The 7 Innocents

John 7:24
'Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.'



Isaiah 64:6
'But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags;'


It was when their problems seemed to wane that they escalated. The Australians all disappeared, and the seminary shut down. They were told to run for their lives. Told if they didn’t, their families would die. Told if they did, their families would still die.
They endeavoured to solve the mystery – one that threatened to destroy them and their families – but soon realised that to end it all, they must first find the Australians. But the closer they came to finding them, the more they began to see they should run and never come back.
The question, of course, is why they didn’t call the police.
The answer is simple.
You can’t avoid being condemned unless you’re innocent.
And these men are not.

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35. Chapter Thirty-Four: The 7 Freemen

Chapter Thirty-Four: The 7 Freemen

 

There was a knock on the door and Arman rushed to answer it.

                'Danny!' He cried excitedly. 'You are back!'

                Danny nodded eagerly. 'Have you seen the paper?' He held it up, and there – on the front cover – was an article entitled, The 7 Innocents. 'We are safe!' He cried, his eyes shining with an unimaginable joy and hope.

                Arman snatched the paper hopefully, unable to contain his joy. He read the article quickly, smiling at the sweet photos put in it. Balraj, Calvin, and Vijay, looking pretty shifty in an unexpected photo at the BSI. Arjun, Suneep, Bikram, Josha, Chandan, Mehmet, Danny, Alyssa, Ardi, and Liberty having lunch one perfectly sunny day. Only Arjun did not smile, as he struggled to do so as soon as he saw a camera.

                'You fare well in this article.' Arman teased. 'Seven Innocents my foot.'

                'Yes, it is a little far-fetched. I hope Bikram and Chandan did not push things too far.'

                Arman shrugged and turned his attention back to his friend. 'So then, you are welcome to stay here as long as you want.'

                Danny beamed. 'Thank you, friend.'

                'Soon to be brother.' Arman teased, handing the paper back to the man.

                'Yes, I hope so. That is, of course, why I have come back.'

                Arman beamed and winked at his friend. 'Between you and me, I think Parvati will be more than happy to see you. I hope she changes her mind and says yes.'

                The two men laughed and walked inside the house.

 

Chandan and Bikram high-fived victoriously as they read the evening paper.

                'Good job, Chandan!' Bikram congratulated his friend. 'We are excellent persuaders!'

                Mehmet – who had recently joined the two and would be travelling back to Nepal with Bikram – smiled. He looked a little disconcerted. 'You don't think they overdid our innocence?'

                Bikram shrugged. 'If worse comes to worst we just tell them we told them not to do that.'

                Chandan nodded. 'It is true.'

                Bikram relaxed in his seat and eyed Mehmet thoughtfully. 'What are you going to do now?'

                'Well... I'm not sure. I hope the BSI re-opens so I can finish my masters. Then I'd like to be a minister, as before. What about you?'

                'I want to study music, like before, so I can be a music director.'

                'In a church?'

                Bikram nodded. 'I also want to...' he smiled. '… Speak to Joy's father again.'

                Mehmet smiled too. 'I hope he says yes this time.'

                'So do I. What about you? Do you think you'll get married any time soon?'

                Mehmet looked away sadly. 'I do not think I should. Remember Ardi?'

                Bikram shook his head oddly. 'Do not be put off by one bad girl, Mehmet. Find a girl that everyone thinks is nice.'

                'Oh, I have!' Mehmet cried vibrantly. 'She is quite different to what I thought Ardi was!'

                Bikram tilted his head curiously. 'She is shy?'

                'Not quite... but nearly. She is friendly and kind, but conservative too. Kind of like Arjun when he knows you well and is in a playful mood.'

                Bikram smiled. 'Then you must be speaking of Sara.'

                Mehmet's eyes widened. 'How did you guess?'

                'Because. I agree with you. I think you should ask her to be your girlfriend.' He giggled teasingly, and Mehmet blushed.

                'Arjun would kill me.'

                Bikram shrugged and stood up. 'That hasn't stopped you so far.'

                Mehmet's frown slowly turned into a smile, and he nodded. 'Yes. You are right.'

                The men laughed, and enjoyed the feeling of ease that they had not had for years now.

                That was when there was a knock on the door.

                The men froze, and Mehmet turned uncertainly to Bikram, who nodded. So, slowly, he stood up and answered the door. When he saw who was there, he took a step back.

