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Guiding Star

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FANFICTION

SPY X FAMILY

Guiding Star

CHAPTER XX: Victims and Culprits

 

All Damian could hear were the confident footsteps of his brother walking ahead of him. His shoes resonated on the marble tiles and against the wall. Each step made Damian lower his head a little more.

 

What did Demetrius mean by ‘family business’? Did it have anything to do with… the men he had met earlier? The scientists from COEUS, and their father’s former business with them?

 

Demetrius guided Damian through the dark halls and into his office, their father’s old office.

 

Damian hesitated on the threshold. He had always been forbidden to enter this place, even though he had thought himself brave when sneaking in as a child. All he had ever caught were glimpses as he had walked by the rare times the door had been opened.

 

Demetrius didn’t show any hesitation. He had probably never been forbidden to enter this place growing up. It had become his office since their father’s death, eight years prior.

 

Damian eventually entered, glancing around. From his memories as a child, everything had seemed big, impressive, sparkling with pride. It wasn’t that grand, now that he was old enough to recognise what it really was: just an office, well furnished and decorated with diplomas and prizes from the family but… nothing stood out as particularly extraordinary. Or perhaps he had had that idea because he had sneaked in back when he still admired his father. He hadn’t for a while now, the memories echoing with the harsh reality that years and maturity bring, but how could he ever feel anything but shame now that he was aware of what his father had done?

 

“Sit down,” Demetrius said, walking towards a small table where bottles of strong alcohol and glasses stood, starting to pour himself a glass.

 

Damian obeyed, if only because he felt too lost to discuss. He sat on the chair at the desk, facing the empty and much bigger seat that Donovan Desmond, and now Demetrius Desmond, used.

 

To his great surprise, Demetrius came back with two glasses of alcohol, instead of one. He put one in front of Damian who looked up at him, eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Whiskey.”

 

“Father and you always said I’m not allowed to drink alcohol other than champagne, or the occasional glass of wine.”

 

Demetrius looked down at the golden-brown liquid in his glass. He turned it around thoughtfully.

 

“You’re not a child anymore. You don’t have to drink it, if you don’t want to. But you’ll need it.”

 

Damian straightened up a little, feeling the slightest urge of confidence to know that his brother didn’t see him as a child anymore. His words, though, worried him.

 

“Need it for… what?” he asked in a low voice.

 

Demetrius walked around the desk and sat down. The seat was much bigger than the man, rending him even more imposing than before.

 

“The last time we met, your professors and yourself mentioned you wanted to become a politician. Why?”

 

Of all things to discuss about their family, Damian had not expected his career choices to be the topic this evening. He swallowed hard, mouth dry.

 

“I… I don’t know, I guess… It’s always been… what I wanted to do…”

 

“Because father was one before us? Because that’s the path I chose?” Demetrius concluded.

 

Damian flushed, embarrassed to be caught with such childish reasons. But for once, his brother didn’t seem judgemental. Demetrius crossed his fingers and leaned forward:

 

“When I was your age, I had to choose what career I would want to pursue. To be entirely honest, even though I aimed to make father proud, I had never thought of what I’d do after becoming an Imperial Scholar and graduating. My whole life had revolved around this simple thing: make father proud.”

 

Damian observed his brother, as if seeing him for the first time. It echoed his sentiments perfectly. Bitterness hanging onto these last three words included.

 

Make

Father

Proud

 

Wasn’t it all the two Desmond sons had been raised for? The only thing they had been good at?

 

“So when I was asked what I wanted to become, I didn’t wonder what would make me happy, but what would make father happy. I was his heir, I’d become a politician like him. You would be free to do as you wished once you’d come of age.”

 

More bitterness, aimed at Damian’s lucky place as ‘second son’.

 

Damian moved in the chair, suddenly uncomfortable.

 

“Then, father died. War almost broke out. I graduated. And I was faced, once more, with a choice. Should I become a politician to make a dead man happy, or should I become a politician to be happy?”

 

Demetrius paused. Damian eventually managed to let out a semblance of words, jumbled together:

 

“And you… uh… what did you… your choice, what was it?” he asked, awkwardly.

 

“I chose the country. The people. Not me, not father, but the… victims of war. I don’t want another war. Never again. Never.”

 

Damian couldn’t help but sigh in relief. Despite his words and conviction when Anya had been terrified of the possibility of war, a part of him had worried that Demetrius’ ambition would have smothered his humanity. But he had been right, his brother hated war. He had been born into it, spent the first six years of his life sheltering from horrors he couldn’t avoid, before being thrown into the expectations of being the son of Donovan Desmond.

 

In comparison, Damian’s life had been a walk in a meadow.

