel but Keith starts all the same, his hand darting out to grasp at a metal-plated forearm and only barely recognising it as such in time to stop himself from wrenching it from his person and tossing his assailant - Shiro, it’s Shiro, not an enemy and never a threat - halfway across the room.

“Keith?” Hearing his name a second time, the words strung together by a whisper of concern, is enough to puncture the bubble of muted sound that surrounds him and let the Coalition’s ongoing clamour return to the world. “Looked like we’d lost you for a second there.”

Shiro’s wearing a half smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes, and Keith wonders, not for the first time, if that’s his fault or the Empire’s.

Wonders if there’s a difference.

“M’okay,” he forces out on a breath, locking on to the security of Shiro’s fingertips as they press down firmly against his shoulder-plate, rather than the scorched stumps of his own, “just zoned out for a moment.”

It must seem like a weak excuse when, of all of them, Keith has the least reason to be unfocused - not battle-weary like the rest - but regardless, Shiro’s expression turns soft on sympathy as he withdraws his touch.

In turning his eyes back to the matter at hand, Keith is relieved to note that his mental lapse has gone unnoticed by the rest of team Voltron, their attention consumed by the evacuation of their allies and subsequent investigation of the facility suspected of being under Haggar’s jurisdiction, with Lotor, too, seeming similarly engrossed.

It’s just as well, Keith thinks; his issues are his own, the last thing the others need is to have to deal with his shit on top of everything else.

 

Allura finishes her business with the Coalition as swiftly as she is able, and when she dismisses them, they go gracefully. As the last of their holographic forms blink out of existence, her shoulders sag and she heaves a great sigh of relief.

“That,” the Princess breathes, “was a great deal more trying than it ought have been.”

“Diplomacy at its finest,” Lotor grumbles, a sarcastic curl to his words.

Although she’s quick to cover it up with a cough, Allura can’t quite conceal the snort of laughter that this sardonic tone tears from her, and judging by the indignant little noise that Lance makes at the back of his throat, Keith’s not the only one to have noticed.

“Once that sector is cleared,” she powers onward, a little too determined to pretend that she hadn’t found amusement in Lotor’s sour mood, despite Keith knowing for a fact that she hates dealing with uncooperative envois just as much, “we shall have to move quickly. Whether Haggar is there personally or not, the sudden absence of movement in the surrounding area will not go unnoticed, and I would prefer we not give them opportunity to go on the offensive.”

There’s a murmur of agreement all around. Then Shiro steps forward, eyeing the Prince with what seems to Keith an unusually calculating sort of look.

“Tactically, I would have expected you to recommend that we move in without the exodus. Like this we’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage.”

“Tactically, that would be the better play,” Lotor inclines his head, the air around him newly charged, “and I certainly maintain that our chances of success would be optimised were you to refrain from such an obvious preparation of assault, but as you have made perfectly clear, that is not how Voltron operates.”

“It’s not.” Shiro affirms with steel in his voice, at the same time as Lance echoes a hiss of “our?” through clenched teeth, earning himself a reproachful look from the black Paladin.

“Well then,” flicking a stray forelock of platinum hair from his face, Lotor looks down his nose at Shiro in such a way that Keith feels his own hackles rise, “be glad I spared you the bother of proposing it.”

There’s a second - more of a beat, really - wherein Keith sees the dark of prosthetic fingers flex as if to form a fist, and thinks Lotor might soon find himself with a black eye, which is… ludicrous, really. Shiro wouldn’t hit someone, not like that, not outside of battle, and certainly not for so a minor transgression as speaking out of turn, even if the Galra Prince is being deliberately provocative. Shiro’s not like that. Shiro would never.

Still, Keith finds himself placing a steadying hand on the seam of metal and flesh, and feels markedly better when the tension surrounding them fizzles away to nothing.

“Forget what might’ve been tactically better; this is what we’re doing, so this is what we’ve got to work with.” Violet eyes skip between Shiro and Lotor, fixing the latter with a firm look as if to transmit the non-verbal equivalent of ‘behave’, and then to the green Paladin who is, as always, a careful observer. “Pidge, did you ever get around to applying your cloaking tech to the other Lions?”

“Oh, yeah!”

Her eyes light up with pure, unadulterated joy.

“God, I’d forgotten you weren’t here for that! It works like a charm on Red, but it turns out that whatever the hell the trans-reality comets are made from is dense as shit, and there’s a direct correlation between- you know what?” She wafts at the air as if physically clearing her thoughts. “I can explain the particulars later. Long story short: Green and Red, yes; Blue and Yellow, sort of, but it’s temperamental because of their increased mass; and Black’s a prissy bitch who won’t let me touch her until I’ve perfected it on the others.”

To his left, Keith hears Shiro sigh out a long-suffering reprimand of “language,” that goes completely ignored, and can’t help but fight a smile, amused to know that this tone has about as much effect on Pidge as it did him when he was still a cadet.

