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Unleashing Wat Remaind Unsaid-Pt19/pg144/note-p151

spln IF-Sizzlerz
spln
spln

Joined: 06 December 2007
Posts: 11036

Posted: 08 September 2008 at 8:34pm | IP Logged
alright folks...here i go..thrid fic...this one was meant to go in the DMG competition but i just am nowhere close to a finish so here it comes...an open post....its...ummm well a bit different in terms of writing style leme know if u dont like it n il see how to go abt fixing it....other than that its all the usual way, no character sketches....il let u see them in the story....yeh one thing, can def not update everyday so u have to leme go on that one il try as often as possible atleast2-3 times a week shud work out.....n well.....enjoy the teaser....leave ur coments of course, they are my fuel....n well...if u like the fic, GRILL ME LESS LOL

lov ya all tons..this is for all of u, having been asking me to put up a new one for over a month now....u guys rock....here u go!!!

folks um adding the index...since the story had turned out to be longer than i thought (wats new LOLLOL) so here u go with the index!

part (1-13)- page 1
part14- page 112
part15- page 113
part16-page123
part 17- page128
part18 - page135
part19-page 144

link to thread two!
http://www.india-forums.com/forum_posts.asp?TID=1131722



~Introduction~

"Happy anniversary beta...." the words fell like a loadful of heavy bricks upon his hollow heart ...."thank you daadu" he replied his baritone voice woven into studied calm syllables, deceiving none of his inner turmoil, n he added after a pause "she is in the shower, let me pass the...." he was interrupted by the deep voice on the other side matching his own, except the evident weathering edge to it, indicating the age difference of about five decades .....

"absolutely not....let her get ready for the special day, um sure u have planned it well....just convey my wishes to her....god bless u both beta...." he half let out an unheard sigh before replying, "i will daadu...i hope you are keeping well...." a light hearted laughter followed, which threatened to turn into a bout of relentless coughing, as the old man managed to hold it somehow n said

"yes i am....perfect....just waiting to cradle another great grandchild in my arms before i close my eyes forever....don't think i sound like those conservative thoughtless oldies, but i hope its a boy, just like you Ormaan...."

Armaan swallowed hard shutting his eyes momentarily as he heard his name pronounced with an 'O' phonetic , the typical bengali way of pronouncing words starting with the letter 'A'.....putting aside the image of the face which flashed inevitably each time on being addressed this way, he replied before his silence caused a suspicious delay, in the same maintained tone

"Dadu....how you ramble on mindlessly.....kali ma promised me nothing less than a life of 100 years for you...." hearing the old man chuckle he went on, the additional tinge of concern in his voice hard to notice as his tone appeared as unmodulated as ever, only a note softer.....

"you please take care of yourself dadu....n pay my regards at home....." the long distance call was terminated by the clicking sound on both sides, leaving a smile on either face...a grim one set on Armaan's lips, and one full of remorse on the old wrinkled face of his dadu, his baba's father.....Armaan stood for several seconds looking at nothing but thin air ahead of him, n that was the end of any display of reaction or emotion from him, as he moved towards the closet, fetching his set of fresh clothes to change into after the shower.....

hearing her hum in the bathroom, he sighed thinking of what she had demanded as a gift for today, the day of completing 5 successful years of marriage, to put it in the most euphemistic way.....he moved to the opposite end of the room, opening the door to his separate bathroom......

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

"A last minute client reassignment???did Ritu mention why???" she paused leaning forward on the plush leather chair in her decently furnished downtown office hearing the answer from her secretary, frowning more as the reply did not satisfy her in the least...."anyways, I will take this up later, now did u say the file was on my desk???...the second one in the right side pile???"

fishing out the red binder she finished off "well much as i hate to be unprepared, with no prior study of the task, i don't think its appropriate to ask them to reschedule for an appointment Molly....
send them right in.....i am certain i can manage for this once...." Deactivating the speaker button, as she was going to open the file, her cell beeped.....

"hey beautiful!...Navy Pier, 6PM, dont forget to leave office in time, um not gona entertain your usual 'got stuck in the rush hour traffic' excuse.....love you...." she smiled deeply shaking her head as she read the text....the sound of a knock made her look up and she saw a petite well dressed lady, apparently in her mid thirties, walk in......she got up from behind her desk smiling professionally n stated "Ridhima Gupta...."

as they shook hands her new client replied with a wide smile of her own, "I am Lovely.....just like my name!!!" as she fluttered her eyes with an affected attitude and an almost annoying emphasis at
the pun intended, Ridhima was in half minds; part of her could hardly avoid the mock retort at the tip of her tongue,  provoked by the lame introduction, while the other part of her felt diabetic, unable to endure the sweetness of that smile.....there was but one consoling thought, she could not possibly be the first one subjected to this witless attempt at humor.....

the professional in her however, waived aside the irritation trying to ebb its way to the surface her n compelled by the demands of her position she was about to return the courtesies of the 'Lovely lady' with a smile herself.....when the very next moment she heard her door again n they both looked up to see the back of a man who shut the door behind him gently.....

Ridhima's face which had half curved into a smile a second ago, now switched expression, she narrowed her eyes at the unyielding air of familiarity about him, and as he turned around her eyes in contrast to the previous moment widened....she stared into the hazel depth of his unwavering gaze....while he took a couple of uncertain steps forward, as if unwilling to close in on the distance, they both heard the next words breaking that moment long silence in the room "that Ms. Gupta is my darling hubby.....Armaan Malik...."

****************
 
~Part 1~

She felt a paralyzing sensation take control of her limbs, rendering her incapable of movement and reaction, hearing the name she had tried to bury into the inaccessible recesses of her heart desperately for the past five years. This moment of confrontation she felt had shoved the truth at her, plain n straight- her efforts had always been in vain. The pounding of her heart asserted how her vulnerable instincts may have been dormant, but never dead as she had made herself believe in every moment of realization of painful betrayal she had faced at the hands of the man standing before her.

Armaan meanwile felt all efforts of upholding his defining poise facade suddenly threatening to crumble under the pressure of the moment. WAS IT REALLY HER? The whole existence of his past revolved around that one face, the one name, RIDHIMA GUPTA. Was there a remote chance he might be hallucinating?

If not, he couldn't see for the life of him, what he ever did to be cornered by his haunting past this way, or any other way for that matter. Why was any of this even happening? God, what is the game plan here? he thought desperately, seeking divine intervention, I thought you have been entertained enough at my expense, not this. Undo it, NOW!

Of course contrary to his wish, and in conformity with his better logic, the world around him apparently did not dissolve, worst of all she still stood her spot, staring at him, her look blank. Perhaps it was her lack of reaction which at that second snapped him out of the enveloping surge of emotions, and before anyone could have really noticed, his face hastily wore the usual expression, stoic and untouched, the surface impenetrable as he turned away to look at his wife, who had missed out on the stunned silent musing between the two people other than herself in the room, if there had been any tell tale signs at all.

Relieved at no detection by Lovely, he turned again, looking back at Ridhima, and said, his voice as unfathomable as his expressions, "Ms. Gupta, pleasure to meet you!" His words finally brought her out of the clouding senses. She continued holding his gaze, but her eyes were now beginning to gain an expression of the unspoken words- the hurt, the questions, the shock, as the encounter finally deliberated its presence.

Then, she suddenly became aware of the silent yelling inside her head. An inner call made her pull the reigns tighter on herself, never quite knowing how, and she gathered her failing defenses, to not let herself be witnessed as a weakling, pitiable and abandoned. In fact, she amazed herself next, by extending her hand forward, in return to his gesture, her action remaining appropriate for the moment professionally, but unfaithful to her heart, as she replied at long last,

"I sure hope the feeling will become mutual...eventually, Mr. Malik." Turning back she shot Lovely what she hoped could pass for something resembling a smile, while inside her, it felt like a war raged, as she desperately wanted to see his reaction to her words, but knew it would do her no good. Trying to freeze the rush of adrenaline she added "Please make yourselves comfortable"....

Lovely let out a laugh, which sounded almost inappropriate, but somehow, strangely enough, it was obvious to Ridhima, that her message or intent had totally been lost atleast on at least one of the two people facing her. I can not believe he dumped me for this woman, she started to think, this giggling mindless weird...stop it, she chided herself, and almost let out a sigh.

 No Ridhima, NO! You are for them, as for all others who sit before you in this office, a mere professional hired to design the interiors for their house. They are your clients, and a a happily married couple- A COUPLE! He is married, don't forget that now back to work. She snubbed the discomfort and restlessness his presence was causing her, and proceeded with what she was sure would prove to be the longest hour of her life, yet.

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

He lay straight on his back, the moist softness of the grass beneath him failing to offer its usual comfort. What a wonderful anniversary gift, he thought, running the events of the day in his mind He could not help but marvel at his ironical luck. She had made him promise to let her design his house once upon a time, actually just a few years ago. Nonetheless, it felt like another lifetime; they were still in graduate school, him a Psychology major, while her concentration was Interior Designing in the school of Art and Architecture.

Armaan stared at the cloudless night sky. As an intrigued child in his early years, he had spent night after night counting those tiny shining specks, in the hope of knowing how many there were, someday. But it did not take long for life to teach him, that everything he ever wished for was a quest as impossible as this one. He could go on forever, just to tell himself he was getting closer, but reality stuck, he would never quite attain what he was hoping for.

Nothing had ever been straight or easy for him, but this certainly was the limit. How long would he have to be at the receiving end? It is the story of my life, he mused in resignation. He could not remember a moment he had felt emotionally secure for as far back as he could delve into the past years. Gain had always been far overshadowed by loss.

Ma, Baba, Ridhima...inevitably he had been kept away from people he craved to never be separated from all his life. Baba left him first....his juvenile mind blamed it on fate; and Ma, that indeed was something which could not have been undone, no options or alternates had ever existed there. Ridhima...he gave a fond smile as the name left his lips soundlessly. She happened to him like a miracle, when they met at a common elective photography class. It had been the sole exception to his miserable life, in fact those months spent with her were the only ones which had made him chance the belief that it was not abnormal to want to live life and happily so.
Alas! It had been a fatal blow for whatever little of optimism or hope had survived within him. Separation from Ridhima had reestablished the truth. His life a mere debt on him, something he would repay all of his living years.
 
And Lovely...he gave a small smile, another irony. She was his solace, not quite the way a wife is meant to be. In any case, she made him content with the thought that his life had not been an utter waste. While giving consent for this matrimonial proposal, he had not been unaware of what he was calling upon himself. But he had resigned in the face of obligations, accepting it as fate yet again. God wanted him to repay his family in a noble way, by being there for Lovely, as a professional, and as her emotional support.
 
In a concerted effort to go on with his unsatisfactory life he had immersed himself in his work, and in taking care of her. The facts remained unknown to everyone at home, except daadu, who had a year after the wedding accidently stumbled upon the medical evidence. He, before the truth could be brought forth, had been sworn to silence by Armaan. Why then, he thought ferverntly, had his path crossed Ridhima's once more? A past he would rather he never had to face again. Why me God, when will i finally be redeemed, he questioned without much hope, knowing he would not get an answer, just like always.

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

"Gappu you can quit rubbing it in now? She is tired, let her rest." Hearing his mother defend her sister, Gappu shifted the accusing look on his face targeting Ridhima to a nasty one intended for Anjali as he protested. "But mum, she promised to come and we waited for her for over an hour." Before Ridhima could answer in her defense, Anjali cut him off mid sentence "WE???" Gappu kicked himself mentally for saying more than he had to, then trying to sound as convincing as possible he answered nervously "yes...we...there was...er...another friend from school with me, you havent met her mum...HIM i mean..." 
he emphasized the correction hastily, biting his tongue for the second slip in his effort of not being caught, as Anjali narrowed her eyes slightly not convinced by his reply marked with several gaps.
 
Presently, Ridhima interrupted coming to his rescue "Di, why are you getting angry at him. He is right. It is entirely my fault. The least I could have done is call him to inform that I would not make it." Turning to him before her elder sister could prod deeper into the issue she added "Gappu, I am terribly sorry, it was just..." she paused thinking for the appropriate word as images of the unexpected events of the day flashed through her mind. "Something came up, unannounced but crucial, I could not over ride it, and I forgot to leave you a message," she resumed smiling ruefully at him, holding her ears she appealed "I am sorry???"
 
Gappu smiled inevitably, then moving forward he gave her a hug saying "Beautiful women! I can never say no to them!" as they both grinned breaking apart, Anjali shook her head and spoke, clearly not pleased "Why do I even bother playing the peacemaker here? It always ends with you both pairing up against me." Rolling her eyes she made her way out of the Ridhima's room muttering in an undertone, as the two of them giggled at each other and yelled in chorus behind her "Good night, love you!" She turned to give them a last look from where she stood, just outside the door, then smiling at them with a sigh she said "Strangely, I love you creeps too. I think its way past bedtime now, sleep well." 
 
Gappu opened his mouth to speak, turning back to face Ridhima several seconds after his mother left, but stopped. Narrowing his eyes, his lips still parted awaiting the forgotten words, he realized she wore a different look, and not a familiar one. "Maasi???" he finally spoke, in a tentative way. It was rare for him to address her like this, the traditional Indian way to address his mother's sister. She was his aunt indeed, but less than a decade elder to him, since Anjali and Ridhima though sisters, were a good 13 years apart in age. Consequently, what the two of them had was a bond closest of friends are known to share, they had grown up together as playful pranksters and inseparable siblings, she having been a mere 7 year old when he was born.
 
Now he saw her continue gazing at nothing in particular, not even whinning about him calling her Massi, as she always did, complaining it made her feel like an old graying spinster in the family. He knew something was not right with her. Putting his hand on her shoulder to get her attention, he was successful this time as she looked at him. "Massi..." he repeated softly, "what happened?" As she shook her head he spoke before she could begin with any excuse "Only facts, no cock n bull tales, not before me at least." She sighed looking away, then muttered just audible enough for him to hear, "I will tell you Gappu, when the moment is right."
 
Then turning back to him, she fumbled trying to pull on a genuine smile, and said "so who was this HER, u transformed to HIM before Di?" Gappu thought for a long moment before deciding to give her time. He knew she would tell him whatever was bothering her eventually. He never did believe in pushing people to spill the beans, it had to happen out of her own conviction not his pursuation. He replied "I wont tell you. Your penalty for not showing up at Navy Pier as planned; and before you plead innocence on grounds of inescapable circumstances, I will give you a chance for repentance anyways. You come to pick me up at the reharsal hall tomorrow and meet her, she is my lead lady in the musical. What say?" 
 
Ridhima nodded her head enthusiastically and he shot her a mischievous side smile. Stretching his arms next high over his head he mumbled trying to stiffle a yawn, "Time to crash." Then moving forward he ruffled her hair in brotherly love n said in an earnest voice "I hope you are fine..." As she blinked in affirmative with a small smile he kissed her cheek lightly "Sweet dreams beautiful!" saying so he retired for his bedroom adjacent to hers.

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

" I can't remember why we fell apart
From something that was so meant to be,
Forever was the promise in our hearts
Now, more and more I wonder why not.....
Do I ever cross your mind, anytime
Do you ever wake up reaching out for me
Do I ever cross your mind anytime
I miss you
Still have your picture in a frame
Hear your footsteps down the hall
I swear I hear your voice, driving me insane
How I wish that you would call to say
I miss you "

She slammed shut her laptop to stop the song from playing any further. Brian McKnight, their common favorite she remembered distinctly with rising bitterness. This could not have been timed any worse. The world around and everything in it seemed to be conspiring against her all at once. Of the five thousand songs in the hard disk playing randomly on the shuffle mode, it had to be this melancholy track of lost love.
 
Unable to rest her mind, after tossing in the bed for about twenty minutes, she had decided sleep was not going to offer her any respite from the endless chain of thoughts. Pushing off the comforter, she had drained the bottle of water resting on the bedside chest. Then walking to the washroom she had splashed her face over and over, a refreshing sensation to begin with, but gradually a chill had started to prick her soft skin and she had stopped only when the bashful splashing was turning to icy pangs of pain hard to bear.
 
Then walking back into the room, she had tried getting involved with pending design assignments, but the memory of his face refused to desert her. The agitation was only heightened by the song that had started to play, and presently she got up from the desk dragging her feet to the glass window covering the length of an entire wall of her room in the three bedroom downtown apartment, overlooking a panoramic view.

The Chicago skyline against the night sky was
a stark outline, a shining crescent in the background of the highest blue and yellow spires of the Sears atop its majestic 110 storeys. A shimmering reflection of this real picture was like a still shot in the unperturbed waters of Lake Michigan, the absence of ripples being an unusual sight in the windy city. She smirked at her thoughts...UNUSUAL! It was an understated adjective to describe the day.
 
Five years after they parted ways wordlessly, four years after she moved from London to Chicago with her elder sister's family, three years and three quarters of the fourth year after joining the famous Radolph Associates as a junior design intern, over two years after she turned twenty three, a year after she was hired as a permanent member on the firms senior design team, and about a couple of months after she turned down the tenth proposal for marriage, he had reappeared in her life.
 
Standing by the window she rest her tired body against the cool surface of the glass in a limp fashion. Then running her fingers through the lose strands of hair she looked upwards. Why now, she wanted to ask but what was the point? There was no dearth of questions that had remained unanswered. Starting from his unannounced disappearence one fine summer morning five years ago...Chirag, his room mate in the dorm at Cambridge had told her about his return to India. "He is getting married" he had informed her and she had refused to let him tell her any more details. That was more than she needed to know.
 
Had she expected him to tell her himself? Technically he owed her no explainations since they were just an edge past being casual friends, nothing close to a committed couple status. Ethically however, he had wronged her gravely. There had been this strange attraction she felt for him, and he had indicated a reciprocation, subtle though it was, she was in no doubt that he ensured the attention he paid her would not pass unnoticed. While she had been busy living the fantasies of the day he would confess his feelings to her, he had, oblivious to her knowledge at that time, been apparently occupied with planning his life with a certain someone else. And this she learned from a third person. Was she therefore, not justified in closing the matter with a preference to stay ignorant about the 'who' and 'why' details?
 
She had spent plenty of time in retrospection post that summer, initially analyzing what they had shared, and why it had not turned out the way she had anticipated it would all along. Unable to reach a satisfactory conclusion, Ridhima altered the trail of her thoughts, and started working her way methodically out of the misery of looming rejection. She reiterated as often as she could, that there had been nothing of consequence for him to consider or for her to label 'lost'. The intricacy of her web of thoughts was however not that easy to resolve.
 
Unlike him, she was an extrovert, making friends where ever she went. Not surprisingly therefore, she hardly bothered herself to keep count of people she met through the course of her life- there were but few who left the lasting impressions, others were fading memories, and remaining were already forgotten. Most encounters in life were meant to be abrupt ending stories, memories of which were rarely, if ever, revisited. Once in a wile you were likely to hear an old song, or smell an old perfume which reminded you of a certain someone. It would bring back an air of nostalgia, occasionally it could moisten your eyes; then you would snap back to the present and the routine would take control. That was life, was it not? At least that is how it was meant to be.

But Armaan...t
here were times she feared it might be a mental disorder she suffered from, for she refused to lose thread of this abandoned chapter of her life. It would be anything but honest to not admit that. Moments spent with him in the eight months they knew each other, overshadowed all the wonderful times she had spent at Cambridge. He was an enigmatic personality who eluded her understanding of men. But when her female instinct had insinuated a rare spark, she had willingly accepted the virtual bonding as the real essence of her life. It was like a piece fell in place when she met him, it seemed she had been waiting all her life for someone just like him.
 
She could still recite the dialogues they had exchanged over the months in grad school, for she had replayed those scenes in her head reluctantly, during the waking hours of the day and inevitably, in her dreams occupying her nights, innumerable times. Her frustration after he left had made her promise herself that she would move on in life. She did manage it successfully for intervals, but never too long. It was like a recurring trauma issue. She did however, pride herself for the nonchalance she could portray. In fact with passing months her act of a perfect life had started to feel real; the thoughts of him never quite left her, but she had started to believe they were blending into the times forgotten.

More often than not came moments when she would not want to let go, even though it was obviously against her better judgement. But then it would be a new day again and she would tell herself her life was replete with God's grace in an enviable way- loving family, great career, close friends; she had achieved her dreams quite young. There was nothing to complain about. She had only gained in life, Armaan had never been her personal property to begin with, how could she whine over having lost him? And so she had survived, believing she was closer than ever to forgetting her past. Now, HE WAS BACK. Slowly she slid against the wall, sitting in a bundle, hugging her knees. It had been along day. She did not know where any of this was headed, but it had, from the looks of it, only just started.

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

~Part2~


Ridhima's eyes widened in astonishment and she stood gaping for a couple of seconds. Then shaking her head in awe, she first turned to look at the girl standing next to her,
then redirected her gaze to the disappearing back of her nephew. She had managed to delay office by an hour today for meeting up with them.

When Gappu had initially auditioned for the role in this musical, Ridhima had been surprised. Not to suggest that acting was an unfamiliar domain to him, but one of the sign up terms demanded the actor to be present for rehersals 5AM to 9AM each morning, for a month worth of summer break. It was not the wake up early fact either, which could be termed unusual. The change of reason for waking up early was what caught her attention.

Having been on the high school soccer team, Gappu had religiously followed the 6AM to 8AM field workout and net session regime. Overshadowed by American football, soccer in Chicago was unmatched with it's splendor when compared to London, both as a sport and in fanship. But for Gappu, the term 'football' had always signified exactly what it meant:a ball game to be played using feet alone. NFL for him could never replace FIFA or EPL as football leagues.

At the end of his freshman year at University of Ilinois-Chicago, in April, rumor had it that his current form had not escaped unnoticed by the coach, and he was likely to be selected to UIC's varsity soccer team. Gappu had confirmed to her a strong possibility of more substance to this news than could be overlooked.
His dedication to the game had been unshakable, in Ridhima's opinion.

Why then had he preferred morning rehersals for a mere musical over this obvious oppertunity he had long awaited? He justified informing her that it was not a mere musical but a show to be staged in the City's Summer Fest, which had been recently conceptualized by the administration after dismissing hosting the usual Lollapalooza end of summer fest from this year.

She had not been entirely convinced, and he had been unsuccessful at keeping to himself the real reason. When he told her about a girl who had overtaken soccer on his priority list, she knew it was not a regular crush. Thereafter, she blackmailed, pleaded, commanded, bribed, and tried every other possible alternative to those mentioned, in order to convince him to arrange a meeting, before he confessed his feelings to the miracle lady! The fateful encounter with Armaan had lost her the chance once, but she ensured to not let it repeat.

Presently, still struck by this new side of him she had witnessed in the past ten minutes of a conscious introduction and exchange of pleasantries, she spoke her thoughts out loud "
No kidding! Here I have had my share of misgivings about his capability to even spell the word 'chivalry' and now I am reintroduced to the character of Don Quixote in the post 20th century times, dressed ironically as Twain's crass creation, Sawyer!...Wow! He really must love..." Ridhima stopped mid sentence biting her tongue, and turned hastily towards the girl by her side, to observe the damage done.

Hearing the words Minnie turned a bright shade of red, and lowered her eyes as a reflex, although the sparkle in them was as hard to miss as the dimples of her smile which had certainly widened at the intended remark of a possible alliance between her and the boy who had stubbornly occupied her thoughts over the past few weeks.
Ridhima did not miss this reaction as regaining her composure, she now concentrated on self assessing the situation.

Still clad in her stage costume,
she looked like she had come alive from the pages of history dating back to an America over two and a half centuries ago. Just short of her calves, with drum like quarter sleeves, her single piece red frock with tiny white polka dots was a distasteful misfit for a 17 year old in the post second millenium era. It had evidently been a luxurious fashion statement available only to the wealthy like Rebecca Thatcher, popularly known as Becky, the character she was enacting for the musical; Gappu was her male lead.

They made quite a pair, Ridhima pondered. The arrogant yet infatuated Tom Sawyer, a character identified for it's notoriety over the many years past it's first appearance on bookshelves, with his charming yet mindless rebel girl Becky, versus Gappu- the latent knight in him surfacing for his gracefully shy ladylove Minnie; the contrast was inescapable. However, so was the chemistry, even in those few minutes they could not stop blushing, oblivious neither of each other's presence, nor of Ridhima's marked side smile .

They seemed likely to have the audience in splits once they started the public shows next week, she could not wait to be in the front row herself. It was a musical based on Mark Twain's celebrated work, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, directed as an inspiration from Broadway's blockbuster Big River, which had been focussed on Sawyer's mate Huck, a character formally known as Huckleberry Finn.

"So you..." they stopped, both breaking into a grin each having spoken identical words to interrupt the silence. Ridhima smiled and indicated Minnie to go first. "No I was just, I mean, you both grew up together in London Gappu mentioned. Do you miss being there?" Ridhima, smiling at Minnie's attempt to make conversation replied "London is a wonderful city, I went to Cambridge in my last years there and..." she paused, her gaze faltered for a moment before resuming.

"Yeh, I miss it, " she said in a slightly distant tone, then added firmly in a quiet voice "Chicago is home now. I prefer not to dwell in the past." Realizing that the sudden dip in enthusiasm might be misinterpreted she smiled brightly again and said, "What about you? Has it been this midwest metropolitan all along?" Minnie nodded, her nerves gradually relaxing as the conversation was beginning to build.

"Well if you chose to ignore the stringent records, I have been here long enough for me to not embrace any other place as home enough. We moved here when I was less than a year old." Ridhima was surprised, though her accent and basic appearance stood testimony to the facts she stated, something about the girl's essential nature was quite unlike the usual American Indian teens.

Tentatively she probed further, "So family here is just parents? siblings?" Minnie shook her head replying "Just me and my parents, Dr. Shubhankar and Dr. Keerti.
But we are a huge family, mostly everyone is here, and sometimes it appears like there cannot be a hospital of repute in this country where I will be unable to claim family." She paused with a grin shrugging, then added,

"
In a family of doctors, I seem to be the one breaking tradition opting for fine arts. Nobody disapproves, but my only strong approval comes from an uncle, I think he is dad's nephew some distant way, personally however, there is no one I am closer to, not even Mum and Pa. Uncle..."

They were both interrupted from further interaction as they heard a car pull up behind them. Turning around, they saw Gappu indicating them to hasten up and get inside. Ridhima deftly went for the rear door facing them, smiling warmly at Minnie to go ahead and take the passenger seat next to Gappu. Intuition told her, if she was to rely on it once again, that her approval here was not going to cause regret.

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

"Ritu, you are telling me to be professional? How can I design a house without any preference outline from the inmates?" Ridhima paused shutting her eyes stressfully, then before getting a reply, reopening them she continued "I don't understand why in the first place you shoved this case at me, YOU OF THE ALL THE PEOPLE KNOW THE WHOLE STORY..."

She paused again, this time long enough for Ritu to speak up, "Yes I know it all Ridzi, that is exactly why I got the case reassigned. When I saw his name in the client list on my desk I verified the details, and after I was satisfied I ensured you got it. It is the only chance you have of..."

Ridhima cut her off, "What part of 'I do not want any chances to get back with him' are you incapable of comprehending Ritu?" As she struggled to control her rising temper Ritu completed her interrupted sentence "It is your only chance to LET GO OF HIM was what I was going to say, if only you would let me complete. Besides there is no chance of getting back, since you were never with him really."

Ritu paused sighing, she had known this would never be easy but then it was the only option. There was no way any less harsh than to have Ridhima deal with the truth barefaced. She continued "
It has been five years you claim, and three out of those I have seen you live through it. You eat, sleep, work cause that is the routine of life. You even smile and laugh for those around you. But deep inside you have not stopped hurting, it has only grown worse with time. You are not ready to give another chance to life, you will not date anyone no matter how eligible the bachelor, you refuse without second thoughts any lifelong alliance proposals...WHY?"

She paused again, but as expected Ridhima did not have answers so she continued yet again, "I want him out of your head Ridzi. For good this time. You have to be professional. If you are as over him as you tell me then treat him like any other client. Is that hard for you to comprehend now?" Ridhima, deep in a mess of conflicting thoughts slightly nodded her head absentmindedly, then realizing she was on the phone she spoke in a low solemn voice "I will. No more complaints. I need to get back to work now, see you for lunch in an hour Ritu. " With that she cut the call.

Ritu closed her eyes. She had delivered the message without a trace of ambiguity, and it was undeniably what she wanted her friend to do. The motive however, contrary to what she was projecting, was to bring back two people who belonged together. When she joined the firm three years ago, she was an intern just like Ridhima, only with an acceptance almost 8 months past Ridhima's, she was assigned to the same senior for the same project. Days passing, saw the start of a wonderful bond blossom.

Over three years after, they were now both senior designers, still working for the same firm, more often than not on the same projects. They had shared every secret there was from the years before they met and became the friends they had come about to be. As can be expected, among the first topics broached on the personal front, the girls had discussed their love interests, the men who came and went by, some of consequence, others becoming tales to be recounted almost like achievements from the teen years.

Two individuals however, could not differ more about their quick takes on love life. Ritu was the one to adorn banners announcing her relationship status, single, committed or in transience! Ridhima did not pose a strong verbal opposition, since her story would only contradict the faith she placed in keeping a low profile and bidding for the right time. Ritu initially tried talking her out of this philosophy which was almost unbecoming of an extrovert like her friend, but she soon realized that any discussions revolving about these talks hurt Ridzi.

She decided to observe silence, making a quiet resolution to be with her, in her phase to get over the past and move on in life. Next time, she told herself, she would not allow anything to go wrong, if only she got a chance. Armaan Malik. Reading the name on her client list she had this urge of desperation to do something, ANYTHING, which would hurt him the same. She put herself to the task.

Using her contacts, professional and personal she conducted exhaustive searches ranging widely in terms of the sources of information. At last she had facts, and suddenly several missing pieces from Ridhima's narration seemed to fall in place. She now saw the big picture, almost complete- there were still a couple of kinks, and they might be crucial, but even without them she knew her course of action had to be reversed. Her motive was no longer to seek vengence on behalf of her suffering friend but to relieve her of the pain altogether, the panacea was bringing Armaan back.

But he was not making it any easier for her than her friend. After the first unexpected meeting, he had ensured, on pretext of one alibi or another, to have Lovely keep the appointments with Ridhima, who was
taking the indifference extremely hard upon herself. If his disappearence had enveloped her with a sense of rejection, his avoidance now was adding an insulting streak to it. And this time Ridhima could not take refuge under the benefit of doubt factor, his intention was candid and unmistakable.

Ritu was tempted to spill out the story, but that would work only one way. It was bound to soften Ridhima, but Armaan's end of the issue would remain unresolved. She wanted everything to work out with mutual consensus, no other way could serve as a sound foundation for this vulnerable relationship. She rolled her tongue, narrowing her eyes deep in thought now. Then giving a sudden smile she lifted the receiver. "Hello Dr. Chirag! I apologize if I am interrupting anything, but I was wondering if we could meet for coffee in the evening?" ...

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

"My baby! " standing at the door he heard her exclaiming and she continued to murmur soothing words walking to and fro in slow strokes across from the bed. The scene was heart warming: a beautiful young mother cuddling her baby. Except that he knew she was not a mother, for what she had securely wrapped up in an embrace was not a baby but a plastic doll. It was the same thing four out of seven nights. He grew accustomed to her routine hallucinations, at least the harmless ones. There was no real cure to her condition, except to be gentle, let her live in her make believe world.

A strong connection exists between psychological and psychiatric disorders, he let the medical authorities handle the prescriptions, but did not limit his task to the payment of bills alone. He had worked hard at gaining her confidence, that was one thing Armaan mastered in these past initial years of psychology practice, it was the key. If the patients trusted you, they would be more willing to interact and that was the only way around for most of these problems.

Medical conditions rarely underwent a change, but when handled the suitable way things were much easier for the patient to bear. Lovely, suffered from Schizophrenia, a complex mental disorder which could result in spells of depression, lack or excess of emotional display, delusions and hallucinations, disordered thinking, occasional physically violent actions...and in between all those, she lived many hours, a normal healthy individual's life who remembered none of the bizarre symptoms.

He had never shared anything beyond a common surname with her as a married couple, but in her happy thoughts she believed they had and did, and he let her. When she was normal she would yearn for a usual married life. In mutual consent with her doctor and his mate from Cambridge, Chirag, they had prepared fake reports which declared she could never be a biological mother.

Armaan convinced himself it was for her benefit, with her unreliable responses to situations nothing could be risked, least of all any hormonal changes. Deep inside he knew this was not the only reason, in fact if he admitted in complete honesty, not even the primary one. Though he hated himself for it, he was almost glad it could remain so. He could live in self denial of physical pleasures but he could not break this last cord of fidelity he still maintained for the
woman he loved, for her whom he had dreamed of sharing his life with, a home and a family.

In his head this was his redemption from the guilt for the pain he knew he had inflicted upon her even if unwillingly so. There never had been confessions or announcements; it was like a silent commitment, yet he could not convince himself that it was single sided and he had not betrayed her for any rights she may have assumed as rightfully hers. She had expected something from him, which he had been only to willing to give, but that was not quite what happened in the end.

Currently coming back to the issue at hand, he sighed looking down at his feet. Recently Lovely had taken to this illusion of expecting another child. As before he let her be happy with the fantasy. He humored her with fake reports, planning visits to the gynecologist, shopping at Babies R Us, and all the usual procedures prospective parents would go through.

Then she demanded on the eve of their anniversary that they needed to redesign the house to make place for the new member of the family. He had submitted to that as well, after giving it some thought. But never in his worst nightmares had he imagined that the designer she would hire could be Ridhima.

If only he had supervised her selection of the firm he thought later in his frustration, b
ut the usual trend of her symptoms reflected greater chances of normal behavior when she was allowed to have her way, and so he did not interfere. Ridhima's spell to make people fall in love with her had become a family trait he realized when his attempt to talk her into hiring another firm for designing was faced with an indignant reply,

"Oh no Ammy, " Lovely had said showing her disapproval to his suggestion "she is just the person I feel like I can trust my house with." Armaan had not said another word as the unintentional implication of her statement hit him in it's complete meaning. In quiet resignation, he just decided to stay out of this as far as possible, he certainly was not capable of bearing Ridhima's presence ever so frequently, designing a home for him, his home, what could have been their home.

Now he lifted his gaze back to Lovely. He had come to tell her for the fourth time that he would not be able to accompany her for the appointment with Ms. Gupta. Crossing his fingers he hoped she would agree without much problem. "Ahem Ahem..." he cleared his throat tentatively, as she looked up signaling him to stay silent or else the baby would wake up he nodded quietly, waiting for her, restless inside in anticipation of how she would take it this time.

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



~Part 3~

Chirag braced himself seeing Armaan past the glass windows, waiting for him no doubt, as he paced the floor restlessly. Hearing the door knob, the latter turned around and their eyes met, each speculating the likely outcome of the next few minutes of conversation but for different reasons.

"Well?" said Armaan, breaking the silence, not wanting to waste any more time in coming to possible conclusions about what the grim look on Chirag's face could imply.

The sound of his grave voice, forced to appear calm did not mask his anxiety from his best friend. Chirag has been skeptical about this whole idea of scheming, it was a professionally unethical act; but
the moment for debating the righteousness of this plan was past, since a chance to implement it had come his way sooner than expected. He was partially relieved that it was not a completely fabricated course of action anymore, the situation had offered its consent. Hoping his eventual well meaning intentions for Armaan would somehow justify this unacceptable deviation from the established code of conduct he decided to proceed. Holding Armaan's unwavering gaze, he said, in a solemn tone

"The cut looks bad Ammy, she barely escaped being pronounced guilty of attempted suicide, God alone knows how the vein remained unscathed."

As he paused letting the news sink in, he saw Armaan slump into the closest chair heaving a sigh of relief. But the frown reappeared next moment itself as he ran his hand over his recently cropped hair looking upwards. Lowering his head back several seconds later, he pursed his lips looking ahead. Then he covered the upper half of his face in his long fingered usually deft hands and Chirag knew that the series of actions were his attempts to ease out the stress and steady himself. That was typically Armaan: no spoken words, while the inside of his brains worked overtime. Assuming that pause had lasted long enough, Chirag spoke again in a conclusive tone,

"Ammy it was a depression attack."


He saw Armaan nod slightly indicating his attention, but not looking up to meet his eye. Taking the cue he continued, cautious about his next words,

"Tell me what happened."

Armaan looked up with a surprised frown, it was unusual for Chirag to extract information with direct questions. He had always allowed Armaan his time for composure before he was ready to elaborate on the issue. Not that there much unknown to Chirag; he just had this compulsive streak to sort out thoughts within before he related them elsewhere.

As if reading his thoughts, Chirag explained himself,

"The degree of depression compared much worse with her past records, and this, when she was actually showing a positive response to the enhanced dosage of anti depressant drugs? She resorted to a physical reaction Ammy, that gives me reason enough to worry."

Now he saw Armaan's look turn grim, his brow wrinkled, lowering his gaze momentarily. Chirag kept quiet, knowing he had done his share of talking, at least for the while. Sure enough, Armaan spoke up, in a contemplating tone,

"I am not sure if I know it all myself... "

Armaan paused frowning in thought while Chirag continued waiting wordlessly. He had no doubts about what he would finally advise Armaan to do, irrespective of Armaan's narration; it was a well rehersed speech, but he had to listen to estimate the best moment to say it. The sudden dip in Lovely's improvement graph was a definite bonus. He had not wished for things to get hard on her, well not directly at least. He had only hoped to be presented with a chance to be able to advice Armaan as planned. With Lovely going as far as slitting her wrist in a seize of depression his words would sound authentic, the lack of conviction which he had feared would interfere was no longer present. Presently, Armaan spoke up again.

"I guess I should have realized something was wrong when she quietly accepted my excuse to not join her for the appointment with Ridhima tomorrow evening. I told her, and she nodded her approval, then she said it was time we both went to bed."

Armaan paused running his hand over his head again, then sighing he looked at Chirag and confessed,

"I think the relief of not having her protest or demand explaination swept over my better logic. Next thing I heard was a crashing sound and I woke up with a start. It took several seconds for the fact to dawn upon me- the sound was not a dream, her side of the bed was empty. Another crash and my suspicions were confirmed. I figured it was downstairs."

He paused lowering his head, then taking a deep breath he closed his eyes as if trying to shut out images from his mind but they must have persisted because he described them next.

"She sat slumped by the kitchen counter, a stained knife by her side, blood oozing from the cut, and a couple of crashed china pieces, which I assume she may have knocked off in the process of a faltering balance. She kept murmuring she was sorry to not have given me the family I deserve"

He finished off in a quiet voice, listing the highlights of the night, and opened his eyes. Looking up he saw a strange expression on Chirag's face, the troubled look from before which should have intensified, was replaced by a poise, like it was something he had expected and was prepared for. Before he could question, Chirag said

"I have been meaning to tell you this Ammy, we need to shift her to the trauma observation unit for a while."

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

"Chirag! What are you doing here?"

He saw her rush past him towards the door of her office, look out into the corridors on either side and then shut it firmly. Turning around with a frown Ritu saw him smile. She folded her arms indignantly waiting for him to explain both, the reason he had barged into her office unannounced and whatever it was that he found so amusing. Chirag shook his head at her reaction breaking into a grin. Seating himself comfortably into a side couch by the door, with no sign to hasten his moves, he started toying with a paper weight on the coffee table.

"Chirag?!" he heard her exclaim again, clearly exasperated now and looking up he shot her another smile as he said in a suave voice,

"What are you doing tonight?"

"WHAT?" she yelled back with a shocked look, unable to check her volume in reaction to his absurd question.

"What...are...you...doing...tonight?" he repeated, emphasizing upon and pausing after each word, still maintaining his calm smile.

She looked at him in disbelief at first, then narrowing her eyes she grit her teeth and hissed,

"Quit repeating the question, I got you. But you came all the way to my office just to know what I am doing in the evening? If Ridzi saw you here, you know what trouble that would spell for you and me, not to mention Armaan?"

She paused glaring at him as he seemed unaffected, then letting out an angry sigh she said,

"Chirag? Will you bother to explain? I should have done better than to be seeking a random, stranger doctor's help just because he shared his story with me claiming he..." she stopped as he suddenly pulled her hand making her sit beside himself on the couch, and before she could react he said,

"Ssshhh! Are you always like this Ritu? I mean the amount you just talked and all of it irrelevant- you still have not answered my simple question, " as she opened her mouth to retort he went on, "Feminine trait hard to escape I guess. But before you launch another tirade of accusations,
Ridhima is out for an hour I confirmed at the reception. I came here to update you about the plan- but no details for you, till I hear your reply. What are you doing tonight? "

"No prior commitments after 4PM. Now tell me the news, " she said impatiently. He smiled again, "Awsome! How about a movie?" As she gave him a murderous look he said hastily "I get the point. Dinner it is then, " switching to a serious expression he resumed without giving her a chance to interrupt.

"The news- bad first. Lovely was in the emergency last night, she slit her wrist, seized by depression."

Ritu's eyes widened, then she lowered her gaze with a grim expression. "I am sorry to hear that. That must be why Armaan postponed the appointment by two days. How is she doing now?" she asked looking back at Chirag.

