We were resting by the fireplace, just as we always did on cold winter nights. Assef sat cross-legged and barefoot in dark green pyjamas and I, in cotton nightgown, lay with my head on his lap. His fingers softly glided through my hair.
I should have been at peace. Instead, I was wrestling with a thought - one that, should I refuse to let it out, would only serve to eat me up from the inside.
"Do you.." I hesitated. Sitting up, I looked around to check Tanya wasn't listening - we were speaking German, after all - and dropped my voice to a whisper. "Do you think they'll ever find her?"
My brother needed no explanation. "Zainab?"
I nodded. "Yeah. I'm.. I can't stop thinking about it. Do you think we hid her well enough?"
"Kiddo," Assef laughed, ruffling my hair. "Seriously, you worry too much. Who cares if they find her? There isn't a shred of evidence in those woods that could link us to the killing."
"What about suspects?" I asked. "You're sure we won't come under fire?"
"Saria. If the police are going to be looking for anybody, it'll be pedophiles and child-stalkers they'll target, not two rich kids with a squeaky-clean background."
Squeaky clean? The thought made me laugh. Assef had, as usual, managed to make me feel better without even trying. It was a great talent of his and one of the many, many reasons I loved him.
I closed my eyes, returning my head to its previous place on his lap. "Thanks."
"... Reassuring me, I guess."
There was silence. Then, in a voice barely above a gentle whisper, Assef spoke again. "You own that moment, kiddo. Don't let anyone take it away from you."
And those were the last words spoken between us as night closed in, taking me to slumber with it.
I woke, little over an hour later, to the sound of gunshots.
"W-What the fuck?!" I exclaimed, putting a hand over my chest to calm my rapidly-thumping heart.
Assef leapt to his feet, tugging on my arm to pull me up. "Gunshots, kiddo, that's gunshots."
You think I don't know that? I thought sarcastically, but refrained from saying it out loud. Now was not the time. "Yeah.. I know.. but why...?"
"Don't know. Don't care right now. Just... come with me, okay? You can stay in my room tonight."
Without another word, he grabbed my hand, practically dragging me up the stairs and into his room. I didn't sleep there often, only in times when I was too frightened or upset to sleep on my own.
Another gunshot rang out, closer this time. I nearly jumped out of my skin, scurrying to the bed and pulling the covers over myself - just as I used to as a child after a nightmare. Assef climbed in beside me, pulling me close and covering my ears with both his hands.
"It's okay, kiddo," he whispered, his breath hot on the back of my neck. "They won't hurt us, I promise. It's okay. It's okay."
The words were like a mantra, softly repeated over and over again. To this day, though, I can't tell who he was trying to reassure - me or himself.
And that, above anything else that night, is what frightened me the most.
The monarchy had ended.
Mahmood explained it to us all at breakfast the next morning. While the king was away, his cousin, Daoud Khan, had organised a coup and overthrown the monarchy. Afghanistan was a democracy now, something it had never been before.
"It's a good thing, Sar," Assef said that afternoon as we sat on a wall by the barracks, legs dangling and handfuls of cashew nuts in our laps. Wali and Kamal had joined us, and were sitting on the ground like the good dogs they were.
He smiled. "Of course. Mahmood knows Daoud Khan, after all. That means we're already in his favour. He came for dinner last year, remember?"
I nodded, though I wasn't too sure if I did remember or not. Mahmood had a lot of guests for dinner last year, he'd just gotten his big promotion and was doing a tonne of ass-licking at the time. None of his guests mattered to me, which is probably why I couldn't remember them.
"My father says it's wrong," Wali piped up. "He says without the king we'll have power and freedom we shouldn't. He says it goes against Allah -"
"I don't give a fuck." Assef kicked Wali in the back, causing the other boy to lurch forward slightly with a low whimper. "Don't talk unless you've got something useful to say, got it?"
Wali nodded, and it was silent after that. Because we all knew that, what Assef really meant, was "don't talk unless you agree with me."
And I was the only one who ever truly did.
It was mid-afternoon when we happened upon Amir and Hassan. They'd passed by us at the barracks, arms linked, not paying any attention to their surroundings. Amir was telling Hassan something, his eyes bright, and Hassan was listening ever so intently.
Every so often, he'd laugh, as though Amir's words were the funniest he'd ever heard in his life.
Pathetic, I thought, acting like they're friends. I thought I'd stamped that out, didn't I? Son of a bitch, Amir, get your fucking hands off him, he's scum! Fucking scum!
Assef, probably sensing my boiling rage, picked up a stone and lobbed it at the boys. It struck Hassan right in the back, making him jump and cry out in pain. Amir whipped around, his eyes widening in terror at the sight of us.
