The village of Piffling Vale had been exceedingly welcoming, of course. Everyone (with a few notable exceptions) had seemed to love him right away, and, well, that was… nice. Up to a point.
Up to a point, it was a pleasant feeling, to have people calling out happy greetings every time he walked by, to have people singing his praises with everything he did, to have people so eager to hang on his every word. When he’d first moved to the village, he’d assumed that it would remain pleasant, that he’d finally found a place that would agree with him.
But after a while, the adoration had started to seem… empty. People were happy to wave and beam and make admiring noises at him, but no one told him about their day, and no one asked him about his. No one could have a real conversation with him as long as they treated him like a statue of perfection. For all that everyone loved him, Eric Chapman was profoundly, painfully lonely.
Which, in retrospect, he supposed could explain why he was so drawn to the Funns and Georgie. They didn’t idolize him. Half the time, their interactions with him were antagonistic, but when they weren’t… When they weren’t, they were real.
And perhaps, although most of his relationship experience had taken place a long time ago, one could say of Eric that his taste in romantic partners was a bit… eccentric. His crush on Georgie had faded, thankfully, once it had finally gotten through to him that she wasn’t interested, and he had assumed that, given the way everyone in Piffling Vale treated him, he wouldn’t have another opportunity for romance.
But that wasn’t what had happened. What had actually happened was that Eric had stood in his doorway, watching Rudyard Funn rant at him from the square outside, watching him stab a finger at him and wrinkle his nose at him and completely fail to treat him as an ideal. He had watched Rudyard, with that mix of exasperation and bewildering fondness that had come to characterize his interactions with his competitor, and thought, I’ve never met anyone like him in my life.
And then, God, I fancy him.
And, well. Once the thought had occurred to him, it rapidly came to dominate all his other thoughts.
Well, nothing ventured nothing gained, as an old friend of his had used to say (a long time ago). He’d asked Georgie out, gotten rejected, admittedly made a bit of a fool of himself but come out the other side intact. He’d live through the rejection he was almost certain to get from Rudyard, too. The only thing to do was to ask him.
“Oh, Rudyard, there you are. (Chapman!!) Yes, it’s me, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
“About what? About your roof? Are you having any problems with it?”
“No, I… Wait, my roof? What about it? I haven’t been having any problems…”
“Oh. Then then never mind. What do you want?”
“Rudyard, what did you do? Are you trying to sabotage something at my place of business?”
“Absolutely not, and I feel that these disrespectful and groundless accusations are completely unearned, and furthermore…”
“Okay, stop, I take it back, this isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about. I, um… This might strike you as, well, mad, but, would you, some time, would you… Would you like to get dinner with me? Not at the restaurant at Chapman’s, obviously, somewhere else, but, well, would you?”
“Yes, Chapman, why? For what purpose?”
“Well… As a date.”
“A date as in, a date between two people who are, er, romantically involved? In a romantic way?”
“Um. Yes. A romantic date.”
“Oh. I. Um. Oh.”
“Yes, and obviously, I don’t mean to pressure you, if you’re not interested, I just though… Wait, Rudyard, where are you going? Rudyard? So… Is that a no?”
Well, that could have gone better. But it could have gone worse. Rudyard hadn’t helped someone try to blow him up, which was an improvement in their relationship. Eric sighed and turned back toward Chapman’s, then changed his mind and wandered the roads of Piffling Vale for a while, giving himself a little time to feel sorry for himself.
When he’d finally taken a breath, given himself a stern talking to, and headed home, he’d been shocked to discover that Rudyard was loitering on the street outside Chapman’s, alternately clasping his hands together and stuffing them into the pockets of his slacks, and scuffing his feet against the ground as he paced.
“Oh, um, hello Rudyard.”
Rudyard looked up with the same startled look on his face that Eric had seen every time he’d discovered him in the midst of some plot to destroy Eric’s business. It was such a familiar expression that Eric couldn’t help smiling. He was just about to say something else when Rudyard squared his shoulders and said, nervously, “Yes.” Then he narrowed his eyes at Eric and said, “And you’re paying.”
When Eric had recovered from his surprise he grinned and answered, “Of course!”
Eric had never really thought beyond asking Rudyard out, but if he had thought about it, he probably would have assumed that the “asking Rudyard out” and “getting Rudyard to agree to be his boyfriend” bits would have been the hardest parts. That, it turned out, wasn’t exactly the case.
