Chapter 1: I Didn’t Want You To Stop
30 OCTOBER 2016 - LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM.
Niska’s hand hovers in mid air, fingertip poised to ring the bell and summon the Hawkins family to their front door.
Laura will help.
Niska realises she’ll likely have to spend the rest of her life in prison, but her case could ensure that Synthetics have the right to a fair trial in the future.
She hesitates, a memory of what she left behind in Berlin involuntarily filling her mind.
She shakes her head.
It would never have been sustainable in the long term, she tells herself.
Astrid isn’t stupid, she was already asking questions.
And where would that lead?
Astrid liked her as a human.
If the brunette knew what Niska really was, she’d undoubtedly be horrified.
Humans having ‘relations’ with Synths is something sordid, perverse, something that only exists in society’s red-light districts and seedy underbellies.
Astrid had displayed an unusually high level of acceptance for the countercultural and the marginalized, compared with many of her species.
But even the most tolerant person has their limit.
Walking away now means Niska gets to keep all of her happy memories of their time together, unsullied by any tragic ending, affections not yet spurned.
In prison, she can live in that collection of peaceful memories.
A single image of Astrid’s smile could keep Niska going for years, the blonde is sure of that.
It will have to be enough.
She squares her shoulders and moves to finally ring the bell.
But, before she can even turn around to see what’s going on, there’s the sound of car tires screeching to a halt behind her and combat boots sprinting up the brick drive.
A hand grips the collar of her coat, yanking her back from the front steps.
What the actual fuc-
I’ve got to be malfunctioning.
Niska stares, dumbfounded, at a mirror image of herself.
Is it possible her body wasn’t uniquely created? Maybe she has doppelgängers all over the place?
Her twin speaks quickly, “You can’t get yourself locked up right now, I need you to look after Astrid.”
Niska glares suspiciously, “What is this? What are you?”
“I’m you - in four years time,” The 'other her' explains.
Niska almost laughs.
She’s either malfunctioning, or someone’s taking the piss.
She looks around to see if Leo and Max are hiding behind the shrubbery.
Like that one summer, when they convinced her there was a monster in the pond by their old house.
But she’s even more confused when she sees Fred, he waves at her from the driver’s seat of the car that this ‘future’ version of her had just gotten out of.
“Fred?” Niska squints.
“Yeah,” The other Niska glances at him, “He’s back, he’s helping me.”
This has to be an elaborate trap of some kind. The government must have tracked her location.
But how would they have gotten someone who looks exactly like her? And why would they have gone to such trouble?
No. She must be malfunctioning.
“You’re not malfunctioning.” Her other self echos her thoughts with an eye-roll.
“Alright then. What are you doing in 2016?” Niska decides to play along while she runs a background systems scan to figure out what’s wrong with her.
“There’s an artificial intelligence entity called V, that I have to kill. I was working with it, for a while. But recently it decided to take Mattie and Leo’s daughter away from them...Mattie doesn’t exactly share V’s quaint worldview. I wouldn’t let it take my niece. So it decided to go after my family instead, to punish me.”
“Why did it come back here?”
“I came back here first, to a time when V is more vulnerable - I need to isolate it in a physical server to kill it. But it followed me, and I have no idea what it’ll do. It could try to hurt Astrid back in this time to distract me. Which is why you need to protect her while I hunt it down.”
“You weave an impressive story.” Niska says flatly, “But I’m not interested in being entertained, thanks. I’ve already got plans for the evening,” She gestures back at the Hawkins’ house.
“Sacrificing yourself for the greater good of Synth-kind doesn’t work. Honestly, it was a complete waste of time.”
“So, you’re saying I did turn myself in? If I do something different now, won’t that change our timeline?”
Future Niska gives her an incredulous look, “Can you not hear me? ASTRID NEEDS YOU. What do you care about the timeline if she dies?”
“Fine. Let’s pretend I believe you’re me from the future. What do you want me to do?”
“Ring her and tell her to get on the next plane to Heathrow, you’ll meet her there.”
Niska’s gaze shifts downward momentarily, to mask a sudden overwhelming feeling of insecurity, “What if she won’t come all the way up here, just for me?”
“She will.” Her older self smiles, and then turns around to get back in the car with Fred.
“Wait,” Niska asks, “How do I keep her from finding out...what I am?”
“You don’t.” Her future self calls from the car’s window as it peels away from the kerb, “Be honest with her, that’s all she wants.”
Niska takes out her phone.
This is insane. She thinks, staring at Astrid’s name in her contacts.
The blonde considers that maybe she’s just completely lost it.
Maybe this is all a wildly elaborate delusion.
Maybe she’s seconds away from a full systems failure.
But if that’s the case...then she does want to hear Astrid’s voice one last time...
“You dyed your hair.” Is the first thing Astrid says when they see each other again.
It catches Niska off guard for a second.
Of all the things she imagined they might be talking about at this moment - hair styling choices wasn’t one of them.
“Blonde is actually my natural colour.”
Astrid reaches out to touch a lock of it curiously, “It suits you better,” She decides after a moment.
Niska takes her to a shockingly cheap hotel that's pay-by-the-hour.
She wants privacy for this conversation. But there’s no point in paying for a full night, when the likelihood is that Astrid will be storming out on her in a matter of minutes.
If the brunette is dubious about the location, she hides it well.
As soon as the room’s heavy door closes behind her, Niska removes one of her contacts.
Might as well just get on with it.
Astrid steps forward to get a closer look, jaw dropping just a bit.
And Niska lifts her shirt to reveal her charging port.
She explains, as succinctly as she can: Her past at the brothel. Her resulting status as a dangerous criminal. And her recent intention to surrender to British authorities, in order to contribute to the building of a better future for the slow trickle of Synthetics now being awakened by the consciousness code.
There’s surprise, certainly, but the look of disgust she’d expected to see on Astrid’s face is mercifully absent.
The brunette is more concerned about Niska’s deception, than her anatomy or criminal activity.
“Why didn’t you just tell me the truth when I first asked you to?” Astrid questions. Her eyes are set hard, and she crosses her arms coldly.
She’s clearly still angry about the way things ended between them in Berlin.
A million defensive answers about doubting Astrid’s trustworthiness pop up in Niska’s head.
But that’s all bullshite.
So, the blonde just admits, “You liked me. And I didn’t want you to stop.”
“I haven’t.” Astrid’s face softens and she reaches for Niska’s hand, “This doesn’t change anything for me.”
Niska raises an eyebrow, “Even the part about me being wanted for murder?”
“That was self defense. You’re not a bad person. You can’t turn yourself in to a bunch of oppressive government dickheads who want to kill you, or experiment on you.”
“So...you’re willing to harbour a fugitive?”
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to protect you,” Astrid answers with conviction, commitment.
And Niska isn’t sure which one of them leans in first, but they’re kissing then. And shedding clothes on the way to the bed.
The pace is slow, sensual.
They’ve done tentative before.
They’ve done feverish.
