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The Undertaker's Son

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He should have known it was Rudyard the moment he saw something was off. Really, he’d been in the village for long enough, had lived across from the Funns for long enough, to realize that nearly every odd thing that happened in the otherwise quiet island hamlet was somehow tied to Rudyard. But Chapman was getting softer in his age, his mind just wasn’t as sharp as it used to be, and it took him an embarrassingly long moment to realize who was causing such a ruckus.

When he stepped into the waiting room of the shop (more of an entranceway these days what with all the additions and extra facilities) it was like an image right out of Children of the Damned, only instead of a pack of small blond children staring icily at him it was a handful of patrons gathered by the window. They were all clearly transfixed by whatever it was outside and not a word nor look passed between them as Chapman slowly stepped out of the elevator.

“Hello, what’s this?” he said. “What are you all looking at?”

And contrary to their usual interactions with him not a single person was jumping to explain. Barely a glance was spared in his direction. Whatever was outside clearly required all of their focus and the warm smile Chapman liked to sport faltered a little when he heard a shout from the square.

It was Rudyard.

Of course it’s Rudyard, he admonished himself, who else would it be? There wasn’t much on the island that was particularly intrusive to the gentle tranquility (other than murderers, bombs, clowns, collapsing mines, missing scout groups (but, then, those were all Rudyard as well to some degree) etc.) and he should be used to this by now. He should expect it, really. But still, here he was, caught entirely unawares and more surprised by the absolute stillness of his patrons than he ever could have been by Rudyard causing a scene.

So at the sound of Rudyard in distress Chapman did what any reasonable person in his situation would do and hurried over to the window to watch.

Rudyard was in the square, all right, bent over and shielding his head from a series of objects being tossed at him out the door of his own shop. The objects glinted in the light, clattering to the cobblestone like shiny ineffective shrapnel and Chapman realized they were spoons. Someone was throwing spoons at Rudyard. Probably Rudyard’s own spoons. And while Chapman had to wonder what he had done to deserve such a thing, he was infinitely more curious as to how whoever it was had managed to get past Georgie to raid the cutlery drawer. Unless, of course, it was Antigone, in which case there was absolutely no mystery involved at all.

“Stop it!” Rudyard cried out as a spoon ricocheted off his elbow. “Ow! Stop it! I said I was sorry!”

“No you didn’t!” cried out a woman’s voice from beyond Funn Funerals’ doorway and Chapman had just enough time to mutter to himself, “Mrs. Irwin?” before Mrs. Irwin herself stepped out into the square carrying the quickly depleting cutlery organizer on her hip. She was a good shot for her age and managed to hit Rudyard with practically every throw. “You didn’t say anything of the sort!”

“It was implied!” Rudyard said, taking a chance at peering through his arms only to duck again as a soupspoon collided with his ribs.

Chapman winced. He should help him. Or possibly he should help Mrs. Irwin. There was something else he was losing hold of: his certainty. Not to mention his courage, which had once bordered on idiocy. But that was what had gotten him stuck here in the first place, so perhaps that was a blessing. But, really, he should be doing something.

“Yes! Get him, Gladys!” cheered one of the elderly women next to Chapman and it occurred to him that if he didn’t put a stop to this soon then Mrs. Irwin was likely to run out of spoons and very likely reach for a butter knife.

Bravery bordering on idiocy was one thing, but what Rudyard had was something far worse: idiocy bordering on bravery. He certainly wasn’t stepping down, his fatal certainty in his own destructive perceptions making sure of that, but at the very least he had the intelligence to back away from his assailant, rapidly closing more and more in on himself. The one certainty Chapman did have, if he had any at all, it was that Rudyard was more likely to get impaled with a fish fork than he was to back down.

So Chapman sighed, and he wore a special grimace that only Rudyard could evoke, and steeled himself for possible stray tableware before taking the two steps to his door and opening it. “Mrs. Irwin!” he called out. But she was too busy cursing out Rudyard to take notice. He sighed again. “Rudyard!” he tried.

“Chapman!” Rudyard replied, terror replacing the usual spite the name held on his tongue. It was almost like a plea for help, but he wasn’t getting any closer, only staggering this way and that, failing miserably to dodge anything at all.

“Rudyard, come here!”

“Yup!” A pie fork clattered against the wall in his path and Rudyard shook his head and backed away from Chapman again. “Nope!”

“Mrs. Irwin, please!” Chapman cried out, frustrated both with the situation and with himself because how on Earth could he have let himself believe this would be easy? He stepped out into the square properly and held up his hands lest the old woman decide she’d like a change of target. “I’m sure whatever it is Rudyard’s done can be easily repaired! Please put down the fork!”

“This is the last time!” Mrs. Irwin shouted back, face red and tiny body shivering with hostile energies. A woman of her stature had no right being so intimidating. She waggled the fork in Rudyard’s direction as she said, “I’ve given him chance after chance and now he’s run out! I’m not going to be mistreated like this!” She turned her attention back to Rudyard. “Just because I knew your father doesn’t mean you get any leeway, you scoundrel!” The fork went flying and came to impale a patch of exposed soil at the base of the defunct bakery, making Rudyard yelp.

