Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Part 23 : Unleashing What Remained Unsaid


"Chirag! Glad you called, Armaan just got back home..."

"He did? Ridhima pretend its Ritu you're on the call with not me, if he's there with you."
Chirag instructed her in a voice which appealed to her neither in its tone, nor in the message she was meant to read. What troubled her much more however, was his reaction to Armaan's return, a lack of reaction was more like it. He had definitely sidetracked the news which in her opinion could be second in priority to none other. Instead of asking her to pass on the cell he was asking her to make a secret of his call...it was very strange, in an unsettling way.
"Oh...Ritu..."

Ridhima spoke hastily, putting her confused ideas on a pause, as she noticed Armaan stepping towards her and extending his hand for the phone; at her words he cocked an eye, soundlessly his lips moved in question and somehow she managed a small smile in confirmation.

"I just saw the number and assumed it was Chirag. "



She lied into the phone, offering an indirect explaination to Armaan who withdrew his hand from midair, looking away thought ridden, with an absent minded nod of comprehension. She almost sighed in relief at not being caught, then jolted at the idea of a guilt, why as she having to put up this pretense?



"Ch..." she sputtered impulsively but cleared her throat to cover up as Armaan stared right back into her eyes. "Chirag."



She completed the name as the fumble with the first syllable had not gone unnoticed. Armaan was visibly perplexed and a heavy sense of doubt reigned her own mind, but for a reason she could not explain she held his eye, bracing herself to not give way to suspicion...instead she obliged playing her part in she knew not what act,



"Erm...tell him also...that Armaan is back. He was...worried." she finished, mentally kicking herself, then cursing Chirag inwardly.



Without much hope she looked at Armaan, and knew he wasn't satisfied from the frown creasing his forehead, instead of letting her incoherent talk pass unquestioned, his stare was now intent, and probing. Flashing him the best look alike of a smile, she continued,



"Yes, Ritu, he is fine," without prompting from the other side of the call, trying to avert Armaan's keen eye without appearing to do so. From either his lack of conviction, or her own obvious yet unexplainable guilt, she lowered her eyes away from his face. Unintentionally they came to rest upon him anyways, and she saw his insufficient layer of clothing. "Just cold. Very...cold."



The last of her words were in a self addressed whisper, feigned for no one's advantage but at her own sudden realization as if all over again. The open neck kurta revealed his bare chest, which instead of boasting of its usual Asian tan seemed pale, lacking color at that moment, undoubtedly from the chill he had been subjected to. Instinctively, she raised her eyes to his face again and this time, they met his, which were insistently fixed upon her in what now looked like a concern in near replication of her own. Her lips parted slightly for words she wanted to say, but an unceremonious shiver escaped her instead, as if symbolic of his suffering.



"Ridhima..."



She was close to startled at the unanimous call of her name, from Chirag on the phone, and Armaan in person before her. Without seeking her permission or even meeting her approval, a sharp, slightest of gasp betrayed her before she knew, then her free hand flew over her mouth in a corrective reflex the very next second, as she covered it with a light cough this time. Armaan frowned uncertainly, at a lack of his understanding of her unlinked chain of reactions, particularly the discomfort which was prevalent through it all.



"Are you...alright?" he said, not knowing what exactly it was that he had to ask her, or expect her to tell. Something was amiss, something he ought to know. And at the dawn of this understanding he felt the previous familiar sense of premonition haunt him again. Making up his mind abruptly he took a step towards her but felt a tug over his cotton clad wrist.



"You are the one who's not alright," Anjali spoke up firmly, at last, as if to remind them both of her presence in the room and Ridhima was suddenly grateful for the fact. Chirag changed his mind about what he was going to say hearing her in the background. "You're going to get into some warm clothes first...before anything else."



Armaan heard the command with only a necessary attention and turned back to Ridhima, in expectence of a reaction. But as she nodded her head at him to second Anjali, he thought there was a persuasion in her gesture, almost unnaturally forceful. And to further his dilemma, she displayed no intention to make a move and join him. He opened his mouth to speak but she did, before him.



"Go up and get changed. I'll..." she indicated the call with a slant of her eyes, "Be with you in a bit."



Armaan was positively amazed. Baffled was closer still, as a description of his reaction. It wasn't just the fact that she had suddenly decided to not fuss over him as would have been normal, she was almost seeming indifferent to the whole issue at hand, he needed to talk to her...to Chirag...to Muskaan. And there was her jeej who had summoned him, it wasn't hard to guess where at least part of the conversation could go, did she not understand the gravity of the situation? At the moment, he felt like she was brushing him off handedly, just over a phone call from Ritu? For one the very idea seemed absurd, for another...he was inclined to believe it was him, missing out on an obvious.



Puzzled, he turned to Anjali, seeking some explanation, it didn't quite help as she remained oblivious, moving towards the steps and indicating him to follow suit. With the only exception remotely possible being that of him simply over stressing, he reasoned considering the improbable, it had to be Anjali's ignorance, pretended or real, for her to not see what he thought was definitely out of the ordinary. He turned for a last look at Ridhima and she gave a third of her 'unnatural' smiles', causing him to purse his lips tight and snap right back following Anjali out of the room, shaking his head to himself. There was nothing he was imagining here at all, which implied there was definitely something he didn't know, and he wondered why not. In absolute earnest, he hoped his brain was frozen from the temperature outside and malfunctioning and everything which was making him uneasy was just a figment of his over assuming imagination.



"Tell me now," her words came in an impatient urgency, but she managed to constrain her volume to a whisper.



"There is something I want to talk about...and then another something as well," Ridhima judged his voice, weary with caution, she bit her lower lip responding with silence. "No cheerful talks." The gravity of his tone in spelling the 'happiness' of the adjective did nothing to ease her anticipation.



"I guessed that much. Are you going to wait till I have an anxiety attack Chirag?" He inhaled sharply, and wished he could assure himself that it wasn't going to happen after he told her everything.



"Vivek Khanna," he stated the easier of topics. "His record is tainted as it can get. He's not even an American citizen..."



