Disclaimer: We do not own The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, nor "Breathing" by Lifehouse.

I'm finding my way back to sanity again
Though I don't really know what
I'm gonna do when I get there.

Seven. They were on their seventh fight of the last three days. Jimmy could outyell Abby, but she was never one to back down and, seemingly for the first time, she was fighting for Ellie's side. Ellie sighed as she stared up at the crack in her plaster ceiling; there was a first time for everything.

For the past 52 minutes, Ellie watched her alarm clock tick by slowly, trying to read Gone With the Wind, but she had tossed it aside when Abby and Jimmy started fighting again. Lying on her back, she had resorted to counting the bruises on her arms, sides, legs and those she could feel on her face. Gingerly moving her fingers up and down her sides, she tried to count the number of cracked ribs she had, along with those the doctor had called "merely bruised, not broken." She scoffed to herself. They sure felt broken.

As she counted ribs, she stared up at the crack in the ceiling. It looked to be about a foot and half long, trailing down the wall behind her for about three inches. Ellie would have sworn that it had gotten longer with every blowout since she'd been home.

Jimmy was getting louder, and Ellie was getting desperate to drown him out. She walked across the room and stood in front of her record player. She counted 15 albums sitting in alphabetical order, motivated by her own boredom. There were two she set off to the side that she borrowed from Ponyboy, and one she had carefully hidden in her closet. She would never live it down if the guys found out she dug the Beatles.

Flipping through them, she tried to find something- anything- that would play loud enough to get her mind off of what was going on just down the hall. She considered a couple, but nothing seemed like it would do any good. What she really needed was to get out of her house.

Three days was far too long to be stuck at home and in bed, not that she stayed there long. After Abby dropped her off at the house on Tuesday afternoon, Ellie tried to rest. Really, she tried. However, she had already been in bed for three days, so instead of following the doctor's instructions, which her mother reiterated before heading to work, Ellie went to tidying up her room. That was finished before she knew it. With nothing else to do, she turned her records on and began counting things, beginning with her clothes: her skirts, jeans, blouses, shoes and socks. None of that took very long either.

And now, here it was, Thursday afternoon slowly dragging into evening. She had gotten back only an hour before from getting her stitches out- the one thing she had avoided counting.

Her venture back to St. Francis earlier was far from exciting and even further from comforting. Abby had said nothing either way while the nurses couldn't keep their traps shut. They kept trying to reassure her that she was still a very pretty young lady, and that no one would notice her new scar. A nurse had offered her a mirror after the final stitch had been removed, but Ellie had pushed it back to her. She wasn't in a hurry to look at that scar. She only had the rest of her life to look at it.

Something shattered, and Ellie was startled out of her trance. The volume seemed to suddenly increase between them, and Ellie couldn't take it anymore. Stalking across her room, she slid her the window open and climbed out with more difficulty than she had expected. Every wrong movement sent shockwaves through her entire body, causing her breath to catch and leaving her to wonder how Dally had managed to deal with so many cracked ribs.

She slid her window shut as he started banging on her bedroom door. Whatever he was yelling at her fell on deaf ears as she crossed the lawn and walked across the street. Cursing under her breath, she realized that he was starting to feel the financial pinch of being a father.

Take a breath and hold on tight
Spin around one more time.

The gate was hanging wide open and so was the front door. Her steps slowed as she walked up the stairs to the front porch, listening to Steve and Darry arguing. Hearing her name yelled by Steve, Ellie fell back into the bench out of sight to the guys inside and listened. At least Steve was yelling to try to do something about what happened instead of blaming her for the the burden of having to care.

"What good is it going to do, Steve?" Darry shouted.

"She got jumped by a guy, Darry. A soc, even. We can't just do nothin'," Steve yelled back.


The voice was quiet, but it startled her nonetheless. She looked to the street and saw Johnny and Dally standing on the steps looking at her.

"Hey," she said meekly, trying to force a smile. Johnny sat beside her, and Dally leaned into one of the support posts, smoking and glancing inside. "Seems to follow me," she tried to joke, nodding toward the door. "At least they ain't fightin' over bills."