“Mrs. Irwin!” Chapman tried again, taking another few steps towards her, emboldened by the fact that her arm was clearly getting tired.

The door behind her swung open and to Chapman’s great relief Georgie leapt out and grabbed at the organizer. With Irwin fully distracted trying to grapple the weapon back, Rudyard took the opportunity to bolt, propelling himself through Chapman’s open door and slamming it behind him. Georgie managed to get the upper hand (she was great at that) and yank the cutlery away, spilling a few pieces of silverware to the ground in a wind-chime-esque tinkling, and Mrs. Irwin stumbled back in a huff.

She adjusted her hair angrily and turned a furious eye to Chapman. “You better give him what’s coming to him, Eric!” she spat. “Show him no mercy!”

Georgie cautiously held out a purse, which Irwin snatched away from her haughtily, and then the old woman attempted a dignified leave, nose in the air and dislodged hair falling in her face.

Georgie looked to Chapman with a weary gaze and somewhere in the darkness behind the Funn door Antigone did the same. “I’ll go get him,” Chapman said wryly.

“See that you do,” Georgie called back.

“Always nice to see you, Georgie,” Chapman muttered to himself as he returned to his own entranceway. It was locked – apparently Rudyard had been afraid enough of Mrs. Irwin to take precautions – but a customer, Mr. Baker, opened it for him. “Where did he go?” Chapman asked, and several hands pointed to a door at the back of the room. “Thank you.”

Behind the door was a short hallway, a remnant of the original building, and Chapman withered at the prospect of having to check every room. Fortunately for him, Rudyard’s fear could only carry him so far and Chapman discovered him cowering behind an armchair in the first room he checked, one of the funeral parlors many lounges.

“Shut the door!” Rudyard hissed as Chapman entered.

He rolled his eyes and did as he was told. “What have you done that’s gotten Mrs. Irwin so fired up?” he asked.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Rudyard said with an accusatory squint.

“Yes, I would, actually,” Chapman said as he approached the armchair. “If I’m at danger of getting skewered with a grapefruit spoon I often like to know why.”

“You were never in any danger.”

“I might have been if Georgie hadn’t shown up.”

“No, Mrs. Irwin is too fond of you.” There was venom in the words, but with Rudyard there was always venom. It didn’t really mean anything anymore.

It exhausted Chapman, trying to be kind to Rudyard, but try he did because if anyone could use kindness it was him. Chapman sighed again and took a seat on the couch next to the chair. “Regardless of who was in danger,” he said, “I would rather like to know what happened.”

“Is she coming after me?”

“No, she left.”

After a pause, Rudyard stood up tentatively, eyeing the door in a way that many people had described to Chapman as “weasely” before deciding it was safe, at least, to sit in the armchair rather than cower behind it.

“If you don’t tell me what happened, I’m sure Antigone and Georgie will.”

Rudyard cast him a disdainful glare. “Trade secrets are trade secrets, even if they’re not successful.”

“Alright, have it your way then.” It was always pointless to argue with Rudyard. Whether he was right or wrong, it always seemed to be a matter of principle. But that didn’t mean that Chapman had a free pass to be rude. “Stick around if you’d like, though it should be safe out there now-“

“No, no, I’m staying right here. She used to be a master archer, you know, before she went into beekeeping.”

“… Right, well, help yourself to the mini fridge, I’ve got to go take care of some business.”

He started to stand up, but was stopped by Rudyard saying, “What business?” rather sharply and with no attempt to hide his intentions to get angry about whatever Chapman chose to say next.

“You are in my place of business, Rudyard,” Chapman said, hovering a few inches above the cushion, hands on knees, uncertain if he should be going or not. “There is business conducted here.”

“Yes, but which business?”

Chapman sighed and sat down again. “What happened to trade secrets?”

“You haven’t got any, Chapman, and seeing as you’ve stolen all of my business I rather think I deserve to know how you run it.”

“I hardly think-“

“Is it funeral business? Are you conducting a funeral?”

“Rudyard-“

“Answer the question, Chapman, haven’t got all day.”

No way out, no way around, Rudyard was a spectacular barricade in spite of his size. “Yes, maybe,” Chapman admitted, if only so he could leave and get on with his day. “I don’t know yet, I was going to have a meeting with Mr. Gilthorn about the possibility of a service in the future.”

“I knew it,” Rudyard spat. “Mr. Gilthorn, that louse, he was meant to book with us. His sister did.”

“I didn’t even know he had a sister.”

“Well, he hasn’t anymore.”

“Rudyard, I really must be going.” Chapman stood up before Rudyard could inject a new topic into the conversation. He wouldn’t have minded at any other time, always glad to have a chat with anybody who needed it, rival or no, but with a busy schedule planned it was far from ideal. “Like I said, you’re free to stay if you like, but I do have a rather busy day and I’m already behind.”

