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I am seriously taking a chance still posting on I-F after the recent cases of plagiarism. But then I think about the idea of choosing from all the people who've supported me thus far and I wonder if I'll ever be able do that. Please people. Fight against plagiarism. Campaign for a NoCopy code that works. Trust me, no writer wants to move off and leave their treasured readers behind.
OK, below chapter is a LONG one. By long I mean 15 pages on Word. It was also written at intervals between work, work and more work. I kind of have 2 jobs now on top of everything else so...you might find this messed up and completely unreadable. I haven't had time to proofread...Let me know if you think it needs changing, please?
Also, I'd be happy if you don't skim read - there are many plot developments and foregrounding here, I hope they're noticeable enough and the length and density of it won't frustrate you guys to tears by the end :S
Chapter Forty Seven
None of it made any sense.
Arnav stayed perfectly still. Yet, that very stillness seemed to vibrate with some repressed energy, some tension locked with difficulty into the shell of his body. The strain was written everywhere - in the veins standing out at the backs of his clenched hands, the whitened, jutting knuckles, the taut rigidness of muscles, both arms bent at the elbows and locked stiffly.
As though he was the arrow in a bow drawn back as far as it could go - quivering with the force building up behind it, just waiting for the string to snap free and to be sent tunnelling through space and slicing through whatever stood in its way.
An arrow in the dark was a dangerous thing. There was no telling what it would cut through - friend or foe.
Pressing his fingertips against his closed eyelids, Arnav pushed himself to unknot the convoluted tangles his thoughts had been left in since receiving those phone-calls, trying to extricate each individual detail and fact he had learnt over the past few hours, struggling to examine each for its own worth, to thread them together in some sequence spelling sense.
But it was futile. It was like trying to put together a jigsaw with pieces from different puzzles.
It just did not make sense.
And loathe as he was to admit it, that frightened him. It stirred up in him the restless, reckless urge to do something, even though he did not know what, and there was no telling just what he might do if he gave in to that urge.
Right now, charging ahead when the entire situation was so fraught with discrepancy would be no different from stampeding through a minefield.
One wrong step, and it could all blow up.
The short buzz of his cell-phone punctured the still silence like a pin stabbing a balloon.
Shaken out of his catatonic state, Arnav sprang upright, the abruptness of the motion sending a few audible cracks rattling up his spine, stiff from being hunched over for long minutes on end. The fingers which had been massaging his throbbing temple felt blindly about on the cushioned surface of the deckchair, hunting unseeingly for his Blackberry, his eyes taking their time to adjust to the relative darkness of the poolside, relieved only by the reflection of moonlight slanting up from the serene azure of the pool.
Blinking slightly, the flare-up of his cell-phone's screen sharp to his unfocused stare, a loose wire thrashed in panic in Arnav's mind. Eagerness and trepidation duelled ferociously as he fumbled to make out the letters informing him just who it was leaving him a missed call so late into the night - half keen to learn of any new development, half-afraid of just what it was he might discover.
But then the name on his screen flashed into the darkness, against his eyes like bejewelled fireworks dappling the sombre grey-violet sky - and there was the interim of just one quick draw of breath before Arnav was hitting buttons clumsily, dialling back the number of the last call.
And before the first beep of the dial-tone could even subside, the line was picked up on the other end.
This was just what he needed, the perfect remedy, the one thing guaranteed to tame this bedlam...
'Khushi-' he was not sure whether it was relief, or happiness, or longing, or a mixture of all three fusing in his voice as he breathed out her name.
He did not get a chance to find out.
'I'm so sorry!'
Arnav blinked. Disoriented and preoccupied as he already had been, Arnav seriously considered for a moment that he had misheard her, mouth wordlessly opening in bafflement, intending to ask her to repeat what she had just said when -
'I woke you up, didn't I? I'm so sorry! I should have checked the time before I called you - I only realized after I'd dialed and I cut the call but it was already ringing by then and -sorry!'
