Chapter 22: Secrets, Nightmares, and Nervous Anticipation

PONYBOY'S POV

The darkness beckoning me was inviting and I fought the urge to black out again. Every inch of my body burned with the newly inflicted wounds and my stomach heaved once again when I caught sight of the amount of glistening blood surrounding me. However, my stomach had already rid itself of its contents, and all I could do was retch miserably onto the pavement, my salty tears mingling with the blood and saliva on the ground. I tried to sit up, but the intense pain in my back flared up and I flopped back down bonelessly, breathing in short gasps through my open mouth. I lay there for quite a while, trying to recognize my surroundings and gather up the strength to stand.

Finally, just as the sky was beginning to darken and the wind became slightly chilly, I staggered to my feet, swaying like a tired drunk. Leaning heavily against the nearest wall to gain my lost balance, I experienced a moment of panicked terror in which my over-active mind conjured up the scene of my brothers discovering what had just happened by finding my bloody body slumped over the sidewalk. Almost out of nowhere, Kevin materialized, wielding a large black double-barreled shotgun in his hand.

Hastily, I shook my head, ridding myself of the ghastly scenario. The thought of Soda or Darry getting hurt was enough to spur me into action. Looking over at my shirt, which lay in a crumpled heap in a pile of blood, one sleep ripped off, I decided to leave it. The damage done to it was pretty irreparable and besides, if either one of my brothers saw it, they would definitely suspect something. Despite the throbbing of my head and the acute ache in my back, I began to limp slowly out of the alley.

I was relieved to find that I was not in foreign territory after all; Kevin had not taken me very far. I spotted the lot a few yards away and made my way slowly toward it. Thankfully, the streets were mostly deserted other than the odd hood who eyed my bruised and battered form warily, keeping a safe distance. I was able to find my way back home undisturbed. Hardly believing that I had made it that far, I crept around the house, stopping when I reached the bathroom window. I grasped the pipe with both hands, biting back a gasp and wincing as every muscle in my body protested.

"I've got to do this… for Sodapop and Darry…" I thought, gritting my teeth and keeping the notion in my brain. The climb up to the window was slow and painful, and I almost moaned in relief when my fingers found the tiny latch to open the window. I squeezed through the window and landed with an awkward thump, sprawled across the cold bathroom tiles of my house. I had to bite down hard on my fist to prevent a scream of pain from escaping. I whimpered softly, trying to control the waves of pain that were coursing their way through my body. I shuddered as the first hot tear slipped down my cheek, but I quickly brushed it away.

I won't cry, I told myself firmly. I am not going to be a crybaby about this. For once in my life, I am going to be tough. I have to survive this without Soda or Darry's help.

I couldn't help but let another shudder wrack my body and the thought of Kevin getting a hand on either one of my brothers.

Picking myself up from the floor, I turned on the shower, watching the water spray out of the nozzle as I waited for it to heat up. I jumped as I heard a knock on the bathroom door.

"Hey, Pony," Two-bit said loudly over the sound of running water. "You in there?"

"Yeah," I replied, shocked at how steady my voice seemed. "I'm just taking a quick shower."

"Okay," replied Two-bit, completely unsuspicious. "Just checking."

I listened to his receding footsteps and when I was sure that he was a safe distance away, I stripped out of my stiff jeans and stepped into the bathtub. Closing my eyes for a second to steel myself for the inevitable pain, I raised the shower nozzle up to my back. My mouth opened in a silent scream as the warm water came into contact with raw, bleeding wounds, and I fought to keep my shaking hand steady.

For Soda and Darry, For Soda and Darry I repeated inside my head like a silent mantra, the words giving me strength I never knew I had.

When I was finally done, I crawled out of the bathtub, suddenly feeling unbearable exhausted from blood loss and fatigue. Picking up my old clothing from the ground, I wrinkled my nose in disgust, depositing the heavily blood-saturated jeans into the rubbish bin and shoving them in underneath the rest of the garbage.

Realizing that I had nothing to wear, I rummaged through the laundry basket, settling on a semi-clean, navy shirt of Soda's. Hugging the shirt close to me and breathing in the comforting, familiar scent of my older brother, I closed my eyes, yearning for his soothing presence. I slipped the soft fabric over my head, careful not to upset the injuries on my back. Kneeling down, I swiftly cleaned the leftover blood on the white tiles with a paper towel and some water, depositing them carefully as well.

