Fire and Ice

Timeframe: Written February 2012, right after Arnav and Khuhi return to his house as a married couple. Wasn’t sure where they would go with it, just a few thoughts and I feel the poem matches them well.

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Part One

 

‘Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire,

I hold with those who favor fire…’

                                         

– Robert Frost

 

Arnav walked into his room feeling battered and bruised and he wished someone would knock him unconscious. He’d do anything just to feel nothing right now – to be completely numb.

His whole world had come crashing down around him in a matter of minutes, the foundations of his life crumbling before his eyes and from that point on, things had only gotten steadily worse. He didn’t know how everything could have gone so horribly wrong in such a short span of time. Earlier in the evening his worst problem had been trying to find a way to talk to Khushi alone and now the thought of facing her again made his stomach turn and his heart ache.

He had so many unanswered questions. How could she? How could he have got her so wrong? Had everything he’d felt been based on a lie? How could she have done that to his sister who had only ever tried to help and support her? His heart burned at the thought and he remembered Anjali’s tears, the hurt on her face and her repeated question – why had he married Khushi in that manner, without telling anyone? But how could he tell her the truth knowing what it would do to her and knowing that he had barely even thought it through himself. He hadn’t been able to answer her but he would need to soon, he couldn’t put it off forever.

For now it seemed like the families were in shock but he didn’t care; they would just have to accept it. And after 6 months they could have their precious daughter back and she could do as she pleased… with whom she pleased. He gritted his teeth as he pulled out a towel and some grey low rise jeans from his wardrobe. Why should he care where she went after 6 months? As long as his Di was ok, he’d be ok – he didn’t need her…

He pulled off his jacket, tie and waistcoat in quick succession and as he walked into the bathroom, he paused for a moment with the door still open; suddenly remembering the resounding slap Khushi had received earlier, only because of him.

He hated that it still mattered – the pain in her eyes, her tear streaked face; even now his blood boiled when he remembered it and he had to force himself to breath normally as he slammed the bathroom door shut and removed the rest of his clothes before stepping into the shower. He stood under the scalding hot jet of water, wishing it could burn away the bitterness of his soul and melt away the pain he felt digging into him with every breath but it did nothing.

As he closed his eyes against the pouring water, he saw her crying face once again, pleading with him not to ruin her sister’s life. He wanted to hate her – he did hate her. For first making him break every single rule he’d set himself by falling for her and then for ripping it all away from him in a heartbeat. One heart-breaking instant and it was all lost. And as if to pour flames onto his already raw heart, she also happened to be playing a part in ruining the life of the one person he loved most in the world.

He opened his eyes and stared straight ahead, blinking away water and tears unseeingly. Yes he hated her, he was sure of it… But underneath all his unanswered questions and conflicted thoughts, there was one thing that hammered away at his heart, not letting him feel any satisfaction, making him feel guilty for what he’d done to her. One thing that despite everything she’d done, made him hate himself more than he hated her. Because even after everything, somehow somewhere deep inside him, there was a cold and broken place where her pain and her tears still felt like his own.

***

He didn’t notice anything odd as he strode out of the bathroom; he’d forgotten to take in a top so he went straight to the wardrobe, still towelling his hair. Suddenly he froze with the wardrobe door half open and felt a twisted sense of deja vu hit him… He slid the door shut and turned around slowly, and stared in complete disbelief. Because there sitting on the bed with her face covered by a red dupatta, sat his newly-wedded wife.

After the initial shock wore off, Arnav saw red. He stalked over to the edge of the bed, ‘What the HELL do you think you’re doing?!’

He waited with gritted teeth, trying to ignore the way her hands were clutching nervously at the material by her knees. ‘Khushi… main tumse kuch pooch raha hoon – answer me!’ Her only response was to wrap her arms around her knees tighter and Arnav felt his wafer thin patience snap. He reached out and flicked the dupatta off her head in one quick movement, letting it fall to the bed and then watched as she stared up him in shock.

Her eyes were red but she stared up at him almost defiantly, her gaze only wavering slightly when it ran over his shirtless form but he didn’t care if she was uncomfortable – he was in no mood for babying anyone, least of all her. He threw the towel he was still holding onto the bed and folded his arms, speaking in an ice cold voice which did nothing to hide his fury, ‘What exactly do you think you’re doing?’

He watched, feeling his eyebrows rise as she visibly gulped and then took a breath, ‘Yahi chahte the na aap?!’ Her voice trembled and gestured down at her herself while she spoke and Arnav was lost for words at what she’d just implied.

‘What?! You think… are you completely crazy?!’ Arnav was so surprised he completely blanked for a second till his brain kicked into gear again – what would make her think he would go anywhere near her? It was well past midnight now and he hadn’t seen her since the families had questioned them a couple of hours ago – hadn’t lover-boy told her that he knew everything in the time since? Was this some sort of plan of theirs too?

Amidst all the confusion, a thought struck him and Arnav took a step back as his brain began to process what she was offering and despite everything, he couldn’t help the sudden thrill he felt when he realised that she was his wife… Khushi looked up at him again but this time confusion had clouded her eyes and he wondered if she really wasn’t aware that he knew anything. She licked her lips nervously and he felt his resolve waver for a crazy second before he shook his head, disgusted at himself; what the hell was wrong with him?!

He watched as Khushi bit her lip nervously at his continued silence; she looked lost now, her earlier anger and defiance gone and he wondered if she really was this innocent that she had no idea how inviting she looked, with her open hair falling perfectly around her… Or maybe she was just that smart that she knew how to use the innocence to her advantage; what other kind of person would be interested in a piece of trash like Shyam?

He shook his head again, feeling suddenly exhausted and sickened; no, he decided, he wasn’t going to fall for it a second time. He went forward, intending to pull her off the bed and to tell her to stay the hell away from him in future but when he leaned towards her, she shrank into herself, her eyes tightly shut, lips trembling as she held onto to her ghagra tightly. Seeing her reaction, he froze for a second, re-thinking his next move because he didn’t want to let her off so easily…

 

Part Two

Khushi was shaking with fear and confusion; she had no idea what she was doing here, what had happened, how her whole life had been turned inside out by the man standing in front of her; her husband. The thought suddenly made her want to laugh hysterically; surely this was some cruel joke being played on her?! But when he moved towards her, his once beloved face set in lines of anger and disgust, she knew it was no joke but her own twisted fate.

She closed her eyes and prayed to Devi Maiyya as she waited for some sort of reaction from him; fully expecting him to drag her off the bed and humiliate her, or worse… to accept the offer she’d made in a moment of blind anger, determined to find out why he was doing this to her.

Her heart felt like it would explode out of her chest any second and she bit her lip to stop herself from crying out in fear when he leaned towards her on the bed. She wished she could take it all back; everything from whatever it was that had changed him from the man who’d looked at her so lovingly this morning to the man in front of her now – his eyes blazing with an ice cold fury and vengeance she couldn’t begin to understand.

Nothing happened for a few seconds so she opened her eyes and was startled to find his face just inches from hers, his arms either side of her on the bed, supporting his weight as he leaned closer to her.

He was close enough that she could see the drops of water still clinging to strands of hair that were falling into his eyes; close enough that she could smell his musky scent over whatever products he’d used in the shower. She closed her eyes briefly, painfully aware how out of her depth she was with this half naked man she now realised she barely knew; who looked like he wanted to rip her to shreds and she knew could easily do so without batting an eyelid.

But she wanted answers – she needed answers for why he’d done it and for why she’d hurt her family so badly she couldn’t look any of them in the eye. After Anjali had told her quietly to go and rest in ‘her’ room, she’d looked at her in shock and then someone had brought her here and she’d walked in, relieved to find he wasn’t there, scared as she waited. And sitting there she’d reached the only conclusion she could think of as to why he’d married her.

Now she said a prayer and opened her eyes, looking directly at him as she spoke, trying not to flinch in the face of the chips of molten bronze that were glaring straight at her and wishing her voice wasn’t so shaky, ‘Issi liye aap ne humse shaadi ki thi naa… 6 mahine ke liye?’

Anger and hurt eclipsed her fear and spurred her to add the last part scathingly; as if it wasn’t humiliating enough for her, he’d added the 6 months to further ruin her and pour salt on her already crushed heart. She glared at him, letting him see the pain he’d caused her and was still causing her and was surprised when she saw something flare in his eyes other than anger before he lowered his gaze and looked away, hiding himself from her.

When he next looked at her she felt a jolt of fear and something else run down her spine at his fierce expression. She gasped as he brought his lips to her ear and murmured softly, ‘Kyu? 6 mahine kaafi nahi hai tumhare liye..?’ Her eyes widened at his deliberately mocking tone and she hated the thrill that ran through her when his lips brushed her ear.

She hated him for what he was doing to her… but right now she hated herself more because despite the position she was in – the position he had put her in – something inside her was telling her to turn her face ever so slightly and brush her lips against the pulse she could see beating furiously at the base of his neck…

Khushi blinked and felt her face flush at her own wildly out of place thoughts but he seemed to mistake her reaction because she felt an arm go round her as he pulled her close and leaned into her, his face now in her hair. She closed her eyes, feeling lightheaded, surrounded by him and somehow despite everything she knew, it still felt like he was the only anchor in the storm that was her life. She gave in for a second, resting her face in the curve of his neck; needing a moment of comfort because even though her heart was broken, the pieces still loved him pointlessly.

The moment didn’t last and a few seconds later she felt his body tense as he took in a sharp breath and pulled away slightly, looking down at her with eyes now darkened and glittering, like chips of burning coal.

He moved the arm that had been around her and brought it up to run his fingers down the side of her face but this time she felt an icy chill along with the fire his fingers left behind because his words left her shaken; the silkiness of his voice doing nothing to mask the threat in them. ‘Don’t worry; yeh 6 mahine tumhare liye 6 saal se kam nahi lagenge…I promise you that.’

He gave her one last look, taking in her frightened eyes and open mouth before pulling his other arm back and she saw with a jolt of surprise and shame that he’d been leaning around her to get a pillow the whole time; while she’d been expecting him to use the moment to his advantage. She blinked in confusion, wondering why it still hurt as she watched him move away and pull on a grey top and then stalk over to the recliner without so much as glancing at her.

Khushi knew she should be relieved and part of her was; but something inside her was still broken and she somehow felt worse than she’d had when she’d walked into the room. She’d thought she’d known what he wanted, why else would he have married her for 6 months? But she’d been wrong. Nothing made any sense, her life was a mess and she felt like she was being punished for something she had no clue about… She’d got no answers, only more questions and the overwhelming feeling that she was in way over her head and all alone.

***

Arnav couldn’t sleep even though he was utterly drained; there were too many emotions running through him, driving him slowly insane. The recliner was uncomfortable and he could sense her behind him all the time even in fits of sleep, breathing un-evenly, lost in troubled sleep somewhere in the darkness.

He turned around and looked over to where he could see her slumped form near the edge of the bed. She’d switched off the lamps a little while after he’d left her there and he’d had to turn away from the sound of her tears while he waited for sleep that never really came.

Instead all that had come were the memories; moments they’d shared together and he’d unknowingly held close, each precious moment now tainted and left meaningless by the repulsive sight he’d witnessed and the words which fell like poison from that creep’s mouth. He opened his eyes and sat up quickly, pushing the memories away and feeling like he needed to escape his own skin.

He stood up, feeling restless and wanting just a moment of peace, intending to walk out and tend to his plants as a last resort; but as he stood up, something made him stop in his tracks.

It was her; and before he knew it, he was standing at the foot of the bed, where she’d fallen asleep awkwardly. Without thinking he covered her with a blanket and watched, almost fascinated, as she curled her fingers around its edge and buried her nose into it, seeming to relax from her earlier position as her breathing evened out.

Why did he care that she now looked peaceful? Why did his fingers still want to touch her face? He hated himself for not being able to get rid of those feelings, or the flickers of fire that still burned between them. He’d come so close to losing himself earlier when he’d got near enough to feel her heartbeat; the feeling of her warm breath on his neck had almost undone him.

Now he gritted his teeth and reminded himself of what he’d seen as he forced his feet to walk away from her, out into the garden which had once been his haven but now was filled with more memories of her. He ignored those memories and let the cold anger fill his veins like ice and vowed never to let anything she did melt through his defences again.

 

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Awakenings

Timeframe: Written late January 2012, right after Payal and Akash’s sangeet – when there was still a scorpion on the prowl and everyone was expecting it to sting Khushi – oh the outrage that notion had caused… 

I wanted to do something different and was playing around with this idea and woke up with the first few paragraphs stuck in my head – the image wouldn’t fade till I wrote it! Enjoy x

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Part One

Arnav was slipping in and out of consciousness; not fully asleep and yet not awake enough to be fully aware of his surroundings. In the moments when he was half awake all he could feel was a deep sense of peace and contentment, something he hadn’t felt in a long time; if ever.

Every time he was close to waking, sleep pulled him back under but he didn’t fight it, he let it take him because the feeling of belonging was there each time he surfaced and somehow he knew it would still be there when he awoke, anchoring him. He held it close and let himself sleep, feeling it wash over him in waves and thud alongside his own heartbeat.

***

Khushi opened her eyes and smiled; caught in the blissful moment of peace that only comes when you first wake, before daily worries crowd your mind and it fades away. She sighed letting the moment flow through her, feeling utterly content till after a long moment she became aware of exactly where she was and froze when the previous day and night’s events came flooding back like a kaleidoscope of images.  

What on Earth could have made her forget?! She felt the fear and crushing panic rise in her again and forced herself to breathe evenly.

‘Relax,’ something whispered inside her, ‘he’s ok, you know he’s ok, you can feel he’s ok…’ She swallowed, accepting it as the truth yet still feeling anxious. She tried to focus on her surroundings – she could see faint light streaming in through the white curtains of the room; even though it was still early she knew she needed to move before someone came but as she tried to move away, she felt the strong arms around her resist and hold her where she was.

Khushi suddenly knew with a certainty that scared her that these arms were the only reason she’d managed to forget everything and sleep so peacefully. She swallowed hard as she wondered how she was going to get out of this, biting her lip as she recalled how she’d ended up asleep in the arms of Arnav Singh Raizada.

