NINE

The flowers dry up in happiness
The night fades into the day in joy
The stars fall from the sky with a smile.
But I am the happiest in this world.
So friend, come to me
I shall share my song with you.
It is the happy song of a happy heart
Listen, and I promise you pleasure.
If you have to cry everyday
Then just this once, I will make you laugh.
Just this once, let us forget the grief
And sing together –
Friend, what is worry?
Friend, what is pain?
All you ever talk about is love –
Oh friend, tell me, what is love?
Is it just about pain?
Is it just about tears?
Is it only about sighs of disappointment?
Then why do people seek to sacrifice their happiness
Hoping to welcome this grief into their lives?

(Translation of “Shokhi Bhalobasha Kaare Koy” by Rabindranath Tagore)

 

“It isn’t as hard as you’re making it out to be, you know.” Armaan made himself comfortable on the bench in the locker room and faced her.

“Huh?” she stared at him in confusion, taken aback.

“Well, I won’t say it’s obvious, but from what I know of you, I can tell there is something bothering you”, he shrugged.

“I’ll sort it out, Armaan, you don’t have to worry about it.”

“Look…” he placed a leg on the other side of the bench so that he could face her completely. “You’re my best friend, and if something is bothering you, I want to know, I want to help.”

“I’m just not in the mood to talk now. Please…” she willed him to understand.

“Nikki, look, you can tell me…I’m your best friend, right? Don’t you trust me anymore?” he looked at her dolefully.

“No, it’s not that. Of course I trust you! But…”

“She needs to and she can solve it by herself. Right, Nikki?” Riddhima interrupted and walked over to them, all the while her eyes fixed sternly on Armaan.

“I’ve been hearing your voice from the corridor, Armaan. I’d be glad if you kept it low.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

“Hey Basket”, he greeted her warily, but she continued to glare at him.

“I was hoping that maybe, just maybe you could be a bit mature with it…but no.”

“What? Me? What did I do? I was just trying to help!” he exclaimed in indignation.

“How? By nagging her till she reluctantly caves?” she placed her hands on her hips. “Honestly, can’t you see she wants to deal with it alone?”

He gaped at her like a goldfish.

“So you know what’s going on?” he spluttered after a while.

“Yes, and I also know that this is one problem you can only aggravate, not solve. Let her be, Armaan”, she spoke wearily.

His indignant eyes turned to annoyance.

“Oh, so you know everything that’s going on, and I’m being told not to worry about whatever is worrying my best friend, because I can only add fuel to fire!”

Riddhima opened her mouth to retort, but stopped when Nikki spoke.

“Stop fighting over me”, her stern eyes moved between her two friends’.

They blinked at her as she stared at them. “Riddhima’s right”, she informed him quietly.

He stared back at her, partly hurt, partly shocked, but waited for more explanation.

She just stared at him quietly, her gaze piercing but it revealed nothing – neither mystery, nor emotion.

He hated it when she was so silent. It was scary. She would just glance at people, sweep her eyes over them or keep them fixed on the one she wanted to break. It felt as if she would defeat him with her eyes.

He hung his head slightly.

“Who is this about?”

“Abhimanyu.”

He looked up, but she was still looking at him like that. Something in her eyes made him bite back almost every spiteful word about Abhimanyu Modi. Almost every word.

“I hate him”, he said plainly.

“He hates you too”, she said with a smile which had the same effect as her eyes.

“What about him?” he dared to prod. “Did he do something again?”

Her eyes hardened at his words, but she didn’t answer.

He shifted uncomfortably under her gaze, and glanced at Riddhima.

A look of understanding passed between the girls, and Riddhima seated herself on the opposite bench.

“Listen Armaan, Nikki and Dr. Modi…like each other…” she raised her hand to stop him from interrupting and continued. “Whatever it is between them, your interference will only make it worse for them.”

He stared at her for a while. Nikki sat silently, her shoulders slightly slumped, tired, but her eyes fixed on Armaan.

“But you can’t like him!” he blurted out at Nikki.

“I assure you Armaan, I really do like him. And a lot more than that”, she answered calmly.

He hated her tone.

“You’re so confident about your feelings?” he challenged, his expression flabbergasted.

“Yes”, she told him simply.

“But…but he’s hurting you!” he pointed out, and she smiled in reply. Anyone who has that smile doesn’t need to bring the words to their lips, and he stared transfixed at her as she turned sideways, her eyes lost somewhere.

“Everyone hurts us in life, Armaan”, Riddhima told him softly.  “He’s not as bad as you think…”

There was an eerie silence in the room.

He blinked at her a few times before getting up abruptly and walking away.

“I’m sorry.” Nikki’s small voice penetrated the pregnant pause that followed.

“Don ‘t be. He’ll come around”, Riddhima smiled at her friend before following him out.

