"Smile!" Ben said with a cheesy grin, holding his camera up.
Peter and Ned both gave big, toothy grins in their nice, but not too nice, suits.
The 8th Grade Semi-Formal was in a little under an hour, and the two boys planned on having a good time snacking in the corner together. Ned's parents and Peter's Aunt and Uncle were trying to convince them to dance, or worse, ask someone else to dance.
No, no. That wouldn't happen. Peter and Ned were fully aware that school dances were the breeding ground for gossip and embarrassment. They were smarted than that. Much smarter. They'd lay low, per usual, and people watch. It was their thing.
Once the photos were done, the adults started fussing over how "adorable" they looked again. The pre-teens shared an exacerbated look.
Peter was well aware of how scrawny he was. He could clearly see the acne and the braces. He also knew that carrying an inhaler in your pocket because your asthmatic, and not being able to see three feet ahead of him with glasses, were what his classmates called "turn offs."
Similarly, Ned was aware of his height and his weight being not-so proportional. He knew his skin was oily and that he couldn't kick, dribble, or throw a ball for his life. He heard girls talking about how they wanted boys they dated to be taller than them.
The boys knew, but they didn't care. In fact, they each other's biggest fans. When one day they had been teased a little bit too much, Uncle Ben quickly talked them down.
"If someone doesn't like you for who you are on the inside, they're not the one for you. You shouldn't spend time and energy getting upset about a person's superficial opinion." He had said.
The boys heeded that advice. They loved themselves, and they loved each other. They were best friends. Everyone else was merely a stranger.
They chatted together excitedly about upcoming movies and which ones they'd have to see opening night.
When they got to the dance, they each loaded up a plate of junk food, headed for the corner, and sat down together.
"Why don't men where dresses or skirts if girls wear pants?" Ned asked curiously, popping a piece of candy into his mouth.
"Well... kilts are a thing... Why? Do you want to wear one?" Peter wondered as he watched a group of girls nervously look over at a group of boys, then giggle.
"Nope, just curious." Ned responded.
Peter watched as one of the girls, Tracy Stevens, from the group he was watching nervously walked over to the group of boys and asked if one of them, Corey Santiago, if he wanted to dance. Corey nodded, and then they did just that.
"Stacy and Corey are finally interacting" he told Ned, then ate a cheese curl from his plate.
"It's about time. Maybe people can finally start talking about something else."
"They're probably just gonna keep talking about boys and girls." Peter admitted. He knew his grade. It wasn't hard to guess what their topics of conversation would be.
"Peter, I bet if you asked Mary Codler to dance, she'd say yes." Ned stated.
"Why do you say that?" Peter asked, putting the Twizzler in his hand down and looking at his friend.
"Because you're smart, and you look good tonight, and you're a good person." Ned explained.
Peter flushed slightly, but shook his head nonetheless.
"I don't want a girlfriend." He stated matter of factly.
"Dancing doesn't make you boyfriend and girlfriend, Peter." Ned stated with a small laugh.
"I don't want to dance, either. I want to sit here with you and eat junk food." Peter replied seriously, picking the Twizzler back up and biting it.
"Thanks, but if you have the chance to dance with someone, take it. Don't let me hold you back." Ned said more shyly this time. Peter looked at him like he had four heads.
"You're joking, right?
Ned shook his head. To him, Peter looked handsome. Peter was handsome. At some point, all the girls in school would catch on to that. Ned didn't want to get in the way of Peter's happiness. Friends didn't do that.
"Ned, you're my only friend. If someone wanted to join us, they can, but I don't exactly see a line forming. I'm not going to stop doing something that makes me happy, liking hanging out with you, to try to woo some girl that's never bothered to say a word to me". Peter replied sharply, looking at his best friend with determined eyes.
If anything, Peter thought, Ned would be the one getting asked out. He didn't flinch when strangers touched him or have abandonment issues. He was normal. He was smart, and funny, and perfect. He'd be sharing his best friend in no time.
Ned just blushed and looked down at his plate.
“Well let’s at least consider the fact that it could happen. What then?” He asked shyly.
“I’m confused,” Peter admitted, pushing his plate away for a moment.
“Isn’t there a thing where friends aren’t as close when one of them is in a relationship? What if Mary Codler asked you to dance? What would happen?” Ned questioned worriedly.
Peter almost laughed at what his friend was suggesting, but was actually more scared of it than anything.
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” He asked anxiously. “If you don’t want to be friends anymore, I get it. I just don’t want to have a girlfriend. I’m not ready. You know why I’m not ready, Ned. Please don’t make me.”
Ned’s eyes widened and he quickly shook his head.
“No! Gosh, no, Peter! I’m not trying to get rid of you! I just don’t find it so hard to believe that you’d be asked out in the next year. We’re going to High School, after all.” Ned explained.
“I wouldn’t say yes, Ned. Why is that so hard for you to understand?” Peter wondered.
“I don’t know… Maybe you’d just want more than just one friend… Maybe you’d get sick of me…or something.”
“NED!” Peter scolded, hitting his friend lightly on the arm. “You’re the only friend I want. Stop talking like you’re less than me somehow. You’re a heck of a lot better than I am. You know me, Ned. You know I’d never let you go.”
Ned just blushed some more.
“Okay,” he said, “I get it.”
“Good.” Peter said shortly, picking up his plate of food again.
There was a beat of silence in which Ned frantically wracked his brain for a new, less embarrassing topic of conversation.
"So... what Lego build do you want to do next?" The boy asked, hoping to change the subject.
"Oh my God, Ned, Ben showed me this insane NASA one online. It's only available for a limited time, though, so maybe we can beg for it as a middle school graduation gift!" Peter piped up, and Ned's jaw basically dropped to the floor.
"NASA! How many pieces? Do you know?"
"Like 20,000 or something like that!" Peter replied excitedly, and then the got engrossed in their conversation that the time started to tick by a bit more quickly.
When it was announced that there was one more song, the two boys agreed to get up and dance. They'd be in their corner, of course, but goofing around to that cheesy Dirty Dancing song Ben always quotes was a nice change of pace.
They each took turns twirling each other, epically failing at ballroom dancing, then laughing at themselves for it. Peter even jokingly ran at Ned to do the “iconic lift,” as Ben called it. They both wound up falling to the ground in hysterics rather than completing the trademark move.
“Parker! Leeds! Be careful!” A teacher nearby yelled as they tried to calm down their laughter. It took until the song was over and all the lights were on for them to do just that. None of their other classmates seemed to exist.
When Peter slept over Ned's house that night, the two hardly made it through one episode of The Clone Wars before falling asleep on the couch. Their heads were at opposite ends, but their legs were knotted together under the blanket Mrs. Leeds had laid over them.
It was good night between good friends. That was all anyone could ask for.