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Zayn doesn't mean for her to find it. It's just open in Safari when she uses his iPad.

“What's this?” Perrie asks, holding it up so he can see. Marriage Licenses in the UK in bold. He remembers looking into it late at night in an airport somewhere, Cannes or Madrid or Milan, a byproduct of jet lag and the wellspring of emotions he’s been battling even since before the tour ended. When all he could think of was how badly he wanted to be home, settled, just the two of them. When he’d see her for two days and then be on another airplane, gone again.

Perrie raises her eyebrows, waiting. Zayn thinks of a hundred lies and discards them all. “Just looking.”

She hums, finger dragging over the screen as she reads. After a minute she shrugs and sets the iPad by his elbow. “I’ll be back later, yeah?”

She’s gone before he knows it, off for rehearsals. The kitchen feels big and empty in her absence. Zayn swipes the iPad on and rereads it for himself, thinking that maybe he wishes she hadn’t let it go so easily.

**

He keeps meaning to close the tab, he just... never quite gets around to it. They’re going to need to know eventually, anyway, he figures. It’s good to be prepared, and all that.

**

“So’re we going to talk about it?” Perrie asks. She tucks her feet under his thigh and says, “Wedding stuff,” like she doesn’t want Zayn to think she means where they should get takeaway from or whether or not the present for her mum is going to arrive in time for the holidays.

He knew what she meant, though. And even though he’d wanted to talk about it before there’s a knot forming in his chest. Perrie wiggles her toes until he looks at her. She smiles softly, scratches her nails over the thin material of his shirt.

“You were researching --” she prompts, stopping when Zayn sighs. He thinks about it, trying to find a way to put it into words. It takes some time. Perrie doesn’t push, just keeps tracing idle patterns over his shoulder while he picks at a spot of spray paint clinging to the back of his hand.

“Sometimes it’s like -- I know you want a nice wedding, a real one, and so do I, and like, I know it hasn’t been like, a long time, really? But sometimes…” He pauses. He’s not saying this right. He sounds like an idiot. He takes a deep breath and tries to think of the best way. “I just want to be married to you.”

He laughs at himself. When he looks up, Perrie’s eyes are wide and a bit wet. She leans forward to kiss him, his cheek and then the corner of his mouth and then full-on.

“Okay,” she says, pulling back.

“What?”

“Let’s do it. We can have another one later, with the party and the flowers and all the whoopty-doo.” She shifts until she’s in his lap, all big eyes and dazzling smile and her hair slipping out of a messy ponytail. His hands settle on her hips automatically, fingers stroking the smooth skin where her top doesn’t meet her shorts. “This one can be just for us.”

And that’s it, what he was trying to say but couldn’t. He wants it to be theirs and only theirs -- not some spectacle where the paparazzi’s climbing over the garden wall. Where the only thing people care about is who his best man is, what Pez’s dress looks like.

“Yeah?” he asks, knowing he should’ve trusted that she’d get it. She always does, gets him in a way so few people really do.

Perrie nods and the knot in his chest has transformed into something bigger, better. He feels like his heart’s about to burst. He leans in, kisses her until it starts to fade away.

**

“Two weeks,” Zayn says, feeling dazed even now that they’re home. It’d been easier than it should’ve been, giving their notice. The whole time Zayn’d felt like he was getting away with something, still does a bit, nervous excitement swooping in his stomach.

“It’ll be a whole new year,” Perrie says, laughing. She hasn’t stopped since they left the register’s office. She tugs on his lapels, trapping herself between him and the wall.

“Here before we know it,” he murmurs, pressing his cold nose against her jaw. She’s still laughing a bit when he kisses her, but her mouth opens readily under his. She tastes like the peppermint she’d nicked from the bowl on the clerk’s desk.

“What time do you have to leave?” she asks. Zayn tries to remember what time they’re supposed to start filming tonight but fuck if he knows. He shrugs.

“Later.”

Perrie rolls her eyes. He pinches her arse and she squeaks. Her legs automatically wrap around his waist when he lifts her, her delighted shriek bouncing off the walls. They’ve still got their coats on. Zayn thinks he should probably take the papers out of his pocket, put them somewhere safe, but Perrie kicks her heel and all the rational thoughts fall out of his brain.

**

“Well look who decided to show up,” Louis says, arms crossed. The parka makes it infinitely less menacing than he knows Louis’ aiming for.

“Sorry,” Zayn says, shrugging. It’s not his fault. Lou’d been trying to cover up the mark on his neck, grumbling under her breath the whole time. He’d ended up with his jacket collar pinned to his top so it wouldn’t shift and show too much.

“Can we please --” Ben gestures for them to get a move on, herding them towards the police boat so they can get filming.

It’s cold on the water. Zayn huddles as far from the railings as he can manage, laughs while Niall and Harry lean over the side, shouting nonsense into the wind.

“I’m not going after them if they fall in,” Liam says, leaning next to Zayn. Somewhere behind them, a crew member snorts quietly.

“Well we both know I’m not either,” Zayn says. “So make sure Lou’s ready.”

Liam laughs, bumps Zayn’s elbow with his own before moving closer. Zayn leans into him, distantly wishes they weren’t side-by-side so Liam could block some of this bloody wind.

“What?” he asks, when he realizes Liam’s been talking to him.

“You’re extra quiet tonight,” Liam says, leaning in close so Zayn can hear. “Everything’s alright, yeah?”

For a second he thinks about telling Liam, giddiness rushing up in him like a wave. But he hasn’t even told his mum yet, and there are so many people around. Too many people. Plus it was only paperwork, they’ve got to wait for that to be processed before they can do anything and even after that they could still change their minds. It’s better not to say. For now, at least.

“Yeah, ‘m good,” he says, nodding. He shrugs. “Could go for a kip.”

“Wonder why.” Liam raises his eyebrows and flicks the bruise on Zayn’s neck, laughing when Zayn bats his hand away.

“Fuck off,” Zayn laughs and then someone’s coming around to collect their coats so they can start filming.

**

Standing on the edge of Tower Bridge, Zayn feels invincible. He laughs at absolutely nothing and then thinks of Perrie, still laughing when Zayn’d dropped her on the bed, and laughs harder.

Louis slaps his shoulder and shouts, “What’s with you?” He’s laughing, though. Zayn grins and spreads his arms wide. Louis does the same, grinning back like he gets it. They’ve all got a bit of a rush from being up here, from being on the cusp of a long break.

Down the row, Niall lets out a howl into the night air and Zayn mimics it, lets the feeling start from his toes and grow from there. It’s not long before they’ve all joined in, voices layering over each other. Zayn tips his head back. He feels like he’s on top of the world.

**

They’re in bed, taking advantage of a whole stretch of days with nothing to do, when Perrie rolls on top of Zayn. The point of her chin digs into his chest when she says, “We’ve got to get rings!” like it’s only just occurred to her.

They’ve not done much planning since they gave notice. It’s mostly little things. Perrie tugging on Zayn’s jacket sleeve and saying, “You should wear this for the wedding, it looks nice.” Zayn catching her eye in the mirror, asking if she thinks he should keep his beard for the big day. He likes it this way, likes that no one’s breathing down his neck, asking about tablecloth colors or cake flavors.

“We’ll go look later, if you want.” They’re supposed to go to Weymouth anyway; he’s sure there’s a jewelers there somewhere. It’s not like he wants anything fancy, and if they don’t find anything, well. They’ve got time.

“Yeah, alright,” she says, only she doesn’t sound thrilled.

“Babe,” he starts, only to stop when she sits up and says, “And I’ve been thinking…” before trailing off.

He waits to see if she’ll start up again, rubs his palm over her knee reassuringly. They were just talking about rings so it’s not -- she’s probably not having second thoughts, right? He’s about to work himself into a proper worry when she says, “I think we need to tell our families,” all in a rush. She covers her mouth like it slipped out.

Zayn blinks at her. When they’d talked about it before Christmas they decided not to tell anyone. It had still seemed abstract then -- still does, sort of, probably because it’s been hardly any time at all -- and Perrie’d said springing a wedding on everyone over Christmas dinner would be a disaster anyway, that there was no need to do that to everyone.

“Yeah, ‘course,” he says, because not telling his parents over dinner with all his aunts and cousins made sense, but not telling them at all? It honestly never occurred to him.

“I know we said just us, is all, and --”

“Just us like, not the whole world, yeah?” Zayn says, trying to get back on topic. “Not like, just us and not even our mums.” He pulls a face and she laughs.

“I think they should be there, is all,” she says. “I want them there.”

“Me too,” he says, nodding. “It’d be weird if they weren’t. Plus I think my mum’d kill me.”

Perrie laughs. “Mine’d kill you too.” She bends down to kiss his nose, moves away before he can catch her and kiss her properly.

“Suppose we should try to book the date, too,” Zayn says. “If we’re making decisions today.”

Perrie hums and sits up.

“Could call now, if y’like,” he offers. He’d put the civic centre number in his phone last week, even. Would only take a few minutes, probably.

“Maybe later,” she says, shifting deliberately in his lap. He presses his lips together, takes a steadying breath through his nose before he nods.

“Later,” he says, leaning up so he can kiss her. She sighs against his mouth, a small exhalation as she shifts in his lap, readjusting her balance, and he wonders if he’ll ever get tired of it, the way they fit together. It’s easier with her than with anybody else.