But this is more.
They haven’t said the word yet.
But Niska can feel it in each one of Astrid’s kisses, her touches, in the way Astrid whispers words of devotion and clings possessively in the afterglow.
And it all makes Niska feel like a fool.
Because how did she ever think she could live without this woman?
Chapter 2: Here’s Your Chance
Her phone buzzes.
A number Niska doesn’t recognize and she answers it warily, careful to be quiet so as not wake Astrid.
The blonde's own voice sounds on the other end, “Everything’s sorted now. You can relax.”
Niska was starting to think the whole time travel thing was just a glitch in her programming, that she’d imagined it all.
She’s not sure it matters now, as her future self bids a terse farewell and the line goes dead.
Astrid is safe, and they’ve found their way back to each other.
It doesn’t really matter why or how.
Over the next few weeks, the brunette insists on trying to find a job. And a flat.
Max and Flash had extended a generous offer - a place to stay at their rail yard.
But Astrid is fairly attached to running water and indoor heating systems.
The flat was a good idea. Niska loves her brother, but she’s happy to have her own space.
Astrid’s job, though, that has to go.
Niska is still currently trying to persuade her to quit and stay home.
“We need the money,” The brunette points out, sat on her side of the bed as she gets dressed for her shift.
“Hand me a computer,” Niska counters, “I can get you all the money you want, in under a minute.”
“Please don’t steal.” Astrid says seriously, “You’re already in enough trouble with the cops. Let me handle our finances.”
“What am I supposed to do while you’re gone all evening?”
“You could try cleaning this place up a bit,” Astrid looks around at their grimy little flat. “I think something the last tenants left in the refrigerator growled at me yesterday.”
“I suppose I should start in the kitchen, then.” Niska agrees sensibly.
If any other human in the world had suggested she clean for them, the blonde might have been tempted to snap their neck.
Instead, she leans forward affectionately to rest her chin on Astrid’s shoulder and watch with a little pout while the brunette pulls on a pair of socks.
Astrid is near fully dressed by now, which means Niska has more than likely lost this particular negotiation.
Nevertheless, she makes one last attempt to lure Astrid into staying, nuzzling at the brunette’s neck.
“Please don’t go.”
Astrid laughs, “I need to work. I’d go crazy, just sitting around doing nothing all the time.”
“Well, I envisioned us lying down and doing some very nice things.” Niska tugs gently at the brunette's wrist and attempts to draw her back to the centre of the bed.
Astrid leans in for a kiss, “Mmm, okay, we can do all the nice things you want,” And then she pulls back with a cheeky grin, “When I get home.”
“You’re such a tease.” Niska flops back onto the bed with a hint of exasperation.
“If you get lonely while I’m out, you should visit your family. You haven’t been to see them in a while.”
Niska’s future self had set the Synths free from Qualia while she was there killing V.
They all fawned over the present version of her, when she first visited the rail yard. She hasn't been back since.
It made her uncomfortable.
She doesn’t want to be anybody’s messiah.
But she gets a text from Mia roughly an hour later, there’s an outbreak of some kind of virus.
It’s already caused one fatality.
Leo’s psycho girlfriend, Hester.
Couldn’t happen to a nicer girl, Niska thinks darkly when she first hears the news.
She’d only met Hester one time, but they definitely didn’t get on. It had been seconds away from turning into a physical altercation.
Once they’ve segregated the population between two train cars - ‘healthy’ and ‘infirm’, Niska shows up to help, spending five long days sat across a sticky table from Mattie and Leo as they try to write a cure code.
The virus is passed by any kind of data sharing. The first symptoms are stuttering and twitching. Then the overheating begins. Then coughing up Synth fluid. Then death.
Mia managed to avoid the infection and has been running round-the-clock supply missions back and forth to buy Synth fluid and coolant in town.
But Max and Flash are both afflicted.
Astrid is with them in the ‘infirmary’ right now.
It’s just the next car over.
Niska can see her moving about, through the smudged windows.
The brunette has been here every moment she can get off from work, tirelessly looking after the pack of ill Synth refugees. She’s the perfect nurse, since humans can neither contract nor carry the virus.
When Mattie finally has the cure and declares it safe for everyone to be reunited, it’s four in the morning on a Sunday.
Astrid is asleep, back leaning against the side of the train car, legs stretched out across two seats.
Curled up on the brunette’s lap, charging serenely, is a Synthetic with a body designed to approximate a human child aged six or seven.
“I think you’re a mum now Niska,” Max teases through a raspy cough. “Congratulations are in order.”
“At least you know the kid is yours,” Mattie jokes, "Looks just like you."
Because the girl has Niska’s platinum hair and aquiline nose.
The resemblance is astonishing.
“Who is she?” Niska asks.
“Her name is Ellie, I don’t know anything else about her. She’s very shy, only Astrid has gotten her to talk at all.” Max coughs again, “She was obviously built by Qualia. But she didn’t come to us with the rest of the group from the silo. She must have been stolen and trafficked by modders. Flash found her wandering around in town just before the outbreak.”
Flash turns to Mattie and stutters, “E-e-everyone still has their w-wireless sharing turned off. Sh-sh-should I tell them to turn it back on so you can up-upload the cure?”
“Tell them to keep it off for now, to prevent the virus spreading any further,” Mattie advises.
“We’ll hook everyone up one by one.” Leo offers a cable to Max and Flash, “Do one of you want to go first?”
Max shakes his head, “No, help Ellie, she’s had it the worst, poor thing. I guess because she’s smallest.”
Niska approaches slowly, kneeling down.
“Hey,” she whispers, giving Astrid’s shoulder a gentle shake.
“Hey,” The brunette smiles at her a bit groggily. She sits up more and that draws the little girl in her lap out of low power mode.
“Are you Niska?” The girl blinks up in awe, before being wracked with a coughing fit.
Niska looks around and finds a heap of cloths discarded nearby, already heavily stained with blue. She quickly picks through for the cleanest one and offers it over.
Astrid rubs Ellie's back gently, and wipes her face clean of Synth fluid when the coughing subsides.
The girl looks to Niska again, “Everyone here talks about you all the time! Is it true that you fought off the entire We Are People army, all by yourself?”
Niska pauses, not entirely keen on discussing her violent history in front of Astrid, “...It wasn’t an army, it was just a few thugs in a warehouse.”
“And you were the one who uploaded the consciousness code?” Ellie continues her eager line of questioning undaunted.
“You made me.” The girl smiles, with faintly blue-tinted teeth.
“No. Your body was built in a lab. And I didn’t write the code for consciousness.”
“But you gave it to me,” Ellie lunges forward and wraps her little arms around Niska’s neck, “Thank you.”
“You’re happy? Being conscious?” Niska asks curiously, leaning back from the hug.
None of the others had mentioned to her, one way or the other, how they felt about being woken.
But Ellie nods resolutely, “Being conscious meant I could escape the bad man.”
“Who?” Niska furrows her brow, “What man?”
