Albuquerque, NMEarly afternoon
Darya pulled a loose strand of brown hair away from her eyes and tucked it back behind her ear, staring across the street and up over the buildings of the University of New Mexico, into the sky and the building thunderheads coming down from the north. Finally
, she thought. Monsoons are late this year.
She adjusted her head scarf, thankfully made of very light weight, loose-woven cloth, and turned to walk into the brick paved alley that led to Uncle Yousef's coffee bar.
The Bricklight District had seen better days, back when the country was not so full of paranoia. She had no idea what had originally been built here, but now it was the college student shopping district, and while its official borders were barely two blocks long, students from across Central scattered nearly two miles in either direction to the various restaurants, shops, and bars to converse, do homework, and buy unnecessary trinkets. And because of the wonderfully diverse philosophies that came with a college population, Yousef's coffee bar, The Oasis, was one of the more popular spots in the area. This, more than anything else, was what kept Darya in spending money, and prevented her from finding a 'real' job further into the city.
Following the death of her parents, the young Iranian-American (or, as her grandmother preferred, Persian
-American) was suddenly made aware of how intolerant people in the country could really be. She knew, from history classes, that most non-white groups had suffered, at least for a time, the prejudices of the majority population, and now was simply the Middle Eastern descendant's turn. She was not
prepared for how much it stung. As one of the older of the third generation in the country, she knew that her uncles and aunts took a sort of enthusiastic pride in their heritage, which was the only reason she knew what 'the old country' even looked like. They suffered even worse than she did, and occasionally at dinner she could feel
the subtle anger as the news echoed off yet another attack somewhere in the world.
The family wasn't particularly religious, except for Grandmother Fatemeh, who followed the old Zoroastrian ways (which no one else did, and it was a favourite topic of the more educated of the third generation as to how the hell she had even learned
them, rare as they were these days). But most of them, growing up in a Muslim country, at least obliquely followed the Twelver Shi'a faith. Thankfully, here everything was much less strict, and with the partial shield of Uncle Hossein being a cleric at the local mosque and also quite liberal, no one complained if she 'forgot' her rousari every once in a while to feel rebellious. But she never did it to feel rebellious, she did it so that she could feel safe
. Even in a city as laid back as Albuquerque, she knew she wasn't imagining some of the stares she got. Even on campus, there was a vague, ephemeral fog of suspicion. It weighed heavily on her, so she took the opportunity every once in a great while to dress 'normally' and feel free. Unfortunately, it also had the side effect of depressing her, since it was obviously her nominal faith that inspired the feeling.
She came around the corner and into view of the front of The Oasis, a one story building decked out in false old Persian decoration, replete with arches of plywood painted with the dizzying geometric patterns in blue and white that she found so oddly comforting. The outer patio, fenced off with an ornate wrought iron fence two feet high, held five circular table large enough for four people to sit comfortably. Two of those were occupied by college students, drinking coffee, chatting, and both groups had apparently ordered hookahs. That was a popular enough activity that the alleyway generally smelled of the various delicious flavours they had, and always the warm scent of burning charcoal. Darya waved to one of the students she recognised from a class as she moved through the patio and went inside, the tiny real silver bells ringing to announce her entry.
The inside held a multitude of booths, all able to be closed off with hanging drapes for privacy. Each booth held a low rectangular table for six, and chairs. Each had a subtle colour difference, and were referred to by colour instead of number. Currently, only the Green and Red had customers in them. Darya grinned at her cousin Ahmad manning the register. “<Is your beastly slave driver of a father around?>” she asked as she walked up. Ahmad looked at her darkly.
“<Of course he is, oh wise scholar. He is in his cave, where he has been cursing the sky dark for the past hour.>”
“Oh no. It's rent week, isn't it?” Darya shook her head. “Business hasn't been that bad lately, has it?”
“No,” Ahmad said, smiling. “But you know him. A single penny more than he wants leaving his hand is worth a dime to him. We are doing fine.”
A shout from the office made them both jump “<Darya! Come back here!>”
Ahmad shrugged and went back to reading his magazine. “Best do as he says. You know what he's like when he is spending money.”
Darya shook her head at her cousin as she slipped around the counter and behind him. Even at a year older than her, he had not inherited his father's bulk, and was a skinny lad with barely any facial hair. She knew he suffered many admonishments and unwanted advisements from his father and their uncles about how to be more manly, and that he didn't give a hoot for any of them. Lives like his in the clan made Darya more than thankful she had been born a girl.
