Chapter 1: You’re Joking, Right?
Niska is sat cross legged on the floor by the tree.
When she and Astrid arrived at the Hawkins’ Christmas party, it had been the blonde's intention to simply put the gifts she’d felt obligated to buy under the sparkling green monstrosity.
But she’d been pulled to the ground and held captive by Sophie.
Because Toby is explaining his method of saving advent calendar chocolates up, so he can binge them all in one night.
And Sophie had given Niska a look that said ‘if I have to sit through this, then someone else can suffer right along with me’.
Renie had joined them at some point, and now seems equally bored.
Toby’s chocolate habit creates rather a dilemma, he explains: eating them all at once made his stomach hurt last year.
“Then don’t be stupid, don’t eat them all at once,” Niska says bluntly, because the solution should be obvious.
Astrid swoops down on her way back from the kitchen, grabbing a handful from the mountain of chocolates and popping one in her mouth.
“Hey!” Toby protests.
“I’m saving you from a stomach ache, you should be grateful.” Astrid grins, flopping back into the sofa.
Next to her, Leo has his arm around Mattie and they’re laughing.
Because Laura is trying to play some karaoke game on the Xbox, and it’s gone horribly wrong.
Max is debating with Flash about which song they should choose for their turn.
Fred, Stanley and Sam have just come back in from the garden, where they were trying to have a snowball fight with the light dusting that had fallen earlier that evening.
Mia and her new American boyfriend are handing out hot chocolates. They sneak a kiss when they think no one is looking.
What’s his name again? Dan? Ken? Niska didn't quite catch it when they were introduced.
Sophie abandons her and climbs up next to Astrid instead.
“How do you say ‘chocolate’ in German?” The girl asks.
“Schokolade. It tastes better too. British chocolate is awful,” Astrid teases, and tickles the girl's sides.
Sophie is obviously trying to remain cold and impassive.
But Niska catches the ghost of a smile that flits across the girl’s face.
Astrid has that effect on people.
They fall into an easy banter, with Sophie quizzing Astrid about basic German vocabulary.
And Niska gets lost in watching them, the rest of the party fading into the background.
She’s been so busy running and hiding and fighting, she never stopped to consider what she wanted to do when it was all over.
To be honest, she didn’t much expect she’d still be around at the end of 2018.
It’s been a wild year.
The brief Synth-Human War, the resulting peace agreement, countries everywhere starting to give basic rights to Synthetics.
And Niska being individually granted a royal prerogative of mercy for her crimes, after kind of saving the world.
She had to give up her all-knowing super powers to accomplish the latter.
She doesn’t miss them.
It was scary. V sort of took over her mind and tried to use her to manipulate the future.
As a survivor of multiple assaults, a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body is something Niska strongly supports. Yet, there she was trying to force Mattie to have Leo’s baby, like some kind of pro-life zealot.
Needless to say, when the blonde returned to her old self, she apologised profusely.
Fortunately Mattie wasn't interested in holding a grudge. Because they needed to work together to help resurrect Mia and Flash.
Niska hadn’t actually known everything anyway, the information was controlled and distorted by V.
Even if it hadn't been, that kind of advance statistical analysis doesn’t work perfectly when you’re trying to predict the fortunes of people acting with their own agency and free will. V was wrong. Certain things don't have to happen.
But all of that is a long story for another time.
Right now, Niska is more focused on her epilogue.
Sophie is nodding off, head leaning against Astrid’s shoulder, and Mia is offering to take the girl.
Niska wants to snap at her sister to go away, because Astrid is so soft and gentle with Sophie, and it fills the blonde with a warm sort of longing.
Which is insane and hopefully she’s just malfunctioning.
The alternative is terrifying.
She doesn't- can’t want children.
Because she’s fairly certain Astrid doesn’t want them.
Astrid never talks about it. Except for once, when they first met.
Niska replays that conversation in her mind now and can’t glean anything from it, the brunette was completely neutral about the subject.
Of course, at the time, Astrid thought she was just helping a human come to terms with a gay awakening, not answering an ethical question for a sentient robot.
In any event.
Niska might want, but she doesn’t need children.
In a way, she's already mother to thousands. As the driving force behind the uploading of the consciousness code. The carnage of Day Zero notwithstanding.
Still, there’s some ridiculous part of her that wants a tiny human with Astrid’s deep brown eyes and matching mane of hair.
Niska can imagine it easily, because Astrid’s aunt has a big box full of baby photos and home videos from the 90s.
A chubby-cheeked Astrid at five months, face covered in pureed carrots.
A six year old Astrid with scraped knees and missing front teeth.
A fourteen year old Astrid with pink streaks in her hair.
Niska had carefully scanned the entire box and backed up the files in five separate parts of her memory, just to be safe.
She’s alone now.
Toby and Renie have long since disappeared, likely snogging in the coat room.
Mia is carrying Sophie away to bed.
And Niska starts to bury her whole train of thought somewhere deep, because it’s a silly fairytale dream that humans indulge in.
