Chapter 6

In a move that would’ve surprised almost every person who had ever held a conversation longer than five seconds with him, Tej picked a fight on his first day in college.

It happened over the stupidest clue in the freshman treasure hunt, his opponent being one of the girls on the team, calmly leading them in a direction he was sure would find them stumbling off campus grounds, into some shady warehouse. Tej’s passionate advocating to make for the opposite direction based off the hint had been politely declined by the remaining team members. Obviously. 

In the end, their team won. Everybody had elected to follow Lisa’s hunch and Tej’s mortification burned red hot when their victory was announced and some unthinking bastard had gratefully said thank you to god that they didn’t listen to Tej. 

He’d excused himself, then, to go kick one of the giant plant pots stationed after every few metres in the campus, and even the throbbing toes felt better than the rush of earlier humiliation.

At the prize dinner, Lisa smiled at him, dark eyes glittering with self-satisfaction so thick it would’ve choked him if not for the merciful intervention of a senior sensing friction. 

“You just need to listen to the natural thread of things,” she said sweetly to Tej when they were alone for a moment at the table. “You know, to make the logical next step.” 

“The natural thread of things is telling me to go try the appetiser table again,” Tej deadpanned, trying not to notice how her bangs fell perfectly into her eyes. “Far away from any conceited freshmen.”

Her smile sat fresh on her face. “I won’t keep you, then. Let me know if you need help finding it, though. Wouldn’t want you heading in the opposite direction.”

Tej doesn’t think the exchange should’ve ended up kick starting the college rivalry it did but then again, Lisa herself later admitted she’d been doing her best to rile him up with that. There’s little she’s not good at achieving once her whip-smart brain sinks its claws in.

The natural thread of things.

Lisa used to say that all the time. At the team dinner when she pretended to give advice, in a classroom at 2 AM when he was stuck with an overdue story, the time he had a mini-meltdown about his major in the middle of the lawns.

Just follow the thread and you’ll see the way out.

Tej glares at the contact image on his phone screen now. The ‘natural thread’ had also spitefully told him to delete her number and block her everywhere after the breakup so maybe she and her damn thread weren’t always right about everything, were they?

The phone stares back mutely and it drains his put-on ire. Inching close to almost a year and a half after the break up, Tej no longer has the heartbroken, homewrecked pain settled in his chest that once caused him to oscillate between bleak, lonely despair or seething, painful anger. He went from dealing with his blackhole lungs to crushing loneliness to something dull and aching in his chest to a finally recovered scab over his heart – the journey is made and over but Tej stands still tender where he bruised.

Tahira, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, has been taking liberties with said bruise. She’s texting him almost daily now to ask if he’s spoken to Lisa and for all his reluctance and stubborn pride, even his blank document is pushing him to that particular cliff now.

Normally, he’d jump off it easier but it kind of really sucks that his best brainstorming partner happens to be an ex.

Tej is lounging on Recliner, like he has been for the better half of the day, watching clouds idle by as he debates the call but just as he’s tossed his phone away, chickening out of it for the hundredth time, his doorbell rings.

It’s National Ex-Girlfriend Day, apparently, because Mohini is waiting outside, leaning against the opposite wall, tall, barefoot and grinning. Tej wonders whether she forgot her footwear or if this was a conscious decision.

Her eyes rake once over his dishevelled appearance and the grin stretches wider. “Good morning,” she says, tone managing to patronise without any malicious twist to it. They both know it’s almost 4PM. “Sleep well?”

Tej wishes there was an effective ‘I’ll block you’ threat to be made here. It doesn’t really seem within the realm of possibility when she lives three feet and a knock away. “Shouldn’t you be antagonising the poor volunteers at your amusement park?”

Mohini’s earrings tinkle when she claps once, happily, kicking off from the offwhite wall to come closer as she talks. “I did! And I know how my little anecdotes about the Great Outside make your reclusive world go around, so for the low price of all your sugar, I am willing to tell you what happened today.”

There is, humanly speaking, no way possible for Mohini to know that her stories of the chaos unfolding at Westwood Garden City Park are, in fact, the only things that make Tej’s fingers fly across the keyboard lately. 

