Last chapter everyone. I'm sorry it took me so long to write this, I just wanted it to complete the story in a fitting way. It's extremely long so hopefully that makes up for my hiatus.

Please leave reviews – I greatly appreciate them, especially after wrapping this story up. This has been my most favorite story to write and I hope everyone enjoyed.

Special thanks go out to AlleyCat who was my muse and who threw some especially great ideas my way!

Enjoy.

XXXXX

You're the lucky one so I've been told

As free as the wind blowing down the road

Loved by many, hated by none

I'd say you were lucky 'cause

You know what you've done

Not a care in the world, not a worry in sight

Everything is gonna be alright 'cause

You're the lucky one

You're the lucky one always having fun

A jack-of-all-trades, a master of none

You look at the world with a smiling eye

And laugh at the devil as his train rolls by

-Alison Krauss

XXXXX

"The kid doin' alright?" I overhear Two-Bit asking Sodapop a few days later.

In the short time since I've been back home things have been weird. Weird in the this-has-not happened sense. Everyone's thinking it but worse still, is that I have to feel it. Stares, silence.

No one knows how to make the first move back to normal.

Despite the frigid temperature, Soda and Two-Bit are sitting outside on the front porch, chain-smoking. It's nearing dusk and the faint glow of the setting sun casts a soft light on their profiles.

Softly, I pad across the floor in bare feet. I shiver but have more important things to do than stay warm. I pause near the half-cracked window to hear Soda's reply.

"Yeah, I think so." Soda scratches his head. "He don't say too much about it."

"Probably ain't much more to say," Two-Bit says and I am surprised by the truth in his words. I'm sorry can only go so far.

I can tell it has shocked my friends. That what Johnny and Steve experienced in their homes has come into ours. They didn't think it would cross that barrier. I was supposed to be safe.

"Oh kid," Two-Bit moaned the next day after seeing me. Speechless for a few seconds, he had finally pulled himself together and ruffled my hair. "Welcome back to earth."

Two-Bit lights another smoke. "How about ya'll? You and Darry?"

Soda utters a short laugh. "Darry's raising all kinds of hell with the state. And I – well hell, I'm just glad I made it through the trial." He leans forward and lowers his voice, causing my ears to perk up.

"Two-Bit, I swear to god if that son-of-a-bitch had showed his face…"

At first, I think Sodapop means Jake but as he continues I realize he means someone else.

"…I'd have been all over him. Worse than before."

"I know." Two-Bit speaks calmly.

Soda shakes his head furiously. "I hate him. I hate Mike even more than Parker." His words come out sounding half-ashamed, half-relieved. He sighs. "Donald Parker don't have anything on Mike."

Soda pauses and waits for the heaviness of the conversation to clear the air. When it does he speaks again and this time I can hear the grin in his voice. "We did good that night didn't we?"

"Sodapop, good ain't got nothin' to do with it. I swear stealing O'Brien's cruiser was the best idea I ever had."

"I never did thank you for that…"

Two-Bit holds up his hands. "No, need. Just remember this the next time we're in jail."

Soda smiles. "Deal."

The light shoots on in my head as the jigsaw puzzle falls into place. I shouldn't but I feel sheltered once again. Somehow Soda and Darry had failed to mention that Sodapop had met Mike while in jail. But I make myself calm down; you did the same thing, I think.

I remember how tense Sodapop had been and how guarded Darry had been acting at the trial, and thinking that the reason for their nerves was that they were worried I'd be stuck at Tulsa Home for Boys through some fluke in the system. But they weren't. Sodapop was looking out for Mike and Darry was looking out for Sodapop.

The only one to show at the trial had been Franny. She had sat watching silently, her hands tugging and tugging at a handkerchief. Finally, only when the judge had charged Mike with assault and battery had she broken down, crying for her lost husband.

If they can find him, I think sourly. After being released on bail, Mike had disappeared.

"You know," Two-Bit says suddenly. "I'd rather have had it happen to any one of us. After Johnny, Dal…hell, even Steve with his old man, it shouldn't have been him. Not the kid. He's so goddamn young."

"Not anymore," Soda says, tossing a dying cigarette into the snow.

I understand Soda's fear; that I'm no longer innocent. That with my parents, Dallas and Johnny, Donald Parker and now this…I've seen too much for my brothers to be comfortable.

But I know one thing that Soda doesn't.

This hasn't changed a thing; I never was.

XXXXX

I stumble in the shadows of the hallway, finding balance as I hit a pool of moonlight. I work off my senses, off the house I have lived in since I was born. The kitchen tile is cold beneath my feet and I swear softly as I hit Darry's toolbox with my shin. Squinting in the darkness, I find a glass and run the tap.

"Nightmare?" a dry voice asks.

