Arnav's eyelids felt as though they'd been glued shut. He tried opening them but they wouldn't budge. He remembered a throwaway phrase of Lavanya's from what seemed like a different lifetime, where she had mentioned that she never went to bed without taking her eye make-up off because mascara made her eyelids stick together the next morning.
Arnav groaned and shifted slightly. Khushi Kumari Gupta... he wouldn't be surprised if she had glued his eyes shut in the middle of the night. He didn't know what she was trying to achieve with her recent erratic behaviour, but if she didn't stop soon, he could see he was on a one way trip to a mental institution.
He stretched out his left arm, trying to feel for the jug of water he kept on his bedside table, only for his hand to connect with nothing but air.
Oh right. His brain started to kick in. He wasn't at his own house... he was at his In-Laws. His eyes still shut, he thought back to the previous night.
Buaji and his Mother-in-Law had been reminiscing through dinner about Khushi's childhood. He had heard many tales about her antics and the trouble she had gotten into over the years, several times he had found himself smirking in amusement before catching himself and restoring his expression to a well-practiced 'neutral'.
His heart wrenched with the same conflict which had been a permanent presence in him recently. How could the innocent, childish, naive girl in these stories- the one she clearly still hadn't grown out of completely, be the same one responsible for trying to tear apart not only him... but his entire family?
It was as he began to flash back to that single moment which had changed everything that Khushi's laugh shook him from his reverie. To his surprise, he noticed that Khushi was standing up. "Where are you going?"
"Weren't you listening, Swamiji? I was just going to the kitchen to make some tea. Don't worry, I won't put any sugar in yours. You don't need any sugar since you're just so sweet just as you are." she had pinched his cheek affectionately and it had taken self-control drawn from the very core of his being to resist the urge to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing. She released him and then gently stroked it, that same confusing expression of concern colouring her eyes. "I'm sorry, you've gone red. Are you okay?" she asked.
"I'm fine. Just get off me." he whispered through gritted teeth. Her fingers lingered on his skin for a few more seconds before she complied.
She had just headed off towards then kitchen when suddenly turned back to say something and ended up walking into the doorframe. "FOR GOD'S SAKE BE CAREFUL! ARE YOU BLIND?!" Arnav had exclaimed.
He looked around, embarrassed at his sudden outburst, to find Garima and Buaji hiding their laughs and even Shashi smiling.
Flustered, he also got to his feet and, claiming he was exhausted and had an early start the next morning, he excused himself for bed. He had attempted to make a hasty escape but just as he was turning around, Khushi grabbed his arm and leant her head against it. "What the?"
"How could I let my Swami go to sleep alone in a strange house? I have to tuck you in, right? Make sure you have everything you need. After all, you're my beloved husband- my only wish is that you be happy." he looked down to find her giving him that excessively sweet smile coupled with a mischievous spark in her eyes.
She was up to something.
"Yes, yes Khushi. You do that, that seems like the best thing to do. You look tired as well, and I need to put your father to bed now anyway. Tea would probably just make it difficult for us to get to sleep."
"Hai Re Nandkishore... who would have thought that our Sanka Devi would ever become such a perfect wife?" Buaji gave them her blessings as Khushi dragged a bemused, stumbling Arnav to her room.
She had pushed him inside and then hurriedly released him in order to close and lock the door.
"What do you think you're-"
"Shhh!" she had raised a finger to her lips and widened her eyes at him, telling him to be quiet.
"Don't tell me to-" and then, in a feat she hadn't repeated since their fated meeting on New Year's, she clamped a hand over his mouth and then pressed an ear to the bolted door.
Arnav's eyes flashed dangerously and he grabbed Khushi's wrist and pulled it down and away from his mouth. "You're getting far too comfortable touching what isn't yours, Khushi Kumari Gupta."
"Singh Raizada!" she corrected him, yet again. Her hand going to the evidence of her claim resting on the exposed, silky skin between her neck and the scooped neckline of her anarkhali.
He'd never admit it to her, but if he couldn't see her in the dangerously tempting material of a sari, he preferred her in the chamkeeli suits she used to wear. There was just too much damn material on these things. They hid her away...
"Did you hear me?" for the second time that day, he realised his mind had wandered off and he hadn't heard a thing she'd said.
"I said, you can sleep on the bed and I'll sleep on the floor."
Arnav looked down and almost unintentionally, stamped his foot as though testing out the hardness. He raised an eyebrow and looked at Khushi. "Are you serious?"
"Well... I guess I could sleep on the desk but I move around so I could fall o-"
"Shut up Khushi. Before you open your mouth, have you ever thought to just stop and think about what it is you're saying?"
"Of course not. Do you know where my words come from, Arnavji?"
"Nope. Dil se, Swamiji... from the heart." she winked and then headed over to the bed, pulling out her night clothes and toiletries and heading towards the bathroom.
As she headed off to prepare for bed, Arnav looked around the room. There was no way he was letting her sleep on the floor. He prodded it gingerly- and there was no way in hell he was going to volunteer to take her place.
Sighing, he headed over to the bed. "What the hell is it with women and cushions?" he wondered, astounded by the number of them decorating the bed. He started moving them when suddenly, an idea struck him.
It wasn't without its problems and it made his stomach churn in a strange mix of disgust and, he hated to admit it, excitement...
Khushi had come out of the bathroom to discover that Arnav had converted her bed into what looked like a trench straight out of one of the World Wars. "Arnavji what?"
"This is my side." he pointed to the right hand side of the bed. "And this is yours. Got it?"
Khushi looked at him, curious. She remembered New Year's night when she had hidden him in that very place.
So much had changed; at that time she had been terrified but right now? She was just confused.
She became aware of the gentle warmth from the mangalsutra on her chest. "Okay." she agreed quietly and slipped under the covers, closing her eyes immediately.
Arnav stood rooted to the spot for several seconds, watching her as she slipped into oblivion. It was only when Khushi turned on her side and curled up into the foetal position, clinging to one of the barrier cushions that he moved to pick up his things and go into the bathroom.
She had been breathing steadily and softly by the time he returned and turned off the light. He carefully paced his way back to the bed under the pale illumination of the moonlight seeping through the curtains. He settled down slowly so as not to shake the bed too much lest he wake her and turned to face her.
There had been a cushion blocking his view and he gently reached up to push it downwards. His last sight before he drifted off into a dreamless sleep had been her face, stroked by moonlight, and the last thing he remembered doing was gently stroking a loose tendril of hair that had fallen away from her eyes and securing it behind her ear.
He urged himself to peel his eyelids open. Come on dammit, what's wrong with you?!
With one final monumental effort, they began to open. It was as the sunlight began reaching his pupils and startling his senses into action that he became aware of it. A warm pressure that was both familiar and unfamiliar. His heartbeat started racing as his brain whispered what he knew it both was and couldn't be...
Arnav's eyes finally opened fully and he looked down to his right. There, gently gripping his right hand in her left and holding it to her cheek was a still sleeping Khushi.
He wanted to feel disgusted and he wanted to pull away.
But he didn't.
And it was in that moment- that fleeting fraction of a second between one wisp of thought and the next- that the last remaining sliver of himself which had been trying in vain to continue denying it finally surrendered:
He loved this woman.
He loved her despite everything she had done or tried to do or would do in the future.
He loved her.
But he couldn't have her.
She would never- could never- belong to him.
But in this moment...
He loved her.
And for now...
That was enough.
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