Feels Like Forever



Emilie nearly trips over her feet the next morning when she sees Josh making his way to the front door of Tiny Tots. Her brain fuzzes out, and she wants nothing more than to turn around, get back in her car, and go home. But she can’t. She is on the schedule, and it would be cowardly.

So she straightens her spine and heads inside with Ryder dutifully walking at her side. Lily’s father catches her eye and immediately ducks his head, turns away. She is almost surprised he hasn’t said a word to her since she came back to LA., but then she remembers she doesn’t care. He made her uncomfortable without remorse; him avoiding her is only a good thing.

Her determination to talk to Josh grows stronger with each step - right up until she is face-to-face with the man. Emilie forces a smile as she unzips Ryder’s jacket, hanging it up in his cubby, then watches him hurry off to the bookshelf. When she stands up again, Josh is in conversation with another parent, so she waits her turn.

It comes far too quickly.

“Hey, got a sec?”

Josh frowns and checks his watch. “Yeah, what’s up?”

“Do you like me?”

“Uh, you’re a great girl, so sure, I like you, I guess.”

“I mean... god, this is embarrassing.” Emilie sighs, shoving her fingers through her hair. “I mean, like, do you have a crush on me?”

Josh stares at her without speaking, but after a moment, he leads her further off to the side, where they can keep an eye on the kids without risk of being overheard. Emilie shoves her hands into her pockets and waits. Eventually, he blows out a breath and nods.

“I’ll admit that I’m attracted to you. I have been since you first got here. I mean, look at you. You’re gorgeous and funny. But you’re with someone, and you’re happier than you were before. I’m not gonna get in the way of that.”

“Oh. Okay. That’s, that’s good to know.”

“Besides, no offence or anything, but you’d come with a lot more than I’m looking for.” He chuckles and rubs the back of his head, looking at anything but her. “My ex, she messed me up. I’m still working through it. So right now, all I want is fun. Not a family or anything serious.”

“Oh. Oh. All right. Sorry if this was as awkward for you as it was me. I just... wanted to know, I guess.”

“You can tell your boyfriend he’s got absolutely no competition from me.”

Thankfully, Josh is smiling, speaking in the same friendly tone he always does. Emilie nods succinctly, though her cheeks are on fire, and hurries as slowly as she can to her assigned room. With the minute she has left before she has to clock in, she sends Niall a text; all it says is I’m inordinately glad I’m too much baggage for some men. She puts her phone away before he replies.

Emilie is absolutely certain that if Josh were anyone else, the conversation would have ruined the easygoing friendship. But Josh is Josh, so nothing changes between them over the next week. The knowledge doesn’t even affect how she treats him, either. She still jokes with him, listens as he vents while on break, and buys his coffee when it’s her turn.

Niall asked about her text that night when she came home, and she explained that she had asked Josh flat-out and gotten that response. He’d frowned when she finished speaking and reassured her that he hadn’t expected her to. She smiled and kissed him and promised he wanted to.

“I wouldn’t have been able to keep being his friend if I didn’t know,” she’d said, and that was that.

Saturday night is spent with just her, Ryder, and Mully. Niall left after lunch to finalise some things for the album, and so she and Mully make a plan to take Ryder’s bad mood away. Emilie carries Ryder up to his bedroom to grab the comfiest pyjamas she can find in his drawers, while Mully sets about putting that plan into motion - gathering snacks, juice boxes, and making a nest of blankets and pillows on the couch for a Disney/Pixar marathon.

“Hey, Ry? Want a surprise tonight?”

Ryder cocks his head, tugging at a lock of her hair. “‘Prise?”

“Yeah, a surprise. Gotta take a bath first, though, monster man, can you do that?”


“Yeah, I think Daddy will be okay with you using his bubbles.”

“I miss Daddy.”

Emilie smiles to herself as she starts filling up the tub. He’s oscillated between “Daddy” and “Ni-Ni” over the last week but seems to have settled on the former in the past day. Each time Niall has heard it, he reacted the same - as if it was the first time, and his heart is melting all over again.

Having children hadn’t crossed her mind since Danielle was pregnant. She meant what she told Niall: She saw what pregnancy did to her stepsister’s mind and body, and she has yet to be able to comprehend ever doing that to herself. Sure, it may be the most natural thing in the world, but Emilie is willing to be called selfish if it means not risking her health.

But at the same time, she wants nothing more than to give Niall everything he’s ever wanted.

“You Mama?”

Emilie stills instantly at the small voice, the question asked with such innocence, and Ryder stares up at her. The bubbles dangling from his chin, the bright blue eyes, the messy hair... How could she ever have thought she was nothing more than his guardian, when he’s been the perfect son she never knew she wanted?

“Do you think I am?” she asks instead of bursting into tears.

