It’s been five years. Five years and several thousand miles, moving on from place to place without ever looking back. Five years of constant reminders of what he left behind. Five years of fake names, fake IDs and learning how to blend in; learning how to keep quiet and keep to himself. Learning to be all the things that he never used to be. There was a reason why he left, and he knows that. It’s just that sometimes he can’t remember what it was – between all the backstories that he’s come up with and the constant stream of new faces in his life, it seems to have got lost. Some days he thinks it was because he wasn’t happy. Some days he thinks it was because he was too happy – because he knows that happiness like that never lasts. Other days, he thinks it was to protect people – if he was gone, who would use his loved ones as a target? Or maybe… maybe it was to protect himself? Whatever. There was a reason why he left. There’s a reason why he doesn’t go back.
Sometimes, in the dark of the night – in the deep, inky blackness just before the stilly light of dawn creeps across the sky – sometimes he thinks maybe he doesn’t go back because there’s no place for him there anymore. After all, when he first left (the morning after graduation, with all his things already on their way back home and nothing left but a bag full of clothes, money and a couple of books) they’d come after him. He hadn’t been as good at this then. There had been ‘Missing’ posters with his face on them; even a news bulletin. There had been people actively looking for him, and some not-quite-people looking too. He’d spent weeks holed up in hotels, wearing hideous cologne to cover up his scent and obsessively cleaning his room before he moved on to anywhere new.
It was easier once he’d got a couple of states away. By the time he’d got himself to Wyoming, he started to feel like he could breathe a little easier. He stopped looking over his shoulder constantly. People even stopped asking him if he was ok every time a black Camaro went past – mainly because he stopped jumping. Then he started to work on blending in. First on the order of business was learning when to talk and when to keep his mouth shut. That had probably been the hardest thing to do – after all, he was breaking the habit of a lifetime. Hard as it was though, it wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d expected it to be. He realised one day that maybe it was because he didn’t have much to say to complete strangers.
Anyway, after that, everything else came a little easier. He managed to fabricate an accent that came from nowhere in particular, but that could be from anywhere at all if he wanted it to. He grew his hair out, gelling it up into spikes at the front. He started to wear clothes that actually fitted. He worked out. In fact, it wasn’t until he caught himself weighing up whether he should buy a leather jacket that he realised exactly what he’d been doing; who he’d been subconsciously emulating. The irony of it startled a laugh out of him; a laugh that caught in his chest and came out more like a sob.
He didn’t buy the leather jacket.
A couple of hundred miles later though, he stops off in a little town to get some fuel and grab something to eat. He’s shoving curly fries into his mouth as he walks along the main street, looking idly in shop windows when he sees it. In the display of a place that calls itself ‘Jewels of the Earth’, nestled against black velvet, it glints slyly at him. It says, ‘Buy me.’ It says, ‘No one will know.’ It says, ‘You know you want to.’ And he nods his head, agreeing.
He steps into the shop and asks about it. The lady behind the counter goes to get it for him, chattering about how it’s a celtic design, called a –
‘A triskele’, he says. ‘Or triskelion. It means three-legged.’ He sends her a small smile as an apology for interrupting. ‘I had a friend who had it as a tattoo’, he says by way of explanation.
She smiles brightly at him. ‘That’s nice’, she says. She doesn’t mean it, it’s clear, but it's also obvious that she doesn’t want offend him. He wonders if maybe she’s so enthusiastic about it because it hasn’t sold yet, and she doesn’t want to miss a chance to get rid of it. He supposes it’s not a popular design.
He weighs it in his hand, feeling the pleasant heaviness of it. It’s bigger than a dollar – maybe half as big again – probably about four centimetres across at its widest points. It shines nicely, but it’s dull enough that his finger prints don’t leave too much of a mark on its smooth surface.
‘What’s it made of?’ he asks.
The shop owner proudly says that it’s pure silver, and he has to bite back a laugh at that, because once again, the irony is too much to ignore. Regardless though, he knows he’s going to buy it. Even when the shop owner tells him that it costs seventy-five dollars (and maybe that’s why it hasn’t sold), he doesn’t put it down. Instead, he hands over the right notes and stops her as she tries to wrap it up for him. When he realises he has nothing to hang it from, she gives him a black leather string for free – ‘As a thank-you for your custom.’
