‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

twenty-five

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Everything is wet - the ground, the sky, me - by the time I walk through the doors of the studio. Thunder rumbles overhead, the sky letting loose a torrent of rain that smacks against the windows. Lisa grimaces when she sees me, hands me a roll of paper towels, and I grumble as I dry my face off. Once I’m finished, I toss the towel into the recycle bin and carefully lower myself into a free chair.

“Where are the others?”

“Owen and Dawn are arguing over whether the hook in Only a Fool works or not.”

“Of course it doesn’t.” Sighing, I shift awkwardly. “What’s on the agenda, then?”

She shrugs and finishes off her coffee. “Dave says there isn’t much left to do unless we add things. Otherwise, we should be out of here by three at the latest.”

“Good. I have errands to run today.”

“How’s the gift coming?”

I blow out a breath when the baby twists and turns, a rough kick landing to my ribs. “It’s done, I just gotta pick it up when we’re done here.”

Before Lisa can say anything, the rest of the band files into the room. Dawn ducks down to press a kiss to my damp hair, and Zach immediately goes to the fridge to grab out two bottles of water. I barely manage to not roll my eyes - the closer I get to my due date, the more fussy he is about making sure I take care of myself.

“Did Niall put you up to this?”

He laughs and shakes his head. “Of course not. Just want my niece to be safe and happy in there.”

“Nephew,” Dawn and I correct at the same time, and he sticks his tongue out at us.

“I have an idea,” Owen starts, rummaging through a box on the counter until he comes up with a dry-erase marker and a magnetic whiteboard. He doesn’t say anything else, just writes quickly then hangs the board on the fridge.

“What the heck, are you gambling on when I’m pushing this baby out?” I giggle anyway. “I say boy, tenth of June, hm… five-thirty in the afternoon.”

The others join in without hesitation, each calling out their bets while Owen marks them down. When he’s finished, I grab my phone to send a text to Natalie, Amber, and Niall; their responses come in almost immediately, even Niall’s, so I push myself to my feet and cross the room.

Boy
Owen - 8th June, 4:32 am
Erin - 10th June, 5:30 pm
Dawn - 12th June, 3:30 am
Natalie - 10th June, 4 pm

Girl
Zach - 8th June, 12 pm
Lisa - 9th June, 1 am
Amber - 9th June, 4:03 am
Niall - 8th June, 9:13 am

I take a quick picture of the board, laughing the entire time, because of course my group of friends and loved ones would take bets on this baby. It honestly should not have surprised me as much as it did.

“Wait, what do we get if our bet is right?” Zach asks through a mouthful of mini-pretzels, and Lisa covers his mouth.

“We’ll figure it out by the time the day comes,” Owen promises. “We’ve got two months.”

“Are you guys ready, or should we just write today off?”

I wince, exchange a look with Dawn, then face the man in the doorway. “Shit, sorry, Davey. We’re on our way.”

The sound engineer nods and, as he turns to leave: “Girl, tenth of June, at three pm.”

“And Dave broke the tie!” cheers Zach as Owen reluctantly adds Dave’s guess to the board.

The next three days go by far too slowly for my liking. All I’ve wanted is the twenty-fifth to finally get here, so I can give my husband his present, to see his reaction to a collection of my favourite memories. To show him just how much every second spent with him means to me.

But finally, after what feels like years, our anniversary arrives, and I’m awake before the sun even fully rises. An unsettling nervousness fills me, prevents me from sleeping peacefully. Or maybe it’s the unborn, tiny future-human doing gymnastics on my organs at five in the morning.

Either way, I find myself in the kitchen, sat at the table as a hazy golden light creeps slowly through the room. What if he doesn’t like the book?, a small voice whispers in the back of my mind. Maybe I should have gotten Niall something else, just in case. It’s too late now, though. So I can only cross my fingers and hope that he thinks the book is a sufficient gift to celebrate a whole year of being married.

So much has changed over the last twelve months. We’d expected to spend quite a while as husband and wife, just the two of us trying to juggle a marriage with our careers. Life - and recklessness - had thrown a curveball in those plans: Giving into our impatience meant forgetting a condom in a dressing room of some Dallas venue and again at the hotel, and now, here we are, a little over eight weeks away from being parents. I’m just thankful that this is happening with him, not someone else.

I can’t imagine what it would be like if any other man was the father of my soon-to-arrive child.

Niall shuffles into the room long after my tea has grown cold. He blinks, bleary-eyed and yawning, in the sunlight that streams through the windows, then makes his way to sit beside me. I stare at him, at the face I’ve known for so long and will never not be affected by. I’ve watched him grow, change from the eighteen-year-old who broke my heart into the twenty-one-year-old who healed all the damage I’d endured. And every step of the way, I have loved him more fiercely than I could ever have envisioned loving anyone.

“Happy anniversary,” I whisper, stretching to kiss his cheek, and a slow smile spreads across his lips. “Can’t believe it’s been an full year since you swore to love me forever.”

“Through thick and thin, love. Happy anniversary.”

“I was thinking that since we’ve both taken today off from our hectic schedules, we could go for a walk through the park.”

“Sounds great to me. Lunch at the cafe?”

“Gods, you can read my mind so well.”

He laughs quietly and presses his lips to my forehead. “I just know you really like the potato soup.”

He has a point. The cafe’s soup is by far the best I’ve ever had, and it has been one of the only things I can eat without upsetting my belly. Plus, it provides me with the vegetables I can no longer stomach on their own. This pregnancy has wreaked havoc on my tastebuds. The only upside is I’ve eaten regularly, far more than before the positive sign showed up on that test.

