Preface: Greetings, all! This story is a standalone story I wrote for a competition on TouchFluffyTail. This was written for the manticore competition, and while it wasn't successful in that regard, I am still rather fond of it. The main monstergirl featured is a manticore, and the setting is modern. There is mildly explicit content, but nothing serious in this one.

And, to conclude with a standard disclaimer: The monster girls featured in this tale, and many elements of the setting, are based off of the works of Kenkou Cross, and as such this work is intended to be a tribute to his creativity. The characters, however, are my own. Pray neither sue nor steal; I have very little to take, but I love that which is mine.

The Wildcat's Sister

When the bells rang, the students emerged like a spring thaw. Doors surged open, sending forth streams of chatting bodies that merged into the coursing flow that pressed up and down the hallway. Shoals formed along the lockers, but the flood roared back to life nearer to the main doors, a torrent that forced smaller bodies to fight against the current or be swept along like spinning leaves. Finally, the opened doors stood like the edge of a waterfall as the students burst into freedom and open air, flowing towards the waiting yellow buses or the parking lots beyond, sparkling with the freedom of an autumn weekend.

Jake Carroll emerged from the flow of bodies with a gasp, celebrating the sharp crisp air with an appreciation heightened by an hour spent next to a sophomore who had come fresh from gym class and had skipped both a shower and deodorant. He tugged his jacket closer around his shoulders, scanning the crowd hopelessly for the form of his closest friend David. Typically, the hulking form of his closest comrade tended to stand out even in such a teeming mass; David was tall and broad, his head topped by a tangled mass of black curls that matched his battered, second-hand leather jacket. Today, though, Jake could see no sign of his friend, and shrugged as he hoped David hadn't gotten caught napping in Mrs. Finch's class again. The old harpy – literally, winged and feathered and taloned – had a soothing voice, and it never failed to lull half of her class to sleep, though David hardly needed such excuses to ignore lectures from his teachers. Mrs. Finch's voice was hardly so kind when she caught someone slumbering through Physics, however, as Jake knew from his own experiences.

Jake let himself be pushed to the edges of the tide of students as he shoved his hands into his pockets, finding himself in no rush to make his way home. Chores would be waiting for him, he knew, and his brother was supposed to be coming in from college that weekend, no doubt bringing his usual share of boastful stories and meat-brained jibes. Josh Carroll had been a football star during his time in high school, had ridden that success to a scholarship to a local college, and still seemed drunk on the fame he had enjoyed during his senior year, even two years out. He could hardly be more different from Jake, as oh-so-many of his peers, teachers, and even his parents were frequent to express. Both were towheaded and had green eyes, but where Josh was stocky and outspoken, Jake was wiry and quiet, more given to enjoying time four-wheeling or exploring the nearby woods than causing chaos with his buddies as Josh had been known for. This had led to a strained relationship between the siblings, especially over the past several years.

Distracting himself from thoughts of his brother, Jake glanced down the hill at the middle school below. Built along the side of the mountain, like everything else in their area, his high school overlooked the lower grades, giving students a literal summit to ascend as they made their way up the academic ladder. He himself had graduated from that older, more threadbare facility just a couple of years ago, and it still gave him a thrill of nostalgia to think about it. From his overlook, he could tell things had hardly changed. Even as school dismissed, kids rushed to the recess area while they waited for their own buses or parents to arrive. Jake could see several of them in line for a game of Four Square, the playing area taken up by four female students. He could barely see the ball as it careened from one corner to another, three of the girls teaming up against the one who had served, a kraken who looked to be idly chatting with a spectator as her tentacles returned the ball each time it neared her domain. As Jake watched, another of the girls, an agile kakuen, leaped into the air to return the ball after it bounced, spiking the orb downwards towards the kraken's square. Disdainfully, a tentacle intercepted it as soon as it struck the ground, sending it hurtling past the monkey girl before she could regain her footing, and a moment later the kakuen marched slump-shouldered from the square, replaced by another eager contestant.

That area was hardly the only one buzzing with activity. Along the treeline that separated the yard from the bed of a creek, several students slipped through the chain-link fence that had been so ravaged by years of flooding (and by enterprising students eager to escape the notice of observant teachers) that it was more of a dotted line than the barrier it posed as. Jake smiled as he watched a line of ant girls march towards whatever project they had started along the banks of the trickling stream, while a mucus toad threw herself into the water with a murky splash, ignoring the mud that instantly coated her clothes. Jake had fond memories himself of clandestine explorations beyond that fence and along the banks of the creek, although at that time his interests had been more nature-based than some of his classmates, whose attentions even at that time had been more… anatomical. Many of those of his peers had continued into high school in pairs, those who hadn't dropped out to start their families early, while he had instead stayed single throughout middle school and even as an upperclassman. It was easy to blend in, standing in his older brother's shadow, and there was little about himself that drew attention otherwise, so girls had so far failed to line up at his door.

Still… Jake's attention drifted back to the dispersing estuary of the student body. Several girls had broken away from the main pack, headed for the gym annex, the newest building of the high school complex. The basketball courts there were typically monopolized by the girls' basketball team, while the boys typically made due with the older facilities at the other end of the buildings; considering the monster girls usually drew bigger crowds with their superhuman feats and ferocity, they tended to claim the nicer accommodations as their right. Most male athletes tended to prefer trying out for the football team, much like Jake's brother had. One of the girls was looking vaguely in his direction, Jake realized, and he recognized her as Mattie Ann Collins, their point guard and current star player even as a junior, like him. She was a hellhound, and her eyes blazed with an internal light as they flicked over him, returning to her friends as she grinned, baring her fangs in a laugh at another girl's joke.

Scanning past the basketball players, another familiar form caught his eyes, and he smiled despite himself as he started in that direction. The girl that had caught his gaze was hard to catch in the crowd; she was shorter than most, and was wearing a varsity jacket like many of the athletes, though this one hung low on her. Her hair was tawny and long, naturally streaked through with black and pulled into a ponytail. Her limbs ended in furred paws of the same coloration, the fur of her forearms marked with black bars. Protruding from the back of the jacket were a pair of blond wings, and a tail of matching color waved slowly behind her, its end covered in a thick grey knit hood – since her tail featured sharp spines that contained an aphrodisiacal toxin, the girl wore a cap over it to protect everyone from accidental pokings and all the mischief that could ensue. Valerie Hall was a manticore, and she had been in Jake's class since kindergarten. Despite this, they weren't the closest of friends – she had tended to hang around a few people he had always loathed – but in recent days he had started to pay more and more attention to her, talking to her in the halls when he saw her, bringing David to sit with her group at lunch. He wasn't sure what had caused him to begin seeking out her company so much, but he found himself doing it more and more.

