Not all things die.
He opens his eyes to a blinding white, too bright to blink against, though his body does on instinct, turning his world red for a moment. It resolves in a series of flashes—flickering spots of white as something blocks the light and moves aside again, the dull sensation of gravity hugging him tight to the seat that feels as if it's become a part of him, sounds that blur before they start to separate—bending metal, the rush of this own blood, and a voice.
When he blinks again, time must skip past him. As he opens his eyes, the world has started to right itself. He's lying on his back, he realizes by the hang of black hair around the face that's peering down at him.
It's haloed in light. Some of it reflects back into his eyes, some indistinguishable hue of grey and shadow.
“You're alive,” the boy says with a softness that doesn't fit this place. He reaches out, draws a lock of hair toward him. It's too long. It's too dark. The boy's face is a marvel at the sight of it.
Lotor blinks once, and again, and then gives it up and closes his eyes. The sound of breath comes through still, soft and close.
“What do you remember?” the boy asks.
Everything. Fire and a wholesale destruction that wrecked more than a planet, that shattered something in him, that birthed something new. A thousand tiny slights, the constant struggle, until all that was left in him was the after—the desire to make something burn, too. The rippling surge of quintessence across his skin and then through it, through him, down his veins, bending his form, reordering his cells until he was molded into something bigger than himself. It felt inevitable.
“Nothing,” Lotor whispers past cracked lips. “I remember nothing.”
The boy pulls him out of the ship single handed. Lotor's bones are lead and his muscles feel like strings holding him together, ready to snap, but the hands under his arms are gentle.
If this is death, it feels strange. Too real, too painful, and the horizon when they scramble out of the ship together is familiar. Daibazaal was gone before his first breath, but he recognizes its horizons from old transmissions. The air is clearer. There are no buildings, he realizes, but the red dirt and dark sky—
“Where are we?”
The boy pulls Lotor’s arm around his shoulders, securing him. “Daibazaal,” he confirms. “I guess… This wasn’t the only thing they brought back.” He’s still looking at Lotor out of the corner of his eye, gaze unreadable. It sparks something in Lotor’s memory—that face, projected over a screen in the bridge of the Castleship, image grainy. He was younger then—but he’s still young.
“What happened?” Lotor asks, because he wants to know. He wants to know if he’s still dead. He wants some explanation for this time and this place and this body and the boy hauling him to freedom on a planet that should be ten thousand years gone.
The boy answers with an even voice, inflectionless and strange. “I wish I knew.”
It takes two weeks for his body to come back to itself, for his joints to fit together right, for his legs to be able to stand without shaking, and then his strength comes fast.
The first time he looks in a mirror, he thinks he’s looking at a video screen. The height is right, and the figure beside him is what it should be, but his own face is unfamiliar. His skin is ruddier than it was and darker, and his hair is like a shadow. The boy stays right beside him, staring into the mirror with the same intent, the same inexplicable look on his face that he’s worn since that first moment.
“Do I look different?” Lotor asks him. “Did you know me, before?”
The boy shakes his head. “We didn’t know each other, but I know what you looked like. Maybe this is your body without quintessence.”
His name is Keith and through the morass of memories, Lotor has been trying to pick out what he knew about him, before. Something nags at his mind, but not enough to shape to more than a vague construct of a person defined by functions more than qualities.
The boy is forthcoming with everything that’s not about him. He explains the sacrifices made, the strangeness of it, how it the ending came too fast. He apologizes for Allura and for Honerva, their fate explained in short, lost words as he sits by Lotor’s cot and Lotor closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to pretend he doesn’t know who they were. It aches, but not more than his body. Not more than his mistakes.
Not once in those two weeks does he get an explanation for why a savior of the universe is spending his new freedom nursing a stranger on a deserted planet. Sometimes he sits in the cockpit, arms folded and knees drawn up, staring out at the open nothing of the desert, but if the fight took something or someone from him, he doesn’t talk about it.
Transmissions come in now and then. Most are from other Blades, but one night the comms beep with an incoming message and Keith curses lowly.
The ship is small. The living quarters are set back from the cockpit and hidden behind a hatch that Keith keeps open, so Lotor is in full view when Keith accepts the message and Acxa’s face blurs into existence on the main HUD. She doesn’t notice right away. They exchange pleasantries, and Keith asks about someone named Veronica that makes Acxa’s face color even through the washed-out image. Lotor sees Keith smile for the first time.
