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Like Stars Burning Up the Night

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There are over five-hundred miles between Inverness and London, and tonight's the first time Karen's felt every single one of them, her heart battering against her chest. She watches the audience from backstage and tries to count her breathing, steadying it out, listening to her mind tell her one, two, three, four. It's just like tapping out the beat of a song. For a second she forgets where she is until a swell of noise from the crowd brings her back.

"Are you ready?" Matt asks, his mouth at her ear, pressed up close against her side. His words start a slow burn in her toes, moving up until it settles in her chest.

"Yeah," she croaks out and feels anything but. What if she loses her voice or forgets the lyrics? Not when they're this close to making it -- but what if she does?

"Get set," Arthur mutters, coming up behind her.

"Go."


*


She goes to London for university originally. Bright ideas and best intentions and all that. She settles for psychology and reads about Pavlov and sleeps in a dorm room and hates it. Her roommate, Anna, is against showering for "personal reasons" and doesn't seem to attend lecture. Instead she writes nonsensical rhymes in notebooks and stacks them around her bed in towers.

Karen hides in the cold library, huddled in layers beneath the drafty eaves. She drinks wine on Tuesday nights with the other girls on her floor. A well-mannered boy from her sociology lecture takes her to dinner; his lips are dry when they kiss goodnight. She gently turns him down when he asks her again. Her life runs the gamut from dead boring to mildly amusing.

Anna doesn't come back after the Christmas holidays and Karen is hardly surprised, though she was tempted to not come back herself. The room feels strangely empty without Anna's garbled snoring and Karen doesn't fall asleep for hours. The next afternoon she finds a flyer pinned to the corkboard in the foyer of her building when she returns from class.

Lead singer wanted for local band, the paper reads. Auditions this weekend.

She takes the flyer.


*


The band turns out to be two young guys with a guitar and a keyboard, set up in the back room of a cramped music shop. Extremely professional and all that.

But when Matt starts playing his guitar and Arthur presses down on a chord on the keyboard, Karen fits her voice into the space between the two like she's always been there.


*


Everyone thinks that Matt's the one she liked first and it's not true. It's funny how there's speculation about it on their Facebook fan page, like they wouldn't see or something (or laugh at uproariously). It was Arthur, actually, and it feels like so long ago that Karen can barely dredge up the memory. He's sarcastic and funny and attractive and she's always liked pianists, being one herself.

They hook up the weekend after their first gig, the sweat still drying on their skin. Karen's flushed from adrenaline and alcohol and she kisses Arthur next to the bar, leans over and plants one on him. He stares at her, eyes unfocused, and pulls her off the barstool, kissing her messily. He tastes like salt and beer, smoke swirled together in his mouth.

She spends the night tangled in the sheets on his futon, gangly limbs and his hands all over her. But neither of them can look the other in the eye the next morning, so it seems to Karen that it's probably not going to work out. Too bad, she thinks as she gets dressed in the grey morning light, because the sex wasn't too shabby.

"You know, Karen, I don't think -- " Arthur says, struggling to sit up.

"It's cool." She pulls her top on over her head and finds one of her shoes. "It's a one-time thing, okay?"

He looks so relieved that she's almost insulted. "Okay. Yeah. I'll see you at practice?"

"Yup," Karen says, and lets herself out of the flat.

It's February and the wind goes right through her, coat and all. She huddles on the front stoop of Arthur's building, thinking about walking back to campus and her room, with her new roommate (Lydia, from Manchester, enthused about everything ever). She lights up a cigarette instead and scrolls through the contacts on her mobile, pausing at Matt's name.

"What are you doing?" she asks when he answers.

"I was sleeping off my hangover," he replies. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing. Bored."

Matt pauses. "Come round. I'll make us breakfast."

She grinds out the last of cigarette with her heel of her shoe and walks the three blocks over to his place. He looks surprised when he answers the door, his hair a messy halo, and a hint of stubble tells her she's caught him before shaving. Karen brushes past him with a mumbled greeting. Her hangover's making her act all weird, barging into people's flats she barely knows. Matt looks at her, shrugs, and leads the way up the stairs.

"I wasn't expecting you for another twenty minutes," he says, opening the door to his flat.

It's tiny, but neat, and somehow Karen doesn't expect that. White-washed walls with framed posters of different bands. His guitar in the corner. Papers stacked on his desk. She sits down on the edge of his made-up bed and tilts her head to read the titles on the bookshelf. There's four volumes of poetry at least. She feels the warmth of surprise in her stomach.

"Um, yeah, make yourself at home. I just have to take a quick shower." Matt kicks the door closed. "Were you already in the area?"

"Yeah -- uh -- Arthur's," she says lightly, gauging him for his reaction.

He stiffens and stops before entering the bathroom. "Oh. Huh. I was wondering about that, last night."

"It's nothing," Karen says quickly, feeling bad that she even brought it up. She puts her hands in her lap and twists her fingers together. Great. Now everything's weird. "We're not anything."

"Why?" He turns around.

She shrugs. "I don't really think we're compatible."

"And...that's okay? You're okay?"

It makes her smile, his concern, and she ducks her head a little, her hair falling forward to block her face. It's sweet, that's all. He's sweet. "Yeah, definitely."

Matt takes a step forward, like he's going to cross the room to her, but apparently thinks better of it. "Let me know. If you're not. We can...I don't know, have a cup of tea."

She lets out a snort of laughter, unable to contain it. "Oh, brilliant. A cup of tea?"

"Hey," he says, grinning. She stops laughing to look at him again. "Never underestimate the power of tea."

She pages through a book of Auden while Matt's in the shower, reading snippets of poems. When he's done they make omelets in his tiny kitchenette with its two burners and she has to show him how to fry things properly because he's awful at it and he spills coffee over the counter and it drips down the sides and onto the floor. Karen laughs so hard she thinks she might fall over.


