That day, his sister looked like a princess straight out of a fairy tale. Bedecked with jewels of gold and diamond, her face glowed with a radiance that Khushi had never seen before. The orange lehenga that trailed behind her resembled the color of the setting sun, her choli a contrasting deep blue of the night, the shine of the velvet enchanting like the mystery of the darkness. Her translucent, long dupatta which was pinned against her chest was a blend of both the orange and the blue and her fair, delicate waist was visible through the fabric. Her eyes glowed with joy, her lips stretched in a permanent smile.

Anjali looked like the happiest girl in the world to Khushi, who was so in awe of her elegantly shy yet confident stature that she almost dropped the little box in her hand, an overpowering sensation filling up her chest.

A slight breeze ruffled Khushi’s perfectly combed hair. Her grip on the box tightened as her heart thudded loudly in her chest, dancing to a tune that she was only starting to get familiar with.

She looked around herself. The crowd was cheering as Anjali ascended the red-carpeted dias with the assistance of the handsome man beside her. The huge hall came alive with celebration as their hands met, for the first time ever.

And as the couple exchanged a look of affection and understanding, just a little to her right, Khushi’s gaze fixed on a much more handsome young boy standing not too far away from her. He was smirking at her, a twinkle in his eyes, his mind certainly concocting some sort of mischief that she longed to be let in on. She tilted her head slightly at him and raised her eyebrows questioningly.

He shook with a low guffaw, clearly enjoying himself as a red tinge spread across her cheeks.

As her eyes roved curiously over his lanky frame dressed in a brown sherwani with a mandarin collar, an embroidered border at the centre of the piece, and traditional black pajamas, he winked at her, amused adoration in his eyes and a laugh on his lips…

 

Khushi sighed as she looked around herself. The black leather couch was adorned with multi-coloured chocolate wrappers and her friend’s flowy baby pink lehenga. Ananya sat beside her with a deep frown spoiling her beautiful features. The minimal makeup that she had put on only made her agitated expression more pronounced. She was devouring one chocolate bar after another, completely disregarding Khushi’s concerned warnings. Her cousin sisters were giggling just outside the door of the room, too busy clicking pictures than attending to their anxious sister.

Left with no other alternative, Khushi quickly reached out and grabbed the chocolate out of her friend’s hand, tossing it into the dustbin that wasn’t kept too far away.

Ananya whined impatiently and reached into the bowl kept in front of her for another but Khushi uttered a small war cry and snatched the bowl up from the table.

“This is ridiculous, Khush,” Ananya squeaked in a voice quite unlike her own. “Give that back to me.”

“No can do,” Khushi said casually, getting up from the couch, bowl in hand. “Friendship obligations. I can’t let the bride turn double her weight right before her wedding.”

Ananya uttered a low growl. “I can’t go through this without some glucose in my system.”

“Sweetheart, if you eat that amount of sugar, you’ll end up getting diabetes. And then you won’t be able to eat your own wedding cake.”

The beautiful bride sighed in resignation as Khushi emptied the entire bowl into the trash can. As the minutes passed, her agitation grew, even as Khushi tried to distract her. She couldn’t help being amused at this side of Ananya, the girl who was always so sure about what she wanted. The girl who had helped Khushi through the most difficult time of her life, pulling her towards reality when she had been too overcome by her guilt and had almost forgotten how to function normally. Ananya’s determination to make Khushi deal with her mistakes and at the same time, pursue dreams that had till then existed in only a subconscious part of her brain was one of the few reasons that Khushi was where she was today. That she had even learned how to survive such loss and cope with such grief.

And no matter what Khushi did, that debt was one she knew she could not repay. Not even by talking to her best friend about random topics as she hyperventilated about an engagement she had fought her own parents for.

Before long, one of her cousins poked her head in and declared that it was time for Ananya’s entrance. The sharp intake of breath was the only sign that betrayed the bride’s emotions as she pulled on a mask of calm in front of her cousins.

Soon Khushi was lightly holding her friend’s arm with both her hands, her red, painted fingernails prominent against the sleeves of the white blouse.

Ananya had reverently bestowed upon Khushi the role of a sister – to lead her inside the hall where her groom awaited and hold onto her arm until the time came for her to place her hand into her soulmate’s. Her cousins followed after them, a band of giggling teenagers.

Khushi felt like her heart would burst. If there was one person that she would suffer through an engagement ceremony for, then that was Ananya. So even though her gut twisted painfully at the flashbacks that made their way into her consciousness,her steps did not falter. She was glad to have found one person in this world who cared for her presence. Who she could lean on in times of trouble. And with whom she could share all kinds of happy and sad moments. No way in hell would she destroy her special day just because of her own sad past. So with a prayer for her own sanity on her lips and a silent promise to her best friend in her heart, she walked on.

The slow background music that greeted their entrance into the hall made her stop breathing. Her mind plagued her with memories of a similar time, a similar place. Similar emotions. Similar energies in the room.

That quiet anticipation. That awe. That bowing down to a tradition greater than the self. That eagerness. That celebration in the air.