"No," I turn from the sink to find Steve Randle lying on the couch. "Thirsty." I hold up the glass to prove my point. "Besides, I don't think I'll have them anymore."

Steve sits up and eyes me. "What makes you so sure?"

"Just a feeling."

"How is it?" Steve nods at my cast, a smug smile on his face. "Getting around with one arm?"

"Makes it hard to smoke."

Steve smiles, but it is false, tinged with condescension. "So, smart ass, you learn your lesson yet?"

I bristle and retort: "Your dad throw you out again?"

Steve crosses his arms, a shadow darkening his face. "No. I was smart enough to leave before things got out of hand."

I wince. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"You know what I mean," Steve snaps and then growls with frustration. "Kid, I get why you didn't tell…but no matter what that woman said, Darry and Soda would've moved heaven and hell to get you outta there."

Steve pauses and raises an eyebrow. "Legal or not."

"Can it, Steve," I fire back. "I already heard about Soda's meeting with Mike." And then I smirk at his shocked expression.

Steve frowns and then gives it up. "Goddamn it. I knew Two-Bit couldn't keep his big trap shut. When he'd tell you?"

"He didn't. I overhead him and Soda talkin' about it."

Leaning back into the couch, Steve shakes his head. "Well, that don't make up for it. You might as well have told Darry and Soda and saved them both some time and some problems. Not to mention hospital bills."

Suddenly irritated by Steve Randle's lecture, I slam my glass on the countertop. "Look, I feel guilty enough without you throwing this back in my face. Why do you care anyways? I'm not your damn problem."

Steve's mouth opens and shuts as he decides something. At last he says, "I was the closest one to the problem. The way you talked about Mike - if you did talk about him at all - I could hear something…dead in your voice."

"I had all the clues in front of me. I just didn't find them." Steve chuckles shallowly. "Sometimes I wonder if I did it on purpose."

And then I say what I've been telling people ever since I have got back home. "It's not your fault." It's so repetitive and monotone that I wonder if it even matters. But it's not from lack of caring. It's from shock at Steve's admission.

"I just forgot," he says honestly. "I forgot how you sound when it first happens. How you just…" He snaps his fingers. "…Close off."

Dazed and hazy, I stand in the kitchen, thinking hard.

I swallow the lump in my throat. My confession comes fast and loose, seeming to echo throughout the sullen house. "It's true. You do. Shut down."

Steve seems both relieved and sorry for my words. "I gave you too much credit Ponyboy," he muses, exhaling into his hands. "That you'd tell if something happened."

"Everyone did," I admit. Shoot, even I had given myself too much.

"Shit Ponyboy. You shouldn't have to turn out like me."

"Believe it or not Steve, you're not so bad."

Steve considers this. He chuckles and nods seriously. "Maybe so. But I could've been better."

XXXXX

"Merry Christmas," Soda whispers, his warm breath tickling my ear. "C'mon get up. I'm starting breakfast."

I smile into my pillow and stifle a yawn. "In that case, I think I'll sleep a little longer."

He pokes me in the ribs and shakes me. "Oh, that's funny. I guess Santa was right to put coal in your stocking after all."

"I'll bet he did," I murmur sleepily.

Soda ruffles my hair once more and then bounds out of the room, yelling, "Up and at 'em, Ponyboy!"

After a few more minutes of lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, I hear various strains of swear words floating into my room. Curious, I get up and mosey into the kitchen where Soda has a small fire going.

"Lord almighty Sodapop!" I yelp as the flames jump off the frying pan. "You know you're not supposed to cook bacon!"

"But it's Christmas!" Then his face turns serious, as the flames grow higher. "Shit!" Soda curses. "Pone, get the door."

I dart to the door and fling it open as Sodapop grabs up the frying pan in one potholdered hand and tosses it outside. It hits a pile of snow with a sizzling thud.

"Well, there went breakfast," Sodapop quips as we both stare at the hole in the snow. We step back inside as he pulls the door shut. "Cereal?"

"Cereal's safer," I say, grabbing the milk from the fridge. "Where's Darry?"

Soda plunks spoons and bowls on the table and we both sit down. "Cellar. Went to get the presents. They're buried in a trash can, next to those old bicycles."

I shake my head ruefully. "How do you know where he hides them?" Every year, Soda guesses the exact location which makes Darry try to hide them all the harder.

"I have my sources." Soda smirks and then lowers his head to wolf down his cereal.

"You know," I point my spoon at Soda. "He wouldn't have to hide them if you didn't try to open them early every year."

He shrugs. "What? And ruin the fun?"

The front door slams. "Mornin' Darry," I smile at my older brother as he walks into the kitchen.

Darry, a few gifts stuck in his arms, pauses briefly to sniff the air. "What is that—"

"Hey Darry," Soda drawls with a mouthful of cereal. "How was the…cellar?"

Darry instantly forgets his question and scowls at Sodapop. "Next year," is all he says.

