DISCLAIMER: I do not own The Outsiders, or the characters.

Splintered Ties That Bind

Chapter 1 The Driveway

The four men drove up the small country road through rows of maple trees, their canopies ablaze in fall colors yet their beauty went unseen. The men were nervous, antsy as almost two years had come and gone yet their search was never so close to being solved as it was right now. The few clues they'd had only led them to where he was, never to where he is, and the trail would go cold again. It was just by chance that a new clue came their way, but were they in time?

"It's gotta be him, Darry, it's gotta be." Soda insisted, willing it to be true.

Behind the wheel, Darry silently hoped so. He made a left where a break in the white fencing gave way to a long dirt driveway then abruptly stopped the car. Above them, beyond the entrance to the driveway, stood a decorative arch with a word welded into the frame. It was that word that had brought the four of them all the way from Tulsa. Steve spotted it in a magazine just days ago, "Horse for Sale," an ad began. Steve had already tossed the magazine aside when other words in the advertisement hit his brain, stopping him in his tracks. It wasn't that there was a horse for sale, it was where to get that horse that shook Steve to his core.

"Ponyboy's"

Couldn't be! After all the years of searching, false leads and bad information? Here it was, in this old Horseman's Trader magazine?

He'd shown the advertisement to Darry and Soda that evening and the four of them had plane tickets by midnight. Now they were here, turning left onto this small ranch, searching for an answer, an end to two years of pain and worry.

Soda mentally screamed for Darry to floor it yet Darry held back, rolling forward at a snails pace. His mind was full of questions and his stomach uneasy, nervous. It certainly looked promising, this was the only lead they had come across in the year since they'd gone to Las Vegas. Inwardly he knew it would only be after looking in those green eyes again could he allow himself to feel peace.

Two years, that would make him 18. Darry wondered what he'd look like after all this time, even what he'd sound like now that his voice had changed. Who did he resemble most ...Mom or Dad, or a mix of both? A feeling of dread entered the pit of his stomach, would Pony even want to see them? After all, he had left on his own and except for the envelope they'd received with no forwarding address, they hadn't heard from him at all.

Soda also sat there remembering the last time he had gazed upon his brother's face. Pony had just turned 16 when the dreaded draft letter arrived in the mail. Darry had done everything he could to keep Sodapop at home, arguing every special circumstance he could think of and finally how they'd need Soda's income to make ends meet. They'd even tried to get Social Services to help them, but as usual they were a disappointment.

"Sodapop is 18 years old, a high school dropout, not enrolled in college which makes him an excellent candidate for the selective service draft," said the curt little woman reviewing his file, who's frizzled hair was wrapped in a tight bun.

When that failed they appealed to the local Army Headquarters - those folks just laughed. He'd make more money in the Army than at the DX, they'd said. Not by much, thought Soda and Darry alike, and the DX wasn't as likely to send him home in a body bag either.

Soda remembered the night before he had to report for duty. Until that night, Ponyboy had been stoic, expecting Darry to miraculously get Soda out of this mess, but as darkness fell onto that last night together, Ponyboy had no choice but to accept that his brother would be leaving. It hit him hard. Soda's own heart broke as he remembered Ponyboy sobbing into the pillows that last night, tears soaking the sheets as he begged him not to go. Pony's grip onto Soda's arm was so tight that bruises were clearly visible during the military physical done prior to shipping out.

Ponyboy stayed awake all night, his terror at what could happen evident in the nonstop trembling that prevented sleep. In the past months and against Darry's wishes he'd read too many news stories laced with details of death and horror from that war. Now Ponyboy couldn't force his thoughts away from a future article detailing yet another local boy killed in that war and who that boy would be. The darkness turned to morning with Two-Bit appearing a few moments before the military van turned the corner. Words were hard as Soda shook hands with his friend, sober for a rare change.

"Look after my brothers, Two-Bit. Promise me. Especially Ponyboy...this is gonna hit him the hardest."

