It was the sense of movement outside that woke him.
Nero eased out of bed, careful not to wake Kyrie, and crept downstairs to the converted lobby. Dante’s office had doubled as a shared living room ever since he and Nico had taken over running the main branch of Devil May Cry in Dante’s absence, but just now, in the early hours of the morning, it was deserted.
There was something nearby, though. Lately, he’d become more adept at sensing infernal creatures—some skill of his nascent devil powers that he didn’t fully understand, but which had proved useful in his line of work. Nero concentrated, but there was no prickle of threat at the nape of his neck. There was a hint of the unnatural about this presence, but it wasn’t evil. Not entirely, anyway.
The sounds of distant traffic reached his ears, and a passing siren echoed back from the direction of the alley that ran alongside their building. The fire escape, then.
The second-floor hall window was open when he reached it, and Nero caught the acrid tang of tobacco smoke as he ducked through the opening. “Ugh. Not you, too.”
Vergil acknowledged the criticism with the barest flick of an eyebrow and lifted the cigarette to his mouth. “Thought you were asleep.”
“I was. I could hear you brooding all the way upstairs.” He waved the drifting smoke away from his face and crinkled his nose in disgust. “Between you and Nico, this entire family is going to end up with lung cancer.”
“Not really a risk for me. Or Dante.” His gaze shifted sideways, and for an instant Nero wondered if Vergil were about to reveal that Nero’s own genetic makeup rendered him just as impervious to human diseases—but that would have required Vergil actually acknowledging Nero’s heritage, a subject on which he had remained irritatingly tacit since his return.
Not that Vergil was ever anything but tacit, regardless of topic. It had been nearly a month since he and Dante had staggered out of a tear in the fabric of reality, covered in abyssal gore and a matched set of fist-sized bruises that had definitely not been made by demonic hands. Neither of them had been willing to elaborate on what had transpired in the underworld, but the brothers seemed to have reached a reluctant cease-fire, if not some kind of understanding. When pressed, Dante had laughed off the entire experience with a volley of his usual wisecracks. Vergil had never said a word.
“Kyrie’s human,” Nero pointed out, then stubbornly added, “and so am I, mostly. I’ve got enough things trying to kill me on a daily basis without adding all the poisonous shit in secondhand smoke.”
With only a slight narrowing of eyes to mark his irritation, Vergil stubbed out the cigarette and flicked it over the railing. Nero watched the butt’s progress as it arced across the alley, rebounded off a brick wall and landed neatly in an open trash bin on the street below. Was it their devil blood that made Dante and Vergil capable of such slick feats of showmanship, he wondered, or just lifelong practice at being showboating bastards?
“How’d you get cigarettes in the underworld, anyway?” Nero wondered out loud.
This time he was rewarded with a huff of air that might—might—have been a laugh. “Why do you think I’m smoking them now?”
“I can’t imagine. Seems like being trapped on another plane of reality without any convenience stores is the perfect opportunity to kick a disgusting habit.”
“Dante had months to dry out down there. Didn’t stop him from swilling an entire bottle of bourbon the night we returned.” Vergil shrugged. “It’s a luxury, not an addiction.”
Nero had witnessed firsthand the quantity of alcohol Dante was capable of putting away, and decided not to speculate whether the dependence was chemical or psychological. At least his superhuman metabolism was a point in his favor. “Where is Dante, anyway? I thought you two were working that warehouse job together.”
“Probably passed out in his own vomit, the way he was drinking. I left him propping up the bar after we finished.” Vergil shook his head, lip curling. “I have no idea how that walking disaster survived to adulthood.”
“Well, he is pretty hard to kill.” Nero shivered a little, wishing he’d thought to grab a jacket on his way out. The climate here was cooler than he’d been accustomed to in coastal Fortuna, and the ratty T-shirt he’d been sleeping in provided little protection. He could go back inside, he supposed; there was no reason for him to be standing on a fire escape in the middle of the night, arguing the drawbacks of substance abuse with a man who generally went out of his way to avoid all conversation.
