She drove mechanically as she turned the car through the straight roads that took her from Grayslake to Raj’s place, her mind drifting. Navin had gotten home the previous night and she had taken a short trip to her family friend’s house in Grayslake to give the Malhotras some space to themselves.
She touched the thin gold chain on her neck absentmindedly as she pulled to a stop at a light, her own words echoing in her head. They had not had a chance to speak to each other since they had cooked dinner together, with Navin coming home.
There was no question in her mind that he hadn’t gotten over her. His touches had spoken for any words he hadn’t said, the tenderness in his kisses making her chest expand with an addictive warmth.
But the apprehension had returned just as quickly, his guard slamming down as he danced around the topic. She had seen the look on his face after he had come back from the bathroom, retreating from the possibility of them as if he had been burned.
Of course, he had been burned, hadn’t he?
Her conscience reminded her mockingly and she swallowed thickly as regret bubbled up. Not for the first time, she wondered what would have happened if she hadn’t made the choices she had.
“Fuck.” She shook her head, cursing audibly as her grip tightened around the steering wheel.
If she couldn’t get over the guilt, how could she expect him to ever trust her again?
The thought filled her with a piercing sadness, her lungs tightening against her ribcage. She blinked back tears as the road blurred in front of her and hastily reached for a tissue, rubbing her eyes.
She fucking hated this feeling.
First her mother, and then Raj.
She couldn’t lose him again. She couldn’t handle it.
She forced herself to inhale and think rationally, shaking her head.
No. She had to accept it if he chose to part ways with her. This was on her, and she couldn’t blame him.
She smiled sadly to herself, almost hearing Pooja’s voice admonishing her in her head for thinking that way, just as she pulled into their driveway. Raj was already standing there with his family, his bags kept neatly on the side. She watched as he wrapped his sister in a hug, murmuring something in her ear that made her smack his shoulder.
They all turned to look as she pulled up, Uma’s face darkening for a split second as Navin’s simultaneously smiled. Raj nodded at her in acknowledgement as she turned off the car, getting out and standing to the side.
“Don’t forget about us for another six months, Raju.” She heard Uma say, her voice breaking slightly as she issued the warning. She could see the change in his demeanor as he leaned into his mother, who pressed a hand to his cheek.
“Aw come on Ma, don’t cry.” He said, injecting humor into his own voice to mask his sadness as Uma sniffled.
“I’m not crying. Something got into my eyes.” Rolling his eyes, he gave her a warm hug, pressing a kiss to the side of her forehead. Ananya averted her gaze, feeling distinctly intrusive.
Raj stepped over to his father, sticking his hand out for a handshake. Navin shook his hand, and drew him in for a half hug, squeezing his shoulder. Raj took a step back and turned around, pressing his lips together. Ananya could see the sheen in his eyes as he blinked rapidly, trying to conceal his tears.
“Raj.” Navin called, his voice thick with emotion. He stilled and turned slowly, using the back of his hand to hastily rub at the tears that had stuck to his eyelashes. Navin walked up to him, pulling him into a warm hug.
“I’m sorry Papa. I’m sorry I wasn’t there.” He murmured, his voice cracking as he inhaled his father’s familiar scent. Navin laughed quietly, shaking his head as they drew back from each other. He handed Raj a handkerchief from his pocket,
“Stop it, Raju. I’m proud of how hard you work.” Navin smiled fondly, touching Raj’s shoulder. Raj looked at him for a long moment and Navin raised his eyebrows. “I’m serious, Raju. Guilt helps no one.” He looked past Raj to Ananya, meeting her eyes over his shoulder. She inhaled, forcing her face to remain expressionless as Navin’s gaze sharpened with knowledge.
Ananya could feel Uma’s gaze on her as Navin turned back to Raj, giving his shoulder one last squeeze. “Go, otherwise you guys will hit traffic on the way out.”
He walked with Raj over to the car, where Ananya was standing. Raj went over to the other side to get in but Navin approached her. She looked up at him and he reached out, touching her cheek softly. “I’m glad you were there for him. Thank you for coming, beta.” Navin said quietly.
