Connor McKinley was eleven years old when he realised he was different.
This realisation came at his best friend's birthday party. Steve Blade and Connor were close, almost inseparable. Wherever Steve went, Connor could always be found close behind, trailing him like a small, redheaded shadow.
Steve's party was the kind typically thrown for young boys. A cake was baked, party games were played and gifts were exchanged.
They were in the middle of a game of Blind Man's Bluff when Connor's first realisation came about. It was his turn to wear the blindfold. He tried and failed to catch his classmates, arms outstretched, hands groping through empty air as he stumbled forwards. Someone whisked themselves away from his grasp, their shirt slipping through his fingers.
"Can I take this off now? Please?" He asked, his hands moving towards his blindfold.
"No! Not until you catch us!" A small voice piped as someone slapped his hand away.
"Please?" He was on the verge of tears now.
And then, his searching hands found a face. He stopped in disbelief, a surprised gasp escaping from his lips. Blindly, he grasped at the figure in front of him, desperate to be able to see again.
"You caught me." A gentle voice said as Connor's blindfold was slipped off, revealing his faceless saviour.
"You win." Steve smiled before slipping the blindfold over his own eyes. "Look out everyone! Here I come!" He ran off, arms outstretched.
The rest of the party passed without incident, Steve kept a close eye on Connor, insisting that they blow out the candles on his birthday cake together, sharing the wish.
That was when it hit him. The Feeling.
It was a small feeling at first, and, for a long time, it wasn't a bad feeling. It felt like a small bubble of happiness that welled in his chest whenever Steve was around.
Connor never really thought much about that bubble, and never really thought that there could ever be anything wrong with it. It wasn't something he ever questioned, he loved Steve. Steve who would share his lunch when Connor forgot his. Steve who would talk to Connor when nobody else would. Steve who soon became Connor's only friend.
Connor didn't understand his own sudden dip in popularity. He'd never been popular, but by the time he was halfway through fifth grade almost nobody would even look him in the eye. Steve told him not to worry about it, they were jerks anyway, he didn't need them.
But Connor did worry about it. He worried and worried until even his parents saw that there was something wrong.
One night over dinner his mother, Jane McKinley, confronted him.
"Connor, honey." She said, "You've been so quiet recently. Is there something wrong?"
"I'm fine, thank you, Mom." Connor replied, shifting his attention to the empty plate in front of him.
"Sweetie." She reached across the table to touch his hand, stopping when he recoiled from her touch. "Are you having trouble at school?"
Connor didn't know quite what to say, so instead he gave a small shrug.
"Is someone being mean to you? Connor?"
"They're not being mean to me." He muttered.
"What are they doing, then?" She asked soothingly.
"They're not doing anything, they just don't like me."
"And why's that?" Her tone was brisk, defensive.
"I- I don't know." Connor looked down at his hands, biting back tears.
"Oh come here, honey." Jane said, rising to come and crouch next to her son. "It's alright, I'll talk to the teacher and we'll sort this out together, okay?"
Connor nodded, drying his eyes and looking away from his mother's searching expression.
"At least Steve's my friend." He said morosely.
"Well... maybe you should try and make more friends, Connor." She said, handing him a tissue, "You can't just rely on one person."
"Yes I can!" He squeezed the tissue in his fist, "I don't really need any other friends if I have Steve, anyway."
Jane sighed, averting her eyes from her son. "Well, maybe it wouldn't hurt to have backups."
"Why would I need a backup?" He questioned.
"Nevermind, nevermind." She stood up and started clearing plates away. "I'll talk to some parents, I'll talk to the teachers, things'll turn out fine."
And so Connor, Jane and Connor's dad, Doug, all went to meet with Connor's teacher, Ms Cooper. Ms Cooper was one of Connor's favourite teachers. She was short, middle aged and always made time for students who needed help.
"So, Connor's progress seems fine, what are you concerned about in particular?"
"He seems… isolated." Jane explained.
Connor hung his head in shame, staring at his brightly coloured sneakers.
"Well, I'm not sure I can do very much to help, but this is still a concerning matter. Why do you feel isolated, Connor?"
Connor's head snapped up at his name, "I don't know." He said quietly.
"What was that, Connor?" Ms Cooper asked.
"I said, 'I don't know.'" Connor's voice cracked as he tried to keep his eyes from brimming over with tears.
"Stop being such a wuss, Connor." Doug said sharply.
"Now, now." Ms Cooper leant over her desk, focusing her gaze on Connor, "Are you being bullied, Connor?"
"No!" He almost yelled, sitting up straight in his seat, "People just don't like me, that's all."
"Do you know why that is?" Ms Cooper's voice had softened, but her tone had grown serious.
"No." Connor sniffed, dropping his gaze to his lap.
"Okay." Ms Cooper sat back and turned to Connor's parents, "I'll talk to some of his classmates and see if any of them want to include him in their friendship groups."
"I have a friendship group, I have Steve." Connor protested.
"Oh yes, well I'm sure Mr Blade could benefit from having a few more friends as well." Ms Cooper suddenly became less kind, less open, her face was now stoney.
"So you'll talk to them?" Jane asked, "You'll help him make more friends?" Connor couldn't understand the desperation in her voice. Sure, he didn't enjoy being disliked, but at least he wasn't completely alone. Plenty of people only had one or two friends, there was nothing wrong with him. Right?
"I'll sort something out, Connor." Ms Cooper was kind again, almost pitying, "Things'll get better."
Things just got worse and worse.
Whatever Ms Cooper had tried to do obviously hadn't worked. People hissed at him in the hallways, their eyes bored into him in class. Nobody invited him to join in their games, he was an outcast, hated by all. And the worst part was, he had no idea why.
"Steve?" He asked one day at lunch time. The two boys were lounging on the dry grass behind their classroom, where they had started to sit to get away from the burning glares of their classmates.
"Yeah?" Steve was occupied with his apple.
"Why don't people like me?" Because Steve never had problems. Steve was known as the smart kid, the one that got all the girls, the one that hung out with the unpopular boy.
Steve flushed red, looking away from Connor. "I'm not sure. I think it's because you're so... you know..."
"What am I?" Connor asked, twirling a long blade of grass between his fingers.
"It doesn't matter." Steve picked at his apple with a new intensity.
Connor watched him carefully, "It matters to me." He said. But it didn't. Not really. Not yet. Being an outcast was so much better than everything that was yet to come.
For now, he had Steve and the little bubble of happiness that accompanied him. And that was enough.
Authors Note: Wow, I haven't used for so long... Anyway, I'm procrastinating an English paper, so I guess I'll just upload it here as well. Um, I have an Ao3 account, where I post more stuff, but I'm going to transfer all of my work onto here as well for no logical reason. More chapters to come soon!