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Nero was staring at the black sun pulsing in the sky.  It almost looked like an eclipse, a dark shape surrounded by flaming corona, but no one would be fooled into believing that after nearly a month of this faux daytime.  Night was even worse.  The moon was just gone.

Vergil squeezed his fingers on Yamato's saya when he saw Nero reach up to wipe at the tears that dug trenches through the grime on his face, breath faltering while he got a hold of himself again.  His son's pain upended the precarious balance Vergil had managed to strike during all this, though he was careful not to let it show on his face.  The boy had already shouldered the weight of the world.  Vergil didn't want to add to that burden.    

Nero swallowed hard and turned to his father and uncle.  "We've got to go," he said.

"Kid, if you need a minute--" Dante started.

"We don't have a minute," Nero stressed.  "In case neither of you noticed, this is the apocalypse, and we're the only ones who can stop it.  I promised her I'd save everyone, and that's what I'm gonna do."  He spun away, setting off with single-minded purpose.

Exchanging a look with his brother, Vergil followed in Nero's wake and descended into the crater.  He wondered briefly if he should have pulled his son aside and forced him to take just a moment for himself.  It had been a long road to get here, one bought with precious lives and blood, but it was the last hope they had to put an end to the literal end of the world.  Catharsis would have to wait.

The tortured ground groaned under Vergil's boots, buckling up slowly from the molten pressure under the crust and then sinking back down.  This once green plateau, a lush paradise rarely visited by man, was reduced to a blasted hollow where no plant or animal could possibly survive for long.   There was nothing left but devastation everywhere he looked.  It reminded him far too much of all those years in the underworld under the thumb of the very being that had now brought hell to the entire earth.

"That's it," Nero said, pointing at the structure that stood untouched in the middle of the wasteland.  "That has to be it."

A lone doorway.  The Door of the Moirai.

They approached cautiously, Dante and Nero with guns drawn to watch the horizon for enemies that were surely on their way.  This place was far too exposed for this endeavor, but they had little choice.

"What's the writing say, brother?" Dante asked.

Vergil skimmed his fingertips over the carvings on the free-standing arch, mouthing the words until he could come up with a translation.  "To enter is to turn back, To enter is to return, To enter must be bought, To enter must give, Soul perfected, Freely offered or not at all.  To enter is to end and begin again."

"Great.  What does that mean?" Nero growled.  "We don't have time for riddles."

"Maybe it's unlocked," Dante said, looking up at it.  He shrugged when his brother and nephew rolled their eyes at him and planted a hand on the stone door, giving it a push.  It swung open without effort.

"What the actual fuck."  Nero scowled when he saw nothing but the same empty, barren landscape on the other side and not the magical gate of salvation they'd been promised.  "Shit.  How does this thing work?"

Dante blew out a breath.  "I don't know what a 'soul perfected' is supposed to be, but it sounds like the door needs some kind of offering."

Vergil didn't like the way Nero froze, staring at the doorway speculatively before his features hardened in determination.

The droning sound that swept across their surroundings interrupted whatever theorizing they were about to do, and Vergil hissed.  An unending dark cloud buzzing with demons rolled over the hills toward them, but it was the other shape, three eyes in triangular formation, that worried him more.  "Mundus is here."

"You finish figuring out that gate," Nero instructed his father, translucent wings spreading from his shoulders.  "We'll buy you time."

Vergil turned his back as the gunfire started to echo in the caldera.  These were the only two people he could trust like this, the only hands he'd ever lay his life into.  He quickly scanned the archway's etchings as he hunted for a clue that would help him activate Fate's Door.  They were counting on him, and he had no intention of letting them down at the final hour.

He ducked instinctively when one of Nero's Devil Bringers snatched up the Faust that swooped at him, reeling it away before it could do any harm.  The guns had been exchanged for swords which meant the enemy was firmly upon them.

"What do you hope to accomplish?" Mundus' voice boomed in his head, and Vergil grit his teeth against the distraction.  "You have lost, sons of Sparda.  Submit, and perhaps I will let you serve me again."

 "Fuck that!" Nero snarled, hacking a Fury into pieces with violent strikes.  "Go blow yourself!"

Mundus' awful laugh rattled his bones, and Vergil was suddenly yanked by the scruff of his coat as Dante switched their places to ram his sword through a teleporting Blitz.  "I think I will break you first, child, so I can make them watch," Mundus sneered.

Vergil looked up in horror, reaching back to grab Dante's shoulder in a bid for his attention when the gleaming eyes in the swarm of demons started to spark.  He knew what was coming.  "We need to get--!"

A glowing winged arm shot out before he could finish, striking Vergil dead center in his chest and shoving him to collide with his brother.  They started falling into the doorway tangled in one another, Dante's ankle hooked around his and arms spreading out in an attempt to brace them.  Vergil hastily used his power to slow time in an attempt to prevent the inevitable, but it was as hopeless as all his past struggles had been.

Nero's resigned, gentle smile was haunting.  "Go," he whispered to them.  It was a farewell, and Vergil felt himself shatter.

Blue Rose lifted just as the spears of energy punched through Nero, the first in his abdomen, the second right through his heart.  Vergil didn't even mark the third because nothing else mattered.  The gun dropped from Nero's limp fingers, the enduring light in his eyes fading, and a blossom of blood glittered like rubies under the unearthly glow of that false sun.  Beautiful and terrible and the last of his son's life.

It was all so slow Vergil could memorize every detail.

An anguished scream tore out of his throat, more a distorted sound than anything coherent, and he could feel Dante's equal shout against his back.  Nero died before he even finished falling backward to the ground, drifting like pristine snow.  Then the world was no more.

They tumbled through empty void, breathless and broken in ways that were too deep to measure.  Dante snatched for his hand like he needed something to hold on to, missing by just a hair's breadth.  Vergil couldn't tell how far they plunged, but his shoulder finally impacted ground, and he rolled to his feet only to lurch to a halt.

He stared down into a familiar abyss, panting for air with his toes at the edge of hell.  In his hand was half of Father's amulet.

"Where..?"  Vergil spun to look at Dante with the question on his tongue and gawked.  This wasn't the face he expected to see.  It was still his brother, yes, but in their painful youth.  The aftermath of Temen-ni-gru.

Dante stared too, slacked jawed and hand outstretched.  "What the hell?  Are we really back in time?"  They stood with the freezing river rushing around them, halfway between earth and the underworld, right at the very precipice of Vergil's downfall.

Vergil didn't hesitate to grab his brother's hand this time, and Dante yanked him into an embrace.  They were both too stunned to reject such close contact, silent for a long, long time.

Was this real?  Did all that happen, or was it some feverish dream?  So much loss and sorrow, watching his son mourn the woman he loved, his brother grieving the friends he had made, until it was just the three of them standing against armageddon.  The roar of the waters wasn't enough to drown out his harsh breathing.

Their plan had worked, but not the way they expected and for a cost that was more than he could bear.

"Nero…" Vergil choked.

"Shit!  We gotta go back!"  Dante clung to his hand, spinning to find himself face to face with someone who definitely wasn't present all those years ago.  "Who are you?!" he demanded.

Before them was a stately woman, tall enough to tower over them by several feet.  Her long, thin fingers were laced together in front of her.  Passive.  Quiet.  Waiting.  She wore a featureless black robe, and a solid curtain of straight dark hair cascaded from her head down to the ground, framing three waxen faces:  one old, one mature, and one young.  Her presence was at once soothing and terrifying.

"Fate," Vergil blurted in recognition.

"Indeed, for it was my doorway that you came through," she said with three voices speaking as one.  "You are the first to make such a journey in a very long time, and I have brought you to the point where your skein is most tangled."

Dante stepped forward, young and brash again like he'd always been in Vergil's memory.  "If that was your door, then send us back.  We left someone behi--"

"There is no back," Fate said.  "There is only now, a second chance bought with the offering of a soul."

"That's… He can't be…"  His brother looked lost.  This was too much even if it had been what they wanted.  "What happens now?"

The waters parted around Fate as she held her ground, ever the immutable arbiter and the only thing that could turn back the clock to before they had fallen into ruin.  "You return to this place and time in your lives, just as you were, and forge along the thread once again."

"But if we just go back as we were, nothing will change!" Vergil protested.  "It will all be the same, and I won't let his death be wasted!"  He couldn't go through it all making the same mistakes after what Nero had given up for them.

"Yeah!  We came through the gate to save the world.  What's the point if we just repeat everything?" Dante put in.  "If this really is a second chance, you need to make it fair."

She regarded them with three sets of eerie, colorless eyes, silent for a long moment.  "His sacrifice was truly selfless, the love in his heart for you offered without reservation.  For that, I will grant you a boon.  I will give you each one thing within the confines of this present that you will hold closely in thought."

"My son," Vergil said instantly.  "I want to remember--"

"You ask too much.  His life has not yet been, and you have not known him."

He settled back on his heels, realizing the constraints of what she was offering.  Confines of this present…  It felt like a physical blow as he understood he was going to lose everything that had come to have meaning in his life no matter what choice he made.  The wrenching awareness almost dragged him to his knees.

But Nero wasn't gone here.  He was waiting alone on that island for a family he didn't know he had.  Vergil owed it to him to move forward just as Nero had refused to bow under the weight of his own tragedy.  There had to be some memory that would alter the path he had taken.

"My… My mother," he said.  "I want to remember that my mother searched for me too."

The matron's face smiled, warm and nurturing.  "So be it.  And you?"

Dante's smirk was full of confidence.  "Fortuna."

"You ask too--"

"Not what happened there," Dante corrected.  "Just that it's a place I have to go."

This time the old woman gave him a secretive smile.  "So be it," Fate said, nimble fingers coming up to start weaving the strands of her hair, over and under, a tapestry taking shape, changing their destinies for the incalculable price of Nero's life.

Dante glanced at him, smirk brittle at the edges.  "If you jump again, I'll kill you."

"I'd expect nothing less," Vergil told him and braced himself for whatever was going to happen.

"I will offer you one last gift, though I doubt you will recognize it as such.  Closure for the lives you leave behind."  The maiden's face was soft, but her smile didn't give him any comfort.  "Now… Return."

Vergil blinked, looking down at the amulet clutched in his hand.  For a moment he'd lost himself, and he could scarcely believe he'd come all this way only to fail at the very last second.  The gash across his chest from Dante's attack throbbed as blood pooled under his clothes, running down into his boots.

He stumbled backward, and Dante grabbed for his arm with panicked eyes.  "Dont--!"

Vergil turned his head over his shoulder, looking into the mouth of the underworld.  Father's home.  If he went there…

"Please," Dante begged.  Where did this desperation come from?  What was this thing that twisted in his chest?

"What am I doing?" Vergil muttered incredulously.  He let himself fall into his brother's arms and rested his forehead on Dante's shoulder with no will to fight anymore.

"You're being a dumbass," his brother rumbled against him.  "Let's get out of here.  Okay?"

By the time they reached the base of the tower, Vergil's wounds had healed, but he still felt exhausted.  He couldn't think straight he was so tired, and he sank down under the shelter of a Divinity Statue while Dante argued loudly with Mary-- Lady, that's what she wanted to be called.  Why did it matter to him?

She was demanding to know why Dante let him sit there without consequence.  He should be offended, but he wasn't.  Lady wasn't wrong.

"You can't seriously think this is a good idea after what he did!" she yelled.

"What am I supposed to do?  Just leave him in there?" Dante defended.

Slowly Vergil leaned back, eyes closed, soaking in the aura of the protective statue at his back.  He felt dead to the world and oddly hollow after this ill-fated venture.  Everything he'd worked for slipped through his fingers yet again despite how hard he'd tried to hold on.  Perhaps it was just his lot in life to always be chasing after his father's shadow while his mother's dying scream echoed in his ears like a warning.  What a fool he was to cast aside the things that had been sacrificed for him.  Mother would be so disappointed if he threw his life away.

Dante and Lady's argument faded from his attention, and he eventually opened his eyes to see the yellow sun cresting over the buildings, beautiful and bright and whole even in the shattered cityscape.

It felt like forever since he'd last seen the sun…

A streak of wet dripped down his cheek and over his chin, and Vergil reached up in confusion to wipe it away.  He didn't know what was happening, didn't know why his heart suddenly clenched beneath his ribs.  Vergil gasped and curled in on himself.  What was this?  What was the source of this cavernous well of pain?  He'd only felt such despair one time in his life, and he wanted it to stop.  What did he have left to mourn now?

He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes as if it would somehow slow the tears that were drowning him.  Oh god, but it hurt so much!  Vergil wept desperately into his palms, folded over until his forehead touched his knees, utterly overcome.  His body shook with the force of his suffocating grief.  Something important was gone, and he felt its absence like a greedy pit through the very core of his soul.  If he could pull his traitorous heart out of his chest to end the feeling, he would have.

Dante's fingers fisted in the back of Vergil's coat but didn't pull or even move.  They just rested there in solidarity.  He heard his little brother's broken sobs even over the din of his own suffering, a shared pain linking them one more time.

"Well," Lady said solemnly as she watched them, "I guess even a devil may cry after all…"

 

***

Hours later, they sat at the edge of the roof on Dante's half destroyed building, just looking over the wreckage as the sun drifted high overhead.  It was so very quiet now that Lady had left, and the sky was clear and blue.  A perfect day by most standards.

"Where did you even get this?" Vergil asked when Dante handed him an entire bottle of expensive whiskey.  "You're not old enough to buy this, and the entire neighborhood is a disaster."

His little brother raised a shoulder and tipped his own bottle to his lips.  "No one was in the store, and I left the money for it."  One step up from looting, Vergil decided, but with things as they stood, he didn't really care.

He took a drink and grimaced.  He'd forgotten how it burned.

"So what're we gonna do now?" Dante asked, leaning back onto one arm.  We, Vergil noticed.  Not you, not me.  We.

"I don't know," he admitted.

"You got your urge for world domination out of your system?"

"I wasn't--"  Vergil sighed.  He still wasn't sure what he'd been trying to do other than seize the power their father had put aside.  Knowing he had been goaded into the whole thing by a mad man, egged on to the point that he didn't take the time to plan for all the contingencies was unpleasant.  Feeling stupid wasn't something he cared for.  "I have no intention of being used like that again."

Dante cocked his head at him, folding his whiskey bottle up to his bare chest.  "That's not a 'no,' but I'll take it."

How quickly his little brother forgave, like Vergil hadn't run him through with his own sword and left him to bleed out on top of the tower.  He really had gone too far with all of this which was disconcerting in ways he didn't want to examine.  What would be the reason to even have Father's power if there wasn't anyone left to protect with it?  Reaching up, he absently rubbed his knuckles over his sternum.  That empty pit was still there, and he didn't know why.

"Hey, you ever heard of a place called Fortuna?"

Vergil's head whipped around so fast he felt a spasm in his neck.  "Why do you ask that?"

Dante shrugged again.  His look had been vacant but now it was intensely curious, and Vergil cursed his strong reaction.  "I think I read about it somewhere," Dante said.  "Might be a cool place to visit."

"How much do you know about Fortuna?" Vergil asked.  Yes, he was deflecting, but only because he'd been caught flat-footed and needed a moment to collect himself.

"Uuuh, it's an island…  And that's about it."

Huffing out a breath, Vergil shook his head.  There were some things that didn't change.  He found he was grateful for that consistency.  "If you're expecting bikinis and white sandy beaches, you'll be sorely disappointed.  The island is home to a traditionalist cult that worships Father like a god."

"A demon as a god?"  Dante laughed loudly at the thought.  "Okay, that I want to see.  How do you know about it?"

He hesitated, taking another mouthful of liquor to excuse his delay.  There were things about his time on Fortuna that he didn't want to share, but perhaps Dante had earned a bit of honesty through this ordeal.  "That's where I learned how to raise the tower."

"Oh.  Crap," Dante said.  "At least tell me you had some fun while you were doing that."

The smirk that curled up his lips proved to be a bad idea when it made his little brother's eyes light up.  "Oooh, you can't keep a secret like that, big bro!" Dante insisted.  "Was it a girl?"

"Hmm," was all Vergil allowed him, drinking more to cover his growing smile.

Dante flailed himself upright and stared open mouthed.  "It was!  Com'on, you gotta spill!"

"A gentleman has no need to brag about his conquests."

A slap to his shoulder rocked him slightly, and his twin beamed as bright as the glaring sun.  "Well, we have to go then.  If this girl was so special she could make you act like this, I want to meet her.  You can't just cut out on a real lady like that."

"We didn't exactly part on the best of terms," Vergil warned, though the thought of seeing her again was strangely exciting.  "Why are you so set on this?"

His brother paused, frozen in place like the question took all his meager brain power to answer.  "I don't know.  I just feel like we have to go there."  Dante's white brows creased, and he frowned with rare seriousness.  "There's something… important in Fortuna."

Vergil wasn't one to put too much stock in intuition unless it was backed up by something more rational, but the ache in his chest resonated with his brother's insistence.  "Very well then.  If we must."

Grinning his carefree grin again, Dante held up his bottle until Vergil reluctantly tapped his own against it.  "To Fortuna and the future," Dante said, taking a drink.

"Yes," Vergil murmured as he did the same.  "To the future."

 

Chapter Text

"I gotta admit, when you said there wouldn't be any bikinis, I still hoped there'd be something."  Dante watched the stream of hooded figures walking up and down street.  The women were literally covered head to toe, and even the men's clothes were so conservative it made him bored just looking.  "No one here has any sense of style."

"Keep your voice down," Vergil hissed at him.  "We don't want to attract attention."

Hence skulking around in hooded cloaks in broad daylight.  Dante sighed dramatically as he followed his brother into a narrow side street.  Fortuna could make someone anxious with how little space there was between the buildings, and he had to press himself up against the smooth stone facing to allow an old man to pass.  He was almost beginning to regret the annoying ferry ride to the island.  Almost.

The feeling that drew him here was still drumming at his brain.

"So," Dante said, "are you finally gonna tell me something about this girl or what?  What's she like?"

Vergil twisted slightly at the waist and gave him a flat look.  "You're about to meet her.  What would be the point?"

"Because I don't want to say something that'll offend your girlfriend.  Isn't that enough reason?"  It was a lie.  Dante didn't care about that -- or, well, he did, but it wasn't the primary reason.  Vergil had been damned dodgy about his mystery girl, giving evasively vague comments instead of saying anything concrete.  The only question his twin had answered with any honesty was "Do you love her?"

Vergil had been brutally straightforward about saying, "I don't know."  But his twin also hadn't gotten ruffled about the label 'girlfriend' either.

"You shouldn't concern yourself with upsetting her.  She has quite a sharp temper, but it doesn't last.  You'd be forgiven in less than a minute."

"Kinda different from you," Dante said.  "You're still bringing up stuff I did when we were seven.  What caught your eye about her?"

Vergil pursed his lips, but at least he seemed to actually be thinking about it.  "She's very curious," Vergil told him.

"Curious as in you can't figure her out or…?"

"That too, but curious as in she'll ask you a dozen questions before she remembers you need time to answer them.  Be prepared for that."

Dante snickered at the thought of Vergil being thrown for a loop by a pretty girl bombarding him with words.  "How'd you two meet?"

His twin paused again.  "I initially thought she was a naive fool because she insisted on treating a stranger she'd spotted on the street to a meal, but then she forced me into a corner seat at a crowded café, so I couldn't escape or risk making a scene.  She wanted to know what it was about Sparda I was here to learn."

"How did she figure that out?" Dante asked in surprise.

Vergil smirked like the memory still amused him.  "As she put it, I wasn't carrying a camera or a map, nor was I staring at buildings and people, which meant I wasn't a simple tourist.  And I evidently carry myself as a man trained to fight and predisposed to suspicion."

The way his brother said the last bit made Dante think it was an exact quote from the woman.  Violent and paranoid was an accurate description of Vergil.  "That's right on the nose."

They stepped to the side to let a young couple pass them before Vergil spoke again.  "Be prepared for that too.  She'll shock you with how much you don't realize about the way you present yourself and what she can deduce from it."

"Almost sounds like a party game," Dante said.  "She got any relatives we need to worry about?  Or maybe some sisters…?"

"She lives alone and is a widow."

"A… what?"  He hadn't been expecting that.

His brother waved a hand dismissively.  "Her family are very traditional, and she married quite young.  She's only two years older than us, but her husband was an Order knight who was killed by a demon not too long after they were married."

"Wow.  That… sucks," Dante said for lack of a better way to put it.

"In some ways, I suppose."  Vergil didn't seem very sympathetic.  "It gives her more freedom to pursue her studies than she had previously.  She wanted to be a scientist, but her parents objected."

This was definitely going to be interesting.  Now that he knew a little about this woman, Dante was getting a much clearer picture of how she'd managed to snag Vergil off his single-minded quest for power.  "She sounds like a hell of a lady," Dante said.

Vergil tossed another glance at him, though it was more shuttered and harder to interpret than the others had been.  "I… didn't tell her the whole truth about what I was doing here or what I am.  We argued enough about my intentions for the information I was gathering, so I would prefer--"

"Mum's the word," Dante told him quickly.  Maybe he shouldn't be agreeing to keep his brother's dark secrets, but the relief that flickered on Vergil's face was genuine.

"Her home isn't much further," Vergil said.  "It should be right--"

They turned a corner, and Dante bumped into his twin's suddenly immobile back.  "Hey, what gives?"  He didn't need an answer when he peered over Vergil's shoulder.

An entire block of buildings was crumbled into the street, huge pieces of stone toppled and scorched, deep gouges torn into the shattered facades.  The damage was old enough that the residents had cleared a path so life could continue but bad enough that no one bothered to repair it.  The brothers shared a look.

"Demons," Vergil said hotly.

"Let's see if anyone knows anything.  Maybe someone saw what happened here."  He could feel his twin's rising distress even through the outward composure.  "I'm sure she's okay."

A loud gasp dragged both of them away from the ruin.  Dante spotted an older woman, probably in her fifties, with mousy brown and gray hair under her hood and the start of crow's feet around her eyes.  Her hand covered her mouth as she stared at Vergil.  "It's you," she said.

He seemed to recognize her and moved forward.  "Matron, can you tell me where--"

"I'm so sorry," she interrupted him.  A sadness overtook her, cutting deep lines around her down turned mouth.  "She's gone… Dead."

Vergil was still as a rock.  Blank, empty.  Protecting himself.  Dante squeezed his fingers against his twin's elbow hoping it would keep him from retreating too far into himself.  His brother didn't need more pain in his life, and whether Vergil had loved the woman or not, Dante could tell she had meant something to him.  If only they had--

"But the baby survived," she added, tone lifting hopefully.

"The what now?" Dante asked.  There was no way he'd heard that right.

"She didn't have any way to reach you to say she was pregnant, and after her… death we didn't know if you were ever coming back so…"  The woman turned nervous, and it wasn't hard to tell why.  Vergil's eyes practically glowed under his hood.  "W-we left him at the orphanage.  He was only a few weeks old, and she hadn't wanted anyone to find out who the father was because you k-know how they treat bastard children--"

Dante shoved himself in front of his brother before he could do something stupid, having to lean his shoulder hard into Vergil's chest to keep him in place.  "Hey, calm down, ma'am," Dante said.  "We're just trying to figure out what happened.  What orphanage did you take him to?"

She looked puzzled.  "There's only one.  You're not believers, so it might be difficult to speak to someone, b-but considering how unusual your hair and eyes are they might understand.  That sweet little boy looks just like you."

"Thanks," Dante said, lifting his elbow to jam it into his twin's collarbone when he felt him try to push forward.  "Seriously, thank you.  This means a lot."

"O-oh!  Yes!  I'm so glad I could tell you," she said and backed slowly around the corner.  "It's the least I could do for her after all she did for us.  B-but I have to… I need to go… Goodbye!"

Dante waited until she scurried away before he dropped his arm and turned to stare at Vergil.  "Holy fucking shit.  You have a kid?!"

"I didn't know!" Vergil cried.  He looked blown apart.  "I wouldn't have just left if I'd known!"

Dante scrubbed his palms over his face, spinning in a circle.  Never in a million years would he have thought Vergil would be the one to end up with an accidental kid at nineteen.  This was so far out of the realm of what he was prepared to deal with he felt like he'd been hurled to another planet.  "At least tell me you tried to be careful."

"Of course I was!" came the offended reply.  "I made sure she wasn't a threat long before we were intimate."

"That is not what I meant," Dante growled.  "What the hell are we gonna do?  We can't just leave the kid here."  Oh god.  OH GOD.  This was a disaster.

Vergil's voice was subdued, and Dante was reminded of the trauma that had just been heaped on his brother.  "And why not?  They could care for him far better than I," Vergil said.  "These are his mother's people."

Dante stared at his twin.  Was he serious?  Was he really thinking of abandoning his kid here on some crazy cult island?  "Because he's one of us, and that means every demon in the underworld is going to want to eat his tiny little Sparda heart."  Dante threw out a hand toward the toppled buildings.  "You seriously think this was a coincidence?"

Apparently he had because Vergil gazed over his shoulder with a startled expression, drawing in a deep, shaky breath.  "You're right," he said.

"Damn straight I am.  We'd better go find this orphanage and figure out what we need to do."

Locating the place wasn't too hard even without getting directions.  They were already suspicious looking enough that Dante didn't want to risk having the locals lose it over strangers asking where the city kept its vulnerable, parentless kids.

"This is really the orphanage?  Yikes."  Definitely not the friendliest looking building on the block.  Wrought iron fencing with spikes at the top surrounded the compound, and there were bars on all the windows.  The armed guards standing at the gate weren't exactly inviting either.  Considering the looks he'd gotten when he 'casually' passed by doing recon, Dante could see what the old lady meant about them not being friendly with outsiders.  This was going to be tougher than he thought.

Vergil glared at the structure like he wanted to burn it down with his eyes.  "We need to find a way in, and we can't just walk in the front door without inviting a great deal of questions we can't risk answering."

"There's a back entrance that's not guarded if we can get over the fence," Dante told him as they headed to the other side of the building by way of a conveniently deserted side alley.  "I hope you're feeling sneaky."

Vergil pushed at his shoulder to get his attention.  "One of us should stay here in case we need a distraction," he said pointedly, and Dante frowned.  His big brother could handle whatever these demon worshipping weirdos threw at him, but it made him uncomfortable to split up like that.  Vergil wasn't exactly thinking with a clear head right now.

There was also no way Dante was going to convince his brother of that, though.

"Fine," he reluctantly agreed, "but how are you--"

The Yamato was already out and cutting a hole in space.  Dante sighed, raising and lowering his arms to slap against his thighs when Vergil vanished into the ether.  "And he calls me the hot head," he muttered.  There was already a knot in his stomach from all the craziness, and this just made it worse.

He carefully crept back toward the front of the building, watching the guards and staff who came and went around the compound.  Kids played in the weed infested yard with old toys that looked like they'd seen better days, and their shouting might possibly cover whatever covert activities Vergil was engaging in.  If they were lucky, his twin could be in and out of there without anyone being the wiser.

Dante waited patiently for a while, ducking back into the alley when one of the guards would glance his way or if a passerby drifted through.  Vergil was taking his sweet time, and Dante was eager to hear what he learned so they could start planning what to do next.  He wasn't sure he was ready to be an uncle, but they seriously couldn't leave a little child in a place that hunted demons as part of their religious devotions.  If the kid exhibited any of their family's more devilish traits he'd be in a lot of danger; or worse, what if they figured out just where the demon blood came from?  They might worship Dad, but that didn't mean they wouldn't do something creepy to his grandkid.

His thoughts were deep enough he almost missed the hooded woman who came scuttling out to talk to one of the guards.  The armored man gave her a skeptical face Dante could see even from this distance, but then he spun and hustled into the orphanage.

Well damn.  Time to start thinking of what kind of distraction would--

Space tore behind his back, and Dante turned around to find his brother looking about as freaked out as he'd ever seen him.  "We need to go," Vergil said hoarsely.

"Wait, what about the…"  Dante trailed off, spotting the shape wrapped in black cloth pressed tightly to his twin's chest.  A small face looked up at him with big blue eyes and a mop of silvery white hair, and Dante sucked in a breath.  "Vergil, what did you do?"

Shouts of alarm rang from the building behind them, several new knights running down the street to join the one left at the gate.  Vergil hefted the Yamato with wild eyes.  "We need to go now."

Dante had never actually passed through one of the portals his brother could create, so he wasn't sure what to expect.  It was cold for an instant, sucking the heat right out of his bones. His head spun like a top when they stepped out the other side, and he had to blindly grasp for something to keep himself upright, hand connecting with the coarse brick of a wall.  "Damn…  How do you do that so easily?" he gasped.

And then he heard the tiny whimper followed by Vergil's quiet reassurance to someone who definitely wasn't him.  Right.  His brother had done something stupid.

"Did you seriously kidnap a baby?!" Dante cried, only belatedly looking around after the words were out of his mouth to find they were actually back home at his recently repaired shop.

"I didn't have a choice," Vergil snapped.

"Yeah, 'cause it's so hard not to kidnap children."

Anger warped his twin's face in a way Dante had rarely seen.  "You're the one who said we didn't have a choice but to take him back."  He pulled the blanket aside to show the boy's arm marked with bruises that set Dante's teeth tight together.

"You didn't do that, did you?" Dante asked, almost hoping his brother had been a bit rougher than intended in his panic.

"No," Vergil stressed.  "Not me."  A little fist grasped at the material of Vergil's dark vest.

It could've been an accident, Dante told himself.  It could've just been clumsy kids playing with each other and bumping into things, but somehow, he knew that wasn't the case with how Vergil was acting.  Dante briefly wondered if there were a bunch of dead bodies back at that orphanage now.  "Does he have a name?"

"Nero," Vergil said, anger draining into fascination as he looked down at the boy.  "At least that's what the sign on his crib said, so I assume…"  His brows creased down, but there was a weirdly fond look on his face.  "A strange name for such a pale child."

His brother wasn't wrong.  Nero was just as pale as all the men in their family with white hair and pallid skin that would probably burn at the first hint of sun.  Even more, Dante could feel the demonic connection like someone tap dancing along his nerves.  If the appearance hadn't been enough, that would've told him in no uncertain terms this was his twin's son.

"Well, okay then," Dante sighed.  "Guess I gotta child proof the shop.  Do you think they make safety latches for Devil Arms?"

 

***

It had only been a month, but what a difference the kid had made in their lives.

Lady had spent some time yelling at them for being reckless and abducting a child -- which was fair, Dante supposed -- only to quickly relent when she'd been told about the injuries they'd found all over Nero.  She might have the bedside manner of a pissed off grizzly bear, but even the walking arsenal wasn't immune to big blue eyes and those little grabby hands that hung on like an adorable octopus.  The speed at which she pledged whatever help she could give to the little guy might have broken some kind of record, and now she was popping up at the shop on an almost daily basis to check in.

Dante found himself oscillating between wondering what the hell he was doing and how he had ever spent so much of his life alone.  And worrying.  He was doing a lot of worrying now that he had a family again, planning for things that might never happen -- would never happen if he could prevent it.  Protecting himself was easy.  Protecting a twin brother and his precious, helpless nephew felt a lot harder and infinitely more terrifying even if the added stress was worth it.  

Vergil had gone from doing some sort of emotionally distant tiptoeing around his personal issues to throwing himself into parenting with an almost scary obsession.  The first time Nero had wrapped the magic grabby hands around his father for a hug, Vergil had shoved the kid into Dante's arms and practically fled out the door.  Two hours later, just as Dante was starting to think that Vergil really had abandoned them both, there was his twin with every book from the public library about raising children.

Not that Vergil really needed the advice.  He just seemed to know what Nero wanted at any given moment.  However he was communing with the kid, whatever demonic paternal instinct let him tap into understanding a one year old, Dante was grateful for their instantaneous bond.  His brother was content for the first time in many, many years.  The boy filled up all the empty, cold spaces left over from a decade of loneliness with his toothy smiles and endless curiosity about the world around him.

Nero whined, sitting up from where he'd been playing with a set of foam blocks Lady had bought for him, and Vergil was immediately at his side.  "What is it you want?" his twin asked, scooping the boy up into his arms.  "You need attention, hmm?"  Vergil stroked a finger against Nero's soft, round cheek, and the kid giggled joyfully.  Nero flung his short arms around his father's neck.

God damn, but that was cute.  Dante could never say that, though.  He was pretty sure Vergil would stab him.  

He also wasn't going to ask where Vergil got all those very official looking documents for Nero that were sitting in a folder on Dante's desk.  He probably didn't want to know.

"So, what all do we need from the store?" Dante asked, adding a few of his own requests to the list on the scratch pad.

"I'll go," Vergil told him.  "You always deviate too much from the list and waste money."

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with treating yourself," Dante said, but he wasn't offended.  Vergil really was better at it than he was.  He got up from his seat and tweaked Nero's itty-bitty nose before carefully pulling him into his own arms.  "Your daddy's gonna go get us some food, so it'll just be you and uncle Dante, yeah?"

