A/N: Yeah, yeah. I'm late with this, but what else is new? Last chapter, folks. I hope you enjoy it.

Disclaimer: I still don't own. Nothing has changed since the last chapter.

Black Pearl

by Begonias

Darry goes to bed a couple minutes later with a mumbled explanation and one last glance at his brothers.

The stress of the night is just now getting to Sodapop and it hits him hard. He doesn't want to feel, doesn't want to feel how Ponyboy has felt while he was gone, because that probably hurts the most.

Ponyboy slouches in his seat with that usual guarded pose that he's taken to as of late. His eyes are red but hard, and he stares at the table. Soda watches as his Adam's apple bobs steadily.

"Ponyboy..." His whisper drifts off. What the fuck do you say in this position?

Pony's eyes don't leave the tabletop. He says, "You know, I feel pretty thick right about now."

Soda cautiously eases himself against the wooden back of the wooden chair. "Yeah?" he asks slowly. "Why?"

"It may not make sense to you...hell, it don't even make sense to me."

"What—" Soda swallows harshly as his voice breaks. "What do you mean?"

"I don't know why I did it, Sodapop. Glory, I messed up." He shakes his head, squeezes his eyes shut. "Maybe I did it so he'd pay attention to me...maybe—maybe I was just that desperate for...you know..."

Sodapop blinks rapidly to clear his filling eyes and he swallows again. God, he doesn't really know, and he doesn't want to, though there's that niggling part of him that needs to.

"I was stupid," he continues. His voice is dull and monotone and Sodapop almost finds himself missing the Ponyboy that was yelling only a few minutes ago, because at least that Ponyboy didn't look so defeated. "I'm real sorry, Sodapop. I know you got your own stuff to deal with and you ain't gotta deal with mine."

Soda manages a smile, though it's strained and he's dangerously close to crying. "Aw, it ain't nothin'." He pats Pony on the back and they sit in silence for a few minutes.

"Have you seen where he's at?"

It's a relatively cool night for such a steamy and humid summer, and Soda's glad that the darkness brought some relief from the unbearable heat.

"I ain't seen him all day," Sodapop says. He lounges on the couch and watches Bonanza. Gag him. He wonders how Steve is doing. It's been the only thing on his mind since he visited him a few days ago.

"I don't remember him coming home last night." Darry paces back and forth. It makes Soda dizzy. "He hasn't been here all day."

"I wouldn't worry about it yet, Dar. It's probably just him bein' his usual, scatterbrained self." Soda smiles at Darry, as though one of Pony's biggest flaws is something to indulge in.

And it is—the lack of change, at least. It's reassuring to Soda that even though things have gone downhill and he feels as though he's been trampled underfoot some things are always the same. His brother's head is still in the clouds and at least one of them is still idealistic.

"I don't know, Soda..." Darry stands straight, shoulders broad.

"Okay...well, if it's buggin' ya I'll go look for him."

Darry gives him orders to go to places he thinks Ponyboy would go, all while pacing and muttering things like, "Gonna give me a heart attack...premature death."

Soda smiles and heads out, because for once, he feels good.

"Um..." He clears his throat. "Uh, Pony...I—I know I shouldn't be makin' excuses or anything for him, but...ya know he loves you, right? He just ain't too good at showin' it, is all."

Pony nods slightly. "Right," he mumbles.

"I ain't sayin' what he did was right, 'cause it ain't. He didn't have the right to leave you here for days...Pony, that's neglect."

Ponyboy grimaces as he leans back in his chair. "Aw, no, it ain't," Pony replies. He's so pale, too pale. "I'm seventeen now...I'm a big boy. I gotta learn to take care of myself anyhow."

Sodapop swallows. Breathing deeply, he thinks, God, is this what he really thinks? Is he trying to convince himself that this is acceptable? "Pony, jeez, kiddo...you ain't—you don't have to—" Soda fumbles with his words. He's always had a problem with trying to put his thoughts into words, and right now it just seems too impossible.

"Whatever..." Ponyboy runs a hand over his face. "I know what he did wasn't right, but...you know, he's got a life to live too..."

Soda feels frustration rising. At Darry, at himself, at this whole damn situation. "If that's what you think...but, Pony, no matter what circumstances you guys were put in—and I know that was a lot when I was...gone—it doesn't make this right. Darry shouldn't have left you to—to fend for yourself! I mean, what did you do for...money? Food?" Sodapop's anxiety skyrockets. Jesus Christ what if there were days where Pony went without food and he couldn't eat because he had to somehow pay off the house because Darry was at bars oh my Christ "If he blew it all on alcohol, what did you do to keep up with the house? What did—"

"Calm down," Pony mumbles simply, putting his head in his hands. "At first...well, I used your Army pay checks. Shepard lent me some money. Just so the power wouldn't go out." He shrugs. "Eventually I had to pay him back."

Sodapop wills himself to breathe deeply. Calmly he asks, "And?" but he's not too sure he wants to hear the answer.

Pony's smile is small. "I had to get a job."

"What?" Soda blinks. "Where?" Jesus, so many secrets. Hurting people, ruining relationships. He's missed so much in the year he's been gone. Didn't even get to see Ponyboy graduate high school. Came right around midsummer.

"Bookstore down town. It's real nice there, Soda. They got everything you could ever want."

"That's great, kid," Sodapop says with an easy smile, not really happy but needing to smile, if not to reassure his kid brother.