"Good afternoon, kunis." Assef spread his arms out in mock-welcome. When he didn't get a response from either of them, he turned to Hassan. "Hey, flat-nose, how's Babalu?"
He was referring to Hassan's father, Ali, a hideously disfigured and disabled man with a face that would haunt a child's nightmares. Hassan gave a small squeak and moved behind Amir, as if he hoped the Pashtun boy would defend him.
"The king is gone, did you hear?" Assef asked. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "and good riddance I say. My father knows the president, did you know that, Amir?"
"S-So does m-my father.." Amir's voice was so quiet I could barely hear him. He was looking at his feet, refusing to meet my brother's stern gaze.
"So does my father," Assef mimicked in a whiny voice. I laughed, and he gave me a sly, mischievous smile before continuing. "Well, Daoud Khan dined at our house last year, and next time he comes I'm going to have a talk with him, man to man. I'm going to tell him about Hitler. Now there was a great man, a great leader. A man with a vision."
"Baba s-says Hitler was crazy.. that he ordered a lot of innocent people killed.
It was the first time I'd ever heard Amir disagree so blatantly with Assef before. And I didn't like it. I didn't like it one bit.
Assef scoffed. "You sound like our mother and she's German. She should know better. But then again, you have to read books they don't give us in school. I have, and now my eyes have been opened. And I've got a vision, do you know what it is?"
Nobody spoke, but that didn't bother him. Hitler was Assef's idol, had been since he was my age. He wouldn't pass up a chance to educate someone on his beliefs - beliefs I shared, though I'll admit I didn't quite know as much about Nazism as he did.
"Afghanistan is the land of the Pashtuns," Assef said. "It always has been, always will be. We are the pure Afghans, not this flat-nose here." He was reaching for something in his back pocket, his eyes fixed on Hassan's terrified face. "They pollute our homeland, they dirty our blood. Afghanistan for Pashtuns, I say. That's my -"
He stopped, looked at me, and took my hand. "That's our vision."
"J-Just.. let us g-go, Assef." Amir took a step backwards, almost tripping over his own feet. "We're not.. bothering y-you.."
"Actually, you are," Assef said, slowly sliding his brass knuckles onto his hands. They glinted in the sunlight, a reminder of the power my brother held. "You bother me a lot. In fact, you bother me more than this Hazara here. How can you talk to him, play with him, let him touch you? How can you call him your friend?"
Assef turned, his eyes meeting mine. I recognized the look in them almost instantly. He wanted to hurt Amir, to punish him. And though I may have liked the boy, I wasn't naive.
He still needed to be taught a lesson.
"You're a disgrace, Amir," Assef said. "You're a disgrace to Afghanistan, a disgrace to us."
He turned, fist raised.
And stopped dead in his tracks.
What I saw made my blood boil. Hassan had bent down while the rest of us weren't looking, picked up a small rock and put it in the cup of his slingshot. Now, with trembling hands, he was aiming it right at my brother's eye.
"Leave us alone, a-agha.."
"Put it down, Hazara."
"P-Please leave us be, agha."
Assef laughed. "Okay. Obviously you don't know how to count, so let me help you. There are four of us, and two of you."
"And maybe," Hassan said, in a voice that barely masked the fear I knew he held, "you didn't notice that I'm the one holding the slingshot. If you make a move, they'll have to change your name from Assef the Ear Eater, to One Eyed Assef."
Someone snarled. Someone was running at Hassan now, full speed, screaming in full, unbridled rage.
"Calm, kiddo!" I felt Assef's strong arms grab me around the waist, pulling me back.
That someone was me.
Wali and Kamal were staring from me, to Assef, to Hassan, eyes wide, mouths agape. For a long time, no one spoke. Then, Assef took a deep breath.
"You should know something about me, Hazara." Assef kept one arm around my waist, the other pointing at Hassan, who was still aiming the slingshot at us. "I'm a very patient person. This doesn't end here. It doesn't end for you, either, Amir."
He had to practically drag me away. I was boiling, shaking in rage, like a pressure cooker about to blow. Someone had threatened my brother, someone wanted to hurt the one person I loved more than anything else in this world. And that someone was a low-life, worthless Hazara. A boy not worthy to lick the dirt from our shoes had the audacity to threaten Assef with harm.
Just the thought alone filled me with a rage the likes of which I had never experienced before. Not even Zainab had made me this angry.
Hassan had to burn, I realised, as Assef led me away. He had to suffer, had to be punished, had to be made rue the day he'd ever dared to cross the Ahmed siblings. He had crossed into my territory now and I would show him no mercy.
I had a new enemy to add to my list.