Banner: The very efficient and talented BlueMystique (with insistent input from the more optimistic boyznaka).
Hello hello! It’s been a while, no? Or maybe not. *cue cheesy line about all of us carrying the spirit of the show and fandom within*
Jokes apart, I’m super excited to connect with so many old friends and new. (And totally procrastinate on my finals, in the process.) Thank you, Ridz, for roping me in and making me such a pretty banner, K and Manreet for the initiative, Chutki for being so enthusiastic and encouraging, Juhi for being my all-round number one and beta extraordinaire. And all of you, for reading and being so supportive, hamesha. *fandom hug*
(Because favourite songs tend to attach themselves to favourite ships.)
Hum cheez hain bade kaam ki, yaaram
Humein kaam pe rakh lo kabhi, yaaram
She saw it as soon as she entered the room. That damn cup sat pretty on dark teak, porcelain gleaming innocently in the watery early morning sun. Huffing, she hurried over to the table and moved the cup to the other side, careful not to spill any of the steaming coffee in it.
That he was right-handed and always reached for his morning coffee with his left hand while scrolling through the day’s agenda and making calls, was a fact that completely eluded his scatterbrain of a PA, Arjun.
She took a quick peek at the notebook in her hand that had a hastily scribbled list and then looked critically at the files stacked on one end of the same table. If he had a meeting with Shaheen Siganporia in the morning, wouldn’t he need the Scheherzaade project file before that? She made a quick note at the bottom of the page to remind Arjun to dig it up and take it to him before he lost his temper over it.
She took another minute to adjust the blinds a half-inch and lower the temperature on the thermostat by three degrees. She shook her head, a small smile blooming at the corner of her lips while she fiddled with the thermostat. Only Arnav Singh Raizada would claim a room to be too warm on a freezing Delhi winter morning.
She hesitated momentarily over the single long stemmed white rosebud she had purchased on a whim on her way to the office, and placed it in the narrow chrome-plated vase on the coffee table in front of the couch. Di had once mentioned how fond he was of roses because it had been the late Mrs Malik’s favourite flower. Red, of course, would have been dangerous. And so she had bought the white. Stopping only to straighten a cushion on the couch on her way out, Khushi Kumari Gupta turned to survey the imposing room one last time, nod in satisfaction, and exit as silently as she had entered.
The large clock on the main floor indicated that it was just a few minutes to eight. She had cut it a little too fine today. She sprinted down the stairs that led to his office and whipped around the corner even as the elevator chimed open and the unmistakable sharp clip of his footsteps echoed down the corridor and up the same stairs.
Khushi exhaled, opening her eyes after the door to his office closed behind him. She slipped into Arjun’s cubicle, rolling her eyes at the young boy doodling dreamily at his desk. It was only after she had cleared her throat a second time that he started up, shoving the paper under a file and smiling at Khushi. “Khushi! Hey, I didn’t see you come in. What’s up?”
Khushi couldn’t help returning his smile. Arjun severely tested even her patience, never mind his short-tempered employer’s, but there was something innately likable about him. He tried so earnestly, it was impossible to remain angry with him for long– which was probably why he still held this job. And, of course, well-timed interventions by Aman Mathur and Khushi Kumari Gupta helped.
“Arjun, did you forget about that Scheherzaade file? Doesn’t ASR have an eleven o’clock meeting with Shaheenji?”
Arjun shot to his feet and began scrambling among the mess of papers and files on his desk. “Thanks, Khushi! I owe you, man! ASR had specifically asked for that file first thing today.”
Sighing once again, Khushi stepped forward and pulled out a narrow navy blue folder from the bottom of the pile, and held it out towards him.
Throwing her another grateful look, Arjun took the file and ran out.
Khushi returned to her own desk, and booted up her desktop. She had close to fifty minutes before Lavanyaji, her immediate boss, came in. And she still needed to review the marketing department’s morning presentation that would be headed by Lavanyaji.
She chuckled over the memory of a recent conversation that had led to their return to AR.
“Lavanyaji, do you mind if I ask you a rather personal question?”
“I won’t know if I mind until you ask me, Chamkili.”
“Are you sure…about marrying Arnavji?”
“No, I mean, my mother always talks about how a husband should be a good provider and…”
“Firstly, that’s kind of sexist. Secondly, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but ASR owns a fashion house worth several thousand crores.”
“Does he really? The thing is, given how much time he spends in his room talking to Amanji on the phone, I had assumed it was Amanji who really owns AR.”
Lavanya had pinched Khushi hard, both girls dissolving into fits of helpless laughter.