He doesn’t ask about anyone else and Acxa doesn’t offer.
“Word is getting out,” she says finally.
“I know. But I’m still doing recon.”
It’s true. Every day he goes out on his open-air flyer, leaving Lotor with the wolf on the ship. The company could be worse. After years dealing with the Galra high command, one trans-dimensional animal isn’t bad, and anyway—the wolf likes to have his belly scratched. They have a fragile accord.
“We can’t hold them back. It’s inevitable.”
Keith toys with something on the control panel, not looking at her. “Okay. Let them come.”
She doesn’t answer for a moment, head tilting. She was always the consummate general, following orders without question until that last moment, so it’s a surprise when she asks, “Are you sure? What about the rift?”
“The rift is gone.”
She frowns. “But you said there was something there.”
“I was wrong.” Keith taps something and sends through a photo that projects beside Acxa’s image on the screen. Her eyes widen. It displays a beautiful fiction—an empty crater in an empty desert field, the fractures in stone the only evidence that this was the spot that ruined two planets and a galaxy and almost tore apart the rest. Keith explained all of it, as best he could, and Lotor nodded and frowned in all the right places, asked all the right questions.
He wonders where Keith stashed Sincline’s ruins. Suddenly, the daily scouting runs make sense.
She still looks troubled. Keith leans across the panel to dismiss the image. The motion exposes the cockpit to the camera. Acxa’s eyes on the viewscreen slide to Lotor’s form, slouched behind Keith on his bed in the dark. He looks different enough that she won’t know him on sight, but she’s clever. Lotor doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe.
“...Who’s that?” she asks, never shy of bluntness.
“A friend,” Keith says, and ends the transmission.
That night Lotor slips off the cot and stumbles his way to the small bathroom, body still weak. The wolf’s gaze follows him, but he doesn’t move, even when Lotor grabs a knife from the little rack of weapons on the wall along the way.
He looks the same. Even with the hair, even with the dusk colored skin, he knows who he is. So will anyone else who spares him more than a glance. Keith found him clothes that didn’t smell of ozone and metal—of quintessence, which all of him did when he was pulled out of the rift. The small shower on Keith’s ship couldn’t wash it out of his hair completely. With one hand he gathers his long hair into a rope and brings up the knife to it. It takes minutes to cut through it all, even though the knife is sharp. When he’s finished, he can’t decide what he looks like.
Not like himself. That’s the point.
“They’re still going to know who you are,” Keith says from behind him, from the dark.
Of course they will, but it’s a first step. It’s something. “I know,” Lotor replies. “What will you tell them?”
“The truth, I guess.”
Lotor wants to laugh. This boy, so calm, so new to the world, so sure he knows what’s right. So sure he can do it. “They'll never stand for it.”
His nonchalance is stupid. Stupid gets leaders killed, and he's something to these people, the closest to a leader they have now, somehow. Anger starts to rise in him, like the hum of energy of having the Sincline's controls under his hand, ready to fire at a thought. This boy will get himself killed. This boy will get them both killed.
“‘Maybe?’ If you tell them who I am, we're dead.” Lotor almost snaps the words out. I lead these people for ten thousand years and you think it's easy.
Keith rolls his eyes and settles back into bed without replying. Lotor walks to his bedside and rolls him on his back with one hand, not realizing how it looks until the wolf starts to growl finally. He’s still holding the knife. Keith eyes him but doesn’t look scared. “Look—you’re going to have to trust me eventually.”
Lotor pulls away and drops the knife. “Don’t hold your breath.”
The boy can't lead.
He's too young, too inexperienced, too—alone. They never met before, but he knows they fought against each other, and then for the same side, but only barely. This is the boy that tracked him and then took the missions he fed the coalition. Ex-Paladin, ex-leader, ex-Blade—he wears the uniform still, and wears it well, but it looks like a mask. Now he has no team, has nothing but the burden of a people he doesn’t know how to rule.
The boy can't lead, but he does.
There must be something understated about him, some secret way he has, because it was never so easy for Lotor and he was half-blooded, too. Maybe it’s that he looks like he can’t pose a threat until the moment he’s standing over you with a blade.
