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Aishani felt her eyes sting when she saw Shikhar. She felt very much like the baby sister for whom her brother was the only source of affection and security.
Shikhar briefly hugged Om, “Thanks Om, for taking care of Aashi.” Om felt a slight pang of guilt. “No need to thank me Shikhar. I really care about her.” he said openly. Shikhar looked very emotional at Om’s words. He nodded and smiled. Then he walked over to where Aishani was sitting and sat by her.
The two exchanged a look that Om could not fully decipher. “How are you Aashi?” asked Shikhar affectionately. Aishani looked like she was trying to control herself but tears started brimming her eyes. “I am fine. It’s just a minor injury.” she said in a controlled voice. Shikhar nodded. He looked at her bandaged foot and gently touched it. “Does the bandage need to be changed?” Taking advantage of him looking down, Aishani quickly wiped her eyes, “Yes, tomorrow. For the cut. The bandage for sprain will just be retied.” Shikhar nodded. “Are you ready to leave?”
Om was observing their interactions and expressions carefully. He panicked at Shikhar’s mention of leaving. “You are going to have lunch with us. Dadi, mom, Anika, everyone wants to meet you.” Shikhar smiled.”OK. I’d love to meet everyone too.” He looked at Aishani and saw a light smile on her face. Shikhar felt a great sense of positivity inside him.
Just then Priyanka brought coffee. She was surprised at seeing Shikhar there and stood where she was with the coffee tray in her hand.Shikhar smiled his usual bright smile that made his incredibly handsome face even more charming.He got up. “Hi Priyanka. Nice to see you again.How are you?” he said cheerfully.
“Hi. I am fine. How are you?” she responded nervously. Then she kept the tray on the coffee table. “Please have coffee. I’ll go and inform Dadi, mom, Choti ma , and Anika bhabhi. They all wanted to know when you got here. Bhaiya, will you call and tell Shivaay bhaiya. He wanted to know too. He will come for lunch.”
“Yes, I’ll call him right away.” said Om taking out his phone from his pocket.
Shikhar looked on as Priyanka left. Aishani smiled observing him. She felt some of her sternness against him evaporate. In a teasing tone she said, “Shikhar, coffee? ” He was startled out of his thoughtful state. “What?Oh yes. Coffee. Where is it?”
Aishani laughed as she said, “The coffee is in the coffee tray on the coffee table.”
Om who had just finished informing Shivaay about Shikhar’s arrival noticed Aishani laughing and swallowed back.He felt a sense of depression at the thought of her leaving. But at the moment he couldn’t do anything about it. He had to sort out his own feelings first. Om walked towards the coffee table and picked up a cup to give it to Shikhar. He picked up another one and gave it to Aishani, who stopped laughing but could not stop smiling as she looked at Om and took the cup from him. Thinking of Shikhar, she still had a twinkle in her eyes as she laughed slightly and said , “Thanks, Om.” He smiled back, unwilling to look away.
Just then Dadi, Jhanvi, and Pinky came . Om introduced Shikhar to everyone. They were all quite taken in by his jovial and pleasant personality. Soon Priyanka came back with Anika. Om introduced Shikhar to her, “Anika, this is Shikhar, one of my few good memories from school. Cannot think of a better guy. And Shikhar, this is my bhabhi, my sister and my friend, Anika.”
“Hi Shikhar. I have heard so much about you. Very glad to meet you. I know we probably met at my reception but that evening was very hectic so I don’t remember everyone I met for the first time then.”
“Of course. So nice to meet you again. I too have heard great things about you from Om. He told me that you were going to open your restaurant.”
“Yes!” said Anika animatedly, “Actually I have been on the phone all morning finalizing a few meetings to see some sites. Once I have made a decision about it, I will come to you and Aishani to design and decorate my restaurant.”
Everyone chatted for a while until Shivaay came back. Shikhar got up to meet him and stretched out his hand for a handshake. Shivaay gave him a quick hug and said,”We are not business associates anymore Shikhar. You are family. You should have told me you were with Om in school.”
Shikhar smiled, “I wasn’t sure if that would be the right thing to do. And anyway isn’t it even better that you got to know like this?”
Shivaay instantly had great respect and liking for this guy. “Yes, in a way I am glad I got to know after I got married. I am a much better person than I used to be owing to my better half here.” Shivaay looked at Anika with a grin. Everyone looked at her and smiled as she blushed. “Yes, yes. Enough makkhanbaazi. Shikhar, we wanted Aishani to stay a few more days. We haven’t chatted with her to our heart’s content as yet. But she is anxious to go back into the care of her big brother so we don’t want to force her.”
Shikhar looked at Aishani, “Do you want to stay back? I can come back to pick you up.”
“No. I think if I go home I can start working on some of my projects. That way I will be free to work on Om’s gallery and Anika bhabhi’s restaurant when the time comes for it.” reasoned Aishani as coolly as she could. She realized every one was looking at her with either surprise or affection and she wasn’t sure why. She looked at Om for a clue but his intense gazing at her made her look away.