*


They spend a lot of time together, after that, hanging out after rehearsals and on the weekends. Sometimes Arthur joins them; sometimes he doesn't.

Spending time with Matt is easy. She likes talking to him, about important things and not-so-important things. Like the evening they spend three hours in front of the telly, arguing over what would win in a fight -- otters or badgers (that's an important thing, according to Matt). They eat a lot of noodles in cups and canned soups because neither of them can cook and takeaway is expensive (once a week they get curry or pizza and it's such a special night that Matt and Arthur have written multiple songs about it).

Matt's flat is starting to feel like a second home and Karen's glad it's on a direct bus line to campus. She starts keeping her textbooks on his bookshelf. He moves a dying potted plant to make room for them.

"I wouldn't have done it if it were still alive, Gillan, okay?" he says when she thanks him, but she can see the telltale blush around his ears. It makes her feel warm.

Arthur snorts from the kitchenette, but won't elaborate on the noise when pressed. Just makes dry remarks about Matt's green thumb or lack thereof.

Lydia-from-Manchester asks her if she's got a bloke and that's why she's never around anymore. Karen shrugs, packs up her bag, and doesn't answer. She doesn't need to. That isn't what Matt is. He's her friend. Her best friend, him and Arthur, and she doesn't need to explain anything to anyone, least of all Lydia-from-Manchester.


*


Karen likes the exhilaration of being onstage, the adrenaline that makes her whole body vibrate. She likes the little places they play -- pubs and clubs and a few times at the university.

But mostly she likes the moment right before they start, the thrumming pause when she holds her breath before they launch into their first song. It makes her feel like she could fly, her whole body poised waiting for the first chord from Matt's guitar, the notes from Arthur's keyboard.

And then, when they're playing, she doesn't feel like herself at all. She doesn't feel anything but the music, pounding in her ears, the melody alive and real and raw.


*


They play a series of gigs under different names -- new ones, every week. Karen hates it. Hates it, hates it, hates it. It's a constant stream of changing, weirdly-formulated monikers that don't make any sense to her but they somehow spend hours arguing about anyway. She finally puts her foot down the night they're introduced by the last week's name, the three of them debriefing at Matt's flat.

"So what's your bright idea, Kaz?" Matt asks, running his hands through his already untidy hair. He's taken to calling her that, out of the blue, and Karen can't seem to explain the way her pulse stutters when she hears it.

She would swat him, but she doesn't want to get up from where she's lying against his pillows. He has an extremely comfortable bed, she thinks idly. "I don't have a name -- I'm just saying that we can't keep having new ones all the time. People are getting confused."

Arthur speaks up from where he's lying on the floor next to Matt's guitar, all muffled, and if Karen lifts her head slightly she can see his arm flung over his face. "Karen and the Babes."

Matt shoots Karen a what-was-that look, which she returns with raised eyebrows, and leans over his bed to peer down at Arthur's prone body. "Say that again?"

"Karen and the Babes," Arthur repeats. "Thought of it during the encore tonight."

"Oh, that's genius," Matt says, his face brightening, the smile slow and warm. Karen can feel it, sinking into her. "Darvill, that's absolutely brilliant."

"You just like it because you get to be a babe," she says.

"Who else would be a babe? You? Please, your face is hideous. In fact, we should probably get a mask for it for our next gig."

"You're one to talk."

"My face," Matt says, drawing a circle with his finger around said face, "is perfect."

"I was referring to your shirt."

"What's the matter with my shirt?!"

She reaches over, plucking at the buttons of his luridly-patterned button-down with one hand. "Nothing, other than the fact that you apparently time-traveled back to 1975 to steal it."

Matt tsks disapprovingly. "Time-travel isn't real, Karen. Did you forget?"

"Oh, excuse me -- "

"GUYS," Arthur shouts. "Do you mind bickering another time? We were deciding on the name."

"I thought we did. Karen and the Babes." She sticks her tongue out at Matt.

He sticks his tongue back at her. "You're okay with it now?"

"Yeah, 'cause I'll be the headliner. Who needs to be a babe?"

Matt falls back on the bed, his head nestled against her thigh. She freezes. They don't touch much, generally, some unspoken rule. But lately he's been more physical -- arm around her shoulders, hand on her wrist. Brotherly, Karen tells herself, and reminds herself to breathe properly. "Arthur and I are just around for our good looks."

"It's a rough life," Arthur says, properly sitting up. He rests his chin on the edge of the bed. "So we're decided then?"

"Yeeeesss!" Matt says, pumping his fist in the air. "Karen and the Babes! You know what -- we should have champagne to celebrate!"

"You have champagne lying around?" Karen inquires.

As it turns out, he doesn't. The three of them rummage through Matt's cabinets and refrigerator and come up with two bottles of beer. One of them's no good and they split the second bottle evenly between the three of them, toasting seriously until Arthur bellows "L'CHAIM!" when they start to take a second sip (they watched Fiddler on the Roof the week before). Matt laughs and downs his third of the beer. He and Arthur make beans on toast for a snack and Karen fixes a pot of tea and they celebrate in ridiculous, but sober, style.


*


She wakes up the next morning all at once, knowing with certainty before she even opens her eyes that she's not in her own bed. There's unfamiliar birdsong outside and the pillowcase beneath her cheek feels different and Karen knows there's someone's arm around her waist. She takes a deep breath and turns herself around and finds herself face-to-face with Matt.

It takes a minute to process everything before she realizes they didn't actually have sex. They're both fully-dressed, on top of the covers. Her rapid pulse slows and then quickens again when she remembers his arm around her, pleasantly solid. Karen studies Matt in the morning light, his face open and relaxed in sleep like a boy's, his fringe of hair falling across his eyes. A surge of affection rises in her chest and she sinks into it despite herself. She brushes his hair back with her thumb.