"Only because your uncle is abysmal with money in any capacity," Vergil said as he swept his coat up from the back of the couch and put it on.

Nero stuffed the fingers of his right hand into his mouth and started chewing, quickly coating them with baby spit.  "You're always munching on that hand.  Must be tasty," Dante said.  He gently pried it out of that little maw and mimed like he was chomping on the digits himself.  "Mmm, Nero fingers.  My favorite!"  His nephew's peel of laughter almost drowned out Vergil's hearty sigh.

"Don't get your germs all over his hands.  As you said, they'll just go right back in his mouth."

Dante never expected to enjoy this kind of domestic routine, but it was nicer to come home to than he'd imagined.  After getting knocked around by demons for his day job, Nero's sweet laughs and Vergil's dry humor were a balm for the dark feelings that had plagued him all this time.  Someday he and his brother would have to talk about everything that happened.  Just not today.

"Da-da."

Dante looked down, not sure he'd heard correctly.  Nero stared up.  "Did he just--"

Trying to get confirmation from Vergil was a waste.  His brother was awestruck like someone had paid him the most incredible compliment.

"Da-da," Nero mumbled around stubby fingers, and his father puffed up like a proud pigeon.

"He said daddy," Vergil declared.

There were parts of his nature that Dante knew he couldn't deny, and being the shitty little brother was one of those.  He grinned.  "I dunno.  I think he's trying to say Dante."

"Ridiculous," Vergil scoffed.  "He was speaking to me.  Weren't you, Nero?"

The baby looked between them.  Poor kid had no idea he was in the middle of brotherly harassment.  "Da-da," he told them both, and Dante laughed until he couldn't breathe at Vergil's frustrated face.

He really could get used to this.

Chapter Text

"Don't tell me to calm down!" Vergil snarled.  He was being irrational, made clumsy by his fear, he knew it, but his control had been torn from him just as Nero had been stolen out of their home.

Dante's mouth flattened, and his eyes darted to their audience.  "I get it, alright!  You think I'm not pissed too?  But we need to stop for a second and think--"

"And how many more seconds do we have?" Vergil asked.  Mundus' sly promise weighed heavily on him.  I could be content with just one life.  I'll even let you choose.  The other two may go free…

Those three eyes still hovered in wait for his answer.  It was a lie, a blasphemous temptation, and yet what choice did he have?  They could continue to run around this castle, chased by marionettes and volcanic spiders and hellish storm crows, or Vergil could give Mundus the bloodbath he wanted.  Nero whimpered in Mundus' clutches.  

The Yamato sang as it came free of its saya, and Dante's eyes widened.

"Com'on.  You're not serious.  Don't do this!"  But Alastor was in his hand well before Vergil swung the first blow.  Fiery sparks and lightning showered them.  Nero cried out in fear, and Vergil closed his heart lest he risk it breaking.

"I will do what I must, little brother," Vergil said.  "I will protect my family."

 

***

Vergil rarely indulged himself so much as to sprawl on the couch in the dark for an extended period just doing nothing.  He wasn't the type to be idle when there were tasks to complete, but this… this was an exception.

He sat shoulder to shoulder with his equally languid twin, Nero stretched out across both their laps, thankfully sound asleep.  Vergil had one hand on his son's back and the other brushing absently through his soft, white hair while Dante's fingers clung to the boy's legs like he was terrified of letting go.

Vergil couldn't blame him after what had happened, how close they'd come to losing Nero and each other.

"We're not sending him to school tomorrow, are we?" Dante asked.

"No.  I'll make up some illness," Vergil answered.  The thought of having Nero not in easy reach right now was enough to make him nauseous.  "I can't believe you stopped me from killing that demon."

Clearly, they weren't going to agree on this because his brother scowled at him.  "That demon saved all our lives.  We owe her."

"She's also the one who kidnapped my son and dragged him out to that island as bait.  For us."

"Because she was under Mundus' control!"

Nero stirred, and Vergil could feel his heartbeat speeding up under his palm.  Gently, he resumed running his fingers through the boy's hair as both of the adults went otherwise still.  "Shhh…  Everything's alright.  You're safe.  We're here with you," Vergil soothed, and Nero settled back into sleep, forehead pressed against his father's belly.

"It's over now," Dante said after a while, though he glanced at the enormous sword that hung on the wall.  Sparda.  The true shape of Father's power.  "Let's just put this behind us."

That was easier said than done, Vergil decided.  He couldn't remember ever being so afraid, not even when he was eight and running for his life all alone.  Seeing Nero in the grasp of one of their father's worst enemies, crying and terrified, blood dripping from countless small wounds, had awakened a kind of fear Vergil hadn't known existed.  He understood Mother so much better now.

In that instant, he was truly prepared to die under Dante's hands to save his son.

"I didn't want to fight you," Vergil said.  "If he hadn't threatened Nero like that--"

"I know."  His little brother shifted one hand to lay on his forearm.  "The whole point of this was to hurt us.  Everything Mundus did was to cause our family pain, to break us apart, but we beat him because we stuck together.  Just remember that."

"Together," Vergil breathed.  Attacking Dante was meant to be a distraction, but Vergil had forced his twin right to the edge of something terrible, and he wondered if they'd gone further, could Dante really have ever made it back?  It was thanks to Nero they hadn't needed to find out.

That brought a small smile to Vergil's face.  His boy really was resourceful.  It had been such a gamble, but it was a clever one.

He felt Dante sigh through his side where they pressed up against each other, and his brother leaned further back into the couch cushions.  "I'm starving, but I don't want to move," he said.  "The phone's all the way over there."

"If you wake Nero up, I will be very cross," Vergil told him without any real heat.

"Oh right," Dante said to the ceiling.  Then he laughed softly, a mere huff of air.  "The kid earned this nap.  I'm so proud of him.  Is that crazy?"

"No, not at all," Vergil murmured.  He was proud too.  And so very grateful.

Suddenly, Dante tensed, head turning to the door with a faint crimson glow to his pupils that faded when Lady pushed her way inside.  She was fully armed with her rocket launcher, grenades, and automatic weapons.  Her mouth came open when she saw them sitting in the dark, but fortunately she held her tongue at the sight of Nero sleeping.  Letting her shoulders sag, she came over and rubbed at her forehead.

"You could've called me, you know," she said quietly.  "I was ready to run over there to be backup."

"Things happened kinda fast," Dante explained, giving her a weary but grateful smile.

"I can't believe those bastards actually snatched the kid.  I'm just…"  Her face softened considerably as she studied the boy.  "I'm glad you're all okay."

"Hey, I hate to ask for favors after everything, but is there any chance you could rustle us up some food?" Dante asked.  Any other time he would've been sporting that obnoxiously cocky grin, but his face was entirely serious.  "We're a little beat up, and if I move I might wake the kid.  He's been upset any time either of us leave the room since we got back here."

Lady inhaled deeply and stared at him for a second before blowing out her breath slowly.  "I guess I can't blame him.  I'll go grab some pizzas, and it's even my treat this time.  Just don't get used to it.  You also owe me a story about what exactly happened."

"You're the best," Dante said with a crooked attempt at a smile.

"And don't you forget it," she shot back when she headed outside.

The doors swung closed, and Vergil gazed at them, seeing the streetlights through the glass.  "We need to remember to lock the doors when we're not open for business," he mused.

Dante snorted and groaned when it jarred something that was still healing.  "Like that would stop anyone who'd be coming here."

His brother had a point.  Demon's didn't bother with doors, and Lady was likely to blow them up if she really wanted to get in.

"Where do you think she went?"  Vergil didn't explain himself because Dante would understand.  It had been so terribly painful to see a demon wearing Mother's face, especially when she'd hurt Nero, but in the end, Trish had helped the boy escape Mundus' trap at just the right moment and took a potentially fatal blow meant for Dante.

Perhaps, if he could ever detach himself from the helpless rage her initial actions had brought out in him, Vergil could admit she might have more in common with her double than it seemed.

"I'm sure Trish will turn up again soon," Dante said.  "She got attached to the kid, and we know how that works."

Vergil stroked his hand through Nero's hair again, finding himself smiling despite everything that had happened.  Indeed.  He did know how that worked.

Chapter Text

i - Devil May Cry

Nero sank into the tattered desk chair his uncle usually occupied and tilted it back to stare at the whirring ceiling fan.  What a complete waste of a three-day weekend.  He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting for his first official job but sitting on the sidelines the entire time wasn't it.  

In hindsight, knowing his perfectionist father, he should've seen it coming.

Nero yawned and closed his eyes.  He put his hands behind his head and his feet up on the desk, just like the legendary devil hunter he knew, making himself ready for a nice nap.  If he was going to get ditched, why shouldn't he take advantage of it, right?  Yeah.  He could just conk out for a few hours and--

His eyes snapped open at a small sound.  Nero blinked in puzzlement, not quite processing the sight of a little blonde girl gaping at him.  "Who are--?"

A broom smashed right into his face as she shrieked, and Nero toppled over backward to the floor, more surprised than hurt.  "Dante!" the pint-sized banshee screamed while making a serious effort to brain Nero with her weapon of choice.  "Dante, help!  There's some weirdo down here!"

"Weirdo?!" Nero said angrily.  "This is my house!  Who the hell are you?"

Thudding feet on the stairs brought his uncle down, and Dante paused with both hands on the railing.  "Oh, kid.  You're back."

"That's all you're going to say?" Nero snapped.  He caught the broom before it could nail him again.  "And would you stop?  What's going on?"

"Patty, that's my nephew Nero.  Please stop trying to beat him up.  He's delicate."

"Fuck you, old man!"

Patty gasped, and Nero grimaced.  He really did try not to swear around little kids, but Dante always brought out the worst in him.  "Sorry," Nero said to her and then glared at his uncle.  "Are you going to explain this or not?"

Dante walked the rest of the way down the stairs, hands propped on his hips.  "Well, I had a job escorting Patty somewhere while you and your dad were out of town.  She didn't die, and now she's decided to hang around."

The girl scowled at Dante's lousy exposition, and Nero couldn't blame her.  "You didn't say you had any family!" she accused and glanced at Nero.  "You're not a slob too, are you?"

Nero stood and made a show of dusting himself off.  "If it weren't for Dad and me, this place would be way worse of a wreck.  I can't believe he made this much mess in just a couple days…"

"How'd your first hunt go?" Dante asked, ignoring their criticism and righting his desk chair.  "I don't see Vergil anywhere, so did he send you back alone?"

"Considering Dad didn't let me do anything, it was kind of a bust.  I don't think he liked the client, though.  He told me to come here while he's doing some negotiating or something."  Nero and Patty eyed each other for a moment longer before he shook his head and retreated to the couch.  "Dad should be back soon."

Dante nodded.  "Don't take it too hard.  He wouldn't have let you come at all if he didn't think he could handle yourself.  He just can't help being a big ol' mother hen sometimes."

Nero had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from making a comparison between his father and a rooster.  No swearing.  There was a kid present.

"I'm sorry I hit you," Patty piped up, and Nero raised his eyebrows.  "Dante told me that weird people sometimes sneak into the shop, so I thought you were one of them."

He shrugged, suddenly feeling self-conscious.  Sincere apologies after being pummeled were pretty rare in his life.  "It's fine.  And he's not wrong about the weird people."

"Great," Dante said as he settled himself into the same relaxed pose Nero had sported earlier.  "Now that you two are friends, maybe you can play together and let me get some shut eye."

"I will stab you," Nero threatened.

His uncle snickered and picked up a magazine he was only going to pretend to read to keep people off his case.  "Doing your daddy proud, kid."

"What has Nero done now?  And why is there a waif in our office?"

Patty spun around, clutching the broom, and goggled at Vergil standing in the doorway.  That was a pretty normal reaction when Nero's father showed up dressed in his demon hunting gear, elaborate blue coat, cravat, and katana all present.  She flinched under Vergil's intense stare, and Nero felt bad enough to get up and play referee.

"She's one of Dante's clients who decided to help keep him from drowning in trash while we were gone," Nero explained.  "Patty, this is my dad, Vergil."  He kind of wanted to say more, maybe warn her that, yes, he was as scary as he looked, but she seemed plenty spooked already.

"N-nice to meet you," she whispered.

Vergil just twisted his mouth into a sneer.

"Quit freaking the child out, Verge."  Dante turned the page of his magazine without looking up.  "If she wants to help, I don't see the harm."

"Hmph.  As long as she stays out of my way," Vergil muttered, and he headed up the stairs without looking back.

Nero sighed and cast a sideways glance at the little girl, hoping she wasn't too upset by his father's garbage manners.  She was frowning when she caught his eye.  "Is he always such a jerk?" she demanded, and Nero tried to turn his snort of laughter into a cough.  Dad had really good ears, after all.

Dante didn't bother hiding his chortle.  "Stick around, and you'll find out."

***

iii - Not Love

Nero glanced at Patty, sitting on the couch in the corner, sobbing into a tissue and staring raptly at the tiny TV set Morrison had kindly repaired for them.  He couldn't pretend to understand why she was so fixated on those cheesy soap operas, but the girl was really into whatever was happening.  Patty wailed and made a desperate gesture at the screen.  "Henry's all wrong for you Cynthia!  Can't you see how much Nathan loves you?"

Vergil grimaced, shutting his book with an audible snap and leaving the room.  He very rarely indulged in television at all and never tolerated this level of noise when he did.  Dad preferred documentaries -- though, Nero had caught him watching some period dramas late at night when he thought no one else was awake -- but mostly he just liked to read in peace.  Which was probably where he was going.

That suited Nero just fine considering what was on his mind.  He rubbed the bridge of his nose and studied his uncle.

The devil hunter was in his customary 'I'm totally relaxed no one bother me' pose with his eyes closed and feet on the desk, but Dante looked… pleased?  And not in the self-satisfied, shit-eating grin way he usually was.  Curiosity was eating Nero alive.  "So those two, the demon and the girl… Did they hook up or what?" he asked.

Dante lifted a shoulder.  "Beats me.  Not part of the job."

That was the opposite of a satisfying answer.  "Com'on.  The mayor said he was okay with it after Bradley saved his life, right?  I mean, they must have--"

"Since when do you care about this mushy stuff, huh?"  Dante cracked an eyelid.  He could be perceptive when he wanted to be.

Nero went quiet.  He wasn't sure how to put it into words because it wasn't what he was really interested in.  "I don't care," he said, and Dante raised eyebrows that declared he wasn't being very convincing.  "I just… I mean, a human and a demon… Could that really work out?  Can a demon really love someone like that?"

He hadn't been expecting the way Dante's entire expression went flat.  It wasn't like when Dad was masking his emotions, either.  This was an entirely different blankness, and Nero wondered if he'd stepped over a line he didn't know about.

"The three of us wouldn't be here if it wasn't possible," Dante said slowly.

It took Nero an embarrassingly long few seconds to realize what that meant.  Oh.  He hadn't been thinking that far back.  His gaze dropped to the framed photo of Eva that sat on Dante's desk.  "Right.  Yeah.  I didn't mean to--"

"Then what did you mean?"  Dante had both eyes open and was watching him.  Nero couldn't figure out if his uncle was mad or not.  Maybe this was a bad idea, but he couldn't bow out now, not when he'd finally gotten the question on the tip of his tongue.

"I just wondered if…"  God, this was stupid.  "If Dad and my mom…"  It was dawning on Nero that implying half-demons weren't capable of loving humans either was offensive, and it wasn't what he was really trying to say.  Maybe.  Possibly?  Fuck.

Dante's feet came down off the desk, and he looked way more uncomfortable than Nero was used to seeing him.  Things that made other people stammer and blush just rolled right off his uncle, so this was out of character.  "Ah, that," Dante said.  "I'm not really the person to ask, you know."

And Nero did know.  And Dante knew.  And they both knew that Vergil would never answer.  Fuck again.

"You know your dad loves you," his uncle said, quiet enough to punch through Nero's spiraling thoughts, "right?"

It was a bit like getting smacked upside the head for how it hit at something hiding under his surface fears.  He did know that, yes, though he sometimes wondered if maybe Dad didn't like him at times with the way they fought.  There were a lot of disagreements and frustration these days.  "Yeah," Nero muttered.  He didn't voice the rest.

"Hey, I get that we don't talk about that stuff.  Ever," Dante said.  "But I can tell you one thing.  Your dad was really hurt when he found out your mom died.  He did care about her."

"H-how did she die?"  There was another question Nero had never found the guts to ask before.

Dante suddenly sat up and refused to meet his nephew's eyes while he stretched in that 'I'm being all casual don't mind me' way.  "It was just an accident," he said, glancing at where Patty was packing up her stuff.  "Hey, Nero can walk you back, okay?  It's getting late."

Nero grit his teeth so hard they started to ache.  "That's not a real answer, old man."

Patty was looking at them now, apparently realizing something was going on over in their side of the room.  She opened her mouth and then shut it again.

"Maybe not," Dante said sadly.  "But it's the one you're going to get.  For now."

***

iv - Rolling Thunder

Nero listened carefully.  He tried to consider what they were saying, to look at it from all angles, before he handed out his judgement.  He'd known Lady his entire life.  She was practically his aunt and had contributed a lot to raising him over the years, but that also meant knew how quick she was to add on to the running tab of what Dante owed her.

Trish, on the other hand, had scared him for a long time before they managed to come to an understanding about her participation in his childhood kidnapping.  Now she was probably the person he found easiest to talk to -- especially about weird 'I'm part demon what even is going on with me' kind of stuff that his uncle and Dad would only ever give vague answers to.  She was much less focused on money even if she enjoyed material things.

Her teaming up with Lady definitely gave their request more weight.  They both looked at him expectantly, sitting across from him at Devil May Cry's only desk.

"So.  You described a human looking, dual gun wielding, lightning throwing, blonde demon to Dante, and he didn't immediately mention Trish?"  Nero asked.

"Nope," Lady answered.  She had her hands clasped in front of her, the very picture of calm.

"And you," Nero turned to Trish, "told him about being shot at by a devil hunter with a rocket launcher, a motorcycle, heterochromia, and an armory of guns, and Dante never said the name Lady?"

The she-devil shook her head with a wry smile.

Nero sighed hard enough to feel light headed.  "God damnit.  If I'd known he never told you guys about each other I would've said something."

"Oh, we know," Lady said.  "That's why we came to you first.  We don't want to leave you broke just because Dante pulled one of his stunts.  He needs to be taught a lesson, but if we can just get some of the money back--"

"No, no."  Nero held up a hand and flipped open the business ledger.  "You both could've gotten seriously hurt.  He's paying for all of it.  I'll just take it out of his personal funds for the next… probably four or five months.  Damn.  You two have good taste."  The name of the boutique wasn't familiar, but Nero knew the area of town it was in.  His father had ridiculously expensive tastes too.  

Nero made some notes and then pulled the company checkbook out of the drawer.

"Thanks, kid.  We knew we could count on you," Lady said, grinning.

Trish smirked and leaned her chin on her fist.  "Plus, you're the only one who keeps track of the business' books anyway.  I wonder if Dante will even notice if you don't tell him."

That part was a possibility.  Vergil had taken over the Devil May Cry finances out of necessity, but as soon as Nero was old enough, his father had dumped the task on him.  Dad claimed it was to teach his son about budgeting and responsibility.  Nero was pretty sure Vergil just hated having to do that much math on a regular basis.  Dante, though, barely seemed capable of operating an ATM, let alone basic accounting.  "He'll notice once he finds out he can't buy all those stupid strawberry sundaes," Nero grumbled.

"Did someone mention sundaes?" Dante asked.  He sauntered through the front doors and threw a lazy salute to Lady and Trish.  Their snickers made him pause.  "Uh… Is there something I should know about?"

Trish stood smoothly, pivoting on her tall heels to run a hand over Dante's chest and up to his shoulder.  He knew her well enough to be wary.  "You'll find out soon enough," she said, giving him a friendly pat.  Lady sprung up to follow her when she sashayed outside.

Lips pressed thin, Dante watched them climb onto Lady's bike and take off before he turned back to Nero.  "I'd say I'm glad to see them getting along so well, but those two being in that good a mood is usually bad news for me.  What was that about?"

Wordlessly, Nero handed his uncle the receipts.

***

v - In Private

It had become something of a routine, one that had annoyed Nero at first but he'd eventually come to tolerate.  At the end of the school day, Patty would be waiting on the corner as he walked home.  She would fall into step next to him like a tiny honor guard and tag along right to Devil May Cry where she'd spend the rest of the evening.

They probably made an odd pair as he pulled the blue hood up over his head and slouched down with his hands in his pockets to make himself as unapproachable as possible.  Patty, on the other hand, chatted with all her frilly energy, practically vibrating in her good mood and putting a smile on every adult that saw her.  Usually she was done up in one of those cotton-candy, frou-frou dresses she liked so much, and today wasn't any different.

She was actually a pretty great little kid, Nero grudgingly admitted to himself.  Listening to her roast his uncle was often the highlight of his day.

"Is that so?" he said in response to something she said about one of her TV shows, but his eyebrows drifted down when they neared the office.  There was a blond man doing a very bad job of pretending not to look in their windows.  "Have you seen that guy before?  I swear I saw him here yesterday."

Patty's eyes widened and then narrowed into a vicious scowl.  "Yeah!  He's been creeping around outside for a couple days now.  Hey."  She tugged on his hoodie sleeve without looking away from the man.  "We should follow him."

Yes.  Because two kids tailing a rather buff and suspicious adult male was sure not to end in disaster.  Nero could break the guy into half a dozen pieces if he needed to, but he really didn't like the idea of Patty getting involved in--

And there she went.

Nero sighed and lengthened his stride to catch up to her.  She moved like a girl on a mission, arms swinging determinedly at her sides as she pursued the mystery creep who had definitely spotted them and was starting to pick up his pace.  They gave chase until the man was actually running, and Nero broke off down a shortcut through a narrow alley.  Patty was on the main street with plenty of people, so he wasn't too concerned about anything happening to her unless the guy made a break for it.

Which he did -- right to where Nero leaned against a brick wall, his hood up and backpack slung over one shoulder.

Creeper stopped short and stared at him with a case full of nerves, and Nero gave his most Dad-like grin.  "Hey there.  Mind telling me why you're staking out our place?"

"Ah, uh… I was just…"

"Yeah, that's what I thought."  Nero looked him up and down.  Not a demon, just human and stupid.  It wasn't the first time their weird family had acquired a stalker.  "A word of advice.  Go find somewhere else to hangout and consider yourself lucky that it was me who saw you first and not my dad."

"Your dad…!"  The guy's eyes widened in surprise.

There was something weird about how Creeper stared at him then, like he'd heard a piece of juicy gossip instead of an implied threat.  Maybe he didn't get it.  "Trust me, if he catches you and thinks you're dangerous, you won't even have time to know it.  And no one else will ever know it either."

That seemed to get through his thick head, and the guy went pale.  Nero might've felt a little bad for him, but the warning was a serious one because Vergil dealt with anything he even suspected might harm his family with a decisive and clean finality that left no trace.  "Get out of here," Nero said and pushed off the wall, walking past the frozen man.  "And don't let me see you again."

Patty was waiting at the end of the alley with her arms crossed and her foot taping.  "Did you catch him?"

"Yep."  Nero set off down the street for home knowing she'd follow.

"And what happened?" she demanded.

"I told him to bug off, and he did."

"What?!  That's it?"

He shrugged, pushing at one of the double doors to find them locked.  Dad and Dante must be out, so he fished the keys out of his pocket to let them in.  "As long as he doesn't show his face again, what's the big deal?"

Patty was all set to argue.  "Look," Nero said to head her off, "let's just not mention this to the old man and Dad, okay?  They can get a little touchy if they think there's something dangerous hanging around, and that guy was just a doofus."  He didn't really want to get the guy murdered and doubted Patty wanted that either.

She pouted in her pink ensemble but finally gave in.  "Fiiine.   I guess it's not like he could hurt any of you anyway."

That was sweet, Nero decided, even if it was unnecessary.  "Thanks for looking out for us, Patty."

She puffed up with confidence and took a long look at her surroundings.  "I can't believe Dante made this much mess since last night!  Looks like I'll have to work extra hard if I'm going to get everything clean before Vergil gets back."

Nero smothered a laugh under his hand when she rolled up her already short sleeves and fetched the bucket and mop.  Yeah.  She was a pretty great little kid.

***

vii - Wishes Come True

"I can't believe you got us arrested," Nero grumped.

Dante lifted his cuffed hands in irritation.  "I didn't know you were gonna punch that guy!"

"He was trying to crack your skull with a lead pipe, dumbass!"

"Nero."  Vergil's voice was sharp with disapproval, and Nero rolled his eyes.

"We're in jail, Dad.  I'm pretty sure no one cares about my language in here."

His father shook his head but turned his displeasure on Dante.  "This better be worth it.  An evening in a prison cell isn't my idea of time well spent."

"Just keep an eye on the kid.  I'll handle the rest," Dante muttered when they reached the end of the hall.

Nero glanced apprehensively at the guards surrounding them.  Without their confiscated coats and weapons, a full-on fight with the prison staff would be a bit more difficult if things went poorly, and there was something strange about these guys anyway.  Plus, not having anything to defend himself with made Nero edgey.

They were prodded into the big office, one of the walls covered in monitors showing footage from various security cameras installed around the complex and a huge, unnecessarily fancy desk in front of it.  A portly man in a uniform similar to the guards reclined in an overstuffed leather office chair.  He grinned at them unpleasantly.

"You must be some real bad apples if you're carrying all of this stuff," the warden said.  He gestured at the impressive pile of weapons laid out on top of his desk, and Nero grimaced.  It didn't really help their case to have so many guns and swords just between the three of them.

"Those are just a few of my accessories," Dante quipped.  "I just made a little mistake in regard to their size."

Laughing humorlessly, the warden got up from his chair and approached.  He practically ogled Dante, circling around like some kind of overweight buzzard.  "Well don't you look cute and talk cute.  And those firm bodies of yours look so delicious," the guy said, studying Dante's ass and Vergil's bare arms.

Nero gawked.  This wasn't the first time he'd overheard lewd comments about his family members, but this went over the top in a hurry.  "What the fuck.  Are you for real?" he said out loud.

The warden wheeled around to grab Nero's chin with a thick, sweaty hand.  "Ya even brought me an appetizer."

Nero sucked in a breath, trying to pull away in his shock.  No one had ever tried to touch him like this, and he sure as hell didn't want to encourage more of it.  The hold was stronger than it should've been.  "You be a good little boy," the warden leered, "and do like I tell ya, and I won't do anything mean--"

Dad's growl didn't sound even remotely human, but Dante moved first.  He broke the chain connecting his cuffs and hauled the warden up by his throat.  "You're the one who looks delicious, you pudgy fuck, being all marbled with fat and all."  Dante tossed the man into his guards, knocking the whole bunch of them to the floor.

"Special cell!" the warden screeched as he flailed around to get upright.  "Throw him in a high security cell!  That one too!"  He pointed at Vergil who looked ready to gut every last one of them with his bare hands.

"What?  But he didn't--" Dante started.  He glanced at Vergil who gave a small shake of his head.  The 'plan' was going sideways already.  At least one of them needed to get into the high security area since the guards had revealed that was where Kerry was held but being isolated from each other was probably just what the creepy warden wanted.  On the other hand, Dad was apparently confident enough to let this play out for a bit longer.

Nero tried to shrug off the guards that took hold of his arms, not liking any of this.  He was more worried about what these bastards were going to do to his father and uncle if they had them alone.  The goons weren't a threat individually, but if they ganged up on them when they were restrained, it could get bad.

Before they were sent in opposite directions, Vergil leaned in close.  "Protect yourself first," he said softly, and then he was gone.

Great.  What did that mean?  Why was everyone in his family a cryptic jackass at the worst possible times?

Nero sighed and let himself be led into the standard cell block.  The guards removed his handcuffs when they shoved him into one of the cells, and he took a quick look around to memorize the layout before the door was slammed in his face.  Easy to navigate floor plan, he decided, though where weren't lot of good blind spots to avoid being seen.  Getting out was going to be annoying thanks to all the bars and armored doors and whatnot, but he would cross that bridge when he came to it.  The cell itself was predictably small, two beds that were attached to the walls, toilet in the back.  Not much to work with here either.

A man lying on one of the beds sat up, giving him a wary eye.  His hair was a shaggy dark blond that hadn't been cut in a while, and Nero placed him somewhere in his late-thirties.  The guy squinted.  "How old are you?" the man asked.

"What's it to you?"  Nero shot back. Considering what had happened in the warden's office, he was ready to knock this guy out if he tried anything.

Something in the man's face softened into sadness.  "You look like my son's age," he said.  "You shouldn't be in here.  Shit.  These assholes..."

Just a little relieved not to have to start throwing punches right off the bat, Nero sank down onto the empty bed and waved his hand to clear the dust that flew into the air from the lumpy mattress.  "Yeah, those guys seem pretty terrible, but don't worry about me.  I can take care of myself."

A skeptical look was tossed his way.  "How'd you end up in here?"

"Got dragged into a fight with some thugs and broke a few windows."  That was leaving out the whole part about being hired to find some guy who may or may not have murdered his best friend, but this dude didn't need that information.  "What about you?"

"Speeding ticket."  It was said with morbid humor.  "Apparently I gave the cop a bit too much sass and got thrown in this hellhole.  I'm Frank, by the way."

"Nero," he offered absently.  Being sent to a prison like this for back talking seemed excessive.  There was also the fact the warden had been stronger than an ordinary human -- which set off some warning bells for sure.  Just what was going on here?

"Do we get fed at some point or what?" Nero asked.  It was small talk, but thanks to Dante's hairbrained scheme, Nero hadn't been able to finish his burger at the bar where they'd learned the details of what happened to Kerry, and his stomach was on the verge of growling in protest.

Frank snorted and set his feet on the floor so they were facing each other.  "Sometimes.  Food's not much to write home about.  Ya know, if they let us contact anyone outside, of course."

Nero frowned.  It wasn't as if he knew that much about how prisons were run, but this whole place felt like a cliché movie version, complete with spiked guard uniforms and a sexual predator for a warden.  "How long have you been in here?" he asked.

"About a month, I think."

"And they didn't let you contact your family at all?"

"Nope."  Frank smiled crookedly, tiredly, and Nero got the hint that the man's stay here had been pretty shitty so far.  "What about you, kid?  Does your family know where you are?"

"Yeah, they're in here too," Nero said with a sigh.  "Got hauled off to some special cells or something."

Blanching white, Frank stared at him.  "Over in solitary?  Fuck.  That's not good."  He drummed his fingers on his knees and chewed at his lip.  "Look.  When it gets to be night, just stick with me.  Okay?"

Yet more weirdness about this job.  As if their vanishing client hadn't been enough.  "Yeah, sure," he said when it became clear Frank wasn't going to explain himself any further.  At least he didn't have to wait too long to get answers to all his questions.

It was an hour later that the lights suddenly shut off, and Nero started in surprise.  He opened his mouth to ask what was happening only to hear the echoing of the door locks clicking open one after another.  Frank sprang to his feet, and Nero gave him a questioning look, but anything he was going to say was interrupted by the loudspeakers.

"Attention all prisoners," boomed the warden's smarmy voice.  "It's time for a little game of tag.  If you don't wanna die, I suggest you run."

Frank immediately grabbed Nero's hand and started tugging.  "We gotta go, kid.  Now."

Letting himself be dragged up off the bed, Nero was unnerved to find the inmates all scrambling out in the hall, pushing past each other.  Whatever sort of common decency might've normally held sway was abandoned in their obvious desperation.  "You can't let them catch you!" Frank said, holding tight to Nero's fingers.

"Who?  What the fuck is happening?" Nero demanded.  This was insanity.  Only the emergency lights were on, which cast eerie shadows on terrified faces.  They all moved as a mass toward one of the exits.

"Run, run, run!" crackled the voice on the speakers, adding to the panic.

The place stank of fear, and Nero grit his teeth when he saw one of the guards step out to block their escape.  The man's body twisted, growing taller and more muscular.  And less human.  The demon's tongue lolled out of its mouth, and a hook edged sword cut one of the prisoners in half, spraying blood and guts all over the cement floor and walls.  Several people screamed and tried to press backward into the mob to avoid getting shredded by the weapon.

Well, okay then.

"Hey, asshole!" Nero shouted over the clamor.  "You wanna play a game?  Play with me!"  He tore free of Frank's grip, silently apologizing when he heard the fearful cry, and used the back of the person in front of him to get airborne.  The guard's wild swing was easy to evade, and Nero landed feet first on the gold, saw toothed mask the demon was wearing, driving it hard into the floor.

