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Undertakers Undercover

Chapter Text

Rudyard's feet were pounding, his breath heaving, echoing as he tore down the alley and exploded into the square. He ran for the church across him, overshot somewhat and rounded the corner of the door rather sharply. He came to a skidding halt at the back of the pews, looked frantically about himself then made it for the confessional booth in a mad dash. Once he reached it he jumped inside, pulled the curtain and tucked his feet up and under himself on the bench. Draping his hands over his mouth he sat, trying to catch his breath, making as little noise as he possibly could.

His skittish pulse couldn't even slow before someone flung the curtain open on the other side of the box, sending his heart racing once more.

'Morning, Nigel.' Said a voice, its altogether too chipper tone grating on Rudyard's already fraying nerves. 'Enjoying yourself?'

Eric. Bloody. Chapman. 

'I hope you don't mind me popping in.' Eric's jovial voice didn't leave much room for argument, not really. 'Church seemed deserted enough this morning, so I just thought why not come by for a quick confession before you get a rush on? Where is everybody, by the way?’

"Busy hunting me down."  Rudyard thought darkly, sinking deeper in his seat. Losing himself to his miserable musings he failed to reply for a truly excruciating expanse of time so Chapman decided to press on.

'A-anyway, I came here today because... This is going to sound, um... I'm afraid I'm not terribly altogether... Basically, I've given a lot of thought to what you've asked me last time. And I've come to the conclusion that if I was hard-pressed... Like I really had to think... Well, then I'd probably have to confess that I did, indeed, have my eyes on someone. There is some in this village. But it's someone hopelessly unsuitable. It's all a really bad idea, actually, and it will lead to trouble of the worst sort. But no matter what, every minute in this certain someone's presence makes me feel alive.' Chapman admitted in a meaningful voice. Based on all his hemming and hawing, this seemed like an important revelation for him.

Rudyard, however, just groaned at it, though only on the inside. The prospect of listening to Eric go on about his romantic conquests and profess to his superior skills as a seducer stirred something deep within him.

Nausea, most probably.

So, he half emerged from his bench, reaching, ready to part the curtain and confront Chapman. Desperate to expose his embarrassing mistake and to humiliate him for his trusting naivete.

And that was when he heard Tanya's voice from the vague direction of the door.

‘Pass me the stick, Bill. He's got to be in there somewhere. I'm going to tear out his tonsils.’ 

Instantly, he collapsed back, trying to make himself as small as he can physically be. He made a little "mhmm" sound of encouragement to avoid being outed by a suspicious Chapman. Right on cue, Eric went on. Maintaining the subterfuge, yes. But making it damned hard to hear the vengeful, villainous villagers.  

‘It doesn't really make any sense. Every encounter we've had so far played out like a minor disaster. I mean, the very first thing I did was trying to ask him out for a light ale, for God's sake.’ Eric sighed gloomily then interrupted himself with a soft, gasping, indrawn breath. ‘Oh, shucks, does this count as blasphemy?’

Rudyard had no intention to answer but Chapman's words pulled an involuntary groan from him anyway. The thing is that this reminiscence sounded vaguely familiar. Familiar enough to distract him even from his current plight. It eclipsed the unmistakable sounds of the locals even as they upended the church in hot pursuit of him. 

‘Sorry about that, Nigel. But you see it feels rather embarrassing, in retrospect, inviting a man of such principle and firm conviction for a drink of all things.’ Continued Chapman while Rudyard listened on, mesmerised. 'But he looked so good in a suit and with his skin pale and drawn. And I was new, I was settling in - how was I to know?’

A terrible pressure was growing, stinging behind Rudyard's eyes. He didn't like where this was going, not one bit. The suspense had him pinned to his seat even after he caught Bill saying.

'Come away, Tanya. He must have run for the Woods instead.' 

And even though he could recognise the fading steps of the crafty couple, he lingered on. He couldn't leave now. Not without finding out what exactly was Chapman trying to confess to. 

‘I thought the whole thing was a complete write off after that, obviously.’ Continued Eric in a forlorn sort of manner. ‘I did my best to ignore it after that. The way he sweeps through my life like the gale he is. The powerful sort of magnetism between us. I tried to move on. But as I got to know him better, I realized what a charming and unique man he is. And lately, I’ve got a growing impression that he doesn’t detest me the way he used to. It’s more of low-grade resentment of the garden type these days, which gave me a small hope that our relationship could change for the better.’

There was a funny catch to Chapman's voice, a small hitch to his breath as he said that and Rudyard wanted desperately to use the natural break to shout "No it couldn't! " Sure, he was a bit less hostile, a bit more civil towards his nemesis, particularly since Nana Crusoe's funeral. 

But it wasn't to encourage him! 

Instead, he broke into a full-body shudder, shaking his head. No. There was no  evidence  Chapman was talking about him, was there? That would have been absurd. Surely Chapman meant another man of great severity and abstinence whom he'd encouraged to buy him a light ale upon first meeting. 

Right?

He just about managed to placate himself as such, soothe his fit of nerves when Chapman spoke up again. 

‘And with all that in the balance, there came a point’ Clearing his throat Eric managed to say, though his voice still came strangled. ‘where I had to admit that actually, in point of fact, I had developed some intensely conflicted feelings towards Rudyard.'

Oh, no.

'That is to say that I like him. Quite a bit.' 

Oh, Hell no.

'Love him, in fact.'  

Drat.

'There. I said it.' Eric heaved laboriously then he added with a chuckle. 'Oh, it's nice having it out in the open. I've never loved anyone so much without telling them. And now it's like a stone has been lifted from my chest, you know?'

Rudyard didn't. As a matter of a fact, he was certain that he was just experiencing a proper, full-blown aneurysm. He sensed, rather than heard a strange, popping noise in his ears, the feel of it echoing, spreading down his jaw. Like he was in a diving bell, descending too fast, the presence of the abyss oppressing him. 

This sheer, naked panic propelled him to his feet. He bounced up with such vigour that he bumped his head on the low ceiling of the booth. An involuntary whimper escaped him. 

‘Are you alright in there, Nigel? Crikey, I'm not intruding, am I?’ Chapman's voice piped up, worried and Rudyard made a guttural sound of ascent.

Yes, he was! Of course, he was intruding. He did little else but intrude since he came to the island!

‘Oh God, oh God, oh God! Believe me, I'm sorry!' Chapman was quick to volunteer. ‘I admit I got a bit carried away. It’s just that I often observe you and Desmond being so happy together. And then I remember that you'd known him for quite a while before you developed some tender feelings for him. So, I just wondered, you know, whether you can give me some advice on how to change Rudyard's impression of me?’

Rudyard was surprised to find that he actually tried to respond to that, blurting out an uninelligible string of consonants before he could stop himself. To him, it all sounded like gibberish, but Chapman must have thought it at least somewhat reassuring because he chuckled with mirth and evident relief. 

‘No, Nigel you are absolutely right. I can't spend all my time moping around! Hogging your attention, asking for dating tips when you are so busy giving moral guidance to your congregation! It's kind of pathetic, actually. No, I should just tell him how I feel, right away. It'd make things much easier, wouldn't it? Brilliant. Oh, that felt good. Thanks, Nigel, I'll be off now. Have a nice day and don't forget to enjoy yourself

And like he was predisposed to reject even the slightest of despair, Eric jumped up, energised, and left the booth actually whistling. Rudyard waited until his merry noises were out of earshot then stumbled out himself, looking like he just decided to give day drinking a bash. Supporting his weight with one hand, leaning heavily on the woodwork of the booth as if someone was busy pulling the rolling mat of the solid ground from beneath him, he reached into the pocket of his topcoat. He fished out a small, grey mouse of unusual attentiveness, brandishing a tiny pencil and a minuscule notebook only to lift her to eye level and begin to talk to her.

That was me, by the way. Rudyard’s only real friend in this world and his number one confidant. You probably know me better from my books. I am, after all, the first mouse to pen a Sunday Times bestseller – not once or twice but three consecutive times! But just in case we haven’t been acquainted, my name is…

‘Madeleine' Whispered Rudyard. ‘did you hear what I did?’

Chapter Text

Slouching his way across the length of the square, pausing and swaying in a deceitfully tipsy manner Rudyard made the short trip to his funeral home with considerable difficulty. 

Inside Antigone was moving about the hall among bouquets upon bouquets of half-dead lilies. Singing softly to herself in absent-minded bliss, she went around cutting off the heads of those flowers. She was simply collecting samples to her experiments with bespoke embalming fluids of course, but in her dark, veiling dress and with her lanky, black hair she looked like a twisted, haunting, mirror image, a ghostly gardener; fostering death instead of life. 

She snapped her head up when she heard the silver bell go and the sudden expression of avid suspicion finally lent a hint of liveliness to her otherwise pale and placid features.

‘Rudyard? You are back early. Haven't you got a funer-‘ Antigone's voice broke off and her face rearranged itself into the shape of wide-eyed surprise. ‘By Christ, Rudyard, why do you look like that?!’

‘Like what?’ 

‘Dreadful.’

Rudyard was, indeed, doing a splendid job of impersonating a cartoon character busy peeling itself from under the large, rear wheel of a steamroller. Looking even thinner, flatter and more wrung out than usual.

‘Oh why flattery will get you nowhere, you know.’ He gasped softly, but with unmistakable sarcasm as he sank in his favourite seat; the least splintery corner of the foyer.

‘I didn't mean it like that.’ Sighed Antigone somewhat more affably. ‘It's just that you seem a bit... Faint. Like you are about to expire on me. What happened to you?!’

‘Funny you should ask.’ Whined Rudyard, twisting his tie around his neck in a desperate bid to loosen it. ‘It's a terribly long and weird story.’

‘Then, by all means, keep it to yourself.’ Antigone suggested in an acrid tone, trying to turn her attention back to her flowers. 

‘It's just that as I was running from the angry mob on my heels-‘ Rudyard began anyway and the same instant the full force of Antigone's attention was on him again.

‘Mob, what mob?’

‘The angry one. With pocky sticks in their hands and bloodlust in their hearts, you know the type.’

‘No, I mean-I mean-I mean, why was there an angry mob? And why were you running from them?’ She said with an urgency that felt laced with panic. 

‘Because they were chasing after me, aren't you listening?’

‘The funeral, Rudyard tell me about the funeral.’ Antigone was demanding suddenly, her voice growing shrill reaching new and hysterical heights. ‘How did it go?’

‘Well. Wrong.’

‘How wrong?’

‘Very, very wrong.’

‘HOW wrong, Rudyard?’

‘The "Oh, dear I'm sure we had a dead body in the coffin when we started out" kind of wrong.’ Rudyard erupted in an irked huff.

‘Astonishing.’ Sighed Antigone, her breath stuttering. She was beyond angry now, mustering only a faint impression of irritation. ‘Rudyard, you surely recall us saying that this was going to be the year we started running this place like a profitable business rather than a charitable home for terrible undertakers? How could you have lost another body?’ 

‘Beats me.’ Called a voice across the room. It was Georgie who chose just this moment to enter the foyer, catching up with her harried employer at long last. ‘It defies logic. And the laws of physics, for that matter.’

‘Would you all please just hush and let me get to the weird part already?!’ Rudyard cried, trying to grab their attention

‘Rudyard. You lost a body from a closed casket on the five yards it takes to walk from the inside of the church to the cemetery. Are you trying to tell me that this  isn't  the weird part yet?’ 

‘No, because you see as I was hiding from the lynching crowd, who should I bump into but Eric "The Toerag" Chapman-‘

Eric Chapman.’ Georgie drawled meaningfully. ‘What has he done now, sir?’

There was a beat of silence for one, two, three breaths, then:

‘Professed his undying love for me.’ Rudyard whispered under his breath. 

‘Could you repeat that again, please?’ Georgie grunted at him, taken aback. She had, unfortunately, heard her boss loud and clear, despite his best efforts.

‘I said he professed his undying love for me, alright?!’ Rudyard now blurted on the top of his voice. When his exclaim died down it left a ringing echo of silence, a weighted absence as heavy against their eardrums as it was incredulous. Rudyard could have sworn that it lasted until the last recorded syllable of history.

‘No, sorry that's just a noise.’ Georgie finally concluded. 

‘Rudyard, you are not just being ludicrous?’ His sister asked almost threateningly, making it plenty obvious that she was in no mood for a leg pull. 

She rarely ever was but that is beside the point.

‘No, Antigone.’ Rudyard shook his head gravely.

‘But why would he do that?’ Contemplated their assistant, squinting her eyes into a narrow look of suspicion. 

‘I imagine because he's terribly in love with me, Georgie!’ Wailed Rudyard who was walking the fine line between equanimity and complete nervous breakdown with lamentable success. 

‘No, I just meant... Are you sure this isn't a wind-up, sir?’

‘No, it's not a wind-up.’

‘You don't know that!’ Antigone cried. ‘Georgie's right, he could be leading you on the devious, ruthless, cunning swine...’

‘No, he couldn't. Because, Antigone, he didn't know he was confessing to me. I was busy hiding in a confessional booth when he strode in and started unburdening himself, probably thinking that I was the Reverend.’

‘Rudyard, this is very important so I need you to focus. What did he say, exactly?’

‘Stated that he'd always been attracted to me, deep down and started reminiscing about the time he tried to ask me out for a light ale, that sort of thing.’ Admitted Rudyard, twiddling with the end of his tie. He seemed unable to look anyone in the eye and there was a bright red blush creeping steadily from behind his collar towards his gaunt cheeks. ‘From there he proceeded to say how he'd only just realised how deep his feelings were. Then he complained about me seemingly resenting him on a personal level before he cheered himself up somehow and dashed off to conduct a funeral. Or maybe ten.’

Rudyard was forced to wrap his story up with the airy huff of lingering defeat.

‘But that doesn't make any sense! He is Eric Chapman! And you are... Well, you are so’ Antigone cried then her voice trailed off. ‘ you .’

‘What does that supposed to mean?!’

‘It doesn't mean anything.’ Protested the mortician, growing defensive under her brother’s intimidating glare.

‘Antigone. Why is it so hard for you to believe that someone could actually love me for who I am?’

‘Because it's you!’

‘Why thank you very much.’

‘No offence.’

‘Yep, sure.’ Rudyard rolled his eyes. But without the passion of their argument to barrel him on, he simply collapsed on himself. ‘Good grief, Antigone, what are we going to do now? He's threatening to come and talk to me for God's sake.’

We?! I don't see how this affects me, Rudyard. Surely, this is your problem, not mine.’ Antigone sniffed and cocked her head up proudly before adding in an undertone. ‘Something's clearly wrong with him if he's developed feelings for you! I am only too glad that I stopped being attracted to the man well before now.’

‘Now look here... Wait, what did you say?’

‘Nothing, shut up, keep despairing.’

‘Any ideas, Georgie?’ Rudyard stared at his assistant pleadingly, but she just shrugged.

‘Don't look at me, sir.’ 

‘No, you are absolutely right.’ Rudyard nodded with sudden decisiveness. ‘This is my problem. It's my duty to deal with it. And I can only do what a responsible adult with my social standing and with my strict determination to adhere to a comprehensive moral code could do.’

‘Ignore the whole thing until it goes away?’ Suggested Georgie.

‘Precisely.’

‘And how do you propose to do that?’ Squalled Antigone but Rudyard seemed ready to present her with a plan.

‘Avoid Chapman at all costs. After all, he can hardly confess to me if he can't find me. Eventually, he'll have no choice but to realise that my absence must be intentional and that he's being ignored with great purpose. Surely, he'll abandon his advances after that and then everything will be just like before.’ Sighed the undertaker wishfully, drawing a foreboding glare from his assistant.

‘Can I just remind you, sir, that man doesn't take apathy for an answer?’

‘He will now!’ Rudyard snarled.

'And how do you want to avoid him on an island that's only a mile long? Half of which now belongs to him?’

‘Oh come on, how hard can it be?' Asked Rudyard, with a truly unjustifiable amount of confidence.

'Hard, Rudyard, very hard indeed. Is what I'm trying to imply.' 