Then, Darry smiles slightly, seeing me. "Merry Christmas Ponyboy." He sets the presents on the table and sits next to Sodapop. Looking regretful, he rubs the back of his head. "I wish we could have gotten a tree."

"It's not a big deal. Really," I hurry to reassure him. My brother's hadn't thought I'd be home in time for Christmas so they didn't plan on buying one. When Darry went out to get one they were all sold out.

"So, Sodapop…you're not cooking anything for breakfast?" Darry's not giving up. "Not even…toast?

"Nope. Just cereal," Soda replies with a straight face. Darry narrows his eyes evaluating Sodapop.

I watch their easy bickering with a sort of wistfulness. Like it or not, the three-month hiatus from my brothers has made me a stranger. Little things like the hole in the wall Darry had made after the trial, their unspoken conversations, make me wonder what else I have missed; what else I have not been around for.

Soda, sensing an inquisition, hops up from the table. "Well, looks like it's my turn to get my presents." He looks down at Darry. "You wanna take a guess? Last chance."

Crossing his arms, my older brother shakes his head, trying to keep a smile off his face.

"Fine. Guess you'll never know…" Soda strolls off down the hall, his figure disappearing behind the corner. Then he shouts out: "Your room Darry! Third dresser drawer, behind those pant suits you never wear!" Soda lets out a cackle and slams a door.

Darry finally laughs out loud. "Right under my nose."

I force a smile and push my cereal bowl away.

Darry misses nothing. "What?" he asks, catching my uncomfortable smile.

"Nothing." I shake my head. "I just feel out of the loop is all. Like I missed a lot of stuff going on around here."

"You did," Darry agrees. "But Pone, it wasn't the same without you." He stands up to pour himself some coffee as an awkward silence settles over us.

I feel Darry's eyes on me; knowing something's coming. "How're you feeling these days, Ponyboy?" he asks, taking advantage of our time alone.

"Swell," I say truthfully, twisting around in my seat to look at him. "My head hasn't hurt since-" I cut off, remembering the cause of my lessened pain. "-Well, since I left the Manns'."

Darry winces but pushes on. "Any nightmares?"

"No…at least none that I can remember."

Darry's blue eyes are questioning. "You're all right though…aren't you? Because if you're not…" Darry halts mid-sentence. "Shit," he swears, running a hand through his hair. "I'm not very good at this."

"Darry?" I question, unsure as to what he's getting at, but interested nonetheless.

My usually closed-off brother has been unusually straightforward these days. I think somewhere along the way Darry realized that he'd have to open up – become the mediator - to get us through it all. I smile inside, proud of him.

Taking a deep breath, Darry comes back to the table and sits down across from me. "Ponyboy, I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Parker. It wasn't fair to you. To any of us really."

"It's ok, Darry. I understand." And finally I do. Betrayal and disbelief have long faded away.

Then, I say in earnest: "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Mike – about what was happening."

I wait for Darry to tell me that he understands. But he doesn't. Darry's face clouds over for a moment. Clearing his through roughly, he reaches out and ruffles my hair. "I'm glad you're home."

Blinking, I hide my disappointment at his response. Darry will never understand – will never accept – what has happened that hurt his family. He sees his side and his side only.

I think of telling my brother that despite what has happened maybe it worked out the way it should have. That everything had its reasons.

My head – my health - no longer hurts; Soda and I are gradually coming to terms with the accident; and Darry's custody will probably never again be challenged.

I think of telling him all this and decide against it. I get it; but Darry sure ain't me. Not by a long shot.

So, I keep this to myself and tell my brother: "Me too."

The peaceful morning is broken as a loud yell fills the air. Two-Bit suddenly kicks the front door in, clambering through. "Hey Curtises look what I found!"

"Oh no," Darry whispers, covering his eyes. Soda scrambles into the living room and I crane my neck to see what has bothered Darry. Behind Two-Bit, half-dragged into our living room, is a Christmas tree. With tinsel.

"Two-Bit, please tell me you didn't steal that thing." Darry looks out from under his hand. Soda nods his head and gives our friend a thumbs-up.

Two-Bit tugs at the tree. "Steal is such a harsh word. I prefer borrow."

Steve, not far behind, squeezes past the tree and Two-Bit. He strides into the room, holding up a familiar object. Soda scoots off down the hall. "Darry, did you know you had a frying pan in your front yard?"

XXXXX

I'd know the sound anywhere. The rumble of the engine familiar to no one except me.

I make an excuse that I'm going outside for a smoke; but Soda is too busy setting up the ill-gotten tree to notice.

Stepping outside, I cross the front porch and there's Jake, sitting on his bike. I place my good arm on the railing and glare at him.

His laugh – like a bark – cuts the silence of the morning. "Oh Squirt, don't give me that look. I'm here now, ain't I?"