He knelt to inspect the downed demon, surprised when the body started to steam and revert to their original human shape.  "Possessed, huh?  That's what you get for being such a shady piece of shit."  That did mean that he couldn't just kill them, though.  If there were humans under all that, even ones disgusting enough to sell themselves for power like this, Nero would have to exercise a little more care than he usually did when fighting.  "I think I'll borrow this," Nero said, picking up the dropped sword.

"H-how did you do that?" Frank gasped.  "You took him out like it was nothing."  The whole pack of inmates was staring at Nero in amazement.  He wasn't sure how he felt about that.

Nero snatched the keys off the guard's belt and tossed them to Frank as he stood.  "Tell ya what.  I'll put these guys down, and the rest of you can lock them up.  Deal?"

It was hope that he saw dawning across all those faces like the sunrise they hadn't seen in ages.  If this 'game' was a regular occurrence, they'd probably been terrorized for who knows how long, watching the other people die one by one, always wondering when it would be their turn.

Frank's awe transformed into determination, and he grabbed the guard by the ankle to drag him.  "Give 'em hell, kid," he declared.

Nero did just that.  He established a rhythm with the prisoners, the rest hiding until a guard showed up, Nero stomping them into the dirt, and then the others quickly hauling the possessed sucker into one of the cells to lock them in.  It was a little trickier when the guards started showing up in groups, but whatever demons were lending these creeps their strength, they were still pretty damned weak.  The only hard part was not accidentally breaking someone's neck with a knock-out punch.

He was watching Frank shove another guard into an already full cell when he heard his father's voice.  "Nero!  Nero, where are--?"  Vergil skidded to a halt at the end of the hall.  There was blood on his knuckles that wasn't his own, and Nero wondered if Dad hadn't been as concerned about how he handled the guards.

"Just cleaning up over here," Nero told him.  He set the tip of the sword on the ground and leaned into it with a smile.  Not that he'd been worried, but it was good to see his father, especially since he had Yamato and his coat again.

Vergil spared a brief glance at the anxious inmates.  He didn't look pleased -- more a little disappointed.  "I thought I told you to protect yourself first," he muttered, holding out Nero's jacket and weapons.

It was hard not to bristle at that.  Nero chucked the borrowed sword aside and put his gear back on.  "I'm still here, aren't I?  Maybe you need to lower your standards for me if you aren't happy."

There was a particular way his father's jaw would tighten that said a nerve was struck.  Usually Vergil would lash back with a barb of his own, one that inevitably got under Nero's skin and bugged him for weeks after, but this time he brushed a thumb over his son's cheekbone and tutted.  "If you always prioritize others' wellbeing over your own, you'll put yourself in unnecessary danger," he said.

Nero's face warmed up, and he tried to fight the impulse to lean into the touch, brief as it was.  Every once and awhile, his father would surprise him, and it always made Nero feel equal parts terrible and wonderful that Dad defied those expectations of detachment.  "Sorry," was all he could think to say.

"Listen up!" Dante's voice called from the intercom, shattering the fragile moment.  "You guys are criminals.  Tag?  You gotta be kidding me.  I just reported this to the police headquarters."

"Hmph.  It seems Dante couldn't figure out how to target the speakers to only the high security section," Vergil said, composed again.  He turned back to Nero.  "We found our mark.  Dante's making a path out for us using the warden and his guards."

"This time judgement will be passed on you," Dante taunted.  "And don't any of you lowlifes even think of running away.  This place is an inescapable hell, right?"

"Guess we should get going," Nero said, but a hand on his arm stopped him.

Frank quickly let go when he saw the sharp look Vergil shot at him.  "I just… I wanted to think you, Nero.  If it weren't for you, I'm pretty sure we'd be dead now."  There was a chorus of agreement from the others.

Nero felt heat on his face again and coughed.  These people would finally get to go home, to see their loved ones, and he'd helped that happen.  A soft sort of pleasure made his insides fuzzy.  "Hey, it's no problem.  That's what I'm here for.  You guys ready to blow this joint or what?"

Dante was waiting for them outside with a shorter, almost mousy looking man that Nero had to assume was the Kerry Marquez they'd come here to find.  "Looks like no one is worse for wear," Dante said, cocky grin on his face.

The prisoners were looking around as if they still couldn't believe they were finally free.  Several of them even started to weep.  Nero clapped Frank on the shoulder.  "You should get home to that kid of yours."

"Yeah," the man breathed, glancing up to the stars and thumbing a tear from his eye.  "I'll never be able to say it enough times, but thank--"

"Once is plenty," Nero told him.  "Pay me back by helping the rest of them out of here, okay?"

Frank nodded and smiled broadly.  "You got it!"

Vergil made a noise of irritation when the former inmate started rounding the others up and making plans.  "You realize some of these people are likely to be legitimately guilty of the crimes they were accused of."

"Maybe so," Dante said, "but after this, I think they've been through enough to serve their time for whatever those bastards put them in here for.  The real cops can sort out the rest."

"Hold up.  What about the warden?" Nero asked.  He didn't like the thought of taking off with that scuzzy freak still roaming around free.

Dante exchanged a look with Dad, and the satisfaction that lit on his father's face was a little frightening.  "Don't worry about him, kid," Dante said with a lopsided, sharp toothed grin.  "He's not going to be bothering anyone else."

Chapter Text

viii - Once Upon A Time

Nero took another look in the window of the ice cream parlor.  The bright lights spilled out onto the dim sidewalk, doing a better job of helping people see than the weakly flickering streetlight overhead.  He could see Patty inside still debating on what flavor she wanted, and Nero resigned himself to waiting until she made up her mind.  There was no way he was going to let her make the journey to the orphanage by herself at this late hour.

She'd been worried about his idiot uncle when Dante went off on the latest job.  Honestly, Nero had been too.  Being mistaken for someone's childhood best friend was a little weird, especially since the guy was so damned insistent -- he kept calling Dante 'Anthony' no matter how many times the devil hunter said that wasn't his name.  Patty and Nero had both waited up until Dante arrived back at the shop, though his uncle hadn't been particularly grateful for it.  He'd ignored them and went straight to bed before they could even ask about what happened.

Nero glanced into the store again and rubbed the bridge of his nose.  Patty finally made up her mind, but now she was standing in line with the other people who'd shown up in the meantime.  "Man," he muttered, "how long is this gonna take?"

A sudden jab at his instincts taught Nero exactly what people meant with they said it felt like someone had walked over their grave.  Hair on his arms standing on end, his head snapped to the side, and he sucked in a breath when he spotted someone lurking in the shadows of the alleyway.  The shorter man's eyes hared off in different directions, but they were focused on Nero, and his stained, uneven teeth were displayed in a very creepy leer.  He had a strange purple mark on the left side of his face, a healing burn scar or maybe a birth mark of some kind.  Something was making Nero's heart race under his ribs.

Not a human, he realized.  A demon.

"You see something you like?" Nero growled.

"My apologies," the demon said, and Nero was surprised by how cultured he sounded.  The greasy black hair and rumpled clothes definitely didn't give off that kind of impression.  "You see, I simply was very curious about you and couldn't contain myself."

Nero's skin felt like it was trying to crawl off his body just being near this guy, but he couldn't leave with Patty still inside.  He tried to shift himself so he'd be in a position to intercept any attack aimed toward the ice cream shop.  "Is that so?  Well, here I am, so you can just--"

"The blood of Sparda flows in your veins."

That was never a good opener when it came to demons, and Nero balled his hands into fists.  "What of it?"

The guy laughed like a rusty hinge.  "I'm just surprised that your lineage has persisted so strongly.  It's very rare for demon blood to carry with such potency for more than a generation, you know."

He did not, in fact, know that, but he also wasn't going to say so.  "Guess that makes me special or something, right?" Nero said tightly.

"Indeed, it does."  The demon's grin spread a little further.  "Which one of them do you belong to, little one?"

"Like I'm going to answer that," Nero snapped back.  He suddenly wanted to fight, to smash this weak insect into the ground for even daring to speak to him.  It wasn't the first time he'd felt such violent urges around demons, but it freaked him out every time.  Baring his teeth, Nero vented his impulse by glaring.

It didn't stop the devil's horrible smile, though he inclined his head in a partial bow.  "Of course you won't.  How impertinent of me to ask such a thing.  I'm sorry for troubling you."

Nero was a little taken aback by the simpering.  "Yeah, whatever," he muttered.  "Just get out of here before I decide I need to deal with you."

"Your family is so very generous," the demon chuckled.  "I believe your young friend is about to join us, however."

Quickly looking over his shoulder, Nero heard the jangling of the bells on the shop's door as Patty exited.  She had an ice cream cone piled high with three different flavors clutched in her hand, and she beamed when they locked eyes.

Panic ran an icy trill down his spine.  Nero jerked back to the demon in case he made a move, but the creature was already gone without a trace, taking the worst of the fighting instinct with him.  What the fuck?  What had that guy really wanted?

"Hey."

He almost leaped off the sidewalk, whipping around to see a frowning Patty.

"Why are you so jumpy?" she asked and took a bite of her cold treat.

Nero peered into the shadows one more time before stuffing his shaky hands into his pockets.  There was no reason to worry Patty if that guy had just shown up to hassle Nero.  From what his uncle said, that was just how things were with demons when you were related to the legendary dark knight.

"It's nothing," Nero said, though something about the encounter nagged at him.  "Let's get going."

***

ix - Death Poker

"He's going to fucking die," Nero stressed and then glanced from Morrison to Patty's stern expression.  She didn't scold him for his language this time because she was just as worried as he was.

"Dante is the one who got the invitation," Morrison explained yet again.  "He's the one who has to play the game."

"And he's bad at it!" Nero cried.  "Not just bad, but the worst.  I play poker with him any time I need to get him to do something he doesn't want to do because he never wins.  Just let me sub in there for a couple hands to build his chips back up.  You know I can do it."

Morrison's face said he did indeed know that but wasn't going to budge.  "If your father ever learned I did that, he'd tear my spine out through my nose, and I happen to like my spine right where it is, kid."

Nero grit his teeth in frustration, fists clenched at his sides.  "He doesn't have to know if none of us tell him, and besides," he glanced down at Patty who had her cheeks puffed out, "we can always say she was the one who played if he ever asks."

Which was how Nero found himself sitting at a table full of professional poker players in a literal death match.  They stared back at him while he gave a smile full of Sparda family teeth and his father's icy blue gaze.  "You can either play your cards or go get yourself a snack.  Doesn't matter to me either way," Nero said calmly.  The grumpy old man narrowed his eyes but only huffed when Lady dealt them all in.

Nero had to be careful not to make eye contact with Lady or he might blow her cover, but he needed to concentrate on the other players anyway.  These guys were good or they wouldn't be here, and if he let himself get lazy it wouldn't matter how well he played the game, they'd eat him for lunch.  This wasn't a poker tournament.  It was a demon hunt.

Patty stood next to his left shoulder, arms crossed over her chest and a wicked glare on her face, and Nero smiled broader when the adults at the table studied them intently over their cards.  Dante might have been the one who taught him to play the game, but he'd learned his poker face from Dad.  Years of being smacked black and blue after telegraphing a move in sparring practice had taught him to be conscious of his body in ways that most people never would be.  You couldn't afford to give an enemy such an edge in a fight, and this was a fight for his uncle's life.  He sure as hell wasn't going to let some demon asshole beat him.

If only he knew which one of these people he was really playing against.

"That's a nice hand, but…"  Nero laid his cards out slowly.  "Four of a kind is better."

The woman let out a quiet hiss of air as the chips were swept into Dante's growing pile.  Nero wasn't supposed to be taking any risks, just holding steady, but that was never how he did things.  All or nothing was more his style.

"You could always fold," he told the man across from him cheekily, relishing the glare thrown his way.

He was pretty sure that guy wasn't the demon since he was the client's husband -- unless he'd been possessed or influenced in some way.  The woman had a bit of an air to her, though it felt more humanly arrogant than demonic.  An old gentleman would make a pretty good disguise for a demon, the sort of person who wouldn't attract too much attention...  If Nero could figure out what was going on, it might just give them a leg up. 

Fingers touched his shoulder, and Nero assumed it was Patty until they started to tighten till it hurt.  He looked up, about to snarl at the intrusion, and saw Dante staring down at him with burning eyes.  "Hey, kid.  You're in my seat."

And then Nero was shoved out the door.

Nero swallowed the worry and anger that settled in his throat, pissed that his uncle hadn't just made him leave the table but kicked him completely out of the room.  The old man let Patty and Morrison stay, but not him?  What the hell was his problem?  Was there another threat that Dante needed him to be on the watch for out here?  His uncle hadn't said much, just to stay out, but Nero's senses were on high alert anyway.

He paced back and forth in the hallway for a long time, waiting, listening, hoping that he'd bought Dante enough breathing room to make it to the end of the game.  Where was he supposed to be focusing his attention?  In the room?  Out here?  If only he could have--

The distinctive pop of a gunshot made him flinch, and Nero spun around.  He didn't waste any time kicking the door to the game room with every ounce of his strength, sending it flying off its hinges.  Whatever yelling he was about to do died on his tongue when his uncle's head turned toward him, cocked at an uncomfortable angle, and he leered in a way that was most definitely not Dante.

Oh fuck.  That was really bad.

Dante's eyes lit with the red gleam that only showed when he was a half-step away from Devil Trigger, and a violent grin stretched his face into something unrecognizable.  Frozen in place, Nero opened his mouth without being able to make a sound, fear rooting him to the floor as Ivory moved in his direction from where it had been pointed at Lady.  "Looks like we've got one more player," Dante purred, finger on the trigger.  "This one will be way more fun."  Nero couldn't even breathe as the finger tightened.

The crack of a bullet jolted him, and Nero watched his uncle topple backward with a spray of blood from his heart.  Dante's hands went lax, gun clattering to the floor, and Nero heard the pinging of a shell casing against marble tile.  Lady's gun smoked for an instant.  A scream lodged in Nero's throat.

It was like the whole thing was in slow motion.  This couldn't be happening...

"Dante!"

Patty was hysterical, throwing herself forward to try to escape Morrison's grip, and it shook Nero out of his trance enough to let him stumble to Dante's side.  He sank to his knees desperately looking for any signs of life, but there was nothing.  Nothing at all.  Only stillness from a man who was never really still.  "No," he breathed.  "Please…"  Hand shaking, Nero touched the edge of his uncle's familiar red coat.

A single pair of hands clapping, slow and mocking, startled all of them.  Nero jerked his head up to see the client who had hired Dante ascending the stairs and watching Lady with an awful smile.  "Congratulations.  I suppose that you're tonight's winner," she said.

Nero could barely catch what she said over the pounding of his pulse.  It sounded like a rhythm drum in his skull, and he squeezed the lining of Dante's coat to anchor himself.  Lady aimed her gun threateningly, engaging in some back and forth banter with her bi-colored eyes pinned to the newly revealed devil.

"I wish this man had won for me, but maybe I was hoping for too much," the demon said wistfully, and Nero felt like a blood vessel burst in his brain, horror blossoming into hate.

Lady bared her teeth.  "So, it was a trap from the very beginning."

"Please don't fret.  Soon you'll be as dead as he is, and so will--"

"You BASTARD!" Nero roared as anger swelled up inside him until it pushed out against his skin.  It was a thunderstorm raging out from his heart, filling his lungs and crashing through his veins.  He trembled from the force of it, his fingers curled like claws.  All he wanted was to tear the throat out of the person who had hurt his family.  His vision went red, and he faintly heard Lady gasp.  "I'll kill you!" he howled.

The devil looked surprised and then intrigued.  "Well now.  This is unexpected."

He wasn't as fast yet as his uncle or father, but Nero was in front of her before the demon finished her transformation and slammed his fist into her face hard enough to break a human's neck.  Fury, pain, loss, it all fueled him as he knocked her to the floor, pounding at her head over and over with his aching fist like he could crush it to dust.

"Go back to hell!" Nero ordered, but one of her shadow tendrils struck him in the side and sent him tumbling end over end until his back hit the poker table.

"Hmph," the devil said, getting to her feet and swiping a trail of blue-black blood from the corner of her mouth.  "You really would've been fun to play with, but now I can't just let you live--"

She lurched, flailing backward a few steps as a bullet pierced her forehead.

"Dante!" Patty cried, and Nero rolled over to see his uncle standing up.  Crushing relief emptied his chest out.

"Sorry to spoil your party," Dante said, "but I've been waiting for this moment."

The rest happened so fast, the demon no match for the legendary devil hunter.  Nero listened to the explanation of Dante and Lady's plan in shock.  Dante cut the demon down like it was nothing while Nero just sat there and stared, trying to catch his breath.  He didn't say anything when Morrison gave a statement to the authorities, didn't speak when the ship's proprietors gushed out their gratitude for ending the menace, didn't talk until they were home and everyone else had left.

Dante casually poured himself a glass of whiskey and leaned against the edge of his desk, but Nero could feel that stare burning holes in the side of his head.  "You okay?" Dante asked after a while.

Nero whipped around and fisted his fingers in Dante's vest, shoving at him with all his strength but not able to budge him.  "You asshole!  You had a fucking plan the whole time, and you didn't tell me anything!"

"You weren't supposed to be there," Dante said and took a sip of his drink.  Nero didn't like the look his uncle leveled on him, didn't like how the old man seemed angry with him.  What right did he have to be mad?!

Shoving ineffectively one more time, Nero let go and turned his back.  He'd never wanted to hit Dante more in his life.  "I thought you died, you piece of shit," he hissed.  That adrenaline rush he'd gotten back on the boat hadn't entirely faded, leaving him shaky and edgy.  "I wonder how Dad's going to react when I tell him you let yourself get possessed--"

"You're not going to tell him anything unless you want him to ground you for the rest of your life."  The dark edge of Dante's words sent goosebumps along Nero's arms, and he turned to look at him in surprise.  "You didn't listen to me when I said not to come back in until I said it was safe.  Lady's the only person I know with a faster trigger finger than me, and I had it under control until you jumped in and made yourself a target."

Nero ground his teeth until they hurt.  How was this his fault?  "You let Patty and Morrison stay!  They're way softer targets than me!"

"Because they're not a threat."  The words were clipped, harsh, and Nero shook his head because he couldn't understand.  Dante set the glass down with a clack, eyes still drilling holes in Nero's head.  "I have my reasons for doing what I did."

"Maybe share them next time," Nero shot back.

"I shouldn't have to.  I should be able to count on you to listen to me on a job."

"Yeah, 'cause that's how you and Dad do things," Nero growled.

"You're not your father."

Nero felt like he'd been slapped in the face.  It sure stung as much.  "So that's it, huh?  You'll never trust me to have your back because I'm not as good as him."

Dante sighed, his anger draining away.  "That's not it, kid.  I just need you to listen to me sometimes."

It was hard to bite his tongue and not scream something hurtful, but Nero stood his ground and breathed in deep.  "I can't just stand back and watch you die, old man.  You're a pain in my ass, but you're my family."

An arm looped around his neck, drawing him to his uncle's chest, and he felt Dante's chin on the top of his head.  "I know," Dante said softly, "but someday you'll understand."  Nero wasn't sure what it was, but the tone of Dante's voice sounded like regret, as if it wasn't something to look forward to, and that made him shiver.

"Just try not to get yourself killed until then," Nero muttered.

Dante laughed under his cheek.  "I'll remember you said that next time I piss you off for leaving the milk out."

***

x - The Last Promise

Carefully, Nero copied the words from one piece of paper to another.  He'd already written what he wanted to say, but the first draft was always a mess of crossed out lines and extra sentences squeezed into tight spaces.  No way he was going to send that disaster to Kyrie.

He dipped his fountain pen into the inkwell, taking only what he needed to write the next few lines.  It required patience, and that was exactly why Dad insisted he do it this way -- or he had back when Nero started sending letters to his pen pal.  Really, his daily emails and texts with Kyrie were a much better way to talk, but there was something calming and fun about the old-fashioned snail mail letters they exchanged twice a month.

When he'd been ten, after getting kidnapped and held hostage by demons, Nero started asking questions.  About everything.  All the secrets his family kept from him, the sideways looks the brothers threw at each other when he did certain things, the reason he was banned from playing sports at school, why he was told that he was not to fight with the kids that bullied him no matter what.  Nero had learned a lot in a short amount of time, including that he'd been born on a small island called Fortuna.

Dad's refusal to talk about the place had been frustrating, but Trish made a suggestion that stuck.  If Nero wanted to learn about his birthplace, why not ask someone from there?  She found a site online that matched up 'pen pals' from various cities, and Nero discovered that the school in Fortuna's main town was one of the places that participated.  Maybe he was a little disappointed to get a girl as his partner at that age, but Kyrie turned out to be pretty damn amazing.  His face grew a little warm thinking about her.

Writing to Kyrie was never a chore, and Dad grudgingly allowed it on the condition that Nero use this as a way to improve his shitty handwriting.  Hence the fountain pen to make him slow down, also courtesy of Dad.

Nero signed his name, making all the cursive loops as neat as possible, before setting the pen down on his first draft.  He stretched out his shoulders and stared hard at the black lacquered utensil with its brass collar and cap, thinking about how excited he'd been when Dad first gave it to him.  Since then, things had changed, and he was never sure how to feel about it.

He knew he'd been very close to his father when he was little, practically attached to the man every hour of the day.  Even when Nero started going to school, Vergil dotted on him while he was home like he just couldn't bear those hours he was separated from his son.  But then Nero grew up and learned to do things for himself, and suddenly Dad was drifting away, going off for days or weeks at a time on jobs, being more demanding and less affectionate.

Dante had stayed the same with his casual hugs and good-natured teasing, but his twin… sometimes it seemed as though he couldn't stand his own son anymore.

"Damn it…"  Nero scrubbed his fingers through his hair to release his anger, only belatedly realizing he should've checked them for ink stains.  He didn't like thinking about this.  It wasn't like it would change anything, and he did know Dad cared about him.  Vergil was just lousy at showing that kind of stuff.  Nero wasn't much better, if he was honest.  Maybe that was the real problem.

The sound of the front door opening shook him out of his funk, and he sighed.  Dad or Dante must've come back early.  Nero capped the inkwell and folded up his letter, tucking it into an envelope where it would be safe and waiting for him to mail tomorrow morning.

It was already dusk, and no one ever bothered to turn the lights on in the shop unless they had guests.  All three of them had great low-light vision so it wasn't a problem most of the time.  "Yo," Nero called on his way out of his room, "if you guys are hungry, I put aside some of the--"

He froze halfway down the stairs, locking eyes with two men who were definitely not part of his family and also definitely not human.   This was not good.  His fingers tightened on the railing.  "I don't know how you two got in here, but we're closed," he said cautiously.  "You need to leave."

The guy in white suddenly bolted toward him, and Nero tensed to protect himself, but the one in black snatched a sword from the wall, shifting himself into the other's path.  "Baul, if you wish to fight, then do it after you've defeated me.  This boy has nothing to do with this."

"I sense Sparda's blood in him," Baul murmured, frosty eyes narrowed on Nero.  "You must feel it too, Modeus."

The two stared at each other down with a crackling intensity, and Nero could feel their demonic energy clashing together.  Whatever the hell was happening, he'd walked into the middle of a standoff, but then Baul smirked and stepped back one pace.  "Child, when Dante gets back," he said, "tell him to come to me."

"Wha… Are you crazy?" Nero asked.  He didn't have any clue what was going on, but he did know one thing for sure.  "If you pick a fight with Dante, he's not going to play around.  I'm not going to help you commit suicide."

"If you won't pass on my message, then perhaps I need to give him incentive instead."  Baul's nasty smile made Nero squeeze the railing harder.

"That would be an even worse mistake," said a voice like steel cutting silk.

A ghost from the misty night, Vergil loomed in the doorway.  His blue eyes gleamed even in what little light came from outside.  "Fight my brother if you like, but if you seek to harm my son, it won't be a fight you get.  Only death."

"Dante's… brother?" Modeus asked, brows drawn up in surprise.

Vergil shook his head and moved so he stood at the bottom of the stairs like a sentinel.  "Typical.  You noticed Dante's bluster and flash but didn't think to take a more careful look at what you're stepping into."

Baul only looked more excited, tracking Vergil's motions.  "So, Sparda had two sons...  I am Ba--"

"I know who you are," Vergil interrupted.  "The twin brothers Baul and Modeus, Father's acolytes he trained in the way of the sword who were trapped on the human side of the hell gate when it was closed.  While I'm surprised you both survived this long, you're of no interest to me.  You should leave while I let you."

Nero winced at Dad's cold dismissal, seeing how Baul's eyes flew wide from the insult.   He wanted to yell at his father for being an asshole when there was a demon in the shop spoiling for a fight, but Dad wouldn't be saying something like that if he didn't know damn well he could take whatever these two could dish out.

"I'll deliver your message to Dante," Vergil said, running his thumb along the edge of Yamato's guard.

"Hnn…"  Baul's lip curled in a sneer that would've looked at home on Dad's face.  "If he doesn't prove enough of a challenge then perhaps I'll come find you and your boy again."  He turned and stalked out of the shop and into the fog.

Modeus finally lowered his sword.  "I'm… sorry.  This shouldn't have escalated as far as it did."

"No.  It shouldn't have," Vergil said coldly, but Nero could see a strange edge to his expression, almost like he was actually worried about these strangers who'd broken into their home.  "If your brother fights Dante he will die.  You should do your best to dissuade him of this foolishness if you want him to live."

There was a sadness on Modeus' face that reached right into Nero's heart.  "I don't want either of them to risk their lives for this.  There's nothing to gain, but my brother no longer listens to my words."  His brows tilted up then, just a little hopeful.  "Perhaps if you talk to your brother, he might be able to speak to--"

"Baul won't listen any better to the one he has his sights set on defeating.  I understand his desire for power better than I'd like."  Vergil looked up at Nero with another odd expression he wasn't used to seeing on Dad's face before turning back to Modeus.  "You need to give him a greater reason to live than simply defeating the strongest opponent he can find.  Seeking power for its own sake will just destroy him in the end."

Modeus sagged, like someone had cut a bunch of strings holding him up.  "I just wish that I had realized how far he'd fallen soon enough to help him.  I don't know if I can reach him anymore."

Dad's face almost seemed to crack for a second, and something rare bled through.  Regret, guilt, shame.  Things that he usually buried under layers of stoic indifference and only spoke of on those very few times Nero had seen him completely drunk off his ass and reminiscing about kinder days with his twin.  If Vergil was going to say something more, he didn't get the chance when the front door swung open again.

"Oh, hey.  It's you.  Strawberry sundae guy."  Dante stood on the threshold and glanced at all three of them curiously.  "Why do I feel like I missed something?"

 

When Nero saw Dante the next morning, he was downright somber, tilted back in his chair and rocking slightly instead of reading one of his trashy magazines.  He never said what happened to the two brothers, but if the mournful way he watched Dad move around the office was any indication, Nero had a pretty good idea.  Vergil cast a short, melancholy glance at his brother before going back to polishing Yamato.

***

xi - Showtime!

"Ugh, homework on the weekend," Nero muttered.  "Dad never lets up."

He set the book aside and yawned.  It might be a pain, but Nero had to admit that the extra readings his father assigned were usually a lot less dry than the textbooks from school.  Vergil had a knack for picking out materials that helped Nero really understand whatever they were learning about in history class, but that didn't make it any less frustrating to have more work to do.  A short break wouldn't hurt, though.

The sound of small feet pounding up the stairs got him out of his chair, and Nero was two steps across his bedroom when Patty bust inside.  She locked eyes with him before charging over to throw her arms around his middle, babbling something that he was pretty sure he hadn't heard correctly.

"Wait, what?  Dante's dating your mom?"  That couldn't be right.  Or at least Nero hoped it wasn't.

"No!"  Patty pummeled his stomach with her little fists for a second.  "I saw him talking to her last night!" she cried.  "I know it was her, I know it!  B-but he just… He said I was wrong!"

No wonder she was upset.  Nero caught her by the upper arms and maneuvered her into his desk chair.  "Take a second and breathe.  Start at the beginning and tell me what happened."

Patty's feet didn't reach the floor, swinging slightly so her toes scuffed against the old hardwood.  She looked up at him and sniffled.  "Dante has a job guarding a pendant, and I saw him with the client last night.  It's my mommy, I know it, but he doesn't believe me."

Nero straightened up, exhaling slowly.  He knew exactly what client and what pendant she was talking about because he'd been there when Nina came in a few days ago.  Dad took one look at the fancy necklace and promptly sent Nero to his room.  It irritated the shit out of him, but Dad only did things like that when something serious was going on.  If that woman was Patty's mom…  "Do you know where she went?" Nero asked.

Patty bit her lip, shaking her head after a moment.

"Maybe we can talk to Morrison and get her contact information," Nero said, thinking hard.  There had to be a logical way to tackle this.  "If we can track her down, we can talk to her and find out what's happening."

"We?"  Patty's eyes lit up.  "You'll come too?"

There was no way he'd let her go alone, not with the crazy demonic bullshit that was happening lately.  A demon had tried to lure Patty in by impersonating her mother once before, and he wasn't going to risk that happening again even if he hadn't felt anything strange from Nina when she'd been in the shop to hire Dante.  Patty didn't need to hear that, though.  "Of course I will.  This is a big deal.  You'll need backup."

She grinned, leaping out of the seat to throw her arms around his stomach again.  "You're the best, Nero!  Thank you!"

"Hold on."  He caught her by the elbow when she darted toward the door.  "Just take this slow, okay?  I know you're excited, but you should still be careful until we know what's going on."

"Right.  I will."  She was out of his room and down the stairs before Nero could say anything else, and he was sure she wasn't going to listen to his advice.

There was a lot to unpack from this, a complete tangle of feelings and dim memories that Patty had shared when she showed him her treasured locket not long after they first met.  They'd had a long talk about mothers, or not having one, so he knew just how twisted around her thoughts on the matter were -- and how sure she was that her mom was still out there somewhere waiting for her.  He understood why she was acting this way.  Hell, if it turned out his own mom was actually alive and running around, he'd chase after her without a second thought too.  

Grinding his fingertips against his forehead, Nero considered that complicated emotions and tact really weren't his thing, but he couldn't let Patty deal with this alone, and if he didn't handle things right, she might shut him out altogether.  But… there was probably a reason that Nina had left her daughter at the orphanage.  A part of him almost hoped this was a trick, because if Nina was Patty's mom there might be truths that would be hard for Patty to accept.

He really hoped he was overthinking this.

Nero sat heavily on the edge of his bed and picked up the book he'd pushed aside earlier, staring at a paragraph for a while before giving in to the knowledge that his thoughts weren't going to let him process anything else.  "Why does everything in my life have to be so dramatic?" Nero grumbled.

The door burst open again, sending Nero jumping off the bed and his book thumping to the floor, and Patty stood in the doorway motioning for him.  "I know where she is!  Let's go!"

"Whoa, slow down.  Morrison told you that fast?"  He honestly expected more resistance on the broker's part.  Morrison was tight lipped by nature.  Something felt off about this.

"The Grandia Hotel," Patty said, and Nero noticed her eyes didn't quite meet his, looking at his chin instead.  "You promised you'd come with me, but if I have to--"

Nero put a hand on top of her head to stop her.  Even if he had some reservations about this, Patty's determination meant he couldn't hesitate or risk having her run off by her herself.  Nero wanted to be right there for her if anything went wrong.  "I didn't say I wasn't coming."

She stared up at him with grateful, teary eyes.  "If we wait too long, she might leave.  We gotta go.  Please."

"Okay," Nero said, steeling himself.  "Okay, let's go."  He grabbed his jacket off the hook but waited until Patty turned to the door to snag the small pistol he kept in the pocket of a rarely used sweater, quickly tucking it into the waistband of his pants.  He'd always thought Dad and Dante were a little paranoid for keeping weapons stashed literally everywhere in the shop.  Now he was starting to be a little thankful the habit rubbed off on him.

"This way."  Patty caught his sleeve and tugged to bring him with her toward the back stairs, and that feeling of wrongness got stronger.  It was clear at this point that she didn't want anyone else to know what she was doing, though Nero could also tell that trying to convince her to wait was going to get him nowhere.

So, he followed, letting Patty take the lead while he tried to predict all the ways this could blow up in their faces.  She seemed to know exactly where she was headed, and they didn't so much as exchange a single word even though she kept glancing over her shoulder to make sure he was still there.  Nero wished there was some way he could tip off Dante.  Maybe this would be nothing and he'd get to witness a joyful reunion between mother and daughter, but his gut was telling him to worry.

He'd just have to stay on his toes.

The hotel was fancy, glossy marble floors and plush carpets in the lobby, richly dressed people milling around everywhere.  Nero stood out like a sore thumb in a band T-shirt and worn jeans.  Patty made him stand back while she spoke to the person at the front desk, and Nero grimaced at the obvious lies she was feeding the guy to get him to spill the room number she needed.

As soon as she had the information, Patty started hurrying for the elevators without waiting for him.  "Slow down a sec," he called.

