A/N: I admit it – I started posting this, then ran out of time for the editing I was doing and never kept my promise of finishing it off. I've recently done a bit more editing so am uploading the new versions of the chapters, and the end shall certainly be up soon!
They say Paradise is eternal comfort
What should one do,
With a place where the heart
Doesn't throb and burn
With the scar of your love?
Aalekh is on leave when he receives the call; Neelu has given birth to their second son Jai a week ago, and he has a week left to spend with them before he has to go back to the border.
Neelu watches the expressions on her husband's face. After four years of marriage she knows him inside and out. The way that Aalekh's face falls, the way he closes his eyes briefly in pain, can mean only one thing.
When Aalekh hangs up the phone and turns to her, Neelu doesn't even need to ask what it's about.
"Go as quickly as you can," she tells him, "I'll be waiting for you when you get back."
Aalekh nods, thankful that she's so understanding. He quickly packs a bag, and then kisses Neelu and baby Jai goodbye, before going to the next room where four year old Veeru is sleeping, kissing him too and smoothing the little boy's hair.
"I'll be back as soon as possible." Aalekh tells Neelu, "But I don't know how long…" and his voice breaks.
Neelu looks at her husband, her heart aching when she sees the pain written on his face. "Stay there as long as you need to." She tells him.
"Can you call the others?" he asks her, giving her the address to tell them, and Neelu promises him that she will.
Aalekh drives at breakneck speed towards his destination, knowing that if he doesn't stop, he can reach there in under five hours. Time is of the utmost importance now, every second counts.
He has been expecting this call for four years now, knowing that sooner or later, though he had always hoped for later, he would receive it.
Naina is dying.
The reason Aalekh was the first to receive the call is that he's officially Naina's next of kin. Her parents died in a car crash two years ago, and Aalekh was Naina's first choice to replace them on the necessary forms.
When he had asked her why, her explanation had been very simple.
"I know you'll have the strength to do whatever is needed." She had told him. Aalekh had prayed that he would never actually need to live up to her expectations.
Five hours later, he pulls up at the army hospital, barely waiting for the car to stop before he jumps out. He runs in, not bothering to stop when the nurse questions him, and heads straight to the ICU.
He can see Naina through the glass, and it's then that the doctor spots him and comes outside the room.
"You must be Captain Aalekh Sharma," the doctor says, and Aalekh nods, still out of breath from his run. "I need to warn you, her chances aren't good. Even if she survives, she's likely to go into a coma that she might not wake from."
"Can I see her?" Aalekh asks him, not really caring what the answer is but feeling that he should ask anyway. Nothing will stop him from reaching her side right now.
"Yes," the doctor replies, "But she keeps drifting in and out of consciousness, I'm not sure if she'll be able to talk to you or not."
The permission is all that Aalekh needs and he walks into the room, stopping by the bed to stare down at Naina, who looks impossibly small beside all of the equipment, wires and tubes surrounding her. He already knows what happened to her, she was injured fighting off a terrorist attack. There's internal bleeding, some of her vital organs have already begun to fail, and Naina is fighting a difficult battle for survival.
Somehow Aalekh guesses that she's probably not fighting very hard.
He pulls a hard plastic chair over to her bedside, and sits down, taking her hand. Naina's eyelids flutter before she opens them, looking at Aalekh with a gaze that is clouded, unable to focus properly on his face.
"Hey," she tells him.
"Hey." Aalekh replies, the word getting caught in his throat as he chokes back tears.
"I was waiting for you," Naina tells him and she doesn't need to explain why, Aalekh knows perfectly well.
She was waiting for him so that she could die.
"I'm here now," Aalekh tells her, "You just be strong Naina, fight to live." Aalekh's words sound hollow even to his own ears, and Naina smiles up at him sadly.
"You're the one who's always been strong, Aalekh." She tells him, "And you're going to have to be even stronger now."
"Don't do this, Naina." He begs her, "I know you can survive if you choose to, you've got such a strong will, you could always do anything you put your mind to."
But Naina is already fading away, and Aalekh knows that she would prefer to cast herself adrift than cling to the shore. She has already made up her mind, and she's decided that she wants to die.
He has feared and expected this for four years, he has always known that it would happen.
"You have to let me go, Aalekh." Naina tells him, and there is no fear in her voice, only calm, and a peace that he hasn't heard for years. "This is how it was meant to be."
"No," he tells her, crying now, unable to stop the hot tears from slipping down his cheeks, "It was never meant to be like this. It was all a mistake, this was never how it was meant to work out."
"It's too late, Aalekh." Naina tells him tiredly, "It was fated. It was all decided four long years ago."