Nikki pulled out her pager from her pocket and looked at it. There was nothing to see. She hated such conversations. Thankfully Riddhima had been there.

 

 

***

 

 

“Stop worrying so much”, Riddhima walked up behind him in the fire escape.

His shoulders slumped.

“He’s just not right for her, Basket”, he sighed.

“That’s for her to decide. You just need to be a friend and stick by her, not make things worse for her.”

“She’s too innocent.”

“…And you’re too protective.”

Her instant reply brought a wry smile on his face.

“I hate him.”

“So you said a few minutes ago.” She looked at him sideways and he finally turned his eyes to her.

“They love each other, Armaan. Whether they’ve realised it or not, whether they admit it or not, they really do.”

“Well, what guarantee do I have that he won’t hurt her? Even if I do accept that they’re…they’re together?”

“Be practical, Armaan. We only hurt the ones we love the most, as they say…look at us. You and I hurt each other too, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love each other”, she said softly.

His expression changed as he withdrew his eyes from hers.

“Give me one good reason why you’re so against their being together”, she challenged.

“I…I don’t like him.”

“That’s your problem…it’s not a reason for her to hold back.”

“I don’t know, they’re just…they just look wrong together!”

“But they feel right together, and that’s what matters.” She squeezed his arm. “Give them a chance, Armaan…”

He stared at her for a while before letting out a deep breath.

“I won’t promise that Modi and I will be best friends, though.”

“As long as you’re not enemies, I’m sure it won’t bother Nikki too much”, she smiled.

 

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EIGHT

He knows how you smother the loneliness,
He knows how you throw away all you have,
He knows how you flee from this planet,
But he doesn’t know how to stay.

(“Måste vara två” by Lars Winnerbäck)

She opened the door with a cup of tea in her hand, and froze into place upon seeing who was at her doorstep so early in the morning.

The breath caught in her throat. He was the last person she had been expecting. As much as she was prepared to face him now, it did hurt to see his face and remember what he had said the previous day.

“We need to talk”, he echoed her words from yesterday.

“Mm hmm”, she acknowledged.

He bit his lip and stared, clearly hesitant. This wasn’t going to be easy.

“Coffee?” she offered helpfully, setting her cup down on the table.

“No thanks.”

An awkward silence prevailed as they both avoided each other’s gaze and thought of what to do or say.

“Nikki…” she looked up upon hearing her name.

“About what I said yesterday…” he took a deep breath. “I’m s-”

She kept looking in anticipation.

“I mean, I wanted to say…I…I shouldn’t have said what I did”, he bowed his head.

He couldn’t bring the word “sorry” to his lips for some reason, but he had thought of a way to apologise…at least to let her know that he regretted saying what he had. It had been hard to defeat his ego, but he had thought about this for the whole of last night before ending up at her doorstep. He had planned every detail in his head, but now that the moment was here, everything got jumbled up.

“It was wrong on my part, no matter how angry I was, it…I just shouldn’t have said it”, he talked to his shoes.

“You mean you’ve come here to apologise?”

He looked up for a second. “I…”

“…yes”, he hung his head again.

“Then why can’t you look into my eyes when you say it?”

“Because I can’t”, he sounded thoroughly disturbed.

The silence that ensued from her end after his reply made his heart drum madly inside him. He was nervous. This wasn’t the kind of thing he was used to doing.

“You hate me, don’t you?” he looked up to see her staring sideways, a faraway look on her face.

Her eyes glided back to his, and she took a step forward.

“No. Not exactly.”

Her brisk tone was discouraging, to say the least.

“I think I like you way too much to be able to hate you”, his sinking heart shot up to his throat as she moved closer.

“Then why did you walk away from me that evening after Armaan called?” he dared to brush aside her hair, and breathed a sigh of relief when she remained where she was and leant into his touch.

She didn’t answer. But her eyes began to prick at the mention of that moment, something she couldn’t explain to him. He wouldn’t understand.

His racing heart slowed down to regain its normal speed, but it beat so heavily he feared she could hear it.

He moved closer and took her hands in his.

“I need to tell you something.”

“What?” her breath caught in her throat…this was the moment.

“I hate Armaan”, he spoke quietly.

Her misty eyes turned expressionless. Something sank inside her. “I know.”

“Do you know why?”

She shook her head quietly, and bowed her head.

His hot breath blew on her hair and she looked up. His eyes gazed at her in longing, and he cupped her cheeks softly as his forehead touched hers.

“…Because you once told me that you loved him.”

His eyes were magnetic, and she was unable to look away.

“I was jealous.”

And she nearly stopped breathing.

He kept looking at her, not even blinking. She felt his warm breath fan her face and her eyes closed of their own accord. She was expecting more.

It didn’t come.

His palms moved away from her cheeks, and she opened her eyes to see him give her one last wistful glance before walking away.

