The loud drumbeat immediately assailed his ears, the bass reverberating through the room. He slid out of the way of giggling girls in sparkly skirts, bright flowers in their hair as they wove through the legs of the adults in the room.
He caught sight of Anand and snaked through the crowd, his foot tapping to the beat of their own will.
“You made it!” He exclaimed, pulling his best friend into in a hug. Anand grinned, bumping fists with him as they pulled apart.
“I couldn’t miss Pooja’s wedding. Another band is covering for us so I can attend this.” He said, wrapping an arm around Natasha. She was dressed in a forest green sari that had clearly been gifted to her by Anand’s mother, her thick red hair falling around her face in waves.
She gave Raj a one armed hug, grinning up at him. “Long time since I’ve seen you.”
“Yeah, all of eight hours.” He retorted dryly. “If you didn’t look so beautiful, I would have ruffled your hair.” He said with a wink, to which she blew him a kiss.
“Quit hitting on my fiancée, Malhotra.” Anand interrupted, smiling as he pressed a kiss to Natasha’s forehead. Raj merely grinned, shaking his head.
“Where’s the poor groom-to-be?” He asked, glancing around.
“I think his mother recruited him for some pooja or another.”
Raj snickered, earning a groan from Anand. “That wasn’t even meant to be a pun.”
“And yet it was one anyway. How’s Pooja holding up?”
“Last I saw, she was torturing Ananya with panicked last minute texts.” Anand said wryly, before immediately biting the inside of his cheek.
“Spare me the pitying head tilt.” Raj said, flashing an easy smile despite the lurch in his stomach at the mention of her name. He hadn’t seen her in three months, their schedules with their friends carefully planned so they didn’t overlap.
“But you’re not quite complete without her, are you?”
Anjali’s words rang in his head insistently. He sucked in a breath, determinedly silencing them. He caught Anand’s concerned look and let out an exasperated sigh.
“I’m fine, man. There’s no need to treat me like I’m going to break every time someone says her name.”
“But are you happy?” Anand asked.
Raj threw up his hands. “What is with everyone and this nonsense about happiness? I say I’m fine, I mean it. I’m working on getting over it. It’s a process.”
Anand opened his mouth to respond but closed it again when Natasha gave him a look of warning. “Sorry, I promise I won’t ask again. Did I tell you that we might add another guitarist?” Anand asked, smoothly changing the subject. Raj smiled gratefully at her, and she returned it.
They conversed casually for a while, allowing the wedding to whirl around them as they awaited the start of the ceremony. He was relieved for the distraction, taking his mind off of the fact that he was inevitably bound to run into Ananya at some point in the night.
He didn’t want to think about that right now.
He was over her.
He repeated the words to himself internally as the conversation continued around him. He had made progress, the pit in his stomach giving way to an unsettling acceptance of what had transpired.
He just needed time. It would heal over eventually.
“Anand, could you do me a –”
Raj stiffened immediately at the achingly familiar voice that broke into their conversation, trailing off as she realized that he was there too. He could feel her inhale, pasting a smile onto her face as she stepped into his line of sight.
Her hair was pulled into a stylish bun that sat at the nape of her neck, a few loose curls framing her face. She was wearing a deep plum sari, with large earrings dotted with pearls dangling from her ears. A small bindi sparkled from between her eyebrows, her eyes lined with a delicate swipe of eyeliner that made them look even larger than usual as she stared back at him.
Anand cleared his throat, glancing between the two of them.
He swallowed, dragging his eyes away from hers as he ran a hand through his hair. He could feel her gaze on him, the nervous gesture not unnoticed.
“You wanted me to do something?” Anand asked gently. Ananya shook herself, smiling tightly at Anand.
“Uh, yeah, I was just wondering if you could just give this to my mom when you see her.” She thrust a box in his hands, keeping her eyes carefully away from Raj.
“Of course, no problem.”
“I should go help Pooja. I’ll see you guys later.” Ananya fled as Raj kept his gaze determinedly on the ground in front of him, his entire body tight with tension.
