Neel returned home at five that evening. He had been dropped back at the spot from where Captain Shukla had picked him up, and his cycle was waiting for him where he had left it. His mind was in a whirl, going over everything that he had seen and experienced that day. After the jumping experience, he had run on a treadmill for half an hour, without once feeling the need to slow down in the slightest. He had had sensors attached to his hands and feet as he moved around at full speed, to gauge the speed of his reflexes. He had discovered that his body weight had increased by more than ten kilograms because of his increased muscle density. He had sat in a sound proof room with Divya and Doctor Fahim, where they had attached electrodes to his brain and then put him through a host of experiments to see how acute his senses were. He had to stand on the side of the road for five minutes while he regained control over his brain, which had begun to buzz along faster than ever.
Neel managed to get back to his house safely despite the loud horns and the noises again grating on his nerves. Doctor Fahim had told him that the sounds, while distracting, could not do any lasting damage to his ear drums. Nevertheless, he was glad to get back to the relative quiet of his colony. His mother came back from work around the time, although it was not unusual for her to work overtime.
Neel entered his house to find his mother in the kitchen. "Did everything go alright at the coaching centre?" she asked after greeting him, looking him over carefully. "You didn't feel weak or ill, did you?"
"No way." Neel assured her. "I'm telling you, mom, I'm totally fine."
"Well, hopefully you're on the mend." his mother sighed, giving him a hug. "Go and freshen up. Tea will be ready soon."
Neel went up to his room and tossed his bag on his bed. Without bothering to turn on the lights, he sank onto his bad and stared up at the ceiling. In the privacy of his own room, his mind returned to those memories. He saw a dark tunnel winding endlessly into the distance. He saw a room filled with scientists and leaders. He saw a punching bag flying across the room. He saw a bird's eye view of the world around him as he rose higher and higher off the ground. He saw a treadmill pushed past its limits and begin to burn. He saw himself seeing things in a room so dark a normal person would have been blind.
For a long time, fourteen year old Neelanchan Dervin sat alone in the dark comfort of his room as the images played themselves over and over again in his mind.
That night, Neel sat in the living room watching TV with his mother. She was watching the news and he was pretending to be listening as well, while he was inwardly experimenting with his brain speed. He felt much more confident now about his ability to control his mind, and Doctor Fahim had told him that there were even better methods that he would be taught over the course of his training. For now he concentrated on keeping his heartbeat slow and steady as he breathed deeply.
The doorbell rang. Neel got up and went to the door. Dusk was falling rapidly, and the street was quiet and empty. Outside their front gate stood a handsome young boy of Neel's age, with wavy dark hair and a slim, tall build leaning on his cycle, a huge grin on his face.
"Shouldn't you be looking sicker?" the boy asked. Neel grinned as well as he went to open the door. "I saw you lying in the hospital with bandages all over. Seem to have healed up pretty quickly."
"Not quick enough to come back to school yet." Neel said as he opened the gate to let Aryan in. "I don't have to face Ticolo for at least a week."
"So, are you still sick or something?" Aryan asked as he parked his cycle inside the main gate. He turned to Neel with a frown. "Still on pills and stuff?"
"Nah, this is just a precaution." Neel said, leading him into the house. "It wasn't anything to worry about in the first place. Just a dislocated shoulder and some cuts. The doctors fixed me up all right. I was going to call you tonight. I need to catch up on the school work I've missed."
"Nothing major's happened at school." Aryan said. "Ticolo's driving everyone nuts of course, but that's nothing new."
"Yeah, like I said, definitely not missing him." Neel laughed.
"Neel?" Aryan stopped before stepping through the doorway. Neel turned back to face him. Aryan walked up to him slowly and gave him a hug. It was a highly unusual gesture, but the seriousness in Aryan's voice held Neel. "I'm really glad you're okay, man. I've never seen anyone in such a bad shape like you were in at the hospital."
"It's over now, dude." Neel said quietly, hugging him back. "And I really just want to forget about it."
"Right, let's forget about it." Aryan agreed, clapping him on his back as they finally stepped into the house.
They went into the living room, where Neel's mother sat flipping idly through the channels.
