It was a major win for Mumbai police. One of the biggest mafia families, the Goenkas, had tumbled down. Piece by piece the empire came apart. The TV channels and newspapers talked about nothing else for days.
Naira had found about the developments when she woke up in a hospital room a day after the ordeal. She had sustained non-severe injuries.
On waking up, Aditya Bansal, the cop she so desperately wanted to meet to implicate Kartik, visited her. Turns out, he had been in cahoots with Kartik all along. They were working together, as a part of a bigger plan, to extinguish crime and criminals. Aditya took her statement about what transpired in the warehouse where they had recovered Akhilesh's dead body. Naira answered his queries as much as she could recall. He made note that Naira killed Akhilesh in self-defense.
Once the cops were done, only then were family and friends allowed to meet her. Keerti, Naira's only friend, was there. Tears were streaming down Keerti's face when she saw a badly wounded Naira, lying on the hospital bed.
"Is Kartik fine?" Naira asked, ignoring the pain stinging her head.
Keerti nodded between sobs, "They took out the bullet. It hadn't damaged any organ. He is unconscious as of now, but the doctors are hopeful."
The optimism gave her strength. Later when Kartik regained consciousness, Naira was the first one to see him.
"Hey there," she said softly, as she on his bed. "How are you?"
"I've been better," he replied, with a small smile.
Naira gently took his hand between hers. "I am so sorry." Her voice was shaky, "It's my fault that you're in this condition. Akhilesh used me to draw you alone to the warehouse. If not for me, you wouldn't have been shot." Tears rolled down her cheeks.
"It's not your fault, Naira," he spoke firmly, "Akhilesh murdered my father. One way or another, he would've found a way to kill me too. If anything, you saved me."
Kartik removed his hand from her grasp and wiped her face. "You saved me, in more ways than one. You gave me the strength to do what was right. Lot of things will change in the upcoming days, Naira. I will have to..." he paused, holding her hand again.
"What?" she asked, a hint of fear in her voice.
"I'll have to face the consequences of my actions... I'll be imprisoned," he replied.
Shocked, she asked, "Why would they arrest you? Your cooperation is what helped the cops."
"That might earn me a lighter sentence, but I'll have to go to jail..." He explained, breathing deeply. Before she could further object, he interrupted, "It'll happen, Naira. I am telling you now because I want you to do something."
She listened to him intently. "When everything comes undone, I want you to take Keerti and leave the country. I'll tell you the code to a secret safe in my study where you'll get passports and bank account details. I want you both out of here."
She shook her head, "I'm not going to leave you. Not when you need me the most."
"You don't understand," his voice had a tone of urgency, "We still have enemies- within and outside. They might try to harm Keerti or you or anyone close to me. There'll be a power struggle and dead bodies in its wake. The battle isn't over. It has just begun. And I don't want you caught in the crossfire. You deserve to be free. You deserve to start your life afresh."
"Not like this..." she sniffled, pressing his hand between hers, "Not without you."
He spoke softly, "If only there was another way... But there isn't. I want you to be safe and as far away from all this as possible. I need you to be strong, Naira. I know you can do it."
"I can't..." She spoke between tears, "I can't leave you..."
He smiled weakly, "Once I've repented for my crimes, I'll come find you. I promise."
"Kartik," she whispered his name, "I love you." There couldn't be a more inopportune time to declare her love for him.
"And I love you," he spoke with the strength he could muster. "I always have."
Some weeks later, Naira, Keerti and an aging Suhasini Goenka flew to London. The family had a house there. Suwarna and Shubham moved to Singapore, to her maternal house. All the members of the syndicate scattered. Some were caught and imprisoned. Others were absconding. Some killed by rival families, others joined them. The void left by the decimation of Goenkas led to a turf war among the remaining families. There was murder and mayhem all around.
When a few months later Kartik's case was being heard at court, Naira kept track of each and every development, however small. She wanted to return to India, to be by his side but she couldn't. The day of the judgment was soon upon them. With bated breath, Naira kept her eyes glued to her mobile screen where she was watching live news. The reporter gave a quick recap of the case, of the events leading up to it.
Naira tapped her foot impatiently. What would be the court's verdict? Would they show leniency or fully acquit him or would he be given life imprisonment? Naira shut out the disturbing thoughts. Her mind would spiral out of control if she engaged in thinking. She waited for the reporter to announce the verdict.
That's what Kartik got. It was a lenient sentence since he had cooperated and was instrumental in bringing down a huge crime empire.
Naira cried herself to sleep that night.
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months and months to years. Naira took admission in a college along with part-time work. Keerti started working in a bank. They didn't need the money. Kartik had left them more than enough for a comfortable life. But they needed to keep themselves busy.
4 years later, a sliver of happiness came to their lives when Keerti got engaged to her boyfriend- a work colleague. Sometime later, she married him. Naira, who had graduated and joined an MNC, moved out of their house and rented a small flat in the city.
She went to office, sat in her cubicle and worked, silently. On weekends, she would sometimes meet Keerti. Sometimes she'd catch a movie or just wander around the city. She had longed for freedom all her life yet without Kartik, everything was incomplete.
Some years later, Suhasini passed away due to old age. A funeral was held. Kartik wasn't allowed to attend since his parole was denied.
Thereafter Keerti got involved with work and family. She had a boy whom she named Krish. Her family was complete. Naira was happy for her. But sometimes she'd also envy her, later feeling guilty.
One evening, on the 9th year of her wait and Kartik's sentence, something left Naira spellbound. She had just returned from office when her sight fell on a man sitting outside her apartment door.
He had stubble and a face that looked tired but his eyes sparkled. It took a moment for her to realize who it was.
Initially shell-shocked, she ran to him and hugged him tightly. "Kartik!" she mumbled against his shirt, tears spilling from her eyes.
Kartik wrapped his hands around her slender waist and pulled her closer. He breathed in the familiar scent of her hair and exhaled.
When she pulled apart after many moments, her voice quivered, "How are you here...?"
"Early release," he responded, smiling. "Courtesy of my good behavior and my lawyer's relentless appeals."
Neither had let each other go from their grasp. For 9 years and 4 months they had waited for their exile to end. They had stayed separately, pining for each other. The only thought that kept them going was the promise of seeing each other once their ordeal was over. And alas it was.
Throughout their lives, both, Kartik and Naira, were trapped in their own cages. The cages were different but the suffocation was same. Both desperately wanted a life where they could live freely- a haven where they were safe, happy and loved.
After years, their dream had manifested into reality.
At last, they were together. At last, they were free.
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