Taro glanced out from behind the tree, his face a mask of panic. Did I actually manage to get away?

Two sets of strong hands clamped onto his arms, dragging him bodily from his hiding spot.

"Ack!"

"You are NOT allowed to chicken out. Not now," Shina said reprovingly.

"Explain to me again exactly what I'm doing here?"

"Taro! Stop it. You're acting like a little kid. Maybe I should start calling you Taro-chan, hmmm?" Yuki chided the wayward young man, her countenance full of determination.

Taro's body stiffened, and he impatiently shook off their grasping hands before striding out into the clearing. His form practically radiated anger and injured pride. Yuki could do naught but grimace and follow.

She cleared the trees several moments after him, and had to pause in awe of the man before her. There, in the sun, he looked as if he'd walked straight out of a legend. His shoulders were squared as he raised his face to the light, eyes closed and palms forward in supplication. The sun's rays caressed his face, trailing through his hair, turning it into burnished bronze.

Something stirred restlessly in Yuki's mind and she shivered, despite the balmy temperature of the forest. She continued on then, stopping beside Shina who already stood in front of the young man. The two women grabbed hands and reached out for Taro. His palms were sweaty as he grasped at the hands proffered to him. He looked up, hiding his fear as best he could, but Yuki let go of his hand and tugged him down, her eyes reassuring as she pressed her forehead against his. He closed his eyes, then flashed them open almost immediately as he literally felt Yuki dissolving away from him. Two forms of light were hovering before him, tendrils reaching out to engulf him. He was surrounded before he could even think of fleeing.

He watched with growing horror as his hands faded before his eyes. The only blessing he could think of was that it didn't hurt one bit. Actually, it feels kind of nice. He'd just finished the thought when he felt himself coalescing. He snapped back into reality, quickly compensating for his suddenly shifted center of balance.

"You can open your eyes now." The voice was filled with mirth and not a small touch of amazement. He opened his eyes carefully, quickly matching gazes with Shina. She dropped her jaw in the shinoarii approximation of a grin and tilted her head coyly. He wondered for a moment if the Shinoar could blush and found the answer instantly. Yes. He ducked his head, marveling in the vibrancy that the colors around him had taken. He looked around curiously for a moment before his gaze alighted upon the crouched form of the woman who had so changed his life.

Yuki blinked rapidly against the pain in her head. It took a few minutes before she could adequately focus. When she could finally see her brain took that moment to shut down. I hope I'm not drooling…was her last coherent thought for some time.

Before her stood the most beautiful male she had ever seen. She watched, stunned, as Taro flared his wings, studying the tough membranes. His hide was a gorgeous mixture of bronze and brown, with none of the orange that was normally apparent on the males of their species. She couldn't help it. Yuki purred.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Oooh… Look. There must be something wrong with him," Shiso whispered nastily.

"Look at how big he is! I thought he wasn't much older than Yuki but I guess I was wrong." Shiso's friend was looking at Taro with something akin to disgust.

"It's not just that. Look at how brown he is. Ugly as sin, don't you think. No one is ever going to want to bond with him. They'd be too ashamed."

Yuki whirled on her older team mate, her eyes glittering dangerously as she hissed.

"Well what did you expect, you brat? He's clearly not normal. You can't get mad at me for stating the obvious. I doubt he's even a full-blood. He's not a shinoarii. He's an animal!" The last was said loudly enough for everyone present to hear. The clearing stilled. Not even the wind was willing to break the tense moment.

Yuki looked from Shiso, to Taro, and then back again. She smirked as she let her tongue take control.

"Funny. The only beast I see here is you, Shiso."

The antagonists stared at each, each waiting for the other to make a move. Taro walked stiffly between them, blocking their respective views with his broad wings.

"Yuki, don't. In a way she is right. All the youngsters that enter the Institute are 'altered' in many ways. We got constant genetic therapy as we grew up. We aren't fully anything anymore."

"Ha! I knew something was wrong with you!" Shiso cackled, gloating obnoxiously. "I could immediately tell that you were hiding something!"

Yuki stepped around Taro, her eyes narrowing till only a thin band of yellow and black could be distinguished. She didn't even notice when Shina pulled Taro out of her way.

"You will leave, now, Shiso."

"Why are they acting like this?" Taro whispered to Shina.

"We're all used to this behavior, I guess. It's patently obvious that Shiso is jealous of Yuki. She's jealous that Yuki is younger, prettier, and far nicer. And she also dislikes her closeness with Obaa-san. One other thing is that our species has a pecking order of sorts, so they're both unconsciously vying for dominance."

"Is that all?" He was stunned but he could still tell that his companion was holding some information back.

