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Joined: 15 July 2010
Chapter 4: Star Light . . . Star Bright
"If you see a falling star, make a wish on it. Your wish will come true."
Aahil sat near the pool, his head resting against the back of the chair. His eyes were trained on the skylight and through it to the night sky above, trying desperately to find something . . . anything. Even though it was completely dark in the living room . . . and it was the middle of the night, but he still couldn't see any stars.
He hadn't seen a light up in that sky for the longest time.
He made a face, an annoyed huff leaving his lips. Why couldn't he . . . but there it was! A single, bright light in the sky. A star!
He smiled triumphantly.
Six Years Ago . . .
Aahil drank his coffee, his mind engrossed in the study materials placed in front of him. His mind was numb due to a lack of sleep and too much studying. He winced as the words in the book began to blur in front of his eyes. He couldn't afford this right now.
"Here are your eggs and fruit," a male voice said briskly, setting down the plate in front of him.
Aahil looked up and flashed a smile in thanks. "Thank you." For a moment, the numbness washed away, as the smell of the food penetrated the fog that had surrounded him. It was late at night, and the all night diner had only one or two customers. It was the perfect place to get the food he needed, along with the peace to continue studying for mid-terms.
The waiter in front of him acknowledged the thanks with a nod and a smile. "Need a refill?" he asked, holding up a hot carafe of coffee.
Aahil quickly nodded, glancing down at the pile of books in front of him. "I'll need it," he murmured, "For this all-nighter."
"Studying can do that," the man replied. "Turning day into night and night into day. Probably explains why you're having breakfast for a midnight snack," he noted.
Aahil nodded absently, beginning to eat. "I shouldn't even be taking this break," he grunted, "But I have to eat."
"Business Law?" the male asked, gazing down at the books. "That's a difficult course."
"Yep, but unfortunately it's a requirement," Aahil replied. "Are you a student, too, Rehan?" he asked, looking at the name tag on the uniform.
"Yep. Still in undergrad," Rehan explained with a self-conscious laugh. He began to arrange the desserts in the bell jar display placed on the counter. Quickly putting the cover back on, he began to wipe off the counters. "It's my second semester," he explained. "I'm still finding my way around. It makes me feel a bit weird being one of the older students. Especially since . . .," He broke off, shaking his head.
He shook his head again. "Excuse me." He moved off to refill coffee for another customer, jotting down their order and passing it on to the cook in the back.
Aahil continued with their conversation when Rehan moved back toward him. "I'm older than you and only in my second year of college. Think on how that makes me feel. It's not easy. Especially, being in another country. I'm sorry, do you have to...?" he asked, waving his finger around the diner.
"No, I'll take my break now," Rehan said, settling down for the brief break he was allowed during his eight hour shift. "And I'm sorry. You know my name, but I don't know yours."
"My name is Aahil. Aahil Raza Ibrahim," Aahil responded, holding out a hand.
Rehan shook it with a smile, and then glanced down at the books once more. "It's a heavy load for someone only in their second year," he noted.
"You're one to talk," Aahil retorted good-naturedly. "You're in your second semester and taking advanced courses. You must have taken this course in your first semester." He shook his head, amazed.
"Well, I have a scholarship for my tuition, but not enough for much of anything else," Rehan explained in a matter of fact tone. "Finishing college in three years means I can then try to get a Masters in Business. And I'm hoping the foundation that gave me my scholarship will be willing to pay for one year of my Masters instead."
"And afterwards?" Aahil asked, staring at the boy in front of him.
"Afterwards, I stop sleeping, save up money and pay for the second year and then I can go back to Bhopal," Rehan replied easily. "I have no reason to stay here and many reasons to go back."
"You're from Bhopal?" Aahil burst out, almost spitting out his mouthful of coffee in his surprise. "I'm from Bhopal."
"Are you attending UCLA, too?" Rehan asked.
Aahil nodded silently in reply, a smile growing on his face.