He opens his eyes. She snatches her hand back, feeling all the blood rushing to her cheeks. Fuck.

"Sorry," she blurts out. "You had -- something."

"...Thanks," he says, squinting a little. "Um." His gaze focuses suddenly and he jerks his arm away. "Sorry! I didn't realize -- I was asleep." He offers her a sheepish smile. "I'm a sleep-cuddler."

Fuck you and your adorable face, Karen thinks briefly, and pushes it away before she can analyze where it came from. "No, it's fine. I didn't, um. When did I fall asleep?"

"Around three? Arthur and I were talking about some rubbish. I can't remember what. Anyway, we looked over and you were passed out on the bed. Must've been knackered."

"Thanks for letting me stay." Their faces are still so close and Karen moves her head back a little because all of a sudden she can't breathe.

He shrugs. "What was I going to do? Make you take the bus back in the middle of the night? And I tried to do the gentlemanly thing and sleep on the floor, but it was awful."

"Didn't mean to keep you out of your bed," she says, still blushing furiously.

"You didn't," he says back, soft.

The sudden silence is oppressive and expectant and thick. Karen feels like she's on the edge of a panic attack and she sits up so fast she gets dizzy.

"Hey, are you -- " Matt sits up too, reaching out a hand.

She shakes her head and turns her body, blocking him, practically rolling off the bed. "No, no, I'm alright. I just have to go, that's all. I have a paper due. Tomorrow. I forgot. I have to go to the library. God, is it already 11:30? I -- thanks again -- I have to -- go." She somehow finds both her shoes and purse and her jacket as she makes her way to the door, fumbling to get it open. "Bye!"

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck, goes her inner voice, and it doesn't stop until she gets all the way back to campus.


*


"Are you avoiding Matt?" Arthur asks a few weeks later when they're eating lunch in front of the music building on campus.

It's unexpectedly warm out, spring arriving in a sudden burst of beautiful weather and blooming flowers. All the girls are wearing skirts, which Karen suspects is one of the reasons Arthur suggested eating outside with their Marks & Spencer sandwiches. He tears the crusts off his, leaving them in a little pile on the low stone ledge they're sitting on. He's still got his badge on from the bookstore pinned to his shirt, the one that says HELLO MY NAME IS ARTHUR.

She swallows a bite of chicken salad and takes a long sip of water so she doesn't have to answer yet. "No," Karen lies.

"You're lying. What happened with you two?"

"Nothing."

"You didn't -- did you?"

Karen fixes him with a withering look. She feels like she's getting rather good at them now. If only there was a business in which one specialized in withering looks. "No, god, Arthur."

"Alright. Fine. Then what?" He stuffs a bite of sandwich into his mouth and raises his eyebrows.

She sighs. "Remember when we decided on the band name?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, and we were up really late?"

"Yeah. You fell asleep though. Or, you were, when I left."

She puts down her half-eaten sandwich. "Right. Um. Well. Matt fell asleep too. With me."

"Is that all?" Arthur asks, looking annoyed. "You're avoiding him because of that?"

"Forget it," she snaps. "Why do you even care?"

"Because you're my friend, Karen," he snaps back. "And Matt's my friend too, and we're in this bloody band together and if you can't kiss and make up, we're going to sound awful. We already sound off, in case you hadn't noticed, which it doesn't seem like you have."

She opens her mouth and closes it again. "I think I might fancy him," she admits in a tiny voice, staring down at the grass. The realization dawned on her weeks ago, frightening in its starkness, and it's been all she can think about lately.

"Oh," Arthur says. "Uh."

She can't look at him. "Yep."

"Well," he says, "you fancied me once, didn't you? And we're still friends."

"You were different."

"Oh, thanks -- "

Karen rolls her eyes and shoves him. "This is not really the time for your sarcasm, Darvill."

"I just don't see the problem, Kazza." Arthur pops the last of his sandwich into his mouth and talks around it as he chews. "Why don't you tell him?"

She shakes her head, unable to explain.

"Fine, don't tell him. But stop avoiding him, okay? He thinks you're mad at him and it's all kinds of awkward." Arthur reaches into the shopping bag for the mini Victoria sponge cakes they got.

"Fine," Karen promises and tries to intercept the cakes before he eats them all.


*


That weekend, after practice, they go to the pub and Karen hands Matt a pint.

"I'm not mad at you," she says, wondering if her ears are turning pink. "I'm sorry if you thought that."

"Okay," he says, but his smile tells her she did the right thing.

They spend the rest of the night playing darts and she beats both the boys spectacularly.


*


She's been wanting to do it for months, but the knowledge that the band is actually getting notice makes the decision for her. The crowds are getting bigger. People actually know their songs by name. They get paid one night to play (albeit barely enough to cover their drinks) and that changes everything. So finally she gets it together to ring her parents.

It's not for her, Karen explains to her mum and dad over the phone, feeling the weight of their disappointment already. University is right for loads of people, but it's not right for her, at least not right now, and she needs to take a break for a while. She'll finish up her year and then take a leave of absence.

"What are you going to do though, Karen?" her mum asks, worry in her voice. "Maybe you just need the summer to think things over."

"Come home and relax and we'll talk about it," her dad adds from the bedroom extension.

But she tells them she's going to stay in London for the summer. She'll come and visit, she promises, and she's gotten a job waitressing at a restaurant already. Karen says goodbye before she feels too guilty. It doesn't make a difference though, she realizes once she hangs up. She's been feeling guilty for ages already.

It's almost midnight when she shows up at Matt's flat, letting herself in with the spare key that she now keeps on her keyring. He's lying on the bed, idly plucking notes on his guitar, and looks up when she comes in.

