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Carrion Flowers

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"Sons of Sparda. Your presence is not welcome here," a voice booms overhead, echoing through the barren plains around them as though through a magical PA system, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. A neat parlor trick they have seen approximately twenty times in the last week since they began their exploration and, were Dante being honest about it, rampage through hell. This particular area of hell has proven especially fruitful in their pursuits of underworld extermination—he is leading Vergil one-hundred and fifteen to ninety-eight, due mostly to the nest of spiders he'd encountered while Vergil was chasing down a particularly rabid fury. Though his twin had protested that each individual baby spider hardly counted as a challenge, Dante had been insistent that they were still kills on his count.

And so he is not surprised when Vergil draws the Yamato and dashes into the distance before waiting for Dante to even throw back a clever quip at whatever demon has come knocking at their door this time. Competition drives him—it is the mutual language they have chosen for their reunion, the one thing they are able to understand without hard feelings or past mistakes muddying the waters between them. Streaks of blue light arc through the air in his wake, an aurora of power to light up the dim underworld sky. The shock-wave of energy that breaks against Dante's skin when his twin transforms makes goosebumps rise on his flesh and his hair stand on end. Power, raw and unfiltered, enhanced by his frustration at his losing their little game.

Vergil is at his most entertaining when he is at his most raw, and his display makes Dante's lip curl with delight to reveal a row of shining, pointed teeth. Here, lost in the depths of hell, they have begun exhibiting more traits of their demonic heritage, rising from the surface and incorporating naturally with their human forms. Fangs and claws seem to be permanent, with wings and tail a useful, though impractical, option should they need it. The line between human and devil inside of him is blurry here, and where fear may have greeted that twenty years ago, instead he feels only peace. Equilibrium. He could grow used to the intoxicating allure of letting his demon side off the leash, if he isn't careful.

He leans across that blurred line now, feels the power ripple under his skin as his wings unfurl on his back. With a powerful downward beat he lifts himself into the air so that he can watch his brother's fight from a better vantage point.

His demonic opponent is generic, fantasy story fare: bipedal, tall as a house, curving horns atop its head and a flaming sword clutched in one clawed fist. They have seen its like more and more frequently as they encroach closer on the lands of the demon king, and Dante has come to know them well. They are the sort of demon that craves power of their own, that has gotten it into their thick head that they will fill the void left by the lack of proper leadership in the underworld, though none of them have the skill or the strength to be king.

Vergil, on the other hand, exudes that strength in waves. He is a streak of light, quicksilver spilling over the hellish landscape below in calculated and precise movements. The Yamato sings through the air, folded steel rending demonic flesh and spilling red-hot blood to the ground below, where it sizzles and pops as it burns the earth. The beast does not stand a chance against his might.

"Beautiful." The word bubbles to his lips unhindered, and though he is shocked with himself for giving it a voice, he knows that it is true. Beautiful is exactly how he would describe his brother now, so in control as he is with the tide of the fight. Each movement of his body and his blade is planned and controlled, each flourish exacting in its precision.

Although Vergil draws out the battle for their mutual entertainment, there is only so much the demon can do before it is overcome by his strength and his boredom. With a flick of his wrist he thrusts the Yamato into the beast's throat; with a twist he's beheaded it, blood spraying in a lava bright arc through the air. Where it touches the ground and his flesh it sizzles, but he is unfazed, immune to the discomfort in the afterglow of his victory. Dante reverts to his fully human form and drops back to the ground as Vergil returns to the clearing.

He drops the head at Dante's feet, lips quirked in a triumphant smirk, and his tail lashes back and forth in the dirt behind him. It is reminiscent of the stray cat that he's chased off of the front steps of the Devil May Cry in the past, presenting a kill to show his hunting prowess.

"For you, brother," Vergil says through clenched teeth, voice reverberating in an echo that strikes a chord deep in Dante's soul and rips an amused and appreciative growl out of his throat. A meaningful gesture in this new language they've begun to speak, a display of power and might meant both to provoke and impress.

"Still only counts as one." Vergil hisses and his eyes narrow and it is the only warning that Dante receives before he is sprinting at him, weapon drawn and fangs bared. The air around them stills as they collide, metal against metal; behind them their wings stretch in shimmering arcs, reformed in the blink of an eye to take their fight airborne. It becomes a dance, as it always does between them, and Dante ducks and weaves between the summoned swords that fly at him, curling through the air in elaborate arcs simply because he can.

"Got you." Vergil's voice is a high-pitched growl laced with morbid delight. They reconnect once more when Vergil charges him, a streak of bright blue as he blurs through space and time, and although Dante could dodge it, he's not inclined to do so, and the Yamato cracks his ribs and pierces his left lung. He curls a hand around the blade until he slices open his fingers and palm to the bone, and blood runs hot and sticky down his back and chest and wrist. When he takes a breath it comes out wet and rattling, his lung deflated by the wound, but despite the discomfort he pulls Vergil close, forcing the blade deeper to bring his brother into his orbit.

"Who's got who, hm?" He rasps, blood bubbling up into his throat and mouth as he speaks. With his free hand he grabs Vergil's waist, pressing him close even as the Yamato rips through him, spilling his life in an ever increasing river down his chest. When Vergil glares at him he laughs, then coughs, spitting blood across his brother's face. Disgust curls his lip upward and he breaks free with a fist to Dante's stomach that sends him crashing back to earth, face first in the dirt.

It is delightfully easy to get a rise out of his brother, easier even than when they were children. All it takes is Dante breaking his expectations, moving in a way he hasn't planned for or catching him off guard with his words, and Vergil's walls begin to crack and splits, emotion spilling out through those fragile gaps. Rage, frustration, embarrassment—they are emotions he has come to revel in prying out of his stoic twin, and he is becoming an expert at painting them across his brother's face.

He pushes himself to his knees and spits a mouth full of blood into the dirt. Wounds from the Yamato always take longer to heal, yet even now he can fill his lung re-inflating, the air rushing back into his chest as the perfect, surgical incision through his breast slowly closes. He catches his breath while Vergil lands before him, wiping Dante's blood off on his sleeve before sheathing the Yamato.

"I'm ahead," he says as he takes a seat across from his brother, legs crossed and the Yamato securely placed in his lap. He is always prepared for a fight, ever watchful of their surroundings, making up for Dante's lack of awareness with all of the severity of an older brother who has been forced to babysit his sibling for the evening.

Dante does not mock him for this, although he should. Brotherly obligations have never mattered to him before—why should they now? But he is thankful for the watchful eye, and so he allows Vergil to begrudgingly assume that it is Dante's laziness that keeps him so distracted, when in reality it is Vergil.

Vergil, at his side, fighting against and with him. Vergil, who's barely spoken a word since they embarked on this aimless journey through the underworld, who's very existence steals the breath from Dante's lungs every time he looks at him. Although he would never say it, he's afraid to look away, afraid that if he breaks his focus on his brother he will disappear.

"Stop staring at me," Vergil says, and Dante just grins and makes a show of licking the blood from his lips. The wound in his chest has closed and his breathing has returned to normal, and so he allows himself to revert to his fully human form, as Vergil has done. With his back freed of the cumbersome wings, he drops to the ground, folding his arms behind his head as a cushion.

"I’m getting bored.” One week has passed since they severed the roots of the Qliphoth tree, and now that they are directionless, boredom is beginning to set in for Dante. There are only so many times he can duel Vergil before the novelty begins to wear off, and their aimless wandering is making him restless.

Across from him, Vergil hums thoughtfully, and Dante twists his neck to the side so that he can keep an eye on his brother even though he is lying on his back. His twin sits with his arms crossed and his eyes closed, as if he is meditating; Dante is filled with the childish impulse to drape himself across his brother’s shoulders to break his concentration. That would require standing up, however, which is a thing he is not inclined to do yet, so instead he fumbles around on the ground for a rock that he can toss at him.

“Don’t even think about it,” Vergil says before he can succeed in his mission, and he sheepishly grins at the single opened eye that is now watching him.

“I’m bored,” he reiterates and the look Vergil levels at him in response would make a smarter man shut up and drop it; lucky for the both of them, Dante has never been a smart man in matters where his brother is concerned. With a flourish Dante gets to his feet, relocating to his brother’s side—he drops against him and presses his back to Vergil’s, their mutually accepted sleeping position for when they have no more secure option available to them. If Vergil won’t entertain him, then he’ll go for the old standby of sleeping his boredom away. Before he can begin to doze off, however, Vergil shifts and sighs, a sign that he’s going to force himself to talk to Dante, and so the younger twin waits patiently for his brother to spit it out.

“I have a suggestion.” Dante raises an eyebrow at that, tilting his head back so it’s resting on his twin’s shoulder and he’s able to see the side of his face, upside down though it may be.

“Hit me.”

“How does petty revenge sound,” he asks, and even at this angle Dante can see the curl of his lip and the wicked gleam in his eye. Petty revenge is the most Vergil way to pass the time that Dante could think up, but given their current location and, from what he's gathered, proximity to the demon king's domain, he gets the feeling that this petty revenge is going to be right up his alley.

"You know I like making a scene," Dante says and Vergil laughs, a quiet huff of breath that Dante has come to recognize as honest amusement, and he shrugs his shoulder to indicate that Dante should stop leaning on him. Freed from the weight of his brother, he stands, pointing with the Yamato in the direction of his earlier fight with the demon.

"Mundus' domain begins roughly where we currently stand. It stretches through most of the underworld and contains the lands of those who have sworn fealty to him." He sweeps his arm in a broad stroke while he speaks, as if he is mapping out the layout into the air, but Dante does not pay attention to that. Instead he watches his brother's face, listens to his heartbeat and his breathing, and thinks: this is important to him. Vergil's heart-rate has increased, his breathing more shallow and faster, and although he shows no visible sign of his anxiety, it's clear to Dante that this explanation is torn from a particularly unpleasant part of Vergil's memory here.

"So what, are you suggesting we go in there and wreck some havoc? Destroy the place while he's out of commission?" Vergil's arm drops back to his side and he turns to face Dante once more; when he grins, it is with too many teeth to be anything but purely demonic, powerful and feral in its raw cruelty.

"Exactly."

Dante leaps to his feet and wraps an arm around Vergil's shoulder, pulling him against his side, and the stutter of his breathing at the sudden contact does nothing to deter him. It's a move meant to center his brother, to drag the humanity out of him until he is balanced once more, and it works: the quivering in his arms and the rolling waves of power and anxiety decreases to a steady hum.

"Got nothing better to do," Dante says, releasing his brother from his grip when it becomes obvious that he's toeing the line between "tolerant" and "furious" with the contact. This is exactly the kind of plan he can get behind. He continues: "Besides, I think we owe that bastard one."

"Indeed.” A pause, then: “We should probably make a plan.” Dante laughs in response, clapping a hand on his brother's back.

"Do I look like a man who makes plans? Let's just run in there and hit stuff until it breaks," he suggests, much to Vergil's obvious exasperation, although he's not entirely joking—the idea of wanton destruction excites him, and the demon inside of him howls with delight at the prospect of coming out to mindlessly destroy.

"You know this place better than me. Got anything particular in mind that we should go for first?" Dante asks as he walks up the sloping hill before them to give himself a better view of the surrounding area. Although Vergil claims they are entering Mundus' domain, very little looks different from the rest of the underworld so far. Tall, bone-white trees stretch to the sky above, lesser versions of the Qliphoth they have destroyed, their roots and branches reaching out like gnarled limbs to grab at them as they pass. Between these trees, knee-high grass blows in the hot wind, the deathly pale leaves faintly glowing with whatever phosphorescent demonic energy thrives at their core. It is the same landscape they have seen for days now, and Dante is growing sick of the sight and the smell of them—sour and reeking of rotting flesh.

The horizon proves more promising, however; he thinks he can make out the shapes of some kind of structures, though even his demonic eyesight has its limits. He gestures to them when Vergil finally decides to join him at the crest of the hill.

"What's that?" Vergil's eyes narrow as he tries to see the structures for himself, his brow creased in thought.

"I'm not sure," Vergil admits; before Dante can press him for details there's a cold ripple of energy at his side and his brother has partially transformed, wings and tail curving off of his back in a fluorescent blue arc. He shoots into the air at break-neck speed, stopping once he's reached a satisfactory height for his scouting efforts before beginning a quick loop of the immediate area.

Dante waits for him below, watching his twin weave through the air in beautiful, glowing arcs. One week has been enough to make this effortless for them, although he supposes Vergil has had more than one week. The reality that his brother has spent more of his life in hell than out of it hits him then, latches onto his heart and digs in like sharp claws through his chest. Dante vows then to ensure his brother makes it back, one way or another. He deserves to live a more normal life for once.

He is snapped out of his moment of reflection by the rush of air as Vergil lands several feet away from him. His wings dissolve into glittering blue shards of light as he paces back to Dante's side, brow creased in worry and thought, although this tells Dante little of what he found: it appears to be his permanent expression.

"So what's the plan?" Vergil shakes his head. Sharp teeth pull at his bottom lip, a nervous motion that tips Dante off more to the inner turmoil in his brother than anything else. Dante presses a hand to his arm, worried now that something is wrong, and Vergil shrugs him off with a huff.

"I do remember this place," Vergil says finally, looking to Dante with an expression that speaks of measured control—he's masking his emotions, hiding them to prevent Dante from knowing what he's thinking. Which is a sure sign that something is wrong, though he'll be damned if he can figure out a way to make Vergil admit that. He misses how effortless their communication used to be as children, the way they would finish each other's thoughts as if they were psychically connected. Perhaps they can reach that point again, in time, but for now he's stuck trying to force the information out of his twin verbally.

"So tell me about it," Dante says to another annoyed huff from his sibling.

"There's nothing to tell," he hisses, frustrated with Dante's prying; he's worked up enough by whatever it is that that emotion, at least, slips through the cracks in his composure. He adds: "But it would make a good starting place."

So it's somewhere important, Dante thinks, biting his tongue to keep his comments to himself. Refusing to share information is how one of them is going to end up dead down here, but he has time to figure out a way to pry the details out of his stubborn twin. The building is far enough away that it will take them a day or two to walk there, since flying is out of the question—they will be too noticeable like that, radiating power the way they both do. Remaining in their half human forms will allow them some measure of discretion, at least.

Vergil begins walking without hesitation or confirmation that Dante is following him, having come to this conclusion as well, and he takes after him when he realizes that he doesn't intend to stop.

He's really going to have his work cut out for him keeping them both alive down here.

Chapter Text

They stop to rest and regroup just outside of the gathering of buildings—up close, Dante can see that they are a cluster of small stone structures, the tallest of which is only two stories high. They are nondescript in every way, as if they were built by someone who had seen buildings only at a distance, had learned their basic shape, but hadn’t bothered to figure out anything past the surface details.

White and red vines climb the walls like the veins in an arm, pulsing faintly with the same strange demonic energy that seems to live at the heart of everything around them. Aside from the usual scavengers they have grown accustomed to dealing with in the underworld—Empusa, mostly, with the odd lizard thrown in between—the area is largely deserted, which Dante points out to his twin with a touch of disappointment. Not much destruction to be had if there's nothing to destroy.

"We're close enough to the Qliphoth that most of the demons here either went to the surface or retreated," Vergil explains as he lowers himself beneath the tree they have selected for their temporary rest stop. They've no reason to sleep in hell, fueled as they are by the demonic energy surrounding them, but Dante has noticed their ability to focus is significantly impacted if they don't at least stop to rest from time to time. Between that and the effort it takes out of them to hold their full devil forms for any extended period of time, they’ve decided that it is a necessity.

It was a lesson hard learned: when they had first entered hell, they had dueled each other with such unwavering ferocity that rest hadn't crossed either of their minds until they had both collapsed to the ground. They'd been exposed to an attack for half a day after that, had been forced to drag themselves to a nearby cave to recuperate, alternating shifts as guard.

Now, they stop to rest at regular intervals, primarily due to Vergil's incessant reminder and often when Dante is feeling the least like resting. It is with no small measure of annoyance that Dante drops himself to the ground beside his brother now, back pressed to the smooth, bony tree behind them, his hands restless and unoccupied in his lap.

"Got any more details about this place before we head in there?" Dante asks, and Vergil doesn't respond, though he does feel him stiffen where their shoulders are touching. That and the sound of his fingers drumming on the scabbard of the Yamato are the only indication that he's even heard Dante and he’s two seconds away from telling Vergil it's rude to just ignore people when he finally speaks up.

"There are different hierarchies of demons in the underworld. Each resides in a somewhat central location in Mundus' domain," he says, voice quiet and measured, precise in a way that leads Dante to believe he's being extremely careful about what he says. He doesn't like it, but at least it's information, so he lets his brother continue uninterrupted: "And each is lead by something like a commander."

"Alright, hell commanders, got it. I take it one of those big nasties runs this place, then?" Dante says when his brother falls quiet, hoping to encourage some more details out of him. Clearly he’s going to have to teach his brother some devil hunting etiquette, because keeping details from your partner is about as dumb as it gets. There is a long moment where it's obvious Vergil is debating how much more to say before he sighs, his head dropping back against the tree with a quiet thump.

"No. Not anymore."

"Come on, humor me here, Vergil. Give me a history lesson. I know how much you like to talk about this kind of stuff," Dante says, trying to be persuasive. In the distance he can hear the faint buzzing of the insect-like Empusa, ever following in the brothers’ path of destruction to lap up the blood that they leave behind, the beat of their wings filling the silence between them. The structures behind them remain quiet and unoccupied—when Dante attempts to explore them with his other, more demonic senses, he feels only the dull and ever-present hum of the underworld. Sensing demons is proving a more difficult challenge when everything around them is inherently demonic.

None of it gives him a clue as to what to expect on this first leg of their journey, so he waits with a patience he does not really have for Vergil to speak again.

"Their commander is long dead. It won't be a problem to clean up what remains," Vergil intones, voice flat. Dante sighs and taps the side of his brother's thigh with his knuckles, reprimanding him.

"I get that you don’t want to talk about this, so I’m going to drop it, but you really need to learn how to communicate here, Verg." Vergil does not answer, but some of the tension eases out of his shoulders, and Dante decides that will have to be enough. In his years, he has learned that sometimes it’s better to just let things drop. He'll learn the truth for himself soon enough.

There’s a moment of silence between them and Dante can feel himself dozing off, warm against his brother’s side, before Vergil’s voice snaps him back into wakefulness: “How did you defeat him?”

The question catches Dante off guard and for a moment he’s confused, unable to parse exactly what Vergil is talking about, before it clicks that he’s probably asking about Mundus. It’s only practical that he ask—if their end goal is really to kill the bastard, then the knowledge will come in handy.

Returning to old rhythms has been so easy for them that, for a moment, he’d almost forgotten about the years that separate them. Maybe he needs to work on his communication, too.

“With the Sparda,” Dante responds, remembering the rush of power that had filled his body when he had first held their father’s sword, the way it had stirred within in him something he has never been able to recreate again. “I chased him into the underworld, I didn’t really think about it too hard. Not after… you. After Trish. I just knew I wanted him dead, no matter what it took.”

There had been a voice then, hadn’t there? A gentle probing in the back of his mind as with all of his other devil arms, quieter and weaker than Alastor or Ifrit, but warm. Familiar and encouraging.

“When I jumped into hell, it was like he was there, too. Dad,” he says and Vergil’s surprise is evident in the way his arm twitches against his, but he doesn’t interrupt. “I swear Verg it was like I was him for a moment there. I’ve never been able to do it again, not that I’ve really tried. It… I didn’t really want him in my head, too, you know? It’s why I gave that damn sword to Trish.”

It feels strange to talk about this so openly, making himself vulnerable to his brother by sharing these darker parts of himself. If there is anyone in this world he would want to discuss this with, it’s his twin, and yet two decades of separation and animosity have made this a complicated thing. Not to mention the fact he’s never talked about this before, not even to Trish, who had witnessed the last half of their battle in the crumbling ruins of Mallet. He reminds himself that it’s done out of a practical need for information—he is the one who challenged Mundus, in the end, so this only makes sense.

He recounts the details of the fight that he can remember—the voice, his transformation, the earth shattering size and intensity of him. Mundus had been an incomprehensible force even in the human world, something almost god-like during their fight in the underworld. To be honest, Dante's not even sure what happened to him during all of it; it is a blur of motion and noise and pure, unfiltered rage. He had been working entirely off of instincts.

Vergil listens to his retelling at rapt attention, expressionless aside from the slight crease of his brow and the way he watches Dante's face while he speaks, as if he's reading each word as it leaves his lips. It makes his skin itch, like he's being examined under a microscope. It's a reminder that Vergil hasn't been around another living soul in the last twenty years: it doesn’t occur to him that staring someone down unblinkingly is creepy. Dante can't help but poke him in the thigh to try to get him to stop staring.

The jab goes unnoticed, but his brother looks away anyway, humming a low acknowledgment and muttering “I see” to Dante's words. Silence falls between them and Dante fidgets, wishing Vergil would have something more to say in response. When it becomes apparent that he has no intention to speak, Dante decides to do what they set out to do by stopping in the first place: get some sleep.

Rest comes to him in fits and starts here, his demonic senses too on edge to truly allow him uninterrupted slumber. Each time he wakes he reaches for Vergil’s leg to feel the smooth leather against his knuckles, a confirmation that he remains at his side, and each time Vergil hums quietly in acknowledgement. This is their unspoken agreement, the gentle back and forth that reminds Dante that his brother is still here, that he is not alone.

When he deems himself sufficiently rested, he stands with a stretch and a sigh, restless and ready to fight. Vergil is lost in thought, arms crossed and the Yamato propped against his shoulder, pale eyes half closed. Dante nudges him with the toe of his boot and he looks up with a glare.

"You good?" He asks, and Vergil lets out a deep sigh before rising to his feet to take his place at Dante's side. Their arms brush against one another as he does—Vergil's doing, for once, and a spark passes between them like static at the touch. It's enough to drag him back into full alertness, the thrill of a fight boiling up beneath his skin, leaving him eager and anxious to actually do something.

"Good enough," and then, almost as an afterthought: “Be careful not to draw too much attention.”

That's all he needs to hear before he's off, blinking around the tree and toward their first destination at full speed. Despite the distance between them he swears he can hear Vergil sigh in that dramatic, exasperated older sibling sort of way of his, and Dante laughs at the absurdity of it. They are charging headfirst into the home of their lifetime enemy and he is treating it almost like a game they would play as kids, ambushing imagined fortresses and slaying invisible foes.

The cluster of buildings proves to be largely empty aside from the creeping and slithering scavengers of the underworld, and they split up after the first to expedite their extermination efforts. Dante blazes through the demons with ease, smashing their hives and breeding grounds with Balrog as he goes. There's a sense of delight in this sort of easy and fast destruction. As much as his demonic blood sings for a good fight, it also revels in the swift overpowering of lesser foes, the efficient way he can tear through handfuls of them with a single dash.

Nearby, he can sense his brother moving through the other buildings, brief flickers of his power as he manifests his demonic abilities. Dante tracks them, tries to anticipate what Vergil might be doing only through those demonic senses—there, a fan of summoned swords; a swift judgment cut to dispatch of a group; the bright flare of power as he summons his doppelgänger.

That last makes him shake his head. "Thought we were supposed to be careful," he mutters, shoving his fist through the pulsing hive of a lizard spawner, dispatching it with a quick yank of his arm that splits it clean in half. As it bursts into ash and crumbles around him, he wonders if that counts as one or, say, ten. Probably just one. He should've let it spit out a few more lizards before he destroyed it.

It doesn't take them long to finish their work and they reconvene on the other side of the small town-like gathering of buildings, sweat-slicked and covered in blood. Vergil is unsurprisingly tidy, hair still perfectly in place and largely free of grime, although there's a new tear in the back of his coat and an almost alarmingly large splatter of blood down his right arm.

"That's not yours, is it?" Dante says as he approaches his twin, pointing to the mess that stains his sleeve with one gauntlet clad hand.

"Of course not," Vergil spits in response, as if the very notion that he could have been injured during something so trivial is offensive. Dante just shrugs.

