‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

twenty-nine

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Ten tiny fingers, a tiny nose, tiny lips. Chubby cheeks and delicate brows. Dark hair under the smallest knit cap. Seven pounds and nine ounces of ‘most perfect little human ever’.

“He’s here,” I whisper without taking my eyes off of the newborn sleeping in my arms. “He’s… gods, Niall, he’s perfect.”

“I told you that you could do it,” he murmurs back.

“Don’t gloat. I just spent two hours bringing him into the world.”

“I’m going to gloat as much as I want. My gorgeous wife just gave birth to my beautiful son.”

I sniff as tears burn in my eyes again, blinking them away before they can slip down my cheeks. “What should we call him?”

“How about Jeremy?” Niall suggests, face remaining impassive even as I shake my head vehemently.

“Oh, gods, no. I’d never be able to call for him without being angry that his namesake isn’t here.”

“Okay, so… middle name?”

“Jem would be so angry. Let’s do it.” Staring down at the baby, I let my mind tumble over all the names I’ve read throughout the months. “How about Declan?”

Niall grins brightly, kisses my cheek. “He definitely looks like a Déaglán to me. Now, do you mind if I hold him? He’s mine, too, after all.”

“Fine, if you must separate the new mother from her baby.”

All he does in response is shake his head and reach for our son - Declan Jeremy Horan. As much fun as it was to tease him a bit about taking the baby from me, I can’t deny that it’s nice to just… relax. My body is sore all over; even my feet inexplicably hurt.

Seeing Declan in Niall’s arms feels right. As if it’s the view I’ve waited twenty-two years to witness. Nothing could possibly taint the utter contentedness and joy I feel right now, not even the undercurrent of pain coursing through my body. This is only an amazing new chapter in our lives as husband and wife.

Niall shifts Declan in his arms, cooing down at him, and I get a clearer angle to see the smile on my husband’s face. His eyes are bright, and a tear slides down his cheek, along his throat to disappear into the collar of his shirt. I reach for my phone, snapping a picture; I make sure the baby’s face isn’t in the shot before attaching it to a message for the group chat.

To: Amber, Natalie, Louis, Harry, Liam, Zayn, Bryan, Gracie, Ma H, Owen, Zach, Tanner, Lisa, Dawn
< Holy hell how did my husband get even hotter?!
< No!! Social!! Media!! We trust you lot, but I’ll kill you. I swear I will. We wanna announce it ourselves on our own time.

“You decent in there, pumpkin?”

“C’mon in,” I call as I squirm uncomfortably against the pillows.

My dad pokes his head around the curtain first, face splitting into a proud grin even as his dark eyes fill with tears. His jaw tics, and I can’t stifle my giggle at the pointed way he shoves his hands into his pockets. Reaching over to tap Niall’s arm, I gesture with my chin toward my father’s perfect imitation of a child waiting for sweets.

“Let the grandfather hold the baby.”

“How are you feeling, sweetheart?” my mom asks as she leans over to kiss my forehead.

“I guess I’m okay. I can see my feet again,” I announce, wiggling my toes, before I frown. “Well, I’d be able to if they weren’t covered with blankets. But yeah, absolutely never doing that again.”

“I think every woman has said that after giving birth,” she laughs.

“Uh-oh.” My father passes the baby back to me. “Someone’s getting hungry. Want us to leave?”

“Uh… can Mom stay?”

“We’ll be right back, love,” Niall murmurs before pressing his lips to my cheek, followed by a kiss to Declan’s cheek. “Remember what Davina said - try to relax.”

Once my husband and my dad are gone, the door closing with a quiet clicking sound behind them, I struggle to pull the gown down off my shoulder, but it takes my mother’s assistance before it happens. She steps back and watches as I try to get Declan to latch properly; it takes a few minutes - and some pain - but it happens. I let myself sink further into the pillows.

“Is it supposed to be this uncomfortable?”

“He’s feeding for the first time,” she assures me, sitting on the edge of my bed. “Of course you aren’t going to be used to it. It’ll get better, you just have to keep up with it. Breast is best, after all.”

A sinking fills my chest at her words. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard since the pregnancy began. It’s in all the books, all the online forums, all the mommy-and-me group chats I’ve signed up for. “Breast is best”. And it may be true, but I haven’t been able to swallow the idea that someone is fundamentally flawed if they can’t breastfeed. That they’re somehow lesser if they rely on formula.

