A/N: You may or may not have noticed that Dalton, my annoying yet semi-cute preppie muse, has been oddly silent so far in this fic. I've managed to keep him from talking by feeding him a jar or so of peanut butter every time I start a new chapter, and so far it's worked like a charm, but we ran out of Skippy yesterday morning and now there's no stopping him. . .

DALTON: Damn straight.

*sigh* Anyway, Dalton promises that if I let him talk at the beginning of this chapter he'll never ask to again during the "Home" series. And. . .well. . .I guess there's no forgiving me. But if you could find it in your hearts to send me a gallon or so of peanut butter, or even nutella. . .

DALTON: Okay, Dakki, time's up. Now then. I think it's time for. . .

"Dalton And Friends Reviewer Rodeo"!

"Okay. A word to all readers, past reviewers, and people who are even mildly tempted to review this chapter:

STOP. REVIEWING. NOW.

Okay. Maybe it's just ignorance. I mean, maybe you just don't know what Dakki *does* when she gets a review. Well, I'll tell you-she gets so happy she starts bouncing up and down, and then she has to run around the house singing old Cyndi Lauper songs, wearing my underwear on her head. And even worse, the more you review, the more she's encouraged and the sooner she'll update. And you just don't want that. So...please...just don't review, okay?"

*sigh* Are you done yet?

DALTON: *satisfied* Yes.

So. To wrap it up: don't listen to anything Dalton says, ever. Review often. Eat peanut butter, it'll make you grow up big and strong. And most of all, thank you. I love you all.

*~*~*

Home

*~*~*

Always in life there are things that we cannot help but take joy from- simple things, trinkets of our daily existence, and moments among thousands crystallized and remembered forever. We sort them and string them like pearls on a necklace and wear them next to our hearts like rosary beads. Everyone has their own strand, moments of truth, beauty, exquisite sadness and understanding, or just pure and unburdened bliss-glimmering and opalescent, and all their own. You have yours, your collection of the things that for just one moment align the stars and make the world a perfect place. You have yours, and I have mine as well.

Collected on my own fishing-line, the gems and spangles decorating my life-

The rickety Ferris wheel out on Coney Island, and the first time you ever rode it, faster than even the wind. Spot's first golden summer, when Brooklyn was his and everything was right. The water of the Hudson, soaking you through after a summer swan-dive, purer and colder than any storybook fountain of youth. The way that Jack grinned, his dopey smile, slivers of which I found in Greece, China and Sicily, the smile I searched the world to find. Black licorice's biting sweetness; the first snow of winter; summer rain. And now I had one more thing to add to this list, something that I would be able to look back on and always laugh about: the look on Jack's face when he looked at me that night in the park, and realized for the first time who I was.

First, unabashed shock. Then his look metamorphosed into joy, the look you take on when you see an old friend, one you think you have lost. Then a questioning glint in his eyes, and then at last his mind took over, molding his features in the form of punch-drunk reserve.

"Samantha," he said, "you're here."

"She goes by Sam," Annie whispered to him, not missing a beat.

"Of course," Jack said, looking at me, his expression dazed. He reached out a hand through the silky shadows, cupping my cheek in his roughened palm, almost as if he was trying to assure himself that I was really there. "It is you...isn't it?"

I nodded. Slowly...like him everything about me was slow, slow to move and speak, slow to think. My body didn't trust itself in this familiar reality, and somewhere in my mind I was still a million miles away. I wondered when the dark and untold rhythms of the vagabond had replaced in my heart the constancy of New York. And I realized for the first time that Jack and everyone else could very well have changed just as much as I had in these past six years.

"It's me," I said. "It's me, Cowboy...or, no-does anyone even call you that anymore?"

"Not really," he said, with an air almost of regret in his voice, as of a concert violinist laying down his instrument for the very last time. Annabelle was eyeing him with interest, clearly uninformed until now of her father's past. "None a' the old nicknames are really still around."

"Not even Franny?"

Annie tried desperately to keep herself from laughing. She looked as if she was about to rupture a kidney with the effort it took. Jack grinned and leaned forward, whispering loudly in my ear: "If ya don't tell her about the hat an' bandanna, I might let ya live." And I knew right then that it really was him.

He hoisted Annie up and put her on his shoulders, craning his neck and smiling at her, two pairs of chocolate-brown eyes meeting through the half- darkness. "Whaddaya think you're smilin' about, goilie?" he asked her playfully.

