‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

nine

“Lou? What are you - oh, my gods, are you fucking serious?”

“Shh!” he hisses with a quick glance at the baby in Garrett’s arms.

“Dude. Dude. No. I am absolutely allowed to be shocked!” I protest even while I inch closer to the newborn. If it were possible, my heart would be a puddle of goop on the floor when I catch sight of the disgruntled expression on the tiny face. “So Lou’s a daddy, yeah?”

“Yeah, I’m a daddy.”

The pride in his voice brings a smile to my face, and I hurry to douse my hands with sanitiser before crossing the room to kiss first Natalie’s cheek then his. Sutton stands awkwardly off to the side. I hand the gift bag to Nat, murmuring a congratulations, then point at Louis.

“I’ll be quiet, but only because I wanna love on that darling baby. But Louis William Tomlinson, we are so talking about this later.”

My moments are clumsy and stilted when I take the baby from Garrett. Whispering softly to the fidgeting baby until he settles down, I rock back and forth, and my eyes burn with tears when I look up at Natalie.

“Natty, he’s perfect. What’s his name?”

Her gaze cuts to Garrett for a split second, then she smiles tiredly. “Levi Garrett Tomlinson.”

“Wait, what?”

That explains why Garrett looks as if his mind has been blown. Natalie naming her kid after both Garrett and his late grandfather… It’s amazing. I coo down at the baby, with his chubby cheeks and tiny nose and delicate brows; Sutton helps guide me to the sofa along the wall, steadying me as I lower myself to the cushions. I run a finger along Levi’s cheek.

“He’s perfect, holy shit. Yes, you’re perfect, Mister Levi. Hi there. I’m your aunt Erin, and I am going to be your most favourite person ever. I have a lot to teach you about making mischief, so keep that in mind whenever you wanna cause trouble for your mom and dad, okay?”

Louis ducks down to whisper something into Natalie’s ear, then he’s gone. Garrett and Sutton start up a conversation between themselves; I carefully rise to my feet and sit on the bed. Nat rests her head against my shoulder, and we stare down at her son.

“Thanks for this,” she says softly, holding up the yellow bear I bought.

“No problem, babe. He has to get a first stuffed animal, so why not let it be from me? And hey, thanks for giving me such an adorable nephew to spoil rotten.”

The air between us goes silent then, interrupted only by the quiet talking from the couch. I chew on my lower lip for a moment before drawing in a steadying breath, asking what childbirth is like with far less confidence than I’d prefer. In true Nat fashion, she doesn’t sugarcoat anything. I’m just glad she doesn’t make it sound utterly horrifying.

The thought of labour is a daunting one, and I’ve had multiple nightmares since I found out I’m pregnant about the delivery going wrong - or that I can’t do it and end up keeping the kid inside of me for years. Those are the worst.

I force away the fear that wells up inside, the dark nebulous cloud of doubt and panic that threatens to consume me. I can deal with it later. I know it will reappear as soon as I’m not distracted by the baby currently cradled in my arms.

Louis comes back into the room after another ten minutes of me whispering to Levi, a mantra of I’m your favourite, I’m your favourite, I’m your favourite. I resist commenting on the subtle twitch in Louis’s face when he sees Sutton again. Maybe it’s because I know Lou so well that I can read him like a book, that I know how hard it’s been on him to have had to deal with the fallout from the dissolved marriage. That I can see the jealousy whenever he looks at Sutton. Louis and Nat may be on friendly terms now, but that doesn’t erase the feelings they had for each other before.

I shift Levi in my arms, giggling quietly when he lets out a quiet grunt. Natalie tells me in an undertone that she and Louis had talked about trying at a relationship again but decided not to. I understand their reason of not wanting to force it, but the way she says it is nonchalant, like it isn’t a whole entire Thing that’s been kept from our friend group.

“I have a question. Why didn’t you tell me? I’m not angry, just curious.”

“We just had… other priorities, and it didn’t seem important at the time,” she replies breezily with a shrug. “I mean, I was incubating a live human, Erin!”

“Well, I am, too! But I guess that’s why I can understand why you’ve kept it to yourselves, now that you put it that way. Okay,” I say on a slow breath, staring down at Levi as he sleeps against my chest. “I’m still kinda upset that you never told me - about any of this, really - but I can’t be too upset, because holy shit, Nat, he’s such a gorgeous baby.” My gaze cuts to Louis. “Let’s just hope he stays that way, and by that, I mean let’s hope he takes after his mommy and not his daddy.”

Louis gasps and, amid the laughter from everyone in the room, he splutters, “Hey! Rude! You can’t be rude to the brand-new father!”

“I just had to push that thing out of my vagina because of you, Tomlinson. My friend can say whatever she wants,” declares Natalie.

I giggle and blow a kiss to Levi before passing him back to his mother. Louis pouts but still allows me to embrace him tightly. I give his cheek a gentle pat, smile up at him.

