She had no idea how much time she spent with Aditi Sinha on the banks of the Ganga eventually but it was definitely oddly refreshing to have had spoken to someone who she had almost nothing in common with. Once they had edged past the man who was the point of intersection of their very separate paths, they never came back to him. When Aditi and she said their goodnights, they saw each other in a new light that shone brighter because and despite of the sunrise irises that hovered in the background of their openly exchanged warmth.
Khushi was smiling to herself and on her way to her tent, her bones now heavy with sleep even as the bruise on her back prickled under the dressing. When she felt the tug on her wrist, a small shout escaped her mouth and bounced off warm skin that was now merging into the space around her.
“Shhhh….She has the ears of a bat. She’ll come running back to check,” He whispered against her mouth as her right hand remained firmly caught between his fingers and twisted against her back. Her left hand instinctively grabbed his sleeve and curled into the cloth. She blinked as she struggled to reconcile his presence that was now sending her heartbeat into a tizzy. Even as she scanned his eyes, he edged her backwards, his eyes never leaving hers as his legs brushed against hers, and his lashes fluttered open and close over his steady gaze.
“You fell asleep.” She said stupidly even as his feet struck hers and made her stumble against him, only ensuring his grip on her tightened.
“You didn’t wake me up.” He countered as if to suggest her decision had been just as stupid as his slumber.
“You looked like you needed the sleep.” She said, surprised that she could hold his gaze that long – perhaps for the first time. They were still inching backwards, although now it wouldn’t surprise her if someone saw them and mistook their movement for a quickstep.
“I need this more. We need this more.”
It was enough to make her blink. And for him to breathe in sharply before he forced them to a standstill and bent his head to kiss her. This time, it was almost as if she expected it, welcomed it too. Her lips parted easily, helping him to capture her breath and the little whisper of pure pleasure that seemed to come from somewhere deep within her body. His hands let hers go and stole up her back and into her hair which whipped around her head in a sudden gust of river wind. She winced softly as her teeth gnashed against his and he caught her lip in a sudden nip. Before she could decide whether it hurt or not, the kiss slowed and his tongue swept over the sensitized skin, soothing and urging all at one. As she felt him loosen the grasp on the roots of her hair – when had his fingers become entangled in her hair, she let her hands reach up and thread through his, pulling him closer. The groan that came from him, deep and harsh, told him she had surprised him as much as she had surprised herself. She sank into the kiss with unprecedented abandon, hoping that she was not making a fool of herself.
He was right. They did need this. She knew she did even as he broke the full mouthed kiss and placed smaller, lighter ones on the corner of her mouth and trailed down her jaw and eventually her neck. Her hands were now on his shoulder as he found a little spot on the edge of where her neck met her shoulder, one she didn’t even know existed.
“Khushi,” He said softly as drew in a breath against her skin and caught it between his lips.
Her eyes felt drugged as she struggled to open them, fighting the sensations that his hands were now cavorting down her spine and eventually settled on waist for second before they snuck into her sleep-shirt, fingers teasing the edge of her bra almost absently. Her very frayed, plaid bra if there was ever one. Her hand curled into his T-shirt and dug into his shoulder as she silently urged him to stop.
“Please.” She whispered as his thumb grazed the underside of her bosom, knowing that a part of her wanted him to dismiss her and continue what he was doing.
But this was AV-Sir, no…Arnav – the man who seemed like the sorts who would always do the right thing. So he did stop – with a sudden jerk like she had caught by surprise. Smiling ruefully in the moment where she would have used the word “sorry”, he straightened himself and placed a little kiss on her lips. Then almost grudgingly, he took a couple of steps back to look into her eyes. She waited for him to say something that would either echo or completely belie the chaos in his face.
“You have been awake for some time?” She asked when he didn’t say anything and moments stretched. Her voice struggled to return from raspy to regular, her breathing hitched and became even. She held her hands back consciously, when all she wanted to do was trace his kisses on her skin and see if they were as real as they felt in her blood.
He nodded and continued to stare at her, his eyes hooded and heavy.
“She…she saw me next to your bed. And then….she…I’m sorry…she guessed that I was there to see you.”