I took a moment to lean on the sink, looking into the mirror. Luckily, Kevin had left my face alone, focusing his rage on other areas of my body that could be easily concealed. My face looked a little pale, but that couldn't be helped. I hoped that the scrapes on my knees and the new bruising on my throat would blend into the old injuries scattered around my body. The lump on my forehead near my hairline was fairly obvious, though, and I decided not to put any grease in my hair, leaving it free to fall over my forehead and into my eyes, covering the tell-tale bump. I scowled at my reflection, hating how young my new hairstyle made me look. Taking a last minute survey of the bathroom, I decided that it seemed fairly spotless. The pain in my back had faded into a low throbbing, which was more bearable than before, but the world still swayed disorientatingly when I moved too fast. Opening the door quietly, I stepped out, walking straight into Two-bit.

TWO-BIT'S POV

Damn, how much longer was the kid going to take! I was about to bang on the door when it opened a crack and Ponyboy's slim frame slipped through, banging into me.

"How was the visit from the social worker guy?" I asked casually. Now that the effects of the beer were beginning to wear off, I was feeling decidedly guilty about leaving the poor kid alone to deal with the guy. I knew how jumpy he was around them.

"Umm… it went okay," replied Pony softly after a moment of hesitation, chewing on his fingernail. He ducked his head, his free fingers fidgeting with the hem of his dark shirt. I smiled to myself wryly. The kid may have been a master liar before, but since his return to Tulsa it was more than a bit off. I put a finger under his chine, forcing him to look up into my eyes. I was surprised to see that his green-gray eyes were filled with unshed tears. The slight tremors going through his body made me realize that he was more than a little shaken up about the social worker's visit.

"Listen, Pony," I started, pretending to ignore that Ponyboy was on the verge of tears. "I'm really sorry about… ya know… leaving you alone just now like that… I didn't do it on purpose, ya dig? And look, I'll try not ta drink myself out every night like that, 'kay?"

The kid looked pretty dazed, and I wasn't sure if he'd even heard me at all. He swayed on his feet and I took him by the shoulders to steady him.

PONYBOY'S POV

A wave of nausea and fatigue built up in me and I felt bile rise up at the back of my throat. My vision blurred alarmingly as Two-bit slipped in and out of focus. Through the dull throbbing in my head, I vaguely registered that he was saying something, but although I caught a few words here and there, I couldn't for the life of me make any sense of them. I just had to close my eyes for a second…

As if from a great distance, I heard Two-bit yell, "Jesus Christ, kid!" and then the darkness closed in.

I zoned out for a moment, and a few seconds later came the unnerving sensation of my feet leaving the floor. Someone slipped an arm under my back and then I was lifted up. I tried to thrash out as I saw Kevin's sneering face and his strong arms flinging me over his shoulder, but I felt completely paralyzed.

I opened my eyes a few moments later. I felt drained and still slightly nauseated. There was something soft beneath me, but my eyes took a while to adjust to the dimness of my surroundings. I found myself sitting up in my bed, and Two-bit's face was looming near me, uncharacteristic concern etched all over his features.

"Wh… what just happened?" I croaked out. "How did I get here?" Two-bit handed me a glass of water.

"I dunno what happened," replied Two-bit, shaking his head, "You just… blacked out for a second there."

"Really?" I said, surprised. "I just closed my eyes for a second. How long was I out?"

"About five minutes," Two-bit placed a hand on my chest, gently pushing me back down onto the bed. "Get some rest. You're not looking too good."

He pulled the blanket up to my chin, standing up to leave. He left the door partially open, allowing a crack of light to slip through.

I closed my eyes, but just as I was about to surrender to exhaustion, a thought hit me and I forced my eyes back open. Climbing carefully out of bed, I padded softly down the hallway and into the living room.

Two-bit looked up from his place at the kitchen table, where he was eating a slice of chocolate cake. He jumped out of his chair at the sight of me.

"Ponyboy Michael Curtis. What are you doing out of bed?"

He sounded so much like Darry that I stared at him. He didn't seem to notice.

"Well?" he crossed his hands, staring down at me.

