Natasha studied Raj from across the lab bench, her green eyes narrowed thoughtfully. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what felt different about him, and he had been remarkably evasive whenever she asked him anything. She cleared her throat pointedly, but he was oblivious to her presence as he reached for a pipette.
“Raj.” She said his name a little more loudly, trying to get his attention. as he crooned the words to whatever song he was listening to underneath his breath, his hips shimmying as he moved to grab some media to grow his cells in.
He finally looked up when she snapped her fingers in front of his face, coming to stand right in front of him.
“I was wondering if you wanted to get dinner with me tonight at Shortstack. I’m craving pancakes and you can never go wrong with breakfast food.” She watched him closely, testing the waters.
He paled slightly, rubbing the back of his neck. “Uh… I would love to but I have plans.” He said, skirting around it.
She raised an incredulous eyebrow. “If you’re going to avoid something, at least do a good job of it.”
He had the grace to smile sheepishly. “Sorry.” His phone vibrated and he reached for it, his mouth pulling into a smile as he responded to whomever had texted him, a dimple appearing on his cheek.
Her eyes narrowed for a moment as realization kicked in, her grin widening like the Cheshire cat. Raj looked up and groaned, recognizing her expression.
“You’re seeing someone.” She said gleefully, clapping her hands together.
“I never said that.” He replied curtly, hoping to put an end to the conversation. He didn’t want to talk about Ananya — not yet, anyway. They needed to sort the relationship out for themselves first. It felt too private, and he didn’t want to deal with anyone judging their fledgling reconnection quite yet.
Was it their relationship he didn’t want judged or did he not want anyone to judge her?
He ignored the voice at the back of his head warning him that he was lying to himself if he didn’t acknowledge that some part of it was his uncertainties about their relationship, leaving him restless.
You’re getting in too deep. Can you really trust her after everything?
The same voice piped up, a reflection of the underlying doubts he desperately wanted to keep at bay. Natasha poked his shoulder, jolting him out of his thoughts.
“You cannot get away with that. Why won’t you tell me who it is?!” She exclaimed, her voice gaining a mock hurt edge. He snorted, shaking his head.
“Have you realized that your name rhymes with Bipasha Basu? Wait — do you even know who she is?” He asked, referencing a once popular Indian actress. Natasha glared at him, her green eyes glimmering with determination.
“Don’t change the subject. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You weren’t there.” He said with finality, hoping it was the end of the conversation. Her arms folded over her chest and he groaned internally, knowing he was in for it. With a sharp sigh he placed his pipette down, turning to face her. “Look, it’s not a big deal okay. I just want to see where it goes first.”
“At least give me her name.”
“What are we, twelve?” He retorted, pointedly ignoring her as he snapped the lid shut, grabbing the timer. She fell silent for a moment, clearly reconsidering her approach.
“Fine. I just thought I would ask because you’ve seemed… different.” She said, her voice softening. Raj’s fingers stilled over the timer, his body stiffening imperceptibly.
“Different?” He asked. Natasha resisted the urge to smile at his obvious attempt to keep his curiosity about her observations hidden. He always forgot how well she knew him, even though it was inevitable after spending three years across from him in lab every single day.
“Yeah. You seem happier.” She chose to go with honesty, foregoing the sarcasm. He inhaled audibly, the realization once again coming to the front of his mind. He found himself recalling a moment when they had been cooking together, the barest hint of a smile tugging at his lips unintentionally.
“Are you?” She asked, looking at him, despite the fact that the expression on his face spoke volumes. Her question shook him out of his trance and he cleared his throat, a familiar fear beginning to mix with the joy.
Careful, you’re letting yourself get too close.
“I am. It’s been good.” He said simply, the smile lingering.
“You thought about that for a long time.” Natasha probed gently.
He should have known that she wouldn’t let this go that easily. He pulled his lip between his teeth, considering his words as he struggled with the odd mix of feelings.