Valerie smiled as she saw him approaching, reaching up with one claw to adjust the round glasses that were settled on her button nose. "I would've figured you would have been one of the first out of here," she teased, and he slowed to walk alongside her, shrugging his shoulders.

"Not worth fighting the traffic," he lied, and she nodded, watching as several pick-up trucks roared out of the lot onto the two-laned road that ran past the school and up the hillside, the drivers shouting and waving at each other as they raced towards freedom. Other students were chatting beside their cars as they waited for the congestion to break up, while yet others started walking down the road, their homes close enough to suffer the hike. Some of the winged female students used the downhill slope in front of the school in order to build up enough speed to launch themselves in the air, their backpacks clutched in their taloned feet as they migrated home for the weekend.

Jake turned back to the girl beside him. "Hey, where'd you pick the jacket up from?" he asked casually, eyeing the logo of their girls' basketball team with surprising relief. Valerie was hardly athletic – she was a bit on the curvier side, not that he minded in the least – and the jacket she wore didn't really fit, long and too tight at the chest to close. Normally, a girl wearing someone else's varsity jacket would be a sign of a couple, but that logo suggested something else.

"It's my sister's," she confirmed his suspicions, and he nodded as he spotted the surname emblazoned on the back. Patty Hall had been famous in her day, still held the school record for points scored, and to this day the local coaches spoke of her performances on the court with quiet pride. That, he recalled with a blush, was hardly the only source of her fame; she had been a ruthless flirt, and had enthralled most of the boys of her year with deliberate casualness. She had never been content to settle down into a relationship, had always kept her paramours chasing at her heels. That behavior was far from how Valerie acted, always quiet and gentle, studious and kind. Valerie and Patty were another mismatched pair of siblings, Jake noted ruefully, and wondered what his own brother had thought of the elder Hall sister. "I accidentally tore my jacket yesterday, and it was cold enough this morning to need one, so I just borrowed hers." Valerie glanced angrily back at her tail, which drooped slightly as if in shame. "Between my claws and my tail, I can't tell you how often I have to patch tears in my clothes. Everything I own would be in tatters if I hadn't learned how to sew."

Forcing himself to skip that mental image, Jake nodded, but couldn't think of anything constructive to add. They walked towards the parking lot in comfortable silence for a moment before a topic came to him. "Hey, you going to the college fair next week? We get to skip the whole morning if we go."

He was surprised to see her shrug. "I don't know. I mean, I feel like I would be just wasting time."

"What do you mean? Aren't you going to college after you graduate?" He was surprised; Valerie wasn't at the top of their class or anything, but she still usually had one of the highest grades in every class she took. She certainly blew away his own efforts, despite his attempts at studying and keeping up with his homework.

"It's a nice idea, but…" she trailed off, looking to the ground. "I mean, Patty went, but she had a basketball scholarship, and even then she didn't get the school she'd wanted most. And with her other expenses, and since dad got laid off at the mines…"

Jake winced. He hadn't heard about her dad, but it was a common enough story around their area. "Still, there's academic scholarships and grants, right? Neither of your parents went to college, so maybe you qualify as a first-generation student like me. And-"

"There's no way I could get an academic scholarship. I'm failing Bio 2 right now, and my other science scores aren't great, even on my ACT," she admitted quietly, her shoulders slumping, and her tail mimicking the gesture.

"I could help with that, you know," Jake offered gently. "Science is kind of my thing, really. Better that than math any day."

"Thank you," Valerie replied, reaching out and squeezing his nearest hand with one of her oversized fluffy paws as they walked past a row of parked cars, "But it's more than just that. Everyone I know that's gone away to college doesn't end up coming back, and this is home to me," she motioned around them, to the school, the mountains and woods beyond. "I don't want to leave this behind."

"You don't have to," Jake insisted. "There are local schools – they're small, but that's better anyways, in my opinion. And just because you go to college doesn't mean you have to get a job somewhere else. I mean, I'm looking into maybe a forestry program, maybe see if I can get a job at the national park nearby. And you, you're great in English – have you thought about maybe teaching? The schools here have been looking for new teachers, since so many are old enough to retire."

"I… I'll think about it," Valerie conceded, looking away for a moment, but returning to him with a smile that made his chest tighten. "You always make me look on the brighter side of things, you know?"

"Hey, I try!" Jake chuckled, but his stomach froze in his gut as he realized what he was about to do next. "You know, that reminds me…. Somehow… ah, so the Homecoming Dance is coming up in a couple of weeks, and I was wondering if maybe you, ah…" Jake scratched his head, trying to muster his courage to force his next words out of his mouth. "I was wondering if you had already…" He glanced at her, his bravery fading as he noticed she was distracted, her tufted ears perked as she looked around the parking lot in search of a voice that had risen over the noise.

"Yo, Val! Come over here, I've got something to tell you." Jake and Valerie discovered the source of the curt call at the same moment, though their reactions could not have been more dissimilar. Much to Jake's disgust, he discovered a familiar figure leaned against his truck a few cars away from them, surrounded by other similarly-imposing forms, most of them clad in varsity jackets that definitely belonged to their wearers, unlike Valerie's. The one in the center was Blaine Daniels, a dark-haired senior with a charismatic grin and broad shoulders. Jake knew him well, the way animals that live near an aggressive predator learn to be well-aware of its comings and goings. Blaine was of the sort that practiced a casual social violence, armored by an impenetrable self-confidence and surrounded by sycophants of the same brutish ilk. In short, Jake mused, he would have got along marvelously with Jake's older brother.

None of this explained the way Valerie was looking at Blaine, however. That wide-eyed, hopeful expression made Jake's previous question melt like candy cotton in rain, and bitterness took its place instead in his mouth. Valerie offered him a mumbled, "I'll see you later, okay?" without even a glance back, and she hurried towards the older boy and his pack of jeering hyenas. Jake watched her go for just a moment before turning away, shoving his hands into his pockets to hide the way they had balled into fists by their own volition. He should have known, he bitterly reminded himself – Valerie's helpless crush on Blaine was infamous, had been for years. She had never paid much attention to anyone else, but that hadn't stopped Jake from beginning to wish it was him instead that she looked at so glowingly. Biting down on his own grumbling with steel-jawed effort, Jake found his way to his own beaten-up car and wrenched at the door handle, sliding into the seat and pressing the key into the ignition.

As he pulled out of his parking spot and turned towards the exit, he couldn't help but glance in her direction. She was still standing in front of Blaine, who still wore his wide, thoughtless smile. Her paws were crossed in front of her, and her tail swished back and forth with a nervous energy, although for just a moment it seemed to turn towards Jake's car as he drove by. Fighting to dismiss the image of her and Blaine standing together, Jake mashed the gas as he pulled onto the main road. Soon enough, he left his high school behind him for the weekend, and he prayed that his mind would follow suit.