Zayn hums and tightens his arm around Perrie’s waist before he shifts, leaning back and then rolling until she’s under him. It’s like shifting gears. Zayn rolls his hips and grins when Perrie gasps and arches into him. He’s reaching to push off his pants when she pushes against his chest and says, “Wait, stop.”

He tries not to frown when he sits up, breathless and already half-hard. Perrie twists, reaching until she pulls her mobile out from under her back, crowing triumphantly when she finds it. She sets it on the nightstand and then reaches for Zayn again.

“Oh god,” he says, knowing that he sounds relieved and not caring at all. “Thought you were going to tell me we shouldn’t have sex before the wedding.”

Perrie laughs, loud and bright. It’s the kind he can feel reverberating in his own chest.

**

Their mums both cry. The good kind of tears, Zayn’s sure, but still.

He expects to feel differently, having told them, but nothing’s much changed. It still seems abstract, like everything they’re doing is for some theoretical wedding. The days blur together, regular things mixing with preparations, New Year’s and their trip back to Weymouth for the rings and Zayn’s tattoo appointment, phone calls with their lawyers and a million errands for odds and ends filling in the gaps.

It’s not bad, but it’s -- it’s like like he’s on his skateboard, headed down a street he didn’t realize was a hill. It’s exciting, yeah, but it’s all flying by and Zayn feels like he’s hardly got time to catch his breath, he’s so caught up just trying to keep his balance.

**

Perrie knocks on the door before letting herself in.

“Everyone’s gone.” She watches him for a moment, keeps her voice low when she asks, “Y’alright?”

“Yeah, just --” He feels drunk with everything, like the room is spinning around him. He’d needed a minute.

Perrie leans against the doorway. She’s barefoot now, shoes kicked off halfway through the meal. Her toes are bright blue -- something blue, Zayn registers distantly, and he needs another minute. He presses his palms against the cool porcelain of the sink to gather himself.

It doesn’t seem real yet. It’s more like something that happened to a different version of him, even though he was there, it was him stumbling over the words, it was his heart that’d lurched at the way Perrie’d been unable to get through her vows without laughing. His hands that had still been shaking as he’d cupped Perrie’s cheeks, kissing her while his mum cried and Danny and Ant and Jonnie started cheering.

It had been over so fast, he still can’t believe it.

Perrie kisses his cheek, sets her hands on his shoulders and smooths them all the way down his arms. Her engagement ring’s still on her other hand so when he looks at their entwined hands he only sees their wedding rings. It knocks the air out of his lungs, startles a laugh out of him. Husband and wife. Fuck.

“It’s mental,” Perrie says, sounding as awed as he feels, and he has to kiss her before he spends the rest of the night stood in the bath, staring at their hands. He runs his tongue along the seam of her lips and Perrie’s mouth opens willingly. She lets go of his hands to tuck herself closer, so they’re flush against each other, and gets her hand in his hair and tugs, uses that to change the angle. It’s crazy, he knows, but he swears he can feel the metal of her ring against the back of his neck.

He lets himself get lost in it, the familiar slide of her tongue against his, the roll of her hips, the distracting path of her hands moving over his back, slowing untucking his shirt, undoing his belt, playing at the button of his trousers. It’s not until he goes for the zip at the back of her dress that she pulls back.

“Could leave it on,” she says, winking, and Zayn gets dizzy all over again thinking of it, Pez in his lap, her white dress splayed out around them.

“Fuck, babe,” he groans, reaching for her, but she laughs and dances away from him, makes him chase her to the bedroom.

**

They’re waiting on the car to take them to the airport when Louis calls.

“What’re you calling so early for?” Zayn asks immediately.

“Why’re you awake?” Louis counters.

Zayn is silent for a moment, the realization that he hasn’t yet said anything to the lads dawning slowly. It feels like a lifetime ago that they were filming the video. He honestly hadn’t thought about telling them since then, was so preoccupied with the holidays and actually pulling the wedding off. He can’t believe it’s only been a couple of weeks.

“Hang on,” he says, putting Lou on hold when Perrie comes in.

“They’ll be here in ten,” she says, scrolling through something on her mobile, suitcase dragging behind her. They’re only going to France for a couple days but she’s got a bag like they’ll be gone for two weeks.

“Alright,” Zayn says, and then, “So, Louis’ on the phone.”

“Yeah? Tell him I want to see him before I go to Japan, okay?”

“Yeah, sure.” Zayn scratches the back of his neck. His ring feels heavy on his finger suddenly. He has to remember to take it off before they get in the car. “Is it like -- I think I want to tell him.”

Perrie looks up, confused. “About what? The wedding.” She laughs and then stops when Zayn doesn’t join in. “Oh, babe, of course. What, do you think Louis’ll sell it to the Daily Mail?”

Zayn laughs sheepishly and Perrie swats at his stomach. “Go on, then. They’ll be here shortly.” She leaves the room and Zayn picks the phone up, says, “Sorry,” and gets a full minute of Louis ranting about being put on hold for it.

“God, shut up, Louis,” he says, rubbing his forehead.

“Which brings me to my first question,” Louis says, still on a roll, “Why are you awake at half ten? I thought you weren’t doing anything but sleeping and shagging for three months.” He says the last half in a shit Bradford accent.

“Yeah, well,” Zayn says. “Things got a little twisted. Me and Pez are going to Paris for a couple days, flight leaves in a bit. We, uh --” he takes a deep breath, stares at his ring. “We got married, Lou.”

He’s met with silence. And then Louis laughs. “Sorry, I thought you said you got married.”

Zayn laughs, too. “Yup.”

“For real?” Louis’ quiet. “When?”

“Yesterday?”

“I was home yesterday.”

“Oh,” Zayn says, not knowing what to say to that. He’s quiet for a second, which is apparently what Louis needs to process everything, because the next thing Zayn knows, Louis is snapping back to life.

“Not ‘oh,’ you twat. I was home yesterday! Not at your bloody wedding!”

“No one was,” Zayn says, and great, now he’s shouting a bit, too. He takes a breath. He needs Louis to understand. “It was just us and our families, we didn’t tell anyone. Literally no one.”

Louis sniffs. “So I’m first?”

“Yeah, you big brat. Aren’t you proud?” Zayn doesn’t have to be there to know Louis’ grinning like a twat. “Don’t tell anyone. We’re keeping it quiet. At least for now.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Zayn!” Perrie calls.

“Car’s here,” Zayn says. “I’ve got to go.”

“Fine,” Louis sighs, dragging it out. “But just so we’re clear, I’m not getting you a gift for the sham wedding you throw in ten months, mate.”

“Fair enough,” Zayn says, and rings off, picking up his bag and heading for the door. His phone rings before he’s made it to the next room. “Yeah?”

“Congratulations, wanker,” Louis says, before ringing off again.

“Everything alright?” Perrie asks.

Zayn nods, kissing her as he picks up her bag, too. “Yeah. It’s great.”

**

There’s an enormous gift basket of champagne and condoms waiting for them in their hotel room. The card attached only says BON VOYAGE! At least it’s discreet. Technically.

“Louis?” Perrie asks. She sounds like she already knows the answer. She texts him and snorts at the response, tilts her mobile so Zayn can see.

Babies happen to married people too :) xx

“Charming,” Zayn says.

Perrie tilts her head, bumps their hips together. “I dunno. I’ve gotten worse gifts.”

“True,” Zayn says, and goes to see if the champagne is chilled.

**

They send Louis a Mickey Mouse phone case from Disney. It’s truly hideous and costs a fortune to post overnight, but it’s worth it when Lou sends them a bathroom selfie so they can see he’s clearly using it.

Cheers ! Never using this again, he says, followed by, Still not getting a gift for your sham wedding !!

“His gift is going to be the biggest of them all,” Perrie says, her head tipped on Zayn’s shoulder.

“Yeah, definitely,” Zayn laughs and sends back six thumbs up emojis.

**

It’s his birthday before he knows it, and Zayn’s sat in the kitchen while his mum pulls extra dessert plates out of the cupboard. “Honestly,” she says, shaking her head at the layer of dust on them, “have you ever used these?”

“Why would I? The regular plates are fine.”

She sighs and Zayn rolls his eyes. “Put these on the table,” she says, passing him the stack. “We’ll do cake in a bit, yeah?”

She laughs when he brightens at the mention of cake, gives him a little shove toward the other room where all his cousins are running around, laughing and shrieking. Perrie’s in there too, laughing at something his aunt is saying. Her rings catch the light when she gestures and Zayn finds himself rubbing the band of his own ring subconsciously. They haven’t told anybody else, not since Louis. It feels like it’s been a long time; it’s not even a week gone.

“Alright, sunshine?” His mum startles him when she comes up beside him.

“Yeah.” Zayn smiles at her. He realizes he’s still rubbing his ring; he stops. “It’s like -- sometimes it still doesn’t feel real, is all.”

She looks from him to Perrie and back again, chuckling a bit. She loops her arm around Zayn’s waist and doesn’t say anything at all, just pats his hip and lets him lean against her side for a bit, the party swirling around them.

There’s still stood like that when Zayn’s doorbell rings.