But the very fact that Vergil hadn’t yet turned nonverbal on him was a powerful incentive to stay. Ever since Nero had learned the truth of his parentage, his mind had been crowded with questions he’d had neither the courage nor the opportunity to ask: Had Vergil known about him? What exactly had been his relationship with Nero’s mother? What had Vergil been doing in Fortuna in the first place? He didn’t really think his father was likely to answer any of those things, though. You’d be lucky to get Vergil to tell you how he took his morning coffee, much less reveal anything of a personal nature. If some people viewed the world through rose-colored glasses, Vergil surveyed it through a sheet of ice.
Still, there had to be something emotive at the man’s core. After all, Dante appeared shallow and heartless at first glance, but had surprising depth once you scraped past the sarcasm and crudeness and that ever-grinning facade. Nero had heard the stories from Trish and Lady: How he’d saved them, and forgiven each of them for trying to kill him; how he’d taken in an orphaned girl and fought for her; how he’d risked his life time and again to protect humanity. How he’d cried when his brother had been lost, and mourned him again when he’d thought him destroyed forever.
Vergil certainly wasn’t Dante, but the brothers were more alike than either of them would admit. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that he concealed a sliver of humanity beneath his detached exterior. And for the short time they had been acquainted, Nero had become reasonably fond of his father’s fully-human incarnation. V wasn’t the sort of person Nero normally would have chosen to socialize with, but he had admired the man’s intelligence and quiet conviction.
Nero shot a sideways look at Vergil, who was staring meditatively at the stained brick wall across the alley. For all that he’d personally witnessed V and Urizen’s re-merging, he still had difficulty accepting that the man beside him was some combination of the two extremes. He could detect in Vergil a bit of V’s acuity, a hint of Urizen’s ambition, but his personality—or what little he revealed of it—reflected neither of his constituent parts as they had been laid bare. Nero hoped that V had been the more accurate reflection of his father’s true nature, but Vergil remained so aloof that it was impossible to tell.
For several minutes now the only sound in the alley had been the ubiquitous background hum of a city at night, and the silence between the two men was beginning to stretch uncomfortably thin. Nero knew there was a risk in continuing to test Vergil’s tolerance for conversation, but moments of privacy were rare in a lifestyle as hectic as theirs, and this was possibly the first time he had ever found himself truly alone with his father. At least, since he’d known he was his father. His talks with V didn’t really count, especially since they’d usually devolved into poetry recitals. “Can I ask you something?”
Vergil’s shoulders notched fractionally higher, but his voice remained as flat and unemotional as ever. “Go ahead.”
“How much do you remember? From when you were… you know. Split.” Nero flicked a glance at Vergil, who was still staring at the opposite wall. Or perhaps just into the middle distance. Vergil’s eyes were difficult to track, sometimes.
The crease between the pale brows deepened fractionally. “Some. The memories are… occluded. Two simultaneous sets of memory, overlapping. It makes it difficult to recall specific details.”
“So you don’t really remember being V?”
His head twitched in a negative. “Or Urizen. Mostly disjointed images. Impressions.”
Nero wasn’t quite sure what to do with this information, but now that he had it, he felt he should say something. “That’s gotta suck, having holes in your memory.”
Vergil smiled, the only way he ever did: A wry curve of his mouth completely devoid of humor. “It’s not the first time.”
Nero waited for some elaboration, but apparently that was all Vergil had to say on the matter. “You’re just gonna play it all cool and leave me to wonder, aren’t you.”
Vergil turned to look at him, flicking an eyebrow in an expression that would scarcely have registered on Dante’s face, but which on Vergil was tantamount to shock. “Care to explain that?”
Nero pushed off the railing and paced the few steps to the end of the platform and back, agitation shortening his stride. “You know, in a normal conversation, both people talk. Both sides volunteer information. Every time I try to talk to you, I feel like I’m playing Twenty Questions.” He scowled. “With a freezer.”
Vergil blinked, and for a split second his face went blank. He recovered his usual icy demeanor so quickly that Nero wondered if he’d only imagined the flicker of surprise. “You want my life story, is that it?”
“No! I mean… yeah, sure, if it’s relevant. I just want to be able to have a simple conversation without you instantly shutting it down. We’re supposed to be working together, and half the time I can’t get you to answer questions in words of more than one syllable.”