                Perspiration was beading the man’s forehead, and he was breathing heavily. His suit was torn, and he was desperately trying to load his gun. But, more to the point, it was Gopi. Gopi had come to see them.

                ‘I saw your article.’ He said quickly – quietly. ‘I hope you realise what this means.’

                Mehmet’s head was spinning. ‘We didn’t print anything that was on that list. All we printed was a bunch of theories.’

                ‘Balraj printed that list.’ Gopi returned, snapping the barrel of the gun shut. The gun was now loaded. Mehmet subconsciously closed the door over a little. ‘Check page 20.’

                Chandan quickly did so. When his eyes widened, Mehmet knew it was true.

                ‘That is not our fault!’ He cried, turning desperately to Gopi. But the man did not seem to be worried about him. He was worried about somehow else, staring down the hotel hall as if – at any moment – someone would burst through the doors and shoot him.

                He was on the run, Mehmet realised.

                ‘What do you want?’ He asked, trying to help the man, though he wasn’t sure why.

                ‘This isn’t about me!’ Gopi replied, raising his voice above a whisper for the first time. ‘This is about you!’ He shook his head and took a deep breath. ‘INDependent is over, and so are all organisations like it. No-one will ever support us or allow us to exist ever again. There is no hope for us. But for you…’

                Gopi pulled Mehmet closer to him and began whispering in such hushed, quickly paced tones that Mehmet nearly missed everything he was saying.

                ‘They will kill you, Mehmet, they will kill all of you. Because you are all witnesses. You cannot live – not while they exist. And so you must do one thing.’

                Mehmet waited expectantly for Gopi to finish his sentence. That was when he felt a slight, gentle touch on his hand. Looking down, he saw a piece of paper. Another list.

                ‘Take it.’ Gopi instructed. ‘Take it quickl…’

                There was a bang.

                Gopi’s eyes rolled back into his head, and he fell to the floor, motionless and lifeless. Shaking, Mehmet looked to his left.

                He came face to face with Balraj, his hand poised, ready to shoot.

                The silence was intense, as Balraj stared into Mehmet’s eyes – into his soul – and Mehmet stared right back into his. Begging for mercy. Asking for life.

                Balraj’s hand shook, his body shook, and he lent his left arm on the wall to steady himself. Perspiration had already beaded his forehead, but it no longer cooled. His breathing increased, and Mehmet could see his mind racing.

                What should he do? Should he run forward and steal the gun? Should he slam the door and cower inside? Or should he stand perfectly still, as he was, silently pleading for mercy?

                ‘Mehmet.’ Balraj said, his voice quivering. Mehmet snapped to attention at once.

                The silence was there again. Inside, Bikram and Chandan were frozen to their seats, though they were ready to run – to hide, to act.

                Balraj swayed a little, and then said two words: ‘I’m sorry.’

                It was over.

                Balraj steadied himself, aimed his gun (Mehmet was frozen – they all were. It was all over…) and then sighed exhaustedly.

                ‘Run.’

                Mehmet stood their stupidly for a minute. Then Bikram stuck his head out the door and said, ‘what?’

                Balraj shook his head, asking that he need not repeat himself. And so, making sure to keep the piece of paper hidden (though he was sure Balraj knew all about it), Mehmet led the way, running down the left hall, away from Balraj and towards the train station.

                Half way down the hall hey heard footsteps behind them: Balraj was working towards his goal even now, even though he still thought of them as friends. Officially they were enemies, and he could not change that.

                ‘Don’t take the lift!’ Mehmet hissed as Bikram pressed the button. Dragging the man along by the arm, he led him through the door to the staircase.

                Chandan jumped on the bannister and slid down floor after floor. Mehmet and Bikram copied uncertainly, but successfully.

                The doors opened behind them – they could see Balraj now – and they tried to speed themselves up. But they could go no faster.

                Balraj had spotted them, though he said nothing. Mehmet briefly locked eyes with him, but Balraj instantly looked away. Mehmet understood then: there would be no more mercy.

                ‘Duck!’ He shouted, jumping off the railing and pulling his friends down. Bikram fell off right as there was a loud bang, and the three felt a bullet whiz right past their faces.

                Chandan and Bikram initially froze in the aftershock, so Mehmet prompted them back into action. Crouching, they began tearing down the staircase, three steps at a time.

                Balraj was a tall man with long legs, so he grew closer quickly.

