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When Connor turned eight, Cynthia had spared no expense in throwing him a Pokémon-themed birthday party. 


His entire class had attended; twenty-six kids running around in Pikachu ears and red baseball caps, hyped up on sugar and shrieking at nothing, as kids do. They’d played Hide and Seek all through Connor’s two-storey house, and Pin The Flame on Charmander, and Cynthia had paid some fancy bakery to make Connor a cake that looked like Geodude, because he was Connor’s favorite. 


It was funfetti on the inside; also Connor’s favorite. 


Connor vaguely remembered telling Cynthia, as she tucked him into bed that night, that it was ‘the best day ever’.  


That she was ‘the best mom ever’.


And he’d meant it, too. 

When Connor turned eleven, he’d decided on a slumber party. Pizza and video games. Lots of candy, and sleeping bags on the living room floor. No organized entertainment, no adults fussing around. Like real teenagers do, because Connor was almost a teenager, which meant that he was Very Grown Up And Cool, and as such he needed a Very Grown Up And Cool Party. 


He’d invited a hand-picked selection of friends; just seven or eight boys from his class. Adam had snuck a copy of Grand Theft Auto in his backpack, even though it belonged to his big brother and none of them were allowed to play it. They did anyway, after Connor was absolutely positive his parents had fallen asleep, and it was all Very Grown Up And Cool.

When Connor turned fourteen, he didn’t feel Very Grown Up And Cool.

When Connor turned fourteen, he didn’t feel very much of anything. 

Cynthia asked him if he wanted to have a party. To invite some friends around. 

Connor didn’t have any of those anymore.

He’d told her no. No party. 

He’d rather not have to deal with the humiliation of nobody showing up.

He knew nobody would. Because Connor wasn’t the same Connor with the Geodude birthday cake and the freckles on his nose. Because now Connor was harsh and abrasive, and kids were scared of him. And because of that, the whole printer situation that had happened years ago started circulating again, growing more and more ludicrous with each repeat like a demented game of Chinese Whispers. Connor threw the printer at Mrs G on purpose; Connor threw the printer and it hit Mrs G in the head and gave her a concussion; Connor killed Mrs G, maybe. A story once long forgotten, now hanging over Connor like some sort of supernatural mist; shifting and distorted. 


And then there were the parents; the parents that didn’t want their darling little ones hanging around with Connor Murphy , who was troubled and violent and a bad influence.


So no. No party.


Cynthia had decided perhaps a family party was best. She’d made lasagna; Connor’s favorite, back before it was gluten-free, meat-free, flavor-free, whatever. There was cake. It had been nice.


For about fifteen minutes.


And then Larry had said something, some jab about the fact that Connor hadn’t said very much, that Cynthia had gone to all this trouble and Connor wouldn’t even put in the effort to talk to his family at the dinner table, and then Connor had jabbed back because Larry complained when Connor was too quiet and he complained when Connor was too loud and maybe what Larry really wanted was for Connor not to exist at all which could be easily arranged, just say the word, dad. And Larry had called Connor over-dramatic and Connor had called Larry a prick and Cynthia had cried and begged them for just ‘one nice family dinner, for once’  and Zoe had run off and Larry was still going and going and going and Connor had gotten angry, then, really angry, the type of angry that blinded him to everything except the feeling of knives; tiny knives stabbing all over, under his skin, into his nerve endings and his blood vessels and behind his eyes, and then there was a glass in his hand and Connor was throwing it. 


The sound of shattering glass didn’t break through Connor’s vicious fury. But Cynthia’s scream did.



The glass has missed his father’s head by inches.



Connor had run upstairs. Locked himself in his room. 



Screamed until he tasted blood.



Added a few more little circles to the path of lighter burns trailing up the inside of his left wrist.



Cried. Cried a lot.



Happy birthday, Connor.


When Connor turned fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, his birthday went by all but unacknowledged. 


That was good, Connor had thought at the time.


Create less memories, cause less pain.


When he’s gone. 


Cynthia always remembered. Peppering him with a sugary little ‘Happy birthday, sweetheart’ in the morning before school, leaving a small stack of twenties on his nightstand, along with a generic-looking birthday card, always supposedly from the whole family, but always written in Cynthia’s distinctive cursive. 


Connor watched the popular, pretty people at school as they all turned a year older. 


The girls whose friends brought in bouquets of flowers and Sephora gift bags and oversized “birthday girl” pins, the birthday girl in question parading around all day like a princess. The boys who snickered about the raging parties they planned on throwing. The kind of parties Connor was never invited to.


Stupid, Connor had told himself. Birthdays are stupid. It’s embarrassing ; kind of gross and materialistic and self-centered and braggy, to actively encourage other people to just...celebrate you like that. To celebrate your existence.



And besides, there wasn’t really anything about Connor worth celebrating.



And as Connor turned fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, it seemed pretty clear that everyone around him agreed. 


On his seventeenth birthday, Larry had left him a token offering of a king-size Almond Joy.


Connor’s allergic to tree nuts.


