My throat still ached as I crept down to the kitchen. It was late enough that I probably needn’t have bothered and I’d washed my face before coming down to get some water but I knew my face still bore the signs of a crying jag and I wanted to avoid even the slightest possibility that someone would ask me for an explanation.
Zaakir’s mother Hajra would still be up, preparing for the next day, but I was hoping that my own family and her son would have drifted off into their various bedrooms by now.
No such luck. Evidently, Zaakir had stayed up to help lessen his mother’s workload.
I hovered carefully out of sight in the corridor and worked to rein in my irritation. I was really thirsty. And I could use some ice cream too. Why did he have to be awake?
The sound of my own name made me look up. I strained my ears to make out what was being said but it was like trying to listen to a fuzzy radio station.
My feet carried me forward without conscious thought. I had to know what was being said about me. I stopped just barely outside the arched doorway to the large kitchen, taking advantage of the shadows to hide my presence and waited with bated breath to hear the rest of the private conversation between mother and son.
My seldom listened to conscience twinged, reminding me that eavesdropping was rude, not to mention haraam, but I shook it off.
They were talking about me, I reasoned. Surely that gave me the right to hear what was being said?
Finally, when I’d almost made up my mind that I’d better turn around and leave before I got caught, I heard something.
“Poor girl,” Hajra murmured. “I’ve always felt bad for her. If only…” she trailed off wistfully. “Well, it’s no use dwelling on it now.” I could almost see her shaking her head, as if to get rid of whatever stray thought had struck her. “Are you done, Zaakir?”
“Almost,” he replied, in a subdued voice.
I winced. Clearly I wasn’t the only one still out of sorts.
Hajra sensed her son’s uneasiness. I heard footsteps and then her low voice asking him gently if everything was alright.
My own eyes stung. Nothing was alright. Zaakir echoed my answer a moment later.
“It’s Azraa,” he explained.
Hajra heaved a sigh. “Of course. When isn’t it?” she murmured, long-suffering. “What happened now? Did you two fight over something silly?”
Zaakir laughed darkly. “We fought. But not over something silly.”
I heard him take in a deep breath then say, “I told her, Mom.”
“What?” Hajra gasped. “Oh, Zaakir, how could you?”
She’d known. And she’d realized, at least, what a bad idea it was for her son to love me.
“I know, Mom.” Zaakir’s voice was defeated. “Don’t worry, she didn’t jump into my arms.”
There was a huff. “You know full well that I’d love for that to happen,” Hajra said crossly. “But I knew it wouldn’t. I love Azraa like she’s my own but there’s no denying the fact that she doesn’t care for you.”
“She used to.”
“Things change, Zaakir. People change. You need to accept that, son. Before it tears you apart.”
“She hasn’t changed!” There was a thud. “She’s the same. Deep down, she’s the same person. She’s… hiding.”
I went rigid. Damn him. Damn him for knowing me so well.
“Zaakir,” Hajra said softly.
He blew out a sigh. “It doesn’t matter. Azraa’s furious that I even think of her that way.”
“There will be other girls. I know you don’t want to hear that but there will be other girls.”
“I don’t want someone else. I want her.”
I clapped a hand to my mouth to stifle a disgusted noise.
“And if she doesn’t want you?”
I didn’t bother to stay for the answer to that question.
By the time I’d gotten up to my bedroom, the sadness had evaporated, only to be replaced by anger. I’d been feeling sorry for Zaakir up until I’d heard those last words come out of his mouth.
I couldn’t believe he’d said something so crass! I wasn’t a thing for him to covet.
And I was sure that he’d been about to tell his mother all about his plans to convince me that I was wrong in not wanting him.
He and Rayyan had never tired of showing me all the ways that I was wrong and they were right when we were younger.
And Zaakir was always so forceful! Demanding that I go to class and eat and just… Everything! He treated me like a child half the time.
A tiny part of me rebelled at painting him in such a bad light.
Rayyan had acted superior, far more than Zaakir. To both of us, in fact. It had usually been him explaining why he was right and both of us were wrong.
I shoved that thought away. Zaakir had been just as bad. And he did treat me like a child.
He and Zaakir had been almost as close as Zaakir and I. And unlike Zaakir and I, they’d stayed close.
Why hadn’t my brother warned me? Fine, Hajra was on Zaakir’s side. As his mother, she had to be. But Rayyan was my brother. How could he let Zaakir drop this bombshell on me without any kind of warning?
I wrenched open my bedroom door and stalked across the house to his suite. I didn’t care that it was late. Rayyan would explain himself. Now!
I rapped smartly on his door with my knuckles, tapping my foot. Just how deeply asleep was he?
Finally, the door swung open. Rayyan yawned widely and blinked sleepy hazel eyes at me. His dark hair was curling at the ends. “Where’s the fire?” he asked in a gravelly voice.
“Zaakir’s in love with me,” I snapped, my hands going to my hips.
“Oh!” my brother said, brightening. “You finally figured it out then? Great.”
I let out a wordless noise of frustration. “Why didn’t you tell me? I had to find out from him!”
“He told you? Go, Zaakir.”
“No,” I said waspishly. “Not ‘go, Zaakir’. You should have told me. Maybe then I would have been able to let him off a little easier.”
Rayyan was suddenly wide awake. “Azraa, no. What did you do?”
I told him. In my agitation, I completely forgot to censor myself and by the time I was done, my brother was looking at me with what was unmistakably disappointment.
“It’s not my fault!” I cried. “He shocked me!”
“So you destroyed him?” Rayyan was unsympathetic.
“You should have told me,” I said, trying to shift the blame. I wasn’t the only one at fault here.
“Yeah, I should have,” Rayyan agreed bitterly. “I guess I just didn’t realize how cruel my little sister could be when she was in the mood. You know Nana thought he was perfect for you?”
I reeled. “What?” I whispered.
“Yeah,” Rayyan said, emotionless. “He was talking about it after we ate.”
The blood drained from my face. “Rayyan, no.”
“Don’t worry. I doubt Zaakir would take you now.”
I wasn’t so sure. “Rayyan -”
“Good night, Azraa.” And with that, he shut the door in my face.