Aalekh knows that she's telling the truth, because ever since they've graduated from KMA, Naina has always volunteered for the most dangerous work. She's thrown herself into mission after mission, only taking leave when she was forced to. Aalekh knows because he accompanied her on some of those missions, tried his best to keep her safe time and again.
All of this time Aalekh has known that she's been trying to kill herself without actually committing suicide. Her parents dying two years ago was the last straw, from then on she saw no real obligation to stay alive.
It was all decided four years ago, because four years ago was when Captain Rajveer died.
And for these past four years, Naina has been dying over and over again, praying for a final blow to finish her off.
Aalekh wonders what they could've done differently to prevent all of this from happening. In the end it doesn't matter, because nobody can change the past anyway.
Captain Rajveer had left the academy to meet with the Boss, in order to try and get the evidence that would prove Navin innocent. Naina had found his note too late, and Aalekh still remembers the look on her face as she read it, the way she had turned so pale he thought she would faint, and how she had run from the academy, taken one of the jeeps and driven off after telling him to bring help.
By the time Aalekh and the others had arrived, it was all over.
They had found Naina sitting in the middle of the road, with Captain Rajveer half lying in her lap as she stroked his hair with a blank look on her face. Her clothes were stained with his blood, and one cheek was smeared with it as well.
Dr Shalini had stared at the scene, her face turning white. "He's already dead." She had whispered, and Aalekh had realised that it was true.
Naina hadn't moved, hadn't responded when they called her name. Realising that she was in shock, Shalini had moved forward to take Captain Rajveer's pulse, hoping that she had been wrong.
But he was already gone.
"Come on, Naina," Shalini had told her kindly, trying to keep the tears out of her voice, "Let's go back to the academy. We have to move Captain Rajveer."
Naina had looked at Shalini blankly, as if she had no idea what the doctor had just said to her. Shalini had gestured to the other cadets to help her and Aalekh and Huda had moved forward, intending to move Captain Rajveer.
It was then that Naina began to scream, screams filled with such agony and grief that everybody who heard her could feel their hearts breaking. Pooja had already been crying, but after hearing Naina she collapsed to the ground sobbing, while Ali tried to help her.
When they again tried to move Captain Rajveer, Naina had lashed out with her hands, refusing to let anybody near him, she bent over him as if trying to protect his body, sobbing into his hair.
Shalini had had no other choice, she injected Naina with a strong tranquiliser, knocking her out and they had brought both Naina and the Captain back to KMA. The whole academy had been in mourning, and five hours later when Naina finally woke up, her friends had been there, ready to try and comfort her, wanting to know what had happened.
But Naina had never said a word.
There was one month left until graduation, and in that one month Naina never spoke once. At Captain Rajveer's funeral she had cried silently, but did not say a single thing. From then on she participated in drills and attended class, took her exams, even sat with her friends in the mess and ate when they forced her to but never spoke a single word. Pooja would come to the mess every morning with red eyes, heart broken and tired from listening to her friend cry all night.
Naina didn't say anything when Captain Rajveer's photo was hung on the academy's wall of fame but Aalekh had wondered whether it was from that moment onwards that her only ambition in life became to have her photo hung beside his.
Brigadier Chandook had called in a psychiatrist to try to help Naina, but she had still refused to talk. He had even considered sending her home, but Dr Shalini had convinced him that it was better for Naina to remain at KMA.
The first time that Naina spoke again had been at their oath taking ceremony on graduation day. Aalekh had almost forgotten to repeat the words, he had been so stunned to see it. Naina's expression had been hard, as if she was steeling herself for the future and she had repeated the oath word for word.
Immediately after the ceremony, before her friends could even talk to her, she had gone to the armoury and taken a gun. Then she had held it to Major Nair's head and threatened to blow his brains out until he confessed everything. Knowing that she wasn't joking, he had told everybody assembled about his part in the conspiracy and revealed who controlled him.
Naina had managed to avenge Captain Rajveer's death by having those who were responsible punished and proved her brother innocent at the same time. Her friends had hoped that in time it would be enough to help her recover.
But she never had.
Aalekh had hoped that their friendship would have been enough to make her want to live again, but that hadn't been enough either. It was only later that he realized she had fallen so completely apart that it was impossible to pick up the pieces and put them back together again.
And now he sat in an ICU ward, watching his best friend slowly die.
"I kept my promise," Naina tells Aalekh, "I became a good soldier, I became the best soldier. It was the last promise he made me make to him."
Aalekh has never asked Naina what happened the day that Captain Rajveer died, and she has never spoken about it before. It's the one thing that she's never talked about at all, and they've respected that it should remain private for her.
"He would've been proud of you," Aalekh tells her, "But he would've wanted you to live."
"It doesn't matter, does it?" Naina replies, "Because he's already dead so he doesn't get to decide. In the end it was all too late, everything was too late…"
"You know that he…" Aalekh stops suddenly when Naina holds up a hand weakly, almost as if she's begging him not to continue.
