‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

fourteen

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The sound of the shower echoes through the room as it has for the last half-hour. Niall’s humming is occasionally louder than the water that hits the shower-floor, but for the most part, all I can hear is the noise of my husband cleaning himself up.

We hadn’t done anything last night after getting back to the house, both of us too worn out - him by the long flight home, me by the emotions that threatened to consume me after recording the final song of the night. We barely managed to get a quick goodnight kiss in before falling asleep wrapped up in each other for the first night in so long.

Rolling over in bed, I stretch to grab his phone off his nightstand. I scroll mindlessly through all the photos he took while on vacation but hadn’t sent to me for whatever reason; it doesn’t strike me as odd that I feel so free to go through his phone - we’ve both done it to each other multiple times over the years. Never because of distrust, but simply because we’re humans who have memories that fail occasionally, so sometimes something doesn’t get told, or curiosity.

Once I get to the photo we took the day before he left, I smile at the image then exit out of his gallery. A grimace pulls at my lips when I see that he has seventy-five unread text messages. I’ll never be able to understand how he can allow so many messages to accumulate without reading them; I can barely stand to leave one unread for longer than a minute, then the little red number starts annoying me.

I am completely unsurprised to see that he and Nat have texted during his trip, but the preview of his response confuses me. I frown and tap on the thread. My heart plummets when I see dozens of screenshots, all of them containing the replies I received to the pregnancy announcement.

It had almost slipped my mind that she’s the reason he even knows about the vitriol I endured. I exhale shakily, nausea climbing at the words, as I swipe through them then read the actual texts:

From: Natalie Reed
> I hope you’re enjoying your vacay, Niall. Rest assured, we’re keeping a close eye on her. Bryan, Amber, and Harry have all but moved into your house while you’re gone. Don’t feel like you have to come home ASAP, she’d be devastated if you came home early. Just thought I’d give you a heads up about what’s going on.

To: Natalie Reed
< Why didn’t she tell me this was happening ???? Think another couple weeks would keep her happy ?

From: Natalie Reed
> Up to you. Just know that if you come home within the next two days, she’ll figure it out and it won’t be pretty

To: Natalie Reed
< I can’t believe she wouldn’t tell me . . .

My fingers tighten around the edge of his phone, tears blur my vision, and it takes all of the willpower I possess to not throw the device across the room. I settle for tossing it roughly onto the nightstand, scooping up my own phone and opening the messages with Natalie.

To: Nat-boo
< You had no right to do that, Natalie Eleanor Reed. Why the Hell would you send Niall screenshots of what was happening?? It was FINE. He didn’t need to know before he came home WHEN I WOULD HAVE TOLD HIM MY FUCKING SELF. Because guess what! It wasn’t a thing that needed to be made into a Thing. Everyone was making too much of a fucking big deal out of it. I was handling it just fine.

Her reply comes more quickly than I anticipated, but I’m too angry to be concerned that she’s coherent enough to text this early in the morning.

From: Nat-boo
> Would you have told him? Really? Because you have a tendency of downplaying whatever you’re going through so no one else has to worry about you.
> I did what I knew you wouldn’t.
> I did what needed to be done.
> Yell at me and be mad at me all you want, Erin, but NOBODY gets to talk to you that way, and Niall needed to know.

To: Nat-boo
< Whatever.
< You overstepped your bounds by sending screenshots, Natalie.
< Give Lil Nugget a kiss from his fav aunt, but right now, I don’t think we should talk.

I’m still shaking with anger by the time Niall emerges from the bathroom, a towel around his waist while he scrubs at his hair with another towel. He comes to a stop the second he sees my face, and his lips tug down into a frown. I brush away a tear that slips down my cheek, turn my head away so I don’t have to look at him. Unfortunately, I somehow managed to forget how persistent he is; he rounds the bed to sit next to me, his fingers coming up to catch my chin, and he gently forces me to meet his eye.

“Love, what happened? You were fine when I went in for my shower, but now you’re upset.” He sighs when I tug out of his grip, but he lets me scoot away to the other side of the mattress. “Talk to me, Erin.”

“You didn’t come home early to surprise me in the studio. You came home early because of Natalie. Like, I logically knew she’s the one who told you, but fucking Hell, I didn’t think she actually sent screenshots.”

