(Synopsis: This is a novella-length account of the courtship between my Sim, a recently outed divorcee, and Lord Shallot, an NPC ghost whom most players sympathize against. It’s proto-Haunted. It’s much shorter and not as good as Haunted proper. Still, this is where the plots for both stories began to solidify.)
Xiyuan walked up the steps of the Von Haunt estate. He had almost no information about the man he met that night—just his first name, Bernard—but the museum’s name strongly implied it was haunted, and “ghost” was the only other usable datum he had. This seemed like a reasonable first option. Besides, even if his hunch was wrong, the house-haunters might be huge gossips.
Before he could check the gardens for signs of… life… or, maybe… not-life, he had to pass through a historical mansion. The old Von Haunt estate functioned as a museum for curious tourists (but no one was allowed to touch the artifacts, not after that incident with the honeymoon), showing a little slice of life of the late-1800s aristocracy. Or not-life?
Immediately on opening the door, Xiyuan’s eye was drawn to the ornate paintings in the dining room. One seemed oddly familiar.
Yes! The piercing eyes, the distinguished face, the neatly trimmed beard; it was him, but less pink. And to the right, the woman who went into a rage and slapped him. There was a plaque nearby: Lord Shallot… 1864–1898… yada yada, some unflattering commentary on his failed career… accidentally started the deadly blaze of 1898 by hurling an oversized watercolor into the fireplace. Well, did he spill something on it, or mess up the blocking, Xiyuan found himself thinking, before realizing that wasn’t supposed to be his main focus. He figured there was more to learn from studying the painting itself. This work was a standard portrait, with no noticeable Romantic or Impressionistic influences; rather, the natural elements were downplayed by low lighting. Moreover, he chose to portray both himself and his wife as extremely uncomfortable. Xiyuan leaned over the railing to examine the texture. Lord Shallot was definitely technically proficient, and Xiyuan had seen worse from of the dozens of paintings he appraised every day.
Now all he had to do was find Bernard. If he was anything close to the kindred spirit Xiyuan suspected he was, he would most likely be painting. A quick search of the house revealed its lack of easels; fantastic, this only left 90% of the sprawling property to search. Xiyuan made his way outside to the balcony overlooking the chalet gardens, deftly avoiding the lady of the house as she darted around. The sunset reflected across the mountains in breathtaking gradients of pink and yellow, pouring over the snow-covered peaks that framed the pristine garden below; Xiyuan briefly forget who he was, where he was, what he was doing, and felt himself lose control of his body until he was no longer viewing the scenery as an outsider, but interweaving with his surroundings into one coherent whole. It took what felt like a few minutes to break from this trance state, and a couple moments more to remember his reason for being there. Right!
He started a quick, conscious visual scan of the garden from left, finding no signs of life around the wedding arch, the piano (though he did make a mental note to play it later), or the central fountain. He had hoped Bernard wasn’t scaring guests in the hedge maze—searching would be so time-consuming—even as it became the only remaining option. But his view of the maze was blocked by a large balcony, and on that balcony was an easel bearing an unfinished canvas. And there was Bernard!
Xiyuan found himself running before remembering to contain his excitement, regaining his composure mere yards from the balcony’s edge. Bernard, absorbed in his painting, didn’t react to the sound or movement, prompting Xiyuan to cross to his left side and lightly tap his right shoulder.
Bernard shot up six feet in the air. “WHO—oh, you’re that gentleman from the bar.”
“That would be me, yes.”
“… Xiyuan? Did I pronounce that correctly?”
“No. Don’t be embarrassed, no one here does.”
“I really did enjoy meeting you the other night,” Bernard remarked. “Mimsy and I rarely leave the estate, but when we do, no one wants to talk to the loony failed painter who burned his wife alive.”
“Bernard, if you don’t mind me asking,” here Bernard narrowed his eyes in response, “what was wrong with the painting?”
“I didn’t mark the canvas with pencil in fear it would bleed through. But without the sketch, I misjudged the placement of two elements and ruined the overall composition.” Hah! He knew it. “What an odd question to ask. Most people are fixated on the ‘burned alive’ aspect.”
