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Love was terrifying.

 

It was something Lotor didn't understand. For practical purposes, he liked to tell himself. If he loved, that was just one more target for the witch and her toy emperor to destroy—one more flaw in Lotor's defenses. But the concept was more alien than any race in the universe, than every star that glittered coldly in the dark expanse.

 

It was a lesson untaught to him from the cradle. His first colony had been but the most dramatic demonstration in his childhood.

 

Love only ever hurt people.

 

Honerva and Zarkon had loved each other, once.

 

———

 

For a time, he liked living on the Altean colony.

 

No longer was Lotor an Altean archaeologist; now he was an anthropologist. The people whose artifacts and remnants he had long studied—he could talk to. He could live among them and learn about the half of his heritage left untainted.

 

But months passed, and Lotor realized that there was still a flicker of childish hope for belonging left in him to be crushed.

 

In a universe that wished Alteans dead, he had given them safe harbor. Everyone loved him.

 

And it sickened him.

 

Dine with us tonight, Juna insisted, a lovely older Altean woman with blue curtains of hair that framed her lined face—the deep wrinkles of stress forgotten in favor of the fine crow's feet that lit her hopeful smile. Janelle and Laren want to show you the dance they've been practicing.

 

How can you love the face of your murderers, Lotor wanted to say.

 

I have seen cultures upon cultures and people I cared for crushed under my father's heel and done nothing, he wanted to say.

 

You should not trust in me. All of you will die, and it will be because of me, he wanted to say.

 

"Of course," he said with a smile and let her lead him with a hand to her house.

 

The last time Lotor befriended anyone, the witch and his father had possessed the spite to blast their entire planet in a fiery conflagration.

 

———

 

By intent, Lotor drew away from the colony. "The empire spies on me and questions my disappearance... My frequent travels here place you in danger... I must negotiate for resources."

 

All true; nevertheless, excuses.

 

When the children he had known well were grandparents, they requested a statue of him. So our children's children can still know the man who has saved our lives. He gave it gladly, knowing it would ease some of their complaints.

 

Time passed then, and his visits scarcer. Lotor didn't realize quite how much until he arrived at the colony to unload farming supplies and found worshippers instead of friends.

 

You should have known, he thought.

 

It hurt, but not so much as it might have once.

 

This way, they could not know him. They did not love him. Only the statue, the folklore they passed down, the planet they lived on. Despite his blood, he was less Altean than the artifacts and crumbling sites he'd studied. It wasn't as if he was one of them.

 

It wasn't as if he was one of anything, except perhaps himself and cursed.

 

The knot of fear and nausea in his stomach relaxed.

 

It was better.

 

———

 

He hurt them anyway, of course.

 

It's necessary, he told himself.

 

If these sprouts of a plan flourished, Lotor could save the universe—so utterly forsaken by the people who'd been meant to save it. Countless peoples could know what it was to live. No one would have to know what he knew.

 

No one would have to fear the witch and his father ever again.

 

And because of it, countless people would die.

 

Lotor gave up on trying to convince himself that it was right.

 

But countless people would die no matter what he did. They died even now—and cultures upon cultures were perishing by the day, yet here Lotor stood, barely able to rescue one and not moving to travel faster than the speed of light, with the power of a million Voltrons, to save the rest and destroy his blood legacy in one fell swoop. How could he?

 

And a surgeon could not offer only bandages to a dying man who bled internally as well as externally when he had the tools to fix both—and call it right, either.

 

———

 

Centuries flew past like ash in the wind.

 

Lotor refined the quintessence collection to as high of an efficiency as he could engineer and improved the stasis functions until the system failure rate was nearly zero.

 

He watched the mercenaries begin to expand the halls, then closed his eyes.

 

———

 

He stole colonies, every once in a while. Bared his teeth and laughed when his father's idiotically cruel appointees eventually fled his invasions with their tails between their legs. Swept away all the Empire brutalities, the cultural genocides, and left the people to reclaim their freedom. Sheltered them, for a time.

 

Never for long. When the Empire began to move towards reclaiming its lost satellites in earnest, Lotor played a careful game.

 

Pull back subtly, bit by bit. Pretend at weakness that isn't there. Do not show his face.

 

The colonies would fall back under Empire control, and all the cruelties with it. It was inevitable.

 

But he didn't stop.

 

At least some might taste freedom, for a time.

 

At least they didn't burn.

 

———

 

"Prince Lotor?" the suited man asked, astonished.

 

"Get off my ship," Lotor spat.

 

In fact, the man strongly resisted getting off his ship. And when Lotor and his mercenaries finally chased him away, he found a calling card left behind where he had first encountered him. A small chip with a sigil inscribed, containing a set of coordinates.

 

It was quite amusing to discover how reckless that child's decision had been.

 

"So who," Lotor asked as he stepped down onto bare rock to a group of others in the same, all-concealing suits, "would represent themselves with the sigil of a shattered Empire?"

 

The Blade of Marmora, apparently.

 

They chastised the poor child right in front of him, and to be frank, Lotor had little sympathy. One should not casually hand over the coordinates of a secret resistance's headquarters—to a man whose loyalties one could only guess.

 

Though the consequences were not so terrible. Lotor, after all, had as much reason as they to see the Empire fall.