'Poppycock.' Not exactly famous for his even temper, Rudyard seemed to have recovered his equilibrium he was so quick to lose before.

In fact, he now was as close to being a happy man as a Funn can conceivably get. And why shouldn't he be happy? He's done away with the Chapman conundrum and put the body back in the coffin and in the ground very nearly on time, all in one very efficient morning. So as long as Rudyard Funn was concerned, all was well in the world.

'You just need a sharp coordinating mind, that's all. And I've got one of those you see.' He reassured his sister then consulted the wristwatch that sat loosely on his emaciated arm.

‘Now if you'll excuse me, I'd better get move on. My shift in the Archives is about to start and I want to impress the Head Archivist with my penchant for scheduling and staunch adherence to staff rotas.’ 

Turning on his heels, practically brimming with self-importance, he made it for the door just when Antigone called after him 

'Rudyard, you do know that you are the Head Archivist, right?'

‘Yes, I do. What's your point?' 

And he tried to bid us farewell with an unfamiliar and perfectly unjust sense of confidence and elation.

But, alas, the vast and unforgiving Universe around us set out to prove once more that there was no indignity so small that it will not save it for Rudyard Funn. This time it happened through the medium of Georgie Crusoe.

'Could it wait?' She intercepted her boss' attempt at an escape. 'I've got something to tell ya.' 

'Georgie, shouldn't you be at the Mayor's this morning?' Asked Rudyard in an irate voice that failed to intimidate his assistant.

'Yep. I've just popped around to tell you about this inspection.' 

'Inspection, what inspection?' Rudyard snapped his head up and Antigone spun around to glare at Georgie, her dress billowing around her.

'We just got word at the Village Hall that the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau is coming to do their annual audit of these premises today.' 

This sounded harmless enough and Funns took it in with a degree of measured reluctance.

That's before the whole foyer erupted into panic.

Chapter Text

Georgie's announcement had two wildly different effects. Rudyard, for his part, looked as if he was about to collapse, an eventuality prevented only by Antigone, who yelled and threw her hands around her brother's lapels.

'Rudyard, she didn't say-' 

'Yes, the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau are coming here today.'

'Oh, God, why us? Rudyard, how could you have let this happen?!' Antigone demanded, shaking her brother. 

'I had no idea this was going to take place now, have I? Or do you seriously think that I would have been sitting idly by if I had even the vaguest notion that we are getting an inspection?!'

'These people are a big deal then?' Wagered Georgie, looking a bit cowed by her bosses' sudden agitation.

'The biggest deal in the business. They oversee the running of all the funeral parlours of most of Europe and all the Channels Islands.'

'What are we going to do?!' The mortician wailed.

'Antigone, calm down and try to remember how to breathe! We are not beaten yet!'

Antigone's nose flared and her brows twitched as she made a visible show of retaining her patience.

'Do I need to remind you that the moment that inspector crosses our threshold Funn Funerals will suicide into total ignominy and bankruptcy?'

'What?' Georgie, content with watching the unfolding melodrama from the sidelines so far, abruptly cried. 'Why?' 

Rudyard made a strained, pinched expression at that and even his lips were drained of blood as he muttered.

'Because Georgie. Fun Funerals fails to meet even the most basic health and safety regulations. We have no freezers, we have bodies littered all over the shop, Antigone practically lives in her mortuary and never labels her various chemicals-'

'How dare you? I label every single one of them, you just never bother to read them!' Came the mortician's protest but Rudyard just pressed on.

'In addition, we pay our employees haphazardly, if at all, we have no liability insurance, no permits and we haven't filed our taxes in years! Any one of those things would be enough to have us struck off, let alone all of them combined.'

Shuddering - and not with the thrill of the sudden turn of events - Antigone sighed.

'We are doomed.'

'What? No!' Georgie cried, turning on Rudyard. 'Sir how could you have let things get so out of control since our last inspection?' 

'Oh, that's simple enough. It's because we never had an inspection before.'

'How's that possible?'

'Probably because we never told the authorities that we were here. At first Funn Funerals remaining entirely unknown beyond the shores of Piffling Vale was just a fact of life. But as the years went by it became imperative that the Health and Safety Executive never found out about us.' Rudyard explained. 

'Are you telling me that you and your family had the better half of millennia to prepare for this is inspection and you. Just never bothered. To do so?' Georgie syllabized while a vein began to throb on her forehead subtly.

'I wouldn't say that.'

'It's because that's not what happened, right?'

'Oh no, I just wouldn't say it.' 

'Well, we had good innings, I suppose.' Antigone whispered reverently and with the thin, sad smile of someone thanking a relative for coming to a funeral. 'Five hundred years, that's not something to frown upon.' 

'Stop reminiscing.' Georgie snapped at her. 'This is far from being over. There's loads we haven't tried yet '

'Like what?'

'Like, what if we fixed all those things you've just mentioned?'

'It would still be too much, too late for us.' Antigone declared, hanging her head. 'Even if we had the necessary funds-' 

'Which we don't.' Added Rudyard.

'It would take years to bring Funn Funerals up to standard. No, Georgina. I think it's time we relinquished all hope of anything changing for the better and resigned ourselves to defeat.'

'No. No, that's rubbish.' Georgie declared, shaking her head while Rudyard turned to her with a compassionate frown.

'Georgie-'

'We'll think of something like we always do.'

'I don't see what's there left to be done-'

'We just need firm and decisive action. Speed and efficiency!'' Getting her composure back Georgie huffed, then clicked her tongue thoughtfully as she looked about herself. 'Now, what can we do if we can't let the CFB see our premises but we also can't cancel their annual inspection?' Pausing, Georgie winced up at her bosses. 'We can't do that, right?' 

'It's mandatory, I'm afraid.' Antigone confirmed while Rudyard began to brainstorm himself, albeit somewhat hesitantly. 

'What if we pretended that we weren't home until they went away?'

'I'm sure that they are used to that by now, Rudyard.'

'So what if' Georgie began, weighing each word, a bit like a reluctant, losing gambler slowly revealing their unfortunate hand. 'we showed them a funeral home that definitely meets all government guidelines. One with state of the art equipment and with all the necessary precautions in place. One that is complete with a waterslide. One just like, say-'

'No!' Rudyard gasped as both he and Antigone began to catch on. 

'Chapman's !' Whispered the latter as my friend shook his head with poorly concealed terror.

'N-n-n-now look here!' Rudyard stammered. 'That is out of the question. Absolutely not! We don't need help from that simpering tie rack-'

'Definitely debatable.' 

'Not to mention that the overzealous small-town action man, that self-proclaimed white hat would rather see us being shut down than help us lie to the authorities.'

'You don't know that, Sir!' Georgie protested. On Antigone' lips, however, a smile emerged with the cool and unstoppability of a glacier. 

'And even so - we can make him help us without him even knowing.' 

Rudyard considered this.

'You mean breaking and entering? No, that never seems to work for us.'

'We can do this, Rudyard!' Antigone enthused but her brother just spun around to glare at her.

'And if you don't mind me asking, how are you planning to gain entry unannounced, hm? Riddle me this, Antigone.' 

'Well, for one thing, we won't need to hide if we can just get Chapman to stay away from his practice for an hour or two, right?'

'That's unlikely.' Rudyard scoffed. 'That man hasn't spent more than five minutes away from his mortuary since he came to the island. No, I'm sorry, there is no force of nature, higher power or other phenomena that could keep Eric Chapman away from his funeral home. At least not long enough for us to sneak an official CFB auditor in and out of the premises, undiscovered.' 

Only Rudyard did not notice the motionless atmosphere that followed that estimate as Antigone and Georgie exchanged furtive looks, trying to appraise him with subtle side-eyed glances. That is before Georgie cleared her throat and announced.

'But what if there was a way?' In a slow and deliberate voice. 'What if his favourite person on Piffling was to pay him a visit and distract him from fulfilling his funereal duties?' 

'I'm not sure that would work, Georgie. Mayor Desmond Desmond is usually kept very busy.' 

'I'm not talking about the Mayor, Sir.' 

'Lady Templar?' 

'Think of someone closer to home.'

'You surely can't mean…'

'I surely can!'

'Madeleine?!'

'In the name of sanity- she is talking about you, dimwit.' Cried out Antigone while Rudyard began to flounder and stammer.

'W-what?! Now look here: what?!' As he backed into the counter in a terrified crabwalk. 

'Alright, Sir, relax ' Georgie stepped after him in a futile attempt to placate him. Feeling more unsympathetic, Antigone merely rolled her eyes at him. 

'You are making a scene and nobody deserves that.' 

'B-b-b-but if I'm across the square gallivanting with Eric Chapman then who's going to deal with this inspector? Hmm? Did you think of that?' Rudyard protested, his eyes bulging in panic.

Antigone remained unphased.

'I can do it.'

'You?! Antigone, when was the last time you talked to somebody?'

'I can't remember!'

'Georgie, when was the last time we saw Antigone engage in human interaction?'

The dogsbody considered this. 

'Do you remember that public hearing we had in the Village Hall last week? The one with the buffet?' 

'Yes.' 

'Yeah, me too.' Georgie sighed, staring into the middle distance with a smile. 'It was great .' 

'No, sorry Antigone, this is a terrible plan!' Rudyard began to argue as the rest of the funereal team started to round on him.

'You mean a terrific plan. Easy mistake to make, the words are very similar.'

'Antigone, I-I simply won't do it!' 

'But-'

'No!'

'Please!'

'No!!'

'For God's sake Rudyard, the future of Funn Funerals hangs in the balance.' Georgie intercepted, reaching out a hand towards her boss, much like someone attempting to befriend a distrustful cat, but Rudyard just flung himself to the side and out of reach. 'Try to get some perspective.'

'Never.' He spattered as he jumped to the door and tugged on the doorknob. A grasp, like a vice, had clamped down on him before he could high tail it into the street and Antigone hurled him effortlessly back to the middle of the foyer. 

'Rudyard, you aren't helping.' Antigone accused, and Rudyard, who sheltered behind his arms lest she decided to put him in a headlock too, had snarled back. 

'I'm not trying to help. This is my idea of the opposite of being helpful. I am here against my will and you are all going to regret it!' 

'Look, can I just have two sodding hours to implement this plan without you being so difficult about it?'

'NO!'

'Why not?!'

'Because, Antigone, this isn't a strategy, this is a cruel and unusual punishment.'

'What, having to date you? Couldn't agree more.'

'Why you despicable-'

'All I want is a chance to save our already precarious business, Rudyard. Is that too much to ask for?'

'Yes!'

Antigone's expression changed suddenly, something dark passing over her features. She contemplated Rudyard with a suspicious squint, her voice taunting as she added. 'Why? Because you are scared?'

'Of what? Chapman?! That's a slander if nothing of a sort.' Squabbled, Rudyard but Antigone just shook her head, her dark, lank hair flying about her face. 

'No!' She protested, looking her brother in the eye with a hard, unwavering stare. 'Rather you are scared of folding and letting him persuade you.'

'Persuade me to do what, exactly?!'

'To like him.'

A suffocating silence descended upon them, hanging in the air like a small storm, ready to burst. I could feel Rudyard's pulse drumming in his chest where I sat, perched in his breast pocket. His breath snagged on something tight in his throat as he spoke.

'Antigone. I'm appalled at you.' He whispered in a broken, choked voice. 'I resent the implication!'

'Oh, stuff it, Rudyard.' Antigone cocked her head up, pressed her lips together, doubling down. 'You think I didn't notice the way you feel compelled to draw his attention to you? Or how you can't get through an hour without talking about Eric Chapman?' 

Rudyard had no retort to such accusations apart from gaping and gasping at his sister, incredulously, while Georgie whipped her head around to stare at him, abhorred, the very image of betrayed trust.

'Sir?! How could you??'  

'I haven't done anything!' Rudyard cried out, finally finding his voice. 'These are lies, bare-faced lies!'

'Says you, Rudyard, but we've all got eyes!'

'Now you are just talking gibberish, utter nonsense. Have you been sampling your embalming fluids?'

'You said we'd never mention that again!'

'Can you even hear yourself, Antigone? Like him? Like him?! He is Eric Chapman. He just has to show up and everybody loves him. I can't even begin to empathise with him. Let alone like him!'

'Don't be too sure! Much like you, he is an undertaker in his mid-thirties and he is just as painfully lonely as you are.'

'I-'

'And you both seem to have matching twin passions for scoring off each other and the sound of your own voice too. It's easy to see why you two would get along when you have so much in common already.' Antigone said in a mock, overly sweet tone which made Rudyard kick off again.

'How dare you! This is completely absurd!'

'I don't know about that. Georgie?' Drawled the mortician, turning to her assistant.

'The lady doth protest too much, methinks.' She concluded, fixing her boss with a stern look and Rudyard practically howled at them in response.

'This is madness! Antigone, Georgie you know perfectly well that I hate Eric Chapman!'

'Well, prove it! If you hate him as much as you say you do then you'd have no qualms about persuading him to do your dark bidding, surely!' 

Rudyard looked up at his sister with a mixture of abject terror and lingering respect as those words sunk in. 

'Antigone, I can't believe you'd be so unscrupulous.'

'Oh, get over yourself, Rudyard.' Antigone snarled, crossing her arms and tapping her foot impatiently. 'You know I wouldn't make you go through with it if you actually liked him. And if you didn't…'

She turned her head to the side, shrugging.

'It's not like we are hurting anyone. We'll be in and out and home again before anyone has time to complain about us. Chapman wouldn't need to know a thing.'

And she looked back to Rudyard, meaningfully, who just then became aware that he’d been frozen with his mouth hanging open for the past thirty seconds. He pressed his lips together and swallowed, hard, as Antigone presented him with an ultimatum.

'So what's it going to be, brother mine? Are you going to do as you are told? Or are you just going to prove my point?' She wielded that sentence like a fist and Rudyard staggered because it delivered a punch.

He pulled himself together, shortly, enough to glare at his sister like he was trying to telekinetically strangle her and bit down on his lip before he'd exploded, same as a volcanic caldera that chose an inopportune moment to erupt.

'Fine, I'll do it. I'll somehow entice Chapman into abandoning his premises for the day.'

'Great.' Said Georgie and she began to muss his hair in a way she thought to be flattering and divested him of his tie. 

'On the condition that you tell me how.'

'I have no idea how you'd do it and I don't care as long as you make it happen.' Antigone declared, dismissing his brother's concerns while she snapped off the top two buttons of his dress shirt as a finishing touch to what Georgie started.

'But I don't know the first thing about keeping Chapman preoccupied for two whole hours!' Rudyard thought for a minute and then added. 'Or anyone else for that matter.'

'Well, you know that thing everyone says, for starters? About how you should always be yourself?' Georgie suggested.

'Yes?'

'Yeah, don't do that.'

'Astonishing.'

'Get ahold of yourself, Rudyard. If I can entertain a loathsome pervert in a yacht club for hours on end then you can schmooze with a preening egomaniac for two! Now get over there and distract him!'

'And you two?' Rudyard tried stalling but the two women already grabbed him by the arms.

'I'm going to pick up the inspector. Antigone should sneak into Chapman's mortuary as soon as you lure him away and let us in when we arrive.'

'Make sure to bring them to the back entrance lest they see the sign!' Warned Antigone and with that they lobbed Rudyard out to the square, depositing him gracelessly on the pavement, shining with a fresh coating of rainwater. 

Rudyard staggered, steadied himself in a few steps and looked back over his shoulder, only to be confronted with his sister and his assistant staring at him, towering in the frame of the door. He reached to adjust his tie as a means to compose himself and found it missing. So he settled for smoothing down his suit and whispering into his top pocket, displaying far more confidence than he actually felt.

'Alright, Madeline. Let us venture into this brave new world that has such terrors in it.'

'And Rudyard.' Antigone called after him. 'If you need us - don't.'

With that the front door shut behind us with resonating determination and we truly had no choice apart from lumbering across the square and over to Chapman's.