He nods his gratitude and heads out of the shop, wondering what he’s just done. In fact, he almost turns around to go and give it back to the woman, but he doesn’t in the end. Instead, he loops it over the mirror of his car and tries not get distracted by the way it catches the light as he drives. He slings it around his neck that night, when he gets out of the car to check into the motel he’s stopped at. He tells himself it’s so it doesn’t get stolen – after all, that would be a real waste of seventy-five dollars.
It stays on his neck though, a constant reminder of everything he left behind him. Some nights it makes him want to cry, wretched homesickness raging through him until he feels like he’s falling apart. Other nights he lies awake stroking the smooth spirals with the pad of his thumb. And on very rare occasions, some girl will comment on it as they get undressed, running her hand across it and down his chest in a move that’s supposed to be sexy. He never talks about it, just takes it off and puts it somewhere safe until the girl is gone. Then he’ll shower and settle it round his neck, feeling it grow warm against his skin.
Sometimes, he used to wonder whether they’d know that he bought it – whether he’d know. He used to wonder if it would draw them back on to his trail; if it would bring him back up on their radar. But it never does. And he thinks maybe they’ve forgotten him.
After all, despite all the initial furore and those couple of near misses where he’d ended up scrambling out of town in a cloud of dust and praying that he’d got away clean, it didn’t take too long for them to give up. He’s not sure why. Perhaps they thought he had died. Perhaps they realised he doesn’t want to be found. Or, as he thinks sometimes, when the night is dark and he’s all alone, perhaps they stopped wanting to find him. Either way, it’s been three and a half years since he’s worried about anyone being on his trail.
It should make him happy. It doesn’t.
He carries on running though, partly because he feels he has to, partly because it’s habit now. He’s so used to moving from place to place that it feels strange to stay anywhere too long. Besides, he always said he’d see all fifty states and now seems as good a time as any. It’s not like he has anything else to do.
It’s one of the small joys of his life, the travelling. He gets a real kick out of getting into whatever heap of junk he’s driving that month and just going. The freedom of the open road and doing whatever he wants… it’s a rush. It’s addictive, and before he turned twenty five he’d already covered thirty states from top to toe. One of his personal favourites was Hawaii, even though it was by far the most difficult to get to. Still, regardless of the trouble getting through airport security caused him, he still holds the memories of his time there closely. He’d felt peaceful there; far enough from everywhere to feel truly safe.
He also loved the East Coast. He spent the best part of two years there, getting lost in the crowds and learning all kinds of interesting things about the first settlers. He even toyed with the idea of attending Harvard at one point, but decided against it in the end – it would keep him in one place for too long and make him far too easy to find. Still, he’d left Boston with sadness.
Leaving Massachusetts had been a wrench as well. He’d been happy there. But he’d already stayed longer than he should (all it takes it one person to recognise you, his brain had whispered, day in, day out) and learned all he could learn. If there had been any more lore to discover, he’d have found it by then. So he’d packed up with a sigh and driven off into the night, headed south.
Since then he’s wandered all over, even coming as far back across the west as Nevada and Arizona. He hadn’t stayed there long – not that there was much to see in either state – and had made his way to New Mexico soon. There was a sense of relief once he pushed past the border, as if crossing a line could somehow put him that much further away from everything he’d less behind. Ridiculous it might be, but it was there regardless. California just felt that much further away.
After New Mexico, he’d toyed with just driving through Texas to go back to Louisiana, and from there, heading back down to Florida. He’d met some very interesting people in both states – some very knowledgeable people, who provided him with a lot of information he hadn’t had previously. Texas itched at him though – it was the one state he hadn’t ‘done’. Sure, he’d driven through it a few times, cutting across corners to get somewhere else. He’d never stayed though; never worked through it the way he had everywhere else.
‘All fifty states’, he had muttered to himself. ‘Just think – you could have all fifty under your belt before your birthday.’ And he’d caved, because the idea of having covered the entire US from top to toe by the age of twenty-eight… well, it was pretty awesome.
That’s why he’s in Dallas a couple of days before his birthday, heading to work. Dallas was his last stop to cover – his journeys never go in any logical order – and he’s been here for three weeks now. He works as a bartender four nights a week, and everyone thinks his name is Sam Winchester. So far only two people have asked him whether he’s for real, which is almost disappointing – obviously, there aren’t enough Supernatural fans in the world. He refuses to believe this has anything to do with the fact that the show ended a nearly decade ago.
