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She imagined sensations of fantasies she had never known
#1
Tasha's day went from bad to worse when she opened the apartment door and saw a demon fucking John on the sofa.

She had spent the last two hours staring into the wintry abyss of the Chicago River — seeking resolution but discovering nothing but the well-recognized features of her own cowardice — and now she returned to find this — a voluptuous, naked she-demon pistoning vertically on John's cock, apparently having the time of its unnatural life.

It was as if the universe saw that Tasha was clinging desperately to the remaining shreds of her sanity, and decided to whack her fingers with a rock.

Before she could suppress it, a mad giggle escaped her mouth, but the demon didn't react, continuing to work itself into a sexual frenzy at the expense of her friend.

Tasha slumped against the wall to prevent herself from collapsing, trying to wrap her mind around the impossibility that confronted her eyes.

She had to admit it seemed a pleasant enough demon. If her scant months with the Wiccans hadn't trained her to recognize the crimson halo of the demon's aura, she would have believed John had somehow scored an exceptionally curvy and libidinous Vogue model. The demon was a classic beauty — one with a face rapt with lust and sheened with sweat. Tasha envied the size and firm sway of its breasts as they moved in time with hips that flared and curved with sinuous perfection. Those hips were now straddling the closest thing to a friend she had left in the world, writhing and undulating as they prepared to consume John's life to a bossa nova beat.

The demon signaled no awareness of Tasha's presence, yet it must have heard her enter the apartment, and could not have missed her mad giggle. Tasha was convinced it knew she was there, biding its time.

Which was evidently now.

"Would you care to join us?" Its voice had the low sultry husk Tasha had only heard in golden age Hollywood movies, spoken by actresses who smoked two packs a day. It was a voice that Tasha wished she possessed herself.

The demon turned its head, and Tasha glimpsed full red lips marred only by the hint of a sneer — when she was hit by the sensual hurricane of the demon's gaze.

Green-eyed flames filled her vision. Tasha's breath seized in her throat as a wave of sexual heat rushed through her body. Her knees buckled in response as a rapturous tremor emanated from behind her navel, and pleasure reverberated through her waist and loins. She felt her body respond to another woman in a way she had never experienced.

The demon was not an "it" pretending to be female, but a definite "she". Tasha knew that now. She imagined sensations of fantasies she had never known she had — the sight of her arms pinned over her head as a feminine mouth tasted every inch of her body — the texture of the demon's nipples as they hardened between her lips and teeth — the feel of the demon's face clenched tight between her thighs as a hot tongue and expert fingers probed her nether orifices — each touch becoming a cascade of climaxes that wracked her body. Her hands were tearing at her own blouse as she was impelled forward to experience the demon's touch firsthand.

Then it vanished. As abruptly as they had arrived, the sensations were gone, replaced by a mundane sexual warmth — paling so much in comparison to what she had just experienced, that Tasha whimpered with loss.

The demon shrieked a cry of frustration.

Tasha flinched, certain she had done something wrong, but not understanding what it could have been.

The demon was inhaling deep breaths in a way it — no, she — had not needed from her sexual calisthenics, and her eyes showed a weary exhaustion as they assessed Tasha — a predator sensing a rival of unknown power. The demon pumped her hips once more on John's cock, and shuddered as the weariness faded from her face, replaced by a deepening frown. An intense darkness now marred her previously sensual visage. The demon's body and face may have looked as if they belonged to a woman of twenty, but Tasha could tell those eyes were old enough to have seethed with the same frustrated anger when Sodom and Gomorrah fell.

Tasha instinctively retreated, until the painted surface of the apartment wall left her feet pawing uselessly against the floor.

"Did you work magick, child? Against me?" With the calm fatality of a jungle cat, the demon extracted John from herself, stood, and moved toward Tasha, her face a promise of retribution.

The hate in her eyes abruptly dimmed, leaving only wariness. "No, I see it now," the demon said. "A ward — cast on you — not a magick against me — years old, and inexpertly constructed. I could find a way around it given time, but for now, it serves. I would drain myself dry if I foolishly persisted in a frontal attack." The demon's eyes roamed around Tasha's body with a critical assessment that Tasha recognized as a woman sizing up a competitor.

Tasha felt it was safer to say nothing.

"Dallied with witches, have you, child? No self-respecting witch of power would neglect her wards, so this was not your spell. You do not know the craft yourself, and are no danger to me." The demon was now dismissive as she turned back toward John. "Well, never mind. You are more than welcome to watch as I take your friend. I have a voyeur fetish." She threw a seductive smile over her shoulder. "Then again, I have every fetish." Now that the demon was convinced Tasha posed no threat, she had the temerity to flirt with her.

The demon's talk of a ward had initially confused Tasha, but then she remembered. She had briefly joined a Wiccan group her freshman year in college. Like Kabbalah, Buddhism, Scientology, and her nude protests with PETA, it was yet another futile effort to discover a way to quash her Black Moods. The Wiccans had been nicer than most, if equally useless.

For all their protestations of feminism, the Wiccans had shown the deference most women show to a beauty in their midst. They had welcomed her, impressed with her aptitude, but Tasha was by nature a learner, not a practitioner. She had satisfied her curiosity with the Wiccans, but the demon was right that she had no magick herself. The informal leader of the coven (an earnest but clever muncher of granola and rugs named Claire) had even invited Tasha into her bed — an offer Tasha had accepted only once, spending most of the time wishing Claire had a cock. Tasha sometimes enjoyed the tender sensuality of lesbian erotica, using it in foreplay with her male lovers, but her experimentation with Claire convinced her that the the softness of a woman's curves just couldn't compete with the firm, protective strength of a man — that is, until the demon had looked at her a few moments ago.

Tasha's body still had a pleasant ache from the memory.

The Wiccans had tried a few summonings of earth spirits, and been successful (Tasha remembered a green glow with the scent of moss and eucalyptus while pan pipes echoed on the spring breeze), but before the summonings, Claire had been insistent on casting a ward against demonic possession, a caution against the wrong spirit responding to the Wiccan's call. Tasha had been dubious at the time, as the spell involved Claire rubbing a salve into every inch of Tasha's body, but evidently the ward worked, and had just saved her from this...

(Tasha recalled what she had studied of the infernal beastiary)

...Succubus.

Fuck. The Lilim weren't the Ladies Auxiliary. Tasha had abandoned the Wiccans long ago, but she still read the occasional pagan blogs, and knew the Lilim were the prime suspects in that "Manhattan Massacre" a few years ago, where a couple dozen Wall Streeters had disappeared — presumed dead or hiding in the Caymans, depending who you believed. With firsthand evidence that succubi were real, Tasha was now certain the missing Masters of the Universe weren't hiding in the Caymans.

Tasha spoke her first words to the demon. "You are one of the four Lilim. Which one?"

The succubus rose to her full height — a head taller than Tasha — then placed her hands on her waist, displaying both a sway to her hips and a flare for the dramatic. "You are in the presence of the Keeper of the Infernal Harem — First Concubine of Hell itself. I am Adam's first wife, before he decided to screw his own rib and name it Eve. I am the Queen-Sister of the Lilim. You may address me as... Lilith."

Despair welled in the pit of Tasha's stomach, and she felt her Black Mood looming in the recesses of her mind. She remembered her studies of the Kabbalah — another failed refuge. Lilith had been one of the few figures who crossed over between the Talmud and the Wiccan myths. She was one of Hell's inner circle.

"You know of me." Lilith watched the dismay play out on Tasha's face.

Tasha could only nod mutely. The sheer peril and promise of her situation overwhelmed her her, and she hyperventilated as panic raced along her skin and hope welled in her heart. She had almost died.

The ward had saved her.

Damn it.

The demon would have ended Tasha's pain by killing her along with John.

John.

Tasha was ambivalent at the prospect of her own death, but John was another matter entirely. Her eyes jumped to where he sat on the couch, raptly staring at Lilith with vacant eyes. John had declined Tasha's own advances, so she had never seen him naked before. Her eyes involuntarily drifted to the impressive, glistening erection extending from his crotch, which Tasha knew would lead him to his death inside the demon's cunt. As soon as he climaxed, Lilith's magic would kill him, sucking out his life.