She skidded to a halt, and Nero belatedly realized she'd been clutching something in her hands this whole time when she pulled them up against her chest.  "But I can't wait or--!"

He grabbed her shoulder, trying to keep her attention, and gave her a serious look.  "I'm coming with you, alright?  Don't leave me behind."

"Right.  I'm sorry," she said quietly.  Nero followed her onto the elevator, taking note of the floor number she pushed and keeping a light hand on her shoulder.  He could practically feel her vibrating with nerves under his fingers.  Why did this feel so wrong?  Was he missing something besides the obvious?  There was something about this hotel that was putting him on edge.

Patty glanced both ways when they got off on the right floor, spotting the signs that noted which way the room numbers were located, and then headed left.  It was one of the top floors with large, swanky suites, and Nero wondered just how wealthy this lady was.  She must have a decent amount of money to throw around if she could afford Dad's negotiation tactics without batting an eye.  This, though, was pretty ritzy.  Did that mean something?  Should he just pick Patty up and run for it?

"Here," Patty said, pointing to a heavy wooden door.  She pulled the handle, and that was when Nero got a good look at what she was holding.

That pendant.  Oh shit.  His instincts went into overdrive when a wave of something demonic struck him as soon as she opened the door.

"After all," said a male voice that was vaguely familiar, "that's why you had to part ways with your own daughter."

Being much taller, Nero could easily see over the top of Patty's head.  Nina was tied to a chair, and Nero instantly recognized the demon holding a knife to her throat as the one he'd seen in the alley near the ice cream shop.  He'd known that guy was bad news.

Patty froze in the doorway, staring into the dark room.  "You are…" she whispered.  "You're really my mother."

"Patty, run away!" Nina shouted, and that was more than enough for Nero.

He pushed Patty to the side with one hand and drew his pistol with the other to aim at the demon.  "Put the knife down and get the hell away from her," Nero threatened, advancing several steps into the room.

The devil's ugly smile was his first clue that he'd made a big mistake.  The designs on the carpet lighting up around his feet was the second.  He had just enough time to think that Dad was going to be really disappointed in him before a weight crushed him down to the floor so hard he lost his grip on the gun.  His chin cracked against the floor, making him see stars.  Magic.  Some kind of ward.  Fuck.  Stupid!

"Aah, this is unexpected," alley demon said to Patty.  "I hadn't thought the boy would be the one to accompany you.  How lucky that he has enough demon blood to be affected by my trap."

"Demon… blood?" Patty asked, and Nero felt a different kind of clenching around his heart.  She didn't know about his family.

"Nothing to concern yourself with, my dear.  Now, why don't you be a good little girl and put that necklace on the altar," the demon purred.

Nero could see Patty hesitating and tried to push himself up.  It felt like he had a whole brick wall on his back, squashing him down, making it hard to even breathe let alone move.  Nina said something he couldn't catch through the throbbing in his skull, but he guessed she was telling Patty to run again.  Good.  She needed to get the hell out of here.

She didn't, of course, because Patty was too stubborn and brave for her own good.

Her little slipper shoes passed by his face, walking to where the demon directed her.  Nero dug his fingertips into the thick carpet like he had any chance of tearing it up to set himself free.  He felt so fucking helpless right now, and it was all his own fault.  If he'd just taken a second to look before he leapt…  Too late for that kind of thinking.  He needed a damn plan.

Was the magical weight getting heavier?  He couldn't get any air into his lungs.

"Okay, is this what you wanted?" Patty demanded, turning her back to the necklace on the pedestal.  "Will you let my mommy and Nero go, then?"

The amulet began to glow with a blinding blue-white light, and Nero had to squeeze his eyes shut against it.  Even behind his eyelids, the light dazzled him.  He heard the rusty laugh and forced himself to look long enough to watch alley demon shove Patty to the floor before he jumped into what had to be some kind of portal.  "It's here!  It's here!" the demon cackled, vanishing out of sight.

Shit, this was so bad.  The energy pouring out of the gate was enough to lash at Nero's face and whip his hair around.  Black spots danced in his vision, and he realized he was close to passing out.

"What have.. What have we done?" Nina said from somewhere he couldn't see.  The tone of her voice sent another cold stab of fear lancing through Nero's aching body.

"Dante!" cried Patty.

If he wasn't struggling to stay conscious, Nero would have been relieved.  Dante's boots dashed by him, and his uncle shouted something.  It just sounded like thumping bass filtered through Nero's pulse, but then Dante was gone into the light too.  Nero tried to yell for him, couldn't find the breath.  He could barely see thanks to the sparkling motes and black splotches.  His bones were grinding hard into each other, being pulverized against the floor.  Panic made his heart pound even harder, and Nero wondered if he was going to die like this.

What a dumb way to go.

The tip of Yamato sliced the carpet right in front of his face, and oxygen came rushing back.  Nero gasped in the largest breath he'd ever taken in his life and promptly started coughing until he almost gagged.  He realized a few seconds into his fit that the shaking he had felt before was actually the building and not his body being crushed into dust.

"Stop him?  And why would I do that?" Dad said in response to something Nero had missed. It was too hard to move yet, but Nero managed to lift his head enough to see what was happening. 

Nina stared at Vergil, dumbfounded.  "Abigail is as strong as the great demon kings!" she exclaimed.  "If even that minor demon takes his power from the necklace, there will be nothing we can do to stop him."

"The seal is already broken," Vergil said.  "If this weakling doesn't take it, another demon will.  Better to deal with it now."

"You don't understand.  He's too strong!" Nina cried.  She was desperate to make Dad see reason.  "You wouldn't stand a--"

"You should consider yourself fortunate that my son and brother are so fond of your daughter," Vergil said coldly.  "Thanks to your actions, my family has been dragged into your troubles.  I expect to be well paid for this."

Nina went white and still, but Vergil knelt next to Nero.  He felt his father's hand sliding on his back, checking for injuries and finding none.  "You and I will have a talk when this is done," he said sternly, and Nero knew he was in for an earful.  "Morrison."

The older man stiffened.  "Yeah?"

"Escort them out of here."  Vergil got to his feet and moved toward the door.  "I'm going to clean up this mess."

"What about Dante?" Patty called.

That made Vergil stop.  His head inclined to the now shattered necklace, brows creased in thought.  "He's fine," he said.  "I'd know if he wasn't."

"Cryptic bastard," Morrison muttered when Vergil swept out the door.  He hooked his hands under Nero's arms to drag him up off the floor.  "Kid, you okay?"

"Ye-"  Nero coughed some more, wobbling unsteadily.  "Yeah, I'm fine."  Not that he was being very convincing if everyone's looks were anything to go by.

It didn't really matter, though.  If Dad and Dante were here, everything would be fine.  So... why did he still feel afraid?

They ran down to the lobby, and Morrison yelled at the concierge who didn't want to evacuate the hotel despite the fact that things were rattling hard enough to fall off the desk in front of the guy.  Patty had the clever idea of pulling the fire alarm, though some of the guests were smart enough to already be leaving.

People poured out into the plaza, and Nero followed behind Nina and Morrison.  He felt Patty grab onto his hand, so he squeezed back, feeling guilty that he'd screwed all this up despite being sure something was wrong the whole time.  At least Patty had found her mother, and neither of them had been seriously hurt.  If anything good came out of this disaster, he might feel a little better about it.

A bright light suddenly lit everything up like it was noontime right as they made it a safe distance away.  Nero turned toward the building where it looked like a small star had touched down on the roof.  He was struggling to breathe again, but this time it was because an unfamiliar, suffocating demonic aura tried to cram itself into his lungs.

Dad was up there, though.  Everything would be fine, he told himself.  It had to be.

"What in the hell just happened?" Morrison wondered, staring up.

Nina fell to her knees.  "My God…  It's over.  The world as we know it is coming to an end."

Nero wanted to laugh, to put them at ease, but he couldn't make himself.  Dante and Dad would deal with this bad guy just like they did every other demon.  It would be fine.  Wouldn't it?  Why was he so afraid?

"Don't you go dying on me, Dante," Morrison said.

Nero closed his eyes against the fear crawling under his skin.  It wasn't really the demon on the roof, as powerful as he could tell it was, that put a lump in his throat.  "Just… come back, you two.  Together." 

***

xii - Stylish!

Nero leaned heavily against the wall, hoping that was the last wave of enemies because he was struggling to shake the daze that overwhelmed him earlier.  He'd chased Patty and Nina back into the burning hotel and ended up smashed on the floor again when a bunch of demons attacked them.  It was hard to fight with just his pistol and the broken pieces of the chair Nina had been tied to, but Nero managed to deal with the small fries before almost passing out from the surge of energy that swept in the room.

Winning the fight didn't make him feel much better, though.  Not only was Dante missing, but Patty had jumped into the pillar of weird blue light made by her locket -- which was when Nero had been knocked for a loop by the power released from the opening gateway.  He didn't have time to waste being exhausted if he wanted to find where his uncle and friend had gone.

Another burst of light blinded him for a moment, and Nero brought his hand up to shield his eyes.  What was happening now?

"Is it really you, Dante?" Patty asked.

"Do you know another man this good looking?" Dante replied cheekily.

Nero would have been tempted to run over and hug his uncle if he didn't have Rebellion sticking out of his chest, and poor Patty fainted at the sight.  Dad was going to taunt the shit out of his 'little brother' for this.  Dante always got stabbed with something at least a few times a year.

"Morrison, kid, I'll leave the rest to you," Dante declared and burst up through the roof.  It figured the bastard would make him worry just to fly off and pick a fight before anyone could learn where he'd disappeared to.  Nero had never been happier to be pissed off at his dumbass family.

"But, wait!" Nina said, reaching for her daughter.  "Shouldn't we help?"

"Nah.  Dad's already up there," Nero assured her.  "Let's get out of here.  If they really decide to play rough, I wouldn't be surprised if the whole building comes down."

As cool as he was trying to play it, Nero couldn't deny that relief was as much responsible for his fading dizziness as the crazy powers being thrown around.  No matter how tough this wannabe demon king was, nothing could stand the combined might of the sons of Sparda.  As long as they were together, they could defeat anyone.  Nero almost felt sorry for the alley demon.

He hiked an unconscious Patty onto his back and followed Nina and Morrison down the stairs, spiraling for a couple minutes because they'd been on one of the top floors.  If he'd been alone, he would've jumped, but Nero didn't want to leave them unprotected if there were more demons running around.  Even without any ammo left, he could still fight better than three normal people.

A loud crash shook the building, plaster and concrete dust falling in a shower, and Nero picked up the pace.  "Looks like they're getting serious.  Better hurry, you two!"

They scrambled out through the lobby and into the plaza just as there was an explosion from the very top of the hotel.  "Oh my god!" Nina exclaimed, flinching.  "What is… What happened?!"

Nero let out a slow breath.  Not that he'd doubted them, but it still drove out the tension he was feeling.  The electric buzz in his bones was comforting when their overflowing demonic auras rolled through the air, completely obliterating the other titanic presence he'd felt earlier.  The sense of wrong was replaced by the warmth of family.

"It's fine," Nero said, and it was.  "They're just being dramatic."  Patty leaned over his shoulder, now awake and awestruck like everyone around them.

Then everything was quiet.

"It's really over, then?"  Nina turned her head to look at her daughter.  Her throat spasmed with emotion, and Nero felt a pang in his chest.  The burden she'd carried for so long, the one passed down through generations, almost visibly fell away from her shoulders.  "It's finally over…" Nina said.

By the time Nero could hear two very familiar arguing voices coming out of the rubble, the sun had already risen, and Lady and Trish were waiting next to him.

"This is what happens when you don't use your head," Dad said curtly.

"Give me a break!  That guy was pretty tough."  Dante had his hands stuffed in his pockets and blood all over his face.  He would look terrifying if he wasn't pouting.

"Hmph.  It was child's play.  If you had taken this at all seriously, you wouldn't have so desperately needed my help."

"Jeez, you're such a nag.  I could've handled it."

"Danteee!"  Patty flew past Nero to throw herself into his uncle's legs, burying her face against him.  Nero couldn't hear what words they exchanged, but it seemed to make her happy when she glanced quickly to her mother and back to Dante with a smile.  Nero couldn't help but smile too.

He'd miss her.

"You."  Right.  Dad had promised to bitch at him.

Nero turned to face his father and crossed his arms.  He refused to look like he'd done anything wrong -- even if he still felt a bit guilty.  "Yeah, me."

"You ran into that building without taking the time to formulate a plan or learn the first thing about your surrounds or potential enemies," Vergil chided.  "That was foolish."

"Probably.  Still worked, though."

Vergil clicked his tongue against his teeth, shaking his head, but Nero could see blood on his sleeve and a rather satisfied tilt to his chin.  Dad was always in a better mood when he got to stretch his skills a little.  "You're picking up too many of Dante's bad habits.  Don't make me break you of them."

"Yeah, yeah.  Love you too, Dad," Nero muttered and then froze.  His father had gone still at the sentiment, giving him a very strange and closed off look.  There would always be walls and masks when it came to Vergil, but just then Nero spotted something fleeting and fond skitter across the surface.

"Hmm," was all the comment his father offered.  Then his hand touched Nero's cheek, brushing away some of the soot that had been smeared across it and tracing along his jaw.  Nero found it hard to breathe in those few seconds before the fingers fell away.  His father always had the strangest ways to show affection.

Something brushed his arm, and Nero almost jumped out of his skin in surprise.  Patty smiled up at him.  "Nero… Thanks.  I'm sorry you got hurt because of me, but I'm really glad you were there."

"Oh, uh."  He glanced at his father's now stony face.  "It's nothing.  No way I was gonna let you deal with all that alone.  I mean, I'm not that much of a jerk--"

Her arms wrapping around his middle shut him up.  "Thank you," she said again, and Nero could feel tears soaking into his thin T-shirt.  Nina smiled warmly at him just behind Patty.

Oh dammit.  He was getting choked up too.  "That's what friends are for," he said, hugging her back.

Patty laughed and wiped at her eyes when she pulled back.  "Right!" she said determinedly.

"Don't be a stranger, okay?  You know where to find us."  Nero couldn't help giving her shoulder one last squeeze.

She grinned and stepped into her mother's embrace.  "You'd be lost without me," she said, and Nero found himself laughing too.  It was harder than he expected to watch her leave.

"Hey, Morrison, drive me to the office," Dante commanded.  "Your car will still move, right?"

"You're such a slave driver!  I'm injured here too for your information, Dante," the broker complained.  His uncle just got in the car, apparently not caring if his blood got all over the seat.  "You two coming or not?" Morrison asked over his shoulder.

Vergil climbed into the back without a comment, and Nero joined him.  Out of the side window he could see Patty and her mother, leaning in close against one another and then walking away into the brand-new dawn.  It was a little sad, maybe, but Nero was honestly pleased they were reunited.  He couldn't even imagine how he would feel if his father had been forced to leave him behind to grow up without his family.  It was too awful to consider.

Yeah, he might miss Patty, but Nero understood that this was for the best.  He knew this wasn't the end.  He'd see his friend again.

Chapter Text

Vergil didn't have to look up from his seat at the office desk to know who was in the doorway.  He'd felt the presence long before they arrived, prickling at his senses until he couldn't rationalize it as anything other than the truth.  It was never a matter of if, but of when this scene would play out.

"It's about time," he muttered.

Dante laughed, hoarse and unfettered.  He looked tired.  And older, though that might have been the thick white scruff that covered his jaw.  Vergil had tried growing a beard once after too many comments about how he couldn't possibly have a child Nero's age.  All it took was being asked if he was his son's grandfather to make him immediately shave it off.

"It's good to see you too, big brother."  Dante lingered by the entrance, studying the interior of the shop like he was seeing it for the first time, and Vergil bit back the accusations he was longing to hurl.

It would have more impact coming from another.

An echo of thudding feet told them he was coming before Nero appeared at the top of the stairs.  His breath was heavy and eyes so wide they were all sclera and constricted pupils, disbelief and hope written on him as bold as ink.  He didn't move for a long few seconds before barreling down towards his uncle.

Vergil watched with bated breath as Dante smiled, opening his arms in expectation of embracing his nephew.  He was punched squarely in the mouth instead.  Droplets of blood flew in the air, and Vergil felt a deep satisfaction seeing little brother hit the ground flat on his back and bleeding.

Dante pushed himself up on his elbows.  "What the… Is this how you say hello--"

"Shut up!" Nero seethed, trembling under his long pent up emotions.  His fists were clenched tight at his sides.  "A year.  A whole fucking year!  You ran off to that damned island and just disappeared.  We had to figure out what happened from the people you worked with!"

His brother looked stunned.  "Kid, I had to--"

"No!  If you make excuses, I'm gonna shove your teeth so far down your throat you'll be picking them out of your ass.  You left us, and we didn't even know if you were still alive."

That last part wasn't strictly true.  Vergil had known, deep in the recesses of his soul, that Dante still lived, but Nero had grieved while his father could only offer the vaguest of assurances.  As the weeks became months, Nero's desire to believe in Dante's safety turned into weighty, painful despair.  More than anything else about his brother's absence, that had angered Vergil.

Quiet for once, Dante stared at Nero, eyes darting around the boy's face, cataloging, assessing, discovering that time was steadily etching that once soft jaw into stricter angles.  It had jarred Vergil too when he finally allowed himself to notice.  Then Dante sucked in a shaky breath.  "You grew," he said, and his tone was full of heartache and regret.

As if those two words broke the wall keeping him back, Nero sank to his knees and threw his arms around his uncle.  He held on like Dante would vanish again if he didn't.  "You piece of shit son of a bitch," he whispered affectionately.

Dante laughed, tears shining in his eyes, and returned the hug with relish.  "I missed you too, kid."  He squeezed his fingers on Nero's shoulders and froze as he obviously felt something that hadn't been there before he left.  Cautiously, Dante skimmed his palm down to the boy's covered elbow, his silver brows knitted into worry.  He was about to speak when Nero recoiled from him and flicked his gaze into the corner of the room.

"What is this?" Dante asked, reaching for the arm again but stopping when Nero pulled even farther away.

"You missed many things," Vergil said, and his brother's features begged for an explanation.

"It's nothing," Nero mumbled.  He got to his feet and would've escaped if Dante didn't spring up to grab hold of him.

Dante slowly pulled the peculiar glove off Nero's unresisting right hand and stared in shock.  The ridged palm glowed a cold fluorescent, casting light up into Dante's astonished face.  "This sure as hell isn't nothing.  What even is--"  Dante shook his head and flattened his lips.  "Are you okay, kid?"

"It doesn't hurt," was all Nero told him.

The pain on Dante's face, knowing something life altering had happened while he was gone, was almost karmic, but Vergil had no right to savor it.  The taste of his own failure was far too bitter for that.  "I made a foolish mistake, and my son paid the price for it," he told his brother.

Nero's head snapped toward him, fire in his eyes.  "That's not what happened, dammit!"

"It's an apt enough description of--"

"No!  I did it because--!"

"Stop," Dante pleaded, and they both fell silent.  His disquiet rattled as badly as Vergil's guilt.  His brother must have felt it too because he studied Vergil, evidently finding things bleeding out from under his composure that worried him even more.  He turned to Nero and laid a strong hand on the boy's shoulder.  "What happened?"

His nephew inspected the floor, muscle in his cheek twitching.  "Dad got hurt on a job.  I tried to stop the demon from getting to him while he couldn't move, but I broke that shitty sword I was using and didn't have anything to fight with, so I just kind of let it grab me instead."

Dante's mouth formed an 'oh' as if he somehow knew that Vergil's moment of prideful carelessness and resulting incapacitation had almost cost them everything.  It should have been a simple mission, enough so that Vergil hadn't thought twice about letting Nero come along.  He knew better than to turn his back even to a downed enemy, but that little flourish, the gratifying 'snap' of the Yamato as it slid back home, was something Vergil could never quite resist.  That single slice of vulnerability was all it took.

The memory of Nero berserk with fear and rage as he tore into the demon with his bare hands, heedless of the horrific damage he was sustaining in return, burned behind Vergil's eyelids when he slammed them closed.  He could still remember Nero staggering toward him in the aftermath, triumphant and hemorrhaging red until he collapsed in an ocean of his own blood.  Vergil never wanted to see his son so still ever again, but he knew that image would haunt him forever.

"And this?" Dante asked, indicating the scaled arm.

"I believe he forcibly activated a premature devil power during the fight," Vergil answered.  "Since it's still developing, we haven't found a way to… turn it off yet."

"Jeez…"  It was obvious his twin wanted to make a joke about the situation but was having trouble summoning his usual insouciant humor.  "At least it looks really cool, right?  It must be strong too since my jaw really hurts right now from that punch."

Nero rolled his eyes and yanked his glove out of his uncle's grip.  Dante always had a knack for diffusing tension, and it seemed to have worked on his nephew yet again.

"Now that we've answered your questions," Vergil said coolly, "I believe you owe us a story."

"Ah… To make it short, there was a crazy, evil rich dude who wanted to become immortal, so he released a powerful demon through a big honkin' hole to the underworld.  Typical stuff, not even that hard, but…  The gate was so big I had to seal it from the other side.  And I got stuck there a lot longer than I thought."  Dante smiled, tired and brittle.

That matched with what Matier and Lucia had told them on Dumary Island.  Vergil had considered going after his wayward brother, but that would have meant leaving Nero behind alone, and there was no guarantee that Vergil could find Dante with any speed.  The underworld was a vast place, full of dangers and ever shifting landscapes that confounded logic.  As much as it had tormented him, Vergil knew he had to stay.

Dante's' sigh interrupted Vergil's train of thought.  "Guess I really should've brought the guy with the sword that can open and close hell gates, huh?"

"I would say you got what you deserved, but in light of the turmoil you left behind for the rest of us…"  He knew he wasn't being very charitable -- Dante hadn't planned to disappear, after all -- but Vergil would always draw an uncompromising line when it came to his son and suffering.   That his own heart had felt like it was made of lead for all those months was beside the point.  "If you ever do something so idiotic again, I will stab you and gleefully watch you bleed to death at my feet."

His brother laughed, rubbing a knuckle against his eye socket.  "That seems pretty fair to me.  I'm glad some things didn't change while I was gone."

"You also owe an apology to those people on Dumary who helped you," Vergil chided.  "They were very concerned about your well being and felt responsible for your absence."

"Yeah, Lucia seemed real impressed with you for some reason," Nero put in as he sat on the couch in the corner.  There was a gleam in his eyes that had been missing for too long, and the corners of his mouth lifted ever so slightly.  "The stories I told her might've taken off some of your shine, though."

Dante's groan provoked a laugh from Nero, and it sounded like the most profound relief.  Vergil and his twin would have to talk about all that had happened, but that was for later.  Right now, Vergil wanted to fold himself into the feeling that had been disrupted for so long, the feeling of home and stability and wholeness that only existed when his family was complete.  Everything else could wait awhile longer.

Chapter Text

Nero tugged at the collar of his pale-blue button-down shirt and then drummed his gloved fingers on the cafe table.  He knew he was early for their meeting and waiting sure as hell wasn't his strong suit, but Nero was just too thrilled to finally be here.  Convincing Dad to let him come along to Fortuna on whatever job Devil May Cry had been contracted for couldn't have been easy, and he really had no idea how Dante pulled that off -- though, Lady and Trish could light a fire under anyone when they ganged up to accomplish something.

It was a little embarrassing how the two women had reacted when Nero very casually mentioned he wanted to finally meet his pen pal in person.  They'd practically fought over who would get to pick out his clothes and mutually agreed his wardrobe was a lost cause for 'date appropriate' wear.  He'd been dragged all over town to some of the nicest stores he'd ever set foot in, ending the day feeling like he was just a doll for his 'aunts' to dress up and coo over.

Though, as tight as the jeans they'd stuffed him into were, Nero had to admit he did look good.  Hopefully Kyrie would think so too…

His face suddenly felt way too hot, and he pulled at his shirt again, glancing around and hoping no one noticed him going red as a beet.  Damned pale skin made it stand out even worse.

"Nero?"

He whipped around at the sound of his name and stared.

Oh.  Oh wow.  His brain shut down for a few seconds at the sight of the woman who approached him.  Her auburn hair burned like fire under the sun, brown eyes kind and welcoming, fair skin flushed a charming, healthy pink.  Nero almost tripped over the legs of his chair as he jumped to his feet.  "Kyrie, hi!  You, um, you look just like your picture!"

He could've punched himself right at that moment.  It wasn't like he'd never seen her before, even if it was in a laggy, blurry video call thanks to the lousy internet service on the island but face to face was something different.  Like this, haloed in the warm light of day, flowing skirt stirred by a gentle sea breeze, she looked like an actual angel touched down on the earth.

Her chiming laugh brought the heat to his face again.  "So do you," she said, and her eyes quickly ran from his toes to his head.  "I guess I always thought you dyed your hair that color, but…"

"Ah, no.  It just comes like this," he laughed nervously.  "You really do look amazing."  Oh shit.  Was that too bold?

Kyrie's cheeks gained a little more color, her slender hand coming up to cover a smile.  "That's very sweet," she murmured, and Nero thought he might die right there.  She was cute and beautiful in addition to that wickedly funny sense of humor.  How the hell did he get this lucky?

Someone cleared their throat loudly, and Nero barely realized who it was before he could make a complete fool of himself in front of the girl he was so desperate to impress by telling the person to fuck off.  Right.  She'd said her brother was coming too.

He was tall and polished in his neatly pressed uniform, hair slicked back, spine perfectly straight.  The sword at his hip would've been intimidating if Nero wasn't related to two of the scariest guys on the planet.  "Hi, I'm Nero," he said and stuck his hand out.  "Credo, right?"

"Indeed."  That handshake was strong but thankfully nothing so cliché as Credo trying to break his fingers.  Not that it would've worked out well for Kyrie's brother considering Nero had offered his freaky right hand.  "I've heard a lot about you," Credo said.

"Some of it good, I hope?"

"All of it."  Why did Nero get the feeling Credo didn't necessarily see that as a good thing?

Kyrie planted a hand on her brother's arm, a small twitch of her face making Nero think having a chaperone probably wasn't her idea after all.  "Credo was kind enough to arrange a tour of Fortuna Castle for us today… if you want to go."

"You kidding?  That sounds awesome!" Nero said honestly.  He'd been hoping Kyrie would show him around the city a bit, maybe some of her favorite places, but this was even better.  All he had to do was keep his cool and not piss off anyone important.  Totally doable.  Totally.

 

It was more of a hike than he expected to get to the castle -- though less of a workout than he got chasing demons around on a job -- but he didn't expect it to be so chilly once they'd made it up into the mountainous section.  Nero exhaled and frowned when his breath condensed into a cloud.  They couldn't be that far up, could they?  He was still glad for the stylishly cut jacket Trish had picked out for him.

"I apologize for the long walk," Credo said, returning the salute from the guards at the door.  "We normally have transportation available, but we've been experiencing some unusual weather here lately, and it's made vehicle travel a bit difficult."

"Doesn't bother me."  Nero made a casual gesture he hoped would convey it wasn't a problem and stared up in awe at the beautiful building.  Graceful buttresses supported the multiple spires, and Nero had to crane his neck to get a good look at the highest of the towers.  The inside turned out to be just as magnificent as the outside.  "This place is incredible.  Do people actually live here?" he asked.

Kyrie lightly bumped his shoulder, attracting his attention, and he was suddenly blushing again at the bashful look she shot him.  "Most of the Order lives either in the city or at Headquarters," she explained.  "The castle is used for housing artifacts, records, and things like that.  They do hold official functions and some important meetings here, though."

"Mind if I ask who that guy is?"  Nero pointed up to the enormous painting in the mezzanine of the main hall.

"That," Credo said with obvious pride, "is His Holiness Sanctus, head of the Order of the Sword and the Vicar of Sparda."

"Ah, right," Nero mumbled.  Hearing that his grandfather had his own priest was seriously weird even when he'd been expecting it.  Dad had given him a rundown of the politics and structure of the Order when they arrived, making sure to stress that they should avoid contact with the administrative level people if at all possible.  There was something disturbing about an entire island of people worshipping a demon, but it was so much worse after hearing stories about how that demon couldn't so much as cook a slice of toast without setting off the fire alarm.

"Nearly twenty years ago, Sanctus was blessed with a vision of Sparda on the night of his induction," Credo continued, and Nero couldn't help but gape at him in disbelief.  "The savior told him of the great deeds he would do as Vicar, and he has led us unfailingly ever since."

That was bullshit.  Sparda sure as hell wasn't running around paying visits to random old men in the middle of the night when his own kids didn't even know what had happened to him.  This guy was either delusional or a liar, and neither option sat well.

Nero was glad that Kyrie and Credo didn't seem to notice his discomfort while they showed him through the rest of the building.  Every part of the place was steeped in history and myth down to the frankly gothic bedroom which was supposedly where Sparda had slept when he was Fortuna's lord.  The carefully preserved velvet drapes and wine red silk sheets fit a little too well with the aesthetic Dante had described their father having for Nero's peace of mind.  He was more than happy to go stand around a bunch of dusty books instead.

"This library is amazing.  I bet my dad would love to have a look around here," Nero said.  Some of the items looked ancient, and he wondered if they might actually be from Sparda's time.  Was this why Dad had come here all these years ago?   Had he already been in this very room, shuffling through tomes and digging for long lost secrets?

"Maybe we can bring him once he's finished with his work," Kyrie jumped in.  She sounded eager, but her excitement was immediately squashed like she was worried it was too much.  Nero knew exactly how she was feeling.

He carefully touched her wrist to calm her and smiled.  "That'd be great.  Thank you."  And then he remembered they had an audience.  Nero pulled his hand back and stuffed it into a pocket.

"We could arrange that," Credo said, a little smile over his neatly trimmed goatee.  "It would be good to meet the rest of your family while you're all here."

Credo had largely been quiet while he followed them like a shadow.  He'd let Kyrie do the talking, only putting in a comment when he felt like there was something missing from her narration.  At least he hadn't tried to bully Nero way from his sister, and he actually seemed… pleased?  Had Nero managed to impress him?  The man was incredibly important to Kyrie, and Nero didn't have any desire to cause trouble between them.  It sure would be nice if--

"Sir!  Sir Credo!"  A knight skidded to a halt from around one of the shelves.  He hesitated when he spotted Kyrie and Nero, sidling over to Credo in a painfully conspicuous shuffle.  "Sir," he whispered, "there's been… an incident."

"Is everything alright?" Kyrie asked.

Her brother's lips tightened, though he offered them a smile.  "My apologies, but it seems there is something I must attend to.  I promise I'll catch up later.  We should treat our guest to a meal before he leaves."

"You do what you gotta do," Nero said.  They'd already been ridiculously nice and welcoming to him, and he didn't want them to think they had to do more.  "Kyrie can show me the rest of the place if she wants, or--"

"Yes!"  Her eyes went wide for a second, and she quickly reined in her enthusiasm.  "We'll finish looking around here and then go back to town.  Please don't worry about us, Credo."  Her brother looked amused, inclining his head and following the anxious knight out of the library.

"So," Nero said, "where to next?"  His heart almost stopped when he saw how Kyrie bit her lower lip.  It was a struggle not to slap himself to shake out the thoughts that small action brought up; it got worse when she shyly wrapped his hand in hers.  They'd flirted, awkwardly, over the last few years, and Kyrie had agreed when he clumsily implied he wanted to kiss her someday.  If there was going to be an opportunity, this was definitely it.

They were alone in the library, hidden by the floor to ceiling shelves, and even if someone else came through the door they wouldn't be seen.  Kyrie looked at him through her lashes, pearly teeth worrying her lip, putting those very inappropriate thoughts back in his head.  His heart pounded insistently against his rib cage when she lay her hand on his arm, and she rose slowly up on her toes, eyes glued to his mouth--

Her grip on his bicep tightened, and her gaze jumped to the side.  "O-oh!  Master Agnus, I wasn't aware you were here.  Please excuse us.  We were just leaving."

"Don't rush on my account."  That was one of the smarmier sounding voices Nero had ever heard.  The man was tall and broad shouldered, dressed in a less battle-ready uniform than the other Order knights, and he was sporting a very creepy grin as he studied Nero from behind his little round glasses.

Icy cold nerves slithered down Nero's spine under that stare, making him grab for Kyrie's elbow with a bit more strength than he meant to.  She looked up at him in surprise.  "We should go," Nero said.  Whatever weird vibe he was getting, he was inclined to listen to it.

"Ah, I haven't seen you here before," Agnus said, taking a small but invasive step forward.  "You're not from Fortuna, are you?"

"He grew up on the mainland, but Nero was born here," Kyrie answered.  Nero was briefly distracted by how defensive she sounded, remembering Dad's warnings that Fortuna didn't treat outsiders very well.

"How interesting."  Angus' smile grew broader, and his eyes lit up with a ravenous gleam.  "You have a most p-p-p-peculiar coloring.  So very distinctive."

