They were sitting together, as they often were, on the floor of Funn Funerals. It wasn't so much something Rudyard had said or done that caused Eric to take a deep breath in preparation. Rather, it was that Eric had been planning this confession (he carefully veered away from "speech" after the disaster with Georgie) for a long while.
Madeleine was only partly aware of the plan, having overheard a thing or two between Eric Chapman and Lady Templar while discussing her latest novel with her publisher at the only pub in town. She hadn't said anything to Rudyard. She figured it would be best to leave that to Eric. And as she sat in Rudyard's hand, listening to her friend, landlord, and self-proclaimed tailor's rambling comments on her new hat, she watched Eric's face out of the corner of her eye. She began to suspect today might be the day.
"I have no idea how this happened," Eric said after waiting for Rudyard to trail off of his incomplete thought, "physically or emotionally, but, Rudyard, I have to ask you... Rudyard? Rudyard."
"Hm? Oh yes. I've often enjoyed making furniture for Madeleine, and her old hat was getting worn, so I decided I'd try making her a new one. I think it's turned out rather well!"
"Suuure thing, but that's not actually what I was—”
"Don't worry about it, Chapman, I'm sure you'll find something you're good at. You know. Eventually."
"I have found myself, somehow, inexplicably, attracted to you on a romantic level."
"Yes, I know. Good of you to say it though."
"I... No, I'm sorry, what?"
"Well it has been a while, but we all move at our own pace, you know."
"Our own pace in what?"
"Oh, I thought that—”
Rudyard looked at him with the same aggravating expression he always had. They stared at each other for a moment. Rudyard looked away first, both forfeiting their contest and winning a different game entirely.
"Hmmm," Rudyard concluded superficially, attempting to straighten Madeleine's hat on her head and being rebuffed. "Hum."
"You thought what?"
"Rudyard, really. What did you think?"
"Well," he sputtered, lowering his hands to the floor in a hint for Madeleine to scurry off, which she did, being a good friend (although she stayed within ear range). "I rather thought we were already involved."
Eric should have expected this, really. To the best of his ability, he had prepared himself for whatever disaster would occur, yet somehow this wasn't one that had crossed his mind. Or at least, hadn't stayed there very long.
"Why?" he managed to ask.
"You do know this about me, Chapman, I'm not very good at reading people. Although, to be fair," he chuckled, "I had thought I'd knocked it out of the park on this one. Ha! And I suppose I have! You having feelings for me and all. Speaking of—”
"No," he breathed. "No. Why—how, did this never come up?"
"Why should it have?"
"Communication!" Eric cried. "Vulnerability! The backbone of every functioning relationship!"
"Yes, well," Rudyard considered, "'functioning...' doesn't exactly describe us, does it?"
Rudyard scoffed. “To each their own, I suppose.”
Eric's lifelong lessons on what a relationship should or should not be were coming in direct competition with Rudyard's incredible ability to ruin everything, and he wasn’t sure which would win, or which should win, or—
He was beginning to reach his limit. There wasn’t much he could do about that, and an extended silence wouldn’t be good considering the conversation topic (though between Rudyard reading too much into it or not even noticing he would bet on the latter), so…
“How long,” he began slowly, trying to think of other things as he spoke, “from your perspective, have we been 'involved?’”
“Ah,” Rudyard paused, apparently remembering, “well, remember our third vacation, with the mountain climbing?” He sped up, always happy to show off his memory, “Georgie was ahead of everyone, because she's great at climbing mountains, Antigone was lagging behind and Madeleine was keeping her company, and you and I were walking at similar paces so we were essentially alone although I'm certain you could have been going faster. Maybe not as fast as Georgie.”
“And that was…”
“I though it was very romantic.”
“Rudyard, that was two years ago.”
Rudyard stared at him, indignant.
“We’ve been together for two years?”
“It’s been a nice pace!”
Eric began laughing. He couldn’t quite help it. Rudyard often sent him into fits of laughter without meaning to. It would make Rudyard self-conscious from time to time, but, more often than not, it did him as much good as it did Eric. After his laughter calmed, Eric was always greeted by a proud smile.
“What?” Rudyard asked, trying to sound annoyed but undermined by his wide (and disconcerting) grin.
“It’s just—I’ve just realized, this is… the best this could have gone.”
Rudyard’s smile diminished, replaced by confusion.
“What do you mean?” he asked, sounding almost suspicious.
“My saying something, it could’ve ruined everything, couldn’t it? It could’ve made you uncomfortable, or made you lose trust in me, you could’ve hated me for it, you could’ve hated me already while I just hadn’t seen it, it could’ve changed something I wouldn’t want changed…” He chuckled in relief. “But instead—you didn’t just accept it or agree, you thought we were already involved! It’s the perfect scenario, and I hardly even thought of it.”
“If you were so sure it would go wrong, why say anything?”
“How could I not? What could I have done, kept it to myself for all eternity?”
“If Antigone has taught me anything—which she hasn't—yes.”
“I don't understand how she could live like that.” He sighed. There were a lot of things about Antigone he didn't understand. “Wait, who was she—”
“Well, Chapman, now you have me questioning myself.”
Eric’s train of thought ended, replaced by this new concern.
“All this time I thought I was in quite a nice relationship, and now it turns out you had no idea… it doesn’t reflect upon me very well, does it? I’ve been putting in a good amount of effort to reciprocate your romantic gestures, and not only were you offering no romantic gestures to begin with, but apparently all my actual attempts at romanticism were so terrible you couldn’t even recognize them for what they were trying to be! What does that say about me? I have been told in the past that I ‘wouldn’t know romance if it hit me square in the jaw.’”
“No, Georgie. The sentiment is very Antigone though, I can see where you came from with that.”
“Rudyard,” Eric began sincerely, as he began most things, “that does not reflect poorly on you. Jaw-hitting aside, your version of romance is yours and is entirely legitimate. I was probably just too in my head to recognize it.”
“While I appreciate your attempts to cheer me up with self-deprecation, Chapman, I’m afraid it’s not working all that well.”
“I. Wasn't really trying to be…” Eric paused, thought, and restarted, “You know, that may be one of the reasons I never realized.”
“What would that be, Chapman?”
“That. ‘Chapman.’ I don’t know of any,” he struggled to think of a term, “romantic partners that call each other by their surnames.”
“Would you like me to stop?” Rudyard asked without offer.
“No, now that you ask. Actually, thinking of it, there isn’t anything I would want changed. Maybe you weren't so off the mark with this whole ‘two years’ thing.”
Rudyard beamed, his smile excruciating, his eyes taunting.
“However,” the familiarity of Rudyard’s terrifying mouth reminded Eric to add, “there is one thing I could stand changed.”
The smile dropped.
“And what’s that?” he asked, suspicious of the direction this was heading.
“I wouldn’t terribly mind if there was an addition of,” Eric spoke slowly, aware he was testing his luck, “my kissing you? And perhaps the occasional your kissing me?
While Rudyard couldn’t boast skin as pale as his sister’s, there wasn’t much or any hope of him concealing the blush that now covered his face and neck. For this, Eric thanked a god he was about as sure of as the vicar; though as Rudyard found his words, he admitted to himself that something somewhere must have put a great deal of effort into such a man.
“I think,” Rudyard answered, “you may be able to convince me on that.”
Surely, Madeleine thought as she jotted down her notes as quickly as she was able, this would make for a wonderful addition to her growing list of best-sellers.