“I’m uncertain about the relationship. Not about how she makes me feel.” He said carefully, raising his gaze to meet hers.
It was rare that he confided that much this easily, and Natasha studied him carefully, an odd premonition settling in her gut.
It couldn’t be.
“What makes you uncertain?”
He paused a long time before answering, his voice quiet when he finally responded. “I don’t want to get hurt again.”
She paused, her eyes softening as she recognized the hint of fear in his voice. “Not every girl is Ananya, Raj.” She said softly, touching his shoulder.
A strange look passed over his face, and the niggle was back. A shadow of a smile crossed his lips. “I know.”
She nodded slowly, unsure of what to make of his expression. “Alright, well… I guess I will just wait for you to tell me then.” She said, trailing off dramatically. He rolled his eyes, the hint of a fond smile touching his lips as she turned back to her own bench.
She pulled her hair up into a bun, making a sound of annoyance as her hair tie snapped. “I’ll be back, I’m going to go grab another hair tie from our office.” She didn’t know if Raj had heard her as he continued to sing underneath his breath, his feet moving to the beat of whatever song he was listening to.
Natasha walked into her office, rummaging through her desk for a hair tie. She jumped when the door clicked, creaking quietly as it opened, with Ananya peering out from around the corner. Ananya’s eyes widened.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I was just…”
Natasha straightened as Ananya trailed off, replacing the words she was going to say with a smile. Before she could respond the door opened again, revealing Raj.
“Ready to go?” He asked, completely oblivious to Natasha’s presence. Ananya’s face paled and she shook her head imperceptibly, glancing over at Natasha.
Raj caught sight of her, his stomach rolling uneasily. Natasha’s eyes widened as her suspicions were confirmed, and she looked between the sheepish pair. Raj rubbed the back of his neck, stepping into their office more fully.
This was becoming too real.
A warning screamed in his head, reminding him that he had wanted to keep this quiet so that he could have time to figure out whether it would actually work.
And to figure out whether he could trust her again.
He looked over at Ananya. She stayed silent, leaving him to make the decision for himself.
Guilt flared in his chest as he saw the wall rise in her eyes, as if she was afraid that he would deny their relationship.
He had been about to, hadn’t he?
He silenced the voice in his head, turning to face an expectant Natasha. “We’ve been seeing each other for a few weeks.” He admitted. The words left him with a lingering doubt, and he wondered whether he had made the right decision.
There was no turning back now.
His gaze drifted, looking past her to meet Ananya’s eyes. She met his gaze warily, trying to discern his comfort with the situation.
He didn’t like seeing that when she looked at him.
He surprised himself by the strength of his desire to rid that expression from her face, his heart immediately jumping to reassure her doubts. He took the step to stand next to her, wrapping his arm around her waist and squeezing gently as he looked down at her.
Ananya’s expression softened from wariness into a smile, and he couldn’t help but return it. The unease in his chest dissipated, and she leaned into his grip.
A strange sense of protectiveness overcame Natasha as she watched the couple. She hadn’t been there when they had broken up, but she had seen its impacts on Raj over the course of the last three years. He was skittish, afraid of giving his heart up for fear of it being broken again.
For all she liked Ananya, she couldn’t help but feel a distinct urge to tell her to stay away from him.
She exhaled slowly and directed her gaze back to Raj, who had stepped away and was putting on his own coat. Ananya glanced around the office, her eyes pausing on the picture of Raj and Natasha at the tri-professor barbecue that took place every summer. Regret fleeted across Ananya’s face but it was gone as quickly as it had arrived as she curiously took in the rest of the office.
She studied the other girl, unsure of how she felt about this. She accidentally caught Ananya’s eyes. The other woman looked almost nervous, her fingers twisting as she seemed to look for something from Natasha.
Natasha gave her a smile and Ananya relaxed slightly. She had seen how protective Natasha was of Raj, and she wasn’t sure how the other woman would take to their relationship. She knew Natasha wasn’t exactly thrilled, gauging from her reluctant expression.
