Tainted Genes – Part One

Sith huddled himself down on the floor, wrapping his small arms around his scrawny legs, letting his chin rest on his knees and his eyes take in the scene before him. He was in a darkened room that was filled with the rank smells of sweat, blood and urine. Hundreds of other men and women of all ages crowded in the room with him. Most of them were either lying or sitting on the floor, all the energy and will gone from their bruised and overworked bodies. They were of varying races and cultures. Most were women. Sith was one of the few children there.

He was only six years old, but Sith had seen some things in his short life that most children never see. Things that caused him to grow up a bit faster, think a bit harder. Feel a bit less. Having lived in such an environment all his life, Sith regarded his fellow slaves with detachment. He was used to this. Their muted moans and grunts barely registered in his pointy, elflike ears. The sounds echoed off the steel walls of the cargo hold they were being kept in.

They were on a transport ship, heading into the Denubian Galaxy to meet with the Doom command ship that was stationed there. They had been packed in the ship’s hold for weeks now, getting no reprieve, not even when their meals came twice a day. But they were near their destination, they knew. Sith knew it in his little gut. They were close. Close to him.

A slight movement next to him caught Sith’s attention, and he was reminded of his traveling companion. His mother was once a beautiful women, or so she told him. Now, as he looked at her, he only saw dirty pale skin underneath ripped, worn rags. Her stomach was exposed, revealing the scars – a result of her pregnancy with him. She sat hunched over next to him, her side against the wall, facing away from Sith. Sith had a good view of her hair, which was a dirty blonde and filled with knots and crud. It hadn’t been washed in weeks. Neither had Sith himself. His own hair, stark white against his pale skin, was just as in need of a washing. But he didn’t care. His hygiene was the last thing on his quick mind.

Sith shifted with impatience. The knowledge that they were growing close filled him with an intense desire to get there finally and meet him. All his life, Sith’s mother had told him about his infamous father, the Prince. How dashing he was, how strong and how powerful and how smart. His mother was always rambling on how handsome and witty her Prince was, and how much he had loved her until they were separated. She told Sith that his father had promised to wed her once, to make her his forever. But one night she was suddenly taken away from him, never to see him again.

His mother also told Sith about how, one day, the Prince would become the King and Sith would then take his place as Crown Prince. She promised her son that one day he would rule the galaxies alongside his father, that he would receive much power and wealth and get to rule his own planets and his own armies. Sith’s mother filled him with these promises almost every day, her enthusiasm behind her words. And Sith believed her.

And now, in only a short time, Sith would meet his father and take his place as his rightful heir. And he would become a powerful ruler and be respected by everyone. And he wouldn’t have to consort with slaves and survive day-by-day any longer.

The noise of metal chains rustling against steel made Sith look up and across the dark room. At the far other side was another slave. But this one was different from the other, and not only because it was the only one who wore chains. The alien being was huge, at least seven feet tall, and very strong. Its skin was red as fire and its eyes black as coal, as Sith had seen for a brief moment when they had been boarded all those weeks ago. The beast had seemed angry at being chained up, and was still apt to sudden violent outbursts now and then. But the chains always held it back.

Sith peered across the room, curious, trying to glimpse the beast they shared the hold with. But with the dim lighting it was impossible to see anything but shadows that far away. He could see the beast moving, could hear it grunting, but nothing more. Scudded metal floor surrounded the beast, revealing the empty space around it. None of the other slaves dared go near it, and had kept a safe distance. Even the guards who came in to feed them would set the food on the floor and nudge it over to avoid coming within arms’ length of the beast.

Seeing that the beast had settled down for now, Sith lowered his eyes and stared at his bare feet. He continued to wait.

* * *

It was the next day when the Doom transport ship finally arrived at its destination, though it was two days after that before the slaves were even attended to. First and foremost, the beast was taken away, roaring and raging the whole time as the guards poked and prodded it with sting-rods. When it was gone, the slaves relaxed a bit more, though they were all still apprehensive as to the reason they were brought here.

Then more guards came to gather them up. They ordered all women to come with them. Seizing his chance, Sith hid in the folds of the women’s’ skirts as they were herded out of the hold and through the airlock that led to the Doom command ship. He didn’t even bother to stay near his mother. All he wanted was to get to his father. He knew that he would surely recognize his own son.

The women were lined up and brought into a room in small groups. Sith awaited anxiously, waiting for the right moment. The guards were paying more attention to what was above the women’s’ skirts than to what was below, so he didn’t have any trouble keeping out of their sight. He kept his eyes glued to the door, knowing that his father had to be on the other side, and resisting the urge to just rush in. He had to be patient and wait.