“Funn Funerals is never behind,” Rudyard said haughtily, making himself comfortable in the armchair, practically melting into the upholstery.

“Congratulations on that one, really must be going.”

“You haven’t shown me where the mini fridge is yet.”

It was almost like he didn’t want Chapman to go, which was an odd enough situation that Chapman would take time to think about it. But later when he didn’t have other things weighing on his mind. Instead, he took two steps towards the door and swept out his hand to indicate the fridge that was sitting rather conspicuously beneath the counter. “Help yourself,” he said.

“Aren’t you supposed to say, ‘enjoy yourself’?” Rudyard asked in a (surprisingly good) imitation.

Chapman pursed his lips, sighed, and gave a more stunted than usual, “Enjoy yourself, Rudyard,” which was met with a self-satisfied smirk, before he finally managed to leave the room.

He took a moment in the hall to compose himself. He didn’t like getting out of sorts and Rudyard seemed to be the only person capable of putting him in that state, making Rudyard an endlessly fascinating individual, though not one he fancied spending more time with than necessary. Bad luck seemed to follow the man and Chapman preferred to have things go his way. The only times they didn’t (the only times since he moved to the island, that is) was when Rudyard was involved, his bad luck and worse temper infecting Chapman’s existence like a creeping mold. If Chapman had had any good sense at all he would have insisted upon Rudyard leaving, but if there was anything Chapman hated more than bad luck it was making people unhappy. Even if those people were perpetually insistent on making themselves unhappy.

He couldn’t help but think of Rudyard down in that room as he entered into his appointment – or “consultation” as he really should be calling it – with Mr. Gilthorn, securing the contract with a handshake and a folder-load of paperwork. He couldn’t help but think of him when he did his daily rounds, checking in on all the various businesses housed within his building, saying hello to damn near every person therein, and providing a valuable service to the public as he was wont to do.

But as the day carried on and things progressed, he thought less and less of that odd little man and as such his smile got brighter and his conversation more secure. And by closing he had nearly forgotten Rudyard had ever been there that day, and so it was a shock to return to the room only to find him still perched in the chair with several empty vitamin water bottles strewn about the floor.

“Rudyard,” Chapman said, half out of habit and half out of surprise. “I thought you’d have gone home hours ago, what are you still doing here? You can’t still be afraid of Mrs. Irwin.”

“Certainly not,” Rudyard said, sounding put out, like it was Chapman who was invading his space rather than the other way round. “I was just… doing a little recon, getting information about the enemy, you know how it is.”

“From my sitting room?”

“Yes, well, this is where the vitamin water is, isn’t it? You’re all out, by the way.”

Chapman opened the fridge to find it entirely empty and groaned. “Rudyard, I really do think you should be going now. I’m just about to lock up and you’ve been here all day, I’m sure Antigone and Georgie must be wondering after you.”

Rudyard hesitated in such a way that Chapman automatically felt guilty about what he’d said, though he wasn’t sure what about what he had said earned that response. But Rudyard didn’t give him time to examine it further as he straightened his back. “Absolutely right, Chapman, right you are.” He stood up and walked past Chapman to the door, looking tense and uncertain and not at all like his usual acerbic self.

“Are you quite alright, Rudyard?” Chapman asked, suddenly very concerned.

“Yes! Fine! Dandy as all get-out!”

“Would you like to stay for a cup of coffee?”

“Well, if you insist,” Rudyard replied, abruptly turning on his heel and marching back to the armchair. “Not too hot, no sugar, dash of cream, if you please.” He took a seat and looked immensely pleased with himself. And perhaps Chapman was imagining it, but there was a look of relief in his features that only begged more questions.

“I’m beginning to get the feeling that you’re trying to avoid going home,” Chapman said with a laugh, light but pointed. He would need to be tactful if he was to get any information out of Rudyard at all. Every situation with him was a delicate situation. Chapman kept a careful eye on Rudyard as he wandered over to the coffeemaker on the other side of the room.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Chapman, I am merely being courteous and friendly.”

“Precisely why I wonder,” Chapman muttered. The machine whirred to life and he said, louder, “I hope you don’t mind decaf, it is getting on a bit.”

“Not at all.”

Rudyard was never this courteous. He was never this accepting and flexible. There was clearly something wrong, if not with him then with Antigone or Georgie or whatever it was Mrs. Irwin had been so furious about. He wondered if he should call any of them, but given how Rudyard was behaving he was a little reluctant to leave the man on his own. Or maybe he was just overreacting. Given their daily mishaps and misfortunes, however, it was a safe bet that whatever it was that was keeping Rudyard in the place he claimed to hate most must be truly awful.

“Ah…” A breath and then a hiss and Chapman turned around to find that as he had been considering his options, Rudyard had taken off his sweater and rolled up his sleeve revealing a nasty bruise running from his elbow halfway up his forearm.

“Good Christ, Rudyard, that can’t have been from Mrs. Irwin.”