Vergil had gone so still that Nero wasn’t sure he was breathing. As the silence expanded, Nero’s own lungs began to constrict, and he hoped his angry outburst hadn’t sealed his fate. He braced himself for whatever cutting remark or violent death Vergil was working up for him.
The response, when it came several seconds later, was by far the last thing he’d expected. “What would you like to know?” Vergil asked mildly.
The wave of relief that eased his anxiety simultaneously scrubbed any useful reply from Nero’s mind. All the questions he’d been pondering for weeks had vanished into the dark crevices of his brain, fleeing before the unexpected prospect of being answered. He groped blindly for something to say. “The memory thing,” he blurted after a few floundering seconds. “What you just said, about it not being the first time. What was that about?”
Vergil’s eyes narrowed as he looked into the distance over Nero’s shoulder. “The ruler of the Demon World. Mundus.”
That name was familiar. “The one who created Trish?”
Vergil inclined his head in a minuscule nod. “He suppressed my memories, for a time. Took from me the knowledge of who I was.”
“But you got it all back?” Nero pressed. “You remembered everything?”
They were back to single-word answers, but Nero wasn’t about to let the momentum die, not when he’d finally engaged his father in something approximating normal human interaction. “Is that why you did it?” he asked. “Is that why you wanted more power? To keep that from happening again?”
This time Vergil was silent for long enough that Nero was certain he had pushed for something too personal, but after nearly a minute of quiet thought, Vergil surprised him again. “Tell me, Nero, has there ever been something you wanted to protect? Something you’d give anything to keep safe?”
“Of course.” Nero jerked his chin back toward the building. “She’s asleep upstairs.”
“Imagine she were in danger, and you lacked the strength to protect her. What would you do?”
Nero didn’t have to imagine. He’d been only too willing to trade his soul for the strength to save Kyrie from the Order. With Dante’s help and the power he’d borrowed from the Yamato, he’d managed to rescue her, but Credo’s death still haunted him in his darker moments. “Whatever it took,” he said quietly.
Vergil nodded once. “Without power, it is impossible to protect anything. Not those you love. Not even yourself.”
Nero watched his father closely. Vergil’s jaw was set, his mouth a firm line, but it was the ice in his pale eyes that was most chilling. “Who were you protecting?” The muscles in Vergil’s neck tightened fractionally, and in a flash of insight, Nero changed his question. “What did they take from you?”
It was yet another single-word response, but this time Nero didn’t resent it. That one word, pressed through Vergil’s clenched teeth and uttered in a near growl, seemed to encompass a lifetime of loss and torment that Nero wasn’t sure he was ready to hear, even if his father had been willing to share.
After a tense moment Vergil seemed to rise out of memory. His eyes slid sideways to Nero. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry I had to take your arm to do it.”
The apology was so unexpected, and so out of place in the conversation, that Nero burst out laughing. “Yeah, you and me both.”
“I was… unwell, and wasn’t thinking clearly.”
Nero shivered as he recalled the cloaked figure who had staggered into his garage and struck him down. He wanted to believe Vergil, but he had noted a certain ruthlessness to all the man’s actions. “Would it honestly have made any difference if you were?”
“No,” Vergil answered without hesitation. “I needed the Yamato. Although…” He had the decency to look mildly uncomfortable. “Had I realized… who you were, I might have gone about it differently.”
And there it was. A part of Nero wanted to be pleased; he had nearly given up hope that Vergil would ever acknowledge him as a son, even in this roundabout way. Another part knew he ought to be filled with rage at how casually his father dismissed the life-altering trauma he’d caused. But the sheer absurdity of the statement overwhelmed any emotional release Nero might have felt. “You might have?” He shook his head and laughed harder. “Man, this family is jacked up.”
Vergil flicked an eyebrow. “You’re only noticing that now? Most people catch on within ten minutes of meeting Dante.”
“I don’t know, man. Dante doesn’t go around ripping his kid’s limbs off and then awkwardly apologizing for it frickin’ two years later.” Nero turned and leaned his good arm on the railing. “You know, if I hadn’t been your son, I would have died.”
“If you hadn’t been my son, you wouldn’t have had the Yamato in the first place.”
