Chapter Ten: Songbird
"Hey look, that's the state museum!"
"Come on Quinn, there's got to be way more interesting things to do in New Orleans than go in museums," I replied with a roll of my eyes, spinning to face away from the cathedral and take in the whole square. Dozens of art stalls were lined out in front of me, and to my right I could hear music - presumably live. We had already passed several musicians well equipped to cater to tourists' jazz needs. A line of horses and carriages was on the opposite side of the grass, waiting on the road for potential customers who would rather spend a fortune than use their own legs.
"There's Cafe Du Monde nearby, and the French Market. Or we could go on a boat on the Mississippi, or go in the cathedral. The museum too," Mia said, looking up from her notepad. "Is there anything anyone really wants to see? I think it's best if we just wander and see what we find. Pretty much everything is walking distance in the French Quarter."
I shrugged, glancing at the others. None of them seemed particularly inclined to argue - except for Quinn, who glanced back again at the museum. I grinned, bumping her shoulder with my own.
"Calm it, Quinn, we're not gonna forget your museum," I teased, pulling her by the arm down in the direction of one of the side streets that had somehow earned the name 'Pirates Alley'.
"D'you think they had real pirates here?" Brittany asked, popping up on my other side. "Is New Orleans like the Tortuga of the Mexican Gulf?"
Quinn let out a snort of laughter next to me and I elbowed her, looping my other arm around Brittany's and pulling her forward.
"I think if anywhere was the Tortuga of the Mexican Gulf, this would be it," I told her. I removed my arm from around hers, but didn't pull back any more than that. After last night I didn't want to make the mistake of backing away from her again. She hadn't really done anything wrong; nothing that warranted not being her friend, anyway. I just wasn't quite sure what she thought about the whole situation. She was sorry, I knew that. But would she have still been sorry if I hadn't pulled away?
Probably. She didn't seem like the kind of person to ignore Mia's involvement. I was pretty sure she wouldn't have tried that if we'd been sober. But what if we'd been sober and Mia wasn't an issue? Had Brittany even been with a girl before? She'd only talked about boys, so maybe it had just been a drunken, spurn of the moment thing. But glancing across at her, and finding her already watching me, I wondered if it had meant more to her than that. Whatever it was, I knew I had to be careful. We couldn't get in that situation again - and if Brittany really did like me, I couldn't hurt her by leading her on, accidental or not.
We wandered for hours. Several times we drifted out of the French Quarter, but Quinn and Mia quickly directed us back when they realised. Record stores and bars were everywhere, and multi-coloured beads scattered the floor, crunching under our feet. Music drifted down the streets - mostly jazz, but occasionally other stuff too. A multitude of restaurants and even street vendors advertised gumbo and po-boys and every type of seafood you could imagine. I'd never really had much of an opinion on New Orleans outside of the fact that it looked like a great party in March, but Tina and Brittany had insisted we go even though it wasn't Mardi Gras season. They'd been last year with some other friends and both loved it, and I was starting to understand why. It wasn't like any other place I'd ever visited, but the colours and music and wafting scents of so much good food were making me wish we had more than two days here. We popped in and out of interesting shops, paused to listen to buskers, and occasionally stopped to notice some leftover sign of Katrina. Apparently not everyone had got around to washing the search paint off their doors and garages yet.
It seemed like we had only seen a fraction of the streets there were to explore when my stomach began to complain. We'd had breakfast as early as possible in the hotel this morning, and apart from one giant bag of chips passed around, we hadn't eaten since.
"How about there?" I suggested, pointing to a promising-looking restaurant across the street that was advertising 'New Orlean's Best Jambalaya'. I doubted the truth of that claim, but it did smell amazing even from here.
"Well aren't we going to eat properly tonight, before we head out?"
"Oh... right," I replied with a nod, turning away from the restaurant in disappointment. It smelled so good.
"We could go to the market, it's pretty near I think," Mia said, pulling out her map again. "Yeah it is, just two blocks away."
"Are you sure? I thought it was the opposite side of the cathedral?"
"It is. We are."
I turned and found the steeple poking through a gap in the buildings to my right. Sometime in the past few hours I had completely lost my bearings.
"Maps are hard to read," Brittany said at my shoulder, giving me a reassuring smile.
I grinned back at her, unable to help myself. She didn't turn away, and just met my eyes. She stared at me for a few more seconds before finally pulling her gaze away to look at Mia instead.
"Can we go to the doughnut restaurant?"
