“Shirin! Wait up!”
Shirin giggled, skidding down to a stop at the bottom of the hill.
“Catch up, slowpoke!” she called back to her sister, planting her hands on her hips.
“You’re the slowpoke!” came the immediate, accusatory reply, and moments later, Kihri came tumbling over the crest of the hill towards her.
Shirin stepped to the side as her sister rolled past, blowing a wet raspberry.
“Told you I was better,” Shirin said smugly.
Kihri clambered to her feet. “You cheated,” she accused, sticking a finger in Shirin’s face.
“I did not!”
“You just did!”
Shirin laughed, pushing her sister back a few steps. “You’re just a sore lo~ser,” she sing-songed.
“Oh yeah? Well, I’ll- I’ll tell mom that you stole those cookies last week!”
“You stole those cookies!”
Kihri grinned wickedly. “You can’t prove that.”
Shirin scowled, folding her arms. “I didn’t steal the cookies, and I didn’t cheat.”
“Oh yeah?” Kihri challenged. “Prove it! Race to the river, loser stole the cookies.”
“Deal,” Shirin said immediately, and then Kihri hooked her foot around her ankle and yanked it out from under her. Shirin hit the ground in a storm of flailing limbs, shrieking wildly, while a cackling Kihri dashed off in the direction of the river.
“Cheater!” Shirin yelled furiously after her as she scrambled to her feet, taking off after her sister.
The two twins were a study in contrasts as they ran through the trees. Shirin was the taller of the two, already lean and lanky despite her young age, whereas Kihri had a solid, slightly stocky build, which her lack of height only served to emphasise. Shirin’s white hair whipped out behind her, whereas Kihri’s dull black braid bounced against her back with the motion of her steps. Both wore similar clothing, simple shirts and loose pants held up with cord in basic colours, but Shirin’s were too short while Kihri’s flapped over her knees and elbows but pinched at the armpits. Only the cast of their faces gave any hint as to their relation – they both had the same tall, proud nose and heavy-lidded eyes, although Shirin’s was noticeably distinguished by two prominent moles near her left nostril, and the baby fat around Kihri’s jawline softened her features compared to the harsh lines of Shirin’s. No-one could deny they were siblings, but at first glance, it wouldn’t be odd to not realise they were twins.
Of course,it was a moot point; their village was small enough that everyone knew them anyway, even without their propensity for mischief-making and general rambunctiousness.
Kihri had managed to gain a decent lead with her trick, but Shirin was both fitter and had longer legs, and by the time they were halfway to the river they were neck-and-neck. Kihri tried to trip Shirin again, but her sister was ready for it and danced out of the way. Kihri stumbled and Shirin took the lead, laughing as she pulled ahead.
By the time Kihri made it to the river, Shirin had been there long enough to find a seat on a rock. She splashed her feet idly in the water as Kihri staggered up, panting and doubled-over.
“No… fair…” Kihri said through gasps. “You’re… taller…”
Shirin stuck out her tongue at her. “You should eat your beans like Maman says, then.”
Kihri made a face. “That’s not… how it works.”
“Yes too it is! I eat all my beans, and I’m taller, so it works.”
In lieu of a comeback, Kihri chose instead to push her sister into the river.
An hour or two later, the twins trudged back towards the village, clothes and hair still soggy, bickering still continuing.
Azhav was a small, quiet place, deep in the sovereignty and isolated even for a Pashtari village. When any of the children asked about this, they were usually told that their rice farms were the only viable land in the area, which was usually convincing until they grew a little older.
The twins’s argument got them a few amused looks from passers-by as they walked along the rough stone path into the village proper. It had been a lifelong occurrence for the twins – most everyone knew their parents in some capacity, or were friends with their older siblings, or were related to them in some fashion. Recently, though, some of the passing glances had turned sour, or even taken on a note of condescending pity. Kihri ignored those ones, but Shirin met each one with all the blistering rage and righteous fury that only an eight-year-old could muster.
The twins took an ambling path through the village, criss-crossing its haphazard streets and lanes, taking their time on their way back towards their house. Subtly, Kihri attempted to steer them away from the small copse of trees where most of the other children spent their free time, but Shirin either missed her signals or chose to ignore them.