“How many more people did you invite?” he asks, groaning halfheartedly, but his mum’s frowning, looking around like she’s trying to figure out who isn’t here.

“Happy Birthday!” he hears shouted as soon as his dad opens the door, and then Liam’s saying, “Oh, sorry, we thought --” and the rest is drowned out when Safaa yells, “Liam!!” and goes careening towards the door.

Zayn catches her. “It’s my birthday,” he says, sticking his tongue out before steering her away. There’s a weird feeling in the pit of his stomach. It’s not like Liam not to call first and Zayn’s had his mobile in his pocket the whole night so he knows it’s not that he missed it.

“Happy birthday!” Liam and his friends yell again when they see Zayn. He’s barely got a chance to wave hello before Liam’s hugging him so hard Zayn’s feet come off the ground. He can smell booze and sweat under the familiar scent of Liam’s aftershave. He pats Liam’s back until Liam puts him back down.

“We hopped your fence, mate, it was like something out of a film!” Liam says, one arm still around Zayn’s neck. He’s holding on too tight, drunk and unsteady.

“What?” Zayn’s voice is flat. “Why didn’t you just call? Could’ve let you in.”

“No fun in that,” one of Liam’s friends says, laughing. He doesn’t seem to notice the way Zayn frowns.

“Can we use your toilet?” another one -- Tom, Zayn thinks. He’s met them before, he should remember their names -- asks, and Zayn nods while Liam clumsily points the way.

“What the fuck, bro?” Zayn asks, quietly to keep his family from hearing. Liam only laughs.

“Turns out I don’t have your number in this phone,” he says, bopping Zayn on the nose while frowning comically. “Weird, innit?”

“That is weird,” Zayn says. Talking to Liam like this is like talking to a small child. Zayn feels a headache coming on.

“DIdn’t know it was going to be a family party,” Liam says, looking around. “Feels weird. We’ve had a bit to drink.” He stage whispers the last part and Zayn snorts.

“You don’t say.”

Liam hugs him again, less enthusiastically this time. “Just wanted to surprise you for your birthday,” he says, his voice muffled by Zayn’s shoulder. A bit of the annoyance seeps out of Zayn at that. It’s not like Liam knew, yeah, and fuck knows they’ve all shown up on each others’ doorsteps in the same state. It’d be unfair to hold it against him.

“Seems like loads of people had the same idea,” Zayn says, rubbing his back. From the bathroom he hears someone sing-song, “Taking a selfie in Zayn’s bathroom!” and then, “Yeah, tweet it!” followed by raucous laughter. He cringes. That’s fucking great.

“‘m gonna kill your friends, Payno,” he says. After a second he thinks sod it, slips his ring off behind Liam’s back. He tucks it into his front pocket. It’s better this way. The last thing he wants is it ending up in some drunken tweet. He can tell Liam when he’s sober, when there aren’t loads of his family members standing around looking disapproving.

“They’re not bad,” Liam says, letting go of Zayn. He blinks like he’s trying to focus and Zayn has to fight not to roll his eyes.

“I know,” he says, tugging on Liam’s wrist. “C’mon.”

“Please don’t make me say hi to your mum.”

“Oh no, you’re saying hi to everyone,” he says, leading him into the room.

“Hello, Liam,” his mum says, in a tone Zayn remembers from all the times he’d stumbled home late to find her and his dad sitting up, waiting. “Can I get you a glass of water?” she offers, and Zayn has to bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.

**

He feels a tad guilty about it later, hiding it from Liam like that. Liam had been well pissed but it’s not like he wouldn’t’ve remembered in the morning. It’s not like Liam’s shit at keeping secrets. Maybe his mates were a bit loud but --

Zayn sighs. It’s louder than he meant and Perrie pushes up on her elbows to frown at him.

“You’re thinking too loud,” she says, voice rough with sleep, and then she shifts away from him, her arms curled around her pillow.

He’ll tell Liam tomorrow, Zayn decides. Or Monday, when he’s not hungover. Soon. He sighs again, quietly this time. Maybe he should’ve just told them all on the boat that night. At least they were all together. What’s he supposed to do now, text Niall Things are great, got married, ps good luck with the knee surgery! Seems a bit shit, really.

“You could call them,” Perrie suggests when he’s still worked up about it in the morning. “You told Louis over the phone.”

Zayn pulls a face. It’s not the same. Plus like, Niall’s in surgery and Harry’s doing fuck knows what, he’s not even texted since he went back to America and Zayn knows if he tries to call either of them he’s more likely to get voicemail than anything.

“Then wait to tell them in person, I don’t know,” Perrie says, shrugging. It’s not fair. Her girls are in town, she’s already got plans to tell them over lunch.

“You’re no help,” he says grumpily, face mashed into the cushions of the sofa. She pats his bum sympathetically. “Don’t know why I married ya.”

She shrieks, fake-outraged, and smacks him before he has a chance to flip over. He can’t hide the way he’s smiling, doesn’t care if it makes him look like an idiot. She falls into his lap easily, settling in the cradle of his hips. Zayn bites back a gasp when she shifts, grinding down.

“Liam’s around,” she says. “Tell him first.” She rocks her hips again, her knees digging into his ribs. “Oi, Payno, want to come over and play FIFA with me and my wife,” she says in a poor imitation. “And if that isn’t enough of a clue you can tell him when he gets here.”

“Babes,” he says desperately, grabbing her waist to hold her still. “Please stop talking about Liam.”

She pulls his hands off her sides and he lets her pin his wrists to the sofa.

“You started it,” she says, leaning down to mouth at his collarbone, her teeth a sharp counterpoint to the slow, dirty roll of her hips.

**

He tries calling Liam but gets sent straight to voicemail. It’s hours before he gets a text back. Sorrrryy mate in mtggs all day :( :( :( everyythign ok?

Yea wanted 2 hang out w/ u. call me later? he sends back.

kkkkkkk

Only Liam doesn’t call. He texts Zayn a few times, mostly about the shit paparazzi camped outside his place. Don’t stand on yr roof next time, twat Zayn sends back, even though he feels bad about it. It’s why he has the fence. It’s why he rarely leaves. He’s sure they’ll be on him like vultures the second they find out about the wedding. Just the thought is enough to make him ill. He turns his phone off completely, goes to paint until Perrie gets home from rehearsals.

**

“Don’t go,” Zayn mumbles into the skin where Perrie’s shoulder turns into her neck. It was his idea to spend the day in bed, smoking and shagging and napping, a whole day for the two of them before she has to leave for the airport. He thought it’d be a good send-off, hadn’t considered that it would be bittersweet. That the more time they spend together, the more he wants to keep her around always.

“S’not really an optional trip,” Perrie gasps out. She hitches her legs higher around his waist until she finds an angle she likes. “Fuck. C’mon,” she urges, kicking her heel so he’ll move the way she wants, too.

“Bossy,” he says as he matches the pace she’s setting. He ducks his head, kissing any part of her skin he can reach, trailing his lips and tongue over her skin like maybe he can map her that way, have yet another way to remember her when she’s gone. Her nails dig into his skin and he knows she’s close, slows down his thrusts until she whines.

“Don’t tease,” she says, her nails digging in sharper. Zayn bites back a groan.

“Love you,” he says, the words coming out clipped and breathless as picks it back up, and Perrie opens her mouth but doesn’t say anything, just gasps and drags her nails down his back as she comes. He isn’t far behind. “Fuck, Pez,” he grits out as she clenches around him and then he’s coming, Perrie stroking her palms down his back and over his sides as he drops his forehead to her shoulder and groans.

“Love you, too,” she says softly, still smoothing her palms down his spine. She kisses his temple and he tilts his head until they can fit their mouths together, kissing languidly while their breath comes back. He swallows down the soft noise she makes when he moves off her, strokes his hand down her side so she’ll roll toward him until they’re both on their sides, trading kisses that are more lazy presses of their mouths than anything.

Zayn dozes like that, feels the bed dip as Perrie climbs out. He listens to her move around in the loo, the soft sounds of water running and her humming to herself. The house is going to feel so empty with her gone. It always does.

Eventually the bed dips again. Perrie scratches her hand through Zayn’s fringe until rolls onto his back and opens his eyes. Her cheeks are still a bit flushed so he can’t have been asleep that long. He twists his head, kisses the inside of her wrist.

“Here,” she says, and he feels something cold settle on his chest. “So I’ve got to go to Africa, right? And I can’t really walk around wearing this.” She wiggles her hand. “So we should trade.”

“Hmm?” His brain’s still fuzzy and he’s not sure what she’s on about, trade.

“Like.” Perrie reaches for his hand, works his wedding ring off and slips it onto her thumb. “Aha!” She grins, holding it up to show it’s a perfect fit. “And this --” she slips her own ring off, slides it onto the chain, “is for you.”

When she clasps it around his neck, his heartbeat kicks up and he doesn’t know why. He can hear the blood rushing in his ears.

“Or not,” she says slowly when she sees his face.

“No, it’s a good idea,” he says. “F’real.” He hooks his fingertip through her ring, pulls the chain taut. He tries to think of something else to say, but he can’t get past the way his bones ache with how much doesn’t want her to go.

“Unless… ” Perrie takes a deep breath. When he looks over, he realizes she’s put his vest on. She’s fiddling with the hem, pulling at a loose stitch. He knocks her hands away, tangles their fingers together. He squeezes her hand to get her to go on. “Unless you want to tell people? Go for broke and tell everybody?”

