When Astrid is ten, she falls in love. It's the first day of Primary Four when their form teacher comes up to the front of the classroom with an unfamiliar face - a girl, decked in her pressed, clean uniform, a little taller than Astrid with dark eyes and long hair tied back in a ponytail. She's introduced as a new classmate, a transfer student whose family just moved back to Singapore after spending five years in England. Her name is Kate and their form teacher assigns her the empty seat beside Astrid. "Astrid, as the class monitress, I expect you to look out for Kate and guide her around, especially for the first week."
Astrid nods - she's already long gotten used to bearing responsibility, watching out for the people around her. She turns to Kate, busy getting her textbooks and stationery out of her bag. "Hi. I'm Astrid."
"Hi, Astrid," Kate says softly. She looks Astrid right in the eye, small smile on her face, and Astrid feels her heart stutter briefly. "Nice to meet you."
At ten, with those eyes, that smile, the hint of an accent, Kate is the most beautiful thing Astrid's ever seen in her life and makes her stomach flutter the way she reads about in some of her mother's secret stash of romance novels. The first time Kate laughs at a joke she makes, Astrid can't hide the blush in her cheeks for a good five minutes. They hold hands, once, during a field trip when they're taking the bus back to school. The ride takes twenty minutes, and Astrid feels frozen to the seat for every single one, fingers lightly tangled between Kate's.
She never says anything about it, isn't sure what exactly this is, even, because it doesn't make any sense. She's a girl. Kate's a girl. And that means it can't be love, right? Astrid's read books, watched movies, and she has a vague idea of what the whole Love and Romance and Happily Ever After thing is supposed to be about. Finding the right boy, the perfect prince, and getting married under a beautiful starry sky. Something like that, or another.
Astrid transfers out to the GEP programme the next year and Kate stays with the rest of the class. They pass each other in the hallways sometimes, but what friendship they had strung out between them slowly and quietly dissipates, and by the time they graduate, Astrid doesn't even remember how it felt to look at her and feel her breath catch for one brief moment.
But she never forgets that it happened. That it was real.
She finally finds the words for it when she's fourteen, after she goes to the best secondary school in the country and more than one schoolmate catches her eye, her gaze lingering. She listens to her classmates giggle about movie stars and pop sensations - handsome, rugged, masculine - and things sink into her gut, nameless but clawing, clinging, settling.
She goes to the library and seeks out information with the hungry determination of her father and the sharp perceptiveness of her mother. She looks for something, anything, that will make her feel like she fits in her own skin - and it takes a while, but finally, finally, she does. She finds a word, first, and then a definition. Then a history, then others, just like her, speaking candidly about their experiences, their lives, their love. She reads a short essay written by a Singaporean, just like her, and when she reaches the last word it feels like her heart is expanding, something swelling and aching beneath her chest.
I think I'm gay, she mouths, cross-legged by a shelf in the library. Then, louder, actually pushing the words out into the world - "I'm gay."
And after years of doubting, wondering, searching, holding her breath, Astrid finally gets to exhale.
Her father is the first one she tells aside from herself, one of those rare times he's at home and not flying to one of his offices around the world. It's just the two of them, her mother off discussing some family matters with her siblings, and Astrid goes hesitantly up to her father while he's supervising the help washing his car. "Papa?"
He nods tersely in acknowledgment, doesn't turn to look at her. Astrid feels something sticking in her throat, the familiar tremors of fear running down her spine. She swallows, summoning all the courage she has. "Last week I was doing some research in the library, and I read some things, and I - Papa, I think I'm gay."
There is a long minute of complete silence. Most people wouldn't notice, but Astrid sees her father go tense and his jaw clench and it's with a great effort that she doesn't start shaking. "Papa - "
"You're not gay," he says - spits it, really, venom dripping from the words. He almost flinches when he speaks, like even saying the word is an affront to everything he holds to be true and right and good. "Don't be ridiculous, Astrid. You're not a lesbian or something, you're - you're not one of them."
