Ananya picked up the skirts to her lehenga, trying to get to the room where Pooja was getting ready. The scent of jasmine followed her as she cradled the plate of jasmine flowers to herself, carefully placing the maang tikka on top. She cursed the heavy skirt as she awkwardly attempted to readjust, the silken black fabric with intricate embroidery impeding her movement.
She pushed open the door, balancing the strings of jasmine in one hand. Pooja half turned at the sound, smiling nervously when she caught sight of Ananya in the mirror. A bobby pin was tugged between her lips, her eyebrows furrowed in frustration as her mother stabbed another one in.
“Pooja! Stand still, how many times must I tell you? You weren’t even this squirmy when I had to do this for bharatanatyam when you were five.” Kamala Aunty admonished, sharply tugging her head back. Pooja grimaced, dutifully letting her mother poke the pins into her head.
“Ma, is this really necessary? It’ll stay even if you don’t puncture my head with those.”
Kamala ignored her, reaching towards Ananya with as much of a smile as she could give with more bobby pins hanging from her mouth. Ananya handed her the jewelry, and she pinned it to Pooja’s hair, stepping back to admire her work. Pooja glanced up in the mirror, sighing with relief when her head was released, turning to look at herself in the mirror.
Ananya gestured for Pooja to turn slowly and she did, nervously biting her lip. Her face glowed with happiness. Her makeup was artful and light, enhancing her features. She shrugged, smiling.
“So how do I look?”
Ananya didn’t say anything, happy tears prickling at the back as she enveloped Pooja in a warm hug.
“You look beautiful.” Ananya said simply. Pooja blinked back her own tears as she leaned against Ananya, sniffling.
Ananya leaned in close, whispering. “Aman’s not going to know what to do with himself.” She pulled back, smirking. Pooja flushed, rolling her eyes even as a shy smile pulled at her lips. Ananya laughed, blowing her a dramatic kiss.
Kamala reached forward as she watched Ananya and Pooja, touching a finger to the back of her ear with a tearful smile. Pooja turned to her mother as Kamala drew her into a hug, squeezing her tightly. Ananya turned to give them some privacy, picking up items and cleaning up the area.
“Anu! What are you doing? Get over here!” Pooja exclaimed, drawing her into the hug as well. Kamala kissed the tops of their heads, wiping away her tears.
“I remember when you two were just-”
“Ma! Do we have to do this now?” Pooja asked in amused exasperation, shaking her head. Kamala gave her a warning look, but there was a twinkle in her eyes as she reached forward and pinched Pooja’s cheeks, delighting in her grimace.
“Of course. As your mother, this is mandatory. It’s my daughter’s engagement!”
“Beta, go sit down.” Kamala insisted gently, guiding Ananya to a chair. Ananya resisted, shaking her head. She had spent most of her time helping behind the scenes as Pooja and Aman smiled at guests, helping Kamala Aunty to work with the caterers to make sure everything was running smoothly.
“No, Aunty, I just have to-”
“Sit down, Anu.” Vishwanathan Iyer said, barely glancing up from a conversation with another guest. Ananya glowered to no effect as Kamala offered Vishwanathan a grin shared between parents, pushing a disgruntled Ananya towards him.
Vishwanathan Iyer was a tall man, well built in comparison to his more lightly built wife. Ananya had always been very close to her father. She reached him, burying her face in his shoulder as he wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close. She inhaled deeply, relaxing under her father’s warm hug.
“Hi Appa.” She murmured. Vishwanathan turned his attention to his daughter, letting the conversation continue around them.
“Have you seen your Amma?” He asked, glancing around the room. Ananya shook her head wryly.
“The last I saw of her, she was bustling around the kitchen.”
Vishwanathan grinned, fondness lacing his voice. “Radha never could stay away from that place. I can guarantee you that she will be complaining in three hours how much her feet hurt.”
Ananya snorted, catching a glimpse of her mother streaking across the room. “There she is.” She nodded at her mother, who caught sight of them right then. Vishwanathan hastily shoved a plate in her hands, and Ananya glanced down at it in surprise.
“Vishwa, how many times have I told you not to eat the vadai? You will fall sick again. When that happens, don’t blame me.” Radha admonished, glaring at him. Ananya snickered, but they quickly disappeared when Radha turned to her. “And you! Quit covering for your father. The two of you, I swear. This is why I have grey hair.” She muttered, snatching the plate.
Ananya shot a glare at Vishwanathan, who merely shrugged apologetically. She hastily followed Radha, who had already started moving in another direction. “Illai Amma, Appa just shoved it into my-”
“I don’t want to hear it. Go give this to Pooja, Kamala gave it to me.” Radha thrust a bouquet of flowers in her hand, her stride purposeful.