"Hey, just checking." With a shake of his fists he dismisses Balrog back into the sea of his soul—or wherever it is he keeps his devil arms, he's never really figured that out. Fighting hand to hand has left him considerably worse for wear, blood splattered and covered in bits of gore, his shirt and hair plastered to his skin with the mess. Vergil takes one look at him and rolls his eyes.

"You look disgusting," he says, and then he must decide he does not particularly care to follow that insult to its inevitable conclusion, because he clears his throat and moves on: "Eighty-two."

"Ah shit, you got me this round. Sixty-seven." Vergil's pleased grin at Dante's admission of defeat lights up his eyes in a way Dante hasn't seen yet, and he forgets to respond, any witty quip or mocking remark lost in the warm glow of his brother’s joy. Jesus, but it’s good to see him like this—he’d been getting a little worried earlier.

In the time they've been together, short as it may be, his brother has been equal parts sullen and distanced, but the change in his mood since he identified their location in Mundus’ domain is concerning. There is still something he isn’t saying, but his smile is genuine enough, and it makes the worry smooth out to a dull itch in the back of Dante’s mind.

Vergil catches him staring and raises an eyebrow at him, though he makes no move to act or respond outside of his inquisitive look. They turn away from each other after a moment, awkward silence tense and thick between them. Dante clears his throat to dispel it.

“Well, that was easy enough,” he says and Vergil nods in agreement. Dante busies himself with examining their surroundings now that they have wandered deeper into the heart of them. The buildings around them have become more structured as they progressed through the—city? Do they have cities in hell?—and that trend continues down the path they now walk. Almost like a road, in a way, though Dante’s certain no cars have ever driven down it.

Positioned on the horizon is a building larger than any of the others they have encountered so far, twice as broad and tall as those they are leaving behind. Dante points to it as they begin their trek down the street, dispatching any straggling demons as they go with summoned swords and swift shots from Ebony and Ivory.

“What do you think—gotta be something good in there, right?” Dante asks, and Vergil inclines his head to one side, examining the building which Dante has indicated to him with a clinical eye.

“It is certainly large enough,” he responds, sounding mildly amused with Dante’s unabashed enthusiasm for the task at hand. They walk the rest of the way in silence, dipping into buildings nearby to check for anything worthwhile as they go. There's something strangely human about them as they progress further—a few have identifiable rooms, floor plans that you might find in a standard house or shop, but it's like he's looking into a collage of time periods. Stone huts sit beside the same kind of white-picket-fence single family home you'd find in the suburbs near Red Grave.

"This place is pretty creepy," Dante says idly as he kicks at a collapsed wooden fence in front of one such home.

"The underworld has a tendency to react to human emotions and thoughts, changing over time to reflect them," Vergil states, running his hand along a low stone wall as he goes. The house next to him looks like something Dante would find in an ancient history text book—single room, made of cracking gray stone and covered in those same red and white fleshy vines from earlier—and it paints a shockingly disturbing picture next to the modern family home at his back.

Dante puts some distance between himself and the houses, sticking instead to the center of the road. It's embarrassing how much it unsettles him. And to think he'd been the one who had wanted a change of scenery. If this is the kind of shit he can expect, maybe he's changed his mind on that one.

"That would imply that humans have been here." Dante looks at Vergil while he says it, judging his reaction, the flicker of a frown across his lips and the slight crease of his brow.

"Is that such a strange thought?" He asks, pausing for a moment to see if Dante will respond, and when he doesn’t, he continues: "Humans are a source of power to demons, as you've learned."

The Qliphoth, rivers of blood running through Red Grave. Yeah, he's learned.

He doesn't ask any more questions, decides he doesn't really want the answer, and Vergil provides no further details without his prompting. They fall into another uneasy silence as they walk, and he's thankful for the distraction when they are set upon by a pack of furies and blades who have been feasting on... something in a nearby building.

He tries not to look too hard at the remains of whatever it is while he dispatches of them.

The larger building looms over them as they slowly approach, and up close, Dante's able to get a good look at the thing. Two stories, maybe, based on the size, although there are no windows for him to properly gauge if he's right. There's a double wide door at the front, one side of which is hanging from its hinges, although he can't see inside from where they're currently standing, too far off at an angle.

More interesting than the building itself are the traces of the demons that once likely resided here—footprints in the dirt, lined up perfectly in sync in neat rows, almost like a marching army. The familiar scours in the earth left behind by the drag of over-sized swords. A silver shield, discarded off to the side and leaning against the mostly destroyed remains of a house.

Well, that would explain why so many of those damn knights had shown up in Red Grave.

There's something he's not quite getting about all of this, some piece he's not putting together between their surroundings and the knights, his brother's strange, standoffish responses and the houses near them. It's at the tip of his tongue, but he can't really figure out what it is about it that makes him so uncomfortable.

"Hey, Vergil—" He turns around to ask his brother about it and finds that he's gone, and fear spikes through his chest with a hard pulse of his heart. It's the first time he's turned to find him and he hasn't been there. All of the fears, all of the worries that have been sitting in the back of his mind crash into him as he spins on his heel, trying to find where Vergil's gone. A little voice in the back of his mind says you knew this would happen before he's able to squash it down.

He spots him further down the road, already walking toward that strange building nearby with focused determination. Even from this distance Dante can see the tight line of his shoulders, the stiffness up his spine as he walks with purpose toward their current destination. Dante doesn't hesitate to dash after him, sprinting up the path just as Vergil disappears through the collapsed doorway and from his line of sight.

He curses under his breath, flickers forward with a shimmer of ruby red light to put himself in front of the doorway. Something like anticipation curls in his stomach, cold and quivering.

He has a bad feeling about this.

Chapter Text

Dante enters the building with his brother's name on his lips, panic beating hot and heavy in his chest. With a flicker of demonic energy he summons his sword into his outstretched hand, preparing for the worst only to stumble in surprise when he is instead met with relative silence.

This first room is devoid of life, although it's definitely not empty—broadswords and silver shields lay scattered across the floor and against the walls, as if abandoned in haste. The silky ash of fallen demons coats everything in a fine film, drifting through the air as motes of dust. Judging by the fresh piles of both ash and glittering red orbs of demon blood, Vergil must have already dispatched of whatever might have remained here.

The building is similar to the ones they discovered closer to the outskirts of hell, with strange architectural choices that make no logical sense. Whoever designed it knew that buildings, typically, had four walls and a roof. They knew, too, that there were sometimes hallways, or stairs that led down to another floor, or doors leading to other rooms. The understanding stops there, at the purely superficial level—there are no windows, and despite his initial assessment that the place must be two stories high, it is only one. The roof is just incredibly high up.

It gives the entire place terrible acoustics. Each step he takes echoes around him like a shotgun blast, and he tries to walk lightly, nearly tiptoeing in an effort to not make as much noise. He considers flying over it, for a moment, before he decides that would be too reckless—whatever may be hiding in this twisted place doesn't need the big flashy "hello, here I am" heads up that his transformation would project.

The layout barely makes sense. It's a wide open room with shelves of weapons and shields, most of which have collapsed. Between the shelves he can see hallways and doors that lead off to... something, he's not really sure. Once, he attempts to open a door and finds that it goes nowhere, revealing only a sheer wall of solid stone, and he slams it shut in frustration. Damn demon architecture.

He can sense Vergil moving somewhere nearby, a few steps beneath him, and he picks up his pace. When he reaches the far wall, it becomes apparent that there are, in fact, multiple floors to the place—they just go down rather than up. There is a staircase tucked into the far corner of the room, just barely noticeable from where he's standing behind the heaps of armor and armaments that layin discarded heaps all around.

Dante takes the stairs two at a time, following the footprints in the dust that he knows must be his brother's. The stairs open up to a small landing, devoid of any remarkable features, before splitting off through a side door into a wider room.

The smell down here is atrocious, thick and cloying and damp. It makes him gag before he's able to get his more human sensibilities under control, and he's forced to clamp a hand over his mouth and nose to try to stifle it. What the hell is that?

He walks into the room to find Vergil standing frozen in place, as still as a statue. He's so focused on his brother that he doesn't bother to look around the room at first, not until he's at Vergil's side and reaching for his shoulder. It comes into his line of sight and for a moment his brain screeches to a halt, shocked into uncomprehending stillness by the sight before them.

He breaths into that silence between them, for lack of anything else to say: "Holy shit."

The scene is like something from a horror movie. Human corpses line the walls, hanging from steel shackles with limp and broken limbs, their faces and bodies mangled beyond recognition. Vergil steps out of his reach and paces the room with his hand tightly wrapped around the hilt of the Yamato—his knuckles have gone white and his brow is creased, confusion plain in his face.

"What the hell is this," Dante asks, spinning in a slow circle to get a full view of this room. The floor is covered in broken stone and metal, bits and pieces of body parts that he tries not to dwell on. Demonic energy thrums through the walls and the metal slabs that hold the shattered remains of what were presumably once humans pulses with it, bright and vibrant to his demonic senses. Whatever was happening here has changed them, morphed their bodies into something strange and disproportionate. It sends a creeping sensation up the back of his neck to look at them.

He has run across the phrase "uncanny valley" a few times in his work—human hunters like it as a descriptor for the things that are just creepy enough that what little instincts they have manage to kick in to tell them "hey, this is probably wrong." These vaguely human-shaped corpses fit that description perfectly. Just human enough to be registered as human, but grotesque, distorted in ways that set him on edge.

Those same red and white tendrils from outside are thick and tangled here, coating the walls and the floor like wires. In this context, they're reminiscent of the tentacles that had connected Urizen to the Qliphoth tree, filling him with human blood and power. The thought makes Dante immediately and intensely nauseous. He hadn't considered the implications of that yet, but looking at it in action here—albeit in the reverse, demonic energy being pumped into a human form--brings the gravity of what happened into sharp focus.

There's something else familiar about it, too, but before he can dwell on it further Vergil answers him:

"Artificial demons. Foot soldiers created by the corpses of humans infused with demonic energy." His voice is uncharacteristically thin, high and breathy in a way Dante's not familiar with. If he were thinking straight, he might identify it as something like worry, edging close to fear, but he is distracted by the horrific scene around him, by the knowledge that he has seen something like this before.

Fortuna. The Angelos.

"Vergil, we should go—" he turns to confront his brother, the cold reality of what this means hitting him like a blow to the gut, but he is already gone, the sound of his heels on stone floor echoing from a hallway nearby. Dante sprints after him, taking the corner so fast he almost skids into the opposite wall. He regains his balance and tears down the hallway at top speed.

Suddenly the thing he has been missing clicks into place with horrible clarity. The Angelos that had flooded Red Grave. The "commander" Vergil talked about.

Nelo Angelo. His brother.

Is this where Nelo Angelo was created? Was Vergil here?

This is a mistake, he can feel it in the pit of his stomach. He doesn't want to see this, doesn't want to face the horrible reality that his brother was once here, another corpse strung up on these walls, filled with demonic energy and transformed into that shadow he fought on Mallet. It all makes sense now—he can see the similarities in the corpses around them, in their strange stature and the bluish pallor to their skin.

He catches up to Vergil just as he's about to enter a room at the end of the hallway, latching on to his arm like a vice. Vergil jerks against him, turning to look at Dante only when he refuses to loosen his grip.

"Do we really need to do this?" Dante's own voice sounds foreign to him, turned strange and desperate with panic. He's horrified by the things they've already seen, by the implication of what that means for his twin. If there's more to see here, he's pretty sure he wants nothing to do with it. This is enough. This is more than enough.

He really, really doesn't want to know.

"I need to know, Dante," Vergil snaps, pulling his arm free, of course opposing Dante’s own thoughts. Dante latches back on again, tempted to manhandle his twin to the floor if he must.

"I really don't think you do, Verg. There's nothing good down here and there's nothing else for us to kill so let's leave," he says, and when Vergil just stares at him, jaw and brow a hard, chiseled line, he adds a "please" for good measure.

It doesn't work. Vergil jerks out of Dante's grip again, his hand tightening on the Yamato and his shoulders set.

"There's something else here," he says, and his voice is quiet and measured, like he's keeping back something he doesn't want Dante to notice. "I can feel it."

And then he's gone, disappearing further down the hallway before Dante can stop him.

Caution doesn't matter to him any more when Vergil's walking headfirst into what Dante is almost positive is a disaster waiting to happen, so he flickers down the hallway with a flash of ruby-red light to put himself a few steps ahead of his twin.

"Fine. But if we're doing this we're doing it together, alright?" Vergil doesn't respond, but he doesn't argue, either, so Dante leads the way down the hallway, sword in hand.

The first few rooms are the same as that larger room up front, filled with broken bits of what used to be humans. Each step that takes them deeper into the basement makes the smell worse, thickening with the increasing humidity. He has to fight back the urge to pull his shirt up over his mouth and nose—even the demon blood soaked into his clothes would smell better than this.

Eventually the human corpses give way to suits of armor, shining black and white constructs that are spread out on tables and hanging from walls. These, too, are connected to the red and white threads of demonic energy. He can sense it pulsing through the metal.

He can sense something else as well, now that they're deeper in the basement. Something vaguely familiar that tugs at his mind like a dark void. It reminds him of Fortuna, of Mallet. They enter the room from where it emanates, dark and threatening, and all of his fears and worries are immediately confirmed.

His eyes land on the broadsword on the stone table, enshrined as if for worship, and recognition hits him like a slap to the face at the precise moment that he hears Vergil retch behind him. For a split second he's transfixed, torn between his own shock and the instinctual response to rush to his brother's aid. With a shake of his head he snaps himself back into focus and he turns.

Vergil is at the entrance to the room, clinging to the wall with one hand, the other pressed to his thigh as he vomits nothing onto the stone floor. Shit.

"Hey, it's okay." Dante moves to his side immediately, pressing the flat of his palm against his back, rubbing up and down his spine in slow, wide arcs. Every inch of his twin is trembling, shaking so hard that Dante's not even sure how he's still standing. Every desperate gasp of breath between each dry heave feels like a knife being twisted in Dante's gut. Shit, this is not the reaction he was expecting.

Trauma hadn't been something that had crossed Dante's mind when it came to Vergil and his time as Nelo Angelo—his brother had always been unflappable, cool and collected, the master of his emotions. Seeing the evidence of the horrible things that have been happening here makes him realize that Vergil’s been through a hell he had never even imagined.

Coming here was a colossal mistake. He should've known better, should have demanded more details about this place before he just blindly followed his twin into its depths. Should've tackled him to the floor like he wanted to. Fear radiates off of Vergil in such raw and honest waves of emotion that he can smell it, sweat and bile and the prevalent stench of rot throughout the entire building blending into a heady cocktail that makes his instincts roar and sends a ripple down his spine.

Cold terror floods his gut as he realizes that a part of him is reacting as if a hunter to prey. It's the smell of the hunt, of human weakness laid bare. His demonic blood sings with the desire to capitalize on that fragility at the same time that he whispers aimless platitudes into his brother's ear, and it's appalling and confusing, a pure instinctual response that he would pry from his own chest if he could.

“It's okay, it's okay, you're fine now,” he says, and he knows his words are meaningless, but his brain can’t keep up with the revelation of his older brother’s vulnerability, of what they've just witnessed in this god awful place. For once, he’s stumbling for words. Nothing he says can make this easier and he knows it.

It takes a long moment before Vergil's able to rein in his response, instinctual and reflexive as it is. His fingers are digging into the wall with such intense force that the stone cracks under his touch. Dante considers trying to pry his grip away, pull him out of the room while he's still disoriented, but decides against it. That'd be a fine way to end up with the Yamato through his gut.

Instead, he keeps his hand on his brother's back, a steadying presence, and he fights with his inner demon that even now howls with the desire to take advantage of Vergil's very human moment of weakness.

“You probably think,” Vergil whispers, voice made raw from the effort of his unproductive heaving, “that I’m weak.”

“No, Verg, I really don't. Turns out that panic attacks run in the family," Dante says, careful to give Vergil enough room to breathe as he attempts to soothe him. He steps to the side, placing himself bodily between Vergil and his view of the weapon within, and he tentatively slides his hands to his brother's shoulders. The pained, reflexive retching has stopped, but he's still shaking uncontrollably, and when he looks up at Dante his pupils are blown wide in his terror.

"I barely remember anything," he snarls the words between clenched teeth, wild in his moment of vulnerability. "Why is this affecting me so much?" He's furious in his confusion, shaking now with rage as much as with the innate, physical response of his panic. Dante takes a step closer, tightening his grip on his brother's shoulders. Vergil immediately stumbles back as if his touch has burned him, moving out of Dante's reach.

He's really not sure what Vergil's talking about. Griffon had said that they were Vergil's nightmares from his time as Nelo Angelo, and Dante had killed them—which should, in theory, mean those nightmares no longer plague him. Based on what Vergil's saying, though, that might even be the problem.

He doesn't remember the details, but he remembers just enough to know this happened to him.

His brother has never reacted well to losing control over a situation. Frustration and helplessness roll off of him as sure as the hints of fear had before, and Dante reaches again for his brother's shoulders in an effort to steady him.

"Listen to me, Vergil. This isn't worth it. It's over," Dante says, but Vergil's not listening, his gaze focused somewhere past Dante as helplessness and fear warp into intense anger. Vergil's eyes narrow and blue fire creeps along his shoulders and neck, silvery scales rising in his flesh beneath Dante's hands. He has a split second to try to talk him out of this before he loses control of the situation: "Don't—"

Vergil's fury is absolute and all consuming—he succumbs to it so quickly that Dante is knocked back and he staggers, arms flailing to keep his footing. There's the familiar rush of power as his twin transforms and then he's dashing across the room, the Yamato cutting through the air in a shimmering arc as it slices through everything in his wake. Metal and stone explode around him like confetti as he slams into the shackles lining the walls, using his claws as much as his weapon to tear through anything that stands before him.

Dante takes another step back, this time out of the room and into the hall. He doesn't want to get caught up in this, knows that if he gets in the way he'll just provoke a fight. Raw and manic as Vergil currently is, a confrontation between them now would be needlessly bloody and brutal.

"Vergil." Dante says his name with as much force as he can muster, laces his voice with that demonic undertone that comes so easy to him now. It doesn't provoke a response, the word lost in the chaos that Vergil is inflicting around them. He watches him for a moment, bright and hot and burning with rage, driven by the things he half-remembers about this place, and Dante shakes his head. Leaves the room and heads back up the stairs.

He'll let Vergil have this. It's better than trying to bottle it back up, stop the flow of emotions that are overwhelming and overpowering him. The least Dante can do now is return to the surface and keep an eye out—with his brother's transformation and the waves of power and human emotion pouring off of him, he's bound to draw some attention.

The building shakes with his anger-fueled destruction and Dante can hear him as he blazes a trail through the underbelly of this horrible place, a cleansing fire to eliminate all traces of that which has hurt him. It's so incredibly Vergil. He should kick his ass for leading Dante into this, for refusing to talk about it at all when he so clearly knew something.

Not that this isn't also affecting him, but he's trying not to dwell on it right now. One of them has to keep it together enough to not die, and he knows if he lets himself stop and think about it, about his role in all this, it'll be a slippery slope. He's pretty sure they don't stock liquor in the underworld, so he's going to have to try to avoid that if he can.

He's luckily not given much of an opportunity to linger on his thoughts. There's a screech and the sound of feet stampeding across broken ground before he's set upon by anything and everything that's been drawn to Vergil's power.

So much for subtlety.

He channels his own frustration into the fight, flickering in and out of his lesser devil form with ease as he tears through the beasts that have come to prey on his brother. This, at least, is easy. Something he can understand and deal with. Losing himself in the fight, leaning into the desire to rip and tear and protect is all he's got right now and he's going to take advantage of it.

---
Dante is on Vergil the moment he emerges from the building, balling his fists into his coat and shoving him back against the stone wall. Wild, pale gray eyes stare back at him and he bares his fangs in response, but Dante doesn't let go; he shakes him, hard, just to get his point across.

Once the hordes of enemies that had come for them were taken care of, he'd had plenty of time to sit and stew in his anger at Vergil's inability to communicate. He's feeling tired and strung out, nerves pulled taut as a wire. His brother is an idiot.

"You knew what this was, didn't you?" He hisses, punctuating his words with another shake, and Vergil just glares at him. Blue fire flickers around his face and shoulders, although he doesn't transform—he's too exhausted for that, his tirade in the basement leaving him drained.

Dante continues: "This is exactly the kind of shit you need to tell me about, Vergil. Would've been nice to be prepared for that." He breaks off with a shuddering sigh, pushing Vergil back against the wall once more before releasing his grip on his coat. He presses his hand to his eyes to try to regain his focus. It doesn't work—when he closes his eyes he sees broken corpses, pulsing veins of demonic energy hanging from the walls. He opens his eyes again with a gasp. Fuck.

Against the wall, his twin stands frozen, hands pressed flat to the stone and chest rising and falling in frantic, rapid motions.

"I didn't think—"

"You never do!" He's on him again, first slamming into the wall next to Vergil's face, a hair's breadth from breaking his nose instead. The old stone splinters under his frustration and Vergil flinches, just a fraction, at the sudden outburst, before all of the fear and exhaustion drain out of his face and Dante's met with the icy and distant look in his eyes that means he's shutting him out.

"Get away from me," Vergil growls, low and demonic. Dante doesn't move.

"Not until you actually listen to me. Keeping this kind of thing to yourself is how one of us gets killed. Do you realize how big of a scene you just made?" Dante punctuates his words with his fist against the wall once more, although this time Vergil does not flinch. He's staring at Dante unblinkingly, reminiscent of a caged animal—wild and wide-eyed, fangs bared and gaze flicking between Dante's face and over his shoulder, looking for an escape.

The hand that grabs Dante's coat is clawed, fingers long and sharp. Blood wells up in the scratch marks he leaves behind on Dante's chest by his quick and frantic grip, but Dante ignores it, too focused on drilling this lesson into his brother's thick skull.

Vergil's voice has lost all traces of its humanity, a final warning: "Get. Back."

"Make me."

It's a childish outburst with no productive goal in mind and he knows it. All of his common sense has gone out the window in the face of this and a part of him, a very small and extremely vocal part, would love an excuse to deck his brother in the face. Vergil lashes out with unchecked ferocity, sinking his claws into Dante's chest and lunging for his face with a mouth full of sharp teeth.

Dante jerks back and presses his arm to Vergil's throat just as he triggers, sparing his face and neck from the vice of Vergil's teeth. They struggle against each other for a moment in a sloppy tumble of too many limbs. Dante takes a wing to the face, Vergil's tail wrapping around his waist and legs to try to trip him; Dante sinks his claws into his brother's shoulders in retribution, hissing at him in annoyance. Why does he even have a tail, it's such a huge pain in the ass.

Vergil runs out of steam long before Dante does, his transformation flickering before failing completely. Reflexively Dante folds his wings around his brother, releasing the grip on his shoulders to instead loosely hold his now much smaller arms at his side.

He drops his forehead against Dante's shoulder with a strangled sound halfway between a sob and a sigh.

Dante reverts to his human form and immediately loops his arms around his twin's back, pressing him close, trying to anchor him with his own body. Vergil doesn't react--his arms remain stiff at his sides, but his face stays buried against Dante's collar, and so he's going to call it progress.

"I should be stronger than this," Vergil spits, quiet and laced with venom, self-hatred packed into every word. Dante gets it all too well.

"It has nothing to do with being strong or not," Dante says, sliding a hand up his brother's back to smooth it through his sweat-soaked hair. He presses his mouth to Vergil's temple in not quite a kiss, tries as hard as he can to take some of his brother's pain into himself through their touch. "PTSD is a bitch."

Vergil just snorts in response.

"Vergil." He takes a deep breath, breathing in the scent of his brother, sweat and dried blood and the lingering traces of his wildly fluctuating emotions. What does he say? What can he say? He has to say something. "You're not alone any more, okay? I didn't follow you down here so you could do this alone, so stop acting like it. I said I was with you and I meant it."

Vergil reaches up and places a single hand on the small of Dante's back, a confirmation and acknowledgement in place of words. Despite everything, the exhaustion dragging them down and the gruesome things they've just seen, it sends a jolt of excitement up his spine. He shakes it off. Not the time or the place for that.

