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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19. CHAPTER 13: Chasing a Lie

Doctor Fahim was using psychotherapy to help Neel. Again and again, Neel revisited that fateful day that had changed his life, and saw the car hurtling towards him before the sickening crash occurred. He just could not seem to get over the panic he felt whenever he recalled the accident, and worst still, it almost seemed as if his fear was growing, as if now that it had been released into his conscious mind from his subconscious, it was feeding on his fears and self doubt and expanding. Doctor Fahim's patience was endless as they worked together daily on his cure.

They had long sessions of Neel imagining himself back on that road and on the way to tuitions. He would repeatedly experience the attacks of panic and helplessness that were crippling his ability to respond normally. Doctor Fahim kept telling him to think about the memory logically, and to identify the incident as an event of the past that could no longer hurt him. But the condition persisted. The doctor taught him breathing exercises and stress management techniques. They tried to replace his panic attacks with positive emotions related to the incident by focusing on the good that had come from the accident, such as the powers he had developed, and the exultation he felt at completing the first two missions successfully. But it was no use. After more than two weeks of therapy with not even the slightest bit of improvement, Neel's worst fears about his illness seemed to be confirmed.

His condition had started to affect his personal life. The over-loud blaring of horns and the howl of car engines on the road that he had managed with immense difficulty to reduce to merely irritating background noise now sent fear shuddering through his entire frame. He found himself unable to fall asleep, and jumpy and nervous all the time. When he did fall asleep, he would have repeated nightmares about a giant shadowy car roaring towards him, and him standing helpless and terrified in front of it, unable to move or call for help.

In those days, Nisha Dervin sensed a change in her son. He had become quieter, more self involved. His body language had also changed. He would often seem listless as he sat with his shoulders slumped and his head bent to the ground. The changes were too small to indicate any definite problem, but it was enough to make her feel anxious. When she tried to talk to him, all he said was that he had a lot to do at school, and that made him tired. She wanted to reach out to him, but he kept pushing her away, brooding all the time. The only change she noticed that seemed to be for the better was that he had started to take an interest in the news. He was reading newspapers almost daily, although it made her uneasy when she noticed he read almost exclusively about crimes taking place in the city.

On Monday, two weeks after the last mission, a couple was found murdered in an alley. They had been mugged and there scooter stolen. No witnesses. Two days later, a bank clerk was shot while on duty. He survived but lost the use of his left arm. Though he knew who the criminals were, he refused to file a complaint due to fear of retaliation. A week later, a child was kidnapped on the way to school. Although his parents paid the ransom, he was never found.

While crimes continued around him, Neel remained helpless. The life he had imagined at the beginning of this whole experience; the life of a hero, of a soldier, was barely even a memory now. Feelings of guilt and uselessness at what he had become plagued him. He kept his problem a secret from his mother and friends, determined not to worry them again like he had after the accident. This was his personal battle to fight. But he was losing steadily. Every day he resolved to work harder on therapy, and yet his condition continued to worsen. Doctor Fahim assured him that the beginning was always the hardest, and that time would show some improvement. It was the small and only ray of hope for Neel to find in those days.

Divya watched Neel trudge out of Doctor Fahim's office one day, three weeks after therapy had begun. He was sunk too deeply in his own depressing thoughts to notice her, and made his way down slowly to where Arjun waited to take him home. Divya watched the hunched figure trailing down the corridor and was filled with sadness. He was so young to have developed a condition that broke the spirit of even the most hardened army veterans. She still could not rid herself of guilt at not finding out about his condition sooner. She opened the door to Doctor Fahim's office and looked inside. The doctor was sitting at his desk with his chin resting on his clasped hands, deep in thought.

"Yes, Divya?" he asked, breaking out of his reverie as he saw her face in the doorway.

"I'm sorry for interrupting, sir. Are you busy?" she asked.

"Yes." Doctor Fahim said with a sigh as he leaned back. "But with thoughts that are unlikely to be of any use. How can I help you?"

"How is Neel doing, sir?" she asked, stepping into the room.

"Very badly." Doctor Fahim said quietly, and Divya's heart plummeted. She knew the doctor rarely shared negative opinions outright, only when there was absolutely no other option. "His problem is a curious one, with very curious circumstances surrounding it. And considering who the patient is, and how differently his mind works from normal, the situation is even more convoluted." He noticed her stricken expression and gave a small, encouraging smile. "But it is still quite early to give a definite prognosis. All hope is not lost yet. We still have several other methods left to try, like hypnotherapy and EMDR. Perhaps they will be more effective."