                ‘We’re not going to make it!’ Bikram cried as they landed on the first floor.

                ‘Just keep going!’ Chandan replied, giving the man a shove.

                They kept on running until they could feel Balraj right behind them. Then, just as he raised his gun to fire again, they first through the door to the ground floor and ran out into the streets of Delhi.

                ‘Split up!’ Chandan cried, but Mehmet instantly rejected this idea.

                ‘No!’ He shouted, grabbing onto both Bikram and Chandan at once. ‘Just keep running.’

                So they ran together, Balraj hot on their heels.

                He would not be so inclined to shoot on the streets, Mehmet thought, but Chandan decided differently.

                ‘Mingle.’ He suggested. ‘And stay close to cows. If he shoots cows he will be in trouble with the Hindus.’

                Bikram nodded and instantly began zigzagging through the streets, from cow to cow.

                There was another gun shot, but it hardly even stood out. Delhi was so noisy – they weren’t even drawing any attention!

                Glancing behind him, Chandan saw Balraj had hidden his gun up his sleeve. Yes, the man was clever, but he would not make survival easy for them.

                Why did the train station have to be so far away!? They could catch a rickshaw, but the chances of them getting stuck in traffic were too great. They had to run. They had to…

                Chandan stopped running.

                ‘Sanee!’ Mehmet hollered after him. ‘Keep running!’

                ‘Chandan!’ Came another voice, this one a from a rickshaw driver.

                Chandan beamed at the man he was staring at. ‘Hello, Kharan, my friend, Nai. Do you think you could drive us?’

                Mehmet and Bikram were beside him now, trying to drag him away. Balraj drew closer and his friends shouted in his ear, but Chandan would not move.

                Kharan frowned, but seemed to work out what was going on pretty quickly. So, hesitantly, he nodded.

                ‘Get in.’

                Chandan pushed his two friends inside the rickshaw, and Kharan began tearing through the streets of Delhi. He refused to abide by any road rule, and drove on footpaths, threatened to hit cows, and ran pedestrians off the street.

                ‘Where too?!’ The driver shouted over the noise of the traffic.

                ‘The train station!’ Chandan replied, equally loud. ‘And thanks so much for this.’

                ‘By the way,’ Mehmet said, half joking, half serious, ‘he’s got a gun.’

                Kharan’s face fell.

                There was another bang, and Chandan ducked, pushing Kharan down with him. Once they were sure they were safe, Bikram glanced behind them.

                ‘He has stolen a rickshaw!’ He cried. ‘Oh, he will be in big trouble!’

                Mehmet distractedly reached into his pocket and checked that he still had the piece of paper. Yes, it was still safe, so he hid it again.

                ‘We are so close!’ Chandan comforted his friends. ‘We’re nearly there!’

                Kharan didn’t seem nearly so optimistic.

                As they neared the train station, the traffic became more congested, both on the road and on the footpath. Kharan’s eyes madly scanned the route, but that it was it. There was no-where for him to go, he had to stop.

                ‘What do I do!?’ He cried, his eyes wide with fright. ‘There is nowhere to go!’

                Chandan scanned the city too, seeing the exact same situation as his friend. But, of course, he was far more crazy and imaginative than Kharan.

                ‘Go up there.’ He instructed.

                Kharan’s eyes didn’t look like they could go any wider, and yet they did. His mouth dropped open, and he began shaking his head madly.

                ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no!’ He cried repetitively. ‘I am not doing that, it is dangerous, it is not safe, the rickshaw will not make it!’

                ‘It is only a little step!’ Bikram pleaded. ‘And the ramp does not look like it will collapse quickly!’

                ‘It’s a plank of wood, not a ramp! And it leads to the pedestrian overpass, I cannot go on it!’

                ‘Just do it!’ Mehmet, Chandan, and Bikram cried at once.

                And so, reluctantly, Kharan turned violently and tore over to the other side of the road.

                ‘Don’t look like you’re going to stop!’ Chandan advised him, so Kharan put on his most determined face. Immediately, a zigzaggy path appeared in the midst of the condensed traffic.

                They tore through, gradually approaching the high pavement and the rotting plank of wood. It would be wide enough for the rickshaw to drive on, the only question was whether or not it would hold the vehicle.

                ‘Here we go!’ Kharan warned his friends, perspiration appearing on his face. ‘Hold on tight!’