But I choke down my objections, my discomfort with breastfeeding and that stupid phrase, and hope that I’m at least doing this right. Declan squirms and grunts, but he doesn’t pull away. I take comfort in that - he’d pull away if I was doing something wrong, right?

My mom talks about her job, her students, her life with Dad for the entire half-hour that our husbands are out of the room. She doesn’t seem to expect me to keep up with the conversation, and I can’t help but be thankful for that. Between the doubts swirling around in my mind and the fatigue that clings to every fibre of my being, talking is the last thing on my mind.

Niall frowns as soon as he steps through the door, gaze tracking over my face. “Is everything okay?”

I sigh as my face heats up, eyes burning. “I don’t know. I just, I feel like I’m not doing this properly.”

My mother opens her mouth as if to say something, but Niall doesn’t give her a chance to speak. He immediately sits down next to me, moving aside my IV line with a careful hand, and runs his finger along my breast where our son’s lips meet skin. I have no idea what magic he performs. All I know is, abruptly the pain is gone. It’s awkward still but painless. Declan sighs, eyes closing as he suckles, and I let out a breath of relief.

“Thank you,” I manage to whisper as I meet Niall’s eyes, and his face softens.

“We’re a team, right?”

My mom coos gently, stroking Declan’s cheek with a fingertip. “See how happy he is?”

“Yeah, now.”

“Laura, please.” At Niall’s words, my mother’s mouth closes, and he takes it as permission to continue, “This is Erin’s first attempt at this. She deserves the chance to figure this out without being bombarded with well-intentioned advice. If she needs help, she’ll ask for it.”

My mom nods slowly though she doesn’t apologise. She also doesn’t even try to hide the flicker of disbelief painting her face. I understand the doubt to a degree - after all, she knows me better than almost anyone else - but there is no denying that it cuts me deeply to see exactly how little faith she has in me.

As much as it pains me to admit, gratitude floods through me when my parents leave an hour later. Breathing gets easier. My skin stops crawling under the weight of my mother’s scrutiny and silent criticising. Niall takes the baby from my arms, taking away the only thing I’ve used to ground myself instead of dwelling on my mom’s judgements.

Once Declan is in the cot, my husband curls around me, pulls me into his side. “I’m so sorry that happened, love.”

“Why doesn’t she think I can do this?”

My voice trembles and breaks, and Niall holds me as I cry. I’m not sure if it’s hormones, exhaustion, or physical and emotional pain - or all of the above. Whatever it is, it hurts, and I let myself get caught in the maelstrom if only for a few minutes. A tiny voice in the back of my mind wishes things were easier, different.

By the time the next round of visitors arrive, I’ve taken a quick nap while Niall cared for Declan. Amber is the first through the door, hands empty and “ready for some baby love”, as she announces. Alan, Brett, and Gracie follow close behind, but none of them are nearly as exuberant. Or, at least, they don’t look like they’re going to bounce off the walls like a rubber ball if they don’t get to hold a newborn right this very second. Amber takes about a million photos, gasping aloud when I cradle Declan in my arms with Niall close at my side, and she snaps another three dozen pictures.

“Oh, god, Renny, this is beautiful, you’re glowing!” She shoves her phone in my face so I can see the picture, and I exchange a look with Niall.

“Send it to us, please?”

“Oooh, announcement photo?”

I nod. “Announcement photo. Tomorrow. I’m too fucking tired right now to deal with the drama that’ll come with it.”

“Yes. Today is all about resting. Well, the last few weeks have been about resting, but especially today. So I’ve kinda taken the liberty to kinda-sorta-maybe Tweet as you.”

“Wait, what?”

While she taps at her phone screen, Niall carries Declan over to where the rest of the group sit on the couch. Gracie shakes her head with a smile, informs me that Bryan is standing guard outside the door until Rick or Basil can get here, and tears fill my eyes. Bryan may be my head of security, the man I rely on to protect me when I’m out and about, but he’s also the closest thing to the father I didn’t have for so long. And now he’s willingly sacrificing time with my baby to keep us safe.

“Okay, no crying, woman,” Amber scolds me as she drops to cuddle with me on the bed. “Now read.”