 

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SEVEN

And she cries in the night,
Just trying to hold on.
No one can hear her
She’s all alone.
This little girl closes her eyes
And all that she wants
Is someone to love.

(“Little Girl” by Enrique Iglesias)

He absentmindedly signed the papers and pushed the file back towards her without a glance, and rotated his chair till its back was turned to her, and continued talking on the phone.

His casual ignorance re-ignited the suppressed fury inside her. Ignoring the file that lay innocently on the table, she stood rooted, arms crossed defensively across her chest. She wished she could read his mind – he was so resolutely distant that she couldn’t figure what he wanted from her.

The conversation ended after an eternity, it seemed. She bit her cheek, breathing hard through her nose, waiting for him to move.

He could sense her presence behind him. As he breathed in the faint flowery fragrance that he knew was hers, the hair at the nape of his neck stood on end. He knew a confrontation was waiting for him the moment he would turn back. Sitting still, he attempted to subdue his volatile temper which had started to boil within him ever so slightly. Then he heard the angry clicking of her heels against the floor – a sign that shook him to some extend but also gave rise to a strange feeling of satisfaction in him, knowing she was agitated.

It was as if in slow motion that his chair rotated back to face her, and the first thing she saw were his steely eyes, ready for a challenge. Resisting the sadistic urge to throttle him, she spoke.

“We need to talk.”

“Go on, I’m listening.”

Something about his tone pricked her every nerve.

“This isn’t a one way road, Abhimanyu.”

Abhimanyu. That had ‘war’ written all over it.

“So you’ve finally realised.” He twirled a pen in his fingers.

He waited, but she didn’t seem too keen on replying. Her attitude was getting on his nerves. She would keep chattering about all sorts of nonsense, but when she was needed to talk, all she would do was clam up. She wouldn’t even answer a question, even if it didn’t concern their relationship.

He intended to make this work, but with her behaving the way she was, he couldn’t bring himself to even try to communicate. He feared, and he knew, that with the emotional turbulence inside him, he wasn’t in control of himself.

He was astonished at the force with which he set the pen down on the desk. She jumped slightly, and he walked around the desk up to her.

“I thought you wanted to talk”, he observed her stiff, defensive stance.

She didn’t say anything. He pressed his eyes closed tightly to curb his rising temper. This was going nowhere.

She had come to sort everything out between them. It wasn’t planned, but she had really wanted to talk when she had entered his office a while ago. For once, she knew what she wanted to say. She knew how to say it. But the words wouldn’t form on her lips.

Anger at herself for her lack of determination, anger at him for his stoic indifference, all culminated into a sudden fury she, herself, was scared of.

Her thoughts were incoherent, and her ego unwilling to cut her some slack. All this fury robbed her even of the words to lash back at him. All she could do was stare.

She always knew how reclusive she could be when it came to an emotional situation. But this was beyond anything she had known about herself.

Annoying, argumentative and difficult he may be, but he was what she wanted. He, and the emotions she felt for him, were something she cherished to her deepest core. The depth of her feelings for him, the extent of the protectiveness she felt for him scared her. The meaning of what they shared seemed just too scary to accept.

The way she was looking at him just wasn’t right. She appeared so scared, so insecure…it was not something he liked to see in the eyes of his Brave Lioness.

Instinctively, his hand rose to touch her shoulder.

He deemed his gesture as something very normal, but her reaction to it was certainly not something he was used to.

She jumped like a singed cat the moment his hand touched her bare skin, and he stared at her, insulted, as she instantly stepped back from him – stepped back from his touch.

A monster raged inside him.

“Oh, so now even my very touch disgusts you, does it?” he snarled, walking towards her as she continued to retreat, ultimately ending up pinned against the wall.

She remained there, a look of mingled shock and panic clouding her eyes. He was standing two feet away, but she felt as if she was trapped between him and the wall behind her, which seemed to offer her no support at all.

“I don’t remember you recoiling when we slept together”, his voice was acerbic.

At any other time, he would have regretted his words instantly, but his fury blinded him and he continued as her eyes widened at his words.

“But if I’m so repelling now, I suggest you go find yourself someone else to seduce. Sleeping with your boss won’t make your internship any easier. In any case, I believe I’m just not good enough for you”, he growled, his eyes spewing fire.

Her panicky eyes blinked as tears welled up in them and she frantically shook her head in denial but by then, he was already gone.

Her mind reeled with the impact of his words even as Riddhima’s words echoed in her ears.

“Don’t let it go, Nikki. You might never get it back.”

She stood paralysed against the wall, shaking, white as a ghost.

“What is happening to me”, she mouthed, as her expression turned blank, and tears flowed endlessly down her cheeks. Anger, hurt, insult, shock – she was surprised she could still feel.

 

 

***

His actions, his words – they defied logic. He wasn’t supposed to have said what he had. He wasn’t supposed to be behaving like this. But he couldn’t bring himself to regret.