                The friends did so, and Kharan focused on aim.

                There was a slight bump as they moved onto the wood. Then, desperately, Kharan floored the poor little rickshaw.

                The wood cracked and began to splinter, but it was all right, it was okay. The rickshaw sped onto the pavement, momentarily flying off the wood, and turned precariously to the left. Breathing heavily, Kharan expertly guided the vehicle onto the pedestrian overpass.

                Bikram turned around to see where Balraj was, and was pleased to see that – while the man was close – he was stuck near the pieces of splintered wood.

                Jumping out of the rickshaw, Balraj pulled out his gun and began to aim. This drew some attention now, as the man in his anger had forgotten to hide the weapon. This was good, Bikram decided. It meant he had adrenalin coursing through his body, clouding his mind and effecting every decision he was making.

                The men ducked as Balraj shot, and Kharan tried to continue driving in such a position, lest Balraj should shoot again.

                There was another shot, then another, another, and then…

                There was a roar of anger, and Bikram smiled.

                ‘No ammo.’ He decided.

                Kharan sighed with relief.

                The men slowly sat up again, and Mehmet checked to see if Balraj was running after them. Sure enough, he was, but even he knew it was hopeless now. They had won.

                Kharan drove off the overpass, and the three friends ran to the train station, briefly thanking the man before disappearing.

                They were safe as soon as they set foot in the train station, and the sight of guns for once comforted them. The police would protect them and keep an eye on things. All they had to do was get on a train and make their way to Nepal.

 

Josha carried his light suitcase into Arjun's kitchen, where everyone stared at him.

                'Where are you going?' Arjun asked, finishing his breakfast. 'Home?'

                Josha shook his head. 'My parents have been Christians for a year now, but I do not feel safe in their presence. I am going back to Australia.'

                'Already?' Suneep asked. 'Aren't you even going to wait until we know we're safe?'

                Josha shook his head. 'I am going now. I have to. I have... an engagement. Literally.'

                Arjun's face fell, and he dropped his metal plate on the concrete fall.  Josha shuddered at the awful sound and readied to flee. 'You're not getting married?' Arjun cried, horrified. 'Josha, you would not use a girl just to become an Australian citizen, would you?'

                'I like her, Arjun, and she likes me. Why not?'

                Arjun closed his eyes and regulated his breathing. 'Who is it?' He asked patiently.

                'Amy, of course. Who else?'

                Arjun nodded. 'Of course. Well, congratulations, and enjoy your wedding. God bless you both.'

                'Ditto!' Suneep cried, his mouth full of breakfast.

                Josha nodded gratefully and left the house without another word. Arjun shakily picked up his plate and began cleaning up the mess he made.

                'Now everyone is matched but me.' Suneep moaned, speaking Nepali.

                Alyssa smiled. 'I am sure that is not true.'

                'It is! Mehmet loves...' he lowered his voice to a whisper. 'Sara.' Then he raised his voice again. 'Chandan has only ever mentioned one girl, and that is Ashima, Bikram loves Joy, Arjun likes Astha, Liberty is married to Vijay, Ardi to Mikael, Josha will be married to Amy, and Danny will probably marry Kannan's sister. He is the only girl he refuses to speak about. He would not even describe her to me.'

                Alyssa smiled. 'You are very perceptive if you are right.'

                'I know I am.'

                'So what about you then? If you are so perceptive why can't you find a girl?'

                Suneep shrugged. 'I am too selfish. I should not marry.'

                Alyssa eyed the man lovingly. 'That is not selfish, Suneep.'

                The man only winked at his friend playfully and walked off.

                There was a knock on the door at this point, which Mehtar answered. He beheld a woman with two small children, a boy and a girl. The boy was certainly adorable, and seemed strangely familiar to Mehtar. His skin was a light, creamy brown, and he had large, dark green, clear eyes. He had a squashed button nose, and his straight black hair was neatly parted. The girl was much younger, but equally adorable. Her skin was much like the boy's – obviously her brother – only slightly lighter. Her wide eyes appeared brown, yet curiously blue, and her hair – though black – had strange blonde highlights. Mehtar felt strangely drawn to the children. They seemed to be familiar, and he fell speechless.

                'Zacky!' Alyssa suddenly cried. 'Elli!'

                Suneep's eyes lit up as he recognised the young boy he felt so strongly attached to. He followed Alyssa as she rushed to them, and Arjun copied him.