"Er, well. Shiso is also so generally nasty that no male has wanted to have a tryst with her, much less pair bond. It's driving her batty. Yuki's already had a couple suitors who wouldn't give Shiso the time of day."

"So…. What you're saying is they're fighting over me?"

"Basically." Shina grinned at him. "Though Shiso really doesn't like you. I think she's doing it on the principle of the thing. I doubt either of them even realize what they're doing, especially Yuki."

"I can't have people fighting over me! I'm not a shinoarii!" Taro practically shouted the words, his disbelief increasing with every syllable.

"Yes you are!" Yuki shot over her shoulder before returning her attention to the ranting Shiso.

"I can't believe such disrespect! Here I am, one of the head planners of our group and you're sniping at me because of differences in opinions! I never thought-"

"Patently," Yuki sneered at the older woman. "If you ever had you'd realize just how much of a pompous ass you sound like right now."

Shiso's face turned orange as the snickering of the other shinoarii reached her. Muffled whispers echoed that it was all too true. She stiffened her stance, towering over the younger Yuki by a good five feet. Shiso snarled for a moment, then an unholy light graced her eyes as she cocked her head and stared at her rival. The grin that spread across her muzzle made all present decidedly uneasy. A look like was supposed to be found in nightmares, not real life.

"It's no wonder you want him as a mate! After the way you rebuffed those first suitors, and now with your recent actions, you wouldn't be able to get anything better. And considering how strange you are yourself, I'm not surprised you'd find him attractive."

Yuki's tawny yellow was completely overshadowed by the almost true-gold of Shiso's hide. She ducked her head in embarrassment, eyes averting.

"I can't help being born looking the way I do, so you will kindly leave off with your petty remarks. And I have no intention of trying to pair bond with Taro. I think we'd end up strangling each other with in half a day. Besides, for all he is handsome he's still a perverted jerk!" Yuki turned her head and stuck out her tongue, winking at the stunned male.

"Now," she continued, her voice tightly controlled, "as to why I'm finally standing up to you, it's simply that I've finally had enough of your self-indulging, prima-donna, 'oh-so-much-more-wonderful-than-thou' attitude and your never ending need to put others down! You are the most pompous creature I've ever had the displeasure to meet. You are everything we're not supposed to be and it's driving me bonkers to have to listen to you all the time! So either un-knot your tail or go buggar off."

Shiso's rage quickly suffused her face and, eyes bugging, she reared up, every move showing barely contained wrath.

"How dare you, you ungrateful little bitch! And I'm glad you've so clearly set your sights on that… that thing! He's probably ten years older than you. You're just a baby so how dare you pretend to know more than I? You haven't even a fraction of my intelligence or experience," she hissed nastily.

"You know…" Yuki's voice, so bland it bordered on complete insolence, insinuated itself into the heated atmosphere, "all you're doing right now is proving me correct."

"Bitch! Slut! Traitor! You just be sure to watch your back, brat. You never know when accidents can occur…"

Taro and Shina bellowed their denial of that statement, immediately rushing the irate shinoarii. Shiso backpedaled away and took off, her friends quickly following suite.

Any shinoarii in full rage was an awe inspiring sight, but Taro, his hide gleaming like molten metal and the sun shining through his mantled wings, struck fear into those present. Yuki's own heart twisted, but with a strange feeling of contentment and pride at the man who utterly destroyed her life, then helped, all unknowing, rebuild it. She lowered her head then, to hide her confusion and growing alarm.

Taro and Shina looked over her and exchanged a worried glance at Yuki's continued silence. The quiet continued for several moments before Taro started to fidget, unsure of what to do but wanting to do something just the same. He was just making up his mind about an action that was both incredibly sweet and incredibly stupid when Yuki looked up at him, her eyes sparkling with curiosity.

"Ne, Taro-san… How old are you?"

*Thunk.* Yuki glanced down, still waiting for her answer.

"19… I'm 19…" answered the lump in front of her. Yuki smiled mysteriously and hummed to herself as she walked off, leaving the poor, very confused Taro to pick himself up out of the leaf litter and somehow quiet Shina's raucous laughter.

"Would you two hurry up? We've a feast awaiting us back at my apartment! And we shouldn't let nasty old Shiso ruin this event…. Or all that food I spent my last paycheck on!" Yuki stamped her foot impatiently as both her friends now staggered to stay upright. "Shift back already and let's go!"

As they walked, Yuki kept edging closer and closer to Taro until they were a mere hand's breadth apart. And she was the only one who didn't notice.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Taro calmly met the surprised glances cast his way by the others at the table. He didn't think there was anything wrong with taking five plates filled to overflowing with food as long you could eat it all. He certainly felt hungry enough to have that much and more.