“That’s the first thing that comes to mind; I stare at paintings all day. Maybe you’re familiar with my work? I did a series based on synesthetic interpretations of Rachmaninoff’s compositions two years ago. Or, my most recent exhibition was inspired by machine-generated images. Did you hear about that?”
“… Oh!” That’s when the realization finally hit Bernard. He hadn’t heard the name before, but had certainly seen the name Xiyuan Liu in print. In fact, he showed up in the Arts section of the newspaper so frequently, Bernard had started to roll his eyes every time there was another mention of his exhibitions, his beneficiaries, his collections, or his paintings. Bernard felt a combination of jealousy and awe for the man whose presence had been so calming only a moment before. Yet as he watched Xiyuan get distracted by his underdrawing, he realized what he had mistaken for calm was instead restrained intensity, which got harder to hide the longer he focused on art. “What brings an artist with your influence to my estate? Are you here to admire my portfolio?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Xiyuan replied, propping himself up against the easel and smiling. There was that intensity again. “I won’t look at or evaluate anything unless you ask me to.”
“You consider yourself awfully charming, don’t you? Well, congratulations, you are.”
Xiyuan beamed in return. Then, he broke eye contact, starting to look concerned. “Actually, there is something I’d been meaning to talk about. The plaque in the museum… wasn’t exactly flattering. Have people always talked about you like this?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Bernard decided to confide, relieved to talk to someone who didn’t immediately label him a monster. “During my lifetime, I was constantly ridiculed. I felt like the punchline to a joke everyone else knew. It was so frequent, every small mistake started to physically hurt. That’s why I started burning my paintings; the pressure was too much to handle, and I had lost control of my emotions.”
“Bernard, I’m so sorry.”
“Oh no, don’t be. After I died, it was clear my career was over, and my reputation would follow me beyond the grave. I eventually learned to paint for myself,” he grinned, “and also learned that if one is already a target of derision, shocking people becomes so much easier.” He paused in a moment of realization. “I would have treated you the same way if I knew you were also an artist.”
“‘Never discourage anyone who makes continual progress, no matter how slow.'”
“Plato. Most people would have given up entirely after experiencing what you went through, but how often have you painted since your death?”
“That’s what I thought. So you’re admitting to having over 50 years of experience more than any living artist; on top of that, you have a unique perspective on death and the passage of time. Speaking honestly, you would have no trouble succeeding if you were to start your career today.”
“Such flattery! Are you warming me up for something?”
“No, I genuinely admire your passion. I know very few people dedicated enough to continue the same practice for over a hundred years, and even fewer who would die for their art.”
“Huh,” Bernard thought aloud, “no one’s ever said it that way.”
“You have to get used to me being right,” Xiyuan teased. Bernard snorted at him. “By the way, did you meet any other early modern painters while you were alive? Seurat? Van Gogh?”
“Oh, you have no idea…”
Bernard was painting at his favorite spot, again, same as always, when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Oh, hello, you. Back again?”
“I’m not sure where else to find you. You’re a hard man to find. Have you ever gotten hold of a phone, or—“
“Castles don’t have phones.”
“Hah! Good one.” Bernard was perplexed as to what the source of humor could possibly be. “What’ve you been up to?”
“Painting, mostly. How about yourself?”
“Of course!” Bernard realized. “It’s not often I meet someone as mad as myself.”
“Please, Bernard, don’t call yourself mad when we’re both rich enough to count as eccentric.”
“Right. Money excuses everything,” he opined half-sarcastically. “You’re genuinely not bothered by my public image?”
“Name one famous painter, writer, philosopher, or scientist who was known for being mentally stable.”
“I forgot to mention last time,” Xiyuan confessed, “most of my close friends or family members see me in a similar way. They’re just more willing to accept the large sacrifices I make to remain this prolific.”
“‘Prolific’ is an understatement. From what I’ve read, ‘terrifying’ is more accurate.”
