care_says: (doctor who - amy's raggedy doctor)
[personal profile] care_says
Title: Like Stars Burning Up the Night (2/2)
Fandom: Doctor Who RPF
Pairing: Matt Smith/Karen Gillan
Rating: PG-13
Summary: That time they were all in a band. The Karen and the Babes AU.

Part 1


Setting up the basic fundraising page doesn't take very long, but they fidget with it for forever. Arthur's constantly adding updates -- and every week they sit down and do a video thanking everyone for their donations. Karen has her doubts that it'll work, but she keeps them to herself. After all, some crazy things have gotten funded, so why not them? Matt has a friend-of-a-friend with a recording studio, who'll have them in for a discounted price, so. This is their chance.

They talk up the album at their gigs, get their fans participating and voting on their favorite songs. Sure, there are some amateur recordings of their songs floating around, but an actual studio album would be amazing. The money comes in steadily, getting a bump whenever they play. They put all the money they make from the gigs towards the album, stuffing bills in a jar marked KAREN AND THE BABES' DEBUT that's sitting on the kitchen counter.

At the end of October Karen takes two days off work and flies up to Inverness to see her parents. She hasn't seen them in person since mid-summer, when they came down and took her on a holiday. Her dad fetches her at the airport and they chat about the band on the way home. He's been rather keen on news of the album and she's happy they're not far from reaching their goal. Karen spends her mini-break happily being fed baked goods and roasts by her mum, listening to records with her dad, and seeing friends.

"Bring Matt next time," her mum says when she kisses Karen goodbye.

"Yeah, he's always welcome here," her dad adds.

Arthur and Matt pick her up at the curb at Gatwick. Karen's missed them more than she'd care to admit, especially Matt. The sight of his beaming face from the passenger side window is enough to set her heart racing. He climbs out to help her with her bag, folding her into a hug that smells like smoke and damp wool (from his jumper) and rain. She arches into his kiss, threading her fingers through his hair.

"I missed you," he murmurs. "A lot."

"You too," she says.

Arthur honks the car horn and gives them a 'hurry up!' gesture with his hand. Karen waves at him, being deliberately obtuse, and he glares. She giggles.

They get back to the flat, Arthur dropping them off so he can take the car back to his parents', and Matt raises his eyebrows at her as he goes up the stairs. She can't help the delighted burst of laughter that explodes from her and she lets him pull her down the hallway, kissing her every few steps, into his bedroom, illuminated with afternoon light. He presses her into the mattress and her hands scrabble at his shirt, trying to tug it off. He looks at her through his fringe, grinning, and she feels her smile in kind, bright and joyous and full of absolutely everything.

"I love you," she blurts out, unable to stop. "I'm properly in love with you."

Matt's mouth stills along her jaw, his breaths feather-light and damp. He shifts, the bed dipping under his weight, and rolls onto his side to look her in the eye.

"Oh shit," she says in a small voice. "Shit. I'm sorry -- "

"I love you too, Kaz," is what he says, unsmiling. "I love you so much."

"Are you sure?" she asks, her cheeks flushing hot.

"What, Karen -- ?"

"I just want you to be sure. Because this is a big thing. So, I don't know, if you're sure."

"I'm so fucking sure," he says, his voice a gravelly rumble that makes her shiver. "I've been sure for ages."

She leans her forehead against his, grabs his hand and kisses the knuckles. "Okay. Yeah. Good."

"Good," he echoes, squeezing back. "Really good."

She kisses him, softly, deepening it when his lips part, and he wraps his arms around her, and there's not much to talk about for a long time after that.

*

The album's fully funded two weeks later and there's even enough extra that they can afford to pay Matt's friend from uni who's a graphic designer now. She offered to do the album art for free, but Karen feels better that they can at least give her something. The three of them sit down together to decide which songs they're putting on the album -- half of them are old favorites they've been playing for the past year or so, half of them new ones they've just written.

