SPY X FAMILY
CHAPTER X : Two Steps Backward
The constant mumbling eventually had Ewen looking up. He stared at Damian who was changing yet again of tie.
“You’re doing it again, Boss-man,” he sighed with a deadpanned expression.
“Doing what?” Damian grumbled as he threw the rejected tie on his bed to pick up another one.
“I am not mumbling!” he exclaimed.
He started pulling the tie around the neck of his buttoned up shirt, easily falling into the habit of tying it. He needed to be impeccable for tonight’s gala for the Imperial Scholars and their guardians. Part of it was because he didn’t want to disappoint his mother and older brother, but in the back of his mind, he was wondering what Anya would wear. The only requirement for tonight was for the students to wear their Imperial Scholars’ capes, but they were free to dress as they wished, even if everyone knew it was an uptight event.
“No, no, the green was better…” he whispered to himself as he switched to the previous tie, “But this shade is clashing… whatamIgoingtodo…”
With a heavy sigh, Ewen put his book down.
“You are doing it again!” he exclaimed.
“I am not mumbling!!” Damian replied, whipping around.
“You always look good anyway, why do you bother?” Emile intervened from another side of their shared room.
“It’s one thing that you mumble in your sleep, it’s another when you do it in your waking hours as well. You’re always complaining that Anya Forger constantly seems to know what’s going on in your head, but you’re mumbling your thoughts away like an old woman!”
“I am not mumbling my thoughts away like an old woman! Forger is just insanely perceptible!”
“Almost supernatural, maybe she’s a witch?” Emile joked.
“Perhaps that’s how our Boss-man has been so enchanted by her pretty green eyes ever since they met!” Ewen added with a laugh.
They turned towards their friend, expecting his usual flustered reaction, but Damian continued dressing himself. He had a forlorn look on his face, that neither Ewen nor Emile knew how to deal with…
“Are you okay? Is it because of tonight’s gala?”
“…I’m fine,” Damian answered, sliding his jacket on and buttoning it carefully.
Each button had an engraved D, for the Desmond crest. He looked like the perfect gentleman and when he added the Imperial Scholar cape on his shoulders, he looked pristine. And yet, he could only stare at his reflection and feel like a lie.
“Is it because you’re going to see your family?” Ewen asked.
“Or is it because Anya is going to spend part of the evening with Bill Watkins?” Emile added in a hushed voice.
Anya had finally agreed to be accompanied by Watkins to the gala, although there was no change to their relationship, as far as everyone else knew.
Damian and Anya hadn’t spoken since their last encounter which, for the first time in their lives, felt like a real argument. They had disagreed and he had stomped away, his heart storming from the effect she had on him and the words she had dared pronounce to his face.
“I make my own choices. Perhaps… it’s time that you start doing the same, instead of simply being the puppet of the Desmond family.”
He was no puppet, he was the proud second heir of the Desmond family. Everything he had ever done, everything he had ever been, had meant… something… it had been for his father, for his family, but it had meant something for him as well… right?
Then what was it?
Why did he even wear this cape, if not to make his family proud? Was it not a good enough reason? Was it not his own achievements that had led him to wear this beautiful and heavy piece of fabric on his shoulders?
Damian started making his way to the gala, ignoring the sighs of the many girls who had gathered to see him all handsome and ready. The only one he wanted to see, to sigh for him, wasn’t here. She’d be part of the gala.
He arrived in the great hall where he waited for his mother and brother who, as expected, arrived perfectly on time. They exited the car, surrounded by half a dozen of bodyguards.
He had almost forgotten the way his name sounded with his mother’s native accent. The moment he saw her, he smiled a little, shoulders relaxing. She got to him and immediately reached up to hold his face.
“How handsome you are becoming, you look more and more like your grandfather. It’s astonishing. Demetrius took from your father, but you, Damian, you took from mine.”
“Mother… you are embarrassing me, please,” he said, flushed to be seen in such an awkward display of affection in front of so many students, their families, and professors.
She smiled a little, although it didn’t quite meet her golden eyes, and she stepped away. Demetrius reached them, tall, lean, and imposing with his large eyes, dark green, so dark they were almost black.
