‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

seventeen

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“Babe, are you sure you don’t wanna go with me?” I call out, though the toothbrush in my mouth muffles my words.

Niall huffs out a laugh, ambling into the bathroom. His arms wrap around me, and I cock my head to the side so he can bury his face against my neck. He clings to me as I finish brushing my teeth, only stepping back when I start to pull my hair into a low ponytail. As soon as I’m done, I turn on my heel to face him.

“You didn’t answer, Mister Horan.”

“I’m quite okay with staying here, petal, but if you really want me there…”

I shrug and step out of his hold, twisting up my face as I debate. “Eh, it’s up to you. I think I can do a few interviews without you, as long as I know you’re just as miserable away from me as I’ll be while gone. And that you’ll still be here when I get back.”

“Nowhere else I’d rather be.”

He chuckles softly and follows me out of the bathroom. I ignore my overprotective shadow as I grab my phone off the nightstand then head downstairs. My socked feet skid on the hardwood when I come to an abrupt stop at the base of the staircase, staring at the two men who sit on the couch; only Niall’s quick reflexes prevent me from falling on my ass. The shock fades away, and I rush across the room to throw my arms around Rick’s shoulders.

“Oh, my gods, it’s Ricky Ricardo!” I squeal when he squeezes me gently. “What are you doing here?”

“Bryan figured you needed more supervision than he could provide, so he asked me. I agreed, by the way. You’re second only to Natalie in how much trouble manages to find you.”

“I am innocent and appalled that you would think otherwise.”

“Wha - Erin, you okay?”

I wave a hand in the air and try to stifle the sobs that have suddenly burst out of me. It’s so stupid to be crying about seeing someone who’s kept my friends safe for years, but here I am. Thankfully, Niall keeps any comments to himself, just pulls me into his chest so I can get myself back under control.

“I’m okay, I’m okay. Fuck, I hate being emotional.”

“I know, love. Call me when you’re at the hotel, okay?”

“First person I call.”

Bryan grabs my suitcase where it sits by the front door, and Niall and I trail after the security guys to the car. The first interview is only a two-hour drive from here, but after that, I’m off to New York then Tennessee, Florida, and Texas. Thankfully, the last three are for radio shows; I don’t have to worry about hiding my expressions for radio.

Before I can slip into the backseat with Rick, Niall tugs me to a stop, pushes something into my hand. I blink owlishly at the fabric-wrapped package then peel back an edge. The familiar label meets my gaze, and I pin my husband with a flat look.

“Only because I know this works,” I mutter, passing the tea bags off to Rick. “I’m gonna miss you.”

“I already miss you. Is this how you felt when I went on vacation?”

“Mostly, yeah.”

He pulls me in for one last tight embrace. “This sucks. Come back home to me.”

“I always will.”

Niall releases me slowly, and it physically hurts to turn away from him. I slide into the backseat next to Rick, reluctantly pulling the door closed behind me. Forcing a smile, I wave at Niall as Bryan pulls out onto the road. I blink once, then my husband slips from view.

“You gonna be okay?” Rick asks quietly after I settle back into the seat.

I shrug and pull the sleeves of my hoodie over my hands, fidgeting with a loose thread. “I think so. Like, I know this is something I have to do, but… I’d rather just stay home, do the interviews via Skype or something.”

“I heard about what happened after you announced the pregnancy.” He reaches out to squeeze my shoulder comfortingly. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure no one gets too close to you.”

“Thanks.”

“Erin McCarty-Horan, you better get your damn seatbelt buckled this instant!”

I jump in surprise at the sharp tone of Bryan’s voice, but I do as he orders. The emptiness inside of me at having to leave Niall distracted me from obeying the laws of the roads; apologising demurely, I let my head rest against the window and close my eyes against the scenery blurring past.

Tears prick at the corners of my eyes, snake a tickling path down my cheeks, and I sniffle but don’t bother drying my face. No point when more tears are just going to come.

My phone feels heavy in my hands as I stare down at the dark screen. I’d texted Niall that we made it to San Diego, but he hasn’t replied yet. A small part of me says it should be expected, I’ve been up his ass since he came back home so of course he wants a break from me. It’s small but very vocal. I’m afraid I might start believing it soon.

“Hey, honey, we’re ready.”

I swallow thickly and nod, passing my phone off to Bryan before I follow the assistant. Her bright smile feels mocking. Of course she’s in a great mood; her husband probably isn’t sick of her.

I clench my hands into fists, nails biting sharply into my palms. The pain acts as an anchor, keeps me from falling too far into the downward spiral. It does nothing to quell the tears. Everything goes blurry around me.

“Tell Jon we’ll be right there,” she murmurs to someone, then her hand is gentle on my shoulder. I follow her blindly off to the side. “Lemme guess, those pesky hormones?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” I manage to squeak out.