"You know, it's always been a fear of mine that a mad Scottish ginger would burst into my flat in the middle of the night -- " he cuts himself when he sees her face. "What's wrong, Kaz?"

She sits down heavily next to him and he wraps an arm around her, pulling her close. She curls her body into his, tucking her face into his shoulder and breathes him in, the smell of him making her dizzy.

"I'm leaving uni," she says into his shirt.

"What?" He pulls away to study her.

Karen starts picking her bottom lip, a nervous tic from when she was a kid. He grabs her hand and clamps his fingers around hers, stilling them. "I -- I just told my parents," she says.

"Karen," he says quietly, "are you sure about this?"

"The band's doing really well, yeah?" She can hear her own voice, uncertain and high and thready. God, why is she fucking terrified of his reaction? "A-and I won't leave until I finish this year. I got a job waitressing at a restaurant nearby. I just need to find a flat -- " she cuts herself off, staring at him.

Matt's looking back at her, his eyes roving over her face like he's trying to commit her features to memory. She's never seen him look so serious. "If this is definitely what you want," he says finally.

"Yes. Yeah. It is."

He nods and hugs her again, tight. She closes her eyes, relief making her boneless, melting into him.

"You wanna get a flat with me and Arthur?" he asks, mouth against her temple.

Karen laughs and Matt does too, the sounds mingling together in the small room. "Yes. Absolutely. Yes."


*


They have to postpone rehearsals and shows when the end of term rolls around because Karen just doesn't have the time. She wants to do well, even if she's leaving. Karen feels like she's drowning in papers and exams, sifting through endless piles of lecture notes. She studies so much her head may explode. Arthur and Matt drop by her dorm room with a thermos of soup and some crackers. It's weird to see the two of them investigating the posters on her wall, sitting on her tiny bed. They make the room smaller somehow, crowded. They don't belong there. She doesn't belong there.

"Kaz's room," Matt says after he peruses her bookshelf, flicking through a copy of Alice in Wonderland. "Always wondered what it'd look like."

Her face feels hot and she hides it with a notebook. "Shut up." She's so glad Lydia's not here to see this. She'd never hear the end of it.

"It's nice. Really, it is," Arthur says. He picks up the ratty stuffed bear by her pillow. "Oh, who's this?"

"Sir Bear of Bearington Cross," Karen mumbles and immediately wishes she hadn't said anything because Arthur's face lights up like Christmas.

"Sir Bear of Bearington Cross," Arthur repeats, looking at Sir Bear as if he's made of gold. "Oh my god."

Matt lets out a delighted bark of laughter. "Let me see him!" Arthur tosses the bear at Matt, ignoring Karen's demand that they shouldn't throw him around -- he's delicate. "He's brilliant."

"What was he knighted for?" Arthur asks.

"Oh, shut up," Karen says, snatching Sir Bear back from Matt. "I got him when I was five. I was really sick and miserable and my dad bought me him to cheer me up."

"We're not making fun of him, Karen," Arthur says, putting a hand on her shoulder. "We like him."

Matt pipes up, "He should be our band mascot."

She kicks them both out of her room, thanking them for the soup but they're awfully distracting now and she needs to study and can't spend any time with lunatics, thanks very much, and they'll have plenty of time to admire Sir Bear when they move in together. Karen gazes around the room after they leave, taking in the piles of things she's accumulated (oh god, why so many clothes?) over the last year, and shakes her head. She can't even think that far ahead right now. Psychology. Right.


*


Matt and Arthur come back to help her move out, hauling boxes upon boxes of things down the stairs and into Arthur's dad's beat up car. Lydia watches from where she's packing her own items from across the room, trying to shoot Karen Looks whenever Karen happens to glance in that direction.

"So you've got two of them then?" Lydia says as the boys rush out with another load.

"I don't have anyone," Karen grits out. "We're friends."

"I knew you were into something weird," is what Lydia replies, and Karen wonders if she can still get in trouble for punching her roommate if it's the very last day and she's not coming back.

They don't finish until well into the afternoon and by then they're all starving. They get two pizzas from the place around the corner and sit on the floor of their unfurnished sitting room, devouring them. Karen wipes her greasy fingers on a napkin and studies them, Arthur and Matt, gently ribbing each other and laughing.

This is what it'll be like all the time now, it occurs to her, and the thought makes her grin.

"Are you laughing at us, Kazza?" Arthur says, flicking an olive in her direction. "That's not very nice."

She flicks it back. "I was actually thinking very nice things, but now I won't tell you."

Matt slings an arm around her shoulders, squeezing. Arthur doesn't say anything, but he raises his eyebrows at Karen meaningfully and she hides her face behind the curtain of her hair. "Oh, stop it. We're flatmates now! Isn't it exciting?"

"Yeah, until you sleep-walk naked or something," Arthur says, pulling a disgusted face.

Karen shakes her head and smiles, tilting her face up to Matt. He looks down at her with this expression she can't read, but his eyes are very warm and it makes her shiver.

"You alright? Cold?" He rubs her arm. "Surely your Invernetian blood would protect you from that?"

"Shut your face," she says, and disentangles herself for another slice of pizza.


*


Arthur tries to set them up with a chore chart but it fails spectacularly. Karen manages to burn soup when it's her turn to make dinner, and Matt trips over himself and the mop and ends up with a massive lump on his head. Arthur gives a long-suffering sigh and divvies up the workload according to what the two others won't destroy, so Karen ends up with the sweeping and mopping and Matt doing the washing up.

Domestic bliss, Matt calls it sarcastically, but Karen likes it and she suspects that he rather does too. When she's not working a shift and he's not teaching a guitar lesson, they lie out in the sitting room or Karen's bedroom and write music, songs shaping themselves from air. And when they're sick of writing, Matt reads to her from whatever book he's into at the moment. It doesn't seem to matter if he's in the middle of an essay or a chapter -- she likes hearing the cadence of his voice rise and fall.

