Chapter 7

“Will you be mad if I bring her up again?”

“Guess.”

Tej thinks about this for a minute. “Okay, but will you still let me continue or—”

“Who is this girl?” Cas groans, one large hand dragging down his face. “Mom wouldn’t shut up about her, either.”

That’s concerning. Tej hopes it’s not about the time they visited her together for his keys, him in his Superman pajamas. Cas, very firmly Team Marvel, has argued up a storm on multiple occasions about his wardrobe choices and if there’s anything Mrs. Park loves, it’s some fashion evaluation in her nightly conversations with her son.

“So you haven’t been listening.” Changing tracks is his safest bet. Against the dying wishes of his last dredges of muscle strength, Tej settles back down on the cable crossover. If death comes for him, Cas better notice before closing time. Tej will haunt the younger man forever if his body is discovered by some poor gym employee just because his friend was too busy flexing in the mirror. “You break my heart.”

Cas, unimpressed, ticks them off. “New neighbour. Latest tenant. Moved in two weeks ago. Works at the amusement park. Clams up if you ask her anything personal. Like any sane stranger would.”

Unfair. “I’m not a stranger,” Tej puffs. His pectorals are threatening to shrivel up if he keeps this madness up. Cas watches suspiciously as he continues to pull at the bars, exceeding the (admittedly weak) usual limits of his physical prowess. “And anyway, it was just a polite inquiry.”

“Nobody wants polite inquiries from the neighbour they’re stealing Wi-Fi off of.” So he had been listening. Tej considers stopping his workout. “Just don’t offer her sugar next time, man, it’s not rocket science.”

“She promised she’d tell me about the amusement park chaos, though,” he complains. “Is it latent resentment, do you think? From the breakup?”

Cas’ legs still on the squat cage. “The – what now?”

“But it wasn’t a bad breakup.” At least, Tej doesn’t think it was. “And she did the dumping so resentment doesn’t make sense.” Hm. Back to the drawing board. 

“Sorry, are you saying your new neighbour is an ex-girlfriend?” Cas sounds a little choked. “Somehow – in the fourth largest country in the world – you and your ex have landed up neighbours?”

“Exes or no, she could’ve kept her word, at least,” Tej grumbles. His muscles let out one last burst of energy before he’s finally unwrapping his fingers from the bars, slouching on the machine. 

“If you’re pulling my leg, I’m going to have Mom raise your rent.”

Not for the first time, Tej laments that he can’t take the other in a fight. On an emotional level, he would feel guilty afterwards and physically, he’s sure Cas could launch him into orbit if he tried. He’s run the numbers a million times and no scenario ends with any scope of success. 

Tej lifts one tired arm and pats his friend’s shoulder, placating. “Smoothie?”

*

“Bribes aren’t going to work every time.”

“Okay.”

“They’re not.”

“Stop drinking, then.”

Cas tries to glare at him but it doesn’t sit congruent with the satisfaction settled on his face. The fact that he’s glued to his straw, suckling down a colourful pastel drink doesn’t help his case much. Tej loves him like this.  

“Why wouldn’t you start with the fact that she was your ex?”

“Pretty sure I did.” He didn’t. But that’s fine. Cas has a short memory. “Can we please focus on the important bits? Her weird clamming up habit?”

His friend waves a dismissive hand around. The shock of the Revelation is beginning to fade. “Not everybody’s an open book, it’s not a big deal.” 

Tej fixes his gaze on the bright origami decorating the walls of the smoothie shop. Technically, Cas is right. If anything, he knows firsthand how careful Mohini used to be in school; sharp and open and so unendingly generous with her wit except it never seemed to allow any bridge into her true feelings. The years have passed but Tej doesn’t really feel much has changed. They text about the grumpy dog in 302 and the latest underhanded scheme the dino cafe is trying but underneath it all, Tej is ever-aware of the gaping well where any personal knowledge about Mohini would normally be.

“…least of all with an ex,” Cas is saying solemnly when he tunes back in. He doesn’t know what the context is but it’s not hard to make a guess.