There's a long moment where Vergil just stays in his arms, not speaking or moving, seemingly drawing strength from Dante's touch before he finally says:

"You're filthy."

The absurdity of the statement makes Dante laugh and he releases his vice grip around his twin's shoulders to allow him a little more personal space.

"You're not much better," Dante responds, gesturing to the dust and ash and bits of whatever else clinging to Vergil's coat and vest. Evident, too, is his bone-deep exhaustion; he'd put every ounce of stored energy into his outburst and now his shoulders droop and his face looks hollow, the dark circles under his eyes even starker than before. His voice softens: "You need to rest."

Vergil opens his mouth, his brow creased in that telltale sign that he's going to argue with whatever Dante's just said, but then he closes it just as quickly. Instead, he simply nods.

"How far do you think you can go? Kinda want to put some distance between us and that," Dante says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the building. "Besides, you drew a lot of attention. No guarantees more demons won't show up soon."

Vergil closes his eyes for a moment as if he's taking mental stock of himself. It makes Dante realize that he's still standing unusually close to his twin, but he doesn't want to get too far from Vergil right now. Call him selfish, but he could use the moral support himself.

When Vergil opens his eyes a few seconds later, he just shrugs.

"I'll be fine."

It is utterly unconvincing. He sounds and looks like someone who's been run over by a charging Behemoth a couple dozen times. Dante keeps that particular remark to himself and instead gestures for Vergil to lead the way.

"Alright, then. Where to next?" Dante asks as Vergil begins his trek down the road they had been previously following before their horrible little detour. It looks like more of the same from where he's standing--stone buildings and broken down houses in a disorganized cluster--but he wouldn't be surprised if that's just part of the aesthetic here.

"Oneiros," Vergil says, as if that's an answer.

"Ornery—what?"

He can practically hear the eye roll in Vergil's response. "Oneiros. The Land of Dreams." He pauses, shifting his grip on the Yamato in a motion that belies some of his unease. Dante can't tell if it's from what happened before or if there's something else here that he should be worried about. It is probably for the best if he just assumes everything here is something to be worried about.

Vergil continues: "We will stick to the outskirts. Just don't believe most of what you see and it will be fine."

Sounds just peachy.

Chapter Text

Oneiros, as it turns out, is the name given to a wide stretch of buildings that spans between where the Angelos were located and a dense forest canopy Dante can see in the distance. He's able to pry a few minor details out of Vergil as they go along, enough to learn that the more magically-attuned demons they'd dealt with on the surface tend to hang around these parts, and at least it's a start. Some details are better than none, he tells himself, even if he's starting to wish he had a road map he could break out.

He wonders how much of Vergil's reluctance to talk is from his stubbornness and how much is from expelling his memories of his time as Nelo Angelo. Dante considers asking him about it more than once, but he can't really bring himself to start another conversation about what happened so soon. Maybe once they've had a chance to rest for a little bit and everything stops feeling quite so terrible.

They get as far away from that damned building as they can before Dante's willing to actually stop. By the time it’s disappeared into the distance, Vergil is lagging behind, steps slow and sluggish. He stumbles more than once on the debris-littered path, huffing and growling in his frustration like a pissed off cat. Dante takes to walking at his side and slightly behind, prepared to lend an arm if needed, but Vergil resolutely ignores him. Stubborn bastard.

There has been another change in the layout of the houses. It's subtle—he almost doesn't realize the shift at first, he's so distracted with Vergil—but it becomes far more evident as they progress. Where once there was unplanned chaos, the manifestations of the disjointed memories from the humans who were imprisoned in that horrible place, there is now a coherent village. Each house matches the other and dirt roads wind between them, too well planned to be merely an accident or the byproduct of a half-delirious mind.

It's strange and more than a little troubling. He points out the change to Vergil, who looks at him in a way that nearly screams his complete and utter disinterest in the topic.

“I don’t know, Dante,” he says simply, sparing only a half-hearted glance at his surroundings. Exhaustion and exasperation both are equally thick in his voice, and Dante snaps his mouth shut on any smartass response, deciding he is simply too tired and high strung to feel like provoking an argument.

A first, for him. Vergil should be proud.

Truth be told, he can't really be bothered to worry about it right now anyway. It appears to pose no immediate threat to them—they have yet to even be attacked in a meaningful way since stepping foot into Oneiros. Perhaps Vergil’s outpouring of power had resulted in the opposite of what Dante had anticipated? Any demons who had been brave enough to face something so strong had fallen to Dante’s blade in front of the Angelo building, and those who were not strong had fled for fear of death. It is another mystery of this place that Dante suspects he will never really solve, nor does he want to. The day he begins to understand the mindset of these demons is the day that he will know he has a problem.

Besides, there are more pressing matters to deal with at the moment, namely finding a place where he can force Vergil to take a nap.

The next house they come across is both clear of any demons and still has an intact roof, so he drags Vergil inside by the coat sleeve. Stone and dirt make for the bulk of its features, although there is a small shape in the corner that vaguely resembles a chair, or what was once a chair. Dante is not quite sure what it was meant to be, but as with the rest of hell’s architectural choices, he suspects there’s no logic to it.

At least some things here are consistent.

Largely useless furniture aside, the enclosed space will provide them with some kind of cover and the single entrance will give him a good choke point to defend. As far as hideouts go, it's probably the best they're going to get.

Dante pulls Vergil to the corner of the room and puts a hand on his chest, pressing him back against the wall with a single command: “Rest.”

It’s a testament to Vergil’s fatigue that he does not even entertain the thought of arguing this time. He simply lowers himself to the dirt floor with a quiet groan, tucking the Yamato against his shoulder and clinging to it as if for support.

Dante kneels next to him, facing the door, his sword drawn and at the ready.

Silence falls between them once more and despite his command for Vergil to rest, he wishes instead that he would talk to him. This incident is a testament to how little Dante knows about Vergil’s life in the past twenty-four years. His time after the fall is largely a mystery, formed only from Dante’s conjectures based on what he found on Mallet Island and in Fortuna and what little information Trish was able to provide.

Conversation was never their strong suit. Blades speak clearer between them than words ever could. Perhaps the answer is to smack Vergil upside the head a few more times with the Dante.

It would certainly make him feel better, at least.

The desire for a resolution makes Dante feel like his skin is buzzing. He wants to ask Vergil if he's okay, wants to make sure his brother knows that he's listening, but he can't find a good way to say that that won't just make Vergil angry. Even if he forgoes prying for more details he finds himself at a loss for words, unable to think of a way to help his brother cope. It would be a bit like the blind leading the blind, anyway, he supposes. Coping isn’t a thing he’s ever mastered, either.

Instead he sits in silence, shooting fervent glances at Vergil out of the corner of his eye as the minutes drag into slow, steady hours. It doesn't take long before Vergil's dozing, head tilted to the side and against his sword, his gentle snores the only sound outside of Dante’s own breathing.

Dante isn’t sure he will ever get used to the sight of Vergil in slumber. Even when they were teenagers, when Vergil would show up on Dante's doorstep on random nights seeking his attention, he'd never seen him sleep.

It was a vulnerability he did everything in his power to avoid. He would wait for Dante to sleep first or simply wouldn't sleep at all. More often than not he would be gone before Dante would wake up, leaving only the faint and fading hint of his scent and a steadily cooling bed behind.

The memory of it fills him with so much intense anger that for a split second he considers punching Vergil in the face. He wouldn't be wrong for doing it. After all, Vergil'd been lying to him back then, had lied every single time he'd ever darkened his doorstep.

He is still lying now—lying through omission, his refusal to actually talk to Dante about anything.

(It's proof that he's never really cared about you.)

Dante drags in a slow, steadying breath, scrubbing his hand over his face in an effort to shock some clarity back into his mind. He hasn't thought about that in a long time. As a matter of fact, he's been spending the last twenty-four goddamn years of his life intentionally not thinking about that brief window of their youth where they had coexisted.

It's a bitter and painful memory for him. Ten years apart and when they finally run into each other all they can do is fight, but the fighting hadn't been the problem.

(The problem had been when he'd lied and said he cared about you.)

He stands, pacing the room to try to burn off energy. There are cracks forming in the dam that holds back these memories and he's not sure how to patch them. It's suddenly all he can think about. He'd assumed a week of beating the hell out of each other had gotten this all out of his system, but apparently not. One unpleasant encounter and he's suddenly falling apart.

He needs to keep himself busy, but there's nothing here to occupy his hands with, and he’d be an idiot to wake Vergil up just because he’s a little anxious. If only he had a drink. He wonders if maybe they really do have alcohol in hell. What would it even be made out of? Human blood, probably, he thinks, scrunching his nose at the notion.

Dante is standing in front of Vergil before he even realizes he's walked across the room.

He's peaceful while he sleeps. The perpetual crease between his brows has smoothed into an expression more neutral, although he still frowns ever so slightly, as if his face is just permanently stuck that way. Dante kneels down to inspect him up close: the smooth skin, the curve of his jaw. A little different than Dante's own, now, a little softer. Not as suntanned and worn, the scars of the past twenty-four years hidden beneath pristine, reformed flesh.

(It's unfair.)

He touches the pads of his fingers to Vergil's cheek and traces the arch of his cheekbone. Pulls away the second he realizes he's done it. Climbs to his feet and puts some distance between them.

Maybe he should get out of here for a bit, at least until he can pull himself back together. He is clenching his jaw so tight from the tension that he thinks it might crack, digging his nails into his palm until he feels blood begin to well up against his fingertips. Vergil will be fine without him, just for a few minutes at least. He knows how to take care of himself down here.

Dante leaves without a second thought. Once outside, he wanders through the dirt streets that connect their hideout to the remainder of the houses nearby. A part of him wishes he'd find something to kill, an outlet for the strain that's sitting heavy and oppressive on his shoulders and neck. He settles instead for poking his way through Oneiros, creating a mental map as he goes. Learning their surroundings is at least productive.

It's remarkable the amount of minute detail that went into creating everything here. He comes across a well, complete with bucket and in tact rope, as if it has just been newly abandoned. Out of curiosity he drops a piece of broken stone down it, peering over the side at the inky black depths below.

He does not hear a return sound. Maybe that's for the better. He's not sure he wants to find out what hell's idea of water might be—not that a bottomless pit is exactly comforting, either.

He leaves it behind to continue his aimless wandering. Nearby, he can feel the gentle tug of Vergil's presence, like calling to like. It's a sensation he hadn't realized he was missing until it had been returned to him, and now he grasps at it in his mind and takes solace in that gentle flicker that is Vergil's power. Even frustrated with him as he currently is, the sense of calm that having him nearby brings is a welcome anchor.

The houses become increasingly complex as he winds his way further and further away from where he left Vergil. Where once he found only broken and empty homes he now finds furniture, carved from the bone-white wood of the trees they encountered nearby. He's reminded a little of a dollhouse. Everything has been purposefully placed, laid out with exacting detail to emulate the mundanity of human life, although it's clear that none of it has ever been used.

A distant part of his brain tells him that that is probably not a good sign. Mock human homes pretty obviously scream the words "this is a trap" in big, blinking, neon letters. He knows this. After thirty years of hunting demons, he’s learned a thing or two, and he's not stupid.

(You’re just being paranoid.)

Dante shakes his head in an effort to clear his thoughts. No, he’s being practical. He freezes halfway through the front door of a small stone hut and his instincts immediately start screaming at him to get out of there right now, so he does, backing up with a quick flash. He can’t see anything inside, can’t even sense anything, but the hairs on the back of his neck and his forearms are standing at attention. Whatever is setting off his alarm bells is coming from inside that house.

Maybe getting separated isn’t the best idea right now. Walking around has given him a good enough picture of the surrounding area, which will prove useful when they move on. However, until he can pry some details from his stubborn twin, he should be careful.

He arches his back, summoning his wings with a flash of glittering red light, and with a downward beat he launches himself into the air before he gets

stuck.

There’s a flicker of something out of the corner of his eye, whip-like and thin, and he summons his sword to deflect the blow only for it to split around the blade like liquid. It curls around him in a dark arc, tangling in his wings and pinning them together at his back.

Without the steady beat of his wings, he tumbles to the ground, his stomach lurching up into his throat as gravity catches up with him. The wind is knocked clean out of his lungs as he collides with the earth, disorienting him enough that he lies there in a daze for a moment, his head spinning.

With a groan he shoves the point of his sword down and uses it to push himself to his feet, gasping for breath as he tries to clear his head.

The thing tangled up in his wings is still there, a viscous, jet-black substance that clings to his flesh no matter how much he struggles. He tries to dismiss them—instead of the familiar receding of power that normally accompanies the motion, he’s met with vibrant, white hot pain down his spine. His fingers go numb from the sensation, his sword slipping out of his hand and disappearing back to the aether as it clatters to the dirt below.

“What the hell.”

The words are a mistake. He opens his mouth and the clinging thing tangled around him lunges, wraps around his chest and neck and the back of his head so fast he barely has time to register that it’s spreading. It slips between his lips and over his eyes and he gags around a yell of surprise. His heart is thundering in his chest, pure adrenaline and panic taking over, and he thrashes and flails and tries to bite at the thing strangling him even as it drags him to his knees. God dammit—

There’s a sound like laughter and a tingling down his spine before his world is engulfed in darkness.

Chapter Text

For the first time since his resurrection, Vergil dreams.

He dreams that he is a child once more, running desperately through half-destroyed streets, a sword he can barely carry and a golden pendant his only comforts. The cries of demons ring out around him, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, spurring him on even as his legs burn and his arms ache from the weight of his burden. He runs for hours, an endless flight from pursuers who never tire; he runs until he is caught, and then he fights, tooth and claw and wide, sloppy arcs of a sword he does not know how to wield.

Sometimes he fights them off, against impossible odds. Sometimes he doesn't. He wakes in a pool of his own blood more than once, body aching and mouth dry, his demonic heritage pulling him from the brink over and over again.

(Sometimes he wishes it wouldn't.)

It goes on that way for months, for years. Run, fight, survive, an endless loop with no reprieve. He is given shelter more than once—the humans who invite him into their home die for their trouble, a bloody and brutal end each time. After a while, he begins turning away their aid. They are not strong enough to even protect themselves, let alone to protect him. It is better this way.

He is all he has. His own strength is all he can rely on.

In his dreams this plays on loop, an endlessly repeating cycle of blood and fear and death.

He wakes with a quiet gasp.

There is a disorienting moment where he's not sure where he is, and he clutches the Yamato against his chest, a solid and familiar weight, as he struggles to reorient himself. Is he in Red Grave? He glances around quickly to take in his surroundings. Stone walls, dirt floor, a broken chair in the corner—no, he is in Oneiros, in one of the houses.

He releases a pent up sigh before forcing himself into the familiar, calming meditation he had often turned to in his youth. Deep, slow breaths in through his nose and out through his mouth, a grounding technique that immediately clears his mind and slows his rapidly beating heart. As he breathes Vergil traces his fingers along the ito of the Yamato, following the curves with his fingertips. It is a simple, familiar pattern, and it is grounding, helping him come back to himself.

It's the first dream he's had since he reformed, and he supposes he has Oneiros to blame for that. The demons here feed on human feelings and emotions more ravenously than anywhere else and were likely drawn to his inner turmoil over his earlier mistake. He is thankful that the dream was a milder one, at least, although whichever demon had been feeding off of his nightmare is likely still close.

Although it poses no real threat to him, he will find it and kill it, simply on principle. He does not take kindly to unwanted trespassers in his thoughts. Frustrating that his brother hadn't—

It occurs to him then, distracted as he had been by the temporary confusion and lingering fog of his dream, that Dante is missing. He feels it in the lack of their shared bond, that invisible connection that has always tied them together. When he closes his eyes, Dante's presence no longer flickers at the edges of his awareness.

He stands and runs a hand through his hair, gritting his teeth at the dust and grime that coats every inch of him, taking stock of his physical state. Although a soreness still lingers in his shoulders and neck, he feels stronger now, the bone-deep weariness that often accompanies a transformation reduced to a dull ache behind his eyes.

With an experimental flick of his wrist he summons a fan of swords, then dismisses them just as quickly. Good. He is rested enough that, should the need arise, he could assume his devil form long enough to deal with whatever may await him. One of the few benefits to the atmosphere of the underworld is how quickly they can recover here.

"Dante?" His voice echoes back at him off of the stone walls, pitched strange and almost mocking by the acoustics of the room. He steps outside, glancing around the area for his twin.

There are footprints in the dirt that lead down a nearby path, but otherwise there is no sign of Dante. Vergil closes his eyes, reaching with his more reliable demonic senses, searching for that familiar flare of fiery red that denotes his brother.

He finds nothing.

Did Dante leave him?

He bites the inside of his cheek to curb the oppressive vice of panic that clenches in his chest and burns a trail up the back of his neck. His stupid little brother has probably wandered too far for him to accurately pinpoint his location. Perhaps trusting that Dante would be able to sit still for more than an hour had been a mistake.

Dante's trail through Oneiros is as random and whimsical as everything he does, stopping in houses or circling arbitrary landmarks for seemingly no reason. Aimless wandering, most likely. His twin has never been particularly good at waiting for things, impatient and impulsive as he is. Perhaps he had simply gotten bored while Vergil rested and had gone off to look for trouble.

The footprints falter in front of a house that sets Vergil's teeth on edge. There is a clear trail in, then back out again, followed by a scattering of dust that suggests flight. Near to that is the very distinct impression of something large hitting the ground, dirt and bits of stone thrown wide around a clear indentation. A deep line is scoured into the stone next to this and then there's nothing. No footprints leading away, no signs of another demon, and no traces of a fight.

He calls to his brother once more, louder now than before, and he does not get a response. He closes his eyes and reaches for him, feels for any sign of that strange but persistent connection they've always shared, and meets only the chaotic hum of the underworld.

Dante is gone.

Vergil clenches his hand into a fist at his side, frustration boiling to the surface. That idiot. Did he not tell him to be careful? It is a miracle his brother has managed to survive in a profession solely focused on hunting demons when he is so reckless.

Panic does not suit him, so he takes a breath and buries the worry deep inside himself, bottling it away and using it as motivation. He must focus only on the facts: they are in Oneiros, the land of dreams, where the magically inclined demons call home. Whatever overwhelmed his brother did not do so through brute force, that much is clear in the largely undisturbed dirt. There's no sign of blood, neither visually nor through smell, so Dante is likely physically unharmed.

He peers into the house nearby. Outside of the usual furnishing, it is empty, and although something about it makes him uneasy, he does not sense anything alive inside. He paces around it, hoping to find some answers to what may have ambushed his brother, but he finds only broken stone and ashen weeds.

In a moment of frustration he kicks at them, sending a puff of white dust into the air. It, too, yields no answers.

He puts some distance between himself and that strange house before he pauses to consider his next steps. Leaving Dante alone for any period of time down here is not an option. He doesn't know what to expect, hasn't experienced this place the same way that Vergil has. Speed will need to be his priority.

A voice in the back of his mind tells him that this is his fault in the first place. If only he had been better, stronger—if he hadn't succumbed to a moment of weakness brought on by the reality of his transformation into Nelo Angelo—

He clenches his teeth as he walks between the houses and toward a small slope he can see to the west. Thinking like that is unproductive. He will have plenty of time for self-reflection once they have achieved their goals. For now, he has more important matters to attend to: namely, finding Dante.

Destroying the facility where Mundus had been creating the Angelos is a win for them, no matter how he handled it. That a piece of him had remained in hell had been a shock he had not been prepared to deal with, but the matter is now settled, and he can rest easier knowing whatever small shard of his soul had been contained in that sword is no longer being used in such a perverse way. He could have handled it more delicately, perhaps, but he's pleased to know that that place will not be producing any more of those things any time soon.

He pushes the thoughts of Nelo Angelo away. It is a loose end that they have finally tied up and he needs to let it go. Dwelling on each challenge they face will only slow him down.

The houses give way to a sheer wall of broken rock, steep and undoubtedly dangerous to climb the traditional way. He leaps into the air, wings spreading behind him at the peak of his jump, and glides to the top in one seamless motion. With a flick of his wings he dismisses them once more, light blue sparks dancing around him in the wake of his power.

Atop the crest, he can see further west than before, and he spins in a slow circle in an effort to find any sign of Dante. To the north is the forest, an ancient and dark swath of trees that separates them from the center of Mundus' realm and will, eventually, be their next destination. He does not remember it. His time in hell was spent on this side of Mundus' domain, or on that island, and so he isn't sure what to expect. Looking down at it makes a creeping feeling crawl up his back and neck and so he turns away from it, refocusing his attention on Oneiros. That will be a problem for later.

From above, Oneiros is even bigger than he'd thought. Perhaps this domain has expanded in his time away? Not for the first time he regrets his decision to excise those memories from his consciousness. He hadn't been thinking clearly, hadn't realized that there may have been something to gain from them. The disjointed pieces he does remember are no better than having only half of the pieces to a puzzle—he can tell the general shape that the end result will take, but the details are lost to the gaps in his mind.

He shakes his head, irritated with himself and his uncertainty. Since his split, his thoughts have been disjointed and garbled. The memories of his time as V and Urizen are the worst of them, coming from two conflicting viewpoints as they do. They bounce through his head, a frustrating distraction from everything else as he tries to reconcile them. Fighting with Dante had been one of the few things to force his mind into absolute clarity. Without him here, he feels untethered, struggling to remain on task. It is an unpleasant feeling and one he is not used to.

He had been a fool to separate himself in such a careless way.

Vergil closes his eyes once more, focusing on his breathing, wrangling his disjointed thoughts and feelings into something resembling calm. He stretches his demonic senses as wide as he can, feeling for any sign or hint of Dante in the vastness around him.

Lesser demons wander through the houses from which he came, their presence a quiet flicker atop the dull roar of the underworld. The forest before him is... something else entirely, dark and oppressive. He chooses not to dwell on it. The cliffs to the west prove inscrutable, a blank slate from which he senses neither demons nor Dante.

"Dammit." He hisses out the curse in a moment of annoyance, resisting the rather childish impulse to stomp his foot on the ground.

Finding Dante like this will take him too long. He will have to resort to more unconventional means.

Magic and the underworld are a volatile combination. Some magic—dark rituals and demonic pacts, for example—draw directly from the power of hell, and using them here would result in a spell that could very easily spiral out of control. Other spells require simply the basics: a material component, some willpower, and a few words through which to channel the energy.

Vergil studied this topic extensively during his teenage years, when he had been desperate for any means to defend himself. Their mother had a shockingly large collection of literature on the subject, and he had taken a handful of books from her library when he'd finally managed to bring himself to return to the house. He had read them cover to cover so many times that he had memorized them, and he runs through his mental catalog now, searching for something that will help.

A tracking spell is the obvious answer, although he suspects that may not work here. There does not seem to be a trail which he can enhance—it is as if Dante simply vanished.

No, he will need to find some way to directly identify Dante’s current location. Enhancing their natural bond, the call of his soul to its other half, will be his best bet, albeit a potentially dangerous one.

Dangerous only for him, at least. It is a small comfort.

He unsheathes the Yamato and holds the blade aloft, examining the razor sharp edge in the dim, yellowish glow of the underworld. Dante's blood is soaked into her more thoroughly than anything else, an impression left behind by the countless battles between them. He will call to that memory of his brother's blood in an effort to enhance their connection. Combined with some blood of his own, it will serve as a catalyst to strengthen their bond, thus giving Vergil a direction.

In theory. Magic is an unpredictable thing, and he tries to avoid it as a result, but desperate times.

He rolls up his left sleeve, twisting his arm to expose the soft underside of his forearm. He does not hesitate as he draws the blade across, deep enough to coat the Yamato in his blood. As he does he thinks of Dante—stabbing him during their recent fight (an arm on his waist, a look in his eye that had made some long forgotten part of Vergil stir); the blood they had spilled atop the Qliphoth (regret, revenge, exhaustion, but something like joy, too); the slash of an outstretched palm (desperation and fear and embarrassment and anger).

