The Homecoming: Chapter 2

Confused about what on earth this is? An explanation can be found here. In the meantime, here’s some silly prose.

***

Before

A scream echoed through the cold night, almost shattering the delicate frost on the trees as the chill of deep winter flexed its choking grip. Markus whipped around, his body taut as he sought the source of the cry. He couldn’t see anything in the clear air of the frozen night and frantically scanned the fields in front of him, rolling endlessly in undulating, snowy waves. Then, just as suddenly as it had arisen, the tension was tossed aside again. There was a laugh from his feet, and Lara clambered unsteadily up his side, giving Markus the ignominious duty of handle for his fiancée.

“Sorry,” she giggled through the layers of scarves gently embracing her face, “Just stood on some black ice.”

Markus smiled down at her in response. “Perhaps the celebratory whisky before we went out wasn’t such a good idea?”

“My good man, I am entirely sober.” The way Lara still clung to Markus’ arm somewhat betrayed her, but he just grinned wider. “Anyway, I had to celebrate, at least. After all, it’s the first time I’ve ever been proposed to.”

“Implying that you plan to be proposed to more in the future?”

“Oh, of course! It does wonders for my self-esteem.” She paused for a second, the moonlight playfully sparkling in her eyes as she looked up at him. “I’m not necessarily going to answer all of them in the same way, though.”

“Thus reserving your right to divorce me as soon as the perfect man walked in?”

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that many seven feet tall, perfectly chiselled, well-read doctors of interspecies and Federation law, who write poetry and songs in their spare time and understand what a ‘flavour profile’ is actually exist. So I suppose I’ll just have to stick with you.”

“And for my part, I’ll do my utmost to ensure that any doctors of law I introduce to you are shorter than I am.”

They stopped walking through the light snow for a second and looked at each other. Then they burst into laughter. He wrapped his free arm around her and pulled her in close, lowering his lips slowly to her upraised ones. They kissed gently amongst the soft glittering of the snow and frost in the flowing, silvery moonlight. Reluctantly, they broke apart and were lost in each other’s eyes for a second.

“I really do love you, you know.”

“I know. And I love you too.”

They stood like that for a while, basking in the warmth and joy they felt, made all the more intense and poignant by the still, icy coldness. The silence of the small wood they were walking past descended again, casting a blanket over the whole scene and making the couple seem like they were the last two people on the planet. Eventually, as before, the stillness was broken by a sudden noise. This time, though, it was a sudden eruption of music from Markus’ wrist that dispelled whatever magic had been weaving itself around them. Both of them jumped, then realised it was simply an alert from his com. A look of gleeful mischief appeared on Lara’s face.

“They’ll all have been at the pub for ages! What time did you tell everyone to be there?”

“Um… two hours ago.”

“And the pub closes before midnight tonight, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, at fourteen. Ben’s got to fly into town tomorrow, so he’ll be turfing everyone out into the cold early.”

“Ah screw ‘em. We’re the people with the announcement, they can wait for us. In the snow if they have to.”

“Still, we’d better get going. I don’t want to have to deal with your mother when she’s angry. And it’ll be at me, as well.”

“Just try to get along with her, Markus? Anyway, it doesn’t matter what she thinks about you, it matters what I think. And I love you, so that’s final.”

“Drinking apparently makes you rebellious, I see. Well, consider that noted.”

“And drinking makes you use long words, but you don’t hear me teasing you about it. Come on, let’s go.” Arms linked and hand in hand, the two turned and trudged off again into the frigid darkness, wobbling slightly but steering true.

After another half hour or so of gentle trudging, which neither of the couple minded in the slightest, they eventually turned a corner in the path. Light and colour washed over them, flowing out of a low building snuggling into a nook in the countryside. The local pub, just a small whitewashed story of clay brick, with a single chimney tentatively poking out of the shallow roof and puffing out a steady wisp of smoke, was apparently full of people this evening. Markus and Lara were the ones who had called them there, in fact, and from the sound of it the entire neighbourhood had turned out to begin without them.

