Afterwards, Arnav wasn’t sure how or why the idea was conceived but it was during one particular moment when Khushi was being relentlessly questioned about her parents, the circumstances of their wedding etc, by one of his well-meaning but notoriously nosy aunt that he first thought of it.
And It wasn’t as if Khushi, holding her own with aplomb, showed any sign of distress or a need for his shining knight’s sword; it was a fleeting expression on her face when nobody was looking…
Of course, irrespective of whether she had needed it or not, he had taken it upon himself to rescue her, striding up to them, murmuring a vague excuse to his aunt and smoothly taking his wife away with him.
He led her to their library, his favorite haunt in the house and firmly closed the door behind them.
And even as Khushi chuckled with amusement, he pulled her close, molding her pliant body against his, swooping down to claim her red, laughing mouth.
After kissing her leisurely and tenderly, he raised her head and Khushi thought how nice he looked in ethnic clothes he’d agreed to wear with a surprising, and short-term, Khushi was certain, meekness.
She encircled her smooth arms around his neck, her eyes meeting the swell of desire in his.
“We need to be there”, she murmured ineffectually when he cupped her waist’s curve to pull her close, her lips welcoming his with matching ardor, “just one more…”.
Moments later, when they returned to the living room, the day was drawing to a close, with the sun inching closer to it’s resting place and people getting ready to return home.
After they’d seen the last guest off, Astha retired to the family room, relaxing on the couch and going over the day with her heart suffused with contentment.
After a while she turned the TV on. The newly weds were still in their room. They’d gone upstairs right after the last guest had turned his back. She was getting accustomed to their unexplained long absences, she mused with a flash of amusement, followed by Arnav’s poker face and Khushi’s exaggeratedly casual mannerisms when they rejoined her.
Their room was littered with carelessly flung clothes, a vibrant space filled with their signature scents, twilight and sounds of passion. It had seemed like an exceptionally long day for the newly weds. Finally finding release from the tension that had simmered like intoxication since morning, Arnav snuggled close against her damp skin, their limbs still entangled, their breaths and heartbeats still entwined.
Later, Khushi emerged from the bathroom, clad in casual comfortable clothes, her face stripped free of makeup, her hair tamed in a French braid.
Extending an arm, Arnav pulled her toward him, making her stand in between his legs as he sat on the edge of bed in just boxers.
Resting her hands on his bare shoulders, she smiled down at him, sighing as he tightened his arms and rested his cheek against the valley of her breasts.
Her heart sensed his pure need for her as always. It constricted with emotion. She could sense him struggling against comparisons, against flash backs to those long years of loneliness…of suffering he was loathe to admit to even himself.
Even as her fingers burrowed through his soft hair, he raised his head. His caramel eyes were warm, full of life and free from shadows.
“A package came for you in the mail today”, he said, “I put it in the library”.
Khushi’s eyes flared with curiosity as she went to the library after dinner, picking up the small package from the gleaming mahogany desk . As she walked back to the family room, she turned it over in her hands, looking for postmarks, wondering who it could be from.
It was late with Astha having retired to bed and Arnav watching TV in his favorite position, sitting on the rug, back relaxed against the arm chair, his long, jean clad legs criss crossed in front of fire.
“Who is it from?, he asked distractedly when she joined him, his eyes still glued to news.
“Isha”, she replied even as her impatient fingers tore the packaging apart, extracting from inside it a small object and a note.
She read the note first. It was brief, to the point, but she could hear her cousin’s humorous tone, see her large, expressive eyes as she read it.
“Something you left behind in Allahabad. Boo’s ghost has been keeping it safe!”, it said with a postscript that read, “I didn’t read the note that’s inside and my lips are sealed :)”.
It was the boat. The miniature shikara. She held her breath, unprepared for the gamut of emotions that rushed past her.
Sensing her stillness, Arnav turned to look at her and what rested on her outstretched palm.
He was surprised too. He picked the boat to closely survey it.
“Is this a wedding gift? It looks very similar to the one I once gave you”.