 

But when eventually they extended an offer of membership to him, he refused.

 

He had plans.

 

And no revolution that intended to stay secret ought to associate with the maligned prince.

 

———

 

Centuries winked away like flickers of flame.

 

Lotor fled a flooding ruin and grinned because Oriande was real.

 

———

 

Lotor had just passed his hundredth century when he heard Voltron lived again.

 

His ship rested beside the ruins of Daibazaal so he could study the place in which the gateway would sit. He was working on his design at the helm when Acxa called.

 

Sir, she said, voice vibrating with tension. The Voltron Lions have reunited. Reports say that the last Princess of Altea leads them.

 

Lotor nearly pierced through the screen with the tip of the stylus. "What?"

 

———

 

Lotor pressed rewind.

 

The video replayed: a brief clip of the last Princess of Altea running through the halls of a Galra outpost in the Thren sector.

 

Zethrid clomped up to the helm. You've got news? she asked.

 

"Of a sort," Lotor murmured. Chatter rose up from the other end of his feed in greeting, but he tuned it out in favor of the clandestine footage.

 

Princess Allura of Altea was alive.

 

It was millennia now since he'd lived with Alteans. His recollections of them were the memories of a child, but memories he recalled well. How reverently they had talked of the kind, stubborn Princess, though the few elderly among them had not even parents who had been born when Altea was destroyed.

 

Allura, the Lost Princess. The sole royal whose head had not been brandished by the war's end. Some still had whispered of her survival.

 

Even Lotor the child had taken the rumors as mere fancy. A mythology of defiance.

 

In the video, the Princess ran into a pair of Galra guards at an intersection. All three stared at each other in apparent shock.

 

Zethrid whistled in his ear. I wouldn't bet on her. She looks like a bundle of twigs.

 

Princess Allura moved first.

 

She grasped at her waist then flicked her wrist, revealing an extendable staff longer than she was tall. Even now, part of Lotor's mind went to its analysis, the design of its form and function—portable, discreet, and no less dangerous for its historical association with peace. Like lightning, she swung an end into the side of a guard with such force that he left a crater as she smashed him into the wall.

 

Zethrid whistled again, but with pleasantly impressed surprise.

 

"Altean anatomy is deceptively strong," Lotor murmured. "You've worked with me long enough, you should know better by now."

 

I don't have to take sass from you, she replied.

 

Lotor felt himself smile.

 

Did you watch the clip again? came Ezor's voice from her transmission feed. She's pretty, huh? Even Narti thinks so.

 

Text scrolled across the screen. No words in my mouth. I said she was threatening.

 

Exactly! Pretty and dangerous. I'd take her out to dinner.

 

No engaging with the enemy, crackled Acxa's feed.

 

If she wasn't one, geez. Downer. Lotor, can you explain again why we're not making nice? I still don't get it. We're both trying to take down your dad. And they've got Voltron—you know, the legendary war machine.

 

"She will lose," he said. "It's inevitable. My father's influence over the Black Lion will overpower them. We need to focus on launching our own plan before he succeeds, or else he will be nigh unstoppable."

 

You mean even more than he is now, Ezor remarked.

 

Shouldn't we help them to stall for time? Zethrid pointed out. Acxa hasn't even found a weblum yet.

 

Sometimes, Lotor missed working alone.

 

"We cannot afford the exposure for what might amount to zero gain. But you make one good point. Acxa, you need to hurry your search. We cannot move forward unless we have the scaultrite. Feel free to take a few risks, if you must; both the witch and my father will be thoroughly distracted."

 

Of course, sir.

 

He didn't mention that the thought of relying on Voltron disgusted him. Reliance was dangerous. On things that had failed you before, exponentially more so. Lotor thought the universe ought to have learned that lesson by now.

 

But then—

 

They were relying on him, weren't they?

 

On the screen, Princess Allura cleaned up the last of her mess with ease and left the unconscious guards behind.

 

Ten thousand years of hell.

 

A Princess of Altea.

 

Lotor rubbed his face. "Ezor, Narti, thank you. Continue to observe them, but turn your focus on collecting data about the Lions. My orders on the Princess have not changed. Do not be noticed if you can help it. But her survival is paramount."

 

Copy that, boss, Ezor chirped back.

 

———

 

Lotor stood and stared at the unconscious, withered Altean in the tank. His name was Nolen, according to the informational screen. Nolen's wife remained still on the original colony. His vitals were stable, and he was currently in the resting period of his cycle. His next draining would be in a month.

 

That, Lotor turned off. He would turn off the rest before he left.

 

His stomach was cold as a rock. He had learned to not eat during his visits millennia ago.

 

"I have used your people's life energy as bribery," he said to Nolen. "As ship fuel. You and yours have powered and funded my every venture these last six millennia."

 

Nolen could not reply. But for the briefest moment, Lotor wanted nothing less than for the man to burst out of his tank and stab him through the eye with a shard of the shattered glass.

 

His hands were so stained. He was so tired.

 

He was still here, ten thousand years running, when better people died by the millions.

 

But he couldn't stop.

 

"All of you will get your blood money soon," he said. "This is almost over."

 

———

 

The other Galra, when they discussed him, seemed to believe that he and his generals were friends.

