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"Dad, I was thinking of having a quick tour of Mussoorie before my family comes down here in two days." Ranvijay spoke as he sat with the Raizadas at the table for breakfast.
"Yeah sure. Next week onwards things are just going to be hectic. Take Arnav and Anjali along with you." Arthur intelligently replied, adding the brother also along with the pack to chaperone his younger sister, not wanting to leave his daughter spend time alone with him, knowing their nature. And he heard his son snort at his decision.
"That would be great." Ranvijay replied continuing to smile surprising the older gentleman. Arthur had atleast expected him to sulk with the decision of sending Arnav along with them. "Dad, can we take along Khushi too with us?"
Arnav nearly choked hearing Khushi's name, as he glared at his future brother-in-law about his motives.
"Khushi?" Arthur was quite taken aback.
"Yeah. You see both Arnav and Anjali have been out of Mussorie for the past few years and I really don't want to get lost with clueless people in an unfamiliar town. " Ranvijay laughed. "I heard that Khushi is very familiar with this place having lived here for her entire life. I'm hoping she wouldn't mind being our tour guide too."
"I don't know whether she would agree." Arthur replied sceptically.
"Oh don't worry about that. I will convince her. And she will be the best tour guide for you all." Dadi immediately added.
"Then, I guess it's settled. I'll inform Anjali about it too." Ranvijay said, getting up from the table and taking leave. Once he was out of sight, Arnav spoke.
"Is it really necessary for me to go?" he asked with visible irritation.
"Arnav, he's going to be your brother-in-law. Atleast have some courtesy before you speak." Arthur warned him.
"Darling, go and have some fun." Dadi said to Arnav, pulling his cheeks. "Mussoorie is a lot more interesting than London." She said winking at him.
"But there's still lots of work to be done." Arnav tried to excuse himself.
"That's why we have Khushi." She smirked at him, causing him to narrow his eyes suspiciously at her intentions. "Come back and inform me, how right I was."
And he had no other option than to agree.
"But Dadiji, do I really have to go?" Khushi asked switching her gaze between Ranvijay's and Dadi's face as they cornered her in the kitchen.
"Yes. You will be their tour guide." Dadi smiled at her mischievously.
"Yes Khushi. I thought we were friends. And as a friend, I need your help to show me around Mussoorie." Ranvijay told her with an even more mischievous smirk on his face.
"No ifs and buts. For the past fifteen days, you have worked a lot child. Everyone needs a break once in a while." Dadi explained to her. "And after a week, it will be so busy here, you won't even get time to breathe."
"No, I cannot go." Khushi stammered, feeling uncomfortable with the entire idea. What was wrong with the Raizadas? Why were they all of a sudden forcing her to go on a tour with them?
"Please Khushi." Ranvijay pleaded.
"Saab, please don't embarrass me by pleading." Khushi turned red, unable to take a decision.
"So can I take that as a 'yes'?" he asked, smiling at his victory and Khushi nodded her head. "Ok, so get ready. We are leaving in an hour." He said and left the kitchen, while Khushi hurried towards her cottage to get ready.
"Arnav?" he heard Ranvijay's voice behind him as he leaned on his Audi q7 waiting for the other three. "Are we cool?" Ranvijay asked, walking towards Arnav. "You know, after what happened that day?"
Arnav glared at him, but remembering his father's words, he toned down a bit.
"I apologised to her." Ranvijay explained. "I didn't know she was yours." He added deliberately wanting to see his reaction and it worked, coz Arnav immediately gawked at him as if he was talking Russian.
"Your friend." Ranvijay immediately clarified, donning a straight face when all he wanted to do was laugh at the look on his fiancee's brother.
"Yeah, it's alright." Arnav nodded suspiciously, before they heard Anjali come running towards them, all geared up for the trip.
But instead, Arnav's eyes were somewhere else, on a figure walking up the slope of their garden dressed in a simple pink salwar suit, while her hair was left open to flow on either sides of her shoulders. However, her hands were once again holding bags filled with something.