The windows of the building had the curtains drawn, the better to ward off the cold of deep winter, and only glimpses of the interior were possible. Occasional flashes of people whirled past, but the light was steady, comfortingly warm and familiar. Bright colours adorned everyone present, as the annual winter tradition of putting on your brightest clothing to ward off the depression of not getting anything done was in full swing. Markus and Lara peeped through a corner that was unshielded by the frayed curtain, and saw a room full of happiness. Everyone they knew was there, all their families, all their friends, and the room was a cacophony of laughter and music and light. As Markus had insisted, even the children had been dragged along, making awkward pockets of different ages amongst the happily drinking adults. Everyone looked so friendly, so at home and so perfectly right where they were. The couple watched in silence for a second, only just now appreciating quite how lucky they were. Then Lara squeezed Markus’ hand.

“Come on. Let’s get congratulated.”

She pulled him to the simple wooden door and hauled it open, letting a billow of warm air and smoke out into the cold, clear night. As one, the revellers turned to look at the door and scrutinise who it was; as soon as the couple stepped over the hearth a loud cheer went up. As they stepped inside, they felt the air become heavy and warm, enveloping them like a comfortable old woollen rug, enfolding them in the friendly, convivial atmosphere of the room. Markus looked around the familiar old dump. It still had the solid wooden furniture dating from the First Colony, and the gleaming, polished bar, only slightly marred by intermittently spilled beer. Markus sighed contentedly, trying to see if his usual chair had been taken already.

He realised that everyone had heard the sigh. It had fallen quiet as soon as he and Lara had walked in, and now the entire room was staring at them, impatiently curious. Lara’s father was standing in front of him and broke the silence in his usual pragmatic manner.

“So why’d you call us all up and tell us to be here for a ‘big announcement’? Not that I’m not happy to see all of you,” and here he spread his hand around the room to encompass the assembled multitude, “but I think everyone just really wants to know what it is you two have to say.”

“Although we can probably guess what you’ve gone and done, you horny bugger!” The shout rang out from near the bar.

“At least I’ve got more dating options than my right hand, Dave!” Markus retorted, prompting a general snigger from the crowd and a couple of scandalised looks from the various parents of the children in attendance.

It was Lara who dealt with the announcement, as competent and in command as ever. She grabbed a chair from the nearest table and dragged it to the centre of the room, before climbing somewhat unsteadily up onto it and dragging Markus up after her. Awkwardly perched on his half of the chair, Markus clung on to both the back and to Lara, trying to prevent either of them from falling off. They swayed a little, the whisky making its effects known. Markus scanned the sea of upturned faces and tried not to look too sheepish as he waited for Lara to speak. Eventually, having got some semblance of balance, Lara stood up as straight as she could and addressed the gathered crowd.

“So…” She began at a shout, and immediately giggled, wobbling before righting herself and continuing. “Mark and I asked you all here tonight because…” Again she paused, playfully hamming the speech for the audience.

“Just mere hours ago, as we were sitting comfortably in his house, reflecting on the fact that it’s so bloody cold outside, he turned to me and said… What did you say, my dear?” She turned innocently to Markus, who felt the eyes on him and knew she was playing him like a drum. Despite this, he smiled warmly back.

“I looked at you and said that I just couldn’t wait any longer.”

“And after that, he dashed off up the stairs, leaving me quite in need of a fainting couch and some smelling salts.” She drew laughter from the crowd, who knew exactly where the story was going. Back to her normal tone, but still teasing it out, she continued, “Then he appeared back at the door, red faced and breathing heavily… and dropped to one knee. And I said yes.”

At this point, the whole building erupted into cheers, and music erupted again from the memory banks by the bar, dancing, cheerful and lively as the fire in the grate. The pair were practically hauled off the chair and swallowed up into the amorphous mass of family and friends wanting to shake hands, give hugs, slap backs, and see the ring. Markus was even dragged aside, depending upon the age, sex, and amount of alcohol the family member concerned had drunk already, to be told ribald jokes in a furtive, conspiratorial undertone. This was always done as if passing on a great secret, prior to the inevitable hearty guffaw accompanied by a wink.