"Beignets? Yeah I guess, we'll need to get something else too though. Can't have just sugar for lunch."
"Sounds like a good lunch to me," Brittany murmured under her breath as we started walking.
I leaned in so I could speak straight into her ear and no one else would hear.
It only took about ten minutes to get to this "Cafe Du Monde", right on the end of the market. It was crawling with people - apparently these doughnuts were a New Orleans speciality. I'd never heard of them before, but I wasn't going to turn down doughnuts for lunch - especially when Brittany had suggested it. I still had to make it up to her for being a jerk all day yesterday.
It took about ten minutes of wandering before we found an empty table big enough for all five of us, then Tina and Mia wandered off to order. I leaned back in my chair, stretching my arms behind me. I knocked a woman walking past and quickly brought my arms back in. I reached into my bag instead, pulling out the rubik's cube resting in the bottom and starting to twist it. So far I'd only managed to get two squares of the whole thing aligned right.
"Where did you get that?" Quinn asked, leaning in to rest her elbows on the table and watch me. "And don't you know you're doing it wrong-"
"Shut it, Quinn. I'm gonna solve this without yours or anyone else's help."
"When did you even get it?"
I shrugged, my eyes darting across to Brittany.
"Is that what you guys were doing? Buying rubik's cubes?"
I glanced at Brittany again to judge her reaction. She was looking at me in exactly the same way. I sent her a brief smile, and she returned it before turning to Quinn.
"I bought it for her. Then we just talked in the bar. Didn't want to disturb you guys when you were sleeping."
Quinn shrugged, leaning back in her chair. "Well, at least you're talking again."
I stiffened, and even Brittany's eyes widened. She'd said it so nonchalantly… but her eyes flicked between us, analysing.
I said nothing, and Brittany followed my lead. I pretended to be concentrating on the rubik's cube, but really I wasn't even trying to solve it. I twisted it, flicking my eyes up to see if Quinn was still fishing. Her eyes met mine and she lifted one eyebrow, questioning. I quickly returned to the rubik's cube, just as Mia and Tina arrived back with a couple of plates that held more sugar than doughnuts. As long as we were around the others I was safe from Quinn's questions - but as soon as we were alone she'd start interrogating properly, and Quinn could always work out more than I thought I'd let on. I knew she only did it to try and look out for me which was why I never normally objected (too much, anyway) - but just this once, I wished she wouldn't.
My stomach was full and my brain already buzzing from the effects of two and a half cocktails as we left the restaurant. It would have been three cocktails if Brittany hadn't gulped down the rest of mine. I couldn't begrudge her for it though. Not when she was hanging onto my arm, giggling into my shoulder. I didn't know why she was giggling. She'd said something a second ago about shrimp and pirates. But I wasn't going to complain about the sensation of her laughing into the bare skin of my neck. A vague notion appeared that I probably shouldn't be thinking like that, but I pushed it away by simply turning to grab Mia's arm and pull her up next to me as well. She was more sober than the two of us, but not by much - those cocktails had been strong. Even Quinn and Tina were rambling away happily about something - well, Quinn was talking, and Tina was giggling at every word. It was really just a matter of time before Quinn blew up at her for not listening. I'd never been a fan of drunk Quinn - at least not when we were away from the boys of McKinley, because then she always found someone else to vent at. Quite often it was me.
"Quinn!" I shouted, thinking I should distract her. "Where are we going?"
"I don't know! I don't have a map!"
"We don't need a map!" Brittany shouted from next to me. "Just find a bar!"
I nodded my agreement, swinging an arm properly over her shoulders and then one over Mia's, keeping them both close. Mia leaned in to kiss my cheek and for a few seconds I waited for Brittany to do the same. I turned to her to demand why she wasn't. Her eyes snapped away from Mia and up to me, and I suddenly remembered I wasn't supposed to want her to do that. It was like alcohol was some Brittany-potion to me lately. I squeezed her shoulder lightly with one hand to try and reassure her, and she lit up again. She wiggled under my arm, pulling off her jacket, then leaned straight back into me.
"Hey, there's music this way!"
I changed direction suddenly to follow Quinn and Tina ahead, making both Mia and Brittany stumble. I began to hum along with the familiar song, tapping my fingers against their shoulders in time with it. It wasn't exactly musical genius, but it sure was fun to sing and dance to.
"I'm bulletproof, nothing to lose, fire away, fire away… ricochet, you take your aim, fire away, fire away… you shoot me down, but I won't fall! I am titanium-!"
