‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

thirty-one

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Conversations flow around me, as if my friends are allowing me the privacy to feel my hurt without an audience - never mind the fact there are six people in the room, playing a game of “pass the potato” with my hours-old baby. Amber and Natalie sit on either side of me, and I draw comfort from their presence. Outside of Niall, these two have been my biggest source of support throughout this entire ordeal.

So for them to be so close, comforting me through the pain of Alan’s abrupt departure…

It doesn’t make it easier. I just feel less alone.

The chatter dies out when the door opens, and I hold my breath as Niall appears from around the corner. His lips twist into a sympathetic smile, and he beelines toward the bed. My friends move away, but not before Amber kisses my temple and Nat sets my coffee on the bedside table. Once my husband is situated beside me, I lean into his side, sighing.

“Where’s Alan?”

Niall presses his lips to my hair, exhales steadily. “He got a bit overwhelmed, but he says congratulations to us and he’s off to tell his ma about Declan.”

It sounds reasonable. Logical. Plausible. If I was on the outside looking in, I would believe Niall’s words as trth. Even Amber would. But he’s my husband. I know his word patterns, the way he sounds when he’s being honest. The way he looks me in the eye and isn’t right now.

So I know he’s lying to me right now.

He is doing it for a gallant, selfless reason, sure. But he is lying to me about why one of my best friends just sped from the room like Cujo was nipping at his heels.

I can’t find it in me to care. The pain of the deception will catch up to me later, but for now, I let my husband - the father of our child - lie to me.

Natalie and Goose leave first, apologising profusely when Levi’s fussing sets Declan off, and the room fills with the crying of two infants.Gracie promises Bryan will be in the morning. She doesn’t explain why he hasn’t come in today, and I don’t ask. Finally, only Brett and Amber remain, though even they prepare to leave.

“I can stay and watch over little man so you two can get some sleep,” she murmurs as she transfers a sleeping Declan into my arms.

“Nah, it’s okay. Gotta get used to waking constantly for reasons other than nightmares and anxiety, right?”

My joke doesn’t seem to reassure her, but she follows her boyfriend out of the room anyway. Niall carefully moves from his spot next to me on the bed, dropping into the recliner with his phone in hand. I stare down at Declan, the round cheeks and pursed lips, and wonder just how much life is going to change now.

“You know, don’t you?” I ask quietly after a few minutes of hearing nothing but our breathing and Niall’s thumbs tapping at the screen of his phone.

A short sigh, then: “Yeah. Alan told me.”

“He’s mad.”

“Not at you, darling.” Niall’s foot taps against the floor, and I know, even without looking at him, that he’s trying to figure out the best way to tell me how I hurt Alan. “He’s angry that Jem isn’t here.”

“So am I.”

“Please don’t snap at me, Erin. I know that. I even told him so. I told him it was unfair for him to be punishing you for a shitty situation no one could control.”

I sigh and scrub at my cheek. “Sorry. And sorry for not, y’know…”

“For not telling me that we were naming our son after a bet you made with your best friend? I think I can forgive you for that,” he laughs.

“We can -”

“We aren’t changing his name. As I said, he looks like a Déaglán.”

I smile tiredly and move Declan to the portable cot, suddenly wanting nothing more than to sleep for as long as possible. Niall waits until I’m settled under the blankets before he stands to turn off the overhead lights; the only illumination left comes from the attached bathroom, white stretching through the room. He kisses Declan’s head, making sure his lips don’t touch bare skin, then curls up around me. Blowing out a breath, I close my eyes.

“Please don’t ever lie to me again.”

He inhales sharply, as if intending to defend himself, but he lets it go. Instead, he rests his forehead against the back of my skull and promises.

By the time Declan and I are no longer considered patients three days later, I have officially given up on breastfeeding. I’d tried to the point of tears, but he didn’t seem to be getting enough milk, no matter how long he was latched on. Besides, all it did was stress me out further.

But him being exclusively formula-fed stresses me out, as well. I feel like a failure now, though both Niall and Devina, our lactation consultant, swore to me that it wasn’t a mark against my character or ability as a mother.

The house is spotless when I step through the front door. A small stack of envelopes sits on the table in the entryway, and the scent of laundry detergent floats through the air. I breathe in deeply, relishing the scent of anything other than ‘hospital’, and move out of the way so Niall can bring the car-seat inside.

My phone beeps from the pocket of the diaper bag, and I sigh. I know who it’s from and what it is going to contain - another link to another medical article about breastfeeding. I’d called my mom last night after Niall fell asleep, seeking out comfort or reassurance or something, and she had been supportive of the decision to switch to formula.

But then the texts started coming in, and they haven’t stopped.

“Just leave it,” I tell Niall as he reaches for the bag. “Just… let’s just get settled in.”

He nods and sets the car-seat on the couch, carefully unbuckling our son. I lift Declan from his seat, cradling him to my chest, and make my way up the stairs to our room. He looks so tiny in his cot, smaller than his seven-and-a-half pounds and nineteen inches. I stroke a finger over his chubby cheek, my eyes burning though I smile when he squeaks and squirms.

Turning on the baby monitor, I grab the receiver and head back down to the living room. My phone sits on the coffee-table, and Niall won’t meet my eye. My lips tug down into a frown as I drop to sit next to him on the couch. When he gives me no answers, I unlock my phone.

To: Mom
Hi, Laura, it’s Niall. Listen. We truly appreciate how helpful you are trying to be, but you’re really not helping right now . You are actually causing Erin more stress , and that’s the last thing she needs at the moment. Please stop .

“Babe-”

“Were you ever going to tell her to stop?” he asks quietly, staring down at his feet, hands clasped in front of him.

