Neel Dervin and The Dark Angel

He was a teenage super soldier.
There were certain questions that fourteen year old Neel Dervin had never thought to ask himself.
Like how much pain he could endure before passing out. Or how many times he could be shot and still keep running. Or how often he could lie to his friends and family without feeling remorse.
But then that one fateful day changed his life forever, and set him on a path towards immeasurable power as well as inconceivable terror.
Now the only people who can help him deal with the situation are complete strangers who are using him for their own ends. Trapped in circumstances beyond his control with abilities he barely understands, he must navigate a treacherous path mired in betrayals and difficult choices to take back control of his life

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16. CHAPTER 10: Bombs and Kittens

Two days after the mission at the concert, Neel was returning from school thinking about what they had found on Malik’s laptop. There was a meeting scheduled between Alok Mehta and a representative of a Japanese company a week later. That appointment had been rescheduled, no doubt a result of Neel’s meeting with Saket. The government had gone to great pains to find out the date and time of the new ticket booked by a Mr. Daisuke Sumoya, a white collar employee of the Fuji Yama Corporation for an overnight visit to India. Now they had another chance to use the element of surprise to their advantage.

 

        “We need to know what Alok Mehta wants with Fuji Yama.” Arjun had informed him, as the entire team of project Alpha sat in the control room in the main building of Swan Labs, two days after the second mission. “We are already finding out all we can about the company. For now, however, the most disturbing piece of information is this.”

 

       A schematic appeared on a the screen of a tabulated list of numbers which was part of one of the several files taken from Saket’s laptop

 

       “These are the readings from a nuclear fission reaction.” Arjun looked at Neel grimly. “If these explosions took place in India, they violate the UN treaty and could potentially start a war. But this is not enough to go upon. For now we have to gather more intelligence. Malik Saket’s files have done little but confirm our suspicions. We need more concrete proof.”

 

       Neel nodded. “Maybe I’ll find it at the meeting.”

 

        “We hope so. And for finding conclusive answers, first and most importantly we need to find out what K is.”

 

        Neel stared at the minimized window of the other file that was open onscreen. The information on the laptop was not nearly as complete as they had hoped. Several documents seemed to be deliberately unfinished, and almost all the files were about infrastructure, security details and appointments. It seemed even Malik Saket was not aware of what Mehta was truly up to. 

 

        But there was one particular point of interest. There were several references to something called Project K. It appeared in almost every document related to the machines Mehta had already brought. But only that one alphabet was ever mentioned, and nothing more.

 

        “This is most likely the project Mehta is spending all his resources on.” Doctor Fahim had told Neel. “And it is our top priority for now. You will attend the meeting on the scheduled date and find out as much as you can. It might be possible that Mehta would change the date of the meeting yet again, so you will need to stay alert for whenever the time comes to engage.”

 

        The conversation had taken place several days ago. In the meantime Neel was free of any missions or training for now, and was going to Aryan’s house with Priyanka. He still felt guilty about the time he had spent away from them both since becoming an Alpha soldier. They had celebrated Diwali together at Priyanka’s house a few days ago, and tonight he was visiting Aryan after a long time.

 

        At six o’ clock that night, he and Priyanka got on their cycles and made their way to Aryan’s house. It was a chilly night. Priyanka was wearing a sleeveless jacket over her jeans and top. Neel had also put on an old threadbare jacket, and was wishing he could have worn the glossy new one he had received at Swan labs instead.

 

        As they parked there cycles, Neel saw Aryan coming out to greet them. Alongside him trotted his dog, Prince, who got to them first and started licking their hands in greeting.

 

        “Hi, boy!” Priyanka said, tickling him behind his ear. Prince’s tail wagged even harder, his muzzle widening into a remarkably human grin. He was a purebred Alsatian and had been given to Aryan on his ninth birthday as a tiny puppy. He had since grown into a very impressive specimen, with a shiny black coat of fur, chocolate brown eyes and a powerful frame.

 

        Neel grinned a greeting to Aryan. He stared up at Aryan’s house as they walked in. It had been some time since he had come there, and he was again struck by the fact that Aryan was probably the richest person he knew.

 

         Aryan’s father was a buildings developer and had put up more than half the buildings in there neighborhood alone, making a massive amount of money in the process. Aryan had always had just about everything he had ever wanted in life, with a lot of extras. In fact, he had had every opportunity of becoming an extremely spoilt child.