Nero swallowed the crass response that leapt into his throat.  He didn't like this guy one bit, and the longer they were standing here, the louder Nero's instincts were streaming.  Something was really wrong.  "We should go," he said again.

"Yes.  We need to finish our tour.  Please excuse us, Chief Alchemist."  Kyrie's expression had turned stern, and she tugged Nero along with her out of the library, practically ignoring Agnus' genteel bow.  She didn't say anything until they were well down the hall.  "I'm so sorry about that.  I hope he didn't make you uncomfortable."

"Nah, it's fine."  Nero found he could breathe a little easier away from the guy's intense scrutiny.  "I guess I do look a little weird."

"I don't think you look strange at all," she told him, smile curling her lips.

That definitely banished the bad feeling, and Nero grinned, brushing his knuckles against the end of his nose.  "I have something I wanted to give you."  The fancy blue box had been sitting in the inside pocket of his jacket the whole time, feeling heavy when he kept trying to think of the best time to present it.

Kyrie opened her mouth in surprise as she took it from him.  She glanced at his face and then back to the box to open it.  "Oh, it's so beautiful!"

"It wasn't super expensive or anything," Nero said quickly, "but as soon as I saw it, I thought of you."

She clutched the pink and gold necklace close to her chest.  "You didn't need to get me anything at all.  I didn't get you--"

"It's not like that," he interrupted, feeling his traitorous skin start to burn.  "I just bought it because I wanted to."

Her chaste kiss landed at the corner of his mouth and shut him up before he could start babbling.  "Thank you," she said.  "I love it.  Will you help me put it on?"

If anyone ever asked, Nero would swear his hands didn't shake when he lifted her high ponytail out of the way to expose the back of her neck, though maybe he let his fingers linger a bit longer than necessary.  But that was between the two of them.

Kyrie spun around, making her flouncy skirt flare out around her dark leggings, and Nero couldn't help but chuckle at that.  "It looks good on you," he told her.

That laugh of hers sounded so much better in person.  He couldn't wait to hear it again.

A knight ran down the hall, but Nero barely noticed him any more than to take a step toward the wall so he wouldn't be in the way.  Another hustled in the same direction, and Kyrie frowned, forehead creasing with the beginnings of worry.  Nero finally looked up to see a group of five knights headed in their direction, moving with determined steps.  That tickle of nerves was back again.

"Is there something I can help you with?" Nero asked, deliberately letting his wariness into his voice.

"Please come with us," a knight said, and Nero pulled back when the man reached for him.

Kyrie shifted herself so she was in between them.  "Hold on.  What is this about?  Nero is a guest of my brother's and has full access--"

"An assassin with white hair and a red coat attempted to murder His Holiness," the knight said.  "We've been told to detain anyone who fits that description."

Nero's thoughts hit a wall trying to process it.  Just what was going on?  There was no way Dante would do something like that, not without a hell of a good reason, but Nero couldn't defend his uncle without giving away their connection.  Something told him that would be a really bad idea.

"Nero was with Credo and me this whole time!" Kyrie protested.  "He couldn't possibly have been involved.  Please, just ask my brother."

"Our orders come from the Supreme General himself."

Grinding his teeth, Nero glanced at Kyrie's stunned face and back to the knight.  He couldn't get a read on the guy with his hood and helmet obscuring most of his face, which meant he didn't know how bad things really were.  Whatever was going on, a misunderstanding or something more critical, Nero didn't want to cause trouble until he knew more.

"Okay then."  He held up his hands in surrender.

"Nero!  You can't just… This isn't…"  Kyrie looked frightened, so he gave her his most 'Dante' smile, cocky and hopefully reassuring.

"It'll be fine.  We'll get all this sorted out, and I'll come find you.  Everything will be fine."  He really hoped he wasn't lying to her considering his family's bullshit luck.

The knight boldly stepped right in and gave Nero a pat down, looking for the weapons that he was abruptly glad he'd left behind in the hotel room.  A hand on his right arm paused and squeezed, but Nero couldn't see the man's face well enough to know if he suspected anything.  It would be a real problem if they decided to strip him.  The hand on his arm started to pull instead, and he followed.

"I'll go find Credo," Kyrie told him, her fingers clutching at the pendant.  "I'm sure this is all a mistake.  I promise, I'll figure this out."

"Don't worry about it.  I'll be okay."  He was pretty sure that didn't convince her when they lead him away, and he wasn't sure he believed it either as they surrounded him and marched down the halls.  Nero matched their pace, trying to concentrate on exactly where they were taking him in case he needed to get out of here in a hurry.

"So, where are we going?" Nero asked as amiably as he could.  "Do I get to see the dungeon or what?"

They didn't react, not even annoyed by his flippant question, and his bad feeling intensified.  The long flight of stairs took them into the bowels of the castle, lit by hanging lanterns that cast eerie shadows and looping around to a hallway with metal grating for a floor.  Their boots made a racket clanging on the surface, filling up Nero's head until he was brought into a bright room that was not a jail cell or a holding area.

It looked like some kind of lab.  Cables and wires connected mysterious looking instruments and equipment that did nothing to make Nero more comfortable with the situation.  It was exactly how he'd always pictured a mad scientist's hideout to look.

Near a strange floor to ceiling glass tube stood Angus, sporting a twisted smile and a clipboard.  Yep.  This really wasn't good.  Now he wished he had his weapons after all.

"Well, shit," Nero said.  He turned, offered a cheeky smile to the closest knight, and decked the guy hard enough to throw him across the room and into a wall.  Nero wasn't surprised by the blackened skin and glowing eyes under the helmet that clanged into a corner.  Demons, naturally.  "Guess I don't have to feel bad about this now."

They weren't much of a challenge compared to the kind of sparring he did with his father and uncle, and Nero had them all down on the ground in a few seconds.  "So, you gonna tell me what's going on here, or are you next?" he threatened the alchemist.

"Fascinating," Agnus murmured.  His eyes were gleaming again.  "Such strength and speed.  What a remarkable specimen you'll make."

"That's a no, then," Nero growled, and he took one step forward before something hit him hard enough to knock him flat on his front.  The weight of whatever attacked him was enough to pin him down, effectively trapping his hands under him and denying him the leverage he'd need to push himself back up.  "What are you trying to pull?!"

"Do try to remain calm.  Otherwise you might injure yourself, and that could affect our test results," Agnus said slyly.

Nero arched and attempted to throw his assailant off without much success.  "Like I care about your results, you freakshow!"

The alchemist set his clipboard aside and picked up a syringe that made Nero's eyes widen.  He started to thrash in an attempt to get free when the man crouched and grabbed a fistful of white hair.  His head was yanked hard to the side to expose his neck, and Nero snarled in frustration.

"Now, now," Agnus purred.  "The harder you struggle, the more this will hurt."  He clipped the last word in obvious threat.

"Get bent!" Nero yelled, squeezing his eyes shut against the needle stabbing into his skin.  He felt something cold sliding through his veins and tasted bitter metal creeping up the back of his tongue.  Not having much experience with drugs, Nero couldn't even begin to guess what had just been put into him.  This was very, very bad.

"I know what you are," Agnus said, breath humid against Nero's ear.  "A descendant of Sparda.  We never imagined there were three of you let alone more than one generation."

Distantly, Nero felt himself being lifted off the ground as his limbs grew so heavy he didn't have the energy to move them.  The whole world tilted and spun like someone swinging around a video camera.  Out of the corner of his eyes he saw two knights in suits of white armor holding him up by their arms hooked under his, but it was the shiny, flat table they dragged him to that got his attention.  They rolled him onto it, one strapping down his left arm while Agnus pulled off his right glove and gasped.

Bright, cold light shone from the palm, digging deep shadows into the crevices of the alchemist's face.

"How… profound!" Agnus breathed.  Nero was suddenly too tired to be disgusted by the man's perverse delight, his focus at once too sharp and too scattered to make sense of anything.  "I'm going to learn a great deal from you… and that arm," Agnus said.

The last thing Nero saw before everything faded into darkness was the slow, greedy curl of his captor's mouth.

 

***

"You lost my son?"  Vergil stared at him incredulously, and Dante cringed.

"It's not that bad," he tried to argue.

"Not that bad?!" Vergil exploded, throwing his arms wide.  "There's an entire cult trying to use one of us to power an unknown weapon they built in Father's name, and you've lost my son!  Tell me how this isn't that bad."

Dante resigned himself to the fact he was going to get stabbed.  "Look, I know you were mad that Trish took the Sparda and gave it to the Order, but--"

"That was bad," Vergil said.  "This is a disaster.  You promised me you'd keep an eye on him while I did reconnaissance.  That's the only reason I agreed to let him come."

Inhaling deeply, Dante considered just stabbing himself to get it over with.  Maybe he deserved it a little.  Or a lot.  Oh, he had fucked up so badly.  "Nero was with Kyrie, remember?  Her brother is a knight, so no one is going to mess with her.  As long as Nero sticks by her, he'll be fine."

Vergil didn't look convinced.  In fact, he looked genuinely afraid.

"Okay, look," Dante said, hands held palm up.  "I'll go get the Sparda back, and you track down Nero.  Everything will be fine."

"You shot their leader in front of an entire crowd.  Everyone on this damned island will be looking for you," Vergil reminded him.  "And, unfortunately, my son and I happen to also fit the description of a 'tall, white-haired man with pale skin,' in case you had forgotten.  None of us is going to be able to move freely."

Scrubbing his index finger against his forehead, Dante nodded.  It had seemed like a perfect opportunity to cut the head off the snake, but now he understood he'd just shot a hole in a hornet's nest instead.  "I'll fix things.  Just… go find the kid."

Not needing any further encouragement, Vergil's shape blurred, and he was gone, heading to the castle where Nero was last seen.  Dante sighed noisily and dug the toe of his boot into the unseasonably frosty ground up on the outlook.  His skin was practically crawling with unease at this point.  The whole island was a hotbed of demonic activity, and it was making him jumpier than he'd like to admit.

"Vergil was right.  I shouldn't have let the kid come," he said, glancing over his shoulder at the familiar presence he felt.  His eyebrows climbed toward his hairline when he saw her in some crazy getup.  "That regal look suits you, Trish."

She must've been distracted because she didn't accept the compliment.  "Have you seen Nero?"

"That's where Vergil went.  He's gonna hunt the kid down and find us a place to stash him until we get this under control."

Her mouth pinched while she stared at the snowy castle.  "That's not good either.  I found out that the Order is looking for the Yamato too."

Dante sighed again.  "Of course they are.  Is anything going our way?"

"Afraid not.  You didn't even manage to kill Sanctus.  They put him through that Ascension Ceremony, and he came through stronger than ever," Trish told him.  "The worst part about these people is that they think they're saving humanity by turning themselves into demons."

"Yeah," he muttered, swiping his thumb back and forth across his lower lip for a moment.  This wasn't what he'd expected when they came to Fortuna.  It definitely wasn't like this when they'd been here all those years ago, and if there had been even an inkling of the severity of the problem, Dante never would have let Nero come.  God, he would never forgive himself if the kid got hurt because he'd been careless.  "I'm going to their HQ to poke around.  You keep your eyes out for anything else."

"Can do.  If I find Nero, I'll make sure to get him away from here."  Trish jumped from the overlook into the snow and set off along the bridge that lead to the castle.  It made him smile a little to know that both Lady and Trish were so fond of his nephew.  Considering the kind of trouble that dogged their bloodline, the kid could use all the help he could get.

Dante blew out yet another sigh and started making his way to the Order's headquarters, pondering why they had decided to stick it so far away from the city.  Granted, that gave them plenty of room to do whatever sorts of nefarious things tickled their fancy, but it was a long way to go -- especially with that demon infested jungle in the way.

And why did the only entrance to the place have to be across a long, wide open bridge?  It was like they didn't want anyone to sneak in and discover all their evil secrets or something.

So far they hadn't spotted him, but he doubted he could get any closer without that happening.  Flying in might be an option provided he could find some kind of back entrance on the seaward side of the complex.  It would be a bit tricky if they could detect the surge of demonic energy from his Devil Trigger too.  He tucked himself as far up against the side of the bridge's fancy protrusions as he could manage, straining his ears to listen to the knights talking on the circular platform.

"There's been no further sign of an assassin in red, Supreme General, but we suspect he might have changed his clothes.  We had a report of someone in a long blue coat attacking a few of our soldiers in the castle.  The weapon he was using is thought to be the Yamato."

"Damn.  Are they both involved in this?  That will make things more difficult."

Dante risked a peak at the sound of a familiar voice he'd heard just that morning when he was observing Nero's little meet and greet and very nearly swore out loud.  Of course Kyrie's brother was actually the head of the knights.  This could get complicated.

"Tell the others to reconvene at their rendezvous points for confirmations," Credo said.  "I'm going to the castle to deal with another matter."

"Yes, sir!"  The knight saluted and scurried down the bridge, thankfully not looking back to see Dante squeezed into a corner.

"Of all the days for this to happen…" Credo muttered.  "I can't believe they actually came to us."  The general had his back turned, fists propped on his hips, when Dante took another glance.

Which made sauntering up the stairs to surprise him much more fun.  "I thought it was very generous of us to save you all the trouble of tracking us down," Dante called.

Credo flinched, spinning around with a hand on his sword.  His eyes went wide and then narrowed to study Dante's face for a few seconds.  "It would have been if you hadn't decided to involve my sister," he said.  "So, Nero really is one of you."

Dante shook his head and tutted.  "Let me clear something up for you.  Yes, Nero is one of us, but no, neither of them were supposed to be a part of this.  I don't want them to get dragged into whatever happens any more than you do."

"I'm afraid it's too late for that after what you did."  Maybe it was just his imagination, but Credo's anger seemed to die down a bit.  He almost looked a little worried.  "We've already detained Nero at the castle," Credo said, "but if he has nothing to do with this as you say, I will personally guarantee his safety."

Dante sucked at his teeth.  "Look, I'd really prefer that you not die because my nephew is head over heels for your sister, and that would mess with a very cute relationship I'm personally invested in.  But his dad is already on a rampage since he can't find his kid, so I'd suggest you tell your men to let Nero go before things get messy."

The hiss of steel when Credo drew his sword made Dante sigh one more time.  He was doing that a lot on this mission.  "I do not bow to threats from assassins," Credo said.  "As Captain of the Holy Knights, you are now under arrest."

He had to give the guy credit.  Credo was strong in that fancy demon form, but Dante didn't even have to call on his own powers to take him down.  It was almost a little sad watching Credo crawl across the platform to reach his fallen sword, though Dante wasn't interested in fighting him any more than he had to.  He strolled past the prone man and punted the blade into the sea.  "I think we're done here.  Why don't you take a breather?"

"I won't--"  Credo broke off to cough against his sleeve.  "I will not… surrender."

"I'm not asking you to," Dante said.  He hefted the Rebellion and grinned a little when Credo's eyes got as big as saucers.  "I just need you not to get yourself killed, alright?"  The sword made a loud thump as the pommel connected with the back of Credo's skull, knocking him completely unconscious.

"I gotta find somewhere to tie you up so you don't do anything stupid," Dante said.  He easily slung the tall man over his shoulder, sparing a glance behind him to make sure no one was pursuing.  Leaving Credo in the headquarters seemed like a bad idea.  Someone was likely to find him right away and set him free.  The forest on the other hand…

Dante smirked when he finished tying the holy knight up into the branches of a tree.  Credo was probably going to be furious when he woke up, but he'd be safe from demons up here and also unlikely to be spotted by anyone passing by until they had a better handle on the situation.  Dante dusted his hands in satisfaction.

Now he just needed to figure out what this 'Savior' weapon the knights were talking about was.

 

***

It had been a long time since Vergil felt this foolish.  For as often as he scolded his brother about waltzing right into traps, he'd jumped into the same thing at the first hint of threat to his son.  The three blade-like artificial demons stabbed through his body and pinning him to the wall grated against his ribs when he tried to take a deeper breath.  It didn't help that Yamato had been knocked out of his hand at the same time he was impaled.  Vergil coughed, feeling a dribble of blood slide down his chin, and cautiously watched the man circling him like a carrion feeder.

"Remarkable," Agnus said.  "The resemblance is uncanny."

Vergil's eyes darted to where Nero was slumped in the corner, glassy eyed and drugged to the gills, covered in slowly healing wounds courtesy of the scientist's malignant curiosity.  His jaw clenched in fury.  "R-release us or die," Vergil warned.

Agnus laughed and stepped forward until he was right in front of Vergil.  His hand curled around the hilt of the sword in the half-demon's stomach.  "That would likely be a fatal mistake on my part, and I have no intention of letting either of you go regardless.  I never could have dreamed I would have an opportunity to study more than one Cambion, let alone a second-generation hybrid."  Agnus jammed the blade further into him, and Vergil choked on the blood that filled his mouth.  "Even better, I can learn about demonic heredity thanks to your child.  He is awfully fond of Credo's sister, isn't he?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Vergil saw Nero's eyelids flutter.  His son raised his head with some difficulty and carefully reached out for the Yamato laying not far from him.

"And just what do you hope to accomplish?" Vergil asked quickly.  He wanted to keep Agnus' attention as much as he could.  If there was a chance Nero could escape…  "Do you think you can steal Father's power from us?"

"Nothing so audacious," Agnus answered, shoving one more time at the sword and driving an involuntary cry of pain out of Vergil.  "I believe you hold the answers to perfecting the union of humans and the demonic.  And if it's possible to propagate that with a reliable concentration through multiple generations, perhaps even refining or altering certain traits to our advantage, we would be able to--"  His head snapped to the side, and Vergil thought his heart might have stopped.

Nero grunted as the lance from one of those possessed armors pierced straight through his gut, but in that instant, he lashed out with his Devil Bringer and snatched the Yamato up.  "Get… away from him!" Nero snarled, eyes burning red.

Blinding blue light filled the room, and Vergil heard Agnus shout, knocked all the way across the room by a burst of energy.  Vergil wasn't prepared for what he saw through watering eyes.

Nero's soul hovered like a phantom over his enraged form.  It was partially torn from him by the Yamato's power, devil separated from human by a call for strength, the echoes of growing promise made manifest by his will.  Nero pulled the lance out of his stomach and tossed it carelessly aside, and his wound sealed up instantly.  It was terrifying.  It was beautiful.  It was everything Vergil had always hoped for his son.

"I won't let you hurt my family," the boy growled, low and distorted by the uncontrolled power cascading through him, "and I sure as hell won't let you hurt Kyrie when she has nothing to do with this!"  Nero stalked to where Agnus was crabbing backward on the ground.  His steps were unsteady, but the effects of the drugs seemed to be fading under the onslaught of devil strength.  He looked almost crazed with his anger.

What a glorious sight.

"W-w-w-what?!  This is… preposterous!"  Agnus transformed before he even scrambled to his feet, turning into a hideous, mosquito-like insect.  How fitting, Vergil thought.

Nero swung the Yamato in an upward arc, and the energy from the slash tore right up through the roof, chunks of the structure raining down into the wrecked containment room.  Agnus didn't hesitate to escape through the newly made gap, ever the opportunist.  Perhaps this was the wrong time to be feeling such pride, but Vergil couldn't help himself.  His son was a marvel.

Staggering, Nero came to his father's side and yanked out all three of the swords holding him up at once with the aid of his extra spectral hands.  They both crumpled into a heap, and the ghostly blue image looming over them faded away.  His son didn't move, heavy breathing seeming to occupy all his remaining strength for the moment.

Vergil reached out to touch him.  "Nero?  Can you hear me?"

The boy nodded, sitting slowly back on his haunches.  "I think I'm okay.  Are you?  You scared me!"

That drew a bloody, painful laugh out of Vergil.  He coughed and spat a clot of blood off to the side.  "I'll be fine."

"What was that?  What happened to me?" Nero asked.

Vergil gently took the Yamato out of Nero's lax hand.  "It seems you will always be too impatient to wait for your powers to fully mature.  That was your Devil Trigger, though not fully realized quite yet."

"Oh.  Wow."

He cracked a smile at the stunned look on Nero's face.  It wasn't that dissimilar to how he probably looked his first time.  There would need to be a longer discussion at a later date to make sure Nero was prepared for the future, but other things demanded their attention just now.  Vergil squeezed Nero's shoulder.  "We should leave here before more enemies come.  Can you stand?"

"That should be my line," Nero said, taking hold of his father's elbow and pulling him to his feet.  "Don't do something stupid like that again, okay?  I don't want you to get hurt because of me."

Ah, hypocrisy must run in their blood, Vergil decided.  What a dreadful trait to have passed on.  He only tilted his head to the side without speaking, following his son out of the lab.  Just as Nero would never make such a promise, nor would Dante, Vergil knew he would always run to his son's side if he was in danger.  That was just the way of things.

 

***  

Madness.  Absolute chaos.  Everything had gone so far out of control that Credo doubted they were following a plan of any sort at this point.  In the past, he would have given Sanctus the benefit of all his doubts, but now…  Now Credo knew he'd been played for a fool.

It shouldn't have taken him so long to realize.  He should have stopped to consider just why a son of Sparda would shoot the Vicar in the first place.  If he'd used his head instead of his heart, maybe they could've avoided all this.  He was just as much to blame as the rest.

Credo had willingly compromised his own morals for the sake of a better world -- even submitting to a transformation that he knew, deep down, made him less than human -- but the moment Agnus dragged Kyrie out to distract Nero and separate the boy from his family, Credo realized things had deteriorated much farther than he'd thought possible.  He was a selfish villain to draw the line only when his own kin was under threat.

Guilt settled in quickly as he thought back on the things he'd done, taking them out from behind the rose-colored glass and laying them bare in the light of reason.  Nero had been Kyrie's friend for many years, but he was much more than that to her.  He had helped her out of her shell, given her the confidence to sing in front of a crowd, and supported her at every turn while Credo was busy lying to himself about the work he was doing.  And now the boy's very life was in danger.

Credo had so much to atone for.  But first, there were children to save.

"What should we do?"  One of the remaining knights, Asher, young and loyal and far too inexperienced for this, watched him anxiously.  There were so few who willingly broke with Sanctus, and Credo honestly couldn't blame them because obedience was drummed into their members from the very start.  Those who stood with him now were either fresh out of their training or a scant, jaded few who had been by his side since they were knighted more than a decade ago.  He couldn't ask any of them to march into certain death.

"Evacuate the citizens," Credo said firmly.

"Evacuate?  Sir, are you sure?"

"I'm placing their lives into your hands.  They are our first priority.  Go."  It was a low tactic to say such a thing, to pull upon the knights' sworn duty and pride, but Credo knew the situation was bound to become far worse than a mere handful of demons attacking the city.

Credo shortly found himself standing alone in the hallowed halls of their headquarters.  He didn't delight in the idea of fighting the corrupted knights who still followed Sanctus, but he would do what he must to put this to rights.  It was the least he could do, if he was quite honest.

Taking a deep breath, Credo stepped onto the elevator and rode it out into the open, coming face to face with the marvelous sculpture that was their Savior.  Sanctus stood on the statue's head, and Nero was already limp in its gargantuan grasp.  Kyrie, though… Credo choked when he saw her vanish into the blue crystal on the forehead.  

His hand fell to his Durandal, and he took a step forward before something blue and impossibly fast flew by him.  An indescribable terror paralyzed him in that moment, a sudden and fierce understanding of his own weakness in relation to the moving figure holding him securely in place.  While he'd become aware of many new instincts that motivated him since undergoing the ascension ceremony, none had overwhelmed his human sensibilities like this.  Was that… a devil lord?

No.  A Devil Trigger.  And one of such fearsome power that it quailed Credo's very soul.

"Release my son!" Vergil bellowed, words layered through his demonic vocal chords.  The Yamato clanged against the surface of the Savior when Sanctus wisely retreated into it.  "Nero, I'm here!"

"Dad," the boy said weakly.  He stretched out an arm covered in thick, scaly hide toward his father.  "S-sorry.  I should've waited for--"

"Enough.  I can scold you later."  Vergil leapt from the Savior's face to the massive hand, and with a strength that was certainly super-human, he pried one of the fingers loose.  "Can you work yourself free?"

Nero squirmed but shook his head.  "My knees are held tight.  Maybe if I can--  Behind you!"

Vergil nearly rolled off the statue's wrist to avoid a swing of the devil sword Sparda when Sanctus rose up briefly.  By the time the half-devil counterattacked, the vicar had already vanished again.

"I should have killed you when I saw you all those years ago!" Vergil spat.  "You reeked of ambition and poor judgement even back then."  His lunge had carried him some distance up the arm.  And, consequently, too far from his son.

"Daaaad," Nero said anxiously, shimmers of light starting to cover him.  He groped at the huge index finger trapping him as he slowly started to sink into the statue.  "What's happening?!"  He was being absorbed, and Credo abruptly realized Sanctus intended to use Nero as the Savior's core rather than as bait for his family.

Credo wanted to help, but he couldn't get his feet to move any closer to that devilish presence.

Vergil threw himself flat across the thumb and barely caught Nero's clawed hand in his own.  "Hold on!  Just don't let go of me," he begged.

"I'm trying!  I can't get loose."  Credo could barely see the boy, but terror contorted all he could view of his face.

Adjusting his position as best he could, Vergil clutched at his son's wrist with all the desperation of a fearful parent.  "I won't accept this.  Don't you dare give up."

"I'm sorry, Dad."  A hiccupping sob broke Nero's apology.  "It's all my fau--"  His head and shoulders disappeared into the Savior, and his words were cut off.  

"No...  Not this.  No, please..." Vergil moaned.  He pulled harder, tugging in vain until he lost his grip.  And then Nero was gone.  "NO!  Give him back!"

Credo flinched at the cracking, agonized voice.  He understood.  He knew that kind of grief.  It finally shook him free of the fear, but a hand clamped on his shoulder before he could try to assist.

Dante's face was a far cry from the jovial trickster Credo had fought earlier, and he pushed the knight out of the way.  "You should stay out of this if you want to keep your head attached," he warned.  "I don't think he's going to be very happy with you right now."  Vergil's animalistic roar made Credo's ears ring even at this distance.

"Escape is now impossible.  The creation cannot be stopped," Sanctus said from atop the Savior.  "I would have thought the sons of Sparda would support our wish to eradicate demons--"

The Yamato gouged the place where Sanctus had been only a split second ago, and Vergil howled again.  He didn't look our sound human at that moment, more a raging beast avenging its progeny than a man suffering the worst possible pain.

"You will release my son, or I will raze this entire island to the ground!" Vergil screamed.  "I will destroy everything you've worked for, and then eat your heart in front of your followers!  Give him back to me!"

"I must salute a man who carries the blood of Sparda," said Sanctus' disembodied voice.  It almost seemed to be resonating out of the Savior's entire body, echoing everywhere at once.  "But I thought that you of all people would understand the necessity of sacrifice to reach the ultimate goal.  Love is only a hindrance.  All that is needed is absolute power."

Standing on the Savior's forehead, Vergil went suddenly rigid and still, and it left him vulnerable to a shockingly fast swipe of the massive right hand.  The half-devil was knocked to the ground, bouncing but catching himself from falling to one of the lower floors by digging his claws into the stonework.  Dante raced to help his brother up.

"Forget me!" Vergil said.  He tugged himself away so hard he nearly tumbled right off the platform.  "We need to get Nero out before--"

Everything began to shake, and the Savior levitated upward, tearing portions of the building to pieces in its wake.  As if God had utterly forsaken the structure, those broken shards rose to follow the departing weapon, gravity ceasing to hold sway on the world around them.  Dust from the crushed stone momentarily blinded them in a vast cloud, and the Savior was out of range before anyone could get into position to react.

"Just calm down, Vergil," Dante said.  He had a secure grip on his twin's arm to keep him from charging off.

"Calm down?!  How can you say that?"  Vergil's shape shivered and shrank back into human, but his face still held the same terrifying fury.  "That bastard has my son!"

"And we'll get him back," Dante said confidently.  "You missed a few important pieces of information while you were chasing that son of a bitch."

The blonde woman that Credo hadn't spared any mind for earlier stepped up next to him, voice melodious and even.  And oddly familiar.  "Nero will be safer inside that thing than anywhere else.  He's more than strong enough to resist until we crack it open to pull him out, and nothing can get to him in the meantime," she reasoned.

Against all odds, Vergil actually seemed to be considering her logic, his anger banked like a flame barely under control.

"But first," Dante said, "Nero's future brother-in-law is going to take you to close that giant Hell Gate so we don't get swarmed by even more demons."

Credo went stiff when they all turned to look at him, and Vergil's eyes became slivers of ice.  "You."  That drawn out word carried so much contempt that Credo felt his blood curdle in his veins.

"Now, now, brother.  I'm sure he feels very bad about all this."  Dante's smile was as barbed as a briar.  "Which is why he's going to happily help shut that thing down."

The blonde woman lay her arm on Credo's shoulder and smiled warmly -- though that expression had far too much edge for his comfort too.  "Agnus figured out how to partially open the gate even without the Yamato," she said, "so I imagine he's the one you'll have to deal with."

Was that Gloria?  Credo was having trouble coming to grips with the sudden turns.

Vergil straightened up.  "Agnus?  That scientist?"  Even if he'd been a mere human, Credo would've felt the cruel intent coming from the man.  "Very well, but if you try to interfere, I won't hesitate to eliminate you."

He swallowed hard.  Credo wanted to make amends, surely, and to save Kyrie and Nero, but being alone with Vergil for any length of time seemed… dangerous.  There was little choice, though.  As much as he hated to admit it, he didn't stand a chance working on his own.  He owed them this much and more.  "We'll need to head back to the city.  Agnus will be at the true Hell Gate under the Opera House," he said.

Vergil's smile was so sharp, Credo wondered how he didn't cut his own tongue.  "Then take me there," the half-devil ordered.

 

They flew all the way to the city.  Neither of them wanted to waste time hunting for transportation when they could use their abilities to take to the air instead.  It was the first time Credo had so openly displayed his other form, but there was no point in hiding his nature at this late stage, not with Scarecrows dancing in the streets and Assaults clawing apart building facades.  It helped that the knights had obviously taken their orders seriously and not a single civilian could be seen.

That was good.  He had a feeling things were about to get violent.

Vergil folded his wings and dropped into the ruined courtyard, sniffing the air like an animal.  His hand gripped the hilt of the Yamato tucked into the strange sheath that jutted out of his left forearm in his devil shape.  "Inside.  He has more of those blade demons with him, but I can't detect anyone else," he said.

"Don't take him lightly," Credo warned.  "He's cunning and not inclined to put himself in harm's way.  He'll use those demons to shield himself."

"It won't matter.  Nothing will save him now."  The statement was chilling coming from that devil's face.  It was impossible to tell what expression Vergil might be sporting other than it involved a lot of formidable teeth.  "Just keep out of my way."

Kicking the massive doors of the Opera House off their hinges, Vergil immediately sprung to the attack.  For all of Agnus' tricks, spinning blades and packs of summoned demons, he didn't stand a chance against the overwhelming force of the raging Cambion.  Credo barely did more than watch Vergil ripping the alchemist's demon form into pieces, and it was clear that his help wasn't even needed.  He only stepped in for a slash when he was sure he wouldn't get in the half-devil's way because he was sure that Vergil would make good on his promise of pain if he did.

"This can't be happening!" Agnus warbled.  His rapidly beating wings generated enough wind to temporarily push Vergil away.  "Credo, you traitor!"

"You were the one who suggested His Holine-- That Sanctus use Kyrie against Nero.  I won't forgive that," Credo said.  He easily parried a spitefully hurled Gladius.

"Hah!  You've always been weak that way.  His Holiness could never look deeper than your dog-like loyalty to see that."

Credo bared his teeth.  "And you care nothing for the Order's duty to save the people of this world!  All you wanted was free reign for your sick experiments."

Vergil used the distraction of their verbal exchange to land a brutal flying kick into Agnus' chest, knocking him out of the air and into a pile of overturned pews.  The loss of concentration shifted Agnus back into his human form, and he desperately flailed to get himself free of the furniture.

He wasn't fast enough.

The Yamato slide through his sternum with barely any resistance.  "Enough of your babbling," Vergil said.  "It's time for you to die."

"How…  How can there be such a difference b-b-b-between us?" Agnus gasped.

Vergil pushed the Yamato deeper into his chest, making the other man cry out.  "You stole the best part of me.  If you think I won't fight with all I have to get him back, you are an even bigger fool than I gave you credit for."

"Best part…?"  There was a flicker of understanding on the alchemist's face, like a fleeting memory.  "How very… human."

A strange expression overtook Vergil, and he laughed with a lightness that seemed at odds with the situation.  "Yes, I suppose so.  Perhaps that's why you lost."

