Rohit had been missing a part of himself for so long that when he passed it on the street, he didn't believe he'd really seen it. He only got a glimpse as a figure brushed past him to step into the crosswalk and Rohit stopped in his tracks because he thought he had just seen Aman.
That was impossible, his friend had died more than three years ago, but Rohit had the unsteady feeling that he wasn't wrong. He turned around and scanned the crowd already across the streets but he didn't see Aman, or anyone he could have mistaken for him. He shook his head and continued on home.
"Jijaji," Gia said as she hurled herself into Rohit's arms and he grunted, lifting her up.
"Arre yaar, have you gotten bigger since I saw you last?"
"You saw me at breakfast," she said, and gave Rohit a look that he knew meant he was being silly, since Naina aimed one like it at him all the time.
"Where's the crowd?" he asked.
"The rest of the family," Rohit said and didn't see Naina come up beside him in time to duck.
"Is that any way to talk about your loved ones?"
"I was joking, Naina," Rohit said, rubbed the back of his head and then kissed her on the cheek.
"Flowers," Gia said, and Rohit swung her upside down.
Naina swatted him again. "If you can bring yourself to eat with your family, dinner is on the table."
Rohit was distracted during dinner, and his mother-in-law noticed as she passed the naan. He smiled but told her nothing was wrong.
"I just thought I found something I lost, that's all."
"Well, if it's meant to be found, you'll come across it again," she said, and Grandmother made affirmative noises through her dinner.
"I know, Rohit said, and Naina smiled at him, then scolded Shiv for hitting Gia with his napkin.
He put the incident out of his mind until a week later when Gia called him at work. She liked to spend time with him, but Rohit knew that he didn't have the same place in her heart that Aman had held. Still, she liked him a lot, he knew that much, and was pleased to hear from her.
"Hello, Gia, how are you?"
"I'm fine, Jijaji, I want to ask you something, but you might think it's silly."
"No question is silly if you mean it."
"That's not what Naina says."
"Your sister has a different opinion of these things, and that's just her way. Now, what did you want to ask me?"
"Have you ever seen someone that was gone?" Gia asked.
"It depends on what you mean," Rohit said carefully.
"Like, on the street, and you knew they were real," Gia said.
Rohit was silent and waited to see if Gia would say anything else.
"Did you see someone you knew and feel like they had only been missing?"
"Yes," Gia said in a small voice.
"What did they do?"
"He smiled at me," Gia said. "But he looked sad, and he didn't say anything. Why wouldn't he want to say hello to me?"
Rohit had felt a headache coming on ever since he thought he saw Aman and now it was hitting him hard. "It could be that he was surprised to see you too."
Gia sighed. "But then why did he come to my school?"
Unable to speak, Rohit put his hand on his forehead and breathed deeply for several moments. "He did?"
"He was sitting on the bench across the street, and I saw him when I was outside waiting for Maataa to pick me up."
"I don't think he meant for me to know he was there," Gia said. "I'm afraid he'll be mad at me for telling, but I had to."
"He won't be angry with you," Rohit said, and admitted "I might be upset with him, though."
"Because he's been gone?" Gia asked.
"Among other things."
Gia took a deep breath, and it sounded like she was choking back tears. "I'm sort of mad at him too." She made a small noise. "Should I tell Naina?"
Rohit rushed to answer. "No, don't. She won't believe you, and until we're sure, we should keep this between ourselves."
"But I know I saw him."
"I know, Gia, but we have to have proof, otherwise the family is going to think that we're just imagining things because we want them to be true, do you know what I mean?"
"Yes. What are you going to do?"
"I don't know yet, but I promise you I will get to the bottom of this," Rohit said.
"I want to know what you're doing," Gia said, being unusually bold.
"Gia, this is serious. You won't be able to tell anyone about this, not Shiv, Naina, Grandmother, or even your mother, all right?"
The prospect of possibly seeing Aman again was enough for Gia to give it several minutes of thought, and then she answered firmly.
"Good. I'll talk to you about this later."
"Okay, good bye."
Rohit put the receiver in its cradle, newly determined to figure out what was going on. The first person he would need to approach was Aman's mother, who still lived with her brother-in-law across the street from Gia and the rest of the family. He knew he had to find a delicate way to broach the subject of her son. He didn't want to accuse her of lying to them, or cause her more pain if he was wrong. He just didn't know what to say.
