Monday, 13 May 2019

Part 19 : Unleashing What Remained Unsaid

"My dearest baoudi to be...YES! No hi-jacks, no take off crashes, no skidding on the runway...my secret sources told me the pilot is a heart patient but even he survived. Consequently the world around us is uneventful as can be and the flight took off ten minutes ago well in time."

Rahul spoke into his bluetooth reversing the car, in the lighter vein, to relieve her of her worry for Gappu which she did not know yet, was baseless. It was incredible how they had not seen each other's face once, not even in the couple of times she had been on the video chat- he had been away for trivial errands each time. Yet they had hit off the first time they talked on the phone. Rahul, having come to know Armaan over the years, would have blindly accepted his choice, that she was so like Muskaan was a definite bonus- he had survived that kind for a while now! Ridhima on the other hand, apart from Gappu's talks of him, from knowing Rahul's unshakable support to Armaan through his worst, had taken to the person he must be before their first conversation.



"And trouble still found your dearest brother in law in that uneventful world. I don't understand what kind of trip Armaan had to make to an inaccessible zone in these particular twenty four hours,"

He heard her mutter currently, apparently not pleased with his humor, miffed instead in addition to being stressed. Looking into the rearview he pulled onto the main road, speeding into the higher gear as he glanced sideways towards Muskaan in the passenger seat, who was also, still looking visibly glum- despite his endearing banter. He sighed defeated.

Pursing his lips he told himself mentally to be calm, cursing first, women in general and these two in particular for being so emotinal, then Armaan's idea to surprise Ridhima, and in turn finally, Armaan himself for leaving him to handle this unmanagable multidimensional issue all by himself. Maneouvering the steering with one hand, he entwined his fingers with Muskaan's squeezing her hand gently and spoke on rubbing his thumb lightly over the back of her hand,

"There wasn't a second to it Ridhima. The...person...persons I mean, in question need his presence rather...urgently."

"More than me...?" she asked impulsively, in a hasty after thought she added, "Us?" He wished he could chuckle as she paused, but he dared not, in the company of these two in such irrational states. "Every issue other than his own in the world is always more important to him. Is there not one other psychologist in the whole of that huge state to have relieved him for a day?" she finished.

Rahul shook his head in partial helplessness and partial amusement. If she was going to be any less delighted by the surprise than Armaan expected her to be, the man was going to be in deep soup. She was clearly no happy woman, glancing again at Muskaan who continued being mororse, he knew dealing with her would need an expert. The thought of which made him smile.

"None better than him...he's an expert."  Ridhima grunted in exasperration and Rahul grinned on his side momentarily till he caught Muskaan's eye narrowed at him in disapproval. Wiping it off he said in a solemn voice, "They need him to tackle the case personally Ridhima."

"Whatever! Remind Mr. Moses-of-the-new-age, when he has time to hear you out, that there is a family which needs him as much, maybe more." Rahul did not dare grin at her indignant sarcasm this time as Muskaan still looked at him. Mentally he cursed Armaan again. Ridhima felt suddenly guilty as he remained quiet.

"I'm sorry Rahul. You shouldn't be facing the brunt while the bad guy conveniently escapes to a holiday in the jungles of the east."

Rahul chuckled inevitably again but this time before he could reply Muskaan picked up the handset deactivating the bluetooth turned it to speaker instead and giving him a nasty look spoke herself,

"Don't mind him being so insensitive Ridzi. Dada's trip was unavoidable or you can trust I would have made him stay on." Ridhima nodded. That was very believable; Muskaan meanwile on not getting a reply added, "Gaurav will be just fine too." she paused her face falling at the thought, "I''m going to miss him." she added in a whisper.

"Muski...he's going to miss you too." Ridhima spoke back in a suddenly softer tone her agitation at Armaan forgotten. Muskaan felt Rahul raise her hand in his own to his lips kissing it gently, as he looked ahead at the road. He knew how to be sensitive without being sympathetic. She smiled tentatively.

"I know. You should not fret either, there isn't a reason I assure you Ridzi. Rahul took care of everything."

That made him turn to her but she wasn't looking at him. He cocked an eye at the sudden compliment ready to beam, but then wondered if that could imply Muskaan was normal?

"Yeh you're right. Rahul is an angel, if only your brother was half as much." Ridhima stated flatly remembering her anxiety again. Rahul beamed at this one risking a side look at Muskaan. This was going to be interesting, her take on Rahul vs Armaan!

"Oh you will have all the chances to admonish him once he's there with..."

"WHENEVER...hes there with you..." Rahul interrupted forgetting what he was expecting to hear as he gave her an incredulous look for having let the fact slip by in the spur of a moment. Muskaan bit her tongue looking apologetic and they heard Ridhima speak in an uncertain voice,

"Whenever?...When? Is Armaan planning...?"

"Yeh he is." Rahul interrupted again. "He has been making a mention of this for a while now and he wanted to surprise you when he could finally work it out but Muskaan...oh well! Let's just pretend we did not have this conversation and whenever he proposes the idea of a trip please appear surprised?"

Rahul finished crossing his fingers against the steering wondering if he had somehow saved the day. Ridhima on her side was suddenly smiling. Armaan was considering a trip to Chicago- she wanted to jump into the air at the thought! How was she ever going to pretend not hearing of this now everytime they talked? Perhaps she could think of a way to bring up a similar topic and then he would tell her.

"Erm...Ridhima?" She was jolted out of her thoughts by Rahul's voice.

"Yeh our secret I promise. I'm zipped!"

He could hear the elevation in her voice and it made him smile. Armaan could never play his bait wrong, she was going to be much more delighted by his actual surprise than any of them could guess. With a silent sigh Rahul felt grateful to have someone like her in Armaan's life. God knew the man had long deserved a break. He looked at Muskaan giving him a questioning look and realized he was yet to reply.

"Uh...oh yeh...great...our...our secret yes! I'll talk you later then Ridhima. Take care!"

Ridhima nodded absent mindedly as the call ended in a click, oblivious to Rahul's inarticulate last remark, and having forgotten her worry of Gappu almost entirely for then. Her mind could not get enough of the idea which had been accidentally revealed. When would he finally come to her? Then a new thought struck her as she imagined him in Chicago, a thought of expectant yet hesitant anticipation. What would it be like? Unknowingly she fell onto her bed flat on her back staring at nothing as she let her imagination run out on a wild spree at the possibilities. She did not know after a while if it was the magic of the moment or the constant staring which was making her giddy in the head or if she was plain sleepy but she continued to ponder wistfully until her eyes began to drop and she slipped into a sweet sleep.

