.

.

His family believes in curses and spirits. Shiro does not.

When you died, you died. There's nothing that can be proven beyond this fact. He has heard of the numerous local tales — of man-eating yokai and the wailing of the yukai and tricksters and the oni who guard the entrances to Hell. They're only superstitions, myths.

Any child that did not behave would be turned into oni, or their mother gravely tells Shiro who humors her and his younger twin brother. These badly behaved children would become so utterly wicked that their souls would be beyond any form of redemption, and would transform into gigantic, ugly monsters with multiple horns and with claws, forced to terrorize the living with all of their evil deeds. They spread disease and chaos wherever they went, and would eat both good and naughty children.

Ryou internalizes their mother's warnings, acting as a scared little boy for a evening or so before he forgets all about it, chasing Shiro with live, wriggling snakes and having mud fights with him.

He disappears.

The village mourns, performing rites and trying to console Shiro's mother. She hysterically claims Ryou had been taken by oni, to be murdered and eaten for his purity and his youthful heart, with no trace left of Ryou except for the shattered remnants of his bones.

From there, Shiro distances himself from the village and his own mother. Too heartsick with his grief and anger to listen to their babbling, their naive, foolish words any longer.

Ryou died in the mountains. He must have fell and struck his head while playing with the other children, having been left behind when they could not find him. Or he had been captured by raiders or thieving, greedy bandits, selling off Ryou to work in the fields or mills.

No matter what the truth is, Shiro does not think he will ever see him again.

.

.

The rain comes down hard. He's only carrying a satchel or two, but they dampen quickly. A milky, thickened fog spills in from the treetops, obscuring Shiro's vision in the increasing darkness.

"Are you lost?" comes a voice behind him. A young woman with alabaster skin covered by a dark, woolen cloak raises her left hand with a lantern, beckoning to him with her right. "It is not safe out here alone. There is shelter nearby, if you need it."

Shiro eyes her thin, sharp features plastered with wet strands of golden hair and those hollow blue eyes.

"You're very kind," he answers warily, following her.

Despite the rocky, treacherous environment, the young woman does not falter in her steps. Her lantern's glow goes suddenly distorted in Shiro's eyes. He rubs them. Her voice falls softly, like the wind caressing leaves. "Where do you hail from, stranger?"

"The village below the pass. I left to build my own life and forget my past."

"How very brave…" she murmurs tonelessly, leading.

Once they're within the caverns, Shiro bows his head slightly and thanks her, removing his own drenched, soil-heavy cloak. Unlike the villagers he grew up with, he does not feel so nervous with foreigners venturing in their land. The young woman only hums, tending to her little, crackling fire.

Shiro chooses to grant her privacy, venturing deeper into the network of caverns, using his softer, bigger satchel for a pillow when he finds smooth ground, and dozing off until the twilight fades into the reaches of a moonless, ghastly darkness. When he awakens, Shiro feels more disorientated than before, his stomach curdling and his mouth hot-slick with bile.

There's piles upon piles of bones surrounding him, in every direction. It has to be the missing elders and children, juicy with freshly gored tendons or worn down brittle with age.

He feels massive, silken coils of hair yanking him into the air, as Shiro stares wide-eyed at the young woman morphing into an impossible, beastly size, her mouth elongating. He dangles helpless over her gaping, cavernous-black maw. Is this what Ryou saw before his violent end — screaming and weeping for his mother, for Shiro to rescue him?

Shiro feels a white-out blaze of anger overcome him, as he tugs out his hunting knife, jabbing it into the edge of its mouth. A spurt of black, visceral blood comes all over Shiro's face and clothes. As soon as he's lowered, the knife drives into the beast's chest, ripping through its organs.

The coil of golden, enormous hair wrapped tightly around Shiro's arm rips as well. He feels every sensation of vein and muscle tearing and detaching from his writhing body.

Adrenaline, hatred, somehow keeps Shiro upright, breathing heavily and ready to fight.

"I am DESPAIR. I am YAMA UBA, the witch of these mountains and valleys and rivers." The beast disguised now as an old, sickly crone throws back its head and shrieks. The unholy volume tremors the cavern-ground and the bones. "I've seen the PAIN and the RAGE in your heart, TAKASHI SHIROGANE," it proclaims, with those beady, reddish-purple eyes on him, sending an invisible, cold dagger of vehemence into Shiro. "I see FEAR. I see that WEAKNESS."

"NOW YOU WILL UNDERSTAND WHAT IT TRULY MEANS…!"

.

.

What happens next is Shiro running for dear life, escaping the caverns into bright, startling morning-light. As far as he understands it, the beast dies agonizingly of its wounds.

But not without the hell-magic latching onto Shiro, twisting a part of him, cursing him.

It seems his arm ceases bleeding. Nothing but a stump of aching, deadened meat-flesh. In the river's water, he glimpses himself for the first time and nearly stumbles backwards in fright.

Half of Shiro's face is his smooth, pale skin, but the other half is horrendously ridged and skeletal and a pasty-grey color, with jutting, sharp fangs poking out between his lips — the color of glimmering, old blood, just like his irises and deep, deep within Shiro's pupils.

The same hue as the old crone's eyes.

.

.

He cannot go back to the village. Or go any village to seek refuge, or answers.

Shiro eventually accepts his isolation, hulking over himself to avoid slamming into the treetops due to his size, and deciding to lurk in the most remote parts of the mountains and forest. Nobody would dare come.

Wickedness and ill fate — his own mother's words. It's what the oni are.

(Maybe she was right.)

For a decade, Shiro notices he never changes physically, or ages up from being the young man who fought and slain the Yama Uba witch. He sustains himself with the amount of livestock and alcohol needed, unable to stomach any greens or the occasional, revolting thought of cannibalizing humans.