Despite the state her heart was in, Khushi couldn’t help feeling amused.
“It is the one you once gave me”.
She had his full attention now. And it wasn’t due to her words but the import of what he glimpsed in her eyes. Turning the TV off, he placed the tiny boat on the rug beside him. He turned toward her again. Picking a hand, he interlaced her slender fingers though his long strong ones.
“I was mad at you”, she said softly, holding his gaze. Even after all this time, she realized, what transpired in the the dark phase of their relationship still had the power to rattle her, to send a cold shiver down her back, to bring back memories of that recurrent nightmare…
“So you gave it to Isha?, he asked puzzled. His heart squeezed on beginning to slowly grasp all the emotions in her eyes, in the coldness of her hand, in the fine beads on her forehead.
“No”, she said with a touch of embarrassment. She rested her head on his shoulder. “I meant to throw it away. But I..I couldn’t… so put in a tree trunk instead. Isha must have seen me”.
“A tree trunk?, he couldn’t help exclaiming.
While a part of him wanted to laugh, he was too touched to indulge in humor. He mind conjured up an image of a completely broken Khushi wanting to throw away that boat, a requiem for their dream as he’d once named it, but unable to. And he was moved. Moved by her inability to put even an inanimate object in harm’s way. By her inability to bid farewell to their love. By her inability to sing a requiem to it…
Swallowing, he looked at their entwined hands, his breaths scented by her shampoo, his thumb caressing the back of her hand in slow repetitive movements.
In silence, he mulled over her tenacity in holding their love together. At a time when his demons had convinced him to walk down a miserable path of self-destruction alone.
At a time when, with cunning design, they’d made him doubt her love and their love; they’d convinced him of his unworthiness for a second chance, his unworthiness for her.
While she, on the other hand, he thought slowly and deliberately, couldn’t stop herself from believing in their love. She had believed enough for both and brought them where they stood now.
His heart dilating with tenderness, he lifted her hand and pressed his lips to it. Struggling to articulate his emotions, he cleared his throat after a while, parted his lips but closed them again.
Extricating his hand and shifting his position, he surprised her by hauling her onto his lap, holding her ardently and pressing kisses on every inch of skin accessible.
“Arnav”, she laughed, her eyes closed as he kissed her forehead and then her eyes, “Ma…”.
“What possible objection could she have now?, he asked humorously, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of his mother walking in on them, “Considering you’re the official Raizada Bahu now”.
As she shook her head and called him ‘besharam’, he added, “I know she went upstairs to give us space. She is a smart woman”.
“She is a dear”, said Khushi fondly.
Arnav concurred with her observation while Khushi’s thoughts rolled down a well trodden, painful path like marbles.Thoughts of her parents were followed by whispers of homesickness and an awareness of the distance that yawned between them. Especially between her mother and her. This wide gulf, more emotional than physical, had developed insidiously over the past few months and even regular Skype conversations, well meaning but stilted, had been unsuccessful in bridging it so far.
“We used to be so close”, she thought, reminiscing about a closeness she’d taken for granted all her life, “I could have never imagined that one day…”.
Arnav’s eyes softened. “Did you talk to your parents today?, he asked.
“Yes”, she said with a smile, “They’re fine. They’re looking forward to our return”.
He wasn’t fooled by her lighthearted tone. He didn’t miss the fleeting wistfulness in her eyes. It consolidated the thought he’d had earlier in the day into a concrete plan. It would mean going against his grains, acting totally contrary to his nature…but just for his Khushi, he promised himself, he will do it. He was determined to do it.
“Earth to Dr. Raizada”, Khushi waved a hand in front of his faraway eyes.
Arnav’s eyes flickered into focus. Smiling a little, he tucked a stray hand beneath her ear and said, “You look tired. Why don’t you go ahead upstairs? I’ll join you in a few”.
“It was a long day”, Khushi agreed with a yawn before rising to her feet and stretching her sore muscles.
“Don’t take too long”, she commanded before leaving.