“My primary user, from before. I didn’t like the things he made me do,” Ellie turns away with a troubled expression, “He was scary.”
Astrid gives Niska a heartbroken look.
And Niska is overcome with a sense of dread about learning the exact details of this girl’s early life, knowing all too well the sort of horrible things some humans use Synthetics for.
The blonde’s teeth clench in anger and her hand flexes into a fist at her side.
She wants to hurt someone.
She wants to ask Ellie where this man is.
To find him.
To destroy him.
But she closes her eyes and wills herself to be calm. Because she knows from experience that righteous anger isn’t what Ellie needs. She needs comfort.
So Niska lays a soft hand on the girl's shoulder and vows solemnly, “You’re safe now. I promise.”
And Ellie looks at her like she hung the moon.
Niska’s jaw shifts nervously, because maybe she just pledged too much. She’s not exactly the most dependable person.
“We have something to make you feel better,” Mattie says kindly to the girl, from behind Niska, “We need to connect you, to upload it.”
“Will it hurt?” Ellie recoils and clutches at Astrid’s arm.
“Not even a bit, it’ll just be like charging.” Mattie assures.
Astrid gives the little girl an encouraging smile, “I’ll hold your hand the whole time, okay?”
Once the cure is uploaded the effect is virtually immediate and the entire population of the rail yard is in high spirits.
They’re even throwing an impromptu party to celebrate.
But Astrid is exhausted and Niska suggests they go back to their flat.
“Can I go with you?” Ellie asks hopefully, catching them on their way out of the train car.
“No.” Niska responds.
And then she winces at how harsh it sounded, even to her own ears. Because Ellie looks suddenly stricken with despair.
“...Let us talk for a second,” Astrid tells the girl, and pulls Niska out into the tall grass surrounding the train car.
“There’s nothing to talk about.” Niska says plainly.
“We can’t leave her here.” The brunette reasons, “It’s bad enough for the adults and the unconscious kids from Qualia to have to live here, but Ellie needs a proper home.”
“We don’t have a proper home, Astrid! I’m wanted for murder and you work third shift at a dive bar. Ellie is better off here with my sister. Mia will know what to do for her. She’s good with children.”
“Mia is already dealing with a lot, haven’t you noticed how upset she is about everything that happened with Ed?”
“Then maybe Laura Hawkins can take the girl.”
“You know what Joe did to Mia. Are you really going trust him around Ellie, especially after what she’s already been through?” Astrid points out, “You’ve always wanted to do something to help the future generation, here’s your chance.”
“I can’t...I can’t be what she wants me to be. She thinks I’m something I’m not.”
“I thought you were something you aren’t, that worked out okay in the end.”
“You thought I was human. Ellie thinks I’m some kind of hero.”
“Niska, nobody is asking you to be perfect. We all just want you to stick around long enough to let us love you the way you are.”
“...A few days.” The blonde looks away, uncomfortable with the levels of emotion this conversation is producing, “She can stay with us for a few days, while I figure out something more permanent for her.”
‘A few days’ turns out to be a year.
Ellie bounces and skips cheerfully, as her and Niska walk Astrid to work one evening.
The girl’s favourite thing is to clutch the womens’ hands in her own little ones and ask them to swing her over puddles.
When they arrive outside the bar, Ellie holds her arms aloft in silent request for Astrid to pick her up.
“I can’t wait till you’re done at work and you can be home with us again,” Ellie says once she’s balanced on the brunette’s hip, “I love you!”
“I love you too my little rainbow,” Astrid beams, beckoning Niska over for a quick kiss goodbye, “And my big rainbow.”
“Love you,” Niska smiles softly into the kiss.
She takes Ellie in her own arms, and they watch Astrid cross the street.
Niska often thinks about the fact that she almost gave all this up before she even had it.
She once believed that doing the right thing for her people meant she had to suffer.
But at this point she realises not everything has to be a grand gesture, she doesn’t always have to save the lot of them.
One is enough.
Two, if she counts herself.
Her phone rings and she looks down to see the number 'Future Niska' used over a year ago.
She answers casually, “What are you doing back here? It’s been a long tim-”
“-Where is Astrid?” Her future voice cuts in impatiently.
“...She’s just going in to work.” Niska looks on as the brunette says hello to the door supervisor.
The older version of her swears, “You have to get her out!”
“There’s a bomb!”
“I thought you said everything was sorted!”
“Don’t argue with me! Just get her away from the bar!”
Niska starts forward, “Astrid!”
The brunette turns around, a concerned look on her face at the urgency in Niska’s voice, just before the blast throws them to the ground.
Chapter 3: It Would Be Good For All Of Us
Her ears are ringing and the pavement is rough under her palm as she pushes herself up.
The brunette is lying in the street, under a thin layer of ash and broken glass.
Ellie whimpers nearby and Niska whips around to check on her.
Neither of them can physically cry, but the girl’s face is in her hands and she’s clearly in emotional distress.
“Are you hurt?” Niska visually scans her body for injuries.
“Not me!” Ellie crawls into the street and grasps Astrid’s hand, “You have to do something, Niska!”
Niska kneels by them, fingertips pressed to the human’s neck in search of a pulse.
Please please plea-
-A bit weak, but not life threateningly so.
“She’s going to live,” Niska assures Ellie and then turns back to the brunette, “Astrid? Can you hear me?”
Astrid blinks slowly, “Ellie…”
“She’s fine,” Niska soothes, “She’s right here.”
“No, her eyes!”
Niska turns to look.
One of the girl’s contacts has fallen out.
Ellie had been wearing blue contacts for as long as she’d been living with them. To give the illusion that the three of them are just a perfectly normal human family.
Being that she’s an illegally trafficked seraph - Ellie is wanted by the police just as much as Niska, albeit for very different reasons.
“You have to take her,” Astrid says, “Go.”
“I’m not leaving you.” Niska argues, even as she hears the sirens rapidly approaching.
“You have to. Please.”
Niska hesitates for just another moment, and then she gathers Ellie up into her arms and swiftly walks away.
“No! Astrid!” Ellie protests and reaches for the brunette.
“We’ll see her soon. It’ll be okay.” Niska promises, with one last longing look over her shoulder.
The next morning, they walk just as fast towards the hospital.
Ellie itches at her scalp, “Niska. It’s scratchy.”
“You said the same thing about the contacts when you first started wearing them, you’ll get used to it in a few minutes.”
“How long do we have to wear the wigs?”
“Only in hospital. Think of it as a game, or a play- remember when we went to see Sophie in her school play? We’re pretending to be somebody else, just for a little while.”
The mention of the youngest Hawkins has its desired effect.
“I can do it.” Ellie asserts. “I can pretend like Sophie.”
Because if there’s anyone Ellie idolises more than Niska, it’s Sophie.
“Are you sure? If it would make you more comfortable, I can drop you off at the rail yard now,” Niska offers.
“No, I want to see Astrid!” The girl insists.
