Sunday, 19 May 2019

part 22 : Unleashing What Remained Unsaid

"VIVEK..."

Even though the pitch was silenced before the word escaped her lips, the whisper, he knew, was like a ghost of what would have been a blood curdling scream, if her weak body could muster any more strength than it did. The emotion in it however, was not lost upon him, and his heart recoiled even at the faint sound of it.

Consequently interrupting his discussion with the doctor, his attention was taken by her, undivided. Her face was pale, sweaty, creased...like a sickly face which woke up to a nightmare, the worst of its kind, and her eyes probed her surroundings in scared, fretful glances, the disbelief in them was wishful and fading fast into a deep, settling trauma...in latter moments of understanding resignation and in partial lasting influence of the injected drugs, her eyes fluttered momentarily to fall shut again.

"Muskaan..."



Before Armaan had even extended his hand to the figure of the person he couldn't believe was his sister, the intensity in his voice stopped him. Quietly, in partial consciousness of doing so, he took a step back, letting his arm swing lose to his side as he stood, simply observing. The concern of his voice, intended solely for Muskaan, in an unexplainable way, had a soothing effect on his strained nerves; Armaan was certain he was suddenly breathing with greater ease.

Rahul lifted her limp hand gently to clasp it in his own, kneeling down to her height by the bedside, while his other, free hand sorted the curls scattered around her face over the pillow. And just before he lowered his lips to her hand, Armaan witnessed in his eyes, a solitude of that bared emotion, and it dawned upon him like a bolt of lightening. The guy was so obviously in love. He forgot that his vivacious kid sister was lying tormented in a helplessness she neither deserved nor was ever meant to be in. He forgot it, because the support which Rahul had offered her, may have been lost upon her unconscious senses in that moment, but he found in the gesture, that which he had lacked too long in this home- the assurance of an equal by his side, without a real reason he had conviction in the solidarity of this unexpectedly forming bond.

Then he felt a brush against his arm as Dr. Banerjee moved past him to check the vitals, and her solemn look annouced her unsaid words about Muskaan's condition. Involuntarily he gazed in Rahul's direction again, and as if by default, their eyes met. Held each other's look meaningfully, and sealed the understanding without a spoken word.

At a sound of a low groan he turned back to Muskaan moving closer in a height of concern. He saw her frowning as she started to come around again, and when she opened her eyes, Armaan, withdrew his extended hand towards her a second time, clenched his fists instead and hard, until they became painful and he let them remain so. The lifelessness in her eyes was haunting, he cringed inwardly at the thought of having been the by stander to everything she had undergone, while he had been too occupied with his own woes, doing nothing to change it. NOTHING!

A cold washed over his entire being, and his eyes jerked open. Armaan blinked instantly, once, then a couple more times and once more quickly to undo the dryness in his eyes to the vision and its understanding. And it was that one moment, which passed him and then he sat up straight in his seat making haste as the big black eyes stared at him, frowning in question.

"We're in the neighbourhood you mentioned sir, about two blocks from Lincoln street."

Armaan looked back at him, blank and unblinking for a whole second, still recovering from the time his thoughts had drifted back to, before the words sunk in. So did the hand which had shaken him to attention as the middle aged cab driver withdrew it now. He felt a shiver run through him and realized, roughly rubbing his shoulder covered with a meagre cotton of his kurta's sleeve, that his window was open. Lincoln street. Chicago. Not Calcutta he reminded himself mentally, while an intuition inside him was nagging him for something unknown. No, he forced himself to stop thinking further, that had been just a...a rusted, old memory.

He inhaled uneasily, running a hand through his hair, feeling the discomfort of the vision from the past, frowning as he turned to look out of the window, and figured the man had lowered it for him to lookout and guide through the remainder of the route. As had been decided when he had hailed the cab some...his eyes fell on the luminiscent blue digits of the stereo's clock...15 minutes ago...? He frowned deeper.

"Sir?" The man repeated, more persistently.

"Erm..." Armaan started looking glancing ahead from the windscreen to guide him out of the temporarily occupied parking spot. Her eyes flashed in his mind again and he felt restless. He had to call her...besides he had cut her call abruptly before. Why had she not called him back, he wondered further.

