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No matter how hard he tried, no matter what he said, nothing worked. Camus, Ai, and Ranmaru were just too different. And he was tired. Despite his notoriously sunny outlook, he was only human.

Reiji didn’t have anywhere in particular that he wanted to go. He found himself wandering - at first, with a heavy sense of apprehension; he couldn’t just wander off, Quartet Night needed him. There was a schedule he had to adhere to. And the fans! What would they think of him, storming off like this? And his juniors…

Night dusted over the city, straggling stars flickering over the endless lights of the city. The weather was mild - couples clustered together, walking aimlessly like those in love. Businessmen quietly talked to one another, while crowds of women paced by in heels, trailing perfume like hot house flowers. At night, the city was an entirely different beast. It was funny, really – during the day, he would have never thought of wandering around downtown without some sort of disguise, and now, not a single person gave him a second glance.

He knew he should turn his phone back on. He should go through all of the missed messages and texts, come up with some excuse, and come back with the same smiling face. But try as he might, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Standing on the sidewalk in the night club district, he looked down at the dark screen of his phone. Slid his fingers across the cool glass of the face of it; let his fingers linger on the power button.

He should turn it on. It was the right thing to do.

Two women slipped out of a door behind him, their voices competing with the confident tones of brass, the tap-tappa of cymbals, a sly bass, the dulcet tones of a female voice. The women, nodding at him in passing, stood face to face, one shifting on her heels, the other fishing in her purse.

“Ugh, I hate leaving in the middle of one of Indigo’s sets – but I’ve got work in the morning,” the one shifting on her heels sighed, looking longingly at the door.

“Me too,” answered the other, finally retrieving her phone. “And I haven’t seen them in such a long time!” The one slightly unsteady on her heels looped her arm playfully in her friend’s. The pair started down the sidewalk, continuing their conversation. Reiji watched them go with a wistful smile. He’d forgotten how nice it was to just people watch…something that he didn’t get to do much of anymore.

Pausing in his steps, he turned back towards the door behind him. Above it, the club name, Tunisia, flickered in pale blue light. With the door sealed, the street had resigned itself back to the sounds of cars, conversation, and the mild chaos of the city. Biting his lower lip, he looked down at his phone, then to his watch. It was past midnight; surely anyone trying to get a hold of him would have called it a night. And he wasn’t tired.

He pressed on the door, and was instantly swept up into a world of cool blue. Inside, the air was cleaner, slightly sweet from old bourbon and whiskey. Soft candle light reflected off myriad bottles behind the bar, and the bartenders floated from one end of the bar to the other, immaculate in white shirts and bowties. They moved leisurely, polishing glasses, refilling drinks, stopping in front of customers. Waitresses, neat in knee length black skirts and white button down shirts and black bow ties, moved easily from table to table. Inside, the crowd was largely business men and women, winding down after a long day. Ties were undone, heels were slipped off. There was a sense of ease and comfort that he realized he wasn’t familiar with - the crowds at their shows were full of youthful energy, an energy that fed back into him and kept him going.

As he pressed further in, it slowly dawned on him that the music playing now was piped in now - vinyl jazz created ambient sound against conversations. In the back of the club was an abandoned stage, instruments still propped up. No doubt on a break; it was still early, insofar as night clubs went.

Pacing over to the bar, he slid into a chair, and made himself comfortable. The high backed bar stool was comfortable, in a sparse way. Once he sat down, he felt himself slump down.

What was he going to do?

Of course he had to go back. But how could he be a good senior if he could barely keep his group together? He was so envious of STARISH - at the end of everything, they were still friends, and that bond kept them strong. Though he wanted his juniors to be successful, it was hard not to think of the success of Quartet Night. Of course he wanted his own group to succeed, and the new challenge of STARISH had been helpful, but how to keep them together?

A drink was set down in front of him, startling him from his thoughts.

He glanced up at the bartender. Impeccably neat, the bartender gestured to a woman sitting at the opposite end of the bar. She gave him a slight wave, then smiled at him, her plush maroon lips parting over a row of white teeth. Reiji mustered a smile back, but he knew it didn’t reach his eyes. It became all too clear that it hadn’t when the smile on the woman’s face faltered, and she stood up.

He was mentally kicking himself for offending a woman when he felt someone sit down next to him. A whisper of smoky fragrance settled over him, intoxicating and soothing. Looking over, he did a poor job of masking his surprise that the woman was now sitting next to him. She possessed none of the self-consciousness that a woman drinking alone tended to have, that focus on the glass in front of her, the bunching of the shoulders. She clearly was at home in this hazy corner of the street, with her dapper black tuxedo, a red rose tucked into her lapel.

“I’m the one usually buying drinks for beautiful women,” he mused, looking down at his distorted reflection in the glass. “But if it gets someone like you next to me, I can’t complain.”

A sultry chuckle. “What’s the hang up?”