“I was giving her the chance to get it all out of her system.”

“So you were, what? Going to let her keep upsetting you just so you didn’t upset her?” His gaze cuts to me, and I shrink under the intensity. “Erin, that’s fucking stupid. You just had a baby. This is the last time you should be pestered with ‘advice’ you didn’t ask for.”

“I don’t want to talk about this. Please.”

“No, Erin. You do this all the time. You let yourself get walked all over and treated however, as long as it doesn’t affect your relationships with people. You’d willingly cut your heart out for people who do nothing but hurt you, no matter how they don’t mean to.”

“Then what do you want me to do?” I scrub a hand over my face, surprised by the tears on my cheeks. My chest aches, my throat tightening, and any joy I felt at being home is gone. “You want me to just stop talking to people?”

“Don’t try to put words in my mouth, I never once said that.”

“Then what?”

Niall sighs, reaching for my hand, and his face falls when I pull away. Exhaling sharply, he pushes to his feet and paces through the living room. “I want you to start putting yourself first. When someone does something that upsets you, speak up. When you feel someone is crossing a line, tell them. You need to be selfish sometimes.”

“It isn’t that easy.”

“You’ve done it how many times with Natalie, and now it’s too hard?”

“Fuck off.”

Before he can reply, I stuff my phone into my pocket and storm from the room. He may be right - nothing of what he’s saying has been wrong - but I can’t handle this conversation right now. I can’t handle listening to him pointing out my shortcomings, no matter how helpful he is trying to be.

The flowers droop in their vase, orange and red and yellow petals scattered on the countertop beneath the glass. My hand shakes as I yank the bouquet from the jar and toss them in the garbage. Today has gone so off-rails, and I hate it. I hate how my mother and my husband have ruined my relief of not being in the hospital.

“I’m sorry.”

I let out a laugh that borders on delirium. “Why? Why be sorry, Niall? You only said what you’ve so obviously been wanting to say for a long time.”

“Because I didn’t want to upset you. Shockingly, that wasn’t my goal, Erin.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Where are you going?” he groans, following me out of the kitchen, and I jerk to a stop at the base of the stairs.

“I’m going to take a nap. I’m tired, I’m stressed, and right now, I’m not exactly a fan of looking at your face.”

I leave Niall in the living room, blood roaring in my ears. Minute tremors run through my body as I drop onto the bed, and I cover my face with my hands. His words echo in my mind, each one hitting harder with every repetition.

This is the worst we have fought in a long time - even after the pregnancy announcement, when he was angry that I kept the death threats from him, we hadn’t spoken words so venomous to each other.

I certainly hadn’t said ‘fuck off’, and nor had he.

Blowing out a breath, I let myself sprawl across the mattress and sniff back tears. My heart pounds beneath my breastbone, fuelled by rage and hurt. Anger at him, at my mom, at Alan.

Alan.

My breath stutters as I remember the look on his face before he sped from the room. The way his dark eyes had grown even darker with his own pain, and the heartbreaking expression on his blood-drained face.

To: Baby Daddy
I’m sorry. Can you come up here so we can talk?

From: Baby Daddy
On my way love

I set my phone on the nightstand, curling onto my side as his footsteps near. The bed dips behind me, an arm looping over my wist, and I close my eyes as Niall presses a kiss to my shoulder. When he’s settled in around me, I lace our fingers together and exhale shakily, though no words come.

Not until he whispers, “Talk to me.”

“I’m angry. At my mom, yeah, but… also at Alan. And Jem. They’re supposed to be my best friends, and they both left me. I was supposed to be able to be a sore winner, laugh in Jem’s face that I got to use the name Declan. And Alan was supposed to be right there telling me to knock my shit off. Jem wasn’t supposed to die, and Alan… he wasn’t supposed to run away like that.”

Niall holds me impossibly tighter as I let the tears come, let the pain wiggle its way to the forefront of my mind. He doesn’t speak for a long minute, just allows me to fall apart in a way I haven’t in years.

Not at the funeral when I’d been so numb from the panic attack.

Not at our wedding, when I so desperately wished Jem could have been there.

Not since I sat by Jem’s graveside and screamed about the unfairness of it all.

“I just... I have a lot that I haven’t really thought about,” I mumble, rolling over to face him. “And the conversation just tipped the scales to ‘too much to process’. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you, not when you’re trying to help me. I’m sorry.”

“I know, and I’m sorry if you felt like I was attacking you. I just hate seeing you miserable.”

“Can I ask you something?” At his nod, I avert my gaze from his, watch my fingers as they trace his jawline; stubble pricks my fingertips. “Are you still mad that I kept the threats a secret?”

He sighs, shrugging, before shifting onto his back. I cuddle closer against his side and rest my head on his chest.

“I was. For a long time, I couldn’t get over it. You kept something so monumental from me, and it could have gone so poorly. I wouldn’t have known. But Alan and me, we talked. He told me it took you almost an entire year to tell anyone, even Amber, about the threats you got when the band first became popular.

“So it was easier, I guess, to let go of that anger when I considered that and the fact you were planning to tell me as soon as I got home.”

I open my mouth to say - something. Whatever it is, I don’t know, and I have no chance to find out before the room fills with the grunts and cries of a very unhappy baby. Niall kisses my forehead, pushes me away gently, then stands. I watch him stretch as he crosses the room to our child, and everything fades away.

The frustrations, the doubts and fears, they all mean nothing right now. Not when Niall is cradling Declan to his chest, staring down at the infant with awestruck wonder painted over his face. Not when our son is here. Not when we are home where we belong, together as a family.

For once, just for a moment, the unknowns of the future don’t seem so daunting.
♠ ♠ ♠
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