And he noticed that she was panting with all the effort.
"Khushi? What's all that?" Ranvijay exclaimed, immediately walking towards her to help her out.
"We are going for sightseeing right? So I thought we would need some snacks and drinks for the journey. And I took some mats and spare clothes too. You never know when you'll need them." She giggled. "And some board games also."
"This girl will never change nah, Bhai? She's still a kid." Anjali began laughing while Khushi joined her too.
"What's the joke about? Why am I feeling alienated all of a sudden?" Ranvijay asked, seeing even Arnav's lips curve with a faint smile as the three friends were reminiscing some memory of their childhood.
"It's a long story. I'll tell you in the car." Anjali replied, as they stacked the bags in the boot of the car.
However, before anyone could get into the car, Ranvijay immediately climbed into the back seat, reserving his place first. When he saw Anjali get into the front seat, he pulled her back.
"Doll, where are you going? I need you here on my lap." He smirked at her, earning a glare and a hush from her.
"Arnav, I hope you don't mind driving today." He added, leaving the man no other choice than to get into the driver's seat.
Khushi was the only one left out. Right now, she was gaping like a confused chicken, once at the empty co passenger's seat on the front, then at Arnav's face and then at the couple behind.
"What are you staring at? This seat is for couples only. Single people can sit in the front. We don't want a menage a trois."Ranvijay said, earning a glare from both the brother and sister at his highly scandalous words.
"Vij, she doesn't know what's a menage a trois!" Anjali hit her fiance's arm, earning a howl from him.
"I know what that is." Khushi suddenly said, getting into the front seat. And they heard a loud roar of the engine as Arnav suddenly pressed the accelerator in the parking mode while Ranvijay broke out snickering at the reaction.
"What?" Both the brother and sister stared at her, as if she had lost it.
"What 'what'?" Khushi looked at both of them quite surprised at their expressions.
"You are lying." Anjali gasped, her mouth still refusing to shut.
"No Memsaab, why would I lie?" Khushi became quite embarrassed. "I used to watch English movies with Dadiji." She giggled.
"You what?" Arnav finally found his voice, his lips grinning wider by the second.
"For many years, Dadiji was all alone at home when Bade Saab and Badi Memsaab were away from Mussoorie. So sometimes, Dadi used to invite me and we both used to sit and watch movies together. And in one such movies I heard that word. I asked Dadiji what it was and she told me." Khushi replied with an innocent smile on her face.
"And you asked all that to Dadi with a straight face?" Anjali was shocked beyond belief.
"Atta girl! I knew she was a lot smarter and braver than we credit her." Ranvijay exclaimed patting Khushi's shoulder from behind. Khushi smiled at him, and turned back to find Arnav gazing at her with awe written all over his face. But he didn't say anything and instead, drove the car.
"Where are we going?" Ranvijay asked excitedly, looking at the view outside.
"Jharipani falls, Saab." Khushi replied, while pointing directions to Arnav at the same time.
"That reminds me, what were you three smiling about back then?" Ranvijay immediately reminded them.
"Oh that!" Anjali exclaimed. "Ok, so when we were small kids, every year we used to go for picnics. Bhai was quite mischievous back then. While playing, he had accidentally fallen into a pit of sticky mud and soiled his entire clothes. And we hadn't even carried extra clothes with us. Mom was very upset with him. She made him strip off his clothes and for the rest of the picnic, he had to wrap a towel around him." Anjali laughed, the image of her helpless brother roaming around in a towel, simply not leaving her head even after so many years.
"Yeah, and Chotey Saab had to sit in one corner for the rest of the picnic." Khushi added, her laughter simply not stopping.
"But that was because she was hell bent on pulling the towel from me." Arnav replied, managing to catch a quick glimpse of Khushi's face which was plastered with a foolish grin.
"So that's why we always carried extra pair of clothes from that day onwards." Khushi explained.