Eric had had to pull out a considerable amount of charm to get the manager of the Piffling Vale Yacht Club to undo Rudyard’s lifetime ban from the restaurant (and even then had only managed to get the ban undone for the one night). He was sure that news that he had been there with Rudyard would be all over the village within an hour, which was probably more public scrutiny than a new, fledgling relationship needed. But still. Dinner was actually very… nice.
Eric had had a fair few non-antagonistic conversations with Rudyard (that time he hid out at Funn Funerals when the power went out was something he thought of often, which should maybe have tipped him off earlier that his feelings for Rudyard weren’t entirely platonic). It was still a pleasant surprise that the conversation over the dinner table, though sometimes hesitant and awkward, managed to steer clear of taboo subjects (business, business stealing, etc.).
By the end of the meal, Eric had the impression that Rudyard was smiling, just a little bit. Not the insincere and frankly alarming smile he slapped across his face when he was told to, but something slight and shy and real. It made Eric feel warm from the top of his head to his toes.
When Eric walked Rudyard home (well, walked home with him, considering that their homes were right across the street from each other), he’d felt it was going well enough for him to slip his arm through Rudyard’s. Rudyard had startled as though he’d seen a ghost and stared down at where they were touching, but after a long moment where Eric honestly wasn’t sure what he’d do, he relaxed and even leaned a little bit toward Eric. Not enough for their shoulders to touch, but enough that Eric could feel the warmth of him. It made Eric’s heart pound against the backs of his ribs.
And then they were in front of the little walk leading up to the door of Funn Funerals. They paused, and Eric leaned in, hoping and hoping and hoping. His heart practically skipped a beat when he saw that Rudyard was leaning in, too.
They got close enough that their breath was starting to mingle, and Eric was beginning to consider closing his eyes, when Rudyard startled again and jumped backwards, disentangling his arm from Eric’s.
“What are you doing?” Rudyard asked, voice gone alarmingly flat.
“Um…” Eric tried to put his thoughts in order, pushing away his disappointment. “I’m… trying to kiss you?”
Eric didn’t sigh, but it was a near thing. He smiled instead. “Rudyard, if you don’t want to, that’s fine. I just thought… Well, I really enjoyed dinner. Maybe we could go out again sometime…”
“Why?” Rudyard snapped again, cutting Eric off. He was starting to twist his hands in front of him, and looked to be working himself up into one of his regular rants, which was not at all what Eric wanted, but for the life of him, Eric couldn’t understand what he’d done to cause this.
“Because… Because I like you. I don’t… I don’t know what other reason you’re looking for.”
“You… You like me?”
“Yes!” Eric wasn’t able to mask his exasperation. “Rudyard, I asked you out on a date. I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t like you, would I?”
“Oh,” Rudyard said, as if Eric had actually said something revelatory. Silence fell for a moment, and Eric wasn’t quite sure what to do with the stare Rudyard was leveling at him, eyes wide and head tilted slightly on one side.
“Well,” Eric said, “now that’s settled, I… I do really like you, Rudyard. Would you like to go out again sometime?”
“Yes,” Rudyard said, suddenly decisive.
“Oh.” Eric’s relief was probably more intense than the moment warranted, but the whole exchange had been a bit confusing. “Then I’ll… umf”
He was cut off by Rudyard jerking forward almost violently and slamming his lips into Eric’s.
That was not what Eric had expected.
Before he really had time to realize that it was happening, it had stopped happening. Rudyard had leaned back again, looking surprised at his own actions, and Eric was left with the memory of warmth and softness and, well, more than a little bit of stinging in his lips. Rudyard had not so much kissed him as run into him.
But Rudyard had kissed him, and that was something. Eric found himself grinning ear to ear like a lunatic.
“Um… Goodnight, Chapman.”
There weren’t really a lot of places where two people could go on a date in Piffling Vale, at least not when they were trying not to go to the coffee shop or the restaurant or the bar at Chapman’s, so Eric was quite happy when Rudyard turned up at his door around lunch time the next day and suggested that they go for a picnic together.
“Unless you’ve changed your mind, which, I suppose…” Rudyard muttered, trailing off.
“No, no, that’s a great idea! I was just about to close everything up for my lunch break, anyway! Just give me a moment.”