There were about half a dozen other kids in the copse, ranging from a few years younger than the twins to half a decade older. The older ones tracked Shirin and Kihri as they walked past, and Shirin straightened her spine and puffed out her chest as she met their stares head-on. Kihri, on the other hand, tried to keep her sister between her and the other children at all times, posture bowed and neck bent.
The other children sneered, but didn’t say anything – it had already been well known that Shirin would fly into a screaming rage in defense of her twin, and recent events had only served to reinforce that reputation.
“Don’t,” Kihri murmured, tugging at her sister’s hand.
“They’re just being a bunch of stupid,” and then Shirin said a word she’d picked up from their sister, that would’ve gotten her a solid whupping if their parents heard. “You gotta show them you’re not afraid.”
“I am afraid,” Kihri said, tugging more insistently. “Just leave it, Shi.”
Shirin shot one last fierce glare at the other kids, then finally turned away. “Fine,” she grumbled. “I’m not scared.”
Kihri’s usual mischievous manner returned as they rounded a corner and moved out of sight. “Suuuuure you’re not. Scaredy-cat.”
“You’re the scaredy-cat,” Shirin muttered indignantly, but she didn’t let go of her sister’s hand.
The Vyas home was towards the outskirts of the village, where the individual buildings were more spread out from each other. It was a four-generational household, and thus took up more space than the two or three-generational families, who tended to live closer in to the centre.Two goats grazed idly at the long grasses around the house, and a brown cat sunned on a windowsill.
The twins slowed as they approached the house, glancing around cautiously.
Not, however, cautiously enough.
A hand clapped down on each of their shoulders, and the twins froze.
“There you are,” a voice hissed, and they both turned back to find their eldest sister Shadin towering over them. A decade older than them at eighteen, she was closer in build and appearance to Shirin than Kihri, but with dull black hair instead of white.
“Shad~i,” the twins whined in perfect synchronicity.
Their sister dragged them over to a nearby bench and pushed them down onto it, standing over them with her arms folded and a sour expression on her face.
“I said one thing,” their sister hissed. “One thing. Can either of you even tell me what it was?”
Kihri hung her head awkwardly, but Shirin refused to back down. “Stay at the house,” she said, lifting her chin.
“Oh, so you did hear me! So you have no reason whatsoever to not have listened!”
“We just wanted to go to the river,” Kihri said quietly, one foot scratching at the dirt.
“That’s still running off, ███████.”
Shirin and Kihri erupted in simultaneous protest.
“Don’t call me that!” Kihri yelled.
“That’s not her name.” Shirin said at the same time, quiet but firm.
Shadin rolled her eyes. “Stars, are you two still on this?”
“My name is Kihri,” Kihri insisted, stamping a foot on the ground. “I told you!”
“Oh? And what about you, Shirin? Do you have some fancy new make-pretend name as well.”
“You’re being mean,” Shirin said, scowling.
“And you two are being annoying,” Shadin snapped. “Look, just… don’t run off anymore, okay? Maman will have my ass if you two got lost again.”
“We weren’t lost,” Shirin insisted.
“That’s not the point.” Shadin sighed, rubbing her forehead. “Go inside. Stay in your room. Or I’m telling Maman you stole those cookies last week.”
She endured the twins’ overlapping protestations for a few seconds, then clapped her hands together loudly, silencing them.
“Inside,” she hissed. “Now.”
They went inside.
The room they shared with their brother was at the back of the house, small and cramped, beds pushed against the two walls and a wobbly dresser against the third. Simran was twelve and starting to smell, and it lingered in the room even when he wasn’t there.
Shirin stalked inside and threw herself down on the bed with a huff. Kihri, following behind, carefully closed the door and sat down beside her.
“Do you want to read?” she offered tentatively. They had a small collection of comic books in Brechtin, primarily because none of the other children wanted books they couldn’t understand. The twins liked to make up a story to match the images, slightly different every time.
“No,” Shirin said, flopping backwards with her arms out. “I want to leave.”