My words are betrayed by the fact I break down, start sobbing uncontrollably. There is no hesitation, no reluctance, when she pulls me in for a tight hug. Her floral perfume is sweet but not overwhelming, the fabric of her T-shirt soft against my cheek. I soak up the warmth and comfort that she provides me disregarding the fact that I’m a stranger. She pulls back after a long few minutes and produces a tissue as if by magic.

“Better?”

I nod shakily, blotting at my cheeks and my nose. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. You just… you looked like you needed a hug. Some comfort. Are you ready to go in now?”

With a steadying breath, I dip my chin and smooth out the front of my hoodie. The woman’s scrutinising gaze skims over my face, but she turns without a word, continues leading me to the room where the interview is taking place.

“Oh, my god, you’re glowing!” Alyson hugs me as soon as I’m close. “Darius, isn’t she glowing?”

Darius grunts in acknowledgement, but I don’t take it personally - he hasn’t finished the cup of coffee in his hands, so I know his higher functions are a bit delayed at the moment. Bryan stays by my side once I’ve sat, his arms crossed over his chest while people bustle around to do my makeup, fix my hair, and make sure I have a drink. Thankfully, it’s coffee.

“Okay, ready?”

I nod, sip at the coffee. “I think so.”

The questions start off easy enough to answer: Alyson asks about the tracks and how excited I am to release the album. I give as truthful of answers as I can - I’m utterly thrilled to finally have my music out there for the fans.

It feels like it has been years since I dropped new music, but the wait is nearly over. Darius picks up on the hints about there being some covers on the record, and it takes all of my willpower to not blurt them out. I just wink in his direction and tell him he’ll have to wait like the rest of us.

“So you’re obviously pregnant. How far along, exactly?”

I suppress the urge to roll my eyes; Bryan grimaces from beside the cameraman, knowing full well how little I desire questions about anything other than my music. Drawing in a steadying breath, I focus back on Alyson.

“I’m about six months.”

“Wow! Over halfway through. Was it hard, keeping the pregnancy from everyone?”

“I mean, I didn’t keep it a secret from the people who had the right to know, such as my husband and our families and friends. They knew almost immediately. And honestly, I would have preferred to not have to make a statement regarding the pregnancy until it was on our terms, but the paps don’t stop, yeah?”

“How do you think Jem would have reacted to the news?”

The air rushes from the room instantly. My breath catches in my throat, heat flooding my face. This isn’t fair. Instinctively, I search for Bryan and Rick, seeking out the comfort of just knowing they are nearby, but it makes no difference. The wound has been torn open again.

Because I will never know how Jem would have reacted. If he would be happy or upset, doting or overbearing. I will never know how his smile would light up his face upon seeing my child for the first time, and my child will never know the unconditional love that Jem was always so prone to showing everyone, no matter who they were. We’ll never know because he was taken from us far too soon.

I flinch away from the strong fingers that cup my chin, but Bryan forces me to look at him. The thin slash of his mouth would scare me if I could feel anything. Numbness has blossomed, diffused throughout my entire being; I’m both here and not, existing in a vacuum and spread across the atoms of the universe. Between one breath and the next, I become nothing.

“Are you okay? Petal? Erin.”

I snap to reality at the sharpness in Niall’s voice coming through the speaker, and a gasp breaks loose as I finally manage to draw in a breath that doesn’t suffocate me. Rick murmurs something, but I can’t hear it over the roaring in my ears. He wraps an arm around my shoulders, tugging me into his side, and tears pour down as my sobs grow harder.

“Sweetheart, I’m going to need to hear some words please,” Niall implores of me, and the anguish in his voice causes my very soul to ache. “Please, just - just tell me you’re okay.”

I manage to eke out a tremulous, “I’m fine,” though I know none of them believe me. Rick hands me a tissue, Bryan stares at me with so much pain in his eyes that it nearly causes me to burst into more tears, and Niall breathes steadily down the line. My hand shakes as I reach for the phone, taking the call off speakerphone and pressing the device to my ear.

“I’m… I’m fine, babe.”

“Are you sure? When is your flight for New York? I’ll -”

“You’ll stay where you are.” I sigh, turning to rest my forehead against the cool plaster of the wall. “I’ll be fine. I just got blindsided today, that’s all. But can, can you promise to be by your phone while I’m gone, in case I need to talk to you again?”

“Oh, love, of course. I’ll keep the volume up the whole time. Call me anytime you need to, okay?”

“I will.”

Sniffling, I end the call and hand the phone back to Bryan. He pulls me closer for a tight hug then peeks out into the hallway. The corridor is empty as he guides me out of the room, but he and Rick stay close to my side on the trek to the car. I repeatedly glance over my shoulder, making sure no one is following us. The uneasiness that’s settled in my belly only grows harder to ignore, and I swallow down the urge to beg Bryan to take me back home.