After she had left the room, Arnav picked his laptop from a nearby table and opened it…
Two days later, when he announced his sudden plan to pay Cleveland a short visit, citing resolving urgent matters like evacuating his apartment, moving his belongings to a storage facility, and an important appointment with Dr. Shiener as reasons, he wasn’t exactly lying. He wasn’t telling the complete truth either.
And exactly a week later, a bright November afternoon, he stood on the Gupta doorstep, more nervous than he’d ever been in his life, more nervous than he’d ever thought himself possible. Never before had he pushed himself into doing something so impulsive, so contrary to his nature. Feeling like a fish out of water, he hesitated, almost deciding on calling the plan off, calling his cab back, and returning to his hotel.
“Ah..the things love can make you do”, a voice said deep inside of him. He frowned, regarding it with suspicion, not sure if he liked it, not sure if he wanted to give something so outrageously silly a permanent place in his head.
He took a deep breath to clear his head. Taking a hand out of his dark jeans’ pocket, he pressed the door bell.
Of course, the Gupta household had been expecting their family’s newest addition’s visit, notwithstanding the circumstances surrounding his addition, with a lot of suppressed excitement and nervousness too. Navin had received his phone call the evening before. He had been somewhat expecting it because an earlier phone conversation with Khushi had included a passing reference to Arnav’s sudden travel plans.
He’d broken the news to Sujata without delay, and ever since her heart had been a cauldron of ambivalent emotions.
While preparing her home to welcome him, she often paused and reflected on the strangeness of the situation. How does one reconcile months of rancor and heartburn with a social role that’s suddenly thrust upon you, with the necessity of playing this role for loved ones?
While her mental cauldron bubbled alongside the pots on the stove, one thought that stood out amidst confusion was her promise to Navin. She was committed to maintaining an open mind. For Khushi, for her happiness, and mostly for their emotional closeness that she wanted back in full measure. It was painful to live without it, to even consider that the dents on their relationship were anything but temporary.
Anita opened the door with a huge smile and an enthusiasm that startled and amused it’s recipient in equal measures. It was infectious because even Navin and Sujata found themselves smiling widely without trying.
While he was being bombarded with questions regarding their impending move to Florida, Navin decided it was time to intervene. Greeted him warmly, he invited him in and soon Arnav was face to face with Sujata.
For a person who believed in not giving a fuck, so to speak, about judgmental people, about people who didn’t like him and who had sworn by this philosophy all his life, it was indeed groundbreaking, a shift in his inner universe, to make subtle efforts to be liked by someone.
Of course, Sujata greeted him politely too, meeting him half way, her heart making a genuine effort to give ‘the devil who’d seduced her daughter‘ another chance.
Their gazed locked and held for a moment. The awareness that they were both doing it for Khushi flowed to and fro bringing appreciative warmth to their eyes. It reaffirmed their common sentiments for a dearly loved person.
It cemented their truce.
After a while, Arnav found himself sitting in Khushi’s chair at the dining table. He looked around the cozy, tastefully decorated space thoughtfully. His thoughts were uncharacteristically whimsical. They lit his caramel eyes with the ghost of a smile.
Although Khushi wasn’t physically present there, he could feel her. It was like she was an inextricable part of that cheerful space. It was like she took a part of her home wherever she went. And that was the person he’d fallen in love with.
Midway through the meal, after a series of dead ends, conversation began to flow naturally, contributing greatly to the thawing of the proverbial ice. That they weren’t short of topics and everyone was committed to forging connections, helped matters greatly. They talked about Navin’s health, Arnav’s new job, Florida, Wedding plans and…Khushi.
Khushi proved to be a recurring favorite topic with everyone but especially with Arnav. Just like every road lead to Rome, or was supposed to, at one point in history, every single thread of Arnav’s thoughts invariably leading to his wife.
And whenever he talked about her, there would be a subtle shift in his tone, a softening of his features, a smile in his eyes…
He couldn’t have imagined the amount of warmth, the deluge of emotion, he brought to his audience’s hearts. Every single time. Without even trying.