“The press doesn’t know how much of my day I spend obsessing over every minor detail, even in my sleep.” This was true: he preferred to not give interviews, and, when forced, refused to stray from strictly factual statements. “It’s great to finally have someone to talk to who shares my quirks, instead of simply accepting them.”
“Me—” Bernard started, before realizing he didn’t want to imply anything negative about Mimsy in front of his new friend, and didn’t stop to consider why that might be the case. He instead changed the subject. “That is, I’ve been thinking about what you said the other day. I have something to show you. Wait here.”
Xiyuan watched as Bernard took off floating at full speed towards the mansion, vanishing out of sight as he passed through one of the walls. Two minutes later, he exited the mansion through the front door, clearly having trouble with the corporality of the canvas he was holding. He carefully turned his canvas so that only the frame faced forward before careening back to the balcony.
“This is how I see my estate. What do you think?” He held up the canvas for Xiyuan to inspect.
The gardens were portrayed in a similar gloomy overcast he had used in his portrait, giving the scene an overall feeling of a prison cell. The configuration wasn’t the same as it had been this decade, or the decade before; but it was not as if all time had stopped, rather if all time was passing at once. A group of trees went from alive, to dead, to gone. The hedge maze was a barely understandable mishmash of pathways morphing in and out of existence. The estate was portrayed in various stages of restoration or disarray. A single light source radiated from the center of the gardens: Mimsy, on fire, eyes hollowed, screaming, while her un-immolated arm watered the flowers. Xiyuan was blown away by the portrayal of unimaginable pain, guilt, and sadness from a man who was reminded of his failures daily, unable to find peace even in death.
“Oh, dear, did I frighten you?”
Xiyuan raised his eyebrows at the small pause. “Quite the opposite. You’ve chosen to reveal so much of yourself, I can’t help but be drawn in.” He straightened his posture. “No one, and I mean no one, could accuse you of being dull or unimaginative after seeing this.”
Bernard breathed a sigh of relief. He’d hid this particular work somewhere even Mimsy couldn’t find it, for fear it would upset her. Mimsy preferred to look on the bright side of death; she didn’t need to be reminded of the suffering she underwent under his watch, or learn that he was anything other than quietly content with his repetitive, pastoral life. Suddenly he realized how far forward he was leaning, quickly correcting his posture to create space between himself and his conversational partner.
“Uh,” he said, looking for an excuse to cool down, “do you mind if I continue this painting?”
“Not at all. Do you mind if I stay here for a bit?”
After Xiyuan left, Bernard hid the canvas he had been working on, setting a draft of a new portrait in its place.
Xiyuan brushed himself off as he waited in front of The Narwhal Arms. He quickly checked inside to see if Bernard had arrived before him, but, despite living much closer, he was somewhat late. Five minutes passed before he was greeted by Bernard careening toward him at full speed. As he came closer to where Xiyuan was standing, he leaned back to come to an abrupt stop, and, beaming, bent into a full bow complete with hand flourish.
Xiyuan took a second to reply to the greeting with a half-bow. “Did someone get a new phone?”
“I may have temporarily liberated it from its owner as he ran screaming out of my mansion. Don’t worry, it’s since been placed in the lost and found.”
“Hah! What did you do this time?”
“Nothing personal, I was simply possessing the fridge to look for snacks.”
“You know, your odd sense of humour is one of the things I enjoy most about you.” Xiyuan wasn’t sure if it was time to press the issue, but decided to move forward. “Did you miss me?”
“You haven’t visited for a couple days. I was worried.”
“And you’re okay with calling this a date?”
“Well… if I’ve understood you correctly…”
“Don’t be worried, you are. And I’m honored.” Xiyuan rested his arm on Bernard’s shoulders.
Bernard made no attempt to move, but sighed heavily. “I have to admit, this is a strange and uncomfortable situation you’ve created for us.”
“It’s difficult,” admitted Xiyuan, “but I’d be making a huge mistake not to pursue you.” He moved to give Bernard some space. “Why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind right now?”
“You’re bringing up your wife on a date?”
“In my defense, I believe my wife is going to become relevant at some point.”