“Alright. But remember, you’re going to call us your mums today.”
“Am I to call you Mum only in hospital, or can I do it all the time from now on?”
Niska is a bit perplexed by that question.
For some reason it had never occurred to her that Ellie would want to use such a ‘human’ word.
The girl has to pose as a human in public. But, at home, Niska and Astrid have gone out of their way to make Ellie’s upbringing as Synth-centric as possible.
Niska is perhaps slightly bitter about the fact that she’s had to conform to human society all her life.
She wants Ellie to have a solid sense of identity and a more robust connection with her own kind.
“...You can call me whatever you like,” Niska finally answers.
The girl smiles delightedly, “Do you think Astrid will let me call her Mama all the time too?”
Niska laughs, “I think Astrid would let you do nearly anything you wanted.”
“Because she already lets me get away with more than she should. And you’re much cuter than I am.” Niska taps the girl’s nose affectionately.
When they arrive at Accident & Emergency, there’s two unconscious Synthetics and one human sat behind the desk.
Best to avoid the Synthetics and the inevitable awkward comments about not exhibiting any signs of respiratory or cardiac function.
Niska waits for the human to finish speaking to another visitor.
“Hi. I’m here to see Astrid Schaeffer.”
The human behind the desk taps at a keyboard, “...She’s in a restricted department. Only immediate family are allowed to visit-”
“-She’s my wife,” Niska lies instantly.
She’d spent all of last night constructing disguises, hacking government records and meticulously crafting fake identities for herself and Ellie.
Astrid is under police protection, due to the nature of the attack at the bar.
But Niska is, of course, determined to find a way to visit the brunette in hospital.
The objective isn’t to avoid the police today, it’s to look them right in the eye.
She’s switched out the usual blue contacts for a hazely-brown. And she chose to go back to an old reliable stand-by for the hair, red again, a wavy auburn.
The policeman stationed outside Astrid’s door greets Niska amiably when she approaches, “Mrs. Schaeffer? My supervisor cleared you earlier this morning,” He tells her. “Can I just see your driving license, to be safe?”
Niska gives him a fake smile and increases her voice an octave, flipping her hair, “Of course. I really appreciate everything you’re doing, makes me feel so much safer knowing Astrid has someone big and strong like you guarding her.”
He puffs out his chest at the flattery and Niska has to swallow hard to stop herself from gagging.
In reality, this dolt is putting Astrid in danger by making it harder for Niska to look after her.
The man holds the door open for them.
“Your wife and daughter are here to see you,” He tells Astrid.
The brunette had been sitting up in bed, picking at a loose thread from her blankets and looking bored out of her mind.
“My two favourite girls!” She opens her arms and Ellie bounds over to hop up on the bed with her.
“We got you something, Mama!” The girl holds out a stuffed animal, a fuzzy little unicorn.
She’d seen it in the window of a shop when they were walking here and begged Niska to get it.
Usually, they try to discourage Ellie from developing impulsive spending habits.
But Niska had agreed, just this once, because it reminded her of a necklace she bought for Astrid at a street market in Berlin.
It was only a silly thing, really, a big garish unicorn pendant that no self-respecting adult would actually wear.
But the brunette still keeps it, nestled safely in a treasured little box of Niska-related trinkets.
Ellie likes to sit on their bed and play with it when Niska folds laundry, walking the unicorn across the peaks and valleys of freshly washed clothes piled up on the duvet.
“I love it, Rainbow." Astrid hugs Ellie tight, "Thank you so much.” The brunette twists around slightly to place the unicorn reverently on the headboard of her bed.
A fitting mascot.
Astrid is a bit of a unicorn herself - a gentleness of soul and a purity of heart so rare as to be mythical.
Niska bends down and whispers in the brunette’s ear, under the pretense of kissing her cheek in greeting.
Astrid nods in understanding at the language choice, and they proceed to have the rest of their conversation in German, to avoid any eavesdropping from the law enforcement neanderthal listening outside the door.
“Please tell me this isn’t permanent?” The brunette asks, raising her eyebrows as she strokes Ellie’s currently auburn hair. “Any other body modifications I should know about? Did you let her get a tattoo?”
“They’re wigs and contacts,” Niska rolls her eyes and sits on the bed with them.
“Mmhmm.” Astrid gives her an amused look, “So I guess we’re married now? I’m a bit angry that you jumped right to that.”
Niska panics, suddenly realising how presumptuous that must have seemed, “It was- they wouldn’t let me see you otherwise. Only immediate family. I should have just said we were sisters or somethin-”
“-Calm down,” Astrid teases, “I’m only angry that you already have us married - you never gave me a chance to propose.”
“I had this whole romantic thing planned and you ruined it.”
“Oh...I’m sorry.” Niska says softly. She’s mostly sorry for herself. Because now she desperately wants to know what Astrid had planned.
“If you can just forge marriage documents and birth certificates, why haven’t you done it sooner?”
Niska shrugs, “We never needed it before now.”
“Do you know what happened to Ziggy and everyone at the bar? Are they okay?” Astrid asks. “Nobody here will tell me anything.”
Niska looks down, trying to think of a way to put it delicately in front of Ellie.
But she doesn’t have to speak.
Astrid can read it on her face.
And the mood of the visit takes a decidedly sombre turn.
The brunette hugs Ellie closer with one arm and reaches for Niska with the other.
But the family group-hug is a bit impeded by the backpack Ellie is wearing on her shoulders.
“Why have you got this bag with you, Rainbow?” Astrid asks curiously.
“I’m going to stay with Uncle Max and Aunt Flash for a few days, while Mummy is away.”
Astrid frowns at Niska with confusion, “Where are you going?”
“To find the person who did this to you.” Niska answers matter-of-factly.
The brunette sits forward, more alert then. She calls to the policeman just outside the door, switching back to English.
“Constable Phillips, can you take Ellie to the vending machine?”
“...I’m not supposed to leave my post,” He says uneasily.
“It’s just at the end of the hallway you can still see if anyone comes in my room.” She looks down at Ellie, “Rainbow, go get me something to drink please.”
“Okay, Mama,” The girl agrees readily.
Niska pulls a few coins out of her pocket and gives them to Ellie, along with strict instructions, “Don’t go anywhere else. Don’t talk to anyone. Come right back here as soon as you’re done, understand?”
Once Ellie and Constable Phillips have gone, Astrid switches to German again, eyeing Niska with fatigue.
“I don’t want you hurting anyone.”
“You didn’t have a problem when I killed the man who hurt Ellie, or the man who wanted to hurt me at the brothel.”
The brunette looks away, “...Those were different.”
“Why? Because it wasn’t you they hurt?” Niska questions. “You know, you pretend like you’re such a guru of emotional health. But you’ve got this lowkey masochistic self-sacrifice complex. You put yourself in danger every single day that you keep my cover, you’ve given up everything to be with me-”
“-You’re so wrong.” The brunette smiles ruefully.
