Title: The Long Way Home

Rating: T

Summary: Sometimes you have to step back to go forward. Ponyboy returns to Tulsa after a near-fatal encounter.

Warnings: First-person POV, violence, discussion of drug use, some language

Disclaimers: I don't own The Outsiders or any of the characters therein. I am not making any money from this. This story was written for entertainment only.

Apologies: Once again, I'm only human. Please forgive any mistakes.

Author's notes: This story takes place ten years after the events in The Outsiders. Soda's fate was inspired by one of the interviews on the DVD. I made up the rest.

I've wanted to write an Outsiders story since I first read the book when I was young, back when cell phones weighed five pounds. Here it is. Enjoy.

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The first time I was stabbed I was twenty-four years old. I'd been cut before, and guys had pulled blades on me plenty of times, but that was the first time I'd come close to being killed with one.

It happened very early on a Friday morning in March as I was leaving a bar in Chicago. I was walking by myself and I wasn't carrying a blade. Right after it happened I remember laying there on the wet pavement, thinking that after all these years Darry was still right; I don't ever use my head.

I can't remember the name of the bar, except that it had blue and pink neon lights out front. I'd only been living in Chicago for about four months. The place was in a part of the city I wasn't all that familiar with. I was there to meet a contact for a story that I was working on: some big union scandal. I wish I could describe it better than that, but if you want to know the truth, I barely knew anything about it.

I was working for the Chicago Tribune, but not as a reporter. I was a gofer, which is one step up from working in the mailroom. I was fresh off of a newspaper job in Memphis. I'd come to Chicago hoping that I'd get a chance to write for a real newspaper, but until someone died or got promoted, I was stuck answering phones and fetching coffee.

My boss, Charlie, was a real reporter for the Tribune. He'd gotten an anonymous phone call earlier in the week from somebody who said he had information for one of Charlie's stories. For a price, he wanted to talk. Charlie was already under a deadline for another story, so he wrote up a list of questions and asked me if I was up for it. Of course I said "yes". If I'd had two broken arms and had to write with a pencil between my teeth I still would have done the interview.

I met Charlie's anonymous caller in a part of the city called New Town. He was a big guy with callused hands and a big black mustache. He called himself "Murray" and he didn't waste any time asking about the "payment" that he and Charlie had talked about. Charlie had given me a manila envelop along with his list of questions. I slid it across the table. Murray looked inside and seemed satisfied with the contents. He asked me what I wanted to know.

Murray answered my questions in a low voice, like he knew that he wasn't supposed to be saying the things that he was saying, not that I could tell one way or the other. I'm usually pretty good at keeping up with current events. You have to be if you want to write for a newspaper, but the questions that Charlie had given me didn't seem to make any kind of sense at all. They made sense to Murray, though, and I guess that was what mattered. Besides, when I'd mentioned it to Charlie, he'd said that I was probably safer if I didn't know what I was asking about. It turned out that he was right.

I finished the interview around two in the morning. The bar was empty except for the two of us and the bartender. I was ready to put my head down and go to sleep right there on the table. I'd had more to drink than I realized. I don't usually drink much, but it would have looked strange to sit in a bar all night and not drink. Besides, I wanted to keep pace with Murray as he downed one beer after another.

I felt someone shaking me by the elbow. "Kid," Murray asked me, "You think you've got enough for your story?"

Even at twenty-four I guess I still looked pretty young. I was too beat to get offended and instead I gave him a tired nod.

Murray slapped me on the shoulder and gave me a small smile, "Good luck, kid." Then he grabbed his coat and walked out into the cold night air. I stayed behind, organizing my notes and talking to the bartender, Ricky. Ricky wasn't too friendly. As I folded up my notes and tucked them in my jacket he said, "Watch yourself, kid." There was something about the way that he said it that made it sound more like a threat than a warning. When I look back now, I think he knew what was about to happen.

The trains had stopped running and I didn't have enough money for a cab. Even though it was still winter, the weather had been pretty good. It was cold outside, a lot colder than Tulsa would be this time of year, but it wasn't raining or anything, and the wind was calm. Not a bad night for a long walk.

I could tell this wasn't the greatest part of town, but I'd seen worse. I didn't think I looked like much of a target. I was wearing dark jeans and a blue sweater. The only decent piece of clothing I owned was my brown suede jacket, which I'd bought at a second-hand shop. I snapped up the collar and set off down the alley.

I got maybe half a block when I thought I heard someone following me. After a moment I stopped. The footsteps stopped too. Despite myself I felt a chill run down my spine. I tried to breathe normally. 'It's your own steps echoing, Ponyboy," I told myself. My imagination is way too active for my own good. Right then I was scaring the daylights out of myself. I was breathing hard and glancing around at the shadows like I was expecting some monster to jump out at me.

I stood there for a minute, and when nothing happened I felt my heart start to beat slower. I've always had a pretty active imagination, and sometimes it runs away with me. I laughed nervously at myself.

"Get a grip, Pony," I whispered. The words were barely out of my mouth when something heavy and dark slammed me bodily into the side of a dumpster. My hands tore at a big leather-clad arm. I remember it being black leather. It was too dark to tell what color it actually was, but that's how I pictured it.

There was a rough hand in my jacket pocket and a rougher voice right in my ear saying, "Don't you dare scream, man. Don't you dare scream." I didn't even feel the knife until he was pulling it out of me. Then I was lying on the asphalt on my side, watching two pages of my handwritten notes drift to the ground like leaves.

I remember lying there, listening to the retreating footfalls of the man who'd stabbed me and thinking, Oh God, Darry, I'm so sorry.