"Really?" Rehan asked skeptically. "What are the chances that two people from Bhopal, who never met in that big city, would come across the world and meet at a diner like this and also be attending the same university?"
"I don't know what the chances are," Aahil said drily, "But it happened. Believe me. It happens. I'm not going to say it's destiny or anything like that. I'm not trying to hit on you," he said emphatically.
Rehan burst out laughing. "I didn't think that! In fact, I'm pretty sure I'm not your type," he quipped, raising an eyebrow at the other man.
"You're right. You're not," Aahil said, finishing up the meal.
"How do you like it?" Rehan asked, gesturing at the textbook.
Gazing down at the book, Aahil looked up with a grimace. "The course is definitely no fun, but I'm doing this for my pre-law major. I want to specialize in business law, so there is no way around it. But seriously, it's making me rethink my decision. But you're not doing business law, then why?"
"As part of my business major," Rehan replied, staring at the title of the book. "That class does not bring back pleasant memories."
"You just began working here," Aahil suddenly said. "I've been coming to this diner for the last couple of years, but haven't seen you before."
"I did," Rehan answered. "I was working at a construction site before this, but I'm hoping the diner will give me better hours." Distracted, he glanced over to a gesturing customer. "I'll be right there! Excuse me. It seems my break is over. It was good talking to you, Aahil."
"It was good talking to you, too, man," Aahil, watching the other man walk away with a smile before turning back to his studies.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"How's it going?" Aahil asked, glancing up to see Rehan approaching the table.
The two had forged a connection over the past few months as they shared the trials and tribulations of being later in life students. The two also enjoyed grumbling about how immature today's students were. It truly made him feel like they were two grumpy old men.
He shook his head, wondering at how much time he had begun to spend with Rehan. He had been hesitant on forging this friendship, having preferred to remain alone and isolated in the past. But Rehan's honest and hardworking character and optimism, despite what little he had heard about Rehan's past, had melted any resistance Aahil had. The two had even begun to study together when they realized they had a couple of overlapping classes together. The study sessions usually took place after Rehan's shift ended a few nights a week.
Rehan blew the fringe off his forehead and shook his head silently. "I'm not going to be able to study tonight," he told Aahil unhappily.
"What do you mean? We have finals, man!" Aahil protested. "You need to study. You said that you were having trouble with this material."
"I know," Rehan muttered, "But my boss wants me to cover for another worker."
"You have a test tomorrow, Rehan," Aahil enunciated carefully. "This is really important."
"You think I don't know that?" Rehan ground out, his face darkening in irritation. "If I don't work, I lose this job. If I lose this job, I can't pay my rent. I can't feed myself."
"If you don't study, you fail this class. You lose your scholarship," Aahil pointed out.
"What do you want me to do?" Rehan burst out, clearly unhappy with the pressure Aahil was putting on him. "I don't have a choice."
"You do have a choice," Aahil insisted. "Just talk to your boss. I'm sure he'd be willing to work with you on this. I'm sure he'd understand."
"Mr. Qureshi, I pay you to work, not to fraternize with the clientele," a stern voice called out from behind the two. Rehan looked around the empty diner and then turned towards his boss.
"Talk to him," Aahil encouraged Rehan.
Rehan gave a reluctant glance over his shoulder, and then walked over to the man standing at the back doors. He indicated a hand towards the back office, and then followed his boss in.
Aahil stared down at his watch, realizing that 10 minutes had elapsed since Rehan had gone to the back. Where was he? His eyes widened when Rehan stomped out minutes later. "What's wrong?" he asked worriedly, his eyes taking in the bag that Rehan had slung over his shoulder.
"Let's go," Rehan ordered, his expression dark.
"What's wrong?" he asked again, refusing to get up until he found out what had happened.
There was no answer; Rehan stood there, a blank expression on his face.
"Look, your shift is clearly over. If he gave you a hassle about it, then let me talk to him," Aahil offered. "Where is he?"