"So, girl trouble, huh?"

Jake sighed as he flipped through the stack of video games in front of him. Glancing between a hunting simulator and a fighting game that featured a variety of monster girls in martial arts costumes on the cover, he fought to ignore his friend's jibe. David was unconcerned by the lack of a reply, audibly cracking open another Coke and drinking a chugging draught, punctuating it with a belch that resounded through the living room and down the halls of Jake's home.

"Nice one!" Jake's dad complimented David from another room, and Jake's friend raised his beverage in a salute.

"Thank you, Mr. Carroll; it is good to see all my practice has not gone to waste."

Rolling his eyes at his own choice of friends, made too far in the distant past of second grade to revise now, Jake pulled the fighting game from its place and reached over to the video game console to eject the previous disc. "It's fine," Jake lied, watching as the machine regurgitated its contents, only to devour the next disc with automated hunger. "I knew what the answer was going to be before I asked." The hours that had passed since he had left school had done little to improve his mood, and he had invited David over once his chores were done in the hopes of finding distraction.

"Yeah, you did," David replied matter-of-factly. "I warned you, bro. I lived down the road from them since back when she lived in that old double-wide next to the Daniels' place. Ever since she was a little girl tagging along with her sister and playing in the dirt, she's been stuck on him. It's like, imprinting, man. You told me about that, right?"

"That's with animals." Jake sat heavily onto the couch, which squeaked in futile protest. "Anyways, he's an asshole."

"And the sky is blue," David proclaimed with a wave of his hand, all the gravity of a couchbound Buddha in a faded rock t-shirt. He reached for the controller perched on the armrest of the couch as Jake started up the game and began to flip through the menus. "That probably makes your case even worse, really. 'Always want what you can't have,' and that stuff."

Jake glowered at the screen instead of his friend, cycling through the fighters to choose his main character. David nodded at the choice, reading what it meant with the casual ease of years of friendship – Jake needed to burn off his feelings with a real fight, instead of goofing off or experimenting with a new character. The other cursor quickly flipped to David's own usual choice, and a moment later the stage was chosen and the match begun.

"What I don't get," Jake grumbled as the combatants on the screen approached each other, feints and testing attacks exchanging back and forth, "is why she would go for someone like him. I get confidence is attractive and all, but he treats her like…" His fighter launched into an aggressive combo that David blocked, pushed back temporarily.

"Like he treats pretty much everyone else?" David shrugged, his character grabbing Jake's and throwing her across the stage. "Love isn't conscious, man. You don't think about who you like. It's not a choice, it's biochemistry."

"Well, it ain't math, 'cause that still doesn't add up," Jake quipped as his character returned to the fray. "And, by the way, since when are you a love guru?"

The larger boy shrugged nonchalantly. "Hey, you know, I've got options," he pronounced regally, wincing as his fighter took a solid hit. Waiting for his avatar to return to her feet, he glanced at his friend with a mischievous smirk. "And, hell, Jake, you do too, if you'd choose to stop hounding Valerie for a bit and look around… or so I hear."

"Yeah, I'm sure," Jake grumbled, the added emphasis soaring over his head. Beside him, David rolled his eyes in exasperation. "I just don't want her to be miserable, and he'll never treat her any better than this. We both know that." Jake's character ducked a heavy swing, only to fall for David's feint, flying backward in short order.

"Assholes don't change," David acknowledged, pressing his advantage. "So, ah, to a totally unrelated topic: when's your brother supposed to come in, anyways?"

"Tomorrow morning," Jake moaned, stifling the discontent in his voice for fear his parents would hear. They were of course aware of the brothers' bickering, but tended to handle such strife heavy-handedly and indiscriminately, at least in Jake's own long-suffering opinion.

"Ah. Then, want to go four-wheeling tomorrow afternoon?" David offered with a grin, pushing Jake's fighter to the edge of the arena.

"Please," Jake replied emphatically. His mood was sour enough without having to think about spending two days in close proximity to his sibling. His relief continued as his fighter rolled to her feet, narrowly avoiding another attack from her rival, and he pressed the opening to go on the offensive.

Realizing his chances for any easy victory were slipping from his fingers, David smirked as he switched tactics. "Or, you know, you could ask him for love advice instead." Jake's reply was long and scathingly profane. To David's shock, however, Jake's split focus did not give him the advantage he expected, and he watched in disappointment as his fighter was tossed from the arena. He glanced at Jake's smug smirk and sighed, chalking his loss up as a sacrifice to improve his friend's mood. "Don't worry, I'll get you next round," he announced imperiously, and soon enough the living room was filled only with the sounds of cartoonishly-exaggerated slams and controllers clacking their way towards an early death.

It wasn't enough of a distraction to hide the pain of rejection Jake felt, but he appreciated it nevertheless.

The world felt clearer from the back of the four-wheeler, Jake mused, the wind whipping at his jacket as he narrowed his eyes against the glare of sunlight. Outside his helmet, the noise of the engine and the howling of the air drowned out everything but his own thoughts, and at times these drives felt almost like a meditation. He and David were currently driving up the main road that led from his house past the school; they had heard that, further up the mountain, an old coal road had been left open, and it led to some impressive vistas they hadn't seen before. Traffic was dead at this time on a Saturday afternoon, so they hadn't even had to pull aside to let cars pass, and that had only added to the feeling of invigorating isolation.

His brother had arrived a couple of hours earlier, and had acted precisely as Jake had foreseen, with all the pomp of an emperor returning to his throne from a vacation abroad. He had even announced to their parents that he had plans to visit with some of his friends that evening, which suited Jake perfectly, though he had also mumbled something about having to tell them all something at lunch tomorrow, which had mildly piqued Jake's interest. It was rare that Josh showed any sign of flawed confidence, and something had him shaken, his younger brother had detected. Probably getting put on academic probation, Jake mused with a bitter vindictiveness, after all those parties he bragged about.

As they climbed higher up the hill, the main building of their school came into view. To Jake's surprise, he noticed motion near the main entrance. Squinting his eyes, he struggled to see who would be messing with the front doors of the school when no one was going to be there. It wasn't uncommon to see people around the building even during the weekend; while the gym was locked, there were old outdoor basketball courts that the students were only nominally forbidden from using when the school was closed. This was right at the main entrance, though, and the person looked to be banging on the doors, which was pointless, since all the students knew that none of the staff would be caught dead at school during the weekend. To his shock, however, Jake noticed a few familiar features even from this distance: blond wings and a hooded tail, and great fluffy paws with banded fur.