“…leave the house?”
“Leave all of this!”
“You want to… leave the village?”
Shirin turned her head to look at her incredulously . “You don’t?!”
Kihri shrank inwards. “…our family is here.”
“Our family sucks,” Shirin insisted loudly. “Who cares where they are!”
“But… they’re our family.”
Shirin grabbed her sister’s hand, squeezing it. “We’re our family. We don’t need them. We don’t need anyone. Okay?”
Kihri glanced up at her sister. “…okay.”
“…up, wake up, wake up wake up wake up wake up wake up-”
“<M’up, m’up>,” Zarah mumbled into the crook of her elbow. “<Five minutes>.”
“Zarah,” Kihri’s voice hissed in her ear. “Customer. Wake. Up.”
It took her a few seconds to process and translate the words, but as soon as she did she jolted upright, hastily wiping the thin trail of drool from her chin.
“About time,” Kihri said, rolling her eyes. “Anyone else would have fired you by now, you know?”
“<Shut up>,” Zarah muttered under her breath.
The two months since the incident at the school had been… an adjustment, to put it lightly.
The first night, she’d fallen asleep the instant her head touched the pillow, still exhausted and drained. The second night, though, she’d recovered enough that sleep hadn’t come immediately, and lying there in a strange bed in an unfamiliar apartment, she was overcome with the absolute certainty that something awful was about to happen, that she had to get out that instant or she was going to die, and get Mrs. B killed along with her.
She’d been halfway out the door with her bag when Kihri caught up with her, and then their argument had gotten loud enough to wake Mrs. B. Zarah hadn’t been able to leave with her right there, and they’d ended up sitting down over the kitchen table and talking through how she felt.
It had been…
To have someone to talk to (that wasn’t Kihri),to have someone listen, actually listen and understand what she was saying…
It had been-
It had been nice.
She still had trouble sleeping, too quick to wake up at the slightest noise or disturbance, too worked-up to sleep at all. Sometimes, she would get up, take her bag, and just sit in front of the door; not intending to leave, but not feeling safe without the constant reminder that she could.
A quick check on the security camera showed Zarah the customer browsing through the snack isle, so she took a few moments to tidy herself up, hiding the textbook she’d fallen asleep on before checking her appearance in a small clamshell mirror.
A stranger looked back at her.
Two months later, the furor over the Eastwood Massacre was starting to die down, if only because of a lack of new evidence. In the immediate aftermath, though, it had been all over the news, and while Zarah’s white hair wasn’t enough of a distinguishing feature on its own, they’d decided that it was better to be safe than sorry.
So now, Zarah tied her hair up in a tight bun in the mornings and covered it with a beanie, in a pale golden colour that she was secretly quite fond of. To add to the effect, Mrs. B had sewn sections of a wig into it, so it looked like Zarah was wearing it over straight, black, chin-length hair. It was a little unnerving, how drastically it changed her face – the lines that were normally smoothed out by her wiry mop now seemed even sharper, her already-long face seeming even more so without the wider profile that her real hair created.
The colour, on the other hand, just brought back memories of the past, which was probably a contributing factor to the number of dreams she’d been having about it after years of putting their childhood out of her mind.
“You’ve got a bit of hair poking out back here,” Kihri said, and Zarah glanced around to find her floating behind her chair, invisible to her mirror.
She nodded her thanks, and reached back to tuck the loose bit of hair back up underneath the beanie.
“Okay, now, what’s your line?”
Zarah sighed. “Hello, and welcome to Market Square. How can I help you today?”
“Good. But when you do it for real, try and sound a little less like your fingernails are being pulled out.”
“Only a little less?”
Kihri shrugged one shoulder. “I dream big, but not that big.”
Zarah suppressed a snort, turning forward as the customer approached. It was a teenage girl in casual clothing, bearing a bag of chips and a few chocolate bars. She met Zarah’s eyes, and frowned a little.
“Hello,” Zarah said, doing her best to sound cheery, “and welcome to Market Square. How can I help you today?”
“Just these, please,” the girl said, placing her items on the counter. She seemed distracted, and her eyes kept flicking up to Zarah’s face and then back down again.