Agnus gripped at the blue sleeves of his killer until Vergil stepped back to let him slump down on the bench, lifeless at last.  The Yamato made a tidy sound when it went back into the scabbard, and Vergil let go of his Devil Trigger.  Holding it for so long left a sheen of sweat on the man's brow, but he displayed no other outward signs of the fatigue he had to be feeling.  He paused to cast an evaluating glance in Credo's direction.

"We should finish this quickly," Vergil said.  "Our real goal is elsewhere."

This was the first time Vergil had addressed him with any real equality, and Credo was taken by surprise.  "Yes, of course.  The gate is down here."

He nearly jumped when Vergil touched his shoulder.  It was a quick, assuring gesture, but again something unexpected from the taciturn man.  "We will save them," Vergil promised quietly before stepping onto the elevator that would take them down.

Credo blinked.  'Them,' he'd said.

Ah.  Perhaps Agnus had a point about the not-so hidden humanity in the half-devil sons of Sparda.  And perhaps there was a greater strength in that than one would first assume.

 

***

The city was trashed.  Devil corpses everywhere, a giant demonic statue collapsed in the middle of it, half of a Hell Gate toppled into the streets…  Trish stretched her arms over her head.  Not a bad day's work.

Getting to watch all three Spardas working together to take down Sanctus and his hideous Savior had been a rare treat.  It was a wonder anything was left of the man-made god to be an inconvenience after Dante and Vergil had carved it into literal pieces and Nero burst his way out of its center.  Trish just hoped that Vergil wasn't going to overreact and refuse to let his son out of the shop ever again.  The older twin certainly wasn't going to listen to her pleas for leniency.  He was still angry about her involvement in the debacle.

She saw Kyrie coming their way, supporting her wounded brother.  Credo had fought admirably during the whole affair, but an artificial devil couldn't hold a candle to a real one -- or even a half one -- and he'd been quickly knocked out of the battle.  Nero trailed after them, loathe to leave the girl's side.  Trish couldn't blame him after what had happened.

"Well, hello there, Mr. Supreme General.  You're looking better than I expected after that hit you took," Dante said.  He sat down on the broken remains of a low wall.  "Come to thank us for keeping your former boss from unleashing hell on earth?"

Vergil shot his brother a cold glare as if to demand he shut up.  It wouldn't work, of course, but Trish admired his optimism.

Credo stayed quiet for a few seconds like he was trying to decide if Dante was making fun of him or not.  "I freely admit that things would have been far, far worse without your intervention," the holy knight said.  "On our own, we never would have been able to stop Sanctus, so yes, you certainly have my gratitude.  But I came to offer my apologies.  I must take responsibility for the terrible things that were done to your family, and I--"

"Nah," Dante cut him off.  "You wouldn't have done any of that to Nero, and you helped us get the gate closed.  Your dead Vicar can take the blame for all of this as far as I'm concerned."

The holy knight opened his mouth, staring at him, and then glanced at Vergil.  "And you?  Are you satisfied with that?"

Trish wasn't surprised that Vergil cast a quick look at the kid, mouth pursing as he decided what to say.  "I am less forgiving than my brother," he said slowly, "however, I know you didn't make the decision to use my son for your weapon.  Otherwise, your sister wouldn't have become so heavily involved."  Credo's wince said he was right.  "With that in mind, I don't have plans to demand restitution from you."

"That is very… generous," Credo said with a tired smile.  "We still owe you a great debt regardless, and while our city has seen better days, I would extend whatever hospitality I can to you.  Thank you.  For saving my sister.  For everything."

Kyrie lead him away, giving Nero a shy smile as she passed him, and Trish covered her laugh with a cough.  The kid was already blushing a pretty shade of pink, so she didn't really need to go the extra effort to embarrass him this time.

"Well, that was fun, right?  And everything turned out just fine in the end."  Dante was grinning like a fool, but Trish didn't miss the look he sent to his older brother.  Vergil didn't comment.  "We ready to get out of here?" Dante asked.

"Actually," Nero said, rocking back on his heels, "I think I might stick around for a while."

"What?" Dante and Vergil replied.  It wasn't hard to tell they were twins at times like these, the exact same look of panic on their faces.

Nero rubbed at the bridge of his nose.  "Well, the island's infrastructure was totalled, and now there are a ton of demons on the loose without enough people to protect everyone.  They could kinda use the help, especially from an experienced devil hunter."

Vergil was displeased.  Very, very displeased.  "They attempted to sacrifice you for their own gain.  I fail to see how you owe them this kind of assistance."

"That's not what this is about," Nero argued.  "This was the place I was born, right?  The reason I came here was to get to know it."

"I'm sure that's the only reason."  Dante's eyes sparkled with mischief, but Trish got the sense he wasn't happy about this either.  "You sure you want to stay behind?  Maybe one of us should--"

Nero gave the twins a sharp look.  "I'm not a little kid anymore.  I can handle this on my own."

"That's not the point," Vergil muttered, almost too quiet to hear.  He clucked his tongue when Nero raised his eyebrows.  "We have faith in your abilities, but this place has already show its ugliest face to us.  I can't trust these people not to turn on you again."

"It's not like I'll be all alone.  Credo's gonna be a big part of this--"

"And Kyrie," Dante put in, fake grinning ear to ear, "I'm sure."

Nero glared at his uncle and crossed his arms over his chest.  "What I'm saying is that I think these people have more important things to do than scheme about taking over the world."

Vergil dithered, which was a weird sight.  He leaned his weight from one side to the other and drummed the tips of his fingers on the Yamato's scabbard.  Dante didn't look much more comfortable as they exchanged a long, serious look, seeming to communicate silently.  Finally, Vergil tilted his chin up.  "Very well.  I'll allow it--"

"Gee thanks, Dad," Nero grumbled.

"--on the condition that you check in once per day, and if something occurs that sets off your instincts, you inform us immediately whether you believe it to be a threat or not."

The kid rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh.  "Fine.  Like I wasn't going to do that anyway.  I'm not Dante, remember?  I like to tell people when something's going to bite us in the ass."

Dante pouted.  "Hey, com'on!  I'm right here!"

"I probably wouldn't have gotten sucked into that damned statue if you'd just told me what was up, you know."

"I got you out!" Dante defended.

"No, you gave me Yamato and told me to get me out," Nero said.  "Which left Dad unarmed--"

"I gave him a gun!"

Trish just laughed, not caring when all three glared at her.  "All's well that ends well, right?  I don't know about you, but I've had enough of the island life.  Hopefully Lady's payment will make all this worth our trouble."

Vergil huffed and shook his head.  "Somehow I very much doubt that."

And, as he would always say he was, Vergil was right.

Chapter Text

 30 APRIL  PM05:45 (2 months ago) 

Nero dropped the hood of the van with far more force than he should have, rocking the vehicle on the jacks holding it up.  A loud bang filled the empty silence Dad had left behind when he calmly shut the door to the garage on his way out.  Vergil didn't slam doors.  But Nero sure as hell did.

He wasn't really mad, not at his father.  Dad just happened to hit on the exact wrong word to use while giving one of his lectures disguised as paternal advice, and Nero's last straw snapped in half with typical explosive results.  The last fight they'd had like this was years ago, before Nero even came to Fortuna.

It wasn't Vergil's fault that those assholes in town had been criticizing how Nero and Kyrie were taking care of the kids.  It wasn't Vergil's fault that Kyrie had quietly cried while Nero worried they weren't able to do enough for the orphans under their care.  And Nero knew damn well that his father didn't honestly think Carlo, Kyle, and Julio were a 'burden' of any kind.

Dad was always suspicious of other people, only tolerating the ones that were close to Nero and Dante.  He'd grown fond of Kyrie, though, and even warmed up to the kids around the time little Carlo declared that he was 'very cool' while Dante was only 'cool.'  The youngsters were absolutely enamored with the aloof, always composed Vergil, and his father gobbled the attention up with barely concealed glee.  It was honestly cute -- which was not a word anyone attached to Vergil.  Ever.

Hell, despite the fact that Dad didn't really like kids that weren't related to him by blood, he was always entertaining them while Kyrie ran errands and Nero was out hunting.  Vergil even visited Fortune more often than he had back when Nero first moved here.  No, this argument definitely wasn't Dad's fault.

Nero sighed, leaning heavily on the hood of the van.  He sullenly kicked the fender with the side of his foot.  "Fuck," he muttered heavily.  "Better apologize."

It was hard to psyche himself up for it.  Dad was never good at either side of apologies, so this was going to suck a lot.

He climbed down from the step stool and set the tools he'd been using back in Nico's toolbox.  He'd get an earful if he left things lying around.  Not that Nico was particularly good about picking up after herself when it came to anything but her equipment, of course, but Nero already had to make peace with one person today.  That was more than enough.

Everything suddenly went dim, and it took a second for Nero to realize that something was blocking the light coming in from the setting sun.  A shadow.  A… person?

Great.  The last thing he wanted to deal with was another 'concerned' holy knight swinging by to tell Nero about all the ways he was shaming Kyrie and Credo's proud lineage with his crude behavior and tainted blood.  Maybe he could get rid of them quick.

"You need something?" he said over his shoulder.  "I'm a little busy, so--"

Cold clamped around his right wrist.  It wasn't a sensation Nero had ever experienced before, sucking the heat out of his whole arm and numbing it to the point where he lost all feeling other than a bright, momentary flare of pain.  Then his body was swinging through the air.

The breath rushed out of his lungs when he slammed into the metal shelves lining the walls of the garage.  Boxes crashed to the floor, contents spilling out from the crushed cardboard, and Nero lay there in a daze.

What the fuck was that?  A demon of some kind, he could smell the rancid, sulfury residue.  If that thing got into the house…

Panic drove back the dark spots swimming in his vision, and Nero planted his numbed hand to push himself up only to crack his chin on the concrete when his support gave out.  He tasted blood.  He'd caught his tongue between his teeth.  Dizzy and disoriented, Nero looked at his uncooperative arm in confusion and couldn't quite believe what he was seeing.

Dark shards of something he rationally knew had to be bone stuck out of the shredded hide that covered his Devil Bringer.  The overwhelming scent of iron matched up with all the blood streaming out of his ragged wounds, and he couldn't even twitch his fingers.  This was bad, he thought, feeling a strange sort of detachment from his mangled limb.  He really needed to do something before it all got worse.

The door to the house swung open and banged against the wall, dragging Nero's wavering gaze upward.  Vergil vaulted over the railing and shouted something that Nero couldn't hear through the roaring of his heartbeat.  Dad knelt next to the growing red puddle, hands hovering but not touching.

"T-the shadow," Nero tried to warn him.

"A shadow?"  Vergil glanced around quickly and back to Nero's gruesome arm.

"It was… I was…"  Oh fuck.  He was blacking out, but he needed to say something.  "Grabbed me.  I only saw his shadow.  I don't know where he went…"

Vergil caught him before he could go face first into the floor.  "Just hold on, Nero.  I've got you."

Darkness pressed itself into him like a vise around his head, drowning out his father's voice as he anxiously talked about poison and stalled regeneration.  None of it was making sense.  The last thing Nero saw was the grinning shape rising up to loom over his father's panic-stricken form.

 

***

The devil sits on a throne made of fleshy, pulsing roots, wrapped in them for armor, hooked up like a life support system.  Laughing at them.

Nero throws himself at the bastard again, bounces back by a whipping vine.  Where is Dad?

Lady and Trish go flying.

Dante.  Dante is… down.  Dante never stays down, but he isn't getting up.

Where is Dad?

This fucking tree!  He wants to burn it.

"Nero, go!  You're just dead weight!"

Dante's clawed hands fist in his jacket.  Lobs him out of the chamber like a sack of potatoes.  The ceiling caves in with a deafening crack.

All he can see is the Cheshire grin of the demon on the throne.

Everyone is gone.  He'd failed.  Useless.  His broken arm is useless.

He is useless.

 

29 MAY  AM04:46 (Several weeks ago)

Nero jerked awake from his dream, knocking his right elbow against the armrest of the passenger seat and sending a shock of pain up to his shoulder.  "Shit," he hissed and grimaced.  He didn't want to wake anyone else up, but fuck, that hurt.  At least his stump was healing where his poisoned Devil Bringer hadn't.

Discard anything unnecessary, the Vergil in the back of his mind said.

He sighed and rolled slightly onto his left side.  Not like Dad would be proud of him for finally listening to his advice considering Nero had waited until he didn't have a choice but to tell the doctor to amputate his useless goddamn devil arm.  Nico was still fine tuning the replacement, and Nero absently wiggled the metal fingers, thinking again how weird it was to be able to move them but not feel anything.

It was dark outside, though a few random street lights persisted despite all the destruction in Red Grave.  The quiet was starting to get to him at this point.  Nero couldn't help but remember waking up in the hospital after three days of being completely out cold and learning that Dante had run off in search of Dad.  None of it had made sense at first, why that asshole demon would grab someone as dangerous as Vergil -- until Nero had learned about the Qliphoth sprouting in the middle of a city and saw the slowly spreading rift to the Underworld for himself.

Yamato.  No doubt about it.  And it was all Nero's fault.

If he hadn't fought with Dad.  If he hadn't been distracted enough to get injured by the demon.  If he hadn't followed Dante into the tree when he'd been told not to.  If he'd been able to help in some way instead of forcing his uncle to save him…  If he'd just been better, then none of this would have happened.

He'd spent the last two weeks searching the broken metropolis for his family.  His only companion was Nico, and his only solace those scant few calls made to Kyrie.  Credo had volunteered to come along, but Nero couldn't let Fortuna's strongest protector leave with everything that had been happening.  If this was part of a more widespread plot, Fortuna was one of the most likely places for a demonic invasion to start from.

Instead, Nero passed his hours alone, picking through ruins, looking down every street and subway for any sign of the people he'd lost.  Fighting demons was the only break from the isolation and monotony.  Most days he dragged himself back to the van at sundown and just crashed, too tired to rise to Nico's bait when she teased him, refusing to wonder if what he was doing made any difference.

On the good days, though, he either put down a big threat like that muscle-bound thug with a furnace in his stomach, or…

Nero stared into the dark interior of the van at Nico's form sprawled out on the couch.  He could hear her soft snores, mouth hanging open like she didn't have a care in the world.  It wasn't true, of course, but it was nice to think it could be.  Past her were the figures of three other people, huddled together on the floor under a heavy woolen blanket -- a mother and her two pre-teen kids that Nero found hiding in one of the half-collapsed buildings.

There were too few moments like that, and Nero wallowed in the guilty feeling of disappointment every time he realized the people he found were strangers instead of the faces he longed to see.  They might not be his family, but at least they were a family, and in the coming morning he would lead them out to one of the military checkpoints set up on the outskirts of the city.

Their nightmare would be over while his went on.

One of the shapes under the blanket shifted, and Nero pushed himself upright.  "Everything okay?" he asked.

The mother flinched at his voice, and Nero struggled to pull her name out of the recesses of his memory.  Her hands wrapped protectively around the backs of her children before she got ahold of herself.  "Y-yes.  I'm sorry.  Did I wake you?"

"Nah, couldn't sleep."  Light was starting to creep in around the screens Nico put up on the van's windows.  Not much longer, then.  "You need anything?"

"No," she said.  He could see she was disoriented, not quite able to believe she and the kids were somewhere safe with other humans.  Nero was getting a crash course in how people dealt with trauma.  "Thank you," she added, almost as an afterthought.

Nico snuffled, rolled over, and then groaned.  Blindly, she reached across the aisle and groped for her glasses on the table.  "Can't be morning… can it?"

"Almost," Nero told her.  One of the first things he'd learned about her, after having a surprisingly calm conversation that started with 'my dad killed your dad,' was that Nico despised early mornings.  It took a lot of coffee and cigarettes to get her going.  He couldn't say he hated waiting for her anymore.  Having a bit of a break from the way he spent most of his waking hours was kind of welcome.

There was a strange disconnect with the lazy, slow wind-up to their days and the frantic scramble of fighting demons out in the shattered city streets.  It seemed like there were more monsters appearing as time passed, and Nero was starting to worry they'd be overrun.

"Mrrgh," Nico eloquently added, mashing the back of her hand across her mouth and smacking her lips.  The click and gurgle of the cheap coffee maker in her workshop space turning on brought a smile to her face.  "Gonna be a good day, right?  Ain't got much for breakfast for you folks, but there's some cereal bars in that cabinet over there."

The kids were moving around now too.  Nero still felt like their careful, quiet motions were unnatural, and it made his heart ache to think what they must've been like before all this.  He hoped they were just as rambunctious and loud as his kids back home.

Don't think about home, he reminded himself.

"It's fine," the mother, Marianne, Nero finally remembered, said.  "You've already done so much for us."  She dug through the cupboard and pulled out three of the wrapped bars.  Nero had to turn away when he saw how excited the kids were to have something they recognized as real food.  Marianne had rambled about the hardships and struggles they'd been through since the tree sprouted, relieved to be speaking with another adult and still in disbelief that they'd been rescued.  Nero wanted to be happy for them.

"Need to restock soon," Nico said absently.  "Getting low on supplies."

"Not sure those soldiers will let us back in if we leave, though," Nero told her.  He wasn't particularly hungry himself.  He really hadn't been since he got to the city, and there were days he forced himself to eat something because he knew he had to keep his energy levels up.

Nico offered a mug of steaming coffee to Marianne, and the woman gave her a wobbly, grateful smile in exchange.  "Might need to do a bit of scavenging, then," Nico said.  "There's gotta be a grocery store or something around here."

Nero couldn't stop from pulling a face.  He knew it was practical and that no one was around to care, but it still felt like stealing to him.  If they stayed here much longer, he'd have to get over it.

Pushing himself up and out of the passenger seat, he headed for the door.  "I’ll go make sure things are clear.  You three take your time, okay?"

"Y-yes!  We'll be ready when you get back!" Marianne called as he stepped out of the van.

Red Queen felt heavier on his back than she normally did, but Nero put that down to the responsibility ahead of him.  Making sure three non-combatants got out of this literal hell unscathed wasn't going to be easy.  The demons had been relentlessly hunting anything with human blood, and those fucking stabby roots popped up out of nowhere just when he least wanted them to.

His thoughts bounced to the big, toothy goon saying that his blood was a 'very precious sacrifice' and all that talk about using it to become king.  There were few times Nero regretted not prompting Dad for a lecture about the Underworld, but he sure was feeling it now.  The Qliphoth tree and its bloodthirsty roots were at the center of this whole mess, and Nero had no idea what that demonic asshole who'd taken everything from him was really up to.

Nero paused at the human-ish shapes huddled together near a destroyed storefront.  He hadn't spotted them last night in his hurry to get Marianne and the kids safely into the van, but it wasn't the first time he'd come across such a thing.  This was all that was left of Red Grave's residents who hadn't been able to escape, desiccated husks that crumbled like ashes at the slightest touch.  Nero wasn't sure if it was more respectful to leave them as monuments or to scatter them to the wind.  It made him hate the demon behind all this even more.

"You'll get yours, you bastard," Nero promised, continuing on.

The sky was losing the sunrise orange and turning a warm summer blue which meant the weather would probably be good for their trip.  Most of the demons were less active during the day too, so Nero was hopeful that if they moved quickly enough, they could avoid any lengthy fights.

Or maybe not…

Something down the street moved, and Nero pressed himself up against the corner of the nearest building.  This wasn't one of those weak demons he'd come across roaming around, he could feel it from the ache in what was left of his arm.

Risking a peek, he spotted a huge horse with a glowing mane and a knight on its back.  Not exactly what you'd expect to find in an upscale shopping district.  Picking a fight with two powerful demons was not on his agenda for the day, so if they weren't headed toward where the van was parked, maybe he could let them go for now.

The knight lifted its head and made a face.  It glanced around, pulling the horse this way and that like it was looking for something.

"Spardaaaa," drawled the rider.

Well, that settled that.  Nero stepped out into the street.  "You lookin' for me?" he asked with a sharp smile.  "Or is there another Sparda around here that you're gonna tell me about?"

Snorting a burst of sparking steam, the horse started toward him, but Nero was surprised when the knight pulled back on the spectral reins to stop it.  A tense moment, being stared at by the black armored demon like the monster just couldn't believe what it was seeing, set Nero's nerves on edge.  What was this guy's problem?  Not that it mattered.

If this son of a bitch knew something about Dad or Dante, he would make the thing talk.

"If you want me to beat the information out of you, I will," Nero threatened, advancing and taking Red Queen off his back.

He pulled up short when the knight yanked on the reins again and forced the irritable steed to back up.  "N… Nnne…"  Shaking its horned head, the demon rider looked disoriented, almost pained, turning away from Nero and only looking at him out of the corner of its eye.  This was weird.

"What's the matter?  The sun too bright for you?" Nero taunted.  He quickly retreated a few steps when the horse tried to lunge at him.  Again, the knight hauled back, halfway turning the horse so its side was facing Nero.

Okay, now this was a question Nero needed an answer to.  The behavior was too out of the ordinary, too mysterious, to leave alone.  "You don't want to fight me?" he asked carefully.  Was it possible that this demon might be a potential ally?

"S-Spardaaaa..."  Jerking its mount all the way around, it looked like the knight suddenly composed itself, and it spurred the horse into a gallop going the other direction.

"Hey, wait!  Get back here!"  Nero chased after them, but the damn demon horse was fast.  By the time he followed the pair around a corner, he'd lost sight of them.  "What the fuck was that about?" he wondered out loud.  It was too strange.

Nero sighed, the now familiar empty feeling settling back into his chest.  The first lead he'd had in two weeks and he'd missed it.  Grinding his thumb and index fingers against his eyes, he knew he needed to move on for now.  The only consolation was that he had a lead, and the next time he saw that knight, he sure as hell was going to force it to talk.

 

By the time he made it back to the van, the sun was fully up in the sky, and Marianne and the kids were waiting for him.  It was a struggle, but Nero managed to plaster a big grin on his face for them.  "You guys ready to get out of here?"

He was caught off guard by the tears that welled up in the woman's eyes.  "Thank you," she said.  "Thank you so much.  I can't even tell you how much this means--"

"Hey, you've already thanked me," he said gently.  "Let's hit the road."

Marianne nodded, trying her best to match his smile and leaning down to her two children.  "Did you hear that?  We're leaving."

The boy, the younger of the two whose name Nero just couldn't bring to mind right now, squeezed his mother's hand.  "C-can we go to Grandma's?  I don't want to be in a city anymore…"

"Of course, Tim!  I'm sure she'll be happy to see us," Marianne trilled.  Nero was pretty damn sure she was right.  News of Red Grave had spread all over the country, and the lack of information made people desperate for any kind of hope regarding their missing loved ones.

"Are you leaving with us?"

Nero blinked, not expecting the almost-teenaged girl to address him instead of her family members.  "Uh, no.  I've still got work to do here."

"Oh," she muttered with a disappointed frown.

Marianne rolled her eyes and gave her daughter a little pat on the back.  "Don't be like that, Stacy.  He's done so much for us, and I'm sure he's going to help a lot of other people too."

If only that were true.  He'd been lucky the first week, finding a few large groups of survivors, but that had been more and more rare as time passed.  Mostly he just found those weird, crumbling husks.

"Right," Stacy said.  "Thank you, Nero."

"Yeah!  You're like a superhero!" Tim piped up.

"I wish," Nero said.  "Flying would be handy.  And maybe laser eyes."  Their laughter carried notes of relief.

Marianne gave him another heartfelt smile.  "I know you said you didn't need anything, but if there's something we can do when we get out of here…  Maybe send you some food?  Or contact someone for you?  I just wish there was some way we could thank you properly."

Nero tried not to scrunch up his face.  "I told you before that you've already thanked me plenty.  Just get back to your lives and try to put all this behind you.  That's enough for me."

He understood their gratitude, but the survivors' groveling turned his stomach in ways he couldn't define.  He didn't deserve it.  The cold truth was that Nero hadn't come to Red Grave for them.  Their rescue was just a byproduct of his search for his own family, and while he wouldn't turn his back on them, every person he found who wasn't one of those he longed to see carved another sliver off his soul.

But obsessing like that wasn't going to help anyone.  Nero thought back to the knight on the horse and gave in to the fierce grin that settled on his face.  He'd find that guy again.  And then he'd either finally learn what happened to his family, or he'd send the monster straight back to hell.  If revenge was all he could get, he'd take it.

***

15 JUNE  AM08:04

"Fuck!" Nero screamed at the sky.  After all this time, he'd finally caught up to that god damn knight, killed its shitty, time-warping horse, and then the guy got away.  Nero wanted to throw something, smash a window, vent the frustration of his failure.

"Dammit…" he sighed.

The fight had been weird from top to bottom, and Nero still didn't understand why the knight would suddenly go from trying to kill him with that lightning spear to preventing its horse from goring Nero.  If the rider hadn't kept interfering with its mount's movements and attacks, it would've been way harder to beat them considering the unpredictable bubbles of distorted time that blanketed the battlefield.

But why?  Why had the knight helped him?  Was it trying to capture Nero alive, or did it have some other motive?

"Not like I can find out now," Nero grumbled.  The fucker had knocked down a wall with a blast of purple lightning to cover its escape route.  Nero could climb over the rubble, no problem, but by the time he did that, the knight would be long gone.

Today was the first day Nero had made serious progress. He'd found Lady, prying her out of that demon suit she'd been crammed into, and now she was resting up in the van.  Though her words hadn't been exactly reassuring, at least Nero knew that there was a chance the rest of his family was alive somewhere in this mess.  She hadn't seen what happened to Dante, and they'd never come across Dad during their assault on the tree, but Trish had been captured too, so Nero had to assume that she was also--

"Lightning!" he blurted out.  Was it possible?  Was that why the demon knight wouldn't fight him?  "Shit, shit, shit…"

Nero barely took the time to snatch up the glowing piece of the horse's horn that was laying on the ground before he scrambled over the collapsed wall in his way.  Even if the trail was cold, he had to know.

"Trish!" he shouted, hoping that if he was right maybe hearing her own name might get through to her somehow.  "Trish, it's me, Nero!  Wait up!"

He dashed around a corner into an open plaza and slowed his steps.  Had she left behind a sign?  Maybe some tracks or a mark, somewhere she'd grabbed at a wall and scratched it with the armored claws…  He'd take anything at this point.  "Com'on, Trish…"

A burning pain in his right arm left him gasping for breath.  He knew that feeling; a powerful demon.  Nero whipped around and froze at the sight of a smoky, purple portal spilling out one of the weirder devils he'd ever seen.

It looked like three women, stacked on top of each other and sharing parts of a single torso, but they were riding on top of what he could only describe as a giant hell-chicken.  The freaky thing had a beak and a mouth full of almost human looking teeth.  Nero was reminded of a Russian folk story Dad had told him when he was little about an old woman that lived in a hut with chicken legs.  Either that or Macbeth's three witches seen through the lens of a seriously bad drug trip.

"Look, lady, I've got someone I need to find.  I can kick your ass later," Nero said.

She chuckled, and he could hear the telltale demonic resonance of her voice.  "You carry the blood of Sparda," she cooed.  "How unexpected.  That one's spawn, yes?"

Nero tensed.  Maybe this was worth his time after all.  "'That one'?  You wanna elaborate on that?"

All three of her smiles were disgustingly coy.  "I saw you fight the Geryon.  You have strength beyond your mortal body.  And yet… as far from the source as you are, you should be nothing but an empty shell, devoid of power.  How is this possible?"

"If I knew, why would I tell you?" Nero shot back.

"It is wise to be cautious," she said, "but you should watch your tone with your betters."

Nero set Red Queen's tip on the ground.  "You know, if I ever meet my better, I'll be real nice to them."  He’d been braced for her to charge him or snarl some kind of insult in return, but the chicken-lady only cocked her heads at him and smiled again.

"Such confidence suits your bloodline.  I wonder…"  Slowly, she circled him, and Nero tracked her movements warily.  "Do you have the strength?  Yessss, I think one such as you could defeat him."

"And who is 'him'?" Nero demanded.

It was like she didn't even hear his question.  "He lacks the power to conquer the human world, we know that.  The only way he was able to win against the scion is through trickery and stealth, and then he borrowed that one's power to bring forth the tree.  But as long as there is a blood descendant of Sparda…"  The chicken straightened up, and Nero tightened his grip on Red Queen.  "If you find the devil sword, will you fight him?"

This whole conversation was confusing, but Nero got the feeling she didn't want to start a battle with him.  "If you mean that grinning piece of shit who took my family, then no, I won't fight him."  He paused to be sure he had her full attention.  "I'm gonna kill him."

The wicked smirks that stretched her mouths wasn't what he expected.  "Very good.  Then you should travel that way."  The bird-woman pointed toward one of the demon tree's roots reaching into the clouds.  "If you can truly wield the sword, then you may gain the power you need."

Nero blinked at her.  "Why are you helping me?" he asked.  There was no point in hiding his suspicion.

"Because you can win," she said plainly.  "Supporting a weak king serves no purpose.  It is better for everyone if the strong rule."

That was a pretty straightforward policy, he supposed.  Hard to argue with.  Especially if you were a demon.

The giant chicken's steps shook the ground as she turned her bulk away from him.  "Good luck," she called and stepped into another smoky portal.  "You'll need it."

Standing in the suddenly empty square, Nero was at a loss.  "What the fuck was that?" he wondered.  That demon seemed way too canny to be a puppet like Lady or the knight, so why would she betray her boss?

Regardless, the direction she'd given him was where he was headed anyway.  It couldn't hurt to look -- especially if he could track down the knight at the same time.  He didn't know why, but Nero felt that was the only way to go.  There was definitely something out there.

"Maybe I'll find something good," he said to himself.

 

As it turned out, he found something decidedly not good -- three really gross demons dancing around.  They had immediately attacked him, attempting to smash him with the huge arms sprouting from their backs and using some kind of magic to weaken him.  The latter hadn't worked very well, but he gave them credit for the attempt.  The exploding eyeballs were a bit much, though.

Nero stared up at the huge sword sticking out of a building and considered the fact he'd been able to track the thing like someone had stuck a perfect GPS map in the back of his brain, as if once he'd locked on to it, he couldn't help but know exactly where it was.  More concerning was how it got up there.  And how he was supposed to get it down.

He looked thoughtfully at the Qliphoth's root towering over the rounded building.  If he could just find… Aha!

"Guess my luck’s turning around," Nero murmured.  He jabbed Red Queen into the blood clot at the base and stepped back while it withered away.  The root cracked, broken pieces smashing into the wall as they fell, spilling bricks and dust and one very large Devil Arm onto the ground.  The Sparda finally lay right near his feet, and its red gem winked in the sun.

Nero hesitated.  This sword had hung on the wall of the shop his whole life, only removed when Trish used it for a difficult mission.  The implicit understanding was that he should never touch it, but he'd handled the weapon inside the Savior long enough to pass it off to his uncle, so he had reason to think he could use it without incident.  Not like he had a choice anyway.

"I really need your help, Gramps.  Just this once," Nero said, curling his hand around the hilt.  He had a job to do.  Even if it killed him.

There was a warmth, both familiar and alien, that crawled up his left arm.  He'd felt it years ago when he'd taken the sword from Sanctus, but back then he'd been distracted by the encompassing, lacy curl of Yamato's power and the newfound abilities it gave him.  This was pure strength.  It was an inheritance.  It was… family.

The feeling drained him.  Nero sighed and turned his face up to the sun, closing his eyes.  He was so unbelievably tired right now, so hollow and brittle.  If someone touched him, maybe he would fall to ash just like the victims of the Qliphoth.  But there was still so much to do.

"Right," he said to no one, squaring up his shoulders.  "No time for whining.  Better get going."

Nero wasn't sure why, a feeling nibbling at his thoughts, but he decided to take a quick peek over the edge of the pit across from him before he left the area in search of the black knight that might be imprisoning Trish.  The crater was way deeper than he first thought, and Nero could see roots -- real roots, not the demon tree's -- sticking out of the sides, drooping from the heavy clods of dirt still stuck to them.  Nothing interesting, except…

He was about to turn away when something red caught his eye, and Nero's heart crammed its way up into his throat.  It couldn't be.  There was no way.  After all this time, all his searching, all the worry, there in the arms of skeletal angels, lay Dante.

Not stopping to think, Nero threw himself down the steep slope of the pit.  His boots skidded on the moist dirt, kicking up debris and small rocks that knocked against his arms and shins.  He heard a stone ping off his metal Devil Breaker and ricochet in another direction.  None of that mattered, only the man he'd been looking for.

Dropping the Sparda, Nero slowly approached.  In the back of his mind, he knew there was no point in caution, but he couldn't force himself to move faster as he hunted for any sign of life.  The body hadn't decayed at all.  In fact, Dante's hair was longer than it had been a month ago, and he was sporting more of a beard than Nero had ever seen on him.

"Dante?" he whispered.

No movement.  No reaction.  But that didn't mean anything if his uncle was out cold.

Carefully, Nero reached out to touch him and breathed a shuddering sigh of relief.  He was warm.  Oh god, he was warm and real and alive!

