‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

thirty-four

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The day comes, about a week after my day out with Natalie, Amber, and my mom. Niall squeezes my shoulders gently as he passes where I sit at the dining table. My laptop is open in front of me, and I repeatedly refresh the page. No new emails.

“Mummy really wishes her management company would get off their asses and release this damn album,” I murmur to Declan, but he sleeps on.

“Please don’t curse in front of our child.”

I pin my husband with a flat look. “You’re Irish. Isn’t that all you do?”

“’Course not. I drink, too.”

“Why do I love you?” I mutter, grinning when he only leans over to kiss me.

“Because I helped you create a gorgeous son. I made you cry at our wedding. I’ve loved you more than I can ever say for the last, oh, three years.”

“Okay, I didn’t actually want reasons, especially not ones that make me gooey inside.” I sigh and refresh the page again. “Oh! Email!”

“Give me our son before you bounce him right out of your arms.”

I stick my tongue out at Niall but pass over our sleeping baby. Niall presses a kiss to my hair, gesturing to the laptop before walking away. His soft singing fills the room while I read through the message. All it contains is a link and a mock-up of my album art. Brows furrowing, I click on the link and wait.

A countdown.

A string of numbers ticking away until the release of my new album at midnight.

“Babe, babe, babe, babe!”

Niall laughs and brushes his knuckles over my cheek. He doesn’t have to say a word - I know he’s happy for me. This is something I’ve been looking forward to for so long.

Things in general have been... easier, since my friends and mother took me out that afternoon. Though I still feel overwhelmed, it isn’t as difficult to reach out for help. Once it reaches a certain point, that is. Amber has all but moved in to help me. I’d extended the offer of her being my personal assistant, especially for the whole ‘musician making music and touring’ side of my life.

She’s also a great stand-in nanny when I need her. Niall and I have even been able to go on dates again.

Now my album is dropping tonight, and I couldn’t be happier about it. The downside is I won’t be able to tour for a while. Even though it was my decision, it leaves a weight in my chest at the thought of not giving fans the show of a lifetime.

After I send an email back to my management company, I shut my laptop and stare at my husband. Declan sleeps peacefully against Niall’s shoulder, soft morning sunlight bathing them both in golden-yellow. The fact Niall isn’t wearing a shirt does not escape my notice: He took the ‘skin-to-skin contact is great for baby!’ thing to heart. Unless we’re in public, he goes shirtless.

I’m not complaining.

“Think I’m making a mistake with not touring?”

“I think you’re doing what you feel is right.” Niall turns to face me, his gentle smile so familiar. “If you want to change your mind, you can. No one is going to be angry if you want to tour.”

“I do, but that means leaving you and Dec here. I don’t wanna leave you two. Weirdly enough, you’re pretty much my reason for living anymore.”

I sigh, resting my chin on my hand, and watch a bird swoop across the sky outside. My stomach twists and churns the more I think. A tight cold grips at my chest, kicking my heartbeat to a painful pace. I can’t breathe. Pills rattle as Niall drops the medicine bottle onto the table in front of me.

“Don’t argue.”

I don’t. It takes a couple of tries, but I twist the cap off the bottle and pour a pill into my hand. He passes over his mug of coffee then stands beside me, hand on my back, as I swallow the tablet down. His fingers press into my skin, reminding me he’s here. He isn’t going anywhere.

“I’m... I’m going for a run,” I mumble. The buzzing in my blood won’t allow me to stay still any longer.

“Okay, love. We’ll be here when you get back.”

I can only nod in response before hurrying from the kitchen. Guilt burns in my chest - he shouldn’t have to be comforting me over something that was my choice. My decision, and only mine. Sure, I had the approval of my band and the management company, but I initiated the hiatus.

I shouldn’t be this anxious about the decision to not tour. I have a family now - a son who needs me around and a husband who will miss me. They should always come first, more than music or touring.

The jog does nothing to clear my mind. Between the people who snap photos and the email consuming my thoughts, I can’t relax. It isn’t fair on any of them for me to have upended their plans like this. Thankfully, the medication takes the edge off my anxiety by the time I’ve made it home again.

Frowning at the silence, I bend down to untie my sneakers and slip them off my feet. My chest aches with the jog, but it’s a pleasant pain. Better than caused by my internal freak-out. I head toward the kitchen for a glass of water only to stop at the living room.

Niall is asleep on the couch, our son in his cot beside him. My heart melts at the sight, though I’m not surprised. Niall has been great with Declan since the beginning, even through the sleepless nights. I chew on my lower lip as I tiptoe closer.

I keep Declan’s face out of frame when I take the picture, sending it off to our family and friends. Something tells me I’m making a mistake even as I upload the photo to my social media accounts. Someone is going to have a problem with the post, I know it, but I don’t care.

I want the world to know I got lucky when I married Niall, and he’s as amazing a father as he is a husband.

erroroperatorr: I will never be able to comprehend how I hit the jackpot when I met you, but damn it, I’m so glad I did. We have a wonderful, beautiful, perfect child. This is my life, and I can’t believe it. Sleep well, my darlings.

Liam finds me by the pool two days later. Niall took Declan over to Natalie’s, but I’d refused to go. She didn’t need to see me like this, miserable and moping over something so trivial. Besides, it would do the both of them some good to strengthen their own friendship.

“You’re quiet,” he says as he sits beside me, and I shrug and kick my feet in the water. “Nialler said you were upset about something but wouldn’t talk to him. So... talk to me.”

“Nice to know people talk about me behind my back.”

He sighs. “Toaster Strudel, you know it isn’t like that. We’re all just worried about you.”

“I hate my body,” I admit reluctantly, breaking the minutes-long silence.

“Oh?”

“Yes. It’s been two months, and I’m still flabby as the day I popped. I just want my old body back.”

“That won’t happen.”

“Gee, thanks,” I snarl as I scrub a hand over my cheeks. “It’s so wonderful to hear my body is ruined.”

Liam groans and reaches for my hand. I try to yank away, but his grip is stronger. “Erin, your body isn’t ruined. You gave birth to an amazing, incredible little boy. You grew a child. I’d say your body is a fucking miracle-worker.”

“Emily Blunt had a baby around when I did, and she already looks incredible.”

“Everyone moves at their own pace.” Liam blows out a breath and squeezes my hand. “How about we hit the gym together? You can learn to box and do yoga, since they’re both great for tightening core muscles.”

“And it’ll get rid of my fat belly?”

“Yes, it will get rid of your just-had-a-baby belly,” he sighs before pushing me into the pool.

I come up spluttering, even as a smile tugs at my lips. Liam grins, kicking a wall of water at me, and I tug at his arm. He takes pity on me and pretends I’ve pulled him in.

“Hey, Bear?” I ask when he resurfaces. He shoves his wet hair back as he hums in acknowledgement. “Thanks.”