It was only a few days until Peter’s sixteenth birthday and he already forgot what it was like to get the impulse to want to celebrate. His birthday was just a week before winter break started each year. Most people were so busy getting ready for the holidays and studying for finals that only Ned and maybe two other friends would ever show up, no matter how big the party.
Things were different when he lived with his parents upstate. At the time, his family had been one of means. His parents were such staple figures in the community, no one would dare slight the Parkers by canceling on Peter’s birthday. At the time, every social event seemed more like an exchange than anything. Peter got the best gifts, big parties, great entertainment. His friends were “of the highest caliber” as his mother would call it.
At the time, he wasn’t old enough to understand it but his parties were more for his parents’ reputation than they were for him. All he knew was he was getting used to his birthday being the event of the year.
When he moved in with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, Peter was so broken down that his ego disappeared with his spirit. In his first years, Peter barely had any friends so Ben would find the nearest carnival and just take him and Ned. He’d drive one, two, even three hours just to get them there.
The first time, Ned had a panic attack because they’d promised to be home by midnight when really they were 3 hours away in New Jersey. Nothing would ever beat Ben’s pep talk to them about how they were rebels. Then it just became a tradition. Falling asleep in the backseat of Ben’s car each birthday was just his favorite memory with Ben. It felt better than his old parties, even.
Peter didn’t bother leaving his room on his first birthday after Ben died. The memories were too fresh.
The next year, May was bursting with a guilt-fuelled energy to make Peter’s next birthday his best. No one except Ned showed up. It was such a let down he’d learned to stop expecting better. That didn’t make it hurt any less to see May’s disappointment. She’d put in so much effort only to see it fall through. Peter could tell she blamed herself half the time, so he’d always do his best to pretend he was having a great time. Still, May looked crushed.
It burned the urge right out of him.
It took him two years to convince her that he preferred a quiet movie night with her.
Peter was pretty sure looking back that he couldn’t say he’d ever had a meaningful birthday party. Other than the carnival visits with Ben, there was nothing very life-changing about these celebrations.
He honestly forgot his birthday half the time until May mentioned it.
Then one day, out of the blue, Michelle Jones shook his world during their last Decathlon meeting of the semester.
“When’s your birthday, Peter?”
Peter spent a few seconds trying to figure out how the conversation reached this question. They were talking about light years!
“Next week,” he answered finally, quietly.
“Ha! And we’re not invited to the party,” Flash snorted as if just to cause trouble.
“That’s not true! I’m not having a party.”
“Why not?” Cindy asked, her voice already leaking pity. Peter stared at Michelle for a second, looking for some answer as to why she would do this. With all eyes on him, he couldn’t even remember the name of the movie he and May were going to see.
“It’s a week from break, people are busy.” He could feel his heart beating. Until this moment, he had spent months without ever being called out for anything.
Now that he thought of it, the last time was when Michelle asked him what his secret was.
The team burst into dismissals.
“Of course we’d go.”
“Are you kidding?”
“It’s your birthday.”
As stressful at it was being pushed into announcing a party on the spot, maybe he was just a little bit grateful that everyone was so insistent. He had friends now. Good ones.
That didn’t make the mystery any less irritating. Approaching Michelle cautiously, as if she had the power to corner him again, he couldn’t help himself, even as Ned approached.
“Why would you do that?”
“I was curious.”
“Now I have to plan a party,” he said exasperated, not even sure if Aunt May would allow it.
“I’m-” Okay maybe saying he was busy would sound like an excuse. “I’ve got homework.” It wasn’t a good excuse the first time he tried it, it wasn’t going over any better this time either.
“Fine. Ned and I will plan it.”
“What?!” Ned asked, startled.
“There’s no way you’re canceling on the team now. You’ll look like a loser,” she concluded, walking away.
Looking to Ned, Peter demanded an answer with his stare because he would really never understand why Michelle did anything she did.
As confused and a little annoyed as Peter was with her, Michelle did a good job planning his party with Ned. The theme was Star Wars, if only because it was the easiest theme to find decorations for. According to Ned, he had to take care of most of the fandom-specific details because the concept was foreign to Michelle. The decorations seemed like they were made for kids but the streamers and set up looked mature enough that it looked decent. Honestly, Peter was just too pleased to care.