"Umm…" I faltered, "You're not going to tell Soda or Dar what just happened, right?"

"Of course I'm going to tell them," said Two-bit in a voice that brooked no argument.

"But… but you know they'll just worry their heads off about it, and it wasn't even a big deal," I protested. "I'm fine!" I did a bunch of jumping jacks to prove my point, trying not to give in to my sore head or aching back. Two-bit was not in the slightest bit amused.

"Pony, stop it." He sighed at my pleading look. "Fine, I won't tell them. But I won't lie if they ask me. Now get back into bed." He herded me back into the bedroom. "Now, if I see your foot touch the ground in the next couple of hours, I'm spilling everything to your brothers," he said once I had settled into bed. "I'm serious."

If I had been in better shape, I would have cracked a laugh at that. Two-bit? Serious? Those two words just didn't go together. Just as Two-bit was about to leave, I cursed myself for my weakness, speaking softly. "Two-bit..."

He swung around.

"Could you… could you stay a while?" I hated myself for my momentary fright of being left alone, but I didn't think I could stand it right now. His eyes softened and he retraced his steps, perching on the edge of my bed.

"Pony, ya know I wouldn't leave ya alone again," he as he adopted a hurt expression. "Didn't ya notice Sodapop right next to you?"

I turned my head with a bit of difficulty, noticing my brother for the first time. I thought Two-bit would get up and leave, but I was surprised when he didn't move, reaching over to tuck the blankets securely around me.

"Ya better some sleep, Pone," he said in a softer tone. I closed my eyes again, breathing a sigh of relief as I sank into the soft sheets. However, the excruciating pain in my back was impossible to ignore, and a few seconds later, I flipped onto my front, finally falling asleep when the pressure on my aching back was relieved.

DARRY'S POV

I stretched, yawning wide as I awoke. I kept my eyes closed for a while, pretending that I was back in the blissfully deep sleep I was just in. I smiled contentedly. That was the best rest I had had for a long, long while. Opening one eye, I glanced over at the small black clock sitting on my bedside table, shooting up to a sitting position in shock when I saw the green numbers glowing "8:38PM". I confirmed the time by checking my wristwatch, which read "8:43PM" (I always kept my wristwatch a few minutes early).

I couldn't believe that I had slept through the entire day! I sprang up in shock and sudden panic when I realized that the trial was less than fifteen hours away. I walked out into the living room, where Steve, Dally, and Johnny were sitting. They all looked up at the sight of me.

"Hey Dar," said Dally with a hint of a smile. "I was wondering how long you'd be out."

Steve reddened slightly, running a hand through his perfectly greased locks. I frowned at Dal and him briefly, but focused on more important things.

"Where're my kid brothers?"

Steve pointed to the bedroom. "They're both fast asleep. Two-bit's in there too."

I opened the bedroom door quietly, slipping in and closing it with a soft click. I looked down, amused at the sight of Two-bit sprawled on his back horizontally across the double bed, using Soda's feet as a pillow. I looked at Pony, who was sleeping on his front, using Soda's arm as a make-shift pillow as well. I hated to wake them all up, but I knew I had to. If I let them sleep for much longer, we would all be awake for the rest of the night. I shook Soda's shoulder lightly and he quickly awoke, blinking the sleep out of his eyes.

"Dar?" he questioned, confused.

"It's me," I confirmed. "You've gotta get up, little buddy, or you won't be able to sleep again later on."

Soda yawned, sitting up. His movement caused the other two to stir. I grabbed Two-bit's arm, unmercifully pulling him out from under the blanket. He yelled, thrashing about comically and landing on the floor. Soda laughed for the first time in weeks, scrambling out of bed to get a better view of Two-bit squirming on the floor.

Pony awakened from the commotion, his hazel eyes blinking up at me blankly.

"C'mon, Pone," I said, "You gotta get out of bed."

I was surprised when he let me pull him out of bed without protest; normally, mornings with Ponyboy consisted of me yelling blue murder and swearing I would skin him if he didn't get ready on time. I shook my head. Well, this wasn't exactly what you'd call a 'normal' situation.