“You still want to pull the ‘I’m over it’ card, Raj?” Anand asked as soon as she was out of range, fixing him with a pointed stare.
“I haven’t seen her in three months, cut me some slack. I was shocked.” He said defensively, avoiding Anand’s eyes.
“By the fact that you still have feelings for her?” Anand asked, not mincing words. He ignored the sharp pinch Natasha gave his arm. “I haven’t seen you look that less convincing at “not having feelings” since your freshman year of college when you used to “study” with her.”
“It’s not fucking relevant.”
“Look man, it might work on everyone else, but I’ve known you since college, and I’ve been privy to your entire relationship — the best parts of it and the shitshow that happened after.”
“So you know exactly why we broke up then, and this shouldn’t even be a damn conversation.” Raj snapped, his eyes flashing in anger.
Anand didn’t look the least bit intimidated, pushing forward. “It’s been three years. Get your head out of your ass and realize that she’s a different person now. We all make mistakes, and you have definitely made plenty of your own three years ago that you would not want to be held accountable for today.”
Anand paused, his voice softening. “She makes you happier than anyone else I’ve seen you with. I wouldn’t tell you to go for it if I thought she would hurt you again. She’s grown up, and so have you. Give yourselves — not the college version of yourselves, the people you are now — a chance to have a real relationship.”
Raj’s gaze drifted to Ananya, who stood on the opposite side of the room, her back to him. She turned as if she felt his eyes on her, looking directly at him. She tore her eyes away from his before he could read them, determinedly turning back to the conversation she was having.
“I need to use the restroom.” He muttered, turning away from Anand before the other man could say anything. Even in with the steady drumbeat, he could hear his own footsteps as he walked out of the room, echoing with the words inside his head.
“But you’re not quite complete without her, are you?”
The ceremony was quicker than usual, since Pooja and Aman hadn’t wanted to drag it out to be longer than two hours. Raj had barely noticed the time passing, his mind instead preoccupied with the woman standing behind the bride.
He watched as the couple took their final orbit around the fire, their fingers locked together. Unlike the movies, Pooja had kept looking back at Aman, clearly trying to make him laugh as he valiantly struggled to stay serious.
As they sat down, they turned to look at each other. Raj felt like an intruder as he watched the outside world fall away for them, oblivious to the hundred family members and friends watching them. Aman cupped her face, kissing her softly as a silly smile lit up both of their faces.
His chest tightened as the room fell silent for a split second before it erupted in teasing cheers, the bride and groom flushing. He saw the imperceptible squeeze that Pooja gave Aman’s hand, smiling up at him in a personal joke as she shook her head at the cheering.
He looked away, only to find himself looking at Ananya instead. The carefully placed smile had disappeared, leaving a poignant wistfulness on her face. She looked up, and he knew she could read the same expression on his face. He could almost feel her fingers threaded through his, the possibility of what he could have had a ghost in front of him.
He wanted it. He wanted to give them a chance.
He squeezed his eyelids together for a moment, letting himself linger on what he had been fighting for three months. When he opened them, she had looked away, the fleeting look replaced by a constructed smile.
He felt his mouth pull up as Pooja and Aman walked over to Ananya, who engulfed them in a tight hug. Their mouths moved as they murmured to each other, and Ananya reached up to cup Pooja’s face, wiping away the tears with her thumbs with a laugh.
The enthusiastic beat of the drum started up again, the whole room clapping for the couple as the ceremony drew to a close. He slipped into a chair at the edge of the terrace, enjoying the view out over the lake. Small lights twinkled from houses on the other side, moonlight rippling across the gentle waves that lapped at the shores.
“How are you doing?”
He glanced up to see Anjali standing in front of him. He tilted his head, quickly scanning the rest of the terrace for the tiny body of his nephew. He smiled when he saw Nick dancing on top of Javi’s feet, resting precariously on the toes.
Anjali followed his gaze, her face lighting up with happiness. “They’re adorable, aren’t they?”