He shrugged and said, "The vein was safe, it was the act that bothered me more. Let's skip the details for now. The point is..." he paused seeking complete attention from her "Much as I feel disgusted by myself for saying this, it could not have been timed better. I told Armaan to shift her into the Trauma Unit without needing to explain, for obvious reasons. He did not doubt my intentions for a moment. "

"So he agreed?" Ritu asked, but her expectant look flickered seeing him shake his head negatively, replying,

"He did not. Which wasn't completely unexpected either. I have been trying to persuade him for this long enough but he says she is his responsibility, and he has lost everything there was to be lost. It would be better than to have nothing more worth living for. When he refused yesterday as well, I told him he was harming her more than he could imagine with this stubborn stand." Chirag paused.

Ritu listening in rapt attention realized that this pause was not conclusive so she quipped, "Then?"

"He asked me for any alternate to that," Chirag replied, resuming the narration, "and I thought of what to say. Then suddenly I realized that our idea was to compel him to stop avoiding the appointments with Ridhima. The focus is to keep them meeting, and then we let things take their own course, hopefully for the good. That could be implemented another way. I told him if he insisted on taking care of her, then he had to be dedicated to the cause. He could not let her be on her own. From now on, I told him, he would have to ensure he was with her all the time. He nodded and I felt like he had not figured the catch yet so I spelt it out for him. I told him he could not send her for appointments to Ridhima alone."

Chirag paused again, flushed with a triumphant look, and his smile widened as Ritu threw her arms around his neck and said in an excited voice,

"Brilliant stroke Chirag! That was smart and spontaneous, I am impressed. "

Then realizing what she was doing, she let him go almost hastily, and looking flustered she fumbled with her words, "So you...managed to...I mean did Armaan agree right away?" she finally completed a whole sentence and looked up at him hesitantly. He nodded with a warm smile which put her at ease again as he said,

"I did not leave him much of an option. I told him that Ridhima did not know about Lovely's medical condition. What if a conversation between the two women went down an unwanted path? Worst still, what if Lovely showed sudden symptoms in the middle of an appointment due to something unexpected? Would he prefer that to being there and handle it himself? I won the round hands down, there wasn't much he could oppose in any of that."

Ritu nodded her head vigorously in appreciation and said,

"That is even better than what we planned. If Lovely had been temporarily taken out of sight, Armaan may have conveniently decided to call our office, pay up the penalty and cancel the contract. Now that is never happening, and with Lovely present I am hoping a situation will present itself soon for Ridhima to witness facts she kept herself from knowing. This is just perfect."

She beamed with happiness looking ahead but Chirag said in a solemn voice, "This is for Armaan and Ridhima, but I hope something will work out for Lovely as well.
When she is normal, she can be a sweet friend. Armaan is attached to her Ritu, even if he does not view her as his life partner. He is eight years younger than her, yet she is the child in the house and needs constant care and..."

Ritu cut him off "EIGHT YEARS YOUNGER?" Chirag nodded giving her a sarcastic smile,

"Yes. I never have been able to figure out why his family expected this sacrifice out of him, and what in the world compelled him to be the lamb.
He walks off at the very mention of the topic. I gave up trying to ask him after the first couple of months."

Hearing the resignation in his voice, she squeezed his hand supportively and said "We will make it work out for them Chirag. I did not know I would find in a stranger as complete a concern for the issue, as my own, but I am glad we met."

Chirag smiled at her. Then giving her a mock hurt look he added, "Stranger? That is exactly why we need to go out for dinner, so you stop calling me that."

Saying so he got up and moved towards the door, then opening it he scanned the corridors and said without looking at her "6PM, Millenium Park," turning around he winked at her before leaving the room before she could turn him down again.

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

""Just a moment," she said hearing the knock, and turning on the coffee pot she moved to the door and held it open. Her greeting was forgotten for a moment as she saw him standing before her, not alone of course, but she recovered much faster this time and said,

"Mr. and Mrs. Malik! Please come in!"

saying so she moved aside making way for them to pass through. after the first couple of meetings they had mostly stuck to first name basis. But today, it just rolled off her tongue that way. Perhaps, she thought, it would show him that is what he was in her life now, a client married to another lady. She walked from behind them and around the table to her side of it and got seated. Why had he decided to show up today, she mused, but she kept herself from making any snide remarks indicating her desperation to inquire. Instead she turned to Lovely,

"I have the tentative layouts ready for the two rooms you wanted to start with Mrs. Malik." Saying so she drew out three charts from the rolls lying in the tray beside her.

"This one is for the master bedroom, I thought a contrast of light gray walls and turquoise blue ceiling would go well, " she said handing the first chart to Lovely while Armaan fighting his urge to look at her clenched his fist, digging nails deep into his palm to avoid showing any reaction.

"Shades of blue and gray? Could you manage to get any more dull 'Ormaan'?"

He could still hear her laughter echoing in his head, as she had said those words when he had told her his color preference as they sat at a cafe in Cambridge over 7 years ago. He had always been 'Ammy' for friends, but she had heard his daadu address him as 'Ormaan' when she answered a call for him once, and ever since she had taken to teasing him about this distortion in his name, brought about by the Bengali way of pronouncing Armaan.

"What do you think Ammy?" The words brought him out of the memory as Lovely asked his opinion, and he knew she was not the only one waiting in anticipation for him to reply. He desperately wanted to tell Ridhima how much it mattered to him to know that she remembered every minute detail about him, as he remembered hers, but when he spoke loud, all he said was,

"Whatever you like honey, " giving a small smile, not daring to meet Ridhima's eyes; this was bound to have hurt her. Lovely smiled widely, first at him, then at Ridhima simply nodded in response. She was certain if she spoke that second her voice would give her away, could he not even acknowledge her work as a professional, least of all the fact that she had done it completely crediting his taste?

She got up abruptly, then walked to where the coffee pot made a dripping sound, busy at it's task. Pretending to fix something in it she asked "Coffee?"

"Sure, " she heard Lovely say, and Ridhima knew Armaan's answer even before Lovely continued, "Ammy never has coffee. It is tea for him or nothing."

Placing the two cups of coffee in a tray containing CoffeeMate, a bowl of Domino sweetners, and a packet of stirrers, she said,

"In that case I will have to offer you nothing Mr. Malik, because its coffee for me or nothing. "

Armaan did not miss the intended edge to her cutting remark and after a slight pause he said in a quiet voice, "Nothing will do, thank you."

Ridhima felt frustrated at how much she was letting him affect her. But reminding herself of her resolution to be professional, she forced in a deep breath, then she walked back to the table with the tray. Settling down again she unrolled the second chart and placed it before them.

"This one is for children's nursery Mrs. Malik, a random mix of pink and blue, since you wanted a common one for your daughter and the baby boy you are expecting, " Ridhima said all of this in a flat voice, looking at neither of them. That was not just a sentence to her, it was a self proclamation that she had accepted facts and let go. Swallowing hard she composed herself to look up when she heard a hardened voice,

"Is that your idea of a joke Ridhima?"
at Lovely's words, she lifted her head looking up from the chart, to see a rare sight, Lovely without her smile. Frowning she turned to look at Armaan who looked back wide eyed, meeting her gaze, perhaps for the first time that evening, his lack of expression had been replaced by a shocked one.

"I beg your pardon?"

she ventured tentatively, her voice an obvious indication of her confusion. Armaan made a quick assessment of the misunderstanding, he was certain Lovely had talked to Ridhima about her non existent babies, in some prior meeting. How, he could not think, since he dissolved pills in her milk each morning and made sure she returned the glass back empty. Perhaps she had drained it? Think later, he told himself, and before Lovely could answer Armaan spoke up putting his arm around her shoulder,

"Relax honey! I am sure Ms. Gupta confused our assignment with that of another client." Turning back to Ridhima he said with a pleading look in his eyes,

"Ms. Gupta, you know of course that we could not ask for a nursery design, it is just the two of us, there are no children in the house.
There must have been a mistake right?"

Ridhima stared at him for a long moment, as he tried desperately to convince her to agree with him with his silent expressions
. She had no idea of what was happening, but she knew there was no mistake. How could there be? THESE WERE ARMAAN MALIK'S CHILDREN IN QUESTION HERE, there was no way she had any misconceptions. But she knew from the look in his eyes that he was imploring her to confirm his stance. She did not know where from she felt the evil urge to deny what he was claiming, because it seemed to mean so much to him. Slowly however, she nodded her head, pushing away the mindless inclination, as she turned back to Lovely, and was shocked to see her tearful.

"I apologize Mrs. Malik. I do remember now, the nursery was for another client who I will be meeting next, my assistant must have misplaced the requirement outlines from his file in here. "

Finishing off she was surprised by her own spontaneity at telling a lie. But her thread of thoughts was broken as Lovely got up from her seat and said "I understand Ms. Gupta. I would appreciate if this does not repeat, it projects negative vibes about the responsibility level of the firm. And I would expect you need more time to design for my correct requirements now? It is the living room, I mentioned not a nursery since..." her voice trailed off as her eyes looked moist again.

Armaan got up quickly and said, "We should be leaving Ms. Gupta. Would it be convenient if I made an appointment for day after?"

Ridhima nodded without a word, she was baffled by whatever was happening, but she was also beginning to feel angry about being accused of a careless mistake she had not made. Or perhaps she was infuriated about doing all this for him, one pleading look and she gave in, what about the years she had suffered because of him; she still was suffering. As they reached the door Ridhima said on a sudden impulse,

"Mr. Malik, I forgot to mention there were some problems encountered with your account, I need to discuss those with you."

Armaan saw the look on her face, and heard the tone in her voice. She was demanding an explaination from him. "I will get in touch with my bank and see if they can work it out Ms. Gupta, " he said uncertainly, wondering if she would once again just accept his answer and not ask for reasons, but her unwavering look told him a different story. She said,

"I am afraid Mr. Malik, I will have to inconvenience you this time. 9AM tomorrow?"  The message was crystal clear, she was not going to take a no. Lovely spoke up,

"He will be here Ridhima, just make sure the paperwork is in place, without confusions."

Ridhima knew what Lovely was hinting at but she focussed on Armaan who looked back at her wondering if she would react to Lovely's passing comment. She simply added,

"
I will Mrs. Malik, hopefully we will sort out everything this once. Until tomorrow then..."

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



part 3 frendz....not in 24 hours....but still in decent time il say....enjoy reading, think this was more action than before.....do leave me comments, even the silent readers plz, it cant take that long to say wat u thot of the part.....Embarrassed




Edited by spln - 21 February 2009 at 2:07am

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Posted: 08 September 2008 at 8:34pm | IP Logged

~Part4~

He opened his eyes with a sudden jerk, not knowing what woke him up, neither what let him slip into a slumber. His brow wrinkled, Armaan removed his half rimmed glasses, and rubbed his eyes clear of haziness. It seemed that the clarity of vision was slowly fading away the fog in his head as well, as realization dawned upon him - he had dozed off on his desk in the study despite an obviously uncomfortable position and a preoccupied mind. Perhaps the latter of those conditions had actually eventuated his falling asleep, courtesy the mental exhaustion.

Consciously coming awake now, but still passive in response, he was startled by the hour gong of the wall clock. Looking up, he saw the hands coincide at twelve, to ceremoniously herald a new day. He narrowed his eyes wondering for a whole minute if the ancient piece which had traveled places with him gaining preference over the present day digital gizmos, had finally come of age.

But as he followed the seconds hand to a count of sixty he found no such signs and concluded that the clock was working fine, it was indeed just midnight. Which was strange, considering he had this seeping sense of having been knocked out for several lasting hours, when facts indicated it was a couple at the most, an hour and a half was more likely, since he had retired to his study after dinner around half past nine.

His eye lids still feeling heavy, tempted to give in to the urge of shutting again, lowered, as his gaze fell down on his desk. Lying before him was a white A4 sheet,  which looked anything but white and his thoughts returned to where they had belonged.
Ridhima...reading the name in the scribbled mess, the sinking feeling returned to him.

Ridhima's demand for explanations, long overdue had cost him his poise and focus. And apetite. Sitting on the dinner table his almost untouched plate had raised the obvious question from Lovely.

"Why don't you eat Ammy?"

She had asked to which he mumbled something which hopefully had sounded like he wasn't hungry. When she persisted further saying it was his favorite  chicken lasagna he decided to force in some food before she related it to anything from the incident in Ridhima's office. He never ceased to be surprised by this little contradiction to truth- for a woman who lived a half life between reality and fantasy, who was for a moment a mother expecting her second baby and the very next a woman who knew she was barren, Lovely was unusually careful about trivialities.

She never forgot his favorites - food, music, books...he had never felt the need for a planner or reminder alarms over the past 5 years, she would invariably remind him of dates to wish family and whatever few friends they had, of his appointments and schedules. Nonetheless, every time he would begin to marvel at how meticulous she was for her condition she would make some random pass before he left for office,

"Ammy don't forget to pick up packets of diapers, " or just when he was getting ready to crash after a long day,

" Ammy lets go to starbucks, I'm craving for an almond mocha frappuccino, I think the baby takes to my taste as far as beverages are concerned...".

While she could giggle away, not knowing half the problem when she was her real self, and escaping all of it when she was not, he had to tell himself more often than not that it wasn't her fault. Sometimes it was impossible to not yell out the truth, so when she went to sleep he would talk to her, knowing she couldn't hear a word. It was his vent, he had to speak the words out loud or the pressure inside would kill him.

Tonight was one such night. Looking back at the paper he gave a small smile. Dr. Galvanaukas, one of the professors he idolized at Cambridge had mentioned a crude tool for psychologists, something he named 'doodle the answer'. He claimed to have found solutions to some of the most critical problems in life this way, doodling unconsciously on a piece of paper lying around while his head worked at an unrelenting problem.

He called that unconscious mind a creative guy at work, the part of our brain which thinks outside the box, or more often thinks of the obvious which was evading us for long. Armaan used it for his patients all the time, he would purposely leave scraps around on his table, readily available but not appearing so, when they sat down and talked to him. Some who were reluctant to open up initially would unintentionally leave behind written words which were indication enough of what he should probe further with them.

He stared at his own paper now wondering how long he had scribbled before falling off to sleep. His eyes settled on the name sprawled in bold all through the center, the lines forming each alphabet thickened with re etching them over and over again, then moving his gaze off it reluctantly he scanned the sheet and something caught his eye. Just above the 'R' was a small heart, also re etched multiple times leaving a grooving impression.

He looked at it strangely, then on an impulse he picked up a sharp pointed pen and re etched the heart till the grooves turned into slits in the paper. Carefully he carved it out and placed it on his palm, a tiny little paper heart, the ink from its outlined edges having smudged into the white center. Looking back to where the name Ridhima was written he whispered to it rubbing his thumb over it,

"I love you...", and he felt much lighter than he had in days.

He had never actually uttered those words, not even to himself, not even when they were in Cambridge. The disadvantage of being a thinker, all yours words and thoughts remained unspoken, mostly forever. He had confessed he loved her many years ago, but never out loud. Perhaps if he had actually reached the stage to propose her he would have spoken the words, practicing before a mirror the traditional way? The point was, he never had said them, to her or anyone else.

But as he allowed the words to escape him he felt a void start to fill, braving the moment he continued, "I love you Ridhima. I always have loved you. From the time I saw you laughing out loud in the first class of photography, it was my love for that laughter, wholehearted and content, something I never felt in all the years I remembered. It touched my heart, I wondered if I was capable of knowing this feeling, and somehow in that one moment I wished you would be the reason for it, if it was ever to happen to me in this lifetime." 


He paused, then smiling to himself slightly he said his eyes closed as he pictured the day,

"I have wondered often after that, and still do, if you had read my mind in the next moment when you caught me staring at you. If there's one memory I know I will die with its that look of yours Ridhima...curious at first...as you looked away...with a slight frown...then the uncertain faint smile when you turned back to look at me again. I never knew anyone to express themselves more even in a thousand words as you did with that one gesture of accepting me and returning my smile. "Its the smile I was enslaved to, the smile I live for, and the smile that keeps me going." baba used to say that to mama all the time, and at that moment those words which I had not heard in many years then, flashed back. I wished he was there and I could tell him I found the smile I wanted to live for."

Armaan stopped his eyes moistening, as the images of the ones he loved most were a vivid picture in his head. Opening his eyes he turned them away from the paper
to the heart in his hand, a scrap, lifeless and nothing but garbage. He spoke again, his voice hoarse, not facing the name on the paper, which was bearing the brunt of his confession, a burden he had carried too long,

"I am sorry Ridhima, you never asked for anything, but you deserved it all along, my heart..." placing the small cut out shape on her name he completed in a tearfully strained voice, "it is all yours, it was, and always will be."

As he continued to stare the name with the small heart lying on top of it became a blurred image through flowing tears as he finally broke down, another thing he had not done in years, ever since mama left him. A grim calm descended upon him eventually, after several minutes of weeping, but he felt much less wound up. Wiping away tears that remained, he got up from the desk and walked over to his window. Looking out at nothing he spoke again, in a low voice,

"But I can't change what is, it has to remain this way. Why do you seek answers now, can you not see I can tell you nothing? It will do us no good, neither you nor me, nor those around us."

Saying so Armaan let out a sigh, running his fingers through his hair pressing down on the scalp almost too hard as he quietly resolved to maintain the silence. How, he did not know, but he would have to.

********************
He glanced at his wrist, it was almost twenty minutes that he had been waiting for her now. Not that he was complaining, if something would make her call off this confrontation he would be only too grateful. But it wasn't like she was making him wait outside, she still had not show up in the office, and according to her apologetic assistant her cell was switched off offering no real answers.

Part of him was tempted to tell this girl to inform her boss that he had to leave due to other prior commitments;
but it was unlike Ridhima to be delayed for an appointment, leave alone without a message and then a chance to interrogate him one on one...he was inevitably starting to worry. What could possibly be holding her up?

At half past nine, he knew he had to leave or he would genuinely be delayed if he was ever to make it to Oak Tree. Reluctantly, he walked to the reception again to announce his leave for then, unsure of whether he should call off the brunch promise he had made and wait instead to see if Ridhima was fine.

"I was uh...I have to be another place soon, could you try one last time and..." ...*THUD*

They both turned around to see what had caused the noise only to be greeted by a flustered Ridhima bent on her knees trying to gather bundles of chart paper rolls which had fallen out of her grip. From the corner of his eye he saw her assistant move swiftly towards her to help, and he took the cue.

Bending down to pick up the ones which had rolled close to his feet, he hesitantly allowed his gaze to wander towards her face and saw her muttering in an undertone as she looked completely annoyed about something. He could not help but smile at her expressions for a second forgetting everything, but a second was all the smile lasted for. The very next moment he realized her obvious fowl mood spelt more trouble for him, if that was even possible. Cautiously he handed her the charts held in his hands as she spoke to the girl without acknowledging him quite yet,

"Molly tell Ritu I will see her in an hour, and I need a pack of 25 ivory sheets, get them out for me from the storage right away, and no calls or outsiders to disturb me for the next one hour ..."

Molly spoke in a cautious voice, "But Ms. Gupta, Mr. Malik has been waiting for you for..."

Ridhima cut her off, "Yeh no one else I meant," turning to a bemused looking Armaan she went on,

" My apologies Mr. Malik, to have kept you waiting. It was an unexpected situation, please give me a couple of minutes before you join me in my cabin." At that moment the phone on the reception desk rang, and Molly upon answering with a hello spoke louder to call out to Ridhima who was already walking towards her cabin.

"Ms. Gupta its your nephew, he says its..." Ridhima cut her off without turning back,

"I told you no calls Molly. Tell him I'm busy with work." Molly nodded, her confusion rising further, he obviously must have heard Ridhima on the other side, how was she supposed to tell him now...but she did not dare cross question, it was definitely not the moment to do that.

Armaan stood through the scene as if transparent, except for the one quick line she had shot at him, meant as an apology but in pretty much the same commanding tone that she had used with Molly. Her nephew...that must be...Gappu? Armaan had never actually met the boy, but he knew all about him that there was to know, Ridhima could never tire of talking about him and her sister's family. Ironically, she could hardly have claimed knwoing much about Armaan's family, she always had talked more than asking, and he conveniently let it be so until the right moment, which never came.

But she just refused to take his call? Gappu's Call? She must be majorly ticked off he thought, still working out his reaction to the last five minutes of the unexplained chaos, when Molly spoke up,

"Mr. Malik! Ms. Gupta will see you now."

Moving towards her door, he wondered if it was worth a try to run away for his life? But it couldn't be forever like last time. He decided instead to implore to God to save him from whatever disaster was awiting beyond that door, it had never quite worked out, between him and God, he still gave it a shot.

"Please..." was all he said looking up before he knocked. 
 

"Are you insane? You have no idea how mad I am at you Gappu. What the hell were you thinking? Driving off with my car in the morning, not even bothering to leave a note about the failed brakes of your own. Was it not obvious I would take yours if you took mine? If you really want to see me dead at least give me the liberty to chose how,
there are less painful ways I would prefer and..."

She stopped as she swiveled in her chair to face where he stood at the door. He worded a sorry soundlessly and turned around to leave when she spoke up louder, "Mr. Malik, please stay," then into the phone, "I'll call you later." Facing him again she said in a curt voice,

"Shouldn't you have knocked?"
 
At these words from her, he finally lifted his gaze, to meet hers this time and said in a flat tone, "I did...thrice..." Her stern expression turned to a crimson creeping into her cheeks but he spoke before she had to explain herself,

"Its ok. I realized you were on the phone, but I really need to be somewhere soon so I thought I could request interruption."
 
As she responded with nothing more than a nod he asked in a softer voice, cautiously, "Are you alright? I mean, I'm sorry I overheard the part about failed brakes and...I hope you had to face nothing too serious." He feared she might tell him off for eavsdropping next, but her expression softened and she said in a low voice looking him in the eye,

"Well I survived, the car did not, its at the garage now," then with a smirk she added, "Everyone wants to get rid of me, and I just wont let go...Thanks for asking anyways, still intact, all 206 bones in place, unfortunately, not even a scratch. The least I could have had is a fracture, at least that would buy me some sympathy and..." he cut her off,

"Ridhima!" She looked at him almost startled at having him finally say her name. He would have been equally surprised by himself except that he didn't stop at it just then to give much thought,

"Do you ever talk sense? Thank goodness nothing happened,  failed brakes don't particularly add to the fun of a ride, I'm sure you had that much figured out after sitting through one. And no one wants to get rid of you for heaven's..."

He stopped realizing too much had been said, and before she could reply, shocked as she was by his words and and by what seemed like the concern behind them, he said turning back to his mechanical voice,

"Please take care, you may mean more to people than you think, with the kind of family you have."

Although he added the last line in the stride of the advice, she wondered if he had meant to include himself among those who cared for her. Unwillingly she found herself wishing to believe that he did.  At that moment they were interrupted by a knock  followed by Molly entering the room with a box in her arms. Ridhima got up to help her settle it next to her table, for the mere reason of giving herself something to do. As Molly made a move to go out without a word Ridhima spoke to her in a soft voice,
 
"Uh...thanks Molly..." who turned around to see Ridhima was earnest, and gave a small smile.
 
"Do you think you could order me a quick breakfast from the Denny's across the street please? Make it a pancake platter of 5, with syrup and cream, and a large shot of expresso"
 
Molly nodded smiling, it was so typical of her boss to run into a temper, but it never lasted long, and she knew nothing said at that time was ever intented. She said
 
"I will have the food on your desk without further delay Ms. Gupta...blueberry I assume will be the toppings as always?"
 
Armaan blurted before Ridhima could approve the order, "Blueberry?"
 
As they both turned to look at him he lowered his eyes momentarily, then said in what he hoped would sound convincing, "I mean...uh...I thought... strawberry would be it...I mean, Denny's is known for them..." he concluded his random words not quite linked into a sentence.
 
As Ridhima narrowed her eyes, taken aback the second time in the last few minutes, Molly spoke up in a cheerful voice,
 
"They are known for the strawberrys? Its the pancakes they bake Mr. Malik, the strawberries are same everywhere."
 
Then realizing she had perhaps embarressed a client she quickly covered up, "I mean, would you like me to add a platter of those to the order as well?"
 
Armaan shook his head mumbling again, something which resembled a 'no thanks'...With that she left the office, leaving behind her two people struck in an awkward silence. Ridhima finally broke it speaking in a low yet intended voice, her eyes steady on Armaan's face.
 
"I almost feel tempted to assume that might imply you remember my favorite pancake topping Armaan, should I flatter myself with the belief?" Armaan looked at her for a moment before replying,
 
"Apparently not your favorite anymore, blueberry seems to have taken the spot. Did they finally start tasting as sweet as strawberries?"
 
Ridhima smirked, he actually remembered her exact words. Almost with a tinge of bitterness she said in a matter of fact way, "I figured the sweet things are not quite for me in life, neither strawberries, nor love."
 
Just like that, she had stated her truth. Not like it was hidden between the two of them, Armaan had only been trying to find a way around it all, but she left him no option. It had to faced head on, and right away, or he did not know when he could be more prepared.

"I uh...I actually had to apologize for yesterday, on Lovely's behalf, and...and thank you so much for letting the issue pass off for what it was not. You saved me in more than one way." She looked at him still not speaking, but as he too remained quiet now, she realized he was done with whatever he had to say. Narrowing her eyes she said,

"Thats it? You think I called you to humiliate you by demanding apologies? Whatever you think of me, I am hardly saidistic enough to do that. I want to know what happened yesterday? As you probably did already figure out, there was no misunderstanding on my behalf, your wife did indeed demand a nursery for her kids only to tell me after all the work I did that she has no kids?
If this is a game I refuse to play it anymore. Not until I get my facts."

Armaan looked at her knowing she meant each word spoken. Quietly he replied, maintaining his calm,

"Ridhima there is nothing I can add to it. But you can put the charges for your extra work into my bills. I am just a client, you can't deny me my right to privacy. I prefer not to reveal my personal life."

Even without looking at her he knew how offensive his words may have been, but as she spoke, he realized he underestimated her reaction far too greatly.

"Its Ms. Gupta for clients Mr. Malik, not Ridhima. You can't ever pay me enough, if you had to repay all of what you owe me you would be bankrupt in no time, not to mention the many things which can never be paid for in cash.  A
nd save yourself the sorry and thank you and privacy right speech. This is no personal unexplained fact I'm asking you to justify, although God knows and you do that there is no dearth of those issues either. 
This is different. I was accused of professional incompetence here by your wife, and I took it upon myself, all of it, just for you...the least you owe me is facts, I demand to know WHY?"

 

Armaan saw her look at him the restrain on her obviously rising temper was a a weak one, on the threshold of breaking away. He sighed lowering his eyes. It was his last shot, and he had no alternate to taking it much as he had wanted this to work out an easier way without him having to say any of it. Looking at her he spoke, each word balanced in a monotone, no display of whatever the hell he was going through,
 
"She is suffering from Schizophrenia - halluciantions, depression, derisive thinking, occasional physical violence...all of them and more. Lovely has a mental disorder, and was in the ICU just two days ago.  I fear it could have been a relapse if you had not played along with me yesterday, and for that I am grateful, even if you refuse to accpet any credit from me. Usually her medicines keep her normal at least for the duration of their influence, perhaps she missed a doze unknown to me whenever she shared about kids and all. I guess I should have come along each time, it would have saved you the extra meaningless work, but I will insist you add that to my bills, not intending any offense of course. And that I hope Miss Gupta, answers your questions. I apologize again for the inconvenience, its just another thing I owe you for, among many others as you just mentioned. Perhaps sometime, I will get my chance to repay, until then I just live in your debt."
 
With that he got up from his seat, in complete awareness of how baffled Ridhima must be to hear all of this. That was exactly the effect he had aimed for. And now before she could recover he had to get out of there so he said, 
"I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to excuse me for now Ms. Gupta, there is, as I said earlier, someplace I need to reach right away. I will see you with my wife for the next appointment. "
 
And he let himself out of the room hastily almost colliding with Molly at the door as she held a tray of pancakes. Giving her a quick courtsey smile he rushed out of the place keeping his fingers crossed until he unlocked his car in the parklot. Slumping into the driver's seat he let out a long sigh. Looking skywards he did something quite unlike himself, banging his fist against the stearing he cursed out loud, then holding his head in his hands he whispered, "I'm sorry Ridhima, will you ever forgive me?"

***************
Ridhima sat stunned as the words refused to stop echoing in her head. She pushed aside the breakfast Molly had brought her minutes ago, no apetite remaining as she sank deeper, into the chair and into her messed up thoughts. Why did everything in her life become more complicated with each passing phase, as if by rule. She had hardly slept a wink all night worked up about how she would finally get answers to all her questions. She had promised herself to move on in life for good, after this morning.
 
But how was she expected to have seen something like this coming? Lovely, correction, his wife Mrs. Lovely Armaan Malik was a retard? Ridhima almost rebuked herself mentally for the crude term, but thats what the woman was right? A retard? And he had chosen her over Ridhima? How could he? Yeh he was more God like in his kindness and humanity, perhaps compelled by the demands of his profession, but to the extent of actually marrying someone who was fit to be nothing more than his patient? What the hell did he think he was, philanthropy personified?
 
Somehow Ridhima refused to let the goodness of his act overshadow her frustration at his insanity. He could do whatever he wanted to with his life for all she cared, but why did he ever make her a part of it? She had been a part she knew after today, he cared for her...he even remembered her love for strawberries. She smiled ruefully, and her eyes fell on the plate of pancakes lying abandoned. She had stopped eating strawberries, she had infact done away with most likes which would have described her five years ago. All because of him.
 
She wanted to get rid of anything that had been while she was with him. But somewhere inside her the hope had lived, that he had loved her, and would confess to her someday. The hope had been futile, she knew that all along. But then she had hoped to see him again someday, and it had happened. She had hoped to get answers from him as well, and she now knew everything for what it was. If only he would tell her why it had to be the way it was, perhaps she would finally regain the peace and content she had lost to him years ago.
 
Sighing she realized she was tired. Tired of palying a role which wasn't her, trying to be someone she wasn't, just so she could escape who she trully was. Looking again at the pancakes she picked up the receiver on an impulse.
 
"Molly, I know this will sound crazy, but I do feel like strawberries today, can me order me a platter of that?"
 
Replacing the reciever she smiled faintly, she could have ordered herself, but she wanted to announce to anyone who would listen that she was going to be back to herself. Yes, that was it, she would grow out of this phase of resignation to facts as they were, she would now find out exactly what went wrong, where and why, for there was nothing more to lose now, things not capable of getting any worse, had to get better.
 
If Armaan Malik had rejected her, she had to know why, she could not live telling herself she wasn't good enough for him, or she would never get back to what she had once been and had loved being. She could not refuse she still loved him, she would stop telling herself from now that she didn't; but this wasn't just about him and his feelings for her, it was now about getting back into life with a wish to live it, perhaps that's why he had come back, to set her free...
 
*************
 
As the minutes passed he began to get back his almost rehearsed poise. It had to be done. His hard words must have put her off, now she would never again ask him what was what for the fear of hurting him. It was incredible for someone like him, who never helf any expectations of those around him, to have always expected her to understand him, and his silence. He had expected her to understand his expectation when their eyes had met the first time as strangers, then he had expected her to understand and accept his love for her which grew unconditionally with each passing day, and he had later expected her to understand also, without questions, that he had to deprive her of what he had once expected her to accept as her own, now he expected her to ask no further questions, would she comply by his wish one last time?
 
As he pondered over questions only time could answer he heard his cell ring. Looking at the caller ID his eyes widened and he cursed yet again before answering the call, "Hey Minnie! I am so sorry sweetheart, I was put on call, a patient of mine got critical. It was an emergency. I am so sorry sweetie, don't be mad at me please I will definitely..." he paused with his chain of lies, listening instead as she spoke cutting him off from the other end. Finally he spoke again,
 
"That sounds great. No I will not disappear this time, I totally understand how much you need me." then smiling he added, "Besides, how can I miss the chance of a dinner double date, you and him, me and this fascinating massi...what? ur talking more about her, than poor Sawyer himself!...Alright Giordano's it is then, 8PM, I will be there.
 
Cutting the call he gave a smile. Minnie was a wonderful girl, and he would be glad if this worked well for her, atleast someone deserved to be in love and not suffer...
 
****************
 
~Part 5~

Stepping inside, the sweet mix of fragrances greeted him, so did the familiar tinkle of the wind chimes at the entrance. It was invariably the same every time, a deja vu sensation. Which should make sense since he came there once almost every week, if not for the flowers then for just dropping in to say hello...but wasn't the whole concept of deja vu a greater mystique? - related to memories long lost and forgotten, things you could not recognize right away, even though they felt awfully like an experience from before? He never could understand what it was that he felt.

Now walking in, as his vision was starting to adjust to the room lighting which stood nowhere in competition with the bright shining autumn sun outside even in the waning hours of late afternoon showing no signs of fading into an early evening glow, he saw her in her usual spot. Settled comfortably into the rocking chair in a corner, her nose, with the glasses resting at the very tip, buried deep into a book, another Austen novel he presumed. Before he could offer his greetings to her, Mrs Douglous, who owned the shop and every beautiful flowered stalk in it,
he heard the chimes play their jingle again, and then a cheerful voice from behind him boomed into the small florist shop,

"Someone looks gorgeous today, how about a cup of coffee girlfriend?"

Armaan turned around to realize that the deep and partially Brit sounding clipped syllables belonged to a young boy, most likely in his late teens, who walked up crossing past him - dressed in a chest number 4 Arsenal club jersey clinging wet to his distinctively outlined chest muscles and soccer shorts, the gear a complete picture with the shin guards covered by long stockings and securely fastened studs. His hair, in wet flicks fell over his head band, and Armaan analyzed moving up ahead to get a better view that he was coming straight off the field, as the boy moved to give the old lady a tight hug and she pushed him away scrunching her nose and making a face.

"Get away from me you freak, asking a woman 5 times your age out for a date, and that when you're sweating like a pig and smelling like a skunk, my poor flowers will die of the horrible odor...get out of here, and don't enter until you look human...disgraceful and far from anything civilized
"

As she finished in a disdainful voice, with a prude air of pretense, Armaan shot a look at the boy who looked unruffled and was grinning. There was an appeal about him, an air of being carefree yet thorough in his mannerism. His next words came to Armaan as a pleasant surprise.

" 'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be receives reproach of being,
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing.
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
"...
(Its better to be bad, than to be thought bad, when you have done nothing to be thought of as so. People will think you're vile whether you are or not, why then should you forgo your wishes and happiness for the fear of being accused of being improper, when that will happen irrespective of your thoughts and deeds.)

Armaan looked wide eyed as the young boy still holding his expression befitting the recital looked up at Mrs. Douglous his eyes with cocked eyebrows challenging her to respond to the smart justification. But before she could Armaan quipped,

"You're British?"

Intended as a question, it sounded like he stated a fact, making the boy reel around to finally realize the presence of a third and he said with a smile,

"The accent still gives me away...or is it soccer this time?Or maybe both?"

Armaan smiled nodding with a thoughtful look, "Actually the rare combination of all three - idolizing the celebrated soccer midfielder Fabregas
...quoting Shakespeare...sounding not prominently Brit yet unmistakably so - that's far more an English touch than a regular American teen should possess..."

The boy raised his eyebrows in amicable appreciation and said, "Indian by origin actually, but British by birth yes...definitely not hard to figure out. I still have to give you one thing, you made it sound like an analyzed fact, not an obvious guess!"

Armaan's smile widened his dimples deepening, as he shook his head dismissively but the old lady spoke up,

"Demands of his profession. He is a pschologist, and as his ex-patient I can tell you he's a master at his job. Never fails a patient, no he doesn't, right Doc? "

"Stop embarrassing me Mrs. Douglous, this Dr. Psychologist tag is not quite a charming addition..."..."You're a psychologist? Must be my day to meet the whole lot of you in Chicago I guess." the young boy exclaimed cutting off Armaan who raised his eyebrows seeking explanation.

He oblidged, "I am meeting another psychologist for dinner, " seeing Armaan give a slight frown he quickly added, "No nothing wrong with me, no disorders..."....

"Unless you count a disobeying cupid struck heart as one!" said Mrs. Douglous meaningfully with a mischievous smile cutting off the young boy.

Armaan gave him a 'oh-I-see-what-you-mean' look, as the red from the heat of the game turned a crimson in the boy's face and he mumbled indignantly,

"Girlfriend! What are you talking about there is no one I..." She cut him off again,

"There is. No way have you been buying flowers for your living room every other day for like three weeks now. This mystery missy really is the one you should be taking out for a date young man, not me. But make sure your appearance isn't such an obvious turn off, or even Shakespeare himself would fail to save you a rejection."

At this Armaan broke out laughing, but realizing how uncomfortable the boy had become specially in the presence of a man he knew not beyond his profession, he walked up to him and said smiling looking him in the eye,

"I'd say asking out is a chance worth the shot. Its better anyways to get a no, than to never say what you had to, and unless you picked someone completely unworthy of yourself, I don't see you being rejected"

The boy smiled hesitantly, but realizing the man before him meant what he said entirely he relaxed and his smile deepened as he nodded ever so slightly. Armaan moved towards the flowers and picked up three identical bunches - all a mix of fresh daisies and gerberas and placing them on the counter as he fished his wallet he heard the boy say in a curious voice,

"Three?" As soon as he said it and Armaan turned around to face him he looked away and mumbled quickly, "I mean, I apologize, none of my business."

"But it is mine, why three Doc?" Armaan turned back to face Mrs. Douglous and he smiled mysteriously placing the cash on the counter without a word. Then he picked all three, walked to the boy gave him one out of the three and said,

"Ask her out without delay, soon enough to give her these flowers while they're still fresh, " then turning around he said to the old lady pointing to the other two bunches in his hand, "One for my niece, one for...I still don't know...Have a good day Mrs. Douglous!"

The young boy, left alone with the the lady spoke talking to himself, "Daisies and gerberas? - Now how in the world could he guess Minnie's favorite combination..." he frowned puzzled...

******************
As he drove back home, Armaan was unconsciously smiling at every passing sight. He was unable to determine what about the boy he just met, and was unlikely to ever meet again, had brought this spirit of elevation within. The confrontation with Ridhima in the morning had caused an instantaneous sinking feeling, inflicting what had seemed like another blow, perhaps one harder than all before; the conversation was still playing in his mind, after almost 8 hours were past but something in the last few minutes changed the impact it had on him all day long.

Meeting the boy, though was all but a random encounter, felt like more than just that. His happiness had been infectious. Armaan felt light, actually happy if he dared to admit, something he had not experienced in years, like there was a motivation to be so; perhaps the last time he felt it this strong was when he saw Ridhima the very first time. Ridhima again. He shook his head hard. No, don't think of her Armaan, not for now
. Forcing himself to be distracted as he parked his car in the garage, his eyes fell on the abandoned basketball lying in a corner.

An image of the boy, his messy out of a game look flashed again, it made him smile. Then checking his wrist watch for the time, he realized he still had 2 hours before dinner, Lovely was staying the night at Keerti Bhabhi's house to have a change of place. On a sudden impulse he picked up the ball and tentatively tried to twirl it on his forefinger. It was as perfect as it used to be many years before, his smile widened. Whistling unintentionally he unlocked the main door and let himself in, then ran up the steps two at a time to his bedroom to get changed into his sports wear.

After a long time he felt like playing basketball, not knowing how in the world he could explain this sudden feeling of being high. How could the gloom from the morning, as intense as it had been, be fading away with an encounter so inconsequential, after the way he had talked to her? But somehow the regret was fading, the loneliness which had refused to leave was for the moment something he had to remind himself of feeling. The only certain sense was that of a settling peace, maybe it was a start, a new beginning. He rumaged through his wardrobe looking for his sports gear while his mind was racing with thoughts.

Perhaps telling Ridhima the facts had gotten him partially rid of his guilt and helped him in a way he had not realized immediately? In fact now that he thought about it wasn't he somewhere deep inside almost relieved that she would now be compelled to reconsider her likely perception of him living a happy life after betraying their love.

He had tried bearing the brunt of the situation upon himself, from both ends, his family and Ridhima; but perhaps in that intention he had damaged more than he realized. Changing into the pair of shorts and jersey he finally found he sighed. Had he let himself be doomed to an everlasting melancholy, at the same time also keeping Ridhima from the truth she rightfully deserved to know? She would not know the whole of it, that would go to his grave, but at least this may ease out the grudges.

"Is it too much to hope for, to think she may..." he sighed speaking the first words in over 20 minutes, as he stood in front of the mirror talking to his image, his hand brushing through the hair stopped midway and he saw his reflection was deep in thought..."She may...still...could I hope to rediscover at least the friend in her?"

He had over the years thought it was appropriate to never go back to the past and correct any opinions she may have held of him post his unannounced departure from her life. Yet this had now come upon the two of them, another rendezvous...and inevitably so. Now she knew facts, at least more than before, perhaps it had been the right thing to do all along. If he could expect her to understand unspoken emotions, could she not be trusted with handling facts? He never really gave it a chance. He picked up the ball again taking a deep breath, and looking his reflection in the eye he exclaimed,

"I need to stop being an escapist and running away from her. I still stand my ground, and she knows nothing more, its way too complicated to be revisited. I wonder how she will react at the next appointment though. Guess I have to let her decide this time, its not and can not be just about me." And nodding in grave satisfaction he walked out of the room, his stride much more purposeful...

******************
Stepping into the dim lit pizza place, he felt the temperature drop by several degrees, from the warm and humid autumn night air outside, to the intensely air conditioned inside of Giordanos. He walked to the seating counter,

"Hi! I am Armaan Malik, looking for a certain Minnie Singh, its a table for four."