Arthur wants them to get a manager, which Matt argues against, saying it's an unnecessary expense that they can't afford right now because of all the album. Karen can't say she feels strongly either way and would mostly prefer to stay out of it as much as she can. In the end, however, Arthur wins out. They get someone who manages one of the other bands they've played with, and Liz is no-nonsense and a bit severe. Matt comments that she frightens the pants off him.

"But she's brilliant at her job," Arthur says, not budging.

"Could've at least gotten someone who smiles," Matt says.

Karen still doesn't feel that strongly about the whole thing. Liz is brilliant at her job, but she scares the pants off Karen too, but that's all before the four of them sit down for a PR meeting, when everything goes from shaky to worse.

The morning starts off wrong in general. Everyone sleeps past their alarms and the flat feels like a stressful mess. Matt snipes at Karen for taking too long in the shower and Arthur trips over one of Matt's shoes in the living room and threatens to chuck it out the window. They eat breakfast in a huffy, tense silence and avoid each other's eyes, dumping all the dishes in the sink for later. They're supposed to meet Liz in a coffee shop in twenty minutes and they're not even out of the house yet.

When they finally do sit down with Liz, they're ten minutes late and tripping over themselves with apologies, and Liz looks like she's ready to behead them, one at a time. She clears her throat and makes a big show of waving her watch around, then takes a swig of her coffee. She whips out a list and starts ticking off boxes, talking rapidly and staring just past Karen's ear.

Karen, for her part, does her best to follow the words streaming out of Liz's mouth, but keeps finding herself thinking about other things and not really listening. That is, until she hears:

"You two are dating, right?"

"Y-yeah," Matt says, sliding his gaze over to Karen. "Yes."

Liz clicks her tongue. "You can't."

"Excuse me?" Karen blinks at her. "We...can't what?"

"Can't be dating."

"But, we are," Matt says, dumbly.

"Well, you have to stop," Liz says back, like it's nothing at all. Like she's saying Karen needs to stop tossing her house keys on the kitchen counter or eating all the bags of crisps. Like it's something that can stop just like that, snapping her fingers, something that will just cease completely.

"I'm sorry, but we can't stop dating." Matt gives this little disbelieving laugh because, Karen thinks numbly, this is ludicrous. It can't be happening.

"You have to, if you want this band to succeed."

Arthur's eyes go wide and horrified. "Why?"

"It's going to get messy. There'll be pressure on you three. If the relationship goes any further, and the two of you break up, it'll probably mean the end of the group. You can't have that if you're on tour or in the middle of recording an album."

"We're not going to break up," Karen says, her voice ringing and loud, cutting across the noise of the people milling around the coffee shop. A few heads turn.

Liz gives her a somewhat pitying look. Karen supposes it's meant to be kind, but it doesn't help at all. Maybe Liz is a robot and is trying to replicate human emotion.That would explain a lot of things.

"We're not," Karen says again, but her voice is smaller this time. She steals a look at Matt, hoping to catch his eye so they can share this moment of solidarity, but he's staring at the ground, his forehead furrowed.

Arthur reaches over and gives her hand a squeeze.

"Think about it," Liz says, and turns back to her checklist.

The three of them don't say anything until they reach their flat. Matt goes straight into the kitchen to put on the kettle and sets out mugs for tea. Karen thinks she wouldn't mind something stronger, but it's not even noon yet, so instead she curls up on the sofa and puts a cushion over her face.

"Here."

She pushes the cushion aside and looks up at Matt, setting a steaming mug of tea on the coffee table. He hasn't brought coasters with him, of course, so it'll leave a ring on the wooden surface. She sits up properly, moving over a bit so he can sit down.

"That meeting was rubbish," he says.

Some of the tension goes out of Karen. Her shoulders slump. "Yeah."

"It was stupid."

"Definitely."

Matt chews on the skin around his thumbnail absently, his hair falling forward into his face. "But..."

She stiffens immediately.

"What if she's right?"

"She's not," Karen says quickly.

"Karen."

"You would break up with me because she thinks it's the right thing to do?" Her voice sounds high-pitched and shrill, quavering a bit at the end.

