10:32 pm, April 13th, 2202
The Bay glimmered dully in the Lambda City streetlights. San Francisco had remained largely untouched by the Civil War, and there were few marks of Corporation control.
Dante was all the more wary for it.
He knew the Corporation. He knew there were very likely ten cameras scanning a single street and at least five more hidden in a bush somewhere. Jahansson’s paranoia knew no bounds.
More than anything, it was what had won him the world.
He checked his watch. She was late. Again.
“Ariel, what am I gonna do with you…” he muttered, reclining and closing his eyes.
“Depends on how you’re feeling.”
Dante wasn’t the least bit surprised. He opened his eyes and turned to his left; there she was, in a graceful grey dress, her emerald eyes sparkling.
“I really wish you wouldn’t do that.” said Dante, smiling and checking his watch again.
“Why? Does it scare the mighty Dante?” she asked, lounging back on the bench.
“No. Because it was a near miss that the sweeping cameras didn’t catch your reappearance. I gave you the GIACA so you could be protected, not so you could show off its abilities.”
His tone was hard, and her smile faltered.
“Sorry. I forgot-“
“We’re in Corporate territory, Ariel. Never forget.”
There was a tense silence between them, as Dante waited for the right time.
It finally arrived, and he stood. So did she, her expression somber.
“But let’s stay positive. You managed to get past all the checkpoints unchallenged, and a disappearing trick is hard to do with a GIACA. I applaud the effort, but your timing could have been better. By the way, that dress looks lovely on you, and since when did you have any makeup?”
Her smile was back, as well as her mischievous wink.
“Sarai was unaware of her little donation.”
“Since when did Sarai have makeup?”
They both shared a long, happy laugh as they began to walk down the street.
They arrived at their destination quickly; the old City Hall. They could hear the music inside already.
As they ascended the steps, Ariel turned to him.
“So what’s the job, Dante? An assassination? Information? Heaven forbid, are we blowing up City Hall?”
He shook his head.
“I don’t know, exactly. I’m supposed to meet a contact. We’ll find out what they want us to do then.”
They had reached the top of the steps, and he turned to her.
“Until then, Ariel, try to enjoy yourself. We’re in no danger tonight. This is a people’s party.”
She nodded, and he linked his arm with hers. They entered the sweltering room together, barely feeling the heat.
Almost immediately Dante and Ariel were approached by several eager dancers, wishing the honor of a dance with ‘such striking people’.
Dante and Ariel glanced at each other, grinning. Then they both whirled out onto the dance floor, a delighted woman with Dante and an ecstatic man with Ariel.
The music was classical, but perfectly chosen for a late summer’s night. Warm and graceful melodies floated up and down the room, quick and rousing at times, slow and elegant at others.
Dante threw a quick look at Ariel. She was glowing, elated, one of the happiest smiles he had ever seen on her face.
Dante smiled, and drew his partner out to the edge of the dancefloor. He could see his contact, supporting the wall and hitting the booze. Hard.
“Prophet.” he said, ushering the dazed-looking woman to another partner.
“Crow. It’s been a long time.” the man rasped back, taking another huge swig from a hip flask.
“I see you’re still adhering to the old hacker laws. Living without water isn’t a good thing, man.”
Prophet grinned, revealing dull yellow teeth and parched gums.
“But I’m still alive. And still working my science.”
“Yeah. I can tell. So what’s the job, Prophet?” Ariel had passed close to him as he spoke, and he felt her head turn slightly.
Prophet looked confused.
He caught on when he saw Dante’s expression.
“-What you need to do is wait. There’s going to be a very special guest tonight, Crow.”
He felt her turn away again, relaxed slightly and nodded.
“Thanks, Prophet. Who’s the guest? Someone Corporate?”
“Very much so. Cassius Jahansson.”
Dante nodded, and rejoined the dancing crowd. Ariel quickly found him, and they began to dance to a slow summer waltz.
“You don’t seem too shocked to find out that the heir secondary is coming to our party.” said Ariel, cocking her head slightly.
“I was expecting something like this. The Jahansson clan has to make sure they keep a good public image.”
She shook her head, scowling slightly. Then their eyes locked, and he felt her presence in his mind.
“And all we have to do is wait and watch? Why don’t we kill him?”
“Because he carries a small army around with him wherever he goes, because almost everybody here is Corporate, and because it would bring Elric Jahansson’s full wrath down on out heads. I can’t fight a billion man army. Not all at once.”
She sighed resignedly, and curtsied as the dance ended.
“Thank you.” he replied, smirking slightly.
“I need some water. I’ll be back momentarily.”
He nodded, and she swept off into the crowd, parting the mass like a sea.
Dante shook his head, and turned back around. He thought he felt his heart stop.
Sarai was smiling and walking towards him from the opposite side of the room.
She was outfitted in a slinky white dress, low-cut and with a pattern of blue flames running down her left side. Her grey eyes glimmered amusedly, and she walked over to him, her left leg slipping in and out of a slit in the dress’s fabric.
“Dante. Didn’t expect to find you here.” she said, embracing him.
He returned the hug. “Sarai, you look stunning without that power armor. You need to do this kind of thing more often.”
“So do you. I love how you altered your GIACA. It’s really amazing how that optical illusion works.”
“You should see Ariel. I’ve never seen an imitation quite as perfect.”
He thought he saw Sarai’s face curdle for a half second. Then her usual beautiful smile was back.
“Ariel’s here? Is she having a good time?”
“Very much so.” came Ariel’s voice from behind him. She walked up next to Dante and smiled at Sarai. The hint of ice behind it was nearly invisible.
“I’m glad. Dante, would you honor me with a dance?” said Sarai, extending her hand.
“If you like getting your toes trod on.”
