Peter has never been that observant.
And if anything that’s the one thing being Spider-Man made worse, because paying attention to the details in his day-to-day falls through the cracks in the wake of… well, everything else. For a while, school is just a place he sits sometimes while thinking about Spider-Man stuff.
He knows MJ is there. Because she’s always been there, ever since early freshman year, their schedules always overlapping.
She was always close in the lunchroom, always the one with the answer in decathlon when the room fell silent, always diagonally behind him in marching band, tapping out a ba-dum-tss on her drum anytime one of the brass players screwed up.
And in the haze of the school day, in the brief moments he resurfaced from daydreams and stresses, she was like a touchpoint. He could look over and she’d be there, constant, secure, steady in the storm.
And then, when he’s settled back into his life as Peter Parker, instead of just viewing it as a layover until he can be Spider-Man again, he looks over at her one day and gets a little stuck.
He closes his locker door and she’s there, leaning up against the wall, hair in her eyes, book held open in front of her. She looks up at him, folds her book around her finger.
“Did you know there are almost 200 dead bodies on Mount Everest?” she says, head tipping to the side.
It’s barely eight in the morning.
He blinks at her, not really sure how she wants him to respond because no, he didn’t know that.
“I was reading this article about it last night,” she continues, pushing her hair out of her face. “It’s a really big problem because people will die while they’re climbing but it’s too dangerous to bring the bodies back down so they just leave them there.”
Which doesn’t clarify anything about why she’s telling him this or how he should respond, so he doesn’t, just shifts his bag further up on his shoulder.
A second passes before she looks away, glancing down at the book in her hand and pushing off the wall. And looking at her without the pressure of her gaze, without working through the puzzle of what exactly he should be doing with his face to respond to her, there’s suddenly all this space in his head to just take her in. And he gets stuck.
There’s something about her that’s a little more open than he thinks it was before or in freshman year, something in the corners of her mouth, the soft furrow in the space between her brows, the way her chin tips down as she stares at her feet. Expressions flicker across her face, behind her eyes, and he can’t quite make sense of them all but he feels like some door’s being opened here and will be shuttered right back up if he doesn’t do something.
Her hair falls back over her face, brushing against her cheek, half hiding her face again as she steps towards the foot traffic of the hall, and he wants to push it back behind her ear, wants to keep studying her face in profile, wants to keep this door open.
“Are they, like, frozen?” he asks quickly, stepping after her into the flow of the crowd.
She glances back over him and he tries hard to balk under her gaze, just tries to look as earnestly interested as possible, but also tries not to show just how desperate he is to keep her talking.
“Sometimes,” she says slowly, and he nods. “Though some corpses have been there for so long they’re basically landmarks for people climbing to the top.”
“Oh,” he says. Their shoulders brush briefly as the path narrows. “That’s… gross.”
And she smiles. And he gets trapped again, time-bending around this second as he stares at her grin, the sloping asymmetrical line of it that he wants to map on a graph, find the slope, find the derivative, the way it hits her eyes too, a sparkling sharp thing that she wears right on the surface.
She stares out at the hallway as they walk, as she continues on about all the other disgusting things that have been left on Mount Everest, but he spends the whole walk to Chemistry watching her.
This time he doesn’t have a real reason to sneak out of a party, but he slips out a second-floor window and climbs up to the roof anyway.
There was just so much going on inside, things getting shoved around and people bumping into him and objects breaking and pretty much everything was setting off his Spidey-sense. And Ned was winning a game of Mario Kart in the den so it didn’t seem like he’d be missed either.
On the roof, it’s quiet though, and there’s a light breeze in the air, and maybe he can strain his hearing a little and find some crime going on and have a real excuse for Ned and for himself for just getting out of—
“Do you knock?”
He does very briefly almost fall off the roof in his shock but manages to keep his feet on the ground with only minimal sticking. MJ is perched on the slight slope of the roof feet behind him, her back against the side paneling of a wall, squinting at him through the dark.
His heart speeds up and his stomach twists with something fluttery and loose like he’s lost his balance, even though he’s no longer at risk of falling.
“Knock?” he echoes, stupidly, because he is stupid, can actually feel himself losing brain cells as he gets stuck staring at her, the book open in her lap, the wineglass in her hand. He blinks. “Uh… what’s up?”
She scrutinizes him for an additional few seconds, and he swallows, trying to stand as casually as he can on the edge of the sloped rooftop.