Muskaan sighed and Rahul looked up to finally see her smiling wide. 

"Armaan Malik is a very lucky man." he remarked cheerfully in understanding of her content. She smiled back wider, then with a quick haughty snap of her neck she exclaimed, "You should try to admit that once in a while for yourself too Mr. Grewal." He laughed at her retort. Yes she was back to herself and so was Ridhima. Happy himself he pulled onto her hand still in his own and she fell sideways against his shoulder at his unexpected tug. Releasing his hand from hers he slung it over her shoulder in a warm wrap and whispered in love,

"I am indeed, I will never deny." and kissed her hair softly.

****************************
Armaan opened his eyes tentatively feeling cold on his arms, then rubbed his eyes out of the haziness of interrupted untimely sleep. A few seconds later he recognized the plane and looked at Gaurav, also sleeping beside him. In fact, he realized sweeping his eyes around in general, most passengers were in peaceful slumbers and a quiet prevailed. He tugged at the blanket pulling it half way up himself then letting his head fall back against the seat he smiled to himself in content.

On a spur he glanced at his wrist, the watch was still set to IST and he calculated the flight had been in the air about 12 hours. Direct to Chicago it was going to land in about three hours from now. He inhaled sharply at the thought; the height of elation was only one among a crowd of emotions which were a stampede inside his heart. The restlesness with which he had started working out a hasty plan after Gappu's injury for making this trip possible had shifted gears to gradual anticipation over the days and to eventual excitement as today had approached closer.

Standing at the threashold of his house seeking Daadu's blessings he had wanted every second to last forever and yet pass him by in a blur. It was a self contradicting wish; he wanted to live every moment of it with his feet firm on the ground, savoring it not being swept away so that he could look back any number of years from then and remember every trivial detail vividly. He wanted to remember the exact expressions, the exact words every single one of them even amidst the rush which the departure had caused; he wanted to remember the color of clothes everyone had worn, the way his room had looked when he turned around for a last glance at it, what flowers had bloomed in the garden of the Malik Niwas to greet the day, what they had eaten in a quick hyper brunch including the slightly extra salt in the fish and the rasaogullas which had tasted the sweetest he imagined they could; he wanted to remember exactly what the streets and roads had looked like as they drove down to the airport, what traffic signals they had stopped at and for how long, he even wanted to keep count of the happy smiling faces he saw on the way; he wanted to remember the exchange at the airport like a recording in his head...yes, he wanted to look back many years from today and think about this day in all its completeness so he could relive it precisely as many times as he wanted until eternity.

But he could not at the same time, stop himself from wishing time would fly to stop at the moment he would be there before her, and her before him, face to face up front...in a whole new way. Sighing happily he wondered how he could describe this emotion in words if ever. Perhaps he had felt like a player who knew he had won a championship, but while everyone around celebrated and cheered he lived the reality of every minute feeling in a daze nonetheless, awaiting, anticipating and yet not wanting to think and rehearse for the moment he would be called upon the stage to receive the trophy. He wanted it to be the best, most spontaneous memory of his life.

As a fleeting idea, at the thought of winning games he looked at Gappu again. The boy looked at peace holding his arm in the cast against his chest. Armaan grinned again thinking of Ridhima's reaction if she was to know that he had, in all honesty, not been simply disappointed by him geting hurt. Not like he had hoped for it, or even expected it to happen, but as the days had unfolded to this plan he had, as Gappu had said, found yet another reason to thank him.

"Ridhima..." he murmured pounding the back of his head lightly onto the headrest of his seat, "Three dam hours..." and he closed his eyes remembering her face.

****************************
She paced to and fro before him, as she had been for the past 20 minutes while he had found himself a protuding window sill to sit on. Every now and then she would glance towards the terminal, at her own wrist, the display LCD's then back to her own feet muttering inaudbily pacing faster at times, slowing down in thought at others. Currently she pulled her cell out of her coat pocket and looking at it sighed making a face. He couldn't help but chuckle out loud; unfortunately she heard him. And met his eye before he could get rid of the easy amusement on his face.

And he saw her turn around with her complete attention to him now, folding her arms across her chest narrowing her eyes at him question. He looked back like a harmless owl as innocently as he could.

"What's up Chirag?" she asked frankly and he shrugged back unknowingly in response. Rolling her tongue inside her mouth she walked towards him and sat down beside him.

"Tell me. I want to know." she stated meaningfully and he considered her tone before answering.

"I'm excited." he said, chosing his words carefully.

"Clearly. You have been pretty amused all evening assuming I was in no awareness." Chirag ruffled his hair giving her a light smile kicking himself mentally having taken her for a fool.

"Gaurav is returning..."

"And that could not having you grinning like a mindless bobcat so long." she said cutting him off. Dam, he thought, her six long years of solitude had merely kept this sharp mind dormant, but had he known her for any less from Cambridge? And now she was a mature professional in addition. What was he taking her for?

"God Ridzi! You make me feel like I'm under interrogation. Ritu gets enough for..."

"Ritu...right. She told me you're coming with me to the airport cause she was unwell. In fact she insisted you will come along."

She paused and Chirag mused what Ridhma would think if she knew Ritu had tried to keep herself away from Ridhima for the day so she would babble out the surprise unintentionally. Typical of Ritu, Chirag thought smiling faintly to himself.

"And now you're smiling as we talk of your beloved wife being unwell..." she observed ruthlessly. It wasn't a question and Chirag had to barely glance into her eyes to know that he wasn't making much of a liar.

"Well its such a relief to not have her on my back for a change. Everyone needs a break." He stated in a solemn way and Ridhima pointed her finger at him in warning. "She's my best friend."

"And Ammy is mine." Chirag said in a cheeky voice, glad to find a diversion. The look on Ridhima's face made him wonder if he had found the right distraction at all.

"And why do we bring him in this talk?"

"Because..." Hes been on my mind, was on the tip of his tongue. Instead Chirag wore his best look of a confident liar, bidding his time as he thought hard of what to say, "You curse him all the time...and...I never tell you not to." he finished cheerfully, relieved he wasn't tongue tied, even if that had made no sense. Ridhima gave him a strange look and his smile faltered slightly.