He sat directly across from Yuki, and could just see her from over his mountainous piles of food. She toyed with her food, eating small bites automatically as she thought. He watched, concerned even while he shoveled food into his mouth, as her brow furrowed and eyes darkened from what she was thinking about.

Why did Shiso say those things? More importantly… why did I say those things… gaaaaah! Yuki's thoughts raced around in confusion, trying to rationalize all that had happened during the whole emotionally charged day.

Why was I so bloody protective of him? I have no ties to him. But she knew why. He was the first person she's truly counted as a friend, despite the possible, and all too quickly realized, danger. Such a bond, even though one sided, was incredible strong. Even faced with all the horror that had resulted, the shock of his various betrayals of her trust, and her countless nights spent hating, she still cared for him deeply. She sighed, letting her gaze wander over Taro's bent head, a smile tugging at her lips at his ravenous appetite. Taro seemed oblivious to her attention, his entire being apparently focused on getting as much food from his plate and into his stomach in as short a span of time as possible.

Yuki looked back down to her own plate and sighed again, the sound softer and more wistful than before. Taro's fork froze part way to his mouth. He glanced up swiftly at the young woman across from him, hoping to coax her out of whatever had confused her so, but her focus had already turned inward. He watched her for a moment more, then stood up, neatly scooting back his chair. He yawned and stretched artfully, his gaze alighting upon everyone in the room.

"Well… It's about time for me leave, I think." He walked a couple steps to the door and then stopped. He glanced down at the strong, yet delicate, hand that encompassed his wrist.

"You're not allowed to leave." Her voice rang out strong, playfulness saturating her tone. "Besides, these festivities normally last the whole night! You can't skip out on your own party! It's rude! And you've already been rude enough for a whole lifetime, so therefore, you can't leave."

"Yuki. You look ready to fall asleep at any moment. And if you're exhausted you're not going to be of any use to anybody. You need to sleep."

"What I need to do is have fun with my friends, not sleep. And that is exactly what I plan on doing!"

"She really does sleep soundly, doesn't she," Taro observed.

Shina kneeled by the couch, repeatedly poking her best friend. Yuki was slumped over the armrest of her couch, slack-jawed with sleep. Her hair cascaded over her face and arms, half suffocating her with its mass.

Taro couldn't help but notice just how young she looked as she lay there. Her youth was painfully apparent, but the signs of the woman she had become were still visible in the faintly furrowed brow and clenched fists.

"She's cute when she's sleeping, isn't she?" Shina's eyes sparkled mischievously as she looked up at the young man.

"Actually, she looks more sad than anything," He commented as the sleeping girl began to whimper and curl into a ball.

"Yuki's had nightmares for as long as I've known her. She told me about them once…" She trailed off, expression inscrutable.

"They're about her parents' murder, aren't they." He looked at the sleeping young woman and grimaced as he heard the whispered pleas for her mother and father to return to her.

"Well… you would be the one to know, after all. You were there, weren't you. In official capacity. Tell me. Were you the one who killed them, the one to strike the final blow that ended three lives?" Shina's face was a mask of anger, eyes hard but not entirely unforgiving.

Taro couldn't get a single word past the lump in his throat. He numbly shook his head, eyes still resting sadly on Yuki's curled form.

It was at that moment that Shina finally understood why Yuki always trusted the young man. You really could feel his emotions. It was an intimate knowing that she suddenly felt bad for having experienced. Something that profound should have stayed between her young friend and the man she so clearly cared for.

She glanced quickly at the clock then turned to flee out the door.

"Hey Taro! I hafta go! Stay the night, I'll be back in the morning!"

Taro stared open mouthed at the closing door for several seconds.

"OI!!!" He sped after the retreating woman, only catching up just as she locked herself into her car.

"Shina! You can't leave me with her! Not after what happened last time! She'll kill me if she finds me there again!"

"Sorry! But I really do have to go. I'll pray for you!" and with that she drove off, her tires screeching a farewell.

Oh dear gods above. Taro slowly dragged himself back to Yuki's apartment, his mind running around like a suukerr in its wheel; always moving but never making any progress. He closed the door carefully behind, throwing the deadbolt before leaning wearily against its solid support. He stared once again at the sleeping dragon girl, then tiredly pushed himself towards the couch.

"That can't be comfortable at all," he murmured as he leaned down. His strong arms quickly wrapped around her in a tender embrace. He had just started to rise when he felt her stir in the grip of her nightmare. He pulled her closer to him and started to murmur to her in hopes of calming her fears. The words that she mumbled in-between her small noises of fear made his heart lurch again.