Even over the phone, she sounded so adorably miserable, Arnav could not help but picture her as he had no doubt she would be looking in his mind's eye - lips puckered in a disconsolate moue, an aggrieved little frown perched on the bridge of her nose, anxious eyes peeking through her curtain of lashes as they battled embarrassment to search his face-the image was so very vivid, Arnav felt his heart plummet oddly, as though it had tried to leap and accidentally stumbled in the process.
And he barely had a chance to notice when the locked muscles of his jaw loosened enough to allow a small, fond smile to stretch across his lips.
Meanwhile, his wife was babbling on without pause for breath on the other end, her words barely intelligible and tripping into each other, a clear indication of her level of distress.
'-back to sleep and I'll call you in the morning...I mean, you - you should call me in the morning after you wake up...that is if you want to - you can call me whenever you want, that's not the problem at all - why am I still talking? I should just shut up and let you sleep now - sorry - '
Arnav was ready to bet his bank balance that Khushi must have slapped her palm into her forehead at some point as she progressed from talking to him to talking to herself, her fluster causing her to fiddle with the edge of her pale-coloured dupatta or the hem of the kurta she customarily donned for bed, blushing a furious crimson -
The mental image made him grin, forgetting his waking-hour-nightmares as easily as he'd thought it would be difficult.
'-so I'll just hang up now. Good night!'
Lower lip sore from merciless chewing, Khushi's febrile actions faltered before she could cut off the line and spend the rest of the night stewing in mortification. It was bad enough that after long hours of pointless rationalising she had let impulse override sense, and given in to the mindless urge to call him, sidling out of bed and sneaking out of the front doors. She had had absolutely no idea what she wanted to talk to him about, what she wanted to hear -the only goal distinct in her hazy thoughts then had been the simple desire to hear his voice.
To her then-addled brain, it had seemed a completely legitimate reason.
It was only after she had hit the green button of the phone, and the dialtone had hooted crisp and clear against her ear, a sharp and solitary noise in the backdrop of sleepy silence draped over Laxmi Nagar, that her snoozing brain-cells had been shaken awake and decided to process exactly what she had been doing.
'J-ji?' she stammered timorously, mentally arming herself for the inevitable question he was bound to ask. Ironically enough, she was suddenly very grateful for the same distance imposed between them that she had spent half the day resenting - at least she did not have to suffer the added humiliation of having him witness the blush burning her face off as she tried to explain her reasons for calling him up at an hour well past midnight.
Her self-recriminations were disrupted then, and Khushi was surprised by the tenderness filtering through to her, profound and depthless even though he was so many kilometres away.
'You know you can call me whenever you want, don't you, Khushi?' his tone made it clear that the question was rhetorical, but each note quivered with earnestness, 'Any time you want to talk to me - in the middle of the night, early in the morning...whenever you want. I'll always be there for you.'
And for some reason, something about the way he said that, something about the tone, something about the prolonged, heavy pause that followed, caused a slippery coil of disquiet to slither through her gut even as her heart warmed at his promise.
He trailed off, letting his words sink in - willing the promise tenuously hidden beneath his straightforward statement to reach her.
He needed her to trust him right now, needed her faith to bolster his own...he could not risk letting her down, letting Di down, their family, their happiness, their future...
The mantle of protector was heavy on his shoulders, and it weighed him down...down...
'Arnavji...' her timorous whisper reclaimed his attention, her tone belonging to one who is undoubtedly about to ask a question but is hesitating nonetheless.
'Yes?' he probed, trying distract himself, trying to muse out a possible reason she had called him at an hour he had fully expected her to be asleep. If anything, that had been the main reason he had not tried to speak to her himself - it had been a long, tiring day for the both of them, and reluctant and unhappy as he was with the notion, he knew he ought to resist the urge to monopolise her attentions and let her spend some time with her family too.
But then, there was another reason too. A more crucial, more important reason.
He didn't want to get her involved - not any more than she already unwittingly was. There was no point trying to count every instance in the past few hours that he had been tempted to hear her voice, share the doubts twining about his insides and taking root, resisting his increasingly panicked attempts to weed them out - they were incalculable, and they only proved how much he had grown to depend on Khushi for clemency, for lucidity, for sanity. For everything.