"Sir?..." the impatience in the driver's voice was unmistaken.

"Its straight from here until..." Armaan stopped in his sentence his eyes widening in realization, as his hand fished deeper into the pocket of the kurta and he couldn't find it. "My cell?" he spoke more to himself not inaudibly though and the cabbie moved his foot off the gas as Armaan twisted about in his seat looking for the set. He turned on the lights and there was instantaneous greater visibility. To no avail however, as a few minutes later Armaan sat back into his seat with a heavy frustrated sigh. Before the driver could say much more however, he spoke up himself.

"I'm going to get off here." he announced, and the driver raised his brows at the impulsive declaration. Armaan ignored his reaction and mumbled in lame explaination, "I...just remembered something I have to look up at the...book store," he finished as his eyes fell on the corner Barnes and Nobles store. The driver looked fairly unconvinced, but Armaan chose to ignore again, unhooking the seat belt as he prepared to get out.

"How much is..." he stopped mid sentence a second time, this time swearing mentally at himself.

The wallet. The god damn wallet was in his car, which was at her house. Ridhima's house. He ran a wry slightly shaky hand through his hair again, ruffling them untidily. She must be worried at his unexplained exit. The whole lot of them must be, hell they might have tried to call him, Muski may have tried to call him...where the hell had he dropped his cell? Getting out of the car, he shut the door absent mindedly, it must have slipped out of his pocket in the chase. Not only had he lost that...Vivek...but now his cell was missing, no one knew where he was or why, and he didn't have his damn wallet to pay this guy. 

"Its going to be ten dollars." The driver informed him without him having completed his question and he licked his lower lip thinking of how to explain himself.

He could take the cab and go back and pay him there. But he had to find the cell, he thought stubbornly, he could retrace his steps and it may just be lying around somewhere, still. It wasn't a long distance anyways, he had hailed a cab out of mere exhaustion and disheartening...and the much below freezing Chicago wind againts his Indian cotton. But first now, he had to pay this guy. Or not pay him and explain why not, he corrected himself.

"I...erm..." he started fidgeting with his fingers as he moved up to the front door and bent down to talk to the guy but not meeting his eye right away. Then he did, looked him straight in the eye and stated flatly, "I forgot to carry my wallet." The cab driver remained quiet looking back at him, waiting perhaps, for more details, but none came.

"You did...?" he half asked Armaan, half stated to himself. "So...how are you going to pay me?"

Armaan swallowed hard at the question. Wasn't it obvous that he could not pay? Or was it obvious that he had to pay, with or without the wallet and it was not the driver's concern how he did? He clicked his knuckles thinking, in resignation. Maybe he would have to go back home after all, everyone would be wondering anyways, more than just that perhaps, he had been missing for much over an hour now. But what about his cell? He couldn't lose that particular set...it was...special...? Because of Ridhima, his logical mind reminded him, and she must be half crazy by now to have no information of his disappearence.

"DOC?!"

He heard a half yell as he opened his mouth to tell the driver he had changed his mind again. A tone of disbelief, a hint of delight, and certain familiarity. Armaan looked up and narrowed his eyes to ascertain the recognition his eyes were confirming.

"Mrs..."

"Douglous...yes Doc, in flesh and blood, but the question is...OH MY GOOD LORD...are you as similarly real standing before me right now?"

She asked, the grin playing wide on her lips by now indicated she needed no confirmation of facts from him. Armaan sighed, shaking his head incredulously, wanting to almost grin himself. Had he actually encountered a stroke of 'good luck' for once in his life? This wretched evening in particular, when every single thing had gone out of hands, in every wrong way? He bit his tongue to hold back the sigh.

"Excuse me mister I don't have the whole night to witness your reunions waiting for my due," the driver told him in a blunt tone this time and his exasperration was intended. Armaan gave him a small look and replied, "Yeh...uh...just a second. I'm going to get you the ten dollars." And he turned to the old lady who was now standing by his side, as his unexpected angel.

"Mrs. Douglous, could I...borrow 10 bucks off you?"