 

They were wrong. His generals knew that, too.

 

Yet somehow they were surprised when Lotor left Kova and the still, bleeding body of Narti behind him, flicking the dark blood from his broadsword as they fled the wrath of the witch and her puppet ruler.

 

You can't understand, he wanted to tell them.

 

If I had not, it would only be worse for all of us, he wanted to tell them.

 

We are all still children if we can live in this universe and somehow this still hurts, he wanted to tell them.

 

"She betrayed us," he said over the intercom.

 

The truth was, Lotor had betrayed all of them as soon as he had accepted their loyalties. They understood that now, if nothing else, and he could offer no explanation.

 

———

 

The Princess lived up to every word Lotor had heard about her so long ago.

 

If you were here, Juna, he thought without thinking, then felt impossibly numb.

 

———

 

Allura was reconsidering him.

 

Somehow that, despite the aftershocks of adrenaline in his veins and the blood of his own father on his hands, was what drove him to the nearest washroom to vomit profusely.

 

Lotor gasped. Flushed. Went to the sink and washed.

 

Don't stop, he tried to think. This is almost over.

 

If she trusts in me, I will bear the great dignity of being the death of the Lost Princess of Altea, he thought instead.

 

———

 

She made him feel like a child again.

 

Lotor the archaeologist-turned-anthropologist first, who could once again ask questions about the culture he had long studied and have them answered—this time, by a person who had lived by her words.

 

They both began tentative. But Allura's love for her home unveiled, and soon they were laughing together over mistake after mistake in Lotor's theories: an ancient Altean idol that was merely a war memorial, bracelets that communicated words as well as status, a crystal temple that was really the remnants of a market.

 

At that one, her humor faltered into tears.

 

Lotor faltered as well, at a sudden loss. He couldn't remember the last time another person had cried before him.

 

Then he spun away, because now she was vulnerable and undoubtedly furious about it. Looking would make it worse. "Princess, I'm terribly sorry. I didn't mean to dredge up anything painful."

 

A light hand touched his shoulder, and he stiffened from stifling the instinct to grab it by the forearm and throw.

 

"It's all right," Allura said. She was sniffling, but sounded—not unhappy. "It wasn't your fault, not really. The memory of the markets is just... I miss it dearly. But I'm glad you asked me about it. I... I haven't been able to talk about Altea at all before now."

 

Lotor tried to relax, but the hand weighed heavy on his shoulder. His insides quivered, and he wasn't sure if it was from a desire to flee or to turn back around. "Not Coran?"

 

"We remember Altea differently. Talking to him... it's too close to us."

 

The hand disappeared, and Lotor regained the confidence to look back. Allura's cheeks were wet, and she was wiping at her eyes. He wavered from the lingering urge to run. "I see. It's easier to talk to someone who wasn't there. But not even the Paladins?"

 

"I think they've been afraid to ask." Allura smiled at him, even though her eyes still shone from the tears—

 

And oh.

 

Lotor's hands started shaking.

 

"Truly, I appreciate this conversation. Please don't be discouraged by," she gestured around her face, "all this."

 

All that, and she could still smile.

 

"Please excuse me," he managed. "I just recalled something I need to write down."

 

———

 

Oriande was a beautiful, mystical place.

 

A place where he'd expected the guardian to attempt to devour him on sight—even the chance to fail at Oriande's trials was more than he had ever imagined. So he was not disappointed for long.

 

Lotor sat down on the temple steps and bowed his head. He could see the White Lion, leaping toward him with claws bared.

 

The ill-starred child of a warlord and his ravaged universe could never know what it was to live in peace.

 

———

 

He felt like a child.

 

Lotor had given up on idealism millennia ago. Yet here he was, swooning because a single girl—a naïve child, really—could smile and trust despite her weakness, despite the violent loss of everything she had known and loved.

 

Allura did more than smile. Every time she laughed, his limbs relaxed. When they were in a room together, he drew towards her like a flower to the sun. She would command from the helm and in the ship hangar and Lotor would feel nothing but pride, glowing so warm in his chest that almost, he forgot he didn't belong to her. She could touch his arm, and afterwards he would shiver and shake like a sapling in a blizzard.

 

Moreover, she had begun to take interest in him.

 

He felt impossibly nauseous.

 

You're lying to her. About everything you are. About everything you've done. She doesn't know who you are, but that hasn't ever stopped you from destroying everything good you touch. No matter how this pans out, she will hate you in the end.

 

What purpose does this façade have except to play pretend with a ticking time bomb?

 

But instead, Lotor encouraged her.

 

Because his plans needed to succeed, and he needed her cooperation for them to succeed.

 

Because he wanted to hear that laughter more. Because he wanted to lean into her and feel her lean back and feel safe. Because he was so horribly exhausted of his cold, isolated vacuum. And lord, but she made him feel like a child again.

 

Shouldn't Unk'al have been enough to tell you how well this will turn out?

 

When Lotor had been a child, he'd had so much hope. He'd not committed near so many crimes. He'd been so blessedly blind.

 

There was something terribly wrong with him.

 

He stared at the wall of his room and saw fire, digging his fingers relentlessly through his hair.

 

———

 

He was right, of course.

