He'd heard everything, but none of them had so much as offered a kind word to him during the entire trip. That wasn't surprising, though- compared to all of those normal people, he was a monster. Perhaps he'd pass a casual inspection- he had healthy tanned skin, dark hair cropped military-short, and a build that was strong without being freakish. Nor did his eyes seem unusual, chocolate brown and thoroughly average. But... once any of his 'extras' were seen, they'd know he was a freak.
No one who looked past his normal facial features could miss the changes he'd gone through. The bulges along his cheeks stood out, and just like when he'd first stepped off the plane and breathed in the sweet air of his native land, anyone could see the cobra-like fangs extending from the roof of his mouth when he smiled too broadly. The observant could also notice how, in unguarded moments, a nictitating membrane swiped across his eyes, that third eyelid which made him look more like a reptile than a man.
There was more, of course, but Aaron's military fatigues covered the odder... changes. It wasn't enough to keep the other occupants from staring at him when they thought he wasn't looking, but at least that was all they did.
Not that he cared much, now that he was nearly home. Every road sign that proclaimed his steady progress made his heart pound in his chest. Every mile that passed made him that much more eager to be where he belonged. The constant chatter in the bus was just white noise, a buzzing that he easily ignored. When he finally caught sight of his hometown's welcome sign, nothing else mattered.
"Williamsburg Welcomes You!" The sign proclaimed cheerful greetings with bold black letters, even though the painting that went along with it- a pastoral scene with a benevolent sun beaming over the most placid herd of cows ever to be seen- was faded and almost impossible to make out.
Despite himself, Aaron laughed and shook his head. "They still haven't fixed up that old sign?"
The bus fell silent. Every eye suddenly stared at him, and every single person on the bus shifted a little bit away from him. Not much, perhaps, but noticeably. After a few seconds, he offered an apologetic smile to each person in turn. When he spoke, Aaron moved his lips as little as possible, mumbling the words rather than risking anyone seeing his fangs again. "Sorry... grew up here. They kept talking about fixing the sign, but..."
No one answered. When Aaron's voice trailed off, there wasn't even an attempt to fill the awkward silence. A few moments later they turned back to each other, muttering amongst themselves about Aaron's outburst. Aaron himself just gazed out the window, gritting his teeth as the constant whispering started giving him a headache.
He muttered to himself that it would only last a few more minutes. He clung to the hope that it would only be temporary, and once he got off the bus... he d never have to see any of them again. It didn't matter what they thought, if their company would only last a few more minutes, right? That alone kept him from sinking into his seat.
Finally, at long last, the bus pulled into its stop- a plain concrete shelter, open to the cold Midwestern winds. The signs were all faded now, and no one he knew was waiting for him; there were just two old men slowly getting to their feet and ambling toward the bus.
Aaron barely paid any attention to them as he rushed through the doors the instant the bus driver opened them. He hopped off the bus and then took a deep breath, grinning as, for the first time in a long while, he felt at home. Compared to the unrelenting heat of where he'd come from, the crisp air was refreshingly cool. He drank it in with a contented sigh, and as he turned to the storage area under the bus, he started stretching, working out the soreness the past few days had settled deep inside him.
The driver stiffly left the bus some time after Aaron, grumbling under his breath as he approached the storage area. He glared at Aaron, as though blaming him for the unnecessary inconvenience, but even that didn t ruin Aaron s mood, though. He just grinned as he waited for his luggage to be brought out. Once he had that, he told himself, he'd walk away and not even spare a glance to anyone. It'd just be a bit of a hike from there, and he could-
"Excuse me, sir." A worn, tired voice rasped out the greeting, and when Aaron turned, one of the old men blinked up at him from behind thick bifocals. He looked frail, but he held out his hand and shook Aaron's with surprising strength. "I just wanted to thank you for-"
He froze, his fingers digging into Aaron's hand. Or at least... he tried, but even his unusual strength couldn't make a dent in Aaron's thick, armor-like skin. This realization made his eyes widen, and they scrutinized Aaron, taking careful note of the odd bulges in his cheeks and the hint of something inhuman in his smile. As he stared, Aaron couldn't restrain himself- the fear made his nictitating membrane shield his eyes, and the old man jerked back at the inhuman motion. In the end, all he could do was stammer, "...f-for your service."
Aaron let his hand fall to his side. "...no, thank you, sir," he mumbled, forcing a smile onto his face as he offered a salute. "I was in the Army's Third Augmented. You... don't have to say anything. I know."
The old man stared for a few moments longer, then his shock and horror slowly gave way to firm understanding. He saluted back, and answered in his quiet voice, "I... can't imagine what you've been through. The things you've seen, if the news is right... But... welcome home, soldier."
Aaron found himself grinning again, and somehow, in those tired old eyes, he found something that he'd missed ever since he left the unit. Something that he couldn't really describe, but no less real than the augments in his body. "Thank you, sir. It's good to be back." Then, after taking his luggage in hand, he started walking toward home. Now, instead of glancing around, he strode straight toward his destination... and he never looked back.