"Chirag! Can't we stop playing peek-a-boo here? I'm beginning to wonder how unwell Ritu is, you possibly couldn't be rejoicing it so earnestly. And Armaan...hang on, why did we talk of him again?"

"Because..."

he started, much to his relief however an announcement was made for the arrival of an international flight and Ridhima switched her attention to it immediately. He heaved a sigh of relief then got his guard up high before she caught his reaction and questioned anymore. He need not have bothered though since it was the flight from Calcutta which had landed. Ridhima got up quickly and walked up to the edge railing maintaining an unblinking stare at the terminal. Chirag got up slowly observing it all and started thinking. Then it struck him and he moved up to her.

"Erm...Ridzi...?"

"Hmm" she responded without looking at him.

"Its going to be a while before they come out. Should we..."

"They?" she said confused giving him a quick look before turning back to the terminal.

"The passengers I mean." he said correcting his blunder. What was wrong with him?! She did not reply back, but she seemed too occupied to concern herself with doubt anymore. "Should we get some quick coffee?" This made her turn with a funny look.

"Chirag?! You're getting me worried now." he opened his mouth to explain but she spoke on, "We can get coffee once he is here." she said almost curt. Then she suddenly sighed and looked at him with a light smile. "I'm sorry. I'm just...I mean...Gappu doesn't do international flying that often and now he has that injury and he's having to travel all by himself because your best friend can talk me into any level of insanity..."

"Deep breathing Ridzi...remember?!" Chirag said with a naughty smile and Ridhima rolled her eyes breaking into a grudging smile.

"I'm just worried about him. Someone will need to help him with the luggage off the conveyor as well you know."

"Someone will." Chirag said simply

"He was upset about leaving them all anyways and then the long flight by himself, with that arm and you know how easily hes jaded..."

"I swear Ridzi, if Gaurav heard any of that his ego would be a wreck. The boy is goin to be 20 did you forget?" then before she could retort he exclaimed at the sight ahead, "Oh look! The passengers have started coming out."

Ridhima eagerly followed his arm with her eyes. Chirag moved back a bit looking at her with a slight frown drumming his fingers lightly. He had to distract her somehow, he didn't know why but he wanted Armaan to see her before she saw him and the way she was keeping track of the exit there was no way she would miss him. He pouted in thought looking around at nothing when a lady passing him by chuckled at him with a wink. Immediately he set a straight look on his face, turning slightly red. He lowered his head to his feet shoving his hands into his pocket and then it struck him. With a smug satisfaction he walked up ahead to Ridhima again, a long moment after standing by her while she concentrated ahead he slid an arm lightly around her shoulder. She turned to look at him and he smiled, warm and real this time.

"What was the most special moment of your life Ridhima?"

Her expression was puzzled but soft as she looked into his eyes, then she lowered them a wistful smile making appearence. Perhaps it was likely for one to think of something from the most recent past in response to that question, or perhaps, and more probably so, something you had waited for over several years deserved to be it; whatever her reason was and she didn't wait to ponder over that long enough, as her spontaneous thought went back to the moment he had confessed his love.

She recalled, the night not very long ago, consequently fresh in her mind, but Chirag's question made her think- it was definitely her life changing moment, that was a belief she would die with. But had it been...the most special? She wanted to think of a yes, and yet she was having a hard time remembering her exact series of reactions to his confession; specifically since she had no idea of exactly how and when she had dozed off after it. She grinned at herself at the thought- Armaan still didn't know about this. She made a mental note to tell him about it on the call tonight...which made her sigh. It felt like an eternity since she had talked to him, dam his work. Was he even missing her half as much? Somehow he had not been his usual whimsical self when he informed her about being gone for a whole day. Usually she had to be the one knocking sense into him but for this once he had been...his old sane self where duties and logic took over. Ridhima pushed the thought away as she had been since their last conversation.

Chirag saw the changing expressions on her face, and knew she had lost track of what she was meant to do. Mentaly, he congratulated himself, part of his own attention focused on the terminal. He couldn't blame Ridhima for sidetracked thoughts, Armaan had that effect if on no one else then atleast on the two of them he admitted; he had himself thoughtlessly given away much chance to be doubted in his excitement to see Armaan after a whole long year, which had seemed much longer. Breathing deeply at the thought of then and now he squeezed his hold on Ridhima's shoulder unknwoingly and she was jerked out of her thoughts to see him lost. She glanced at the exit hastily and muttered turning to him,

"Isn't this taking longer than it should?"

"Na-uh..." he replied taking his arm off and turning her half way to face him, "You didn't answer me Ridzi." He smiled at her and it felt so genuine that she couldn't help but smile back. From the corner of his eye he looked at the terminal past her.

"It would be when he said he loves me...except..." Chirag raised an eye to this and she said with a sheepish look, "Would I sound crazy if I said I think there's a better one to come?"

Chirag laughed out in disbelief at her words, whoever had claimed that to go by a female instinct was a sensible bait must have been very smart indeed. He could swear she had no clue she was about to see him minutes from now, right here before herself. The idea made him beam in happiness, while Ridhima turned a slight red at his reaction, she didn't know what to make of it. Chirag realized as she looked away hesitantly and clearing his throat he got her attention again.

"I'm going to wonder all my life why you said that just this minute."

"Huh?"

"Yeh. In fact Ridzi, I'll bet right now, lets see...a dinner treat on me, if you don't wonder the same when you go to bed tonight."

"Chirag?" She was positively baffled by his remarks, none of them were making remote sense.

"Are you sure you don't want any coffee?"

She rolled her eyes. He was bound to have eaten something wrong. Still wondering she missed the sudden expression on his face and as she made to turn back to the terminal he tugged, almost roughly at her arm.

"Ridhima look!" he exclaimed pointing in a direction at a tangent to the exit. She turned to follow his indication and stared trying to figure what it was that she had to see.

"Chirag what..."

"Isn't that Gaurav?" he interrupted still pointing the same way and she was too caught up to wonder why her nephew would appear from a completely unexpected direction. Instead she strained to find him in the piling crowd.

"I don't see him." she said frowning but not looking away and he pursed his lips to not chuckle out loud. Simultaneously he followed Armaan and Gappu with his eyes as they walked out searching for them. The change was enough to be noticed, but what struck Chirag the most was when he saw Armaan laughing at something Gappu seemed to have said.