She laughed and walked over to the bandstand.
“Play something good, boys.” she whispered to the conductor, who smiled gratefully as his credit chit beeped up two hundred credits.
Sarai walked back over to Dante, who put his hand in hers and drew her close by the waist.
The music began, a quick and lighthearted piano.
Dante and Sarai moved into the center of the floor, which parted to admit them.
“Come out, Virginia, don’t let me wait, you Catholic girls start much too late,” sang the man on the mic as Dante twirled a laughing Sarai.
“Sooner or later, it comes down to fate, I might as well be the o-one…”
Ariel watched, feeling her anger grow as she watched them.
Clever girl. I’m going to have to top this. With interest.
“Well they showed you a statue, told you to pray, they built you a temple and locked you away, but they never told you the price that you pay. The things that you might have done…”
Dante drew Sarai close, grinning from ear to ear.
“Darlin’ only the good die young!”
And they danced, their movements swift and cheerful, a dance of life and laughter. Sarai had never felt like this before; in the arms of a beloved, having the time of her life, not having to worry about anything. There was no need for death tonight. No need for war.
Just peace, the music, and the man she loved.
But eventually the song came to an end, and the crowd clapped and whistled wildly as Dante bowed to Sarai, who gave him a friendly kiss on the cheek.
Then the lights dimmed. Everyone, including Sarai and Dante, looked around with confused faces.
A spotlight came on, shining down on the figure of Ariel. Dante suppressed a laugh and walked over. The piano had started again, much slower, much more sad.
She looked into his eyes with a crooked smile, and took his hand.
Then the guitar came to life, and they began to dance.
“Well we all have a face, that we hide away forever, but we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone. Some are satin, some are steel, some are silk and some are leather, they’re the faces of the Stranger but we love to try them on…”
The crowd was utterly silent, watching as if hypnotized. Dante and Ariel’s dance was much more erratic, much more edgy and sultry.
Sarai’s eyebrows raised.
What is she trying to prove? Why The Stranger?
“Well we all fall in love, but we disregard the danger, though we share so many secrets, there are some we never tell,”
“Why were you so surprised, that you never saw the Stranger, did you ever let your lover see the Stranger in yourself?”
Her fists clenched as the dance grew more unpredictable, as Ariel and Dante began to twist and turn like things inhuman, as the crowd drew back in awe.
The next two minutes were torturous. She was better at this, damn her.
Score to you, little girl.
As the song ended, the crowd was silent. Ariel curtsied and Dante bowed in utter quiet. None of them knew quite how to read their faces. It was an expression they had never seen before.
But as all three proceeded to the door, a single man’s applause rang out across the silent space.
And the whole room burst into clapping, the people shouting and whooping.
Dante stepped back in surprise as several women and a few men rushed at him, with requests ranging from ‘May I have the next dance, stranger?’ to ‘Listen, I’m opening up a dance company, and we’d love to have you on board. What do you say?’.
Ariel was pressed to the wall by a ring of amorous young men, crying sweet nothings and offering her many different trinkets.
But Sarai was shunted to the side as the crowd surged forward, nearly stumbling down the stairs as she went. She didn’t fall.
Nonetheless, the pain was unbearable.
Dante and Ariel fought to escape, apologizing and making excuses over and over again, worming their way through the multitude with care and speed. Eventually, they broke free, and all but ran to the base of the steps. Sarai followed slowly, barely holding back tears.
When she caught up to them, they were laughing and exhilarated, keying in the coordinates for a teleport module.
Dante turned and caught sight of Sarai. His expression sobered immediately at her miserable face.
“What’s wrong?” he asked as Ariel vanished, laying a hand on her shoulder.
She looked up at him, tears in her eyes.
“It’s… it’s nothing. I just fell down and twisted my ankle.”
“Sarai, don’t lie to me. I’ve seen you take bullets to the gut and barely bat an eyebrow. What’s wrong? Is it that Ariel tried to show you up? Because you think she danced better than you?”
She nodded and fell against him, sobbing quietly.
“Hey, easy.” he said, embracing her. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You danced well, I honestly enjoyed it. Ariel’s only learned every single ballroom and street dance out there, memorized every step, and stored them perfectly. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
“I know. It’s just… she’s so much better than I am! She can take an enemy apart with a look, without fear of getting hurt. I have to fight like a human! I have to fear!”
“That’s a good thing. So what if she has powers like that? If I put her in a command post, our army would fall to pieces. If I had her on an assassination mission, she’d get bored, attack head on, and get captured. You have more patience, more of a tactical mind than her. It’s one of the reasons our army is still alive.”
She laughed, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
“You’re welcome. Feeling better?”
“Marginally. Let’s go home.”
He smiled, and they dissolved, flying back to Omega.
Sarai landed hard, stumbling to the floor with a curse. Dante laughed and helped her up. Ariel was waiting for them, a warm smile on her face. Sarai looked at her without enmity for once, and they had a long, laughter-filled chat.
Sarai was content, warm, happy. This was the closest thing to a family she’d had in a while.
But sooner or later every playtime has to come to an end, and she could feel exhaustion creeping into her.
“G’night, everyone. I’m damn tired after that dance.”
She smiled wearily and walked into the hall to her room. But then she stopped as she turned the corner, and peeked around it to catch one more glimpse of them both.
Ariel was hugging Dante, her face buried in his shoulder, and Dante was smiling contentedly, his eyes closed.
Sarai did her best not to scream. She stormed back to her room, unzipping the dress and flopping into bed.
Little witch… why does he like her so much? What does she have that I don’t?!
Her sleep was deep and troubled, dreams of Dante mixing with dreams of a thousand deaths.
All of them Ariel’s. She woke frequently, ashamed of her fantasies.
But also strangely, perversely proud of them.