Update: To thank my reviewers (you guys rock!) I fixed the two clear mistakes pointed out to me, (thank you, xodamhsoirxo!) and cleaned up a little bit. Also, to clarify, this takes place before the events of The Outsiders.

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When the doorbell rang, everything just stopped. No one ever rang the doorbell at the Curtis house, you could just walk right it. Johnny and I looked at Ponyboy over our card game, and he looked back, just as confused. In the silence you could hear Soda's shower running and Darry preparing chicken for dinner, leaving Pony as the only Curtis who could possibly answer the door.

DING-DONG.

Ponyboy scrambled to his feet, dropping his cards in his rush. I gave Johnny a huge grin before picking up Pony's cards to examine them. Johnny returned the smile, then spun around at a shout from Ponyboy.

"Darry!" Pony yelled, sounding panicked and scared. He was backing away from the door, and Darry was suddenly at the entrance to the kitchen, holding barbecue sauce in one hand and a huge ladle in the other. His eyes widened as a woman came in the door that Ponyboy had opened. She was had on real socy stuff, a nice jacket and skirt, and she was holding a huge pile of papers and wearing a thin little smile. Darry was gripping the ladle so hard his knuckles were turning white.

"Hello Mr. Curtis," she said to Darry, which sounded a little weird. I mean, Mr. Curits was Darry's dad. But that was nothing compared to what she said to Ponyoby. "Hello Michael. I trust everything is going well?" Michael? I exchanged a glance with Johnny, who mouthed "Ponyboy Michael" at me. Oh, right. Middle name. Wonder why the woman couldn't just call him Ponyboy like everyone else.

"Ms. Benson," Darry said, lowering his hands and looking awkward. "You'll have to forgive the mess, Sodapop and I just returned from work."

He was talking real polite to this Ms. Benson, whoever she was. Ponyboy seemed absolutely terrified. I looked around the room. Mess? Shoot, if my house looked half this good we'd call the newspaper. Johnny's mouth was opened and he was still turned around to stare at this woman. Obviously, I was missing something.

"I see," she said, pulling a blank piece of paper to the top of her stack and scribbling on it. "I trust you've received the official stance of the state in the matter of your brother having a full-time job?" she said, managing to look down at Darry, even though he was probably over a foot taller then her.

Now my eyes were widening. The state? But they just had a visit last week! I know, especially because Darry had refused to let me keep any beer in the house for a few days. It had been real annoying then. I grabbed the beer I was drinking and slid it to the side, hiding it behind the couch. That woman couldn't see it there. I wondered how Darry would explain the beer in the fridge, but I couldn't think of any way to help him with that.

"Yes, ma'am," Darry answered, his eyes flicking past her to look at us. "Ponyboy, would you please go get your brother?" he said, backing into the kitchen. Ponyboy ran into the bathroom and the water abruptly shut off. Then I could hear Pony running into his bedroom, and then back to the bathroom, probably getting clothes for Soda. The whole time the woman's eyes looked everywhere as she scribbled notes into her pad. She clucked her tongue at the shoes lying next the door, and I pushed the beer bottle even further over to the side. Johnny looked at me, eyes huge and scared.

Darry came out of the kitchen nervously rubbing his hands on his jeans. He looked like he wanted the jam his hands into his pockets, but was holding back. Good move, it made him look young and scared.

"Ms. Benson, would you like to have a look around?" Darry offered, stepping over to the side.

"Thank you, Mr. Curtis, I think I will." She swept past him into the kitchen and he followed, shooting Johnny and me warning look. He mimed drinking and shook his head, and I gave him a dirty look. The minute his back was turned I grabbed the beer and chugged it, then stuffed the empty bottle under the couch. That way, she wouldn't be able to find it even if she came over around us. Johnny was hunching his shoulders now, shuffling the cards in his hands. I shot him a grin, and raised an eyebrow. That scummy woman, making him scared.

Sodapop and Ponyboy came out of the bathroom, Soda fully dressed, with his hair dripping water all over his shirt. He looked different without any grease holding his hair back from his face. He also looked scared, but not as bad a Pony, who was practically shaking as he tried to give Soda a towel to dry off.

Soda looked at us, then at the kitchen, before taking a deep breath and walking after Darry, leaving Ponyboy standing there with the towel. Pony looked after him for a second, then ran back in the bathroom to put the towel back. He came and sat next to Johnny, biting his lip and shooting worried looks at the kitchen.

"What's happening?" Johnny whispered.

