Manik winced. It was December. The moon didn't set yet. The birds were still sleeping. The temperature dropped down to below 10 sometime during the night. It was the coldest night he had experienced during his brief stay in Silchar. The bullet in his leg was making him difficult to walk around but he was stronger than a moment of rogue blood or pain, the words from a near past echoed in his brain. He pulled out his revolver and dragged himself around the unknown place. After minutes of struggle, he realized he was in some sort of cave. The only source of light was lit up wood from a corner of the cave. The pitch-black night didn't give away any hint about the location. He turned around towards the cave. How did he even reach here? The last he remembered was -
"Fit for a run already?"
He twisted his upper body to face the voice, without putting much pressure on his injured leg, his grip tight on his revolver. There was a girl, a head shorter than him. She was putting some more wood at a corner and untied a piece of cloth from her forearm. There were some forest berries.
Where did she get all those during the night when he couldn't even look at what's ahead of him outside the cave? he thought to himself.
"Stop straining that leg. If the blood soaks the cloth, I don't have a spare one", she warned.
She brought me here? he thought, but how did she carry me all the way from the city to this godforsaken place? She looked delicate like a doll. Do angels exist in the twenty-first century? He looked at her properly. She had a baby face and he thought for a minute if he could pull those chubby cheeks. Her eyes shone of mischief under insufficient light.
He continued to stare at her not realizing when she had walked towards him. Grabbing his arm, she helped him to one of the corners and made him sit, his back supporting the wall. Her grip on his arm was stronger than, probably, she intended to.
She pulled out a knife from somewhere above him and had untied the blood-soaked cloth going back on her own words. "It will pain", was the only warning before she pulled the bullet out of his leg with the help of a knife. She applied some leaves over the wound. "There. It will be better after some rest", she said, pointing towards his leg.
He bit his lip from screaming before taking two long breaths to calm himself. "Who are you? How did I get here?"
"I brought you here", she said, ignoring his first question.
"Why?", he asks. "There were hundreds of people you could have helped if you wanted to. Why only-", he felt ashamed of taking those few safer breaths when people were dying mere kilometers away from them.
"I wanted to protect the one I love from dying stupidly", she said, casually.
Manik fought a blush that was creeping onto his cheeks. "Love? We don't even know each other", he asked.
"I am Nandini", she shrugged, "not that it would help much. It has been years since I felt the emotion of love or family on seeing someone. Not since all the members of my family died on the same day."
"I am sorry", he said, for the lack of better words.
She sniffed and he easily wrapped an arm around her pulling her close. She planted a kiss on his jaw making him uncomfortable if not the slight redness that finally made its way to his cheeks. It was a new, strange feeling for him. He was barely an adult. Just out of his teens without any prior experience of properly talking to a girl before, thanks to his all-boys education.
He was so busy in his thoughts that he didn't notice her snuggling closer. Neither did he witness her smug grin but when she wrapped her hand around his neck and pulled him closer for a kiss, he noticed the small mark on the side of her neck, just below her ear. It was a tiny arrow. Yet, he could recognize it even in the faintest light, given the number of hours he was given just to get familiarize with that symbol during their training. The symbol of war. Everything fell in place. The way she was able to carry him even with her delicate physique, the way she could manage to find some wood and berries as if she had practiced them for years, he thought, as if these mountains, forests, trees are her home. As if, "You are a terrorist", he said, and I am a soldier, he couldn't say. She seemed to understand exactly what he wanted to say and nodded, her face more solemn than he had seen until then.
Silence followed for a long time, Manik gathering his thoughts and Nandini sitting by his side. Suddenly, Mank found her laughing as if she was enjoying her personal joke but her laugh didn’t contain any amount of humor. If there was a hint of mischief in her eyes before, those beautiful orbs looked dead now, Manik noticed. Once she controlled herself, she brushed her thumb over his cheek and he looked at her dazed because there was a pain in her eyes. The intensity he never knew even existed.
“Just look at my fate”, she whispered, as if her mere words could break something between them, something that neither knew was there but was forming slowly. “After a decade of spending a loveless life, I had to fall in love with someone who would hate me even without knowing me. Don’t you think I deserve a chance?”
If he felt she was manipulating him, he brushed the thought away. Who could deny the way she was looking at him as if he was the only one that mattered to her? He felt some power was drawing him towards those eyes, intense, painful, mischievous or love, her eyes had a whole different world inside them. “What happened?”, he asked, in the same whispered conversation.
His question stirred something inside her and she pulled away from him, her eyes, once again, dead. She stared into the distance. “They killed my parents when I was 10 and let my brother die alone. They made it look like an accident. I don’t know the reason but the neighbors said my family was a curse to the village and that my father was a terrorist working for the enemies. Who the enemies were, I don’t know.
“I wandered in streets, begged, fought for food, traveled in random trains. Six months later, I met a man. He said he was on the run because he was termed as a terrorist too when he was just fighting a war. He took me to this place, introduced me to their leader. The group accepted me and I found a purpose to live. To kill all the people of this country who think only about themselves, who destroy innocent lives for their momentous anger and half-knowledged doubts.”
There was a sharp intake of breath. This girl was dangerous and yet fascinating. He didn’t know whether to wrap her in his arms or to run away from her. Instead, he just talked. “I am one of them. This is my country. Why didn’t you kill me?”, he asked.
