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Phantom of the Past

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Three hundred and sixty five days--the blink of an eye and an eternity all at once. Vergil could hardly believe a whole year had passed since he’d first held Nero in his arms, the toddler oddly silent despite a full diaper and the cut on his arm. He remembered it all like yesterday--the Yamato’s surprising glow and Nero’s subtle demonic aura, the pathetic demons he’d exterminated, the disrepair of the place and the too-small cage in which his son had been, their early miscommunications about Nero’s marker, the stench of him… Yet the person who’d picked up that small-white haired toddler out of a cage hardly felt like him anymore, nor did the quiet boy resemble the energetic child now chattering by Vergil’s side. They’d grown enough for a lifetime in the span of a year, in a direction Vergil could never have predicted but did not regret.

Vergil had wanted to mark the occasion, but Nero had struggled enough with the concept of birthday, and Vergil suspected he’d forgotten much of what had happened a year ago, so he’d opted not to remind him or underscore today’s significance with Nero, to keep any potential nightmares at bay. Still. To him, today marked the real moment Nero had entered his life, so he’d given himself permission to break their routines. They had gone for a haircut, trimming down Nero’s bangs before he looked too much like Dante, who was steadily growing out his hair, then spent a large chunk of the day at the aquarium. Nero increasingly loved everything that concerned water and fishes, and while Vergil’s arms were now sore from lifting him up so he could stare into the tanks so much, his little monster had spent his entire day squealing and giggling (if one discounted the brief tantrum at being forced to eat instead of watching more fish). They’d bought a knit octopus plush and a new aquatic-themed colouring book for him, and had finished their day at a restaurant by the waterside. They were almost home, the sun a sliver across the horizon, when a strong demonic aura pulled at Vergil’s senses. His grip tight, he gave the wheel a quick turn and parked the car, slamming the brakes hard and cutting off the engine. 

“Da’?” 

Nero wriggled in his seat behind, tugging on the belts holding him safe. He must have sensed it, too. It was so strong, and moving… Vergil closed his eyes, ignoring Nero’s repeated attempts to catch his attention to focus on the aura. His heart clenched. It was definitely getting closer, and he didn’t have the Yamato with him. He had no guarantee he could take on a demon of this strength, especially while keeping an eye on Nero, yet the urge to rush out and fight pulsed within him, responding to demon’s power. It had been so long since he’d crushed an adversary in battle.

“Da’!”

Nero’s demanding tone dragged him back to reality. He couldn’t risk it. Vergil scowled, disgruntled at leaving any foe behind, and reached for the keys.

Gunshots rang out, then a salvo of bigger explosions, like several little bombs had detonated close by--too close to comfort. His heart hammering, Vergil briefly considered the idiocy of even parking to evaluate the demon’s power--then a human figure crashed straight through the building down the street, trailed by a thick white substance, shattering windows until it hit the wall across the street with a cry of pain. 

The Kalina Ann dropped to the ground as thick webbing held Lady firm against the wall. Vergil was out the door before he’d fully registered what he was doing. A gigantic arachnid half-crawled over, half-razed the building Lady had shot through, smoke rising from the cracks in its stony exoskeleton, magma visible at the articulations and elsewhere, where Lady had managed to damage it. Some dripped to the ground, setting grass and debris on fire. Vergil’s blood turned cold, and his fingers twitched for the Yamato.

Phantom. One of Mundus’s general. Here, in his neighbourhood.

Da’!” 

Nero’s angry scream reached him even through the closed door, and Vergil snapped out of it, opening his car again. He needed to get Nero out of here as fast as he could. With practiced movements, he unbuckled the child and lifted him from his seat, setting him down in the street. Nero stared at Phantom, over Vergil’s shoulder, his eyes wide but his expression otherwise surprisingly calm. 

“Nero.” Vergil kept his voice firm and steady. Panic coursed through him, large fissures threatening to break his composure, but he couldn’t afford it now. “Nero, look at me.”

The ground shook with every new step forward Phantom took--every step closer to Lady--but his son finally looked at Vergil. 