“So we leave the Castle Ship somewhere they can’t pick it up on their sensors, and take Red and Green,” he reaffirms, “that give us the best shot of getting in undetected without leaving us completely open; if we need Voltron, you and Lance can hold out until the other Lions get to our location, but otherwise we get in, get as much info as we can without engaging, and get out.”

Pidge nods decisively, but it’s Shiro who speaks, a certain dullness to his tongue.

“You’re coming with us?”

Keith’s blood runs cold.

“I- yeah?” Though he turns as if to face Shiro, his vision has centred on one of the vacant holo-pads somewhere past his friend’s ear, and Keith can’t bring himself to look anywhere else, can’t bear to see listless disapproval painted in shades of soft grey, not now, not again. “This is exactly the kind of thing the Blade trained me for. I can- I mean, unless you don’t… want me to?”

There’s a silence then, one that simultaneously lasts a lifetime and yet is over in an instant.

“Don’t be daft,” Allura chimes, with a sweet kindness to her features, and like that the pressure on Keith’s chest is alleviated, “you are one of a select few to whom I would trust my life entirely. It would be a pleasure to have you serve by my side once more, Paladin Keith Kogane.”

She drops into what Keith vaguely recognises as an Altean curtsey - her hands clasped before her sternum in a very particular sort of way - but there’s laughter in her eyes, a smile on her lips, and while Keith would be hard-pressed to ignore the regality of the gesture, there’s a teasing affection to it too.

Almost smiling, Keith opens his mouth to reply only for Shiro’s touch to return to his person, this time a shock of ice beneath the collar of his armor, tearing the words from the former Paladin’s throat and replacing them with his own.

“It’s good to have you back.”

He says this with a warmth that trickles from the crux of his metal palm and straight down Keith’s spine, but what the younger man might once have likened to liquid sunlight could now be mistaken for hot tar, as jarring as it is familiar.

“It’s good to be back,” the words are second nature, a script that has served as the foundation of their friendship for years now, and everyone smiles at the sound of them.

Everyone but Lotor.

The Prince is very still, Keith thinks - or maybe that’s him, maybe it’s both of them? - and though his expression reveals nothing of what thoughts might be running through that impossible mind, Lotor’s pupils have narrowed to scandalised slits, near swallowed by the surrounding blue, and magnetised to the hand at Keith’s nape.

Oblivious to this, Shiro has picked up the thread of dialogue, organising the assault on Haggar’s base with a charismatic authority that makes it easy to follow his direction. Their plan of assault is this: with Lance and Pidge providing support and extraction, the rest of them will infiltrate in two teams to cover as much ground as possible.

“With Keith and I in separate groups,” Shiro’s metal fingers squeeze briefly, cold and biting against Keith’s skin, “we’ll be able to interact with the Galra tech without the risk of tripping any alarms by hacking into anything we shouldn’t.”

“That was one time and I almost had it,” Pidge mutters, but doesn’t otherwise protest.

“We’ll know more once we actually locate the lab, but assuming it follows the architectural basics we’ve come to expect from their scientific facilities, Lance, you’ll take Keith and Hunk to an entry point on the east side, and Pidge’ll drop Allura and I on the west.”

And it’s here that Lotor - feline eyes snapping from the black Paladin’s hand to his face - chooses to interject.

“I will also be accompanying you.”

A sudden rigidity shocks through the hold on Keith’s nape, releasing the tension from his neck and the air from his lungs all at once, immediately followed by Shiro’s hand falling away altogether. The loss is so sudden that Keith feels abruptly adrift, untethered, almost as if he might fade away at any moment.

“We’re not walking you into a Galra base.”

Lotor’s eyes harden.

“It was not a request, Champion, but even if it were my skillset would be invaluable to you in there and you would be a fool to turn me away.”

“Blind trust is pretty foolish too,” is what Lance immediately fires back, “and I know which I’d prefer to take a chance on.”

Gritting his teeth into a facsimile of a smile, the Prince makes what Keith can only describe as an admirable effort not to physically lash out. “The terms of this alliance included my involvement in all matters pertaining to Haggar, which this very much appears to do, so I would thank you not to-“

Allura cuts him off.

“The terms of our alliance were to consult you on all strategic measures concerning Haggar, and we have done so, but having you accompany us into enemy territory was never part of our arrangement.”

“Respectfully,” Lotor grits out, “I disagree. Even in the best-case scenario you will have to contend with a facility full of hostiles, at least some of whom will be of druidic descent. Taking that into consideration, it would be in your best interests not to confine me to my rooms like a wayward child, but rather utilise me as you should have been doing from the very start.”

“We have tangled with the druids before without your help. Thank you for your most generous offer, Prince Lotor, but we do not presently require your brawn.”