SODAPOP'S POV

I was astonished that I had been able to sleep through the entire day; it was almost nine by the time Darry woke me. I wondered briefly if anybody had secretly force-fed me sleeping pills or something, and laughed out loud and the ridiculous notion. Everybody looked up from their dinner and stared at me, and I shrugged.

"Just... thinking," I explained. Two-bit cocked an eyebrow.

"You? Thinkin'! I'd sure love ta see the day when Sodapop actually used that head for something other than ta grow hair on," he laughed, flipping an asparagus at me. I caught it in mid-air, stuck out my tongue, and lobbed it straight toward his forehead.

I could understand the gang's need for humour and besides, fretting about the trial was doing none of us any good, especially Ponyboy. Everybody seemed to sense this, and nobody breached the topic throughout dinner, acting as if it was just a normal get-together. In fact, nobody spoke of anything to do with the trial throughout the whole night, something for which I was extremely grateful for.

Two-bit left early, saying he wanted to pick up some broads at the drive-in, and Dally left with him.

I jumped onto the couch, and, winning the brief battle with Steve, swiped up the remote control and began channel-surfing. Looking around, I watched Ponyboy curled up in his seat, already deeply absorbed in yet another intimidatingly massive paperback. I smiled at him, proud of my brainy kid brother.

I could see Darry sitting at the kitchen table, sorting out the bills and tax, and mentally, I grinned, trying to pretend that everything was normal. I tried to forget that Ponyboy could be taken away from us in a few hours. That thought sobered me and my gaze went quickly back to my kid brother. He went on flipping the pages, buried in his own little world and utterly oblivious to my attention.

"Hey guys," Johnny spoke up after a while. "I'm gonna go now. See ya'll tomorrow."

Darry looked up. "Where're you gonna sleep?"

Johnny shrugged. "Probably in the lot, if it ain't too chilly."

"If it gets too cold, don't forget you can come back here and sleep in the living room," I offered.

Johnny just shook his head. "Naw, I should be okay. But thanks, Sodapop."

Steve and I exchanged a glance as Johnny quickly slipped out through the front door. We both hated the idea of Johnny sleeping outside by his lonesome. Steve picked himself up from the couch a while later and left, grimacing at the thought of having to go back to his old man.

It was getting late and I knew we should get to bed soon, but I wasn't sleepy at all. I knew Ponyboy was; I was keeping an eye on him and I noticed the wide yawns he was trying to conceal from behind his book. I guess Darry was aware of them too, because he stood up, walking over to us.

"Hey kids," he said with a smirk. "You'd all better go to bed soon. Pony's tired and we should all get some rest before the trial."

"Kids!" I scoffed, trying to ignore the fact that he had mentioned the dreaded trial. The gang had skirted around the topic throughout dinner and after it, and it was a shock to my system to hear the word so suddenly.

PONY'S POV

I yawned again, berating myself for being so weak. I couldn't help my exhaustion; the day's events had worn me out and the excrutiating pain in my back was steadily increasing. There was a dull throbbing in my head, and I closed my eyes, resting my head down on the couch, hoping that neither of my brothers had noticed my sudden action. My wish proved futile; I heard Darry's chair give a squeak as he stood up, and Soda's hands were on my shoulders, gently pulling me up and out of the couch.

"Come on, Pony," he whispered, "Let's get ya into bed, 'kay?"

Feeling as if all the energy I had ever possessed had been sucked out of me, I let him steer me toward the bedroom, much like Two-bit had done a few hours before. I didn't have the strength to argue.

I was fast asleep the second my head hit the pillow.

SODAPOP'S POV

I was more than a little surprised at my brother's lack of resistance as I tucked him into bed.

"The kid's wiped out," remarked Darry, who had followed us in. I nodded my head in agreement, but turned around when I heard a yawn from Darry.

"And so're you," I laughed quietly, careful not to wake my other sleeping brother. Darry gave me a grin that did not quite succeed in hiding his exhaustion.

"Maybe a little," he admitted ruefully. I grinned back at him cheekily.

"Whoa... Losing your touch, eh, Superman?"

He scowled half-heartedly, flinging out a muscled arm to cuff me around the head. I laughed crazily when he missed completely, batting the air instead.

"Come on, Superhero. Let's get ya to bed as well."