Zayn thinks about it. Paparazzi outside, all the bullshit with management and PR, the horrible things people’ll say on Twitter. He wrinkles his nose. “Not really. Unless -- d’you?”

Perrie chews on her lip for a second before making the same face and shaking her head.

“Everyone’s still gonna ask you about the engagement,” he says, bouncing their hands on her knee. But he thinks that’s probably better than having to deal with questions about a secret wedding, people wanting to know all the details, the whos and then whens and the wheres and the whys.

Perrie shrugs. “Yeah, but I’ll know and they won’t.” She dances where she’s sat, bouncing and shimmying her shoulders and singing “I know something you don’t know” under her breath until she cracks herself up laughing. Zayn’s ribcage feels too small for his chest.

“D’ya have time for a kip before you go?” he asks. Suddenly all he wants is to lie here with her. She leans over him to check the time before she nods.

“Have to shower in a bit,” she warns, setting an alarm.

“Wake me?”

Perrie nods and curls against him, throws a leg over his hip and tucks her head into the curve of his neck. He combs his fingers through her hair, untangling it as he goes, and falls asleep to the feeling of her idly playing with the chain around his neck.

**

It’s lonely without her, so he goes back to Bradford while she’s gone. At least there the house is noisy and he can try to fill the hollow feeling in his chest with his mum’s cooking. At least his dad doesn’t call him a melodramatic twat like Danny does.

He’s smoking out back, squinting in the morning sun, when his phone buzzes. He thinks maybe it’ll be Perrie, sending pictures from Liberia, but when he looks at the screen he’s got two email notifications marked urgent and loads of messages from the rest of the lads. His heart drops to the floor, sweat prickling at the back of his neck as he thinks of all the ways they could’ve found out about the wedding.

It’s not that, though, and Zayn has to light another cig from the end of his current one before he can keep reading the group chat Louis’ made for the four of them to discuss Liam’s meltdown on Twitter.

Wtffffff Niall sends, followed by three red siren emojis, the speak-no-evil monkey, two fires, and a poo.

Flaming shit indeed Louis sends, and then Has anyone talked to him recently ??

Not really. I’m still in America though Harry says, at the same time as Niall says, Not since before my surgery

U feeling ok ? Zayn asks. He’d texted Niall while he was away and knows he’s back in London now, but with Perrie leaving he’s kind of been out of the loop.

This sucks ! Bored outta me fuckin skull !!!

Have u heard from him Z ?? Louis asks. Zayn has to think about the last time he talked to Liam. It was earlier in the week. Something about paparazzi, right? Liam never had gotten around to calling him back. Zayn tries not to feel annoyed by it. They’ve all been busy.

Not since Tuesday he says.

Same Louis sends back.

Has anyone checked on him? Is he alright? Harry asks.

His phones off I just tried Niall says.

:( :( :( I’d stop over his but I’m at Sundance.

I’m in Bradford :(

Where are you, Harry? Louis asks.

Sundance. It’s a film festival. and then Alexa says hi!

Jfc Louis sends, and then We know and then I’m at mums

Zayn waits a minute but no new messages come through. He taps open a new message, one for only Liam, and types u ok ? His thumb hovers over the send button while he thinks of the last time he actually saw Liam, when he’d gate-crashed Zayn’s birthday. Of Liam being in meetings all day because some idiot tweeted a picture of him stood on a balcony ledge. He takes a long drag from his cigarette, wonders if his parents have noticed him out here yet, if they’re going to frown about him chain-smoking when he gets inside.

Fuck it, he thinks, and lights another one. He stares at his phone, at Liam’s name on the screen. Zayn gets it, is the thing. He remembers the rush he got when he deleted his account, how fed up he was before it. It’s not -- he’s not angry with Liam, he doesn’t think, not really. He’s mostly tired all of a sudden, exhausted by all of it. It’s been a rollercoaster of a month.

He deletes his text, sends hope ur ok :) Xx instead before tapping back to the group text.

Hes prob ok Louis has sent I think we need to give him time

Yeah I bet hes layin g low Niall says. Or getting his arse handed t him haHA

Try again later in the weekend ? Louis asks.

K Niall and Zayn send at the same time.

K. I’ll be back in LA by then Harry sends.

Zayn snorts when Louis sends OMG WHERE ARE YOU NOW ????

Sundance! :) Harry sends back. Zayn doesn’t bother enlarging the selfie he sends along with it. He stubs his cigarette out in one of the potted plants and goes inside to find some toast.

**

He spends the rest of the week messing about with his cousins, texting the lads that no, he still hasn’t heard from Liam either, and helping his parents around the house. It’s a nice bit of a vacation. Feels like he hasn’t had one in ages.

Waliyha raises her eyebrow. “Weren’t you just in Paris?"

“That was different,” he says, hip checking her.

She snorts. “How?”

Because he was there for like, two days and they had to agree to a photoshoot just to get through Disneyland without being mobbed. He doesn’t say that, though.

“It just was. Right?” He looks to his dad for help but he just shakes his head and laughs and keeps washing the dishes. Zayn frowns. “Whatever.”

They both crack up laughing at him. He’s grateful for the text from Louis that gives him a reason to escape.

Talked 2 him today . Says he’s fine it says. Zayn’s equal parts relieved and annoyed. Liam’s still not said anything to him, hasn’t called or texted or responded to the group check-in Niall’s sending every day.

Good Zayn sends back. I’m going home 2morrw mb ill pop by

It’s barely a second before Louis responds Said hes not in the mood 4 visitors . Tks tho !!

Zayn gets another message from Lou, this one just to him. Dont be mad hes just having a proper sulk. Say hi to mrs. Malik for me !! :)

The last bit knocks him for a loop. It’s unreal seeing it written out like that, knowing that Louis means Perrie and not like, his mum. It’s a bit like seeing his own face on a billboard for the first time. Zayn leans against the wall to steady himself while he reads it again and again.

**

“The girls say congratulations and that if anything happens, they still know forty ways to get rid of a body,” Perrie says. She climbs into bed with Zayn, talking a mile a minute before he’s even registered she’s home.

“What time is it?” Zayn asks, blinking in the dark. The curtains are still drawn.

“Almost eight.” She settles on top of him, sighs contentedly when his arms wrap around her. She smells like strange hotel soap and recycled airplane air and the faint remnants of her perfume. He kisses the top of her head.

“Missed you,” he says, his voice still rough. He can feel the sleep pulling him back under, Perrie a warm solid weight on top of him.

**

She’s leaving again before he knows it, for America this time.

“Five more minutes,” he says when her alarm goes off. She makes a pitiful noise and squirms, ticklish where his beard scratches the pale skin of her chest. The noise stops and Zayn exhales, glad when Perrie doesn’t make any efforts at getting up.

Of course it turns into a nightmare when she realizes she’s overslept. She runs from room to room, collecting things she’s forgotten to pack, dumping them on the bed for Zayn to arrange in her suitcase.

“Shut up!” she shouts at her phone, when the car outside won’t stop calling.

“They’ll hold the plane for you,” Zayn says, aiming for reassuring. He’s not sure if that’s true or not. He knows they’d hold a plane for him. Perrie makes a frustrated noise from deep within the closet; Zayn winces. He’s got no idea how late she is, what time her flight’s supposed to leave.

She comes back with a hat, drops it on top of the rest of her bags and sighs.

“All set?”

“Yes. No!”

Zayn makes a face while Perrie flails her hands in midair, spinning in a circle.

“Babe,” he says, wanting her to take a deep breath, calm down, but she doesn’t hear him, too busy rooting around in the nightstand for something. She cheers when she finds it. Somewhere in the sheets, her mobile starts ringing again. Zayn fishes it out and answers it. “Yeah, she’s on her way. Two minutes. Cheers.” He sets on top of her purse and when he looks up she’s watching him, gone a bit soft around her eyes.

“All set?” he asks again.

“Almost.” She holds out her ring on the chain and oh, that’s what she’d been hunting for. They’d gone back to their own rings when she got back from Japan and now here they are again. He slides his ring onto her thumb, feels a bit of a pang as he does it.

“Least m’hands aren’t shaking this time.” He chuckles, thinking of how badly they’d trembled when he’d proposed and again at the wedding.

“Third time’s a charm,” Perrie says, laughing. There’s a telltale catch in her voice but she doesn’t actually start crying. They’ve done this so often, said goodbye more times than Zayn can even begin to count. It doesn’t hurt any less, he thinks. You just get used to it.

**

“Hi, babe!” Caroline says, beaming when Zayn shows up for his fitting for the Brits. She pats his cheek. “You look rested.”

Zayn laughs and holds out his hands to the baby on her hip, makes faces until she laughs and reaches for him. “Little traitor,” Caroline says, handing her over easily. She leads Zayn to the racks, talking about her ideas as they go.

“What’s everyone else wearing?” he asks. He flinches when Brooklyn gets hold of his necklace, pulling, trying to get her chubby hand around the ring so she can stick it in her mouth.

