AN: And so we come to the end. Finally, huh? Good grief! I don't think I've ever taken this long on a story...and felt so horrible about it. Really, guys. I'm sorry. So very sorry. It will never happen again. I should have just made myself sit down and finish this thing a long time ago. But no more beating myself up about it. It's done, and I can move on to other things. So enjoy this last chapter!

Chapter Fourteen:

Soda's hands are on me, his arms around me. I scream harder. Darry's beside us in an instant, his hair disheveled, asking what's wrong. Soda can't answer; he's too busy trying to keep me still.

But I won't be still. My head is on fire. Too many memories try to push their way forward. Too many thoughts try to make themselves known. It hurts. It hurts bad.

But Steve is there through all of it. He calls me a stupid kid and asks me why I would walk home alone when Socs are out looking for stupid Greaser punks like me to jump. He rolls his eyes and says I'm just a meddling kid brother as he beats Soda at arm-wrestling. He pushes me up against a wall and kisses me senseless. He grinds his hips into mine, fisting the blanket beneath me. He hugs me tight, telling me we can't see each other anymore, that he's leaving. He puts me on a bus, making me leave him, forget him.

And then it stops, and I'm quiet, still in Soda's arms. I pant heavily, shuddering and crying.

"Ponyboy?" Soda asks, and I can hear the tears in his voice. "Pony, say somethin', please. What's wrong?"

"Was it a nightmare?" Darry asks, his tone trembling.

"It's never been this bad before," Soda says quietly. "I ain't ever heard him scream like that."

"Steve," I whimper, and there is quiet for a moment.

"Pony, what did you—"

"Steve," I say louder, lifting my head and looking at them desperately. "I need to see Steve. I need Steve." My brothers are stunned, their faces blank and their eyes wide. "Steve's back. Steve's home…Why is Steve home?"

Darry pulls himself together first, swallowing and saying, "There was…something wrong with the case."

"Your social worker lied," Soda adds, his tone distant and bitter.

"Lied?" I ask, and they share an anxious look. "What do you mean?"

"She said things about Steve," Darry whispers. "Things about…what he did to you."

"Steve didn't do anything to me," I say defensively, my eyebrows drawing together. "He didn't…He wouldn't…"

"We know," Soda nods, brushing my sweaty bangs from my forehead. "That's why we helped him."

"You helped him?" I shouldn't be surprised. I know that they both like Steve, no matter what's been happening between us. But I wonder why they didn't tell me what was going on, and I'm almost angry again.

"We did," Darry confirms. I can see he's holding his breath, hoping that this will be over soon. "Your social worker lied on other cases too, and we took what we found to a judge. He dropped the case, and Steve—"

"Steve's here," I interrupt, my breaths coming in shallow gusts. "Steve's home." I look between my brothers—my brothers who have only ever wanted the best for me and who have brought back the one person that can keep me happy. "I need to see him."

I jump from Soda's arms, throwing clothing around until I find a pair of jeans and my worn sneakers, shoving them on.

"Pony, it's three in the morning," Darry points out exhaustedly.

"I need to see Steve," I mutter, heading for the bedroom door. Darry stands in my way. "Darry, I need to see him." I must look pathetic, because his stern look softens, and he sighs.

"I'll call him," he says finally, frowning. "His father isn't going to like this. It's probably the first decent night's sleep they've gotten since—"

There's a pounding on the front door, and my heart thunders against the inside of my ribcage. Darry turns, and I try to take advantage of the situation by slipping by him, but Soda's there, a firm grip on my arm.

"Stay here," Darry warns, and I fidget restlessly as he disappears around the corner, Soda running a soothing hand up and down my back.

I hear the door open and Darry's grunt of amusement before he says, "Bit late for a house call."

"I know," a familiar voice replies breathlessly, and my breath hitches, my throat closing around a large lump. "I'm really sorry, Darry. I didn't mean to wake you and all."

"You didn't wake anyone," my brother says tiredly, and I hear footsteps in the living room. "We're all awake. Pony…" He trails off, giving an aggravated sigh.

"Is he all right?" The other voice asks worriedly, and I abruptly break from Soda's grasp, rounding the corner and stopping as I catch sight of a blessedly familiar person.

Steve Randle stands in our living room, face pale and drawn, his form hunched and his hands shoved deeply into his pockets.

"I'm fine," I murmur quietly, and he turns in my direction, wide eyes staring uncertainly. "I'm fine."

