Em pushed through the door into Lucien’s apartment, slinging her bag onto the table in the entranceway, taking off her shoes and putting on the now-permanent pair of house slippers he kept for her, and flopped onto the couch, covering her eyes with her arm.
“Hard day?” Lucien asked, coming into the room, somehow already holding a hot cup of tea from the smell of it.
Em removed her arm and blinked against the yellow ceiling light, looking up at her boyfriend.
Well, boyfriend didn’t seem to be the right word. It seemed too..casual? For the intensity of her feelings about him, boyfriend didn’t sit right. Partner maybe? Soulmate seemed a little much, although they’d been dating for more than a year now, and she’d never been uncertain about the stability of their relationship, even counting that time she’d been overseas at Victor’s insistence to monitor Kiro’s voice acting in the new MLQC anime.
“What are you thinking about?” Lucien asked, setting the cup of tea on the coffee table and gently setting her feet aside so he could sit on the couch.
“What I should call you,” she said, feeling mildly embarrassed but unable to lie to him, “‘Boyfriend’ doesn’t seem quite right.”
“Mmm. You could just call me by my name,” he said, shifting over as she moved to sit up and rest her head on his shoulder.
“Obviously,” Em said, burying her head into his chest, “But when I introduce you to people...I dunno, boyfriend just seems so trite. You’re a neuroscientist and an artist...boyfriend isn’t a strong enough word.”
Lucien ruffled her hair, but also seemed to be sitting in quiet contemplation.
“I’m fine with whatever word you want to use,” he said.
They sat in silence for awhile, comfortable just being in each other’s presence, Em taking the occasional sip of her tea as they watched the sun set outside of Lucien’s window.
“The veranda is so pretty,” Em commented, “How is Garda doing? It’s a good thing I’m not taking care of him. I think I’d forget to care for him.”
“He’s thriving. And I think you don’t give yourself enough credit Em. You’d care for him, I’m sure. After all, isn’t he the plant we’re raising together?”
“I suppose...I do want him to do well…”
She sighed and took the final sip of her tea, looking regretfully at her empty cup.
“I have to go now. Work is going to be hard. Victor was on the warpath today.”
“That’s a shame. What about?”
“There’s been a delay in the production of one of his projects. Not my company’s, but one of the other entertainment companies LFG funds. I think he wants to send me over to manage it though.”
Em paused, twirling the teacup around in her hands.
“Yes...it’s in the Americas. Remnants of HBS that he snatched up after they had that whole scandal. It was a risky investment and he doesn’t want to lose it. I’m trying to convince him that I would be a terrible manager to put over there. Anna would be much better. Even Kiki. She graduated with a related degree last year.”
“How long?” Lucien asked earnestly, grabbing her hands around the teacup and looking her in the eyes.
“It could be months,” she said, averting her eyes. Lucien’s hands tightened around hers.
“Do I need to speak to him?”
“What? No! It’s my job, Lucien. I’ll do what I need to.”
He let her hands go, and suddenly Em was wondering if maybe although her feelings hadn’t been wavering, his had. She knew that outside of herself and the groupchat, Lucien was a solitary creature. Was she his only human contact that didn’t want something more from him?
“Lucien...I’ll try to convince him, okay? I don’t want to go either. The trip to Japan with Kiro was enough.”
She tried to get a read on his expression, but for once she couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He looked contemplative, but not upset. His body language wasn’t matching up with the distant expression on his face.
He grabbed her up in a tight embrace, startling her, but she managed to hold onto the teacup.
“Make sure you let me know if you have to leave,” he murmured into her hair.
“Of course, Lucien. Why would I just walk out on you?”
“I know you wouldn’t...I’ll just miss you a lot. I’ll need the time to prepare.”
Lifting one hand, she carefully stroked his hair.
“I won’t leave you, no matter what,” she said, caught off guard by this uncharacteristically emotional display.
“Good,” he said, playfully nipping her neck as he released her.
“Lucien!” she screeched, slapping at his hands, “What will Victor say if it leaves a mark?”
“Tell him not to make you go,” Lucien replied, his eyes twinkling with suppressed mirth, “I’ll do much worse to you before you leave if you have to go.”
“As long as you’re willing, of course,” he said, sitting primly, hands folded in his lap. Em blushed.
“Oh my gosh, Lucien.”
“Get going, then, Em,” he said, “I wouldn't want you to be reprimanded for being late if you oversleep.”
