The chauffeur pulled into the forecourt of Red Grave Academy.
From the rear doors of the sleek black sedan, out stepped the Spardas.
The pair of young men could not have looked more different from each other. One had stark-white hair and bright blue eyes, his broad shoulders and strong frame clad in the school colours of his varsity jacket. The other boy was the taller of the two, lithe and pale, with dark bangs kept neatly side-swept above the dark green of his gaze. The fact they were brothers, let alone fraternal twins, would not have been obvious to the outside observer—at this school, however, neither was in danger of not being recognized.
The courtyard was already swarming with fellow students returning from summer break. As Nero and V made their way through the crowd, they were met with wide smiles, enthused greetings, and even a few high-fives thrown in Nero's direction along the way. At this school, the boys’ reputation, and that of their family’s, preceded them wherever they went.
Senior year would be no different.
Nero’s phone buzzed. Pulling it from his pocket, he looked at the screen and stopped in his tracks. “Holy shit, I got in?”
V glanced up from the book in his hands. “The Ancient Religions course?”
“Yeah! Someone must’ve dropped it last-minute.”
“You don’t say?” V asked with a false sense of wonder. “What a remarkable and completely unforeseen turn of events.”
The conspicuity of V’s tone went right over Nero’s head, which was still buried in the school email. “You know what this means, right??”
“You’re one step closer to your lifelong dream of attaining priesthood?”
“What? No, Kyrie!” Nero waggled the phone in front of V’s face. “Kyrie and I finally have a class together!”
He smirked. “The stars have aligned, it seems. Only took three years.”
“Never had the grades to get into her courses before now. And I sure as hell can’t sing.” Nero ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “Why does she have to be so good at everything?”
Still smiling, V returned to his reading. Snide teasing was in his nature—he had responsibilities as a brother, after all—but the joy in Nero’s expression had V biting back his remarks, just this once.
Nero spat a curse, juggling his phone to keep from dropping it. A pair of hands had landed heavily on his shoulders from behind, the familiar freckled face bursting into laughter at his reaction.
“What the hell, Nico??” Nero snapped.
“Aww, missed you too, buttmunch. Sup, V?” she asked, nodding upwards in the other boy’s direction. He greeted her with a polite nod of his own.
Nico’s thick, curly hair waved behind her as she rounded the two of them. As always, she was outfitted in her own loose interpretation of the school uniform: her cardigan was tied around her waist to conceal the small fanny pack she kept belted to her skirt, and the sheerist hint of a bright red bra could be seen beneath the fabric of her dress shirt.
“Thought I’d let you know the new prototype’s finally comin’ along,” she said, proudly. “Should be good to test in a couple of weeks.”
Nero’s brows shot up. “Wait, you managed to get that hunk of junk working again?”
“It was a work in progress, thank you very much. I figured out I can do the modellin’, the buildin’, all the wirin’ and soderin’, but the damn codes might as well be in Greek. Bit data this, registry that—it’s a pain in the ass. Found someone over the summer to do it for me.” Nico pulled out a cigarette and stuck it between her lips. “What were you boys blabberin’ about before I showed up?”
V did not look up from his book. “Nero was just telling me about his most fortuitous change in class schedule.”
Nico’s cigarette nearly fell out of her mouth. “Ancient Religion??”
“Same class as Kyrie,” Nero beamed, showcasing his new schedule.
“Fuck yeah! Well, that’s excitin’. You’ve had a hard-on for her since grade school.”
Nero shoved his phone back into his pocket, his cheeks flaring. “Stop being gross.”
“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” Nico continued, repositioning herself to walk backwards in front of the boys as they continued to make their way through the courtyard. “Kyrie’s sweet as pie. Just never seemed like your type, is all.”
“Yeah, and who would be ‘my type’? Someone like you?”
Nico mock-heaved, and Nero shoved her in response. She stopped laughing long enough to light the cigarette hanging from her mouth, much to the brothers’ dismay. Even though she regularly smoked on-campus, Nico had a knack for timing and somehow managed to avoid getting caught.
