Chapter 26: Remains of Love
"So, it's over between Khushi and you?" Aman didn't try to skirt around the topic and asked straightforwardly. In response, Arnav looked at his friend with pursed lips.
"Haven't you been listening to anything I just said?" Arnav asked sharply, looking at Aman with irritated eyes.
Aman shrugged his shoulders.
"All I heard is that you are hurt with what Khushi did. You think she should have come straight to you and told you everything about how Akash was blackmailing Payal and her. You think she chose not to trust you with the truth. You think she does not love you. Thus, I surmise that it's all over" Aman said in the most casual manner, leaning against the sofa in his drawing room.
Arnav had arrived in his flat exactly three hours ago, all despondent and unkempt. It had been two days since Girish Sharma had been put behind the bars and a case was lodged against him, main charges being kidnapping and attempt to murder. Arnav had been assured by the police that this time, Girish was in for good.
Akash was still in the hospital. The bullet had been removed from his liver and the doctors said it could have been fatal if the bullet had stayed in another half an hour or if the shot had been fired from a different angle or distance. In short, Akash was safe but needed plenty of rest to heal.
After hearing that, Arnav had left Akash under the intensive care of his Di and Nani. Since then, he hadn't visited Akash. He planned to go there today after meeting Aman.
In the past two days, Arnav had spent all his time thinking about Khushi. She had called him all but one time, asking if Akash was okay. Arnav had said he was doing fine, and then he had asked her if she was okay. Khushi had said she was. And then she had said 'bye' and disconnected.
Arnav had wanted to call her back and ask her to meet him. But he hadn't. He figured he still needed time to arrange his thoughts. So, he had come to Aman for some help.
But listening to Aman's words, Arnav made a distasteful face and Aman noticed it.
"See, ASR! You don't have to think about anything. The only question you have to ask yourself is whether you still love Khushi?" Aman asked.
"I do" Arnav replied in a slow voice, not lingering for even a second to consider the question.
"So, there is your answer. If you love her, you have to overlook everything else" Aman answered and Arnav reflected upon his words for a few seconds.
"That's not the only problem" Arnav murmured after a pause.
"I don't think I am good enough for her" Arnav finally said, voicing out his deepest concern and Aman looked at his friend like he couldn't understand what was being said.
"What? How can you say that?" Aman asked.
"It is plain to see, Aman. My family is...tainted. My father was a filthy man. Akash mistreated Payal and only god knows what horrors Khushi faced at the hands of Girish" Arnav replied, looking at Aman.
Aman sighed in response. As soon as Arnav had arrived in his flat, he had taken a seat and explained everything to him. Beginning from the ill-fated story of Geeta Sharma, Arnav had finished the story with how Akash had manipulated Payal and Khushi.
To say that Aman had been disgusted was not even scraping the surface. He abhorred the three men, Surendra Singh Raizada, Girish Sharma and Akash. It didn't matter to him if Akash had been misled by Girish Sharma. Aman believed that Akash was always subpar when it came to being a good person, reasons be damned.
And now hearing Arnav being insecure because he was related to these three men was something Aman could understand. But he did not agree with it.
"That's bullshit!" Aman replied, shaking his head at Arnav.
"When Shweta abandoned Aakriti and me, you told me it was not my fault. You said she left because she was a selfish person. You said her actions were her responsibility and not mine. So, what happened to all that, huh? Were those words only for me?" Aman demanded from his friend and Arnav looked wordless for a moment.
"Where's Aakriti" He asked, changing the topic and Aman could see that Arnav was purposely avoiding the topic now. Although he wanted to say a lot more, he knew he shouldn't.
"She's at school" Aman answered.
"She has dance practice after the classes. For some upcoming event at the school" Aman explained and Arnav nodded.
"So, what's the equation between Payal and you?" Arnav asked after a while and Aman looked taken aback by the question.
"What do you mean?" He asked, warily and defensively.
"I noticed the way you were looking at her in Gupta house and then at the hospital too" Arnav replied.
Aman stared at his friend with narrowed eyes.
"There is no equation. She is a friend" Aman answered, shrugging his shoulders.