After lunch was over, they went to relax in the family room, mugs of either tea or coffee in hand. Navin turned the TV on. He was delighted to discover a fellow news junkie in Arnav. It would make his life so much easier, he thought pragmatically, not being a big fan of small talk. With both his girls addicted to news as well, it was clear that Arnav had come to the right family.
Sujata sipped her tea and sighed contentedly. Afternoon sun slanted in from the tall windows and warmed the colors of the rug and the hardwood floor.
Sujata glanced across the room at Arnav. He sat relaxed on their brown leather couch, mug of coffee in hand, appearing completely at home. It was almost as if that particular spot had always been predestined for him.
Her eyes lingered on his handsome profile. His chiseled, arrogant features failed to irk like they used to before. It was the first time she regarded them with her vision untainted with prejudice. It was the first time she caught glimpses of his real personality, his inner nature, in them.
Recalling his intention to return to his hotel after coffee, Sujata arrived at a decision. Putting her tea cup on the end table, she cleared her throat and addressed him.
“Arnav, I really think you should stay with us. In fact I insist that you stay with us”, she said, her gaze shifting to her husband for support, “Haina, Navin?
“I agree”, said Navin somberly, his bespectacled eyes twinkling with amusement at this seemingly momentous change of heart and exchanging a look with a wickedly grinning Anita.
Arnav put up a perfunctory resistance for a while. However it wasn’t long before he gave in graciously and directed a small smile of thanks at her.
Sujata smiled back, her eyes warm and motherly and faintly reminiscent of his very own hazel eyes.
Arnav felt his heart strum with satisfaction. He couldn’t wait to see his Khushi’s eyes, her reaction, when she saw them like this. He knew exactly how much it would mean to her. He was reminded of the main reason he’d planned this visit.
Finishing his coffee in a single gulp, he put his mug away. With mischief in his eyes and a boyishly conspiratorial smile on his lips, he disclosed the chief objective behind his visit…
Later in the evening, when Anita readied Khushi’s room for Arnav’s stay, she mused with a smile that her days of sneaking into her sister’s bed were permanently over.
After checking the bathroom for fresh towels, she went to stand in front of the window, gazing out at the dark, moonless night and it’s starry dome.
Determined not to indulge in futile thoughts, she refused to think of Aman. Unbeknownst to herself, his image in her heart was already fading. It was already being replaced by the comforting monotony of a void.
“Will I ever feel the same way again? Will I ever be able to forget my first love? , her heart asked the stars, ruffled into wistful disquietude by waves of Arnav and Khushi’s love for each other.
With an impatient grimace at her weak sentimentality, she turned and flounced off to her room. Opening her laptop with a frown, she took a deep breath and began working on an assignment. There were more important matters needing urgent attention in her life, she muttered sarcastically, than mulling over the odds of finding true love. And there was much more to life in general than finding romantic love.
In keeping with her vow to concentrate whole heartedly on academia for the next few years, and with commendable prudence, she resisted the urge to check either Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. On her FB were friend requests from Aman Aggarwal and Arian Foster among many others. It remained unchecked for months…
Meanwhile in Khushi’s old room, Arnav prepared to settle for the night. Many things scattered around the room attracted his attention. They made him pause and reflect. They made him miss Khushi with a strong, inconsolable yearning.
The Lilac body wash in the shower stall. A box of saffron on her desk. Dried heads of two dozen roses kept in a glass bowl on the dresser. ‘When The Mountains Echoed’ on the nightstand. It was like coming across pieces of himself in her space. It moved him beyond realms of comprehension.
When Khushi called him later in the night, she was unaware of all that had transpired while India was still submerged in the darkness of night.
After they’d talked about various topics, serious and relevant, sappy and irrelevant, Arnav sensed a slight hesitation in Khushi’s voice.
“Are you going to visit my parents?, she finally asked.