"Good day," Rohit said and bowed, hands together.
"The same to you," Mrs. Mathur said, and returned the gesture.
She was too polite to mention how long it had been between visits, but Rohit saw her look questioningly at him several times.
"I'm sorry I haven't been to see you lately."
"I hear that you and Naina have been very busy."
"Yes, we've bought a new house, and it's been sort of hectic trying to get everything organized. Kantaben has been terrorizing the staff, but I think she's thrilled to be in charge of such a big place."
Mrs. Mathur smiled. She had only briefly met his housekeeper, at Naina's wedding, but she knew enough to get the picture.
"It's just been strange to come back here," Rohit said, not wanting to say his friend's name first, and feeling bad for bringing a sad look to Aman's mother's face. It had to be done, though if he wanted confirmation of his suspicions.
"Oh?" Mrs. Mathur asked.
"Yes, they looked a lot like someone we both miss very much."
"How strange." She carefully shifted several books on the lamp table and then sat back, putting her hands in her lap.
"It was, and I wouldn't have thought about it again, except for the fact that Gia called me yesterday and told me about something very much like what happened to me."
Mrs. Mathur's face was frozen, but she kept her composure. "That is strange. Perhaps you were both thinking of this person and saw what you wanted to."
"He smiled at Gia," Rohit said. "And yes, I know she has a great imagination, but she also said he seemed sad, and she wouldn't wish that on anyone, not even a ghost."
"I don't know what to tell you."
"What happened?" Rohit asked. "And I mean what really happened. None of us said anything when weren't allowed to see him those last couple of days, and we didn't think it was anything but him trying to make it easier on us." Rohit shook his head. "That's not what it was at all. What didn't Aman want us to know? He was hiding so much, what else was there?"
Mrs. Mathur stood up. "I cannot tell you what my son was thinking while he lay in bed saying goodbye to his friends in his last moments with all of you." She gave Rohit a hard look. "But I can tell you that he did not set out to hurt or deceive anyone."
"Then why not tell us?" Rohit asked. "And why continue to keep secrets?"
"I will not tell you what I don't know." Mrs. Mathur bowed again and led Rohit to the door, narrowly avoiding chasing him out, even though they both knew she wanted to. "It was lovely to see you again, Rohit, give my regards to Naina and your family."
Rohit knew as he left that Gia had been right to insist that everything was not as everyone had been led to believe, and was ready when she grabbed him before he sat down at the dinner table, and dragged him onto the porch to hear what he had found out.
"Was I right?"
Rohit took in her earnest expression and the hope that she couldn't hide and was glad of his answer.
"Yes, I talked to Mrs. Mathur and something isn't right."
Gia frowned in the direction of the woman's house, and Rohit put out his arm to stop her from running across the street and confronting her.
"I've already upset her, Gia. No matter why she hasn't told us everything, she must have had a good reason."
"Bhaiya is alive," Gia said, and Rohit pulled her into a hug. "I want him to come home."
"Me too," Rohit said.
Rohit and Gia passed her tears off as being his fault for not being able to take her to the museum again that weekend, but he saw Naina frown a little too long and had to nudge Gia into a melodramatic display of disappointment.
Over Grandmother's thinly veiled threats and Gia's sobs, he promised that he would make it up to her soon. That much was true, and he nodded at Gia to let her know he was going through with it.
He had never thought about looking for Aman, but now that he had doubts about whether anyone had told the truth three years ago, Rohit did a search for the man's name. He found an address and phone number, but couldn't bring himself to dial it. He thought that if he did, Aman might hang up on him and then refuse to see him in person.
Coming up with plans wasn't hard, but most of them didn't work, and Rohit couldn't afford to make any mistakes with this one. Instead of going with something elaborate and flashy, he finally decided just to go over there and hope that doing what came naturally wouldn't ruin everything.
As he stood on the doorstep, Rohit fidgeted, then rang the bell and turned away so that his face was hidden. The door opened and Rohit heard Aman's voice.
"Yes? Did you need something or are you going to stand there all day?"
Rohit sucked in a breath, and looked up with his best winning smile.
"Bureau of Missing Persons, how are you today, haram zada?" Then he punched Aman and stepped inside.
Aman lay on the floor and wiped at the blood coming from his nose. "So, you're not happy to see me."