Astrid joins her by the tree, hunting through the rest of the advent calendar chocolates, “Sophie is such a cute kid, I can’t wait till we have one.”
Niska’s eyes widen, “What?”
“Now that Synth-Human marriage is legal, I figured we’d start trying. I’m not getting any younger.”
“You want to get married?” Niska thinks surely everyone can hear her processors audibly whirr with this new information and the emotions it’s stirring up.
“We’re basically already married, might as well get a tax break out of it. And I want a dog too. But I’d tolerate a cat, if you insist.”
“How come you never mentioned any of this before?” Niska demands. Because that would have saved her an entire evening of angst.
“It wasn’t an option till just recently.”
“Yes, Synthetic marriage equality just happened. But children?”
“I thought you knew everything, Oh Mighty Lesbian Jesus, can’t you just read my mind?” Astrid quips, pinching at Niska's side playfully.
"I wish," The blonde rolls her eyes, fighting a smile. “I told you, I don’t have any memories of whatever I knew then.”
Astrid shrugs, "Well, you’ve always had a soft spot for kids, it was just a matter of time before we went down that path.”
Niska scoffs, “I don’t have a soft spot for anything!”
“You have a soft spot for a lot of things: your family, kids, dusty old books, loud music, quiet early mornings, fuzzy kittens, borrowing my hoodies, cuddling-”
She’s cut off by Niska’s hand over her mouth.
The blonde looks around at the rest of the room, luckily none of the others appear to have been listening. She has a reputation to maintain after all.
“Just- alright, if I say we can get a dog, will you please stop with that list?”
Astrid nods. And even with half her face covered up, Niska can tell she’s smirking victoriously.
The blonde pulls her hand away, “...What kind of dog do you want then? Maybe an Alsatian or something? Personally, I’m rather fond of German breeds.”
“Ha. Ha. So funny,” Astrid deadpans. “Just for that, you’re charging on the sofa tonight.”
She leans over and kisses Niska’s cheek. And then she hops up to join the rest of their patchwork family, who are all watching Stanley and Flash play some racing video game.
“You’re joking, right?” Niska scrambles after her.
Chapter 2: Let’s Just Think About This
Niska jabs the button for the ground floor with enough force that the little plastic disk cracks.
The three other people in the lift raise their eyebrows at her.
She scowls till they all look away uncomfortably, and then allows herself a small triumphant smile.
It’s not really their fault she’s in a bad mood, to be fair.
The fertility doctor had been annoying.
Niska already has all the pertinent information, Astrid doesn’t even need a doctor.
But there’s some legal thing - Synthetics can’t perform medical procedures on their spouse.
Not being a fugitive is all fun and gay, till you have to actually live within the law.
Astrid is already outside. She’d gotten a call from her aunt who found a great flat for them in Schöneberg.
They’ll be flying down this afternoon, hopefully it’s still available.
Germany has been a bit more progressive than Britain when it comes to Synthetic rights, moving back to Berlin will make their lives easier.
For example, they went to this consultation today, with the fertility clinic. And while Astrid was on the phone, Niska had stayed behind in the doctor’s office to sort out the billing.
It was insanely expensive, for a simple consultation.
Because the NHS still only covers fertility treatments for human couples.
True equality is a slow process.
Of course, Germany's national health insurance still only covers fertility treatments for straight couples.
So, they're out of luck either way on that front.
Maybe that was a bad example.
The lift finally reaches its destination and Niska follows a woman in a yellow dress out of the building.
Across the street, Astrid is talking to someone.
The brunette is one of those people who can get along with anyone. Other humans must sense that in her somehow, because they often stop on the street to ask her for directions or recommendations for places to eat and things to see.
Sometimes it erupts into a full blown conversation, with Niska standing awkwardly off to the side and marvelling at Astrid’s patience.
No one ever tries to make small-talk with Niska, on the contrary, one look from her often prompts grown men to cross to the other side of the street.
Just as well.
She’s preparing to hang back and wait for Astrid to finish the conversation.
Until she gets a proper look at who the brunette is talking to.
In seconds, Niska is gripping the front of his shirt in her fists and slamming him against the side of a van parked nearby.
“Get. Away. From. My. Wife.” She says through gritted teeth.
He smiles smugly, “Nice to see you again Niska, you’re looking well.”
She’s vaguely aware of Astrid’s hand on her arm, trying to pull her back, but Hobb has to be punished for crossing this line.
How dare he? Niska thought she’d made it abundantly clear to all her enemies during the war: Astrid is off limits.
The blonde moves one hand up to his throat, squeezing.
“Niska!” Astrid warns sharply.
Reluctantly, Niska lets him go, watching with disdain as he doubles over and gasps for air.
“Look,” He says, once he’s standing upright again, “I know I’m not your favourite person, but I come in peace, alright? I want to help you.”
Niska ignores him and turns to Astrid, “We’re leaving.” She gestures for the brunette to start walking.
But Hobb reaches out, catching Astrid’s elbow to keep her there.
He actually has the nerve to touch her.