Johnny lit two cigarettes and passed her one. "It'll blow over eventually," he said, trying to sound optimistic.

Taking a drag, she shrugged and looked at Dally as Darry shouted back at Steve, "Think about it Steve. You and Dally went after him and the next night she was the one in the hospital."

"So it's our fault?"

"I'm not saying that. I'm just saying you guys need to just back the hell off for once. You don't have to fight off everyone that messes with her."

"He put her in the hospital, Darry!"

She saw something flash in Dally's eyes, and as soon as it was there, it was gone and Ellie wondered what it was. He still stared at her intently, practically oblivious to the fact that she noticed him watching her. He seemed reserved and quiet, almost thoughtful. She couldn't ever remember seeing this side of him. She didn't even know it existed.

He continued to focus on her, staring fixedly at a spot on her face. Ellie knew exactly what he was staring at. The stitches were out and all that was left was a long pink scar that wasn't there a week ago.

"How comes you're so quiet, Dal?" she asked, wanting to break his gaze on her scar. She almost wished he were yelling along with Steve and Darry. At least then she would know what he was thinking. He was hard to read when he was so quiet.

"How's Gone With the Wind?" Johnny asked, trying to divert her attention.

Dally looked away first, and Ellie turned to Johnny, letting her hair fall from behind her ear and across her cheek. "It's good. Really long, but it's keeping me busy." She didn't add that she had been more distracted by Abby and Jimmy yelling and her own counting to actually make it past the first few pages.

"That's good," he replied. "The movie was really long, too."

"I'll bet the movie is a lot better than some book," Dally interjected, tossing his cigarette away.

"Yeah," she replied, following the red glow as it streaked across the lawn.

The screen door swung open, and they all looked up as Steve stormed out. He paused as he noticed everyone sitting on the porch. He glanced at Ellie before cursing under his breath and storming down the steps and to his car parked along the street.

Soda bounded out a moment later, struggling to pull his shoe on and run after Steve. He stopped and looked between Dally, Johnny and Ellie.

"Don't sweat it, El. He'll get over it," Soda told her. "We're supposed to meet the girls, so maybe Evie can put him in a better mood." He winked at her and ran off after Steve.

"Girls?" Ellie asked. "Who's Soda dating?"

"Some blonde broad he picked up at the football game last weekend," Dally told her as Two-Bit walked outside.

"Hey, El," he greeted sheepishly, realizing she must have been sitting there for the whole fight between Steve and Darry. "You comin' to the party with us tonight?"

"What party?"

"Buck's throwing a party," Dally told her.

"On a Thursday night? Who got out of jail?" she asked, and Dally smirked at her. He hadn't lied when he told Shepard she knew the score.

"Some kid from Brumly," he said. "C'mon, John, let's get goin'."

"Sure you ain't coming, Ellie?" Johnny asked.

Ellie nodded, wondering how in the world they ever talked him into going to a party at Buck's. "Yeah, I ain't exactly looking dolled up enough for a party," she said.

As Two-Bit and Johnny stepped off the porch, Dally gave her shoulder a light nudge. "Can't even notice that scar, El."

Before she could reply, he was down the stairs and stepping onto the sidewalk. She couldn't be sure, but she thought she saw him look back at her as he caught up with Johnny and Two-Bit.

I am looking past the shadows
Of my mind, into the truth.

He could hear the commotion in the kitchen, but he didn't smell anything burning. A sure sign that Ellie must have been helping Ponyboy cook.

Darry had been too fed up with the earlier argument to fix dinner. He left it up to Pony as he sat in his room, sorting through bills and stewing over Steve's hot temper.

Soon, the commotion stopped. Pans were no longer banging around, utensils no longer hitting the floor. Even the subdued laughing and joking Pony and Ellie had been doing had stopped. Tossing an envelope aside, he stood. It probably wasn't a good thing that they were suddenly so quiet.

Stepping into the hall, he was going to see if they had finished fixing dinner. However, when he heard them arguing, his footsteps fell more quietly as he neared the kitchen. He wasn't typically one to eavesdrop, but with everything being so out of sorts lately, he couldn't help himself.

"Pony, I told you to just drop it," Ellie snapped, keeping her tone hushed.