Then his chance came. The next group of women were shown in, and Sith was among them. The chamber they entered was fairly large. It appeared to be some sort of audience chamber. Guards stood in rows on either side, eyeing the new arrivals greedily. The floor was clean and shiny and the room, though filled with stale air, was void of the repulsive smells of the cargo hold. The room was also brightly lit, and Sith found himself squinting slightly at the bright light. He had been in virtual darkness for a long time now.

Then his eyes adjusted and fell upon the figure standing at the front of the room. One hand was leaning against the throne sitting there, the other casually resting on the hilt of his sword. He wore a malicious grin as he surveyed the new arrivals. His whole appearance, from regal uniform to long, smooth white hair, exuded power and authority. Sith knew at once that this man was his father. They had the same hair and the same ears. Though their skin color and eyes were widely different, Sith knew it was only because of his human mother.

Sith’s eyes widened as he saw his father. He had been waiting for this day for as long as he could remember. He watched in awe as the mighty Prince broke his stance and sauntered over to the group of slave women, licking his lips hungrily as he approached. Sith did not see the evil glint in his father’s eyes, he only saw his hero. Breaking from his cover, Sith ran up to meet him father.

As soon as he reached the Dark Prince, Sith looked up expectantly. But his father didn’t even seem to notice him.

"Father!" Sith exclaimed in excitement, "It’s me! Your son, Sith!"

His father frowned, caught off guard by the young, piping voice. He looked around him in puzzlement, then looked straight down at his young son.

"I’ve come to help you rule the galaxies, father!" Sith continued, looking up at him expectantly.

The Prince, however, merely gave the child a disdainful look and glanced at the row of guards.

"Get this little brat out of here," he commanded irritably.

Sith frowned as the guards converged on him and tried futily to duck out of their strong grasps.

"But father…!" Sith objected, "I’m your son!"

Lotor just grunted and didn’t give the protesting boy a second glance as he turned his attention to his prospective mistresses. And he continued to ignore the appealing yells of the child as they slowly faded into a whisper.

* * *

Sith huddled back in the corner he had spent the last few weeks in and brought his knees up to his chin tightly. He had no idea what he had done wrong, but he knew he had disappointed his father in some way, or else he never would have treated him like a stranger. Startled by his father’s dismissal, but still determined to take his rightful place, Sith decided that he had to find a way to prove himself to his father. To make his father proud of him.

Sith knew he couldn’t do any of that in his current situation. Quickly he lifted his head and searched the room, finding the small grate only ten feet away. It was way too tiny for an adult to fit through, but Sith knew he could make it, if only barely. With determination, Sith crawled over to the grate and dug his fingers into the edges. Then, pushing with his feet, Sith pulled with all his little might, his face scrunching up at the exertion of opening the grate. But it did eventually open.

Careful not to let the grate fall on the floor and disturb the guards just outside, Sith laid it down gently before crawling feet first into the tiny opening. Then as soon as his body was in he slowly picked up the grate and pulled it back into place. Satisfied and feeling a bit adventurous, Sith then started his trek through the dark, narrow tunnel.

Sith traveled for quite a while before he found another grate he could crawl out of without being seen. As stealthily as possible, Sith followed the same procedure he had used to escape the cargo hold in reverse. He was in a dim corridor, one that he remembered from the journey to his father’s ship. Remembering the directions, Sith quickly tiptoed his way back the way he had gone before, feeling lucky there were no guards walking around to catch him.

He arrived at the airlock moments later. Two guards stood there, talking in mumbles too low for Sith to understand. Their backs were to him. If they would only look away long enough, Sith could sneak quickly through the lock without them knowing it. Taking a chance, his eagerness to find some way to please his father overpowering his patience, Sith waiting until they were both facing away before he sprinted on light feet for the airlock. As soon as he was on the other side he was suddenly aware of the fact there were quite possibly more guards on the other side. But it was too late now, as Sith came to a halting stop just inside his father’s ship.

Sith instantly breathed a huge sigh of relief. The guards were not there. But they could be back at any minute. Sith quickly ducked out of the area and followed one of the long corridors, hiding in between thick pillars whenever he heard guards approaching. His small form hid easily behind the metal blocks. Sith crept farther into the ship undetected, becoming more and more confidant as he went.

Now to find his father. Sith thought of going back to the audience chamber, but then thought against it. There were too many guards there, and they would just lock him up again. Sith had to find some other way. So he began peeking in through open doors, trying to find something or someone that could be useful.