He’d be more taken with that fact if the bargain offer she’d just made didn’t niggle at him.

“All my sugar,” Tej repeats slowly. “You…want me to—”

“Hand it all over, yeah.”

“This is a strange robbery,” Tej decides and then, instantly nullifying his words, swings the door open wider. His parents didn’t raise him to be an unobliging neighbour. “Come in, I guess.”

Mohini’s dimpled beam rivals stadium lights as she makes her way in, tucking her hands into her side when she folds her arms. Her feet don’t make any sound on the floor which is mercifully swept clean from a recent tidying spree, but Tej offers her spare slippers anyway. They go well with her yellow vest and pale wash jeans.

It makes him hyperconscious of his own shabby getup as he walks to the kitchen, retreating back wide open for her to scrutinise. Tej discreetly tugs at his crinkled tank top and hopes she won’t assume he only either dresses up in Superman merch or crumpled sleep clothes. 

Tahira caused this, he grumbles to himself. Tahira with all her lectures and jibes about stupid laundry schedules. 

Is it still too late to convince his parents to remove her from the will? Tej makes a mental reminder to find out later.

A few metres away, Mohini is closely examining something. 

His nervousness thrums, unable to spot what caught her interest. “If you’re eyeing my alligator statue, I have to let you know now that I have that thing microchipped. You’ll never steal it.”

Mohini lets out an aborted laugh. “I’m too busy trying to process other information, don’t distract me with alligators.”

Tej, halfway through emptying his small sugar box into a bigger container, pauses. All the paintings he’s received multiple complaints about are decked along the walls further inside the apartment. His living room is presentable. The spread of graphic novels he’d been reading for inspiration are neatly stacked by his bedside. There’s nothing that should warrant so muc—

The yoga setup. Fuck.

To glare at her without giving himself a neck crick, Tej carefully shifts his sugar-transfer operation to the kitchen island. “This is the world’s rudest robbery.”

“You’re the world’s weirdest robbery victim,” she shoots back, still staring at his TV screen with great interest. “Can you even do this position without tearing your ACL?”

Tej doesn’t look up from where hundreds of tiny granules are falling into a new home, huffing defensively. “Shut up. I don’t think anybody apart from the instructor can do that one.”

Mohini nods with a grimace before neatly sidestepping the yoga mat on the floor to sit on the little side table by his couch. Tej wants to question this decision but there’s no opening. His mini sugar box has run out and the remaining stock of sugar needs to be fetched from a deeper cupboard. Mohini fills the silence instantly. “Why are you trying impossible yoga CD’s, Tej?” she asks pleasantly. “Tough times? Need to meditate?”

It’s a simple enough question, over by the time he brings back the bigger box of sugar to the island. She isn’t even expecting a serious response, already fiddling with the alligator’s movable tail, distracted.

Simple question, simpler answer. Tej just needs to say a friend recommended it as stress-relief. Easy. 

The truthful answer, however, would be: my brain is noisy and it won’t cooperate even though I need words for my new novel before another six months burn past, but he doesn’t need to say that out loud. 

He does, though. Because his brain to mouth filter is on vacation.

Mohini doesn’t blink at the blurted confession, surprisingly. He’d expected questioning, wide eyes, maybe some loud assumptions but after a beat, Mohini’s eyes only narrow as she seems to assess something. 

He eyes her warily. “What.”

Her face melts into something triumphant. “So, that was your name stamped on those books,” she says finally, vindicated. Possibly, there’s another betting pool riding on this. 

“…what?” he repeats, dumbly, and this he deserves a roundhouse kick for. He knows fully well his name is emblazoned front and centre on every copy of his series. It’s not very surprising she’s seen it and made the connection. “Where did you—what?”

Mohini pauses for a long moment. There and gone, her expression slips into something deliberating before the casual pleasantness is back. “Last year this time, I was working at a bookstore. The bestselling and YA sections were stocked with a series that was doing pretty well and the author had the same name as you so…” She trails off, eyebrows waggling. “You made it big, huh, Tej?”