"Have you told her about Shweta?" Arnav inquired.
"How does that matter?" Aman counter asked.
"That means you have" Arnav concluded and both the friends looked at each other, the look meaningful.
"She's pregnant with Akash's child. What do you plan to do about that?" Aman asked, breaking the stare.
"That's why I am going to meet Akash" Arnav answered carefully.
"What will Akash do?" Aman asked too quietly, tension now simmering in the room.
"Don't tell me you're going to ask him to marry Payal" Aman said, getting up from the couch, his fists clenched and Arnav noticed that Aman hadn't looked so angry for a long time now.
"Of course not!" Arnav said, getting up too.
"I have to ask Akash if he still holds anything against Payal. I know Akash saved my life, but he was working with Girish. I still don't trust his judgement. I have to make sure he stays away from Payal and does not bother her again" Arnav replied and watched as Aman slowly calmed down. He wondered if Aman was being concerned about Payal just because he considered her a friend.
If not, this could easily get complex.
"I'll leave now" Arnav said. Aman nodded, following him to the door.
Arnav stepped out of the flat and extended a hand towards Aman, "Thanks for listening".
Aman took his hand and shook it.
"That's what friends and managers are for" He replied, his lips curving up to form a small smile.
"And don't think too much. Just talk to Khushi. I am sure she wants to sort this as much as you do" Aman added at last. Arnav withdrew his hand and a slight dip of his head was the only acknowledgement before he turned and left.
Khushi looked at her parents and told them for the tenth time that she was fine. It had been two days but her parents still kept asking her if she was okay. She wasn't.
Her encounter with Girish Sharma had terrified her. While she had pretended to be brave in front of Girish, on the inside, she had been every bit scared of the man and his malicious intentions. Last night, she had woken up in her dark room and panicked thinking she was still tied to the chair in a dark room. She had failed to be able to move her hands and legs, unable to shout. She had just thrashed on the bed which had awoken Payal who had then calmed her down.
The nightmare of last night was another reason why her parents were still asking her if she felt better. However, her current suffering had nothing to do with Girish Sharma. It had everything to do with Arnav.
Ever since Khushi had returned from the hospital, she was feeling empty. Her mind, though full of anguished thoughts, was vacant. Sometimes, she felt her life was meaningless. It was meaningless without Arnav.
He had forsaken her and Khushi knew it was the right thing to do. Yet, she longed to see him one more time, to hear his voice one more time.
So, she had called him. She had asked him about Akash and his replies had been monosyllabic. Talking to Arnav on the phone, Khushi had grasped the fact that she had really lost him. And could she blame him? No man in his right mind would love a girl like her. And if Khushi was being honest, she respected Arnav's decision to stay away from her. She had already caused him so much of heartache that it was only wise if he was keeping his distance from her. So, gulping down her emotions, Khushi once again told her parents that she was fine.
Last night, before going to bed, she had apologized to them for keeping them in the dark about Akash's blackmail. But to her surprise, her father had only run a hand over her head and asked her to promise him that now onwards she wouldn't ever keep anything from him. No more secrets. She had given the promise to them. Only after that, her parents had retired to bed.
Now, as her father and mother sat in her room, Khushi wondered if not telling them about what she was really feeling breaking that promise. No, she wasn't breaking her promise. There was nothing to tell them. Everything was burned to a crisp by no one other than her.
So, she smiled at them and interposed, "We have to get Babuji's heart surgery done. I have saved some money. Doctor Uncle had given us a six-month warning. It's already been more than three months"
Khushi watched her parents' faces turning serious.
"We can postpone the surgery for now" It was Shashi Gupta who said first.
"I have been looking grooms for Payal. I started about a month ago, but there was no one good enough. But yesterday, we got a response from Shri Dhar ji" Shashi Gupta continued before Khushi could say anything.
"Does Jeeji know about this?" Khushi asked.
"Not yet. First, I want to meet Shri Dhar ji and his son. Explain them our situation. If they still agree to this marriage, we can talk to Payal about this. Until then, I don't want anyone telling her" Shashi Gupta's voice was laced with as much caution as with hope. It seemed like the recent turn of events in his house had weathered him.
