‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

twenty-two

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To my surprise, I’m the last one to arrive to the impromptu meeting. Even Zach has shown up before me, judging by the motorcycle parked right behind Owen’s Malibu. I shake my head even as I pull up into the last spot and shut off the engine. Sliding out of the truck, I shut the door behind me and make my way to the door.

“Does your old man know you drove yourself?”

“Is that any way to greet your favourite person in the world?” I poke Tanner’s stomach as I pass him. “Please tell me there’s caffeine in this house.”

“Some in the pot,” Owen calls from the living room, and I do a little shimmy before heading to the kitchen.

Lisa grins from where she’s pouring coffee into two mugs; she hands me one. “Heard your truck pull up.”

“You’re a godsend.”

She follows me to where the rest of our band is already gathered, and Zach helps me sit next to him on the sofa. Wincing at the rather painful jab to my ribs, I blow out a breath and run a hand over my belly, larger now that I’ve reached my twenty-ninth week. Tanner’s question was a good one, and now that I’m here, something tells me this is a thing I should have discussed with Niall before slipping out of the house. I can only imagine how he’s going to react when he finds out where I’ve been - and why.

“What’s going on, Erin?” Dawn asks quietly, dark eyes too knowing.

“Okay. I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve asked you to meet with me at, what, seven-thirty in the morning when you could’ve been with your families and friends. So I’ll make this short and sweet.” I inhale slowly then let it out in one big gust. “I’ve been doing some thinking. I, I know we all agreed to take some time off from music after this kid pops out, but I’m not sure how long it’ll be before I go back. Or if I even do.”

My announcement is met with nothing more than stunned silence, dropped jaws, and wide eyes. I am well aware of how much of a surprise this is to them, we’ve talked regularly about our plans for the future, but... I have to do what feels right to me. And being a musician, touring the world while I have a child at home, doesn’t exactly strike me as a good option.

It’s doable, certainly: Dawn has two little ones who stay with their dad while she’s on the road, and Owen is the father of a ten-year-old. They manage to juggle their parenting duties with their duties to the band, and their families don’t seem to detest me for them missing so much time at home. I just don’t know if I can do it.

I explain this to everyone as well as I possibly am able, and while none of my band-mates, my friends, take it poorly, my eyes still prickle with tears at the thought that I’m letting them down. They have all been so accommodating with my mental health, my marriage, and now my pregnancy. And here I am, taking away the chance for them to make a living, most likely permanently.

“Guys, I’m so sorry.”

Lisa sets her cup aside, crossing the room to sit on my left; her arms come up to wrap around my shoulders. “What do you possibly have to be sorry about? Erin, if you’re doing what you think is best for you, how could we ever be upset about that?”

“Lees is right,” says Zach softly, and I let him take my coffee so he can squeeze my hand between his. “You know that we can all find other things to do. I mean, I don’t know about these assholes, but name a better guitarist than I am, and I’ll call you a liar.”

“Me?”

His lips twitch at my hesitant joke. “Okay, well, you don’t count. We all know you’re amazing. Look, kid, you worry about being a good mom to our niece or nephew, and we’ll take care of ourselves, okay?”

“If you end up coming back to the music thing, you know all of us will be right there at your side. All you have to do is say the word.”

“Damn it, Owen.” I brush the tears from my cheeks, sniffling as more replace them. “You’re making me cry.”

He shrugs. “Every pregnant person cries. It’s written in the hormonal Code of Conduct.”

My guilt at potentially failing these people disappears as I giggle wildly. I wiggle until I get to my feet, Zach’s hands gentle on my back as he pushes me forward, and Dawn hands me my mug off the coffee-table. I make my way back to the kitchen, drinking my coffee as quickly as possible on the trek. I know that I’m about to go back to a land of zero caffeine, so I’ll take as much as I can now.

“All right, well, I better get back before my husband notices I’ve gone missing.”

“How did you even get out without him noticing?” Tanner asks, and Zach raises a hand.

“Probably gave him some of that good lovin’ until he fell asleep.”

“You’re disgusting,” laughs Lisa, though Zach looks unrepentant.

I stop in the doorway to the living room, arms crossed over my chest, and chew on my lower lip. “Thanks for understanding, guys. I… I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

Owen stands, but before he can move any further, footsteps thunder down the hallway. I turn to see Spencer barrelling toward me, bracing myself for impact. The ten-year-old hugs me tightly then steps back to stare, wide-eyed and slack-jawed at my belly.

“Wow, Aunt Erin, you’re big.”

“Gee, thanks, brat. So are you.”

“Dad says I’m almost tall enough to play basketball.”

“Well, lemme let you in on a little secret.” I duck down to Spencer’s level and smile conspiratorially. “If you keep getting taller, you can make your dad super-jealous.”

“Go home, Erin.”

Spencer rolls his eyes at his father’s exasperation. “Come back soon so you can see me do a slam dunk!”

“I absolutely will, buddy.”