Steve watches me carefully, swallowing a couple of times. "You wanna go for a walk?"

I smile and nod, looking to Darry hopefully. He frowns, his eyebrows furrowing as he glances at the clock hanging on the wall above the phone.

I almost think he's going to say "no," but then he sighs and says, "Don't go too far. Half-an-hour, you hear?" The last part is directed towards Steve, and he nods once.

"Half-an-hour," he repeats, motioning me towards the door.

"Pony," Soda says from behind me, and I turn to find him holding out one of Darry's jackets, "it's cold outside."

"Thanks, Soda." I smile and slip the jacket on. It's big—reaches down almost to my knees.

I lead Steve out the door, and we start down the street. We're quiet all the way to the park, but it gives me a good chance to look him over out of the corner of my eye.

He's skinny, pale, but looks a lot better than the last time I saw him. And he's grown, I think—at least an inch. His hair is longer. I know he doesn't like it that long—it interferes with his job. I wish he would smile or smirk or something, anything to tell me that he hasn't changed too much.

He shivers and shoves his hands in his pockets. He isn't wearing much more than a pair of jeans and an open DX shirt. I try to offer him my jacket, but he shakes his head.

"You ain't wearin' anything else under that," he argues, "and I don't want to be the one to tell Darry you caught a cold out here bein' stupid."

I laugh. The old Steve is still in there, I guess. He smiles, and I sigh in relief.

We pass the jungle gym and sit side by side on the merry-go-round, our feet shuffling so that it moves back and forth slightly.

"I heard you were sick," he says quietly, his eyes on his shoes. I bite the inside of my cheek, frowing at the mud caked on my sneakers.

"I forgot."

Steve looks at me, but I can't look him in the eye yet. "Forgot me," he almost whispers, and I grit my teeth.

"I didn't mean to," I say apologetically, my eyes welling with tears. "I didn't want to…But my head just kept telling me that you were gone…that you didn't exist anymore."

Steve sighs tiredly. "I never should have started in on you. Things just…ain't turned out right."

"Don't say that." I scowl at my sneakers. "I didn't ask for any of this, and neither did you. It just happened." I look up, finding his eyes set determinedly on me. "But it's over."

"And what if it ain't?" He demands. "What if things just keep happening? What if…" He doesn't finish, but I know what he's thinking. I've heard the stories, read the articles about people like us…people who end up dead in ditches, tied to car bumpers and dragged till half their face is scraped across asphalt, raped in drive-ins while people around them watch or laugh or ignore it.

"That'll never happen to us," I whisper, my voice distant. I try not to shiver as I think of the fountain behind us—cold water filling my nose and my throat, choking on screams and—

"Pony, you're shaking," Steve says, moving closer and wrapping an arm around my shoulders. "Are you cold?"

"I know what could happen." My lips are quivering as I turn to look at him. "You and me—I know what people do to guys like us. And that…that scares me."

Steve's fingers tighten around my shoulder. "I would never let anything happen to you, Ponyboy."

"But I know how I feel about you," I continue, putting my hand on his knee. "And it scares me more thinking about what happened already." I take a shuddering breath, shaking my head. "I can't do that again. I won't."

"Sh," he calms me, pulling me to him. I bury my face in the crook of his neck, closing my eyes tight to stop the tears. "It's okay. We'll be all right. Nothing will happen to you. I promise."

I turn my head and kiss him. There are just too many things I want to say, and I can't. I can't because he's here, and everything I want to say goes away. Everything's the way it should be.

He pulls away, leaning our foreheads together and breathing hard. "We should go back."

"No," I breathe desperately, my voice full of pain.

Steve chuckles, but it comes out more of a sob than anything. "I'll see you tomorrow, Pony. I promise."

"Yea?" I ask, the corners of my lips quirking.

"Come on." Steve helps me to my feet, taking my hand.

The walk back from the park takes less time than I want, and soon we're at the gate outside my house. I walk through, and he closes it behind me, his arms dangling over the top.

"Hey, Ponyboy," he says quietly, and I turn back to him, "how come you like me so damn awful?"

I smile wide, stepping back to the fence and leaning casually against the gate between us. He looks nervous, like he isn't sure he wants the answer. I know in a minute he'll be glad he asked for it, though.

I lean in close to his face, our lips barely a breath away, and whisper, "Because you're Steve Randle."

AN: The end. :) All done!