“Brother.” Damian said, bowing his head forward.
“Damian.” Demetrius answered with a nod, “I am glad to see that you have maintained your Imperial Scholar status, although I have heard that some of your grades have been going down. Is there any reason for your distraction?”
Anya Forger, the bane of my existence, he thought to himself.
“Of course not, I simply need to study harder,” Damian answered with a practiced smile.
“Very well, let us join the gala then,” Demetrius said without a shadow of emotion.
Damian offered his arm to his mother, which she gladly took, but he froze when a figure passed in front of them to join the queue of families. He barely noticed her parents, as tall and elegant as they were, but Anya Forger was unmissable.
Beneath her Imperial Scholar cape, she wore a forest green dress, cut in an elegant shape. It fitted perfectly with her cape and its golden details. It gave her skin an ethereal glow, her beautiful eyes shone like emeralds, and her hair was in an unusual updo, similar to what her mother usually wore. It was easy to forget, with their daily school uniforms, that she had become a woman.
What he wouldn’t do to dive his fingers and destroy that updo, to lose himself in her body.
That moment of abrupt hesitation, that moment when he got a dreamy but shadowed look on his face only lasted a second, but it was just long enough for his mother to notice a change in her son. She glanced at him, but he immediately started following his older brother who hadn’t seen a thing.
Damian’s face remained absolutely emotionless when, upon entering the gala’s giant room, he and his family overheard and witnessed Anya Forger introducing her parents to Bill Watkins and the latter’s parents. They were all smiling, shaking hands, falling immediately into an easy acquaintance. He looked away, keeping his exterior a perfect mask of neutrality when his insides were shattering like glass.
A few meters away, Anya felt a tremor going down her spine. She looked around and noticed Damian, with his mother and brother, walking to the opposite side of the room, to meet some friends of theirs. She barely had time to perceive his thoughts – heartbreak, shame, disappointment – before everyone else’s thoughts became too much. Wavering a bit, she cut out every thought, forcing a smile to something Bill’s mother has asked her.
The gala went on as it often did. Lots of talking among parents, plenty of introducing their children to one another. The slight difference now that they were in high-school was that many parents were eager in introducing their daughters to Demetrius and Damian. The latter couldn’t care less and thank goodness, for once, his older brother’s aloofness worked in his favour because Demetrius was not in the slightest bit interested in his little brother’s love life.
“Ah, what a pleasure it is to finally meet you, Mr Desmond, and you, madam,” Professor Dunkel exclaimed when he met Damian’s guardians.
“The pleasure is mine. You are the replacement of Professor Adler, right?” Demetrius answered, shaking the man’s hand firmly.
“It’s exact. Despite the sad circumstances, I am delighted to be teaching biology to your little brother. His grades are remarkable, although I believe he intends to follow your footsteps and become a politician. Is this right, Damian?”
“Ah, um, yes.” He nodded, glancing quickly to his brother who had the slightest frown at that revelation.
“A Desmond doesn’t mumble, Damian,” was his only answer.
I’m not mumbling, he thought to himself, but remained silent.
“It’s a shame that you won’t pursue any studies in biology or similar domains. I just discussed with Miss Forger and her parents, they seem quite happy about her skills. She would thrive in such an environment, don’t you think?”
Damian almost choked to hear Anya so blatantly mentioned by a professor in front of his brother and mother.
As expected, they blinked, surprised to have another student casually mentioned.
“Miss Forger?” repeated his mother, even if she usually stayed away from discussions.
“Isn’t this the commoner girl who had punched you on your first day at school, all those years ago?” continued Demetrius, turning towards Damian.
“I-it’s her, yes.”
“Oh, I had heard stories but I never thought they were real! What a change between you two since that first meeting!” continued Dunkel.
Damian had never wanted to strangle a professor more than in this instant. His eyes widened and his cheeks flushed, betraying his feelings even more.
Stunned, his mother and his brother stared at him.
“And… what change is that?” Demetrius asked suspiciously.
“NOTHING!” Damian exclaimed, far too loud because he attracted too many people’s attentions, “It’s… nothing. We’re just… we stopped competing. We are just… friends.”