Yes, it would have been a great comfort to have someone else share the burden of his daunting knowledge, his responsibility, with him, to give him advice, encouragement, and if nothing else, companionship...but at the same time, he was aware that she had been ensnared deeper than she deserved to be from the very beginning. The very notion of having to mete out more troubles for her was unbearable - after all, he had sworn that he would forever stand between her and anything that might cause her anguish, had sealed that vow with the ring...
'Something has happened, hasn't it?'
A tiny part of her was doubtful, prepared to chalk up her moment's unease as a by-product of an emotionally taxing, roller-coaster ride of a day.
But that tiny part went largely unheeded in the prolonged pause following her hushed, trepid query.
'Why do you say that?'
There was definitely concern in his voice, and Khushi grimaced, her front teeth slicing once again into her lip as she steadied a hand about one of the wooden posts of the veranda, her distant eyes staring into the dismal shadows swathing the front yard.
Now you've made him worry, that ever-anxious inner voice berated her.
But this - this feeling inside of her - this alert, tingling wariness whetting her senses and amplifying them until she felt as much in sync with him as she would had he been right there, eyes locked with hers...it refused to desist. And Khushi did not know what to call it, her sixth sense or woman's intuition or even paranoia harboured by a sleepless brain, but she knew she could not ignore it.
Just as she could not ignore the tell-tale cracks of tension in his even baritone.
'Why are you still awake at this hour, Arnavji?' she asked quietly, countering his question with one of her own.
A small, throaty chuckle tickled at her before he responded, 'First you have a fit because you thought I was sleeping, and now you're asking me why I'm not?'
The teasing was so obvious in his accusation, the laughter light - but it did not appease the tang of misgiving souring the air as Khushi dissected his playful statement with ruthless efficiency.
'So you really were awake this whole time...' she surmised softly.
She tried hard not to let that realisation trouble her, tried to tune out the niggling voice of doubt - he had admitted to her, and more than once, that he had spent entire nights without sleep before. Maybe tonight was another one of those nights - maybe tonight he was afflicted with the same case of insomnia as herself, her nerves worked up to fever-pitch, floundering as they struggled to adjust to her circumstances - to the fact that he was nowhere near her.
It was not until he had bid her goodbye late that afternoon, and she had looked on wistfully as his four-wheeler had purred along and disappeared around the corner, that it had fully hit Khushi how much she had grown used to him. And it was not just a question of growing used to him...Jiji had been right. Arnav was not a habit that she could outgrow -somewhere, somehow and perhaps long before they had been married, in the many months they had known each other and learnt each other, he had become what Jiji had said a loved one is - a necessity.
He had been gone only a few hours, and she'd already felt strangely bereft, incomplete, as though she had forgotten to bring some part of herself along with her baggage.
And perhaps that was why, in the more-than-a-month period of their marriage, it had never occurred to her that this - her new life, with him as her husband, Shantivan as her home, the Raizadas as her family - that all this was changeable. Looking back at those shadow-dampened days, Khushi had been surprised to find that even though she had held no expectations for the future, for better or for worse, she had at some obscure point in time resigned herself to the idea of being Mrs. Arnav Singh Raizada - had never even questioned, regardless of the empty hopelessness of every second, that he might break that bond someday, and leave her alone.
Perhaps, at that time too, this irrepressible feeling of conviction, her sixth sense, her intuition, had believed in him as much as it now believed that somewhere, something had gone wrong.
And he was trying to hide it from her.
'Did you...' she ventured cautiously, her words misting eerily in a puff of breath before her as she shivered, unsure whether it was because of the coolness of the night-breeze or her dread, 'Did you hear from Amanji again? About...him?'
His surprise caught him off-guard, and the tense breath he had been holding rushed out sharply through his nose. There was no way she could not have heard that, no way she could mistake that it confirmed her suspicions.
He had to consciously catch himself then, clasping his teeth together before any of the unplanned words piling up on his tongue without his brain's approval found their way out.
'It is, isn't it?'