She knows Arthur wonders if there's something happening. Sometimes she's unsure about whether there's something happening. It doesn't seem like things are that different, honestly. He acts the same, insulting her lots; she feels like she's falling even harder. Maybe the moving-in-together part wasn't such a good idea.


*


It occurs to her, sometime in July when she and Matt are watching television, that she hasn't been on a proper date in months. Not since Karen and the Babes have been together at least. It's a strange feeling and it lodges in her throat, causing her to choke on the mouthful of oatcake she's been scarfing. Matt glances over from his position on the sofa and thumps her roughly on the back a few times.

"Water?" he asks, handing her his glass.

She nods and sips, coughing, her eyes watering. "Thanks."

He hasn't been on a date in all that time either, she thinks, when he returns his attention to Frozen Planet, and oh, she can feel it clicking into place in her head, all at once.


*


"Matt fancies me too," Karen blurts out to Arthur when she runs into him in the hallway on the way on the way to the bathroom.

"Yup," is all Arthur says, in a bored tone of voice, as he brushes past her.


*


They play their second paying gig at the end of the month, the audience so big people get turned away at the door. Karen is high on applause and screaming and her own voice, scraped raw by singing over the raucous sound. Her nerves are charged, with something more than electricity, something more amazing. Matt's guitar thrums beneath her skin, the chords leaking into her blood.

It's close to midnight when they finish, Karen's hands are trembling with adrenaline and she's starving. They go for late-night doner kebabs, eating them standing in the damp summer night. She licks sauce off the inside of her wrist, noticing Matt's eyes widen, and her tongue lingers against her skin for a second longer than it needs to. He takes a breath.

"Hey," he says after a long minute of silence. "Let's do something tonight."

Arthur tracks down a group of people at a nearby party and Karen finds herself crowded into someone's dark flat, sipping a warm rum-and-Coke, feeling the bass line of the pulsing music through her whole body. She leans against a windowsill, making half-hearted small talk with strangers until she sees Matt out of the corner of her eye. He grins at her and plugs his iPod into the speakers, cutting off the previous song, but she still nearly jumps when she hears the rough recording of one of their songs coming on.

Matt grabs her hand, curling their fingers together. "Wanna dance, Kaz?"

She nods yes a little too many times and he pulls her into him, laughing and nearly falling over as they bump together. She can just make out the outline of his features in the dim glow from a string of white Christmas lights. He sings the words in his scratchy, post-performance voice.

He settles his palm against the small of her back, possessive, and she loves the way his eyes doesn't leave her face.

They go out onto the balcony to catch their breath after two more songs. Karen giggles as she searches herself for ciggies and he hands her one from his pack instead. They smoke them in companionable quiet, exhaling over the edge, watching the wispy tendrils from the glowing ends disappear into the starless night. Matt moves a little closer, his arm pressing against hers.

"I've got a question," Karen says, grinding her cigarette out and tossing the butt over the balcony.

"Why am I so talented?" he replies.

"No." She shoves his shoulder half-heartedly. "A real question."

"Go ahead." He flicks his finished cigarette away, and turns towards her, leaning back against the railing.

She kisses him, close-mouthed. the question etched into every line of her body. The rum's made everything blurry. He stills beneath her touch; she can feel his heartbeat, hard and fast, and her own echoing it.

"Do you have an answer?" she asks when she pulls away, voice timid.

Matt tugs her close, leans his forehead against hers. "Yeah," he breathes into her mouth, and she tastes the word, sweet and perfect, in the back of her throat.


*


It's the sunlight that wakes her before anything else, blinking slowly against the sheets. But it's the smell of coffee brewing that pulls her from sleep, the scent permeating her lethargy. Karen feels Matt curled around her, the press of his body solid and reassuring, and she gives the smallest sigh.

"Hi," he says, dropping a kiss on the back of her neck, right at the top of her spine.

"Hi," she says back, smiling, turning towards him.

"Don't leave this time, okay?" he says, brushing their noses together.

She nods and leans in for a proper good morning kiss. "I won't."


*


"About time," Arthur says in this extremely disinterested tone, his nose buried in the morning paper, when they tell him over breakfast.

Karen rolls her eyes. "Arthur." She pours herself a bowl of cereal from the box and picks at it, dry, eating it piece-by-piece with her fingers.

He puts down the paper, grinning. "Sorry. It's great news, guys. Just don't have sex on my bed."

"Fuck you," Matt says mildly, tossing a bit of toast at Arthur's head. "We've got perfectly good beds. Why would we use your futon?"

"I dunno. A sex checklist or something?"

"A sex checklist?" Karen snorts into her coffee.

"Yeah, you know -- you have a checklist of places you want to have sex in. Haven't you ever done that?"

"No..." Matt says slowly, staring at him.

The three of them are all silent for a long minute, until at last comprehension dawns upon Karen.

"Oh my god! Oh my god -- "

"Karen -- " Arthur says.

"You have a sex checklist! That's why that time I asked you if someone had slept in my bed -- "

"Gross, Darvill," Matt says, laughing.

" -- and you said no, but it was all a LIE -- "

"Karen -- "

" -- it was because it was you and some -- some random girl -- "

"Karen -- "

" -- shagging in my bed!"

It's only fair then that Arthur's penance is three weeks of washing up in addition to his regular chores, as well as providing Karen massages on demand.

She'll let him have sex in her bed for that.


*


She and Matt spend the rest of the day doing what they always do -- eating crisps and watching crap telly and editing song lyrics. And, disappointingly, no snogging, which leads Karen to wonder if the sex they had was so bad that it turned him off it forever (surely it couldn't have been awful; she enjoyed it). At 4 PM she reluctantly gets ready to go to work, changing into uniform, pulling her hair into a high ponytail. Matt leans against the open doorway to her room, watching as she straightens the collar of her polo shirt.