Then more voices alerted him to duck behind another one of the pillars. As he peeked out from behind it, he could see his father walking with a few others into one of the rooms nearby. Determined, Sith waited for the last one to start in before he darted from his hiding place and ducked in after him, the doors swooshing right behind him and barely missing him.

Seeing a console to his right, Sith immediately dove behind it to avoid being seen. Luckily he had sneaked in unawares by the others. Sith once again stole a view of the room he was in, and saw it was some sort of meeting room. His father stood at the head of the table, and the others gathered around it, including a horribly ugly witch garbed only in a thick brown cloak and carrying a long wooden staff with a glowing green sphere at its tip.

"My patience is running very thin," Lotor began in an irritated voice, "We still haven’t been able to destroy the Voltron Force. Those damned Space Explorers! I want nothing more than to squeeze the life out of them with my own hands, and yet you have all failed me miserably ever since we began our attack."

"If you please, Sire," the witch spoke up in a witchy voice, "The transport ship just brought along a prospective solution to your problems."

"Another animal to turn into a Robeast?" Lotor asked with contempt, "Can’t you pull anything new out of your sleeve, witch?"

"But this creature is more powerful than any other we have transformed," Hagar assured him, "It will surely defeat the Voltron Force."

"I have little faith in your Robeasts, Hagar," Lotor told her plainly, leaning his fists against the table, "I’ve lost count of how many have been destroyed already."

"Please, let me have another chance," Hagar pleaded, "I promise I won’t fail you."

"I wonder where I’ve heard that before?"

Hagar remained quiet, and one of the officers stepped forward.

"If it pleases you, your Highness," the officer told him, "The attack team you ordered to stand-by is awaiting your orders."

"You’re going to attack another one of the villages, aren’t you?" Hagar accused, "To what end? You know the Voltron Force will only stop you."

"But not before I inflict some damage," Lotor told her, an evil half-grin on his face, "Maybe I can take out some of those orphans they’re so fond of, if I’m lucky."

Without waiting for any more response, Lotor turned to his commander.

"Prepare to deploy the attack fleet," he ordered.

"Yes, sir!" the officer replied immediately. He bowed and left the room.

Deciding to steal this opportunity, Sith followed the Doom commander out, intent on helping in the attack in any way. The Doom officer led Sith to a large hangar with a few squadrons of Doom fighters. Without thinking, Sith immediately stole into one of the ships’ open hatches and hid himself from the pilot’s view. Then he waited.

* * *

The attack was carried out over an hour later. Sith felt the ship as it ignited and lifted off from the ground. He felt as it propelled out of the hangar and into space. He could hear the Doom pilot speaking into his helmet com-link and receiving orders, but he couldn’t make out the words. Content for the moment, Sith waited for the battle to begin.

He didn’t wait for long. Almost immediately he could hear the sound of laser fire and explosions and felt the motions as the ship twisted and turned in combat, throwing Sith against his steel confines. Sith wiggled around on the floor from the motion, unable to balance himself. He could hear the pilot grunting from the exertion of battle, here and there swearing under his breath in a tongue Sith didn’t understand.

And then there was the hit. It struck the ship on its front end, sending it in a spiral that gave Sith more than a few bumps and bruises. With a sinking feeling, Sith felt the ship dropping quickly to the ground. He immediately tensed and waited, bracing himself for the impact to come. Sith had never been in a crash before, so he didn’t know what it was like.

He did within seconds, as the Doom fighter finally connected with the Arusian earth. Sith was thrown against the back of the pilot’s chair as soon as they impacted. Sith grunted and had no choice but to let his small body go limp as the ship proceeded to settle into the ground. As soon as it stopped, Sith found himself surprised to still be alive. He had taken it for granted that ships that crashed always exploded on impact. This one had obviously not.

Grunting from the pain caused by being thrown around the ship, Sith slowly righted himself. The ship was embedded into the ground at an angle, making the floor slope so that it was hard to stand. Sith crawled instead, and managed to pull himself up to peer over the chair of the pilot. The Doom pilot was hunched over the control panel, unmoving and covered in blood. Sith guessed he was dead, since the whole cockpit had been crunched by the hit the ship had taken.

Sith then looked at the hatch and tried to open it, hoping it wasn’t damaged. Sith pulled the lever that would open the hatch and was rewarded with a dull whirring noise. The hatch started to squeal open, then stopped, jammed. It had left only a small space about seven inches wide. Sunlight poured into the innards of the ship, causing Sith to squint hard for the second time that day. Keeping his eyes half-closed against the light, Sith squeezed himself sideways through the partially open hatch and fell unceremoniously onto the soft earth below.