He clings to this last. It is significant for them in so many ways and there is power in that.

"Love and harmony combine / And around our souls entwine." Odd that the words he had said as V come to mind for this spell as well, although he supposes they are similar in nature. The two halves of him, rejoined once more; the two halves of their twin souls, reunited once more. In the end, it does not matter what he says, really; the words are simply there as a means to channel the spell.

As the words leave his mouth, his senses are flooded with the crisp smell of ozone and the bitter taste that always accompanies magic. It washes over him and settles onto his skin like hundreds of tiny pinpricks before seeping in, leaving only a tingling tenderness behind, a feeling akin to a fresh sunburn.

He opens his eyes and takes a deep breath, and for a moment everything is still, serene and quiet around him.

And then there is a sudden, sharp tug in the center of his chest, so intense he staggers, pressing his palm over his heart in shock. His heartbeat stills for one horrible, drawn-out second, as if pausing to realign itself to a new rhythm, before it restarts with a redoubled intensity that leaves him breathless.

Vergil steadies himself with the Yamato, shoving the blade into the rocky ground and leaning his weight against it for strength. He's panting hard as he slowly adjusts to the overwhelming sensation of the magic that now tugs at his chest. This is the first time he's attempted magic in the underworld, the first since he partook of the Qliphoth fruit. In retrospect, he should have done something to tone down the intensity. Chosen a different memory, at the very least.

It leaves him feeling unmoored, momentarily lost to the buzzing of magic and the rapid pounding of his heart.

Once he's able to regain his sense of self—it takes considerably longer than he would care to admit—the way forward becomes immediately obvious. It is a physical sensation, a bodily tug urging him to the cliffs in the west.

Directly into the heart of Oneiros.

"What have you gotten yourself into, little brother," he mutters, pulling the Yamato free from the rock beneath his feet. His dizziness has passed, his thoughts cleared, and he focuses only on the strong beat of their hearts pounding in unison in his chest, driving him forward.

Chapter Text

The pull of magic leads him to a pale stone outcrop which towers over everything else around him, the peak disappearing behind the iridescent clouds that lazily drift through the underworld sky. Bone white stone reflects those dancing lights in a kaleidoscope of colors, sparks of multicolored luminescence dancing around him. The effect is disorienting, creating an illusion that blurs the line between up and down.

It has taken him some time to make his way here, through winding stone paths and between a scattering of decrepit buildings, fewer and farther between than before. What they lack in numbers they make up for in detail—each house is more complete than those where Dante had been taken beneath the cliff, formed collectively into the shape of an ancient city. Tables, chairs, beds, and other adornments lie untouched within, as if the city has been frozen in time, plucked from the annals of history and dropped in hell.

The display of humanity sits counterpoint to the inherent otherworldly nature of the underworld, and although Vergil makes a point to avoid the houses, their very presence instills an uneasiness in a small but still very human part of his brain. This perfect facsimile of an ancient civilization seems a strangely sentimental thing, something like a memorial, a recreation of a memory that would otherwise have been long forgotten.

He remembers his earlier advice to Dante, to not believe everything that you see in Oneiros, as he looks at them, and he wonders what truths they hide beneath their seemingly mundane facade. Traps for wandering souls, perhaps? Or do they hide only dirt, nothing more than stone structures painstakingly crafted simply because their creator possessed the ability to do so.

He doesn’t know the answer, and he does not care to find it—it is a curiosity, something to occupy his thoughts while he moves closer and closer to his brother’s location.

Vergil is not disturbed during his journey to the center of Oneiros, nor does he encounter anything else of note, as if the denizens here have no interest in him. Likely given the order to avoid him from the creature who rules over them. A commander, much like he was, but to the demons who rely on magic and feed on the dreams of humanity. Despite the inherent chaos of the underworld, there is something of a pecking order here. Strength is valued higher than all other virtues, raw might speaking louder than any words—and power is something that he possesses, something that would radiate off of him as surely as a beacon. It would have been only a pointless loss of life to attack him, and so the lack of resistance speaks mostly to their commander’s practicality.

As he approaches the heart of Oneiros and the outcropping of rock which represents it, he finds himself faced with an elaborately carved door, made of the white wood and stone that are so prevalent in the underworld. The wood is carved with deep, complicated grooves in the shape of ancient runes, worn down by the harsh and unforgiving wind of the underworld. He traces his fingers along the carvings in a moment of curiosity, feeling the impressions of letters he cannot read. They've been carved with exacting precision, no doubt a spell of some kind. Or perhaps it is not a spell at all, but simply words with a meaning that is no longer important. Either way, the door opens beneath his palms with ease, despite being nearly twice his height, and he steps into the dark corridor beyond.

Bronze braziers hang from the walls at regular intervals, spilling a bluish light across the floor. As he walks, the dull blue fire flickers in response to his presence, brightening to light his way like a spark of greeting to acknowledge his arrival. He is tempted to roll his eyes at the theatrics. Perhaps, in his youth, he would have found this fascinating—he had always had a flair for the dramatic himself, if he is being honest—but now he finds it trite. No better than a simple parlor trick. If it is meant to intimidate or to impress him, it fails on both fronts.

With each forward step, the pull in his chest loosens, becoming less painful as the tension that connects his blood to Dante's slackens with the rapidly decreasing distance between them. Magic still buzzes across his skin, makes his flesh feel tender and his head throb with each beat of his heart, but the discomfort is fading. Dante is definitely here.

He considers this as he walks, trying to sift through his disjointed memories for details that may prove useful. What would the denizens of Oneiros want with Dante? Frustratingly, he cannot remember the name or the face of their commander, that particular memory tied too thoroughly to his time as Nelo Angelo and therefore thrown away with the rest of them. A woman, he thinks, in form at least. Her name is at the tip of his tongue, but it eludes him.

Despite his uneasy memories, Vergil walks with purpose. This encounter does not worry him. He is strong enough now that he is confident he could defeat any of these demons, should the need arise. That Dante had been overpowered speaks only to his twin's inattention. Perhaps that is part of her ploy—bring Dante here to force an audience with them, but for what purpose?

He will know soon enough, he supposes.

The massive hallway opens up to a throne room with a vaulted ceiling that appears to have no end—rather than the stone one might expect, there are swirling iridescent clouds, their colors refracting around the room like tiny spotlights. Polished marble shines beneath his boots and giant ivory pillars rise in steady rows on either side, disappearing beneath the endless sky. Torches spread a dim, bluish light through the room, although they do little to dispel the shadows that hug the walls and press down oppressively around him. His footsteps echo as he walks, ringing in his arrival like a bell with each step.

Before him sits a throne, carved of bone-white marble and wood and inlaid with gleaming bronze adornments along the arms and back. Atop this chair is what appears to be a human woman, her long, tan legs crossed before her and her delicate hands resting on her knees. A cascade of jet-black hair spills around her shoulders, pooling at her waist, a backdrop that glitters in the dim light. She is dressed in simple white robes that belong to some bygone age, a gleaming bronze belt cinched at her waist. Human history is not a topic he studied with any level of interest and so he does not recognize it as anything other than ancient. Obviously human, yet otherwise meaningless to him.

She is as still as a statue, showing no immediate acknowledgment of his arrival, although he can sense her demonic power as it rolls off of her. It prickles at his senses and makes goosebumps reflexively raise on the backs of his arm and neck, his human instincts reacting to the obvious predator sitting before him. Particularly powerful demons have a way of pressing their power outward, a ploy to force lesser demons and humans into submission. The demon in him is not impressed; his human half, however, shudders in response, just briefly. He does not show it, but it is a testament to her strength that it has sparked a reaction in him at all.

Every inch of this room vibrates with that ancient power, old and deeply ingrained. She has taken root here, has built this place, he thinks, out of her sheer force of will. An impressive feat, and one that speaks to her depth of experience. Creation is a unique talent among demons, employed only by the strongest. The demons of this domain are no doubt her creations as well, creatures born from her powerful magic and the human memories that Oneiros collects. Weaving monsters out of nightmares—an interesting talent, one that could put her strength on par with the likes of Mundus, at least in that matter. Unlike the king of hell, however, she is physically unimposing; small and remarkably human. Perhaps by choice? Or…

Hm. Between her appearance and the city outside, he suspects that perhaps she is more than just some demon parading about in a human form. That could be worth looking into further, once the initial cause for his visit has been addressed.

Despite the current situation, the idea of finally meeting something that poses even a small threat is enticing. He meets the stifling weight of her energy with a flare of his own power, allowing his demon side to manifest with a brief flicker—a shimmering blue afterimage overlaid atop his form that vanishes as quickly as it comes. Threatening, like a cat showing its claws as a reminder of the potential for violence hiding within.

She smiles at him, if such a distorted expression can be called a smile—slightly too wide, with too much teeth, and completely failing to meet her eyes. Only her mouth moves in this act, reminding him immediately that regardless of what she may have once been, she is assuredly demonic now.

"Hello, Nelo Angelo," she says as he approaches. “Have you finally come to pay your respects?”

Vergil pauses at the base of the stairs leading up to her throne, one hand on the Yamato and the other resting at his side. Already they are off to a poor start, and yet she holds power over him that he cannot ignore: Dante. Until he can determine where Dante has been taken, he will need to play nicely.

Her invocation of this dead title rankles him, a reminder of a past life he has done everything in his power to cast out. The implication of her using it is not lost on him, although he cannot remember her role during his time before. It is a distinctly uncomfortable experience, knowing that she has knowledge of him when he cannot remember her in any meaningful way. It imbalances their conversation, putting him in a precarious situation.

Foolish, to discard those memories.

"No. I’ve come because you have taken someone that belongs to me. Why?" Vergil asks, tightening his grip on his sword, watching her closely for any reaction. Will she attempt to strike at him? He does not think so—she is leisurely on her throne, leaned back in repose. While she may exude power, he doubts she has much physical strength to call her own. If she does strike, it will not be a direct, physical assault.

"How else to gain your attention? I want only to talk. Perhaps we can help each other," she says, voice sugary sweet, each word like a delicate chime that sings through the room. The way his skin prickles in response tells him that there is magic woven into them, a weapon nearly as dangerous as any blade, in the right hands. The effects of it are not immediately obvious, and then a thought bursts into his mind unbidden—Dante, sprawled on his back, his sword through his chest as rain pours down around them—and he is suddenly acutely aware of the strength she wields over him.

He forces the image from his mind and steels his resolve, focusing his attention entirely on her face.

"I have no interest in your aid," Vergil replies, the look of sheer delight as his overcoming her spell obvious in the way her smile blooms across her face to finally reach her eyes.

"Ah, but you have already accepted it, have you not? I could simply demand payment for my earlier services." She unfolds her legs, leaning forward, a sharp gleam in her golden eyes. "Or was Malphas not to your liking?"

He had wondered where that witch had come from.

"I did not need her," he says, and then he crouches low, poised and ready to strike, a display of his impatience, "I don’t have time for this. If you have something worthwhile to say, then say it."

"You intend to slay a god. To usurp the throne—a feat which I am confident you shall accomplish. I care not for who rules this place. I have simply always preferred to be on the winning side,” she says, waving her hand as if this topic is a small matter and not a monumental shift of power in the underworld.

Vergil hums in response, considering her words. There could be something to gain from an alliance with a demon as powerful as this—depending, of course, on the terms of their agreement. A pact with someone such as her is not to be made lightly; truth be told, he would much rather kill her and eliminate her from the equation. He is still undecided on what their next course of action shall be once they have slain Mundus, on whether or not he will do anything with the power void this is will inevitably create, but either way. He doesn’t want to find himself burdened to another.

There is, however, the matter of Dante.

“If you care not, then why interfere with us? We are content to leave you and your kind alone. I am here only for my brother,” Vergil says, waving a hand in a sign of dismissal. She tilts her head curiously at him, pausing to consider his words for a moment, before she grins once more. Her mouth is full of pointed teeth, disquieting in her otherwise human face.

“That creature is your brother? Well. I thought his memories seemed familiar.”

The implication of her words—that she has been inside of Dante’s head, that she has been inside of his—makes him snarl in disgust, and then it is as if he has been punched in the gut as his pathetic human brain recoils in reflexive, instinctual fear.

She laughs.

“Ah. You remember me now, I believe.”

He does.

It comes to him with a cold detachment, as if from a distance, viewed through a shaky lens: a voice pushing its way into his mind, peeling apart the layers of his memories, warping and distorting them. Every failure replaying on repeat in his brain in a ploy to keep him complicit. A voice, soft and sugary sweet, promising release if only he surrenders completely and utterly to the will of his master.

Pain. Anger. Fear. A loss of control, the memory of Dante, of—

He tightens his grip on the Yamato, anchoring himself to the present with the familiar and comforting weight of it in his hand. He snarls, teeth bared, sharp and gleaming in the firelight.

His corruption under Mundus had been both physical and psychological, consuming him and everything that he was, turning him into a pawn to be used as he saw fit. Although it is a blur of pain and darkness that he cannot really parse, he now knows what part she has played in this—Theoris, a sorceress, the progenitor of the goat like demons of hell and a crucial part of his past nightmares.

In the wake of this realization, he does not allow himself to give in to the memories, to the faintest unsteady quiver in his limbs. Instead he is filled with cold dread, not for himself, but for his brother.

She has Dante.

He will not allow his brother to suffer the same fate. Any pretense of striking a deal has been forgotten—he will tear her apart with his bare hands if he must, if it means sparing Dante from her.

"We are done here. Release him or I will take him back." Vergil clutches the Yamato tightly in his hand, stepping closer to the throne, and although he is externally calm his mind whirls in a hurricane of possibilities. How much damage has she already done? How long had Dante been gone before he awoke?

"He is a feisty one. So unlike you, and yet you both gave in so quickly," she says, and it sounds as if her voice comes from everywhere at once—behind him, above him, from the shimmering pool of darkness that begins to steadily spill from beneath her feet and spread between them. He does not flinch or back down. He will not give her the satisfaction of a display of weakness.

"Do you know that he hates you?" She seems amused by this, a faint smile lighting across her face. She stands and paces closer to him, stopping at the top of the stairs that climb up to her throne. "It had been such an easy thing, bringing him here, based only on those emotions. Hatred and love are so simple."

Her smile turns cruel, a bastardization of joy that screams of violence as she says: "I can fix him for you, if you wish. Let this be my offering to the new king. He will make a poor companion to the throne as he currently is, but with some guidance—"

He does not hear the rest, the words lost to the surge of rage that sings through his blood and roars in his ears. His vision tunnels and he sees only her face—his hatred, his anger and regret given a physical form.

She has no concept of family, of sentimentality, of love. She is a full blooded demon, and she sees only the practicality of it—Dante makes for a poor tool as he currently is, and so he must be fixed. Made useful, more powerful. Discarding those human emotions which hold him back would only benefit him, in her eyes, by giving him the strength he is too afraid to wield.

Power absolute, without restraint.

Once upon a time, it is everything that Vergil would have ever wanted—but not any more. He has learned that lesson.

Before she can finish her words he is across the room, a streak of pale blue and silver like a bullet tearing through the darkness. He lets his transformation take him midway through his dash, and as he reaches her, he presses the Yamato to her throat with a low growl. Steam curls from his mouth, drifting slowly to the endless sky above, as flames dance over his skin and bathe them both in a blinding cerulean hue.

"Give him back if you don't want to die," he growls, tail thrashing against the stone stairs behind him, wings spread wide. Although his blade is pressed to her skin she does not flinch, does not even blink. She is the predator here, and she knows it, knows that she holds an advantage over him that he cannot easily overcome.

"If you kill me, he will be lost to the world, forever trapped," Theoris says plainly. He presses his blade against her throat until he draws blood, a bead of black liquid rolling down the curve of her neck.

“If you are trying to earn my favor, you are failing.”

She sighs, rolling her head back to look at him through half-lidded golden eyes. Up close, he can see that her pupils are thin slits like a feline’s. Another mark setting her apart from humanity.

“If you are so intent on having him back, then you will have to retrieve him yourself,” she says, waving her hand as if she is bored of him, and the gesture is so infuriating that he is tempted to run her through irregardless of the risks. “Fail and I will have you both—succeed, and we shall call it proof of your merits as the future king. A fair deal, I believe.”

The ground melts beneath his feet—he is immediately plunged waist-deep into the icy cold water of the inky black pool that had been forming beneath Theoris' feet and which he, in his moment of anger, had completely neglected. The sudden shock of it forces a gasp of surprise out of his chest. Idiotic. Staying on the ground had been a mistake. She had distracted him with Dante, clouding his judgement. He thrashes against her magic, slicing at the inky blackness with the Yamato, but it does not yield.

With a powerful downward beat of his wings he launches himself into the air, but the strange liquid clings to his legs even as he slashes and tears himself free. No matter how much he struggles it continues its climb, and he crashes against a pillar nearby when it tangles with his wings and tail, rendering him flightless.

"Reflect," she says, and he roars, struggling to charge toward her against the thing that binds him even as her magic begins to settle over his skin and fog his brain, "on your childhood."

His world gives way to darkness.

Vergil is falling. He falls for so long that he loses track of which way is up, of where he is in relation to anything else. Around him is inky black nothingness, an oppressive darkness so black that it hurts his eyes to look at it. After what feels like an eternity he crashes face-first onto cold stone, starbursts of light bursting to life behind his eyelids when his forehead smacks inelegantly into the ground.

A disgrace. He pushes himself to his feet with a quiet groan, swiping the back of his hand over his forehead to clean the trickle of blood which slowly begins dripping into his eyes. The pain and the blood are bothersome, physical sensations in what he logically knows should be only a mental experience. Perhaps her abilities are different than what he has experienced in the past.

The room he finds himself in is, at least, familiar—it is reminiscent of where he had ended up when he had fallen into Malphas’ trap as V. A simple stone circle, a shimmering distortion at the edges of his vision, and three large gates in a semi-circle before him cement this as the same sort of spellwork. Likely he will have to fight his way out, proving to her his strength with no risk to herself. Fine. If that is how she wants to handle this, then so be it.

Vergil walks into the leftmost portal first, prepared to fight whatever may ambush him upon entry. As he passes through the glittering wall of silver light, he wonders what sort of hellish brute she will have conjured for him. No doubt something out of his memories, or perhaps Dante’s—Malphas had pulled from both of V’s companions in the construction of her trap, likely in an effort to put him at a disadvantage by choosing a foe he had not previously faced.

When he steps out on the other side and the cool sensation of the transportation magic has faded, he freezes. Grass beneath his boots, fire in the distance, the smell of smoke and sulfur sharp in the air—

He is standing on the front lawn of their childhood home, thirty-five years in the past.

On the day their mother died.

Chapter Text

Thirty-five years ago, Vergil had been in the backyard, far enough away from the house that reaching it in time had been impossible. He’d been in the small playground that they often retreated to when they wandered from the house, and for once, he had been alone. Despite the stretch of time and the hazy memories that separate him from this moment, he remembers that particular fact with vivid clarity—being alone had been so rare for him, back then.

Although he no longer remembers the specifics, he knows that he and Dante had fought before he had gone to hide away in the playground. All he can remember of their argument is that it had been enough for Dante to storm into his room, slamming the door shut, and Vergil had gone outside to get some fresh air and to be alone. He’d found his way to the playground, where he had sat on a small, plastic piece of playground equipment and had sulked angrily about Dante’s petulance until he had been forced to flee the demons that soon swarmed their home.

Vergil hadn’t returned to the house until long after the fire had gone out, and so the sight before him—flames, smoke, the fluttering wings of demons—is wholly new to him. Instead of taking his place from all those years ago, he now finds himself in the front yard, staring down the obliterated front door of their house. The screams of demons and the splintering of wood fills the air, and for one long, drawn-out moment, he stands frozen in place. It is all too real, too visceral. He can smell the smoke as a gentle breeze blows it toward him, can feel the heat of the fire on his face. Why this? Why here?

Reflect on your childhood.”

He had assumed Theoris' words meaningless, something to drive the spell she had so obviously woven over him, but it seems they were quite literal. Reflect on your childhood—except this is not his childhood he is seeing. He was not here.

Vergil stands unmoving for only a moment longer, lost in his memories of this moment, before a loud crash from within the house spurs him into action. Even though he knows without a doubt that this is an illusion, a convincing mockery of their past thrown back in his face, his heart is unconvinced. He cannot deny the quiver in his limbs as he jogs to the front of the house, the way his heart beats fast and frantic in his chest when he sees the broken front door and the deep grooves left behind by demon claws. There’s a commotion coming from Dante’s bedroom, and so that is where he goes, drawn to that room as if by a magnetic pull.

The hallway leading to Dante’s bedroom is already smoldering, pieces of wood and plaster from the ceiling and walls collapsing around him. Vergil sprints around the debris with ease, relying on old muscle memory that, despite all of the years that have since passed, still proves accurate. He enters Dante’s bedroom as another crash rings out behind him in the direction of the foyer, and he is met with a scene that confirms that he is, without a doubt, bearing witness to Dante’s memories of this day rather than his own.

He sees their mother first, her back to the door as she bends down to retrieve Dante from the bedroom floor. His brother is so small and afraid as their mother wakes him and pulls him to his feet, her hands on his shoulders as she ushers him into the closet in the corner of the room. Dante seems dazed and confused, probably woken from slumber, and tears already glisten on his cheeks. Vergil keeps his attention focused on Dante’s face, resolutely avoiding the illusion of their mother even as she ducks down and blocks his view of Dante to mutter calming words to his twin.

“You must stay hidden. If I don’t come back—”

Vergil tunes her out. There is no need to listen, nothing can be gained from it—he must focus on identifying whatever criteria he is meant to meet here to end the spell that he finds himself trapped inside. With Malphas, it had been defeating a demon; with this, perhaps it is the same? Is he meant to fight off the attackers who even now approach the house?

Eva stands then, closing the closet doors before turning to face the hallway—to face him. She is afraid, but she is determined. She charges past him—through him—and into the foyer, and he reflexively closes his eyes when he hears a crash and a shriek as she is cut down, his name on her lips. Numbly, he notes that Dante had not been lying when he had told him that Eva had tried to find him, too. This moment, this projection of his brother’s memories, is all of the proof that he needs.

This is absurd. He knows what that witch is trying to do by forcing him to bear witness to these things, knows that she is trying to break them both with this painful memory, and yet still his mouth feels dry and his throat clenches shut at the sound of his mother’s dying cry in the other room. If only he was not so weak right now, so tangled in his own thoughts; once, he had been able to reflect on his life with a detachment earned through many years of practice, yet now he finds he rather lacks that skill. The nausea he feels in this moment is, despite the nature of his current predicament, very much real.

A wretched, broken sob breaks him out of his daze, and his eyes focus once more on the wooden slats of the closet where his brother is currently hiding. He hesitates, knowing that he should simply leave this scene, go wherever the magic wants him to go, deal with the demons, and end this charade, and yet he is drawn to his brother, to the pained cries he is so obviously trying to muffle behind the closet door. When Vergil takes a step closer, he feels a gentle tug in the center of his chest, the smell of ozone flooding the back of his throat, and realization dawns on him.

Somehow, the lingering traces of his spell are reacting to the small version of Dante who is cowering in the closet before him. He considers this for a moment, the possibilities of magic as he knows it, and comes to the conclusion that it is possible that this is Dante. The spell he had woven had bound them, soul connected to soul, and although their physical bodies may not be in this realm of dreams, their souls certainly could be. It would explain the physical sensations, so real despite what he knows to be truth: that this is an illusion, created by a creature who thrives on the dreams and the emotions of humans. The strength possessed by the demon who had ensorcelled them is surely to account for how thoroughly they are both trapped in this recreation of their past.

Vergil paces to the closet and kneels before the doors, pressing a hand gently against the wooden slats. Between the cracks he can see Dante’s face, pale and small in the darkness, tears gleaming on his cheeks and eyes wide. He has one hand clamped over his mouth in a bid to stifle his cries, but it does little good, and the muffled sounds of his despair ring out over the commotion around them. The desperate sounds make Vergil's stomach clench in frustration and in sympathy. Brotherly instinct—or perhaps simply a desire to be freed of this wretched place—drives him to speak in an effort to calm his brother.

