SwaSan – Eternal Flame (Episode 1)

Hey guys, I am aditi, i recently joined TU and this is my first fanfiction on Swasan..i hope you guys like it..and please do comment 🙂

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CHAPTER – 1

Everything in the room screamed that I didn’t belong. The stairs were crumbling, the rowdy patrons were shoulder to shoulder, and the air was a medley of sweat, blood and mold. Voices blurred as they yelled numbers and names back and forth, and arms flailed about, exchanging money and gestures to communicate over the noise. I squeezed through the crowd, following close behind my best friend.

“Keep your cash in your wallet, Swara!” Ragini called to me. Her broad smile gleamed even in the dim light.

“Stay close! It’ll get worse once it starts!” Lakshya yelled over the noise. Ragini grabbed his hand, and then mine as Lakshya led us through the sea of people.

The sharp bleating of a bull horn cut through the smoky air. The noise startled me, and I jumped in reaction, looking for the source of the blast. A man stood on a wooden chair, holding a wad of cash in one hand, the horn in the other. He held the plastic to his lips.

“Welcome to the blood bath! If you are looking for Economics one-oh-one…you are in the wrong place, my friend! If you seek The Circle, this is Mecca! My name is Adarsh, I make the rules and I call the fight. Betting ends once the opponents are on the floor. No touching the fighters, no assistance, no bet switching, and no encroachment of the ring. If you break these rules, you will get the blood beat out of you and you will be thrown out on your a*s without your money! That includes you, ladies! So don’t use your girl to scam the system, boys!”

Lakshya shook his head. “Jesus, Adarsh!” he yelled to the emcee over the noise, clearly disapproving of his friend’s choice of words.

My heart pounded in my chest. With a pink cashmere cardigan and pearl earrings, I felt like a school marm on the beaches of Normandy. I promised Ragini that I could handle whatever we happened upon, but at ground zero I felt the urge to grip her toothpick of an arm with both hands. She wouldn’t put me in any danger, but being in a basement with fifty or so drunken college boys’ intent on bloodshed and capital, I wasn’t exactly confident of our chances to leave unscathed.

After Ragini met Lakshya at orientation, she frequently accompanied him to the secret fights held in different basements of University. Each event was held in a different spot, and kept secret until just an hour before the fight. Because I ran in somewhat tamer circles, I was surprised to learn of an underground world at the University; but Lakshya knew about it before he had ever enrolled. Sanskar, Lakshya’s roommate and cousin, entered his first fight seven months before. As a freshman, he was rumoured to be the most lethal competitor Adarsh had seen in the three years since creating The Circle. Beginning his sophomore year, Sanskar was unbeatable. Together, Sanskar and Lakshya easily paid their rent and bills with the winnings.

Adarsh brought the bull horn to his mouth once again, and the yelling and movement escalated to a feverish pace.

“Tonight we have a new challenger! The University’s star wrestler, Vikrant Khanna!”

Cheering ensued, and the crowd parted like the red sea when Vikrant entered the room. A circular space cleared, and the mob whistled, booed and taunted the contender. He bounced up and down, and rocked his neck back and forth; his face severe and focused.

The crowd quieted to a dull roar, and then my hands shot to my ears when music blared through the large speakers on the other side of the room.

“Our next fighter doesn’t need an introduction, but because he scares the shit outta me, I’ll give him one, anyway! Shake in your boots, boys, and drop your pants, ladies! I give you: Sanskar ‘Mad Dog’ Maheshwari!”

The volume exploded when Sanskar appeared in a doorway across the room. He made his entrance, shirtless, relaxed and unaffected. He strolled into the centre of the circle as if he were showing up to another day at work. The lean muscles stretched under his tattooed skin as he popped his fists against Vikrant’s knuckles. Sanskar leaned in and whispered something in Vikrant’s ear, and the wrestler struggled to keep his stern expression. Vikrant stood toe to toe with Sanskar, and they looked directly into each other’s eyes. Vikrant’s expression was murderous; Sanskar looked mildly amused.