“Zero resentment,” Tej repeats stubbornly. “We only dated for three periods, dude, I’ve never even held hands with the girl.”

For the second time in under thirty minutes, Cas freezes. The straw sticks to his full lips when his jaw gapes open and the sight is only mildly funny. Tej takes a mental picture.

“What?”

“What do you mean ‘what’? The fuck do you mean by ‘three periods’?”

It’s almost a screech. Other patrons serve them dirty side eyes. Enjoying this an inordinate amount, Tej mimics an earlier ticking off the fingers. “Math. AP History. Lit class.” He pauses. “And lunch. Does lunch count?” Tej doesn’t want to count it if it’s going to make him look like a loser.

Cas is hunched over the table, staring with big disbelieving eyes. It makes him look younger. Tej bends across the tiny plastic surface separating them and pokes at his hand. 

“Want another smoothie?”

*

“You’re living in a rom-com.”

Tej snorts.

“Seriously. I’m diagnosing you with Rom-Com Protagonist Syndrome.”

“I think rom-com protagonists are supposed to actually experience romance,” he points out, arms brushing against Cas as they walk slowly back to the building. It’s only a few blocks away from the gym but he’s too wiped to jog it back like they did earlier in the morning. Cas is in the midst of demolishing his second smoothie, too, so they’re more than happy to enjoy the pleasant nip of early morning breeze as they stroll. “And, you know. There’s supposed to be some elements of humour? Unless my life is one of those dark comedies and all the jokes are at my expense in which case they’re doing a good job Up There.”

As if on cue, Tej meets his next misfortune almost instantly. 

Toes bursting with pain, his world tilts as he keels to the side on the pavement. “Motherfucking shit.” 

The new mom rushing over bumbling apologies, straightens up abruptly at the curse, guilt disappearing lightning-fast in the face of a swear word. “You mind your language,” she hisses, and it sounds so much like his old librarian in college that Tej instinctively stutters out a ‘sorry’. By his side, Cas bristles. Tej would find his instinct to fight and protect his friends sweeter if he wasn’t in the middle of getting the most withering look of his life but he manages to put a bracing hand on the other’s forearm. 

The offending stroller that had run over his feet is navigated around him, none too kindly, and with a last proper glare at Tej, the lady takes off, muttering ominously under her breath. 

When a few beats pass and it appears Tej hasn’t been hexed, he cuts a sideways glance at his companion. “So much for my protagonist moment.”

Cas is, sadly, not discouraged. “The main character always has to suffer a little.”

It appears to Tej that maybe Cas could do with a little main character diagnosis of his own. Some suffering could be arranged for him, too. 

“Is the main character also supposed to get taken advantage of by friends and people around him?” Mohini with her sugar-stealing and Cas with the smoothie-procuring. Tej wonders what Tahira could be in charge of. Sanity-decaying, perhaps? He’s halfway there, honestly. The other day he bumped into her laundry basket gift and apologised to it. 

“Look, I just wanted to rant about my problems,” Tej mumbles, kicking away a stray rock. Almost immediately, it serves as the perfect reminder of his accident with the cursed stroller from moments ago. 

Cas is gracious enough not to comment when Tej leans against the younger, whimpering at the throb in his toes. He takes it all back. Mrs. Park has raised a wonderful child. “In order to rant, you need to say something that reveals information other than your light obsession with your ex-girlfriend.”

Fuck off. “It’s not an obsession.”

Cas stops sipping so passionately at his smoothie and works through a deep breath. Then—

Mohini,” he whines, exaggerated and loud and adoring in the worst possible imitation of the past two hours of Tej’s agonising. “Cas, Mohini won’t smile at me! She won’t answer when I ask her questions! Cas, Mohini won’t reply to my clingy texts, what do I do?”

Two other pedestrians giggle as they walk past and Tej, face burning with mortification, struggles to pull his friend along faster. Out in public, Tej is more susceptible to embarrassment and the judgemental gazes of passerby’s. Cas wields too much power and he knows it, continuing to sip smugly at his smoothie as he’s dragged forward.