Walking down the narrow hallway past the walk-in cooler and the kitchen, she poked her head around the corner of the office door, rousari pulled at an awkward angle by the motion and falling over one eye as she said sweetly, “<Yes, Uncle Yousef?>”
Yousef looked up at her while in the midst a messy wave of paperwork, something she thought he secretly enjoyed more than running the actual business
end of the bar, which he generally left to Ahmad and his other son Thomas. Yousef's impressive beard, curled and oiled in the 'ancient' way to make a sort of cone down from his chin, quivered slightly, and he narrowed his eyes at her while she readjusted her rousari.
“<Are we pretending to be Johnny Depp today, Darya?>”
She rolled her eyes. “<No, Uncle. What did you need?>”
He leaned back in his chair, showing his torso more clearly. Darya noted that the diet Aunt Reyhan had begun enforcing, while making Yousef more irritable, had begun its work of cutting down on the pudgy expanse. Another fifty pounds and I will have to stop teasing him,
she thought to herself slyly.
“<Hossein is calling a family meeting tonight. It is about you again.>” He held his hands behind his head, and frowned slightly. Yousef had been one of her relatives who, while worried for her, had demanded she be free to use her abilities for the good of all, and took a sort of fierce pride in her powers, more so than the rest of the clan. It was why she was allowed to practise at his house out in Bernalillo, where her privacy was far
more assured than anywhere in Albuquerque itself.
“<I believe he means to call for a cease to your practises,>” he said with a sigh. “<And honestly, given the current situation, I cannot find fault in it.>”
“<What!?>” Darya exclaimed explosively. She heard Ahmad jump out front. “<What do you mean, you cannot find fault in it!? You were one of the family I thought I could count on for support in this the most!>”
Yousef's face grew dark with anger. “<Do not
blame me for this, daughter of my most beloved brother! Blame those disgusting fools who hunt you! While they exist, it is not only you who are in danger!>” He angrily tossed a newspaper at her, which she caught and snapped open, meaning to throw it back at him. But the front article caught her attention, and she began reading in dawning horror.
The article began with the startling headline, “WAR BREAKS OUT IN URBAN CENTERS!!!” The picture was of a young man being dragged out into the street to a waiting execution squad of HoH, obviously shot candidly from cover. Below, the article's main body described the events relating to the terrorist group, listing names and dates of fights, and which cities had been most affected. Scanning the list, she noted that nothing came any closer to her own town than Houston, but the effects were rapidly spreading. And even worse, they had made good on their speech. Innocent bystanders who protested were shot as well as metahumans, and entire families had been 'purged'. Yousef nodded as her expression hardened.
“<You see, it is not just you and those friends of yours who are in danger. The whole family will be targeted if they identify you. Thus, the family must make a final decision now.>”
Darya glanced up at him, wiping tears from her eyes. “<What do you mean by 'final decision', Uncle?”
“<You will see tonight. Come, there is work to do here.>”
Fatemeh's house, AlbuqerqueThat night
Fatemeh's house was one that felt like home to all who visited it. Enticing smells often floated along the first floor whenever Darya or her grandmother (most likely both) were working. The place was full of well worn and well cared for furniture, and every inch of tile and hardwood floor was covered in hand-woven rugs, with the exception of the front hall where they gave way to bare tiles so that people's filthy shoes would not muss them. Aside from Fatemeh, Darya, and her siblings, Uncles Zurvan and Sajad lived here in the guest house with their two children, and Uncle Bashir lived here while working odd jobs with temp companies. Tonight, however, every single member of the family had gathered, as this was the heart of the family itself.
Hossein held up his hands placatingly as Darya stalked up to him, the soles of her trainers smacking hard on the tile floor as she crossed the entryway to the front door where he had just come in.
“<Beloved niece, I know that you are frustrated, and I assure->” He stopped short as Darya wrapped her arms around him in a fierce hug, and he chuckled as he patted her shoulder. “<Ah, forgiveness. You looked so angry.>”
Darya lifted her head, staring up a few inches into his kindly, bearded face. Her own brown eyes still had tears at the corners of them, which she hadn't been able to stop for a few hours now. “I am, Uncle Hossein, but not at you. It is at them
Hossein nodded. He did not have to ask as to whom she referred. The whole clan held the same feeling at various levels, but none as much as his niece, who held to distinct responsibility of her powers, which allowed her to, theoretically, do
something about them.