“I need you to run, Nero.” He gripped his little shoulder and forcefully turned him away, before pointing a side street. “Run there and stay. Hide.” Nero didn’t answer, only sniffed loudly, still clutching his squid plush. Vergil gave him a slight push. “Go, little monster. I promise I’ll follow soon. Go.

Nero scampered off, tiny feet hitting the pavement, and Vergil forced himself to look away, at the advancing demon. Lady still struggled against the web, and she’d managed to get a grenade in her hand somehow, but Phantom towered over her, its stinger rising up.

“Playtime is over, puny creature.”

Indeed it was.

Power swelled within Vergi then burst out, waves of cold demonic energy washing over the street as he leaped into the air, his wings snapping out, and reached for the very fabric of time, yanking it into a brutal stop. It immediately strained against him, pushing to regain its normal flow. Vergil wasted no time: three summoned sword shimmered into existence around Lady, slicing through the thick web before vanishing into thin air. Time resumed--Lady fell to the ground, red boots hitting it hard, and Phantom’s stinger crashed into the wall right where she’d been a second ago.

“Who dares?” Phantom started, turning on himself in a quick series of steps, six glowing blue eyes coming to rest on Vergil as he flew in. “Ah. The long-lost quarry. Finally a worthy prey.”

Claws gripped Vergil’s heart at the designation, but he didn’t slow down. He’d always known they were hunting for him, that it was only a matter of time. If he wanted to stay put, they couldn’t let Phantom escape--not that he ever intended to. Lady must have had much of the same idea. She picked up the rocket launcher, leaning heavily on it as she secured it to the ground and sent a salvo of missiles upward, right into Phantom’s face. 

“I’ll teach you about ‘unworthy prey’,” she called as the demon roared, clearly intent on getting herself killed. “We’re not finished.”

“Don’t be foolish--” Vergil’s reprimand died when she flicked a pistol out and shot in his general direction.

“Shut up and help, will ya?”

They had no time for more. Phantom’s front leg came down hard, stabbing into the street and sending chunks of asphalt flying. Lady barely dodged in time, and her face contorted in pain with each side jump. Dante might have walked off a flight through walls and windows, but Lady was all too human, and the damage sustained by her ribs would not heal up. Adrenaline would only carry her for so long, and they needed Phantom dead by then.

An array of summoned swords appeared above the demon, plunging down immediately. Half shattered upon the hard stone shell, but several found purchase in a hole there, leaving bright red marks and causing it to screech. It tried to sweep Vergil with its stinger, but a snap of his wings and a quick bank brought him out of the way. Vergil dove, landing into a roll under Phantom, a circle of swords forming around him and flying outward, perfectly aligned with each of the arachnid's legs. They pierced the lava there, hard and fast, and Phantom dropped down on him so brutally, he forced Vergil to stretch time to escape the crush--and even then, a rocket caught the deadly stinger coming for him right before it could tear through his wings.

"Where's your fancy sword?" Lady called.

"Home." He backflipped, using his wings to send himself flying higher and landing on the stinger as Phantom rose it. His tail wrapped around it, stabilizing Vergil as he summoned new swords. "You do not happen to have a blade, do you?"

"Only guns on this babe, I'm afraid!" He scoffed, and Lady laughed. "Your loss," she said, unleashing the Kalina Ann's power while he released the summoned swords and leaped off.

They kept tag-teaming Phantom, forcing the powerful demon to split his attention between them, rushing in when it looked like their partner wouldn't make it. At first Vergil kept an eye on Lady even though Phantom focused on him, but a few judicious usage of the Kalina Ann's bayonet to get out of tight spots and creative dodging (leaping up and running right up to an articulation included) convinced him she needed very little help, despite her broken ribs. On the contrary, shotgun shells and rockets alike always seemed to hit right when he'd have needed them the most. Vergil unconsciously started planning for it as he buzzed around Phantom, flying and leaping and warping, always moving as he planted one shimmering blue sword after another in the great demon.

It didn't do much to slow him down, however, only infuriate him, and Vergil could feel the strain on his power grow as the fight raged on. Phantom had no such issue, quite the opposite. Vergil’s senses flared into high alert as the demon’s power built within his core at terrifying speed. 