"No." Matt reaches over for her hand, but she pulls back. "I love you, Kaz. But she's done this a lot. So what if she has a point? I don't want us to implode."

She stands up. Her whole body's shaking and she can't seem to stop. "I'm... I need to go."

He opens his mouth like he's about to say something, but Karen doesn't want to hear it. She goes into her room and shuts the door, curls up on her bed like she's a kid, quietly crying into the pillow

Arthur comes by after an hour with a fresh cup of tea. He puts it on her nightstand.

"Do you think we should break up?" Karen asks after thanking him.

"I don't -- " he starts, looking uncomfortable, but restarts his sentence after he glances at her. "Do what you think you should do. Don't do what Liz thinks you should do."

"Matt thinks we should break up."

"He doesn't want to though."

She looks down at her hands. "No. But that's a reason, isn't it? Just the fact that he thinks we should?"

Arthur sits down heavily on the side of her bed, putting his arm around her shoulders, and pressing a kiss to her temple. "He also loves you."

"Yeah," Karen replies, feeling the weight of the word sink into her.

*

They make up, but things don't go back to normal. He tells her he's sorry, and she says she forgives him, but neither of them can forget. It looms over them, this dark cloud of anxiety dogging Karen's footsteps. She tries. They go to the park together, playing on the swings, and drive out of London so they can star-gaze. He surprises her after her shift one night with flowers. And yet something's off, and the feeling wraps itself around Karen. Like they're playing versions of themselves that aren't quite real.

Arthur urges them to take a weekend together. Maybe it's the thing for them. They don't have the money to take a holiday, so Arthur goes to stay with his parents, and leaves the flat to the two of them.

They're making dinner together on Saturday night, Matt dicing tomatoes and onions for pasta sauce, and Karen's pulling a box of spaghetti out of the pantry. He turns his head to smile at her and she knows. With that same sort of click when she realized he liked her too, that feeling of a piece falling into place. She sets down the box on the kitchen counter and crosses the room to him, wrapping her arms around him from behind. She presses a kiss between his shoulderblades, the thin cotton of his t-shirt soft from wear. He stops chopping.

"Hey." He turns around, pulling her close.

She breathes him in, fresh laundry, the biting sharpness of onions, and the sweet acidic burn of tomatoes. "I love you, Matt."

"Same." He kisses her forehead.

Her heart feels heavy. She swallows. "We have to break up."

"Kaz -- "
"It's been weird. Hasn't it been weird with us?"

His eyes search her face. "A little. Yeah. It's been...a little strained. But it doesn't mean we should break up. Things will get better."

"You think we should."

"Maybe," Matt admits. "Or, I don't know, I thought... I'm afraid of us breaking up horribly and being angry with each other. Being unable to be friends. And the band would be over. I can't -- I don't want to not have you in my life."

"So...you want to break up now. To make it less awful if we break up later."

"Sort of," he says. "But it's not -- I'm in love with you, Karen."

She cups his face in her hands, tracing her thumbs across his cheekbones. He's visibly upset, his brow furrowed, his arms tense around her. "I know." She kisses him. "It's okay. It'll be fine."

He buries his nose in her neck. His breaths tickle her skin. "Is this...?"

She nods, afraid that she'll cry if she says anything, and he tightens his embrace.

They finish making dinner and eat it at the kitchen table in silence. Karen aches all over, thrumming with sadness and resignation. She's not sure what this is anymore, whatever this is, people who are in love but not together, living in the same flat. She and Matt do the washing up side-by-side. She's careful to focus on scrubbing the plates and not on Matt's expression, drawn and thoughtful and far away. If she thinks about it too much -- she takes a deep breath -- she can't think about it.

She wipes her hands on a clean tea towel when they finish, getting ready to bolt. She's thinking about putting on the White Stripes loud and crying until she can't breathe in the privacy of her room.

Matt touches her arm. "Karen."

She freezes.

"Let's not... Let's not make it official yet. Not until tomorrow."

Karen's gaze rakes over his familiar features, the worried line of his mouth, the point of his chin, the fringe of hair falling into his eyes. She doesn't know -- how is she supposed to stop loving him. How is that even possible? She looks down and takes his hand, lacing their fingers together. He lets out a breath.