 

“That’s why I became a politician… even though I was pushed into it because of father, I would have never succeeded, were it not for my own personal beliefs that by becoming a politician, I would be able to help people and stop conflict. Politics is… not something you can do simply because you are forced or expected to do it, Damian. You must believe in it, in its power and what you can achieve, for the greater good.”

 

The conversation had suddenly become personal. Damian looked down. Had he ever truly wanted to become a politician? Or had he written it down because it had been his father’s potential wish? Because he wanted to make his rotting corpse, six feet in the ground, proud?

 

Did he believe in it? Did he believe he could do it, be happy becoming… whatever his father had been? What his brother might become?

 

A ghost that barely acknowledged his children, a shell that only saw the shadows of war and the threat of death, exhaustion engraved so deep in one’s body that no joy could seep out?

 

He thought of Anya’s smile. Her happiness, her cheerfulness, her love for life, bright and marvellous to look at, to bathe in. Would she smile that much, that beautifully, if he were to become a man like his father and brother?

 

No.

 

He had seen what the possibility of war, of his brother being a monster, had done to her. He had held her in his arms, had wiped her tears. Her body had been trembling, in fear of war, of ashes and death. We he to become a politician, Damian knew he would never support war, he would choose to be like his brother, to prevent conflict and bring smiles to innocent children… but what would be the price to pay?

 

He looked up at Demetrius whose haunted gaze stared deep into his.

 

He knew the answer.

 

He wasn’t sure he had the heart to pay that heavy price.

 

He wasn’t sure he had a heart that could give up on Anya’s smile.

 

“I…”

 

His voice cracked. What was he, if not a Desmond? What would he become, if not another politician?

 

“Don’t give any answer. Think about it carefully. You still have two years before making a final decision. And even after… if you regret and decide to change path… I wouldn’t object to it.”

 

“R-really?” Damian asked, surprised.

 

“Yes. Many think that sticking to one’s choices and paths is a proof of strength and willpower but… why make yourself miserable if you realise you changed heart? The greatest courage is to realise you have made a mistake, or changed your mind, or want something different in your life… and accept it, and act for your own happiness. Even if some people might disagree or your family might not be proud of you.”

 

Damian observed Demetrius, opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water. How much of these words were for his brother’s own peace?

 

“And… uh… are you happy?” Damian asked hesitantly.

 

Demetrius looked back at him, as if surprised he’d be asked such a question.

 

Damian’s heart sank when he realised that, quite similarly to himself, Demetrius didn’t get this question often.

 

Are you happy? Such a simple thing to ask, to your friends, your family, yourself, but so easily forgotten in a world that valued wealth and productivity over one’s well-being and joy.

 

“I’m not sure if ‘happy’ is a word I could use in this moment of my life but… I… am at peace with the choices I’ve made, and will make…” Demetrius answered honestly, as surprised by it as Damian was.

 

“G-good…”

 

Silence fell between the two brothers. Demetrius rubbed his thumb over his other hand, gaze lost.

 

“…As much as I want you to make a choice that will make you happy… I didn’t bring you here to only discuss your post-graduation choice…”

 

“Family business…” Damian echoed, in a low voice.

 

Fear slithered into his veins. After the document he had accidentally found, he reconsidered everything his brother had just said. What choices had he made, he will make, that would… bring him peace? What did Demetrius even mean by ‘peace’?

 

“What I’m about to reveal to you concerns our family, our father, and it cannot be shared outside of these walls. Do you understand, Damian? You cannot tell anyone about it, even people you think you can trust.”

 

Damian knew it’d be a lie if he agreed to such terms, but he nodded anyway.

 

Promise you won’t tell anyone,” Demetrius continued, expression firm and unforgivable.

 

“I-I promise…” Damian said, more and more worried.

 

Demetrius sighed, and nodded, more to himself than anyone else. He stood up, took a long sip of his whiskey to give himself courage, then walked towards a large cabinet that was locked. He pulled out a key, unlocked it, then brought out a few files. The shelves were covered in carefully organised files, books, documents, but Demetrius didn’t hesitate as he picked a few and brought them on the table.

 

He pressed his hands against the wooden surface of the desk, staring at the files, without letting Damian touch them.

 

“During the war… the second one, when I was born… Father became chairman of the National Unity Party in only two years, gathering even more power and influence. When he died, eight years ago, I had barely graduated and needed to begin my political studies. As I did, many of his friends and colleagues from the National Unity Party helped me out, by handling parts of our business, taking over some minor dealings. I… was young, stupid, grieving, and didn’t know any better. I signed many documents without quite understanding what it was, other than it had been important for father.”

 

Damian clenched his fists, not liking where this story was going.

 

“Just after I graduated, I told those friends that I no longer needed their help but they were… reluctant to give up their influence on me. I had been suspicious for a long time, at that point, but it confirmed that I needed to cut all ties with them. They were not happy.”