“Time to die, little prey.”

He slammed four legs into the asphalt, shattering the battered remnants of the streets, and the gathered energy jolted through them, sinking into ground then coursing towards Lady and Vergil. He could feel it, his demon senses pulsing with the approach, but Lady just stared at the arachnid demon, obviously confused, as the fiery power shot for her.

“Lady!”

A snap in time warped him to her side. He grabbed her midriff and jumped up, wrapping his wings around them as the sidewalk under them exploded into a plume of lava. Vergil twisted midair, out of the worst of it, but the searing heat scorched his wings’ scales black nonetheless. Lady cried out from his tight vice around her broken ribs; he gritted his teeth against the pain even as cool healing spread--and then they were falling back, both of them hitting the ground hard and coming up in a panting roll. Smoke rose from his body, and the lingering pain clouded his thoughts. 

“We need a strategy,” he declared, absolutely blank on what that could be.

“Ya think?” Lady struggled to her feet. “You’ve been flying around this big ugly. Any weak points besides the articulation?”

“Weak is perhaps an exaggeration, but…” Phantom did have a hole on top of it, from which he’d sent several spats of lava at them. “How much explosives do you have, Lady?”

She answered with a terrifying grin. “Try me.”

His tail flicked, betraying his thrill. Most of the burns on his wings had healed by now, and he couldn’t deny how light-headed the fight made him, even with exhaustion settling in and the Yamato so far away. It had been too long since his last battle.

“As you wish,” he replied, his voice a low, pleased rumble.

This time, Vergil wrapped both arms around her, lessening the pressure on her ribs and steadying her. Her shoulder blades pressed against the ridges of his demon form as they took flight, his wings beating hard and fast to keep them rising, the rush of air making the burns flare again. Lady kept filching more and more grenades from various pockets as he first gained height, then plunged towards the great demon. Phantom brought his stinger to bear as they neared him, forcing Vergil to bank and drop lower, only narrowly avoiding the hit--and then they were right above the hole, a blast of hot air catching in his wings, sending him up. He snapped them out, steadying his course long enough for Lady to drop a dozen grenades right into the hole, pick up the Kalina Ann suspended up front, and follow her initial salvo of bombs with a powerful rocket. The kickback from that knocked them a few feet up again, and Vergil tried to get their flight under control--then the whole world exploded under. 

The blast from Lady’s grenades and rocket hit them, searing hot force sending him flying. He barely remembered to hold Lady tight, snapping his wings shut around them to shield them from most of the heat. Fuck, but it hurt. Vergil clung to the incredibly satisfying screech emanating from Phantom, loud and high-pitched enough to pierce the ringing in his ears, until he smashed hard into the very building Lady had first flown through. They slumped all the way to the ground, his hold on her relaxing as his entire devil form evaporated, leaving them both human and in pain, sprawled in the destroyed remains of the streets while Phantom fell apart.

“NO. NO. How could this be? By pathetic creatures--by humans?”

His lava body spilled through the shattered exoskeleton before it turned to ashes, the echoes of his cavernous voice lingering behind. Were demons dying lines increasingly clichéd as they gained in power? A much, much smaller voice than Phantom’s interrupted Vergil’s musings, accompanied by the tap-tap of tiny shoes.

Da’! Daaaa’!”

Vergil picked himself up from the ground, sitting fast enough to make his head spin and his vision darken briefly. The intense burns on his arms were already resorbing, blisters transforming back into pale skin, but he had no doubt he was still covered in dirt and looked utterly dishevelled. Nero was running across the street, and before Vergil could say anything, his tiny boy tripped on a debris and crashed chin first to the ground. Vergil’s heart squeezed at the little snap back of Nero’s head, and he was at his side in an instant, scrambling through the demolished street to pick him up. 

“Ssh, little monster. I’m here, I’m all right.” His entire body shook from exhaustion, but he tilted Nero’s chin up, examining the small red cut. “You didn’t need to run so fast.”