"Let's just go, Aahil," Rehan said through gritted teeth. "You wanted to study, right? Let's go study." He strode out the door and into the dark night.
"Rehan!" Aahil called out, quickly getting up and following the retreating figure. "Rehan, slow down. What's wrong?" Aahil insisted, grabbing at Rehan's arm to halt his headlong movement.
Rehan swung around, angrily pulling his arm away. "I was fired, okay?"
It was unseasonably cool for spring in California, but the two men paid no attention to the cold wind blowing over them, their minds intent on having this conversation.
"It's not okay," Aahil replied grimly, seeing that Rehan had tears in his eyes. "Your boss shouldn't have done that."
"There's a lot of things that people shouldn't be doing," Rehan said, beginning to walk again. "We'll have to find a place to study."
"Wait, that's it?" Aahil asked, following Rehan. "What about work?"
"It's over. That job is over," Rehan muttered. "What else is there to say? I'll just have to find another job."
"That's great!" Aahil said excitedly.
Rehan stopped abruptly and turned to glare at Aahil. "Are you high? What the hell does that even mean?"
"No, I didn't mean that!" Aahil said, shaking his head. "I meant that you can come work for me. I need someone to help me with the business related stuff that I get from back home. All the things my Badi Ammi keeps on sending me and insisting that I look over. I can use someone to check out the paperwork and save me the trouble. You can even pick your own hours. It'll be perfect."
Rehan's lips firmed in anger. Turning he began to walk more quickly, his face revealing the anger he was still feeling.
"Rehan! Where are you going? Rehan! Stop!" Aahil ordered. "Stop right now."
Rehan stopped and turned to glare at Aahil.
"What is wrong with you?" Aahil demanded, coming to stand next to him. He crossed his arms across his chest, his eyes boring into Rehan's.
"What is wrong with me?" Rehan asked incredulously. "What is wrong with you? Why can't you understand? Oh, I forgot. How could you? You're the great ARI."
Aahil's face fell at those words. No one knew to call him that. At least no one in this country.
"The great Aahil Raza Ibrahim.. The Nawab of Bhopal. You think I wouldn't find out?" Rehan asked, crossing his arms across his own chest. He had a bitter smirk on his face that Aahil had never seen before. "You're the reason I'm here. The Ibrahim Corporation funds scholarships at various orphanages in Bhopal. I'm one of those lucky recipients."
"What's wrong with that?" Aahil asked belligerently, slightly shivering now in the cold, night air as it began to penetrate deep within. "What's wrong with me being Aahil Raza Ibrahim? I feel like I should be apologizing for something that is not my fault."
"I'm already living on your charity," Rehan ground out, looking up to the skies for some sort of inspiration to make this man understand. "Literal charity. Now you're going to make up a position just so that you can give me more money?"
"It's not a made up position," Aahil said through gritted teeth. "What is wrong with you? Why are you acting like this? You weren't like this, Rehan."
Rehan shook his head. "It's soul-destroying enough to have no support . . . no family . . . nothing and no one in this entire world to call my own," he said in a broken voice, his voice trembling under the weight of emotion he was finally letting out. "It's hard enough to fight for every bit you can get, and to fight to keep your optimism and the ability to love alive . . . but to have what little you have taken away because people just don't understand . . ." He firmed his lips, and glared at Aahil. "You don't understand. And you're taking away my pride! Why can't you see that?"
"Rehan," Aahil murmured, reaching out a hand.
Rehan stepped back, rejecting that comfort.
"Don't be like this," Aahil said after a short, uncomfortable silence. He shifted from one foot to the other. Fiddling with his bag, he put it over the other shoulder. "Just because I have money doesn't mean life was easy for me," he finally got out. "Do you have any idea . . . ?" He stopped and took a deep breath. "It's not easy for me to say this . . . but I'd like to be your friend."
There was no response from Rehan, who seemed busy staring at his own shoes.
"You don't seem to have a friend," Aahil finally said, breaking the fraught silence. "I've seen you on campus. Always alone. We're study partners. But I think we could be friends?"
