Lexa stared at the small brown envelope in her hand, blinking to try and clear the sting from her eyes. She had class in fifteen minutes. There wasn't time to cry, but she needed at least a few moments to collect herself before she headed out the door. She'd done a pretty good job of putting her grandmother's death from her mind the past week and a half, but now, with the letter in her hand, it was much more difficult to swallow her guilt.
She hadn't made it to the funeral. "We know you're far away," her mother had reassured her over the phone a few hours after it happened. "Nan wouldn't have expected you to skip school and fly all the way to the West Coast just to watch them put her in the ground."
Lexa had considered getting a ticket anyway. Her Master’s program was strenuous, but she had fond memories of summer vacations spent at her grandmother's house with both her parents. Going back wouldn't have been the same, though. The house had been abandoned for the past year while Nan was in hospice care, and she had been the one to make it feel like a home away from home.
With a sigh, Lexa headed for one of the four cheap folding kitchen chairs she owned—the only one that didn't wobble. One of these days, she told herself, she was going to get a decent kitchen set. One of these days, after she finished her business degree... when she actually had more than a couple bucks in her savings account...
She set the envelope on the table and stared at it, unblinking. If she blinked, she was definitely going to cry, and she really didn't have enough time, especially if she had to clean the mascara off her cheeks to keep from looking like a raccoon.
For a moment, Lexa considered leaving the envelope on the table to deal with later. It would be waiting for her when she got home in about six hours. Then, she could go through whatever was inside privately, without putting on a face for her teachers and classmates.
But no. If she left it alone, she would spend the rest of the day wondering—dreading, really—what was inside. She certainly wouldn't retain anything during her lectures. She'd have to open it and do her best to keep her emotions in check, like always.
She picked up the envelope, only this time, it made a noise as something shifted around inside. Frowning, Lexa slid her finger through the seal and dumped the contents onto the table.
At first, all she saw was a piece of paper. She unfolded it to find a letter, not from her Nan, but from her mother.
Hope you're doing well. A few weeks before Nan passed, she asked me to send this to you.
I'm sorry to say I'd forgotten about it until today, when I was clearing out my purse and found it at the bottom.
I hope it will be a pleasant reminder of Nan for you. She was very insistent that you have it, since you liked it so much as a child.
Keep up the good work at school.
PS: Here's some grocery money
There was a fifty dollar bill enclosed with the letter, but Lexa ignored it. Instead, she dug back in the envelope. This time, she withdrew something that had gotten stuck in a curled-up corner near the bottom of the packet.
It was a golden bracelet with a little charm on one end, shaped almost like a steering wheel or a car tire. Several lines radiated out from the middle, crossing over a ridged outer circle. Lexa recognized the design immediately, although she hadn't seen it in years. On the frequent occasions she had played dress-up with Nan's jewelry box and pretended to be a queen—never a princess, of course—it had been her favorite royal accessory. Something about it had fascinated her.
"Someday, when you're older, you can have it," Nan had always promised.
"Well, I guess she meant it," Lexa said to the empty room. There was no reply, of course. She lived alone, and she liked it that way, even if the rent was a lot to handle on her own.
After a moment's hesitation, she undid the fastening and clipped the bracelet around her wrist. Strangely, it made her feel less like crying. The metal was almost warm against her skin. She rose with a sigh of relief, leaving the letter on the table and grabbing the fifty to tuck in her pocket. If she hurried, she could probably make it to class on time.
* * *
By the time Lexa returned to her apartment later that night, she was completely drained. Her classes had gone on forever, and even though she had taken thorough notes, she wasn’t sure her brain had actually processed any of the material. Her mind had kept drifting back in time without her permission, and she’d found herself playing with her Nan’s bracelet on more than one occasion.
The wheel-shaped charm tapped against her wrist as she flung her backpack into its usual corner beside the shoe rack, where she left it when she was too lazy to unpack all her textbooks. She probably wouldn’t get much studying done tonight anyway.
Wearily, Lexa dragged herself toward the kitchen. She didn’t have much of an appetite, but she needed to eat something.
After staring fruitlessly into the pantry and finding nothing but basic cooking ingredients and an open bag of Anya’s favorite vinegar chips—the kind she absolutely hated—Lexa almost gave up. She considered ordering a pizza with the new fifty in her pocket, but she wasn’t sure her stomach could handle the grease.