One of them? Every word he says feels like a punch straight into her gut, and everything inside her screams for her to turn tail and run and hide, but she's a Young, and she's seen Auntie Eleanor's spine of steel, Auntie Alix's laughter in the face of fear, her mother's sneer at those who make the mistake of underestimating her. Astrid straightens up, putting more heat into her voice. "I'm not being ridiculous. I know what this is, I know what I've been feeling since I was a kid, I did research, and I know I like girls. I know I - "
The slap comes before her brain even registers it, her father's palm meeting her cheek with greater force than she's ever known him to exert. For a moment there isn't even any pain - Astrid just staggers back, reeling, the sheer shock almost knocking her off her feet - it's the first time her father's ever hit her in her life. She thinks her ears are ringing, and her hand goes up to cup her face, and then the pain floods in, burning, like nothing she's ever felt before. It steals the breath from her lungs and she can't even cry out. Her right eye hurts, it's a little hard to see, but her father's face looms over her, the rage and disgust obvious on his expression. "Don't ever say anything like that again," he shouts. "No daughter of mine is going to be an immoral piece of filth. Do you have any idea how much scandal it would cause for you to even publicly say something like that? How much shame you would bring to me, and your mother, and the rest of the family? You get over this stupid idea of yours, or you can pack your things and leave and never step into my house ever again. Do you understand me, Astrid Leong?"
She can't even speak, her eyes welling with tears - from the physical pain, from the stunned shock, from the agony that's beginning to scream through her every nerve ending - and her father grabs her shoulder, shakes her. "I said, do you understand me?"
Astrid isn't sure how she does it, but she rasps out the affirmative, and he lets go, pushing her away from him. "Go get yourself cleaned up before your mother gets home. And don't go telling her all this nonsense either."
He turns back to his car, and barks at the staring help to get back to work. Astrid stumbles back to her bedroom, numb, and hides under the sheets until she's called to dinner.
"Your face is swollen," Felicity says critically, eyeing her over a bowl of rice. "What happened?"
Astrid stares down at her plate, avoiding her father's gaze. "Nothing," she whispers, and tries very badly to believe it.
She gets her first boyfriend in her first year of junior college. He's a friend of Nick and Colin's, raised in roughly the same circles as the Youngs, and he asks her out on a date oozing the perfect gentlemanly charm Astrid's seen Nick and Colin use on girls they're interested in. He's attractive and has a good reputation and treats her kindly, and Astrid thinks desperately maybe. Maybe I could love him. Maybe I could learn how to.
She clings on to that. Plays the part as best as she can, drawing off what she's seen in romantic comedies on television, her friends' relationships with their own boyfriends. One month in he kisses her for the first time and she even kisses him back - she goes to the bathroom and nearly throws up and cries alone in a stall for ten minutes, after, but she kisses him back.
They're known as a couple up until February of her second year, one week before Valentine's, when Amanda walks in on him making out with another girl in their homeroom and promptly snitches to Nick, who tells Eddie and Alistair to make themselves useful and get their cronies to beat the shit out of him. He and Colin and some of the other girls break the news as gently as they can, prepared to comfort her, but all Astrid feels is relief.
She kind of resigns herself to it, after that saga blows over. She's never going to love a boy, not like that, not the way her friends do.
Maybe, she thinks, reading through personal stories of other gay people who've risked everything to come out and live their truth openly, maybe if she were braver, maybe if she were stronger, maybe if she were less scared of losing the only world she's ever known - maybe she wouldn't be hiding. Maybe she wouldn't have to carry the weight of this with her, everywhere she goes. Maybe this is what she gets for being afraid.
She doesn't like lying, but maybe this is what she has to do. Lie until the lie becomes her life. That, at least, she knows she can do. She thinks about what her father said, years ago, about bringing shame to her parents, her aunts, her Ah Ma, and something seizes cold in her chest. She would break their hearts. She can't do that. Not for her own selfish ends. She can't.
She goes to Oxford after graduating from junior college and throws herself into her academics. She graduates with a First and proceeds to jump straight into the working world, doing exactly what she was always groomed to do. It's a convenient excuse to pull out when her Ah Ma asks why she hasn't brought anybody home. Her father sighs and goes all what can you do with a career girl? but when he thinks she's not looking he smiles fondly, pride in his eyes. At least she's putting her degree to good use.
Her mother is more persistent. "Surely you have some eligible colleagues," she says. "Or we can set you up with someone in the inner circle - Amanda has some friends who've just come back from Cambridge, a little younger than you but really, in this day and age, it's not a big deal."
"I'm fine, Mum," Astrid says, trying to smile, trying not to shake, her throat dry. "Really. I want to focus on my work. If it happens, it'll happen. You can't rush these things."
Felicity sighs, shaking her head. "You're not getting any younger, Astrid. Don't you want someone to share your life with?"
Yes, Astrid wants to scream. Yes, I want to, so badly, just not with the people you want me to -
"I'm okay," she says instead, and it feels like choking on glass. "I have all of you."