 

“What happened then?”

 

“I… looked into father’s old files and many things seemed to contradict themselves. I became curious, and worried, so… after graduating, I asked a Westalis organisation, called WISE, to discover the truth behind what our father had done during and after the war, what his ‘friends’ who had been helping me out truly wanted. It took almost a year for this organisation’s agents to find out the whole truth, digging out old secrets and horrors… This,” he continued, showing the files and the wardrobe full of more, “Were the results of their investigation.”

 

Quiet, Damian looked at every file, then at the piles still in the locked shelves. He had a terrible suspicion that all the questions he had been asking himself all day, since reading that document, will be answered. He already knew he didn’t like any of it.

 

“You have had history lessons so you know what happened during the second war, how it ended, and what were the consequences.”

 

“Of course,” Damian answered nervously, “Westalis kept its independence, both sides were forgiven for their war crimes and the allied countries also stepped away, to some extent. New alliances were created, Westalis and Ostania are at peace, and both are working together for a better unity between our countries, to avoid any conflict in the future.”

 

“I assume you know, even if it is not discussed much in history lessons, that the war was the forefront of horrors. Bombings on civilians, families, children murdered, war camps… It wasn’t a war of battles, but a battle of ideology.”

 

“Of course, I know…” Damian repeated, a little frustrated his brother would have so little faith in his knowledge of what had happened just over two decades earlier.

 

“But there was also a hidden battleground, invisible for most people, that we don’t talk about. The fight to gain superiority against the others, with military strength, weapons, science… Many developments were aided by war and, ironically, despite the barbaric nature of it all, progress was made.”

 

“Yes, yes, I know, this is what pro-war militants use to justify it. Wars lead to progress, in medicine, surgery, transport, energy…”

 

Demetrius hesitated, as if unsure of what to say after so many words had already been shared. Damian wished he could read his mind, if only to understand what he was going for.

 

“During the war, a medical institution was created. To help Ostanian soldiers who suffered from brain and spinal injuries. Its name was COEUS.”

 

Damian shivered, swallowing hard.

 

“C-COEUS…?” he repeated, but his brother didn’t seem to notice how shaken he was.

 

“Yes, unfortunately, this institution didn’t focus only on helping brain and spinal injuries. They also developed a line of research on brain functions and they created Project Chimera.”

 

Demetrius pushed a file towards Damian, with the words ‘PROJECT CHIMERA’ written in a bloody red. He hesitated, before reaching out. He pulled on the thread and opened the file. He found a series of paper, about the creation of this project, dated towards the end of the war. Many people whose names were familiar had signed for it. People from the National Unity Party, and among them, their father had signed.

 

“With the war ended, COEUS was put to an end, and Project Chimera was shut down. Or so we thought.”

 

Damian glanced up, hesitant. Then, he turned some papers from the file. There were lists of products, reports on their findings, on their advancements, new potential research… photographs of the injuries they were trying to treat. His heart climbed to his throat, and he quickly closed the file.

 

“What happened then?” he questioned, looking back at his brother as he put down the file on the table.

 

“Officially, COEUS disappeared from existence, but many who had encouraged its initial launching thought that the discoveries were too important to be thrown away and so, it continued its research, and Project Chimera went on, in secret. Its objective was to develop humans with higher-cognitive abilities.”

 

“W-what?” Damian questioned, shaking his head.

 

“Project Chimera’s objective was to create hyper-cognitive humans.”

 

“W-what do you mean by… hyper-cognitive humans…?”

 

Demetris reluctantly reached for another file, that he pushed towards Damian. Hesitantly, he took it and opened it, finding a series of documents. Each was about a ‘test subject’ that had been part of Project Chimera. Physical descriptions, details about their provenances, if known, of the ability they were trying to force on them… Things that Damian would have expected from a science fiction book, not a medical report: telekinesis, mind-reading, precognition, mind manipulation… Black and white, grainy pictures accompanied the files. Big stamps had been added, in red capital letters, as to the state of the subject after the many, many experimentations they seemed to be going through.

 

Children. Each and every one of them. No more than five years old, maybe.

 

Test Subject 001 – DEAD

Test Subject 002 – DEAD

Test Subject 003 – MISSING

Test Subject 004 – DEAD

Test Subject 005 – DEAD

Test Subject 006 – DEAD

 

He closed the file and pushed it on the table, incapable of looking beyond. The stack of papers was thick. Too thick. Too many lives broken, too many children tortured.

 

Damian was going to vomit. He stood up. He walked around aimlessly. He passed his hand over the lower half of his face, disturbed, disgusted, disheartened.

 

“Did all these children… are they all dead?” he asked in a trembling voice, turning around.