" Okaa-chan… Otou-san… please… don't leave. Not again. …. don't want…. alone…"

Taro rested his forehead against hers, humming a wordless tune to both comfort and awaken her.

And awaken she did, with a half-screamed sob. Her hands clutched at his clothes in her waking panic as she buried her head into his shoulder. She shook with her grief, eyes unseeing and seemingly un-aware to whom the comforting masculine hands belonged.

She quieted after some time, giving occasional hiccups into his shirt. It was then that she finally looked up. All color drained out of her face, then came rushing back in a crimson hue. She tried vainly to struggle out of Taro's arms before giving up. She hunched her shoulders, absolutely mortified that she'd just cried, for the gods knew how long, all over the poor young man.

"Oh gods. I'm sorry! I didn't mean to do that, honest. And now your shirt's all wet and…" Taro laid a single finger over her lips to silence her. He then gathered her back up and sat on the couch, the smaller girl cradled comfortably in his lap. Exhaustion from the ritual and the nightmare quickly stole back over her and she lay asleep again within minutes; her blush slowly fading from view.

Taro then picked her back up and carefully walked the short distance to her bedroom and gently tucked the now peacefully slumbering Yuki under her covers. He let his hand linger in her soft hair for a moment before he found himself forced to stifle a huge yawn.

He stumbled over to the too short couch and collapsed onto it, unconscious almost before he hit the cushions.

It was a few hours before dawn when Yuki awoke. She dragged herself out of bed, determined to get to the kitchen and the food awaiting therein. She slowly passed the couch, then turned and stared at the young man draped over the small piece of furniture. Yuki herself couldn't sleep comfortably on it, and Taro topped her by several inches. It took her only moments to decide that he really needed to be somewhere comfortable.

It took considerably longer to actually manage the monumental task, but accomplish it she did. She tucked him in, allowing her fingers to trail down his hair in an unconscious mimic of his previous actions before she returned to her original quest. She wolfed down a quick meal, then dropped gratefully into a plush chair, sleep once again claiming her.

Taro noticed several things once he awoke. The first was that he was in Yuki's bedroom. The second was that he was actually in her bed. He panicked and rocketed into a sitting position and thus quickly discovered the third thing. He had a migraine of such proportions that all he wanted to do was die. But only after having something to eat, he realized as his stomach growled insistently.

He eased himself out of bed and shakily made his way to the little dining room. He sat heavily in the first chair he came to and let his head fall onto his arms. He was seriously pondering whether it was worth it to eat before keeling over when Yuki strode it.

"Welcome back to the world of the living! You slept for two days straight, and right now, if you follow the rules everyone else does, you should be having what seems like the worst hangover in the history of the universe."

The only reply she got was a long and painful groan. She instantly ducked into the kitchen and pulled out a bowl of sticky rice that she'd made earlier, depositing it next to the hunched figure at her table. She moved slowly until she was directly behind him, her hands gently coming to rest against his temples. He jerked in pain from her light caress and tried to hunch further away.

"Please. It will help. Honest."

And with that said her hands began to move, carefully applying pressure at particular points to help ease the blinding pain. After a few minutes Taro began to relax under her fingers, his shoulders loosening until his posture became more normal. She continued her assault until he was nearly purring. He let his head drop back until it rested against her, his eyes closed in bliss. Yuki half closed her own eyes in response and let her hands run through his hair and down his neck.

She was so entranced that she never noticed her best friend let herself into the apartment. Nor did she notice the curious gaze that rested upon her as Shina took in the sight before her, all too aware of what Yuki was feeling, even though her young friend most likely didn't.

She hated to break them up, but….

*Click-flash*

Yuki looked up frantically, colors swirling before her eyes.

"Kyaaaa! Evil flash from hell!"

Taro clutched at his head, a grimace stretched across his face. He let out a strangled moan and placed his head upon the table again.

"I just wanted to use up the last of the roll," Shina said with a grin as she took a few more random pictures.

Yuki practically threw an extra bowl of rice at her friend.

"Eat, ye demon. Then begone!"

Taro chuckled at Yuki's ire, then reached for his own bowl. His head was still pounding but it wasn't anywhere near as bad as it had been. He said a silent thankyou and dug into his rice, his gaze lingering on the eyetwitching teen.

He could already tell that it was going to be an interesting day.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A/N: It's my birthday! Wheeeee! I'm 20!! … ::stares at the number and nearly dies:: ;_;

Anways… sorry for the long time between updates. Work and then school were conspiring against me.

Oh well.

Thanks to everyone who had reviewed so far!