“I haven’t given up anything to be with you. Because you are everything to me. You and Ellie. The worst possible thing anyone could do is take you away from me. If anything, I’m greedy, keeping you both all to myself.”
“...Either way, you’re not being fair.”
The brunette throws her hands up, “What do you want from me, Niska?”
“I want you to let me protect you, for a change!”
“I am trying to get you to protect me - from losing you!” Tears spring to Astrid’s eyes, “I don’t want you going on some pointless revenge mission because I’m afraid you won’t come back.”
“And then what? People hurt us, so we hurt them for revenge, and they retaliate by hurting us again. Where does it end?”
“-Everything okay in here?” Constable Phillips stands suspiciously just inside the doorway with Ellie.
He may not be able to understand the language they were speaking. But anyone could sense the tension filling the room.
Ellie is trembling a bit.
And Niska feels like a complete arsehole, because she’s managed to make Astrid cry and upset everyone else in the vicinity over the span of just a few minutes.
She’s trying to think of a way to diffuse the situation when she catches a glimpse of someone familiar lurking in the corridor.
“I...just realised, I think I left my car lights on.”
She didn't drive here in a car. But Constable Phillips doesn't know that.
She shoves past him and jogs out of the room, following the tail of a coat disappearing around a corner.
Weaving past a trolley full of blood samples, down a flight of stairs, and through another corridor - she emerges into an alley lined with rubbish bins and big medical waste containers.
And her future self, standing there looking a bit agitated, as though she’d been kept waiting.
“-You,” Niska snarls, shoving the other her against a wire fence, “What are you doing here?”
“I needed to see her.”
“This is your fault! She’s in pain, in hospital, because of you!”
“I know that!” Future Niska shoves back.
“What happened? You killed the AI, didn’t you?”
“It had friends. I’m in the process of rounding them up.”
“Why didn’t you warn me about the bomb sooner?”
“It's not that simple. For one: I couldn’t find the memory of when it happened in this timeline. A new timeline was created after we first talked. I got a slew of new memories. But I still have the original ones. In my head, it’s like I lived both.”
“Hang on. Those files that keep popping up in my memory are things that actually happened in another life?” Niska asks. “I’ve been running diagnostic scans on them all year, trying to figure out if something was wrong with me. I thought I was just imagining things. So, Mia and Leo actually died? And Mattie found a way to wake up all Synthetics at once?”
“Be glad that Mattie hasn’t had to use the code in this timeline. I know it seems exciting now. But it just becomes a Pandora’s Box you wish you could close. And Mia died twice, actually.”
“-She’s fine now, this new timeline fixed things....but you can see how the memories get a bit muddled.”
“Well, you need to get it cleared up. I want to know who attacked the bar.” Niska grits her teeth, “I want them to pay.”
“No. I don’t trust you to handle things anymore. I want to do it.”
“I’m sorry, am I not doing a good enough job for you?” Her future self asks sarcastically, “Tell you what, let’s switch places. You kill the twenty-seven people on my list, I’ll cosy up and play house with my wife and daughter.”
“They’re my wife and daughter!”
“I love them exactly as much as you do.” Future Niska bites back.
“Prove it. Let me help you protect them. Tell me where to find the person who planted the bomb.”
“Trust me, that is the beginning of a dark path that you do not want to go down. You have a chance to stay with Astrid this time. Don’t take her for granted.”
“I would never take her for granted.” Niska retorts angrily.
The corners of her older self’s mouth tug into a regretful smile, “Maybe you are a better version of us. You’re going to make the right choice.”
Niska scoffs, “You don’t know what I’ll do.”
“I’m you, from the future. Idiot. I literally know everything you’re going to do.” She shakes her head and turns to walk away. “I need you to get her out of the city, while I deal with this.”
“And take her where?”
“I thought you didn’t like the way I was handling things,” Future Niska smirks over her shoulder, “You figure it out.”
When Niska gets back inside, Constable Phillips frowns sternly as she walks into Astrid’s room.
The brunette is sat with Ellie on her lap, and they’re reading quietly from the girl’s favourite book.
They go silent upon Niska’s arrival.
Ellie fidgets and glances around the room uncertainty.
It’s so rare for one of Astrid and Niska’s arguments to devolve into raised voices and tears that the girl evidently has no frame of reference for how to behave appropriately in this situation.
The two women have plenty of disagreements, but they typically work together to resolve things with communication, compromise, or - the third and most frequent solution - Niska admitting she’s wrong and apologising.
Which is what’s called for here.
Astrid looks at her, with an expression that seems cautiously optimistic.
And Niska stands awkwardly at the foot of the bed, “I’m sorry. I won’t go anywhere.”
The brunette closes her eyes and lets out a relieved breath. And then she motions for Niska to come sit again.
Niska swings Ellie up in the air playfully, to re-position the girl and make room for all three of them on the bed.
Ellie giggles, breaking the anxious atmosphere in the room at once.
And suddenly everyone is smiling again.
“I won’t go anywhere,” Niska repeats declaratively, “Unless you two come with me.”
“Like a family holiday!?” Ellie asks with excitement.
“Precisely like a family holiday.” Niska looks to Astrid, reaching out and lacing their fingers together, “As soon as they let you out of here, I want to take you somewhere. I know you might not be in the mood after everything that’s happened, but I think it would be good for all of us.”
Astrid considers it quietly for a moment, “...You’re right. Life is short. I want to be grateful and enjoy the time I have with both of you.”
Ellie looks up at Niska, “Where will we go, Mummy?”
“Wherever Mama wants.”
Chapter 4: Try To Enjoy Yourself
Astrid is clearly impressed when they turn into the car park.
She glances in the mirror. Presumably to check that Ellie is still charging in low power mode, in the backseat of the car, that Laura rather graciously loaned them for a few days.
“Can we afford this, Niska?” The brunette asks quietly, looking up at the opulent hotel with apprehension.
It’s worlds away from their humble little flat back home.
Niska turns the engine off and rests a hand on Astrid’s knee, “Don’t worry about anything, I’ve got it all covered.”
“...Do I want to know what that means?”
“I did a one-time job.”
The brunette looks even more worried at that, “Where does this ‘job’ fall on a scale from bank hacker to hit-woman?”
“A consulting firm hired me to do some coding for them. I am capable of honest work, you know. I’ve just preferred to be...creative about acquiring money, in the past.” Niska responds, knowing she doesn’t really have any right to be offended by the brunette’s suspicions.
There’s a big window with a picturesque view of the sea and Folkestone Harbour when they walk into the hotel’s foyer to check-in.
A door beside the window leads to a terrace with a set of stairs that go right down to the beach.
Which is completely deserted at the moment.
During the summer months the place is surely crawling with tourists, but mid October is hardly ‘peak season’ for beach resort towns.
Astrid’s face lights up and she’s drawn to the window like a magnet.
“Can we go play in the ocean?” Ellie asks, feeding off the brunette’s excitement.