"I was wondering when you were going to visit." she said, smiling up at the two boys as they entered. "Hello, Aryan."
"Good evening, Auntie." Aryan replied with a smile. "I wanted to come yesterday, but dad said I should let him rest."
"Well, I'm glad you're here now. Neel was so bored sitting in the house all day he went out alone to the bridge today." his mother said.
"It wasn't that bad." Neel said quickly, and then changed the subject hurriedly. "Let's go see how Priyanka's doing."
The two made their way to the terrace. The sky had darkened and the street lamp on the corner of the street was turned on, allowing a solitary spot of light on the street in front of the house. The two made their way to the ledge separating the house from the one next to it.
"Priyanka!" Aryan called out to the other side of the terrace.
A few minutes passed, and then Priyanka appeared at the door of her terrace.
"See, Aryan?" she called out as she came towards them. "I told you Neel was fine now."
"I know, I was just telling him, two days in the hospital and he comes out looking he's been on a holiday." Aryan said, shaking his head in wonder as he seated himself on the ledge between the two terraces. "Even after being taken to the hospital in an ambulance and everything. And all those bandages!"
"Precaution, just precautions." Neel repeated firmly. "They were just making sure I was completely all right. And I am."
"Right." Aryan swung his leg over the ledge and sat balancing himself on top of it. "And now he's getting a week's holiday because of it."
"I know, I told him, I'd be so bored if I had to stay at home for a week." Priyanka said. "Not having anything to do but watch TV."
"I'll be doing plenty more than that." Neel said absent mindedly.
"Like what?" Aryan asked him, his eyebrows raised.
Neel was silent for a moment as he stared into the distant horizon. Aryan and Priyanka were the two people he told everything to, even some things his mother did not know about. Now he had a secret that was not his to tell. He could not tell them the truth about the accident. He could not tell them about Project Alpha, or about Doctor Fahim and the others. He could not tell them what he had seen and done that day. For a moment he felt a return of the loneliness he had felt yesterday.
"I meant I'll probably study a little on my own too." he said finally.
"Of course you will." Aryan said, patting his shoulder sympathetically. "That's what I tell myself every time I stay home from school, too." Neel grinned.
"And of course, we know Priyanka has been programmed by her teachers to fall in love with her school." Aryan continued, grinning at her as she rolled her eyes. "She'll probably marry it when she gets older."
"Honestly, I can't understand why you two don't like school." Priyanka protested. "Don't you ever have any fun their? I have tons in mine."
"Oh, we have fun." Aryan said matter of factly. "But we also have Ticolo."
"And Mam Awasthi." Neel added.
"And those stupid guest lectures Mr. Ojha keeps putting up."
"Basically, we'd love school if it only involved meeting up with friends and playing in the field." Aryan said. "It's when the teachers expect you to pay attention in class that we feel they begin to expect too much."
"Well, the lessons are hard, but I'd go insane if I stayed in the house all day." Priyanka said fervently. Neel and Aryan knew why. Priyanka's mother was a kind woman, but she was also a hard taskmaster, and Priyanka had to work alongside her every day on chores around the house.
"You shouldn't grudge yourself a little work." Aryan said sagely. "Exercise is better than that crazy diet you're on."
"Oh, come on!" Neel groaned "Again? What kind of a silly diet is it this time?" Priyanka had been a chubby little infant, and her round, dimpled face still had her convinced she was fat. Several times a year she started some form of a diet, and abandoned it almost as quickly, her will not strong enough to withstand her mother's cooking.
"Just cutting back on my food portions a bit." Priyanka said quickly. "It'll help me get in shape. And you're no one to talk about silly." she added with sudden spirit. "At least I don't cry all the time."
"Hey!" Neel said, stung.
"It's true." Aryan said with a sad shake of his head. "I welcomed him back with a hug just now, and he started bawling his head off."
"I did not!" Neel said, aiming a punch at Aryan which he dodged, grinning. Ever since his infancy Neel had been teased about the fact that he cried too easily, with Aryan and Priyanka frequently calling him a crybaby. On more than one occasion Neel had opposed the nickname vehemently, bursting into tears in the process, which had unfortunately strengthened their argument.