My second shock of the night came when even Darry did not argue. He collapsed into his bed without bothering to take off his jeans or pull the covers over himself. If it was difficult to get Ponyboy into bed at night, it was almost impossible to get Darry to sleep. His pride kept him from showing weakness, and the fact that he was willing to show his exhaustion alarmed me a little. Trying not to let it show, I chuckled with my normal good humour.

"Ya sure you're comfy there, Dar?"

He merely grunted, without opening his eyes or turning his head in my direction. I sighed, throwing up my hands in mock frustration, even though he couldn't see me.

All Darry did was grunt once again when I jumped onto the bed. The mattress did a little jig of it's own, the ancient springs squealing out their displeasure at the disturbance. Darry finally opened one eye.

"What are you doing?" he mumbled.

"Tryin' ta make ya a bit more comfortable," I replied. I rolled my eyes at the third grunt he made, but at least this time he responded, his hand joining mine in the struggle to undo the three buttons on his jeans. The small but arduous task was completed in a few seconds and I jumped off the bed to remove his jeans with one tug. Hopping back on, I rolled him over onto his front, placing my hands on the small of his back.

I kneaded and massaged my way up to his shoulders slowly, feeling the tension in his muscles slowly release. I sighed as I found yet more knots. I couldn't stand that Darry had such a taxing, exhuasting job. And when he came back home he had to deal with yet more stress. He really didn't deserve any of this.

If only mum and dad were still alive... tears pricked at the back of my eyes as I pictured mum's strong, warm smile and recalled the feeling of dad's comforting bear hugs. I had always believed that they could solve any problem and chase away any fear. They made the world a much better place, somehow seeming to fill up the house with warmth and light. But they were gone.

I bit my bottom lip so hard that I almost drew blood.

"That feels good, Soda," Darry mumbled into his pillow, groaning as my fingers unconsciously soothed another knot in his shoulder and bringing me out of my painful reverie.

Gradually, his breathing evened out and his body relaxed, sinking into the soft mattress. Trying not to disrupt him, I carefully crept down from his bed, closing the door with a soft click.

I worked my way back to my bedroom, blindly trailing my fingers along the cold, smooth wall to gain some sense of orientation in the dark hallway. Fumbling slightly, I finally found the doorknob and, twisting it carefully, I stepped into the room. Briefly pausing to strip out of my pants and, throwing them over the back of a chair, I climbed into bed, careful not to disturb Ponyboy, who was snoring softly. I stretched out beside him, closing my eyes and realizing after a few seconds that I was not at all exhausted. That afternoon nap had revived me and now I was wide awake.

I opened my eyes, looking up at the hazy shadows cast by the pale moonlight on the white-washed ceiling. I began to play a mental game that dad had taught me years ago. Making animals out of the unidentifiable shapes, I saw a dolphin with an abnormally large fin, and elephant (it didn't actually look anything like one; it just made me think of one because it was so darned ginormous). I sobered immediately when my eyes distinguished a horse in reared up on its back legs, its head thrown back in pride and spirit.

"Mickey Mouse…" the words escaped before I realized it, and I felt a wetness building up behind my eyes as a wave of bittersweet yearning rushed through me. I longed to jump up on the ornery horse that refused to have an owner and gallop blindly wherever he took me, leaving my cares and worries in the dust behind me.

I don't know how long I lay there on my back, trying to clear my mind of thoughts and worries. I felt so exhausted with all that had happened this week. All I wanted was a brief relief. I knew it was selfish, but I didn't think I could possibly worry about Pony any more. If I agonized over my kid brother being hurt like this I knew for sure I would jump out of bed, take a plane to Murray, and beat the shit out of the bastard responsible for this. I wouldn't stop until he drowned in his own cold blood.

I halted this train of thought, alarmed that I was seriously considering such violent notions. I had never hated anybody this much. Sure, I didn't exactly harbor kind feelings toward those snooty socs, but I was more frustrated at my own financial status and my home situation. Then I saw others who were more fortunate than myself, who had all the kicks and flaunted them, and I couldn't help but lash out. And I didn't hate one specific soc. It was the whole mob of them, and the ideals they stood for, the fact that they wasted their money, took advantage of their benefits, and ganged up on helpless kids, made me scowl in derision. They thought they were better than us greasers, but if money wasn't a factor, us 'white trash with long hair' would be the only ones standing after the socs had turned on each other and fought themselves to death. At least we had a sense of friendship and loyalty. We stuck together and stood up for members of the gang. Them socies would betray their mothers for ten bucks. And they would get away with it.

