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Surprised?? I am :P I don't normally update this fast, and I only posted yesterday- but after where I left off in the last chapter I was writing like a possessed person :D
A teeny weeny disclaimer- this chapter probably has some of the elements people were waiting for in this story. It definitely has many elements I was itching to write :p But I'll let you be the judge of that :)
Chapter Forty Three
'You don't want the ring because it is too expensive...'
His voice was flat. Her anxious ears, straining to catch every quiver of every note, could not detect any of the tints, the nuances, that she had come to recognise as subtle revelations of what he was feeling.
For some reason, the way he said it, as though he were not seeking clarification, not asking a question, but stating a fact, jangled dissonantly against her senses. She found herself rushing to deny it.
'Arnavji, really, I really do like the ring,' she peered earnestly into his eyes, all the while feeling a large dollop of dread drip onto her heart, its cold viscous touch seeping through the warm blood it had been pumping about her heart. Little pins of ice began to prick her from within as she took in his visage, befuddlement mixing with alarm as she became aware of his suddenly stony features, his suddenly lightless eyes...and most frightening of all, that rueful, almost sardonic smile that twisted his lips in a grimace.
And Khushi panicked. 'Arnavji! What's wrong? I love the ring, I promise, it's the most beautiful ring I've ever seen...I only...I mean...it must have cost...'
'It cost me less than the lehenga I tried to get you as a tip, Khushi,' his whisper was low, like a growl through clenched teeth; it was harsh, it was aggressive. And it felt almost as though he had physically pushed her backwards. Khushi felt herself inhale sharply, felt cool air sting sharply inside her nostrils, felt it slit her on the way to her lungs. She staggered.
And he took a step forward, gripping her shoulder with one arm and zooming in so close she could see the muscles of his face twitching furiously as he strove to keep some very powerful emotion at bay. The hard, opaque stones his usually sparkling gems for eyes had become baffled Khushi with a sickening fear she could not place.
When he spoke again, the hoarseness of his low, wry, poorly controlled voice made her flinch.
'It cost less than the money I tried to throw into your face to get you to work at Shantivan...it cost less than the money you lost when you didn't get paid, even though you saved my sister's anniversary party with your jalebis...'
'Arnavji!' What had happened to him? Why was he acting like this?
As though...almost as though...he almost wanted her to hate him.
'It cost less than the million times I've tried to show you down because I had money and you didn't...it cost less than the million times I've humiliated you, Khushi, cost less than all those times you got hurt because of me...and all the money I have, all the jewellery I can buy for you, all the wealth in the world can never be enough to pay you back for all of that...'
Realisation had dawned.
Or, more precisely, realisation had slapped her hard across the face, leaving behind raw, smarting pain, pain that seemed to rattle her brain in her skull and pulled her straight into that awful sensation of being sucked straight into the heart of a deadly, inescapable whirlpool, being swamped by the realisation of a horrible mistake that had already been committed, the damage already done, the hurt already dealt out...and not knowing how to fix it.
This aggression wasn't directed at her...it was directed at himself. He was not reminding her...he was reminding himself.
Horrified at her own foolishness, Khushi stumbled backwards, the small of her back bumping into the smooth cool metal of the bumper of his car.
'Oh! Oh, no! No, no, no! No, Arnavji, no!'
She was gasping, gasping for breath, gasping her dissent in stern denial...Khushi's pupils had dilated, her face had grown wane, and she was shaking her head, shaking her head agitatedly, almost blindly.
'No, Arnavji...that's not what I mean! That's not what I meant! I didn't mean that- I wasn't talking about- Arnavji, I'm not used to wearing things like that! I- I might lose it...I'm so clumsy...and careless...I just- I didn't mean-'
'Khushi...you said- just now, in the car...you said that once you put an engagement ring on you're never supposed to take it off again...and now you're saying-'
'Arnavji!' she whimpered, inching even closer to him, clutching onto his shoulders, attempting to shake him, shake him out of the stiffness, shake off that hardness that had crept into the lines of his face, into his eyes...hardness against himself, hardness that hid from her the anguish he must be putting himself through, all over again, and this time because of her, because she had unthinkingly forced him to revisit what both of them needed to lock away before they could move on. What she herself had pleaded with him to put behind him once and for all.
How could she have known? How could she have fathomed how very vulnerable Arnav Singh Raizada, a man she had almost doubted was human when she had first met him, would become once all his defences were abandoned?
And he had abandoned them...let her make dents on them, again and again and again, until they had been reduced to nothing...for her. Just for her.