Sith coughed at the dust the crash had kicked up and remained sprawled on the ground for a few moments, taking his time to adjust to the sunlight. When he finally stood up somewhat unsteadily, Sith could see he was in the middle of a forest clearing. In the distance he could see the Arusian sun gliding slowly but surely down to the horizon, signifying that the day would end in only a matter of one or two hours. Sith stared. He had never seen a sunset before, let alone such a beautiful landscape. He had been confined all his life, never having been out of doors except at night.

Sith tore his gaze from the scenery and laid his eyes on the downed ship. Smoke and steam billowed from what had been the ship’s engine. A small fire burnt on the decimated nose of the ship. He was about to explore the wreckage when a noise caught his attention and he looked up to the sky. Two ships flew overhead. One was a Doom fighter he recognized. The other seemed to be in the shape of a beast, blue in color. Sith stared at it, fascinated by such a powerful-looking machine.

The beast ship chased the Doom fighter up high into the air, firing warning shots at its rear. The Doom ship retreated. Sith then watched as the strange blue ship cut off its pursuit and flew in the direction of the target of the battle. Sith could see smoke rising in the direction the ship was heading. He then determinedly decided to follow this strange beast-ship and began to walk as quickly as he could in that direction.

Several minutes later Sith reached the outskirts of the attacked village and hid among the bushes to watch what unfolded. He could see no sign of Doom ships anywhere. They must have all either been destroyed or chased away. But he could see the blue beast-ship again, as well as four other beast-ships that were all different colors. He watched as the five ships landed in the middle of the village, sitting on their hind quarters and letting their chins rest on the ground.

As soon as they were settled, hatches opened at the top of each head. Sith watched in awe as five pilots climbed out, all wearing flight suits of different colors. The suit of the pilot coming out of the blue ship was pink. Sith was startled to see it was a woman. He didn’t know that women were allowed to become pilots. All of the women he had known were slaves.

Then he looked at the other pilots. He spotted the leader immediately, because he had been flying the biggest ship, the one with the important-looking crest on its chest. This pilot was a man wearing a red and white suit. He was tall, not quite as tall as Sith’s father, but seemed to carry about him a similar sense of importance and power. Sith thought that strange, and eyed him as he regrouped with his teammates. The other pilots were also men, all different sizes. Sith concentrated on the leader.

He knew that this just had to be the Voltron Force he had overheard his father speaking about. These five people and their ships were the cause of his father’s anger. Sith immediately began to detest them, knowing they were his enemies as well. He watched with narrowed eyes as the five pilots began to rifle through the lightly damaged village, helping those who needed aid, rescuing those who were trapped under rubble. Sith watched and waited. He knew he would get his chance eventually. And he was used to waiting.

* * *

Allura laughed gaily as she watched the scene in front of her. Hunk had one small child in each hand, swinging them both around in circles so that their hair blew back from their foreheads, allowing a clear view of their giggling faces. Hunk was smiling broadly, having his share of the fun as well. As soon as he stopped to set the children down on their feet, the little boy and girl started to wobble and veer off to the side, both dizzy and ready to fall flat on their faces. But they loved it.

It had only been a day since the attack on the small village. Fortunately there had been no deaths this time, and few serious injuries. They were equally fortunate that the children inside the orphanage had not been injured since one of the Doom fighters had fired a shot that struck the very edge of the building, causing only minor damage. The children and caretakers had been frightened, but unharmed.

And now the Voltron Force had come to spend the last part of their afternoon with the children to try to ease some of their fear from yesterday’s attack. Already the Princess of Arus could tell they were feeling better. There was not one frown on any of the children’s faces, and they were all laughing and smiling in happiness. Allura felt that this was due to her male teammates. They were all good with children, even Keith. And they were all happy with the break from a morning spent on repairs.

Allura turned her attention away from Hunk to see how the others were doing. Pidge was by the jungle gym frolicking around with the children. Even though he was almost an adult, Allura still thought of him as something close to a child himself. He was the youngest and smallest among them, and had always been treated like a kid brother by the others. The fact that he had grown to almost Allura’s height seemed lost on the team, as he would mostly likely remain forever young in their eyes.

With a small turn of her head, Allura could spot Lance playing hopscotch with a group of young girls who had immediately taken to his charming smile and disposition. Lance went unhumbled as he went through the motions of the game, appearing to enjoy himself and always teasing the girls whenever he got a chance. Allura often heard high-pitched giggles coming from his direction. She laughed and shook her head at the sight of him hopping on one foot.