“Don’t know yet, you’re the first one I’ve seen,” Caroline says, moving hangers, pulling the things she likes. Zayn blows a raspberry against Brooklyn’s neck and pulls the necklace out of her grasp when she’s distracted. He tucks it inside his shirt where she hopefully can’t get it, makes more faces at her until she decides she isn’t going to cry about it.

“Alright, trade,” she says, taking her baby back and shoving Zayn and his new armload of clothes toward the large, curtained off area serving as a changing room.

He’s not halfway through the outfits Caz’s pulled for him when someone says, “Don’t wear that, it makes you look like a wrinkled knob.”

“I think he looks nice,” Caroline argues while Zayn laughs and pulls away from her to hug Niall as hard as he can without hurting his knee or knocking a crutch out from under him. Behind them, Caroline makes a startled noise. “Oh, from far away --”

“Right?” Niall says, laughing. He swats Zayn’s side. “Please take that off before me eyes start bleedin’.”

“Niall, this way,” Caroline calls. Niall sighs but follows her to the racks while Zayn goes to change out of his crushed velvet suit. It’s only once he’s alone that it hits him. With Perrie coming and going he’d been distracted, caught up in trying to spend as much time with her as possible and he’d just kind of… forgotten about his plans to tell everyone. It’s a horrid realization. He feels sick with it.

Niall hobbles in, takes one look at Zayn standing half-dressed, and snorts. “What, the break’s been so long you forgot how to get dressed? Have you done anything but hotbox your graffiti room?”

Zayn scowls as he fixes the collar of his latest shirt. Niall laughs to himself and pulls his own shirt off, chucks it on the floor. Zayn leaves him fighting with his fancy knee brace.

“No,” Caroline says as soon as she sees him. Zayn sighs, relieved. He hates this one, too.

“Think I like the first one best,” he says. She nods.

“Just try on the last few. Not much more, yeah?” She waves him away and then says, “Wait, here, take these back for Niall, would ya?”

She loads him with another armful of clothes and sends him off. When he gets back, Niall’s only wearing his pants and crutches. Zayn laughs and then says, “Oh god, sorry.”

“No,” Niall says, “I know. I look ridiculous.”

“Yeah, well.” Zayn hangs up Niall’s options for him. “So do I.”

Niall laughs. “Yeah, I mean, jesus christ, are all your options terrible? Has Caz lost her mind?”

“I can hear you!” Caroline yells.

“This jumper is the color of puke!” Niall yells back. He and Zayn both laugh while Zayn pulls off his top and reaches for a hanger. It happens the exact way it had earlier with Brooklyn. One second Zayn’s not paying attention and the next Niall’s reaching forward, flicking the ring where it’s dangling in front of Zayn’s chest. It swings back and forth and Zayn feels like time slows down, his heart thudding in his ears and it’s stupid, it’s Niall for christ’s sake.

“This new?” Niall asks. He gets his finger through it somehow, tugs so the chain digs into the back of Zayn’s neck. “Someone finally make an honest man out of you, Malik?”

Zayn goes red immediately, can feel the flush spreading all the way up his chest to his cheeks.

“Holy shit,” Niall breathes out, his eyes going wide, knowing before Zayn says a word.

Zayn laughs and scratches the back of his neck. “Yeah,” he says, keeping his voice low, and then because he feels like he still has to say it, make it like, official and real, “Perrie and I got married.”

Niall shifts his weight to one crutch so he can smack Zayn, hard.

“Be nice!” Caroline calls as Niall follows it up with a particularly vicious twist of Zayn’s nipple.

“You deserved that,” Niall says while Zayn rubs his chest.

“It’s a secret!” Zayn says, and maybe his brain is turning to mush on this break because it’s a stupid fucking thing to say.

“No shit,” Niall says, rolling his eyes. He whacks Zayn’s leg with his crutch and then holds his arm out so he can give Zayn a proper hug. Something inside Zayn he hadn’t even noticed was misaligned shifts back into place. He sags into Niall, smiles when Niall turns his face, lips brushing Zayn’s temple as he says, “You’d better cancel any plans because we’re getting lunch after this.”

**

They end up back at Niall’s.

“Make yourself useful,” Niall says, nudging Zayn towards the fridge. He proceeds to stand right behind Zayn the whole time, directing him. “No, the other -- the other -- jesus, Zayn, that’s brie, the fuck kind of sandwich are you making me?”

After that’s sorted, they settle on the sofa with their sandwiches and a couple beers. Niall’s got a pillow under his knee and a bag of crisps tucked into the crook of his arm like a stuffed teddy.

“What?” he asks when he catches Zayn staring.

Zayn shrugs. He’d given Niall the quick version in the car, glad for the way Niall had let Zayn say exactly as much as he wanted, hadn’t pressed. “Missed you, I guess.”

“Yeah.” Niall snorts into his beer. “Sounds like you found a way to fill the void. Cheers, by the way.” He raises his beer before taking a sip and then shakes his head like he’s disappointed. “Didn’t even get to give a speech, ya bastard. Tell me you at least had good food.”

“My mum made a cake?” Zayn says. Niall makes a pained sound. Zayn wrinkles his nose, trying to remember what they’d had after everyone’d gone home. “Me and Pez had leftovers after.”

They’d eaten in bed, spilling rice on the sheets, Perrie laughing, fork waving in the air as she talked. He doesn’t remember what she was saying, but the way her new ring had caught the light had knocked the breath out of him. He’d flicked a pea at her to reorient himself, landed it in her hair, and she’d shouted “I want a divorce!” before Zayn’d tackled her to the sheets and made her take it back.

“Leftovers?!” Niall socks him in the arm, jolting Zayn out of his reverie. “You’re killing me.”

“Told ya,” Zayn says. “It was really small and like…” He trails off, not quite sure what else to say. After a bit he shrugs. “We’ll have a party later when we like, tell people. You can help us pick the food if you like.”

Niall sort of laughs and goes quiet for a moment before he says, “I can’t believe you didn’t say anything.”

“Yeah but like, I dunno, everything was so crazy and it just kind of happened like, and then you had your surgery and it didn’t seem right to text you.” Zayn sighs. Niall doesn’t say anything at all.

Zayn picks at the label off his beer bottle, tries to get it to peel off without shredding to bits. It’s quiet for so long that he starts to feel antsy, regret backing up in his veins, making it hard to sit still. Maybe he shouldn’t have told Niall. He felt relieved as soon as it came out but now, sitting here and waiting for Niall to say something, anything, he feels miserable. At least before Niall wasn’t like, cross with him.

“Sorry,” Zayn says eventually. He is. He doesn’t think he’d do it differently -- no, he definitely wouldn’t, he realizes -- but he still knows it’s kind of a shit announcement to keep from some of your best mates.

“Get me another beer and then you’re gonna tell me all the sordid details.” Niall claps his shoulder, squeezes. The smile barely reaches his eyes, though, so it doesn’t make Zayn feel much better.

He leans his forehead against the refrigerator door. Maybe not telling anyone is the way to go. Because this part of the reaction isn’t worth it. This part’s shit.

**

It’s late enough that Perrie’s call wakes him up. He fumbles in the dark, finds his phone shoved under the pillow, and answers just in time.

“Can you FaceTime?”

“Are you okay?” he asks. It sounds like she’s been crying; might still be. She makes an impatient noise. “Yeah, sure.”

The call disconnects and a minute later she’s there, grainy and red-eyed.

“What’s wrong?”

“Steven Ty--” she gets out before it turns into a series of sad, high-pitched noises. He thinks he hears “married” and maybe, if he concentrates, “anniversary.”

“You were alright earlier,” he says, confused. They’d talked first thing in the morning and then again, later, when Perrie’d called ecstatically shrieking over the video he’d gotten Steven Tyler to film for her. One month seemed like a milestone of sorts, he’d thought, and if they couldn’t spend it together, well. No reason for both of them to be sulking about all day. “What’s happened?”

It takes a minute for it to come out, how Steven congratulated them on their marriage, not their engagement. The more she talks, the more Zayn’s heart rate kicks up, dread settling deep in his belly. “And now it’s on Instagram and Twitter and everywhere,” she says, going shrill at the end.

“Pez.” Zayn tries to sound calm. He doesn’t do a great job but it’s better than nothing. “It’s fine.”

“But --”

“It’s fine,” he says again, aching with how he wishes he could touch her. He inhales, counts to five. It helps. On her end, Perrie’s doing the same, wiping away the eyeliner that’s gone smudged under her eyes. “No one’s said anything, yeah? Not to me, anyway.”

It seems like something he’d get at least an email about. Probably get called in for a meeting or ten. Even his Twitter mentions had been the same as usual when he’d logged in to retweet Perrie’s message.

“I guess,” she says, sniffling.

“Too late to worry about it anyway,” he says, and that much he knows is true. He touches the ring where it’s tucked underneath his shirt. It’s not like people finding out will undo it. They’ll still be married no matter who knows. “How’d the signing go? Any girls faint when they saw you?”

“No,” Perrie says, and Zayn laughs that she actually sounds put out by it. She launches into a story about a group of girls and Zayn props the phone up against the pillow next to him. He feels drained even though he’s done crap all day.

A door slams somewhere and he jerks. “Sorry,” he says. “Was I asleep?” He hadn’t meant to.

“Sorry,” Perrie’s saying at the same time. “It’s just Leigh.”