 

         His house was a sprawling bungalow in the modern style, with a garden decorated with beautiful pots and statues, a few of which they had personally broken. It was the very opulence of the house that mildly intimidated Neel and Priyanka, but they still had fond memories of playing there.

 

         Aryan led them into the living room, where they were greeted by his parents.

 Mr. Malhotra was a tall man who exuded an air of quiet refinement. In all the times Neel had known him, he had never been anything but polite and kind towards Neel. But Neel had always been aware of authority behind those dark eyes, lined with wrinkles after many hard days spent getting his company to its current position.

 

        “Good to see you both.” he welcomed them with a smile. “We haven’t seen you around in quite some time, Neel.”

 

        “I was a little busy, sir.” Neel said, returning the smile. “I’ll be around more often now, hopefully.”

 

        “Good.” Aryan’s mother said, turning to him after hugging Priyanka. Her smile was as warm as ever. It was clear from a glance that Aryan got his wavy soft hair and laughing brown eyes from her. “And I’m so glad you’re feeling better after your accident, Neel. You two can go to Aryan’s room if you want, but I’d rather you didn’t go out too far tonight. The people behind outside have become a little unruly.”

 

       After exchanging good wishes the three went up to Aryan’s room, Prince right behind them. Priyanka turned to Aryan and asked, “What people?”

 

       “Just the people from the back of the colony.” Aryan said with a shrug. Outside, they could hear the explosions on the streets, some of which seemed pretty close to the house.

There were parts of the colony that belonged to people with somewhat dubious reputations, and lately their presence had been increasing in the community.

 

       “Apparently, they were drinking all day, and now most of them are throwing cracker bombs around. They must have some leftover from Diwali. I saw a couple of fights outside too, down the street. I think one of them thought the other guy stole his bottle, and that the best way to get him to admit it was to throw a rocket bomb at him. I saw the bomb blow up in his hand. Last I heard he was screaming for the other guy to save him.” The three laughed as they entered Aryan’s room.

 

        The room was more than twice the size of Neel’s. The king sized bed was pushed against the wall, leaving a lot of room in the middle of the room where Prince slept. In a corner of the room was Aryan’s computer, on which his brother was busy playing games.

 

        “Hey, Ryan.” Priyanka and Neel called out to him in greeting.

 

        Ryan turned. He was four years younger than Aryan. He had his mother’s wavy hair and light brown eyes as well. But he had not inherited their father’s sharp features, and his face was distinctly more ordinary than his brother’s. His glanced at them with a brief “Hi.” then turned back to the game.

 

        “Okay, that’s enough for now, get out.” Aryan said, strolling over to him.

 

        “But I haven’t finished yet.” Ryan objected.

 

        “You can come back later.” Aryan turned the game off, despite Ryan’s protests, then steered him firmly to the door.

 

        “That wasn’t very nice, Aryan.” Priyanka said disapprovingly.

 

        “Come on, I had to do it.” Aryan protested. “He’s been playing for almost four hours. He’ll go blind if he doesn’t stop for a while.”

 

        “I seem to remember you playing Halo 2 for five hours once.” Neel said mildly.

 

        “That was different.” Aryan said, waving the fact aside. “I was in that gravemind level. I couldn’t stop then. Besides, I couldn’t sleep all night because of it. It’s a good thing dad won’t buy him his own computer.”

 

        “Not sure Ryan sees it that way.” Neel remarked, settling down comfortably on the bed. “I wish we could’ve gotten here sooner. But Priyanka had another one of those face pack things on she had to wash off. Must’ve been like three layers. I bet she was so hungry from the diet she forgot which part of the fruits she was supposed to eat and which to put on.”

 

        “It was just one layer.” Priyanka retorted. “And it’s why I have much better skin than you. And at least my diet gives me energy so I’m not always tired and sleeping all day like you.”

 

        “Very well put.” Aryan said. He looked at Neel sorrowfully. “He’s been acting so strange these days. He’ll make fun of your diet, but say one thing about him being a short crybaby, and he’ll-”

 

        Priyanka laughed as Neel grabbed Aryan and tackled him to the bed. He held him pinned and started stuffing the bed sheet in his mouth. “You wanna say that again?”

