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Shiv spun on his heels on the spot, his vision blurring from his speed, neck cricking as his eyes sought out the source of the noise.
That short, sweet spurt of melodic laughter.
He was not sure exactly where he was, but the high-arched, cream-and-marble passage where he found himself failed to capture his interest. Instead urgent steps hurried forwards in the direction he had fancied the giggles came from, his footfalls echoing loudly off the elaborate, bejewelled murals stretched within the brackets of ornate windows. Some awareness, some nagging, persevering idea- that he had been here before, that this place was somehow familiar, somehow significant- festered away at some back alley of his mind, unheeded, unimportant.
There was only one matter of importance for him now and-
There it was again. The delicate chime of playful laughter, now much closer at hand...so close he might have been able to reach out and...
His steps hastened, imperative, the click-clacks of his heels mysteriously retreating to be replaced by other sounds, hushed and low and gentle and soft, but which resonated in surreal echoes, beckoning him, thrilling his long dormant nerves into a frenzy...he skidded to a stuttering halt, faltering for only a moment as his pace rapidly accelerated to a jog, veering a sharp right and renting his way through gauzy, shimmering gold drapes, the ache of longing in his heart intensifying with every step, the beats receding to short, staccato throbs of mounting, almost damaging anticipation...he wheeled about yet again, excitement and yearning alike flipping over in his stomach, so powerfully that it helped him ignore, if only for the moment, the deep-set, yet elusive knowledge that none of this was real-
And there she was.
And just like that, Shiv's frantic dash petered out until he had come to a slow stop. Just like that, all the restless urgency which had set fire to his bones, which had propelled him like a madman tearing through the labyrinth of this unfamiliar, unknown place, guided only by the sound of laughter that was like rain coveted by his withered, barren heart, ebbed away.
And he simply stood there, watching.
Right there. Half concealed behind a sculpted marble pillar, peeking out at him from behind it...inexplicably, in spite of the fact that he was still a good fifteen feet away from her, he could make out with stark clarity the childish mischief sparkling in her lively eyes...could see the upturn of the corners of her lips in a gleeful, impish smile...could see the pearly lustre of her skin, iridescent and unrivalled by the sunshine tumbling in through the cast open, mullioned casements, aglow with some innate light which seemed to come from within...
And then, with the endearing innocence of a child unable to contain her mirth, a henna-adorned hand shot up to her mouth, fingers futilely trying to smother yet another helpless laugh, twining with the jangled ringing of her bangles to create the sweetest music Shiv had ever heard.
Whether he had whispered the name within the security of his mind, savouring it like a forbidden, decadent delicacy, or whether he had murmured it out loud like a tender endearment, he did not know.
But in neither instance could he ignore the blatant and unapologetic longing which reverberated from it, in tandem with the beat of his pulse.
Which pounded audibly against his ears, so loudly, in fact, that Anandi appeared to have heard it too.
For in a flash of emerald and gold, she had darted out of her hiding place into the middle of the corridor, right within the centre of his view, her movements as elegant and vivacious as a curious butterfly come out to play.
Shiv was conscious of dragging in a ragged breath, conscious of the stabbing pain sinking deep into his wildly pulsating heart...conscious of the drugged, unsteady steps his legs directed forwards, eating into the distance inch by inch...conscious of the faint sting and burn of moisture collected beneath his lids like dew-drops collected on blades of grass...conscious of fighting the involuntary, automatic reflex of blinking, to let the unwarranted, unexplained tears fall and clear his fogged-up sight...
...because he knew. He knew somewhere, somehow, that this HAD to be a creation of his imagination, a cocktail brewed by his fantasies and deepest buried desires, his unfulfilled, shunned dreams. He knew that there could be no other explanation for the angelic beauty beaming invitingly up at him, the limelight of sunshine from the windows behind her cascading about her shoulders and making her luminescence all the more ethereal, all the more mesmerising...all the more alive, just as he remembered her, just as she had been before things had gone so horribly wrong. Her silk-like tresses danced with a teasing breeze, stippled with bronze where the light hit the otherwise luscious, brown-black locks...her fingers clutched at the pallu of her jade saree, to keep it from fluttering in the same manner as the hem of her skirts...and her dancing, dark chocolate eyes watched him with a devastating combination of intrigue and shyness, peeping at him through lowered lashes, front teeth entrenched into her bottom lips as she suppressed the brilliant grin which would blossom there from one answering smile of his own...