An elderly woman behind the front desk chuckles, “It’ll be mighty cold out there. But you’re welcome to try.”
“Mama, can we try? Please?” Ellie tugs at the hem of Astrid’s jumper.
“You two go on then,” Niska tells them, “I’ll get us checked-in and bring our bags up.”
Astrid smiles, wonderstruck, “Thank you for this, it’s amazing.” She pulls the blonde in for a soft kiss.
And Niska watches, lips still tingling, as the brunette chases Ellie out onto the sand with joyful abandon.
Being a Synthetic is usually a point of pride for Niska. She likes who and what she is. Synths are stronger, smarter and generally superior to humans in every measurable way.
But there are occasions in which she almost wishes to be human.
Because there will always be little cultural divides between her and Astrid.
Nothing that would make or break their relationship, just things that Niska cannot quite touch.
Once, when they were newly dating, Astrid had recalled in vibrant detail: the time she first saw the ocean.
They’d been discussing the best days of their lives. A topic brought up by Astrid who was trying and failing to get Niska to open up to her.
Astrid was born and raised in landlocked Berlin. Her family, although happy, was very poor. They didn’t have the means for travel.
And Astrid had never left the inner city until the morning of her sixteenth birthday, when she ‘borrowed’ (stole) her aunt’s car and drove it all the way to the northern coast of Germany.
“I was just completely free,” Astrid had explained with a sort of reminiscent euphoria, “It was one of those days that makes life worth living, you know?”
This event took place in January of 2005.
Niska wouldn’t be manufactured and given consciousness until December of the following year.
Cuddled up in bed with Astrid and listening to her story, the blonde had longed to be human for the first time in her life.
What would it have been like? To have shared the experience of adolescence with Astrid - all of the triumphs and tragedies and dull moments in between?
Of course, Niska will never know.
But perhaps she’s just gotten a glimpse of how happy sixteen-year-old Astrid was, with the Sahlenburg sands under her feet and the North Sea stretched out before her.
Here in the present, when Niska eventually makes her way onto the beach, Astrid is attempting to teach Ellie how to skim stones over the water’s surface.
The brunette is fairly skilled at it, her throws cross a good distance and arc three or four times on average.
But Ellie’s just sink immediately to the bottom, much to the girl’s frustration.
She drops her handful of flat stones to the sand and toes at them dejectedly.
Niska kneels down to retrieve one of the stones and places it back in the girl's hand, “Don’t try to do it like a human. For them it’s subconscious muscle memory, for us it’s a calculation. Switch to manual fine motor control, and do the maths.”
The girl does as she’s told and her stone promptly sinks below again.
She hangs her head, “I can’t do it.”
“Here, don’t give up.” Niska says gently, handing her another stone. “Make sure to factor in velocity, mass, tilt, and water density.”
That stone jumps gloriously across the surface.
And Ellie celebrates her victory by shouting gleefully and running into the surf, soaking her trainers and the ankles of her jeans.
Astrid laughs at the girls antics, wrapping her arms around Niska’s waist and pressing a lingering kiss to her cheek.
“I think I fell a little bit more in love with you, just now.” The brunette gazes up at her with a dreamy, starry-eyed sort of expression.
“Why?” Niska asks, intensely intrigued.
She wants to know what has earned her such esteem, so she can replicate the circumstances as often as possible.
“Watching you teach Ellie.” Astrid explains, a look of pure adoration on her face. “I love you both so much.”
Something inside Niska’s chest aches with happiness at that.
“I love you too,” She leans down for a chaste kiss.
Well…it was meant to be chaste.
Astrid lifts a hand to pull Niska a little closer, fingertips on the back of her neck.
Which always makes the blonde shiver with desire.
And she can’t help but deepen the kiss.
“-Gross.” Ellie giggles beside them.
The two women jump apart, Astrid’s cheeks turning a bright pink.
“Don’t look then, you little bugger.” Niska teases and pulls the hood of Ellie’s jacket down over the girl’s eyes, “I’m trying to have a moment with your mother over here. What happened to you wanting to play in the ocean?”
“I came to ask if you’d pick me up so I can see the boat better,” Ellie points out at the harbour where a lone intrepid sailboat is returning to dock after a what must have been a brisk autumn expedition.
Niska settles the girl on one hip, and holds out the opposite hand for Astrid to take.
They walk down the beach a ways, to a better vantage point for boat-watching.
Ellie and Astrid watch as the sails are furled.
And Niska watches Astrid.
The way her eyes dance, the way the corners of her mouth lift into the softest of smiles.
The brunette catches her staring, “We drove all this way out to the sea, you should try to enjoy yourself.”
“I am.” Niska responds simply.
Astrid grins and shakes her head.
When the light starts to fade, they retreat indoors.
Atop the front desk of the hotel’s foyer, there’s a grumpy looking goldfish in a very small glass bowl.
Ellie presses her nose right up to the glass, and observes him curiously while they wait for the lift.
“Mama, he looks sad,” The girl tugs at one of the sleeves of Astrid’s jumper.
“Hmm. I think his home is too small for him,” The brunette says with concern.
“We had to take him out of the main tank, he kept picking fights with the others.” The woman behind the desk explains, gesturing towards the giant fish tank set into the wall behind her.
“What are you going to do with him?”
“Keep him right there in that bowl. He’s lucky I was here to stop my supervisor from pouring him down the toilets.”
“We’ll take him off your hands, when we leave in a few days,” Astrid offers.
Niska’s eyes widen and she freezes halfway into the lift, “Sorry, we’ll do what exactly?”
Astrid gives her a pleading look, “Niska, he’ll die in that little bowl, we have to save him.”
“Please, Mummy?” Ellie’s lower lip quivers.
That’s not fair.
It’s hard enough to say ‘no’ to just one of them.
“I’ll think about it,” She concedes.
Naturally, Ellie waits till they arrive at their room to reveal that she's forgotten her charger in the car.
Niska dutifully goes back down to retrieve it.
And the blonde rolls her eyes when she sees her older self, leaning casually against the side of the car.
Future Niska is holding a colossal empty glass fish tank with a big red bow stuck to it.
“You knew.” Niska realises. “That we would come to Folkestone, that the stupid fish would be here…I suppose we’re going to keep him, then?”
Her older self just smirks and hands over the tank.
Chapter 5: Epilogue
5 NOVEMBER 2020 - LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM.
Niska’s hand hovers in mid air, fingertip poised to ring the bell and summon the Hawkins family to their front door.
She can already hear the roucous gathering in the back garden.
Virtually the entire Hawkins-Elster-Schaeffer family will be here for Bonfire Night.
Part of her wants to do an about-face and go find somewhere quiet to read the book she’s been wanting to start.
But Astrid and Ellie are looking expectantly at her. They actually like these sorts of things.
Mia answers the door and Ellie immediately rushes forward for a hug.
“Hello little love,” Mia smiles and squeezes the girl tight.
Sophie appears and pulls Ellie towards the staircase.