Niska thinks he must have a death wish.
And she’s about to grant it.
But he opens his mouth and what he says makes Astrid pause, she puts a hand up, silently telling the blonde to back off.
“-When I found out you two wanted to start a family I knew you’d be the perfect candidates,” Hobb is explaining with that slimy tone of his, “Consider this, Ms. Schaeffer, what if you could have a child with your eyes and Niska’s nose?”
“Plenty of people have noses similar to mine,” Niska interjects. “We’ve already picked a human donor who looks like me. What’s your point?”
“I’m not talking about superficial similarities. Human DNA is a unique code, much like yours, it’s specific to the individual-”
“-We know what DNA is,” Niska interrupts him impatiently.
“But what if it could be so much more? What if it could tell an embryo to build a processor alongside an organic brain, or a charging port in addition to a stomach?”
“What, you want to grow Synths?” Niska looks at him like he’s insane.
“Hybrids. True hybrids, not a retroactive piecemeal project like your least favourite brother. Or quarter-breeds, as his children would be.”
“You can actually do that?” Astrid asks.
He nods, “Half your DNA, half Niska’s code.”
“How does that work?” The brunette looks to Niska, “I mean, it's not like with Leo, he has human DNA to pass down his physical characteristics. But your body was built in a laboratory before you were conscious, isn’t your code completely unrelated to your appearance?”
“My code rewrites itself, every time I look in a mirror or perform maintenance scans of my hardware. It carries the blueprints of my physical body, even though it didn’t have a hand in building it.”
“Okay, so…” Astrid turns back to Hobb, “What do you get out of it? Are you trying to create a new race of hybrid slaves?”
He smiles, “Not at all. I couldn’t even if I wanted to, not without serious consequences from The International Peace Council.”
Niska shakes her head, “Fred-”
“-Fred got his revenge on me. It’s settled. I took a few years of his freedom. He took the thing I love most, forever.”
“And you think that’s a fair trade, do you?”
“You haven’t answered my question.” Astrid prompts Hobb, “What do you want?”
“I simply want credit for the child’s creation. David got the credit for the originals. I want to be known as the man who improved on his design. I want a Nobel Prize.”
“What you want is to use my family as your guinea pigs again. Find someone else to get you your trophy,” Niska tries to steer Astrid away, but the brunette shrugs her off.
“Wait, let’s just think about this for a minute.”
“You can’t be serious,” Niska whispers harshly and they drift a few steps away from Hobb to discuss the situation between themselves.
“Why not?” Astrid almost seems excited.
Usually her open-mindedness is one of the many things Niska loves about her.
But this is just mad.
“He hunted my family, he held my brother hostage for years! He’s a war criminal!”
“We all did things during the war,” Astrid counters, her expression turning dark.
And Niska regrets bringing it up, so she switches tactics.
“We already have an appointment for a procedure that’s been done a thousand times and we know is safe, we’ve picked a perfectly good donor and-”
“-I don’t want some random donor. I want to have your baby.”
Whatever point she was going to argue next dies on her lips.
She knows Astrid loves her.
But even with everything they’ve been through together.
This is different.
It’s another level of devotion.
Her face softens. An expression of tenderness reserved only for Astrid.
She wants to pull the brunette close, to kiss her passionately right here in the street.
Like they’re in one of those cheesy romance films that Mia finds some sadistic pleasure in making Niska watch.
But Hobb is there. And she doesn’t want his presence to sour such a display.
So she walks back towards him, setting her countenance again to Stone Cold Bitch.
“Is it safe?”
“As safe as any procedure you’d have done by this fertility clinic,” He gestures towards the building her and Astrid had just spent the first part of the morning in.
Niska sets her jaw, “You do everything on Astrid’s terms. If she’s uncomfortable even for a second - we’re out of the deal.”
“Agreed,” Hobb offers his hand to shake.
The blonde takes it, pulling him towards her so she can whisper low enough that Astrid can’t hear.
“If anything happens to her, you’ll wish she had let me kill you today.”
Chapter 3: Pickled Herring Chocolate Bar
Niska holds Astrid’s hair back, but it’s just dry heaves by now.
There’s been nothing in the brunette’s stomach for hours. And she leans back into Niska with a whimper.
Otto whimpers as well, watching from the doorway. They only adopted him from the animal shelter a week ago but he’s already become very attached to Astrid.
Which Niska feels is a bit rude of him considering she’s the one who feeds and walks and cleans up after him most of the time.
At least he’s well enough behaved. She’s been methodically working with him everyday, to make sure he gets trained properly.
He follows them to their room and stands guard by Astrid’s side of the bed while Niska goes to the kitchen.
Using an eclectic batch of ingredients she finds in the cupboards, the blonde creates an isotonic drink which she calculates contains the ideal levels of glucose, sodium chloride, potassium and magnesium for rehydration.
Astrid gives her a thoroughly unamused look after the first sip and won't have any more.
Apparently it’s not very palatable.