"You ain't telling us everything, and we all know it, too," Ponyboy returned, his tone equally as irritated and hushed as hers.

"I'm getting enough of the third degree from Steve and Dally," she replied. Darry heard her plunk the plates down on the table impatiently. A chair squeaked across the floor as she sat down. "I don't need it from you too."

"Ellie," Pony pleaded, "I thought I was your best friend."

"You are," she affirmed, her voice growing weary.

"So why won't you tell me what's going on?"

"If you're my best friend," she countered, "why won't you just drop it?"

"Because I'm your best friend. But if you don't think you can trust me, I guess I can just go around wondering why you're protecting him and leaving us out to dry."

Darry almost smiled in the hall listening to his little brother. That kid could make you feel guilty for just about anything when he set his mind to it. He had talked to Two-Bit about it and he said Lucy was the same way. They figured it must be a younger sibling gift or an older sibling folly.

"If I tell you exactly what's going on, it's gonna be around town in a heartbeat," she reasoned. "The second Two-Bit or Steve or even Dally finds out, it's gonna spread around Will Rogers like wildfire, which is gonna make everything that much worse."

"Ellie," Pony said, his voice more understanding than it had been just moments before. "Since when do you know me to go around blurting something you told me not to?"

Darry could hear the scowl on her face. "Gee, I don't know. Since about a week ago when you told the guys about Michael knocking all my things down the stairs at school."

"Oh," he answered quietly. "You never told me to keep my mouth shut about that. And if I knew it was going to set everybody off like that, I wouldn't have said nothin' anyway."

Darry leaned quietly against the wall. By her silence, he could tell Pony was breaking her down. She was going to tell him, he knew it.

He was surprised in some ways, but should have expected it all along. He couldn't blame her for keeping it from the others. They were hot-headed and angry, looking for a fight. Steve and Dally served a night in jail for losing their tempers in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the other hand, he knew she wanted to tell somebody. It seemed to be eating away at her, and who better than Pony? He was the closest one to her, after all, and he wasn't one to break a confidence.

"You have to swear on your life that you'll never open your mouth about this," she told him, her whisper coming out harsher than normal. "Ever, Pony. I mean it."

"I swear, El. What's going on?"

"You can't go tell Soda, so he can go tell Steve," she told him.

"Ellie, I swear on my life," Pony told her impatiently.

Ellie took a deep breath. Darry was wondering if she was having second thoughts until she blurted out, "He's my cousin."

Darry stood a little straighter, and Pony sounded as confused as he felt. "Cousin? Who?"

"Michael Holden." Her voice was quiet, full of regret for taking Pony's bait and telling him.

"Your cousin? Michael? So he is the one that jumped you?" It sounded as if he had a million questions milling about in his head, but he couldn't quite formulate the words for any of them.

"He's my cousin. He jumped me because he's my cousin," she explained slowly, awkwardly.

"Why would…" Pony trailed off, trying to sort everything out in his head. Darry was trying to put everything together himself. Finally Pony simply asked, "Why?"

"You think Mr. Super-Soc wants to be known as some greaser's cousin? It'd ruin his reputation, and it'd ruin his family's too," she spat, hurt in every word. Softly she added, "And he thought I told everyone."

"That's stupid," he stated shortly.

"Yeah, tell me about it," she grumbled.

"He's your cousin?" he asked, his voice still deep in confused thought. "Who's your dad then?"

"It's Tony, isn't it?"

She turned and looked at Darry as he stepped into the kitchen from the hallway.

"How much did you hear?" she asked apprehensively.

Darry straddled a chair and looked at her head on. Ellie stared back at him, her eyes wide, and a hundred excuses on her mind that wouldn't roll off of her tongue.

"All of it," Darry confessed.

Ellie groaned and propping an elbow on the table, she rested her forehead into her hand. Pony glanced at Darry, who gave him a curt, reassuring nod. He wouldn't break either one of their confidence.

"Ellie," Darry said, coaxing her attention.

She looked at him, looking close to being sick with all the information she had volunteered. "Darry, please don't say nothing. You can't," she begged him.