Anyway, he’s enjoying Dallas, and he’s enjoying this job. The guy who owns the place is in his fifties and wears a cowboy hat seemingly all day, every day. He and his wife seem to know everyone who comes into the bar, and they chat to all their patrons like old friends. It’s nice, having a corner of small-town America in the middle of a big city. It’s a big part of the reason he enjoys being here. Everyone has been super kind and welcoming, and it feels like the perfect place to finish up his trip, even though he knows he’s not going to stay here for long. Not really. Still, he’s not leaving just yet, he tells himself. Not til after Christmas anyway.
He doesn’t bother to acknowledge that Christmas is less than a week away, or that he’ll be spending it alone again.
Instead, he walks to work, hands in his coat pockets and head tucked into his scarf. The temperature has been sitting around freezing for days, and people are talking about the likelihood of freezing rain in the next few days. He hopes it’ll happen – he’s always wanted to see what it’s like, destructive as it is. The peculiarities of nature have fascinated him for a long time.
As it is, he’s almost at the bar when he looks up and sees the full moon. It hangs in the sky, perfectly round and milky-white, casting silver light over everything. He wonders how he failed to notice it. Then he wonders what it looks like from California; wonders what it looks like though the eyes of a wolf. For a brief moment, he puts his palm over the silver pendant hanging around his neck, closing his eyes and wishing them all well, wherever they are. He thinks, just for a second, that he hears a wolf howl. Then he blinks away the wetness in his eyes and heads inside.
It’s a busy night, the place filled with people celebrating the holiday spirit and looking forward to finishing work. Karaoke starts up at some point, and he hides a smile at how every song is about cowboys, or Texas, or riding across the plains. They’re fiercely proud of their heritage, these people. It’s not like that where he comes from. Or, at least, it wasn’t the last time he was there. Maybe it is now.
His hands are kept full over the course of the evening, but for some reason, his thoughts keep slipping back to the place he calls home. It’s annoying to say the least, and it makes him clumsy. He gets a couple of orders wrong, and snaps at a guy who wasn’t behaving that badly. It’s not like him; not like the man he is now.
Jerry pulls him aside at one point. ‘Everything ok son?’ he asks. There’s genuine concern in his eyes and for a minute he looks so like a certain Sheriff from Beacon Hills, California, that it physically hurts.
‘Yeah, I’m fine’, he says after a moment. ‘Just thinking about home.’
Jerry nods like that makes sense. ‘You know, you can always take some time off if you want. We’re closed from the 24th to the 27th anyway – you could head back home if you wanted. Go and see your family. Come back on the 29th or something – I know Mike has been wanting some extra shifts.’
This sudden show of kindness from a man he barely knows brings tears prickling at the back of his eyes. He nods. ‘I might just take you up on that’, he replies.
Jerry grins. ‘Good. Now you get out there and quit moping – you know half the girls out there only come in hoping to catch a smile from you. I need you on form!’
He grins back, doing as he’s told. And although he knows he’s not really going to go home, the idea of just taking off driving for a few days is nice. It’s been a while since he’s just driven along, no idea where he’s going. If he packs enough food for a few days, he doesn’t even have to notice when his birthday and Christmas come and go again.
It’s after midnight by the time they start to close up, the jukebox in the corner still playing as they wipe down tables and pick up chairs. It’s all old country tunes, but he’s used to that by now – likes them, even. And he thinks a good thing none of the people back home can see him now, because he’d never hear the end of singing along to country music.
Soon, a song comes on that he doesn’t know. The introduction is sad-sounding, and when the singer starts singing, the words are too. Well, not sad so much as longing, and he listens as the singer tells his lover to ‘Catch a ride, or catch a cab… but don’t you walk to me.’ And then he sings,
‘Baby, run – cut a path across the blue skies! Straight in a straight line, you can't get here fast enough. Find a truck and fire it up: lean on the gas and off the clutch, leave Dallas in the dust. I need you in a rush, so baby run.’
And it’s too much. It’s much too much. It takes everything he has to finish closing up without breaking down. When he leaves, he has to run home so he can fall inside his apartment door and sink to floor, gasping for breath as the tears come. It’s all he can do to hold on and ride it out. Then, when he’s finally done, he gets up on wobbly legs and stumbles to bed.