"I will, Soda, you look after yourself, ya hear?" He could only pray his friend would return alive.

Soda glanced back on the porch to see Darry standing like a stone statue, one arm draped across Ponyboy. Soda raised his hand to wave goodbye then took his seat in the van.

Steve wasn't there, he had gone down to the recruiters office to wheel and deal. "I want to join up," Steve said, almost breaking down the recruiter's doors as he barreled into their office. The sergeant sitting there at the desk smiled and stood up. Fresh meat, he was thinking. "But I want to stay with my buddy. You guys just hauled him out of his house – damn draft. I'll join, but I stay with him. Got it?!"

The recruiter just smiled. "Sign here, my man. We'll get the particulars later." Steve had just fallen for the biggest scam out there. A recruiter will say anything to get you in, but when it comes time for them to hold up their end of it, the new recruit finds himself screwed, royally. He wouldn't see Sodapop for months, and then when he did, Soda's very life would be held in his hands.

Now as the four of them sat anxiously in the rental car, with Darry driving painfully slow up the long driveway, tears started to shimmer in Soda's eyes from all the memories. He wiped them away and took a breath. Darry looked over at him from behind the wheel and a hand emerged from the backseat landing softly on Soda's shoulder.

"You okay, Sodapop?" asked Steve, quietly.

"Yep, I'm fine." Everyone had an idea of what he was thinking just as they knew what he was feeling. The war had broken him in some ways. His tough exterior had been damaged, but the interior was as solid as ever.

Darry was also in deep thoughts of his own. Those first few days after the van picked Soda up had sent everyone into a downward spiral. He knew he had to set up a routine to keep Ponyboy sane and get him through those hard days but it was hard for him too. He himself didn't want to do anything but fall apart but knew that he couldn't. He'd wait until Pony was in another area of the house and then let the tears flow, but when Pony ventured back toward the rooms he was in, he'd toughen up again. He had to stay strong for that boy's sake if not his own. Poor Ponyboy. He watched as his youngest brother all but stopped eating and would lay around the house wearing only his sweats. Pony's eyes lost that spark and his countenance was sullen. At times he'd try to pull Pony into an embrace, but he either wouldn't or couldn't return it.

"Don't give up hope, Ponyboy. It's only for a year." Pony didn't acknowledge that Darry had spoken to him, and he doubted Pony was even aware he'd said anything. Pony just floated from room to room, trance like.

In the past, Ponyboy could be found curled up on a bed or on the sofa, sometimes even perched up on the kitchen counter tops with any of the the multitudes of novels he had, nose buried deep in the stories and fantasy lands they created. Now, the books sat idle on shelves throughout the house, forgotten. Make believe was a thing of the past. There was a real danger and real pain that captivated the youth's attention, much to Darry's dismay.

Even though Ponyboy wasn't physically in danger, he could sense Pony feeling it.

He'd returned to sleeping in his old room, the one he used before his parents died. It was a smaller room barely big enough for his bed and dresser but he didn't complain. Pony rarely complained about anything anymore. If Soda couldn't complain about his situation, Pony certainly wouldn't complain about his either.

XXX

Soda knew how bad Ponyboy hurt. Agony was written all over his younger brother's face and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. For years he and Darry played surrogate parents to their youngest sibling and now it would be up to Darry alone to pull him through. Death and loss were shadows they couldn't shake; he wasn't sure Ponyboy could take this new predicament they found themselves in and survive it whole.

Getting him over the loss of Johnny and Dally took them almost a year and even then he wasn't all better. He was still too quiet, too withdrawn. He still, at the age of 16 didn't date, showed no interest in the girls and had zero social life. He'd just go to school, run track, come home to do his homework, cook and clean, read, then go to bed. All the gang could hope for was that he'd come out of his shell on his own and find the fun in being with his family and friends, and maybe even girls. For a short time it had seemed he would.

Then Soda's draft notice came, and he just imploded within himself again.