Feels Like Forever

sixty-five.

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As soon as the omelette is done, Emilie transfers it from the pan to plate, cursing quietly when she burns her finger on the edge of the cast-iron. She looks back over her shoulder, narrows her eyes at Ryder sat in his seat. He stares back, and her heart melts at the innocence on his face, the clear blue of his eyes shining in the morning sunlight.

“Don’t repeat that, mister.”

Ryder shakes his head, and Emilie’s laugh escapes her at his clumsy thumbs-up. “No say ‘fuck’.”

“And that’s literally the opposite of what I said, you monster. I said - never mind, you’re two. Ready to take Ni-Ni his breakfast?”

“Hap’ birfday?”

“Yes, we want him to have a very happy birthday.”

Emilie quickly unbuckles Ryder from his highchair, sets him on the floor, and crouches down to be on his level. She presses her finger to her lips, winking, and he nods enthusiastically though he doesn’t actually fall quiet. She expected nothing less of a child who isn’t even three her, so she carefully balances the tray on one flat palm. Her other hand reaches for the mug of coffee she’d prepared for Niall.

Ryder leads the way up the stairs, confident and steady. Emilie stays close behind him in case he falls. She can easily clean up any mess made by a dropped tray, but him getting hurt isn’t acceptable. He stops at the top of the stairs and gives her a wide, proud smile.

“You did it all by yourself! Good job, buddy.”

“I big boy.”

“Yes, you are. I’m proud of you. Now c’mon before Ni-Ni’s eggs get cold.”

Niall is already awake, lounging against the pillows as he scrolls through whatever social media site has caught his attention already - probably Instagram, since Twitter is a hell-hole most days. She’s gone through his mentions before, and some people just need their heads examined. He glances up when Ryder screeches his name, and within seconds, his phone is back on the nightstand.

“Well, good morning, bud.”

“Beffist!”

“You made me breakfast? Did Auntie Emilie help?”

Ryder shakes his head as he struggles to climb onto the bed. “Nope! Me!”

Emilie’s jaw drops at the blatant lie, but then she’s laughing. In a mimicry of her own birthday, she waits until Ryder is settled in next to Niall before passing over the tray. Niall accepts it - and the subsequent kiss - from her then presses his lips to Ryder’s hair.

“Sorry, babe, your card is downstairs with your present.”

Niall pauses, his minute frown disappearing in a split second, and he shakes his head with a chuckle. He’d told her no gifts, he only wanted to spend the day with her and Ryder, but her stubbornness came out in full force. She had decided he was a lying liar if he claimed to not want a present, and now, three boxes are waiting for him on the coffee-table.

Another gift is in the bottom of her nightstand, locked away with her journal. That one won’t be given for a while, but Emilie finds comfort in having it around for when the time is right.

Though he’s already eaten his own breakfast, Ryder politely demands a share of Niall’s omelette, and Niall willingly obeys with each tiny “Bite, p’ease!” Emilie isn’t surprised. Niall may have gotten better about discipline and redirection with Ryder, but he always gives in on the small stuff. That’s only gotten more consistent since the separation.

“My parents might try for a video-chat today.”

Emilie catches Ryder as he launches himself at her, no longer distracted by food now that Niall’s plate is cleared and set aside. She kisses the toddler’s forehead and sets him back on the bed. “Oh? Gonna let ‘em meet Ryder?”

“Meet me?” Ryder bounces on his hands and knees with his head tilted, a small frown looking out of place on his angelic face. “Who meet me? An’ Em, who meet me?”

“Yeah, if you’re all right with that. It’s all Ma has talked about.”

She nods. Who is she to stand in the way of this meeting, especially after having talked to his mother two days ago? Maura had been thrilled to see Emilie’s face, claiming she was much sweeter-looking than in the photos taken without her knowledge. By the time she ended the call, Emilie felt much more... permanent in Niall’s life, and the doubts all but vanished.

Niall grins brightly, scooping Ryder up into his lap, and waits until he has the child’s attention. “Okay, I have a very important question for you, bud. You ready?”

“Yes!”

“Do you wanna meet my ma later?”

Ryder cocks his head and giggles, fingers coming up to pick at Niall’s lower lip. “You no have mommy.”

“What? I do, too.”

“Nooo, daddies no have mommies.”

Ryder’s words reverberate damningly in the sudden silence. Emilie freezes, her heart in her throat, and her breathing grows shallow as she stares at the child. Cold washes over her skin, pricking hundreds of goosebumps in its wake. Ryder smiles up at Niall as if he hasn’t completely turned their worlds upside-down at eight in the morning.

When she meets Niall’s eye, it’s to see he’s just as stunned as she is. His eyes are wide, jaw dropped open slightly, and if this were anything but real life, his head would be waggling back and forth rapidly with the screeching of a early-00s modem dialling up. There’s a question there, painted on his face, easy enough to read. Emilie swallows thickly and gives him a helpless shrug.

Only he can make the next choice.

He draws in a steadying breath and turns his attention back to Ryder. “Well, that’s where you’re wrong, sweet boy. Daddies absolutely have mommies. And my ma is really excited to meet you today.”

“I’ll be right back,” Emilie manages to choke out before she clambers off the bed,

The panic has eased a bit, but she still can’t breathe properly. She should have expected something like this to happen. Paige warned her it was going to happen. After all, Niall is the closest thing to a gather figure that Ryder has ever had in his life. Even Jackson wasn’t around regularly, and his biological father has never played an active role. Emilie can’t be sure that Danielle even knows which man is partly responsible for Ryder’s existence.

So really, it makes perfect sense that Ryder would equate “daddy” with the one man who has been a steady presence and influence in his life. Emilie covers her face with her hands and closes her eyes against the tears. As much as her heart sings with the knowledge that Ryder trusts Niall enough to put him on that pedestal, she can’t be certain that Niall isn’t just going along with it to not hurt the child’s feelings.

The unsteady, standing-on-a-ledge-about-to-fall feeling slowly fades as she stands in the hall just outside the door, listening to Niall and Ryder talking and laughing together. Images flicker into her mind, each one more beautiful than the last: Dinner with parents and showing off the gorgeous new ring on her left hand, black and white and hundreds of flowers and family and friends through a sheet of lace, Ryder’s first partner meeting his mom and dad, his graduation and his wedding and children - all with Niall at her side.

She wants all of that. If he does, too.

The softness on Niall’s face, the tender smile and shining eyes… they tell her he might want it, too. Emilie blinks back tears and moves to retake her place on the bed next to him. He wraps an arms around her shoulders, pulls her close into his side, and she reaches for Ryder. He comes willingly, plopping down on her lap and leaning against her with an ear-to-ear smile on his face. After inhaling as steadily as possible, she looks up at Niall.

“Happy birthday, babe,” Emilie whispers before leaning up to kiss him softly.

“Thank you. I’m pretty sure this is the best one I’ve ever had.”

“Well, I guess that just means I’ll have to find some way of topping it next year,” she laughs, and something passes over his face - there one second, gone in an instant.

“Just you being there will make it perfect,” he murmurs. “You and Ryder.”

Before either of them can say more, a buzzing noise fills the air, his phone dancing across the nightstand. He huffs out a laugh and pulls away to grab the device. Emilie holds Ryder more tightly, breathes in the scent of his baby wash, and smiles at her boyfriend.

“Showtime.”

He’s still chuckling quietly as he answer his mother’s video-call.