“She’s got quite the arm on her,” he said through gritted teeth. He poked at it gingerly and hissed again. “Mind you, so do most of the women on this island.”

Chapman wasn’t even going to begin investigating that comment and instead decided to focus his thoughts on the more immediate issue of the day. “Have you got any more?” He hurried over to the mini fridge and remembered as he was opening it that it was currently empty. Damn it all, he was going to have to either go upstairs to the café or down to the mortuary to find anything cold.

“We own a lot of cutlery,” Rudyard replied wryly. He hissed again as he prodded his shoulder.

“Stop touching it, for god sake. Take your shirt off, I’m going to find some ice.”

“Take my what off?” Rudyard said indignantly.

“Or don’t, it’s not my problem,” Chapman said, letting himself get a little short. It was Rudyard, after all, who else was there to get short with? And one needs to get a little short every now and then, it’s good for the mind. Or so he told himself at least. “I’ll be back in a mo’.”

He shut the door on the complaints and took a deep breath. It was going to be a long night, he could already tell, but at least he had company in his misery.

When he returned from the café upstairs, arms laden with a bucket of ice, several tea towels, and a fresh carton of cream it seemed as though Rudyard had pushed past his reservations. He looked, somehow, even smaller without his shirt on. Layers could at least give the impression of bulk, but the pallor of his skin combined with sharp ribs and darkening bruises made him appear miniscule. The armchair nearly consumed him.

Shaking the new worries out of his head with a frown, Chapman hurried in and sat on the couch, motioning for Rudyard to join him, which he did (reluctantly). “Which one hurts most?”

Silently, Rudyard motioned to his left shoulder. It wasn’t the darkest or even largest of the injuries, but at every flex he could see him wince. Chapman scooped up some ice into one of the towels and pressed it to the bruise making Rudyard gasp. “Hold that there,” Chapman instructed him before reaching for the next towel.

“You really don’t need to do this, Chapman,” Rudyard said through gritted teeth. Gritted, for the first time, not from malice but from pain.

“Well, you weren’t going to and you’re clearly in a great deal of pain. Hold that one too.”

“I’ll just grow another set of hands, then, shall I?”

“Two bruises, two hands, I don’t see the issue.”

“And what do you intend to do with the next one?”

“I am trying to help, you know, you don’t have to be so…”

“So what?”

“Annoying… all the time…”

Rudyard’s rebuttal came out as a strangled yelp as Chapman pressed another ice pack to his abdomen. It was perhaps the most intimate thing he had ever done with Rudyard and was definitely the longest the two had ever spent alone together. It was going about as well as one could have expected.

“I try to be nice to you, Rudyard, I really do, but it’s not a one-way street, you know. Kindness should be returned with kindness, not with… suspicion and snark. I know not everyone is particularly fond of you, but it does get rather old when you refuse to be anything other than-“

“Myself?”

“Well… yes.” It sounded pretty awful when put like that, but there was no other way to go about saying it. And if saying it felt miserable, then listening to Rudyard say it was even worse. The look on his face was hard, but there was less resentment in it than their ought to have been, and, well, that really did make Chapman feel like a piece of work. “I like you, Rudyard, I really do,” he said, trying to sound gentle and not certain as to how well he was succeeding, “but I do wish that you liked me as well. And I wish that you understood that I like you and I’m not trying to ruin your business or your life or whatever else it is that you think I’m intent on doing. I didn’t move to this island for the sole purpose of butting in on your territory.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

The question was soft. It was like Chapman’s own thoughts had spoken to him aloud and not at all like Rudyard, and he could only stare at Rudyard for a long moment, truly and utterly at a loss.

The coffee machine beeped.

Chapman cleared his throat and stood up, taking the ice he had been holding with him along with the cream, and fought the urge to tell Rudyard to go. He took down two mugs and filled them up, one with a dash of cream, the other with two sugars, and stood stirring them for perhaps longer than was truly necessary.

“Are you happy, Chapman?”

And what sort of question was that?

“Certainly I am.”

“But really.”

Chapman turned to face the questioning gaze, trying to figure out how sincere it was, and mulled over his answer. He was lonely. He was stressed. He was miserable. He was lost. He was feeling the absence of other people in his life. People he missed dearly. People he had never gotten to know nearly as well as he would have liked.

“Yes,” he said.

He brought the two coffees over and handed one to Rudyard who took it with a tight smile.

“Are you happy, Rudyard?”

“Oh, deliriously.” He took a sip and grimaced. “Hot,” he muttered.

“You don’t have to stay on the island, you know.”

Rudyard looked up sharply, the old distrust firmly back in place.

“If you’re, er… deliriously happy, I mean. There’s nothing to stop you from going somewhere else and starting again.”

“Trying to get rid of me, eh, Chapman? I should’ve known you’d try it.”

Chapman couldn’t help but laugh as he said, “I’m not trying to do anything, Rudyard, honestly. I’m only trying to help you.”

“Help yourself and leave me alone, I’m perfectly happy where I am.”