And he didn't know whether it was the clear ring of alarm in her suddenly high-pitched voice, or the just-discovered inability to be dishonest with her, that jolted the truth out of him.
'It's nothing to worry about,' his rasped, suddenly desperate to reassure her.
There were a few agonising inches of a second before she spoke again, 'Why didn't you tell me?'
And if her audible panic had been his undoing, then this quiet, subdued lilt, as though she felt...hurt, felt - betrayed, was ten times worse.
He assessed his options carefully, weighing how much he could tell her. Lying was not an option - the notion alone of fabricating a story to appease her, when she had gifted him with her unconditional faith, was repulsive enough to make him cringe. But still...
'There have been no developments,' he told her, trying to keep his tone as steady as possible, 'Shyam...he's still in Lucknow, still living in his acquaintance's house and as of now has not made any moves to leave...there is nothing to worry about.'
Her rejoinder came almost immediately.
'But you are worried.'
It was not even a question but a statement - a quietly confident, assertive statement that left no room for denial, especially when he did not know if he could. What little was left of his composure was already too rattled and jarred by the deftness with which she deflected each of his attempts at diverting their line of conversation altogether. It was like she was right here, sitting in front of him, her honest eyes as open and searching as they had been just the evening before, when she had asked him outright, seated with him on this same deckchair, if he had been responsible for breaking the guest-bathroom's tap. She had probably known the answer all along...and yet she had asked it of him, and he had seen the contentment in her when he had answered truthfully.
He couldn't gamble away that contentment, but neither could he gamble ruining it.
'Is this why you did not call me earlier?' Khushi inquired softly.
It did not entirely surprise her that she had been able to detect and decipher the undercurrents that had been present throughout this entire phone-call, some shadow that had not belonged to either of them. There was no point in denying that in matters regarding her husband, she had always been unusually sensitive, long before their marriage had come to pass - like her radar was somehow designed to pick up on the subtleties that made up Arnav Singh Raizada. There was also no point in analysing when or how she had become so skilled at reading as cryptic a person as himself; it had just - happened.
What mattered right then was that she had not been wrong in her presumptions. Her instincts had not been wrong. Not when she had taken to carrying her phone with her everywhere at the expense of never-ending leg-pulling by Buaji and Jiji, half expecting him to call her, half dreading that that unknown number would ring her again. Not when she had fretted every few seconds about a dozen different reasons why he wasn't calling, under the double effect of not just disappointment but some anxiety she could not place. And certainly not when she had given in to subliminal prodding and attempted to call him herself, if only in a subconscious attempt to quiet her own qualms.
A heavy sigh on the other end interrupted the steady trundle of her trains of thought, and Khushi listened intently to the explanation that followed.
'I won't say that I'm not worried...I am. I know you are too...and this will last until we finally catch that scoundrel and make him suffer like he deserves.'
But that's not all, is it?
Khushi chewed on the inside of her mouth, deliberating a moment before she made up her mind and threw caution to the winds.
'You trust me, don't you, Arnavji?'
...But now Khushi's with you, and I trust her more than myself to make sure that nothing can happen to you...
She hadn't been able to believe her ears then, because in a way, she had not really wanted to. It would tip over her fragile understanding of the man she had wedded, and then she would be lost, left with the daunting task of understanding his many complexities all over again. But so much had changed between then and now -
'Khushi - of course I do. More than myself. Don't doubt that, ever. Please.'
She didn't doubt it, didn't need to hear him say it to believe it. It was something she had discovered on her own, and who knew when, and had accepted it just as she had accepted his place in her life, for better or for worse. His sincerity sounded almost pained, and she could see him now, peering at her without blinking, his eyes like open books hiding nothing, pleading with her to see for herself what he found too difficult to say.
She knew all that. Her question to him had not been so much for her own benefit as for his. She needed him to remember for himself that he trusted her - needed him to accept that trust and understand that he could share anything with her, just as he had constantly assured her, made her believe that she could share anything with him. He had gone from being her tormenter to her support-system, and maybe it was selfish of her, but she wanted to be the same for him. She wanted to help lift the weight of the world he had borne without complaint for so very long, wanted him to trust her enough to let her, and not just because he had done so for her without asking or expecting anything in return.