 

        Aryan was laughing even as he tried to spit the sheet out. “Come on, that was obviously a joke.” He gasped. He turned to look at Prince, stretching out his hand. “Your master is in need of aid. Come to me, Battlecat!”

 

        Prince came forward and obligingly started licking his face. Priyanka started tickling Aryan’s neck, and he twisted around, trying desperately to avoid the multiple attacks.

 

        “Okay, that’s it.” he gasped in between laughing. “Time to end this. By the power of Grayskull!” He lifted him arms hard to knock Neel off, like they had done countless times before. But this time, he couldn’t manage it. “Neel, how fat are you?” He gasped in surprise as he strained unavailingly.

 

        “Just a bit more.” Neel said, getting off of him quickly. “Been eating more and exercising less. I’ll get back in shape soon.”

 

        They rose, laughing and panting, and settled on the bed again. Prince had been sitting in front of them, thumping his tail as he looked at each of them in turn. Suddenly he stiffened, his nose flaring. His turned his head around the room in all directions.

 

        “What wrong, Prince?” Aryan asked, looking down at him. Prince got up and started to walk around the room, his nose pressed to the ground. Suddenly he stiffened again, sniffing near Aryan’s bed, staring under the bed, then staring up at Aryan, thumping his tail vigorously. Prince was the most well behaved dog Neel had ever seen, and even though his vocal chords were completely fine, for some reason he very rarely made a sound. Now it was easy to guess what he was trying to convey to them.

 

        Aryan bent down and peered under the bed where Prince had stopped. “What’s up? Did a mouse get- hey.”

 

         He looked up at Neel and Priyanka, “There’s something moving under here. Priyanka, get my flashlight from the shelf.”

 

        Priyanka got up to get the light, while Neel came to kneel beside Aryan. He peered under the bed. His eyesight was much more powerful than Aryan’s, and he could clearly see the back of something which looked like a large rat, except that it had a furry tail.

 Priyanka gave the flashlight to Aryan, who swung the powerful beam of light under the table. The light hit a small furry figure with large, shining eyes, which was pressed up against the wall.

  

        “It’s a baby kitten.” Priyanka said softly, as the kitten closed its eyes, shivering slightly. “It’s so cute.”

 

        “Yeah, but how did it get here?” Aryan said, frowning.

  

        “The tree growing on the sidewalk behind your room.” Neel said, they had climbed the tree to Aryan’s room many times when they were younger. “It probably climbed up from there.”

  

        “Up a twenty foot tree?” Aryan asked disbelievingly. “It’s just a little kitten. How could it have climbed up to here?”

    

        “It must have been scared.” Priyanka said quietly. “It’s so loud outside today. It might have climbed up out of pure fright.”

  

        Just then, they heard the sound of a cracker bomb in the distance. The three of them jumped at the sudden noise. The kitten pressed itself harder against the wall. A shiver ran through its entire body. It opened its mouth in a mewl, its voice almost too low to be heard. Neel could hear its heart thumping desperately.

   

        “Come on.” Priyanka said abruptly, getting up off the floor. “We need to get it out from under the bed.”

   

        Aryan and Neel rose from their knees as well, and the three circled around the bed. Neel pushed the bed away from the wall, while Priyanka and Aryan tried to coax the kitten out with words and gestures. Prince continued to peer under the bed curiously.

 

        The kitten looked fearfully at Aryan and Priyanka, starting at the grinding noise coming from the moving bed. It moved away from the wall, and shot suddenly out from under the bed, right between Aryan’s legs. At full speed, it ran to the table on which the computer was kept and nestled behind one of its legs, Aryan and Priyanka in hot pursuit.

 

        Neel joined them, and the three formed a circle, blocking any exit for the kitten Priyanka knelt down slowly towards the kitten, speaking softly. Very slowly, she reached out a hand. The kitten stiffened, but did not draw away. Priyanka stroked its head lightly, still speaking soothingly. Slowly, the kitten relaxed. Priyanka reached out and gathered the kitten in her palm. It was black and white in color and barely bigger than her hand. She brought the kitten out from under the table and held it between the three of them in the light.

  

        Neel drew in his breath in shock. The kitten’s coat was dirty and unkempt. There were a couple of bare patches of skin on its coat and an ugly burn. One of its ears seemed to have been chewed up and stuck out at an odd angle.