He was a good man facing a bad death. There was nothing Tasha could do.

Of course, that wasn't unusual, she thought. There was never anything she could do. She failed at everything, including her own attempts to end her own miserable existence. Lilith would kill John, and maybe find a way to kill Tasha if she felt like taking the time to work around the ward.

Tasha collapsed onto the floor, drawing her knees up to her chest and holding them tight. She stared at Lilith with hollow eyes. John was going to die. Her protector would die. Tasha would either die herself or be blamed for what would look like a disappearance.

She should run. John was a private person — none of his neighbors knew anything about Tasha. If she fled, anonymity might save her.

Of course, Tasha had nowhere to go — that was how she had ended up with John in the first place. Her best outcome if she survived the night was that she would shortly be out on the street again.

Silently, Tasha cursed the demon for taking John from her. She cursed John for not being strong enough to resist, and for ensuring that Tasha would be witness to his death. She cursed her parents, and all of her former lovers who had failed her. She cursed God, Mother Earth, Odin, and every other supposedly divine being who had ignored her pleas. Mostly, she cursed herself, her uselessness, and her own cowardice.

She had no right to live.

The demon had her arms on John's shoulders, preparing to resume her coital execution, but now she paused, and looked back at Tasha. "I can read desires, little one," the demon said.

Little one. Tasha had always been sensitive about how small she was, counting on the extra body from her conditioner to bring her over the five foot mark. She knew her oriental features, contrasted with her Pathan mother's jarringly blue eyes, caused most men to consider her an exotic beauty — but she was small and weak, exposing a vulnerability which fed the Black Moods which stalked her. It was one reason why she needed a protector, and why she had clung so desperately to John, despite being hurt by his rejections.

"I know desire, and you desire death, little one." The demon was smiling again, exposing canine teeth that looked almost as if they had been filed to points — other than her impossible physical perfection, her teeth were the only material sign of her true nature.

Do I desire death? Tasha asked herself. She looked the demon in the eye with a mix of hope and resignation, and nodded once.

---

When Tasha had first hit the water, it felt like shards of glass had impaled her skin, but now a creeping wet chill was numbing her flesh, and the lack of feeling scared her more. The surge of adrenaline awoke her survival instinct, and she called for help while pawing with frozen hands at the broken ice that floated around her.

It was hopeless. She had chosen to wear layers of clothes, knowing they would drag her down. They had served their purpose, but now she didn't want to die this way. She screamed again — her quiet desperation was forgotten — but her cries were swallowed by the cold, vile ink of the Chicago River.

She searched for help on the bridge above, but the Michigan Avenue streetlights were alone on the bridge, and they watched her drown with callous disregard.

Tasha kicked at the water with legs that were wet sandbags. She wasn't strong, and the creeping cold was draining away what little power she had. Even her thoughts felt deadened — synapses firing through icy slush. She was receiving a gift she no longer wanted, at least not this way — she was dying.

Her face broke the water to take a meager bite of air and allow one last quiet plea for help, before she sank for the final time.

A shadow moved above her and the clank of wood on metal reverberated through the water to her submerged ears. A choking at her throat told her someone had grabbed the collar of her jacket, and was hoisting her out of the water.

Tasha had learned to read at age four. She had a attained a perfect score on the SAT, spoke four languages, and could have been a Jeopardy champion had it occurred to her to try, but at the moment her higher-level thinking was shut down, and the only thoughts in her mind were related to panic, the instinct to survive, and the dim knowledge that safety hovered above her. Her hands reached toward her savior, nails scratching for purchase. Don't let me die like this!

"You look like you weigh ninety pounds soaking weight, but 'soaking wet' is heavier than I thought. Did you make those clothes out of sponges?" It was a man's voice, straining with effort as he lifted her out of the water. She felt the chill of evaporation and saw a metal wall with the words "Alumacraft" on them, and her precious breath was forced out of her lungs as she was laid across the gunwale, watching slush drip onto the floor of the boat.

A hand seized the seat of her pants, and she felt herself heaved and dropped onto the metal floor.

The man kept talking. "Saw you jump. Figured you would change your mind when you hit the ice."

"Help," was all she could whisper. Hypothermia was narrowing her vision to a tunnel, but she saw a lean masculine face nodding at her. Her rescuer had kind eyes, lined with sadness.

"I'll help you," he said, with a certainty that she found calming.

As Tasha closed her eyes and felt unconsciousness tugging at her, she heard him calling 9-1-1.

---

"You desire the man I was pleasuring when you interrupted us. You desire death. I can give you both." Lilith was close to her now, moving closer.

Tasha glanced over at John, whose empty gaze and priapic member were both fixated on the demon. John had refused Tasha, yet he had seemed euphoric between the thighs of this creature. Tasha knew it was just Lilith's power that drove John, but her mind was adept at taking any doubt, flaw, or feeling of inadequacy, and magnifying it until she could think of nothing else. She could not help but compare her own body to that of the succubus, and find herself wanting. Tasha had a natural beauty's contempt for those who attained it through augmentation, and if she had seen those tits on anyone human she would have insisted they were fake — no skin could be so flawless and no flesh could hold that shape and buoyancy without thwarting Newton's Laws. Tasha herself possessed only the small breasts and slim hips she had inherited from her Vietnamese grandmother. She lacked the demon's muscle tone, and Tasha's own tawny skin was flecked with a few moles and scars — the wear and tear of everyday life. The demon, however, enviably displayed the supple, pampered flesh of a pleasure slave from the Arabian Nights — flesh that was now so close to her she could smell sweat and sex.

Was that why John had been fucking the demon but had rejected Tasha herself? Men often called her beautiful despite the flaws so obvious to her, but men lied, particularly if they thought the lies might spread a woman's legs. Sometimes she had believed the lies anyway, preferring them to loneliness. This had happened far more often the last few months. Desperation was her aphrodisiac, sending her toward whichever man seemed most likely to act as an anchor in her life — toward whoever could help hold the Black at bay.

It used to be easier. Lance had stayed with her for years, yielding his own aspirations in the futile war for her happiness, until he had finally surrendered the fight. Max had only lasted a tenth as long before he recognized her as the lost cause she was. Now she was almost thirty, and the men were either wiser or more resistant to her charms. They seemed to sense the defects and darkness within, and would either reject her outright, or spurn her only after they had spent a night in her bed.

Not John, though. She sometimes hated him for pulling her out of the river, but she recognized the fundamental decency of his treatment of her.

Lilith's impeccably manicured hand reached out and stroked Tasha's cheek as the demon searched the eyes of her prospective prey. "What is it, little one, that makes you hunger for both sex and death?"

"I'm sick," Tasha confessed.

Lilith's fingers were now toying with Tasha's mouth, tracing each inflection of each curve with such tenderness that Tasha opened her lips in welcome. "I can sense illness," the demon said. "You lack its taint."

Tasha knew the demon only asked in order to use this against her, but her loneliness spoke for her. "Not that kind of sick. The doctors used to say I was bipolar, but I haven't been manic for years." Proof that monopoles exist in nature, Lance had said once, making some sort of physics joke.

The demon nodded sympathetically as she played with the buttons on Tasha's shirt. Her nails slid into the folds of the fabric to graze the soft skin beneath. "Do you want me to grant your wish? You need only accept and your ward will fall of your own volition. You will die experiencing the pleasure that engulfed you just minutes ago. I promise no other end will be so pleasant."

Wasn't that what prevented her from ending her own life? Fear of pain? Fear of a failure that left her alive but mentally or physically maimed? The demon's mouth and hands offered her the certainty of a death that would culminate not in agony, but ecstasy. The sadness and failures would all end. The Black Moods would end.

Lilith's hands slipped between Tasha's thighs. Tasha arched her pelvis forward and opened her mouth to voice her acceptance, knowing no one would miss her.

