Title: It’s Still the Same Old Story
Fandom: Casablanca (1942)
Characters/Pairing: Rick Blaine/Louis Renault
Word Count: 2600
Summary: After the war, Rick searches for his place.
Notes: Written for muffin_song, for Yuletide 2012. Thank you to Skidmo for beta.
The last time Rick saw Louis, it was 1944 and Louis had hopped onto the back of a supply truck. “Just a quick jaunt,” he promised, pushing his cap back from his forehead with a devil-may-care smile — though they both knew each supply run was a game of cat-and-mouse with the local German authorities, but Louis was good at subterfuge and sounding like One Of Them, and had always managed to get trucks in and out of the village without trouble. So Rick just waved and said, “Be seeing you,” and didn’t worry.
And then the truck didn’t come back. And then the bodies were displayed in the town square. And then the repercussions began against their families, and against the families of anyone rumored to have Resistance sympathies or to have helped any Resistance fighters.
Louis’s body was not among those made an example of — only a few of them were, out of that team, and those few was more than enough — when the violence picked up in the village Rick stopped hoping for a miracle. The remaining members of the cell convince him to move to safer territory. He traveled in a numb sort of haze, following the network of Free French sympathizers who hid him in their barns and cellars until he reached another cell in Normandy — this one in communication with the American army, gearing up for something big that summer.
Rick threw himself into the preparations, as translator, messenger, and guide. He wasn’t careless, no, but when the American contact commented on his bravery Rick wanted to correct it to recklessness. He knew he was reckless. Hell, he’d lost everything else (Brooklyn, Sam, Ilsa, the cafe, Louis) — why not lose himself, too?
Lazlo had been right about one thing. Rick is on the winning side at last. Not that it makes the losses ache any less.
Rick is there when the Americans take Paris. He passes La Belle Aurore, Henri’s old place where he and Ilsa had spent so many happy hours, and it’s now a burned-out, bombed-out shell. He stops for a moment, aching with memory and longing, and then gives the place a respectful nod.
He’d said once to Louis, “When all this is over, I’ll buy you a drink in Paris. I know just the place,” and Louis had smiled indulgently. Rick supposed Louis didn’t expect, even then, that any of their plans would come to be — but really, neither had Rick.
So now it’s 1945 and the big names are on trial in Nuremburg, and some of Rick’s contacts and acquaintances are talking about going to South America to hunt down the small names so that none of the war criminals go unpunished — not one war profiteer, not one concentration camp guard, not one Gestapo clerk. Argentina is mentioned most. They want Rick to come too — his ruthlessness, his tenacity, his powers of observation, all are valuable assets when hunting the clever and canny, with their stolen wealth and assumed identities.
Rick thinks about it, even packs up his things, but instead of buying a ticket to Buenos Aires, he books passage to Casablanca. He didn’t exactly keep in touch with anyone back at the Cafe Americain — for their safety more than for his — but he suddenly, desperately, wants to see the place, sit at the old bar and listen to Sam’s piano.
The journey couldn’t be more different than the last time he left Paris for Africa. No Sam, for one thing, and no grief for Ilsa’s abandonment — different grief, this time, one that he’s been living with for so long he’s gotten used to it, like a war wound that only aches in the rain.
He arrives in Casablanca at night, him and the scant number of fellow passengers (dozens fewer than before, and few are refugees — most are the bored and wealthy that the war didn’t really touch, now seeking a new adventure), and while they stumble sleepily to hotels he walks the streets like he’s been away for only a few days (fishing, getting drunk, reminiscing about Brooklyn with Sam) until he reaches the Cafe Americain.
It’s still standing.
It’s closed, because the hour is late and he really should be in a hotel too — Casablanca is still under curfew — but the neon sign still reads “Rick’s Cafe Americain” and it looks prosperous and well-cared-for, and tomorrow he’ll visit Ferrari and Sam and Carl — but tonight, tonight, he sits at the back door (Sascha turned off the light, just like always) and smokes his last cigarette in memory of everyone who didn’t make it back.
Ferrari tries to sell him back the cafe for a tenth of what he paid Rick for it — it’s been so profitable that he earned back the initial investment several times over — but Rick waves the offer off. “I’m not staying.”
