A Level Playing Field

Timeframe: Written mid-December 2011. Arnav and La broke up, Payal and Akash’s engagement happens and this takes place during the night, after Arnav announces that his engagement is off and his relationship with La is over.

*******

Part One

‘Bye ASR, keep in touch ok?’ Khushi felt her heart twist as her friends’ voice broke a little and the dignified front she’d put up since the news broke threatened to crumble for a second. She somehow managed to muster up a teasing smile, ‘Cheer up, main sirf London ja rahi hoon, you can visit me – aur haan, Chamkili ko bhi saath laana!’ Khushi saw surprise reflected on Arnav’s face but Lavanya didn’t elaborate and no-one said anything as she moved to Khushi and hugged her tightly.

As she said her goodbyes Khushi knew she’d miss Lavanya; as different as they were she’d somehow become a part of her life and she was one of the few people she thought of as a close friend. Just a little while ago, Khushi had let slip while comforting her that her own engagement was also over and Lavanya had been surprisingly understanding and somehow it had seemed to give her the courage to straighten up and say what she needed to each of the family members.

Now they were all standing by the front doors, wishing her the best of luck in whatever she did next. ‘No tears Chamkili, main tumhe roz phone karoongi ok?’ Khushi laughed through her tears imagining the odd times she’d call, knowing Lavanya wouldn’t bother with time differences.

Just before she turned away to leave, Lavanya hugged her quickly again and Khushi was surprised once more when she heard her say quietly, ‘ASR ka khayal rakna Khushi, he really needs it…’ When Khushi pulled away and looked at her questioningly, La just smiled, ‘Tum baad mein samaj jao gi lekin for now, mere liye?’

Khushi didn’t know what to say and she was aware of everyone’s eyes on them, watching curiously as they spoke quietly… and she felt one particularly intense pair burning into her forehead… she nodded quickly, her heart beating oddly fast and Lavanya gave a smile before she took one last look around and then walked out of their lives.

***

‘Damned laptop!!’ Arnav slammed his laptop shut and glared at it, knowing it was his own brain that refused to work correctly and not the piece of over-worked tech. He sighed and pulled on the neck of his grey top, glad he’d changed out of the formals but still feeling suffocated. His mind was a mess, he had a million thoughts running through it, all intertwined, all driving him nuts. His guilt over the way he’d handled things with Lavanya, his worry over Anjali who’d been so distraught over his announcement that he wasn’t getting engaged.

It hadn’t helped when Shyam had got a phone call and insisted he had to leave right away and wouldn’t be back for a couple of days. That had niggled at Arnav and he’d been about to ask a few questions but Anjali had burst out crying again and his attention was diverted. He frowned again now and made a mental note to talk to his brother in law, things hadn’t seemed quite right for a while now and they could do with discussing them.

As his eyes fell on a rectangle package on the edge of his bed, Arnav finally allowed himself to think about the one thing he shouldn’t be thinking about but couldn’t seem to stop.

He felt warm as he remembered her face when she’d handed him the gift; eyes twinkling and framed by a mass of curls she’d looked so innocent… and yet there was a sadness in her eyes that spoke of greater maturity as she said she had to leave and her eyes had lingered on his face a few seconds too long.

‘Stop thinking about her!’ He ran a hand over his face and stood up from the chair he’d been sitting on. He had no business thinking about her when she was engaged to someone else… His lips twisted in anger and his blood burned as he thought of her faceless fiancée.

He still didn’t know what the creep had done to make her break down the other day but he’d let it drop for now because he’d had other things on his mind and Khushi seemed much more her normal self this evening as she laughed and danced and teased poor Akash mercilessly. There were still odd moments of tension on her face throughout the night that kept reminding him that something wasn’t right and he knew he go crazy imagining the most insane things till he found out the truth.

He walked over to the glass windows, looking out at the garden and the pool; all of which looked beautiful bathed in the cool evening light but Arnav didn’t see any of it. He was lost somewhere else for the moment, remembering her twirling around with La and the rest of them, dancing with abandon and a mischievous smile, only stopping once or twice when she felt his gaze on her. He’d tried his best not to stare and he’d been pre-occupied but despite all that she’d still managed to mesmerise him to the point of distraction and he couldn’t help getting lost in her.

He’d imagined that the room was empty apart from the two of them… What would she have done if he’d gone over to her and spun her around, pulling her close… If he’d reached up and pulled out the tiny clip glittering in her hair, letting her hair fall into her eyes… would she have let him run his fingers through those soft curls..? He closed his eyes, letting his imagination take over for a few seconds till he leaned forward and felt the cool glass of the window on his forehead.