Except John. John would miss her. She looked over the demon's nude shoulder to say good bye to him, and her acceptance caught in her throat.

---

"Who can I call to come get you?" Her rescuer had waited for her at the hospital. Tasha had tried to leave early to minimize the bill, but the nurse told her that the bill had been taken care of by her "guardian angel". The nurse had used the term with a look of disapproval, implying Tasha didn't deserve such a person. Tasha couldn't disagree — her guilt and resentment over the unwanted obligation overwhelmed any gratitude.

"I have no one," she said. The closest thing she had to friends were her two ex-boyfriends. Lance had shown he didn't care what happened to her, and had already fucked off to New York. Max had dumped her when he found out she had stopped taking her Prozac. Her parents had shown her their level of compassion when she had called begging for help a year ago. They had insisted she had the ability to help herself — expressing concerns of enablement. Tasha had sworn she would never speak to them again, and she wouldn't break that oath now. She had very little left in the world except her pride, and she wouldn't discard it.
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#2
Tasha expected an argument at her claim to have no friends or family, but the man just nodded. He was in his mid-thirties — tall and wiry, with the edges of his face drawn in sharp relief by the shadow of a two-day growth of stubble. It was a kind face, but shrouded in sadness. When she had seen that sadness on the boat she thought he was mourning for her, but now she saw that he and melancholy were old friends. She knew the look — it was one she recognized from the mirror every morning.

"I can drive you home," he said.

Tasha looked away.

"No home?"

Tasha felt shame burning in her face. She had jumped in the river wearing a pair of Gucci boots and a set of earrings her father had purchased at Tiffany's for her eighteenth birthday. What right did she have to claim destitution, other than her lack of actual money? Her absenteeism and reputation for being difficult had caught up with her, and she had been fired from her sales job with a pharmaceutical firm. The ensuing Black Mood left her cowering in her room.

Neither an overwhelming Black Mood, nor being fired, were anything new, but this time she had been caught alone with no lover to protect her from herself. There had been no one to pull her together to file for unemployment, and no one to make sure her share of the rent was paid out of his own pocket. She had denied all inconvenient realities until she had been forcibly evicted the day before. It had been the humiliation of her ineptitude and helplessness, and the horror of a night on the streets, that had lead her to the bridge.

"My name is John. You can stay at my place until you can find something else."

"Mine is Natasha — Tasha. Thank you, but no." She allowed a quaver into her voice. "It would be too much of an imposition." Refusing the first offer was the polite thing to do. Her father had taught her that.

"Well, they are discharging you. You can't stay here. You can crash on my couch until we can get you back on your feet. It won't be an imposition, and I don't think I can let you leave alone."

She had failed at everything, including suicide. Her acceptance of help would be just more proof of her failure. Smart, capable women shouldn't count on a man to save them, her mother had always said. Her mother knew, having survived on her own when cut off from her family during the Russian-Afghanistan war. Her mother had faced death many times at the hands of the Taliban. Tasha herself couldn't even face life. There was no better proof she was not her mother's daughter, but was instead a defective changeling left in the crib of the child they had wanted.

"Well, are you coming?" John asked.

This time she nodded, while closing her eyes to avoid bearing witness to her own failure.

---

"What happens to him?" Tasha gestured to John.

Lilith shrugged her shoulders, which caused her breasts to do do interesting things. "He dies. Everyone dies eventually." She slowly walked over to sit on John's lap, extending her long legs down the sofa.

Tasha felt a sense of sorrow at the demon's sudden absence, but she disregarded it. "He doesn't want to die."

"No one does. Except people like you." Lilith kissed John on the lips, which he returned with a tenderness that made Tasha once more feel inadequate.

"What happens when he dies?"

"Damned if I know." The demon arched back into a bridge, presenting her breasts for attention by John's hungry mouth.

"No, I mean, does he get taken to Hell?"

"Why would we want him?" Lilith cupped John's face in her hands as he tasted the peaks of her nipples.

Tasha looked confused.

"Hell is not the place of your storybooks, little one," the demon explained while her hand worked John's cock. "It is not a realm of eternal torment where you are punished for your sins. It is another world, with physical laws very different from your own. We do not know what happens to you when you die, but none of you appear in Hell. Which is as it should be." The demon's smile showed more amusement than malevolence now. "The rent is high enough as it is."

Tasha looked at John, hopeful for her own death but fearing his. "John knows nothing of summoning your kind. How did you come to be here?"

Sharp cuspids flashed as Lilith smiled. "He is merely an after-dinner mint." She licked John's ear to emphasize the point. "I was summoned by a would-be warlock somewhere on the floors above, who thought to use me to convince two female acquaintances to lie with him. He erred in his inscription and I destroyed him. Then I felt the intensity of your friend's desires calling for me. My summoning will last another hour or so, and I thought I would release him from the misery you have caused. I have rarely met someone more desperate for sexual release. He spurned you, did he not? Why would a man so aroused refuse to bed you? Something about you must be very wrong indeed."

Tasha hung her head — a confession of the truth in the demon's words. It was her. This was all on her.

---

Tasha clutched her blankets snug around herself, warding off the memory of the river's cold. The couch was a serviceable bed, and faced John's room, where the light under the door indicated he was still reading.

She watched the light, waiting for it to disappear.

John's apartment was sparse, decorated in an Ikea clueless-bachelor motif, but Tasha didn't understand why. John had a good job for a tech firm (he had taken the day off to care for her), and was handsome in an aquiline way. He was fit, and had been able to capably hold a conversation with her, which indicated a surplus of brains and a lack of obvious social or mental defects. He must have had a woman in his life at some point, and by all of Tasha's understanding of what constituted an eligible bachelor, thirty-five year old women with tick-tocking biological clocks should have been lining up down the hall, but there was no evidence of a woman's touch. There weren't even any photos on the walls.

Tasha had pointedly done her most sexualized cat-stretch in front of him, and he had responded the way most straight men did — stealing a glance at her breasts and then concealing his embarrassment at the act — so he had passed her heterosexuality test with flying colors.

She was curious about him. His language spoke of education, and he worked days as a systems analyst, so what had he been doing on the quays next to the Michigan Avenue Bridge at three in the morning on a cold, December night?

He had declined to answer when asked.

The bare shelves were the most puzzling. Where were his books? The loss of most of her own books in the eviction had been the worst heartbreak. She had time to grab a few favorites and stow them in the back of her Kia (which would still be parked near the bridge if the city hadn't towed it yet), but selecting those few books had been wrenching. The rest had been thrown in a dumpster despite her pleading with her former landlord to hold them for a few days.

Tasha understood people by studying what they read. Their old college textbooks showed which subjects they were most proud of mastering. Their vanity hardcovers indicated which classic novels or pop science books they wanted you to know (or at least believe) they had read. The dog-eared paperbacks on the shelves in the corner told you what they actually did read. Motivational business books spoke of a desire for material success — but too many Ayn Rand books in the midst were the sign of a man who was sociopathic and proud of it. Too much fantasy and space opera signified a sexually insecure fantasy geek who at some point would want you to wear elf ears and a Princess Leia slave outfit, and fuck him while he called you "Daenerys". (Through trial and error, she had discovered they didn't like it when you responded with either "Aragorn" or "Han", and woe be unto you if you called out "Fuck me, Frodo".)

John did have a Kindle that he had taken to bed, but he couldn't have every book he ever owned in an electronic format. Where were the books he purchased and read before he purchased his e-reader? John didn't seem to have a single physical book in the house, except, a thin hardcover titled, simply and ominously, Grief, which lay unopened beneath his coffee table. An unwanted attempt at consolation after some much more unwanted loss?

John's bedroom light went off.

Tasha threw off the blankets and rose from the couch. John had promised to help her find her car and retrieve her few belongings tomorrow, so she was just wearing one of John's Northwestern University t-shirts, which draped down almost to her knees, concealing the lack of clothing beneath. Tasha had insisted on throwing away the clothes she had worn into the river, saying they would only remind her of the despair she felt, but the honest reason had been to make him dress her in his own clothes tonight, which he had done, claiming her as his own.

