They had always assumed that the youngest Tsukishima son was a breed of lizard.
At age six, he had grown his scales across both arms and down his left ankle, an iridescent green that shone in sunlight and almost seemed to glow at night. He had always been a bit of a possessive child, harboring his own toys and needed his own space once he started attending school, which the doctors said was a normal attribute for some lizard shifters. His internal body temperature was ten degrees lower than the average shifter, meaning he was cold blooded. And then he grew a tail, a thin, skinny thing that forced his entire wardrobe to be altered to accommodate it, but that closed the deal. Signed, sealed, delivered. Lizard shifter, just like his grandmother.
But when Kei was fifteen, he started having horrible pains in his stomach that would leak up through his chest and into his throat. They were debilitating some days, forcing him to stay home from school. The doctors had assumed at first it was acid reflux, so he took antacids, but that did more harm than good. Then they put him on medication for frequent aggressive heart burn, but that did nothing. By this time, Kei was living with this pain and had given up on it ever going away. It brought such a dark cloud over the Tsukishima house, and Kei began to shutter himself in, holing up in his room for hours, days on end. He just sat in a pile of blankets and books on his bed and breathed through the pain when it flared.
Finally one day, the worst day, when Kei hadn’t gotten sleep for over forty-eight hours and his parents were about to send him to the hospital to be put on a morphine drip, something, anything to stop their son from feeling like he was approaching death, the burn crept out of his stomach, up through his chest, and exploded from his throat in a great ball of flames.
His bedroom ceiling was still singed, a black spot staining the paint that had bubbled and curled under the intense heat.
Well, suffice it to say, lizards did not breathe fire. So Kei was upgraded to a dragon shifter. The pain was finally gone. He had a bad habit of burning things every so often, but he was getting the hang of it, and he could finally go back to school full-time and feel like a normal teenage boy.
And Kei hated it, because Yamaguchi started avoiding him.
The rabbit shifter had been at his side throughout the whole painful process of his internal transformation into a dragon shifter (apparently it was like second puberty but way, way worse). He would bring him homework, go over the lessons with him, keep him up to date on all the goings on at school, all so that Kei didn’t feel like he missed anything when he was able to attend. He kept Kei smiling and literally held his hand when the pain flared up. He was the only one allowed into Kei’s room when he chose to isolate himself. Yamaguchi had been a godsend, and if one good thing had come out of the entire fiasco it was the fact that he had grown closer to Yamaguchi in the process.
Apparently, Kei had been the only one to think that.
In class, Yamaguchi talked to him only when necessary. He didn’t greet him in the mornings, they didn’t walk to school together, they didn’t eat lunch together. It was like their friendship didn’t exist. He was being treated like a regular classmate.
Yamaguchi was good at hiding, a trait of rabbits. He was quick to get away, escaping Kei’s clutches time and time again. Often Kei would see just a fluffy brown tail disappearing around a corner, and he had to resist the urge to set it on fire just to force him to stop.
Hinata and Kageyama, usually oblivious to anything but themselves, even started to notice, blaming Kei for making Yamaguchi mad at him.
“I didn’t even do anything!” Kei exclaimed, finally, fed up and pissed. He took a deep breath in and let it out, but the exhale was shaky. “I just don’t know what I did,” he admitted, voice weak.
Hinata and Kageyama shared a look, and Kei hated what he saw on their faces. Pity.
“When did he start acting weird?” Hinata asked.
“When I came back to school. But he was… normal before.”
“So,” Kageyama piped in, “it was after your fire showed up.”
Huh. “Yes, it was.”
“Maybe he’s afraid of fire!” Hinata declared, fist pumping in the air.
Kei shook his head. “He’d never been before. We’ve done cookouts and camping for years.”
“Maybe he’s afraid of dragons,” Kageyama countered. Hinata smacked his arm. Kageyama fisted a hand in his orange hair and pulled.
As stupid as Kageyama sounded, Kei feared he might be right.
“Oi, stupid duo.” The pair stopped fighting at Kei’s bark. “I need… your help.” It felt like swallowing back flames as he said it, but he knew it would be the only way for Yamaguchi to let his guard down. “Can you get Yamaguchi to hang back after class? I’ll… talk to him.”
Hinata elbowed Kageyama and cut him off, shouting, “Can do! Let’s go, ‘yama!” Hinata dragged Kageyama off before he could say anything else.
Kei took another deep breath and adjusted his gakuran jacket collar. He didn’t know what was going through Yamaguchi’s head and why he felt like he needed to avoid him, but he was going to find out. Today.
Kei made sure to leave the classroom immediately at the end of the day, to make Yamaguchi think he was gone. But instead, he ducked into the bathroom down the hall and waited a few minutes, listening to the bustle of students flood the halls. When the noise died down a few minutes later, he exited the bathroom and inched his way back to the classroom.
He could hear Hinata and Yamaguchi (mostly Hinata) before he could see the class door, so he knew the freak twins had followed through. Ew, now he was going to owe them one. Oh well, no time to regret it.
