“I can’t believe you won’t be here for the Young the Giant concert.” Raj said, glaring at his friend as he heaved another suitcase into the back of the van. Anand opened his mouth to apologize but Raj shook his head, smiling. “Don’t apologize. I know you would have come if you could have, and this is a fantastic opportunity.”
Anand’s face lit up, a wide smile stretching his lips. “Yeah, I still can’t believe it’s true. We get to open for an actually big band.”
“Did you grab the directions?” Natasha asked as she jogged out from her apartment. She slowed as she approached him, wrapping her arms around his waist and leaning her head against his shoulder. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head, inhaling deeply.
Raj looked away, not wanting to intrude. He touched his back pocket at the feel of a vibration, pulling out his phone.
Reminder: Anand leaves on tour.
He sighed in frustration, unlocking the screen even though he had no other notifications and opening his texts. His gaze immediately slid down to her name, the lack of the blue dot that indicated a new message frustratingly absent.
He pressed his lips together, shoving his phone back in his pocket.
Why was he waiting for a text from her?
“You can look at us now, Raj.” Anand interrupted his thoughts wryly. Raj turned back towards them, grinning.
“I just wanted to give you some privacy.” He winked suggestively, earning an eyeroll from Natasha.
“I do hear that the middle of the street is the best place to get it on.”
“You never know these days.” Raj responded seriously, walking over to the couple. He gave Anand a one-armed hug, smiling. “I’m going to miss you.”
“Ew, don’t get sentimental on me.” Anand made a face but it quickly softened into a smile. They looked at each other for a moment, and Raj punched his shoulder fondly. They had been roommates for so long, and he had missed him when Anand had effectively moved to Natasha’s — but it had never seemed so permanent until now.
He drew back, shaking away the unusually strong bout of nostalgia. He stepped away to give them space, watching as Anand got into the van and gave Natasha a lingering kiss before he drove away.
Natasha wrapped her arms around herself as she watched the van disappear, her shoulders slumping. Raj opened his arm to wrap it around her as she leaned into his hug, blinking back tears. She laughed wryly, looking up at him.
“How do I miss him already?”
“That’s possibly the cheesiest thing I’ve ever heard you say, O’Neill.”
“Shut up, Malhotra.”
He grinned mischievously, relieved at the smile that pulled at her lips despite the sheen of tears. He followed her inside, settling himself across from her as she served the spaghetti he had made earlier to both of them.
“So are you coming to the concert tonight?” He asked between mouthfuls, raising his gaze to look at her. Natasha cringed guiltily, and Raj closed his eyes, letting his head fall forward into his hands.
“You’re not coming either?!”
“I don’t like Young the Giant!” She exclaimed, holding her hands up in surrender. Raj gasped dramatically, eyeing his friend with a horrified expression. “You know I don’t do indie rock.”
He sighed, his shoulder slumping. “I know, I know. I just hoped that your fiancé had converted you because that’s what he plays.”
“I’ll listen to Anand. Just… no one else.” She pressed her lips together, an apologetic expression on her face.
“Well, I guess I have an extra ticket now.” Raj said, exaggerating his sadness. Natasha snorted in amusement, shaking her head. She fell silent for a moment, then opened her mouth and closed it. Raj looked at her curiously. “What?”
She regarded him for a long moment. “Ananya would want to come.” She stated hesitantly. Raj swallowed, his throat suddenly dry as he placed his fork down on the bowl. Natasha’s gaze was pinned on him, and he worked to keep his face neutral even as thoughts flew in his mind.
She loved Young the Giant.
Wisps of a memory curled in his mind, and he swallowed once more, seeking to dispel it. It remained insistent, gaining sharper edges as it pushed its way to the front of his mind.
It had been their first date.
He turned to look at Natasha, shaking himself out of the reverie. “Yeah yeah, I was just thinking.”
“It was just a suggestion. You don’t have to ask her.”
“No, I think I will.”
He paused, considering what he had just said. He hadn’t seen her since the day he had subbed for the Lonely Boys, exchanging only a brief message with her when she had texted him to thank him.