“Hi, Zayn!” Leigh-Anne calls from somewhere he can’t see. He waves dumbly. “My birthday’s in October, if you want to get Rihanna to start filming a message now.”

He gives her a half-hearted thumbs up. How long was he asleep for? His whole brain feels foggy, like he’d been out for ages. It can’t have been more than five minutes.

“Aw,” Perrie coos. “Go to sleep, love, I’ll talk to you tomorrow, yeah?”

He nods. “Y’alright?” He thinks she looks better but it’s hard to tell. The screen’s so small. She’s so far away.

“Better,” she says. She’s holding the phone far enough away that he can see her twisting her ring around her thumb. She blows a kiss. “Night, babe.”

He thinks it’s going to be harder to fall asleep without her talking in his ear, but it’s not. Waking up alone is worse, but at least he’s mostly used to that.

**

He spends a couple days after Perrie’s distraught call hiding out in Bradford, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never does.

Hey when was ur 1mo anniversary ? Louis texts him one day.

Last week, why

No reason he says, followed by Saw this and thought of you but if I missed it never mind and a picture of a giant copper birdbath that’s got a bride and groom on one edge, holding hands and kissing. It’s hideous.

Should I have it sent to your house or are you still in Bradford ?? comes a minute later.

Please don’t buy that

Oops

Zayn sighs. He knows this is Louis’ payback for not telling him. What’s worse is he knows Perrie’ll get a kick out of it, insist on putting it in the back garden, probably.

London he sends, hopes he types it with enough exasperation that Louis can feel it on his end.

**

His first night back in London, Zayn smokes and paints and falls asleep on the couch just as the sun’s coming up. He doesn’t mean for it to become a pattern, it just sort of happens.

He’s already smoked a bowl, the colors on the wall going bright with it, when Harry calls and Zayn’s seized with the sudden, gripping panic that Harry’s found out somehow. Niall’s not a blabbermouth, he’s just… shit at keeping quiet when he’s excited about things. Or upset about them.

“Hiiiii,” Harry says when Zayn answers. “Are you home?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Because I was in your neighborhood and I thought ‘I haven’t seen Zayn in a while’ and you actually answered your phone for once.”

“You want to come over?” Zayn asks, less like an invitation and more like he’s trying to understand what’s going on. Harry doesn’t sound like he knows, but Zayn’s not sure what Harry would sound like if he did. Harry always sounds the same.

“I’m like, actually outside your house right now, if you want to let me in.”

“What? Why didn’t you say that first thing?”

“I didn’t want to presume,” Harry says, still talking into his phone as Zayn opens his front door. “There you are. Hi!”

“Didn’t know you were back in town,” Zayn says. Harry smiles and hands him a bottle of wine. “What’s this?”

“Merlot,” Harry says, smiling widely as he walks past, patting Zayn’s stomach like it’s a new way of saying hello. “Nicked it from Grimmy’s. The meringues were Gemma’s.” He holds up a white bakery box that Zayn hadn’t noticed. “What’re you up to?”

“Nothing,” Zayn says. He feels like he’s lagging on the beat. Harry’s moving through the house like it’s his, leaving Zayn to follow ten steps behind. “I was just painting.”

“Oh, finish, then.” Harry helps himself to two wine glasses from the cabinet, pokes through drawers until he finds a corkscrew. He knees Zayn’s arse once he has everything he needs. “C’mon, after you.”

“Have you talked to Niall lately?” Zayn asks, trying to sound normal as he tosses Harry an extra mask.

Harry laughs. “Funny story! I was on the beach with Ben…”

Zayn stops listening once Harry’s story detours into an adventure at a farmer’s market. He shakes a can of paint at Harry, waits for his nod that he doesn’t care if Zayn multitasks. The painting sort of helps his nerves. Zayn focuses on evenly filling in the diamond he’d sketched out earlier, let’s Harry’s voice sort of melt in the background as Zayn listens for the important points. He’s thankful for the distraction because ten minutes into Harry’s meandering story he’s still not sure whether or not he’s talked to Niall.

“... and the instructor was brilliant. I really think Niall should try it,” Harry finishes. “For rehab.”

“‘s a great idea, Haz,” Zayn says. “What’s Niall say?”

“Yoga’s too soothing.” Harry’s wine sloshes when he makes finger quotes. Zayn snorts. When he turns, Harry’s watching him, slumped so low against the wall that he’s mostly lying down. Zayn puts the can down; he’s not getting anywhere like this. He needs to like, suck it up. Ask outright or just tell Haz or summat.

Thinking it’s a lot easier than actually doing it, though. He tugs off his mask and takes the wine glass Harry’s holding out, slides down against the wall to sit next to him. It’s quiet while Zayn tries to figure out what to say. He touches the new anchor on Harry’s wrist. Harry’d texted a picture at arse o’clock in the morning awhile back; Zayn’d completely forgotten about it.

“Looks good,” he says. When he looks up, Harry’s got his eyes shut, head tipped so his chin’s almost touching his chest. Zayn remembers how he’d looked at the end of the tour, tired and drawn. He’s got a tan now, looks rested. “Y’look good, too.”

Harry smiles, full dimple, before he opens his eyes, blinking at Zayn. “You do too,” he says after a minute, like he was really checking for it before he said it.

Zayn chuckles. Now or never, he thinks, before he hooks his thumb into the chain around his neck and pulls it out for Harry to see.

“Got hitched.”

“You’re kidding,” Harry says. Zayn shakes his head.

“Zayn!” Harry yells, and then wine’s spilling everywhere as Harry tackles him, yelling “Congratulations!” right in Zayn’s ear as they both fall to the floor.

“When?” Harry asks. His wrists are digging into Zayn’s back, his hair’s slipping out of it’s ponytail and into Zayn’s face. Zayn feels like he can’t catch his breath and he thinks it’s only half from Harry literally knocking the wind out of him.

He doesn’t get a chance to answer before Harry presses his face into Zayn’s neck and yells nonsense sounds. Then he wiggles his arms free and pushes up. “You’re bloody married. That’s mental.”

“Yeah.” Zayn wonders when he’ll get used to it. When the novelty’ll wear off. Harry pokes his cheek and Zayn realizes he’s grinning.

“I should’ve brought more wine,” Harry says. “Didn’t realize it’d be a celebration.”

Zayn feels his smile falter as the familiar guilt starts to creep in. He shifts, tries to roll out from the cage of Harry’s body, but Harry doesn’t let him go anywhere, keeps beaming down at Zayn, dimples as huge as ever.

Married.” Harry shakes his head like he can’t believe it and then he’s relaxing his arms, collapsing on top of Zayn and trying to worm his arms and legs around Zayn’s body for another bone-crushing hug.

**

“Think Niall’s pissed at me,” Zayn tells Harry after they’ve drank a celebratory bottle of wine.

Harry’s brow furrows. Zayn, who’s lying flat on the floor, looks back at the ceiling. “For not telling him.”

“Doubt it.”

Zayn shakes his head and then stops when the room starts to spin. “He is.”

“Well,” Harry says and then goes quiet for a bit. “Niall doesn’t like feeling left out.”

“It wasn’t --”

“Still.”

Zayn sighs. “I know.”

“I’ll talk to him, if you like.”

“Nah.” It’s Zayn’s mess, he’ll clean it up. “Thanks though.”

Liam’s going to be pissed, too, Zayn knows it. He wishes there were a way to avoid it. “Zap,” he says, and thinks, I told Liam ages ago. When he opens his eyes, Harry’s watching him.

“So you know, you and Perrie are my fifth favorite married couple,” he says, holding up five fingers and wiggling them in Zayn’s face before rolling off the sofa and onto his feet.

“Fifth?” Zayn sputters, insulted.

But Harry’s halfway out of the room, saying, “I’m opening more wine. Do you have any bread? I could go for a snack but I don’t feel like -- ‘scuse me, sorry,” he says, straightening the picture frame he’s knocked into, “like I should be trusted at the hob right now. The toaster should be manageable, though.”

“Wait.” Zayn struggles to his feet, tamping down any worries about Liam. “Who’s number one? Who’s four?”

**

He wakes up spectacularly hungover, Harry snoring next to him. Zayn shoves a pillow over Harry’s face before crawling out of bed and making his way downstairs. Danny’s in the kitchen, stood over the sink as he shovels the last forkful of eggs into his mouth. Zayn’s stomach rolls at the smell.

“Harry’s here,” he says.

Danny points his fork at the wine bottles on the counter, the half-eaten baguette that’s still out. “Figured someone was. You tell him?”

Zayn nods.

“Cool.” Danny dumps his plate in the dishwasher. “I’m going to the gym. Later, bro.”

Zayn sits at the island with a glass of water and his phone. He composes and deletes twenty different texts to Liam before eventually sending a stupid Hey u around this week ?

No im in Portoooooo Ricooooooooooo its sickkkk

So much for that plan. Zayn flips his phone over so he doesn’t have to look at it, angry for reasons he can’t even begin to untangle. He jumps when his phone starts ringing a minute later, sagging against the counter when he realizes it’s only Harry.

“What.”

“Zayn. I’m dying,” Harry says pitifully. “Bring me tea and the rest of that baguette. Pleeeeease?”

“No.” Zayn hangs up and wonders how long it’ll take before Harry just starts moaning loud enough for Zayn to hear. Not very long, probably.