“Il monstro…” Nero sniffed and set water-filled blue eyes on Vergil. His voice remained soft and steady, though, as if all his feelings were locked deep inside. “Ho paura, da’.”

“Il monstro è morto, Nero,” Vergil replied firmly. Now that the rush of battle came crashing down, it began to sink in how many things could have gone wrong--how close to killing them Phantom had been a few times. “You’re safe. So are we.”

“You… you had the kid with you?” Pain roughened Lady’s voice, and Vergil turned around, still clinging to Nero. Dust covered her hair and stained her torn and bloodied outfit. She’d managed to sit, but blood trickled down from her forehead and her mistmatched eyes were unfocused, almost glazed. That second shock couldn’t have been good on her ribs. 

“We were on our way home,” he answered.

She grunted, trying to push herself to her feet using the rocket launcher. “Idiot. You shouldn’t--” A sharp cry of pain cut her recrimination short, and she squeezed her eyes shut. “Fuck.

Vergil tilted his chin up. “Language,” he snapped, with all of his usual irritation. Lady wouldn’t want him to go easy on her only because she was, quite literally, possibly dying inside. She laughed, a brief and sharp bark that quickly turned into another grunt. 

“Da’... The Lady is hurt.”

In all their months together, Nero had yet to fully understand ‘Lady’ was her name, not a title. She kept encouraging him, though, saying it made her sound even more awesome and important, that she was the Lady, not just any of them. It was not an entirely wrong assessment of her competence and role in their lives, although neither of them had wasted time acknowledging such a thing since Christmas. 

“She is,” Vergil acknowledged. “It’s a good thing the car isn’t far, isn’t it, Nero?” He kissed his forehead, then set his boy down. “Show her the way. We’re all going home.”

Chapter Text

The asshole carried her bridal style all the way to the car, and again from the car to his couch, up three goddamn floors. She would have shot him, but then he'd have dropped her, and her ribs hurt too much for that nonsense. Kid was watching, too, and he might be a tad too young to witness that sort of thing. He already looked upset enough every time he turned those big blue eyes of him to her. Gosh. Who gave Nero the right to be so adorable, anyway? She didn't do kids, but shit, the moment she'd first seen him curled around Dante's arm, he might have melted her heart a little. At first it'd been hard to believe he could really be Vergil's, but this idiot went completely soft every time he looked at his kid, and that was really all that mattered, wasn't it? Honestly, these days it'd grown harder to remember the snide bastard who'd worked with Arkham than the fussy, often disastrous demon dad struggling to keep his cute chaotic son under control. Especially now, while he argued in a low voice with Nero that, yes, she was fine and did not need a hug.

"He's right, Nero." Pain lit her midriff on fire from broken ribs, she couldn't breathe without her entire body retaliating, her back would sport the bruises of a lifetime, and she stung from a dozen different other cuts, but she was fine, sure. Fuck, but some days she really envied these two assholes' healing power. "I don't suppose you have painkillers laying about."

Dante kept some for her, but this wasn't the Devil May Cry. Demons weren't supposed to reach Vergil and his kid. That had been the point of her hunt--she just hadn't expected anything as fast and powerful as that disgusting piece of arachnid shit. 

"I'm afraid adult painkillers are superfluous implements in this house." He hovered closer to the sofa, Nero still in his arms, and she made a point to stare at the ceiling. "Should I call an ambulance?"

"Ya gotta be kiddin' me. I ain't paying outta my ass for what passes as healthcare in this country. I know some people." They didn't ask questions, charged less as long as she kept playing muscles for them on the rare occasion, and she knew she could trust them not to take a kidney while they were at it. Of course they did the strict minimum, but she'd toughed out her share of injuries over the years. As long as nothing had snapped beyond repair--and she doubted it had--she'd manage. "Just do your usual thing, demon dad. I'll borrow the couch for a spell and be on my way after a few hours."

His lips pressed into a thin line. "You're bleeding on it."

Lady rolled her eyes, but he was gone before she could protest. Nero stayed behind, and while he didn't attempt the forbidden hug, he did sidle closer to the couch and put his tiny pale hands on her scraped and bloodied one. When he spoke up, his voice was a whisper. "Are demons… are demons bad?"