For Ah Ma's seventieth birthday Astrid decides to have a dress commissioned. Her grandmother's always rocked dresses - they've all seen the old photos from way back when - and most everyone is going for the typical gifts of jewellery and whatnot. She wants to do something unique.
"If you want a dress, you go to Erica Raybern," Araminta tells her. "She and Priscilla, they're up-and-coming, run in the same leagues. Fantastic work, worth the money - next summer, the price is going to go up by at least fifty percent, trust me."
Astrid does, so she seeks her out. She finds her way into a small, cozy studio in the heart of Keong Saik, in front of a table with sketches scattered across the surface. Compared to Araminta her eye for fashion isn't that keen, but she doesn't need to be a genius to see that there is some real promise in front of her. Fascinated, she picks one draft up - bold colours, timeless, beautiful -
"Hey, can I help you?"
She whirls around to see the source of the voice - a girl standing in the doorway, eyeing her curiously, hair done up in a messy bun. Dyed hair, dark eyes, olive skin, and she cuts a figure that makes Astrid's mouth go dry. Dredges up feelings that she's been trying so, so badly to repress for years, years, years.
The girl walks closer, eases her sketch out of Astrid's hand and places it back on the table, narrowing her eyes. "I asked, can I help you?"
Astrid finally manages to get her brain moving again. "I'm Astrid Leong. We spoke on the phone?"
"Ah, right." The girl relaxes, extending a hand. "Erica Raybern. Call me Erica. You said you were looking to get a dress custom-made."
"Yes, that's right. Araminta recommended you to me."
"Mindy's always thought way too highly of me," Erica laughs, waving it away, but Astrid sees the faint flush of pleasure on her cheeks, a quick, blinding grin on her face. "Alright, let's see what I can do for you."
A week after she meets Erica, she goes home for Sunday dinner and there's a stranger sitting at the table, right beside her designated chair. Felicity is beaming when she walks in. "Astrid! Good, you're home. We have a guest."
"This is Michael," her father says, gesturing from the head of the table as she takes her seat. "Michael Teo. Son of a very good friend of mine, a captain in the army. Michael, this is my daughter, Astrid."
Michael shakes her hand, all smiles, and Astrid feels something wither further inside her, something that's been slowly, quietly wilting for years on end. She's not stupid, she knows exactly what this is, and everything inside her cries out for her to just say no, to put her foot down, to do anything, anything at all -
"I've heard so much about you," says Michael, charming and genuine, and Astrid forces the words out, mechanical. "It's nice to meet you."
He does everything right, to her father's approval and her mother's pleasant surprise. He may not have been born into money, but he's stable, smart, dedicated, and according to her father, has the makings of a businessman in him, so even if he doesn't have money now, as he quite frankly says after Michael leaves, he will make it, soon enough.
"He'd be a good catch," Felicity says. "Not the best, but good enough."
Astrid thinks about the afternoons she's been spending in Erica's studio, talking about Ah Ma's dress but also about literally everything else - they'd started from polite small talk about fashion, design, each other's jobs and passions, the conversation slowly bleeding into other things. The hazy warmth, the way Erica's hands skirt across her sketchbook as she shows Astrid idea after idea, her bright smile, her voice. She thinks about Erica's laugh, the way her whole face seems to soften, and she doesn't cry, but it's a very, very near thing.
Erica pours two and a half months' worth of work into Astrid's commission and the final product is perfect, not that Astrid would have expected anything less. It quite literally takes her breath away when she first sees it.
"It's spectacular," she whispers, running her hands over the fabric in sheer amazement. "Thank you, Erica. Thank you so much."
"My honour," Erica replies, jaunty, but the satisfaction and relief so evident in her words. "Hope your Ah Ma likes it."
Astrid nods, still overcome. "If I ever need a dress, I will come to you. You can count on it."
She doesn't expect Erica to blush, to glance away with a hand running through her hair. "Well, uh, listen, I don't - I don't mean to be - to overstep, or anything, but I... I was working on a side project the past two months or so. It's just, you've been here so much, and I couldn't help noticing, you know, your style and measurements and stuff like that and... ugh, well, I kind of, sort of, made you a dress."
Astrid is rendered speechless for so long that Erica visibly winces, covering her eyes. "Sorry, I knew it was stupid. I didn't mean to be weird. I'm sorry. I'll put it up for sale instead."