Connor wasn’t sure which possibility was worse; that Larry had no idea about his own son’s medical information, or that Larry was actively trying to kill him.


He’d considered eating it anyway. 


But anaphylaxis sounded like a nasty way to go.


Wait , he’d told himself. Wait until you have a real plan. 



And he’d ended up having one, is the thing. 


The first day of senior year, he’d had one. A plan.



Skip school. Wait until everyone left for the day.


Not in the house.


Not somewhere where his sister could find him.


A park, maybe. Somewhere he could see the sun. Just take all the pills stashed in his backpack and...and that would be it. He’d been certain, so sure that he wasn’t going to fuck it up. Not again. 



But it hadn’t gone that way. 



It hadn’t gone that way at all, because people just kept on interfering every step of the way; his mom by insisting he go to school, Evan for the whole incident in the computer lab, then Evan again by practically following him home, determined to explain and apologize for the whole letter thing, then Evan a third time by becoming his friend, for caring about him, and then, in the months to come, it was Zoe for caring, then Alana for caring, and Jared fucking Kleinman for caring, all these people just caring.


Which Connor still doesn’t really understand.


He doesn’t understand why . Why any of them care about him.



Why Evan loves him. 



Connor’s afraid to ask. He’s afraid to ask any of them, all too aware that by drawing attention to how terrible he is, it’ll all be snatched away.



And then Connor would go back to having nobody, nothing. 



Except a plan. He doesn’t want a plan anymore. 



He wants this. Whatever this is. He wants to keep it, even though he knows he doesn’t deserve it.


And he wants…


He wants coffee. Right now he just really really wants a fucking coffee.



It’s freezing cold in Connor’s bedroom, and bright, too bright for eight in the morning. Connor fights the urge to squeeze his eyes shut against the icy glare of December sunlight, to wriggle under the covers and go back to sleep. 


He could skip school. It wouldn’t be anything new. 


But Evan would worry. He always does, when Connor pulls a no-show without any explanation. 


Which makes sense, all things considered.


Connor reaches blindly for his phone on his nightstand, fumbling around to tug it free from its charger. 


Better to text. So Evan doesn’t freak out.


The light from the screen is even more piercing than the sunlight seeping in through Connor’s curtains. He attempts to unlock his phone, fucks up the code because his eyeballs aren’t working properly yet, then tries again.


And he’s blinking, squinting, trying to clear his head just enough so he can send Evan a somewhat intelligible message, but not so much that he’s not able to instantly fall back to sleep the second he puts his phone down. And then he notices.



Connor’s got notifications.


Like. Plural.


At the asscrack of dawn on a Wednesday.



The first one is from Alana. Sent at six-fifteen in the morning, which is absolutely not a real time of day and Connor would be happy to argue that in a court of law. 



Alana: Happy eighteenth birthday, Connor! Hope this doesn’t wake you, but I was up running some errands before school and thought now’s as good a time as any to wish you a wonderful birthday, and many more to come. See you at school later!



And. And that’s…


Connor’s never gotten a birthday text before.


He honestly didn’t think anyone at school even knew his birthday. 


And he certainly hadn’t expected anyone to remember it. 



But it is. It's the seventh of December. 



Connor is eighteen years old.



And Alana had remembered.



Something in Connor’s chest warms, just a little. Just enough to take the edge off the cold light still pricking at the corners of his eyes.



The next one is from Jared. 


Who never messages Connor. 


In fact, the only other message he’s got from Jared is from a full month ago, wanting to know if Evan even needed to kneel down to suck Connor off, or if they were both “already at optimal heights for that ;P”. 


To which Connor had never responded. Obviously.



The Disappointment: yo its ur fuckim birthday, congrats on being legal now LMAOOOO


The Disappointment: or maybe i shd be congratulatin evan (≖◡≖)



Connor rolls his eyes, even though nobody is around to see it.


This is...pretty typical for The Disappointment, to be fair.


Connor goes to tap out of the message. But.


There’s one more.



The Disappointment: nah for real tho. glad ur here man 



Connor stares at his phone in complete bafflement. almost seems genuine. 



Like. An actual, genuine message. From Jared .



And yeah, Connor knows Jared gives a shit about him; he’s told him as much. Under sufferance, anyway.


But never like...of his own accord. Never like this.



The last message is from Evan.


Connor ought to expect it, because it’s normal to get a text from your boyfriend on your birthday, right? That’s, like. A thing people do. A normal thing.


Connor’s brain still trips up on the word boyfriend.

Boyfriend. Connor has a birthday text from his boyfriend. 



Ev: HAPPY BIRTHDAY! i tried to stay up till midnight so i could be the first to wish u a happy birthday but my meds have been messing with my sleep schedule and i dozed off and now im mad about it. if jared texted u first im gonna lick him in the balls





Connor nearly chokes on his own spit as he laughs out loud, the sound jarring and strange in the silence of his bedroom.



Ev: cool so its 7:35 and ive already hit my humiliation quota for the day



Connor laughs again, his face warm with humor and affection, washing the last few specks of irritable sleepiness away.