"Actually, sir, that's what I wanted to talk to you about." Divya said, drawing out a notebook from her pocket. "I was going through some sites on the internet, trying to find something that could help Neel with his problem."

"And?"

"There are some drugs which people suffering from PTSD use." Divya flipped through the list she had made. "They're supposed to be helpful. There's Citalopram, Escitalopram, Fluoxetine, Lamictal-"

"And Paroxetine and Sertraline and Depakote" Doctor Fahim supplied. "Thank you, Divya, but I am already aware of these drugs, and I have decided not to introduce Neel to them yet."

"Why not, sir?"

"Those drugs are not a guaranteed cure, but rather a last resort." Doctor Fahim said. "The only cure for PTSD that is assured to produce results is psychotherapy. He already has an immensely powerful serum at work inside him. We have no idea how his enhanced physiology will respond to antidepressants. I would like to explore the option of therapy thoroughly before we begin stuffing pills down the child's throat."

Divya nodded. "Then I'll try to find out some other way to help him with the therapy."

"And be sure to tell me as well." Doctor Fahim said. "After all these year, my own knowledge may be a trifle rusty." Divya nodded, and they sat in silence for a moment, looking at each other.

"Do you think it can be done, sir?" she blurted out suddenly. "Do you think he will be cured one day?"

Doctor Fahim was silent for a long time as he stared out the window of the office. He sighed, and suddenly looked very tired when he faced her again, as though her question had aged him several years. Divya had never seen him look so weary, and this sudden transformation frightened her.

"How many cases of PTSD are ever completely cured?" Doctor Fahim asked her quietly. "How many of the patients are able to continue completely normally with their lives? And the illness affects children even worse than adults." Doctor Fahim looked grim now. "No. After all that Neel has been through, I don't think he will ever recover completely. But it is our duty to help him deal with it as well as we can. After that," Doctor Fahim shrugged. "Who knows? Strange things have happened, and he may surprise us yet."

Divya nodded soberly. The doctor had confirmed her own fears. And yet she knew he was right. "I'm still going to see if I can find some way to help him."

"Good." Doctor Fahim nodded. "We must not abandon hope. Perhaps he will turn the corner eventually." But he did not sound very hopeful.

Time moved forward fitfully. There were nights when it seemed to come to stop altogether, as Neel lay in his bed staring up at the ceiling, trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep. There were days when it seemed to fly by in an indifferent haze. Christmas came in a sudden rush. He forgot to get his mother a present. They went to church. The hushed atmosphere of the cathedral was very soothing, and Neel felt peace steal over him as they sang hymns. But then the pastor began the sermon over a microphone for the benefit of the people at the back, and Neel, who was sitting near the speakers, had to spend the rest of the service gritting his teeth and wincing at every deafeningly magnified exclamation of the vigorously delivered sermon. The rest of the day passed quietly. New year came and went. And still there was no improvement in Neel's condition.

It was easier for Neel to be with his friends those days. Ever since his disastrous failed mission, his life at swan labs had changed completely. He was no longer the secret weapon the government was developing, but the boy with the mental problem who needed help. The discovery of his phobia had destroyed the image of invulnerability that had been forming unconsciously in his mind. All the training and strength and speed he had discovered at swan labs was still there, but now it was buried under the weight of his phobia. Now his time at swan labs was spent trying to master his problem. There was no more training and no more missions. School and hanging out with Aryan and Priyanka was when he could forget his problems, when everything that had happened in the secret part of his life receded. He trusted Doctor Fahim and hoped he would eventually help him overcome his phobia. Until then he had no choice but to be patient and concentrate on his personal life.

On Wednesday, more than a month after the last mission, Neel sat on the wall adjoining his house and Priyanka's along with his two best friends. These were the few times these days that he could recapture the light heartedness that he had rarely felt since the last mission. The kitten they had found was with them. There had been no report for a missing cat, and after taking care of the kitten for a week, Priyanka had convinced her parents to keep it. Now Aryan and Priyanka were in the middle of an argument that they had had several times before.

"That cat of yours is too fat!" Aryan said accusingly, pointing at the kitten.