“Good,” Rudyard said, nodding sharply. “But, well, we don’t have any food in the house at the moment, and I haven’t had a chance to go to the shops in a while…”
Eric just nodded back and went to his personal kitchen to pack them some sandwiches. There was a bottle of champagne that he’d been saving for a special occasion and that he considered bringing too, but… He didn’t think Rudyard liked drinking, and serving booze on a second date to a man unused to alcohol was probably not a good look.
No matter how hilarious a tipsy Rudyard would probably be. Perhaps someday.
He carried the picnic basket, because he was a gentleman, and Rudyard led the way to the spot he had in mind, a hill overlooking the sea that was actually quite pleasant.
“I don’t think very many people know about it,” Rudyard said, shyly.
“It’s lovely. I didn’t…” Eric trailed off, abruptly recalling Rudyard’s zeal with the Scouts and realizing that it might not exactly be well-received to express as much surprise as he’d been about to that Rudyard knew his way around outside the boundaries of the village.
Rudyard shrugged. “I used to… Well. Um. I’m glad. That you like it.”
If anything, Eric thought that the second date was even better than the first. Rudyard seemed to be right about this spot being unknown; there was no one else around to disturb them, and conversation seemed to flow more easily. Rudyard, surprisingly, seemed to know a lot about the immediate surroundings of the village, even if he wasn’t much of a woodsman, and he had a wide variety of opinions about the most interesting trees, the best places to birdwatch, and the best spots to completely avoid seeing other people. That last one seemed to be a major selling point for him.
The sun had even come out, a rare enough thing on a Channel island. It was… well, it was nearly perfect.
It was a shame to have to break it up, but he was already nearly an hour late reopening Chapman’s and he really couldn’t leave it any longer.
“Are you sure you have to go back now?” Rudyard asked, faux-casual, the slight smile on his face growing a little wider.
Eric rolled his eyes, although he couldn’t keep a smile off his own face. “Now, now, Rudyard, we’ve had a very nice date, don’t try and spoil it by sabotaging my business.”
“It’s not sabotage if you choose it,” Rudyard said, but he stood up anyway.
“I mean it, Rudyard. This was lovely. Thank you.”
“Oh.” Rudyard’s eyes went wide. “I’m glad. So, does that mean…” He trailed off.
“Does that mean what?”
“Does that mean that we’re…” Rudyard held up his hands and made air quotes with his fingers. “In a relationship? Or… romantically connected, or something?”
Eric tried very hard not to laugh. Rudyard had made a relationship sound like a mythical creature. “Rudyard, would you be my boyfriend?”
The reaction to this was fascinating. Rudyard blushed up to the roots of his hair and straightened his back like a current had been run through him. He stood still for a moment, then spun on his heel and took off walking at a brisk pace down the hill back toward the village. Before Eric could decide whether he should follow him, Rudyard spun again and marched back up the hill with the same determined step that Eric had seen a thousand times when Rudyard wanted to rant at him. Eric braced himself.
Rudyard didn’t rant at him, though. He blinked at Eric a few times, then said, “Yes?” in a small voice.
“Oh, good,” Eric said. “Can I kiss you again, then?”
“Um…” Rudyard looked around nervously. There was no one in sight. “Okay.”
Rudyard ducked forward, as if he was going to bash his face into Eric’s again, but Eric was ready for him this time. He met him halfway, turned his head slightly and put one hand up to the back of Rudyard’s head, just a gentle pressure and a slight tangling of fingers in Rudyard’s black hair.
It seemed to take a moment for Rudyard to realize that there was anything different from the night before. Then he registered that this kiss was softer, this kiss was sweeter, this kiss was lasting longer… Eric moved in a little bit, just far enough that he could feel how warm Rudyard was, just far enough that, hopefully, Rudyard would want to move a bit closer, too. It wasn’t even close to the most skillful or passionate kiss Eric had ever experienced, but something about how slow it was made him feel tingly all over. He wondered how much longer he could keep this going…
Rudyard abruptly made an odd squeaking sound that reminded Eric a bit of Madeleine, broke off the kiss, and practically jumped away. Confused, Eric hesitantly asked, “Something wrong? Did I…?”
“No, certainly not, nothing wrong. So, um, we kissed, and I think, I think that we should head back, you have to reopen, right?”
“I…” Eric wanted to argue, but Rudyard did have a point. He did have to reopen Chapman’s. This lunch break had gone on far too long. “Alright then. Can I walk you back to Funn Funerals?”
“Or… Maybe I could walk you back to Chapman’s?”
