Ok-last chapter. And this was sad and hard to write because I won't write another story in this 'series'. The boys have gotten as old as I want to take them. So this may be a bit long because I wanted to give a good send off for each character.

Everyone-thanks SO much for reading…I write for all of you so I'm glad you enjoyed!

Alleycat-thanks for all your opinions and insight…you inspire me dah-ling!

Also…I probably won't write another story for a while or even forever…unless anyone has any good ideas or "what if" stories they want to suggest.

Please leave reviews-after all it's my last chapter! Sniff

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Oh I do believe

You're all what you perceive

What comes is better that what came before

Oh I do believe

You're all what you perceive

What comes is better that what came before

-The Velvet Underground

XXXX

Ponyboy's POV

Bright sunlight filtered through the room, despite the closed curtains. I shifted and continued to watch the poker operation currently happening in my hospital room.

I was going home today. Or at least hoped to. I still had to get the Doctor Copeland's permission.

In the corner of the room, Steve and Sodapop sat huddled intently over the small table. Two-Bit sat on the radiator, trimming his nails with his switchblade and watching the game with a kind of lazy indifference.

Steve, his dark hair sticking up in greasy spikes, examined his hand. "I got a straight," he whispered proudly, laying the cards in front of him.

"Full house," Soda retorted, displaying his hand with relish.

"Sonofabitch," Steve swore under his breath.

I grinned at my brother. "Soda, you're still a lousy cheat."

"Hey," he said with mock-injury, "I know it and you know it. But they don't gotta know it." He shot me a corny grin and then turned back to a grumbling Steve.

I had had a few days to get over the I'llNeverSeeJohnnyandDallyAgain remorse. Seeing what Soda's guilt had done to him snapped me out of it real quick. It was probably one of the worst things I had ever experienced.

In the end, I knew it was time to say goodbye. I had held on too long. It hurt but…it had to happen eventually.

"Kid." Two-Bit said in a low voice. "Guess who came your house the other day."

"Who?" I asked suspiciously as he plunked himself on top of the bed where I was laying.

"That broad…Karen Nichols came by your house."

"Again?" I hissed, causing Soda to eye me from the corner of his eye. I almost wanted to cry and laugh; my brothers were never going to let me out of their sight again.

"Yeah, but no sweat kid, she just came by to see if you were ok."

I cocked my head. "Really?"

"Of course, I laid the guilt trip on her." Two-Bit caught my look and chuckled. "Don't worry. She still likes you, no matter what she's pissed about. She's not going to say anything."

Feeling as if 20 pounds had disappeared from my shoulders, I exhaled slowly. "That's real good-"

The door opened and Darry and Shakes entered.

"Look what the cat dragged in," Steve drawled and Shakes promptly flipped him off as Darry surreptitiously checked out Soda's hand.

"No, no. No problem," Two-Bit volunteered to Darry. "You're not interrupting anything important. We were just talking about where we're going to go party after the kid busts out of here."

Darry scowled mildly at Two-Bit but I knew that if Two-Bit had been serious he'd have been all over him. Shoot, Darry and Soda were already talking about having me take an extra semester off of school.

"Relax for a few months," Darry had suggested, "get back on your feet." It was quite a shock, seeing as how Darry didn't want me to focus on school for once.

I couldn't blame them, they were just afraid. I was too.

But you never got anywhere by staying put.

"How're you feeling Pone?" Darry asked me for the fifth time today. Ever since I had been getting better his face had been a mixture of frantic amazement and intense relief.

I put on a cheesy smile and swung my legs off the bed. "Right as rain, Dar. Never felt better." The smile fell off my face and I held out my palm. "Now can I puh-leeese have a cigarette?"

Darry chuckled and rolled his eyes. "Nope. Sorry. Not for a while Pony."

I bit my lip while Steve and Soda laughed. "Don't worry," Shakes smirked at me, "I'll smuggle you some."

"Shakes, I better not catch you…" Darry trailed off as Dana and Dr. Copeland joined us. Dana smiled at me slightly.

Copeland, ignoring everyone, strode over to me, listened to my chest, my stomach and consulted his clipboard. Thank God for Dana, because if it weren't for her, I would have been treated like a piece of meat. Darry watched us with his arms crossed.

Copeland clicked his pen and scribbled something down on his notes. "Well, sonny-boy," he told my doubtful face, "looks like you're A-ok to go home. Don't over exert yourself -your stomach is still tender. You don't want to rupture the stitches. No shenanigans you hear?"