   

        The three stared at the little shivering figure in Priyanka’s hand. Neel grabbed an old magazine and spread it on the bed. Priyanka lowered the kitten on top of the magazine. Prince gazed at the figure curiously and came forward to investigate. But a sharp command from Aryan and he stopped immediately, keeping away from the bed. The kitten continued to keep its large eyes trained apprehensively on Prince.

   

        “I’ll get some milk.” Aryan said, getting up to go to the kitchen. Priyanka and Neel continued to study at the kitten. Priyanka touched its injured ear gently. “Who could’ve done this?” she wondered quietly.

   

        “Probably a dog.” Neel said quietly. “There are so many strays running around on the streets. See this burn?” he pointed to one of the patches of skin, where there was a small burn near the fur. “Someone probably threw a cracker at it too. It must’ve barely escaped by climbing the tree.”

       

         Priyanka continued to stroke its head slowly. Aryan returned with a saucer and a jug full of milk. They gathered around the kitten on the bed. Aryan poured some milk into the saucer and placed it in front of the kitten. It sniffed cautiously at the milk, tiny nostrils flaring, and crawled slowly towards the saucer. It was a skinny little thing and Neel could see the bones jutting out at the places where the skin was showing. Its fur was dirty, and looked even more unkempt next to Prince. It stared at the milk for a second, then began to lap it up greedily. Aryan got up and stretched. The other two relaxed as well. Prince saw the tension in the room reduce and came closer to the bed to examine the strange little creature more closely. But he remembered Aryan’s command and kept a respectful distance.

     

        Aryan set the jug on the table and sat on the edge of the bed. He stared at the kitten. “You know, this doesn’t look like an alley cat. The coat’s pretty dirty but it looks purebred. Maybe someone lost it, or maybe it escaped.”

  

        “Or maybe someone threw it out.” Priyanka said coldly. “That happens all the time. It’s a good thing we found it.”

 

        “Yeah well, now that we’ve got it, what do we do with it?” Neel asked, sitting on the chair near the computer.

 

          “We should probably get it checked by a vet or something.” Aryan said vaguely. “It might have some disease.”

      

          “Do we tell your mom and dad?” Neel asked. “They can send it to the shelter or something.”

  

          “I guess we should.” Aryan said, looking at the kitten. “I’ve been to the animal shelter, and it’s pretty awful, but I guess they’re the only ones who can take care of it properly.” The three gazed at the small kitten, which was still busy with the milk. 

   

          Just then, another explosion shook the house, as though someone had thrown a bomb directly against the outside wall of the room. All three of them jumped. The kitten sprang up as though it had received an electric shock. The next moment, it had sprung off the bed and streaked through the door out of the room. The three sat frozen in surprise for a moment, then sprang to their feet together to run after the fleeing figure. Prince was right behind them. Neel had to restrain himself from using his full speed as they hurried out.

   

         As they came out of the room they saw the little figure scurrying along the floor. They chased after it down the stairs. As they rounded a corner into the living room, they lost sight of the kitten. It was not in the next room, which left only the main entrance door. They ran out of the house, but there was no sight of the little figure.  

   

         “He could’ve gone anywhere.” Aryan said, scanning the area around them. 

 

         There was one road leading either way from Aryans house, and one road leading directly opposite. They had played along those roads often in the past.

 

        “We need to split up. I’ll take the left road.” Priyanka said. She swung to the left, and was gone before they could say anything.

    

        Aryan started down the road opposite to his house. But then hesitated, glancing back to where Priyanka had disappeared.

   

        “What?” Neel asked, sensing his unease.

 

        Aryan shrugged. “Nothing. Just some of the guys I saw fighting earlier could still be around. But this is a safe neighborhood. And it’s a well lit area. I’m sure she’ll be fine.” He swung towards the road in front, Prince right beside him. Soon, he had disappeared as well.

  

        Neel stood alone on the road. He glanced at the road on the right, the one he was supposed to take. Perhaps because of the turn his life had taken recently, but he felt more than a little worried by Aryan’s words, even standing on the familiar road where they had spent so many happy days playing. Aryan had prince with him, and it was unlikely anyone would want to mess with the huge dog. But Priyanka…

  

        He hesitated for one more second. But then he turned towards the road on the left. Unconsciously, his body language changed, becoming that of a much more dangerous person. Automatically, he started to walk in the more shadowy regions of the path as he moved swiftly down the road.