"Okay," she says, her voice barely audible at all, and she's simultaneously exhilarated and terrified as he bends his head to kiss her, the taste of him bittersweet.

*

Matt's awake when she stirs. She kisses his shoulder and his neck and curls up as close as she can get to him, her eyes tightly shut. Maybe if they don't get up, this doesn't have to happen.

"I'll miss you," he says.

She doesn't say anything back, but the words resonate inside her chest, filling up her heart. They stay like that for hours, or at least that's what it feels like, mostly quiet, talking about nothing when they do, Matt's fingers combing through her hair. He stops when they hear the front door open and Arthur's voice ringing through the flat.

"We should get up," Karen says, extricating herself a little.

Matt leans over and kisses her hair, right at her temple. Karen closes her eyes and reminds herself to breathe.

*

It's weird after that. There's not a chance it wasn't going to be weird, though Karen tries to dissipate the tension as much as she can. She takes extra shifts at work, phones up a few friends from school to go see a film, and Matt gets more students. They fine-tune the songs for the album, rehearsing extra hours, and do a few rough recordings. Liz attends one of their gigs at the university, watching them from backstage. She hadn't said anything when Matt told her he and Karen were broken up, just gave a little nod of acknowledgement, and moved along with her agenda.

Arthur asks if they all want to get a drink when the gig's over. Matt declines, complaining of a headache, so Karen ends up at the pub with Arthur and a few mates. They crowd into a corner of the room, around a few tiny tables. Karen finds herself jammed between Arthur and Devon, a drummer from another band,and it's a little warm from the press of people and adrenaline, her hair sticking to the back of her neck.

"I heard about you and Matt," Devon says over the noise when Arthur goes off to get drinks. "Sorry."

Karen gives him a small, tight smile. "It's alright."

"I know what that's like."

"What's what like?"

"Dating someone in the same band. It's hard." Devon leans back in his seat,

"Oh, right, you and Sophie -- I heard about that too. I'm so sorry." Karen remembers Sophie, who she hasn't seen in ages, dark eyes and big eyes and absolutely phenomenal bass player.

He shrugs. "You know. It's alright," he parrots her and they both laugh.

"Where did Sophie go anyway?" she asks.

"She joined another band, went on tour. It's probably for the best."

Karen nods, absently.

"You and Matt though -- you two share a flat with Arthur, right?"

"Yeah," she admits. "It's a bit awkward at the moment."

"That'll get sorted, I'm sure." Maybe it's Karen's imagination, but he edges a little closer.

Before the end of the night, she's snogging Devon in the women's toilets, feeling overheated and fuzzy from alcohol. He doesn't feel like Matt at all -- the build of his body completely different and his hair is cropped short, close to the scalp. His lips are chapped and he tastes of whiskey. Devon pulls away, his eyes glazed, and asks her to come back to his, and Karen is surprised to hear herself agreeing. She goes back to the table to grab her coat

"Are you heading home?" Arthur asks, glancing up from his conversation. He squints, seeming to take in her flushed cheeks and mussed hair. "Or not?"

She mutters something vague and runs off with her coat.

Devon wants her to spend the night when they're both lying in bed afterwards. His arm is heavy and strange around her waist. She tells him she has to get up early for work -- a complete lie -- and gets dressed in the moonlit dark of his bedroom. He reaches over to his nightstand and drinks heavily from a bottle of water, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.

"You're gorgeous," he says.

She pauses in the middle of zipping up her jeans. "Um. Thanks."

"D'you want to, uh, do this again sometime?"

Karen walks over to the bed and leans down to give him a quick kiss. "Devon, I don't want to give you the wrong impression, but this isn't -- I'm not ready to be with anyone."

He laughs and kisses her again. "Nothing serious, Karen. Just sex."

She shakes her head, smiling. "Thanks, but not right now."