"Yes sir," I said with a straight face.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Two-Bit mouth to Steve: Who talks this way?

Copeland caught Soda and Shakes in a choked laugh and frowned. "You know, may I remind you there is only a 2-visitor limit. It's not a zoo. Keep that in mind for the next time you're here." Doctor Copeland's eyes settled on me knowingly as he turned on his heel and left the room.

Darry and Soda looked ready to explode.

All I could do was laugh. "You're right Dana. He is a prick."

Dana gasped almost inaudibly and Steve jerked his head up so fast I thought he must have gotten whiplash.

Two-Bit stared at me with apprehension, gray eyes wide. "Holy shit," he whispered.

Only Darry, Soda and Shakes seemed out of the loop.

Suddenly, I paled, remembering that Dana had said this when I was supposedly 'unconscious'.

Dana came over to me. "Ponyboy…how did you-?" Darry stared at us in confusion.

"Kid?" Steve asked me in the same understanding, conspiratorial tone he had used at Fulsom Lake.

Panicked, I shot him a look: get me out of this.

Steve sighed gruffly and did what he did best. He was a shit.

"You may as well take him up on the offer now, kid," Steve swaggered, lounging back in his chair, "I hear there's a bus outside," he winced slightly before he said, "go make yourself useful."

That sure got everybody's mind off of my little, incriminating comment and onto Steve's. Even I was shocked by the harshness, but impressed by his quick comeback.

He must have those stored up in that greasy head of his, I thought.

"Really Steve!" Dana snapped, affecting motherly concern. Two-Bit whistled, leaving the topic behind, but he was still regarding me with an odd curiosity.

Scowling at him, I sank back into the bed; leave it to Two-Bit to be the one to catch on.

I did my best to look hurt. "Thanks, Steve," I muttered.

Soda tossed his cards on the table with force and shot Steve a furious glance. "I'm done." Darry seemed like he wanted to pummel Soda's best friend, but said nothing and settled for turning an angry shade of red.

Steve threw me a small sneer: You owe me, kid. Big time.

I always knew I liked Steve Randall for a reason. Who'd have ever thought his big mouth would come in handy?

XXXX

"I'm not going to tell Darry," Two-Bit volunteered, catching me smoking outside on our porch a few days later.

"You're a pal," I said, taking a long drag.

Two-Bit leaned beside me, a beer in his hand. "So. When you were off in la-la land you really heard what Dana said?"

I bit the inside of my cheek, unsure if I really wanted to be called crazy by Two-Bit Mathews. "Yeah, I did," I said quietly.

"Interesting. Interesting," Two-Bit mused. "It's weird, I'll give you that Pone. But what can I say? Odd stuff, odd shit happens. Sometimes there's just no explanation."

"Yeah. You got a job didn't you?" I shot him a lopsided grin, feeling intense relief as I realized he wasn't going to press the matter. In his own way he understood. "Never thought I'd see the day."

"I'm glad you did though," Two-Bit commented seriously, before pointing down the street.

Darry's truck rounded the corner and I jumped, tossing my cigarette into the bushes.

"Crap. He's home early. Holy shit, I smell like smoke. Darry's gonna skin me," I moaned with panic.

Two-Bit raised his eyebrows and shook up a closed beer.

My eyes widened and I took a step backwards. "Hey wait-"

Two-Bit popped the tab and sprayed me with the can. White foam engulfed my face. "There. Now you smell like alcohol."

"I hate you," I muttered as beer dripped down my soaked clothes, onto the porch.

"You're a good kid," Two-Bit told me as he laughed and laughed.

XXXX

"Darry! I gotta leave in 10 minutes!" I hollered down the hall.

Soda came scrambling out of the bathroom, barefooted, his hair sticking up. "Where did I put my wallet? Sonofa-"

"It's on the counter," I told him, smiling.

He snatched it up and stuck it in his back pocket. "You nervous?"

I rocked on my heels. "No. I don't think so."

"Good." Soda plunked down on the couch and began tying his shoes. He stopped abruptly and looked up, his brown eyes happy. "You haven't had a nightmare lately have you?"

"Nope." I tried to shrug causally and opened my arms wide. "It's like the tornado just knocked them out of me."

"Ponyboy!" Soda moaned and rolled his eyes. "Sometimes you're getting as bad as Steve." He pulled his left shoe on quickly and jumped up. "I gotta go. Have a good day." He hugged me fiercely and was out the door. "See you tonight," he called out over Steve's honks.

