"—like any way that really matters, I'm dead. Inside somewhere, someone's screaming and weeping and howling like an animal, but that's not me. It's someone else, deep inside. Someone...with no access to this face, these lips and eyes and head. So I smile and do my part, but...Really, I–I feel like...like I've been dead for...since I was a little girl."
Juniper sipped, half-sobbed and poured her heart out for the young man next to her in the booth. Hesitating, he laid his arm over her back and rubbed her shoulder, giving a gentle squeeze. Only around a year older than her and experientially less so, his name was Alex Tavares and he went by Arclight most nights. The vigilante-hero boasting control over luminous particles had been causing trouble for Arthur and the Sons of Ragnarok, and it was time for Valentina to once again show her loyalty for a wad of cash. This was the man she'd come to kill.
But she liked Alex, in an unfortunate sort of way. Not as in I'd consider a committed relationship, but at least it's nice that he's alive and here with me.
"Aw, June...I can call you June, right? Is that okay with you? Just...feels less formal." She nodded without speaking and, gingerly, Tavares guided the drink down from her face. "Maybe what you need isn't more nights out in places like this. Alcohol and casual sex clearly won't make it go away. What if - and this is just a thought but it's completely up to you - you just need something more meaningful, with someone you can talk to?"
"Are you saying...?" She leaned into him, a hopeful glint in her emerald eyes, but as his words sunk in, shame rose within her and she slumped dejectedly in her seat.
"Hey hey hey," he was quick to correct. "You can do whatever you want. No shame. I just want you to know that, if no one else is, I can be your person. If you want me to. Everybody needs someone they can talk to freely. And I mean...have you thought about alerting the media? Posting about it, maybe a blog? If Dr. Knightfall really is such a monster then this completely flies in the face of the image she projects. And if she's taking advantage and gaslighting you then I know people would be interested in your story. You have no ideahow strong you are." He hesitated, then added, "As strong as you are beautiful."
Gradually, he'd been inching the glass further and further across the table but as he finished talking June seemed to notice, reaching almost frantically but Alex waved her off. 'Watch this,' he signalled. The cup seemed to vanish and two small, hard-light figures rose up from the table. A man and woman, his body a solid blue, hers red, they came together and began to waltz. Around them, photons shone and sparkled and popped in a miniature fireworks show. Juniper's face lit up and she watched, mouth agape, as the fireworks varied in intensity with the couple's dance, itself in rhythm with the music playing over the speakers.
"Thanks Alex. Can we...?" Her head inclined slightly, self-consciously, toward the door.
"Oh yeah, no problem," said Alex Tavares dutifully, ceasing his light tricks. "I'll call an Ub—"
"Please let me." She'd already taken her phone out of her purse, adding for good measure, "Just...please, let me exert control over this one aspect of my life, for now." Alex, the darling, was as supportive as anyone could be. Such a good boy...
Three minutes later he was helping the stumbling girl up from the booth, outside and into a black 2018 Dodge Durango. Juniper confirmed the driver, who merged seamlessly into oncoming traffic. "Getcha anything? Water, snacks? Aux?"
"Ooh!" Like an overeager child, Juniper snatched the cable with both hands and plugged into her phone. The screen lit up her face, and Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" began blaring through the speakers.
Puzzled, then intrigued, Alex cocked his head. "That is way old school. Don't tell me part of your torture was being forced to listen to this. That woman really is cruel."
"Actually," said June as though the fact it was a joke went right over her head, "daddy was a fan. I grew up with this kinda thing." Before flashing a wry grin and retorting sardonically. "What, you'd prefer Fame On Fire covering 'Gucci Gang?'"
But just as he opened his mouth to respond she darted across the seat, stealing his breath with an exceedingly familiar kiss. It took several long seconds, but a sense of propriety repossessed Alex and he gave a gentle push, prompting her to pull away. Immediately registering hurt and shame in her expression. Commence damage control. He stammered, his eyes meeting those of the driver in the rearview mirror. "Wait, wait, I mean...You know if your passenger rating dips too low they can completely ban you from the app, right?"