"I know that Chirag. He's an Indian. And his real name is Grewal. He also happens to be..."



"Rahul's brother. I'm talking about Vivek 'Khanna' here Ridzi. Hear me out." she opened her mouth, to question his knowledge, to correct his facts...but then she stopped. And he spoke on, half wishing he had not stopped her, but then, buying time wasn't going to change what she had to know.



"Grewal has been a 'Khanna' for a sufficient time to gain a Mexican citizenship in that name, with I would guess some unethical backup and bribed officials. He must have been in Chicago for one of his assignments, legal or illegal, he alone knows. Previously, he has records of having been admited to the drug addiction rehab which our hospital runs, his reports show he had been accustomed to heavy doses of steroids for several years. I also have information from the whole deal of routine check up he must have undergone while he was there; he had tested positive for some high potency anti depression drugs, the kind I administered to Lovely. While the steroids, Rahul is almost certain were a result of his college years when he played for his university, the depression meds...Lovely grew up in the same house as them. He may have taken to whatever she was taking sometime...? They can get fairly addictive with regular consumption of heavy dosage. Without prescription however, I suspect strongly, they could only have been stolen, or smuggled."



"Then?" To not interrupt his flow, Ridhima bit back on the obvious question at the tip of her tongue- there was a significant part of what he was telling her that he couldn't know...and yet he obviously did?



"Apparently he had disappeared from the rehab. The last status on his reports indicates 'missing', the family contacts he had then registered are all fake, essentially he never left trace backs."



"So...how did you..."



"I know this guy from the state police. I was certain he would help, turns out his efficiency far over rode my expectations. The details about Vivek's Mexican cover and his illegitimate list of trades, he got them out in less than two hours." Chirag paused, and for a moment they were both silent. Ridhima spoke at last.



"So what's the plan?"



"If I was him..."



"You're not..." she cut him off with such an edge to her tone that he wondered whether to be offended by her blunt stand or warmed by her fierce defense. Momentarily to regain his focus he shut his eyes, then resumed, matter of factly again.



"He's now Mexican Ridhima. If he gets past the international border, there isn't much anyone of us on his trail can do, legally at least."



"So you think he might try to escape the country soon?"



"If he hasn't already, since its evident Ammy did not get hold of him, it does seem like his best bet."



"I'm guessing you've checked out the flight details?"



"I have. The last flight to Mexico left an hour ago. Its not utterly impossible for him to have escaped on that, but the chances are still fairly dim. I mean...its an international flight even if it happens to be intra continental. If he bothers with even half the procedures he couldn't have made it. But of course, legalities aren't a trifle of his concerns...so..."



"Can't we check with the airlines?"



"There are privacy laws for us Ridhima. Anyways, that guy I know is investigating things. He's also holding a tab for me on all other flights that leave for Mexico in the next 24 hours."



"What if Vivek drives out of the country?"



"From Chicago? I'm inclined to believe that's an unreasonable attempt, even for him."



"He could fly west or south and then drive?"



"That would risk too much time..."



"Not a high cost to gain the safety of longer anonymity." Ridhima pointed out interrupting him.



"He won't be suspecting us to have back traced so much about him already. If you were receiving him at your house, obviously Ammy, in his knowledge, is the only one who knew his past." Ridhima nodded in slow comprehension, then started again,



"But he could..." Chirag clicked his tongue interrupting, less in denial to her, more however as his personal acceptance of obvious loopholes.



"Let's believe for the while that he didn't exactly have the planning time to consider the optimization of his chances. The options here are too many Ridhima. Unfortunately, not everything can be tabbed. I mean, he didn't allegedly conspire or commit a 9/11 repeat in Chicago. Can't have new check posts on international borders for an accused civilian, the case is not even officially filed. The cop is just doing me a favor."



"He must owe you bigtime." Ridhima replied in admittance. There was a limit to what they could will and warrant in this chase.



"Medics are still a noble lot." He joked, in vain, Ridhima did not respond. "He thinks I cured his 5 year old. I think the drugs worked well...but I guess that's something." Chirag claimed his credit in a grim tone. Ridhima pondered over the facts in her mind, silently.



"How did you get down to all this investigation?"



"Rahul called." Ridhima nodded in understanding, then jerked up in realization.



"He called you? Why?"



"Well for one because he couldn't reach Armaan...or you."



"I couldn't reach Armaan either...but me?"



"I got your voice mail twice myself before you finally answered the phone Ridz." She noticed the softening of his tone, and chose to ignore what the change could imply.



"Oh I was trying to call Armaan. But why didn't you call on the other numbers? Or why didn't you leave me a voicemail? Why didn't Rahul leave me a voicemail in the first place..."



"RIDHIMA!" he silenced her ranting, she was deviating unnecessarily from the topic he wished to get off his chest, he wished as much also he was not the one to have to tell about this. Somewhere in her gradually rising pitch against his own abruptly low voice he sensed she was intending to avoid the knowledge of another bad news, unknowingly. He sighed.



"Chirag...is everything...is something..." she paused. Had he said before that there were two things he wanted to discuss, neither cheerful? She ran a hand, clampy with sudden sweat, through her hair roughly.



"I don't know how to say this, but I'd rather be the one telling you, than be the one telling Ammy." He paused and she held onto her breath, "Its Muskaan. She had a miscarriage."



He heard a sharp gasp from her end and looked up into Ritu's eyes, who had been sitting across from him through the convrsation, unnaturally quiet, barely seated on the edge of her chair. He shook his head at her, unhappily, and waited for Ridhima to absorb the shock before she asked him to spell the details. They were going to be no pacifiers.



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

Armaan walked out of the room in a hoodie over tracks, with a boldly blazened 'Freshmen Soccer' in a fiery red on the front and a 'UIC' on the back, stark against an absorbing indigo base. With his physique he would have passed for a varsity player anytime, but the expression on his face seemed to have matured several years more. With a quick look over his shoulder he confirmed both mother and son deep in a discussion, and sneaked out of the door.