Khushi silently nodded and her thoughts went back to Arnav.
Arnav must have weathered too after her betrayal. She herself was battered. It hurt to think that she just might have to learn to live her life without Arnav. Could she do that?
Akash lay on the hospital bed wearing a green gown. Although he was supposed to be taking rest, he couldn't. Every now and then, his eyes would roam to the couch placed at the other end of the room where Anjali sat with Nani ji. They were talking in slow and hushed voices, making sure not to disturb him. Every time Akash looked at them he couldn't help but be filled with guilt for thinking they could ever mean harm to him. They had loved him despite being an adopted child. They had even tried to keep the truth from him that Akash now wished he didn't know.
He had ruined everything by letting his own misgivings get the better of him. He had misunderstood his whole family. How does one do that? Was it somehow because of the polluted blood that ran in his veins? Was Girish Sharma so easily able to corrupt his mind because he already had some corruption within? Akash knew the answer was yes.
After learning about his mother's pain and suffering, Akash's world-view had changed. Now, he could see that he was never a good man. He went through girls like they were clothes. He never cared enough about their feelings. He was a rotten person. Girish Sharma simply turned him worse.
Akash realized that he couldn't blame anyone for what happened with him. He could only blame himself. He wondered if Arnav would forgive him. Since the day he had been moved in this private ward, Arnav hadn't visited him.
Akash still remembered the moment when Girish Sharma had pointed his gun towards Arnav. He had known Girish would shoot. And the mere thought had jolted him awake. Months ago, when Girish Sharma had first proposed his plan of revenge, he had hinted at kidnapping Arnav and killing him after making him sign the papers. But, even then, Akash had outright refused to do that. Instead, he had proposed the plan of using a third party to get Arnav's signatures. That's how Payal had come into the picture. It was Girish's suggestion to blackmail Payal and Khushi into getting their job done. His reluctance had been only for few seconds before Akash had agreed. All of it went back to that second. It was that second, Akash realized, when he had truly gone dark. Now he hated himself for it. He kept thinking the words he had read in the letter that he still carried with him.
"...I want my Akash to remain like he is...I want him to grow up to be a good person..Not like his father..."
He was sure wherever his mother was, she was ashamed of him. But, he will become a good person now. He can begin now. Akash decided. And as he looked up at the door again, this time he found it occupied by Arnav.
Akash blinked and then looked at Anjali and Nani ji who were already readying to leave. Akash told himself that this was his opportunity to begin his repentance.
Arnav stepped into the room and as he made his way towards Akash, Anjali and Nani walked out of the room. It was more for Akash's benefit than his, Arnav knew.
As he reached near Akash's bed and took a seat on the stool placed near it, Akash made an attempt to open his mouth but Arnav lifted a hand.
"I'll talk first" He said and Akash nodded stiffly, maintaining quiet.
"Thank you for saving my life" Arnav began and Akash's head bobbed again, this time his eyes angst-ridden. Arnav could see that Akash wanted to say something to that but, he didn't give him a chance as he continued further.
"What you did there...at that house, I am thankful. You also gave up that man's whereabouts to me, because of which I could reach Khushi in time. And when things had whirled out of control, you stood up for our family. You chose to believe in us over him. And if I am being honest; I wasn't expecting that from you. Not after I learnt what you did to Payal and what you made Khushi do. But now, I can see that the truth has changed you. I always hoped that it will. Maybe, it is my mistake that I didn't tell you sooner. I should have. I am sorry for that. But, even after all of this, despite you being my brother, don't expect me to forgive you for the things you did. You might have not known the truth, but you still destroyed an innocent girl's life. And right now, that's what I want to talk about. If you want to continue being my brother, you have to promise me that you will stay away from Payal. You have to tell me that you're no longer in possession of those photos or whatever it was. And, in the end, you have to tell me that you plan to change your ways" Arnav finished, all this while looking at Akash who listened to every word with rapt attention.
Once Arnav was done, he expected Akash to say something but Akash simply looked at his brother.
"Don't you have to say anything?" Arnav asked, his tone patronizing.