"At least I don't flirt with every girl I meet." Neel said, and Aryan's grin faded.
"I don't flirt." he said, blushing as he jumped off the wall.
"Tell that to Priyanka's friends."
"Payal and Maya still ask about you, you know." Priyanka said with a sigh. "It's so romantic, the love they have for you." she continued, while Aryan's blush deepened steadily. "Like Archie and Betty and Veronica." Two of Priyanka's friends from school had long cherished a crush on Aryan, a fact that flattered and unsettled him at the same time. It was one of the few situations where his ready wit deserted him, and he frequently adopted the policy of keeping someone else close by and slinking away as soon as possible whenever he came into contact with them.
"Look, I never even talked to them." Aryan said defensively while Neel and Priyanka smirked at each other. "I just met them at that party on Priyanka's birthday. Payal had lost her mobile and I helped them look for it. It's not like I wrote them poems or anything. I'm not Nitin."
"I can see the scene now." Neel said to Priyanka with a grin. "Aryan, looking dashing in his jacket. Payal sees him for the first time. Their eyes meet, and just for a moment they stop breathing."
"Do you want me to kick you?" Aryan asked politely. "I'll do it, too. I don't care how sick you are."
"They come towards each other." Neel said, jumping over to Priyanka's terrace. "He whispers her name, which he knows because he's been following her like crazy on facebook. The music grows loud, and the background dancers suddenly appear as they prepare for a dance number, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai style." Priyanka laughed as she leaned against the wall. Aryan made a grab for Neel over the railing which he dodged.
"They come together again after the dancers fade away." Neel shouted, moving away rapidly. "A fake, giant flower appears before their faces, and what goes on behind the flower is only for them to know about."
"At least I'm tall enough to reach the flower." Aryan remarked.
"Hey!" Neel said, stung for a second time. Aryan had touched unerringly on the spot he was most sensitive about.
"That's true." Priyanka said, laughing harder. "You wouldn't even reach her head, Neel."
"I'm been growing." Neel said defensively, leaping back over the wall and standing straight next to Aryan. Aryan was easily five inches taller than him. "Never mind." he sighed, drawing away again. "At least I'm taller than Priyanka."
"Actually, I think she's grown about an inch taller than you." Aryan said mildly.
"No way." Neel said in alarm. He jumped over to Priyanka's roof and stood next to her, craning his neck as much as possible.
"Yeah, definitely an inch at least." Aryan said, looking at them critically.
"She's got to be wearing heels inside her feet or something." Neel said. A sudden suspicion came to him. Could the serum possibly have decreased his height? Of all the stupid, ridiculous side effects…
The laughter gradually ceased and they fell silent as they sat together on the rooftop, as they had done countless times before. It was a very cool and pleasant place to spend an evening.
"Plum's not coming this year." Aryan remarked. "He sent me a message on facebook."
"That sucks." Neel said. Again they relapsed into a lazy silence.
Aryan sighed, leaning back and watching the moon above them. "You know, all jokes aside, sometimes everything seems like such a drag. I was going over my mind trying to think of something interesting to tell Neel about school when I was coming over, but I don't have anything. Just one boring day after another."
"I know what you mean." Priyanka agreed. "Summer term is always slow at school. And the heat is horrible."
Neel nodded, but he could not honestly agree. The last word he could use to describe his life right now was boring.
But sitting in silence with his two best friends on the dark terrace was even less boring. He could not believe he was realizing only now how much he had missed them. He had not laughed so hard for days. It did not even matter so much now that he couldn't tell them everything. They were still his friends, and the mere fact of their presence, teasing and laughing, soothed him more than he could have put into words.
Neel picked up a loose piece of gravel. "I bet you can't hit the top of the telephone post." he said, handing the rock to Priyanka. She had extraordinarily good aim, a fact that Neel and Aryan had learned the hard way in the past when they had played with marbles.
Priyanka grinned, taking the rock. "You children never learn.' she said with a mock sorrowful shake of her head. Holding the rock up she took careful aim, and a second later the telephone pole rung as a tiny rock hit it dead centre on its top.