“Look at yourself, Rudyard! You’re miserable! You’re covered in cutlery wounds, you’re avoiding your sister and damn near everyone else, you’ve got no friends, you’ve got a failing business, and all you do all day is obsess over how you’re going to sabotage me! It’s not healthy!”

“I wouldn’t have to if you’d never come here,” Rudyard spat, and no matter how absurd his insistence of being happy was, there was no real argument Chapman could make that he hadn’t made a million times before.

“You’re a talented man, Rudyard, and for all the barriers you put up I do seriously believe you’ve got a heart in there somewhere.” He wasn’t going to let this be a business argument again, that was Rudyard’s playing field. And emotional as Rudyard might make him, Chapman was genuinely worried by this point. “I’m trying to be your friend, really, I am. I would be so grateful to you if you could only try in return.”

“And get in bed with the enemy? I don’t think so.”

“You stupid man, I’m not an enemy,” Chapman said emphatically. “I’m a person! I’m just a person! If I had known what my coming here would have done I never would have done it. I never would have made you so miserable if I had realized.”

“Then why don’t you leave?” Rudyard said, throwing one of his ice packs at Chapman. “Just pack up and go, let us all get on with our lives.”

“I-“ Chapman sighed as he brushed the stray ice cubes off his trousers and back into the bucket, brow furrowed, jaw tense. He hated losing his cool like this. Rudyard’s damnable volatility was always so infectious, he was amazed they had managed to coexist for so long. But for his faults and flaws and venomous intentions he was still so deeply intriguing in a way Chapman couldn’t quite understand and it almost made him want to tell him everything. Almost. “I can’t.”

“And why not?”

Chapman sighed again and gathered up a new bundle of ice to press into Rudyard’s bare skin. “I just can’t. Maybe I’ll tell you later, quite a bit later, but I can’t tell you now.”

“And why not?” Rudyard said more insistently, taking the bundle from Chapman’s hand so he could get another.

Obsessive. That’s what Rudyard was. He was obsessive and it made him so entirely impossible to ignore. “I just can’t, Rudyard. Really, I’m being as honest as I can be right now.”

Rudyard snorted and rolled his eyes. “Exactly what I would expect from you, Chapman.”

“If you hate me so much, you really don’t have to be here right now. Just go home.”

Rudyard’s sneer melted into something entirely different and he struggled to find an answer. “No,” he said.

“In that case, turn around.”

There were more bruises on his back suggesting that he had tried to run from Mrs. Irwin before winding up in the square, and Chapman sighed and wished he didn’t feel so responsible for him. There really was no reason for it. Thinking as hard as he could, Chapman couldn’t think of a single reason to feel responsible for Rudyard or the messes he got himself into, but that didn’t stop him from trying to help. God, it was pathological.

He put some ice to a purple blotch and saw the muscles tense beneath Rudyard’s paper-thin skin. He raised a hand up and lightly touched his fingers to another bruise, earning another hiss. They didn’t have enough hands for all this, it was an impossible task. “She’s really made a mess of you, hasn’t she?”

The ridge of Rudyard’s spine stood blatantly out from the undulations of his ribs and Chapman couldn’t help but run his hand along it to see if it was really as defined as it looked. Rudyard shivered and Chapman realized his hands must be freezing. “Sorry,” he muttered.

There was a long silence as they sat icing down Rudyard’s various bruises and Chapman tried not to think too hard about the things Rudyard had said. Yes, Chapman had disrupted Rudyard’s business, he wasn’t about to deny that, but it was Rudyard who refused to adapt. He wouldn’t improve his models or his outlook, wouldn’t try his hand at something else, wouldn’t move past what he seemed fundamentally to be. As miserable an undertaker as he was, it seemed to be all he was.

“Don’t take offence,” Chapman said, switching hands so he could grab his coffee and take a sip, “because I really don’t mean any harm in asking. Why don’t you leave the island? Let Antigone take over the funeral home, if that’s the issue, she’s entirely capable of it. Between her and Georgie they would have no trouble.”

Rudyard shifted uncomfortably and sighed, seemingly resigned to his position. “I’m the undertaker,” he said. “My father left the business to me, it’s my responsibility. No matter how incapable you think me.”

“I don’t think you’re incapable. I think you just let things get the better of you sometimes.” He put the mug back down and cleared his throat, knowing very well that he was treading dangerous waters. “You, um… you never talk about your father.”

“He never used to talk much about me and you know how I like a good tradition.”

The statement was as lighthearted as it was bitter. Perhaps it was best not to travel down that path. Chapman let it go and fell silent, trying desperately to think of something to say, but it seemed that Rudyard had none of his reservations about the topic.

“He died.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It was years ago now. Nearly 15, actually.”

“How did it happen?”

“He killed himself. Jumped off a cliff on the east side of the island into the ocean. Didn’t leave a note, didn’t tell us anything, but we all know why he did it.”

Chapman’s heart was beating low and hard in his chest, curiosity at the wheel. “Why?”

“Our mother had just died. Cancer. He loved her dearly. Seemed he didn’t think he had anything else to live for.”