Rehan refused to look up.
Aahil bit his lip, unsure of what to say. He didn't know how he had allowed himself to care, but he did . . . he cared about this boy. He had even begun to consider him a friend, but now he realized that that had just been his mistake. And the thing was that he understood Rehan's hesitation all too well. Sighing heavily, he turned away. There was nothing more to say.
"I can use a friend," Rehan called out from behind him. "But I don't need a savior."
Aahil turned around and looked at him.
The two smiled at each other hesitantly.
Two Months Ago . . .
"What do you mean? Did she leave any provisions? No. Okay. I'll let you know."
Aahil sat staring out the window of his penthouse apartment in Southern California, his eyes trained on the public below. His mind wouldn't stop circling around the conversation he had just had with one of the Ibrahim Corporation's in-house lawyers.
His Badi Ammi was gone. It was time for him to go back home. A sick feeling was beginning to gnaw at him. He didn't want to go back. He didn't want to become the Nawab of Bhopal.
He heard the door opening and looked up to see his roommate walking in. Rehan stopped in the doorway, his eyes widening in surprise to see Aahil there before him. "Why aren't you at work?" he blurted out, referring to the job that Aahil held as an associate lawyer at a big law firm.
His eyes landed on the whiskey in Aahil's hand. He opened his mouth for a reprimand, but stopped when he saw the bleakness in Aahil's gaze. "What's wrong?" he asked instead.
"There was a phone call from Bhopal," he responded hoarsely. "It was a lawyer. My Badi Ammi has passed."
Rehan came and sat down beside Aahil, placing a hand on his arm in commiseration. "I'm sorry."
Aahil shook his head. "She was sick, but did not tell me. It was her choice. I have to go back," he uttered grimly. "I have to." His gaze revealed how much he hated that thought. He took a deep swallow from the glass, setting it down on the coffee table when the need to drink it all down in one gulp grew inside of him. "I have to take care of the Nawab's properties and businesses since grandmother has died. After all, I am the Nawab of Bhopal." His tone was anything but happy about that truth.
"Can't you just hire some trusted people to take care of things?" Rehan offered the option. "Why do you have to go back when you don't want to?"
"No, I can't," Aahil replied. "My sisters are in Bhopal. They've been staying in the college dorms, and that was okay while Badi Ammi was alive. Now that she's gone, and they're growing up . . .I have to get them married. I haven't seen them in more than a decade. I need to go back and take care of them. And the business. There are things that I can't do from here."
He got up abruptly and strode over to the big glass doors leading out to the balcony. "I don't know if I can do this and still keep my peace of mind, Rehan," turning to the man who knew his every secret. His legs were trembling beneath him. He reached out a hand and braced it against the wall. "I don't want to be in the limelight again. If I start going out amongst Bhopal's elite . . . what if rumors begin to spread? I don't want any hint of my past out there for the world to see." He sighed heavily, his shoulders slumping. His thoughts were in turmoil, and he didn't know how to stop that torrent of worry. His hands clenched into fists, the emotions roiling inside of him.
"Aahil bhai," Rehan murmured, coming to stand next to him. "Don't take it to heart so much."
The two had became roommates soon after Rehan had lost his job at the diner. While not allowing Aahil to help by giving him a job, Rehan had agreed to move in and live rent free until he could find another job. The two had become the best of friends, trusting each other enough to share their deepest secrets.
For Aahil, Rehan was the second friend he had allowed himself in his life. And . . . the best friend that he had ever had. His brother of the heart.
Rehan turned to stare at Aahil, able to see the pain that Aahil hid from the entire world. For Rehan, Aahil was his brother . . . his family . . . his support. It hurt to see his support hurting like this.
"My grandmother and I did not have the best relationship," Aahil murmured. "You know that, but she was able to keep the vultures away. No one questioned where I was because she fed them the right kind of information in the right-sized bites."
"You know that you'll be okay," Rehan encouraged him. "We'll take care of it."