"Did you know the whole time?" he asked. "When I hung around with Paul and those few times with Michael, you knew?"

She nodded slowly and Darry sighed, a barrage of memories hitting him hard. Ellie tagging along to his games and being faced with some huge secret she couldn't even hint at. Paul making mention of Tony almost blowing his entire career after falling into some sort of trouble. He could remember the look on Michael's face when Paul told him that and the harshness of his words when Michael told him to shut up about it.

Darry wondered if they knew who she was the whole time.

"Your dad is Tony Holden?" he asked again.

It was the biggest truth she ever had to own up to. The biggest truth no one except those closest to the situation even knew about. Of those that knew, there was no one who actually thought about how she felt.

She didn't know if she could even say it out loud. There was so much hurt that she tried with all of her might to simply bury, but lately everything seemed to continually bob to the surface.

"You can't say anything, Darry. You can't tell anyone," she told him again, ignoring his question and holding his gaze firmly.

"I won't say anything Ellie, but no one cares if your dad is a soc," he told her, hoping she believed him.

"Yeah," Pony added. "We don't care."

"It's not that," she exclaimed, frustrated. "Not all of it, anyway."

"Does your mom know it was Michael?" Pony asked.

She nodded. "She knows, and she doesn't care any further than Tony and Frank staying out of it all. I can't tell anyone anything because things would get so much worse than they already are." She stopped and took a shaky breath, wondering if she could handle the backlash of this going full circle.

She finally looked up, meeting their eyes before she said, "You guys can't tell anyone. Not Steve or Dally and most certainly not Two-Bit. Everybody from here to Texas would know if he found out. I s'pose I got enough rumors going on about me. I don't need this on top of it all." She paused, resting her head in her hand again. Quietly she continued, "I don't want any of you going to jail over this and knowing a couple of you, that's where somebody's gonna end up. That don't help me any."

"I promise, kiddo," Darry told her earnestly. Looking at Pony, he said, "We won't say anything."

"Yeah," Pony added. "I promise, El."

With their promises secured, the three of them sat down to dinner quietly. The boys ate while Ellie pushed her food around on her plate. Pony looked at her from time to time, wanting to say something, but she wouldn't look at him. She trusted Pony and Darry to keep their words, but she still couldn't fight the nervousness that was eating away at her insides.

I don't want a thing from you
Bet you're tired of me waiting
For the scraps to fall.

Ellie was stretched out on the couch, glad to be looking up at an uncracked ceiling, with Dean Martin keeping her company in the background. She hadn't bothered to change the channel after Ponyboy and Darry went to bed.

She studied the ceiling carefully, not beating herself up as much as she was earlier for telling Pony and Darry about Michael. It wasn't exactly a secret she was in a hurry to share, but she felt a little better nonetheless getting it off of her chest. However, she still couldn't help the anxious feeling in her stomach. What if something came up in a conversation and Darry or Pony accidentally slipped? She closed her eyes. All this thinking made her head hurt and her stomach continue to ache with worry.

The front door flew open, and Ellie nearly jumped out of her skin as Steve and Soda walked in.

"Hey, El," Steve said, walking around the coffee table and plopping down on the couch near her feet.

"Hi," she replied, trying to keep her voice as neutral as possible, hoping to avoid certain conversations. "How were your dates?"

Soda frowned at her before making his way into the kitchen as Steve chuckled. "My date was just fine."

"What about yours, Soda?" she asked.

"Don't ask," he muttered, filling a glass with chocolate milk.

Ellie looked at Steve for an explanation. He still had a smirk on his face. "Turns out Evie's friend, Sandy, isn't allowed out on school nights."

"Woulda been nice if Evie could've told me," Soda said as he walked back into the living room. His typical grin was replaced by a frown. "'Stead of me hanging around, being a third wheel."

Steve laughed. "C'mon, Soda. We hardly noticed you were there."

Soda grimaced. "Sure, it was a blast watching you two neck all night long."

"Why didn't you pick up some other girl at Rusty's?" Ellie wondered out loud, hiding a smile.

"It seemed to be either date night or family night tonight," he replied. "Every girl there was either with her boyfriend or with her family. Doesn't make for much picking up. Even with a smile like mine," he added, grinning.

