The group home was the first place Gee and Mikey were sent when the cancer finally won the war their mom had been waging. Dad had died three years earlier in mugging gone wrong, and they'd been scraping by until mom got sick. By the time the social worker took charge, they hadn't eaten much of anything in weeks, not since mom had stopped being able to get out of bed.
Both mom and dad had been only children, and the grandparents on each side were long dead, so there was no next of kin. The social worker told them the group home was just until they could find them a nice foster family.
And it was. The social worker found them two nice families, actually, but after the third time Gee ran away to get back to Mikey, both families decided it wasn't going to work out. CYS tried again seven months later, perhaps on the theory that having been in the group home that long, Mikey and Gee might take what they could get. That arrangement lasted past the third time Gee ran away, but not past the first time Mikey did.
They were sent to a different group home this time. They were told it was because they're too old for the other one, but Gee was pretty sure it was punishment for not being good and staying where they were told. That was fine: no amount of being picked on and bullied by older kids was going to convince him he didn't need Mikey. That was just stupid.
Neal arrived two days after Gee'd gotten the shit beat out of him for refusing to give one of the older kids Mikey's food—he'd already given his over—and still missed the meal and been punished for "inciting violence." What was remarkable about Neal's arrival, with new kids coming in and going out all the time, was that Neal actually looked worse than Gee.
Most of his face was too swollen to know what he looked like, and his left arm was in a sling. Gee mostly just had a shiner and a number of bruises hidden beneath his shirt. The other thing of note was that, instead of immediately posturing for position, Neal did an excellent job of making himself unnoticeable and didn't bother anyone, regardless of size or ability to defend themselves.
Gee filed Neal away as someone he didn't have to worry about and went on with his life. It was important not to let Mikey out of his sight for too long. Gee wasn't much of a protector, but he was older than Mikey and not as stick-skinny. Plus, sometimes they got lucky, and Gee just being willing to stand up to the other kids was enough to get them to back off on a few, scattered occasions.
Summer was the worst at the group homes. Fall, winter and spring meant school, and even if the kids at school were jerks about Gee and Mikey's unfashionable clothing, there were nice kids, too, other boys and girls who liked comic books and music. If nothing else, it was easier to hide at school, and it filled the days with something. Now and then there were even good teachers who made subjects fun and maybe said something positive about Gee.
Summer, though, was day in and day out of being expected to entertain himself and Mikey while all the mean kids monopolized the games and anything else of use, mostly just to be assholes. Gee got so fed up with it that by late June, he attempted to steal the Candyland board. Candyland was a stupid game, but it was the closest to the edge of the bullies' "territory" and it was something. Even Gee couldn't draw or tell stories forever.
The kids weren't supposed to go outside without supervision, but there was a somewhat shady alcove near where the garden hose was, and Mikey and Gee sneaked into it, since they were unlikely to be bothered there. It was hot outdoors, hot enough that 'recess' had been shorter than usual and they'd each been given a glass of Gatorade when they'd gotten inside. Gee would take the heat over trying to fend off bigger kids all day.
They played more rounds of the game than either of them really cared to, then Gee went back to making up stories about the game characters as a way to pass time. His throat was getting really dry and he had a headache. When he wasn't sure exactly how long they'd been out there, he made them go back inside. If they missed dinner, they wouldn't get any and they'd be given extra chores.
At dinner, Gee wasn't very hungry. He really just wanted water, but the table pitcher was at the other end and he was too tired to try getting it passed down to him. Instead he drank from the tap in the bathroom. The water wasn't cold enough. For some reason, they had turned the air conditioning off in the building. It was too hot and Gee's headache was only getting worse.
Mikey was looking worried, but Gee just made Mikey drink water, too, and said, "I'm pretty tired, Mikes. Wanna go back to the bunk? I'll let you have Spiderman."
They'd both read the comic at least a billion times, but they didn't get them very often, so the ones they did get they kept safe to read over and over. Mikey nodded and followed Gee back to the dormitory.
Gee got into his boxers and t-shirt, wishing desperately they'd turn the air back on. He lay atop his covers and sheets, trying to let the exhaustion win over the heat of the building. Eventually, it must have, because when he awoke it was dark. At first he wasn't sure what had woken him; then his stomach tried crawling out of his body.
At least he'd let Mikey have the top bunk. Mikey was safer up there, less within reach. The retching woke one of the other boys, who said, "Are you kidding me? Jesus, Way, now it's going to stink all night in here."
Gee barely heard. Mikey was coming down and Gee wanted him to stay up, there was someone else approaching. He braced to get hit or kicked, now that he definitely couldn't fight back, but after the first kick, the other kid was pulled off of him. Gee still couldn't think straight, was terrified Mikey had picked a fight.
An unfamiliar voice said, "Leave him be. Seriously, this is how you make yourself feel better about the fact that nobody wants to be your parent for a reason?"
Gee blinked at that. That was definitely a way to start a fight. But the other kid, the attacker, just spluttered and then his defender was saying, "Oh, please, do hit me. But next time you need M&Ms, find another supplier."
For a moment, in the silence that followed, Gee couldn't remember where he was. Then he heard the kid say, "Mikey, right?"
Gee could feel where Mikey was standing, almost close enough to trip over Gee. Mikey murmured something, and Gee heard the voice say, "He's sick. He needs medicine."