A small smile appeared on his face as he stepped closer and took her hand in his. “She already knows.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “You told her?”
What? What did you tell her?
He shook his head as his smiled turned wry. “Like she needs to be told anything. She makes her own conclusions – in this case – correctly so.” His smile grew as he nudged her fingers apart with his and weaved through them in small, quick invisible threads. Like her dream. Oh Shiv-ji, she called out for mercy. Like all her dreams.
“She likes you.”
Khushi smiled at that. “It seems unlikely that she dislikes anyone.” Especially if they were to be related to you.
“Believe me, it’s quite the opposite. You should be very grateful. I am surprised she didn’t tell you to be thrilled.”
Her smile widened. “She may have implied it the first time we spoke.”
He tugged at her hand and pulled her closer and wrapped his hands around her waist, forcing her to rest her cheek on his shoulder even as he seemed to bury his head in her hair. “You should’ve have woken me up. We would have wasted a full night…I can’t believe I fell asleep…” He spoke against her hair and held her on even as she tried to straighten…expecting him to be ready to release her.
“Your sister was pretty amused about that too.” She smiled against his skin even as she tried to adjust her face so her glasses wouldn’t dig into his neck.
“Of course she made fun of me.” He whispered against her hair as his hands caressed the small of her back. “Stop squirming.” He chided softly and she stilled mid-smile and breathed in his scent. Warm, rich and brimming with fresh river air. She smiled and closed her eyes.
“You are smiling.” He said and seemed to absently rub his cheek against the top of her head. “And you were laughing with Ti-Di earlier.”
“I like her too.” She said but stayed where she was, their breathing now matched to perfection as their molded chests rose and fell together.
“What am I going to do?” He murmured as his breath grazed her scalp and his fingers brushed against the skin at her waist, bared by the edge of her shirt.
Eventually, the little muttered question remained unanswered. Instead the two of them walked into the tent, one Khushi was truly thankful tonight to have all to herself, and settled down on the floor, their backs against the bed. And though he hadn’t kissed her again, it was almost as if he had taken a secret oath of constant physical contact. His shoulder stayed pressed against hers, her forearm brushing against his every time she as much as took a little breath. The first few minutes that they sat there, there was electric silence in the tent illuminated by nothing more than starlight and an amorphous moon. He picked up her Walkman and pried it open to retrieve the mixed tape that she wished she had put away earlier today. He looked at it for a long moment and Khushi wondered if he was going to bring up the topic of why she had kept it, again. So she looked at him through lowered lashes, much to her own amusement, waiting for the ball to drop. But Arnav simply turned the cassette over a few times, as if trying to savor the feeling of an object long lost. Then he slid the cassette back into the Walkman and held it out to her, the look in eyes, one so telling – like he didn’t need any answers anymore. She smiled slowly and took it from him, her gaze never breaking from his as she placed the Walkman on the bed behind her.
“I wanted Ti-Di to meet you that day,” He said softly as he reached out for her hand and threaded fingers through hers.
Khushi’s eyebrows shot up instantly. His smiled widened. “I had mentioned to her that there is a new girl in Mechanical Engineering who would easily beat her in any Bollywood quiz. She was hoping to disprove it. Don’t ask me how.”
Her brow remained twisted in confusion even as the smile on her face glittered again. “You told her about me then?” Why?
He smiled and shook his head and looked away, throwing his head back to rest against the bed. She watched as his eyes closed and his hand moved with hers and came to rest against his chest. It was an unnerving sight. Her pale wrists held in his slightly darker, more callused hands, lying silver grey against his black shirt. Through his shirt and the palm beneath hers, she could feel a steady beat that was his heart. It hadn’t been this peaceful moments ago, had it? And yet now…”You knew then that she was going to be there?”
He nodded slightly. “She called the previous evening and told me Amma and she were going to be there for my last Aarohan. And that they had a surprise for me.”
“And you didn’t guess it was about…Saira and you?” The name felt oddly uncomfortable when uttered in his presence, like realizing she had walked into the little temple area in her house wearing slippers.
He shook his head. “The summer before final year, Saira and I – we decided to take a break. We’d been fighting a lot. The situation at home had been tense and silent in my case, vocal and utterly distressed in hers. It didn’t help us. And a break – just some time to let things settle down seemed like the best idea.”