Allura had to change her position in order to see Keith, who was leading a group of boys in a game of touchball. She let her gaze rest on her commander for a while. There were two teams playing the game. One team consisted of about twelve boys ranging in age, and the other consisted only of Keith himself. The Voltron leader had shucked his jacket and was now wearing just a white undershirt over his torso. He moved lithely through the throng of children, always being careful not to bump into them or step over them and completely oblivious to all else. The boys were all laughing and shouting, eager to try to beat their hero.

Allura knew very well that Keith let them win most of the time, which only succeeded in boosting the children’s’ spirits. She had to smile warmly as she watched him suddenly being tackled by all twelve boys, who piled on top of him in a tall heap. Her smile broadened when all she could see were Keith’s feet sticking out from underneath all those miniature bodies. Slowly Keith managed lift them all off. The children tumbled onto the grass in fits of laughter. Keith himself wore a wide grin on his face. Once they were all back on their feet, the game ensued.

Allura was about to stand up from her perch on the bench and join in the activities when a movement in the bushes nearby caught her eye. She could see a white head peeping out from behind the shrubbery, watching the children play with the four men. From the expression on his young face, Allura could tell he was somehow amazed at what he saw. Curious, Allura stood and went to meet this shy watcher.

* * *

Sith watched the activities before him with a mixture of surprise and awe. He had never seen anything like it. Laughter was not something he saw much of, especially not the spontaneous, enthusiastic, thoughtless kind he saw before him. Sith had amused himself occasionally in the past, but he had never played with other children, an activity he suddenly found himself missing. A strange sensation welled up inside him, inspired by the laughter of the children and how much they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Sith had never felt such an urge before. He unconsciously desired to join these strange children and share in their laughter.

A movement to his right caught his eye and he turned to see the blue ship’s pilot coming nearer. Sith considered fleeing, but knew he could never outrun her. So he steeled himself and waited for her to reach him.

"What are you doing here all by yourself?" the woman asked him in a friendly tone, smiling down at him pleasantly.

Sith was taken aback. He hadn’t expected her to be kind to him. He had expected to be yelled at and taken prisoner.

"Are you shy?" the woman continued.

Sith looked up at her and met her eyes. The women’s smile faltered for a moment, as if recognizing him somehow, but then returned just as quickly.

"Don’t you want to come and play with the other children?" she asked.

Sith just looked at her, unable to reply. The woman then kneeled down on the ground in front of them so they were eye-level.

"My name’s Allura," she introduced herself, "What’s yours?"

"Sith," he replied after a moment.

"Nice to meet you, Sith," she told him, taking his hand to shake it. Sith shrank back from her touch, and once more her smile faltered for only a second before returning again.

Another movement caught his eye, and Sith turned to see the Voltron leader walking towards them quickly. Sith tensed. Now he was surely in trouble. He didn’t pay any attention to the group of boys Keith had abandoned, who were all waiting impatiently for their playmate to return.

"Anything wrong?" he asked as he reached them, bending over and resting his hands on his knees to bring his head down closer to them.

"This is Sith," Allura introduced them, "I think he’s a bit shy."

Allura turned back to the boy and nodded her head towards Keith.

"Sith," she told him, "This is Commander Keith."

"Hi, Sith," Keith said to him, a friendly grin on his face as well. His expression didn’t falter when he looked at Sith like Allura’s had.

Why were they being so nice to him? Didn’t they know he was the enemy?

"Would you like to come play?" Keith offered, nodding back to the group of boys who were staring at them expectantly.

Sith looked at them both, uncertain. Allura then reached for his hand again. This time he let her take it.

"Come join us," she invited, pulling him out from behind his hiding place.

He let her lead him out onto the lawn behind the orphanage. Keith followed. Hunk, who was nearby, noticed them and came over.

"It looks like someone’s not happy yet," he said in his booming voice, "Seems to me that you could use a little ride!"

With that Hunk swept Sith off his feet and began to twirl him around. But unlike the other children, Sith’s reaction to this was widely different. He began to scream and flail his limbs. Hunk frowned and immediately put him down. Allura bent to place her arms gently around the boy’s shoulders.

"It’s OK, Sith," she assured him, "It’s just Hunk. He was only trying to cheer you up."

Cheer him up? Sith glanced suspiciously up at the huge man. He had thought the Voltron officer had been attacking him. But then he realized the man was just doing to him the same thing he had done to the other children. Sith calmed down.

"Are you all right, Sith?" Keith asked him. Sith thought he saw concern in the man’s eyes.

Sith nodded shortly.

"I’m OK," he replied.