Carefully, he bent over the railing along the corridor between the rooms on the generously spaced floor, his eye keen on the level below. He was puzzled to find the place dark, reflexively his eyes turned to seek her room. The door was shut but he could see no peeking streams of light from the crevice at the base. It was just as dark. And then he heard her voice, making him reel back around to stare into the darkness below.



He heard unmistakable whispering, and it was followed by the shuffling of feet...as he strained to hear what visibility permitted him to observe not, he was almost certain Ridhima was pacing the floor. And he frowned.



Why was he not privy to whatever she was engaged with? It was a disconcerting thought, that she would keep anything from him, he was easily willing to believe she would not, and that was just as disturbing. If something could cause an exception to the transparency they shared, it sounded an alarm in his mind.



"Armaan!"



He turned around at Anjali's voice. Subsequently he also heard a still silence replace the hushed whispering on the floor below. In his mind, an agitation uncharacteristic of him arose, he knew not if it was from Ridhima's appearing secrecy, or Anjali's sudden giving away his presence...or both. But he was agitated, and restless, while there was no way to understand the happenings outside, the thoughts within him lacked as much of alacrity.



"Come downstairs. I'll lay dinner for all three of you."



It was the same tug at his heart as before, which replaced his inhibitions, temporarily. It had been another part of his being, which was as fresh a memory as it was forgotten, when there had been someone who as stubbornly exerted the right for this position in his life. No one questioned or commanded him anymore. How he took care of himself, or handled his affairs was in the end his business and everyone around him knew better than to distinguish the right against wrong for him. Basically, he had renounced without spelling so, the rights of anyone to care for him like it was his need. He hadn't planned it that way, it had just happened when he had taken control of things in his family. They had craved a wall of support after Baba so badly, that he was welcomed for the respite he offered as a savior, and saviors weren't meant to be seekers. She walked up ahead of him, walking past him with an air that would have reestablished that she wanted no arguments and Armaan almost took a step to follow her before stepping back with a thought.



"Di..." he said spontaneously, then realized it was the first time he had called her that. She turned around herself, and he brought himself to face her despite the apprehension, when she didn't look like she would ground him for anything yet, he continued, "I have to go to the study first...erm..."



"Before eating?"



He indulged into a second long debate with his brain. Had she sounded like she was asking him for his opinion, or was that sarcastic at him having conutered her word? When his silent musing extended into the next five seconds, she spoke up again.



"I thought you must be famished by now. If you prefer to go talk with Atul first..." she left it at that with a shrug to let him decide. And no, he told himself, she wasn't being sarcastic. At all. She was genuine about suggesting his hunger, as much as about letting him decide. So was he becoming the grown up in charge again?



"I think I'll go talk so he can get some sleep before his early morning shift." Armaan said finally.



"How do you know the time for his shift?"



Gappu coughed from behind, with a violence that startled them both and as Anjali turned to thump his back a couple of times he glared at Armaan who looked away kicking himself mentally for the unintentional slip.



"I should go," he mumbled making his escape before something else came up.



Standing outside the door he took a deep breath before raising his hand to knock; unexpectedly however the door opened before he could.



"I..."



"You..."



They spoke both at once. Atul smiled shaking his head slightly then moved aside making way for him to walk in. Armaan smiled back in hesitance himself, but his eyes, by default, scanned the room as one should at the first of a sight. It was a regular study, plenty of wood, plenty of books...the walls were splashed in a usual broken white, but there were three frames on three different walls, each distinct in the form of art, and each confirming good tatse, classic not grand. Against the fourth wall, which was part glass in a window, stood a huge multi shelved metal stand, adorned with potted plants, ferns and greens mostly, except one distinctly crimson-maroon rose bush.



His eyes wandered back to Atul, and he realized with a start his gaze observant, upon himself, waiting patiently.



"Nice...study..." he offered looking away partly awkward at being caught almost snooping.



"Thanks Doc!" Armaan looked up at that new address and Atul continued bearing the solemn expression back, "Are you nervous?" He considered the question before answering a second later.



"Ironically, I can't justify my reason for it."



"Good. Start talking then."



"About..." what...? He stopped himself in time before speaking the last word, it wasn't even a question. Atul looked back at him, without a word, meaningfully nonetheless.



"I love Ridhima." Armaan stated finally, without faltering, without looking away, and then he held onto his breath, unblinking, waiting for a response. Atul smiled with raised eyes.



"I think we both know that part well." he said and Armaan was surprised, at being surprised by the knowledge. Of course he knew. But it couldn't have gone without stating, could it have now? "I seem to have known it for a while long enough to confirm the signs." Atul continued and Armaan tried to not meet his eye as inconspicuously as he could manage, guilty of his 'late night slash early morning' sneaking two nights ago. He kept that particular detail to himself for now, giving his luck a chance, in case Atul was talking of other 'signs'.



"Perhaps still not for as long as you may have known it however." He went on, "When exactly Armaan, did Ridhima earn your affections?"



"Cambridge," Armaan replied quietly, "Her first year of grad school, final for me." Atul remained quiet, and this time Armaan was aware of his eyes upon himself. After a long moment, he had no option but to look up and face him.



"Tell me the part I don't know Armaan, and ought to. All of it."



Armaan lowered his eyes for a moment in thought. One last time, he told himself, because reason be honored, Atul deserved to know. And never again after this would he repeat the story of his life. To anyone. With that promise to self, he looked up and nodded.



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

Her eyes opened with a start. Wide, stark open, and her heart beat like a motor suddenly triggered to life; perhaps it was what woke her up. With the dark all around her, mostly, her eyes tried to adjust laboriously to the dim glow as that from a distant street light in a dark alley, the source wasn't within her direct vision. She lay in the same position, motionless, unconsciously holding onto her breath as her pulse thundered in her ears and her eyes roved around the room. After several seconds of inspection she was certain she didn't recognize it, and frowned. It was exacting on her tired brain, to remember when she had dozed off into a slumber. Her eyes still felt heavy, it was like she had been sleeping all her life...almost as if she had been drugged into it. Most of the moment felt like a hallucination anyways.