They were talking in general when Rudra came. He was very upset but composed himself and came to meet Shikhar. Then he went and sat next to Priyanka. Aishani noticed his tensed face and red eyes. “Is Soumya home” she heard him ask Priyanka.
“Not yet, bhaiya.” said Priyanka.
Rudra thought for a few moments. Then he said, “Prinku, my phone is out of charge. Can I have your phone? I need to call someone.”
Priyanka handed him her phone as Aishani looked on.
Rudra took the phone and excused himself. In his room, he furiously typed a message on Priyanka’s phone.”Where are you? Aishani di is going to be leaving soon. She wants to see you before she goes back. Please come home as soon as possible.We are all waiting for you.” He re-read his message and with trembling hands he sent it to Soumya. He felt a storm raging in his heart and he lay back on the bed and closed his eyes to calm down. Then he got up and went downstairs to wait for her. Rudra was in the dining area getting a glass of water when he saw Aishani there. She stopped when she saw him.
“Did you need anything Aishani di? Can I get you something?” Rudra asked politely
“No. I am on my way back from the washroom. Can I talk to you Rudra?” asked Aishani.
“Sure” said Rudra pulling out a chair for her and then one for himself.
Once seated, Aishani carefully started,”Rudra, I barely know you so if you feel I am interfering or intruding pardon me and stop me. I have noticed both you and Soumya tensed since that whole conversation yesterday when I had just gotten here. I remember Soumya got very embarrassed. If that caused any tension between the two of you, I want to apologise.”
Rudra just looked down and kept quiet. Aishani saw the grief on his face and felt very bad for him. Rudra had an innocence about him that was endearing. “I have gotten to know Soumya a little bit. She is a very loving, kind , and genuine person with a beautiful personality. I am sure if you talk to her with sensitivity, things will get better. Sorry again for whatever role I may have played in causing this grief.” Aishani started to get up.
“It’s not your fault Aishani di.” said Rudra still looking down. “I am a fool and don’t know how to handle situations. But I will remember your advice.”
Aishani nodded and got up to leave. “Di, we wish you had stayed because we really like you. I don’t know if I should say this but, around you, O seems to be at a level of satisfaction and peace, that none of us has seen him at before. But I respect your decision. Please keep visiting us frequently.” said Rudra in his usual simple way.
“Thanks Rudra. I will try to visit as much as I can.” Aishani felt very happy and did nothing to suppress the feeling.
“I’d like that very much.” said Jhanvi who had just come in. “The table is going to be set for lunch. Both of you go and sit in the living room.
Everyone was in the middle of lunch when Soumya walked in slowly. She pulled an empty chair to sit next to Anika. When she looked up her eyes met Rudra’s. He was sitting directly opposite Anika and his face was expressionless but his eyes pierced through Soumya . She looked away, took some food and ate quietly. Rudra seemed to have lost the little appetite that he had to begin with.
Once lunch was over, every one went back to the living room. Shivaay discussed something with Shikhar. Om participated in the conversation every now and then while trying to control a growing sense of panic at the thought of Aishani leaving.
“Shall we get going now Aishani?” asked Shikhar.
“I have seen everyone except Saahil today. Let’s wait for another half an hour. He’ll be here by then, I think. I’ll say bye to him then go.” said Aishani.
Shikhar nodded. “Oh yes. I’d like to meet him too.”
Om felt a sense of relief at getting another half an hour and for the first time he acknowledged to himself that he loved her for thinking about Saahil. Another half an hour had passed when Saahil arrived. Aishani beamed at his sight. Anika got him from the entrance door and introduced him to Shikhar, “My baby brother Saahil. Saahil, he is Aishani Didi’s big brother, Shikhar.”
“Hi Shikhar bhaiya.” Saahil said with an ear to ear smile.
“Hi Saahil.” said Shikhar affectionately.
“Aishani Didi, are you already leaving. At least stay till Saturday. I did not even get to spend time with you.”
“Sorry Saahil.” said Aishani gently holding his free hand. “I have to go today but we will meet again. I can’t wait for both of us to walk freely. We will celebrate then.”
“Is that a promise ?” Saahil asked brightly.
“Pukka vaala” said Aishani laughing.
She got up to leave and so did others. She said bye to the elders in the living room while Anika, Priyanka, Soumya, and Rudra walked with her till the door. She turned to look at Om. He was talking to Shikhar and Shivaay as they walked to the door as well. Her heart felt extremely heavy.
Om accompanied them to their car. As Shikhar helped Aishani sit in her seat she looked at Om. Both remembered the previous day. It was hard for both to believe how their lives had changed in twenty four hours. Shikhar shut Aishani’s door then turned towards Om. “Om, I cannot believe the transformation in Aishani after spending twenty four hours with you and your family. She is smiling and talking so much more. What an entire year of therapy could not do, being here did in one day.” Shikhar was shocked at what he had said in his flow of emotion.