 

“Most died during the tests that involved… electrocutions, shots of various chemical, surgical operations… Some went missing, others got the stamp ‘unknown’ which, according to the investigation is for the children that were still alive by the time I…”

 

Demetrius’ voice trailed off. He lowered his head, closing his eyes.

 

Damian’s blood went cold.

 

“What…? What did you do?”

 

His brother remained silent.

 

“Demetrius! What did you do?!” he shouted.

 

“I… after finding all that, I sent the SSS after the location of the COEUS headquarters. By the time they arrived… it was too late. Many important files about the research and the children, the scientists, had disappeared. Someone among the SSS had betrayed their attack on the headquarters and COEUS had the time to disappear. We never found out where they went, or where they took the children. It’s been theorised that they went over the border, in another country but…”

 

“You can’t find them…”

 

“Today…”

 

Damian recalled the three angry men and the way Demetrius had furiously sent them away.

 

“The three men who visited me today had taken an appointment under a different name. I had never met them before, but I recognised one of them from the files that I have thoroughly studied. I threatened to call the SSS, for fooling me, for asking more money for what they’ve done, and they still tried to convince me that they were another branch of the former COEUS institution, that all their research had been to truly help brain-injured people…”

 

“You didn’t believe them?” Damian asked.

 

“No. They left when I called the SSS. They tried to tail them, but they’ve lost track of their car after it went over the Ostanian border, in Westalis. I believe they are… still trying to investigate it now.”

 

Damian swallowed hard.

 

He had his answers.

 

COEUS was a secret institution, created during the war, to torture people. Children, innocents. To give them some… some superior mental ability. Most died. Others disappeared. It might… have kept going this entire time.

 

His father had done that. His father, Donovan Desmond, had done that. He had signed off money to send to that institution, to that research, to torture children, to develop them into some sorts of… of chimeras themselves, broken into pieces and remade anew. His father, the man he had loved and cherished more than anything, had done that. His father, whom he had been proud of and admired more than anyone, had been a monster.

 

Was it his inheritance, as a Desmond?

 

Heir of horror and monsters.

 

“The WISE agency believes that most of COEUS activity has been ceased. They can’t find any trace, the people who used to send them money have kept themselves clean of all suspicion and even their agents in Westalis can’t find anything.”

 

“A-are you sure it’s all over?” Damian asked.

 

“WISE says so. Who am I to disagree? They found everything, if there was any research, any trace of COEUS, they’d find it.” Demetrius said in a serious voice.

 

A heavy silence fell into the room.

 

He couldn’t believe his father would have done such a thing. He couldn’t believe it.

 

Somehow, despite his brother’s words that he should trust, despite all the evidence scattered over the table, Damian wanted more than anything, from the bottom of his heart, to hope that… Demetrius was wrong. That for once in his life, his brother that he had looked up for and been jealous of for his bright mind, intelligence, and perfect scores, could be wrong.

 

“Father… he would have never…”

 

Deny it, say he never did any of it. He didn’t know, like you, he was unaware, he only wanted to help… Please, say it! Damian thought desperately.

 

But his brother remained silent.

 

When Damian turned around to look at him, Demetrius’ expression was tortured. Broken. Haunted. His brother had always been so good at hiding his feelings, smothering his emotions behind a mask of coldness. Now Damian understood it had nothing like their father’s ruthlessness… It had been the only way for Demetrius to be able to… handle that weight, that burden on his shoulders. The burden of being a Desmond. Of being the son of a monster. The guilt and the shame that shone in Demetrius’ eyes now hung heavily in Damian’s heart.

 

“…That file,” he started, pushing the last one forward, “Shows correspondence between father and several of the scientists, including the head of COEUS. It also has photographs. Father… witnessed it all.”

 

Damian wasn’t sure he wanted to know, to see with his own eyes. But in some sort of depraved, self-destructive urge, his body moved to come closer to the cursed file. He opened it, automatically. He ignored the letters, the words mixed together, as if it were another language, another alphabet. He didn’t understand the meaning of any of it. But he found the photographs.

 

His father was shown visiting what appeared to be a series of cells, all in white and glass windows. Children were sleeping, or sitting, curled up, small, weakened. Donovan Desmond was passing by, as if inspecting any other facility. A close-up showed his face, impassive as always and somehow, that made it worse.

 

That was the face Damian had always seen. That was the face he had grown up with. That was the face his father had had looking at him.

 

The pictures continued, but he froze when he saw more sights of his father, looking over what appeared to be a surgery room. A child was attached on a reclining chair with metal handcuffs holding them, electrodes all over their forehead, a pained expression on their face.

 

Damian shut the file violently. He threw it on the desk and bent against it, pressing his hands over the wooden desk, just like Demetrius had been doing earlier. He needed something solid to hold onto and that table was the only thing available.