Rohit snarled. "No, you don't get to make a joke about this. What did you think would happen when I found out? That I would smile and give you a hug?"
"My being alive isn't reason enough?" Aman scooted back to lean against the couch.
"Of course I'm happy."
"Really? You have an odd way of showing it."
"I've got some pent up aggression," Rohit said. "It's understandable."
"You should find an outlet for that, have you considered yoga?"
"Stop it, Aman." Rohit slumped back, catching himself on the wall. "This isn't funny."
"What isn't? I open my door and get a broken nose instead of a proper greeting from an old friend."
"I couldn't help it," Rohit said and glanced up contritely. "Did I really break your nose?"
Aman smiled. "No, you throw a lousy punch."
"Again, you have issues." Aman rolled his eyes. "I need to get some ice on this."
Rohit reached out and hauled Aman up. He didn't let go right away and Aman looked down curiously at their clasped hands.
"Rohit, did you need something else?"
"No." Rohit stepped back and shoved his hands in his pockets.
Aman went into the kitchen and rustled around in the freezer. He came out with a towel and wrapped it around a handful of ice cubes and lay down on the couch, adjusting the ice pack on his face.
"Has it stopped bleeding?" Rohit asked, feeling very small. He had come to see his friend who he'd thought was dead, and the first thing he did was hurt him.
"Just about," Aman said and peered at Rohit critically. "What's the matter now? You look like somebody died."
"We've been through that, it got me punched in the face. If all your friends get that reaction every time you see them it's no wonder you stay at home all the time."
Rohit glared half heartedly at Aman, who waved a hand carelessly. .
"Sit down, you're already here, no point in standing around and looking like an unwanted guest."
"Is that what I am?"
"I didn't invite you."
"No, you never would have, right? What would be the point in telling anyone that you were alive when you went to so much trouble to make us think that Aman Mathur was dead?" Rohit asked.
"Exactly." Aman stared up at the ceiling and was quiet.
"Are you mad at me?"
"What reason could I have? You came looking for me, after I went to a lot of trouble to disappear and then you gave me a bloody nose and a poor apology."
"I'm sorry, Aman."
There was a knock at the door, and Aman motioned in that direction. "Go, answer that, and we'll see what can be done for you."
Rohit scrambled up awkwardly and opened the door to find Aman's mother standing outside with a dish in her hands. She stared at him and he looked blankly back.
Mrs. Mathur tried to decide whether Rohit was going to make a scene, and Aman solved her problem.
"Come in, Mom, the damage has already been done."
"Are you all right?"
Rohit stepped back, and Aman's mother hurried past without another glance. When she caught sight of her son, the bowl landed on the table and bounced, and Rohit narrowly caught it before it hit the floor.
As he moved the towel, Aman smiled, nose swollen and face bruised. "This is Rohit's way of saying hello after a long separation."
"Let me see." His mother moved swiftly around the couch and pressed gently on Aman's face. "It's not broken, that's something."
"I figured as much," Aman said and winced. "It doesn't feel very pleasant, though."
"It won't," Mrs. Mathur said and tugged the towel out of Aman's hands. "This has melted, I'll get more, and then you two can explain what happened." She gave both of them stern looks, and Rohit shrank down in his chair. Aman looked sheepish but mostly like he was going to burst out laughing.
"It's not funny, Aman," his mother said, and he bit his lip.
"Yes, Mom," he said, but as she went into the kitchen, he grinned at Rohit.
"It's really not funny," Rohit said.
"Only from where you're sitting," Aman said and laughed.
"What are you doing making fun of a guest?"
"Mom, I didn't ask him over."
"You let him inside your home, that makes him a guest."
"He knocked me down, he might as well be a thief, assuming that he has my hospitality so easily."
His mother frowned and plunked a dish onto the table and handed him a washcloth as well. "Here, clean your face off, you look a mess."
Aman didn't make another remark, but Rohit thought that was only because his mother was standing over him, hands on her hips, glowering disapprovingly at them both.
When Aman was done, he smiled up at her. "All better?"
"Less like you were in a fight and lost."
"I never tried to hit him back."
"I can see that." She gathered up the bowl and cloth and Rohit, feeling less like he was going to be knocked off the balcony by Aman's mother, smiled hesitantly.
"She seems very reasonable."
"Don't let that front fool you," Aman said.