Should he ask her?
He had promised himself that he would try, hadn’t he?
He glanced down at his phone, the message thread they shared sitting at the bottom of the screen. He picked up his phone before he lost his nerve, shooting a quick text to Ananya.
Raj Malhotra: I’ve got an extra ticket for Young the Giant tonight, because Anand couldn’t come. Want to come?
He looked up at Natasha, giving her an easy smile. “There. Did it.”
She studied him for a moment, her gaze narrowing. He waited but she said nothing, instead going back to her pasta. They ate in silence for a while longer, discomfort of words unsaid hanging between them.
His phone buzzed before he could respond and he reached for it, his eyes scanning the screen rapidly.
Ananya Iyer: I’d love to.
His stomach tightened with an odd sort of nervousness as the memories crept up once more. He shook his head, rolling his eyes inwardly at himself.
Stop thinking about what you were, Raj.
He quickly typed out a response, ignoring the nervousness that still lingered. He raised his gaze to look at Natasha, smiling. “I’m glad too.” He said unsure of how much truth the words held. She nodded and returned his smile, changing the topic easily to their research. He let himself fall into the conversation, ignoring the little niggle at the back of his mind.
Ananya gently shut the door to her apartment behind herself, checking to see that it was locked. She slipped her hands into the pockets of her light coat, smiling as she began to walk towards the Orpheum. The air was cool as she began her walk, sending goosebumps trailing up her arms. She pulled her arms in closer to herself, exhaling slowly.
Young the Giant was the first concert she and Raj had attended together, although they had only been friends at the time.
“I like you, Ananya Iyer.”
Nostalgia pressed insistently at her chest, expanding into the empty crevices and enveloping her. The memory of the Young the Giant concert she had attended last took shape.
She picked up her phone, guiltily glancing at it and then quickly placing it back. The screen remained frustratingly blank. She knew there would be a vibration if she received a text message but she couldn’t help but check.
After all, sometimes it didn’t vibrate.
Maybe she could check one more time…
“Fifth time you’ve checked in twenty minutes?”
Ananya jumped, her face flaming. Pooja sat on the couch behind her, casually turning the page of her book.
“I was just looking to see if the plans have changed for tonight.” She said defensively. Pooja raised an eyebrow, not looking away from her book.
“You do know that the phone will vibrate if you get a message from him right?” She asked, biting back a smirk.
Ananya opened her mouth, feeling her cheeks darken. “I- I wasn’t waiting for a text from Raj. I was just looking to see if someone had sent a text in the group in general.” She clarified, internally wincing at how high pitched her voice was.
“Really?” Pooja drawled, glancing up at her. “So it means nothing that you two have spent most of the last month studying together in the library.”
“We’re in the same chemistry class, it hardly means anything. We are legitimately just studying.”
“And the walking home business?”
“We finish at like 2 a.m.! He wouldn’t just leave me to walk alone.”
“You like him.” Pooja stated, a shit-eating grin on her face. Ananya scoffed, turning back to her computer and typing determinedly.
“I do not. We’re friends.”
“Are you trying to convince yourself or me?”
“Shut up, Pooj.”
“Great comeback.” Pooja deadpanned.
“I’m not even going to acknowledge that. There’s genuinely nothing more to it.”
“So you have that silly little smile on your face whenever he’s texting you because…?”
She slammed her hands down on her desk, whirling around to face her with a sharp exhale of surrender. “Fine. I like him, okay?” She started off angrily but a smile quickly replaced it. She hastily tried to cover it but Pooja had already seen, her eyes widening happily.
“Oh my god, you really do! You’ve got it so bad, Ananya, you can’t even stop smiling at the thought.”
Ananya put her face in her hands, groaning. “No, shut up, that’s not supposed to happen! I can keep a straight face.” She drew in a breath, setting her face in a serious expression. “I like him.”
The smile immediately pulled at her lips, despite her best efforts. She leaned her head back with an embarrassed moan, squeezing her eyes together. She didn’t even know if he liked her back, and she didn’t want to risk that possibility.