"She's talking to Darry for a little, then she'll talk to Soda and me." Pony paused for a second, wrapping his arms around his knees, "I hate her."

I could hear the buzz of talking from the kitchen, and I realized how quiet we were being. Normally you couldn't hear anyone in the kitchen unless they yelled, we were all so loud. Pony stared unhappily at his cards.

Suddenly the screen door slammed and we looked up to see Steve, obviously here straight from his house after changing out of his DX clothes. He opened his mouth to yell for Soda, then paused, staring at us like we were crazy. Like I said, the Curtis house was never this quiet. I motioned him toward us, and Steve came over and sat on the couch behind Johnny. Good, maybe now Benson really won't check under it.

"The social worker's here," Johnny whispered. "She's talking to Dar-"

Before Johnny could finish that sentence, Darry walked out of the kitchen toward the door outside. He nodded to Steve and shot Ponyboy an encouraging smile. At the door he paused and looked us all in the eye, mimed smoking and shook his head. Ponyboy nodded miserably, but I just shot him that same dirty look. Steve looked a little confused and angry.

"Why's Darry going outside?" he hissed at Pony.

"Ms. Benson makes him go far enough away that he can't hear us." Pony explained, looking at his cards instead of meeting Steve's glare. "She says that he might be telling us to lie to her, so he has to go far enough that she can be sure we're telling the truth."

Steve's eyes narrowed. So did mine, and I don't get mad easy. Darry would never tell Pony or Soda to lie, especially not to the state. Last time he caught Soda lying to him, he grounded him for a month. Who did this woman think Darry was?

"Don't do anything," Ponyboy begged quietly. "She's looking for any excuse to separate us. I think she hates Darry."

If anything, that made me angrier. Hate Darry? Steve's hands were balled into fists. Johnny wrapped an arm around Ponyboy and looked at us, silently pleading. We both forcibly relaxed, a little, and sat there in silence, hearing the hum of conversation from the other room, Ms. Benson's sharp questions matched against Soda's softer, more hesitant answers. Finally he came out of the other room and walked over to Ponyboy. He had his hair tucked absently behind his ears, and he looked smiled, but it looked more like a front for Pony then any real happiness.

"Your turn," Soda said, reaching down to pull Pony to his feet. "If she keeps you in there too long, just make sure the chicken doesn't burn, OK? I turned down the fire, so it should be alright."

Pony nodded and licked his lips before heading into the kitchen. Darry must've put the chicken in just after she arrived. That'd look good, right? He was feeding the family and all. I glanced at the clock. It was kinda late, though. Maybe it wouldn't look so good, maybe she'd think that Darry wasn't feeding Pony on time or something. Glory, I don't know how Darry does it, making all of these big decisions.

Soda shoved his hands in his pockets, glaring at the kitchen. "I hate her," he muttered, echoing Pony. Then he looked at us and smiled a little. "Hey Steve," he said, then paused, looking at the door. "Listen, I'm gonna go sit with Darry for a bit."

We sat there in silence after the screen door closed, staring at the kitchen. I tossed Steve Pony's cards. "Take Pony's place?" I offered.

Steve took a look at them and threw them back at me. "Re-deal," he said, and slid down onto the floor to join us. Johnny moved over to give him more room and we played a bit, trying to ignore Pony's shaking voice coming from the kitchen. Man, he must've been real scared, 'cause he was always smooth, even when he was telling a straight lie.

Eventually the voices stopped, and Ponyboy appeared at the doorway to the kitchen with Ms. Benson hovering over him. "Are these your friends?" she asked, gesturing at us. Johnny froze, clutching the cards so hard he was bending them, and Steve clenched his jaw. Ponyboy nodded, his eyes big and confused.

Then that woman marched over to us, and gave us one of the fakest smiles I have ever seen. "Hello, boys." She said, real polite and all. Pony's jaw was somewhere near the floor at this point, and he looked panicky. "I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions," she continued, pulling a blank piece of paper to the top of her pile.

Steve was glaring at her by now, and Johnny was staring at his cards so hard I wondered if he was gonna burn a hole right through them. Guess that left me.

"Sure," I answered, and grinned at her. No way was I letting this woman control how I acted.

"Wonderful," she said, and gave me her smile again. "And what is your name?"

"Tw-Keith," I blurted, "Keith Matthews." So much for not letting this woman get to me. Johnny and Steve were both staring, shocked. I ignored them, meeting this Benson's fake smile with my own forced grin.