"Now what's happened?"
In spite of the relief he felt, Rohit was still very intimidated by Mrs. Mathur and knew, by the looks both she and Aman gave him that it was obvious.
"You've discovered what is real and the illusion that we have kept up. What will you do?"
"You're afraid that I'm going to tell everyone you're alive?"
Aman was silent, and his mother's tightly clasped hands caught Rohit's attention. He didn't ever want to be a villain and to think that he might be one in the eyes of people he cared about was a sobering realization.
"I just want answers. Why didn't you want anyone to know that you had gotten better? Did you think we would be upset that you weren't dead?"
"You've shown how overjoyed you are to see me again."
"That's enough, Aman, I thought you were married, you told me that you weren't in love with Naina, and you didn't let anyone know that you were dying." Rohit was leaning forward, eyes intent on Aman's face, and he didn't much care that they had an audience. "What would you have done," he paused for deliberate emphasis, "if you were in my place, Aman, what would you do?"
"Idiot," Aman said. "I told you before, I wish I was in your place, but that's not the way things worked out."
"You could be," Rohit said.
"Last time I checked, my name was not Rohit Patel."
"But, you still love Naina."
Aman cleared his throat with difficulty and his mother looked at him sharply. "Rohit, you're married to the woman you love. I was at your wedding and blessed you both, what more do you want from me?"
"Why didn't you ever trust me?" Rohit asked.
Aman coughed once, and then sat up, leaning over and continued for a couple moments, his mother coming to his side and rubbing his back through the spasm.
"I'm fine," he told her, and she shook her head.
"Enough, this can wait, you need to rest."
"I said I'm okay."
"Have you taken your medicine?"
Aman held up both hands, fingers uncrossed and smiled. "Yes."
"And have you rested at all today, or were you down at the market helping Mina?"
This time, Aman crossed two fingers.
"That's what I thought." His mother hustled him to his feet and called over her shoulder. "You two can continue this another time, I will be out in a moment."
Aman looked at his mother with a woeful expression. "Is the soup still warm?"
"It's in the oven, you can have some after you sleep for a little bit. Come along." She led him deeper into the apartment, presumably toward his bedroom, and Rohit sat on the couch, unsure of where he was supposed to go or what he should do.
Just as she had said, Mrs. Mathur was back in the living room a few minutes later and she nodded at Rohit. "He will not sleep unless he doesn't have to worry about anyone else, so you can walk me downstairs."
Rohit knew he was being maneuvered out of the way, but there wasn't a graceful way to back out and say that he really wanted to stay, so he offered her his arm as they went out.
"Is he all right?"
She looked away. "It's just a cold this time."
"Has it been something else?" Rohit asked.
"He had pneumonia last year and was in the hospital for over a month." Her fingers dug in slightly and Rohit put his hand over hers.
"I worry when he gets sick. It's the season for it, but he doesn't have the good health of other people."
"He seemed like he was doing well."
When she nodded, Rohit continued.
"His doctor thinks it's okay for him to be living on his own? Even when he could get sick?"
Mrs. Mathur laughed ruefully. "Priya and I tried to reason with him, but my son is very stubborn, and he said that he needed space. Somewhere he could be on his own."
"That's a good idea?"
"As he has told me so many times, Aman is not going to break simply because nobody is looking. I do my best to do what he'll let me and let him be alone when he needs it."
"I never thought I would ever find Aman living by himself," Rohit said. "I wouldn't have been surprised if he had a bunch of girlfriends or something." He caught himself and apologized. "I only meant-"
"Mr. Patel, I raised Aman, I know what my son is like." She eyed Rohit thoughtfully. "I wonder if he is too busy missing what he had to try for anything more."
"I don't understand."
Mrs. Mathur patted his cheek and refused to explain.
Rohit hailed them a cab, and when it pulled up in front of her house, Mrs. Mathur stepped out and Rohit called after her.
"I won't tell anyone unless he says it's okay."
She nodded, wiped her eyes, then bowed and hurried inside.
Rohit went on his way, but he couldn't stop thinking about Aman and his mother and the secret they had been keeping. If he was going to go forward with getting Aman to talk about what had happened, Rohit wanted to know a lot more, and he would have to talk to someone who had some of the facts as well.