In a last ditch effort, she decided to dig through the fridge. Her efforts there weren’t particularly fruitful either: milk, two lonely eggs, a sliver of butter in the butter dish, and some mostly-empty condiment bottles. The fruit drawer at the bottom, however, held an apple, the last of the fruit she had bought on her most recent shopping trip. Not exactly a meal, but at least her stomach wasn’t objecting to it.
Lexa grabbed a cutting board from one of the bottom cabinets and a knife from the silverware drawer. Her Nan had actually had one of those push-down apple corers, back when she’d visited as a kid. She remembered, because they’d baked pies together…
“Ow!” She dropped the knife and pulled her other hand back, hissing in pain. Blood wept from a slice right in the middle of her palm, but the redness welled up so fast that she couldn’t see how long the cut actually was. It had to be bad—not only did it sting, but she could feel a heavy throb as it pulsed out of her as well.
Immediately, Lexa turned on the kitchen sink with her good hand and shoved her injured one under it, washing away as much of the mess as she could. On closer inspection, the cut wasn’t wide, just deep. Hopefully if she bandaged it, she wouldn’t need to go to the ER for stitches she couldn’t really afford—her mom’s insurance didn’t work well out of state.
She squirted a little soap over the injury, wincing when it stung and bubbled under the spray from the faucet. Trying to rub it in only hurt more, so she abandoned the effort and turned the water off, shaking the droplets from her hand and opening the medicine cabinet in search of some peroxide and a suitable bandage.
“Can I help you with that?”
The soft voice coming from somewhere near her shoulder made Lexa drop the bottle of peroxide onto her foot. She whirled around, hopping on one leg, raising the box of bandages she had managed to keep hold of in a pathetic attempt at self-defense. Suddenly, she wished she’d kept the knife instead.
When she saw who had actually spoken, her rapidly pounding heart didn’t calm down in the slightest.
It was a woman. Sort of. At least, this person was definitely shaped like a woman, if her bare breasts were anything to go by. Her wavy blonde hair barely covered the pink tips of her nipples, and she wasn’t wearing any clothes to speak of. A pair of pointy horns curled up from her head, and her smile revealed a set of sharpened incisors.
“W—wha…” Lexa stammered. It wasn’t even a word, but it was all she could manage.
This woman was staring at her. This naked woman was staring at her. This naked woman, who wasn’t even really a woman, because what woman on earth had horns, was staring at her with a bright, beaming smile.
“Your hand,” the woman said, calm as you please. “Would you like some help?”
“I…” Lexa couldn’t summon an answer. She had only just noticed that, in addition to being stark naked, this woman had a long red tail swishing behind her. It moved like a cat’s, rhythmically from side to side.
The woman didn’t seem to mind her stuttering. “I’m here to help you with whatever you need, you know.” She bent down to pick up the bottle of peroxide, and Lexa jumped back as if flames had sprouted up from the floor beneath her feet.
She gripped the table with her good hand, certain she would fall over with the way her heart was racing. “Wh… wh… what are you doing in my apartment?” she managed to gasp at last.
“You called me here, silly,” the woman laughed, and the sound made Lexa shudder. It was almost… cute.
No. Not cute. She’s got horns and a tail. She just appeared out of nowhere! You should be terrified!
Instead, Lexa’s breathing started to slow down. She was still in a state of shock—that had to be the only explanation—but it didn’t seem like this strange girl or… whatever she was... wanted to hurt her.
“I… called you?” Lexa repeated. As her initial fear faded, she found herself faced with a new problem: what to do with her eyes. She couldn’t help but stare at the strange invader as she straightened from her crouched position, but the fact that the woman was naked made the situation far more complicated. Her eyes flicked from the woman’s face, down to her breasts, down to her hips and the small tuft of blonde curls between her legs before shooting straight back up to her face again.
Yes. Face. She would stick to the face.
“Mmhmm,” the woman said. She stepped forward, and Lexa would have stepped back in response if she hadn’t already pressed herself into the edge of her table. “I’m Clarke, by the way. Nice to meet you, Mistress.”
“Mistress?” Lexa repeated in disbelief. “I’m not… I mean… what? ” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes. “Okay. Okay. When I open my eyes again, you’ll be gone. You’re not real. Maybe I’m on the floor. Maybe I’m dizzy from blood loss or something. Maybe I’m just really really tired and this is a stupid dream. Maybe—oh my God.”