“Rudyard, that’s terrible.”

“It’s death. You get used to it in our business.” He cleared his throat and took a sip of coffee, acting for all the world that they were only talking about the weather, but Chapman was absolutely stunned.

Was he meant to talk about his parents? Was he meant to offer reassurances or anecdotes? Small talk came easy to him, but more intimate conversations, when it came time to say something really important, words always failed him. “I’m sorry,” was all he could say. It felt weak. They had been so young.

“You know, Chapman, I really do think I know absolutely nothing about you,” Rudyard said.

And what was he meant to say to that?

“If I tell you any of that then I’ll have to kill you,” he tried, hoping it would lighten the mood.

Rudyard didn’t respond. Didn’t laugh. Simply adjusted his fingers around a tea towel and lowered his head slightly. Perhaps that was a part of it, Chapman thought, distrust of the unknown. And perhaps, after what Rudyard had just told him, he owed him something in return. Something to make him more human in the eyes of Rudyard Funn.

“My parents were lovely,” Chapman said, paying close attention to every tiny movement that came from Rudyard. “They loved me a great deal and wanted me to be happy. I grew up expecting it, I supposed. I expected to be happy and so I had a bright outlook because my parents told me that things always work themselves out and that I would always be happy.” He ran his thumb along the base of Rudyard’s spine distractedly, barely aware of how it might feel. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen them.”

“Do you miss them?” Rudyard asked in the smallest voice Chapman had ever heard.

“With every breath.”

Rudyard turned around slowly, wincing as his muscles protested (what few he had), and not quite looking up at Chapman. “Are they still alive?”

“I’ve got no idea.”

His parents could have been the new king and queen of Great Britain and he would have no idea. He spent a great deal of energy every day trying not to think about it, but in this quiet moment with Rudyard he didn’t exactly mind it. He missed thinking of them almost as much as he missed the actual people.

Rudyard nodded, mulling something over in his head. He’d let both hands fall to his lap, ice beginning to melt into the fabric. Even the ice in the bucket was beginning to sweat. “I can’t leave Antigone,” he said after a moment, answering a question Chapman had nearly forgotten he’d asked. “She’s all I’ve got. Well, her and Madeleine.”

“And Georgie.”

“I’m not sure if you’re right about that one.”

Chapman smiled weakly and wished Rudyard didn’t look so downcast. But it was in moments like these, those when his face was smooth, lacking the anger and disgust it held to so tightly, that he looked even remotely his own age.

The first time Chapman had seen Rudyard smile had been a revelation. Not a smile of victory or a scheming smile, but a genuine happy smile. It had lit up his face, erased years of resentment and hardship, made him seem human in a way he never had before. And it had been so surprising to Chapman that it was also the moment when he realized that something was extremely wrong. A smile so miraculous and transformative as that was rare, and the fact that it had taken so long to occur meant more to Chapman than he would care to admit. He wanted more of that smile, both for himself and for Rudyard. He wanted him to be happy.

“She used to need me more, you know. Before you came along.”

“How do you mean?” Chapman asked. “Who?”

“Antigone. She was so shut in and incapable of… well, of doing anything beyond mortuary work that I was essentially in charge of keeping her alive. I got the food, I got the customers, I reminded her to sleep and bathe and… Georgie and I were her only contact with the outside world. Everyone thought she was dead.”

Chapman laughed a little, recalling the day he had encountered her at the flower stand. “Yes, I remember several people being very surprised to see her. Michael Carmichael almost fainted at the sight.”

Rudyard laughed (a rare enough event in itself) and Chapman rather liked the sound; quiet and weak like Rudyard hadn’t really gotten the hang of it. “She doesn’t need me anymore.”

“There’s more than one way to need a person,” Chapman said, worried as to where Rudyard was going with this.

Rudyard looked up at him at last and the pain in his eyes made Chapman almost miss the malice. “Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps it is time to leave the island.”

And Chapman was struck, in that moment, with the very real and immediate feeling that if Rudyard left he would miss him. It was shocking enough that he forgot his worry and found only desperation for Rudyard to stay, to be there with him. To yell at him and scheme against him and be one of the only three people in the village who didn’t stare at him through rose-coloured glasses.

“Where would you go?” he asked, trying to keep his feelings from clouding either his judgment or his voice.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Rudyard replied, examining the air above Chapman’s head like a map. “Perhaps France? We’re closer to there than to England. Of course I don’t speak a lick of the language, but death goes beyond words, doesn’t it.”

“You know, Rudyard, I think if you left there’s a very real possibility that I would miss you.” Chapman said it with a smile, though he meant every word.

It seemed as though Rudyard understood anyways, but he put on a face of mock disgust and said, “You make it sound as though we can actually stand each other.”

“Like I said,” Chapman said, placing a hand over Rudyard’s and watching Rudyard’s face fill with guarded curiosity, “there’s more than one way to need a person.”