“Oh, yes. That sounds perfect.”
Well. That was that, then. Eric had a boyfriend, and that boyfriend was Rudyard, and, well. He was happy.
(Eric was going to blame the rather breathless dream he had that night, in which Rudyard starred prominently, on the fact that it really had been a while since he’d had a partner.)
He didn’t see Rudyard the next day (although he kept finding reasons to peek out the window at Funn Funerals to try to catch a glimpse of him), but it was alright because he was kept quite busy running around Chapman’s. And in any case, Rudyard was his boyfriend now. He’d asked Rudyard out, and Rudyard had said yes.
Eric hadn’t really expected the way Rudyard would seem to panic and bolt after every kiss, but, well. He didn’t have a problem with moving slow. Well, he wished they could move a little faster, or that he understood what exactly seemed to be upsetting Rudyard, but… In any case, the hardest part of the whole thing, the part that had made him the most nervous, was conquered.
It was all downhill from here, Eric thought.
It wasn’t until Georgie appeared in his coffee shop that he started to have an inkling that he might be wrong about that.
“Georgie! Nice to see you! What…”
“Latte, would you Eric? Just put it on my tab, thanks.”
“Oh, yes, um, of course.” Only a little disgruntled, Eric bustled off to put her order in to the barista. As usual, he didn’t have the heart (or, well, the courage, really) to tell her that there weren’t actually tabs at Chapman’s. She was a friend, sort of. A little special treatment wouldn’t be the end of the world. He supposed.
What was unusual, though, was that when he brought her latte to her table, she gestured at the chair across the table from her. “Sit with me a moment, Eric.” It didn’t sound like a request. Eric was pulling out the chair and sitting down before he really knew what was happening.
“It’s always good to see you, Georgie. How are you?”
“Good,” Georgie said, taking a sip of her latte. “So, you and Rudyard, huh?”
Eric blinked and looked around. They were at a table against the wall, and all the other tables were taken up by chatting inhabitants of Piffling Vale. No one was paying attention to them. Not that the fact that he and Rudyard were dating was a secret, not after they’d had their first date at the Yacht Club, and not that Eric was interested in secrecy. But still, he wasn’t sure he wanted to have a conversation about his three-day old relationship with half the village listening in.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Georgie said, swirling her coffee in its cup. “No one’s going to hear us. Half the village comes here to talk about their secrets. Everyone’s so focused on their own table that it’s better than a dark alley.”
“Oh,” Eric said. “Do you ever talk about secrets here, Georgie?”
Georgie just smiled her best, slightly alarming smile. “Wouldn’t you like to know. Anyway. You and Rudyard.”
“Well, as it happens… yes. Me and Rudyard.”
“You two had sex yet?” Georgie asked, and took a calm sip of her coffee.
Eric didn’t have a coffee, but he still spluttered and coughed and swallowed his spit the wrong way. “Georgie!” he managed to choke out.
“Sorry, but I swear I’m going somewhere with this. Can I take a guess? Is the answer no? Is the answer that you haven’t gone much beyond really awkward kisses?”
“Did Rudyard tell you that?” Eric asked, suddenly nervous. “Am I doing something wrong? Am I not doing things the way he wants to? Because I can…”
“Nah, Rudyard hasn’t said anything. Pretty sure Antigone doesn’t even know you two are dating. He’s happy though, way happier than normal. It’s a bit eerie, honestly.”
Eric relaxed, unable to keep a grin off his face. He liked the idea of an eerily happy Rudyard. “Well, good.”
Georgie took another long, slow sip of her coffee, set the cup down, and asked, “You know I’m with Antigone, right?”
“Oh, is that so?” Eric asked, probably not very convincingly. He knew that Georgie and Antigone had been dating for the past two months, he was pretty sure the entire village knew (except maybe Rudyard), but he also knew they were being pretty discreet about it. Not exactly shouting it from the rooftops. He wasn’t sure if anyone was supposed to know.
Georgie rolled her eyes. “Of course you know. Everyone knows. The only person who thinks it’s a secret is Antigone. I’ve tried to tell her… Anyway. Antigone told me something interesting about her and Rudyard.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Listen, Eric, I’m telling you this because Rudyard is my friend and I think you should know. And you won’t repeat this to anyone. Because you’re our friend, too.”
