Peter watched Harry stick a paper birthday hat onto his head, snapping the elastic string beneath his chin, and wincing when it hit him harder than he expected. Peter had to bite the inside of his lip to keep from bursting into laughter. Ned didn’t even bother trying.
“You moron,” his other friend exclaimed through guffaws.
“Shut up, it’s my birthday,” Harry said, hotly, and turned to look at Peter. “Tell him to stop laughing at me.”
“Who am I, his mother?” Peter retorted, but all the same he reached over and lightly slapped the back of Ned’s head. “Stop it, it’s his birthday, he’s allowed to make a fool of himself without us laughing at him.”
“But we can laugh at him tomorrow, right?” Ned asked, wiping tears from his eyes.
“Yes, duh,” Peter agreed with a grin.
“You guys are shit heads,” Harry grumbled. “Are we going to actually have fun today?”
“I mean, you’re the one who said he wanted to go bowling,” Peter said, spreading his arms and gesturing around their location. They were currently shoved into the last lane of the decrepit bowling alley that Ned had found the address of online. Peter was honestly amazed that it was still open, considering it hadn’t upgraded to the virtual version of the game that many other alleys had elected to invest in. As such, the place was pretty much empty, aside from a group of dad-aged fellows three lanes down, who were yelling loudly with each strike, and drinking beer.
“Listen, I’m 20,” Harry said. “I haven’t bowled since I was… what, seven? I wanted to give it a shot.”
“Harry, you have close to zero hand-eye coordination,” Ned reminded him.
“Why is it that whenever one of us has a birthday, it suddenly becomes necessary to make fun of that guy?” Harry demanded.
“Shouldn’t we get the game started?” Peter asked, standing and moving to input their names into the keyboard connected to the TV that would display their scores. “Do we want to make up fake names, or just use normal ones?”
“Well, hold on, we’re not all here yet,” Harry said, and Peter blinked at the keyboard, before slowly turning to look at his friend. Ned was also studying him in confusion.
“What the hell are you talking about?” he asked. “You don’t have any other friends.”
“Fuck you, yes I do,” Harry said, scowling. “I thought I told you about her. Her name is Cheri; I went to school with her, and she started at ESU this year. I asked if she wanted to go bowling, and she said no at first, but then I reminded her that it was my birthday, and she agreed, but only if she didn’t have to get me a present.”
“So, what, we’re supposed to sit here until she shows up?” Peter asked, frowning a little.
“She should be here soon,” Harry said, frowning back. “She lives with her mom, in Brooklyn.”
“Oh, she’s from Brooklyn!” Peter exclaimed, throwing up his hands and turning back to the keyboard to start putting their names up anyway.
“No, actually,” a voice said, and he paused as the sound of it made an immediate, disarming impact on his hearing, which he’d thought he’d had a handle on, after having to deal with the loud dads. He turned, and blinked at the newcomer, who stood on the carpeted floor a step up from the wooden one that started the lane itself.
The young woman looked to be of Hispanic descent, with her light brown skin and dark hair and eyes, along with the slight accent that tinged the edge of her voice, indicating a childhood usage of Spanish. There was a spattering of freckles across her nose. Her hair was curly, and pushed back out of her face by a red bandana that matched the sweater she wore with a pair of black jeans. One of her eyebrows was cocked, and she was holding a bowling ball in one hand.
“I’m from Washington Heights,” she continued, walking forward and setting her ball down next to the ones that the three boys had already chosen for themselves. She had to brush past Peter in order to do so, and then she walked over to Harry, sitting down in the seat next to the one he occupied. “You didn’t tell me your friends were from Queens,” she said.
“Hey -” Peter started, but was unable to finish by the fact that Ned quickly spoke up before he could.
“Hi, sorry, he’s an ass,” he said, and Peter shot him a look. Ned ignored him, and leaned across the space between the two sets of chairs, holding out his hand. “Ned Leeds.”
“Cheryl Schultz,” the girl, Cheri, replied, shaking his hand. She looked at Peter expectantly. “I guess that makes you Peter Parker.”
“I told you he was the worse one,” Harry said, and Peter shifted his scowl over to him instead. However, Cheri laughed, and the look immediately faded from his face without him meaning it to as the sound touched his ears, and embedded itself into his soul.
Hell, he thought, blinking a little. What the fuck was that?
“We probably just got off on the wrong foot,” Cheri said. She held her hand out to Peter, who remembered to take it, through some magical interference in his mind, which was currently replaying the sound of her laugh on repeat. “Queens isn’t so bad.”
“No, neither is Brooklyn,” Peter replied, pulling his hand away so that the electricity he felt shooting up his arm into his core would stop. To his dismay, it did not. “I actually have a good friend from there.”
“Still not from Brooklyn,” Cheri said, and Peter quickly nodded.
