It’s a dance, more than a fight. Lotor is form and shape, his footwork sharp, his posture unwavering, it’s a strike and a step, a quarte and a smirk, like he’s enjoying all this, and with every strike that almost lands, with every blow he that whispers past him, oh, he is. Keith is hunger and wrath, it’s feet in the air and face on the ground, it’s teeth bared and scraped knees, like a caged beast trying to gnaw its way free, and in his way, that too is what he is.
He tries, time and time again, he pushes with strength one so small shouldn't have, he finds cracks in Lotor's stance and forces his way past them until Lotor has to find new ways to conter, and one or two times even almost gets the best of him. But time and time again, Keith turns out to be his own worst enemy -it's less of a fight and more of a waiting game; Lotor just has to wait for him to make a mistake to once more bring the boy to his knees.
“Do you yield, paladin?” he asks too loudly, loud enough to carry through and reverb through the walls, draw cheers from the crowd around them for a performance well played.
Keith spits on the blade that touches his cheek, a small trail of blood trickling from his forehead as he stares Lotor in the eye and coughs up a, “Fuck you.”
The arena comes down in jeers and howling, and his name chanted across the galleries as Lotor raises his hand in salute, laughs what starts to sound even to himself like a joyless, rehearsed laughter, but the snort that comes escapes his stage partner in this farce is genuine, the bitter but quiet laughter that makes him cough up some of that dust he's been shoved into is real enough.
"That's it?" Keith asks, half a challenge and half a genuine question he needs no answer to. "That's all you have?"
And Lotor knows he should know better than to take the bait, but oh, he wants to. He taps the paladin’s knees with the tip of his boots and nods at him to stand up again, turns his back on the enemy like he can afford to, walks over to the knife knocked behind a rock and kicks it back into Keith’s reach. The arena falls silent again as Keith grips his weapon and the knife glows bright blue and purple as it shapes itself back into the sword Lotor just riposted out of hand a few moments ago. No, that's not all he has to give, and he's willing to bet that's not all he can get out of this one either.
They’re tired enough of dancing to be almost tripping on each other, but not quite done with this step yet.
In his cell, the boy doesn’t struggle anymore. He did, at first -pulling against his binds and screaming into his gag when they brought him here, throwing what little weight he has around against galra three times his size every time they moved him from cell to cell, trying to bite and claw and kick his way free every time Lotor came to see him, but eventually he stopped.
All Lotor had to do was give him his knife back. His distinctly galra shaped, unmistakably galra forged knife, that for some peculiar reason answer to the hand of a mere human.
“You’re a very interesting one, paladin.”
Lotor watches him with his back against the bars that hold the boy in, in a manner of speaking, though part of him knows if he truly wanted to escape, he could. He would already have. Zethrid grumbles something from outside the cell, pacing bitterly from side to side until Narti takes her watch.
Keith -he learned the name the same night he forfeited the blade back to its owner- lies on the floor, as he does most days, though there are seats and a reasonably comfortable cot he could use instead. It doesn’t surprise Lotor in the least. The knife rests on the floor too, inches away from his eyes, and Lotor’s seen this display at the arena before to know that the time it takes for Keith to spring from that position to putting the knife to his neck is almost faster than his instinct to react. It keeps making him want to try.
“You’re not,” Keith answers, and Lotor has to laugh. He’s learning more about humans from this one than from all the research he’s read before, and if they’ve always sounded weak of will, feeble of body, and generally not worth bothering with on paper, Lotor is, to be frank, charmed to have found the one who can prove him wrong.
He takes a step forward, carefully watching Keith’s eyes focus on the blade, his body tensing and recoiling, ready to spring if anything goes off their scripted path. But as he does every evening, Lotor walks past his form on the ground to sit on the cot his prisoner has not once yet slept in, crossing his legs and resting his chin on the tip of his fingers to stare Keith down in this almost rehearsed routine. Keith’s eyes still follow his with a quiet fire burning behind them, even as he lies there by Lotor’s feet, languid and boneless like Narti’s creature bathing in the sun.
Part of him wants to snap this insolent boy's neck. Part of him wants to sink his teeth in it.
“I keep wondering how much of that... disposition of yours is your human side being far more interesting than I’ve given your species credit for,” Lotor admits, though that’s not as much a compliment as it may sound like, and he knows Keith catches it when those eyes narrow just the slightest bit at him. “And how much of it is that the galra blood in you may be even stronger than the one in me.”
The boy is many things, but he is not subtle, and in the same breath it takes him to be on his feet, blade in hand and gritted teeth, Lotor has to signal an even faster and incoming Narti to leave it be.