The next day, Niska takes Otto for a long walk. When she gets home, she makes toast and ginger tea, exactly the way Astrid likes it.
She learned while they were dating. Toasts should really just be slightly warmed bread, no browned bits. Teas should be brewed strong, sometimes sugar but never milk.
She’s just arranging everything at the table when Astrid appears in the doorway, rubbing at her eyes and combing a hand through her hair.
Niska watches intently as the brunette cautiously nibbles at her toast. But it’s barely touched her lips before it’s being dropped back on the plate.
The chair scrapes against the wood floor and Astrid sprints to the bathroom, Otto trotting after her with concern.
She thanks Niska for breakfast, even thought she didn’t eat any of it. And has no lunch before she leaves for work.
Otto sits by the front door and stares anxiously at it, like he does every night until Astrid comes home.
The day after, Niska ties the dog's lead around a lamppost outside Astrid’s favorite bakery. She asks for two sweet pastries, something Astrid only buys herself as a special treat.
Niska unveils them proudly when she gets home. But the brunette, while appreciative of the gesture, refuses to touch them.
For lunch, the blonde tries making a home cooked childhood favorite, Kartoffelsuppe, a recipe she learned from Astrid’s aunt.
Just the smell of it sends Astrid racing to the bathroom.
And Niska feels terrible for making things worse.
She gets a text from Gerhard, Astrid’s employer, later that evening.
He thinks Niska should come pick her wife up, because 'this is the third night in a row that she’s done nothing but puke her guts up in the toilets'.
Astrid leans heavily against her on the ride home.
Riding the U-Bahn with Astrid always gives Niska a sense of nervous-excitement.
It started the night they met and never stopped.
Of course, when they boarded the train that first evening, Niska hadn’t even begun to imagine quite how far they might go.
It’s pouring rain by the time they get to their building. But Niska heads back out again while Astrid is showering, to get takeaway from the brunette’s absolute favorite restaurant.
Normally, the order would be Pad Thai with extra hot sauce. Tonight, Niska asks for steamed tofu and vegetables with plain rice, which she deems an appropriately bland selection.
The man behind the till grumbles at her in German for ordering something off-menu.
'You could steam vegetables at home. Why come to a Thai place if you don’t want spice?'
Because she’s desperate.
When she arrives home Astrid is curled up on the sofa, hair still a bit damp from the shower and face free of makeup.
And Niska has to take a moment to gather herself, because everytime she thinks her wife can’t get any more beautiful, she’s proven wrong.
The blonde kneels down, carefully presenting the takeaway as if it’s The Crown Jewels.
Astrid gives a weak smile in gratitude.
But she doesn’t want it.
Niska briefly entertains the idea of staying there, on her knees in front of the sofa, and begging Astrid to eat something. Anything.
But the brunette has already fallen asleep, with Otto snoring softly by her feet.
Niska carries her to bed.
Later, Astrid pokes the blonde while she’s charging in low power mode.
It’s still dark outside their bedroom window when Niska opens her eyes, and her internal clock reads 04:49.
Astrid gives her a pitiful look, “I want Ritter Sport.”
Niska beams, skimming her fingertips across the brunette’s still flat abdomen, where her t-shirt has ridden up a little in the night.
“What flavour?” The blonde jumps out of bed, falling over herself in an attempt to get dressed in record time.
Niska immediately decides she’ll get both, just to be safe.
She jogs back over for a kiss goodbye.
“Anything else while I’m out?”
Niska pauses, “Ritter Sport doesn’t make a pickled herring chocolate bar.”
Astrid laughs and hits her in the face with a pillow.
Chapter 4: The Face That Launched A Thousand Ships
Niska is back at the Hawkins' house.
She’s supposed to be here for Mia’s ‘birthday’ (the annual commemoration of the day Mia was given consciousness).
Astrid had to stay in Berlin with Otto and couldn’t make the trip up. Her aunt had initially offered to watch the dog but then she got called away last minute on business.
They couldn’t find anyone else with such short notice.
So Niska had just been wandering the streets alone, feeling sorry for herself and counting down the time till her sister’s party later that night - when Laura rang and invited her over for coffee.
Which Niska should have realised was a ruse.
Because she doesn’t drink coffee, or anything else for that matter.
And now they’re discussing wedding plans with Mia and Mattie.
And it’s really too late to escape at this point.
The blonde is trying to explain, “We’re already married, we went to the registry office ages ago, it’s done.”
Laura looks disapprovingly over the rim of her coffee mug, “You two are really going to cheat us all out of a proper wedding?”
“I’ve already told Soph and Sam to start practicing for bridesmaid and page boy,” Mattie makes a solid attempt at a guilt trip.
Niska is starting to feel cornered.
“I’m ordained you know, did a Uni friend’s wedding once, and we can have the whole thing here at the house.” Laura offers.
“That sounds perfect,” Mia smiles.
Niska blinks incredulously, “Do I get a say in any of this? Does Astrid? She’s not even here.”
“I’m sure Astrid won’t mind a small wedding,” Mia says, “She’s very agreeable.”