“Merlot,” she explains, holding up the wineglass and then gesturing down to her book. “Maya Angelou.”
“Oh,” he says, feeling a little breathless. It dawns on him that this is one of the coolest things he’s ever seen, and something in his chest tightens, yearning for the security she seems to have in her own skin, the endless direction she embodies, the effortless way she simply always exists as the most interesting thing in any place, all from the corners. He wants to study her forever, like he can learn to be like her through observation or osmosis, like he can learn her somehow by taking in all the details. “Uh… sorry, I can go if you want.”
“No,” she says quickly, before wincing and leaning back against the wall. “I mean, whatever, you’re… already up here, right?”
“Thanks,” he says, and steps towards her tentatively. “It’s, uh, really loud in there.”
“At the party?” she asks flatly, eyebrows raised teasingly. He smiles, grateful that it’s probably a little too dark for her to see how his face heats up.
And then he stops smiling because he’s stepped closer again and now has to decide how close to her he’s going to sit right now, which feels like a horrifying trick question with no right answers. Even just standing and contemplating for more than two seconds is very very wrong so he turns and sits as quickly as he can, and then finds himself sitting practically three feet away from her and awkwardly scoots closer while she watches, her eyes steadily narrowing.
“I get kinda overstimulated something,” he explains to break the silence. He scratches at the back of his neck and wonders if it’s too late to just throw himself off the roof and fake his own death.
“Want some wine?” she offers, the corner of her mouth quirking up.
“No!” he says, on instinct, before remembering where he is. “I mean, yes.”
MJ is fully smiling now, which is making him feel even more frazzled. “Relax, Parker. I’m not gonna peer pressure you.”
“I know.” He nods for emphasis. “I thought… I thought it was like a test.”
She’s totally gonna laugh at him. The fact that she hasn’t yet is a miracle. “You thought I was testing you?”
“It’s illegal for us to drink alcohol,” he explains, his voice a faint half-dead thing in the back of his throat.
She tilts her head, like he’s the puzzle, like she’s trying to figure him out, or maybe like she already has. He feels like she has, like he’s been pinned by her, x-ray scanned and picked apart, fully identified and labeled to his base parts.
Her hand moves, holding the glass out towards him. “Do it and you’re cool,” she says, dry as a dessert, even as her mouth twitches along a smile.
He takes it from her, hides his smile against the rim of the glass.
It doesn’t burn the way he expects it to, just kinda tastes like grape juice but weird and he’s pretty sure he makes a face about it but she doesn’t say anything.
When he hands it back, their fingers brush and for a moment, the only thing in the world that matters is the image of her hand around the glass. Her fingers are thin and cold, and they settle lightly around the base of the glass. There are smudges of color against her skin, a fleck of paint between two of her knuckles, fading pen ink on her pinkie, a writing callous on her index finger.
He wants more details, more data, like he can compile it all together and come to some thesis about MJ’s hands.
He wants to know how her fingers would fit against his, how tight she would grip, if the spaces between her fingers would match the spaces between his as well as he thinks they will just on observation. How her fingertips would feel against the back of his hand, against his palm, against his wrist.
And then her hand is moving away, pulling the glass up as she takes a sip and he stares out into the dark, trying to calm his pulse. When he finally trusts himself to glance back over again, MJ’s turning the next page in her book, clearly settling back into her whole thing, but also not kicking him out.
He lets his head fall back against the wall behind them, stares up at the stars and tries not to think too hard about what it felt like to be among them.
A few times he feels a little tingle at the side of his face, like she’s looking over at him, maybe staring as long and hard as he had been. He thinks about checking, glancing over at her again, but he thinks if she is looking at him, if they end up looking at each other in the quiet and in the dark, he might get caught up in her eyes forever, chasing every minute shift in her expression, tumbling towards realizations he’s not sure he’s ready for.
The worst part is he went to the library because he actually needed to study. But he turned down an aisle towards the back corner of the room to see if one of the window tables were free and MJ was just there, on the floor, asleep between two bookshelves, and everything about his day stopped completely in its tracks.
Like his brain doesn’t know how to begin processing it, have every possible thought at the exact same time, notices every detail in hyperspecificity before trying to pull it together into one image.
Her curls, loose and soft around her, catching and refracting light. Her backpack beneath her head, the way her cheek is squished against it. Her arms and shoulders curled in, her legs kicked out and sprawling. The steady rise and fall of her chest, barely perceptible beneath her oversized jacket that’s acting half like a blanket, swallowing her whole.