Ev: anyway. just wanted to say i love u. can’t wait to see u today so i can wish u a happy birthday in person x


Ev: like. I really really love u.


Ev: so much


Ev: ok im done now sry i’ll let u sleep bye x



And Connor knows right then and there that he will not be skipping school today. 



It’s probably barely even 20 degrees outside, but Connor feels warm now, warm all over; his hands and his cheeks and arms and something that’s fluttering hotly in his chest. Warm; and awed, too. Completely lost for words.


There’s the usual card on his nightstand from his mom. A small stack of twenties, as always. 


But it feels so so different to how it normally does.



Dumbstruck, Connor slowly peels himself out of bed.



He goes through the motions of getting ready; teeth brushed, hair tied up, pills taken. He still feels so warm he debates not bothering with a sweater, but thinks better of it at the last minute. He replies to all the messages, almost in a daze as he pads downstairs, first thanks alana :) then bit fuckin gay tbh , and finally love u so fucking much u don’t even know ajkddhgaskhdfkhgh. And then he’s digging around in the kitchen for his favorite mug because he still hasn’t had his goddamn coffee, and--


“Absolutely not.”


Connor startles violently at the sound of Zoe’s voice.


She’s fully dressed in the most obnoxious shade of sunshine yellow, her hair in two long braids sticking out on either side of a beanie with a big pom-pom on top.


“You look like a pineapple,” he informs her.


Connor swears he can feel Zoe’s eyes narrow, like a vise clenching around him. She tuts loudly, disapprovingly, before snatching the Favorite Mug out of Connor’s hands, pointedly ignoring his squawk of protest and pushing her way to stand between him and the coffee pot. Her guitar case whacks into Connor’s leg in the process. It hurts.


“Absolutely not ,” Zoe repeats, with far more vehemence. “No. No crappy coffee. It’s your birthday and we’re going to Starbucks. I’m buying.”


Connor stares at Zoe stupidly as he waits for the catch. 


The twist. 


Waits for her to take it back.


She doesn’t.


“You...wanna buy me Starbucks?”


Zoe rolls her eyes like Connor is being Extremely Stupid, but there’s a secret, second expression hiding beneath the exasperation. It’s warm and doting and absolutely nothing like the way Zoe used to look at him.


“Yep. And it’s a birthday Starbucks, so. One with whip. And all the syrups. Every single syrup.”


Connor’s mouth twitches as he fights back a smile.


“Gross,” he says.


“Necessary,” says Zoe, “It’s your birthday and that’s just the law. Take it up with the birthday police if you wanna argue about it.”


And with that Zoe’s grabbing him by the sleeve and manhandling him towards the front door, not even stopping as he scrambles to grab his messenger bag and yank on his shoes. He goes “fuckin’ wait a second--” a few times as he’s barrelled out of the house, but the baffled laughter kills all the irritation in his voice, and by the time he’s reached Zoe’s car he’s outright giggling, with his sister still latched onto his sleeve.


And then he spots the back seat, and starts laughing even harder.


“Zoe, oh my god what the fuck have you done?--”


The back seat of Zoe’s car is a rainbow of motherfucking birthday balloons. 


Packed completely full, with colorful latex pressed flush against every window. There’s got to be at least forty balloons back there. Connor can’t even see the seats.


Zoe looks extremely proud of herself.


“Surprise!” she chirps. She opens the front passenger door for Connor and he gets in, staring at the sea of balloons in the rearview mirror as she flounces around to the driver’s side. 


“How can you possibly see? Like, how are you planning on reversing out of the--”


Out of literally fucking nowhere, two hands dart out of the wall of balloons and clamp down hard on Connor’s shoulders.


A terrified yelp is ripped from Connor’s throat, and his heart slams against his ribcage in alarm.  He whirls around to face what he assumes is some sort of balloon-modeller-turned-serial-killer, only to see a sliver of a mischievous face peeking back at him, half-drowning in balloons.


All the air in Connor’s lungs rushes out in one big burst.


“Jesus Christ , you scared the fucking shit out of me!”


Evan gives him this big, toothy grin, and Connor thinks it might be the cutest thing he’s ever fucking seen in his life. 


“I’d say that wasn’t the intention but. It was,” says Evan cheekily. He tries to escape from his hiding spot, batting balloons away until Connor can see him properly; see the freckles along his nose and the flush of his cheeks and the brightness of his eyes.


Connor fucking adores this scheming shithead.


“You’re such a dick,” Connor grumbles. Then adds, “You both suck ,” because Zoe’s obviously played a part in this, too.


Zoe seems entirely unphased by this. “Sorry," she says, even though Connor knows she isn't. "Evan said he wanted to surprise you for your birthday. It took some brainstorming, and this was the best we could come up with.”


"Thanks," says Connor. "I hate it."


He doesn't. Not one little bit. 