"Stop saying that. He is not fat. He needs food to grow right now." Priyanka said defensively.

The three stared at the kitten, which Priyanka had named Resham. It had certainly recovered well from its injuries. The patches of bare skin had grown glossy fur which was brushed regularly. Under her attentive care, the kitten had more than bloomed. It was now fed daily on a diet of meat and milk and butter, as well as other assorted canned and dry food products. Its skinny frame had filled out to the point that it bulged at every possible point. The kitten was also averse to exercise and spent what time it wasn't eating in sleep.

"You know, maybe if you took it for a run sometimes…" Neel offered mildly.

"I'm telling you, it's just baby fat." Priyanka protested. "There's nothing wrong with its health. It's as fit as any other cat its age."

"Oh, yeah? Watch this." Aryan said. He took away the piece of cheese that Priyanka had brought which the kitten had been eating. The kitten immediately let out a protesting whine and waddled after the cheese. Aryan placed it on the ledge on which they were sitting. The kitten managed to hang onto the edge with its front feet but could not get any further. It dangled off the edge, its fat bottom wriggling along with its tail as it tried to climb on.

"See?" Aryan said, grinning, as the kitten continued its efforts, meowing loudly, while Neel shook with laughter.

Priyanka frowned, snatching the piece of cheese from its high perch and giving it back to the kitten. It settled back on its snack, puffing slightly from the exertion.

"It just needs time to get its strength back." she told Aryan coldly.

"It needs exercise." Aryan said, rolling his eyes. "All food and no play turns kitty into a little fatty. Do you want the other cats to laugh at it?"

"We should get Prince to chase it around a little." Neel said, grinning, while the frown on Priyanka's forehead deepened.

"I know, it was scared off by dogs the first time we saw it, it's probably terrified of them now." Aryan added.

The smile on Neel's face disappeared. He blushed deeply and averted his face from his friends, staring hard at the kitten. Aryan looked at him in puzzlement. Priyanka also sensed something was wrong, but she could not think what it was. They did not know that Neel's heart was hammering loudly as he stared at the kitten. He knew the fear it must have felt after being chased by those dogs, and what a deep impression the fear might have left… The fear he himself had felt, and the subsequent feelings of despair, guilt and frustration at his own helplessness so intense he felt like taking his own life rather than continue to live with those feelings...

Neel sat up straighter, determinedly pushing the idea aside. Lately his thoughts had been turning in that direction more and more often, especially on the nights after the nightmares and the feelings of frustration overwhelmed him. And the worst part, when it entered his numbed brain, was how welcome the idea seemed.

Aryan and Priyanka tried to restart the conversation, but the lightly teasing atmosphere was gone. Neel rarely spoke for the rest of the evening. Finally, since it was growing darker, Aryan decided to leave, and Priyanka also had chores to do. The three said goodbye and left, Aryan taking his cycle from Neel's verandah. Neel went back slowly to his room. Without bothering to turn on the light, he slumped down in a corner of the room, his head buried his hands.

Three days later, Neel entered the main building of Swan Labs to find Negi and Premi standing in the lobby with bags lying on the floor next to them. They turned to greet him and Arjun.

"Well, kid." Negi said with a sigh. "I'm afraid this is it for us."

"You guys are going?" Neel stared at them in shock. "Where?"

"Our regiments need us back." Premi said quietly. "This was always meant to be a temporary arrangement. Now we have to get back to our normal duties." He extended his hand. "It's been a real pleasure knowing you, Neel." he said with a warm smile. "And I'll pray that you get better soon."

"I'm sure he will." Negi said confidently, clapping Neel on his back. "I've seen you do so many amazing, impossible things that this will be a piece of cake. Just remember, whenever it seems that the therapy is too hard, that the problem is all in your head. And if you can control the speed at which your brain works, you can control this too."

Neel nodded and gave a small smile, even as his heart plummeted. Negi and Premi collected the bags and made their way outside to the shed which led to the underground tunnels. Neel felt a mixture of emotions welling up within, threatening to spill out. He knew the real reason Negi and Premi were leaving. They had been brought in to train him, and now the government had realized there was no point in doing so anymore. More so at that moment than ever before he felt useless, and a complete waste of all the time and effort they had all put into him.

They reached the shed and stopped outside. Negi and Premi shook hands with Arjun.