She glanced at Raj, who seemed oblivious to the dynamics in the room as he fiddled with a document on his computer. She touched his upper arm and he turned to look at her. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the intensity in his eyes, his gaze only focused on her.
“I’ll just be one second.” He murmured, turning back to his computer quickly as he closed out of the program. He let out a sigh of relief, running his hand over his face as he exhaled. He faced Natasha. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Natasha glanced fleetingly at Ananya before giving Raj a warm smile, nodding. “Of course. Don’t think that this is the end to our conversation about this little development though.” She added pointedly.
He snorted. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m sure we can sit down and do a full analysis of my deepest thoughts in the middle of doing a protein purification.” He responded, not bothering to mask the sarcasm.
They walked out of his office, their hands entwining. Raj leaned down to press a kiss to the top of her head in an unexpected moment of tenderness. Ananya’s eyes were soft as she looked up at him, smiling.
Natasha watched them thoughtfully from the door as they disappeared around the corner. With a shake of her head, she put her headphones in as she made her way back to lab.
Raj could handle himself. And if it went south as she feared it would… she would be there.
“Oh my god did you start the next season of Shameless?” She called as he hung up their coats, rummaging around the cupboard for a sweatshirt. She grumbled to herself under her breath as she saw the growing pile of laundry, mentally adding it to her checklist of things she needed to get done this weekend.
She grabbed a sweatshirt and slid it on, wiggling into it as she walked out of her room smack dab into his chest. He grabbed her by the waist, and his amused chuckle vibrated in his chest as he steadied her, gently tugging the sweatshirt all the way down.
“Sorry.” She muttered sheepishly. He merely shook his head with a grin, stepping to the side to let her pass.
“To answer your question, yes, I did start the next season of Shameless. You know, the inconsistencies in it really bug me sometimes.” He said over the sound of the running tap, leaning against the counter as she washed her hands.
Ananya grimaced, shaking her head. “I think years of watching Indian soap operas has made me immune to that.”
Raj snickered, handing her a pot. “Does Amma still watch those?”
“Unfortunately.” She responded, making a face. “Those idiotic shows all have the same plotline and same lack of logic. Did I tell you about the one where the girl dresses up as a guy and the hero is convinced that he’s gay because he’s attracted to her?” She asked, rolling her eyes.
“This one sounds like a new one. I don’t think my mother has discovered it yet.” He noted dryly.
“Thank your stars. It’s got that girl from the reboot of the one I used to watch that I hated.”
“The one with the crazy abusive hero?”
“That describes at least 75% of them.”
“Good point.” He conceded, leaning against the counter as Ananya set a timer for the pasta. “It’s even worse now. Since I don’t go home as often, I’m guilt tripped into watching them with her sincerely. If I dare to laugh at it, I get an angry glare for not appreciating quality time together.”
Ananya laughed, nodding. “That happens here too. Whenever I go home for a night, Amma makes me watch some show with her. My dear father is extra happy because he’s relieved of the duty for a night.”
“And she won’t even compromise to watch an hour of the baseball game with me. Full guilt trip about how she never gets the remote with my father around.”
She shook her head in disappointment. “I still can’t believe you’re a baseball fan. Football is so much better.”
“That’s because you have no baseball team to speak of.” He retorted.
“I have the Brewers!” She exclaimed. He merely raised his eyebrows, and she glared. “Please, you’re a Cubs fan. They were good in the early 1900s.”
“At least we appeared in the World Series. Please remind me how many times the Brewers have been in one.”
She opened her mouth to argue but couldn’t come up with anything. “They’re an up and coming team, okay?”
“They’ve been “up and coming” for like 20 years.” She stuck her tongue out at him, earning a laugh. “Very mature, Anya. That makes for such a convincing argument.”
“Shut up and help me drain this pasta.” She muttered, thrusting the colander into his hands as he continued to laugh.