‘Enough.’ He whispered the word to himself shakily, with none of its usual venom. He shook his head and tried to shove the images of her away, ‘you can’t think about her like that, there’s no point, you’re just making it worse…’ he chanted these things to himself in his head as he walked out of his room, trying to get away from his thoughts. He’d go and check on Anjali he decided; she needed someone and it wasn’t really late.

The guests had all gone and he didn’t come across anyone as he strode to his sisters’ room. He’d just about pushed the thoughts of Khushi out of his mind when out of nowhere she appeared before him and he stood there for uncertainly for a while, wondering if his imagination had come to life.

***

‘Khushi..?’ At first he wasn’t sure if she was real but then he took a step closer and her eyes widened. He saw her mouth turn into an ‘o’ of surprise and she looked tired as she fixed her hair nervously and he knew she was really there.

‘Tum yahaan..?’ he asked inanely and mentally kicked himself. ‘I mean, tum apni family ki saath ghar nahi gayi?!’ Jeez that sounded like he was accusing her. He closed his eyes briefly meaning to try again before she stepped in and saved him.

‘Anjali ji ko kissi ki zaroorat thi… aur humme laga ke aap ko bhi waqt ki zaroorat hogi… toh hum kuch dher ke liye ruk gaye…’ Her halting explanation melted through his resolve to remain matter of fact and he felt his face soften as he saw the concern in her eyes as she spoke about both him and his sister.

He didn’t think he could speak about it so he just nodded, ‘Di ab kaisi hai?’ He felt a stab of guilt as he remembered Anjali’s face again; she’d looked so crushed and he felt bad for disappointing her. Khushi seemed to read his thoughts, ‘Woh bilkul teek hai, aap ko fikar karne ki koi zaroorat nahi hai.’ She gave him a small but reassuring smile as she continued, ‘Bas ab soh rahi hai.’

Arnav nodded and there was an odd silence between them, filled with unspoken things before he broke it, trying to ease the tension. ‘Jija ji ko bhi abhi jaana tha!’ he rolled his eyes, expecting some sort of response but instead he saw her eyes tighten and she looked away for a second as she gave a tense smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

He was suddenly reminded of her waste of space fiancée who hadn’t even been bothered to turn up today and he couldn’t stop himself, ‘Khushi mujhe tumse kuch baat karni thi…’ She looked up, her eyes wide with surprise but she didn’t argue when he asked her to come with him and he heard the soft jingle of her anklets as she followed him out to the poolside.

 

Part Two

Khushi watched Arnav nervously as he stood a few feet away from her and seemed to be deep in thought. She wondered what was going on inside that head of his; he must be feeling so many conflicting emotions she thought, forgetting her own problems and feeling worried for him instead.

He was dressed casually now in a striped pale grey top and dark jeans but she could see he was far from relaxed. She knew the decision to break off his engagement hadn’t been one he’d taken lightly; Lavanya had told her it was something he’d thought about seriously before he’d spoke to her and when she went on to tell her how caring he’d been, Khushi had felt a grudging level of respect for the annoyingly short tempered and utterly mystifying man that stood in front of her right now.

‘Arnav ji? Aap teek toh hai naa?’ She had no clue why he’d asked her to come here but she was starting to worry and her nerves at being alone with him were starting to get the better of her. He blinked and focused on her face, his intense gaze making her cheeks burn.

Stop it, she told herself while her fingers picked at her scarf nervously, just listen to what he has to say and leave. ‘Khushi, tumhara mangetar kaha tha aaj?! Tum uss din itni pareshaan kyu thi? What did he do?’ Khushi’s jaw dropped open in shock at the words that fell out of his mouth all in one go; this was the last thing she’d expected him to want to talk about.

‘Aap… yeh sab kyu..?’ She trailed off uselessly, feeling panicked; what was she going to say? She cursed herself for following him out here willingly, why could she never tell what he was thinking? How was she going to cover up the betrayal she still felt even now if she allowed herself to?

She felt her breath come out in short gasps, ‘Khushi..?!’ Arnav’s concerned voice jolted her out of her thoughts and she couldn’t help the tiny thrill that ran through her when she saw that he was standing right in front of her with his hand outstretched, just inches away from her face. She forced herself to look away from those piercing eyes and take a step back, hating the hurt that flashed across his face when she moved back, ‘Hum.. hum teek hai Arnav ji, kuch nahi hua, woh… humme ghar jaana hai!’