Aahil looked at him in surprise. "You'll go back with me?"
"Of course," Rehan quickly answered.
"What about your job? You just got promoted to associate director in HR," he pointed out. "You've been going from one high to another, Rehan. You can't just give up everything you've been working towards in the past two years after getting your Masters. How could I take that away from you?"
"You're not taking anything away from me. Aahil bhai, you know I don't use that word lightly," he pointed out softly, gazing at him. "You are my brother in every way that counts. I am going back with you. There is nothing you can do about it," he said implacably.
Aahil nodded, grateful for this man's support. He looked out the window, a great feeling of relief welling up inside of him. But would he really be able to do this? Would he be able to go back to Bhopal and face those people again? The deep ache inside of him made him feel afraid that he really couldn't.
"Stop thinking about it," Rehan ordered. "We'll find a way through this."
"I really don't think I can do it," Aahil said softly . . . so softly that he was sure that Rehan couldn't have heard him. It was a cry for help. . . a soft cry from that little boy he used to be. But even that little boy knew that help wouldn't come.
But it was Rehan, after all. "You can do it," Rehan murmured encouragingly. "In fact, since I'm not emotionally invested in this . . . I have an idea."
turned to look at him enquiringly.
"How about when the Nawab of Bhopal returns to Bhopal, he looks a little bit different?"
Aahil quirked an eyebrow in silent question.
"How about he looks like this handsome gentlemen instead?" he asked, pointing to his own face.
"What?" Aahil asked.
"What about I pretend to be the Nawab instead?" Rehan asked. "That way you won't have to worry about the limelight while learning the ropes of the Nawab role. I'll be your 'public face'."
"You'd do that? Even knowing everything?" Aahil asked incredulously.
Rehan nodded silently.
"Because you're my brother," Rehan replied.
Aahil tightened his lips, unsure of what to say.
"And besides," Rehan continued, clearing his throat, "Who would it hurt? Right now, you're too emotionally affected that you can't be rational about this. If we do this, you'll be able to slip back into Bhopal society, and we can let the truth come out slowly."
One Month Ago . . .
"I can't wait to get to your house and sleep," Rehan groaned out loud. "I couldn't sleep a wink on that flight. I hate airplanes."
Aahil stiffened by his side. "Unbelievable."
"What's wrong?" Rehan asked, sensing the change in mood.
"Lateef at 2 o'clock," Aahil said carefully. "She's the . . ."
"Where?" Rehan asked, looking around.
"Your other right, Rehan," Aahil barked at him.
"You told me about her," Rehan said, looking in the right direction. "What is she doing here?"
"You think I know? I was expecting an attorney not a house employee. Get ready. She's very flamboyant. As you can very well see."
"Aah!" Lateef exclaimed loudly. "Aahil baba, you're finally here. Do you have any idea how long I have been waiting, sitting in these hard airport seats? I almost thought my delicate body would be permanently harmed. After all, main to hui chui mui."
Rehan raised his eyebrows at that, trying to control his smile.
Lateef raced over to the two men and clasped her hands in joy.
"You're finally back where you belong," she sang joyfully. "Do you have any idea how long I have waited for your return? Well, me and Suleiman chacha before he passed."
Aahil's smile disappeared at the reminder that the elderly man who had taken care of him to the best of his ability had recently passed, as well. The sad thing was that his passing hurt more than his own grandmother's passing had.
"Aahil baba, let me take your things," she offered enthusiastically. "We have everything ready at home. You said that you wanted to change houses, so I've been going around with the real estate agent, as well. I think we have the perfect house picked out. You just have to give your final approval." Reaching out, Lateef grabbed Aahil's bags.
Aahil tugged them back. "Uh, no. I'm not Aahil," he explained, wondering frantically if their attempts at subterfuge had failed at the first obstacle. "My name is Rehan. I'm Aahil's friend."
Lateef began to laugh, placing her dupatta in front of her face.
"What's wrong?" Rehan asked.
