He glanced up when he heard footsteps, catching Natasha’s gaze across the lab. She lifted her hand and wiggled her fingers, the brilliant stone sitting on her hand catching the light. His mouth parted and he smiled widely, standing up to give her a hug.
“He did it!”
She bit her lip, her cheeks flooding with color as she nodded. “He did, he did. I can’t believe you knew and didn’t tell me!” She said, smacking him lightly on the chest as she pulled back from his hug.
Raj smirked. “I was being a bro. I couldn’t very well tell you that, it would have ruined the surprise.”
“Yeah, yeah. Oh, it was so romantic.” She sighed happily. “We went out on a boat ride at sunset, and it was warm and beautiful and there was champagne and I know this all sounds so cliched but it was just perfect.” Natasha’s smile was radiant. He couldn’t help but smile himself as he watched her talk.
“So we’re celebrating tonight then?”
She nodded. “Anand’s got a gig at High Noon Saloon, and after that, I was thinking we could do dinner out.” She hesitated for a moment. “Uh… Anand’s inviting Ananya. Is that okay?” She asked tentatively.
His heart lurched at her name, and he unconsciously pressed his lips together. He grew very aware of Natasha’s worried gaze on him, and cleared his throat.
“Of course. It’s your celebration, Ananya and I can put aside whatever differences we have. We’re adults.” He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
Get it together, Raj, you just have to flush it away. It’s easy.
He snorted, knowing how untrue that was.
Natasha raised an eyebrow. “Really? Because I remember Anand getting a somewhat drunk text rant the night of Pooja’s engagement.”
Raj glanced at the clock. “Congratulations. You waited a whole ten minutes before bringing that up. I think that’s some sort of record.”
“Be grateful, Rajshekhar. The mark of true friendship is knowing what buttons piss the other person off.” She said with a wink. She sobered quickly, squeezing his shoulder. “Are you okay?” She asked, looking at him earnestly.
Raj couldn’t help the fond smile that tugged at his lips, suddenly taken with gratitude for their friendship.
Shaking his head clear, he nodded. “I’m okay. We talked about it, and…” The words sounded false to his own ears, and he exhaled slowly. “It’s okay. It’s time to flush that shit down the toilet.” He said, his voice holding the conviction he lacked within himself.
Natasha’s gaze narrowed for a brief second before recognition lit up her face. “Pooja?”
Natasha merely shook her head, smiling. “She’s a lovely person. Anand speaks very fondly of her, and she’s a great fit for Aman.”
“She is.” He mused. “They’re a testament to the quasi-arranged marriage idea working.”
Natasha stared at him in confusion, her brow crinkling. “What the hell is the quasi-arranged marriage idea?”
Raj turned to her, gesturing. “You know, the family friends since childhood, parents “arrange” a meeting and end up falling in love…” He trailed off, and she nodded in understanding.
A sneaky grin worked its way on her face and Raj narrowed his gaze. “What? I don’t like that look, Natasha.”
“I was just going to ask if Uma Aunty and Navin Uncle had any close family friends…”
Raj rolled his eyes in exasperation, but it faded. Amma had certainly not-so-subtly suggested the names of various daughters of her friends to him, entreating him to perhaps consider one of them. She had even called him yesterday, sighing about how she hadn’t attended a family wedding in so long.
“Raju, at least consider them! They’re nice girls, and you know them well.”
But he hadn’t even considered it. He bit back a curse, frustrated with himself.
Even after everything that had happened, he still found himself comparing every girl to her.
Flush it away, Malhotra. You can do this. How hard could it be?
Natasha turned to look at him when he didn’t say anything sarcastic, curious.
“Uh… I did have a friend named Shreya…” He said, the words feeling funny on his tongue.
A strange emptiness opened up on his heart, settling in the pit of his stomach. Ananya’s face flashed through his mind, a shadow of their kiss on his lips. Memories of their relationship had seemed particularly poignant since they had kissed, old dusty mental pictures sneaking out of the box he had shoved to the back of his brain.