Devon walks her to the curb outside his building, giving her a tight hug before she disappears into the warm, dark interior of the idling cab she's hailed. She has the driver drop her off two blocks away from her flat, letting the cold night drizzle sober her up as she walks back. Karen tries to unlock the front door as quietly as she can, with the awareness that it's almost four in the morning -- late, even by their standards. She eases the door open, slipping in, and tiptoes across the creaky corridor for her room.

"Kaz?"

She has her hand on the doorknob, about to turn it. She spins around. "Hey. Sorry. Did I wake you?"

Matt looks at her, blearily, his hair sticking up and his shirt rumpled. He's still wearing the clothes from the gig. "No. I was, um -- you just get in?"

"Yeah," she whispers, cheeks suddenly burning.

"Oh."

They stand in silence, staring at each other. A wave of missing him crashes into Karen. She doesn't, not all the time, because she still sees him, and the distance seems bearable then, when he's still singing by her side and she can hear the twang of chords beneath his fingers. But everything is hazy when she hasn't had any sleep and she's still a little drunk and it's late at night and she has to take a shaky breath.

Matt nods towards his bedroom. "I'll let you go to bed. I should sleep."

"Were you," she says before she can think better of it, "were you waiting up for me?"

He doesn't say anything. The quiet stretches on between them, thick with expectation. And when Karen thinks she can no longer stand it -- when she finally has to say something -- Matt turns and leaves.

God, Karen thinks when she shuts the door of her room, she's too tired for this shit.

*

The album takes them two weeks to record, start to finish, and by the time they're done, Karen wants to never see either of the boys again. It's been countless hours of being crammed together, playing the same things over and over again, singing until her voice is hoarse, and squabbling about tiny details that'll probably never occur to her again. Arthur's friend is patient and helpful, but Karen is still stressed the entire time. She smokes her way through cartons of cigarettes.

The day they call it done, she takes a long, soaking bubble bath and drinks half a bottle of wine in the tub, soaking away all the built-up frustrations. Her best friend from Inverness comes for a visit, and the two of them stay up late chatting in Karen's bed, like they did when they were children. Fiona's in the middle of her third year at university and her life is almost deliciously uncomplicated in comparison. No still-living-with-ex-boyfriends-in-the-same-flat situations going on.

They eat their way through a big bag of crisps as Karen tells the whole, messy story of Matt and uni and Karen and the Babes in general. Fiona makes all the right noises of exclamation at all the right places. Karen hasn't realized until now how much she's missed her.

"Bit weird though," Fiona says when they finally turn out the lights.

"Why's that?"

"Because you're clearly still both in love with each other, and you live in the same house, and both of you know that you're both still in love with each other -- it seems silly."

"It's not -- he doesn't -- okay. Maybe he wants to be with me still, but he also wanted to split up."

"The album's finished," Fi points out. "What are you waiting for?"

"We can't," Karen protests faintly. "It could be awful for the band."

"The band was doing fine when you were together."

"I know, but, Fi -- "

"If you're going to be depressed about the whole thing, then you two only have yourselves to blame," Fiona says in a no-nonsense tone, and Karen finds she has no counter argument for that.

*

One night she's in the middle of playing around with Arthur's keyboards when the feeling of missing Matt hits her so hard she has to stop.

It's stupid. So stupid, she thinks, as she finds herself crying, She broke up with him after all. Why is she still feeling like this, over a month after the fact?

*

They get a copy of the album to listen to when it's been finalized and mastered. Arthur brings it home tucked into his satchel, just a shiny CD in a paper sleeve looking like it's something he burned on the computer. Matt slips it into the player in the living room, and the three of them lie on the floor on their backs, listening to their music spilling out loud and amazing from the speakers. Karen can't stop grinning. It's brilliant. It's them, sounding like professionals, her singing clear above the instrumental, and they just keep listening through the whole album.

She turns her head to look at Matt and he's already staring at her, smiling wide, and she feels this rush of warmth go through her entire body like a wonderful jolt. He reaches out a hand and she takes it, their palms touching, and she intertwines her fingers with Arthur's on her other side. She just -- she fucking loves them, both of them, her boys. Karen is giddier with each passing note.