"Nothing," she said, biting her lip. She had the innocence bit down.

Jack turned and smiled at me, and took me by the hand. "Looks like we got a little catchin' up ta do, huh Conlon?"

"Just a little," I said. Above me, the cold swaths of cloud parted, revealing a perfect crescent moon. The light it shone on the park, the trees, on our hands linked together, was as bright as the low-burning flame of memory.

*~*~*

Past

*~*~*

Lithe and sure-footed, a child of the streets, Spot sifted through the garbage that spilled into the alleyway, searching for something to eat. Hunger was a reverberation inside of him, a rhythm barely felt, only making its presence known in the knotted feeling of emptiness that lived at the pit of his stomach. He had not eaten for four days.

Four days. It was a lifetime to him, a time long and wide enough to erase the past and make him wonder if any other life had existed before this one. He was already beginning to forget what his mother's face looked like. He could remember all the rest of it, the clouded and dangerous months that had come before, with a knife's deadly precision, and he knew that somehow it was his fault. He had tried his hardest to support them, finding things to take to the junkie in exchange for a few pennies, shining shoes, doing odd jobs, selling anything he could find, even buttons or bits of string. And Mumma had worked all day at the factory. They had been surviving, nothing dangerous in their path, getting along, barely, but getting along- and then one morning Mumma couldn't get up, coughed up blood, couldn't breathe, or even speak. Dr. Hennessey came and looked inside her, tapped her chest and listened to her breathing. Shook his head and said words that Spot didn't understand. Tissue-thin words, the battle going on inside his mother. One word that stood out most of all: pneumonia. He kept it with him and whispered it to himself that night. Pneumonia. Fear and the uncertainty of their futures had a name, and in its cadence and syllabification, the sound of it was almost beautiful.

And Kathleen took her son and daughter in her arms, gave them what she could. Her words were breathless coming out of her, falling each like stones, and she told them what she thought they needed to know. Kissed Spot on his brow, and he knew then that she was already gone. Last words hanging in the still night air: my poor children.

Their mother had been their home, and with no home they took to the streets, sleeping in the alleys, trying their best to survive. Spot was nine years old, and Sammy just turned six. In the past four days he had unearthed a hardened heel of bread and a green apple soft with rot that he had told Samantha to eat core and all to fill her stomach. The bread, too, had gone to her, and whatever he could find this morning--if he was lucky enough to find anything at all.

My poor children.

Spot sifted through the garbage rich with coffee grounds and eggshells ivory white, lemon rind and spoiled greens, the wrinkled paper of yesterday's news. Suddenly, he unearthed a jackpot-a whole boiled potato, white and perfect. Someone's uneaten leftovers. He cradled it in his palms as carefully as one would a robin's egg, breathing of its rich and earthy scent.

"Hey, kid. What's yer name?"

Spot jumped, stood straight up, stock still, and looked the man dead in the eye, refusing to back down. He swallowed hard. The person who had spoken was huge, tall and strong-looking, hands thick and callused, made for work. But when Spot looked closer he could see that he was only a teenager, no older than sixteen with his dark thatch of hair covered by a ragged gray cap and a thick stack of papers pinned under his arm.

"What's it to ya?" Spot said sharply, not willing to give an inch.

The boy sighed, reached up for his cap and swiped it across his brow. "You been livin' out here a while?"

Spot nodded.

"Hungry?"

"Yeh."

"Why dontcha come with me kid, huh? Give ya somethin' to eat, maybe you'd like to stay with us at th' lodgin' house?"

"Lodgin' house?" Spot asked faintly. In his mind he was already sitting down to lunch-his imagination running far ahead of him, envisioning a plate loaded with thick slabs of corned beef, salted, tender and juicy, with boiled cabbage and carrots and roast potatoes crackling with fat. His mouth began to water, and as he looked up again at the boy the reality of his surroundings hit him hard, hunger coming to him like a blow to the stomach.

"Newsies lodgin' house," the boy explained. "It ain't much, but we'll take care a' you. C'mon. You think I can leave ya out on th' street like dis? You'll be dead in a week. How old are ya, kid? Seven?"

"Nine," Spot said defensively.

The boy cracked a smile. "C'mon, kid, whaddaya say?" Seeing Spot's look, he spat into his palm and extended a hand to him, which Spot tentatively shook. "Wolf MacLeod."