 

Chapter Text

To imagine what it's like to step into Chapman's funeral home you have to picture going inside a building and having your senses overwhelmed by catchy elevator music, an array of soothing colours and the enticing smell of fresh pastry. Today we were also greeted by a pleasant baritone as the proprietor himself walked into the foyer to meet us.

'Welcome to Chapman's, it's a lovely day for a funeral! Rudyard!' Eric's face did that thing where it opened up like a bright flower in bloom when he spotted his rival and competitor, hovering awkwardly under his Baccarat chandelier. 'To what do I owe the pleasure?'

Rudyard winced at his word choice and muttered a muffled blasphemy before he gathered himself and barked at his rival. 

'Now is not the time to discuss pleasure, Chapman. I came over here because I wanted to talk business with you.'

Chapman's smile remained but the rest of his face tried to sidle away from it. 

'Rudyard, are you telling me that you suddenly want to talk shop with me?'

'No, I expressly said that I wanted to talk funeral homes.' Snarled Rudyard before he suddenly remembered his objective and tried to shift gears seamlessly. 'I-I mean if it's shops you want to discuss, I'd be amenable-'

There was a moment of silence as he trailed off while, blinking slowly, Eric studied him like a cat considering whether or not to make friends. All the while Rudyard - to whom amiability did not come easy - shifted from one foot to another. Eventually, in the tense atmosphere and under the intense scrutiny, Rudyard's patience gave.

'Well? What? What is it? Go on, Chapman, say something! You can talk, can't you?!

'Yes, no, sorry it's just-' Eric stammered, took a deep breath and started again. 'Well, it's a bit sudden all this, don't you agree?'

'Now look here, the thing is that we both know that you like funeral directing and I like funeral directing, like you.' Rudyard said breezily.

Then there was a moment of funny dead air between them as he replayed his words internally and let me just say this. Never, in my long career as the first mouse to pen multiple Sunday Times bestsellers, have I seen someone both blanch and blush quite as spectacularly and in such quick succession as Rudyard did just then.

He hurried to amend in a shrill voice, of course.

'I-I-I mean, I like it like you do, not like it like I like you. That would be insane. Who said that I like you? Was it you?'

'It wasn't-'

'Good, well, keep it that way.

'Because it was you.'

Rudyard threw his hands in the air, eyes flashing, full of spite.

'Oh, for the love of- It's you who goes on and on about a grub and a catch up all the time so I don't quite see why this is so surprising to you, Chapman.'

'It's just that usually - and correct me here if I'm wrong-'

'I can. And I will.'

'Usually, you think that my every attempt to make friends is blatantly masking industrial espionage and every time I try to help you, you assume that I have some kind of ulterior motive.'

'I don't think that you have an ulterior motive, Chapman, that would be insulting.' Rudyard sniffed indignantly.

'Thank you.'

'At any given moment I always assume that you never have fewer than seven ulterior motives under way.'

'Great.' Chapman deadpanned. 'So that still doesn't explain why you suddenly want to spend time with me, of all people.' 

'Well, to my great disappointment various better offers have fallen through and I am in fact reluctantly available for that hot drink you were nagging me about.' With a calculating little twinkle to his eyes, Rudyard half turned on his heels, making it like he was about ready to leave. 'But if you are not interested-' 

He walked a few places, muttering "Wait for it, Madeline.", though the slight sheen of perspiration on his forehead undermined his confident stance somewhat. For a moment we held our breath so hard that I thought the windows might bend inwards. Then: 

'Of course I'm interested!' Chapman protested, gently grabbing Rudyard's elbow to stop him from escaping.

'You didn't sound too enthusiastic back there.' Rudyard bit out before I could warn him not to overegg it, shaking off Chapman's hand, who took a polite half step back instinctively.

'Rudyard, I'd be delighted to have a drink with you.' He assured us and my friend flashed an odious little grin at that.

'Alright fine, if you insist.'

The magnanimity in Rudyard's voice pulled a huff and an eye roll from Chapman, but still, he couldn't suppress an excited smile. Gesturing, with his head, towards the back Eric asked.

'Shall we go to Chapman's then?' Indicating the cafe on the fifth floor but Rudyard practically screamed at him in response.

'NO!'

'But it's right there-' Eric looked, quite confused, between the service door leading into the depths of his premises and a very panicked Rudyard who seemed just about ready to flee like all the angered villagers of the world were hot on his heels.

'It doesn't matter. We can't stay here and that is final!' This was less of a suggestion and more a plea of a man who was asking to leave Baghdad on account of Death coming there with the sole purpose of finding him. 

'Are you sure you are okay, Rudyard? You look a bit peaky.' Eric couldn't help but notice so Rudyard tried to visibly pull himself together. 

'Now look here, Chapman. Just because these days I think that you are not such a bad fellow in a way, it doesn't mean that I approve of your setup. I mean look around you - all these bright colours, not a speck of dust anywhere - how can you live like that?'

'So where would you like us to go, Rudyard?'

'I say on reflection we should go to the Sharp Drop instead.'

'It closed down. Something about a cyborg mouse infestation.'

'No, they've just done it up, it's under a "new management". Rudyard explained, making sure that the inverted commas clanged with irony.

'Are you sure? We should at least check before we make the trip. Phone them, book a table, that sort of thing.' Chapman ran a hand over his chin, scratching his stubble, thoughtfully.

'Jolly good. Just you do that.' Rudyard nodded with a permissive little inclination of his head while he jerked into a hasty march again. 'Meanwhile, I'll be over at the Sharp drop, sipping something called a latte. See you around, Chapman.'

Chapman startled after him with a jump, pulled in like a man-shaped loadstone, almost against his will. 

And definitely against his better judgement.

'Alright, alright. Let a man close up his premises, won't you?' He sighed with heavy resignation as Rudyard and I exchanged a look. The one thing we haven't taken into account was that Chapman would want to lock his premises! Which might sound like a given to you, dear reader, but for those of us who spent our lives on a mile-long island, where all criminal activity can be suppressed by a chocolate maker and a bucket of sand, locking front doors was simply excessive. 

It wasn't for the secretive Mr Chapman, however, who trailed us outside and pulled a sizeable bundle of keys from his jacket. As soon as he turned his back on us, I was plucked from Rudyard's topcoat as my friend whispered the words "It's all up to you, Madeleine!' and set me on the ground. I scampered desperately through the door, just before Eric closed it, nearly getting my tail caught and struggling to catch my breath as the lock turned once, twice, three times behind me. I waited a minute, until the sound of the undertakers' footsteps died down, then climbed the doorframe and began picking the mechanism. Which is relatively easy when you can fit your entire front paws and a portion of your head inside the lock. 

I finally managed to open it after some trying and not a minute too soon, as Antigone stormed in just as I hopped back to the ground, nearly trampling me in the process.

'Madeleine, there you are!' she greeted me, scooping me into her pocket as she continued, without pausing, to stride towards the back of the building. 'Where's that useless brother of mine?'

I mimed "Sharp drop" and she muttered a faint "good' in response as she made her way to Chapman's mortuary. She managed this without getting lost despite the place being a vast maze sprawling every which way. Seemingly, she remembered the layout from the time she broke in to steal supplies for the clown funeral.

We arrived at the mortuary - which looked more like a set from a sci-fi movie than part of a funeral parlour- with enough time for Antigone to engage in some restless pacing before the video doorbell on the wall came to life. Antigone jumped to it, looking even paler than usual and bleated, in an uncertain voice, down the line.

'Hallo? Ha-Hallo?'

'Antigone?' Georgie's answer came crackling and Antigone let out a breath. The dogsbody appeared on the screen, her image distorted by the fisheye lens.

'Georgie! Thank God it's you!' 

'Are you ready to see the inspector?'

'Am I ready?' The mortician hung her gaze on an invisible spot in the middle distance, her voice pragmatic if a bit philosophical. 'I think I am as prepared as I'll ever be. And it's not that I haven't enjoyed this job at odd times I can't recall right now. But if it all ends here then I can at least say, hand to God, that I've tried my best.' And then she went on, suddenly angered. 'What I'm not ready for, Georgie, is to have my fate decided by stuck up, tight-fisted, wheat tea-drinking snobbish paper pusher who- Oh, wait, I am on a speaker and the inspector can hear every word right?'

There was a moment of silence filled with nothing but white noise, emitted by the loudspeaker before Georgie finally replied.

'Yep.'

'Bring them in, Georgie.' Antigone allowed with a defeated sigh and pressed heavily on the buzzer to unlock the back entrance.

After the briefest of intermezzos, Georgie walked in with a figure in tow, who was lean, grey and severe like a line drawn in a very fine pencil. And, more importantly, extremely familiar.

'Dr Edgware? How did you get here?' 

'Interesting question. Blindfolded, stumbling after your assistant, as it happens.' The doctor explained, extricating himself from said blindfolds as he spoke, blinking blearily in the sudden brightness before his foreboding eyes focused on Antigone. Studying her like she was but a new, virulent disease. 'Miss Crusoe said it's a rule of yours, so people can't tell how they've got here.' 

'That's right.' Georgie winked at Antigone by clicking her tongue, then clapped her hands. 'Right, I'd better get going.'

'What?! Where?!!'

'To where I should have been all morning: working for the Mayor.'

'Wait! Stay here, won't you? Please stay!'

'Can't. The Mayor needs a press release on the state of those ducks on the merry go round and if I'm not at the radio station pronto he's going to do it himself. And nobody wants that.'

But before she could leg it Antigone jumped to her assistant, drawing her aside, twining her hands around Georgie's firm arm.

'Georgie! This is the worst disaster Funn Funerals faced in its six hundred year history!'

'I agree.' Georgie slowly disentangled Antigone's iron grip, patting the mortician's pale hand for comfort. 

'You do? So then-'

'That is until the next one comes along and tops it.' She concluded, handing Antigone's wrists back to her.

'Georgina!' Antigone snarled then she suddenly switched to pleading. 'This task ahead would require all of Funn

Funerals’ resources! I can't do this alone.'

'Antigone, in the past few years you've solved multiple criminal cases, prevented tax fraud, directed plays and wrote raunchy best sellers. We are the masters of our destiny and you, Antigone, are the living proof. I can't think of anyone better suited to handle this crisis.' The dogsbody listed patiently but if anything the compliments made Antigone even more bewildered.

'But I can't be!' She protested while Georgie clapped her shoulder.

'You can do this alone. And you will do this alone. I've gotta go.' 

'Georgie!' Antigone stomped, making her assistant pause in the doorway. 'You have to do what I say or else-'

There was a momentous pause before Georgie narrowed her eyes.

'Or else what?'

Antigone's drive instantly collapsed.

'I don't actually know.' She whined, wringing her hands. 'I just thought if I said it confidently enough something would come to me.'

'Well that doesn't appear to have worked out for you, does it?' Georgie grinned and she was out of the door before Antigone had time to understand what was happening, shouting. 'See ya!' As she went.

The mortician sighed then turned to face the doctor. There was a moment of silence between them that somehow went beyond silence before Antigone gathered the last of her resolve and spoke up. 

'So, doctor Edgware.' She said with more feigned cheer than she'd ever felt in her life as she turned to the physician. 'I didn't know you were a coroner as well?' 

'That's because I'm not.' Edgware sighed blearily. 'But it turns out the CFB doesn't have the manpower to conduct the audit of every insignificant institution on the Channel Islands, so the inspection of said premises falls, sadly, under the jurisdiction of the local health care providers. Not that I have the manpower, mind. But alas, I am too tired to say no.'

'I-I see.' Stammered the mortician, trying to put a smile on her face, which remained uncertain, surprised to find itself in such an alien environment. 'Well, I'm very glad to have you here.' She squeezed it out still. 'So, uhm, do you want something?'

'To audit your premises, preferably.'

'No, I just meant coffee or tea or coffee? We have a coffee machine over here, you know.'

The doctor sniffed not unlike he was sampling the air for traces of a fine brew.

'I don't suppose you stock wheat tea solely for the sake of tight-fisted paper pushers like myself?' He asked, at last, giving Antigone a long, long stare while she shrunk two more sizes in her sensible shoes.

'Eeergh-'

'Then I think that in the interest of efficiency you should let the dog see the rabbit, Miss Funn.' The doctor declared, tapping his clipboard with his pen.

'Naturally.' Antigone conceded, jumping at the opportunity. 'Where'd you like to start the tour? Do you want to inspect our freezers? Check the quality of our cavity embalming tools? The formaldehyde pumps?

'Actually, I'd like to start with you.'

'Me?!' Antigone even looked behind herself, flustered, as if she was anticipating someone to be concealed there but she was still the only living person present.

'Well, the business of death can be slightly depressing, I'm sure you'd agree, so the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau likes to make sure that despair doesn't adversely affect their charges, you see. God forbid that professional stress should affect anyone other than doctors, am I right?' The physician's face remained deadpan, though you could have cut yourself on the edge to his voice. 'Therefore today I have with me a tried and tested, dependable bit of physiological screening.'

'Oh, God!' Antigone muffled a wail.

'Don't worry, Miss Funn, it's meant to be practically painless-'

'Practically?!' 

'Though some may find it a bit intrusive. Let's start right away with phase one: can you name a time when you've felt high levels of anxiety?'

Antigone studied her shoes for an answer.

'Let me think... well, there's five seconds ago when you started to ask me all these questions.' She finally admitted while a light, full-body shudder began in her. She wiped her sweaty palm subtly against her dress while she awaited judgement, but Edgware just pressed on with a noncommittal little sound.

'Hmmm. And can you name a time when you've felt calm and relaxed?'

'One minute ago when you weren't asking me any questions.'

'What would you say is the main source of stress in your life?' The physician asked, trailing his pen further down his sheet.

'I think I'd have to say Cemetery and Funeral Bureau audits, truthfully.' 

'Do you often find that you interrupt other people's sente-'

'Literally all the time!' 

'Now please name two animals.'

'Biscuit and Rex.'

'What?!'

'Though I am also partial to the name Bingo. Depends on the species, really. What animal are we talking?' 

'That's what I was hoping to find out from y- No. You know what, never mind. Instead, tell me this. Do you consider yourself indecisive, Miss Funn?'

'Yes!' Antigone's face lit up with confidence but then her expression crumbled just as quickly. 'I mean no. I'm not sure what to say, actually.'

'Interesting.'

'Why, what was the correct answer?' Antigone stammered which made the doctor look up at her like he'd only just realised her presence. Then he went back to studying his papers, marking off several things, muttering almost as if to himself.

'And that right there concludes phase seven, of course.'

'What?' Antigone quipped but she was resoundingly ignored.

Much as I would have loved to watch this enfolding train wreck of an inspection I had another disaster, over at the Sharp drop, to attend to. I opted for a discrete exit. I was sure that Funn Funerals would lose several marks for the presence of a rodent in their mortuary, so I kept a low profile and set off towards the cliffs, overlooking the English Channel. 

 

Chapter Text

I did a fair job of getting over to the cafe. Rudyard and Chapman couldn't have been there for long themselves - due to Rudyard's machinations, no doubt, who must have been applying every trick in the book to stall them. Presently Eric was still at the counter, purchasing their drinks and smarming at Harriett Marriott while Rudyard sat at a table, guarding their place. He seemed tense and was busy working his way through his paper napkin, tearing it, shredding it into tiny little squares. If I hadn't known him any better, I would have thought he was engaged in a game of "effeuiller la marguerite". 

He loves me; he loves me not…

'Cocoa for you, Rudyard' Eric placed an overly large mug in front of Rudyard with a flourish before he collapsed in the chair across from him. He saluted Rudyard with his own drink. 'Tizer for me.'

They drank in mutual silence that was almost affectionate, before Eric leaned forward, clutching his hands around his can, suddenly all business.

'So let me get this straight.' I had the impression that he was picking up the thread of the conversation from where they must have left off as they arrived at the Sharp drop. 'You, Rudyard Funn, wish to be told how to be more popular? By me, Eric Chapman?'

To my surprise Rudyard nodded, even as he frowned, as if he was a bit unsure about this himself, taking great pains to avoid Chapman's eyes.