"No," Astrid says, finding her voice again. "No, I - Erica, you didn't have to."
Erica rolls her eyes, and even that is endearing. "I know I didn't. I wanted to. You could pull off a whole range of stuff, Astrid, you have the look, the colouring, and the grace, and I don't always get to design for people with that much - poise and elegance, and I just wanted to make something. Would you like to see it? It's yours, if you want it. No charge."
Which is rubbish, Astrid's not an animal, she's writing Erica a massive cheque whether or not she likes the dress, although she's pretty sure she's going to fall in love with it on the spot. Erica shyly takes something off the rack and oh, Astrid doesn't think she's ever seen anything quite so exquisite. She's never been the kind of person who was looking for her perfect dress, but now that she's seen this, she finally understands what it means.
"Do you like it?" Erica asks, hesitant.
"Yes," Astrid breathes, unable to take her eyes off it. "Very much - Erica - thank you. I don't - it's beautiful. I want it. I'll keep it. And I'm paying for it."
Erica shakes her head, stubborn, pushing the dress into her arms. "I don't need that. I just - it would be amazing to see you in it. That's all the payment I need."
And Astrid goes still, because - there's more in that statement than just what she's saying. Astrid's never been stupid, has always been perceptive, and she can see the nervous fear in Erica's eyes, but also the hope, that daring, wondering, something she recognises from looking in the mirror -
She turns away. In the middle of the small studio she's come to know, love, so well, she quickly sheds her current outfit and steps into the dress. It feels like velvet on her skin, fits her like a glove. Her hand drifts to the zip, at the small of her back. "Can you help me with that?"
Erica's step is quick, and Astrid can feel her hands shaking as she does the zip up, both of them looking into the mirror at Astrid carrying off the ensemble like she was born to do it. Astrid realises she's terrified, from how much she wants this. The dress, its designer, maybe what's going to happen in the next few seconds -
"You look so beautiful," Erica says, that usually airy, sunny voice trembling. Her hands rest lightly on Astrid's hips, barely touching her. "You look exactly how I imagined when I was making - you look - Astrid, I - "
I want to kiss you, Astrid thinks, almost says it, but she's been swallowing down her truths for a long time now, so they don't come, but it doesn't matter, because she turns her face, just the slightest, and Erica moves to meet her, presses her lips against her own. Astrid thinks she makes a sound, melting into it, Erica's arms around her, body flush against her, she's never kissed a girl, has wanted to for so long, has always wanted to, and it's so much better than she could ever have conceived, how close she is, her warmth, the scent of her hair, she wants this, doesn't ever want it to end -
She never actually dates Michael. At least it never feels like she's dating him. They go out, he brings flowers, sometimes some gossip rag publishes grainy photographs of them leaving a restaurant, but it never feels like they're going out.
Not the way it feels with Erica. She spends days, weeks, months in the studio and in the apartment Erica lives in above it, until she could draw it from memory if prompted. They talk and eat and laugh and kiss and touch and work and sleep and fuck and it's the happiest she thinks she's ever been since she was a child. Lying on Erica's bed on hot, lazy afternoons, channel-surfing with a bowl of snacks on the bed between them, head pillowed against Erica's shoulder - those are the moments she thinks she could live like this for the rest of her life. Just the two of them, held in limbo, no earthly worries, just being together, in love, forever.
With Erica, it's comfortable. She talks late into the night about her childhood, figuring things out, being scared, trying to learn how to love a boy, Michael. Erica goes quiet whenever she mentions the last item, changes the subject sometimes, until they're edging on a year together when she snaps. "Why don't you just leave?"
Astrid cuts herself off mid-sentence, stunned. "What?"
In response, Erica props herself up on one elbow and stares at her, holding her gaze. "I said, why don't you just leave? Leave and walk away."
"It's not that easy," Astrid says defensively. "He's safe, and tolerant, and if I break up with him my parents would just find someone else - "
"I didn't mean leave him, Astrid," Erica interrupts. "I meant leave everything. Leave all this. Walk out. Walk away." She takes Astrid's hands in hers, voice dropping, expression pleading. "I got an offer from a company in Los Angeles. I can leave within three months. We can pack it all up, and move to the other side of the world, and start anew. Away from all this shit. From your parents, from your brothers, from your family. Everything that's been making you miserable for years. We can make a life together. Just the two of us. Please, baby." Erica reaches up in the dim light, cups Astrid's face. "I love you, Astrid Leong. You're it for me. Come with me to Los Angeles, and be mine."