“I know what the blade means,” Lotor answers the unasked question, and he means to sound non committal about it, but that only makes the paladin more tense than he already is.
“I’m not telling you anything,” Keith promises him, eyes burning with anger and voice quivering with doubt, blade levelled on Lotor’s eyes with an unsteady hand in the least threatening baring of teeth he could expect from such an untamed little beast.
Lotor is almost proud in him. Letting the sharks taste your fear is certainly not the galra way.
“You don’t have to. Your friends are not my problem,” Lotor reassures him, though even now, if pressed, he wouldn’t know to answer why he even feels the need to.
“You need not believe me,” he continues with a dismissing gesture, when Keith doesn’t seem -and has no reason to- trust him at all, “But I trust the lack of torturing and such unpleasantness so far should tell you that this is not what you were brought here for?”
And it’s not for lack of suggesting from some of his trusted generals, reminding of as a viable option from others, or even passionate pleading for from certain others. But there are always other, more elegant ways to get the information Lotor actually wants, rather than forcing unwilling guests to give him what they think he needs.
“What am I here for, then?” Keith asks, his voice now lower, his hand steadier. He’s wound tightly, this wave of energy almost vibrating around him, ready to burst, and Lotor is impressed, not for the first time, with how much strength can fit and stay barely contained into such a small frame.
Lotor shrugs, sweeping loose strands of hair from his face. “I want to understand you.”
It’s enough to make Keith narrow his eyes till he almost can’t see them, but it also seems to be enough to make him drop the knife, whether he believes Lotor or not. And Lotor knows he doesn't.
“There’s nothing to understand,” he shrugs, stretching his legs for a moment, only to sit back down on the floor. “You’re gonna kill me, or I’m gonna kill you. That’s how this ends.“
And it makes sense, for what it is, but the way Lotor sees it -from the top, looking down at this Keith splayed out on the floor at his feet again- this could turn out to be a surprisingly hard promise to keep.
“You fight like a galra,” Lotor tells him again, though it’s less of a compliment each time.
“You don’t do much fighting at all,” Keith answers, and Lotor finds himself more charmed at each turn.
They have moved their sparring grounds from the arena to Lotor’s quarters, and indeed, there is much less space to fight, but that’s not quite the reason their dance takes these turns. The arena was good once, for morale; twice, for spectacle; but by the third time already Lotor had realized there was nothing left to gain from the place where he could not lose. Here they are on equal ground, or as equal as one going in full armor and the emperor-prince’s blade against a prisoner in rags and a pocket knife can afford them to be -and yet this is where Keith brings him down, and Lotor can allow himself the fall.
He learns more from standing still than from giving chase; from letting Keith come after him and finding the right side step to take. Some days Keith is a whirlwind, charging at him with abandon, with feral impatience that wears them both thin, eager to see the end of their game but making mistakes that only stretch it longer than either of them cares for. These days Keith swings with strength rather than grace, knees him with spite rather than rhythm, and Lotor dodges with no taste for it, parries because he must, but there is little to be learned for it but the obvious, and to know the obvious neither of them would need this charade.
And some days Keith comes to him with questions, with that same need to know that draws Lotor in, and he asks them with deliberate strokes that hit only enough to hurt, with drawn and angled swings measured just long enough to cut through a strand of two of white hair. With kicks to his side that Lotor can almost but not quite dodge, with rolls that barely miss the edge of his sword, only to come up from below his blind spots with the blue glow of that shifting blade touching the tip of his neck.
Those are the days when he learns that Keith will not kill him after all, no matter how many times Lotor gives him the chance.
“I would,” Keith explains once, shifting the heavier longsword back into his preferred knife form. “I think killing you would end this war a lot faster.”
Lotor is pulling himself up with a sigh from the floor where Keith remarkably well landed him on his knees, when Keith finishes explaining that “But they think we need to understand you,” and that brings a good laugh out of him.
“And you don’t think so?” Lotor asks, the jest in his voice mirrored on the smirk in Keith’s face. "You don't think understanding your enemy makes it easier to kill him?"
“I think there’s not a lot to understand,” Keith says, sitting back on the floor and waiting for Lotor to signal the guards to take him back to his cell, as their routine has come to be. “I think you’re not everything you want to be. And I think you know I’m still gonna want to kill you when I get out of this place, so I don’t get why you don’t just kill me here.“
When, not if. That’s a lot of promises to pack in such a small sentence, and yet they’re all ones Lotor fully expects him to keep.
“For one who rejects his nature as much as you do, paladin, you have such a galran way of thinking that, at times, I am tempted to think you fight on the wrong side of this war.”
The brief stunned silence, he expects. The smirk that lightens the boy’s face, and the chuckle that follows it, he doesn’t.