"Spot Conlon," he said, proudly, in the way that he had been taught to speak his name.

Wolf grinned. "A mick, huh? That's good. We'll be friends, you 'n me-we Irish gotta stick together. 'S mostly eye-ties over at th' lodgin' house. Pinky Falconetti, he's an eye-tie. Still, wit' you, I guess we got him outnumbered two to one, huh?"

"Who's Pinky?" Spot asked curiously.

"Never mind, kid. You'll find out soon enough. Well," he said, gesturing towards the sidewalk. "Guess we'd better get goin'." He had already begun to walk, expecting the boy to follow, when Spot called out.

"Wait! Not yet. We can't go widout Sam."

Wolf sighed. "G'wan then, kid. I'll wait here."

Wolf didn't quite know what to imagine "Sam" was. Maybe a dog, or a younger brother. But whatever he thought it could have been, it wasn't a skinny girl with matted blonde hair, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes as Spot lead her from the alley.

"Dis is your sister?" Wolf hazarded. He could already tell that it would be impossible to separate the two, and didn't want to think about how he would get Pinky to let the girl stay at the lodging house.

Spot nodded. "Well, c'mon, kid," Wolf sighed, leading the way once again. "Let's get you two fed."

*~*~*

There is nothing sweeter, nothing more beautiful, than your first meal after days without food. Like air to a drowning man or water to someone parched and dying of thirst-for a few moments that spread themselves willfully into an eternity, Spot could concentrate only on the meal placed in front of him, and on the miracle of need finally answered. He devoured an entire roast chicken in what seemed to be a matter of seconds, and afterwards slowly picked over the oily carcass rich with salty remainders as he talked to Wolf for the rest of the morning, unwilling to let the smallest morsel go uneaten. Sam, too exhausted to do much of anything after she had eaten her fill, had curled up under the table with her head in Wolf's lap, lulled to sleep by the comfort of a full stomach and the lull of the voices around her.

Wolf MacLeod was a person cursed with a soft heart and a weakness for children and animals, and for the rest of his life he would try desperately, acting against his strong humanitarian streak, to seem tougher than he actually was. The name "Wolf," frightening as it might have made him seem, was nothing more than half indication of his size and his strength and half a joke at his expense. The only way his appearance served him was to discourage anyone from trying to pick a fight, for if anyone had, he would never have had the heart to throw even a few punches.

As it turned out, Spot had hit an unexpected windfall all those years ago when Sam had given his new nickname. At the Brooklyn lodging house, at the time that he came and for many years afterward as well, it was a general unspoken rule that the more threatening the name, the less threatening the newsie, and vice versa. Named Wolf, you were guaranteed to be everyone's friend. The ones to look out for were called things that would seem absurd to anyone outside looking in, right up to Pinky Falconetti, at the time the most feared newsie in New York City.

But Spot didn't know any of this yet. The world was contained in the fragile skeleton of a picked-over roast chicken, and Wolf was his hero, the strongest man in the world. In a world where the gap between children and adults (that is, those brave souls strong enough to make it past the age of twelve) seemed all but insurmountable, Wolf was easy to talk to, seemed genuinely interested in what he had to say, and also had the definite advantage, from the outset, of being the one who had taken him off the streets and given him the most precious thing that Spot could imagine there was: lunch.

Wolf, too, had already taken a shining to Spot. He was a fighter, tough and street-smart, and even at nine years old it was obvious that he was a born leader. The kid would go on to do great things, bigger than Brooklyn. And for now, he would no doubt be something for Pinky to reckon with.

*~*~*

The chicken was still on Spot's mind as Wolf led him into the lodging house. It was late afternoon, the shadows just beginning to lengthen a little and the sky a gentle blue that would linger on undiminished for hours yet. Spot had spent the early afternoon out selling with Wolf, led through the back-alleys and busy thoroughfares, accompanied by the music of the streets, the carriage wheels and hawker's shouts. Wolf had made a killing that day with Spot as his selling partner, with Samantha doing her bit as well. Sensationalistic headlines aside, the best tool a newsie could ever hope for was a wide-eyed child who could get sympathy from almost every customer and, if that didn't work, could run fast enough to make off with a quarter with a call over their shoulder that they didn't have any change, losing themselves in the crowd before their unwitting victim could object. Ever the advocate of fairness, Wolf had slipped sixty cents to Spot to cover both him and his sister, and as the sun began to inch towards the horizon there was nothing left to do but the messy business of introducing the two children to the rest of the lodging house.