It's the first time either of them have said it - really said it. One look at Erica's earnest face tells Astrid how much she means it, and her spine seizes, her breath catches, her heart just stops. Terror floods her, overwhelming. Her mind is screaming, racing, a hundred miles a minute. GO, it shrieks, GO, RUN, LEAVE. GO AND YOU CAN HAVE EVERYTHING YOU WANT. ISN'T THIS WHAT YOU WANT, ASTRID? ISN'T THIS WHAT YOU'VE ALWAYS WANTED? Images flash across her frame of vision - her father's palm against her cheek, sitting in a library shaping words around her tongue, shaking in a toilet stall, and then Los Angeles, the skyline, a tiny apartment to call their own, coming home to Erica every night, maybe a dog, maybe a child, calling Erica her wife and having it be real, having it mean something -
But also everything else - Nick, Colin, Araminta, her aunts, her brothers, her mother, her father, her Ah Ma, maybe even Michael. Everything she has here - a stable job, career on the up-and-up, a home, she knows her place, she always has, this is her world, the only world she's ever known, she's scared, she's always been scared -
"I can't," she whispers, and it sounds like, feels like, a gunshot, breaking, shattering, something falling apart in the quiet room. "Erica, I can't. I can't choose you over my family and everything I have here."
Erica reels back like she's been struck, horror and disbelief in her eyes. "What?"
Astrid shakes her head and shrinks back, can't look at her, can't bear to see the pain and confusion on her face. "I can't, Erica. I have a duty to them."
"You want to stay for them?" Erica raises her voice, louder. "For them? They've done nothing but hurt you and silence you and made you miserable and you want to stay for duty? They had a duty to you! As a daughter, as a child! And they've never honoured it! Why should you?"
"You wouldn't understand," Astrid begins, and the moment she says it she knows the line has been crossed, that this is where it ends for good. Erica's face shuts down, her eyes hard as flint, and she sits up, rigid. "Of course not," she says, quiet, dangerous, and so full of pain. "Of course not. Why would I? Struggling artist, earning less in a year than you would in a month, never known what it means to be in high society, doesn't know what face and appearances mean. Of course I wouldn't understand."
"Erica, that's not what I meant - "
Erica cuts her off, already getting off the bed and picking Astrid's clothes off the floor, tossing them at her. "It doesn't matter. Get the fuck out of my house, Astrid. I thought, after everything - after everything you told me, after everything you've ever had to go through - I thought you would have the courage to leave. I thought you would have enough self-respect. I thought I meant enough to you, above your shitty fucking family who have done nothing but hurt you over and over - " Her voice breaks on the last sentence, sounding small, lost, agonised. "I really thought you were the one."
"Erica," Astrid cries, the tears already streaming down her face. "Erica, please, listen - "
"Get out of my house," Erica says. "Just go. Please, Astrid. Just go."
And she goes.
It is the hardest thing she has ever done in her life.
Erica sells everything she owns in Singapore and leaves for Los Angeles a month later, for good. Stumbling out of her front door crying is the last time Astrid ever sees her.
Three months after Erica leaves, Michael proposes in her own living room. Her parents are there, smiling so joyously and looking at her with such pride and expectation, Michael on one knee offering his ring.
Why not, she thinks dully. Why not? I've already lost everything. Why not just take what I can get?
She says yes and feels absolutely nothing at all and thinks I can get used to this. I can live with this. I can.
She works and she laughs and she rises and she sleeps and she lives.
And it's enough (it's not, it's not, every night she goes to sleep feeling like she can't breathe and the first year of marriage whenever she sees or smells or hears something that reminds her of Erica she has to run to a bathroom and throw up and even going near Keong Saik makes everything hurt and for months she agonises endlessly about whether she made the right decision and she's so tired and it hurts).
It's enough (after a long, long time, when she's finally able to look at the dress in her cupboard without crying, finally able to touch it, finally able to put it on again).
It's enough (it has to be).
Three months after Nick goes to New York to 'expand his horizons' - more like get the hell out of dodge for a bit - she flies over to settle some business. It's been three months without seeing her favourite cousin in the flesh, and she knows where he lives, so the first thing she does when she arrives is to knock on his door and surprise him.
Him opening the door in awful pyjamas and a half-eaten slice of pizza in his hand and TV dialogue in the background, she expected.
There being another person in the apartment - there being a girl in the apartment - she did not.