She grinned like a child and Armaan would have been unexceptionally amused with the gleeful glint in her eyes in another time as she opened her wallet to get the bill he had requested. For now he wanted to thank her for getting him out of this fix, for not questioning him...for just having shown up, right here, right now. He extended his hand, but she crossed him to hand the cash to the cabbie.

"Keep the extra, for witnessing the reunion." The cab driver gave her grateful smile, and a nod to Armaan, and added in a happy voice. "You have a good night lady, sir!" and she turned back to Armaan as the cabbie pulled out of the spot at last.

"So Doc, where have you been? I thought you just disappeared..."

"I...did." Armaan replied truthfully, then looking back up at her he raised his hands to hold her fragile shoulders, "Mrs. Douglous, I..." he paused, managing a small, earnest smile, "Thank you." then added, "I will come along to your shop for some flowers soon. But I'm in a desperate hurry right now. I can't tell you how wonderful it is to see you." And he pulled her into an impulsive hug. She patted his back, and it felt good...and warm, literally too.

"I don't know if there's ever been a man I've wanted to help as much Doc." she replied as they broke apart, he nodded at her and with a last quick squeeze of her hand he turned back to go over the route he had chased Vivek. His expression turned hard at the thought when he heard her add, "I'll wait for you to come tell me the tale, there must be one."

"There is," he answered half turning to her, "I'll see you soon Mrs. Douglous," and with a last nod at her he walked away briskly. It was much below freezing and his teeth shivered as he ran his hands over his shoulders in long strokes crossing them across his chest, but his eyes remianed keen and observant to the ground he tread upon.

Ridhima...Muskaan...he inhaled sharply and the cold of the air hurt his throat producing a sting in his eyes. He kicked himself one more time mentally for having lost Vivek. For four whole blocks he had kept him in sight, even managed to close in upon the distance between them at a point, just before the creep turned into the busiest part of downtown. The crowd made it impossibly tedious to keep a track, and Armaan, brushing, pushing, rushing had earned himself plenty of glares, and more than just a few curses but kept him in sight even then, the gap however had increased considerably and without admitting to hmself in that crazy last bit of the run, Armaan had started losing hope again. And then, he saw Vivek jump into a cab, and before he could do anything, it was gone.

Armaan stood, frantically out of breath trying to hail a cab for himself but he knew then, with the reason he wished would lose to his vanishing hope, that the attempt was going to fail. And then at the snap of an idea he had tried to see the number of the cab which Vivek had taken, but it was a moment too late, the car drove away dimishing in the distance and he could see it no more, with the dark around becoming significant.

Unknowingly now, his pace was furious, as was his frown, and he swore in an undertone, his eyes watering slightly to the chill of the wind and his lack of protection. He stopped in his track abruptly, at a flash of Muskaan's eyes from that past again, and cupped his mouth with both hands to inhale some warmth in the air. He knew the defeat of the chase was weighing him down heavily, it was like having failed his sister all over again...but there was a sense of premonition inside which he could not explain. The worst had happened, he tried to comfort himself, and he would get back home and think of what there was to be done. Shutting his eyes tight as the cold wind caused them to tear more, he felt weak with the emotions swelling inside him which made him, inexplicably, want to cry out loud.

*************************
"Does she love him Gappu?"

Anjali asked him the moment she shut the door behind herself. He raised an eye despite himself, this was the first direct question he had been subjected to about Armaan and Ridhima, and now, when that part of things was crystal clear. He nodded anyways looking her in the eye.

"Why?" she demanded, unreasonably from the wrong person. But Gappu read the frustration in her voice. At the moment he was feeling something close to it himself, if not quite all of it, for the same reason.

"Because he loves her mum," he replied back simply, and somehow he surprised himself for defending Armaan, specifically now, when he felt more than just agitated by his disappearence tonight. He, Gappu, had been instrumental in getting the two of them together, perhaps in more ways than anyone else actually had been, not even those two themselves. But he had been overwhelmed by the course of events in the last few hours.

"Sure he does. And this is how he expresses it? Ridzi has been out of her wits and no one has a clue as to where the hell he is."

On another day of their lives, this would have been a discussion Gappu for one would have been kept out of by his mother, on the pretext of his adoloscence. Tonight and now, he was her equal in discussion, neither of them realized how out of the ordinary that was.