"Can I walk you?" he asks, peeling a wood chip off the frame.

"Yeah. Of course," she says quickly. He looks serious and it's frightening, considering all that's happened with them.

She approaches the door and he drops his hands, staring at her. There's a long moment until she clears her throat softly.

Matt gives her an easy, practiced grin (it's a little too quick for her liking) and shoves his hands in his pockets. "Come on then, Gillan. Don't want you to skive off work."

They clatter down the steps together. Matt seems even weirder than usual, more fidgety, and his clumsiness more pronounced. Karen has to warn him about the tree he's about to walk into as soon as they veer onto the pavement.

"Thanks, right," he says awkwardly and almost pitches forward onto his face in his haste to swerve around the tree. "So, um." he starts, once he's moving like a normal human again, "how...are you?"

She stops suddenly and whips around to face him. "What's going on?"

"Just inquiring after your well-being -- "

"Matt, we were together all day. Did you...forget?"

He's visibly anxious now, hunching his shoulders in his thin t-shirt. There's a faintly purple bruise peeking out from the collar and Karen blushes hotly, remembering leaving it there.

"No, of course not. It's just -- Karen."

"Yep. Got it. My name. Thanks for the reminder." She gives him a small smile, trying not to give away that her own stomach has twisted itself into a mass of nerves.

"Kaz -- " he takes a deep breath.

"We can pretend it didn't happen," she blurts out, training her gaze on the pavement.

"What?"

"Last night. All of it. We can." She lifts her eyes a fraction, to his knees. "I don't want you to be weird and you're being really weird and we can forget about it, if that's what you want to tell me."

"Why would I want to pretend it didn't happen?"

Karen looks him in the face. Unless he's turned into a rather remarkable actor overnight, the bewilderment she reads seems genuine.

"Do you want to pretend it didn't happen?"

"No, no, I don't." She closes her eyes and folds her arms across her chest. She's tearing up, which is stupid, because she doesn't even know why she's crying. This conversation is stupid. It feels like a chasm's opened up between them, right here on the sidewalk.

Matt swears softly and hugs her tight, laying his head against her hair. "I'm sorry. Don't cry, please."

She gives him a wet, snuffly sound in return. God, she feels pathetic. And small.

"I didn't know how to say it exactly. I didn't mean to be all weird. Fuck," he mutters. "I just -- I really want to be with you. Properly. For a long time. A-and I wanted to tell you that you mean a lot to me and, um, I didn't want this to be something casual. God, this is coming out a mess, isn't it?"

Karen laughs into his shoulder, her legs feeling wobbly all of a sudden.

"What are you laughing at?" and she can hear the smile in his voice.

"I was so worried, Matt! You didn't try to kiss me once today and I thought you must have hated the sex or something." She pulls away to wipe her face with the back of her hand.

"Karen," he says, "the sex was bloody amazing."

"Good."

"Really amazing. It must be all the haggis you eat in Scotland or something or maybe some sort of magical ginger sex skill -- "

"I'd stop while you're ahead," Karen interrupts, and kisses him.


*


Five minutes later:

"Wait, you never answered me -- "

"What, you think I'm shagging you for your looks? Of course I want to be with you too, stupid!"

"Oh. Well. Thanks...I think."


*


Summer passes in a bright haze. It's not until it's almost September that Karen is reminded of uni. She's seeing students everywhere, suddenly, popping up in bookshops and at their concerts and at the restaurant. They look eager and bright.

She goes home and flips through her old textbooks, trying to remember why she left. Rose-tinted glasses, that's all. It's weird. She misses it, all of a sudden. The frozen yogurt machine in the dining hall and the mildew-y smell of the carpet in the front lobby of her building and the way she'd brush her teeth at a row of sinks at night, all filled with other girls flossing and washing their faces.

Matt comes back hours later to find her asleep on the sofa, a heavy psychology text abandoned next to her.

"You alright, Kaz?" he asks when he wakes her. "Doing some light reading?"

"Feeling a bit nostalgic, I guess," she says with a massive yawn.

"You can always go back." He sits down on the floor, tilting his head back on the cushions to look at her.

"I wasn't happy there though. It wasn't what I wanted."

"It's this time of year. It makes you miss school even if you never thought you'd miss it."

Karen purses her lips. "Yeah." She runs her fingers through Matt's hair. "How was your day?"

He launches into his story and she dozes off again, lulled by the sound of his voice. Her last fleeting thought before she succumbs to sleep is if this makes her a bad girlfriend.


*


"I've got news!" Arthur bursts through the front door yelling.

Karen's been carefully drawing an intricate design on Matt's forearm with a pen and doesn't look up from where she's swirling a curlicue. She tightens her grasp on his wrist. "Stay still or you'll mess it up."

"It tickles," he protests mildly.

"Did you two hear me?" Arthur sounds aggrieved, kicking off his shoes.

"You've got news," Matt repeats. "What's the news?"

"Remember my cousin Tim in Cardiff?"

"No," Matt says. "Who's Tim?"

"His cousin in Cardiff, Matthew, keep up," Karen chimes in absently, focusing on the small circle she's drawing.

"No, but Arthur's saying his name like he's someone I ought to know."

"Yeah, 'cause I've only mentioned him loads of times, but that's beside the point. Tim's got a friend who owns a place down there and they're booking for bands to come play and Tim gave him some of our demos -- "

"What, the scratchy ones we recorded two weeks ago?" Karen asks.

"Yeah, the weird ones, but they were all I had on hand when Tim asked. Anyway, the guy wants to book us for next month. Anyone fancy a roadtrip?"

Matt and Karen exchange looks.

"They're going to pay us," Arthur adds.

"Yes!" Karen says eagerly, abandoning her drawing, gleefully excited. "We're going on tour!"

