As the taxi puttered ever deeper into the heart of Paris, images flashed before his eyes which were too familiar to be worth notice. Felix had seen them every day for twenty years: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Seine, Notre Dame.... And yet, when the American students had asked him, full of curiosity, what it had been like, to live down the street from such treasures, Felix could only shrug. He had never given it much thought.
There was only one building which warranted his attention, then and now, and he was returning to it after four long years.
Felix had to make a conscious effort not to allow his feet to dance restlessly on the floor of the cab. He was filled with nervous anticipation. The irrational part of him wanted to demand that the car stop: let him get out and run the rest of the way. But logic broke in and reminded him that the cab would be faster, no matter how gruelingly slow the journey felt.
Four minutes later, Felix found himself lingering outside the Agreste residence, adrenaline and bravado made moot by his childish reservations. He shuffled his feet, uncertain. No matter what, there was someone he had to see. But it could wait. It could wait five minutes while he caught his breath and dashed unpleasant memories from his thoughts. He could have gotten here an hour sooner—still, he would have had to face these demons.
The sound of an engine approaching the curb, heels striking pavement, and a car door firmly shut barely registered in Felix’s mind. It wasn’t until the heels took a steady pace towards him and a deep, feminine voice spoke that he turned his head.
“Felix Agreste?” the woman inquired uncertainly.
He had never seen her before in his life. She was tall and austere, with everything about her—hair, suit, thin lips—neatly tucked away. Felix’s eyes flicked to the car she had departed: a black sedan with blacker windows and a license plate that read “habit deus”.
By the looks of her, and the fact that she had just stepped down from an Agreste vehicle, she must be one of Gabriel Agreste’s secretaries. And a very trusted one indeed, if she knew of—and, what’s more, could recognize—the eldest Agreste son.
“Yes,” Felix acknowledged. “And you are?”
The woman bowed subtly over her armful of files. “Nathalie. Gabriel Agreste’s personal secretary. We were not expecting you, Monsieur.”
“No, you weren’t. I have not come to see M. Agreste. I’m here for Adrien.”
Nathalie nodded, and made as if to lead the way inside, keying in the gate code. “Very well. I will notify M. Agreste.”
But Felix stopped her. “I’d really rather you not.”
The woman turned, and a slight quirk overtook her right eyebrow. There—it was the first proof Felix had seen that this woman was not a robot. “He really will wish to know,” Nathalie pressed.
Felix imposed his height on her, and lowered his voice to a firm tone. “I’m sure he will, but I have no business with him. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” And he pushed past her into the inner courtyard.
Like a particularly pungent candle, the memory of his childhood hit Felix as soon as he crossed the threshold. Nothing specific—just floating, garbled images and impressions. He had expected as much when he had decided to return. But he had not expected the child within him to stir and tickle his heart as it wandered forlornly. The sensation spread, until his whole body felt like a sleeping foot recently aroused.
But Felix had not come here to reminisce. He had only a brief purpose, and once that was finished, he could return to his flat on the city outskirts and remain on the safe side of his father’s fenced-in heart. He just had to see Adrien first.
Felix entered the oversized house that was as silent as a grave. Taking advantage of his poor eyesight, he willed himself not to look around—there was no use remembering such things. Nathalie’s heels struck the floor behind him, very nearly drawing his attention away from the figure at the top of the front steps....
He was everything and nothing like Felix remembered him. Of course, he had watched his brother grow, keeping up with the magazine that regularly featured the popular model. But this real-life Adrien was so much more alive and recognizable than even the best of his pictures. His dusty blonde hair had been persuaded to settle against his head, though a few stray hairs rebelled. His face shone from the work of extensive care and expertly applied makeup, and his clothes were pristinely ironed. Everything was in place, just as Gabriel Agreste would wish of his son.
Felix knew better. Under the layer of staged perfection, Felix saw how his little brother slouched. He saw how Adrien stared at his feet as he descended the stairs. And, as the younger Agreste came closer, Felix saw how his skin stretched tight around his jawline, and the bones of his elbows protruded at three neat angles.
Just as he had feared, things were not well here. No, they were far from well.
Nathalie spoke up: “Adrien, your brother has come to visit.”
The boy’s head snapped up. He had reached the foot of the stairs and stood a few arm’s lengths away from Felix. Some bright innocence passed over Adrien’s features, making it seem like he was a child again, ready to leap into his brother’s arms and rejoice. But Felix watched as Adrien immediately collected himself, banishing those traces of hope from his countenance. From this close, Felix could now take note of the dark circles under his brother’s foundation, and the redness of his eyes.
“It is good to see you,” Adrien greeted politely. “What brings you here?”
Felix’s brow lowered, observing how the boy watched the ground dully as he spoke. Who had taught his little brother that submissive posture?
“Adrien,” he responded, sounding more harsh, more distant than he had intended. “It has been so long.”
At that, Adrien finally looked up, his bright green eyes searching his brother’s face—for something. Felix gulped, realizing how much Adrien’s mannerisms matched their father. And how much Adrien looked like that woman.
It was Felix’s turn to watch the floor.
Nathalie broke in, then. “Adrien, if I may. You will be late for your Chinese lesson.”
Chinese lesson? Felix wondered. It was nearing dinnertime.
“Yes, Nathalie,” Adrien replied demurely. And then, with only a second glance at Felix, the younger Agreste followed the secretary out of the front door.
As the large oak door settled into its frame and sunlight was banished from the Agreste household, Felix felt a shiver creep up his spine.
Raising his eyes to the stairway, he met the steely gaze of his father.