Ryder wiggles his fingers in the bubbles then looks back up at her. Her chest tightens at his solemn nod, and a tear slips free despite her best efforts. Leaning down, she wipes a bubble from his cheek and smiles.

“Then yeah, baby. I’m Mama.”


The backyard is full of sound, a dozen people laughing and talking above background music. Three children run around, followed by adults, and Emilie grins when she catches her father trying to swipe frosting off the side of the cake.

“Hey, none of that!” She smacks at his hand, but her smile takes the sting away. “You know damn well your grandson would throw a fit if you get any part of his cake before his friends.”

Jackson rolls his eyes but dutifully pulls his hand back. She makes sure no one is watching, turns the cake on its pedestal quickly, and gestures with her chin to the back of the treat. Once Jackson steals a small swipe, she rotates it back to how it was before.

“How’s things goin’ with your boyfriend?”

“Mama told you, too.”

Jackson doesn’t even need to answer - the quick flicker of contrition across his face is response enough. She searches for her stepmother in the crowd of people, though she isn’t angry. Her dad deserved to know the truth about his daughter, and he’s somehow managed to not take it out on Niall. Really, it’s a win.

“We’re really great, Daddy. He - no, we both have learnt how to communicate better so our frustrations don’t fester into resentment.”

“I’m proud of you, sweetie.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” Emilie leans into his side, letting him embrace her as he always has done. “I’m pretty proud of myself, too. Oh, my god, Mom, are you okay?”

Rose waves a hand in the air, climbing inelegantly to her feet, but she seems unharmed by the slip-and-slide she’s just done on the grass. Emilie shakes her head. Leave it up to her mother to damn near injure herself and walk it off. A gust of wind skirts across Emilie’s skin. She shivers as goosebumps race along her flesh, and she checks the time in her phone.

“Okay, I think it’s time for dinner, everybody.”

She stands just at the door leading inside, watching as her mother and Greg round up the children, shepherd them toward the patio. Niall comes to a stop at her side, kisses her cheek, and she leans into his side.

Greg ambles past with a child in each arm; Theo is pouting, but Ryder can hardly stay still. Niall and Louis had spent all morning talking about the cake and presents waiting for him, so Ryder has been practically bouncing off the walls in anticipation. It was only when Niall’s brother arrived that the two men were distracted from their efforts of riling up the children, and of course, it’s Emilie who has been left to deal with the fallout.

Dinner is a chaotic mess - most of the adults eat at the counters, unable to fit everyone at the table. Ryder, Freddie, and Theo mostly pick at their food but are more interested in playing, no matter how hard the adults try to get them to just eat. Mully and Harry are no help at all: In fact, they encourage the children to use their vegetables as toys. Emilie stays out of it.

It’s Ryder’s day. She isn’t going to make a fuss about him having fun.

Rose carefully carries the cake to the table, and Ryder’s eyes grow wide when he catches sight of the enormous, fluorescent orange stegosaurus. Emilie stands behind Ryder’s chair, one hand on his thin shoulder and the other entwined with Niall’s. She bites back a giggle at the child’s inability to form a coherent sentence, nearly hyperventilating in his excitement.

It takes Niall’s assistance, but the polka-dotted candles are blown out, three thin wisps of smoke taking place of the flames, and Emilie helps pass out plates of cake while Paige cuts small squares from the dinosaur-shaped dessert. Niall pulls her into his arms once everyone is sufficiently preoccupied with sugar and carbs.

“I feel like I haven’t seen you all day.”

Emilie shrugs, wraps her arms around his waist. “You’ve been talking to your brother who, by the way, you didn’t tell me was coming.”

“I thought I had, I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad, babe.” Emilie rubs a hand along Niall’s back as she rests her head on his chest, listening to the steady beating of his heart. “I think Ry enjoys having a new friend in Theo.”

“Of course he does. He makes friends with everyone.” Niall fidgets a bit, before continuing, “Ma was so glad to talk to Ryder this morning, and she, she wants to know when we’re coming to Ireland.”

Emilie stares around at her family and friends, the new and old. The cacophony of voices, laughing and taking over each other, lends peace and a sense of belonging. It may be noisy. It may be messy. It may be hectic.

Emilie would have it no other way.

Looking back at Niall, all she can do is smile. She has no answers for their future, no predictions for their life together, so she says the first thing to come to her mind:

“Well, I guess that will depend on how quickly I can get passports done.”

“Mama, Daddy? I gotta potty.”

Silence reigns, Ryder’s voice cutting through the din with ease, and Emilie turns to see everyone staring at her. Niall’s hold on her tightens then loosens, and she ignores the tears in her mothers’ eyes as she scoops Ryder out of his seat. She forgot she hadn’t told her parents that Ryder calls her and Niall his parents, but their reactions are certainly reminding her of that now.

Niall takes the birthday boy from her arms, leaning forward. “You can explain this to your mums and dad,” he whispers, and it takes all of her willpower to not groan.