“Dante,” he says, and the boy’s eyes widen, just a fraction, at the sound of his name on another’s lips. The reaction is confirmation that Dante can, in some small way, interact with Vergil’s presence in this memory, yet what that truly means is still unclear. The memory is a fueled by Theoris’ magic, yes, but it draws from his brother’s subconsciousness, and so appealing to Dante may be the key.

He remembers experiencing something similar during his enslavement. Trapped in the darkest moments of his life, witnessing them on an endless loop. If he can make Dante realize that they are trapped in a loop of his own creation, maybe they can break free from the prison she has constructed. A feat that will almost certainly prove difficult—they do not exactly listen to one another at the best of times.

Regardless of their past, Vergil has to try, for both their sake.

“Dante, listen to me. This isn’t real,” he says and through the wooden slats he can see Dante’s brows crease in confusion and fear. He shakes his head, unbelieving of Vergil’s words.

“N-no! Go away, demon!” Dante yells, flattening himself desperately against the back wall of the closet. He is terrified, eyes wide with his panic, frantic sobs increasing in frequency, indicated by the rapid hitching of his breathing that begins spilling from the closet. For a moment, frustration boils hot under Vergil’s skin at his twin’s response and he is forced to take a mental step back to assess the situation. Dante is only a child—a scared child who has just lost his mother.

Vergil takes a deep breath and tries again.

“Everything is going to be okay,” Vergil says, keeping his voice as level and as neutral as possible, even as their house rumbles around them and demons tear the nearby city apart. “You’re going to be okay.” This last at least is not a lie, although Vergil does not know what happens to Dante after this moment. He is shocked to see that his brother seems to have survived the attack on their home by hiding in his bedroom closet, and he wonders if their mother’s sacrifice had spared him from the attention of the demons in the house. Or maybe she has warded it—the thought brings a bitter smile to his lips. She had always been resourceful.

As Vergil crouches in front of his brother, pleading quietly with him in an effort to calm him and coax him from the closet, he wonders if there is some vague image of himself here, reliving this night alongside Dante. Does it work that way? He isn't sure. Regardless, he finds himself reminiscing on those moments. He had been unable to reach the house and so had fled down the hill behind it, running in blind terror from the pursuers who must have caught the scent of his demonic blood. Fleeing had proved useless before long—he was too small, too slow—and he had been forced to turn and fight, his back to the graves in the nearby graveyard.

He’d summoned the Yamato for the first time then. He remembers that vividly—the rush of power as it had manifested in his hand, the unwieldy weight of it, so very different from the practice swords their father had given them. Their father had bound his devil arms to them at a young age, stating only that they would know how to call them forth from the sea of their soul in their time of need, and although they had both tried to manifest them countless times in a fit of boredom and curiosity, they had never been successful. Until that moment, at least, when he had been so afraid of death it had made him sick.

“Are you here to help me?” Dante’s voice once more centers him, dragging him away from his own memories of that day. He seems to have come to the conclusion that Vergil means him no harm, and so Vergil clears his throat and nods.

“I am. Do you know who I am, Dante?”

His little brother shakes his head.

“No, but you-you remind me of my father. Did you know him?” he says and although his voice quivers with his grief he seems more and more at ease the more Vergil speaks, and the easy, trusting nature of his brother makes his heart clench in his chest. At least, in this moment, it is to Vergil’s benefit.

“I’m... one of his friends.” Vergil leaves it at that and Dante nods once more, accepting his words with no question. When Vergil stands and opens the closet doors, his brother comes to him unhindered, standing before him, small and trembling. Vergil kneels down once more, placing a hand on Dante's shoulder. "This will pass, Dante. I know you are afraid, but everything will be okay in the end."

Dante's tears have subsided and he looks at Vergil with all of the gravity that an eight-year-old can muster. He nods once in acknowledgement of Vergil's words before he grabs at the hand on his shoulder, lacing small fingers with Vergil's much larger ones and clinging tightly.

With his touch comes a wave of nausea that nearly sends Vergil to the floor. Around him the world ripples as if it is a reflection on a disturbed pond surface, waving and bending and losing form. With a sound like the air being sucked out of the room around him, Vergil is transported once more to the stone circle where he had first entered this illusion.

Of the three gates that once stood before him, the leftmost is now closed—where the shimmery wall of magic had been is now an empty stone arch showing only the dark nothingness that surrounds him on all sides. Much like slaying the demon illusion in Malphas’ trap, he has apparently met the criteria necessary to move forward, although he is still not sure what that criteria was.

When Dante had touched him, he had been transported immediately. Had it been Dante’s touch? Or simply his acknowledgment for Vergil’s words allowing them both to move on from that particular part of their childhood.

Reflect. What was he supposed to be reflecting on?

He is hesitant to proceed without a clearer picture of what, exactly, he had done to move forward. Dante at the age of eight had been trusting and naive, willing to accept Vergil’s comfort with little hesitation. Should he encounter a different scenario through the other two gates, he suspects his brother’s soul will be less receptive to his presence.

Their memories together only go downhill from there.

Vergil stands, straightening his coat and brushing the dust and ash off with a flick of his wrist. The solidity of this illusion is still impressive, another testament to her strength of will. He wonders what has become of his physical form, left behind in the corporeal plane of the underworld. It seems unlikely she would have caused them any harm—her words had implied the desire for a partnership, in some form, and it would be a wasted opportunity. Does she intend to turn them over to Mundus?

The thought makes his hackles raise, fists clenching at his sides. Never again. He will break Dante free from this illusion and then they will kill her together, putting an end to another remnant of the past.

The second portal washes over him like a cold shower, sending a shudder down his spine, and when he passes to the other side of the wall of magic he finds himself standing upon crumbling, debris littered asphalt. He is surrounded on all sides by the wreckage of businesses and apartment buildings, including what he recognizes as the half-destroyed remains of Dante's shop. When he turns, he finds the Temen-ni-gru at his back, outlined in the moonlight and towering above him.

For a brief he moment stands, considering the tower that rises above them and casts a shadow on the streets below. He wonders how his brother ever managed to reseal it, burying it beneath the surface of the earth once more to hide the lingering reminder of Vergil's ambitions. When he had approached his brother's shop to employ him as V, the street in which he resided had been rebuilt, and all traces of the tower had been long forgotten. Resealing the tower had never been one of Vergil's concerns—he is not even sure how Dante would have gone about doing it. Should he ever return to the overworld, he will have to go look for himself.

There is a crash behind him, metal hitting stone, that snatches his attention away from the towering form of the Temen-ni-gru. He turns to track the origin of the sound just in time to see a piece of the front wall of Dante's shop sail through the air and collide with the ground several feet away from him, cracking and splintering into dust.

With his attention refocused to the front of Dante's shop, he can sense his brother's presence, a bright, flickering flame that seethes and pulses from within the building before him. Vergil keeps his distance, observing the careless destruction from afar.

The front door appears to have taken the brunt of whatever assault was afflicted upon Dante's shop by the demons who had spilled forth from the Temen-ni-gru. There is a rough path hewn through the rubble, enough space for someone to walk through with some difficulty, and through this opening he catches a glimpse of the bright red coattails of his brother's absurd leather jacket.

Even from afar he can tell he that Dante's emotions are spiraling out of control—he rampages through the building without a single care for what he knocks over or destroys in the process, tossing chunks of brick out through the opening he has created in the shopfront. One such piece whizzes past Vergil's face, close enough that he can feel the brush of wind as it careens through the air, and he shakes his head.

This is a strange moment in time for Dante's subconsciousness to become hung up on. Vergil had anticipated the Temen-ni-gru to be a possible destination upon entering the portal, but rather than this quiet and furious aftermath, he had expected to find himself reliving one of their battles.

Entering the shop with Dante as he is now will be an invitation for disaster. Demonic energy rolls off of the building before him as his brother seeks relief in the mindless, easy destruction of the rubble that fills his ruined shop. It is only this chaotic flurry of motion that has kept Vergil's presence here hidden from Dante, but the moment he crosses that threshold, his brother will become aware of him.

He tightens his grip on the Yamato and steps toward the narrow path that his brother has carved back into his shop. If he is lucky, he will be able to snap Dante out of this moment in time quickly, with little bloodshed. Dante at nineteen had been stubborn and angry and prone to dramatics, and when Vergil enters the shop, it is with this in mind—the annoyance of an older brother, put upon by the theatrics of his sibling. He feels nothing but frustration for the situation they currently find themselves in. Focuses only on the facts of the task at hand.

As such, when he approaches the narrow opening and pauses to peer into the shop, he believes he is prepared to see Dante like this.

He isn't. It hits him in the chest, squeezes his lungs until he's nearly breathless. This is the Dante of his last clear memories—young, brash, and beautiful, infuriating in his rebellion against Vergil, yet all the more desirable for it. The Dante who slipped through his fingers because of his hubris (because of his fear). Even lost in the throes of an inhuman anger this Dante is resplendent, made moreso because of his anger, the way his demonic power roils beneath his skin, threatening to bubble to the surface, uncontrollable in his inexperience.

Seeing him now, caught up in this moment from his past, he realizes how much his brother has changed. The Dante who had faced Vergil atop the Qliphoth had been molded by the years that have separated them from the Temen-ni-gru, shaped by time and life that Vergil has not experienced. He is older and more level-headed; stronger and more beautiful for it; but there is something else, something missing. The fiery passion that burns in this image of Dante has dulled in his age, and a voice, quiet and sharp in the back of Vergil's mind, whispers the words that he has been unwilling to give form until now: that's your fault.

Before Vergil can enter the building properly, his brother spins on his heel, throwing another chunk of brick toward the opening in the entryway. Vergil ducks in time to avoid the projectile, feeling it tousle his hair as it whizzes past before crashing to the sidewalk behind him, and his brother freezes as pale blue eyes land on Vergil's face.

"Dante." Vergil addresses him with a firm and steady tone, flat and devoid of the emotion that threatens to claw its way out of his chest and spill onto the floor before him. At the sound of his name, Dante's eyes narrow, his body going rigid and tense as if preparing for an attack.

Seeing Dante up close like this is worse, so much worse, and he freezes, his resolve wavering in the face of the grief that he has caused. There is a tint of red lining Dante's clear blue eyes and the corner of his lip is split, presumably from where he has worried it with his teeth with such frequency that he's managed to temporarily outspeed his natural healing. Dante looks at Vergil in blank incomprehension for the span of a heartbeat that feels, in reality, like an hour, before his face morphs into a barely human snarl.

"Oh, this is rich. And here I thought I was done cleaning up the shit that tower conjured up," he says, reaching behind his back to arm himself with his twin pistols. Before he can pull the trigger Vergil has dashed out of the building, backing into the street where he will have room to deal with Dante's inevitable assault.

Talking has never been their strong suite, and so Vergil follows his brother's lead, unsheathes the Yamato, and meets Dante's charge from the building with steel. They clash together in the middle of the street, sparks dancing between them, and Vergil notes with mild curiosity that his brother has chosen to wield the Force Edge over the Rebellion.

He knocks his brother's sword away, blinking backward to put some space between them—deflects a hail of bullets that shower around him a split second later with a familiar and easy twirl of the Yamato. As he deposits the bullets onto the asphalt street, his brother falters, eyes narrowing with recognition.

"Pretty good doppelganger. Really gotta give those demons credit," he comments, aiming for his usual casual tone, but faltering at the end, voice cracking. Before Vergil can comment on this fact his brother charges him again, Force Edge held to the side, and once more he blocks his brother's blow, the sound of the deflection ricocheting off of the buildings that surrounded them.

"Cease this foolishness." Another charge, angry and blinded by emotion; Vergil deflects it easily as well, then uses Dante's own momentum to trip him, sending him staggering forward. He sheathes the Yamato and brings the scabbard down on his brother's back, across his shoulder blades, with a loud crack, and Dante drops to the ground with a pained groan.

"Hah. You're just as much of an insufferable douchebag as him, too. Really spot on impression," he somehow manages to say from where he is currently eating concrete at Vergil's feet. When he begins to climb to his knees, Vergil places his boot on the center of his back, pinning him in place. He flails his arms, reaching for the Force Edge, but Vergil knocks it away with the Yamato, sending it skittering across the ground.

"Enough." He allows the voice of his demon to creep into the word, two-toned and echoing, and the sound makes his brother freeze. At least Dante has the common sense to stop struggling when pinned beneath a more powerful demon, Vergil muses, and then his brother proves him wrong immediately by shuddering beneath his foot and then transforming in a burst of red light.

"Get off of me," Dante hisses, short wings beating against Vergil's leg and claws scratching into stone. Vergil sighs, stumbles as his brother squirms beneath him, and then slips into his own devil form, stomping on Dante's spine with renewed vigor. There's a faint crack of ribs, a harsh cough from Dante, and then he lies still, breathing hard.

"For once in your life, listen to me." He unsheathes the Yamato once more, angling the blade along the side of Dante's face, a threat—he glares bright red fury at the blade, and the reflection of his eyes catches Vergil's attention, hate writ plain in his face. He ignores it and the way that it makes his stomach twist into knots by saying: "What we are experiencing is an illusion. None of this is real."

His brother hisses and grabs the Yamato, caring little for how the blade slices through his fingers as he wraps his fist around it and attempts to pull it from Vergil's hands. Vergil yanks it free from his grip, splattering his blood across the street, and growls back, deep and low in his chest.

"Why must you always be so difficult?"

"Stop talking about me like you know me," Dante says, voice wavering and wet with blood from his cracked ribs and most likely punctured lung. The fight seems to have bled out of him, at least, because he goes still, his transformation fading and leaving him face down and shaking at Vergil's feet. Vergil shifts back to his human form and removes his foot from his brother's back to instead roll him over with his toe, sighing at the way that Dante glares pointedly at him the moment his eyes land on his face.

They remain like that for a long, quiet moment, Dante glaring at Vergil, before his brother turns his face away and lets out a shuddering breath.

"You left me. You asshole."

"I know. I made a mistake," Vergil responds, taking a knee next to his brother, giving in to the desire to touch that has been making his fingers itch since he first laid eyes on him. He rests his palm on Dante's shoulder and his brother reaches up and grabs his wrist, fingers digging in painfully tight, blood smearing across Vergil's skin from where Dante has sliced himself open on the Yamato.

Vergil does not attempt to break free. He allows Dante this small expression of his frustration, as insignificant as it may ultimately be, for the sake of calming him. The look that crosses his brother's face at Vergil's acquiescence of this is complicated—he is not crying, because that does not come easily to them, but his face is twisted into a grimace of anguish, lip quivering.

"Why did you do it?"

"It doesn't matter. What's done is done," Vergil says; Dante laughs, bitter and tired and wet with blood and the tears his body refuses to shed. They simmer under the surface, shining in his eyes and no doubt burning at the back of his throat—Vergil is familiar with the feeling, although he hates to admit it—but still they do not spill over. In his anger at Vergil, at the emotions that hold him in their grip, he slams his free fist onto the ground, and the concrete beneath it splinters and cracks.

"Can't even come up a nice lie, huh?" Dante huffs out something that could be another laugh, but his frustration has warped it, a strange sound somewhere closer to a sob, and then he looks at Vergil with something like resignation. "Typical you, Verg."

"I know."

"Help me up," Dante says, and Vergil complies, climbing to his feet before offering his brother a hand. He expects that Dante will fight him, attempt to throw him over his shoulder or employ some other show of dramatics, but instead he simply uses Vergil's arm to pull himself to his feet with a quiet groan. When he turns to look at Vergil again, he shakes his head, says, "You're such a dumbass," and the comment is so crude, so simple, that a shocked laugh explodes out of Vergil's chest in a short burst.

"Yes," Vergil says, shaking his head with the faintest of grins—he was—is—a dumbass. That he will concede, because falling into the underworld had not been his finest moment of forward thinking, and, removed from it by twenty-four years and with the knowledge of what has come after, he knows that now.

As soon as the word leaves his mouth the world cracks and splinters around him and he finds himself thrown back into that circle of stone once more.

It is more disorienting this time than the last—he had been so enraptured by the memory of his brother that he had momentarily forgotten where he was, and the change in scenery is a shock that leaves him temporarily dazed. He runs a hand back through his hair for want of something to occupy his hands, then remembers the blood his brother had smeared on his wrist and palm. When he turns his hand around to find it, he notices that it is gone, confined only to the isolated illusion that was that particular memory. He clenches his hand into a fist, feeling strangely... sentimental about this. A part of him wishes that it remained, stained into his skin and the worn leather of his glove, and then he remembers that this is not real, and that does not matter, and he stands up straight and walks into the third and final gate.

This time, the portal deposits him in a cathedral-like room with vaulted ceilings and an eerie blue glow spilling over dark and eroded stone, and he knows at once where he is. He expects to find Dante somewhere here, perhaps in the aftermath of their fight, but instead he finds that he is alone. Vergil paces the room, searching for answers or a sign of his brother, but the tug in his chest remains dormant and aside from the arched glass windows that tower high above him at the back of the room, there are no means to enter or exit the room. Through the glass he sees the same swirling darkness that had surrounded the center point of this trap, meaning, he thinks, that there is nothing beyond this room. Hm.

Beneath the dark windows is an altar, small and made of cracked and dirtied stone. This, he thinks, is new—he does not remember it being there in the castle, although his memories of that time are vague and distorted, like photographs warped by water and time. He goes to this for lack of anything else to investigate, peering down at the mirrored surface that spreads across the stone, and is not surprised when the reflection that stares back up at him is pale and grotesque, dark blue veins creeping along his face and neck like vines.

With a detachment that comes to him through practiced control of his emotions he notes that he has never really seen himself as he was like this, transformed by the power Mundus had embedded into his flesh. Something sharp and painful lodges in his chest as he looks at this byproduct of his failures, bitterness crawling up the back of his throat. He clings to his composure this time, digs his nails into his palm until he has drawn blood, and slowly the feeling fades to simply a dull unease.

As with the other illusions, this no doubt constructed from Dante's memories. When he lifts a hand to reach toward the glass surface of the mirror, his copy does the same, its broad, armored palm resting beneath his own, dwarfing his fingers. Logically, this makes no sense—his reflection should not have varying proportions to his own, of course—yet in this land of dreams and memories he simply accepts it. He tilts his head, and it follows; raises the hand holding the Yamato, and it matches the movement, a broadsword reflecting in the glass. A pale comparison to his actual devil arm, crude and unwieldy. He wonders why Mundus had given it to him. Perhaps that was part of the cruelty of it—he was denied even the illusion of wholeness, corrupted in his entirety, refused the one thing that had always given him peace.

The mirror surface ripples beneath his palm and he takes a step backward, unsheathing the Yamato as he watches the thing that he once was crawl from the depths of the mirror as if emerging from a pool of water—an arm, first, followed by head and shoulders; torso and broadsword clutched tightly in his other hand, the armor reflecting the blue glow of the lights around him. It steps onto stone with a clang of metal armor, staggers once, and then looks at him with crimson eyes, unblinkingly focused on his face.

Vergil does not wait for it to strike first: he is across the room, blade sweeping in a wide arc, the moment the creature has fully emerged from the mirror. A broadsword rises to meet his attack, deflecting him with surprising ease, and he drops back, blinks to the side, and approaches from a different angle, a growl of frustration rising from his chest.

Again it meets him, steel to steel, and the sound of their collision echoes through the room and ricochets off of stone, painfully loud in what is otherwise an otherworldly silence. With a growl of annoyance he falls back, the Yamato held at his side, and he paces this thing, appraising. Well. At least he had kept some measure of skill, even if the fighting style is all wrong, movements too slow and burdened by cold armor and a broadsword that lacks any of the beauty and grace of the Yamato. He thinks about—trying to move, struggling beneath a crushing weight, icy cold armor, heavy and sharp and digging into his skin, weighing him down—nothing as he readjusts his grip on the Yamato and summons a fan of swords at his back.

"I've had enough," he says, to it and to Theoris, should she somehow be listening; his voice pitches low at the end, doubled with the power of his demonic self as blue fire erupts around him and he transforms. He spreads his wings wide at his back, illuminates the darkness around himself with the bright, azure glow that radiates from his skin, and his demon grins. "Let us end this, then."

The fight is fast, brutal, and efficient—he will put this memory to rest with a measure of respect as is only befitting of it. They clash again and again, summoned swords flying between them and exploding into shining shards of pale blue light like confetti. It lands a blow on him, once; a slash across his chest that he does not dodge fast enough, where he has miscalculated the reach of the larger weapon and longer arms. He laughs through the pain and the shiny red blood that splatters at his feet is a reminder that he is whole, uncorrupted; that he is not this thing before him, not any more.

Vergil dodges the second swing, blocks the next with the scabbard of the Yamato, and then drives his blade between the plates of armor, piercing it through the center of its chest. It staggers, armored hands reaching to remove the intrusion, and so he twists the blade once, rips it free, and then drives it through again.

The cry of anguish that tears from the creature is ear-splitting, an echoed voice that hits a chord somewhere in his memory, and he snarls and drowns out the sound with a roar as he tears the Yamato free and plunges it once more into it's chest. Again and again, black blood pooling at his feet, until it collapses backward and he drives the point home one final time, through armor and flesh and stone, directly through the heart of it. His chest is heaving and his arms shake with exertion, fingers numb as if he has detached from his body in some small way and is watching this unfold from a distance.

As it bursts into blue flame the world around him wavers, flickers, and fades. There's a rush of air and a pounding in his ears and head and he screams, rage and annoyance and exhaustion rolled into one jagged sound, and with that he wakes, spread on his back on cold marble with the Yamato clutched in his hand, staring at a ceiling that spirals with iridescent clouds of gas.

He's free.

He drags himself to his feet with the Yamato and immediately drops into a battle ready stance, demonic and human senses both screaming in alarm. There is danger nearby, but there's something else, a bright red flicker of power, familiar and warm in his chest, and he turns to face it and—

"Dante."

He finds his brother.

Vergil knows at once that something is wrong—his demon vibrates beneath his skin, alert and aware of the presence of a threat. Black tendrils descend from the spiraling clouds above, holding his brother in their embrace. They are tangled around his arms and wings to hold him aloft and red lightning crackles around him, sparking and dancing across his skin as it shifts between demon and human, scales crawling along his neck and throat before fading back to soft, human flesh. The flickering between states is concerning. His body is fighting something, the demon in him rebelling against some foreign magic or intrusion, and Vergil suspects that it is a losing battle.

Vergil casts his gaze quickly around the room, assessing any other immediate concerns as he approaches Dante. The room is barren, devoid of any furniture or remarkable features. The walls are made of the same pale stone as Theoris' throne room, but the are filthy, smeared with dark, dried blood and ash. Behind his brother is an open door—an invitation to leave. Briefly he considers it, but no. Leaving Dante alone has already proven to be unreliable at best, and now that he has his brother once more in his sights, he will not leave him willingly.

Approaching Dante does not garner him any response; up close, he can see that his eyes are open, staring sightlessly at the floor before him. Magic prickles at Vergil's skin, floods his senses once more before loosening in his chest now that he has reconnected with his twin. It is a comfort he hadn't realized he needed—a confirmation that this is Dante and not some other trick prepared for him.

With uncharacteristic gentleness his slips his fingers under his brother's chin, tilting his head up so that he can inspect his face. There is dried blood matted into his hair, tracks of it running down his face and the corner of his mouth, but he is otherwise physically unharmed. When his eyes meet Vergil's, he twitches, lips tugging down into a frown, but he does not speak.

"Can you hear me?" Vergil asks, and once more his face spasms, a dark expression flashing across his features before it passes and he becomes expressionless once more. Vergil hums, releasing his brother's chin—without the support, he slumps forward as if he is boneless, the vines of darkness the only things holding him upright. Unsheathing the Yamato, Vergil carefully cuts through the tendrils that bind his brother, leaning his shoulder into Dante's chest to support his body weight while he works. They split and turn to ash beneath Vergil's blade.

When he had fought against them before, they had simply curved around his attacks like liquid, impervious to whatever he threw at them. That he can cut through them now means she is allowing it—something he rather doubts is being done from any obligation to their previously stated agreement. Demons have no sense of honor and so he knows this for what it really is: part of her plan, whatever that might be.