Jake let his four-wheeler coast towards a stop, and David pulled off the road ahead of him, glancing back with a nod. Apparently he had noticed the same thing, because he jerked his thumb in the direction of the school. Jake nodded in response, and David glanced both ways before turning his four-wheeler around, wheeling past Jake in the direction they had come. "Good luck, man!" David called over the wind, and then opened his throttle, letting his ride carry him towards his own home. Jake knew he would owe his friend all of the details later, but his own curiosity and faint chivalrous inclinations drove him to press onward to the turn-off to the school, and beyond towards the parking lot.

Moments later he pulled into a spot close to the main building, smirking as he noticed he had momentarily claimed Mrs. Finch's usual parking spot, a sin that would have earned him a screeching on a weekday. There was no one to complain now, so Jake leapt from his seat, pulling his helmet from his head and giving his hair a hopeful shake. Leaving the helmet on the rear rack, he turned to jog towards where he had seen Valerie last. She was no longer standing at the front doors of the school, but he soon found her peering with cupped paws into the darkened windows of one of the offices around the corner from the entrance. Hoping to avoid spooking her, he called out as he approached, but his efforts were futile as she jumped anyways, her tail shooting erect as if ice had ran down her back. He raised his hands to ward off her pouting glower, grinning to show it hadn't been intentional. "Sorry, I just saw you up here when I was driving by, and was wondering if something was wrong," he explained, and her petulance melted into an appreciative smile.

"It's my- well, my sister's jacket," she explained, motioning towards the darkened office on the other side of the pane of glass. "After we talked yesterday, and after I talked to Blaine, I got to thinking about what you said about the college fair. I knew we needed a permission form to go to it, and since my dad was running late, I figured I would just run in real quick and grab one from the counselor. But he was busy, so I waited in the office until he was finished, and you know how Mrs. Collins keeps the thermostat in there cranked…" Valerie sighed despondently as Jake nodded. The school's secretary was a hellhound, the mother of the basketball star Mattie, and she was quick to gripe at the slightest dip in temperature, though most of the students swore she did it to keep troublemakers miserable as they waited in her office to see the vice principal. "So I took off my jacket, and I accidentally left it in there after I got the permission form. It wouldn't be a problem, but my sister came home this weekend to visit, and when she found out…" Valerie motioned helplessly towards the front doors. "She dropped me off and told me not to come home until I found where I had left it."

Wincing sympathetically, Jake nodded. "I know how much of a terror older siblings can be," he admitted, and they shared a glance that communicated the eternal empathy of oppressed younger siblings everywhere. He looked at the window Valerie had been peering into, shaking his head. "Still, no one is here during the weekend, and the doors are locked. There's no way inside-" He paused, remembering a rumor David had shared with him weeks ago. Apparently, one of the side doors had been sticking recently, and a rough enough yank could force it open, locked or not. They would get in trouble if they got caught, but who was around to catch them? "Actually, let me take that back. I might just know a way."

"Thank you so much," Valerie said, smiling gratefully and reaching out to squeeze his hand. "You're a lifesaver, I swear it."

"Save that until my idea actually works," Jake cautioned her, swallowing despite the tightness in his throat. His heart was swelling at the look on her face, and he was trying to beat that masochistic hope down before he found himself right back where he had been the previous day. "Follow me, it's around back near the basketball court."

The pair of them made their way around the school, both of them eyeing the road despite themselves. As they passed between the main building and the gym annex, a glance towards the parking lot showed a handful of vehicles still scattered about, but that was nothing unusual. Half of those were probably junkers old enough to have broken down there, left to molder until the owners finally managed to get someone to jump them off or cart them away. Still, something about that sight disquieted Jake, and he had nearly managed to put his finger on it when he heard Valerie speak.

"About what you were asking me yesterday…" The halting tone tightened the muscles in Jake's back as he braced for what was coming. "I appreciate you asking, honestly, but actually, Blaine just asked me to go with him to the dance, and I told him yes." Jake didn't look in her direction, staring at the ground in front of him as his stomach twisted. He hadn't failed to notice that, in spite of her politeness, there was a certain joy in her voice when she said the other boy's name. "I'm sorry, I-"

"It's fine, really," Jake responded, forcing a smile onto his face with a Sisyphean effort. "I was just asking 'cause I hadn't found someone to go with yet, and I thought that you might be free. Don't worry about it, it's fine." The lies came out easily enough, he thought optimistically, despite tasting like ash in his mouth. He even felt brave enough to turn towards her with a smile, though he was afraid from her expression that it had been too brittle to be convincing.

"Thank you," she said, looking to the ground as well. "I… I would have loved to go with you, but…" Jake mentally pleaded with her to stop speaking, because the pity stung like an acid bath, but she seemed determined to comfort him. Her tail even extended in his direction as if trying to rest against his shoulder. "It's just that Blaine-"

Speak of the devil, and sure enough he will appear, Jake mused, pausing in his tracks. Ahead of them, leaning against the chain-linked wall that surrounded the outdoor basketball court, was the very topic of their conversation, surrounded as always by his gaggle of like-minded brutes. It was obvious that they had come to the court to shoot a few hoops and to escape their parents, but now the ball lay forgotten in the middle of the court. Instead, the crowd stood around chatting, most of them clutching bottles that they occasionally raised to their lips. It didn't take the sight of several of them spitting darkly-colored swill into the bottles, or the one to the side packing a can of dip, for Jake to realize they weren't really hydrating themselves. A survival instinct barked at Jake to turn around and find himself somewhere else as soon as possible, but he saw Valerie's face brighten at the sight of Blaine and his friends. His trepidation only increased as Jake realized that he had been walking alone with the girl that Blaine had just asked out; such bullies hardly needed a good excuse for violence, and everyone knew their status as athletes earned them a certain immunity to lighter punishments. Better for his health to be somewhere else, immediately, before Valerie said anything.

"So, how the hell does asking Hall out fit into it?" The voice of one of the brutes caught both Jake and Valerie in their tracks, and they both froze as confusion made eavesdroppers of them both.

On the other side of the chain-link, Blaine shrugged with spread hands, and Jake didn't need to see to know the smug expression he wore. "See, that's just it, man. Girls like Mattie, they thrive on competition. If you chase them, they run. You gotta make them chase you. And the easiest way to do that is to make them think they're missing out." He paused as he deposited another surge of tobacco-darkened water into his bottle. "'Oh, I would've asked you, but I'm already taking somebody. Sorry.' That'll make her even more interested, and when I let her convince me to drop the manticore to go with her instead, she'll be all in."

"That's messed up, man," one of the listeners opined, his criticism softened by his chuckling. "Didn't you grow up with Hall?"