The last song dies away, fading into buzzy silence, and Karen's held breath unfurls. Arthur lets out a noise like a choked laugh.

"God," he says.

Matt sits up, letting go of Karen's hand. "Yeah. Fucking unbelievable."

She attacks them both, throwing her arms around their shoulders and bringing them in for a hug. They make laughing protests, but hug her back all the same.

"We are amazing," Arthur says. "We should celebrate." He scrambles up. "My parents gave me a bottle of champagne and I think this is a good time to open it."

He disappears into the kitchen to fetch it. Karen brushes her hair out of her eyes, feeling Arthur's sudden absence. Matt moves away, a polite few inches between them on the carpet.

"I'm so glad we decided on you," he says after a long pause.

"So it wasn't just for my looks then?" she jokes.

Matt blushes. Sweet, but it leaves a feeling of melancholy sitting on her chest. "No, um, that too."

"Well, guess it's too late to back out now. You'd have to change the band name."

"Yeah, the Babes doesn't have quite the same ring to it."

She sucks in a breath and takes his hand again, hesitant. Her heartbeat's pounding in her ears -- fast, and a little blurry.

He looks down at their fingers, curled together. "Karen?"

"I really miss you," she says, unsure, unable to look at him. The moment feels like it's going both too slowly and too fast, and all her concentration's focused on the point where they're touching.

"I -- " but he doesn't finish the statement. He leans over and puts his free hand beneath her chin, tilting her face up a little so he can kiss her. He smells familiar, shampoo and coffee, and his kiss is warm and so good and she melts into it, bringing up a hand to fist the front of his shirt, his heart beneath her fingertips. He tastes like the sweets he was eating, and Karen has the briefest thought that maybe the residual sugar will dissolve into her own bloodstream. She's all desperation and want, his mouth firm against hers.

"I can come back, if you're busy," Arthur says.

Matt jerks back from her, his face turning red. "Uh -- no -- sorry, mate."

"So...champagne then?"

Karen accepts a chipped mug. "Are we out of clean glasses again?"

"Yeah, there's a pile of them in the sink." Arthur plops down, eyes them both. "Are you...?"

Matt interrupts him. "To us, to having the the greatest band in the world." He raises his mug.

"May we live long and prosper," Arthur tacks on.

"And may we get super famous and rich," Karen says. The boys shoot her sideways looks. "What? You two have never thought about it? Please."

An hour later, when they're all buzzed on champagne, Arthur's mobile rings and he disappears into his bedroom to take it. Karen can hear the pitch of his voice, rising and falling, drifting down the corridor, his words indistinct. Probably whoever he's dating at the moment -- she can't keep track. She glances at Matt, tipping more champagne into his mug. He catches her looking, and spills the bottle across the rug, alcohol seeping out, the smell of it pungent and sweet. He sets the bottle back upright in a flurry of movement, and Karen goes to find a rag to soak up the champagne.

She dabs the cloth against the large damp spot, watching liquid turn the tea towel dark. Matt sits by, frowning, looking almost morose.

"It's just a carpet, Matt," she says, teasingly. "Don't look so dour."

"I still love you," he says. "I miss you all the time."

She stops with the sodden rag clutched in her hand, her heart seizing up. "Same," she mumbles.

"Breaking up hasn't made anything easier, has it?"

The question is rhetorical, but Karen shakes her head anyway. "No."

Matt gives her a tiny smile. "I'm sorry, Kaz."

She moves closer, resting her head against his shoulder, curling herself up against his chest. His arms come around her and she can feel his cheek nestled against her hair. God, she's missed this, him, being able touch him, not having to second-guess what she wants to say.

"I'm sorry too," she says into his shirt, and then moves her face away a little so she can look at him properly, kiss him. He pulls her down with him, lying back on the floor, so she's sprawled across him and has to prop herself up on an elbow to draw back.

"So..."

She smiles, trying to tuck her hair behind her ear to get it out of her face. "What?"

He does it for her, his thumb lingering against her jaw, lightly tracing it down to her chin. She shivers and he smirks, all pleased smugness. "Breaking up was stupid."