“So how did you and Natasha meet?” Ananya asked as they sat down for dinner, curling up on her couch. They hadn’t felt like going out today, and instead they had cooked together. Raj’s face immediately broke into a smile.
“She was using the centrifuge I needed for something that was time sensitive, and I got mad at her and we got into an argument. She came back and apologized later, and we ended up sharing an office.”
“Trust you to make a friend out of an argument.”
He scoffed, shaking his head. “Please. Like you’re any better.”
Her mouth opened in protest, her brow crinkling. “I… what is that supposed to mean?” She asked indignantly.
He shrugged, opening his palms. “Don’t you remember that date we went on with Pooja and Michael?”
Her eyes lit with recognition and she broke into laughter, shaking her head. “Of course I remember. I thought you were really cute, but that you were such an ass.”
Raj rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Full disclosure, I kept trying to bait you into an argument so you would keep talking to me.” He paused, her words sinking in. “Wait, what? You thought I was cute back then?”
Ananya looked at him incredulously. “Of course I did. I thought it was obvious.”
“I didn’t know you thought that! Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Her mouth opened and closed, and she shrugged. “I… I don’t know, I thought you already knew. Pooja kept dropping hints, but you had just broken up with your long term girlfriend and we were friends and…”
He closed his eyes, exhaling loudly as he shook his head with a laugh. “Damn it, Ananya. I kept trying to figure out whether you liked me or not and you kept giving me mixed signals.”
“Pooja kept leaving us alone! Why do you think she mysteriously stopped coming to our study sessions?” She asked, stifling laughter. He groaned, leaning his head back.
“I was nineteen! How much do you expect of a nervous guy?”
She merely shook her head, laughter bubbling out of her. He couldn’t help but join her, her happiness contagious. As their laughter faded, he looked over at her, reaching for her hand.
She raised her eyes to meet his, her fingers sliding between his. She could feel the gentle pressure of his grip against hers. He squeezed lightly with a lopsided smile, the warmth that had defined their relationship creeping its way past the bitterness.
“I wish I had just realized.” He murmured, a faint hint of regret in his voice.
“I’m glad you didn’t.”
He raised a questioning eyebrow, and her expression softened as she spoke. “Our friendship was always what I loved the most about dating you.”
He placed a hand over his heart. “Not the sex? I’m devastated, Iyer.” He teased, faking heartbreak. She rolled her eyes, swatting his shoulder as she smiled.
“But it’s true.” He paused, dropping his eyes to his hands. “It’s what hurt the most when we broke up. I found myself heartbroken and without the person I would have talked to about it.” He added.
“Me too. There were days when I just wanted to pick up the phone and call and…” She inhaled sharply, blinking.
“Why didn’t you?” He asked suddenly.
She searched his face for a long time, her eyes reflecting everything they had shared. “I didn’t want to hear you say that you didn’t want to talk to me.” She said quietly, her voice barely above a whisper. His eyes held understanding, and he reached for her hand, running his finger over the lines on her palm.
Her hand cupped the side of his face as she leaned in. Their lips melded together in a soft kiss, deepening slowly as they savored the feeling of being together. They chose not to say the words in their heads, wary of making promises that could be broken.
They adjusted themselves so her head rested on his shoulder, their hands still tangled together as they sat together. They were determined to live in the moment, silencing thoughts on what this could turn into.
For now, this moment was enough.
Song: Moh Moh ke Dhaage
Note: I had some extra time to write, so it’s an early update — I hope you enjoyed this chapter! I have to say, I like the male version of this song much more than the female — anyone else agree?
As always, please drop a comment to let me know what you think if you have the time. Follow buttons are on the right, and if you find yourself not receiving notifications, try unfollowing and refollowing again.
Just as a side note — after this story is finished, I am considering trying to publish it. As a result, I will have to make the blog private while I try to get that done. I will keep you guys updated on whether my efforts are successful, and you can always keep tabs on Twitter (follow me @chotidesi). But we’ve got a little bit yet for that to happen 🙂