The men took a few steps back, and Adarsh sounded the horn. Vikrant took a defensive stance, and Sanskar attacked. I stood on my tip toes when I lost my line of sight, leaning from side to side to get a better view. I inched up, sliding through the screaming crowd. Elbows jabbed into my sides, and shoulders rammed into me, bouncing me back and forth like a pin ball. The tops of Vikrant’s and Sanskar’ heads became visible, so I continued to push my way forward.

When I finally reached the front, Vikrant grabbed Sanskar with his thick arms and attempted to throw him to the ground. When Vikrant leaned down with the motion, Sanskar rammed his knee into Vikrant’s face. Before Vikrant could shake off the blow, Sanskar lit into him; his fists making contact with Vikrant’s bloodied face over and over. Five fingers sank into my arm and I jerked back.

“What the hell are you doing, Swara?” Lakshya said.

“I can’t see from back there!” I called to him.

I turned just in time to see Vikrant land a solid punch. Sanskar turned, and for a moment I thought he had dodged another blow, but he made a complete circle, crashing his elbow straight into the centre of Vikrant’s nose. Blood sprayed my face, and splattered down the front of my cardigan. Vikrant fell to the concrete floor with a thud, and for a brief moment the room was completely silent.

Adarsh threw a scarlet square of fabric on Vikrant’s limp body, and the mob detonated. Cash changed hands once again, and the expressions divided into the smug and the frustrated.

I was pushed around with the movement of those coming and going. Ragini called my name from somewhere in the back, but I was mesmerized by the trail of red from my chest to my waist.

A pair of heavy black boots stepped in front of me, diverting my attention to the floor. My eyes travelled upward; jeans spattered with blood, a set of finely chiselled abs, a bare, tattooed chest drenched in sweat, and finally a pair of warm, brown eyes. I was shoved from behind, and Sanskar caught me by the arm before I fell forward.

“Hey! Back up off her!” Sanskar frowned, shoving anyone who came near me. His stern expression melted into a smile at the sight my shirt, and then he dabbed my face with a towel.
“Sorry about that, Pigeon.”

Adarsh patted the back of Sanskar’ head. “C’mon, Mad Dog! You have some dough waiting’ on you!”

His eyes didn’t stray from mine. “It’s a damn shame about the sweater. It looks good on you.” In the next moment he was engulfed by fans, disappearing the way he came.

“What were thinking you idiot?” Ragini yelled, yanking my arm.

“I came here to see a fight, didn’t I?” I smiled.

“You aren’t even supposed to be here, Swara,” Lakshya scolded.

“Neither is Ragini,” I said.

“She doesn’t try to jump in the circle!” he frowned. “Let’s go.”

Ragini smiled at me and wiped my face. “You are such a pain in the a*s, Swara. God, I love you!” She hooked her arm around my neck, and we made our way up the stairs and out into the night. Ragini followed me into my hostel room, and then sneered at my roommate, Karishma. I immediately peeled off the bl**dy cardigan, throwing it into the hamper.

“Gross. Where have you been?” Karishma asked from her bed.

I looked to Ragini, who shrugged. “Nose bleed. You haven’t seen one of Swara’s famous nose bleeds?”

Karishma pushed up her glasses and shook her head.

“Oh, you will.” She winked at me and then shut the door behind her. Less than a minute later, my cell phone chimed. Per her usual, Ragini texted me seconds after we had said goodbye. “Staying with Lakshya c u 2morrow ring queen”

I peeked at Karishma who watched me as if my nose would gush at any moment. “She was kidding,” I said.

Karishma nodded with indifference, and then looked down to the mess of books on her bedspread.

“I guess I’ll get a shower,” I said, grabbing a towel and my shower bag.

“I’ll alert the media,” Karishma deadpanned, keeping her head down.