"Woohoo! We're famous!" Matt cheers.

"Let's not get too hasty -- "

"Don't be such a spoilsport, Arthur," Karen giggles as Matt seizes her around the waist and aims a kiss at her cheek. He misses the mark and gets it half on her nose.

"I mean, it's not a headliner thing or anything. There'll be other bands there. They're doing a whole night of little-known bands -- "

"ROADTRIP. ROADTRIP. ROADTRIP."

Arthur frowns at their shenanigans.

"Cheer up!" Matt says and reaches out to grab Arthur as well, yanking him down so all three of them are a messy pile on the couch. "Come on, Darvill, we should celebrate!"

Arthur tugs on Karen's hair. She elbows him in the ribs. "Yeah, alright. First round's on you then, Matt."


*


According to their Facebook fan page, they have about ten fans in Cardiff. Which is, frankly, ten more people than Karen was expecting.

They post about their mini "tour" weekend and Karen feels a genuine jolt of excitement when people comment about how they'll definitely be there to hear them play.

They have fans in someplace that's not even walking distance from their local London establishments. That feels like something.


*


They leave early on a Saturday morning, Arthur driving (because it's his dad's car), Karen in the passenger seat (because she won the coin toss), and Matt slouched in the back with all their instrument cases and bags of clothes and everything shoved in as tightly as it can be. The three of them wave to Arthur's parents, still in their dressing gowns, standing on the pavement.

"Why are we leaving so early again?" Matt asks as soon as Arthur pulls onto the motorway and the car settles in with a faint clanking noise.

"To explore Cardiff!" Karen says cheerfully, face buried in the map unfolded in her lap.

"Right. Because there's loads to do there?" His voice is laden with disdain.

"There's a castle, isn't there?" Arthur says, sounding a mite dubious himself.

"And a bay and national history museum. Heaps of stuff."

"Yeah, okay, maybe if you're from Scotland, it seems like it's heaps, but for us persons from civilization -- "

"Scotland has an enormously rich history and very interesting attractions, no thanks to you, you English bastard!"

"Yeah, yeah, Inverness's got a castle, don't we all."

Karen twists around in her seat. "Look, Matt, if you want to sleep alone tonight, that's perfectly alright with me. So go ahead and keep insulting Scotland."

Quiet.

"I think the history museum sounds nice. Welsh history?" Arthur says.

"…Probably a load of indecipherable gibberish," comes Matt's begrudging grumble.

"Yeah, in Wales that's called Welsh," Karen says cuttingly.

"Alright then, who's for some music?" Arthur asks loudly. "Let's listen to music instead. Music's great. We all love music. Woo, music! Let's hear it for music!"

They listen to three hours of Arthur's iPod and don't talk for the rest of the ride.


*


It's raining in Cardiff. Huge, blustery gusts of wind coming off the bay and whipping the air around them, rain splattering their bodies with such an intense force that Karen staggers back when she exits the car. Matt clambers out, hauling his guitar after him, and his hair is immediately plastered to his skin. Arthur's tiny aunt opens the front door of the little brick townhouse.

"Come on, come on! Get in before you catch your death!" she insists, bundling Karen in a dry towel as soon as she steps through the door.

"Thanks for putting us up, Aunt Bea," Arthur says, pecking her on the cheek.

Aunt Bea clucks her tongue and ushers them through to the warm kitchen. "I'll just put the kettle on. Day like this, you need some tea."

She settles them all with mugs of hot, milky tea and a plateful of digestive biscuits, which Karen has always thought have had a funny name, but her dad loves them and so does Arthur apparently. He dunks each one into his tea and carefully bites off just the soggy parts so he can repeat the motion several times before an entire biscuit is consumed. Karen listens to Arthur and his aunt chat about Darvillian family things and eats a biscuit of her own. Matt tries to give her a grin from across his mug, but she's still feeling annoyed with him and doesn't return his conspiratorial look.

Arthur's Uncle Frank and cousin Tim come in from the shed after a while, shaking rain and mud from their wellies, and they all sit down cozily. It feels a bit like being at home, with the storm going on outside, and Aunt Bea bustling around the kitchen like Karen's mum would be. They get a hot lunch of soup and sandwiches and Aunt Bea sends them upstairs for a quick rest if they want to be ready for tonight.

"Guess we're not seeing the castle today," Matt says softly, lying down on the squeaky, small double bed he's sharing with Karen.

She's not sure if he means for it to come out smug, but it kind of does, so she ignores him while she strips off her still-damp jumper and drapes it over the radiator to dry. She hears him get off the bed and approach her, his arms wrapping around her waist a second later. He presses a kiss to her bare shoulder.

"Are you still cross with me?"

"Yes," she says, stiffly.

"Don't be cross, Kaz. I was only joking." He kisses her neck and the side of her head. "Scotland's very interesting."

"Now you're being patronizing." She wiggles away, rummaging through her bag for her pajamas. She locates a t-shirt of Matt's that she's been sleeping in and pulls it over her head.

"Karen."

"Don't you dare tell me not to be silly." She shucks her jeans as well, also putting them over the radiator, and shivering, puts on her flannel pajama bottoms, one leg at a time. She doesn't usually get this cold, coming from northern Scotland, but the rain's chilled her completely.

Matt takes a step back. "What do you want me to do then?"

She pulls the covers away from the bed on the far side and slides herself under them. "Figure it out."

"That's not fair. How am I supposed to know what you want me to do?"

She wants to ask him what that even means, 'it's not fair', said like a petulant child, but she doesn't. Instead she takes a breath. "Matt, you spend all this time insulting Scotland. All the fucking time. That's where I come from, alright? It's where I was born, where I grew up. Do you think it's fun listening to you do that constantly?"