“Khushi”, he said seriously with dancing eyes, “Would it be okay if I waited until you were with me too? I would feel a lot more comfortable visiting them with you by my side. We’re going to come back permanently in a a couple weeks anyway”.
Her sigh reached him across the oceans. Her acceptance of his pathetic excuses tugged at his heart. It almost made him disclose where he was at the moment.
He couldn’t wait to be home.
The day of Arnav’s return dawned, a beautiful blustery day in the middle of November. His flight was late in the afternoon and Khushi decided to receive him at the airport.
Her heart beating to a happy rhythm, she was about to leave the house when Astha stalled her citing sudden indisposition and a need for Khushi’s professional attention as the reason. It was so unlike her that Khushi stared in surprise before subjecting her to a lengthy interrogation of symptoms and a thorough physical examination.
Astha underwent the ministrations with a suitable patient-like demeanor, stealing occasional admiring glances at her purported healer. Although she always looked lovely, Astha mused with pride, even in those hideous sweatshirts she seemed to favor immensely when at home, today, she looked especially gorgeous in a pale pistachio lace sari she’d worn to a family brunch earlier in the day. It made her eyes gleam like emeralds.
“You’re absolutely fine, Ma”, Khushi pronounced after a while, briskly putting her stethoscope away. Her green gaze was speculative as they rested on her for a moment.
“You’re probably coming down with a cold or something”, she added kindly with a smile, “Do you want me to get some tea for you?”.
Even as she finished saying that, her mother’s oft repeated words wafted over to her. “There is nothing that a steaming cup of adrak ki chai can’t cure”. They threatened to open a Pandora Box of emotions. They tempered the euphoria of new love with a half suppressed dull ache.
She stood at the foot of the walnut staircase, a steaming teacup in hand, when the front door knob was opened slowly from outside. Dressed In dark denims, white shirt and a tan corduroy sport coat, Arnav walked in quietly.
A column of sunlight slanting on the floor was followed by soft footsteps as Arnav entered with a small smile. It widened with pure happiness when a human missile, a blur in pale pistachio, slammed against his body.
His arms folded around her instinctively, squeezing her for a quick embrace. Then he disengaged his arms and looked down at her. The love in his eyes was breathtaking.
“I have a surprise for you”, he said softly. His eyes crinkled humorously at the edges as he added, “your wedding gift”.
Her eyes were large and curious as they stared at him, a million questions swirling in their depths.
The front door was still ajar and he further opened it, his eyes communicating smilingly with her parents on the other side.
As they walked in, Arnav’s eyes lingered on Khushi’s face. Her widened eyes, her frozen stance were the only indication of her having registered her parents’ unexpected presence. And no amount of emotions on her face could have impacted her onlookers as much as the unnatural lack of them.
Her dad walked toward her with a cane for support, his eyes warm and dignified, his limp almost unnoticeable. The realization it was ages since she had last seen him like this, erect and proud, wrenched painfully at her heart.
Her mom reached her first however. Her eyes were misty. She looked at her in a way Khushi had feared she never would. It was a band aid to the hurt child inside her. It was her undoing.
Her face crumbled. Her eyes welled. Her body wracked with silent sobs. They shook her soul, purging months of repressed angst.
With her eyes raining cleansing water, Sujata stepped up to hug her first born, her heart drawing from it’s never ending spring of love.
Arnav interrupted them gently and lead into the privacy of the family room. He shut the door after them with a click before going upstairs and informing his mother about their arrival.
The initial storm had soon subsided. Words weren’t needed initially as gentle healing waves lapped the shores of their hearts.
It was after they’d all walked over to the French window, with Khushi pointing at the quay and beyond, trying to diffuse emotions with a smile, a lighthearted word, trying to force back a badly missed normalcy in their interactions, that words began to finally flow, slowly, without the burden of tears.
Khushi didn’t let her mother apologize to her.
She absolutely forbade her to apologize to her. For some reason, the prospect of her parents apologizing to her had never sat well with her. She knew her mother was remorseful for her words.