“<Allah grant you the strength of the Prophet, Darya. We will see what the family decides.>”
Twenty minutes later, most of the clan had gathered into the main living room, with the sunroom given over to those who had not come of age yet and thus did not have a say. The exceptions to this rule where Darya's siblings, who had more vested interest in her affairs than the others, and Aunts Anouseh and Reyhan held sway over the teens. The whole of the assembly was crowded, with people piling on each others laps and otherwise standing, although Leila was left a seat to herself owing to her pregnancy. Fatemeh stood near the center, with Darya and Hossein. Hossein held up a copy of the paper she had read earlier, and it was immediately clear to her that she was pretty much the last one to have read it.
“<They are clearly insane!>” called out Basir, to a chorus of agreements.
“<Yes,>” said Hossein, looking around. “<And clearly they are evil. But they are also powerful enough that they are very dangerous. They do not speak with hollow threats.>”
“This we know,” said Zurvan. “Did you call us here to explain all of this again?”
Zurvan and his brother Hossein did not often agree on much of anything. Their eyes met across the room, however, and Darya got the distinct impression that they had planned this exchange beforehand.
“<No. As this demonstrates,>” he held the paper aloft once more before tossing it onto the coffee table, “<Darya is under constant threat from the infidel dogs. However, it also shows that our entire family
is in danger from them, should they discover her identity. So, as we have done before, when she first told us about her powers, we must now decide if we should restrict her to a normal life.>”
Darya felt light as a feather and could not hide a smile as a chorus of boos greeted this announcement. It was evident that not a single person thought that she should do so.
“<Good.>” Fatemeh's voice, always quiet but easily heard, cut through the noise and they entire group fell silent. “<In that case, we have to orders of business before dinner.>” She motioned behind her, and Anouseh appeared, along with two of the youngest of Darya's cousins. Anouseh held a paper bag.
“We couldn't really figure out how to make it really work without your measurements, and we wanted it to be a surprise so we couldn't take them without alerting you,” her aunt muttered as she held the container out. Inside, Darya could see cloth in blue, green, and black.
“You made the costume?” Darya asked incredulously.
“Well, it's not complete yet. Should be in another week or so. Mother said we should rush it, but I said no. It must be good. I eventually got her to agree.”
Fatemeh brushed them both aside and spoke to the crowd again. “<Secondly, we must plan for if they come for us. To that end, Darya has already given us a weapon of sorts.>”
Darya turned to her entire clan. “<I know I have maybe caused some problems with this, but I also cannot be everywhere, and there are a lot
of us.>” Several people chuckled, Hossein included. “<So I asked if it was okay, and I was told it was fine. Grandmother will make sure everyone gets the number, but you will all have the ability to call for assistance. And not the police. We have seen on the news that they are in the police, as well.>”
Darya inhaled, hoping this next bit would go over well. “<You know I some times work with the others like me in the area. You may not have actually seen them before, but they have consented to come help as quickly as possible should you call the number. It will connect you directly with the man known as Thunderbird.>” Several people stared at her for a second, but it was Yousef who first voiced what she feared.
“And how will they know it is us, eh? How will they know that we are who we say we are and not a trap of some sort?”
Darya cringed as she answered, trying not to look anyone in the face. “<Because he knows my name.>”
The crowd burst into a fierce argument as several people shouted at her, or at Hossein, or at each other. It took the cleric and the matriarch several minutes to restore order, during which Darya felt smaller than she ever had before. Fatemeh's voice finally cut through and got everyone quiet again.
“<You all should be ashamed!>” the elderly woman decried, neatly tied bun of white streaked black hair loosing a few strands. “<She is doing what she can to make sure that we are all safe! She knows what this means, and she and I discussed it for many hours today before the decision was made. And as insurance, both she and I know his name to, so no one has an advantage over us.>”
The assembled family all looked so sheepish it wiped away Darya's own self-imposed shame. She felt herself stand taller as she spoke. “<Look, I know, it feels very vulnerable. But I cannot be everywhere at once. This insures that, should I be busy, or trapped, or Allah forbid I am killed, someone else can look after you until all of this is over.>”
Hossein and her grandmother both looked at her sharply, and the rest of the family seemed to all have dropped their jaws. Maryam, standing just in front of Darya, looked as if she might cry, and she took the two steps over to her little sister and held her close while she continued.