Niall is waiting outside for me by the time I pull up outside our house, and I hesitate before cutting the engine. The look on his face is largely unreadable, though I have no doubts that he’s angry with me. After all, I left while he was still sleeping without Bryan or him at my side. But the conversation I just had with my band was one that needed to be done alone.

His lips twitch as I make my way up to the door, but he knows better than to mention the fact that I’m just short of waddling at this point. He reaches for my hand, holds it tightly, and presses a kiss to my cheek. I smile to myself as I step into the house, my husband following close behind. Any hint of amusement disappears from his face as soon as the door is closed, blocking out any prying eyes.

“Where were you?” he asks quietly, tugging on my hand when I try to walk away. “Erin -”

“I’m going to get a drink, that’s all. I’m not trying to avoid this conversation.”

He waits until I’m sat at the table, a glass of water in front of me, to repeat his question. His hand rubs circles along my back, pressing warmth into my skin, and I sigh, fidgeting with the cup. Eventually, I clear my throat, though the buzzing in my blood doesn’t fade.

“I, uh, I went to talk to the band.”

“Okay. Why didn’t you wake me? I would’ve gone with you.”

I shake my head with a soft laugh. “I know. I know you would have. But I needed to do it alone.”

“I’m not even going to try to argue with that, but I want you to know that you’re wrong.”

“You don’t even know what I talked to them about!” I protest, giggling at the ridiculousness of his words - how can I be wrong if he has no idea what the topic was?

“So tell me what it was about, and I’ll be able to have a more accurate perspective.”

I push my hair from my face and stare down at the tabletop. The words are harder now than they were with my band, and I can’t place why. They’re the ones being affected by this decision the most - at least financially - so it shouldn’t be so difficult to tell my husband, the father of our unborn child, what my plans are. A shiver runs down my spine when his thumb brushes along the back of my neck, and I instinctively lean into him.

“I, I told them I might not go back to music after Baby is born.”

His hand stills on my shoulder, the silence between us deafening. After a long moment, I risk meeting his eye and wince when I see he’s frowning. I blow out a breath, take a sip of my water instead of asking what he is thinking. A tightness grows in my throat the longer he goes without speaking; am I letting him down, too, by making this decision?

“Why?”

I twitch at his voice, quiet but so loud. Accusing. My hands shake too much to hide it, so I tuck them between my thighs as I sigh. “Because I don’t know if I can do it, not with being a mother, too.”

“So do you expect me to quit making music, as well? I mean, I’m gonna be a dad, so does that mean I should do the same?”

“What? Of course not.”

Niall shakes his head, his fingers tugging gently at my chin until my face turns toward him. “Then why do you think you have to?”

“Babe...”

“No, Erin. There’s nothing you can say that would make this choice make sense.” His thumb wipes a tear from my cheek, and he smiles softly. “Unless you absolutely, without a doubt, want to be a stay-at-home mum, you shouldn’t stop doing what you love.”

“Who knows, I may love it.”

“Petal, you love making music. So much. I used to think you loved music more than you love me, that’s how much you love doing what you do. I’m just, I’m afraid that you’ll lose your sense of self if you stop.”

“Babe -”

“I’m not saying a few months off after Baby arrives isn’t a good idea, it is. But indefinitely? You know you’d regret it.”

“I haven’t made a final decision,” I manage to whisper through numb lips, but I know he’s right. Even if it turns out that I find enjoyment out of being home with our child, losing my music would kill an enormous part of me. It would be something I could never get over.

Thankfully, Niall lets the subject drop. He pulls me further into his side and kisses my hair, but he doesn’t mention me leaving the music industry again. I’m grateful for it - I am already having a hard enough time warring against myself, and constantly re-thinking is doing me no good. All it’s doing is causing a headache.

The rest of the morning slips by far too fast. Niall and I don’t do much, just lie about and spend the hours relaxing. We both know that the next eleven weeks will herald in the end of this time together. Of being able to make our own schedules and throw them out the window. Of not having responsibilities beyond breathing.

“Think Amber would be upset if I hired her to be my PA?” I question without bothering to open my eyes, though I can sense the way Niall stills from where he’s putting on his shoes.

“I don’t think so,” he replies slowly, and his footsteps near the couch. “Why?”

“I need a PA. She needs a job.”

“Would she even want to do this kind of stuff?”

I shrug, shift to get more comfortable on the couch even knowing that the baby kicking in my belly isn’t going to make that possible. “I mean, she was the one who did all the shit in the beginning. Keeping track of financial stuff, promoting Complete and our gigs, posted all the photos and vlogs from our festival days and studio time. So I don’t see why not, especially since she’d be getting paid this time.”

“Well, you should ask her then. Okay, petal, I’m going to be late if I don’t leave right now.”

“Go, go. Baby and I will be just fine. Probably gonna take a nap. We don’t need you for that particular event. We earn our gold medals on our own.”

He’s still laughing as he closes the door behind him.