‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

twelve

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Bryan keeps his arm tucked around my shoulder, holding me close to his side, even as I sip gingerly at my tea. The sharp odour of bleach still lingers in the air, but having the windows open is helping clear it out. My stomach threatens to revolt; thankfully, the tea stays down, along with the dry toast I nibbled at an hour ago. I haven’t slept at all, and neither has Bryan.

After the tweet last night, how can I feel safe enough to sleep? Logically, I’d known that people would find out our address - public realty records are a thing and all - but for someone to go through the effort of attaching a Google image of our house to their vaguely-threatening tweet...

And it had gotten worse from there: Once that tweet was on the web, others had joined in, sending photos they’d taken from right outside the house, by my car while I was out and about, standing on the sidewalk in front of my parents’ house. My panic and fear had grown with each message that rolled in, and eventually, I’d thrown my phone across the room and paced.

Bryan found me around midnight, on my knees in front of the couch and scrubbing at the vomit though it was long clean by that point. I hadn’t been able to tell him what happened, words evaporating before they could reach my mouth and coming out as rattling sobs.

I didn’t need to, though; he’d already seen. He’d ushered me to the bathroom and forced me to take a bath, to relax as much as I could. By the time I’d gotten out, the living room was full of people I loved - my mom and dad, Amber and Brett, Alan, Harry...

I set my teacup down on the saucer, scrubbing a hand over my burning eyes. Harry is still asleep sprawled across the other end of the couch, and I pinch the tip of his toe that peeks out from under the blanket. He jerks awake with a grumble, and his scowl clears as soon as he sees me, replaced with a comforting smile as he pushes himself upright.

Bryan doesn’t let me go even when Harry plasters himself against my other side. A voice comes through the window from outside, and I flinch, my hands trembling and my throat growing tight. Bryan pushes me further into Harry’s waiting arms, crosses the room to the front door.

“Shh, it’s okay, love. I promise, nothing is gonna happen, we’ll make sure of it.”

“You can’t promise that, Haz.”

“I can, and I am.” His hold on me tightens, his lips pressing to my hair. “Look at Bryan. Okay? He’s a fucking wall. No one is gonna get through him. And Amber’s crazy enough that she’ll scare off anyone who comes too close. Alan and Brett would kill someone who tries to hurt you or that baby, and so would I. And don’t get me started on your parents. You’re safe, and you’re going to stay safe because not one person in this house will let anything happen to you.”

I jump when the front door closes, and Harry runs a gentle hand over my hair as he hushes me again. Bryan enters the living room, giving me an apologetic smile. I watch him close the window before he sits beside me.

“Neighbours were arguing, that’s all.”

“What’d I tell you?” Harry asks softly, and I force a smile in response.

Footsteps on the stairs cause me to look around; my mother’s face comes into view, and I stand and hurry to her. She holds me tightly, her breathing unsteady, and I can’t hold back any longer. The tears slip free and slide down my cheeks, drop to her shoulder.

She murmurs quietly in my ear, but she doesn’t let go of me. This is the first time I’ve felt okay since the entire situation started last night. I know things won’t be so terrifying once Niall is home, he’s always made me feel safe and secure, no matter what going on. But his return is so far away.

She leads me to the kitchen and forces me to sit at the table. My hand instinctively drops to my belly, rubs circles into the swell. I force myself to focus on the mindless chatter between my mother and Harry, but the fear buzzes along under my skin, steals my breath whenever my mind lingers on it too long. Which is... a lot.

Porcelain scrapes against the tabletop, and I look down to see a mug of coffee in front of me. Raising a brow, I turn to my mom.

“One cup isn’t going to hurt, and though I’d prefer you actually sleep, this is the best second option.”

I try to ask where the others are, but my words are interrupted by a low moan of bliss as I take a sip. It’s been too long since I’ve had more than a mouthful of coffee, and my tastebuds have certainly missed being scalded by the deliciousness. Bryan snorts and raises his mug in solidarity; I do a little dance in my seat before swallowing down another drink. Eventually, Amber enters the kitchen, followed by my father.

“Boys still asleep?”

Amber shakes her head, shuffling toward the stove so she can steal a slice of bacon from the platter. “Nah, Brett had to go to work, and Alan hitched a ride back with him.”

“I... I didn’t even see them leave.”

“You’ve been under a lot of stress, hun, so of course you didn’t.” She drops a kiss to my hair. “They didn’t want to startle you by suddenly appearing at your side, so Brett sent you a text.”