 

When Allura's hand tightened around his, Lotor made the fatal mistake of forgetting that he wasn't safe.

 

She used his arm as a fulcrum and threw him. You damn fool, he managed to think at himself, and then he hit the ground with all the force of Allura's Altean strength and went away.

 

———

 

The witch praised him in his mother's voice.

 

———

 

Everyone had the audacity to believe that he wanted this.

 

As if Lotor had hurt so many people, had spent the ten millennia of his life bearing beneath others' disappointments and cruelties, had lived as flotsam in a black ocean with only ancient scatterings to give him meaning, because he wanted to.

 

He did not ask to save a wretched universe.

 

He did not ask to be born.

 

HE WAS NOT HIS FATHER.

 

Allura's fury raged at him, a weapon of her pain that cut into him deeper than nearly anything Lotor could remember, and he was finished with idealism.

 

Love only ever hurt people.

 

And he would not be such a failure as Alfor had been.

 

———

 

Time passed.

 

———

 

How long, Lotor didn't know.

 

He was dreaming.

 

———

 

Lotor was two thousand years old, and he'd finally reached the Galra age of maturity.

 

They supposed, anyway; it was difficult to tell when one aged so slowly and uniquely.

 

Dayak had claimed he was mature five hundred years ago, but soon after she'd been quietly exiled for subversive behavior. Then no one would listen to a traitor's recommendations, no matter how pure and revered her blood.

 

He stepped off the ship's gangplank onto purple-black grass, breathed in warm, smoggy air, and felt the slightest smile curve his lips.

 

He was ready.

 

Lotor shouldered the bag that held all his plans for his first colony assignment, Unk'al, ignoring the guards that had offered to carry it.

 

He was ready to be the wisest, most effective ruler the Empire had ever seen, and then perhaps his father would finally see how clever his once-sickly disappointment of a son was.

 

———

 

It was more revolting than Lotor had been prepared for.

 

He rubbed at his mouth again, still able to taste the bitter acid of vomit despite his thorough washing. He looked out at the wretched, rotting fields of purple stalks dotted by ragged, dirty-looking workers—yek'sha, a quintessence crop on this planet—and said to his Galra companions, "This is revolting."

 

A few local scientists had accompanied them as well. They twitched in aborted gestures.

 

One, a short Unk'alan who held clipboards in three of their arms, covered a fanged smile with the fourth.

 

The Galra man to the right of Lotor, a new lieutenant since the last commander had taken much of his preferred staff with him when he was promoted, stammered. I—I don't understand, my Prince. Our projected harvest this month will be excellent.

 

"You don't have to," Lotor said, and now his anger was bubbling. "The only thing you need to do is exactly as I tell you. Shut it all down."

 

Everyone around him goggled now. Even the short Unk'alan.

 

Excuse me, my Prince? the new lieutenant asked uncertainly.

 

"You heard me. Shut everything down and send every worker home. Otherwise, the changes I will be making around here will throw our production into chaos." Lotor shooed them with a hand, glaring. "Well? Go."

 

For a second, they wavered. Then the lieutenant began ordering them away.

 

When the lieutenant had finally left himself, Lotor stared at the door until he was reassured no one was returning. Then he turned back to the rotting fields under the polluted sky, and said loudly, "Fuck every Galra who has ever been here."

 

The scientists, who had remained, did not abort their gestures this time.

 

The short Unk'alan bared their fangs. "Doesn't that include you?"

 

Ark'el, another gasped.

 

But Lotor only grinned in return, widely to ensure the short Unk'alan knew he'd seen them earlier as well. "I happen to be only half-Galra, if you didn't guess at my impure blood already. Personally, I much prefer the other half. Ark'el, yes?"

 

"Don't snap the stalk."

 

Lotor took the lack of obvious objection as an affirmative and made a mental note to ask about the turn of phrase later. "Thank you. I would ask the rest of you to introduce yourselves, please, and answer some of my questions if you are willing. I'm afraid I know relatively little about Unk'al and your people, and I want to change things here. I would appreciate any help."

 

The scientists glanced at each other dubiously.

 

But they did.

 

———

 

It was almost better.

 

———

 

Some of the Unk'alans were uncertain about him. Most regarded him with malice. None of them trusted him.

 

Lotor didn't blame them. He wouldn't, either.

 

While most of the scientists he had met the first day remained distant for some time, Ark'el rapidly became someone Lotor quite enjoyed interacting with. They had a sharp, confident humor and considered him with more curiosity than the wariness of their colleagues. Apparently, they were the youngest of the group and thought to be rather too loose with their opinions to work near Galra for long.

 

Sometimes, Lotor was particularly glad he'd been assigned here.

 

———

 

He implemented environmental measures first, severely limiting the pollutants that the quintessence processing plants could expel on the planet.

 

He was grateful in this case that the Galra way meant his word was law, as they could not openly disobey him—and that Dayak had trained him well. They showed their displeasure with an attempt at assassination.

 

Lotor rearranged his administration with the head of the would-be killer as the conference table centerpiece. They quieted.

 

———

 

He learned more about Unk'al by the day, as determined in these efforts as he was in his administrative meetings—but he could only observe on the surface, at first, and very little at that. Nearly every Unk'alan treated him as just another Galra ruler.