A trembling started in Khushi’s limbs while beside her, Ananya suddenly stood up taller. Her gaze had met Parth’s and as they looked at each other, spellbound, a phenomenal change came over the bride. Her eyes lovingly took in the myriad of emotions on his face. Fascination. Pride. Love. And it had made her mentally jump for joy as she realised that she was reason for that breathless look on his face.

Thus, as Khushi seemed to grow smaller with painful recollection, her friend spread her wings wide. She was no longer in doubt. Parth’s simply being there cemented her decision to forever become one with him and her step turned more confident. Her smile widened, her heart fluttered and her whole body vibrated with excitement.

As they reached the dias and Ananya slipped her palm into her fiancé’s, she turned to look one last time at her best friend, silently asking her if she was okay. Khushi nodded through her tears, giving her a small, encouraging smile before stepping back.

 

Arnav cursed under his breath as he entered the banquet hall. He had reached at the worst time of the ceremony – the exchanging of the rings. He was compelled to turn around and walk right back out but somehow resisted the urge for the sake of his sister. He reassured himself that he would not stay more than a few minutes. No more than absolutely necessary. All he needed to do was find Mrs Goswami and give her his sister’s congratulations. After that, no one could stop him from leaving.

Lurking at the back of the crowd, trying to ignore everything that was happening around him, Arnav looked around for the face of the woman he had grown so used to seeing these past few years in his living room, when his gaze fell upon the flowers kept on the nearest table. Blood red roses. The last thing he needed to see right there. Nostalgia plunged a dagger into his heart, twisting it painfully around as he looked at the faces shining with excitement around him. A cheerful murmuring filled the air as the rings were brought about.

The two little boxes covered in red velvet were surrounded with rose petals on the golden platter. And Arnav drew in a quick breath as he was transported to memories of another box of the same kind. In the hands of the girl in the mirror.

 

He almost laughed aloud at her outraged and scandalised expression. The red box in her hand threatened to crash onto the ground as she quickly looked away.

Her cheeks burned crimson to match the red of her modest choli. She wore a deep blue lehenga, small mirrors glittering in beautiful designs along its length. Her dupatta was draped like a saree around her chest and her pearly white neck held a small silver locket in a thin silver chain around it. Her hair was styled into small curls at the ends and his index finger swirled invisible patterns into his palm as he imagined twirling it around her hair. Diamond earrings too huge for her child-like face weighed down her small ears and her rosy lips glimmered in the bright lights of the hall.

She peeked at him from beneath her eyelashes and finding him still staring at her, blushed even harder and looked down at the box in her hand. Arnav started to make his way towards her through the crowd of vaguely familiar relatives, intent on teasing her unmercifully tonight but the next instant, her mother had called her to bring the box to the dias. She seemed to hesitate before taking a step forward, her hand tightening on the box, her eyes looking around uncertainly for something.

Slowly, she reached his sister who smiled sweetly at her, and she relaxed visibly. Arnav’s brow furrowed in confusion as he watched her strange behaviour.

Khushi looked a little too long into the box when she opened it, her fingers trembled visibly as she took the ring out and handed it to the groom who seemed to have eyes for no one but Anjali.

And no one seemed to notice Khushi as she stepped back while the crowd clapped and whistled at the exchanging of the rings. No one seemed to notice her slight frown, her tear-filled eyes, her shortness of breath and her clenched fists as she turned quickly around and fled the scene.

No one but Arnav…

 

As the hall erupted with applause, Arnav was overcome by a strong sense of déjà vu. His heart accelerated without any reasonable explanation and his eyes seemed to search for something he wasn’t quite sure of. A strange restlessness descended on him as he tasted a familiar presence in the air.

A cool breeze stroked his cheeks and put him in a world of uncertainty.

He had a feeling, a familiar sensation, that his conscious did not dare trust in. A peculiarity in the atmosphere that he had not experienced for many years. A spring in his spirits that should not be there. A bursting in his chest that he had taught himself to hate.

And a girl in the room that he had not noticed yet.

 

Khushi fought hard against the agitation that had seemed to transfer from her friend’s heart to her own. She waged a silent struggle against the tormenting similarities of the situation to the one so many years ago when she had felt so out of place, a stranger witnessing something too sacred in its privacy. Ananya might have thought of Khushi as her best friend but that didn’t take away from the fact that the rest of the people in the room, representatives of a big, cruel world, still thought that she was crazy. No one ventured near her. Mothers who had ever seen or heard about her anxiety attacks kept their children away from her. She was in no way a part of the family that was celebrating around her.

And so Khushi stood alone among all those people who were heady with merriment at the cost of her sanity.

Just like another lot had cheered and laughed as she had stood on the verge of tears, feeling unwanted in the midst of an affair where everyone rejoiced. And where she thought of herself as an intruder.

Khushi looked at Ananya’s ecstatic face as she admired the ring on her finger, her hand still in her fiancé’s. Images of another girl’s innocent joy flashed before her eyes and her breath hitched. The girl who had deserved so much better. Whose unparalleled compassion had once awed Khushi and whose heartbreaking sobs still kept her awake at night.