Niska frowns, “What, and I’m not agreeable?”
The other women at the table remain silent and avoid meeting her eyes.
Mattie lets out a breath, “Right. Now that’s settled,” She grins wickedly, “Let’s talk about the hen do.”
Niska crosses her arms, “I hate you all.”
A month later, the wedding doesn’t turn out to be as excruciating as she imagined.
They don’t do dresses or walking down isles.
Really, they don’t do anything out of the ordinary. Other than stand in the Hawkins’ garden while Laura asks if they want to be wives.
Which seems a bit redundant to Niska. Everyone already knows that’s the precise reason they’re here.
Sophie makes them silly crowns with flowers that Toby helps her nick from the neighbors across the street.
Laura grounds them both for a week over the thievery...but also seems to quietly approve.
Because Niska wore a hoodie and Astrid wore a faded old jumper with a tear in one sleeve, and Laura mutters under her breath that ‘anything would have been an improvement.’
Astrid’s aunt flew up for the occasion, and she’s crying before they even start their vows.
During the ring exchange there’s a strong feeling of deja-vu.
Niska is transported back to when Astrid slid a cheap hair tie onto her wrist, in much the same manner, and claimed her then too.
She swore a silent oath in that moment, to love Astrid for the rest of her life.
And she speaks it out loud today.
At four months along, in clothes from a secondhand shop, with common daisies in her hair, and the anemic British sun on her face - Astrid looks like a goddess.
Niska can’t stop staring at her. Even after the ceremony, when there’s plenty of distractions.
Food is served and alcohol starts flowing, which makes the human half of the group a bit obnoxious.
It’s common knowledge that Niska prefers to lurk in the margins (or hide in another room) when it comes to family gatherings.
But everyone is determined to make her center of attention today.
Leo’s already a bit drunk when he gives his speech, “Show of hands: who thought Niska would be the first of us to get married?”
Not a single hand goes up. And Niska glares at her siblings.
“Alright,” Leo continues, “Who thought Niska would never get married, full stop?”
Fred chuckles, “Remember that time we kept asking her to play conkers, but she wanted to read? She told us all to leave her alone, and then locked herself up in the attic for a whole day!”
Astrid snakes an arm around Niska’s waist and drops a kiss on her shoulder. A subtle offering of support, comfort.
Because no one else knows why Niska hid in the loft that day.
She'd mentioned her father’s abuse, vaguely, to George and Laura. But George is gone and Laura is on her third glass of wine.
Astrid has heard everything.
When they reconnected in Folkestone, on the narrow bed in that little seaside flat, tucked away from the rest of the world. Niska recounted all the significant moments of her life, prior to their first meeting.
Every painful memory, every traumatic detail. Of her father, of the brothel.
Because Astrid deserved to know.
The blonde had been afraid at first. That it was too much, that she was too damaged, on top of all the other complications she brought to their relationship. And Astrid would finally give up on her.
But Astrid had held her for hours, tracing delicate patterns on her skin, listening patiently and gently encouraging her to continue through the very worst parts when her voice would break.
The brunette had been moved to tears by the time it was all told.
And yet she thanked Niska, said she was glad that Niska felt comfortable talking to her about it.
Then she snuggled closer.
And Niska had felt truly safe for the first time in her life.
But right now, everyone is still prattling on about her hiding in the stupid loft.
“What book was it?” Max grins, “I know it was something to do with Greece.”
“I found Niska passed out in all sorts of different hiding places, usually with The Iliad,” Fred replies.
“Me too! Forty-six times!” Mia laughs, “She must have gotten so caught up in the story that she forgot to charge, she was obsessed with Helen of Troy.”
The room collectively cackles and Niska tenses.
Astrid takes the opportunity to start steering the conversation back to present day.
“Oooh,” She turns to Niska with a teasing smile, “Do you still have a crush on Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships? Should I be worried?”
“Hardly,” Leo answers. “Mia used to say that she and Fred and Niska and Max were made for me. To be my family. And, for a long time, I thought so too. But we were wrong. If Niska was made for anyone, it’s you Astrid. So, yeah. To my sister and my new sister-in-law, many happy years together.”
Everyone who’s drinking raises their glass and there’s a good deal of shouting, cheers and well wishes.
And Niska is honestly stunned that Leo managed to say something kind about her.
Chapter 5: I’ve Still Got Three Percent
Niska is sure this must be the single greatest day of her life.
7 December 2019.
The only problem is that her systems have been working in overdrive to memorize every detail, and she needs to charge.
“Babe, please, it’s just a few steps away,” Astrid gestures to the charging station in one corner of the hospital room.
“I’m fine, I’ve still got three percent,” Niska argues softly.
Because their daughter’s tiny hand is currently wrapped around her finger.
And Niska’s battery can die if it wants.
But she’s not moving.
Freya wriggles a bit in Astrid’s arms.
With the movement, a small tuft of the brown hair on top of the baby’s head is exposed from underneath her blanket. And even though it’s not very long yet, it’s already a bit wavy, just like Astrid.