“I take it back.” Harry’s skipped the moaning, gone straight for draping himself over Zayn’s back. “You’ve dropped to sixth on my list.”

“Because I wouldn’t bring you breakfast in bed?”

“Meri does sometimes.” Harry’s still sweaty from sleeping but he doesn’t budge when Zayn tries to shake him off. Zayn gives up and goes limp, lets Harry tuck his head into the curve of his neck. At least he’s brushed his teeth. “When I’m poorly.”

“Yeah, well. Y’can’t come on vacation with me and Pez, either.”

Harry laughs. “That’s what they all say,” he says, and turns his head to drop a quick kiss on the side of Zayn’s neck. “Just you wait.”

**

Why does Harry want 2 know if I want 2 go 2 Anguilla w/him? Perrie texts Zayn r u planning a trip?

NO !!! Zayn sends back, and then, when he realizes how forceful that sounds, hes bein a twat just ignore him

Idek where Anguilla IS haha xx is the last he hears from her before she’s whisked away into another signing or wherever.

Leave my wife alone weirdo he sends Harry, and if he grins like an idiot, well, at least he’s alone.

**

U free sat pm ? Niall texts him and Zayn still feels badly enough about everything that he calls him back instead of texting.

“Yeah, sure, I’m around,” he says. “For what?”

“Dunno, whatever,” Niall says. “‘m sick of sittin’ around on me arse alone all day. Haz said he might stop by, too.”

“Alright.” Zayn picks at a hangnail. Niall doesn’t sound weird, so why does Zayn feel so off-balance? “Should I like, bring anything?”

Niall snorts. “What, you got married and now all of a sudden you’ve got manners? Shit. Shoulda done it ages ago, then.”

“Shut up.” Zayn fights off the smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “So we’re like -- we’re okay, yeah? You and me?”

“Yeah, ‘course. Why wouldn’t we be?”

“Because,” Zayn says. He shrugs even though Niall can’t see him. “Sorry I like, took my time telling you.”

“S’fine. Got there eventually, didn’t ya?” Niall says. “Sides, if you’re apologizing for anything it should be be sorry that you told Tommo first. Christ, Malik, playing blatant favorites like that’s just rude.”

“Yeah, alright,” Zayn says, laughing, glad that Niall’s laughing too, cursing under his breath about really knowing where a guy stands in his own band. “Sorry for that one, too, Nialler.”

**

It’s not until days later, when Zayn’s halfway to Niall’s house, that he realizes what Niall’d said about Louis knowing first. Fuck. He still hasn’t talked to Liam.

Later, he thinks. Tomorrow, tops. If Liam’s back in town, even, he thinks bitterly, and then feels guilty for that, too. It’s not Liam’s fault. Not by a long shot.

Zayn’s still freaking out a bit, getting it out of his system before he rings Niall’s bell, when he hears, “Am I late?” and feels his heart sink.

“Bugger,” Liam says quietly, tucking his mobile into his pocket. “It was supposed to be a surprise.”

Zayn frowns at him. “What was?”

“Me?” Liam tries, but he’s always been a crap liar and he knows it. “Surprise!” He hugs Zayn so tightly Zayn wonders if Liam can feel the way his heart’s hammering in his chest.

“Hey,” Zayn starts and then stops himself. This is a terrible time, a terrible place. Liam's phone buzzes and he looks at it before shrugging.

“Oh well, fuck it,” Liam says, and rings Niall’s bell before pushing open the door.

“Hi,” he calls out, “I found someone waiting on the front steps all by his lonesome.” He’s doing a weird voice. Zayn glances at him out of the side of his eye, only has a second to try to figure out what the fuck’s going on before someone’s flipping a switch and all the lights are going on and the rest of the lads are popping out, yelling “CONGRATULATIONS!!!”

“SURPRI --” Liam yells, and then cuts himself off. “What?”

He’s pointing to the banner hanging along one wall. WARNING: STAG PARTY it says, drawn up like a construction sign, next to a blown up picture of Zayn from ages back. Someone’s added to the sign too, written in BELATED on the middle, and then because Zayn’s a sneaky bastard across the bottom. Louis’ gone and drawn a mustache on Zayn’s face. And a dick.

Fuck.

Zayn swallows thickly as Harry pops the cork on a bottle of champagne. He’s too dumbstruck to struggle when Louis hangs a just married sash over his torso.

“Liam --” Zayn’s voice cracks on it and the noise gets lost, drowned out by Louis saying, “Just because you went and did it without us doesn’t mean you get out of a proper stag do. Solid effort but we’re onto you.”

He punctuates it with a gentle slap to Zayn’s cheek and a wink, frowns when Zayn doesn’t flinch. He’s too busy staring at Liam, willing him to look at him, to look at anything but that bloody sign. Disappointed he’s being ignored, Louis tries again; Zayn dodges it this time and Louis grins, catches Zayn in a headlock and spins them around.

Bent in half, Zayn can’t see anything but Liam’s feet. He’s got no idea what to do now. Fuck. He closes his eyes. Fuck fuck fuck.

“Liam, why’ve you not got your shirt on?” Louis lets go of Zayn and sighs. “Christ’s sakes, first you’re late and now...”

When Zayn stands up, Liam’s got a shirt balled up in his hands and he’s staring at Zayn like he’s never seen him before. “You’re married?”

“No,” Louis says sarcastically, “we just spent a week planning this surprise party to take the piss.”

“Lou,” Zayn says, warningly. His voice sounds thin and desperate. Louis looks back and forth between Zayn and Liam but it’s Niall who gets it first, says, “Oh fucking shit, you didn’t --” and Zayn shakes his head but he can’t tear his eyes away from Liam. Liam’s still working his jaw like he’s trying to figure out what to say. Zayn wants to throw up.

“What? But we -- Liam!” Louis smacks Liam on the arm. “We talked about it while we were writing last week!”

Louis yelling jars Liam out of his stunned trance; he shakes his head and tears his gaze away from Zayn. “You asked if I thought Zayn would want strippers or not!”

“Exactly!” Louis yells.

“I thought we were talking about a surprise birthday party!”

“Why would you think that?”

“Why would I think he’d gone and got married without telling anyone?” Liam yells and Zayn flinches at that.

“To be fair,” Harry says, taking a step forward, “if anyone would…”

“Helping or hurting, Haz?” Niall says quietly, reaching out and dragging Harry back to the sidelines by the back of his shirt.

Liam’s back to staring at Zayn now. It’s painful to see, the way his face goes from hurt to hardened in the span of thirty seconds. He reaches into his pocket. “I’ve got to take this,” he says, glancing down at his phone. Zayn’s not blind, he knows it’s not rung.

“Liam,” he says again, louder this time, but Liam ducks into the next room without a glance back.

“Fucking fantastic,’ Louis says, after he’s gone. Niall smacks him upside the head. Louis goes to hit back, stops only when he remembers the crutches. He hits Harry’s instead.

“Heyyyy,” Harry says, rubbing his arm. “Oh, look!” He pulls Louis in between himself and Niall, points at Zayn and then their shirts, hand-painted with + and Perrie and 4EVER. “It still works.”

“Liam’s says Zayn,” Niall says softly. “Obviously.”

Zayn looks back at the door.

“Champagne?” Louis asks, stepping into the space Liam had been, filling up Zayn’s sightline. “Give him a mo, yeah?” he says quietly, so only Zayn hears. Zayn nods and Louis squeezes his elbow.

The room’s quiet for a minute. Zayn strains but he can’t hear anything from the next room; Liam must’ve gone somewhere else. Or he’s just sitting in there, stewing.

“Harry mentioned something about a ring,” Louis says, tugging at Zayn’s collar, and Zayn remembers that he’s not seen Louis since before the wedding.

“Hang on, alright, jeez, Lou.” He bats Louis’ hands out of the way so he can lift the chain. He keeps watch over Louis’ shoulder, waiting for Liam to come back into the room. He never does.

“Eh.” Louis shrugs, unimpressed, and lets go of the ring so it falls against Zayn’s chest.

“Okay,” Harry says at the same time, and Zayn turns away from the door in time to see how confused Harry looks, his brow wrinkled and his mouth all twisted up, “But how did you not tell him?”

“I tried,” Zayn says, everything coming back to him in a rush: Liam, drunk at his birthday party. Liam, apologizing for being on that bloody ledge. Liam freaking out on Twitter, Liam not responding to his texts, Liam needing time. Liam in fucking Puerto Rico. “I fucking tried but --”

He cuts himself off. If Liam’s not going to come out here, well. It’s a two-way street, or whatever. He hands his still-full champagne flute back to Louis and heads towards the door.

“Zayn, wait,” Harry says, “I didn’t --” but Zayn doesn’t. He’s already waited for so long.

**

He has to go all the way outside to find Liam, round back on Niall’s patio. He’s sat on the ground, back against the house, turning his phone end over end. Everything Zayn wants to say disappears and he just stands there, staring, until Liam looks over at him.

Liam laughs this quiet, derisive huff of a sound. “So that’s it? You’re married, then?”

“Yeah.” He sees Liam’s eyes flick to the ring. He doesn’t let himself touch it.