Priya was easy enough to find at the hospital, but Rohit had to make an appointment to actually speak with her, since she was now the Chief of Staff, and that meant being too busy to do more than give Rohit a passing glance in the hallway. When he did find himself in her office, Rohit stood up to introduce himself, and watched another woman look stunned for all the wrong reasons.
"I already know," Rohit said. "I saw Aman yesterday and his mother and I talked."
"Then what are you doing here?"
"Aman's mother was worried because he's getting over a cold, I wanted to know just how bad his health really is."
"I am not allowed to reveal patient information without their permission," Priya said firmly, and stared Rohit down. "What is your concern?"
"I want to know if he's okay."
"You said that you saw Aman, I think you should be able to answer that question for yourself."
Rohit shook his head. "The last time I saw him, Aman was in a hospital bed and I told him goodbye. Then he went into a room, closed the door, and we all thought that was the end. It turns out that Aman recovered and then didn't tell anyone what had happened. Why would he do that?"
Priya rested her elbows on her desk, the light catching on her wedding ring. "I've known Aman for a long time, Mr. Patel, and even I don't understand his reasons for everything. I can only venture a guess."
"Do you remember when you found out Aman was dying?"
It was a moment that Rohit could never forget.
"By chance, do you know where Aman was when I called him?"
"He was in the hospital, after he collapsed at your engagement party," Priya said and leaned back in her chair.
"What?" Rohit said. "He came to see me, and tried to say that he didn't love Naina and never had."
Priya nodded. "He went looking for you, and then Naina, to convince you both that you should be happy."
Rohit remembered how Aman had looked, pale, sweaty, out of breath and pressing a hand to his chest and he felt sick. "We made him have another attack, didn't we?"
"Not directly," Priya said. "He wasn't well, Rohit, but the stress certainly didn't help. It made treatment essential."
"But he didn't tell us."
"He let you go." Priya's voice rose. "In spite of what he wanted, he made sure that the two of you would have a life together after he was gone. He never made any promises to either of you that he didn't keep, and you're blaming him for not wanting to make you think differently of him. What would you have done if you knew he was sick?"
"Taken it easy on him, not let him worry about my problems."
"Exactly. Aman doesn't like being a burden. He's never wanted that, and that's why I went along with his insane plan in the first place. It was selfish, but it was also ultimately the best wedding present he could think of giving you. That was his blessing, Rohit, and why are you trying to make it into something else?"
Rohit put his head in his hands. "I don't know what I should do. I'm happy that Aman is alive, but does he want to have anything to do with us?"
"Why should he?" Priya asked, and when Rohit stared, she smiled. "I may sound harsh, but I am protecting one of my oldest friends, because he won't do it himself. You will have a problem, go to Aman, and he will move earth and sky to get you what you want. But what will it cost him? I'm not sorry for telling you that I won't watch him do that again."
"I can take care of myself," Rohit said.
Priya's expression was disbelieving.
"All right, sometimes I don't catch on as quickly as I should."
Another incredulous look.
"And Aman had to drag Naina and I together, but I love my wife, and I think I don't need to prove that to you."
"It's not about whether or not you love Naina, it's what you'll do now that Aman is back in your life."
"Are you a doctor or a psychiatrist?" Rohit asked.
"Which do you need?"
"Glad to hear it, now tell me why I should approve of you seeing Aman." Priya waited.
Rohit laughed. "When you say it like that, it sounds like we're dating. I don't need your permission to be his friend."
Priya put a hand over her mouth, stifling a smile that Rohit knew was at his expense. "Are you sure?"
"Then, be his friend, and figure out what would be best for both of you, let Aman tell you."
"That's what you would do?"
"No," Priya said. "I would be on the phone, yelling at my friend, and then possibly telling my husband that we need to get Aman out of his apartment more often. But I know how to deal with Aman. You have to figure out how to do that for yourself."
Rohit got up and nodded to himself and then smiled at Priya. "I will, and thanks for your help."
"Just be sure that you do the right thing."
"Or you'll come after me," Rohit said, and Priya's smile was wide and more frightening than Rohit had expected.
"Have a nice day, Mr. Patel."
As he ate his dinner in his office, Rohit considered his options. Gia was waiting for Aman to come back, and for everything to be better, but Rohit knew that nothing would be that simple. Aman had become part of Naina's family in a matter of hours, but it had taken Rohit much longer to be truly welcome.