She wanted to because she loved him, and love makes people do the most selfless things for the most selfish reasons.
With her resolve formed and fortified, Khushi gently spoke again. 'I know. I know you trust me...and I hope you trust me enough to share everything with me, Arnavji.'
Her sense of direction did not dwindle with his hesitation, and she ploughed on, 'Remember when we took the phere, Arnavji, the day we got married?'
Arnav jerked a little in his seat in surprise, thrown by the abrupt turn their conversation had just taken, veering into territory he was still apprehensive in exploring.
'Yes,' he concurred uncertainly, mind spinning in circles as he tried to figure out where Khushi was going with this.
'We took seven rounds around the fire,' she told him steadily, and Arnav strained himself as he sifted through her words for resentment or regret, finding none, 'and promised seven vows. Maybe under those...under those circumstances we weren't in the best mind to - ppreciate their magnitude, but...'
He sensed that she was struggling for words, realising that he was holding his breath again, in anticipation of something significant, something he was sure would come but not sure how -
She exhaled before continuing, and he fancied he could feel the whisper of her breath against his ear, '...but I believe in each one of those vows that we made to each other Arnavji. And one of them was that we would always share our happiness...and our woes. And as...as your...as your wife, I have the right to demand that you make me part of your woes as well as your happiness.'
She stopped speaking then, and in the ensuing silence, Arnav found himself lapping up the dregs of the words she had just uttered. They tasted of timidity, of hesitance...of shyness and of determination, of downright honesty. She had stuttered so many times as she had spoken, but that resolution had never wavered, and she had burrowed on. Fighting down the shyness and reserve that was as much a part of her nature as her vitality, and plainly voicing out loud one of his most heartfelt desires...
Asserting her right as his wife. Claiming it.
And even though the situation was dire and bleak, and was hardly what he would have hoped for it to be when that moment happened, it still made his chest swell to breaking point trying to contain his magnifying emotions, the punch-rush of happiness shaking out the last of the dread darkening his perspective, and it was like fireworks lighting up the sky yet again.
He told her everything.
'But I don't understand...' Khushi sounded perplexed, and somehow the echo of his own confusion soothed him, dissipating the sinister silence of isolation, 'Then how did he call Di?'
Arnav rubbed the tips of his fingers against his forehead, smoothing out the creases. 'That's what they haven't been able to find out yet. The one thing they have been able to confirm is that the calls which he made to your number were made from a SIM-card registered in the name of the person he is living with. It had been out-of-use for a while and it's possible he found and re-activated it by recharging the balance...that could have been managed surreptitiously enough to dodge the investigators. Or he might have gotten his friend to do it for him.'
Khushi made a humming noise of concession, and he imagined she was nibbling her lip again in thought.
'But if he threw his own SIM-card away after reaching Lucknow...maybe he had another one, on him? Maybe he used that one to call Di.'
'It's not likely,' Arnav mumbled slowly, leaning back until his spine melded into the backrest of the deckchair, 'He would have had to register for another SIM-card, and he didn't know from beforehand that he would be forced to go on the run. But then again, he might have anticipated it...it's possible that he got one registered under a fake ID. I wouldn't put it past him.'
'So the only way of finding out for sure would be to get the number of out Di's phone, and trace it?'
There was another lengthy pause, and Khushi huffed in frustration.
'I still don't understand,' she confessed, and the edge of anxiety in her voice made him yearn to be near her, hold her hand, cup her face, embrace her - anything to leech out some of that anxiety. Or perhaps it was the other way round - perhaps he yearned for her touch, her gentle, meaningful caresses, to take away some of his agitation. Or maybe even both. 'Why hasn't he left Lucknow by now? If he's already spoken to Di, and told her that he will be returning soon - then it must mean he already knows that nothing about him has been revealed to all and sundry yet.'