 

                                                                 * * *

 

        Priyanka hurried down the well lit road, scanning the ground in front of her. Suddenly she saw the little furry figure again several feet away. She broke into a run, hoping the kitten would recognize her. But it was still frightened. The sound of a dog howling nearby seemed to give it a fresh burst of energy. It raced down the road, disappearing into a side alley. Priyanka followed as fast as she could, determined not to lose it again. The two wound around several buildings, slipping steadily into the dark and poorly lit alleys. Finally, she caught up with it, grabbing it by the scruff of its neck as it attempted to climb over a dustbin.

 

       She stood there panting and held it close against her, feeling its body shiver and tremble. And then she became aware of her surroundings. She was in a dark street behind a rundown house. There were no lamp posts anywhere. The sky was covered with clouds which completely hid the stars. Pitch black darkness surrounded her and she could not see two feet in front of her. She took a few hesitant steps forward, hoping to spy out a road with some lights. But then suddenly she heard coarse voices approaching in the gloom. She pressed herself against the wall, reminded for a second of the kitten hiding under the bed.

  

        The voices were coming closer. She could hear several men talking and arguing loudly together, clearly drunk. They had not seen her and were passing by her hiding place when the kitten, which had been struggling in Priyanka’s grasp, started mewling again.

   

        The voices stopped abruptly, and the men stared around the alley, trying to find the source of the noise.

     

        “Think there’s a cat around here somewhere.” One of them said slowly, peering into the darkness.

   

        “Let’s find it, I’ll have some fun with it and my dog.” Another voice said, as rough and surly as the one before, but sounding younger. There were a few teenagers among the older set.

  

        “Hey!” another man called out, who had been peering into the alleyway. “I think there’s someone hiding in here.”

 

        The others gathered around the one who had spoken, trying to make out the vague shape of Priyanka in the darkness.

 

        “Looks like a kid.” One of them mumbled, squinting uncertainly. “You lost or something?”

 

        

        Priyanka finally found her voice. “I’m from Mr. Malhotra’s house on Kila Street.” she said, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. “Please, could you-”

 

        “What’s that?” the man said irritably, cupping his ear and stepping closer. “Where are you from, girlie?”

 

        “One of those kids from those fancy houses up front, I suppose.” another man said disdainfully before Priyanka could respond. “I’m sick of those mutts, thinking they’re better than us. Lording it around in their fancy cars.” They had been to Mr. Malhotra’s house to ask for some free whisky in celebration of Diwali, and been turned away unceremoniously by the head servant. None of them were feeling kindly towards the plutocratic class at the moment.

 

        “Maybe we should give this one a message to bring back to them.” the younger voice from earlier suggested. The boy reached inside his pocket, bringing out a large and ugly looking cracker. “Anyone got a match?”

 

        Priyanka stood frozen in fear. They had her surrounded, and from the hoots of laughter and appreciation she heard, they were all in favor of the idea. She opened her mouth to speak, even while her mind remained frozen. She was rooted to the ground, her heart thudding wildly.

     

        Suddenly the man at the back slumped, falling over backwards without a word. He slid away to reveal someone standing behind him. The men at the front seemed confused, staring at the vague figure which had suddenly appeared at the back. One man gave a shout and rushed towards him. The figure seemed to blur, moving past the fallen man. The man who had tried to rush him also fell to the ground in a noiseless heap. The rest of the men scattered, unnerved by the strange apparition, all except the one at the front, who stood frozen in place, a cracker burning in his hand. The figure moved closer to him. The boy holding the cracker panicked. He threw the cracker as hard as he could at Priyanka and turned to flee in the opposite direction. Priyanka saw the firecracker come towards her, too fast to even think about dodging.

    

        But the figure was faster. Inches away from Priyanka’s face, he caught the cracker in his hand. It exploded with a loud bang, the hand shielding Priyanka’s face from the flames, the sudden explosion of bright light temporarily blinding her.