“I love you Amma.” Ananya called after her. Radha rolled her eyes, but a shadow of a smile touched her lips. Ananya grinned, turning towards her friend, who was clearly looking for reprieve.
Relief swept across Pooja’s face as Ananya approached. She squeezed Aman’s hand and then stepped away to give Ananya a hug, leaving Aman to battle the many family friends and relatives coming to congratulate them.
“Thank god. I was going nuts.” Ananya grinned ruefully, brushing back a stray piece of hair into a bobby pin. Pooja leaned against her, resting her head on Ananya’s shoulder.
“So when are you eloping?” Ananya joked.
“It’s looking better and better every moment.”
“You left your poor husband-to-be over there to fend for himself?” Pooja shot her a baleful look, glancing over to Aman. A silly smile graced her face as he caught her gaze, and Ananya watched with amusement as her normally exuberant, assertive friend softened. She elbowed Pooja, winking.
“Fun night planned?”
“Shut up, Anu.” Pooja retorted pertly, massaging her sore ankles as she leaned down.
“Is that a yes?”
“I think you need to get laid.”
“I was counting on you, Poo, but you’re getting married. Now I’m alone and sad.” Ananya said, sniffling. Pooja rolled her eyes, a wicked glint in her eyes.
“How about a little dare?”
“What are we, twelve?” Pooja shrugged, raising an eyebrow.
Ananya’s gaze narrowed. “Never.”
“Next guy you see, you have to dance with.”
Ananya turned to her incredulously, shaking her head in disappointment. “That’s the best you could come up with? I’m wearing all that pretty lingerie from that damn bridal shopping trip, and you come up with a dance?”
“Fine, next guy you see, you have to…”
“Have to what?”
They both glanced up at the interruption. Standing in front of them, holding a box wrapped in deep red paper and dressed in a dark blue jacket, pale blue button down shirt tucked into his pants was Raj, his eyes glinting from behind his glasses. He nodded at her, leaning down to give Pooja a brief hug.
“Thank you for coming, Raj. Is Anju here as well?”
Raj tilted his head to where his older sister was standing with his squirming nephew and his brother-in-law, speaking warmly to Aman.
“Shouldn’t you be over there?” He asked Pooja.
“Nah, I left Aman on greeting duty for now.”
“It’s already started.” Raj stated in mock horror, his hands flying to his cheeks. Pooja grinned wickedly.
“Don’t worry Raj, your turn is also coming. I heard your mom talking to my mom about setting up a Shaadi.com profile for you.”
Raj’s eyes widened in actual horror as Ananya failed to restrain laughter, his expression priceless. Pooja smiled sweetly, standing up and brushing her sari down as she walked away.
“Wait what?! You can’t just leave with that!”
“Ask Anu, she’ll fill you in. I have other duties as the bride to be.” Pooja said, waving him off. Ananya’s laughter died immediately as his gaze turned towards her. Her heart lurched in her chest, and he stood there awkwardly, hands shoved in his pockets.
They hadn’t spoken since their last conversation in Milwaukee two weeks ago, except for in the group chat with the new group of the six of them, and even then, never to each other directly.
“I hear they’re looking for a girl who is six feet, so that she’s taller than you for that shaadi.com profile.” She said seriously, biting back a laugh as his eyes darkened in annoyance.
“I’m effectively six feet.”
“Bullshit. You’re like 5’ 10”, max.”
“I am not!” He retorted. “You can even measure me if you want to.”
Color flooded her cheeks as she froze, the double entendre not lost on her. He opened his mouth to correct it but then thought the better of it, deciding to enjoy the rare moment when Ananya Iyer didn’t have something to say.
He sat down in the chair next to her, leaning back comfortably. She sat stiffly next to him, running her hands over the velvet of her lehenga in a nervous gesture that he recognized. They sat in silence, the tension between them evident.
“So uh… What were you going to do to the next guy you saw?” He asked, fiddling with his fingers.
She shot him a surprised glance, taken aback that he was initiating the conversation, especially after how it had ended the last time. She wasn’t going to deny that his words had hurt, flatly rejecting any chance that they could possibly be friends.
“It was lame.” She muttered, glancing out at the dance floor. She caught sight of Pooja and Aman, hoots and claps filling the room as they stepped onto the floor together. A smile unwittingly pulled at her lips as she watched Pooja place her hand on his shoulder, his pulling her close as it wrapped around her waist.
She snapped away to find him looking at her expectantly. She shook her head. “I just had to ask him to dance. But uh… don’t worry, I won’t make you do that with me.” She gave him a brief smile, turning back to look out at the dance floor.