“Funny how that only occurs to you now.”
“As I said, I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
“V said you were dying.” It was a cheap shot, perhaps, but it had the effect of pulling Vergil up short. His jaw tightened again, and his gaze sought out a crumbling patch of brickwork to freeze. Nero watched him closely as he pushed on. “He said you’d been defeated.”
“Yes.” The word was little more than a growl.
“Was it Mundus who did that to you?”
If possible, this word came out even more reluctantly than his previous confession. “No.”
Nero took stock of the look of resentment and—was that humiliation?—and suddenly the penny dropped. “It was Dante, wasn’t it?”
If Vergil’s jaw had clenched any tighter, Nero thought he might have heard the crack of teeth. “I wasn’t at my best when we fought. My true power had been sealed by Mundus.”
“But Dante defeated Mundus. Which means…” Nero grinned as he followed the logic Vergil himself had used when Nero had interrupted his match with Dante. “Which means Dante beat you by default. And you’ve been trying to get him back all this time, to even the score. Hot damn, that’s taking sibling rivalry to new extremes.”
“He was the first one to demand a rematch,” Vergil snapped, the closest thing to defensive Nero had ever seen. “I defeated him easily the first time we fought. Since then, we’ve faced each other countless times, but we’ve never been able to settle the matter definitively.”
“What matter is that? Proving who can take more swords through the rib cage without crying uncle?” Nero rolled his eyes. “You’re both idiots. Who gives a crap which of you is stronger? You’re brothers. Hell, you’re twins. A matched set. You should be looking out for each other. Watching each other’s back, not trying to put a hole in it.”
Vergil’s eyes narrowed. “So says the only child.”
“Says the kid who got picked on constantly until he had a foster brother to stand up for him,” Nero returned with equal venom. “I never would have made it half as far as I did without Credo looking after me.”
“I’ve never required anyone to fight my battles for me.”
“Maybe you haven’t, but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have benefited from some backup, all the same. Hell, maybe if you and Dante had stuck together instead of fighting each other, you wouldn’t have to be obsessed with getting stronger, because you’d already have all the power you needed to protect…” He sketched a formless gesture in the air. “…whatever it is you wanted to.”
The flare in Vergil’s eyes was unlike anything Nero had witnessed before, but he didn’t have more than a split second to absorb it before Vergil’s back was to him, his shoulders rigid and unyielding. This, more than anything else Nero had said, had touched a nerve—and Nero wasn’t sure why. Was it so offensive to suggest that Vergil and Dante put aside their fraternal squabbles and work together? Wasn’t that what they’d been doing in the underworld, and since they had returned?
He blew out a frustrated breath and ran a hand through his hair. “What am I even doing? I’m meant to be the hotheaded, irresponsible one in this crew, and here I am giving advice to my own father about being a good big brother to my boss/uncle/whatever the hell he is. I don’t get paid enough for this shit.”
“I’m not paying you at all,” Vergil said without turning. The ice was back in his voice. “Nor did I solicit your opinion concerning a situation about which you know nothing.”
There was no arguing with the finality in his tone—not that Nero was inclined to fight for a continuation of the conversation at this point. He was tired, he was cold, and he was beginning to think that pursuing any kind of a relationship with a man who clearly understood familial obligation even less well than he did was an exercise in futility. “Whatever,” he muttered. “I’m going back to bed.”
As he climbed back through the window, he heard the unmistakable flick of a cigarette lighter behind him.
Tired as he was, Nero found sleep an elusive quarry. After an hour of listening to Kyrie’s even breathing beside him—and being unable to toss or turn for fear of waking her—he slipped out of bed again, deciding that if he couldn’t soothe his mind with rest, he could probably do so with the pint of strawberry ice cream he knew Dante was hiding in the back of the freezer. It would be dawn soon, anyway. No point in dozing off this late only to wake up when the sun hit his face.
The faint breeze in the hallway told him that the window to the fire escape was still open, and the aftertaste of smoke on the air indicated that it was still occupied. “Doesn’t he ever sleep?” Nero hissed.
If Vergil wanted to coat his lungs in tar, that was his business, but he had no right to stink up the entire building with it. Nero detoured to the hall window, fully prepared to lock his father and the noxious odor outdoors, and damn the consequences.