He sleeps for a few hours, and when he wakes up the sky isn’t yet light. He makes a cup of coffee and stares out of the window as the dawn creeps in, frowning out at the city. He holds the triskelion pendant in his hand, running his thumb over it as the city begins to wake up for another day. He thinks and thinks and thinks, turning over all the days and miles between him and what he’s been running from all the years. He thinks about all the reasons he has to stay away, but somehow none of them seem to make any sense anymore. If they ever did at all.
It’s lunchtime by the time he’s made a decision. He makes a sandwich, chewing it mindlessly, his thoughts elsewhere. Then he starts to clear up the kitchen – not that there’s much for him to clear. After that, he moves through the rest of the apartment, the words of the song running through his head until he has to take a break to download it from iTunes before it drives him totally crazy.
The song has already clocked up thirty plays by the time he’s done with the apartment. After another fifteen, he’s got everything into his truck, and all that’s left to do is leave the rest of the month’s rent on the counter, along with the keys and a note of apology.
Then there’s nothing but him and the road, ‘Run’ playing on repeat as he drives off, taking the shortcut he Googled earlier and leaving Dallas behind him in the dust, just like he was told to. The road stretches out in front of him and he can feel his heart soaring the closer he gets, happiness bubbling up inside as he passes through the Texas/New Mexico border. When he nears the border between New Mexico and Arizona, he feels like he’s getting lighter with every passing mile.
He plans to stop in Arizona and snatch a few hours’ sleep there, but he winds up pulling over in New Mexico, scant miles from the border, because he thinks he might fall asleep at the wheel if he doesn’t. He wakes up ten hours later and has to force himself to have something to eat and drink before he starts driving again, even though the need to go home is fierce and painful. He crosses the border with delight, singing along to ‘Run’ with all his might.
After that, he stops once to relieve himself and grab a bite to eat. That’s it, because that’s all the time he can stand to waste. He has to hold back tears when he makes it into California, because tears mean time and time is the last thing he has to spare. The weight off his shoulders is intense though, and he wonders how he never even noticed that it was there in the first place.
The last hours of the day are slipping by when he finally makes it home. He does stop then, giving himself a short break to let out all the emotions fighting inside him, allowing himself a few tears. The relief at seeing that all the houses he recognises are unchanged is like a fist in the gut, although it’s nothing compared to driving past his childhood home and seeing his father’s car parked outside. The windows are dark, but just the thought of the Sheriff asleep inside is enough. And much as he wants to stay, he knows there’s one more stop he has to make first.
The woods are dark, but the roads are better than they used to be, and he wonders who maintains them. He stops wondering when he pulls up outside a house that he last knew as a ruin, but is now pristine and new under his headlights. He thinks, just for a second, that maybe this was a mistake – if the house is rebuilt, maybe who he’s looking for isn’t here. But he crushes that thought because it’s stupid, and he gets out of the car.
It’s strangely quiet without the strains of George Strait in his ears, and he shivers briefly against the damp cold – so different from the sharp, dry frosts of Dallas. He sticks his hands in his pockets and jogs up the porch steps to the front door. He takes a moment to think about what he’s going to say before he decides it doesn’t really matter. Then he presses the doorbell.
It takes a minute or two for the sound of a key in the lock to appear. Then the door opens and he’s confronted by a face he hasn’t seen in nearly five and a half years.
Derek looks good. His face is a little more worn, with more lines on it than there used to be. There are a few streaks of grey in his hair too, but he looks good. Better, (almost) at thirty-four than he looked at twenty-eight.
He also looks like he’s just seen a ghost.
His mouth opens and closes wordlessly for a minute or two. A voice calls from upstairs, ‘Derek, who is it?’ It’s Erica, and she sounds like she’s barely awake.
‘Tell them to fuck off and come back in the morning’, another voice says. That’s Isaac.
Derek says nothing and continues to stare, like he can’t believe his eyes.
Then, finally, he speaks, his voice hoarse and barely there, like if he says anything too loudly everything will disappear in front of his eyes.
He says, ‘Stiles?’
Stiles says, ‘Hi there, Sourwolf.’ And he can’t help how his voice cracks on the last syllable.
Then there are warm hands on his face and warm lips against his and he’s crying again, but it feels ok this time. It feels great, actually, because he’s finally, finally home.