It was almost as though Khushi was telepathic, or they had somehow managed to settle on the same wavelength; she had plucked yet another concern straight out of his mind, and while it did nothing to mitigate the concern or resolve it, it did make him feel oddly better about it - like there was one person less from whom he had to hide.
'There's no telling what's going through his mind right now,' Arnav admitted grimly, 'He probably knows that Bauji told me all about him, after his encounter with the guards outside his wardroom that first night. And through Di he probably knows I haven't done anything about it - '
It was an effort to keep speaking through his teeth, gritted so tightly they could easily chip.
So much time had passed, and he hadn't been able to do anything...anything...
'Don't think that way, Arnavji...given the circumstances, there was very little you or I or anyone could have done...'
But I let it get this far...it's my fault more than anyone else's. The guilt had become a permanent fixture in him, like a part of his anatomy, as alive and functioning his brain or heart.
It would be there with him till his dying day.
'...and maybe that's why he hasn't come back yet, Arnavji. Because he isn't sure...as long as he thinks you know the truth, he won't want to run the risk of having himself exposed and arrested if he tries to come back. Maybe...maybe that was why...maybe that was why he was trying to call me - to check if...if anything had changed...'
Guilt throbbed painfully in him again - but this time it was shadowed by a stronger, darker emotion, the same that he had experienced the first time that simpering voice had sullied his wife's name by uttering it -
...I've been trying to call you for so long...I think about you all the time...please don't worry about me...I'm fine...and I promise I will be with you soon and free you from the clutches of that Arnav Singh Raizada...
Bloodlust simmered in his gut, and he saw red.
'...and he probably realised his mistake, or that he'd spoken too soon before I actually answered, and that's why he hasn't called back again? You said the number he used has been deactivated...'
'That's the problem,' Arnav fought to keep his tone under control, but it came out as a snarl nevertheless, 'There are too many 'maybes'...too many 'probablys'...too much that we don't know. I might have men tailing him every single minute of his pitiable existence, but I don't know what's going on in his head - I don't know what he might or might not do next, or even what he's capable of...'
Khushi did not say anything, but he could tell from the absence of the sound of her breathing that she was listening to him with rapt attention - willing him to keep going, to let all the bottled, volatile, debilitating stress and anger and fear out. Let her partake of it, halve it.
And he did.
'Sooner or later, he will have to try and move...he only took a handful of cash, which is bound to run out sooner or later - and he would either try to return here, or try to siphon it out of Di. But either way, all bank cheques, credit card bills, everything passes through me, and he would know that if he tried, I would find out. Maybe that's why he's trying so hard to re-establish contact with what's happening here...we haven't let any news leak out, and you and Di -' he gulped down his caustic, charring anger, 'from his perspective, you and Di are the only two people he could count on not to expose him, assuming that the cat has not already been let out of the bag - But again, it's another 'maybe' - we don't know. We can't tell.'
He paused for breath, and Khushi still did not speak, but Arnav could not stop himself from resuming. Every vexing, perplexing thought found its way from the privacy of his mind to the patient, attentive ears of his wife, and the release was so relieving he could not stem the tide, nor felt inclined to.
'I had wanted to corner him. I had wanted him to cut off all possible ways of his escape. I thought that maybe, once the need for cash becomes pressing, or even if he has savings elsewhere, once it becomes mandatory for him to leave his current abode for fear of suspicion, he would realise that his movements are being monitored, that he can't leave Lucknow. I'd thought that when he realises no one has come looking for him, that there have been no 'Missing Persons' report or 'Wanted' report, that he'd get frustrated by the lack of news and do something drastic, something that would incriminate him.'
Arnav hardly noticed when he had gained his feet, when he had begun pacing the edge of the pool in mounting agitation, trying to channel all that restless energy before it combusted again.