Mainly he was just staring at his cake. There were two glow sticks attached to handles that made them look like small lightsabers. It had a giant Darth Vader helmet looming over it on a wooden stick painted black. It looked like it was haunting the cake. Peter and Ned spent a good five minutes mimicking his voice while Michelle stared, disappointed. Her only words since Peter arrived were a warning not to peel the lightsabers off the cake to start playing with them.
Truth be told, she wasn’t wrong to tell him. It was his first impulse when he saw it. The attention to detail in this party was indicative of Michelle’s hand in planning it. He was just surprised she’d put in the effort for him.
Then the first guest arrived and Peter realized he would have to act normal.
The party itself went by smoothly. They didn’t have a lot to do but honestly just sitting around talking with the team about something other than school made Peter feel like the day was special. Just as they were opening up a board game, Peter stumbled past his gift table for the first time.
The boxes were big. He was just stunned there were boxes. They got him gifts, real gifts. He couldn’t imagine what they’d know about him, but he expected cheesy cards with how little time they had.
Trying his best not to read into things, he was biting back a smile as he guessed what all the gifts were. Finally, his eyes traveled under the table when he saw it:
A giant three-foot teddy bear.
Peter really, really wanted to be embarrassed, but more than anything he was itching to know who bought it for him. It felt like a prank from Flash, but he wasn’t sure he saw anyone come in with the bear.
Peter would be lying if he said the worst part of him was dying for the party to end so he could solve the mystery.
Searching the bear’s every limb, he was desperate to find a tag. There weren’t any, so he started skimming the tags on each gift to see who hadn’t brought one.
Even Ned gave him a gift, probably the biggest box there, but none of them were hers.
Peter spent the entire night, eventually the entire weekend, trying to figure out why Michelle would give him such a silly gift.
To his surprise, the bear was a bit heartwarming. It had a silly face, and it looked plump for hugging. He was resisting the urge because he promised himself he was going to be a grown up about this.
Putting it on the other corner of his room, as the days passed, that bear would inch itself closer and closer to him until it found it’s home at the foot of his bunk.
Staring at it, he poked it a few times with his foot as if trying to convince it to reveal its secrets. It made him think back to Michelle calling him out about his birthday. He watched the bear as he began to drift off. Maybe Michelle already knew his birthday when she asked. This was a new development, but it didn’t necessarily mean much. His brain finally spat out the only conclusion at him:
Michelle liked him.
Peter shot up so fast that he hit his head on the top bunk. Nursing the bump with his hand, his thoughts rushed and his eyes bulged as he tried to figure out just what he would do.
He spent all of Sunday sitting around and letting the thought circle in his mind. There was no other explanation for Michelle’s behavior. Hard as he tried, he knew now the only options were Michelle either hated him or had feelings for him, and this gift was the answer. You don’t buy massive teddy bears for someone you hate.
Peter spent the rest of that night grinning to himself for no reason at all.
Michelle liked him.
He couldn’t tell you why but knowing this was the best feeling in the world.
Michelle ignored him all of Monday morning. He waited for her to bring it up but she never did. Finally, during history class, he passed her a note.
So, are we not going to talk about it?
Michelle looked confused when she read it. Peter got it tossed back onto his desk.
You’re welcome? I just didn’t feel like going to a lame party.
Peter passed one back.
You know what I’m talking about.
Michelle rolled her eyes and handed the note to him personally, as dramatically as possible.
Yes, Peter, the bakery said you can keep the lightsabers.
He heard her scoff and rolled his eyes. Why she was denying his inevitable discovery was a mystery to him but he was going to get her to confess if it was the last thing he ever did.
So he brought the bear to school.
Maybe this was a very drastic and sudden decision, but Peter was devoted to this cause. This mattered to him in a way he couldn’t describe and all he could offer was his full dedication.
“What are you doing?” were the first words out of Michelle's mouth. She looked personally horrified. He caught her!
“I’m bringing this everywhere until you admit you got it for me.”
“That thing is hideous. I did not get it for you.”
“Yes, you did!” he accused a little too loud. People turned.
“Why do you think I got it for you?” she whispered back, looking nervous as people stared at the bear.
“You were the only person who didn’t get me a gift. Why wouldn’t you get me a gift?”
“Because it was super last minute. And anyway, I planned your party for you. I even fought for the lightsabers. There you go, you’re welcome.”
Considering that he was wrong felt a little uncomfortable. He couldn't pinpoint why he needed to be right, so he didn't try. He just insisted.
“Okay, Peter,” she laughed.
“I'm going to carry this everywhere.”
“If you say so,” she said with a tone as if she was entertaining a child.