He cleared his throat, conscious of Natasha’s gaze on him. “Maybe I should get Amma to call her.” He said with an awkward laugh, trying to infuse humor into his voice. Natasha studied him for a moment, but chose to say nothing.
He changed the topic, pushing down the odd feelings. “So do you like the glorified stone he put on your finger?”
Natasha gave him a look, but laughed, nodding. He focused on her, smiling as her voice lifted in excitement, pushing thoughts of Ananya from his mind.
Flush it away. You’re going to try to be friends with her.
“You proposed!” Ananya exclaimed, bounding up to Anand and wrapping him in a hug as he approached. He laughed, nodding.
“And miraculously, she said yes!” He responded, the delighted grin on his face belying how thrilled he was.
Ananya gave his shoulder a squeeze. “I’m so happy for you.” She said, genuine warmth infusing her voice. Anand smiled, sighing contentedly.
“Not going to lie, I was pretty nervous.”
“Even though you knew she would say yes?” Ananya asked dryly.
“Okay, you never know, something could happen and suddenly she could decide that she doesn’t want to marry me and…” He trailed off, realizing what he was saying as her face whitened. “Shit, I didn’t mean it like that, Anu.”
She swallowed audibly, shaking her head with an uncomfortable laugh. “No, no, I know, of course.” There was a tense pause before she continued. “We worked it out though, sort of. I ran into him in the mall and we had a conversation.”
“You mean after the kiss?”
Ananya’s eyes shot up to Anand’s, surprised. “You know?” She asked, her heart pounding loudly in her ears.
“Yeah. Raj texted me that night.” He said quietly, his gaze on her. He could tell that she was distinctly unsettled by the information. “He seemed tipsy.” He added. Her face relaxed a little, and she nodded.
“He was. We were, actually, is more accurate. I had some wine, he had some whisky… stupid decisions arise from alcohol.” She stated, smiling slightly. Anand grinned knowingly. They fell silent for a moment before Ananya spoke again.
“Anyway. We worked it out.” She offered him a smile, but her eyes were shuttered. Anand pressed his lips together, nodding slowly.
“It’ll be good for you two to move on.”
A leaden weight settled in her stomach at the thought. For a moment, she wondered if she could ever move on.
Could she ever be ‘just friends’ with Raj?
Come on, Ananya, flush it away. It’s easy, remember?
She quickly smiled when he turned to her, burying her uneasiness.
“I have a friend I could set you up with, if you want…” Anand suggested, trailing off.
Ananya started shaking her head in the negative before he even finished his statement, laughing. “What is it with everyone trying to set me up? I’m fine being single, you know.”
“Come on, Anu, you haven’t really dated since we graduated.”
Ananya threw up her hands. “Maybe I don’t want to date!”
Or maybe you just want Raj.
She determinedly silenced the little niggle at the back of her head, ignoring the way her pulse lurched at the thought.
Her memories were frustratingly vivid when it came to him. The memory of the warmth that spread through her when his lips touched hers, the tenderness of his fingers as they brushed hair behind her ears…
She gritted her teeth in frustration, hating the way the faded memories had flooded back to life with just one kiss.
A single spark can start a prairie fire.
Her mom’s voice rang in her head, annoyingly smug as she recalled her mother’s favorite Chinese proverb.
Flush it away, Ananya.
“You’re Indian. And you’re a woman. Your only life goal is to make babies.” He deadpanned, earning a slap to the back of his head from her. He rubbed it, the grin on his face not fading. “Come on, Anu, I promise I won’t set you up with any weirdos.”
She sighed, smiling reluctantly. “Fine. Maybe. I’ll let you know.” She said lightly, hoping that would be the end of this conversation.
She needed to move on, and maybe this was a good way to do that.
“Let you know about what?” Pooja asked from behind them, wrapping Ananya in a hug. Natasha waved from behind Pooja, followed by Raj and Aman.