Picture it, now, as it would have been then, seen through the eyes of a child of nine:

Darkness, first. It's a shock after the summer afternoon softly shining like the surface of a new-minted coin, and for a moment you can't see a thing. You're close to the docks, the scream of the gulls and the stink of fish fresh in your mind, and now in this filthy bunker, light filtering weakly through the dirty windowpanes, you are struck with the thought that you may be underwater. In truth, it never really gets light in here-the lodging house is stranded in the shadows of greater buildings that have not yet had the time to begin falling apart, and even at midday it is hard to read so much as a headline without the help of a kerosene lamp. But slowly, your eyes begin to adjust, and you take it all in-beds, cluttered and clustered, rickety, most of them empty, but a few boys sprawled on their flea-infested mattresses, shirtless in the day's unexpected heat, their bodies lean and vulpine, their eyes cold. The room littered with the possessions of boys-clothes stained and ragged, old grease-stained newspapers, suspenders, boots worn through at the heels. A few younger boys too, eyes shining, hiding in the shadows of the older ones. And at the back of the room, slouched low, smoking a cigar with a bitter expression as he looks out the window, is the boy who is clearly in charge.

Pinky Falconetti's exact age was a topic of much discussion among the Brooklyn newsies. He was slight of frame and small in height, like a young boy who had yet to reach his growth spurt-for his entire life he would never grow taller than five foot three inches. His whole life, too, he had been skin and bones, like a junkyard dog deprived of food for far too long, and to look at him you never would have thought that he could come close to beating you in a fair fight. Judging from this information alone, one would have guessed that he was no older than twelve or thirteen. But his face told a different story: quick, dark eyes older than the rest of him, a jagged knife scar scored across one cheek. He had the quick fingers of a pickpocket, almost fast enough to match his wits. The day that Wolf brought Spot and Sam into the lodging house, Pinky was seventeen, and had had the Brooklyn newsies under his thumb for almost two years. The moment that Spot laid eyes on him-dark hair and raw cheeks, gold-tipped cane carried at his side, his look of eternal indifference-his brief allegiance to Wolf shifted immediately to this new hero. He saw for the first time that you didn't have to be a giant to have power-power was this boy's, and it could be his too. From that moment on, he worshipped Pinky heart and soul. And in Brooklyn, there were worse idols to have.

Pinky did have power, almost as much as Spot imagined him to. It was the only language he spoke, and the only thing that responded to his touch. Gentleness was a word that he had never known; he had spent his life running away before he could be abandoned, and his force over others was the only thing that he could count on. The girls he was with stayed for one night only; that was the rule. Some sweet nighttime rough-and-tumble- it was what he imagined to live for. But still in the dark and windless nights he could not help but wait for the few moments after, when all was still, and the girl, whoever it was, would press her length against him, and run soft hands across the scars of his body. Dusky tenderness burned away quick by the merciless Brooklyn sun-and then another day, of forgetting and surviving, and he was back to being the one that everyone feared. And if Wolf, glad and big, eternally smiling, was the ultimate in kindness in those years, then Pinky was his mirror image-ungenerous and eternally wounded, refusing to trust, hating animals, children, family. He looked up that afternoon at Spot standing in awe in the doorway, and saw- what?-a runt. Worthless to him and everyone else.

"Whadja bring back dis time, Wolf?" he asked hoarsely.

Clearing his throat, Wolf nudged Spot out from where he stood near-hidden as he leaned against the unsteady threshold, and sent him reluctantly out into the open, where Pinky could see him in full. The Brooklyn leader sidled up to the front of the room, emerging out of the shadows, and looked at him critically. Spot felt him taking in his ragged clothes, bony chest and pale, pointed face. But even as he sensed those eyes appraising him, he refused to back down. He knew that he would get nowhere fast if he didn't stand his ground, and so he looked Pinky straight in the eye with an unflinching gaze, refusing to look away.