The next day, Lakshya and Ragini joined me for lunch. I had intended to sit alone, but as students filtered into the cafeteria, the chairs around me were filled by either Lakshya’s group brothers or members of the football team. Some of them were at the fight, but no one mentioned my ring-side experience.

“Lakshya,” a passing voice called. Lakshya nodded, and Ragini and I both turned to see Sanskar take a seat at the end of the table. He was followed by two voluptuous girls wearing body fitting dresses. One of them sat on Sanskar’ lap, the other sat beside him, pawing at his shirt.

“I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth,” Ragini muttered.

The girl on Sanskar’ lap turned to Ragini. “I heard that, skank.”

Ragini grabbed her roll and threw it down the table, narrowly missing the girl’s face. Before the girl could say another word, Sanskar let his knees give way, sending her tumbling to the floor.

“Ouch!” she squealed, looking up at Sanskar.

“Ragini’s a friend of mine. You need to find another lap, sweetheart.”

“Sanskar!” she whined, scrambling to her feet. Sanskar turned his attention to his plate, ignoring her. She looked at her sister and huffed, and then they left hand in hand.

Sanskar winked at Ragini, and as if nothing had happened, shovelled another bite into his mouth. It was then that I noticed a small cut on his eyebrow. He traded glances with Lakshya, and then began a conversation with one of the football guys across from him.

Although the lunch table had thinned, Ragini, Lakshya and I lingered to discuss our weekend plans. Sanskar stood up to leave, but stopped at our end of the table.

“What?” Lakshya asked loudly, holding his hand to his ear. I tried to ignore him for as long as possible, but when I looked up, Sanskar was staring at me.

“You know her, Sanskar. Ragini’s best friend? She was with us the other night,” Lakshya said.

Sanskar smiled at me in what I assumed was his most charming expression. He oozed s*x and rebelliousness with his buzzed, brown hair and tattooed forearms, and I rolled my eyes at his attempt to lure me in.

“Since when do you have a best friend, Ragini?” Sanskar asked.

“Since kindergarten,” she answered, pressing her lips together as she smiled in my direction. “Don’t you remember, Sanskar? You ruined her sweater.”

Sanskar smiled. “I ruin a lot of sweaters.”

“Gross,” I muttered.

Sanskar spun the empty chair beside me and sat, resting his arms in front of him. “So you’re the Pigeon, huh?”

“No,” I snapped. “I have a name.”

He seemed amused at the way I regarded him, which only served to make me angrier.

“Well? What is it?” he asked. I took a bite of the last apple spear on my plate, ignoring him.

“Pigeon it is, then,” he shrugged.

I glanced up at Ragini, and then turned to Sanskar. “I’m trying to eat, here.”

Sanskar settled in for the challenge I presented. “My name’s Sanskar. Sanskar Maheshwari.”

I rolled my eyes. “I know who you are.”

“You do, huh?” Sanskar said, raising his wounded eyebrow.

“Don’t flatter yourself. It’s hard not to notice when fifty drunks are chanting your name. “

Sanskar sat up a bit taller. “I get that a lot.” I rolled my eyes again, and Sanskar chuckled. “Do you have a twitch?”

“A what?”

“A twitch. Your eyes keep wiggling around.” He laughed again when I glared at him. “Those are some amazing eyes though,” he said, leaning just inches from my face. “What colour is that, anyway? Grey?”

I looked down to my plate, letting the long strands of my brown hair create a curtain between us. I didn’t like the way it made me feel when he was so close. I didn’t want to be like the other scores of girls at the University that blushed in his presence. I didn’t want him to affect me in that way at all.

“Don’t even think about it, Sanskar. She’s like my sister,” Ragini warned.

“Baby,” Lakshya said. “You just told him no. He’s never going to stop, now.”

“You’re not her type,” she hedged.

Sanskar feigned insult. “I’m everyone’s type!”

I peeked over at him and smiled.

