Leaving Barcelona, the next morning, was almost like waking up from a gorgeous dream. At the airport, Nandini placed their bags for checking-in, while Manik brought coffee for them.
“I don’t want to go back!” He spoke, making a pout, stretching his hand to give her a cup.
“Aww!” She touched his hand as she took her coffee, “We’ll go for another trip, soon.”
He sighed. “Definitely!! This was so needed. Nandu, we will keep travelling and exploring the world, at least once every 2 months…”
“Done!!” She giggled and proceeded to take the boarding pass for them. The airline staff thanked them, confirmed their seats and wished them a pleasant journey to Paris. Obviously dumbfounded, he shrugged, “Paris?? Why are we going to Paris?”
“I booked the return journey via Paris.”
“But why?” He shrugged, cluelessly.
She explained patiently, “We can’t just disappear to live ‘happily-ever-after’ in Engelberg. Paris is home. We need to seal a lot of open ends… We need closure.”
“Sometimes, I wish you came with a manual. You speak your own ‘language Nandini’…”
“Haha!” She giggled, “You always say that. Why don’t you begin to learn my language?”
“I’ll have to… very soon!! If you keep talking in riddles. like this…” He rolled his eyes and teased her.
Inside the aircraft, he leaned his head on her shoulders, “Nandu, what do you think, shall I let Harshad go?”
She cleared her throat and turned away to look outside the window but didn’t reply to him. He wondered why she was not excited at that idea… Why she was not happy and relieved with this statement… After all, this was what she had always wanted… this was what she had always requested him to do…
She had taken them to Barcelona to let him free of his compulsive need to capture that jerk, for he was a direct threat to them.
“You are still not sure??” She asked.
“I was just thinking about what is going to be ‘his’ next step…”
Manik was worried that Harshad was going to harm them again. That he will take revenge and hurt Nandini, once again. That he will disrupt their paradise… all over again…
That thought disturbed Nandini too. She sighed and nodded, patting his hand, which lay on her arm and leaned her head to his side.
Cabir and Niki received them at the Paris airport. What was more surprising for Manik was that dadu and dadi had come to receive them too. Nandini had informed them.
Dadu insisted that they go to Malhotra mansion with them. It was as much Manik and Nandini’s home as it was, for anyone else. Manik was not sure but knew very well that Nandini was going to ask him for the same. Without saying anything, he wore his sunglasses and turned his neck to look at her. She smiled, pressing her lips and held his elbow, excitedly. She turned to dadu and said, “Manik has grown up in that house. It’s his home. How can we not come?”
Cabir tried to make light of this tricky situation and informed Manik, “Buddy… my mom wants to meet Nikita and her family to talk about the preparations regarding the wedding.”
“Wow!! That’s great news!!” Manik couldn’t contain his happiness. Manik held Niki’s hand and side-hugged her. This was certainly one of the most lovely days of his life. He had always been worried about Niki and her future. To have someone like Cabir to take care of her was more than Manik could have ever asked for her. Cabir was a God-sent angel for her. And now, that they wished to take their relationship ahead, it was a moment of pure joy.
“If you guys allow us and are able to forgive us, we will love to go to meet Cabir’s mom for Nikita and we will be happy if all the preparations and the marriage are conducted from Malhotra house.” Everyone was surprised when dadi said that. Dadi continued in an apologetic tone, “We have been unreasonable and unjust towards Nikita in past. We are hoping for a redemption. Please let us be a part of her future.”
Nandini asked, “Dadu, did you go for the DNA test that I had requested you to take?”
“No beta, we didn’t! We were ashamed when you suggested that. You were an outsider and you just knew Manik and Nikita since 2-3 months, still you believed them… you stood by them… and requested us to take the DNA test. That made us feel very small before you…The way Nikita stood by you and Manik at all times, whether it was for your marriage or when you were burnt, the way she cares for you both, you don’t need a DNA test to confirm a sibling bond that is so pure. We know that Manik has always taken care of her… so who are we to judge them… We decided, rather, your dadi decided that we won’t depend on a test and we want to spread our arms for our neglected child.”
It was a surprising statement and people looked at dadu who continued from there, “We have been really mean to her and we were blinded by our love for our son. Niki was nowhere at fault, even if she wasn’t a Malhotra. We just let her go from our lives and never cared to find out how she was and whether she needed us. Manik made sure that she was taken care of, but she never got the love of her grandparents… we want to be with her now… if only Manik and Nikita allow us to do that…”
Manik shrugged, “I am no one to decide for Niki. I am at baby-steps when it comes to learning to forego the past and negativity but I have a long way to go… I think, Niki should decide on her own, as she was the one who suffered the most…”
Cabir and Manik, along with Nandini, turned to Niki, who was in tears by now. She wet her dry lips with her tongue and sniffed. Dadi approached her, “We cannot express how sorry we are, beta. Please forgive us.”
Niki held her hand, “To be honest, I have hated you, all these years. I may not be able to forgive and forget everything so easily. But one thing, I am sure of, is that guilt is one of the worst feelings anyone could ever have. Manik has lived in guilt for years and I have seen his pain. I don’t think I am heartless enough to let my grandparents live in guilt.”
“We were unreasonable.” Dadi was in tears.
“We all are right according to our own perceptions at one point in time! I have no idea about your perceptions and I may never understand. I don’t know if I will be able to reciprocate your love, but for Manik, Nandini and Cabir… I will be happy if you are a part of my wedding and future… I don’t want to begin anything new with negative feelings in my heart…”
Dadu too approached Niki and hugged her sideways, “Thank you so much! Even this is enough for us… You are an angel.”
Manik was truly surprised. He asked her, “Weren’t you too bitter about dadu and dadi and every Malhotra you knew of ? You were so hurt and upset, you never wanted to talk about them… what happened suddenly?”