Trading his apprehension for desperation, Nero hauled the man off his bizarre throne and pulled him down to the ground.  Dante still wasn't responding even when Nero shook him.  "Hey… Hey, wake up!  Can you hear me?"

Silver hair was caked in blood and who knows what else, but Nero couldn't find any injuries from his quick examination.  Dante seemed fine, almost like he was sleeping from the slow, even breathing and steady heartbeat.  "What the fuck?  I go through all this to find you, and you're taking a god damn nap?  Wake up, you asshole!"

Nero shook him harder, but nothing happened.

"What is your problem?" he hissed.  "Is this some kind of spell?  Did they drug you?"  Nero groped along his uncle's skull, looking for any fractures that would cause this kind of unconsciousness.  He rested his hands on Dante's chest.  There was nothing wrong, so why wasn't he waking up?

Panic hit him harder than anything had since this all started.  What if he was too late?  What if Dante never woke up?  What if he'd failed, and there was no way to save the man who was his uncle, a second father?

"Is this a joke?" Nero demanded.  He brought his fist down on Dante's chest with a thump.  "Are you just gonna give up?  Just roll over and let that son of a bitch win?!"

This couldn't be it.  This couldn't be how it ended.  Was he going to be forced to watch Dante die while he couldn't do anything?

"You can't just…"  Nero's throat tightened and choked off his words.  His eyes burned, and he suddenly couldn't breathe.  He smacked his uncle's chest again.  "Please don't do this."

No movement.  No change.  The whole world swam in brine, and Nero felt hot tears start to slide down his face.  He hadn't cried even once, had resisted even when his sinuses ached from the refusal, but now he couldn't stop it.  The first sob wrenched out of him like a punch to his gut.  And then the dam broke.

Nero doubled over, crying so hard it felt like his eyes would turn inside out.  He smacked his fist over Dante's heart again and again, frustrated and broken and lost.  "I-I'm sorry," he gasped out.  "I'm so sorry!  It's all my fault this happened!"

He'd been hanging onto the thoughts since that day, feeling them stew and fester inside his heart like an infection that was slowly, painfully, eating him alive.  It was the truth, though, and he couldn't hide from it no matter how much he wanted to.

"It's my fault you got hurt," Nero said, voice thick with mucus and emotion.  It felt right to tell Dante, to wrench it out of himself like a rotting tooth.  "It's my fault all those people died.  It's my fault Dad is… gone."  He slammed his hand down like he could pound the truth into his uncle's flesh and excise it from himself.

"I should've been the one who died!  I should've been the one who--!"

A hand clamped so hard on his wrist that Nero couldn't move.  Blue eyes stared up at him with an uncharacteristic seriousness.

"Don't you ever say that again, kid," Dante croaked.

Nero couldn't breathe for a completely different reason now, unable to make himself believe what he was seeing.  "D-Dante?  You… You're…"

"Did you have to hit me so hard?" his uncle groaned and levered himself into a sitting position.  "I know I can sleep pretty deep, but that was a bit much."

"You…"  Nero tried to get his tongue to work, but he couldn't figure out how to pull the swirling words in his head out of his mouth.  "You… jackass."  Leaning forward slowly, Nero let his forehead rest on Dante's shoulder.  He was so, so tired, wrung out like a rag.

"I know," Dante said softly.  He rubbed a big hand on Nero's back before giving him a pat.  "How long was I out?  How're things going?"

Nero drew back and stared at him.  Dante didn't know.  If Nero was at a loss before, this was so much worse, and he wondered how the hell he was supposed to give a coherent report when his brain was full of cotton and pain.  "It's the 15th.  Of June."

His uncle mouthed a demonic phrase that would've gotten Nero slapped upside the head once upon a time.  "A month?  No wonder I'm so stiff.  Wait.  Were you here this whole time?  By yourself?"

Nero dodged the question he wasn't ready to answer.  "I found Lady.  She's back at the van with Nico.  And I think I found Trish."

"You think you found her?"  Dante gingerly got to his feet and tried to stretch out his shoulders.  "That's a little wishy-washy coming from you."

"Yeah, well, things have been getting weirder here as that tree keeps growing," Nero defended.  He got up but wasn't sure what to do with himself.  "You remember those freaky knights Mundus had way back when?  This demon king guy stole the idea, and I think he stuffed Trish inside one of those suits."  

Dante's eyebrows shot up.  "That's not good.  Any sign of your-- What's that?"

Belatedly, Nero realized he'd been gesturing with his Devil Breaker.  He'd picked up the habit because something about the weight resonated with how heavy he felt.  "Uh, it's a weapon that Nico-- Hey!"

Without asking permission, Dante grabbed the prosthetic arm for a closer look, and his face turned stormy after only a few seconds.  "Nero…  What did you do to yourself?"

He pulled away with a sharp tug.  The question picked at a sore spot inside him.  "I did what I had to do."

It wasn't often that he saw Dante speechless.  Or rather, it wasn't often that his uncle held back something he very obviously wanted to say.  Nero couldn't read him, only catching notes of disappointment and anger drifting quickly over Dante's dirt smudged face.  "I take it you haven't found Vergil yet?" he asked.

It stung like a slap, and Nero didn't stop himself from looking at Dante's shoes instead of his cold expression.  "No," he admitted.  There was no point in lying.  He'd failed.

Dante sighed, long and loud, and stared up toward the rim of the pit they stood in.  The silence wasn't anything like what Nero had imagined their reunion would be like.  He was so glad to have his uncle back, but this… hurt.  Everything that had been riding on his shoulders felt ten times heavier when this burden, at least, should have been lifted away.

"You should go back to the van," Dante said after a while.  "I'll see if I can track down Trish and go deal with this 'demon king.'"

"What?!  No way!  I just found you," Nero protested.  Maybe he hadn't been much use up until now, but he couldn't just stop.  He owed it to Dad to keep looking until he either found him or just couldn't move anymore.

Stooping down, Dante picked up the Sparda from where Nero had left the sword and settled it across his back.  "This isn't your fight," he said.  "Not anymore."

Nero gaped at him.  Was he serious?  "Like hell it's not," he growled.  "This is more might fight than anyone else's.  Just 'cause you think I can't handle myself doesn't mean--"

"That's not it."

"Then what is it?!" Nero shouted.  His chest felt like Nico had parked the van on it.

Dante paused, looking again like he wanted to say something but was taking a moment to chew on it.  "It's not your fault," he said.

"Of course it's my fault!"  The words exploded out of him like a charged shot.  "How the hell could it not be?!  All this is because I fucked up and--"

The hand that landed on top of his head was gentle but struck the breath out of him just the same.  "You can't take responsibility for what this demon bastard decided to do.  This would've happened even without you, and if it wasn't this guy, it might've been something worse.  And…"  Dante sighed again, leaning in to press his forehead against Nero's.  "And then we could've lost you too."

"I don't understand," Nero muttered.  Because he didn't.  He could sense there were more layers to what Dante was saying.

"You'll make yourself crazy taking the blame for things someone else does.  The best we can do is clean up after the bullshit," Dante told him.  He hooked his palm around the back of Nero's head and planted a kiss on his crown.  "We're Spardas.  That's what we do."

"Then let me help," Nero begged.  He didn't want to be left behind again, not with Dad and Trish still in danger.  Not with that monster laughing from the heart of the tree.

Dante pulled his hand back and massaged the spot where his chest and shoulder muscles met.  He was quiet again for a moment.  "Vergil's gonna stab me if I do that," he said absently, like he'd forgotten Nero was even there.  "Then again, when he sees what happened to his son, he'll burn this whole damn town to get back at this guy."

"You'll need my help," Nero argued.  "I know my way around here better than you do."

A smirk came over Dante's face.  "Don't be too sure about that, kid," he said cryptically, and Nero scowled.  He hated how often the brothers still hid things from him.  "But splitting up would help us find them faster anyway, and I've got something I want to check out while I'm at it."  Dante's eyes dropped to something he took from out of his coat.

Going their separate ways did not appeal to Nero at all.  He'd just gotten his uncle back, and now they were going to run off in different directions?  The idea sat like a sour lump in his stomach, but all of that flew out of his mind when he got a look at what Dante was holding.

"Is that… Rebellion?"  It couldn't be anything else, but most of the sword was just gone, only the hilt and a short, jagged section of the blade remaining.

"Yeah, this has been with me all my life," Dante mused, spinning it with a flip of his hand.  "I'm a little sad to lose such a good partner."

The thought of Rebellion being broken left Nero reeling.  This demon was strong, sure, and had beaten them all without breaking a sweat thanks to the power feed to him by the Qliphoth, but for him to be capable of destroying Rebellion was somehow worse, more permanent.  A part of their family lost forever.

Nero had told himself he would see his family again, had fought the doubts at every turn, but now…  "You really think Dad is okay?" he asked, hating how small his voice sounded.

Dante grinned.  "He's probably pissed off, but I know he's out there," he said.  His confidence felt honest, and it eased some of the tightness in Nero's chest.  "We'll find him."

"Okay.  Okay," Nero said, gathering himself up from the pieces he'd fallen into.  "I've searched a lot of the city already, but I haven't gone too close to where the tree is yet.  How do you want to split this up?"

He wasn't sure if it was amusement or something else similarly fond that danced over his uncle's features, but Dante made a loose gesture toward the opposite side of the city, far away.  "I'll take that side, you keep going from here.  Meet in the middle.  Sound good?"

"Sure, but how are you--?"

A flash of red energy swallowed Dante, and in an instant, he was transformed.  Nero took a quick step back to avoid the snap of wings as they flared out.  Right.  Flying really was handy.  "I won't be long," Dante promised.  "See you soon, kid."

Nero used the Devil Breaker to guard his face from the wind generated by Dante's take off, squinting up at the sky until he couldn't see the red devil anymore.  It felt… anti-climactic.  He'd searched for so long to find his uncle, and now Dante was off and running again like nothing had ever happened.  Like Nero hadn't found him covered in old blood and unconscious after a month.

It was progress, though.  They just had to find Dad and Trish and beat the big bad guy, then they could put all this behind them.  It would finally be over soon.

"Right," Nero said, hand wrapping around the comforting grip of Red Queen.  "Time to go."

Chapter Text

15 JUNE  AM11:47

After sacrificing his Devil Bringer, Nero had feared the abilities it gave him were gone too, but over the last month, he'd found the aching sensation that warned him of demonic presences had simply migrated a little.  It radiated up from the phantom pang of his missing arm, into his shoulder, and through his chest.  The strength of it was still capable of stealing his breath, but what he felt right now was different.  Just like with the Sparda, there was a tug, a second pulse in his veins, drawing him right to the center of the Qliphoth.  The closer he got, the more certain he was of the source.

Dad was in here somewhere.  And he was getting weaker, Nero could feel it.  There wasn't time to wait around for Dante anymore.

Flexing the fingers of his Overture, Nero stepped forward to the middle of the root covered room.  "Hey, douchebag.  Did ya miss me?"

"Hmmm…"  The devil on the throne rested his chin on an inky black fist.  The bastard was even bigger than the last time Nero had confronted him, growing fat on the blood siphoned by the tree.  "So, you were the one causing my lieutenants so much trouble.  How delightful.  I'd feared you were dead."

"You were worried about me?  How sweet," Nero sneered.

The devil laughed like a saw chewing through wood.  "Losing such unique raw material would have been a waste.  Besides, I was looking forward to seeing your face when you're defeated again."

Nero planted Red Queen's tip against the floor.  "You think you can beat me a second time?  Not gonna happen."

"Oh, you won't be fighting me this time," the devil purred, and Nero felt a chill trickle down his spine.

Clanking armor moved from behind the huge throne.  It was black and lean, almost sleek despite the stupid looking spikey accents and purple cape.  A pair of wavy horns curled down from the forehead to the chin of a human-faced helmet, and it reminded Nero way too much of the lumbering knights back on Mallet island.  It wasn't quite like the suit Trish was in, though.  It seemed... older.

"Stealing Mundus' ideas, huh?" Nero heckled.  "You a big fan of his or just too dumb to come up with your own?"

The devil hissed at him, and Nero couldn't help but be pleased to get under the bastard's leathery skin.  "I will surpass the emperor," he said angrily.  "I will succeed in conquering the human realm where he failed.  Angelo, deal with the brat."

'Angelo' shifted his weight, rocking forward slightly but hesitating to approach.  Something plucked a string in Nero's gut.

"Still so stubborn," the devil said.  His anger disappeared into amused curiosity, and Nero didn't care for it.  Leaning over the edge of his seat to peer at his subordinate, the demon's mouth curled into a hideous grin.  "Break this child for me, and I will give him to you.  Just as I said I would."

Nero frowned at the peculiar agreement, but glowing red eyes snapped onto his position like a magnet, amping up his unease.  Angelo moved with gliding steps to Nero's left, and the smoothness of the motion was nothing like those knights Nero remembered.  It set off the alarms in his head.

The first lunge was so fast and strong that Nero barely had any time to block it.  Red Queen vibrated under the strike, and his left arm was momentarily numb.  "Shit!" he gasped, but the knight skipped back out of range of a counterattack.  The guy swung his two-handed sword around like it was weightless, giving it a neat little flick off to his side at the end of his movement.  Nero's subconscious was screaming bloody murder.

But that couldn't be right.  He didn't want it to be.

Nero charged at the black knight.  His sword was deflected as predicted, but he shoved the palm of Overture into the breast plate, and a hail of electricity knocked his opponent backwards.  Grunting, the knight staggered to a defensive stance.

"Don't take me lightly," Nero warned, pulling his gun.  Blue Rose's shots shattered against the big blade, but Nero noticed that it took several chunks out of the weapon, almost like the thing was layered.

He didn't have time to consider what it meant before the knight rushed at him, impossibly fast, and Nero parried the first two strikes.  The third blow was a high, overhead jump, forcing him to roll out of the way or be crushed.  He was off balance when he came back to his feet, stumbling further to avoid being gutted by a horizontal slash.

The knight was too fast for someone in all that armor, and he pushed forward with single minded aggression.  Something inside Nero howled in anguish.  That smoothness of movement was too much like…

Always press the advantage, give no quarter.  He heard the nasally voice clear and sharp in his mind.

Nero tried to shock the knight again to get some distance, but the guy was ready for him this time.  Overture shattered under the vertical chop, leaving Nero literally disarmed.  "Dammit!" he shouted.  He almost couldn't shove aside another attack to get his socket connected to the next arm.  Gerbera.

Ducking low and rolling again, Nero ran to the side while charging up the Devil Breaker's ray.  If he could take out the true threat, maybe he'd have time to figure this out -- or it might set the knight free if he really was…

"Eat this, you smiling asshole!"

He saw the demon’s eyes go wide as the Devil Breaker expanded, a shot of burning satisfaction lancing through him at the obvious fear right before the knight suddenly teleported in front of him and smashed the arm to pieces.  Nero reeled backward, groping for another Devil Breaker and feeling his lungs constricting so hard in his chest he was momentarily dizzy.  "You… You're--"

That huge sword cut an elegant line of pain across his chest, and Nero knew he was right.  He knew what Yamato felt like when it cut him.

Just like Lady and Trish.  Even his sword had been cocooned.

"Dad, wait--!"

A gauntlet covered fist twisted in his shirt and threw him across the room.  Nero bounced and tumbled until he slammed into a big gnarled root.  Scrambling to get back up, he only made it to his knees by the time the brain-washed knight was on top of him.  Red Queen screamed in metal protest when it caught the encased Yamato.  "Dad, it's me!" Nero cried, arms straining.  "Let me help you!"

The wind was literally punched out of his chest by a heavy fist that lifted him up onto his feet, and Nero's lungs were stunned.  He couldn't get any more air inside, heaving in short, useless breaths.  "S-stop… Please…"

Sitting on his throne, the devil cackled.  He slapped the arm of his seat in delight.  "Yes, yes!  Just like that!  Crush him and offer me the pieces.  Oh, I will make something magnificent out of you, welp."

Dad hesitated again, just a hitch of his steps this time, but Nero used it to flee.  He should've known better than to run.  That was always the worst choice in a fight with Vergil, but he didn't have a choice.  Nero risked a glance at his magazine of Devil Breakers and found his Punchline dangling broken, barely attached to the mechanism.  "Shit…" he wheezed.  Must have happened when he was thrown.

He could hear the pounding footsteps right behind him, and Nero rolled to the side through the pond of blood at the base of the throne, letting Dad charge past him.  With all that armor he was at least a little slower than his normal ridiculous speed.  It was the best Nero could do right now.  He didn't stand a chance against his father in an all-out fight, he knew that, but it wasn't Vergil he needed to take down.

Leaping into the air, Nero swung his momentum and demonic energy into an angled dive, aiming at the monster responsible for everything.  If he could just land something--

It might as well have been a steel cable that wrapped around his middle, and Nero gasped when he slammed against the floor.  His grip on Red Queen loosened enough for his sword to go flying, leaving him with only Blue Rose in its holster on his side, but his left arm was held down by the root so he couldn't even reach for it.  "You bastard!" Nero howled at his enemy.  "Get down here and fight me yourself!"

The root whipped sideways and cracked him off the ground again, leaving him dazed.

"Enough of this," the devil said.  "Angelo, finish him, and I'll give you your gift just like I promised."

Vergil paused, looming over his son's entangled form.  "Dad, it's me," Nero called desperately.  "You're stronger than this!  I can help you!"  For a moment, he saw a flicker of awareness behind the helmet and hope jumped in his chest.

Sighing through his gleaming, pointed teeth, the devil was apparently bored with the spectacle he'd created.  "Look at what a wreck he already is, Angelo.  Would you leave him like this?  Do what I say, and I'll fix him for you.  That's what you want, isn't it?  To have your precious, fragile spawn safe at your side?"

The change was immediate.  Raising his huge sword high, Vergil's body tensed to bring it down, and despair turned Nero cold.  He didn't want it to end this way, didn't want his father to suffer like this.  It was too much after everything that had happened.  Nero closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to watch, but in that moment, a noise caught his ears.  A whistling.  Something falling fast.

Both Nero and Vergil turned their heads to look up, and on the other side of the vast room, the devil frowned.  "What is that?" the demon asked.

The ceiling exploded, and a red streak collided with Vergil, plowing him into a wall.  Nero squirmed to get free, swearing loudly when the root constricted, but he couldn't get a good view through the dust and debris.  The red blur flew back out of the dust cloud and landed in an awkward pile on its back.  Only then did Nero realize what he was seeing.

"Dante?"  He could feel the core of his uncle in that demonic shape, but it was hard to reconcile with the much more human devil form Nero knew.  Just what the hell had Dante been doing?

"Hang tight, kid!" Dante called.  His four wings shot him forward at an incredible speed -- right into the armored shape of his brother.

Nero writhed and kicked his feet, fear lighting up his insides.  "Wait, don't!  That's Dad!"

"I know, but--!"  Dante made a grab for Vergil, attempting to pull him down, but the other half-devil bolted toward Nero instead, sword cleaving down with implacable savagery.  It was only Dante's mobility that let him snag his brother by the ankle and sent the swing wide.

"Dammit, Verge, you are not making this easy," Dante complained.  "Just sit the hell down and let me deal with this."

Vergil kicked him hard in the face, loosening Dante's grip enough to lunge for Nero again.  His fingers closed over Nero's throat and squeezed.  Unable to move, he stared up at his father, searching the blazing red eyes for recognition.  "D-dad, please," he gasped.  The hand pushed harder, forcing Nero's head back and stopping him from speaking.

Dante's huge new Devil Trigger pushed Vergil away, but the clawed gauntlets shredded the skin of Nero's neck, sticky blood adding to the gore that already covered him.  Nero sucked in as much air as he could and found that the root had tightened again.  Black spots danced in his vision.  He could barely keep track of what was happening.

His father was suddenly in front of him again, reaching out but hauled away before he could make contact.  That helmet must've been knocked off too because Nero got a look at his terrifyingly blank face.  Dark veins stood out under too pale skin, but there was none of the usual confidence and ego Nero was used to seeing in his father's expression.  It was like everything that made Vergil himself was gone.

Nero couldn't think clearly enough to feel the full horror of that thought.  Angry and frightened, he tried to worm free again, but the root squeezed harder until something popped inside with a bright spark of red tinted pain.  He tasted copper.

Dante roared, slamming his brother down on the ground, but the knight just got back up and cut a crimson slash into his twin.  All Nero could do was watch them tear at each other, their fury only broken when Vergil attempted to reach him again.  Dante's claws raked a shrieking path into Vergil's armor, and Vergil's sword pierced the scales on Dante's side.  Over and over again, blood spattering, soaking into the thirsty roots, fatal injuries stitching up without so much as a scar.  With their regenerative powers, there was a chance they wouldn't stop until they were in pieces.  It was horrible.  It was… familiar.

The devil laughed and laughed and laughed.  And that was familiar too.  They were going to kill each other, and this bastard was enjoying every second.

I will do what I must, little brother.

"No," Nero begged, fighting the darkness trying to swallow him.

He didn't want to be helpless anymore.  He didn't want to watch his family die.  The root contracted, and his ribs caved, incandescent pain smothering him.  Nero was useless.  Worse than useless.  He was being used, to make them fight, to hurt each other again.  Just like Mallet Island.  Just like Mundus.

Dante drove his new sword right through his brother and clean out his back.  Vergil cut deep into his twin's neck, sawing with his blade like he intended to cleave him in two.  Their dark blood swirled in the stagnant pools leaking from the tree.

Nero couldn't breathe, couldn't think.  Dark stars filled his sight, dragging him down.  They were going to die.  He was going to lose everything.

And Dante was wrong: it was all his fault.

The devil laughed.

The brothers bled.

The world was screaming.

Thank you, Nero.

Rage lit Nero up from the inside out, pushing back the black veil of unconsciousness.  It burned hot enough to blind him and swelled to fill every inch of his being.  He wouldn't lose them, he refused to fail.  They wouldn't end here.

"No!" Nero screamed at the universe, clutching his defiance tight.  "I'm not letting you die!"

He shattered.  His body burst into atoms and reformed into something else, something volcanic pulled from deep within.  Later, Nero would try to piece together what he'd done, but in the moment, all he could do was feel.  Feel the rough texture of Dante's massive horns and the sharp edges of Dad's plate armor when he bashed them both into the floor.  Feel the overwhelming power feeding his need for vengeance against the one who drove his family to the brink.  Feel the escalating fear thrumming beside the love in his heart.  It might have only been seconds, or more likely minutes, but Nero would never be completely sure.

"Kid… Nero!"  Dante dodged the swipe of a glowing blue arm while waving his hand in surrender.  Snarling, Nero slapped his uncle's sword aside, making sure it couldn't be used against the half-devil sprawled on the ground under Nero's palm.  "You can stop!" Dante exclaimed.

"N-Nero?  You're…"

Dad's quiet voice and cold fingers settling on his right arm snapped Nero's thoughts back into place like a rubber band.  He glanced down, registering Vergil's' surprise and pain first and the dark, scaly hand pinning him down second.  Quickly, Nero stepped back.  "What?"  He stared at his new limb in shock.  "How did…?"

"Wow," Dante said.  He'd fallen back to his human form in all the confusion, sporting an astonished, crooked smile.  "Gotta say, I like the new look, kid.  Not bad at all, but I think we've got some unfinished business first."  He glanced at his brother.  "You back with us?"

"Yes, but," Vergil's lips pinched when he tried to lever himself upright, only making it up to his elbows with visible effort, "don't waste your time on me."

The devil was seething, standing up at last.  "You're already too late.  This… distraction means nothing."  A wave of his hand sent roots thrashing toward them, slapping into the lake of blood as they came.  The loud rumble shook the entire tree.

Nero grabbed his father and curled over him protectively.  Those new wing-arms did a good job deflecting the roots that lashed at them, and he only suffered a few minor punctures which started healing immediately.  Cautiously, he looked up when the noise eventually stopped.  "Dante, you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm good."  If Dante was anyone else, Nero would have panicked at seeing a chunk of root sticking out of his chest, but his uncle casually yanked it out and tossed it, nodding at the throne.  "Looks like he gave us the slip, though."

"Dammit," Nero hissed.  The bastard was cagey.  He exhaled heavily and had the sensation of energy draining out of his body, like he was compressing back down into what he was before.  The blue motes of light burst off his skin and dissolved to leave his human self behind, but he could still feel the burning magma in his center, waiting, ready for his call.  It was beyond weird.

There'd be time to unpack all his new baggage later.  Right now there were more important things to deal with.

Vergil pushed weakly at Nero's chest.  "You… need to stop him.  If he gets to the fruit first…"  Just that short burst of speech wore him out and left Vergil panting for breath.

"Take it easy," Dante said, laying a hand on his brother's shoulder.  "You're not looking so good."

That was an understatement.  Now that Nero had a moment to really look his father over, what he saw turned his stomach.  Vergil's face was colorless, and he was unable to support himself, relying on Nero to keep him from collapsing into a pile.  Even worse, Nero could see bits of his skin starting to flake away, not regenerating the way he had been.

When Vergil closed his eyes, it was only the tremors rattling his body that told Nero he was even still alive.  He looked like a corpse.

"We've gotta get him out of this armor," Nero said anxiously.  The cape was easy enough to take off and cast away.  He then pulled at a pauldron, and a second later Nero realized what he'd assumed was some kind of protective bodysuit was really a horrible black tar sticking the armor to his father's bare skin.  Nero gagged from both the sight and the scent.  It smelled like sickness, like poisonous sweat and decay.  Like death.

The pauldron came free with a sucking sound, the gluey tar stretching and finally giving way.  Nero flung the piece of plate mail off to the side and stared at what he'd exposed.  Those black veins standing out so clearly under Dad's bloodless skin weren't only on his face.  They were everywhere.

"Shit," Dante said emphatically from behind Nero's shoulder.  "What's that black stuff?"

"Off," Vergil said, plucking at another piece of armor.  "I want… it off.  Please, I can't…"

Exchanging a look with his uncle, Nero shifted so Dad was supported against the inside of his knee.  He worked his fingers under the lip of the breastplate, trying to wiggle it back and forth to loosen it.  His angle didn't offer much leverage, so he didn't protest when Dante stepped around to help.  The grimace on Vergil's face as they peeled the large piece of armor up did nothing to help Nero's anxiety.

"Damn, it's stuck on there," Dante muttered.  "This is some nasty--"  He broke off at his twin's guttural whine.

"Don't… Don't stop.  Just… get it over with," Vergil said through gritted teeth.

Mouth pinching flat, Dante set his feet and pulled.  The grotesque sound of the tar breaking raised the fine hairs on Nero's arms, and he held onto his father as tightly as he dared.

"Nnnaahhh…!"  Vergil tipped his head back, eyes shut tight, when the breastplate finally came free.  A patch of raw skin across his chest started bleeding sluggishly.

"Sorry!" Dante exclaimed, chucking the armor and kneeling down.  "I didn't think it would do that."

"No… I…"  Dad went quiet, heaving for air for a moment before he could talk again.  "Thank you, but you need to go soon, Dante.  The fruit this tree bears concentrates all the blood that has been collected from the people of this city, and it will give that demon untold power, enough to become king of the Underworld, if he eats it," Vergil rasped.  "You must get to that fruit before he does."

Nero swallowed the lump that was trying to crawl up his throat.  Not only had this monster tried to destroy his family, but now he wanted to rule?  The chicken-witch had said something about that too.

A horrid, hacking cough shook Vergil like a leaf, distracting Nero from his thoughts.  He wrapped an arm around Dad's back to keep him steady, but his eyes widened when Vergil pulled his hand away from his mouth.  The palm was covered in a viscous black goop, just like the staff that was keeping his armor in place.  Vergil sagged bonelessly against him.

"Kid, we need to talk," Dante said, pulling on Nero's sleeve.

"Yeah, in a bit--"

"You and me.  Now."

Vergil lightly touched the inside of Nero's elbow.  "It's alright," he said.  "Listen… to what he has to say."

Loathe to leave his father but hearing the seriousness in Dante's voice, Nero carefully laid an unprotesting Vergil down to rest and followed his uncle off to the side.  "He just needs some time, right?  Dad'll get better just like always…" Nero said uncertainly.

Dante sighed through his nose.  "I found Trish."

"You did?!  Is she okay?"

He nodded, and there was a distinct lack of smile on his lips.  "She's back at the van, but she told me what they did to your dad.  Kid… I…"  He swiped a grimy hand down his face.  "It's not good, okay?  That son of a bitch drained Vergil's power to do all this, and he doesn't have enough to sustain himself now."  He hesitated.  "But I think I know how we can help him."

Nero threw out his hands, indicating Dante should just spill it.  He didn't have the patience to deal with cryptic bullshit after all this.

"That fruit he was talking about, we need to get to it first and give it to Vergil."  HIs uncle had him pinned with a severe stare.  "It should have enough power to heal him, but--"

"Hold on," Nero interrupted.  "Isn't that full of, ya know, human blood?"

"Yeah, but it's his best chance."

Nero opened his mouth but couldn't make any words come out.  Dante hadn't just come up with this plan on the fly, he could tell.  His uncle had come into this fight knowing what he would have to do, and he'd made his peace with the idea, but the thought of using the sacrifice of millions of innocent people, even if it was to save someone he wanted to protect so badly, left Nero staggered.  On the other hand... 

"Better Dad than that guy," he reasoned.

Dante's grin was nothing short of savage.  "Glad you're on board.  I'll track that bastard down and stall him.  Give me some time to clear the way, and then bring Vergil with you."

Splitting up yet again didn't have any more appeal than it did the first time, and Nero was pretty sure his expression plainly said how he felt.

"Just look after Vergil for a bit," Dante said, squeezing his nephew's shoulder.  "I don't think he's going to want to be very far from you anyway."

Not waiting for Nero to agree, he took several steps back and summoned his new sword in a shower of red sparks.  The rest happened fast, and Nero shouted when Dante suddenly impaled himself on the huge blade, somehow absorbing it and transforming with the sword reappearing in his hand.

"For fuck's sake!" Nero yelled.  "Can't you do anything without being a showboat?"

Dante laughed, rising high up into the air.  "See you soon, kid," he said and plunged downward. The floor broke under his strength, and he disappeared from view.

"God dammit," Nero groaned.

"Why… are you surprised?" Vergil said, and Nero hurried back to his side.  "He's always been like this."

"Guess I was hoping he'd do something normal, just this once."  Cautiously, Nero lifted his father up so he could start working on the armor again.

Vergil's sigh was shaky.  "Always the optimist, my son."  He clenched his jaw when Nero pulled the backplate of his armor away, and his head rolled into the crook of Nero's neck like he couldn't even hold it up. 

Seeing Dad in this kind of shape, Nero couldn't fathom how he'd been able to fight so viciously earlier, how he'd matched Dante in his powerful new Devil Trigger.  This was nothing like how Lady was when Nero pulled her out of that demon suit.  She'd been tired, but a little break got her back in fighting shape pretty quickly.  Vergil, though, was wasted, literally falling apart.  He must've been held together with whatever power the demon used to control him, and now that it was gone, he really had nothing in reserve.

Dante was right.  Fixing this was going to take more than a few days of bed rest.

"You okay?" Nero asked and immediately felt stupid.  Of course he wasn't okay.  "Maybe we should leave the rest of--"

"No."  The single word was the closest his father had sounded to himself this whole time.  "I want it off.  I don't want… to be trapped anymore."

"Okay, right, yeah," Nero muttered.  As if he needed another reason to curse the demon behind all this, now he had to cause his father pain just to free him.  Vergil bit down on a moan when the armor protecting his neck and clavicles came loose.  One of the two most powerful people Nero knew was lying limp in his arms, totally dependent on his protection and assistance, and it turned his heart inside out.  Every tiny flinch and shiver felt like a knife slicing at his soul.

Getting the damn arm harnesses off, with all their fiddly pieces stuck together by the tar, nearly made Nero scream in frustration.  It was only his father's plea that made him persist despite the obvious agony he was causing.

I don't want to be trapped anymore.

Vergil was so far beyond exhausted by the time Nero had him stripped to the waist that it was like handling a doll, needing to maneuver his limbs and keep him balanced upright because he couldn't do even that much.  Rage fought with the despair in Nero's head.

There was a repulsive sort of intimacy in seeing his father so vulnerable.  It wasn't Vergil's choice to show this side of himself to his son.  He was even naked under the armor, without anything of his own to shield him.  He was just crumbling skin and hollow bones.  On impulse, Nero shucked off his jacket and carefully lay it over his father's bare shoulders.

It shouldn't be like this.  It wasn't fair.

"They told me you were dead," Vergil blurted out, startling Nero out of his heavy thoughts.

"And you believed them?"

Vergil faltered, swallowing audibly.  "The hag, Malphas, showed me.  I know it was an illusion now, but it seemed so real, and…"  Nero couldn't help but meet his father's tortured gaze, still showing a faint red glow.  "I saw you die," Dad whispered.  "I saw the life drain out of your eyes, saw your blood… like rubies under the sun.  For a while, it was all I could see."