The conviction that all this was a cruel figment of his imagination, that this was a dream that he would eventually have to wake from, continued to niggle away in some exiled nook of his psyche- but it did nothing to deter him. Shiv was too afraid to blink, too afraid to speak, or even move, fearful that one last mistake, and this reprieve, fragrant with all the delicate aroma of wilted roses, beautiful but short-lived...would be gone.
And he would be left with the ruins. Alone.
But then- she was moving again.
She whirled around, emerald skirts fanning out about her, before her anklets chimed in tandem to her light steps as she ran, away from him, sailing to the left just before she cast a playful, challenging grin at him, summoning him silently to give her chase.
And then she had disappeared.
Shiv did not even pause to think as his feet pounded after her of their own accord, unsure whether panic or exhilaration was predominant in him right now- but it didn't matter. It didn't matter that he had been moved to tears, and it didn't matter that he made no attempts to rebuke the pining of his heart, his soul, for the girl he loved so much. He could let himself be here, he could be unguarded...because right now there was nothing except for him and for her; no prejudices, no memories of the pain Jagya had given her, no sorrow, no stakes, no or-elses or on-the-other-hands- and he could not afford to waste this.
And so he chased her, relished in her cheerful, abundant laughter, devoured the sight of her delighted, flushed visage, dodging and ducking in and out of corridors and between pillars, as his angel toyed with him mischievously, pausing till he was close enough to grab at her before skipping away again. He lost himself in their game of tag, with the single-minded devotion of the small boy he had once been, chasing down these very halls, happy and uninhibited, choosing to revert to his childhood...
I'll catch you,' the small boy cried out as he hurtled up a short flight of steps, ignoring the chorus of pleas from below imploring him to slow down, to mind his step. He had to pause a minute, small hand grasping the rail of the banister, which, to his immense pride and satisfaction, he had outstripped the height of by an inch. Catching his breath, he was off once more, following the breathless pants coming toward him from the distance...his hair was probably damp with sweat by now...Maa wouldn't be happy...he shrugged the thought off, his priority solely winning this game of tag...
...and then he caught the sight of dark green flashing about a bend, and smirked with the same triumph that he had felt after he had yanked Anandi's dupatta towards him and kissed her cheek...the same rush of pleasure spiralled through him as he covered the remaining distance with long strides, so caught up with his imminent victory that he failed to notice the sudden chill which pervaded the air and bit at his skin, the howling silence left by the disappearance of her laughter, her bangles, her anklets, her, nor the blanket of shadow which billowed overhead like a canvas, ready to drop on him-
He had rounded the bend, and his hand had stretched out to turn the doorknob of his grandfather's bedroom door- whether it was the hand of the toddler, or the teenager, or the man he was now, who could know- when he heard the loud, unmistakeable crack of a gunshot.
It had ricocheted through the door, through him, down the hall, through his bones, through his brain, the shockwaves of fear and loss as real and as vivid as they had been when he had heard about his grandfather dying; when his Anandi had told him, and he had looked at her with panic-widened eyes, and dropped to the floor'.
...but this time, it was his Anandi's bleeding body'cald in emerald' and this time, she had not turned back to say goodbye.
And against his will, his eyes had been snagged on to the figure which bled itself into finality nevertheless.
No, no, no! Anandi, no!
You can't do this to me, ANANDI, please no, don't do this to me!
This time he had woken up roaring and shouting her name.
But this time, as the lingering touches of his nightmare dissipated, Shiv did not launch into a frantic, insensible hunt to look for her, to find her, to assure his rupturing, dying heart that she was still there.
Because he had understood, no sooner than his eyes had opened and met with the surroundings of the room they had kept him in that she was not there to comfort him.
That the fear implanted into his recurring dreams had come true.
He was shivering all over, body almost vibrating with uncontrollable convulsions. Sweat dripped down the sides of his face and dampened his hairline, the material of his shirt soggy from perspiration. Breath left him in parched gasps.
And without warning, at the epitome of cruelty, his mind flashed before his eyes the last image of his dream, scarring it into his subconscious, to remain there and haunt him for the rest of his life.