“It was yours? The idea?” She didn’t know why it was important for her to know this but the question had been asked before she could analyze its relevance.
“I was happy to go along. Final year was bound to be stressful even without all of that – I took it. If I needed to mend things with my father…I needed to work hard – get a job, admission to a good b-school – all of it- anything that would set things right between us. It was selfish. But I did it anyway.”
Khushi stayed silent as Arnav’s words sunk in. Her innards were twisting uncomfortably now. And yet, this was the bitter medicine, no a vaccine, that was critical if they needed a chance to work.
“How much did Ti-Di tell you about Saira?”
His eyes remained closed even as his fingers tightened against hers for a second before they relaxed.
She took a deep breath and straightened before she went on to lean back against the bed. “Enough to make me not want to know more.” She whispered truthfully.
“She is biased. What she told you is all she knows. I was to blame even though I know that is not what Ti-Di must have implied.”
Khushi looked up at the tarpaulin covering the tent with patches of threadbare canvas. “She seemed like she cared about Saira too. Why would she say anything just to exonerate you?”
“Because it was Saira who broke it off eventually. She was the one who found someone else and declared she was marrying him instead. If it had been me…If I had acted on…” He opened his eyes but didn’t look at her. Instead he stared at their clasped hands. “If I had done the same four years ago, then she would have hated me. But I know the truth – she may have finished what we had but I had ended it just as decisively. And Saira…she knew I think.”
“You give your sister less credit than…” She stumbled and turned her gaze to him, as the full import of his statement dawned on her. “You said if you had acted on…four years ago…” Her eyebrows were painfully arched, her throat now hurting with long withheld thirst. She licked her lips and waited as his eyes fluttered open and he turned his head slightly to look at her.
He held her fingers tight once again and refused to tear his gaze away from her. “I told you, you weren’t mistaken four years ago.” He said softly. Khushi’s heart galloped and threatened to jump out of her chest. What he was saying seemed…too good…too much. How could it be? Even if Shiv-ji was being kind to her…this was…
“But you were with someone else for so long – and committed enough to wage a war against your family. How could what happened in less than a month be the reason it all changed? Unless you…” She began and halted when she realized her voice sounded as distressed as she felt.
He straightened and let her hand go but not before she had visibly tried to pull it away. “Khushi – I’m sorry – I don’t mean to imply more than what I’ve said…I’m just…Four years ago…if I were in a position to give this,” He gestured at the space between them, “a chance – there might have been something. I know I felt something for you. I wasn’t supposed to. For more reasons than one…You…” He looked at her and his mouth tightened in a strange way. Like he wanted to say something. But before she could read more into it, he spoke again. “But I’m not surprised anymore that I still do. I’m not saying I know exactly what or where this is headed…I mean…I know where this could be….” He broke off and looked away. “I don’t know what it is…I just don’t seem to find the words.” He said wryly and then looked back at her.
Khushi took a deep breath. What was she doing? Did she want a declaration of endless love from him – on the first date – hell – this wasn’t even a date – it was just them talking…about possibly dating…Oh God. Dating? That was a word reserved for American Sitcoms and romance novels. These things didn’t happen to fat girls like her…And suddenly it felt like she was running a marathon. Her lungs hurt – physically. “You’re right…I don’t want to talk about four years ago. And I don’t want to know about Saira. I know your sister wants me to think well of you and you want me to think badly of you. But I don’t…I don’t want to think at all about what happened” She shook her head. “Instead…there is something you said yesterday. About not knowing each other…That is what I would like to fix. Can we…we can start there?” She offered tentatively. “And then…we’ll start afresh when…whenever we can…after the camp.” It also gave her time to sort things out with Arjun. She would talk to him before they left the camp – so that they could bury this awkward thing between them right here and start the new lease of life at Speed Motors afresh. She also promised herself she would tell him about Arnav. She may not owe Arjun any explanation. But Arjun was right – she never talked about her feelings – and just having had Aditi to talk to this week had been so liberating. If anything she owed her best friend that. If only she could figure out a way to tell him about Arnav without breaking his heart…
He looked at her for a long moment and then leaned back against the bed once more. This time his eyes fixed on her and a small smile tugging at his lips. “I might have gotten carried away a little at the time – when I said you don’t know anything about me.”