 

He caught sight of the untouched glass of whiskey. He grabbed it and gulped it all down in one-go. The alcohol had nothing of the delicate taste and tickling sensation of champagne. It didn’t have the many flavours of wine dancing on his tongue. It burnt his throat. It made his head dizzy and clear all at once, too suddenly. But it distracted him from the tears building behind his eyes and the stinging pain in his heart.

 

“It’s not possible…” he whispered, slamming the glass down.

 

Demetrius watched him, sad and compassionate. An expression Damian thought impossible from his brother of all people. And yet, here he was. Demetrius Desmond, carrying the weight of the world, simply by being honest with his little brother.

 

“…It is. The only comfort is that… it’s all over now. We can move on.”

 

“I can’t. I won’t! I CAN’T!!”

 

“Give it time…”

 

“NO! How could he…? How…!”

 

“I… I guess we’ll never know what went in his head. Father is dead, his activities are officially over now that I have completely taken over the family business.”

 

“The family business,” Damian chuckled, rolling his eyes, “Torturing children? Killing them? Is that our family business? Is that where our wealth comes from?!” he continued, throwing his arms to show around the office that suddenly seemed too big, too luxurious, too good for one person.

 

“No,” Demetrius answered firmly, “Our family business is to help people, heal people. We will not let our father’s horrifying acts define what we do with the Desmond name, Damian. It is our duty to make it up to the world… somehow.”

 

Damian just stared at him. He wished he had such heart, such faith, that they could fix it. Fix the world. But COEUS had disappeared from circulation, it had not stopped, not entirely. Damian didn’t believe it and he knew that, deep down, his brother didn’t either.

 

Damian just felt lost, confused, numb.

 

His heart beat steadily, but each beating sent a wave of discomfort through his body. What right did he have to live, to live such a luxurious and easy life, when innocent children had been removed from their parents, tortured, and killed for… for impossible things such as reading minds and moving objects from afar?

 

What sort of joke was this? What sort of sick joke had his life become?

 

What was he supposed to believe, when his brother’s words were so strong, but their father’s blood flew through their veins?

 

Who was he? What was he? The son of a monster, a liar, a cold-hearted criminal. What did that make him?

 

How could he ever face Anya again?

 

“M-mother… does she…” he hesitated, glancing at Demetrius who swallowed hard.

 

“She had no idea. I told her the results of the investigation… partly because I had hoped she’d prove it was wrong somehow… but at some point, she just stopped listening to all the evidence. I… don’t think she can handle thinking of father this way. She knows I wanted to tell you about it because…”

 

Demetrius let out a heavy sigh, slowly gathering the files to put them back in the locked cabinet.

 

“I am not going to join the National Unity Party.”

 

He sent a wary glance towards Damian, who was far more flabbergasted than he should have been. Somehow, with all this mess, he had forgotten about the battle at the border and the whole debate surrounding Demetrius Desmond’s political future. For over a year now, people had discussed when he would join the National Unity Party and follow into their father’s footsteps. Not if, when. Damian never even questioned it. It had seemed as obvious as him becoming a politician, as his father being the centre of his universe…

 

Now he wasn’t so sure anymore. He didn’t know what to believe anymore.

 

A year of debate, since Demetrius had officially finished his studies. A year postponing it because he was secretly investigating their father’s past and discovering nightmares.

 

“Good,” Damian finally answered, although he wasn’t sure what that word meant anymore.

 

That surprised Demetrius as much as Damian. Demetrius straightened up suddenly, blinking, then he nodded once. Twice.

 

“Good,” he repeated, nodding once more, looking a little relieved.

 

“…Will you join… the ruling party, then?” Damian asked hesitantly.

 

Their family had never been on the left side of the political stage, and yet… what other choice did they have if Demetrius didn’t join the National Unity Party?

 

“…No. I… will create my own party. A new party.”

 

“…I beg your pardon?”

 

“I… am going to create a new political party. Democratic Development.”

 

Somehow, even though it was obvious that parties needed to be created at some point, it had never occurred to Damian that one could just create a political party so easily.

 

“Democratic Development? That’s the name of your party?”

 

“Yes,” Demetrius answered very seriously.

 

“…It sucks.”

 

He frowned, but he didn’t seem shocked. He must have heard the same response before.

 

“Democratic Development… DD. For Demetrius Desmond?”

 

“How did you–”

 

“I have the same initials, you big knob.”

 

“What did you just call me–”

 

Damian ignored him, sighing deeply. He looked up at the ceiling, putting his hands on his sides.

 

“Go for it.” He finally said after a moment of thoughtful silence, looking back at his brother.

 

“R-really? You’re… if I fail, then the family… might be ruined, our reputation and… and our future. It could be all for nothing.”