Keith dismisses his thoughts with a small shrug, but the smirk lingers behind, something like bitterness in his mouth but coming up smug at the corners of his eyes too. “You’re not the only one who thinks so.”
When the guards come into his quarters at the exact third quarter of the varga, as they are expected to do, Keith is on his knees before Lotor, as he is expected to be, and yet Lotor can still feel sting from where Keith’s blade nicked the skin of his neck and stopped, knowing he would just stand still and not fight back until he was forced to. This is making nothing easier at all, if Lotor is, for once, to be true.
It takes a flick of his hand to dismiss the guards and assure Narti to stay put, and two fingers on Keith’s collar to bring him up onto his feet -nothing, he weighs nothing, and yet feels so heavy in his hands even as they leave him to find his sword lying on the other side of the room, kicked away from him on one the last of Keith’s heel turns.
“I’m not done with you,” he tells Keith, and from the look in his face as he wipes a lick of blood from the corner of his lip and falls back in position, back footing pointing leftwards and giving away the direction of his first charge as he always does, Lotor is inclined to think that Keith is not quite yet done with him either.
When (not if) the time comes for their dance to end, Lotor regrets that he did not have enough time with Keith in his hands for -whatever it was, this desire in the back of his mind for something he can’t quite put in words. But he doesn’t stop him.
“Your friends are here,” he tells Keith at the end of their last sparring round, the first one Lotor has won in quite a while now, if only because he wouldn't let himself lose.
The paladin looks up from where he kneels this time, swallowing against the edge of Lotor’s sword, and suddenly seems smaller to him than ever. He could do this -he could end it, he could take this one life and break the rest of them in one simple stroke, send this rebellion scrambling on its feet again, get Voltron out of his way even if for a while. But that’s not how Lotor does things, and it’s not what this paladin was brought to him for, and it’s specially not what he -what Keith deserves for being the one who can bring Lotor down to his knees, and make him smile about it.
When the guards leave, and his generals leave, and they’re alone in his quarters like they’ve rarely been before, Lotor expects five or ten different scenarios to play out, and braces for each one of them as he pulls his sword away from Keith’s neck and extends a hand to help him up back on his feet, but the one scenario he is not prepared for is that Keith simply -hesitates.
“You’re letting me go,” he states, the slightest tinge of doubt in his voice, but it’s not a question.
Lotor nods with the hint of a smirk on his lips, and as the first explosions start outside, Keith finally takes his hand and helps himself up. The hand lingers on Lotor’s wrist as Keith stares at the door, and his right hand tenses around the grip of his sword as Keith’s one glows with the shift of his knife extending its long blade again. But this too doesn’t seem to play like anything he’s expecting either.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” Keith asks, hand still caught halfway into his, still staring at the door as more explosions approach, still, after all, hesitating.
Lotor snorts, wanting to laugh, wanting to let go and walk away, let Keith find his way out, wanting to know if he meant it -if he’ll still want to kill Lotor the next time they meet, if he’ll still want to dance. But he turns on his feet instead, just enough to make Keith have to turn back to him too, have to crane his neck and look up to follow his eyes, and that, just above the line of making an effort, is exactly where Lotor wants to see him now, if they must face again.
He’s not expecting an answer, and Keith doesn’t give him one, but he does chuckle, a low and rare sound coming from the back of his throat to breathe some of Lotor’s hair away from his face. Everything else -the struggling, the silence, the swings and the misses, the knees on his sides and cuts on his skin, the questions Keith never actually asked, the answers Lotor wouldn’t know how to give him- all of that makes sense. This is the hardest part to understand.
Of all the scenarios Lotor is expecting when Keith finally lets go of his hand and his blade burns a bright purple as the commotion outside reaches just steps away from his door, the last one to cross his mind is the one where Keith steps away from him only to pull him back by the front of his armor, presses his face into Lotor’s cheek, the corner of his mouth touching just the slightest bit of Lotor’s lips as he chuckles again and says, “By the way,” in a breath, “I never yield.”
The dance is over when the door to his room comes down and Lotor is already exiting stage left out the window and over the small bridge that leads into the jet waiting for him right outside the back docking bays. But even as he sits and adjusts himself for a comfortable escape he is still watching Keith with a note of amusement in his eyes, watching Keith stand there as the other paladins pour into the room and surround him with worry and relief, watching Keith as Keith still watches him too, with that same challenge, that same promise still in his face.
He’s not sure either one of them is exactly letting the other go, but he knows they’re hardly done dancing yet, and even should they cross swords again next time they meet, and the next one after that, they'll still have much to learn from being the first one to fall. Who knows then, how that really ends.