“I'll even walk you to class.”
“That's your choice.”
“And I'm sitting with you from now on,”
“You're not going to embarrass me.”
“You're not going to stop me.”
“Game on, Parker.”
And so it began.
Okay, so maybe he didn't think this through. His teachers were very concerned. He’d had more than one meeting after class about whether he was struggling with something. None of them were very amused to hear this was all about a bet.
The only support he got was from Mr. Harrington, the decathlon coach. He seemed to just find it funny that Peter was daring to take on Michelle. The decathlon team knew all about the bet but no one seemed surprised. Flash wouldn’t even bother teasing him, saying Peter was capable of making himself a joke. It was as if they knew something he didn't but that only motivated him more. Maybe they saw Michelle put the bear under his gift table.
Peter felt like he wasn't pushing hard enough, so he started finding excuses to spend time with her. They’d sit together during lunch. She’d give the bear a weird look from time to time but otherwise, she didn’t give herself away. Peter would start meeting her after school so they could take the subway together until they’d split up. It was very difficult to take these trains with a giant bear in his arms but he didn’t give it too much mind after a few days.
A lot of times he'd forget about the bear when he was with Michelle, but he refused to let it go.
One day, Peter got too impatient after spending lunch with her alone when Ned was out sick. He finally asked her to come over and study, laying his trap to ask her about the bear again. She seemed genuinely pleased, and he couldn't help but feel excited too. He was finally going to get his answer.
Maybe he wasn't thinking enough about why he loved this so much.
Peter didn’t really think he had any feelings for Michelle, but he refused to look into it too far. Part of him was pretty sure that he’d turn out to be wrong. Michelle wouldn’t put up with his pining if it turned out any theoretical feelings were one sided. It was safer to believe this was just harmless.
Except he spent way too long fussing with his hair while he waited for her to come over. Even May was getting suspicious.
Once May knew anything, Peter knew he only had so much time before she forced him to face facts. He tried not to stress too hard about it as they studied. They stayed on task for about an hour before he caught her.
Michelle was touching the bear for the first time.
Just as Peter got his hopes up, she turned it sideways and pulled it behind her back, using its stomach as a back pillow.
“Oh, come on,” Peter complained quietly.
“Just admit you got me the bear.”
“Peter, not again!” she raised her voice, clearly tired of the conversation. Peter would have taken the hint except he saw the hint of worry in her expression.
She was hiding something.
“It’s okay, Michelle, you can just admit it. I’m not going to be mean about it. It’s obvious you have a crush on me.” Peter was trying his best not to grin. It just felt so good to get the words out.
“WHAT?!” she yelled. “I do not have a crush on you!”
“How did you know it was my birthday?”
“I didn’t know, I asked you!”
“Just admit it, Michelle,” he said, waiting for the confirmation that would truly make this day the best one of his life.
“It’s not true,” she answered, though she was blushing now. Just as Peter felt he was making progress, Aunt May appeared at the door.
“Everything okay in here? I heard yelling.”
“Everything’s fine,” Michelle said, pulling the bear out from behind her and standing him up. She looked as though a loud noise would be enough to scare her off, running for cover.
Looking at the bear, May’s eyes lit up as they moved to Peter. “I’m so glad to see you’re so fond of him. I didn’t know if you’d like him.”
“The bear?” Peter asked, already sensing where this was going to go. Horrified, he looked to Michelle for answers again. Just days away from their break, she looked like Christmas had come early. “No, no. Michelle got it for me.”
“I got it for you, Peter,” May told him, laughing. “I didn’t think you’d start carrying it to school though.”
There were no words to describe how mortifying Michelle’s laugh was. As Peter turned a bright red, he rubbed the back of his neck trying to figure out how he’d talk himself out of this one. “Thanks May.”
Bracing himself for the many apologies he owed Michelle, Peter didn’t notice May was still at the door.
“Yeah, it was Michelle’s doing really. She gave me the idea when I told her your birthday was coming up.” Michelle’s grin fell. Peter was holding in outbursts of joy but the look on his face said it all: he won.
Honestly, Peter didn’t realize how much he wanted to catch Michelle in her lie until now.
“It was a joke,” Michelle excused as a last ditch effort.
“This is the best day of my life,” he whispered to himself, before going into a fit of laughter. Peter couldn’t explain how happy he was. As soon as May was gone he tackled a reluctant Michelle into a victory hug that she clearly took as her downfall.