“Oh. Yes. Yes.” Eric had intended to say a lot more, give a lot more assurances that he would never tell anyone what Georgie told him in confidence, but he found that the lump in his throat that sprang up when Georgie said that he was their friend was making it difficult. He’d hoped that something like that was true, but…
Georgie smiled and reached over the table to punch Eric in the arm, but gently. “Yeah, you’re our friend. Anyway, here’s what Antigone told me. The last time she hugged Rudyard was just after their parents’ funeral. When they were both nineteen.”
Eric blinked at the sudden change of mood. “That’s… That’s… so sad.”
“Yeah, it is, isn’t it?”
“Why did you feel like I needed to know that? Do you have some kind of plan? To repair their relationship? Ooh, are we scheming?”
“No, no way, no scheming. Not right now. Maybe later. Anyway, that was the last time they gave each other a hug. And Rudyard’s my friend, but he’s not exactly the touchiest person, you know?” Georgie gave Eric a significant look.
“And what do you know about the rest of the village?”
“I… Oh.” Eric felt like the bottom had dropped out of his stomach.
“Yeah.” Georgie nodded, and drained her coffee. “It takes a bit of time. I can tell you from experience. So be nice.”
Eric would admit that he’d considered the question of how much sexual experience Rudyard had had. It was a bit of an… exciting question to consider. He refused to be embarrassed about what went on in the privacy of his own head. (He refused.)
But this was a bit beyond what he’d considered. Never mind sex, the last time Rudyard had even gotten a hug from his family was when he was nineteen. Georgie had all but said that she’d never hugged him. And who else on the island would have?
Sixteen years. That was how long it had been. Christ, no wonder Rudyard acted the way he did.
What would that even be like? Eric had thought he was lonely in Piffling Vale, but he got hugs, slaps on the back, kisses on the cheek, everywhere he went, it seemed like. Rudyard got… nothing. Eric had no idea how lonely that would feel.
He’d been going about this all wrong, he realized. In the relationships he’d had in the past, he started with kisses, let that lead into passion, and then, once they were comfortable with each other, they’d ease into cuddling on the couch together, running fingers through each other’s hair, all the other sweet soft relationship things. But it always started with passion, because it was easy enough to give in to when the relationship was new and exciting and strange.
That wasn’t going to work this time, though. That was the missing piece of information, the missing explanation for everything that had confused him. This relationship was going to have to go the other way around.
“Chapman! I mean, um, good morning. Er. Chapman.”
“You could call me Eric, you know. I’m your boyfriend.” The way Rudyard blushed when the word “boyfriend” was said was absolutely perfect. “Anyway, I wanted to ask if you were busy tonight.”
“I… No? No, I’m not. Are we… Did you want to, um, have dinner again?”
It was strange to see Rudyard so uncertain. Eric wanted to sweep him into his arms immediately, pull him close and kiss him senseless to reassure him, but he was doing this relationship a different way. He had a plan. “I’d love to!” Eric said brightly. “But I’m not sure they’ll let us into the Yacht Club again. It was sort of a one-time thing. So I thought perhaps you’d like to come over to my place? Not,” he said quickly at the frown on Rudyard’s face, “Chapman’s. Not the restaurant. To my private section of the building. I thought I could cook you dinner.”
“I’d… I’d like that.”
“Good!” Eric said, and then, with as much casualness as he could muster, “We could watch a film on the couch after dinner.”
“A film?” Rudyard said, almost bewildered.
“Um… Yes? Do you have any requests?”
“I can’t even remember the last time I saw a film,” Rudyard said thoughtfully. “Antigone sometimes watches them, I think. I seem to remember her telling me that once.”
Eric briefly considered telling Rudyard that she watched racy French cinema on a weekly basis, just to see his reaction, but decided that would derail the conversation. “Well,” he said instead, “I’d be happy to show you one of my favorites. If you’re interested.”
Rudyard considered it, looking up at the sky with his eyes narrowed as if he was trying to consider every way in which watching a film would be unacceptable or improper. Eric tried not to hold his breath.
Finally, Rudyard looked at him, and his face was twisted just ever so slightly in that way that Eric was coming to recognize as his real, natural, tiny smile. “Alright. I’ll give it a try.”
Eric could have agonized for days about the perfect menu for this particular date, but luckily he didn’t have that kind of time. Instead, he settled on something he knew he could make well: pasta with slow-cooked tomato sauce and garlic bread. And, because he flattered himself that he knew a little about Rudyard and his tastes by this point, Eric decided to pay particular attention to not skimping on dessert.