Gappu did not reply, instead he sat down on his bed, in thought. How had he never considered asking not one, but neither of them as to what exactly had hapened to separate them years ago. Why had Armaan left her estranged then, when the love was what it seemed? And why had Ridhima taken him back into her life so easily? For the first time, this evening was taking Gappu into several reasons for introspection for his own doing. The Armaan he knew was as ideal as a man could possibly have been born a mortal, and the Ridhma he knew was a paradigm of self respect to the limit where it closely clashed with an ego. But their first unjustified separation and latter smooth patch up after all these years, both stood up as bold contradictions. In his excitement and immaturity he had ovelooked so much there was to be seen. He inhaled deeply.

"Gappu?" he looked up at her voice again, "Will you explain anything to me?" He continued to look at her for another moment then spoke, thoughtfully.

"They are as much in love mum as two people ever can be, they have been for almost six years and everything else seems to fall inconsequentially before that one fact."

"Which would explain perhaps, in your sense of reasoning, how he decided to leave her and marry another?" Gappu shook his head, more to himself. Lovely. He had almost forgotten her through all this. "What if he leaves her again?" He crumpled the edge of his bed sheet in his fist.  "If he hasn't already that is..." she added slumping to the couch in resignation with a loud sigh and she held her head in her hands.

For him it triggered off another thought. Whatever he had left her for then was a question he needed an answer to, for the heck of facts alone. But where had he gone off tonight? And why...this was not an issue faced and past yet. As Anjali's words echoed in his ears he forced himself to consider the worst. Could he have left her again...like before?

"He got the solitaire to propose her for mariage," he said out loud, more to himself but it made Anjali jerk her head up.

"He did? Tonight? But...how do you know that?" she asked him finally, half knowing the answer.

"I knew it mum. I've always known it all." he said, speaking to her, then he resumed after a pause in thought again, "Going to India for the camp, staying with his family, everything was a part of getting them back together. And it worked, he called her, she called him, and then...then it was."

Gappu stopped talking as Anjali stared at his changing expressions. He thought about the last weeks after that night they had talked. Armaan had changed, and that had been great. But Ridhima had changed, and that had been like a fresh breath of life. And the moment they had met at the airport...Gappu could see those seconds before his eyes. And all of the evening that had followed. He thought of Ridhima's height of her happiness for tonight, it almost made him smile wistfully. And then he thought of Armaan taking lessons from Ritu...what had gone wrong and where?

Restlessly he ran a hand through his hair and tried to replay every second of after he had mysteriously gone missing. Chirag had just left, without a word, not even to Gappu. And that had shocked him so much that he had brushed off even Minnie trying to share his concern, and her own. He had just walked up to his room and locked himself in working furiously at the debate in his mind, whether if, he had been a consequential part of making this mess in Ridhima's life. But how had he readily jumped to conclusions and all the negative ones too. As Anjali raised the same questions now, which he had been trying to avoid and face at the same time for the past few hours, he realized he was fighting his heart. It believed in Armaan, and in Ridhima, in them. And Ridhima believed the same, he realized with a start now. Not once had she indicated a lack of belief despite the state of her mind.

And he had conveniently walked out on the situation, trying to work out his way through personal guilt, when he could have been with her, should have in fact, avoiding her, the family, Minnie, and the situation instead. Abruptly he got up.

"I don't know anything mum, except that you are getting all of this wrong. Massi and him are meant to be." With that he walked out of the room before another word from either of them.

******************************
Chirag paced the room and Ritu watched him go left to right and back and forth so on and hence.

"Chirag!" He turned to face her and she knew his mind was not attentive to her. "Stop this." she commanded anyways, and he sat down dutifully frowning to himself. She sighed."CHIRAG!" He looked up at her again and she got up from her seat on the bed to walk up to his couch. Standing over him withher hands on her hips she said, "Explain." He took several seconds to understand her because a major part of his mind was still busy unravelling details.

"Vivek Khanna." he stated in answer at last and Ritu frowned in an unexpected confusion. "Muskaan was in love with him..."

"Muskaan..."

"Muski...Ammy's sister."

"But she is married."