                'Thank you so much for taking care of them!' Alyssa cried, somehow managing to hold two children at once.

                The woman smiled curiously and fled, leaving the house in a state of excitement.

                'Who are they?' Brayna asked, entering the room.

                'Alyssa's children.' Suneep answered. 'Zack and... Elli.'

                The two children squealed excitedly, and cries of 'mamma! Amma!' and then, surprisingly, 'dada! Daddy!' and 'Baba!' could be heard.

                Suneep frowned quizzically. 'Is your husband coming?'

                Alyssa looked around the room and, seeing everyone was present, stood up. 'Let me properly introduce you to my children.' She said, handing Elli to the eager Sara. She was interrupted by another knock at the door, which Akash answered.

                'Hey!' Bikram cried, holding up a newspaper. 'Just me! Chandan stayed in Delhi.' His eye caught a glimpse of the two children, and his face immediately paled. Pointing to the boy he stammered. 'T...t...that's the b-boy... they...'

                Arjun nodded. 'These are...'

                'Alyssa's children.' Suneep finished for him. 'Bhainee, do introduce them.'

                Alyssa smiled, but she had gone quite pale and red. 'This...'

                Another knock on the door.

                'That would be Mehmet.' Bikram said. 'He fell behind.'

                Karuna answered the door impatiently, and sure enough it was Mehmet. As soon as the man was inside, Alyssa shakily began introductions yet again. Arjun steadied her by placing a hand on her shoulder, which seemed to help a little.

                'Let me.' He offered. 'I should do it.' Alyssa nodded gratefully, and Arjun surprisingly wrapped his arms around her and held her close. 'He is Zaddok. Zack, after Alyssa's father Zachary, Mehtar after mine. Zaddok Mehtar Arjun. She is Anjeli, after Alyssa's mother Angela, Karuna after mine.' He smiled warmly, but nervously, at his mother. 'Anjeli Karuna Arjun.' He had begun to shake a little too, and held on to Alyssa a little more tightly. Then, quickly, he bent down and kissed the girl on the cheek.

                Suneep's face fell immediately and he paled. 'It all makes sense!' He cried. 'Why you ignored her. Why you glared at me when I hugged her. Why you panicked why they pulled Zack out!'

                'Why you were worried about money.' Mehmet put in.

                'Why you are so mature!' Bikram finished.

                'You tried to tell me!' Mehmet continued. 'Those holidays you found her then! Oh, I wish so much I had of listened to you when you tried to tell me who you saw!'

                'Astha has been giving you updates on Alyssa!' Suneep cried, the truth dawning on him.

                Arjun smiled, and lent his chin on the shorter girl's head. 'I am so glad you finally know. I am tired of keeping it secret.'

                Suneep burst out laughing, and fitfully explained why. 'You were arguing on the train!' He cried, in between laughing. 'Arjun, you were upset because of what she said because you are her husband! Oh, everything makes so much sense now!'

                The two chuckled and nodded.

                'Now we are safe I can be open, though.' Arjun persisted, disconcerted by everyone else's silence. 'I am sorry I ever had to keep it secret.'

                Finally, Karuna spoke. 'So that's where you've been sneaking off to.' She cried, looking as if she'd just been slapped.

                An awkward silence fell, and Arjun pulled his wife in even more closely, though Suneep had not believed it possible.

                'No wonder they seemed familiar.' Mehtar finally whispered. 'They look like you.'

                Arjun's sprits sunk, as his father walked out of the room. 'Baba!' He cried, following him.

                'Arjun!' His mother called. 'It is all right, I understand. I'm sure he does too.'

                Her son smiled gratefully and nodded. 'Thank you, Amma.' Then he followed his father anyway.

Out the door and into the backyard, Arjun found his father pacing a small section of the garden that could not be seen from the house.

                'Father...?' Arjun began, approaching carefully.

                'All those lies!' Mehtar suddenly cried, turning around. Arjun blinked in terror and shock as his father continued. 'Constant lies! All those years we cannot get back! We just have to start from point B. We cannot meet your bride to be, or be there when your children are born. We do not even get to be there at your wedding!'

                'I understand, Baba.' Arjun pleaded desperately. 'But please! I couldn't leave her in the market place! I helped her, but we both knew she couldn't leave the country. I had to protect her – I had to! I was not even sure if she felt the same way, but I loved her and had to help her. Baba, please understand! She would not be alive if I had not helped! And if I introduced you to her, both of you would have been endangered. I... I do not know if everything I did was right, but... I pray it is.'