“Right, yeah, no, I know, but I don’t - I’ve never met anyone else from Washington Heights, so I don’t… don’t really have an opinion on that, and I was… trying to be cool.” The sentence trailed off pathetically, at the end, and Peter winced. “Maybe I’ll just stop talking, now.”
“It’s all right, Harry said you might do this,” Cheri told him, and Peter blinked several times, looking at Harry in confusion.
“I did?” Harry repeated, staring at Cheri.
“Yep, don’t you remember?” Cheri asked him, her eyes still on Peter, who desperately wanted her to look away before the blush that he could feel growing on his neck made itself visible to everyone. From the way that Ned was shifting in his seat, barely suppressed laughter coming from him, he guessed that his friend had already spotted it, however. “You told me that he sometimes rambles around girls he thinks are cute.”
Peter’s jaw fell open, and he thought he heard Ned’s crack as it did the same, his snickers drying up, much like Peter’s saliva just had. Cheri merely smiled, and Peter was floored to see that she had dimples in both her cheeks. Hell, hell, hell.
“I… we can say that I said that, sure,” Harry said, “you absolute narcissist.”
Cheri shrugged casually, leaning back in the seat she’d chosen for herself. “I know I’m hot,” she said. “No use pretending I’m not.” She looked up at the screen. “Are we bowling tonight or not, because I didn’t pay five dollars for these -” She gestured to the bowling shoes that she had on. “- for no reason.”
“Yeah, we’ll bowl,” Harry said. He gestured towards the keyboard. “Peter?”
“Right, that’s - I was doing that,” Peter managed, turning back to the device. “Uh… what? Real names?”
“Mm, no, let’s do something more creative,” Ned said. “What’s your major, Cheri?”
“Music education,” Cheri replied, and Peter sucked in a breath. Of course it had to be music. And she wants to be a teacher. Help me.
“That’s cool,” Ned said. “Let’s come up with names that’re related to our majors, then.”
“Well, Cheri’s not a music education major only because she cares about the future generations nurturing a love for music,” Harry said. “She happens to be a music goddess.”
“Harry,” Cheri said, exasperated.
“What, it’s true! You have perfect pitch, you’ve been playing the piano since before you could walk, and you can sing. Plus the amount of knowledge you have about, like, bands and artists and stuff?” Harry shook his head. “She writes, and performs, and is just… it’s insane.”
Cheri sighed, but she did not say anything to argue with Harry’s description of her abilities. “Uh… I mean.” She let out a soft noise that might have been a laugh. “It’s… I don’t like to brag about that, but.”
“But it’s true,” Peter finished for her, without turning around. “Okay. Ned can be Tech-No.”
“Y’know what, I’ll allow that,” Ned said. “It’s pretty cool.”
“Harry, you can be… Dr. Eco.”
Harry contemplated it. “I mean… kind of lame, but like… there’s no lie there, so.”
“What should mine be?” Peter asked.
“Biohazard,” Ned said helpfully.
“Haha, thanks,” Peter said with a snort, but typed it in anyway. “And for the musical prodigy…” Peter typed in the only bit of knowledge of music he had, with a twist that he thought might make it the tiniest bit clever.
“Trouble Clef,” Cheri said, reading it once it hit the screen. Peter glanced at her, saw she was smiling again, her dimples an annoyingly distracting (but adorable) presence in her cheeks. “That’s great. Thanks, Pete.”
“Pete,” Harry said, nudging her with his elbow as Peter sat down next to Ned, trying hard not to show just how much his stomach had flipped, hearing her use the nickname. “Already feeling friendly, huh?”
“Well, he thinks I’m cute, so.” Cheri looked at Peter, offered him a grin and a wink. At least, he was pretty sure she winked, but with the chemical malfunctions occurring all over his body, it could have been safe to assume that he’d only imagined it.
“Do we all have to wear the stupid hats?” Cheri continued, grinning at the one Harry had on, and he huffed, standing and moving up to the lane to take his first turn.
“See, I said it was stupid,” Ned said, leaning forward again, “but Harry insisted, because it’s his birthday, and a person only turns 20 once.”
“Yeah, apparently when you turn 20, you have to relive your second birthday,” Peter put in, without really thinking about it, and was surprised when Cheri laughed again. His senses reacted cheerfully to the sound, which he hated.
“Screw you guys,” Harry said over his shoulder, and gave the bowling ball he’d chosen a toss. It rolled slowly down the lane, curving about halfway and slipping into the gutter. The other three clapped politely for him, like they were at a game of golf instead, and he’d just gotten the ball in the hole. “I guess it’s fine if you make fun of me in order to get along,” Harry said, walking over to retrieve his ball as the returner spat it up thirty seconds later.
“Mm, good, because it might be the only way,” Ned said, looking between Cheri and Peter. “These two… yeesh.”