I can almost hear the eye-roll I receive in response to my words, and his voice is tight, like he’s fighting back frustration, when he says, “Yes, she informed me about what was going on, but Erin, why is it so damn hard for you to understand that this is something I should have known immediately? From you! Not our friends, not our families, not anyone else but you.

“And you didn’t do that. I found out through Nat, which… Can I be honest and say I’m surprised that she’s the one who told me? Because I would’ve expected it to be Harry.”

“Not Louis?” I ask despite myself, and my lips quirk at his scoff.

“You two have been close since the tour we did together. He never would have told me.” His hand is warm as it wraps around my upper arm; I let myself be tugged back toward him, and Niall sighs, curling his body around mine. “You shouldn’t be angry with Natalie for telling me. I’m sorry that you are, though.”

“I didn’t want to make you worry.”

“I know. You don’t have to explain again, darling love of mine. Just… when you’re done being angry? I suggest actually talking to Nat, getting things cleared up between you two.”

“Ugh. Don’t remind me that I fucked up.”

“Mm. So what should we do tomorrow?”

“Can we worry about Valentine’s Day later? I’m tired. Again. And hungry.”

“Then let’s get some breakfast and spend the day being lazy.”

“Why, Mister Horan, you have the best ideas.”

“Of course I do, Mrs Horan.”

Niall helps me to my feet, and I snake my arms around his neck, pulling him closer. His smile disappears with the kiss; eventually, he pulls away, grins down at me. I poke his nose, murmuring an apology, but he shrugs it off. With a promise of going to cook something to eat, he shoos me off to the bathroom, and I watch him make his way to the closet to get dressed.

My shower doesn’t take nearly as long as his did - I’m in and out within ten minutes, and that’s even with shaving my legs as best I possibly can. The forecast calls for high temperatures and sunny skies, but I still grab one of his sweatshirts from the closet and a pair of plaid cotton sleep-pants. Niall agreed to be lazy today, and so I’m going to dress for comfort.

The wall is cold beneath my fingertips as they trail across the surface, my footsteps quiet under the sound of Take It to the Limit playing from downstairs. Niall doesn’t turn from where he’s cooking, singing along to the Eagles as he does, but I know he senses my presence by the way his shoulders lose what little tension they have. I rest my head against his shoulder, inhaling the scent of him.

When he moves the pot off the hot burner, I step away to the cupboard with the bowls. I’m not a huge fan of oatmeal, but it’s filling enough that I’ll probably only want two snacks between now and lunch, rather than the three or four I usually have. I quickly slice up some strawberries and a banana while he ladles the oatmeal into the bowls, carrying them to the table. The kiss he presses to my cheek is gentle, reassuring me that whatever problems we had in regards to my decision to withhold the backlash I got, they’re gone now.

His hand rests on my belly for a moment; his thumb rubs soothing circles into my skin, and I smile to myself as I dump the fruit into the small bowl next to me. He guides me to the table, pulls out a chair for me.

“Would you still have come home early if Nat hadn’t ratted me out?” I ask after we’ve eaten in silence for a few minutes.

Niall pauses, spoon hovering in front of his mouth. He sets it back down and sighs. “No matter what, I would have been back by our anniversary.”

“But the texts made you come back two months before that.”

“Yeah, they did. Can I ask you something?”

“Absolutely.”

“Would you have told me yourself? After I came home, I mean.”

“Of course I would have.” I frown, push my spoon through the oatmeal. My appetite has vanished. “I mean, I think I would’ve. Probably would have downplayed it, though,” I admit sheepishly.

“Yes, you’re quite good at that.”

“I, uh, I’m gonna call Doctor Kimball today.” When Niall’s brows raise, I shrug and push away my breakfast. His hand wraps around mine, and I lean into his side. “I shouldn’t be this angry with Natalie for telling you what I was too afraid to. I shouldn’t be so willing to cut off contact with her when she was just doing the right thing because I was so adamant about doing the wrong thing.”

“Love, you did what you thought was right, no matter how misguided it was. I’m upset that I didn’t hear it from you, but… your reasoning, as ridiculously inaccurate as it was, was sound. Selfless. But please be selfish next time. Tell me, drag my ass back home from wherever I am in the world. Don’t try to deal with this all on your own, okay?”

“Well, hopefully, there isn’t a next time, but I promise.”