Chapter 26

"You really don't have any idea how to behave with girls, do you?" Naveen had asked Raj despairingly, "Can't you take some lessons from me?"

Raj had laughed softly, not upset at all by the comment.

"She just wasn't my type, Naveen." He told his friend, "When I find somebody I want to fall in love with, then I'll make an effort."

"And when will that be?" Abhimanyu had teased him, "When you're fifty? Or perhaps in your next lifetime?"

They had all laughed together over the comment, since Raj's shyness around girls was well known.

"Whenever it is, one thing is for sure. If Raj ever falls in love then he'll fall harder than the two of us combined, Chauhan." Naveen had joked, "It's always the quiet ones who have the memorable love stories."

Raj had just shaken his head at his friends' antics, laughing along with them.

He hadn't taken Naveen's words seriously

How could he have known how true they would turn out to be?

/

Early the next morning, Asha and Amiya had bid goodbye to Shalini and HJ as well as Vijay, Akash and the rest of the translators that had accompanied them. Ever since HJ's comment about Asha looking like Naina, Amiya had been on alert for anything out of the ordinary and watching Shalini farewell them, the emotional look on the Doctor's face, she found it.

It just wasn't… normal.

Then again, nothing had been normal about Asha since the time they had arrived in Tawang all those months ago and met Dhiraj. Now when they were finally about to head home, as well as the excitement of seeing Samir and their friends again, Amiya felt a sense of anticipation. Somehow she felt that whatever she could find out from Hussein would be important, the missing piece of a puzzle she had been trying to put together for a long time.

However Amiya had a nagging suspicion that getting that information out of him was going to be far from easy judging from what HJ had said.

She had a feeling that whatever was hidden in the past was very much connected with Asha's future.

No matter what, she was going to find out the truth.

/

The journey back was quiet since Dr Shalini had sedated Amiya for it. Asha watched over her friend as Amiya murmured quietly in her imposed sleep, occasionally reaching out to brush back a lock of her hair or adjust her arms.

Mainly she wished that there was another way to pass the time, to distract her from thoughts of what would happen once she returned. She found it difficult to sit still, wishing that she could pace up and down, do anything to get rid of the nervous energy that was stored inside her.

It is so long since she has last seen his face… and yet every time she closes her eyes it appears before her. Now that she is so close to returning to him, she aches for his touch even more, she wants him to comfort her, hold her and tell her that he will never let her go. Asha has never been the type of girl to want somebody to look after her or to rely on men, but whenever she thinks of Dhiraj, she feels such a sense of safety that she never wants him to leave her side.

If the time away from him has taught her anything, then it is that there is no point in trying to resist her feelings, it only makes them stronger.

She is returning to him safely, just as she had promised to.

Asha swears now, that she will never break any promise that she makes to Dhiraj.

She will return to him again and again, and no power in the world will be able to stop her.

/

Dhiraj and Samir both wait nervously, neither speaking. Samir had managed to break a mug in the mess that morning, so distracted that he had missed the edge of the table while trying to place it down. Dhiraj hadn't said a word about it, he knew that it could've just as easily happened to him. In the meeting they had attended that morning, both of them had been uncharacteristically quiet, offering few comments on the recent developments.

Now with only half an hour until Asha and Amiya were due to return, they were fast running out of ways to distract themselves. They had already decided that preparing recent patrol reports and looking for patterns was a bad idea since both of them were unable to concentrate properly.

Instead Samir pretends to be studying satellite photos of the other side of the border with troop movements outlined on it, while Dhiraj can not even bring himself to do that.

First he will see her… see for himself that she is alive, and well and healthy…

And then…

With a frustrated sigh, Samir finally puts the satellite photo down, having realised that he's been staring at it without really seeing anything for the last five minutes.

"Can't they arrive any faster?" he complains, "I'm not able to get any work done."

"Samir… 'thodha dhiraj to rakh, yaar'." Dhiraj tells him with a slight smirk, mimicking Samir's much earlier comment to him.

"It's not as funny when you say it." Samir complains, smiling slightly anyway.

"So tell me something…" Dhiraj says, "When you're so desperate to see her, and you've been so worried… what are you actually going to do about it now that she's back?"

Samir's face goes blank as he considers Dhiraj's question.

"I hadn't actually thought about it," he admits, "It's enough for me that she's coming back safely."

"So you're not going to tell her anything?" Dhiraj asks in disbelief.

