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Akash silently shook his head at his mother, who had just opened her mouth to ask the obvious question. What the hell had happened? But now was not the time for such questions.
The Raizadas had left the wedding in a rush, at Payal's insistence. She had been uneasy leaving Khushi alone, but Khushi could be quite adamant when she chose to and so Payal had reluctantly left with the rest of the family. At the wedding, Payal had been apprehensive, her smile not quite reaching her eyes, constantly glancing at the watch adorning her slender wrist. It was as if she knew her sister was in danger. Some hidden sense had warned her and she had all but begged Akash to take her home. Akash, for his part, had been anxious himself. He had not been comfortable leaving his sister-in-law alone in Shantivan so he was all too eager to return home for the evening. Of course, Manorama had grumbled, complaining that they had not stayed as long as it took for her to put her makeup on. Akash had refrained from pointing out that this was not altogether surprising, considering that his mother spent hours slathering the gunk on her face. She had continued muttering grievances under her breath, until the moment they had reached the door of their home. Manorama's objections had instantly dried up at the sight that had greeted their eyes.
It was horrific. There was too much to digest at once. Two blood drenched figures, one cradling the other. An unconscious Khushiji. A sobbing Bhai. They had all just simply stared for one second, too shocked to react, and then all hell had broken loose. His grandmother had rushed forward immediately, weeping as she went. Payal too had sprinted to her sister, almost wrenching her out of his brother's arms, but Arnav had refused to let go. He was too strong for Payal and she contented herself with clutching her sister's still hand. NK had not run like the others, but calmly walked forward. It had been eerie, watching him move ever so slowly. It was as if he had no energy left, as he collapsed in a heap at Khushi's side, broken. He did not cry, but tears were not necessary to convey the grief that could be clearly seen in the depths of his eyes. He had reached out for Khushi's other hand, clasping it in his own, feeling for her feeble pulse; it was as though she were his lifeline and he would drown if he did not have something concrete to hold on to. Manorama had instantly turned to Anjali, expecting her to need comfort. Anjali had never needed much encouragement to let the waterworks loose, and this situation certainly called for them. But, contrary to what was expected, Anjali did not burst into loud howls, or race to her beloved Chotte as Manorama had anticipated. Instead, she had backed away. If Akash had looked closely, he would have seen the guilt in his Di's eyes and he would have understood. But there were things Akash needed to do and so he did not notice Anjali's odd reaction. She had been given a reprieve; she could remain on her ivory pedestal for a little longer.
The wailing of the sirens were all that disturbed the calm of that night. But it was not a peaceful calm. It was a raging calm, one that was loud in its silence. It is the calm after a storm, when those who have suffered through the storm are still too weak to face the destruction left in its wake. The Raizada's had seen a terrible storm that day and they did not have their pillar of strength to lean on. He was bowed, the cracks beginning to show in what had once been indestructible.
It had been Akash who had called the ambulance and Akash who had filled out the necessary paperwork. Akash had taken care of the technicalities but it had been NK who had done the more difficult task. Arnav had refused to let Khushi out of his arms, and this had caused a minor disturbance in the lobby of the hospital. NK had placed his hand on Arnav's shoulder and uttered one word: Arnav. That one word, his name, had been enough to still him in his struggle. And the sentence that had followed, articulated in a chilling tone, made him let go entirely.
She will die. NK's words echoed over and over in his head. He could not erase them, nor could he forget the blatant accusation he had seen in his cousin's eyes. This was entirely his fault. He, Arnav Singh Raizada, the one who prided himself on never making any mistakes, had committed the grossest error of his life. Arnav closed his eyes. He could not face her now, but he could not leave, not without knowing she was fine. And so he waited, his eyes fixated on the bright lit red bulb that had the power to dictate his fate. It seemed like an eternity, in which he burnt in his own personal hell here on Earth. The others sat apart from him, as if they could not bear to breathe the same air as him. He had always preferred solitude, craved it even, but now, the comfort of another's presence would have been very welcome indeed. But he knew he did not deserve any such comfort; he had long lost the right to that when he had spurned their words, when he had rejected the truth. And now it was time to pay the penance.
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