@erroroperatorr: I’m tired. And hungry. And bored. Anybody have any good shows to watch?+ (27 May 2016 10:33)
@erroroperatorr: Seriously, bed rest is no joke.+ (27 May 2016 13:19)
@erroroperatorr: Can I just say this is a much better audience than before??+ (27 May 2016 15:58)
@erroroperatorr: RT if you want LLS with Craig Ferguson back! + (3 June 2016 23:10)
@erroroperatorr: How do I get #BringBackCraigFerguson trending?? Someone help a pregnant woman out!+ (6 June 2016 17:44)
@erroroperatorr: Okay, I’ll be honest. I just wanna see Geoff again.+ (6 June 2016 17:45)
@erroroperatorr: @CraigyFerg have Geoff call me!+ (6 June 2016 17:45)

Amber grins victoriously at my giggling - the Tweets are exactly the kind of boredom-induced nonsense that I would have sent into the webosphere if I had Twitter on my phone. Especially the ones about Craig Ferguson, the best Scotsman I’ll ever meet in my life.

There are only two new posts on my Instagram, uploaded on the same day with identical captions - a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a card. I raise a brow, bringing the phone closer to read what the card says.

Erin,

We could have had beautiful half-animatronic babies, but alas, you found love with someone disgustingly human. Congratulations on the impending arrival of your very non-animatronic baby!

Love and best wishes - Geoff


erroroperatorr: OH. MY. GODS. BEST DAY EVER!! @thecraigfergusonshow - please tell Geoff I said thank you so much for the gorgeous flowers and I am so sorry my husband (and baby) are/will be so “disgustingly human”. Half-animatronic babies with him would be a dream come true, but the world just isn’t read for that yet! <3

“Did this really happen?” I whisper, scarcely able to breathe through the tears, and I look up at Amber and her soft smile.

“Yep. Didn’t you see them?”

Niall frowns and scratches at the back of his neck. “I meant to bring them upstairs for you, but it slipped my mind. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, babe. You’ve been doing so much lately, I’d be surprised if something didn’t fall through the cracks.”

“Wait,” he says suddenly, and everyone stares at him. He ignores us to cock his head, narrowing his eyes at Amber. “How did you see them?”

She shrugs and plucks her phone from my hand. “I came by to spend some time with Erin yesterday, but you both were napping. So I saw the flowers, took a picture, and voila.”

I giggle, leaning against her, and sigh. “You realise it’s not your job to keep my socials up to date, right?”

“You have enough to worry about. Speaking of, Brett William Maxson, you better give me that cutie right now.”

He huffs out a laugh, crossing the room to gingerly shift Declan into her arms. “Get your fill of babies now, Am, because we’re not having any for a long time.”

“But you want kids, yeah?” When Brett nods, Amber beams up at her boyfriend. “Good enough for me. So what’s his name?” she asks quietly once the baby is situated against her chest.

Before I can respond, the door swings open. I frown and count the friends already here - who could possibly be coming now? Then Natalie comes around the curtain, Goose and Levi trailing after her, but my focus is on the enormous iced coffee in her hand.

“That’s mine. Right? You brought that for me? You better have brought that for me, because if you didn’t, I will fucking cry, and our friendship is over because you’ve decided to torture me so badly. Didn’t you know torture is banned? Natalie Eleanor, I swear -”

“Chill, Casper,” she laughs and hands me the cup. “Of course I brought it for you. What do you think I am, cruel and heartless?”

“I dunno, I figured you’d get me back for the drumset.”

“Ha! That’s at Lou’s for now.”

“Devious. I love it, oh gods, I love you so much.”

“Me or the coffee?”

“The coffee, duh. Now go away, we’re having a moment.”

My friends all laugh at me, but I ignore them in favour of sucking up a large mouthful of chocolate, coffee goodness. It’s been far too long since I’ve had this much caffeine in one go. Niall chuckles, kisses my hair, and turns to Amber. I smile up at him around the straw but don’t stop drinking. I’m going to get as much as I can, as quickly as I can.

“To answer your question, his name is Declan Jeremy Horan.”

Within seconds of the announcement, everyone launches into awws and crowds around Amber and Declan.

Everyone but Alan.

I catch his eye from across the room, and it’s only because I know him so well that I can recognise the hurt that fills his eyes. The way the blood drains from his face. The anger that takes over. I lower the cup, but he’s gone before I can say a word.

I stare after him as my chest tightens, skin growing cold. A buzzing zips through my veins, unrelated to the massive amount of coffee I’ve ingested in such a short time. My stomach churns, my body turns to stone. I gasp out a breath before I can no longer hold back the tears. Niall doesn’t bother promising to be right back.

He just stands and follows after Alan.