 

“Demetrius, I have never known you to fail at anything,” Damian said, and for the first time in his life it wasn’t bitterness that he tasted on his tongue. But pride. He was proud of his brother for following his own path, his own instinct, his own heart.

 

Not only had Demetrius found out the truth about their father… but he was rejecting it. It’d be much easier to bury it as some old and shameful skeleton and never talk of it again. Many illustrious families had done that to cover up their war crimes… but not Demetrius. Not Demetrius Desmond. Because that was what he was, a Desmond, a Griffin, proud, stubborn, rough around the edges, but true, honest, and hardworking.

 

If anyone could create a new political party in a divided country and unite everyone behind him… it was Demetrius Desmond.

 

Damian had never been so proud of his brother. Of sharing his blood, even tainted by their father. They shared that burden, but his brother’s greatness… Donovan had never realised it, acknowledged it, witnessed it. Damian did. And he would keep on witnessing how great and magnificent his big brother would become.

 

“The National Unity Party is losing power, they keep talking of war and conquest when no one wants any of it. The few who want to unite by discussions and laws are kept under the heels of the power-hungry old men who rule it. All the ruling parties are playing in the hands of the West, they are greedy, and they don’t care about the people, only their own selfish interests. No one can lead our country right now, especially not in the long term, not by looking out for our people… but you can. You have the money, the influence, the potential… You wouldn’t be a new piece on the chessboard, you’d be a whole new colour, a king in your own right who could very well destroy everyone else.” Damian declared, his jaw tightening from the waves of emotions that kept rolling through him this evening.

 

Demetrius watched him with widened eyes, as if seeing him for the first time. Witnessing for the first time that his little brother was growing up and becoming a man.

 

“…With a speech like that, you could never be a politician, you know,” he said, his lips tilting up slightly.

 

Damian grimaced, but he didn’t look down or lower his shoulders. He faced his brother head front.

 

“Too much honesty is dangerous in politics. But you have always been too honest, you talk before you think, and you move before you talk.”

 

“…It’s not such a bad thing.”

 

“No, it’s not.”

 

Demetrius paused. He put the cursed files about their father’s legacy where they belonged, locked behind metal doors and far from the eyes, if not from the mind. Then he took another key and opened a drawer from his desk.

 

“I’m not going to ask you to make a choice, about what you’ll do after graduation… but perhaps this will help you decide what to do with your life.”

 

He pulled out a single document, that he pushed towards Damian. Reluctant and worried of what new secret he’d find out, he took the paper. He read it over quickly, eyes widening. He read it again.

 

He looked back up.

 

“Are you… joking?” he asked, swallowing hard.

 

“No. This is your inheritance, that you will gain once you turn eighteen years old,” Demetrius said, “I had the same amount, and so did mother, although she’s not touching much of it. I believe she insists on giving most of it to us, but I’ve refused so far.”

 

“B-but, this is… this is enormous…”

 

Damian had always known his family had power and wealth, but he had never asked numbers. Since he had been a child, he had received monthly amounts to spend if he wished, but despite his fancy and expensive tastes, he had never felt the need to show it off to anyone – unlike Blackbell or some other rich kids he knew. He spent it when he needed something, with little regard to the price, but he didn’t fancy spending any of it.

 

He hadn’t even thought about the inheritance he’d receive, after his father’s death. A third of the Desmond wealth, as expected. Far more than he had ever thought he’d ever touch, far more zeros he had imagined.

 

A dark thought suddenly occurred to him. His arms went down, along with the flimsy paper in his arms that was his future summed up as a massive number.

 

“This money is…” he started, expression dark.

 

“It’s not from human trafficking or human testing. I made sure of it. Father gave money to COEUS, to finance their research, but they never offered much profit in return. I believe that most of the money they received was as promise to develop human weapons and spies… but it never got any proper result to offer to their sponsors. All this money, the Desmond money, comes from our estates and domains, and the Desmond Group, which deals in medical development and medical institutions… Real ones that truly help people.”

 

Damian knew where their money came from, but the doubt had frozen his veins like poison.

 

“You have no reason to be ashamed of that money. But know that the reason why it is such a huge amount is partially because father was, for better or worse, a great businessman long before he became chairman of the National Unity Party. He handled the Desmond Group with an iron fist, which ensured a continuous and increasing flow of money, even eight years after his death.”

 

Demetrius grimaced, crossing his arms in a gesture that was very different from anything their father had ever done. Perhaps he was more relaxed because he had finally revealed the truth to Damian, because he was more open.

 

“But the flow is… slowing down. It’s still far more than anyone could hope to earn in a lifetime, but it is slowing down nevertheless. I have been too focused on my studies, and now on creating Democratic Development… I don’t have the mind or the time to kick the Desmond Group back into business.”