Of course Bryan demands that he join us on our stroll through the park, though he stays a few feet behind us. Niall and I know he’s there, keeping us safe, but it’s easy to ignore his presence and focus on us. The task is made even easier by the surprising lack of fans encroaching on our bubble.

Sure, I can see them taking pictures and sending them to everyone in their contact books, but they give us space. They don’t swarm us with demands for photos, autographs, our attention. So I decide to be nice, waving and smiling and flashing a peace sign every now and then.

“You realise you’re encouraging their voyeurism, right?” Niall chuckles even as he waves at a teenager ten feet away.

“Gotta give ‘em something to say ‘thanks for leaving us the fuck alone’.”

“So considerate of you.”

“Look, I left the house fully anticipating being ambushed by people. This is the first time I’ve been out and about like this since the media shit-storm. I’m gonna be nice to the people being nice to me.”

Niall frowns, lacing our fingers together, and watches the teen scurry off once she’s gotten the pictures she wanted. “Yeah, I expected the same. This is… unexpected.”

“Maybe not so inexplicable, though,” I sigh as I glance back at Bryan. “He’s got his murder-face on.”

Niall’s laughter rings out, clear and bright, and I snuggle into his side as much as I’m able. Bryan’s ‘I’ll kick your butt without remorse if you touch my people’ face aside, this has been an amazing time. The warm sunshine and fresh air have done wonders to uplift my mood. The fact that it’s my anniversary with the best man I’ve ever known hadn’t been able to dispel the misery of being stuck indoors all day.

Even when I’d gone to Amber’s or Natalie’s, I spent the hours inside, away from prying eyes; having another bout of death threats - which have finally tapered off - hadn’t been appealing. The cafe has been the only public place I’ve felt comfortable going to, since the owner has been incredibly strict about patrons’ behaviour, and will put a stop to anyone trying to pester me. So walking around, outside with nature surrounding me everywhere I turn, has been a blessing. Even with all the camera-phones pointing in our direction.

Birds twitter from above, bumblebees float lazily around the flowers along the path, and a squirrel chases its friend up and down and around the trunks of the trees. Nearby restaurants send aromas of food to waft over the area, a myriad of scents from different cultures, and even the sounds of traffic seem muted here in the serenity. It’s perfect.

The cafe is busier than usual when Niall and I step in through the doors. The host recognises us immediately, giving us a harried smile and gesturing toward the dining area. My husband tightens his grip on my hand, his other coming up to rest on my lower back, and I lead him to the two-top near the back. Bryan sits in a chair at the next table over and pretends as if he’s not there; his sheer size makes it impossible for anyone to not see him, but I appreciate the efforts nonetheless.

“Hey, you guys are back!” Denny grins brightly when he comes to a stop to my right. “Oh, my gosh, you look amazing, both of you. Lemme guess - potato soup?”

“How much coffee have you had today?” I ask instead of answering his question, giggling when his face screws up as he thinks.

“Only two.”

“Pots?”

“That’s for me to know and you to never judge me for.”

“Okay, well, drink some more for me please. But yes, potato soup.”

Denny nods but doesn’t write it down - why would he, when it’s the same thing I’ve gotten the last fifteen times I’ve come here. Once he’s gotten Niall and Bryan’s orders, he bounds away, and I meet Niall’s eye across the table. Neither of us need to speak to know we’re thinking the same thing: In another life, Denny would have been an amazing friend. As it is, he remains professional, never tries to cross the boundaries, so we follow his lead.

I just wish he’d sneak me some of the coffee he’s been drinking, because I need the pick-me-up right now.

“Thanks so much, Bryan. I hate that you had to follow us around like a shadow.”

Bryan shrugs and kisses my hair. “I’ve said it before, kid. I like you for some reason, so I’m gonna protect you. Oh, before I forget, Gracie wants to know if you guys would want to come for dinner sometime soon.”

“I’ll talk it over with Niall and give her a call. Give her my love.”

Bryan leaves with one last smile, and I turn toward the living room. My body aches, an uncomfortable stretching in my hips, but I manage to make it to the couch before collapsing into the cushions. Niall’s gift sits on the coffee-table, the bright yellow paper interrupted with tiny polka dots. The man himself is nowhere to be found. Frowning, I call his name, only to be met with silence. I shout again then push to my feet when he still doesn’t respond.

“Sit back down,” he orders gently as he enters the room. “I just had to go get your present.”

“You first.”

“Are you sure?”

At my flat glare, he concedes, laughing softly, and sets my gift next to me. My heart races while I watch him reach for the wrapped book, his finger sliding under the paper and carefully peeling it up. This is the moment of truth, and I feel like throwing up. I bite my lip against the rush of buzzing under my skin. If he doesn’t like this, I… have no idea what I’m going to do. Really should have had a back-up plan.

He stares down at the heart-embossed cover, brows furrowed, then glances up at me. “What’s this?”

“Well, open the book and find out.”

My fears are, as usual, for nothing: He flips to the first page, and his reaction is nothing short of beautiful. A gasp bursts from him at the photograph that Stefanie took of us, a smile graces his lips, and he continues turning the pages. Under every photo is a caption of all the sweet things he’s ever said to me, printed in my handwriting. The entire thing is a timeline of our relationship, the love we’ve found and nurtured during our years together. It’s an explanation of just how much I need him.

It isn’t until he reaches the final image that the tears slip from his eyes, though I’ve been crying since he first opened the book. The sonogram - the very first one that proved I was pregnant - is there. In a childlike font underneath the picture is the phrase ”I can’t wait to meet you, Daddy!”. He reaches for my hand and squeezes tightly. His breaths are tremulous, shaky, even as he turns to the last page.

No matter where you go, no matter how far or what time it is, please: Come home to me.

“I’ll always come home to you,” he promises before he kisses me hard enough to steal my breath.