"I only worked a few nights a week...had to juggle some school work, too. But it was kinda nice. For once I felt like I was, ya know...playin' a part in helpin' out."

Soda sighs. "Pony, you did—"

Ponyboy raises a hand to cut him. Slightly shocked, Soda's mouth snaps shut and he lets his little brother continue.

"I don't work there anymore, though." Pony stares off into the distance, reminiscent. "I quit once we found out you were comin' back. I swear, it's like someone flipped a switch in Darry's brain." His laugh is humorless. "Overnight, he just—stopped goin' out. Cooked dinner for once, with the food I bought with my own money. But it was kinda nice..."

"He loves you, kiddo," Sodapop reassures, even though he wishes he didn't have to, wishes that Darry would have been better and maybe would have told the kid every once in a while so he wouldn't be so fucking sad.

Soda was wrong when he said some things never change.

In reality, change is the only constant.

There's this niggling little feeling deep inside him that points him the right direction.

He moves as though on automatic pilot and steps through the trash and litter spread haphazardly through Steve's yard.

He doesn't know how he knows it, but he does.

His little brother sits hunched up in a small ball in the corner by the couch Steve's lazily sitting on.

"What the hell?" Sodapop mutters. He goes over to Pony. "Ponyboy, what are you—"

Pony slowly inches his head up to stare at Sodapop. He'll never forget what his eyes looked like right there, how glassy and distant. Pony's there but he isn't.

He turns to Steve. "What the fuck did you do with my brother?"

Steve laughs and attempts to sit up. He smells awful. "The kid did it himself. Told him it'd make him feel better and that's all it took. Was I right, Pony? Did it make you feel better?"

Pony is almost unresponsive, but he manages a slight nod.

Steve cackles again (and Soda cringes; he hates the sound of his friend's laughter now...it's different now. Unfamiliar) and pats Ponyboy semi-affectionately on the head. "Poor fuckin' kid," Steve says with a smile. "He's far gone."

"You need to get your fuckin' act together, Steve!" Soda shouts. "Givin' drugs to kids? Grow the fuck up, man!" He's so angry he thinks he may hit something...or someone.

Steve just laughs, condescending, and Sodapop's teeth grit together. Pony's catatonic, and Soda doesn't know what to do.

"Fuck!" He runs a hand through his hair. "What'd you give him?"

"Uh..." Steve puts a hand to his chin and seems to contemplate the question (which sort of brings a sprout of hope through Sodapop, because if he's thinking it means he's actually capable of comprehension, which means he ain't too far from being saved. Maybe, oh, God, please, please). "I'm not too sure. Heroin, I think?"

Steve says it like he's asking him to pass the fucking salt.

So Soda inhales sharply, steels himself, and gathers Pony in his arms. He's like a rag doll and can barely carry his own weight. Soda's struck with a sudden thought, "He ain't heavy, he's my brother," just like the song says. He would hear it every once in a while in 'Nam, whenever Arnie would bust out his miniature radio. At least they managed to be halfway up to date on their music.

There's a song for everything.

Pony goes to bed and Sodapop's left to deal with the shit storm for now.

And he's glad about it; Pony's had to deal with it for this whole time now. Really, he's the only reason why the house is still running, when Soda thinks about it. Once again, he curses the war and having to leave. He pictures how different things would be if he never had to.

He goes to his room but doesn't sleep. He really can't fall asleep anyway. It's a mixture of attempted avoidance of nightmares and the weight of the world that's been put on his shoulders. Which is fine, because—as mentioned—he can't sleep anyway.

A couple hours pass and then he hears the footfalls coming from Darry's room. Pony's asleep; Soda sees the chance and so he takes it.

"So...are you gonna explain some things to me or am I gonna have to take Pony's word for it?" But he will take Pony's word for it, no matter what Darry says. He probably always will.

"He was right," Darry says, and Sodapop's a little surprised he didn't have to fight him to get information out of him. "Everything."

"W—Why?" Sodapop asks, utterly appalled. "Why?"

"I couldn't handle it. I couldn't handle it, Soda." Darry shakes his head. "You were gone...I just..." (his mind flips back to when Pony said that to him, just a short while ago...all drugged up).

"That's no excuse, Darry! He was alone for days. Got a job just so he could keep up on the bills that you forgot to pay."

Darry pales. "He...got a job?" He breathes out. "Oh, God...I—I..."

"Just apologize to him, please," Soda orders, feeling some sympathy for Darry, because he went through his own share of grief, too. "Find a way to make it up to him somehow. I don't know, just...I don't know."

Darry swallows, nods.

"Darry said he was sorry," Pony says one night when they're alone. "He said he felt horrible for what he did—well, didn't do...he started crying."

Pony turns to face Soda, his eyes bright and wide. It's terrible for everyone when Darry cries. It's too unfamiliar, horrible. He's supposed to be the strongest of all of them, so it's the worst when he shows his emotions, his mortality.

"I forgave him," Pony continues. "I can't stay mad at him. I—I know we're not going to become the Cleavers again, right away. But...maybe it'll get better."

He's so optimistic, his little brother, and Soda smiles. "It always does."

Pony nods.

Things may look grim right now, but they'll get better, because it always happens that way. Because Sodapop's back, Steve's alive (albeit there's room for him to get better), Pony's healthy, going to college, Two-Bit's happy, and there's hope for Darry.

Hope for all of them.

A/N: Just a note to say thank you for all of the support this little story has gotten. I hope this is a satisfactory ending for all of you lovely people.