 

It suddenly all made sense to Damian. His brother’s surprised and pinched expression when he first heard he wanted to become a politician. His questions as to why he wanted to become one. If Damian did so, there would be no one to handle the family business. The true origin of their wealth and power, more than any political stance.

 

“You want me to take over the Desmond Group after I graduate,” he realised with a dark chuckle, “I never…”

 

“Thought of this possibility, I know. And I will not force you to choose that option. As our father’s heir, I am still the CEO in name and responsibility, but the one who is currently handling all the business aspects is the Group’s Strategic Assistant–”

 

“Marius Steinmann, who had been father’s Strategic Assistant for decades and is only a few years off retirement himself…” Damian finished.

 

“Once you graduate and after your studies… it’d be the perfect timing to pass it all on to you.”

 

I…”

 

Damian’s voice cut.

 

He felt dizzy. He let himself fall into the couch, rather than the hard seat next to the desk.

 

“You don’t have to give any answer, any time soon, Damian. I had just hoped… you would consider this option.”

 

Damian had basically grown up with Marius as a cheerful old uncle. He remembered the man bouncing him on his knees as a child. He remembered him disguising himself as a very bad version of Santa Klaus for the Desmond Group’s children’s Christmas Party…

 

“Does Marius know that father…”

 

“No, he knew nothing of COEUS. He was very shocked. Father had been very good at concealing most traces of his actions…”

 

Damian let his head fall into the back of the seat. He looked up at the ceiling and closed his eyes. He was suddenly so, so tired. He wanted to curl up in bed and wake up to realise it had all been a nightmare.

 

Footsteps echoed and once they stopped next to him, he opened his eyes, straightening up. Demetrius was handing him another glass of whiskey.

 

Damian was dizzier than he had ever been, but he doubted it was the alcohol. He gladly took it and this time, the sensation was far less difficult to handle. It didn’t help his growing headache though.

 

“Give yourself some time, Damian. Rest while you’re here. Enjoy your time at Eden. God knows it’ll go by far too quickly…”

 

He opened and closed his mouth to answer but… he found nothing. No word, no feeling, just a disturbing numbness that had taken over his mind, turning it foggy and dark.

 

Still quiet, still confused, still heart-broken, Damian stood up. He barely registered the way his body moved as he exited his brother’s office and walked, aimlessly, through the labyrinth of halls and rooms of the Desmond mansion.

 

It was quiet and dark, most servants had gone to bed already. He hadn’t realised how late it was until he wandered, the freshness of winter night seeping through his clothes, all the way to his bones. He almost wished he’d have access to that bottle of whiskey to burn from the inside, and forget everything he had learned.

 

It hadn’t quite sunk in. Not yet. He wasn’t sure he wanted it to, but he could feel it coming. The anger, the sadness, the horror. It’d be here soon, it’d take over his mind, his body, in a way such emotions never had before, and he wasn’t sure how he’d react. How long it’d last. To grieve his father all over again. To mourn the man he had thought him to be.

 

Mind foggy by exhaustion, alcohol and too many heavy secrets, Damian almost jumped out of his skin when he saw a silhouette standing in the family library. Dressed all in white, he thought a ghost had come to kill him, as vengeance for all the innocent lives his father had taken, before he recognised that profile and those sad eyes…

 

He hadn’t seen his mother with her hair down since he had been a child. It had so much greyer than he had assumed. She looked old and tired and she shouldn’t.

 

Upon hearing his faltering steps, she turned to him, eyes shining from unshed tears.

 

Damian swallowed hard when he realised she had been staring at the giant portrait of Donovan Desmond that still hung above the chimney.

 

“…You can’t sleep after everything Demetrius told you, isn’t it?” she asked in a low voice.

 

“…No, I can’t,” he admitted, although he hadn’t realised the reason behind his hopeless wandering.

 

She looked back at the portrait. If Damian were entirely honest, it was not a flattering portrait. It didn’t make his father look nicer, or warmer. Just the cold, tall, prideful man he had truly been in his life. Damian would have preferred a lie, if only so looking at this portrait wouldn’t remind him of the painful truth.

 

“Did you really know nothing of what he was doing…?” Damian asked in a low voice, approaching his mother.

 

Her lips trembled, and she shook her head.

 

“I loved him…”

 

Her voice broke and hearing that sadness, that ever-lasting grief, hurt him far deeper than he would have thought. It reminded him of his own grief that he couldn’t quite shake off. Even after eight years. Especially after tonight.

 

“You never knew him like I did, you or Demetrius, you only knew him as a distant father but… he was a good man. He… had been a good man, when we were young. Then the war happened, and it changed him… he never was the same.”