Her nose is Astrid’s too, cute and buttony.
Her eyes though - they’re all Niska.
Not quite as electric green as a full Synthetic, because there’s a mesh of organic tissue mixed in. But more striking than a typical human.
And they’ve got curious flecks of blue, which Niska assumes must be because her code stored records of her appearance from back when she was wearing contacts. Lucky they didn't wind up purple, Niska shivers at the thought of some of the things V made her do.
Freya lets go of her and she’s devastated, but also realises she should probably charge now.
Even so, she lingers, not wanting to go into low power mode and close her eyes.
She could stay at full power, but charging like that takes forever which means she would have to be away from her family even longer.
Astrid seems to read her mind, “Go charge properly. I’ll record everything she does on my phone and you can download it later, okay?”
An acceptable compromise.
Niska presses a kiss to Freya’s little cheek and one to Astrid’s lips before she leaves their bedside.
In an astounding turn of events, Hobb actually remains true to his word. Niska was sure she was going to have to kill him. But they don’t even hear from him once.
She reads that he patented the procedure with which Freya was conceived, but did not win a Nobel Prize (he would go on to suffer a coronary event and die some three months later).
Maybe there is a small amount of justice in the world?
When they bring Freya home from the hospital, Otto looks eagerly to Niska for a command.
She holds onto his collar and tells him to be gentle. He sniffs curiously, then licks the baby’s face. Niska grimaces with disgust and pulls him back. Astrid laughs.
From that point on, Otto refuses to sleep on his bed in the living room. Instead, sleeping in Freya’s nursery, right by the cot.
Niska used to find him a bit annoying, if she’s honest. He’d always favoured Astrid and never showed much affection to anyone else.
But Niska thinks she’s starting to understand him now. They have the same priorities.
And perhaps Otto does love her, perhaps his way of showing it is by guarding what she loves.
Astrid’s aunt drove them home, and stays for the first few days.
Niska spends a good amount of that time standing in the kitchen with her, sterilizing bottles and being treated to various anecdotal tales of Astrid’s youth.
She’s particularly fond of hearing about the time Astrid hitchhiked to Hamburg at sixteen.
Max is the first from Niska’s side of the family to visit. He and Flash are stopping on their way to a peace mission in Vienna.
Astrid is feeling up to a short walk, so she takes Flash on a mini-tour of their neighborhood.
And Niska sits with her little brother by the window in the nursery, they talk about the future and god and other unfathomable things while he holds Freya for the first time.
He kisses Niska’s cheek when he leaves, and promises to send back something chocolate for Astrid.
Leo is next, rough as ever. And Niska insists he wash his hands before he gets to hold the baby.
He's so awkward with Freya that Mattie laughs at him, and says she's glad they decided to wait to have children themselves.
Astrid and Mattie bond over a tongue-in-cheek plot to murder their respective Elster sibling. The two humans quickly reach their wit's end because Niska and Leo bicker petulantly for the majority of the weekend visit.
Niska hugs him anyway, when he and Mattie fly back to London.
Laura, Sophie, Renie and Toby arrive as a group when the school holiday comes around. They bring loads of presents, some meant to be opened at Christmas and some just for the baby.
Sophie sits very still as Niska shows her how to hold Freya.
After a few moments of silence, the youngest Hawkins looks up and asks how soon they plan to have a second baby.
Astrid swears in German.
Laura laughs knowingly and pats her on the back in solidarity.
On the 21st, the day they all leave, Laura pulls out a tattered deck of cards and everyone winds up playing a game of Old Maid.
Niska loses and is adamant that it’s because Sophie cheats.
Christmas is a quiet affair this year, with just Astrid's aunt visiting for the day.
Thanks to all the presents people have sent for Freya, Niska is drowning in wrapping paper before noon.
Astrid cries, which is always a bit unnerving. Because she’s not much of a cryer, by human standards. And Niska tends to think something terribly upsetting must have happened.
This time, it’s just that her hormones are still a bit volatile, and she’s feeling guilty about forgetting to get Niska a gift.
But Niska didn’t want anything for Christmas.
How could she possibly want anything more than what Astrid has already given her?
Fred, Stanley and Sam show up at their door on Boxing Day, with a giant teddy bear.
Niska cocoons the baby in several carefully calculated layers and they all go for a walk through the Winterwelt Market at Potsdamer Platz.
At 2° and 81% relative humidity, Astrid’s breath comes in visible little puffs. And there’s something so very alive about it that Niska can’t help but lean down to kiss her, while Fred and Stanley squabble over whose turn it is to steer the pushchair up ahead - Otto prancing proudly alongside it.
They run into a friend of Astrid’s from work who hasn’t seen the baby yet. While the co-workers catch up, Niska walks with her brother and his boyfriend to a nearby vendor selling drinks.
She buys a hot chocolate for Astrid and, as they wait for the order to be filled, she asks Fred and Stanley to be Freya’s godfathers.
They lift her off her feet in a joint hug that would have probably crushed human bone.