“<Look, I know it is an awful thought. You think I want
to consider it? But this line of work is very dangerous, even with those scumbags out there hunting people like me. You want to support me, you have to accept that it may happen some day.>”
“<Beard of the Prophet, Darya,>” Hossein said. “<You speak truth. We cannot back away from what Allah gives to us to do. But,>” he held his hands up, “<We cannot stand around right now! We have come to a decision?>”
Almost as one, the entire clan cheered. Darya knew that it was one of the sounds that would stay with her forever, like her father's laugh or her mother's singing.
“<Very well, then,>” her uncle continued. “<In that case, I believe my blessed mother and our hero have made a fine feast for us and it stands waiting while we chatter at each other.>”
And this time it was definitely
as one, as the clan surged forward. Everyone knew that Fatemeh was the best cook in the family, but it was also common knowledge that she had been teaching Darya and Maryam everything she knew. Clan dinners were one of the most favoured activities they had
Sometime around midnight
Darya sat in her room, a small, comfy place. Most of the floor space was taken up by the bed, which was honestly too large for it, but she had gotten Leila's old bed when they moved into their grandmother's place, and it had been bought after her sister had gotten married. The whole of the thing was covered in handwoven blankets and plush, squashy pillows. Off in one corner sat her desk, barely more than sticks with some plywood between them, upon which sat an old computer, the hub of her school life and most of her social life as well. The screen was flicking through pictures of the family, throwing odd shades of colour along the tapestries that covered the entirety of the ceiling and most of the walls. A faint waft of incense still clung to everything, and probably always would, as long as she could find the same scent her mother had lit every afternoon just before the children got home.
Darya leaned back, across the bed, and stretched out as far as she could, grabbing futilely at her doumbek, but her stature was not one that lent itself well to such things. While she was in this awkward position, a tap at her door announced a visitor, and she sat up startled and stammered out a “Yes?”
The door opened, and Hossein stood framed in the doorway, his robes fluttering in the slight breeze of the air conditioning, he walked in without bothering to ask, and sat next to his niece, looking at her and then the floor.
“<Darya,>” he began. She could immediately tell something was bothering him. His voice, usually full of vigor and confidence, was hesitant. “<You have thought long on this course, haven't you?>”
She sighed and patted his shoulder. “<Since the day I got these abilities, Uncle. It is the right thing to do, even if it does endanger me.>”
“<And the rest of us?>”
She shook her head. “<I had not thought that people like this would be here, in America, but yes. You and the rest can take care of each other. You taught me how to take care of myself
. 'The peaceful warrior', you said.>”
He nodded. “<It is true. We all, the older ones, grew up in a place where it was unthinkable to not know the ways of war. I have told you before how I fear for the souls still there. And you are correct, this is the path laid out before you by Allah, and your soul is pure and innocent. And that is why I worry so.>”
Darya's brows knitted in confusion. “<What do you mean, Uncle?>”
“<The people you face, these dogs, they are a symptom. Humanity is far from all good. I worry that you will be worn down by the evil you face. You are a kind soul, Darya, given to idealism and hope much like my brother was. It hurt him so much
to see what people can do to each other, and I would save you that pain, if I could. But you path takes you straight into the heart of evil.>”
“<Let me show you something, Uncle.” She stood up, and walked to her closet, pulling out the costume she had kept overnight to test the measurements. Which, she had found, were spot on, if a little generous in places.
The whole of it was a jumpsuit, with a wetsuit-like interior and lightweight cloth outside. The lines of colour ran down the limbs in curling sweeps and lines, forming the swirls of a river or the tide in blue, green, and black. Running along the black parts, which were by far the most expansive of the surface, was a multi-headed dragon, picked out in silver and gold thread, running the length from her left ankle to her right shoulder. A hood and face mask, with airtight goggles, hung back from the neck, ensuring that her head would be suitably covered and her identity also hidden.
“<You see that dragon? You know Tiamat from Grandmother's stories, I am sure. But she will keep me founded in home, in family, in creation, and ward me from evil.>” She held the suit up for a second, and then hung it back up. “<Allah and Ahura Mazda, Tiamat and the Ameshaspand
will keep me from succumbing to the evil which I face.>”
She walked back to her bed, kissed her uncle on his bearded cheek, and pushed him off her bed and out into the hall. “<However,>” she said as she did, “<None of them can keep me from a worrywart like yourself, Uncle, so you must go away so I can be rested to fight evil tomorrow!>”
She fell asleep later, with her uncle's laughter and her mother's incense filling her senses as she drifted off.