‘Not so fast!’ Arnav watched Khushi turn a little and he could tell from her body language that she was about to run. His hand automatically shot up to grab her wrist as he spoke and he used her own momentum to turn her back round to face him, watching as the curls bounced across her shocked face and the grip holding her hair back fell to the floor somewhere.

He blinked and held his breath for a second, ignoring the sudden need to touch her and focused on her face. Her eyes still held traces of the panic and pain he’d seen when he’d burst out with his questions, telling him that despite what she said and how she’d acted this evening, something was seriously wrong.

‘Just tell me what he did Khushi, phir main -‘ He kept his voice quiet but there was no mistaking his pure fury at the man who’d caused her so much heartache. But he wasn’t allowed to finish as Khushi interrupted him, her eyes flashing suddenly, ‘Phir aap kya Arnav ji? Kya kar lenge aap? KYU karenge aap?’

He gritted his teeth and tried not to growl as she continued, a little more restrained now, the anger leaving her as quickly as it had come, ‘Hum iss baare mein aur baat nahi karna chahte…’ He felt his anger slowly disappear too only for it to be replaced by worry as tears filled her eyes. ‘Lekin Khushi…’

She shook her head and spoke in a halting voice, her eyes pleading with him to let it be, ‘Please Arnav ji… hum teek hai.’ She looked away and Arnav felt bad for pushing her when she wasn’t ready to talk about it. He tilted his head in acknowledgement and let her slide her hand out of his slowly but as his fingers slid over hers, he suddenly gripped them tightly and looked into her eyes feeling numb with shock for a second. She pulled her hand out of his quickly and covered it with her other hand as if it would hide the truth.

‘Khushi…where’s your engagement ring?’ He spoke quietly, keeping his voice level as he gazed steadily into her eyes, not letting her look away. ‘Woh…woh shayad…’ The panic was back and she couldn’t hold the eye contact as she looked around as if an answer would appear out of thin air. ‘Jhoot bol ne ki koshish bhi mat karna Khushi…’ His soft voice was like steel encased in velvet and Khushi seemed to fold in on herself as she let out a breath and said very quietly and simply, ‘Humari sagai toot gayi.’

***

The first thing Khushi felt was relief – relief that she could finally be honest, not have to make useless excuses. He looked stunned even though seeing her ring-less finger must have given him an indication. She saw the shock clear and understanding flash in his eyes, followed by concern… and then pain… for her?

Suddenly Khushi was angry; she was angry at the pathetic excuse of a man who had put her in this situation, caused her and her family so much pain and now was still causing more pain even after his true face has been revealed. Arnav saw the anger flash in her eyes and stepped forward slowly holding out both his hands, ‘Khushi..’

Khushi didn’t know what he’d been about to say but she stepped back, angry tears spilling from her eyes and she felt helpless as all her anger at Shyam spilled out with them. ‘Haan humari sagai toot gayi! Lekin hum iss baat se bilkul dhuki nahi hai!’ She wiped her tears angrily and took another step back as Arnav came towards her again, concern written all over his features.

She shook her head again angrily, hating the tears that still flowed and unable to stop the words still pouring out of her mouth bitterly, ‘Unhone humare aur humare parivaar ke saath itna bada dhoka kiya, hum un pe humari aansoon kyu barbaad kare?!’

She heard her voice break and felt more tears rising in her throat and she managed to hold them back somehow as more venom poured out, ‘Unhone humara barosa bilkul thod diya… humaari dosti ki bhi koi kadar nahi ki! Hum kyu roye?!’ She could feel herself breaking inside and she couldn’t hold back the sobs anymore as Arnav wordlessly pulled her into his arms and she finally broke down, sobbing her heart out in the arms of the man she’d always felt connected to without knowing why.

***

There was what felt like a war going on inside Arnav, unleashed by her words and her complete breakdown. The questions flew around his mind as he held her, one after the other; emotions, each being taken over by the next before he could even process them.

He felt a deep sense of hatred for the man who’d done this to her and vowed to himself that somehow he would make him pay for every single tear he’d ever caused her. He held her close as she cried with her whole body shaking, wishing he could take the pain away somehow. ‘It’s ok Khushi…’ He stroked her hair and let her cry, nodding as she gasped that she was fine incoherently, in between the sobs that still racked through her. ‘Shh Khushi, don’t speak…’

He held her for a long time and he didn’t know how long it had been when he realised she’d stopped crying and he was just holding her, stroking her hair occasionally. She seemed to be at peace finally and he didn’t want to disturb that so he stayed where he was, trying to make sense of what was going on inside him.