He has his first clear thought, a shout in a suddenly silent room, I have jackets.
And then all his thoughts are in a frenzy again, half mortified, half overwhelmed by the sudden mental image of MJ wearing one of his jackets.
Everything in him is warning him to turn and run, get to some higher ground and hide, pure panic swirling with something else a lot warmer and more embarrassing.
Fighting right against that instinct though is this other urge to stay right here, next to her, to protect here, even though there’s nothing wrong, it’s just third period free and they’re in the library, there’s literally no risk at all. But she looks so… soft. He can’t just leave her here alone.
He has the vague sense that she probably is going to kill him, but he can’t stop himself from sitting down, cross-legged by her feet, his back against the bookshelf. He pulls out his notebook from his bag, even though he doesn’t get any work done the whole period, just stares down at a single point on the page and counts out time at the pace of her breathing, memorizing any details of the way she looks right now that he can see out of the corner of his eyes.
He makes an effort, to try to work on math homework, to focus in on the numbers on the page in front of him, but his brain is sidetracked, falling down rabbit holes of wondering what the texture of her hair would be like against his skin, how the pattern of her breathing would feel on the back of his neck.
Two minutes before the period ends, an alarm goes off from right by her head. He startles, slips up and looks over at her as she wakes, foot kicking out and hitting his thigh, arm emerging from deep within her jacket cocoon to hit her phone screen and stop the noise.
She sits up slow, her hair catching on her backpack and falling over her shoulder like a waterfall. Her eyes blink hard as she adjusts to the light and he catches himself in the second before she fully notices him, turning back to his notebook and writing out some numbers like he’s been able to work at all.
“Parker,” she says, cooly, like her voice isn’t slightly raspy and it isn’t actively ruining his entire life.
“H-hey,” he squeaks. He coughs hard, and turns back to her. “How’s it… How are you?”
She raises her eyebrows but the bell rings before he can embarrass himself even further. He grabs his books and practically runs to his next class, and horrifyingly finds it hard to sleep that night with the image of her burned into his retinas.
The rain starts in the space of a blink.
He’s on duty, swinging around Astoria, helping out where he can, even though the afternoons are pretty quiet. The dark, dark clouds roll in and the streets basically empty out just as the skies open up and it starts to pour.
He perches on the edge of the roof off 36th, checks his phone to see if there are any things he needs to pick up for May on the way home, since his work seems to be done for the day.
And then he looks back down on the street and finds MJ there, standing on a street corner without an umbrella or a jacket, staring up at the falling rain.
He ducks back from the edge of the roof, but she doesn’t seem to have seen him yet.
She also doesn’t move, not even when the lights change, just stands still as the rain pelts down.
He almost swings down to check on her, before realizing he doesn’t want to go down there as Spider-Man. MJ is someone you have to work to get closer to, someone who takes her time assessing you before letting you anywhere near the valuable things that actually go on in her head, and somehow he feels like over the past few months he’s earned his way in, been allowed closer, been offered little pieces of her, bits of information she comes across like knick-knacks, some of her sharp opinions on small things like Ring Pop flavors, her deeper cutting insights into institutional systems of oppression and the meaning of life.
He drops down into the alley and yanks his suit off, even though it means he gets drenched, even though the water will soak right through his pedestrian clothes.
MJ doesn’t notice him until he taps her shoulder. She jerks around, eyes going wide before she settles again, glares lightly at him as she pulls out an earbud.
“Hey,” he says, a little louder to be heard over the sound of water on the pavement.
“Hey,” she replies, raising her eyebrows. “What’s up?”
“Uh, it’s raining.”
She nods slowly. “Yeah… it is.”
He shifts on his feet, the water already sloshing in his sneakers. “So what are you--?”
She rolls her eyes and holds out the earbud. And he knows better than to question something like this so he takes it quick, fingers slipping against hers, and presses it into his ear.
He’s never heard the song before, but immediately there’s something about the soft strings, the slow chords, the light haunting way the singer’s voice ghosts over the notes, that he feels deep in his chest, like a vibration, like something burrowing down and in.
MJ has turned back to the sky and he looks over at her and can’t look away. He traces a raindrop with his eyes as it trails down her cheek down the side of her neck. But his attention really gets caught in her hair, the way drops of water seem to rest lightly on each of her curls, almost like snowflakes, refracting light. Loose strands stick to her cheeks and her forehead in swirls and spirals, the rest hanging loose over her shoulders.