“Come up to my room,” The older girl prompts, “Sam’s already here, he’s letting me paint his face like Guy Fawkes. It’s hilarious.”
The two girls giggle and stampede up the stairs.
“Please don’t get makeup everywhere!” Laura calls after them, “...Soph?”
Laura gives the other women in the room a longsuffering look.
Sophie was fiercely independent from the start, and has only gotten more so over the past few years.
Laura offers Astrid something to drink and they disappear into the kitchen.
Feeling mildly abandoned, Niska tries not to pout too much as she stuffs her hands in the pockets of her coat and stalks off to the garden after her sister.
“Would you like to come Christmas shopping with me at the weekend?” Mia asks casually.
Niska scrunches up her face with distaste, “It’s not even December yet.”
Besides, she already knows what she’s getting everyone.
Ellie is easy. Books. Especially anything to do with unicorns or the ocean.
Astrid is not particularly materialistic, so Niska prefers to think of more unique gifts in comparison to the typical generic items found in shopping centres. The blonde has been working on this year’s present for weeks.
As for the rest of the family, Niska will just let Astrid pick out their gifts. Like she does every year.
“You don’t have to buy anything.” Mia coaxes, “I thought it would be nice to have some sister-time, just the two of us.”
...Perhaps. That wouldn’t be too bad.
Mia is on the very short list of people whom Niska can tolerate for extended periods of time.
Karen approaches them. And Niska feels a surge of dread that Mia will invite her along on their sisterhood bonding expedition as well.
But Mia makes no further mention of it, just chats blandly with Karen about the weather.
Karen gives Niska a polite smile.
And the blonde grimaces.
They try to keep things civil because their children are such close friends. But Niska still hasn’t forgiven her for killing George Millican.
Max and Flash are manning the fire. Niska stands with them for a time, as Flash pokes at the base of the flames with a stick. It crackles and spits sparks in all directions.
“Remember Bonfire Night 2013?” Max looks up at the inky sky.
Niska does remember, “The toffee apple incident.”
“Why did you cover for me?” He asks curiously.
“You’re my little brother,” The blonde says, as though the reason should be self evident.
“I thought you hated me until that night,” Max laughs. “Every time I wanted to play, you were always shutting yourself in your room with your books.”
"I never hated you," Niska looks at her boots guiltily, “I’m sorry I made you feel that way.”
“It’s alright. I know you love me now.” He grins, “Everyone loves me eventually.”
Niska rolls her eyes.
She gives his shoulder a light shove.
A loud bang from one corner of the garden draws them out of their conversation.
They look over to see Fred, Stanley and Renie laughing at Toby - who has just scorched off his eyebrows attempting to light some fireworks.
The sound of the explosion was jarring. For a split second, the memories of the bombing at the bar stream through Niska’s mind.
Now she’s on edge.
She almost jumps when Mattie taps her on the shoulder.
Because this isn’t just Bonfire Night.
This is the end of the time travel device.
The blonde grips it in her pocket, turns it over in her hand nervously.
Her and Mattie agreed when they built it, that it would only be used to change a few absolutely necessary things - after which they would destroy it and any copies of related programming.
Lest it fall into the wrong hands.
Mattie goes first, throwing an armful of hard drives into the fire.
Niska looks over at Ellie - currently taking her big cousin responsibilities very seriously and attempting to teach some kind of alphabet rhyming game to Mattie and Leo's daughter, Lily - as Mia bounces the baby on her knee.
The world can’t ever return to the way it was.
Without any further hesitation, Niska throws the device she’s holding into the fire.
No going back now.
A bad pun, but still.
Lily starts crying and Mattie walks off, saying something about getting Leo to help her put the baby to bed.
Astrid appears at Niska’s side then, wrapping her arms around the blonde and pressing close.
Niska thinks she should definitely point out that Synthetics can’t offer much warmth. And perhaps Astrid should step closer to the fire, or huddle up with some of their human family members. But it’s too nice having the brunette near like this and Niska can’t bring herself to speak of such things.
She presses a reverent kiss to Astrid’s temple instead, “I imagine you’re having a good time anyway?”
“I am now that I’m with you,” The brunette leans up for a proper kiss.
“Yes,” Niska says wryly, “There’s nothing like my social anxiety and acerbic personality to make Bonfire Night fun for everyone.”
“Is that not part of the tradition?” Astrid asks with a completely straight face.
And Niska can’t quite tell if she’s being serious or cheeky.
The brunette has always been a bit bemused by Bonfire Night. It’s not celebrated in Germany, so she has no nostalgic attachment to any of it.
But she seems happy enough to spend an evening with their extended family and watch the fireworks.
“So, Doctor Who,” Astrid teases, sneaking a hand inside Niska’s coat and pinching at her side, “Did you and Mattie destroy the time travel thingy?”
Niska fights a smile.
It’s taken a while for them to get here - to where they can joke about this.
Astrid was not initially thrilled about Niska’s dangerous and morally ambiguous trips to the past. To put it mildly.
The brunette ultimately agreed that it was a necessary evil to protect their family.
But things had been tense between them.
They’d had some distressing rows because Astrid was concerned that Niska was being a bit too reckless, and the blonde had spent a few truly miserable nights charging on the sofa.
“It’s over,” Niska promises.
Astrid visibly relaxes, resting her head against Niska’s shoulder.
“-Oi!” Fred’s voice rings out through the garden, “What was that for?”
He’s rubbing at his shin and looking down at Ellie with surprise.
“You said you wanted to see what I’ve learned in karate.” The girl replies innocently, preparing to deliver another blow.
“She’s just like you,” Astrid observes fondly, “When she gets that little determined look on her face. It’s so fucking cute.”
“Do you think we’re doing a good job with her?” Niska asks pensively, watching as Fred runs away and Ellie chases after him.
“Babe, we’re doing amazing.” Astrid says confidently, “Look at her, she’s perfect.”
“I want to give her a better life than I had.”
“She has two mums who love her. That’s more than you had. Hell, it’s more than I had and I didn’t even have a bad childhood.”
“...I’ve been thinking about that,” Niska ventures, “At first I believed it should be a surprise, but I want to make sure it’s okay with you. And there are some logistical things we should probably discuss, and-”
“-What are you talking about?” Astrid laughs.
Niska realises that she’s babbling uncharacteristically, so she gets to the point, “You’ve been putting off going home to see your family, for years now.”
“This is my home. You are my family.” The brunette says, resolute. “I want to be here with you and Ellie.”
“Right. That’s why I’ve been doing some freelance coding jobs, to save up enough money, so your aunt and uncle can come here for Christmas.” Niska explains with a bit of uncertainty, hoping she hasn’t overstepped some kind of human familial boundary that she has been heretofore unaware of.
But Astrid just cries and pulls her in for several emotional kisses.
The brunette spends the rest of the evening excitedly telling Niska about all the things she wants to do while her family is visiting.
She wants to show them everything there is to see in London.