The blanket was suddenly yanked off me in one violent jerk and a chilly breeze swept over my body, causing me to shiver and my skin break out in goosebumps. I glanced sideways in annoyance, ready to steal the blanket back. I had a moment of panic when I couldn't see my kid brother. The blanket was bunched up in a messy pile beside me and Pony was nowhere to be seen. I realized, after seeing how the entire blanket was shaking, as if experiencing earthquake tremors, that Pony as somewhere beneath that pile. I reached over, tentatively taking a corner of the material and lifting it up.

"Soda…" he mumbled, still asleep. My heart wrenched as I saw him curled up into the tiniest possible ball, his face buried in his chest. I sat up, trying to untangle him without awaking him. He didn't make it easy, kicking and flailing out. His actions got more and more urgent, as if he was fighting some imaginary attacker.

"Soda! Darry…!" he screamed, struggling out of my grasp.

"Come on, Pony," I coaxed. "Wake up for me." I shook his shoulder, alarmed when he didn't immediately wake up. He seemed even more agitated, flinching almost violently away from my touch and fighting me off desperately when I tried to wake him.

Helplessly, I looked up as I heard the door fly open and Darry ran in, his hair was tousled and his clothes were disheveled but his eyes were open and alert.

PONYBOY'S POV

I couldn't tell if I was dreaming, or if what was happening was some horrible reality. I could see Darry in a boneless heap on the ground, his eyes open in a glassy stare. He was lying in a pool of blood and for some strange reason, I knew for certain it was my own. I stood there, frozen to the spot in shock and horror, unable to comprehend the ghastly scene in front of me.

"Darry?" I said, timidly, trying to reach out and touch him.

"DARRY!"

I looked up, startled, as I heard Soda's voice. I saw him running toward us at full speed. He was so far away that I could only see a fleck of gold on the horizon.

I stayed where I was, still gathering the strength to reach out and see if Darry was okay. Because Darry was going to be okay. There was no other option. I just needed to get him back home and in bed. Soda would be here any second and everything would be okay.

Just as I had convinced myself, I felt another presence close behind me and I swung around, my eyes widening in surprise.

"SODAA!" I screamed, praying fervently that my brother would make it in time. "SODA! HELP ME!"

Kevin clapped a large hand over my mouth, muffling my cries. I choked as I inhaled the unwelcome odor of cigarettes, sweat, and something unpleasant that I couldn't identify.

Grinning nastily, he procured a rope from seemingly nowhere and bound my wrists together behind my back as tightly as he could. The rough texture of the rope chafed at my skin painfully and I cried out, trying to struggle out of his iron hold. I was attacked by a sudden onslaught of memories and I felt my willpower dissolve under the power Kevin had over me.

"Please!" I pleaded, abandoning all my pride. "Please… don't tie me up! Please!"

He didn't respond, but shoved me down hard. I toppled onto the ground, my balance lost. He squatted, forcing my legs to bend and tied the rope around them as well. I struggled in terror, but found myself completely immobilized.

Kevin laughed down at me, obviously enjoying the stark fear in my eyes.

"You told them… I told you not to spill to your brothers, but you did. And you remember what happens next, don't you? Don't worry kid. I won't let any harm come to you… yet. Let's wait until your lovin' brother joins the party."

I opened my mouth to deny it, but I knew it was pointless. I tried instead to scream, to warn Soda, who was pelting toward us and getting closer and closer by the second, completely oblivious to the danger, but Kevin pulled a long, rusty blade out of his pocket, waving it menacingly close to my throat.

"If you scream I'll kill your brother first. Painfully." He savored the last word, as if it was an expensive delicacy he could wait no longer to relish.

My breathing was coming in quick, irregular gasps as the blade nicked my collarbone. I could see Soda loping closer and closer, his eyes firmly set on Darry's still body. Finally, I could take it no more.

"SODA! NOOO!"