'On that single point, I do require your…' Rudyard's mouth pressed into a bruise as he set his teeth, toying listlessly with a dessert spoon to avoid having to gaze at Chapman.

'Rudyard, you don't need to say the word.' Eric assured him and he sounded odd too. Less chirpy and somehow lower, warmer and more grounded almost... tender.

'Thank you.'

'No, sorry, you do need to say the word.' As he looked up, and Chapman outright smiled at him, Rudyard had to fight the urge to shelter his eyes. The memory of the morning in the church came back to him, making him uncomfortably warm.

'Help.'

As much as it must have hurt Rudyard's pride to ask for something from Eric, of all people, it was still better than the alternative.

Namely, having to feign an interest in the man.

'Glorious. Naturally, I'd be delighted to be of assistance. As long as you tell me what you are playing at.'

'I did, Chapman, that's what I just did do!' Rudyard bristled.

'You never told me why.'

'It's simple. I want to be appreciated. I want people to take me seriously. And I don't want to end up being chased by a vigilante mob again. It's not so strange, is it?' Rudyard asked the tabletop, coming across much sadder than he intended, almost pathetic.

'That sounds nothing like you!' Eric declared, earning himself a truly devastating, murderous glare from the seat across. 'Rudyard, you hate people.'

'Hate is a very strong word-'

'You hate talking to them, you hate asking them questions, you hate their silly demands-'

'There, you see? I'm fine with the concept  of people. It's just all that stuff you've mentioned I can't stand.'

'So why the sudden interest in popularity when you thrive on being alone?'

'Because be that as it may, Chapman, I haven't exactly got a choice. It gives me no pleasure to admit it but nowadays putting the body in the coffin in the ground on time is simply not enough. People suddenly expect to enjoy themselves. That's what you've brought to this island.' 

'Well, now…'

'That wasn't a compliment so stop preening. But bearing this in mind, at the end of the day, when all is said and done you simply must agree that Funn Funerals has to swiftly learn to adopt and adapt! We must ramp up our operation even if it means that I have to embark on a desperate quest to curry favour with the locals. If I have to buy every loaf of bread in the Piffling bakery, take cups of tea to every workman on the island and pass several squirrels without yelling at any of them, so be it. Or whatever it is that you do to be so darn popular.' related Rudyard, holding onto his anger like a vow, his eyes brimming with intent

'Look, Rudyard, I'm not entirely sure you've thought this through. I mean, people should admire you for who you are, really.' Chapman pleaded like he was trying to talk Rudyard off the ledge - which is what was happening, in a way, I suppose.

'I think we can both agree that that's very unlikely!' Snorted Rudyard with a mixture of disdain and disbelief. 'But I've thought this through to the very last detail and that's where you come into the picture, Chapman.' 

'Bottom line here is that I'm not certain that I'm the right person to teach you common decency and basic social skills, Rudyard.' 

'I don't see why. If I'm going to wow the people of Piffling to give me their funerals then I can't think of anyone more suitable to show me the ropes than Mr Sunshine Man himself.' 

'Yes but you must appreciate that there's a certain… conflict of interest here. And besides-'

'Ah, I see. You want to know what's in it for you, I respect that. Well, I'm afraid I can't offer very much in return for it. But seeing how you are already quite strong at making people happy, putting your talent to good use should be its own reward, right?'

'Rudyard, you don't need to pay me-' Rudyard's expression grew stern to the degree of being stiff within an instance of that sentence being uttered.

'As I have said before, we are a business, not a charity.' He pouted with uppity grace. 'We'll repay you even if it kills y-'

'Because I can't do it.'

'Oh, come on! Surely "Mr Popular" must have coached people on how to connect with others before.'

'A couple of dozen, yes, but in your case… Ok, I'll say it. I'd feel like a fraud.' Eric took a hefty pause there before he added with a sigh. 'Mainly because there isn't a single thing I'd want to change about you.'

It was a heavy statement that landed between them inelegantly. Rudyard's first instinct was to recoil from it.

'You're joking.' He hissed, taken aback. 

'No, I'm not.' Eric insisted, his voice full of honesty. 'So what if you are cynical, defensive, spiky old stick-'

'Outrageous!' Rudyard rolled his eyes, but Eric wasn't done.

'If that's just what makes you so challenging, so intriguing and' The words came pouring fast from Chapman now as his gaze gradually migrated from Rudyard to the nondescript tablecloth. 'so absolutely enchanting.'

Nodding, with his ears lighting up like the brilliant, red heads of two matchsticks, Chapman tried to seek reprieve in taking a rather large gulp of his Tizer. The absolute vacuum his announcement left behind was the kind that strangled all the noise. Oh, the hustle and bustle of the cafe was still present, rest assured, but it was also far off like it was coming from behind a large pane of glass. 

Rudyard filled the awkward silence with nervous anticipation, eyeing Chapman warily, steeling himself for when he finally decided to denounce him after all or called the whole thing a hoax. But the moment never came and that made his heart do something complicated, then pick up its pace.

'Do you really think so?' He finally choked, his voice lilting, reedy. Somehow he grew even redder than Chapman, though that feat should have defied the laws of physics.

'I sure do.' Chapman doubled down and the two undertakers took a bit of a break there to look everywhere apart from each other for a while.

'Well' Rudyard finally said, clearing his throat. 'then you are alone there, Chapman. Most people are of the opinion that I am nothing but a source of irritation.'

'Stuff them.' Chapman exclaimed. 'Rudyard, if they can't recognise you for the wonderful man you are then' He took a pause groping for words. 'worse luck for them. And they can get on with their own lives, is what I say.' 

'Easy for you to say, "Best Man For Miles Around".' Rudyard argued with a rueful little smirk, catching Eric's eye for the first time in a while before his expression wilted. Growing suddenly sombre, he went on. 'Still doesn't change the fact that other people are all that is.' 

He stared mournfully to the middle distance as Chapman breathed at him, besotted and with compassion.

'Rudyard-' But before he could do or say anything he might regret, Rudyard added.

'And that none of them wants to do business with me.' With a bit more pragmatism this time.

'They don't know what they are missing.' Eric's insistence pulled a rare, self-deprecating little chuckle from Rudyard.

'Stress, chaos and a relative dead before the first one's even been buried?'

'That's not what I've meant.' Eric was quick to protest but, blushing an even more furious shade, Rudyard dismissed him. 

'Stand down, Chapman. I know it isn't. You've made your point abundantly clear. But with the best will in the world, your impassioned speeches aren't going to pay my bills. So if you could forget your reticence and give me some actual help, I'd be much obliged.'

It looked for a minute that Chapman was going to argue some more. Instead, he took another swig from his can, then set it on the table with a decisive thud and slunk back in his chair expectantly.

'Fine. Whatever you want. I am happy to try it if you think it would help. Where would you like us to start?' 

Rudyard blinked, uncertain.

'I wouldn't know where to begin, Chapman.' He stammered. 'You are the expert.'

'Alright. If it's all the same for you then let's try for some small talk.' Which was a suggestion that made Rudyard pale instantly. 

'Oh, God.' 

'My advice is that you gaze into my eyes, use my name a lot and ask me questions. That's really important.' Eric explained, in his best matter of fact voice. 'Probably.'

'And that works?' Rudyard demanded with a dubious grimace, cocking a single eyebrow at his nemesis. 

'It's what I would do.' Eric made a big, theatrical sort of gesture with his hand to invite him to speak. 'So, you know. Whenever you are ready. And just… try to really  get to know me, ok?'

'Very well. Ok, here we are. Just striking my pose. Right, yes, got to straighten up, yes.' Rudyard began to prepare with a big breath, exhaling slowly. 'Ehm, hello there, Chapman. So how did you become a mortician, Chapman?' 

'I passed the relevant exams.' Chapman's reply was flat and faintly unimpressed.

'But what motivated you?'

'Knowing that if I pass the relevant exams I'll become a mortician- Look, Rudyard when I said get to know me I meant properly , not professionally… personally, that's the word.'

'Yes, alright.' Now panicked, Rudyard's whole demeanour shifted and when he looked up at Chapman he did it with a nervous grin and big, gleaming eyes, radiating keenness beyond the boundaries of sanity.

'So have you seen any good windows lately, Chapman?' He tried and Chapman, who was caught quite off guard both by the question and Rudyard's manic energy that was intense enough to power a small nuclear reactor could only mutter.

'Oooh what?' In response.

Sensing the mishap Rudyard only grew more agitated and he floundered quickly for a different topic. 

'Or-or-or you could tell me what's your favourite current…' Rudyard trailed off.

Silence ensued, and it was of those rare ones that invited you to inspect and relive every instance of embarrassment you've ever experienced, too.

'My favourite current what?' Chapman finally prompted. But Rudyard's eyes just glazed over and became unfocused as he muttered with a defeated air.

'Yeah, no, that was it, just your favourite current.' 

'Rudyard, you want to know about my favourite current?' Chapman tried in vain to clarify and Rudyard latched onto that with a big, earnest nod.

'Yes?' He wailed miserably, offering. 'I am partial to the direct myself.'

'Well, I suppose-' Eric, who had the good grace to actually entertain the notion, slowly began but across from him Rudyard just collapsed, burying his face in his palms with a touch of theatricality even Antigone would have appreciated.

'No, forget it.'' He emerged from the shelter of his hands, flashing mean eyes at Chapman like he was to blame somehow. 'Your advice is ridiculous. The enormity of this task is simply overwhelming. Every time I seem to be getting anywhere I speak my mind or say the wrong thing. Usually both at once.'

'All you need is a bit of practice, Rudyard, honest-'

'Nope, it's too late, the damage is already done. I give up. This way if I get destroyed at least I am getting destroyed with dignity. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll just grab my cocoa and be off-''

He half rose from his chair, looking ready to flee, but Eric held onto his sleeve. 

'Rudyard, stay calm, there's no need to get upset-'

'But what's the use? All your stupid plan has accomplished was to humiliate me in public.' Rudyard complained, graciously ignoring the fact that plan was all his.

'Oh come now, Rudyard, that's not true at all.' 

'Well, thank you, Chapman, I really appreciate the sentiment but-'

'You've accomplished that part all by yourself.' Chapman offered a conciliatory smile even as he teased. But Rudyard just huffed and looked about ready to flee, CFB audit and his cunning strategy be damned.

'That's it, I'm leaving.' He declared but Eric wouldn't let him.

'You can't give up now!' He pleaded. 'You were getting so close to approximating normal human behaviour.'

'Now look here, Chapman.' Rudyard declared passionately in a voice that was both angry and reverential. 'I am Rudyard Funn and I will always be Rudyard Funn. And if that means that popularity will forever elude me, so be it! I am who I am. But I've got to keep going, regardless, until I save my business. Or the very least until I die trying. At least that way I'll be able to live with myself.' 

To which Eric could only nod, albeit with a tad of confusion.

'That nearly made sense.'

Rudyard gathered his breath for what I am sure was going to be a devastating retort. But just that moment the cafe's door flung open and the people who entered were about as familiar as they were unwelcome.

'My God, Bill. This place hasn't changed a bit.' Tanya announced into the ambience of the diner. She was still wearing her dark dress from the wake but appeared to have left the mourning itself behind, beaming up at Bill, who added.

'It brings back so many memories, doesn't it?'

Tanya's face faltered.

'You know the last time I came here it was with…' her voice began to tremble. 'It was with…'

'You don't need to say it, darling.' Bill squeezed her arm gently, but she shook him off.

'No, no, no, let me do this Bill.' Tanya insisted, but when she tried to push through she burst into sobs nonetheless. 'It was with… Oh, God.'' 

Over at our table, Rudyard suddenly ducked back in his chair and behind an overlarge menu, whispering urgently at Chapman, while Bill pulled Tanya in his arms.

'Drat. Quick, Chapman, do something!' 

But this was the worst possible thing to do, or so it seemed because the sudden movement only alerted the couple's attention.

'Hey, isn't that Rudyard Funn?'

'What is it that you want me to do, Rudyard?' Eric hissed back.

'Hide me!' Rudyard begged, trying in vain to fuse with the table, but it was no use.

'You've got a lot of nerve, coming here after your last so-called funeral, mate!' Bill hollered, starting to charge towards us and Tanya cheered her on by shouting

'Burn him!'  

Chapman was about as quick to react as was Bill. Seeing how he was still holding Rudyard's cuff he simply shifted to clasping his hand and pulled Rudyard out of his chair and after himself. Rudyard just about had the presence of mind to swoop me up from where I was hiding behind a mustard jar, eavesdropping, and take me with them.

'There's only one thing we can do. When I say run, run.' Chapman urged. 

'Chapman there's nowhere left to run!'

'Yes, there is. Through the kitchen!' 

'But that's for staff only.' Rudyard protested, dragging his foot. Which was a completely inexplicable bit of reticence from a man who only had a very fast and loose relationship with legality otherwise.

'We've got no other means of escape, trust me.' Chapman called over his shoulder, already pushing through the service door, Rudyard in tow. 'And besides, I've done this before. A long time ago.'

The kitchen was long, narrow, opened to a dark and dodgy back alley and had only one cook manning it, who was too overwhelmed to react to our presence and got further confused by the fact that Chapman stormed through his premises shouting "Pardon! Excuse me! Enjoy yourselves!" and other nonsensical bits of politeness. We passed through the mess hall without an incident, apart from the one time Chapman had to bodily tackle a sudden waiter who was too slow to swerve out of the way. Which was a move that filled Rudyard's gaze with admiration and Chapman's waistcoat, trousers and shoes with hot broth. We poured to the winding back streets of Piffling, with the undertakers still joined by the hands, while behind us Bill was held up by a now irate chef. 

Tearing through the village, staggering to a halt at the High Street in a short while, the two men struggled for breath but giggled like naughty school children all the same, still high on adrenaline. Once we stopped they took their sweet time composing themselves. Rudyard by straightening his suit while Chapman quietly dribbled beside him. 

'You know what, this was a funny experiment and everything' Eric concluded with an airy laugh while squeezing the richest soup Piffling had to offer from his sleeves. 'but I'd better shoot back to work now.' 

'What? Already?' Rudyard startled, consulting his watch and realising that barely an hour had passed from the promised two. 'Why?'

'To change clothes, preferably.' Chapman explained as he already started towards the square. 'I wrecked up quite the dry cleaning bill since I moved to the island, let me tell you that!

'Yes, right, quite.' Rudyard agreed, lingering on the pavement, taking this opportunity to gently grab me by the scruff of my neck, scoop me from his pocket and deposit me on the ground. 

'Madeleine, you've got to warn Antigone. She must abort the plan.' 

I could feel my heart rate increase to an almost painful pace as I nodded. Yes, it had fallen to yours truly to sort things out again.

But oh, was I getting too old for this!

'Good luck, Madeleine. And remember: the fate of Funn Funerals is in your hands.'

 

Chapter Text

I managed to beat the undertakers to the square but just about.

The cobbles shone anew in the sunlight, after a drizzle when I arrived back and a rainbow hung in the sky like a cheery banner or an inverted, toothy grin. Inside Chapman's, both Antigone and the doctor have progressed from hovering awkwardly by the back door towards the depths of the mortuary. Presently, Antigone was sprawling on an autopsy table, her hands clasped, draped over her stomach, eyes trained on the ceiling while, seated beside her, Dr Edgware dosed lightly over his notes as she droned on.

'And the thing is, I just don't think I've ever really been happy, not in a - you know - broad, existential sense.' She elaborated just that moment. 'Ever since I can remember, even from childhood, I'd see all the happiness around me and have a sense of myself as a separated being, standing alone in the dark, looking at but unable to reach the light that others seemed to experience as their due...'

Coincidentally, this was also the moment when Dr Edgware startled himself into wakefulness with a loud snore. He blinked from his clipboard to Antigone and interrupted her stream of consciousness by intercepting:

'Yes, thank you, Miss Funn. This was an extremely thorough answer to what seemed like a simple question. And that just about concludes my psychological examination too.'