Lotor gets well acquainted with that feeling. They spar often, in the dirt, in the sun, until the boy’s skin starts to darken with it. Daibazaal was never beautiful—Keith tells him there’s a new Altea too and Lotor wonders what he would have done to make that a reality had he known it was possible. He talks about Allura, about Honerva, about the end. It’s a blur secondhand. Lotor tucks it all away with his memories of the quintessence field unmaking him, cell by cell. Nothing that made sense. Nothing worth dwelling on.
More Galra trickle onto the planet every day, and the way they defer to the boy would be laughable if it wasn’t so pervasive, so sure. This is what a power vacuum looks like. Someone will step in—someone always does, but the difference between Keith and every petty would-be warlord is that he doesn’t want to rule. It's an attractive quality.
They bend knee to him like he's doing them a favor by letting them, but it can't last.
On a hot afternoon, the first full cruiser touches down. Before that it was small ships, families and strays, a few Unilu traders spotting a new market, and some Blade support vessels. There are a thousand decisions to make and every time, they ask Keith. Every time. It must be overwhelming, but the boy is good at not showing it if it is. The cruiser is the first time Lotor gets to see him sweat—literally. It's scorching out. Keith has his jacket off and tied around his waist, arms and shoulders exposed, along with a dozen scrapes and bruises from their spars.
Lotor tries to be inconspicuous behind him. If it were his choice, he'd be back on the small ship with the wolf, nursing his pride. Keith would have let him and he almost stayed, but then he'd thought of the boy facing down a cruiser's worth of Galra high command on his own and thought if he owed the boy anything, it was this at least.
He wants to ask where Kolivan and the boy's mother are, but that's knowledge he doesn't have yet. Not in this life. Instead he asks, “Isn't there anyone else who can deal with this?”
Keith glances at him. “I wish,” he starts, muttering the words almost as if by accident, and then clears his throat. “No. They're busy. I guess.”
He looks, for the first time, uncomfortable with his position. It's not nonchalance Lotor realizes—no, he's shy. He doesn't want to be here at all. A few dozen new questions rise in him.
“Is Voltron busy, too?”
Keith smiles without humor. “I have no idea.”
The face-to-face goes well. The cruiser's captain doesn't recognize Lotor, and that's just as well. To all but a few he was nothing but a blurry image in a report—without the hair, he could be anyone.
Keith and the captain already know each other. They greet with a hug—which is far from Galra tradition. Lotor tenses at the motion, wishing he’d thought to bring his sword.
“Is this your bodyguard?” Lahn asks, a bit of a challenge in his tone. Maybe he's teasing. It's beyond Lotor's comprehension that they would be so close, that any warlord of the Galra would be so bold with a superior.
Keith laughs lightly. “He's my advisor.”
Advisor. Lotor has been called worse. He's been worse. It's not far from the truth. After that, Lahn doesn't spare him another glance, and Lotor realizes he’s gone from Emperor to afterthought. He expects it to sting, but instead all he feels is a dull relief as they talk and talk and he doesn’t have to pretend to be anything but what he is.
The meetings are endless and boring, but Lotor notes it all—every lieutenant with ambition in their eyes, every insignificant second, third, and fourth in command looking to climb the ranks. Keith isn’t a target, yet, but he will be. Maybe that’s it. Maybe everyone thinks they can make him into a pretty puppet for the empire they’ll rule from the shadows. As if Keith would allow it. He’s stubborn—stubborn enough to paste a tracker on Lotor’s ship in mid-battle, to follow him into a minefield of a planet, to leave his team to hunt down a rumor about quintessence.
He leans against the wall and watches. As he does, Lahn leans forward in his chair, into Keith’s space. Keith won’t know, but it’s not proper, and then it becomes something more when Lahn reaches out and puts his hand on Keith’s shoulder. Lotor has to resist stepping forward and doing something he’ll regret.
It won’t be the last time. He folds his arms tight and tells himself the feeling coursing through him is nothing but what he owes the boy. He almost believes it.
“Lahn's regard for you… seems very personal.”
The spot between Keith's eyebrows pinches. He sets the bar of rations he's been gnawing on down on his own thigh, the fire between them burning bright, casting him in gold. “I—really?”