Kei stepped into the classroom and Yamaguchi tensed up immediately, dark bunny ears going from relaxed and droopy and tall to flat on the back of his head, cocked to the side. His head snapped over, and their eyes met. Yamaguchi’s were wide and terrified.
“You can go now,” Tsukishima ordered, and Hinata and Kageyama thankfully said nothing as they left the room, closing the door behind them.
Yamaguchi’s gaze flickered over to the back door, and he looked ready to sprint, but Kei reached out and stopped him, curing fingers around his wrist and maintaining a firm grip.
“Why are you running from me?” Kei asked, needing to hear any answer other than that Yamaguchi was scared of him now.
“Running? I’m not running!” Yamaguchi very obviously lied, eyes darting around the room and refusing to look at Kei.
“You are!” Kei replied sharply. Yamaguchi stopped trying to slowly wiggle out of his grip, arm going limp. “And I don’t know what I did…” he cleared his throat. His voice cracked. “What I did,” he repeated, “to you.”
Yamaguchi finally met his eyes. He swallowed, and Kei watched his throat bob up and down. “You didn’t do anything,” he said.
Kei felt a tiny bit faint. “So, you’re afraid of me.”
“No!” Yamaguchi immediately shouted his dissent, this time curling his fingers around Kei’s wrist as his grip relaxed. “Not afraid. Of you.”
“Then what are you afraid of?”
Yamaguchi looked away, stared at his shoes, and seemed to be psyching himself up to explain, so Kei kept quiet.
A moment later, Yamaguchi raised his head and took a deep breath. “I was scared for myself.”
Kei felt the words like a stab to the heart. “Did you think I was dangerous?”
“No! It’s not you, Tsukki!” Yamaguchi yelled, squeezing Kei’s wrist gently. “It wasn’t real fear. I just suddenly felt so…small.”
Kei mulled over his words in his head and thought he might be understanding. “You mean because I turned out to be a dragon.”
Yamaguchi nodded, looking guilty. “It wasn’t anything you did, or said, it’s all me, my insecurities. I told myself that I just needed to separate myself for a while, come to terms with the giant chasm that now existed between you and me, and then I’d be fine. I just forgot the fact that you weren’t in on my mental plan.”
Kei pursed his lips. Yamaguchi looked very distraught, a pout on his lips, his ears drooping sadly.
“Chasm… Yamaguchi, what does that even mean?” Kei started to feel defeated.
“Because now you were this awesome, cool, rare, powerful shifter and I’m terrified when people sneeze.” Yamaguchi’s nose started to twitch rapidly, a sign that he wanted to cry or scream but was holding his feelings back.
Kei reached out and thumbed his nose, and it stopped twitching so quickly. “I sneeze loudly on purpose, you know.”
Yamaguchi laughed, head thrown back with the noise. “I know you do! And it pisses me off!”
“But I’ll stop,” Kei insisted. Yamaguchi quit laughing. His eyes went wide. “If it makes you feel small, I won’t do it anymore.”
“You. You have never made me feel small,” Yamaguchi spoke softly, squeezing Kei’s wrist. “I make myself feel small. You have never made me feel anything bad about myself. It’s all me, my head. It’s something I knew I needed to get over, but I shouldn’t have tried to do it alone. I’m sorry.”
Kei shook his head. “It’s okay. And you know you aren’t small, or lesser, or any of those things. You’re good, great, as you are.”
“And so are you.” Yamaguchi patted his cheek, fingers poking the scales underneath his eyes, like he often did during sleepovers while Kei would count the number of brown spots over Yamaguchi’s skin and fur. “You’re awesome as a dragon or a lizard or as my best friend.”
Kei heard some shuffling in the hall, some sniffling, and the crippling fear sank in that either Hinata or Kageyama or both stuck around for their discussion.
“Good. So if I burn the door down, you won’t be mad?” Kei asked, loudly and pointedly.
“Don’t!” Hinata screamed from the hallway, followed by the sounds of footsteps running off down the hall.
Yamaguchi fell against his side as he burst into a fit of giggles, and Kei swore he’d never heard a nicer sound. It had been a very, very quiet couple of weeks.
“Can I come over?” Yamaguchi asked, tentatively.
“Why even ask?” Yamaguchi had never needed to ask before, unless he knew something was going on. They usually ended up at one of the other’s houses after school.
“I’ve been doing some reading on dragon shifters, and I know you’ve always been, um, touchy about some things, but possession and sanctity of space is really important. I don’t want to disrupt your hoard.”
Kei had also been reading up on dragon shifters, which made him realize the reason for so many of the odd things he did and had done while going through his dragonization, as his brother coined it.
He also came to realize that, if there was one thing in his hoard, it was Yamaguchi.
He decided not to share that revelation just yet.
“You’re not, and you wouldn’t. Please come over.”
Yamaguchi grinned, nose twitching slowly now, which happened when he was happy, nose bouncing in time with his tail which bopped along behind him.
“You know, you’re gonna be really popular in the business world. Everyone is going to ask you to light their cigarettes for them.”
“Shut up, Yamaguchi.”