"She's like a kid sister to me, really," Blaine explained disdainfully. "I mean, I'd always hoped she end up a man-eater like her sister Patty, but around middle school she started packing on the pounds, hitting the cookies a little hard. She's just not one of those girls you chase after, y'know?" His laughter joined the chorus that had started when he had patted his stomach. "She'll get over it. She wouldn't have had fun at the dance anyways."

Jake's head slowly pivoted as he looked towards Valerie. Sure enough, betrayal was written in a bold font across her face, her wings and tail drooping earthward as if all life had fled them. The only motion she displayed was a minute shaking back and forth of her head, as if she was disputing what she had heard, trying to deny the reality of it all. Jake trying to think of something to say to her, but his vocabulary had thrown up its hands in surrender, knowing there was no comfort words could offer her right now. Pity, he knew instinctively, would not do her any good at all.

"Oh, shit, man, isn't that…?"

The voice from the basketball court didn't draw Jake's attention away from Valerie, but he knew that all of the other boys were staring in their direction. Valerie backed up a step, as if scalded by their gazes, and her head shook even more fiercely, as if the motion could hide the moisture welling in her eyes. Jake tore his gaze from her to look towards the crowd, glaring accusatorily at Blaine, whose expression spoke of a certain cunning deliberation, as if he were trying to think of a way out of the trouble he had found himself in. "Hey, Val, listen-" he began, his casual drawl as disarming as he could manage, as calming as years of practiced manipulation had taught him to be.

It wasn't enough. The sound of his voice broke her, and she sprinted. Jake didn't have a chance to reach for her, to say anything, before she rounded the building as was gone. He knew he should run after her, but there was something he had to do first.

"You absolute shithead," Jake spat wrathfully at Blaine, conscious of the outrage flaring in the senior's eyes but utterly unconcerned. "You've never deserved a moment of her time, and she still cared about you, no matter what you did to her. I hope someday someone makes you that miserable, just so maybe you can understand how pathetic you are." The heat of his words drove the other listeners back a step, but Blaine gawked at him like a wolf confronted by a pugilistic rabbit.

"The hell did you say to me, you little-"

"I don't have time for you," Jake snarled, and he turned his back towards the pack, marching rapidly in the direction that Valerie had fled. He half-expected to hear the pounding of shoes against the pavement as they pursued him, but at his back was only silence. Had Jake looked back, he might have felt vindicated by the glances passing around Blaine's friends, mute agreement and recrimination in those exchanges, but his mind was on the girl that had sped away. He had to find her, now.

He just had no idea what he would say when he did.

The woods swirled around Valerie as she ran. All that mattered was what she was going away from, not towards – that would be a problem for later, for when thinking didn't hurt so much. The leaves crunching underfoot couldn't drown out the pounding of her heartbeat in her ears, and the burning in her lungs couldn't compete with the pain that gripped her heart. Her vision was blurred by the tears that poured down her cheeks, but the autumnal woods here were open and the ground clear enough of underbrush that she didn't lose her footing, just careened from tree to tree as she fought to escape… escape the eyes, the words, everything, everybody.

Finally she had to stop, her chest heaving as she fought to swallow breaths. She grabbed her glasses with one paw and rubbed at her eyes with the other, the fur soaking up only some of the tears. She struggled to breath through her now-stuffy nose, her crying stripping away any vestiges of her pride that may have remained. Leaning against a rough-barked tree, she pressed both her paws against her face, letting her sobs shake her whole body. The pain in her heart was too much, silencing her thoughts. She didn't want to open that door again, because she knew what would emerge; that all-so-familiar voice, the disdain, the confirmation that she had been so, so stupid. She had actually believed him. Again. But this time, it had felt real. He had asked her, just her! But…

Her paw tightened into a fist, and she pounded it back against the tree, rewarded with the distraction of physical pain. Now, the words had found a crack in her wall of silence, and mixed with her own recriminations and self-doubt. She should have known. Blaine had always been like this. He could be so charming, so charismatic, that she couldn't help but follow after him. But every time…!

Hadn't her sister warned her? Hadn't her mother? She remembered all the times Patty had criticized her, teased her about her diet, joked about her clothes and her attitude. Her mom had started to buy her makeup for Christmas instead of old books, started trying to teach her how to dress to emphasize her body instead of hiding it, but Valerie had never listened. She knew she was nothing like them, she couldn't be, and any time she had even tried, she had just ended up feeling like an imposter, a child dressing up in her mother's clothing. She would never be able to carry herself like Patty, to smile and tease and walk away with a flick of her hair.

A man-eater. That's what Blaine had called Patty. Anger swelled in her chest, warring with the pain that had taken up residence within. That's what he had wanted. Someone like her sister. Valerie sighed, closing her eyes as cold certainty washed away her warring emotions. Fine, then.

She reached up to her face, delicately catching the frame of her glasses between two claws and pulling it away. She placed the glasses on a nearby branch, the nosepiece straddling the thin limb. With similar care, she reached behind her to grab the woolen knit hood she wore at the end of her tail, tugging it free. That, too, she draped across the branch, leaving the bulbous tip of her tail exposed, its spines pointing outward wrathfully.

'You know you are a manticore, right, sis?' Valerie remembered her sister's words perfectly even years later, although she couldn't recall what her own response had been. Patty had been right to ask, though. Everyone had always expected her to be like her sister, to be the same confident, attractive, ambitious person that Patty was. Maybe it was time that Valerie lived up to their expectations.

The sound of tearing cloth startled a nearby bird into flight. Valerie's claws made short work of the fabric like usual, but this time her impromptu alterations were intentional, if unskilled and imprecise. One gash opened up the neckline of her shirt, revealing the tops of her breasts down to the upper edge of her bra. Another tear started below her ribs, exposing her midriff as shreds of cloth dropped to the leaf-coated ground. The denim of her jeans proved more durable, but her claws still opened gashes in the material that revealed the pale skin of her thighs and calves. Reaching back, she freed her ponytail from its scrunchie and ran her claws through the length of her hair, tossing it back as she had seen her sister do.

Valerie restrained the urge to shiver, though the feeling wasn't entirely from the cold wind on her now-exposed flesh. It was more from the chill, passionless calm she felt; a zealous determination that made her almost want to laugh. Fine. Fine. Fine. The word was a mantra of grim acceptance, and she almost wished she could see herself, see what her transformation had produced. She felt like a sharp-winged butterfly that had emerged from its chrysalis, instead of the heavy, shy, quiet caterpillar she had been before, instead of-


The manticore turned to face the speaker, her eyes narrowed into slits as she bit her lip. Perfect. A boy that she could try her newfound confidence out on. Her smile was all fangs as she took a step in his direction, her hips swaying as she leaned slightly forward, exposing herself more for his hungry eyes. He took the bait helplessly, she noticed, and the heat in his cheeks thrilled her, made her tongue flick over her upper lip. Her tail advanced over her shoulder, its petals opening eagerly, and a thin liquid beaded at the tips of her spines as she stalked towards him. One of her paws roamed restlessly across her stomach and down the side of one of her legs, and she noticed his eyes followed its path, lured like a moth to a flame.