Poor kid. Four years in this world and already deeply embedded in its fuckery. "Not all of them. And the good ones, well, they help protect innocent from the bad ones."

"I wanna be a good one," he declared. "Like my da'."

Lady wasn't certain Nero counted as a demon, or how much of Vergil's powers he might have inherited, if any. She didn't know if Vergil counted as a good one, either. He'd helped her today, true, but his track record for choosing humans over demons sure had one indelible stain. No way in hell she was telling the kid that, though.

"Glad to hear it, Nero." 

Then Vergil was back with a full first aid kit, and with a vague "I like my furniture bloodstain-less," he set to work bandaging her cuts. He kinda sucked at it, even with his eager little toddler holding things for him, so halfway through she slapped his hands away.

"Whoever taught you that was crap at it."

A sharp laugh escaped him. "Dante did, when we went camping. Said you had taught him."

"Well, Dante didn't learn shit. Ya need to do better if Nero hurts himself."

So she fixed herself up, showing him (again, she guessed) how to create a bandage solid enough to withstand a lot of running around (she did a ton of that, as would Nero). He listened in silence, obeying the instructions without protest, applying himself as much as he could. Most of her cuts weren't serious anyway--just one more source of pain on top of the constant lancing in her chest, around her ribs--but doing something with her hands kept her busy. Her mind struggled to focus on more than one thing at a time.

"I'll put the lesson on your tab," she said as they finished.

Vergil continued storing his kit, not missing a beat as he replied, "Excellent. It might begin to make up for the debt incurred by my saving of your life, every hour spent on this couch, the materials from my first aid kit, and the commission for painkillers I'll complete as soon as Nero is in bed. To start with."

She laughed, but the sharp pain from her chest put a quick end to it, turning the sound into a groan. Lady grimaced and settled back into the couch. "Whatever. We'll square up eventually."

"If you say so."

Then he was gone again, taking Nero with him this time. Lady closed her eyes and half dozed off, spread on the couch, as Vergil finished his day with the kid, remnants of pain mixing with his voice as they argued over bedtime and which pajamas to put on and had he brushed his teeth yet? It was strange, to witness their routine like this, even only half-conscious. Made the whole day feel more peaceful than one in which she'd almost gotten herself killed by a lava spidery demon had any right to be.

At some point Vergil nudged her, and when Lady cracked her eyes open he had a glass of water and painkillers. She didn't even remember him leaving the flat. He waited for her to accept them, then wordlessly sat on the armchair by her head. Silence stretched on as she swallowed the pills and downed the glass. The wounds had turned into a dull throb, but every movement lit her entire back anew. How long had she been here already? The sunlight was gone, and only pale moonlight made it into the room, allowing her to see the familiar surroundings. Vergil had left everything else dark, and he was half-shadow above her.

"Lady." The tension in his voice struck an alarm in her. She turned her sharp eyes to him, but he was staring at a random point ahead. "What was Phantom doing here?"

"Phantom?"

Why did he have a name for the demon? Lady scowled, yet now that he'd said it, memories stirred in her pain-addled main. She'd seen descriptions of this particular demon--read them. She searched for where and when, and then it occurred to her it had known Vergil, too. The long lost quarry. Now she knew where she'd read about this bitch: in Vergil's own notes, which he'd given her at Christmas. He'd written about hiding while two powerful demons--a lightning-wielding bird that stayed unnamed and this arachnid made of stone and lava--argued about their next move.

"Phantom is--was--one of Mundus's most powerful general," he confirmed. "His death will not go unnoticed. If he had been sent here…" 

Lady stared at him. It was obvious he had something very specific in mind, and she could feel all the pieces of a puzzle floating around her head, refusing to quite come together through the pain--Mundus, the Prince of Darkness once defeated by Sparda, Dante's insistence they should patrol his twin's neighbourhood, Vergil's notes about this Phantom, and now his obvious fear that the arachnid had been on a mission… There was only one way to connect those dots.