It's not like Erica. The girl doesn't even look like Erica, and it isn't like the whole world stops turning and angels sing and she falls in love at first sight. In fact the first thing that crosses her mind is - Nick found someone, and he's happy, he looks so happy, at least one of us will have this.
Good, she thinks, ignoring the ache beneath her ribcage. Good.
Nick takes her out to a cafe he swears by and she teasingly interrogates him for about ten minutes before it dawns on her that he hasn't told his girlfriend - Rachel, apparently - about his roots.
"For god's sake, Nicholas," Astrid sighs, because Nick can really be so thick at times. "If you're going to be serious with this girl you have to tell her. What are you doing?"
"Why would I need to tell her? What bearing does it have on my life in New York, even, and hold on, 'serious with this girl', what? Astrid, Rachel and I aren't dating, we are friends."
Astrid resists the urge to roll her eyes. "You're going back to Singapore in nine months, Nick. You can't build a life here pretending this is going to be where you're settling, and then jet off back home a year later without a word, okay? She needs to know."
She holds his gaze for half a minute before he drops his head and laughs. "You know, I think you'd get along really well with her. Why don't you swing by tonight? You can join us. We're having takeout night. Chinese."
Astrid gives him a patented Young glare. "You can't possibly be serious."
"I am," Nick says. Astrid kicks his shin under the table. "Nick! You're Chinese. You're Singaporean. You grew up on carrot cake and laksa and nasi goreng and you come here to eat kung pao chicken? I'm telling Auntie Eleanor."
Nick puts a hand to his chest, gasping dramatically. "You wouldn't."
"Believe me, Nicholas, if you make me eat Panda Express, I will."
She does end up going to Nick's apartment again that night - there's proper Chinese food on the table, for which she is thankful - and Nick introduces her to Rachel proper. She's intelligent and fun and makes Astrid laugh. She's nothing like Erica, but it doesn't even cross her mind until much, much later, because that's not what she's looking for. She has a husband, and this is Nick's girlfriend, and she's not looking for love, but Rachel could be a friend, and she needs a lot more of those.
She's only in New York about a week, but it's a good one. Rachel makes an impression, and Astrid finds herself hoping they'll see each other again - if Nick keeps it up, they probably will, and Astrid looks forward to it.
The two of them send her off at JFK when she's flying home, and she goes back to sunny Singapore, and life goes on, as it always has.
Araminta calls her while she's at work one morning. The moment Astrid picks up she's nearly deafened by the screaming over the line. With a wince, she holds the phone away and pretty much shouts into it. "Araminta, what happened?!"
"Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god," she yells, still at the top of her voice - Astrid can hear her even though the speakerphone isn't on. "Astrid, Astrid, guess what, guess what?! Colin PROPOSED!"
Despite herself, Astrid lets out a very unbecoming yelp. "Are you serious? Oh my god. Araminta, congratulations! I'm so happy for you!"
There's more shrieking and squealing for another five minutes and Colin texts the clan WhatsApp group with a single picture of their intertwined hands, rings clearly evident, and the group chat explodes. Astrid can't stop smiling for the rest of the day.
Colin texts @nick ur officially my best man when the time comes don't think u can weasel out of it
Nick texts back promptly - guess the proverbial son is coming home - and everyone laughs it off, but it gives her pause, because it's true. It's been more than a year now, and there was a mild uproar amongst the inner circle after Nick extended his stay in New York instead of coming back to Singapore at the end of one year like he said he would. He promised he wasn't staying forever, but there have been some hushed whispers going around for a while, now.
She thinks of Rachel, suddenly. Wonders how their relationship has been developing, if things have been going well between them. If Nick is still as happy and content as he seemed that very first time they met up in New York. She hopes so. It'll be good to see them again.
When Nick books his flight home for Colin and Araminta's wedding, Astrid knows. Everyone in the inner circle knows, and she's really not surprised. Chatter goes around about him bringing Rachel with him, and she's not surprised by that either.
She isn't there to pick him up at the airport - she's out at the jeweller's, and buying a new watch for Michael, and preparing for the party at Tyersall the next day. As it is, she barely has time to talk to him or Rachel at the party itself. So many people in the house, seeing each other after so long, and everyone vies for her attention and wants to catch up with her. The night is almost winding down by the time she gets a moment with Michael, bringing him some food in a quiet room.