Frowning harder, she looked around the room again, first scanning the sections visible to her obviously, then, for the first time in over a minute she tried to move in her position so she could explore further. And an acute pain shot through her, it took her so completely, her face contorted into a silent cry and a hot tear rolled down her cheek from her eyes shut tight in effort. She clutched hard onto the sheets about her, as the pain went from being a piercing fang to a spreading effect, by the end of the next few seconds she couldn't be sure of where exactly from it had arisen, she only worked on her breathing. It was as if she had stretched a part she wasn't meant to, with an engulfing weakness, just as unexplained, she raised a shaky hand slowly to her face and wiped the back of it feebly over the beads of perspiration which she could feel starting to form there.



And then the hand fell limply by her side, the drowsiness was still dominating her activity and involuntarily she yawned.



"AAHH!"



Her reaction to a second pang of pain wasn't silent. It wasn't as bad as the last time, or perhaps it was a second, this time she was certain she had indeed stretched a muscle into pain. Trying to inhale deeply she swallowed instead a choking gasp and felt another tear trickle down in response to the pain. And then she felt a warm touch, a thumb which wiped it away, forcing her eyes to open.



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

He stood leaning against the frame of the window carved in the wall behind her bed in the private ward she had been shifted to for a few hours. Through the light cotton fabric of the otherwise drawn curtains, the bright sun from outside filtered as a dim orange glow into the room. He watched with passive attention, through the peaking gap at the very edge between the window and the curtain, the city abuzz in its routine, so to say, only a couple of storeys below the spot he stood. His mind remained however far distant, inaccessible to another normal Calcutta day.



The din of a weekday did not penetrate through to reach his ears from the crowded streets below, neither did he feel the hot and humid tropical coastal weather of his hometown. On another day respite from either, especially both, would have been a welcome condition. But today, in this moment when so much in the world and life he called his own had ceased to be normal, this lack of connectivity was like another loss. The nuisance of streets overflowing with bodies scurrying away to daily chores, noisy, a day unexceptionally torrid and Indian felt like a luxury against the darkened cool and conditioned calm of the nursing home, the air was an everlasting fresh smell of disinfectants, the pastels splashed over the interiors were soothing like a morbid lull.



He had ended his call with Chirag a while ago, which had gone on to reveal the reason for Muskaan's condition- Vivek...again. As the two of them exchanged the pieces of information each one knew, they had fit into what the situation had become, revealing also where it all started. Rahul had, by the time the call was past its analyzing exchange, almost been thankful it was Chirag he was talking to, not Ammy or Ridz. A third person, yet one with a concern as earnest as the other two, he had in an unspoken way partially shared Rahul's burden becoming his vent. He had listened for the most, spoken when appropriate and words which he did utter had been wisdom without preaching, assurance without sympathy. Most of all, he had volunteered to talk to Ammy and Ridz himself, and that Rahul knew was a big part of the task he was only to grateful to part with.



Currently, he awaited Muskaan's recovery to consciousness, and the consequent second part of confrontation which would inevitably follow and he alone would have to handle. The doctor would come for her next round in 2 hours. After giving a considerable amount of thought to the issue he had decided to go with the flow of as things would come his way, since there wasn't a particular plan of action his mind approved of without raising objections to. The turmoil remained however, undeterred, like a tenant who refused to vacate. Unwillingly, despite his efforts to occupy himself with other thoughts, his mind kept going back to how he would face her with facts, and handle her through it when his own emotional stability was crumbling before circumstances. He tried to forget the reason for the settling sense of melancholy within himself, and struggled to fight simultaneously his apprehension of how she would come to terms with the truth.



"AAHH!"



He snapped out of his musing at the sudden cry defying the silence that had defined the room until then. Muskaan. His head spoke her name, and his heart echoed it soundlessly, as the moment had finally come. With a last quickest deep breath he was by her bedside in two long strides, and the sound of her anguish crippled his already weak resolve to hold himself together. The dark his eyes had accustomed to in the hours worth of minutes slowly ticking away concealed from him, neither the pained expression on her face, not the lone tear that trailed down her cheek taking its own sweet time. Clenching his fist in the last of his grim efforts he forced himself to move, and be with her. And he wiped away her tear, his uncertain hand becoming steady against the touch of her skin.



"Rahul..." the name came from her lips as the first effortless reaction in the minutes she had been awake, the pain faded out of her thoughts into an unknown oblivion of relief. He lowered his head on the pretext of finding her hand and gripped it, in a possessive grip she thought, much more for his own courage he knew, before looking back into her eyes.



"How do you feel Muskaan?"



He asked, the simplest question ever, but it moved something inside her. It was like a timeless emotion unleashed by his voice, in words he had not spoken, she knew it was unlike ever before, the shadow of vulnerability she saw in his eyes beyond everything else about him which held both of them steady.



"What happened Rahul?"



She spoke quietly as if his question had never been spoken, or had gone unheard. It was ironical, she thought, that while he was the one offering physical comfort to her fragility, he also seemed to be the one in need. Her tensed nerves unexpectedly calmed at the thought; when a panic should have surfaced she felt a grim sense of control. Instinct told her something was terribly wrong, she felt the negativity of the vibe reverberating in the air she was breathing and in all unfamiliar signs about her, but for the first time in many years the weakness was limited to her limbs alone. Inside her mind she felt a strong forming resolve, as nameless as the problem itself.



"I...you...when did you wake up sweetheart?"



His grip on her hand was unrelenting, and hot. She noticed a battle reflect in his eyes, the only part of his face which shone in the dim haze of light around them. He lowered himself and touched his lips to her forehead, in a lingering, searing, kiss.



"Are you in pain?"



