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Chapter 27: Air
"What…" she cleared her throat when her voice got stuck and tried again, walking up to Nalan's side, "What are you making?"
Nalan looked at her and quickly leaned in towards Arnav as if sharing a secret.
Just as she narrowed her eyes and reached his side, the boy pulled back and dragged a flour-tipped finger down her cheek.
She jerked back in surprise, the flour flying into her eyes. She didn't know if she stumbled, although by the way the man caught her, she would simply have to assume that she did.
Her eyes were still blinking rapidly from the flour just as he straightened her. She closed it fully when she felt the grainy texture of his fingers at her waist, gripping her tightly.
The flour was now in her eyes, on her cheek, and on her waist…
"Open your eyes." She heard his whisper and felt her hands dig into her shoulders as she tried to balance herself. She had stumbled…
She tried to pry open her eyelids and felt them blink again rapidly as her eyes watered.
"Use your fingers." She heard his whisper again. "Mine are covered in flour."
She let go of one of his shoulders and felt him press her closer to him to steady her, although she was in no danger of falling.
She managed to open her right one with her fingers and just as she felt blinded by the sunlight streaming in from behind him through the window, she felt his face eclipse the light as a gust of air blew into her eye.
"Hold still." She heard him say as she jerked back again. As if to reinforce his point, her brought his other hand around her back to hold her head in place.
She could just imagine that his fingers had trailed flour all over her now… what had started with Nalan's one line, Arnav had completed by spreading all around her.
"Do you know how many times I have had to bathe since you arrived here the day before last?" she asked in what she thought was irritation, except it sounded anything but when she heard herself speak the words out loud.
Rather than making one of his flippant comments, he stopped blowing in her eyes and drew back to look at her.
Her throat felt dry and she looked away from his gaze, suddenly self-conscious.
"Chettaaa" they heard from the left and she looked over, remembering just then that Nalan was in the room with them.
Just as she started to push out of the man's hold, she saw Nalan's fist go up in the air and release. A flash of white flew out catching the rays of the sun streaming into the room.
She couldn't explain why she did it… there had been no thought involved, just instinct… a reflex that she didn't know had been there.
Just as the flour shot towards the man's face, glittering in the sunlight, she pulled him towards her.
It made him stumble now as she saw the flour coat the back of his head and his jhubha. His grip around her tightened as they both backed into the counter to keep from falling.
"Eda, aa podi muzhuvan kalanjalle! (You spilled all the flour!) she scolded Nalan over Arnav's shoulder and saw the boy laugh in response before going to grab another fistful of flour.
"Adi kollum! (You're going to get a beating from me!), she warned, although Nalan looked anything but scared as he turned with a fresh handful of the powder.
"Oh shit!" she muttered just as Arnav asked, "Is he throwing more?"
"Yes." She answered and saw him smile out of the corner of her eye.
She leaned back to look at him. "You think this is funny?"
"No, I think this is perfect. I want to go back to that pond to wash all this off when he is done with us. And I want you to try to drown me again so that I can do as I threatened…"
It took her a moment to recall exactly what he threatened and it was that moment of distraction when Nalan's second fist full of flour caught her right in the face.
"Sho! Kashi chechyentha mughan tirikkathirunne??" (Sho! Why didn't you turn you face away, didi?) she heard Nalan ask while she spluttered and blinked as she now felt the flour in her eyes, nose, and mouth.
Just as she rubbed her eyes and managed to open one, she saw Arnav grab Nalan by the waist and lift him up to rub the flour onto his face.
When the boy sputtered and spit the flour out, the man stopped and chuckled.
She watched the scene in undiluted shock for a moment; watching Raizada laugh in good humor was like watching water run in reverse.
"Aha, appa chettanu inganathe velayokke ariyalle?" (I see, so you know tricks like this!) Nalan said just as he recovered and grabbed another fistful to throw up into Arnav's face.
She looked at the steel plate in alarm, noting that half the flour was now gone.
There will be no breakfast at this rate.
"Mathi mathi!" (Enough enough), she said as she walked to the counter to grab the plate that had become the source of all the morning merriment and thus missed the man and the boy look at each other in wicked humor behind her back.
She jumped up when she felt the fingers poke her waist, back, and under her arms in quick succession, getting all the tickle spots quite accurately and before she could react, he grabbed her arms behind her with one hand while restraining her with his other hand around her waist.
"No!" she yelled out just as Nalan grabbed the plate and threw its contents up in the air.
Just as she closed her eyes and turned her face, she felt him shield her face with his hand.
She wondered if it was a reflex response for him or merely a return favor.
A moment later she opened her eyes and dragged his hand down from her face.
For a moment, she stood there looking at the powder coating every surface that she could see, including the mischievous boy who was grinning in glee like this was the most fun that he had had in ages.
"Eda motte!" She called out and lunged at him, but was jerked back and tossed up into the man's arms in the next instant.
"Nalan, where is the pond? Show me." She heard Arnav tell the boy.
Her eyes widened and she looked at Nalan to shake her head, but the boy had already winked at Arnav and had taken off from the kitchen.
Arnav started following with her fixed securely in his arms. He was moving too fast for her to attempt to try to get down.
"We can't go to the pond!" she told him.
"Watch me!" was his response.
"We can't!" she told him again just as he stepped out of the house through the back, Nalan taking him through the short-cut in the woods.
"We can't use the pond." She tried again in a placating tone.
He ignored her.
"Arnav…" she finally called, quietly.
It made him slow down just as they entered the woods.
"Say it again." He asked her after a moment.
She tilted her head and looked at him.
"Eluppanakatte!! Verangelum varunnnathinu mumbu venam!" (Come quickly! We have to do this before others come!). Nalan called out from ahead.
Arnav hastened his pace, but still said, "Say my name again, Kashi."
She looked away and found that her gaze had swung to Nalan, who was almost running with how quickly he was moving.
"Will that make you stop?" she asked.
She looked back at him when he didn't answer.
He ignored her and she closed her eyes and sighed.
Within moments, they were by the pond.
Her arms tightened around him as she looked around the premises for sign of others.
There was no one… as yet…
"Put me down, at least."
"Ha! Then you will run away."
"I won't, I promise." She told him as he stepped out of the woods.
If someone saw her like this… she didn't bother to finish that thought. It was one thing for people to gossip about things that they could only speculate about, but to be caught in a stranger's arms, a stranger living in her house at that…
"Arnav…" she called his name again, her eyes swinging into him, now in real fear.
He stepped through the door to the pond and closed it behind him.
She saw Nalan standing there and looked at him as if he had betrayed her.
He came up to her side then and said, "Chechy pedikkanda! Aarum varilla!" (Don't be afraid. No one will come!)
He didn't even stay to hear her response before he turned around and jumped into the pond.
She thought Arnav would throw her in and prepared for it, but he merely walked into the water, still holding her in his arms.
He released his hold on her one arm at a time, letting her slide down into the cool water, and she tried to calm her heart that had been beating like a jackhammer for the past five minutes, a combination of fear… and something else… that something else made her turn away from him now when he let her go.
She ducked her head under water and swam to the far end of the pond, away from both boy and man, craving release from the suffocating tenderness that was choking the life out of her heart.
She didn't know how she was supposed to achieve that when a short moment later she saw Nalan launch himself at Arnav, inciting a bout of roughhousing in the water.
She dipped under water once more and stayed there until the need for breath became overwhelming.
Only then did she allow herself to come up for air.
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