“My brains, then,” he fires back without missing a beat, “Language is not a stagnant creature: you may have known the common tongue once, but I assure you that it, along with the rest of the universe, is somewhat evolved from what you were taught as a girl. Though I doubt you would be incapable of reading it, your comprehension will likely lack the fluidity that a swift infiltration would best benefit from.”

Before Allura can launch into something that, judging by the glower that is beginning to strain at her temple, the Prince would undoubtedly take as an assault on his character, Coran claps his hands together with a sharp smack, causing Keith to nearly jump out of his skin.

“If I may?” The Altean’s broad smile is as out of place as it is unapologetic. “When your fathers would have little tiffs over the best course of action, they’d leave it to a good old fashioned vote!”

Keith has to admire Coran for that - for bringing up Zarkon and Alfor’s former friendship so candidly - but his admiration is tinged with a healthy dose of alarm for the older man’s fearlessness too.

“A… vote?”

It’s Allura who asks this, always willing to humour Coran, but tentative even so. At the same time, Lotor breathes, “little tiffs,” as if he can’t quite believe his ears.

“Yes, a vote!” Tugging at his moustache thoughtfully, Coran elaborates: “if two of Voltron’s number disagreed, the remaining three would make the decision for them by way of majority. In our case, there are five of you remaining, but the key principle still carries.”

“…Fine,” Lance is, unsurprisingly, the first to adapt, slicing his hands through the air in what Keith can only describe as a slicing motion, “then I’m a hard no. I’d prefer to take my chances with the druids, thanks.”

“Well that’s dumb,” Pidge rolls her eyes at Lance’s high-pitched noise of protest, turning instead to eye Lotor critically. “If any of us stand a chance against a druid it’s you, and I’d rather nobody dies today just because we left a perfectly good Galtean super-soldier behind where he can’t be any use to anyone.”

Keith sees how Lotor frowns at ‘Galtean’, as if unsure whether or not it’s meant as an insult, but ultimately he inclines his head to Pidge in silent thanks.

Huffing, Lance turns narrowed eyes to Keith, his expression frustrated but not malicious, and gestures at him with a frown.

“Go on mullet, say it. I know you’re going to.”

“I-” It’s only as Lance says this that Keith realises that despite being an additional member to the party himself, he too gets a vote. “I… yeah. Yeah I agree with Pidge, Lotor should come with us.”

Though the Prince is careful to keep his expression neutral, Keith catches the smile in his eyes and isn’t quite sure how to feel about his own vote having apparently been so predictable.

All eyes turn to Hunk.

“I’m, er, I’m actually with Lance on this one.” One large hand comes up to rub uneasily at the back of his own head as he addresses Lotor directly. “Not that I’m saying working with you on your ship wasn’t great and everything, but there’s that and then there’s trusting you to have my back in the field and man I just… I just don’t feel like we’re there yet, y’know? Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that.”

“Things don’t just happen overnight,” Pidge chips in, when the room’s non-human occupants are silent for a beat too long, and then, more to herself than anyone else: “Damnit, the update should’ve caught that one; if it’s the linguistic relationship to nouns then I’m going to have to reconfigure-”

“That’s two for, two against.” Allura’s lips twist unhappily. “Shiro? It’s your call.”

The man in question is silent for a long time, steel eyes fixed on Lotor, and so still that Keith half questions whether he’s even breathing.

Pinching the scarred bridge of his nose, Shiro hisses out a sigh.

“You should all get in some rest, if you can; we leave in T-minus eight vargas.” He eyes the Prince without blinking. “I’ll see to it that your things are returned to you before then.”

 

When, after a fitful attempt at sleep, Keith brings Lotor’s weapons and armor to his assigned rooms, the Galra bounces up from the floor where he seems to have been performing a series of effortless exercises, an anticipatory spring in his step.

“Haggar or no,” he says, taking his proffered sword with a sort of relief behind his smile, “I cannot tell you how glad I am to be able to finally do something. I half feared I might waste away in this Sa-forsaken place.”

Keith can’t bring himself to return the Prince’s apparent good humour. Grasping Lotor’s arm with a severity that, judging by his expression, he wasn’t remotely prepared for, Keith tugs the taller man so close that white hair falls like a curtain between the two of them and the rest of the world; sure that he has the Galra Prince’s undivided attention, he says: “Don’t make me regret this.”

Blue eyes crinkle at the corners.

“Now would I do a thing like that?”

“I’m serious,” the tenor of his voice sees Lotor’s lopsided smile melt away, “I meant what I said before: I will kill you if I have to.”

Lotor is silent for the length of a heartbeat, his hand coming up to lay over Keith’s own where it bites into violet flesh.

“I don’t doubt it,” he breathes, “but lay your worries to rest, little Blade: though it would be an honour to die by your hand, I shan’t squander my life. There is still much I must do before Sa may claim my soul, and I do not intend to leave this world as anything less than triumphant.”