Author's Note: Once again, thank you all for your wonderful reviews! And if you like this story, you should check out a one shot that I wrote on a whim yesterday called Savior that takes place after the events in the book. I've got some good ideas for that story line and will probably be turning it into a multi-chapter piece after I get farther along with this story.

Disclaimer: I do not own the Outsiders


Chapter Six: Soda's Mystery Dinner

The Greasers all piled in the car in the high school parking lot - Soda in the front this time with Two-Bit and Johnny in the back - and headed for a nearby gas station. They had some time to kill before Pony got out of school. Two-But managed to swipe a few Pepsis from the store and they all hung around the car, goofing around and smoking. Finally they got back in the car and headed for the middle school.

The parking lot of the middle school was crowded with parents picking up their kids. Soda felt a twinge in his stomach watching the scene.

"Please, no parent jokes," Soda said, turning around in his seat and looking pointedly at Two-Bit who held up his hands defensively. He knew Two-Bit had no filter and tended to forget things that should be off limits. And he knew Ponyboy would already be upset that it wasn't their mother picking him up from school today… or ever again.

"He is coming, right?" Steve said impatiently, searching the crowd of kids. "I got work at four today."

Soda felt nervous as he watched the crowd starting to thin out and there still wasn't any sign of Ponyboy.

"I'll go look," Soda said, getting out of the car. He walked up the stream of kids and into the school. It didn't take him long to see Ponyboy walking through the hallway with a concerned looking teacher. When Ponyboy spotted him he quickly told the teacher that he had to go and hurried over.

"Sorry," he mumbled and they headed back out of the school.

"What was that about?" Soda asked.

"Nothing," Ponyboy said unconvincingly, his head down and his shoulders hunched. Then he glanced up at Soda. "What happened to your face?"

Soda lightly touched the tender spot on his cheek where there was most likely a bruise. "I'll tell you later," he said as they approached Steve's car. Ponyboy slid in the backseat with Two-Bit and Johnny while Soda got back in the front. Steve hit the gas hard as they sped off.

"You can come over for dinner later if you want," Soda said as they dropped Johnny off at his house. The house was dark and he knew they were all hoping it was empty.

"Sure, sounds okay," Johnny said, trying to hide how relieved he sounded.

They took off again and stopped at the Curtis house next. Soda and Pony both climbed out and Steve honked a goodbye as they headed inside. Their own house was dark and quiet as well. Soda immediately flipped on some lights. He didn't like how quiet it was. It never used to be this quiet at their house.

"So what happened?" Ponyboy asked, obviously not liking the quiet either.

Soda flipped on the TV for some background noise. "Got into a fight with a Soc at lunchtime," Soda said easily. "Apparently they get a little edgy when you punch them in the face. Who knew?" He laughed. Ponyboy strained to smile and Soda knew something was wrong. "How was your day?" he asked.

"It was okay," Pony said as he sat down on the couch. "I'm a little behind on homework."

Soda held back a snort, thinking of his own homework. "What were you talking to that teacher about?" he asked.

Ponyboy sighed. "That was the school counselor," he said slowly. That got Soda's attention. "Um… I guess my teacher was concerned about me."

"Concerned about what?" Soda asked, raising his eyebrows. Ponyboy pointed at the band aids on his head that covered the cut he had gotten when he had fallen off the couch. "That cut?" Soda said, still not comprehending.

"She thought… she was concerned…" Ponyboy started, fidgeting uncomfortably. "She thought maybe Darry did it."

Soda's eyes widened in shock. "Glory halleluiah," he exclaimed. "Well you told them that he didn't, right?"

Ponyboy nodded vigorously. "Of course I did," he said quickly. "I told them that Darry would never do something like that." He paused. "I dunno if she believed me though…"

Soda sighed and then fell on the couch next to Ponyboy. "Guess that whole staying out of trouble thing is gonna be a little more difficult than I thought," he admitted. They sat in silence for several minutes. "You got some homework to do, Pony?"

"Yeah," Ponyboy admitted.

"Why don't you start on it," he said, getting up from the couch. "Darry said he was gonna be late tonight so I'll start on some dinner."