There was still a mess of emotions but now that she was calmer, there was a huge underlying sense of relief that he couldn’t seem to shake. He felt bad that he was relieved at her misfortune but there was a part of him that had been burning ever since he’d found out about her engagement and that part could now finally rest.

He pushed down on these thoughts – they weren’t important now. He shifted on his feet a little and he felt her move in his arms, pulling away slightly, lifting her head off his chest and blinking at his neck. He kept his arms around her, not ready to let go and for the moment she stayed where she was as the atmosphere around them seemed to shift.

He’d been holding her closer only seconds before but now he seemed actuely aware of every single nerve in his body and of the way she was still clutching at his chest with her fingers.

Arnav remembered what he’d been thinking about earlier and now he couldn’t help himself from moving his fingers through her hair slowly, letting the soft curls slide over them. Khushi shivered and seemed to break from her frozen state and Arnav looked down, just as she looked up. He blinked and tried not to look at her lips, instead focusing on her tear streaked face, knowing that she was too vulnerable right now.

He left one hand still tangled in her hair as he wiped her tears slowly with the other and spoke a little gruffly, ‘Ab teek ho?’

It was the first thing either of them had said in a long while and it made Khushi blink as she nodded slowly, realising that she really was ok. She felt a little awkward and embarrassed at the way she’d broken down so badly but her emotions were always too close to the surface when she was around him… and he’d been there as solid as a rock, not budging an inch when she’d broken.

She felt relieved and wanted to thank him for giving her the first sense of peace she’d had since she’d found out but when she opened her mouth to speak he shook his head as if reading her mind, ‘It’s ok Khushi, kuch kehne ki zaroorat nahi hai.’

Khushi blinked up into eyes that now looked like darkened caramel but still seemed to burn even in their softness and fought the feeling that she was falling. She cleared her throat and tried for a little humour, ‘Hum kaha kuch kehne waale the? Humko toh bas ghar jaane ki baat karni thi..’

Her voice was a little shaky and husky from crying but otherwise she sounded normal and she saw Arnav give a faint smile at her words. A smile which made her heart skip and she was suddenly aware of how they might be speaking normally but he was still holding her too close, his hand was still in her hair and she could still feel his heart beating under her hands.

Arnav seemed unaware of the way his fingers still moved in her hair, causing little frissons of fire to shoot through her with every tug and she suddenly realised he was speaking to her when he said her name.

‘Khushi?! I said do you want a lift home?’ She looked at him, feeling like the world had shifted, was this really the two of them standing here..? He was still waiting for an answer and something tugged at her mind and she remembered it after a few seconds, ‘Nahi! Jijajii ne kaha tha ke woh humme chod denge…’

When Arnav frowned, Khushi smiled, ‘Shayad Jiji se milna chahte hai.’ Arnav nodded and then looked at her questioningly when she stayed where she was and looked at him expectantly, ‘What?’ he asked, raising an eyebrow and seeming confused.

Khushi felt her face go red as she tried to pull away but was still caught in his arms and suddenly his eyes widened as he realised how close they still were. He untangled his fingers from her hair slowly and then lowered his arms and stepped away, his eyes never leaving her face for a second. Khushi felt oddly empty without his arms around her and she mentally shook herself as she tried to breathe more normally.

As he reluctantly stepped away from her, Arnav knew it was the best thing for them both but it felt like the worst and he watched as Khushi seemed to be in some turmoil too. After a few seconds though she looked up and although her eyes were still red, she was much calmer as she looked him before saying bye and quietly walking away, only turning back to smile at him once before she disappeared into the house.

He turned to go back into his room, trying to make sense of what had just happened when he saw something glinting on the floor and he picked it up to see it was the silver hair grip that had fallen out of her hair. He looked down at it as he walked into his room, feeling like everything had changed in the past couple of days for both him and Khushi.

They’d both been engaged and now neither of them was; everything that was finely balanced was now up in the air. The equation had changed and he held onto the tiny grip as he remembered how she’d felt so at home in his arms that he’d forgotten she was still there. It was a level playing field now – there was nothing wrong with him thinking about her, seeing her, talking to her… The thought scared him and exhilarated him in equal measures and he wondered what he was going to do about it.

 

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