When they’re a building away from reaching their apartment, he finally lets go of the muscular man, instantly pointing a finger at him. “They’re not clingy texts,” Tej whispers harshly. “Nobody likes getting seenzoned. I just want to know if I fucked up and said the wrong thing somehow.”

And that is true, even if Tej had texted her under the lame pretext of threatening to sue if Mohini didn’t reply with the promised updates about the amusement park. It made the shame licking at his core that much worse when he saw she’d read the messages without bothering to respond, no emoji or an explanatory text coming back in turn.

It’s only been a day and a half since the incident and Tej has been distracting himself from really thinking about it too much but it’s a Saturday today. Like every alternate weekend, Cas has trekked home from his grad school to spend time with his mother (and Tej) which means there’s no avoiding talking about it.

Mercifully, his friend gives him a short break till they’re walking up the main stairs to the building. “Why do you need to hear about this amusement park thing so badly, anyway? If you want to hear fuckup stories, I’ll gladly drag one of my campus RA’s to you, man.”

The million dollar question. Tej leans slowly against the main entrance doors to the building and racks his brain for the answer. 

It’s easy enough, actually – the anecdotes sink into his skin. They don’t sit in his throat like uninspiring conversations with friends or freeze at his fingertips like the half-formed ideas he’s trying to materialise for the novel. The quick pace, the unpredictability, the barely concealed delight with which Mohini unpacks each day’s events are all nearly identical to the burst of energy that flows through him in his moments of focused, purposeful writing.

Granted, everything he’s been inspired to write after his text exchanges with Mohini have been an entirely separate, unrelated writing experiment but the welcome relief of a break in the block is unparalleled. 

(And maybe Tej is hoping that one of these days, the momentum will carry him to finally find a proper start to the novel too. Perhaps.)

“Inspiration,” he says simply to Cas when the other groans, impatient from waiting too long for an answer. It gets him a scoff which is fair. Writing about a revolution set in a high fantasy universe is vastly different from writing half-sketched, fun short scenes of a group of teenagers having murderous misadventures in a haunted amusement park. He flicks neatly at the other man’s ear, finally pushing in through the doors, making for the stairs. “Next time, I’m not telling you when you ask what I’m working on.”

Cas follows him up the main staircase to the apartment units after dumping the empty cup in the vague dustbin in the lobby. Tej doesn’t know if it is actually a dustbin but nobody has complained so far and he’s not one for starting trends. If anything, he’s taking the detour as an opportunity to widen the gap between him and Cas.

“Oh yeah?” The younger’s caught up easily, leaping up the stairs three at a time like some loping giant. “Who are you going to tell, then? Tahira? Your ugly paintings?”

This is far too much slander. “I’m banning you from my apartment.”

Cas is undeterred, not even panting as they climb up the next flight of stairs. Asshole. “None of the above? Ah, let me guess. Your latest obsession?” The cocky voice makes Tej wonder if a contract killer wouldn’t be such a bad idea, after all. 

It fuels him enough to stomp angrily up the last remaining steps and he walks backwards in his apartment’s direction so he can glare at his tall bully. “I’m not obsessed with Mohini,” he snaps. “Do you need me to say it in Hindi? Spanish?”

“I didn’t know you spoke Spanish,” a voice says blandly and Tej’s heartbeat skyrockets. He likes his jumpscares restrained to the rare horror movie he dares to watch once a month. The sight of Mohini Balakrishnan raising an eyebrow at him right after he made an announcement related to her is definitely not his preferred brand of horror. 

“Hi Tej,” she says after a long moment, standing in front of 603. Tej wonders, in his blind haze of panicked disorientation, why this is how they always meet. He should talk to Mrs. Park about shifting units. Brown eyes narrow down on his athleisure-wear and the smirk grows. 

Tej revises his stance. Maybe Tahira’s spare room will be a better idea.

5 thoughts on “”

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