********************
"Oh hell Gappu I almost, "... "Massi..." Gappu emphasized his interruption to Ridhima with a forced smile as the three of sat on a corner table facing the window overlooking the winding multiple laned Chicago Loop,

"Its Gaurav, please?" Minnie giggled as Ridhima shot him a mock apologetic smile for letting slip his rather embarrassing nick name and continued,

"And its not massi, its Ridzy, Mr. Gaurav Bansal, " she retorted with a sugar sweet smile teasing him, then turning to Minnie she asked, "Whats wrong with Gappu anyways, suits him don't you think?" Gappu looked at her with daggers in his eyes, a look Ridhima was aware of but preferred to ignore as Minnie now broke out laughing, managing to say in between,

"I thought Sawyer was good as well, but he insists on being called Cesc...you know how it goes - him and his love for Arsenal, its like I'm always second..." she paused as Ridhima raised their eyebrows at her choice of word and the meaning she intended, Minnie added hastily, "I mean...everything else is secondary to his devotion for Arsenal and their superhero Cesc
Fabregas..."

She finished kicking herself mentally and lowering her gaze to focus on diligently unwrapping her silverware. Gappu stared at her in surprise, pleasant surprise as a smile slowly set in until it was wide and deep and he too lowered his eyes to his silverware. Ridhima did not know how to fight the urge to laugh out loud, so she too occupied herself with the same task, then looked up within moments as she remembered again.

"Gappu...I mean C.E.S.C.," she said spelling out the letters with emphasis, "Did you tell Minnie you spent an hour deciding what clothes you should wear tonight?" Minnie choked on the water she was trying to drink and Gappu glared at Ridhima, and kicked her under the table.

"Ouch!" Minnie exclaimed looking at Gappu in shock and slight pain of the hit, as he gasped and said quickly, "I'm so sorry Minnie I was..."...

"Trying to kick my massi, " Ridhima completed realizing what had happened and looking at Minnie in concern she asked,

"You fine?" as Minnie nodded with a slight frown Ridhima looked at them solemnly and said, "I'm sorry, I'm not exactly trying to make this hard. Its just, I wish you both would not be so awkward with each other over the obvious."

They both looked up at her, Minnie's look conscious yet anticipatory, while Gappu's anger at Ridhima suddenly softening and she continued speaking, looking them in the eye,

"You know, if you ever feel for someone, they really deserve to know about it. And there never will be a better moment than right away. I am not saying it should be an unthoughtful impulse, but if you know what you feel..."

she paused lowering her eyes, then looking back at them she smiled warmly and said, "I am always there, for both of you, and I just want to see you happy." Then taking their hands next to each other she held them in hers and said,

"I love you..." she paused suddenly as her gaze stopped on his face standing across from her, "both..." she completed her sentence but her eyes could not move from his face as he looked back at her stunned just about as much. Minnie and Gappu puzzled by her sudden distraction forgot for the moment how conscious they were and turned around to follow her gaze.

"Hey buddy!" she jumped off her chair to give him a hug, and Armaan broke the eyelock with Ridhima sitting across. Now looking at Minnie he returned her hug, then breaking off he gave her a bunch of daisies and gerberas with a smile which he hoped would hide his rising sense of shock. Then in the effort of avoiding Ridhima's gaze his eyes fell on Gappu who got up from his seat with a smile of recognition and offering his hand he exclaimed,

"Hello Doc! I didn't expect to see you again, so soon" Armaan returned his handshake and said with a smile, "Me neither. And you do seem ummm..."

he paused looking at Gappu's formal fawn collar shirt, worn with a casual caution the sleeves folded up to his elbows and top couple of buttons left open, tucked into a pair of blue denims and semi formal closed suade shoes,

"Quite transformed from when I saw you last a couple of hours ago," seeing the anticipation in his youthful brown eyes, he added, "Looking good!" smiling as Gappu acknowledged his approval relaxing.

"Well he worked hard hoping to make just that impression on you Armaan," All three of them turned at Ridhima's words, Armaan narrowing his eyes not knowing what to expect next, neither how to respond, but Gappu solved that issue for him,

"You know him?" before either of them could answer Minnie couldn't not intervene,

"Wait a minute, " she said turning to Armaan, "You know Gaurav? And you know Di?" Armaan shook his head and said, "Him, Gaurav that is, we met at the florist, and just talked generally, I didn't even know his name until now...and her, I mean..." Ridhima cut him off,

"We are friends from Cambridge." she said looking at Minnie, then turning back to Armaan she moved forward taking the second bunch of flowers from him and exclaimed with a smile,

"Thanks for the lovely flowers Armaan. You never forget them do you? But I want my usual jasmine stalks next time." Armaan stood rooted to his spot, his look blank the face not knowing which of the many emotions inside was god enough to display. Was this real, she was talking like it was five years ago again. And did she just say they are friedns? No this can't be happening, not after this morning, someone wake me up.

"Ummm yeh...I, no we...uh...together at Cambridge, yes." Hastily he smiled not sure of how convincing it was in comparison to the warm smile Ridhima was flashing at him, strangely it was genuine. Then drawing in a a quick whif of air he said more coherently, "Ridhima was same year as me, I'm just, surprised to see her, uh...here I mean."

Minnie and Gappu smiled at each other, then at Armaan and Ridhima and Minnie said,

"Yeh surprised alright, I can see that, you look like you saw a ghost. Is that how you greet the charming ladies you went to school with?" Ridhima answered for him, "

Well no guy can be pleased to meet the only girl who beat him at basketball when he claimed being invincible." Armaan narrowed his eyes at her, what was wrong with her, how could she be talking like...like nothing had happened, like the past five years had evaporated between the two of them. Then it struck him what she had just said and he spoke up, "Can I get a seat before the discussion runs into memoirs of trivial victories?" Ridhima moved making space on her couch before he could sit anywhere else and he had no option but to follow the cue.

"So uh, Dr. Armaan?"

Gappu said tentatively unsure of how he was expected to address the stranger from the florist shop, now that he was a stranger no more, Armaan smiled, at him forgetting his personal discomfort for then and said,

"Armaan is fine, I'd rather you drop the Dr. Tell me what's your preference -
Fabregas or Gaurav?"

And he was almost startled as both the girls on the table broke out laughing, and hi fived across the table, while Gappu muttered in an undertone looking not quite pleased with the joke on him yet again. Armaan looked from one to the other and said obviously puzzled,

"Uh, am I missing something here? Something I ought to know..?"

At this Ridhima and Minnie broke into another spell of giggles and Armaan shot a questioning look to Gappu who just shrugged away shaking his head, looking back at Ridhima, Armaan opened his mouth to ask again but stopped. Now this definitely was deja vu, she was laughing exactly as she had been the first time he saw her, perhaps this was a new start...again...he could almost understand why meeting Gappu at the florist had made such a difference, it runs in the family he reasoned, happiness just seeps into the air around them. Lowering his eyes he smiled, and unwrapped the only remaining sealed set of silverware on the table for four...

*******************
After the bills and a generous tip had been paid off by Armaan before any of the other three on the table could realize, the four of them decided to walk up to an ice cream place close by. As they strolled, Armaan and Gappu continued the discussion they had started at the dinner table revolving around the current season of football leagues in Europe, while Ridhima and Minnie certain they could not endure another minute of it looked at each other exasperated. Ridhima let out a slightly irritated sigh and looking at the backs of the two of them walking ahead deep in conversation and exclaimed,

"Gappu!" It was bull's eye, he turned around immediately hearing her use the nick name again and frowned hard as Minnie looked away hiding her smile and Armaan looked up at her as she stood frowning slightly.

"I agree with Minnie about the soccer second to nothing factor now. How rude is this?"

Armaan saw Gappu turn slightly red with the blatant statement hurled at him, he decided it was time to help the poor guy, Ridhima was born to make life hard for the men who dared to be a part of hers.

"Ridhima! You can't expect him to get involved and actually enjoy the girl gossip you and Minnie were indulging in, I mean save him some peace."

Ridhima now looked at Armaan with narrowed eyes, and retorted, "What did you expect us to do, wait in silence like forever in the futile hope of getting some attention from you?...Until you both were finally done with your discussion on who lost to whom and why and what should be done and how it never was and...Why don't you both try to go coach the teams they might just finally learn what the game is all about."

Armaan mostly missed the second part of her remark, it was the beginning he was stuck at, 'wait in silence like forever'...Then realizing with a start that she was quiet and he was expected to respond he said,

"I uh..." he fumbled for a moment before turning to Gappu and Minnie, "I forgot to ask you both, hows it going with the musical? The shows start from tomorrow right?"

Gappu nodded, givivng Ridhima a side look of disapproval for acting dominating as ever, and Minnie was just uncertain about something here, she felt like she was missing a piece, her uncle had been...almost awkward tonight, it was like him to not speak much, but this was definitely an edge over that. Now she heard Ridhima say,

"Oh yeh, ummm we never got around to talking about that, good idea Armaan."

Minnie was more puzzled than ever, now the last part sounded like she was almost apologizizng for her retort before. Something between these two was passing her by not quite understood, one moment she felt they were old friedns from school, hence the ease of communication, no formal airs, but then there were moments like this, when Ridhima and Armaan just got...conscious, of what, she did not know.

Gappu said, "Its going pretty well Armaan, we're all set for the opening tomorrow, It starts with a song from Minnie, believe me the audience will be enchanted." Minnie blushed slightly at the compliment forgetting her confusing chain of thoughts and Gappu smiled, he was trying to take Ridhima's advice, maybe he really should let her know what he felt, and soon, it was apparent anyways, just needing to be stated soon.

"What song Minnie?" Ridhima asked, "Why don't you give us a trailer?" she finishes smiling in encouragement. "Oh yeh that sounds like an idea Minnie, go ahead..." Armaan added, and Minnie looked at them then at Gappu, who nodded,then back at them and stated,

"No trailers." as the three of them looked at her frowning she opened her handbag, then taking out two envelopes she said handing them to Ridhima, "You come and watch us. These are the VIP passes. I want to see both of you in the first row, together and cheering for Gappu and me." she finished, Gappu smiled at her, and she smiled back her mind deep in thought as she glanced back at Ridhima and Armaan who looked at each other.

******************
"Hey beautiful! Still awake?" Ridhima saw Gappu come and stand next to her, facing the view outside her bedroom window again she nodded and said, "I like Minnie."

He smiled then turning his face to look at her he said simply, "And I like Armaan."

She looked at him with a jerk, frowning hard, "What?" ...

"What?" he answered back, "Is it so hard to like him? Hes a great guy, and I thought you said hes your friend whats so shocking about me thinking well of him?"

Ridhima looked away quickly and trying to mask her initial shock by her next words,

"I mean it was a strange thing to say after I said I like Minnie." Gappu didn't let sight of her expression as she said this and answered now,

"Hmmm, I thought it was our moment to confess approvals so I gave mine after you gave yours."

Ridhima turned to face him again, this time without a word but the question was evident in her gaze, after a couple of silent moments she spoke, "I have no idea where the hell you' re taking this, but its ok, I ain't that interested to know, " then pausing a second she went on in an intended voice of her own this time,

"When are you telling her what she means to you? She knows it anyway Gappu, but hearing you say it will still be a moment that will last her a lifetime, don't delay it anymore."

Gappu looked at her and smiled lowering his head at first, then he took her by surprise pulling her into a hug, "You're the best, and I love you."

Ridhima smiled deeply hearing his whisper and returned the hug. As they parted she said in a naughty way, "Was that rehearsal for the real confession?"

He looked at her breaking into giggles, gripping her shoulders firmly so she would look straight back at him he said, "Is that how you would want the real confession to be?" Ridhima's smile lingered, but a slight frown formed on her face as she nodded uncertain of his double meaning statements now,

"Gappu?" she asked tentatively as he continued looking back at her, his gaze steady, "What are you trying to imply here?"

He shrugged in response and said simply again, "The obvious..." which did not quite make his intention obvious to her and her frown deepened. He added after the long pause, "What are you so confused about massi, I'm talking fairly straight ain't I?"

She nodded still uncertain but dismissing her doubts. She could ask him but then she would have to bring Armaan into the picture and she wasn't sure if this was the right moment. She decided to call it off for the moment and said,

"Just want you to be happy. And Minnie too. What way you go about it is at your discretion, do what would be special for her." Gappu smiled at her again nodding and whispered goodnight bending to kiss her forehead lightly. Reaching the door he truned around to see her gazing at the skyline again.

Tentatively he said, "Is this Armaan the same Ammy you talked about in London?" She debated for a second before turning around to face him,

"Ammy?...ummm yeh, thats him."

To her relief he did not pursue this issue any further and left with a smile. She sighed out loud. Then turning back to the window she closed her eyes momentarily. What was with his comments right now, they had sounded so allusive. No Ridzy its just you, guilty conscious. He was just a kid that time, there is nothing he implied, its you thinking more than is as usual. She sighed. Armaan Malik. How many more ways would name intrude her life she wondered.

But did she mind it as much as she should? Something about the dinner was almost a pleasant feeling. She was glad to have acted on her impulse deciding to behave the way she had with him. It would have been the most immature thing to have let her differences with him come between Gappu and Minnie. But that had not been the sole reason and she knew it whether she would admit or not, it was this
compulsive need to give him a chance anyways, and somehow the situation presented it so perfectly.

She gave a small smile now and whispered ton herself, "I can't believe I'm allowing you into my life again. Its like I've been hoping for this day for the past five years, and I still don't know why. Part of me wants you back to be able to show you how perfect my life is without you, to be able to hurt you half as much as you hurt me. The other part refuses to see sense, it wants to forgive you, just to be with you, to spend time with you, to hear you talk when you rarely do in between my endless rambling. But what should I forgive you for Armaan, I can't seem to connect the pieces here, Lovely and you, Minnie your niece. I don't see where any of this is going anymore. I just know tonight was a time I dreamed of many nights. A family-like dinner out, ice creams after that, chats and laughter and dimwit jokes and more laughter, but most importantly, you by my side all through it. I don't know how to fight this feeling, I know you are married, but Lovely's truth doesn't make it any easier for me to accept truth for what it is, and you refuse to talk anymore. You can't stay silent forever, I just won't let you. You have to tell me everything, from scratch. I need to know, and I deserve to know."

Moving towards her bed, she saw the passes to the musical for the next evening lying on the bedside stool. Picking them up she flipped them with her thumb deep in thought. Then putting them back she got into her bed and snuggled into the comforter. Sleep for now she told herself, tomorrow maybe a long day.

******************
"Ritu Di, hi! Gaurav this side. I think the plan is starting to work, at least on massi, well on Armaan as well. I still can't believe he turned out to be the same man I met at the florist shop, its like a God willing thing. He is a wonderful guy, if he is like that with strangers, how could he have intentions to hurt massi. I mean he could not stop looking at her all through dinner. Everytime he thought we were busy among ourselves he would steal looks at her. I can still not figure out what was on his mind, but he feels for her, thats an unmistakable fact. And yeh Minnie gave them two passes for tomorrow, they will have to show up tomorrow, and together!" he paused hearing an excited Ritu on the other side, and slowly his smile widened. Tomorrow would be fun no doubt...

*******************
alright...heres part 5 super long...its almost as long as a part and a half to make up for the delay....i thot i would exclude the last two bits of the update but then i put them in anyways....enjoy reading people!!! hope ul enjoy......and comments pleasssssse!!!Embarrassed

ps: Cesc Fabregas is a central midfield position soccer player for the english club Arsenal, his chest number is 4, and national team is Spain.

pps: the passage i used is shakespeare sonnet, i realized its not the obvious english to understand but part of my hometask for this week was to include it in the writing so i had to, i did add the translation in there, if theres anything u dont understand leme know....



Edited by spln - 28 September 2008 at 9:38pm

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Posted: 08 September 2008 at 8:35pm | IP Logged

~Part 6~

Armaan lay in his bed tossing for a while. Then he sat up cross legged his chin resting on his interlocked fingers, deep in thought. Letting out a long sigh he whispered the words again,
"She was normal tonight. But how could she be, after everything...more improtantly WHY?"

He had in all possibility asked himself this question more times that evening, than the number of times he had cursed himself for the morning's harsh exchange, almost as if he believed that the answer was hidden in the question, and would reveal itself upon repetitions. Closing his eyes now he pressed his palms against them rubbing in circular motion in an effort to stimulate thinking, then abruptly he stopped and sat still. His mind of course made up for the lack of activity, it was racing with thoughts. Getting up from the bed he started pacing from edge to edge, frowning hard.

It was convenient to assume the obvious reason; she would not have wanted to make a scene before Gappu and Minnie. But there were also obvious loopholes which could not be quite as conveniently overlooked. There was no reason in the first place for her to have shown him any recognition at all, they could have maintained the pretense of having been strangers and waited for the round of introductions. She in contrast had not just identified his face but had also claimed being friends.

Pass that off for an impulsive reaction although it never could be just that. There was still no reason for her to have been so...genuine? What about the whole evening that followed. Not for a moment had it felt like it was an obligation on her part faced by the situation. Unless he was becoming an absolute misfit for his profession unable to read the evident emotions, she had been a complete natural. And this wasn't a random patient in question, it was the one person he knew he could read flawlessly, almost like he could tell what she was thinking even before she thought it, well it had been so, but tonight made him doubt if he had lost his touch.

When she had laughed, addressing or teasing him, or in making references to the past, to Cambridge - the basketball games, her favorite jasmines, the library his hibernation spot, their photography end of term combined submission, their eternal hangout spot the corner cafe and how he still had no clue about the taste of coffee there....nothing had been an act. It had all been in the earnest, no jibes, no taunts, no indirect implications.

He could not help but compare it to the time they met unexpectedly for the very first appointment in her office, it had been the exact opposite - formal introductions and several hidden meanings. Why then had it changed tonight, a complete reversal, especially after what transpired between them in the morning. Could it be...her sympathy? Was she trying to be nice to him because she felt sorry for him? Shaking his head he stopped pacing as he stood facing the mirror.

"Why was she normal with me?"

he said again, pronouncing each word with alacrity, ensuring his reflection in the mirror did not misunderstand the question he was seeking an opinion for. He was quiet for a few seconds, almost as if expecting it to answer back, then lowering his eyes he stared at nothing, and muttered to himself,

"Obligations, pretense, curtsy - all ruled out...pity? perhaps," he shrugged uncertainly then shook his head," No not quite, no definitely not. There never was and could never be any sympathy factor here what so ever." Suddenly he jerked up his eyes widening in a sense of realization.

"Wait a moment," he spoke to his reflection which imitated his look of sudden interest and ran its hands through its hair and holding them back just like him. Armaan saw it narrow its eyes at him as he said, "Now that I think of it, she did not once mention that I'm a client, or even that we ever met in Chicago before, leave alone the same morning."

Shaking his head slightly again at his lack of comprehension he saw his reflection doing the same just as perplexed. He had all the pieces of information, and yet they seemed to fit nowhere. He sighed deep. Slowly he slumped by the bed end resting his back against the wooden frame of the box, letting one leg stretch out straight while he crossed his hands across the other, which half stood bent at the knee. She had been cold, angry, indifferent, upset, professional - all of that and everything else from that family of emotions in the last couple of weeks since their first meeting after five years. But this was a whole new facet. All through the evening she remained warm, cordial, happy, accepting...and comfortably so. Everything that she could be to a friend she met after five years, perhaps much more so, considering the friend was one who had wronged her as much as he had.

How ironical was it then for him to be more disturbed by her sudden change than he had been by her initial attitude. When she had been the Ridhima he would expect her to be after what he put her through, he had to fight himself to accept it and let it remain so. Now that she was being everything he would want his Ridhima to be, he wanted to know why? Did it even matter? She was by his side all evening, and he could tell there was no discomfort, if he had felt any in the beginning, it kept going with each passing moment at seeing how effortlessly she was being truly herself. He had almost forgotten how long it had been since he had last shared a conversation with her with as much ease, even if the memory of each such time was a vivid picture in his head. Whatever had brought about this change in her, he could not think of what else there was to it. Only few hours before he had wondered if it was too much to expect her to ever see him without a bias again, and here she had offered him the relation exactly as it was years ago.

"You're complicating an issue which is solving out without your interference Armaan, " he told himself. "She called you a friend without asking why, what will it take for you to accept her as one without the compulsive questioning streak?"

He closed his eyes pushing away any conflicting thoughts to what he was willing himself to believe as real and accept without further questions. It did prove relatively less difficult this time, with images of her sitting by his side flashing in his head. Her easy smile, an untiring flow of wisecracks shot alternately at Gappu and himself and the comfort level she shared with Minnie, her unavoidable reactions of irritation at a trivial negligence like clinking of silverware against the china, or noisy chewing, her slight frown when she was contemplating what to say next and her excited exclamation to hush everyone at the table if a track of her liking was played in the background, her glass of water 'on rocks' - more ice cubes than water, none of which remained as she ate each one of them and her consistent action of pushing back the front bangs of her coffee brown hair, which refused to stay put, falling over her eyes every few minutes...

Slowly Armaan opened his eyes, this time to see a smiling reflection in the mirror across from where he sat. The smile widened at the sight of seeing himself having broken into one, just at the thought of her, that was the affect she had on him invariably, because essentially she hadn't changed a bit. He would never know when she drove away all his worries and replaced them with a sense of peace. Still thinking, his eyes fell on Lovely's picture resting on the dresser. His smile faded partially, and he hung back his head staring at the ceiling and sighed deeply.

"I have no idea where any of this is headed anymore. I resolve to keep away, and you, make sure you barge your way into my life every possible way. Then I swear myself to silence and you're determined to let nothing remain unstated. I behave like a heartless soul in my last efforts to drive you away, but you refuse as always to let me have my way, come all the more closer, and I can do nothing. I give up, cause I don't now how to fight this anymore. God save me Ridhima, when you're with me I see no other logic. Let me hold onto my sanity of whats real and has to remain so - I'm married, Lovely is my wife, yet you're the only one I ever loved and always will." He smiled bitterly pausing.

"Neither could facts be any simpler to state nor any harder to survive. And if that wasn't enough, now you're daring me to hope again, I know how much I've wanted to, these past years in your absence, without admitting its what I need. But I can't deny how terrified I am, scared to even hope to be happy, it never lasts, and one more time I lose it my life will be in desperate shambles if it isn't already. Spare me that misery again Ridhima, if thats where you're taking this. I really have faced my share, can't see how much more I will withstand. I'm imploring you to stay away from me, and if you refuse to, then this time stay till the end, even if I have to leave don't let me...cause I want to stay - with you...as us."

He sighed again closing his eyes sitting in the same position, hoping sleep would take over gradually, if not peacefully, then forcing its way somehow, it had after all been a long day, the complications several, both misery and happiness extreme...

******************
Rrrrrriiiinnnnngggg...Rrrriiiiinnnnggg...Rrrrriiiiii..."WHAT THE HELL DO..."

he paused mid sentence, and within seconds the sight of her standing there at his doorstep had driven away any traces of sleep, his eyes widened trying to register if it really was her. She made her way past him brushing him aside not quite gently, walking into the house as if there was nothing abnormal about her coming here and the moment she had chosen to do so, he thought, stumped completely as he glanced at the wall clock behind her, at this hour? Before he could express his anxiety, hoping everything was alright, she spoke up.

"What the hell do you guys think you are? I've been ringing the bloody doorbell for the past 10 minutes before you finally decided to let me in. So what if half the neighborhood was giving me skeptical glares out of their windows as if I am an intruder. But thats not half as bad as your friend. Sometimes I wonder if it is after all such a good idea to try to get him back into her life. She might not be at her best without him, but if he stays the same she will soon be at her worst. I hate this guy...I hate this mess...And I think I screwed things much worse by interfering with what..."

"RITU!"

She stopped as he interrupted in a fairly loud voice, frowning she looked at him, demanding explanation for not letting her complete, and he shot her a completely baffled look back, shrugging for an answer himself. Walking up to her Chirag held her by her shoulders and turned her around to show her the clock.

"Are you capable of reading a clock Ritu? What did you expect, I'd be waiting at the doorstep just in case you decided to make a curtsy call? Let's not even go to the neighbors issue, pray none of them plan to call cops on us or we might just make headlines tomorrow for no good reason, 'Randolph Associates designer knocks the door of a senior psychiatrist for treatment at 3AM...' For a moment there you scared me, I thought you were in some serious trouble, but I should have known better. Is this revenge for barging into your office unannounced last time?"

She looked away from the clock to face him opening her mouth to speak, then she closed it lowering her eyes. Getting free from his grip on her shoulders she sat down on the nearest couch, wordlessly lowering her head into her hands. Chirag frowned at not having her argue back, even though he was right. He rolled his eyes at himself cursing mentally for having said too much. Walking over to the couch he sat on the rug below facing her, and removing her hands he made her look back. He had known her for but a short time, yet enough to know that the expression on her face right now did not belong there, she looked exhausted and tensed. Most importantly, she was quiet.

"Ritu?" he started tentatively, "I didn't mean it like..." he stopped as she cut him off in a low voice,

"I'm sorry. I tried calling but you didn't answer, and I was getting all worked up, I just...don't know why I thought I could come over. I needed to talk and...you seemed like the one I wanted to talk to and..." ...

"What happened?" he said in quiet concern interrupting her, not comfortable with how low she was sounding. She looked at him again and said,

"Do you think its a mistake, to try and get them together?" Chirag frowned narrowing his eyes at her.

"Tell me what happened Ritu. I can't keep guessing."

"Armaan called Minnie for a third ticket, for Lovely," she stated simply. He waited for her to continue but then realized that's all she had to say. He frowned harder.

"And?" he asked anyways, just to make sure he wasn't getting this wrong. Had she really come all he way at this hour, looking so troubled because Ammy asked for a third pass? She looked at him incredulously and repeated his question but as her own.

"And? What and? What more do you want to know. Chirag he called Minnie and asked her for a pass for Lovely for the musical tomorrow. Don't you see what that means?" Chirag shook is head then nodded and said,

"I do. I mean I see it means he will not be alone with Ridhima as it could have been, but I don't see why that upsets you so much. This is just a beginning Ritu, and it most certainly is..." Ritu got up from the couch with almost too much force.

"Chirag!" she exclaimed, then shaking her head she said, "You really don't see it. Its what you said the other day about Armaan. He is attached to Lovely, he cares for her, too much I fear to ever leave her. He loves Ridhima, but what I know of him by now Chirag, he will never give this a chance. I don't understand what kind of hypocrite goes around telling stranger teen age boys to express their feelings without delay, and refuses to follow his own advice? He loved Ridhima, and still does, I see no way for him to have missed the fact that the feeling is completely mutual. Can't he see she hasn't moved on in life, still standing where he left her? One moment he convinces me of his intention to not let it remain so, but then he...Chirag I'm starting to get apprehensions. What if he never comes back to her, never gives what they had between them, and still have after all that happened, a chance? Is he ever going to actually grow beyond his responsibility for an abnormal wife who understands nothing and deserves to be in an asylum and..."

"RITU!" she stopped, second time that evening he had raised his voice as he too stood up. She could see he was positively livid, but she didn't care. There was nothing untrue about what she said and there was no easy way to say it. He spoke up before she could continue,

"You know what Ritu, I can't believe I'm having to say this but you force me to. How selfish can you get? This is not just about Ridhima, its about Ammy just as much. I am on this plan with you because we want them both to be happy, not just one. You are right, Ammy does see nothing over his responsibilities, but thats him, thats the Armaan your friend fell for, with or without your approval of it. And anyways why are we even going there, we never were working on creating splits here, we wanted a reunion. You need to be reminded that I want it as much as you do, but unlike you I don't chose to be preferentially fair to the people involved. If Ammy was to leave Lovely for Ridhima today, neither would be happy, lets not even mention what would become of Lovely, who didn't quite get to chose to be the way she is..."

"But Armaan chose to be with her instead of Ridhima, in his sane mind, if that can be called sane at all." Ritu retorted cutting him off

"
I don't know anymore than you do as to why he ever got into this thing, but I know him enough to ascertain you the last thing he intended was a betrayal, its not just Ridhima who hasn't moved on, Ammy hasn't either. There is nothing in that marriage except the hollow name sharing."

Chirag looked away momentarily sighing deeply then then looking back he moved towards her. Taking her hands in his as her eyes held several emotions he lowered his head then said in a soft voice looking her in the eye again,

"Ritu you have to understand we agreed to make sure they could not escape each other and the situation here. And that is happening, but we have to give it time. It has to come from them, both of them, their acceptance of the fact that neither has moved on in life beyond the other. They can see it, but it should be a feeling compelling enough for them to work this one out together and not being apart in life. We can't just pull Lovely out of this, that resolves nothing. You know that just as well. They need to confess to themselves and to each other the love that has only grown with the distance, but we can do nothing more yet, except give them every chance to realize how vital this confession is. The decision has to be their own."

She held his gaze for several seconds even after he was quiet, then she lowered her eyes sighing.

"Chirag I..." she started in a low voice, devoid of the previous minutes of frustration, it sounded more tired, lifting her head she saw his intent eyes, "You're right its going to be their decision. But I just, I'm scared if this doesn't work out, all this effort will end in a situation far worse than before. You can think with more neutrality perhaps, you knew both Armaan and Ridhima. I did not. I never actually have met this man, all I know him for is the heartache he has caused my closest friend. I still took the chance, gave it a shot, its a bold step. I reopened chapters in her life which I should have helped her forget instead. I just don't want her to suffer anymore because I thought it was worth the risk. You're doing it for them, for me its just her and I can't deny that. I don't know how I'll ever forgive myself if any of this ends in a disaster much greater. I'm starting to doubt if I put too much on stake here, its her life I'm taking decisions for, and she has no clue. What if..."

She stooped as he placed his hand covering her mouth gently shaking his head.

"Has no one ever told you that you need to talk less?" She frowned at him, and the diversion in topic he was bringing but he continued in a low whisper now, she hung onto every word.

"Nothing will go wrong. We are responsible for their repeated encounters, but don't you see where all this started? It was destined to be so, why would Lovely of all the firms in downtown have chosen yours? What made both of them settle in Chicago after London, and then after they have been unaware of the fact for five long years they meet now? Its alot of time wasted if you think how they could have run into each other much earlier, but they did not. Perhaps they were meant to stand this test of time, to let them think about everything in great detail. Now when they stand before each other the wait has matured them. They will not jump to conclusions, but they need time to sort out thoughts first in their own heads, then with each other. And thats also why they have you and me. And then to think Minnie tells Armaan about her Sawyer, and when he tells me I know its Gappu and you got him on the plan. Now Minnie unaware of ulterior motives demands to see the two of them together at the musical. Its like every chance is playing in favor. Its too much coincidence don't you think, if all was only to end in a disaster? It can't, they lost what they had to, five years are quite a lot, now things can only resolve for the better."

She looked at him her eyes holding his gaze and he cupped her face gently, nodding his head with a reassuring smile on his face. Then she lowered her head nodding back. "I should get going now, try and catch such sleep, " she whispered dismissing the topic at last. He clicked his tongue indicating a no, and she looked up to see him shaking his head. He clicked his tongue again for her benefit this time with a curved smile. As she looked at him puzzled he said,

"You really think I'm going to let you sleep in peace after you killed my night? Its Ammy, the benevolent gentleman remember, I'm more your league" As she narrowed her eyes he put his arm around her shoulder then giving her a mean grin he continued, "You know the 'time for vengence' kinds? So sweetheart, now you stay back and entertain me. How about some coffee?"

"Excuse me?" she said in a loud voice with a horrified expression on her face as he winked at her, then rolling his eyes towrads the ceiling he muttered something she missed.

"What did you just say?" She demanded in a furious tone. Steering her to follow his direction, he smiled at her in an innocent way and said in a solmen voice,

"I was asking God to forgive you for misjudging me of motives..." ...

"WHAT?" she yelled almost into his ear and he shut his eyes at the impact then making a face at her he said,

"Gosh! You're one hell of a loud woman. Not to mention outspoken and never quiet. But just for records, coffee implies coffee, you know the simple beverage made out of milk and water and beans, what the hell are you getting offensive about?" then rubbing his ear gently he added in a solemn voice, "Ammy owes me one for all this, I'll turn deaf trying to hook him up with his girl."

She glared at his boyish grin and shrugging off his hand she said, "Where is the kitchen, I hope you have one?" The sarcasm hard to miss.

His smile widened and he pointed to the right. Following her disappearing back with his eyes he muttered scratching his head. "Chirag dude, get serious. Are you really falling for a big mouth like her. Man, its going to be one hell of a life, but then I guess love is always worth a risk...Wait...love? Is this it?" Smiling to himself he shrugged slightly, then shoving his hands into the pockets of his tracks, he followed her into the kitchen...

***************
"Calm down beautiful, he will be there soon, I'm certain its something unavoidable..." Gappu paused hearing a flustered Ridhima complain on the other end..."Yeh we understand lady, the fault is all his, you bear no responsibility for the delay. Take it easy, I'm sure he will show up any moment now. "

He smiled hearing Ridhima quit her ramblings as she wished him luck next, her tone changing to a sweeter note right away. Typical of her to switch mods at the snap of a finger, both the rough ones and those of affection. She did deserve to be with Armaan soon. He was the only one Gappu could ever think of as worthy of his massi. Gappu smiled saying bye and cut the call deep in thought as he handed it back to Minnie.

 Another typical act, he thought shaking his head, she loved him, Gappu, to bits, perhaps he could as far as saying he mattered to her more than anyone else, well so far...yet she had to put up that unconscious act of placing everyone before him in public, calling on Minie's cell rather than his own to wish them both luck, so Ridhima like. She would go out of the way for everyone in the world, except for those who mattered more than the rest of that same world receiving her nice side, for them she would never act special.

Gappu, like all those close to her, had grown accustomed to this side of her, it was almost as if her taken for granted attitude towards anyone was a compliment beyond any other. If she took you for granted and skipped the obligations you could safely assume you were among the highest in her list of 'my very own'. She would pass wisecracks, mock you at every instant, agree with nothing you say, and pay heed to none of your words, never go on to show by the little subtle gestures how much you meant to her.

But in times that mattered, even if the need was trivial, she would be an outrageous support, refusing to let you feel alone or face a fall. She was the kinds who got high on optimism, could thing recklessly and follow the ideas until eternity, she would always forgive yet never forget, and was extremely sensitive in ways that could never be detected. She talked like there was no tomorrow, and yet never any of what should not remain unsaid, you may mean the world to her but for all you knew she would let you pass with the perception that you were just like anybody else. Armaan of course had just joined the gang of victims, or perhaps he had always been there, Gappu only learned of it now that he was back in her life.

For most she was the dominating towering woman, who lost her temper as easily as she laughed and loved, who always had a solution to every problem that was not her own, and who you could not pass by without forming some opinion at least, even if all you saw her for was a mere five minutes. In brief her emotions were many and each stupendous in their own way, she made it absolutely impossible for you to ignore her, and whether it was her endless chats or her rare sullen and quiet spells she caught your attention and made you want to stay.

And she had been all of that with Armaan yesterday, without effort. Like she had lost the veil of their past, and he could tell Armaan had been caught by surprise as much as Gappu himself, it had not seemed likely to happen so fast. But then, wasn't that another typically - Ridhima thing, catch people off guard, even those who thought they knew her inside out, for what she would think or do next was something perhaps even she could not tell.

"I think there is something between the two of them, something we're unaware of, Buddy and Di i mean..." he heard her tentative words and responded with a spontaneous nod without much thought,

"Yeh, there is..." he replied.

Then realizing a moment too late what he had just implied he looked at Minnie quickly as she gave him a questioning look her eyes narrowed.

'Uh...I mean, they are friends right?"

He tried to sound convincing, but that only added a frown to her already skeptical look, he knew she did not believe him. He gave her a weak smile and she refused to alter her expression. He gulped looking away, dam it, how could he tell her he was trying to fix his aunt with her uncle who was already married. It wasn't quite normal, what would she say, this when he was planning to express his own feelings soon. Dam you man, what were you thinking...

"Alright I don't have forever. Apparently theres something I should have known...lets say, much before?" He turned back to face her with a guilty look and started,

"There is." Then glancing at his watch he said, "Fifteen minutes to start, guess I can outline the basic picture for you. Lets leave the colors and details to until after the show." Saying so he walked towards the green rooms and she followed hearing him say things which left her baffled.

*********************
She paced left to right then right to left, then back and back again and so on. She had done nothing but that for the past quarter of an hour. Well just that if you ignored the countless times she had cursed, in anger, in frustration, and although she would not admit, in worry. Where was he? The look on her face, which had started with a frown was now like a painter's palette - the expressions numerous like the colors, too messed to be distinguished individually, making it hard to envisage which one single emotion it was that they wanted to display.

Where was he, she thought again, and why would he not answer his dam phone. She stared at her watch again, willing it to show the time from an hour ago. This was a limit. Whatever he got held up with, did she not even deserve a phone call? Could he be in trouble? She did not know which she preferred to believe, this that he maybe in trouble, or the other that he had just decided to leave her waiting without a clue, like five years before. Cursing herself she wished he was not in trouble, and to further her frustration at self, she could not bring herself to go inside the amphitheater without him, to occupy herself with something other than thoughts of him and what could have delayed him so much.

She paced faster, the show would end in another 15 minutes. Would she make a fool of herself if they thought she had waited for him so long, neither coming inside, nor going elsewhere? Perhaps it would be best to leave now, before she had to explain herself to Gappu and Minnie, she could just say later, that she had been waiting for Armaan for about 10minutes past her conversation with Gappu, and then got a call from one of her sites and had to leave. She could in fact completely pretend like she did not know that Armaan had not shown up at all. What about the missed calls on his cell though she thought cursing herself for having made so many. Maybe she could say she just wanted to let him know that she had to leave? Yes, that would work she thought with a grim expression, thankfully I did not leave him a voicemail.

Turning around with the force of her new resolve she gasped sharply as she lost her balance, self stepping on a string from her sandal which had come lose, but before she could fall even half way, she felt a set of muscular arms take hold of her.

"You alright?"

She did not have to look at the face to know it was him. The voice was enough, she would recognize it anywhere. But she looked up anyways, and with a jerk, it was a spontaneous reaction, was he finally here? He was, becoming aware of his grip around her shoulder and waist she knew it was him alright, real in flesh and blood. She saw the concern on his face, and somehow it irritated her. She sprang back to balance on her own, not quite gently, and although she broke her look with him she could feel his eyes on her. Don't look at him Ridzi, she told herself the temper rising within her. True she had hoped he wasn't in trouble,but now seeing him by her side, appearing fine, all in one piece was making her furious not relaxed. He repeated, with an added caution to his voice, which made her wonder if her anger was so visible.

"Ridhima, you alright?" She would have wanted to turn around and yell at him, give him a piece of her mind. but she clenched her fists digging her finger nails in deep to pull a straight face before she looked him in the eye and said,

"Yes I am." then after a fleeting pause she couldn't keep herself from adding, "Why do you care?"

Armaan should have preferred to be anywhere that moment to escape her wrath except where he was, but he didn't feel quite so. He held her gaze reading her eyes. She was mad at him, for the obvious reason, but somehow he felt calm to see her that way. It was the an anger which exerted her right upon him, not the anger of indifference as she was trying hard to portray. It was insane but he almost wanted to smile.

Perhaps it was his unaffected look, for she frowned harder the next moment looking away. He allowed himself the smile which would refuse to be subdued still looking at her. He could hardly believe himself, after the past hour of trouble with Lovely, he was now facing the second half of his not quite happy evening with Ridhima perhaps ready to strangle him, and he was smiling? Shaking his head clear he wiped the smile off just in time, for she had turned to face him again, appalled by his attitude. Was he going to ever explain himself?

"Ridhima, I'm sorry I actually..." He stopped as she walked away with force and pace. He gulped looking up towards the sky with a look of plea before he broke into a trot to catch up with her. She walked faster seeing him by her side and he tried again.

"Ridhima please, just hear me out. I'll explain. It was Lovely, she..." Ridhima shot him a look which made him pause. She stopped walking and so did he looking at her in anticipation.

"Lovely?" she snapped, her voice was forcefully controlled and he could see she had intended to say much more but had let it stay at that one word. Then however she changed her mind, and spoke again, before he could,

"I really have no intentions of interfering in your personal life Mr. Malik, save yourself the reasons. Besides, why are you really bothered? This isn't the first time you've left me waiting without an explanation, and a couple of hours at that, should be nothing to compare with five long years."

As she walked off, he stood for a moment stunned by her words. But before his guilt could overtake, it struck him. Five long years...did she just say she had waited for him all through. Somehow the thought gave him more comfort than a sense of guilt which should have been more obvious. And now she had waited for him, outside the amphi, for close to an hour perhaps. He looked up and he saw her some 50 paces away and somewhere a car' buzzed unlocking, he guessed she clicked it so on her key chain operator.

He broke into a trot second time, to catch up with her on an impulse despite her cutting remark. As he neared she was getting in the driver's seat. He didn't quite know what made him do what he did next, but he raced the last few steps towards the passenger seat and opening the door got in. He could feel ger stare on himself as he concentrated on fixing the seatbelt into its lock. His head lowered, he fumbled with the lock, to not have to look at her for he was already starting to think this was an insane impulse he had followed. But then he closed his eyes momentarily and reopening, and he knew he would not regret it.

She did at that moment turn on the ignition without a word and reversed the car out of its spot, with a cut wider than was needed he realized. They got onto the street he saw her dodge cars, speed up and overtake, or brake suddenly juggling the traffic in a rash pattern. Out of the corner of his eye he braved a fleeting glance, after almost ten minutes of driving in silence. She was looking straight ahead, he noticed moments later as he dared a second glance, more lasting this time, her grip on the steering was an evidence of the intensity of her temper.