"Some things are better left unsaid, Aalekh." She tells him, so very tiredly, as a single tear trickles down her cheek, "In the end what difference does it make what I know or don't know, what I feel or don't feel? It won't change what happened and it won't change what's about to happen."
Even now she won't say it, won't put her love into words. Perhaps it hurts her too much to say the words that the one she loved was never able to hear. Perhaps it's just been too long and after all these years of not saying it she still can't find the strength to speak the truth.
Aalekh knows that it's partially the regret that has been killing Naina. The regret of realising that she loved him far too late and never being able to do anything about it. That regret has eaten away at her soul until there has been nothing left in her life except that one unfulfilled desire, a longing that has slowly killed her.
"I've waited long enough," Naina tells Aalekh, "It's time for me to go now." She looks at him, suddenly able to focus again, her gaze piercing his, "Aalekh, you have to let me go."
"Please Naina, just hang on for a little longer, the others are on their way." Aalekh begs her.
"I don't think I have that much time, Aalekh." She tells him sadly, "You're going to have to say goodbye to them for me. Give them some messages for me, there are some things that need to be said before it's too late."
"Tell me," Aalekh says, knowing that it's the last thing he'll ever be able to do for her. The least he can do is to fulfill her last desire.
"Tell Ali and Pooja that life is too short to spend it waiting for their parents to give in. I want them to get married as soon as possible, their parents will accept it eventually. They shouldn't spend the rest of their lives in regret like I did."
Aalekh nods, unable to speak because of the tears that are building up.
"Tell Huda to move on with his life," Naina tells Aalekh, "It's time that he found a nice girl and settled down. Tell him to never change, never lose that spark, he should remain the same old Huda no matter what."
Naina takes a breath, closing her eyes briefly to try and block out the pain she's feeling.
"Tell Yudi that he's always been the best and bravest man that I know, and that I'm proud of him. There's nothing left in life that he has to prove to anybody. He shouldn't worry so much about what people think."
Aalekh can't help but laugh sadly, here Naina is dying, and she's still trying to sort out everybody else's problems.
"And me?" he asks her, "What advice are you going to give to me?"
"You never needed my advice, Aalekh." Naina tells him faintly, "You were always the strong one, the wise one, the best of us. You always knew the right thing to say and do. Just… try not to drink so much."
"I don't want to let you go, Naina." Aalekh tells her, openly crying now. "What will we do without you?"
"You have to," she tells him, "For my sake. Look after Neelu and your children. You have a family now, Aalekh. That's a precious thing."
"I will, I'll never let them down." Aalekh promises her, "You go to where you're supposed to, Naina. Go to where you're needed, I won't hold you back anymore." He squeezes her hand, and Naina smiles up at him.
"This isn't the end," she promises him, "We'll see each other again."
Aalekh nods, finding that he believes her.
Naina closes her eyes and drifts into a coma.
Three hours later all of their friends have arrived, and Naina is still unconscious. Aalekh tells them what he plans to do.
"You can't take her off life support," Huda replies angrily, "She'll survive this, I know she will."
"It's what Naina wants," Aalekh tells him sadly, "She made me promise that I would do this. It's why she chose me as her next of kin in the first place."
Pooja is crying, holding Naina's hand and begging her to open her eyes.
The rest of them stand there helplessly, staring at their fallen friend.
"Naina gave me messages for all of you," Aalekh announces, and relays them one by one.
Pooja stops crying, and strokes Naina's hair. "Even while going, you're leaving all of us goodbye sms's." she says sadly.
"Then you've decided to support Aalekh's decision?" Huda asks her angrily, "We should keep Naina on life support, you never know, a miracle could happen."
"It's too late for a miracle, it always was." Aalekh tells his friend, "Naina knows where she's meant to be, and right now we have to help her get there."
Ali and Yudi nod their support, both of them holding back tears.
Pooja leans down and kisses Naina on the forehead. "Goodbye my friend," she tells her, "You go to your Shahrukh, at least now nothing should keep you apart."
Huda's shoulders suddenly sag in defeat, as he realises that all of them are right. Naina has only been half alive for these past years. It's only her body that remains here now, it's time to set her spirit free.
One by one they say their goodbyes, bidding farewell to one of the best friends they've ever had. Aalekh is the last to do so; he bends down and whispers in Naina's ear, "We'll meet again, my friend."
Then as Pooja sobs into Ali's chest, and all of them cry, Aalekh turns off the life support.
Just as Naina's heart flat lines, her lips curve upwards in a slight smile.
Aalekh knows that he's done the right thing.
It is fated to be this way. It was all decided a long time ago.
Naina is finally free to go where she's meant to be.