"Yeah."

"Never let me suggest it again."

"Okay. I'll remind you the next time you want to."

"Seriously, guys, every time I leave the room," Arthur says from the doorway, sounding much aggrieved.

Matt lets go of Karen and picks up the wet rag, throwing it in Arthur's direction. "You should be happy for us. We just got back together."

"I'm happy, I'm thrilled. Will you pass the champagne?"

*

Christmas in Inverness is snowy and wet. Every time she and Matt come back into the house, they have to peel off their soaked layers and drape them over the radiator in Karen's bedroom. But it's lovely, being able to be up there with Matt, getting to show him around the town -- all the spots that were once such large fixtures in her life, dwindled to nostalgic memories now. They drive to Loch Ness and get out to look over the steel-gray water, the cold sinking in through all their layers. Karen's mum has the kettle ready when they get back, and they gratefully huddle in front of the fireplace in the sitting room with their tea, shoving each other a bit for room before they agree on Karen sitting between Matt's legs, her back to his chest.

"This place is way less weird than I had expected," he says.

Karen's lulled half to sleep by the combined heat of tea and fire and Matt. "Hmm?"

"I always thought that wherever you came from must be extremely weird, but it turns out you're just a bizarre anomaly."

"Hey." She pokes him in the side. "Watch it. You're at my house now."

When her dad brings out the photo album, Karen's ready to die. Great, all those naked baby pictures. Matt crowds around eagerly, craning his head for a better look. He's fascinated by a picture of sixteen-year-old Karen, dancing with one of her cousins at a wedding. Her hair's tumbling down her back, the flowers in it loose and falling out, but she likes the picture because she's laughing at something her cousin said. Her dad excuses himself to go answer the phone, and Matt leans over to nudge her.

"You look hot, Kaz," he grins.

"Shut up, pervert," she retorts, blushing.

"No, you really do. You're glowing. Like the moon."

"Maybe you need to get a sixteen-year-old girlfriend then."

He gives her a quick kiss. "No, you'll do" and happiness is warm in the pit of her stomach.

They exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, because it feels too personal to do it with her parents both present. So the two of them find themselves alone by the tree, the only light the strings of fairy lights, and the flicker of the fire. Karen has a blanket draped around her shoulders, feeling uncertain as she hands Matt the carefully-wrapped present she picked out a few weeks prior.

"Oh, Kaz, it's lovely," he says when he's torn the paper off. It's an antique collection of love poems, bound together in a worn leather book. She had gone through hundreds of used bookstores before she found it. He opens the cover and pauses at inside blank page. Karen looks on nervously, picking at her lips, as Matt reads her inscription -- I honestly never thought I would be so lucky to be with someone like you.

He sets the book down carefully and slides his hands beneath her blanket, his fingers cold against her skin, but his mouth is almost scalding. "Thank you," he murmurs into the crook of her neck. Warmth ripples through her. She lets out a soft gasp as his lips drop to her collarbone and he moves back, cheeks pink and eyes bright. "I've got a present for you."

Karen raises both eyebrows. "Is it...sex?"

"Do your parents know how vulgar you are, Gillan?"

"Nope, no idea."

He takes out his guitar, props it up across his lap and strums a chord, tuning. Karen watches him through half-lidded eyes, and it strikes her that perhaps -- oh -- he's written her something and she scrambles for her mobile, picking it up so she can tape him. He makes a face, but doesn't complain. She sits back and hits record, trying to hold the phone as steadily as she can.

Matt's voice is soft, but it still makes her skin buzz, and the lyrics wrap themselves around her until she's cocooned in the words and melody. He wrote this for her. For her. He's fingerpicking the tune, and the notes resonate in the space between her ribs, because he's singing about undiscovered worlds and his hand in hers. She feels the music in the drumbeat of her pulse.

She harmonizes with him on the last chorus, fitting herself in a third above, and he smiles. He fades out into quiet, broken by the crackle of the fire. She stops the recording, aware that she's crying.

"Did you like it?"