Soft fingers had closed around her injured hand, coaxing her to uncurl her fingers.
When she opened her eyes, the girl… thing… Clarke… was standing even closer than before. Lexa’s jaw dropped, an action she sincerely regretted. With her mouth open, she could actually smell the woman hovering inches away from her—a scent that reminded her of flowers on a warm, sunny beach.
“I… think I need to change my medication.”
“Well, you do need medical attention,” Clarke said, and the soft, low timbre of her voice set Lexa’s skin prickling. “Here. Let me help.” She pulled Lexa’s hand toward her, an action that left Lexa far too surprised to protest it. The cut was still bleeding, but she had completely forgotten. She watched, dazed, as Clarke put some peroxide on the wound and wrapped it up with the bandages that had fallen onto the table.
It was a quick process, but it seemed to Lexa to take forever. She knew, logically, that it should hurt, but her thoughts were far too scattered to process any sort of pain. She tried once to speak, but all that came out was a strangled sound that made no sense at all.
Great, Lexa. Just great.
“There,” Clarke said after a few moments, giving her wrist a light squeeze. “You’re all done. I don’t think you’ll need me to sew it up, but try to use your other hand.”
For a moment, Lexa had no idea what to say, but at last, manners got the better of her. “Thank you?”
Clarke gave her a beaming smile. “You’re welcome. So, can I do anything else for you, Mistress? Do you want me to clean the knife?”
“The knife…” In truth, Lexa had forgotten almost everything that had occurred before Clarke’s bizarre appearance in her kitchen. She looked over at the counter, where the bloody knife was still sitting beside the sink. It was certainly a safer thing to look at than the naked woman in front of her. “Uh…”
“I’ll take care of it.”
Clarke turned around, heading toward the sink, and Lexa nearly breathed a sigh of relief—until she saw the round swell of Clarke’s ass, her thin tail doing nothing to obscure the view. Lexa’s mouth suddenly went dry. Perhaps asking Clarke to walk away hadn’t been such a good idea.
Keep it together, she thought to herself, trying in vain to focus on the back of Clarke’s head instead. You have to figure out what’s going on.
“What are you doing here?” she asked at last. “Are you, uh… one of Anya’s friends? Did she give you a key and hire you or… are you like supposed to give me a lapdance or something? Because I don’t—”
Clarke turned around—and to Lexa’s dismay, her smile had become a smirk. “I can give you a lapdance, if that’s what you want, Mistress...”
“No! I mean… look, why are you in my apartment?”
To her utter relief, Clarke stopped before closing the gap between them again. “Because you summoned me here. Why else?”
Clarke’s eyes dropped to her injured hand, and Lexa looked too, only to see her grandmother’s bracelet. The charm still had traces of blood on it, and it felt even warmer than usual. Gears started turning, and soon, the pieces clicked together.
“Oh. Oh no. You’re telling me you came from… this?” She brandished her forearm, causing the bracelet to shake.
“Well, not exactly from the bracelet,” Clarke said. “But it told me to come. You called me when your blood touched it.”
Lexa brought her good hand up to her forehead, covering her face. This was too much. Part of her still really wanted to believe that this was one of Anya’s practical jokes, but even her best friend wasn’t deranged enough to send a naked cosplayer into her apartment a week after her grandmother had died. She hadn’t heard the door open, and then… there were the horns. And the tail.
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Lexa said, still shielding her eyes with her hand.
Clarke merely laughed. “Oh, you humans. Acting like you’ve never seen a demon before.”
“I… I haven’t ever seen a demon before,” Lexa said.
“Fine. Look at me and I’ll prove it.”
Something in the way Clarke said ‘look at me’ caused Lexa to look from between her fingers. Clarke held up her hand, as if holding an invisible ball, and all of a sudden, fire flickered to life between her fingers. The flames danced in her cupped palm, and the distinct smell of sulfur wafted over, covering up the pleasant floral scent that had been there before.
Lexa gasped. “Holy shit. You… are holding fire.”
“What, like it’s hard?” Clarke clenched her fist, snuffing the flames out as if they had never been there. “So, what do you want me to do next, Mistress?” Her full lips peeled back over her teeth, showing the sharpened points. “I think the two of us are going to have a lot of fun together.”