'Oh, I see.' Antigone hopped off the table, looking strangely invigorated and turned to the doctor with a touch of trepidation. 'And what's the verdict?'

'Just as I've suspected, staff mental health and employee satisfaction levels leave something to be desired but it's nothing that can't be remedied if you just keep taking the pills.' 

'What pills?' 

'Take your pick.' The doctor suggested and turned out the content of his pockets into Antigone's palms, handing her several medicinal looking things, among which I spotted some Aspirin, some Ritalin, three chocolate M&Ms, Adderall, a box of breath mints, Codeine and a packet of silica gel. 

'I suppose you'd like to see the premises now?' Antigone offered, cradling the collection awkwardly, but Dr Edgware just waved her off.

'Oh no, that won't be necessary.'

'No?'

'No. After all, it was all fit for purpose when I came here to inspect it but one week ago. I'm sure it will still suffice.'

There was the unmistakable noise of an assortment of tablets hitting the floor as Antigone plastered her hands over her mouth to suppress a cry. I shambled closer, unseen by human eyes, to catch a better view of Dr Edgware's face, settling into a grim expression. 

'Of course, this has all belonged to Mr Chapman back then. Which I'm sure it continues to do so, if the monogrammed stationery, labelled E. C., over at that desk is anything to go by.' 

The room fell silent, its silence deepened by the desperation rolling off of Antigone.

'Miss Funn, what were you thinking?' Dr Edgware asked. He tried to remain reasonable and calm but there was a harmonic of murder in his voice.

'I wasn't-' Antigone began but the physician wouldn't let her finish.

'No, I know you weren't thinking. But you do know what happens now, don't you? I should not let you stay open. I should shut you down. I fantasize about that sometimes.'

He said that last bit wistfully while Antigone hung her head in defeat and shame. Only to be startled into being torn between exultation and despair when the doctor added.

'But, alas, I won't.'

'You won't?' Antigone snapped her head up and the doctor's expression, which usually looked like a toothache, softened.

'No. I'll cut to the chase with you Miss Funn because I like you.'

'You-you do?'

'Of course I do. You are, underneath it all, inherently kind. Unfortunately, it does come with that indelibly etched propensity of yours towards violence and petty fraud, mind you, but you still are the only patient I have that asks me "How are you?" back when I do their annual check-up and I know of nobody else who'd hung up with "Ok, love you, bye!" when I phone them up to come and get a dead body from St Pratt's.'

Glowing an unfortunate shade of red in the harsh, halogen light Antigone just muttered:

'Those things happened by accident. It was just me feeling flustered and-'' But the doctor remained undeterred.

'Either way, I am about to give you a second chance. For this and because you and your brother are practically an institution on Piffling. Or should be in an institution but at any rate, it wouldn't be the same without Funn Funerals around and that's the truth.'

'Certainly not for us, no.'

'My life would be much easier, for one thing, but because I am a pillar of professionalism, I won't allow any of that to interfere with my treatment of you. But when I come back I don't only expect to see "significant improvement in the human relations area" but also a spick and span mortuary that is perfect to the very last detail.' Edgware explained with strained patience. Not that he had any other moods apart from strained, mind. 'So I'll be seeing you again in... Yes, in six months, I think.'

'SIX MONTHS?!'

'I'm glad we agreed. And it won't be a day too soon.'

'Yes, well, of course, doctor-'

'And I want to see a mortuary that actually belongs to  you  next time around. Or I'll have no choice but stop giving you the benefit of the doubt in the likeability stakes and have you suspended. Permanently.' The physician added in a grave voice, turning slightly on his heels. 'Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a lot to do. Stitching some bones together, removing wounds or something along those lines. Evening, Miss Funn.'

'Goodbye, doctor.' 

With that Dr Edgware shuffled through the back door which Antigone locked up behind him, leaning on its heavy, metal frame, looking like she'd just been fed through a toffee puller. The ruse was up now, of course, but I still thought it to be prudent to leave the premises sooner rather than later. I explained to Antigone that the rightful owner was well on his way back, but in vain of course. She never could understand me.

'Alright, alright Madeleine, I am coming, keep your fur on!' Still, she muttered because my restless pacing conveyed some of the urgency. She kept dragging her feet, however, so I rushed ahead and clambered outside through the convenient crack in the foundation I had discovered when I had to force my way in, upon return. 

Only to be confronted with the two other undertakers, just arriving back to the square.

Eric was gesticulating as he walked, explaining something to Rudyard with panache, while Rudyard ambled by him, looking lost in thought, worrying a loose thread on his sleeve but still humming in response at the appropriate breaks in the conversation.

'Anyway, I should thank you for today, Rudyard.' Chapman just said as they came within earshot and Rudyard was quick to concede. 

'Yes, you should.' Before his face contorted into a dubious frown. 'But what for?'

'Well, for one thing, you'd given me some exercise.' Chapman cackled, then rubbed the back of his neck, a sudden, great nervousness fizzing behind his winning smile. 'Do you- do you- do you' he stopped, sighed and started again. 'do you want to do this again sometime?'

Rudyard gave him a dumbstruck, side-eyed glance in response.

'What, really?' 

'Absolutely. I had great fun. Apart from the "getting soaked with soupe de poulet" part, granted, but still, it got me out of the office at least.' Eric had a little, anxious lilt to his chuckle as he continued. 'A-and you've made tremendous progress already, so all told this wasn't a bad outing at all.' 

'I didn't hate the whole thing myself, Chapman.' Rudyard slowly admitted. 'Perhaps even I could give a bash to... socializing sometime in the future.'

I was in a mad rush to approach them but this made me nearly trip over my paws. I couldn't understand what was happening. Rudyard had no  reason  to make such an arrangement! What was he playing at?

There was no time to unpack all that, however, because Chapman went on to ask. 

'So you wouldn't say no to having that light ale after all? Compare notes, swap stories, down the pub? That sort of thing?'

It was while he posed that very question that Rudyard finally spotted me, scampering desperately up and down the square in an attempt to catch his attention. Even he must have been able to put together that I failed to remove Antigone from the premises because his eyes glazed over in pure, unadulterated horror.

'Did I say something wrong, Rudyard? Only you are standing there with your mouth open.' Chapman wondered, turning slowly to follow Rudyard's wide-eyed gaze and that finally had the power to jostle the other man from his stupor.

'No-no, certainly, a light ale, what are friends for if not to go out to get a light ale?' He stuttered, pulling Eric's attention back on him and away from me.

'Tremendous.' Chapman enthused with a great, big, shuddering breath of relief. 'Super, couldn't be happier, super! Right-o. Got you in the diary.' He flashed a smile that had the scorching glow of a thousand suns, before he turned and started for his funeral home again. 'See you around, Rudyard and don't forget to enjoy yours-'

Eyes flailing, ricocheting in their sockets Rudyard cast a desperate glance about himself for an excuse, any excuse to further stall Chapman and finally blurted.

'What about dinner?' This had the desired effect because Chapman's purposeful march petered into a stop.

'Well, what about it?' He mumbled, facing Rudyard once more. 

'W-would you like to have dinner tonight?' 

'I like to have dinner every night.' Eric posited brightly with stubborn obliviousness. 'Now, if that is all you wanted, I guess I might just-' 

'More specifically, would you like to have dinner with me?' Rudyard interrupted him again and Chapman's chest rose as his breath faltered making it transparently visible just how his heart swelled and soared hearing those words His grin grew even wider, spilling across his face, gracing his features in its full, blinding glory as he but shouted.

'Oh, blimey. Well yes, bloody yes, of course!' In response. 

He traipsed back to Rudyard with a spring to his steps, words flooding from him in a continuous tidal wave of elation.

'Oh, amazing! Great stuff!' He kept exclaiming, laughter threatening to bubble up in him with each sibilant and it seemed for a minute that everything was going to turn out just fine. 'I'm all aflutter. I would have asked you myself, you know, but I wasn't sure if you would have approved-'

And yet, just then, Antigone appeared, proving once more that providence would not deliver the Funns, no matter what. She threw open the front door, tumbling to the street, the notes of Chapman's distinct lounge music floating, pooling around her. Eric pricked up his ear when he picked out the tune from the usual background ambience of the sleepy village. And now, with his interest piqued, there was no chance in Hell that anything was going to keep him from discovering the intruder, hovering on his very threshold, frozen in complete terror and with total and utter indecision-

'Wait a second! Is that you An-?' 

But it was in that moment when, driven by a sudden inspiration, Rudyard lunged forward, grabbed Chapman by the collar and spun him back from where he was already poised to look at his premises. Moreover, he pulled on Chapman's suit, dragging him down, trapping his sworn enemy as he smashed their faces together to the surprise of everyone present - Eric and himself included. His wild, bloodshot eyes bore into Chapman's as they both struggled to process what was happening while their lips locked in the least affectionate kiss in the long history of smooches. In the background Antigone pulled herself miraculously together and propelled herself across the square, shooting past the two of them without either man paying her the slightest regard. Only when she was safely back behind the weather-worn door of Funn Funerals did Rudyard finally release Chapman, the two of them stumbling apart like they had some invisible force to fight.

Eric took a breath like a diver out for air, his face going unbearably soft and then he was stumbling back towards Rudyard, steps heavy with intent while Rudyard scampered backwards, nerves written all over him. And not just ordinary, run-of-the-mill panic. It was the raw, undiluted expression of the fear of one's imminent demise. 

'OhGodWouldYouLookAtTheTimeWeShouldProbablyTurnInSoonI'mAfraidWeHaveToLeaveThingsThereForTodayChapmanOhDamnWhatAPityWhatAShame.' Rudyard rattled this off in a single, breathless, continuous sentence kicking up gravel as he took off towards the safety of his funeral parlour in a flying start.

'Wait, Rudyard-'

'Bye now!' 

I barely had time to scamper inside before the door banged shut behind Rudyard, with a certain finality, as he made his hasty escape. But mice have an instinct for unfinished business and I could tell that things weren't over yet.

Rudyard, for one thing, was not off the hook. Antigone appeared in his line of vision as soon as he entered, her anger mounting, gathering like a storm brewing on the horizon.

'Would you mind telling me what was that about, Rudyard?'

'Yes, of course.' This was followed by a lengthy, pregnant pause, each excruciating second of it more awkward than the previous one until Antigone decided to break the silence.

'And?'

'Yes of course I would mind telling you. Jesus Christ. Honestly, I had no idea this was going to be so difficult! Try and save the family business and where does it get you? You end up having to snog your sworn enemy…' Rudyard's pale face bore for a moment the pained expression of a man forced to betray his own highest principles. He touched his lips surreptitiously where they still tingled with muscle memory as if they'd fallen asleep.

'Well nobody has asked you to do that!' Antigone burst out irritably, drawing on herself her brother's baleful attention.

'Antigone, I'd appreciate it if you stopped giving me a hard time' Rudyard enunciated slowly, every syllable crisp, sharpened by the edge of his repressed anger. 'and instead told me how the audit went.'

The mortician's natural cynicism suddenly deflated, giving way to trepidation.

'That's rather difficult to answer. You see I let the inspector into Chapman's mortuary-'

'M-hm.' Rudyard's hummed, fury simmering just above the surface like a mirage.

'Who turned out to be Dr Edgware, by the way-' Antigone began twiddling her thumbs nervously.

'M-hm.'

'And we got talking and he asked me all these questions about my feelings, so-'

'Antigone?' Croaked Rudyard, sounding strangled, husky.

'Yes?'

'Did we just fail the inspection?'

'Well, sort of, maybe, yes entirely!' Antigone yelled while Rudyard made a mewling cry of despair at that, tenting his fingers against his temples.

'Oh, God, it's another fiasco!'

'Rudyard, I know it looks bad, but Dr Edgware said he'd give us a second chance.' His sister stammered in one breath. 'I promise to you, when he comes back in six month's time we'll have the mortuary fully ready-'

'Six months?! That doesn't give much time, Antigone.'

'Yes, I know but we've come this far, we've survived this much, haven't we?'

'And yet you have managed to destroy us at last.' Rudyard breathed, his eyes going unfocused, the skin above his lips turning clammy. 

'Excuse me, Rudyard but I think we can both agree that none of this is my fault!' Antigone snarled, clutching her anger like a shield. Rudyard, in return, just sounded defeated, his voice rising strained from his chest.

'No, you are absolutely right.'

'Thank you.''

'I should have realised something like this would happen and stopped you in advance.'

'Hey! How dare you! I am the one doing the rounds, conducting the hard graft, leveraging everything in my power to save this business and I am the one who gets blamed?'

'Well, none of it helped!' Rudyard screamed in reply. By now his whole, lean body was trembling which made his sister draw closer to him with a protective instinct deeply ingrained in her. 

'Rudyard, you alright?' She asked gently. 

'No, I am not "you alright".' Rudyard snarled but even his snark was all shaky and bereft so Antigone shepherded him to the counter, propping him gingerly against their last remaining piece of furniture.

'There, there, Rudyard, come lean on something.' 

'Antigone, I don't think we'll make it this time.' Rudyard admitted, looking a bit more composed now that he was posited next to something solid.  

'Shh, it's ok. We've got to.' Antigone declared, softly but categorically, with the unwavering determination of those for whom failure simply isn't an option, whether they like it or not. She was rubbing soothing, concentric circles on her brother's back. 'And, besides, just because we painted ourselves into a corner with no viable escape, no backup plan and no means to fund it there's no reason for us to feel distraught. After all, we can't just give up!'

'Of course we can, it's very simple, look I'm doing it right now!'

'Rudyard, we've got to try.'

'Why? Why should we? What's the point, Antigone? How often can we keep falling and failing? What is the point? Just because we've been narrowly avoiding bankruptcy for the past few years it doesn't mean we should keep doing it. We've kept the business going for five hundred years, that should count for something. But now is the time to draw a line in the sand and say "no more"! We shouldn't limit ourselves. We should give up funeral directing and declare: "My life has meaning" beyond having to seduce my rival, MY GOD.'  The mere recollection seemed to give rise to mental images that would haunt Rudyard for quite some time. Suddenly shying from his sister's hand, he jerked violently towards the door. 'No, Antigone, we were beaten at last and we have to accept it.'

'Look, you've got a lot on your mind right now, I get that but that doesn't mean that we should give up. Rather we've got to do something I have never done before! We've got to believe in ourselves!'

'And why should we start doing that now? And where's Georgie? Where's that girl get to when you actually want her?'

'She's over at Jennifer Delacroix's studio-'

'You mean her parents' kitchen?'

'-giving an update about the state of the ducks in the merry go round, but why- 

'Outrageous! We pay her wages, give her every opportunity and she spends half of her time working for the Mayor? That's it when she comes back she's sacked.'

'No, she isn't. She's the only one who knows what needs doing around here. We wouldn't last five minutes without her. And why on Earth, dear brother, do you need her now?'

'Because, Antigone, I want to give her a piece of my mind! Her ploy was ridiculous. We are Funn Funerals, damn it. We don't need to rely on obvious lies and underhand tricks.'

'It does seem that we are perfectly capable of running ourselves into the ground without either of those things.'

'Was that supposed to be a joke? Because I've read autopsy reports funnier than this, Antigone.'

'Alright, alright. Now stop trying to sneak away, Rudyard, where are you even going?'

Rudyard, who was indeed ambling for the front door, increment by imperceptible increment, now stopped to consider this. 

'Insane, most probably.' He confessed 

'Listen to me, Rudyard! By the look of you, you may well be having a stroke, so why don't you wait a split second and sit here for a while-'

'No time for that now, Antigone! I've got to get to Georgie, quickly, while the coast is clear! Time to make a getaway!' 

At this point, Antigone, who had enough routine to recognise the onset of her brother's violent monomania, decided to stand down and let events follow their own, natural, disastrous path.

'Alright, alright just... stay safe, ok?' She simply asked, with an unusual, tender quality to her deep voice. But Rudyard, sliding into full-blown madness and eager to leave, just dismissed the sentiment, irritably.

'It's not like I have any say in the matter.'