It takes them a moment to figure out what to actually do with the balloons so Zoe can safely get them all to school. Apparently Evan and Zoe had not thought this far ahead when concocting their masterplan to scare the everloving shit out of Connor. On his birthday. Connor suggests just opening the doors and pushing them all out onto the road, which Evan is passionately against because balloons aren't biodegradable, and Zoe suggests popping them but Evan doesn't like that either because a balloon pop can be as many decibels as a shotgun blast, which doesn't sound quite right to Connor but he nods along anyway because he's eighteen and in love and his boyfriend and his sister went out of their way to surprise him and he's honestly feeling kind of overwhelmed right now. 


They end up transferring the majority of the balloons into the trunk of Zoe's car. Zoe gives Evan a pointed look and goes "They'll be perfect for later," and Evan gives a single, terse nod, like a Very Serious Plan has just been made, and Connor doesn't know what the fuck that's all about but he doesn't much care because as soon as Zoe is on the road he's unbuckling his seatbelt and crawling over the center console and into the backseat, ignoring Zoe's bleating that he's going to make her crash.


He holds Evan's hand as soon as he's back there, and promptly buries his face in Evan's collarbone. Evan kisses the top of his head, then whispers a happy birthday into his hair, and Connor needs Evan's mouth on his like, right now.


And like. It's his birthday. Connor's pretty sure it's okay to just...take what you want on your birthday. 


Within reason, of course.


“Hey, no ," Zoe says, with an exaggerated wrinkle of her nose. She's starting to sound like Cynthia. "None of that in my goddamn car, please and thank you.”


Connor begrudgingly peels his mouth away from Evan's. His lips are just about as red and hot as his face, and Connor thinks he is very nice to look at. 


“I mean, we’re both eighteen now, Zo," Connor drawls. "Who knows what we could get up to back here--”


“Connor I swear to god if anyone pops a boner in my car your birthday is cancelled . Like. Forever . Every single birthday is cancelled for the rest of your miserable existence. And I know it will be miserable because I will make it that way ."


Connor is keen to see how far Zoe can be pushed, but Evan seems a little afraid of her impending wrath, and there are no boners popped in Zoe's car. 


But Evan holds his hand the entire way, gently rubbing his thumb over Connor's knuckles, pressing down lightly between each one, and looking at Connor like he's responsible for everything good that’s ever happened to him.


And that kind of gives Connor's heart a boner. Like, that's how it feels, anyway.


They do end up getting coffee; Venti caramel macchiatos with double whip and caramel drizzle and sea salt and extra syrup in Connor's, and by the time they get to school his heart is pounding from all the sugar. 


Also the company.


And just. The concept. The concept of a birthday coffee date with his sister and his boyfriend.


"So, uh," he says abruptly, and it comes out rough and awkward. "Thanks. For this. Nobody's ever…yeah."


He can't continue with the admission; can't say anything more about how it's felt like everyone had given up on him. Can't properly articulate how much this means to him, because he's already feeling emotional and weird and he's not about to start bawling his eyes out in the school parking lot.


He'd better not, anyway.


Evan looks at him with gentle understanding, and Zoe looks at him with a different kind of understanding, and it's like they both see straight through him; straight through the gruff half-sentence to the vulnerability right at his core.


Normally he’d hate that.


But he doesn't mind so much today.


Evan pulls him into a tight hug and doesn't let go for a long time. And when he does he kisses him, gentle, with the butterfly-brush of eyelashes against his cheek.


And Zoe punches him in the arm. Playfully; like when they were kids. 


It's nice.


They all part ways after that. Evan doesn't have any classes with Connor on a Wednesday, and Zoe, of course, doesn't have any with Connor at all. But they share a "see you at lunch", which is accompanied by yet another conspiratorial look shared between Evan and Zoe.


And it's funny. 


Usually something like that; a cryptic comment or plotting look would be enough to send Connor's paranoia haywire. To send his brain off in a frantic spiral, they're laughing at you, they're making an idiot out of you, they hate you like everyone else does.


But today it's almost like his brain has forgotten how to be mentally ill.


Like it's just...taken a personal day. Sorry Connor, your BPD can't come to the phone right now, you'll have to call back later.


The morning passes, and despite the fact that Connor is more or less alone in all of his classes he feels oddly and suspiciously light; like a paper plane, lovingly and painstakingly folded and sent adrift on a breeze. He finds himself smiling at nothing in particular; tiny, secretive smiles that feel alien and strange on his face, like he’s wearing somebody else’s skin.


But it’s fine. It’s good , even.


Connor feels good


And not just good in general. Like, good to be a year older. Good to have made it all the way up to this point; to this day, to eighteen.


There’s the faint aftertaste of salted caramel in the back of his mouth, and a warm silence blanketing his usually-chaotic brain, and Connor has been alive for eighteen years and he wants to be alive for more of them.


More years.


Which is not a familiar feeling.


But it’s good. Connor’s decided it’s good.