Taking a deep breath, she paced the steps to John's door, and pushed it open, quiet as possible. One of the virtues of weighing just over ninety pounds (when not soaking wet) was the ability to walk in silence.

John's form was visible in bed, facing away from her, toward the window. He had left space on the bed, either in anticipation of a nocturnal visitor, or because he wasn't used to sleeping alone.

She waited, certain he would hear her breathing, or sense her presence in some other way.

"Tasha, is everything alright?"

Tasha had already decided on the script. John had been a perfect gentleman so far. She knew the suggestion of being sexually rewarded for saving her would offend him, so she would have to give him a polite, flattering fiction, with enough truth that he would want to believe it. She kept her voice low, just above a whisper, adding enough sultry husk that if his brain didn't pick up her intent, his cock would. "I am just remembering the river. It was so cold. Even in the hospital, I didn't think I would ever be warm again. I can't sleep. I need the warmth of another person beside me. Would you mind if I slept in here? With you?"

John lay motionless for a few seconds, and she allowed him the pretense of considering her offer. He would accept. He would want to protect her, and she would hold him close, and then hold him closer when his inevitable erection appeared, and then...

He surprised her. "That would be a very bad idea," he said.

Tasha thought she had sunk low enough in life that it wouldn't hurt any more, but rejection still stung. She tried to recover. "Um, I am not sure what you had in mind, but I wasn't talking about sex, just not being alone tonight."

"We both know where that would lead." John sat up and turned on his lamp. He looked at her, and she saw his eyes do a rapid scan down her body, taking in the tenting of her nipples against the fabric of the t-shirt, and the exposed soft skin of her legs, which she emphasized by shifting from one leg to the other. She saw a grimace of pain and regret in his face. Was he regretting turning her down or letting her into his life?

Tasha thought about whether to feign offense, but found she didn't have the will for it. She just nodded, and turned to leave.

"Wait," he said.

She paused.

John seemed to be considering his words. "I want to make sure you understand. You are very vulnerable right now, and probably grateful that I am helping you out, and you think this is the only thing you have to offer. But you are wrong."

Tasha knew she should listen in silence.

His words were hesitant. "Two years ago — my house — it burned down in a fire — you wouldn't think dryer lint —" He swallowed and breathed again.

Tasha sat on the edge of his bed.

"The fire started in the basement laundry room. I was in the den when the smoke detectors went off. I could smell it wasn't a false alarm, and went looking for Jenny — my wife — after calling 9-1-1. She wasn't upstairs, so I checked the basement door, and by that time smoke was pouring from underneath."

Tasha extended her hand toward him on the bed — an offer of comfort which John declined.

"I wasn't even sure she was there, and gave up after the smoke blinded me three steps down. She didn't respond when I yelled. I thought maybe she had already left the house, but she hadn't. They... found her at the foot of the basement stairs. I only would have needed to walk a few feet through the smoke. I didn't save her. We were new homeowners, but I should have known to check the dryer vent. I should have known where my wife was, and not wasted precious seconds. I should have held my breath and searched the basement, crawling on my knees if I had to. I should have... died with her, if that was what it took."

Tasha felt shame flushing her face. She always felt this way when comparing her own troubles against those who had faced real tragedy, which made her feel even more defective and useless. "I'm sorry," she whispered. Wasn't that what you were supposed to say when someone told you a story like this?

John grimaced an acknowledgement. "You want to know why I was at the bridge last night? The winter after Jenny died, I considered doing the same thing you did. I stood on that bridge and looked down into the ice, knowing the pain would end. What pulled me through was the knowledge of how disappointed Jenny would have been if I had jumped, but it wasn't an easy decision. The bridge was a choice, you know? That night, the bridge was just a place I could use to end the pain. I couldn't see it the way everyone else did — a place to help people cross from one side to the other."

Tasha sensed that he was staging this as a moral lesson, aimed at her. He had planned on telling her this story at a key moment to shame her into wanting to live.

She wanted to call him on it. She had suffered the Black Moods since her teens, and no one who hadn't lived through the same had any standing to lecture her about how to live with pain. She frowned, and opened her mouth to speak, but couldn't do it. She lost the will, or the nerve. His loss was too much.

"I still have nightmares," John said, "and when I can't go back to sleep, I go to the bridge and force myself to see it as just something people use to cross over to something better."

Tasha could see the redness in his eyes, and instinctively looked away — men hated to be seen in weakness. It took her a few seconds more to notice the wetness on her own cheeks.

John looked her in the eyes, and continued. "So you really are giving me something. I failed my wife. I didn't realize until I pulled you out of the water how much I needed to save someone." He gave her a weak smile. "I was able to look at my reflection this morning for the first time in two years without feeling shame that I was alive. So, thanks for that, but it... cheapens it if I take advantage of you. You need to get yourself back on your feet, and that won't happen if you even think it's possible that we will ever sleep together — that you need to pay me back with sex." He closed his eyes slowly and reopened them. "Please don't take this as a rejection. I haven't been with a woman since my wife died, and you are... extremely... attractive. You have no idea how tempting your offer is, but you need to sleep on the couch. Please. Allow me that."

Tasha felt his eyes on her as she left the room.

---

There. Tasha flinched as she recognized her guilt. Sex had always been her tool. Men found the burdens of her neuroses lightened by having their sexual fantasies made real — which Tasha would grant in her desperation to keep them by her side. It was how she had secured all of her protectors, until John. She had respected his refusal that night, but it gnawed at her. Over the next few days, she had escalated — dropping hints of her most erotic sexual exploits (some of which were even true), staring at him with her most seductive expression every night before bed, and then sleeping nude on the couch. She had even swiped the dust jacket off of a hardcover of Fifty Shades of Grey (a proud member of the literati like Tasha had blanched at the prospect of reading the real thing) and wrapped it around her treasured Spanish-language copy of Hundred Years of Solitude, which she would then read in his presence while playing suggestively with her neckline, absent-mindedly biting a finger, and faking a sharp, shuddering intake of breath every few minutes.

John's discomfort at her actions had been obvious, but so had been his sexual arousal. He had continued to refuse her, but she elevated his libido enough to torment him, provoking what sounded like interesting dreams, and attracting a demon for whom John's heightened lust rang like a dinner bell.

His fate was her fault.

Lilith still awaited the answer to her offer of death.

Tasha made a decision and steeled herself before she spoke. This was a bargain that would absolve her guilt and give her peace. "Take me instead of him."

Something indescribable flickered in Lilith's eyes. Was it fear? Pity? Incomprehension? The demon's answer was less ambiguous. "My kind is bound by rules. We cannot accept the selfless offer of one life for another."

"Why? I am no hero. I am sick of living in this world — of fighting my Black Moods every day, and failing. My offer is selfish."

"Your quest for death is selfish. Your offer of sacrifice is not. You seek meaning in your death, which we cannot accept. Rules are rules." Her countenance now shaped itself in an imitation of sympathy. "I am sorry, little one. You cannot save him."

Tasha looked back at John. His normally kind face was corrupted by the hold Lilith had on him. He was almost unrecognizable. Her mind raced.

Lilith was a demon. Demons were creatures of temptation, opportunism, and deceit. The solution was obvious. "A contest then?"

Lilith raised a thin eyebrow. "Terms?"

"If you win, you get both of us. If I win, you just take me."

"You are mine either way? Win or lose?"

"Yes. I want to die, but will only give you my life in exchange for a chance of saving his."

Lilith parted her full, blood-red lips, and Tasha saw those sharp teeth again as the demon smiled.

---

"You have trapped yourself," John said.

Tasha fought to control her anger at his condescension.

"I am a systems analyst, Tasha, and I pride myself on my brain, but you are even smarter than I am." She had enjoyed establishing this by handing him a series of defeats in chess, Trivial Pursuit, and gin rummy, displaying both a near-eidetic memory and a head for strategy. "For some reason, you seem to just be stalling for time. You have to know there is no point in your plan to take life management classes, or in reading financial management books. You know how to manage your life, but your illness stops you from doing it. You need to address the root cause."