He doesn't look disgusted and that's a surprise. “You could do better.” Lotor snorts. Lahn is nothing. Lahn will be gone in a year or two, usurped by subordinate one, two, or three, and no one will remember him.
“I doubt it.”
Lotor almost drops his own ration bar in the dirt. “You doubt what?”
Keith doesn’t reply, eyes set on the horizon, head bowed a little as if in embarrassment, hair falling before his eyes. It’s gotten long, and it looks like it would move between Lotor’s fingers like silk or water. His eyes catch the fire with some color that can’t be identified, it changes so often. Pale skin and muscle, wide shoulders, a lithe frame. He’s beautiful, in the most objective sense of the word.
“You’re beautiful,” Lotor scoffs. “You’re a leader. You’re an adept fighter. Of course you could do better.” The look Keith sends him is desperate, almost panicked. He opens his mouth and Lotor can already hear the argument that’s about to spill from his lips. Lotor rolls his eyes. “Don’t,” he says. “I’m sorry if it’s the first you’ve heard it, but it won’t be the last.”
Keith is quiet for a long time, and then, red on his cheeks, he says, “You too.”
It’s Lotor’s turn to sneer. Maybe he was once, but now he’s even less than Lahn is. He’s changed. Keith thinks it’s because the quintessence and the rift creature didn’t have a chance to influence this body and he might be right, but all Lotor can feel is like a stranger to himself.
He’s about to say as much, but when he looks up, the red is still dusted high on Keith’s cheeks. He’s not a blusher. He’s not easy to fluster. Lotor looks down at his form, clad in secondhand Blade rags and raises his arms. “You can’t be serious.”
Keith stuffs the rest of the ration bar in his mouth and disappears back onto the ship.
Lotor makes him laugh one day.
Later he won't be able to remember how or why or what the joke was or if there even was one. Something about Kosmo. Something about waking up with drool on his blankets, maybe. Keith's eyes light up and it's a raucous, contagious laugh.
It follows him. It follows him to bed, to his mindless self-assigned chores, on their shared scouting runs. He would repeat the effect of he could, though it seems ridiculous to care about something so small and simple. It nets him nothing, but still, it follows and stays and keeps him good company. Some days he thinks about leaving. He thinks about revenge, too, but for what he can’t decide. He thinks about asking more questions, and that he does.
“Why aren’t you on Earth?” he asks one evening as they sit on the new parapet being built for the palace, staring off over the horizon. The wolf is a silent sentinel beside Keith and for a moment Lotor wonders if that’s it—if the wolf is why, before he realizes he’s being stupid. As if Keith would care.
Keith tilts his head toward the light in the distance. “There wasn’t anything for me there.”
It echoes something in Lotor’s chest. Nothing for him anywhere, not for years. Keith didn’t grow up knowing he was different by blood the way Lotor did, but maybe he knew deep down. It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t, somehow.
“What about your friends?”
Keith doesn’t look at him. “What about you? You’re not a prisoner here. You could go—anywhere.”
Lotor laughs. He’s right. If he’d wanted, he could have stolen a ship that first day he could walk, and for all that it would have blown his cover, he would have managed somehow. He’s still trying to figure out why he stayed. “I don’t think anywhere would be this interesting,” he says, and finds it’s at least half true.
There’s a bark of a laugh and then Keith shakes his head. “A friend told me that interesting is the word people use when they think something’s awful and are too polite to say it.”
Lotor laughs, low and even. He’s right, but it’s not the place that keeps him interested. It’s the person.
The honeymoon doesn’t last forever. It takes the better part of a year and no matter how many times Keith reminds his new people that the election is coming, it doesn’t stick. They defer and defer. They adore.
Lotor pretends for his own sake that he’s not one of them.
Keith tells Acxa, Zethrid, and Ezor. He expects it to be an incident, but instead it’s a quiet thing that Keith keeps him separate from and passes without incident.
He settles into his second life and decides to make it whatever he wants. It’s as if his anger died with him. It comes back, sometimes. Keith soothes it with a touch, with a hand on a wrist or a cheek or a back, grounding Lotor as if he’s electrified. If he owes Keith anything, and he thinks sometimes that he might, he tries to repay it in small ways.