"And how long have you known the Curtis's?" she asked, scribbling down on her piece of paper.

I blinked at that one. When had I not known the Curtis's? I grew up half in this house, same as the rest of the gang. "I don't know," I said doubtfully, "maybe grade school? Since I was real little."

"I see," she said, scribbling some more, "and how would you rate the decrease in the quality of life in this household since the accident?"

I got really angry at that one. Behind Ms. Benson, all the blood was rushing out of Ponyboy's face, and his eyes were crumpling up. Steve was ready to pound this lady. I took a deep breath and gave her another fako smile.

"I'm not sure what you're talking about," I said, grinning like an idiot. "S'far as I can tell, Darry's keeping a perfect house. There's three meals a day, and curfew and bedtime, and Ponyboy doesn't get to do anythin' 'till he finishes his homework."

"Ah, yes, school," she said, scribbling more on her piece of paper, "what do you think of Patrick dropping out?" I saw Steve blink at that, remembering Soda's middle name.

"Well, it's totally up to him, isn't it?" I argued, trying not to sound to annoyed. "I mean, he's sixteen, so it's legal and everything."

"Are you still in school?" she asked, pausing in her note taking for a second to stare at me.

"Yes'm" I answered.

"How old are you?"

"Eighteen."

"A senior," she muttered, going back to writing in her pad. It wasn't a question, and I wasn't about to correct her.

Johnny was smiling at his cards at my little deception, and Steve was smirking. Ponyboy was grinning outright, probably because the woman couldn't see him. Hey, I didn't lie, I just answered the questions. She just didn't ask very good ones was all.

"Keith," she said, looking me straight in the eye, real serious all of sudden. She leaned forward and lowered her voice. "Do Patrick and Michael seem…happy to you?"

I stiffened. "Ponyboy and Sodapop," I said carefully, "are probably two of the happiest kids I know." I looked her straight for that one, daring her to argue. It wasn't totally true in Pony's case – it wasn't that he was unhappy, he just wasn't particularly happy all the time– but in terms of their home life, they probably had the best of anyone in the gang, except maybe me. They always had warm clothes, and good food, and Darry cared about them so much it was making him old early, and the state had no right, no right at all to take them away. I almost wanted her to ask another obnoxious question, just so I could yell that into her face.

Instead she turned to Steve and gave him her fake, cold smile. "And what is your name?" she asked.

She asked Steve and Johnny the same questions as me, except she asked Steve lots more about Soda when he defiantly told her that Soda was his best friend after the dropout question. She might have asked Johnny lots of questions about Ponyboy if he knew they were best buddies too, but he gave her the shortest answers he could, and while Steve got more and more worked up and was talking real fast by the time she was done with him, Johnny talked real slow and careful, as if he was trying to make sure he didn't screw up.

I kept watching Ponyboy, who got real tense while Steve was talking, and then a little concerned, I guess, while Johnny was. Johnny could barely look at the woman, he was so scared of her. Looking back and forth between them, I wanted to yell at her. Johnny was the one who needed the state looking after him, Johnny was the one who needed a caring, happy home. Couldn't she see that, from the way he hunched his shoulders and leaned away from her, the way he talked so soft and careful? The state was stupid, that's what it was, investigating the Curtis's, who couldn't be closer, when they should have been looking at the Cade's. Or maybe even the Randle's. Steve was being abused too, just less with fists and more with words. Darry may be young, but he was raising his brothers real good. Soda was happy, and Pony was going somewhere in life, while Johnny was already crushed at sixteen, already scared of his own shadow and anyone that raised their voices at him while Steve was growing colder and harder all the time, retreating into himself just like Johnny, just with a different shield.

"Thank you, Johnny," Benson said, after Johnny finished his passionate declaration of how happy and well-raised and unabused Soda and Pony were in their own home. Then she gave him the closest thing to a real human smile she had.

Then she swept past Ponyboy to the bedrooms, inspecting them one by one. Ponyboy started chewing his lip when she got to his bedroom, probably because Soda won't clean up unless he has to, ever, so their room is the messiest in the house. He looked kinda sad when she opened the door to their parent's bedroom. She wouldn't find much of a mess there, unless she counted dust. I don't think any of the Curtis's have been in that room since their parents died.

She came out of the hallway, scribbling down on a new piece of paper. She looked up at us all carefully then, and she added a note to the bottom of her paper. Probably noticing the grease in Steve's hair, or the holes in Johnny's jeans. Something stupid and unimportant like that. She tapped her pen against her lip for a second, then turned to Ponyboy.

