Feels Like Forever



The cup of iced coffee totters dangerously as Emilie struggles to unlock the door, and she drops her keys to grab onto the drink so it doesn’t spill everywhere. Ryder lets out a cheerful uh-oh!, but she ignores him in favour of holding her belongings steady as she crouches down. She can’t see past the books in her arm, but she manages to grab the ring of her keys and stands again.

Unfortunately, the act of getting herself upright causes her drink to tip too far to the side. Cold coffee and ice cubes splash against the concrete and her feet. Ryder squeals and giggles, stomping backwards, and Emilie bites back the annoyance that flares up. This isn’t his fault at all. It’s just another inconvenience in a long line of inconveniences, destined to make her days even worse than the ones before. The last three weeks without Niall have been a nightmare, and this is just the cherry on top.

She unlocks the door and shepherds Ryder into the house. Pushing him gently toward the living room, Emilie toes off her flats, kicks them to the side, and strips from her slacks right there in the entry hall. She makes sure that the child is sufficiently distracted enough with his books then runs upstairs.

Today has been awful. First, the coffeemaker had gone all glitchy, so there was no coffee. Then she was late to work because she couldn’t get her car to start. She’d had to have Annie come pick her up because Niall is out of state again and Mully never came home last night. Then she had nearly been cornered by Lily’s father, only saved by a three-year-old who had wandered too far from her class.

And now she’s out of the only bit of caffeine she’s been able to have today, and she can’t find her favourite leggings. Sighing, Emilie grabs a pair of shorts from the drawer and tugs them on. It’s been at least three minutes since she left Ryder alone, and she rushes back down the stairs, stubbing her toe and cursing along the way.

“Oh, no. Oh, no.”

Ryder grins from where he’s sat on the floor, and Emilie’s throat tightens with frustration and tears as she stares at the thick, black lines of ink on his face and body. Thankfully, he hasn’t coloured on the floor or walls. She has no idea where he found a Sharpie, but find one, he did.

“Ryder Alexander, what the Hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I do art!” he announces cheerfully, dragging the marker along his forearm, and Emilie hurries across the room to take the Sharpie from him.

He pouts but doesn’t fuss, instead turning to his toys. Emilie searches for the cap, finds it just under the couch, and caps the marker. Her hands tremble as she carries the Sharpie to the kitchen, tosses it on the countertop. She collapses to the floor, burying her face in her hands.

“I can’t do this, holy shit, I can’t do this any more.”

Knowing she can’t settle into the freak-out right now, Emilie forces herself to draw in a steadying breath then goes back to the living room. There are only a few more hours before Ryder’s bedtime. She can get through that short amount of time. She can. She has to.

Even scrubbing his skin as hard as she dares with warm water and soap does nothing to budge the permanent ink he has scribbled on himself with. Ryder whines as pink blooms across his body, and Emilie winces at the sound. She hadn’t meant to hurt him. She drops the shower-sponge into the tub, sits back on her heels. Apologising quietly to the toddler, Emilie leans against the wall and watches him play with the rubber duckies, boats, and dinosaurs.

Her phone vibrates along the counter, and she debates ignoring it. The only reason why she reaches for the device is because she remembers it’s Thursday and Niall is meant to call tonight. His smile dims once the video-chat connects, and Emilie swallows back the tears that threaten to spill over.

“What’s happened?” he asks quietly, frowning when she shakes her head. “Love?”

“I... I can’t talk about it right now.”

“But maybe later?”

She nods shakily and blows out a breath. “Maybe. Wanna see a small bit of what my day has been like?”

“Of course.”

Emilie switches the camera to the back one, angling her phone so Niall can see Ryder’s marker-covered arms and face. The child remains uninterested in the conversation as he splashes about, but Niall’s jaw drops, a hand coming up to cover his mouth - to hide his smile, no doubt.

“Oh, no.”

“My thoughts exactly. I left him alone for, like, two minutes and... that happened.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Yes, because that smile tells me you’re sympathetic to the situation.” She manages a somewhat-real grin to take the sting out of her words. “I miss you.”

“I miss you, too. Only another couple of days then I’ll be home.”

“Good. So how was your day?”

Emilie listens as he talks about the writing process, the people he’s working with, the golf he’s managed to squeeze into his busy schedule. She loves that he’s happy, loves that he’s doing what he wants, but something small and jagged cuts through her at how at ease he seems. She doesn’t want to put a name to it, though she knows that it is jealousy. She’s envious that he gets the chance to be away from home, from the responsibilities of raising a child.