“Ah! A smile. I’m not a rotten human after all,” he winked. “It was nice to meet you, Pigeon.” He walked around the table and leaned into Ragini’s ear. Lakshya threw a French fry at his cousin. “Get your lips outta my girl’s ear, Sanskar!”

“Networking! I’m networking!” Sanskar walked out with his hands up in an innocent gesture.

A few more girls followed behind him, giggling and running their fingers through their hair to get his attention. He opened the door for them, and they nearly squealed in delight.

Ragini laughed. “Oh, no. You’re in trouble, Swara.”

“What did he say?” I asked, wary.

“He wants you to bring her to the apartment, doesn’t he?” Lakshya said. Ragini nodded and he shook his head. “You’re a smart girl, Swara. I’m telling you now, if you fall for his shit and then end up getting mad at him, you can’t take it out on me and Ragini, all right?”

I smiled. “I won’t fall for it, Lakshya. Do I look like one of the Barbie twins to you?”

“She won’t fall for it,” Ragini assured him, touching his arm.

“This isn’t my first rodeo, Ragini. Do you know how many times he’s screwed things up for me because he one-nights the best friend? All of a sudden it’s a conflict of interest to date me because it’s fraternizing with the enemy! I’m telling you, Swara,” he looked at me, “Don’t tell Ragini she can’t come over or date me because you fall for Sanskar’s line of bullshit. Consider yourself warned.”

“Unnecessary, but appreciated,” I said. I tried to assure Lakshya with a smile, but his pessimism was driven by years of being burned by Sanskar’ endeavours.

Ragini waved, leaving with Lakshya as I walked to my afternoon class. I squinted one eye from the bright sun, gripping my backpack straps. The University was exactly what I hoped it would be; from the smaller classrooms to the unfamiliar faces. It was a new start for me; I could finally walk somewhere without the whispers of those who knew—or thought they knew— anything about my past. I was as indistinguishable as any other wide-eyed, over-achieving freshman on their way to class; no staring, no rumours, no pity or judgment. Only the illusion of what I wanted them to see: Cashmered, no-nonsense Swara Kapoor.

I sat my backpack on the floor, and collapsed into the chair, bending down to fish my laptop from my bag. When I popped up to set it on my desk, Sanskar fell into the next desk.

“Good. You can take notes for me,” he said. He chewed on a pen and smiled, undoubtedly his most charming.

I shot a disgusted look at him. “You’re not even in this class.”

“The hell if I’m not. I usually sit up there,” he said, nodding to the top row. A small group of girls were staring at me, and I noticed an empty chair in the centre.

“I’m not taking notes for you,” I said, readying my books.

Sanskar leaned so close that I could feel his breath on my cheek. “I’m sorry…did I offend you in some way?”

I sighed and shook my head.

“Then what is your problem?”

I kept my voice low. “I’m not sleeping with you. You should give up, now.”

A slow smile crept across his face before he spoke. “I haven’t asked you sleep with me,” his eyes drifted to the ceiling in thought, “have I?”

“I’m not a Barbie twin or one of your little groupies up there,” I said, glancing at the girls behind us. “I’m not impressed with your tattoos, or your boyish charm, or your forced indifference, so you can stop the antics, okay?”

“Okay, Pigeon.” He was infuriatingly impervious to my rudeness. “Why don’t you come over with Ragini tonight?” I sneered at his request, but he leaned closer. “I’m not trying to bag you. I just want to hang out.”

“Bag me? How do you ever get laid talking like that?”

Sanskar burst into laughter, shaking his head. “Just come over. I won’t even flirt with you, I swear.”

“I’ll think about it.” Professor Singh strolled in, and Sanskar turned his attention to the front of the room. A residual smile lingered on his face, making the dimple in his cheek sink in. The more he smiled, the more I wanted to hate him, and yet it was the very thing that made hating him impossible.

“Who can tell me which President had a cross-eyed wife with a bad case of the uglies?” Singh asked.

“Make sure you get that down,” Sanskar whispered. “I’m going to need to know that for job interviews.”