Tasha stared at John, keeping her face a blank mask. She had been able to steer Lance away from this path — he was a physicist, for whom matters of the mind were just an emergent property of a complex biological neural network, something which explained everything and nothing. Max — a doctor — had pushed far harder on medication, and her obstinence had eventually caused him to reject her. Would John behave the same way when he inevitably caught her flushing antidepressants down the toilet?

"Have you tried Zoloft?" John asked.

"Yes."

"How did it go?"

"I hated it."

"Can you be more specific?"

"I specifically hated Zoloft." Her anger was slipping through.

"Tasha..."

"Fine. I tried it for a few days, and I felt nauseous and sleepy, so I threw it away."

"You need to try them for longer than that. The side effects usually go away when your brain adjusts."

"That's the problem, isn't it? I like my brain better than I liked Zoloft."
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"Is that the real issue? Your Black Moods, as you call them, are part of your identity now and you don't know who you would be without them?"

"Spare me the pseudo-Freudian reductionism." Tasha had been a psych major at the University of Chicago, and she knew that what John was doing wasn't Freudian — pseudo or otherwise — but she expected the words to intimidate him and make him doubt whether he could succeed where she herself had failed.

It didn't work. "Don't bullshit me. I am just listening to what you are saying. You are smart enough to know everything I am reading in these books we bought, and you worked for a pharma company. You know there are medicines that are very successful in treating depression, yet you refuse to take them, or try others when you don't like one, and you come up with bullshit excuses for why."

He was right, of course. It just showed that her illness was her own fault — her own failure, like everything else in her life. She felt the Black Mood rising.

"Don't go there." John had grown adept at reading her expressions in just two weeks.

"You don't understand." Her voice was a plea. "Depression is like HIV in that it attacks your defenses — only it's the psychological immune system — your hope that things can get better. The drugs won't work, and it's hard to bear the side effects when you are convinced of the futility. You haven't lived with it since you were a teenager."

"I lived with it for a year."

That surprised her.

John elaborated. "The medicine wasn't enough for me. The way you described it — the sense of hopelessness — the certainty of failure — that's it exactly. The disease causes failures, which feeds the disease, creating a reinforcing feedback loop. You need to break the loop with some small successes. Do that, and I think you will find it easier to stay on the medicine."

"It isn't that simple."

"It worked for me."

"I have been dealing with my Black Moods since I was fifteen. You had it for a mere year after your wife died. I live in the Black. You were there as a fucking tourist."

John's face darkened.

Tasha felt shame duelling with her anger.

"What's your alternative, Tasha? You know you won't be able to get back on your feet until you are treated. Do you intend to stay on my couch forever? Are you going to call your parents? Your only option is to accept some charity. It might as well be the kind that really helps you."

At the mention of her parents, Tasha had stood, and only heard the rest of John's words as she stormed out of the apartment. She heard one last cry of "Tasha!" as she fled down the hall.

John was wrong. Charity wasn't her only option.

She spent the afternoon standing on the Michigan Avenue Bridge, watching the slush swirl once more in the frigid waters below. She almost jumped three times, but had halted each time at the memory of cold needles stabbing her flesh.

At sunset, she returned to John's apartment, convinced that the problem was her choice of method. She needed a better way than the bridge. Maybe pills — a handful of valium taken with a half bottle of vodka. She would just need to stall John while she arranged to get the supplies.

Except she didn't need to, as a demon was waiting for her. The demon offered a death that promised to be sweet, but the bitch wanted to take John with her. John — who had only tried to do her kindness. He may have been a sanctimonious boy scout, but he had been good to her. She owed him, and she paid her debts, in one coin or another.

Lilith would get John over Tasha's dead body.

---

"You wish to challenge me? The last mortal to do that lived two centuries ago. A Russian Empress..."

"How often have you lost?" Tasha asked, fearing the answer.

"Hell does not suffer failure. My sister-daughter's have each failed on occasion. When Hell discovered this, their lives were forfeit, and they were lost to us until we could contrive a resurrection. I, however, have not felt the pain of death or resurrection. I remain Queen-sister of the Lilim because I have never lost." Lilith's ample chest was puffed in pride.

"Yes, I challenge you." Tasha knew she didn't have a hope in Hell, but she was used to hopelessness. John may have felt like he was clearing his slate by rescuing her, but that didn't erase her own obligation to him. Tasha knew she would die, but she would at least die having tried to repay him. If there was an afterlife, and she met him there — presumably holding hands with his late wife — she could at least look him in the eye.

"What shall be the challenge?"

Now Tasha was at a loss. "Sudoku?" she asked hopefully.

"I don't know what that is, but when you challenge the Queen-Sister of the Lilim, your challenge is sexual."

Tasha had expected that. "Usually my sexual contest is trying to come before the man does, and my trophy is an orgasm, but I don't think that is what you mean." Was she cracking jokes now? Maybe the knowledge of impending freedom from her pain was giving her some confidence.

Lilith appraised her. "You have beauty, and I smell the scent of seduction around you. You are more than familiar with the art."

Tasha had to admit it was so, even if she had failed badly in her latest attempt at John. Her entire romantic history was a cyclical pattern of identifying a protector, and cementing his bond to her through the fulfilment of his sexual fantasies. It worked until boredom and complacency brought anhedonia, and the relationship died with the sex.

Lance had even once compared her to a succubus. Frustrated at the way he had sacrificed his own ambitions to help her, he had started an argument that ended with her fellating him in the restroom of an Italian restaurant that had been too expensive for his salary. After he paid, she had dragged him into the men's room, and while she had her mouth around his cock, he had said she was like a succubus sent to destroy him with sex.

Lance had been merely hyperbolic (and he had been been spending too much time on his lock in World of Warcraft). Tasha had no illusions of her chances. Lilith was well beyond Tasha's league, and the smirk on the demon's face indicated she knew it.

Maybe that could be used against her.

Tasha nodded, feigning far more confidence than she felt. "Agreed, a contest of equals, to see who can seduce John." She gave a slight emphasis on the word "equals" to make sure the demon didn't miss the implication.

The demon was predictably outraged, and the perfection of her face was marred by contempt. "Equals? You presumptuous little cunt. I will give you the terms of your challenge. All you need to do is to get him to look at you. If he can even tear his eyes away from me, I will concede your victory. My summoning wears off in a little over an hour, so I will give you one hour to work your will. You can yield earlier if you so choose, allowing you more time to enjoy your death." The demon blew her a disparaging kiss.

Tasha swallowed, suppressing the small flicker of hope that rose. She was smart enough to know that demons were not fools. They had their pride, and could be goaded into lowering the bar to a level that a human might think was reachable, but the demon would know the truth. It was possible that it was Tasha herself who was being played, but this still seemed to be as good a contest as she was likely to get.

"I accept."

"Know that your acceptance signifies a binding pact, and your magical ward will be negated upon your inevitable loss, allowing me to take you."

"I accept anyway."

"Child, I wasn't offering you an escape. I was explaining to you what you had already accepted, in case you had hinged your hope on your crude Wiccan cantrip."

Tasha nodded.

The demon gestured toward John, who gazed with adoration at Lilith.

Tasha approached John having no idea how to start. "John?"

Nothing. Of course, nothing.

"This demon wants to kill you, John. She fucks you, and then when you come, you will die."

John's face indicated he was perfectly OK with that.

"Please look at me, John."

No response again, except from the demon — who scoffed.

Lilith had said it was a sexual contest. Tasha nodded, assessing John's erection. It was throbbing for Lilith, she knew, but this wouldn't be the first time she had fucked a man who was thinking of someone else. She had always taken that as a personal challenge before, and this time would be no different.