He heads straight to Evan’s locker when the lunch bell rings; their usual routine, put in place so they can walk to the cafeteria together, because Evan feels uncomfortable waiting alone at an empty table. He leans back against Evan’s locker, adopting an indifferent look as classroom doors open and the hall floods with people. He closes his eyes in feigned nonchalance as he waits, taking a deep breath and holding onto it, like a protective shield against the growing drone of voices.


He’d never breathe a word about it to Evan, because he knows he’d feel awful and guilty, but waiting alone in a big crowd isn’t exactly Connor’s favorite thing in the world either.


The hallway is getting noisier. Fuller. Tight and hot and shrill.


Connor is trapped.


He breathes deeply, trying to shake off the sudden panic rising in him, trying to slow the pumping of his blood, trying to focus on Good Things (Evan and Zoe and balloons and coffee), trying to take long, slow breaths without making it look like he’s taking long slow breaths, trying to--


“Hey, it’s Gayteen himself! Or like--hey, you’re an adult now, should I be calling you Mr Murphy?”


The anxiety fizzing away under Connor’s skin immediately begins to calm, flattening slowly like a can of soda. He doesn’t open his eyes though, not yet; just keeps breathing deeply, clenching and unclenching his fists until he’s sure he’s good.


Better to know for sure than to risk a fucking breakdown.


“I’d prefer ‘Sir’, actually,” Connor mutters, and Jared laughs raucously from behind his closed eyes.


“Ew, thanks but no thanks. Valuable information for Evan, though; I’ll pass the memo on.”


Connor wants to laugh at this, or throw some snarky innuendo right back, but it’s like he used up all his brain power on the first comment and he’s got nothing left to give. He remains silent, breathing. Doing his best to keep level and steady.



“Hey, are you okay?”



It sounds as though Jared’s only just become aware of Connor’s discomfort, his closed eyes and his locked jaw. The question sounds genuinely concerned; significantly lower than his nasal jeering, like he’s trying not to draw too much attention.


Connor blinks open his eyes to find Jared frowning at him. He looks a little lost; like he’s not quite sure what, if anything, he’s meant to do. 


This, like. Isn’t their usual dynamic, after all. 



“Yeah,” Connor mumbles weakly. “Yeah, sorry, just. Too many people. Evan doesn’t normally take so long to get here.”


Connor waits for Jared to make some sort of comment or joke about agoraphobia or whatever, but instead he gives a single nod and says, at an actual normal speaking volume, “Well then let’s get the fuck out of here then,” shoving at Connor’s shoulder and prodding him down the hall.


Connor goes, his shame overshadowed by gratitude, and by the time they’ve reached the entrance and burst out in the winter-white sun, Jared is loud and laughing like nothing ever happened. It’s like he’s picked up that this is an Actual Serious Thing, something that is off-limits for Jared’s usual mockery, and he’s just...accepted it without question. Which never used to be Jared’s style of comedy; which was once solely at the expense of others. And like, it still kind of is , really, because Jared’s still shoving at his arm, laughing and calling Connor “Sir,” and asking if “My Liege” is an appropriate substitute, then settling on “My Liege, Sir Twink-Hobo,” and telling him he’s going to “miss the entire birthday party, My Liege Sir Twink-Hobo.” 


But it’s like. Not the same thing as fucking with Connor about something he knows is a sore point. It’s not the same at all. It’s like... actual banter, and as Connor’s heartbeat slows and his jaw relaxes he finds himself snorting and shoving Jared right back, muttering something about Sir Twink-Hobo needing to find a better court jester.



And then.



“Wait, what do you mean, birthday party? What birthday party?”


Jared rolls his eyes. 


“We’re almost there, Sir Dipshit. Jesus, for what other reason would Evan have sent me to come and collect you today?”



Jared rounds the corner, pushing Connor along, and Connor thinks he’s being manhandled way too much today.



They end up at this little grassy area outside the art block. Students aren’t allowed down there during break times, because it’s not monitored by teachers and the faculty all know it’s where seniors (including Connor) go to get high between lessons. It’s also one of Evan and Connor’s favorite lunch spots, because it’s quiet and secluded and exactly what they need on days when everything feels like it’s going too fast and too loud.


Today Connor almost doesn’t recognize it. 



There’s a picnic blanket spread out across the ground, and the balloons from earlier have been taped haphazardly to the exterior wall of the school, bobbing gently in the still, cool air. There’s a little Bluetooth speaker that’s playing music; quiet enough so as not to get them caught. And there’s parcels; boxes and bags of all different sizes, lumped together at the edges of the blanket.


And people. Connor’s favorite people.



There’s a hushed little cheer from the three of them as Jared shoves Connor towards them; the oxymoron of a whispered shout of joy. Connor doesn’t miss the way Alana glances fearfully over her shoulder at the noise, like she’s afraid of getting found out. But she smiles nonetheless; a wobbly, nervous little smile that’s sort of pasted on.


Evan almost knocks him over in a hug, and Connor wraps his arms around Evan’s shoulders and squeezes, enjoying the immediate transfer of heat; like their souls are swapping secrets beneath their bulky winter jackets. 


Connor gives Alana a look over the top of Evan’s head.