“Sure, but I can’t help but notice you’re referring to her in the past tense.”
“No, but—argh,” Bernard failed to recover. It was true; over the years, he and Mimsy had grown apart, and they were no longer friends, let alone lovers. Still, he felt an obligation to the woman he once loved, who had spent over a century by his side, who had been robbed of life through his actions.
“Besides, you’re the one who asked me here.”
“Maybe this was a mistake.”
Bernard was somewhat taken aback by the dramatic recoil, but took his opportunity to even the score. “Aren’t you also a married man?”
“I left her a while ago. I didn’t figure this out until it was too late, but I’ve never really been interested in women.”
“Really! How did you reach that conclusion?”
“I just… realized. One day. Look, I’m not the best person to ask about it, this is all very recent.”
“You divorced her after we met?” Bernard asked, letting the realization sink in. He lowered his voice. “You didn’t leave her for me—did you?”
“Of course not. I would have done it eventually, anyway,” Xiyuan admitted. “Leaving my family was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, but Aileen deserves someone who loves her in ways I can’t.”
“That’s a relief. That’s also a very modern way of thinking.”
“Bernard,” he offered, “Why don’t I back off? We can just enjoy the night out without any pressure.”
They entered the nightclub, where Bernard was immediately accosted by two women who refused to leave him alone for the rest of the night. Xiyuan occasionally chimed in between thoroughly rehearsed monologues on life in the 1800s, on what it was like to be a ghost. Nothing he did would get them to leave him and Bernard alone.
As the day ended, Bernard wrenched himself away from the three-way conversation to address Xiyuan. “Thank you for coming here tonight. I’ll call you back, maybe?”
“If you still have a phone.”
“If I still have a phone.”
This time, Bernard turned as soon as he heard footsteps. “Good evening, Mr. Liu.”
“Back at the easel?”
“Just stepping out for a break,” Xiyuan said, clasping his hands and stretching them above his head. “About the other night: did the tourist come back to pick up his phone?”
“Yes. I had trouble finding a hiding place,” he said, gesturing to his translucent body.
“Hah! Don’t worry, I’m happier being with you in person, anyway.”
Bernard cringed. “I should tell you. That was a lie.”
“I didn’t call because I didn’t know what to say,” he admitted. “You’re delightful company, of course, but I don’t know what to make of you. All these visits, and compliments,” he shook his head. “I liked the attention at first, but now, it’s honestly overwhelming.”
“Would you like me to leave you alone?”
“No, it’s not that.”
Xiyuan braced himself. “Are you only interested in me as a friend?”
“… I don’t know. You have to stop asking me these kinds of questions. I can’t process this. I don’t understand.”
Xiyuan opened his mouth to apologize, but decided it was better to just stop talking. He occupied himself by tapping his leg with his fingers at 120 bpm before Bernard finally spoke again.
“Xiyuan, listen. Mimsy meant a lot to me when I was alive, and she stayed by my side all these years after I,” here he paused, “killed her. If I suddenly decide to leave her, what does that imply about me? I’d become the monster everyone believes I am.”
“It implies you want to give her, and yourself, another start?” Xiyuan argued, even though he knew the question was rhetorical. “I have nothing against Mimsy; I don’t want to hurt her either. But the fact that I’ve already damaged your relationship remains. The real question is, how much do you want to hurt her, and how?”
“I’ve known you for… how long has it been… half a year? Mimsy has been my only companion, and the love of my life, for over a century. This doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult decision.”
“Did she have a choice in this marriage?”
“Maybe you should leave.”
Xiyuan turned to walk away, but muttered under his breath, “Did you?”
Bernard furrowed his brow. “Go.“
It had been a difficult few days for Xiyuan. He found himself constantly replaying the conversation, the meetings, that first night—searching for anything he could have done better, for any hints of Bernard’s true feelings—finding none, and none, respectively. He’d flown too close to the sun. He’d spent a lifetime searching for someone, and now, that someone appears out of thin air as he’s second-guessing himself, someone who he didn’t just feel comfortable around, he felt completely exposed, laid bare; someone who could accept his inner demons, even share them—all of them? He’d never know. Whatever could have happened was gone.