He wasn’t giving up without a fight.

He had spoken exactly what he had been thinking at that moment – it may have been impulsive, but it wasn’t a mistake. He had meant every word he had uttered. An apology would be too insulting.

A part of his mind weakly questioned his logic behind avoiding saying sorry to her.

The question didn’t register.

 

 

***

 

 

Writing out her feelings was something absolutely new to her. She had tried several times, but the words never came. But now, she sat on the bed with a pen in her hand, staring at the white, blank pages of her diary.

She didn’t know what to write.

As the pen glided on the paper, she read words – incoherent, jumbled, meaningless – but she kept writing. They slowly transformed into sentences, all disconnected, but all referring to an intolerable agony inside her. She could see they narrated the incidents of the day, but then she wasn’t really thinking enough to be able to write. An all-conquering numbness throbbed inside her.

She suddenly had the urge to fill every bit of blank space in the paper – to fit everything inside a space that had not seemed enough in the first place – to suffocate it just like she was.

She no longer had the words…angry lines crossed themselves all over the page, overlapping, scratching, creating strange patterns. She didn’t need to write…all she had to do was find a way to vent her fury, her immense frustration at everything in her life including herself.

She stopped when every inch of the page was covered with ink. Her nails scratched excitedly over it, ultimately ripping the page off.

She knew her actions, given any other situation, would be extremely irrational, but she didn’t care as she ripped the paper to pieces reducing it almost to dust. The feeling of immense satisfaction that reigned inside her right then also brought with it an element of peace. It felt as if she was free of several heavy burdens had had been weighing her down.

Her breathing was shallow as she let go of the shredded papers that were bunched in her fists and watched them float gently to the ground.

A deep sigh escaped her lips, and she felt calm, brave, and determined. An inner battle with her own ego had ended – reason won out against stubbornness, love scored over arrogance.

Lying back on the pillow, she felt she could finally breathe without that constriction in her lungs. As her tired, bloodshot eyes closed, she prepared in her subconscious for another battle.

 

 

***

As he ran his hand in frustration through his hair, he wondered if his selfish urge to hurt her had just gone beyond the limit – whether the damage he had caused was repairable. The prospects didn’t seem too bright, for he was sure the distance between them would multiply after his angry outburst.

Impulsive yet true it may have been, but those sentences should never have formed on his lips. Saying sorry was a feasible option, but he knew his ego would not permit it.

The sharp wind made her eyes watery. Rubbing his neck with a grimace, he turned away from the balcony and walked back to his bed.

 

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SIX

Friend, what is worry?
Friend, what is pain?
All you ever talk about is love –
Oh friend, tell me, what is love?
Is it just about pain?
Is it just about tears?
Is it only about sighs of disappointment?
Then why do people seek to sacrifice their happiness
Hoping to welcome this grief into their lives?
All I can see in this world are beauty, youth and splendour…
Blue skies, green fields,
Bright moonlight that bathes the world –
And budding blossoms.
They are just like me.
All they do is laugh and dance
Wishing to die only in their joy.
They do not know hurt,
They do not know grief.
They do not know of the pain that you cherish.

(Translation of “Shokhi Bhalobasha Kaare Koy” by Rabindranath Tagore)

 

 

 

Their internships were drawing to a close, and they had lots of work to do and also their upcoming exams to prepare for.

With the hectic schedule that she had, it was so much easier to keep Abhi and their relationship out of her mind. She needed to talk to him, but with the terrible moods she was in these days, it wouldn’t be a great idea.

She did think of him sometimes when she got the time – every night before falling asleep, his face would float to the forefront of her mind and a tired sigh would escape her lips. It was not easy to ignore half your life. It was just as easy as forgetting to breathe.

She had lost count of the numerous times she had stopped outside his office, intending to speak to him, but then changed her mind and continued with work. She didn’t know what to do – how to begin, what to say, where to end.

And as for him, Abhi had become as reclusive as ever. As it was, he was hard to get to open up, but these days it seemed as if something was constricting him, eating him up from the inside. She could sense it. It was there in his eyes, every time he turned his glare at her. She could see something else behind the sheets of ice. He was waiting for something, desperately…and she didn’t know what that was.

 

 

“Umm…Nikki? Muskaan was looking for you”, Riddhima softly cut through her thoughts, bringing her back to earth.

“What’re you doing here for so long? I came searching…” she trailed away uneasily, when Nikki didn’t answer.

They were in Sanjeevani’s washroom.

“Nikki?” she prodded again.

“Hmm?”

“Maybe you should speak to Dr. Modi…do you want me to arrange for you two to meet? He listens to me…sometimes”, she added as an afterthought.

Nikki shook her head and took a deep breath. “It needs time.”

“Nikki, you can’t ignore him forever…whatever happened between you two…” she hesitated. “Don’t let it go, Nikki. You might never get it back.”