She smiled. Her eyes changed from dead to intense emotion. Really, if Manik knew eyes could suffer from ‘multiple emotional disorder’, he would have bet his everything to say her’s did. “Because I fell in love with you?”, she said, as if it was the simplest thing. As if it was destined as if she was waiting to fall in love with him. When he raised his eyebrow, she chuckled. “For the past decade, I have only known violence. We have either killed people or got one of us killed. Aren’t you from the BSF?”, she asked and got a nod in return. She cupped his cheek and brushed her thumb across it. “And there you were, saving people, in the middle of the raging war like an angel descended from heaven.”
"I never thought it was romantic enough to make a girl fall in love", he said dryly.
"It wasn't romantic, no, but you gave me hope that good still existed", she said and the sincerity in her voice shook him.
Her lips had brushed his with the slightest of touch as if she wanted to leave him a choice to back out and, unknown to him, he obeyed her unsaid words and pushed her lightly. She sighed. “You don’t deserve these people. They would contaminate you. They would kill you, physically or emotionally, when you are no use to them. Come with me”, she said and looked at him with hope in her eyes. “Come with me and let me protect you, let me love you. I won’t let any harm come to you.”
“If anyone needs protection, it’s you. If anyone needs love, it’s you”, he muttered.
“Then love me. You are there to love me, right? We can live happily together”, she said.
He shook his head and smiled at her. In that one minute, she seemed more innocent and young than she probably had ever been, almost like a child. He gave in to his urges and pulled her into a hug, tucking her head under his chin. Planting a kiss on the top of her head, he started stroking her hair.
“Nandini”, he said, as a prayer and he felt her hands tighten around him. “I am a soldier who had taken an oath to protect this country till my last breath. My brother works in the Army. My dad was Air Marshal in the Air Force. Our whole family has served the country and will continue to be.” He felt her stiffen against him and he instinctively brushed her hair. “I know a hundred ways to get you out of this mess. I might have just joined the force but my dad and brother have a number of contacts and we can work out. Quit this life. Come with me and let me protect you, please”, he concluded.
She laughed, the sound muffled due to his shirt, maybe at listening to her own words. He smiled down at her, unaware his heart would break for the very first time. “I am not in any mess. I chose this path to wipe out this country from the world’s map. This is my revenge”, she said.
He shivered listening to the determination in her voice. “This is the wrong path, Nandini. You can’t kill innocent people for your revenge. There are kids and women, men who are innocent. You trust me, right? I am not the only one. There are hundreds, thousands like me who are saving others. You are trying to become the person you hate.”
“I am already the person I hate. What do you expect me to become when I am exposed to this life at the age of ten? There are hundreds like me, whom your government failed to protect. Who have lost their lives, their families because of the people of this country”, she said.
“Because of some people of this country, Nandini”, he said, shaking her hoping to put some sense into her. He didn’t know why he was insisting her but he felt this conversation with her would change his life forever. “You are punishing hundreds of lives due to the mistakes of some. Surrender yourself to the police. I will be by your side. I will talk to dad. We can clear your name and we can be a family. My parents will treat you as their own."
She snorted. "You think this is all easy. You are innocent. This country will shred me to pieces even before I defend myself. You don't know a thing about how things work here."
"Are you choosing your revenge and killing people over love, family, freedom, and happiness?", he asked. There was a steel grip on his voice.
She played with her hands on her lap. "I only know what revenge is. I am only capable of killing people. Whatever you have mentioned except these are unknown territory to me", she said.
I will teach you then. I will introduce you to all other happy emotions, the better ones, he wanted to promise but one look at her, he knew she wouldn't change her mind. This is her decision. She might have fallen in love with him, might have hoped for a future together with him but he would never betray his country, never would he willingly put his country in trouble and she would do exactly the opposite. "You know who I am, right? What my duty is?"
She stared down at the floor and nodded.
He pulled his revolver and pointed it out to her head. "Do you want to say anything?"
She turned her face towards him and he felt pride in her eyes. Was it for him? "You didn't tell me your name", she asked, the mischief back in her eyes.
He took a step towards her and cupped her cheek with his free hand. "Manik", he said.
"Like a gem", she whispered staring right through his eyes.
And he felt her touching his soul with her soul. Contradictory to his earlier action, he placed his lips over her. Even though he stumbled through his first kiss, she held him, keeping him stable and he couldn't understand how everything seemed so perfect right at that moment, with her, none caring about the oxygen. They broke apart on the first sound of the chirping birds. The sun was about to rise. "Will you wait for me to pick me up? To make me feel loved again? To heal me if I am injured?", he asked, almost childishly.
"Always. Wherever I will be, I will be waiting for you, I promise", she said, and he believed her.
"This time at a better place where we both could agree with each other's choices. This time when I find you again, I don't want to lose you, Nandini", he whispered.
She pecked his lips in a final kiss before he pulled the trigger.
15 years later, as Lieutenant Colonel Manik laid back on the battlefield amidst the corpses of his fellow comrades, he raised his bloodied hands to give his final salute to his national flag. He could hear the gunshots, could hear the screams of his countrymen and the enemies alike but ignored them, trusting his warriors to protect his country now. As he took his final breath, he smiled, for a soul was waiting for him in the afterlife.
Note - 1) BSF - Border Security Force. People who work at the borders of India.
2) Manik means gem in the local language.