"You may bring your brothers back inside, Michael." She said, and Ponyboy flew out of the door, returning seconds later with Sodapop and Darry.

"I will send my report and recommendations to the state," she said to Darry, and he nodded. She walked to the door, opened it, then turned around. She fished around in her purse for a second, then pulled out a card and handed in to Ponyboy. "Remember, Michael," she said, "if you need anything, anything at all, or if something is wrong and isn't being fixed…" she eyed Darry's muscles at that one. She must think Darry's beating Pony, with all his bruises from football and socs. I got real angry again when I realized that. "Well, don't hesitate to call me, or the office," she finished, then proceeded out the door.

None of us moved as we heard her get into her car and pull away. As soon as the sound of her engine faded off, Pony dropped her card like it was poison, and hugged himself, shaking like he was cold. Darry shoved his hands into his pockets, like he must've been wanting to do forever.

"I'm gonna go check on the chicken," Darry said, and I noticed that I could smell the chicken cooking now. It smelled real good. Any twenty-year old guy who could cook this careful deserved to keep his brothers.

Soda wrapped an arm around Pony and led him to the couch, sitting him down before dropping down next to Steve on the floor. Johnny scrambled to his feet and sat down next to Ponyboy, looking at him worriedly.

"I don't get it," Steve said, looking over at Soda. "Didn't the social worker come last week? How often do they come, anyway?"

"Normally once a month," Soda started to explain, before Pony burst out.

"She's not our normal social worker!" he cried, eyes blazing. "Mr. Allest is really nice, and he likes Darry and he always calls right before he comes on surprise visits!" Pony took a deep breath, then continued a little slower, but no less angry, "Ms. Benson was assigned to us for the first few days, and she thinks that I should be put in a boy's home and maybe foster care and she told Darry that she didn't think this was a healthy environment and…and…" but he seemed to have run out of steam and he just buried his face in his hands, obviously trying no to cry.

"Hey Pony, nothing's gonna happen, we're gonna be alright" Sodapop said, twisting around and patting Pony's knee. Johnny slung one arm across his shoulders.

"You mean, they can just come any time they please, without any warning?" Steve burst out, eyes blazing furiously. "Just show up and look through your house any damn time at all?"

It made sense, a little bit. It made sense if you thought about Johnny's house. If his parents had the state checking in, they'd clean up once a month, but then spend the rest of the time without giving Johnny food or clothing or love, just like they were doing now. For Johnny, it'd be protection to have the state check in ever once in a while. For Darry, it was just cruel to show up without warning, he was working so hard to make everything perfect all the time.

Steve was breathing hard and angry, Pony was leaning into Johnny now, still shaking, and Soda just looked so miserable. It was time for the Two-Bit charm, a joke, no matter how bad, ready for any occasion. I opened my mouth and it just hung there. I couldn't think of anything at all to say.

Luckily, Darry could think of something. "Dinner's ready," he called from the kitchen. He stuck his head out, "you guys staying tonight?" We all hesitated, looking at each other. We ate at the Curtis's all the time, but I think we all realized tonight what an imposition it was, taking food from them when Darry struggled to pay the bills each month.

"Come on guys. I made plenty and Soda and Ponyboy hate leftovers," he said, coming out of the kitchen properly.

Soda nodded enthusiastically, so Steve shrugged.

"Sure," he said, getting up and heading for the kitchen with Sodapop to help set the table.

"Would I ever pass up a chance to eat at Darry's Diner?" I said mockingly, with a huge grin, before heading to the kitchen after them. Maybe I'd help direct traffic, or something.

As I left, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Darry haul Pony to his feet, then lean forward to whisper to him, before messing up his hair and smiling at him. Pony scrubbed his eyes and gave him a smile before following me with Johnny in tow. And as I turned into the kitchen, I saw Darry wipe Pony's hair grease off on his jeans and grin at Pony's back as Pony struggled to fix his hair. Soda was right, I thought, as I grabbed a chair and sat down before Steve could hand me something to take to the table, the Curtis's were gonna be alright. They had to be, I don't think the gang could possibly continue without them.

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Yes, yes, sappy ending. I tried. I'm a bit out of practice. And I'm aware that Two-Bit's a little out of character, but I know I nailed his voice for whole chunks in there. Anyway, read and review to inspire a struggling writer? I've got some other ideas for Outsiders fics, and I want to know if anyone wants to read them…