"Well… I'll tell her how happy I am that she's back, and that, uh… I'd missed her." Samir says the last line with a slight blush and Dhiraj shakes his head in amazement.

"You're truly hopeless, Samir." He tells him, "Nothing is ever going to happen with you because you're never going to do anything."

"But I can't just…." Samir starts to say, getting embarrassed at the very thought, "I mean I don't know how she feels or whether she…" he stops, and then on seeing Dhiraj trying to hide a smile, glares slightly, "Well what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to tell her exactly how I feel about her and then I'm not going to let her out of my sight until I absolutely have to." Dhiraj replies very matter of factly with no trace of embarrassment at all.

Samir is still staring at him, trying to work out how to reply to that when Hussein approaches them, sitting down on a spare chair.

"Only fifteen minutes left until they arrive." He announces, and Dhiraj checks his watch on reflex, smiling when he realises that Hussein is right.

"And thank god for that…" Dhiraj murmured, gathering up both his and Samir's things.

"Where are you going?" Samir asks him when Dhiraj heads in the opposite direction of the landing area.

"Well are we going to greet them with satellite photos in our hands?" Dhiraj asks Samir, "We'll drop them in our quarters quickly and then make our way down."

Hussein accompanies them, and they quickly drop off everything before heading towards the landing area, awaiting the arrival of the aircraft.

Colonel Sharma is already waiting there when they arrive, and they all salute him, Dhiraj and Samir slightly self consciously.

"We thought we would come to welcome our friends back since we all have some free time at the moment." Hussein tells Colonel Sharma, sensing that the other two might be worried about what their superior officer thinks.

Aalekh hides a smile at this, simply nodding. After he has reassured himself that Naina and her friend are fine he will give them privacy.

The flight touches down, and still sedated, Amiya is brought out on a stretcher by the orderlies and nurse who have accompanied them. Asha is the last one to step out, her eyes searching for the face that she knows will be there.

As soon as her eyes meet Dhiraj's, she feels a flash, a deeper recognition within her of who he is and what he means to her. It feels like she is seeing him after an age and yet it feels like she never left him.

Standing there, his entire face lit up in his happiness to see her, he is the most beautiful sight she has ever seen.

She would die for him.

She is startled by the thought as soon as she has had it, but she realises that it is true. Despite the short time they have known each other, she would die for him in a second. The emotion confuses her, and yet it feels so right that she should feel this way…

Finally pulling her gaze away from Dhiraj, Asha salutes Colonel Sharma.

"We have returned back to Tawang, Sir. We hope that we have managed to make our battalion proud." She tells him for both her and Amiya.

"You have made us very proud." Aalekh tells her emotionally, "I've heard from your superiors there about both yours and Lieutenant Chatterjee's bravery in the battles. You have returned after doing your duty honourably and correctly."

Asha nods, also feeling overcome by emotion. Colonel Sharma's approval has somehow always meant a lot to her. Despite her overwhelming desire to see Dhiraj again, she hadn't wanted to let him down by returning early. She feels relieved by his approval, his pride in them.

"You are all dismissed," Aalekh informs them, "Escort Lieutenant Chatterjee to the hospital wing, after which I'm happy to give all of you the rest of the day off."

He knows he's acting with favouritism.

But right now he doesn't really care.

/

As the orderlies begin to carry Amiya's stretcher towards the medical wing, Hussein hugs Asha tightly before letting her go. Samir also gives her a light hug, telling her welcome home before they both head towards the medical wing, intending to give Asha and Dhiraj some privacy.

For a moment he just stands there, drinking in the sight of her with his eyes. It has been so long… and for him every moment without her has been like torture, knowing that she's in danger, fearing for her.

Without her there is nothing, and now that she's here again…

Asha tries to keep her breathing steady despite the intense way that Dhiraj is regarding her, however when he reaches out to take both of her hands in his gently, she lets out a shuddering breath, barely able to restrain herself from simply throwing her arms around her.

Very slowly, Dhiraj raises both of her hands, pressing her palms against his cheeks and holding them there tightly. He shut his eyes, content for the moment to simply revel in the feel of her. Just as slowly, he turned his face to kiss the palm of one hand and then the other before he gently lowers them, finally releasing her hands.

"There is so much that I have to tell you," Dhiraj finally said, "But it can wait… I know that first you'll want to see that Amiya is settled comfortably."

Asha nods wordlessly, pleased by his thoughtfulness.

