Laide squeezed her eyes tight, feeling her cheeks warm instinctively. “No thanks.”

Clucking his tongue, Tahj reached down and swiftly grabbed hold of her crutches before she could protest. When she lifted her teary eyes to his face, he glared back at her. “I don’t think you have a choice since your mom or dad can’t pick you up.” He then tilted his head and smiled impishly at her. “Besides, I’m going your way.”

“He has a point there,” Mrs. Han said in open amusement at the two. She hid a smile, having witnessed their altercations many times. “You might as well take his offer.”

Laide sighed heavily, straightening her shoulders. She didn’t want to go with him, knowing he would use it against her someday, but she really had no choice. “I suppose…” She made sure her glare seared his smirking face. “But don’t you think for a second that I’m doing this because I’m desperate.”

“Aren’t you?” his raised brow replied silently, a smile twitching the corner of his mouth.

“You have my crutches and won’t leave me alone,” she replied firmly. “I’m doing you a favor, buzzo.” Laide narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you understand?”

Tahj merely nodded with ease. “Of course… Now come on.” Handing her the crutches, he glanced over her head at Mrs. Han and winked at her. “See you on Wednesday!”

“Be safe getting home,” Mrs. Han called in amusement as the two exited the office.

Quietly, the two of them made their way slowly to his car, a black Echo 2000 that stood alone in the youth parking lot.

Laide slowed to a stop in front of it and smirked. “Since when did you get the money to get this?”

Tahj rolled his eyes as he clicked open the car, walking to her side to open the door. “I have a job.”

“Ah, at your father’s store?” Laide teased lightly, shuffling to her side of the car. She’d seen him a couple of times at Rani & Patel Indian Grocers. She hid a smile as she recalled his stunned expression when she found him stacking bunches of bananas, balancing her weight on her good leg.

“Just get inside…” he muttered, reaching for her crutches to help her into her seat.

“Hey wait! Tahj, Laide!” a female voice shrieked loudly behind them.

Both Laide and Tahj glanced behind to see a petite girl half-running, half-skipping to the car. They both swallowed a groan although Tahj sighed loudly as she approached them. At Laide’s sharp jab at his side, he glared down at her mocking gaze.

The girl named Anita slowed right behind the car and grinned at them. “Can I get a ride?” her big eyes widened in expectation.

“Sure!” Laide answered.

“We’re not going your way,” Tahj talked above Laide and promptly glared down at her. “It’s not your car,” he muttered only for her ears.

Laide blinked at her before turning to Anita with an encouraging smile. “Oh don’t worry, Anita. I’m sure Tahj would love to give you a ride… right?” she pulled her gaze back to his face, grinning impishly.

Tahj narrowed his eyes at her but forced himself to nod. “Sure, why not?” he laughed sardonically.

“Okay great!” Anita shuffled around them and ducked inside the front seat.

“Bu—“” Tahj swallowed a protest when Anita buckled the seatbelt and snuggled into the front seat.

Anita peered up at him, batting her long lashes. “Wow, your car is so comfortable, Tahj.”

Tahj managed a smile and nodded before turning to met Laide’s mocking smile. He watched as she opened the back door and slipped inside, leaving him to stare at the two passengers in his car. The throbbing at the side of his temple intensified and Tahj heaved a sigh before trudging to his side.

Laide remained quiet as Anita conversed from everything to her first semester at college to how she was happy that Tahj had transferred back to the university in town. When Anita stroked his ego and praised the talent of his saxophone playing, Laide steeled herself against the deep yet hesitant laugh that escaped Tahj’s mouth. A warm shiver skittered up her spine and she frowned, straightening her back. “It’d be nice to switch the style of music though, don’t you think? We can’t always play jazz praise songs, Tahj Karim.”

Anita giggled loudly, slapping Tahj’s arm. “Good one, Laide!”

Tahj glanced up at the rear-view mirror and glared at Laide’s shadowed face. When they passed a streetlight, he noticed she’d stuck her tongue out at him and he narrowed his eyes at her. In a silent challenge, she raised her brow at him before he turned his gaze back to the street ahead.

His headache had increased to a higher, unbearable level by the time Tahj pulled in front of Anita’s bungalow home across town. He managed a smile when she paused to wave at him before hurrying into her house. Glancing behind him at Laide who sat still, Tahj sighed heavily and pushed open the door.

Laide gritted her teeth, reluctantly accepting his hand to help her to the front seat. “I could’ve sat in the front seat.” She winced when he slammed the door and strode to his side of the car. With a steely glare in front of her, Laide crossed her arms and waited for him to start driving.

“We’re not finished,” Tahj said in a low voice, reversing onto the main street. “You still haven’t told me what happened to your leg.”

Laide snorted. “I don’t have to tell you anything. Mind your own business.”

Tahj snorted in reply and soon the two sat in uncomfortable silence, both forcing their attention on the taillights of cars ahead and around them.

After a few moments, Laide shifted her right leg and bit her bottom lip at the dull pain that traveled up her leg. She closed her eyes and leaned back her head, when she heard a sharp intake of breath from beside her. Lifting back up her head, she opened her mouth to say something but stopped when she noticed the furious gleam in his eyes. She was rendered speechless, gaping at him.

Whipping his head back to the front, Tahj swiftly turned into an empty gas station and stopped the car.

Laide steeled her face although her heart was racing, fearing that she’d taken things too far and now she was in trouble. She gripped the edge of the seat, glancing worriedly at the car lock before she looked back at him, now leaning against the steering wheel, head down. “What are you doing? Tahj…” she said in a trembling whisper.

Tahj flinched at her soft tone and gripped the steering wheel.

“Tahj?” she asked again, her hesitant tone causing a shiver up his arms.

“It was always you…” he heard himself saying quietly.

Laide blinked at him, staring at his fingers tightly wrapping around the steering wheel.

“You were always the one…” He lifted his eyes to look into hers, shadowed by the dark. “And to think, you were always there.”

“Tahj…” she started to say but stopped when he shook his head firmly. Laide swallowed hard, feeling her heartbeat pick up as his darkened gaze skimmed her face but she couldn’t look away.

“Here I am, falling for you…” he stalled upon her sharp intake of breath and his brow furrowed. “Look, I tried to stop it, to laugh it off like it was a joke…” He took a breath and released it shakily. “You were always on my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about you, like a fool.”

Laide bit her bottom lip, hearing his words loud and clear but not wanting to believe it. How could it be? They’d been fighting with each other for almost five years now. What was he saying?

… to be continued…

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