Mikey asked, "Why do you care?"
Quietly, the voice sighed and said, "Because I evidently like doing things the hard way."
Gee didn't remember much after that, except the part where he was 100% certain that all the other kids were zombies, but it would turn out later that had just been the delirium. He vaguely remembered a hand on his arm that wasn't Mikey's and someone swearing.
He woke up in the hospital, with ice packs under his arms and on his groin and an IV going out of his hand. There wasn't anyone else in the room and he didn't know where Mikey was. He didn't even realize his heart rate was skyrocketing until a nurse and one of the overnight people from the house came rushing in to the room.
He said, "Mikey, Mikey," and the house employee said, "Your brother's fine. He said to tell you he'd stay close to Neal."
Neal? Gee had no idea what that really meant, but he was too tired to pursue it.
The hospital released him later the next day, with strict instructions to drink as much fluid as he could and to stay out of the sun. He fell asleep on the car ride back and awoke to Mikey trying to pull him out of the car. "C'mon, Gee, you gotta get up."
Mikey sounded kind of panicked, but not non-responsive, the way he could sometimes get when things freaked him out too much. Gee blinked at Neal, who, sure enough, was standing behind Mikey. When they made eye contact, Neal smiled at him, and came to help Mikey get him on his feet. The two of them helped Gee to his bed, where he pretty much immediately fell asleep again.
Mikey woke him up constantly to get him to take sips of water, and Neal was there every time. None of the other kids bothered him.
It didn't take Gee long to figure out that Neal had somehow designated himself their protector. Gee wanted to bristle, but things had gotten better since Neal stepped in between them and everyone else, and he wasn't going to fuck things up for Mikey just because he was used to having to fight everyone and everything else.
He did—in a moment where Mikey was off doing chores in a different part of the house—ask, "What's in this for you?"
Neal, who was no longer black and blue, had turned out to be nearly unbearably pretty. If Gee let himself think about it, he knew what kind of things happened to kids like Neal in the system, but he kept his mind firmly elsewhere except to know that those kids were dangerous, broken in sharp ways.
Neal smiled his perfect smile and asked, "A guy can't just want some friends?"
Gee appreciated the help Neal had given them, and it wasn't in his nature to be mean, but he wasn't stupid, either. "Maybe out there."
"This," Neal said, "this is exactly why we can't have nice things."
"I'm pretty sure that's because our parents are dead or didn't want us in the first place," Gee responded, and for the first time, got a real reaction out of Neal, who flinched ever so slightly. Gee sighed, he hadn't meant to say that, not really. "Sorry, I—"
"No, it's, I mean, I'd probably do the same if I were you. If I had someone to watch out for." The last was said with such bitten off wistfulness that Gee blinked.
"You do want a friend."
"Guilty as charged. And before you say anything, I know it's stupid. I've been in the system since my dad disappeared and my mom became a junkie when I was five; I know my way around."
In that case, well, "Kinda brave, though."
It was Neal's turn to blink. Gee made a face. "I just don't get it. Why us? Why now?"
Neal looked right at Gee, but at the last minute turned just a shade so he wouldn't have to directly face him as he said, "You're interesting. You draw cool stuff on napkins and you take care of Mikey. I've never met someone like you in a home before."
Gee should be careful, he should. Quietly, he asked, "You like my doodles?"
Neal looked back at him, smile having returned, but it was different this time, deeper. "Yeah, I do."
"I could show you how I do some of it." Some of it was purely instinctual, but Gee would teach where he could. He might or might not have owed the fact that he was still alive to Neal, and he definitely owed him for keeping Mikey out of harm's way while Gee was in the hospital.
Gee didn't miss the instinctive way Neal wrapped one arm over his chest, nor the way he made himself drop it. "That'd be pretty great."
Gee smiled, then. "Let's find some scrap paper."
Years later, when Peter and Elizabeth helped Gee, Mikey and Neal move into a small apartment in between their respective colleges, Gee found a shoebox and opened it, thinking it was his art pencils. Instead, he discovered a collection of his art over nearly a decade on just about every napkin or newspaper or whatever he'd been able to snag.
At the bottom was one he didn't remember, but he could tell by the look of it that it was from his time in the home, possibly even before he and Neal had actually become friends. He tugged Neal out of the room, saying they'd go get coffee for everyone. As they walked to the nearby coffee shop, Gee asked, "Why'd you do it? Back at the home? Why us, really?"
Neal looked over at Gee. "You okay?"
Gee nodded. "But I've never asked again, because…I don't know. Sometimes because I didn't want to know, and sometimes because I didn't think about it, but we're not kids anymore, not much, and we trust each other and I'd like to know."
Neal glanced away, rubbing at his neck, then shrugged. "Back then, I didn't really remember what not being alone felt like. And it was easy, in a way, in the homes, because nobody else seemed to either. Everyone was there for themselves and there might have been allegiances of need or convenience, but not—not like you and Mikey. The two of you were different, and at first I wanted to stay as far away as I could."
Neal smiled self-deprecatingly, "But I also wanted in more than I think I'd ever wanted anything, and then you got sick and I saw my chance and I took it. If there was one thing I was good at, it was taking chances."
Gee said, "Yeah," because if there was one thing Neal was, it was brave. He slipped his hand into Neal's free hand and squeezed. "Thanks."
Neal shook his head and squeezed back.