 

The previous night:

‘Dhekiye ab yeh khatre se bahar hai lekin inhe aaram ki zaroorat hai, aap sab ghar jaa sakte hai.’ Khushi heard the doctor’s words but they did nothing to stem the panic that kept threatening to overwhelm her and she was barely keeping it at bay; what if they were wrong? The thought was unbearable and she clenched her hands, nails digging into her palms painfully as she tried not to think about it; she couldn’t lose him too…

Hospitals always reminded her of illness and death; even this one which was an expensive private clinic and was supposed to be more like recovering at home. It didn’t feel like home and Khushi knew she wouldn’t stop worrying till he was actually home and behaving like his usual angry self.

They’d moved Arnav here a few hours after he’d been treated. They kept saying he would be ok – the scorpion sting hadn’t been fatal and they’d got him to the hospital fast enough. Akash was still talking to the doctor about it but Khushi heard none of it as they sat in a private waiting area outside his room. She was still numb with fear and even with open eyes she could see him sliding to the floor in front of her, a look of surprise on his face as he spoke her name before he’d blacked out, leaving her shaking and screaming for help.

No-one had any idea how a scorpion had got into Anjali’s wardrobe but Khushi was painfully aware that it should have been her reaching in to get the Nataraj idol. Instead while she’d been arguing, Arnav had reached in and when he pulled his hand back sharply they both saw a bright red spot of blood on his wrist.

It was just a tiny sting, it didn’t even seem to swell up much but within minutes of him slamming the door to the wardrobe shut, he was staggering on his feet. He barely managed to say her name once and then he was gone, leaving Khushi with an arm around him trying to prop him up, feeling more scared and alone than she’d ever been before.

‘Khushiji?’ She looked up and realised Akash had been calling her for a while but she couldn’t reply. He told her he was taking Nani and the others home and for her to come but she shook her head instantly, not caring what anyone thought. ‘Hum yahi rahenge!’ Akash blinked at her tone and she forced herself to speak more softly.

‘Agar unko kissi ki zaroorat padi toh? Anjaliji bhi yahaan nahi hai…’ Shyam had had to take Anjali home once the doctors had said Arnav was out of immediate danger; she’d completely broken down at the thought of anything happening to him and everyone had thought it best.

Akash looked like he might argue but then Khushi heard NK come up behind him. ‘It’s ok Akash, main Khushiji ke saath ruk ja tha hoon, you guys go home ok?’ Khushi was relieved when Akash agreed because nothing he said would have made her leave and she didn’t want to have to cause a scene. She looked at NK who smiled back at her understandingly and then looked away.

She didn’t know what he thought; or what any of them thought for that matter. The looks on their faces after Arnav had stepped up to dance with her were of stunned surprise and shock but then the results were announced and Arnav had got stung so soon after that no-one had time to think about the dance or what it meant.

Khushi closed her eyes and tried to push away the images and sensations, now wasn’t the time; she just wanted him to be ok and the thought of anything other than that made it hard for her to breathe. In her mind’s eye she again saw his much too still body on the hospital bed when they’d first rushed him there; his skin un-naturally pale and his chest barely rising and falling. She felt the tears come again at the image, silently and with no signs of stopping.

***

‘Khushi…’ Khushi bolted upright in the chair she’d been sitting in as Arnav murmured her name in his sleep. Her heart leapt even though this wasn’t the first time but each time she felt it pierce her and she’d jump up hoping he would gain consciousness but he never did. She stood up and looked around the darkened room, lit only by a small lamp. It was furnished like a normal room with furniture and a big bed but the softly beeping monitors and various equipment made it clear it wasn’t really a normal room.

She looked up at the clock and saw it was 2 in the morning; she’d sent NK home about half an hour ago and one of the nurses had offered Khushi a spare bed but she’d refused and stayed in the chair next to Arnav, only leaving once to go and pray for him at a small shrine they had.

‘Khushi…’ Arnav turned in his sleep and Khushi saw his eyelids moving and thought maybe he was dreaming. She went and sat down on the bed next to him, watching him sleep, wondering what he was dreaming about. She wanted him to wake up so she could ask him why he kept saying her name; was he dreaming about her..? A ghost of a smile touched her face when she imagined his outraged response.

He shifted restlessly and threw off the covers; he was wearing a grey short sleeved t-shirt, making it easy for Khushi to see the bandage on his wrist, the white standing out in stark contrast to his tanned skin. The bandage was small and innocuous looking and seeing it, no-one would know he’d come so close to death.

She felt another stab of fear and guilt; the thought of anything happening to him had scared her so badly she couldn’t pretend anymore. She didn’t know when he’d come to mean so much to her or even how but he had. This moody man who loved to challenge her and get under her skin at every opportunity had somehow gotten into her heart and it seemed he was there for good.

She reached out hesitantly and touched his face, feeling smooth skin and rough stubble under her fingers. His colour had come back slowly during the night and his temperature felt raised but not feverish and she remembered the doctor saying it’d take a few days for him to return to normal.

Normal, she thought a little sadly. Was normal him going back to telling her she meant nothing and that he’d danced with her out of pity? Or was normal what she’d felt and seen mirrored in his eyes while they danced on that stage together..?

He looked so peaceful while he slept that she felt something inside her twist longingly as she ran her fingers across his forehead. There were no traces of the usual furrowed brow or clenched jaw; his worries seemed erased as she touched his face. How different would he look when he was better and they had to face what had happened between them? She simply didn’t know. She understood now what she wanted after coming so close to losing him but she was well aware that it might not be possible with the way he felt about her.

Khushi didn’t know when she started crying again but she was reaching up to wipe her tears when she felt warm fingers encircle her wrist lightly and she gasped in surprise before turning to look at him with her heart racing. Arnav was blinking up at her slowly and even with the low lighting she could see his eyes were slightly unfocused.

‘Khushi..? Tum mere kamre mein… ro kyu rahi ho?!’ His voice was low and gravelly from sleep and medication and he blinked again a couple of times as if trying to clear his head. There was mild alarm in his voice and he looked worried as he struggled to sit up but Khushi pushed him back down gently, feeling tears of relief now pouring down her face. ‘Hum bilkul teek hai Arnavji lekin aap ko aaram ki zaroorat hai.’

‘Aaram? But you’re crying…’ he tried to get up again and Khushi pushed down on his chest with one hand, glad to feel his heart beating so strongly under it. She shook her head and tried to sound firm, ‘Dekhiye, hum keh rahe hai naa, aap ut nahi sakte? Bas!’

Even in his half delirious state he managed to give her a look that clearly said she was acting crazy and seeing it, Khushi couldn’t help the relieved laughter bubbling up inside. Arnav frowned to himself, looking like he was struggling to focus again before he muttered ‘OK’ and suddenly Khushi felt a sharp tug on the pallu of the green saree she was still wearing and she tumbled into him on the bed.

‘Arnavji, yeh aap kya…?!’ Khushi’s quiet gasp fell somewhere into his hair and she quickly pulled back, her heart beating a mile a minute. She tried to move away when he pulled her to him again but then stopped, feeling breathless when she realised how close their faces were on his pillow. She felt light fingers on her cheek, wiping her tears away before he put his arm around her again and pulled her against him, his eyes drifting shut as he muttered, ‘You said I couldn’t get up…’

 

Part Two

Khushi blinked, coming back to the present; feeling Arnav breathing evenly behind her as she sent a silent prayer up to Devi Maiyya for keeping him safe and alive.

She looked around the room and noticed it was getting lighter really fast and she tried to think for a minute about how she could escape without waking him. She felt his warm breath stirring her hair and couldn’t help the shiver that ran through her, making him stir and murmur something as he moved. She held her breath wondering if she’d woken him but then sighed when he only shifted slightly, his arms around her tightening and pulling her closer to him before his breathing resumed its steady pace.

As she lay in his arms, Khushi tried to fight the feeling of utter belonging that was slowly creeping over her again. She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling his heart thud against her back, its beat somehow managing to slow her own heartbeat down to match it. It was calming, the way his arms held her so securely and the way his warm, solid body was curled around hers protectively. She looked down and saw her own hand, wrapped around his long fingers where they rested on her stomach and was shaken by how right it felt.

Something inside her sighed and told her to just close her eyes and go back to sleep; to enjoy this moment, not question why and just feel… because she probably wouldn’t have it again. The thought made her sad as her eyes drifted closed and she might have fallen back asleep in the soothing comfort he brought but the buzzing sound of a phone jarred her fully awake and she felt like it was telling her she had no business staying in his arms.

She struggled to move his arm from around her, taking care not to touch the bandage but even hurt and asleep he was too stubborn so she gave up and decided there was nothing else for it but to wake him.

‘Arnavji..?’ Khushi wriggled against him, trying to ignore the way his fingers unconsciously tightened on her stomach when she moved. ‘Arnavji?!’ The phone buzzed again but it was too far for her to reach; she called his name again and was rewarded with a rumbling ‘Hmmm?’ that she felt right down to her core. ‘Woh… aap ka phone..’ She was losing her mind here but he was still unmoving.

‘Forget it…’ he muttered and Khushi was surprised for a split second before she felt a shudder run through her as Arnav buried his face in her hair and sighed against her neck, his lips burning the soft skin there. ‘Khushi…’ The feel of his lips and way he said her name with so much longing made Khushi feel like she was melting and she tried hard to tell herself that he was probably still asleep but then every thought was lost when she felt his fingers move on her stomach, stroking her skin lightly through the thin fabric of her saree…

***

As sleep left him slowly, Arnav didn’t really know how or why but he was having the best morning he could remember. The feeling of peace he’d had was still with him and now as he took in a deep breath and held Khushi close he knew exactly where it had come from.

Why was she here though..? His brain felt cloudy and he tried to remember but she was distracting him with her constant squirming and he couldn’t help himself from kissing her neck. ‘Khushi…’ he stroked her stomach, feeling disappointed that her clothes were in the way but liking the way her fingers tightened on his hand.

‘Stop moving…’ he whispered into her ear and she went still as he tried to think back to what had happened the night before. He blinked and saw a flash of green under his nose, Khushi’s saree… he remembered dancing with her, the feeling it gave him and his still sluggish brain got lost in the memory for a while before he tried to remember more. They were upstairs and she wasn’t happy; they were arguing… and something bit him? As soon as he thought it, the arm he had around Khushi began to throb and he clenched his fingers experimentally against her stomach, feeling the pain travel dully all the way up his arm.

He lifted his arm and saw the bandage and felt Khushi use that moment to sit up quickly and fix her saree and fuss with her hair nervously. He let her go but held onto her wrist in case she tried to run away and she stayed sitting where she was, not looking at him. For the first time Arnav looked around and realised they weren’t at home or anywhere he knew and when he sat up in surprise, he felt everything spin around him. ‘Arnavji! Hum ne kaha tha naa, aap ut nahi sakte!’

There was panic in her voice and he felt her hands on his arms and he blinked as the world stopped moving and his eyes rested on her worried face. Her eyes were red and suddenly he remembered seeing them wide with fear before he passed out and then again filled with tears sometime later.

‘Kya hua Khushi? Why were you crying? And where are we?!’ He waited, fighting the feeling of weariness that was creeping over him, making his eyes grow heavy again. He focused on her face and listened as she explained where he was and how he’d got here.

More than her words, he heard the way her voice shook and watched her blink back tears when she said that she couldn’t wake him so she’d called for help. He remembered how broken she was when her father was in hospital and he could see that same fear in her eyes when she spoke now. It was something he recognised and understood well because he’d felt it too; it was the fear of losing something you can’t live without, the fear of being left alone and seeing that in her eyes when she spoke about him left him stunned.

Khushi was stumbling over the explanation of how she’d ended up in his arms during the night but he covered her mouth with his fingers; he didn’t care how it had happened, it was just enough that it had. She stayed still and watched him quietly as he smoothed back her hair and then blinked in surprise when he spoke, his voice soft but still sounding rough even to his ears, ‘Ab tum teek ho?’ She seemed shaken by his question and paused for a minute before nodding nervously.

Maybe she hadn’t expected him to notice he thought, wanting to ask her why she’d been so worried about him but just as he opened his mouth a nurse walked in and Khushi slipped her hand out of his and stood up, saying something about calling home. He watched her talking on the phone as the nurse asked him some questions and did a few tests before telling him he needed to rest and the doctor would be up later.

***

Arnav continued to watch Khushi intently after the nurse left and from the way she was nervously twisting her saree between her fingers he knew she felt his eyes on her. He remembered the way they’d danced and felt himself getting even more light-headed than he already was.

He’d decided to help her in a split second; he’d kept insisting he wanted her to lose but when it came down to it, the look on her face was something he hadn’t been able to bear and so he’d gone up in flames for her. It was almost like they’d been in a dream except the fire raging between them was all too real. If he’d had a choice in the matter they would have been alone and he knew if they’d been alone things would have ended differently than they had.

She ended the call and he swung his feet to the ground, intending to ask her exactly why she had been so upset seeing him hurt and why she out of everyone had stayed behind but as he stood up he felt the room spin again and he thought he would fall till he felt her hands on his shoulders, propping him up against her small frame. He leaned into her and looked up to see her worried eyes were only millimetres away from his, ‘Aap kya kar rahe hai..?’

She pushed him but he resisted till he saw tears fill her eyes again, ‘Aap apna khayal kyu nahi rakte?!’ He watched with some amazement as she glared up at him through her tears and he let her push him back towards the bed as she continued angrily, ‘Kya zaroorat thi aap ko uss Nataraj ki murti ko nikal ne ki?! Hum kar rahe the naa? Humari waje se yeh sab…’

She stopped and looked drained as she ran out of steam and covered her eyes for a second. Arnav frowned as he tried to follow her reasoning but the nurse had given him something for the pain and his brain was starting to feel cloudy again.

‘Khushi tum..’ he shook his head, trying to clear it. He wanted to tell her it was nothing, that he’d go through worse but she shook her head and told him to sleep as she helped him onto the bed, saying his family would be here soon. ‘Khushi, mujhe tum se baat karni hai…’ His eyelids felt too heavy but he forced them open, fighting the tiredness creeping over him. This was important, he had to tell her now; he didn’t know why he felt this sudden urgency but he couldn’t ignore it. He grabbed her hand as she turned away.

‘You love me!’ Khushi gasped and tried to pull her hand back and Arnav frowned as he held on, forcing himself to concentrate… that wasn’t what he’d meant to say was it..?

She was staring at him in shock, her clear hazel eyes wide and he thought she looked scared. But as he spoke the words he hadn’t meant to say, they felt true and she wasn’t denying it either. A feeling of warmth washed over him and a slow smile crept onto his face; the knowledge was like a soothing balm, calming the urgency he’d felt moments ago and he sighed feeling some of the peace he’d been enveloped in earlier with her lying next to him.