"It's been an honor, gentlemen." Arjun smiled. "General Bakshi chose well when he selected you two for the project. All the best for the future."

"The same to you, Captain." Negi said with a smile. "Take care of our pal over here." He turned to Neel. "One last handshake before the parting, kid? Let's say good bye like real soldiers! Keep your hand firm and strong, now."

Neel shook both their hands again. He tried to keep smiling, but he could not stop the tears from coming into his eyes again even as he tried desperately to stop them. "Sorry." he muttered thickly, looking down. "It's nothing. I cry all the time. It'll stop on its own in a minute." He stepped back a bit, blinking rapidly and blushing with embarrassment. But then the three men who had trained him for so long strode forward and pulled him into a hug. He hugged them back tightly, forgetting his strength for a moment as his shoulders began to shake in earnest. He felt as though he was losing vital parts of what had kept him strong through this whole experience. They stayed together for several moments before slowly drawing back.

"Sorry." Neel repeated, his eyes now mercifully dry. He cleared his throat. "I cry way too much. Always have."

"Neel." Negi placed his hand on his shoulders and gazed at him intently. His eyes were for once completely serious as he spoke steadily. "This will be over one day. You will get better. We know this, because we know how strong you are, and how strong your will power is. It's why we all worked so hard to train you."

"And while you're dealing with it," Premi added, his voice intensely earnest. "If you ever feel that you need our help, if you ever call for us, I promise you we will come. Don't for a second think that you are alone in dealing with this."

Neel nodded, his smile less shaky. Arjun had placed a hand on his shoulder, and the gentle pressure was comforting. "Thanks. I know I'm not alone." he said quietly. "And I promise I'll beat this thing." he was filled with a fresh new determination, and resolved to work harder than ever with Doctor Fahim.

"That's the spirit." Premi said, stepping back. "Then goodbye for now, Mr. Dervin. Until we meet again."

"Yeah, kid. See you again soon." Negi added as well, giving him a quick hug before swinging his bag lightly over a shoulder.

"Goodbye." Neel said. He watched as the two men opened the door to the shed and it swung shut behind them, Arjun's hand still gripping his shoulder.

Therapy continued. There had been a time when it seemed to be getting worse. But Neel persevered. He remembered his promise to Negi and Premi, and worked harder than ever on his sessions. And then, more than two months after therapy had begun, he finally felt some improvement. His nightmares became less frequent. He was able to fall asleep more easily now. The sudden, irrational fear he had felt in the proximity of cars and traffic was almost gone. The accident that had caused the PTSD seemed so far away. He had not experienced any return of the flashbacks for some time, even when he had crossed that road on his cycle. Neel was becoming more and more convinced that he was getting very close to being cured. He did not tell Doctor Fahim this. The doctor had told him that recovery would take a long time, and he could not claim to have magically gotten better after barely more than two months without proof.

It was a Sunday. Priyanka had gone to the house of the Sharma's and Aryan and Neel had seized the chance to go to the mall. Priyanka's birthday was in six days and they were trying to select presents for her. A task that Neel was finding considerably harder than learning precision jumps.

"What's this thing supposed to be?" Aryan asked, holding up a shapeless piece of cloth that could have been anything from a skirt to a scarf.

"It kind of looks like a belt." Neel said doubtfully. "Mom said Priyanka might like a stole. I think it's supposed to be like a shawl or something."

"If you'd just let me buy her the box of chocolates."

"Dude, she's on a diet again."

"Exactly! That's why it would be hilarious." Aryan sighed, pointing to a ladies boutique nearby. "Let's check there." They entered the shop, trying hard to look like they knew what they were doing

A salesgirl with a lofty expression strolled towards them, looking supremely bored with all of mankind, and especially the specimen around her.

"Can I help you?" she asked, her tone indicating that 'No' was a perfectly acceptable answer.

"Yes, please. Do you have a stole?" Aryan asked her, resisting the urge to add 'Ma'am'.

The girl's lip curled. That one line seemed to tell her everything she needed to know about them.

"This is a boutique. We don't sell that here." She spoke with just the right amount of scorn and condescension to make them feel like unusually dim witted worms. She turned and walked broodingly back to her original position, apparently to contemplate again the great philosophical questions that their arrival had interrupted.