"Sorry about that, kid," Hunk apologized, "I didn’t mean to scare ya."

With that Hunk backed away and acceded to the demands of other children who wanted to be spun. Some of the boys Keith had been playing with started calling for him to come back.

"Looks like you fans are calling you," Allura teased him.

Keith glanced back at the boys, then shot Allura a grin. He then turned to Sith.

"You want to come play too?" Keith asked him.

Sith hesitated.

"I don’t know how to play," he admitted.

"It’s simple," Keith assured him, "All you have to do is try to take one of those balls and hit me with it."

"Does it hurt?" Sith asked with wide eyes.

Keith smiled and shook his head.

"Not at all," he promised, "The balls are really soft. C’mon!"

Keith took Sith’s small hand in his big one, completely engulfing it. Sith allowed himself to be led to the other boys. Part of him wanted to run away, but another part of him was excited at the chance to play. That part of him won.

Having already watched the game for a while to see how it was played, Sith got into the game quite quickly. He managed to nab one of the balls a few times and tossed it as hard as he could at Keith, who was weaving through the swarms of children, ducking their blows and sending off his own. Sith managed to hit Keith once, and suddenly felt a grin form on his lips as soon as he did. Sith couldn’t remember smiling before. It felt strange, yet pleasing. He didn’t try to hold it back.

Keith immediately patted Sith on the back when he tagged the Voltron leader out. Then a new game started. With renewed enthusiasm, Sith redoubled his efforts, and found himself truly enjoying himself. He actually joined in with the laughter of the other boys once, which startled him at first. But he enjoyed the sensation.

* * *

Allura stole glances at the touch-ball game every chance she could get as she glided back and forth on one of the swings on the playground, a very small little girl sitting on her lap with her mouth open in pleasure. She could see that Sith was no longer acting shy as the strange little boy starting getting into the game. She darted her eyes at him every once in a while in curiosity. She couldn’t help but feel that she should recognize him for some reason. But she wasn’t sure why.

All too soon their afternoon of play was cut short. The orphanage caretakers came out to announce it was time for the children’s nap. Allura had never before heard so many awws and ohhs before as the children very reluctantly ceased their play and gathered together at the back of the building. One by one they said good-bye to their playmates, sometimes giving the Voltron members hugs, sometimes kisses, sometimes both. Lance got his share of kisses from the little girls. Allura hugged her own charge tightly and gave her a kiss on the forehead before turning her over to one of her guardians. The girl waved solemnly at Allura as she was carried inside. Allura could only wave back, wishing they could stay longer.

Soon all of the children were inside the building and accounted for, and the Voltron Force were left alone after being thanked repeatedly by the careworkers. They too were sad at the departure.

"Guess that means we call it a day," Hunk spoke up.

"Too bad," Lance said, "I rather liked playing with those rugrats."

"Nanny will kill us if we’re late for dinner," Pidge warned.

Lance turned to Hunk.

"I’m surprised you didn’t warn us earlier, Hunk," he sated with mock surprise.

Hunk swatted at the smaller man’s head but missed as Lance deftly ducked, laughing as he did it. Pidge let out a chuckle also. The five teammates started heading for the ground vehicles they had used to take them to the village early that morning. Allura noticed that Keith trailed behind and veered off into the forest. Allura frowned at him, puzzled.

"Where are you going, Keith?" she asked him.

The others also stopped to look at him. Keith paused his steps and glanced over at them. His expression was casual.

"You guys go on ahead," he told them, "I’ll catch up."

"Anything we can help you with, Pal?" Lance asked him.

Keith shook his head.

"This is a one-man job," he assured them, "Now go before Nanny gets upset."

Lance smirked.

"OK," he said, shrugged, "It’s your head when you show up late."

Keith gave him only a small grin before continuing on his way towards the forest line. Allura stared after him, still curious, and kept doing so even as the vehicle the four of them had climbed into was traveling back to the Castle. Within moments, Keith’s figure vanished from view. She wondered what would make him take his chances with Nanny’s temper by not adhering to her strict dinner curfew.

* * *

Sith ducked in among the trees and shrubs of the forest, making sure he was well out of sight of the orphanage and the Voltron team. As soon as it was clear that fun and games were over, Sith had sneaked away from the others into the bushes to keep from being herded into the orphanage with the other children. He couldn’t allow himself to get stuck in there, even if he was sure he could sneak out. They were sure to notice he didn’t belong there.

Instead Sith trampled through the forest, intent on finding some sort of shelter in which to wait out the night. He wasn’t sure of what he would do after that. Without really thinking about it he hoped the Voltron Force would come back to play some more. And then Sith remember that Voltron was the enemy. He couldn’t make friends with them, no matter how nice they acted.