"Chirag where do you see him?" Reluctantly he pulled away his eyes from them just in time as she turned to look at him puzzled.

"Ridzi!...Don't you see him? Right there...the boy in green with a plaster, it must be him..."

She scanned the crown again searching for a fit to the precise description. Chirag meanwhile was trying to wave to them behind her back and catch their attention, and in that second Armaan met his eye. Chirag forgot his hand was mid air frozen in the wave as he saw Armaan hold the look for another second before he broke into a bright smile tugging at Gappu's uninjured arm. Chirag unconsciously broke out smiling himself, a happiness seared through him, that when he had thought he had been at his highest all day.

"CHIRAG!"

He reeled back to her not pleased face as she stood with hands on her hips and even that did not wipe off his smile soon enough. Frowning in doubt now she turned around to look towards the correct exit, suddenly she was very skeptical and uncertain. What was happening? Chirag followed her and almost let out a sigh as he did not see Armaan and Gappu where they had been moments ago. He grinned inwardly, trust Armaan to have read his mind for the idea without being told. It was even possible, Chirag mused further, that he had come up with the same plan without knowing what Chirag had been intending. Poles apart and yet the way their heads worked could be strikingly similar. He searched around for the pair of them, fawn and black.

"Chirag?" He saw her turn back to him very confused now, and he was tempted to give her a friendly hug in his happiness, it was a unbearable to hold the surprise anymore. He knew in that moment that it was impossible to imagine what her reaction would be like. He grinned foolishly as she gave him a disgruntled look. She spoke, whinning,

"Please...explain what is wrong with you. You didn't see Gappu at all did you?"

"I did," he said laughing, "And I see him again now!" She saw his eyes shift from herself to past and beyond her. Reflexively she snapped her head in a turn.

*************************
"I have to capture the look on her face, I don't think I'll find a match to the expression I can already imagine."

"Expressions you mean, like a plural?"

Armaan replied laughing at Gappu's excitement, his own had hit the roof. He had no idea how he had kept himself seated and belted at the sight of the city and the thought of her long enough in the many minutes of landing. He felt like a young teen, actually, he reminded himself, he had never felt quite like it as a teen, or at any other age. The whole emotion was unprecedented to him, he couldn't keep the smile off his face, or her thought off his mind. At the end of a fifteen hour long direct flight the last thing Armaan Malik felt was a jet lag and the last thing on his mind was exhaustion. Pulling the bags, both his and Gappu's behind himself he swept his eyes in an expectant search of her.

And that second he met his eye. Chirag. It took Armaan all but a second to feel the elation hit him all over again as he broke into a smile.

"Gaurav!" he said suddenly finding his voice hoarse and constricted and tugged at his sleeve to get his attention. And then his look with Chirag broke as a he saw his attention drawn to...her. It was her back facing them but there was no mistaking her, he couldn't miss the real her if they built a billion clones of her. He turned to walk to their right abruptly and Gappu stood puzzled only for a moment, as he followed Armaan's gaze and saw them. He grinned looking back at Armaan who was walking without watching his step ahead not moving his eyes off her. Gappu took hold of one bag with his uninjured arm and even that passed Armaan unnoticed, he smiled to himself.

Armaan walked a longer way, taking a U turn to get back to them. His eyes did not leave her, she had turned around to where they had stood within seconds of them moving away and he saw her frown in puzzled concentration. Even through the distance he keenly observed the way she blew off her falling flick in irritation turning back to Chirag. He noticed the face she made, exasperrated, the waving of her hands at Chirag not pleased. He grinned dazed at the contrast of a sight she presented- dressed to elegance in business formals, a pale grey pant and matching waist coat with a pastel pink collared shirt inside it. The knot of her formal silver grey-magenta scarf was undone and it hung unsymertrically around her neck casually slung beneath the collar. The diamond in her open neck gleamed as she moved at some angle talking to Chirag, and the expression on her face was of a child lost and frustrated at not being made privy to an adult talk. She was a contrast, in appearence and spirit, the former demanded admiration and the latter left you enviously awe struck, and she was his girl.

He loved the feeling of thinking so, she being a girl as the first memory he had of her, and being his.

"You didn't see Gappu at all did you?" he caught the last of her words walking up behind her now, her tone imploring and whinning as Chirag broke out laughing.

"I did," Chirag managed between the laughing but Armaan's senses were focused only on her, "And I see him again now!" And as she turned her head in a snap their eyes met.

The world around dissolved to nothingness for her, so much that Ridhima noticed neither the chuckle from behind her where Chirag stood, nor the movement from the corner of her eye as Gappu moved into sight. It was like her eyes could see nothing except him. HIM...ARMAAN MALIK...the real him in flesh and blood? Her heart stopped beating, it seemed, for an eternity.

Armaan saw her look back at him unblinking, her neck twisted at some three quarters of a circle, and then slowly she moved to turn around herself, not breaking the look. The smile he had thought would not leave faded into an oblivion at the sight of her just before him. To a look of love, longing and passion. Somewhere the back of his mind registered diamonds in her ears to match the one in her neck, tendrils falling lose from her bun over them and he had the faint urge to move up and finger through the hair, to touch her simply...but he felt a paralyzing sensation take over his limbs.

"Armaan..." it escaped her lips barely and soundlessly; the sight of her lips forming his name brought Armaan out of his standby. Smiling slowly he moved towards her and when he was close enough to inhale her sweet fragrance she raised her hand, tentatively and with great uncertainity to his face. Brushing it barely against his cheek she repeated in an audible but hoarse whisper this time, her throat was suddenly very dry.

"Armaan?"

It was all he could withstand, the sound of her voice broke him into a warm endearing smile, raising his own hand to grip her hand brushing his face he brought it lower not breaking the look, and moved his other hand to have both her hands in his own. Stroking the back of her fingers with his thumbs he nodded looking into her eyes, and was shocked the next moment as she leapt to throw her arms around his neck in a possessive embrace. Another second later his own arms enveloped her, pulling her into a tight hug, kissing the side of her head once, lightly, and then again as he closed his eyes to keep the threat of tears at bay.

"Armaan" she whispered, hearing the choking breath against the nape of his neck; he clutched tighter onto her waist and caressed her back with his other hand.

"Yes honey," he whispered speaking his first words to her. "I'm back." At that she finally pulled slowly, out of his hold and looked up into his face. Armaan saw the tears in her eyes, unlike his own which were simply suspended making his vision hazy.