It isn’t his fault, and Emilie is well aware of that. He may be doing what he’s passionate about - and she will never, ever begrudge him for that - but it’s his job. He can’t just... not do it. Emilie made the decision to go to college and become Ryder’s second mother. It wasn’t really forced onto her. Sure, Ry would be in the foster system long before now, but she could’ve walked away and chosen differently. She didn’t, so now she’s left to deal with the consequences of that decision.

Niall has to hang up a few minutes later, citing some scheduling thing, but promises to call back at bedtime so he can say goodnight to Ryder. And so Emilie can fill him in on her day. She stares at her phone screen for a long moment then locks the device, setting it back on the counter. Ryder scoots away from her when she reaches for him.

“I no go! I no go!”

“Ryder, please, don’t do this right now, okay? Let’s get out of the tub and go have dinner.”

“I no go,” he shouts again as he slams his hands into the water. “No, no, no, no -

“That’s enough!”

He stares up at her with wide eyes and quivering chin. Emilie claps a hand over her mouth, stomach churning, and guilt swims to the surface, acidic and hot and agonising. Her heart aches to turn back time and never yell at the innocent child. However, the damage is done.

Ryder remains completely silent as he climbs clumsily to his feet. Emilie’s eyes burn and a sob bubbles up when the toddler flinches as she nears. She holds him as close to her as she possibly can, not caring that she is getting soaked. He trembles in her arms, and Emilie will never forgive herself for this.

“Oh, Ry, I’m... I’m so sorry. Auntie Em is so, so sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. You - you didn’t deserve it. God, I’m so sorry.”

Ryder doesn’t say anything in response, but she didn’t expect him to. She certainly wouldn’t reply if someone yelled at her. She continues to murmur out apologies while she wraps him in a towel, carries him to his bedroom, and dresses him. Throughout it all, he stays quiet, fingers picking at the hem of his clothing, and he immediately goes to his bed.

Emilie swallows down the bile as he climbs up onto the mattress and clutches Lionel the Lion tightly to his chest. Her heart breaks further when she realises he’s avoiding her gaze - the same thing he always did to Danielle. I’m Danielle. I’m no better than his mother. She barely manages to make it to the toilet before her stomach revolts.

Dinner is a quiet thing. Ryder eats what he’s given without complaint, and Emilie pushes her food around her plate without taking a bite. How can she possibly tolerate food right now? She’s just proved to him that the one person he always relied on has become exactly like the one who abandoned him. She has failed him.

“Wanna sleep in bed with me tonight?” she whispers as she carries him up the stairs, and the nausea abates slightly at his hesitant nod. “Okay, baby, let’s get you tucked in for Ni-Ni’s call.”

Ryder doesn’t say much to Niall, and Emilie sees how worried her boyfriend is, even through the video. Eventually, Niall gives up trying to get conversation from the toddler, sighing heavily. Emilie kisses Ryder’s hair and promises to be right back; he curls up in the centre of the bed, still clinging to Lionel, and watches the cartoons on the television.

“Love, what happened?”

Emilie sits on the floor just inside Ryder’s bedroom and stops trying to hold back the tears. Her voice is thick, crackling and shaking, as she tells Niall everything - including having shouted at a literal child. He doesn’t interrupt her during her meltdown, and Emilie is so thankful for that. She doesn’t think she could be this truthful if he spoke right now. He just lets her cry.

“I’m sorry I can’t be there right now,” he murmurs after she’s finally fallen silent, only soft hiccups to break the silence. “I can’t imagine how hard it’s been on you.”

“It’s - it’s fine. Whatever. I chose to accept guardianship instead of letting him go to the foster system.”

“It doesn’t mean you have to pretend you’re not struggling, Em.”

“I don’t get to complain about it. This was my decision.”


“I really don’t wanna talk about this any more. Tell me something happy.”

Niall blows out a breath, scrubs at his jaw with a hand, then smiles slightly. “Would me reminding you I love you be considered something happy?”

Emilie smiles despite herself, but before she can say anything, a tiny voice calls her name. She exhales sharply, closing her eyes, and pushes the darkness back. Her heart beats painfully in her chest, though she ignores the way it steals her breath.

“I better go. Gonna cuddle Ry until I no longer feel like yeeting myself into the void for yelling at him. Um, Niall?”

“Yeah, love?”

“I, uh... thank you.”

Something flickers across his expression, but it’s gone too quickly for her to interpret it. He just nods and lets her hang up. I love you, too. It’s too late for that, though, so Emilie pushes herself to her feet and makes her way back to her bedroom. Ryder waits until she’s changed into pyjamas and crawled into bed, then he scoots closer.

“Love you rainbow,” he whispers, burying his face into her side, and Emilie can’t stop the tears.

“I love you more than the rainbow, sweetheart,” she murmurs as she wraps her arms around him, holds him tightly until he’s asleep. Even then, she doesn’t let go.