...Why do you think I agreed to marry Lavanya? Why do you think I tortured you so much then, Khushi? Because you were getting engaged. You were becoming someone else's. I could not understand- or did not want to understand- why that affected me so much. So I pretended that it didn't. But believe me... believe me, the more I hurt you, the more pain I gave myself. I wanted to punish you- for daring to try to become someone else's, when something in me knew that you were mine. I wanted to punish myself for letting you go. I was a beast, a piece of worthless trash- and I'm so, so sorry, Khushi, I'm so sorry...
Some wounds never heal. Khushi knew that. She had never been a stranger to pain, had seen and known pain more closely than most, their acquaintance stretching back to her childhood.
But they could be tended to. They could be tended to until the pain left and only the scar remained as a relic.
And if her husband was prepared to lay his heart and all its tormenting secrets, his fears, his wishes, his insecurities, everything bare before her, for her, to show her how much he loved her...then she could do the same.
To get everything out and over with, once and for all, so that he would never, never again have to beat himself up because he thought her Prince Charming had been her gaoler.
'I didn't mean that...I really didn't mean that, Arnavji...everything that happened, all of that...you told me why. And I understand. I understand, I do. I don't blame you...I tried everything I could to challenge you too, I stood against you, I did silly things, said silly things I didn't mean, to try and prove you wrong, to stay away...but it's ok. It's over and you told me why, and I believe you. That's not why...that's not what I was...trying to say...'
Khushi's hands slid down from the taut, stiff muscles of his shoulders, slowly and diffidently down the length of his upper-arms, sliding over his elbows, making their way hesitantly along his forearms before her dainty, tapered fingers curled about his clenched fists.
Her tender touch jolted some of the feeling that had been robbed from him into his rigid arms, loosening the tense knots that had been clenched tight almost to the point of ripping apart.
Her eyes, wide and sincere and earnest, did not leave his for a second. She took in a deep breath. And he held his.
'Arnavji,' she began slowly, but surely, with the determined gleam in her eye freezing all the heart-stopping regret that dragged him incessantly into the darkness of his own making, no matter how many times he tried to resurface. 'You have to believe me. I've left that part of our lives behind. And you need to leave it behind too. This ring-' The hand resting against the fist in which he clutched it gripped it firmly, '-this ring means more to me...then I can ever tell you...' as she spoke, her voice became strained, dropping lower and lower as though she were afraid to speak any louder. Moisture began to glisten in her eyes, 'The fact that you got me this ring...that you want to get engaged to me...that you- that you-' a few tears escaped, tears that thawed his frozen limbs, limbs that had seemed braced for battering, 'that you- remembered what all this, what marriage means to me...I can never, never explain to you how much- how much-'
She appeared to choke on her words a little, relinquishing her hold on one of his hands to swiftly wipe away her tears, before fixing him with a watery, but very genuine, very real smile.
The thick, impenetrable clouds that had blocked his horizon parted a little, the bitter tang of the storm in the air lessened.
'The reason I- the reason I was unsure...hesitant...it was only because...Arnavji...I'm not used to this. I'm not used to being so...happy. I'm not used to having my dreams picked up and being made to come true! I'm not used to someone doing so much, just for me! And now...now, you...you are making things I could only ever dream about happen, Arnavji! You made a night sky for me to sleep under every night- so that I'd never feel away from my parents! You-' she paused, gasped, let out a sound that was half a breathless laugh and half a sob, '-got me the most beautiful ring in the world, even though you didn't have to, even though we're already married...just because you wanted to fill in gaps I didn't even remember! What was I supposed to do Arnavji? I'm not used to being treated like this- like a princess...not used to being so happy...it makes me...afraid. Afraid that it's too good to be true, too good to last...do you- do you understand what I'm saying, Arnavji?'
And then...the rest was like a blur.
Arnav vaguely remembered drawing a great, shuddering breath.
He vaguely remembered wiping off her tears with shaking fingers.
The only thing he remembered very, very clearly, very, very vividly, was that that was the moment he fulfilled one task he had left hanging all those nights ago on Diwali.
Remembered clearly lacing the fingers of his free hand into her hair before tenderly sealing his mouth on hers.
To show her just how true it was, and just how long it was going to last.
'Anjali bitiya...I'm so sorry...you came all this way...we didn't really know that Damaadji was going to take her out...'
'No, Garimaji, really, it's my fault...I should have called before I just arrived like this...you must be...really busy...'
'Arre nahi bitiya, how can we be too busy for you? You're like our third daughter, hai na Jiji?'
'Bilkul Nandkishore...but is there anything important you wanted to talk to Sanka Devi about? We could always call her and-'
'Oh no, Buaji, nothing like that...I just- I thought of dropping by to see Shashiji...and then I suppose I've grown very used to having Khushi around me all the time, so I got lonely at home...'