Dante staggers against Vergil as the last of the magic binding him is cut away, and he steadies him with an arm around his shoulders, holding him upright. He sways in Vergil's arms for a moment before he seems to come to his senses, stiffening against Vergil's embrace. With a grunt he pulls away, red eyes narrowing at Vergil in distrust. He is still half-transformed, the fiery red glow of his wings flickering spasmodically at his back and lightning crackling over his skin—still fighting something? Vergil hovers near to his side. His brother's footing is unsteady and he sways where he stands; when Vergil reaches for him, he backs up, baring fangs.

Although he has freed Dante from Theoris' magic, there is something else there—he can sense it, like an intrusion imposing on their bond. It hums through the dull remains of the magic that lingers on his skin and pulses in his mind, a black streak eclipsing the bright flair of his brother's power.

Memory flickers at the back of his mind, half-forgotten and frayed by the removal of his nightmares—it's familiar. It feels familiar, at least, and although he cannot recall any concrete details, he suspects a form of corruption similar to what had been pulsing through the building where they had found the Angelos. The strength of his brother's demonic half is all that has kept it at bay, but it is a battle that his demon cannot win, no matter how much it struggles.

Vergil sweeps his gaze across his brother, scanning him with human and demonic senses both, and—there. A dark, throbbing knot of demonic energy, centered over his sternum. It pokes from beneath the edge of his filthy and torn henley, dark and shiny against his tan skin. Could he cut it out with the Yamato? He would need to be careful—he knows intimately well the consequences of using the Yamato carelessly in such a delicate act as cutting one’s soul into pieces—but he will have to try. Dante’s demon cannot stem the corruption forever.

It will be easier if his brother cooperates with him, but that seems unlikely; Dante stands apart from him with a look on his face as if he does not trust him. His fists are curled at his side and his brow is drawn as he stares at Vergil, calculating, assessing the potential threat.

"Dante—" Vergil starts, before his brother cuts him off with a snarl, more demon than human. Power flares off of him, sending a wave of heat radiating from his body that warms Vergil's face with its intensity; Vergil backs up on reflex, lowering himself into a defensive stance. Every inch of his Dante's posture speaks to his demon's confusion and anger at what is happening, his shoulders tense and his wings curling loosely around him defensively.

"Brother. I do not want to fight you like this,” Vergil says, straining to be heard over the keening whine that has begun to emit from his brother’s chest. The demon in him knows that something is wrong, that he is in danger, and he reacts as such, a cornered animal preparing to defend itself. Claws stretch from his fingertips, deadly and shining in the light from his wings, and he bares his fangs at Vergil.

“Sure, right,” Dante says, voice warped and distorted with… with something more than his demon, something that echoes hollowly and makes the hair on Vergil’s neck stand on end. “All we ever do is fight, Verg. That’s what we were born to do, right?”

Vergil opens his mouth to speak, but finds he does not have the chance: his brother is on him in an instant, his sword materializing in his hand to arc through the air at Vergil’s shoulder. Raising the Yamato in time to deflect the blow takes effort—he is tired, high-strung, focused on watching the corruption as it digs into his brother’s flesh and spreads its poison through his veins. It is with a measure of difficulty that he is able to throw him off and put some distance between them.

“Why must you always do this?” Vergil hisses, raining summoned swords at Dante while he speaks. He aims to keep him occupied, dodging rather than attacking, and it works, for a time, before his brother opts to allow the last two swords to pierce through his shoulder while he charges Vergil, undeterred by the spray of blood that trails in his wake. Arching his back, Vergil spreads his wings and leaps into the air; his brother follows instantly, and they tumble awkwardly, swords and fists colliding in their struggle, before they crash into a wall and are forced apart.

Vergil puts distance between them once more, summoning a fan of swords as a shield before him.

He needs to think. The corruption is spreading, and if Dante burns his demonic energy fighting against Vergil, it will only spread faster. Using the Yamato to cut the corruption away will require that he be close enough to do so with precision and proper intent, a feat that will prove almost impossible with Dante in this current state, wild and feral and lashing out in fear. Once more his brother charges him and he sends the fan of swords spiraling at his head—he dodges it narrowly, growls, and then resumes his charge as if they were only a minor nuisance. Dante is not holding back, not like he has in their previous duels since entering the underworld, and it shows.

”Who’s got who, hm?”

Inspiration hits him then—the memory of Dante’s face, lips quirked in a smirk, pulling the Yamato closer through his own chest to drag Vergil into his orbit.

It would be risky. The Devil Sword Dante is an immense weapon in both size and power, and it would take him some time to heal; a fact made all the more dangerous by their current precarious location in enemy territory. But his priority needs to be getting Dante close, and if opening himself to an attack from his brother is the only way to do that, then so be it.

Vergil darts away from Dante as he charges, arching downward back toward the floor to relocate their fight once more on solid ground. Steady footing will be better for this. When he lands, he shifts fully into his human form and holds the Yamato low, angled upward in preparation. He prays that Dante will blindly charge him again—it does seem to be his little brother’s preferred method of attack.

He does. He lands, growls at Vergil once more, and charges, his weapon held aloft. Vergil stands his ground this time, shifting his center of weight in an effort to hopefully maintain his balance when—

It catches him off guard, how much it actually hurts. It is akin to being stabbed with a hot poker, except unnecessarily large, and it splinters and cracks his ribs and sears his flesh as it pierces through the right side of his chest. He takes a moment to curse his brother's flair for unnecessary and absurd weapons. This may have been a mistake, he thinks, head swimming with the momentary disorientation of being stabbed through the lung, but then he bites his tongue, grasps the Yamato, and focuses on the dark thread of corruption he can feel pulsing beneath his brother’s flesh where he has placed his hand on Dante’s chest.

The Yamato, as with magic, will respond to his will. When he had separated his soul and expelled his nightmares, he had channeled his desires with words and demonic energy both. He does this now, focuses on that darkness and wills the Yamato to cut it away from Dante’s soul as he plunges the katana through his brother’s chest.

“I hate you,” Dante says, and Vergil ignores him, focuses on the task at hand, and drives the blade deeper. His brother hisses and returns the favor, ribs popping in Vergil’s chest as they give way beneath his brother’s ridiculous weapon. He gasps, coughs blood onto Dante’s face when it rushes into his mouth, and grits his teeth.

“I know.”

He rips the Yamato free and the corruption bursts, black liquid spilling down Dante’s chest and arching out of his back, and his brother howls, a pained sound that shakes Vergil down to the very core. Clawed fingers dig at his own chest as Dante staggers backward, spitting dark globs of demonic magic at his feet as his body expels the worst of it, and there is a furious, terrible moment where he stares at Vergil in horrified incomprehension before he drops to the floor and lies still.

The Devil Sword Dante vanishes from within Vergil’s chest and he, too, collapses, dropping to his hands and knees in the spreading pool of their mixed blood. The stench of gore and seared flesh makes his stomach churn and he swallows down a mouth full of blood and bile as he drags himself to his feet. Getting to Dante’s side is top priority—once he has ensured he hasn’t just killed his little brother, then he will allow himself a moment to rest and heal.

He staggers his way there, futilely pressing a hand to his chest to attempt to stem the flow of blood-loss, and drops to his knees next to his brother. Carefully he pulls him into his arms, but he can tell already that the corruption has gone, the dark demonic energy on his chest replaced now with the thin, slowly healing wound left by the Yamato. The flicker of Dante’s fire calling out to Vergil’s soul is bright and untainted, and Vergil pulls his little brother into his lap and falls back rather gracelessly onto his rear, dizzy with exertion and blood loss.

"Idiot," Vergil tells him, pushing Dante's matted and filthy hair away from his face. He has dropped his demon form in his unconsciousness, although red lightning still crackles around him faintly, healing the damage done by Theoris' magic. They are going to have words once Dante regains consciousness, Vergil thinks, but for now he will sit and stand guard while his brother recovers. He drops the Yamato's scabbard on the floor, curls his arm protectively around Dante's shoulders to hold him tight to his chest, and he waits.

Chapter Text

Dante wakes from what is perhaps the worst dream of his entire life to a pounding in his head, an aching in his limbs, and to the unmistakable feeling of being cradled in someone's arms. An arm is wrapped tightly around his shoulders and his face is pressed against their chest, the rise and fall of their breathing a soothing rhythm that he focuses on as he claws his way to consciousness. The fabric against his cheek is stiff and sticky with blood, and the smell of it hits him like a freight train, because it is familiar and terrible all at once: it is Vergil's. It is fresh and still warm against the side of his face and his demon howls in a fever pitch with the desire to sink teeth in. He fights it back, just barely, but he feels imbalanced, and it whimpers and whines and demands vengeance loudly in the back of his head for a reason he can't quite understand.

Later, he tells it. He needs to figure out what's going on first, because Vergil's blood is thick and cloying and absolutely everywhere and that needs to be his priority.

Prying his eyes open takes a considerable amount of effort. He grumbles his way through the throbbing in his skull, dragging himself back to his senses one slow and steady second at a time. He's greeted with the sight of Vergil's vest, torn and bloodstained, the skin beneath shiny and freshly healed. Pressed against his chest like this, he can hear the steady beat of Vergil's heart, and that, combined with the obviously healed wound, eases his concern and soothes the panicked voice in the back of his mind.

Every single inch of him aches. He feels like he's been running for days, his limbs heavy and sore and his ribs burning. The ache in his chest is the worst of it, and he reaches up a hand to fumble along his sticky and ruined henley to probe for any obvious injuries. Whatever happened to him has healed, leaving behind a mess of blood and some kind of slimy black substance. The motion seems to alert Vergil to the fact that he has regained consciousness—there's a huff of breath above him and his brother goes tense, pulling Dante away from his chest.

He blinks up at Vergil, at the naked worry that's obvious in the crease of his brow and the tight line of his lips, and he offers him a grin. It’s thin and barely makes it onto his face, he knows, but it’s the best he’s got right now.

“Hey,” Dante says, feeling a bit like he probably owes Vergil a lot more than a half-hearted 'hey,' but finding that his throat feels raw and the words get stuck somewhere in his chest. He’s still piecing together what happened, so he’s not sure what else he would say, anyway.

“You moron,” Vergil says back, looking far less annoyed than he sounds, and Dante offers him a breathy and thin laugh that cracks and frays at the end, bordering on desperate.

“Never was very good at listening to you,” Dante whispers into the small space between them. The arm around his shoulders tightens and Vergil glares at him with absolutely no venom, his features softened by the obvious concern that darkens his pale gray eyes. There's a clink of metal on stone, and Dante glances over to see that Vergil has sat down the Yamato next to them. He jolts when his brother's warm, deft fingers slide across his chest, trailing a line down his sternum and over his ribs. Vergil flattens his palm over the worst of the ache, fingers splayed wide, and he lingers that way for a long moment, eyes half closed in concentration. When he removes his hand, it is with a quiet sigh of relief.

"I wasn't sure that would work," he admits, retrieving the Yamato to hold it protectively before them. "But I sense no more corruption, so your absurd luck has held out, little brother."

Dante says, "Good to know I've still got it," before he lets silence settle between them, welcoming the moment to recuperate for what it is.

Dante is not entirely sure what happened to him, but he remembers enough to know that he's messed up pretty bad. He remembers leaving Vergil alone while he'd stopped to rest, exploring the houses in Oneiros; he remembers inky blackness tangling around him and dragging him into unconsciousness; and he remembers a voice, saccharine sweet and full of promises even as it threw his past back into his face.

Shining through the haze of magic had been Vergil—strong, intense, a steady presence despite the turmoil of emotions and memories that was swallowing Dante whole. Vergil had drug him from the brink of something dark and looming that had been threatening to consume him. They had fought viciously, and he had stabbed him, and—

"Shit," Dante whispers, reaching up to press his hand over his eyes. "I think I almost killed you."

"Don't be overconfident. It wasn't even close," Vergil tells him, lofty confidence and bravado betrayed by a slight waver to his voice. His brother has obviously recovered from the injury that Dante had inflicted, but he knows better than to take Vergil's words at face value—knows his own strength, if he’s being honest. He could’ve killed him. He thinks he probably would have, if Vergil hadn’t stopped him.

"Cocky bastard," Dante mutters, wishing he could get to his feet. He hates lying in Vergil's arms like this, open and vulnerable, but his brother doesn't seem inclined to let him go just yet, and so he forces himself to relax into the touch. It's nice, but the gentleness is foreign and a little uncomfortable, uncharted territory between them. The part of his brain that has missed Vergil more than anything craves it, at the same time, and so he settles into the embrace and lets his body’s natural healing do its thing.

Shit, his thoughts are a mess right now.

Vaguely, he remembers the memories, drug from his subconscious mind to be wielded as a weapon against them—his memories of that day, of the aftermath of the Temen-ni-gru. Vergil had stuck with him through those painful recreations of his past even as he had attacked him, had sworn at him and screamed and resisted his approach. He had been furious, frustrated with the past that stretched between them that they had yet to address, and whatever magic had trapped him had fed into those insecurities, winding him up until he had exploded at Vergil at his first opportunity.

"I said some stupid shit," Dante says, pinching the bridge of his nose and trying to massage the headache out from behind his eyes. He feels hungover, which is an incredibly rare occurrence for him. There's a tremor vibrating under his skin and his chest throbs, aches in a way that feels deeper than just skin and bone. Everything is a confusing blur of pain and darkness, but it's coming back to him slowly, how his demon had lashed out in fear and confusion at what was happening to him.

What the fuck was happening to him? In all of his years fighting demons, he's never experienced anything quite like that—trapped inside his own head, a creeping darkness seeping into both his mind and body. A shiver breaks out over his skin at the thought of it digging into his chest and clinging to his soul. They lapse into awkward silence as Dante takes a moment to categorize his current physical state, scanning for any other injuries while trying to decide what else he can say to Vergil to make up for what just happened. His brother is, as always, frustratingly quiet about this entire experience.

"Thanks for coming for me," Dante says, and Vergil looks down at him with a quirked brow. Without Vergil, this would've definitely been the end for him, and that's... that's not a great thought, really, even as warmth creeps into his chest and lodges behind his ribs. Vergil came for him, dove into his nightmares for him, and put himself into a vulnerable position to save Dante from corruption. Dante can’t really say he’s ever done the same—he feels like he doesn’t deserve it, but he pushes that thought to the back of his mind, bottles it up and stores it away for later. Now is not the time to fall down that old slippery slope.

"I wasn't just going to leave you," Vergil responds, voice and expression uncharacteristically soft. “You are my brother.”

Everything up to this point has felt like Vergil working with Dante because that was what made the most sense—an alliance of convenience, almost, more than anything else. To hear Vergil admit that he came for Dante because he wanted to, because they were family, is a reaffirmation of a relationship that Dante has spent the last twenty-four years of his life being absolutely certain was forever lost to him.

He’d told him he hated him. It pops in his head, then—the way he’d hissed it at him in a moment of weakness, believing with every fiber of his being that Vergil undoubtedly hated him, too.

"I don't hate you. Shit, I wasn't really thinking very clearly back there," Dante says, dragging his hand back through his hair, grimacing at the tangles of dried blood that plasters it to his neck. "I know I say a lot of dumb shit on a good day, but I don’t. I can’t.”

Vergil doesn't respond, his expression remaining blank through Dante's awkward admission, infuriatingly emotionless in the face of everything that's just happened. Dante forces himself to lock eyes with Vergil and he lifts a hand, resting it along the side of his brother's face—not touching, but close enough he can feel the warmth radiating from him and the faintest hint of skin brushing his fingertips. He wants to touch, but he feels like he can't, like there's some invisible barrier hovering over Vergil's skin that repels him, formed by twenty-four years of animosity and reinforced by everything he's just said and done. Vergil doesn’t react to the movement other than to freeze up, as if he’s waiting to see what Dante will do.

He might not have been thinking clearly, but being under that spell hadn't put the words in his mouth—that had been him. It's no secret his feelings toward his brother are complicated, that they are long overdue for a conversation, but stabbing Vergil nearly to death in a blind, demonic rage hadn't been how he'd wanted to start that chat.

"If you did—" Vergil starts, but Dante cuts him off.

"Nope. I'm too old for that any more," Dante says, dropping his hand away. He slips from Vergil's arms, pushing himself out of his lap to sit cross-legged on the floor at his side. His brother releases him with some reluctance, and even then he keeps one hand pressed against Dante’s back as support. The world around him is spinning in a dizzying blur of too-bright colors, so he leans into that touch, grateful for his brother’s silent support, before he continues:

"I think I hated you after you fell and left me to clean up your mess," you left me, "But I don't any more, not even after Red Grave. I hope you know that. I don't think I even know how to really hate you." He laughs. "Must not be hardwired that way."

Vergil hums in response, low and thoughtful, but otherwise says nothing. When it seems that Vergil is going to remain silent, Dante focuses his attention instead on trying to pull together his disjointed thoughts and emotions after the nightmare of a trap he's just been through. There is a dark, sharp ache deep in the center of his chest now that makes him feel like he can't take a breath deep enough, like he has a weight sitting on his sternum full time. He runs his palm over the center of his chest, the scar from the Rebellion now broken by a raised, horizontal line on his skin. It's paper thin and barely noticeable, but it itches like crazy, and when he touches it that pressure in his chest pulses with an intensity that makes his head throb.

Dante shakes his head. No one can scar like Vergil can.

Resolute to stand on his own now, Dante leans forward, pulling away from his brother's supportive touch on his back. The world pitches before him, but he manages to get onto his knees with a groan, and he sits back on his heels and tilts his head toward Vergil to see how he's fairing. He was hoping they’d have more of a chat than that, but whatever. Can’t ask everything of his brother in one day, and swooping in to save him from his own stupidity is probably enough.

The look on his twin’s face catches him off guard. If he didn't know Vergil, he'd think it was regret—but then, does he know his brother? They haven't had a real conversation in thirty-five years, because no part of what happened between them during that month they'd spent together as teenagers could be called effective communication. Back then, all they'd really done was fight endlessly and argue about Vergil's plans, a little feral and warped with bitterness.

"Vergil?"

His brother jolts at the sound of his name, but he slaps his composure back into place so fast that Dante's not really sure what he saw.

"You asked me why I did it," he says, looking at Dante carefully, distantly. "I told you it doesn't matter, but I wasn’t—" he inhales sharply through his nose, tightens his brow, and forces himself to continue, changing his approach from whatever he was going to say. "I regret that I’ve caused you pain. Regardless of… the outcome, it was never my intention to hurt you and I admit that I... made a mistake."

Dante reaches out and gently squeezes Vergil’s knee as an acknowledgement. Part of him, the part that seems to live in direct opposition to everything Vergil ever does, wants to tell him that it's probably the shittiest apology he's ever received in his life. That Dante had told him, endlessly, over and over again, that seeking that kind of power so blindly was a mistake. That if he had never wanted to hurt Dante, then why the fuck had he willingly left him?

Lucky for him, he's too tired to listen to that part, so instead he offers Vergil a wan smile.

"Yeah, I get it," Dante says, and then Vergil sighs, running a hand up through his hair in a rare display of uncertainty. "It's fine, Verg. Water under the bridge and all that."

Vergil shakes his head and says: "I have never hated you, either," and, shit, he's not prepared for that, the quiet and open way his brother says it. Emotion makes his eyes burn and his throat clench, and he bites his lip and digs the back of his hand against his eyelids, feeling like he's been tossed into some kind of emotional blender. He's had enough of a heart to heart for the day, and he clears his throat, swallows down the emotion that's threatening to make his voice crack, and starts to stand up.

"Okay," Dante says as he pushes himself to his feet, head swimming and body swaying as he gradually regains his footing. He offers his brother a hand—there's a moment's pause before he accepts the offer and lets Dante pull him to his feet.

Following the motion through to draw Vergil against his chest is easy, and so he does. He doesn't stop to think about it: he just tugs him until they are pressed together as close as is physically possible while standing, connected from chest to hip. For once in his life, Vergil does not stiffen or jerk away, and he pulls Dante into his embrace and buries his face in the matted hair at the side of Dante's neck with a shuddering exhale.

It's just a hug, awkward and a little clumsy because all of his limbs feel slightly detached right now, but it might be the best thing Dante's ever felt in his life. Vergil is holding him so tightly his breathing is a little hindered and he doesn't even care—he returns the embrace with an equal measure of intensity, hard and sure and a little too close to desperate.

Holding his brother like this, it's easy to say the thing he's been dancing around his entire life, a stubborn sibling who is conditioned to never apologize for any of his mistakes: "I'm so sorry," and to his surprise, Vergil's voice echoes his in that same moment with a muttered "I'm sorry" of his own. The repetition makes them both freeze and then break into a quiet, tenuous laugh. They haven't done that in thirty-five years, but it's the kind of thing they used to do subconsciously as children—echoing each other's words, finishing each other's sentences. Dante hasn't realized how badly he's missed that until he's had it again, just now, and then his laugh morphs into a broken noise that he doesn't want to think about too hard before he drags his emotions back into check and they both fall silent.

They stay that way for so long Dante loses track of time, before Vergil's arms grow slack around his shoulders and he shifts his weight awkwardly between his feet. When Dante pulls away, he holds his twin at arm’s length, peering into his silver eyes, scanning for… something. There’s a fire slowly building behind Dante’s ribs, ignited by their touch, and a part of him wants to know if Vergil feels it, too. If there’s still something there, even though he doesn’t think—

He pushes back the thought. Not the time, not the place.

"Let's get the hell out of here now, alright?" Dante says, and his brother nods, backing out of his embrace and pushing his hand through his hair once more.

Dante casts a glance around the room, trying to figure out where he's ended up. Nothing about it looks familiar—there's an alarmingly large puddle of blood off to one side, a pair of uneven footprints that lead to where they stand, and dark ash smeared on the walls, but otherwise it's pretty nondescript. Dante looks his brother up and down, the dark red stains of blood that seep into his coat and vest, and he offers a pained laugh.

"Damn, I really did a number on you, huh?" He says, and then his expression softens and he gestures at Vergil's chest. "You okay?"

His brother rolls his eyes.

"I've healed," he says, and Dante shrugs, clapping him on the shoulder as he walks past him toward the entrance to the room. Vergil falls into line beside him, the Yamato clutched in one hand; he's alert and prepared for an attack, so Dante summons his sword, too, even though it makes him feel a little dizzy to do it, and props it on his shoulder.

"Where are we, exactly?" He wasn't conscious when he came here, so he's not sure how far they've strayed from where he collapsed originally. The place looks similar to the houses they were in before—the same pale stone, a similar dull hum of demonic energy—but that doesn't really tell him much.

"The heart of Oneiros," Vergil says as they step into the hallway, pausing to cast a glance in either direction, assessing which way might be the most likely exit. He takes off to the right, and Dante follows, figuring he's got a better handle on the area at this point. "A demon sorceress known as Theoris rules here. We are going to go kill her."

"Sounds just great. You know, you could've warned me about the demon sorceress beforehand," Dante says, rolling his shoulders to shake out some of the tension. He swears he's going to get emotional whiplash from Vergil one of these days—he's flipped from "concerned older brother" to "murderous intent" so fast it's enough to make Dante even dizzier than he already is. Not that he's complaining about the murder this time. Dante's itching for a fight just as much, his demon howling in his head, demanding vengeance.

"And you could have listened to me and been careful, and yet here we are," Vergil says, and then almost as an afterthought he adds, "I didn't remember her before."

The admission makes a lot of sense, and honestly, Dante's figured as much at this point: for one reason or another, Vergil doesn't remember much of his time in hell. Going in blind has never stopped Dante from a job before, and it's not about to stop him now, but he feels a pang of guilt that Vergil's been unwilling to admit this fact to him before now. Knowing his brother, he probably sees it as a kind of weakness; which, of course, it isn't. If his memories are spotty because of the nightmares that Dante defeated, then it's probably for the better.

He remembers the facility they'd come across what feels like years ago and shudders. There's still so much he wants to know, wants to talk to Vergil about. He'd wanted to impart some kind of comfort to his brother, and instead he has only drug him into something else dark and difficult, some other reminder of his past.

