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……………..

After the blissful long drive and the walk by the beach, Manik dropped Nandini home. However, none of them wanted to go back.

The night had to come to an end, and the best part was that they were next-door neighbours. So, they just had to separate and enter the next door. That’s it. But still, they kept delaying it on some pretext or the other.

She finally shrugged, “Okay, then?”

He leaned forwards for a peck on her lips. But she slowly turned backward, avoiding him.

He frowned, “I was hoping for a chaste ‘good night kiss’. That’s all.”

She blushed and giggled softly, leaning forwards to plant a soft kiss on his cheek and separated quickly, saying, “Whatever you meant but I am not sure of kissing you at my doorstep.”

He smirked, “Scared?”

“Looking at our past records… Yes!” She raised her brows helplessly and smirked, “Scared of ‘my responses’ … to you!!”

He smirked more, kissed her forehead and let her go, but with a promise that she will meet him the next day, after their classes.

She nodded to agree, coming to terms with the fact that another unusually beautiful day had just ended. These days every such day that they spent together was safely stored in the slambook of ‘beautiful days’… for both of them…

………….

Nandini’s parents had to go to San Diego to bring back Navya with them.  Ram Murthy was very angry at the way Harshad had behaved. he had just not expected this from Harshad. Naina Murthy was nervous about it. She feared a bitter altercation. So Nandini’s mother, Naina requested their immediate neighbours and best friends, Manik’s parents, Shekhar and Neeta Malhotra to accompany them.

Malhotras immediately agreed to go with Murthys to Harshad and Navya’s home in San Diego, to help Navya.

Late at night, Manik peered out of his room’s window to look at the house next door. Nandini’s rooms lights were on. It was exactly opposite to Manik’s room, on the side of the house.

‘So, she couldn’t sleep after coming back!’  A naughty smirk swam on his lips when he imagined her lost in ‘his’ thoughts. Even an idea like this was so thrilling for him…

He immediately called her, “I saw that you are awake… so I called…”

“We had already said the ‘good night’ bit…” She reminded him with a chuckle.

“I thought, I could help if you needed to talk to me to feel better… you know, in case you are uneasy.” He grinned.

She rolled her eyes, pretending to yawn, “And why will I be uneasy?”

“Just accept it that you were restless, thinking about me.”

She giggled, “Of course not. I was about to go to sleep but before that…”

“I know. You need to change, brush, pray, have milk, and then sleep, right??”

“You know me…haan?” She smirked.

“Forget it. Accha listen, I’m not going to classes tomorrow. I’m bunking them all.”

“Bunking classes?” She opened her mouth in surprise. It was new to her. Manik Malhotra was a sincere student who didn’t bunk classes, never ran away from lectures or assignments and was so regular at academics that he was teased for that. ‘She’ was the one who bunked classes, was a part of every mischief at school and college, and spent time trying to find out ways to run away from everything that needed to be submitted or attended on time. So many times, Manik had to make her sit in the classes, nearly push her to finish her presentations, and keep reminding her to study and that the exams were approaching. She teasingly rolled her tongue in her mouth and sniggered, “The Manik Malhotra… bunking classes… whoaaa!!!”

He laughed, “Can I not bunk classes?”

“No, only ‘cool’ ‘chill’ people like me do that. You are boring. Nerdy types.”

“I can be cool, chill too!” He defended himself weekly, wondering if he really believed in that or was it Nandu’s influence on him. Whatever it was, he loved it.

“No, Malhotra. You cannot.”

“Shut up!” He rolled his eyes, “And listen to me… I’m bunking classes tomorrow and with me, you are bunking the classes too.”

“Why me? No, I’m not doing it.” She swayed her jaw, pretending to present as someone very dedicated and sincere, which she was not.

He had a sly, irritated smile on his lips, “Sweetheart, our parents are going out of town tomorrow. Together. Do you get the hint? Now, can there be a better opportunity to spend time with each other?”

“Hmm!! Yeah, I know they are going. But I have lots of work, Manik. I need to submit my assignments and projects by next week.”

“Next week is far. I’ll help you.”

“But…”

“But what?”

She smiled knowingly, “So you want us to spend time with each other?”

“Well… I was hoping for that…”

“Why don’t you come over, Manik. My room.”

“Room?” He smirked in a naughty way, “Aren’t you scared?”

“Not anymore.”

“Whoa…whoa. Hold on! I need to take a break. You are sometimes so fast that it scares me. Tell me, what’s on your mind?”

She laughed loudly, “Nothing. You have one-track mind, na?? It’s like, I just want us to be comfortable and as mom and dad are out of town, you can easily stay back with me, without anyone knowing about us.”

He sniggered, “Well… well, I loved your confidence!! I hope you don’t chicken out at the last moment after this tempting offer.”

“I won’t, Mr. Manik Malhotra. I am a strong girl.”

“I love that too, Ms. Nandini Murthy… See you tomorrow… at your room…I’ll wait for tomorrow.”

“Me too. But before that… I want to ask you to do something for me.” She dreamily leaned by her window, facing his window.

“Tell me, what can I do for you?” He asked indulging her and pampering her.

“Come down now. Through the backyard.”

“Now?? Are you nuts?? Wait… Nandini, do you even know what time it is?”

She sighed and whispered, adoringly, “I know. It’s 3:00 am but what I want to ask is really important.”

“Alright. I’ll be there. In five?”

………..

He went down the stairs, almost sprinting through this stretch and stepped out through the backyard. She had been waiting there.

“What?” He asked impatiently.

“I wanted to ask…” She walked closer, with her hands clasping at the front and chin raised up, face glowing in the moonlight.

“Ask what?”

“Ask you for something that I desperately need right now.” She spoke in a hushed, husky whisper.

“Anything for you!” He leaned forwards, with an adoring smile for her.

“Please hug me.”

Surprised, he raised his brows. Then, he smiled for a moment and observed her cute face as she asked him to comfort her. He stretched his hand and held her arm to bring her close to him. Within a few seconds, he drew her in his arms and wrapped his arms around her. She hugged him as her life depended on him. Even he was surprised at the way she held him, holding him close to her, clutching the fabric of his tee-shirt below her fingers. She sighed over the skin on his chest, making him shudder. They had been so close, physically, emotionally, mentally, at all levels… still, a simple hug comforted them as nothing else could ever.

None of them separated for a few minutes. Then Nandini asked him in slow words, “Can this hug stay for a few minutes more?”

Nestling deep in his arms, she lay almost hidden in his chest while he engulfed her like a big bear. He drew her closer, rested his chin on her head and sighed.

“This hug can stay as long as you want it to be.”

 

…………..

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