But the fire escape, when he reached it, was unoccupied. Nero ducked outside just in time to hear the whisper of settling leather from the street below. Hanging over the railing, he saw Vergil rising from the crouch of a soft-kneed landing. Jumping, apparently. required less effort than using the ladder to descend. Those half-devil reflexes did have their practical uses.
A movement from the far end of the alley drew Nero’s attention, and he tensed automatically as a sense of something brushed at his awareness—but there was no danger here; this presence was familiar and definitely non-threatening.
Dante, red coat askew and weaving the path of the heavily inebriated, was just staggering into view.
Nero’s eyes went to Vergil again. Surely he wasn’t thinking of ambushing Dante when he was drunk. He knew Vergil wanted to best Dante in a fair fight, and judging by the number of lateral steps mixed into Dante’s forward progress, this would definitely not be an equal match. Had Nero’s words upset Vergil to the point where he would break his own code of honor? Nero gripped the rail, preparing to intervene if necessary.
Vergil planted himself in Dante’s path, expectant but not hostile. “I was beginning to think I was going to have to come after you,” he called as Dante drew near. The words echoed up the brick walls to Nero’s ears. “You’ve been out all night.”
“Don’t ‘zaggerate. ‘S’not morning yet.” Dante’s words were faintly slurred—a state which, Nero knew, took a staggering amount of alcohol for him to reach. He must have been drinking nonstop since Vergil left him. Dante raised his head and turned a bleary look on his brother. “You know what day it is, don’t you?”
“I know.” Vergil looked off to one side. “Why do you think I was waiting?”
“Forty years.” Dante’s shoulders drooped in a sigh. “Never gets any better.”
“Drowning yourself in chemical depressants isn’t doing you any favors,” Vergil retorted. “You could stop drinking yourself into a stupor every year.”
“’S’a memorial. Don’t want to forget.”
Vergil’s voice was so low Nero could scarcely hear it. “You know we never will.”
“You did, once.” Dante’s eyes held no accusation, only sadness. “Thought I was gonna be the only one who remembered her.” He pitched forward suddenly, and Nero half expected him to measure his length on the ground, but Dante only slumped far enough to rest his forehead on the point of Vergil’s shoulder. “Tell me you still remember.”
“I remember.” To Nero’s astonishment, Vergil braced his arms around his brother’s shoulders. It wasn’t immediately clear if he were comforting him or holding him upright. A little of both, perhaps. “Every detail of that day.”
“Me, too.” Dante was silent for a moment. “I wish she’d found you.”
Vergil’s fingers tightened in the leather of Dante’s coat, and for a few seconds his eyes pressed shut, his face contorted in an expression of raw grief. “I wish I’d found you,” he whispered. “I wish I’d been strong enough to…”
Then his eyes flew open, and with a shake of his head his stoic mask returned. “Fortunately, you’re too drunk to remember any of this tomorrow morning,” he added in a wry tone.
Dante swayed on his feet. “You smell like smoke,” he mumbled into Vergil’s coat. “Yuck.”
“Well, you smell like a barroom toilet, so we’re even.” Vergil’s mouth curved in a rueful smile. “As usual.” He pulled one of Dante’s arms across his shoulder, supporting his unsteady weight. “Come on, brother. Let’s get you inside before you sober up enough to realize you’re letting me help you.”
They were headed the long way through the alley, so Nero cut back through the building and reached the main entrance well ahead of them. There was a flicker of surprise in Vergil’s face as Nero held the door open for them, but he said nothing as Nero took Dante’s other arm and helped Vergil half-carry him up the stairs to the converted storeroom he used as living quarters.
Between the two of them, they managed to shear Dante of his heavy leather coat, and let him fall across the bed with only a minimum of guidance to make sure he didn’t collapse face-first into a wall. As soon as he struck the mattress, the hunter’s muscular body seemed to deflate into a loose pile of limbs, and in less than a minute he was snoring softly.
“He’ll be fine in the morning.” Vergil tossed the red coat over a chair. “Thanks for your help.”