"Here, after you, you mean?" she asked. Vergil closed his eyes and offered a slow nod in response. Was that why his notebook had been so filled with a large array of demons? Bits of it read like a diary, the most precious information had never been put to paper, but the gist of it still felt as though he had been battling creatures from hell frequently. "That why he called you a quarry? You're being tracked?"

Again, a slow nod. 

"Why the fuck would you try and raise a gigantic tower filled with devils if a horde of them are at your heels all the damn time?"

This earned her a glare. "Watch your language."

She wasn't going to let him off that easily. "Nero's asleep. Answer the damn question."

"With my father's power, I would not need fear any demon; they would fear me." His voice had turned to ice once more, all sharp steel and arrogance, and she heard the Vergil who'd called her a foolish girl once more, the man obsessed with power. It made more sense, now, having read the compilation of demons he'd encountered, the brushes with death regularly implied in his notes. "I've been stationary for more than a year now. That is longer than they usually need to find me."

"He called you long-lost, didn't he?" she asked. "Doesn't sound like he expected to find you."

But he had been in the right neighbourhood, and there had been a significant increase in demonic presence since the year had started. Chances were, the only reason they hadn't found Vergil yet was because she and Dante had killed a ton of them as soon as they set foot in the area. Anyone looking for someone as deadly as Vergil might well take that as a sign, however.

They should tell him. Dante hadn't wanted his brother to worry, but clearly Vergil did so anyway. And Dante hadn't told her the whole damn story, the asshole. Vergil needed to know he had to stay alert.

"It's only a matter of time. I… may need to leave, sooner rather than later."

What the fuck was he on? Lady scowled and sat right up, hissing at the pain. "To go where, demon dad? Ya think there's a hole you can hide in where he won't find ya? Because your notes make it sound like you've tried the nomad thing for years and it hasn't worked out all that well."

"I'm alive, am I not?" he countered, but the tremor in his voice betrayed him. Moonlight made his eyes seem paler, his face thinner, his fatigue more evident. 

"Good luck duplicating those results with Nero around."

"Nero… I--" He squeezed his eyes shut. "I'm supposed to protect him, yet I cannot help but think… I'm more of a source of danger than anything, am I not? When I brought him back, he had no one, and demons had already found him. But now…" He took a deep breath, and Lady already knew what he was about to suggest, and she hated it with her whole being. "If I were to leave, Nero would still have Dante and you. You're more than capable of protecting him."

"Bullshit." She gritted her teeth and reached for the front of his shirt. "Listen here, 'cause I won't say it twice. You are the demon dad. He's your kiddo, not Dante's, and who knows what kind of lazy bum he'll turn into if you leave him in his uncle's hands." That drew a thin smile out of Vergil, but he still had all that damn anguish written all over his face. "Besides, you're not thinking this through. He'll come for Dante eventually too, won't he? The safest this kid can be is if you're both around. We killed Phantom together, and you didn't even have your fancy katana. So just--Don't go disappearing on us. Keep the Yamato on you, keep an eye out, and trust us to do the rest."

He scowled at her, but instead of fighting back, he let the words sink in, thinking them through. "If anything was to happen to Nero, I--"

"Nothing will." A sharp lance of pain forced her to pause. "Just rely on us. That's what business partners are for."

Vergil still wasn't looking at her, but he smiled. "I chose well, then." He rose, gesturing for her to lie back down. "In exchange for this advice, I will bring you a pillow and some blankets. The night is free of extra charge… partner."

"How generous."

Vergil rewarded her with a quick, sharp laugh, then he was gone again. Lady closed her eyes and slid down into the couch again. She'd been lucky. Phantom could have easily killed her today, if he hadn't been around, but she hadn't been expecting anything as powerful as that demon--in part because someone had omitted to warn her the actual fucking Prince of Darkness had an army after them. She was going to have words (the kind made of bullets) with Dante the next time she saw him.

Until then, however, she really needed to sleep off the pain. Lady tried to empty her mind and let the painkillers take hold, and soon she was slipping away, dreaming of a soft morning with breakfast and a toddler’s happy giggles.