And then, there was the other question: should he go back? That was the one thing Bernard had been clear about. But ultimately, Xiyuan could feel his own selfish desires winning out, and he began inventing justifications. He would apologize, and then leave.
That’s it. That’s all that would happen.
Bernard, again, turned from his easel as soon as he heard footsteps. How did he know? Xiyuan made a mental note to learn how his footsteps sounded.
“Bernard, I’m sorry. This is all my—“
“No,” he interrupted, gesturing with both hands to stop. “I’m the one who should be apologizing. Please understand, I was confused.”
“You don’t need to apologize for that. I think after a lifetime of art, we’re both used to being confusing by now.”
“No, I wanted to apologize for sending you away.” Xiyuan knew better to ask the obvious question, so Bernard answered it for him. “Mimsy’s a sweet woman, but she and I haven’t talked in ages. She attends to her gardening, I to my painting—and, after a hundred years doing the same damned routine every day at the same damned estate, the usual topics of conversation run dry.” Bernard shrunk in guilt. “What she’s done for me… at the end, I was a wreck. That much is obvious. She loved me, and she taught me to love myself in spite of my failure. An ordinary man spending lifetimes with an ordinary woman.”
He took a moment to collect his thoughts. “And then you came along, and you were almost too different. You don’t see me as ordinary, do you?”
Xiyuan shook his head. “A kindred spirit.”
“You. A successful Patron of the Arts. I never told you, but I’ve seen pictures of your life-sized statues at gallery openings. I’ve seen your paintings in print. I had no idea that one could be so imaginative and prolific at once.”
“Those are both things we have in common.”
“And you don’t mind me being labeled as a failure.”
“You know better than anyone else that creative work is ninety percent failure,” Xiyuan mused, pretending this wasn’t a well-known fact. “The other ten percent is crying.”
“Well, in that case, I’ve given it 1000%!” Bernard continued, excited to contribute wordplay. They both laughed at that. “It’s good to have you back, Yuan.”
“So informal! If you’re going to call me Yuan, should I be calling you Bernie?”
“Hah! Why not?”
By now, they were both leaning on the railing, watching the wind rustle the bushes of the hedge garden below. Xiyuan straightened his arms to push himself back, glancing sideways to find Bernard resting his head on his hand, gazing steadily at him. They smiled at each other.
He laughed. “It’s too easy to rile you up! Are you sure you weren’t born in the 19th century?”
“Maybe I was in a past life.”
“See, where was that sense of humor five minutes ago?” Wait, this conversation had a point, he reminded himself. “What I was originally trying to say, was, I did some thinking. I can’t deny my feelings for you anymore.”
Xiyuan felt the shock vibrate almost audibly through his body, as if his brain had undergone a soft reset. He blinked—still alive, moved his fingers under Bernard’s—corporeal, darted his eyes around—at the Chalet gardens, on the balcony overlooking the hedge maze. Finally, he remembered Bernard’s presence. “Is this really happening?”
“I swear on my own grave.”
Xiyuan cupped Bernard’s hand in his. “Bernard, I … don’t know what to say.”
“I thought you might want to know.” He rested his lower back on the balcony railing, and sighed. “Let’s just enjoy being near each other, alright?”
They had exhausted all need for conversation or movement. Xiyuan wasn’t aware of how much he was smiling. He was only focused on how close they were standing—was he ever this hyperaware of Bernard’s presence before? Between the ghostly chill and the crisp night air, he was glad he brought a sweater.
Bernard leaned sideways and broke the silence in a low whisper. “You’re wearing cologne.”
“You feel like a refrigerator,” Xiyuan retorted, second-guessing himself as the words left his mouth. “That is, the inside of a refrigerator.”
The unnecessary correction sent Bernard into a fit of giggles; Xiyuan found himself unable to stop giggling as well. Leaning forward had only brought them closer to one another. He was inches away from Bernard’s face.
“Do you want me to kiss you?”
“Just one kiss?”