Sith was startled when he heard a throat clearing behind him. He whirled to see the Voltron leader, Keith, looking down at him only a few feet away. Sith hadn’t heard him walk up to him. Sith looked up at the tall man warily, expecting to be caught.

"What are you doing wandering around out here?" Keith asked him, crossing his arms, "Shouldn’t you be taking a nap with the other kids?"

"I don’t belong with them," Sith replied immediately, almost daringly.

Keith raised an eyebrow, then uncrossed his arms and squatted down beside the boy. He looked Sith square in the eye.

"Then where do you belong?" he asked.

Sith just stared at him, unable to respond.

"I have an idea," Keith said, clasping his hands and regarding Sith with a grin in his eyes, "Why don’t you come back with me to the Castle."

"The Castle?" Sith asked in surprise, eyes widening.

Keith smiled and nodded.

"Is that where you live?"

"Sure is," Keith responded, "So what’ll it be?"

Now this was his chance. If he could get inside the Voltron Force’s home, he could surely find a way to please his father. The answer was right before him in an instant.

Sith nodded enthusiastically, maybe a bit more so than he intended. Keith’s smile broadened a bit.

"Good answer," he said.

Keith held out a hand to Sith. Sith looked at it, hesitated, then took a step forward. As soon as he made the move, Keith extended his other arm and picked the boy up in one swift fluid motion. Sith was surprised to find himself settled into Keith’s arms in only one short moment. Keith proceeded to wipe the dirt off Sith’s feet as he carried him out of the forest.

"We’re going to have to get you some shoes," he commented.

Sith just stared at him in shock. He’d never been held before, not since he could walk. This familiar act startled him. But Sith didn’t resist. He guiltily found himself enjoying it, even more than he had enjoyed the touch-ball game earlier. And Sith couldn’t explain it.

* * *

It was obvious by the deep frown on Nanny’s face that she was highly displeased by Keith’s absence from the dinner table. She, Coran, Allura, Lance, Hunk and Pidge all sat around the table at their usual spots. But Keith’s spot, the one in between Allura and Lance, was still vacant, even though the first course had already begun. Every few seconds Nanny glanced from Keith’s empty chair to the door and clucked her tongue.

"Boy the commander’s gonna get it when he finally gets here," Lance whispered over to Allura.

Nanny, who was at the other end of the table, did not hear. Allura glanced from her to Lance, then grinned.

"That’ll be a change," she said, "Usually it’s you who gets on Nanny’s bad side."

"Lance was born on Nanny’s bad side," Pidge spoke up from Lance’s right.

Just then the doors to the dining hall opened and the object of their conversation walked in. Only he wasn’t alone. All four team members were more than a little surprised to see Sith resting calmly in Keith’s arms, looking at them in recognition.

So that’s why he stayed behind, Allura thought. But she was still puzzled as to why…

Nanny had risen from her seat as soon as the doors had opened, but had froze when she saw Keith’s companion, unused to seeing children in the Castle. The others could tell she was reluctant to harangue Keith in the child’s presence. Allura had to smile at her perplexed expression.

"Sorry I’m late," Keith apologized, walking over to join them, "We have a guest to join us. His name is Sith."

Keith brought an extra chair over and sat it in between his and Allura’s, then sat the boy down in it. Keith then took his own chair. One of the servants immediately provided them with hot plates. Sith looked at his hungrily, immediately digging in without restraint, using his hands instead of utensils.

"Please eat your food properly, young man!" Nanny spoke up, unable to hold back the remark.

Sith looked up at her and frowned, then looked at his messy hands. With a ruffled "Humph", Nanny stood up, grabbed a napkin, dipped it into a glass of water, then went over and proceeded to wash Sith’s hands. He was surprised and unsure of how to respond, so he just let her. When she was done, she grabbed up his utensils and placed them into his hands.

"Now sit up straight and eat like a normal person!" she told him sternly, returning to her seat.

Sith stared at her, then at the utensils in his hand. It was obvious he had no idea what to do with them.

"Like this Sith," Allura told him, showing him how to use them by giving a demonstration. Sith watched her stab the food with her fork and pop it into her mouth. He then followed her lead and attempted to do the same thing, but the food slipped off his fork before he could get it to his mouth. He looked down at it and frowned.

"Just keep trying," she urged him, "You’ll get it."

Sith tried again, and this time managed to get half of the forkful into his mouth. He looked pleased with himself. Allura and Keith both smiled.