Aman had gone to extreme lengths to see Naina and Rohit together, and it made sense, as Rohit thought it over, that he wasn't eager to come back on the scene and add a new level of confusion. One thing that bothered Rohit was Aman's insistence that Rohit was the right man for Naina. It was as if he'd seen everything they had been to each other and then known what kind of future they could have, and counted himself out of it.
Setting down his fork, Rohit picked up the phone and said what was on his mind.
Rohit grinned. "It's weird."
"What's that?" Aman asked groggily.
"The way that you've always known exactly what everyone needs and how you make it easy for them to be happy."
"Yes, I can see how that might be something that bothered you."
"It just hit me," Rohit said.
Blankets rustled, and Aman snorted. "Why is that not a shock?"
"It's as if you get a sense of people and from there you know them so well you can change their lives."
"Like a friend does?" Aman asked, sounding slightly more awake.
"No, it's more than that. I don't know what I mean, except that you do a lot for other people and nobody knows why."
"No, I'm serious. Someone needs to start doing nice things for you," Rohit said.
"Great, how about you let me get some sleep?"
Rohit's eyes fell on the clock and he realized the sun was going to be coming up soon. "Oh, is that the time?"
"Idiot," Aman said again, but fondly.
"Nobody's called me that in years."
"Then they've been sparing your feelings. Go to bed, idiot."
Fiddling with the telephone cord, Rohit blurted out his request. "Do you mind if I stop by your place tomorrow?"
"If you haven't done something immensely stupid in the meantime, no I won't mind," Aman said and yawned.
"Okay, I'll talk to you tomorrow." Rohit hung up the phone and wore the same smile all the way home.
"This isn't the way to the museum," Gia said, staring out the window of the taxi.
"It isn't?" Rohit asked.
"No." She frowned. "Did you forget? You said you weren't going to stop by your office first."
"Don't you like my office?"
Gia wrinkled her nose. "It's boring, and you have funny pictures on the wall."
"I'll have you know that those are modern masterpieces," Rohit said. He leaned in and added in a low voice, "Your sister picked them out and I just went along with whatever she wanted, so don't tell her if you think they're ugly."
"Can I pick out new ones?"
Rohit gave it some thought. "Well, you could draw a few things and then I'd have a reason to take a few of them down."
"That's a good idea, we'll do that," Gia said.
"Now, where are we going?"
"It's a surprise," Rohit said.
"A good one?"
"Is there any other kind?"
Gia wasn't put off by Rohit's misdirection, and folded her arms across her chest.
"Just wait," Rohit said. "I promise you'll like this detour."
They pulled up in front of Aman's apartment building, and Rohit led Gia upstairs. She wasn't looking any happier with him, but his barely suppressed excitement was confusing her, and she poked him in the side when he rang the doorbell with a grin.
"Naina is right, you're sort of crazy."
"It's why I love her," Rohit said, and got a swat. "I mean, it's why she loves me."
"That's okay, then."
There wasn't an answer right away, and Rohit knocked impatiently. He watched Gia's reaction as the door opened. As she took in Aman standing in the doorway, shock and then joy flashed across her face, and she took an unsteady step backwards.
"Aman?" She sounded uncertain, as if Aman would disappear if she spoke, and waited to see if that was true.
"Hi, sweetheart," Aman said and crouched down, arms open wide.
Gia ran straight into him, arms twisting around his neck and hanging on tightly. Aman and Rohit shared a look over Gia's shoulder, and Aman stood up, holding her close.
"You'd better come in."
"What's that smell?" Rohit asked as he shut the door behind them.
"Lunch," Aman said, carrying Gia with him into the kitchen.
"I do like to eat on occasion, and cooking helps with that."
"Shut up," Rohit said, and Gia raised her head to scowl at him.
"Don't be mean to Aman."
Gia glared at Rohit, and he bowed.
"I am sorry, I will not make fun of Aman."
"Good." Gia nestled her head on Aman's shoulder again and he held her on his hip while he stirred something in a pan with his free hand.
"What is it?" Rohit asked.
"Yes, but what are you making?"
"Come over here and see," Aman said.
Gia laughed, and Aman shook his head and set her on the counter. "You watch from here, I need both hands if Rohit is coming near the food."
"He is a danger in the kitchen," Gia said and Rohit groaned.
"You two can't be in cahoots, I can't take it."