'I'd hoped that he could be arrested then, that he would do something that would prove to Di that Shyam was not as innocent as he duped us all to believe. Di...Di would never believe it otherwise, would never hear of anything against him, unless she saw it for herself, heard it for herself. And then - and then if we could have him arrested, and Di - Di understood, we could have had him convicted without forcing Bauji and Amma and Payal and you to testify against Di, without having to prove anything to anyone, without having anyone malign your names-'
There was a soft, barely audible intake of breath, and it was all Arnav could do not to break down, all he could do not to scavenge for his car-keys and speed towards Laxmi Nagar and towards her. He was not sure what it was he sought from her, except for the conviction that there, in her presence, was the only place he could find the balm to salve the growing cracks in his fortitude.
'-but he messed it up, he actually took the risk of calling Di, and then had the gall of calling you-and I- I don't know what to expect. I don't know what to do when I don't know what to expect - '
You know- I've never...I haven't really...until today, I've never really felt- afraid of him... I mean to say, if a person knows the difference between good and bad-and they choose to be bad-at least they know. They know that what they are doing is wrong, people see it as wrong, that if they ever get caught, they'll be in trouble. Those kind of people still have a kind of conscience about them, because they still know the difference between right and wrong...when it comes to him though-
There was only thing more dangerous than an arrow in the dark, and that was an enemy in shadows. And he could not shoot blindly - not when there was so much riding on his aim-
What am I going to do? How am I going to protect Khushi and protect Di from getting hurt?
'I don't know-I don't know-I tried to talk to Di today, after I got home but - but she said she was too tired and she'd talk later, and I - I should have insisted, dammit! I can't run away from this any longer! I can't just wait around for that bas***d to do something before I can get a move on! I can't let my sister live in this false happiness and I can't let the scum that tried to steal my wife, that tried to kill my father-in-law get away with it. Damn it all, I want to kill him with my bare hands and I can't do a bloody thing about it! What the hell is wrong with me?!'
There. It was out there, in the open. The doubt. It had been everywhere, lurking in the gaunt shadows of dark corners, embedding into his system like an infection he could not rid himself of.
What am I going to do? What am I going to say to Di? What am I going to do if she doesn't believe me? What face am I going to show Khushi if I can't vindicate her? What am I going to do if I have to choose-
I can't. I can't choose. I can never choose.
Please don't make me choose. Please.
It was a devious, cruel ambush, as though every single one of these doubts, doubts he had denied himself, had not allowed himself to feel, had been stocking up for this moment, waiting for when he would be alone, when his mind and heart would be unguarded without the comfort and reassurance of Khushi, to charge at him. And there was nothing he could do to resist it. He had pledged since the night he had first held Khushi against himself as they'd fallen asleep together that he would do whatever it took to win her back. That he would protect his sister and the woman he loved from the fiend that had so nearly ruined everything. There had been no doubt there - losing, failing, had not been an option.
But now, now -
It called out to him from very far away, as though from some place beyond his reach, from where he didn't belong. He could not remember being this vulnerable and this terrified since that nightmarish night, all those years ago-when he had lost everything. His mother. His father. His sister's happiness. His home-
Please don't let it happen again-
'Arnavji, listen to me!'
'Laad governor! Are you listening to me?'
Laad - what?
And in one nanosecond it had taken him straight back to that short-lived moment they had spent together just this afternoon, tucked in between his jeep and a boundary wall, so very much like other amorous couples all over the world, and yet so very different, so very unique.
She'd called him a Laad Governor then too, albeit with a smile on her lips. It had been so small a moment - and yet so perfect.
'Laad Governor kahika.'
'Hmm-I recall you calling me something entirely different from that earlier today?'
'Really? I don't remember.'
'Try-it'll come to you.'
'Rakshas? No? Bhoot maybe? Gabbar Singh? Mogambo?'
'Uh-uh-uh. I recall you comparing me to something - now what was it? Ah, yes - mushy. And loopy.'
'You mean ja - oh!'
'I believe you also professed undying love towards this particular dessert - said something about loving it more than anything else in the world?'
'I - um -'
'And if you compared me to a jalebi-then that means your feelings towards me would be the same-?'
'No what? No, you didn't compare me to a jalebi, or no your feelings toward me are not the same?'
'Yes - I mean, no - I mean - UGH! You're so annoying! Just go back to work and yell at your employees, OK?'