"Took you long enough," I reply sourly. Then quieter, "I thought you had left."

"Gotta say goodbye before I can leave." Jake cuts the engine and hops off his bike.

I had known it was coming all along, but my stomach still drops. "You're leaving now ain't you?" My eyes go to the back of his bike, where he has a small bag strapped down.

"Sure am," he drawls. "But first, thought I'd give you your Christmas present." Jake holds out a brown paper wrapped bundle.

I don't want to take it. It's like accepting his coming absence. But I shield my eyes against the sun, come down the steps and take it. I tear the wrapping off, to reveal Johnny's copy of Gone With the Wind.

I smile at the book, relief washing over me. "Thanks. I thought I'd never see this again. I wanted to go back for it…but…" Then, I ask what I know I shouldn't. "How's Franny?"

Jake seems annoyed that I have asked this but he simply says: "Alive."

This time, I'm annoyed. "So, you're just leaving her?"

"You think I should stay?" he asks, curious.

"No," I admit. Franny would survive because Mike would come back. I was too damn sure of that.

Jake scratches the stubble on his cheek and nods at the house. "How're your brothers?"

I shift my weight, the snow beneath my feet crunching. "Good. Happy."

"I'm sure they are," Jake mulls, and then asks abruptly, "Did you tell them the truth?"

"Yah." Reconsidering, I think of Darry and amend my statement. "Most of it."

"Was it worth it?" Jake asks.

I glance back over my shoulder. "I'll let you know." Then, remembering why he's really here, I frown. "Where you gonna go Jake?"

He looks up into the sun and when he looks back at me, his eyes are the reddest they've ever been. "California. Just ride until I reach the ocean."

Worried, I take a step toward him. "Will you reach it?" It's the closest I can come to actually asking him.

Jake's fine when he stays in one place - when he has something to hold on to, something to do. But he's like Dallas – when he wanders, he'll go back to old habits, no matter how hard he's tried to kill them.

"Don't worry about it, Squirt. The time for me being here has come and gone. I gotta go." Jake's eyes move to something behind me. When I glance back over my shoulder Darry's standing in the doorway watching us.

Ignoring Darry, I try again. "Jake-"

Jake smiles as he climbs back onto his bike. "You can't save everyone, Squirt," Jake says. "You can only save yourself."

Jake revs the engine and peels off down the street. My hands begin to sweat and I grip the book tightly, careful not to let it fall into the snow. I barely recognize that Darry is now next to me. Gently, he places a hand on my shoulder. "Is he going, Ponyboy?" he asks softly.

I stare down the street as Jake rounds the corner, disappearing. "Yep. He's gone."

XXXXX

My breath comes out in hard puffs, my legs achy and tingling. But I fly – running hard, my feet kicking up red clay earth. I think of nothing, only that I am back. That I am here.

I finish the lap, jogging to a stop. Wiping the sweat from my forehead, I turn around in time to see Adam Baker come in second.

"You beat me," he gasps.

"Barely," I say, trying not to smile.

"Shut up," he laughs, sprinting down the track for one last practice lap.

"I see you've been practicing," Coach Quinn calls out. "Glad you're back for Spring Training, Curtis" he grunts, never one for lengthy discussions. "Let's get you to State this year."

And that's when I know I made the team. "Thanks Coach," I say with a grin, grabbing up my backpack.

A honk sounds out in the distance and I know it's Sodapop. He had wanted to come by for the tryouts. Soda's sitting on the tailgate as I make my way up to him.

"I made it," I announce happily.

"I knew it," he replies. "Wanna go tell Darry?"

I agree and we climb into the truck, Soda chattering about his day at the DX. I stare out the window as he drives, seeing the blossoming trees and I can't believe how long ago everything has been.

I sneak a look at my brother's face, thankful he's still Sodapop. There had been a time when I wasn't sure we'd make it. But time does wonders for the angry and the scared.

I don't blame him anymore and Soda isn't afraid for me. It will still be a while before he rides again, but I'm working on it.

Jake was only partly right. You can't save everyone; but you can save those who want to be saved. I'm still trying to understand what Jake really meant, but I figure it's a work in progress.

"Oh hey, Pone," Soda says. "You got something in the mail today." Without taking his eyes off the road, Soda reaches over to the passenger side and pops open the glove box. A few tools and cigarette cartons fall out as Sodapop begins digging around.

"Whoa!" I grab the wheel with my left hand and steer as the truck swerves.

"Found it."

I take the crisp white envelope from my brother, not recognizing the handwriting. Soda busies himself with the radio as I slide my finger under the seal, breaking it. I slip the paper out and unfold the letter.

I gasp. Nearly dropping the unexpected memento.

Hey Squirt…

And so it ends. The way it all began. With a letter.

XXXXX

That's all folks! Thanks for reading!

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