                Mehtar blinked furiously, as his eyes moistened. 'All those worries... I could not even help you.'

                'Baba I am fine. She is fine. We are all fine. You helped me by teaching me to do what I must.' Mehtar fell silent, and, quietly, Arjun added something under his breath. 'As for not seeing our children being born, it is all right. She will have another baby soon.... though I know it is not the same.'

                Mehtar spun around angrily. 'Again?!' He cried. 'Why, you are very fortunate indeed that this is all over!'

                Arjun looked away. 'I know.'

                Mehtar was very angry, though he didn't know why. Perhaps his son hadn't handled everything perfectly, but he had handled things well. He sighed deeply, and closed his eyes. 'I am sorry.' He breathed. 'I do not know why I am so angry. I... I have met Alyssa before, and liked her instantly. She is the sweetest girl I think I have ever met, though she is also very head-strong and determined. I am not surprised she escaped. And your children are adorable and sweet. I can already tell they are being raised well. How old are they?'

                'Three and one.'

                Slowly, Mehtar smiled. 'It is strange, actually. They look like you and Alyssa. I could tell at once they were her children...' he turned around to face his son. 'But they reminded me of you.' Arjun was still staring at his feet, ashamed. 'Arjun,' Mehtar continued, eyeing his son sternly. 'I understand you very well. You are quiet and obedient, but also head-strong and determined.' Smiling, he shook his head. 'You are too much like me. Now I understand how my father felt when I insisted I would marry no-one but your mother. It was very embarrassing for him. He had to cancel my marriage with another girl and arrange one with Karuna... your mother.' He quickly corrected himself. 'Of course,' he added thoughtfully, 'you are different. I don't know... you seem to have your mother's kindness.' Slowly, Arjun looked up to find his father smiling at him lovingly. 'I know you understand how I feel. But let me give you some advice. I know you're good at listening to advice.' Arjun frowned seriously and listened carefully. 'Ignore me.' Mehtar finished. 'I'll be happy soon enough.' There was a glint in his eye, suggesting he was already happy, and Arjun's eyes lit up hopefully. It was here that Mehtar stretched out his hand and waved his son in. Smiling, Arjun stepped forward and hugged his father tightly. Mehtar hugged his son equally tightly, and kissed him gently on the head. 'I never could be angry with you for long, Arjun.'

                Arjun blinked, refusing to cry. 'Thank you, father.'

                The hardest part was over, and Arjun knew in his heart things would work out.... because his family loved him.

 

Mehmet and Chandan parted with Bikram once they reached Nepal, though they were not sure what it was he was hoping to do.

                ‘It is going to rain. If not today then tomorrow.’ Mehmet predicted again, glancing at the sky.

                Again, Bikram only shrugged. ‘I will be very quick.’ He promised. ‘But I have to visit my home. I should be back tomorrow.’

                Mehmet and Chandan sighed before leaving him alone.

                Bikram made his way home quickly, where his family welcomed him warmly. To his relief, he found things were not so awkward at home now that he had confessed.

                But he could not stay still for very long. No, he had work to do.

 

                Bikram ran through the rain, trying to shield his head with his hands. 'Could I have picked a worse day?' He asked, as lightening crashed. The sky was dark, and it began to hail. 'Ouch!' Bikram cried, running faster.

                He reached Joy's house and briefly considered coming when it wasn't hailing. The he realised he was just trying to avoid the difficult conversation that was sure to come and pushed on.

                He walked to the door, not wanting to look too foolish by running, and knocked after an impressively loud roar of thunder. Then he tried to ignore the rain and hail bucketing down on him.

                Joy's father opened the door and frowned at once. 'Who are you and what do you want?'

                'Bikram Tapan.' Bikram answered. 'And I suppose it sounds bad to reply 'your daughter'.'

                'Yes, it does. Vikash Pannat you are getting very annoying.'

                'Yes, I'm aware of that.'

                'Come inside so you don't let anymore cold air in.'

                Bikram smiled. 'Thank you, sir.'

                Reluctantly, the man stood aside and led Bikram to the lounge room. 'Sit down.' He offered, more like an order, so that Bikram felt afraid to stand.

                'I'm soaking.' He pointed out nervously.