 

                                                             * * *

 

        Neel stood in front of Priyanka, his mind racing. He had found her easily enough after he had started after her on the road. Keeping a discrete distance, he had seen her run after the kitten down a side alley. Priyanka had been too intent on the kitten to notice where she was going. He had followed her deeper into the area, the feeble glow coming from behind the overcast clouds being enough for him to track her, to watch as she finally caught the kitten, and then got surrounded by the group of drunken men. He had intended to try to talk them both out of the situation. But then he had seen one of them bring out the cracker bomb, and had had to act quickly. His hand was still hurting horribly, but his skin carried no wound.

    

        Now he stood in front of Priyanka while she tried to blink away the bright lights from her eyes. He could not let her know it was Neel who had just taken down those two men, and grabbed an exploding bomb in his hand. But on the other hand, they were in a part of the colony they had never been in before, and she would have trouble finding her way back in the dark. Neel was also aware that there were other groups of equally drunk and dangerous men out celebrating in the area.

   

        After deliberating for a few seconds, Neel stepped close to Priyanka, bringing his mouth close to her ear.

   

        “Are you okay?” he murmured, keeping his voice as low as possible.

  

        Priyanka stiffened, her eyes closed. Slowly, she nodded.

 

        “The kitten?” he murmured again, and again she nodded.

 

        “Hold on to it tight.” he said. “And keep your eyes closed.”

   

        Neel hoisted her off her feet, the kitten held tightly but awkwardly in her hands, and felt completely ridiculous. He imagined that this was how Superman must feel, except that the latter could actually fly. Resisting the urge to shout “Up, up and away!” he took a deep breath to clear his head, and jumped.

 

        They soared together high in the air, the cool wind swirling all around them. The kitten had become completely quiet. They traveled on the rooftops of the houses, rarely touching down on the road. Neel took a straight path back to Aryan’s house, concentrating on keeping the journey as smooth as possible for Priyanka’s sake.

       

        They landed in front of the house. Aryan had still not returned. Neel set Priyanka down near the gate. A quick jump and he was gone.

    

        Priyanka had kept her eyes shut ever since the stranger had told her to. Her mind was in a whirl, not even beginning to comprehend what was happening around her. Suddenly she felt a light shining on her face, and her legs touched solid ground. She opened her eyes. She was back in front of Aryan’s house alone, the kitten still held in her arms. She looked around her, but there was no one else about. She leaned against the gate of Aryan’s house, remembering again the blurring speed of the figure in the alley, and the hand appearing in front of her and stopping the bomb inches from her face. There had been a dream like quality to the whole scene in the alley, and then the sensation of lightness while the figure was carrying her.

   

        A few minutes later, Aryan came back down the opposite road, Prince right behind him. He spotted Priyanka and headed towards her.

  

        “Did you find it?” he called out. She nodded, and wordlessly gave the kitten to Aryan.

  Just then, Neel came down the left road.

 

        “I couldn’t find it anywhere.” he called out to them.

  

        “It’s okay, Priyanka found it.” Aryan called back, showing him the kitten.

 

        Neel joined them and bent over the kitten. It had stopped trying to escape, and simply had its eyes closed, as if resigned to its fate. Neel felt sympathy for it. What with being chased around by dogs and humans, having cracker bombs exploding all around it, and then soaring through the air, it hadn’t been an easy day for the kitten.

  

        Neel turned to Priyanka, who was looking extremely dazed. For a second he hesitated, wondering if she knew. “You okay?” he asked carefully.

    

        Priyanka stared at him, and for a moment, Neel felt a stab of apprehension. But then she nodded and turned away, staring at the gate, and he knew she hadn’t recognized him.

   

        “Let’s get back in the house.” Aryan said, opening the gate. Neel followed, looking questioningly at Priyanka. She came after them slowly, her eyes still unfocussed.

  

        Neel turned his face away from her as he looked in front, hiding a grin.

          

                                                                      * * *  

        The next day, Neel went to swan labs again. It was still not time to go forward with the case on Mehta, so Arjun spent the day making sure Neel remembered everything. Neel went through various circuits around the field, meditated with Arjun to practice control over his senses, then sparred with Arjun, Negi and Premi. His three trainers had to leave early to scout out the Phlicer complex and prepare for when Neel would have to go there, so Neel was let off early from training. Neel was sufficiently familiar with the facility and the surrounding area by now to make his way back home without Arjun. He strolled into the main control room to find Divya on the giant computer.