He swallowed hard, but his brother kept staring at him, as if gazing into his very soul. Dunkel glanced around and let out a small gasp. The Desmond family followed his gaze, only to see Anya Forger and her parents who had been talking to Professor Henderson. They had heard everything.
“W-well…” Loid Forger started as a sad attempt to break the silence that had fallen onto the room, “I am glad that you get along with Damian, after all this time, Anya,” he told his daughter, patting her shoulder.
Anya stared at Damian, then she turned away. He opened his mouth to say something, but she talked loud and clear for everyone to hear.
“We are getting along. Although ‘friend’ is a strong word. Classmate, at best, would be more accurate.” She declared with a strong voice.
Loid and Yor Forger both paled a little, tense smiles on their faces. They glanced at each other. Demetrius and his mother turned towards their son who looked devastated. He felt like he was stuck in the middle of a snowstorm, and Anya was the cause of it.
In ten years of knowing each other, regardless of what he said to her, what he threw at her, the insults, the teasing, she had never, never turned her back from him. And here she was, publicly humiliating him.
It hit him suddenly that it wasn’t now that she was walking away from him. She had done that when she had decided to tell him the truth he hated in his face. He had been the one walking away from her. Anya Forger was giving him the cold shoulder, she was willing to ignore him, to turn away from him, and nothing was good in the world anymore. He had spent too long craving her attention and dreaming for more, confusing feelings wrapped up in denial and now that she… that she moved on, that she turned her attention towards Bill Watkins, he didn’t know how to function anymore.
Who was he now?
“Oh, so just a classmate. Nothing to worry about then.” Demetrius said suddenly, putting a strong hand on his brother’s shoulder.
The tension dissipated a little and slowly, the other groups of parents and professors continued talking. The Desmond remained silent despite the smiles they had forced on their faces.
Dunkel blinked, as if only catching up now on the rising tension.
“I… well… I will continue meeting the other parents, but if you wish to discuss with me, I am available everyday at my office. Enjoy the evening.”
“Thank you,” Demetrius said with a smile.
As Dunkel walked away, Demetrius’ hand tightened on Damian’s shoulder. He clenched his fists, to get away from his brother, but he didn’t dare move. He was as good as wrapped into threads, stuck in a cage of his own making. Of his family making. A puppet, whose strings had been pulled too tight to move.
“Demetrius…” their mother said, stepping closer.
He let go of Damian, who finally breathed. But he didn’t feel like he could walk.
“What an embarrassing professor, spouting nonsense out in the open when so many of our friends and collaborators are gathered,” Demetrius commented in a hissing voice.
Their mother murmured something in a low voice, in her native language. Damian barely listened. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Anya walking away in another part of the room, towards the table of cocktails and food. But she just remained standing there, her lips tight and her gaze far away, as if she just couldn’t bear to be anywhere near him and his family.
“Professor Henderson, how kind of you to join us,” Demetrius said when the History professor arrived.
And once again, Damian was drawn into his family discussion. But his attention was no longer on professors, grades, and results.
He had spent his life working for the recognition he was receiving now. He had studied until he’d almost blind himself to earn the eight Stella stars and wear that Imperial Scholar cape. He should be proud. He should be happy. He should be smiling.
But all he felt was that he was a failure.
A hand reached out to him. He looked up, surprised to see his mother putting a hand on his arm. She was smiling to Professor Henderson, nodding occasionally to what he said, answering a few questions. That gesture was almost nothing. A small and too discreet motherly act. But it counted all the same.
She pushed him away, just a little bit. The slightest pressure against his arm.
“Damian, could you go and fetch me a drink, please?” she asked in a low, soft voice.
“I’ll… yes, of course, mother,” he answered, realising she was giving him an opening to get away from the smothering presence of his older brother.
“Thank you, darling,” she replied with an understanding smile.
He turned around, his steps slowly taking him away. His feet were as heavy as lead. He had never realised that his mother, stuck in her bubble of small smiles and quiet words, would be so good at noticing things. But every step that took him away from his family felt lighter and lighter, until he was almost running.