"Aryan! Neel!" A voice hissed from outside, and they turned to see Nitin waving to them through the shop window. The two exited the shop gladly and walked up to him.

"Hey, dude. What are you doing here?" Aryan asked him.

"I came to see a movie. But then I saw her in a shop." Nitin glanced around them, then lowered his voice. "She's here." He nodded to Neel significantly.

Neel felt nonplussed. "Who?"

"The girl I told you about." Nitin said urgently. "The girl from Sarik tuitions."

"Oh, yeah." Neel remembered then. He turned to Aryan. "He'd told me about-"

"I see Nitin, I hear girl, I can connect the dots." Aryan assured him. "So what are you doing here with us? Haven't you talked to her?"

"I don't even know her name." Nitin led them to the balcony and pointed to the shop opposite. A pretty girl with a fringe cut hairstyle was standing there trying on jackets with another girl.

"Nice." Aryan commented appreciatively.

"More than nice." Nitin said, breathing emotionally. "Looking at her is like-"

"Yeah, so how'll you talk to her?" Aryan cut in quickly.

"Looking into her eyes is-"

"You need to find some way to introduce yourself." Neel added.

"Her eyes," Nitin continued doggedly. "Are like twin black diamonds sparkling in the sunlight."

"No, they're brown." Neel said, looking over at her critically.

"I tried writing some poetry, and I couldn't find anything good to rhyme with brown. Her hair-"

"How long have you been watching her?" Aryan asked him.

"Almost a year now." Nitin sighed moodily.

"Man, you really need to get a move on!" Aryan said. "And how do you know she doesn't already have a boyfriend?"

"I'll find it all out if I can just get a chance to talk to her." Nitin stared around at the shops distractedly. "I just need to find a way for her to notice me first."

"You're pretty much set there." Neel said, leaning on the railing.

"What?"

"She's staring at you right now."

"What!" Nitin whipped around to see the girl looking at him curiously. Her friend was staring at them as well, and giggled as she whispered something to the girl with the fringe hair cut.

"Better do something." Aryan advised him.

"Like what?"

"Smile at her." Neel supplied helpfully. "And hope she's not looking at Aryan."

"Aryan, go stand somewhere else." Nitin hissed at him.

"What did I do?"

"You're wearing that jacket. She'll know you're rich."

"So?"

"Dude, come on! I really like her."

The girl and her friend walked over to the food court. Nitin beckoned to Neel and Aryan, and began to walk towards the court as well. Neel and Aryan glanced at each other. The desire to continue trying to find a gift for Priyanka warred briefly and weakly against the desire to see Nitin make a fool of himself in public. They followed.

Nitin was watching the two girls carefully. He sped up and sat at the table next to the one the two girls were going towards. The food court was largely empty, and there was only a lone boy sitting behind Nitin's table wearing earphones and listening to his mp4. Aryan went to the counter to get them some soft drinks, while Neel and Nitin tried to look surprised and politely indifferent when the girls sat at the next table. The girl with the fringe cut went to place their orders, and her friend looked at Nitin appraisingly.

"You're the boy who stands outside her tuitions all the time, aren't you?" she said suddenly.

"What?" Nitin blushed, but then came back with a strong alibi. "Oh yeah, I wait for a friend there."

"Parul says you're always staring at her."

"I stare at the gate of the tuitions building." Nitin corrected her, even as he made a mental note of her name. "I can't help it if she passes out of there."

Aryan came back with their drinks as the girl came back with a hamburger and fries for her friend.

The three boys sat in silence at their table. The girls were talking quietly between themselves, and Neel heard Parul tell her friend about Nitin's frequent trips to Sarik tuitions. Nitin sipped slowly on his bottle of Pepsi, absent mindedly playing with the cap. Normally, he had no trouble speaking to girls, but talking to Parul's friend had taken the wind out of his sails to a considerable extent. The mood at the boys table was considerably more awkward then at the girl's table. Neel found himself almost wishing they were back in the boutique with the snooty salesgirl instead.

The girls finished their food, and went to wash. Aryan turned to Nitin. "Fun." he remarked.

"What was I supposed to do?" Nitin said defensively.

"You can't do anything." Neel said quietly. "I really don't think she's interested, man."

"And she knows you've been watching her." Aryan added. "She can call the police on you. What you're doing is basically stalking."

