Author's Note: The following fanfic takes place about a week after my other fanfic A Wyndian Princess. I don't believe any confusion will come from reading this before reading it. If you're curious to find out more about the Ryu/Momo pairing hinted at here and in A Wyndian Princess, I recommend you check out Evolutions by Magnus Prime at http://www.fanfiction.net. It's a great read.
"Doesn't that just beat all?"
"What did you say?"
Rei looked over at Ryu's curious expression with a wide smile as they walked thru the main street of McNeil toward Cedar Woods. Then he laughed. "What do you mean 'what did you say?' Sammy asked me how to get someone in love with him! Me! Does it look like I would know anything about that?" He pushed at Ryu's shoulder with another laugh. "I live with you!"
Ryu's curious expression didn't waver. "Why couldn't you help him? Is it hard to fall in love?"
Rei's smile widened. "Beats me."
"Oh." Ryu looked away, curiosity warping to thoughtfulness.
Rei chuckled and slugged his friend on the shoulder. "Relax, Ryu. I told the big lummox to keep on doing what he was doing. You know Nina. She likes everyone. That's the only start Sammy needs."
Ryu nodded, and then he looked over at Rei with a smile. "She looked happy enough when Momo and I came to visit last week."
"See?" Rei clapped him on the back. "Everything worked out f--" Rei halted mid-step, Ryu doing the same one step later. Rei's ears twitched as his feral sense of smell scanned the breeze.
Ryu watched his friend's face. "What's the matter?"
A slow smile broke out across Rei's face, and he turned his head slowly to the left. "Well doesn't that just beat all..."
"Huh? What?" Ryu asked as he looked around.
Rei pointed to the house on top of the cliff to the left of the north exit of McNeil. Two ladies stood outside the entrance talking and laughing. "Up there."
Rei started up the hill, making his way around the fence and through the side yard to the front and the ladies.
Ryu hurried after him. "What? What's 'up there'?"
"A Woren," Rei said absently.
Ryu blinked and stopped. Then he stepped after Rei with a scratch to his head. "B-But I thought--"
"I know." Rei approached the ladies with an easy smile. They halted their conversation, sending each other a curious expression as he said, Ladies."
Brunette and red-head both raised an eyebrow as brown eyes and hazel focused on Rei's feral ones.
Ryu came to stand beside Rei and sent each lady an uncertain smile and nod of greeting.
"New?" Rei asked.
Brunette and red-head exchanged glances before answering.
"Not really," the red-head volunteered. She was slender and pretty with bright, intelligent hazel eyes and an easy smile.
Rei kept smiling at the brunette. She had a straight and slim nose with a few freckles across the bridge, and her sun-darkened skin looked to be smooth and soft with a glistening of... fuzz? Rei's smile widened slightly.
"We moved here from the Rhapala Region two months ago," the red-head continued, sending and intercepting her friend's curious glance.
"Really. Nice place." He produced a hand to the brunette. "I'm Rei."
The brunette slide a lock of thick black-brown hair behind an ear with another sidelong glance to her friend before reaching out to accept the welcome. Brown eyes flecked with gold and framed with thick lashes met his gaze.
She smiled and revealed perfect white teeth. "Tai. Nice to meet you, Rei. This is Soma."
Rei held Tai's hand with an easy grip, his thumb lightly stroking the back of her hand. Her skin was smooth and soft with a pale 'fur' that Rei noticed on all of her revealed skin. "Tai."
When Rei didn't greet the other lady, Ryu gave Rei's arm a nudge.
Rei looked over at him, still shaking Tai's hand. She had a firm grip and strong fingers. "What?"
Ryu motioned to the red-head, Soma, with a quick glance.
"Oh." Rei reluctantly released Tai's hand to briefly shake Soma's. "Nice to meet you." He gestured to Ryu. "This is my roommate. Ryu."
Ryu nodded and smiled a greeting to both. "Hi."
Ryu had barely spoken when Rei had again focused on Tai with an easy smile and a nonchalant stance. "You like fishing?"
Tai and Soma exchanged another glance. Then Tai focused on Rei. She smiled, and her brown-gold eyes brightened. "I do."
Tai blinked. "What?"
"Do you like hunting?" Rei asked, still smiling his same charming curve of lip.