Raj nodded, a fierce warmth filling him as he continued to watch his family. He turned to his sister, who looked radiant in her simple peacock blue silk sari, paired with her old Bharatanatyam earrings.
“You look beautiful, Di.”
She smiled wryly. “I appreciate the compliment. It’s hard to feel beautiful when you can’t see your feet.” She raised an eyebrow. “Are you holding up okay after seeing Ananya?”
He shrugged. “Not really.” He said honestly. “Anand really ripped into me earlier.” He added with a sardonic laugh.
“It’s about time someone did.” Anjali retorted. She stepped closer to him, wrapping an arm around him.
“He wasn’t wrong.” Raj admitted. “And neither were you.”
“That’s a rare admission. I don’t think I quite heard you right though, can I hear that again?” Anjali teased, grinning at him.
Raj rolled his eyes with a smile. “I never gave us a chance. And… I wish I had.” He added, biting back the heavy sigh.
“You can still take that chance.” Anjali looked over his head, nodding at the approaching woman.
He turned in her hold, catching sight of Ananya walking towards them. She came to a stop in front of them and Anjali extended her arms for a hug.
“You look lovely, Di. How many months along are you now?” She asked, smiling at his sister.
“I can’t even remember. I’m just ready to be able to bend over again.” Anjali responded with a laugh.
“Nick has gotten so big.” Ananya commented.
Anjali smiled proudly, nodding. “He has, hasn’t he? I’m convinced it’s all the chocolate my brother sneaks him when he thinks I’m not looking.” Anjali turned a glare on Raj, who put his hands up.
“That’s pure speculation.” He let his eyes drift from Anjali’s to Ananya’s, taking in the sight of her. She had changed into a deep blue sari paired with a gold blouse that dipped low in the back, a simple diamond pendant hanging in the shadow of her chest. Her hair had been let down, hanging in messy waves around her shoulders.
“Hey.” She said quietly, looking at him. He barely heard Anjali excusing herself, the crowd fading out around them as he stood up. “I just… wanted to come say hi.” She said, nervously tucking a piece of hair behind her ear.
“I didn’t want us to be those exes that just glared at each other from across the room, you know?” She babbled on, her words tumbling over each other.
“You’re beautiful.” He interrupted her. Her eyes widened, and he hastened to correct himself. “I mean, you look beautiful. Tonight.”
The words rested on the tip of his tongue, unsaid. Her eyes dimmed for a second but she masked it easily with a smile. “Thank you. But Pooja is the one you should be saying that to.”
He gave her a half smile. “I think Aman’s lovelorn eyes say enough for everyone.”
She laughed, and he felt the unfulfilled feeling lift from his chest at the sight. She sobered, growing wary as she shifted from foot to foot.
“I should -”
“Would you dance with me?” He asked at the same time. Silence stretched between them as she stared at him, and he could see her warring with herself. She swallowed, and the light caught the sheen of tears in her eyes.
“I don’t think I should.” She shook her head, taking a step back just as Andrew Belle’s voice crooned the beginning strains of the song.
She froze, and her throat moved as she swallowed, laughing incredulously. “It’s the first song we danced to at that wedding of your grad student.”
He offered his hand for her to take. She stared at it for a moment before placing her hand in his, threading her fingers through his as he rested his hand on her lower back. He could feel the heat of her skin against his thumb, and inhaled deeply, her familiar perfume easing the tension that had been in his shoulders for months.
“But you’re not quite complete without her, are you?”
The question lingered in his mind as it had all night. With a quiet sigh, he drew her close as she leaned her head against his chest, his fingers curling around her waist.
“Just for tonight.” She murmured.
He didn’t respond, the words ringing hollowly in his chest. They rocked back and forth as the music surrounded them, lit by the faint glow from the fairy lights above.
Oh, you’re in my veins
And I cannot get you out… [In My Veins, Andrew Belle]
Song: In My Veins
Artist: Andrew Belle
Note: Special internet cookies for anyone who can guess the TV show I’m referencing with this song – it’s one of my favorite TV shows.
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