Tasha removed her shirt, and threw it wistfully on the floor. She had only one suitcase of clothes, recovered from the car when they had retrieved it from the impound lot. The navy blue blouse was one of her favorites, and she knew this would be the last time she would ever wear it. She kicked off her shoes, and with a quick hip shimmy, her black slacks joined the blouse on the floor, followed by her bra and socks. She hesitated only in removing her panties — a pair of practical white cotton boy shorts. She regretted not salvaging one of her satin bikinis from the old apartment, but she couldn't have borne the humiliation of having her landlord and the Sheriff's deputies watch her sort through her collection of "might-get-lucky" lingerie.

She stood naked in front of John, feeling she should apologize to him for what she was about to do, which did her confidence no help. She felt the Black Mood threatening to rise to keep company with her goosebumps. Not now.

"John, I know you said we shouldn't do this, and that I had to know it couldn't happen, but I have no choice. It's my only chance of saving you."

Tasha felt Lilith's eyes on her as she straddled John's lap. His erection was hot against her stomach, and somehow reassuring, but not exciting. Tasha hoped that her ardor would rise once she started, as the high stakes of the contest were having a chilling effect on her libido. She spared a glance at the demon before she began.

Lilith had pulled out one of the kitchen chairs, and sat on it, luxurious legs crossed, pretending to pick at her immaculate nails. She glanced up at Tasha. "Never mind me, little one. I will start watching when you actually start fucking him. If you need any pointers, the most important one is that the cock goes here." She gestured toward the fatal cleft of her own legs.

Tasha ignored the taunt, turned, and kissed John full on the lips.

She felt a surge of triumph as he responded, lips opening for her, strong arms wrapping around her waist and back. Tasha tasted something unfamiliar in his mouth, of coconut, mango, cardamom...

Fuck! Sexual electricity jolted through her tongue, sending a current of pleasure to her breasts and loins. Tasha gasped, and involuntarily pressed herself against the steel of John's erection as she felt her own sex grow flush with blood and heat. What in the hell?

"I should warn you," the demon drawled. "I had been playing with him before you got here, so there is some of my saliva on his mouth. He did me the kindness of oral service, as well, so there would be some of that on his lips and tongue. It might have an... interesting effect on you."

Tasha wanted to ask if she herself could taste the demon's sexual ambrosia direct from the source, imaging herself slaving at the demon's sex like a subservient creature.

She shook it off. She had almost forgotten the heat of the demon's gaze — the way her own body had responded when she had first entered the apartment, and the scope of her peril became clear. This was a taste of the power the demon had at her disposal — the power which had John in full thrall. Despite the way John's mouth had responded to her, and the way his cock continued to pulse against her stomach, John was watching Lilith buff her fingernails as if he thought there was nothing more erotic in all creation.

However, the demon's "essence" had given Tasha a weapon herself. She had hoped her passion would rise once she began, and she now had what she wanted. She had never been so suffused with sexual heat, and she knew it would inspire her.

She needed more. Tasha lapped greedily at John's lips, and her tongue probed deep into John's mouth, seeking and taking what power she could find, driving her to further heights of puissant lust. Her hands roamed John's lean features, caressing the firmness of every muscle, absorbing his warmth into herself.

Her hips began to tilt and writhe, seeking John's cock, when she caught herself.

The demon had been fucking John. There would be more of her on his cock.

John, you are about to receive the most enthusiastic oral sex of your life.

Tasha slid to kneel between John's legs, taking his hands and placing them on her breasts, hoping that she would draw some sort of response.

He seemed to react by instinct, gently caressing her small breasts ("teacups", Lance had always called them, which he thought cute and she annoying) and tugging on her nipples with an expert's balance of pinch, pull, and roll, bringing her to — and suspending her at — the edge between pleasure and pain.

John's cock loomed before her face, and she could smell the demon on him.

Tasha looked up to John's face. She knew that for many men, their most erotic vision was to see a woman's eyes gazing up with adoration as she salivated over the man's cock. With the demon-fueled lust and her own affection for John, the look of adoration was as easy as the salivating.

It made no difference. John only had eyes for Lilith. Tasha spared a glance in that direction, and saw the demon had stopped doing her nails, and was instead peering at her prey with an intensity that Tasha hoped indicated a fear the demon had miscalculated.

Tasha returned her attention to John, opening her mouth and taking him inside, her tongue orbiting his glans and shaft, absorbing every molecule the demon had left behind. Her lips caressed down his length, and she closed her mouth tight around him. Her hands teased his testicles and the sighs and moans emanating from her throat told the truth that this was the first act of fellatio that she had ever enjoyed as much the man did. The demon's essence was hot fudge drizzled over sex ice cream with an orgasm cherry on top. While its power and pleasure coursed through her body, Tasha used it, inhaling John's cock into the depths of her mouth, massaging it with her cheeks, tongue, palate and throat, dismissing the gag reflex that had thwarted any previous attempts to add this feat to her sexual repertoire.

John's hips churned beneath her in time to her oral rhythms. One of his hands left an ache of longing as it departed her breast and rose to caress her face. His fingers stroked the full shoulder-length of her black hair and his palm cupped her cheek as if he were holding the most delicate of orchids.

His moans turned to cries, and she steeled herself as she felt his body spasm. Hot torrents shot down her throat, and Tasha drank them all. She had always been a swallower, relishing in the knowledge that her lover would become a part of her, as if they were consecrating a secret pact, but this was something far more. The demon's magic and her own overdriven libido combined to trigger her own climax. Tasha's knees buckled and she pressed her thighs together in an effort to keep control.

It wasn't enough.

She released John from her mouth and collapsed on the floor, still shivering from the aftershocks. When had she closed her eyes? She should have been watching John the entire time. Men liked that. She looked up, and let out a wail of anguish.

John was still staring at Lilith. Tasha had failed. She had provided the best head of her life, but the demon's influence was stronger. It was too late. John had come, and even if she did make him come again before time ran out, diminishing sexual returns would ensure it wasn't as good as this one.

Tasha had accepted her own death, but she had failed John — failed a good man who had suffered pain far worse than hers and come through it with his soul intact. He was a better human than she was, and he didn't deserve death.

The Black Mood billowed out of her subconscious, reminding her that she had known she would fail. She always failed. She should just give up and say her goodbyes to him, sorry proxy for his wife that she was.

"Care to try again?" The demon was taunting her.

Tasha's voice whimpered through her tears as she clutched her knees against her chest. "What's the point. He came."

The demon's laugh was more mockery. "You insult my power. Look at him."

Tasha rose her head and saw that Lilith hadn't lied. John's cock remained steel — his eyes as full of lust for Lilith as they had been all night.

Lilith seemed proud of the fact. "He will stay that way until he climaxes inside me, or until I release him, which I won't do unless you win our little contest." Her tone implied bemusement at the mere possibility.

Tasha nodded. If John was game, she had more fight in her as well.

"That's the spirit, girl."

Tasha whirled on Lilith. "Why? You don't want me to win."

"You are human. You can never win, but watching you try is what makes humans so entertaining."

Tasha's eyes shot daggers. This was life or death, not a game.

"I am a predator, girl. Predators sometimes play with their food. Endure it or surrender."

Tasha felt the need to return the demon's taunts. "He loved his wife. I bet she could have drawn him away from you."

Lilith's eyes flashed, and she suddenly rose, flaunting the perfection of her sinuous curves, supple skin, and defiant breasts. "Nothing could draw him away from me!" There was anger in her voice — outrage at the mere thought.

The demon's reaction seemed disproportionate, but even murderous arch-bitches of Hell had egos, Tasha surmised. Satisfied that her taunt had drawn emotional blood, she turned to straddle John once more. Her arms enveloped him, and her kisses covered his face and neck as she slowly lowered herself onto him.

Tasha felt her labia embrace his girth, and experienced the ephemeral feeling of completeness she always experienced when a man first entered her. God, he has a nice cock, she thought, before the reality of their predicament brought back her focus.

John's mouth opened in a gasp of pleasure, causing Tasha to look him in the eye. Triumph surged through her as she realized John was looking at her — staring at her with the same passion he had only shown earlier for the demon. She had won!

Then she heard the demon laughing.

