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-
“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.
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.”
“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?”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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-
“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.
((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!!))