Zarah was familiar with being stared at, so she did her best to ignore it while she scanned the food (with Kihri hovering over her shoulder and offering reminders of how the register worked).
“Here is your change,” Zarah said after she’d paid, reaching out to drop it into her hand. “Have a nice day.”
“Thanks-” The girl’s head snapped up, her eyes going wide. “Oh shit, it’s you!”
Zarah blinked. “I- excuse me?”
She cackled. “Oh, I knew you looked familiar, but I just couldn’t place it. I’m terrible with faces, y’know, but I didn’t think it was this bad, yeesh. If I should remember anyone, it’d be you, right?”
I have… no idea who this is.
She wanted to turn to Kihri for help, but the girl was looking at her too intensely for that to go unnoticed.
Clearly, her confusion must’ve shown – the girl’s face fell slightly. “Oh. You don’t… remember me. That makes sense, I don’t know why I thought-”
“Mary!” Kihri half-shouted in Zarah’s ear, making her flinch. “I knew I knew it!”
That name, finally, stirred up something in Zarah’s memory.
“From the school?” she asked without thinking. The chatty, strangely-fearless girl, the one who’d reminded her of Kihri.
The girl immediately perked up. “Yeah! Mary! And you’re-” she swung an invisible hammer, making a whoosh noise with her mouth, “-right?”
Zarah flinched, waving her down. “Not- be careful, please.”
“Ohhh, right,” Mary said, “I got it. Keepin it on the down-low, yeah, okay.” She tapped the side of her nose and winked. “Love what you did with your hair, by the way. Very chic.”
“A wig,” Zarah said flatly. “You- Mary.” The use of her name got a strange reaction out of the girl, one Zarah couldn’t quite puzzle out. “Please,” she said quietly, “do not tell anyone. I do not- I am not-” She dug her nails into the palm of her hand. “This is my life,” she whispered.
“Oh,” Mary said. “Oh, yeah. Of course, I didn’t think you’d- it’s fine, it’s fine, I totally get it. I just- I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, y’know?” She rubbed the back of her head, looking down, and for a second Zarah almost thought she was blushing. “You saved my life, yeah? The whole- knight in shining armour shit, but more like dusty armour really, ha. I wanted… I wanted to t-” She pursed her lips. “Thank you,” she managed to force out, acting like it had taken real physical effort.
Zarah looked away, an uncomfortable warm feeling swelling in her chest. “…not necessary. I… had other reasons for being there.”
“Dude,” Mary scoffed. “I don’t care if you were there to steal our all shit. You still saved literally all our lives with your… magic bullshit.”
Zarah shushed her again. “Quiet, please! Not that word, either.”
“What?” Mary asked at a lower volume. “You’re trying to pretend you aren’t some freaky wizard zombie with glowy powers? Cause-” She cut herself off, eyes going wide. “Holy shit, wait, you’re a freaky wizard zombie with glowy powers!”
“I reject that title,” Zarah said sourly.
“Really?” Kihri said. “I thought you’d be all over it, personally.”
“No, that’s not-” Mary hurriedly pulled out her phone and began scrolling. “Can’t believe I didn’t make the connection before, my god. My brain is not working. Anyway, if I saw some more freaky glowy shit, that’d be like, your department, right? When you’re out and about, doing your thing?”
“I- I am not have a thing,” Zarah protested weakly. “I am not ‘out and about’!”
“Oh?” Mary said, turning her phone so the screen faced Zarah. “So you have no idea who this is?”
When one was a figure of public interest, the smart thing to do would be to avoid drawing attention to oneself or going out in public.
Zarah was not always good at doing the smart thing.
On the screen of Mary’s phone, there was a photo. It was blurry and dark, having clearly been taken from a distance at night, but there was enough detail to make out a figure wearing a bright yellow raincoat.
Without looking, Zarah could feel Kihri’s glare burning twin holes in her skull.
She sighed, sliding a piece of paper and a pen under the plastic screen to Mary. “Your number,” she said. “Tell me later.”
“No,” Zarah said. “I’m working.”