There was an awkward pause, before he spoke again. “I don’t mind.”
She turned to him in surprise, her eyes widening.
Shit. Why had he said that?
“I mean, a bet is a bet.” He hastened to explain, suddenly very uncomfortable. She remained silent, brushing her hair behind her ear in a gesture that he recognized as nervousness. There was a long silence.
He let out a slow breath, standing up and offering her a hand. She looked up at him, her mouth opening slightly in surprise. He raised his eyebrows, still holding it out. She stared at him, her eyes scanning his face in an attempt to read him.
“I thought you preferred that we stayed away from each other.” She said quietly. Her face was expressionless but her voice wavered briefly as she diverted her gaze from his.
“Of course you would choose to bring up all the shit between us now.” He snapped, irritated by her acceptance of the situation.
But wasn’t this what he had wanted?
Her eyes flashed in annoyance, the familiar flush of anger appearing on her cheeks. “Look, you were the one who wanted that. I’m respecting it.” She said in a forceful whisper, trying not to draw the attention of the rest of the room. She glanced at Pooja, who thankfully seemed engaged in a conversation with Aman.
He hated that she had called him out, reminding him that he had wanted exactly that. He should have been satisfied with that, her easy acceptance of his words. She hadn’t pushed him to talk to her the way she usually did, she hadn’t seemed remotely rattled by the idea that they may never go back to their friendship.
Why did it seem so easy for her to let go? And why was it so damned hard for him?
Even back then, she had been the one to break things off. He had thought he had moved on too. He had consciously pushed her to the back of his mind, had dated other people… and yet, three years later, and she still elicited the same, frustrating conflict within him.
It was odd the way certain people could do that, bring one back to the place they thought they had put behind them.
He sighed heavily, running a hand through his hair. “Look, can we just put all of that aside for today and…” He trailed off, laughing humorlessly. “Never mind. I don’t know what got into me, I shouldn’t have asked.”
Her eyes widened and she stared at him for a split second before looking away. He heard her breath slide between her teeth, before she turned to him with a tentative smile, holding out her hand. “Alright.”
He nodded curtly, falling in step with her as they walked onto the dance floor. They faced each other. He hesitated for a moment, swallowing as he took her smaller hand in his. She stepped close enough for him to place a hand on her waist, holding her stiffly. The feeling was uncomfortably familiar as they began to sway gently, keeping a careful distance from each other.
Ananya looked up at him, tilting her head. She had forgotten how tall he was compared to her. He was looking above her head, his eyes directed upwards, clearly lost in thought. He suddenly became aware of her gaze, looking down at her.
“I uh… forgot how tall you were.” She muttered, her cheeks flooding with heat at being caught staring. He smirked, amusement twinkling in his eyes.
“I forgot how tiny you were.” He said, pressing his lips together as he withheld a smile. She rolled her eyes, relaxing slightly in his hold.
She didn’t feel the need to say anything, a comfortable silence settling over them. It was oddly devoid of the tension that had plagued their earlier interactions, the bitter memories dissolving into the music. They leaned into each other unconsciously, his hand sliding to the small of her back, the distance between them closing as her fingers slid between his without a second thought.
“Your nephew is incredibly cute.” She murmured, a smile on her face as she caught sight of Anju bouncing him up and down out of the corner of her eye. Raj’s face immediately drew into an indulgent smile, his eyes lighting up.
“Nick, as I will insist upon calling him, no matter what my sister says, is my favorite person on this planet.”
“How old is he?” She asked, looking up at him. She was surprised by how soft his face looked when he talked about Nick, warmth filling his voice.
“He’s a year old. Just learned to walk, poor Di has to chase him around.”
She laughed, relaxing in his hold. They didn’t need to talk much, letting the music lead them. She slipped into her own thoughts, barely noticing how close they had moved to each other.
She caught Anjali’s gaze, smiling as the other woman’s eyes widened in pleasant surprise at seeing her, raising a hand to wave. She lifted her own hand to wave back but was caught, her fingers stuck between his.
She met Raj’s gaze, her heart speeding up as they stopped dancing for a moment. She tore her eyes away, nervously clearing her throat as she untangled their fingers from his to wave at Anjali. Raj followed her gaze, turning to meet his sister’s curious eyes. She tilted her head, an astute gaze shifting between Ananya and him.
He was suddenly especially conscious of the feel of her waist against his hand, and they both froze. Nervously clearing her throat, Ananya dropped his hand, taking a step back just as the song played out its last few notes. The awkwardness flooded back far more quickly than it had dissipated, and she awkwardly brushed her hair behind her ear. She felt uncomfortable meeting his gaze, her heart racing in her wrist.