Her words of truth hit her hard, but she remained silent.

“I don’t know.”

What don’t you know, Nikki?”

She shrugged in reply.

“I understand this is just between the two of you, but if you would like to share, I’m listening. Don’t just tell me something and keep the rest inside you, Nikki”, Riddhima sounded frustrated.

“I don’t know what to say, Riddhima. Neither to you, nor to Abhi”, she turned to the mirror, gripping the granite counter tightly.

“Why not?” she placed her hand on her shoulder and gave it a little squeeze.

“…because…”

“Because what?” she coaxed.

“…I mean, I know what I’m thinking”, she turned abruptly. “But…I don’t know how to say it. I mean, I want to say it but something stops me…I open my mouth and even though the thoughts are in my head, I just can’t speak. I never have the words…” she looked sideways at the wall, disturbed.

“…but whatever it is, Nikki, it needs to be said. You can’t just let it hang and expect him to understand everything”, she explained.

“I know the consequences Riddhima, I know what can happen, I know what he’s thinking. I just don’t know what he wants from me…and I don’t even know what I want from him.”

“You need to sort this out, Nikki.”

“Of course I do…but I don’t have that much time right now”, she ran her hand through her hair in irritation, pulling out her ponytail in the process.

“But you need to…” she looked bewildered.

Find time, I know”, she completed the sentence for Riddhima. “But you know what, with all the work we have right now, and the preparations for the exams, I just have too much on my plate.”

“This isn’t college, and I can’t sit and think for days or weeks…those lovelorn teenagers and college goers do that. We don’t have the time for it. I have a career to concentrate on, and I can’t give hours behind my love life…even if it’s messed up”, her voice almost gave up on her as she continued.

“And it’s not just messed up, it’s majestically messed up. None of us know what we want, we can’t communicate properly, we hardly talk to each other because we’re too busy fanning our inflated egos, and when we do want to talk we don’t have the time since we’re both impossibly busy!”

“We keep taunting each other and glaring. That’s all we’ve been doing for a week, Riddhima. We need to sort this out quickly, I know, or else it will snowball into something really big but we got so messed up at a time when we don’t have the time to even talk!”

She looked helplessly at Riddhima.

“You’ve been bottling all this up inside you for these days, right?” she asked softly. “You need to get it all out, Nikki…I can tell there’s a lot more to this than you put across.”

“Well, of course there is. But there are some things I just can’t say, and you know that, Riddhima. Of all the people in the world, you should know that.”

“I do know that. And that’s why I’m asking you to get it out somehow. Write it in your diary at least.”

“I can’t. I just can’t get it out of me.”, she said, shaking her head, defeated.

“Being with Abhi isn’t easy, Riddhima. We’re both complex people. And none of us ever explain what we’re actually feeling and why”, Nikki looked up. “We’ve always had to understand. And he’s been my biggest support regarding this…”

“But now it’s him you can’t explain things to, even without words. Right?” she asked understandingly.

She sighed in agreement.

“You need to go past the glares. Getting angry at each other won’t help. And you’re so worried about your exams as well…let me tell you, this problem you have with Abhimanyu will affect your performance. You need to get it off your chest, and everything will fall into place.”

“Go past the glares”, she gave a mirthless smile. “It’s not so easy when you have too stubborn people at the two opposite ends.”

“One of you has to bend.”

“None will, trust me. I’m saying this because I know us both very well. Even though I know one of us has to surrender. I won’t be the one doing so first. We both have inflated egos, and we’ll have to defeat them first before taking on each other.”

“It’s because though we’re very different from each other, we’re quite similar too in some areas. We think in the same way in these situations. On one hand it works to our advantage, since we understand each other very well often, but then you can see us right now…precariously balanced at the edge of a cliff. We either jump or take a step back. It’s just to see who does it first.” She continued.

“Don’t you feel strange, saying all this? You know exactly what the situation is and what you should do, yet you’re adamantly refusing to bend”, Riddhima looked incredulous.

“No. I don’t feel anything out of the ordinary. I’m not perfect. Neither is Abhi. We don’t always do the right things, even though we know what to do. We always give each other a hard time.” She shrugged. “We’ll come around…hopefully”, she added as an afterthought.

“I’ve never seen you like this, Nikki”, Riddhima x-rayed her.

“Neither have I seen me like this. Abhi always brings out sides in me I never knew. Even I’m surprised at how stubborn I can be”, she laughed softly. A mirthless, emotionless laugh.

“You don’t talk so much when you’re emotional…” she observed.

“You’re right, I don’t. But you’re such an easy person to talk to. Riddhima. I’ve never felt uncomfortable”, Nikki returned her friend’s half-smile.

 

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FIVE

I know your image of me is what I hope to be, I’ve treated you unkindly
But girl can’t you see, there’s no one more important to me.
So darling can’t you please see through me, ‘cause we’re alone now.