 

        “Hi, Divya.” Neel said, coming to stand beside her.

 

        “Hello, Neel.” Divya said, looking up briefly at him before turning back to the screen. “No training?”

 

        “Arjun let me off early. He’s gone to see the Phlicer Complex from up close with Negi and Premi.” Neel leaned on the counter of the keyboard. “What are you doing?”

    

        “Cataloguing all the information we have on the serum.” Divya said, her fingers flying over the keyboard. “There are so many aspects to look into. And it’s a work in progress. Plus I and Doctor Fahim are the only ones who know enough about the experiments to keep the files in order.”

   

        “Why don’t you get some more people to help?” Neel asked.

  

        “Trust issues.” Divya said. “This is the cornerstone of the project Alpha. Not to mention it’s the result of years of Doctor Fahim’s work. I’m the only one he trusts to do this right.”

  

        There was pride in Divya’s voice as she said this. Neel nodded in appreciation. “So how much of this stuff is about me?” he asked, gesturing to the screen.

  

        “You have a whole section to yourself.” Divya said, smiling at him. “That’s the section that needs to be updated the most. Like you’ve heard often enough by now, you’re the first of your kind.”

     

        “So if this project is a success, there’ll be others like me?” Neel asked.

   

        “Yes, perhaps… if everything goes according to plan.” Divya said vaguely. “So did you enjoy Diwali yesterday?”

  

        Neel sensed that Divya was trying to change the subject and realized some things were to be kept secret, even from him.

   

        “Sure, we had a good time at Aryan’s house. We found a kitten-” Neel trailed off, wondering how much to tell her. There was a strong chance that the people at Swan Labs, especially the General, would disapprove greatly of what he had done. But he needed to get a second opinion. He decided finally to tell her confide in her.

   

        She was looking at him questioningly. “Actually, a little incident happened yesterday. We found a kitten under Aryan’s bed and…” Neel told Divya about the night before. Finding the kitten, going after it on the road. Following Priyanka, and what he had done to protect her. He finished the story and stared at Divya apprehensively. There was a small frown on her forehead, but she did not seem as angry as might be expected. He waited for her reaction, perched awkwardly on the panel.

    

        Divya sighed, leaning back in her chair and staring at Neel. “Do you have any idea what General Bakshi would do to you if he found out what you’ve done?” she asked.

 

   “That’s why I told you first.” Neel said, relieved she wasn’t yelling at him. “But I was careful, and nobody got hurt. Except maybe those drunk guys, and they deserved it!”

 

        “That’s not the point.” Divya said, shaking her head. “You were operating without your mask, near someone who’s known you for years and could have very easily recognized you. Mehta’s men are looking for any information they can get on the Alpha soldier, and you were jumping around on rooftops right inside the colony where you live.”

 

        “Oh.” Neel said slowly. When she put it that way... “But what else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t leave Priyanka there!”

   

        “No, I understand that.” Divya said musingly. “You did what you had to do to save your friend, and those men were probably too drunk to remember what happened, let alone grasp it. Are you sure Priyanka didn’t recognize you?”  

   

        “Definitely.” Neel said at once. “She had her eyes closed the whole time. It was too dark for her to see my face anyway. And I only spoke to her once. She didn’t know it was me talking. I watched her after we went back to Aryan’s house and she didn’t do anything suspicious.”

   

        “Then we’ll keep this little incident between us now.” Divya said, getting up to get a drink of water. “I’m fairly sure there wasn’t any damage done. But don’t make a habit of doing this type of thing outside your uniform.”

     

        “Right.” Neel nodded quickly.

 

        “So what happened to the kitten?” Divya asked.

 

        “Priyanka took it home.” Neel said. “She said she’ll take it to the vet today. It was in pretty bad shape. And probably the animal shelter after that.”

     

        “Well, I hope it gets better.” Divya said, taking her seat back on her chair. “It sounds like it had a tough time yesterday.”

  

        “Priyanka will take care of it.” Neel said, getting off the panel as Divya resumed her typing. “So I’ll get going, I guess. Nothing for me to do here. And Divya? thanks for… you know, keeping this between us.”

   

        “You’re welcome” Divya said with a small smile. “Just remember, keep your mask on in the future.”

    

         Neel grinned as he turned towards the door.

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