The voice was husky; self-confident. He looked up from his drink, caught off guard.

“I’m fine,” he said, with a little too much forced cheerfulness. “I had a rough time at work.”

“Yeah?” She swiveled on the barstool, her back now to the bar. Leaning against it, she crossed her legs. His eyes drawn to the movement, he caught the flash of white spats about a slim ankle.

“Yeah,” he chuckled, despite himself. “They can’t ever get along. And I try to get them to hold it together, but…” He trailed off. “We’re not really friends.”

“Sounds rough. But you know, you’re not paid to be friends. You’re paid to get a job done.” She drummed her fingers against the bar top – dum dum da da dum. “But you seem like the type that wants everyone to get along.”

 He allowed himself to look from her shoes to her face. His breath caught. She wasn’t instantly stunning, nothing like the model beauties that he’d seen around the school. No, her beauty was a well-worn collection of parts – intense dark eyes, creamy brown skin, a small beauty mark on the right corner of her full mouth that made him want to kiss her. A quiet, overwhelming presence that held him to his seat.

“…How could you guess?” His smile was rueful now, honest. More honest than he’d felt it in ages.

“From your eyes,” she said, as if it were the most simple thing in the world. “Also, don’t see many guys like you in a place like this.” She gave a slight wave to the interior of the club. “Not saying it’s a bad thing,” she added, with a smile. “Nothing helps me play better than a good-looking face.”

“Oh, you think I’m good-looking?” He grinned easier now, feeling his spirits lift. “Then I definitely stumbled into the right place.”

She laughed now, and slid off of her stool. Lightly clapping him on the shoulder, she surprised him by the unexpected strength in her grip. He watched her walk away, smiling, lifting the drink to her in a silent toast.

It was only when she took the stage that Reiji realized that her voice sounded familiar.

“Good night, folks of Tunisia! I’m Evangeline Moody, and this is my fantastic band, Indigo. We’re thrilled to be home again,” she said, waving out at the crowd. Under the lights, her black hair took on a deep blue cast. “We’re gonna swing it for you tonight - but we’re gonna start off with something to take the day off, help you all relax,” and she strummed a few chords on the double bass. “Takashi is going to take the lead on this one - since there’s nothing like a good sax after work,” and she winked out to everyone.

“That pun was horrible,” sniped the trumpet player, shaking his head. Evangeline laughed, a light, airy sound. “Do you guys agree with Kazz? Bad joke?”

The audience dissolved into easy laughter - one intrepid audience member went so far as to shout “NO!” above the heads of everyone, causing another ripple of laughter to shake through.

With a chuckle and a shake of her head, she plucked the strings on her bass. Counted softly, and Takashi took the center stage. The piano started them off with a barely perceptible nod from her, and then she began as well, taking backseat comfortably to the alto saxophone, setting the sedate pace along with the drums.

An irresistible ripple went through the crowd. Conversations started anew, and laughter came easier. Reiji felt himself taken aback. It wasn’t that he was unfamiliar with jazz; far from. It was the way he was feeling now that…made him…feel…feel like the Happy Pulse - no, it wasn’t that. It was calmer, the way it whispered in his ear, slipped around his shoulders, ran invisible fingers through his hair. He found himself fixed on Evangeline, watching her long fingers manipulate the strings of her bass, settled on the way those full lips of hers turned up, the slight nod of her head along with the beat of the music.

One song melted into another, and he nursed his drink throughout, locked on her. Though she announced herself as the band leader, she seemed to stay in the background, occasionally singing, but the songs were split evenly within the members of her band. She would switch from the bass to piano, with a smoothness that had to come from prior rehearsal, but seemed natural nonetheless. And when the final notes died away, he joined in with the rest of the bar, clapping vigorously, whistling without abandon. From the stage, he could feel her smile beaming down on him.

____

Seeing her, whenever he could, became routine. It wasn’t always easy, of course, but somehow, he’d make the time. Sometimes Indigo was there, and sometimes they weren’t. Even on the nights that they weren’t, he stayed anyway, listening to whatever replacement the bar had managed to find. They were always excellent musicians, but never as good as Indigo – never close to bringing back that wave of chill. 

Tunisia became a home away from home - he was recognized as a regular by some of the staff, but no one prodded further into who he was. He was simply a fan of Indigo - something that meant he belonged. Bartenders struck up easy conversations with him, and over time, he got to know them, and tried to figure out more about Indigo’s schedule. Tunisia was their home base in Japan, but with Evangeline clearly not being from Japan, she occasionally went home. Indigo would stay behind (unless they were touring with her), and their impromptu, guerilla jam sessions at Tunisia were the talk of the town, and business boomed on those nights. Reiji had been lucky enough to catch a few, and though they were quickly becoming a highlight, having heard them with Evangeline, it always felt that something vital was missing.

And then the Triple S happened - and he hadn’t been by in weeks.