"Yes, to Rahul Grewal."

"Why?" Chirag remained silent. The rapid fire was helping him sort out the ideas.

"Because Ammy disliked him. I remember the very unlike him temper when he told me the picture was of the man his sister had been in love with..." Chirag stopped suddenly and Ritu glanced at him as he got up again and started pacing. "The pictures...oh god...how did I forget?"

"What?"

"Patron...they had been tagged as Patron: Viveek Khanna. He may have been a patient." Before Ritu could react she saw him run out of the room and got up herself without much delay to follow him, as she saw him enter the study. When she reached he already had the CPU running and he drummed his fingers on the desk restlessly.

"Chirag...what are you doing?"

"I'm trying to locate this guy."

"BUT WHY?" Chirag gave her an incredulous look and she looked back at him with equal indignation. Then he realized.

"Oh...I think I did not mention. Ammy ran out after him tonight."

"WHAT?!"

"Stop yelling Ritu," Chirag said in absent minded admonition as the screen beeped and the desltop became active.

"Well then you explain yourself Chirag, and I wont need to," she replied back, miffed at how utterly uninformed she was here, and how insensitive he was to the fact.

"I'm sorry sweetheart," he turned to give her a quick kiss in her hair in understanding, then continued seriously, "Vivek Khanna came there, Ridhima opened the door, I think, and she said she wasn't expecting him when I found her after Ammy left, after Vivek as she informed me. I was shocked at hearing the name as I recalled this reference of him in connection to Ammy's sister, and when I mentioned that to Ridhima she suddenly seemed like she knew something I did not."

"So why didn't you ask her?" Ritu quipped, as she let her mnd process the random and hard to link bits of information. Chirag gave her 'the look', and she added, "Oh..."

"She wasn't going to tell anyone anything then, and she needed time to herself. You may have been her best friend, but I've known her from much before you Ritu, persisting with her then for anything wold have been fruitless." Ritu nodded and he turned back to the screen, "But I need to check out on this guy. If he was a patient, at any clinic for any reason, I'm sure I can access the data base."

"Right...but wont Vivek Khanna be a common name to just search?"

"We have to start somewhere and every Vivek need not be a Khanna, every Vivek Khanna need not be a patient. And we know what he looks like."

Despite the reasons, it was easier said than done, Chirag knew, having to agree with Ritu, as the name brought up a long list of patrons. He frowned.

"Can you access by the year of admission of a patron?" Chirag turned to face her, then broke into a smile of admiration at the obvious point hse was making. "When was this that you learnt about him from Armaan?" she finished stating it in words. Chirag thought for a moment, considering and calculating, then said,

"Sometime in the first year he was here, which would be three years ago at max, more likely two years ago only." and he typed in the figures accordingly for the span of time he wished to search.

"Maybe you shoould also limit the search to the neuro department patrons alone?" Chirag laughed suddenly and Ritu shot him a quizzical look, she had been very serious.

"You think the guy is mentally challenged?" he quipped teasing her and Ritu rolled her eyes.

"No, but I think you are." He gave her a smug grin back, unaffected, and she said flatly, "I'm suggesting that since the patron information was with Armaan. If he's a psychologist, who are his most likely patients?" Chirag opened his mouth to speak then shut it. Then frowned at her, to which she frowned back. "What?" she said with a questioning shrug.

"You actually have a point." he said in surprise and she narrowed her eyes at him.

"Is that your new found innovative way to tell me you think I'm dumb?"

"No. Its my new found fact...I married a genius." She broke out laughing despite herself. He was such a lame jerk, and he could make her laugh at any point. Helplessly she smakced her head shaking it and he gave her a quick peck on her cheek, before turning back to the system as he altered the search parameters further. And then he yelled in delight. She looked at the screen and he told her what was showing.

"15 results found. That's damn neat Ritu, good job. 15 is...just one and five."

"Not six though," she retorted with an equally lame joke at him, then she got up and he watched fetch her own laptop from the other table across from his own. "Why don't you lo in from mine too and we can divide the search?"

"Wow. You're giving me a real complex now." Taking her system he did just as she had suggested and handed it back and they both worked laboriously on their screens until Ritu screamed.