“You like...didn’t have to do this. If it makes you uncomfortable. Rule breaking, or whatever.”


Alana’s eyes widen in reproach.


“Of course I don’t have to be here. But it’s your birthday. And I made cupcakes. From scratch.


Connor reminds himself, not for the first time, to never underestimate Alana Eloise Beck.


“Hope you’re okay with cake for lunch,” Evan says teasingly, still holding Connor tight, and for some reason it’s only then that everything kind of sinks in.



It’s a birthday party. 



Connor’s friends and Connor’s boyfriend have thrown him a secret, against-the-rules birthday party.



What the fucking fuck. 



“Why’d you--” Connor starts, and then clears his throat, which suddenly feels thick and clogged with too many feelings. “Why’d you do this?”


“It was kind of a joint effort,” Zoe says, and Jared sniggers and goes, ‘joint,’ like he’s a fifth grader, which is deliberately ignored by the others. 


“Right,” Alana chirps. “I brought the cake, and Zoe and Evan handled the decor, and Jared brought the speaker. It’s not much, but we were on a budget and a tight schedule. I still think it would’ve turned out better if we’d used a spreadsheet. Just to organize--”


“No, but like--” Connor interjects, because they’ve all missed the point. “Like... why?”


Jared scoffs. 


“Not every day My Liege, Sir Twink-Hobo turns eighteen.”


This is, once again, largely ignored by the group.


Well, by everyone except Evan, who raises a bewildered eyebrow at Connor’s newfound title.


“Connor,” Alana says slowly, like she’s speaking to a child. “Connor it’s your birthday. We care about you.”


“Don’t tell him that,” says Jared. “It’ll go straight to his head. He might start to assume we, like. Care about him.”



Evan hides his face against Connor’s shoulder.



“We love you,” he says simply. Quietly; meant just for Connor to hear.



Connor hears it like it’s been blasted out of a loudspeaker, like it’s been screamed at full volume by a crowd of millions.


Connor hears it.



The secret-party is actually really great. They speak at normal volumes until one of them (Jared - every single damn time, Jared) gets too loud, and then they all shush each other and speak in furtive whispers for a while and peer around corners to make sure nobody’s heard them. Connor doubts a teacher would do anything other than tell them to move along, but the secrecy of it all is almost what makes it so much fun. Alana unearths a deck of cards and they play several rounds of Bullshit, and it turns out Zoe has an unbelievably good poker face and she wins every game. Jared insists he’s got “the perfect playlist” for the occasion, but it’s just a collection of dated dubstep with soundbites from hentai mixed in, and it immediately gets vetoed. 


They eat Alana’s homemade cupcakes. She’s piped them high with buttercream frosting dyed black.


And they’re funfetti on the inside.


Evan holds his hand. Right there in front of everyone, like it’s not even a big deal, because it isn’t. 


And it’s somehow exactly what Connor has always wanted, even though he’s never even said it out loud.  He doesn’t want to be thrown into the spotlight, like the girls and their Sephora bags and birthday pins, and the guys that snigger about their big plans for house parties. He’s never wanted that.


He’s just wanted to feel like he matters. 



Not to everyone. Just to the people he needs.



Alana keeps an eye on the time. She’s set an alarm on her phone, and it goes off ten minutes before the end of lunch.


“Enough time for presents!” she announces, in an enthusiastic trill.



Connor is floored.



“What? No--”  he protests weakly, because…








Alana pays him little mind, and deposits an impeccably wrapped parcel onto Connor’s crossed legs. She sits, watching for his reaction with wide, eager eyes.


For a moment, all Connor can do is just...stare at it. At the metallic paper and the oversized bow taped on top. He tests its weight in his hands.



Alana Beck is his friend, and she has bought him a birthday present.



“Alana,” he says quietly. “Alana, you really didn’t need to--”


“We only have ten minutes,” she reminds him, crisply. “Open your present.”


Connor opens his present. 



He peels back the layers of paper with great care, picking at the tape with the stubs of his nails. Jared plucks the bow from the top and tries to stick it in Connor’s hair, and Evan bats his hands away.


It’s a book. Dark coffee-brown and leather-bound, with hand stitching along the spine. There’s no title; just these intricate little vines embossed into the cover, weaving in and out through each other and blossoming with tiny flowers. It’s somehow both masculine and delicate all at the same time, and Connor finds himself running the pads of his fingers over the buttery leather, over the raised edges of the vines.


When he opens it, he finds it’s full of heavy, good-quality drawing paper, crisp and clean and just begging for the drag of a pencil.


Which Alana has also supplied. A ten-pack of graphite Prismacolors. 


Connor doesn’t know what to say.


“Wow,” he breathes. “Wow,”


Alana is beaming at him, but there’s still that look about her, the one that’s always there. That desperate need for approval, flitting uncertainly around her eyes.


“You like it?”


Yeah , I--are you fucking kidding? Alana this is amazing , fuck. I--thank you. Holy shit, I--”


“Eight minutes!” Jared proclaims. “Kindly hurry the fucketh up, My Liege.”