Om looked on quietly, then said, “Shikhar, one of these days, you will have to tell me why she has such high tolerance for pain. She did not so much as whimper when her foot went through that step and those splinters tore through her flesh. I also want you to know that when we went to pick up her stuff from your house I saw the wall full of pictures and cards in your study. I sincerely apologise if that offends you.But I want to know what demons chased away that cheerful girl. I have said it before and I am saying it again, I care deeply about her and the last twenty four hours have only intensified that feeling.”
“I will tell you everything very soon. Let’s meet to see your gallery space as soon as possible. I’ll be done with most of my major commitments by this Thursday. Friday, anytime will be ok with me. Just give me a call and I will come.” said Shikhar.
Om nodded. “How about noon. It’s lunchtime anyway. We can meet for lunch and I’ll show you the gallery space after that.”
“Done. Let me know where to come.” Shikhar said resolutely.
Both looked at Aishani who was looking curiously at them. She rolled down her window, “What are you guys doing?”
Shikhar went around to the driver’s seat. Om and Aishani looked at each other as the car pulled away. Aishani felt her heart getting ripped apart as she saw the stricken look on Om’s face.
Om felt very lonely all of a sudden and walked dejectedly back inside. Pinky, Jhanvi, Anika, Soumya, and Priyanka were still there. Om barely noticed them and with drooping shoulders and preoccupied with his thoughts, he went to his study and shut the door behind him. Jhanvi looked at him with worry.
“Everything will turn out ok Badi ma. Don’t worry.” said Anika.
Shivaay was working from home for the second half of the day. After talking to Jhanvi for a while Anika decided to go and check on him and took a cup of coffee for him. “It may not be a work of art but I still thought I’ll bring you some Saira Bano.” Anika said as she entered his study. Shivaay looked up from his desk and smiled happily. “Just what I needed.”
“Here” Anika said keeping the cup next to his laptop.
“I meant you, not the coffee!” Shivaay said mischievously as he pulled her on to his lap. “Yes…Just what I needed” he said smiling as he softly pecked her lips.
“Have you started some butter business too? My God! How much makkhanbaazi you do to me these days. I have heard that women should beware of husbands who butter them too much because it means they are hiding or planning something.” Anika said with mock seriousness.
“Yes. You have heard right. Beware! I have some big plans for you that will keep you awake at nights and make you work hard, and give you a tough time.”
Anika looked at him alarmed. “What!? I am leaving. Let me go.”
Shivaay tightened his grip around her waist and held her close to his chest enjoying her wiggling and desperation to be free of his clutches. The more she tried to pull away, the tighter his embrace got. Eventually she realized that she couldn’t win and gave up. “Ok. I accept your plan, whatever it may be.”
“Whatever!!?” Shivaay asked with raised eyebrows.
“Oh my God! What has gotten into you. Yes ok, whatever, I accept. Let me go now.”
“First I’ll tell you my big plan for you.” Shivaay said smiling.
“What!? Here? Now? No, anyone can come in anytime. Let me go.”
” I don’t care who comes in. I am not committing a crime. This is very much expected of a newly married couple.”
Anika felt completely trapped.”OK tell me your plan quickly.” She said huskily. All that vigorous struggle with him had made her quite warm and her breathing was uneven.
“You are going to start your own business and you will need an office space of your own. I want to be there to help you, if you need any help that is. So…I am thinking of creating an office for you within this room since it is so huge. Once you have your own office, you will be working extra hard and maybe late nights too. That’s my big plan.” Shivaay felt a fit of laughter rising up in his chest at her stunned expression. “Why? What were you thinking?” he asked tongue in cheek.
Anika looked daggers at him with tightly clenched teeth. She realized how he had played with her.
Shivaay laughed out loud and kissed her hard on her mouth. Then he let go of her and she involuntarily slid down a little. He held her to steady her then said teasingly, ” Now will you please let me work? Go get some rest. You look exhausted.”
Anika got up, gave him a nice stare, then turned around and left.
Shivaay opened the top two buttons of his shirt and jerked his collar to let in some cool air. “Phew! Someone has rightly said, if you play with fire be prepared to be burnt. All of her wiggling and twisting and turning… ” He looked at the still hot cup of coffee. “I’ll definitely evaporate if I drink that on top of this…” He got up and poured a glass of cold water from a jug nearby and drank it all up in one breath.
In the living room, Jhanvi noticed Soumya’s tired face. “Soumya, you have been studying too hard lately. Look at you! You look exhausted. Go and take some rest.” she said gently patting her head.
Soumya nodded and went back to her room, shut the door behind her, heaved a sigh of exhaustion, walked straight ahead, and sat at the edge of her bed. Then feeling tired from her random wandering all morning and half of the afternoon, she fell back on her bed and stared at the ceiling.
“Tired from all of your classes and assignments?”
Startled by Rudra’s voice, Soumya turned and saw Rudra sitting on the couch against the wall on one side of the bed. A fresh wave of nervousness spread over her as she looked at him sitting there with an unfathomable expression on his face.
Thanks for reading Everyone. Please comment if you can 😊