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The garden looked impeccable.
There were almost no weeds, the roses almost covering the entire bush in a bright pink. The leaves were supple and a vibrant green, the branches pliant and alive.
Arnav swallowed thickly as he glimpsed the small, white figure digging into the dirt. His stomach felt as it was tied in knots, pulled tighter than ever.
He knew exactly what she would look like right now, knew every curl that would stick to her forehead, the exact shade of red her cheeks would turn from the heat. He knew every huff of irritation when a weed wouldn't come out, every brilliant smile when she gently touched the blooming roses.
He closed his eyes tightly, trying to push the image out of his brain.
There was a dull ache in his stomach that remained over the last three weeks, a heavy weight that pressed down on his chest. His fingers closed around the railing, unable to take his eyes away from her.
They hadn't gardened together at all in those weeks.
They had spent hours there, but always carefully whenever the other wasn't around. They threw themselves into it, making the garden as clean as possible, pulling out every stray grass, pruning and cutting until every plant was in the best of health.
He tore his eyes away, forcing himself to look away from her.
He took a deep breath, trying to ignore the pounding in his head.
He heard the familiar, slow shuffle of his father behind him. Arnav turned around, moving to help his father. Ashok sighed, leaning back on the bench as Arnav adjusted the pillow. He patted the spot next to him, gesturing for Arnav to sit down.
The bench creaked as the two of them sat down, the crisp morning air biting their skin. Ashok looked at his son, leaning his walking stick down as he let out a slow breath.
"Your mother wants you to get married."
Arnav didn't respond, but the vein in his forehead visibly ticked, his jaw tight.
Ashok wasn't oblivious to the tension that immediately arose whenever Arnav and Khushi were in the room together.
There had always been tension, of course, but this time, it was different.
It was marked with pain, an awkward nervousness that hadn't been there before. They were almost skittish with each other, with their tense smiles and determined attempts to keep it normal.
To the average observer, nothing was different.
Khushi still served him the same two scoops of rice, asking him quietly if he needed more. Arnav would engage her in conversation, indulging in the occasional polite debate. The garden looked beautiful, the care of Arnav and Khushi reflected in the blossoming buds his wife used for the morning aarthi.
But something was off.
They were trying too hard to be nice to each other, their interactions forced as they pasted smiles onto their faces. They would retreat from each other as soon as possible, never looking the other directly in the eye. There were no shared glances, no gentle touch on Khushi's wrist to signal that he didn't want the other scoop of rice today.
It was all scripted, as if they were two actors, playing their roles to perfection.
And frankly, Ashok Singh Raizada was sick of it.
He didn't know what had gone wrong in the last three weeks that had caused this shift.
But he knew that Arnav would suit Khushi perfectly, and he would do anything to make that possible.
The two of them were stubborn, but he was even more so.
Ashok ploughed forward, even though he knew his son would explode.
"You said that you had someone in mind. Did you ask her?"
"That is irrelevant. I don't plan on marrying any time soon."
Arnav's voice was low and controlled, his eyes focused straight ahead. Ashok pushed harder, determined to draw a reaction of the marble statue that had taken the place of his son.
"What did the two of you decide?"
"It does not matter, Papa. I don't want to talk about it."
Arnav's voice hardened, his jaw set as he took deep breaths to control his temper. Every word from his father made the dulling ache worse, reminding him of what he had lost.
He felt betrayed, as if he didn't matter to her.
She had given up so easilly, accepting the breakdown of their relationship as if they were simply deciding what to have for dinner. She had been frustratingly stoic since then, carefully erecting walls to keep him out.
She hadn't looked back, not even once.
Hadn't he mattered to her? Didn't she care?
It hurt, like someone punching him in the gut. He wished she would just let him in once, tell him that it hurt her as much as it was hurting him.
Why was she so damn stubborn?
"Did you hurt her?"
"Is this about your little pastime? I'm sure there are plenty of wayward rebels in England that you can join."
"They... they killed them, Arnav! They were the ones who ordered the lathis to be used, the ones that killed my innocent father who just wanted to buy vegetables. They're in our land, using our resources, reaping the profit of our work. I will be damned if I move to that country."
Arnav clenched his fists, the hurt in her voice ringing in his ears in a never ending echo, the raw pain making him flinch.
This will never work.
We're too different.
"We both made choices. We were too different. I have accepted it and moved on."
"You're not going to fight for this?"
It's better we end it now.
We'll be happier.
The image of her slumped, shaking body disappearing, growing smaller and smaller, appeared in his eyes, taunting him. He bit back a sharp curse, wincing as the nails dug into his skin.
"No. It's done."
"I've never known my Arnav to give up so easily. It must have been quite the disagreement."