“Damn, and I thought I was doing a great job disguising how much I dislike you,” Cheri said to Peter, snapping her fingers. “With the false confidence, and laughing at your bad jokes…”
“I know, you almost had me fooled!” Peter said, shaking his head regretfully. “Shame.”
Their eyes met, and after a moment, they both burst into laughter, unable to keep the act up. Ned looked between the two of them, befuddled, and glanced past them at Harry, who lifted his shoulders in mirrored confusion, before picking his ball up again.
Peter looked at Cheri for a moment, as she watched Harry throw his second ball. He decided that maybe she wasn’t so bad, that maybe they could get along. After all, it was clear they shared a sense of humor, at least on some level.
He moved across the lane, to take up the chair next to hers. “Sorry,” he said once she’d turned to him. “About earlier.”
“Me too,” Cheri responded. “I’m really bad at meeting new people. I’ve known Harry since elementary school, and he’s always been able to make friends with everybody.” She smiled. “I think I like you guys, though. Can’t say that about everyone he introduces me to.”
“Yeah, I’m not so hot at the social aspects of life, either,” Peter admitted. “I’ve known Ned since we were kids, and Harry… well, it’s like you said, he can make friends with anybody.” He gestured. “So, you started at ESU this year? How do you like it so far?”
“It’s pretty cool,” Cheri said. “I got in on a tuition-based scholarship, but I still live with my mom because I couldn’t afford to live in the city. I have a car, which is nice, but gas is so expensive, now.”
“You still drive a car that uses gas?” Peter asked incredulously.
“Do you even drive?” Cheri retorted, easily, and Peter leaned back a little, beat.
“Touchè. I do have a license, though.”
“Well, that’s something, at least,” Cheri said with a smirk. “Anyway, I’m not actually so full of myself, I just don’t know how to act around people, so over-the-top, asshole-level narcissism is usually my go to.”
“Better than my self-deprecating sense of humor,” Peter said with a shrug. They were both silent for a moment.
“I guess they’re both pretty bad,” Cheri finally said.
“Yeah, neither of us should ever be in public,” Peter agreed. They shared a grin, and Peter’s entire being felt as though it were lit up from the inside by a lightbulb. But, like, one that belonged in a lighthouse.
“Hey, friends?” They turned towards Ned, who gestured towards the lane. “It’s your turn, Peter.”
“Oh, right,” Peter said, and he stood, retrieving his bowling ball. He stopped at the end of the lane, and considered for a moment, before pulling his arm back and then swinging it forward, releasing the ball as it went. The ball rolled straight down the middle of the lane, and crashed into the center pin, before knocking down all the others as well. The TV screen flashed a very strange pixelated clip of a unicorn sliding down a rainbow, the word STRIKE! gleaming at the bottom.
“Wow, show-off!” Ned exclaimed, throwing up his hands.
“Yeah, sorry,” Peter said, smiling. “I forgot to mention that I’m kick-ass at bowling.”
Cheri laughed, and Peter’s smile grew. Yeah, all right, so maybe the sensation wasn’t so bad, the all-encompassing happiness that came with hearing the sound. He could probably get used to it.
The night continued similarly. Peter turned out to be the only one who was actually good at bowling, which meant he led the game all night long, but that didn’t seem to bother any of the others. The bowling alley provided them with pizza and wings. Harry tried to get them to bring a pitcher of beer, too, but apparently the possibility of that had gone out the window while they were all making fun of him for being twenty and wanting to go bowling. As such, Harry blamed Ned and Peter, which was fine because it technically was their fault.
All the while, whenever neither of them were up bowling, Peter and Cheri got to know one another a bit better. Whenever he sat back down, Peter found Cheri talking to Ned, too. Apparently, the two of them had quite a bit in common, because whenever he cam3 back from taking his turn, they were talking about something different.
Peter and Cheri’s discussions, which spanned over the course of both Harry and Ned’s turns, followed a more linear path.
“My mom raised me on her own,” Cheri told Ned and Peter, while Harry was up for his fourth round. “We lived with her parents in Washington Heights until I was eight, and then she moved us to Brooklyn.” She paused. “I don’t really know why, though, considering she works at Oscorp, which is here in Manhattan.”
“So, where’s your family actually from?” Ned asked, and Peter almost wanted to hit him, since that wasn’t really the nicest way to ask that question.
Cheri merely smiled. “I’ll give you two guesses, and one hint: Caribbean.”
Peter and Ned exchanged a look. After a moment, Ned turned back to her. “Dominican?”
“Nope, but good try,” Cheri said, and she glanced at Peter. He studied her for a second.
“Ah, you got it!” Cheri said, clapping her hands together and smiling. “Nice job.”
“And that’s it, huh?”
She nodded. “My grandfather’s parents immigrated in the forties, and my grandmother’s father brought her and her brother in the fifties, after her mother died.”