Karen wipes her face messily, the back of her hand coming away wet. "No. It was horrible. God, when did you write this?"

He sets the guitar down. "A while ago. But I took it out and rewrote bits of it. I had wanted to put it on the album, but it just wasn't ready."

She threads her fingers through his hair, kissing him. "No one's ever sung to me before."

"For shame, Kazza, you're in a band," he laughs and it makes her body hum.

"Yeah, why did it take you so fucking long?"

"I don't know." His hands slip up the back of her pajama top, tracing the length of her spine. "Happy Christmas, Karen."

"Happy Christmas," she echoes, and sets about showing him exactly how much she loves his present, and an hour later they have to scamper up the stairs, giggling and half-dressed, so her parents won't discover them still lying in front of the fire in the morning.

*

They throw their album release party at their neighborhood pub and invite all their fans. They play the album, hold a contest at a door for free copies of the CD, and after and during, dancing. Karen feels like she's getting mobbed by people -- all of them shouting her name. It's weird, a bit like being a celebrity, she imagines, but for her it only lasts this one night. She signs t-shirts and albums and a random man's chest (per his request) and poses for what possibly could be a million photos. Even the always-sour Liz looks faintly pleased at the reception. They've gotten reviewed by some not insignificant blogs and magazines, and she's booked them a few gigs outside London, including one in Germany.

Arthur holds up one of the glossy albums up to his face and grins. "This is bloody amazing."

"Yeah, we were made for album covers," Matt agrees, putting his arm around Arthur's shoulders. "I love you, Darvill. You too, Gillan."

Karen laughs. "I see how it is. Leave me out of this."

Arthur solemnly takes Matt's face between his hands and kisses him soundly on the mouth. It's just about the most perfect thing Karen's ever seen -- and weirdly hot, though she doesn't dwell on that thought, what the hell -- she slumps against the merch table, giggling until her stomach hurts. Matt grabs Arthur by the waist and dips him, kissing him again, firmer. A few of the fans nearby snap pictures and wolf-whistle.

"He's good, did you know that?" Matt says cheerfully to Karen once he and Arthur are upright.

She nods, still laughing. "I did."

"Very nice, mate." Arthur pats Matt on the back.

"Should I leave you two to it?" Karen asks.

Arthur leans over the merch table and kisses her too, tasting just like he did so many months ago, smoke and beer and there's the faint spiciness that always seems to linger on his skin. She pats his cheek gently when he pulls back.

"Thanks."

"You are very welcome, Moonface Kazza."

"You are completely plastered."

"Yeah, you might be right." He sways on his feet a bit. "Oh, shit, there's Olivia. I didn't ring her back last night. I'll just...be in the toilets."

Matt drops a kiss to Karen's shoulder as he comes around the table. "We're not going to include Arthur in our relationship from now on, are we?"

"Definitely not."

Matt tugs on his long shirtsleeve and extends his arm towards her, gesturing for her to sign it. She shoots him a look, but is just writing with love from the moon on him when Liz strides towards them, her eyes wide. It's the first time Karen's seen her flustered, which must mean that the apocalypse has come upon them, or ebola's just broken out from behind the bar.

"A label rang me," Liz says in a breathy rush. "They're interested in hearing you guys play."

Karen catches Matt's glance and he nods. "I'll go fetch Arthur."

*

"Is this it?" Matt asks later that night in bed.

She turns to him, watching the moonlight play off the angled planes of his face. Her heart kicks. "Maybe. Hopefully."

*

"Go," Matt says, the word sending a shudder through Karen's whole body.

She takes the first, cautious step onstage, the largest venue they've ever performed at. Somewhere in the audience there's a representative from the label, waiting to be impressed.

Karen wraps one hand around the mic, looks over her shoulder at Matt flexing his hand and Arthur feeling out the first chord. They give her nervous smiles and she grins back, feeling something quick and darting and warm starting to bubble through her.

"Good evening, London," she announces into the microphone, her voice booming out over the speakers and washing over the crowd. "We're Karen and the Babes."
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alex m.

October 2015

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