“Mm, Anand’s offering to set me up with a friend of his.” Annaya murmured to her as Anand turned to greet the others. Pooja raised an eyebrow.
Ananya closed her eyes and exhaled, shaking her head. “I already said fine. That I’ll consider it. I just don’t know if I have time to date right now…” She trailed off. Her gaze unconsciously drifted to Raj, who was in the middle of a conversation with Natasha and Anand, but it snapped back just as quickly.
“I don’t know if I want to date either.” She added, shrugging. “Every relationship I get into now will be heading for marriage and… that’s just overwhelming.”
“What happened to the romantic Ananya who was all about marriage?” Pooja asked teasingly, nudging her.
“She got a reality check.” Ananya responded wryly. Pooja shook her head, giving her a tight squeeze.
“You know, it’s not a be all end all. No one is asking you to marry the next person you go on a date with. Go, see if you enjoy it, and if you don’t, tell them politely that it’s not happening ever again.”
“You make it sound like it’s the easiest thing in the world.”
“That’s because it isn’t nearly as complicated as you’re making it out to be.” Pooja retorted.
“Since when are relationships ever easy?”
“You write romance novels for a living, Anu. It’s the challenges that make it a good story.” She countered. Ananya opened her mouth, but found that she had no response. Pooja smirked, reveling in her momentary silence. “I could be a motivational poster maker.”
Ananya snorted. “Yeah, right. I want a poster on my wall that says ‘flush that shit down the toilet’.”
Pooja moved to respond but was interrupted by the server, who greeted them with a smile.
Ananya glanced at Raj again as he sat down right next to her. He was wearing a green checked button down with dark jeans, his hair brushed back away from his face. He adjusted his glasses, a smile crinkling his eyes as Natasha said something to him. He turned and she found herself caught, their eyes meeting directly.
She sucked in a sharp breath, her heart thudding in her chest with anticipation. It was the first time she had seen him since their encounter at the mall, and she found herself in a sudden panic.
What was she supposed to say? Should she wave? What if by moving on, he meant that they should cut off all contact? Was she supposed to ignore him? No, that was ridiculous, that wasn’t even possible with how their friend group was structured…
He gave her a small smile, answering all of the uncertainties that had tumbled to the front of her head. She could feel everyone else’s gaze on them, waiting.
“Hey.” The nervousness in her chest that had gone unacknowledged eased as she spoke, expanding as she drew a comforting breath. “Has Nick ruined your new toaster yet?” She asked quickly, reaching for a safe topic. An immediate smile bloomed across his face at the mention of his nephew, and she could almost feel the rest of the table exhale.
“It survived. Di and Javi came back yesterday, so he’s back at home.”
“It must feel quiet without him.” Pooja commented. Raj’s face dimmed slightly and he nodded.
“It does. I always miss him when he leaves, but it just gives me an excuse to go visit Di.” He admitted, his smile brightening.
“God, don’t even get me started on kids. The first thing Anand’s extended family asked when we announced our engagement was when we were planning to have kids.” Natasha grumbled, rolling her eyes.
Ananya tuned out of the conversation as it turned to wedding planning, letting her mind drift a little.
“Just hearing this makes my head hurt.” Raj muttered, so quietly that she almost thought she had imagined it.
She glanced up at him, taken aback. She could hear the blood rushing through her ears, a thousand questions running through her mind.
He turned slightly towards her, raising an eyebrow. “You can’t tell me that you disagree with that.”
She shook herself mentally, trying to collect her stunned thoughts. She quickly scanned his face, but it was inscrutable, an easy smile on his face.
Was he as uncertain as she was about this?
Don’t think about it, Ananya. Just let it go.
“Uh… Yeah.” She said awkwardly. She collected herself, laughing. “Yeah, and I’ve been helping Pooja with the planning so… it’s so much work that it almost feels like I’m planning my own wedding.” She bit her tongue as soon as the words left her lips, wondering what he would think of them.
To her relief, he didn’t say anything, simply making a noise of agreement.