"Can I call you Bhai again?" Akash's question caught Arnav off guard for a second before he realized he had asked Akash to not call him Bhai. His own throat surged with emotions as he noticed the earnest look on Akash's face.
"I will always be your Bhai, Akash" Arnav replied, placing a hand on Akash's shoulder.
Akash loosed a breath and then forced himself to say the words.
"I want to marry Payal, Bhai"
The words hung in the air, their weight crushing Akash as he waited for Arnav to respond.
Arnav gave Akash a long, appraising look.
"Because I have wronged her, I mistreated her, and because she is pregnant with my child. I have to correct my mistakes. I have to mend everything that I have broken" Akash replied, each word laden with sincerity.
"What about love?" Arnav couldn't help but ask the question.
"I have no right to use that word" Akash replied, not meeting Arnav's eyes.
Arnav didn't say that he agreed with him. But he knew he said to say other things.
"Akash, it is good that you want to correct your mistakes, but marrying Payal is not the way to do that" Arnav replied, his voice firm. Akash's face turned tragic.
"It is the only way, Bhai. It is the only correct way. I will tell her how sorry I am. I will beg her if I have to. I will grovel at her feet until she forgives me. She is going to be the mother of my child. And after learning what it is to have a despicable father, I don't want the same for my child. I don't want my child to grow up and hate me, just like I hate...my father now. My mother wanted me to be a good man. I want to be a good man, Bhai. I want to be a good father" Akash continued further, his eyes lining with tears which is voice turned imploring.
Arnav watched his brother reducing into a blubbering mess and his heart went out to him.
"I get it, Akash. I understand why you want to do this. But, do you think Payal would agree? She..." Arnav didn't know how to put the words before Akash.
"...hates me. I know, Bhai. And she is absolutely right in hating me. I wouldn't expect anything less from her. She was a determined, headstrong girl before I turned her into a shell of that person. She was the girl I couldn't keep myself away from. I owe myself a chance, Bhai. I have to try and get her back. I will fight tooth and nails for her. I will convince her that I have changed. I will make her see how much I need her in my life. She is my only chance at redemption" Akash replied and Arnav had to marvel at the conviction that dripped from Akash's words.
"I just want to request you one thing, Bhai. Please get her here. I want to see her just one time. Please, Bhai. Just one meeting! And I promise you that after that I would never bother her. Also, I promise you, Bhai, this is the last thing I will ever ask of you. This last favour!" Akash went on, leaving Arnav stuck between two bad points.
Arnav knew that none of the Guptas wanted to hear Akash's name. He also knew that if he does it, Aman will be upset with him. But, looking at Akash's beseeching face, his weak, healing body as he lay on the hospital bed, Arnav found himself nodding.
"I will ask Payal if she wants to meet you. But, if she says no, that will be the end of it" Arnav's voice was concluding.
"Thank you, Bhai" Akash smiled weakly and nodded.
"You should rest now" Arnav said, getting up from the stool and turning to leave.
"Khushi loves you, Bhai" Akash's words were like a bucketful of ice-cold water being hurled at him.
His legs stopped moving, and he slowly turned towards Akash who was looking at the floor, not meeting Arnav's eyes.
"What did you say?" It was an effort to draw out the words.
Akash slowly looked up at his brother's face.
"I lied, Bhai. Everything that I told you about Khushi and me, it was not true. I was trying to...hurt you...because I knew you cared for her. She loves you" Akash continued, while Arnav struggled to maintain calm, to appear settled while his heart was suddenly caught between storms.
"How do you kn..." Arnav asked, not finishing his words.
"She told me, Bhai. At the cabin, she told me that she didn't get your signatures on those papers because she loves you. She couldn't cheat on you. She risked getting caught, she knew if I had found out, it will not bode well for her, even then she backed out. All for you, Bhai. I had to tell you. I hope you will patch things with her. She is one of the good ones. Don't let my actions come between you two. If that happens, I won't be able to forgive myself" Akash kept talking until he realized that Arnav was barely responding to his words.
"Bhai?" Akash said.
"Take rest, Akash" Arnav replied, and then he immediately left the room. He had to meet Khushi.