“Shhh,” I said, noting down Singh’s every word.

Sanskar grinned and relaxed into his chair. As the hour progressed, he alternated between yawning and leaning against my arm to look at my book. I made a concentrated effort to ignore him, but his proximity and the muscles bulging from his arm made it difficult.

He picked at the black leather band around his wrist until Singh dismissed us. I hurried out the door and down the hall. Just when I felt sure I was a safe distance, Sanskar Maheshwari was at my side.

“Have you thought about it?” he asked, slipping on his sunglasses.

A petite girl stepped in front of us, wide-eyed and hopeful. “Hey, Sanskar,” she lilted, playing with her hair.

I paused, recoiling from her sugary tone, and then walked around her. I’d seen her before, talking normally in the commons area of the girls hostel. Her tone sounded much more mature, then, and I wondered what it was about a toddler’s voice she thought Sanskar would find appealing. She babbled in a higher octave for a bit longer until he was next to me once again.

Pulling a lighter from his pocket, he lit a cigarette and blew out a thick cloud of smoke. “Where was I? Oh yeah…you were thinking.”

I grimaced. “What are you talking about?”

“Have you thought about coming over?”

“If I say yes, will you quit following me?”

He considered my stipulation and then nodded. “Yes.”

“Then I’ll come over.”

“When?”

I sighed. “Tonight. I’ll come over tonight.”

Sanskar smiled and stopped in his tracks. “Sweet. See you then, Pigeon,” he called after me.

I rounded the corner to see Ragini standing with Raghav outside our hostel building. The three of us ended up at the same table at orientation, and I knew he would be the welcome third wheel to our well-oiled machine. He wasn’t excessively tall, but still he towered over my five feet, four inches. His round eyes offset his long, lean features, and his bleached hair was usually fashioned into a spike at the front.

“Sanskar Maheshwari? Jesus, Swara, since when did you start fishing in the deep end?” Raghav said with disapproving eyes.

Ragini pulled the gum from her mouth in a long string. “You’re only making it worse by brushing him off. He’s not used to that.”

“What do you suggest I do? Sleep with him?”

Ragini shrugged. “It’ll save time.”

“I told him I’d come over tonight.”

Raghav and Ragini traded glances.

“What? He promised to quit bugging me if I said yes. You’re going over there tonight, right?”

“Well, yeah,” Ragini said. “You’re really coming?”

I smiled and walked past them into the hostel, wondering if Sanskar would make good on his promise not to flirt. He wasn’t hard to figure out; he either saw me as a challenge, or safely unattractive enough to be a good friend. I wasn’t sure which bothered me worse.

Four hours later, Ragini knocked on my door to take me to Lakshya and Sanskar’s. She didn’t hold back when I walked into the hall.

“Yuck, Swara! You look homeless!”

“Good,” I said, smiling at my ensemble. My hair was piled on top of my head in a messy bun. I had scrubbed the makeup from my face and replaced my contacts with rectangular black-rimmed glasses. Sporting a ratty t-shirt and sweatpants, I shuffled along in a pair of flip flops. The idea had come to me hours before that either way, unattractive was the best plan.

Ideally, Sanskar would be instantly turned off and stop his ridiculous persistence. If he was looking for a buddy, I was aiming for too homely to be seen with.

Ragini rolled down her window and spit out her gum. “You’re so obvious. Why didn’t you just roll in garbage to make your outfit complete?”

“I’m not trying to impress anyone,” I said.

“Obviously.”

We pulled into the parking lot of Lakshya’s apartment complex, and I followed Ragini to the stairs. Lakshya opened the door, laughing as I walked in. “What happened to you?”

“She’s trying to be unimpressive,” Ragini said. Ragini followed Lakshya into his room. The door closed and I stood alone, feeling out of place. I sat in the recliner closest to the door, and kicked off my flip flops.

Their apartment was more aesthetically pleasing than the typical bachelor pad. The predictable posters of half-naked women and stolen street signs were on the walls, but it was clean, the furniture was new, and the smell of stale beer and dirty clothes was notably absent.