"Ahem ahem..." he cleared his throat after another couple of minutes, someone had to break the silence, and he couldn't decide if this was a streak of courage or reckless hope that was making him do things so unlike himself.

"This is Sheryl and you're listening to B96 top ten, its American Idol first runners up David Archuleta at number five with his new single, his very own Crush!..."  The voice from the radio cut him short as she raised the volume making her intentions to not hear him out obvious. He looked at her but as she continued to ignore his presence he looked ahead himself and the song blared into the silence between them...

"...Cause the possibility
That you would ever feel the same way about me
It's just too much, just too much

Why do I keep running from the truth?
All I ever think about is you
You got me hypnotized, so mesmerized
And I've just got to know "...

He chanced another look at her, and saw her expression was not the stony blank look anymore. Her grip on the steering was definitely more lax, but she still seemed...tense?or plain angry? She still did continue to look straight ahead. He wished she would not keep it inside anymore, her anger at him. He would prefer her yelling than this phase where she made him feel he didn't exist for her. The lyrics were running in his mind as he continued staring at her, willing her to spare him one glance.

"Do you ever think when you're all alone
All that we can be, where this thing can go?
Am I crazy or falling in love?
Is it real or just another crush?"

Ridhima missed nothing, neither his eyes boring through her, nor the lyrics of the song, nor how hard it was getting for her to ignore both. What was wrong with him anyway, why did he get into her car. What in the world was he up to, where did he have to go, more like where were they going, what was the destination...to this drive...to their life...She couldn't think why she had not told him get out right away, why did she let him stay and drive out of there. AND WHY WERE THEY PLAYING THIS DAM SONG.

"Do you catch a breath when I look at you?
Are you holding back like the way I do?
'Cause I'm trying and trying to walk away
But I know this crush ain't goin' away-ay-ay-ay-ayy
Goin' away-ay-ay-ay-ayy..."

A sudden silence enveloped as she turned off the radio abruptly, and it was only then that Armaan realized how loud the volume had been, he also realized how he had not quite minded that...the lyrics were still echoing in his head.

"I kind of like that song," he said suddenly and it took him all his effort to keep himself from cursing out loud. What did he just say? But the next second he was almost glad he did, for she finally turned around to look at him. He gave her an instantaneous smile, he did not know how it appeared just then, perhaps it was the relief of getting some reaction. She looked away and straight ahead again without returning his gesture. He lowered his gaze debating what to say next, but he didn't have to for she spoke up, much to his surprise, shock was more like it.

"I hate Archuleta, exceedingly juvenile. I'm glad it was Cook who won the idol." she snapped.

It took him seconds to process her words as he looked at her amazed. She was talking to him? About the American Idol finals? He wanted to laugh out loud, the relief, the happiness, a sudden warmth was gushing through his insides and he couldn't keep himself from breaking into a grin. She perhaps realized that and turning around she shot him a dirty look. He smiled back wider in response, he just couldn't stop himself, despite the knowledge that he might be annoying her further.

"Me too" he stated and as she frowned puzzled but looking ahead he explained, "Preferred Cook myself. I just said I kind of like the song, not the singer." he made his stand, the smile refusing to leave.

He saw her frown disappear replaced by an effort to maintain the defiant look, and he knew she was listening, In fact he figured she may finally be willing to allow conversation in the car. But he kept quiet, she would have to start this time, he had contributed his share of mindless initiatives for the evening. He smiled to himself lightly looking out of his window casually as instinct told him she would speak soon. It was several moments of silence before he noticed something that made him turn around towards her with a jerk. His sudden movement did not escape her and she looked at him in reflex reaction. His face grew into a frown as he seemed to be concentrating on something looking at nothing in particular. She cocked her eyebrows curious, as she maintained a side look on the road ahead.

"Ridhima, " he whispered not quite looking at her, still in seeming concentration, "The wheel..." he said and she had no clue what he was intending her to understand. He looked at her finally and said, "The car wheel Ridhima, its wobbly."

"Huh?" he nodded in response to her confusion. "Its either flat, or coming lose."

"What? Of course not. I just got it back from the garage on the way to the amphi." She said in a 'know-it-all' tone.

"Well then you should sue the mechanic. Something with the wheel is definitely not normal." He stated seriously, unaffected by her obvious stance to prove it was all in his head.

She gave him a stubborn look of defiance and faced ahead to drive on. He frowned at her incredulously as she pressed harder on the gas pedal, accelerating. Then rolling his eyes he shook his head slightly and said more firmly stressing his point,

"Ridhima, what are you trying to do? I'm telling you the it could be coming lose, the wheel, stop accelerating." She shot him a dirty look and he knew there was no straight way with her. Gosh, would she ever listen to him?

"Ridhima listen..." She snapped cutting him off.

..."Its nothing Armaan, first you get into my car, uninvited, now you're trying to scare me? Just to make conversation? Cheap stakes. Its my car, I know how to manage it, you can sit if you stay quiet or I can drop you right here if you're afraid of sitting in a car with a wobbly wheel."

He opened his mouth to respond then shut it. She really would not listen. How reckless could she...never mind right now Armaan, he told himself. This wasn't the moment. He had to convince her of the wheel first, somehow. As he felt the car accelerate more he had a sudden idea. Quickly he pulled both her hands off the steering as she looked at him shocked and furious.

"Armaan what the..." ....

"Sshhh" He said with a commanding streak she had rarely witnessed in him. Frowning hard he indicated ahead and she followed his gaze.

"What the hell are you..." She stopped mid sentence as she realized what he was trying to show her. The car wasn't going in a straight line anymore, it was deviating towards the right lane along a gradual virtual diagonal path. Her eyes widened and he hastily let go of her hands gripping the steering to bring the car back on track. She took over from him and said in realization almost to herself.

"The tyre is wobbly..."

"About time you concluded that. Now would you try and get out of this fastest right lane? We need to stop at the very next exit so I can have a look at it." She did not retort this time, neither did she get defiant, with a solemn look half embaressed, half worried she followed his instruction quietly. He saw her glance in the rear view trying to find a break to cut through the lanes. But it was a busy evening hour traffic, the dim light of settling dusk, and increasing number of glaring high beams made it no easier. He saw her frown deepen, and he knew it wasn't just in concentration. He sighed, it wasn't quite possible to switch drivers on the fast moving lane or he would have been glad to relieve her. Gently he held her hand on the steering, making her look at him.

"Relax, its going to be fine, " he whispered with a small but reassuring smile, and she nodded slightly before she looked up ahead and at the rear view again. Even in the anticipation of the moment she felt relieved; he was there by her side, and so she believed him at long last for what he said - it was going to be fine...everything...

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


~Part 7~

Over the next almost ten minutes he saw her make several futile attempts at trying to cut into the middle lane. As her eyes darted between the windscreen to keep track of the road ahead, and the rear view to scan the traffic behind her for an opening. Her actions appeared to be under control, but it was evident that the calm was gradually evaporating.

"I feel like the wheel is going to come off any second if I try to turn, is it simply because I now know that its faltering?" she whispered without looking at him more as a question to herself.

He heard the gravity in her tone as she bit her lower lip. It was almost frustrating to not be able to take over from her, the wheel posed definite trouble, not negligible in the least, but was also not the worst possible; if she didn't panic and blunder so to say. In his better judgement she had missed at least a couple of chances to crossover to the middle lane, she was trying hard but somehow would hold back the second she could just about do it. And he felt like she knew that as well as him, which was perhaps making it worse for her. Her voice betrayed the lack of confidence and that was bothering him much more now than the wheel itself. His mere presence wasn't support enough. He sighed quietly, it would be a spectacle he knew, and he would have never done it if...if only it was him driving...but greater delay would definitely not be worth the risk, and there had to be a first to everything.

He extended his hand with the thought, turning on the park lights; and saw her frowning harder without looking at him, her eyes still glued to the traffic in her lane. He turned around bending over towards the back seat without explaining himself and she shot him a quick puzzled look before focusing her attention back to where it was meant to be. It did not however stop her from wondering what he was up to. The fact that he was half leaning against her was not making it any easier, she could feel his side frame digging against her shoulder, and did not know what irked her more, the unexplained proximity or its effect on her as she stiffened to his touch. The situation was mess enough without him adding to her discomfort. She shot him a glare which he obviously could not see, considering he was absorbed with rummaging through the back seat in a quest undefined.

"Armaan!"

she said at long last shooting him another look, an exasperated one this time,  just as he turned around, and for a moment neither could break the look as he stayed still, half bent over her profile outline on his side. A high beam reflected off the rear view from the car behind her closing in made her scrunch her eyes the next moment, and she looked away - the awkwardness touching a sudden peak. Armaan's steady gaze followed her fidgety eyes, which moved rapidly from one thing to the next, to everything in sight except him and her changing expressions before she managed to conceal them with a deep set frown of concentration. It was not until that moment that he realized how closely in contact he was with her, and had been for the past few minutes as he had been engaged in his search, looking away now he hastily moved back into his seat. The moment she felt the weight lift away from her shoulder she let out a breath which had been unconsciously held onto, but without meaning to, she found herself longing for the warmth of the contact, wishing it had persisted. It was followed by silent self reproach, when would she learn to have any control over herself in his presence, she cursed mentally. As she remained quiet avoiding the obvious question, he explained breaking the silence.

"I remembered you would have a rough duster somewhere under the seats...like before."

She continued looking ahead not chancing a glance at him, but his remark had only puzzled her further, not to mention the uncertainity of her feelings as his tone softened at the last two words. 

"So?" was all she managed, she would have stammered for sure had she attempted a more elaborate response.

"Can you open the sun roof for me? And start braking gradually when I tell you to, then change lane when you touch a 50 on the speedometer, nothing higher."

"Huh?"

She turned around to face him, her confusion too great to avoid even a look, and her eyes caught the pastel colored duster in his hand. As she looked at him again, he moved his hand forward and her eyes followed it as he pressed down the controls for the sun roof. The cold night wind gushed in making a sudden noise and as she turned back to him, she saw him get up in his seat and move half way up through the sun roof.

"Armaan what are..."

"SOS..." cutting her off he stated simply over the sound of the wind as the car raced at a highway usual of about a hundred miles an hour. She frowned for a second before her eyes widened in realization of his action.

"Alright start braking Ridhima, I got a signal from at least up to four cars behind us, the lane will slow down."

She obeyed his instruction, he definitely knew what he was doing, most certainly better than she did, and at the moment she was only to glad to pass him the controls and take orders. It was a descending sense of relief to have him take real charge, and she let out a sigh before realizing she did so...

******************
"Relax Ridhima, let him go, poor guy, he'll be stammering under your glare soon."

She turned around still frowning as she heard Armaan whisper close to her ear  from behind and he signaled the young mechanic to leave. Moving on he stood by her side and extended a cup of coffee towards her with a slanting grin, indicating her to take it. She did, without returning his smile though and looked ahead to where her car was being fixed, not wanting to retort to his pass. Not after he had gotten her out of the situation with such ease.

SOS, he called it, and thats exactly what it had been, the whole lane behind her slowed gradually as he signaled with the rough duster, and it was not more than ten minutes before she was in the rightmost slowest lane, getting out of it at the next exit. The wheel it turned out was flat, and lose. And opening the boot she cursed Gappu for not keeping the spare only to find that Armaan had already called to inform him and then consequently 911. The car was towed to her garage soon after, and they got a ride from the cops. She had not missed his persistent smile throughout the ride, and at one point when she mouthed an irritated 'what' at him he shook his head in response, smiling more. She rolled  her eyes, unable to think of what he could find so amusing at a moment like that, of course preferring to ignore the gnawing feeling that it was on account of the mockery she had made of herself. She concluded silence for then was her only refuge, and she looked out of the window at familiar spots flying past as barely recognizable blurs, not like she was looking at anything anyways, her mind almost vacant, at a loss of thoughts, or perhaps too many to handle?

Now she frowned at her coffee raising the cup to take a sip, then deciding otherwise, she turned abruptly to face him, and was not altogher surprised. He was smiling, his hands dug into the pockets of the denims as he gazed ahead, she knew not at what. She stared at him for a long second, before finally looking away. Could his humor at her cowardice last this long? Swallowing her pride she knew it had to be said now, she owed him one, and leaving it to a later moment would only require reintroducing the topic she would rather end it right away.

"Ahem..." she cleared her throat seeking attention, and he broke his unblinking gaze to face her, not quite as she would please, still smiling. Tentatively he cocked his eyebrows in question and she started in a low voice averting his direct look.

"I...er..." she paused uneasily "Thanks a lot."

Having spoken the words, she looked up to catch the flicker of something in his eyes, which disappeared before she could know what it was. Just the smile again, visibly widened by her words as he gave a slight nod in response. Somehow, unlike her anticipation for the worse his manner was neither condescending nor mocking. Looking back ahead of her she took a sip from her coffee. In fact it wasn't humiliation at all she thought with slight surprise. She sat down on the edge of the sidewalk, tired. And then although that was all she had intended to say, she suddenly had a alot more to tell. Either that or just that he was a patient listener, strange though that the latter was to serve as a motivation for her to speak her mind.
 
"The whole scene...back there...I mean...the cars zooming past, and the countless beams from the headlights seeming like blurs with the descending dusk, I just lost alacrity of thought...it was almost...almost intimidating and then I had this...this gripping apprehension that the wheel was..."

She paused running her free hand through the lose strands of hair and holding them back for a bit. Then letting go she shut her eyes and lowered both her head and her volume as she spoke on,

"Its so...unlike me...I don't know how to describe the feeling it was...like my nerves were wrought with the stress, they wanted to surrender and let the fateful occur. Not in peace though, I felt...so helpless, its never happened before." She sighed opening her eyes and stared at her coffee without focus.

"Ridhima..." he whispered, almost inaudibly, more concerned than smiling now. He realized he had unestimated the intensity of her stress. Silence from her implied more trouble than had been resolved, and she had remained so, for most part of the past hour - almost submissive. How had he concluded that to mean that her tension had been dealt with. In the engulfing sense of content of having been by her side, he had conveniently overlooked the unusual. 
 
"Ridhima..." he repeated sitting down beside her and she looked up, as his voice much closer this time disrupted her silent musing.
 
"I'm sorry," she said quietly before he could speak, "That was quite a spectacle I created, and you had to face the embarasment for no fault of your own," she said, fiddling with coffee cup in her hands.

Armaan was further disturbed by her words, he could not decide which emotion was dominant here, whether she was more embarased or guilty, or simply exhausted with stress. He looked at her for for several seconds then decided to take a chance, he had done it all evening now and each one had worked, it couldn't kill to push his luck just a bit more.

"Well I couldn't be any more glad about it, " he said in an intended tone, and she raised her eyebrows at him in question. "It saved me plenty of trouble." he further added with the hint of a lilting smile
.

"Like?" Even though she was incapable of reading between the lines, his manner seemed to announce there was no mockery involved here, she risked revealing curiosity.

Armaan stated in a solemn voice, "I have to be a fool to remind you of this but..." looking up into her eyes, "I showed up 45 minutes late for an hour long musical we were supposed to attend together, and you were waiting all of those 45 minutes, possibly longer...for me..."

He paused letting the last two words hang in the air, not posed as a question, but as a tentative stance, to observe her reaction as she looked away fixing the lose strands of hair behind her ear, then concentrating on stirring her coffee. Any traces of guilt that had remained for having made her wait were wiped away, instead there was a spreading happiness within him as she did not refute his claim, and although he wanted to jump out of joy he satisfied himself with a smile for then, which became smug in the effort to hide it when she looked up at him the next instant uncomfortable with the silence. He continued with a more earnest look,

"You possibly wanted to boycott me an hour ago Ridhima, and now we're talking, no arguments, you're actually want to thank me and apologize. Its like a stroke of luck! In fact..." he paused chuckling at a thought, "if I wasn't straight I'd go kiss the mechanic for his earlier act of negligence"

Despite herself Ridhima broke out giggling.

"Eeewww..." she said trying to sound disgusted but still laughing and looking at him she rolled her eyes.

Then shaking her head she looked back at her coffee again, grinning to herself. Armaan broke into a wide smile himself, and couldn't help staring at her. As she raised her head slightly, lifting the cup to her lips, he snapped away before she could notice, then he added,

"Yeh whatever. You have no idea what it takes to handle the angry you, I was certain I'd be at the receiving end of at least an hour long lecture today."

"That's why you got into the car uninvited?" she snapped back making a face at him.

"Someone's remembers to be grateful now, so much for being there. You know what, I think we should get back to the part you were thanking me."

She gave him a dismissive look choosing to ignore the retort as she drained the last of her coffee. Inwardly she was smiling and thanked him indeed, not just for the car, but for easing the strain between them almost effortlessly. She felt so much more relaxed...and happy. She lowered the empty cup. She could stay like this forever, even at the expense of having him make fun of her, if he would only be by her side. If...she sighed almost unnoticeably. Armaan didn't miss it. Hastily he spoke again.

"I'm having doubts about your license though. I mean you couldn't have passed the tests for an authentic one. Wait, do you even have one?"

He had planned on none of that, but didn't want the conversation to end, not yet, not ever. She shot him a frosty look and it only made him smile, as she fished in her wallet and flashed the ID before his eyes, smiling back at him now, triumphantly. He grabbed it from her hand before she could stop him.

"Nice pic." he said with a mischievous smile at her, pulling it higher out of her reach as she struggled to snatch it back.

She felt his breath on her neck, and could sense his unwavering gaze on her face which was but inches away from his own, and moved back hastily fixing the lose strands behind her ears again, trying to cover her blush under a grumpy look. He lowered his arm, the smile refusing to leave his face, as his eyes refused to leave hers, neither under his control, the reasons, both obvious and unknown would have to be left for sorting until a later moment.

"Lets see...the deceptive innocent look versus the seemingly harmless smile," she glared at him at he pointed out at the photograph on the ID, pretending to be deep in thought, "Which one was it that enticed them into issuing you a real license?"

She narrowed her eyes at his act of innocent curiosity, and muttered through gritted teeth, "I passed all my tests. It doesn't mean I can't make mistakes."

"Mistakes like that after almost a decade of driving?" It was hard to say which was more fake, the astonishment reflected in his expression or his tone.

"It happens in the world of mere mortals like me, which happens to exist beneath the realm of perfectionists like yourself. How hard is it for you to understand today was an exception to my usual driving skills?"

"Oh no no no! It isn't half as much about your faltering driving skills honey, even if its baffling how you did not sense the wheel yourself. Its more about refusing to believe a man who in his kind intentions tells you it isn't normal."

She looked at him with an air of finality. "Alright, you don't have to nail it in, I get the point. You skepticism about my license is well founded, I'm an awful driver, and if it wasn't for you, I'd be in some random ICU this second with broken limbs, perhaps some ribs, malfunctioning organs, loss of blood, basically thank you so much! Is there anyway I can ever repay?"

"There is," he stated simply, almost in the same single breath in which she had rattled off that long tirade.

Her look faltered from a defensive one, softening slightly at his reply, passive yet firm, and somehow solemn. She did not break the look however, trying to read his expression better, but he spoke saving her further effort to do so.

"I want you to know why I was late. Please hear me out?"

As she remained quiet, taken aback by his sudden request, he continued in a softer voice,

"Ridhima it was unexpected and I..."

"Its alright." she cut him off. Then looking him in the eye she said, "I'm sure you didn't intend it to happen Armaan, it must have been unavoidable. I just over reacted. I mean 45 minutes delay is unlike you and you wouldn't answer your phone, I was beginning to get worried and..." she paused looking away wondering if she spoke more than was needed.

"I still want you to know," he said quietly, sparing her any awkwardness at having confessed her concern.

She wondered why. She was ready to let the issue pass, why was he insisting. It didn't matter did he not see? Or did it? He had mentioned Lovely trying to explain earlier and she had not let him. She stayed quiet.

He watched her fiddling with the empty coffee cup giving no further response, and took it for an affirmative. She had not only waited for him, but also been worried, the usual Armaan should have been apologizing to rid himself of the guilt, he on the contrary felt content like he had not in quite some time now, her spontaneous words had given him a sense of security.

She had forgiven him without explanation, and better logic cautioned him against revealing any more information than was absolutely necessary, the more she would learn about his life, the more she was likely to alter her previously held negative opinions about him, which would he knew not lead either of them to any good. But he knew equally well it was what he wanted desperately, deep inside. His whole being refused to see sense, he felt a need within, to tell her that the concern was mutual.

He had to explain how Lovely had at the last minute refused to come along for the musical without her 'daughter', and had told him to call off the plan when he admitted having no extra child passes. Then how she had let go of the situation only when Chirag had, coincidentally called just then and
convinced Lovely with some far fetched tale about her daughter having demanded to see a movie with him. He told Armaan to drop her over at his place which he did. She had to know why he, Armaan couldn't have left Lovely all by herself at home, she had to know also about Chirag, being here in Chicago, and being Lovely's psychiatrist.
 
In fact she had to know nothing was real in his marriage except the outward appearing rituals, nothing ever had been from the very start. She had to know about his family, his ma and baba, about Muskaan and Rahul...there was no end to what she had to know, neither to what he could never tell her.

But for now he just wanted her to understand why he had been late, and how he had to struggle to be patient with Lovely, as inside the frustration at getting delayed kept mounting, how for each minute of the procrastination he was causing he cursed himself in his worry for her, Ridhima.
 
And so he told her - at least all that he could, while the real secrets still remained unsaid.

*******************
Ritu saw her unconsciously swirling the contents of the already cold cup of hot coffee lying before her. She was having to fight the urge to ask about the evening, she had to. Ridhima knew nothing. Neither that Ritu was aware of the social accidental encounters her friend had had with Armaan, nor that she had played a significant role in making them happen, nor that Chirag, Gappu and now as she had been informed even Minnie were part of this mission, a mission to reunite Armaan and Ridhima, mission ARMIDZ, they called it. And so she sat silent, hoping Ridhima would break the spell soon, and talk. She did not have to wait long.

"I can't stop being affected by him Ritu. I wish that I could, cause I should." Ridhim stated, with no direct refernce to the subject of her thoughts. Ritu looked up with hope surging within, then qucikly assumed her act.

"Him? You mean..."

"Armaan." Ridhima answered without letting her complete the question.

Ritu punched her fist in the air beneath the table, while maintaining the blank look and spoke again trying hard to sound disapproving.

"Armaan? I thought you resolved to treat him just like a client Ridzi. Besides you said he doesn't even show up for the appointments. Don't say you are affected even by his absence."

Common girl, say yes you are affected, by his not being there as much as his being. Admit now, that you care for what he does and does not, says and says not, listens and listens not. Just say you're madly in love with him, and I'll hug and tell you to get him cause so is he. Ridhima interrupted her progressive chain of thoughts speaking up again in a guilt ridden tone, her voice low.

"I actually...we met today for the musical, which we did not attend, and yesterday at Giordanos for dinner, and...oh we met at my office before all that yesterday morning cause I called him, cause I wanted him to explain what..." she paused then looked up in a sense of urgency, as Ritu quickly donned her shocked expression,

"You know Ritu, Lovely, I mean his wife, she has...uh...I forgot the name, its a mental disorder, something with an 'S'', she isn't normal, I mean not like me...and you" she added the last two words hastily. It took Ritu all her self restrain to look shocked at the information as she spoke, trying to sound as disbeleiving as she possibly could.

"What? You mean he ditched you for her despite how she is and you still care? You disappoint me Ridhima."

Ritu gave a silent pat, one each to herself and to Ridhima, for different reasons both obvious, as Ridhima nodded her head with her eyes lowered.

"I do. I can't seem not to. I tried hard, to be distant, to be professional, to be just friendly, nothing works. I care for him as much as I did five years ago, in fact I feel like I care even more now, definitely more than I ever would if he was just a friend. And his non chalance and neutrality helps in no way. I can't hate him, neither ignore him, he just...seems to have invaded my whole system, I can't flush him out? There is no way to get rid of him Ritu." pausing she sighed looking at her friend as she added in solemn resignation, "I don't even think I want to."

Ritu wanted to do the victory jiggle, containing her happiness was taking every bit of control, but the miserable look on Ridhima's face humbled her. She wrapped her hands around Ridhima's which held onto the coffee mug unconsciously seeking a warmth which it could no longer offer.

"Ridzi..." she started, this time not having to act earnest, "You love him." She did not pose it as a question. "Why do you refuse yourself the possibility that he maybe just as much in love with you?"

Ridhima lowered her head into her hands. Her own puzzling thoughts were furthered by the question Ritu put forth, and she missed out on the realization that her friend had a sudden change of mind and was now encouraging her to think in a direction she had earlier forbidden her to consider. Nor the fact that Ritu did not once ask her for any elaboration on half explained statements. For then she was too occupied to see the obvious unusual.

"Could he be in love...with me?" she whispered to herself and Ritu gave a small smile. If only you realized how much, she thought. Aloud she said,

"Follow your heart Ridhima, it wont mislead you, I promise." And she got up from there, to give Ridhima some solitude for thought.

***************
Unlocking the bolt, he quietly let himself inside, shutting the door gently behind. He walked inside, without turning on the lights, he didn't need any to find his way even with his attention elsewhere. Moving towards the steps climning up slowly his mind reeled back. Everything in the past 48 hours seemed to have been a step ahead not backwards. He smiled to himself. His face felt warm and he could sense a blush creeping in which would have been visible but for the darkness which engulfed it as he thought about Ridhima. It had been a series of meetings since yesterday morning, each better the one preceding it, he was still unsure if he should finally believe that it was all happening to him and real. He didn't know where these sudden hopes were leading him, or perhaps deep inside he did. But for once he did not want to be commanded by his wisdom. He just wanted to let go, to be swept into the tide of chances that were emerging every possible way, he wished to take a risk. Smiling wider, he opened the door to his bedroom. Making as little noise as possible he got himself a pair of night clothes from his closet and left to change.

Brushing his teeth he saw his reflection in the mirror he faced. Was he imagining or were his eyes looking brighter, less tired perhaps, although he had slept less hours in the past two days than he could remember ever since he graduated. There was an unusual shine he concluded, and the smile, he shook his head in disapproval at his reflection, the smile refused to leave even when covered in frothy toothpaste. He felt like a child.

"Armaan, dude, get a grip..." he mumbled brushing more rigorously than was needed, to employ the restless energy for something productive. When we finally got done he flashed his teeth wide with an inspecting look. Then shaking his head he muttered reproachfully looking away,

"Losing it..." Opening the door he was going to turn off the light in the washroom when his eyes fell on the bed. He narrowed his eyes to ascertain if he saw it right. The bed was indeed empty. Forgetting the light he walked towards the bed, still doubting his eyes but a closer view changed nothing. It was not only an empty bed, but also looked like it was kind of made, definitely not slept in. He frowned. Chirag had called to confirm that he had dropped off Lovely and not left her alone till she took her pills and went to bed. But then, where was she. An inkling of apprehension began to creep in and he went out to check the other rooms. The study, the guest room on that floor, then he ran down to check the kitchen, the living, the family room, even the pantry...there was no sign of her. Not bothering to about causing disturbance anymore, he turned on the every light that now came along his way, soon the whole house was flooded in a yellow glow.

"Lovely!" he said...then again and much louder this time..."LOVELY?"

At the very next thought he pulled out his mobile and speed dialed Chirag. Pick up the phone man, he thought with rising desperation, please pick up and say you know whats happening. At long last a sleepy voice answered and Armaan started off without giving it a break as he walked back into his room, turning on the only lights which were still switched off. As he paced the floor narrating details his eyes fell on the half open sliding door to her walk in closet. Tentatively he moved towards it, not hearing anymore what Chirag spoke on the other end, now completely awake.

His eyes widened in horror at what he saw...

"Oh my God..." the words left his mouth but were never heard since there was no voice. Just when he thought life was starting to loosen up...

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

oki...part7 at long last...phew...that was much delayed i cant deny....but its been freaking crazy, endless work...sore throat...bad mood thanx to the bloody medi's....anywaz...no more cribbing...hope u will enjoy the part...i tried to keep it paced, yet explanative enuf...enjoy reading....n plzzz the comments...or thank u click...watever u prefer....they really really really matter....

PM's tomorrow!




 


Edited by spln - 08 October 2008 at 10:10pm

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Posted: 08 September 2008 at 8:35pm | IP Logged
~Part 8~

He cursed. Within a second he cursed again, more forcefully this time as plausible scenarios were beginning to take form in his mind and he got into a rush. Racing down the stairs, taking two at a time and jumping over the last four onto the landing beneath he grabbed his jacket from the closet besides the main door, and the car keys lying on top of the chest next to it. Then turning the knob on the handle to auto lock mode he shut it behind him, harder than he normally would have, cursing the loud sound it made therefore, and disturbing in the process the silence of what would have seemed like a rare peaceful night.

For something about that night was not usual, or nothing was so to say. He would have noticed, if the ambiguity of circumstances was not as daunting as right then, that there was a spell of calm around quite unlike the city. The stars shimmered, too many of them visible for a downtown sky, mostly in irregular patterns; the moon was a bright almost half circle spreading a silvery haze to a considerable circumference around itself in the uniform blue black base of the sky, evened out for no irregularities from blotches of clouds, an uncommon sight for Chicago's night sky. Nor was there a sign of the piercing cold wind which was common both to the place and to the time of the year.

It was in his perplexed state of mind a definite bliss that Chirag paid attention to none of the details; he would have failed to appreciate the beauty of it anyways, it would to him have signified a lull before the storm. The forty five minutes drive
was marked by nothing worth a special mention and could easily be defined as the scissors paper stone game: either he was cursing, or just driving in silent musing, or hearing Armaan's voicemail the calls remaining unanswered as they had after that incomplete frantic call from him. One of the three happened at a time and there was no exception, ever.

********************
"AMMY..."

He stopped. After yelling his name all over the house when he finally found him in the closet hearing some sound, it was a sight which would remain with him forever and in the later times the memory of it would remind him that of all the unusual sights from that night that his eyes had seen but not registered this was the only one unprecedented for him, and something he would never see again. On the floor Lovely was lying still and by her side Armaan sat his head lowered oblivious to his surroundings. Chirag frowned and moved forward with unintentional caution, uncertain of what any sound from him might disturb here. His eyes darted between Lovely and Armaan and he forbade his mind to make any sense of what he was seeing. Slowly he lowered himself to kneel down forcing his gaze to stay on Armaan alone for the second.

"Armaan?"

He whispered, then realizing he was inaudible even to himself he moved his hand and shook Armaan by his shoulder, ever so slightly and repeated in a hoarse whisper of one who was starting to feel that ignorance of facts here may not be a bad idea.

"Armaan..."

As Armaan raised his gaze to face him, Chirag saw a listless look in the hazel eyes, a look which seemed to lack either recognition or comprehension or both of who and what. Chirag realized it was harder to face this than a look at Lovely and so he shifted his gaze to her.

"Where was she Ammy, you completely freaked me out. What happened?"

There was much more he wanted to say and ask, but couldn't dare to for the fear of what he would learn, so he put forth a vague question, a wide one, hoping to be spared the details as his mind was refusing to obey and not conceptualize what was happening here, or what had happened. He turned back to look at Armaan feeling a brushing moment and saw Armaan get off his spot by the wall. Moving towards Lovely, he pulled a random dupatta from the hangers, and pulled it over her body almost mechanically except a look which flickered on his face as he covered the face last. Chirag gasped unable to fight the obvious comprehension anymore.

"I killed her..." The words hung mid air between the two friends as they looked into each other's eyes.

********************
She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it not knowing what to say. Lowering first her eyes, then her body she slumped into the couch by her side a weakness creeping into her knees forcing her to seek support. Unexpected things can often result lack of reaction. But this was more than just unexpected, and so it wasn't lack of reaction she experienced, it was more like no reaction. Gapuu stood grim by her side his eyes not leaving her face, he cursed mentally to have to be the one to inform Ridhima of this, but there could be no one else Ritu had argued out with him when she informed him, since neither she nor Chirag could break the news to Ridhima, they were supposed to know nothing here; and Minnie? Would she not tell Gappu first? Armaan himself would never call Ridhima, not now anyways and so Gappu had no option but to give in. He wished he knew what to say now, but then she spoke up saving him the trouble.

"How?" she whispered condensing her many thoughts into a monosyllable.

"She..." he paused shifting his feet but Ridhima did not notice his discomfort. He took in a deep breath, "She hung herself. It was suicide."

He did not know how he brought himself to state that fact, it wasn't a new word to him, not even uncommon or rare, yet being up close with a reality as harsh, he felt the word struck him in its true essence the very first time, as more than just a word, and for once he felt he was after all still not an adult. It did not take you to be a 19 year old to know death was inevitable, in the least so when you lived in a world as unpredictable as now, when everything was up against the basics of humanity.

Yet when you faced it so raw, the death of someone who was more than an unknown name, you realized what it means to be no more. Never again. He knew her not beyond having met her at Minnie's house some random times as Mrs. Malik, and as Armaan's wife for the past couple of weeks, and yet he felt eerie in knowing he would not see her again. He did not long to, he did not care at all, why then was he trying to remember when he met her last, what she was doing then, how she had sounded and looked, and then he fought to keep the image of her smile away.

There was no bonding here, but he could not explain this strange sense of insecurity, he couldn't think of what made him so uneasy. His first encounter with death so real, perhaps. He was just unable to recover from the sinking sense of what even little children knew, those once gone can never come back...he was more troubled by the next fact, its an inevitable fate, everyone has to go. He struggled to fight images of his loved ones as he thought of death. Unconsciously he sat down besides Ridhima and hugged her tight. She maintained her silence, but somewhere her shocked nerves welcomed his embrace, and she hugged him back, the numb spell finally starting to wear off.

Lovely was dead. Suicide hanging. Armaan's wife Gappu had called her...Armaan...she had to meet him. He would need someone. Perhaps he would need her?

*****************
"Have this," shaking his head he looked up but she spoke before he could refuse.

"Its ginger tea, I know you don't have coffee." It was more of an assertion than a simply stated fact so he took the cup from her without further resistance.

"Thanks..." he mumbled getting up knowing tea was not all she came for, only the excuse for being there. "I think Keerti Baudi was looking for me in the..." He paused as she tugged onto his arm to make him sit again.

"Stay Armaan...please. Its not hard to observe the trend of how someone seems to be looking for you everytime I'm around, but I insist this is important. We need to talk."

"Ridhima can this wait?..." he paused sighing. "Alright. What do you want to talk about?"

He said in a flat voice giving her a direct non expressive look. He had ignored her for most part of the past 3 days, making conversation only when it was unavoidable, and limiting it to formal small talk. But she was persistent, refusing to be discouraged and he knew he couldn't evade this forever. Perhaps the best way was to get done with it, in a way so she would not call for a second round.

Ridhima sensed in his voice what she had in his actions for 3 long days. A tendency to avoid her, almost shove her off. He is shutting himself up Chirag had explained, and Ridhima did not disagree. But somewhere she felt the distance he maintained from her was greater than that from all others, and intentionally so. After much pondering she concluded she would have to take initiative, and with an unfailing resolve since he wasn't likely to make it any easier for her.

"Quite a few things actually," she stated in an unperturbed voice now. "How about starting with us. Why are you avoiding me?"

"You want to discuss us? How insensitive to the situation here can you possibly be? Anyways, just to satisfy your ego, no I'm not ignoring you. I've just been through not the best week of my life and I apologize if my hospitality was not at par with your expectations. I am human you do realize?"

Ridhima swallowed her reaction to his harsh words and tone. She had expected something similar to happen if she broached the topic, but that did not make bearing the brunt any less unpleasant. He was making no secret of how unwelcome this talk was for him, neither of how he was expecting her to drop the topic for good. That wasn't quite her plan though. She spoke again, her voice still calm.

"If I asked about Lovely and you, about facts of your married life,
if I said I want to know about what exactly happened, and why you are blaming yourself for it; you will say its none of my business. But I know the you and me bit here is linked to the you and her bit, and so do you. So I'm asking what I rightfully can. She did not die a normal death, it was suicide, and I'm not trying to rub in any of this Armaan. If you would answer straight, we could both be saved much frustration."

He was certain she knew her argument held conviction, but she couldn't have realized how close to facts she was. And that she said it without agitation even in the face of his cutting remarks was bad news for him, but he couldn't not marvel reluctantly at her sense of calm, the resistive curt exterior was getting harder to maintain. It was one of the reasons he had made it a point to avoid confrontation with her. She disturbed his placid facade like no one else. Of course the main reason to avoid her was his own guilt. He saw her looking at him now, unblinking, waiting for his response and lowered his head.

"Ridhima...its just...I don't know what I could possibly say, or what it is that you want me to..."

He said in a low voice, seeking a closure. She did not rest her look upon him even though he was clearly evading it, but she remained quiet. The physical void between them was filled with a wordless one, but it wasn't a comfortable silence as it offered no relief to either of them. Armaan knew the talk was best left alone, perhaps she had temporarily abandoned it. But after another minute of quiet he could take it no more.

"Ridhima...I didn't...I mean are you offended? Please don't be."

"Isn't that what you intended Armaan? You haven't succeeded yet."

He knew she meant it cause she was so balanced, she had not spoken one reckless word, not even a thoughtless retort. Suddenly he wished she would say something, perhaps thats what he needed, someone to tell him how unreasonable and how wrong he was, he was tired of self reproach now, it did not work on him anymore.

"If I haven't then say something...why do you refrain from further talk?" he said. There was the slightest hint of desperation to his tone Ridhima noticed. She looked him in the eye and said,

"I was saving you from what is evidently not going to be what you want to hear. What do you want me to say anyways, I'm not the one with secrets here Armaan, its you. You conveniently presume at every step that I will understand...that I should understand. And I think all this while in trying to make myself worth us I have made the biggest mistake in this relationship, by never seeking explanations. It couldn't have just escaped your notice how everything of real significance between us remains unsaid...always..."

Armaan raised his eyes and looked at her. Then slowly he nodded and looked away.

"You could have been saved perhaps the only miserable part of your life Ridhima, if we never met. I can't even say I wish I did not know you, but I wish you would not have had to know me back. I'm sorry. I think its my defining trait, loss and pain for those I..." he checked himself from saying what he was going to..."care about. I fear emotions in myself now, they spell premonition."

She got down to kneel on her feet before him looking up into his eyes. Then holding his hands in her own she spoke in a solemn voice.

"You told me once I mattered more to people than I realized, its not any different for you. Why do you refuse people who care for you a chance to be a part of your life, and of everything in it. Its not just about how much you suffer trying to cope with everything alone, but just as much about how they suffer in knowing you don't trust them enough."

She didn't break the look, and for once neither did he. For several long moments that is, before he looked away sighing. Then he withdrew his hands out of her grasp and shook his head slowly at first, then more vigorously.

"You don't see it do you Ridhima, the full picture..."

"I can't Armaan, I don't know what the full picture is." Her persisting calm was strangely making him restless. It was like they had reversed roles.

"Alright. She committed suicide. You want to know why? I am clueless why you want to know, and worse lost about why I am telling you any of this. She left a note. It said she couldn't bear to have me live through the obligation of such a marriage, she thought I was not happy..."

"Was she wrong? Were you happy?" Ridhima cut him off. He opened his mouth to reply then shut it. Then crossing his fingers he interlocked them with force, it appeared to Ridhima he was trying to hold back an outburst.

"Was I happy? Does it matter? I was not with her that night when she had a depression attack because I was happy being with you. It cost me her life Ridhima, and that's definitely not making me any happier than before. The wedding was arranged by my family but I consented for it."

"And why did you Armaan?" she shot back this time, still calm, but her voice held much more force.

"Because I..." for a second she thought he had finally let go of the restrain on himself as he raised his volume, but he paused looking away and she knew the moment was lost and so was the confession after coming so close to it. She waited for him to complete anyways.

"I had my reasons."

The strain in is voice was evident, he must have known that just as well, for he got up abruptly.

"I need to get going Ridhima, there are some pending calls to answer back. Thanks for the tea." As he walked away, she stared at his back for a whole minute but he did not turn back to look at her. Not that she had expected him to. He never had turned back to see how she was doing after him. She sighed, tired herself and slowly she got off her feet to sit down completely, crossing her legs and lowering her head into her hands.

"Atleast you know your reasons to have married her. I know neither yours to have left me behind, nor mine to have never moved on." she whispered as silent tears traced down from her cheeks until she could taste the familiar saline tinge on her lips, as they had countless times since the day he walked out of her life. Then abruptly she lifted her face and wiped her tears forcefully, getting up she followed in the direction Armaan had gone.

*******************
"I can't stand it Ritu. He is just building this inpenetrable shield all about himself and I can't connect with him anymore. I thought Ridhima would, but he refuses to let her reach out to him."

Ritu looked at him as he paced the floor of the Armaan's study. She had no solace to offer him, being at no greater ease than herself. She sat in silence and that was indication enough of her despair. He paced more, the frustration was growing upon him, cause his speed and force increased with each time he walked the length again. Ritu spoke at last.

"Please sit down Chirag. This isn't helping us anymore." He shot her an agitated look.

"Well what is going to help us then Ritu? Lovely is dead and out of the way, just as you had hoped. But dare I ask, why you don't look delighted my dear? Then again, how could you, it hasn't brought them closer, only increased the rift between them like never before."

