The End and The Beginning
In honor of my 18th birthday, here is a short fic :) It's rather unconventional, but I hope you enjoy it.
Outside the window, the streets were flooded with people. Bits of paper and confetti floated through the air. It seemed there was always more to toss through the window. The cheers and shouts could be heard clearly through the closed window.
Ilsa Laszlo leaned her forehead against the window. She couldn't help the smile that pulled lightly at her lips. They were safe. The war was over. No more weeks of worrying. No more need to fear. For she had always thought, in the back of her mind, that the Nazis would win. That they would follow her and Victor to America. That the running would begin again.
The glass was cool against her forehead. May hadn't yet turned into summer. Below her, children and adults alike celebrated in the streets. The terror of war was gone. The soldiers would come home. All could be well in the world again. Perhaps. The balcony window looked east. Beyond the buildings and the sea was Europe. Europe, and Casablanca.
Victor came to stand beside her, his hand resting on her back. "There were times," he said, "I thought this day might never come."
"Don't say that," she said. "You had faith. I know you did." She was the faithless one. She was the one to lose hope. Not him though. Not Victor Laszlo. He was strong.
"Perhaps," he said, "I simply didn't know my own faith."
Ilsa laughed softly, not out of amusement, but as a response, an acknowledgment. She did that a lot nowadays. She didn't have words. Not for him. She wished—oh, she wished with all her heart that she did. But there was a gap between them. Even more so now that the war was over. There was nothing to distract him from her anymore. Now their flat wouldn't be hers alone. He would be around.
"Ilsa?" He sounded as if he had been trying to get her attention for some time.
"Are—are you happy here?"
"In New York?" On the street below, a few young boys hoisted one of their friends on their shoulders, parading him around best they could in the crowd. He wobbled back and forth, but the wide grin on his face didn't falter.
"With me," Victor corrected.
Ilsa turned from the window to face him. There were more scars on his face than she remembered. How long had it been since she'd looked at him properly? Months? Memory failed her. He certainly was no longer handsome by any conventional means. When exactly had he lost that? She didn't know. She was wife and she couldn't say how he'd gotten his scars.
"Of course I'm happy," Ilsa said. "The war is over. What is there to be sad about?"
"That's not what I asked." He took each of her hands in his. His hands were warm and dry. His eyes were deep and sad. "Are you happy, Ilsa?"
"I—" She couldn't lie to him. Not like this. She knew that he knew that she knew that he knew about Paris and… and Rick. Neither of them had ever mentioned the subject directly. It was easier that way. "I don't know."
His eyes fell from hers and came to rest on their joined hands. Joined as they had been on their wedding day. "It's safe now," he said. "We have money. I'm sure there's a plane, perhaps even directly to Casablanca, or through Lisbon…"
Ilsa glanced out the window. Anywhere but him. The children in the apartments across the street threw confetti from their balcony. The youngest was too small to throw the bits of paper properly. She hung to one of the bars while opening and closing her empty hand over the street below.
"There… no," Ilsa said. "Don't." Rick had done the thinking for the both of them. He'd sent her to America to be with Victor. There was no going back. Even if she tried, Rick would only buy her another ticket back for her and her freshly broken heart. "We've made our choices. There's no going back."
Victor nodded, still looking down at their hands.
"Then… Then I'd…" He paused, searching for words. His head straightened and his eyes met hers. There was depth, intelligence, feeling. It had always been there, from the first days she'd known him. It was there now. "I want you to be happy, Ilsa. That is all I've ever wanted. You were happy in Paris—yes, I know, there's no need to say it—and I want you to be happy like that always."
"I'm not unhappy," Ilsa said.
"You're not happy either. Perhaps it's my fault. I've been gone so often and you've been alone here—"
"Oh no, I don't mind." She enjoyed the time to herself. In America, for the first time she could remember, she could sit and read or think without worries of Nazis breaking down the door. It was wonderful.
Victor sighed, starting then stopping several sentences before deciding what he wished to say. "You won't return to Casablanca?"
"I can't. That time is over, for good or ill." Her heart ached to return. Rick was there. She loved him. But staying in America was smart and right. And she wasn't unhappy here. That much was true.
"Then, perhaps, you would consider…" He spoke each word deliberately, carefully, looking her straight in the eye. She had never seen him so unnerved around her. He'd never needed to measure his speech to her. "…as I am your husband and you have decided to stay… Could you find happiness, here, with me?"
Ilsa could not contain her sharp intake of breath, though she regretted the look that flashed through his eyes at the sound.
"I do not ask for love you cannot give," he said. "It is been many years since we were both in love. But I wish to offer you what happiness you wish from me. I… I do not wish you to regret your choice."
Tears filled Ilsa's eyes and she grasped Victor's hands tighter. "I do love you," she said. "I always loved you. Perhaps I haven't shown it, but I do."
"You do? But—"
"There is space in my heart for more than one love," Ilsa said, believing the words only as she said them. And it was true. She loved Rick with all her heart. Yet at the same time, she loved Victor. Neither love was the same, but she knew suddenly what she had hidden from herself for so long: she could be happy with Victor. Truly, truly happy.
Victor brushed her cheek softly, cupping her face with his hand. He leaned in slowly to kiss her, his wife, for the first time in years. Ilsa returned his kiss, her husband's, letting her love for him come out from the hidden reaches of her soul. The war was over. It was a new beginning. The start of something beautiful.