“It’s about time you showed up,” Sanskar said, collapsing onto the couch.

I smiled and pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose, waiting for him to recoil at my appearance.

“Ragini had a paper to finish.”

“Speaking of papers, have you started the one for history, yet?” He didn’t bat an eye at my messy hair, and I frowned at his reaction.

“Have you?”

“I finished it this afternoon.”

“It’s not due until next Wednesday,” I said, surprised.

“I just plugged it out. How hard can a two page essay on Criminal Defense be?”

“I’m a procrastinator, I guess,” I shrugged. “I probably won’t start on it until this weekend.”

“Well, if you need help just let me know.”

I waited for him to laugh, or to show some sign that he was joking, but his expression was sincere. I raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to help me with my paper.”

“I’m the topper in that class,” he said, a bit miffed at my disbelief.

“He’s the topper in all his classes. He’s a freakin’ genius. I hate him,” Lakshya said as he led Ragini into the living room by the hand. I watched Sanskar with a dubious expression and his eyebrows shot up. “What? You don’t think a guy covered in tats and that trades punches for a living can get the grades? I’m not in college because I have nothing better to do.”

“Why do you have to fight at all, then? Why didn’t you try for scholarships?” I asked.

“I did. I was awarded half my tuition. But there are books, living expenses, and I got come up with the other half some time. I’m serious, Pigeon. If you need help with anything, just ask.”

“I don’t need your help. I can write a paper.” I wanted to leave it at that. I should have left it at that, but the new side of him he’d revealed gnawed at my curiosity. “You can’t find something else to do for a living? Less—I don’t know—sadistic?”

Sanskar shrugged. “It’s an easy way to make a buck. I can’t make that much working in an apprenticeship.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s easy if you’re getting hit in the face.”

“What? You’re worried about me?” he winked. I made a face and he chuckled. “I don’t get hit that often. If they swing, I move. It’s not that hard.”

I laughed once. “You act as if no conclusion.”

“When I throw a punch they take it and try to reciprocate. That’s not going to win a fight.”

I rolled my eyes. “What are you…the Karate Kid? Where did you learn to fight?”

Lakshya and Ragini glanced at each other, and then their eyes wandered to the floor. It didn’t take long to recognize I had said something wrong.

Sanskar didn’t seem affected. “I had a dad with a drinking problem and a bad temper, and four older brothers that carried the asshole gene.”

“Oh.” My ears smouldered.

“Don’t be embarrassed, Pigeon. Dad quit drinking, the brothers grew up.”

“I’m not embarrassed.” I fidgeted with the falling strands of my hair and then decided to pull it down and smooth it into another bun, trying to ignore the awkward silence.

“I like the au naturel thing you have going on. Girls don’t come over here like that.”

“I was coerced into coming here. It didn’t occur to me to impress you,” I said, aggravated that my plan had failed.

He smiled his boyish, amused grin, and I turned up my anger a notch, hoping it would cover my unease. I didn’t know how most girls felt around him, but I’d seen how they behaved. I was experiencing more of a disorientated, nauseous feeling than giggly infatuation, and the harder he worked to make me smile, the more unsettled I felt.

“I’m already impressed. I don’t normally have to beg girls to come to my apartment.”

“I’m sure,” I said, screwing my face into disgust. He was the worst kind of confident. Not only was he shamelessly aware of his appeal, he was so used to women throwing themselves at him that he regarded my cool demeanour as refreshing instead of an insult. I would have to change my strategy.

Ragini pointed the remote at the television and switched it on. “There’s a good movie on tonight. Anyone want to find out who the killer is?”

Sanskar stood up. “I was just heading out for dinner. You hungry, Pigeon?”

“I already ate,” I shrugged.

“No you haven’t,” Ragini said before realizing her mistake. “Oh… er…that’s right, I forgot you grabbed a…pizza? Before we left.”