“So uh… I hear you’re joining Anand’s band for a night.” She began hesitantly.
Was that the right question? Was it too personal? Would it seem like she had been asking after him?
She didn’t know how to do this anymore. She missed how easily they had been able to talk for hours, but also the silences they had shared. It had always been so easy with him but now…
She hated feeling out of control.
He rubbed at his forehead and nodded, exhaling.
“Don’t even remind me. I haven’t played percussion in years, but Joshua backed out so Anand begged me to take his place and I just… you know, I didn’t want to say no.”
“You haven’t played?” Ananya asked, surprised. Raj had often spent nights at the Humanities building, buried in a practice room with the drums or a piano. When he couldn’t do that, he would simply sit and play with his guitar, the chords ringing through the apartment. She had often sat on the couch beside him, leaning against him as she paged through a book.
Raj cleared his throat. “No, I haven’t seriously played since…” His unfinished sentence filled her with heaviness. He shrugged with a regretful smile, not letting the silence sit. “I just didn’t have time, with grad school and everything changing. It was the combination of many things and I just lost touch with it.” He said simply.
“I’d love to come to the concert… I haven’t actually seen Anand’s band since we graduated.” She paused, guilt slicing through her.
There was a time when she had gone to every single one of their concerts.
She felt Raj tense, and quickly continued, unwilling to confront that memory. “Uh, and I assume they’ve gotten better. They’ve gotten bigger, haven’t they?”
Raj relaxed slightly and nodded, smiling with a hint of pride. “They’ve really grown. If you hear their first studio album, and then the one they’re working on now… it’s impressive.”
Ananya paused for a moment, fiddling with her fork as she considered her words. She lifted her gaze to his. “You should go back to playing. You were good. Really good.” She said sincerely.
Raj let out a bark of laughter, shaking his head. “Don’t flatter me, Iyer.”
“I’m not, Malhotra.” She retorted. “I wouldn’t dream of flattering you.” She said teasingly, the words slipping out easily. He smiled slightly, but she felt him stiffen. She sucked in a breath, the ease with which their banter came just as unsettling as the awkward silences.
She could see the trepidation in his eyes that she knew was mirrored in her own as well. She looked away, holding back a frustrated curse.
This is Raj, Ananya. You may be trying to be cordial, but it’s not like you can joke around with him.
She looked out at the table, her eyes falling on Aman, who was watching Pooja as she spoke. She could see the tenderness on his face as he watched her, her chest tightening. Pooja met his gaze, her smile softening as she reached out a hand to squeeze his.
Ananya looked away, yearning tugging at her. The photo of her and Raj from when they had seen Wicked flashed in her mind.
She missed him.
She had never stopped.
“Ananya, what was that shop Radha Aunty mentioned in Chicago that did alterations well?” Pooja interrupted. Ananya turned to answer her, engaging in the conversation.
Raj glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes, withholding a sigh. He knew she had noticed his sudden distance, the fleeting seconds of warmth in their conversation fading rapidly. He swallowed the tightness in his throat, forcing his gaze away from her.
He couldn’t go back there, not again.
They were acquaintances, and that was it.
As everyone grabbed their things to leave, stepped out onto the sidewalk with her. He paused as he saw her walk towards the bus stop, wondering whether he should offer her a ride.
Hesitating, he shook his head, about to turn away when he saw Pooja pull up to her, insisting that Ananya get into the car. He caught her gaze as she reluctantly got in, pausing when she saw him.
They exchanged cautious smiles, and Ananya raised her hand to give him a small wave. He gave her a nod of acknowledgement, turning away to walk towards his car just as she slid into Pooja’s.
Maybe this could work. Just maybe.
Song: Winds of Change
Artist: Vance Joy
Note: I guess the chapter came a little earlier than expected — I’m sorry it took so long. I still cannot guarantee regular updates, but I promise I’m doing my best. I won’t abandon this story, and I’m so grateful for your continued support. Please do leave me your thoughts, I love to read them as I’m peeking out from the pile of papers.