By the time Rudyard arrived, the pasta sauce had been on the stove for five hours, the garlic bread had been in the oven for twenty minutes, the pasta had been out of the water and draining for thirty seconds, and Eric had been thinking exclusively about this date for so many hours that he felt like his brain had been turned inside out. He hurried down to the door to let Rudyard in, and was stopped dead in his tracks when he saw what Rudyard was holding.
He had brought a bouquet of flowers, but not at all the kind that one would buy in the Piffling Market. It took a second, but Eric realized that he recognized the flowers: there was one picked from each of the types of wildflowers that grew around the slightly untrimmed edges of the cemetery, a riot of colors and shapes. Each stem had been carefully cut so that they were all the same length, all had the same slanting angle at the end, and all had their leaves removed. Eric couldn’t even imagine how long that had taken, how intensely Rudyard must have gone about the work. The flowers been tied together with a dark blue ribbon with a perfectly symmetrical, sensible knot rather than a bow.
It was the single most Rudyard thing Eric had ever seen, as was the nervous way he shifted his feet and shoved the bouquet forward like a shield. Eric realized, as he took the bouquet and cradled it in both hands, that it was also the most thoughtful thing anyone had done for him in… a while. A long while.
“It’s not from a professional,” Rudyard began.
Eric cut him off. “Rudyard, I love it. Thank you. I… Oh, I have something in the oven, come in, come in, quick!”
Rudyard blinked like a startled owl as Eric rushed him through the door, up the stairs into his own section of the house, and into the kitchen.
“Oh, god,” Rudyard actually whimpered when they got close enough to smell the food cooking. Eric couldn’t help feeling a flush of pride, even as he frowned at the slightly burnt edges of the garlic bread that he pulled from the oven, and even as he handled the flowers, those precious wonderful flowers, like glass trying to get them into a vase of water.
“They don’t have to go on the table,” Rudyard stuttered, “they’re not that special, they’re just…”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Eric answered. “I want to see them. Alright, everything’s ready to go, let’s eat.”
Rudyard, as usual, looked at food like a starving man. Considering the state of Funn Funerals’ business, Eric thought with a bit of guilt, that might not be that far off the truth. Eric was glad he’d made plenty of food.
And he was certainly glad he’d focused on dessert when he brought out the cheesecake with sugared strawberries and raspberries. Rudyard’s face lit up more than Eric had ever seen. There was that eerie happiness that Georgie had talked about. Eric felt warm all over to see it.
“So,” Rudyard said, dragging his fork along his plate to pick up all the crumbs of his second slice of cheesecake, “there is… a film, now, right?”
Now this Eric would confess he had agonized over. He wanted something that would be perfect, that Rudyard would enjoy and that would make him feel comfortable and that they could sit and watch together for a few hours at least. He’d scrolled through Netflix over and over, in between checks on his sauce and quick, distracted checks on his actual business, wondering what the perfect option would be and laughing at himself that he was really resorting to “Netflix and chill.” Finally, with less than an hour to spare, he’d realized that the choice was obvious. It had been right in front of him all along.
“Right,” Eric said, leaning back in his chair and enjoying appreciating his own cleverness. “Although it’s more of a series than a film. We can just watch as much as you want before you go home. But I think you’ll like it.”
Eric piled the dishes in the sink and rested his hand on Rudyard’s back, very lightly, to guide him through to the living room. Rudyard twitched, and Eric drew back his fingers, but then Rudyard leaned back into him and Eric had a surge of hope for the rest of the evening.
They settled on opposite ends of the couch, and Eric turned on the TV and turned on Netflix, eternally grateful that that storm the year before had done whatever it had done to make the Internet accessible in more than just the Reverend’s bathroom. Rudyard made a small interested noise, obviously never having seen Netflix before. Eric, for perhaps the millionth time, realized that it was difficult to believe that a strange creature like Rudyard existed.
Eric brought up Planet Earth and set it to play from the first episode, then sat back on the cushion, spread his arms across the back of the couch, and carefully watched Rudyard out of the corner of his eye.
Almost immediately, he knew he’d made the right choice. Rudyard went from head-cocked skepticism to forward-leaning interest in minutes, his eyes glued to the screen. Eric had gotten the idea from the way Rudyard had told him all about his favorite spots outside Piffling Vale, his enthusiasm for the Scouts, his friendship with Madeline.