"Chirag...please! You can accuse me if that makes you feel any better, at least one of us will be relieved of some stress. But you know I had never wished for things to get this ugly, I was seeking happiness for them, just like you, not circumstances as harsh. I wanted to bring back Armaan, and his love into Ridzi's life, I never saw the stakes so high. We didn't intend for it to happen this way you know it. Do you really think I deserve the blame?"

"I'm sorry..." he mumbled looking away, then looking back at her he said, "No you don't. No one can be blamed. It was her medical condition. I wish Ammy would understand that too, I can't take the way he holds himself responsible anymore. His negligence he said it was, of not having been with her. It almost makes me wish we had not set them up for the musical date that evening. Here we were trying to bring them closer so they accept their feelings, and it..."

"YOU WERE TRYING TO WHAT?" Their eyes widened in horror hearing Ridhima's voice but reeling around they saw not just her. Armaan stood there too. Chirag sought to read the expressions on his face, but it seemed more blank than ever.

"Ridzi...Armaan..." Ritu started..."We can explain. It is not what..."

"You don't need to."

Armaan spoke up finally, his voice revealed nothing more than his expressionless face and in addition to Chirag and Ritu, Ridhima shot him a shocked look too. He ignored the attention, or appeared to do so at least said simply.

"Chirag I need to wrap up a lot of paper work here, legal and financial. Do me a favor, book me tickets for whatever is available at the earliest after a week from now?"

Chirag spoke up despite himself before Armaan could complete, "Tickets?"

"Yes, for home. Its hardly an announcement I can make through a distant call. One way for Kolkota."

As he walked out of the room for a second the shock of his declaration made Ridhima forget she was upset with the other two and she asked in an uncertain voice looking at Chirag, "One way?" But she got no reassurance as Chirag stood stunned himself, Ridhima's question playing in his head along with Armaan's words.

*********************
It was a year now since he had been gone. Chirag stood slightly stopped forward as his hands held onto the railing of his balcony. So much had changed in this year he pondered in retrospection, as he did every day since Ammy left. It had not been all for the bad. Gappu and Minnie were a steady couple now, still young to be engaged formally, but there was hardly a doubt they were meant to be together for a lifetime, Ritu and he were already bound that way, after they tied the knot 3 months ago.

The empty spot for his best man in the wedding however reminded him every second of Armaan. Ridhima's happiness for them did not hide the void in her life, she had not pressed any issues with him or Ritu after the moment Armaan announced his plan to leave for India. Something in her had died he had known now for a while, from the instant the fact started to sink into her that day about a year ago. She had found her escape in pushing herself into work to extreme limits, that was all she ever did now, or talked about anymore. One could think the professionalism may have turned her into a cold mechanical being, but fact was she had become a stoic person, resigning listlessly to the fate she was condemned to, expecting nothing out life anymore, nothing at all.

He heard from Armaan every once or so in a while, but they talked of anything except what he was doing, where he was, or if he ever planned to return. In fact he did not even have the details of his essential contacts, postal or telephonic, there was none permanent Armaan would say to change the topic in a subtle way when he would ask, but Chirag saw his firm resolve to not reveal one, if there was any.

He would analyze in every moment of solitude whether it was the reuniting plan for Armaan and Ridhima which could be blamed for this permanent separation with no further hope. He seeked answers, without caring anymore about whether they justified his decision to have supported Ritu in her plan or gave him severe pangs of guilt, but the answers never came. He wondered if he would indeed die without putting the issue to rest ever, he hoped not. If there was one wish he desperately wanted for to come true, even if it was the last he could ask for, he wished for a fair chance to rectify the unintentional mistake. While Ritu put efforts to revive life for Ridhima in any way that was possible, just to have her move on, Chirag lived by the faith that his wish would come true when the time was right.

***********************
~Part 9~

"Wasn't that fun?" Ridhima smiled, Ritu's excitement was infectitious, and never fading as far as shopping was concerned.

"You have no limit do u Ritu, and today apparently neither does your card."Ritu shot her a mysteriously triumphant look.

"What?" exclaimed Ridhima narrowing her eyes.

"I must have forgotten to mention Ridzi, its Chirag's card!"

"Why did I not guess?" Ridhima replied in a laid back voice rolling her eyes upward. "Where to next Mrs. Richie Rich?"

Ritu chuckled, then grabbing her arm said grinning, "Food court! I'm famished. Ridzi this is so amazing, we have to do this more often. I feel like we are having girls time after like ages."

Ridhima's smile faded slightly, but she pulled it wide again for Ritu's benefit. They got seated at a table inside P.F.Chang's. Picking up the menu, though she needed it not at their favorite Chinese chain eat out, she thought how right Ritu was. She had been avoiding all social calls for many months now. Not that she had intended to, not from the start of this withdrawl phase at least. Infact when Armaan left, after the initial shock she had felt defiant, deciding to move on, this time for good. But it hadn't been real. Not anymore than his presence which she felt around her all the time. Gradually she lost the defiance, following a consequential retreat from much activity telling herself initially that she needed a while of solitude, which with time gained permanency in her life.

She knew nothing was the same, it had not been from that fall in London when she first saw him. If only she could delete the whole phase and be what she had been prior to that. Ridhima Gupta, 22, living life for the love of it, doing everything she did simply cause she wanted to, and in her heart harboring the dream of every girl at that age- to meet the man of her fantasies and live happily ever after. She expected to find him unexpectedly when she went for a party, or when they had Indian nights, during camping trips or at ball room dancing classes. Sometimes she would humor incredible imaginations of meeting him if her car broke down in a snow storm, or of a random guy she would accidentally spill her coke over at the movie hall.

Even so when she was informed, more often than not about certain someones who admired her, or when she was asked out directly, she mostly refused. Why? She couldn't say but she didn't feel them click as she imagined she should feel. And then it happened, the spark, the moment, the first sight, when she had caught him staring at her. It seemed like he had been willing her for something and though she turned away frowning the intensity of his gaze was hard to resist and she had looked back, acknowledging him and seeing him smile in response had filled her with a strange sense of content. And so it had began.

"Start with the usual Ridzi?"

She snapped back to now and saw a girl waiting for the order as she stood beside their table. In a moment of realization she felt herself faintly smiling, she nodded hastily lifting the glass of water to her lips and heard Ritu say,

"We'll go with the crispy green beans for now, and double pan fried noodles with Chang's spicy chicken for main course. Let that come like..." she looked at Ridhima in question so she replied, "Give us 20 minutes after the appetizers." The girl nodded with a smile and left.

"Ridzi!" Hearing the sudden hushed excitement in her voice, Ridhima followed Ritu's gaze.

"What?" She said, turning back to face Ritu unable to figure what had caught her attention. Ritu shot her a hopeless look and whispered in a reproaching voice,

"WHAT? Can't you see that hunk in white? Hes showing more interest than can be passed for as casual. In fact I am certain now I saw him at least at the last three stores we visited if not more. Ridhimaaa...I'm talking to you girl, are you going to say something?"

"Sure, whenever you're done with your part, or need a break, I'll fill in with my talk. And just for records, you're now officially married. Even if you've been taken over by Satan himself and have suddenly stopped loving Chirag for whoever that jerk in white is, don't even dream of ditching him, at least not till he clears off the debt on the card you've been tossing around at every dam store tonight." Ridhima replied in practical sarcasm. Ritu jerked her head at her making a face.

"Quit the worthless humor Ridzi. Its not me, its you hes been stealing glances at. I'm certain. OMG hes just staring here now with no intention to hide it anymore Ridzi, this is so exciting!"

And saying so, much to Ridhima's horror Ritu waved at whoever this stranger was. Wide eyed, in instant reaction Ridhima turned around hoping none of this was happening. It was. There he sat, a guy in white, staring at her indeed she thought as their eyes met. He smiled at her warmly in that brief exchange, but it made her frown, and she turned back to the table.

"Cut it out Ritu, please. I'm in no mood to entertain Chang's customers to free drama."

Before either could say another word, the girl serving them brought the starting dish. "Here you go ladies, enjoy the beans. Twenty minutes and I'll be back." With that she left them alone again.

"Be a sport Ridzi. He seems like a nice guy."

"Nice guy? You're the one who's certain he's been stalking us, now hes gawking shamelessly, thats your definition of a NICE GUY?"

The girl serving them was back again, sooner than they expected. "Excuse me miss, " she started looking at Ridhima who had to work at appearing unaffected as she looked back with raised eyes, "That gentlemen over there would like to buy you both drinks. He suggested the Red Lush wine for you, " she paused putting the wine glass before Ritu, "and the Red Soft and Tangy for you" For a moment Ridhima was too shocked to see the glass of wine being placed before her, yet it did not need her to turn around and see who this generous gentleman was. Then she heard Ritu speak,

"That is so courteous of him. Please thank him on our behalf." Ignoring Ridhima's incredulous look she added on an impulse, "Actually, why don't you ask him to join us, he seems to be seated alone, unless hes waiting for someone of course."

The girl nodded, with a wide smile of comprehension and left before Ridhima could utter a word. She spoke however the moment she was gone.

"RITU...what the hell was that about?"

"What? Stop behaving like those uptight maidens from the seventeenth century Ridzi. The man is a thorough gentleman."

Ridhima shook her head in frustration now. "Gentleman? Nice? Have you lost it? His persistence is unnerving and you call that his charm?" she said in angry whisper.

"Ridzi you're over reacting. What are you getting mad at anyways, the fact that hes interested in you, or that he shows it with all due courtesies?"

She did not get her reply, as at that moment a deep set voice interrupted them.

"Hello ladies. May I express my gratitude in being received so graciously by two such gorgeous women."

"Save it for elsewhere, you're going to be more than just disappointed with the charms here."

Ridhima stated in a flat voice. Then lifting her glass of water she sipped again. She could have sworn Ritu wanted to kill her that moment, but she did not feel any guilt inside. She initiated nothing, but she was also not about to take this in the stride.

"Please, don't mind my friend she takes her time with strangers. I'm Ritu. Wont you have a seat."

Ridhima was almost tempted to say a no on his behalf, but much to her disappointment he did just the opposite, taking the seat next to Ritu, facing her. Ridhima concentrated on unwrapping her silverware. Out the corner of her eye she did not miss his smile as he spoke.

"Pleased to meet you Ritu, I'm Vivek." Then turning to face Ridhima he added, "I apologize to make this uncomfortable for you Miss..." He paused waiting for her to complete. Ritu opened her mouth to play the intermediate again, but not soon enough this time as Ridhima spoke first.

"Miss none-of-your-business. But don't bother about the inconvenience, I don't intend to keep you guilty about it another moment." With that she got up. "Excuse me please." And she left. Without so much as a glance at Ritu. She was bound to not be pleased, and would have to be faced later. For then Ridhima could not stay on the table another second.

******************
"Ammy be reasonable. Its just for a week. You want him to have to back out for something as trivial?"

"Chirag I did not say no. He can stay with the family in Kolkota. Daadu will take care. Rahul and Muskaan are also home for Durga Puja. With me is such a bad idea, my schedules and locations vary unpredictably."

"How the hell did they let you graduate in psychology dude? I thought you knew the boy enough. He isn't a 'me', he is so 'you'. Generation gap, communication gap, cultural disparity, a language he doesn't know...have you forgotten how alien the feeling of being on a new land is and among complete strangers? And for him to have to go through it when you are so close by, is it so hard for you to be of help to people anymore?"

"Chirag you don't understand..."

"I do. I understand more than you ever credit me for. Listen Ammy, he will be married to your niece in few years time, will you refuse to see the boy because he is your beloved's nephew?"

"Chirag! Where the hell are you dragging this?"

"I'm not, you are. Ammy I learned my lesson a year ago. I want to keep Ridhima out of this as much as you do cause I want to be nowhere in picture between her and you anymore. But this is about Gaurav. Have you completely lost the ability to think without a bias?
Please Ammy, its but for a week, while they arrange his dorm space, he just stepped into the program later than usual. He was skeptical about the whole thing, but when I mentioned your name as a tentative option he jumped to the idea. Now he's excited not just about the camp, but about seeing you, its like this admiration he holds for you, placing you on a higher pedestal than the usual lot of us. He knows nothing he should not, and it would considerate of you to leave the kids out of that which we rendered inevitable for ourselves."

Several moments of silence followed. From Chirag it signified a relentless streak, offering no escape. He knew if he spoke and softened Armaan would grab the chance without a second to it. It wasn't what he intended, and it wasn't what happened.

"Alright. I'm not in Kolkota these days, but within Bengal. I'll take a week off." It took Chirag all of his self constrain to not yell in glee. Instead he said,

"
I'd hate for you to break his spell Ammy, just because you refuse to let go of an obstinate whim, I'm glad you opt for the better. You wont regret this I promise."

Somehow Armaan didn't need Chirag to spell out the 'this' he would not regret nor what it was that he promised him, he knew it was beyond what the word claimed. But he knew just as well he had no choice, he was rarely left any.

"Hmm" he grunted resigning to the situation. But inside he knew it wasn't plain resignation. Unless he refused honesty to self, it was evident there was more than a resigned obligation here. It was...partly wishful; or even more that than the former? I adore the boy and I've missed them all so much he argued in his head...especially...He wondered how much of this set up she alreday knew? And how much of her consent it had. It was undeniable chance to...He was interrupted.

"Thanks man! A week off can't kill whoever your mysterious employers or clients are anyways."

"Hmm..." Again, thought Chirag, if hes affected half as much as I hoped for, hes doing a wonderful job of letting nothing on. Perhaps his reaction nerves were never quite activated...birth defect? Rolling his eyes he spoke again

"Er..Ammy, I definitely need a contact number now, you can give me whichever it will be for the next fortnight. I mean his family...They will want to know and I'm answerable so..."


This had to be a plan. Atleast there was no way it could all be as innocentally incidental as it was made to appear. Relentless scheming, Armaan conceded, Chirag had left no loopholes, except if Armaan was to turn him down with a blatant no on the whole idea. And he had already missed that chance, with all but a weak resisitance to say the least.

"Give them the home number. We will be staying there." He spoke aloud, in his head the conflicting emotions was charging up for a battle. Chirag interrupted again.

"Awsome! I'll email you the ticket but just so you have a rough idea, he's arriving 6AM, next Wednesday, IST, Delta Airlines at the
Netaji Subhash Chandra..."

"The international airport, I got it. Leave something for the email dude." Armaan interrupted shaking his head at how Chirag at memorized the details. But... "Wait...I thought you said the plan was to be confirmed only after I gave my assent, what's with the ticket?"

In his rising optimism, Chirag made haste in trying to not allow Armaan any chance to change his mind, ironically he gave him just that now. He slammed his fist into his forehead.  It wasn't that he expected Armaan to speculate nothing fishy, it was more about making it impossible for himself to be questioned about it. He
chuckled uncertainly, making time and thankful that phones could transfer only sound, not images of those in conversation.

"Ahem...Do you wish for me to lie?" he asked tentatively.

"No. I want facts."

"He asked me about the chances and I told him to go ahead and buy the ticket."

"What if I had refused?"

"If you really need me to answer that one Ammy, I knew you wouldn't...eventually. Don't ask me how next." Chirag said, and they both chuckled despite themselves a second later.

"Well thank you, I appreciate the honesty. I guess I don't make much of a mystery of how easy it is to talk me into stuff." Armaan retorted. Chirag could almost see him smile, it made him happy.

"Don't claim all the credit, my argument was reasonable and I presented the case well."

"Yeh whatever...listen, I need to go. Email me the details right away. Infact, can you pass me Gaurav's id too"?

"You got it. Ammy...a quick one...Do you miss us?"

"Yes." He said quietly. "And end of rapidfire. Sleep well, I know you will after killing my peace."

"You know me well then. Take care mate. We miss you too."

He heard the tone as the line went dead, and then he heard the front door open.

"Honey you're home? Guess what, I was just talking to Ammy and..."

"Chirag I had a long day and I'm hungry. And...Armaan is not going to be the best topic of discussion over dinner, leave him for another time."

With that she walked towards the kitchen. He frowned and followed her with his narrowed eyes. then turning back he saw the mass of shopping bags dumped all over the couch and shook his head with a grin.

"Steals my heart, owns my credit card...and the woman is still scowling? What is a man supposed to do?" he muttered. Then ruffling his hair he followed her into the kitchen. He was on cloud 9. Tonight anything you ask for sweetheart, he thought smiling.

********************
Putting the receiver back onto its hook, Armaan held onto it for a couple long moments.

"Ridhima..." the name escaped his lips in a whisper as his thoughts went to her, yet again.

The sound of a knock brought him out of his reverie as he realized the queue outside the PCO was getting longer. He gave a weak apologetic smile to the man who was waiting next in line after him on his way out of the stall. It was early morning and h did not have to be at work until an hour later. He decided to take a walk. It was the environment of Shantiniketan that had drawn him to itself since the moment he laid eyes on it at the age of 6, It had grown on him in subsequent years of visits while his Daadu was a senior Professor of music at Vishwa Bharti. His favorite spot was Chatimtola, for some reason he felt a strange sense of calm to sit there under a particular local Saptaparni tree for hours and do nothing but think...in rare moods he wrote.

Much about the tree brought him a sense of peace, even though it wasn't an ideally shady option, most of all the fact that it was evergreen. He felt a settling comfort in knowing that he could come back to it again and again as many umber of times as he wished, and it would be there for him. Then sense of an everlasting support had been rare for Armaan, and with this trees he felt that attachment. Now walking through the gates of Chatimtola, he found his favored spot, and as always it transported him back to the early days.

He remembered how Daadu had explained that graduating students from Vishwa Bharti received leaves of Saptaparni. When he asked why he was told it was tradition, but in later years he believed it had something to do with the other name of he tree, Alstonia Scholaris. He liked to fancy the idea that graduating with the leaf were signs of being a true scholar and it dwelled inside him like a secret dream; he never had been the one to express much of what went inside his head.

When he did seek permission to apply to the school for his undergraduate degree, Daadu had supported him wholeheartedly, ma and baba would have if they had been there, muski had been happy simply cause he was, kaki was not interested enough to express an opinion, and kaka...Armaan kept out of his way as much as he could, since the day he had learned facts from ma as she lay on a hospital bed, in her last moments before the cancer took her away forever. He was 12 at that time, far too young to have borne the loss of his second parent, the knowledge of an altogether new found identity made it no easier. He had learned baba was not his real father. He was his kaka's and ma's son, the same kaka who was also responsible for the accident which his killed his baba two years preceding his mother's death.

The immediate effect would have been daunting, but for the loss which engulfed him, the haunting sense of being an orphan overwhelming. But as time passed the gravity of facts seeped through and his tender years lost what little of childhood he had possessed until then. If he had been considered the meek child of the house before, between him and Muski, he added to the accolades. He could now have passes for almost a mute, speaking only when spoken to, never an irrelevant word.

Undergrad in Shantiniketan however, revised much in his thinking. The outdoor teaching pattern, one of its kind in the world, did him potential wonders as his amorphous thoughts began taking form and he gained on inner confidence. Among his best memories from those three years of study in philosophy, prime were his regular trips to the Tiger Hill top, the drive higher via Darjeeling exhilerating no matter how many times he did it, alone or with friends. He would go much before sunrise to watch the moon dip down beneath horizon, going lower, below the height of the hill top he was on, and it was a sight that warmed him on the inside, so much that he would forget about the freezing cold around him.

Then the sunrise followed soon after, its first ray hitting the tip of the peak of K2 across from it on the opposite west side forming a pinkish light spot on the snow white surface. The glow would then grow  like a petal of a flower changing colors from pink to orange to yellow both on the snow clad top of K2, and on the east side facing it where the sun was rising from among other peaks, which appeared lower only before the majesty of the world's second highest mountain peak across them. The Nathula pass seemed less of a international territorial border in those moments early morning, and more like the path to heaven he wished to travel someday. He felt a captivation to the scene like none other.

The reality however was never far, Kolkota was all of 180 Kms away from school, and so was the home he wished wasn't his. His love for Daadu and Muski would bring him back, each break, and just before leaving he would plead to them to visit him at school instead for the next one. But that was one thing Daadu remained firm about, holidays had to be spent at home, with family. It was during second year that he decided he would go further away, to a place which would help him grow out of the ghosts of his past.

He decided to get a Masters, education he knew was one thing he would not be refused even if that meant going away from home and he exploited the knowledge of this fact. Final year in undergrad was marked with preparations to act upon his decision and at last he was all set for Cambridge. He didn't know if it was the right step, but he had to get away this once, and while Daadu asked him to reconsider only once and never again, Muski tried every way possible to make him stay on. Eventually she too gave up, for the sake of a happiness he was seeking from this odyssey. And he reached London, a fine fall day which seemed to have dawned only to herald a new phase in his life. And thats where he met Ridhima.

Armaan sighed as her name crossed his mind again. Leaning against the trunk of his tree, he liked to think it was his, he looked upwards at nothing. His mind went back to his conversation with Chirag, to those he left behind in Chicago...to her. He had pushed until later an analysis of his acceptance to having Gaurav over, and now he knew there was no more escape. He could tell himself all that he wanted but the truth was singular. He had been unable to resist the temptation to reopen a path back to the one he loved. Despite having left her himself, despite having decided he would never revisit any of what was past both physically and in his head, despite having immersed himself so completely in work, offering his voluntary services at Shantiniketan free of cost, despite having severed all links there were not even sharing his contact information.

But one real chance to repair the link, and he had done nothing much to resist it. Just like those few random times when he called Chirag, unable to fight the urge to not do so. He did not dare call her directly, he knew not what to say, or what was left to say. In a moment of impulse he had decided to come back to India forever, and no amount of remorse in retrospect could give him the courage to face her ever again. He remembered the conversation they had share prior to this reaction, over and over, and realized he had lost himself the one chance he had. But it had been a weak moment, Lovely's death, Ridhima's confrontation, and a guilt inside he could not subdue.

Overhearing Ritu and Chirag's conversation had just been the spark, his mind had already been searching an escape and in that second he said what came to him, words he could not reel back upon later. Not that he didn't wish to, it was what he wished for more than anything else, but he could not overcome the fear and so it remained. When Chirag explained the scene of Gaurav's suddenly planned visit, Armaan initially had been at a loss of reaction. But it had seeped in, and he had been unable to say no. He could not face Ridhima, had not been able to in a whole year the despair growing worse each day.

But interaction with Gaurav would be altogether different. He was her nephew, and there was much more to the relation than just a common bloodline. He recalled at this moment his first encounter with the boy at the florist, and it made him smile. The evening that had followed flashed through, and Armaan shut his eyes, the memory of her face as she laughed sitting next to him a still image in his head. His smile deepened greatly, and several seconds past he opened his eyes. The scene before him seemed to have become better than what he remembered it as from the moment before he closed his eyes. Running his hands through his hair he shook his head vigorously. Then looking ahead at nothing he muttered,

"Why now God? I don't understand what it is in my life that holds you back so much, you refuse to lose interest and refuse to let me be..."

Sighing he glanced at his watch, it was almost time for him to go. A first year student had booked an appointment for counselling for 15 minutes from now and he did not want to be late. Just before leaving he turned around to face the tree, moving closer with a solemn look he spoke to it, caressing the bark with his thumb,

"I love her still...and always will...did I tell you her name? Its Ridhima. I wish she could meet you...maybe..." He stopped. Then turning around abruptly he walked away.


******************
"Sweetheart...at least tell me how was shopping?"

Ritu had been silent refusing to answer his questions, the mention of Ridhima's name had drawn him a sharp look from her, and added to her reaction to the mention of Armaan made him guess the evening had witnessed another thwarted effort from her. Ritu now shot him a glare, then replied,

"Is it hard to guess from my mood?" Chirag shook his head lightly as she turned back to the food. Then walking up behind her he encircled his arms around her waist and resting his chin on her shoulder he mumbled,

"It would be easy but I'm confused between the two sights, the look on your face, and the countless shopping bags outside."

Ritu tried to free herself, but when he would not let go, she simply turned around in his arms to face him, frowning hard.

"If you fear the bills, I can pay them myself, I don't need you to..."

She couldn't speak more as he kissed her, quick, yet firm and full on her mouth. Her anger changed to surprise, and before she could react he lifted her off her feet and took her back to the living room. Putting her on the couch he winked at her and said in a cheeky voice,

"I know this will be hard for you to follow, but stay put, I'll be right back." and she saw him go towards the kitchen, her curiosity taking over.

He returned a couple of minutes later with a bag of Doritos and another packet in his hand, which she recognized as the one containing their wedding albums and video dvds, the combination of them puzzled her further. Chirag spoke, sparing her further thought to the confusion.

"That is for your hunger...for now, we can go eat out in a while if you wish too. But before that theres something else." He snuggled next to her and opened the album.

"I never got around to asking you which ones your favorite Ritu?" She raised her eyes but since he did not pay attention to her reaction she looked into the album herself. It was opened to a beautiful portrait photograph of her. "I think that must be it..." he quipped, then looked at her for confirmation.

"Why do you think so?" she asked drawn by this new curiosity now.

"You look gorgeous, and thats all girls care about when approving pictures!" he replied grinning in mischief. She narrowed her eyes, then stuck out her tongue at him his smile beginning to reach her.

"Its not my favorite, and thats a bad criteria anyways. I always look good in all the pictures." she stated with a smug authority.

"Aawww...really now? What about this one?" It was a picture with her mouth opened wide as Gappus stuffed a huge piece of cake into it. He broke out laughing and she elbowed him in the ribs grinning herself now.

"Whatever! Thats not my favorite either anyways."

"Yeh apparently not, for obvious reasons." He said between chuckles as she made a face at him. Then taking the album out of his hands she turned a few sides up and down until she came to a page with the two of them, where they had not posed for a photograph, but had been caught looking into each other's eye. Her cheeks were infused with a blush, an effect of more than just make up, while Chirag looked caught in the moment.

"Thats my favorite," she claimed happily, looking at him with a cheerful smile. He smiled back at her, warm and deep, pulling her into a hug he kissed her hair and whispered,

"Love you honey."

"Love you too," she whispered back, then added looking at him, "What's your favorite?"

"Anything with me and you my lady...it always looks perfect." he said in a dramatic way. She gave him a side smirk at his cheesy attempt and flipped through a couple of pages before she quipped again,

"Thats all you got albums for?" He shook his head, then flipping through the pictures he came upon one of him and Ridhima. He stopped, then opening the packet next to him he took out a much smaller, older album and flipped through it, pulling it out of Ritu's sight as she frowned. Then he smiled, at whatever it was that he saw in the picture before him. He lowered the album and placed it next to picture from their wedding. Ritu's frown deepened. It was an older photograph, she guessed some 4-5 years old, of him and Ridhima.

"Chose one?" he asked in response as she looked at him for explanation.

Ritu looked at them. Neither had a striking difference in terms of essential features, and they were certainly dressed for a photograph in the more recent one, the old one looked like something clicked at some random moment with nothing to occasion it. Ritu looked carefully, the recent one was picture perfect, and yet something about the older one was captivating, she concluded it was their smiles, they had not posed, it was a natural emotion reflecting on the glossy sheet. She looked at him and he was waiting for her response.

"This one," she said at last pointing to the old one, "Its a natural"

"Its from the day Armaan and Ridhima went for their first unofficial date. It took me all night to talk him into asking her out for a casual coffee, cost me a B on the homework due next day." Ritu frowned, but he continued, "She said yes of course, and when they got back she came over to collect some papers from our room. It turned into a much longer fun filled evening as she cooked us dinner, and we ate home made Indian food after ages. It ended in the crazy photo session before Armaan dropped her back."

Chirag paused and looking at Ritu he saw she was still frowning but her look had softened. He gave her a faint smile and continued.

"You're right Ritu, this picture is definitely better, and much more natural, because we did not have to smile in effort for the camera. My happiness on our wedding was boundless, it was the most special day of my life, and Ridhima was thrilled beyond words you know it. But we both missed the one person who should have been there, as my best man for the evening, and the man of her life. No one can fill his void, neither for me as my friend, nor for her as the man she loves. And the love will come back into her life, trust me."

She looked at him, his expression solemn and voice low but steady. Slowly she lowered her eyes to the picture of them from years ago, then looked back to him and asked in a whisper, "You promise?"

"I do..." he said with a smile of relief an pulled her into a hug again. "Trust me..."

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

"Kolkota..." he stated, the intention in his tone a contradiction to the nonchalance in his actions as he occupied himself with untying the laces of his soccer studs.

"Kolkota? I thought you said it was going to be London." He looked up at Anjali as she asked what he had expected and hoped she would.

"Yeh mum. Kolkota. It will be an ideal peer assistance experience. London is replete with football fanatics, without me having to go and instill the love of the game among people there. The challenge is in invoking the passion among those who have missed it for the most and are ready to try a new something. Kolkota my coach said, is a city of rare Indians who can think beyond the expected realms of cricket, a non trivial number of them actually aspire to play professional football. If a revolution has to be started, I can't wait to be a part of it. I volunteered for India, over Britain, and they found me a spot.

Gappu rattled off the defense of his choice of city without having to give much thought, he had done enough of that with Chirag in the last one week until they were certain it was an impeccable line of reasoning. His focus however lay elsewhere, as he observed keenly out of the corner of his eye the reaction of his real target. Ridhima. He allowed himself a grim inward smile satisfied to see the subtle response from her, subtle but very much prevalent.
A sudden drop in the fast rhythmic motion of her hand chopping away the onions, the instant after he spoke the prime word 'Kolkota'...that until she recovered some seconds later to resume the chopping, but at a much reduced pace. He could have sworn that despite a likely clouding of thoughts in her head at his words, and an altogether unrelated task of chopping onions at hand, he held Ridhima's undivided attention from that second on. Still engaged in removing his essential gear he pleaded in his head that Anjali would not rest the case just yet. Oblivious to real facts though she was, Anjali obliged speaking again,

"What about boarding and lodging. The peer mentor program can find you a spot for that as well? At such a short notice? You're leaving in less than a week Gappu. London we could manage at a midnight call, but you don't expect your dad to fish out links in a city he has never been to himself?"

 Bull'e eye mum, he thought in his head. Getting off the couch he walked in Ridhima's direction and pushing his weight upwards with the grip of his hands on the counter he seated himself atop its surface facing her and said,

"The tickets are booked mum. And Chirag is getting the stay thing worked out for me with his buddy, for my initial houseless week."

Grinning he picked up the jar of iced lemonade from the shelf placing it to his lips. In his head he did the backward countdown of five, and when Ridhima remained quiet, he knew he hit the nail. She must have made a fair guess as to which 'buddy' of Chirag he was pertaining too, since she did not yell at him for drinking right from the jar yet again. Nor for gulping down the lemonade without a break, he grinned as  replaced the jar on the shelf, somehow it had tasted more refreshing today, than it had in a while he thought. He was hopeful about this whole idea, so was Chirag, it was their only shot at it anyways and he couldn't thank his coach enough for having selected him for the international soccer camp.

"Chirag's buddy?" Gappu wanted to hug his mother for this one...

"Yes mum him," he said nodding his head "Armaan Malik, remember from a year ago? Minnie's uncle and Ridzi massi's old mate from grad schol, right beautiful?"

Check three, she did not tel him off for calling her 'massi' either, instead his claim was sudden for her expectations and caught her off guard momentarily, before she nodded her head slightly, meeting neither's eye.

"Oh yeh I recall, but...He went to grad school with you? How come I haven't hear a mention of that Ridzi?"

Both Gappu and Ridhima shot her a wide eyed look, Ridhima getting caught in too much she wasn't prepared for, and Gappu loving his mother more with every passing minute. He believed for once how they said mothers could sense the need of their children, Anjali was going to excel at the job. Unintentionally she had played her role in the plan better than if he had actually tailored it for her. He now looked at Ridhima, hiding his anticipation the best that he could. She would not have noticed anyways, she was much too flustered within by now.

"Grad school...uh Cambridge...I mean he was a year ahead of me Di..." Anjali's expression seemed to seek more detail, before Gappu could spill anymore redundant facts she quickly added, "We were like occasional friends. I met him again in Chicago when he signed up as a a client with our firm..."

"And?"

Ridhima shifted her gaze uncomfortably to her hands and feet at Anjali's continued effort. Does Di know anything, she wondered, and Gappu, this jerk speaking without knowing anything.

"Ummm yeh then he turned out to be Minnie's uncle so I met him outside work a couple of times. Thats all Di..." she said in a soft voice hoping Anjali would believe she had nothing more to add about her association with Armaan.

"Ridzi?" Anjali shot her an exasperated look "I'm asking what kind of a guy is he? I mean you were helping him out at his place last year I remember when he went through the tragedy, you must have known him enough to hold a basic positive or negative opinion about him right?
Do you approve of Gappu staying with him? India is a new land for him, it will not be an easy spot in these months of rear summer early fall, and Kolkota as a destination gives no more solace. I'd get some relief in knowing he is at least among the right people."

Gappu smiled spontaneously, then wiped it off as Anjali looked at him the next second, "Stop smiling. I haven't said yes yet. And I won't unless Ridzi backs you up on this."

He nodded with a forced solemn expression. If Ridhima had not been caught in an inner turmoil she would have noticed how he was no longer pleading his case, instead he left it all to her, to defend his choice, HER CHOICE rather, and approve Arman. He crossed his fingers behind him, although he had this intuitive faith she wouldn't let him down.

"If there's no alternate then...I mean it took him tremendous effort to get selected for this program. Its...It should be fine Di. Armaan... I mean Chirag is taking responsibility, I trust him."

Anjali nodded but Gappu was slightly disappointed. That was such a convenient escape, and here he had hoped to hear her opinion of Armaan. So much for over optimism, with everything going his way in the conversation, much more than he ever thought it would, he had hoped to hear something more.

"And you said they will have a dorm spot for you a week after that?" He nodded in response to Anjali's question. She was not going to stop him he knew, but she seemed unsure of the whole plan. He jumped off the shelf and taking her by her shoulders made her sit on the nearest couch. Then kneeling before her he said,

"Mum its India. I hear of it from dad and you, and see it as captured by a mere lens, do I not have the right to make a real visit to the place I belong? Kolkota may not be what London or Chicago is, but its where I have to be to make a difference. Coach said our dorms will be in the vicinity of SAI stadium...the national stadium in the city, its where the Indian team comes to play. Isn't that exciting? We may get to play with them too. And the locality is the best in all of Kolkota, its a suburb, I think on the east side, called Salt Lake City. Posh, safe, and football loving...I can't wait to be there."

Seeing Anjali give him a slight smile, he knew his enthusiasm was working its way through. He smiled himself. Then getting up he walked back to Ridhima again and resting his arm lightly across her shoulder he added in a softer voice,

"Armaan is a great guy, and I promise to take care. I'm going cause it matters most to me to make something happen, for love to blossom..." His eyes met Ridhima's for a brief second before he averted his gaze and added quietly, "For love of the game..."

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

part 9 people...at last...3 days late...belated happy diwali to all of you hope you had a blast..i did...one reason for the delay Wink

enjoy the part..finally iv revealed a part of armaan's past....its a start i mean....il build on it now on....n soon the whole thing gona show up....

ps: this part is for Hinu di, nijal and lakshami (lakky as we nicknamed her haha)...thanx a bunch ladies, lovya tons....specially for pestering me...its makes me think um not writing for no ones lolzzzz....

pps:the sig is from DMG forum...dont remember who's work it was...but credits to them...its for the fic...hope u can relate to it the way i cud...the punch line is like tailord to fit....

enjoy the part everyone!!!Embarrassed


Edited by spln - 29 October 2008 at 9:55am

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for anyone who missed watching it, heres the VM by Taira, describing the emotions of ARmindz from this fic...



~Part 10~
 
"Hey beautiful,

I write this sitting on an open terrace under the Indian sky. Can I call it that? I guess I can, they named an entire ocean after India, and everything in and around here is the Indian subcontinent. Why should the sky over this Malik Niwas be any less Indian right?

Anyways, teme sumthin, a memory, a moment, a scene which captures your heart completely? I had always assumed mine would remain witnessing live, Henry's first ever Arsenal goal at the Emirates two years ago against Ajax...a stadium marked by red and white erupting into a unanimous cheer at the shot...*sigh* It was a sight and I couldn't get enough of being there :) But now I know, much can alter in life, favorites can't be the hardest. Mine are begining to change...

I bet I have you wondering about a lot at the moment; one why this letter and not the usual email, two why such a sudden question...would you understand if I blamed it all on Armaan? :D Ok don't glare, I'll work on making this less ambiguous.

First the letter. He was writing one yesterday (I wanted to ask who it was for, would that have been too impertinent, I wonder...?), anyways so I asked him if he had one of Potter's delievery owls as well. It was either wasted humor, or he simply chose to ignore the joke. All he said was letters felt special in a way emails never could, it made another realize you were ready to go the extra mile for them. I wondered what it was he implied exactly, the man talks in riddles to say the least, but I listen to all he says anyways, this letter to you hence. Do you feel anymore special receiving it? Let me know then I'll write one to Minnie as well ;)

Alright unto next...the forever memories, it wasn't abrupt, just another 'being with Armaan' effect, he says things which make me think until long after. When I entered the city, it wasn't quite the way I had imagined it to be. No that has nothing to do with Armaan, I'm getting to him in a bit. It was the whole picture...my first sight of India. Well the first technically was from the plane and one of a kind, it was like the cotton white clouds parting to reveal a lush green as we descended slowly and it did not fail to catch me on, I don't remember having seen a green so striking. But my anticipation then was far overwhelming to take enough time and let it grow on me, I should have let it linger within, for what I saw after it wasn't the most pleasing sight to my eyes.

The international airport, or so it was meant to be, was least like any I've seen until itself, I named it an exception to the usual, one I couldn't bother about for long as Armaan found me almost right away. Massi what is it about him, I can't get myself to pin down? The uneasiness of the place was like engulfed by his hug, it felt so right, in that one moment I knew why I had not been skeptical about this trip. I almost concluded I had missed him in the past year, strangely so for how much do I know him anyways? How much does anyone know him anyways, hes that kind, its hard to be certain if what you know about him truly is. Oh well, there I go digressing from the point. You know what, I think of that morning again and I have to believe, had I seen the city before the airport, I would have possibly even held the latter in awe for its cleanliness and lack of chaos.

Its the rear of the rainy season I was informed, misinformed would be more like it. I think there's enough rain here to compete the wind and snow in all of Chicago and London even now. What less could I claim having sat through a drive all of 25 Kms which took us over 2 hours, not the scandulous jams I was warned about, no. Armaan said jams arent Kolkota's issue, Delhi Bombay fit that fame better...it was the flooding on the roads. Picture this - knee deep water, even waist high at places, people dressed well
rolling up their lowers and wading through and many who weren't dressed much just pulling what Armaan told me was a ricker on bare shoulders with people sitting on it, across the high flooding water, the heat and humidity all around, and the cars incredulously still managing to make it through? Cars is not even the word I should be using here, its this yellow colored ancient looking thing on four wheels, a model that should adorn the old Detroit auto museums, the engine running it must be a monster. Its the local Kolkota cab, and the only thing more typical of this city I gather than the overused word 'dada'.

It was insane and I didn't know what to make of things. Armaan must have read through my head, anyone could have at that moment hes supposed to be a professional at this, he said I shouldn't be appalled its a common sight. He wore a serious look when he said this, but I could swear he was trying as hard to supress a grin as I was to supress my frown as I nodded. I had nothing to say back. There was enough going on in my head then, about what other common sights I was likely to encounter and he must have read me on that too cause he added, though I'm uncertain if he was talking to me or himself, that I should rest judgements until later, there would be much to change them, in many big ways. He shouldn't have bothered telling me that, an opinion was hard to avoid at that moment. But I have revisited what he said then several times already. I still maintain that he talks in riddles, but I'm begining to realize its because he wants you to unfold facts for yourself.

Its been five days now, and that first impression seems to have worn off its rigidity. Its the same city, the same yellow cabs with scary looking drivers who never greet me, instead they squabble in broken english over cash which couldn't equal a handful of dollar bills,
the same street hawkers in completely despicable state who chase me half way down the street bargaining over goodies I couldn't care less about, the same flooding the same filth the same chaos and...the same of everything there could be to not like about a place; theres but one difference. I'm starting to like being a part of the mess!

Did you know Armaan has a sister, Muskaan? Rhyming sibling names he said are commonplace in India. Well they aren't real siblings, she is a cousin, but she must mean more than life to him...and to Rahul, her husband. In several ways she reminds me of you, not letting the men she loves live in peace :D and I adore her more so for that!
Guess thats me...I love the trouble girls, you, Minnie and now its her. I mean she fights with Rahul to no end thats fine, Rahul fights back...but she gets hot headed with Armaan? Why does she even bother herself in arguing with him I wonder, the guy just submits to whatever it may be that she demands.

And me?
I'm surprised she hasn't already shown up here stalking me and interrupted this letter.She killed my good boy image the very first day, we are the official Tom and Jerry of the Malik Niwas. Rahul says hes happy I'm there to share the load of her fighting fits with him, Armaan just shakes his head off at us and Daadu, he has this loving aura about him, for once I feel I missed being in a joint family all these years. Him, Muski, Armaan, and Rahul, I can't say who makes more than the others Malik Niwas my ideal Indian home. It isn't strange therefore that when Armaan introduced me to his kaka and kaki, Muskaan's parents two days ago upon their return from a week long Kali Ma puja I had a hard time keeping myself from asking him if she was adopted, SHES NOTHING AT ALL LIKE THEM. I mean I can't seem to adore her enough, and them I prefer to keep out of this letter. Perhaps it was the other way around, maybe kaka kaki are the adopted ones in the family, could it be?