(A Song For You by Ray Charles)

 

 

He didn’t expect her to be still around, when he entered the kitchen in the morning, fresh and showered. To his dry amusement, she was wearing a red shirt that belonged to him, over her white salwaar for lack of an apron.

He slowly walked up to her and took the cup of tea from her hand even before she could set it down on the tray to take it to his room. She looked quite surprised to see him up.

Her eyes, like last night, betrayed nothing. He held the gaze for a while, before moving away to check on the toast.

 

 

Breakfast was uneventful, as they silently ate, darting furtive glances at each other at random intervals. The hostile glances spoke nothing of their intimacy the previous day.

 

 

“I’m leaving for Sanjeevani, you call me if you need any help”, she called from outside his room, and stared shocked at him when he walked out in a neatly ironed shirt and jeans. She froze for a moment as she realised he was wearing the same red shirt she had been using as an apron a few hours ago.

“Where’re you going?” she asked with the raise of a thin eyebrow.

“To Sanjeevani”, he answered with a shrug. “We’ll go together.”

“No, you don’t need to go, you can rest”, she glared at him.

“I’m fine, and anyway I’ve work to do”, he tried to walk past but she held out her arm and stopped him.

“You’re not going to go anywhere. You’re hurt, and you need to rest. Work can wait. Your health is more important.”

“Really? I don’t see you caring too much about me or my health”, he threw at her, his hurt eyes pricking her insides.

Her mouth opened in shock at his taut reply, but she refrained from answering. She kept staring at him till he walked past her and out of the door, leaving her standing there.

It hurt to see him walk away like that. But then she realised that perhaps he was giving her the same treatment he had received from her yesterday.

He was standing outside the door, waiting for her. She came out and he locked the door, once more ignoring her and walking off to the car, but not without a cold stare.

She neared the car warily, not knowing whether she was welcome or not. As she stood outside fidgeting, she saw him take a deep breath and start the car, sliding his gaze over to her.

She stood transfixed, looking at him, contemplating whether she should go in. He seemed in no mood to invite her. And indeed, she was still wondering what to do when to her extreme shock, he pressed the accelerator and drove off.

She stared appalled after the car, her mouth slightly open in indignation. Of all the reactions she had expected of him, this certainly had not featured in the list.

Tears welled up in her eyes at the very thought of how hurt he must be to behave like this. But the pain in her heart elevated her own anger. She had no idea what she was feeling, and why she was reacting the way she was.

 

 

***

 

 

She hated how cheerful everyone was. Laughing, joking, teasing…and even Dr. Keerti was absent today. It made it all the more worse.

Abhi had come to distribute the duties to the respective interns, and she plainly recalled how, deliberately, he had looked into her eyes while informing her about her duty in the General Ward. He hadn’t made eye contact with any of the interns while talking, but she clearly saw how he wanted to push her to her limits, prick her at every chance he got.

His gaze had been glacial, to say the least. But she had stared right back into his eyes, a mad desire in her mind forcing her to throw the iciest of glares at him.

That had been the only communication they had shared between them since they arrived at Sanjeevani – of hostile stares and cold glares.

And here, no one seemed least bothered about the storm that raged inside her. Riddhima had been sympathetic, and Armaan suspicious as usual, but he had hidden it with all his might seeing that Nikki was ready to burst like Mt. Vesuvius any moment.

Why they were behaving like two stubborn and hormonal teenagers, she didn’t know.

But she did know that he was simply reacting to the treatment he had been subject to by her yesterday…he was simply throwing it all back at her.

 

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FOUR

Romance and all is strategy,
Leaves me battling with my pride.
But through the insecurity
Some tenderness survives.

At times I’d like to break you
And drive you to your knees.
At times I’d like to break through
And hold you endlessly.

[Sometimes When We Touch by Dan Hill]

All through the wedding function, she seemed very distracted. People tried to ask her what was wrong, but Riddhima, knowing of the emotional tempest going on inside her, diverted them to the best of her abilities.

“Nikki, what’s wrong with you?” Armaan asked in concern when Riddhima was not around after the wedding rituals.

“Nothing…just a headache.”

“You want to go home?” he asked quietly, seemingly innocent but she knew how  he intended to prod her till she caved.

“I’ve to leave…” she suddenly got up and made to leave.

“Wait…I’ll drop you home”, he offered with a smile.

“No…I can go alone”, she answered.

“Nikki, are you sure…?”

“Yes”, she replied crisply and walked off to the door even before he could say anything more. He stared after her, biting his cheek and thinking of what exactly could have made her so jumpy. She was definitely hiding something…and very well too.

 

 

***

Her hands trembled as she opened the door to Abhi’s house with his keys. It was late, and she wondered if he was asleep by now. She had explanations to offer him. In what words, though, she didn’t know.

The house was eerily silent. She saw the door to his room open, and upon taking a peek she found him asleep.