"You're like a little songbird," Brittany murmured into my ear.
I faltered for a moment as I felt her lips brush the lobe of my ear, then stopped completely when I realised I had company and I was actually singing.
"Hey, don't stop!" she objected. "You sound really nice!"
I mumbled something under my breath about how singing was for the shower and professionals, but she wouldn't have it.
"Pretend we're not here! Pretend you're in the shower! Or you're a professional. You're good enough to be," she said with a wink. Her words slurred together, but that didn't prevent the uncomfortable stabbing reminder that I was definitely not good enough. Mia's arm tightened around my waist and I felt her lean more heavily into me.
"I'm not," I replied quietly.
"Yeah but-" She stopped short, blinking several times as she stared down at me, trying to understand. Even drunk, she'd realised that was the wrong thing to say. She seriously was a genius. I couldn't tell what I'd said wrong to Mia unless she straight out told me, and she was exactly the same with me. "Um... then sing because it's fun, and you're drunk, and you're in New Orleans! This is the music city!"
"Isn't that Nashville?"
"Well we're not going to Nashville are we? So this is like our own music city."
I almost walked straight into Tina, saving me from having to come up with a response to that. She was waiting for us with Quinn outside a club that was at least three storeys high. The thrum of the bass could be felt even outside, along with the ebbing roar of everyone already inside.
I had to pull my arms away from Brittany and Mia to locate my ID and money to get through the doors, and once inside it was so dark I could barely see them. People milled all around us, and the whole floor was dark except for spotlights shining down on the bars. I reached out, hands brushing both of theirs. I threaded my fingers through Mia's, and after a moment's hesitation linked my pinky with Brittany. I pulled her closer, so even though I only had a hold on one of her fingers, I could feel her arm brushing against mine.
"Drink?" I shouted in Mia's ear. I could just about see her nod through the dimness. I turned to Brittany to ask the same and found her already eagerly nodding.
I began to fight my way towards the bar, realising after only a few steps it would to be impossible to keep them beside me with how crowded it was. I pulled my hands away, turning to shout at both of them.
"I'll find you in a bit!"
Turning, I began to struggle my way back towards the bar. The large meal had somewhat detracted from the effects of the cocktails, and it was time to remedy that - we had a long night ahead of us.
The music hurled itself across the room, blaring into my ears for only a second before being replaced by the next beat, and the next, and the next. Sweaty bodies swirled around me, moving in time with the familiar song. I opened my mouth to shout out the chorus with everyone else, no longer caring. No one could hear me anyway - and even if they could, the alcohol swimming in my veins had stopped me trying to work that out hours ago. Had it been hours? Days? Minutes? Time didn't make sense. There was just the music, and the dancing, and the drinks.
Someone bumped against me harder than usual, then arms snaked around my waist. I spun my head around to check it wasn't some guy being a creep, but when I just found Brittany I relaxed.
"You're singing!" she shouted into my ear. She pulled back, managing to keep some distance between us even with her hands resting on my hips and the rest of the crowd milling around us. I didn't know whether to be disappointed or glad or something else I hadn't even thought of. Probably something I hadn't though of. It didn't feel like I was thinking very well. I turned, dancing as I did so and humming out more of the song. Lights flashed above, shining down on the dance floor every couple of seconds. I could make out Tina nearby, but the others were too far away, or I wasn't looking in the right place. How had Brittany found me? It was hard to find people in here.
"Where's Mia?" I yelled. She frowned at me, and I stepped closer to speak straight into her ear. "Where's Mia?" I repeated, pulling back in time to notice that her frown had deepened. "Brittany?"
"I don't know!" she replied. At least, I thought that was what she said. The music was so loud I couldn't actually see her, but her lips made the sort of shape lips do when someone says 'I don't know'. "Come with me!"
I did hear her that time, but even if I hadn't her hand found mine and pulled, paving the way for us both to escape the crowd. She paused whenever we got a little too separated, tugging me through until we were at the side of the dancefloor - and then outside?
"Britt, where're we goin'?" I mumbled. My voice came out louder than expected, and I winced. Even I could hear how my words slurred together. I had no idea how much I'd drunk, but the street seemed to be spinning. It looked different to before. Had we moved and I just couldn't remember? No, I was sure that was the same club we'd gone into at the start of the night. So why did the street look different? It didn't make sense. "Doesn't make sense..."