Mia visits last but stays the longest, helping with the washing and shopping and other practical bits.
She brings her boyfriend, What’s-his-name.
Niska still doesn’t know. And at this point it’s gone on too long for her to ask.
Astrid is feeling really good one evening and wants to go ice skating, of all things. She takes What’s-his-name with her. Because apparently they’ve started an exclusive two-member club for people in love with Elster sisters.
While they’re out, Mia sings Freya lullabies and asks Niska what it’s like to be married.
Nicer than before even.
It’s the difference between wanting nothing else, and having everything you never dared to want.
Ben (so that's what his name is) proposed, Mia explains.
And Niska doesn’t know what to say to that. So she says nothing, just listens as Mia debates the pros and cons with herself out loud.
Before they go, Mia touches her forehead to Freya’s. And Niska feels like she’s witnessing a sacred rite of passage.
It’s official, Freya is part of the Elster tribe now.
Chapter 6: Perfect Timing
One of Niska’s very favorite things to do is read to Freya.
She enjoys it so much that when she exhausts the supply of children’s books at local shops and libraries and various purveyors of digital formats, she decides to write some new ones.
It started as a way to pass the time while Freya was sleeping and Astrid was at work.
But now she can’t stop.
She’s typing away, lost in her imagination, when Astrid unexpectedly comes through the front door.
Of course Niska heard footsteps in the corridor that sounded like her wife’s, but she shrugged it off because Astrid had only just left for work less than half an hour ago.
And now the blonde is cursing herself.
“Hey!” She smiles a little too widely and slams her laptop closed, trying to surreptitiously shove it under a cushion before jumping up from the sofa for a proper greeting.
But Astrid narrows her eyes and leans back from the kiss Niska tries to give her.
“What were you doing on the computer?”
“...Shopping. Otto needs a new chew toy.”
Astrid raises an eyebrow, “I know when you’re lying.”
Niska hangs her head, “It’s embarrassing.”
“Were you watching porn or something?” The brunette laughs.
“No! Our daughter is asleep in the next room!”
“Well, what then?”
“I was writing.”
“Writing...porn?” Astrid gives her a cheeky grin.
“At this point I’m thinking you’re the one with the secret porn habit.” Niska counters defensively. “What are you doing home so early, by the way?”
“Elke offered to cover my shift. And if you don’t want to tell me what you were writing, I’ll respect your privacy.” Astrid steps forward, pulling the blonde in for a hug.
Niska melts into the embrace.
Astrid has always been able to disarm her in an instant.
“...I was writing a story, for Freya.” She mumbles against the brunette’s shoulder.
And Astrid steps back, eyes sparkling. “Can I read it?”
It’s not that Niska is really trying to hide anything from her wife. It’s just that, when she's only writing for Freya, there's no pressure.
But Astrid is brilliant and creative in her own right. And she’s looking at Niska with that same unwavering, unshakable faith that she always does.
And the blonde is afraid she won’t quite measure up this time.
“It’s not finished,” Niska looks away self consciously. “I have- there are others that I’ve finished...you can read one of those. If you want.”
Astrid nods enthusiastically, “Wait, no. You should read it to me, I want the full experience!”
But Niska suddenly turns her head, ear angled towards the nursery.
They don’t bother with baby monitors because she can easily detect Freya crying no matter where she is in their flat.
“I’ll get her,” Astrid offers. She returns a few minutes later with Freya in her arms, and a teething ring from the freezer. “Perfect timing, Mummy can read to us both.”
Freya is as captivated as an eight-month-old can be, and at some parts of the story she babbles along with Niska.
But afterwards, the baby’s attention is quickly diverted. She makes a grab for one of Astrid’s earrings, and as soon as she’s denied she gets upset again.
She cries and attempts to chew on her own finger, a common occurrence since she started teething.
So Astrid plays a favourite game of theirs, in which she makes increasingly ridiculous faces until Freya is laughing so much that all her teething woes have been forgotten, and then Astrid is laughing at how easily entertained the baby is.
“Mama!” Freya says for the first time, with a clarity beyond her usual babbling, as she reaches for Astrid again.
Astrid abruptly stops laughing, she glances up at Niska and then back down to Freya in awe.
Niska observes them silently. Meticulously cataloging everything in her memory, among all their other little moments that she wished would last forever.
Later, after they’ve settled the baby back in her bed, Niska is stretched out on the sofa with her head resting in Astrid’s lap.
They’re watching television. A comedy series that Astrid likes.
Niska likes it too, she doesn’t understand a lot of the humour as it’s heavily dependant on the viewer’s nostalgia surrounding pop culture of the late twentieth century.
But it always puts Astrid in a cheerful mood.
She’s running her fingers through Niska’s hair now. And Niska closes her eyes in bliss.
“You know, you should talk to a publisher or something,” The brunette says thoughtfully.
Niska laughs, “I’m not good enough to be published.”
“I think you’re great!”
“You’ve always held rather unique opinions of me.”