Her hair shifts suddenly, as she turns to look at him, and he looks away, tips his head back like hers to face the clouds.
And that’s kind of incredible too, watching the rain come right towards him, feeling each drop against his skin, roll and drip right off the tip of his nose.
A new songs starts to play, and then another. When the clouds start to part he walks her home, nodding along while she talks about a YouTube video she watched about the Bermuda triangle, smiling to himself as she pulls her wet dripping hair up into a thin knot at the back of her neck.
It’s fully a problem, and he’s well aware. Especially at times like this, when they’re in class and he should really be paying attention because he promised May he wouldn’t let his grades drop again the way he did last year and he really can’t afford to if he wants to get into college, even with retaking the year because of the Blip.
But it’s getting harder and harder to not get stuck like this staring at her, especially in APUSH with the chairs in a circle, placing him almost directly across from her.
Everything feels easier with MJ these days. When he’s looking at her, he can be thinking just about her, not any of the other stresses that wait around every corner. She’s all-consuming, endlessly attention-grabbing. Her hair and her smile and the way she leans over her notebooks, scribbles away something he’s sure is completely unrelated to class, that he gets to guess about before she shows him over lunch.
He can focus entirely on hypothesising about her thought process, brainstorming ways he can make her laugh when they walk out of class together, even though she’ll inevitably be funnier than him in a single sentence or with a single look.
And then there are days like today, when he goes to look over at her and finds her already looking back. It makes his heart race every time, and he wonders sometimes if she feels half as electric when she catches him looking at her.
There’s something here, something about her without a doubt, but also something happening in return that he doesn’t know what to do with. Every crush he’s ever had has been embarrassingly one-sided, even Liz, but this is different, heavier and lighter at the same time, and not just inside him, not just him, he thinks or hopes.
He’s not sure what he’ll do if it’s not one-sided, not sure what it means that she might feel the same way, not sure how to believe that he could inspire that kind of head-swimming, heart-pounding feeling in someone else, let alone someone like MJ.
But he keeps looking at her, and she keeps looking at him, on and off like turns.
And sometimes, somedays, when they’re caught in the middle, caught in the moment before they switch off and one of them looks away, they end up just looking at each other. And he gets caught in her eyes, the way they shine, the emotions he can read in them, her smiles, her smirks, the curve of her lashes, the flecks of colors and shapes in her irises.
He’ll look away, usually, to maintain a precarious balance, to keep himself from falling too fast and too deep. Because she looks at him and he feels like he’s stood up too fast, and when he looks at her, he feels like he might never stop.
With all the delays after half of the city being destroyed, he manages to get changed and clean up in time for the flight back to New York.
The class is already at the gate as he inches his way through the security line, checking the time on his phone, rereading the text MJ sent him about the terrible egg salad sandwich Flash bought from the airport gift shop over and over again, trying to find the exact intonation of her voice in the words.
His body thrums just being in the same building as her again after everything on the bridge. His skin still tingles in all the places she touched him, his mind’s eye still studying her smile, the million new details discoverable from how close they were after she kissed him.
He collects his phone and wallet on the other side of security, and it takes basically all of his self-control to not run to the gate, to her side again.
He walks, his hands in his pockets, fighting to keep his breathing steady and his heart calm.
It’s all for show, because the second the gate number is in sight, his pulse is pounding like he’s been running for miles. He scans the seating and finds Mr. Harrington first, standing over the group and doing his dozenth headcount. His eyes dart around the seats and when he finds her, sitting with her legs crossed under her on the seat, she’s already looking at him.
It shouldn’t be different. It’s only been about an hour, and nothing too fundamental has changed. He’s stared at her long enough that there shouldn’t be anything new here, any untread ground in the way that holding her had been, the way kissing her is. But it does. It feels a little like he’s never seen her before, like the world is shifting beneath his feet, like there’s a new door that’s been thrown open, a million new things to see and notice and fall in love with.
She smiles, and it’s like those moments of overlap from the past few months, when they’d be looking at each other by coincidence, but then the moment doesn’t stop.
He keeps staring at her and she keeps staring back, intentional, reciprocal, reverential.
His feet carry him forward, towards her, without hesitation until he lands at her feet, and he doesn’t look away for a single second.