'Fine, die then.' Antigone snapped in response just as her brother silently slipped into the obligatory afternoon gale.

Chapter Text

Rudyard approached the building the village so generously dubbed a "radio station" in what was possibly the most circumspect advance in the history of manoeuvres, ducking into increasingly wet alleyways and diving into dipping bushes. He did manage to avoid meeting anyone but mainly because no one felt like braving the storm.

When he finally exploded into the "studio" Jennifer was just wrapping up her biggest exposé to date.

'So, just to recap for our listeners who might be struggling with a similar wading bird infestation- Hey, Mr Funn! Mr Funn, what are you doing? You can't just come barging in here!'

'Can't I? I thought I just did.' Rudyard replied testily before he turned on his assistant. She blinked up at him, from underneath her headphones, without outright smirking but still somehow looking amused.

'Oh, hey Sir.'

'Don't give me that, Georgie!' Rudyard growled and his dogsbody's mood slipped into alarm as she took in his drenched and dishevelled state more fully.

'Sir, are you ok?'

The question seemed to take Rudyard completely by surprise. He opened his mouth. Then he shut it. Then he opened it again but was, still, unable to find a repartee apart from repeating.

'I'm-I'm so…'

'How did it go with Chapman?'

'Let me tell you how it went, shall I?' Rudyard, who grew suddenly incensed, became able to formulate a response at once. 'It was awful. It was excruciating. I've never been so humiliated in my life!'

'So, about as well as can be expected, right?'

'Georgie!' 

'Care to tell me what happened exactly?

'What are you suggesting?! You know perfectly well that nothing could ever happen between Chapman and me.' Rudyard stammered, his pitch climbing into a higher and more hysterical register with each sentence, his eyes flashing left and right like a startled horse's. 'And, in fact, that's just what happened. Nothing! Who said that anything has happened? Prove it, I defy you.' 

'I meant with the audit.' Georgie supplied and that seemed to placate him somewhat.

'Ah, yes, well we've… blotched that.'

'Excuse me, Rudyard. You hadn't come here to tell me that you've failed an audit that I've basically handed you on a plate, right?' With the amount of vitriol that steeped Georgie's voice, she could have practically spat lacework in a sheet of steel. 

'No, I haven't-' Rudyard told her at the same time as she said.

'Good.'

'Because that was Antigone.' 

'I can't believe this! Sir! How could you have failed to pitch Chapman's picture-perfect mortuary anything other than exemplary utterly floors me!!' Complained Georgie, fixing her boss with a disbelieving look. 

'Never mind about that now. What I did come here to tell you, is this: I'm done with this pretence-'

'What pretence?' Georgie frowned.

'I quit creating this pathetic tissue of lies-'

'What lies?'

'This ridiculous scheme in a long line of ridiculous schemes, this cause so lost it might as well have been another universe.' Rattled Rudyard, his voice becoming a frantic, scattered thing. 'I'm talking, of course, about my attempt to mislead Chapman-'

'You mean seduce him.'

'I mean mislead him with my friendly demeanour just so we could use his mortuary for our own, selfish purposes. Contrary to the general perception of me I do know where the line is.' Rudyard declared with his eyes flashing in offence. 'What we did there it was- it was wrong!'

'Well, exploiting people for your own ends isn't exactly a morally grey area.' Georgie conceded, tentatively.

'Yes, thank you, precisely.'

'Still, it never bothered you before. Sorry, is this about what Antigone said? Because you've got tee-aitch-i-ess "thing" for Chapman?'

'Georgie you can say this, it's the thing part that I resent!' Rudyard's voice was flat, faintly unamused.

'Because you do have a thing for him?' 

'Well, if by "thing" you mean "I loathe him and every aspect of his personal philosophy to a depth unplumbable by any line" then yes, certainly.' Rudyard protested. 'Georgie, there are rocks littering the shores of Piffling with more personality than Chapman!'

'And you sure that you don't want to keep on deceiving him?' Georgie asked, schooling her face into a neutral expression. 'He still has all these feelings for you. And it would be right up your alley to manipulate him, along with all those other acts of subversion you've committed. It's almost tradition at this point. And the sensible choice, really.'

'No, thank you. I am proud of what we accomplish at Funn Funerals and you should be too! So no more scamming, no more fixes! From now on I want order in my funeral home, I want professionalism, I want impeccable business ethics-'

'Embezzlement would be easier.' 

'And I do not want Funn Funerals to be implicated in anything even vaguely underhand, understood?' 

'You really are serious about this, aren't you?' Georgie narrowed her eyes, careful to tuck her surprise behind a practised expression of calm resignation.

'Yes, I am!'

'Alright, Sir. Understood.'

'W-what?'

'Consider it done.'

'Yes, right, well, thank you.' Deflating, Rudyard now looked about himself, groggily, like he just woke from a terrible dream in slow increments. Clearing his throat, avoiding the eyes of everyone present he said. 'Well, now that this has been sorted I'll just-' When a little, involuntary whimper escaped him like it was ripped from his throat. 'Miss Delacroix?' He turned to the host, his voice a breathless whisper. 'Why is your "On Air" sign lit up like that?'

He pointed a finger at the offending item that glowed above their heads in a bright, cheery red.

'Probably because we are still on the air.' Jennifer supplied unhelpfully. The corner of Rudyard's eye began to twitch. In the ensuing, oppressive silence a curse tumbled from Georgie while her boss remained lost for words as it was often his habit at times of great distress.

'Bloomin' heck.'

'Manners, Georgina.' Rudyard snapped on instinct, only half-conscious of what he was saying.

'Oops, sorry. Blooming heck, Sir.'

'Now I know that this looks bad, I'll grant that' Jennifer made hypnotic, soothing motions with her hand as she could sense the building tension in the air. Mostly because Rudyard set about pacing her family's kitchen like an aggravated rhino in a cage. 'but the important thing is we don't-'

'Panic?! I hope you do realise, Miss Delacroix, that this doesn't sound as half as reassuring you think it does. I mean, no one ever tells you not to panic unless there is something to panic about!'

'Listen, Mr Funn, what we have to remember is that we must keep calm, apply logic and good old fashioned stiff upper lip and we mustn't, under any circumstances, get mad at me.'

'Wait, why would he be mad at you?'

'For this.' Leaning to her microphone Jennifer put on her upbeat announcer voice, saying. 'Well, you've heard it here first, listeners! Eric Chapman's newest dalliance is none other than his funerary rival, Mr Rudyard Funn! Stay tuned for an update on our star crossed lovers - after a brief recess and a word from our sponsor!'

With her tagline finished Jennifer turned on the familiar "Piffling FM '' chime, started playing a pre-recorded tape (something about mattresses) and finally, mercifully, shut off their mics. Then he spun in her chair to face her incredulous girlfriend and the village pariah, who started at her at once.

'Jennifer!'

'Miss Delacroix, how could you?'

'I was just trying to do a bit of damage control, that's all.' She held her hand up, somehow giving the impression of retreating though she was still sat, motionless, in her chair. 'If you can't do much worse than you've already done, the best thing is to press on the world and pretend you wanted it like this all along, right?'

'No, that's rubbish.' Georgie declared and her every word had barbs on them. 'That's the last thing you should do.'

'Miss Delacroix, when people find out about this, they'll start to imagine all manner of things about me and some of them might be right but a lot of them will be wrong and I don't want to think about anything ever again!' Rudyard's voice was getting higher as he spoke again, breaching ultrasound territory. 'Now if you'll excuse me I'm off to take a cyanide capsule.' He declared, staring gloomily ahead of himself.

'Look, it could still be alright. I refuse to believe that the situation is unsalvageable. For one thing, there's a rerun of The Archers on the World Service about now. Chances are that no one was even listening to us, right Jen?'

'Well, the thing is that I'd love to disagree with you. And I think I have to now! The lines are burning! I have four whole callers. Unprecedented!'

A fear fizzled from one person to another in the room.

'Make it stop, Georgie.' Rudyard asked his assistant in a grave voice, looking like his soul had just been pulled clean out of his body. 'Make it all go away.'

'What do you expect me to do?!'

'Well, you are great at-'

'Great at what?' asked Georgie as mildly as she could, though the effect was undercut somewhat by the way she spoke through gritted teeth. 'What is this skill in this particular situation that you think I can bring to help you with this predicament? I'm genuinely curious.'

Rudyard's lips milled uselessly for a moment around some half-formed sentiments. Then he collapsed in on himself.

'Oh, what's the use? This scandal will ruin us.'

Finally taking pity on her aggravated boss Georgie suppressed her agitation and patted Rudyard's shoulder.

'Nah, it's alright. Even if they did hear you it's a storm in a teacup you'll see. It will all be over in a jiffy. Now let's get you back across the square and into Funn Funerals. Would you like that, Sir?'

Clutching at this last sliver of hope Rudyard smiled weakly, giving altogether the air of a maiden with consumption as he allowed Georgie to usher him towards the door, meekly.

'M-hm.' He muttered with a distant, dreamy gaze while his assistant nodded sagely beside him.

'Course you would. And we can get you some nice food and some hot water, strong, just as you like it. And when you wake up tomorrow, all this will have simply gone away.'

Pausing on the threshold for a minute, just before he stepped into the outside world, Rudyard's eyes clouded over with genuine horror for a moment.

'I'm… not a bad person, am I?' He asked no one in particular but Georgie still answered, patting his cheek.

'You are fine.'

'Thank you, Georgina.'

'Yeah, cheers, whatever.' Georgie dismissed her boss' grateful platitudes with a mere discomfited wave of her hands. 'Now you go ahead, Jen and I will just wrap things up here. It will all be over soon.'

Georgie had no idea just how baseless her prediction would prove to be as Rudyard, fortified by her words and the prospect of some hot water, slunk outside and started walking, down the high street, past the cemetery and towards his funeral home. Though we should have at least expected that this quiet before the storm wouldn't last. Because as Rudyard's luck - or its lack thereof - would have it, down on the road, opposite himself, he spotted a disconcertingly familiar figure. He was practically out of sight still, but no one else in the village had the same delectable proportions with a devastatingly perfect shoulder to hip ratio. Or a disposition so radiant that it would've put any lighthouse into shame.

No, that was unmistakably Eric Chapman trudging towards him. No question about it. Fortunately, Rudyard reacted on instinct and well before the fact registered with him. By the time he realised what was happening he scaled the low fence of the graveyard with the effortless grace of a gymnast and was now running for shelter ducking amongst headstones.

It was a flawless scheme. The cemetery ran parallel to the route he was planning to take, after all. All he had to do was to slalom between grave markers for a while and pop back out and onto the street soon as he could be absolutely sure he'd passed by Eric Chapman. Yes, it was a solution, simple yet elegant, so foolproof that it became outright genius proof and it was going to work.

Up until Rudyard walked, with the perfect assurance and confidence of a man without a care in the world and with his head held high in triumph and a righteous sense of pride, straight into an open grave.

In his defence, it was a rather splendid descent, an open-armed welcome of the ground below like he was doing a trust fall or was returning to the bosom of a motherly presence. 

‘Of course, you know what this means, Madeleine?’ Rudyard huffed as he sat up, rolling his ankle gingerly, words eeking out from between his teeth gritted in agony with every inch of motion. ‘Unless someone stumbles past this hole by chance we are stuck down here, with no means for escape!’ 

This hardly sounded acceptable - I have deadlines, after all! But Rudyard was feeling rather pessimistic about the whole thing.

'Come to think if, even if someone did come by sooner, chances are that they'd just leave me down here anyway. And no, I can't climb out!’ He snapped at my humble suggestion. ‘At least not with what can quite possibly be a broken ankle and a... Oh God, a bleeding wound on the side of my leg!’

This was rather disconcerting, so I tried my best to keep his spirits up – what are friends for, after all – but he shared none of my enthusiasm.

‘What, Antigone? She won’t miss us. And with Georgie still busy with her new gal pal I don’t expect anyone will notice our absence before nightfall. By which time it will be too late for them to start looking for us as the cold and dark will make any and all rescue attempts futile.’ Sighed Rudyard, before passing a furtive glance over me. ‘That is unless you want to try and get a message to Antigone?’

Naturally, I resented his attempt to equate me with an excitable and very fictional Rough Collie and I told him so.

‘No, I don’t know how you are supposed to do that. Yes, I know that you are just a mouse.’ He nodded with deference, before squinting at me again. ‘But if you were to change your mind… Nope, that’s perfectly fine, forget I said anything.’

With that, he pushed himself into a sitting position in painful increments. By the time he scuttled up to the wall of the grave, inch by agonising inch, his skin had the hue of parchment and his breathing grew shallow. He swallowed hard, resting the back of his head against the moist, muddy perimeter of our impromptu confines. 

‘Oh well. I suppose it could be worse.' He choked out as his gasping breaths slowed. 'At least I’m not stuck in a well this time. And there's nothing to irritate me, no unwanted suitors to pursue me, no unavoidable accidents waiting to happen. Yes alright, apart from the one just now, thank you. But since you are here, I think I can be quite content. In the peace and the quiet. Alone.'

But just as he closed his eyes to allow himself to fully succumb to both misery and the rare moment of tranquillity and solitude, a ringing baritone suddenly piped up in the middle distance.

'Rudyard!' 

My friend's eyes shot open in immediate surprise. This made no sense. Not when he just painstakingly established that no one was likely to come around here.

'Did you say something, Madeleine?' He stuttered in disbelief. 'Hang on, you can’t talk! Or can you?’

Just as I shook my head, the voice sounded again, louder, clearer and closer than before.

'Rudyard!'

Rudyard looked up, befuddled. The sky above us was a stretch of beautiful, unblemished, blue satin again, the sight of it hypnotic and inviting. Being stuck in a grave was making Rudyard philosophical. Struck by a sudden, growing suspicion he called out: 

'God?!’ 

As if on command, a blond head popped over the yawning mouth of the grave.

‘Not quite.’ Admitted Eric Chapman.

 

Chapter Text

‘Oh, it’s you.’ Moaned Rudyard, rolling his eyes with all the hostility his small body can muster.

‘Rudyard Funn. A whole in one.' Grinned Chapman inanely and Rudyard squeezed his eyes shut, wishing him away.

‘Please, Chapman, stop punning and just let me die, alright? It would be far more humane than driving me to destruction with your attempts at wordplay.’ He pleaded.

‘Don’t be silly, Rudyard.’ Eric shook his head fondly, then he added. 'What is it that you are doing down there?'

'Oh, nothing, nothing, nothing at all.' Hummed Rudyard with fake nonchalance. He looked suddenly peevish, perhaps remembering that he was just confronting the very man whom he recently and unwittingly implicated in a romance. 'I'm just… hanging out.' 

'So you are not… oh how is it that you put it? Out there "being a source of irritation to other people around you"?' Eric asked, his face a dubious grimace, his arms tucked behind his back.

'Oh, no, I've done away with that. It lacks style, it's bad for business, it's habit-forming and, as it turns out, it's terrible for your health too. Can I help you, Chapman?'

'More importantly, can I help you?'

But of course, my friend would never accept such an offer. Not from Chapman. At least not out loud. Or not without some bargaining.

‘With what?’ He barked, turning his head from Chapman like he was simply doing a casual and very hands-on quality inspection of the graves of the cemetery.

‘With whatever is that you aren't doing?' Eric deadpanned. 'Climbing out, for instance?'

‘Has the possibility occurred to you that I like it down here, Chapman?’

'Is that, perchance, your favourite grave?' Sniggered Chapman with evident sarcasm.

'No, it's not.' Spat back Rudyard, fuming. 'As it happens, it's my least favourite one. But it will have to do for the time being.'

He added the last part with the true uppity grace of royalty, coaxing a sigh of exasperation from Chapman.

‘Oh, stop being stubborn and let me help.’ Eric demanded and he was already in the process of lowering himself carefully down to join the other undertaker before my friend had a chance to protest.

This made Rudyard jump to his feet in panic. Well.

Try to jump to his feet at least.