The image of Anandi, prone and limp on the floor, her lovely, expressive eyes shielded from him. Eerily unmoving, and deathly pale.
Except for the vivid, brilliant red stain just above her heart.
And he got up from the chair he had dozed off in and banged his fist onto the table.
But it was not enough. It was still not enough.
Not enough to obliterate the damaging and debilitating snatches of his just-escaped nightmare flashing randomly within his head.
Not enough to loosen the gigantic knot which had tightened inside his chest constricting his lungs and what might, on some previous date long forgotten, have been his heart.
Not enough to outstrip and drown out the more excruciating, torturing burn which seemed embedded into his marrow.
Not when Anandi was all alone. Not when he had failed her so horribly.
Not when the devil's servant responsible for suspending him between the demons of his dreams and the far more horrendous demons of his reality breathed freely.
Breathed the same air as him.
It was only when the gigantic globe of compressed despair in his chest imploded, shards of glass flying every which way and wedging cuttingly into his veins and nerves, that Shiv looked around his surroundings.
The pressing sense of deja vu, reminding him in patches between the black fumes engulfing his mind, propelled by wild and untameable anger, whirred and buzzed and circled his head with all the maddening persistence of half-a-dozen invisible gnats.
But he hadn't been able to escape. He hadn't been able to drain himself of the self-destructive energy building and intensifying with him, with the latent force of a nuclear bomb. Hadn't been able to outrun his nightmare.
There was no pain in the world which could measure up to the pain of a broken heart.
And Shiv could fight it no longer. He gave in.
With a strangled cry, his forehead struck down on the desk, the shaking of the hands clasping it for dear life causing it to judder almost dangerously. The tendons of his neck stood out in sharp relief as yet another near-bestial, near-dying scream parted his lips and bounded into the interior of the room, bouncing around in this prison in desperate search for an escape-route.
He made no move to check the salty stream coursing from his eyes, meandering down the sides of his face, trailing over the bridge of his nose, snaking about his chin, dripping on his lap like used, worthless shavings of sharpened pencils.
For who was to see him now, nursing his broken heart and mourning his missing soul? There was no one here before whom the facade of indomitability had to be maintained. He was absolutely, utterly alone.
And so he cried, choking on cracked sobs, gasping for insufficient drags of air, letting the loss and the grief tear at him from within, letting all the explosive, unstable sorrow leak out only to be replenished yet again.
He cried for his loneliness, and for having no one to share it with.
He cried for his nightmare, which had started off as a beautiful, brilliant, wistful, wishful dream, only to morph into a projection of all his fears rolled into one.
He cried because he could no longer go to Anandi searching for unspoken solace and comfort. Cried because this time, he could not tell her what he had dreamed about.
He cried for Anandi, for the beastly ordeals she had gone through..
He cried for his grandfather, whom he had lost.
He cried for his father, for the pain of losing a parent, and for landing into this mess
But most of all he cried for himself.
For failing in protecting the one person who was his lifeline. .
Because it was not until he had chased after Anandi in the spectral world moulded by his subconscious, not until he had cannoned through the door behind which he had fully expected to find his grandfather's lifeless corpse, only to find Anandi's inert frame instead, that it had dawned on Shiv how very, very close he was to losing her.
His subconscious had soberly, sombrely comprehended the concept his conscious mind had refused to grapple with.
That monster would do anything to keep his Anandi away from him.
Jagya would convince her that she was the reason all this was happening.
Jagya would ask her to leave him
Shiv would never see her again.
Never touch her again. Never witness her smile or hear her laugh again.
'Never' was a frightening word.
It made a black-hole rip open in his horizon, sucking life and colour and laughter and anything and everything worth breathing for into non-existence. It left behind remorse which slit his lungs and leaked all the air out, and self-loathing which thrashed and flayed and tore at him from within, dismantling him from the inside out.
It was only after his shuddering, convulsing spasms had passed, and he had drained himself dry and there were no more tears left to carry off some of the darkness killing him slowly, that Shiv managed to take stock of his surroundings.
Life, and that debatable theory called fate, had a sadistic sense of humour.
Neither seemed content to let the perpetual torment punishing him for every second he lived slack off, to give him even some microscopic reprieve.
There was no other explanation for how he had wound up here, of all places.
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