“This isn’t --” Liam digs the heels of his hands into his eyes, inhales like he’s steeling himself. “It’s not like -- this isn’t a new fucking tattoo, Zayn, when you can waltz in after and go ‘oh, look what I’ve done, isn’t it sick, Liam?’ You’ve gone and got fucking married.”

“I know.” Zayn pushes his hands further into his coat pockets. He’s still wearing his coat -- they both are, for fuck’s sake. It’s meant to be a party and this is how it’s turned out. Zayn sighs.

“So what, then? Was it for a laugh? Did you have bets on how long it’d take me to figure it out?” Liam pulls at the weeds sprouting up between the cracks in the stones, ripping them up angrily only to drop them again. “What’s next, you’re going to tell me Perrie’s pregnant? Is that it?”

Liam freezes as soon as he’s said it, his head whipping up. Zayn rocks back on his heels as if he’s been slapped.

“I didn’t -- shit, Zayn.”

“Oh, go fuck yourself,” Zayn says, so angry he can’t even be bothered to yell. Liam clams up all the same. “D’you know how many times I tried to tell you? Loads, Liam. But if you weren’t jumping the bloody gate to my house you were ignoring me. What was I supposed to do? Fucking tweet it for all the world to see? ‘Sorry, mate, I know you don’t have my number but I did something pretty massive and I need you to fucking call me back.’ Hashtag: I’m married.”

His chest’s heaving by the end of it, face hot with anger. He stands there, arms flung out so his jacket’s pulled open, the sash twisted around his neck, and waits for Liam to say something. Anything.

“That doesn’t even make sense. How am I supposed call if I haven’t got your number?” Liam says. His laugh sounds strained, like he knows it wasn’t funny, but Zayn doesn’t care if it was funny or not.

“Fuck’s sake, Liam,” Zayn breathes out, anger giving way to disappointment. Of all the ways he thought it could go, he never pictured this. He’d known Liam would be upset with him, but this? Liam’s always supposed to be in his corner. Now he can barely look at Zayn.

Zayn scrubs his palms over his face; he needs a cigarette. Maybe he should beg off, claim a stomachache and go home. The others would never believe it but they’d still let him go, probably.

Something hits his foot and when he opens his eyes, it’s Liam, stretched out far enough to poke at Zayn with his toes. He takes a step back. After a second he looks up; Liam’s gone wide-eyed, looks like he’s angry and hurt and, on top of that, horribly guilty.

“‘m sorry,” Liam says, pulling his legs back in, curling his hands around his knees. “I didn’t -- I don’t -- I’m sorry.”

“You can be a real dick sometimes, Li,” Zayn says. His limbs feel heavy all of a sudden, his body sagging under the weight of everything. He gestures to the ground next to Liam. “Can I?”

Liam shrugs so Zayn sits, leaving space between the two of them. He hugs his legs to his chest. He wishes he knew what to say. He doesn’t know why it’s so difficult.

“Like --” he starts, but then the door’s opening, Harry’s head popping out.

“Is everyone alright? I thought I might’ve heard shouting.” He looks at Liam first, then Zayn, holds his gaze like he’s waiting for a signal of sorts. Help me, maybe, or go the fuck away, Haz. Zayn just stares back hollowly, thinks that’s a signal in and of itself. Everything’s fucked.

“I told you to leave them alone, Harry!” Louis yells from somewhere inside. Harry frowns but ducks back inside, shutting the door.

“I was just checking,” they hear him say. Liam chuckles and then stops likes he’s remembered where he is, what’s happening. Zayn chances a glance at him, watches as Liam pushes the torn-up weeds into a tidy pile by his leg.

“I’m sorry, too,” he says. Liam looks up slowly. “For everything.

He chews on his lip; Liam doesn't say anything. "I didn't mean to keep it from you for so long, honest."

"But you meant it to be a secret for a bit," Liam says, sounding like he's trying to understand.

"Yeah." Zayn shrugs. "But like, from everybody."

"Don't go getting a big head about it, Liam," Harry says, and Zayn realizes they're sitting under a window, that the other three have their faces nearly pressed against the screen. Zayn hadn't even heard it open. Had it been this whole time? "I had to get him well pissed before he'd tell me."

Liam laughs as Zayn scowls. "Is that so?"

"No," Zayn says, scowling.

"Yes.” Harry rests his chin on his hands on the windowsill. “Zayn lost a baguette sword fight that night, he doesn't like to talk about it. He's still very upset."

"Jesus Christ, Haz." Zayn doesn't even remember that. He’s ninety percent sure Harry’s just making it up. He tilts his head up to glare but Harry’s smirking at him knowingly.

"I was first!" Louis yells helpfully. "He told me first!"

Zayn rolls his eyes; Liam's laughing outright now, the corners of his eyes crinkling with it. The relief starts at the bottom of Zayn's spine and spreads outward. In the background he can hear Niall smacking Harry and Louis with his crutches, insisting that he got over it quick enough, there's no reason they all can't move on.

"Secret wedding, big fuckin' deal," he says. "I'm onto you, Malik, tryin’ t'steal my thunder!"

"Aw, Nialler." Louis clucks his tongue, "Was your surgery very scary? Do you want me to come to physio with you, hold your -- ow! Do you really need those to walk or are they just weapons now? Harry! Help!"

Liam shifts closer to Zayn, leaves just enough space that Zayn is the one who has to close the distance.

"I am happy for you, you know," Liam says. Zayn tilts his head, rests it on Liam's shoulder.

"Thanks," he says.

“If you two are quite finished, we are trying to throw a party in here,” Louis says. “I know Liam vetoed the strippers, but that’s no reason to avoid us.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Liam says under his breath. Zayn snorts. They stay there for another minute, long enough for Zayn to start to feel calm, settled. He’s felt off-kilter for so long now that it was starting to feel normal, but now that things are sorted he’s acutely aware of how strange it was, how upsetting. He doesn’t know how he went on for so long, feeling like that, like there was a gaping space behind his ribs.

“Alright?” Liam asks. Zayn’s the one who should be the one asking that question. He nods.

Liam stands up before turning, holding out a hand to pull Zayn to his feet. He uses the momentum to tug Zayn into a hug. Zayn holds tight and doesn’t let go until Louis makes an irritated noise, glaring at them through the window.

“Honestly, this is the world’s lamest stag do. You’re already married and now you’re not even drinking. Disgraceful. None of you lot are allowed to plan mine. You’re not even invited.”

“Get stuffed, Louis,” Niall yells from somewhere fairly far away. Louis spares one last disappointed glance at Liam and Zayn before he turns, raising two fingers in Niall’s general direction. Zayn laughs, so happy he can’t contain it. It’s like his skin’s buzzing with it. He leaves his arm around Liam’s shoulder as they walk towards the door.

Zayn catches Liam staring at him. “What?”

“It’s weird, innit?” Liam says. “Do you feel any different?”

Zayn feels like a boulder’s been lifted off his chest, like he can finally breathe easily, but he knows that’s not what Liam means.

“Not really,” he says, touching Perrie’s ring before pulling open the door, holding it for Liam. He grins. “That’s what’s weird.”

**

“Hey.” Zayn drags his knuckles along Perrie’s spine. She squirms, sinking deeper into the bed. At first he’d been slighted when she’d said she wasn’t going to meet him at the airport; now he’s glad for it, happy to be the one crawling into bed with her after a long flight.

He sets his glasses on the nightstand before slipping under the covers and spooning up behind her, molding his body to the curve of hers. Perrie shifts but doesn’t wake up; Zayn kisses the nape of her neck, closes his eyes and inhales.

“Zayn?”

“Yeah,” he says, reveling in the way she shivers when his lips brush her skin. He does it again, leans back to watch the goose flesh appear. He slips his fingers under the hem of her top, pushes it up until he can spread his palm out on the smooth skin of her belly. Perrie sighs, pushes back against him, and he’s suddenly, fiercely thankful Jesy’d fucked off after she let him in.

“When’d you get in?” Perrie tugs at his arm, rolling under him as he moves up and over until she’s fully under him, caged in by his body.

“Just now.”

She tilts her chin up for a kiss and he leans down to oblige. She’s still warm and pliant from sleep, lazy in the way she’s kissing him back. Zayn drops down to his forearms to deepen the kiss, trying to convey just how much he’s missed her without saying it. Perrie makes a soft noise in the back of her throat and Zayn pulls back, opens his eyes in time to watch the way her lashes flutter against her cheeks, the way the flush on her skin makes her eyes seem even more blue.

She smiles up at him, traces her fingertip along the edge of his beard like she’s trying to remind herself of something. He turns into her touch, kisses her palm.

“Hi,” she says, curling her fingers, scratching gently at his scruff.

Later they’ll trade rings again, slip them back on the right fingers before they spend the afternoon shopping in the warm California sun. He’ll watch her show, worried he’s going to burst with pride.

For now, though, he’s content to stay here, in a bed with too many pillows, Perrie tucked underneath him, touching him like she’s afraid he’ll disappear if she stops.

She curls her fist around the chain of his necklace, uses it to pull him back to her, her legs falling open so he can settle between them. “Good morning, Mr. Edwards,” she says, smirking.

“Mrs. Malik,” he says back, and he has to drop his head to her shoulder to collect himself even as she’s pushing down his trackies. She kisses the crown of his head and lets him take all the time he needs.