He would tell her how he felt later he thought, when he could make sure she wasn’t going anywhere… But there was something else that was nagging away at him and he struggled for a second, fighting against weariness till he recalled her tear soaked face from the night before.  

‘I’m sorry Khushi..’ his eyes drifted shut and he thought he heard her ask why as he turned onto his side, pulling her hand up to his cheek. ‘Phir se tumhe rula diya…’ he didn’t know if he’d murmured the words out loud or if he’d only thought them as he turned his face into her hand and finally gave in to sleep, somehow knowing she’d be there again when he awoke.

 

Winners & Losers

Timeframe: Written mid-January 2012 during the sangeet of Payal and Akash. An alternative look at the sangeet challenge between Arnav and Khushi..

*******

Part One: Winners

 

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‘Tum haar gayi Khushi Kumari Gupta…’ Khushi shivered as his whispered words caressed her left ear and sent ripple of awareness down her spine, leaving her dry mouthed and breathless.

She somehow managed to force a smile back onto her face and kept it plastered there as she accepted congratulations off various guests and tried to ignore Arnav as he continued to stand slightly behind her as he smiled perfectly graciously to everyone whilst causing her heart thud loudly with his words.

‘Jaha se hum dekh rahe hai, jeet toh humari hui Mr Raizada.’ She held up the circular statuette and tried to sound confident, hoping he hadn’t heard the quiver of fear in her voice; in truth she’d been expecting something like this from him from before she’d even set foot on stage.

She waited and when he didn’t reply she finally looked up at him, taking in the slight smirk and the wicked gleam in his eyes. Khushi swallowed and wished she hadn’t looked at him because now she couldn’t seem to look away. He took a step closer and she broke their eye contact and looked around worriedly. It frightened her that even in public and amongst all these people he wasn’t the slightest bit bothered about standing so close to her.

She felt his hand on her elbow and her mouth went dry again as he leaned closer and spoke almost pleasantly into her ear, ‘Hum dono ko pata hai ki ye tumhare haaton mein sirf meri waje se hai, varna tum toh kahi aur hi hoti…right? Toh ghoom phir ke jeet meri hi hui naa? Like I always knew it would.’

Khushi couldn’t answer, the words were stuck – who was she kidding, she had no words. Her smile was more like a grimace now; deep down she knew he was partly right although it was skewed logic, and she could feel her heart about to jump out of her chest at what it might mean. ‘Humme… Buaji bhula rahi hai!’

The nervous words fell out of her mouth as she tried to escape but she only managed to get one step away from him when she felt his hand on her arm spinning her around to face him and his words left her open mouthed. ‘Fine! Lekin kitni dher bhaago gi Khushi? Kabhi toh mere saamne aana padega… and then we’ll talk about our bet!’

Khushi’s eyes widened as Arnav gave another slow smile that somehow scared her more than his ‘get out’ ever had. He let go of her arm and gave her one last look before striding away into the crowd, leaving Khushi reeling as her mind wondered frantically how to talk her way out of this one. It wasn’t fair, technically he hadn’t ‘won’, she had – he hadn’t even danced! Instead his family had, along with professional dancers he’d hired with his money.

What would he want from her..? Her heart sank and she closed her eyes as she thought of all the ways in which he could humiliate her and her stomach fluttered as she remembered what had happened right before she’d gone up on stage; luck it seemed, had deserted her when she’d needed it most.

 

A little earlier that evening:

‘Humme lagta hai ke hum hi jeetenge Bhai, Nani ne toh kamal kar diya! And those dancers, wow!’ Arnav smiled and nodded a little distractedly at Akash as he continued to look around the hall. Nani had stunned everyone sure but he wanted to know what Khushi had planned; she’d been so confident the last time he’d seen her that for a few seconds he’d contemplated what he’d do if he lost… before he’d come to his senses and remembered he was winning so there was no point thinking otherwise.

The competition itself meant nothing to him – he didn’t give a toss about dancing – but he’d be damned if he let that slip of a girl taunt him about getting one over him in anything. There was simply no way in hell that was happening.

There was still some time till the girls’ side were due to perform but his eyes still hadn’t found Khushi; where the hell was she..? He let out an angry breath and frowned; why was he so bothered where she was? She was probably in some far flung corner of the hotel, practicing the dance moves she was so proud of.

Partly out of habit and partly to distract himself, he patted his pocket for his phone and realised it must still be with Anjali who’d used it to call her husband earlier. He stood up quickly; glad to have something to do other than wait around. They’d booked the majority of the ground floor of a hotel for the sangeet and the huge function hall was a bit of a walk from the suites they’d set aside for the people to get ready in.

Anjali had said she’d left the phone on the bed so he didn’t look around the now empty room as he walked straight to the bed and found his phone. He was already checking a second email as he turned to leave when suddenly heard an odd jingling sound coming from outside the window. He walked to the floor to ceiling sheer white curtains and flung them open them to see it wasn’t a window but a solid wall of glass panes, with doors leading out to a stone courtyard dotted with benches and trees.

He could make out a figure in the evening light with their back to him and he shook his head when he recognised her; who else would it be?

He unlocked the doors and slid them open, stepping out silently to see Khushi standing half in and half out of another set of doors a few metres away from him. It looked like they led into a darkened empty lounge area. She had her back to him… sort of; he couldn’t tell because she was moving around in an odd way.

Arnav cleared his throat and Khushi froze at the innocuous sound which seemed as loud as a bullet in the still night air.

‘Nanheji?!’ The sheer hopefulness in her voice at the stupid name put his teeth on edge and he gritted them to keep from growling. ‘Jijaji..? Mamaji…?’ her voice grew less and less hopeful with each name till it faded away completely and she sighed, finally twisting around to face him, still leaning against the half open door.

‘Humme pata tha ke aap hi honge,’ she sounded thoroughly fed up as she met his eyes and muttered ‘Humari toh kismat hi aisi hai…’ Arnav frowned at her tone of voice and her choice of words in relation to him, ‘Pata tha toh itne logo ka naam kyu le rahi thi?!’ It was unbelievable how easily she annoyed him – sometimes all she had to do was be there.

Khushi didn’t reply; instead she folded her arms and said, ‘Aap Jiji ya phir Anjaliji ko yahaan bulayenge?’ in a very polite voice. ‘Meherbani karke,’ she added as an afterthought and Arnav stared at her. Something wasn’t right he thought as he narrowed his eyes and looked at her properly; taking in the open hair falling in loose waves around her face and the pale pink heavy ghagra choli outfit she was wearing.

She was leaning against the door and Arnav frowned as he tried to figure out what was strange about the way she was standing. He slipped the phone into his pocket as he walked towards her and she jumped a little although she didn’t move away from the door, ‘Aap wahi ruk ye…’ He asked why in a puzzled voice but she folded her arms again mutinously as he looked at her more closely.

For a second he was speechless as he realised what the problem was; then he bit back a laugh as he saw Khushi’s face go a deeper shade of pink than her outfit and she refused to meet his eyes.

‘Khushi… how do you always..?!’ He shook his head in complete amazement and felt a sudden and unexpected warmth flood through him as he looked at her, an indulgent smile still dancing around his lips – he would bet his entire wealth that in the whole of Delhi only Khushi Kumari Gupta could find herself suddenly and inexplicably stuck to a door with no input from anyone else..!

***

‘Haan haan humme pata hai ki ye sirf humare saath hi ho sak thi hai, phir se batane ki zaroorat nahi hai! Ab aap jaa ke kisi ko layenge?’ Arnav leaned back against the opposite pane of glass and folded his arms slowly as he watched her. All his earlier annoyance had melted away and it occurred to him that he could just leave her here till the performances were over and that would be it; game over.

They’d never win without her; everything was already running late and some of the guests would be leaving soon. This area was deserted and if he closed the curtains in the room again, no-one would even see her if they came looking…

He shook his head in reply to her and stayed where he was as he shrugged nonchalantly, ‘Actually no, I’m fine right here…’ He gave her a smug look and then had another thought, ‘Lekin agar tumhe meri madath ki zaroorat hai, then you can always ask…?’ He raised an eyebrow and Khushi glared at him like he’d known she would and he fought back another laugh as she wriggled against the door angrily. They both heard a tinkling noise and Arnav looked down to see tiny glittering beads fall to the stone floor as she caught herself on some embroidery and instantly stopped moving.

‘Waise tumhare paas zyaada time nahi hai Khushi…’ He tilted his head as they both heard faint cheering coming from the function hall and Khushi closed her eyes before finally sighing and asking him to help her.

He walked over to her calmly and stood in front of her, looking at her closed eyes for a second. Her hair whispered in the breeze and all of a sudden he realised that she was totally at his mercy and there was no running away from him this time. His mouth went dry as he watched her, and a number of possibilities flashed through his mind, none of them PG. Khushi’s eyes were now open and she seemed to be reading his thoughts; her mouth was slightly open and he could see she was blushing even in the darkening evening light.

***

Her helplessness drew him to her like a magnet and he forgot why he was there as he reached up to touch her pink cheek. His fingers caressed her skin and after a few seconds, her eyes closed and she turned her face into his hand before another faint cheer from the sangeet brought her to her senses; making her pull away a little and look up at him with confused eyes.

Arnav blinked and mentally shook himself as he tried to get a grip; what was he doing? He moved his hand to her shoulder and she continued to watch him with wide eyes before giving into the light pressure and turning around so he could see where she was caught.

Khushi moved her hair out of the way and Arnav held his breath as he tried not to look at the skin her low neckline was exposing. This was such a bad idea, why hadn’t he just gone and called someone else?

He closed his eyes for a few seconds; no, he would not break and he would use this as an advantage later; he just had to focus. ‘Good luck…’ something inside him sighed as she twisted her head round and he pulled his eyes away from her back to look down at where the low dori of her blouse was tangled badly with the door jamb; it might have been easy enough to free but he could see that she’d probably made it worse by tugging at it all this time.

He ran his fingers lightly over the material thinking the easiest option would be to tear it… or maybe just to remove it completely… Khushi jumped as though she’d been shocked even though he hadn’t touched her or said a word. ‘Stop squirming!’ he kept his voice low to cover up the thoughts that were still lingering in his mind and when she moved again he sighed angrily and put one hand on her shoulder to keep her still, making sure his hand was resting on her hair rather than her bare shoulder. It didn’t help much, her hair felt softer than anything and it made him work faster at freeing the twisted pieces of string from the door.

Finally he let out a breath as he managed to untangle it without tearing anything but then went still again as he saw the pieces of string still in his hand were undone. ‘Khushi it’s…’ She could probably feel what he meant before he’d finished his murmured sentence because she quickly reached around to take the strings from him, her fingers brushing his.

He watched as she clumsily tried to tie the thing but her fingers were shaking and after her second failed attempt, Arnav reached out, ‘Main kar de tha hoon!’ he muttered as he took the strings from her firmly before carefully tying the two pieces together, closing his eyes briefly when his fingers brushed the skin of her lower back.

They both stood frozen for a few seconds before Arnav leaned in; he closed his eyes again as he breathed in the scent of her hair and tried to focus as he whispered into her ear softly, ‘Maine kaha tha na – agar kismat ne tumhara saath nahi diya toh..?’ Khushi trembled against him and remained where she was for a moment before she slipped through the doors and turned to look at him from the other side, her eyes glittering in the darkness.

She didn’t acknowledge his words but he could see her cheeks were still pink as she backed away from him slowly before tearing her eyes away and running towards the music they could hear faintly, leaving the sound of her anklets still ringing in his ears.

Arnav let out a breath and ran a hand over his face; what was he doing challenging this girl when he couldn’t even keep a lid on himself with her around? He looked down at his hand, unwillingly remembering the softness of her skin, the smell of her hair… he shook his head and stopped those thoughts dead. None of that mattered he told himself; he was winning this challenge and that was it. Whatever happened on the dance floor he figured he’d already won by default when he’d found her here and pretty soon she would know it as well…

 

Part Two: Losers

‘Congratulations Khushiji!’ Khushi smiled a little distractedly at NK, who didn’t seem at all bothered about losing. ‘Aap ka murda’s ne toh sab ka dil peet liya!’ He gave her a beaming smile but Khushi didn’t have the heart to correct his ‘peet’ to ‘jeet’; she couldn’t believe it had happened again. How did she always end up in these situations? As if getting herself stuck to a door wasn’t bad enough but to be found there by him of all people! She closed her eyes and tried not to remember the way she’d been so aware of him the whole time… and the things she’s seen in his eyes when he’d touched her face… ‘Khushiji?! Aap kaha soh gayi..?’

‘Khushi kho gayi NK…’ She froze for a second but didn’t look up at the face that went with the soft voice that had joined their little group along with Akash and Anjali. She couldn’t look in those eyes or he’d know what she’d been thinking about; instead she forced a bright smile and looked at NK.

‘Hum toh yahi hai Nanheji…’ They were back at the Raizada’s house and although the party was smaller, it was still going strong with lots of laughter and some dancing from the guests.

She saw Nani standing to one side talking to OP, gesturing and pointing towards the back of the house, ‘Humme Naniji se kuch kaam tha, hum abhi aate hai.’ She handed the winners statue in her hand to Payal who was standing next to her and finally risked a quick sideways glance at Arnav’s face before she made her exit, feeling his eyes following her. She felt panicky after looking at him; he hadn’t seemed angry or impatient. He’d looked calm and relaxed… like someone who knew exactly what he was doing.

‘Naniji, kuch kaam tha?’ She needed a distraction and if there was something to be done away from here she’d happily do it. ‘Nahi Khushi bitiya, aap chinta mat ki jiye…’ She went on to explain it was due to rain and she’d left some things on the roof so OP was bringing them in. ‘Hum unki madath kar de the hai!’ Khushi jumped at the chance to escape into fresh air for a little while… and plus it would give her time to think of what she was going to say to him when he came to her; she had won the competition fairly and she wasn’t about to admit defeat on a technicality!

***

‘Om Prakashji aap jaayi ye, hum dekhte hai ki kuch reh toh nahi gaya.’ Khushi smiled at OP as he left and then climbed the stairs to the roof slowly. She knew there was nothing left to take down but she wanted to be alone with her thoughts for a little while and the roof was peaceful enough… also with less chance of running into danger than the poolside. She could see storm clouds in the distance; Nani was right, it was going to rain heavily very soon but for now the air was cool and still so she stayed where she was.