"Did you have breakfast?" Darry asked, coming out of the kitchen, coffee cup in hand.

"Yeah, cereal." I began stuffing books into my backpack. He watched me for a few moments and I stopped abruptly.

"Darry, will you quit pacin'? You're making me nervous."

"Sorry. So uh," Darry asked, "do you need money or anything?" He rubbed the dark stubble on his face that he started growing out because Dana 'liked beards'. I wasn't sure how I felt about it yet…but it was amusing to see Darry get bossed around by a girl.

"No Dar. I'm all set." I eyed my oldest brother curiously. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing." And then he gave the act up, taking a quick sip of coffee. "I'm not used to this."

I didn't have to ask what he meant; I already knew. Our lives had now taken a different turn. Darry wasn't responsible for Soda and me anymore. He had gotten us through the hard years.

We were all responsible for ourselves. Now Darry was responsible for getting a life, making things right with Dana, maybe even going to college.

And I had to get myself through college on my own.

Darry would still be there, trying to boss me around and I'd still be yelling back - old habits are hard to break - but in the end, the rest of my life was up to me.

I shouldered my bag. "Neither am I. But it can't be bad right?"

His eyes met mine and he smiled. "No. It won't be."

I heard the unsaid: not if we're all together.

The moment was broken by Shakes vigorously pumping his horn and yelling from outside, "Yo Ponyboy Curtis! Get your ass out here!"

Shaking his head, Darry said, "That boy was raised by wolves."

"C'mon. He ain't so bad."

Darry ran a hand through his hair and stared outside with amusement. "No. He ain't. But don't tell him I said that, you hear?"

"See you tonight, Darry?" I asked, heading for the door.

"You bet. Soda's cooking tonight."

"Oh brother," I muttered, my mind whirling around the possible dinner choices.

"Hey Ponyboy," Darry called out before I could leave. "Tell Caplan hello for me."

Grinning at him, I slung my backpack over my shoulder. "I will Darry. Thanks."

XXXX

"What's your first class?" Shakes scrutinized his schedule.

I checked mine. "Math."

Shakes frowned and looked horrified. "Mine's English."

"Shoot, that's easy," I said cockily.

"Don't rub it in, man. Just because you got the brains and I got the looks." Shakes waggled his eyebrows.

I laughed. "I'll see you in biology at two. And Shakes," I told him as he smiled mischievously, "leave the Black Cats in your car."

"Pone, you know me too well." And with that he was off, strolling down the quad.

Something yellow floated by me and before I realized it was a Frisbee, I was pushed to the ground by its chaser. "Hey!" I exclaimed with surprise as my butt hit the pavement.

"Sorry kid," the voice began and then said, "Ponyboy Curtis?" Randy Adderson was staring down at me. Suddenly, he stuck his hands out, helping me up. "C'mon."

"What're you doing here?" he asked, twirling the Frisbee around a finger.

"First year," I said equally surprised at seeing him.

"Wow. Time flies. I can't believe you're in college."

"Yeah," I muttered, "neither can I. How've you been?"

Randy nodded. "Good. Good."

Some of Randy's friends shouted, "Adderson! There's still a game going on."

"Sorry about that," Randy said, gesturing to the spot where I had fallen. He smiled at me. "I gotta go. But I'll look you up. We'll have lunch."

I stood there, watching him return the Frisbee, dumbfounded that in another life he had once been a Soc who had disliked Greasers.

What a small, weird world.

XXXX

"Well, well. What do we have here? A straggler?"

I slid into the nearest seat available and blushed. "No, sir. I apologize." Students craned their necks to gawk at me.

"Son, I suggest you make it a point to be on time to my class."

"Yes, sir. It won't happen again."

"Make sure it doesn't." The professor walked the length of the room and then back again before saying, "Tell me son, if the Allied Forces had been late landing on Omaha Beach, do you know what might have happened?

Biting my lip, I tried to keep in a laugh. "Well, sir, we'd all be speaking German and sporting Swastikas right now."

Brief silence descended upon the classroom as the professor stared at me with concentrated satisfaction.

"Very good, Curtis," Caplan said curtly, a smile on his face as he turned back to the chalkboard. "Now the goal of this class is to get a sense of what war is and how it has changed…"

I pulled out my book and set it on the desk in front of me as Caplan continued speaking.

It was as if I had finally woken up from a long nightmare and although I could remember the nightmare, I was no longer haunted by it.

Life always went on.

XXXX

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