When Ladnok resurfaces with a minor fleet of pirates and fighters, ready to challenge, Lotor pulls Keith aside and suggests making her a commander and assigning her to something useless and glorious to keep her off the planet—a bit of intuition and nothing more. Keith takes his advice almost without fail.
It doesn’t go unnoticed.
“He's using you. He remembers everything, and he's going to—”
“Do what?” Keith's voice replies, still calm.
The fight is a long time coming. Lotor hears it from down the hall in the first building they construct, a palace in all but name at the insistence or the builders. Keith would have preferred something smaller, something like their ship, but he cedes to their enthusiasm. Lotor sleeps outside his rooms until Keith notices and offers him a room close by, and then Lotor figures it's a wash and sets a mat inside the door. The wolf is enough of a guard for Keith, most likely, but why take stupid chances.
He was always taking stupid chances. Calculated, usually for the better, but always stupid in the end. Easy to do that with his own life. Not with Keith's.
Acxa must have cornered him outside his rooms. That's where Lotor is going when he hears it—the first echoes of a raised voice. He slows his steps, makes them light, finds a wall to lean against where he can tell himself he's not really eavesdropping.
“He can hurt you. You don't know him like I do.”
“Maybe people change.”
Acxa makes a sound like a bark that Lotor realizes, only after the conversation has passed it by, was a laugh, and the first he's heard from her. Not a happy one. “Not that much. He wants power. That's it.”
“Fine. He can have it.” Keith pauses and Lotor holds his breath like the air has turned to poison. This is what he wants. This, surely—to be Emperor again, to lead, to command, but even as he thinks it, the thought sours in his gut.
He doesn't want it. Not anymore. Not like this.
“I don't want this. I never wanted this.”
When Acxa speaks again, it's muffled and soft. He can imagine her standing there, hand on Keith's shoulder. “The election is coming up. It's just for a little while.”
They all know that's not true. The election will come, and Keith, the perennial phenomenon, will win. It doesn't matter if he runs or not. The Galra are in love with him. It's only a matter of time before the shine goes off of it and when the fall comes, it will be terrible.
Lotor realizes his hand is tensed on the hilt of his blade.
“But why keep him around?” Acxa asks, quieter.
“Maybe… because he knows what it's like.” To rule, he means.
“But he loved it.” He didn't. He enjoyed it, sometimes. He wanted it. He never loved it. Keith must shrug, because they Acxa asks, ”Do you trust him?”
“Yeah,” he replies without hesitating
He shouldn't. None of this should be.
Lotor should be dead, he should be particles in space, he should be dust and Keith should be far from here with people he loves—but he's not, and part of Lotor is shifting and changing. He loved Allura, but not like this. Not with blood on his teeth from some knock-down drag-out spar, not with a sword in his hand and his knees on the floor. Everything now is smaller than Keith. Ambition is dead in him, that constant need like a gnawing hunger in his gut is extinguished but for this one thing.
For the first time, he wants something without knowing why. There's no logic to it, no calculation. he wants. It's almost pure in its simplicity.
He resolves to keep it to himself. To tend it, like the secret and ridiculous thing it is.
Meetings run late that night and in that time he manages to reshape the images of Keith he’s had in his mind for weeks and months without knowing it—him outside, wind and sun in his hair; him at night, face lax in sleep; the way he smiles when he's won a spar.
That's what he tells himself for the rest of that day. When he goes to Keith's room that night, to their room, he lies back on his pallet and lists every reason his want is foolish and reckless and dangerous. It’s worse than that and more than that. It will ruin Keith. It will ruin both of them.
When Keith finally walks in, his hair is damp. He's only half-clothed, fresh from the bath. “You’re still up?” he asks, wiping at his hair with a cloth. He eyes Lotor and quirks an eyebrow. “You don’t—you don’t need to sleep on the floor. It’s gotta be killing your back.”
In a breath, all his worry, all his self-imposed distance vanishes. Lotor laughs. “Are you calling me old? And inviting me into your bed? That’s daring.”
Keith rolls his eyes, but where Lotor expects an argument, a knee-jerk rebuttal, there’s none. “What if I was?”