Those eyes rose back to meet hers as she came closer, but they had changed, and she was disappointed to see the haze of lust fade from them. "Valerie, this isn't you. You're not thinking clearly. Listen, let's just talk, and-"

"I can think of things I would rather do instead," the manticore purred as she neared him, and she reached out with one paw for him. To her outrage, he drew back, shaking his head, but his retreat was stopped as he bumped against a tree behind him. Wordless rage bubbled up within her, and without realizing what she was doing, her tail lashed forward. She wasn't certain if he had moved, or if she had intentionally missed, but for a moment they both stared at the end of her tail, specifically at the spine that had pierced into the bark of the tree behind him, and at the fluid that oozed out of the wound like sap.

Before she could react, he turned and ran, sprinting the way he had come as fast as she had made her own way into the forest. Deep inside, voices screamed at her in despair and concern, but she muted them with the heat of her anger. This was who she was now. She was a man-eater. She was a hunter, not the hunted. And that boy – Jake, sweet kind Jake, her internal voice screamed – was her prey. If he wanted to run, she decided, then she would give chase. Her wings flexed as she leaned forward, her paws tearing at the earth as she sprinted the way he had fled, a predatory instinct spurring her onward.

The hunt was on.

"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…"

Jake tore through the woods like a startled rabbit, praying he knew the way back to the school. When he had pursued Valerie into the woods that lay beyond the edges of the schoolyard, he had tracked her with ease. He was much more accustomed to spending time in the forest than she, and she had hardly tried to hide her trail. Now, though, he had little time for such sleuthing, since he could already hear the tearing of leaves not far behind him. Instead, he trusted his instincts to guide him back towards the possible safety of civilization beyond the edge of the trees. She was catching up to him, he knew, and he didn't know what would happen when she did. Of course, a certain visceral part of him hoped that she would; his body had responded instantly to her transformation, to the sight of her bared flesh and the seductive way she had moved, but his heart had screamed at the wrongness of it all. That wasn't Valerie, that was… something else.

And that something was getting closer. He forced himself to run faster, even as the dark throaty chuckling he heard behind him sent a thrill of terror down his spine. He really shouldn't have skipped so many days in gym, maybe should have taken up that offer to join the track team…

They were close now. He could see the clearing beyond the trees, the brick walls of the school building. If he could just get to the building, then surely she would stop chasing him, surely the fear of being seen by Blaine's gang would calm her down. The irony that he was praying to catch sight of a crowd he would normally rather hide to avoid was not lost on him, but he had little time for such considerations with a lust-crazed manticore breathing down his neck. He could deal with those consequences later, if he could just reach-

Jake had been tackled many times in his life. Growing up with a brother and several cousins that played football, and being one of the scrawniest of the bunch, had condemned him to a fate of full-bodied collisions every summer. This, however, was different: still just as forceful, yet somehow softer and more terrifying. Either way, his face still ended up in the dirt, and he gasped for breath as he raised his face from the earth, pinned by the weight on his back.

"Caught you…" The words were delivered in a breathy singsong that sent a shiver careening up Jake's spine, and the panting in his ear didn't feel like it came entirely from a need for oxygen. He could feel the pricking of claws at his back, and images of a mouse trapped by a cruelly-playful feline sprang to his mind. From his peripheral vision, he saw a pale tail facing him as if savoring his desperation, the petals flexing and beginning to open, the spines extending slightly outwards. He caught a whiff of a musky, feminine scent from that extremity, and the smell clouded his mind even further as his blood drained southward in a hurry.

The pressure on his back disappeared, but before Jake could clamber to his feet, a paw gripped his shoulder and flipped him onto his back. He gaped up at Valerie as she plopped onto his lap, straddling him with the same mischievous, dark hunger in her slitted eyes. When he tried to sit up, her paw pressed against his chest, the tips of her claws penetrating his shirt to prick at his skin until he relented, staring haplessly up at her victorious grin. "See, isn't this better?" she teased, shifting slightly atop him, and he swallowed against a knot in his throat. Her eyes drank in his discomfort, and she bit her lip as she leaned forward, baring more pale soft flesh to his distracted gaze. "Isn't this what you wanted?"

"No," Jake responded, shaking his head with difficulty, bringing his mind back from the brink. "Valerie, I-" She pressed a soft paw pad against his lips, silencing him, and the hardness in her gaze made him despair at his odds of dissuading her.

"This is what guys want. I know. You can be honest," Valerie whispered, a harsh edge to her words under her silky tones. She smiled down at him as her tail moved in once more, and as he watched its lips parted slightly, drawing closer to his face. Instead of the sharp spines along its sides, the fleshy petals at the end brushed his cheek in a gentle kiss that made his head swim with need. "You want to be hunted, to be played with. You want a man-eater." Despite the dangerous proximity of her envenomed barbs, Jake shook his head emphatically, but Valerie's attention was elsewhere. She was looking off to the side, in the direction of the basketball courts. In that moment, she was posed atop him triumphantly, her wings spread wide, her impressive chest thrust forward, her head thrown back. She was looking for Blaine, wanted him to see this, he realized, and that dowsed his lust with a flood of disappointment and anger.

Valerie's head turned back to him as she felt his hands grab her wrists, and he leaned forward, pressing her slightly off-balance. Her narrowed eyes widened as she noticed his expression, the intensity of his gaze and the way he was looking at her, but her predatory drive kicked back in, and she leaned in closer, answering his challenge by staring back into his eyes. "No, Valerie. I want you. And if you would really look at me for once, instead of looking for him, then maybe you would realize that you were already exactly what I wanted."

Those words broke through her adopted persona, and she gawped at him in shock. He didn't look away, even when her gaze shifted to the side. "You're just saying that," she murmured, her voice quieter, more fragile. "You pity me. That's why-" She froze with a quiet mew when she noticed how close his face had gotten to hers, the way he was looking at her, the way his face was turning just a bit to the side. Despite her hesitation, she answered his movement in kind, turning her face and closing her eyes as their lips pressed together. The kiss was long and gentle, but the quiet mewls from deep in her throat and the way her tail curled around to support his back encouraged Jake to press harder, to show her how much he had wanted her, to try to let their physical connection convey all that he felt.