Xiyuan resisted the urge to rest his head on Bernard’s chest, while, at the same time, feeling the chill of Bernard’s hands edging towards his shoulders. BONG, asserted the Von Haunt grandfather clock.
BONG. BONG. BONG.
“Indeed,” Xiyuan confirmed, gesturing to his watch. “I should turn into a pumpkin. You know, before we do anything we regret.”
“Maybe that’s for the better,” Bernard smiled. “Take care, Cinderella.”
BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.
Xiyuan came back the next day. The same day? Bernard, fully rested, spun around from his easel as soon as he heard footsteps on the stairs.
“Good morning, Cinderella,” Bernard teased, getting no response. “You’re not going to object to that?”
Xiyuan shrugged. “It seems fitting. You keep recognizing me because of my shoes.”
“Ah; I thought you were finally becoming less uptight than the 19th century ghost lord! If you must know, your boots have a distinctive heel-heavy sound,” Bernard clarified, gesturing downward, “but the real trick is that no one else ever comes up here.”
Xiyuan walked the length of the balcony, listening for the telltale click, until he settled by the far railing. “So…”
“What’s on your mind?” Bernard asked, perhaps too coyly for a simple question.
“Nice weather we’ve been having lately.”
“The weather. Good evening, Lady Shallot.”
“… Oh! Hello, Mimsy, my dear.”
They both watched Mimsy float off the balcony and settle at the piano. Now it was Xiyuan’s turn to tease. “Were you greeting one person, or two?”
“I’ll let you figure it out—,” Bernard began to retort, before Xiyuan caught his wrist and drew him into a passionate kiss.
What followed was definitely not an attempt at taking it slow or abstaining from adultery.
It wasn’t until hours later, locked in a tight embrace, that Xiyuan spoke again. “That was not what I intended to happen.”
“I have to agree.”
He checked his phone. “Bernard, I cannot stress how little I want to do this, but it’s time for me to go.”
“You can’t stay?”
“Not only is that a terrible idea, the bed in the museum is roped off.”
“No, I realized that. You can nap on the benches outside. I’ll be right beside you when you wake up.”
Xiyuan kissed Bernard’s neck. “You’re making this too difficult. We both need to get a full night’s sleep and carefully consider our options.”
“I hate that you’re right.” Bernard muttered. “Let me walk you out, then.”
They passed out of the gardens and through the mansion, arm in arm for the first time. Bernard propped himself against the door frame, watching his paramour walk away until he was but a speck on the horizon.
Xiyuan leapt out of bed, brushed his teeth, took a quick shower, and headed directly to the Von Haunt estate, not realizing this was the first time he’d skipped his daily 5-10 AM painting session since Shu was born. Bernard was waiting in his usual spot. He hadn’t started painting, either.
“I’ll skip the teasing today, thanks.”
It was Bernard who stopped this time. “We should probably talk.”
“Of course,” Xiyuan said, keeping his arm around Bernard’s waist. “That was just to say hello.”
Bernard started to ask a question, but dropped it mid-phoneme. “I don’t understand modern courtship. How does one start?”
“Let’s start with what you want. Do you want to keep seeing me?”
“This moment? Definitely,” he confirmed. “But perhaps I should consider the long term in more detail.”
“You can think out loud. I’m listening.”
“Well…” Bernard began, choosing his words carefully, “I’ve been around for longer than you can imagine. Changing everything for someone I only met a few months ago seems—“
“Maybe ‘rash’ is the right word,” he continued. “And yet, while alive, even my most treasured relationships could be traced back to forced contact or begrudging acceptance. Even those who sought to provide any meaningful contact could only offer trite platitudes. But you,” he paused with meaning, “didn’t try to understand me, and didn’t need to—you stripped away the labels, the disgrace, the past, right to the core of my being—and what you found was someone worth treasuring. For that, I am grateful.”
“What can I say? I’ve always had a good eye.” Bernard rolled his. “Before that night, I spent years searching for someone who experienced feelings as deeply as I do, who considered my obsessiveness to be a profound source of connection, not as something to merely tolerate. I found no one. I came to believe that there was, indeed, no one capable of truly relating to me. I learned to acclimate to the constant feeling that something was incomplete. But it never occurred to me,” he continued, “that the person I was looking for may have died almost a century before I was born.”