It’s well past sunset so the little ambient lines of purple set around the doors and windows are all that lights their conversation—though it’s never truly dark on Daibazaal with the way it moves around its sun. The hues of purple and red suit him. Privately, Lotor thinks he would have made a wonderful general, in another life. In this one, he’s far more, and more than Lotor will ever have a right or claim to.
“Don’t be foolish.”
Keith stops. “How is that foolish?”
It’s foolish because Keith shouldn’t trust him, because he can do better, because he has better back on the Earth he’ll go back to one day once leadership exhausts him—if he’s lucky. If they’re both lucky that’s how this will end. “You’re so young—”
“I’m not. Not anymore. And that’s not a reason.” He’s moving toward Lotor, intent in his eyes. Lotor stands to back away and then realizes it’s the move of a coward and he’s not that. Keith comes to stop a foot away, staring up at him. “I can lead the Galra, but I can’t know what I want?”
It’s the first time he’s admitted in explicit words that he’s anything to the Galra at all. He’s serious. “Why would you want this?” Lotor can’t parse it. He’s the half-remade corpse of the thing Keith would have every reason to hate, but doesn’t, beyond reason. He’s—good. Too good.
Keith shakes his head and looks down. “I just do. But if you don’t, I’ll never bring it up again.” This time when he looks back at Lotor, there’s uncertainty in his eyes. It’s the first time Keith’s worn that expression for him. It feels like a cut.
This body hasn’t bled yet. It will, one day, for this boy.
He bends and slots their mouths together clumsily, because he doesn't know what he wants from this, and that's new. Now need is coursing in his gut, an aimless, aching thing that feels halfway between frustration and mourning and something raw.
Keith pushes up into it, less able but more ready. More eager. He grips his hands into the back of Lotor’s thin tunic, hard enough to feel the prick of his nails when he grabs, desperate, bunching cloth under his touch, a match for the sharpening of his teeth that turns the second kiss into a bite. The third is softer. By the fourth, he’s losing count, losing his mind.
Keith makes a sound of need. It’s low and rough, like his laugh. Like his laugh, Lotor wants to hear it a thousand times more.
He has at least the rest of the night to try.
“She was right. I remember.”
Keith twists his head. There’s still sweat on his face, and his hair is a tangle around his head from Lotor’s hands and the mussed sheets. Lotor can’t look at him for more than a moment. He averts his gaze to the ceiling and waits for some sort of logic to come back to him.
“I know,” Keith replies, voice rough. “It doesn’t matter—”
“...But everyone deserves a second chance.”
That might be true, but if Lotor had one, he wasted it long ago.
“I don’t remember why I did it.” He remembers, but in retrospect, with a warm body beside him, with Daibazaal’s restored earth reflecting red onto the ceiling of Keith’s chambers, with that sated, heavy feeling encompassing his limbs and mind, it doesn’t make the kind of sense it used to.
Keith reaches out and cups his cheek, pulls his face over until Lotor is forced to look at him dead on. “It doesn’t matter now. They brought you back.”
Anger curls through him, but it’s new because it’s not focused outward the way it was for his entire life. Now it’s inward. He hates himself for what he did and he has to close his eyes because Keith’s are too sincere, too full of something Lotor doesn’t know how to reciprocate. “You don’t know that.”
Maybe he’s a byproduct, some unwanted and unpredicted side effect of trying to save what they could. A little bad comes with every good. That must be the way of the universe.
“I tried to save you,” Keith says after a moment. “In the quintessence field. I wanted to go back for you, but—there wasn’t time. I’m sorry.”
Lotor reaches up and grips his hand so hard it must hurt, but Keith doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t know how to answer that. Why is the only question pulsing through him. Why risk it, why try to save him, why assume there was anything left to salvage. He can still see his own limbs and fingers bonded to the Sincline, stuck fast, and the horror of it. The confusion before the wrath. He opens his mouth but can’t voice it. “You shouldn’t have. I’m not even sure if I’m alive.”
Keith’s eyes widen, beautiful and clear. Lotor doesn’t want his throne. This is all he wants. To be close, to have him this way, as long as he can. This is everything. Keith stretches and pushes his face into the pillow.
“Well,” he mumbles, “if this is death, it’s not that bad, right?”
He’s warm. He’s safe. And for the first time in more years than he knows how to count, he feels loved. He feels love. “No, it’s not,” Lotor murmurs, and kisses him.