"THAT'S HIM!...patron Vivek Khanna, September '05..." and she paused frowning at the paragraph of text which followed. Chirag hastily took the system out of her hands and read it with the eyes of an expert.

"He was a drug addict."

"What?"

"Yeh, prone to taking high doses of steroids and anti depressants...sleeping pills...wait...how the hell did he test positive for this medication, its only rarely prescribed to patients suffering from..." Chirag stopped again, his eyes widening.

"What?" Ritu asked impatiently.

"Its the disease Lovely was suffering from."

"And you think there is a link?"

"I don't know what to think. But its a strange coincidence."

"Do you suspect..."

*RINGGGG*

They were both startled as the ring buzzed through the otherwise silent house, except themselves. Hastily with a look at her in which their eyes met he ran to his adjoining room to get the cell. Reaching it he grabbed and turned it to answer the call without a look at the number.

"Hello?"

***************************
 She looked up into his eyes at the sight of the cup extended before her own, and he smiled at her, in his way, the way she could not ignore. She looked back at the cup to take it and then frowned.

"Tea?" he grinned at the memory of his very similar reaction to the cup of coffee he had offered Armaan that night weeks ago.

"Yup." he replied and thrust it into her hands.

"But..."

"I'm trying to fix your habits for future convenience. Armaan wont live with coffee, and he wont let go of tea." She couldn't stop herself from smiling tentatively. "And you wont live without him, so why don't you start adujusting with tea?"

She positively smiled at that, a sad smile, but took the cup. Then remembered how Armaan had offered her a cup of coffee sometime a year ago, the night her car had broken down and she had been freaked out, a single cup, only for her not himself.

"Why didn't you get yourself a cup?" He shrugged sitting down on the rug beside her, their backs resting against the couch.

"I don't need pampering right now." he explained and she glanced at him sideways for his candid answer.

Only he could keep her calm in a situation like this, and Armaan could...when he wasn't the situation himself that is. If only he would come back, she just wanted to see him, before her eyes, feel him, and be assured of his well being. And Vivek, they could take care of him together. She would help him, be with him in every way. If only he was by her side right now, she would be beside him, forever, as the support he was going to need. Muskaan was his sister, and Rahul her husband, and they both meant as much to Ridhima as Gappu ever had.

"Hmmm" she replied taking a sip, then another. "Its good," she complimented him and he knew it was.

"You can tell him that when he decides to come back from his fun excursion," Gappu said with a side smile and Ridhima raised an eye, "Its the Armaan special strong doze recipie. He taught me how." Despite herself she grinned slightly at the thought.

"What?"

"No. I'm thinking of your future as a chef, if he is going to be your teacher."

"Whatever. Girls! Can't you simply appreciate male cooked stuff and rest the case?"

"Alright. Why don't you start telling me why you're here then?"

"How about a walk?"

"Its below 10 outside."

"We have coats in the house." Ridhima started to protest, but Gappu got up and tugged at her hand. She sighed taking a deep swig from her cup and placed it on he side stool. Getting up she followed him to the enterance closet as he tried to get the bulky jacket on, with one arm and groaned slightly at the plaster. She helped him with it glaring at him, and then he walked to the door as she picked a coat for herself.

"Goodness!" he heard her gasp, and turned around half way as he unbolted the door.

"What?"

"Armaan. He doesn't have anything warm and hes out there chasing...oh god...he must be...oh no..." she ran a hand through her hair in intense worry biting her lower lip. "He must be freezing cold."

"He is..." Gappu stated, and she looked up a moment later, puzzled by his words to see him looking out of the door. She stepped ahead towards him and her eyes widened at the sight.

"ARMAAN!" she screamed through the still house and jumped pulling him into a hug almost knocking him over.

"Armaan..." Gappu repeated voicelessly to himself, in partial belief only.

******************************
Rahul sat by her bedside holding her hand, wide awake but wishing he wasn't. Staring at her sleeping peacefully, under the influence of the injected chemicals, he continued to ask himself how he was ever going to inform her, how she was going to handle herself with it. And he shut his eyes to quieten the mount of thoughts in his mind.

"Why her..." he whispered to himself.