She stared at him without letting her eyes blink as the tears flowed slowly, lest all of this disappeared and she woke up from the most beautiful dream of her life. Somewhere in the back of her mind everything was falling into place;- his insistence to have let Gappu travel alone and not let her fly to India, strange things he would say in their conversations over the last one week which she could not comprehend and he would brush off without explaining, Rahul and Muskaan almost letting the idea slip, her own lack of conviction with why Gappu was not bothered about the flight back in the least all by himself, Ritu pretending sickness, and the whole evening of facing an absurd Chirag...yes..it all fell into place and she knew it was no dream, and it would never break. Nonetheless she found it impossible to to let that faint reasoning over come her disbelief, even now as she stood in his arms. On an impulse seeking reassurance she whispered the words he had spoken,

"You're back..." It was difficult to hear her but he missed nothing, neither the height of underlying emotion nor the persisting disbelief. Softly he brushed away the tears in her eyes and kissed her gently on the forehead letting his lips linger in touch as he spoke onto her skin. 

"I am sweetheart, right here, before you, forever." fixing the lose tendrils behind her ears as he had wished to a minute ago...the best minute of his life. The permanent smile, which had left him only momentarily made its comeback. He felt like he was falling in love with her, all over again. And then, at long last she finally broke into a smile, a smile of belief and tremendous emotions.

"Ahem..."

They did not know how long they just stood, logically it could have been only some seconds, but it felt like an eternity and yet not enough. Ridhima turned her gaze and it took her moment to register the sight before her.

"Gappu..." she whispered shifting in Armaan's embrace at the sight of her nephew, with an arm angled oddly in a cast, his boyish grin and mischievious eyes, the fawn shirt wrinkled from the flight over rugged denims and running shoes, the casual charm clung onto him.

"Yes Mrs. Malik to be...or are you already...perhaps..." he quipped in a cheeky voice walking upto her as Armaan let her go moving unconciously towards Chirag who leaned slightly resting his elbow over Armaan's shoulder watching the second scene with him, grining wide, first at Armaan's daze then back to Ridhima and an unrelenting Gappu.

"I...you..." she moved her hand towards his plaster but Gappu pulled it away from her in a challenging look.

"And I grew up learning about the honor received by injured men back from battlefields. Fake tales of glory so to say..." he finished in a dramatic hurt voice, the teasing shone from his eyes. It was all Ridhima needed to be back. Rolling her eyes at him as another pair of tears rolled down her cheeks, she pulled him into a hug.

"AAHHH" reeling back worried the next instant at his yell of anguish. He broke out grinning and winked at her.

"All you girls..." he said, "Muski fell for the same...OUCH!" he yelped for real this time as she smacked his unhurt shoulder.

"You jerk..." she spat angrily. Chirag broke out laughing while Armaan smiled on staring at her. He couldn't believe after all the planning and stress he had gone through for this, he was having trouble believing the moment himself now. Gappu pulled her into a hug with his normal arm.

"Missed you beautiful!" he said earnestly and she smiled hugging him back.

"I did not." she stated with a defiant look as they pulled apart.

"I can believe that. You were too busy missing someone else all the time...OUCH!" he yelped as she smacked his arm again. "Easy lady! You don't want lover boy here reconsidering if its safe to be with a woman like you at all." Ridhima turned red with daggers in her eyes as he grinned back unaffected. Armaan heard the words but the moment was over him like a spell.

"I barely just managed to get him to Chicago in the first place." Chirag offered and it was then that Armaan snapped out of staring to give Chirag a hasty awkward look.

"I was going to fly to Chicago," he said defending himself without enough conviction, emphasizing on 'was'. Ridhima looked from one to the other and back as they stood a long moment facing each other. It was a feeling of deja vu...something she was reminded from grad school. The two of them had always been so. Unknwoingly she smiled folding her arms across her chest.

"Sure you were..." Chirag muttered rolling his eyes. "It wont kill you to credit me once."

"It never will be enough."

Armaan said in a quiet baritone, Ridhima noticed the softening of his expression and she knew it was the effortless senstivity in him, despite the aura of being so male, that had made her fall in love. Chirag smiled through glistening eyes, then slowly raised his fist high up to him and Armaan hit back before the two of them pulled into a hug. Armaan shut his eyes pursing his lips and Ridhima smiled to herself blinking away the tears at the sight of them. Unknowingly, as Gappu moved forward to interlock his hand with hers she gripped it tightly. He looked at her, then Armaan, then back at her. And then he looked at Chirag. And catching his eye he smiled raising a 'V' to his accomplice.

**************************
Ridhima looked up at him sitting across from her at the dinner table, there were a million qustions in her mind, a new one occuring to her with every passing second and she had hardly found enough time with him alone...yet. Although the flight had landed over four hours ago. She could however, hardly be the one to complain.The idea that he was here, in Chicago, in her house, having dinner with her family on Anjali's insistence was taking its own easy time to sink in. She was having considerable trouble believing it in her heart, when the obvious was before her sitting as Armaan Malik.

She reminded herself it was all real by looking at him every other moment she could- his hair had grown longer and somehow the unruly ruffled look was appealing when she thought of how contrary to the disciplined Armaan it was- she was more than just tempted to run her fingers through them; his black shirt was opened necked down to two buttons and she could not get her mind rid of the fantasy of wanting to snuggle into him; the tan, half a shade darker as she had realized in the video chat was visibly so she concluded and it felt like the final touch to his undeniably great looks, the male touch.

She had lapsed into staring at him more than once, then reprimanded herself to stop thinking like a desperate mind. But it was hard, talking to him on the phone had been very different, with him before her eyes now she could not help but consider him in a light she had never before. He was the man in her life, the one she would eventually spend her life with, and she had almost never realized what it felt like to be a woman her age until now.

The closest she had been to a couple, even more than Anjali and Atul, was with Ritu and Chirag. They were about her age, and married, and the signs of affection between them were never hidden, mostly they were more passionate than she could empthasize with. It was the gap she was bound to feel, and there had been times she had cried herself to sleep feeling guilty about not being happy enough for them, when she knew she wished the best for them very selflessly, she hated allowing herself to grow into a sinking self pity.