His skin prickles. With Mohini, tension slips through his body easily but this is a topic no one can safely unravel with him without at least encountering a panic attack in the process. Ideally, Tej would like to avoid spilling sugar all over his floor so he forces an eye roll, focusing on his task again, steering away from the point he wants to avoid. “Made it big and I’m still being robbed in my own house.”

“Eat the rich,” Mohini says wisely and Tej snorts, tension dispelling a little.

“So this bookstore of yours, it was back in Santa Clarita?”

There’s a longer pause this time. Tej has to look up to see she’s still playing with the alligator tail before Mohini finally answers, a noncommittal hum. 

The last of the sugar finally settles in the big container and Tej sighs, straightening up. “All done. Am I going to hear an explanation for what ritual you’re planning with so much sugar?”

“Are you prepared to die after I reveal it to you?”

Tej thinks about it properly for a second.

“Jesus. That book’s really kicking your ass?”

“Like I’m a human-shaped boxing bag.”

She’s strolled over to the kitchen by now and there’s a line ready on her smiling lips, Tej can see, but the sight of the container pulls her up short, for some reason. 

“Did you,” she starts, then stops, inching closer to peer at the box. Incredulous eyes stare up at Tej. “Did you actually give me all your sugar?”

“I would hate to be the cause of a botched ritual.”

Mohini groans. “The recipe just said two cups, Tej!”

“W—Then you should’ve said so, genius!” 

“Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting my neighbour to behave like a rich dude who just – gives away stuff like it grows in his backyard.”

“You’re the one who asked for ‘all my sugar’,” Tej snaps, defensive, but looking at the quantity on the countertop, even he’s piping down now. Maybe he should’ve clarified once more before dumping out all his sugar. Maybe

Silence throbs in the air before he finally clears his throat, trying to break it. “What recipe is this, anyway?”

“Chocolate cake,” Mohini responds, still staring. 

Tej eyes her dubiously.

“Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything!”

“I can bake cakes, shut up.”

Tej squints, straining his memory. “Didn’t you burn the sandwiches that one time we were allowed to make snacks in the teacher’s lou—hey!”

Her fingers have missed his neck by a narrow margin. Tej thanks his lightning reflexes with a thudding heart, lips already lifting into a grin. Mohini’s scowl increases at the sight but he quickly holds up the container like Rafiki lifting Simba when she makes to lunge forward again. 

Like a miracle, it stops her scary advance. The stars smile on him. She must really want to bake a cake. 

That, or The Lion King is her favourite movie.

*

“Thank you.”

“That’s my line,” Mohini says, suspicious.

Tej gives her a grin angels wouldn’t be able to clone. “Thank you for letting me know you intend to try baking. I’ll have the fire station on standby.”

 This time, her fingers flick forward quick enough to neatly nip at his ear and Tej hisses in pain, clutching at it dramatically. “I hate this fucking robbery. Worst experience. 0/10.”

“Your feedback is a gift,” Mohini says sincerely. “I’ll pass it on to my superiors.” From the satisfied smirk he finds on the other’s face, it feels safe to conclude no superiors will be hearing of this. 

Tej mutters complaints under his breath as they walk to the door. “Stole all my sugar. Attacked me under my own roof. Didn’t even narrate any shenanigans about the park. Your promises are as empty as my sugar containers.”

A surprised laugh swings forth from her, then, and it’s infectious enough that even Tej can’t continue to pretend-sulk. 

“When my cake baby is safe in the oven, I’ll text you in full detail. Works?”

Tej refuses to trust again so soon after heartbreak. He says as much and she calls him a loser, asks him to just sit quietly and wait. 

“Spare your walls today and complain to somebody else for a change,” Mohini calls out lightly, reaching the door and fumbling for the handle. “Ring your girlfriend or something.”

Tej has been rearing up to say she should feel bad for eavesdropping at least, if not for the Wi-Fi thievery but the last line cuts him off as he’s opening his mouth, the air pinching out of his lungs. 

“My what?”

The door is open now so Mohini has to awkwardly stop right before stepping out, one hand clutching the knob and the other clinging to her sugar loot. She turns around in the cramped space, careful. “Your…girlfriend?”