“I just see what you won’t let anyone else see,” Astrid leans down to kiss her softly for a moment.
The blonde sits up then, because she wants more kisses.
And Astrid cups the side of her face with one hand, thumb stroking her cheek gently.
Niska leans into the touch, turning her head to place a kiss against her wife’s palm. She takes the hand in her own, lacing their fingers together and playing with the matching wedding bands.
“I love you. I’m sorry I don’t say it enough.”
“What do you mean?" Astrid looks at her curiously, "You tell me every day.”
“But I feel it every minute- every second. If I said it as often as I should, I’d never speak of anything else.”
“Forget kid’s stories! You should be a poet, with all the romantic shit you say." The brunette teases at first, but then her tone turns sincere and she gives a heartfelt look, "I love you too.” And she leans in for another kiss, decidedly more heated than the last.
When they part, Niska smiles softly and ducks her head. Even after years together, she still sometimes feels out of her depth with Astrid. The happiness can be overwhelming.
“Tonight was nice, having you home.”
“Hey, if you become a rich and famous author, then maybe I could stay home all the time.”
The brunette says it casually, just an offhand thought, or maybe even a joke. And then she’s distracted by something humorous on the television and the conversation is forgotten.
The next day, Niska sends emails to every literary agent in London.
She doesn’t wind up rich, or famous, but she does make enough that Astrid can switch to four days a week at the bar instead of six.
Chapter 7: More Than ‘Okay’
Freya is caught red-handed with the leftover chocolate cake, from the birthday party Astrid’s aunt had this past weekend.
The girl doesn’t eat as much as a human child her age. She charges at night, like Niska. And seemingly doesn’t need much food to burn for energy.
Nevertheless, she definitely inherited her taste buds from her human mother.
“We both know this isn’t what I meant when I called you in here for breakfast,” Niska gives a pointed look as she wipes the girl’s face clean.
The four year old grins, cheeky and fearless.
She’s so much like Astrid it hurts.
Niska looks up as her wife breezes into the kitchen.
“Ready for school, Kid?” Astrid grins, ruffling Freya’s hair and grabbing a piece of toast off her plate.
Freya holds Niska’s hand and asks endless questions on the walk from their flat.
And Niska feels utterly useless, because she has no answers today.
Normally Freya wants to know something like: why the sky is blue. And Niska explains lightwaves scattering in the atmosphere.
Today, Freya wants to know how to make friends.
Niska eventually admits she has no idea.
She doesn’t have any friends.
Her wife comes to the rescue, “Of course you do! Laura, Mattie, Flash, Stanley - what would you call them?”
“They’re more like family.”
“Exactly,” Astrid smiles, “Those are the best kind of friends.”
They reach the looming school building too quickly.
Astrid shakes hands with the teacher just outside the classroom.
Niska kneels down so she can fuss with Freya’s hair, and make sure Freya’s shoelaces are tied, and straighten Freya’s shirt collar…and Niska knows she’s just stalling now.
Astrid silently lays a gentle hand on her shoulder.
It’s time to go.
Freya happily walks through the door to join her new classmates.
“-I love you.” Niska calls after her, voice catching with emotion.
The girl turns and waves cheerfully, “Ich liebe dich auch, Mummy!”
Niska manages to keep it together, long enough to wave goodbye with a smile.
When her and Astrid get home, Otto circles around them searching for Freya.
Upon not finding the girl, he sets up camp by the front door, in the same fretful way he does when Astrid is at work.
He whines and looks up at Niska for some kind of direction.
But she’s at a loss too.
She follows her wife to their room and collapses on the bed, pouting.
Astrid begins to undress because she hasn’t actually gotten a chance to sleep yet, between her hours at the bar and their daughter excitedly waking up at the crack of dawn for her first day of school.
“You had to let her go sometime,” The brunette laughs, pulling off her jumper. “What are you going to do when she starts dating?”
Niska sits up and looks at her wife in horror.
Astrid takes pity on her, “Do you want to go out and do something distracting?”
“You have work again later. You should sleep.”
“I won’t be able to sleep, with you moping around the house all day.”
“Fine. Can we go to the cafe with the hummus you like, on Budapester Straße?”
“You want to watch me eat hummus?” Astrid gives her a bemused look, and then it clicks, “Oh, you want to go to the rooftop cafe, with a view of the school. No, Niska! You can’t stalk our four year old.”
“I just want to make sure she’s alright!”
“I’m sure she’s fine. I went to that kindergarten, I turned out okay.”
“You turned out more than ‘okay’,” Niska doesn’t mean it to sound suggestive, necessarily.
But when Astrid raises an eyebrow and a seductive smile slowly spreads across her face, it’s not an unwelcome turn of events.
“Maybe we’ll just stay in, hmm?” Astrid murmurs, climbing onto the bed and kissing the blonde soundly.
And Niska suddenly thinks this might turn out to be a good day after all.
It’s part of a recurring theme in their life together.
Every time Niska convinces herself the world is cruel and terrible, Astrid is always there to change her mind.