‘I don't need your help. Or your pity. I am perfectly capable of... Argh!’ Half emerging, Rudyard staggered, lifting a hand to his aching ankle.

'Rudyard, I'm coming down.' Eric declared.

'No, go away. Find your own grave, this one's taken.' My friend tried to pettifog, but it was all in vain as the village's golden boy was already standing right beside him.

‘Don’t move, Rudyard, you may have a concussion.’ Eric urged, moving closer. His voice was commanding but tender and low with concern too. His eyes were tracing Rudyard frantically, looking for injuries.

‘You are not the boss of me!’

‘Quick, sit back down.’

Eric put a hand on Rudyard's shoulder at that but he made a surreptitiously vicious jerking motion to dislodge him.

'No thank you, Chapman. If you think that I'll just sit idly by while you expel your rage on me then you are very much mistaken.'

Eric staggered back a bit like he was slapped and for a skin of a second, they stood in a pool of embarrassed silence before Chapman spoke again, his voice incredulous.

'What are you talking about, Rudyard? I'm not here to harm you. In fact, quite the opposite. I'm here to help.'

Still manoeuvring to put more distance between them, Rudyard looked even more shifty than usual.

'So you haven't heard?'

'Heard what?'

'On the radio-'

Eric cast him a swift, unreadable look.

'Oh you mean when you aired my most private passions then declared how you resent me on a personal level? I think everybody's heard that.'

Rudyard, in return, managed to look somehow more diminutive than his usual self.

'And aren't you, you know- angry?'

'What, me? Angry? Oh no. Oh, no-no!' Eric deflected cheerily enough, to the utter relief of Rudyard.

'Thank G-'

'Furious would be a fair word to use, yes. Incensed? Absolutely. But angry? That doesn't even begin to cover it.'

'Great. So then why are you helping me?'

Suddenly, all the mounting rage in Chapman had flickered and dulled.

'Because if perished from a broken foot at the bottom of an abandoned grave it would be a stupid waste.' He admitted a little helplessly. But, at least, when he sneaked a hand behind his shoulder this time, Rudyard didn't flinch. 'Now come along you, oopsie daisy.

‘No, I don't want to.’ Rudyard protested still, with a petulant whine while Eric guided him into a sitting position.

‘Rudyard stop mucking about.’ He pleaded, arranging the other man’s legs in front of him. Rudyard endured the delicate care with a tight-lipped expression of disdain. 

‘I'm fine, Chapman.’ He lied and Chapman shot an irritated look of worry at him.

‘No, you are not. But at least you are not bleeding.’

‘Yes, I am!’ Declared Rudyard, forgetting all his previous reticence because he’d never miss a chance to be contrary. Not when Chapman was concerned, at least. He pointed at his leg wound like he was presenting some badge of honour, teasing a soft gasp from his rival.

‘Good grief, Rudyard.’ Whispered Eric in horror. ‘Hand me your jacket.’

For once, Rudyard felt that he could agree with the man. 

‘Good idea.’ He conceded. 'I don't want blood on the cuff.'

But as soon as he grabbed it, Chapman held the jacket between two hands and tore it in half, down in the middle in one smooth and efficient movement.

‘You vandal!’ Shrieked Rudyard, scandalised. ‘This is one of my favourite suits.’

‘And I bet that this is one of your favourite legs. Now be quiet and let me patch you up.’ Eric hissed at him and using the decimated jacket as a tourniquet he turned his intense attention on to Rudyard’s leg.

While his concentration was diverted and all his focus was dedicated to the process of bandaging him with the least amount of suffering possible, Rudyard had a chance to observe his rival, unreservedly. He’d never before noticed the hard line leading from Eric’s nose to the corner of his lips, lending a steely sort of edge to his distress and belying his actual age no moisturising could quite erase. That or the intensity of the blue of Chapman’s eyes. It was far more vivid than he’d like to admit, richer and more complex than he'd ever imagined it would be.

Not that he ever imagined what it would be like, sitting so close to Chapman that he could ponder the precise shade of his iris.

Not him. Not ever.

And even if he did, he would have expected it to be a dull, monochromatic teal. Not a swirling shade of Savoy with hints of periwinkle and specks of the most unexpected yellow, like a fine dusting of gold-

Christ alive. Blood loss was definitely messing with his head. But how was he to reconcile this infuriatingly perfect Adonis, this small town trooper with the person confessing to loving him in a trembling voice a couple hours before? It was inconceivable. It was befuddling. It boggled his mind. And not just because it was addled by the lack of a steady supply of oxygen. 

‘There. Done. Can you stand up now?’ Asked Eric, pulling back, startling him from his musings.

'Of course I can, I stood before!' Barked Rudyard in offence, feeling flustered and finding himself all the more frustrated for it. 'Here, see.'

But he collapsed as soon as tried to put weight on his injured leg. 

'Ouch.' 

Or would have if the steady arms of Chapman didn't coil around him the moment his balance gave.

'Come here you stupid...!' He scolded with a touch of affection to his voice that was so naked and raw that it sent tendrils of cold dread down the length of Rudyard's spine. He was suddenly all too aware of Chapman's proximity, of the fact that he could make out the individual hairs of the fine, blond stubble on his chin, the onslaught of Eric's aftershave flooding his senses. The memory of being so close together flooded him, its staggering absurdity amplified tenfold by their present circumstances.

'Don't you dare come to my rescue.' Demanded Rudyard wedging his hands between them, trying to extricate himself.

'Rudyard, you are not helping!' Wailed Eric, easing his grip somewhat but struggling still to hold on out of fear of letting Rudyard topple. 

'I'm not trying to help, Chapman! I'm too busy being in agony!' Rudyard fought valiantly until Eric contented himself with placing him against the wall like he was but an old and misshapen broomstick.

'We have to get you out of here.' Concluded Chapman and he snapped his head up, trying to estimate how difficult the climb might be. 'Do you think you can push yourself out if I gave you a leg up?' 

'Why don't I just… Sit here for a while?' Stammered Rudyard, struggling to catch his breath, perspiring lightly with pain. 'You go and get a ladder or a length of rope or a cherry picker from somewhere.' 

'And leave you here to die from exposure?'

'Now look here, why would I die from exposure? How long can it bloody take to go back to your private theme park and gather the necessary equipment?!'

'Because Rudyard. To get you out from there, we'd need some kind of pulley system or the very least a tower crane. Neither of which I can then operate alone.'

'So go on then, get some help, I sure don't mind waiting!'

'Rudyard. In your experience, how difficult is it to rally the villagers to come to your rescue?'

'Damn, you're right.' Gulped Rudyard, squeezing his eyes shut.

'Our best bet is to try to haul you out as quickly and painlessly as possible."

Rudyard just sighed, caving at long last. 'F-fine, have it your way then, Chapman. Give me a leg up.'

Rolling his sleeves back, Chapman bent to offer his clasped hands as leverage to his rival.

'Now if you could just make sure not to kick me in the face…' Eric pleaded as Rudyard placed his foot gingerly in his hand.

'I promise no such thing, Chapman.' Rudyard snapped, then braced himself with a visible shudder and proceeded to put his weight on his aching leg in lieu of a better solution. Muttering and making noises of distress he pushed his frame over the lip of the grave and slowly pressed himself onto the surface with a great deal of flailing of limbs. 

He followed this up by sprawling out as if he was trying to take the lawn in his arms and attempting to regulate his breathing. He couldn't even slow his panting down by the time Eric joined him, pulling himself up from below and spreading into a suit-clad starfish on the ground. He looked over at Rudyard and for a moment, as they locked eyes laying there, gasping for air, Rudyard had the almost irrepressible urge to grin despite the fatigue and the pain.

But the momentary equilibrium was broken when Chapman jumped to his feet, marched to him and, locking his arms behind Rudyard's knees and the back of his neck, hoisted the other undertaker into his chest. Rudyard could do little else but hold on for dear life as the world tilted around him. But once he was in the air and tucked against Chapman he started to kick his legs out and shift and wriggle while swatting his rival's arm with light ineffectuality. 

'Put me down this instance! People may see us!' He wailed in distress as Eric began to gently ferry him towards the exit, but Chapman simply shook his head.

'Not until I got you into a hospital.' Eric shook his head.

'Chapman you can not take me to a hospital in your arms.' Rudyard pointed out, pitch nearly reaching the ultrasound territory.

'But I can not not take you to a hospital either.' Argued Eric faintly.

'Surely, you can just-' 

'What?' Burst out Chapman suddenly. 'Put you down, send you on your merry way? Let you hop with a jolly skip to your step and a twisted ankle, happily to St Pratt's half a mile from here?' 

Rudyard took a deep breath. Studied Chapman's worn and worried expression, the fresh stains of mud and grass over his best suit from where he was wrestling with the soil for freedom. He swallowed.

'Yes, alright, point taken.' Rudyard sighed, a bit cowed. 'But I want the record to show that I only agreed to this because you've insisted.'

'Noted.' Nodded Chapman with a shuddering breath.

 

Chapter Text

Dr Edgware reacted with his signature calm and equanimity when presented with yet another patient. That is to say that he only cried very little this time. Then he took Rudyard away on a gurney, patched him up and prescribed bed rest and a mysterious pill he selected at random from a fistful of medicine like he was sharing out jelly beans at recess. 

As for my part, I wandered off to the buffet to nibble on the underwhelming croissants that were trying their best to shrivel up and disintegrate in their deep-seated shame. 

And this is how I spotted Chapman when he turned up in the foyer unexpectedly. He cleaned himself up, changed his suit and rearranged his hair in its usual artful coiffure. He seemed to have recovered the familiar, unnatural glow to his aura he’d carried like a solar crown of friendliness around him and he was nodding and smiling at the people passing him by, greeting him by name. But he also looked a bit harried under the surface of that abundant amicability. His eyes were fluttering, bouncing around the foyer impatiently as if in search of someone. 

He was also stumbling somewhat awkwardly under a truly inexcusable amount of flowers and trailed a lofty, self-conscious looking balloon behind him. Peering a bit shortsightedly over his abundance of daisies, peonies, pansies and hydrangeas Eric spotted Dr Edgware at long last and dashed the physician when he located his slouching, fatigued figure across the hall. 

'Hello there, Eric.' The doctor greeted him as he peered up from his clipboard. 'Took the wrong turn on your way to a baby shower?'

He asked this almost merrily, in a rare fit of joviality Eric remained entirely impervious to.

'I am here to see Rudyard, actually.' He said with a tad of urgency to his demeanour, just short of bouncing his leg impatiently, so unlike his ordinary, smooth-talking self.  

‘Rudyard.’ The doctor narrowed his eyes at him. 

‘Yes.’

‘Rudyard FUNN.’ Edgware repeated disbelievingly. 

‘The very man.’

‘In this hospital?’ The physician sounded somewhat fearful as he said that. He developed a natural weariness of the local undertakers that originated around the STIF’D conference and did not improve since their spectacularly disastrous encounter around Bijou’s funeral. 

‘I'm afraid so.’ Eric shrugged in apology. 

‘What would Rudyard Funn be doing in MY hospital of all places?’

‘Well, this is where I brought him earlier this day.’

‘I thought that was just a nightmare I had.’ Shuddered Henry Edgware.

‘He was in a bad way back then.’ Eric added suddenly, in a slightly wavering register. Sounding a bit breathless as if he overexerted himself just by standing, shifting from one foot to another, lumbering around a small meadow’s worth of flowers. 

‘And when was that?’ Demanded the doctor darkly.

‘Around two in the afternoon.’

‘Well, I don’t see little fires everywhere and there isn’t a flood of casualties littering my waiting room. So I'd wager that he must have expired by now - he'd been here for a while after all.’ Dr Edgware explained, consulting his watch. He visibly relaxed at the thought, making a debonair gesture at Eric. ‘Have you tried looking in one of the many fine funeral homes this island has to offer?’ 

‘I-’

‘Because,’ Continued the one medical professional with an abrupt shift to his mood, the register of his voice and his expression suddenly growing stern. ‘you see, you'd think having two funeral homes is a bit exuberant for a village that's only a mile long. But it turns out that the only thing we can't afford to have two of around here is  bloody doctors.

‘Listen, Henry, I know I said that he was in a bad way.’ Eric sighed, gathering his composure, trying for his trademark excessive cheeriness, explaining himself with renewed patience. ‘But I doubt that he would have died from a sprained ankle.’

‘In that case, let us try the intensive care unit on the third floor.’ Groaned the doctor with palpable disappointment.  

'Yes, let's.' Eric lit up again as he beamed at the doctor like the human equivalent of a stadium strobe light. ‘Cheers, Henry.'

We climbed the many floors, laboriously; Eric behind the shattered, sulking doctor and I in his pocket.

Only when we arrived, at last, did Eric seem to hesitate. Seeing how he struggled to bring himself to enter, Henry put a hand on the doorknob with an expectant stare.

'Shall we?' 

'Just a minute.'

We watched Eric smooth his suit, his hair and his frayed nerves in turn. He tugged on his jacket and on the string of his floppy balloon that was trying its best to escape as if in a fit of stage fright. It was with a deep, shuddering gulp of breath he asked the doctor.

'How do I look?'

'You look perfect.' Edgware assured him with a tortured sigh. 'But don't bother.' 

And he pushed the door in.

There was Rudyard the way I had left him. Curled around himself, on his side in a frail ball of brittle limbs, barely a shade darker than the starched linen of the bedding. Knees pulled to his chest, cheek resting against his palm. The room had a heartbeat matching the rhythm of Rudyard's soft snoring, his little, hapless puffs of breath as he slept on, not even stirring as we entered. 

I was quick to scamper over to my friend. Confronted with the sight of him, however, Eric hesitated on the threshold before, strengthening his resolve, he decided to approach the bedside after all. 

He did this on his tiptoes, with such delicacy that he hardly disturbed the dust particles dancing in the shafts of afternoon sunlight. He arranged his bouquet on a small sideboard and tied the balloon to the leg of the bed. Looking up, he saw how Edgware moved noiselessly beside the bed too, which made him jump.

'Crikey.' He floundered back while the doctor fixed him with a knowing sort of stare.

'There's absolutely no need for such care and consideration, Mr Chapman. You won't wake him. We had to put him in an artificial coma.'

'What?! Why? Was his condition so serious?' Chapman asked in a state of raw agitation, but the doctor remained calm. 

'No.' Henry sighed, his expression going hazy with reminiscence. 'But he was getting on my nerves.'

'I see.' Chapman seemed unsure about whether this should make him feel relieved while Dr Edgware fondled the flowers rather menacingly.

'And how would you explain this?'' 

'Oh, these?' Chapman reacted like he'd only just noticed the impromptu garden he'd planted around the bed, his right fluttering to cradle the back of his neck. 'Just a tiny token of appreciation, really.' 

'More a grand romantic gesture, won't you agree?' 

'Hah, good one!' Eric laughed nervously, not fooling anyone. 'N-no, no, absolutely not. It's a small sign of goodwill at best! I mean, you know how it is. When you are down on your luck you sort of need your friends and I just thought-'

'Eric' the doctor's voice rang hollow. 'stop talking. I think it's time we had a chat, don't you?'

'I really can't do both.'

'How have you been feeling lately? Any mood swings? Intrusive thoughts?' asked the physician, giving Chapman a dry once over...

'I'd never had either of those thi-'

'Do you think that you could be a danger to yourself or to society at large?' The doctor steamrolled on, making Eric cry out in protest.

'No!

'Hmmm. I see. A-hm. I see.' Henry produced a pen, jotted something down. Looked back up at Chapman with a calculating glare. 'And would you like to be?'

'What?!'

'Nevermind.' Edgware muttered tonelessly.

'Look, Henry, what is this all about?'

'Just trying to establish what kind of mental disorder caused you to fall for this man here.' Edgware demanded to know, giving Eric a kind of look others would reserve for people who said things like 'What's so bad about genocide?'

Eric let out a soft puff of breath. He had the guilty air of a criminal about him, caught red-handed, as he admitted.

'Your guess is as good as mine.'