As she breathed in the night air, Khushi looked unwillingly at the spot where she’d finally found out she’d been lied to and betrayed for so long and she walked towards it slowly, wondering absently how a place could feel so different depending on who you were with. Right now it was so peaceful and as the moon peeked out for a second from behind the rolling clouds, it felt as different as it could from that day.

She let out a long breath, feeling the tension slipping away; she’d worry about everything later, she decided. She’d just closed her eyes and raised her face to the cool breeze when she heard a slight rustle behind her and froze; her moment of tranquility disturbed and her heart in her mouth.

Khushi knew who it was without turning around and she was surprised to find that after the initial shock, her first feeling as she sensed who it was, was one of relief. It was strange that however nervous he made her and however worried she was about facing him, deep down she’d always felt safe around him and that was something she couldn’t lie to herself about.

She closed her eyes again and gathered herself – she couldn’t be thinking these things now! She waited for him to speak but he didn’t say a word as he came and stood a few feet away from her, looking out at the heavy rain clouds thoughtfully.

She watched him, wondering what went on in his head; his face was always so hard to read but sometimes she saw things in his eyes which scared her as well as making her unexplainably sad. There was a lot of anger but also pain; she wondered again what made him so bitter towards everything and remembered his reasoning that the world was a cruel place and would always remain that way. The way he’d said those words had made her wonder what had happened to give him such a bleak outlook in life…

Khushi blinked and tried to focus on the present; right now he looked relaxed with his hands in his pockets and his face clear of its usual frown. He was wearing black and red and throughout the evening she had been surprised and a little annoyed to see more than one woman eyeing him appreciatively – not that he’d seemed to notice. Or maybe he did notice but it just didn’t affect him..

‘Mujhe yun hi dekh thi hi rahogi ya kuch bolo gi bhi..?’ Khushi jumped and went red as he suddenly spoke without looking at her and before she knew it he’d turned and was walking towards her unhurriedly, throwing her thoughts into total chaos… why had she been staring at him all this time, why hadn’t she run when she’d had the chance?!

‘It’s not like you to be so quiet Khushi Kumari Gupta…’ His honeyed words sent a shiver down her spine. Khushi realised she was walking backwards and suddenly stopped after a couple of steps, deciding to hold her ground, even though the ground felt like it was unsteady under her feet. Something flashed in his eyes and he stopped a foot away, only just invading her space but thankfully leaving her some room to breathe.

‘H-humme kuch nahi kehna, hum toh bas jaa rahe the…’ Her words sounded feeble even to her own ears and she wasn’t surprised when he took no notice of them. ‘Tumhe bol ne ki zaroorat bhi nahi hai, kyu ki jeeta toh main hoon right?’ He gave her an annoyingly triumphant look and Khushi heard sudden thunder in the distance which seemed to mirror her feelings.

‘Aap?!! Aap kaha jeete?!’ She saw him clench his jaw as anger flashed across his face but she held up a hand, her own anger spurring her on to dangerous ground. ‘Aap ne humari madath ki iss ka matlab yeh nahi ke aap jeet gaye! Koi aur bhi aa sakta tha humari madath karne…’

Arnav narrowed his eyes and moved closer; Khushi did her best to stay where she was under the heat of his eyes. ‘Lekin aaya toh main hi tha naa?’ He asked in a dangerously soft voice, ‘Aur agar main waha nahi hota toh tum log haar jaate…’

His logic made no sense to Khushi, there was no way he could know that no-one else would have come and maybe she would have managed on her own, without his help. She said as much, glaring up at him and he gave her an ‘unbelievable’ look, before bursting out angrily, ‘Oh really? Tum? Kya kar le thi tum? You’d have had to take the whole damned blouse off…’ Suddenly he stopped and Khushi went even redder because they both knew there was no way she would have done that.

He blinked and seemed to shake himself, ‘None of that matters; tum sirf meri waje se jeeti so the real win is mine!’ Khushi wanted to throw something at him, how could anyone be so pig headed?!

‘Arre yeh kaha ki jeet hui?! Aap toh naache bhi nahi the… aur kaise naach the, aap ko toh naachna hi nahi aa tha!’ Khushi glared at him with eyes spitting fire, not really caring what she was saying anymore – he drove any sense she might have out the window. She opened her mouth to carry on but he’d had enough; he placed two fingers on her lips so she couldn’t speak and came so close their noses were almost touching as he looked down at her.

‘Maine kab kaha tha ke main naachoonga?’ Khushi looked down at the fingers still on her mouth and then back up at him as she swallowed nervously. They heard a roll of thunder much closer than before and Khushi jumped a little as he gave a dangerous smile and continued, ‘Aur tumhe kiss ne kaha ke main naach nahi sakta..?’

Khushi blinked as she felt the first few drops of rain hit her face and her eyes widened when Arnav suddenly reached down and took her hand, before spinning her expertly a few times and then dipping her effortlessly, leaving her breathless as he leaned over her, his face inches from hers.

‘Aap…yeh..’ Khushi lost her breath as he pulled her back up sharply against him, his lips brushing her forehead as he adjusted his stance to look down into her eyes. She felt his hand on her bare waist and her hand automatically responded to his as it found its correct position on his shoulder like she’d been taught so recently. That was where her expertise ended however and she barely had a moment to think before he began to dance with her like she had never danced before.

There was no music, only the sound of thunder and the occasional flash of lightning but they didn’t need it as they moved, both moving together as one, as though they had been doing this for a lifetime. Khushi had no real idea what she was doing; she was simply following his lead and going willingly wherever he took her.

She didn’t know when the heavens opened and it started to pour down with rain, she wasn’t aware of anything except his eyes as they blazed into hers and his hands as he spun, twisted and dipped her around the empty rooftop for what could have been minutes or hours.

Eventually he came to a stop in the middle of the rooftop, pulling her hard so she was resting against him, inside the circle of his arms. Neither of them had said a word and even now all she could hear over the rain was the sound of them both trying to catch their breath. She felt drunk and lightheaded all at once but she couldn’t look away from his eyes which were filling her world with molten fire. She didn’t know what he’d done but it had felt like more than dancing and she didn’t think she could ever put that feeling into words.

 

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She felt his hand move from her waist to her back and she shivered more from his touch than the rain as moved his hand up her back slowly and into her hair. He brought it round and moved some of the wet strands out of her face and then left his fingers in her hair as his eyes burned into hers; dazed and filled with something that made her tremble. His face was so close she could count his eyelashes if she wanted and she could feel the way his heart was racing, matching her own.

He leaned his face closer and for a moment she thought he would kiss her but instead he closed his eyes and rested his forehead on hers. She felt his hands tighten in her hair and on her shoulder as he dragged in breath after breath and after a few moments, she felt his breath on her cheek as his breathing got steadier.

Khushi couldn’t think; she knew she should move away but her body refused to respond, she wanted to stay where she was, in his arms. He finally lifted his head and she blinked away rain as she looked up at him, feeling lost and yet somehow like she was where she belonged.

She suddenly realised it had stopped raining as abruptly as it had started and it was eerily quiet as they watched each other almost warily, neither seeming to know what had just happened.

Arnav recovered first and Khushi could see the moment his iron will took over when his eyes hardened and he tightened his jaw. She swallowed, waiting for harsh words which never really came. Instead he untangled his hand from her hair as his eyes continued to watch her face and he seemed utterly focused on the way she closed her eyes briefly while his fingers traced her wet jawline.

His eyes suddenly gleamed again and there was a faint smile on his lips as he leaned closer and softly repeated the same words he had spoken to her earlier in the evening, his lips leaving a feather-light trail of fire along her cheek and on the sensitive skin by her ear. ‘Tum haar gayi Khushi Kumari Gupta…’

He moved then, letting go of her shoulder, reaching up to remove her hand from his collar and Khushi’s heart stopped as she realised with a sudden crushing certainty that she had in fact lost. He lowered her hand to her side, his fingers caressing her palm for a second before letting it go. Khushi felt a shudder run through her at his touch and she got the overwhelming feeling that she had already lost so much more than just this chalenge.

***

Arnav watched Khushi’s face as she took in his words; she seemed lost, her eyes following his dazedly. He was glad she didn’t seem to be thinking clearly, it gave him time to pull together the composure that had deserted him the moment he’d pulled her close.

He had no idea what had taken over him but somehow he’d managed not to go over the edge completely. He couldn’t think clearly at all when it came to her, no reason, no logic, it was all just madness. He took a step away from her, finding it hard and trying not to let the lost look in her eyes affect him. He knew it would haunt him later but for now he needed to get away and gather his thoughts.

He took in a deep breath, trying to clear his mind but everything seemed to drenched in her. He told himself he was being crazy and he looked up to see that Khushi seemed deep in thought now, looking into the distance at something he couldn’t see. He ignored the voice in his head screaming at him to go back to her as he turned on his heel and walked to the stairs slowly; something nagged at him and he turned back, ‘I’ll let you know what I want… soon.’ He spoke quietly but she looked up and met his eyes silently.

Arnav was surprised for a second when she gazed back at him steadily, no trace of her earlier fear or nervousness. She seemed calm all of a sudden and it unnerved him. He turned away, feeling confused as he walked down the stairs; he pulled off his wet tie and told himself that whatever else had happened, he should be happy because he had won.

Except then why didn’t it feel like winning? He remembered the way it felt to have her in his arms. And to be falling into her eyes as she clung to him while he spun her around in the rain; like they were both two parts of one whole. As he walked away from that it didn’t feel like he’d won anything; instead it felt as though he was losing more than he could put into words..

 

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.

 

Truce

Timeframe: Written in December 2011 – 2 days after my birthday to be precise! 

Based on a precap after Khushi has taught Arnav a few filmy lines to persuade Mami for Akash’s wedding. Written before the episode itself was aired.

******* 

Part One: ‘Trust in her Eyes’

‘Arnavji!! Jaldi kuch ki jiye warna sab garbar ho jayega!’ Arnav felt alarmed by the panic in Khushi’s voice and he could see she was about to lose it again. He reached out instinctively, ‘It’s ok Khushi, relax! Ek minute mujhe soch ne do…’ After a few seconds he felt his fingertips tingle and he realised he was still rubbing Khushi’s arm and she was looking at him in surprise.

He pulled his hand back quickly and put it in his pocket, ignoring the awkwardness as he tried to think; this wasn’t the time. They could still hear yelling; Akash was storming out by the sounds of it and now Nani was yelling at Mami for letting it get to this point. He looked at Khushi who was wringing the strap of her bag between her fingers anxiously and there were worry lines etched on her face.

Part of him wanted to just bury his head in work and let everyone else hash it out… he had so much to do and he couldn’t be dealing with this ‘feelings’ rubbish. At the same time though, he wanted to support Akash. He wanted his brother to be happy and this was the happiest he’d ever seen him.

Payal seemed like a nice girl and not totally mindless either – if she had the guts to yell at him then she could handle living in this insane house! And Khushi was looking at him now with such trusting and hopeful eyes like as if he was the only one who could make it all better… how could he refuse those eyes? They were both so different and yet something inside him responded to her in ways he couldn’t even begin to understand.

What was he going to say to Mami to persuade her? Khushi was sure his logical approach wouldn’t work but her option was just plain ridiculous. But then Mami was ridiculous most of the time too..? Khushi came closer and gingerly pushed his shoulder, ‘Arnavji..?’

He weighed his options quickly as she waited but then took one look at her face and all logic went out the window. He closed his eyes and sighed, knowing he’d regret this later. ‘Kya kehna hoga mujhe?’

***

‘Khushi these lines are stupid – Mamiji yeh sab kabhi nahi sunengi!’ He couldn’t even remember half the stuff she’d just spouted out off the top of her head – did people actually use these words in real life and get taken seriously?!

Khushi looked at him indignantly and he found himself staring at the cute way she turned her nose up when she was annoyed, ‘Aap! Aap bas waisa ki jiye jaisa hum keh rahe hai!’ She gave a huge dreamy smile that made him blink, ‘Agar Shahrukh Khanji yeh sab keh sakte hai toh Laad Govern… humara matlab hai ke aap kyu nahi?!’ Arnav felt a flash of annoyance at the stupid nickname and he somehow bit back the rude words about where Shahrukh Khan could put his lines.

‘Aap chup rahi yeh!’ They suddenly heard Mami’s raised voice and Arnav made a face, ‘Let’s just get this over with!’ He turned to go when Khushi’s phone went off and he felt a white hot stab as he guessed who it was. He jammed his hands into his pockets to stop himself from grabbing the phone and throwing it into the pool and watched as Khushi answered it quietly.

He forced himself to calm down and noticed the way her face had darkened; she’d only just been smiling so sweetly and now she looked like someone had died.

Initially she made excuses but then he saw a flash of fire in her eyes and he bit back a smirk as she spoke cuttingly, ‘Hum kitni baar kahe Shyamji – kuch zaroori kaam tha. Aur waise bhi, hum Buaji se bol kar aaye hai!’ She made a face as the guy responded and then cut the phone angrily, muttering something under her breath and Arnav looked away, trying to pretend he hadn’t been hanging onto every single word and gesture.

He wanted to yell at her; why was she marrying this guy when she so obviously wasn’t happy? The helplessness and anger he’d felt since he’d found out about her engagement threatened to bubble over again but they’d only just reached some common ground and he didn’t want to mess that up so he fought to keep his voice light, ‘Is everything ok Khushi?’

She blinked and looked at him with her mouth open in surprise and was about to reply when the phone rang again. This time she saw the name and rolled her eyes before cutting him off and Arnav felt an irrational amount of satisfaction as a slow smile spread across his face. Khushi frowned at him and he quickly wiped it, making his face as nuetral as he could before indicating that they should go, ‘Chale?’ 

***

‘Main yeh keh raha tha ki, kahi na kahi, koi…’ This was his third attempt and it was not going well.Everyone was looking at him like he’d lost his mind, Anjali had had a smile on her face since he’d opened his mouth and he suspected she knew whose idea this was.

‘Woh…upar waala…’ Jeez, what had she said about matches being made somewhere..?! He looked at Khushi and his eyes asked for help; she gave him an encouraging smile and made some more weird hand gestures and he carried on somehow, feeling like the biggest idiot in the world. But she was still smiling so he focused on that as he reached the end of his rushed speech about fate and love to stunned silence.

They were all looking at him open mouthed and suddenly he felt hot; he’d given multi-million dollars worth of presentations and had never felt this awkward. He’d known it all along; what he’d planned to say would have been fine, who the hell needed feelings?!