He paused, a knowing glint in his eyes. “What has happened in the past is not necessarily indicative of what will happen in the future. It’s whatever you make of it. I wish you all the best for whatever you do.” He said, before taking a step back. She held his gaze for a moment, trying to discern how much he knew.
Navin nodded at the car, a small smile on his face. “He’s waiting.” He said, before turning to walk back to his family.
She slid into the car, the drive silent as she merged onto the freeway. She glanced over at him briefly, his face set in a thoughtful expression as he watched the rows of suburban houses become endless acres of cornfields.
“You okay?” She asked finally. He turned to look at her, a small smile on his face.
“Yeah, I’m just thinking.” He said, not expanding further. She rolled her eyes at the familiar routine.
“Do I really have to do this again?”
He looked genuinely confused for a moment, the skin between his brows crinkling. “Do what?”
“Play 20 questions with you until I get to what’s actually bothering you? I don’t get this with men, I have to sit there and ask you a million questions. Why can’t men just tell you?”
“Do you have extensive experience with this in other men?” He asked, the words out before he could stop them. He snapped his mouth shut when he realized how sharp his voice had been, jealousy creeping up unexpectedly.
She regarded him silently for a moment. “No. Just with two.”
He fought the envy that gnawed at him, his jaw tightening. “Do I need to play 20 Questions now?” He responded sardonically. She raised her eyebrows, but he pointedly avoided her, staring straight ahead at the freeway.
“You and my father, Raj.” She said, letting the words hang between them. He closed his eyes for a split second with a shake of his head.
Of course. Her father was the other guy.
He thought, feeling ridiculous for his jealousy.
Why did it matter to him that she might have dated other people?
He didn’t like the feeling that it left him with, forcing him to confront what he had been avoiding since they had slept together. He was unable to stop himself from looking over at her. Her lips were pressed together as if she was withholding amusement, even as her eyes were directed at the road in front of her.
“Would it have mattered if it was someone else?”
He stiffened, swallowing hard. He wouldn’t have heard the words if he hadn’t been listening, her voice almost inaudible, almost seeking affirmation. He let the easy lie sit on the tip of his tongue, the silence heavy between them.
“Yes.” He looked over at her, watching as she bit back a smile. The skin around her eyes crinkled as it broke forth hesitantly. He found himself unable to look away, a bubble of happiness building up inside of him.
They sat in contented silence for a while before she spoke again, her eyes staying pointedly on the road in front of her. “I went on a couple of dates after we broke up.” He waited as she paused, exhaling a small breath. “There was only one guy I dated seriously, for about eight months. Jack.”
She fell silent, and he resisted the overpowering urge to ask more. The jealousy that had settled just minutes before clawed at his stomach once again, and he almost laughed at himself at how silly it was.
Had she felt the same way when she had learned about Nicole?
“Why did you break up?” Somehow, he already knew the answer.
“He wanted to get married, eventually.” She said simply.
“And you didn’t.” He added quietly. She smiled ruefully, her eyes sad.
“It wasn’t fair of me to date him when I knew I wouldn’t marry him, so I broke up with him.” She hesitated, drawing a long breath. “I’ll never forget the look on his face when I walked away. You know what he told me? He told me to call him if I ever got over the guy who was holding me back from loving anyone else.” She said the words without thinking, unable to stop herself.
She looked at him once, smiling humorlessly. “I never did call him after that.”
His heart jumped into his throat, her candid admission making his chest tighten. Her words rang in his head, ghost of the touches and kisses they had shared afterwards lingering on his skin.
She had put it all out there.
And now… it was up to him.
Artists: Anupam Roy
Note: Sorry for another short chapter — this week and next week are finals week, plus I’m moving for the summer for an internship and traveling so it’s been crazy. I’ll try to update ASAP — I appreciate you guys sticking with me through my uncertain schedule. As always, the follow buttons are on the right, and if you find that you’re not getting notifications, try unfollowing and refollowing again. If you’ve got time, please let me know what you think, with a comment 🙂