Tasha pulled back, and saw John was not watching her, but his eyes were focused on a space ten feet behind her. Lilith had simply moved directly behind Tasha, taunting her yet again.

Lilith was too physically perfect for the usual insults, but this one might work. "I guess when you get to be your age, you need your entertainments."

The demon was unfazed. "You have no idea, girl."

A pulse behind Tasha's navel reminded her of her true purpose, and she clenched her Kegels tight around John's cock, torsioning her hips in a way that all her lovers had adored. Maybe the oral sex had been too impersonal, causing her to lose eye contact. Maybe her face had been too far from Lilith's, causing John's addled brain to believe it was Lilith who had pleasured him so. Maybe she needed to keep eye contact.

It normally wasn't hard for her to get a man to look her in the eyes. The combination of her asian features and her Pathan mother's blue eyes was disconcerting and exotic to most men, who often held her gaze just a second too long. Maybe they would have the same effect if she kept them locked on John.

A flush of heat emanated from her loins as she responded to her own efforts. Her Black Moods could suck most of the pleasure out of her life, but not this — not today. She would die today, she knew, but T.S. Eliot was always one of her favorite poets, and she would do him the ironic honor of ending with a bang, not a whimper.
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#4
Tasha pulled John's head down to her breasts, keeping his face tilted up so he could look into her eyes if he chose.

John continued to stare at a space well behind Tasha, but he responded by instinct, thrusting his hard flesh inside her, inhaling her nipple into his mouth — teasing it with his tongue — using his teeth to bite just hard enough to send paroxysms of pleasurepain through her breasts. God, if he could do this to her when he could barely register her existence, he would have been an amazing lover, and she knew she would regret not knowing him better, in all senses of the word.

Tasha felt him spasm again, as he erupted within her, but she didn't stop. She needed to keep him at this level and never let him fall if she were to have any hope of saving him. She threw herself into the sexual act, adding her voice to the chorus of her body, insisting he fuck her, that he fill her with his massive cock and come inside her — all the things men loved to hear.

She never meant the words more than she did now. Orgasmic waves crashed through her own body, and she surfed them, riding each peak to steer into the next, bringing John with her each time. His body was in harmony with hers, as they each responded to the other's thrusts and embraces.

Tasha danced at the edge of her own endurance, changing angles and tempo to stave off exhaustion — wrapping her legs around John's waist to provide leverage for a furiously rapid fucking, or spreading her thighs in a wide split to take him slow and deep where her Kegels could caress him. Her heart pounded and her lungs burned, but still she rode him, ignoring the occasional burst of demonic laughter in her ears.

Seconds inexorably turned to minutes as her life and John's ticked toward their fates. Tasha drew on all she had learned in a lifetime of desperate seduction. She had taken belly dancing lessons in high school, and knew how to undulate her hips in a rhythm that made men mad. A Tantric yoga weekend with Lance had provided a repertoire of position and control, and the flexibility to hold them. She practiced all that she knew and more, but she never varied in holding John's eyes.

Tasha had devoured the western literary canon in four languages, and she now used her knowledge to tap the erotic lexicon — whispering sweet obscenities in John's ears — promising all the things she would let him do to her breasts, ass, and cunt. He could bind her in silk, leather, or chains, where he could spank or lick her for hours, whichever was his pleasure. She spoke purjuries of endless cocksuckings and a lifetime of sexual dominance, slavery or equality — whatever he wanted — if he would just look at her.

Machine-gun orgasms were finally replaced by cramps, and searing lust by the burning pain of abrasion. Her leg and abdominal muscles were trembling jelly, yet still Tasha fucked him. Moans and rapturous screams turned to piteous mewls. She begged and she bit. She kissed the sweat off of John's skin and swore at him and at herself.

Finally, exhausted, she collapsed on John's lap. Her insides had worn raw fifteen minutes previous. Sweat pooled wherever her skin pressed tight against John's. Tasha glanced at the clock — she only had minutes before her time was up, and she had no more to give.

The demon was right. John could not be drawn away from the demon's gaze. Tasha had failed, as was her nature, but this time, John would join her in paying the price for her useless, miserable existence.

Tasha pulled him close, resolving to spend her last minutes apologizing for her failure. You don't deserve to die, she thought as she held him. You deserve life, and love, and all the things your wife's death took away from you — all the things that will be denied you because I failed.

"You deserve to be held like this every day," she found herself continuing out loud as her body echoed her words. "You deserve a friend to end your loneliness. You deserve a woman who will take care of you — one who let you be good to her, laugh at your jokes, and yell at you when you leave your socks on the floor. You deserve to be loved. You deserve to have saved your —"

Lilith chose that moment to interrupt. "I deserve less tedium. This grows tiresome, girl."

Tasha turned to glare at the demon over her shoulder.

Lilith matched the anger in her eyes. "Yield and we can end this. You can't save everyone."

"John would try."

"He can't even save himself."

"No, he —"

Tasha stopped. Something is wrong here.

Watching you try is what makes humans so entertaining. The demon had said that earlier. The demon had been encouraging her, but was now urging surrender.

Was it just demonic whim, or was there purpose to the paradox? Could Lilith have been urging her on a course of action she knew to be useless, while discouraging her from a path to victory?

Lilith was a demon. Of course she would do such a thing.

The succubus had distracted her just when she had been about to mention John's wife. Something tugged at her memory, and she recalled that when she had mentioned John's wife earlier, the demon had done the same thing, changing the subject by losing her temper — or at least pretending to lose her temper. And that wasn't all.

Why had Lilith been so casual about Tasha using the demon's essence as an aphrodisiac? Tasha had thought Lilith had given her a weapon, but had it really been a handicap — focusing her on the sex? Hadn't Lilith encouraged her to fuck John after fellating him, just when Tasha had resigned herself to saying goodbye to him? Talking to him?

Fuck, this bitch was playing her, telling her this was a sexual contest, leading Tasha to believe that she had to fuck John into making him look at her — but that was playing to Lilith's strengths.

John's wife — Jenny — she was somehow the key. Jenny had died and John had been driven to despair by his failure to save her. Tasha mentally kicked herself for her solipsism. She had learned nothing about Jenny beyond that fact, but it would have to be enough.

I didn't know how much I needed to save someone, John had said.

Tasha knew what he meant now. For the past hour, she had been fighting for him by way of fucking him, trying to absolve her own failures. It hadn't worked, but the Black Mood had been held at bay. The mere act of fighting for someone other than herself had pushed it back into the shadowy corners of her mind.

It had given her power, and would do the same for John. Hadn't John's desire to save her always been stronger than his desire to fuck her? Hadn't that been why he spurned her?

The only question was whether it would be enough.

She would have to lie to him, Tasha realized. He would hate her forever, but it was her only chance.

A glance at the demon warned her time was running short. She saw fire rising behind Lilith's eyes. The demon sensed danger.

"You deserve to have saved your wife, John," Tasha said. "It wasn't your fault that she died, and you two deserved a lifetime together."

John blinked. He had blinked hundreds of times in the last hour, but this blink seemed decisive — voluntary — the act of a sleeping man trying to wake up.

Yes! Winning the contest through sex was playing the demon's game. "You deserve your wife, John, but all you have right now is me. I am a sorry substitute, I know, but you saved me, John. If you don't look at me, it will all be for nothing. You need to save me again, John. This demon is going to kill me. You don't want me to die — I don't want to die." Tasha was dead even if John woke, she knew, but as she spoke words that were mostly lies she realized those last words were true. "Save me."

Tears clouded Tasha's eyes, the clock ticked down the last seconds of the hour, and the howling rage of a demon whipped through the air... as John's eyes shifted a fraction of an inch and latched onto Tasha's — recognition and concern humanizing features that had been vacant all evening.

John's slight, confused smile was the most beautiful sight Tasha had ever witnessed.

She had done it. Saltwater rolled down Tasha's cheeks and diverted around lips spread wide in a smile. She hadn't failed after all. She had saved him.