I glance toward the living room, wince when I remember that I threw my phone. Harry’s just retrieved it from the coffee-table when Little Things starts playing. My eyes widen, and my heart pounds in my chest. I reluctantly press the button to accept the FaceTime call, holding my phone up so the angle isn’t weird.

Niall’s smile slips, and he furrows his brows. “How are you feeling today, love?”

“I, I’m okay. Just tired, ‘s’all.”

“Baby keep you up?”

“Something like that.” I know my laugh sounds fake - the way his frown grows is proof of that - but I push on, not wanting to risk telling him what’s going on. “How are you? How’s your day been?”

“It was gr - is that Harry?”

I close my eyes and nod. “Yeah, Mom wanted to spend the day with me, and I guess the promise of a home-cooked breakfast was too much for him to turn down.”

“Erin, can you go to another room, please?”

Amber and my mom exchange a glance even as I push myself to my feet and head toward the stairs. My father gives me a questioning look as I pass; I shake my head in response and keep going. Niall stays silent the entire time, but I can feel the worry in his gaze, though I don’t meet his eyes.

I make sure the door is closed tightly behind me and flop down onto the bed, finally looking at my husband for the first time in the last three minutes.

“Hi.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just tired.”

“Why aren’t you telling me the truth?”

“I’m not lying, Niall. I’m fine.” I blow out a breath, rubbing at my forehead; when I look back at my phone, he’s scowling. “Look, I don’t want to fight, okay? I really don’t. So please trust me when I say I’m fine, there’s nothing wrong, and I miss you.”

Niall shrugs jerkily but lets it go. The tension between us is thick, a heavy weight on my heart, and he mutters out a quick goodbye before ending the call. Tears sting at my eyes when his face disappears from the screen. I can’t help but fear that things are going to be different now.

I roll onto my side, bury my face into the pillow that barely smells like him any more. I meant it when I said I didn’t want to argue with him. The decision to not tell him about the tweets is probably going to bite me in the ass, but him relaxing, having fun on vacation, is more important than the messages I’ve received or how I’m reacting to them.

They’re nothing new - I have always been subjected to hate mail and death threats, which have only occurred more once it became public knowledge that I’m in a relationship and now married to Niall - so why would it be a good idea to bring them up now? It’s not a good idea, and I refuse to make him worry just because of something like this. With a sigh, I glance down at my belly.

“Please don’t be a handful like your dad.”

Slowly, the silence in the room becomes deafening, and I can no longer stand to be alone, so I make my way downstairs. The others are still in the kitchen; Amber’s mouth shuts with a clack of her teeth at the sight of me, and I force a smile. I don’t know who I’m trying to fool: They all know me too well to fall for it. She pats the seat next to her and wraps an arm around my shoulders once I sit.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. Uh, can I ask a favour of you guys?” I ask quietly, and my mom cards her fingers through my hair.

“Of course, honey, what is it?”

“Can… can we not tell Niall about this?”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t wanna make him worry and cut his vacation short, and let’s be honest. The tweets are nothing new. There’s never been a time since the tour with One D that I haven’t gotten messages like that.”

“Yeah, but none of them have ever had pictures of your house attached! Of our house attached!” my dad protests, holding up a hand when I open my mouth to retort. “No. Listen to me. Yes, you’ve been told to kill yourself millions of times by disgruntled fans, but Erin, you’re pregnant and married. You’re home alone all the time. Niall needs to know what’s going on. Let him make the decision of whether he comes home or not.”

I grit my teeth and draw in a breath that trembles with my irritation. “You know as well as I do that he’ll immediately come home if I tell him. And guess what? He’s my husband, so it’s my decision as to when and if he knows or not. Sure, he could decide to scroll through my mentions and find out that way, and fine. Whatever. But I’m not going to be the one who tells him. And neither are none of you.”

My father throws his hands into the air, grumbles something about my stubbornness being inherited from my mom, and she swats at his arm. Amber stares down at the glass of water in front of her. Bryan clears his throat.

“I’ll stay here until Niall gets back.”

“Bry -”

“Non-negotiable, so don’t try to argue. Gracie will understand. You know she adores you and would do anything to make sure you’re okay. She’d be the first to tell me to do whatever I can to keep you safe. And if it means I spend a bit of time away from home, then so be it.”

“Me, too,” pipes up Harry, shrugging when I turn betrayed eyes on to him. “We can make it a slumber party!”