"Why is he gonna be late?" Ponyboy asked as he gathered up his books.

"He was lookin' into gettin' a second job," Soda said. "He didn't tell you that?"

"No…" Ponyboy said slowly, looking troubled. "Don't you have homework too?"

"I'll get to it," Soda said dismissively. In truth, he had no plans to do any homework tonight.

Soda wandered into the kitchen as Ponyboy headed to his room to work on his homework. Soda aimlessly went through the cabinets, not looking for anything in particular. He still had hours until Darry got home but with Steve at work and the rest of the Greasers still wary about coming over to their house as much he didn't have much else to occupy himself. He was opening some of the drawers when something strange caught his eye. One of the drawers held a bunch of papers. Out of curiosity he pulled out a handful of papers and started leafing through them. Suddenly he realized what they were: old bills and financial documents.

Soda was just about to put them back when Darry's handwriting caught his eye. He pulled out a piece of notebook paper that had numbers and math problems. Out of all the subjects in school, math was Soda's worst. But still, he was curious. Clearly Darry was trying to figure out how to make ends meet without their parents. Soda sat down at the table and started reading through the numbers, trying to make some kind of sense of it.

An hour later Soda still wasn't having much luck making heads or tails of the numbers that Darry was working with. He felt frustrated. He stood up, sighing in defeat. One thing he did know was that both their parents had worked, and although their father only had one job he worked at it at least sixty hours a week. He also knew that their father's job paid more than any job that Darry could get right off the bat. He didn't know how Darry was supposed to fill the void of both of their parents' paychecks all on his own.

He started cooking, throwing some random ingredients into a casserole dish, feeling distracted. He knew that Darry wanted him to keep going to school. He didn't see the big deal about school but he understood that Darry did. Darry wanted him to stay in school and eventually graduate just like he did. Soda rolled his eyes to himself at the thought. It would be a miracle if he managed to pass this year anyway.

"What are you making?" Ponyboy asked, coming into the kitchen.

"Not really sure," Soda said smiling. He indicated the stove where whatever he had made was baking. "Possibly a casserole of some sort. It's in a casserole dish anyway."

Pony laughed. "Sounds interesting."

"Well, it definitely won't be boring," he said. "You gettin' hungry?"

"Yeah, a bit," Pony admitted.

He glanced up at the clock. "Darry should be home soon," he said. "He finished work an hour ago. You can start before he gets back if you want."

"No, I'll wait," Pony said, sitting down at the kitchen table. He looked down at the papers still sitting there. "What are these?"

"Oh, just some financial papers," Soda said shortly. "Darry must have been going through them." He wasn't real sure why he didn't just tell Ponyboy that he had been going through them. He knew how upset Darry had gotten about the thought of him dropping out. He imagined Ponyboy might have a similar reaction. "Why don't you set the table?" Soda started gathering up the papers and shoved them back into their drawer.

As Soda took the mystery dinner out of the oven, Pony hovering next to him making faces at the odd concoction, he heard the door open and slam back shut.

"Hey, how was work?" Soda asked as Darry came into the kitchen.

"Long," Darry said tiredly. "Got a phone call at work today." He sat down heavily at the table and looked at his two younger brothers. "From your principal."

Soda looked at him, unsure if Darry was looking at him or Ponyboy. He shared a glance with Pony and realized that his younger brother was thinking the same thing. "Uh… which one?" Soda asked slowly. "Mine or his?"

Darry gave him a strange look. "Yours," he said. "Why, should I have heard from Pony's too?"

"Not necessarily…" Soda said slowly, looking a little guilty and shooting Pony an apologetic look.

"Well, I know what happened with him today, what happened with you?" Darry asked Ponyboy, sounding tense.

"It wasn't a big deal," Pony said as he sat down at the table across from Darry. Soda put the casserole dish down in the middle of the table then sat down between them. "I just had to talk to the school counselor."

"Why?" Darry asked.

Ponyboy sighed. "My teacher was concerned about the band aids," he said. "She thought… she thought maybe you hit me."

Darry sighed. "Great," he muttered, rubbing his forehead.

"I told them you didn't though," Pony said quickly.

"Yeah, but if you keep showing up at school with injuries like that, they might start to doubt that," Darry said.