The demon would take her now, but it didn't matter. Tasha could leave the world knowing that despite all the pain her failures had wrecked on the lives of her friends and family, a good man lived because of her.

Ignoring her raw lips, Tasha kissed John on the mouth.

"Tasha?" he asked, bewildered.

"Enough!" Lilith's voice was saturated with threat.

John collapsed onto the couch as if he had been poleaxed, but Tasha could tell he was just unconscious.

"You aren't giving me a chance to say goodbye!" Tasha protested, continuing to look at John.

"I have lost him, but I will claim you." Lilith didn't bother to contain the fury in her voice. Tasha was certain that the hints of a pleasant death were forgotten.

Tasha closed her eyes to buy time. Lilith's power was in her gaze. Yes, the demon had other magicks, but they were slower.

Why was she stalling? Hadn't she wanted to die? Hadn't she entered into this pact guaranteeing her own death regardless of the outcome?

The Black Mood was still there, tugging at the newfound buoyancy of her soul, but she felt stronger now, made more powerful by defeating the certainty of her own failure. Her illness seemed smaller — something manageable. Her only disappointment was that she had gained the strength she had always lacked just when she had sold her soul.

Tasha wanted to live, she knew. She wanted to hold John's hand in the doctor's office while the doctor explained medical side effects that she already knew by heart. She wanted to hear pride in her father's voice, and see respect in her mother's eyes. She wanted to walk across the Michigan Avenue Bridge, spit in the ice water below, and smile at the people on the other side.

It was unfair. The only thing she had known for sure an hour ago was that she wanted to die, so she had promised the demon her life even if she won. Now, it was forfeit. She could ask the demon for mercy, but one did not anger demons and expect to be given quarter, particularly if Tasha's survival increased the risk that Hell would discover Lilith's failure. Lilith would want her dead for her silence, if nothing else. It was impossible — just as defeating Lilith had been impossible.

Which meant Tasha could do it.

Think.

"Do not seek to deny me, woman. Rules are rules. Your ward won't help you now."

Rules. Demons were all about rules, even if you defeated them. Especially if you defeated them. One of the Wiccan books had said that a defeated demon had to comply with a rule of it's own. It was a trivial penalty, but could she leverage it into something stronger?

"I demand my boon," Tasha said, still refusing to look the demon in the eye.

Lilith's voice dripped with hate. "You play dangerous games, woman. Yes, you are owed a small service from defeating me, if you know enough to seek it, but I am still free to choose the manner of your death, and it need not be as pleasant as the one I normally provide." Lilith's voice was now scornful. "Name your boon, for all the good it will do you. My powers are of limited use to you, and will not save you. Your soul is bound to me by rule, and a boon is bound to you by rule. Bring those rules into conflict, and the resolution is my decision alone. I promise it will not go well for you."

"Then I will not ask you to spare me."

Tasha sensed the hesitation in the demon's voice. Perhaps she had realized she had said too much. "Name your boon, then."

"If you do not wish to perform this service, we can negotiate."

"There is nothing to negotiate. I will perform your petty task, and your soul is mine. An hour's labor, no more, per the dictates of Hell. What do you wish? Some former lover that you wish me to destroy? A message to your family? Your clothes laundered?"

Hell does not suffer failure, the demon had said. "No. Tell the aristocracy of Hell how I have defeated you today. That is within your meager powers, and should take no more than an hour, no?"

Tasha opened her eyes and looked into those of the demon, challenging her to accept, and be murdered at the hands of her peers. Lilith would eventually be resurrected, but she would no longer be Queen-Sister of the Lilim — she would just be one of the lower succubi.

Lilith's eyes seared with green rage. Her lips were withdrawn in a rictus of hate.

Tasha briefly wondered if she had miscalculated — whether the demon would willingly suffer the punishment of Hell in order to enact vengeance upon Tasha for this outrage.

No, the demon was too proud of her status, and would not sacrifice it for a mere human. The ocular flames dimmed and Lilith's face composed itself in stiff mask. Only the grinding of the demon's teeth — ice skates on a chalkboard — indicated the depth of her displeasure.

Finally, Lilith spoke. "I underestimated you, and would keep that knowledge private. Perhaps we can come to some sort of arrangement?"

---

"Sleepyhead. Time for bed."

That was Tasha's voice. John opened his eyes. God, his head hurt, and he felt like he had just run a marathon.

"Sleepyhead," he repeated. "Jenny used to call me that sometimes."

"You need to tell me more about her."

"She would have liked you." Smart, stylish, proud, and a lover of books. Jenny would have found a kindred spirit, and would have wanted to help a woman of such potential formidability.

Tasha seemed pleased by John's words.

Hold it. Tasha was here. "You came back," he said.

She had scared him, running off like that. He had guessed she would go back to the bridge, and had been grabbing his keys when something had distracted him. Why couldn't he remember what it was? Why had he been asleep on the couch instead of looking for her? Had he tripped and hit his head?

"Yes, I came back. I apologize for being a bitch earlier. You were just trying to help, like you always do."

"What happened?"

"I promised not to tell anyone, but do you remember what you said about needing some small successes to help get back on my feet?"

"I think so."

"Well, go big or go home, I say."

He tried to puzzle his way through her words, but the attempt just hurt his head. "I feel like I'm hungover."

"Come on. Get to bed. I can drag you, but I am a wee slip of a thing. It will be better for both of us if you walk."

Tasha was different — more playful. He hadn't seen this side of her before, and he liked it, almost as much as he liked the dream he had been having about her. Tasha had featured in many of his dreams of late, but this one had a detailed vividity.

"I had the weirdest dream about you," he said, standing up from the couch and leaning on Tasha as they shuffled toward the bedroom.

Why had he told her that? If she guessed the content of his dream it would only encourage her endless attempts to get into his bed. Resisting her was difficult enough as it was. Only her instability had strengthened him so far, knowing it would be bad for both of them. But God, that mind, so hungry for knowledge, and so adept at using it, except in service to her own survival. Her eyes — his recent dream had featured those cerulean orbs boring into him, promising him an end to isolation. That body — tawny-skinned, and slight enough he could pick her up and pin her against the wall, which he had been fantasizing about for two weeks.

"You dreamed about me? You look a little embarrassed about it. Must have been a good dream." Small, delicate hands pushed him over on the far side of the mattress, and he felt the warmth of a comforter pulled over his body, followed by the even warmer, and more comfortable, sensation of Tasha's body spooning up against him.

This again. "Tasha, you need to get out of my bed. We talked about this. You won't get back on your feet if you think you need to sleep with me in order to earn your keep."

Tasha made a raspberry noise. "I am back on my feet now, and am confident I earned my keep tonight already, so that doesn't apply. You can take me to the doctor tomorrow. I will try Zoloft again, and if that doesn't work, I will keep trying until I have exhausted the entire pharmacopia. Cross my heart and hope... well, cross my heart anyway."

She seemed sincere, but time would tell. "Not sure why I am so exhausted, but I am too tired to fight. You can sleep here tonight. But just sleep."

"Of course," she said.

"Smart woman."

"You have no idea. Anyway, I had a rough night myself. I want to sleep as much as you do."

"Good."

John felt a chaste kiss against the back of his neck.

"Taking advantage of you," Tasha said, "will have to wait until tomorrow night."

That made him smile. "You aren't going to give up, are you?"

Tasha didn't respond at first, and he thought maybe she had fallen asleep. Then he felt her hand touch his, and he heard a soft whisper. "You didn't give up on me. How can I do otherwise?"

John turned to face her with a question on his lips, but he held it. He had watched her sleep before, and even at rest there had always been a tension in her face, a hint of the turmoil within. Tonight, she was different. Tonight, she somehow seemed at peace.

He kissed her on the forehead, and went to sleep.

---

The End

Author's note: readers of the Might Have Been series will remember Tasha as the villain of the story. She was one of my favorite characters from that series, and I enjoyed the chance to write her a redemptive arc. This story was a little different, travelling to darker places than are usually explored here, but I hope you found the journey worth the effort. Thanks for reading. Please vote and let me know what you thought.
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