He whispered against her skin and she knew he was. She just knew it. The emotions which should have stirred into anxiety at his untold misery became decisively steady instead. His head lowered and his face fell to fit into the curve of her neck wordless and still except the heavy breathing which warmed her skin. She licked her lower dry lip, and raised her hand, weak still but determined, to run over his hair, and he burrowed deeper scrunching his eyes to hold back his tears, raising his hand to grip the other side of her neck, gently, still silent. She turned her head unnoticiably and kissed his hair. Her head felt heavy, and her thoughts seemed hard to trace, but behind her lightly closed eyes her mind inevitably put itself to work the puzzles.



"Where are we?"



She asked him at last, whispering such that she was audible only between the two of them. And she felt his hold around her neck tighten, before it eased the next second as he released his hold to move back up; she opened her eyes unwillingly.



"At the hospital." he informed her then raised his eyes to meet hers, questioning him to explain. "You fainted," he started again, and stopped at that for the moment. Muskaan frowned to herself looking away, the slow processing in her mind found some information to work upon.



"Vivek!"



She exclaimed suddenly, shocking herself as much as him at the conclusion of her revelations; and then the last minutes before she had fainted into a darkness came back to her.



"Dada...he said Vivek..."



She stopped as he cupped her mouth in a light but firm hold, and shook his head in two slow meaningful strokes. He wanted to scream out to the world and her with an authority which ought to not be refuted, that he didn't want so much as a hint of that mention in his life again...ever. Instead he swallowed hard as her eyes widened, staring at him, wishing to ask and tell. The seconds passed and he felt her slightly parted lips under his hand meet to a pursed closure, her eyes lowered, her body laxed into a sl*g and he felt the warmth of her breath as she exhaled conceeding to his unworded demand.



Just as her unquestioned acceptance started to bring about a guilt of having been unfair to her, she looked back at him and his eyes were misty. It should have alarmed her, but she smiled. Something was wrong indeed, and this something that had bared the raw side of the man she knew him to be, brought a change in her, the kind she had forgotten she was capable of. She felt a strong protection towards him, her own weakness seemed well forgotten as her mind willed her to be his shield. Somewhere an inner strength which he had been trying to revive within her over the years had suddenly matured in the call of this hour, unfathomable though the situation had remained for her till now. As the control rose within her, the impending increasingly cased to defeat her into a fear.



Rahul narrowed his eyes slowly registering her smile. She radiated a strange sense of comfort to him in that one gesture, the one which made him want to let go of his guard and seek the support her smile faintly promised. His bit his tongue to hold back on himself and set his face to straight. Lowering his eyes once more, he raised her hand held in his own in a caution almost gruff and pressed his lips against it, shutting his eyes tight. Unintentionally in this act of recovering his strength he was resorting to taking her help, and Muskaan felt a deep satisfaction in being the one for him.



"I love you Rahul..."



She said, and when he looked at her she continued to smile. For real. Not a cheerful smile, but it was intended to put him at ease. It was incredible, what years of her own need had not eventuated, a hint of his dire spot had. The emotional insecurity she had wanted to grow out of in all these years and had been unable to despite all the support, abandoned her finally. He stared at her unbelieving, then tentatively raised his hand to her face and brushed away the strands of hair which were coming lose from the braid they had been tied into for the OT earlier. His first caress was a mere flick but it softened the expression of the face into an emotion so deep, that he found himself caressing his thumb against her temples in a massage lovingly. In more ways however, it was undoing the stiffness of his own nerves. She looked like a little girl at peace with her life. Rahul cringed at the thought of little children and Muskaan felt his caress become absent minded as he looked away.



"You didn't say you love me back?" he heard her ask while his mind was preoccupied for obvious reasons.



"What are you happy about Muskaan?" he asked her instead, off handly.



"I'm happy to have you with me," she said simply.



It took him several seconds before he looked back at her straight into her eyes which were earnest unbearably. She was making it hard for him to retain any strength he still possessed, as each one of her gestures willed him to let her take control. How could he do that, he thought bitterly, she was calm because she was unaware. When she would learn of facts...a small voice inside him refuted her absolute unawareness. She did know something was wrong. And Vivek was not lost information for her. She had merely put it aside. Upon his silent plea. It was so unlike what she had been for years now, this patient side of her, emotionally guarded.



Rahul bent lower closer to her face and she held his eyes following them, unblinking.



"You won't change your mind about that no matter what?"



She saw his anxiety for her answer in his eyes as they stared back into her own. She smiled in understanding, then shook her head with deliberation. Rahul bent over completely and kissed her forehead, softly. Rubbing his knuckles lightly against her cheek, he took in a deep breath and held onto it,



"You had an operation." Muskaan's frowned for a second before a smirk escaped her.



"You didn't think I was going to die, did you?" Her tone was light. His touch against her flinched and he shot her a harsh look of warning. And she wondered then, grave about the remark she had passed in a jest, if that was the issue. She didn't dare spell her doubts. Instead she said,



"What operation?" Rahul stuck his tongue between his teeth to distract himself, and say nothing. Muskaan raised her eyes at him, then continued, in what unexpected for him, was a voice of great poise. "Am I alright now?" He nodded after what was a gap of several seconds which he seemed to have taken to make up his mind. Did that mean an absolute yes?; she debated.



"Alright," she said at last, "Can I sleep now?"



Rahul was definitely surprised by this particular response. In a way, she had let him of the hook, at least for now. He should have been relieved and he was, but with a nagging unease. He looked at her and she had already closed her eyes.



"Muski..." he whispered alomost inaudibly, but she must have pretended the sleep in those seconds for her eyes flew open instantly. "Don't you...want to know..." he thought furiously in his mind of the right words. Why had he reintroduced this now?



"I do." she replied, putting at least his quest for words partially at rest. "Tell me when you're ready to..." she continued when he finally looked at her, and at her words resulted in an unavoidable reality check.



She had been, as he had suspected at the back of his mind, offering him an equal support all along, as if she knew he could not handle this once all by himself. He had wished to be her strength, but she had already proved to be his, and she had said it now. It was him, taking time to prepare himself. She knew there was a problem, she must also know it was huge...she had dealt with her anxiety without letting him know, and was dealing with his as well. In that one moment, he knew, she would be able to face it...perhaps fair far braver than he actually had. He eyes shot back to her face and he sound her looking at himself, with the same look of peace. And that assuring smile. He could not put her to test any longer.