"It wasn't like it was my fault," Pony mumbled, looking down at his plate.

"Well, it's all uphill from here, right?" Soda said lightly with a smile.

Just then they heard the front door opened again. "Anyone here?"

"In here, Johnny!" Soda called. "Just in time. You hungry?"

"Yeah, I could eat," Johnny said as he walked into the kitchen.

Soda looked up at him from spooning out dinner and gave a start. "Jesus, Johnny, what happened?"

When they had dropped Johnny off at his house only a few hours before he had been perfectly unharmed. Now his left eye was swollen to the point where it looked like he could barely see out of it and there was a massive bruise radiating out over his cheekbone.

"Oh, it's nothing," Johnny mumbled as he took a seat between Ponyboy and Darry, looking down and not meeting anyone's eyes.

For a moment no one moved, and then Soda remembered himself and went and grabbed Johnny a plate from the cabinet.

"Hey, Johnny, let me see," Darry said gently. Johnny reluctantly looked up and Darry reached over and as carefully as he could he lifted Johnny's eyelid to get a look at his eye. Johnny didn't even wince. "Doesn't look like your eye is damaged at all," he said.

"It's fine," Johnny insisted.

"Why didn't you come over sooner?" Ponyboy asked, looking distressed.

Johnny shrugged. "I didn't want to bother you guys."

"Johnny, you come over here any time you like," Darry said firmly. He finally took a good look at what was on his plate. "Soda, what the hell is this?"

"No idea," Soda said with a grin. "I was waiting for one of you guinea pigs to try it first."

Johnny smiled. "I'll try it, man," he said.

"See, Johnny is brave!" Soda said, grinning broadly as the tension in the room began to deflate.

Johnny took a big mouthful. He chewed for a moment while everyone watched. Then he smiled. "Not bad," he said.

Everyone laughed and the mood immediately lightened. All the rest of their cares just evaporated as they ate and discussed Soda's strange meal. After dinner Johnny helped Ponyboy clean up while Darry and Soda went out into the living room.

"So what about your day?" Darry asked as he sat in the recliner. "You got quite a shiner there."

"Yeah, that was an oops," Soda admitted. "I lost my temper with some Socs. I guess I was edgy from being stuck in classrooms all morning. I'm miles behind; I dunno if I'll ever catch up."

"You gotta work at it Soda," Darry said, sounding tired.

Soda just sighed. He didn't want to cause Darry any more stress right now. Instead he decided to just change the subject.

"How did things go after work today?" Soda asked.

"Good," Darry said. "I got a second roofing job."

"So how much will you be working now?" Soda asked.

"Probably at least thirty hours at each," Darry said.

"Sixty hours a week…" Soda said.

"See, you can do math," Darry said with a laugh.

Soda smiled, but it was a sad smile. He didn't like thinking of Darry working himself to death at nineteen years old. He hoped after just a few weeks Darry would realize that he can't do it all on his own. Heck, their dad hadn't even been able to do it all on his own. He had help from their mother working at a local diner during the day.

Darry insisted that Johnny stay the night. After he finished making another chocolate cake, Soda called Steve to let him know to pick Johnny up at their house in the morning instead of his own as Johnny went to crash on the couch. He could hear shouting in the background and told Steve that he was welcome to come over as well.

"We should probably just leave the door unlocked," Darry said as Soda told him Steve may show up as well. "It's not like we have anything worth takin', and I'd rather have the guys crashing here rather than getting beat on or losing it and knocking over a liquor store."

Soda climbed in bed with Ponyboy again that night.

"I think Darry likes you better," Ponyboy mumbled as Soda shut the light off.

Soda looked at him strangely, thinking the comment came out of nowhere. "What do you mean?" he asked.

"He got all mad at me for having to talk to the counselor today," Pony said. "Even though it was your principal he got a call from at work."

"He lectured me too while you and Johnny were cleaning up," Soda said. It wasn't really true, but Darry had at least mentioned it.

"Oh," was all Ponyboy said.

"Darry was just stressed about someone thinking he could ever hit one of his brothers," Soda said dismissively, rolling over. "'Night, Pony."

"'Night, Soda…."