“Good night,” she said, giving him a quick kiss before gathering her bag and going next door.
Work went predictably poorly the next day. She was slightly late, Victor reprimanded her. The bite had left a mark, Victor reprimanded her. Victor decided that she was imperative to the overseas project. She protested, Victor reprimanded her.
“I like you better online,” she grouched after Victor had finished scolding her for the third time.
“I will not respond to that,” Victor said, “One of us needs to remain professional.”
Em said nothing, just glared at the CEO.
As she took the subway home, she texted Lucien about the disappointing update.
He immediately responded with a string of eloquently composed curses, and then asked her to come over for the night at the end of the week.
“Might as well,” Em grumbled, hitting send on her reply, “I cannot believe that absolute asshole…making me travel for who knows how long and I’m not even qualified…”
She was pleasantly surprised when Lucien appeared at the subway station to walk her home. He listened to her rant as they held hands, Em swinging their entwined hands angrily between them.
“And then, he said I needed to make sure to leave my personal life at home. I mean, it was a little red, but not that bad. And what’s it to him what we do?”
They entered their apartment building, and Lucien led them to the elevator. As soon as the doors closed he pushed her up against the wall.
“It doesn’t matter at all,” he murmured into her skin, “As long as you’re happy.”
“Lucien, I’m pretty sure there are cameras in the elevator,” Em hissed, feeling her skin flush under his touch. He sighed but released her as the doors dinged open.
“I have work to do tonight,” Lucien said as they reached their little corner of the floor, “A lot of commissions piled up while I was busy with work. But can I have your time tomorrow night?”
They parted ways and Em sighed into the empty expanse of her apartment. Part of her wanted to go out on her veranda, and see if Lucien was out there drawing like he sometimes did, but she also felt the welling of tears in her eyes.
All it took was one look at the documents on her desk before the tears started spilling down her cheeks.
She wanted to do her job to the best of her abilities, but how could she leave now? It wasn’t permanent, but it felt that way. Her plane could crash, she could get into an accident, she could leave in a week or two and never see him again.
There was a gentle knock on her door.
She opened it to find a paper crane.
“Thank you,” she said to the empty hallway, knowing that Lucien was probably listening on the other side of his door.
Paper cranes were their promise to each other. That they would always come back to each other. It had started when she had been on her last business trip with Kiro and BS Entertainment, learning more about talent management at Victor’s request. It had only been a couple of weeks, but they had written letters, each one including a small folded crane.
Em went back inside, setting the paper crane with some of the others in her little collection, and got ready to sleep early, crawling under the blankets, wondering what Lucien had in store for them tomorrow.
Although it was the weekend, Em spent most of the day in a state between anxiety and excitement. Anxiety because she wasn’t sure how she would make it for months without Lucien. Excitement because she wanted to spend as much time with him as she could.
She tried to channel her energy into something more productive, bustling around the kitchen. He wasn’t much for sweets, but Em continued to make different desserts for him to try and bring him to the baking side.
“A little extravagance never hurt anyone,” she muttered, piping the last line of frosting onto a chocolate cupcake. They were dark chocolate, so not very sweet. She hoped they would be good enough.
Finally, finally, the time came for her to go over. Em took a little extra care with her outfit. Since they’d scheduled this time, it felt more like a date, even though it was essentially the same as any other night. While doing her hair, she idly wondered if they should just move in together to save on rent.
Regardless, she felt a flutter of excitement as she knocked on his door, clutching the box of cupcakes gently in her hands. She had learned her lesson after a few too many boxes of crushed cream puffs.
“Good evening,” Lucien said, pulling the door open.
“Hi…” Em said, trailing off. Lucien was slightly overdressed for someone who had probably just been working in his home all day. He was wearing one of his dark grey dress shirts and a tie in a dusky rose color over black slacks.
“Oh, this?” he asked, “Why don’t I ask about your outfit? That skirt looks beautiful on you.”
He raised an eyebrow at her flushed face.
“Well, I felt like this was more of a date... normally we don’t schedule anything…”
“My sentiments exactly.”
“I brought you cupcakes anyway,” she nearly shouted, shoving the box into his hands and walking by him into the apartment. He chuckled and closed the door behind her.
“Let’s eat these later,” he said, setting them in the kitchen, “I have a favor to ask of you.”
Lucien wasn’t the type to ask for favors, not really.
