Alfred shifted uncomfortably in the old, lumpy bus seat. Thin lines of sweat chased each other down his spine, the finish line hiding in the dip of his lower back where the sweat pooled. It was early in the evening on a brisk Autumn day, but Alfred could have sworn it was a summer afternoon.
He shifted again, his dog tags clinking nosily in the muted silence of the city bus, and swallowed uneasily. Alfred tried yet again to distract himself by fiddling with the straps of his army bag, but the effort was just as fruitless as all the others. He looked up, his sky blue eyes anxiously darting around the full bus, and couldn't help but wonder if they had seen someone like him before. A solider - bag on his lap, combat boots laced tight and unforgiving, tags clanking with every breath he took - wondering what had changed while he'd been away. Alfred finally served the last of his three years in the Marines and was able to walk away with just minimal PTSD. He knew he was lucky; some of his men, god bless their souls, weren't able to walk away at all.
'But I'm not here to think of that,' Alfred thought, shaking the thoughts loose. 'Right now it's just about me and... me and Toris.'
Alfred would never forget when they had first met (it was freshman year of high school and Alfred happily got his ass kicked as long as Ivan left the Lithuania boy alone), when Alfred asked Toris to wait for him to return (Alfred knew Toris understood, but it never stopped the icy fear of Toris leaving him from seizing hold on his heart), and the promise he had asked of his sweetheart the moment he had been notified that he and his men were needed no longer: that if Toris wanted him still, even after years of Alfred's absence, to tie a yellow ribbon on a branch of an old oak tree. To tie a yellow ribbon on their old oak tree, the one right in front of the house they had chosen together.
At last Alfred was returning home and he couldn't stop the unease that bubbled like magma in the pit of his stomach. Alfred loved hoping for the best but now all he could do was prepare for the worst. But no matter how Toris swayed, no matter if there was a yellow ribbon swinging in the breeze or not, Alfred would take that decision and leave forever. He knew the blame would fall on him and he accepted that, worst case and all.
However, the worst case scenario in Alfred's mind was that Toris secretly hated him for all those years and the moment he had left, Toris married Ivan and is now pregnant with their third child - no matter that Ivan transferred back to Russia their junior year and that men couldn't even get pregnant in the first place.
Alfred whimpered and slumped forward, his forehead smacking the seat in front of him with a resounding thwack. "Man, I wish I took up Mattie on his offer to come with me. I could definitely use some of his advice right about now."
To the other bus-goers, none of them could quite comprehend how dejected the blond man looked. The man closest to Alfred had a hard time believing the broad-shouldered, nearly six foot solider whom he thanked for his service earlier could now look so much like a kicked kitten. As Alfred continued to groan into the sticky faux leather, the people around him got more and more concerned. This reached to the point where nearly everyone on the bus, including the increasingly distracted bus driver, had began to glance at one another in distress. Suddenly a woman a little further down from Alfred stood and made her way toward the ex-Marine, only to plop right down next to him.
Alfred jolted from the sudden body next to his and, by reflex alone, quickly assessed her. She had a calm confidence that wrapped around her much like her golden shawl - if she wasn't a mother, or even a grandmother with how silver streaked her black hair, then Alfred would eat his glasses. She took her time to refold her shawl and cross her legs as she settled into the seat, treating it as if it were a throne. Alfred straightened and turned to face her. This nameless woman deserved his respect.
Quietly, she faced Alfred in turn, a paper fan clasped in her dark brown hand, and eyed him. While Alfred felt like he was under a microscope, he said nothing. After a few seconds it seemed like the woman found what she was looking for because she huffed and gently rapped her fan against the crown of his head. Alfred blinked at the move and smoothly raised a bemused eyebrow. The woman huffed again.
"Young man, there ain't no need for that long face," she drawled, her coffee brown eyes alight in amusement. "You're home now and I'd like to make a mighty fine guess and say there's a sweetheart waiting for you, too. So stop your mopin', you're bringing the clouds in!"
Alfred struggled to smother his smile, but his eyes crinkled nonetheless. While she could not puncture the fog of anguish Alfred willingly wallowed in, he could still appreciate what she was doing for him. He sighed, "I'm sorry ma'am, but ya see, my sweetheart is why I'm so down."
The woman's eyebrows furrowed. She asked, "What'cha mean, darlin'?"
Alfred smiled sadly. "I left him all alone for three years and, now that I'm allowed back, I'm just not too sure if he'd love me the same."
The nameless woman shook her head, quietly berating the emotional and irrational youth for their many doubts, and went on to speak but Alfred beat her to it, panic clear in his voice. "Oh God, the house is right up there. Hey, driver!"
He had people turning to him and some nearly standing up to get a good look. Alfred himself was half-in and half-out of his seat, as if he wanted to see the house for himself but was too scared to look at it directly. The woman next to him simply fanned herself, content to just let the boy do what he needed and see how it all panned out.
The driver yelled back, "What is it, boy?"
"Would you be so kind," spoke Alfred, his voice carrying throughout the bus easily, "to let me know if there's a yellow ribbon tied along that old tree up there? If there is one, it means my fiance waited for me - but I can't look myself. So, please, would you let me know?"
The driver, shocked, accidentally let up on the gas for a moment before righting himself. He cleared his throat and said, "Why, it'd be a pleasure."
Alfred slumped back in his seat, unaware that he didn't just get the driver's eyes on that tree, but everyone else's too. Well, nearly everyone. The wise old woman next to him simply snapped her fan shut and tenderly pried his fingers from the strap on his bag. Alfred looked down at their entwined hands, his calloused and tanned against her wrinkles and well manicured nails, and couldn't help but smile. Worry still shown brightly in his eyes, but he, his voice just a whisper, thanked her nonetheless.
She just squeezed his hands and smiled back.
Then, bursting the silence that had descended over everyone on board, a raucous cheer rocked the bus. Alfred's head snapped up and the woman let him go without a word, a knowing twinkle in her eyes. His bag strapped over his shoulder, the blond man pushed himself through the cheering people toward the front of the bus. The driver slowly brought the vehicle to a stop and clapped Alfred on the back, saying, "Well, it seems like today's your lucky day."
Alfred could have cried and he nearly did. Because, tied along that old oak tree, was 100 yellow ribbons swaying in the breeze. Alfred had to rip his eyes away from the tree to look to the house and, while he would deny it for the rest of his days, a tear fell when he caught sight of Toris - sweet, loving Toris who was holding another yellow ribbon tightly in his hands.
Never a patient man, Alfred bounded out of the bus, threw his bag off to the side, and ran toward Toris. They met in a tangle of limbs and 'I love you's - much to the happiness of those on the still-parked bus. Alfred turned around, the tall brunet securely in his arms, and waved until they could see the bus no longer.
Toris turned Alfred back around and hugged him tightly, as if he would vanish, and buried his face in Alfred's neck. Not bothered at all, Alfred just clung on and whispered, "I'm home. I love you and I'm home."