Author's Note: This is a story that expands upon a One-Shot that I recently posted called Savior. This first chapter is almost the same as that One-Shot, but I did change and expand upon some details, so even if you did read that other story you might want to still re-read this chapter. There will be many more chapters that explore what happens after that One-Shot ended. Please review and let me know what you think!
Also I am in no way an expert on the Vietnam War, so if you see any details that are historically inaccurate feel free to point it out.
Disclaimer: I do not own the Outsiders
The Ties that Bind
Twelve months. Two weeks. Four days. If he wanted he could probably figure out the hours, minutes and seconds too. Each second seems so distinctive, seeming to never end. But another second always came. They added up. Time kept passing.
Ponyboy Curtis had just turned sixteen years old and was a junior in high school. He had his routine down during the past year. Five days a week he went to school. He studied and worked on homework. And seven days a week he would write a letter to his older brother, Sodapop. He hardly ever heard back, but he needed to feel some kind of connection with him.
It seemed like the world had collapsed in on itself thirteen months ago, though only five people had noticed: Ponyboy, Sodapop, Darry, Steve Randle, and Two-Bit Matthews. Soda was just barely eighteen years old when he had gotten his notice. He had been drafted to fight on the front lines in the Vietnam War.
Pony had come in from school that day to find the house silent. That was strange. Soda was sitting at the kitchen table, staring blankly at a letter held loosely in his hand. Darry stood behind him, leaning up against the counter with his arms crossed over his chest and frowning at the back of Soda's head. Pony couldn't remember the last time Darry had been home when he had gotten off school. He usually worked late.
"What's going on?" Pony had asked unsurely. Clearly something was terribly wrong.
"Sit down, Pony," Darry had said quietly, nodding at the table.
Deep down Pony had known what they were about to tell him. The war had been going on for years now, but it wasn't talked about in their house. It was a silent fear that they all lived with as they watched other men in their neighborhood getting shipped over seas. It was on everyone's mind as Soda had turned eighteen only two months before. Pony slowly took the seat next to Soda, feeling his heart sink. He looked up at Darry, Soda still hadn't acknowledged his presence, seemingly in shock.
"Soda… has been drafted," Darry said slowly.
The devastation of this fact had run deep throughout what was left of their gang. Only a few short weeks later the gang all gathered to see Soda off at four in the morning. The atmosphere hadn't been that grave and solemn since they had lost Johnny and Dallas not even two years before. Soda had put on a brave face, even attempted to smile, but there was something about his eyes... he was scared. Pony had been able to see that in his big brother's eyes. And he knew there was nothing any of them could do about it. As he hugged Soda he never wanted to let go, and Soda made no effort to move away from him for several minutes. Darry had been strong and stoic for both of his brothers' sake. Two-Bit and Steve had been grim, looking at Sodapop with his buzz cut and frightened eyes, clearly wondering if they would be next.
Darry wasn't eligible to be drafted since he was Pony's only caretaker, at least for two more years until Pony turned eighteen. Two-Bit had been eligible since the beginning of the war, but his luck was holding out. He had even applied for college purely in an attempt to avoid the draft, but hadn't gotten in. Steve had become eligible only a few months after Soda had shipped out, but so far he too had been lucky.
The house was quiet. Even when Steve and Two-Bit would come over there was still a haze hanging over the group. Something was missing. Someone was missing. They just weren't whole without Soda there with them.
Pony had gotten into his first fight on school property three months, one week and three days after Soda had left. He was so sick of all the Socs boasting about how their brothers, cousins, fathers, uncles were able to avoid getting drafted by going to college and paying off doctors. He had snapped. Darry hadn't even scolded him after he found out the reason why Pony had beaten up two older Socs. He had actually looked a little proud.
Pony was not alone among the hoods at school. Tim Shepherd had also been drafted several months before Soda, and Pony and Tim's younger brother Curly shared a bond of worry for months, though Curly was better at hiding it than Pony. Then one day Curly had not shown up for school. Pony had heard from one of the other hoods that Curly's family had received a letter from the army. Tim had been killed in action. When Pony went home that day he had shut himself in his room and had cried for hours.
"Pony?" Darry had knocked on his door when he finally made it home from work. Pony hadn't moved, his head buried in Soda's pillow. He felt the bed dip as Darry sat on the edge. He reached over and rubbed Pony's back. "Pony, what is it?"