Words. Words flung out in anger. Words not meant. Words leaving behind permanent scars.
Despite it all, this knowledge of her remorse was enough for her.
And this time, Khushi didn’t apologize for her choices either. They hadn’t been easy choices. She wouldn’t wish those choices, those circumstances, on anyone. But they were made by the person she was, and in the space she was, at the time of making them. A person with no knowledge of future and no intention to hurt. A relatively naive person. A flawed human. A woman who’d gladly given her all…all…to the man she loved. Loved more that she’d ever thought possible, desirable or advisable.
Like all choices in life, her choices had brought some good, some bad, some lessons and some realizations. And they’d also brought about the person she was…the life she lived…now.
Soon, another sublime dusk began it’s descent. They stepped away from the window. Drawing the curtains and turning on the lights, Khushi sat down on the rug next to her mom, resting her head against her knee, her heart constricting every time her mother’s hand rested on her hair.
Navin sat next to Sujata. He looked on as they talked. Instinctively realizing their need to communicate, he assumed the role of a listener, drinking in every word but neither interrupting, nor intervening.
Not only could he sense a renewal in their relationship but also a much needed realignment and evolution of their bond.
Navin sighed with relief, leaning relaxedly against the back of the couch. After a while he glanced at his wrist watch. They’d been talking for almost an hour. It was high time somebody interrupted them. It was time to move on. Time to get on with the business of living.
Meanwhile in the library, Astha watched as Arnav paced the room, his eyes shuttered, a glass of amber liquid in hand. His steps slowed down by the window. His gaze skimmed distractedly over the lake’s surface. It rippled with dusk colors, a changed tapestry with every gust.
Seeing Khushi break down like that had unsettled him. And in a way he could have never imagined.
“What’s wrong, Arnav?”, Astha asked finally, placing the magazine she was flipping through in a rack near her chair.
“Nothing”, his son murmured without turning..
After just a moment, he realized how surly her monosyllabic reply must have sounded. He decided to soften it with an elaboration, “I’m just tired, Ma. Nothing’s wrong”.
Acknowledging his effort with a smile, Astha rose from her chair. “Some things will never change”, she thought. She was sure something was bothering him but her heart was at peace. She knew she could leave it to Khushi.
She glanced at the wall clock to ascertain enough time had been given to the Gupta family to compose themselves. Satisfied, she walked out of the library to welcome them.
She met Khushi on the way. And she had no doubt where she was headed to.
“How are you feeling now, Ma?, she teased, her puffy eyes twinkling like twin stars.
“Well, I’m still waiting for my adrak wali chai”, Astha replied with a smile.
A pause ensued. She patted her cheek lightly with loving fingers. Her voice was gruff as she said, “Arnav is in the library”.
Khushi opened the door softly. He didn’t hear her. He stood by the window, his wide back silhouetted against the twinkling lights of the lake and the skies. She walked across the softly lit library, deliberately keeping her footsteps light on the thick carpet.
He smelled her perfume and his lips quirked into a smile. Turning suddenly, he took her by surprise and hauled her against him. He molded her body against his with a laugh. Firmly ensconcing in his arms, she marveled at how well they seemed to fit into each other.
She smiled against his shirt, her nose wrinkling appreciatively at the scent she’d missed so much. They remained silent for a while, their hearts beating with the rare love they inspired in each other. Then she loosened his hold and her eyes slanted up and meet his.
“Thank you, Arnav”, she said softly.
“I had to go to Cleveland anyway”, he shrugged with a smile, averting his eyes, sounding a little embarrassed.
Even as she chuckled amusedly at his embarrassment, her heart constricted with emotion.
She cupped his face lightly with both hands, forcing him to meet her moist gaze. With her thumbs caressing the fine lines at his eyes’ corners, she said, “I know you went there just for me. You knew how important this was for me”. Her smile wavered, her eyes swam, her words choked at the end.
Arnav sucked in a breath; he drew her close again. “It was the least I could do”, he said gruffly after a pause, “After all you’ve done for me and all the pain I gave you in return. All the…problems I caused in your life”.