The buzzing of her phone broke her out of her thoughts and she immediately reached for it, anticipation thrumming.
Raj Malhotra: Pooja said that she and Michael are having a date night before the concert. I don’t particularly want to third wheel, so do you want to grab dinner somewhere beforehand?
She started to turn around to look at Pooja, but there was another quick buzz before she could respond.
Raj Malhotra: There’s that Afghani place we were talking about.
That Afghani place… she most definitely knew of it, and she also knew that going there with just him would border on a date.
“What’d he say?” Pooja asked from behind her. Ananya could hear the smirk in her voice, and she turned around to face Pooja with a narrowed gaze.
“Really? Date night?”
Pooja shrugged. “It was kind of a last minute thing.”
Ananya raised an eyebrow. “How convenient.” She noted dryly, ignoring the bubble of excitement that threatened to break free. She silently admonished herself for getting her hopes up. For all she knew, it could literally just be a friendly, casual dinner.
Or not, her mind teased.
“So what did he say?”
“He asked me if I want to go to Kabul.”
“That sounds like a date.”
“So you’re going?”
“You should wear that lacy hot pink bra I forced you to buy.”
“Only that?” Ananya asked cheekily. Pooja grinned wickedly.
“I don’t think he’d mind that.”
Ananya looked at Pooja for a minute, the giddy feeling fading slightly. “I don’t want to overthink this. Maybe he really just wants to get dinner.” She said, biting her lip as uncertainty snuck its way in. Pooja shook her head, taking her by the elbow.
“Quit questioning it, Anu, and let me help you get dressed.”
She finally escaped the house in dark jeans and a loosely fitted pastel pink top, a coat thrown over her arm. She was only slightly more dressed up than normal, since Pooja had convinced her to add a touch of mascara and line her eyes. She descended the stairs, pulling out her phone to text Raj when she stumbled into someone.
She looked up to see Raj looking down at her. “Easy there tiger.”
She smiled widely, looking up at him. “Hey! I thought we were meeting at the restaurant.” She said, tilting her head. She saw a brief flicker of something cross his face but it was quickly gone, an easy smile on his lips.
“Your house is on the way, so I thought I’d just stop by.” He said, shrugging casually.
Was that nervousness she heard in his voice?
She reprimanded herself. She was overthinking this, this was Raj, the guy who had come to be one of her closest friends over the last couple of months. The goofball who made up silly mnemonics to help her remember things from class, who shared his favorite music with her, who…
Ah fuck. She really did have it bad.
“Anya!” She snapped out of her reverie when he waved a hand in front of her face with an amused expression. Her cheeks warmed at being caught, and he raised an eyebrow. “Someone’s a little out of it.”
She smiled, pushing away the nervousness. “No, no, I was just working through a problem in my head. You know number 9-”
“No. We’re not talking about school today.” He said. “What episode of The Office are you on?”
He shook his head, cutting her off. “I refuse to entertain school today. I’ve spent the last three weeks working my ass off, I deserve a night off.”
She rolled her eyes, reluctantly acquiescing. “Fine. I’m on the beginning of season 3.”
“So you saw what happened between Jim and Pam?” He asked, turning eagerly to her. She laughed, shaking her head.
“Are you the fangirl or am I?”
“Everyone is a Jim and Pam fangirl. Everyone.” He said seriously, coming to a stop on the sidewalk. She turned to face him, planning to admonish him for stopping but finding herself looking up at him instead. The smile slowly slipped off her face as their eyes met, her heartbeat growing louder in her ears. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, clearing his throat nervously as he looked away.
It wasn’t just her. It couldn’t be.
She pressed her lips together, her pulse quickening as she fell back into step with him. They walked in awkward silence, far too conscious of the other to focus on anything else.
“Uh… so why do you like Jim and Pam?” He broke the silence as they came to a stop at a crosswalk. She glanced up at him, but his gaze was directed determinedly forward.
“Because they’re best friends. And the ideal relationship, in my opinion, is when your partner is also your best friend.”