Markus, despite usually being unnerved by large crowds and being the focus of attention, found himself at the centre of a warm and loving cocoon being spun around him by every person in the building. Nobody wished him anything but the absolute best, and he felt utterly at ease, almost gliding from person to person and soaking up their heartfelt platitudes into what seemed like an infinite reservoir of gratitude in his soul. That was right up until he glided too near to the corner by the bar where his friends were sitting, and felt a grasping hand find his shoulder and lock itself into place.

“Right! This man has so far managed to avoid our tender attentions all night, preferring to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of his new fiancée and to mumble meaningless nonsense to warm the hearts of old women. Is this acceptable?”

The words had the tone and spirit of a formal declaration; the charges were being laid before the judge and jury so the trial could begin. The majority of the young men, the owners of or heirs to the cluster of farms which the pub had been placed at the centre of, replied in unison with a lusty boo from their seats.

“And so; whenever a man undergoes a momentous event in his life, he needs the support of friends around him. Especially if it’s an event as momentous and catastrophic as getting married!”

Once again, boos rained down from the gallery. The speaker was standing behind Markus gripping his shoulders like a vice. A wide grin was spreading across the defendant’s face regardless as he struggled to stop himself from bursting out into laughter. The formality was almost too much to bear. The prosecutor continued.

“For the heinous crime of avoiding the greatest pleasure and duty of a man, that of fraternising with his brothers-in-arms, a crime he has been committing ever since he entered this fine establishment… how do we find him?”

“Guilty!” came the unanimous verdict in a roar.

“Having found this man guilty, I hereby sentence him to be taken to the bar, where he shall be given three dirty pints, to be taken at intervals not exceeding one hour; and as to the intervening time, I sentence him to get messily drunk playing games with his friends. May the Gods have mercy on his soul.”

A resounding cheer echoed round the crowded table at this point, as the assembly swiftly approved the judgement. Markus, smiling widely, turned around and addressed the judge.

“I suppose I don’t have any choice, Will?”

“None at all, mate, none at all. Now, if you’ll just come with me to the bar, we’ll get you started on carrying out your sentence.”

Will was Markus’ closest friend. They were the same age, both born immediately after colonisation, and had grown up on neighbouring farms. They provided a striking contrast to each other as well, with the chunky and compact frame and blond hair of Will giving the counterpoint to the tall, lean and dark Markus. They pushed their way through the crowd to the bar, where Markus was recognised and got immediate service.

“He’ll be ordering for me, Ben.” The barman was on first name terms with everyone in his pub, and so he smirked as he contemplated what hellish concoction Will was about to order for his friend.

“Um… get a pint glass and put in… oh, six shots?” Will was almost muttering to himself as he scanned the shelves in front of him. “And not the usuals either. If it’s colourful, it goes in, if it was touched once and never again because it’s disgusting, it goes in… use your imagination Ben. I’m feeling generous.”

“A pleasure, for the groom-to-be.”

“And after the shots, fill it up with… ooh, what’s that fruity juice stuff in the fridge. It looks awful. Fill the glass up with that.”

“Right you are, Will.”

Markus watched the viciously bright, cloyingly sweet smelling mixture gradually assemble itself. At every stage the colours merged and whirled and changed, the scent of it became more and more like fruity sugar; the fumes coming off it were enough to stun a bear. Will paid for it all, relishing the ridiculous cost — “That means it’s got a lot of booze in it” — and took it back to the table, where the rest of his friends eagerly awaited them.

“Come on Will, I was going to do some research for that project you and I have planned tomorrow. And Lara won’t be too happy if I’m plastered.”

“Well, you can do your reading and your research some other time. And if the lovely Lara’s going to be a problem, you should have thought of that before you got engaged to her. Now down that pint.”

Markus sighed and looked down at the glass on the table in front of him. Ah well. She’d understand.

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