The tour bus pulled into New Orleans just as the sun was settling in for the night. Julian gazed out the tinted window and watched the swamp that went on forever, remarked silently on how amazing it was that such a sturdy bridge could be built on such unsturdy ground.
In places, there were bare trunks of trees poking out like broken bones. They forced their presence stubbornly between the "to" and "from" highways as if to say, "We were here first. And we're not going anywhere."
Nature withstanding development. Concrete and vegetation coexisting. Technology adapting to the environment. It was all very symbolic, but Julian's mind was too exhausted to pin down exactly what it symbolized.
He looked over at Noel, who was staring out the other window.
"S'beautiful, in'nit?" Julian asked, "In a morbid sort of way?"
Without turning, Noel retorted, "I think it's hideous. Why don't they get rid of it?"
"There's a whole ecosystem out there," Julian protested, "You can't just erase it. It'd be... disrespectful."
Noel scoffed. "Disrespectful? To who, the algae?"
"Yes," Julian replied, though he was unsure whether there actually was algae in the swamp, "And everything else in there."
"All I know is, it's no Bourbon Street." Now Noel twisted in his seat, letting loose one of his winning smiles. His big blue eyes were shining with excitement. "Y'know, it's only 8, we should go check it out tonight."
Julian scrunched up his nose. "I dunno, Noel. I'm pretty wiped. I could use a night to relax."
"Well, that's what Bourbon Street is for! Anyway, tomorrow we'll be obligated to meet people and do the afterparty scene... This'll be our only chance to have fun. All five of us can check it out, yeah?"
And of course, Mike and Dave agreed to please Noel, while Rich made some joke which was meant to be translated as a yes.
"Besides," Noel pressed forward, "What other chance will you have to experience real New Orleans jazz?"
Julian attempted to cover an outward show of interest with a halfhearted shrug. But Noel caught the flash of temptation. To increase the momentum, Noel put on his Spirit of Jazz voice. "C'man, Howahd. Y'can't deny me. I already got ya in mah clutches. I'm already deep inside ya. Fightin' me will only make things worse for ya."
Julian can't, unfortunately, cover his snickering, though he tries hard to clap his lips shut. "Fine," Julian relented, turning back toward the window to hide his grin, "Just for a little while, though."
Noel made a little celebratory noise and ambled up to the driver to bribe him into dropping the group off at Bourbon Street and picking them back up later.
Julian let his lingering smile warm his face and watched an ancient freeway exit arch lazily off into the darkness of the swamp.
Noel was practically skipping as he traipsed down Bourbon Street. There was so much neon and booze and sex and it was so bad and silly that it made Noel giggle in excitement.
He wore his red cape and sparkly gold top and tight red skinny pants and gold Chelsea boots. His hair looked amazing. People were looking at him, but not like he was an alien or a pedophile, like usual. They were smiling at him and lifting their drinks in drunken salutes. Hell, half of them were dressed about as fantastically as Noel. He fit in pretty well, he thought with a grin.
Straight off the bat, he spotted a bar that advertised a drink called the Jester. "The Strongest Drink in the World!" the sign boasted. Noel bought one for all five of them.
Noel and Mike dug right in to the bright green slushy drink, Dave and Rich sipped politely at theirs, and Julian stirred his skeptically with his straw.
"Aw, c'mon, Ju," Noel urged, "It's perfectly safe." He took a long slurp as proof.
Julian raised an eyebrow at him. "Yes, but you're a child," Julian muttered, "I think the sugar content alone is gonna make this big old buffalo keel over."
Noel rolled his eyes, but could feel a smile forcing its way onto his face anyway. He felt the urge to tease Julian more, but he knew that doing so would only enforce Julian's refusal to try the drink. If he ignored Julian, he would lose interest in antagonizing Noel and start having fun on his own. So that was what he did. And sure enough, when Noel looked back a few minutes later, Julian was sipping his drink and staring around at the multitude of sings surrounding them.
As Noel turned back to face forward, he almost ran into one of the bouncers lining the street. The large black man, instead of pushing Noel away, wrapped his meaty arm around Noel's thin shoulders.
"Hey there, you comin' in here, right? Free drinks, easiest girls on Bourbon." The man gave a big, toothy smile at the group.
Noel laughed. "What the cover, then?"
The man's eyes went big. "Aw, y'all from England? Shit, for y'all, only ten each."