Eric waited, nearly fidgeting with impatience, as long as he could stand, then leaned toward Rudyard and asked, “Can I put my arm around your shoulders?”
“Hmm?” Rudyard asked, blinking back to reality and looking at Eric with big eyes. “Oh, I… Yes, if you… if you want.”
Eric scooted toward him on the couch, grinning when Rudyard met him halfway, and put an arm over Rudyard’s skinny shoulders. He didn’t press up against him, just enjoyed being a bit closer to him. Rudyard tensed for a moment when they came into contact, then relaxed, little by little, until he was leaning back against the couch cushions again, eyes back on the screen.
“Have you ever been anywhere but Piffling?” Eric asked quietly.
“No,” Rudyard answered. He answered calmly, no defensiveness, no suspicion of Eric’s motives. Just a simple answer. Then he leaned his head just slightly against Eric’s arm.
Eric’s heart beat against his ribs, and he gave up on watching the show, instead appreciating the way Rudyard fixed his rapt attention on the jungles and oceans and forests and deserts and mountains flickering across the screen. Eric imagined going on vacation somewhere with Rudyard, sailing to the mainland, sitting together on trains all the way across Europe and down into Asia, showing him everything there was to see. It was a very pleasant image.
He was getting ahead of himself, though. He’d been dating the man for five days, what was wrong with him? It was nice to think about, though.
Eric had forgotten that the first episode ended with a young orca whale attacking a young sea lion, and for a moment, he wondered if he was going to regret his choice. But then Rudyard didn’t so much lean as tilt, stiff-backed, into Eric’s side, his eyes wide, and said, “That’s dreadful,” in a voice that was half pity and half awe.
“Nature is like that,” Eric muttered inanely, distracted by the warmth of Rudyard’s body against his own, tightening his arm around Rudyard’s shoulders.
Rudyard hummed an agreement and, slowly but surely, began to relax against him. When the episode ended, he asked, “Is that all?”
“No, there’s quite a bit more. Do you want to watch the next episode?”
“Yes!” Rudyard exclaimed, excited, then caught himself and said, in a quieter voice, “Yes, I suppose, if you want to.”
Eric smiled and carefully reached for the remote, desperate not to disturb Rudyard where he was still so close.
“Rudyard,” he asked in a near whisper, deciding he could afford to push his luck. “What did you do to my roof, the other day?”
“What? Oh.” Rudyard glanced up at him and looked, by Rudyard standards, positively gleeful. “Nothing, I just said it to make you paranoid.” And he turned back to the television screen with an air of profound satisfaction. Eric could only shake his head and hurry Netflix along to the next episode.
During the second episode, Rudyard gasped at the sight of the beautiful snow leopard chasing its prey down a nearly vertical slope, and snuggled a little bit closer. Eric took a chance and put his other arm around Rudyard, as well, and held a little tighter. And when that episode was done, Rudyard didn’t even bother hiding his excitement when Eric put the next one on.
During the third episode, Rudyard made a small, unidentifiable sound at the sight of a cluster of river otters playing together on a river bank, chittering and squeaking, and he pulled his legs up on the couch and rested the side of his head against Eric’s chest. Eric’s heart leaped, and he carefully maneuvered a pillow behind his back so that he could lean back and hold Rudyard close. He couldn’t quite believe, with both his arms wrapped tightly around him now, how small Rudyard was. He looked skinny even in his bulky sweaters, but he seemed almost delicate under Eric’s hands. It was a strange contrast with his oversized personality.
During the fourth episode, as they watched pale blind cave fish circle in an underground lake, Rudyard lifted a hand and rested it on Eric’s shoulder, holding Eric’s shirt in a loose grip. Eric smiled down at him and realized that something seemed strange about Rudyard’s body, about the way he was holding himself. Was he uncomfortable?
No, Eric realized, he was relaxed. It was the first time he’d ever seen Rudyard without a thrumming current of tension running through him.
It made Eric feel… It made him feel, for the first time in a long time, completely un-alone. The loneliness that he hadn’t realized had become a yawning, biting, raw pain in his heart was gone for the moment.
And when Eric walked him across the street not much later, promising that he could come over again the next night and finish the series and already thinking of all the other nature shows he could introduce his boyfriend to, Rudyard hesitated, steeled himself, and leaned forward, slowly, carefully, and pressed his lips against Eric’s. It was brief, and it was soft, and it was what Eric was thinking about all evening, as he fell asleep smiling.