When they finally broke apart, staring into each other's eyes with unspoken questions and hopes, their chests rising and falling heavily, neither of them moved away. Jake was the first to let his happiness show, and he reached up to stroke her cheek, brushing away the single tear that had drifted down from her eye. Her response surprised him, a sudden lunge back against him in a needy kiss, but he answered her passion eagerly, opening his mouth slightly, allowing her tongue to slip inside to dance against his own.

They were so lost in each other they didn't notice the approaching voices in the slightest. It took a sudden exclamation, "What the hell?!" to bring them back down to earth, and they glanced to the side in unison to discover Blaine and his flunkies nearby, no doubt headed back to their cars. Their faces were alight in a range of expressions, a gallery of envy and shock and admiration, but Blaine was apoplectic, his cheeks crimson with rage. Jake and Valerie scrambled to their feet and apart from each other, stammering impotently to explain, before they both surrendered to silence. Unfortunately, it was hard to argue that it wasn't what it looked like, when the truth was scarcely any better. "What are you doing?" Blaine demanded, and Jake met his accusing glower coolly, unsurprised at the other man's entitled territorialism. With a final edged glare that promised future violence, Blaine turned his attention back to Valerie. Here, his expression changed, his eyes delving down, twisting and exploring, before rising back up to her face. Blaine licked his lips as she met his eyes uncomfortably, and he nodded to himself as if changing his mind. "Val, listen," he drawled innocently, "I didn't mean what I was saying earlier. It was a joke, and you didn't hear all of what I was saying. I am serious about going to the dance with you, really. I was wrong about you."

"Valerie, please-" She cut Jake off with a gesture, and without looking at him she stepped forward, her hips swaying as she approached Blaine. Jake's heart crumpled as he watched her go, watching her transform once more into the huntress that had chased him through the forest. This wasn't right, he wailed internally, but his throat was too tight for any more words.

"Me too," Valerie said softly, drawing close to Blaine. He spread his arms out towards her, offering an embrace that she had craved for a decade, and she moved nearer, her smile gentle as she spread her own paws. Blaine's triumphant smile froze as she stopped in place, and he noticed the hardness of her gaze, the way her eyes had narrowed to slits. "I was wrong about you, all this time. You, Blaine Daniels, are an asshole." He gawped at her, not certain what to say, but she took care of that for him. "And you can go fuck yourself."

Her tail whipped forward, spines extended. One sank deep into the meat of his thigh, and her tail pulsed as muscles in the tip pumped venom into his bloodstream. The aphrodisiac was relentless, and immediately he clapped his hands over his groin as he sank to his knees, his eyes rolling back as he was overpowered by the sudden sensation. His gasps were primal and choked as his body spasmed, and he collapsed forward with a moan of release, utterly indifferent to the incredulous stares of his entourage. It would be a while before he would be able to rise, several minutes before he could do little but writhe in pleasure.

Later, looking back at that moment from the safety of intervening days, Valerie and Jake would wish they had used those minutes wisely. They would say that they should have told Blaine what they thought of him, unloaded on him for all his prior abuse. Instead, they just ran. No one pursued them, but they didn't stop until they were far into the forest once again, fighting for breath even as they both laughed until they cried. They collapsed into each other, supporting each other as they let their emotions escape in graceless guffawing and trickling tears, all of the tension they had felt for so long melting away like morning fog. What replaced it was an exhausted mental hush, but one that felt warm and comforting.

Finally, they composed themselves, and Jake managed to retrace their crossing trails enough to hike back to the place where she had left her glasses and the hood for her tail. The latter, she left off, the end of that appendage resting on Jake's shoulder like a contented cat as they walked side by side through the woods. By the time they emerged from the forest, they were holding hands, and stayed connected all the way back to Jake's four-wheeler.

He drove her back to her house, only a few miles from the school, grinning at the feeling of her pressed against his back, her arms wrapped around his chest, though the wind did cut through his thin shirt; he had offered her his jacket, considering the damage to her clothing. Thankfully, once they arrived at her driveway, no one peered out of her house at them, since he was not looking forward to her dad seeing him with her in such a state of disarray. Despite that danger, they were slow to part, exchanging numbers and longing glances, their hands clinging together even as they moved apart. Finally Valerie darted forward for one final kiss, and raced into her house before she could hesitate yet again, but as Jake pulled out of her driveway he could feel her eyes peering at him through one of the windows, and he waved as he drove away, grinning like an idiot all the while.

He knew there would be trouble ahead; his brother would still be home when he returned, and he would have to face Blaine again eventually, and he was now in the first major relationship of his life without a clue of what he was supposed to be doing – but none of that mattered now. He was happy, she was happy, and everything else would just have to sort itself out. For the first time in a long time, he was looking forward to school on Monday, because the world had already changed so much in just a single day.

The bell summoned forth the flood of students once more. The halls of the high school were instantly full of the swirling mass, students exchanging shouts and rumors and laughter as they flowed down- and upstream, others hunkering down as they pressed into the tide. One student threw himself headlong into the current, racing past the swirling rapids of clustered cliques, dodging through the cross-current of perpendicular hallways, contorting himself to squeeze between a janitor pushing his cart and a girl filling her water bottle at the fountain. Finally he arrived at his destination, just in time for the final students to emerge. His smile grew as he spotted the tufted ears and tawny fur of his favorite manticore, and when she noticed him her own face brightened into a grin.

They submerged themselves into the stream of traffic with a lack of haste, even though the bell had announced their lunch period and they knew the line would be horrific by the time they arrived. Still, the company seemed more appealing than the food – which was hardly a surprise, considering most of their meals were tasteless on the best of days – and they walked in a comfortable silence, sneaking glances at each other as they walked. Valerie was the one to eventually break the silence, shaking her head in bemused irritation. "To think Patty made such a big deal about her jacket, when she came back home wearing someone else's."

Jake sighed in agreement, similarly uncomfortable with that particular situation. The mystery of his brother's big announcement had been solved Sunday morning, when Josh had asked his parents if he could bring company to dinner with them the next time he came in. No one had been more surprised than Jake when Josh revealed the identity of the girl he had been dating for several weeks: Patty Hall. Jake hadn't known that Valerie's sister had gone to the same college as his brother, but apparently they had run into each other at a party, and reminiscing about their shared origins to led to something more, or so Jake had deciphered. That news had made his own announcement about the Homecoming Dance considerably more awkward, especially when Josh had pulled him aside and threatened his life if he ever did anything to make Patty upset at him. Jake knew fully well that Josh was capable of doing that on his own, and for once hadn't been shy about telling him so, emboldened by the way he had faced down Blaine just a day earlier. Instead of his usual brutish rage, however, Josh had sighed and scratched his head self-consciously, admitting that he was learning – or that Patty was teaching him - to be better. Perhaps people can change after all, Jake marveled to himself, if Patty Hall could settle down, if Josh Carroll could be humbled.