It had been until that night Armaan had called. Then, everything in her life had changed, it started with him to end at him, in between everything of significance and everything trivial had revolved around him too. She had no longer felt a gap, his love reminded her of how special she was in every living moment, but the way she was feeling today, from the moment he had made appearence was a too much of what she had never known could be her. Suddenly she was conscious of her looks under the inspection of his eyes, and the constant presence of him around her. It was all she could do to keep her mind from wandering into the forbidden obvious.

They were thinking of a life time of being together for heaven's sake, she reminded herself over and over again, can you behave like a mature adult Ridzi? Unknowingly she had taken to being teased about being his future wife from range of people who knew about them, which, she thought with a guilty pang, was everyone except the two who replaced her parents for her. She had to tell them, but now Armaan was here himself, wouldn't he take care? He always knew what to do and when and she was glad to let him take charge...in fact in all honesty the independent fierce self inside her was ready to surrender to this one man, he only had to ask for the right and she wistfully thought of the moment he would.

Stealing another look at him as he raised the spoon to his mouth, their eyes met and she saw the smile reach his eyes which warmed her inside. He could just sit there before her literally inactive to the extent that it would seem like he didn't exist and it affected her like the rest of the world around the two of them had evaporated. She was brought out of her thoughts at Gappu's loud exclaimation.

"Mum!" he protested as Anjali tried to spoon feed him, literally. "I'm going to be 20." Ridhima chuckled half at him and somewhat in her own delight as he glared at her.

"If you had half as much realization of that fact as is needed I would be only too glad Gaurav." Anjali retorted.

Gappu sensed the motherly love of having missed a son had come and gone by in less than 20 minutes after he reached home. She had been particular in indicating how much she disapproved him being careless with himself and getting injured severely. It was evident more so, every time she addressed him with his first name. He looked upto Atul for support who showed him a thumbs up for luck before indulging into the spread of veggies before him. Defeated, he looked back at Anjali who had turned to her own food ignoring him. He looked at Ridhima before rolling his eyes as she sat stealing shy glances at Armaan across from her on the table sitting beside him. Gappu cocked an eye at himself in thought then with a scheming grin he aimed his foot mentally under the table.

"AAHHH!"

Everyone at the table looked up at Ridhima's sudden cry. Shocked herself, and a stab of pain shooting up her shin, she averted the attention looking into her plate immediately and mumbled, "Sorry...Bit my tongue." her voice unconvinced as she shot Armaan a quick look. He looked back at her wide eyed in question and she tried not to feel flustered by his concern. Dismissing the option her eyes reluctantly went to Gappu and the slightest of wink from him told her facts, she wondered how the hell she had expected it to be anyone else at all. Narrowing her eyes at him she stabbed the fork into her lettuce without looking at it. He grinned in content, he would be damned if he didn't aim a kick right.

Armaan did not miss the exchange and couldn't help but grin into his own food.

"So what led to the sudden trip Dr. Malik?"

Atul said, interrupting his thoughts. He had come home just half an hour ago, delayed by an emergency in the ICU, and had rushed inside looking for Gaurav. The two of them had met and Armaan stood watching the father son bond wistfully as Atul after a quick inspection of the plaster had taken the talk to a lighter tone telling him how proud he was of his son not much to Anjali's pleasure. He remained oblivious to Ridhima's observation of him until unnoticed, she had walked to his side and gave his hand a gentle squeeze taking him by surprise, he had smiled to her peaceful look. Having her by his side, he realized more than ever before, was going to be a pillar support. Atul thereafter had been introduced to him, before excusing himself for twenty out of those thirty minutes to freshen up prior to dinner. And here they were now.

"Please sir, Armaan is good, I insist." he started.

"So is Atul, I insist as much." Armaan nodded with a smile, he liked the man.

"It was...an idea in my mind. Gappu's injury just gave me enough incentive."

Atul assessed him for his staright answer, as he had, without having been overtly conscious of sounding insensitive, indiacted a positive in Gappu's accident. He appreciated how the lad had, in his own way brushed off any need for being obligatory in his interaction with the family. He knew, as a father then, without having to seek confirmation, that Gappu's stay had been wonderfully intimate even on a new land. Both Gappu and Ridhima looked up from their plates and Armaan avoided looking either of them in the eye. Gappu smiled at his smart answer which wasn't a lie at all, Ridhima narrowed her eyes at the incomplete reason he had confessed.

"And how long are you planning to stay?" Armaan considered the question, and Ridhima raised her ears expectantly at this. It was one of the million things she had to ask him, not like he was certain to spill all facts right now on the table.

"A while. I flew on a one way for now." Ridhima felt suddenly high and took a big happy bite of her food.

"So you're planning to re join the clinic?" It was Anjali this time.

"Its an option. I mean, I will eventually, but there's something else I need to take care of before the rest."

He looked at Ridhima momentarily and found her looking back smiling at him. It still felt like a bizzare reality he was living. Less than 24 hours ago he had been desperately toying with his cell wishing to talk to her, the same time when she was going through her day unknown to any of this, and now they were sitting less than a foot away from each other. This last bit of distance between them was the hardest to endure, he had a strong urge to cuddle her close to himself.

As the conversation took a break Armaan went back to debating his options mentally, mechanically making way through his dinner. He wanted to get up and speak all of his heart right away, the family was warm and understanding. But he remembered Anjali having inquired politely about him and his family coping with Lovely's untimely demise in the first hour of their conversation and he knew it wasn't the right time. He had to talk to Ridhima before them in any case, he mused, now he was here, even though a part of him was restless at not being alone with her, he knew there was going to ample opportunity for that and soon. He came out of his web of thoughts at Gappu's voice once more.

"Mum," he started and flashed an innocent smile at his mother as she looked up. She considered him for a moment and decided to hear him out. He continued, pleased, "I was thinking..."

"Thats a feat! With what?" Ridhima exclaimed cutting him off with a meaningful look. He gave her a mock smile. Armaan shook his head at the quick changing nuances in her, one moment she was the shy and loving girl in his life, the next she was a rough punk he loved like crazy.

"With this little something called a brain. The word must sound fairly alien to you I reckon...?" Not like Gappu was any less, Armaan mused, cutting off a bite as he watched the round.

"You wish. And it would be nothing more than little for you of course. Too much of it could harm Captain's mindless reputation."

"Time out you guys! I know you've missed messing around miserably but lets wait for the entertainment until end of dinner...?" Atul proposed smiling easy, Anjali glared at the two of them, and offered Armaan an embarrased look.