                Joy's father shrugged. 'Stand if you want. I want you to be real with me. Don't sit because I told you to.'

                Bikram nodded seriously, as Joy's mother entered the room with two cups of hot soup.

                'You like chicken soup?' The man asked.

                Bikram nodded eagerly. 'Yes, thank you!' He cried, as the woman handed him a warm cup.

                'So do I.' Joy's father was saying. 'Unfortunately this is pork.'

                Bikram raised an eyebrow quizzically. 'Pork soup? I have never had that before.'

                'Do you like pork?'

                'No.' Bikram said, sipping his soup. Then he smiled widely. 'But this chicken soup is good.'

                Joy's father smiled a little – the most he'd ever smiled at Bikram – and a strange glint came into his eyes. 'Where's your father?'

                Bikram's pupils dilated, as he was struck by fear. 'I... I didn't know whether to bring him or not. He is close by; I'll call him and ask him to come.'

                Joy's father nodded, and Bikram hastily called his father. He didn't know Joy's father fell, but he did know of one language the man couldn't speak. He used it now to talk to his father. 'Papa, please come!' He begged. 'He does want you after all.'

                Bikram's father had obviously been expecting such a call, and, while frustrated, gave in to his son's begging.

                'I'm coming.' He promised, hanging up.

                Bikram turned back to Joy's father, who was eyeing him strangely.

                'Look, Vikram.' He began. 'I think it's about time I told you to call me something. My name is Kapil. Kapil Deevak. Please call me Mr. Deevak.'

                'Of course.' Bikram nodded seriously. Then, his eyes glinting cheekily, he giggled, 'Mr. Deepak.'

                Kapil frowned. 'Are you being rude, Keeran?'

                'No, Mr. Pakka. I remember your name.'

                'No, I think you are being rude.'

                'Perhaps I should stick to 'sir'.'

                'Perhaps.' The man replied, frowning intensely. A glint had entered his eyes, however, that Bikram had never seen before.

                There was a knock on the door, and Bikram's father entered.

                'Kapil Deevak.' Joy's father introduced himself.

                'Tapan Peter.' Bikram's father replied, shaking Kapil's hand. 'Pleased to meet you.'

                'I'm not pleased to meet you. Your son's a pain in the neck.'

                'I know. I apologise for that.'

                'Is he always this determine?'

                'No. This is fairly unusual. There are not many things he really cares about. In fat, the only other things I can think of are God and music.'

                Bikram frowned, and Kapil perfectly echoed his thoughts.

                'Are you trying to make sure I don't say yes to your son?'

                Tapan smiled. 'I don't think he'd let me do that. Besides, I believe he has changed for the better in the past few years.'

                'Well, that would make sense.'

                'I suppose so. So what do you need me for?'

                'Oh, I just wanted to ask if you have any particular objection to my Joy.'

                'I have never before seen her.'

                'Oh, I must fix that. Joy!'

                Slowly, but obediently, the girl entered the room. She was blushing violently; obviously keenly aware of what was going on.

                Tapan frowned. 'I guess she's pretty enough.'

                'Yes, she is.' Kapil nodded.

                Joy stared at her feet, and dared not lift her eyes. Bikram smiled ad her, such a sweet innocent picture. He felt sorry that his father had ganged up on her with hers, but knew she was kind enough to endure it.

                'Can she cook?'

                'Nah. Only burn stuff.'

                'That won't do.'

                Joy's mother came out with two more cups of soup and handed on to her daughter and the other to her husband.

                'She cooked this.' Kapil said, as his wife left.

                Tapan seemed impressed, but said he was not. 'Okay, strike one. She can't cook.'

                'It's not fair just to object to my child. Now it's my turn. I will say your son's not much to look at.'

                'Yeah, I know. He looks too much like me. He is also sulky and arrogant.'

                'Mmm, I have definitely seen those qualities in him. He doesn't have much back-bone either. I hear he failed class 12.'

                'Yup, he did. His grades at BSI weren't much better.'

                'So he's lazy. I think that's about three strikes now.'

                'Let me have a turn! Here, can she clean?'

                'Ha! You see the house?'  The place was spotless, and the air almost purer than the air outside. 'She is even worse than this!' Kapil continued. 'This is just an example of how bad she is!'

                'Strike two! What about other stuff? What is she good at?'

                'Causing trouble.'