Tai looked to Soma, who shrugged, and then back to Rei. "I haven't really done much hunting. Rhapala's big on fish."
"Want to go some time?"
Tai blinked again. "Hunting?"
Rei nodded. "I could teach ya."
"Well... I..." Her glance to Soma seemed to cry for help.
Rei felt another nudge at his elbow and looked down at Ryu. "What?"
Ryu grabbed Rei's arm and then nodded and smiled to each lady while dragging a protesting Rei back the way they'd come. Outside McNeil Ryu finally released Rei's arm.
"What was that for?"
"I don't know very much about girls and dating and love, but you were scaring her... I think."
Rei gestured back to McNeil. "Ryu, she's part Woren."
Ryu nodded. "You said that, but... well, shouldn't you give her a little space before taking her anywhere? Shouldn't you... Aren't you supposed to ask questions about each other over sandwiches or coffee... or something?"
Rei's eyes widened, and he continued to gesture. "She's part Woren." He pointed to himself. "Like me."
Ryu smiled. "I know, Rei. I heard you."
Rei shook his head. "I haven't met another Woren that I..." He lowered his arm to his sides with a wide smile. "I guess you would get about scents and stuff. Forget it."
"At least you got her name." Ryu's smile twitched.
Rei chuckled and slugged Ryu's arm. "She's pretty cute, huh?"
"I guess so."
Rei blinked. "You 'guess so'? You blind?"
"No. I just didn't think about it--"
"Excuse me. Rei?"
Rei turned sharply. Ryu leaned to the left to look around his friend.
Rei smiled as he watched Tai approach. Her outfit of dark brown trousers and a pale yellow shirt enhanced her lithe form. "Yeah?"
Tai stood across from him, focusing on Rei after giving Ryu a greeting nod and smile. She gestured back to McNeil. "Would you and... Ryu, was it? Would you like to come in for some tea?"
"Sure," Rei accepted eagerly.
Tai's smile brightened. "Alright." She began again for McNeil, Rei and Ryu matching her step on each side.
"So," Rei began easily. "What brought you to McNeil?"
"Adventure. Someplace new. Wanted to be on my own." Tai sent Rei a smile. "I heard of all the pretty places out here and struck out."
Tai nodded, her brown-gold eyes sparking with the memory of her adventure. "It was exciting to be so independent and alone on the journey."
Rei watched her profile as she spoke and noticed a pair of stripe-like markings on her jaw. They were small, barely noticeable even, but still there.
"I love traveling," Rei told her. "Nights under the stars. Finding something new just beyond the next hill or turn..." He met her look. "Don't do much now, what with watching the forest and keeping the grove safe and cozy, but camping out in the forest is just as fun and exciting... almost."
Tai's eyes widened in interest. "Is that where you hunt?"
"And Mt. Glaus."
"It's not too dangerous by yourself?"
"Nah. That's what makes it fun."
Tai smiled. "I guess it would." She opened the door to her home and ushered the two inside. Soma prepared the table. "Have a seat, gentlemen," Tai offered.
She went to the kitchen counter to help with the preparation of the tray.
Rei sent Ryu an eager smile. "Tea."
Ryu hid a laugh behind a quickly raised hand as Soma and Tai both returned. Soma set Ryu's teacup and saucer in front of him as Tai did the same for Rei. He silently watched her as she did; her expressions, her movements, and her grace as she poured the tea and occasionally intercepted his gaze.
Rei's ears twitched at the sound of her voice as she asked "Sugar?" and he declined. She didn't have a low voice, but it wasn't as high and... childlike as Nina's. It sounded more... purr-like?
Soma and Tai sat at either end of the table and prepared their own tea.
"What do you do here?" Ryu asked between sips.
"I work at the inn," Soma volunteered. "It's not as exciting as Tai's job, but it pays the bills."
Rei looked to Tai with a wider smile. "What do you do?"
Tai sent Soma a slight glare before looking over at Rei with a return of her smile. "I... um... I escort merchant and trade caravans across Mt. Myrneg to Wyndia."
Rei's expression brightened. "Security?"
Before Tai could answer Soma said, "Tai's a Ranger," and ignored Tai's responding glare.
"A Ranger. Doesn't that..." Rei sent Ryu a look of the remaining portion of the phrase before focusing again on Tai. "How long you been?"