And then, to her horror, the groom leaned towards Ananya. Slowly, deliberately. A twinkle in his eye. Mischief on his mind.

A gasp escaped her throat as his lips brushed against her friend’s supple cheek. And then she was running. Through the tide of scandalised aunties and amused uncles, giggling young girls and whistling young boys. Past the tables set for the feast. Out the door and into the corridor. The black walls with smoky silver designs blurred past her as she ran to the end of the corridor, stopping in front of the large window with a polished wooden frame that looked out over the entrance to the hotel. The lamps along the fence formed small blobs of light as she looked at them through her tears. The waning moon was like a pond of silver in the night sky.

Khushi held back her tears, reluctant to leave traces of her weakness on her face and pressed a hand against her wildly beating heart. As she closed her tired eyes, her mind returned to that brutally beautiful day once again.

 

She ran out the hall as everyone proceeded to give their blessing to the pair who had just promised themselves to each other wordlessly. Her anklets tinkled loudly as she flew down the corridor and out the back door of the house.

A cool breeze hit her face as she refused to slow down until her feet had reached the steps of the gazebo. It was draped with red curtains and yellow fairy lights, seeming to create a magical world of its own, the stars blinking down upon it.

Khushi leaned against one white pillar, a sharp pain in the side of her stomach and a burning in her lungs as she struggled to catch her breath. Her brow was furrowed deep in distress and her hands cold and sweaty. Never had she felt so lonely in life as she did in that moment.

She closed her eyes, her knees threatening to give way but the floor was slightly wet and she did not want to ruin her dress. She cursed herself under her breath. Why did she have to be so unenthusiastic and sad when everyone around her was so happy? When today, after such a long time, she had finally heard her father laugh again? When there was a reason for celebration again? Why, then, did she have to feel so pessimistic and undesired? Why did she have to be so selfish and needy for attention when it clearly wasn’t her day?

Sobs threatened to explode out of her chest as she clutched at the pillar behind her to hold herself upright. Trying to convince herself that she was not jealous of others’ happiness, Khushi stifled her own pain and loneliness.

She felt his presence for a spaceless second before she heard his ragged breath and her eyes flew open.

Arnav stood in front of her, a frown on his face, worry in his eyes and an unspoken question on his lips. A strange calm descended on her then, as her eyes seeked solace in the warmth of his deep, chocolate brown ones. His presence, his concern warmed her heart. Made her grateful that at least someone cared.

She was only dimly aware of the ache in her chest as he took slow steps towards her. Suddenly, her thoughts disappeared in the haze of a feeling so novel and intoxicating while she tried to memorise each feature of his handsome face. His slightly rough fingers brushing against her soft cheek made her heart thud loud enough to drown all other noise around her. Their gaze was fixed on each other and did not waver for even a moment as he leaned towards her. Slowly, deliberately. His expression betraying a need to make her forget all else. All that troubled her. And to mark her lips with his own.

He was close enough now that his hot breath fanned over her face. Her face and neck were burning in nervous anticipation as his eyes moved down to her lips and then back to her eyes, seeming to ask for her permission. If Khushi hadn’t already stopped breathing, she would have caught her breath at the tenderness of that silent question. Her entire being seemed to melt. She blinked at him once before closing her eyes and lifting her face towards his.

Fireworks exploded inside her as her lips met his. A slow brush against their surprising softness made her almost mad with need. He stood motionless with surprise as she lightly sucked at his lower lip. And then, realising that he wasn’t responding, she grew embarrassed and started to pull away.

He came to life a second before her lips left his, encasing them in his mouth with an urgency that turned her to jelly. His hands cupped her face as her own rose to his hair, knotting their silkiness between her fingers.He licked her lips, dropping small kisses at their corners and exploring their contours with a passion that she answered with equal fervour, revelling in his touch and taste as she lost herself in him…

 

Behind her closed eyes, Khushi relived the moment as if she was still standing in that gazebo and she almost felt his presence again, like she hadn’t in many years. In the part of her brain still conscious of her surroundings, a small voice wished that this sweet torture would never end. But before long, the familiar wave of emotion swept her as she felt his presence yet again.

Her eyes opened slowly, almost fearful of what her subconscious had detected. She did not want to lose the beautiful sensation that gripped her, which was sure to happen as soon as she looked around and returned to reality, realising that her mind had tricked her into thinking he was near.

When her eyes finally did focus on the window in front of her, she saw reflected in it a face she no longer recognized. A man who looked nothing like the boy she had given her first kiss to. His muscular body and tall frame was as new to her as the fashionable, perfectly tailored tux he wore. His sharp jawline and perfectly sculpted features took her breath away. And the clenched fists at his sides betrayed a frustration that she was not privy to.

But his eyes were not something she could forget. The pain in them she had seen every night in her nightmares for the past ten years. Their unchanged ocean of chocolate was one she still drowned in whenever she thought about him.

And as she stared at those eyes, an age-old instinct whispered in her ear and she knew. She knew that this was him.

Her Arnav.

 

~Diksha

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