It’s not like he forgot ---
Well, okay, maybe he had; doesn’t mean he’s going to admit it to Panchali though.
“You’re honestly telling me you were going to spend the night of your birthday studying microeconomics?”
Karan’s at his study table, books spread neatly in front of him, a used globe almost teetering on the edge. The globe is filled with pushpins --- all the places he wants to travel, if he can save up the money someday. He nibbles on his knuckle, rocks back and forth and tries to pretend the ball of fiery energy that he sometimes calls his friend isn’t really in the room.
A piece of crumpled paper hits him square in the back of his head. It’s enough to make him turn around and almost shoot Panchali a glare.
(The reason he doesn’t, of course, is because Karan doesn’t glare at people, and thinks it unbecoming anyway. Not like he’s scared of Panchali’s eyes burning holes in him or anything. )
“Don’t ignore me when I’m talking to you,” Panchali says, eyes flashing in a way Karan’s grown familiar with.
“Wasn’t ignoring you,” Karan says, sighing. He bites down on a smile at the miffed expression on Panchali’s face. “I’ve got a paper to submit this Friday.”
Panchali’s brow furrows. She brings up a hand and counts on her fingers. “Well, that’s like, three days away.”
“Fine.” Karan knows when to admit defeat, knows that when it comes to Panchali, victory can never really be his. “I’m not five, you know. Birthdays are for kids.”
Not that he celebrated them with much pomp when he was a kid, too. By his eighth, he had already decided that birthdays meant spending money that could easily pay for electricity or transportation, and no, really, he didn't need that toy bow and arrow set at all --- and, what was so great about cake and candles anyway?
“That doesn’t mean you should forget yours,” Panchali huffs, a stray lock escaping from the bun she’s got piled on top of her head. Karan’s hands twitch at his sides. “Besides,” she adds, eyes glinting with mischief, “you’re finally twenty one.”
Karan groans and puts his head between his hands. “I’m not letting you get me drunk.”
He hears Panchali laugh her response.
“I love you for getting me drunk!” Karan roars above the din of the crowd. Remixes of old rock and roll hits make the club floors vibrate underneath his feet.
“Don’t thank me yet.” Panchali’s eyes are shining under the club’s dim lights, and she smiles up at him in a way that makes Karan think of how fire can be infinitely more dangerous than the sun --- it all depends on proximity.
Speaking of which, they seem to be drowning in a sea of closely packed bodies. The heat rising off the bodies is enough to collude with the alcohol and make Karan feel like his head is swimming.
Also, Karan might be more than a little intoxicated and, much to Panchali's dismay, still doesn’t know how to move his feet to the beat. He awkwardly shuffles alongside several gyrating students.
“It feels like,” Karan gulps, his voice suddenly hoarse, “It feels like there’s fire instead of blood inside me.”
“I knew you’d like it,” Panchali winks, tongue darting out to wet her lips.
Karan’s mouth goes dry. Maybe it’s time for another drink, he thinks.
This is the first time Karan’s ever ventured into the college nightlife. He’s always steered clear of it --- he’s a scholarship student, isn’t here to party his parents’ savings away like most of the rich kids here. He knows he’s at a college frequented by the privileged, so he keeps to himself because he’d very much like to avoid the taunts, and doesn't have much in common with the people around him. Besides, underage drinking never really held any charm for him.
Which means this is also the first time Karan’s ever seen Panchali like this.
Panchali takes to the dance floor like fire to dry forests. It’s the first time Karan’s seen her without her trademark bun, her hair flowing wildly as she moves to the thrumming beat. She becomes the music, moving with the rise and fall of the notes --- it is the most magical thing Karan’s ever seen.
“You’re doing it wrong,” Panchali yells, craning her neck to speak into his ear. Her breath is warm against his skin. “The dancing, you’re doing it wrong.”
Karan’s heart beats in his throat --- it must be the alcohol. It is his first time, after all.
“Bend your knees.”
“What, like this?” He complies. It’s hard for him to do, letting go of all the tension he has, loosening his limbs. He stumbles a little, hands reaching out to Panchali’s waist. He lets out a laugh quite unlike his own. “Am I doing it right?”