"How could I not know my Aahil baba?" she demanded, her hands going to her waist as she shook her head at the absurdity at their claim. "Do you think I wouldn't recognize the boy that brought me home when I was being beaten up for dressing like a girl? Or the boy who shared his meager amount of food with me?" She began to cry loudly, her mind remembering the tragedy of their shared childhood. "Why would you say that? Why would you think you could fool me?!"
"Lateef!" Aahil cried out in exasperation. "Put a sock in it, will you?" He had never thought that Lateef would recognize him so easily and so adamantly.
"See! It's the exact same attitude! Even when you're pretending to be someone else, you can't stop being the Nawab," Lateef cried out in delight. Using her dupatta, she wiped her tears away, making sure to wipe away any traces of running mascara.
Aahil noticed the looks Lateef's loud voice were drawing. If they didn't calm her down, she would reveal everything and it would be game over before the game had even started. "Lateef, stop," he ordered authoritatively.
"But, why?" Lateef asked in confusion.
"Okay, fine," Aahil said in defeat. "I am Aahil Raza Ibrahim," he admitted.
Lateef nodded. As if there had ever been any doubt.
"Just relax. I'll explain everything, but you better not let anyone know that I am the actual Nawab."
Lateef tilted her head in question. "But . ..?"
Aahil raised an eyebrow at her.
Aahil's eyes burst open, his heart racing. It seemed that he had fallen asleep for a few moments there. He looked at his watch. An hour had passed in the blink of an eye. His eyes looked up at the night sky once more.
That light was still there. But to add to it . . . there was another twinkle. Another star.
He smiled softly.
Was there hope yet for him?
Sixteen Years Ago . . .
light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have this wish I wish tonight.
"Aahil baba, I'll keep watch," Lateef said from the doorway. "You go out and look at the stars."
"If father finds out, you'll get punished," Aahil said somberly, as he sat on the bed. "He's already exploded once today. And you weren't even supposed to come on this trip with us. Why did you hide in the trunk? I told you to keep away from dad! With you coming here, he'll definitely see you."
"You are all down here for months at a time," Lateef complained, her hand playing with her short braid. "I can't protect you while I'm in Bhopal, can I?" Using the fingers of the other hand, she carefully patted down the final bandage and stepped back. "Besides, Suleiman Chacha said it would be alright and that he'll say I'm his apprentice if anyone asks."
Aahil just shook his head at the older child, and took a deep breath. "I'll go out for only a little while," he promised. "Mom used to say that wishes made on falling stars come true . . . there's going to be a meteor shower today with lots of falling stars. I read it in the newspaper that Chacha brought. I have to go out there and make a wish." His lips trembled at the thought of what his father might do if he found out. He'd told him to stay in his room.
Lateef nodded in understanding. "Go!"
"I know I shouldn't be like this," he admitted, "But it's just that I can't see any stars from here," Aahil explained, looking up at the sky from the window. "I think if I go out there, maybe they'll be easier to see."
Lateef looked confused, looking up at the sky and seeing all the stars. Her face softened when she saw the tears in Aahil's eyes.
"Go, Aahil baba. I'll keep watch," she promised.
His steps quick and hurried, despite the pain his body was still feeling, he moved across the lawn, going towards the far end of the property. His hope was that even if his father chanced to look outside, he wouldn't notice his son's black-clad figure near the far end.
As he moved closer to the wall, he took a deep breath, telling himself to relax. He sat down near it, his head tilted to look up at the sky. Despite how carefully he had been moving, the pain had become unbearable, causing him to gasp. His breaths became quiet sobs, the tears beginning to blur his vision.
He looked up into the night sky, but there was no light. He could see no stars. Rubbing at his tearing eyes, he tried once more. It seemed that his tears wouldn't stop. And if the tears couldn't stop, then how would he see the falling stars . . . how would he be able to make a wish? He wanted to see his mom, even if it meant . . .
There was a quiet rustling on the other side of the wall. He froze.