"You had a miscarriage." he told her, simply.



And he felt an instant tug of his hand holding hers, her nails digging in, her eyes indicated the slow dawn of comprehension as the words sunk in. In the later seconds of her silent absorption he felt her grip loosen upon his hand again, but he held it firm, his eyes did not leave her face. She made to relieve her hand from his hold, and he let go, reluctantly, then saw her move both her hands to where her lower abdomen was under the sheets that covered her, uncertainly, as if it was an alien part of her body and might not react well to her touch.



"I was pregnant..." she spoke at last, where a question had been intended it was a statement she made. She understood now where the pain had shot through her from. She had stretched the spot where they must have cut her open then stitched her later. She understood everything now, all of Rahul's reactions included. Vivek. She had now lost her baby because of him. Rahul sat looking at her one more second before retrieving her hands and holding them in his own. Their baby, it reminded her.



"Are you...ok?"



He asked her, as she continued to look into an empty space at nothing. At his words her eyes turned to him. She saw the concern in them, in its usual place, greater than ever even though. And she saw the underlying pain...a sense of loss. That which she could feel inside her, literally now, she saw in his eyes. He did not look away, even when, as she noticed, they seemed to be welling with tears. And that reminded her of her resolve.



She had experienced the power of being in control moments ago, long after she had resigned to have forgotten the feeling. Now, she knew she was capable of it again. Rigidly, at the thought of that, she nodded her head at him, and much to her relief, no tears came. Rahul got worried. Was that all of her reaction? Had she recoiled in withdrawl? It was true he couldn't bear to see her broken, but he would die to see her go back into her reclusive shell, away from him emotionally and mentally.



"Muskaan..." he said in an urgent anguish and she looked up at him.



"You still haven't said you love me Rahul..." He looked at her unblinking. Abruptly then lowered his head onto her hands, held them tight and kissed them. With an intensity.



"I love you," he whispered at last looking into her eyes and resting her hands by her sides gently. Then raising his own to her face he cupped it, lowering close to her, within inches of her face and all the love he held for her shone through the tears in his eyes. "I love you...more than anything...and anyone..."



He confessed in a candor that comes only in the rarest of moments in life. When words truly stand to fall very much short of what they are expected to fulfill. And he kissed her full on the mouth, her lips parted in an unknown expectation of the same perhaps, but for a part of her it was a surprise. Only for the good. She had pulled herself to be brave for him, but to have him express the depth of all that he felt for her in this moment alleviated something of the heaviness on her heart. The grief, kept going, and she kissed him back. He sensed her physical exhaustion and pulled back, gently, but with eyes shut, his forehead resting against hers, he kept the proximity.



"I want to grow old with you Muskaan...loving you the same always..."



"But I want to be loved more as I grow older," she whispered back, against his lips and he opened his eyes. She smiled at him, with eyes that glistened with the tears that had kept away long enough. He nodded slightly smiling back at her and she said in a lower whisper still, "And I want to have lots and lots of kids." He stared at her face, worried again, for any signs of a delayed breakdown but there were none. "Our kids..." she finished and tilted her head up at the slightest inclination, to touch his lips in a gentle kiss. After a long moment when neither pulled back or spoke, she felt his lips curve into a smile, and she felt his body against her own relax, at long last.



"Our kids," he repeated in confirmation, and they both felt intuitively, the start of something new in their relationship. Something beyond the long standing curse which they had faced and finally passed.



********************************"

"Can I safely assume you have forgiven Armaan?"



Anjali looked up at Gappu, from over her cup of tea. She smiled a small side smile, and he wondered what her private joke was.



"You argue and defend like your Dad." she answered him ambiguously.



"Is that a yes or no?"



"Its more like an 'I CARE', " Gappu did not reply, instead he frowned trying to analyze her answer. She decided to save him the trouble a few seonds down. "I care for her and I want only the best. Technically Armaan can never fit the definition of an ideal," Gappu looked like he would interrupt so she raised a hand to stop him, "Between the 'best' and the 'ideal', I think the 'best' wins." A slow smile crept on his face as the words stood for their complete meaning.



"So you think he's the best?" he said with what had now bloomed into a cheerful smile.



"No. She thinks he's the best."



"And?"



"And technically, that's all I really need to care about."



"So it is a yes."



"Its not a no."



"Mom!"



"Yes Gappu?"



"There you go!" he grinned victoriously and she shook her head with a smile of her own.



"You also gloat like your Dad."



"Technically, I'm his son..." he declared with a cheeky grin and took the first sip of his own tea.



"Gappu?" she spoke after several moments of silence.



"Hmmm?"



"I want you to tell me, when you fall in love." He almost choked over the sip, then gulped it down with effort.



"Erm...ahem..." he cleared his throat thinking furiously of how to respond. "Why...uh...did you say that?" he risked the act of casual curiosity while inside he had commanded his heart to halt its action till an answer came.



"Because..." Anjali sighed, again more to herself and Gappu wondered what to make of her reaction, anxiously, "I'm your mother Gappu. And I want to be a part of your life in everyway. I lost my parents too early to have realized what they could have been to me, or what I would have expected from them and when, if they had been there in my years of growing up. Somewhere I guess that gap has affected my parenting...or Ridhima would have told me about Armaan much earlier, herself."



Gappu stared at his mother as she spoke, her eyes distant. For the first time he thought, she was talking to him like an equal, by choice. For the first time also, he thought, he was getting to know his mother as just another imperfect human marked by the trivia of hopes and expectations.



"I'm glad she can share all her secrets with you, but I wish I had been the parent she could confide in as much.Technically," she said wearing an unhappy smile, "I'm her sibling not you..."



