“Well, dear?” Nana asked me expectantly after Zak and his parents had left. “What do you think of the boy?”
“She thinks he’s great,” Rayyan answered for me sourly, lifting a forkful of cake to his mouth. “Just great.”
Nana ignored him. “Azraa?”
“He’s… nice,” I said lamely, blushing wildly.
Nana gave a satisfied nod. “I know my granddaughter well, don’t I?”
“Let’s not rush into anything,” Mom cautioned. She turned to me. “Az, don’t be too hasty.”
Nana turned serious then. “Your mother’s right, Az. Meet again while they’re still here and spend some time together. But I am glad that things are going well so far.”
Dad chimed in then. “Rayyan can go with them. Take Mirzaq to see Stockholm – you’ll have fun.”
Rayyan made a face. “More babysitting. Lovely.”
Dad reached over and put a arm around him, squeezing. “Don’t worry, Azraa will return the favour soon enough for you.”
“Dad!” Rayyan complained. “Can’t you just leave me be? Focus on Azraa.”
“No can do, son. We’re too used to multitasking. And your Nana’s the one dealing with Azraa’s young man so I’m more than free to help you find my daughter in law.”
“I should have stayed in London,” my brother complained. “No one tries to set me up there.”
“There’s no family there either,” Mom said crossly. “Honestly, Rayyan, you make it seem like we’re a burden.”
Rayyan turned immediately to placate her. “You’re not a burden. You’re just… a little overbearing.”
“We want you to be happy, son. Is that such a bad thing?”
“No. Of course not,” Rayyan said unhappily.
“Then it’s settled.” Mom took a sip of her tea, clearly pleased. “We’ll settle Azraa and then I can sort you out.”
I grimaced. She made it sound like we were pets to re-home.
Mom began listing off possible brides. For all that she’d said she wanted to ‘settle’ me first, she seemed to want Rayyan to pick a girl from the limited descriptions she was giving him right then and there. Her words seemed so rehearsed, I wondered if she had a file somewhere labelled Potential Future Daughter in Laws.
Rayyan caught my eye and gave me a pleading look.
“Where would be good to take Zak?” I asked, pretending to be talking to myself. “Ray, when you’re done, can you help me figure out plans? I don’t want to bore him and just go wandering around the city.”
Mom shot me an approving look. “Good idea, Azraa. I’m so glad you’re finally taking the initiative, sweetheart. It looks like this really was a good thing for you, you’re already starting to think ahead.”
I fought down a flicker of rage. My mother’s backhanded compliments were meant well, I knew. But they always left me feeling a mixture of rage and sadness at the implication that I’d been lacking before and had finally become good enough to satisfy her standards.
“I’m gonna go look up some stuff on my laptop,” I announced, springing to my feet.
My feet led me mindlessly up to my room as I let my thoughts wander. Much as I hated to admit it, I was rattled. Mirzaq Mahomed had torn through my defenses as though they were as pliable as gossamer.
Still contemplating a certain grey eyed brunet, I almost walked smack into a large male body.
He’d made himself scarce lately. In the three weeks since I’d not-so-politely turned him down, I could count the number of times he’d spoken to me on a single hand with space left over.
Guilt had nagged at me on and off on those days when we had spoken. He’d been cool and polite, nothing like the warm Zaakir I knew.
“Ms. Razi,” he greeted me, clearly intending to walk straight past.
I hid a wince. That change was the worst one. He’d been calling me Azraa still until I’d snapped at him unthinkingly out of habit.
I hadn’t expected, nor had I wanted him to actually do as I said – he never had before. But everything was different now.
I’d finally gotten what I wanted – and I didn’t like it one bit.
“Zaakir,” I called softly after his retreating back.
He turned to me expectantly. “Yes, ma’am?”
Stop acting like this, I wanted to scream. Go back to normal!
I missed him. As much as I’d pushed him away, he’d still been there. Stubborn and irritating – attached to me like a fungus – but comforting in his familiarity nonetheless.
He was still standing there, back ramrod-straight as he waited to hear what I wanted from him.
“Never mind.” Certain things couldn’t be remade. “You can go.”
It was stunningly painful to watch him walk away so easily.
Even Zaakir had left me. And I had no one to blame but myself. I’d wanted him to go. I’d demanded it.
I heard footsteps and my heart leapt in my chest. He’d come back. I could fix things.
Just as quickly, it sank again. That head of hair was brown and close-cropped, not like the jet-black mess that was left to grow wild on Zaakir’s head.
“What are you doing standing in the hallway?” my older brother asked. “Have you been here all this time?”
“What took you so long?” I asked snippily, deflecting.
“Mom,” Rayyan said shortly. “What else? The only reason I escaped is because she got a call.”
I made a face, distracted from the whole mess with Zaakir.
“She means well,” Rayyan reminded me, following me into my bedroom. “She wants the best for us.”
“She wants what she thinks is best,” I corrected. Which was often contrary to what actually was best.
“Az, don’t be ungrateful,” Rayyan reproached.
“You agree with me!” I snapped. “I know you do.”
Rayyan pressed his thumbs against his temples. “That doesn’t make it right. We should be more understanding.”
I’d said the same thing to myself a thousand times but hearing it from him rankled. “Maybe I’m tired of being understanding all the time!” I snapped.
I turned away, my eyes landing on the map on the wall. The urge to flee overwhelmed me. I’d pick any one of those places over here in a heartbeat.