Anyways I got this constant feeling when I met Armaan the first time last year and few times after that, about a charm he possesses unknowingly. I know now, its from Daadu. I asked Armaan if it would be a good idea to suggest him to get remarried, Mrs. Douglus from the florist shop and him would make quite a couple. He laughed thinking I was joking but then he realized I meant it and looked suddenly grave. Marriages are a one time affair for Indians, remarriage is out of norms was all he said and left the room.

Now that is one thing I don't like about him. Most of what he says reintroduces life to me, and then he comes up with one of these aimless obligatory statements, they are such a contradiction to the man he is. Why does he bother himself with them? They sound like vacant words coming out of him almost like hes trying to convince himself about that more than me. It makes me wonder...perhaps he is in love and wants to remarry himself but can't courtsey his so called norm? Could a societal rule govern life to the extent of taking the happiness out of it? More like should it be allowed to?

Anyways, I can't believe I drifted away from my talk of the city yet again, but its the love of this house, the family I'm with, Armaan's family, I wish you were here beautiful, although I fear the plight of us guys if Muski and you were to ever pair up as a team. I told Rahul about you, and Ritu di, and he laughed off saying with Muski added to the team you girls could feature for a remake of the Charlie's angels series- I think I agree!

I said it massi, I'm starting to fall in love with being here in this home, and with this city, where the shimmers in the night sky are more from the stars than the street lighting and skyscrapers, where the flow of an alien language feels personal when strangers address me as 'dada', where the smile on a face would mean a good meal and not a good deal, where football is football indeed and not soccer. The beauty of this city truly lies in the eyes of the beholder, when Armaan first said that I didn't believe him but he said I would and I do now, and when I told him this he just smiled at me. Then I told him I would love to come here with Minnie once, and he laughed this time saying he had wished the same while in Cambridge for him and...he didn't get to telling me who, cause he stopped there and remembered abruptly an important pending work. Mysterious him, I can never predict how he will react to what and why. Did he have a girlfriend in Cambridge? I think I will ask Chirag...

Oki, I should wrap this up beautiful, I just so wanted to share it all with you. The hapiness of being here, I'm so glad I came and happier still to be with Armaan and his family. Miss you alot and wish you were here too. I know we haven't managed to talk much on the phone yet, its just the floods affected the local Telephonic service office of this zone. But Armaan will get me a cell soon, it will be active within 24 hours of that. I will email you the number details and also my plan to move to the dorm, I'm considering staying here an extra week, Daadu insists and to be honest I don't want it otherwise. In fact I will call you soon, missing mum and pa as well...and Minnie...

PS: My current favorite sight is the sky above me, I decided it deserves to be called the Indian sky!

Falling in love,
yours forever,

Gappu :)

*********************
Chirag sat leaning backwards on his chair as he swirled it in light slow circles. He had just finished reading a scanned copy of the letter Gappu emailed him saying he had posted the original to Ridzi and he couldn't help but marvel at the boy. He had in such a subtle way encapsulated the Armaan essence into his letter, it appeared like he talked of everything and everyone more than him, and yet all started and ended at Armaan. If it was making him, Chirag reminisce his times with Ammy so much, he didn't have to think twice to figure out its impact on Ridhima.

Chirag now felt reassured about having chosen Gappu for the task, he was a natural at this, perhaps cause he, like Chirag was not hving to put any effort into portraying things, he felt the bonds just as strongly, especially so now that he was among them, and with Armaan. He had stated in words something Chirag had always felt, the quiet charm of Armaan which worked its way through the people who came to know him. And Chirag knew, why despite glaring differences of characters they had been such close friends, and why despite having gotten so much from life in the last one year he had felt a gap. Armaan was not and had never been the hard to miss in a crowd guy, he wasn't loud nor was his persona over bearing, yet how accustomed his quiet presence Chirag had become was evident only after he left. And more than ever Chirag felt he could relate to how Ridhima must exactly feel.

Sighing he picked up the printed copy and looked at it again. Suddenly it struck him...Muskaan and Rahul...Armaan was not a talking guy, and his family was a topic he left unbroached as far as possible. But somewhere Chirag remembered having heard from him of Muskaan's marriage, and not in the recent past, it seemed like something he had heard of in Grad school. Ages ago from now, and yet, was his memory completely deceiving him or had the name mentioned then not been Rahul at all? He frowned sitting there in deep concentration now, trying to remember but it refused to come back...and the more it eluded him, the more he was inclined to believe the name had been something else...but what?

********************
She walked into the house with her mind as preoccupied as it had been since morning after she received Gappu's letter. Unable to rest her running thoughts and concentrate on her work she had left the office early claiming a half day leave. The 'special impact of a letter' had hit her indeed she had to tell Gappu she thought with grim sarcasm. And now she was back home, just in time for tea she realized as the aroma of the beverage reached her from the kitchen. A subdued apetite and no inclination to get into a tea time chat right then she decided to get to her room quietly before being noticed, but it certainly wasn't her day.

"Ridzi you back home early today?" She stopped in her steps hearing anji's voice groaning in her mind and bracing herself for an inevitable dialogue.

"Just this head ache Di, it was getting to be a pain and I couldn't stay and do the charts anymore so I took the remainder of the day off." Turning back she started to move to her room again, unlucky still.

"Head ache? Hang on then have some food, I trust you skipped breakfast again thanks to my night shift and God knows what lunch was like. Your ill timed meals can result in nothing better than head aches Ridzi. When will you grow up to take care of yourself?"

Saying so she left without waiting to hear a no. Ridhima sighed, complying to the instruction she knew would save her much more trouble than avoiding it would, and so she sat down at the table after dumping her bag on the couch besides.
"...his hug, it felt so right..." ; "...a charm he possesses unknowingly"; "Did he have a girlfriend in Cambridge?..."; "...perhaps he is in love and wants to remarry..."...Ridhima shut her eyes tight gripping her head in her hands firmly. She had to shut all this out of her mind, the lines from the letter and his presence in them, the thoughts of him...She jerked up feeling the cool touch of fingertips other than her own on her forehead then relaxed as she saw Anjali massaging it gently.

"Have it..." she commanded pointing to the food lying before her and Ridhima obeyed breaking a bite of the parantha. "Thanks Di," she mumbled through the chewing.

The circular gentle movement on her temples was certainly helping her nerves calm down, perhaps letting those who love you help out wasn't such a bad idea after all. And when exactly had she started shunning away from the care of those around her anyways, wasn't that one thing she totally despised because Armaan...She sighed, not him again. Anjali did not miss her reactions. Sitting down on the chair next to her now she said,

"What is it Ridzi? You seem more affected than just by a mere head ache. Something you want to tell me?"

Ridhima looked down at her food. She had debated more often than not of telling Anji about Armaan, the answer was always the same, there was nothing to tell her anymore. As before she found herself shaking her head. Then she said looking up with a thought.

"Di Gappu mailed his cell number yesterday, Ar...Armaan got him one. He said it would be active within 24 hours and then he would call us. The phone service has been disrupted due to the rains in their region so..." She didn't complete as Anjali jumped up towards the cordless and bringing it back she said expectantly,

"Lets try calling him ourselves, maybe its active now? I haven't talked to him except a brief exchange twice since he left Ridzi, I'm missing him so much." Ridhima thought for a moment, then smiled lightly nodding her head getting up she pulled out her cell from her pocket and searched for the number she had saved.

**********************
It was close to 5AM when Armaan woke up, as usual for his morning jog. He set the alarm each night, but it never had to ring, he would wake up minutes before the actual hour somehow. He told himself it was a regulation his body had adapted itself to, but somewhere he knew it was because a peaceful sleep had not been his in years now. Getting out of the covers he yawned then walked towards Gappu's room. The morning jog had held more purpose fo him this week than the usual, as Gappu would accompany him for it making the hour long session full of lively chatter. He wasn't a talkative one Armaan knew but then neither was Armaan, it was just the comfort level they shared, and had since their first encounter at th florist.

Entering the room he smiled shaking his head at the way his sheets were scattered all over the bed covering everything except him, the pillows, one under his arm, and the other on the floor were just as reflective of how not still he was when he slept. And like each morning of the week that had gone by he was yet again sleeping with his head opposite to the bed post. Muski had seen him a few mornings ago that way and declared he practiced football even in his dreams. She added her sympathy for a woman who would eventually have to share a bed with...Gappu had not let her speak further chasing her as she ran round and round the table.

It had been one of those scenes the house was getting accustomed to witnessing and Armaan grinned now thinking of it. Then moving up closer to the bed he was going to shake the boy awake when he saw Gappu smiling in his sleep. He stopped his hand midair and pulled it back crossing his arms across his chest stood there watching him. His cheerful grin faded into a wistful look as he thought of the resemblance of that smile with hers. Its had the same lingering sense of an everlasting content...just like Ridhima's...He was brought out of his reverie as he felt a vibration under his foot, taken by surprise he jerked his foot off the spot and saw Gappu's new cell phone lying there. Rolling his eyes he bent to pick it up and then realized it was still vibrating, in fact it was an incoming call, an international number. No name, he must have not yet saved the numbers Armaan thought. It could be his mum, or pa or Minnie or...the cell kept buzzing, hesitantly Armaan clicked the answer button.

"Gappu!...mumma here bachu, how are you?...Gappu?" Armaan was going to answer when he heard another voice...

"Di?..." It was her voice. "Gime the phone I think the call got cut unanswered...I told you its an early hour he must be out for his practice or perhaps still asleep and..." ....

"Hush Ridzi..." He heard the other voice, and then he realized it must be on the speaker. "Hellooo? Gappu u there? answer mumma na betu"

Trying hard though he was Armaan could not bring himself to reply back. At the sound of her voice, Ridhima's voice, not in his head but for real...he felt zapped. It had been over a year, and hearing it this moment...


"Di, gime the phone I'll try again, I'm certain it got disconnected..." and he heard the call click to an end.
It came crashing upon him in that instant, more than it had in the past whole year how much he had missed her, his body refused to react to his rising emotions and he stood numb...for several seconds until the vibration of the cell in his hand jerked him again. This time he reacted faster, and the other way.

"Gaurav?...Gaurav wake up...Gauravvv, " A groggy looking Gappu peeked at him with half closed eyes, frowning slightly now perhaps not pleased to be disrupted from his happy dream. Armaan pulled his hand and put the vibrating cell in it,

"
Its a call from your home, common get up and talk to Ridh...your family I mean..."

Gappu frowned harder first at Armaan and then at the source of vibration in his palm, and then jumped up as realization hit him. Armaan pulled himself back up and stood straight as Gappu was suddenly wide awake and excited,

"MAA!, "

He screamed into the phone and Armaan was almost startled at the volume, swiftly he moved to the door and shut it close lest the whole house woke up to the morning excitement. Turning back he heard him saying,

"Its amazing Ma, I totally love it, you're the best best best to have let me come..." he paused while a muffled voice was all Armaan could hear outside the cell, "Oh come on Ma, it must have just got active over the night or I would have called you before, of course I miss you don't get mad at me...actually go ahead and yell at me if you want, I've kinda missed that too..." his excitement was contagious, and despite his lack of reaction from moments ago Armaan smiled...

"Maaaasiiii..." the smile faded slightly as he swallowed hearing Gappu go on..."Yeh yeh oki...no massi, not my fault ya, if you growing older so much faster than me, "

He chuckled and Armaan just stood absorbing the scene. He had been so close to actually talking to her after a year of not hearing her voice and he had let go of the chance, now he felt the urge to snatch the cell out of Gappu's hands but he knew even if he went as far as that he would not manage to talk to her just like minutes ago, and so he stood his spot holding his breath unknwoingly.

"Yeh what's new about that you love killing my sleep all the time, its just 5AM. Relax beautiful you think too much, I'm gona wake up no one Armaan shut the door and...huh? Yeh he's here infact he woke me up to answer the call, hang on you talk to him yourself here go..."

Saying so he jumped out of his bed to hand the phone to an unbelieving Armaan who just looked back wide eyed but before he could refuse and excuse himself from the room the phone was in his hands. It couldn't be happening a second time in less thn 10 minutes he thought to himself, for once in his life realizing what it meant to feel like your heart would burst with the pressure on it, perhaps this was the onset of a stroke, he almost prayed for one so he would collapse before having to talk to her. Lowering his head to hide the tumult of emotions in his eyes and raising the phone to his ear he whispered in a voice he couldn't have recognized as his own,

"Hello?" he waited for what seemed like an eternity until he realized what the sound on the other side implied, it was a long tone, the call had been cut. Sighing deeply he felt in the same second a gush of rising relief and sinking disappointment. Looking up he somehow managed to face Gappu and say,

"I think it got disconnected. I am going to go change into my tracks, do you still want to come along or stay on and talk to...your family?" He was surprised at how almost calm his voice had sounded, Gappu however frowned slightly, then smiling again the next instant he said,

"Oh no I'll come, but would it be fine if we left 10 minutes later than usual?" Armaan nodded and left the room as he saw Gappu pressing the digits on his cell, undoubtedly calling back, and this time he didn't want to be caught.

********************
"It got disconnected Di, " she lied not meeting her sister's eye concentrating on her cell as if trying to find the cause and pretending to re-dial. Why the hell had she cut the call, now God knew what he was going to think of her. Did she care? SHe admitted reluctantly there was nothing she cared more about, much as she would like to deny the acceptance. In her head she cursed Gappu for having done this so suddenly, and then wished and prayed that it would ave appeared like the call really got cut. Even though she had more sense than to wish for it be assumed so.

The cell in her hand rung again, and she looked at it for a quick moment before having to click the answer button since Anjali stood right by her. As she heard Gappu on the other end, she half let out a sigh, of rising relief and sinking disappointment. The battle of emotions was charging again, had she wished for it to be him? She had, but she wished just as much that she had not...

********************
Gappu glanced at Armaan across the breakfast table. The jog for the first time in a week had been a quieter affair, and Gappu had let it remain so. The early morning call incident had just been plain coincidence, but it seemed like the events were acting in his favor, he had only played his chance well. He believed neither Ridhima nor Armaan about the accidental cutting of the call, he knew one of them had done it delibrately and it only strengthened his resolve to make the next move more fool proof! For now he was cheerful about this unexpectedly faithful turn of events and had allowed  Armaan his thinking time, he needed lots of that, and would need even more in the days to come.

"Can you pass me the butter Dada?" Muskaan's voice interrupted his chain of congratulatory thoughts, and on an impulse coming out of his high spirits he pulled the butter out of Armaan's reach giving Muski a cheeky look. She rolled her eyes at him and making a face she said,

"Dam this kid, are u ever planning to grow up...like in the next few seconds? Stop fooling around and pass me the butter..."

Gappu shook his head grinning wider while the rest on the table gave them both a look, sighed and got back to food.

"Gaurav? GIME THE BUTTER!" she said trying to sound angry. He broke out laughing and winked at Rahul who grinning himself said,

"Magic word sweetheart, you gota say PLEASE gime the butter Gaurav jeee..."

They hi fived. Armaan looked up from his plate at each one of the three in turn and got up from the table abruptly drawing the attention of everyone towards himself. Ignoring them he walked to the refrigerator and then walked back a moment later with an extra slab of butter on a small plate, and put it before Muski before removing his own plate from the table less than half empty. He would have walked away but Daadu spoke up,

"Armaan..." he stopped and turned around already begining to regret his momentary impulse. "Daadu I...," he gave them a quick look and said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. Just this case I'm handling its been playing up my mind. I...ummmm...I need to get back to it."

Mumbling the words like half processed thoughts he moved away, certain of nothing except the fact that he wanted time alone. Gappu felt a pang of guilt, true he was trying to make things sprout back up, but perhaps he was being too hard and too fast? Now for a baseless prank he had agitated him to leave a half eaten meal. The other three on the table sensed his discomfort as he now concentrated on the food on his plate the cheeky grin wiped off and replaced with a thoughtful expression.

"Ahem ahem..." Daadu cleared his throat drawing attention from everyone except Gappu who continued to look at his plate. "Rahul did you know ideal couples have names which fit well together?" he said tentatively. This time Gappu looked up, curious as to where this topic had suddenly cropped up from. Daadu gave himself a small smile. Then as the three pairs of eyes looked expectant waiting for explanation, he pointed to the morning paper lying by his side.

"Its an article I just read. It states that how often close friends, dear siblings, couples in love claim that their bonding is determined by the stars, the creidt cordial sun signs for the strength of relations. The writer brings to light a new connectivity factor in recent times - names. The sound of names together, their meanings, the essence and the level of correlation. Say for example..."

Daadu paused then pointing towards Rahul and Muskaan he said,

"Your names together sound well, Rahul and Muskaan...so you survive as a couple, but the meanings, Muskaan a smile and Rahul the efficient one...theres absolutely no interlink...hence the constant bickering..."

Daadu paused as Gappu chuckled despite himself at the thought behind this analysis. Muski made a face at him and then groaned speaking,

"Daaaadu...don't make up stuff. Rahul and I love each other, names can do nothing."

She finished with a smug satisfaction facing Rahul who gave her a curious look with raised eyebrows to tease her, and succeeded in doing just that as she frowned while the other three laughed.

"I'm making up nothing here Muski, see how Rahul and Gaurav get along just fine, and they've only just met?...efficiency and pride are coordinated traits, hence the bonding, and a similar one between Armaan and you, a desire and a smile, one a consequnece of the other, wouldn't you agree?"

Muskaan shrugged in reluctantance then spoke, "What about Chirag and Armaan?..."

Rahul answered thinking as he spoke, "Chirag the lamp...and a desire...like a ray of hope from Chirag the lamp to fulfill an Armaan, the desire!"...

Gappu narrowed his eyes at the plausible connection, then smiled to himself as he thought of how the meaning was coming true...Muski sat back with a pondering look crossing her arms across her chest, then spoke up on a sudden idea, "Chirag and Ritu...?" certain this time she had caught an exception. Gappu broke out laughing, "I don't know the meanings, but there could be no link there forever. It is a case purely of oppisites attract the two of them have nothing in common whatsoever."

"Neither do the names, Ritu means a season, cant link it to a lamp..." Daadu said.

"Um not surprised at all Daadu, they are ideally poles apart, just somehow in love!" Gappu replied, still chuckling at the thought of them. Then tentatively he spoke but with obvious hesitance,

"What about Minnie, I mean...Armaan's niece, shes...a friend of mine, I was just..." He paused a slight red creeping into his cheeks as Daadu gathering the obvious from his reaction spoke trying to hide his smile,

"Minnie is a loving memory, often of a person close to our heart who could fill us with a sense of pride...theres a definite fit here." Gappu beamed, then getting conscious as everyone smiled back knowingly he looked into his plate again.

"A Lovely Desire...Dada and Baudi...it was almost...perfect..." Muski said in a low wistful voice. Gappu looked up at her for a moment then said in a solemn voice,

"Perhaps...but I know about this absolute perfect..."

"Daadu did the post come in for today yet? I was expecting a..."

Armaan stopped midway realizing he had interrupted a chatting session as everyone turned to look at him.

"Did I...like interrupt something here? I'm sorry I'll go check myself and..." Gappu cut him off.

"You did, but don't worry its about you."

Armaan looked at him with slight curiosity, and so did all others as they turned back to face him again. Gappu spoke in a casual voice,

"Daadu explained how name matching affects human bonding and this one example only just struck me. It is of these two I know who met each other after several years of no information of the other, and yet the bonding they shared was incredible, the gap of few years seemed to vanish in the moment they met like it had never been..."
Pausing he looked up at Armaan and spoke slowly with a delibrate emphasis, "Armaan and Ridhima...a desire to love...perfect fit ain't it Armaan?"

******************
Still stuck deep in several chaotic thoughts Ridhima grabbed her coat and decided to go for a walk after dinner, on the pretext of need for fresh air. Fresh and cold, bitterly cold infact she realized within minutes of walking out. The wind chill was certainly below freezing, but in a way she was almost willing to have her senses go numb, if only it would cease the rush of emotions she had been feling all day. First she had received the letter, it had made her smile wide and deep, until the moment she read it; that had not gone off quite as well. She was less troubled by how much every bit of the letter reminded her of Armaan, and more so by the realization that her initial happiness at seeing the letter had been less cause it came from Gappu and more at the expectation of hearing about Armaan.

It had been that, the hope to feel some connection again, and that made her helplessly furious within herself. It was inevitably true that every extreme emotion she felt anymore was always in some way linked to him, no matter how desperately she wanted to rid herself of the lingering want of him she had inside. The problem was simple, she did not know which of the two was harder for her, living with the memories of him or the efforts to ward them off.

And then the call. She cursed herself mentally yet again for having cut it just like that. Had she wanted to talk to him instead? Perhaps yes, and yet definitely not. Then why was it wrong for her to have cut it? Because it was wrong she told herself, now he has every valid reason to wonder what it is that you feel for him, and if or not you do at all. She clenched her fists thinking of what a fool she must have appeared to him, not just that but an escapist. And al that when she had been now, for a year building a non reacting shield about herself. How could she have given herself away with the mere hint of his presence? Would it ever change for her, she wondered cursing in her head again.

*Honk*

The sudden sound of the horn jerked her out of her thoughts and she realized she was crossing the road when the signal wasn't white for her to cross yet. In the process she had walked without realization before a possibly speeding car which now honked at her. Unable to see the driver past the glare from the headlights she just mouthed a hurried sorry and ran to the other side cursing out loud this time, herself first then the thoughts of him.

Running her fingers to fix the lose strands of hair she now looked around herself. Without any intentions to do so, she had walked to the lonely side of the Lake shore drive. From general awareness she knew it wasn't the best place to be in with the onset of this mounting pitch dark night. Bracing herself she snuggled into her coat and crossing her arms she rubbed with each hand the opposite shoulder, simultaneously hastening her steps with a now prudent eye on the look out for anything unusual.

She did not have to wait long, there it was she figured after several minutes of noticing a car which seemed to be stalking her. She broke into a light trot, It wasn't that far, her home close to Lincoln street but the little distance wasn't the best place to have walked, if only she had paid more attention to where she was going. Turning around ever so slightly hoping she wasn't making it obvious, she observed the car had picked up pace as well, and that offered no solace. It was a quick moment decision and she now broke into an unambiguous run, she was about 2 blocks away and it wasn't like she couldn't make...or so she thought until the car drove right by her and slowed down then to match her running steps.

"Excuse me Miss..." She would have never turned to face him, sticking to her evergreen 'IGNORE THEM' ideology, but for the fact that she knew she had heard the voice before, and so she turned abruptly towards him. HIM? Her eyes widened in shock at the sight of him as she remembered their last encounter. If there could have been room for any doubt about his identity he cleared it the next moment.

"Perhaps you don't remember me. We met at Chang's the other day, I'm Vivek Khanna...once again!" he spoke with a smile.

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

~Part 11~

She frowned her breathing shallow, a consequence of the impulsive sprint from moments ago. It did not stop her look from hardening at his audacity. How could he dare be stalking me again she thought  incredulously. There was not much solace in realizing additionally that he was either oblivious to facts or simply unnerved by her silence as she looked away with an indifferent air about her, indicating explicitly how unwelcome his presence was. Instead she found a new expression staring back as she finally confronted his persistent gaze; Ridhima was uncertain in coming to a conclusion about the look in his eyes and what it could imply.

As moments passed, his silence seemed to insist an expectence for a response more elaborate and agreeable and her indignant disbelief of the situation begun fading into an unexplained discomfort, the question about his presence transformed from 'how' to 'why'. The uneasiness starting to peak inside mentally, was only heightened by her physical attempt at breathing deeper than short rapid gasps. The wind chill however was considerably below freezing, the hastily drawn in air went slicing through her throat which was suddenly painfully parched. She blamed it in her head to the extreme cold trying hence subconsciously to dismiss that it may at least partially have been a consequence of the sense of rising anticipation within.

Turning off the ignition he got out of his black Infiniti G35 and came up to face her. The smile stuck but up close she was taken aback by how it appeared almost warm. Nevertheless, looking into his eyes she tried to maintain a steady gaze without blinking, as she desperately searched them to reveal at least a streak of his mysterious intentions.

"Hi..."

She heard the greeting repeated closer and softer this time and even though the urgency in the frequency of her breaths was diminishing with passing seconds she felt far more out of breath in that second and those that were following than she had just moments ago from the running; for then he had maintained the distance and she had not been not forced to inhale wisps of his engulfing cologne. I will not inhale it she thought in aversion with the last remaining streak of force in her which had survived her mounting apprehension, shoving away in the attempt his overbearing presence. It was then that she realized that she already was holding onto her breath, when exactly she had abandoned her attempt to catch her breath back she was unsure. She let it out slowly trying hard to not make it obvious. Then abruptly she turned and started to walk away from him.

"Ridhima..."

Whatever it had taken her to resolve to not be intimidated by the impending when she turned around to walk out on him disappeared right then, as hearing her name she stopped in her tracks. Just the way he had expected. How did he know her name she thought as the comprehension gripped her in the onset of rising panic. Stalking, buying drinks, stalking again after several days of the first encounter, and now he knew her name; Much as she wished she could, there was no control she had over her thoughts which concluded only to the worst of possibilities as her eyes widened reflexively hovering in all directions of visibility lingering in each for any likely help that could present itself, she licked her lips nervously not turning around to face him lest he saw through her rapidly dissolving confidence.

"Ridhima..."

He repeated and she sensed him closer again, but this time she did not flinch at the sound of it, perhaps her worst shock had been past. For a fleeting second in contrast she felt almost irked by why he assumed she was incapable of single time understanding. Before another of her weakening thoughts could
overtake she reeled around this time to face him but moved a step backward almost instantaneously, he had been barely inches away. But as the cologne tickled her nose again she wanted to rid herself of any essence of this man before her, with an almost violent repulsion now and in that instant any uncertainities which previously invaded her were driven away by the feeling of repugnanace.

She could not and would not let a man so random affect her in anyway she thought vehemently. Somehow the thought of treating him cordially as one would a fellow stranger did not once cross her mind, perhaps that oppurtunity had been lost the first time their paths had crossed, he himself had made his moves too fast to allow a chance like that to present itself. When she looked him in the eye now she had a no nonsense look about her, backed with much greater conviction and his smile, though still persistent, this time spelt more an offer for explanation, and so she waited for him to go on. He spoke indeed, the next moment as he was assured of her complete attention.

"Ridhima, I mean Miss Gupta..." He paused almost as if he harbored the impossible hope that she would ask him to address her by the first name to establish the familiarity betwen them, not strangely she showed no reaction except a slight tilt as if in approval of latter addressing. He lowered his eyes for less than a second before looking back up and resuming,

"I...er...Ritu mentioned your name that evening, after you...your unexpected exit I mean."

If he had expected her to soften at this, her look offered him no such redemption. It was equally evident from her curt voice as she replied,

"I'm sure she did. Did she also mention how much I would approve your act of stalking me a week later on lonely roads?"  He was taken aback by her direct accusation, whatever he had expected her to react like, this definitely had not been it.

"I wasn't stalk..." He started to clarify her misunderstanding but then paused shaking his head at himself more than her, "You think I was stalking you?" He asked instead, perhaps incredulous, bu his tone did not question only expected her to disagree.

She did not comply, instead arched her brows at the need for him to even iterate this question after she made her opinion crystal clear. It was at that moment she realized that his look all along had been of one politely seeking aquaintence, all along until then that is, she thought as he now frowned, definitely not pleased. Her fists clecnhed reflexively without a noticable movement, giving her the courage to maintain her stand. He ain't going to do nothing she told herself in her mind, he can do nothing that can...

Her thoughts were cut off as he stepped forward closing in the distance between them, and contrary to her inetrrupted thought her mind now panicked, WHAT THE HELL WAS HE DOING? He did possess an intimidating aura she admitted reluctantly, wishing she could shut him out of her vision, and then it occured to her, why was she not attempting to just get away from here, from him. Unbelievably she stood her spot anyways, even continued to look him back in the eye as the inside of her was feeling an undeniable spread of fear taking over. Part of her wanted to stand bold, turning a blind eye to obvious indications of what all of this was leading to, the other half, the better half of her head, was trying in vain to make her believe the gravity of the trouble she was headed towards.

"Ridhima..."

He stated it this time, not requesting any approvals, but miraculously despite the on going battle between her two minds, with a burst of courage she assumed to have been latent even to her until that moment she spoke back with a calm, the strain underneath which she believed only she could sense,

"Ms.Gupta if you will please," she stated back, his look remianed unaltered.

"I certainly would, that and everything else you would expect a well bred gentleman to do. But since you've alreday placed a doubt over my claim of the latter I wonder if its worth bothering myself with the subtlties of obligations further on. I know your name Ridhima, yes, from Ritu as I said before. There is and was no stalking involved anywhere here. The evening a week ago I was taken by not just a pretty face but by the whole person you presented and by offering to buy drinks I only just put forth in gesture my regards for the same. After you left the table, rather unceremoniously I'm afraid I have to say I just decided it had been a bad move, worth no more thought. That until you came strolling before my speeding car some 10 minutes ago tonight lost in thoughts only you can define. I daresay I recognized you immideately, and much as I had resoved  that evening a week ago about the chapter being closed and forgotten, the human insticnt kicked in. You looked lost yes, but it did not appear to be a delightful frenzy that struck you. And for no good reason except concern I ignored my better logic which warned me against confronting you a second time. I did go with the impulse, not for the best I can see now as my caution has been mistaken for sheer stealth. I apologize for having given you any reasons to misconstrue my intentions both that evening and this. I can't however help but feel offended by the conclusion your carved out of it all. Lets say its my lesson, and I've learnt it well."

He rest his argument at that, while Ridhima showed not the slightest alteration in her expression as it happened all too fast for her, and quite unlike the way she had expected it would turn out. In her mind his words echoed, and as the realization sunk in its complete meaning she lowered her eyes. There was nothing offensive in both his actions and thoughts, unless she was to consider his having admitted an attraction towards her as unacceptable. But she knew it held no logic to bear the grudge, this and that he was ignorant of the facts of her life. She had been in error, way too judgemental and all in an unthoughtful haste.

"I'm sorry, I just...have no excuse to offer for concluding so impulsively...I'm just...truly sorry..."

She mumbled then lifting her eyes uncertainly to look up at him she saw his brows which had been knit together in a frown ease out almost right away, his look softened as if he felt partially guilty himself to have been an edge too harsh he thought now. He gave her a nod of acknowledgment but as he opened his mouth to speak she turned around claiming the action alone as redemption enough and started to walk away, wishfully to avoid further conversation and consequent embarassment. It wasn't what he had in mind apparently.

"Rid...Ms.Gupta..."

She paused again, almost sighing out loud at not having made her escape successfully, then reluctantly she turned around to make herself face him again, her eyes fidgety resting upon his face only briefly while they darted in most other directions as she waited for him to continue. A flicker of disappointment crossed his face, as even the weight of her misunderstanding did not cause her correct him from addressing her ever so formally, true he was still a stranger, but the exchange had seemed intimate in its own unique way, and he would have prefered Ridhima so much more. He continued,

"May I offer you a ride home?" She looked at him and he saw the conflicting emotions reflected by her face. Despite her error in judgement she realized he was for a fact still a mere stranger and she owed him nothing after his acceptance of her apology; even so she wanted to turn down the offer in a reasonable way, but an appropriate excuse evaded her.

"I well..." she started and he shot her a hopeful look urging her to not refuse him. She waived off the idea hence to say a plain no thanks and walk the remaining couple of blocks back as she...it struck her and she spoke with a small smile, "I live just a couple of blocks away. Thanks for the offer but I'll manage well," as she saw him about to interrupt she added, "I'd much rather complete the evening walk I came out for."

As he remained silent for the next couple of seconds she allowed her smile to widen slightly in greeting good bye and turned around to finally walk away when she heard his voice interrupt her from the same a third time, the same way,

"Ridhima?" She turned around again and he spoke before she could although it was unlikely that she would.

"I hope I can call you that?" He said tentatively, the directness of his question left her no option but to consent. She nodded and he smiled in response. "Allow me to walk you back then, you can think in silence whatever it was that your mind was toying with, and I'll keep an eye out for the signals."

Another direct one. She cursed the way he steered the conversation to his benefit leaving not enough room to differ. She cursed also herself for being incapable of saying a blatant no, you don't owe him any courtesey she was reminded by the inner voice but she just wasn't comfortable fabricating yet another excuse, for one she couldn't think of any now, and secondly she was positive refusing would not be where the topic would be closed, somehow she trusted he would insist, if not this way then some other.

He had admitted he was attracted, he had admitted to making his move as well, somewhere deep inside she felt an admiration for his candid acceptances, and even though she believed it was not and would never be anything more than just that inkling of admiration, she wanted to ensure he knew it just as well. She wished she could state with half as much alacrity why she wanted to walk back alone, and why she and him could never be a thing as he may hope for this to turn out to be. Instead she nodded in resignation. It was just this once, and then she would never again see him. She did not have it in her to ward this off any convenient way? As he smiled at her widely now she saw his dimples as he turned around to park the car by the roadside meter and feed it with the jingling change. An image flashed through her mind and she was uncomfortably shocked by why his smile reminded her of Armaan. And that brought back the contents of Gappu's letter to her she realized in surprise how this incident ha wiped it away from her mind for the past almost 20 minutes. She swallowed hard, the walk instead of clearing her head had wrought her nerves into further strain, an unknown kind.

"Shall we?"

She came out of her chain of thoughts and following his gesture started walking leading the direction they walked and yet it seemed he had taken control, somewhere unknwoingly she felt a comfort in letting him do so. Tentatively she gave hima small smile.

"Thank you Vivek." He smiled back in pleasant surprise at how she addressed him, and then his smile kept widening.

*********************
"Gaurav its getting late will you hurry up?"

"Thats her beautiful, Muski...do you hear her? I told you she is incapable of leaving me alone in peace...er...hey Muski!"

He said with a glint of mischief in his grin as she walked up to stand by his side her hands on her hips in indignation at having heard what he said.

"Chatting again? Good lord can you bestow upon this worthless boy some task more fruitful than chatting endlessly with his girlfriend. I'm almost starting to pity her fate. Do you ever let her breathe without barging into her space?" Gappu made a face at her.

"Wow that coming from the queen of unwelcome entries herself, I'm graced nonetheless both by your presence and your concern Muski ji. But much to your disappointment, for this will take away your chance to rebuke further, I am talking not to Minnie but to Massi."

As he turned back to the screen to indicate the same, Muskaan saw a face not looking any older than herself as the smile on it was being captured by the webcam on the other side. She turned a slight red wondering what the girl must have made of her thoughtless banter at her nephew, as she lowered herself to the range of the webcam on their side.

"Hi Muskaan. I'm Ridhima." And then it seemed to Muskaan she must have presented an easy to read face for she continued, "And I can see Gappu has taken to inflicting upon you his insane humorless wit since I'm missing there to bear the brunt of it all."

Muskaan cocked her eyes as her lips curved into a slanting smile spontaneously.

"GAPPU?...That's what you call him?" She broke out laughing..."Gap...Gappu...OMG..." And she laughed more falling on her knees as she clutched her sides and Gappu glared first at her then into the webcam at Ridhima who shrugged at him giggling herself, she already knew what Gappu had implied by his bond with Muskaan.

"Alright call it quits now you both. If I'm being gentleman enough here to not lash back it doesn't..."

"Gentleman?" Muski squealed in delight breaking into a fresh round of giggles, "Gappu the gentleman" and she stood up posing formally mocking a look of class, "...and Gappu the Pappu who can't dance..."

and she did the funny egyptian dance jiggle from the song she was referring to, and Gappu knocked his head backwards rolling his eyes at her while Ridhima broke out laughing uncontrollably at the scene before her from the webcam on the other side. Shaking his head in disgust Gappu sat pouting his arms crossed against his chest, realizing it was best to to be grumpy in silence than be picked at anymore by the team of them which had formed in seconds like it always had been there. It was certainly the best thing to have done as at long last they could laugh no more and sat with wide smiles at him from either side, and then at each other as if they were in the same room not on the two opposite ends of the world. Then Muskaan spoke up cheerfully,

"Ridhima, its a pleasure to finally see you. Gaurav...I mean GAPPU here talks of you endlessly, and I had so been waiting for this moment of introduction. And don't worry about his wit and humor and all that, I have so far and will hence on ensure he in no way misses out on your counter retorts!"

"Its Ridzi Muskaan, and the pleasure in mutual believe me. I'm glad there will be someone around him even there to hold a leash onto him. I can't begin to imagine what it would be like to tame him all over again if he was let lose for a six week long period."

"Excuse me ladies, much as you are enjoying this 'mock poor Gaurav' session, I'd request you to resume from here when I'm not around to witness it all if you will please."

"Poor Gappu you mean...right Muskaan " Ridhima added quickly and then hi fived a gigglng Muskaan at the webcam.

"You ought to make that Muski as well, and I can't believe Dada refused to reveal it to me all through last week when I asked him for a home name, its usual to have one here in Bengal. Now I can see precisely why." she paused giving him a smug smile adn he made a face at her, she continued looking back at Ridhima "Its horrible enough when him and Rahul team up against me I still can manage that, but on rare occasions they get Dada in onto the gang as well and I need not explain to you any further where I stand against the three of them."

Gappu interrupted her at this jumping into the conversation actively at last as he found a catch.

"Yeh right you can tackle Rahul and me, you wish. But even so if you insist, just get massi to counter Armaan while you as per alleged claims handle us and lets see if you can get your way around then? What say beautiful?" he said turning back to face Ridhima into the cam. "Thats a fair deal wouldn't you agree? I'm certain you must have previous experience from having been friends with Armaan in grad school at how you need to win over him?"

Gappu finished with a challenging smile, patting himself mentally. For once Muskaan sided up with him, and he couldn't think of a better time she could have done that as she exclaimed in excitement,

"Oh yeh...Gaurav said Dada and you went to Cambridge together and are friends from then? Its such a coincidence how I never got to meeting his buddies from London, somhow the chance never presented itself, when once it did I could not..." her voice trailed off as she lowered her eyes momentarily but then loking up again with a smile she resumed, "You totally have to team up on this with me Ridzi, I can never ever stand up to Dada in all honesty, it just works well cause he usually never gets me into a situation where I have to do that anyways. But  we would make a wonderful pair now, me against these buffoons and then you get Dada to bow down in defeat."

In her rattling Muskaan did not notice the change in expression on Ridhima's face on the screen before her, and before she could have they heard a voice from behind.

"Who do you want me to bow down to Muski?" Then before either could reply he spoke on moving forward approaching them, "
Actually, can we postpone witnessing my defeat until after dinner instead? You three refuse to let me work for tonight, and now you wont even..."

He stopped as his eyes fell on the screen. Unknowingly his steps did not stop with his words and he moved closer and into the range of the webcam on their end. Gappu cautiously moved out of the way. That moment as they both stared at the screen their eyes met as if they stood face to face, the distance between them and surroundings around them with the others in it, everything dissolved as the emotions of either were mirrored and reflected in the others eyes.

It was impact of seeing each other after a year;- her hair held in a pony seemed to have been cropped shorter and strands of them had come lose in a carelessly attractive way, he had tanned half a shade darker and his features had blend in with a rustic appeal she had never seen before in him, she was wearing rimless glasses, she had always had a number but had shunned them for as long as he had known, the chestnust brown of her eyes behind the lens seemed ever more pronounced, his open neck Indian kurta as opposd to his usual V neck tees defined a majestic aura about him...the rust gold color of it went so well for him she wondered how she had never known that before...

They both noticed it all and much more and yet that's not what occupied their thoughts in the moment they stared at each other, it was only an inevitable back of the mind observation of appearences of one you see after a while. What ran through their heads...and hearts then was a trumoil of several emotions, mostly self contradicting making it hard to decide what they could think, or say.

"I love you...is all that you can't say...years gone by and still..."

The eye lock which lasted barely moments and seemed forever was broken as the ringtone rung loud, Gappu cursed mentally at the interruption as he fished his cell out of his jeans pocket and mumbling and apology moved out of the room flipping it open. "Minnie," he whispered..."Sweetheart you couldn't time this any worse could you?"...

"Ahem ahem" Muski cleared her throat as she looked first at Ridhima then at Armaan, and then back. There was no way she could have read the look on her brother's face wrong, but she wondered if it was too presumtious of her to believe that she saw the same on the face covering the screen. As Armaan looked at her his gaze not the most steady it could be.

"Well?" She revealed the reason for seeking his attention and Ridhima, willing herself to flee the scene found herself watching it anyways, her efforts in vain. There was but one relaxing thought for atleast that second she was only a spectator. Or she thought so a little too soon as she saw Armaan raise his eyes at Muskaan in question.

"Well aren't you going to say hello? Or is it a Cambridge trend to greet in silence letting the other one guess whats on your mind?" His eyes fumbled looking away and then cautiously he raised his eyes to the screen again. "Hey...Ridhima..." he spoke sounding alien to himself, and he imagined as much to her, as he spoke the two words almost separate from each other, uncertain as if he had been if his tongue could still carry the weight of that name. And he looked in to her eyes searching for the reaction as he unconsciously swallowed.

"Hi Armaan..." She brought herself to say it hoping she sounded at least half as intentional about meaning it as she should when greeting 'an old friend'. "How are you?" She was surprised at herself as she added that without meaning to. Armaan kicked himself mentally seeing how much more at ease she seemed conversing with him, couldn't he do the same? She did have the few more moments advantage as he had had to initiate this but still?

"Ummm...fine...good. How about yourself?" He spoke as if trained to the phrase.