Dante files that thought away for later. As much as he wants to talk to his brother, they should get out of this mess first. He opts for easy conversation instead, falling into the usual quips and banter that he's always relied on. It makes him feel more normal, which he could use right now, after the corruption and the nightmares and the crushing doubt her words had instilled in him.

"To be fair," Dante says, brushing against his brother's shoulder with his own, "you said not to believe everything I saw. Didn't say anything about voices in my head. I'm the kind of guy who needs pretty clear and exact instructions."

Vergil's sigh in response is the sound of an older brother who has grown very, very tired of their younger sibling's stupidity, and it drags a tired smile out of Dante. It's nice to have Vergil at his side like this, trading non-violent jabs back and forth and focused on a singular purpose. This roadtrip has been a resounding disaster so far, but this, at least, is what he lives for: charging into a fight, made all the more sweet now that his brother is at his side.

The hallway dead-ends into another hallway. Vergil goes left this time, and Dante follows after, close at his brother's side. There's something tickling at the back of his senses, a looming presence that, now that he's noticed it, sets his teeth on edge. His hands have curled into claws and his fangs are bared before he realizes he's even done it, an instinctual reaction from his demon.

Each step brings them closer to that presence until they have reached a hallway illuminated by a row of bronze braziers that spill a cold, blue light across the floor. This close, he has to struggle to keep his demon in check—it roars to the surface of his mind, promising power and demanding revenge, and he wills it back down with a measure of difficulty. The presence is impossible to miss at this distance, dark and dangerous somewhere at the end of this last hall. Dante whistles.

"Well, that seems big and nasty," he says, to which Vergil hums in acknowledgment. His brother pauses, and Dante follows suit; the hand that drops onto Dante's forearm nearly makes him jump out of his skin, and he bares his teeth at Vergil before he's able to get his demon back into check. His brother frowns.

"Something is wrong. Will you be able to fight?" Vergil asks, looking at Dante with what might even be worry. It's a good question—he’s dizzy, his chest still aches, and his head throbs. Since entering hell, he has felt at peace with his demonic half, leaning into that power with an ease that he has never really felt before. In the aftermath of whatever corruption had been coursing through his veins, however, he feels like he's struggling to keep the damn thing beneath the surface, and it writhes and growls under his skin in annoyance.

"Yeah. Just feeling a little off balance," he admits, before offering Vergil one of his trademark easy grins, "Nothing I can't deal with, though."

Vergil doesn't say anything, but doesn't remove his hand from Dante's arm, either, and there's an awkward moment where Dante's not sure what he wants from him before it passes and he pulls away.

"Besides, I've got my big bro to pick up my slack."

Vergil rolls his eyes, putting distance between them. Whatever comment or concern he had is gone, buried back under that emotionless exterior of his, and Dante files that away, too, for later. He should probably tell Vergil about the… everything, really, the dizziness, the ache, just how badly he is out of balance, but he’ll just work around it. Wouldn’t be the first time he’s fought at less than optimal conditions, and sitting this one out isn’t an option.

They continue down the hallway like they own the place, like they aren't crawling their way out of the bowels of some dungeon where Dante almost ripped Vergil to shreds. He knows the importance of making a suave entrance, so he squashes down his demon's anger and ignores the way his head still swims if he looks in any direction too fast as he follows his brother into the next room.

The hallway opens up on an impressively sized throne room, pale marble reflecting the glow of azure light that spills from braziers along the walls. The focal point at the front of the room is a throne, rising a few feet above the ground up a slope of steep marble steps. Perched atop this is a demon, noticeable as such only by the way it sets his instincts on edge to look at her.

Theoris is not what he’s expecting—he’s used to big, nasty, grotesque demons, the sort that look like they crawled out of hell, got hit by a bus, and then rolled around in some filth for a few days. Comparatively, she’s well composed, and more alarming than that is the fact that she is extremely human. Upon their entry, she turns to face them, a smile breaking onto her features. There's far too many teeth in her mouth.

“You truly are impressive, Sons of Sparda. I had not—”

She’s interrupted by a summoned sword flying through the air and embedding itself into the back of her throne, mere millimeters from her face. Dante shoots a glance at his brother out of the corner of his eye—there's another sword already materializing over his shoulder, and he shrugs, letting Vergil lead in this one. Normally he's a fan of trading some banter, but if Vergil's not in the mood, then whatever.

"I have had enough of your mind games," Vergil says, voice a low growl; he stalks through the room like a predator, sleek and measured and controlled in all of his movements. Dante follows after him, prepared to jump in whenever Vergil gives him a cue. It seems they've had a conversation once already, judging by the way they've started out.

Theoris sighs as she rises from her throne, her white toga flowing around her with each movement. She's even dressed human, Dante notes—ancient Greek, maybe? Old, no matter what; he was never that interested in history, unless it had something to do with his work, so he's not very well versed. There's something unsettling about that, the fact that she wears a human face and dresses like a human, but is so obviously not.

He pauses, thinks about the houses, their eerie implication of humanity on display. Well, shit.

"You're a human. Or, I guess, you probably were," Dante says, unable to help himself. "So what, you opened a hellgate, made some kind of pact, now you think you're hot shit?"

Vergil shoots him a glance over his shoulder, brow arched in curiosity. So his brother hasn't caught on to that fact yet, huh? Score one for Dante.

"Maybe it'd be better if you just stand down. Not sure a human, even one souped up on demon magic, can stand a chance against us," Dante, because this is just what he does, says, hefting his sword off of his shoulder and holding it out to the side in preparation to strike.

Her laughter is explosive, echoing around them and coming from everywhere at once. "So self-assured. Your father was the same way."

Vergil moves first, a streak of silver across the room with a fan of summoned swords shining at his back. They shoot past him with lightning speed, aimed for her throat and chest. With a lazy flick of her wrist a wave of darkness shoots from the floor and engulfs them, shattering the blades before they can reach her. Dante remembers that trick, the dark tendrils that had ensnared him from before, and he shudders at the memory of them sliding over his skin. Definitely going to want to avoid that.

He charges after his brother, splitting off to come at her from a different angle. She's fast, despite her physical appearance—she's in the air before they can make it to her, propelled skyward by a torrent of that inky black liquid that seems to be at her command. The sudden movement means Dante just swings at empty air, and he finds himself tipping awkwardly with the momentum of it as his head spins and his center of balance gets thrown off. Vergil is forced to dance to the side, away from his sloppy swing, and he narrows his eyes and hisses at Dante in annoyance.

Condensed tendrils of darkness break them apart, smashing down into the floor where they were once standing, taking the form of various spears and swords. Dante's forced to blink backward a few paces to dodge the attacking magic. Those, too, look Greek—he recognizes them with some measure of certainty, at least. Weapons were one of the few things he bothered to learn, because you never knew when you'd end up with a devil arm fashioned off of some sword that hasn't been seen in two thousand years or something.

Theoris wields her magic as a shield and a weapon both, deflecting their attacks and dealing her own as she effortlessly drifts above them on a wave of darkness. It's a neat trick, one he's never seen before; she's got more bite than it looks.

A spear comes for his head and he ducks, feeling the tingle of magic as it narrowly misses his face. Dante realizes a split second too late that it was a distraction: there's another vine of magic wrapping around his ankle, and before he can slam his sword through it he's been swept off of his feet. He crashes to his back on the stone floor, the wind forced out of his lungs from the blow. Shit, he is really not on top of his game right now.

Thankfully, Vergil notices his predicament, sweeping across the room to tear through the tangle of magic that's climbing up Dante's thigh and beginning to drag him into the air. He lands on the ground with a thud and a grunt. His brother stands over him, face twisted in a frown, somehow managing to blend both concern and annoyance into the crease of his brow and around his eyes.

"Pay attention," he snarls, bending down to grab Dante by the front of his shirt. He hoists him to his feet, sparing no time to ensure he actually has steady footing before turning his back on him to slice through another approaching attack. "Distract her, at least."

"Yeah, sure," Dante responds, reaffirming his grip on his sword and turning his back to Vergil. "That I think I can do." He's good at making a scene.

Fighting alongside his brother like this, back to back, against an actually formidable opponent, is thrilling. The bloodlust that always simmers under the surface of his skin sings with delight as they move in tandem. There's no need for verbal communication between them; they read each other's movements seamlessly, each twitch and flex of muscle an unspoken language in which they are both fluent.

It's ruined a little by the constant dizziness making Dante's attacks slow and awkward, but Vergil is doing his best to work around him, even if he grumbles about it incessantly and deflects Dante’s blows almost as much as Theoris’. Together, they clear a path through the tangle of magic that's surrounded them.

Dante looks skyward where Theoris is perched on her pedestal of magic. He will have to go up to her if he wants to make any impact here, nausea be damned, so with a sigh he gives in to that voice that's been roaring in the back of his head since he woke up.

The transformation is exhilarating—it always is. The Devil Sword Dante slams into his torso and he grunts, the dull ache in his chest burning with renewed intensity as he shifts into his demon form. It's not enough to slow him down, at least, and he takes off into the air with a roar, fire and brimstone and glittering red light burning away the darkness around him.

She focuses her attention on Dante immediately, sensing the greater threat now that he's both at her level and given in to his demonic power. His demon roars at the sight of her—it remembers, distinctly, the feeling of losing control, of power being stripped away—and he charges, dashing through the air toward her self-made tower. She's impressively quick with it, creating a path out of her magic to distance herself from Dante's assault, but he's faster. Theoris is forced to take the defensive, erecting walls and shields to deflect his blows when she learns she cannot outspeed him.

Beneath him, he hears the familiar hum of his brother's magic; he glances down to see Vergil crouched low, the Yamato held in one hand and against his chest. The world around them shimmers with a purple glow as Vergil manipulates time, and Dante considers, for a moment, getting out of the way. Probably better if he just keeps her busy. He'll just have to trust Vergil to not slice and dice him in the process.

She glances down at Vergil once in Dante's moment of distraction, so he dives at her, beating his wings and aiming to spear her through the stomach. She blocks him, narrowly—the blade skips off of the wall of magic and nicks across her arm, black blood splattering to the floor below them. With a hiss she extends her hand and then he's ensnared, thin tendrils of magic wrapping around his wings as it had before. He writhes, swinging blindly at it.

"I could give you power," she starts, and Dante laughs, even as he struggles against her grip. He knows a trick when he hears one, now, can feel the way her magic starts trying to encroach on his mind. He won't be fooled by it again, which is helped, of course, by the fact she picked an offer he really doesn't give a shit about.

"I'm good on 'power.'"

The distraction was enough—there's a flicker out of the corner of Dante's eye before everything around him freezes. Being caught up in the time magic makes his skin tingle in anticipation, and then the room erupts in a flurry of silvery white lines as his brother darts around them. Dante thinks, you better not get me with this you asshole, and then everything catches up at once.

Dante is sent flying by the force of his brother's attack, spiraling through the air in an uncoordinated arch. The binding magic that had held him snaps, sending a shudder down his spine as it’s cut off from his power. He's able to right himself before he slams into the nearby pillar, but it's a near thing, and he clings to it rather gracelessly with his claws as he shakes his head and tries to regain some measure of focus.

Behind him, pieces of black magic falls to the ground in writhing chunks. Theoris is thrown from her perch by its destruction beneath her feet, and even though she rights herself before she touches the ground, it is not enough. Vergil is across the room and at her throat before she even has a chance to reform her magic.

"No more tricks," he snarls, Yamato pressed against the tan curve of her neck. She smiles at him, despite her position, and waves a hand aimlessly.

"We could have a partnership. You are more than fit to be king here—I concede this now. I could provide you with the power you need to rule," Theoris says, voice singsong and distorted—more magic, weaving through the air and her words. Power might not be Dante's motivation in life, but Vergil... He kicks off from the pillar, staggers through the air like a drunk, and lands clumsily on human feet, his transformation sliding off of his skin in his panic.

He wouldn't take her offer, right? Between the Temen-ni-gru then and the Qliphoth so recently, Dante really has no idea. Is ruling hell even Vergil's objective? What did Theoris and Vergil discuss prior to Dante’s regaining consciousness?

He hates that he's doubting him, hates that he feels like he has to. He wants to believe that Vergil's not in this for some power-hungry reason, but now that she's said it, he can't get the thought out of his head, and doubt crawls its way up his throat and lodges there.

"Vergil—" Dante starts, but his brother cuts him off with a low, quiet laugh.

“No.”

Her blood is as black as the tendrils of her magic, spraying through the air, across his brother, against her throne, painting a morbid picture over the ivory marble. As she falls her magic fades, and the dark tangles of her corruption burst into clouds of smoky gray ash around them, drifting skyward toward the iridescent gas above.

Dante's chest aches and his head throbs, but he feels a pang of relief at his brother's decision, and he walks to Vergil's side as he stands over the slowly disintegrating corpse of the ruler of Oneiros. A spark of light, bright and luminescent against the darkness, rises from her body, and Vergil holds out his hand, allowing it to alight in his palm.

"You're seriously going to take it?" Dante asks, eyeing the soul warily. If she was once human, can she even become a proper devil arm? He suspects that she was more demon than human at this point, so probably. "Dunno about you, but I think I'll pass on having a sorceress hitchhiker in my head."

"It may prove useful. We have no understanding of what lies ahead," Vergil says, ever practical. The soul hovers above his palm for a moment, small and dully flickering, before he closes his fist around it. A flash of white light spills from between his fingers, bathing his face in its blinding glow. Dante stares—even streaked in the black blood of a demon his brother is truly a sight to behold.

When Vergil uncurls his fingers he is holding a small, unassuming cylindrical object. It appears to be carved ivory, similar in color to the pale stone that surrounds them in this throne room, with bronze inlays around the base. It is barely larger than his brother's hand, from fingertips to palm.

"Well, that's uneventful. Was hoping for something a little... bigger," Dante says, but Vergil seems pleased with this development, a coy smile curling on his lips. He grasps it in one hand, pulling it from the sheath enough to inspect the blade that hides within. Dante cranes his neck to sneak a peek. It's thin and folded steel, a little like the Yamato, but less sleek and considerably smaller. It would make a pointless weapon in combat—not that he can imagine Vergil ever putting the Yamato down long enough to use something else.

"Not all devil arms are meant for blindly hitting things, brother," he says with a roll of his eyes, sheathing the weapon before dismissing it with a noise like shattering glass. "It is a ceremonial dagger. A fitting tool for a witch."

Dante just shrugs—he's had plenty of luck with "devil arms that are meant for just hitting things," but if anyone can find a use for a magical dagger, it's probably his brother. He's always been obsessed with weird occult knickknacks, even as a child.

He's not given time to reflect on it much—there's a rumbling noise from somewhere in the distance, followed by the familiar pop of teleportation magic as demons begin filtering into the room. Dante summons his sword with a sigh.

"Looks like we pissed 'em off," he says as Vergil steps up next to him. There are a lot of demons trickling in now, showing up in the wake of their leader's demise. Probably to bicker over the new power void, if Dante had to guess. He's really not feeling up to getting involved in a territory dispute. "What's next?"

"We're on a cliff that overlooks a forest. Past that is the heart of Mundus' territory. That is our next destination," Vergil says, dashing past Dante to dispatch of a cluster of goat-like demons that have begun channeling their ice magic. Dante follows suit, slashing a path toward the door against the far wall.

"Jump down?" A spiral of summoned swords takes out three more demons; he throws the Dante like a boomerang, switches to Balrog while it carves a path before him, and uppercuts the big and ugly demon that was channeling a spell above him. He lands with a grunt, stumbling to one knee, head swimming; shakes it off, catches the Dante, and pulls out Ebony and Ivory. Guns will be easier—he's too tired for his usual style of jumping around the room.

"Fly across," Vergil responds, seeing Dante's switch in tactics and once more joining him at his side. They move together through the throne room, Vergil slicing through anything that gets too close, Dante taking out anything flying overhead.

"Not gonna make it very far." They tumble out through a set of stone doors onto a wide cliff-face—demons swarm the houses that litter this area, crawling and flying and floating their way toward the massive outcropping of stone they've just stepped out of. The houses that stretch before them are crumbling, decaying rapidly, chunks of stone collapsing off of tiled roofs and crashing to the ground, sending demons scattering. In the wake of her defeat, the magic that had been holding this place together is fading.

"Go as far as you can," Vergil responds, clearing a path toward the edge of the cliff. Dante follows after him at a sprint; they could take out all of the demons here and be fine, he's sure, but it'd be a wasted effort. Better to move on.

Vergil stops when he reaches the edge of the cliff, sheathing the Yamato with a click and turning to face Dante once more. Stepping up to his side, Dante peers down at the forest that spreads out in all directions beneath them. It is dark and dense, thick with foliage of varying shades of green, black, and purple. He can see where it ends, far into the distance, and beyond that, the top of what appears to be a glittering crystal spire. He cocks his head and points toward it.

"Is that what I think it is?"

Vergil just nods.

Seeing it for the first time—their ultimate goal, Mundus' throne—makes the air catch in Dante's lungs in anticipation. He may have defeated the bastard once, and he's always known it would come down to this, eventually, but seeing their destination with his own eyes makes it feel real for the first time since they jumped into hell.

"Hah. Doesn't look that impressive from here," he says, and Vergil huffs a dry laugh.

"No. It does not," Vergil whispers, and Dante is immediately filled with the compulsion to reach out and comfort his brother—he hesitates, clenching his fist at his side, before he pushes past that reluctance and grabs Vergil's hand in his. He squeezes his fingers, once, trailing his thumb over his knuckles, and then lets go. His fingertips burn where they connected with his brother's bare skin.

When Vergil turns to look at him, his expression is softer, a little more open than it's been in the past. It catches Dante off guard, makes his stomach flip-flop awkwardly and his heart flutter against the back of his ribs.

The moment passes. Vergil says: "Come on" and then transforms completely in a burst of blue light, his wings and tail spreading wide at his back before he takes off over the cliff edge. Dante follows after, shifting into his demon form and taking off after him. Vergil is faster—he's always been faster—and Dante trails behind him, struggling to keep up.

They make it maybe a third of the way across the forest before Dante can feel his demonic power fading, and he calls out to his brother and gestures at the forest below in a move that he hopes makes his predicament obvious. Vergil growls in acquiescence, curving back to Dante with a powerful beat of his wings.

"Come here," he says, and Dante does, getting as close to his brother as their demon forms will accommodate. It's a tricky maneuver in the air, but he manages, and Vergil reaches for him, wrapping his clawed fingers around Dante's forearm just as his transformation flickers and gives out. He hangs suspended from his brother's grip, then makes the mistake of looking down past his boots, the distance between him and the trees below cranking the lightheaded feeling that's been plaguing him up to eleven.

"Oh come on, you can't even carry me like a proper lady?" Dante jokes, earning him a growl of irritation before Vergil takes off once more, at top speed this time. Dante reaches up and clings to his massive wrist with both hands, helplessly dangling from his brother's arm like a sack of potatoes. It's the least graceful way he's ever traveled in his life, but it's better than walking through that entire forest, he supposes.

Despite his greater power in his devil form, Vergil runs out of steam eventually as well, and he curves downward and carefully navigates through the dense canopy of the trees until they have both landed on the springy, moss-covered forest floor. Dante staggers forward the moment his feet touch the ground, grabbing onto the first solid surface his fingers catch on for support—a low hanging branch of a tree. He clings to it, willing his head to stop spinning. He’s never been motion sick in his life, and yet that flight was enough to make him feel like he was going to hurl.

Next to him, Vergil shrugs off his transformation with a roll of his neck and a small sigh, brushing his hair back into place once he is human again. He joins Dante beside the tree, looking at him with a curious expression. Before he can say anything, Dante straightens and nods.

"Thanks for the lift," Dante says, casting his gaze around the forest now that they are truly within it. They are surrounded on all sides by massive trees, their trunks covered in dark brown and black bark, vines of varying colors climbing up and disappearing into the leaves beyond. The floor of the forest is covered in thick moss and dried leaves, clusters of strange, pale plants gathered at the base of trees. There is no sunlight in hell, no real approximation of it, and so the trees must survive on something else—demonic energy, most likely. The place thrums with it, like the buzzing of mosquitoes on a summer night, but Dante can't really pinpoint an exact source.

It's eerily quiet down here compared to the chaos they've just left behind on the cliff. He almost welcomes it—he's had enough excitement for now. Of course, there's surely some other disgusting monstrosity hiding in here, waiting to eat them both at the first opportunity, but whatever. A break is a break.

Dante slides up next to his brother, pressing his arm against his. Vergil leans into the touch, just slightly, with a sigh, and they linger that way for several moments, catching their breath.

"Guess we hoof it the rest of the way." Dante pushes off of him and sets off through the trees, weaving around gnarled roots and reaching branches that snag at his hair and coat as he passes. Not going to do them any good to just sit around, not without knowing where they are.

His brother follows.

Chapter Text

Once, when they were children, they wandered into the woods behind the mansion late in the evening, when the sun was already disappearing behind the horizon and the air was growing crisp. It was sometime in late autumn, and they were bundled tight in the shawls and scarves their mother had made them, the fluffy fabric catching on the branches of nearby trees as they ducked and jumped their way through the woods. They hadn't paid attention to where they were going, simply enjoying the art of exploration. Vergil had been clutching in his hands a book they were creating together—a catalog, like their mother's, of all of the flora that grew in their yard. He'd kept meticulous notes in small, sloppy handwriting while his brother had picked samples, describing their properties aloud to Vergil before pressing them between the pages to dry.

Before either of them knew it, night had fallen, and they had become turned around in their aimless wandering. In the shroud of darkness, everything in the woods looked the same, and Dante had clung to his arm, shivering in the cool night air, as they had struggled to find their way home. Vergil had tried to remain calm, had promised his brother that their parents would no doubt come find them, that, barring that, he would find the way home himself, but as the night wore on he had become increasingly worried, until they had huddled together against a tall oak tree, scared and lost.

Their father had come for them not long after, a lantern in one hand and the Yamato in the other. He had shook his head at the sight of the two of them, dirty and with torn clothing, but he had pulled them both into his arms and had carried them home in his warm embrace all the same.

"Penny for your thoughts?" Dante's voice brings him out of the past, a sound of amusement adding a lilt to his tone. Vergil shoots him a glare.

They have been walking through the forest for some time now, winding between dense trees and stepping around sickly smelling flowers with care. It has been mostly uneventful—few demons appear to venture this deep into the forest, and aside from some stray scavengers, they have been primarily alone. Humidity has made his hair fall into messy clumps at his temples and his leather vest cling oppressively to his chest and back, sticky with blood and sweat. Discomfort is nothing new to him, but it has reached a point of constant, dull irritation, distracting enough to be bothersome.

Dante fares no better. His brother is filthy and visibly tired, his clothing torn and disheveled. The black streaks of corruption cling to his chest and shirt like tar, mixing with both his blood and the blood of the demons they have slain. They both reek. He is beginning to think he would stab someone for the opportunity to bathe.

"Do you remember our herbology book?" Vergil says as answer, as a distraction from his discomfort. Dante crosses his arms while he walks, humming in thought.

"Yeah. You took all the notes and made me taste test all of the disgusting plants in our yard," Dante responds, grinning from ear to ear even as he complains, forever incapable of having a conversation without attempting to turn it into an argument. "Why'd I let you talk me into that again? You never had to eat anything."

"I had to record the results. You were never any good at keeping notes."

His brother scoffs at that, still smiling as he spins around and walks backward, an unnecessary flourish that simply puts his idiotic grin center stage in Vergil's line of sight.

"Unfair. You never even let me try," Dante says, and Vergil sighs, reaching out to grab his brother's arm when he pitches dangerously backward, his balance thrown off by his antics and a stray tree root that bumps against the back of his heels. Dante looks at him with a tired smile as he rejoins Vergil at his side. "Thanks. Still a little out of it."

"Perhaps we should stop for now," he offers, to which Dante hums, looking around the area thoughtfully. It isn't an ideal location. There's no cover, short of climbing into one of the trees, and it would be easy for something to sneak up on them among the dense foliage. Dante has come to the same conclusion. They keep walking.