Tai tucked more hair behind an ear – there was a hint of a tuft of 'fur' on the top of it – as she traced the rim of her cup with a finger. "Not long."
"Rhapala doesn't need many Rangers, huh? Mostly dock workers," Rei offered.
Tai met Rei's smiling expression and reluctantly returned the same. "Yes. Not very exciting."
"Hunting should be a snap, then. You wanna go sometime?"
Soma sent Tai an odd look, who returned a meaningful one before smiling again at Rei and saying, "Maybe some other time."
"Gotta leave soon?" Rei asked, undaunted.
"I'll go with."
Tai blinked. "You'll... You'll go?"
Rei nodded and gestured toward Ryu. "Sure. He can watch the forest while I'm gone, and I haven't been out of McNeil for a while. It'll be fun."
"I..." She looked from Rei to Soma. "I don't know."
"Who sets up the caravan?" Rei asked. "I'll set it up."
Tai focused back on Rei. "Mayor McNeil."
"Sammy?" Rei stood, still smiling. "Great. I'll just head on over. Nice to meet you, Soma. See you tomorrow, Tai." He looked over at Ryu. "Come on." Then turned and left the building to stride toward McNeil Mansion. Rei's smile widened.
"I'll be gone a week, or thereabouts, so try not to burn the place down." Rei stowed the last of his gear before facing Ryu. He grinned. "This's going to be great. I'll let you know how it went when I get back." Rei slung the bag over his shoulder and turned to go.
Ryu only waved.
Rei whistled a merry tune on his way out of Cedar Woods and into McNeil. Then he climbed the slight hill to the right and made his way through the front yard to Tai's home. She adjusted her hold on a staff in her hand and a pack on her shoulder. She had dressed in dark blue trousers with a wide black belt and wore a white shirt and a black vest. Calf-high moccasins covered her feet.
Tai looked toward Rei's approaching form and smiled. "Good morning, Rei."
"Morning, Tai. Can I walk with ya to the caravan?"
"That would be nice. Thanks." She fell into step beside him to proceed down the hill and to the main street out of McNeil toward Yraall Road and the caravan.
"This's going to be great," Rei told her, intercepting her sidelong glance with a wide smile. "It's been forever and a day since--"
"Why do you want to come?"
Rei's smile didn't fade. "Why not? It sounds like fun."
Tai stopped and faced him. "Then why not before?"
Rei faced her as well. "I didn't know you were on the caravan before."
"What difference does that make?" she asked as she stared up at him.
"A lot. You're Woren."
Tai blinked and stepped back. "Wh... What?"
Rei's smile vanished at the shock on her expression. "You didn't know?"
Tai looked away, but she didn't move farther down the road. "I-I'm... I'm Woren?"
Rei scrubbed at the back of his neck as he watched her.
Tai met his gaze with wide eyes. "How do you know that?"
Rei smiled as he lowered his hand to his side. "Can't miss the scent of a female Woren."
Tai lowered her gaze. "Oh."
Rei's smile wavered a bit, and then he reached out to touch her jaw. She looked up. "And you've got stripes. Here. On both sides." Rei turned his head and pointed to his. "See?"
Tai looked away again.
Rei watched her with an expression of concern. "Gee, Tai. Sorry. I thought... I thought..."
"It's okay." Tai sent him a slight smile. "I was raised by my dad, and he never talked about mom. Didn't ever have a picture, either. Maybe...?"
Rei smiled. "Maybe." He motioned her forward and fell into step beside her. "You want me to get lost?"
Tai's smile brightened as she looked over at him. "Rei, why would I invite you to tea if I wanted you to 'get lost'?"
"Don't know. Just being polite?" Tai chuckled, and to Rei it sounded like a purr. Rei's lips twitched. "So, is it okay for me to keep coming around?"
She sent him a sidelong glance. "I don't mind." And another.
"Nothing." Tai stared ahead as she absently tapped her staff to the ground while they walked.
Rei watched her, feral eyes twinkling as his ears twitched. "I guess I should tell you something about us Worens."
She met his gaze. "What."
"We mate for life."
Tai smiled, so did Rei. "Then I guess you better be sure."
Rei was sure that'd be the fun part.