A visit to the kitchen plainly told him he hadn’t bothered to have dinner, and so she tied the dupatta around her waist and set off to cook something.

 

 

“Abhi!” a small hand shook him, and he sat up suddenly, rubbing his eyes groggily.

“Wassamatter?”

Nikki stood before him, hair done up in a messy ponytail, one hand still on his shoulder. She looked a vision in white.

“Dinner”, she pointed a tray of food on his side table.

Thoughts, questions, and memories rushed back to him – all equally beautiful and disturbing.

Silently he took the tray and started eating without glancing at her again. He saw from the corner of his eye that she had sat down as well, a tray of food on her lap.

Curiosity got the better of him.

“You didn’t eat there?”

She still appeared to be angry. “No”, was the prompt reply he got as she went back to eating.

His eyes narrowed but he refrained from saying anything further. Her cold answers hit him like knives.

He noted the red mark on her neck, and remembered exactly how it happened…it brought a dark red colour to his own cheeks, something he tried his best to hide from her.

Gritting his teeth against the weakness that crept up once more inside him, he went back to his dinner but realised he had an empty plate.

He stared at it, biting his lip slightly, not knowing what else to do.

She took the plate from his hand and walked away in a few moments, but he continued to stare at his hands which had been holding the tray.

Her coldness made him feel almost numb. What was he supposed to do if she was so distant?

His musings were interrupted by her voice. “Your medicines”, she said, handing them to him along with a bottle of water.

He took them quietly, hurtful anger building up inside him bit by bit. He wanted to grab her shoulders and shake the life out of her, scream at her and shove her against the wall to get an answer out of her but her behaviour made him detached with his own emotions.

“I’m staying in the guest room for the night, call me if you need anything”, she said once he finally looked up at her. He was surprised to find tenderness in her eyes despite the hardness in her voice.

He stared at her in silence, for the first time his eyes not penetrating hers in search of something. She stared back, her expressions guarded.

A question floated in his chocolate brown orbs, incomprehensible to them both. It was something that they both were trying to escape, an answer they wanted to coax from the other.

“Goodnight”, she spoke in a small voice and turned to leave.

Suddenly out of impulse he reached out but as she moved away he could only grab her dupatta.

She slowed down for the fraction of a second, but didn’t stop. She didn’t even look back, but simply continued walking.

The dupatta stayed in his hands, and his eyes followed her till she disappeared around the corner.

He looked down at the dupatta, caressing the soft silky material in his palm. Raising it up to his face, he breathed in the fragrance. It smelled of her.

He let out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding and leaned back till he was lying on the bed. He played with the dupatta, letting the soft white cloth flow over his hands, as if feeling the ghost of her soft skin in it.

Everything was so complex now…more than ever. The feelings they harboured for each other had been raging inside for months, but the physical intimacy that they shared today had complicated it further.

He covered his face with the dupatta and breathed in her scent, thinking. What was she thinking? Why was she so cold? How could she be so indifferent to what just happened between them? And what was he supposed to say or do now?

 

 

***

 

She walked into the guest bedroom, changed, and lay down on the bed. The room had his stamp on it. A dull pain throbbed in her chest. How she wished he was holding her as she lay.

It had taken everything she had inside her to stay so indifferent to him. She didn’t know why she did it. She just knew that she needed to hear him say something first.

And he was the kind to do it. She had expected him to taunt her, prick her with the most hurtful of questions, to keep pestering her for answers, be rough and adamant, but she had definitely not expected him to be so quiet about it. It unnerved her, and made her more determined to get it out of him first.

The light from the lamp on the bedside table cast an eerie golden glow all over the room. She had a phobia of the dark, but she didn’t know why, out of a sudden overpowering impulse, she reached out and turned off the light, plunging the room in darkness.

The instinctive fear that gripped her insides pricked tears in her eyes, and pulled the covers up to over her ears, turning to her side and pulling her knees to her chest.

She hated how she had been so uncommunicative with Abhi today…she hated the fact that she had knowingly, and intentionally hit him where it hurt the most. She hated how she needed to scare herself, bring out her deepest fear, in order to distract herself from the guilt nagging at her heart.

Her breathing ragged slightly, she turned her face into the pillow, taking deep breaths to calm herself down. Her lungs didn’t fill with as much oxygen as she would have liked them to, even though she sucked in air with all her might. One hand balled itself into a fist, while the other gripped the pillow so hard as if her life depended on it.

She didn’t make a sound, as the suffocating silence in the room muffled even her breathing, and the warring tears finally won the battle against her will, slipping down through her tightly pressed eyelids. Her jaw taut, teeth gritted, she just let it out.

And by the time she was asleep, the pillow cover was salty with all the tears that she had shed.

 

 

***

He fell asleep, the bedside lamp still on. The dupatta still covered his face, and despite the turmoil inside him, he breathed peacefully in his sleep, inhaling her scent which filled his senses.