"I just-" Nitin was struggling to come up with reasons why this was a good idea. "I really like her, man. And I get the really strong feeling she likes me too, honest! I just don't want to give up until I'm sure I don't have a shot."

"Dude, this was your shot." Aryan said. "You were sitting next to her. If she'd been interested you would've known. But she was acting like you weren't even there."

"Maybe she's shy." Nitin muttered.

"She knows why you were sitting here." Neel pointed out. "But nothing happened. She didn't even look at you. Move on, man. There will be others."

The girls came back from the washroom and picked up the bags from their table.

Nitin had half risen, trying to decide on one last way to talk to Parul. He hesitated, looking at Aryan and Neel, then sighed. He sat down again and the three boys watched the girls head towards the exit doors at the end of the food court.

And as they watched, just before reaching the gate, the girl turned back, and smiled at Nitin. Then she was gone. But Neel had seen it. Aryan had seen it. And Nitin had definitely seen it.

He was on his feet in an instant. "Let's go." he said abruptly as he strode towards the gate after the two girls. Aryan and Neel were right behind him.

They came out of the mall and stood in the blinding sunlight. The two girls had disappeared, and Nitin craned his neck, trying to locate them. "You think they have a scooty?"

"No." Neel said, pointing into the distance. "They're in that tempo."

The three took off. They walked as quickly as possible to the taxi stand, only to see the tempo leaving. Nitin gestured quickly to another tempo that was preparing to leave as well. Aryan and Neel glanced questioningly at each other for a moment. But then they climbed into the tempo behind Nitin. An elderly man got on after them and squeezed in next to Neel.

The beaten down vehicle came to life, and pulled out of the curb and onto the road. There was a lot of traffic, and they snaked slowly through the mass of smoke belching cars and trucks.

"I can see their tempo." Nitin shouted, hanging dangerously out of the side of the vehicle. The elderly passenger glared at him disapprovingly.

"Now what?" Aryan asked.

"We follow it." Nitin said firmly. "Come on, man, she'd smiled! You know she did. She likes me. I don't want to go back to hanging around outside the coaching. We follow her to her house, and then I catch up to her and start talking." That was the one department where he felt confident in his skills.

Aryan and Neel glanced at each other again, but then shrugged and settled back in their seats.

The chase continued for a while, their tempo neither gaining nor falling behind the other one. Finally they stopped at a traffic stop. The other tempo had stopped as well. Nitin stared impatiently at the light. The color changed, and the mass of cars moved slowly forward.

"This is the most boring car chase ever." Aryan remarked over the sound of horns and engines around them. Neel grinned. "Don't complain. Nitin's the hero in this scene. We're just the comedian sidekicks."

"The tempo's going towards Ashoka road." Nitin called out. "They must be headed for Pallika Bazaar."

"Could be that or Gole market." Neel said, casting his mind back on the map he had memorized months ago. "But they all pass through Jai Singh Marg. I know a short cut." He paid the driver and jumped neatly out of the crawling vehicle. Aryan and Nitin hesitated, looking at him.

"Look, we won't catch up with them in the traffic if we stay in the tempo." Neel told them. "I know a shortcut. Trust me."

Nitin and Aryan clambered out of the tempo, to muttered grumblings from the elderly passenger. They paid the driver and Neel took off down a side street, the other two following closely. They were all knee deep in the situation now, and Neel felt a burst of exhilaration at finally doing something active again after so many days of forced inactivity. They zigzagged through the alleys, avoiding bikes and cars and cows.

"How do you know these roads?" Aryan panted beside him.

"I've been around this place a lot." Neel said. "For exercise. I've gotten to know this area pretty well."

They finally arrived on Jai Singh Marg. Neel pointed to the taxi stand. "They should be arriving there." Nitin took off again, the other two following, all three of them scanning the roads.

"The two girls?" the tempo driver said when at last they tracked him down, fifteen minutes later. "Yeah, they got off at the jeweler shop two streets back."

And they were off again. The gift hunting expedition had taken a turn for the bizarre, but after the long chase, Aryan and Neel were beginning to feel as though getting Nitin to meet Parul was a sacred task they had been entrusted with. The weather was unusually good, with light sunshine and a strong fresh breeze blowing as they ran down the middle of the highway, vehicles zooming all around them. Finally they saw the jeweler shop, and managed to catch a glimpse of the two girls exiting the shop and getting into a nearby tempo. This time there was no other tempo to take, and the one the girl's were in was too far away to reach in time.