“That’s what it is,” he agreed. “Imagine feeling that isolation for ten times as long.”
“I’m literally incapable of doing that.”
Both of them allowed the conversation to diffuse into contemplative silence. Finally, Bernard had been able to consolidate his feelings, and had figured out what to say.
“Let me say,” he confessed, “being around you has given me a better understanding of what it means to love someone.”
Xiyuan held tight onto Bernard’s shoulders to stop himself from shaking. “I think I love you, too.” They held on to each other tightly, as if the world itself began to fall apart around them, and to let the other go would send them careening through the void of existence they had created.
“It’s nice to feel needed for once,” Bernard remarked. He immediately shifted the mood from pensive to upbeat. “So, to answer your original question, yes.”
“Then it’s unanimous!” He clapped his hands together in celebration. “What’s the next question?”
“Are we in a relationship?”
“That’s an easy one. Yes.”
“It’s such a relief to be able to admit it,” Bernard remarked. “What’s the next question?”
“I’ve saved the hardest question for last. Where are you going to live?”
“Oh,” Bernard winced. Xiyuan felt the hope drain from his body.
“Do you want to talk through it again?”
“Well,” he considered, coming up with an excuse to stall, “what would the other option be?”
“I live alone in a penthouse apartment in San Myshuno.”
“There’s a balcony. It’s not as big as this one, but it has a great view of the city.” Now was the time to start bargaining, he figured. “You could set up an easel there? In fact, I could convert at least five rooms into studios.”
“And what is living in the city itself like?”
“It’s fantastic. Every week, there are festivals, parties, performers to watch, concerts to go to—”
“—what kind of concerts?”
“I usually go to watch my old orchestra perform. Maybe an opera, every once in a while—“
“Yes! The theater—“
“—we can open our own, I have the money. Oh, and karaoke. I forgot karaoke. That’s something I’d like to watch.”
“The neighbors are constantly popping in. Every week, I go out to the suburbs to visit my best friends.”
“No, on a daily basis.”
“Well, I wake up—“
“—thank you for clarifying, I was wondering—“
“—I shower. I make you breakfast.”
“I butcher your name again.”
“We check the Arts section for news about each other.”
“Of course I’d restart my career.”
“You’ll be brilliant. I like to start painting at sunrise, in our between-one-and-five studios.”
“I’ll set up right next to you.”
“I practice piano. The neighbors come in to watch me play, and then eat the rest of our breakfast.”
“You’re not being facetious about the neighbors?”
“They smother me. If it’s not time for work, we go out to the museum. We paint murals all over the city.”
“That sounds wonderful.”
“And at night, whatever you feel like doing.”
“And we won’t have to be apart.”
Xiyuan smiled. “No, we won’t.”
Bernard paused to consider this new information. “You know, I’m still not sure whether this is the right thing to do,” he admitted, “but it’s time to give myself and Mimsy a fresh start.”
Xiyuan turned away without responding. Bernard moved in to check on him. He was tearing up.
“I was so worried,” Xiyuan choked out. “Honestly, if you had refused, I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
“It’s going to be alright,” Bernard replied, wiping the tears from Xiyuan’s face with his thumb. “I’d like to go home now. Will you meet me at the steps?”
As they separated, Xiyuan took one last look around the gardens, across the meticulously pruned hedge maze, the topiary archways, the white piano, the contrast of the distant mountains to the immediate flora, the pink rose petals floating in the water fountain, and finally, the single easel. He’d treasure this image until the day he died.
The glory of the idyllic backdrop was broken by a woman screaming something indistinct from inside the mansion. Bernard flew out a couple seconds later, carrying a large stack of canvases. “Will you help me with these? We have to leave now.”
But as Xiyuan left the balcony with his partner for the first and last time, he could think of only thing to say. “Are you ready to spend the next century with me?”
“Perhaps. But I can’t wait to find out.”