The caravan made good progress along the trail that hovered near the base of Mt. Myrneg. While the caravan traveled, Rei told Tai stories of his adventures with Ryu and Teepo before the fight with Balio and Sunder. He told her what he knew about Worens, which wasn't much, and then told her more of his adventures with Ryu after meeting back up with him. Tai listened with rapt attention and spoke hardly at all. She grew thoughtful when Rei talked about the Worens, and she brightened again when his stories of adventure with Ryu continued.
Rei loved the attention.
That night when the caravan camped within sight of Eygnock Road to Wyndia, Rei felt bad that he'd talked mostly about himself. So when the caravan had settled for the night and Rei and Tai were resting in front of the fire, Rei urged her to talk about herself.
Tai smiled and adjusted her arms around her legs. "Well, I grew up in Rhapala with my dad. He worked on the docks and sometimes as a fisherman."
"What did you do?"
"I worked part-time in the weapon store when I wasn't out fishing with my dad."
"Did you go on any sea trips?"
Tai shook her head. "No. Not a member of the Guild."
"What do you do to relax?"
"In Rhapala I'd hike around the dunes by the coast or by the volcano. Here I like hiking through the woods and just listening."
Rei nodded. "Me, too."
Tai adjusted her arms around her legs and slightly smiled as she glanced toward Rei. "I wonder if I'm anything like my mom?" she asked softly. "My dad never stared inland out the window like I did. He'd never wander around listening and tracking things in nature... he worked on the dock, he fished, and then he read the paper." Tai sighed. "I always wanted to be outside."
Rei smiled. "Me, too."
Tai looked across the fire at him with a bright smile. "I'm glad you came along, Rei. This has been fun."
Rei kicked his legs out and leaned back on his hands. "Yep."
She moved her gaze to a scrutiny of her knees and released a slow breath as her smile faded a bit.
Tai shook her head. "Nothing," she said softly. She lifted her eyes to meet his and smiled again. "I'll take second watch."
Tai released her hold on her legs and laid back, then onto her side. "Good night, Rei."
She released a slow, deep breath as Rei silently watched her. He smiled.
Rei stretched and yawned. When he sat up, Tai sat across the fire from him serving up breakfast.
She sent a smile his direction. "Good morning, Rei."
"Morning," he greeted.
She offered him a yummy and scrambled mess of eggs, meat, and field vegetables. "Hungry?"
Rei took it with an eager smile. "You bet!"
Tai served herself the remains and watched him as she absently ate.
Rei noticed and sent her a smile. "What?"
"How long does it take for Worens to know?"
"Know what?" he asked between bites.
"That they've found their mate."
Rei shrugged. "Don't know. Why?"
"I haven't ever felt this close to anyone before," Tai confessed. She met his gaze. "It's like... I don't know. Like a connection."
Rei's lips twitched upward as he watched her face. "That's why I came on so strong before. Kinda couldn't help it."
Tai's slightly serious expression melted to an easy smile. "I didn't mind. I have a knack for being a little extreme myself. Drove my dad crazy." Her smile softened, and she lowered her eyes.
Rei examined her expression. "You okay?"
Tai nodded and then lifted her eyes to meet his. "Could we talk about it some more?"
"Sure. What do you wanna know?"
"What would it mean for me?"
Rei grinned. "You'd have to put up with me."
Tai purred her chuckle. "No, no. I mean the hard stuff."
Rei shrugged. "What hard stuff?"
Tai regarded him with a wary gaze. "You wouldn't make me stop being a Ranger, would you?"
Rei's jaw dropped. "Of course not! I'd see about going with."
Tai smiled wider. "Really?"
"Well doesn't this just... of course, Tai. Why would you think I'd keep you at home?"
"That's what all the other women do," she told him, matter of fact.
Rei laughed. "They aren't Worens, Tai. I'd take you hunting and fishing and... things like that."
"Is that why you asked?"
"Sure. I don't want to mate with someone who waves her hanky as I go off to work." He laughed. "I'd want you to come with me."
Tai smiled. "Would I live with you? In Cedar Woods?"
"Yep, though I'd have to give Ryu a chance to get his stuff moved out." Rei shrugged. "Seems to me he's been spending more and more time at Momo's anyway."
Tai set aside her plate and brought her knees to her chest to wrap her arms around them. "What would I need to do?"
"Do?" Rei asked with a raised eyebrow. "Do for what?" He put his empty plate onto hers.