“Wow,” Ned said. “That’s not even that long ago, really.”
“I know, pretty crazy, isn’t it?” Cheri asked, smiling. Harry returned from his fourth set of two-gutter balls, and Ned went to take his turn. “Like I was saying, I was eight when we moved to Brooklyn, and I met Harry during fourth grade. One of the other fifth graders tripped me, at lunch, and Harry punched him in the stomach.”
“What, really?” Peter asked, amazed, turning to look at his friend. Harry lifted his shoulders.
“I was used to getting picked on, because of how sick I always was,” he explained, “so I knew how to stand up for myself.” He glanced at Cheri, smiling. “Sharp wit doesn’t really work when coming to the defense of a lady, though.”
“Yes, because eight-year-old me was so impressed by the fact that you punched a kid in the stomach,” Cheri said with a roll of her eyes. “I would’ve appreciated it more if you’d gone to the office and gotten me a change of clothes that didn’t have mashed potatoes and gravy all over them.”
“What was that kid’s name?” Harry asked, and Cheri shrugged.
“No idea. Something generic, probably.” She looked at Peter again. “That wasn’t the only time he punched someone for me, but it was the only time that it didn’t end in him also getting punched. Or kicked. Or beat almost to unrecognition.”
“Yikes,” Peter said, frowning. It shouldn’t have surprised him as much as it did to learn about this part of Harry’s life.
“Yeah, I should probably be dead,” Harry agreed, “but I mean… the kids were shit heads, calling her derogatory names and stuff, and I couldn’t - she was my friend. I wasn’t just going to let them do that.
“Should we tell him about the worst one?” Cheri asked, and Harry made a face.
“I mean, you just met him thirty minutes ago. I dunno if you wanna tell him about the Bad Thing just yet.”
Cheri examined Peter for a moment. “You’re right,” she said. “I gotta find out if I can trust him first.” She smiled a little, her dimples making themselves known once more. The expression was quickly becoming one of Peter’s favorite things. “I’m sure that won’t take long, though.”
Ned sat back down, and Peter bowled another perfect round. He turned to retake his seat, and found Cheri already standing behind him, waiting to go. She gestured. “I don’t even see the point, really,” she admitted, “since it’s only the fourth round and you’re already kicking our butts.”
“It’s more for the fun, right?” Peter suggested, and Cheri smirked.
“Yeah, I guess we can go with that,” she said, moving past him to take her turn. When she managed to knock down two pins, she turned to look at him, dark brown eyes twinkling. “But, for future reference? I’m very competitive.”
Peter grinned. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Sitting together, sharing a plate between them, Ned and Harry watched as Peter gave Cheri a few tips on how to throw her ball. After a moment, Harry leaned over to Ned and said, “I bet they start dating within six months.”
Ned snorted. “Clearly you don’t know Peter,” he said. “That boy is going to stall and stall. Two years, tops.”
“Oh, God, but can we handle the obvious tension for two years?” Harry asked, leaning his head back with a dramatic sigh.
“You know the rule with bets: no individual interference,” Ned said. “Two years.”
“Fine. But can I change mine to a year and a half?” Ned considered it for a moment, and Harry said, “I let you change the one you made about how long it’d take for Peter to agree to move in with us.”
“Mm, you did do that,” Ned agreed, and then he nodded. “All right, deal. Closest without going over wins the pool.”
“Uhm… okay, March 15th, 2022.”
“Why March 15th?”
“Ah.” Ned tilted his head, examining the two of them for a moment. Cheri still had yet to actually throw the ball, and Peter didn’t really seem to mind that she was hanging onto it, listening to whatever advice he was giving her with an amused expression. “I guess I’ll go with… August 10th, then.”
“Ah, Peter’s birthday?” Harry asked, annoyed, and Ned made a kissy face back at him. “All right, fine. Cheater.” He held out his hand, and Ned shook it with a grin. “No going over.”
“No going over,” Ned repeated. “Price Is Right rules.” He looked back at Cheri and Peter, watched as Cheri finally threw the bowling ball. It crashed into the eight pins that had been left standing by her first throw, and she turned around, eyes bright.
“I can’t believe that actually worked!” she said, and Peter spread his hands.
“Of course advice from a bowling champ worked.”
“You know that you just gave me what I need to absolutely demolish you, right?” Cheri queried, and Peter shook his head.
“Won’t happen. I’m too good.”
Cheri walked past him to sit back down, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “Guess we’ll see, won’t we?”
Ned studied the way Peter followed her with his eyes, amazed that there wasn’t drool pooling around his friend’s feet by now. “All right,” he muttered to Harry, “maybe I was a little off, but I still think it’s going to take some time, because Peter will go through stages where he worries that she doesn’t like him at all.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say,” Harry replied with a grin. “You’ll regret it come March, two years from now.”
“We’ll see,” Ned retorted.