She laughed, tugging me to her with the hand that was still clasped in mine, until she pulled that away to wrap her arms around me. I closed my eyes, burying my head into the crook of her neck and clinging onto her. It took me a few seconds of that before I realised I could feel a lot more bare skin than I should. I took an unsteady step back, and almost toppled over completely when I took in the sight of Brittany wearing only a skirt and bra.
"Brittany!" I squeaked, fumbling with the zip of my leather jacket. I got it off quickly, pushing it at her. She opened her mouth to protest, and I shook my head. "No, put it on! You'll get sick, it's not that warm!"
"Well it was in there, that was why I wanted to come outside..." she said with a sigh, pulling on the jacket. It was a little short for her, and she didn't zip it all the way up - but at least now it was easier to focus on her face. "Sorry. You wanted to look for Mia," she added, hands clasped in front of her and gazing back inside the club.
I looked over as well and was certain this time that it was a different entrance to where we'd gone inside to start with. Squinting, I could just about make out light across the dancefloor. We must be on the other side of the building. That made more sense now.
I turned back to Brittany to tell her I'd solved the mystery of the different street, but found her watching me with an anxious expression and remembered what she'd just said. I shook my head.
"No, no, don't worry! I was just wondering, I haven't seen her all night. I think. I'm not sure. Maybe I did..." I frowned, trying to remember if I'd been dancing with Mia earlier or Quinn. Probably Mia. Quinn wouldn't let me dance with her like that. "Okay I think I did. Never mind." She tilted her head, confused, and I grinned at her. "Don't worry. Come on," I said, grabbing her hand again and beginning to pull her away from the club.
"What? Where are we going?"
"Well I dunno. But you wanted to come outside. So we should go look for more interesting places outside than just here. Can't you hear all the other music?" I asked, spinning around to spread out my arms. Except I forgot I was holding her hand, so I ended up yanking her to one side as I did so. "Sorry, sorry!"
"What about the others?"
"What about them? We'll come back soon, once you've had enough of outside. But one night in New Orleans, we gotta make the most of it!"
She grinned at that, nodding eagerly and stepping close to wrap her other arm around me, halting me mid-step with a hug. I giggled into her shoulder when she lifted our joined hands and moved her arm around my waist, so it was like we were dancing. A rush of memories from that night in LA appeared, stopping my laughter. I sighed in content instead, until she pulled away to step back in besides me, leaning in to whisper in my ear. "You should sing."
"Whatever you want."
I hesitated. I didn't sing in front of people. Not anymore. It just brought back bad memories. But this was New Orleans. The city of music. Or not... but Brittany said it was. And I was just with Brittany. Other people passed us occasionally, but no one paid us any attention. She squeezed my hand, and her silent encouragement made me brave enough to begin - even if it was quietly.
"He left no time to regret, kept his lips wet, with his same old safe bet-"
She perked up, beaming at me already but not saying anything. My confidence grew, and I raised my voice.
"You went back to what you knew, so far removed from all that we went through, and I tread a troubled track, my odds are stacked, I'll go back to black-"
Brittany's smile and the tight hold she had on my hand kept me going. I didn't look at anything else - even though this was meant to be us exploring New Orleans some more. She never looked away either, though. All her attention was on me.
"We only said good-bye with words, I died a hundred times… You go back to her, and I go back to black…" I finished with a flourish, giving her a mock bow when she pulled her hand away from mine to applaud. I grinned at her, my head buzzing and my heart beating fast. It had been so long since I'd sang for someone like that. The smile fell off my face when I became aware of a few other people around us clapping. So much for no one paying attention. I didn't know what to think. I hadn't wanted them to listen. But hearing people appreciate my singing again brought back a familiar rush I hadn't felt in so long. I still recognised it through my alcohol-ridden state.
Brittany found my hand again and squeezed, giving me a few seconds to recover before lifting her hand to point at a building to our right. It took me longer than it probably should have to work out exactly what she was talking about - the crowd throwing beads off the balcony to the left was a little distracting - but when my eyes fell on the 'Jazzed Ink' sign my heart started beating even faster. I turned back to her and found her biting her lip, but the excitement in her eyes was easy to spot.
"What d'you think?"
I looked again, between her and the tattoo parlour, uncertain. When I'd added tattoo to my bucket list I hadn't actually been expecting to do any of those things. But I had wanted to get one for years...
"I don't know what though."
"So let's go in and see what designs there are. And if we don't like them we'll leave," she suggested.