                'Yes, I figured. Just to look at her I assume she must be a handful.'

                'Yes, you should hear her when she's upset. So disobedient!'

                Joy flinched, though she knew the two were only having fun, and glanced at Bikram. She found he was smiling, staring at her, and she looked away instantly.

                'See that!?' Her father cried. 'She is very full of herself. She would even stand up and defy Dr. Ashwin!'

                'Yes, her gaze is very disrespectful.'

                'So, what do you say to my daughter?'

                Tapan sipped his soup and shrugged. 'She's too good for Bikram. But if you are happy, I won't complain.'

                'Have you read the paper lately?'

                'The one titled The 7 Innocents?'

                'No, the better one, which has that headline as a question.'

                'Oh, yes.'

                Bikram seemed surprised. He hadn't seen that paper.

                'He sounds like he was very mixed up in trouble.' Kapil continued. 'Stealing a car!'

                Bikram flinched, and his father nodded. 'What can I say? He is the middle child.'

                Kapil nodded. 'Tragic. So I can say no then?'

                'Go ahead.'

                Bikram's smile faded a little. He was no longer sure whether or not his father was joking.

                Kapil smiled gratefully and turned to Bikram. 'Three years!' He cried. 'You have annoyed me three years! Give an account of yourself, Bikram. Explain things.'

                Bikram gulped, as all eyes were on him. Now Joy stared at him. 'I stole a care because, as you say, I have no backbone. I was scared and just wanted to leave. I failed class 12 because I did not study, and my grades at BSI were always poor because I am not smart. In Australia the best job I could get was in a music shop, because I am under-qualified and stupid.' He blinked. 'Just say no and end this, sir.'

                Kapil seemed curious. 'You say you have no virtues?'

                Bikram shrugged. 'They are hard to fine.'

                'Let me help. You are a good friend, patient, persistent – that is why you are here. You are not smart, but now you're a hard worker. You have learned from your mistakes, and I know you can stand up when the time is right. Alyssa told me that. Standing up to Dr. Ashwin? That is a big deal!'

                Bikram was taken back. 'You know Alyssa?'

                'Spoke to her about ten minutes before you arrived, on the phone. About the same time as I spoke to your father.'

                'You arranged this?' Bikram gulped.

                'Of course! That way I can cut to the chase and give you your answer after a little bit of fun.' Bikram nodded nervously.  'Bikram Tapan, answer one question.'

                Bikram smiled. 'You remembered my name.'

                'I never forgot it. But tell me: why did you not come after Mikael and Ardi were here?'

                Bikram looked away awkwardly. 'I thought it would be better that way. Safer, I mean.' Looking up, he found Kapil smiling at him, a sense of admiration in his eyes for the first time ever.

                'Bikram Tapan, I figured. Well, quite frankly, you're like fruit. You're still not quite ripe yet, but close enough. I say yes. Now leave me alone!'

                Bikram's eyes widened incredulously. 'Are you serious!?' He cried. Kapil nodded amusedly, and Bikram wasn't certain how to respond. 'But... what about Joy. Joy, what do you say?'

                'Does it matter?' Tapan interrupted. Bikram wasn't sure why the two fathers were insisting on torturing their children, but he tried not to let it bother him.

                'No.' He lied. 'But Joy?'

                The girl smiled brightly, but shyly. 'Yes, Bikram. That is what I say.'

                Instinctively, Bikram gave a huge sigh of relief. 'Thank you.' He said, his eyes a light. 'Thank you all so much.'

                Kapil smiled too, and shook Bikram's drying hand. 'My pleasure. You really did improve. In fact, better than I expected.'

                Tapan laughed sarcastically, and turned to Joy. 'Sorry about the rough ride. The soup is beautiful, and the house is spotless.'

                The girl smiled warmly. 'Thank you, sir.'

                Almost instantly, the parents began discussing the wedding. Outfits, catering, the location – they tossed around ideas as if the ceremony was going to be for the Queen.

                '200 people is not enough!' Tapan objected.

                'You are right.' Kapil nodded. '400?'

                'Getting there, getting there.'

                Bikram and Joy were obliged to listen to them, and simply smiled at each other from a distance. Bikram felt deeply amused within, as only one thought could run through his mind: if it weren't for that silly dare, he might never have worked up the courage to speak to Kapil. Consequently, he wouldn't have ever been as happy as he was now.

 

 

 

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