She suppressed the smile that was teasing her lips. “But you did have a point.”
“That kind of knowing each other comes from time, I guess.” He said with a small amused frown. “And time is…” He shook his head. “There will be time. I know there will be. Wherever they send you off to – we’ll make it work. You are not one of those people who believe long distance relationships don’t work right?”
She was the one of those people who had no clue what relationships – the kind he was suggesting – were in the first place. But she didn’t want him to think she was a complete idiot – well more than he possibly already did. So she shook her head.
“Good.” He reached out for her hand and closed his over her palm. “Where do you want to start?” He asked softly a minute later, half a twinkle in his eyes as the pad of his thumb caressed the skin between her thumb and forefinger. She blushed uncomfortably but hoped that it was only internal as she straightened her back and leaned back against the bed, his arm brushing against hers.
“When’s your birthday?” She asked him.
“Really?” He chuckled and shook his head. “That is what you are going to start with?”
Her mouth curled. “If we were in school, I’d have led with your zodiac sign.” She answered truthfully.
“March 8. Yours?”
“September 14.” She replied. “Your birthday is coming up.”
He said nothing and shrugged.
“Pisces.” She said out aloud and then smiled to herself. A few years ago, she would have stored this information in her brain with the promise of returning to her favorite Linda Goodman book and reading up on what Piscean Men were supposed to be like and what their compatibility score with Virgo women was.
‘Ti-Di forced me to read Linda Goodman once – I think I was twelve, then. Needless to say, I am scarred for life.”
She turned to look at him in surprise. Had she spoken out aloud about Linda Goodman? How had he known she was thinking…
“It’s the only thing that comes to mind when someone says zodiac. Ti-Di was obsessed with it.”
Khushi laughed. “It used to be fun in school. Though Tripti and I soon realized it was completely stupid. Because she and I are the same sun sign – just ten days apart, actually. I always hated that…Ma and Baba always clubbed our birthday celebrations and almost always on hers…” She caught herself as she realized she was offering information that hadn’t been asked for and that she was fairly sure was of no consequence to Arnav.
“Is this where you are going to say sorry?” He asked slyly and Khushi instinctively rolled her eyes.
“No.” She avowed. “How much older is Ti..I mean your sister?”
“You can call her Ti-Di. I am surprised she didn’t tell you to tonight.”
Khushi’s face warmed but she said nothing, waiting for him to answer her question.
“Seven years. And January 26, since I know you won’t ask.”
Khushi’s face lit up. “Republic day! And I would never guess she is seven years older than you….that’s almost – you must be…” She calculated on her finger tips, “1984 born. That’s three and half years older than me..So she is…ten years older than me….she could pass for being younger than me!”
“See now, I’m not even sorry,” He tugged at her hand. Before she could realize what was happening, his mouth was pressed against hers, his tongue sweeping along her lips, sending shock waves down her facial nerves extended all over her body and ending in her finger tips now curled into his. His other free hand stole up to push her hair away from her face and away from her neck even as they kissed in abandon, his gruff murmurs almost pleasurably abrasive against her skin.
He let her go as their breaths caught up with the intensity of that kiss and pulled away. His eyes continued to scan her face urgently even as she leaned away and waited with bated breath for the tense silence that had just begun to dissipate.
“Favorite color?” He asked a second later with half a helpless smile, a raised eyebrow and heavy eyes brimming with unmasked desire – a look she would remember for the rest of her life.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Chanda Re
Singers: Sadhana Sargam, Hariharan, A.R. Rahman
Music: A.R. Rahman
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Gulshan gulshan, vaadi vaadi
Behti hai resham jaisi hawa
Jungle jungle, parvat, parvat
Hai neend mein sab ek mere siwaa
Aaja sapnon ki neeli nadiya mein nahayein
Aaja yeh taare chug ke hum haar banayein
In dhundhli dhundhli raahon mein aa, donon hi kho
- Thank you all for waiting so patiently :)
- Next update: Monday, Nov 14, 2016, late night
- Please excuse typos.