He nodded and then cleared his throat. If she hadn’t known better, Em would have thought that he was nervous.
“What is it then?”
“I have a commission ordered...I can’t find any adequate pose references...I was wondering…”
“Oh, of course,” Em said, “You don’t have to look so anxious about it.”
He cracked a small smile.
“It’s just that the commission...it’s for a proposal piece...I didn’t want to startle you.”
“Oh!” Em exclaimed, her voice raising a bit higher than she cared to admit. The thought of Lucien proposing, even as an act, it was setting her heart racing.
“Let me set up the camera then,” he said, walking over to the device and adjusting a few settings before positioning her out on the veranda. The late sunlight of golden hour washed over the plants around them, giving the whole garden a serene and surreal view. Em wiped her palms on her skirt.
It’s just an act, just an act, she thought to herself, Don’t be nervous.
“So, for me to get the expression I want...I might say a few words…”
“Of course,” Em whispered, certain her voice would crack if she spoke too loudly. Lucien took a deep breath and got down on one knee, holding her hands in his.
“Em,” he said, the golden light causing a deep glimmer in his violet eyes, “My whole life I’ve been in front of an audience. At school, at my work, and even online. But since I met you, you’re the only one that mattered. I may be colorblind, but sometimes I swear I see colors when I’m with you.”
He paused, and it took all of Em’s willpower to keep herself from crying.
“Em, will you marry me?”
There was one breathless moment where they looked at each other, and then the moment was gone.
The camera went off. Em didn’t even want to see what her face had looked like. Lucien stood.
“Thank you,” he whispered, ruffling her hair, “Should we eat those cupcakes now?”
He moved away from her faster than usual, and Em took a moment to recollect herself. Then she went in to eat with him.
But no matter how long they spent together, she kept glancing toward the balcony, wishing that that had been real.
“I should have the commission done tomorrow,” Lucien said when he dropped her off at her door, “”Make sure to be on the lookout.”
Em took his hand and leaned into his chest, emotionally exhausted now. He rubbed her back soothingly.
“Come see me again tomorrow,” he said, “I want to spend all the time we have left together.” She nodded, unable to speak, and then went inside.
“If only…” she muttered as she finally drifted off to sleep later that night, “If only it had been real.”
She knew that a proposal wouldn’t change anything, that she would still be separated from him for months, but somehow having a tangible tie to him would make her feel so much better.
She woke up late the next morning, her phone strangely silent for a Sunday. During her routine perusal of her Instagram, she noticed that Lucien had posted a “close friends” story.
“I don’t think he’s ever used that feature before,” she said to herself, clicking on it.
A slow moving video panned over a large sheet of paper.
A commission for a very special person the text read as the video scrolled by. The outer edges were plants drawn in great detail. Em recognized most of them from Lucien’s veranda. The camera moved to the center.
The center of the page was filled with them , backlit by a sunset. Lucien, despite his colorblindness, had managed to capture the breathtaking lighting of golden hour perfectly, complete with the sun glinting in his eyes, glinting off a ring in a box.
Her heart pounded as the story clicked over to the next part.
It was a drawing of a ring.
Will you marry me? The commission was for us.
Em stood up, nearly throwing her phone across the room as she dashed for the door.
She threw open the door, which Lucien had, quite reasonably, left unlocked, and ran right into his waiting arms.
“Hello there,” he said, catching her.
“Yes, yes! Of course Lucien!”
He smiled and set her down, before getting on one knee again, this time taking out the ring.
“Are you sure?” he asked, a mischievous smirk flitting across his face.
“Of course I’m sure,” Em responded, holding out her hand as Lucien slid the ring onto it. He stood up and kissed her soundly, leaving her a bit breathless.
“I thought for sure you’d figure me out last night,” he said, “But you didn’t. I was almost disappointed.”
He wouldn’t let go of her, which Em was fine with.
“What was I supposed to think,” she asked, blushing, “Why would I assume that you’d just propose like that. I had hoped...I was wishing...well.”
She stuttered to a stop. This was almost too much.
“Regardless,” Lucien said, “I think this outfit is much better for a proposal.”
Em looked down and realized she was still wearing what she wore to bed, which happened to be one of Lucien’s old shirts.
“Shut up,” she said, smiling and kissing him again and again.
Maybe it didn’t really matter, but somehow this made all the difference. She felt like she’d be able to overcome any challenge with Lucien by her side.