"Y'know, I've been thinking..." Dante starts after a while, as he carefully steps around a tangle of putrid smelling vines. The tail end of his coat brushes against them as he passes, and they twitch and spasm, the small purple leaves curling in on themselves in response. Vergil watches it warily as they pass. These plants are demonic in nature, the same as any other living creature here in hell. It is only a matter of time before they come across something large enough to be willing to strike at them. This one, at least, seems more interested in retreating against the tree it is currently climbing. He turns his attention back to Dante.

"Of?" Vergil prompts upon Dante's continued silence. His brother shrugs.

"It's humid as shit in here and there's moss everywhere," he points at a tree as they pass, "mostly to our left. There's fungus over there that's not over here, too."

Vergil follows his gesture, examining the plants that Dante has indicated. He is right. The ferns become thicker against the base of the trees deeper into the forest to the west, the moss darker and richer across the forest floor. Strangely glowing fungus pokes out beneath the tangle of vines and ferns, illuminating the otherwise oppressive darkness.

He hums. "Your point?"

"Could be there's water somewhere nearby. I mean, not sure hell has water, but maybe the equivalent of?" Dante runs a hand up through his matted hair as he says this, grimacing when he finds that he can't really do much about the tangles at the base of his neck, where the dried blood is the worst. "I dunno about you, but I'd do just about anything for a bath."

Vergil considers this as they continue walking. The underworld is strange, ever shifting and changing. It is, however, a reflection of the human world in many ways—distorted and warped, yes, but fundamentally comprised of the same component materials. Stone, plants, dirt. It stands to reason that water, or something equating it, may exist here as well.

There had been water through the portal at the Temen-ni-gru, he remembers. Water on the other side, at the base of the cliff.

He grimaces. Dante notices, shooting him a curious look, which he ignores in favor of gesturing broadly in the direction his brother had indicated.

"Maybe. If we continue forward, but follow the foliage more west, we might find something," he offers, earning him a surprised huff from Dante, who immediately begins walking in a slightly more northwestern direction.

"Wow, you're actually going along with one of my ideas for once. World must be ending," Dante says, smacking at Vergil's forearm with the back of his hand when he does not so much as blink in response. "I'm joking, Verg. It's supposed to funny?"

Vergil ignores him, too annoyed to particularly feel up to rising to his brother's jabs, and so they once more walk in silence.

The makeup of the forest shifts ever so slightly as they move more to the west. The trees have begun to thin, replaced now with more large, red ferns and bioluminescent fungus, their broad caps sometimes larger than his outstretched hand. They step around them carefully to avoid disturbing anything that should not be disturbed, and the plants twitch and recoil away from them as they approach, ducking beneath the earth or folding protectively in on themselves as they move.

Thick moss covers the tree trunks this way as well, speckled dark green and pale, sickly yellow and stretching over the almost-black bark. Dante reaches out to poke it once, in a moment of curiosity, and it ripples beneath his touch like the surface of water. He mutters "freaky" under his breath, stepping away from the tree with a frown.

"You're lucky none of it has tried to eat you yet," Vergil remarks, to which Dante just shrugs.

"Least that'd be exciting."

They walk for several more minutes before he hears it: the sound of running liquid, quietly burbling somewhere among the trees nearby. He pauses, grabbing his brother's shoulder, and Dante stills and tilts his head.

The smile that breaks onto his face is glowing with enthusiasm.

"Oh holy shit. I hope that's water and not blood or something," Dante says, immediately altering his course to head in the direction of the sound. Vergil hesitates, remembering their time in the woods as children, how they had become turned around in the dark. He shakes his head. They are more than capable of taking care of themselves now, and so he pushes away the lingering worry that accompanies that memory and follows after his brother.

They find a stream relatively close, flowing to the north. It is narrow, only about a foot wide, and the glowing fungus that randomly litters the forest floor thrives here, marking a trail that outlines the stream. The liquid that flows through it is clear with small, glittering stones that reflect the glow of the mushrooms lining the bottom. Dante reaches down and examines it, prodding at the liquid with his finger.

"Looks like water," he says, and then because he has not a single cautious bone in his entire body, he submerges his hand up to the wrist. Vergil pinches the bridge of his nose, biting back a condescending remark about Dante’s carelessness. "Feels like water." Dante stands, wiping the (presumably) water off on his pant leg. "Not much to work with, though."

"Follow it," Vergil says, continuing alongside the stream. Dante trails after him.

Before long they stumble upon a small clearing, a pool of water taking up the majority of the open area. His brother whoops excitedly at his side, once more throwing all caution to the wind to simply waltz right into the middle of the clearing. Vergil closes his eyes and takes a slow breath. Maybe something will eat him. It would save Vergil an incredible amount of stress if something just ate him.

Nothing rises up out of the earth to eat him, and so Vergil opens his eyes and reluctantly follows.

The clearing is relatively small, secluded by trees on each side. The stream empties into a pool of water, three or four feet wide, before continuing on down into the forest to the north. Flat, dark gray stone surrounds the pool, and when he steps to the side of it and peers down, he can see the same stone at the bottom. Long, thin tendrils of algae reach out into the water from the walls of the pool, but otherwise it is clear and devoid of any sign of demons.

The remainder of the clearing is covered in a mixture of multicolored, thick moss and dark dirt, like a patchwork quilt spread across the ground. A massive collapsed tree crosses through the side before disappearing back into the forest—it would make a decent place to rest, putting something at their back.

It is almost too good to be true. He closes his eyes and focuses on the feeling of the demonic energy in this area, scanning for signs of something that may be lying in wait, but other than the constant buzz he has felt since first entering the forest, he finds nothing.

"It's about time something went our way," Dante remarks, wasting no time in submerging his hands into the clear pool of water. There is a flicker of demonic energy on the edge of Vergil's awareness, and he turns to face his brother. Dante's hands glow beneath the surface faintly with the ruby red light of his power and he is muttering something beneath his breath. Vergil cocks his head and joins him at his side, standing next to his crouched form.

"So you did learn something after all," Vergil says, watching as his brother purifies the water with magic. It's a common spell, simple and easy, that will alert the caster to any contamination in a body of water. It's practical and incredibly basic, which is likely why it appealed to his brother—he never had the patience for any of the more complicated spells their mother tried to teach them.

"I know, it's a shock, right?" Dante says, standing once he has completed his spell. "Seems like we've hit the jackpot. Pretty sure it's just water." He shakes his hands dry, stepping away from the pool to walk a slow circle around the clearing. "It stinks like well water, but hey, better than we currently smell."

His brother wastes no time in making himself comfortable. He strips off his leather coat, draping it across the fallen tree trunk, before flopping onto the ground beside it. Vergil crosses the clearing to stand before Dante, examining him.

His henley clings to his chest and arms with blood and sweat, a complete wreck. He's tilted his head back to rest against the tree, and a pained expression flickers onto his face for just a moment before it fades, no doubt unaware that Vergil is watching him so closely.

There's still something plaguing him, some lingering damage from the corruption. Vergil kneels down so that he is level with Dante, reaching out and placing a hand on his thigh. His brother cracks open one eye and looks at him curiously as he focuses on the flow of Dante's demonic energy beneath his palm. It hums under his brother's skin, burning fiery hot like his demonic form, and he no longer senses the dark smudge of corruption. However, there is a disruption, a hiccup in the flow of his power, that seems centered around where the corruption had dug into Dante's flesh. He isn't really sure what that could mean.

"Are you okay?" Vergil asks, pulling back his hand to stand once more. Dante looks up at him like he's considering how truthful he wants to be with his answer, brows drawn and face creased in a small frown.

"Kinda not sure," he answers after a moment. "Still feel like someone ripped my chest open, to be honest."

"Maybe you're still healing," Vergil offers, and Dante just shrugs, trailing his fingers over the new scar on his chest absently.

With a huff of annoyance, Vergil focuses his attention instead on circling the perimeter of the forest. That Dante is still indisposed is worrying, but they are lucky to have found an ideal place to stop and rest. It rankles him that he is not sure what the nature of the problem is. When he had found Dante, his demonic energy had been struggling to withstand the corruption, his natural healing working double-time. Cutting away the corruption when his demon had been so focused on withstanding it could have had adverse effects, but Vergil isn't sure what those might be, exactly. A loss of some of his power? Or just a wound that is taking some time to heal?

His brother's voice disrupts his thoughts. "It's okay that you don't have all the answers, y'know. I'm not gonna hold it against you, considering you saved my life," he says, with far more gentleness than it warrants, considering saving his life consisted of stabbing him through the heart (again). "Whatever's happening doesn't feel like it's gonna kill me. Probably just need a nap."

Vergil has nothing else to offer on the matter, so he stays silent and focuses instead on securing the area of the clearing. He extends his hand before him, palm side up, and summons his new devil arm with a flicker of white light. It is lightweight, but it seems to vibrate beneath his touch with the promise of magic, powerful in its own right.

Wards are one of the first spells he learned how to perform efficiently in his youth. Muscle memory kicks in as he walks to five equidistant points throughout the rough circle of the clearing, using the small dagger to carve intricate symbols into the trees and the earth. Imbuing them with his demonic energy creates a more powerful seal, the dagger serving to amplify it, until he has erected a serviceable barrier around their temporary hideout. The air around the clearing now gently shimmers with a dull rainbow of colors, like the surface of a bubble.

Satisfied with his handiwork, he dismisses the dagger, ignoring the quiet tinkling of laughter that whispers in the back of his mind as he does so. It will not be enough to stop anything too large, but it will keep the smaller demons out, and if anything breaks through the wards he will be alerted.

He turns to find Dante watching him, a small, nostalgic smile on his face.

"Where'd you learn that?"

Vergil joins him where he sits, perching atop the fallen tree at his side, leaning the Yamato between them. If they are going to take a moment to rest, then he should capitalize on the availability of water to wash off some of the grime that's clinging to his skin. As he peels off his gloves, he considers Dante's question.

Talking about the past does not come freely to him—granted, he has never really tried, short of the brief, stunted conversations he held with his brother when they were teenagers. While he has found himself reminiscing on his childhood more in the past several months since his split into V than he has his entire life, that does not necessarily translate to a readiness to discuss matters aloud, even with his brother. He drops his gloves onto the tree at his side, then starts on his jacket.

At least try, a voice says in the back of his mind, quiet and familiar and dark. He sighs.

"From our mother's research," he says as he pulls his coat from his shoulders, folding it twice before placing it atop his gloves. "She had an extensive collection on the subject."

Dante watches him remove his outerwear with a curiously neutral expression, whatever emotions might be beneath the surface hidden behind a creased brow and calm blue eyes. After a moment, he mutters a quiet "huh," before following Vergil's cue and removing his own gloves, putting far more focus into the task than it truly deserves.

"I retrieved it from the house... after," Vergil continues, bending down now to remove his spats and the short boots beneath, adding them to the growing pile of his clothing at his side. "I had few options for self-defense, but fortunately it seems that was her specialty."

"Yeah," Dante finally says, breaking his pensive silence, "grabbed a few things myself when I finally mustered up the courage to go back. She knew a lot more than I expected—demonology, magic, you name it, I think I've got a book from her collection on it."

Vergil just nods. He'd had a makeshift library of his own, small and bound together by a faded leather strap he'd used to carry them. He wonders whatever happened to those books. He can't remember the exact moment that he stopped dragging them around as a sort of security blanket, switching from the passive defense of her wards to a more active role in his own protection. He wonders what other material his brother may have scavenged from the wreckage of their childhood home.

Pushing off from the tree, he stands once more, unbuckling and unzipping his vest while he does so. He frowns at the shredded mess that is the left half of the garment, stiff and sticky with his blood where Dante's sword had pierced his chest. Cleaning it will do little good, but he supposes it will be a reprieve to remove some of the gore that sticks to his skin.

He makes it as far as the pool of water before Dante finally decides to join him, groaning theatrically as he stands. Vergil rolls his eyes, kneeling onto the moss-covered stones that surround the pool. Even though his brother has thoroughly inspected it, he still reaches out with some measure of caution, letting his fingers trail across the surface slowly before he submerges his arms in up to the elbows.

The water is uncomfortably lukewarm and, as Dante said, smells faintly of sulfur, far from refreshing. Still, it is a relief to scrub some of the sweat from his hands and arms, and he has enough time to splash some onto his face before his brother plops unceremoniously into the water, sending small waves crashing over the rocks and against Vergil’s knees. He stares at him aghast as his blood and the faint black swirls of demon blood begin to contaminate the pool around him.

"Honestly," he says, as Dante ducks beneath the water and scrubs his hands through his hair vigorously. He waits for his brother to reemerge before he continues to scold him, "You are like an animal."

"I'm not gonna sit around and wait for you to daintily splash yourself, Verg." Dante drags a hand through his tangled hair, shaking out the water as he slowly loosens the mess of dried blood and dirt. Vergil watches him, transfixed, his eyes tracing the rivulets of water that run down the sides of his face and along the curve of his throat before rejoining the surface of the pool where it reaches his brother's chest. Soaked through, his henley clings to his torso, turned from dark gray to black by the wetness.

Dante catches him staring and grins at him, his eyes reflecting the dull glow of the fungus that litters the rocks around the water—predatory, almost. Vergil looks away.

"Insufferable." With a sigh Vergil re-positions himself so he is sitting on the edge of the pool, allowing his feet and legs to dangle in the tepid water. Despite the vaguely unpleasant temperature, it is soothing, and he allows himself a moment to relax, eyes closed, before his brother comes crashing back into his center of attention. Always so insistent on having his focus.

"Don't make me drag you in," Dante says, his hands hooking behind Vergil's knees beneath the water. On reflex, he kicks out at his brother’s arm, but the grip of his hands around his calves is firm, and he’s unable to have much effect in the closed quarters of the pool. He resorts, instead, to glaring at him, eyes narrowed in warning.

"Don't you dare."

To prove that he would, indeed, dare, Dante tugs on Vergil's legs, sliding him a fraction of an inch off of his perch on the stones surrounding the pool. When he opts instead to attempt to ignore Dante—a mistake, which he should know from past experience—he pulls on his legs once more, until he has nearly slid into the pool entirely. He clutches at the rocks and growls at him in warning. Dante just laughs.

"Come on, don't be such a stick in the mud. You stink. Get in here." Vergil bares fangs at him, a reflex worn into him through too much time in the demon world, but his brother does not take the hint—he tightens his grip on Vergil's legs and then pulls him off of the rocks.

In the cramped confines of the small pool, they collide against each other awkwardly, and Vergil is forced to press his hands to his brother's shoulders in an effort to stop his momentum, to prevent him from smashing his forehead ungracefully against his. It is absurd how much of an incorrigible moron his brother is. Twenty-four years have apparently done nothing to temper his impulsive behaviors, especially in so far as irritating Vergil is concerned.

Once the initial flurry of excitement and shock passes, he finds himself uncomfortably close to Dante, his hands on his shoulders and their faces mere inches apart. Beneath the water, Dante's fingers dance along his sides under his opened vest, not quite touching. He's impossible. Simply looking at him fills Vergil with a familiar, intense frustration.

He moves his hands from Dante's shoulders to his neck, curling his fingers along the side of his throat, his thumbs resting gently over his trachea. Here he pauses, dragging his nails over Dante's damp skin, swiping his thumbs up and down his brother's Adam’s apple and feeling it bob beneath his touch as Dante swallows.

"Vergil," Dante says, his voice vibrating beneath Vergil's hands. With a quiet exhale Vergil releases his grip and moves on, pushing his hands up through Dante's soaking wet hair to sweep it back and away from his face. Styled this way, it is a little more like looking into a mirror than it was before, and he allows himself a moment of indulgence to examine his twin.

Dante has visibly aged in the time they have been apart, the years carved into his skin, in the creases at his mouth and eyes. There is a thin, shiny scar on the corner of his lip, a mirror to the wound his younger self had sported in their shared memory produced by Theoris’ trap. He stares at it for a heartbeat, watching the way it deepens with his brother's smile. Around it, a dusting of scruffy facial hair lines his jaw, a physical marker by which to track their days here.

Dante has perfected the art of casual, accidental dishevelment as a style, with his torn henley and his ridiculous red coat and the unruly mop of his hair. Vergil hates it.

He presses his mouth against Dante’s anyway, tightening his hands into his hair to pull him to his chest. It’s a chaste thing, their kiss—lips closed, slow and gentle, a pace set by the uncertainty that their shared history has created between them. Vergil slides his hands from his brother’s hair to instead cup his cheeks, fingers curled around his ears, a gentle, intimate contact that makes his palms and fingers tingle. He listens to the gradually increasing pace of Dante’s breathing, to the way his own heart seems to pound loudly in his ears, focusing only on their shared touch. It’s been so long.

Beneath the surface of the pool, Dante’s hands ghost along his ribs and chest, as if he is carefully and gradually testing limits. The contact makes Vergil flinch against his will, a reaction born from so many years without this kind of touch, and he is forced to pull away from Dante’s grip, feeling frustratingly overwhelmed. His brother seems to notice—he offers him a small smile as he tips his forehead against Vergil’s with a quiet sigh.

The hands that have been ghosting along Vergil’s ribs rise now to cup his face, thumbs trailing over his cheeks as Dante examines him the same way he had just done—with fingertips and a sweeping gaze and the gentle press of his lips to the corner of Vergil’s mouth. His touch is electrifying, igniting a spark in Vergil’s chest that he had been certain was long extinguished. He leans into the touch this time, pushing down the instincts that hum beneath his skin, warning of vulnerability and weakness.

When Dante pulls back to put some space between them, he runs a hand through his hair and mutters, “Shit, Vergil.”

For his part, Vergil is at a loss for words, and so he simply allows Dante to loop his arms around his neck and pull him into an embrace, clutching him tightly against his chest. After a moment’s hesitation, Vergil presses his hands to Dante’s back, holding him close as he burrows his face against Vergil’s neck.

“God,” he mutters against Vergil’s collarbone, “I’ve missed you so goddamn much.”

Vergil knows. He’s seen it first hand, now: how Dante had mourned him immediately after the Temen-ni-gru, how the years of their separation have changed him, morphed him into a brother that he does not entirely recognize. “I know.”

“Thought about you every day,” Dante says, grip tightening, “Every single day I thought about what I could’ve done differently. I’m sorry I let you down.”

Vergil bristles at that, before he holds Dante tighter, pressing their bodies impossibly close as he leans back against the stone wall of the pool for support.

“My mistakes are my own,” Vergil tells him, speaking the words into the crown of Dante’s wet hair. “I don’t blame you.”

“I just left you there to that. I never even tried to find you until it was too late. I—“

“Dante. You didn’t know. How could you have known?” He pauses, takes a sharp inhale, and continues: “You couldn’t have helped me before you did.”

“I killed you, I didn’t help you,” Dante says, voice cracking under the weight of his emotion. Vergil pulls him away from his chest to lock eyes with him once more.

“But you did. And now here we are." Dante looks at him like he's still not sure, a whirlwind of things unsaid spiraling in his eyes and dancing across his face. Vergil tips his forehead against his again. He isn't sure what else to say to him, if there's anything that can be said. They've both made their mistakes, now and back then—him more so than Dante. Yet now they stand together, despite everything, brought together by their mutual goal. That is enough for him.

"Dwelling on what happened does no good," Vergil adds, when Dante's uncertainty does not dissipate, lingering in the crease of his brow.

"You're one to talk," Dante says, tone softened with concern despite his somewhat mocking words. Vergil shrugs in response, reluctantly extricating himself from Dante's embrace. Dante is right. Vergil has done nothing but dwell on the past since they set out to defeat Mundus, allowing himself to become waylaid by the things that he only barely remembers. It is the reason they are here now, weakened by a fight that could have been avoided had he been more attentive, more in control of his reactions.

Before climbing from the pool of water, he ducks his head beneath the surface, scouring his nails across his scalp in a final effort to get clean. When he emerges once more, Dante is watching him, pupils wide, a smirk on the corner of his mouth. Vergil puts some distance between them, despite the itching in the center of his palm that drives him to touch, to grab onto Dante once more.

Climbing out of the pool of water takes a surprising level of coordination, the wall slippery with algae and moss that grows beneath the surface, and he is forced to turn and drag Dante out of the mess by his wrists when his twin begins cursing angrily in his frustration at the climb. Dante flops onto the stone and dirt outside of the pool like a dead fish, sighing dramatically.

"Okay. This sucks," he remarks, groaning as he sits up, "I could go without the dizziness."

For a moment, Vergil considers leaving him like that, before he offers his brother an arm for support. Dante takes it with obvious irritation, no doubt feeling frustrated with his lack of coordination, and Vergil drags him to his feet.

He leaves Dante where he stands to return to his pile of clothing, dropping onto the ground with his back to the tree. He pulls the Yamato into his lap while he watches Dante wring the water from his shirt and hair, shaking his head a bit like a wet dog. The act makes Vergil feel inexplicably fond of him, his absurd little brother, and he does not complain when Dante joins him at the base of the tree, pressing every inch of his body against Vergil's side.

The physical intimacy is almost too much—from nothing to this, his brother plastered to his side—but he forces the quiver in his limbs to still as he wraps his arm around Dante's waist. As reluctant as he is to admit it, he’s missed this easy companionship between them, fleeting as it may have once been.

In a moment of weakness, content and relaxed with his brother at his side, Vergil admits: "This is my fault."

Dante stiffens. the contradiction rising to his lips almost immediately. "No, it's really not. I'm the one who wandered off like an asshole. Really only have myself to blame."

"If I hadn't been weak—"

"Vergil. That wasn't a weakness, that was a goddamn panic attack. It happens. It doesn't make you weak," Dante says, voice firm. He places his hand on Vergil's thigh, and he jolts at the touch, surprised even though they are already so closely pressed together. Gently he squeezes Vergil's leg, an action meant to soothe that, in reality, makes Vergil feel uncomfortable. He tolerates it, because Dante is trying, and he should at least do the same.

Once more he is at a loss for the correct words to respond to his twin. Rather than try, he tilts his head back against the tree at their backs and considers what Dante has said.

What he experienced was nothing new. He remembers that distinctly from his childhood, the dark nights spent alone in Red Grave, the fear and anxiety that had defined his early life. The problem, of course, is that this time he does not fully understand why he's had this reaction, because he does not entirely remember his time in hell.

He tells Dante as much: "It disturbs me that I don't know."

"Maybe it's for the better," Dante says, which is absurd, because clearly it is not. His brother seems to sense his denial, squeezing his thigh again before saying, "I saw what was in there, too, Verg. I saw—" he stops himself short, but Vergil knows what he means to say: he saw him, as Nelo Angelo. What he had become. "Look, I'm just saying I would have reacted the same. You've gotta stop beating yourself up about it. I'm fine, you're fine, and tomorrow we'll go pay the big guy himself a visit."

His brother's cavalier nature on the matter is frustrating, but that has always been Dante’s way. He is taking this in stride the way he takes everything, with a practiced, easy acceptance that Vergil has never learned to master. Not knowing frustrates him. It is a weakness, a gap in his knowledge when the difference between knowing and not knowing could be life or death.

He lets out a breath between clenched teeth, pressing his face against the top of Dante’s head, leaning in to the warmth and comfort of his brother’s presence.

“Perhaps you’re right,” he whispers into Dante’s damp hair, which earns him a tired chuckle.

“When am I not,” Dante says, before he hums thoughtfully, adding, “don’t answer that.”

“Get some rest, little brother,” Vergil says instead, shifting his grip on the Yamato. With his wards in place, they should be safe enough for the time being. He will give Dante as much time as he needs to recover in preparation for the final leg of their journey.

Excitement and anxiety both burn in his chest at the thought of revenge and his demon growls from within the depths of his soul with barely contained anticipation. Vergil trails his fingers up and down Dante’s back, using the touch to center himself, easing the beast beneath his flesh back into acquiescence. Soon.

He focuses on his breathing, on the feel of the Yamato in his lap and his brother at his side, as he mentally prepares himself for their upcoming confrontation. Together, they will win—he’s certain of it.