“Whatever, asshole. You can be just as rude to Niall in, oh, five or so months. Then we’ll be even.”

“No, we won’t. We won’t be anywhere near close. Being rude to Nialler isn’t the same as being rude to you!”

I snort. “Oh, Tommo, you actually think he won’t complain to me about you being rude to him? Trust me, that’s punishment enough, thanks.”

Embracing Sutton then Garrett, I make my way across the room. Their laughter fades, grows muffled, as the door closes behind me. Pride is a heady thing in my chest as I amble through the halls.

I’m almost surprised at how well I have kept the pregnancy secret for Natalie; rarely do I have to keep knowledge of this magnitude to myself, and I’ve hated not telling Niall everything. But I’ve done it. I kept the secret even from my husband.

Voices filter through the doors I pass, someone cries inside a darkened room, and the speaker overhead occasionally squeals before making an announcement. It’s so hard to believe that I’m going to be doing the same thing Natalie just did in a few short months.

A fluttering kicks up in my belly as a wave of nervousness crashes over me. Can I even do this? It’s obviously too late to decide I can’t, but it does nothing to make me feel any less anxious about childbirth and what comes after. Natalie hadn’t put me at ease about the whole process, though to be honest, I don’t think anything could ease my worries at this point.

“Hey, babe, I’m home. You kill the crib yet?”

“Where’d you run off to?”

I shriek when Niall’s voice comes from much closer than I expected, whirling on my heel to see him sprawled on the sofa. At least he has the decency to look sheepish at the fact he scared me. He holds open his arms in apology.

I kick my flats off my feet, pad barefoot into the living room, and drop onto the couch next to him. The warmth and scent of him wrap around me, and I sigh blissfully, my entire body relaxing almost instantly.

We don’t speak for a long while, too busy enjoying our cuddles, but then I realise something: This is the first time I’ve learnt something about Louis before Niall has. I wiggle where I lie and grin smugly. Niall pulls his head back to stare down at me.

“Something you wanna share, petal?”

“Nope!” I mime zipping my lips closed. “I can’t tell you, so don’t try to get it out of me.”

After lying there with him for twenty minutes, I yawn widely and shove to my feet, padding to the kitchen. The carrots I ate earlier seem so long ago, and I’m ravenous again. Rummaging through the cabinets yields very little results. My craving is very particular - something salty and savoury, definitely, but no other clues as to what will satisfy said craving.

I’ve just pulled a bag of pretzels from the cabinet when a strangle noise comes from the living room. I turn just as Niall storms into the room.

“Natalie had a baby?”

I hesitate then nod, raising my hands in an attempt to look innocent. “Surprise?”

“Why didn’t you tell me she was even pregnant? Did you know?”

“Yeah, I found out when she and I Skyped and I accidentally told her I was pregnant,” I admit, and his stormy expression grows darker. “She didn’t want anyone else to know! She’s one of my best friends. I wasn’t gonna blab her shit. Her business is hers, no matter if I know or not.”

“And when did you find out Louis was the father?”

“That was a total surprise to me, too. She didn’t tell me that at all. I learnt it when I went to the hospital to visit.”

Ah, fuck, my brain whispers as he throws his hands into the air and stomps out of the kitchen. The pretzels go neglected while I follow him. He shoots me a dark look and lifts his phone to his ear. I cross my arms over my chest and lean against the wall, watch him pace through the living room. He shoves his hand through his hair then exhales sharply.

“Why am I finding out about your kid via Natalie’s post?” he says suddenly, nearly shouting, then he visibly regains control over himself. His fingers press against his closed eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me yourself? What the Hell, Lou? Congratulations! I’m so happy for you both. Levi is absolutely beautiful, and I can’t wait to meet him. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go yell at my pregnant wife for getting to see Levi before I did. Love you, mate, let’s get together soon.”

“Yell at your pregnant wife?”

Niall tosses his phone onto the coffee-table, sighing, and hesitates but ultimately turns to me. There is no longer any sign of anger on his face; some irritation, sure, but no outright anger. He holds out a hand after a moment, and I smile to myself and step closer.

His arms wrap around me, holding me close. My head falls forward to rest on his shoulder, and he kisses my hair softly. I know he wasn’t planning to actually raise his voice at me, but there was still the slightest hint of fear that he would find this secret-keeping thing too much to deal with right now and leave.

My heart finally settles beneath my ribs as I relax into his touch. Eventually, he tightens his grip, tugs me toward the couch, and I let him pull me down to lie next to him. It isn’t long before my stomach reminds me that I still haven’t eaten again. His laugh is soft, sweet, as he climbs to his feet and heads to the kitchen with a stern order for me to stay where I am.

“Baby wants peanut butter and ice cream! And pickles!” I call out, giggling at his noise of disgust. To push my luck and hear him gag again, I continue, “Together!”