"There!" Aryan called out, pointing to a bus that was letting out passengers nearby. They got to it before it began moving again and jumped inside.

"Where?" the bored conductor asked, looking at the panting boys with disinterested contempt. Neel wondered if he was related to the snooty salesgirl.

"Wherever the last stop is." Aryan gasped, taking out his wallet. They made their way to the front of the bus, and saw the tempo moving ahead of them.

They were soon out of the city and moving through the suburbs, the tempo still in front. Neel and Aryan were sitting, but Nitin was hanging onto the leather strap, watching the tempo anxiously.

"It's turning." he said hoarsely. Sure enough, the tempo was getting off the main road. They yelled for the bus to stop and clambered out again.

"She must live here." Nitin said, taking off down the side street where the tempo had disappeared. The other two followed. Neel closed his eyes and focused his hearing. He took the lead and turned left at an intersection with a brief, "They went this way."

They were now inside a well kept colony. People stared out of their house at the three running boys. Neel turned left at another two way and then stopped at the end of the road, motioning to the others to stop as well. They walked slowly around the corner, and found themselves standing in front of a row of neatly kept and expensive houses.

The tempo was coming back up the road, but without the two girls. Neel pointed mutely at the last house. The girl named Parul was standing outside what had to be her house, rummaging through her purse.

Neel grinned at Aryan. They had reached journey's end. The two gave each other a high five as Nitin stared at Parul, who hadn't seen them yet.

"Showtime." Aryan said, massaging Nitin's shoulder's vigorously. "Make us proud, Romeo."

Nitin looked at them gratefully. "Thanks a lot, guys. I really owe you two." Neel grinned and stepped to one side, gesturing towards Parul. "Better take care of business first, man."

Nitin grinned as well, and then started walking towards Parul. Now that the chase was over he felt confident. Talking to girls was a specialty of his. He was making his way towards the house, rehearsing some opening lines and jokes. But then he stopped abruptly, staring. Neel and Aryan watched in stunned silence as well.

A boy had walked over to Parul. She turned and smiled at him. They were talking, standing far too close together. Then the boy reached out and held her hand. It was definitely not a brotherly clasp, and it was all too easy to understand the scene enfolding before them. The boy turned slightly, and his face was finally visible. It was the guy who had been sitting directly behind their table at the food court when Parul had smiled in their direction.

A car came out of the house and down the road in their direction. Nitin recognized it as the car that took picked up Parul from tuitions every day. Suddenly it slowed, and Parul's friend from the mall stuck her head out of the window and stared at them in surprise.

"Did you follow us all the way from the mall?" she asked Nitin in amazement. She twisted her head to see Parul still talking to the boy, then turned to look at Nitin. "That's Nitin, Parul's boyfriend." she told him. He was too dazed to be surprised. "He was with his family at the food court, but he texted her that he wanted to meet her in private later. He proposed to her in the tempo, and she accepted. Now they're going to the park together. That's why she's sending me home." She gazed at him pityingly for a moment. "I'm sorry." she said sympathetically, leaning back inside the window. The car moved on down the road.

There was a long silence. Neel was still staring dazedly as Parul and the other Nitin walked away, hand in hand.

He turned to stare at the other two, his emotions too deep for words. They stared back sympathetically.

"I'm sorry, man." Aryan said, placing a hand around his shoulder. "I really didn't see this coming."

"You did all you could." Neel added bracingly. "It just wasn't meant to be. You'll find someone else, dude. You always do."

They turned away from Parul's house and walked slowly down the road, Neel and Aryan keeping a respectfully somber silence. They looked at each other for a moment and almost burst out laughing. But Nitin was still looking crushed. It would be some time before they could make jokes about this incident. The crisp air stung their faces, and light sunlight filtered through giant fluffy clouds. Despite feeling bad for Nitin, Neel could not hold back his own happiness. There was a joyous pounding in his heart. He felt as though it had been years since he had been out of doors. For the first time in several weeks he felt completely alive.

The trip had been a bitter disappointment for Nitin. But not for Neel. It had served to prove something vitally important to him that he had suspected already. He had run all over the city for hours across heavy traffic, on foot and in all kinds of vehicles, but he had not felt any symptoms of his condition once. He was finally cured.