I grimaced at her miserable attempt to fix her blunder, and then waited for Sanskar’ reaction. He walked across the room and opened the door. “C’mon. You’ve got to be hungry.”

“Where are you going?”

“Wherever you want. We can hit a pizza place.”

I looked down at my clothes. “I’m not really dressed.”

He appraised me for a moment and then grinned. “You look fine.

Let’s go, I’m starving’.”

I stood up and waved to Ragini, passing Sanskar to walk down the stairs. I stopped in the parking lot, watching in horror as he straddled a matte black motorcycle.

“Uh….” I trailed off, scrunching my exposed toes.

He shot me an impatient glare. “Oh, get on. I’ll go slow.”

“What is that?” I asked, reading the writing on the diesel tank too late.

“It’s a Harley Night Rod. She’s the love of my life, so don’t scratch the paint when you get on.”

“I’m wearing flip flops!”

Sanskar stared at me as if I’d spoken a foreign language. “I’m wearing boots. Get on.”

He slipped on his sunglasses, and the engine snarled when he brought it to life. I climbed on and reached for something to grab on to, but my fingers slipped from leather to the plastic cover of the taillight. Sanskar grabbed my wrists and wrapped them around his middle.
“There’s nothing to hold on to but me, Pigeon. Don’t let go,” he said, pushing the bike backward with his feet. With a flick of his wrist, he pulled onto the street, and took off like a rocket. The pieces of my hair that hung loose beat against my face, and I ducked behind Sanskar, knowing I would end up with bug guts on my glasses if I looked over his shoulder.

He gunned the throttle when we pulled into the driveway of the restaurant, and once he slowed to a stop, I wasted no time scrambling to the safety of the concrete.

“You’re a lunatic!”

Sanskar chuckled, leaning his bike onto its kickstand before dismounting. “I went the speed limit.”

“Yeah, if we were in a bike race!” I said, pulling out my bun to separate the rats with my fingers.

Sanskar watched me pull hair away from my face and then walked to the door, holding it open. “I wouldn’t let anything happen to you, Pigeon.”

I stormed past him into the restaurant, my head not quite in sync with my feet. Grease and herbs filled the air as I followed him across the red, breadcrumb speckled carpet. He chose a booth in the corner, away from the patches of students and families, and then ordered two beers. I scanned the room, watching the parents coaxing their boisterous children to eat, and looking away from the inquisitive glances of the University students.

“Sure, Sanskar,” the waitress said, writing down our drink orders. She looked a bit high from his presence as she returned to the kitchen.

I tucked the wind-blown hairs behind my ears, suddenly embarrassed by my appearance. “Come here often?” I asked acerbically.

Sanskar leaned on the table with his elbows, his brown eyes fixated on mine. “So what’s your story, Pigeon? Are you a man-hater in general, or do you just hate me?”

“I think it’s just you,” I grumbled.

He laughed once, amused at my mood. “I can’t figure you out. You’re the first girl that’s ever been disgusted with me before s*x. You don’t get all flustered when you talk to me, and you don’t try to get my attention.”

“It’s not a ploy. I just don’t like you.”

“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like me.”

My frown involuntarily smoothed and I sighed. “I didn’t say you’re a bad person. I just don’t like being a foregone conclusion for the sole reason of having a vagina.” I focused on the grains of salt on the table until I heard a choking noise from Sanskar’ direction.

His eyes widened and he quivered with howling laughter. “Oh my God! You’re killing me! That’s it. We have to be friends. I won’t take no for an answer.”

“I don’t mind being friends, but that doesn’t mean you have to try to get in my pants every five seconds.”

“You’re not sleeping with me. I get it.” I tried not to smile, but failed.

His eyes brightened. “You have my word. I won’t even think about your pants…unless you want me to.” I rested my elbows on the table and leaned into them. “And that won’t happen, so we can be friends.”

An impish grin sharpened his features as he leaned in a bit closer. “Never say never.”