Shashi Gupta watched the whole interchange silently, a quiet spectator outside the periphery of the conversation. And his ever-watchful eyes did not miss what their guest was evidently trying to keep under wraps.
Such as the breathless anxiety with which she had haltingly inquired where Khushi was, after greeting everyone.
Such as watching her face fall slightly before she took hold of herself and schooled her face into a smile on hearing she was out.
Such as the slight tint of fear that made the otherwise glowing face of Anjali a little ashen.
Such as the nervous twirling and un-twirling of her fingers.
As though she did not know what to do. As though she were a little child, a young, sweet, vulnerable girl, just like his daughters, who suddenly found herself alone in the teeming masses, surrounded by unrecognisable faces and unknown places.
'Anjali Bitiya?' Shashi Gupta called out evenly, with a small, reassuring smile, 'Why don't you come here and sit by me for a while?'
It took Arnav several minutes to recover his ability to speak. Because, although he may never admit it, what he had just experienced had been nothing short of heavenly. Surreal. So surreal that he may have dreamt it all. So surreal that it rendered him speechless.
But he could still feel the imprint of her lusciously, impossibly soft lips against his, her honey-like sweetness lingering like an aftertaste against his tongue...feel every pore of his body still tingling, invigorated, as though just recovering from an electric shock...the memory of the wildfire that had razed through him the minute their lips had met, had moved in synchrony with each other, still very, very fresh...
And then of course, there was the maddening drumbeats of his heart which had reached tempos that must have been hitherto undiscovered on earth.
It took him a massive degree of effort to wrench himself out of the daze in which he stood in the middle of that empty, leaf-strewn, tree-flanked street, holding the reason for his existence close to him, resting his forehead against hers, aware of her laboured panting, as heavy as his, aware of the heat emanating and mingling from their bodies, of her flushed skin and trembling lips and closed eyes...
But somehow, he managed.
Because what he had to say was important.
'Do you- do you remember the night we first met?'
It took a few seconds for her to respond.
And then, she nearly pushed herself off him, prevented only by the fact that he had one arm looped around her, and that her retreat was impeded by the car they were standing before.
'Arnavji!' she began severely, a frown budding across the smooth, silken stretch of her forehead against which he had been resting his own, 'Why are you so stubborn? How many times do I have to tell you that-'
'Khushi,' he interrupted her calmly, trying very hard to resist the almost overpowering temptation to scoop her up and lock his mouth with hers once more. She glared petulantly at him, eyebrows arched at cute little angles, little patches of red glowing on her cheeks.
Does she always look this adorable when she's angry?
Arnav was looking forward to the rest of his life to find out.
But there were some things they needed to get out of the way first, needed to get out of the way permanently...
'You remember the night we first met...the night I thought you'd been sent by my rivals to sabotage-'
'Arnavji,' Khushi began again menacingly, her hands now resting on her hips as she fixed him with a threatening glare, 'I wasn't joking when I said I'd puncture all the tyres of your car. And you have only one spare! I'm telling you, I'll do it!'
Arnav felt himself smile. Smile at his incredibly adorable wife threatening him...
Because she wanted him to move on. Move on...with her.
Even if the whole world bowed down to his will right now, it could not yield as much...calm, joy, contentment- simple, run-of-the-mill, but very fulfilling, rapturous happiness- that she had, by simply being there...with him. For him.
'I wouldn't put it past you...' Arnav murmured, flicking a forefinger against her cute little nose, now red with her anger, trying his best to keep his amusement out of his voice. It never failed to amaze him how everything, the vibe of their emotions, could change at the speed of lightning, no matter how heavy or cumbersome they were, whenever he was with Khushi. She made him feel everything, everything he would once upon a time have scorned derisively.
'I would, you know it!' Khushi swatted his hand away, pouting so incredibly cutely Arnav very nearly forgot what he was about to say.
Shaking his head slightly, he spoke again. 'Khushi, I want to get this out of the way- out of our way, forever. Otherwise...otherwise, all these thorns are just going to prick up every time we are about to be happy- and I don't want that to happen, Khushi. I want to finish off what started that night, so that we can begin afresh...'
Khushi was still frowning, but this time her irritation had been replaced by perplexity. 'What do you mean?'
Arnav closed his eyes briefly, and took Khushi's left hand in his once more. This time, he noted in unison with the delighted cartwheel his heart performed, that she did not draw it back.
'Khushi...that night, what I did to you...I was nothing better than a senseless, mindless animal. I was horrible, I was brutal. I said all sorts of...all sorts of...' he struggled, unable to continue, unable to muster up a word powerful enough to describe the black, heinous insinuations he had made against her on their first meeting, and in many of the meetings since.