Pony rolled over to look up at his brother, tears still streaming down his face. "T-Tim Shepherd was killed in action," he said, his voice shaking.
Darry sighed, looking relieved. "Gosh, kid, you can't scare me like that," Darry said, rubbing Pony's shoulder comfortingly. "The way you were carrying on I thought… I thought…" He couldn't finish, but Pony knew what he was trying to say. He thought it was Soda.
Pony sat up and looked at Darry. "What if… what if he doesn't come back?"
Darry's mask of strength for his younger brothers slipped just for a moment and Pony saw that the thought absolutely terrified him. He leaned forward and silently pulled Pony into his arms, holding him close.
"I don't know, baby…" Darry whispered, his voice shaking. "I just don't know…"
It was a Saturday morning when there had been a knock on their door. One month and three days ago. Darry was working and Pony was home alone, working on homework. Pony had opened the door without even really thinking about how odd it was for someone to knock at the door. What he saw had caused his whole body to go cold. A man stood there in full military uniform. Pony still remembered him as if he had just seen him yesterday. He had icy blue eyes and a grim face.
"Darrel Curtis," the man said stiffly.
"H-he's not here," Ponyboy said. He remembered how his voice had shaken though he had felt oddly numb. "I'm his brother."
The man had held out a very official looking envelope. "Please deliver this to him the moment he gets back."
"Okay," Pony said, mechanically reaching out a hand and carefully taking the envelope. He felt awkward and unsure standing in his beat up jeans and Soda's old t-shirt and looking at the pristine looking uniform the army official was wearing. "Yes, sir."
The man had turned and walked away without another word. Pony just stood there and watched him go for several minutes. Finally he remembered himself and slowly closed the door. The house suddenly seemed to be pressing in on him. Every movement he made seemed to take an extraordinary amount of effort. He walked into the kitchen and carefully placed the letter on the table as if he were afraid of breaking it. He didn't even consider opening the letter himself. He hurried back out of the room as if he could avoid the reality of the situation by putting the letter out of sight.
That day had been the longest one yet. He sat on the couch, his homework completely forgotten in his bedroom. He had stared at the TV for at least an hour before he realized that it wasn't on. Then he decided that he didn't want to get up to turn it on, chances are there would be something about the war on anyway, so he continued to stare at the blank screen.
He had thought briefly about calling Two-Bit and Steve at work, they both worked at the DX station down the street. One of them probably could have come sit with him so he wouldn't feel so alone. But somehow he felt like calling them would be just like delivering the bad news himself, and he didn't want to do that.
It was dark out when Darry finally trudged through the front door. Pony usually had dinner ready, but he had not moved from the couch since that morning. Darry had smiled briefly and opened his mouth in order to greet Pony before he had fully taken in the look on his younger brother's face. He snapped his mouth shut and his smile disappeared. He took several deep breaths before he finally spoke.
"What happened, Ponyboy?" he asked seriously.
"You… you got a letter." Pony's voice sounded so small and young. His eyes wandered to the doorway to the kitchen and Darry took the hint.
Darry walked to the kitchen and came back holding the letter. Pony noted the way Darry held it roughly in his hand while Pony had been so gentle with it. Usually Darry would sit in his recliner, but that evening he sat down on the couch right next to Pony. He placed a hand on Pony's leg and gave him a reassuring squeeze.
"We don't have to do this right now," he said softly, looking at Pony. "If you're not up for it…"
"No," Pony said quickly. He looked up and met Darry's eyes and saw a mirror of his own anxiety. "I need to know. We need to know." He was wracking his brain, trying to remember the last time he had received a letter from Soda. It had been at least two months.
Darry nodded. He held the letter in both his hands for a moment, staring at it. Finally he ripped it open. The noise had sounded so painful, like a scream. Pony had winced, and then looked away, feeling weak. He had no desire to read it over Darry's shoulder. He didn't want to see the words.
"Pony." He barely registered Darry's voice. "Pony, Soda's coming home."
Pony turned and as he tried to focus on Darry's face he realized his vision was clouded with tears. "What?"
"It says that he was injured in action, but he will recover and they are going to send him home when he's healed," Darry told him, suddenly sounding giddy with relief.
"He… he's coming home?" Pony said, having a hard time comprehending. For the past eight hours and twelve minutes he had thought for sure that he would never see his brother again. He had been absolutely convinced.
Darry smiled. "He's coming home," he confirmed.
And today was the day.