"You three seem to have had lots of fun in your childhood. How lucky you are!" Ranvijay exclaimed with wonder.
"Yes, we did." All three responded simultaneously, but Khushi's eyes instantly focussed on Arnav. He had a small smile on his face and that sight somehow, made her feel happy.
Maybe they couldn't be friends now. But they had been best friends once upon a time creating the most wonderful memories with each other and if those memories could bring a smile on her best friend's face even now, she didn't want anything else from her life.
Within an hour they had reached their destination and right now, they were standing in front of the exuberant Jharipani falls, after walking for nearly twenty minutes having left their car behind.
There was something almost magical and ethereal about this place.
The complete silence that enveloped the surroundings, only to be interrupted by the steady flow of the falls, made it appear as if time stood still. It provided you with a sense of content and peace and made you feel alive amongst Mother Nature's beauty.
The lush deodar trees surrounded either side of the falls and there was no one around them except for a random purple sunbird chirruping, perched on the branch of a poplar tree.
"Wow!" Ranvijay exclaimed, taking in the breath taking view in front of him. "Is this place even real?"
"It's nice isn't it? Come, I'll show you around." Khushi excitedly walked towards him to take him around.
But Ranvijay had some other plans. "Khushi, I'm sure you have enough courtesy to not disturb a couple. And the sight won't be pleasant too." He winked at her, diving to Anjali's neck. "So I guess, we both will be fine from here. We'll be back when we are done." And saying so, he dragged Anjali amidst all her protests, deeper into the woods, leaving Arnav and Khushi all by themselves as per his master plan.
Khushi turned around to find Arnav standing on one of the boulders at the edge of the waterfall, lost in his thoughts.
"Feeling nostalgic Chotey Saab?" she asked, walking towards him and she could see his head nod. But he didn't say anything else and not wanting to disturb him in his moment, she retreated back. Finding a nice place on the grass, she spread out the mat and sat on it, arranging all the things from the bags.
Arnav gazed at the hills of the Shivalik range towering above them at one side, obscuring the falls from the sun. He reminisced about the days when he used to come here with his family and Khushi and play in those same waters along with her, all carefree and happy.
"Annyav, I cannot see my legs." Little Khushi giggled as she ventured out in the shallow side of the river and swam in it.
"But I can see them." Arnav chuckled as he dived nose down to pull her legs and invert her in the water. And both of them would laugh until the water would choke Khushi's throat and he would panic and pull her out of the water.
Gone were those days, now only memories remained.
Why couldn't life still be the same?
Why couldn't Khushi and he be those two happy kids once again, their only worries being about what they would eat for lunch?
He suddenly turned around remembering her and found her sitting on the mat spread on the grass, with what seemed to be a chess board in front of her. Her eyes were busy concentrated on the game making him quite amused at the scene.
"Are you playing by yourself?" he called out, strolling towards her. She didn't lift up her head, but to answer his question, she rotated the board and began moving the piece from the other side.
Curious at her new format of game, he approached her and sat down on the mat opposite to her. "That's not even possible. How can you play with yourself?"
"Chotey Saab, I've learnt many ways to keep myself entertained." Khushi continued to play and rotated the board once again to move a white knight from the other side. Finally, after her move, she looked up at him. "When you have no one to play with, you learn to be creative enough to play with yourself. I didn't have you to play with and after you left, I didn't have any other friend."
Arnav felt his heart ache hearing those words.
I didn't have any other friend'
And it was then that he realised that in his quest to block away her memories, to stop himself from feeling guilty for that one day, he had abandoned his best friend and her loneliness was more heart breaking than his own guilt.
What had he done!
"Why didn't you make new friends?" he asked, dreading the answer.
"Because I thought I would lose our memories if I made new ones." Khushi replied and for a minute, he was sure that he saw her eyes moistened. But the next minute, that agony within them simply vanished away.