He punts a soft, squishy parcel in Connor’s direction, one that appears to be wrapped in old homework assignments taped together.



Connor gives the gift a little squeeze.



“Is it a pony?” he asks, and Jared responds by loudly singing what Connor thinks is meant to be the countdown music from Jeopardy.


“Okay, Jesus,” Connor mutters, making quick work of the wrapping, only to find…






A photograph of Jared, more specifically, giving him finger guns and a big, cheesy grin.



Connor bursts into uproarious laughter.



“What the fuck ,” he splutters, shoving the wrappings away and shaking the gift free. “You--you fuckin got your own face printed on a T-shirt? What the fucking fuck--”


“If you don’t wear it every day for the rest of life, I’ll murder you in cold blood,” Jared tells him cheerfully. 



It takes Connor a while to calm his laughter. It doesn’t help that the rest of them are losing it, too, because it turns out none of them knew what was under the paper, so every time Connor thinks he’s done someone else will start giggling and start him right back up again.


“I’ll--” Connor finally manages to wheeze. “I’ll give you one with my face on it for Christmas, okay?”


Zoe, with red cheeks and eyes glossy from cry-laughing, announces that she’s next. She wriggles closer, walking towards Connor on her knees, and hands him a small, wrapped box. 


“You already bought me coffee,” Connor objects, and Zoe rolls her eyes.


“We’ve been through this,” she tells him, stoutly. “It’s your birthday. You’re eighteen. We love you. Open the fucking present.”



Not for the first time that day, Connor shuts his damn mouth and does as he’s told. 



It’s hard, though, because he still doesn’t quite believe all this is happening.



Connor gets the box out of the wrapping paper.



And is mortified to find himself tearing up.









He didn’t expect Zoe to remember.



He didn’t think anyone remembered; his family, or anyone from his third grade class. The memory felt like a fossil; an old relic of the past that only Connor could identify.



Zoe has given him a pack of Pokémon cards. They look old, maybe even vintage.



“They’re, um. From the same year,” Zoe says softly, her voice a little tremulous, but not from laughter this time. “The year you had that party? I never really understood it, and I know you’re like...not really into it anymore, but I found these on eBay and thought...I dunno--”


“They’re great,” Connor croaks. “I’m--they’re really, really great.”


“I don’t think they’re like...that rare or anything,” Zoe says, almost apologetically. “Like, I doubt they’re worth anything, but. Just. For nostalgia, y’know?”


“I love them,” Connor tells her. “They’re--you’re awesome, Zo.”



She is.



Connor’s sister has gifted him with a memory, a happy memory that Connor had almost lost forever, a moment that had almost slipped away. Now preserved; like a footprint left on a soft cement sidewalk, left to harden and kept for good.



Zoe is absolutely awesome.



“There’s one more,” says Evan, quietly. “We, um--we might end up a little late to class, so I totally understand if you guys wanna--um, wanna go--”



Jared waggles his eyebrows.



“Well now we all wanna stay and find out exactly what filthy, kinky shit you got him, dude,” he says, and Evan immediately bursts into a long, burbling soliloquy of ‘oh my god Jared no why would you say that as if I’d ever do something like that and anyway Connor and I have never--not that it’s any of your business--’



It takes a while, but Connor eventually gets his present from Evan. It takes him a moment to retrieve it from a paper grocery bag, juggling it carefully like he’s handling something fragile.


It’s not wrapped like the others, which Evan apologizes for. But it’s not something wrappable, is the thing.



“You got me a plant?” asks Connor, and he feels the smile sweeping over his face, feels his cheeks warming in delight.



Of course Evan got him a plant.



It’s a lush, vibrant-looking thing, with flat, mottled leaves fanning out in all different directions. Simple, but healthy and glossy and alive. 


“It’s called Devil’s Ivy,” Evan says. “Because it’s like...impossible to kill. It’s really hardy. You can even keep it in the dark without any water and it’ll just...keep growing.”


Connor can’t help but laugh.


“You don’t have faith in me?” he asks.



Evan looks surprised.



“N-no, that’s not--that’s not the reason I...I chose it because it...reminds me of you?”



Connor stares. He knows the others are still there, listening in, and that this is not a private moment.


But it feels like one.



“It’’s resilient. It can endure, like...a whole lot of neglect? And somehow it manages to just. Grow. No matter what.”



Connor sucks his bottom lip into his mouth, because he’s sure it’s about to start quivering.



“That’s, um...that’s actually not the main part of the present, though?” Evan pushes on, sounding even more hesitant and nervous, his telltale upwards inflection in full swing.


“Um,” says Evan. “Check the, um. In the planter.”



Connor casts his eyes down the roots of the Devils Ivy, where they sprout dense and green from the soil. 



There’s the barest glint of silver.



A key.



Connor digs it out with shaking fingers.


When Evan speaks, his voice is shaking a little, too.