 

For a time, this was immensely frustrating.

 

"You muk'al bastard," Ark'el told him after venting his annoyance one unfortunate day. "You are the Galra ruler. You're the son of the fucking Emperor. Every reason you've lorded it in comfort is because of people like us. Say a single word, and you could destroy our entire lives. But you want us to pretend that's not true for your own convenience. Fuck you."

 

They threw an empty clipboard at Lotor and stalked out of the room.

 

They did that on sight for the next week.

 

———

 

The first thing from Lotor's mouth was, "I'm sorry. You were right. I should be more aware of what I am here. I swear I'll do better."

 

Ark'el stared.

 

Lotor bit the inside of his cheek.

 

They sighed at length. "Galra never say sorry, so I guess that's a start. I'll hold you to that."

 

He couldn't restrain his small smile of relief. "Please do."

 

———

 

He didn't lose his patience again.

 

Ark'el introduced him to the sign language the Unk'alans used amongst themselves when the Galra could not see them. He learned it eagerly. Though when Ark'el explained the origins of it, Lotor ended up in the washroom heaving.

 

"Ur'shal, but you're such a baby," they said from the door.

 

Lotor gargled water in the sink and spat, thankful that he hadn't outright vomited this time. "Excuse me, I'm positive I'm far older than you are. Did you expect me not to be disgusted by the fact that the Empire exterminated an entire people on this planet simply because they had no vocal cords?"

 

"You're Galra," they said. "That's what you do. Shit, you had the head of a dead man on your table."

 

Lotor stared at the water, said, "I suppose so," and considered cognitive dissonance.

 

———

 

He left his Galra officers behind to convene with a band of Unk'alan representatives.

 

Lotor told them to choose the location. There, Ark'el braced a knife against his neck to demonstrate literally the sincerity he promised with words, and they began to hash out not only working rights but any and all grievances the Unk'alans had.

 

There were many.

 

He listened.

 

———

 

"Aren't they the dumbest stalks of juk'sha you've ever fucking seen," Ark'el signed to him from the back of the room.

 

Lotor had to bite his lip hard to hold back the smirk. The processing plant managers didn't even notice, as engrossed as they were in complaining very, very much about how difficult these new measures of his would make it to meet their quotas from the Empire.

 

"Like rampaging nok'la," he signed back, passing it off as a scratch at his ear.

 

Ark'el visibly shook their shoulders in Unk'alan laughter, and the sight warmed him so much he couldn't hold back a smile, this time.

 

———

 

Lotor was languishing in his office, skimming through harvest records of the past twenty years, when the doorknob clicked. His head snapped up and his hand to his hip in time to see Ark'el open the door.

 

"Can I..." They gestured vaguely around. They were also clearly oblivious to Lotor's tension.

 

Lotor forced himself to unruffle. "Sure?"

 

Ark'el shut the door behind them. They then sat down on the floor with the slow care of an elderly man and bowed their head until it rested against the front of Lotor's desk.

 

Lotor leaned forward, his brow furrowing in concern. "Ark'el?"

 

"Don't mind me," they muttered. "Just... bending with the wind for a moment."

 

"Are you all right?"

 

Ark'el made a gesture of frustration without moving their head. "I'm supposed to be cataloguing gene sections right now. Jek'il wants them tomorrow morning."

 

"Then shouldn't you do that?" Lotor asked.

 

"Yeah."

 

When Ark'el didn't move, Lotor pursed his lips. This wasn't the first time he'd observed them avoiding work. But when he'd pressed, they'd said they were happy with their job. "Can I help?"

 

"Mhm. Not really."

 

"Well, Jek'il may not be happy, but take as much time as you need. You're not unpleasant company."

 

Ark'el laughed wryly. "Thanks."

 

Lotor felt himself smile, and it didn't go away when he returned to his reading—an eerie sensation that was growing more familiar by the day. But the discomforting awareness of another's presence did not quite go away, either.

 

———

 

The first time one of his elderly Unk'alan advisors said of him, Not the worst Galra I've ever known, Lotor spent the rest of the day with an extra spring in his step.

 

Ark'el made fun of him for it.

 

It felt better than anything he'd ever known.

 

———

 

"Ur'shal," Ark'el hissed from the floor, their back against the far wall. They cradled one of their upper wrists in their two lower hands. "I just touch your shoulder and you throw me across the room."

 

"I—I'm sorry," Lotor stammered. "I'm sorry."

 

He hunted frantically for a first aid kit, then returned and used the bandages to craft a makeshift sling. It took him far longer than he'd been trained to. His hands shook the whole time.

 

"Are you okay," Ark'el tried first.

 

"Yes." Lotor fumbled the roll as he tried to shove it back into the kit.

 

"You know it's just a sprain."

 

"Yes." Lotor struggled to roll the loose bandages back up.

 

"Light of Lu'shal. Hand that over." Ark'el snatched the bandages out of his trembling hands with their free lower hands and proceeded to deftly, neatly roll it back up, their brow furrowed all the while.

 

Lotor offered the kit, which rattled in his hands.

 

Ark'el tucked the roll back inside and then took the box from his hands to set it aside. They looked at him with a keen, sympathetic gaze that made Lotor's insides shrink and said, "I must have been asking for it, coming up from behind you like that, right?"