“Guys, I don’t need you to move in with me. I’ll be fine.”

Amber sets her phone down on the table, and I glance over to see that she’s been texting Brett. “I’m staying, too.”

“Does nobody listen to me?”

Of course, I get a resounding no from everyone gathered around the table, so I slump in my seat and accept the inevitable. My mom pushes a plate toward me, and I grimace at the sight of food. Between not feeling hungry because of the stress and the fact that the smell is literally nauseating me, I know I won’t be able to eat. Not right now, anyway.

The look she gives me, though, brooks no arguments, so I concede as gracefully as I can, nibbling at the crust on the toast. Conversations go on around me - mostly Bryan, Harry, and Amber discussing who will be sleeping where, Amber calling dibs on the bed I share with Niall, while my parents have their own quiet discussion off to the side. I can’t focus on much, though. My skin itches with the panic that courses through me, slightly faded now that I’m surrounded by my family and friends.

The day passes slowly. Niall doesn’t text or call again, and it proves to me just how messed up things are between us now. I catch myself wondering if what I’ve done is irredeemable, if there’s any chance that he’ll forgive me for lying to him. My mom and dad went back home after lunch, leaving me with an order to call them first if anything happens or if I need them to come back.

As soon as the door closes behind them, I make Amber, Harry, and Bryan promise to not contact them unless my life is actually in danger. Yes, my parents are only three hours away, but they can’t be coming to my side all the time. I’m twenty-two, married, and about to have a child. I should be able to handle this all without having to run to them for help.

“What sounds good for dinner?”

I glance up from the game I’m playing on my phone when no one answers Bryan’s question, and I realise they’re all staring at me. “Uh… why are you asking me?”

“Because you’re the one who’s become picky as fuck lately.”

“I’m not picky, the baby is!” I laugh, turning back to Bunny Pop. “I dunno, pizza’s fine, I guess. Wait, no. Wait, yes! Domino’s thin crust with alfredo sauce and salami. And bacon. And whatever pizza Haz and Am want. Oh! And those lava cake thingies. Don’t judge me!” I whine, and Bryan rolls his eyes affectionately but taps at the screen of his phone anyway.

I run a comb through my hair hours later, scowling when clumps of hair come out between my fingers. Amber lovingly pokes at the tip of my nose, does it again and again until I swat at her hand; a reluctant smile breaks free, and I follow her into the bedroom.

She’s already pulled the blankets back and tossed the extra pillows onto the chair by the window. My heart twinges at the sight - Niall and I usually keep them lined along the edges of the mattress, surrounding us like a fort. Even when we weren’t wrapped up in each other, it was comforting to have the warmth of him behind me and the wall of pillows in front of me.

She flops onto the side I normally sleep on, and I lie down much more gracefully onto my husband’s side. We both stay silent as we get settled in, but she interrupts the quiet with a sharp “No!” when I load Twitter on my phone. I stare at her, eyes wide and jaw dropped, as she yanks the device from my hands. I can’t do a thing to stop her from deleting the app off my phone.

“Amber Lynn Clark, what the fuck!”

“You need to stay away from social media. Indefinitely.”

“Amber.”

“No, let me explain. Okay?” She waits until I nod then sets my phone aside and faces me fully. “Look, the shit-storm that happened because of the pregnancy announcement? Worst thing you’ve had to deal with. Worse than the break-up of the band, helluva lot worse than the marriage announcement. And you… you aren’t exactly the epitome of perfect mental health.”

“Wow, thanks.”

“I mean it nicely. You already have anxiety, and dealing with reading all the tweets and shit that’s coming your way is only going to make it worse. So from now on, I’ll be your social media manager. I’ll post if there’s something to post, delete any comments and replies that are only going to screw you up more, and once everything settles down, you can have control again.”

“Stop making sense,” I grumble, punching a pillow into shape. “You’ll tell me if there’s anything I need to know?”

“Absolutely. What, you don’t trust me any more?”

“Shut up, dumbass. I’m always gonna trust you. Hey, since you have my phone, can you text Nat to spam me pictures of her kiddo? I miss the little nugget already.”

“Done. Now get some sleep, babe. You’ve had a long day.”

Weirdly enough, I don’t struggle at all to slip from consciousness, even with the fears and worries that have hung heavy on my shoulders since last night. Amber’s solid presence next to me and the knowledge that Bryan and Harry are close by in case something happens is enough.