Nero swatted the air in front of him. “You know that shit’ll kill you, right?”
“Countin’ on it bein’ sooner rather than later so I don’t have to watch you go all lovesick puppy for another year.” She blew smoke into the air. “Here’s a thought: instead of sittin’ through some boring-ass class, why don’t you just ask her out? Y’all’ve been friends with her since you were in diapers, you’re makin’ this way harder than it needs to be.”
Nero rolled his eyes. “Maybe I actually like Ancient Religion, ever thought about that?”
Nico snorted. “No one likes Ancient Religion.”
“You know, you sure talk a lot of shit for someone who’s never had a girlfriend.”
“Find me pussy that ain’t so far in the closet it’s in fuckin’ Narnia and then we’ll talk.” She dusted ash from the end of her cigarette, ignoring the way Nero’s face scrunched up into a grimace. V held back a laugh, poorly. “Look, all I’m sayin’ is you know as well as I do anyone at this school would date you in a heartbeat.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t wanna be with anyone,” he grumbled. “I wanna be with her.”
The unexpected conviction in his words gave both of them pause; going red around the ears, Nero huffed a quiet ‘see you later’ and stormed off towards the entrance, leaving V and Nico behind.
V waited until Nero disappeared behind the swinging doors.
“Thank you for your help,” he spoke up, not looking away from the pages of his book.
Nico shrugged. “Didn’t know she’d be able to pull it off, if I’m bein’ honest.”
“Is she the same person you’ve hired to do the programming for your project?”
“Eh, ‘hired’ is a strong word. She’s more like my personal little computer bug.” Taking a final drag from her cigarette, she tossed the stub on the ground and put it out beneath her shoe. “Speakin’ of, I gotta go. Wanna catch her before class starts.”
“...she’s a student?”
“Of course she’s a student,” Nico sighed, exasperated. “What am I gonna do, get someone from the outside to mess around with our school database? Pretty sure that’s illegal, V.”
V was pretty sure it was illegal regardless, but he said nothing.
As Nico bid him goodbye, V wondered how much trouble they would be in if anyone were to find out what they’d done. Surely, tweaking the system to get Nero off the waitlist for his course wasn’t that severe of an infraction—nowhere near as problematic as, say, manipulating grades or looking into someone’s private records. Right?
Breathing deep, V made his way to class.
On the rare occasion something motivated Nero to action, he normally barrelled towards his goals with everything he had, bull-headed and relentless—but whenever Kyrie was involved, for some strange reason, he second-guessed himself. The risk of getting caught was worth it, V decided, if it meant not watching his brother waste another year standing in his own way.
As V entered his first classroom of the morning, he spotted Nero already at his seat, texting Kyrie and wearing that same dopey, starry-eyed expression he thought he’d gotten better at hiding.
The bell rang, and senior year had officially begun.
Morning lectures went as expected, filled with teachers going over their syllabi and laying out their expectations for the year ahead. By lunchtime, as V sat with his brother and several of his very talkative friends, he already found his mind wandering to more secluded corners, to the bookshelves he had yet to explore and to the quiet that would surround him once he returned to his personal haven of solitude.
Throughout the years, the popularity of the Sparda name had given them both their fair share of admirers, but V, unlike Nero, had never been the social type. Social interactions did not energize V the way they did his brother; he found even the most casual of settings draining, and the energy he needed to get through a normal school day exceeded the capacity he was capable of banking.
So, V found his own time to recharge.
Shutting the doors to the library behind him, he leaned back against them and took a deep breath, exhaling slowly in time with the worries rolling off his shoulders. He set off down the corridor with newfound purpose, passing the many rows he had completed and towards the few sections he had left.
This was a decision he made during his very first year: to work his way through the depths of the school library and familiarize himself with every book available, within reason. A passion for literature combined with a near-freakish reading speed placed him well on-track to meet his goal by the end of the school year.
As he looked for the shelf where he left off, quiet sounds caught his attention: the turning of thin pages, and the hurried scratching of pencil to paper.