“Ask your wife!” Niki smirked and replied, “All the time, she keeps talking about how to move ahead and not think about the past… not to dwell on negative feelings…She has been through so much, still she keeps smiling and focuses on your love and life with you… So, when we came to your house a few weeks back, I decided at that time, that I will start my new life with Cabir after leaving all the baggage of the past, behind me.”
Manik was zapped. “Shittt… She got you too???!!!”
Cabir and Nandini laughed at that, making fun of Manik’s helpless face. Dadu and dadi hugged Manik and Nandini and asked the driver to take their luggage.
Manik appeared easy and comfortable with all the relatives around him, but only at the surface. Deep down, he was restless and worried. He had no clue about Harshad since over a week and though Nandu had said that she will take care, he was beginning to get anxious.
They walked towards the exit of the airport, when Manik asked Nandini, in a hushed voice, “Nandu, what about Harshad? I need to see him…”
Nandini calmly placed her hand around his elbow and said, “Manik, let’s go home. We’ll talk there!”
He was not relieved but decided not to stretch the topic here. They all dispersed to meet in the evening.
They were warmly welcomed at the Malhotra mansion too. The staff was ecstatic to see them. So was, Maya. She welcomed them and hugged Nandini. Manik touched her feet out of respect and she blessed him.
Manik was beginning to get more and more restless, now that he was home. Harshad was beginning to trouble his mind as this was the home where he had lived with Harshad since childhood.
They had their own issues, their animosity, their fights and ego tussles. They had a hidden bitterness about each other, but that was not the only emotion they had shared.
On some random days, they had been good to each other too. They had played together. They had helped each other and done mischiefs that kids and teenagers indulged in, usually targeting their staff and unwanted relatives.
They had watched cartoon shows together and laughed over comedy films. They had joined a lot of classes together like roller skating and tennis. They were not always fighting. In fact, they had a love-hate relationship like most of the competing cousins…maybe a notch higher than others…
Manik had always ensured that Harshad was fine and doing well, maybe out of guilt, but also because he had faintly cared for him at some point of time or the other. Harshad had hated Manik for being so perfect at everything and made him a target of bullying, but it was no secret that he always turned to Manik whenever he had any problem in life and Manik solved it, sometimes because of family, sometimes because of guilt but mainly because Manik was a nicer person who couldn’t see Harshad in trouble.
In fact, before Nandini came in his life, Manik was not even bothered if Harshad would ever harm him. He knew that Harshad will do that repeatedly and would repent as Manik paid back aptly. And this tussle went on between them, endlessly…
After Nandini arrived in their lives, things changed drastically. Now, Manik was not worried about him, but for Nandini. And now, his responses and his anger had multiplied manifold… leading to his extreme step of holding him captive at a height more than 230 meters.
Manik walked around the house reliving those memories and feeling guilty of what he had done with Harshad. Sometimes, his anger became too much for him to handle. If Nandini had not pointed out, he would have never realised how low he had fallen with this anger and revenge game. Coming back to Paris and home wasn’t easy for Manik. He had started feeling bad and wanted to make sure that Harshad was fine. In fact, he had been so peaceful with Nandini in last one week that he had prepared himself to let Harshad walk away, free…
Inside their room, Manik held Nandini’s hand, “I want to talk to you…”
Nandini spoke in a serious tone, “Give me some time… I’ll explain everything…”
“What time? What is there to explain?” He became serious and asked with furrows on his forehead and deepening creases on his face.
“Okay… please sit down … I’ll tell you everything…” She was nervous and she held his hand to pursue him to sit on the bed.
He pulled his hand away, and was really worried, “What are you trying to say, Nandu? You are scaring me, okay?? Are you hiding something? Why do I feel that I am missing a link…”
“Manik, let me talk…”
He was losing his patience, “Wait for a second… I need to see Harshad first…”
“Manik…” Nandini tried to calm him down but couldn’t find suitable words.
“Nandu, give me my phone!” He stretched his hand and spoke with authority. He was beginning to get angry but was trying his best to control his emotions and be patient.
“Actu…ally…” She stammered.
“Right now!” He ordered in a strong voice, still keeping his pitch low, surprising himself too. He had never had that self-control before.
He was worried, angry, very upset… not at her… but at himself!!
For being so careless and for trusting her to take care of something like this, something so serious and grave…Still, he could control his voice, his raging emotions and the turbulence inside him… he didn’t blast her or say rude words to hurt her…
She hesitatingly pulled out his phone from her bag and gave it to him, “Manik, you need to be very patient…you need to understand why it happened…”
His heart was beating at a high speed with the apprehension of the worse… He fiddled with his phone, unlocked it and scrolled through the apps to get a list and asked, still focused on the phone, “What… are you… talking about?”
Manik reached the i-vms app that connected him to CCTV camera inside Harshad’s room. The room was empty. His eyes opened wide and he couldn’t believe that there was no one in the room, “Where is Harshad?”
“He… He…” She was so scared that she couldn’t speak. Manik’s anger was rising so steeply that for the first time, Nandini was tongue-tied.
“What He…????!!!!” He stood there flabbergasted, looking at her face. Out of impulse, he held her arms below her shoulders so strongly that it hurt her. He nearly shouted in worry and anger, “What are you talking???”
“I’m so sorry…” She was in tears.
Had he died?? Was he sick?? What happened to him that Nandini knew and he didn’t???
Sense of doom descended on him, thinking of various scenarios. For a moment, his mind stopped working. It was unbelievable. His heart was throbbing in his eardrums, by now…
With fire spitting from his eyes, he left her with a jerk. Almost panicking, he left the room, but before leaving, he angrily declared.
“You betrayed my trust, Nandu…”