"Are you okay?" a young girl's voice called out.
He got up, moving quietly, hoping that his movements would attract no further attention. He didn't want to talk to anyone right now. He should just leave. What was the point of staying out here, anyways? It wasn't like he could see any stars today.
One final glance above. There were no stars. In fact, maybe Mom had lied. His movements jarred another one of his wounds, causing it to begin bleeding once more. He could feel the blood trickling down his ribs. Reaching down with one hand, he pressed it against the open wound, hoping to staunch the flow.
"Please don't go! Please!"
That voice sounded so desperate. But . . . why?
He stopped for a moment, willing to listen.
Taking his glass, he took a healthy swallow of the alcohol within, hoping to numb the turmoil of his mind.
"I'm sorry! . . . I'm sorry! I'm sorry! . . . I'm sorry!
Why did he remember her even now?
Sanam Ahmed Khan.
His father hadn't allowed him contact with outsiders, worrying that a chance to speak and connect would lead to certain revelations. Lateef had been his only confidant . . . his only friend for the longest time.
When he had talked to that little girl through the wall, it was the first time someone from the outside world had actually noticed what was happening and had actually cared. He could still hear the desperation in her voice as she called out to him how sorry she was.
That little girls sorrys had followed him through the years. It was proof that there were caring people out there in the world. There was goodness. But before his heart could get used to someone else caring, they had left the country. It was only years later that he had discovered the reason for their leaving the country so hastily.
.. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And he'd met her again last night. He smiled softly at that memory.
Without even knowing who she was, he had noticed her. Before the announcement had been made about the Nawab of Bhopal attending, he and Rehan had come to the gala incognito. They'd checked out the organization before making a donation and talked to some of the staff.
And Sanam had been quite noticeable. The way she moved efficiently around the ballroom, taking care of business. The way she directed other people around, using her expressive face to demonstrate her happiness or unhappiness with her co-workers. And how gracefully she moved. . . how she smiled.
He smiled in the remembered glory of that smile.
And when she had landed in his arms . . . her scent . . . . her voice . . . the way she had felt in his arms . . . all of it had imprinted on him. He shifted uncomfortably in the chair, the feel of her still making his body react.
"You were with the Nawab. What is he like? I just . . . met him once. When he was a young boy. He wouldn't remember me!"
And she'd turned out to be Sanam Ahmed Khan. The girl from the outside world. The woman that had cared enough to apologize for his pain. And she was living next door.
The smile fell away from his face.
Earlier in the Evening . . .
"Haye Allah, what is this?" Lateef cried out, his mouth closing around a spoonful of rice. "This is so delicious! Aahil baba, you have to try it!"
"Lateef, can you please tone it down?" Aahil asked, exasperated by Lateef's flamboyance, especially when he hadn't been able to sleep the entire night and he had a throbbing headache. Looking more carefully at the tableau in front of him, he realized there were three women standing at the dining table, one older than the other two.
He blinked when he saw the face of the older woman, his body tensing when he took in the familiar features. The younger woman next to her smiled at him, as well.
But it was the third woman's face he wanted to see.
Moving forward, he watched that figure tense up and then begin to turn around. Because he was watching her carefully, he saw her foot slip. Without thinking . . . without knowing . . . he was next to her and catching her. And she fell into his arms once more.
He felt his lips open and shape the words. But it was as if they were spoken by someone else from far away.
"What's this? You again. Not that I mind, but we've got to stop meeting like this."
His eyes blinked slowly, and he was unable to tear his gaze away from her eyes. She bit her lip and then looked away, a blush stealing over her cheeks.
"Allah miyah, what's wrong with you Sanam?" a voice intruded and someone pulled Sanam away from him.
His fingers grasped at air, as if wanting to hold on to her. But he shook his head roughly, trying to clear the cobwebs that had encased his thoughts. For a moment everything had seemed to disappear. But that wasn't true. The world was still there.