"But you know Chotey Saab, it's so much fun playing all by myself." She suddenly smiled using all her efforts, trying to brush aside her pain. "For many years, I couldn't manage. But then one day, I started thinking about what move you would have played had you been there. And that way, I realised I could play with myself."
"Why do you work for us? Why don't you work elsewhere?" Arnav finally asked something that had been bothering him from the time he had learnt that she was working for them.
"Oh! Are you unhappy with my work Chotey Saab?" Khushi's smile dropped to a frown, as her face paled with disappointment.
"No, you work well. You manage everything so efficiently. You are talented and yet, why do you keep working for us? You could get a much better job somewhere else. You know you are worthier than you realise." Arnav explained, moving the black bishop from his side, before she could rotate the board.
"Chotey Saab, if I got another job somewhere else, I would have had to move out of the cottage. Afterall, it was provided by Dadiji to us for free. And if we had moved away from there, all my chances of ever meeting you would have been destroyed. By working there, I could keep my hopes alive of meeting my best friend atleast one day in future. Otherwise, which ordinary person has the opportunity to meet a person like you?" Khushi explained, not realising that Arnav was now playing chess with her.
"You stayed back for me?" Arnav was simply moved by her words.
"Why wouldn't I? I had promised you that we would always be best friends forever. And I don't break my promises, Chotey Saab." She replied smiling at him.
"You don't have to struggle a lot. If you need financial help, I'll help you out." Arnav offered, remembering her carrying the vegetables at dawn all the way up Camel's back road.
"Buaji says it's wrong to take money from someone when we cannot repay it back."
"You call me your best friend at one instant and 'someone' the next second? Choose one Khushi, I cannot be two people at once." Arnav smirked at her, trapping her at her own words.
"I only know that you are my Chotey Saab." She replied as if to convince herself more than to answer his question and got up from her place, walking towards the waterfall.
Arnav followed her and stopped right behind where she was standing.
"Thank you Khushi." He let his conscience do the talking after a long time.
"For what Chotey Saab?" she turned around to look at him and he observed her quickly wiping away the tears from her face.
"For being there for Dadi when I couldn't be with her." He replied taking her quite aback with surprise.
"Don't thank me Chotey Saab, Dadiji is very sweet. Maybe if I had a Dadi too, I would have wished her to be just like yours."
At that instant, he realised how much he had wronged her. How cruel fate had been to her!
She had lost her parents, her family with only Buaji for support remaining. Then, the unimaginable and the worst thing had happened to her. And all that she had had was her best friend. But he had abandoned her when she needed him the most.
Life had practically taken away everything from her and yet today, she was standing in front him, smiling much more than him.
Maybe to the outside world, she was a chirpy young girl, but he had today understood the gravity of pain and sorrow that hid behind her smile. The way she forced a smile when probably all she wanted was to cry. The way she hid her tears from him and from the entire world.
He didn't know what happened to him. He just let his conscience take control.
His hand stretched to her face as if it had a mind of its own and delicately wiped away those tears on her cheeks with his thumb, a silent vow to himself to make amends for his mistakes.
Those hazel eyes rose up to look at him, a deep agony buried within them, silently pleading for his comfort, for his support, for an embrace to vanish away all those unnamed fears lurking within them.
And his heart had no other choice than to comply with her pleas and before he knew it, he had pulled her towards him and was hugging her like there was no tomorrow.
Like his life depended only on her.
As if this hug was a path for his repentance.
As if this one hug would vanish away all the guilt buried in his heart.
But he didn't realise that this hug not only intended to mend their broken bridges, but it also paved a way to form something new between them.
For the first time in his life, he felt a strange tug on the chords of his heart at the close proximity with another girl. He had hugged numerous girls before, even more intimately than this. Forget other girls, he had hugged Khushi before when they were kids.
But this one hug was different from the rest.
A strange set of emotions were emerging within him, feelings he never knew existed within him.
Feelings he never knew that existed between the two of them.
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