“Are you joining Captain Renault?” Ferrari says. While the war wasn’t as harsh here as it was in Ethiopia or Italy, it’s left its mark on Ferrari, and his face has the drained look of someone still unaccustomed to peace. Rick supposes his face looks the same — or worse, given that Farrari quickly says, “Or perhaps Miss Lund in the States?”
“Miss Lund — Mrs. Lazlo — is much better without me,” Rick says and drains the glass Ferrari poured for him.
That evening, in a suit that no longer fits him, Rick is hugged by Carl, who is nearly in tears as he kisses Rick’s cheeks. Abdul shakes his hand, Emil says, “Bless you, sir, bless you,” and Sam stands up from the piano like he can’t believe what he’s seeing.
Rick almost can’t, himself. He’d almost think the war never happened — Ilsa never came, he never shot Strasser — except that he doesn’t feel like the same Rick Blaine anymore. He’s wearing the same skin, but everything else about him has changed.
When the cafe closes in the small hours of the morning, the staff stays to drink and talk to him, to hear about what he’s done and where he’s been, but Rick says little and mostly they talk to each other, about those who made it through and those who didn’t, and those who left to join the fight themselves. Sam seems to understand what Rick really needs, though, and pours him another drink.
“To Mr. Louis,” he says and Rick echoes softly, “To Louis.”
They talk about going back to New York, or maybe to Paris again, or maybe to do a little hunting in Argentina, but in the end Sam says, “It’s awful hard to travel with a piano, Mr. Rick,” and Rick says goodbye to Sam once more. It feels final this time, but not unhappily so. Sam has found his place — Rick can’t drag him away while he looks for his own.
He buys passage to Rome. Lots of Americans there, he’s heard, people like him, who don’t have a home to go to anymore or never fit in there to begin with. He meets up with some fellow wanderers on the boat, and they talk about going to Asia, how there’s a lot to do in French Indo-China for a man not afraid to use a gun.
But whatever Rick is looking for, he doesn’t think he’ll find it in Indo-China any more than he would have found it in Buenos Aires. He gets off the boat in Rome and finds a cheap room and a job in a bar that caters to other Americans who can’t or won’t go home. Lots of GIs, wandering aimlessly — their wives left them, or their girl married someone else, or they feel there’s nothing in the States that they can’t find in Europe, or they still haven’t stopped fighting the war. Rick pours their beer (or wine — the wine flows like water in Italy) and provides a listening ear, and he tells himself there are a lot worse things he could be doing.
Maybe a lot better, but he’s not that man anymore, either.
It’s 1948 and Rick thinks longingly of Brooklyn far more than he used to. There are rumors — there’s always rumors of some kind or another — of trouble for anyone who fought against the fascists in Spain, that their loyalty to the US of A is under question. There’s talk of blacklists and pensions withheld, of people naming names. Rick figures he’ll stay in Europe for a while longer.
Rome is beginning to feel too small and crowded, the same faces, the same streets — but when he looks at the map there’s no place that he wants to be. The collar put round the neck of Eastern Europe by Russia doesn’t allow for wanderers. He gets news from his friends in South America that the hunt continues, may continue for years to come, and again and again they ask him to join them until he stops responding.
He could go to London, he supposes, there are plenty of Americans there; and there’s always Paris. London seems the better option. No memories there, no associated sense of loss. Strange, about it, really — while he lost Ilsa in Paris, and he and Louis were never in Paris together, the sense of loss is the same. If Rick had just gone with him that day, maybe Louis would have made it back and they would have gone on the way they should have, planned to, together until Nazis were defeated and the fighting was done.
There’s nothing unique about losing someone in wartime. Rick knows that. You can’t have a conversation with anyone who hasn’t lost a father, husband, son — sometimes everyone they had, loss so thorough and complete that it leaves the survivors shell-shocked even if they never saw a moment of combat.
So the moment Rick starts to feel an iota of self-pity, he squashes it ruthlessly. His friends are mostly alive — his family, he assumes, his ma, his sisters, probably are too. He wouldn’t have left them behind if he didn’t think they could take care of themselves.
(Rick does think about them. Wonders if Meg got married — she was always the pretty one — and if Jane is still feeding anyone who comes to the door even if it meant she’ll go hungry. Wonders what they’d make of Louis, if he’d brought Louis back to the States. And his ma — well. Lot of water under the bridge there.)