At least I shut Mami up, he thought and felt relieved as Khushi stepped in, ‘Mamiji, Arnavji yeh kehna cha rahe the ki jodiyan toh…’ but before she could finish Mami cut her off. ‘Hello hi bye bye! Phatti saree – yeh sab tumhari wajeh se hua hai! Tum ne hi tumari khoon bhari taang sister ko sab sikaya hoga, ke kaise humare bole bale Akash bitwa ko jaal mein pasana hai!’

Nani had recovered from Arnav’s speech and she looked ready to blast Mami but Arnav didn’t give her the chance. ‘Aap Khushi ko beech mein kyu la rahi hai, what did she do?! Hum toh Akash ke baare mein baat kar rahe the na? Khushi ko toh pata bhi nahi tha ke…’ Everyone was looking at him again but he didn’t care anymore; Khushi looked like she was about to start crying and he was getting sick of this ‘phatti saree’ nonsense – Mami was too much and he’d never so much as glimpsed Khushi with a ripped saree!

‘Hello hi bye bye – Arnav bitwa kabse party changiya gaye?! Hum ko toh vishwaas hi nahi ho raha…’ Mami put her hand on her forehead dramatically and Arnav rolled his eyes, feeling fed up but suddenly ready to take on the world as he let rip.

‘Aap yeh sab drama kyu kar rahi hai Mamiji?! After all, Akash ki khushi sabse important cheez hai. It’s his life – woh jaise chahe waise jee sakta hai!’ Mami tried to interrupt but Arnav didn’t give her a chance, ‘And as far as I’ve seen, Payal toh acchi ladki hai, Akash ko khush rakegi aur woh ek doosre ko pasand kar the hai toh aap ko kya problem hai?!’

He glared at Mami as he waited but he should have known it was no use, ‘Kahe Arnav bitwa, you iswell?! Tum bhi khoon bhari taang aur uski sister ki side le rahe ho..? Sab unke side mein aur Manorma akeli… meri toh koi value hi nahi hai iss ghar mein!!’ She gave a dramatic sob and rushed away with Anjali and Lavanya following her while Arnav let out an angry breath, knowing he’d lost his cool and wondering why he’d even bothered. Then he saw Khushi’s face and knew why.

It didn’t look like she’d heard Mami’s response at all; she was just staring at him with tears in her eyes. At first he thought he’d made her cry again and he tried to remember what he’d said but then he saw the smile that lit up her face and he knew they weren’t tears of sadness. She looked like she couldn’t believe what she’d just witnessed and he was mesmerised by the little drops of water clinging to her eyelashes.

They were still looking at each other when Mamaji patted him on the back and said he was going to call Akash to see if he had cooled down and Nani went with him. ‘Khushi…?’ She hadn’t said a word and he wondered what she was thinking. ‘I guess Mamiji nahi maani but it’s ok, hum phir se -‘ Before he could finish reassuring her, she suddenly rushed forward and threw her arms around him, burying her face in his shoulder, leaving him speechless!

***

Arnav felt frozen to the spot but at the same time he was burning; he remembered the way she’d been upset and had hugged him at the hospital but he hadn’t been able to do anything. This time he wasn’t going to make the same mistake; he slowly put his arms around her, resting his hands on her back lightly. He reminded himself that this was just about comfort as he tried to ignore the way she was making him feel… and way she seemed to fit him so perfectly, like she was made to be there…

He wondered if he’d read her face wrong because she was obviously more upset by it all than she’d seemed, ‘Khushi? It’s ok, maine kaha na main sab sambhal loonga? Mamiji bhi maan jayengi..’ He didn’t really know what he was saying, just that he felt the need to reassure her. She shook her head against his shoulder and held on tighter, making it harder for him to think clearly.

They stood there for a while and Arnav couldn’t help his hands from stroking her hair. His fingers brushed her neck and she trembled in his arms and seemed to come back to her senses. She pulled away slowly and he found it hard to let her go; his arms felt empty, like there was something missing. Khushi took a step away and looked down, without meeting his eyes; there were tears on her face and she wiped them before taking a breath and her unsteady words surprised him.

‘Woh.. humme aisa nahi karni thi lekin… hum pareshaan nahi hai Arnavji. Aap ne jaise humari jiji ke baare mein baat ki… hum ab bilkul pareshaan nahi hai!’ She looked up and beamed at him and her face seemed to glow, causing his stomach to do a little flip, barely having recovered from the hug.

He blinked, ‘Toh tum khush ho..?’ he asked uncertainly. He didn’t understand but it was all he needed to know as she nodded and smiled again. ‘Lekin ab humme jaana hoga, bohth dher ho chuki hai… aap yahaan sab sambhal lo ge na?’ She was giving him that same trusting look and it warmed him for some reason.

He cleared his throat and tried to sound normal and to the point as he nodded, ‘That’s fine. Main tumhe ghar drop kar doonga, chalo.’ She started to argue and he thought maybe it was just habit now, her disagreeing with anything he said for the sake of it. He raised an eyebrow and she closed her mouth and shrugged, knowing it was late and he was right.

As they walked out he thought about the way things kept changing between them and wondered why it was always so up and down. There was an uneasy truce between them for now but everything else was right below the surface threatening to spill over whenever they got close and he couldn’t help asking himself how long this would last.

 

Part Two: ‘Deals’

Khushi was still slightly stunned by the night’s events as she walked a few steps behind Arnav to his car. In her mind’s eye she could still see the way he had angrily defended her and Payal against Mamiji’s accusations.

She’d watched him stumble through the lines she’d taught him feeling touched by his resolve to keep going each time even though it hadn’t been easy on the ears and he’d looked uncomfortable the whole time. But then Mamiji had spoken and something in him seemed to ignite and he’d given it to her in typical spectacular Arnav Singh Raizada fashion, leaving Khushi speechless.

She hadn’t meant to hug him but the way he’d spoken up for Payal had moved her so much that she hadn’t been able to stop herself. She was glad no-one had been there but even if they had she might still not have been able to stop herself and that thought made her feel a little shaky as they reached his car.

Her annoying Laad Governor had surprised her again – it seemed he took pleasure in doing the unexpected and leaving her head spinning. He held open the car door and waited for her to get in, reminding her of how he’d pulled out her chair for her and she’d been too surprised to recognise it for what it was.

How could it be that he was so thoughtful now when only a couple of days ago he’d been so harsh? His words rang in her ears, ‘Khushi ko beech mein kyu la rahi hai, what did she do?!’ He’d been so incensed by Mami’s words; he’d glanced at Khushi’s face only once and she could almost see the switch flip in his head as he’d lashed out. He’d said similar and even worse things to her in the past but it had riled him so much when Mami said them… ‘Well you did tell him to speak with feeling,’ she knew the voice in her head was right; she had told him that but she hadn’t expected it to be about her and that too with so much… passion.

She remembered the hug and wondered why she always felt so safe in his arms? He was a rakshas; he had no business making her feel safe… and so alive. Her mouth went dry as she remembered the way it felt to be so close to him she could feel his heart beating under her cheek… and when his fingers stroked her neck… ‘Khushi!!’

She jumped at the sound of his voice and went bright red as she realised he was still waiting for her to get in the car and he had that ‘look’ on his face – the raised eyebrow one that said she’d done something particularly ajeeb even for her.

He reached out to shake her shoulder and she jerked away from his touch without thinking, hitting her arm on the car door painfully. ‘Oh for…’ He let out an angry breath and reached for her arm and held it gently, inspecting the bruise that was already forming on her pale skin. He ran his light fingers over it and she let out a gasp which he mistook for pain and his eyes met hers apologetically.

‘Ghar ja ke kuch laga de na..’ his voice was low and rough and Khushi just managed a nod before removing his hand from her arm and scrambling up into the car, feeling breathless as she tried not think about the concern in his eyes. She couldn’t afford to get sucked into those eyes again; it didn’t mean anything, he’d be just as concerned for anyone. Her heart dipped at the thought and she knew he was still watching her but she kept her eyes straight ahead as he shut the door.

***

Arnav watched Khushi skitter away from him into the car and wondered what was running through her mind. She’d stood at the car door ages, lost in thought and a small smile playing around her lips but then she’d hurt herself when he’d tried to bring her back to reality. She didn’t look at him as he shut the door and he walked round to the driver’s side with his teeth clenched as he thought about the angry bruise on her arm; it seemed he could bruise her without even touching her and the thought didn’t please him one bit.

They drove in semi silence, with Khushi occasionally speaking about Mami and what they were going to do and whether Akash would be ok. She sounded nervous and Arnav did his best but his words were short and abrupt as he continued to think about the ways in which he kept hurting her through no real fault of her own. Ever since the day he’d met her it seemed he’d got her all wrong, he’d caused her and even her family pain and now everything was such a mess he couldn’t see a way out.

As they reached her house Khushi seemed to sense his mood and sat quietly as he put the car into idle. He waited for her to say something or leave but she did neither so they both sat there, lost in their own thoughts till Khushi spoke and her hesitant words surprised him.

‘Toh kya aap ki shaadi bhi ek deal hai?’ He turned to look at her in shock, bristling instantly at the audacity of her words. He opened his mouth to ask how she dared to question him like that but then he saw the way she flinched slightly and clenched her fingers, preparing herself for the fallout and the outrage left him in seconds.

Khushi was surprised to see Arnav reign in his inner rakshas and turn away; she knew he’d been about to blow her head off but something had stopped him and she didn’t know what. It was a question that had been bugging her ever since he’d said the word ‘deal’ in relation to marriage at the cafe.

She’d often wondered about his lack of enthusiasm regarding his wedding; he seemed to only respond to Lavanya more for Khushi’s benefit… ‘benefit’ was the wrong word she thought, as she remembered the suffocating sensation she felt every time he hugged Lavanya in front of her.

Maybe he does love Lavanya she thought painfully; he should love her. And hadn’t he said that just because you can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there? She didn’t know what she was thinking questioning him like that, she’d lost her mind just because ‘ASR’ had taken somewhat of a backseat this past day or so.

‘Maaf ki jiye ga, humme aisa sawal nahi pooch na tha,’ she spoke very carefully, only looking at him sideways. When he didn’t respond after a few seconds, she reached for the car door with her left hand only for him to reach across her and grab it, making her turn to face him in shock and it suddnely felt like she was surrounded by him in the already enclosed space.

***

Arnav didn’t know why he’d held her back; he should be glad she was going without an argument but her words had made him think. Her hand felt warm in his and she seemed as surprised as he was by the way her fingers curled easily around his as though they were coming home.

He tried to focus; she’d asked him about his marriage… the word ‘marriage’ felt more like a noose around his neck than anything else and his hand tightened on Khushi’s unconsciously. He supposed she was right, his impending marriage to Lavanya was a deal of sorts but there was nothing wrong with that. It made perfect sense… so what if it didn’t feel right? His world didn’t spin on feelings the way hers did – or the way he’d thought hers did.

He looked into Khushi’s face and saw she was staring at him with those wide, knowing eyes of hers, searching his face silently while he thought. His thoughts reached a conclusion and he spoke quietly, making her jump a little in the tense silence.

‘Agar meri shaadi ek deal hai… toh phir tumhari shaadi kya hai Khushi?’ He watched her face closely and saw that he’d surprised her, her eyes growing bigger than he’d thought possible. He looked down at the hand he was still holding and the fingers that were still unconsciously entwined with his.

He saw the loose ring that had stolen his peace slip down to her knuckle and fought the sudden urge to pull it off and throw it into the gutter where it belonged while he waited for her to respond. Instead he lightly stroked the pale pink scar it had exposed on her finger with his thumb; the scar he’d given her, he thought with some pain, wondering how much longer it would remain there on her finger.

He looked up and asked the question again, not knowing why it meant so much, why did he need to hear her say it? Wouldn’t it just hurt him more to hear her say she was in love?

‘Tumhari shaadi kya hai Khushi?’ His voice was as soft as velvet as he looked into her eyes and continued to stroke her finger, taking care not to touch the offending ring. He could see she was trembling slightly and her fingers tightened around his for a second before she slipped them out of his hand, almost taking the ring off. She looked down at it and he thought he saw a flash of bitterness in her eyes before it disappeared and she looked up with sad eyes speaking almost numbly, ‘Humari Amma Babuji ki khushi…’

There, she’d said it. She didn’t know what satisfaction he’d get from knowing she was only marrying for her family’s happiness but she couldn’t keep it in any longer. Anjali had asked her so many times if she was happy and she’d been able to dodge her prying questions but she couldn’t dodge his eyes.

Her finger still tingled where her ring should be, where he’d left his mark in more ways than one and even when she pushed the ring back over it, she could still feel it burning away underneath. He hadn’t said a word since she’s spoken but it looked like he hadn’t expected her to say those words; he looked shocked and confused and… sorry? She couldn’t bear the pity in his eyes, it was worse than if he’d shouted and screamed.

Finally he spoke, sounding even more confused than he looked, ‘Lekin Khushi tum ne toh… I mean you’re so -‘ She didn’t let him finish and his words pushed her to reach back and open the car door. ‘Ek minute Khushi – wait!!’

But she ignored him and slid out of the car, only stopping for a second, ‘Aaj aap ne jo kuch bhi kaha uss ke liye shukriya, Jiji bohth khush rahegi waha pe…’ She smiled through her tears and then shut the car door in his bewildered face and hurried into the house, not wanting him to see her break down, only looking back once before heading in.

He watched her go feeling strangely numb; he’d known she wasn’t fully happy but he’d still expected her to say something else – something more. He’d always known how important she thought marriage and love was – she’d told him enough times – and yet here she was, marrying as a compromise to keep her family happy.

The numbness was wearing off quickly and he felt a surge of anger at the people who were making her do this. He was itching to go in there and say something but he stopped that thought in its tracks; he had no right over her, he reminded himself painfully and he somehow started the car and turned it around.

He drove home in a daze, not knowing how he got there and saw Akash heading into the house ahead of him. He knew he should go in and find out what was happening but instead he sat for a while in the dark, thinking about Khushi, remembering her unshed tears as she told him it was her parents wish. He didn’t know why it bothered him since he’d be the first one to tell her that feelings meant nothing but for some reason it bothered him a lot. He wondered if she even knew what she was doing and whether she realised that sure his marriage might be a deal but by the sounds of it hers wasn’t far off from one either.

 

Echoes..

Timeframe: Written in November 2011.

After Khushi tells Arnav she is engaged to someone and he explodes because she didn’t think to tell him earlier..

