I paced the length of my room, fighting panic. What was I going to do now?
I hadn’t even stopped to think about marriage. I’d just wanted to be included for once.
And now Nana wanted to talk to my parents.
I didn’t want to get married. Did I?
I didn’t know.
I groaned and picked up the end of my ponytail where it lay against my hip, gathering the strands together and sticking them in my mouth.
It was a filthy habit but I’d never been able to break it. Whenever I was stressed or worried, I sucked on the ends of my hair. Sometimes, if it was truly bad, I’d chew on it as well and end up with hair stuck in my teeth.
Brushing my teeth on those days invariably ended up making me gag.
There was a knock at the door, so soft I nearly missed it.
“Come in,” I called indistinctly, my mouth still full of hair.
Zaakir walked in holding a bowl of pasta which he handed to me. “You didn’t eat much earlier,” he commented. “I thought you might still be hungry.”
He’d said those exact words to me a hundred times before. I never ate well when my parents were home and from being the one to clear the table whenever we ate, Zaakir knew that perfectly well.
When we were younger, he’d try to find some kind of excuse for the meals he brought me but by now, that pretence had fallen away.
I shifted, tucking my legs underneath me. “Sit down,” I said, patting the bed for emphasis.
I wanted company tonight.
Zaakir looked mildly surprised at my uncharacteristic behaviour. It had been a long, long time since I’d invited him into my space. Looking at him perched uncomfortably at the edge of my bed, it was hard to believe that we’d once been best friends.
I felt a pang of longing for those days. It had been a simpler time. I’d had Zaakir… and Rayyan.
But now, my brother was a hotshot lawyer who spent most of his days in hotels. Rayyan had left me. He’d grown too big for our house, huge though it was and had ventured out into the world. And in response, I’d kicked away the one person who was still there.
But Zaakir had refused to go far. Just as stubborn as I was, he’d retreated a safe distance but continued to push his way back into my space whenever he could.
And on nights like tonight, I forgot why letting him back in was a bad idea.
I stuffed a forkful of pasta in my mouth to distract myself then held out both bowl and fork to Zaakir. He took them and then looked up at me, confused. “You didn’t eat either,” I explained. “Too busy talking, huh?”
He made a face and I giggled. “What was that tonight?” he murmured. “I don’t think I’ve ever been grilled that hard before – even by my own Mom.”
“Mom’s running out of ideas. Rayyan’s completely refused to budge on the marriage topic and she’s starting to get desperate. Plus,” I added with a grin, “you’re too polite to try and stop her. She was probably enjoying herself too much to stop.”
Curiosity struck me and I opened my mouth, accepting the laden fork Zaakir passed me. “What did you tell her anyway?”
A light blush began to stain Zaakir cheeks. I arched an eyebrow. What had he told my mother? “I don’t want to know if it’s dirty.”
Zaakir looked offended. “It’s not dirty,” he exclaimed. “It’s just… personal.”
I blinked. “You took it seriously then?”
Zaakir lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “Didn’t you? You looked pretty serious with your grandfather.”
Now I was blushing. “Yeah,” I mumbled. The urge to tell him what had happened rose within me and I gave into it without thinking. “Nana actually said that he thought he knew someone who would be a good fit for me.”
Zaakir’s eyes widened in shock. “Oh,” he said dumbly.
“I’m kind of scared,” I blurted out.
“I don’t know.” I looked away. “This is a pretty big deal. What if I end up with the wrong person?”
“You won’t,” Zaakir’s voice was filled with steady confidence. “That’s impossible.”
I gave him an unimpressed look. “Don’t you ever get tired of being such an optimist?”
He looked back at me, unaffected. “Nope. You’ll end up with who you’re meant to end up with, Az. And that’s not me hoping for the best.”
“Then what is it?” I challenged. It sure sounded like he just had his head stuck in the clouds to me.
“Taqdeer,” Zaakir said simply. “We believe in it, don’t we?”
My shoulders slumped. “Not that again.”
Zaakir kept quiet.
Eventually, I couldn’t stand the silence any longer. “You never answered me earlier.”
“Hmm?” He looked up from where he’d been tugging at loose threads in the cuffs on his jeans, distracted.
“What did you tell my Mom?” I repeated.
Zaakir gave me an inscrutable look. “Do you really want to know?”
What was that supposed to mean? “Yes,” I said impatiently. “Tell me.”
He swallowed audibly. “She asked me to describe the ideal girl for me. And I did.”
“And?” I prompted.
“And.” He drew the word out. “And…” I could see him gathering his courage and a tiny voice whispered to me to stop him. I didn’t want to hear this, it told me.
“I described you, Azraa.” Zaakir looked straight at me, his eyes filled with that same emotion that I’d never before been able to give a name to.
He was in love with me.
This had to be some kind of joke.
He read something in my face that caused that courage to falter. “Azraa,” he started, reaching out to me.
I sprang to my feet. “That’s not funny,” I snapped.
A spark flared in Zaakir’s eyes. “I’m not playing a joke,” he snapped. “And you know that.”
“Well what else am I supposed to think,” I responded through gritted teeth, “when you say something as laughable as that?”
Hurt darkened his eyes.
But I didn’t. “It was annoying enough when we were kids,” I said cruelly. “But now, it’s just pathetic.”
What was I doing? Vitriol poured from my mouth without my approval. How could he think he had the right to even say something like that to me, I demanded of Zaakir. How could he think that we were meant to be?
He stood there, taking the abuse silently. When I finally closed my mouth, he spoke. “I’ve been in love with you for years,” he started.
I cut him off, unable to help myself. “That was when we were kids,” I nearly shrieked. “It wasn’t real!”
Visions danced before my eyes, of this same man at so many different ages, smiling at me and whispering some variation of the same words: “Some day, you’ll be mine.”
We’d been tiny the first time he’d said it. His mother had begun reading us fairy tales and both Zaakir and I were obsessed with the happy ending. I’d been crying, wailing over the fact that I didn’t have my very own prince to carry me away.
Little Zaakir had reached across his mother’s lap to declare that he’d be my prince and I’d be his princess. Some day, he’d promised me with all the seriousness a child could muster. Some day, he’d be mine. And I’d be his.
Panic made me gasp and I heard Zaakir’s voice in my head again.
You’ll end up with who you’re meant to end up with.
Had he been referring to himself? How long had he been holding this ambition?
“…Azraa? Listen… Azraa!” Zaakir shook me lightly to get my attention. His eyes were filled with concern. “Breathe,” he instructed me.
Revulsion welled within me as I looked at him. “Go,” I whispered. “Just go.”
He recoiled. He opened his mouth then shut it and shook his head. “If that’s what you want,” he said simply and left.
I collapsed onto my bed, shuddering. and burst into tears.
I hope this makes up for the wait!