“Yeah, totally. Now you can definitely pass for someone having a seizure,” Panchali grins, fingers poking at his ribs. “You’re like a taut bow,” she says, hands lingering even after she’s finished trying to tickle him into dancing, or whatever she’s trying to do. “Just follow what I’m doing.”
“Okay, ma’am,” Karan says, voice thick. He tries to sway like she is, tries to find the rhythm that eludes him. “Maybe I just wasn’t made for dancing, you know?” His words come out a little slower, a little louder than he intends.
“Mhmm,” Panchali mumbles noncommittally. She looks preoccupied, eyes glazed over with a faraway look. Her fingers dance up his sides, move to his shoulders.
“Hey. Earth to Panchali!”
Panchali snaps out of whatever reverie she’s in, looks up at him with eyes darker than the night. The air thickens; Karan feels something warm coil at the base of his spine.
Panchali’s scarlet lips pull apart into a smile brighter than the lights blinking around them. “Don’t worry, birthday boy. I’m going to teach you.”
Karan feels the air rush back into his lungs.
So, just as promised, under Panchali’s guidance, Karan learns how to dance, albeit in a very drunken fashion, for the very first time. He doesn’t do it very well, although it might be because of the quick break they take for another two or twenty rounds of shots --- or perhaps the fact that somehow, at some point in the night, Panchali’s hands end up interlaced behind his head.
“I thought last night was your gift to me.”
“Aren’t I full of surprises?” Panchali glances at him, throws him a smile.
Sometimes, Karan feels like he’s one of those old school video game characters. His life is quest and Panchali’s little glances and smiles are the little trinkets he collects, the ones that give him extra lives at the top of the screen.
“You’re not gonna tell me where we’re going, are you?”
Panchali rolls her eyes, hands tightening on the steering wheel as she navigates a tight turn. “Nope, that would ruin the surprise.”
“Just because you’re my only friend doesn’t mean you have to keep giving me gifts, you know,” Karan says. He hates the way it comes out. He sounds like a sullen child. More importantly, he sounds ungrateful. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like ---”
Panchali pushes her palm against the horn, glares at a passing car, before turning to Karan to say: “I’m not just your only friend. I’m your best friend.” The corner of her lips twitch with amusement.
Karan feels something warm spill into his chest, like sunlight on a winter afternoon. He leans back against the headrest, closes his eyes to mask the fact that they’re suddenly brimming with heat. “You’re also my most conceited friend,” he tries to say, voice breaking.
Panchali doesn’t comment on how choked his voice sounds. Karan kind of loves her for that.
“Kinda hard not to be when I’m your only one, right?” Panchali says, tone light and teasing. Karan knows how she hates when he puts himself down, is always around to lift him right back up. “Now cheer up, loser. I didn’t waste all this time planning for you to be your old, mopey self.”
“A mall.” Karan looks around at the department stores, at the groups of ladies walking around with strollers and shopping bags. “You brought me to the mall?”
“You’re a ball of sunshine, aren’t you?” Panchali laughs, fingers at his wrist. If his pulse jumps under her touch, she doesn’t say anything about it. “Come on.”
Karan looks at a little boy and girl seemingly wrestling on the floor near the fountain in the middle of the mall. Their parents watch with casual disinterest. “You don’t have to buy me anything, seriously. You already paid for the last few rounds of shots, last night.”
“Karan,” Panchali stops, stilling his movements with a palm on his chest. “Stop. Talking. Okay?”
“Okay,” Karan breathes, glad that she takes her hand away and continues walking. “I’m totally not offended by that.”
Panchali elbows him in the side. “Still talking.”
“Ow, okay, okay, but just so you know,” Karan starts to say, but he can’t continue, because Panchali’s stopped in front of an enclosure. The sign above it says simply: Hastinapur Archery Range.
“You did not.” A memory sparks inside him of Panchali discovering his childhood photographs, curled with age, in his drawers. He remembers her laughing at a picture of him with a paper crown and a bow and arrow he had fashioned out of twigs, remembers that he never found that photograph again.
“Tell me again about how conceited I am,” Panchali says, lips curving into a full-blown smile.
Karan does the first thing he can think of: he throws his arms around Panchali, almost crushing her into a hug. “I don’t deserve you,” he whispers slowly into her hair, can’t think of anything else to say.