Tej’s fingers curl. He knows that the walls aren’t exactly soundproof but she couldn’t have overheard all that stuff about Lisa. She shouldn’t have. Tahira’s voice is fairly loud but on a video call, it sounds tinny and the—

“Your girlfriend,” Mohini repeats, confused now, pointing at a picture frame in the short hallway right before the door. “Unless she’s…not your girlfriend. Which makes things really weird because you have a billion pictures of her everywhere in your place, dude.”

Tej, disoriented beyond belief, frowning and shaking, leans forward to peer at the frame in the dim light and feels something like slime descend down his back.

That’s fucking Tahira,” he wails, feeling the years actually begin to tick off his lifespan. His sister has him in a chokehold in this picture and Tej feels the desire to recreate it with his ex-classmate now, body shuddering with disgust. “I’m asking Mrs. Park to evict you, what the fuck, Mohini.”

The other seems to be slowly catching onto his extreme distaste of ‘Tahira’ and ‘girlfriend’ in the same context because a moment later, some version of enlightenment rests on her face and she ‘ohhh’s loud enough for the sound to echo in the corridor outside through the half-open door. “We don’t like Tahira? Got it, got it. Sorry, my bad.”

Tej wonders if she’d been this thick in school. “Mohini. Look carefully at the picture.”

Mohini obliges. At first, her examination doesn’t come up very fruitful but she spends a little longer staring at the matching eye-smiles and the coordinating outfits and then her eyes pop open, wide with realisation. 

She whirls around and Tej takes pleasure in the little horror he can see in her face. “Oh god,” Mohini whispers loudly. “You used to have that sister.”

Bingo. Tej sticks a finger at the next photo frame, and this one is more recent, Tahira tugging at his hair while he glares at the camera. “Still do. She’s still as annoying.”

Mohini laughs a little, tentative and shocked, but turns right back to the pictures, going over all of them with a new eye. “Shit. Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“Oh sure, blame it on me. ‘That’s Tahira. I’m not dating her, she’s just my elder sister who forced me into a hundred photoshoots’. Super natural way to carry conversations, you’re right. Great point.”

“Shut up,” Mohini says, good-natured as ever. “Could’ve just called her Akka or something. So I knew.”

Tej frowns.

“Right, not Akka. What do North Indians call elder sisters, again?”

“Didi,” Tej says, the Hindi sitting a little unfamiliar on his tongue after such a long stretch of unuse. “I only use it on rare occasions, though. No point inflating her head any more.”

Mohini nods, looking back at the pictures a last time. Some of them have his entire family, Maa, Papa and the two children crammed into view, smiling and waving at the camera. Mohini’s eyes linger longer on them and Tej’s memories kickstart again, bitter as they bring back old information. 

He shifts on his feet a little, nervous again, before his mouth opens on its own. “Speaking of. How is your aunt doing? Is she well?”

Tej has a second part to that question, he knows, but it slips his mind when Mohini’s spine straightens abruptly, face wiping clean of all emotion. She doesn’t turn to him, doesn’t open the door and walk out – they just stand there in the hallway, dead still, while the temperature drops tangible degrees.

Tej’s nervous twist winds tighter around his chest and after a few moments, it forces the words off his unwilling tongue. “Mohini? Y—” 

“She’s fine.” The answer might as well have been wrenched from a metal robot programmed to talk into monotones. Her jaw is clenched and she’s staring at the wall without really looking at it but Tej hums anyway, trying to push away the pressure in the air. He can’t manage another word before his neighbour is nodding curtly at him and opening the door wider. “Thanks for the sugar. I’ll return your container by tonight.”

“There’s no rush,” Tej says quickly but Mohini has already stepped away, moving out through the door, clearly not listening. “Good luck with the cake?”

It sounds stupid, coming out like a question but for good or bad, the other doesn’t even acknowledge it, moving back to her door, opening it singlehandedly in record time to disappear into the apartment.

Tej sits at his kitchen island a while later, phone nearby in case it pings again but when the clouds wrap up for the day, ushering in the evening dimness, he gives up, letting the pent-up tremble move him back to the bedroom for another night of staring into blankness.

So much for the natural thread of things.

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