"Do they tax Cambridge alum to smile and talk to old buddies? Gosh you both sound like you only just met, actually more like you wished you hadn't. " Turning to Ridhima suddenly she took her by surprise, if any greater was possible, "And you Ridzi? Grave greetings and Dada are not a rare sight, even my charms haven't rubbed off him in so many years, but I thought you seemed so me moments ago? It must be him..." Turning back to Armaan she spoke without waiting for either of the other two to intervene in her analysing chatter, "Dada? What is so appealing about appearing so god foresaken grim?" Armaan opened his mouth to speak then shut it. Then with a fleeting glimpse at the screen again he spoke with an attempted smile, "Muski you're getting it wrong. Its just I...we..."..."Its just the surprise of the moment Muski" Ridhima completed for him and as much for herself. Muskaan raised her eyebrows at both of them in turn and rolling her tongue in thought she said, "Seemed more like shock to me." And Armaan for once wished he had a quieter sister who would not insist upon stating obvious facts. He cleared his throat thinking desperately of some reasonable way to wrap this talk but at that moment they heard Rahul yelling,

"AMMY...MUSKI..." and then Ridhima saw a new someone enter the room, his face was not visible from the distance but she heard him distinctly and thoought he sounded like someone else she knew.

"Are you sure its tonight we decided to go out for dinner and not next year. I'm famished you guys budge your lazy bones and make a move now. And where is Gaurav now?" Saying so he left the room again, to search for Gappu Ridhima thought, and she spoke hurriedly,

"Alright you both should get going I guess, I would hate to keep you from whatever plans you had. Muski it was awsome to chat with you, I hope we will again very soon, don't hesitate to call me if Gappu is being too much of a pain to handle. He's such a kid sometimes but I still miss him. Don't tell him that though."

"I think he is well aware of your feelings Ridhima, without you having to tell him." Armaan interrupted in a quiet voice. Ridhma looked at him and he added hastily, "He's a great boy and troubles us in no way." Muskaan nodded her vigourously with a wide smile, and Ridhima gave a small smile back.

"Thanks for having him over. He's forever talking of how much he adores being there with you all. And I really don't intend causing any more delay for you guys, have fun."

"Bye Ridzi!" Muskaan said just before the screen with her face closed down to display the mundane windows background. Armaan stared at it for a moment longer before Muskaan said, "Hurry up Dada, we should leave now before Rahul comes hollering back into the room." as she walked away, then turning around she added as a last moment thought, "You should invite her to India sometime Dada. I like her." And she left Armaan deep in thought himself.

***********************
"Ammy just take it to Park Street, we can decide where on it once we reach."

"There's nothing to think Rahul, let's go Someplace Else."

"Girls...go their way or your own they will never not disagree" Gappu muttered irritated shaking his head as he focused outside from the window.

"What? I heard you G.A.P.P.U. What did I disagree about?" Muskaan retorted and he shot her a nasty look as she spelt the name.

"Its Gaurav please. And you were the one insisting upon driving all the way to Park Street through the day. Now you suddenly want to go someplace else when we are half way to downtown?" Rahul broke out laughing and Armaan smiled despite himself as he continued to look at the road ahead, while Gappu was surprised by their reaction and when he looked back at Muskaan she shot him a sugar smile batting her eyelids at him and he narrowed his eyes puzzled.

"Someplace Else not as in a random someplace else...I'm talking of The Someplace Else, very much on the Park Street I was praising all day."

"Someplace Else? Thats the name? You're kidding right?" Gappu said not bothering to hide his disbelief at her statement.

"No I'm not. Its a club with rocking live music for a lovely night like tonight."

"And no food..." Rahul spoke before Gappu could. Turning towards him from the passenger seat in the front by Armaan's side he said, "It is a place indeed, with exactly that name, must have been a Muski like brain behind it but just incase you've forgotten sweetie we are out for dinner and they have no food. Let's eat at Ivory then we can go clubbing."

"I second that. At least for Ivory, I'm not certain I want to go clubbing tonight, I'll take the cab back and you all can stay on. Lets get food first," Armaan contributed with one of his rare comments.

"I'm not certain about clubbing either, " Gappu surprised everyone with that statement and realizing he did so he quickly added, "We can decide all that later. Armaan said it, food first."

Rahul looked at Muskaan who shrugged back just as puzzled and Armaan just looked at Gappu in his rearview. He had been so caught up with the sudden incident from less than half an hour ago that he had failed to notice how Gappu wasn't quite his usual self. But now he did, then frowning he looked ahead on the road pondering over the possibilities.

*******************
"What?" said Gappu as he looked up from his plate to find three pairs of eyes upon him.

"We came out cause you wished to celebrate Arsenal's win over archrivals. You seem to be mourning over the loss of ManU instead"

"Huh?...No of course not. I'm delighted for the Gunners Muski."

"Visibly so, " she retorted sarcastically, "What happened to the pig in you dude? You haven't even finished your first Naan yet in like the past 20 minutes?" Gappu looked back at his plate and realized Muski was right. He had been fiddling with a piece of paneer which no longer was a piece but a crumpled mess, and the food was pretty much just there.

"I...uh...its hot for me." He said the first thing that came to his mind.

"No it isn't, "Gappu was surprised as it wasn't Muski or Rahul but Armaan who said that. "It isn't hot Gaurav not half as much as the food we have at home. Unless you've been praising all of that in mere obligation for the past one week I don't see why this would be hot for you." Gappu decided it was good Armaan was a quiet fellow, he analyzed too much and way too accurately if he was to always speak his mind it wouldn't be a good idea at all.

"Yeh, I mean...I just got a green chilly in my last bite so..." Another random lie he thought hoping it would pass.

"Have the rosagoulla then here you go,"

Muski said shoving a bowl with two of the sweet white balls towards him. He nodded biting into one of them without further protest lest he was questioned more. Armaan glanced at his plate, he had not even tasted the vegetables yet, a chilly in his bite was not even possible. Looking back at Gappu he saw him qucikly finish off the second piece in his desert rather hastily. Perhaps it would be a good idea to head to Someplace Else after dinner. If it was just a missing home blue the music would do wonders, if not Armaan could come up with some excuse to drive back home with him while Rahul and Muskaan stayed on. That way he would have a chance to talk. Yes, that would work well he thought getting back to his food.

**********************
"The moon is a sight huh?" Gappu turned towards Armaan as they walked out of the club and from his tone he knew the moon was going to srve only an initiator to a much longer talk. He nodded waiting for the conversation to proceed.

"Mind if we walk for a bit? I know its kinda shady for a downtown street, but it will take us ages to find a cab willing to drive us home, given the hour and the distance, not to mention a completely opposite direction." Gappu nodded, then said,

"I thought you said you wanted to get back home soon so we can watch Fabregas live in conversation on ESPN." Armaan looked at him for a long moment, then said,

"I didn't expect you would buy that one from me. And I don't think you did. If Fabregas was going to be live on TV you never would have consented leave alone suggested yourself dinner out for tonight. But since you ask, live convesation it is going to be indeed."

Gappu looked at him then looked ahead of him. Perhaps the shock of seeing Ridhima had affected the man bad, he had never seen Armaan talk revealing his intention as blatantly, it was either reflective from his words, or not even that. When he looked back he realized Armaan was waiting for  reply. He nodded again lowering his gaze.

"Well? Are you going to explain yourself then?" Gappu shrugged sighing, then said in a low voice,

"I just..." he paused rubbing his forehead with his fingertips trying to ease out the frown and the thoughts causing it..."Its Minnie. We had an argument." He looked up at Armaan who remained silent but looked back at him in complete attention, "And I think I went too far. In fact I know I went too far." He hung his head staring at his shoes thrusting his hands into his pockets.

"Do you wish to talk more about it?" Armaan asked in a voice which offered neither sympathy nor reproach. It was a plain voice suggestive of nothing in order for Gappu to decide without a bias.

"I don't know." He stated flatly, he realy did not. Perhaps he did want to talk, but he wasn't sure how much that would help. He wished he was home, and there was no way he could say that to Armaan after all that he and his family had done for him. He wasn't homesick, he still loved them and trusted them as much, but he just felt it could all have been sorted by now if he was home.

"Are you missing home?" Gappu almost jumped out of his skin at the words. He stared at Armaan the shock written all over his face, can he read my mind, like literally he wondered skeptically. Armaan got his answer and looked ahead nodding his head slowly as Gappu frowned trying to analyze what he could be thinking. It was a big task however, to figure what went on in Armaan Malik's head he told himself in resignation, and then just walked on in silence waiting for things to be explained since there was not much he could do about it.

"Its a great feeling to miss home Gappu. I always wished I could miss mine, but it never quite happened."

Gappu was puzzled more than ever. Armaan was back to himself, talking in riddles which took forever to be figured out.

"But why not? I mean how could you not miss them, Muski and Daddu?" Armaan smiled sighing, then looking at Gappu he said

"I did. I missed them tons, never could not have. But I did not miss home."

This made more sense to Gappu and he gathered Armaan meant he did not miss his kaka and kaki, that did not surprise him. But he didn't say it out loud, much as he was convinced that his opinion about them was shared by the rest in the house he could not bring himself to cross the line. He was despite everything, an outsider to the Malik family for now and had no right to interfere in the family matters.

"I could have missed home in my early days, when Ma and Baba were still alive if I would have had to stay out of home then. But it wasn't until much later that I left for studies and  after them, it was just not home anymore. Daddu and Muski were people I loved more than life, my family, but not my home. That had been defined by them and my parents together for me, and with either missing it just wasn't the same. Infact I tried hard to get Daadu and Muski to come visit me during breaks instead of the other way around, but...oh well...I think it was Daddu's attempt at getting me attached to the place the same way as before but it didn't quite work that way, I only started dreading returning to the villa as it would take me back way too far into the past and then I decided I had to take a break. Cambridge it was then."

"And thats where you met her." Gappu said quietly and making Armaan look at him, it was then that he doubted for the first time in a week if there was a chance that Gappu may know the significance of the words he just spoke, the significance of her in his life then and ever after. Gappu looked up with an expectant smile,

"Massi I meant, thats where you both met right? She was so different from now those several years ago it seems the difference worth a lifetime sometimes."

Armaan felt a tug at his heart, her face from the evening on the screen flashed before his eyes, and he realized how she had grown gracefully beautiful in the years since Cambridge compared to the more juvenille appeal then, and yet it lacked the Ridhima factor, Gappu was right she had changed, possibly not for the best. What troubled him more than this change was the fact that he could not subdue his knowledge of the cause of that change. He had taken much longer last year when fate had brought them face to face in Chicago, to realize that she had not moved on after him. This time a webshot on his computer screen was all he needed to know how persisting that situation was, still the same. He had wished well for her through this year of separation, wishing nothing more than for her to be happy, but he had known how contradictory it was to his other selfish inner desire, moments in which he longed to have her in his life, which could only mean praying for her to not have moved on.

"Did you have a girlfriend in school?" the question from Gappu jerked him out of the past.

"Huh? No." Ridhima was not his girlfriend he thought because she was much more, she was the one he loved...

"Did you fall in love?" It was Armaan's turn to shoot him a shocked look.

"You did, I see." Gappu said confirming that his silence had spoken more than words could have. Before Armaan could think of an explanation to give Gappu continued, "Was it a mess to be in love?"

Armaan was almost relieved at not being asked who it was that he had been in love with. And then he thought about what he had been asked. Was it a mess to be in love? Yes. Had it been a mess then? That was the hard part. Being in love had given him the most beautiful phase of his life. He realized how he had never given it a thought this way, or he would have been compelled to give credit to that love, to Ridhima for keeping alive within him a will to desire. Yes it had been and was there persisting to stay on, the desire deep inside. Had being in love been a mess then? No. It was having to stay away from his love, having to pretend to not be in love that was a mess.

"Being in love was wonderful. I think I never got enough of the feeling it invokes, so much that I can't let go of being in love." He whispered it in a daze, almost without realizing and when did it seemed a moment too late. He glanced at Gappu who seemed deep in thought. Armaan crossed his fingers hoping he had missed the last bit of the conversation. It was a wish too big.

"So can you be in love forever?" 

Armaan saw Gappu was talking to him and yet absorbed in thoughts of his own, thoughts perhaps which were raising these questions more than, as Armaan had been starting to suspect, his intention to delve deeper into Armaan's past. He decided the conversation had been counter steered long enough and it was time to take it back on track. He stopped walking and as he had guessed Gapu walked on a several seconds until he realized the same. Turning around he faced Armaan who stood with his hands casually thrust in his pockets, his face devoid of expressions but the gaze unblinking. Gappu looked at him and then looked away then sighing he looked back again.

"We just started with a silly argument when she said I didn't take half her calls ever since I was here, and I said it was more from the contrasting times of the day than any other intention s to miss her calls. I don't know what happened to her Armaan she just...like suddenly got all mad at me, and then simultaneously emotional and almost insecure and then she said she was afraid of what would happen if I left her. " Gappu paused and Armaan walked towards him covering the gap of some few paces between them. But he stayed quiet and Gappu went on.

"I would have thought she was kidding or teasing me Armaan, but she was dead serious and I knew it. What I did not know, and still can't figure is why she thought so out of no where. I mean I have only just been here a week, and I have talked to her alot more than I have talked even back home and...I mean she said she
thought I was just bored of her now since we have been together for almost a year. How the hell could she even humor this thought. And I asked her the same. I told her I did and always would love her."  he paused and Armaan saw a flicker like that of one wounded as he spoke on, "She asked me if that meant that I would be with her forever?" he whispered in a low voice, barely audible.

"Will you?" Armaan asked. He was certain he knew the answer but somehow Minnie's questions made him wonder of what it was that made her question Gappu so. Perhaps his answer would uncover something he did not yet know.

"Forever is a very big word Armaan." Gappu stated. And for a moment Armaan wasn't certain he heard it right. Then he frowned deep clenching his fist unconsciously. Perhaps Minnie wasn't quite wrong in having her reserves about him. How could he say what he just did, and had he said the same to Minnie? He spoke maintaining the calm in his voice somehow, telling himself to not judge before he heard it all.

"What do mean? I thought you just said you will love her forever?"

"Because there never can be anyone else. But forever is a very big word and I'm not God. How can I possibly state for fact what the future holds for us, I have seen it no more than she has. I can only promise what's in my hands and that is to love her always, more than that is neither mine to promise her nor
mine to predict." Armaan did not notice his pause, as the depth of those words slowly dawned upon him.

"I said that to her and she cut the call, refusing to answer it for the 10 times I tried re calling her after that until Rahul came for me. I know I spoke too far, I did not have to state it this way, at least not when she was so obviously disturbed. Its just the truth which has been playing on my mind, the truth of how things don't always happen the way you want them to, the truth of how Massi and you have neither moved on nor gone back to what was and..."

He stopped abruptly and shut his eyes in realization of what he had done. Cursing himself mentally he opened his eyes and looked up to face him somehow. Armaan held his look and they both knew the game was up. Gappu swallowed kicking himself mentally for the unintentional slip. But Armaan showed no further reaction. Lowering his eyes slowly he turned around to look elsewhere as if in search of something and said in a flat unaffected voice,

"Let's get a cab now. I think I'm tired to walk anymore."

Gappu opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. Despite the finality in Armaan's words Gappu decided this wasn't the end of their live conversation. Now that Armaan knew, Gappu had to pose ignorance no more. He would get back to this after talking it out wityh Chirag, and then it would be a confrontation. For the moment he left him to think out what he wanted to, while he himself thought of what to say to Minnie when he called her back again after they got home, provided she answered his call this time. He followed Armaan as the latter hailed a cab to take them back home.

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

"Sorry,"
It's all that you can't say
Years gone by and still
Words don't come easily
Like "sorry" (like "sorry"..like "sorry"..)

But you can say, baby
Baby can I hold you tonight?
Baby, if I told you the right words
at the right time
You'll be mine

I love you
is all that you can't say
Years gone by and still
Words don't come easily
Like "I love you", I love you....

Armaan turned the volume to nill, he had replayed the song for the umpteenth time since he got back home, and much before that he had been subconsciously humming it ever since it played on Gappu's ringtone. in the evening. He got up and started pacing the floor of his room. It was strange how he should have been shocked by Gappu's accidental confession of knowing it all, but he wasn't. He knew somewhere he had always expected Chirag to have done this, even hoped for it if he admitted it in complete honesty. So it could not be strange that he wasn't mad at either of them. Or he had not given them enough thought since the moment they got into the cab. As the lyrics of the song replayed in his ears, his mind was busy replaying Gappu's words over and over. And his initial repulive reaction to them. 

Then Gappu had said it...about him and Ridhima. And Armaan saw his whole life in a new light. It was true what Gappu had said;- about not being God, about things not always going the way you wanted. It had held all through his life as nothing had gone his way. It wasn't even like he had never fought for what he wanted, including Ridhima he thought as he closed his eyes remembering the time he had received the call to come back home from Daadu, the call that changed his life in such a big way.

But what troubled him most was Gappu's other claim,
about promising only what was in his hands, his never ending love for Minnie. That was what struck out for him, cause that was one thing which did not hold true in his life. Yes his love for Ridhima was everlasting, but he had never actually promised it to her, much worse, he had never even confessed its existence to her. That had been in his hands and something he evaded only out of convenience, or more like cowardice. He told himself all these years his confession would make things harder for her, and kept it inside. As if she did would not have known without him telling. What then had he been escaping by not wording it to her, why had he not considered what it could mean to her to know what he felt for her, from him. For the first time in his life Armaan admitted his silence had caused more pain than he had assumed he was ever going to avoid. He had never denied that she deserved the truth, and then he had never given it to her. Had not confessing changed anything for him? More importantly, had it changed anything for her? She was still in love with him...he paused in his steps.

"She still loves me, she always did." Slowly he lowered himself to the edge of his bed..."She loves me...Ridhima..." He whispered her name. Then he jumped off his bed and rushed to Gappu's room.

"GAURAV!" He almost yelled in the connecting corridor, consequently even before he reached the room Gappu's head popped out of his door frowning, Armaan stopped himself before he yelled anymore, and running to Gappu's door he shoved him inside shutting the door behind him.

"I need Ridhima's cell number, one on which I could reach her right away."

Gappu frowned more, not sure he could understand what it was the Armaan implied even though once again that evening he had expressed himself so explicitly. Armaan saw his look, but wasn't patient enough to explain himself right then, he did not even know what there was that he could explain.

"I want to talk to her, there's something she must know, no theres quite a few somethings she must know." Gappu wanted to know desperately now what exactly Armaan meant, instead he just lifted his cell back to his ear and said,

"Minnie I'll call you back in a minute. " Cuttin the call he spoke to Armaan who only just realized that Gapu had been on a cal, but he was too occupied to feel guilty for interrupting.

"Are you just going to memorize it? Where's the phone you will call from?" Armaan frowned a moment then walked past him to pick up the cordless lying on its set by the bed side.

"Go on," and he dialled the number as Gappu spelt the digits. Without another second he moved out of the room, as he heard the phone ringing. Gappu just stared at the door through which he had appeared and now disappeared, thinking of how significant the short dialogue in between those two could be, and in what respect. And then its rung again, his phone, interrupting his thoughts.

"I love u, is all that you can't say, years gone by and still..." ...

"Minz...Did you ver figure a way to understand what your uncle was thinking?" He quipped answering the call.

*********************
He crossed his fingers as he heard the sixth round of the phone ringing, was he being too impulsive? He shut his eyes to shove the doubts out of his head he wanted no place for them in his life anymore, please pick the call Ridhima...and as if in answer to his request he heard the click of a call being answered.

"Hello?"

He smiled at her voice, she sounded like she had been interrupted, with her mind not completely in the hello she spoke.

"Hi Ridhima," His smile deepened saying her name, suddenly he felt liberated, and as he heard the silence on the other end, he grinned. She had not missed recognizing his voice, and the impact was obvious in no response. He decided to let her have it easy.

"Armaan here." He paused as she continued to stay silent, but he wasn't put off. "I know you are there, and its alright if you are comfortable being silent. Its not you who has to talk anyways for once, its me. Can I just trust you to hear me all through?"

"Armaan...I...meeting...I mean, er...can I call you back in a bit?"

"I love you Ridhima," he paused certain she could hear his smile in his words as it widened to its maximum, "And yes you can call me later, please do, I'll wait for the call."

"Bye...Armaan." And he heard the call click to an end Slowly he lowered it from his ear and looked at it for a long moment. He had heard the effect of his confession in her last two words. Impulsively he kissed the phone softly, and his lips still lingering on it he whispered again,

"I love you!" Then smiling he shut his eyes imagining her face from the evening chat, and opening them he spoke in a contemplating whisper, "The desire to love...your desire, my love..."

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


Part 11 up at last folks..it was done last night, but i couldn't see what was missing, that until one of my housemates made us talk to her niece in italy on her laptop, WITH THE WEBCAM...lolzzz....u know wat i mean now right? i had to scarp half the part and re do it from scratch again, but it seemed so much more powerful this way than it had in the earlier idea id done....hope u will agree with me....

enjoy the part, this time u cant complain of emptying tissue boxes haha!!!...

lovya all....!!!
cheers,
nj

ps: before i forget to mention, the essays this time were extra special, i dont know how to say why they were so, buyt somehow they meant so much, so many of u taking the time to write such detailed comments for me, it gave me such a high, higher than Armaans high after the confession lolzzz, now u shoud know wat i mean!!!!


SCROLL DOWN FOR PART 12



Edited by spln - 23 November 2008 at 9:29am

The following 5 member(s) liked the above post:

aarushi001Haniyaapinkssbarypatakhaguddi

Veiledbeauty IF-Dazzler
Veiledbeauty
Veiledbeauty

Joined: 04 December 2007
Posts: 3706

Posted: 08 September 2008 at 8:43pm | IP Logged
Sooooooo... this is what you've been working onnn!! and I was waiting for the answers to my questions Grrrr.. lool..

ok well im tired... so im off to sleep... make sure you get your 2 hours of sleep, deary hahaaha...
sweet_JAY_FAN Goldie
sweet_JAY_FAN
sweet_JAY_FAN

Joined: 04 November 2007
Posts: 2037

Posted: 08 September 2008 at 8:45pm | IP Logged
Oh spln ur back with another FF gr8
 
this one sounds interesting and different
 
plz cont soon as possob;e
spln IF-Sizzlerz
spln
spln

Joined: 06 December 2007
Posts: 11036

Posted: 08 September 2008 at 8:45pm | IP Logged
ps: hey ppl...from the long lovely essays i have been getting, speially for the previous two parts, i gather gappu minnie are quite liked, n well its kinda hard to picture for readers what they may look like, so i thot il fix that bit...thanx a ton to kratz aka krati, who made me the VM for a song and couple  we decided with common consnsus wud fit, lovya hinu n nij for all the input to the VM, even though i refused to let u see without he update hehe...i had awsome fun in the group VM activity LOL, love u gang of nutters!...the VM is posted in the right spot in the update, i strongly recommend u watch it exactly at that point, its meant to be seen like that, its author's note, author's wish!!!

pps: happy birthday lakky, this ones for ur day!!!...(n pa!)

~Part 12~

The sense of it was persistent, no more a  faraway fading nudge. She frowned trying to shove it off, for it was disturbing her, distracting her from something in her head she was trying to concentrate on. She tried to recall what it was she had been thinking, but she couldn't. It refused to leave, the touch, a vigorous sensation now, almost like someone was shaking her. In a final attempt she flayed her hands, and thats when she felt it, the touch of skin, real and cold, even in the confusing chain of thoughts it caused a jolt.

"RIDHIMA!"

She jerked open her eyes. Too fast, too wide, althogether too sudden a movement for her eyes which still felt heavy with sleep. She scrunched them tight frowning.

"Ridz, are you alright?"

Reluuctantly and with slight effort she opened them again, only enough to barely allow reasonable vision, and she saw Ritu bent over her. As her eyes threatened to shut again, she felt the persistent tug return; It was then she realized that Ritu was shaking her gently, and had perhaps been all that while. How long could it have been she wondered somewhere in her passively reacting mind, it had felt like forever. Rubbing her eyes she frowned lifting her head off the desk and as she did she felt a pain in the back of her neck.

"Aaahhh..."

She groaned, her hand moving to the affected spot, her face contorting in pain. Ritu pushed her slightly back more comfortably into the leather chair so her back could rest against it well while the head found a back rest too. More consciously coming awake now she massaged her neck lightly to relieve it of the strain from the uncomfortable posture. Her eyes met Ritu's in a brief moment before wandering all around the room. The office. Unconsciously her hands went to her head, as she held it for a couple of seconds before running her fingers through her hair as she said, almost in a whisper.

"I...office...I slept?" She looked up at Ritu in question at the last two words. Ritu nodded, and Ridhima realized only then how concerned she looked.

"Are you alright Ridzi? Why didn't you go back home if you were so exhausted? Molly must have informed you the meeting got cancelled."

Ridhima heard the words rattle off, processing them much slower, she spoke a couple of seconds later after finally managing to do so.

"The meeting cancelled?..."

She was puzzled but only for a moment. Then it all came back to her in a flash, what her mind had been trying to concentrate on when she had been interrupted, shaken awake.

"Yeh, uh...yeh she mentioned, I mean yes she came to tell me and I just thought I will wrap up some papers before I leave." She chuckled trying to not to look guilty or nervous, "I...er...I should have gone home you're right." Then abruptly she got up from her chair reaching for the coat draped over it. "I will now, I guess. I really should get some rest. I'm...I'm tired, of course."

She gave another silly grin, hoping Ritu would buy this and not question her anymore. She had to get out of here, be by herself. She needed time to think, plenty of both, time and thinking.What the hell had she been dreaming. Hastily she collected the essentials, wearing the coat, grabbing her bag, three chart holders, and the car keys off the counter and shooting a confused looking Ritu a quick nervous smile she moved towards the door.

"Ridzi?"

She cursed mentally, then truned around crossing her fingers in hope against a likely interrogation coming her way.

"Are you certain all is fine? You have never just slept off like that...in the office I mean, not even when you've barely slept in nights. I'm just..."

"Ritu..." Ridhima moved over to her friend interrupting her. Holding her hand lightly she smiled, hoping to make it as reassuring as was possible, as her own mind felt devastated with wild thoughts all haywire and clashing. 

"I'm fine, just exhausted. And I know that insomniac image holds true, but it isn't criminal for me to sleep once in a lifetime right?"

Ridhima saw a faint smile come on Ritu's lips and almost heaved a sigh of relief. She knew she wasn't capable of maintaining a conversation much longer now, her mind ravaged by thoughts, and the dream needed sorting out, in peace.

"Alright. Drive back safely."

Ritu said softly giving her a hug. Ridhima returned it almost hurriedly, and then pulling out of the embrace she made her exit. Ritu stood some moments longer before shaking her head in attempted denial to the doubts still trying to peak in her mind.

Could Anji Di be right about Vivek and Ridhima? She had called Ritu this morning to check up on the guy who dropped Ridhima home and Ritu had been more than shocked hearing the recounting. She could hardly believe Ridhima had let him do that, keeping in mind their previous meeting. Somehow the fact that she learnt about their second encounter from Anji Di and not Ridhima herself meant only one of the two things, either it had not seemed significant enough for a mention or it had weighed on Ridhima too heavily and she was taking her time opening up about it.

She had tried to convince herself of the former but it almost contradicted the fact that Ridhima would let someone that insignificant walk her home, that when their first meeting had been definitely not cordial. And if it was the latter, even though Ritu would prefer nothing more than for her friend to get over her grief and settle happily soemthing irked at the back of her head. What could have Vivek possibly have done to win Ridhima's trust enough to walk her back home, it was hard to imagine.

She had decided to let Ridhima explain the whole thing but somehow it couldn't happen through the day, and now when she came to her cabin Ridhima had been sleeping. If that wasn't enough Ritu was certain she had caught between her inaudible mumbling something that sounded like 'he loves me...' It could be all in her head and yet...

"Vivek...Ridhima..." She muttered moving out of the office. Anji Di had been excited on the call, she must have liked him instantly. I have to talk to Chirag she thought to herself.

"Molly, can you lock Ridhima's cabin? She left in a hurry and forgot to." With that she moved to her own room.
 
************************
Armaan paced the floor across his bed, fiddling with the cordless in his hands.It slipped out of his hands and cursing in his head he picked it up. Then he sat at he edge of the bed, running his free hand through his hair, sighing deeply he shut his eyes. Within seconds he jerked them open, got up and started pacing the floor fiddling with the cordless as before, until it fell again.

"Dam it!"

He cursed aloud picking it up. He had been doing this for almost an hour now, being reckless and fidgety, and peace of mind eluded him no matter what he tried to occupy himself with. He asked himself what he had been asking over and over, after an anxiety of the impending had started seeping in a while ago not allowing the excitement to dominate his emotions as it had during and right after his confession call.

What would she say? How would she react, how did he expect her to he thought gritting his teeth. If only she would call. Would she, he wondered. She's in a meeting Armaan, he told hmself yet again, which can, in fact should take a while. But how long would this while be? And what meeting was it;- a client? a company meeting? a personal meeting? How long could a meeting continue anyways- an hour? two? or more...? Wouldn't it actually depend on how long before his call she had been in the meeting and how much of it was still to go? An hour was a long time, longer than ever when you wanted time to fly past and stop only at that moment you were waiting for.

Maybe he should call her again. Right now? No, he had to wait at least a while before he called her again. But how much longer should he wait? That depends on how long you think the meeting will last Armaan he told himself shaking his head as it all came back to the same thing. How long could it be before the phone would ring, if it would. Countless. The possibilities were countless and there was no use trying to guess something he had  absolutely no clue about. But there was nothing better to occupy himself with either, or maybe there was, only he was incapable being involved with any other tasks while his thoughts were stuck on her. How the hell had he survived six years? A few hours could not be that bad he tried to tell himself. It didn't help.

"I love you Ridhima..."

He whispered slumping onto the bed again. It did not strike him how easy it had suddenly become for him to confess that feeling he had harbored inside himself for over half a decade now. Confess not just to himself, but to her, Ridhima, and ever since he had been repeating it to himself as if it was his source of strength, his sole ray of optimism. He wished he could know if he had been too impulsive, confessed in a rush of emotions, but that countered by a 6 year long wait did not make it appear like a hasty confessions at all, much the contrary. If there was anything at all he would link with the confession, it was an unenduring delay preceeding it, not an impulsive rush leading to it. He loved her, so did she, what remained was only hearing it from her. That was another thing which had changed in the past one hour.

All these years he had not confessed fearing it would hurt her, but now he knew it wasn't her. It was himself he was saving the pain. He had feared she would confess back and he knew not how he would ever live staying away from her if she did. His running away had not altogether been from confessing to her, but from hearing the words reciprocated. And tonight it was a reversal. He had told her what he should have years ago, what she had been longing to hear from him even if just once and now unlike ever before he felt his faith faltering. What if she did not reciprocate?

He had run from one land to another escaping the moment when she would say she loved him and now he wondered if he had ever had to run at all? Perhaps she didn't love him? But he knew she did. Atleast she had. But what if the love had passed her, 6 years was after all a very long time. Then again, why would she still be alone? Yeh right he argued in his head, is that a criteria to ascertain she still loves you? Fine. Gappu said she never moved on, that certainly was a criteria, it had to be. Alright concluded she still loved him. What if she refused to confess it? Of course not why would she do that  if she...if she loved him? Hadn't he done the same? But I had a reason he told himself. So could she, or was she not allowed that excuse, having a reason he thought to himself in bitter sarcasm at self? He slipped off the bed onto the cold tiled floor facing the ceiling as the back of his head rest on the edge of the bed, and he closed his eyes. Sighing deeply he whispered,

"Call me back Ridhima, please, I don't have your patience."

He opened his eyes as he felt a sudden presence around. Gappu stood next to him holding two cups. Handing one over to Armaan he settled down beside him. Armaan frowned at the cup, then at Gappu then holding the cup up for Gappu to take back he said,

"Thanks, but I don't have coffee." Gappu gently pushed his hand back with a smile.

"I know. But I've been having tea with you for a week when I've never had it in life before. So you have to drink coffee with me now. Pay back time." He grinned making Armaan break into a smile himself despite himself. Lowering his head he blew at the steaming cup to cool it down. Without looking at him he remarked with a sigh.

"Yeh payback time indeed, you guys conspire as a family and do it all at the same time don't you?" Gappu laughed.

"Massi not answering your call?"

"She did, but I know that was only because she couldn't have thought its me."

"What did you say?"

"I said hello Ridhima I love you." Gappu almost choked on his coffee, then stared at him incredulously. Armaan avoided looking back.

"Like that? I mean just like that?" Gappu spoke trying hard to fight his laughter, a grin forming on his face. Armaan gave him a side look then sighed blowing at his coffee again. Without looking up he replied,

"Pretty much, there were another couple of random conversational sentences, but mostly yes, just like that."

"So what did she say?"

"What do you think?"

"She couldn't have said hello back Armaan and I love you too!"

This time Armaan broke out laughing despite himself, and Gappu smiled deep. He never knew Armaan could laugh like that, it was almost an alien thing coming from him, but Gappu wished it would stay. At last Armaan stopped laughing and spoke, shaking his head and still grinning.

"I wish she had though. She didn't. She said she was in a meeting and would call back later."

"Meeting..." Gappu said thoughtfully and Armaan looked at him expectantly.

"You think she was making it up to buy time? I mean...I kinda caught her off gurad you know..." He asked reluctantly unsure of what he hoped Gappu would say.

"Thats a subtle way of putting her reaction to 'hello Ridhima I love you.' " Gappu said and Armaan frowned at him. He continued paying no heed. "Its possible though, but shes a horrible liar. Did she sound like she was making an excuse?" Armaan wondered how he had not thought of it that way. Ridhima was a horrible liar. After several seconds he shook his head.

"No I don't think she made it up."

"Then she must be in a meeting, which will I daresay be nothing but a wreck after your call of course." Armaan shot him an indignant look. Then getting suddenly guilty he looked back at his coffee which was cold now and still untouched.

"Do you have to state it like that?"

"I'm learning from you." Gappu retorted making Armaan look up and spoke on before he could be interrupted, "Dam! I mean what a confession, and here I've been living in the happy illusion that mine was spontaneous as can be." Amraan was curious despite the overwhelming pressure on his mind.

"Really?...then?"

"Then what? You just beat my record. But I get a bonus for saying it well in time." Armaan gave a depressed smile nodding his head and said,

"You do. I will probably get disqualified for my delay. If I'm already not." Gappu looked at him for a long silent moment. Then he said

"Why are you still staring at the coffee? Have it. Its cold enough. " Armaan sighed then lifted it to his lips. A sip later he exclaimed,

"So how did you do it? Propose Minnie I mean? I wish I could have been there." Gappu smiled at Armaan's questions, and his wistful look.

"She said the same. She wished you were there when we took Massi, Chirag and Ritu out for a treat. And its a story, the proposal. You up for it?" Armaan stared at the phone by his side and said,

"I don't know when else I could ever be up for a happy confession if not right now. "

**********************
She rushed down to the parklot and dumped her stuff in the passenger seat after reaching and unlocking her car. She moved to the driver's seat and got in, then on an impulse she got out of it and clicking it auto lock behind her she walked out of the parking. A walk in the cold would do her good, it always did. It was something about winter, she loved it, always had and would always. Walking down the sidewalk she looked at the white all around, it had snowed the night before and there was a slight flurry even now. In that moment she shut out her thoughts, she did not want to think.

Taking a deep breath she closed her eyes and the cold intake did her wonders as she felt a calm seep through.
No it wasn't the winter she thought with a small smile, it was something about her, loving whatever and whoever she did forever. The thought slowed down her pace to almost a step with each breath and she looked straight ahead at nothing in vision. Her eyes felt tearful as a cold wisp of wind blew into her face. But she held the water forming in them as she looked upwards widening her eyes so they would absorb it back. She did not blink but as she lowered her face she felt the inevitable chilling trail of a tear down her cheek. She wiped it off.

"He loves me..." she whispered to herself in a lost voice saying the words at last. Seconds later frowning slightly she said "Or was that part of my dream too?"

The frown set in deep as she continued walking on in slow steps trying to revisit her dream; - where had it started? It had to be the wedding...she had been waiting inside a hall, which had been packed, people sitting in the rows were blurs, she knew no one there, at least no one she remembered seeing in the dream as she had searched for something...someone...while she was on the stage. Oh yeh, it had been the stage of West Road Hall from Cambridge. She almost smiled at the thought of the hall as an image of it flashed in her mind; it was where they had gone for a musical concert night when he asked her out the first time. That seemed to click in place.

But a wedding scene? Why did she think it was a wedding, it was a stage an audience and most of all she had been alone. Alone but dressed like a bride she corrected herself. And then...they had heard him...all of them in the hall. "I love you Ridhima..." She heard the words in her head again now, the words from her dream, resulting perhaps from his call? Had the call been real then? She tried to think on further about her dream.

It was his voice, Armaan's voice there was no mistaking it, and she had run off the stage looking for where his voice came from. And then it had dissolved. There wasn't a hall no more neither the audience. It was a forest and she had been running around in a search. A search of him because he had told her he would come, and then she had felt a touch...on her shoulder...and she had turned around to cry and yell at him for disapearing but there was no one...and she had screamed his name but there was no sound. She screamed again asking him to tell her he loved her, like he had before, had he not? But there was no sound in her voice she could not even hear herself, and then she had felt it again, the touch on her shoulder...

The touch had been Ritu, and the dream had ended there. Ridhima shut her eyes now feeling a chill again as her eyes watered more. It was the Chicago wind of course, she wasn't crying. 

"So...he did call then" she thought sighing the dream now flashing in her mind and his confession echoing in the background. Pushing her lose hair back she stopped suddenly.

"Oh yeh the call..." She exclaimed then fished onto her pockets for her cell phone. It would be on the call log if he had called for real and not just in her dream. But the cell was not with her, she left it in the bag in the car. She cursed mentally, why was she incapable of keeping her phone on herself. Quickly she turned around to retrace her steps to the parklot. Thankfully she had not come more than five blocks.

"But I'm certain the call was not my dream, no he definitely called and said...he loved me." She paused her words doubtfully, "But it so doesn't sound real, a confession...from him. Maybe it was a dream, why would he...all of a sudden out of like..." She shook her head hard mumbling to herself almost walking into the oncomming pedastrians she was walking the wrong lane and continued doing so. "But...I do think he called, like just before I was leaving for the meeting and then I had to cut it cause Molly knocked at the door and I thought she had come in to say I was delaying and...then she said it was cancelled?" Ridhima stopped in her track again, abruptly this time for she had been walking fast.

"Yeh there was a meeting, it did get cancelled, and Molly came to inform me about it, if all that happened for real so did the call. Yes...no I wasn't dreaming, I mean I was later but he did call. And he did say...he loves me..." Unconsciously she was walking slowly again, deep in thought.

"Armaan..." The name left her lips and she sighed. "Armaan loves me, he said it. He told you Ridhima he loves you. He called you to tell you he loves you. He..."

She quickened her pace. She had to get her phone. She had to call him back. Why had she not done it right away when Molly...then it struck her, how the hell had she slept off? That after ARMAAN MALIK TOLD HER, RIDHIMA GUPTA THAT HE LOVED HER? She ran her hand through her hair sighing in frustration and walked as fast as she could with the wedge heels on the thin sleet like film which remained in patches on the sidewalk despite the salting.

"I was just...shocked." she justified herself. "Yes I was in a daze and I didn't realize I should call him back. What? Of course not, I realized I had to call him back. In fact when I cut his call I had no idea of how I would sit through the meeting, with three sleepless nights behind me, which did not even come close to the distraction from his call...his confession call." He said he loved me, she thought, like said it. For real. In words.

"Sshhhh Sshhh" She told her head..."Stop it. Stop thinking about him. You have to first think about...him. I mean stop thinking about what he said. You have to think of what to say back to him first. OH MY GOD!" She stoped in her track abruptly again, "Thats it. Thats what I had sit down to think about after Molly left. Dam, I must have shut my eyes. That explains it. Dam it!" And looking up ahead she saw she was across the street from her office parklot.

***********************
"Alright lets get this straight here. You were like together for 5 months after I left and atleast a couple of months before that, and together as in all the time you could be together, and all the time you could not be as well. But in none of those moments you were with her could you tell her you loved her, not even the moments when you pre planned confessing it, not when you threw a surprise party for her birthday, not when you crashed into her room to wish her good luck at 1AM for her exams with a red rose, not when you walked down the Lake Michigan shore hand in hand, not when she hugged you for the first time, or through the countless eye locks you claim...not even at the crazy rain party when you danced away all night...No. When did it happen then, thankfully i know it did or the way you're narrating this I would have assumed the confession was never going to come. You like missed every moment there was to tell her, every moment she would have expected you to.

Gappu grinned, blushing slightly. Then shrugging with a smile he said,

"Every moment except the one which was meant to be it Armaan. You missed 6 years and said it tonight, do you have any reason except that it seemed so right?" Armaan stared at him for a moment then shaking his head he said,

"It seemed so right, I wonder if it was..." Then sighing he looked back at Gappu and said "So when did you tell her?"

"It was this evening she forced me to go on the Ferris Wheel, yet again, shes such a kid for it, wants to go keep going back to Navy Pier just for that ride. And you know love struck as I am, I always consent. Actually after that evening I almost keep waiting for her to mention the ride again, I think now I'll never have enough of it, I relive that evening everytime..."