 

She opened her hand, showing a picture she had been hiding against her heart. Damian had never seen this photograph, but her mother was young, wearing a pretty and puffy white dress. Their wedding day. Donovan Desmond had been looking much younger, happier, laughing.

 

Damian had never seen his father laugh.

 

Three young men were surrounding them, as joyful, as cheerful, patting the newlywed on the back. The photograph was blurry from all the moving and laughing. It was so true, so authentic, so full of joy that it tore something into Damian’s chest.

 

He had never known his father like that. Nor his mother. He had only had shells of their former selves as family.

 

“These three men were your father’s best friends. They grew up together, went to Eden together, graduated together. They were like brothers, the four of them. They’d do the most foolish things together, get in so much trouble…”

 

She chuckled a little at that, but as surprising as it was, it resonated with too much hurt and loneliness for Damian to rejoice in such a sound.

 

“I never met them…” Damian realised, not recognising any of the three men.

 

“They all died. In the war.”

 

She pointed a long, carefully painted nail, towards the one on the far left.

 

“Peter’s house was bombed. He died, with his young wife who had been pregnant at the time. Whatever was left of their limbs was so destroyed they couldn’t identify which was whose.”

 

Damian swallowed hard, but he couldn’t look away from the photograph. A shattered memory, lost in time.

 

Dafni’s nail continued, to the second man he never knew.

 

“Darius, here…”

 

“M-my name…” he stammered.

 

“Damian Darius Desmond. Your middle-name is in his honour.”

 

He had never even heard these men’s names pronounced by his father, ever. And he had been named after one of them.

 

“Darius and Donovan had been in the same unit, your father was a young captain still. They got ambushed and Darius pushed your father out of the way from a stray bullet that got him in the head. Darius died in his arms, slowly, painfully, crying for his mother the entire time. Or so Donovan told me.”

 

Tears burnt his eyes, for men he had never knew had even existed. For a man who had saved his father’s life, without whom, he would have never been born.

 

“And Edgar…”

 

Dafni’s voice turned even more pained and cold as she showed the last man on the picture.

 

“He betrayed your father’s entire battalion, to the enemy. He had made an alliance with a Westalis general who had promised him his life and riches. I never knew the details of what happened that night but… whatever your father found out about Edgar, they fought… and Edgar never walked out alive of that fight.”

 

“F-father had… he…”

 

“He killed him. To save the regiment. He earned a medal for it. He never wore it. Not once.”

 

No matter the betrayal, he couldn’t imagine killing Ewen or Emile. What crime had Edgar committed to push his father to… to murder him?

 

“Six years of war… Your brother was so small when he was born, during bombings, in a basement. I had been lying on a pile of coal for the entire labour… Demetrius was covered in charcoal!”

 

A wet laugh escaped her at the memory.

 

“He was born too soon, too early, the doctors said he wouldn’t last the night… but your father had heard about his birth, and he crossed all of Berlint, under an endless rain of bombs, to meet his son… He held him and said that Demetrius would never give up on life. He represented too much hope to die so soon. And he was right…”

 

Damian had heard the story of his brother’s birth many times before. He had never heard that part of the story. He just knew that just after, while his father remained in Ostania, his mother and brother, still a new-born, had crossed the country, then two allied countries torn apart by war, so she could reach the safe haven that was her far away family in the Greek islands. Demetrius grew up there, until he was six years old, until the war was over, and he was sent back in Berlint. A few months later, he was at Eden and started his life of successes.

 

“Your father was not the same after the war. I never saw his smile again. Except once.”

 

A single tear fell on the old photograph. Damian glanced at his mother.

 

“When he held you for the first time…” she said in a broken voice, her accent strong and pained.

 

Damian’s tears finally rolled down his cheeks. Letting out a shaky breath, he wiped them away quickly. Quiet sobs shook his mother’s shoulders. He hesitated, opening his mouth.

 

Mother, he wanted to say, like he always did when she was sad, and he didn’t know what to do.

 

“Mamá…” he said instead.

 

She startled at the term he had not used since he had been a toddler, a small child. Damian surrounded her shoulders with his arms, trying to give her comfort, without knowing how.

 

After the gripping horror, the icing fear, the dizzying numbness of the entire day’s revelations, secrets, and emotions, he experienced his greatest shock yet. He was shaken to the core. His mother seemed so fragile, shaking in his arms.

 

His father had been a monster. But he had not always been one. His mother, for better or worse, held onto the memory of the man she had loved. The father of her beloved children.

 

Regardless of what he’d do in the future, what he’d become, Damian knew one thing. He would never forgive his father for the monstrosity he had allowed to occur. But he also knew that whatever depravity had taken seed into his father’s soul, whatever horror had hardened his heart to stone, it had only one cause…

 

The cause that made humans victims and culprits all at once.

 

War.