 

"Touching me is not a good idea," Lotor agreed quietly.

 

"But you're still shaking like a yek'sha on harvest day." Ark'el cautiously and gently took his hands by the wrists to still them, as if he was a startled animal, and the rest of him stilled with it. "Juk'sha. Calm down. See, I'm fine. It was just a sprain. What's bothering you so damn much?"

 

"I threw you."

 

"Yeah, and I'll have bruises for days. Plus the sling." They squeezed his wrists. "But it's fine. I know you didn't mean to do it."

 

Something winding tight in Lotor's chest went away. "Oh. Well, that's good."

 

Ark'el rolled their eyes but made a gesture of affection with their free hand, one that Lotor was beginning to see more and more often. They let his wrists go, for which he was grateful—but for a strange, off-kilter moment, he didn't want them to let go, too.

 

———

 

The fields of yek'sha were rich, healthy shades of purple. The air was so much clearer.

 

Lotor had sent away or reassigned the Galra overseers; the Unk'alans managed their own fields now. The harvests were less frequent and done one plot at a time, but each crop produced more quintessence than the same amount would have before. Still less in total, but Lotor's predecessor had been overproducing anyway.

 

Unk'al met its quotas, and for a while, the Empire noticed little else.

 

———

 

"I can't believe you're doing this," Ark'el signed to him. "Handing over all your administrative powers to us."

 

"Why?" Lotor signed back. "It's the natural next step."

 

Ark'el made a frustrated gesture and paced about the room. Neither of them uttered a sound. There was a crowd of Galra right outside Lotor's room, clamoring for attention and admittance. Every voice was angry.

 

"Why am I here?" Ark'el suddenly asked, hands jerky.

 

Lotor hesitated, then gestured confusion.

 

"I'm a research assistant! I do errands for people because I can't be trusted with projects and got piled on because I say things how they are. Then somehow I befriend the Prince of the Ur'shal-cursed Empire and now I witness him defying a force that's going to kill us all." Ark'el's hands trembled, very slightly.

 

Lotor pressed his lips together. "Do you want me to stop?"

 

"No," Ark'el signed immediately, but they groaned out loud. "Maybe. I shouldn't be telling you what to do. I'm just a botanist."

 

"Don't sell yourself short. You've been helping me this entire time."

 

"That makes me feel so much better."

 

Ark'el stopped signing to dig blunt claws relentlessly through their mane, pacing all the while. Lotor wished desperately that he could ease their distress, but he knew that he was the source of it all.

 

Instead, he knocked on the table to draw their attention. "Maybe what I've done won't mean anything in the end. If you're afraid, I can stop. I can pull back. I know I've put this entire world at risk to make a point. It's an important point. But your people will bear the consequences. I wish I'd realized that from the beginning, but I was a self-centered fool."

 

"Don't sell yourself short. You still are."

 

Lotor didn't know why Ark'el could make him smile so easily. And when they smiled back, he never wanted it to go away.

 

But eventually, it did.

 

"Do you really think we can change the Empire?" they asked.

 

Lotor glanced away at the use of 'we' and wrung his hands. He didn't want to say no.

 

Ark'el seemed to understand anyway. "And what you've done. The rest of your plan. Do you think it will mean anything?"

 

"I want to believe so."

 

Ark'el's shoulders shook in laughter then. They walked over to Lotor's desk and gently lay hands on his wrists, as cautiously as if he was a startled animal. Lotor tensed, but he could already feel his hands begin to tremble under their grasp.

 

"Watch this, juk'sha," they signed with their free hands. "Our grass is bright purple. Our sky is clean. We can see the stars again. Our children play in the yek'sha fields and we all can eat as much as we want at the end of the day. You've made our lives so much better in just ten years."

 

With his wrists trapped, Lotor could only shake his head, lips tight.

 

He shouldn't have had to change things for the better in the first place. They should have been better from the start.

 

"Look," Ark'el said, gestures angry this time. "Look. No matter what happens, this has meant something. You understand? What you've done, our happiness, the peace of Ur'shal—this will always mean something. We will always mean something."

 

Lotor stared. His hands shook, but he pulled them out of Ark'el's grasp and said, "I know. But I don't want you to die."

 

They gave him a half-moon smile. "I don't want to, either. But we're all going to die no matter what you do, juk'sha. Personally, I would rather do it knowing every sprout of freedom and hope I can get. So don't stop. And if you ever forget what I showed you, I'll throw clipboards at you again. Got it?"

 

Lotor bowed his head.

 

Out in the hall, Galra officers railed. Ark'el said, "You'd better let them in now, before they smash down your door."

 

———

 

Three days later, a committee of Unk'alan leaders took the helm.

 

Lotor dueled dissenters to the death until they no longer dissented. Then he commanded the Galra that were loyal to his cause to begin training a volunteer army, while he sat back and, with the help of Ark'el and some of the other Unk'alan scientists, learned the finer points of engineering so he could create instead of destroy.

 

Quintessence farming grew more efficient and sustainable by the day. They built purifiers and scoured the remaining pollutants from the planet. A school was built, then two. Every course was taught by Unk'alans.