His thoughts were interrupted by the brush of fur against his hand, and he glanced down to see Valerie's paw hovering inconspicuously close to his own. With a quiet laugh, he reached out and took that paw, marveling at the softness of the central pad, the finger beans, and she squeezed his fingers with a shy smile. Now wasn't the time to be thinking about anyone else, now was just for the two of them-

"Hey, Jake," a brusque voice called out from nearby, and he glanced to the side to discover another girl walking towards him, an unabashed grin on her face. That girl was tall and lean, her shirt clinging closely to her skin and just a little too short not to reveal her defined abs. A dark leather choker encircled her throat, clasped at the front with a simple lock, and her red eyes blazed with an internal light that escaped from the edges like curling flame. Like Valerie, she also had furred paws, though her claws had been trimmed shorter, and her hair and fur were coal black, a pleasing match for the ashen color of her skin. A canine tail wagged slowly behind her as she approached the pair, staring unflinchingly at Jake. She stopped a short distance away from them, and the other students gave her a wide berth as they passed, an instinctive recognition of her social presence.

"What's up, Mattie?" Jake asked, surprised that the star of the basketball team had sought him out, even that she knew him by name. She didn't seem so familiar with Valerie, as her eyes didn't even budge towards the other girl.

"I heard about you standing up to Blaine." Jake blinked in surprise at that, especially since it had really been mostly Valerie that had dealt with the creep. "That was brave. I know how he treats people, but you told him off." Mattie favored him with a broad smile, and he stammered out his gratitude, not certain how to respond to her praise. Now, though, the hellhound's eyes turned towards Valerie, acknowledging her at last. "And I heard what he did to you, too. He's a real piece of shit, and I've made sure all the girls on the basketball team know it, too." Beside Jake, Valerie nodded in gratitude, but her stance was guarded, like a cat meeting a stranger for the first time. "I have a feeling we'll get to see how he takes being on the wrong end of a nickname for once," Mattie suggested, her fangs gleaming in the florescent light.

"He doesn't matter to me anymore, either way," Valerie said resolutely, and Mattie nodded at her in mute respect. Her eyes returned to Jake in short order, though, and she stared at him with an appraising gaze that drew a soft hiss from the manticore at his side.

"So, Jake, I was wondering: are you taking anyone to the Homecoming Dance?" Mattie's eyes speared into his unflinchingly.

"Yeah," he declared simply, pointing with his other hand towards Valerie. "Valerie and I are going together." He felt her paw squeeze his hand appreciatively. "I'm sorry," he continued lamely, not certain what else to say, what planet he had woken up on that such a school celebrity would have even asked him that in the first place.

"It's fine," Mattie replied, but he could see the disappointment on her face, and she stood awkwardly still for a moment before her eyes slid to the floor. A second later, though, she glanced back up towards the couple, the light in her eyes glowing brightly as she stared at Valerie. "Your sister, she's Patricia Hall, right?" When Valerie nodded, Mattie bared her teeth in a grin. "I always looked up to her. I wanted to play against her, just once." Something unspoken passed between the girls, some silent oath of rivalry, as Valerie's tail settled possessively on Jake's shoulder like a coiled viper, as Mattie's grin grew wider. The hellhound looked back to Jake, catching his eyes with hers like a rabbit awaiting the jaws of a wolf. "Well, then, I'll see you at the dance, alright? Save one for me." With that, she turned to walk away, but her eyes stayed locked to his even as she made her way down the hall for a long moment, her tail swaying with her rolling hips.

"That was…" Jake mumbled, glancing over to Valerie to notice her staring carefully at his face. He shook his head at her unspoken question, meeting her gaze resolutely. "No regrets," he assured her, and he could see her nod, her shoulders slumping slightly in relief as the tension flowed out of her, but still her paw gripped his hand, and he held hers just as tightly. They resumed their path towards the cafeteria, losing themselves in pleasant conversation, but Jake would swear to himself that he could see a new light in Valerie's eyes whenever she looked at him, a gleam that took him back to his panicked flight through the forest.

They made their way through the lunch line quickly enough and walked together towards their usual table, aware of the eyes that chased them through the room, the rumors that had already begun to swirl with hurricane force. Still, they found their succor at their table, where David was already waiting as he offered Jake a rougish salute of congratulations, where Valerie's friends all wore brilliant teasing smiles. The new couple suffered the ribbing with good humor, their seats scooted close enough together that their shoulders brushed as they retold key parts of the story of their weekend.

When the topic had finally, mercifully, moved on and broken into smaller chatting, Valerie turned to Jake with a smile on her face. "By the way, I've been thinking about something." He nodded, curious, but felt a cold drop of sweat drip down his back suddenly as he saw that familiar glow in her eyes, a hunger hidden behind her innocent smile. "I really do need to work on my science grades, especially if I want to look into scholarships. There's a test coming up in Bio 2… did you mean it when you offered to tutor me?" He nodded gallantly, and she grinned, the gleam flaring. "Well, since you know where I live now, you could come visit me an evening or two this week, if you wanted, and we could go over my notes…"

Even as he agreed, Jake knew what he was in for. Her eyes told him that Bio 2 would only be on their minds for part of their time together, the rest devoted to their own biochemistry, but as nervous as it made him, it thrilled him at the same time, and he walked willingly into the jaws of the ferocious, adorable beast beside him. Contented, she leaned against his arm, and he could feel a vibration against his arm as she purred quietly. He was in over his head, he knew as he kissed the top of her head, her tufted ear flicking against his cheek, but he wouldn't have it any other way.

In the end, Jake mused, he was who he chose to be. He knew he didn't have to walk the same path as his brother, even as he carried parts of that with him, and Valerie would never be her sister, even if he now saw the resemblance. They were both themselves, their choices and their desires, and they were together. For the first time in forever, they could feel comfortable with where they were, who they were, and who they were with… and that was enough.

Author's Note: Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this tale; I had considered turning it into a short series, but have shelved the idea at least for the moment. Still, it was fun for me to write, especially in regards to considering how monstergirls would function in normal life in a school setting. The setting is partially based off of a school I taught at in eastern Kentucky, and so I had a lot of fun researching regional monster lore, to make the monstergirls as connected to the area as possible. The names are also relevant to Kentucky history, specifically sports history, or famed naturalists.

As always, I enjoy comments and questions, so feel free to let me know what you thought. I have a couple of other stories that I will be posting soon enough, contest entries that I forgot to bring here, but before I can get to that, I need a little sleep...

~Wynn Pendragon