He goes into the deeper portions of southeastern regions, when there are no longer sables and hares, and accidentally ventures towards a path where Shiro glimpses an older traveler.

An expensive-looking, silk kimono lays abandoned on a log, by the path, its white stitches immaculate. There's indigo and brown mountains patterning the fabric, etched with emerald and plum and amber, and with deep red peonies on the fitted, broad shoulders. The old, weathered traveler leers and reaches for the sake bottle cradled within the kimono and glittering like a gem.

A pair of hands — out of nowhere — emerge from the kimono, clawing the air ferociously.

The old traveler let out a roaring, terrified cry, hobbling away with his cane and never looking back. Shiro doesn't know what to make of this — a yokai? They're real, too?

Letting his curiosity get the better of him, Shiro approaches the kimono.

Instead of grabbing the sake bottle only, he also scoops up the white-and-colorful kimono, bunching it and tucking everything into his oversized, rawhide punch on his belt. For some reason, the ghostly hands refuse to emerge for Shiro, to acknowledge him or become hostile.

Shiro returns to the outer, erosion-based caverns by nightfall, pulling out the kimono and leaving it on a rock, while starting a fire and drinking half of the sake bottle with a gulp.

The hands materialize, peeking out of the kimono as if examining Shiro.

"You're welcome to join me, any time you please," Shiro announces gruffly, offering a half-smile. He turns around for more kindling, tossing it into the flames, and then halts. A man, perhaps several name-days younger than Shiro had been, has appeared fully in the loosened, white kimono.

He's shimmery and a little transparent and has a dark mop of curls, his bare, muscular skin tinged in the palest of purple — as if having died in a lack of oxygen. His nails too-long and unkempt. There's no irises or pupils in his all-yellow eyes. "No thanks," the yokai mumbles, avoiding eye-contact. He defiantly grabs onto the sake bottle and chugs a loud, hefty swallow.

For the first time in a decade, Shiro laughs proariously, boomingly.

Keith.

The name flows as naturally as a cool, winding stream. Shiro never asks about the huge burn-mark scar on Keith's countenance no more than the other man asks about Shiro's oni appearance.

He's not used to having a friend. Keith rarely speaks, and mostly observes with a pensive, dim frown while Shiro skins and tans wild animals, cooking their meat, or building new fires. He can't follow Shiro when the other man waves goodbye and vanishes into the forest, to hunt or to scavenge or to patrol the area, and becomes attentive when Shiro tells him about a villager he encountered.

"This man was beating his wife and their baby," Shiro explains lowly, gripping his huge, skeletal-grey fingers to his thighs. "I grabbed him and dragged him off the ravine, and threw him in."

In a way, he feels satisfaction in this decision, but also that familiar twinge of horror.

"Is he dead…?" Keith replies, his voice soft and hoarse.

Shiro glances up at him, basking in that shimmery, pale illusion of his. The specter of a young, beautiful man, with his opened kimono, with his facial-scar and all-over yellow eyes. "No," Shiro says, being as truthful as possible. "I'm sure they'll look for him. The wife ran away."

Keith's eyebrows tic up. "That's noble to spare his life," he points out, crossing his arms over his exposed, transparent sternum. "Nobility is a human thing, isn't it?"

It almost feels like an accusation. Shiro's lips quirk into a lively, wide smile.

"You weren't ever human before, Keith?"

He doesn't mean for the tension to fill the air between them, and for Keith to make himself shrink and disappear into his kimono, his little, sullen frown deepening.

"I've forgotten how… …"

Shiro contemplates this by himself, exhaling and itching over his left, reddened fang.

That's not right.

Keith deserves more than that.

Right before the sun's gleaming light envelopes the cavern's entrance, Shiro drops off something lightweight on the kimono, pleasantly clapping the dirt off his hands, and walking away.

The white, mystically immaculate kimono stirs. Its fabric balloons and shapes into a human torso, as the yokai materializes into existence, with bare, muscular legs and arms and a head. Keith stares down, quietly bemused, at his lap gathering deep red, fragrant peonies.

Romance, prosperity, good fortune.

A grumbling, amused noise escapes Keith, along with a smile.

.

.

It's been a decade and a half since this all began, and Keith may the most wondrous thing about getting cursed. Perhaps he's the only form of a blessing to come from this.

Shiro carries the kimono with him, often on longer trips, not being hesitant about letting Keith know about what he sees or what he feels and talking to the nothingness. When there's no fires, and the pale, radiant beams of moonlight drift in from above the forest-canopy, Shiro lies out on his back.

He discusses the stars and their ever-constant, twinkling movement, and recites his mother's old, whimsical tales. Sometimes, Keith only half-listens and shuts his eyes.

Keith's weight cradles against him, as the yokai buries his face into Shiro's chest and groans deliriously, Shiro's arm hugging him, his oni-fingers gently rubbing over Keith's naked, sinewy back, as the kimono falls down to his narrow and transparent-pale waist.

This may be the closest thing to love Shiro will ever experience.

Good.

They deserve this.

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Voltron isn't mine. GUYS! IT'S TIME TO POST MY MONSTERTRON GIFT EXCHANGE ASSIGNMENT! I ended up receiving SuBluCat from Tumblr who wanted a few different things but I decided to do "Keith/Shiro, yokai/oni" with no major character death! Ryou and the witch count as minor character death. I really actually deeply loved writing this because I went looking for inspiration with oni masks and for also specific yokai to inspire Keith's role. I ended up latching onto "kosode-no-te" which is a form of yokai that appears as a pair of hands in a kimono that sometimes assaults people. Anyways I'd really really love to hear any thoughts/comments please!