"To mate with you."
Rei blinked. "You mean... You mean you know you want to already?"
Tai nodded, and her smile crinkled her eyes at the corners. "I told you I'm kind of extreme."
Rei grinned. "Hey. I like extreme." Tai laughed. "But it's kind of personal," Rei continued. "We should wait 'til we're alone."
Tai nodded, still smiling at Rei as she adjusted her hold around her legs. "Ever had this kind of talk before?"
Rei glanced over his shoulder at the caravan, which had just started bustling with activity. Then he looked back to Tai. She still smiled at him. "Do you usually have to wait for another caravan to come back to McNeil?"
"Most of the time, but not always. Depends on if there's a caravan loaded for McNeil, or if they've already contracted a Ranger."
Rei nodded as he stood, and then he stepped close and offered a hand. She took it and stood, continuing to hold his hand as she looked up at him. Rei's lips rose in a soft smile. "Maybe we can head back by ourselves?"
Tai nodded. "I'd like that, Rei."
Rei grinned. "Yeah. Me, too."
They did get the return hike to themselves.
Tai met Rei's sidelong glance with a smile and then clasped his hand in hers. "Where's your favorite fishing hole?"
"I've got a couple, actually. There's a nice one on the coast near Rhapala. Ryu showed me that one. Caught a whopper of a Sea Bass there. Must've been bigger than my arm!"
Tai nodded, expression brightening. "I love that fishing spot. It's so peaceful, and the sound of the water against the sand and rocks..." She looked ahead with a wistful smile. "I love lying on the sand for hours listening and feeling the water tickle my toes." Tai looked back over to Rei, who watched her profile with a wide smile. "Where's the other one?"
"It's not the best for big fish, but it's great for seclusion. It's really pretty, too. Sammy told me about it."
"I'd love to see it."
"Sure thing. I can take you when we get back. There's some great hunting on the way, too."
Tai nodded, then she motioned to the blades at his side. "Do you hunt with those?"
"Sometimes." He sent her a sidelong glance.
"Well, we Worens... We..."
Tai examined his expression. "Rei?"
Rei halted and faced her. "Here. Let me show you." He released her hand and urged her to step back. "Now don't be scared. Okay?"
Tai arched an eyebrow. "It takes a lot to scare me, Rei."
Rei cleared his throat and set his stance, balling his hands into fists as his eyes began to glow. A growl began to rumble deep within and his form began to change, becoming more muscular and massive. More feral and powerful. More deadly than anything she'd seen before.
The Weretiger snarled, muscles quivering as the growl rumbled again. Tai covered her mouth with a hand, but she didn't step back and she didn't go pale or scream in terror. Instead, she stepped closer and lowered her hand from her mouth as her gaze held his.
"Oh my," she breathed. Tai slowly lifted a hand to his face, stroking his thick fur as she smiled. "Rei, why would I be scared of this? You're... You're gorgeous."
The grumble became a deep and throaty purr as the Weretiger pressed his face against her hand.
Tai stepped closer, and Rei moved his head to press his forehead softly against hers. Tai closed her eyes and released a slow breath, gently gripping each muscular arm to stroke the fur with her thumbs. The purring softened as the Weretiger moved his forehead from hers, instead giving a soft moan of a growl as he rubbed his cheek against hers. He even softly touched her ear with his damp nose. Tai began to purr as she released her hold on his arms to fully embrace him.
Rei's form began to change, but the purring from both continued. "That's never happened before," he whispered. "I... When you touched me and talked to me... The blind rage just... vanished."
Tai adjusted her hold around him. "Maybe because I wasn't afraid."
Rei softly smiled. "Maybe because you're my mate."
Tai lifted her head to look into his face and eyes. "Maybe," she whispered.
Tai smiled, and then she drew him close and placed a kiss on his mouth. Rei blinked in surprise, but with the strong draw he felt for Tai, surprise didn't last long. He was a Woren. They mated for life. They didn't hold back when they found their mate.
Tai pulled her mouth slowly away, opening her eyes after a deep exhalation of breath. "Wow..."
Rei nodded with a whispered, "Yep." Then he slowly smiled. "Are you always like this?"
"I go with the moment, if that's what you're asking," Tai said, eyes twinkling.