She doesn't mean to see his text messages. She really, truly doesn't. And she's spent the past few years not loving him, not really, not the way a wife should love her husband, but when she sees it - the bed feels empty without you - her heart still drops into her stomach and everything goes cold. Voices in her head start screaming, sounding terribly familiar. No, and why, when, how, and tell me it isn't true, and above all, one that keeps coming back - karma, karma, karma.
You deserve this.
You've been lying to him and to yourself and to everyone else for years.
You've never loved him, not enough.
You deserve this.
"I deserve this," Astrid whispers, and it doesn't taste or feel or sound like a truth, but she hasn't spoken one of those in so long, she's not sure any more.
Michael goes 'to the office' and Astrid does what she's always done - takes the coward's way out and goes to Samsara Island for Araminta's bachelorette party, to get away, at least for two days. The moment she lands someone strides past her and nearly knocks her over, hurrying away, but not fast enough for Astrid not to realise it's Rachel, eyes red and obviously upset.
She turns, calls Rachel's name before she can get any further, and is relieved when Rachel stops in her tracks and turns back. She doesn't say anything, but she doesn't need to. With a sigh, Astrid gestures at everyone else around her. "Leave us."
She waits until they're alone before she goes up to Rachel and takes her hand. "What happened? Are you okay?"
"Amanda is a fucking asshole," Rachel replies, a true fighter even with the tears in her eyes, and later on Astrid will think back and realise maybe, just maybe, this is the moment she starts falling in love, because Rachel is strong and honest and true and everything Astrid's always wished she could be.
But that comes later. In the moment, Astrid just squeezes her hand and looks her in the eyes. "Hey. Tell me what happened."
Rachel tells her, and Astrid's grown up around these girls, really, so she's disgusted, disappointed, but really, really not surprised.
But god, when they get back to Rachel's room and see the dead fish on her bed and CATCH THIS, YOU GOLD DIGGING BITCH scrawled on the windows - that is low, even for them. It's repugnant and she's this close to getting on the phone with Nick and Colin when Rachel - brave, gutsy Rachel - squares her shoulders and steels her jaw and asks for nothing but a towel from the bathroom.
Astrid goes for the towels, and for water and soap and whatnot, but before she gets everything out of there she ties her hair back and looks herself in the mirror. Duty, honour... they're not just words, or ideas, they've always been her codes. And maybe nobody in her life has ever truly understood what they mean, but she does, and this is it.
She walks out of the bathroom ready to dispose of a gutted fish.
She hasn't told her truths in years, not to anyone - not to her parents or her aunts or her brothers, not to Araminta or Colin or even Nick, the one she's always been closest to. She's kept them locked inside her, somewhere nobody can touch or take or use against her.
But Rachel says it still hurts, you know? When you try so hard, and never do anything but your best, but somehow it’s never good enough?, and suddenly she wants to. Suddenly Astrid wants nothing more than to tell her everything, let it all go, because she's been tired for so long and she just wants it all to stop hurting.
She expects Rachel to say - a lot of things. She prepares for a number of them, the armour she's built up and over herself for so long at the ready. There's nothing Rachel could say that would hurt her, not any more.
But then she says something Astrid doesn't expect - you deserve so much better - and suddenly the armour is negated, useless. Those five simple words sink deep into her and she nearly cries right then and there because she never realised how long she's been waiting to hear something like that. After years of judgment and repression and self-hatred, eating away at her, no longer even believing she herself deserved anything better than what she got, and here Rachel is, blunt and sincere and so, so real.
It's the first time in ages that Erica pops into her mind, the first time she's ever wanted to talk about what happened to anyone at all. Something like despair creeps back into Astrid's heart, because she can't stop looking at Rachel, and Rachel isn't anything like Erica but she doesn't need to be - Astrid hasn't felt this curling, coiling ache in her chest for a long time now, but she still knows what it means.
Nick, she thinks, and it hurts like a burn, consuming her from inside out. She's Nick's, he's hers, I can't.
And what's new?
She never could.
She confronts Michael the only way she knows how in the car on the way to CHIJMES Chapel, and the last thing she expects is for him to get out and walk away.
Ah Ma comes to her rescue for her only beloved granddaughter, no questions asked, but it still takes all of Astrid's strength to stay standing as she walks to her designated aisle. Takes all her strength to see Rachel staring at Nick and smile, and she means it, really, truly, she does, she's so happy for both of them, she is. And she's not stupid. Nick's known Rachel two years, and she's known Rachel, what, two weeks, at the most?
She gave up on hoping a long, long time ago. She resigned herself to living with this. It was enough years ago, and it has to be enough now, because there is no way she can ever get anything more than that.