Shit.  That bastard had done more than suck Vergil dry of his power.  He'd dug in even deeper.  "I'm okay," Nero said.  "It was all a lie."

"I couldn't feel you anymore," Vergil pressed.  "I could feel Dante out there, connected through the tree like I was, but you were… gone."

Nero wasn't sure what to say.  He knew Dad wouldn't be spouting something so personal if he wasn't completely wrecked.  He shouldn't be hearing this.

"I didn't know the truth," Vergil continued, "until Trish-- Cavaliere Angelo came back and said they'd seen you.  It was the first time since I was defeated that I felt like…"  he broke off for a few seconds.  "He promised me that I could have you, and I… believed him.  Because I wanted to.  It was all that mattered, that I keep you safe."  He stopped again, feeble puffs of breath dusting Nero's skin.  "I hurt you, my own son."

"That wasn't you.  They messed with your head," Nero consoled him.

Vergil stayed quiet too long, forehead leaning heavily against his Nero’s collarbone.  "That might have been the only part that was me," he finally said.

How was he supposed to respond to that?  Nero peeled the piece of armor from Vergil's kneecap and grimaced when some of the skin underneath came off with it.  Dad didn't even react this time, just let out a soft huff.  The armor clattered across the bumpy floor when Nero spitefully hurled it as far as he could.  None of this was right.  His father was never weak.

"Nero, I have something I need to tell you," Vergil declared, urgency lending a bit of strength to his voice.

"Save your energy," Nero said.  "You can tell me when this is over."

Vergil shook his head, and the fine silver hairs tickled Nero's chin.  "I should have said this years ago.  I've already waited too long."  He caught the hand trying to pry the plating off his right thigh, but Nero only stilled because of the touch, not the strength that should have been behind it.

With great effort, Vergil pulled away far enough to look at his son's face.  And he smiled.  It was genuine and unfettered, crinkling the paper-thin skin around his weary eyes.  A deep and warm affection shone through clear and bright.  Nero felt sick.  

"I am so proud of you," Vergil said, and Nero hated the reedy wheeze of his voice saying words he'd always wanted to hear.  "You made it through these hardships and let them forge you into something much stronger than you were.  You've become so powerful, so wise, and that's all I ever wanted.  I know now that you'll be fine without--"

"Stop it."  Nero hadn't meant to snap, he just didn't want to hear anymore.  It sounded too much like some fucking deathbed confession, and he didn't have will to bear it.  This was crushing him.

Vergil stayed silent for a long moment, and Nero tried to hide his face from his father, using his shoulder to awkwardly wipe at the tears rolling out of his stinging eyes.  Shit, but he didn't want any of this.

"My poor boy," Vergil sighed, slumping to lean on Nero again.  "I don't want to leave you."

"Then don't," Nero said.  He sniffed loudly.  "I won't let you go without a fight, but I need you to fight too."

Silence fell between them while Nero pulled another piece of armor off, and Vergil never did reply.

***

15 JUNE  PM02:01

Nero had never been so grateful for Nico's batshit driving skills as when he found her right outside the throne room.  Somehow, she'd managed to get the van into the damn demon tree and came right up to the door.

There'd been a small amount of controlled panic at the sight of a naked, incapacitated Vergil wrapped only in Nero's blue coat, but the three women recovered better than Nero had.  It was worse knowing that Dad would've sooner cut off a hand than let anyone see him in this state, but thankfully none of them were in a teasing mood.  They went for efficiency instead.

A pair of Nero's pants appeared from his stock of spares, too short by a few inches but too large everywhere else thanks to the alarming weight loss Dad had suffered, and the softest long-sleeve shirt they could find would do a good job of keeping him warm for the time being -- even if it wasn't something Vergil would pick out for himself.  Granted, manhandling a well over six feet tall, half-unconscious person into a set of clothes wasn't a simple task while being rocked around by Nico's crazy driving, but they managed.  There was only so far she could take them, though.

Eventually they ran out of even improvised road, and Nero made the call to head out on foot.  Without his aunts.  And boy did they fight him on that.

Surprisingly, it had been Vergil's measured logic that stopped the two women from just refusing to stay behind after Dad explained that they'd need someone to watch their backs.  Dante had done a good job clearing the path, but there was a real chance that more demons would be following them, any of which could beat them all to the punch and get the magical fruit.  Trish agreed, with Lady much more grudgingly accepting the compromise of killing any monster that even thought of poking its head out.

Then again, Nero didn't tell them the whole plan.  He didn't mention why he had to take his father along.  He hadn't even asked Dad if it was what he wanted.  The possibility of a 'no' was a risk far too great for Nero's heart to handle.

He should've known better because Vergil was both perceptive and stubborn and never one to be entirely docile.  It didn't take much time for them to start arguing when his father declared himself a liability, Vergil moving from demands to 'suggestions' to protests over the course of an hour and needing more and more time in between each to get his breath back.  The only good thing about this horrible situation was that Dad didn't have the strength to physically fight him on it.

"You need to leave me," Vergil murmured next to Nero's ear, his weight solid but limp on his son's back.

"Not happening," Nero told him flatly.  He adjusted his hands to more firmly hold under Vergil's thighs and hiked him a little higher up toward his shoulders.

The responding sigh brushed over his cheek, and he felt his father shake his head.  "I'm slowing you down.  You can't carry me and help Dante fight at the same time."

"Stop asking," Nero growled.  "I'm not leaving you here, not ever, so don't say it again."

Yamato banged against Nero's hip from where it had been awkwardly tied to Vergil's belt loop.  It had been easy enough to peel back all the layers that encased the sword, but the blade underneath was corroded like it hadn't been cared for in years, an unnerving mirror of its owner's condition.

Vergil was finally quiet, breathing ragged, and Nero found himself walking faster.  His own energy reserves were starting to flag after a solid month of stress and the long day of combat.  If they didn't get this done soon, Nero wasn't completely sure how much use he'd be either -- but he wanted revenge so bad he could taste it.

He would make that demon pay, he would make him suffer, and he would fix the damage that had been done with the very thing the monster had invested so much work into.  The promise of vengeance was enough to keep Nero on his feet for now.  It always amazed him just how much he could wring out of that drive.

He couldn't tell how much more Dad could take, though.  The man's hands were loose where they rested against Nero's shirt collar.

"We're almost there.  Just hold on a little longer," he said, not even sure if Vergil was still conscious enough to hear him.  Nero took the risk of jumping into the dark hole in the middle of the empty, icy cavern.

He stumbled when he landed, barely managing to hold onto his father, but there was Dante in that crazy new devil form, beating the shit out of the now giant demon.  Relief renewed his strength, and Nero carefully laid Vergil down as far out of the way of the fighting as he could.  His goal was just a bit past them, hanging from the branch of a shriveled tree.

Dante caught his eye as he spun to slam an elbow into the demon's face with concussive force.  "Go!" he shouted.  "I've got this!"

He didn't need to be told twice.  Nero took off like a shot, racing past the combatants, ignoring the cursing from their enemy.  "You useless wretch!" the demon shrieked.  That infuriating smugness from before was completely gone.  "I will carve out your heart and eat it in front of your kin!"

"Just try it!" Nero yelled back.

He jumped as high as he could, stretching out his newly regrown arm, right before a root wrapped around his leg and hauled him downward.  Panic spiked through him.  Dad couldn't afford another try; there wasn't time.  Nero needed that apple.

A spectral blue claw rushed out and snatched the fruit off the branch as he spun through the air, and Nero twisted himself awkwardly when he landed to make sure it wasn't damaged.  It knocked the wind out of him, but he scurried toward his father's prone form, kicking another root that tried to snag him again.

"No!  That's mine!  This isn't fair!" roared the demon in the distance, rage and frustration a sweet sound to Nero's ears.

Dante headbutted the bastard and laughed.  "Should've thought of that before you messed with my family!"

This was it.  Just what they'd planned.

The fruit was disgustingly warm in Nero's palm, pulsing like a heart and glowing with power.  Everything about the apple was disturbing, but he crammed it unceremoniously into Vergil's slack mouth anyway.  "Please work, please work, please…" he whispered.  Nero gagged from the strong copper smell filling his nose when it burst like a water balloon filled with blood.  

Nothing happened for a few heartbeats, and he let out a tense sob, clenching his fists in Vergil's borrowed shirt.  His chest felt so unbearably tight.  Was it not working?  Was he too late?  "Please don't do this, Dad…  Don't leave me.  I need you to fight--"

Nero recoiled when he felt Vergil's entire body suddenly stiffen, and he found himself pushed across the ground by an eruption of demonic energy.  He dug all of his hands into the knotted roots to keep from tumbling any further, wincing at the suffocating power.  It was cold and unyielding but so achingly comforting.  Home.  Family.  Safe.

Father.

He forced his head up, and there stood Vergil in all his inimitable glory, only an equal to his twin.  The power was evident in his new form, four wings spread wide and blue flames warping the very air around him as if he couldn't be contained by mere nature.  It was incredible.

"Dad!"  Nero felt a burst of joy that left his limbs shaking.

Flickering out of sight, Vergil vanished and reappeared in range of the demon.  He easily caught a blow meant for Dante and twisted the monster's arm until the bone snapped with the sound of a whip-crack.  The bastard screamed in pain and terror, and something cruel inside Nero responded with delight.

"W-wait!" the demon pleaded.  "If you spare me, I can give you--"

Yamato plunged straight through the demon at the same time Dante cut down with his devil sword.  For all the trouble and anguish he had caused, this demon died just like any other, under the blades of the sons of Sparda.

And then Vergil turned on his brother.

Nero's insides seized up with dread, and he scrambled to his feet to run toward them.  Vergil snarled and slashed without his usual practiced efficiency, but Dante dodged out of the way and decked his twin in the face to stun him.  "Snap out of it!" Dante shouted.  Nero heard his uncle's pained grunt when he was hit hard enough to go flying.  

He could tell his father wasn't in his right mind, eyes glazed and unfocused, movements too stiff and frantic.  It was a replay of the throne room but worse.  There wasn't someone pulling his strings this time, there was only the beast that lived under his skin driving him on.

"Dad, stop!  You can't--"  Nero transformed reflexively when his father charged at him and barely caught Vergil with all four of his arms to keep from being skewered.  The barbed tail still pierced through his shin and ripped out a good chunk.  "Dad, it's me!"  He stumbled back when his father pushed forward.

"Vergil!" Dante shouted and rose into the air like he was going to dive at them.

"Stay back!"  Nero's arms were straining, but he could feel it thick in the air, the heady demonic energy from Dante, Vergil, and even the dead wanna-be king amplified by the Qliphoth.  It fed Nero's blood lust and violent urges until it threatened to choke off his ability to reason, and he could barely separate himself from his inner monster wanting nothing but chaos and death.  If his father was feeling the same thing in his previously weakened state…

Nero let go of his power.  Dad lunged, and Nero raised his right arm to protect himself before remembering that he wasn't wearing one of the metal Devil Breakers anymore.  Losing his arm again was going to suck, he thought distantly, but if it brought Vergil out of his fugue, it would be worth it.  He squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation.

"Ne...ro…?"

The voice sounded small, frightened, and Nero opened his eyes again to see his father staring down at him with a wicked looking claw hovering where he'd stopped his strike.  But there was awareness in his imposing face.  "Dad," Nero breathed, so very relieved.

"I almost…"  Vergil flinched hard when Nero tried to touch him.  "I hurt you.  Again."

"Hey, no, it's okay," Nero said quickly, laying his fingertips against sharp scales.  "We're all good, all of us made it.  I'm fine, and you're still you."

Vergil shuddered, and the shroud of energy dispersed, leaving him looking tired but no longer on death's door.  He'd even whipped up a new set of clothes with all that extra demonic power, and Yamato gleamed again in the bizarre light that illuminated the apple's chamber.

Nero wrapped his arms around the man without thinking, burying his face into his shoulder.  Vergil leaned into him voluntarily.  This was what Nero had missed, quiet strength and support, something always unspoken between them but understood just the same.  The feeling of his father's fingers threading through his hair brought yet more tears to Nero's eyes, but this time he felt no need to fight them.

"I swear the two of you are why I have white hair," Dante accused.  He released his transformation and lay a normal human hand on the back of his nephew's head when Nero started to laugh.

"You've always had white hair," Vergil mumbled.

"And that's the joke, dear brother."

It was obvious that Dad didn't share that humor when he huffed.  He opened his mouth to make what was probably going to be a scathing rebuttal when the ground started to shake under their feet.

"Shit!" Nero hissed, finally letting go of his father.  "We gotta go.  This damn tree is still tearing a hole down into the Underworld and eating up the city.  If we don't do something soon, it'll get really bad."

"Relax.  We'll handle it."  Dante patted Nero's shoulder.  "You just get yourself topside."

Nero's brows dropped, and he frowned hard.  "What exactly do you mean 'take care of it,' old man?"

"The roots of the Qliphoth need to be severed in the Underworld, which means we can't do it from here," Vergil said.  Nero hated how carefully he was watching him, like he was going to flip out.  Which he was.

"You can't be serious!  After all this shit, you think I'm just going to let you run off to hell?!"

"Kid, it's fine.  We'll go together."  Dante smiled at him broadly.  "You just worry about getting everyone out of here.  We can count on you to do that, right?"

It was a dirty play, Nero thought, putting the responsibility for Lady, Trish, and Nico on him so he couldn't refuse.  He turned his face away and squeezed his hands into fists.  They'd just found each other again, but how could he argue with that even though he wanted to?  The possibility of losing them both to the Underworld, even temporarily, made his heart hurt.

Two fingers tapped him under the chin to force his gaze back up, and Vergil stared at him seriously.  "Do you really think we'll abandon you?"

Nero breathed in deeply, trying to get his emotions under control.  "No," He said finally.  "I just… don't want you to go away again."  It was childish, but he couldn't help himself.  This was all going too fast.  He wanted more time.

"That will never happen," Vergil assured him and brushed his thumb against Nero's cheekbone.  "We will return, I promise you."  For a moment, Vergil's lips parted like he wanted to say something more, but he flattened them together into a grim smile instead.

"And I promise we won't be down there for a whole year this time," Dante added, reaching over to lightly pinch Nero's other cheek.

"Okay," Nero said thickly.  "Okay, but I'm gonna hold you to those promises.  I'll see you soon."

He watched them go, passing through a rift that Yamato tore into space with only the barest glance back at who they were leaving behind, and then Nero made his way up through the shuddering tree as fast as he could.  He forced himself not to think too hard about what was happening -- if he did, he might do something he'd regret.  Then again, with the ground starting to collapse behind him, he probably wouldn't need to worry about that if he kept being distracted.

Nero ran hard, leaping over a chunk of root that fell right in front of him.  In the distance he could see a cloud of dust kicked up by the van, and he poured all his remaining energy into hauling ass toward it.

The side door swung open, and Trish leaned out with her hand extended for him.  "Nero, jump in!" shouted Nico over the wind of their passage.

He reached as best he could, pouring on extra speed with everything he had left, but just as their fingertips brushed, his foot fell on empty air.  Nero dropped and barely saw the dawning horror on Trish's face before she vanished beyond the lip of the Qliphoth's rib-like ramp.

Too little.  Not enough.  Another failure.  Nero plummeted and felt a white-hot spark of fury that after everything he'd been through, this was how he was going to die.  Not by the hands of the grinning devil.  Not by the sword of his possessed father.  Not even under the claws of one of the minor demons that he'd spent the last month exterminating.  Just a single step too slow to catch his aunt's offered hand.

"Fuck you!" Nero howled and pushed back against everything.  Power rushed through his being again, bursting out his back, and he was catapulted into the air.  For a short distance, he soared like a god-damn bird through the sky.  It felt fucking glorious.

And then he hit the roof of the van with a thump, barely managing to hook his fingers around the ventilation cap to avoid being immediately flung off when the vehicle swerved wildly.

Nico spun the steering wheel when they hit the end of the crumbling ramp.  The van turned sideways and went into an exaggerated slide, momentum tilting it up onto two wheels.  For a second, Nero was sure the thing would just land flat on its side before it finally slammed back down upright.  When the rocking from the van's abused shocks finally stopped, Nero just lay there and breathed.

"Oh god, oh shit, oh no!"  The side door smacked open again, making Nero flinch, and Nico practically shoved Lady and Trish out in her scramble toward the edge of the now decimated ramp.  All three women stopped to stare down into the abyss.

"Nero…" Lady whispered, and her shoulders slumped.  Nico dropped into a crouch, spearing her fingers into her thick hair and tugging anxiously, but she only made a small squeak of sorrow when Trish lay a hand on her back.

"It's… I'm sure he's…"  The demoness struggled to speak.

Oh.  They thought he was…  Well fuck.

"Ya know," Nero said loud enough to send them spinning around to look up where he was sprawled.  "Flying really is handy."

 

It didn't take long for Nico to drive them back to the city outskirts -- after he'd been thoroughly scolded for making them worry and Dante and Vergil verbally abused despite being absent.  They'd had one small outbreak of demons that stood in their way, but that suited Nero just fine.  He was happy to cut them down at his aunts' side, giving him the chance to hide just a bit longer from the inevitable.

Then the tree was falling, disintegrating, pollen showering the ruined city like ash from an eruption.  The quiet afterwards was disorienting.

Nero didn't know what to do with himself.  He'd been moving at full tilt for such a long time, and now it was like someone scooped out all the tension that had been holding him together for the last month.  He felt… empty.  He knew the peace meant Dad and Dante were successful and that they'd be making their way back as fast as they could -- they'd promised -- but he couldn't shake the void in his center.

Lady talked to the military and even got them paid somehow.  Trish kept an eye on Nero like she thought he might do something as dumb as his uncle and father.  Nico chain smoked for nearly an hour to calm her nerves.  Nero barely even moved from his spot in the passenger seat.

Wasn't he supposed to be relieved after all this?  His family was safe and sound, or at least as safe as they ever seemed to get, and the bastard who'd hurt them all was dead.  The pain and despair and endless terrors were gone, laid to rest.  Maybe it would just take time to sort himself out, but it was so much harder without his father and uncle where he could remind himself that they were indeed fine.

"That demon…"  Trish's voice startled him, and Nero glanced up at where she leaned against the back of the driver's seat.  "He used to be one of Mundus' followers."  She paused.  "Maybe 'follower' is a bit of a strong word to use."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"He was an opportunist, looking out for himself first and only helping Mundus because he wasn't strong enough to overthrow him at the time," she said.  "Mundus kept him around with some precautions because he was so effective, and it looks like he learned a lot of Mundus' secrets during that time -- including your family's weaknesses and how to enslave other demons.  Or half-demons."

It made sense now that he heard it.  There'd been so many things that the demon had stolen from Mallet Island, so many nasty tricks that felt horribly familiar.  Nero didn't particularly like the thought that they'd all been beaten by a second-stringer but knowing that even Mundus kept the guy on a short leash helped a bit.

Granted, this opened the possibility for more of Mundus' old cronies to someday crawl out of the woodwork, which wasn't a very pleasant concept.

"I'm sorry I didn't recognize him sooner," Trish sighed.  "I don't know if it would've made a difference, but…"

Nero shook his head.  "None of this was your fault.  You can't blame yourself for--"  He winced, realizing he was parroting Dante's words.  There were times when the old man had a point after all.

"I know," Trish said.  "It doesn't really make the guilt go away, though… being able to feel guilty is good compared to the alternatives, I suppose."  She smiled at him then.  "I'm glad you're safe."

That squeezed a hollow laugh out of him.  "That should be my line, shouldn't it?"

Trish pressed a kiss to his cheek, smile turning into a grin.  He knew he was blushing.  "You'll always be that cute little boy who was kind to me all those years ago.  I'm afraid you'll just have to live with me fussing."

Nero jumped when the phone on the dashboard rang, and he lunged for it, thankful for the distraction from his embarrassment.  "Devil May Cr--"

"Is everything okay?  Are you alright?  Did you find--"

"Yeah," he said quickly.  The anxiety in Kyrie's tone was eating holes in his stomach, but he was unspeakably happy to hear her voice.  "We're all okay now."

Her sigh was staticky and ragged.  "That's good.  I'm so glad.  I was just…  I'm so glad."

"Me too," he said sincerely.  He glanced out the windshield to see Lady approaching.  She paused for just a second to say something to Nico before both women climbed into the van.  Trish squeezed his bicep as she retreated to the back, and he found his heart starting to settle just a little.  "You don't need to worry anymore, though," he told Kyrie.  "We're coming home."

 

***

17 AUGUST  PM06:25 (2 months later)

Nero closed the door behind him and toed off his muddy boots on the heavy-duty welcome mat that Kyrie had bought specifically to keep him from tracking demon guts through the entryway.  He was exhausted enough that the goofy devil face on the mat didn't make him smile this time.

Setting Red Queen to the side, he shrugged off his coat and hung it up, noting Credo's favorite leather jacket was a few pegs down on the rack.  At any other time, Nero would've been happy to have company for dinner, especially someone who was good at helping to wrangle the kids, but today… he was too tired to be happy about anything.

"Two months," he muttered.  Stepping a few feet further in, Nero picked up the pen Kyrie kept hanging on a string next to the calendar.  It was a free one Nero had gotten from the bank when he'd been on the mainland dealing with accounting for Devil May Cry.  The monthly pictures were colorful landscapes of places he'd never been to and probably would never go, but the kids had liked it, so Kyrie hung it in the hall where they could make notes about upcoming events.  Lately, all Nero had done was count the days that things didn't happen.

Or rather, the days that one particular thing didn't happen.  And he frowned when he saw a bright red line drawn through the corner of the day's box instead of the black 'X' he expected to add himself.

"Ah, you're back."

Looking over his shoulder, Nero spotted Credo standing in the doorway to the living room with the oddest, smuggest smile.  That was not a normal expression on the man.

"What's going on?" Nero asked cautiously.  He wasn't in the mood for the kind of 'cheering-up' hijinks everyone had been pulling on him since he'd come back from Red Grave.  As nice as it was to know that they cared about him, he wasn't sure he could handle it after a grueling day of hunting.

Kyrie's head poked around the doorjamb, auburn hair piled into a messy, perfect bun.  "You're home!" she exclaimed, and Nero sighed.  If she'd been suckered into something too, he was definitely doomed.  "We've been waiting for you."

And then she was ducking back inside.  Nero sagged a little and noticed Credo's smirk had become an all-out grin.  Caving like a house of cards under a stiff wind, Nero followed his girlfriend into the living room.  "Okay, I give.  What're you all up to?  And who's this 'we' you're--?"

A lump jammed up into his throat, stopping him from saying anything else.

"Hey, kid.  Sorry we're late."  Dante, dressed in some of Nero's old sweats, gave him a smile from the couch.  Dad, similarly dressed and with hair still damp from a shower, sat next to him drumming his fingers on his knee and just staring at Nero like he wasn't sure what he would do.

"Wha… you…"  Nero felt light headed, out of breath, and his eyes were suddenly burning.  Everything tunneled down to the two men right there in front of him.  Nero tried to swallow down that stubborn, thorny lump.

"I told you," Vergil accused, turning on his brother.  "Surprising him was a terrible idea!"

Dante exchanged his smile for wide eyed panic.  "I didn't think he'd really--  Wait, don't cry!  Oh hell, I hate it when he--"

His uncle shut up when Nero ploughed into the couch between them, an arm thrown around each twin.  He pressed his face first against Dante's shoulder and then against Dad's, not trusting his voice to stay steady enough to express the depth of what he was feeling.

"I said don't cry," Dante sighed, patting him on the back.  "Aw, kid, I'm sorry.  We really tried to get back faster, but we ran into a few obstacles."

"Jackass," Nero said.  The word was muffled against the sweatshirt his father was wearing.  He startled when he felt the solidness of Vergil's forehead coming to rest against his temple.

"I promised we would come back," Dad said softly, and Nero inhaled when a hand raked through his short hair.  A display like this from Vergil was rare -- especially with an audience of more than Dante.

It took Nero a few seconds to get his tongue to work.  "I missed you."

Vergil didn't reply, pulling his face away, and Nero expected that was the end of this emotional moment.  Until he felt a gentle kiss on the same temple his father had been pressed against.  "I love you so much, my son," Vergil whispered, wrapping a strong arm around Nero's torso and holding him close.

Shock stalled him, and Nero could feel the huff of pleased laughter under the forearm draped over Dante's shoulder before he managed to recover.  "I… I love you too, Dad," Nero choked out.

"Aww, yeah," Dante cooed.  "I want in on this too."  He rolled himself so he was half onto Nero's back and able to fling his hand around to grab his brother.  "Bring it in, group hug."

"Must you?" Vergil said witheringly.  He attempted to shrug off Dante's hold without much success.

"You're squishing me," Nero complained, trying to wriggle into a more comfortable position but sliding awkwardly on the couch cushions.

The digital sound of a camera shutter made Nero sigh, and he worked himself around to glare at Nico with her cell phone out.  He hadn't even noticed her lurking in the corner.  Her grin was nothing short of shit-eating.

"What?" she said.  "Like I wasn't gonna get evidence?  This is primo blackmail material here.  Also cute as hell."

Kyrie was smiling ear to ear next to her brother, but she leaned her head toward the kitchen.  "You can come in now," she called, and the thunder of small feet made Nero laugh.  Carlo jumped right up into his lap while Julio went to Vergil and Kyle immediately besieged Dante with questions and hugs.

The sudden noise was practically deafening, but Nero found he didn't mind at all, and judging by the looks on the faces of his family, neither did they.

Their nightmare was finally over.

Chapter Text

Dante followed his brother and nephew out of the Yamato's portal and into the hills at the border of a tiny Midwestern town.  He rubbed his jaw, considering how little time he'd had to just relax and enjoy knowing that everyone he cared about was safe and sound after what had gone down in Red Grave.  Less than a month later, Vergil was hanging up the office phone and dragging Dante off the couch, through a dimensional gate, and into Nero's garage for a serious talk.  And a serious job.

"I just don't get it," Nero said, coming to a stop and squinting at the red haze hanging over the town below them in the valley.  "Why the hell would someone think setting Mundus loose would be a good idea?"

"He is still technically the ruler of the Underworld," Vergil reminded his son.  They picked their way down the steep slope, avoiding some of the worst dips and bumps as best they could.  Dante couldn't help but smile when he saw his brother reach for Nero's arm to steady him out of habit.  The kid would normally get all prickly if his father implied he needed help, but things had been different lately.

Nero caught Vergil's elbow without making a big deal of it, and the two supported each other even though they could manage just fine individually.  Dante's smile got even bigger when the kid grabbed onto his sleeve too just for good measure.

"Yeah, but," Nero started, taking a careful step over a moss-covered rock, "what do they think they'll get out of it?  It's not like he's gonna thank these people, right?"

"What they expect is some sort of boon or favor," Vergil said.  "What they'll get is most likely a swift and grisly death."

"Most humans who make deals with demons aren't half as smart as they think they are," Dante added.  Vergil made a face that was equal parts irritation and chagrin.  Probably remembering his disastrous deal with Arkham way back when.

"Mundus'll just eat all of them," Nero decided.

Vergil smirked and finally let go of his son's arm once they were on more stable ground.  "He'd be doing us a favor for once, clearing out the pests."

"Hope he doesn't expect a thank you card," Nero said testily.  "I had nightmares for years after that bastard kidnapped me."

"You're not the only one," Vergil murmured.

Dante clapped them both on the shoulders to dispel the darkening mood.  "We've got a lot to pay him back for, and it's high time we call in the tab.  If we can bust a dangerous cult and get paid at the same time, I figure that's a nice bonus."

Vergil snorted.  "I always wondered where Nero got his optimism from.  But yes, let's close this circle."

Now that they were passing the outskirts, Dante couldn't help but notice the resemblance between the abandoned town and the ones he'd seen on a marathon of old westerns that had been on the TV he was too lazy to turn off one evening.  It barely looked real, and the place was creepy as hell with the listing structures on the verge of collapse, peeling paint, and a complete and utter absence of any residents.  Perfect for dark lord ceremonies, he'd give them that.

Dante spotted the van parked in the shadow of one of the rundown buildings.  Lady leaned against the rear fender and tossed him a lazy wave.  "It's about time you got here," she said.  "Things are starting to get interesting." 

"Did you find where the ritual is taking place?" Vergil asked.

She jerked her thumb toward a church in the center of town where the red clouds were swirling.  "Not exactly hard.  The real trick was figuring out those barriers they put up to keep people -- specifically you three -- from getting in."

Nico leaned out of the driver's side window with a big grin.  "Nothin' we couldn't handle with a little genius."

"And a bit of experience," Trish added when she appeared from around the other side of the van.  She was holding some kind of gizmo covered in demonic script and glowing capacitors.  Definitely Nico's work, so Dante didn't question it.  Some things were safer not to know.

"Is everyone ready?" he asked instead.

"Almost.  Just need to double check the equipment."  Lady pushed off the van and climbed inside.

The three women and Nero set about making the final preparations, and Dante couldn't help but feel the anticipation growing.  A ripple of excitement set his foot tapping and his arms crossing while he waited.  He cocked his head as he read a faded 'General Store' sign sticking out from the side of one of the buildings, and his eyes drifted back toward the hills they had passed through to get here.  They were the only ones in the town other than the cult, no reason to expect outside interference or attack, but something was pulling his attention--

Dante stiffened, arms dropping to his sides.  Out there on the hillside he saw a silhouette, and it was only his enhanced vision that let him catch any details in the fading dusk light.  A woman in a black robe with long dark hair and… three faces?  Normally his instincts would be yowling about a demon, but this didn't feel dangerous.  In fact, he was pretty sure she was smiling at them.

"What is it?  What do you--?"  His brother cut off abruptly.

He jerked and turned to Vergil's taut features staring out at the same figure, but when Dante looked back, she was gone.

"Did you see that too?" he asked, not quite able to believe his own eyes.

"Yes," Vergil said slowly.  "I don't understand why, but I don't think she's a threat."

"More like… she was checking up on us."  Dante frowned, unsure how he felt so certain.

Vergil's mouth opened and closed.  He was just as much at a loss.  "Dante, do you feel…?"

"Like I'm forgetting something," he finished.  "Like there's a hole where a memory was."

"But it's been filled with new memories," Vergil said in wonder.

This should have been deeply troubling, should have set Vergil's paranoia off if nothing else, but Dante only felt a sense of contentment and harmony warming him from the inside out, and he could tell that his twin was the same.  "This is weird," Dante muttered.  "But I like it."

The crunch of Nero's boots approaching pulled them both away from the empty hills.  "You guys okay?" he asked, concern tinting his voice.

Dante cleared his throat.  "Yeah," he said, and he realized it was true.

"Shall we go?" Vergil proposed calmly.

Nero relaxed into a crooked smile.  As long as they were at ease, then apparently so was he.  "So, all we gotta do is clear out this cult and take down the King of Hell, right?"

"Yeah, though Mundus isn't a pushover.  We should be careful and make sure we've got a game plan once we get a look at the layout of the place."  Both Vergil and Nero stared at Dante for a moment, and he shrugged.  "What?  I'm getting old.  I don't need to be reckless all the time."

"He does have a point," Vergil allowed.  "We prevailed in our last encounter because we all worked together."

"Then that's what we'll do now," Nero said, looking from his father to his uncle.  "There's nothing we can't handle together."

Dante burst out laughing and waved his hands placatingly when Nero's expression turned annoyed.  "Sorry, sorry!  I was just thinking that there was a time that I wouldn't have been able to picture something like this, working beside my bro and not waiting to get stabbed in the back."

"Ah," Vergil said, and Dante noticed how his gaze jittered away and back.  "I suppose that's true.  Things really have changed, haven't they?"

Breaching the distance between them, Dante squeezed his brother's arm.  "They sure have.  For the better."

A soft smile tilted Vergil's lips when he looked at his son, and it wasn't hard to guess what he was thinking.  "Definitely for the better."

"Hey, are you three coming or what?" Lady called.  She and Trish were already making their way toward the church, apparently tired of waiting for the Spardas' little moment to wrap up.

"Yeah, yeah," Nero hollered back.  "Right behind ya."  He whipped around to hide the embarrassed pink flush of his cheeks, but Dante grinned at his back.  There were some things that stayed the same, and he was glad for that too.

Meeting the eyes of his twin, Dante knew that Vergil felt what he did, the certainty they would succeed and finally rid the world of the one who had destroyed their childhood and tried to ruin their future.  He found himself smiling so hard his face started to hurt.

"Hey, Verge, you remember what we used to say?"

Vergil's eyebrows jumped at the familiar question, but his own smile tipped slyly.  "I suppose I can indulge you one more time.  Just don't get used to it."

Forging ahead, side by side, matching their pace to one another, the brothers spoke in unison.

"Jackpot!"