He looked down where Rudyard lay sleeping in a state of peacefulness and bliss hitherto unknown to him. Chapman hooked his fingers around the frame of the hospital cot like he was wrestling with the urge to reach out and sweep the lock of dark hair out of Rudyard's face.

'Rudyard, he is a brilliant man.' He said softly then he added, more insistent, when he caught Henry's eye. 'Somehow.'

The response was no more than a mere, doubtful sort of chuckle from the doctor.

'I know he is. But he's not my type at all. Because usually, and you can take this from me, usually I don't go for short, bitter and despondent with enough ineptitude to be classified as a  deadly weapon .'

'Probably for the best.' Henry muttered, his sarcasm smarting. 'Now if everyone on this cursed island was as sensible as this-'

'I tend to prefer my dates' Chapman barrelled on, talking over him. 'to have great legs, an even greater personality and enough self-sufficiency so that they rarely seemed to need anyone else. Least of all me...' He admitted miserably in a sudden, rare moment of introspection. Then he turned his eyes back on my friend, his gaze overly distant. 'Whereas Rudyard…Well, he cares deeply about his people. And while I don't have the fanciful notion that he'd find me tolerable, you can't blame me for wanting in on that.'

It was unmistakable, the way Chapman's whole being seemed to dim upon uttering these words, his expression growing tight, eyes clouding over with something indiscernible.

'I don't doubt the validity of your feelings, Eric. All I say is that there is enough change and decay all around caused by Rudyard Funn without you interfering.' The doctor said mildly, with only the slightest hint of reprimand. 'So take my advice. Stay away, avoid him and leave me out of this. It's the best prescription I've got!' 

'Sure, Henry. Whatever you say.' Chapman's frazzled demeanour was as far from his usual silver-tongued philanderer pose as it can get. He further surprised me by adding. 'And don't tell him that the flowers are from me, would you?'

'To be honest, I won't even remember that they were.'

'Cheers, Henry.' With that Chapman started to make a leeway then paused on the threshold to shoot a final look of utter supplication at the hospital bed and the patient in it before he nipped out of the door and disappeared from our sight.

Henry Edgware used this frail moment of tranquillity to take off his glasses, rub his face down, then place them back on the bridge of his nose again.

'You can stop pretending now, Mr Funn.' He said to the empty air.

Rudyard’s eyes popped open so readily, I became convinced he had been conscious all along. My friend groaned, rolled onto his back and pushed the heel of his hand into his eye sockets with a huff. He stayed like that for a moment or two before sitting up, contemplating the balloon by his foot. 

'Can we both agree that this madness must end?' Dr Edgware inquired coldly from the room at large. 

'It's not my fault that the man has no shame!' Rudyard bit back in riposte, dangling his foot from the side of the bed. 'Why wouldn't he leave me alone? It boggles the mind!'

'More importantly, why won't you?' 

'Now look here-

'Let me identify a real solution for you: stop stringing him along. It will only end in tears.' Edgware said this in a deceptively steady voice but his calm was still clearly tinged with the resounding waver of a threat. 'I know that you don't like what he does or the way he does it, but hadn’t Eric earned some small measure of mercy at least? Have some consideration!'

'Thank you, doctor, but if I wanted to feel terrible I'd talk to myself. Now if you'll excuse me-'

Rudyard stood, scooping ,e up from his pillow and placing me onto his shoulder.

'Where are you going? Where do you think you are going?' The doctor's face remained impassive as he posited this question, only his voice dropped to a murderously low register.

'Well if all you're going to do is tell me stuff I already know then I'd better get a shift on. I've got some important work at home I could be ignoring!''

'If you think that I'll let you go home just so you can die a painful and completely unnecessary death without my help then you are very much mistaken!' By now Henry's cadence was nothing if not the honeyed purr of sheer deadly menace.

'Well if I do drop dead then I'll be in the right place for it' Rudyard squabbled back, oblivious to the growing danger his doctor has now posed. That is until Dr Edgware's hands clasped around him like a bear trap when he tried to glide seamlessly out of his room, as much as his limp would allow. 'Now let go of my arm! I'm very attached to it!'

The violent tussle that followed was not going to make Henry a poster boy for the Hippocratic oath. I was forced to jump onto the ground as Dr Edgware and Rudyard spilt out to the halls in a confusion of pinching and groping where the doctor would undoubtedly have overpowered his charge if it wasn't for a call that interrupted them. 

'Rudyard?'

It was none other than our funerary rival, sitting on a nobbly looking bench, reserved for visitors. Now he emerged from bracing his head on his arms, which were folded on his knees, in favour of striding over to us.

The other two men staggered apart, their momentum interrupted by Chapman's timely appearance. However, their eyes remained trained on each other and Henry's fingers were flexing involuntarily in a show of impatience. Only when Eric drew nearer did Rudyard dare to risk a quick glance behind himself.

'Chapman! What are you still doing here?' He yelped as he danced a bit further out of reach of the doctor who tried inching imperceptibly closer in the impasse. 'Don't tell me that you were going to camp outside my room until I woke up!'

'Ok, I won't.' Chapman conceded with ease, grace and a touch of relief before honing in on the scene at hand. 'Look, what is happening here?'

'I'll tell you what is happening.' His face marked by a deep furrow between his brows Edgware made no attempts to hide his displeasure as he pointed a shaky, accusing finger at his patient. 'Bearing in mind the circumstances of today's events and indeed his entire lifestyle, it's my opinion that Mr Funn here should see a psychiatrist.'

'I'll thank you for letting me decide what I ought to be doing.' Replied Rudyard in a shrill, sarcastic voice. 'And besides which, I've always thought that doctors, like you, are the most untrustworthy, devious, self-important charlatans in the whole of-

'Really? Good to know that you retain some vestige of sanity then.' Scoffed the doctor then his expression narrowed into that of a physician who was clearly contemplating the benefits of euthanasia. 'But let me tell you this: if you don't stay in bed, avoid stress and do as you are told I'll give you a real reason to be put in intensive care myself.'

'O-okay let's not get carried away here!' Chapman interrupted and he marched closer to sort of function as a human shield between patient and doctor. His usual, dazzling smile remained plastered on his features. Only, it wouldn't quite reach his eyes. 'Rudyard, are you sure that I can't persuade you to stay in Dr Edgware's care?'

'No, frankly you can't. Why should I bother undergoing a treatment that is only going to make me feel worse?' 

Chapman paused to contemplate this question but then he breezed onward, sunny grin back in place.

'Now, now, Rudyard, that's not fair. You know what they say about St Pratt's: some people  do  make it out alive!'

'Look, Chapman, I'm having a terrible day, I can't feel my knees in this hospital gown - I'm going home.'

We could both see however that the good doctor was already gathering himself to pounce on his stubborn charge to wrestle him into obedience. So Rudyard shied and cowed while Eric swiftly planted himself between them and me- Well-

I scampered up and down Eric's trouser leg.

'Listen, Henry.' Chapman began and when he spoke every word was like a hearty slap on the back, enunciated with perfect friendliness. 'You work too hard. Why don't I help you?'

'Finally some sense. Now you grab his arms and I'll take his legs and together we can just sort of hoik him-'

'I meant by taking him home, seeing to it that he's laid up just like the doctor prescribed-'

Henry blinked at him, momentarily nonplussed. 

'So-so-sorry are you talking about bedding one of my patients?'

'I would call it a non-emergency medical transport I think.' Spluttered Chapman blushing with unprecedented fervour while Rudyard choked discreetly on his own spit a little way off, bewildered.

'Eric, I'm in no mood to argue-' bristled the doctor in a court tone but Chapman remained indifferent to his concern.

'You know I think it's a really good idea. You just need someone to keep an eye on him for a couple of days so you could put your mind at ease and free up some of your time to spend with your many, many patients.' Suggested Chapman and he followed it up with a raspy chuckle. 'And I am just across the square after all. Who better than me to take these duties off your hands?

Henry decided to shoot them one last, jaded stare before his reserves depleted all at once.

'Oh, why not. Sure. Take him.' He relented with a sigh.

'You mean-' Chapman's face broadened into a slow, unbelieving grin.

'Take him, what do I even care. After all, you are perfectly entitled - as well as qualified, I suppose - to dig your own grave against all medical advice.' Conceded the doctor, his words brazen and resolute.

But rather than growing defensive, Chapman just beamed.

'Don't worry, I'll make sure that he follows your instructions to a tee!' 

'I wasn't talking to Rudyard.' Edgware regarded the pair of them with a chastising look. 'I'll get the paperwork over to you. Wait here.' 

And with that the doctor made to leave, dashing off in a cloud of fury, his coat billowing around him.

Eric followed him with his eyes until he was out of earshot then his gaze flickered right back at Rudyard. 

'No bones broken, Rudyard?'

'My dignity is bruised but otherwise, I'm fine.' Rudyard confessed, trying to control his face, shape his expression into careful, trialled ambivalence. But he couldn't quite help the little something about the set of his mouth that belied his nerves. 'He's right, you know.'

'Hmm?' Eric blinked, slightly distracted.

'Stop trying to be nice to me, Chapman! When have I ever been nice to you? Or anyone?' Rudyard swallowed hard, his long throat working. He was dishevelled and looked, once again, unsteady on his feet. His voice had that sad and too honest quality that would surface at the oddest of times. Mostly when he was reminded that he did not bargain well in anything other than sincerity. 'I don't deserve your sympathy. Or anyone's. For all you know I've tried to injure or flat out murder you multiple times. Why do we still talk? It doesn't make any sense to me!

'Nor to me. But it is one of those little anomalies you have to build around.' Shrugged Chapman with a rueful little smirk, making Rudyard press his lips into a thin line of displeasure and the tension he lost briefly when laid up seeped back into his shoulders.

'You should really try to get better at self-preservation, Chapman.'  

'Why? Am I making your job too easy?' Asked Chapman, his smile staying bright but growing brittle around the edges while Rudyard merely bristled at his bluntness.

'That's not funny! And as of that little incident at the radio station, you shouldn't even want to be on speaking terms with me, let alone…' Rudyard drifted off for a moment, agonising over his word choice before he finally settled on. 'help me.'

Chapman's grin went lax and a bit resigned as he kept looking at Rudyard with soft eyes like he was waiting for him to catch on.

'Do you really think that if I somehow managed to grow to like you through all these years of endless bickering and squabbling through all the tricks and pranks then I'm going to stop now? Besides, I wouldn't want any of that to get in the way of our friendship, Rudyard.' 

'Friendship, what friendship?' Rudyard squawked so hard he nearly overbalanced, staggering heedlessly onto his bandaged feet. There was a degree of pleading to his voice but no trace of scolding. 'Chapman, I try to wreck everything you do, I scorn your every attempt to make friends-'

'Far be it from me to seem too naive or trusting but you probably wouldn't be standing here, trying to warn me if you intended to lead me cruelly on.'' Chapman admonished, but he only made Rudyard's pitch more hysterical.

'Well how would you  know ?' he cried, making a frustrated noise, somewhere between a laugh and a sob. 'It could be a double bluff.'

'I doubt that you have the necessary skills to pull that off.' Chapman shot a look at his rival that was both fond and chiding and Rudyard pulled himself up in response. 

'Oh don't underestimate me, Chapman! I disguised my contempt for you so far, I can keep it up a little while longer.'

For a moment, Eric's eyes widened in blatant surprise and when he began to talk it didn't feel like he was seeing Rudyard, even though he still stood facing him. 

'Well I just hoped- I wouldn't have thought- that all that animosity between us was just a point principle, nothing personal. Just showmanship that's all it was. And that we still liked each other. Deep down.' Seeing Chapman's good humour fading was an oddly sad sight, something that made Rudyard fill with strange, diffuse compassion for the man. It made his heart shudder in dismay inside his chest.

There was another long silence between the two undertakers, heavy and stilted. Then, setting his jaw, if possible, even more firmly, Rudyard raised his gaze to catch Chapman's.

'Yes, alright.' Something was shifting behind Rudyard's expression, his sharp features softening to reveal something more tender. 'If it wasn't for the fact that we are in a competitive industry then I'd say that you are the only person I might conceivably, potentially, come to that sort of situation could describe as a friend.'

Several feelings chased each other on Chapman's face upon hearing that admission. I could see the startled surprise fizz then flicker out, to make way to panicked overanalysis, wary acceptance and — finally — to cautious hope. 

'Rudyard. A-are you telling me that you  don't  hate me?' Chapman whispered.

"Hate" is a very flexible word, Chapman.' deflected Rudyard, abruptly very interested in his toes.

'And that maybe you even… care about me?' Eric wagered and there was a lightness around him that made the entire hall feel a little brighter in turn.

'Well, in a manner of speaking, no, I don't. But in another manner of speaking, which is a rather more precise and accurate manner of speaking, I do, yes.' Mumbled Rudyard, shying from the sentiment.

'Rudyard' Breathed Eric and the way he said his rival's name was almost too much to bear. 

Certainly too much for Rudyard.

'But who cares? What bloody difference does it make?' He said pointedly, his brief tenderness gone as quickly as it came. 'Chapman, you moved in across the square, opened up your own funeral home, it's better than ours and you know it. How do you think we are supposed to get on? No, sorry. There is only room for one funeral home on this island. It is, as they say, still on. And Funn Funerals should keep on going until you've been squished right into the dirt.'

For once, Rudyard said this without a trace of mockery or anger, keeping his voice deliberate and restrained and his tone entirely too earnest for a threat, making it sound more like an apology. He endeavoured to smooth out his suit and his face grew more drawn when he realized that he wasn't wearing one. Instead, he fiddled restlessly with the suction cups from the EKG machine still attached to him, the needles still sticking out of his various blood vessels. 

Only once he felt composed enough did he look up at Chapman, his eyes intense and steady on his rival.

'And I suggest you do the same. And you can start by stopping to come to my rescue. Like bringing me back from the literal grave? From a certain perspective, it's a counterproductive waste of your time.'

'But that's an entirely different thing!' Eric cried out in protest, his features creasing with a touch of distress and he drew closer to Rudyard as if unable to help it. 'Surely, you would have done the same for me if I were in your position. You know, if it really came to the crunch.'

'No, I wouldn't have.' Rudyard insisted in a gravelly voice, his stare suddenly distant.

A silence crashed upon us, drawing longer and longer, fraying my nerves, already wearing a bit thin.

'Oh. Well in that case I suppose I am the better man.' Chapman allowed, his earlier joy fading slightly. But the curious thing was that while this pulled a sudden, offended flash of a frown from Rudyard, the corner of his mouth crinkled with the slightest bemusement.

'Oh. Oh, I see. So that's what this is really all about!' He muttered in one long, menacing growl. 'I can see right through you, you know!'

Chapman's eyebrows drew swiftly together with a fresh bout of doubt.

'Rudyard…?'

'Blatantly, you are just flashing your generous nature and trying to make me look like a terrible person! Well, over my dead body!' Rudyard declared and the return of the frantic, nervous twinkle behind his eyes was almost a welcome change.

Almost.

'Rudyard…! Eric complained with a big, put-upon sigh but to no avail.

'Mark my words, I will keep on going until I am a better person to be than you, Eric Chapman.' Rudyard snarled. He spoke like he was delivering an oath to bloody vengeance but the effect was spoiled somewhat by the quick, savage smile he flashed at Chapman. 'Starting from now! So better clear your schedule Chapman, because we'll have you over for dinner again, perhaps the occasional brunch! Yes, prepare to be wooed! Because I'll make it up to you if it's the last thing you do!'

'You mean the last thing  you  do.'

'I'm making the offers here.' Rudyard decided, then turned on his heels, sharply, saluted once, and fled the scene.

'Wait, Rudyard…!' Chapman called after him, too stunned to follow, as the first great inspection of Funn Funerals ended with nothing but a sorry trail of medical paraphernalia Rudyard had kept dropping carelessly on the floor on his way out.

The energy settled on resigned dread in the hall between us as Eric turned to look at me. 'Madeleine, can I ask you… Am I mad? Or is he?'

And to be perfectly honest, I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was really the only one who wasn't.