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 toward the row of maple trees ablaze in fall colors. They were all nervous, antsy. Almost two years had passed to get to this point and no one in the car knew if their search was finally coming to its conclusion or if this was yet another dead end.

"It's gotta be him, Darry, it's gotta be!" Soda said, voice thick with anticipation.

The nervous energy was palpable but Darry refused to feel it. He made a left where a break in the white fencing opened to a long dirt driveway, pausing as he noticed the decorative archway spanning the road. On it was one word, welded in place as if it were made for that purpose. It was that word that had brought the four of them all the way from Tulsa. It was just days ago when Steve spotted it in a magazine. "Horse for Sale," the ad began. Benign enough, Steve had already tossed the magazine aside when the words after that hit his brain and stopped 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.

Those tall maple trees that lined the driveway were spaced just far enough apart to make you feel as if they were heralding you forward, toward something great.

Soda quietly wanted Darry to floor it but Darry held back. 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 went to Las Vegas. However, his palms were sweaty as he drove silently on. 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 sat there remembering the last time he had gazed upon his brothers 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 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, making 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, though, 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 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, just thinking." 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. He would 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 had returned to sleeping in his old room, the one he used before his parents died. It was a small 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.

Darry thought maybe Pony would want to bunk in with him in Soda's absence, but Pony just shook his head at that. Darry was no Soda, and that comfort couldn't be replaced that easily.

Pony's schoolwork obviously began to suffer and for once Darry didn't say much about it. When his grades started to fall, he just gave it time. Then, when they didn't improve, he pulled Pony aside and as gently as he could asked him to try a little harder, for Soda's sake.

It took time, but over the ensuing months, Ponyboy seemed to dive into his studies. His grades, failing at first when Soda left, were all top marks within three months. If he could keep his mind on his work, Darry figured he wouldn't feel the biting emptiness of not having Soda with him.

XXX

Soda knew how bad Ponyboy hurt, the agony was written on his face that day as the van pulled away from their curb. There was absolutely nothing he could do about it, Darry would now have to be all he had been and more for their youngest brother. He doubted Ponyboy could take this new predicament they found themselves in and survive it whole. Ponyboy had suffered enough and for too long.

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