"I said I didn't want to talk about it! It's over, and there's nothing left to discuss."
The condescension in his father's voice, the belief that it wouldn't have ever worked pushed Arnav over the edge. He lashed out, his words dripping with venom as he whirled on his heel, preparing to storm out.
Ashok spoke, his voice deceptively soft, his eyes focused straight ahead.
"Were your views worth losing her?"
Arnav paused, his hand on the door.
He didn't want to think about this right now.
He ignored his father, slamming the door behind him as he stormed out.
Khushi stirred the aloo absentmindedly, her mind somewhere else entirely. She struggled to ignore the sense of loss deep in the pit of her stomach, her mind wandering as she attempted to think of everything but him.
"Khushi? Khushi, it's burning, turn off the gas!"
Sakshi bustled over, quickly taking the spoon from Khushi as she easily swept the pan off of the heat. Khushi flushed with embarrassment, staring at the ground as Sakshi salvaged the unburnt portion.
"I'm sorry, Ma."
Sakshi glanced at her, smiling reassuringly.
"It's fine beta, nothing happened. Waise, you didn't add the methi?"
Khushi tried to smile, shaking her head. The methi was still sitting on the counter untouched.
She hadn't been able to make it the way Arnav liked it, her heart pulling uncomfortably
"I just... felt like making it a different way, since we had aloo methi last time."
"Haan, woh toh hai... since Chote likes it, I just thought... chalo, koi nahi, this is nice and crispy. It's good to try something different."
Sakshi smiled at her, walking over to the sink. Khushi closed her eyes, reminding herself to ignore the dull ache.
"Khushi, tum theek ho?"
She opened her eyes to find Ma staring at her worriedly, scanning her face. Ma reached out, placing a cool hand on her forehead. Khushi shook her head, placing a warm hand on Ma's shoulder.
"Yes, I am just stressed about classes. The term ends in a few weeks, and I have had a lot to study."
Sakshi looked at her speculatively for a few minutes, debating whether or not to press her further. She knew something else was bothering Khushi, but she trusted that Khushi would come to her if she needed it.
"Chalo, why don't you go study? I'll finish this up."
"Nahi, Ma, I'll-"
She glared at Khushi. Khushi huffed, but gave the spoon to Sakshi, lingering in the kitchen.
"Accha, accha, I'm leaving."
Sakshi watched as Khushi disappeared, her brow furrowing with worry as Khushi disappeared around the corner. She couldn't place what was off, and it worried her.
Khushi had been quieter than usual, but whenever Sakshi had asked, she had brushed it off. Sakshi sighed, hoping that Khushi knew she was there for her.
Perhaps she missed Anjali. Marriage would be good for her... she would ask tonight. Yes, that seemed like a good plan.
Relieved, Sakshi smiled, turning back to the aloo. She hoped this would help Khushi.
Khushi sat on her bed. She leaned back against the headboard as she stared at the pages, her textbook on her lap.
Damn it, she missed him so much that it hurt.
She couldn't shake the feeling of loss in her chest, the pangs of sadness that shot through her whenever she saw him. She had collided with him in the hallway outside the kitchen, sending her carefully placed walls tumbling down.
The look of guarded wariness in her eyes as he looked down at her had hurt, his fingers releasing her shoulders almost immediately. He had stepped back, murmuring an apology, before turning on his heel and walking in the other direction.
And she had watched him go.
He was frustratingly closed off, his face set like marble. She couldn't read his expressions.
For all she knew, he didn't care.
He had to. She had seen it, hadn't she? The same flicker of longing that she felt, the same painful tug... right?
She reached up, rubbing at her shoulders, wanting to feel the familiar warmth pressing against her skin. He had touched them so many times. His fingers had dug into the tender skin in anger, held them and pulled her close to comfort her, and simply rested on them when they were sitting together, sending warmth spreading through her.
She felt the tears pricking at the back of her eyes, the sharp sting of regret hitting her. Her stomach churned, and her breath shuddered as she tried to ignore her rapidly closing throat, painful and fierce.
She wished it could have been different.
She wished she could turn everything back, and forget that they were so different. She missed his kisses that made her tremble. She missed their long conversations, and the way she could open up to him about everything. She even missed their debates, the way he would force her to see the other side.
She wished she could call him back,
She roughly brushed away a tear, setting her jaw determinedly.
She couldn't do this. It had ended, and she had to accept it.
It was done.
She turned back to her reading, forcing herself to focus.
She wouldn't think about him. She couldn't. There was no use in mulling over what couldn't be changed.
She read for what seemed like hours, throwing herself into the reading. She only looked up at the sound of footsteps, her eyes widening in surprise as she saw her friend smiling at her from the door. She immediately dropped her book, walking over to pull her into a hug.