* * *

When dinner was over, Nanny made it very clear to Keith that he was on her hit list before allowing him to escape with his young guest. As soon as Keith and Sith got out into the hallway, the rest of the team followed and converged on them.

"So what’s up, Keith?" Lance asked, crossing his arms, "Paternal instincts kicking in?"

Keith gave him a wry smile.

"He didn’t have a place to stay," he explained.

"What about the orphanage?" Pidge asked.

Keith glanced at Sith, who was looking at them all with slightly wide eyes.

"He’s new in town," he finally replied, "And he didn’t have anywhere to go. So I offered."

His friends looked at him critically. Though Keith had always been kind-hearted, this act of generosity was just slightly unusual. None of them had ever invited a child to stay with them in the Castle before. And Keith was the last person any of them would expect to do something like this.

Keith felt his friends’ questions popping into their minds; he could almost predict most of them. But he didn’t want to answer them just now. So he squared his shoulders, preparing to say something to get them off his back for the time being, when Sith took care of that for him.

"Are you going to take me on a tour of the Castle now?" Sith asked, looking at Keith.

Keith smiled, trying to conceal his slight feeling of triumph.

"We’ll start right now," he promised the little boy, noting the disappointed look on his team’s faces.

"Don’t go easy on him, Sith!" Lance advised the boy as Keith turned and took him away, tossing a wave over his shoulder.

"What was that about?" Allura asked, both puzzled and softened by Keith’s act of charity.

Lance shrugged.

"Who knows what gets into that boy’s head sometimes," he muttered.

She wondered.

* * *

Sith stared at Keith in rapture, hanging on to every word and every gesture and never letting his attention wander – not that there was any chance of that. Keith had the little boy spell-bound. If the touchball game, the invitation to the Castle, dinner, and the Castle tour hadn’t thrilled Sith enough, then this surely did. Sith’s emotions roiled within him as he listened to Keith’s smooth, warm tenor voice and watched his friendly, sometimes smiling face that every so often became animated with his words.

Sith had his head against the pillow, blankets covering his small body, providing a warmth and comfort Sith had never before felt. Keith sat at his feet, leaning against the wall, his face tilted in Sith’s direction. The candle by Sith’s bed cast a warm glow over them both that only added to the cozy atmosphere. As he watched and listened, Sith felt his eyes growing weary and found himself having to encourage them to stay open. The fact that it was late and the room was dim did not help any either. Sith was tired, very tired. But he didn’t want to miss the end of the story.

Keith stole a glance at Sith as he turned the last page of the book. He could tell the boy was forcing away sleep, and admired him for his determination to see the story through. Luckily there was only one page left, and Keith began to recite it for the little boy, noticing Sith’s ears perk up when he realized the book was almost over. Keith himself was feeling a bit tired, and had already determined that he would go to bed just as soon as Sith was asleep.

Earlier that evening, Nanny had come up to them both after the tour and insisted upon giving Sith a bath, saying it was improper to have him as a guest at the Castle in such a dirty mess. Keith had agreed to it, more or less to keep Nanny appeased and not get himself into any more trouble. Sith, though, had been reluctant. Very reluctant. So by the end of the argument that ensued, Keith had found himself at the end of a soapy sponge.

Sith wasn’t the only one experiencing "firsts" that day. Keith had never before bathed a child, nor had he ever read a story aloud. He found with a fair amount of surprise that he fared quite well with both tasks. Part of it seemed natural. After the bath, Keith had dressed Sith in one of his white undershirts, which fit like a nightgown on the little boy. Nanny had promised to bring "proper" clothing for him first thing in the morning.

Keith himself had once again shrugged off his jacket and was sitting on Sith’s bed quite comfortably. The small bed was propped up next to the wall of Keith’s room, parallel to his own bed. Keith hadn’t felt it a good idea to put Sith in a room by himself, and Sith had seemed more than a bit content with the notion of sleeping in Keith’s room. And so it was set up. Another first for them both.

Both Sith and Keith yawned simultaneously as soon as the story was over. Sith managed to keep his eyes open for a few more moments before they drifted shut. Keith watched the boy for a moment to make sure he was asleep, then slowly lifted himself off the bed. He set the book down next to the candle, then reached down to tuck the covers up under Sith’s chin. Sith immediately nestled right in, a soft contented sound escaping his lips. Keith grinned.

Moments later Keith was crawling into his own bed. He looked over at the small sleeping boy for a few moments, regarding him thoughtfully, before settling down on his pillow and letting sleep consume him. He left the candle going.

* * *

On to Part Two