“Um… thank you for the dance.” She stated hesitantly, glancing at him quickly before looking away again.
He pressed his lips together and gave her a curt nod. In a way, she was relieved that he was just as uncomfortable.
“Ananya!” A voice interrupted them, and she turned to see Anju walking towards her with a wide smile. Ananya was taken aback by the warmth with which Anjali greeted her, immediately drawing her into a hug. Nicholas made a noise of annoyance, squirming between them.
Anjali pulled away, cooing softly to him as she dug something out of her bag, handing it to him to play with. He giggled contentedly, taking it from her hands. With a radiant smile, she turned back to Ananya.
“I heard you were back in town. How are you doing?”
Ananya smiled uncertainly, confused by the lack of resentment in Anjali’s voice. She knew how close Raj and Anju were. Although she had developed a close relationship with the older woman, she had assumed it to be lost when she and Raj had broken up.
She shot Raj a questioning, but his face remained unreadable. “I’m fine, thank you. Nick is very cute.” She offered, nodding at the child. As soon as Nick caught her gaze, he turned his face into his mother’s chest, peeking shyly out. Anjali turned to Raj with an accusatory look, pretending to be angry.
“You told her his name was Nick?”
Raj merely shrugged, a mischievous grin playing at his lips. Anjali glared at him for a moment before shaking her head, rolling her eyes. “Ignore him. I completely lost touch with you for the last few years.” Her voice wasn’t accusing, but Ananya felt the guilt tug sharply at her.
“I’m sorry, Di- I mean, uh-” She froze, uncertain as to whether it was still okay to call her ex-boyfriend’s older sister by the familiar term. Her gaze shifted hastily to Raj, who was staring at her with an intensity that made her uncomfortable. Anjali’s gaze narrowed, slight incredulity tinging her voice.
“Anu, you can always call me Di. You’ve called me that for years.”
She laughed, relief washing over her. She was particularly conscious of Raj’s gaze still on her, her mind racing.
Had he told her, and was Anju merely faking it?
No. Anjali wasn’t the type to do that.
Then what was going on?
“Your book was wonderful, by the way. You are a gifted writer, Ananya.”
She shook herself out of her thoughts, giving her full attention to Anjali. She would deal with everything else later. She smiled warmly, pushing away the confusion. “Thanks. I know I told you that this dream would never, ever happen but… it did.”
Anjali nodded, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder gently. “You know, honestly, I never thought it would happen either. Raj was always the one who believed in you.”
Ananya’s heart thumped loudly in her ears as she met Raj’s gaze, overwhelmed. Fragments of conversations past flew through her mind. She swallowed, her chest tight.
A loud wail from Nicholas shattered the tension, his toy clattering to the ground. Ananya tore her gaze away, hastening to pick up the toy as Anjali tried to soothe him to no avail. Anjali looked apologetically at Ananya. “I’m so sorry, I think he’s hungry and tired. It’s been a lot of excitement for him today.” Nicholas continued to cry, making quiet whimpers as Raj gently patted his back. “Perhaps we can get coffee sometime? I would love to catch up and hear what you’re doing.”
“Of course, Di. I would love to. I still have the same number, just text me and we’ll set something up.”
Anjali nodded, adjusting Nicholas in her arms. “It’s good to have you back, Anu. I’ve missed seeing you around.” She said, warmth infusing her voice. With a quick smile, she turned around, walking towards the door.
There was a brief silence as Ananya and Raj assessed each other.
“Why didn’t you tell her?” She asked, her voice eerily quiet. She didn’t know what to make of it, her mind swirling with confusion. Raj shrugged, seemingly unaffected.
“I’ve always said that our business is our own.”
“Yeah, but it’s Anju. Why didn’t you tell her?” She pressed, needing answers. She couldn’t shake the feeling of unsettling gratitude that he hadn’t broken her relationship with his sister, coupled with the twist of guilt and wariness.
“Let it go, Anya. Not everything is about you.” He snapped. She recoiled and he let out a frustrated breath, turning on his heel and walking away. She stared after his form, the hole in the pit of her stomach far from alleviated.
Song: Tu Mere Paas
Artist: Ankit Tiwari
Movie: Wazir (2016)
Note: I’m so sorry it took me so long to get this up — unfortunately, my life has become more hectic so my updates will probably become more sporadic. I will try to remain as regular as I can, and might shift to every two weeks, but I apologize in advance. I hope that’s okay! Thank you so much for all the love and support. It means so much to me, especially when I’m wading through hours of circuits and resistors.
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