Noel raised his eyebrows at the rest of them.
"Yeah, sure," Mike chuckled, still going at his drink. Dave shrugged and Rick hooked his arm into Dave's.
"I'm with them, sugar," Rich purred in a faux-seductive voice. The bouncer gave a belly laugh in response.
Noel turned to Julian. "Ju?"
But Julian was looking down the street. He glanced at Noel and pursed his lips. "Eh," he said looking back down the street, "I think I can hear a band playing down there, I'd quite to check it out."
Noel could see that this was not a protest made in order to frustrate Noel, but that it was something he really wanted to do, so Noel didn't argue.
"Meet you in a little bit, then?" Noel asked. He held up his cell phone and Julian nodded and strolled on.
Noel grinned at the other three men and eagerly paid their cover charges and allowed himself to be swallowed into the sex-scented atmosphere of the club.
Forty five minutes later, Julian felt his phone buzz in his pocket. The text Noel sent read: "where r u?"
"A couple of blocks down. At the Musical Legends Park." Julian texted back.
Then, he sat back in one of the last empty chairs open in the little courtyard. He had gotten tired of the green mixture which Noel had shoved in his hand, and bought a beer instead. He'd also bought a beignet out of curiosity. He'd enjoyed it but did not think that it was nearly worth the five dollars he'd paid for it. He guessed that was what he got for buying food on Bourbon street.
The plate with a mountain of leftover powedered sugar from the snack sat next to the sugary green drink which sat next to his half-drunk beer on the table next to his weathered fingers. His fingers tapped in time to the snare drum. The drum traded beats back and forth with the bass. The bass provided a backbone for the cornet. The cornet tickled out a little solo which was bound to sound good because it stuck to the scales.
This band was good but tame. They were safe. A little too safe for Julian's taste. He wondered where in New Orleans he'd have to go to hear some real jazz. But this was good enough, he supposed. Relaxing, at least.
Noel nearly snuck up on Julian, he was so deep in thought. Noel made a jerky little wave at Julian and Julian raised his eyebrows in response.
"Alright, Noel," he said. He could not help searching Noel's face for signs that he'd snorted up or taken any other drugs while out of Julian's sight and was relieved to see Noel's eyes were focused and bright under his ridiculous fringe.
Ignoring the glares from the other patrons, Noel grabbed a chair from a neighboring table and pulled up to Julian's otherwise empty table.
"What're you doin' here?" Noel asked incredulously, "This isn't Bourbon Street, you're missing everything!"
"No sir," Julian shot back, careful to keep his volume in check, "This is all I need. This is what New Orleans was built on. That smut out there is merely coincidence."
"No way," Noel chuckled, not bothering to mind his voice, "That out there is what New Orleans is famous for. Anyway, you do realize you're the youngest person in the place, don't you?"
Julian glanced around and saw that Noel was telling the truth. "Yeah, well, that's exactly my point, isn't it. That proves that this is a place of high culture and class. These are my people, Noel."
Noel licked his finger and suck it in the leftover powdered sugar on Julian's plate. "Yeah, whatever," he said around his finger as he stuck it in his mouth. Julian allowed himself only a second to watch the sugar disappear between Noel's pink lips before he forced himself to watch the three elderly performers onstage. He took a sip of his beer and hoped Noel hadn't noticed Julian's lingering look.
They'd stopped fooling around two years ago. It messed with their chemistry. They'd become too similar, started making identical jokes and anticipating the other's punchlines. The element of surprise was emptying out and that meant the duo was getting predictable. They agreed they needed to spend less time together. They also agreed that keeping out of bed with each other would be best. The show needed an element of dissatisfaction to function properly, anyway. Contented people aren't funny.
So Julian needed to keep himself away from Noel whenever possible. Of course, Noel being Noel didn't help much. It was as if he delighted in tempting Julian. He was constantly flashing his eyes and flirting. Like he was doing it on purpose. And for all Julian knew, he did.
"Aw, you didn't finish your Jester?" Noel asked, again breaking Julian's reverie. He was cracking the lid from the slushy open and peeking in.
Julian lifted his beer. "Not really my speed."
Then, ignoring Julian's reminders about Noel's adversity to alcohol, Noel began to slurp at the drink. Instead of protesting further, Julian decided to let it go. He leaned back in his chair and let the jazz cradle him in their smooth caress.