 

Children played in the yek'sha fields and signed.

 

———

 

"What would you want to do, if it weren't for this?"

 

"Do you not think this isn't what I want to do?"

 

Ark'el flicked him in the arm. "Juk'sha. You know what I mean. If things weren't what they are."

 

"You mean if everything was completely different." Lotor chewed on the idea and found it—overwhelming.

 

If King Alfor of Altea had saved them. If there was no Empire that crushed everything under its immortal, power-hungry heel. If there was a home for him where he had a mother who loved him and a father that did not wish him gone or dead and alone because he was a threat to his rule by merely being alive. If he did not have to be afraid.

 

He could almost imagine it. That was the worst part.

 

"I would want to be doing almost the same," Lotor said finally. "I had a governess who... If I were honest, I owe everything I am to her. She taught me things my father wants forgotten. About history and the people he's killed. I would like to do that—be an anthropologist. I would like to learn about people and their customs. I would like to study what old societies have left behind."

 

"Yeah, that fits you. You spent an entire day just staring at Jek'il's house and taking notes."

 

Lotor laughed, because he had.

 

I would like to find Unk'al again, if I could. Find you again. Maybe in that reality, I would know how to be okay. But he didn't say that. It was too close to an edge that vibrated inside him.

 

"What about you?" he asked instead.

 

Ark'el hummed. Lotor wanted badly to lean in closer. "I've always thought teaching would be nice. I like research, and I like applying what I know. That is, when I can. But it's children that will change the future. I want to be part of that."

 

"And you like telling people when they're wrong."

 

Ark'el flicked him in the arm again, but with the gesture of affection.

 

"There are schools now," Lotor said.

 

"Yeah." Their gaze was distant but considering. "Maybe someday."

 

———

 

Time passed. In total, Lotor served Unk'al for three decades.

 

It was the happiest period of his life.

 

———

 

Light of Lu'shal, gasped the Unk'alan committee leader.

 

Lotor stood in the doorway, half his head swathed in bandages and his right arm held tight in a sling. He returned the grimaces and gestures of the other committee members and said, "I'm sorry to interrupt. The Emperor's witch has noticed us."

 

———

 

After a discussion of hours, Lotor didn't return to his house. Instead, he went to the biology labs and found Ark'el, who immediately hustled him back out and into an empty office. They fussed over his injuries with all the sensitivity of a spiny ruk'sha. Lotor bowed his head and pretended at sufferance, so he wouldn't show how warm the affection made him feel.

 

He told them about the witch's attack and the details of his conference with the committee.

 

"So what did you not tell them?" Ark'el asked.

 

Lotor looked at them dubiously.

 

"Don't lie to me," they said. "I can tell when you do that, too, you know."

 

"Her druid. After it thoroughly beat me, it gave me a message," Lotor said at length. "An order from Emperor Zarkon himself. I must admit, I knew he had sent me here to be rid of me for a while, but even I never thought he would pretend at my nonexistence for quite this long."

 

Perhaps it had been the witch to direct his attention. More and more, it seemed to Lotor that she was the better mastermind. Even his father couldn't be safe.

 

"What was the order?" Ark'el pushed.

 

Lotor closed his eyes and replied, "To kill all of you. I refused."

 

———

 

They were so, so out of their depth.

 

He'd thought they had more time.

 

Only the second day after they had begun military preparations for the inevitable invasion, the alarm for the atmosphere sensors went off. An Unk'alan sentry burst into the conference room ten seconds later and gasped, An entire fleet of Galra cruisers just appeared.

 

The committee, already muttering fearfully, exploded into panicked discussion.

 

Lotor fell back in his chair and covered his face.

 

There must have been spies here. The witch must have had the entire planet under surveillance. Why didn't I realize that? The bottom fell out of his stomach. Did she intercept the group we evacuated earlier today? Are they all already dead?

 

The room was silent. He lowered his hands.

 

The committee of Unk'alans were staring at him uneasily. Lotor, the leader said. You know the battle strategies of the Galra best. What do you think we should do?

 

Why are you looking to me? I hardly know anything, he wanted to say.

 

I am the heir apparent of the very Empire poised on your doorstep to kill you, and you give me your trust, he wanted to say.

 

You are all going to die, and it will be because of me, he wanted to say.

 

"We have a little bit of time," he said instead. "They will want to bring to bear overwhelming force, so more warships will have to arrive before they begin their assault. We need to organize everyone who can fly a fighter ship and order an immediate evacuation."

 

———

 

He saw Ark'el one more time.

 

The sentry had left and turned the alarm off, so they were now rushing to save an entire planet in the otherwise normal atmosphere of a workday. It almost made the threat seem unreal.

 

Lotor was now unnecessary, thankfully; he and the committee had written him out of the system a long time ago. He ran through the halls, intent on reaching his hovercraft to collect a few last things from his house—but he recognized an intersection and made the detour without a second thought.

 

He met them in the hall.

 

"The Galra," Ark'el signed, heaving for breath. "They're here."

 

Lotor nodded, in much the same condition, and signed back, "Yes. We're evacuating. You should get to your assigned hangar."

 

Their hands jerked. "You're going there, too, right?"

 

"I have to head to my house first. I need to get my research, my designs."