In the end, he stays in Rome for a few months more. It’s not home, but he’s got friends, a roof over his head, a job that isn’t terrible, a girl when he wants one and a boy when he doesn’t.
It’s not bad. It’s not what he wanted after the war, but it’s what he has and he can’t expect to get more.
People are still coming home from the war, strange as it may sound. It’s easy to lose your way, especially when you’re not trying to keep it. He hears about this brother or that son who finally showed up on the doorstep, shoes — if they’re lucky — worn out from walking, men long thought dead.
It’s wild to hope, even for a moment, and he squashes it just as surely as he does the moments of despair. Louis is never coming back. They had a beautiful friendship for a few years — one where the best moments were small, sharing oranges, naming stars, defying death because they gave each other something to live for — but it’s gone, it’s done, Louis is never coming back.
It makes Rick long for Paris. The wide boulevards and the public gardens, the food, the wine, the art, the language like liquid falling off the tongue. Rome has its charms but it’s never been home, and while Rick doesn’t expect Paris to feel like home ever again, there’s an echo that he wants to hear and he knows he’ll only hear it there.
He gives up his little apartment, quits the job, gets on a train, and during the entire journey doesn’t ask himself what he expects to find.
The city is recovering from the war well. Even La Belle Aurore is rebuilt, and when Rick steps inside Henri comes to him and holds his face a moment.
“I heard you died,” says Henri.
“You heard right, obviously,” says Rick and he feels himself breathe deeply like he’s just remembering how.
Henri wants to give him a guest room in his own house, but Rick accepts a cot and a job sweeping up the place. Familiar faces come by, aged and changed, but their joy at seeing him is genuine. He gets few questions about Ilsa, and he doesn’t ask about the old friends who don’t come in.
The days, he spends those walking around the city. He visits old haunts, but spends more time exploring the streets he never walked and climbing hills to learn their views that he never bothered with before. He watches street performers and sidewalk artists. He eats food he can’t identify and drinks strong coffee from tiny cups.
Rick is, as far as he can figure, happy.
Is that why it happens, he wonders later — like serendipity, when he stopped searching he found exactly what he was looking for.
He’s in the Jardin des Tuileries, listening to a guitarist play Bach, when he hears the clipped tones he thought he’d never hear again ordering lemonade from one of the many vendor carts. Rick stands, hands clenching, and scans the Sunday afternoon crowd until he finds the voice’s owner.
All he can do is look until the man notices he’s being stared at.
Louis’s face is full of wonder as Rick picks up his own drink and moves to the empty one at Louis’s side. He didn’t make it through the war unscathed, judging by the cane beside his chair and the scars on his face, and he’s grayer than he was in 1944 and while his shoulders are still military-square it clearly costs Louis some pain to keep them that way. But it doesn’t matter to Rick — all that matters is that Louis is here to hold that cane, have that gray hair, take pride in his bearing.
“I heard you died,” Louis says as Rick takes the chair.
“I heard you did.”
“Only a little,” Louis says.
They sit in silence, listening to the guitarist, through one piece and the next. Maybe if they had found each other at the end of the war there would have been exclamations and bear hugs, as with many of the GIs and Resistance fighters Rick has met again over the years; but instead there’s only this companionable silence, as if they both know there’s plenty of time for catching up later. They both have stories to tell.
Louis says finally, “Isn’t it strange, Ricky? I’ve spent all those years after my escape wandering the continent, and came back to Paris purely by chance… and here you are, waiting for me.”
“Strange,” says Rick, “because I did the same thing.”
Louis fixes him with his still-sharp eyes, and sips his drink with a smile. “Driven,” he says, “by you weren’t sure what, just a need to be… somewhere you weren’t.”
“Because you weren’t there,” says Rick.
“Why, Ricky, that was almost romantic,” says Louis lightly. Rick can hardly believe he said it, either.
But he did, and he meant it.
He says, “I believe I promised to buy you a drink when we got to Paris.”
Louis gives him that indulgent smile. “I’d forgotten. Soon. Soon.” He switches his glass to his other hand, leaving the one nearest Rick free. Rick does the same. He can feel the heat of Louis’s skin, and it’s enough.