Pulling up his coat around his shoulders, he wandered in, hoping that his luck would hold. If he remembered, Indigo had recently come back from abroad. If his memory was correct, and after all of the glitter and excitement of the Triple S, that was a very big if.

The bar was packed; a low buzz of excitement rippling through. Squeezing close to the bar, he raised his fingers. The bartender tonight was a familiar face, and seeing Reiji, she smiled and nodded, starting on his drink. Reiji smiled, and swiveled in his seat, twisting to face the stage. And his smile widened. He’d recognize that bass anywhere.

Stepping out onto the stage, resplendent in her tuxedo, Evangeline raised her hand to the crowd. “I’m thrilled to be back in Japan, and back in Tunisia. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Her tone softened as she stepped closer to the piano. “I see a lot of new faces,” she raised her hand to her eyes, lightly shielding them from the glare of the lights. As she turned to focus on the bar, Reiji lifted his glass to her. Her smile grew.

“And I see some familiar faces as well.” She played a few notes on the piano, looking down at her fingers. “Including some that I was hoping that I was going to see. And so, my next song goes out to them.”

Striking the next few notes lightly, she leaned over her microphone, her voice easing into the song.

 

Hello, stranger

It seems so good to see you back again

How long has it been?

Seems like a mighty long time….

 

Their eyes met, and he felt his cheeks grow warm.

 

Her voice was somehow sweeter than he remembered it, magnifying the coolness that swept over him. It was second nature to tap out the rhythm of her music with his fingers, to watch the rest of the audience relax with him. Better yet, she’d look at him deliberately from time to time, and her smile warmed him more than the liquor.

_________

 

It was bold for him.

In all of the times that he’d visited since that first night, they’d done little more than exchange smiles, her from the stage, him from the bar. When they took breaks between sets, he’d watch them, refresh his drink. He knew their pattern like clockwork now: they’d gather in a huddle of sorts, with Evangeline speaking, before they went their separate ways – her, usually out the side door with the drummer, the two of them speaking more with their hands than with words. And, five minutes to the dot before they were scheduled to come back on, she’d return, sipping from a bottle of water, stretching, before settling herself down at her instrument of choice. At the end of each set, he’d stay until they packed up, watching the easy banter between the band members, then would head home.

Tonight, something felt different. He’d felt her make the first step towards him with that song, and he was intent on actually talking to her. Imagine, him, feeling something close to star-struck, when it was usually the opposite! So, he’d followed her, pushing through the crowd with polite “excuse-mes” until he was out the side door. The side door opened into a small cobblestone alley, leading back to the street. Tunisia’s sign hung over it all, a baby blue moon.

And there she was, bathed in that flickering blue light, her cigarette smoke undulating in slow time from the tip of her cigarette. She was exhaling towards the sky, fixated on a point he couldn’t see. As the door opened, she turned to face him, surprise on her face.

“Well, you certainly weren’t who I was expecting,” her smile was easy, kind. “Hello, stranger,” she purred, tapping her cigarette between her long fingers.

Reiji smiled, quietly closing the door behind him. He’d felt a surge of delight, catching her by surprise.

"I feel like I could say that as well - I've been here, but you haven't. Kaz said you had another gig?” He leaned against the closed door for a moment, before thinking better of it, and stepped aside. 

She looked surprised, her dark brows creasing as she looked down at her cigarette between her fingers. She swallowed, then looked back at him, as if nothing had happened. “Something like that.” The curve of her smile suggested a secret as she flicked ash down at her feet. "It really has been a mighty long time, hasn't it?"

His smile widened. So she'd not only noticed him; she'd been looking for him as well. “Work’s kept me busy. But I can’t stay away.”

He leaned against the same wall she was on, keeping space between the two of them.

Conscientiously, she blew smoke away from him, going a step further in waving it away and up into the air. “So, stranger – do you have a name?” She looked at him through partially closed lids, her full lips curved, reminding him of a cat.

“Reiji Kotobuki.” He wasn’t sure if he imagined it, but it seemed that there was a brief spark of recognition in her dark eyes, before they returned back to their playful half-lidded expression.

“Well, Kotobuki,” she carefully blew smoke up and away from him, “I’m Evangeline Moody.” She held out her free hand. He paused for a moment, before enclosing it in his own. Her hand was smaller than his, but rougher. Her handshake was firm, decisive.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you...” It took all of his self control not to bow to her, but to leave it at the handshake. “Evie-chan,” he added, with a sunbeam smile. One of her heavy eyebrows quirked, before her mouth followed suit, and she laughed openly.

“ ‘Evie-chan.’ That’s a new one.”

“You can call me ‘Rei-chan,’” he eagerly supplied, before letting go of her hand.

“I think ‘Kotobuki’ is more proper, unless my Japanese is just that bad.”

He paused, before he realized she was being sarcastic. Then he smiled again.

“Whatever you call me, I’ll be happy just to hear your voice.”