 

"Juk'sha, that's the dumbest fucking thing I've ever seen. You helped write the announcements telling us not to go back for things!"

 

"I know, but don't worry. We have some time." Lotor reached for Ark'el's lower hands but hesitated, hovering over them, because he never could quite bring himself to touch first. "Listen," he said out loud. "I—"

 

He wanted to say so many things. But the mere thought of voicing them froze his lungs to stillness.

 

It was terrifying.

 

"I want you to know," he tried, "that I'm afraid everything's going to go wrong. I... So I need to say... your friendship..." He swallowed, endlessly.

 

"I know you can't say it, juk'sha," Ark'el said softly.

 

Lotor's hands shook. "It's not that I don't mean to."

 

"I know. I was confused for a while, but I figured it out. How many times can we do shit like this, yet I can count the number of times you've called me your friend on two hands. You've got some problems, juk'sha."

 

Lotor gave a strained laugh. "I'd call that an understatement."

 

"Yeah. I'd say it's ironic, that the emperor breaks his son as thoroughly as he breaks the rest of us, but I care about you. It's just fucked up instead. I'm sorry I haven't helped you much." They took his wrists gently, and Lotor felt it was appropriate to be treated like a startled animal. "So it's not like I've ever seen you say it with your hands, either, but it might be easier. It's just one word."

 

With an upper hand, Ark'el made the gesture of affection. Then, guiding Lotor by the wrist, they did the same with his hand.

 

"Okay?" Ark'el murmured.

 

Lotor's hands still trembled, but he nodded. When they let him go, he made the gesture again under his own power, before he could think another second on it.

 

Their smile was brilliant. "Go on, juk'sha. You've got less time than I do."

 

———

 

Ark'el was wrong, of course.

 

When Lotor entered the office of his house, one of the witch's druids was there waiting for him.

 

He froze and said, "No."

 

Then the druid took his arm, and they went away.

 

———

 

Even as they landed, Lotor was pulling his broadsword from its hip compartment and swinging it towards the druid. But it disappeared again in a wisp of black smoke, and his blade passed through air.

 

It was too late.

 

The Prince, sire, croaked a familiar voice from across the hall.

 

Lotor spun around, his heart falling out of his chest.

 

The witch, at the right hand of the throne.

 

Ah, good, said his father, who lounged in the seat with his glowing eyes narrow. Turn around, boy. Put that sword away, if you know what's best for you.

 

———

 

A squad of soldiers stood around Lotor. He couldn't kill this many, even if the witch and his father weren't already watching.

 

They waited in silence for an age. Several more cruisers arrived to tighten the blockade.

 

Then the first Unk'alan ships began to take off, the specks of black easily visible against the bright purple landscape, through the crystal clear atmosphere. A handful of their Galra fighters flew beside them.

 

They were so small.

 

Commander Sendak, his father said stolidly. Ready our fighters.

 

Lotor wanted to move. He wanted to rage, to scream, to beg. He would have done all three, if he'd thought it would work.

 

But it was what the witch and his father wanted. That was why he was on the bridge, after all, instead of in a prison cell. They wanted to see him suffer—to react in any way. To show that he was weak and give them the good excuse to finally end his pitiful life.

 

The Unk'alan ships broke atmosphere, and his father's fighters bore mercilessly down.

 

It did not take long.

 

Lotor stood still and quiet as a statue, for all the tears that fell from his eyes.

 

Ready the ion cannons, his father said.

 

———

 

All he could see was fire.

 

Unk'al burned. And the conflagration could have almost been beautiful, how boldly and brightly it burned against the blackness of space, if everyone and everything Lotor had known for the last thirty years were not burning with it.

 

———

 

When the flames had finally gone dark, his father said, They perished pointlessly.

 

Lotor didn't reply, only bit back his hitching gasps.

 

I will only teach you this lesson once, his father growled. Try to make a fool out of me again. Defy me, and you will accept the consequences. This meaningless experiment of yours was a failure from the start. There is no purpose in treating lessers as equals. Even your Altean blood does not make you worth so little. His father's voice softened by the slightest shade. I had hoped you would change your mind, boy. If you had obeyed, this planet would have received a more merciful end.

 

"I am going to kill you," Lotor said, and if the floor dropped from beneath him in his fear, he didn't care anymore. "I am going to kill you."

 

Speak again, the witch hissed, and you won't take another breath.

 

Lotor pressed trembling lips together.

 

His father did not speak for a long moment; when he did, it was with cold fury. You are a disappointment to our blood. Do not let me see your face again until you intend to accept humility. Soldiers, take him to the hangar.

 

———

 

He waited until he was a galaxy away before he turned off the ship's engine and bowed his head until it rested against the dashboard.

 

He wanted to weep, but every inch of him was impossibly cold.

 

Ark'el, he thought.

 

Then stopped.

 

———

 

Eight thousand more years went and gone.

 

———

 

The dreams stopped.

 

———

 

Everything around him was blindingly bright. Lotor blinked, squinting against the glare, then realized he was blinking.

 

He could make out a shadow over him. He couldn't tell what it was.

 

Did it matter?

 

"We're all going to die," they'd said.

 

Then why was he always still here?

 

Lotor closed his eyes.