'Ah, but if I do, you'll miss me.'
'As if! I wouldn't miss you one bit.'
'Well-I'll just have to do something about that, don't I?'
And when he was done ensuring that she would not be forgetting him any time soon, she'd called him a Laad Governor again, but this time it was with neither a smile nor a scowl but a furiously crimson blush heating her face.
And he had remembered peering fondly down at her with tender affection warming his heart, daring to hope for countless, innumerable little moments like this, like the beads of a priceless necklace, to last the two of them a lifetime.
He could not lose that, could not lose now, not after coming so far. He couldn't. He wouldn't.
'Khushi, I -'
'No, no, you listen to me. Arnavji - I - how am I going to put this?'
There was a charged second's interval before she started again, sounding aggravated, overwrought, but so frank, so honest.
'Look, there was a time when - there was a time when if the choice was between me and Di, if you had to protect one of us, you would have chosen Di in a heartbeat. There is no point trying to pretend otherwise because it's true, and I understand that. But you have to understand - you need to understand - you're not doing that anymore. There was a time when you would have done anything, hurt or harmed anyone who dared lift even a finger towards Di, because you love her. But you're not doing that anymore - because this time you - you want to protect me as well. Because you want to protect the both of us. Do you - do you have any idea what that means to me?'
Her words sounded thicker, heavier, and Arnav instinctively knew she must be crying. He did not like that. His fingers itched with the need to wipe away her tears - they did not belong there.
'It means you - it means you love me at least as much as you love her, and that's why you can't choose - you can't hurt either one of us at the expense of the other. Arnavji - what more do you think I could possibly ask for?' Her voice cracked, and Arnav felt something crack within him along with it.
But it didn't hurt. Strangely enough, it didn't hurt.
'Khushi-' he couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't imagine what he planned on saying -
'No, let me,' his headstrong wife sniffed stubbornly, and the image this created once again warmed his heart with that same tender affection. He realised he would never tire of it, even as Khushi continued to tell him off. 'You told me last night that I need to stop taking the blame for everything - well that goes more for you than for me! We all made mistakes, big or small it doesn't matter - me, Jiji, Buaji, Di, Nani, everyone! That doesn't make you responsible - that doesn't mean you have to carry it all by yourself, atone for it by yourself! You didn't commit those sins - it was him, that -' she spluttered a little, as though unable to come up with a word strong enough to convey her disgust, ' - and he should suffer for it, not you, not me, not Di, or anyone else! It's - '
She stopped, inhaled deeply. Arnav tried to count the rapid staccato beats of his heart in this minute interval, but they were too fast to tell apart.
When she started again, her tone was so soft, so very gentle and beseeching, he could feel it grip his heart and choke it, the pain stretching all the way up to his eyes and prickling wetly there.
But it didn't hurt - not at all.
'It's about time - about time you stopped trying to bear up the whole universe, Arnavji. This load is not yours alone to carry - it's mine too, and it's Di's and it's everyone's whom you love and who love you too. Please - don't-don't exclude me from your universe Arnavji. Let me carry my share - and a bit of yours too, if you'd let me. Tomorrow - tomorrow, first thing in the morning, you're going to pick me up, and the two of us, together, we - we will talk to Di. It might not be easy, she might-she might not understand but - just stand by me, ok? And I'll stand by you.'
Yeeeah - so...*awkward* So what do you think? I hope you guys will like the role-reversal - so far, it's been Arnav holding up Khushi - now the tables are turning, and they're moving towards an equal footing in their relationship.
Also tried to show how deep their bond is - hope that shows :)
And most important part -don't forget that Anjali already knows that Shyam is a two-faced creep because of the video on her phone, but Arhi do not know about this - about Anji's knowledge or the video, I mean.
And if you want to know exactly what Arnav did to Khushi so she 'misses' him - stay tuned for the next chapter *grins wickedly*
Comment please? I worked hard for this chapter *puppy-dog pout*
I reserve all rights over this work of fiction, and request readers do not copy/reproduce/modify it elsewhere and/or claim credit. Thank you.
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