He smiled back reassuringly in return, in a strange way Anjali felt very nice about his gesture, she didn't feel like he was obliging her at all, he seemed completely genuine about it and in a stranger way still, she felt like she wasn't quite awkward at having him sit through such an informal family dinner. He wasn't a superlative talker, but he had this way of making people feel at ease around himself and within minutes of talking to him she had asked him to stay on for dinner, having had no prior plans for anything such since his courtesy call had been anything but expected. Most importantly, she had never before seen him in her life, only knew him from random talks, but she on her part, as much as him, felt no obligation in asking him to stay. It had just come to her and she was not regretting it.

Armaan in his own mind was unable to name his state in one word. He was on a high at being here, then there was a tinge of nervousness for the same. Everytime he loked at Ridhima his heart wanted to either stop or pound its hardest, he wondered if he could ever get enough of her in his life. Despite his anticipation of being with her family the very first time he was feeling extremely at home. Then there was constant amusement in witnessing the bonding between the two accepted siblings.

The two of them were a definite riot, Armaan found himself missing Muskaan. A glance at Ridhima and he forgot the in a rush of emotion for her. She was signaling to Gappu with her eyes, it seemed like they were going through an entire conversation and she looked adorable, specially since she did not intend to be so. Her cheeks were suffused with a red, and he wondered if his presence at the table could be one of the reasons? He found himself wishing he was, sitting on her dinner table was definitely affecting him more than he could handle off hand.

"So what were you thinking?" Anjali started the topic again turning to Gappu. He smiled at her initiative to call truce. Instinctively he bent forward and ate off the spoon she was going to shove into her own mouth. She smiled despite herself looking away and he spoke through a mouthful, "Love you mum!" making her roll her eyes to not show how happy it made her, just hearing him say that after three whole weeks in person. Undeniably she had missed him.

"The rotten thought kid....out with that. You have a whole life ahead to flatter her." He stuck out a tongue at Ridhima and turning back to Anjali he said,

"Can I go with Massi when she goes to drop Armaan back?" Both Ridhima and Armaan raised an eye first at him, then at each other in complete understanding of what he was getting to. Minnie, their minds spelled.

"I can do without the moral support dude!" she chirped casually, but Gappu did not miss the glint of revenge in her eye. Besides, he thought, she wasn't going to let go of her chance to be with Armaan alone that easy. If he had another option he would stay out of their way himself, but this was necessary...he had to see her.

"I wasn't offering any, it won't do much good to your reckless driving anyways God save the guy." he said giving Armaan a quick sympathetic look and Ridhima looked at Armaan with narrowed eyes at the same time waiting for his reaction. Armaan maintained a blank look to both and concentrated on loading his spoon again. "I just want to stop over at Ben and Jerry's for the chocolate excess. Haven't eaten it in ages." And he looked at Ridhima with a sweet smile, she too did not miss the aim of his eye.

"I think we have a pint of it at home Gappu..." Anjali started before Ridhima had to.

"I want it in the waffle mum...please?"

Gappu said interrupting. Anjali considered him for a moment, then shaking her head she mumbled her permission. Gappu beamed and took the largest bite out his pita. Ridhima hated herself for being almost disappointed, one because it was selfish of her to not want Gappu to come when she knew how badly he must want to meet Minnie; and two because it wasn't just Armaan who had flown into Chicago tonight, Gappu had as well and she was so occupied with her surprise that she had not given enough time to him. Momentarily she raised her eyes and so did Gappu, she smiled at him affectionately. Which caught him off guard pleasantly, a second later he blew her a brotherly kiss back.

Again, Armaan noticed the ease of their exchange, it made him smile and he missed Muskaan terribly like a boy out of home for the first time. There was no way he could home sick when he was into such a happy evening, with a tug he thought about the slight disappointment at not being able to drive back alone with her. It was unfair of him, but he had wanted to so badly. He felt restless at the urge of not being granted the solitude, and the partial realization of being unjustified. Had he run out of all the patience in his life, this wasn't the Armaan he knew. Feeling extremely complicated he decided to not think until later, and worked his way through the remainder of the meal.

*******************************
 Ridhima lay on her bed, wide awake at the wee hour of early morning, it was going to be dawn soon, and she had spent a chunk of her sleeping hours staring at nothing and replaying the events of the evening. They had gone off to drop Armaan, Gappu and her, and when she had seen the delight on Minnie's face she had been happy that Gappu had come. She knew what the surprise could be like, even if it wasn't half as much as her own had been, Minnie had nonetheless not expected to see him before the next morning.

They had been invited in by Keerti and Shubhankar, and it wasn't the first time she was visiting them, but with Armaan's presence this too felt very different and she acknowledged it as his place for the first time. Ridhima had an intuitive certainity that they knew about Armaan and her, she did not remember asking Armaan about it, neither Gappu or Minnie, and so she made a note in her mind for yet another question she had to ask him. When they had been offered warm Gajerela, Gappu had conveniently forgotten his chocolate excess and they had stayed on for a while chatting over the desert.

The boy had been so zoned out, Ridhima chuckled remembering, that when Anjali had asked them about the same ice cream he had given her a puzzled unknowing expression, till Ridhima, nudging him, had saved the day. Anjali, soon after, decided to leave the two of them to spend the night catching up. And then they had sat through some hours of talking- Gappu narrating his 3 weeks in India, and Ridhima for a change,listening more than talking, her mind kept lapsing into her unbelievable life. At last, Gappu had yawned and stretched himself, then declared it was time to crash for him, and Ridhima on an impulse had pulled him into a tight hug. He had smiled, hugged her back, then kissing her cheek he told her to dream well!

But she had not slept a wink to dream since, it was 3:30AM now. Getting up to sit with her legs crossed, in the middle of her bed, she fiddled with her fingers, then suddenly jumped off the bed and pulled out her daily journal. She had been willing herself to make an entry since Gappu left, but it was one of those days, when the tumult of emotions was too high to actually manage to sit through something attention requiring. Now, with the obvious lack of sleep, and a long day, she had spent enough of her energy to be less hyper, more settled and she decided she had to write it, in this very mood, for a later entry could never bring out the evening with half its charm.

And she plugged the IPod into her ears, to the instrumental variety she had, and sat down at it.