I struggled as hard as I could, kicking and thrashing with all my strength in an attempt to escape Kevin's grasp. It was impossible. The ropes seemed to get tighter and tighter as I strained, tighter and tighter until I choked on my own tears and panic…

I heard Soda's voice shouting and I battled harder. I had to save him! I couldn't let Kevin hurt my brothers like he had hurt me…

I renewed my struggles, not stopping until my arm connected with something solid. I heard somebody yelp, and the ropes suddenly fell away.

I blinked, my eyes adjusting to the dimness of the room. I was shivering and covered in cold sweat, despite the blanket that was tangled up around my body. I sat up immediately, ready to bolt at any sight of Kevin. The sudden movement sent sharp stabs of pain into my tender back and I fell forward, gasping, into somebody. Before I could worry about who exactly that person was, warm arms circled me and pulled me into a deeper embrace.

"Pony, thank god you're awake… I was so worried…" came Soda's soft, comforting voice somewhere above my head. "Normally, ya wake up immediately, but this time ya just wouldn't wake up…"

I rested my forehead on his chest, letting his voice and the steady beat of his heart calm my pounding chest. After a while, the tremors going through my body ceased and I shot out of Soda's embrace, suddenly remembering my dream.

"Where's Darry? Is he okay!" I almost shouted, panic colouring my words.

"I'm right here, little buddy," came Darry's reassuring voice. I felt the mattress dip as my oldest brother sat down beside me.

"Are you okay?" I asked frantically, checking him over quickly. "Where's…"

"He's not here," Darry interrupted immediately. "I'm fine, Ponyboy. Really. And I promised I wouldn't ever let you come to harm."

He placed his hands on either side of my face, tilting it up so I had no choice but to stare into his eyes.

"Don't ever forget that, baby brother. I'll promised I would protect you and I'll never let you down. I'm not going to let that bastard get away with this," Darry said earnestly.

I nodded, struck by the sincerity and resolution in my brother's eyes.

"I know, Dar. I'm sorry." I looked down at my hands and I felt Soda put an arm over my shoulder.

"Naw honey," he soothed. "Ya don't have to apologize for anything, hear me? None of this is your fault, understand?"

I chose not to answer, instead burrowing my head into Soda's neck, glad of the protection he offered.

"You ready to go back to sleep, Pone?" Darry asked softly. After a moment's hesitation, I forced myself to nod. Darry must have caught the frightened look I gave him, though, because he made no move to evacuate my side of the bed.

Suddenly, I caught sight of a nasty looking bruise that was beginning to develop on Soda's forearm.

"What happened to you!" I gasped. Soda looked a little sheepish, and he glanced at Darry before he replied.

"Well… ya kicked me in your sleep, Pone," he finally admitted.

Soda noticed as tears sprang into my eyes, interrupting before I could apologize.

"I think it looks pretty tuff," he grinned, flexing his arm. "Whaddaya reckon, Dar?"

The tears poured down my cheeks regardless, and although I cursed myself for them, I couldn't stop the flow. Soda pulled me into another bear hug.

"Aww, it's okay, Ponyboy," he mumbled into my hair. "Don't fret about it."

I realized that I although I had been trying to save Soda in my dream, I had ended up injuring him. I started laughing weakly,even though I couldn't reallyfind humour from the situation. Hot tears were still flowing and soaking up Soda's shirt, but I couldn't stop laughing at the same time. I struggled to breathe, choking on a hiccup.

Soda must have known I was going into hysterics because he talked to me in a low, soothing voice, holding me close to him, until my helpless laughter had died down.

By then, the tears had vanished and I felt utterly exhausted. Soda laid me down, tucking a pillow beneath my head. I heard Darry stand up and stretch beside me.

"I think I'll stay here tonight," he said softly, obviously under the impression that I was already asleep. "I'm too tired to go back to my room."

Darry's bedroom was a mere ten steps away from ours and I knew he would have been able to easily make his way there. I was aware that it his protective streak was kicking in. However, I didn't feel annoyed like I normally would. After so many nights spent alone, cold, and terrified in Kevin's house, I was grateful for the warm comfort and shelter my brothers provided. I sank into the covers, smiling as somebody pulled the covers up to my chin and turned out the lights. I felt a strong pair of arms encircle me from one side, and a few seconds later, another body bounded into bed, flinging an arm around my shoulders.