Nero shot a surreptitious glance at his father. Vergil’s face was expressionless as usual, but as he gazed down at Dante, there was a softness to his stance that Nero wasn’t used to seeing. “He was the one you lost, wasn’t he?” Nero ventured quietly. “The one you wanted to protect.”
Vergil’s reaction was carefully controlled, as though he’d expected the question, but Nero saw the flex of muscles in his throat as he swallowed. “Not just him.” He turned to leave the room, and Nero followed. “Dante and I never really got along—not the way brothers should. But as you so eloquently phrased it, we were a set. No matter how we fought, no matter our differences, we always had each other. Until we didn’t.” He closed the door on Dante’s unconscious form. “Once separated, we became weak. Powerless. Becoming stronger was a necessity, a matter of survival, for both of us.” He smiled grimly. “Dante never approved of the way I went about it. I never approved of his refusal to embrace his own power.”
“And you can’t get past that? I mean, you’re not separated anymore. Can’t you go back to the way things were?”
Vergil laughed softly. “This is the way things were. It’s the way things have always been.” His gaze shifted back to the door, and there was something wistful in it. “Now, we just hit harder.”
Nero blinked as sudden understanding settled like a mantle over his perception of Vergil. He’d always assumed the twins fought because they hated each other, because of some ancient resentment they’d never been able to bury, but the concern, trust, even affection he’d witnessed between them tonight revealed how profoundly wrong he’d been. What bound them, powerful as it was, was nothing so terrestrial as hatred.
The brothers were two poles of the same magnet—always in opposition, but fundamentally, intrinsically bonded. He’d been wrong to label them a matched set; rather, they were two halves of a whole, each incapable of a complete identity without the other. Each compelled to preserve the other, no matter how it repelled his nature. Their own feelings were immaterial: Whether from lifelong expectation or some greater cosmic requirement, it was necessity that drove each twin to define himself in the other’s negative space.
For one mad instant, Nero felt a surge of jealously. The connection Dante shared with Vergil was deeper than anything Nero could ever experience for himself, no matter how many questions he asked, no matter how far open he forced the lines of communication with his father. Despite their shared blood, Nero wasn’t family in any true sense; he had never been a vital part of Vergil’s life, never a defining factor of his identity, never one of the precious things Vergil had desired to protect…
As quickly as it had flared, Nero repented of his envy. Vergil had nearly ended the world in his insatiable quest for power. He’d sacrificed both his son and his own humanity on that altar, manipulated by that desperate, twisted need to protect. It was obvious that Dante felt at least partly culpable for his brother’s actions, and that was a level of responsibility Nero wasn’t prepared to shoulder.
Perhaps he was better off forging a new bond with his father, on his own terms, one that was entirely free of the guilt and torment that had warped Dante’s other half into a monster. Maybe Nero could never reach any kind of perfect understanding with Vergil, maybe he could never fully forgive him for what he’d done, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t establish some kind of rapport. Hell, they’d already managed to have a conversation. That was something.
The silence was stretching out between them again, but Nero decided he had obtained all the answers he needed for one night. All the answers he could process for now, anyway. “Sun’s coming up,” he observed. “You, uh, you want some coffee or anything? I was thinking of making some.”
“Sure.” Vergil’s face had returned to its usual cryptic blank, which was somehow more reassuring than the startling glimpses of emotion he’d allowed to slip through. “Coffee sounds good.”
Vergil followed Nero downstairs and settled himself on one of the mismatched kitchen stools while Nero fiddled with the temperamental percolator. Soon he’d wiggled the cord sufficiently to get the appliance working, and a stream of fragrant coffee began dribbling into the pot. Nero retrieved two mugs, put two spoonfuls of sugar in his own, then hesitated with his hand over the second. “Let me guess. You take yours ‘black, as if bereav’d of light’?”
Vergil cocked an eyebrow, but the expression was one of amusement. “‘Some are born to sweet delight; some are born to endless night,’” he quoted in return.
“Yeah, I’m definitely more of a ‘sweet delight’ guy. You?”
“Milk. One sugar.”
Nero grinned. “Okay. Milk, one sugar, coming right up.”
It wasn’t perfect understanding, he reflected as they sipped their coffee in comfortable silence, but it was a definite start.