He doesn't hold her hand as they walk up together, conscious of the people who will see them pass by, but he walks so closely to her that there is barely a gap between them. She can feel the heat radiating from his body and colour rises to her cheeks.

So much that he wants to tell her… she can barely stop herself from thinking about what it is. There is so much that she wants to tell him also, about what she's realised about her feelings, about what he means to her. Asha realises now how short and unreliable life can be, she doesn't want to waste another moment when she doesn't have to.

They enter Amiya's room to find that she hasn't woken up yet, Samir and Hussein sitting by her bed quietly. Samir appears to be absorbed in gazing at her, while Hussein pretends not to notice, privately planning to leave as soon as Amiya wakes up.

"She's going to be alright?" Dhiraj asks as they enter, "Will she wake soon?"

"The doctors say that the sedative should wear off in about half an hour." Hussein replies since Samir seems somewhat lost. "Asha… you must be tired, we'll stay here with her, you go and rest."

Asha nods, glancing at Dhiraj as she does so. "Come and get me when Amiya has woken up." She tells Hussein.

Hussein nods, although he has no intention to do so. He won't let anything disturb Asha and Dhiraj, and he's sure that Amiya wouldn't want anything to either.

Dhiraj indicates with a tip of his head then for Asha to follow him and she does, not questioning him when he leads her towards his quarters instead of hers.

She would follow him anywhere… even if…

She shakes her head slightly, surprised by the familiarity of the thought. She has never thought it before, has she?

Once they have entered Dhiraj's quarters, he shuts the door firmly behind them. There is only a second's gap between that action and him sweeping Asha into his arms, crushing her against him so tightly that she almost can't breathe. Her arms go around him and she hugs him back just as tightly, burying her head into his chest. He's murmuring words into her hair, and she can't understand them properly but she knows that they're soothing words, reassuring words. He's reassuring himself that she really is back with him, that he hasn't lost her.

After what seems like an age, Dhiraj pulls back from her, gazing down at her face. Placing his hands to either side of it, he smoothes his thumbs over her cheeks, gazing into her eyes. It is after a long moment that he finally bends down to kiss her, his lips brushing against hers so reverently that it seems almost like a prayer. He kisses her softly, slowly, as if memorising every detail of her lips. Her mouth parts beneath his, and when she exhales into his mouth, he can't help himself, pressing her closer he kisses her even more deeply, almost biting her bottom lip in his haste.

He could kiss her forever, but he reminds himself that there are things he has to say, things he had promised himself that he would say. Reluctantly, Dhiraj pulls away from her, and gently leads her towards his bed, sitting her down on it before kneeling in front of her, his hands resting on her knees, gazing up into her face.

Asha gazes down at him, her entire being humming in anticipation. She knows what he will say, and there is a part of her that feels as if she has waited her entire life to hear him say it. To finally hear those words which…

When Dhiraj finally speaks, his voice is hoarse, rough, as if he's struggling with his emotions.

"I can't live without you." He tells her, "I tried to cope, tried to convince myself that I could, that I would be fine while you were gone… but I can't." He leans his head on the tops of her legs then, and she can feel his slow, deep breaths as he struggles to get his feelings under control.

Finally looking up, Dhiraj stands as if to start pacing, and then unable to delay it for any longer, sits beside her on the bed, once again taking her hands in his.

"Asha… I love you." He tells her, and it is so painfully apparent in his eyes that she would've understood without him saying a word, but Asha lets out a sob on finally hearing it, as tears begin to flow from her eyes.

She feels such relief, such immense relief. How long has she been holding her breath for, how long has she been waiting to hear these words? She wonders if it is from the moment she first saw him, or even…

As Asha cries, Dhiraj kisses away her tears, smoothing her hair with his hand. "I love you so much," he tells her, his voice even hoarser now as he struggles not to cry himself. "I've never loved anyone this way before… and I never will again."

Asha cries even harder at this, her arms wound tightly around his neck, she cries into his shoulder.

"Won't you say anything?" Dhiraj asks her, indescribably happy that he's finally told her, as if a burden has been lifted off him, as if he's fulfilled his purpose in life. "Won't you…"

"Love…" Asha finally says, between sobs as she struggles to regain control of her emotions. "Is not a strong enough word to describe what I feel for you."

Dhiraj kisses her, the salt of her tears mingling with the sweetness of her lips.

Because really, she has expressed his feelings perfectly too.