Looking pleased, Gia leaned into Aman, and they smiled widely at Rohit.
He tried to ignore the feeling that they were conspiring against him, and looked in the pan.
"This is almost done" Aman said, and nudged him out of the way. "You can get the bharta out and put it on the table."
Gia watched approvingly as Aman and Rohit moved around one another to finish cooking and put food on the table When Aman offered her a spoonful, she took a bite, chewed slowly then piped up.
"Why did you go away without telling us?"
Aman turned down the burner and kept stirring. "I had to, I was very sick, remember?"
"Yes, but you're better now. Didn't you want to see us?"
"Absolutely, sweetheart." Aman leaned over and kissed Gia on the forehead.
"Then why did you stay away?"
Rohit knew he was obviously eavesdropping, but he was too interested in the answer to care.
Aman fiddled with the stove again, set the pan on the table, and folded his arms across his chest, taking his time.
"I didn't want to get in the way."
"Why would you be?" Rohit spoke up and Gia shushed him.
Aman sighed. "You know when you try and do something nice and you just have to let things happen on their own even if you want to make sure they go the way they should?"
Gia looked puzzled but nodded.
"That's what I had to do. I'd done all I could for a couple people, and I had to let them go on their own way together."
"You went away," Gia said again, fixating on the most important detail.
"I know, and I'm sorry," Aman said.
"Don't do it again."
"Not if I can help it."
"Promise," Rohit said, and Aman glanced at him.
Rohit repeated himself and held up a hand, fingers conspicuously uncrossed and Aman mirrored him.
Gia gave them both long looks and then declared that she was starving and that spurred Aman into action. Since Gia apparently couldn't be apart from him for long, he picked her up again and the three of them sat down together.
Rohit kept forgetting to eat because he was enjoying Aman's company, even if they were just having a meal together, it was distracting.
"Have you forgotten how to use a fork?" Aman picked up Rohit's silverware and waved it at him.
"It's not that, this is really good. We've been eating at Naina's mother's house a lot." Rohit paused. "Her cooking is a lot better."
Gia raised an eyebrow, and Rohit coughed. "Well, a little."
"It's not as good as what you make," Gia said loyally. "You'll have to come over and cook dinner for us."
Aman smiled, but his eyes stayed on Rohit as he answered. "We'll see."
Almost as soon as she finished eating, Gia fell asleep on Aman's shoulder, and as he got up to clear the table, Rohit shook his head.
"Let me, you two stay where you are."
"Thanks." Aman adjusted Gia in his arms, and she let out a small noise and curled closer. Aman closed his eyes and tilted his head back and closed his eyes.
Rohit moved as quietly as he could, running the water and scrubbing the dishes with occasional looks over his shoulder at the pair resting at the table.
"I can hear you thinking too hard again," Aman said.
"What are you going to do?" Rohit asked.
"I thought I'd help you get this young lady into a taxi so you can get her home before Jenny thinks you've run off with her."
"Oh, god," Rohit said, "I have got to get her home."
"That's what I'm saying."
A blanket from the back of the couch went around Gia's shoulders as Aman carried her to the curb and they waited for a taxi.
Rohit listened to Aman hum softly and felt like he was trying to pin down a dream.
"Are you busy this weekend?" Rohit asked.
Aman tilted his head against Gia's and stroked her hair. "Not yet."
"Are you trying to ask if I want to do something?" Aman prompted.
"That would be great."
"So you'll call me."
"Yeah, I will." Rohit realized how ridiculous he sounded and smiled. "Thanks, Aman."
"For what?" Aman let Gia hang on for another long minute and then put her inside the taxi, tucking the blanket around her.
"Mostly, being here," Rohit said, and for the second time, gave in to an urge he couldn't explain and hugged Aman. He felt Aman's arms come up and hold onto him, and just breathed in time with his friend for a couple seconds.
"Okay, go on," Aman said and pushed Rohit toward the car.
"I'm going to call," Rohit said. "And we are going to go out somewhere."
Aman laughed. "I'm being threatened with a date, how friendly."
Rohit shook his head, ignoring Aman's teasing. "See you later." As the taxi pulled away, Rohit turned back to wave and Aman doing the same.
Gia snuggled closer and said sleepily, "Don't worry, we won't let anything bad happen to him."
It was a declaration that Rohit echoed and resolved to prove it beyond a doubt.