Anya looked up to meet his eyes. Her lips opened. Damian accelerated.
Bill Watkins suddenly appeared at her sides, bringing her a glass of a non-alcoholic cocktail. He smiled. She looked startled and surprised that he had shown up without her realising it.
Damian abruptly turned aside from her and Watkins, just as the latter noticed him. The two young men nodded at each other, curtly, without a word. Damian went to the table where all the drinks were aligned, blindly grabbing one for his mother. He remained standing there, watching that glass of pink champagne. He was acutely aware of Anya Forger right behind him, less than a meter away. She burnt his body just by standing so close yet so far away.
Bill Watkins stood there, guardian and protector of the young woman, unaware of the torment they were feeling.
After Damian and Anya had openly said, so loudly, in front of professors and families, that they were nothing but friends… classmates, really… he couldn’t talk to her now, even less glance at her, without raising suspicions. If his brother was watching, and he surely was, he would catch onto the truth in an instant.
And so, Damian did what he had always done best. He turned away from the best part of himself, and obediently walked back towards his family. He could feel Anya’s gaze on him, but he kept walking.
He handed the drink to his mother, who thanked him with her usual soft voice.
The hours that followed were spent with Damian feeling like he was stuck at the bottom of the ocean. Aware of all the smiles, laughter, words floating around him, but none of it reached him.
Was this what the rest of his life would be like, without Anya Forger?
“We must go soon. I’ve seen everyone important.” Demetrius declared when he was satisfied with the evening.
The Desmond made their way towards the outside of the building, to wait for their private car to be brought back. It was raining heavily so they remained inside, their mother sitting down on a bench while the two brothers stood a little further away.
“Maintain your grades as they are, perhaps ensure to increase your level in Literature and Languages. If you truly decide to become a politician… you’ll need those.”
“I will. Thank you… for coming.” Damian answered.
Demetrius blinked, staring at him.
“It’s my duty. I’m your guardian, and mother’s, ever since father…”
Demetrius sighed, glancing around. He gestured to his body guards and they took a few steps away.
“Listen, Damian… do you really wish to become… a politician?” Demetrius asked, frowning lightly.
“This is what father wanted,” Damian replied automatically, like a broken record.
Demetrius stared at him, his eyes looking much deeper, much darker. Damian finally noticed all the dark circles under his brother’s eyes. It made him look much older than he really was.
“Father… was a complicated man. I don’t think this is what he wanted for you.”
Damian felt like the ground shattered beneath his feet. He stared at his brother, going pale and shaking a little.
“W-what do you mean?”
Did his father care so little he never bothered to think of his son’s future?
Demetrius looked disappointed, he tightened his lips.
“We don’t have time to discuss any of it, this is not the place, Damian. Next Christmas, when you’ll come home, we can worry about that.”
“You’re never there!” Daman exclaimed suddenly, “You’re always missing family dinners and reunions! We haven’t had a real Christmas since father died! Don’t make promises you can’t keep!! You’re never here for me, you never look at me, you never cared for me! Nothing I do will ever make you proud! I’ll never be good enough!!”
His sudden rise in voice attracted the bodyguards and several butlers. A few families were there but not enough to cause trouble.
Their mother stood up, but Demetrius raised a hand to stop her. He stared at his brother, his expression hard as stone.
“Don’t yell at me, don’t accuse me of our father’s shortcomings.” Demetrius hissed.
Damian startled and realised, with dread, that his words had not been aimed at his brother. But at their father. Who had never been there for him, who had never looked at him, who had never cared for him, who had never been proud.
He whipped around, shamedly walking away from his family.
“Damian, wait! Damian!” Demetrius called, sounding furious.
Damian kept walking, he went through the doors and hurried down the stairs, ignoring the rain pouring over his head, drenching his carefully chosen clothes. He kept his fists clenched, his jaw tense, and he walked blindly, not caring where he was going as long as it was away from this family.
Hurrying down the main stone path, he ignored the occasional car passing by to pick up a rich family.
Thunder rumbled above his head. Lightning illuminated the landscape. And lost in the middle of the downpour and the dark trees, there was Anya Forger. As if waiting for him.