The memory of the first month of their married life was luridly present in his mind.
Khushi opened her mouth to protest. Once again, Arnav silenced her with a gentle finger laid across her lips, shaking his head slowly. Her lips sealed themselves slowly, an expression that was cross between bafflement and discontent on her face.
'You said you aren't used to this much happiness, Khushi. You said you aren't used to people doing such things for you. But you have to understand...there is nothing selfless about anything I've done. I'm not a selfless person. Trying to make your wishes come true is the most selfish thing I've ever done in my life- because to me, it is the only way- it'll never be enough, but it's all I've got- it's the only way I can hope to repent for every single horrible thing I've done to you. I'm doing this for you, Khushi, because I want to see you happy, I want to see you smile all the time- and I want all of that for me. Because it is the only way I can justify keeping you with me.'
He lifted up the ring again, holding it between thumb and forefinger.
'You objected because you thought this ring is too expensive,' he spoke with the tone of one musing out loud, gazing at the single pearl capturing the glow of the surrounding light to gleam elegantly. Khushi's eyes followed his silent request to settle on the ring, 'I don't know if it is. When I went to the jeweller and asked him to show me an engagement ring, he pulled out the best ones he had. The biggest diamonds, the most expensive designs...but none of them were right. I didn't want any old ring for you, Khushi...I wanted our engagement to mean something, I wanted there to be a memory attached to it, something to show you what you are to me...so I had this made...'
'Made?' Khushi asked softly, her whisper hushed. Her round, doe eyes were filled with wonder as they shifted back to his face, searching for his answer.
'Yes, made,' Arnav admitted quietly. It was incredible, he pondered, looking into the crystal-clear eyes of his wife, each emotion so lucid he may as well be staring through fine glass, incredible how easy it was to talk to Khushi. How easy it was to be honest to her. How very right it felt to disclose everything to her, without fearing what she might think.
Knowing, somehow, that if she was going to love him, she would have to love the person he really was, behind the appearance he donned for the rest of the world.
'There's a reason I had this ring made with a pearl, Khushi,' Arnav continued softly, his finger travelling from her lips, tracing the edges before trailing up her jawbone to her cheek, 'Do you know what pearls symbolise?'
Khushi, not even blinking, staring at him as though in fascination, shook her head.
Arnav sighed. 'They symbolise faith...charity...innocence...harmony...perfection...purity...in other words,' his hand cupped her chin, and he leaned forward enough to nudge his nose with hers, 'they symbolise you.'
As he heard her soft, surprised gasp, he backed away an inch, trying to convey his seriousness, his honesty through his eyes before he began speaking again, 'And that night...when we first might...I ripped that dori on your dress...the dori made of pearls...I ripped apart everything that was you, then and ever since...I fouled up your purity, your innocence, your perfection, because of my own inability to believe that something so pure, so innocent, so perfect...could actually exist...
'And maybe I'm asking for too much...I know I'm asking for too much...but this pearl ring...is perhaps a weak, insufficient attempt...to tie back together everything I'd torn apart before. To finally bring an end to the unhappy phase of our story...and start anew, from the beginning...'
And he stuttered to a stop. He had said everything. He had overturned the urn in his heart, spilling out all its contents.
And now it was for her to accept it...accept it or shun it.
He waited, without even breathing.
Khushi looked at him for the longest time. Looked at him silently, her eyes questioning, as though doubting whether he was really there.
And then she sighed, closed her eyes, shook her head slightly.
And then looked straight back up, smiling at him through her tears, and with one hand reaching out to cradle his jaw, she whispered, 'Can I have my ring now, Arnavji?'
That day, that empty, deserted street, the gently swaying trees, the branches flourishing their leaves, the little rays of sunlight that wriggled their way through the foliage, bore witness to a promise.
An unspoken, wordless pact that was sworn between two lovers, as a man slid a ring reverently, humbly, onto the finger of the woman he loved.
Because the vein of that finger went straight to her heart.
Where he had already made his place.
The promise to leave behind the past...and to face their future together.
And so they had come full circle.
This chapter means a lot to me...this is, in a way, what this story has been moving towards for a long time. I don't know whether I lived up to people's expectations with this...and this is by no means the end, because now I shall focus on moving Anjali and Shyam's part in this forward...but I would just like to humbly request everyone to let me know what you honestly thought of this chapter. Your feedback is invaluable and what helps me grow as a writer, and I love reading your opinions :)
Oh yeah, I still have to make Khushi say 'I love you'...this should be fun :P
I reserve all rights over this work of fiction and request that readers do not reproduce/copy/modify it elsewhere and/or claim credit. Thanks :)
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