I hesitated for a few seconds more before nodding firmly, tightening my hold on her hand as I started walking towards the building. It was large - which was reassuring. One time I'd mentioned tattoos to my dad and he'd gone off in a rant about the dangers of unlicensed tattoo parlours and a whole load of other stuff I couldn't remember right now. I didn't make any effort to remember. I was just going to look, anyway. Just walking inside didn't mean I had to go ahead with getting a tattoo.
We slipped through the already open door together, my arm brushing against hers. The reception area was smaller than I'd expected, but all around were photos of tattoos. To one side was a desk, and the woman there called out a greeting to us. Several large binders were laid out on the table on the opposite side of the room, next to a couple of worn sofas. Brittany pulled me towards them, opening one and beginning to flick through the design. I glanced over her shoulder to look at a few, but I was more interested in the photos on the walls. They were real tattoos - you could see how they looked on skin. It wasn't just an outline on a bit of paper. I skimmed over dragons and flowers and celtic designs. The framed photos were obviously the highlights. One woman had what looked like an entire tree tattooed over her back, while a wrinkled old man in the framed picture next door proudly sported an intricate circle design with names flowing through it. I shifted my attention back to the smaller pictures. I had an idea of how expensive tattoos could be from previous research, and there was no way I was getting one that big. Plus if I got something small, I could hide it from my dad pretty easily.
One picture in particular caught my eye and I took a step towards it to get a closer look. I stopped when I felt resistance, and realised Brittany's hand was still in mine. I looked back at her to see her flip the folder shut and smile.
I pulled her hand again, intentionally this time, leading her to the picture I had my eye on. It was a cricket, with music notes coming from its mouth, tattooed onto someone's ankle.
"It's pretty," she murmured into my ear. I could feel the pressure of her body against my back as she leaned in to get a closer look.
"Yeah, but I don't wanna cricket tattooed on me..."
"So get something else. What animal do you want?"
"I dunno," I sighed. I attempted to scan the rest of the pictures nearby, but my eyes unfocussed and I leaned back against Brittany. "What d'you think?"
"I think you need to decide."
"Yeah but I can't."
I grumbled wordlessly under my breath, closing my eyes and leaning my head back on her shoulder as I tried to come up with something.
"Dragons are cool," I mumbled, giggling a second later as I remembered telling her I wanted one as a pet. But dragons were too cliche to get as a tattoo. Plus Quinn would forever be making Harry Potter references if I did. "What are you gonna get?"
"I like that," she replied. I felt her arm move to gesture, and opened my eyes again to find her pointing at the same picture. "But I don't want to get a cricket either. Maybe a duck..."
"A duck?" I repeated, standing up straight and turning to stare at her. Was she joking? Was I missing the joke? "A duck?"
"Don't hate on ducks, they're awesome! And it's like... representing this trip. Like a bird's eye view. You know? Like on maps? I don't know..." She shrugged, ending her attempt to explain the reasoning behind a freaking duck tattoo. "They have a really cool duck tattoo in that folder, anyway. Maybe there's something there you'll like."
I let her lead me back to the table. I plopped down on the sofa next to her and she pushed the folder at me, turning the pages to get to where a surprisingly good duck design stood alone in the corner of a page of birds.
"Doesn't it look great?"
I shrugged, lifting an eyebrow at her. Her mouth dropped open to argue and I grinned, elbowing her.
"Yeah it's great," I told her, my eyes wandering over the rest of the page. The bird designs were quite nice, really. And birds weren't stuck on the ground. They could soar above regular people. Then there was bird's eye view, and all that stuff Brittany said. There was some meaning in that, right? Tattoos were meant to have meaning. "I... I think I might get this," I murmured, pointing to one bird that was nicely designed. "With the music notes too. Like it's singing."
I looked over at Brittany to gauge her reaction. She nodded, biting her lip, but it didn't hide away all of her smile. "You should. It's perfect."
"It is?" I asked in surprise.
She nodded again. "It's like you. A little songbird."
I remembered her using that phrase earlier, when I'd been singing without thinking... and suddenly she was right. Completely right. It was perfect.
"…Okay?" she repeated, eyes widening with excitement.
"Yep. Let's do it."
Please note this hasn't been beta'd (because I keep finishing writing on the Saturday and then my beta is busy… need to stop doing that). So apologies for any mistakes.
Pictures of the tattoos can be found on my tumblr here: laurasfantasia. tumblr .com
EDIT: I'm taking a break from writing this over Christmas - got a busy few weeks and I want to concentrate on getting Bumpy Ride edited.