“So what’s your story?” I asked. “Have you always been Sanskar “Mad Dog” Maheshwari, or is that just since you came here?” I used two fingers on each hand as quotation marks when I said his nickname, and for the first time his confidence waned. He looked a bit embarrassed.

“No. Adarsh started that after my first fight.”

His short answers were beginning to bug me. “That’s it? You’re not going to tell me anything about yourself?”

“What do you wanna know?”

“The normal stuff. Where you’re from, what you want to be when you grow up…things like that.”

“I’m from here, born and raised, and I’m a Masters in Criminal Law.”

With a sigh, he unrolled his silverware and straightened them beside his plate. He looked over his shoulder, and I noticed his jaw tensing a bit at those around us. Two tables seating the University football team erupted in laughter, and Sanskar seemed to be annoyed at what they were laughing about.

“You’re joking,” I said in disbelief.

“No, I’m a local,” he said, distracted.

“I meant about your degree. You don’t look like the Criminal Law type.”

His eyebrows pulled together, suddenly focused on our conversation. “Why?”

I scanned the tattoos covering his arm. “I’ll just say that you seem more criminal and less legal.”

“I don’t get in any trouble…for the most part. Dad was pretty strict.”

“Where was your mom?”

“She died when I was a kid,” he said as a matter-of-fact.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head. His answer caught me off guard.

He dismissed my sympathy. “I don’t remember her. My brothers do, but I was just three when she died.”

“Four brothers, huh? How did you keep them straight?” I teased.

“I kept them straight by who hit the hardest, which also happened to be oldest to youngest. Arnav, the twins…Abhay and Aditya, and then Nikhil. You never, ever got caught alone in a room with Abhay and Aditya. I learned half of what I do in The Circle from them. Nikhil was the smallest, but he’s fast. He’s the only one that can land a punch on me, now.”

I shook my head, dumbfounded at the thought of five Sanskar’s running around in one household. “Do they all have tattoos?”

“Pretty much. Except Arnav. He’s an ad executive in Delhi.”

“And your dad? Where’s he?”

“Around,” he said. His jaws were working again, increasingly irritated with the soccer team.

“What are they laughing about?” I asked, gesturing to the rowdy table. He shook his head, clearly not wanting to share. I crossed my arms and squirmed in my seat, nervous about what they were saying that caused him so much aggravation. “Tell me.”

“They’re laughing about me having to take you to dinner, first. It’s not usually…my thing.”

“First?” When the realization settled on my face, Sanskar winced at my expression. I spoke before I thought. “And I was afraid they were laughing about you being seen with me dressed like this, and they think I’m going to sleep with you,” I grumbled.

“Why wouldn’t I be seen with you?”

“What were we talking about?” I asked, warding off the heat rising under my cheeks.

“You. What’s your subject?” he asked.

“Oh, err…General Law, for now. I’m still undecided, but I’m leaning toward Corporate Law.”

“You’re not a local, though. You must be a transplant.”

“Mumbai. Same as Ragini.”

“How did you end up here from Mumbai?”

I picked at the label of my beer bottle. “We just had to get away.”

“From what?”

“My parents.”

“Oh. What about Ragini? She has parent issues, too?”

“No, Uncle and Aunty are great. They practically raised me. She sort of tagged along; she didn’t want me to come alone.”

Sanskar nodded. “So, why Dehradun?”

“What’s with the third degree?” I said. The questions were drifting from small talk to personal, and I was beginning to get uncomfortable.

Several chairs knocked together as the soccer team left their seats. They traded one last joke before they meandered toward the door. Their pace quickened when Sanskar stood up. Those in the back of the group pushed those in front to escape before

Sanskar made his way across the room. He sat down, forcing the frustration and anger away. I raised an eyebrow.

“You were going to say why you chose Dehradun,” he prompted.

“It’s hard to explain,” I said, shrugging. “I guess it just felt right.”

He smiled as he opened his menu. “I know what you mean.”

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