Armaan smiled at the dazed look on Gappu's face, waiting for him to continue. If only all endings could be so happy, he sighed glancing at the phone again. When would it ring, for him...

"It was after my team won the inter varsity league, I made the winning goal. I was dead tired but she refused to let me go without a treat and I was too happy to turn her down. And so missy drives me to her forever favorite spot, I groaned seeing it Armaan but I'm so glad we went there that evening. Anyways she dragged me out of the car and when I knew she wouldn't let it go I just resigned to her demand, and we went on the ride. It was turning dark, dusky to be precise. I can't deny the sight is worth a heartbeat atleast, its just I never understood what was Minnie's persisting fascination of it, like she was watching it for the first time everytime she did."

"I always wanted to know but speaking on that ride is prohibited if you're with Minnie. She just wants to sit in silence and watch the city she loves, from the perfect height of the Ferris, its like you're low enough to catch the details of even the people walking on the ground below, and you're high enough to see for a long distance away, the city its lights, the lake all of it between your eyes and the horizon at the other end. That evening was no different, no less mesmerizing, no more captivating than all the times before, and I just sat looking at her. Then she caught me off guard, totally as she suddenly turned around and I couldn't look away from her in time. She caught me staring and so I tried to avoid her gaze concentrating on the view for once, our trolley at that moment was closing in to the peak of the wheel, we were almost at the top. And she whispered." Gappu smiled lowering his eyes as he stared at the floor, Armaan felt he was replaying the scene before his eyes.

" 'Isn't it beauty a Gaurav?' she asked me I just nodded, still avoiding her eyes. But I could see her smiling from the side gaze and thats all it ever takes me to look back at her. I smiled, and Minnie says now I blushed too, I think it just gives her a high to tease me when she rarely can. Anyways, I don't know it was the look in her eyes, I always had felt my feelings reflected in them, but that evening it seemed more than just a reciprocation. I almost started to ask her, but all I could manage was asking her how she never found the sight repeatitive and monotonous. She said it was the exhilerating feeling, of being on the top of the world, that when the world below was such a beautiful sight. She said she felt like she ruled the happiness of the world, like it was all hers, and the feeling never changed no matter how many times she took the ride. Then she asked me if it wasn't so? If the sight did not make me feel similar?"

"And I couldn't answer her for several seconds, cause I couldn't stop staring at her. Not even at being caught staring this time. I just couldnt break the look, her face, her smile, and I could see nothing beyond it, nothing at all of the sight she was talking about. Then she said my name, but it did not sound like it was for an interruption, not like she was calling me out of the daze so I would stop making her uncomfortable. No. That's when I knew it was then or never. It was the moment as perfect as I had always imagined it to be, not because of the beauty of it, or the ambience around, or even the proximity between us. It was because in her voice I thought I heard not just a consent to my love, that had always been there, there was an added edge to it, an urge from her that I should say what we both knew I had to. And so I did. I told her I loved her. Right there, at the top of the Ferris Wheel over looking her favorite sight and when she hugged me saying the same it was the magical moment I had waited for, I knew the magic of it would last me a lifetime, and I believed then that I had chosen the right moment for this memory. She made me chose it, there could never have been one better..."



The silence fell between the two of them, as both Armaan and Gappu were lost in their own thoughts, Gappu smiling and Armaan staring at phone unknowingly, but almost as if he was willing it to ring.

"I love you...is all that you can't say...years gone by and still..." They were both jolted out of their frenzies as the tone from Gappu's cell echoed in the pin drop silence. He looked at the screen for a moment, then handing the cell to Armaan he said,

"Love's calling!" Winking at him he left the room.

***********************
Driving the car out of the lot she bit her lower lip dialing the international code. Then she flipped the phone shut. Sighing she dropped it on the passenger seat. She couldn't. She just could not bring herself to call him back. If only she had not told him she would. Now he would be waiting for her call, he must have already for like an hour and a half and... She pressed hard down on the accelerator. So what she thought in sudden defiance. Waiting was certainly not something he could complain about, not to her at least.

6 years. Which had seemed much longer. There were times when the nights had seemed impossible to survive,and there were days which had gone by in a daze. Things happened, nothing outside her head and heart ever came to a standstill, people came and left, some stayed on, but it was for her a spectator mode, she sat outside the activity frame watching the 6 years of her life pass her by as everything and everyone around her advanced in their lives ahead.

She sighed trying to shake off the gloom which would rise everytime she thought back in retrospective. It was like another lifetime, the happy years of her life which had preceeded this period, an abyss. She lost her parents in an air crash at an early age, and her family life revolved around her sister in their years of schooling in the London boarding schools, where they were enrolled by their grandmother. Soon after Anjali got married, while Ridhima was just starting high school, their Grandmother passed away as well. Their had not been much bonding with the relatives in India as their family, a nuclear unit except their gradmother had lived outside India too long, not enough effort from either end to remain in touch.

Atul was Anjali's batch in undergrad, and the two of them had taken those four years of education to fall in love. Ridhima believed they had been and still were alot more of a pair of best friends then two people in love. Her fantasies about love had been none like her sister's. And then she had met Armaan. It was a defining time for her dreams as she saw everything fall into place, believing that the miracle of love had happened to her and would last forever. It did, atleast it was lasting until now, only it had seemed nothing like a miracle for quite some time now.

Strangely he had been nothing like her dream man on the outside, he was quiet, far too subtle, a living contrast to her carefree liefstyle, and yet he fit into her life like his spot had been carved in there from much before. She could never get enough of his rare spells of lasting conversation, in so many ways he was an enigma and she liked him so. He would talk at times in words too blatant, which would shock her, but then he would get back to his eluding talks and she loved to pester him till he would explain what he meant, even if she understood what he may have implied it was so much fun just to push him to an explicit explanation.

That was one thing Armaan Malik did not do well. Talk explicitly. He was a wonderful listener, and though a man of few words, each one he spoke was deep in its intent. But explicit talking did not belong in his life. It was as if he had been in his childhood told he would be punished if he presented his mind for what it was. And so Ridhima had conveniently assumed his love for her was merely unstated, hoping wishfully he would claim it in his own time, but never doubting its existence for a moment in the months they were together. That until, he left. Without so much as a word to her. And she realized after he did leave, how his silence had mattered to her so much more than the words spoken by all others around her. The gap just remained, waiting to be filled up, for the moment he would liberate her of this wait. Today he had.

She sighed her thoughts back to the present. Then she smirked slightly replaying his words. It had to be one of those rare blatant spells in his life, when he spoke his mind exactly for what it stood. But why? What after 6 long years, had made him call her in the middle of his night to place before her his feelings so raw. In mechanical response to the red light, Ridhima braked her car to a halt, turning off the ignition. Momentarily she shut her eyes, and heard his voice again as he had said those words which remained unsaid so long. She could hear in the voice now what she had been too shocked to observe then, a deep sense of happiness. It made her frown. What could have made him confess at all, what in the name of heavens.

She glanced at her wrist, it was now almost two hours since he had called. Would he still be waiting? It would be close to 3AM in India, an odd hour to call back, but he had said he would wait, had he not? More than anything else, she still could not think of what she would say to him. But then he had also said she could remain silent and he would talk. What would he talk about? Did she really want to hear what it was he had to tell her. She didn't know. She had sought the answers to the many unanswered questions which lingered on in her life for six long years. Until this call two hours ago. She thought about it now, and realized that his confession had chnaged so much. It
was as if the questions were a talk of the past, she wondered if she cared enough now to know what and why. About Lovely, about his marriage, about his return to India, about evrything else in his life which wasn't her even if it all linked back to her in some sense.

Somehow everything seemed insignificant as she tried hard to let the feeling sink in, he had said he loved her, why now? And why not before? That was all she cared for. She had to know. Hearing the cars around her she realized the signal had turned green. With one hand off the stearing she picked up the phone and dialled his number a second time. But just as quickly she cut the call. She would not make a fool of herself once more in life. He had said he would be waiting, perhaps he was. But what if he wasn't? She trusted him for too much, or perhaps her expectations of him had been far too many. This time she would not repeat her mistake. An instinct kicking in she dialled Gappu's number. Yes she could call him, tell him she missed him and ask among the talking if Armaan was awake...perhaps he would even be able to give her unintentional information of what may have lead to this confession from Armaan.

It was the third ring when it occured to her that 3AM was an odd hour indeed not just for Armaan, Gappu could very well be sleeping himself. She waited for another round of ringing but the phone remained unanswered she almost moved it off her ear to cancel the call when she heard the click.

"Gappu I'm so sorry, I only just realized a ring ago that this was a horrible time to call and wake you up. I just...I mean since you did answer the phone, do you know if Armaan is still awake?...Gappu? Wake up yaar, answer me then you can go back to sleep I promise I wont keep you..."

"I am awake Ridhima." Armaan interrupted in a quiet voice. Ridhima on the other side almost hit the car ahead of her, braking the very last second. She gasped at the narrow escape. Swallowing hard she steered her car out of the traffic lane to a parklot she could see half a block away.

"Ridhima? Are you alright?" The concern in his voice was evident and she realized he must have heard her gasp. As her eyes searched for a vacant spot for her car so she could cease to be a road menace, she spoke uncertainly.

"Ar...Armaan?" She paused taking a deep breath, she could not afford to stutter before him, she would not, not today. "I'm fine. Just driving and I didn't realize..."

"You shouldn't be on the phone while you drive Ridhima. Its not quite safe and..."

"And I may hit someone?" Ridhima interrupted him as he had, agitated at the sound of his concern. "You don't have to bother. I parked. And I wont keep you up any longer just called Gappu without realizing the hour."

"To ask him if I'm awake. Just so you could tell me to go back to bed?"

Ridhima kicked herself mentally for rattling off thoughtlessly on the phone without knowing who was at the other end. He was already picking at her, why the hell had she even wanted to talk to him.

"I did not expect you to answer the call," she stated curtly trying to end the talk.

"It was unexpected. Gaurav just gave me the phone and walked out of the room."

"He gave you...WHAT?" She paused as the implication of his sentence seeped in. She asked anyways, almost hoping he would deny the obvious. "Why would he do that?"

"Do you need me to answer that Ridhima? He knows it." Armaan answered with a silent sigh.

"Yes I do, I need you to answer me. WHAT THE HELL DID YOU TELL HIM ARMAAN? What does he know?"

 "Ridhima he knows everything but I didn't..."

"DAM YOU ARMAAN!"

She yelled interrupting him and he could sense a mounting anger in her. He shut his eyes to stay calm, he would have to if this conversation had to head towards any reasonable realm. She spoke on, the strained control easily heard in her voice.

"I can't believe you would resort to this. Was I not a wreck enough, now you manipulate my nephew to stand up for you? Against me? You and your smooth talking, I should have sensed this after I got that letter from him. Is it too much to ask of you to stay out of my life?"

"It is. But if you ask me I will." He paused but as Ridhima said nothing he assumed he could talk, "I told Gappu nothing. Chirag did. He knew it all before he even landed in Kolkota, and I was aware of nothing more than you were until after dinner tonight." Armaan paused again but Ridhima remained silent. He sighed and spoke on.

"Ridhima I didn't call for any of this, I was trying to, as you just said, stay away from your life, as far away as I could. But Gaurav made me realize what 6 years of solitude could not. And then I just called you. I didn't think Ridhima, I just called. It was...I didn't think of the consequences or of how you would react."

"How should I react? There's a man who tells me nothing, neither his feelings, nor his expectation of me, neither why he left me not once but twice, nor why it suddenly dawned upon him that his 6 years 5 out of which he was married were spent in solitude. And now he decides to confess? Of course as always he gives me no reasons, explanations between us have never been mine to seek and that remains unaltered. Whether he leaves me or comes back, I am to do nothing but accept his verdict, never asking why. Its not unlike you Armaan to not think of consequences, for you never turn back to face them anyways.
Why then would you wish to be bothered by how I react, just let me know how it is that you hoped I would, and I may just comply, yet another time." Armaan remained silent and that enraged her. Feeling the threat of tears she spoke into the phone furiously struggling to keep them away,

"Are you going to say anything at all? I thought you said it was you who would talk today."

"I'm not sure if you wish to hear me say anything at all Ridhima. I'm sorry for that call. I got carried away, letting my emotions overcome me. It was a mistake. I really am sorry." He spoke in a quiet whisper but Ridhima missed nothing.

"Loving me was a mistake...why did you not say this much earlier Armaan, perhaps my ego would have saved me 6 years of pain."

"It wasn't Ridhima, it never could be a mistake, and you know that."

His quiet voice made her want to scream. She knew it wasn't true, least of all in the way she had said it. He was apologizing not for his love, only its impulsive confession, but she could not fight the feeling to yell at him, to misunderstand him delibrately to accuse him unfairly, to inflict upon him all of her pain. He may not have deserved as much and it was certainly comforting her none, but she felt frustrated and desperate suddenly and then exhausted.

She could stop them no more, the tears of agony and pain. They had been pent up inside her too long, as long as this confrontration had been due. But it had to be now that I breakdown, she thought aggresively trying to wipe away the tears, before him leaving him no chance whatsoever to pity me for what I have become, all because of him. Armaan shut his eyes again as he could hear her voice crack on the phone, he knew she was crying, and he knew he was the cause as he always had been. Why could he not have just left this issue alone, unmentioned ever again.

"Ridhima..." he whispered wishing hard something would stop her tears, take away her misery forever.

"Why do you care Armaan, why anymore?" she whiepered back, her voice falling short with the crying.

"Because I love you Ridhima." he whispered back simply. He could feel tears in his own eyes, if the confession hadn't already taken its toll on him, the pain in her voice was causing him unbearable anguish.

"Stop it. Stop saying that. You don't love me, you never did and you never could, you're incapable of love and a heartless man. If only I had known you so when I..." She stopped herself, she would not admit her love to him. It wasn't for him to decide and announce it to be their moment of confession, if he had not cared for her so long she would not comply to his wish now.

"I hate you Armaan." She stated trying to stamp her stand and he tried hard to swallow his tears in vain. She spoke again after pausing, and he felt the aggresion had been replaced by resignation.

"I hate this feeling I can't get rid of. I hate its existence, its interference in my life. I hate your presence all around me it doesn't let me forget what I don't wish to remember. I hate to have to cry inside for every second of the day I'm awake, and I hate when the nights haunt me out of my sleep. I hate it when in every other guy I meet I seek you, unwillingly, but I do and I hate the relief in then knwoing he could never replace you in my life. I hate to crave for you knowing you would never come, and I hate to still hope that you will."

"Ridhima..." he whispered again trying to stop her. In her attempt to lash out at him she was confessing all he knew she was trying not to. And though he was feeling an underlying relief as she said all of it, he knew she was hurting herself much more in spelling out his influence on her life. "Please...hush now...be quiet. I'm sorry Ridhima."

"I hate you Armaan, for the helplessness I feel being in love with you." She paused then whispered in a hoarse voice completely choked with tears, "Please don't leave me alone ever again."

************************
Dedicated to:

*Mr. n Mrs. Karan Singh Grover Big smile all said n done, I love the couple n wish them luck!
*Thnx Ana for the MOTW at a date so precise, I completed a year on the forum, 6th dec...lov ya all for what you've given me...its been an incredible experience!
*Since um updating on a 7th, to you Hinu Di!
*thnx nij...uv taken me thru week1 of last two!

~ Part 13 ~

"I won't," he whispered in the same breath as her, his response so prompt it made one wonder if her barely audible confession had perhaps completely escaped him; then with the slightest of pause he added, "Never again Ridhima..."

The intensity of his whispered assurance was not lost to how briefly it was stated. It kicked within her the realization of what she had spoken, and claimed. And that led to a new rush of emotions. It should have been mostly a relief at having released her pent up self but there was a sudden physical exhaustion which seemed to be taking over her limbs. That could hardly be a consequence of relief alone...perhaps it was then a sense of resignation from being incapable of holding up against the inevitable anymore. Feeble in her head she wished to resist the weakness, at least stop crying. In a futile attempt she pursed her lips trying to hold back her cry and shut her eyes tight. Instead she choked, the tears still flowed. Shoving the back of her free hand onto her mouth as she hiccuped from sobbing, the phone slipped from her sweaty grip into her lap, away from her ear.

"Ridhima?"

He whispered into the phone sensing a worsening of her breakdown, then getting no response he repeated, the desperation in his voice much louder,

"Ridhima?" She heard it this time and swallowing hard she raised her phone back to the ear wiping her face onto the sleeve of her sweater.

"Ar..Armaan..." was all she managed to stammer but in that single utterance he sensed the turmoil of her thoughts, a lingering distress, perhaps an inkling of persisting disbelief.

"Ridhima.." He started helplessly, wary of the distance between them, emotional and physical, then pausing he tried to steady himself and said, "Have some water Ridhima"
 
"Water?" She whispered hoarse and despite herself.
 
"Yes honey. You must have a bottle somewhere in your car, you always did keep one. Have it..."
 
"Armaan...I'm..."
 
"Drink it first Ridhima...please." 
 
He urged interrupting her stuttering in a voice tenderly taking control; she resigned almost thankful to be too tired to argue anymore, bending in obedience to pull out a bottle from under her seat. Blinded by the suspended tears in her eyelashes and the hair falling over her face she frowned letting her hand sweep in search of the bottle, and for that moment, perhaps only that, she lost thread of the overwhelming emotions. He remembered the bottle in my car she thought. Wistfully through the tears as her hand felt around for the bottle, she recalled him asking her once with mock curiosity how she avoided getting drunk on water for the amount she consumed. It was an evening before a final and she had been stressed crazy, a condition which multiplied her caffeine and water intake manifold. Too much on her mind to respond to his attempted wisecrack she had just ignored, but he was a master at ticking her off in the worst moments. And so he had added in a matter of fact tone of a prude how the world was running out of essential drinking water supply and that she should try to conserve once in a while. With which she had slammed her book shut and looked up to glare at him, but then he had done what he always did to get his way with her; he had given her his best dimpled smile and she couldn't help but laugh at his lamest joke ever. Pulling out the bottle now she sighed unscrewing the lid with her teeth. That was another thing he was a master at, distracting her from the stress, making her forgive and forget and smile despite herself. Wiping her face again against the now damp sleeve she realized unbelievably she had almost smiled for a moment here.

Not a word in response from her but Armaaan straining for the sli
ghtest of sound heard the shuffling in the background, and then he thought he could hear her drinking. He closed his eyes sighing and for the first time in the past few minutes the suspended silent seconds allowed him to revisit her words of confession. She loves me...the words echoed in his head and that as he heard her crying gradually subside into sparse sniffing, eased out the crease of his frown, his eyes still shut as he let his stressed back go limp against the bed. The silence lingered a little longer becoming almost comfortable as they both tried to gather themselves.
 
"Armaan" She spoke finally hoarse from being a wreck despite the edge of calm to her voice but it was the hesitance in her tone to which he opened his eyes.

 

"I'm sorry Ridhima. " He stated, "Its worth more than a lifetime of repentence and I'll never quite make it but I'm sorry," unable to raise his voice over a whisper, he sighed.
 
"Armaan I..."
 
"You know I've been busy living the obligations so long that I can't remember when I lived a life of my own. They can possibly pass me off for a benchmark of ideals now."
 
He paused. It did not somehow occur to her that he had and that there was a silent moment wherein she could interrupt and say what she had to. Suddenly all she wanted to do was hear him talk, and hear the silent gaps when he paused.

"Do you remember the first time Ridhima - the photography class...?"

The words stirred to life further the ghosts of her past and she shut her eyes anticipating to feel the agony she always did when those memories returned, specially the moment which started it all. But for once in the past several years she did not feel the pain she had become accustomed to, infact she almost willed the flashing images to play like a running movie. She heard his distinct whisper and it sounded like a distant narration in the background of the movie.

"I had this urge to tell you in the moment I first set my eyes on you that you had a wonderful laugh and the warmth of it deserved to last forever." Her lips curved into the resemblance of a faint reminiscecnt smile. But then he sighed, she heard him and opened her eyes.

"We've come such a long way Ridhima, but instead of we, as you and I. And after those 6 long years I tell you now of my love, when I should have done it long ago." He paused before speaking again, another silent pause as she said nothing, "You possibly knew it all along, I'm inclined to think I sensed it myself from that very first moment. But I...I don't know how to explain this...its like suddenly all the logic that went into convincing myself to stay away from you seems to have evaporated, every cause seems absurd and..." He paused again as if searching words, "I have almost rehearsed every single night since the day I left London how I would explain my reasons to you in a confrontration I wished for and dreaded at the same time and I have lived in the grim conviction that you would understand. But tonight, this moment...Ridhima...it feels so unreasonable, I can't seemt to justify..." He paused again running his hand through his hair.

"Why did you leave me Armaan?"

She spoke at last and he sighed, looking up at the wall before him he saw the frame holding his Ma and Baba. He lowered his eyes fiddling with the nails of his free hand but looking at nothing.

"Did I ever tell you Ridhima...I was born an illegitimate child..." There was a sharp intake of breath on the other side of the phone, only very briefly but he didn't miss it. Looking at the photograph again he gave a tight smile.

************************
"Gaurav you couldn't be kidding about this in any dim possibility could you?"

Gappu grinned at the obvious disbelief in Chirag's voice. The man couldn't be blamed, if anyone other than Armaan had narrated the confession to him he would have refused to believe it come to think of it.

"Would you rather I was?"

"Now you're definitely kidding me."

"I've never been more serious in my life Chirag, oh well I have been once, but just that once, this is the only qualifying second." He paused smiling wide as he had been since he left Armaan's room, "On my love for soccer. He called Massi and confessed. Just like that."

"What did he have for dinner? 21 shots, neat vodka on an empty stomach? Actually I suspect even that could disrupt the altruistic Armaan Malik's life of self denial. What could have eventuated this Gaurav, I can't understand for the life of me. And almost as badly as Ridzi, perhaps just a tiny bit less, I can't wait to hear the dam reasons he has kept to himself all these years.
Whatever they were in the name of forsaken hell."

"You're losing it worse than the man himself. I haven't heard you swear that bad, not even when Ritu Di blows off your bank balance."

"That, Gaurav, can't qualify as a once in a lifetime event, it happens every other week!"

They both broke out laughing, it wasn't just at intended humor, life was suddenly peaking to an all time high. They were like the two men who had been on a mission labelled impossible by every inkling of hope, but they had emerged victorious beating the odds, the impossibilities, the logic. The mission had been accomplished so simply in one straight stroke. Almost accomplished.

"You're a miracle Gaurav. I don't know what you did and how, but I know it has happened with you being there." Chirag said in a solemn voice getting sober at last.

"I think its Minnie. She is the good luck charm in my life. It happened after we talked about her call."

"Whatever you say today dude," Chirag consented, then added, " Ridhima's take now. Would you bet?"

"Hmmm," Gappu said thoughtfuly, "In my fair speculation there will be some serious talking through between the two of them but it would take every pessimistic cell in my body to believe it could be anything other than a happily ever after. Perhaps not right away but eventually so, it can't be far away now that they've come to this."

"At least so I'd live to believe till it happens. Gosh Gaurav, I need something to confirm this call from you isn't a my deep slumber dream."

"Its as true as the my Gunners claiming your Stamford Chirag. It was a dream, now its coming true."

"Alright timeout on the soccer talks, don't remind me of that game." Chirag muttered. Then he resumed in the same dazed cheerful tone, "I can't wait for Ritu to get home. Oh God if this is how high I feel as a third, I wonder whats on with those two."

"I wonder the same," replied Gappu more solemn than Chirag, "I know it will be a confrontration Chirag, but I hope it doesn't get too nasty."

"On the contrary Gaurav, I hope it does. Ridhima needs to rid herself of the built up bitterness, and Ammy better face it like a man he called for no less." He paused and they were silent for several seconds both pondering over how the conversation could be going.

"It will work out won't it Chirag?" Gappu asked thoughtfully and it was one of those rare moments when Chirag saw the vulnerable teenager in him.

"It will Gaurav. They've come too far this time, there can't be a looking back."

"Looking back was unlikely even six years ago Chirag, and it should have been out of question a year ago, but it happened then, could it not..."

"Gaurav! Now you're overworking your pessimistic cells." Gappu smiled lightly nodding his head at that.

"You're right. No more looking back."

"Exactly and...hang on..." Gappu heard a distant chime as Chirag made him hold, then he heard him speak the excitement back in his voice. "Its Ritu. Gotta go dude. But its the best news I've heard in such a long time. I can't say thanks and ward it off. Just know I'll always pride my decision to have trusted you to be the one for this task."

"Humble me Chirag!" Gappu said laughing, "Go now. I bet Ritu Di will hit the roof when she hears this one."

"She will I guess, "Chirag replied grinning, "Later then!"

And they disconnected the long distance call. Gappu sat toying unconsciously with the cord on the landline for a while, looking at nothing in particular. Then breaking into a bright smile he got up ruffling his hair and taking two steps at a time to his room upstairs he decided it was time to hit the bed. He couldn't wait for breakfast, few hours to go and he would know how far the charms of the fateful night had worked...

*******************
"Oh My God" The words escaped her lips soundlessly and those he did miss. She frowned hard lowering her eyes as the tears in them suddenly felt as dry as her throat.  The whirlpool of thoughts and emotions which had occupied her until a moment ago were now replaced by a blank nothingness. She knew not what to think.

"Ma and Kaka were a couple in college, a secret which was known to mostly anyone who would welcome even the whiff of gossip. Of the greatly outnumbered mind-their-own-business people unaware of this bonding one unfortunately was Kaka's own elder brother. He kept himself busy in his books, and when he was not doing that he would let his thoughts wander to the beautiful Punjabi girl who was a charming polite friend for him in lieu of being a part of his younger brother's gang, occasionally also for their common study of Medicine. Little of course he knew and this for a fact no one did, that kaka and his Punjabi girl shared a commitment which was not limited to harmless dating."

Armaan paused swallowing a rising bitterness. From the day his mother had revealed facts to him he had worn an indifferent farce over his detest for his kaka. But much as he was devoted to his Ma, with passing years and fading away of the immediate shock of learning the facts he had always found himself unable to completely justify her relationship with him. In extremely low moments he had gotten close to blaming her for much of what he to face in the years after she left him orphaned. Shaking his head clear it of the creeping grudges again he inhaled deeply, the only response from Ridhima was her steady heavy breathing. In another state of mind he would have been taken aback by how reasonable a listener she could be when it really mattered. He spoke on in a low mechanical voice,

"Whatever promises had been made, if any, were broken before they were even given a chance. Thama, I mean Daadi, got a proposal for marriage from a traditional several generations old family in Kolkota. It was intended for Baba by the norms of being an elder son but  when he
showed an inclination to politely decline the proposal keeping in mind his Punjabi girl Thama gladly projected the whole idea as a proposal for Kaka instead. She could have ordered Baba to obey and he would have had no choice as were the times, but Thama had harbored a soft spot for her spoilt younger son in the years of growing as he had charmed his way through the hearts of her expansive social circles while Baba remained the quiet one and the proposal appealed to her as best for Kaka. The family was wonderful, well based and traditional, the prospective bride was a beauty, rich and stylish. And so it was. The wedding was fixed, with an unobjectionable consent of the groom, who chose to severe all connections with his long committed girlfriend forever..."

Armaan dropped his voice at the last words and Ridhima frowned straining to sense his precise state of mind, an edge of uneasiness in his voice was unmistakable as he spoke quietly,

"Especially when she informed him of having tested positive on the pregnancy strips from her lab."

He stopped again and Ridhima was certain she could feel the weight of the toll it had taken him to say that sentence. She wanted to say something to make it easier for him, but she knew not what, instead she just licked her dry lips.

"The desperation of an infidel, she used her last option and went to Baba for help. It was then for the first time he learned of facts which had been glaring at him, and that which no one knew and the one who did refused to acknowledge her much less the facts.

"Armaan..." it was a faint whisper from her as he paused, but it brought him out of the narration as an outsider to the story not the integrally consequential part of it. Sighing he ran his hand through his hair looking at the picture of Ma and Baba on the wall again.
Every word of that he said had played over in his mind in countless moments since he learned it all, and yet as he spoke out for real, he flinched at every thought like it was a fresh wound. He marvelled his mother like never before, she had narrated this to him, her twelve year old son, on her deathbed. He wished terribly to be able to know what Ridhima was making of this, then he shook his head again to stop giving in to deviating thoughts.

"Ridhima I have wondered from that day on and will continue to live with an insufficient appreciation of what an incredible man Baba must have been." She heard the distinct reverence in his voice, but the happiness was amiss and he continued

"He rebeled against the wishes of his mother to marry a girl who was not a Bengali, was heartbroken and used by his younger brother and carrying their child, and was disowned by her own family when she explained the whole situation to them. Daadu was his only support, and the family saw a double wedding in a single night only because of Daadu put his foot down for once against the wishes of Thama, one of the rare ocasions when he did. A distant cousin of Ma, one she had been closest to nonetheless solely represented her side of the family. He was Minnie's Daadu, a humble man and the only one who accepted Ma as family despite it all."

He paused again and with a smirk sarcastic and grim he said, "And I was born 7 months later, healthy and normal but declared premature to save the family grace. Daadu has known all along everything there was to know, Thama died many years later having known only complicated tales fabricated for the convenience of everyone excluding the Daadu."

Armaan paused again. A longer silent pause, as Ridhima struggled now to find the right words to say to him, unable to decide if there was anything she could say to him at all. What could she? It was hard to tell where this story was going to end but from the sound of it, this was only a start, to his life, justifications and reasons. She felt herself in two minds, far too intrigued to ask him to stop, but uncomfortably tongue tied wanting desperately to make it easy for him when her silence she feared was doing just the contrary. She mustered the wits to speak up, anything at all,

"Did Kaka ever...I mean they must have lived in the same house. Did that not...like wasn't it..."

"It was hypocricy at its worst, "Armaan completed saving her further discomfort and Ridhima bit her tongue. She had implied something like that, only not in those blunt words. Before she could think of anything else to say he continued,

"Kaka and Ma lived lives of double standards, one stubbornly so and the latter resigning to fate, but they had deserved any discomfort they faced. Kaki remained blissfull unaware like the rest and Thama's favored daughter in law of course for obvious reasons. But Baba was undoubtedly the only one facing the brunt of it all on account of nothing but his love for Ma." Ridhima heard it again, the tone of gratitude this time there was an edge of it being blissfully so. She didn't realize she was speaking as she said,

"He must have been as incredible a father as he was a son and a husband Armaan." She stopped realizing she had expressed her thought out loud. Armaan gave a small wistful smile.

"He was Ridhima. I was closer to him than anyone else at all, not even my own mother" Then his voice was low again, "Perhaps he was too incredible for the world to survive it long. And perhaps again he was only in this world to rid those he loved of their problems as long as he lived" Armaan paused and Ridhima shut her eyes with a fair anticipation of what was coming, when he spoke however she realized her estimation was not even half way to where the facts stood.

"Baba and Kaka were coming back from a wedding, Kaka was inebriated but insisted on driving no matter what Baba said and the tradition remained unaltered. Baba gave in yet again as his arguments were of no avail, one last time as this once it cost him his life." As he paused this time Ridhima was certain he wasn't just silent in thought, she could almost feel his silent tears. In her desperation at bing no help from the distance she clenched her fists, one on the cell, nails of the other digging into her palm. It was happening too fast for her now, all reaction from her was lost and her mind drew a blank again. 

"In the three years after that I got much closer to Ma, perhaps it was the loss of my father, or perhaps it was an innocent unerstanding within that we both needed each other. Until the cancer took her away as well, not before she narrated all of this to me." Ridhima was gripped by a rising sense now of hearing a man she had loved, hated, craved for and cursed and perhaps much more, yet never truly known. "Facts are sometimes so harsh that they make you wish you had remained ignorant of their existence. I have wondered in the years tha followed her death if truth would have been best left untold. I still don't see why I had to be told." He sighed. And then it struck Ridhima and she asked him at an impulse.

"So Muskaan and you are not just cousins?" She had intended it as a question, but since she knew his answer it sounded more like self realization.

"Step siblings, yes. She was four at that time, and I have let her live with the advantage of being eight years younger. She knows nothing, and I'd rather I never spoil it for her if I did not have to. Muski was the sole receipient of my affection in the years of growing up Ridhima, I would have loved her for what she was, but I loved her more I guess in knowing she was my only remaining immediate family. I could deny Kaka for what he is to me, but for Muskaan my knowledge of that relation has always biased a soft spot. Daadu of course has been the boulder support for me, as he was for my Baba, without him I would have had not guiding light."

"And Kaka Kaki, I mean Muskaan is their daughter so..."

Ridhima left yet another incomplete sentence to him, even if she was daring to speak her mind more now, she couldn't bring herself to state facts in completion, she dreaded his position of having to narrate it all in its entirety. She would have stopped him, but she sensed that it was vital not only for her to know these facts but also for him to tell them to someone as he was now.
Unknown to her a sense of security was starting to engulf her, rising from knowing he was sharing it all with her. She presumed only with her without giving a second thought to anything otherwise.

"Kaka Kaki and Muski..." Armaan's expression hardened, and Ridhima sensed a change of tone, "They good as ruined her life Ridhima. Ruined it for her, gambled on me and..." he paused before adding quietly, "separated you and me..."

Ridhima eyes widened in sudden realization. She had almost forgotten in all of this...them. She had forgotten why they were discussing any of this, she had forgotten her own pain at what she had considered his betrayal, she had forgotten her bitterness, her agony, her helplessness. Now it all came back to her, the reason for this long distance call. Them. Armaan and Ridhima.

************************
"Ritu Ritu Ritu, " he chanted whirling her round and round in circles as she screamed shutting her eyes.

"Chirag, stop it I'm getting dizzy. CHIRAG!" He complied at last, when he was too tired to carry on his crazy act anymore and putting her on her feet he grinned amiably rubbing his head slightly as he was dizzy himself. Ritu held on to the couch by her side getting back to herself before she looked up at him demanding silently an explanation.

"Guess what?" He said excited. His smile was infectitious but she somehow held onto her stern look.

"I can't. Tell me if you want to." With that she turned her back to him and smiled wide. Without knowing what it was that she had to be happy about. He raised his hands in 'oh common' before truning her around to face him him again. She could not hide her smile in time and narrowing his eyes ever so slightly he could see the makings of an idea forming in his head. Two could play this game, besides he was the psychiatrist here not her, mind games were his area of expertise and she ought to have known who's boss! Immediately he frowned hard.

"I've been dying t tell you something here, and this is how you reciprocate my excitement? Forget it. I expect too much from you. What's big for me doesn't necessarily have to be the same for you I guess." With that he walked off. Ritu stood shocked for a moment at what had happened. Then quickly she turned around to follow him. He quickened his steps hearing the same and smiled to himself.

"Chirag?" She caught up with him and walked over to face him, he wiped off his smile to replace it with a disinterested look of one who was offended. Inside he prayd she would accept defeat soon, it was hard to not break out laughing.

"Chirag..." she whispered softly coming closer and cupping his face in her hands gently, making him look back at her. Inevitably his indifferent mask faded into the hint of a smile. "Honey I'm sorry I was just teasing you. Tell me now baby, I can't wait to hear it, " pausing she added, "Please?"

"Me too!" he exclaimed grinning and arching her brows at him she moved to withdraw her hands from his face but he held them in his own firmly before she could. "I was teasing you too!" He hissed winking at her. She tried to look away to not smile but he tugged at her hands in his own and she looked at him straight in the eye putting on her best defiant look. He remained quiet just looking back at her with a provoking smile.

"Well?" she said at last giving up and he broke out grining. As she pulled at her hands still in his, frowning at him he held them tighter. Pulling her closer he gave her a light peck on her lips and she stopped struggling immediately at his unexpected move. Looking up into his eyes she would have spoken but he did before her.

"Ammy confessed his love to Ridzi!" She was stunned for several seconds before she squealed in delight and throwing her arms around Chirag and hugging him tight.

"OMG OMG OMG...Armaan...Ridzi...OMG..." She pulled back to see him beaming and said despite knowin g the answer, "You're serious about this one Chirag aren't you." He shrugged in response smiling wide still and she hugged him again, "You are...Chirag I'm so happy. I just...I don't know what...I don't know anything...I'm just...This is so amazing!" She ended going from a chirpy shrill voice to a low whisper but Chirag heard it all. Pulling her away himself this time he cupped her face and said looking into her eyes,

"It is sweetheart, it is indeed." And he bent lower to kiss on her forehead letting his lips linger on as she whispered,

"I love you Chirag." He backed to look at her but smiled on without saying a word. She made a face at him after several seconds and pushing him walked towards the kitchen.

"Alright fine, I love you too." She smiled to herself then turning around suddenly ahs asked,

"Is that what Ridzi said to Armaan as well?" Chirag knew what she meant, even if not literally as she had said it. He shrugged. "We don't know yet. Gaurav narrated only the half he knows for now. Ridzi's answer we can only guess or hope for." Pausing he looked up expectantly and continued, "What do you thin Ritu? What was she like at office today? Armaan had called her some 3-4 hours ago. Did you notice something diferent about her? Like..."

"OMG, " Ritu interrupted him talking more to herself but loud enough. "That's what. She was so unlike herself today she even...hang on you said he confessed few hours ago?" Chirag nodded And she spoke on, "How the hel did she go to sleep after that?"

"She what?" Chirag exclaimed in disbelief. Ritu nodded her head in thought.

"Yeh. Our meetin got cancelled, and I went to Ridhima's cabin after I was done with work to talk to her about Vivek but she had dozed off on her desk and..."

"Vivek?" Chirag frowned spelling the name. It rung a bell in some far fetched corner of his mind.

"Yeh. Its this guy we met at PF Chang's some days ago. Someone random, he bought us drinks, I mean they were for us, but Ridhima was the cause. And she didn't only turn him down but also walked out on him. But then Anji Di called yesterday about him, after he walked her home and..."

"Vivek..." Chirag interrupted again in a low voice and Ritu felt he wasn't quite listening to her. She would have told him off for it but he was deep in thought, seriously.

"Vivek...Vivek...dam...why can't I remember the link?" She heard him mutter. Tentatively she said,

"Vivek Khanna? You know him?"

"KHANNA!...Vivek Khanna...OMG...that's it of course..." He did not explain what was suddenly obvious to him and before she could ask him she saw him rush up the stairs two at a time. The look on his face was a rare disturbed one.

********************
Sitting down on his desk he opened his diary. As usual he spent several seconds staring at her face. The light brown soft curls, the carefree smile oblivious to the camera which had captured her look of mischief. Smiling slightly he picked up the photograph and resting it against the pen stand he opened to the next fresh page his gaze lingering on her smile with a tinge of regret. Unscrewing his favorite fountain pen, she had gifted it to him in college, he wrote,

"Dearest Love,

Do you recall I mentioned the girl from Chang's last week? I met her again last night. I know I promised you I would not. But she just happened to literally get run over by my car...and I had to follow her to help her. You know how incapable I am of leaving damsels in distress :)

I told you last week how she had reminded me of you, in some strange way I couldn't figure out then but so I had bought her drinks. When I met her again last evening she accused me of stalking. Gosh, I could literally see you in her, the defiance, the posed confidence, the fiery eyes. When I finally clarified the misunderstanding she understood, I was almost surprised she heard me out so easily. But then there never was a dearth of the times you surprised me similarly right?

I walked her back home, she refused to take a ride, see what I mean? Even the adamancy was you, and when we walked those 4 blocks back honey I couldn't help but think of you for every single second. Sometime in life I would love for you to meet her, you both would make quite a team. She talks like you, avoids like you, last week she walked out on me, and I can just imagine you having done a similar something to a stranger buying you drinks!

Would you be jealous darling, if I said I am feeling the attraction once again in life, like I felt it for you several years ago. You are and will always remain my first love honey, and I can't ever forgive myself any less than you would forgive me yourself for having left you in the mess I did. If it had not been for that one blunder of my life we would be together today. Well my blunder and then the interference of that brother of mine I disowned the moment he dared to step into the position that was rightfully mine. No offense but your own brother was a catalyst to us parting ways. I always did believe your mum was right about him, he couldn't see your happiness without wanting to snatch it away. Instead of showing you the path to patience he supported my brother in his back stabbing endeavors.

If only you had understood me my dear, and if only you had trusted your love over your best friend Rahul...what would I not do honey to go back in time to own your middle name, to keep you in my house by my side as Mrs. Muskaan Vivek Grewal and not..."

Vivek paused his look hardening but then he glanced at her picture again and he gave a side smile of satisfaction before continuing to write, "Nonetheless sweetheart, I have found once again, a girl of your will. How I love the challenging girls and Ridhima is most certainly another you, I think I'm ready for love again. She will too fall in love with me soon, you did, she can't be far. I will take it at her pace, I know now she is not the one I can push. And perhaps its best this way, the slow intoxication of her charm taking over me gradually until the right moment comes, when I know she loves me like you did, and then I will marry her unlike you and me. This time darling I won't blunder in the name of money. Not again, never again. Wish me luck honey, to Ridhima and Vivek!..." He shut the diary putting in her photograph as the bookmark, then screwing back the cover of her pen he sat thinking. On an impulse he walked over to the bedside table and fingered through the city yellow pages book. Stopping at 'G' he ran his finger from top to bottom through several columns until he found it. Lifting the cordless he dialled the number.

"Hello?" He paused recognozing the voice on the other side he smiled and said, "Anjali Di...Hi! This is Vivek speaking..."

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


Edited by spln - 14 December 2008 at 10:00pm

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