“I mean, Arnavji is very good-looking and has personality-shersonality, na. Maybe it was Amanji’s masterplan all along: Arnavji is the pretty face of AR, and Amanji the brains behind it?”
Khushi chattered brightly, all the while aware of the rigid figure standing behind the half-closed door that led to the back garden.
Lavanya’s face lost colour all of a sudden when the door slid open with a vicious click.
“ASR? Umm…we hadn’t realised you were home. We were just kidding, ASR, Khushi didn’t mean to…”
He had lifted one sardonic eyebrow, eyes frozen shards of ice. “Given how concerned you and Khushi Kumari Gupta are about the functioning of AR, why don’t you return to work from tomorrow? You can see for yourselves how AR is run. In any case, AR doesn’t pay people to sit around on their asses doing nothing, contrary to what some may believe.”
He hadn’t acknowledged Khushi at all, delivering his scathing sentence to Lavanya and stalking off towards his bedroom.
Khushi had turned around to hide a smile. He was so easy.
Khushi had several reasons to have orchestrated this transition back into AR for both her and Lavanya.
First, now that his secret was out, that insufferable man who called himself Anjali Jha’s husband made no bones about spending time at the Raizada house to be close to her.
Second, with Lavanyaji and Arnavji engaged, her duty to ‘train’ Lavanyaji to be an acceptable granddaughter-in-law to Naniji was done. And while the idea of this ‘training’ project had made Khushi deeply uncomfortable and she was glad it was over, it made her even more uncomfortable to sit around at Raizada house and ‘get paid for doing nothing,’ as Arnavji had put it.
Finally, with Arnavji playing a pivotal role in bringing her Jiji and Akashji together, they had called a temporary truce of sorts. And he had been more sympathetic than she had ever hoped for over her broken engagement.
In fact, AR had miraculously turned into Khushi’s safe haven. She had a friend and ally in Lavanyaji, whom she now worked for. Arnavji didn’t dedicate every waking moment to making her life miserable– he largely pretended that she wasn’t there at all. And she had a respectable job that she had slowly started enjoying.
If at times she felt lonelier than ever, she sternly reprimanded her wayward heart. What reason had she to feel heartsick? Even Khushi Kumari Gupta didn’t believe in confusing secret daydreams with reality.
Raat savere, shaam ya dopehari
Band aankhon me le ke tumhe ungha karenge hum
Takiye chaadar mehake rehte hain
Jo tum gaye
Tumhari khushboo soongha karenge hum
Arnav tossed the report in his hand aside with uncharacteristic carelessness. Leaning back in his chair, he stretched his legs out under his table and rubbed a weary hand across his eyes. Insomnia, an old friend, had recently moved back into his life with vengeance. Which was why, at eight thirty on a Tuesday morning, two cups of black coffee later, he still felt exhausted. It was only years of well-trained will power and unshakeable self-discipline that had allowed him to focus on the Scheherzaade project summary that his idiot of a PA had handed him half an hour ago. He inhaled deeply, a wry smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. The scent of sandalwood incense and fresh jasmine flowers just barely lingered in his office. No prizes for guessing where it had come from, of course. There was only one person in this entire building who walked around smelling like the small temple behind Sheesh Mahal that his mother and sister had once haunted.
He had a fair idea to why she came into his office every morning. He had once arrived a few minutes earlier than his usual eight o’clock and been rather confused to find Khushi Kumari Gupta repositioning the coffee on his desk and messing around with the blinds and thermostat. He had walked in and stood leaning against the door for an entire minute before she’d realised that he was in the room. And when she had, she’d blushed fiercely, muttered an outright lie about having accidentally left a pen in his office, and fled. Neither had brought it up again.
But Arnav knew that the sandalwood-jasmine scent and the invisible touches to make his office more comfortable were knotted intricately together in his heart, in a raw corner he acknowledged on sleepless nights. If nothing else, the white rose in the far end of the room gave the game away. He’d eat the damn Siganporia file if the always-mooning Arjun had placed it there.
Khushi was naively transparent about her crush on him.
And that was the problem. He didn’t know how to handle affection, let alone anything stronger. At best, affection suffocated him, made him irritable– a response both Lavanya and Di understood. At worst, it made him dependent…vulnerable– it threatened to crumble the very essence of what made him this formidable, near-invincible, self-made man. And Khushi brought out the worst.
Rising from his chair, he walked over to the window facing the corner of the lower floor where Khushi had her desk, and parted the blinds a few centimeters– just enough to see through but not enough to be seen. She sat staring at the computer screen in front of her, brows furrowed in concentration.