Steve cracked a smile and leaned in close to Ellie, whispering loudly to her, "He says Sandy's somethin' different."

Ellie looked at Soda, batting her eyes ridiculously, "Is that so Sodapop? Is she somethin' special?"

"Cut it out you two," he said good naturedly. "I like her is all."

"Yeah, well, she's a real looker," Steve appraised, nodding suggestively in Soda's direction.

"That ain't all I got on my mind. I'd have to actually go out with her first," Soda replied. He downed the rest of his milk, setting the glass on the top of the TV as he waved them off. "I gotta work in the morning, so I'm gonna go to bed. Night y'all."

"Good night," Steve and Ellie both replied as he walked down the hallway to his room.

"You're staying the night too, huh?" Ellie asked, as Steve lit up a cigarette.

"Yeah," he answered, his cigarette bobbing between his lips. "My ol' man's on a mean streak this week."

Ellie nodded. Usually he wasn't so bad, but there were a few times she could hear Steve's dad yelling. The two houses that stood between theirs didn't serve for much of a buffer. She never told Steve she could hear him, though. She knew how much he hated the fights they got into, but he never let on just how bad they were sometimes. He wouldn't want everybody knowing his dad rivaled Johnny's mom at yelling.

"Has it been a rough couple of days, being stuck at home and all?" he asked.

Reaching for her pack of cigarettes, she realized he must be able to hear the yelling coming from her house, too.

"I guess so," she said, fumbling with the lighter he tossed to her.

It was quiet for a few minutes as they smoked their cigarettes and watched Dean Martin.

"Are you ready to go back to school Monday?" he asked, reaching for the ashtray in front of him.

She shrugged. "I guess I have to be."

"You know, you could just tell us who jumped you, and we could take care of it all," he told her. She held back an exasperated sigh. At least this time he didn't sound as unreasonable as he had when he was yelling at Darry. Soda was right; Evie must have put him in a better mood.

She began to respond, but he cut her off. "Don't bother telling me you don't know who jumped you, Ellie. You're a worse liar than Sodapop."

"I am not," she argued, trying to keep a straight face. She knew she was as good at lying as Ponyboy was. "I'm a great liar. You should know that by now."

He grinned at her. "Fine, you're usually a good liar. But when you're laid up in a hospital, you're pretty lousy at it."

She couldn't help smile back. "Fine," she conceded.

"Why won't you just tell us that it was that Holden bastard that jumped you?"

The nervous knots that had been eating away at her all evening began to twist again. She could just imagine Ponyboy lying awake in his room, overhearing the conversation, ready to jump to her defense and spill the beans.

"Steve," she pleaded, "would you just drop it? The last time you did something, you got hauled off to jail."

"Aw, Ellie, that was nothin'," he reasoned.

"Then tell me how you're gonna watch out for me if you're behind bars all the time," she suggested.

He was finally quiet, and she knew she had temporarily won that argument.

"Will you just leave things alone?" she asked quietly.

"We'll see," he said. He gave her a nudge in the arm and smiled. "Evie was pretty upset about me gettin' hauled off the football field like that."

"Well, she wasn't the only one," Ellie said quietly, stretching back out on the couch. "I need to get some sleep tonight. Two-Bit told Ponyboy that he has to make up for lost time and hang out with me all day tomorrow."

Steve laughed. "He needs to. You had a whole week off, and you didn't do nothin' about it."

She kicked him in the leg and retorted playfully, "I promise I'll have more fun the next time I'm in the hospital."

As he stretched out on the floor below the couch, he told her, "It ain't going to happen again, El."

"I know," she said, hoping he was right. "It definitely won't if you don't end up in jail again."

He didn't say anything, and Ellie worried she'd taken that too far. Closing her eyes, she said, "I'm sorry, Stevie."

"It's okay, kid."

I am hanging on every word you say
And even if you don't want to speak tonight,
That's all right, all right with me.

A/N: It has been a crazy week, sorry for the slow update. It was hard to find the time to work on this what with Lifehouse, ninja duties, the C. Thomas Howell show,Dirty Dancing, oh, and school got in the way, too.