“You’re right about that,” Panchali jokes, but her laugh sounds shaky when it hits Karan’s ear, her warm exhales hitting his neck. “Also, you need a haircut, and I think you’re cutting the air supply to my lungs. But it’s all good.”
Karan lets her go, grinning sheepishly. He feels his ears burning, notices the scarlet on Panchali’s cheeks, neck. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Think of that later,” Panchali says, breathing in deeply and turning towards the shop. “Let’s go in.”
A boy their age, who says his name is Arjun, shows them around. He brings out two dismantled bows, puts them together in front of their eyes, looks at Karan suspiciously for no reason.
Arjun insists on showing them how to shoot the arrows. He’s got a cocky grin by the end of the demo, and when the sheet with the human figure and concentric rings comes to them, there’s just one neat hole through the target where Arjun had fired seven successive arrows.
Karan decides immediately that he doesn’t like the way Arjun’s eyes seem to be drawn to Panchali every five seconds throughout the demonstration.
“So, if you need me,” Arjun says, mostly to Panchali, “I’ll be at the desk.”
“It’s okay, we won’t,” Karan says, resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
Arjun narrows his eyes before he saunters off, not before glancing at Panchali for too long.
When he’s gone, Panchali turns to Karan. “What was that for?”
“You were being unnecessarily hostile,” Panchali says and she almost sounds impressed. “That’s so unlike you.”
“I was just,” Karan says, does roll his eyes, “That guy was too eager to help.”
“He was just doing his job,” Panchali smiles, looks up at Karan through her eyelashes, “Besides, he was kinda cute.”
Karan sulks away, picking up the bow and relishing its weight in his hands. Archery always makes him feel calm, but a small part of his brain niggles at him like a worm. He fires seven arrows in quick succession, moving on to the next target.
Later, when Karan retrieves his target sheets, they look just like Arjun’s did. Mostly, Karan wishes he had something more solid than a sheet of paper to shoot arrows at. He still feels irrationally angry.
“You’re fast,” Panchali says, when she finally joins him. She has her own sheet in hand, her holes a little off-center, but not bad for her first attempt. “And whoa, did you actually get all of them to hit the target?”
Karan can’t help but smile at that, anger dissipating. “Yeah, I mean, whatever,” he says, waving his hand dismissively.
“Bet you could beat that guy, what’s-his-name, er, Arjun, any day,” Panchali says, and again, she smiles at him like she does before, mouth twisting in a way that makes Karan’s heart drop to his stomach.
“Yeah, I guess.” Karan’s eyes widen, his mouth opens. His heart kind of stops beating. Almost. “Oh.”
Panchali’s eyes lose a bit of the cryptic glint they just had. “Oh what?”
“You’re trying to make me jealous.” The sheet drops from Karan’s hand. Everything suddenly clicks.
Panchali’s brows rise, her mouth slackens. Her hand clutches her sheet too hard, crumpling the paper. Her eyes look like they're urging him on. “And why would I do such a thing?”
“Because,” Karan pauses, mouth opening and closing soundlessly, “Because…”
Panchali’s fingertips on his wrist --- how did they get there? --- press down to the point of being painful.
“Because you like me?” Karan doesn’t even know what he’s saying. It doesn’t make sense. He’s Karan, and she’s Panchali, and although it would make perfect sense --- because only she can make him feel like maybe he’s the sun, and she’s the only he’s seen who burns so bright --- he feels like it’s all wrong because he’s just Karan while she’s Panchali, and really, he’s being totally dumb.
Panchali’s fingers move to his hand, slip between his fingers. “Good. You finally get it. I thought I'd have to write a two thousand page book about it and throw it at your face for you to notice.”
The air feels heavy, just like it did in the club, but of a different kind. The atmosphere feels charged, weighted down as if time knows it has to stop any time now, but Karan feels like he’s light enough to float away and the only thing anchoring him is Panchali’s hand in his.
Karan leans forward, completely unsure of himself, and presses his lips against Panchali’s.
And if Karan thinks birthdays aren’t that bad at all, he can’t be blamed --- not when Panchali’s tongue sets the roof of his mouth on fire, not when her fingertips sear into the skin on the back of his hand, not when she sighs his name against his teeth like a prayer meant just for him.
Not when Panchali holds on to him like she’s promising forever.