"Ah don't worry about it," shot back the driver over his shoulder. "I know what's comin' next. You might as well enjoy it." That was all the encouragement Juniper needed to pick up where she left off.
Alex still felt uncomfortable about having an audience, but found himself beginning to ease into the circumstance in spite of himself.
The longer he remained lip-locked with her, the more he realized what a relaxing effect she was having on him. He was practically melting at her touch. Melting into the seat, and then through it. Sinking, he felt his world transforming. Into a shared reality, between just the two of them, where nothing mattered but his ability to take care of June. Whatever she wanted. She was right. She was absolute.
Soon he was watching himself and her from outside of his body. With some difficulty, he realized he was no longer returning her affections. She was exploring his body further but he could not return the favor. His arms and legs, his lips and his tongue, wouldn't move. A spike—panic. It faded just as soon. There was a pang of guilt but that, too, faded as he realized that he didn't matter either. She was absolute. That didn't include him. There she was, robbing him of everything from basic bodily control to his very sense of self. And Alex Tavares couldn't have been happier.
He wasn't sure how long he'd been falling or when everything changed, but he found himself standing, alone, in a sea of...That can't be right. It was a place not of darkness, but...nothingness. What Alex saw, what he felt, was the true absence, of anything at all. An indescribable world where there was nothing else but himself, and yet he could feel, as clearly as anything else, that he was utterly insignificant.
Wait. He spun around. He couldn't see it but he couldfeel...something. Suddenly it was in front of him, behind him, ever-present at every side. Yet he saw nothing.
Another layer of his new reality folded in on itself. This was it. The end. Of himself. Of everything. Alex gleaned a vague sense of Juniper's presence. Was she here too? No, but she had been. Faint flashes of events played out in the periphery of his mind, from his birth until the car ride, and as each one passed he felt it fading away forever. Names of people and places forever lost, he could no longer assign an identity to any of them—except one. He saw, as through a barrier, the girl who had taken his life. Jun—No. "V-V-...Va–" Briefly, he'd been allowed to gaze upon her true self, before the memory of her also faded.
Now he was truly alone. He, the blank slate, and the ever-present thing that resides in the nothing. Another spike—panic, but this time it wouldn't subside. The essence formerly known as Alex whipped around this way and that, greeted each time in every direction by the void. But he could hear it. Faintly, at first. Distant, but increasing in volume. Terror, as he realized the wailing chorus was upon him. He spun around, one more time, and let out a howl neverending as he too was swallowed up into the sea of souls trapped within the Soul Lavaliere.
There was silence in the car.
Valetina settled in and buckled her seatbelt. Her face was expressionless as she gazed out of the window.
Arthur studied her in the mirror and scoffed. "Aw, don't tell me you actually minded doing that."
"Tch! Of course not. What, I'm supposed to be suprised I killed him? This is what was expected. Thrilled? How many times have I done this? It's nothing new."
"Maybe to you—Shit." He laughed, glacing back at the soulless husk. "You didn't tell us you could do that, you goddamn succubus. Guess it's a good thing we never hooked up after all."
"Aw, baby, but I still left room for dessert. You don't wanna help a girl out?" Valentina teased, hand caressing the Soul Lavaliere that'd been fitted into what appeared to be a charm bracelet. And though she'd meant it only as a joke, a throbbing hunger welled up within the stone suggesting otherwise.
The Dodge pulled into a garage just at the edge of what used to be Black House. "Tell youwhat," said Arthur over his shoulder. "You handle disposal and I'll throw in another two grand, just for the chore." It was chump change, Valentina knew. But she'd been playing low-key for a while, solo missions only. Back to the bottom of the pile, as far as Arthur and the Sons were concerned. Endearing herself to her superiors once more would always come with perks. More money and opportunities in the future, even favors. Didn't hurt that it also kept her from being marked herself.
"You couldn't have said that in the first place?" Smirking, she climbed over into the driver's seat as the Neo-Juggernaut exited the vehicle, leaving all of her promised pay in a paper bag on the floor.