"And then I didn't feel anything strange all day." Neel finished and looked sideways at Doctor Fahim, who stared dispassionately into the distance.

It was two days since the chase across the city with Nitin and Aryan. Neel had told Doctor Fahim yesterday about the whole journey with barely suppressed excitement. But the doctor had been less enthusiastic. Neel had insisted that he was much better now, as that day had proved.

The weather for the last few days had continued to be unusually pleasant, raising Neel's spirits even more. Doctor Fahim had invited him for a stroll outside in the fresh breeze instead of staying in the office, where they had been spending too much time these days. The two now walked slowly down the lobby and out of the main building.

Neel continued talking. He knew Doctor Fahim would not be convinced easily. And it was imperative that he should be, because Neel also had a request to make of him.

"I want to go after Mehta again, sir." Neel said. Doctor Fahim did not say anything, but continued to walk in silence beside him. "I know I made mistakes last time. But I've really learned from it all. I won't underestimate him again."

"You need to concentrate on your health, Neel." Doctor Fahim said finally. The two had emerged from the building and were heading in the direction of the gym hall. "Your focus should be on getting better."

"But I am better." Neel said earnestly. "I told you. I was travelling in a tempo. I was walking around in traffic. There were cars and trucks all around me. We even passed by the spot where I'd had the accident. And I didn't feel scared or dizzy or anything.

"Your mind was completely absorbed in the urgent and exciting matter concerning your friends." Doctor Fahim said. "Often, distraction is the best way to avoid mental worries. But that does not mean you are cured. Is it not possible that you are merely trying to convince yourself that you are better, even though you are not sure yourself?" The piercing eyes studied him shrewdly.

"But I really do feel better now, sir." Neel persisted. "I've been feeling that way for a while now. The first few days, I know it was pretty bad. But now the nightmares have stopped. I can fall asleep now. I don't feel depressed all the time, or suic-, or angry or anything." Neel said, avoiding the word at the last moment.

"That is well." Doctor Fahim said gravely as the two walked slowly towards the open field. "But don't you think it might be too soon to be completely certain?"

"We don't have time, sir." Neel said. "Mehta must know I was wounded and messed up pretty bad. And he's still going to do whatever he's planning. I need to go after him and stop him."

"Only when you are ready."

"I am ready." Neel said, his voice rising with a slightly desperate edge to it. "I'm completely fine now. I just want a chance. I want to prove that-"

The loud squeal of tires broke through the silence of the area as a car appeared from around the corner of the hall. It was heading directly for them at full speed.

Neel couldn't move. He couldn't even breathe. His legs were shaking so badly that his whole body was trembling. His hands had curled into fists, and his nails were digging into his palms as his heart threatened to burst. All he could do was watch as the monster roared towards him. He was flying off his cycle and into the air. He was watching his blood splatter on the road. He was feeling crippling, unbearable pain…

Five feet away from them, the car stopped. Neel saw Arjun sitting in the driver seat and watching him narrowly.

"This was just a test." He heard Doctor Fahim's voice as though from a great distance. "You were in a completely safe environment, and yet your response is evident. Do you still think you are cured, Neel? …Neel?"

Arjun got out of the car and sprinted towards the young boy. Neel had dropped slowly to the ground, his body completely rigid. The nightmare flashes of memory had been worse than ever before, and his entire body was shaking.

"You're going to be fine, Neel." He heard Arjun say as he was lifted off the ground. "It was just a test. You're going to be fine."

Half an hour later, Neel sat on a mattress in the giant hall, sucking on a solution of glucose through a straw. Doctor Fahim and Arjun stood watching him.

"I am truly sorry, Neel." Doctor Fahim said quietly. "But you were so completely convinced that you had recovered. We had to make you see that there is still a long way to go. PTSD is not a minor mental problem that can be shaken off in a few days. It can take months, or even years. And even then there is no guarantee." Neel did not say anything, but continued to suck on his drink quietly, his eyes blank.

"This is just a temporary setback." Arjun said abruptly. "I hated doing this to you, but you needed a warning. There is room for improvement, but you are on the right path. You just need to keep at it and practice hard, like all those exercises you learned with us."

But it was not just like the exercises, and he was not going to be fine. He had been deluding himself all along. Neel realized then, his mind too numb to even care at the moment, that he was never going to be fine again.

 
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