*******

 

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‘Khushi!!’ His own agonized voice was echoing in his head over and over; he’d called her name and she hadn’t heard, hadn’t cared… but he wasn’t sure if he’d even said it out loud. Wouldn’t she have heard his anguish? He didn’t know; his world had shifted and he didn’t really know anything anymore. He closed his eyes and told himself it was still better than hearing her voice saying those words. The words that had left him stone cold and yet still burning.

She’d gone; Anjali had come and taken her. But if she hadn’t, what would he have done and what would he have said? Why did it matter to him if she was… he couldn’t even bear to think the word; it made his blood boil and set his teeth on edge. How long had it been? How could she not have told him…

‘Iss baat ki, aur tumhari; meri zindagi mein koi ehmiyat nahi hai.’

He heard his own voice again, saying those hateful things to her. But it seemed now that he’d been fooling himself all along; however he may feel, she hadn’t even thought it necessary to tell him she’d taken such a big step in her life. In the end, that was how much he had meant. He felt something clawing inside him at the thought, it felt like something was pressing down on his windpipe and he had to stuggle to drag in a breath.

He staggered over to the open glass doors which led to the pool and leaned against one, trying to take in the cool night air but it felt more like dry ash in his throat.

‘Aap ko iss se kya farak padta hai?!!’

Her angry words rang in his ears and her confused face swam in front of his eyes; why couldn’t she see what difference it made to him? She always knew how everyone else felt, always knew just the right words to say… ‘How could she know? You told her she meant nothing!’ The voice in his head was full of pain and resentment; how could he have told her she meant nothing when she meant everything?!

He felt tears come into his eyes and he clenched his jaw, blinking them away angrily; hating the helplessness that came with them. He tried to tell himself it didn’t matter what she did, she wasn’t tied to him in any way… but they were just empty words and their echoes did nothing to soothe the burning ache inside him.

***

‘Chotte?! Kaha khoye ho? Hum aap ko kab se bula rahe the!’ Arnav felt numb as Anjali grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the room without looking at his face.

He attempted to re-arrange his features as he walked, not particularly caring where they were going till he realised what they were about to do and he wished he’d stayed where he was. He stopped in his tracks automatically and Anjali turned and looked at him in surprise, ‘Di… mujhe kaam hai, aap…’ He didn’t look at her as he gestured for her to carry on; he didn’t want her to see the way he was breaking inside reflected in his eyes.

He turned to go and suddenly felt Lavanya grab his arm, ‘ASR chalo naa! We have to wish Chamkili, can you believe uss ne hum se pehle engagement kar li?! Her fiancée must be very impatient!!’ Her every word was like a thorn jabbing into his heart and he saw red at the mention of the word ‘fiancée’.

He unwillingly let her pull him a few steps forward and then stood as still as a statue, finally giving his eyes what they wanted by allowing himself to look at Khushi while Nani did her aarti.

She didn’t look happy. That was his first thought; there was a smile on her face but it didn’t reach her eyes. She seemed lost and a confused and her eyes were moving restlessly, searching for something till they rested on his and stopped. She stared at him as Nani fed her some jalebi, and then Anjali; all the while her voice resounded inside his head, asking him why he cared.

His face was expressionless, his jaw tightly clenched but he couldn’t hide his eyes and he didn’t look away either; he let her see his agony as Anjali made a joke about how she’d wanted to keep her fiancée all to herself this whole time. He kept watching as Khushi finally looked away, visibly shaken by what she’d seen in his eyes and he didn’t care that she had. 

Lavanya tried to pull him forward; it was their turn to congratulate her but he didn’t budge an inch and Lavanya went ahead without him and hugged Khushi happily. She met his eyes again over Lavanya’s shoulder and he heard himself call her name again – he was screaming silently; did she hear him?

Her eyes filled with tears and he thought for a second that maybe she had. Then Lavanya broke the hug and their eye contact too, ‘Chamkili… tum ro rahi ho?! Let me guess, phir se Khushi ke aansoo right?!!’ Of course they were, he thought numbly as the words cut into him and broke his paralysis and he turned to go.

‘Chotte?!’ He heard Anjali’s concerned voice but he didn’t turn; he didn’t think he could re-arrange his face this time. He walked away from them, their words and their laughter echoing in his ears; but strangely her laughter was absent from the mix. He turned and looked down when he got to the top of the stairs and saw she was looking up after him, concern etched in her features and reflected in her eyes.

Her concern stayed with him as he carried on to his room, mocking him because he knew it was probably no different than the concern she felt for anyone else. He slammed the doors shut behind him and leaned against them, breathing fast, as though he’d run a marathon.

He closed his eyes and tried to gather the pieces of him that made him ASR; he wanted to be that block of ice – uncaring and unfeeling… but he couldn’t find those pieces of him anywhere. They were drowning in the agony too and eventually he gave in and let it wash over him in waves.

‘Aap teek toh hai naa…’

His mind tried uselessly to comfort him with echoes of her voice, fragments from their bitter-sweet past and he had to cover his ears because it only made the emptiness inside even louder…

 

The Soul Within..

Timeframe: Written mid November 2011.

Arnav & Khushi decide not to talk to each other and Arnav misses a tele-con because Khushi’s hand-written message doesn’t get to him in time…

*******

Part One

‘Khushi Kumari Gupta…!’ Arnav looked at the scribbled note in his hand unseeingly as he cut the phone and muttered her name murderously under his breath, the red mist having fully taken hold. She was the bane of his existence. She drove him crazy with her silly antics and now this latest one made him want to find her and shake the stupid pom poms right off her clothes!

He ignored the tiny voice in his head that tried to speak in her defence and crushed the note in his hand as he turned away from it angrily… only to find her standing right in front of him.

Why on earth had she agreed to bring the tray out to him?!! Khushi gulped and felt her heartbeat pick up as she saw the murderous look in his eyes… what had she done now?! She hadn’t spoken but she’d gotten him the message right..? Suddenly he threw something at her feet and her heart sank as she saw it was the crumpled up note, ‘Yeh kya hai?!’ He spoke through gritted teeth and clenched fists in a semblance of calm but Khushi could tell he was ready to blow any second.

He waited a beat… then two… but she didn’t answer, ‘Suna nahi maine kya kaha?!! Why won’t you answer me? Yeh message mujhe abhi kyu mil raha hai?!’ He waited, feeling his anger rise with every passing second and then watched incredulously as she calmly placed the tray on the low table and actually turned to leave!!

‘Khushi!!’ He exploded forward and grabbed her arm below the elbow and turned her around, speaking in a low voice that did nothing to hide his fury, ‘Main tum se baat kar raha hoon Khushi Kumari Gupta – answer me!’ How dare she ignore him and turn away from him… and then have the nerve to look at him accusingly whilst still remaining silent.

 

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Khushi felt Arnav grab her arm and as he turned her around to face him her plan to not talk to him went out the window and anger rapidly took its place. ‘Jab aap chahe toh hum koi baat na kare aur phir jab aap chahe toh jawab de?! Sab kuch aap ke kehne pe kyu hota hai? Aap hote kaun ho?!!’ She glared up at him defiantly and saw something like satisfaction flare in his eyes… damn him she thought: he’d got her to break her resolve to not speak and now he was happy about it?!

‘Chod ye humme!’ Khushi pulled uselessly at her arm; he wasn’t holding it tight enough to hurt but his fingers were still vice-like in their grip. ‘Pehle mere sawaal ka jawab do – answer my question!’ There was cold fury in his voice now; ‘he doesn’t like his god-like status being questioned’ she thought feeling a fresh bout of annoyance.

‘Humme kisi ko koi answer nahi de na!’ She used her other hand to try and pry his fingers off her arm while he gave an angry growl as he stepped towards her. She didn’t even think; she pushed him instinctively and somehow he lost his footing, letting go of her arm and in almost slow motion she could see what was about to happen.

‘Khushi..!’ Arnav felt himself lose his footing and in that instant he knew he was about to fall. As he saw her eyes widen in horror he narrowed his dangerously and made a split second decision; there was no way in hell he was going down alone! He reached out and grabbed the arm he’d just let go, just as he completely lost his balance and they both went careening into the pool making an almighty splash!

***

They both floundered in the pool for a few minutes trying to re-gain their footing and Arnav recovered first, managing to stand in the shallow end of the pool where the water only came up to his hips. For a few seconds he felt nothing but pure shock; she’d pushed him into the pool – him! As the shock wore off, he blinked water out of his eyes turned to give her a scathing piece of his mind… and then froze as he watched her come spluttering to her feet, spitting mad and showering more water all over him.

All he could do was stare as she glared up at him, the water reaching just above her waist so the hands on her hips were covered. She shook her head and droplets of water hit his face sharply but did nothing to take him out of the trance he was in.

She was like some sort of vision; a sea nymph that had risen out of the water and was now standing there with her clothes stuck to her and his fingers suddenly itched to move those wet strands of hair off her face. He tried to remind himself he was angry, he searched around his muddled brain for the anger, like a child searching for his comfort blanket but it had deserted him and instead he was transfixed by the jewel like drops of water that clung to her long eyelashes.

Khushi had just managed to straighten up and was shaking the water out of her eyes angrily when she noticed him staring. The look in his eyes left her speechless and the words she was about to say got stuck in the back of her throat.

She tried not to notice the way water was still pouring off him, why did she care if his clothes were stuck to him… why did it make her heart skip… and why were his wet eyelashes so damned long?! She blinked at the random thought and focused on the situation at hand as she looked down at herself – he’d pulled her into the pool and she was soaked to the skin!!

‘Yeh aap ne kya kiya?!!’ Arnav blinked as her words sunk in and cut through whatever haze he’d been in. ‘What? Maine?!’ Was she really blaming him?! He felt some of his anger return as he pointed a finger at her, ‘TUMNE mujhe dhakka maara – and now you’re asking me what I did?! You’re unbelievable!’

He ran his fingers through his hair and had the sudden insane urge to laugh at their ridiculous situation. But she was carrying on her tirade and thoughts of laughter were forgotten, ‘Nahi! Aap ne humme kich ke paani mein giraya!’ She folded her arms in front of her and pouted and he suddenly remembered why they were in this situation to begin with.

A strange calm settled over him and he gave her a dangerous smile as he took slow steps towards her in the water while Khushi looked around in alarm. She held out her hands, ‘Dekhiye aap, yeh aap kya… aap aise nahi kar sakte… ‘ she swallowed nervously and stepped back, swaying a little as she tried to keep her balance in the rippling water.

‘Kyu? Kya kar raha hoon main?’ he raised an eyebrow challengingly, ‘aur kya kar lo gi tum?!’ He continued to move forward, pushing her back further, into the deeper end of the pool till they reached the edge and there was nowhere else for her to go. ‘Now Khushi Kumari Gupta..’ he slowly placed his hands on the poolside floor either side of her and leaned in, ‘Ab tum mere sawaalo ka jawaab do gi…’

 

Part Two

Khushi was caught and there was nowhere left to go, nowhere to look but him; she was surrounded by him. He was so close and suddenly she was very aware that her clothes were sticking to her in all the wrong places and the water barely reached her chest.

She managed to bring her hands up between them in the water and pushed uselessly at the solid wall of his chest a couple of times, finally leaving them there as a barrier when she failed to move him even an inch. She tried not to feel the way his heart beat so strongly under her fingers or how heat seemed to pour off him even though he was just as wet as she was. He leaned even closer and she forgot to breathe.

She didn’t meet his eyes as she tried to focus on his words, ‘Jawaab?’ She’d lost all sense of reason and sanity and it was only when she looked away to her right and she saw the note on the poolside floor when she realised what he meant.

She couldn’t believe what an idiot she’d been, why hadn’t she just told him to begin with? In the back of her mind she realised with some horror that her stubborn streak was just as bad as his! ‘Woh… hum aap se kehna chahte the lekin aap ne kaha ke baat mat karo toh iss liye… aur humne Hari Prakashji ke saath lik kar diya tha naa…?’ Her voice faded away and she finally looked up into those eyes which were now looking at her in exasperation.

‘Khushi tum…’ Arnav closed his eyes for a second while the voice in his head said ‘See?! It’s your own fault!’ He opened his eyes against that voice and frowned at her, trying not to feel the way her hands were burning through his chest or see the way her wet lips were trembling.

‘Toh? Maine kaha tha ke kuch bhi ho jaaye baat mat karo? Agar tumhe… I mean… kissi ko kuch ho jaata toh bhi tum baat nahi kar thi?!’ Her eyes had widened at the slip of his tongue and he quickly covered it up by saying angrily, ‘Pehle bhi keh chuka hoon Khushi – use some common sense for god’s sake!’

His words set her off again and he let her push him back a few steps into the water as she reacted spectacularly and he stood transfixed. ‘Haan! Nahi hai common sense, koi sense nahi hai! Varna hum yahaan roz kyu aate pagalo ki tarah, baar baar?!’ He was thrown by her angry and self-mocking words, and by the sparks that flew out of her eyes.

Incredibly it looked like she was about to step forward and he was watching her with fascination as she reached out to push him again when they both heard a noise behind them. Anjali was standing there with Nani and Lavanya; each of them had identical looks of having entered the twilight zone.

‘Chotte… Khushiji, yeh aap dono pool mein kya…?!’ They both looked at each other and Khushi stepped back quickly while Arnav wondered how ridiculous they must look. ‘Di Khushi was…’ he started at the same time as Khushi said ‘Anjaliji, woh Arnavji…’ They both stopped and looked at each other a little helplessly and all three women suddenly burst out laughing.

‘Accha hai Chotte,’ Anjali managed to say between fits of laughter, ‘tumhara gussa toh toda tanda hua naa?!’ They laughed even harder and he saw that even though Khushi had gone bright red, she was hiding a smile too. ‘Di…’ He wanted to yell and curse and throw his hands up in the air but he felt that insane bubble of laughter inside him again and as he looked into Khushi’s smiling eyes he couldn’t help the tiny smile that worked its way past his iron clad defences.

***

Later, as Khushi walked past his room with the towel Anjali had given her to dry herself, she felt something pull her back… she felt bad. She remembered the incredibly sweet smile on his face while everyone laughed and she knew he was still in there somewhere behind the angry mask. That man who had laughed, so open-hearted and child-like at seeing runny mixture covering her face. The man who had taken care of her during their doomed trip to Nainital and had fought for her without reason or hesitation.

The man who’d been her only source of comfort as her father lay ill in hospital – the only one with whom for some unknown reason she’d been able to share her fears and insecurities with. She wondered why he tried so hard to fight that part of himself when it was possibly the brightest thing she’d ever seen. She blinked away her thoughts and went to knock on his open door.