Daadu had called and he had told him he would come back and talk but all was fine. This wasn't what he could be informed about over a call, and...just for his own solace, Rahul wanted to break the news to him while being there in person to ensure he did not take it as hard as it was likely to be taken.

But Armaan had to be called, and Rahul was running out of reasons to delay making the call anymore. Except the obvious one, the question that was eating him up inside, nagging him to no end. Why had Armaan not called back himself, after a call which had cost them a...a life, Rahul thought, sucking hard at the emotion which threatened an outbrust in every little while.

Defeated, and tired, he dialled the number from the sim phone book. And frowned. He tried it once more, just to be certain, and heard the recorded voicemail again. He frowned deeper at the possibilities, then mechanically he searched his phone book and only when he saw her name he realized he was searching for it. And he dialled Ridhima's number. It went to the voicemail too, after a single ring, and he tld himself he dialled something incorrectly, and dialled a fourth time, second for her, as he had for Armaan. And it did go to the voicemail, right away this time, without a ring. He snapped shut his phone and sat thinking. A range of technical possibilities occurred to him and he weighed them all reasonably. He would have completely put it off at any one of them in fact, but it had been Armaan's call that triggered it all.

And that troubled him enough to not believe anything conveniently obvious. First his call, cut abruptly, then him not having called back, and now the voicemail. And Ridhima's cell as well. Why were they both suddenly so hard to reach? When he need them to answer some vital questions. When he needed them period.

With only half his concentration he browsed through his phone book again, aimlessly but stopped at point and scrolled back up at a name that had just passed his eyes. Chirag. Rahul inhaled deeply for a new chance and dialled the third number. Someone whould have to answer him or he was going to go crazy. He heard a tentative greeting from the other end and spoke with a deep breath.

"Chirag?...This is Rahul...Rahul Grewal. I'm..."

"Muskaan's husband..." Chirag completed for him, "I know. Hi. First time we talk and I haven't known anyone to time their call better."

*****************************
It was an embrace of frantic emotions running wild trying hard to come at bay, possessive, urgent, fighting to relax in a flodding relief. But for once Armaan noticed, if he did, only subtly the nuances of her gesture, it was the encompassing warmth and the promise of strength in that hold against which he let his body slump weak. He wished in a feeble desperation that the comfort of her presence would drive away his unresting gloom, dropping his head over her shoulder, he brought his arms to circle her only gradually, burrowing himself deep and then, after seconds passed, he pulled onto her himself, closer, tighter, in his need.

She didn't say a word, she couldn't, her rush of emotions rendered her speechless and she knew when he held her back that she just wanted to be there in his arms forever, she knew without thinking, she had never felt weaker in a moment before. She had fought to shun away her fear for him in the past hours, forcing herself to believe nothing could happen, but her despair had remained impossible to alleviate. And now, held in his arms she felt drained with relief to the extent that she did not trust herself to part from the hug and stand on her own two feet. Anything that would not make her let go of him and if she died in this moment she would hold no regrets.

But part they did, and it was Ridhima who pulled away, abruptly, in shock, as she felt a warm dampness in the curve of her neck and realized. She pulled away and stared at his casually slumped frame, his head lowered and she moved forward close to him again.

"Armaan..." she whispered cupping his face in both her hands, gently, protectively, and in fearful concern. He was crying, and she didn't know how to describe the feeling inside herself. Tentatively she licked her drying lower lip, then pressed her thumb to the edges of his eyes and wiped away the tears, with firm finality. She didn't know what it was doing to her, to see him, the man she knew was sturdy as mountain and relentlessly, look so vulnerable. She wished he would assure her he was fine, if not she wished she could assure him he was fine and would be because she would not let him be anything otherwise, but before he could look back into her eyes, before she could speak a real word of comfort, they heard a third voice.

"You're back Dr. Malik..." and she snapped around at the infuriated tone to see Anjali. Armaan raised his eyes for a bare second before lowering them again, swallowing hard.

"Mom..." Gappu whispered tentatively, and in slight discomfort moving towards her before she spoke another word.

"Do you know what hour it is?" she added making no secret of her temper and Gappu clenched his teeth almost embarassed. What was she doing?