Anjali stepped quietly into Khushi's room, looking to surprise her. She hadn't intended on visitng today, but since Aman was out of town and Papa hadn't been keeping well, she had made an extra trip.
"I thought you were only coming on Sunday!"
"Is it bad that I showed up early?"
Anjali asked, faking disappointment. Khushi rolled her eyes, a smile on her face. Anjali felt her heart sink as she saw the smile, noting how it didn't reach her eyes. The joy that Khushi exuded was missing, quiet resignment in its place.
Anjali observed Khushi as she walked around the room, putting away things before they headed down to the kitchen.
She hadn't said anything the last couple of weeks. She had noticed the awkwardness between Arnav and Khushi, the overly cheerful smiles and light, happy conversation. Arnav rarely showed up if Khushi was there, making some excuse to slip away.
Occasionally, she would catch her friend staring after his retreating figure, the normally sparkling hazel eyes dull.
"How is everything?"
Khushi turned to look at her, an amused smile on her face.
"Anju, you're here almost every week."
"Yes, I know how Mama and Papa are doing, but I never get to hear from you. How are you, Khushi?"
Khushi paused for a second. She pushed away the way her heart squeezed against the sides of her ribcage, a painful ache that refused to go away.
She desperately tried to convince herself that it was better they moved on, throwing herself into taking care of Papa and the garden. She ignored the sharp jolt of pain when she saw him, the twist of regret and longing whenever they collided.
She avoided the terrace, unable to walk up to the place they had spent hours at, sitting side by side. She couldn't walk up there to see it empty, without his silhouette in the darkness of night, the cool air rippling the crisp white kurta he wore.
She took a deep breath, willing the ache to abate.
It didn't help.
She continued in a bright tone, widening her smile until her cheeks hurt.
She couldn't put Anju between her and Arnav. It was their problem, and there wasn't even much of a problem anyway. They had accepted it and moved on. Right?
"I'm doing well! The garden looks nice, and the roses are blooming... did I tell you that Happyji picked up and extra copy of that book I had wanted? Oh, and that necklace I wore at your engagement-"
Khushi continued as if she hadn't heard Anjali's gentle insistence, prattling on about arbitrary occurrences in an attempt to avoid the question.
"I asked how you are doing."
Khushi trailed off, playing with the tassel on her bag, avoiding Anjali's pointed gaze.
"I'm doing fine, Anju! Everything is going reall-"
"Anju, don't ask. I don't want to put you between us. He's your brother, and..."
"Khushi, you both hold equal importance in my life. I wouldn't pick, even if you asked. Why won't you just tell me? Maybe it'll help, instead of keeping everything bottled up and corked tightly."
Khushi sighed, running her hand through her hair.
"Because there's nothing to tell."
She shrugged, staring off blankly. Her voice was soft, clearly pained as she spoke.
"We're too different. We would tear ourselves apart by trying it, Anju. So... we decided that it would be better to just end it."
"You're giving up?"
Khushi let out a sharp breath, her eyes flickering with frustration.
"Is there anything else I can do?"
Anjali fell silent, her heart aching for her friend. She could see the impact of it on Khushi, the fire that had dimmed in her.
"Are you happy?"
There was a long silence, and Khushi looked up, meeting Anjali's gaze with a sad smile. Khushi's heart squeezed painfully, and
"I have accepted it. There's nothing more I can do."
There was a note of finality in her voice, and Anjali knew that there was no use in pressing her any further.
"Shall we go down for dinner?"
Anjali watched her turn around and leave, closing her eyes and sighing. She wished she could have done something to make the situation better, but she knew there was nothing she could do.
"How is Aman doing?"
"He's doing well. You've been doing well, Papa?"
"Haan, my treatment is going well. I'm still going weekly, but the doctor says I'm getting better."
"Yes, he's doing much better. The doctor said that-"
Khushi reached out for the rice, but her eyes widened when she felt a warm hand underneath hers. She felt the spark shoot up her spine, her body craving for more of the familiar touch.
She stiffened, pulling her hand away as quickly as possible, her cheeks warming.
Arnav swallowed uncomfortably, mumbling a hasty apology underneath his breath. The entire table fell silent as he cleared his throat.
"Anju, Aman treats you well?"
"Ajeeb hai, ki... you have your own family now."
Anjali smiled, looking up at her mother fondly. Sakshi gently brushed back the hair, letting her gaze rest on her daughter. She turned to Khushi, an excited, hopeful smile on her face.
"Woh... Khushi, aapne NK ke baare mae socha? If you get married, we would be able to relax, aur..."