Rudyard stared at the hand for a long moment, the cogs in his head visibly turning, and when he pulled his hand away Chapman worried that perhaps he had gone too far. But Rudyard only took a moment to drop the bundle he held in each hand into the bucket with the rest of the ice water before bringing both cold, damp hands up to grasp either side of Chapman’s face. And then he pulled him in for a kiss.

And it was as though the world fell silent.

 

 

His lips were cold, but not as cold as his hands.

 

 

They were dry, but soft behind cracked skin.

 

 

There was a long moment before Chapman regained enough control of his body to raise his hands up tentatively to hold Rudyard’s waist.

 

 

 

And there was a longer moment still

 

 

 

 

Before he explosively realized what it was he was doing.

His heart started frantically beating again as though it were screaming at him, saying, “What are you doing! What are you doing!” and his eyes shot open with the fear that he really had let this go too far. He pulled back sharply, staring at Rudyard’s alarmed expression with one of his own and trying to figure out how to make his mouth form words again.

But Rudyard’s mouth was pink and his cheeks were flushed and his pupils were blown and his waist was warm and Chapman was having difficulty figuring out whether the kiss had been a mistake or not. An act of loneliness perhaps, or a lapse of judgment when emotions were running high. And worst of all he wanted to do it again and it would be a great deal of help if his brain could just catch up and tell him if he wanted it because it was real human contact or if it was because it was Rudyard.

“I’m sorry,” said Rudyard, sounding shocked and uncomfortable. “That was a silly thing to do, I’m not sure why I did it.”

“No,” said Chapman, hands still frozen in place on Rudyard’s waist, the skin smooth and pale and far too thin, yet warmer than it ought to have been. “No it’s… It’s fine, Rudyard it’s… I shouldn’t have…” But the words still weren’t coming because all he could do was stare at Rudyard’s mouth, slightly open as it was, and want to try it again, to see if it would feel different a second time. He wanted to feel fireworks in his chest and for his head to feel light, and he wanted to know how it would feel if Rudyard’s lips were less chapped or if Rudyard were beneath him or on top of him, and he wanted, desperately and without reason, to let his hands explore the expanses of skin that they had yet to touch.

But whether or not it was a mistake it felt like one Chapman wanted to make again. And, really, was it so bad to give in to loneliness when the opportunity was made plainly available. And Rudyard wasn’t moving his hands either and neither of them was speaking anymore and would it really be so terrible?

So he shifted forward in his seat, moving slowly to give Rudyard plenty of time to change his mind, before leaning in again. Rudyard met him partway and that was nearly as good as the kiss itself.

It wasn’t exactly fireworks, but there was enough warmth and anticipation in Chapman’s chest to more than make up for it. As was to be expected, the moment he started leaning Rudyard back, Rudyard retaliated and pushed Chapman onto his back with more force than was strictly necessary, not that anyone was about to complain, and things were looking very promising as Chapman’s hands explored bare skin and Rudyard’s did odd things with his shirtfront when they were interrupted by the phone ringing.

Rudyard immediately raised his head like a deer who had heard a far-off gunshot and said, “It’s Antigone.” Then he pushed himself off Chapman and grabbed for his shirt. “Tell her I’m not here,” he said, frantically attempting to sort out which sleeve belonged to which arm, and Chapman lay breathless and unimpressed.

“I could just not answer it,” he said.

“I think you’ll find that that’s even more suspicious given the circumstances.”

Chapman sighed and then heaved himself to his feet. He let the phone ring twice more before picking it up. “Hello?”

Rudyard had managed to sort out his sleeves and was now trying to button it up, which was proving difficult with shaky hands.

“Eric,” said the voice on the phone.

“Georgie,” Chapman said, trying to sound more pleased than he really was. “It’s rather late for you to be calling.”

“Rudyard hasn’t come back yet. He still there?”

Chapman looked over to Rudyard who was frantically undoing all of his buttons following the realization that they were all in the wrong holes. “Yes, he’s here.” Rudyard shot him a look that he knew by now meant nothing in the long run.

“You were meant to send him home. He’s in a great deal of trouble.”

“Yes, he was just telling me.” He dodged an empty vitamin water bottle that had been lobbed rather weakly. It bounced off the wall and rattled sadly on the counter.

“Tell him to stop tellin’ and start walkin’. Miss Antigone wants to see him.”

“I’ll do my best, but you know how stubborn he can be.” He caught the next bottle and placed it pointedly on the counter next to the overturned one, giving Rudyard a shake of the head.

“Just tell him, Eric.”

Georgie hung up and Chapman took a moment to say, “You know, it’s impolite to throw bottles at someone when he’s on the phone.”

“I think you’ll find it’s also impolite to tell one’s family about one’s whereabouts when one is hiding from one’s family.”

“Well, if you told me what it is you’ve done then maybe I could help.”

Rudyard stood up, blatantly giving up on any sort of shirt-related decency. “I need the bathroom, where is it?”

Chapman smirked and leaned back against the counter. “Not surprised considering you drank, what, ten bottles of vitamin water?”