Michael doesn't come home the night of the wedding, nor the night after that. Nick does - Nick sits up with her on the couch and lets her sob into his shirt and has ice cream ready for when she finally stops crying.
"I'm going back to New York with Rachel," he says quietly, when she's finally calmed down enough to hold a conversation. "I've booked a flight. I'm leaving in two days."
"Nick," Astrid says. Nick shakes his head, holding a hand up. "Astrid, I can't stay. I've been back a week and I thought it might make me want to come home, but after everything it's just made me surer that this isn't where I'm going to find my happiness. I can't do it. I don't want to spend the rest of my life hating every single day of it. I'm not strong enough for that."
Astrid squeezes her eyes shut - strong? What Nick is saying describes her exactly, but it was never about strength, it was about the lack of it. She didn't stay because she was ready to carry the weight of her own misery, she stayed because she was scared. What does that make her then?
"Astrid, listen," Nick is speaking again, and this time it's lower and more urgent. "I know about Erica, okay? From all those years ago. I know she asked you to leave with her and you wanted to, and you stayed because you thought you owed it to Ah Ma, and Uncle Henry, and Auntie Felicity, and to all of us."
"I stayed because I was a coward," Astrid hisses, choking on it, the venom of it.
"No, Astrid. You didn't, and you know that too. You have never been a coward. You've just always been trying to do right by the people you love, or you think you should love. You gave up everything for that. And I want you to know, before I fly off, that you have always deserved more than that." He takes her hands in his, presses his forehead to hers. "Years ago you had your happiness in front of you and gave it all up for the people you thought you owed. You've suffered long enough. Promise me that this time, when you're back in the same situation, when it comes to you, hold on to it and don't let go."
And Astrid is so tired, because she's been waiting for that for so long, too long, and she gave up hope far before this, and for the life of her she can't imagine what kind of happiness would fall at her feet now, after more than thirty years.
But Nick is looking at her so earnestly, and she loves her cousin, and she trusts him. "I promise," she says, and tries to mean it.
Twelve hours before Nick's flight someone knocks on Astrid's door. It's Rachel, and she only gets a few seconds of complicated emotion roiling in her chest before Rachel speaks, words spilling out of her mouth, speaking truths, in a way Astrid misses so deeply -
“Astrid, I’m supposed to go home tomorrow. And I couldn’t go without telling you this first. I need you to know. I’m not dating Nick, Astrid. Everyone thinks so but I’m not. I love him, because he’s my best friend, but not like that. I’m not in love with him. I’m in love with someone who rolled up her sleeves and helped me bury a dead fish on the beach of Samsara Island. She told me I was ten times a better person than the people we were on that island with, and then she turned around and called herself a coward, even though she’s one of the bravest and noblest people I’ve ever met. I love her for it, and I - I think she might be something I want to stay for.”
And that's nothing like Erica or Michael or anyone Astrid's ever cared about or dared to love. Rachel is so wholly different, and so good, too good for her, always will be, and she's standing on Astrid's doorstep giving everything up for her to see, to hear. It's been years, years, years, and she's still scared, can still call back that fear, feels it now. Nothing has changed since she gave Erica up for everything she has in Singapore. But this time Rachel isn't asking her to run - Rachel is offering herself up, telling Astrid she loves her without expecting anything more than Astrid herself.
She walked away from her happiness once for duty, for another kind of love, and it broke her heart. Nick called that strength, but she isn't sure how much longer she can be strong.
She made a choice, and she thought Nick made a different one, and now she gets another chance.
“You’re in love with me." And oh, so this is how truth sounds, sweet and real and like she finally gets to breathe again. "You would stay? For me.”
"Michael's really an idiot," Rachel says, and Astrid feels herself falling past the point of no return. Rachel closes the distance between them, one hand against her cheek - gentle, reverent, loving - and when they kiss, everything goes quiet. Something settles.
Her mother asked her, a long, long time ago, don't you want someone to share your life with?
"I found her," Astrid whispers, tears blurring her vision, dizzy with it, how everything has finally come full circle for a girl on a porch, in a library, in a classroom, a girl who's been wandering and stumbling and searching and hoping and finally coming home. "I found you."
And Rachel can't possibly understand what she means by that, or maybe she does, or maybe it doesn't matter - maybe none of it matters except her, smiling, cupping Astrid's face, warm and right and real. "Yeah, Astrid," she says. "Here I am."