For a moment, Pinky faltered. Looked at the skinny half-grown guttersnipe trying to stare him down, eyes the color of gunmetal and just as cold. And he must have seen, looking into those eyes, the growing spark of power and determination that was making itself apparent even when the boy was only nine years old. He must have understood that if anyone this was the person who would succeed him to the throne; he must have looked down at him, then, and been unable to deny the strength that he saw. But if he did, then he did a good job of hiding it.

"Well, kid, can ya tawk?" he asked at last. Spot-whether through impudence or fear, he would never be able to quite decide-simply nodded.

From where he stood, taking this all in, Wolf couldn't help but be amazed. He looked over at Sam where she stood leaning against the doorjamb, chewing thoughtfully on a twist of black licorice that he had bought for her. "Your brother's a real tough cookie, huh Sam?"

Sam looked over at Pinky. "I ain't afraid of him, neither," she said briskly.

"You gonna be like Spot, then?"

"Wolf!" she exclaimed, looking up at him in horror with her clear blue eyes. "Of course not! I'm a GIRL!"

Wolf looked down at her, smiling faintly, and took in the little girl standing before him. The light shining behind her, coming in through the door of the bunkroom, illuminated her tangled yellow mop, creating the illusion of a halo. A childhood on Water Street had not yet managed to rob her of what he knew she would lose so soon-that certain softness, a gentler shape. She was right-she was a girl. But in a few years, growing up to be like her brother wouldn't be that far off.

Wolf turned his attention back to Pinky. A slow smirk was curving across his lips, the one everybody in the lodging house was so accustomed to by now, the one that meant trouble. But Spot took him in head on, seemingly unfazed. Looking at him carefully with the quick eye of a sibling, Sam saw what the others missed: his hand nervously clutching at a handful of fabric from his shirt, shaking in panic. But still, his eyes remained locked with the older boy's, daring him to look away.

"Ya gotta name, kid?"

"Yeh."

"Well, what is it, den? Cat got yer tongue?"

As nonchalantly as he could, Spot spat into his palm as he had seen Wolf do, and extended it to Pinky, waiting for him to do the same. "Spot Conlon, of da Water Street Conlons. 'Sa pleasure ta make yer acquaintance."

Pinky didn't so much double up with mirth as explode with it-laughter bubbling up organ-deep, hearty, face-contorting laughter. "That's yer name, kid?" he said at last, once he had gotten control of himself. "Hey, Wolf," he called, sniggering, "ya sure ya brought home a kid this time? Could be a lost dog."

"Aw, Pinky, leave th' kid alone."

"Seriously, kid," Pinky repeated, undaunted, "what kind of a name is Spot?"

Spot's face was red with anger. "Well, what kind of a name is Pinky, huh?"

Suddenly, all the laughter evaporated from the Brooklyn leader. Unlike Spot, he had had ample time to come up with a good retort to that question, and used it whenever possible. "It means," he said, his voice suddenly low as he crouched down, bringing his roughened knuckles close to Spot's face and letting his fist connect gently with his chin, "dat if ya piss me off, Spot, I'se gonna pink ya 'fore youse can even run off. I'm gonna give you a second chance now, though, 'cause I ain't in the mood ta waste my time on you. So scram." Spot stood his ground. "What, are ya deaf too? Get outta my sight, kid. Beat it!"

Chastened, Spot slowly backed away, back to Wolf's comforting shadow. Pinky sighed and looked over at the boy who, despite a lifetime of conflict, remained one of his only true friends. "Lemme guess..."

"C'mon, Pinky, ya can't turn 'em out on the streets. They got no place ta go."

"Them?" Pinky said caustically. "Ya got more than one?"

Tentatively, Sammy stepped forward, half-trying to hide behind her brother. "I'm Samantha," she said, voice barely above a whisper.

"Huly Jesus..." Pinky muttered.

"So ya gonna let him stay?" Wolf asked.

"Sure," Pinky said at last. "Sure. But jus' one night. Then they can fend for themselves."

Laughing, Wolf slung an arm around Pinky's shoulders, walking towards the dimness at the end of the bunkroom as Spot and Samantha made introductions with the younger newsies. "Knew you'd come through for me, Pinky."

"Yeah, yeah..." Pinky looked down, scuffing the floor with the tip of his cane. "Hey, Wolf?"

"Huh?"

"Ya mind not tellin' th' kid how I really got my nickname?"

"Sure, Pinky. Why?"

"No reason...he just, uh...kinda reminds me of someone. Someone I used ta know."

*~*~*

TBC...