“Shh”, Khushi stopped him, a tear running down a cheek. “If you ever gave me pain, it was because…because you needed me more than anyone can imagine. Because you loved me”.
Arnav’s eyes were tender and his smile self-depreciative, “A pretty poor kind of love it seems, now that I look back at it. Selfish. Impatient. Not sure if I like it or the person it made me. No wonder your parents had reservations about me”.
“But I loved that person. I loved him just as much I love you”, she said, her eyes aglow with green fire, a fierce protectiveness, “And no one…no one…has the right to judge him until they have all the facts, until they have the guts to go back in time, to step into his shoes, to walk around in his skin…”.
With her voice cracking, she slipped her arms around his neck, standing on her tip-toes to press her lips against his in a soft kiss.
Even though his caramel eyes shone through gossamer moisture, his lips curved as he murmured, “With you as my champion, I guess I’m going to be alright”.
He ran a hand down her back, caressing her bare waist possessively before tracing the curve of her derrire and pulling it closer. Another weaved into her mane of glorious hair.
She caressed his lower lips with a flick of her tongue, her knees weakening as he promptly upped the ante by an uninhibited devouring of her lips and mouth.
After a long while they decided it was time to stop, their breaths still tangled, their eyes dilated.
They heard Astha calling them for dinner and reluctantly released each other.
Dinner was a jovial affair with every person sitting around the table in a peaceful, slightly euphoric, frame of mind. Arnav and Khushi watched with satisfaction as their parents mingled effortlessly. They talked about a wide range of topics with Kashmir, politics, movies and their upcoming wedding among the very top and sometimes they joined in, sometimes they watched, and sometimes they looked across the table at each other.
They lingered in the family room after dinner, drinking kehwa and eating saffron infused phirni in little terra-cotta dessert bowls. After a while, Arnav turned the TV on, although it took a lot of remote flipping to get everyone enthusiastic about the same channel.
With the parents immersed in a new, critically acclaimed Hindi movie, Arnav looked across the room at Khushi. She sat between her parents on the couch but he was the rug, as usual, next to the fire place. Their eyes met for a second, a significant second, before he rose, stretched, bade goodnight to everyone and left the room.
After what she thought was a decent interval, Khushi followed him, her steps light and joyous on the walnut staircase. Perhaps she could have flown if she had tried; it certainly felt like it.
Her heart beat wildly as she opened the door and entered. Bolting it, she stood with her back pressed against it, looking across the lamp lit room at Arnav.
He semi-lay on the bed, his head propped up by pillows, an arm folded behind his head and another keeping his cell phone pressed against his ear. He was still in jeans in white shirt, it’s buttons half undone as if interrupted in the middle of undressing.
The soft lamp light slanted on his face. With bright eyes, he smiled at her; an eyebrow and lips made a disappointed gesture at the phone.
She went to sit beside him; perched on the edge of the four poster bed, she faced him.
Words like saffron, harvest, storage, market price and shares…wafted toward her but didn’t quite reach her. She studied his face, his stubbled jaw, his chiseled nose, his fatigued eyes. She caressed them first with her eyes and then with her soft touches.
He closed his eyes and swallowed, his Adam’s Apple bobbing, when she leaned closer, and nuzzled her dew soft skin against his, dropping kisses on his face, his jaw and his warm corded neck. The tenderness in her loving, in her every movement and touch took his breath away..
She heard him ending the call, dropping the phone carelessly on the side as she slowly unfastened his shirt. She stroked his chest with her palms, teasing the fine sprinkling of hair with her nails.
Her lips followed the path emblazoned by her hands and fingertips; he inhaled sharply when she reached his toned abs and followed a fine line of hair leading south.
His strong fingers burrowed in her hair as she reached the waistband and unbuttoned it, his heart tapping a wild rhythm against his ribcage. His breath hitched as she lightly touched his fly, his arousal, pausing deliberately to torture him.