“I, um. Spoke to my mom? About--about how your situation at home isn’t always great, and that you, um. You spend a whole lot of time at our place anyway? And also that--that it won’t be too long until high school is over, and neither of us really know about--about college plans yet, like whether or not we’ll go straight-away, and that we might still be living at home for a while. And--and she, um. Agreed. To have a key cut for you. So. So this way you can, like...come and go from my house whenever you want. So it’s more like--more like a home to you? If that’s...if that’s something you want…?”



Connor grips the planter of his new Devil’s Ivy tightly. 


His face feels hot and his hands feel cold and for a moment he thinks he’s forgotten how to speak. 



A house key.



So Connor feels safe and secure and loved.



And it’s all suddenly too much, way more than Connor fucking deserves, because even though he’s worked hard to fix himself, to glue together all the broken bits, there are still fucking cracks - constant reminders that he’s hurt people, that he’s a walking fucking storm cloud that’s pretending not to be.



And none of these fucking people care about any of that



Evan has given Connor a house key.



And Connor is going to cry.



“Yeah,” he manages to whisper. “Yeah, that’s--that’s something I want.” 



The Devil’s Ivy is all but forgotten. 



Evan holds him, fingers threading into Connor’s hair; warm and grounding, and Connor breathes deep and tries to calm the fuck down. 



“Hey,” Evan murmurs. “Happy birthday.”



The lunch bells rings at exactly the same time the alarm goes off on Alana’s phone, but they all stay behind; every one of them, until they know for sure that Connor isn’t too overwhelmed to go back to class. Alana packs up all of Connor’s presents and squishes them into his messenger bag, and Zoe takes his plant to stow away in her car, insisting that it’s fine if she’s a few minutes late.



The key, Connor keeps in the pocket of his jacket. 


He keeps his hand in the pocket, too. For the entire rest of the day, running his fingers over the mountain range of ridges like he’s trying to memorize them, flipping it back and forth, enjoying the weight of it, warm and solid in his palm.



The rest of the day passes like any other. Except it doesn’t, because Connor has a sketchbook and a key and a T-shirt With Jared’s Face On It.



He sits through dinner with his family. There’s a dry, bland carrot cake for Connor’s birthday, and Connor thinks he might even smile a couple of times.



He floats to his room. He knows he floats, because he can’t count his steps. There are none to count. 



Flops down onto his unmade bed, feeling somehow emotionally exhausted but also wide awake; like he’s been hit with a sudden rush of adrenaline. Like a little kid, he unpacks the presents from his messenger bag and examines each one carefully, trying to take in every last detail. 



He looks at the key for a very long time. Gets lost in looking at it; trancelike. Gets so lost that when his phone abruptly buzzes, he’s taken by surprise because he’d almost forgotten that he’s like. A human person that exists. 


Ev: hey :)


Ev: how’s it feel to be on the other side of 18?



Connor thinks about this for a moment before he answers. He can’t stop smiling. He calls this the Evan Effect.



Connor: manly 


Ev: pffftshh


Connor: no rly, i have so much adult wisdom now, ask me anything


Ev: lmao ok, what’s the meaning of life?


Connor: ……...ok pass, next?


Ev: ok uhhhh…..are aliens really out there? and if so why haven’t they visited us?


Connor: ……………….pass, what else u got


Ev: ok how about...


Ev: did u have a good day today? 


Ev: :)



Connor chokes out a soft laugh.


Because fuck, how can Evan even ask that?



Connor: fuck yeah


Connor: honestly u have no fucking idea how much that meant. all of that. from all of you. 


Connor: seriously


Connor: i love you all so fucking much


Connor: i love YOU so fucking much



Connor stops there, because even now he’s afraid of saying too much, of coming on too strong and scaring Evan away. He knows he’s intense, that he feels things intensely, and the last thing Connor wants to do is--



Ev: love you too a straight up ridiculous amount. I’m so glad you had a good birthday, you deserve it. You’re wonderful.



Connor swallows hard.


Thinks about a response that gets across how much this incredible fucking human being means to him.



Connor: no u



Nope. Try again, Connor.



Connor: honestly. u all make me feel like i’m part of something, like u want me here? U especially. it’s kind of fuckin unreal. but it feels like i’m. home.


Connor:  idk if that’s lame or whatev


Connor waits with baited breath as Evan types.


Ev: not lame


Ev: not even a little bit


Ev: but uhhhhh you’re wrong though?


Connor frowns. 


Evan types.


Ev: You say you’re home, but I just looked around my whole house and I can’t see you anywhere?


Ev: ;)


Connor’s heart has taken too much today, and it sure as shit can’t take this.


It’s suddenly pounding.


Connor lets out a soft, quivery breath. Checks the time.


Then launches himself out of bed, frantically pulling on his shoes with one hand.


Ev: (ok but like no pressure or anything u absolutely don’t haveto come over if u don’t want i’m just home alone tonigth and i just liek alredy miss u so..,)

Connor:  ETA 10:15pm


The key feels like it’s burning an imprint into Connor’s palm.


Ev: let yourself in