"I'm..." Armaan started but Ridhima cut him off.

"Di...?" she exclaimed, in an astonished tone of disapproval. Then she stood up straight turning around and blocking Armaan. "Why are you...Jeej!" she said instead, noticing Atul walk down from the stairs into the room towards them. And everyone turned to look at him momentarily. Everyone except Armaan, who stood his spot, his head lowered, shutting his eyes briefly to brace himself for an obvious confrontation.

"Step aside you guys, are you going to let him in at all?"

He commanded in a calm tone, the only one of its kind in the room, and everyone obliged. Armaan stepped inside uncertain but too spent to work out things.

"Atul we have to talk..."

"Gappu go and help your mum make some tea for Armaan." Atul spoke again, cutting off a much flustered Anjali. But his tone was a message and she cast a last look at Armaan, at Ridhima, at Atul and took a deep breath with a rigid nod.

"Get him some warm clothes..." she muttered before leaving for the kitchen, and Armaan, for the first time in minutes, jerked his head up at the passing comment, before lowering it back again almost as fast. He swallowed at choking in his throat. The late hour, less clothes...strangely he found himself wishing she had scolded him some more, it had been ages since someone had. Ridhima looked at him from the side of her eye in concern.

"I'll go pull out something warm for you," Gappu said tentatively, "Are you...going to come up?" he finished, looking at Armaan all the while. When he finally met his eye Gappu gave him a small smile in assurance. Armaan kept his solemn look not knowing what to dare and expect.

"Yes he will." Atul answered for him and Gappu left. Turning back to them Atul continued. "Call your family. They were extremely worried." His mind which had been silenced with anticipation went back to its previous concern at the mention of his home.

"Muskaan..." he whispered inaudibly looking no where and Ridhima looked at him strangely. He focused back at them when she touched his arm lightly, a contrasting touch of warmth over his freezing skin, and nodded at Atul.

"And then I want to see you in my study, in 20 minutes," Ridhima opened her mouth to speak but Atul finished, "Alone."

Armaan looked up, facing his eye consciously for the first time in the past several minutes, and nodded, after the barest delay.

"Yes sir."

"Atul." he corrected in the voice of an elder, "Now get your tea, and some clothes Armaan. I'm surprised you're still alive and functioning."

Armaan looked up, not knowing how to respond. Atul gave him a smile, and a light pat on his shoulder before going up the stairs. Armaan watched him till he disappeared behind the door of his room, and then he felt a tug on his arm.

"Let's go," Ridhima said, taking a step ahead without looking at him.

"Ridhima...?" She closed her eyes lightly at hearing her name from him, it was a strange comfort, a unique evidence that he was here with her, back home now, and there was no more reason to worry. She turned tentatively to look at him.

"You're mad at me..." he asked her stating it like a fact. She shook her head starting slowly, then in two quick strokes.

"You're not?" She shook her head again. Armaan sighed restlessly. "Ridhima look at me." She started to shake her head again then stopped in understanding and looked up. Into his eyes, and they looked tired. "I'm sorry I didn't..."

"No. I said I'm not mad."

"You didn't say."

"I'm not mad Armaan." she stated, "I'm just..." and licked her lower lip looking away, then facing him again she raised her hand to his face caressing his cheek, in a fragile touch, "I'm just relieved," she said with a sigh. "I was so worried and I kept telling myself nothing would go happen to you but..." she paused closing her eyes lightly at the thought of her tormented revelations.

"Ridhima..." he said holding her hand in his own, "Vivek...hes the guy...he..."

"I know," she said quietly.

"Hes the one who..." he continued as if uninterrupted then stopped. "You know? How?"

"I figured when Chirag..."

"RIDHIMA!" they turned around startled at the loud interruption. "You still haven't got him warm clothes? Hes blue from the chill for heaven's sake do you see him?" Anjali ranted frowning hard at the two of them as Armaan took a conscious step away from Ridhima, still unknowingly holding her hand. Before any of them could say another word however, the shrill ringtone of her cell phone rang through the room. Hastily she grabbed it from the couch and looked at the screen.

"Its Chirag... she announced in a low voice clicking it to answer the call.

****************************
NJ


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