Anjali sighed and Gappu unknowingly moved ahead covering the steps between the two of them. Silently he sat down by her side and slid his arm over her shoulder, not knowing words which could express what he wanted her to know. He was suddenly overwhelmed with emotions too many; there was a significant part of guilt, which was balanced by an equally considerable rise in his affection...but more than anything else he felt a respect for his mother's love. In a way he had not acknowledged its presence before.



"The intention wasn't particularly to hide anything from you Mom." he told her, offering the best explanation he could justify.



"I guess not..." Anjali replied with partial attention.



"She was waiting for the best moment."



"We chose our best moments Gappu, they don't chose us."



Gappu looked at her as her words echoed in his mind. Perhaps he had not underestimated his mother ever, but he had also never given her credit enough. On an impulse he squeezed her hand in his own and when she turned towards him, he made a cute expression at the persisting frown on her face. He raised his hand and pulled her lips into a smile and she extended it to a grin pulling back.



"Can I call Minnie?" She looked right back at him, with raised eyes and he waited for her reply.



"Now? Why?"



He sighed. He made up his mind in that moment that she would learn about Minnie and him, very soon. Not tonight because another, much more vital at the moment issue lay unresolved, but at the very next moment he got. Mentally he shook his head at himself in correction, at the very next moment he would create.



"Armaan didn't call home yet to inform them." he replied instead, thinking fast on his feet.



"I'll call Keerti myself," Anjali offered, but she made no attempt to get up from her seat, noticing instead, Gappu's reaction.



"No mom," he said in a hurry and she narrowed her eyes, "They must have gone off to bed by now...I meant," he added hastily mentally occupied with telling himself off.



"And how do you know Minnie is still up?" She went on, missing none of his absorbed expressions.



"Cause I am," he said preoccupied, in an obvious tone, then clenched his fist in realization, "Teens..." he explained with a sheepish smile, "They stay up late...right?" She gave him 'the look' and he looked away ruffling his hair for something to do.



"Erm..." he started looking back up at her and she smiled at him sweetly, an edge more than he thought was natural, "I love you Mom!"



He stated and pulled her into a hug, instinctively out of convenience so he could stop her from looking at himself, but as she hugged him back, he relaxed in her arms, like a little boy again. Anjali smiled to herself. For the first time in many years, she thought she had come a step closer to becoming the mother she wanted to be.



"Your Dad can stay up as long as he wants talking to Armaan, and so can you...talking to whoever. I need my sleep. Can't risk napping in the OT."



Saying slow as she disengaged from the embrace, and labored through his hair fixing them neatly off his forehead. Then got up and walked away, tossing the cordless to him on her way out. Gappu looked thoughtfully at the door for a whole minute, then he picked up the phone and dialled her number.



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

Three weeks into the pregnancy. Very premature. Emotional trauma. The facts raced through Ridhima's mind. She had been on a call with Armaan last, before fainting, and she, Ridhima, knew that Armaan had been on some call, before he had rushed out after Vivek. Chirag and Rahul had come to the only obvious conclusion, in that sense. A mention had obviously passed between the siblings...Had it really resulted in so much?



"Muskaan..." she spelled the name inaudibly, as if to test if it still felt the same way.



Abruptly she got up from the couch. If the time in which they had known each other, and the distance between that had been, were both to be ignored, Muskaan was as much like a sibling in her most earnest acceptance, as Gappu had ever been. And Rahul...Desperately she chewed onto her lower lip. Someone had to explain to her, why any of this had to happen, resulting from something as insignificant as having run into a stranger one day in her past, who had turned everything in the lives of those she loved upside down. Why had he ever resurfaced for any of them at all? And why did any of this have to happen when things were finally looking bright? Things happened for a reason, she had taken some 6 years to believe that concept, and yet, so soon already, she stood facing something she wanted justification for. Bigger than all her personal conflicts with fate however was that sole question. She half sighed in worry.



"How will I tell Armaan..." she whispered covering her face with her hands then rubbing them over backwards onto her head, pushing the stray strands back.



"Tell me what?"



She nearly jumped out of her own skin. With the beats of her heart skipped in the process, and the breath she held onto involuntarily, she thought she would faint. Reluctantly hence, she forced herself to exhale the air she held back, with a caution high, as is in the back of her mind she still wished he wasn't there behind her and she could go lock herself in her room unnoticed, pretend to have long gone to bed. Why had she not done it right after ending the call with Chirag. Whatever doubt her mind was trying to promote about the reality of his presence, while she had still been neck deep into battling with acceptance of facts herself, was dispelled as he held her shoulders from behind. Momentarily she wished to let herself fall back against the comfort of his rock hard chest, but before she had another second to entertain that possibility he turned her around to himself, face-to-face.



"What do you have to tell me Ridhima?"



"Armaan...its..." she averted his eye and placing her hands lightly over his arms she said, her fidgety fingers brushing over the sleeves of the hoodie, "You aren't cold now are you?"



Before she could look away or another word passed between them she felt herself jerked forward with a force, almost slamming against his chest, not the way she had wished to moments ago however. His grip on her shoulders was hard, weakening further her own hold upon his arms as she was forced to face his intense eyes.



"Ridhima..."



He was imploring to her with an authority, in a need so imperative, it tested all that was left of her will to stand upto him. How empowering and overwhelming his presence was capable of being became evident to her in its complete sense for the first time. Gone was the hour he had faltered onto her lady shoulder for support. And much as this side of him was making it impossible for her to hold her forte upfront to, she wished and prayed with all her might that it would remain so...forever.



"Armaan...you're..."



She shut her eyes lightly swallowing her pain from his grip so hard she was certain it would leave its mark for later. He tried to read her expressions, but she had shut him out by closing her eyes. She felt her shoulders released a second later and then found herself gazing into his eyes again as he cupped her face with a hold gentle and stark in contrast to the harsh preceeding one.



"I need to know honey..." he said hoarsely, "Please..." she saw his lips draw into a helplessness in accordance with his eyes, "Its killing me...this feeling of something wrong...somewhere...more than I know..." he said unable to string his words into a single coherent sentence. Ridhima looked into his eyes as they searched her for an answer, at long last she lowered her head into a nod, of resignation. She faced back up to meet the expectance of his eyes and said, in the softest of solemn tones,



"I love you Armaan...and I want you to know...I'm always with you. In everything."