He wanted to simultaneously laugh, and smash that empty coffee cup against the wall. He wanted to send her packing out of his life. He wanted to cross the yards that separated them to hold her and ask her whom she thought she was fooling. Aapko kya faraq padta hai? Khushi was rather fond of asking that question. He wanted to turn the tables and ask her, why she cared about his comfort. Ask her why she’d left that rose…
Instead, he walked to the couch in his office and sank into it, staring at the white flower in front of him. Khushi had already destroyed his sanity. He couldn’t allow her to destroy his self. He would marry Lavanya, and he would be at peace. He would teach his heart to untangle that tender knot it guarded closely, and some day, he would be able to let the threads go.
Until then, the ghost of the sandalwood-jasmine fragrance and the fragile bloom on the table soothed his restless soul like a nicotine patch on an addict.
A cheerful greeting enveloped in a cloud of expensive perfume made Khushi look up from her work.
“Good morning, Chamkili! God, that turquoise looks divine on you– gota and pompoms notwithstanding. I’ve been trying to get hold of a pair of stilettos in that exact shade for ages. Are you working on the presentation?”
Khushi grinned back. “I am. I’m almost done, in fact. I’ll bring it to your office in fifteen minutes with my revision notes so that you can go over them, well in time.”
“You are an angel, Khushi Kumari Gupta. I just have to talk to ASR before that. I’ll join you in a bit.” Engulfing Khushi in a brief, warm hug, Lavanya Kashyap ran up the stairs to Arnav’s office.
Khushi closed her eyes in shame and hurt. What was she doing? Lavanyaji was her best friend. It was a relationship that had been hard-won– and she was jeopardizing it over a man? And not just any man– a man who was fascinated and repulsed by her in equal measure; a man who wasn’t brave enough to acknowledge his own heart; a man she was never sure she could rely on.
Arnavji didn’t belong in her dreams of simple domestic harmony any more than she belonged in his ruthlessly paced world. Never did she loathe herself more than when she saw Arnavji and Lavanyaji together– despise herself for the nauseating envy that churned in her gut, and resent everything about her life that made her so unsuitable for him.
So what was she expecting from him? What did she hope for? Did she even want him?
Memories of sturdy shoulders, a gentle touch, and a gaze that shifted from warm to smouldering in seconds, rippled through her, making her stomach clench with longing.
Khushi leaned heavily on the desk, pressing her fingers against her forehead, releasing a shaky breath.
It didn’t matter. The truth was she could wish for the moon and it would still be more attainable than the obstinate man sitting half a floor above her, who could play her heartstrings like a marionette. And as long as he paced his office floor, handling his empire far more efficiently than he had ever handled his heart– she knew she would be hiding around the corners, smoothing away tiny wrinkles and mending the worn edges of the seams of his life. Call it masochistic, but she knew no other way.
Dhoop na tum ko lage
Khol denge chhatariyaan
Peechhe peechhe din bhar
Ghar daftar mein le ke chalenge hum
Tumhaari filein, tumhaari diary
Gaadi ki chaabiyan, tumhaari enakein
Tumhaara laptop, tumhaari cap, phone
Aur apna dil
And it was selfish. She, who had preached moral righteousness to both Arnavji and Lavanyaji, couldn’t force her mutinous mind to do the honourable thing and cut all ties with the man engaged to her best friend. Oh, how the mighty fall…
She smiled bitterly, hitting ‘save’ on the presentation. Let this be a lesson in never judging people for the choices they make, henceforth.
The agitated tapping of Lavanya’s stilettos made her look up. Angry blotches marred the perfection of her dusky cheeks even as hurt shone in her eyes.
“He is fucking impossible. I swear to god, Khushi, I sometimes ask myself why I love this insane, moody workaholic at all. First, he just sat there on his couch, staring at a white rose in front of him, while I was trying to pass on a message from Di. Then, all I did was try to figure out what was bothering him so I made a random comment about what a pretty flower it is and reached out to touch a petal. Only, he fucking blew a fuse and snapped at me to stop meddling with things in his office and get the hell back to work!”
Lavanya bit her lip, stemming the anguished torrent of words. “I’m sorry. You don’t need to hear this early in the morning. I’ll deal with this later. Give me five minutes to cool off and we can talk about our presentation in my office.”
Khushi nodded blankly, clutching the hem of her kurta and twisting the fabric around her fingers.
Long after Lavanya had walked away, she kept staring at the spot she had been standing in, her mind occupied with whirling images of a proud man with a reluctant plea in his eyes and an insignificant white rose.
She covered her mouth, fingers stifling a broken sob, as the other hand pressed against a fierce matching ache in the centre of her chest.