The sound of his laughing expletives mixed with that of a fly being unzipped.
He had almost nearing his release when he stopped her with a hoarse cry. Hauling her up, he turned with both their bodies, pinning her under him.
“You little minx”, he said with a lazy grin before swooping down to claim her waiting lips.
With his blood turned to fire, he almost ripped her clothes off of her, kissing, tasting, worshiping every inch of her body, playing her body like an instrument. His clothes joined the pile on the floor and it wasn’t long before he had entered her with a single, strong thrust or before their bodies rocked together to a primeval rhythm.
Khushi cried his name, her nails dug into his shoulder and together they fell off the cliff into a rip tide of sensations.
The lights of Shantivan went off one by one under a moonless sky. Ensconced in the comfort of darkness, it’s inhabitants had soon drifted off to the realms of oblivion, perhaps more peacefully than they had in months.
It was late in the night that Khushi had that dream, or a small part of it, again. She found herself in Pampore once again. Her mind, conditioned by the horrors of her recurrent nightmare, recoiled in anticipation. Her sleeping form had just begun to walk amidst the rippling violet sea, just begun to feel strong wind in her hair, that her protesting mind woke her up with a start. And that moment marked the end of her nightmares.
Arnav’s face loomed over her, his eyes narrowed with concern, his gentle hand patting her cheek.
“Khushi? Are you okay, baby? Were you having a nightmare?
Her eyes were blank for a short while before blinking into focus. Her features gradually relaxed. Her breaths slowly became even.
“Arnav, can we go to Pampore now? To the saffron fields?, she asked suddenly, her eyes flickering with an urgency she didn’t understand, her voice hoarse with sleep.
Arnav recalled another night in Tampa. The night she’d rushed to his room and told him about her nightmare…
“Go, get ready”, he said with a smile, their eyes merging in a continuous pool of tenderness, a silent affirmation of understanding.
They reached Pampore just before sunrise. This time they entered through the plantation main gates under a curved white metal sign that read Saffron Fields in violet letters. As uniformed guards, who’d been alerted of their arrival, held the gates open, their white Range Rover Evoque glided in over smooth asphalt.
Arnav parked the SUV in front of of a cluster of nondescript wood and brick buildings that included the manager’s office, warehouse, stamen extraction and drying, storage and packing facilities.
With saffron harvesting being an early morning operation, the place was already abuzz with activity. Saffron pickers, seasonal workers from nearby villages, were amassing in the fields.
Prepared with wicker baskets, they waited for dawn, time for the delicate crocuses to blossom.
Breathing in the crisp morning air, Arnav and Khushi strolled towards the dark fields, chasing sleep away by sips of coffee from a shared steel travel mug.
Strong wind blew in from the encircling rim of Himalayas. It ruffled their hair and invigorated their senses. As they neared the fields, they could smell the evocative fragrance it picked off of the violet flowers.
With the fragrance inextricably enmeshed in a million memories, Khushi’s heart dilated with a surge of nostalgia. She weaved her fingers in Arnav’s and together they sat down on a grassy slope at the edge of the fields.
The grass was slightly moist with dew but they didn’t really mind. Their eyes were focused on the eastern sky above the mountain summits, waiting for it’s first pink and orange steaks.
The sun inched up from behind the summits. A ball of fire, a symbol of cyclical regeneration like the Phoenix…
It colored the air pale gold and coaxed the delicate flowers into a blooming sea of violet. Their hearts thrummed in unison with emotion too deep for words.
It was another day…and it was theirs.
A/N: Thank you so much for reading and re-reading this story. I know it dealt with dark, uncomfortable, complex topics but I hope I was able to do even a little justice to them and that I was able to convey what this story had set out to do. This blog will remain open to all while Silver Sands, it’s sequel, is ongoing.
I know, a lot of you have already been very generous with your comments while this story was on IF, but could you please share a few of your thoughts (on your favorite chapters and parts maybe) It will mean a lot to me and I want to save them on this blog and cherish for the rest of my life. 😊