The tension was palapable, with Arnav's gaze shooting to Khushi almost immediately. Khushi looked directly at Sakshi, pointedly avoiding Arnav. There was pin drop silence as they held their breath, every gaze focused on Arnav and Khushi.
Arnav felt his heart thud in his ribcage, the discomfort in his stomach pressing uncomfortably against him. He could feel the clawing of jealousy, his body churning into a storm that built up, refusing to let him ignore it.
His throat tightened as he stared at Khushi, trying to read her expression. Her eyes were shuttered, her face impassive. He nearly growled in frustration, furious that she wouldn't let him see what she was thinking.
He heard Khushi take a deep breath, and waited, anticipating her answer. He felt the dread envelop him as the silence grew longer, the seconds ticking by slowly, the deep pit in his stomach widening until he couldn't breathe.
She would say no, right?
Khushi stared at Sakshi, her mind whirling. Memories of her and Arnav together flashed in her mind, and she felt the familiar yearning, a pulsing, throbbing ache that weighed her down. She could feel the shadow of his lips against hers, his fingers ghosting across her face as he pushed back her hair.
"Stop being so emotional, Khushi. It's not like you being here will help anything. You will like England once you get there, I'm sure-"
His hard voice rang in her head, unwavering and callous.
He didn't care. He hadn't asked her to come back. He had given up, just as she had.
She focused on the memory, pushing everything else out of her mind as she heard herself respond. Her voice was an echo to herself, sounding unreal as she spoke the words.
"Yes. I'm ready to marry NK."
Arnav felt the floor drop out from underneath him, shattering into a million pieces. He stared at her incredulously, unable to believe what he had heard. He tried to catch her gaze, but she refused to look at him, smiling brightly at Sakshi instead. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Anjali staring at Khushi in shock, completely stunned.
He vaguely heard a small sob of happiness from his mother as she reached forward to take Khushi's hand in the back of his mind, the scene playing out in front of him in slow motion. His head throbbed, his heart squeezing until it physically hurt.
No. She couldn't have said yes.
He tried to meet Khushi's gaze as she got up from the table, with his mother chattering on animatedly about their wedding. She would talk to NK's mom at the next party a week from now, she said. Arnav willed her to look his way just once, his emotions written plainly across his face. He reached out to her when she stepped behind him, but she swiftly dodged his grasp.
Arnav's heart hurt as he stared at her retreating back, completely ignoring his pained gaze. He closed his eyes, hating the way they stung. His hands were cold and clammy, the blood in his veins stilling upon realization that she would be someone else's.
NK would get to hold her. He would kiss her, feel the way her hands crumpled the fabric of his kurta. He would know her deepest fears, bring her jalebis to see the glow of happiness in her hazel eyes.
He wanted to call out to her, to ask her why she had said yes.
One week. One week and she would be married to someone else.
This couldn't be happening.
He whirled on his heel, taking the steps two by two, his head pounding. He took deep, shuddering breaths, feeling as if he had been socked in the gut.
Anjali watched her family leave, staring after her devastated brother. She hadn't missed the flash of anguish that had flitted across his face at Khushi's words, one he had quickly tried to hide.
She slipped into the kitchen, trying to talk to Khushi.
But she couldn't get in a word edgewise, with Sakshi going on excitedly about the Khushi's wedding. She saw the wide smile on her mother's face as she cupped Khushi's cheek fondly, murmuring about how thrilled she was that Khushi would be married too.
She stared at Khushi, who had an equally wide smile on her face.
But her eyes were hollow and lackluster, despite the smile on her face. Her eyes didn't crinkle up at the edges, her smile not quite reaching all the way. It was tight and forced, but amid her joy, Sakshi had missed it completely.
Anjali swallowed painfully, shaking her head.
What had they done?
Note: And that's where I leave you for today! If you have the time, please let me know what you thought through a like or a comment. I love hearing what you think.
As always, please follow @ipkchotidesi on Twitter or PM me your email for update notifications.
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Choti, what an exquisitely written update on coming to terms with reality. Living with your decision. Sach mein, kyun dard hain itna tere ishq mein. My heart aches for the two of them. You've brought out their emotions and feelings of pain and bewilderment at what's happening so beautifully.
Ashok's perspicaciousness had continued to give me hope that he will be able to bang some sense into their heads, but Khushi's acceptance of NK's proposal has my heart sinking. A girl like her will not go back on her word I think. Ab kya hoga?
While I understand Sakshi's joy at the prospect of seeing her daughter settled, I wish she'd see the resignation in Khushi's demeanour. She's giving in, not accepting the proposal. Something Anjali sees so clearly.
Your writing, my love, just gets better with each update. The depth with which you are able to portray their feelings is searingly poignant. I love it!
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