‘Yeah?’ Arnav was unbuttoning his still wet shirt when he turned around and saw Khushi standing there, shifting on her feet uncertainly. He didn’t know where things stood between them anymore, everything was up in the air and unsettled – but wasn’t that always the case where she was concerned?

He gestured for her to come in as he closed a few of the buttons back up and she walked in tentatively holding out a towel, ‘Aap ke liye…’ He took it wordlessly and waited while she worked up the courage to say something more. ‘Humme pata hai ke aap ko humse koi baat nahi karni, lekin humme phir bhi kehna hai…’

‘Kya?’ There was no anger in his voice, only curiosity as he waited and watched her gather her thoughts. ‘Sorry. Humme aap ko dhakka nahi deni thi… aur aap ke meeting ke liye bhi…’ Her honestly rattled him and he felt his throat close as she turned to go. ‘Khushi!’ she’d got to the door when he called her back and she turned around to face him, a mixture of emotions on her face that he couldn’t begin to understand.

He went to his bed and picked up the unused towel he’d taken out a little earlier and went back to her holding it out. ‘You need one too…’ He didn’t know what he was doing and for once he didn’t care; he just knew he couldn’t let her go without saying something.

 

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Khushi took the towel in surprise and as she turned to go he said something so softly that it stopped her in her tracks, ‘I’m… really sorry Khushi.’ She looked at him in shock and she suddenly realised that this wasn’t just about the pool or the meeting, his eyes told her he was saying sorry for much more. They were like windows to his soul, the beautiful soul of the man she’d seen precious few glimpses of in all the time she’d known him.

Tears of regret filled her eyes and she felt inexplicably sad as she wondered if she would ever see that person fully or if he would always hide himself behind the harsh exterior he’d created. Suddenly she realised she didn’t care, even if he never showed her another moments care, she knew somehow that whatever happened she would never be able to forget those precious few glimpses of his soul – she would keep them with her.

Arnav turned away, unable to face her all seeing eyes – eyes that seemed to look right into his damaged soul and understand more than he could ever tell her in words. He clenched his jaw and swallowed hard as he walked away from her into the bathroom, wondering why he always made it harder for himself to stay away. Right now though, he couldn’t bring himself to care; all he wanted to keep with him was the way her eyes had shone at his pathetic attempt at saying sorry for the countless wrongs he’d done her.

 

An Hour Past Midnight..

Timeframe: Written in early November 2011 and set sometime in between Khushi’s engagement to Shyam and Arnav finding out about it.

*******

Part One

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‘What the hell are you doing Khushi?!!’ He could see she was about to fall… although he couldn’t tell from where… ‘Ghir jaaogi!’ His heart was in his mouth and he could hear it thud loudly in his ears as she took a step away from him, to the edge of… wherever it was. ‘Toh?!! Aap ko iss se kya matlab? Humari zindagi hai, hum jo chahe kar sakte hai! Aap hote kaun hai?!’

Khushi glared back at him in a way that made him want shake her and kiss her all at the same time. He blinked and tried to focus, this wasn’t the time… There was an odd ringing sound in his ears which he tried to ignore as he looked at her, ‘Khushi, don’t be so stupid! Mera haath lo.’ He kept his voice steady somehow and held out his hand. Only to have her narrow her eyes at it and step away into the nothingness…

‘Khushi!!’ Arnav sat up in bed in a cold sweat, her name still ringing in his ears.

This had to stop, he’d had the same dream every night this week and each time it felt more vivid; this time he could still hear the weird ringing… He shook his head to clear it and realised fuzzily that it was real ringing and it was his phone. ‘Whut..?’ He blinked and tried to clear his head as he answered and looked at the clock; who the hell was calling him after midnight?!

‘Hello… ASR? Umm main Kim bol rahi hoon… La ki friend?’ Arnav bit back the rude words on the tip of his tongue, this girl talked slower than a snail! ‘Toh? It’s late, get to the point!’ He waited, getting more annoyed as she explained how they were at a party and Lavanya was drunk and in no state to drive. ‘You’re her fiancée naa? So I thought you could pick her up…’

The word ‘fiancée’ felt like sandpaper on his already raw nerves, especially when it wasn’t even the case and he was about to tell the girl to leave Lavanya where she was till she slept it off but then she said something which made him freeze, ‘Uss ki dost bhi uss ki saath hai, actually I think La was her ride home… aur taxi bhi nahi mil rahi…’

She went on and on in her monotonous voice but he tuned her out as he wondered for a few seconds before cutting her off, ‘Dost? Kaun si dost?’ He waited impatiently till she mentioned La had brought some ‘dukhi si girl’ she’d never seen before who’d spent all night looking uncomfortable and out of place. A second later he was out of bed and grabbing his car keys as he looked for his shoes. ‘Address?!’

***

Where was this Kim girl?! Khushi felt her stomach clench anxiously as she put her arm around Lavanya’s shoulders; she’d said she was going to call a taxi and hadn’t come back. They were sitting on a bench outside the huge house where they’d come, all the other guests gone.

Khushi still couldn’t believe she’d been talked into coming here with Lavanya but she’d come to her house to pick her up when she’d refused over the phone. She wriggled in her seat, feeling a little uncomfortable in the saree Lavanya had bought her; it was a beautiful night and wasn’t particularly chilly either but her shoulders were bare and she couldn’t help shivering when she felt a breeze lift her hair off them.

‘Chamkiiliii!!! Did I tell you? You’re looking soo good today, dekha, maine kaha tha naa?!’ Khushi smiled a little at Lavanya’s drunken nonsense; she was sweet but Khushi was worried about more pressing matters, ‘Lavanyaji, hum ghar kese pohnchenge? Aur aap ki dost bhi kahi chali gayi…’

She bit her lip as Lavanya shrugged, looking the least bit bothered before she put her head on Khushi’s shoulder happily… and promptly fell asleep! ‘Lavanyaji?!’ She’d thought coming to sit in the night air would help clear Lavanya’s head but it obviously hadn’t worked.

Khushi sighed and closed her eyes, ‘maybe I should call him…?’ Her eyes flew open and she shook her head at the traitorous voice in her head, ‘Nahi! Hum uss Laad Governor ko kyu phone kare?!’ Her stomach twisted even more and she felt an ache in her chest as she thought of his reaction to her calling him at this hour; he hated her enough already and she couldn’t bear to see the look on his face as he reminded her he never wanted to see her face for the millionth time.

No, it was better she waited for this Kim person even if it took all night…

***

She was wearing black. He’d never seen her in anything other than bright colours and sparkles but here she was, sitting on a stone bench wearing a simple black saree that made her skin glow a pale milky white in the moonlight. She looked ethereal, like something out of a dream… unreal almost. 

Except he knew she was real and he knew what that skin felt like under his fingertips… Arnav swallowed and tried to focus on something else – Lavanya. She was asleep with her head in Khushi’s lap and Khushi was stroking her hair absently as she watched her. Suddenly her hand froze and he knew she felt him there even before she looked up.

Neither of them said a word for what seemed like a lifetime; Khushi stared at him first in shock and then with apprehension and Arnav felt a now very familiar guilt in the pit of his stomach; she expected him to bite her head off and he supposed he couldn’t blame her after the way he’d been acting lately. ‘Aap… aap yahaan kaise…?’ Her voice trembled ever so slightly and then faded off as she looked away while he carried on staring, unable to help himself.

‘Khushi…’ he started softly and she looked up in surprise at his tone but he didn’t know how to make things ok; he didn’t even know where to start so he decided to concentrate on why he’d come here. ‘Lavanya ki kissi dost ka phone aaya tha,’ he said more matter-of-factly as he walked up to her. He tried not to notice the way the breeze was playing with her hair, it was stupid to feel jealous of air after all… He looked down at Lavanya sleeping peacefully and shook his head muttering ‘unbelievable’ under his breath. He couldn’t believe she’d put him in this situation and now was dead to the world.

He reached down to take her off Khushi’s lap and then looked up, feeling an unwanted stab of pain when she shrank away from him, moving Lavanya too. ‘Tum utaogi isse?!’ He raised an eyebrow and spoke more harshly than he’d wanted and Khushi frowned at him for a second before lifting Lavanya’s head off her lap a little so that he could take her.

He reached out again and tried to ignore the way her hand felt against his as he took Lavanya but his eyes met hers and he knew she’d felt the jolt too. They were both frozen for a moment till Lavanya stirred and he made his feet move away from Khushi as he walked to the car with her.

Part Two

‘Well come on then!’ Khushi was just standing there now and he was feeling impatient and restless at having her so close by and wearing that flimsy excuse for a saree. ‘It looks like something Lavanya would wear…’ he thought as his eyes ran over her from head to toe, taking in her open hair and bare shoulders… was it backless too? He somehow pulled his gaze away and dragged in a breath, telling himself to get a grip as he turned and walked towards the car, expecting her to follow.

‘Khushi?’ She wasn’t behind him and he reluctantly turned back to face her. ‘Aap Lavanyaji ke saath chale jayi ye, hum taxi le kar…’ She sounded nervous but it was late and he was already close to the edge so he cut her off mid-sentence, ‘Are you crazy?! Taxi? Itni raat ko…!’

She bridled at his snarky tone and he saw a stubborn glint enter her eyes as she folded her arms and looked away without saying a word. This tiny waif of a girl was going to take every last scrap of his self control and drive him completely insane he thought as he closed his eyes and resisted the urge to yell, ‘Dekho, iss waqt koi taxi nahi milega so just get in the car.’ He’d kept his voice as level as he could but then gave up trying to be civil when she didn’t budge.

‘Get in the car Khushi…’ He walked towards her slowly and saw her eyes widen as she took a step back and found the bench behind her knees, ‘Nahi woh… dekhiye aap is tarah…’ her voice shook as he kept going and she looked around in panic but he was in no mood to stop.

He reached her and stood as close to her as he could without actually touching her while she looked everywhere but at him. Everything seemed so dream-like in the moonlight, he didn’t think he could trust himself to touch her so he leaned in and spoke in a soft but deadly serious voice, ‘Aakhri baar keh raha hoon Khushi Kumari Gupta – get in the car… varna main apne aap ko aur nahi rokoonga.’

***

His words shocked Khushi into looking at his face which was now only millimetres away from hers and she was shaken by the intensity in his eyes. She tried to think clearly but he was too close and all her senses were going crazy; she knew she was being stupid and stubborn but she kept hearing his angry voice telling her he never wanted to see her face so how could she now just let him drive her home like everything was normal?

Nothing was normal where Arnav Singh Raizada was concerned – nothing made sense, even things that seemed normal and clear-cut were thrown into chaos and madness when he was near her.

He made her so angry a part of her just want to push him and push him till he broke or exploded or… something! But a more sensible part, the part which valued her life probably, told her not to push him tonight; he looked half mad and like he was past the edge of his already limited patience.

Suddenly he leaned even closer to her and spoke dangerously into her ear, his velvety soft voice making her heart thud loudly, ‘Toh tum aise nahi maanogi…’ Khushi blinked and tried to calm her panicked mind; she wanted to tell him that she was ready to agree to anything – she’d get in the car, he could drive her anywhere… but she couldn’t seem to move and that stupid part of her didn’t even want to move.

She felt his hands on her shoulders and she expected him to drag her to the car but instead he froze for a moment before trailing his fingers lightly down to her elbows. maddeningly slowly, causing her to shiver and lose her mind. ‘Khushi…’

She couldn’t bear the way he said her name; in fact she hated it because it made her melt and turned her legs to jelly. His voice caressed the word as though it was precious to him… when he’d told her repeatedly she meant nothing. It confused her, made her question her own sanity and she couldn’t stand it.

His fingers travelled back up to her shoulders almost lazily and his lips brushed her cheek and then her ear, trailing fire as he said her name again but this time it somehow it pushed her into moving.

Khushi reached up with nerveless fingers and pushed at Arnav’s chest uselessly, trying not to notice how his heart seemed to be beating even faster than hers, ‘Nahi hum… hum aate hai…’ Her voice was unsteady and she tried to breathe normally as she pushed him again but it had no effect for while. When he finally stepped back she watched the emotions flash across his face in lightning quick speed; confusion, anger, hurt… disappointment?   

She blinked and it was all gone and she wondered if she’d imagined the hurt because after a few seconds his face was stony although his eyes still burned with something she couldn’t name. He gave her a long, unreadable look before turning and stalking over to the car and she followed after a minute, confused at the mess of emotions he made her feel; she’d stopped him so how could she now be feeling so empty as he walked away? She tried in vain to make sense of what had just happened and make sense of the man in front of her.

***

‘What the hell were you doing?!’ Arnav gripped the steering wheel roughly as he muttered out loud to himself, trying to forget the softness of her skin, the smell of her hair and the way her breath felt against his cheek. Why had he done that, why had he gotten so close to her again when he knew how dangerous it was… and what would he have done if she hadn’t pushed him away..?! He kept his eyes forward and held his breath as she got into the car next to him. What must she be thinking, why couldn’t he just stay away from her?!

He started the car and drove to her house in silence with only Lavanya stirring a couple of times in the back. For once Khushi didn’t try to fill the silence with mindless chatter but somehow that made it worse and the tension in the air between them set his teeth on edge; he glanced over at her a few times because he couldn’t help it and saw she was avoiding looking at him and stupidly that bruised him further.

He reached her house too quickly and as Khushi quietly got out of the car, he kept his jaw clenched to stop himself from giving in and doing something unforgivable, like calling her back… His eyes still followed her though, and he waited, feeling an unexplainable stab of satisfaction when she turned back to look at him searchingly before entering the house; it was clear he was losing his mind and he couldn’t seem to do a thing about it!

He looked at the clock on the dashboard as he drove away; his mind a confused and painful mess. It was only an hour past midnight, there was still the whole night to go… but as he remembered the flash of confusion mixed with disappointment in her eyes when she pushed him away, he knew he wouldn’t be getting any peace tonight.

 

Need

Timeframe: Written and set just after Arnav ties a bandage on Khushi’s finger at the mandir.

*******

 

IMG_3916

 

‘Aakhir aap humse chahte kya hai?!’ Her words still rang in his ears as he walked into the house later that day. What did he want from her… the thought had conjured up a million images and sensations in his mind. He’d been saved having to answer by the pandit but now the question was stuck in his head along with flashes of her bewildered face.