It was some 25 minutes later, that she was almost done, chewing her pen she stared at the page with a faint smile, Armaan's face before her eyes, as she had turned around for her first look at him, as he sat by her side driving back home, after dropping off Chirag, as he been at home with her family, Atul and Anjali, doctors themselves, had found an intellectual in him, especially Atul. He had asked Armaan if he was willing to come visit for some conference they were holding in the neuro department the week after and she had knwon at his offer that Armaan had earned his good opinions already. She smiled at the thought, and wider still at the memory of the laughter on his face when Gappu and him were jesting around, as he had been before her at her dinner table, as she had been before him over desert in his family room...suddenly she realized- he had still not seen HER ROOM.

Getting up she walked around in her room looking at things critically, as if she was, for the first time. In her stride she set the cushions on the love seat right, blew at a seeming dust spot on her dresser's shelf, fiddled with the flowing curtains till she thought their fall was perfect...then she walked to her bed and tidied the sheet she had not slept on yet, but tossed about on for hours, and at last she walked to her wall...and stared at the pictures for a while. Memories of days long ago flashed like fresh yesterdays and she smiled in nostalgia at some and grinned at others. She thought about adding pictures of them to it...now.

But she cancelled the idea just as soon. It would be something different for them, she knew not what yet, but something which wasn't this wall. Deep in thought she went back to her desk, fiddling with the pen as she leaned back into her chair...remembering their time in Cambridge. At a sudden memory she recalled the first Indian movie she had seen, he had insisted upon it, claiming it was one of the only three Bollywood productions to have been nominated for an Academy as the best film in a foreign language. Somehow the name of the movie escaped her, she knew it was with an 'L'...Love she mused with a teenager's grin then hitting the pen onto her head she bent over the diary again, wondering what else she wanted to write.

Unintentionally she scribbled in a slanting font across a fresh page...'LOVE'...then she giggled sheepishly at herself breaking through the silence of her room. Pulling her pen stand she pulled out a range of markers stroking the word and the page around it in colors and patterns. When the page was reasonably filled she loked at it happily, glad with the outcome and then it struck her that she was humming some random tune, which did not match the music in her ears at all. Pulling off the headphones she hummed it again trying to recognize. She knew it wasn't unknown...only forgotten, and she frowned as it eluded her so closely. Getting up she walked in circles humming it on willing the lyrics to come to her. Passing by her desk her eyes fell on the page of her diary flooded in colors and it struck her like a spark. In absolute delight she pulled a black pen, her favorite, a gift from a Japanese client. It worked itself in calligraphic strokes. And she wrote in the middle of the page, over the colors and patterns...

"My heart it speaks a thousand words I feel eternal bliss
The roses pout their scarlet mouths like offering a kiss... :)

No drop of rain or glowing flame has ever been so pure
If being in love can feel like this then...

I'M IN LOVE FOR SURE..."

and she looked at it, humming still, unknowingly, and happily. And then another thought struck her. Quickly she got up from her chair to the chest which contained her albums and looked through, pulling out piles of them on the rug beside her until she came to the one she was looking for. Excited, she sat down against the bed and leafed through the page till she came to picture of them...her favorite. Smiling at it softly she pulled it out of its jacket and held it like a treasure in her hands.

*BUZZZZZ...*

She almost dropped it at the sudden loud sound, and looking around with a start she found her cell atop the open page of her diary. Hastily she scrambled to her feet and reached out for it. Armaan. She worded his name in her mind, reading it off the LCD and smiled wide. It had taken her all the contraint in her and more than what she knew she had to not call him after returning home. He would be jet lagged for one, and if she did not let him sleep tonight his hours would go all wrong. That had been a sane thought, the main reason she knew, had also been that he did not mention a call when she left, nor did he make one himself as the hours passed and she told herself to be reasonable and let him rest. Much to an inner disappointment. She felt a rebound of exctement inside her now, on seeing his call, quickly she clicked the answer button.

"Ridhima!" She loved the way he said her name, in yearning, in love, intensely passionate. And she knew she was blushing furiously.

"Hey!" she managed, despite the overwhelming sensation.

"Wow! You sound wide awake honey?" he said in a voice which was relieved, happy and curious at he same time.

"I was. I didn't ummm...sleep much." she said, that was only half a lie now.

"I thought the time zone difference was for me. Anyways," he added before she could reply, "If you were awake why didn't you call me?"

"I thought you would be sleeping."

"That's a logical thought sweetheart. Considering I've called you about three times in the last 30 minutes. You think a man should be capable of sleep dialing in love?"

"You called?" she said confused, then added, "Oh the past thirty minutes. I er...had the headphones on." Armaan grinned. He was going to discover a whole myriad of traits that had not changed an inch from her past.

"Hmmm. Can you take a break from it to open the door for me?"

"Huh?"

"The door...of your house."

"WHAT?"

"Erm...alright. Clearly you're not pleased to entertain a guest at this hour. In which case," he spoke lowering his voice dramatically to a sad note, "I guess I'll go back."

"Hang on...WHY?"

"Well its 15 under freezing at the moment outside, if you don't let me in, I have no option."

"What? I mean...NO! I meant...why...no...how...no...YOU'RE HERE?"

"My dearest articulate love, yes I am. Right outside your window, if I calculated the right one." Armaan said grinning wide as he sat on the bumper of his car looking up towards her room. Ridhima took a second to comprehend, then rushed to her window wall. She gaped in shock at the sight of him blowing her a kiss and indiacting he was missing her through gestures, then she broke out laughing. Armaan  just stared at her from below hearing her laugh into the cell. He wondered how many times would he fall for her all over again, like it was new and fresh every time.

"OMG!..." she exclaimed through her giggling, "I don't believe this."

"Hell you better honey. After I spent the night tracking and calling up the hospital to check for your jeej and sister's shift hours and other details. Don't know how many ethics of medical I broke tonight, in misusing my status to get the information. And then I had to wait forever for them to leave finally. And then you wouldn't answer the phone but I drove all the way anyhow. And now..." he said pausing for a breath while Ridhima was taken aback by hearing The Armaan Malik talk so much, "You refuse to let me in, worse still, you deny to acknowledge my existence?"

"OMG..." was all she whispered in disbelief at it all. And it made him break out laughing himself.

"Are you finally going to let me in?"

"Huh...Oh yeh." She clicked her tongue at him, "Obviously Armaan. Hang on, I'm gona come down. God...I still can't believe this is you."

"Ridhima..." he whispered and she paused to look at him as he looked back up at her, "I love you..."

******************************

NJ

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