Fully content for the first time in months, I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.

DARRY'S POV

I hadn't been kidding when I said I was exhausted. It seemed like my head had only just hit the pillow when I was once again awoken. It was pitch black. I heard a scream and experienced a moment of disorientation. "Somebody call the fire department!" was my first reaction.

Then I realized that the scream had come from Ponyboy, who was struggling like a wild beast in an attempt to escape from my arms.

I panicked for a second when I realized that Soda was fast asleep. This was completely out of my league. Normally, when I entered the bedroom, Pony was awake and being comforted by Soda. I had no idea what to do.

I was afraid Pony would injure himself from the way he was thrashing about. I tried to loosen my hold on him a little to calm him, but not enough to let him escape. It didn't work. Although he was trying to escape my grasp, he was gripping my shirt tightly in both hands at the same time.

"Pony… Pony," I shook him, trying to wake him up. "Come on, Pony, wake up!"

Soda shifted in his sleep, awakening at my words. He sat up immediately, taking Ponyboy's hands in his. It was a good move. Pony's flailing fists would have probably caught Soda or me in the jaw, and I really wouldn't appreciate a blow to the face at this time of night.

With well practiced ease, Soda lowered his mouth to Pony's ear, speaking soft but urgent words that I couldn't quite catch. Pony's eyes flew open and he bolted upright.

"I… I can't breathe! …Soda! I can't… breathe!"

His face was slowly turning blue as he struggled unsuccessfully to take in air. I was on the verge of a panic attack as well, but Soda somehow remained calm.

"You can breathe, Ponyboy," Soda said firmly. "Here… breathe with me."

He placed Pony's hand on his chest, taking in slow but steady lungfuls of air. Pony seemed to soak up Soda's comforting aura. After a few seconds his muscles loosened and he followed Soda's lead, sucking in mouthful after mouthful of fresh air.

"You wanna talk about it, baby?" Soda asked, pushing sweaty locks out of Pony's eyes. Pony shuddered hard and buried his face into Soda's chest.

Our eyes met over Pony's head. We both knew we couldn't avoid the topic forever. The nightmares would plague our little brother until he was ready to face them head on. However, now was not the night to force him into it. We both had faith in Ponyboy. We knew he would find it in himself to find the strength and conquer his demons. Until then…

"It's all right, honey. It was just a nightmare," Sodapop soothed, tucking Ponyboy back into bed again and deftly flicking the covers up over the three of us. "We'll be right beside you all night long. We won't let any harm come to you."

Just before sleep claimed me, I turned my head to watch both my brothers slumbering peacefully in the fading moonlight.

I felt my insides squeeze in trepidation. Soon, it would be morning.

She: Thanks for taking the time to review and critique my story. I do agree that some readers may find the thank you's at the top of the chapter cumbersome, especially those I did not respond to. However, I do not think that it is 'unnecessary' to thank reviewers. Personally, I feel appreciated when an author takes the time to respond to my review. You suggested email. It is plausible, yes, but nobody in the world has the time to individually email 20+ people. Even in the summer.

About the temperature thing, I think that is a tad nitpicky. Yes, you are right about me not living in the states. I have never used Fahrenheit before and I feel more comfortable measuring the weather in Celsius. I think that's a rather insignificant matter, though.

Lastly, I am getting rather sick of people telling me that this story is 'unrealistic'. Please, have some patience. If you don't like the story, stop reading. If you like it, don't start judging it from chapter 10. That's not even half of this story.

Legaldruglover: haha watches you squirm sadistically j/k. Yes, Kevin did do it out in the open… I guess that man has nothing to lose, right?

Maravillastar: mwahhaha… I left him out there like that because I am PURE EVIL!

Malik Fan 03: Yes, Pony torture rocks my world!

xBxMYxJaMeSxDeANxcandyclouds: don't worry! The ending is happy, I promise.

Misty: Thanks for your review!

Thanks also to darkravenx0, pony's girl, Tehsylvania, animalsare4life, madden, Liz, …

Omg, I just realized that it is 4:30am right now. I would absolutely love to respond to all my wonderful reviewers, but I also want to update this chapter asap…

I'm so sorry to all the people I didn't get around to. Please know that your reviews were read and greatly appreciated.