“I poured them down the sink, Chapman, have some sense.”

“And why would you do that?”

“I found myself in the sitting room of my enemy, what else was I meant to do? Bathroom?”

“Right across the hall.”

“Thank you.”

Rudyard left the room with as much dignity he could muster, which wasn’t much at the best of times, and Chapman set about cleaning up the empty bottles strewn about the floor.

As he cleaned his mind was running wild. He had always known at some level that he had feelings for Rudyard. Not strong feelings, but feelings none-the-less and it was an odd sensation to have those thoughts propelled to the forefront of his mind with hardly any warning at all. They were complicated feelings for a complicated man and Chapman couldn’t quite wrap his head around them.

What was it exactly that attracted him to Rudyard in the first place? It wasn’t his small stature or his insistence on being absolutely unbearable at times. He was short tempered and grudge-keeping and he made life more difficult for himself than any human being Chapman had ever met, and yet something about him was enthralling.

He was determined, Chapman had to give him that. And he was most certainly different than everyone else on the island, which in itself made him endlessly interesting. And no matter how much he infuriated Chapman along with everyone else he was also a deeply complex individual that begged a million questions for every one that was answered.

One question that entered Chapman’s mind more often than it really should was “Is Rudyard a virgin?” And he hated that he wanted to know the answer, but there weren’t exactly many options on the island and considering Rudyard’s reputation he had a hard time imagining anyone reaching that point with him. But there was the mystery again because Chapman knew next to nothing about Rudyard’s past, most of which he had just learned that night, and it was entirely possibly that he had had his share of rendezvous’ throughout his life. High school. Rudyard went to high school at some point and what an odd thought that was. What must he have looked like? The undertaker’s son. Not a generous label to carry.

“I lost a body.”

Rudyard had returned and was standing in the doorway. How long had Chapman been thinking? He was still crouched on the ground with empty bottles filling his arms, had he just been sitting there thinking? But hold on…

“What?”

Rudyard, hands in pockets and looking sheepish, tapped his feet and said, “I lost a body. That’s why Mrs. Irwin was throwing things at me and why I’m a little reluctant to go home at the moment.”

“Well, that’s completely understandable. The not wanting to go home part at least. I’m sorry, but how on Earth did you manage to lose a body?”

Rudyard shifted his gaze uncomfortably before walking over to the couch and sitting down again, Chapman crouching at his feet looking perplexed.

“It’s a little complicated and I’m not entirely sure, but the body was there and then it wasn’t.”

“It wasn’t still alive, was it?” Chapman asked, feeling himself blanch.

“No! No, he had already been embalmed. We were meant to hold the service tomorrow morning and I brought a coffin down into the mortuary to make sure it was properly fitted and it was and I went upstairs for just a moment to finalize plans with Rev. Wavering and the next thing I knew, Antigone was coming up the stairs demanding to know where the body had gone.”

“He wasn’t still in the coffin?”

“The coffin was gone as well, she hadn’t even seen it.”

Chapman stood up, a bottle dropping to the floor, and nodded slowly as he turned towards the blue bin by the door. “That is quite peculiar.” The bottles dropped with a clatter into the bin and Chapman put his hands on his hips. Rudyard, yet again, had managed to throw him for a loop. And, honestly, wasn’t that really why he liked him. Because he was a challenge.

After a moment of consideration, Chapman joined Rudyard on the couch, kicking the dropped bottle in the general direction of the blue bin, and said, “I’m sure it’s all just a mix up. Everything will be sorted out in time for the funeral, you always manage.”

“I’ve never lost a body before.”

“And I’ve never known you to mistime a funeral. The body’s in the coffin, all that’s left is the ground.” He put his arm around Rudyard, certain for the first time in his life that he wouldn’t pull away, and rubbed his shoulder gently.

Rudyard bit his lip and looked drained and Chapman had to remind himself that Rudyard always looked drained. “I suppose you’re right. An embalmed body doesn’t just get up and walk out of a mortuary does it?”

“Not that I’ve ever heard of.”

Rudyard huffed a laugh and smiled over at Chapman making Chapman’s heart do a strange little flip. “I suppose there’s nothing to be done until morning.”

“It’s eight o’clock,” Chapman read aloud, slightly surprised at how much time he had managed to lose. “Christ, that’s the whole day gone. Have you had anything to eat today, Rudyard?”

“Toast this morning,” he said with a shrug. “Cup and a half of coffee, counting yours.”

“You’ll have to stay for dinner, then, there’s no other way around it.” He stood up, intending to lead them both to the space he had designated as his living quarters as it hardly stood to reason that they should remain here any longer. “You can stay the night, too, if you’d like. Let your sister burn off a little steam. And who knows, perhaps they’ll find the body before you get back.”

“You’ll have Georgie knocking down your door if I take you up on that.”

“I’ve got a lot of doors and a lot of locks.” He held out a hand and waggled his fingers. “Come on, let’s get some meat on your bones.”

And Rudyard smiled again, that rare and transformative smile, and he took Chapman’s hand.