He stares at her, bewildered, his hair sticking up all over the place. Karen sighs and turns on her side, dragging the covers up above her head.

"Forget it. I'm going to sleep," she says, muffled.

She feels the sheets being pulled off her and she snaps open her eyes, irritated. Seriously, is he trying to get her more upset? Because he's doing a good job.

"I'm sorry," he says, his face open and worried. "I didn't know. I'm really sorry, Kaz. I thought it was a laugh, that's all. I didn't realize, well, I'm sorry. It was just me being stupid."

"That was it," she whispers, staring up at him.

"What?"

"What I wanted."

Matt brushes her hair back with his thumb, tucking it behind her ear. "An apology?"

"Yeah."

He gives her the softest kiss. "Do you forgive me? I'm an idiot."

"You're a lovely idiot," she agrees, pulling him back for another kiss. "But I forgive you."

They don't quite get a nap in, but they do figure out how to have sex without making the bed squeak so much. It involves much giggling and whispering and after a while, noises into the other's neck so Arthur won't hear through the thin, papery wall.

He still gives them a knowing look when they eventually emerge though. Infuriating.


*


"You guys all better now?" Arthur asks her during their smoke break together, straight after soundcheck. Matt would usually join them, but he's taking time to retune his guitar. They're all more nervous than usual, even though it's not even their own gig, just a few songs.

She huddles a little closer to Arthur under the tiny overhang, away from the rain still coming down in sheets. "Yeah, we've made up."

"He say sorry for being a shit in the car?"

"Yeah." Karen glances at him, surprised. "I mean. He didn't know why I was upset until I told him so."

"Matt's a bit thick sometimes."

She takes a drag of her cigarette and stares at the water puddling at their feet for a minute. "Arthur, you've lovely," she blurts out. "Did you know that?"

The corners of his mouth twitch. "Thanks. I think you are too?"

"No, you're really, properly lovely. Honestly. You're such a good friend. I was mad to give you up."

"Yeah, you're mad all right. Who would want to give up this handsome face?" Arthur laughs and snubs out his cigarette. "You're mental, Karen."

"Shut up, I'm being nice." She does the same, tossing the butt into the cigarette bin next to them. "You should find someone to be with."

"Yeah, because that's been a real priority of mine, right?"

"Come on. Someone super who can hang out with all of us."

He grins and puts his arm around her shoulders, squeezing lightly. "I'll get right on that for you, Karen."

She kisses him on the cheek. "Thanks."


*


They pile offstage when their set's over, shaking and sweaty. Karen feels vaguely delirious. Matt gave her a full kiss on the mouth during their encore and the whole audience had cheered. It was surreal. There were fans wearing homemade t-shirts and signs. This is the closest she'll ever come to being famous, Karen thinks, and hurriedly pulls her hair back into a ponytail to go back out and pose for photos.

"Have you guys got CDs to sell or anything?" a big, tattooed guy lumbers up to her in line.

"Afraid not," she says. "We don't have the money to record one."

"Start one of those fundraisers online. That'll probably work. Here." The guy hands her twenty quid in two crumpled notes. "Start with that."

She stammers out a thanks and stares dumbly at the money in her hand.

"Karen! Oh, you've got money. Lovely. You're paying then." Matt peers at the cash over her shoulder. "Though Arthur's got our other money. Loads more. Did you know that? That we were getting loads?"

"It's not loads," Arthur says, but he raises his eyebrows and smiles. "What's that, Karen? You've been making money on the side?"

"Some guy gave us twenty pounds to help us record an album." She holds it up. "Says we should start a fundraiser on one of those websites."

Arthur and Matt exchange a quick glance.

"That's a pretty good plan," Matt says.

"I can't believe we haven't thought of that plan," Arthur admits.

"Let's set it up once we get back to your aunt and uncle's house." Karen folds the bills up and slides them into the pocket of her jeans.

Matt wrinkles his nose. "When we're drunk? That seems like a poor idea."

"Fine. Tomorrow morning then."

"When we're hungover? That's going to be awful," Arthur says.

"Alright. When we get home."

"But we'll be so tired from the driving, Kaz -- "

She gives them both a steely look and they shut up. "When we get home. Or it's never happening."

"Yes."

"Yep."


*


Aunt Bea gives them all hugs and kisses and cold cut sandwiches for their ride home. The three of them slide into the car with sunglasses, wincing at the strength of their headaches. Matt carefully edges the car out into traffic and Karen puts her head against one of the speaker boxes, hoping desperately she'll fall into a doze to make the bumpy ride back home more bearable.

But the car stops far too soon, barely ten minutes after they've gotten in.

"Did the car break?" Karen mumbles.

Matt opens the driver's side door. "Nope."

"We're at Cardiff Castle, Kazza," Arthur says, turning around. "Matt thought it might be nice to take a tour before we go back to London."

Matt's a couple of steps ahead and she has to run to catch up with him. She laces her fingers through his, swinging their interlocked hands between them.

"You're awfully chipper for someone who claimed to be suffering the worst headache of all time," he remarks.

"I feel better now that my boyfriend did a nice thing and took me to this castle I wanted to visit," she says, and walks a little faster, tugging him with her. "C'mon then. Let's go see this thing before I throw up."

They have a great time, touring the place with its beautiful Moorish architecture. Arthur wanders around each room in rapt fascination while Karen takes pictures of each and every thing she sees. Matt makes comments about what items of furniture he'd get rid of if he owned the place and Arthur remarks that he's sure the serfs would love that.

The three of them take a photograph outside the castle, Matt holding the camera away and pressing the button blindly. It takes them six attempts before they get one where they're all in the shot, grinning like crazy, arms around each other. Karen gets it printed out later, with copies for all of them, and frames hers.

She's stupidly lucky, she tells herself, and runs her thumb across the backdrop of gray sky and stone castle walls.


*


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."