 

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THREE

Inside my skin
There is this space
It twists and turns
It bleeds and aches
Inside my heart
There’s an empty room
It’s waiting for lightning
It’s waiting for you

I am wanting and
I am needing you
To be here
Inside the absence
Of fear

(“Absence Of Fear” by Jewel Kilcher)

“Where’re you going?” he asked the ceiling.

“I’m going to Dr. Keerti’s wedding”, she answered and got up, picking up her clothes from where they had been thrown around the room.

He followed her around with his eyes. “But weren’t you saying that you don’t want to go there? I asked you in the morning.”

“Yes, I did say that. But now I’m saying that I want to go”, she replied curtly, irritation seeping into her.

“It’s late. Won’t the wedding be over?”

“No…There’s still an hour for it to begin”, she answered as she pulled her kurti over her head, minutely surprised at her lack of embarrassment even though he was plainly staring at her.

“Oh”, was all he said.

“Armaan called, didn’t he?” he asked her as she went around searching for something.

She froze for a fraction of a second, before answering with a short “yes”.

“I’m taking your car. I’ll be staying here tonight…you’re hurt and you’ll need someone to be here”, she told him matter-of-factly as she picked up his keys from the drawer and walked out with him staring after her, wondering what the hell had just happened to her.

His gaze remained fixed at the door she had walked out of, before he let out a sigh and went for a cooling shower.

***

“Nikki!” she was instantly enveloped in a hug by Armaan as the rest of her friends crowded around her, asking if she was okay.

“We were really worried!” Riddhima gave her a hug immediately after Armaan released her.

“Yeah, you could’ve informed us…” said Anjali and the others nodded.

“How’re you? Armaan was saying that you’re ill?” Atul asked in concern.

“Oh nothing, just a headache…” she smiled at him.

“Hey…what’s that on your neck? Did you get hurt during the riots or…?” Armaan’s gaze turned all the more suspicious as he concentrated on something on her neck, which was thankfully half hidden by her long hair.

“Huh? What?” she felt the place he was staring at and felt her cheeks burn as she pulled her hair over it even more to cover it. “Oh, nothing…just a rash…” she hoped she sounded convincing.

“Are you sure?” he tried to remove her hair from there but she smacked his hand away.

“It’s nothing Armaan.” She said sternly.

“Now I should go change…I’m already late”, she plastered a cheerful smile on her face and they dispersed with “oh right”s and “yeah”s.

In the dressing room, Riddhima quietly walked up to Nikki when they were alone.

“Nikki?” her one worded question was enough to tell the other girl what she wanted to know.

Nikki cleared her throat. “Give me a churidaar, Riddhima. I won’t wear that saree I was supposed to.”

She quietly brought a pretty white churidaar for her, and asked. “You want to hide that love bite with the dupatta, don’t you Nikki?”

Her shocked fumble with the clothes once she heard the question told Riddhima that she was right.

“Dr. Modi?” she prodded warily, not knowing if she should venture into the topic.

“Yes”, came her curt but quiet reply.

“Why didn’t he come tonight?” she put a hand on Nikki’s shoulder. She appeared stiff.

“He’s hurt”, Nikki looked at her.

“What?” she asked in concern. “What happened?”

“He fought off a few goons who were leeching at me during the riots”, Nikki’s weakness showed starkly.

Riddhima’s eyes widened. “Oh…is he alright?”

“Not exactly…he got a few bad bruises”, she said, her voice heavy.

“Nikki…don’t worry, he’ll be fine”, she sat down beside her and put an understanding arm around her shoulder. “You’ll take care of him.”

She simply sighed.

“But…Nikki…about that mark on your neck…” she continued uneasily after a while. “…Armaan is pretty suspicious. I can tell that.”

She didn’t say anything.

“Did you…” Riddhima’s eyes went as round as saucers as she watched the deep red climb steadily up Nikki’s cheeks.

***

The shower didn’t help. All that ran in his mind was the moments they had shared today, and how she had simply gone to the wedding responding immediately to Armaan’s call yet not giving him a second thought…or an answer.

Freshened up yet not feeling any better, he patted himself dry with the towel and looked himself in the mirror, observing the face that stared back at him. He looked tired…and very much so.

Walking back to the bed, aching all over and emotionally drained, he just fell asleep.

***

“Nikki…you and Dr. Modi…slept with each other?” Riddhima said, her voice getting fainter with every word.

She remained quiet and just nodded.

Riddhima stared in shocked silence.

“Nikki…you two…and…I mean…” she spluttered, at a loss for what to say.

“So…everything is alright between you two now?” she asked apprehensively after an uncomfortable pause.

“I don’t know…” she shook her head and got up, fixing her hair.

Riddhima didn’t press the topic anymore but something told her a silent storm was brewing between the two.

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