There was a silence that felt entirely too long, the underlying implication not lost on either of them. Ananya felt as if she was holding her breath, her heart pounding nervously. She had put herself out there in a small way, indicating her feelings for him.
Her gut told her that it wasn’t a mistake, but her head…
“So you’re open to a relationship with a friend?” He asked, tiptoeing around asking her directly. She nearly cursed at him in frustration, almost tempted to ask him herself. She opened her mouth to respond, but was interrupted by the woman at the restaurant, a wide smile on her face.
Ananya shook herself, surprised that they had reached so quickly. She struggled to contain her disappointment as Raj turned to answer the waitress, the earlier conversation forgotten.
“Table for two?”
Dinner passed quickly, earlier tension left to simmer. She let herself focus on the conversation rather than the feelings that remained unsaid. She had barely noticed the time until the waitress came by, looking between them.
“Can I take your plates?”
Raj glanced up and nodded, giving her a brief smile. The waitress handed him the check and he froze, glancing up at her quickly.
“We can split the bill.” She said quietly. Her eyes assessed his face for a moment, and she seemed to consider her words. “That is… if you want to.” She added, more to herself than to him. He had no visible reaction and she sighed, swallowing her disappointment as she turned her attention to running her finger over the rim of her glass to distract herself.
He hastily signed the check, avoiding her gaze as they stepped back outside.
Had he misread her?
She jogged to keep up with him, grabbing his hand.
“You’re not running a marathon, Malhotra, hold up.” She said, grinning playfully. He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. She slid her fingers through his as she caught up, falling into step with him.
He turned to look at her in surprise, but she just continued to talk about something excitedly, gesturing with her other hand.
They walked into the Orpheum. She was pressed up against him as they pushed their way through the crowd, her fingers still laced through his. The crowd erupted around them as Young the Giant began their opener, the deep beat of the drums resonating in them.
Even through the crowd, he could pick out her voice as she leaned back against him, her fingers tightening in his. He stood almost nervously, acutely aware of the faint scent of her perfume cutting through the pungent smell of weed that accompanied any concert.
He hardly noticed as the song changed, the soft guitar pattern playing out a familiar pattern. The crowd immediately quieted as Sameer leaned into the mike, his voice crooning. His hand rested on Ananya’s waist as he pulled her closer, murmuring the vocals of his favorite song against her hair.
He could faintly hear her voice as she spoke, her eyes facing forward. He struggled to pick out the words from the loud singing of the crowd and leaned in closer.
“I said-” She turned around, but her words died on her lips as she found herself just inches from her lips. The light from the stage illuminated half her face, her breath quickening visibly as her gaze dropped to his lips.
“I- I was, uh-” She struggled to find her words, her voice trailing off as he tilted her head, his fingers grazing her cheek as the guitar began the chords for the chorus again, slowing slightly as the pause came, Sameer’s voice falling perfectly into the words.
His eyes trailed over her face for the split second before her lips touched his, her toes pressing against his as she went up on them. His fingers curled into the soft skin at her waist as he deepened it, his mouth opening against hers. Her hand slid up to his cheek, tilting him closer.
The chords faded out just as they pulled apart, their foreheads pressed together. Her eyes were dark in the backlighting from the stage, but he could still see the flush on her cheeks as she smiled.
“I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever admit to liking me, Malhotra.” She murmured, leaning close to his ear. “I was beginning to think that I had misread things.”
He laughed, shaking his head as Sameer said something to the crowd before their next song. He leaned in just as the steady, rich drumbeat for My Body kicked up, throwing the crowd into excitement as Ananya cheered loudly. She turned back to him, her face radiant as she crowed the words to the song. He leaned in to press a quick kiss to her lips, unable to resist, but she pulled away, shaking her head.
“You don’t get a kiss till you admit it.”
He regarded her for a moment as she easily slipped back into the beat, her head bouncing up and down to the music. He leaned closer until his lips brushed against her ear, reveling in her sharp intake of breath, stumbling over the beginning words of the chorus.
“I like you, Ananya Iyer.”
Song: Sweet Disposition
Artist: The Temper Trap
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