For normal students, the first day back to school was spent socializing and catching up with friends; there was no reason for anyone else to be here during lunch hour, day one after summer vacation, and he found himself vaguely annoyed by the unexpected company.
As discreetly as possible, he glanced through an open space between shelves.
That’s when he spotted you.
You sat at a corner table beneath a window, a large book and several stacks of paper strewn about the tabletop. A look of stress plagued your expression as you held your head in one of your hands, glancing from the massive tome, to some loose pages, back to the notes you were taking. Your frantic aura was characteristic of last-minute homework or cramming for finals, not for a first day back.
He recognized you. Kind of. After spending three years passing the same people every day, he knew plenty of students by face, if not by name, and you were one of many populating the everyday backdrop of the halls. There was some personal detail about you he was sure he knew, though—you were associated with a flower or a plant of some kind, but he couldn’t quite remember what or why.
His eyes drifted to a set of schematics laid out before you, derailing his train of thought. Those were schematics he’d seen before.
Schematics still littered with Nico’s handwriting.
It was you, no doubt about it—Nico’s new summer programmer, the computer whiz that had gotten Nero into his class, accepting risk and responsibility for the benefit of a complete stranger. Why had you done it? Had Nico given you something in exchange for your services? Or worse, was she holding something over you? Not that it was any of his concern, of course. He should have been thanking you. He wanted to thank you.
But, for some strange reason, he second-guessed himself.
The following day, when V returned to exchange his daily borrows, the sight of you caught him by surprise. Classes were in full swing and the library wasn’t as barren as it had been on the first day, but you were seated at the same table under the same window, sporting the same, brow-wrinkling expression of profound concern. A well-timed glance gifted him a better view of your book’s cover; it was an old, donated university-level text on advanced programming, one he remembered coming across during his (very brief) journey through the computing section in his second year. Knowing this detail, however, raised more questions than answers. What on earth did Nico have you working on?
On day three, V caught himself...idling.
He made a little more noise than he needed to while shuffling through books, browsing the same shelves over and over for something he knew he wouldn’t find. Your eyes continued darting between documents, from page to page, but never upwards, never from the table. Here he was trying to catch your attention, and there you were, nary a hint of curiosity leading you to spare a glance his way.
The billowing popularity of his family name was never something V managed to sail on; Nero cruised along most of the attention that came their way, while V only tolerated the rising tides, unable to embrace them as enthusiastically as his brother. On multiple occasions, V found himself wondering if his days at the Academy would be less exhausting if he didn’t have eyes on him everywhere he went. You, wholly absorbed within your bible of syntax, were granting him the luxury of being ignored.
He knew he was not entitled to your attention. Still, not having it was...jarring.
The narcissism of his own thoughts disturbed him enough to spur him into leaving sooner rather than later, and upon exiting the library, he realized with a curse he had forgotten to check out any new books.
By the fourth day, V decided he was being ridiculous.
He stood steadfast by the same set of shelves, absentmindedly flicking through the pages of a random book while keeping you in his periphery. You were as fixated as always, your finger tracing a line of text as your other hand busied itself taking notes. V was not incapable of holding conversations—on the contrary, eighteen years of growing up at Nero’s side had made him quite good at it—however, he had grown accustomed to others taking the initiative to approach him, never the other way around. Why was it so difficult to say hello?
More importantly, why couldn’t he just leave this be?
He dared to steal another glance at you, and something flared within his chest.
You were smiling.
You flipped through the pages of your text, your eyes widening with excitement as they went from page, to book, to blueprints, back to page. You jotted away at your notes with renewed vigour, shaking your head and breathing a laugh at some secret joke to which you just discovered the punchline.
Of all the times he passed you in the halls, he realized, he had never once seen you smile.
Once V shook the glue from the bottom of his shoes, his adrenaline ushered a swift retreat back through the corridor as if he’d witnessed something he wasn’t meant to see, the sight of your joy imprinting on his memory like an afterimage.
At the start of term, he knew nothing about you. Four days later, he found himself wanting to know anything.
Tomorrow, V thought, leaving the library behind him. Tomorrow, for sure.