Rei held her gaze before lowering his head to rest it against hers. His purr grew slightly in volume as he closed his eyes and breathed deep of her scent, caressing her face with his as her purr joined his.
Rei's cheek softly moved against hers, his breath tickling her ear. "...Yeah?"
"I..." Deep breath. Another. "Shouldn't we..." Slow breath, nuzzle of nose against fur. "...people."
Rei smiled and slowly lifted his head, keeping the soft skin of her face touching his the entire way. He looked down into her flushed face – lips parted, eyes closed – and lightly kissed her. Then again. He pulled slightly away. "I guess now's not the best time to mate, huh?"
Tai chuckled and opened her eyes, shaking her head.
Rei caressed the softness of her cheek and jaw... then lowered his hands to his side and took hold of hers to lead her ahead. "Sorry."
"Starting what I can't finish."
"I didn't mind," she responded softly. "Gives me something to look forward to."
Rei chuckled as he sent her a sidelong glance. "There's a not-so-great fishing spot at the base of Mt. Myrneg. You wanna try getting fish for dinner."
Tai nodded. "I stop there all the time."
Rei watched her profile, and the stripes, and the hint of fur... "You're really pretty, Tai."
Tai's eyes crinkled with the smile she flashed his direction. "Thank you." She stepped closer, holding his hand tightly between hers as she held his gaze. "And you're still gorgeous."
Rei halted, still smiling down at her as he held her hand and smelled her sweet musk-- "I could get us to McNeil faster. If you want."
Rei's eyes began to glow, a growl growing in volume and his form changing as he scooped her up in his arms.
"Oh." Tai wrapped her arms around his massive neck as she smiled into his sharp feral eyes. The Weretiger began to purr. She pressed her forehead against his, closing her eyes as the sound of her purr joined his. "I don't mind the walking, Rei, but I don't mind getting there quicker either."
Rei voiced a mew-like groan and then adjusted his hold on her.
Tai lifted her head and met his gaze. "I'm ready."
Rei touched her cheek with his nose and then dashed forward. Tai gave a startled shriek that quickly blossomed to a laugh.
Rei's step never faltered as he bolted off the main road to traverse the game paths to and across Mt. Myrneg. Leaping and dashing over slight crevices or brooks, climbing up steep inclines or bolting across fallen logs. Tai hadn't ever felt as safe as she did in Rei's arms. Even with as many times as he adjusted her position within his hold so as to get a better grip on the terrain, Tai never once thought he would drop her. She only smiled down at his face, meeting his gaze when he looked over to check on her. Tai had never felt this safe or connected with anyone.
Tai lightly stroked the thick mane of fur behind his head, smiling wider when she heard and felt his purr. It rumbled clear through her.
Light began to fade, but Rei's speed or surety of footing didn't change.
One last leap and a quick and steady slide down an incline and Tai knew they were on the other side of the mountain. The Weretiger stopped and gently set her on her feet, still purring even through his elevated heart and breath rate.
Tai faced him, bringing a hand up to caress his cheek even as his form changed. She smiled, so did Rei. "That was fun," she whispered.
Rei wrapped a hand around hers to draw it from his cheek. "Come on, kitten. Let's go find a place to camp. It's getting dark."
Tai nodded and turned to walk beside him. "I like that name," she told him. Tai moved her gaze to his face. "At least, I like how you say it."
Rei smiled. "Me, too."
Tai held his gaze a moment... then she halted. So did Rei. She looked around them in concentration.
Rei lifted an eyebrow. "What."
Tai tugged Rei forward. She had found a slight clearing of the brush and spring greenery that rose up on each side of Yraall Road. Once there, she freed her pack and staff from her back and then stepped close to Rei, intensely examining the slight tuft of fur standing out from his shirt collar.
He watched her with a faint smile. "We're camping here?" Tai lifted her gaze to meet his, and he could hear the soft and steady sound of her purr. "You sure?"
Tai smiled and nodded as she lifted her hand to stroke his cheek. "Would I be here if I wasn't?"
Rei chuckled and drew her closer, caressing her face with his hands and then his lips and then his cheek as his arms surrounded her. Tai buried her face into the fur of his neck, her purr growing in volume as she pressed herself closer.
Deep breath. Purring. "...wow."
Rei chuckled. "Yep." And then their purrs mingled.