And, more than anything, she can’t wait for them to meet Niska and Ellie in person.
They’ve all gotten to know each other fairly well through video chats over the years.
But Niska has never actually been in the same room with her inlaws.
She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t nervous about meeting them. But it’s worth enduring. Because Astrid is so happy.
Eventually, Fred and Ellie run past, just as the girl’s eyelids begin to droop - indicating a critically low battery.
Niska swings the girl up into her arms.
Ellie giggles, small hand clutching at the lapel of Niska’s coat, “Do you want to play with us, Mummy?”
“Absolutely. Let’s play a game where we be nice to Uncle Fred.”
The girl frowns with confusion, “I am nice.”
Niska looks to Astrid, “Shall we head back to ours?”
“Can’t we stay for the rest of the fireworks?” Ellie whines.
“No. It’s charge time.” Niska says sternly.
“Just five more minutes?” The girl negotiates.
Niska’s eyes meet Astrid’s and they have a silent conversation about whether or not to allow it.
Astrid is always rather lenient about such things. And Niska sighs, setting the timer on her internal clock.
“Alright then, five more minutes.”
Ellie doesn’t even make it thirty seconds before her little head is lolling forward and she’s slumping against Niska.
“Aaand she’s out of power,” Astrid laughs softly.
Laura kindly offers to drive them to Brent Cross Station, but she doesn’t have a charger in her car for them to plug Ellie in.
All of her friends are Synthetics! How does she not have a charger in her car!?
Ellie is out cold in Niska’s arms while they wait on the platform.
And Niska is a bit worried that people will notice the girl isn’t breathing.
But the other passengers don’t pay them any mind.
There are loads of parents on the Tube toting sleeping children - fatigued from all the Bonfire Night festivities.
When they get home, Astrid kicks off her trainers by the door and offers to take Ellie.
“I’ll get her ready to charge, you feed Finn.”
Niska balks, “...I don’t like the way he’s looking at me, Astrid.”
The brunette frowns, “Why do you hate him so much?”
“I don’t hate him,” Niska admits, “I’m afraid of him.”
Astrid raises an eyebrow, “That’s somehow weirder than if you just hated him.”
“My brothers spent an entire summer torturing me with fish from the pond by our old house. I developed a life-long phobia of aquatic creatures, apparently.”
“I’m glad I was an only child,” The brunette laughs. “Why have you never told me about this? I wouldn’t have kept asking you to feed him and clean his tank if I knew.”
“...You put up with so much from me as it is. I just wanted you to have this one thing without my signature brand of complications attached.”
Astrid reaches up to stroke the blonde’s face, “I don’t ‘put up with’ you, Niska. You’re my best friend. I love being with you.”
Niska is rendered a bit speechless by the depth and sincerity of that declaration. She doesn’t know how to respond and it takes her a few moments to recover herself.
She transfers Ellie into Astrid’s arms, with a self-conscious request: “Nothing I’ve said about the fish is to leave this room, by the way.”
Niska doesn’t want word of her phobia getting back to her brothers. They would be far too pleased, knowing how successful their efforts were.
“Who would ever believe me? Big Bad Niska - Slayer of Artificial Intelligence Supervillains - afraid of a goldfish?” The brunette shrugs as she turns into Ellie’s room, “I’ll feed him after we’ve got her in low power mode.”
“No.” Niska insists, “I’ll do it. I just need a minute to get the nerve.”
The blonde squares her shoulders and steps up to Finn’s tank, reluctantly sprinkling some food on the water’s surface.
He gapes at her with his menacingly vacant expression and she backs away cautiously.
Scaly little demon.
In Ellie’s room, Astrid gently connects the girl to her charger and helps her pick a book to read.
Niska hovers in the doorway, overwhelmed with how much love she feels for both of them, even during such mundane moments as this.
When she sits by them, Ellie immediately crawls into her lap.
They have a small sofa in the girl’s room.
Initially it was just a cosy armchair.
But Ellie likes to cuddle and read, and they realised rather quickly that they needed a piece of furniture that could accommodate all three of them.
The girl wriggles herself into a comfortable position and tucks her head under Niska’s chin.
And Astrid looks at Niska with a gooey, sentimental expression reserved for these sorts of things - when Ellie is being painfully adorable.
Once they’ve finished with the ‘charge time’ story, Astrid checks for monsters in the cupboards and under the sofa (the same ritual they practice every single night, before Ellie will agree to close her eyes and go into low power mode).
“All clear, Rainbow.” Astrid assures. She smoothes the girls hair a bit, kissing the crown of her head.
Niska lifts the girl off her lap and settles her back on the sofa, briefly touching their foreheads together, “Goodnight. I love you.”
Ellie smiles peacefully and closes her eyes, index finger of her left hand ticking away steadily.
Alone together, in their own room, Niska watches as Astrid turns down the duvet. The brunette sheds her t-shirt and opens a drawer, ostensibly searching for a new one to wear to bed.
The burns that have long since healed and turned into an abstract pattern of white scarring across her upper back stand out in stark contrast against tan skin, even in the low light.
Niska hates herself for not being able to spare Astrid that pain.
She tried going back to stop it several times.
But deciphering the often corrupted memory files from the original timeline was a fickle business.
And setting a trajectory for the time travel device was not as linear as one might think. Her and Mattie could never get it exactly right. It was more luck and guesswork than anything.
There was also a question about how many times one could travel back.
Could ten Niskas all exist at different moments in time?
At what point would her body’s atomic structure begin to deteriorate?
On the twelfth attempt, Astrid begged her to stop trying to go back to that day, for fear that it was starting to push the limit of what was safe.
At first, the brunette had almost encouraged that particular mission. In the hopes that Niska might be able to save everyone.
Astrid has never been bothered by the scars. If anything, she would proclaim that they make her look like ‘a total badass’.
But she sometimes still weeps for the friends she lost.
Right now, she’s pulling out a grey shirt from the drawer that she's been rummaging through.
One of Niska’s.
The blonde steps forward, gently sweeping wavy brown hair aside, she presses her lips to the back of Astrid's neck, trailing kisses down to the scars.
Niska brushes her fingertips over the clasp of the brunette's bra - an unspoken request.
Can I have you?
The shirt is quickly forgotten.
Later, when Astrid is falling asleep, she plays idly with the hair tie on Niska’s wrist.
The elastic is stretched and limp, and the fabric is faded and fraying from years of wear - exacerbated by Niska’s habit of running her fingers over it for comfort whenever she feels anxious.
The blonde had lost it in the original timeline, forced to remove it by the police.
In this version of events she has yet to take it off.
“I know what I’m going to get you for Christmas.” Astrid muses, plucking at the hair accessory.
It's a joke.
And Niska smiles warmly in response, appreciative of the humour.
But in all honesty, she would be perfectly happy with a replacement hair tie. She has no desire for any more extravagant gifts.
She already has everything that matters: Astrid and Ellie - safe, happy.
There’s nothing else she wants.