"My name is Zoya Ahmed Khan," the older woman introduced herself to both Rehan and Aahil. "We're your next door neighbors." She smiled happily at them, inducing the men to smile back at her in return. "This is my niece, Haya Rahat Ansari."
The two nodded their heads in greeting at the one of the young women.
"And this is my daughter . . . what the . . . ?" She turned to glare at Lateef.
"Haye Allah!" Lateef shouted, coming over with a napkin. "I'm sorry, my hand just slipped. The food was so delicious, that I got careless. I'm sorry for the juice." She began to dab at Zoya's dress.
Aahil ignored the drama, his eyes trained on Sanam and her conversation with Rehan.
Rehan was blushing as he spoke with her, reaching out to touch her hand.
His lips tightened at that touch. Just what was Rehan doing to a strange woman?
He saw her peeking at him from the corner of her eye, before turning back to smile at Rehan.
Minutes passed, and the two still spoke. What were they talking about?! His hands curled into fists. He didn't like it at all. But, his hands slowing unfurled, what right did he have to say anything? Why should he care?
Stepping back, he turned and left the room, leaving all the confusion behind.
"Aahil bhai, what are you doing there?" Rehan asked sleepily, moving over to sit on the neighboring chair.
It was near dark in the house, with the only light the one coming from the garden outside.
"It's the middle of the night, and we have multiple meetings tomorrow. We're still playing catch up with all the things your grandmother left unfinished. You need your sleep."
Aahil shrugged. "You know my sleeping habits," he offered as an explanation. "I couldn't sleep even if I wanted to. I thought that a change of environment might help me. Want a drink?" He gestured towards the bottle next to his half-filled glass.
Rehan shook his head. Hanging his head, he smiled and then looked up.
"You left so quickly this evening," he finally said, his smile falling away. "The neighbors were worried that they had done something to make you unhappy."
"It was nothing like that," Aahil said, his body stiffening with rejection at the admonishing words. "You know it's better if we don't get to know our neighbors too well. What if something got out? I haven't forgotten the precariousness of our position, but you seem to have."
"It's nothing like that," Rehan said, echoing Aahil's words. "They're different. She's different. Their daughter . . . she is just so wonderful," he breathed out. "I really like her."
Aahil stiffened even more at that confession. 'No!' his heart cried out. 'She's mine.' He straightened at that thought. 'She is not yours,' he growled to himself. 'You don't get to think that way.'
"Do you think that she would mind it if I wasn't the Nawab she thinks me?" Rehan asked in a vulnerable tone.
Aahil remained silent, unable to get any words past the knot in his throat.
"You're right," Rehan breathed out. "Of course she'd care about getting a nobody when she thought she was getting a Nawab. Who wouldn't? What was I thinking?"
"Rehan," Aahil burst out, seeing the unhappy expression on his face. "Any woman would be lucky to have you. If she can't see that, then she doesn't deserve you. Give her a chance. Since when were you the coward with your heart?"
"Just because I'm more willing to trust doesn't mean that I risk my heart freely," Rehan pointed out. "I'm more like you in that sense."
Aahil smiled sardonically at that comment. "Then stop being like me. When has being me made anyone happy? Be courageous, Rehan. If you like her enough to risk that heart of yours, then I'm happy for you," he murmured.
Rehan had finally gone, the smile on his face remaining there during the rest of their conversation.
Aahil sat back down on the chair after sending Rehan off to his sweet dreams. Where did that confidence from? This man . . . who had been hurt and abandoned by so many, and yet he still had the courage to entrust his vulnerable heart to another.
His eyes moved to sky above once more. His brow wrinkled in confusion. There was nothing there. What had happened to the stars he had seen before? He squinted, but there was nothing.
He closed his eyes, closing out that dark sky with no hint of light. He was tired of trying to find those stars.
It was better he stop trying.
A/N: Chapter 4 for your reading pleasure. Leave a comment if you like it! And this is true . . . the more comments I see, the faster I'll update. Found an online tool to make the poster. What do you all think?
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