His brain was telling him he wanted her away from him – he needed her as far away as possible in order to become himself again. He needed to switch off all these emotions, this confusion and madness inside him. But he couldn’t bear being apart from her either.

Like today… today he’d been especially rude to her, even for him. He knew she’d overheard him talking to his family earlier and yet he’d still been an ass when she’d come to see him. He knew his every word was a barb and that they were hurting her but he couldn’t stop them from overflowing once they started – in that moment he’d just needed her away from him…

No that wasn’t right either, he needed her WITH him for reasons he couldn’t name and that wasn’t acceptable – not when he was so close to breaking. So he’d hurt her even as he’d hurt himself, just so that she wouldn’t even dream of coming back again.

Watching her leave had been the hardest thing; it felt like she was taking part of him with her and he was helpless – all he could do was stand there and feel the agony and emptiness she left behind. And then he’d seen the blood on the damned glass and it had been like lighter fluid to his already inflamed thoughts. ‘Khushi…’ her name escaped his lips painfully and he remembered pushing her away… onto the glass… a few minutes later he was racing towards her, driving like a maniac and cursing himself for hurting her – again.

Arnav closed his eyes for a few seconds, trying to calm his mind as he thought about the ugly bleeding gash he’d caused on her tiny, doll-like ring finger; his stomach clenched in pain and he pulled off his tie roughly before going to his wardrobe to get a towel. It was just a small cut, why did it matter so much and why did it hurt him like as if it was an ache living inside him?!

‘Because you can’t bear to see her in pain…’ the voice in his head was maddeningly calm and matter of fact and he hated that it was true. He glared angrily at himself in the mirror for a few seconds before stalking into the bathroom to take a shower, nearly taking the door off it’s hinges in his anger.

***

‘Chotte, tum kab aaye? Aur yeh kapde…’ Arnav sighed as he walked out of the bathroom and Anjali fussed over him. She tried to take the towel and dry his hair but he dodged her and went and stood by the window, hoping she’d leave him. He didn’t want her to notice his restlessness and she’d already commented on his odd behaviour more than he’d liked.

He wondered absently, what she’d say if he told her Khushi was driving him crazy; he made a face at his reflection in the glass, he knew the nonsense she’d come out with and he wasn’t in the mood to hear it.

‘… yeh khoon kaisa?!’ He’d zoned out and now he blinked and spun around at the mention of blood; Anjali was holding the handkerchief with Khushi’s blood on it and looking at it in confusion. Arnav couldn’t stop himself from hurrying over and grabbing it out of her hand, trying not to feel the way seeing her blood made his chest ache again. ‘Kuch nahi Di, mera nahi hai, woh…’

He couldn’t finish; what was he going to say anyway? I pushed Khushi and she cut her finger so I went after her like a mad man with a bandage…?! It sounded insane even to him and he had no way to justify the depth of his emotions.

Anjali was still looking at him, ‘Teek hai Chotte, itne pareshan kyu ho? Mujhe de do, main isse baaki kapdo ke saath wash mein daal doongi.’ She reached for the piece of cloth and Arnav instinctively stepped back, stuffing it into his back pocket as he went, ‘Nahi Di! I mean… it’s not important, just leave it.’ Anjali frowned and was about to question him but he was saved by Nani calling her. ‘Hum baad mein baat karenge Chotte…’ It almost sounded like a threat and as she left the room, Arnav wondered how much longer he’d be able to hold all this in; it was affecting his life so much that he barely recognised it anymore.

He pulled out the handkerchief and sat down on the bed, looking at the lines of her blood. He swallowed painfully and remembered how she’d gasped in pain as he cleaned her wound; she’d tried to hide it after that but he could still see the pain in her eyes as he’d carried on more gently.

‘You didn’t even say sorry…’ the voice was reproachful now, ‘and then you told more lies…’ He threw down the bloody handkerchief and got up; trying to escape the guilt he was feeling. He’d wanted to somehow show her he felt bad for what he’d done but she’d been so defiant and angry it’d pissed him off and he’d flipped, telling her he never wanted to see her again.

She’d thrown her Devi Mayya in his face and he couldn’t bear to listen to any of that garbage, ‘…aur uss din hum waha nahi honge…’ Wasn’t that what had cut him up most though? The thought of her not being there in the future…

He shoved his hands into his pockets telling himself it was for the best, he’d get over it. Maybe she’d gotten under his skin but he was Arnav Singh Raizada and emotions meant nothing to him… but the voice in his head told him he was an idiot and a deluded one at that. His hands clenched into fists and he felt something dig into his palm.

He took out his hand and looked at the tiny key in his palm, remembering her holding it out to him so long ago… how had things become so insane since then?! He thought of his mannat… he hadn’t consciously made one; at the time he hadn’t wanted anything for himself, he had wished only for Anjali to be happy always. He hadn’t bothered hoping for nothing bad to happen to her because he knew the world was an awful place and there would always be evil in it. He’d instead hoped that whatever bad came her way, he would always be there to shield her from it and take it on himself.

Thinking about it again now, he wondered what his mannat would now be… Anjali’s happiness still meant everything to him, she was his world… but things in his life had somehow shifted and he saw a pair of wide, innocent eyes with unshed tears clouding their hazel depths… ‘aap humse chahte kya hai?’ her words rang in his head and he wondered again what he wanted from her, what he needed.

‘That’s the wrong question…’ His jaw clenched at the soft voice in his head; he knew it was the wrong question and a pointless one. He held the key in his hand tightly and closed his eyes as he rested his fist on his chest and sighed, ‘Khushi.’ There was no point asking himself what he wanted from her… it wasn’t any one thing. Because despite the lies he repeated to himself daily, he simply needed her.

 

Shattered

Timeframe: Written and set a few days after the night of Diwali 2011.

*******

What the hell was he doing?! He didn’t know anymore and it was driving him insane! He’d set out for the office feeling exhausted even though it was so early; he’d even got part of the way there but then he’d stopped at a light and seen a pink scarf fluttering from the corner of his eye. His head had jerked around and he was instantly alert but he needn’t have bothered because it wasn’t Khushi… what would she be doing so close to his house this early in the morning; she didn’t work there anymore.

The thought had cut through his brain like mush and he’d ignored all the horns beeping as he did an illegal u-turn and began driving aimlessly with thoughts of her going round and round in his head. Now he was here, sitting, waiting… waiting for what?! The girl who’d all but driven him insane. ‘Khushi,’ his voice whispered it into the empty car and he rested his forehead on the steering wheel for a second as he wondered again what he was doing here.

And all because of a scarf… damn her and stupid scarf, he thought angrily as he looked up. He was the one who’d left her crying at her door; he’d painstakingly crushed any last shred of hope that may have still been in her heart… and for what? What had he gotten out of it… nothing but more agony.

There’s no point feeling bad about it now, he told himself roughly but he couldn’t get rid of the guilt churning up his stomach. And those tears burned away at him; they’d burnt away his peace, his sleep, his sanity. He wanted to drive away but he couldn’t move, so still he waited…

His phone rang a few minutes later and he ignored it till it went off another couple of times. ‘What?!’ He barked into it and waited while the other person gathered their wits. ‘Dammit Aman! Can’t you handle one meeting on your own?! Tumhe kaam pe kis liye rakha hai?!!’ He knew he was being overly harsh but he didn’t care and after the next question he flipped out. ‘Because you don’t know the answer yourself do you..?’ he gritted his teeth and ignored the voice in his head as he answered Aman in a scathing voice, ‘You don’t need to know what I’m doing! Lavanya has copies of all the files, tell her to bring them over and deal with it!’

Arnav cut the phone and swore under his breath as he threw it onto the seat next to him with a flick of his wrist. There was no point being angry at Aman; he wasn’t the one acting like an idiot, he wasn’t the one sitting in a car waiting for… he let out an angry breath and started the car – he was done waiting.

***

‘Di I’m fine, bas mujhe akela chod do, I have work!’ It was late afternoon now and he was home trying to focus but Anjali insisted he looked tired and had brought him a glass of juice. At least they’ve given up on talk of wedding dates he thought, feeling queasy as he tried to get her to leave. 

She ignored his efforts and held the glass of juice under his nose… it smelt like mango juice and he felt his stomach knot up painfully as the memories came flooding in and he jerked his head back. Anjali made a face and out of desperation he took the glass and looked for somewhere to put it, away from him, wishing he could put the memories away with it.

‘Chotte yeh parde kyu band hai?! Tum bhi naa…’ Arnav was jolted out of his thoughts as Anjali flung open the drapes and opened one of the glass doors to the still glittering pool. He couldn’t bear to look at it and only went out to water the plants but yet he couldn’t bring himself to take down the lights she’d put up either so he’d just hidden it from sight.

Anjali was still speaking while he was lost in the view through the glass and in the memory of an almost perfect moment, ‘…Khushiji ki khush khabri sun kar!’ His treacherous heart jumped at the sound of her name although he had missed the rest of the sentence.

He swallowed and tried to feign uninterest even though his breath felt stuck. He focused on the cold glass still in his hand, willing his heart to slow down, ‘Kya Di…kya kaha aapne… uss ki baare mein?’ He waited for what seemed like a lifetime and then wished he hadn’t asked as she answered and everything came crashing down around him.

‘Khushiji ki shaadi teh ho chuki hai Chotte!! Unhone Lavanya ko aaj phone pe bataya!!’

Everything had gone black and there was static in his ears, it was like he couldn’t see or hear anything and the pain was unbearable, it felt like something inside him was splintering into tiny pieces and those pieces were tearing him up inside. He could almost hear his insides shatter as he stood frozen and tried to draw in a breath. ‘Chotte?!! Yeh kya kiya tumne!! Hai Bagwaan!’

Arnav blinked through the black haze only as Anjali shook his shoulder and grabbed his hand and he looked at her blankly as he saw the tears in her eyes. Why was she crying? Could she tell what was happening inside him…?

He swallowed painfully as he tried to pull himself together for the moment. ‘Kya Di? Kuch bhi toh nahi hua…’ his dead voice broke and he couldn’t carry on but Anjali hadn’t noticed and was still crying… and now she was yelling, ‘Chotte!! Yeh kuch nahi hai?! Kya hogaya hai tumhe?!! Tum yahi ruko, hum abhi aaye!’

She let go of his hand and he looked down blankly as she almost ran out of the room and was surprised to see blood and glass everywhere. He opened his hand and all he could see was blood and his brain told him in a detached way that he’d shattered the glass he’d been holding but he felt nothing from it.

He pulled out a thin piece of glass from his palm and finally a dull ache shot up his arm but it was still nothing compared to the pain that was still eating him up inside. It had only been a few days since he’d seen her… was she really getting married? It felt like his world had shifted on its axis and there was an odd panic in the pit of his stomach. He tried to push it away and poked at the cut on his hand, hoping the pain would jolt him out of his state but it was useless and everything felt dead and hopeless.

***

He was back to waiting again… except this mornings confusion seemed a mere shadow of what he was feeling now. Even the stitches he’d had on his hand weren’t painful enough to dull what he was going through. It was eating away at him; they said the engagement would be soon and the wedding too… ‘you have to do something!’ the voice in his head was tortured and for once he wanted to listen to it but what could he do…

He’d pushed her away – no, he’d practically thrown her away. He’d crushed the light in those hope filled eyes as he stood at her door and now he wanted to do something?! No, he would only make it worse and she didn’t deserve that…or someone like him… the voice was still insisting but he ignored it and told himself she was better off, she had agreed to the marriage after all.

He focused on the doors a little way ahead of him trying not to remember her shattered face and tear-filled eyes the last time he was here. He knew his white SUV would be visible in the evening light if someone were to look for it but he couldn’t bring himself to care, he just needed something, a glimpse, to see she was ok – there’s nothing wrong with that he told himself.

The doors opened and his heart leapt stupidly but it was only her sister, who took some clothes and went back inside. The disappointment crushed him and mocked him in equal measures; he didn’t recognise the person he was becoming.

The questions were racing in his mind, why had she decided to get married, was she happy… who was the guy… his teeth ground together and his hands gripped the steering wheel tightly as he felt a white hot stab of something deep in his stomach; there was no way he could rationalise it but he hated the guy – he didn’t care how good he might be, how decent, he would never be good enough and if he ever laid eyes on him… he felt his palm sting dully and he forced his jaw to relax as he loosened his grip and held his hand up to the overhead light.

There was some blood on the bandage and he made a face at it; he was just wondering dispassionately if he’d ripped his stitches when he felt it.

There was an imperceptible change in the air that he only ever felt when she was near and he froze with his hand mid air as he looked up and saw her and lost his breath. She was dressed in simple yellow and her hair was open, floating around her in the breeze with her scarf. She stood holding the porch railings and was looking up the stars.

Arnav remembered her talking about her parents and wondered if that was why she looked so sad. She closed her eyes and his eyes closed too and he couldn’t help the whispered word which escaped his lips, ‘Khushi…’

There was no way she could have heard him, he was much further down the street and his windows were up but he opened his eyes to find her turned towards him with one hand still on the railing, looking at him in shocked disbelief. He thought he saw hope flare for a second in her eyes and she took a step forward but then her face lost its colour and her eyes lost that light.

She looked even more wafer thin than usual and her shadowed eyes burned into his. Arnav blinked and tried to find happiness on her face but there was none that he could see; was this what he’d done to her. There was something inside him trying to claw its way out and he moved forward in his seat as he said her name painfully again but this time she stepped back, even though he was nowhere near her.

That one step cut him like a knife and he wanted to go to her but he was frozen where he sat, paralysed by the sadness in her eyes. As she turned to leave her eyes fell on his hand which was still in front of him and he saw something flash across her face, was it concern?

She met his eyes again for a second and he saw his pain reflected in them. ‘Khushi…’ he said her name for the third time and her eyes filled with tears as she watched him mouth the word. A second later she blinked them away and she seemed to gather herself before giving him one last look and disappearing back into the house. 

He sat back in his seat as if released from some spell and closed his eyes as he remembered every detail of her face. He opened his eyes and started the car mechanically and drove home on auto, his mind still lost to him. He knew he shouldn’t have gone, he knew her eyes would haunt him night and day but the shattered pieces inside him needed to see her and those few precious seconds had been the only peace he’d had in the past few days.

He gripped the steering wheel painfully again, feeling angry at himself for needing her but he knew it was still better than the overwhelming panic that had been threatening to take over him since this afternoon. As he got home, he turned off the car and sat in the dark, remembering the tiny moment when hope had flared in those eyes…