"Ahem..."



Their attention was diverted the presence of a third, at the sound of a throat being cleared. Presently, they turned around to find Gappu standing, not far away. Quickly, he turned about, his back to them.



"So is he beautiful, right Armaan?" he chirped in a cheeky tone.



"Gappu..." Ridhima said in a low note without much emotion. In a quick side look she checked on Armaan. He had been distracted for the moment, she swallowed in grim relief.



"My apologies...to be interrupting the sweet moment of love." he continued, ignoring whatever hint she had intended for him to receive.



"Why don't you turn around..."



"And tell us why you decided to spy on us?"



Ridhima completed not quite the way Armaan had intended to. With an unmistakable edge of impatience to her voice. Gappu turned around, and walking towards them, switched on the lights. They had been wide awake, even if surrounded by darkness, and adjusted to the bright yellow in seconds, to find Gappu flashing them a bright smile.



"Mr. Romeo," he said pointing a hand in feigned respect towards Armaan, "And his soon-to-be Mrs. Juliet Romeo...erm...whatever the hell his last name was..."



"Montague!" Ridhima and Armaan looked at each other after exclaiming the name in unison, then looked away, with a hint of smile on each face despite everything. Gappu cocked a brow in embarassing appreciation.



"Peace out...erm...Montagues...?" he proposed as if in innocence of no jesting. Ridhima finally looked up at him with a near scowl.



"Spill now. If you care to see another dawn."



"Scaring a braveheart? You wish beautiful! Anyways, Mom and Dad have sent a summon for the lovebirds, if they can spare some of their..."



"Why?" Ridhima asked, genuinely puzzled, interrupting his lengthy redundant banter. She could well do without it, at least for now. "I thought jeej called you...alone.." she finished looking at Armaan. Gappu raised an eye at her in inspection, and concluded she wasn't acting. So he turned his focus to Armaan. And smiled, folding his arms across his chest.



"You didn't tell her?"



"I was going to..."



"Tell me what?"



They spoke both at once again, then stopped, together as well. Gappu chuckled as Ridhima stuck her tongue in her cheek as if indifference to the light heat rising into her cheeks. Armaan ran a hand through his hair looking away.



"I see Miss Never-stop-talking and Mr. Never-really-talk despite the complementary nature of that contrast are not going to find a comon ground to make conversation."



Ridhima glared at him and he winked back at her. Armaan watched the exchange and rolled his eyes with a light smile. Nothing would change this between them, not that a change was needed, as long as he could stand a safe spot as a spectator alone.



"Are you guys planning to come upstairs anytime tonight...like within the next five minutes?"



All three heads turned to look up at Anjali's voice and she stood there, hands on her hips with not the most patient look on her face.



"Next 5 seconds if you want to retain the good boy impression Armaan," Gappu muttered in an undertone audible within 10 steps of him only, walking towards the stairs. Armaan stepped to follow, then realized Ridhima was standing, distant in thoughts.



"Ridhima..."



She looked up at the return of his husky deep set baritone. It must have been one of the things about him she fell in love with. One of the high on the list factors in fact, the way he said her name. It was always magical. She smiled, forgetting the rest in the trance of the moment. "Let's go..." he continued, and it was only when he held her hand in his own to urge her to move when she became conscious of the reality again. Hastily she glanced up, Anjali wasn't standing there anymore, but she knew, like Gappu, what 5 minutes really implied.



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

Chirag drove through the traffic on the multi laned highway. It was that wee hour of the night, technically early morning, when he should have expected a near empty road. In another world perhaps, where automobiles in every household didn't exceed the number of people living in there, he thought impatiently. That when the likes of GM had been on the verge of collapse and pack up not long ago. In frustration he drummed his fingers agaisnt the steering, wishing to forget his road ethics and honk till those ahead of him left him a vacated lane to himself.



It was a grave matter he was handling all alone. Rahul had seemed troubled enough, and Ammy was bound to be pretty much the same by the time Ridhima told him everything. He had decided hence, when he received a call from his friend, the cop, to reach the station all the way in downtown immediately, to go lok into matters himself, till the need to call upon them was inevitable. He knew the risk involved if he messed up anything here, but it seemed to be the thing to do. He was...almost family. Yes. They would understand why he had not made frantic calls to them at the first instance of results showing up. They would all understand he was playing his part in the big showdown, not every part of which was happy.



In the process of tracking information about Vivek, his friend had come across the car rental from which he had hired the car while in Chicago. Tracking the car had been easy from the rental company's sensor radars, and they had reached it in time to retrieve the contents of its temporary owner. Including the Mexican passport. The next task had been easy to implement, hard only in terms of keeping it low. They had wired the passport details to all airports countrywide, for, even if he could pass himself through the trouble of not producing it as documentation, he would need to lay down its particulars to fly, atleast internationally. And so they had managed to tail him, into this near flawless trap, catching hold of him at O'Hare itself.



Chirag allowed himself a grim smile of congratulations. Not only had he been rounded up by the cops in such a short time, his analysis that Vivek would not bother with making a foolprof escape in the urgency of the situation had been very accurate. Only if he could lay his hands on the guy now, and see him behind the bars with his own eyes, he would call up Ammy to lodge the formal list of charges against him so they couldfinally get rid of him for good. He sighed impatiently.



*RINGGGG*



Frowning at the ring of his cell to have interrupted his thoughts, he grabbed it from the dashboard across the empty passenger seat nonetheless. It wasn't an hour when he could be receiving social calls. It had to Ritu...or Ridhima...Ammy...or...he glanced at the LCD shinning blue and the ID it displayed.



"Stan I'm on my way. Another 15 minutes at max," he paused at being interrupted from the other end. "WHAT?!" His eyes widened in the most unexpected turn of events he was now being informed about...



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



NJ

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