Author's Note: This fic is an AU based off the 1942 movie "Casablanca." I don't own anything but the words (and maaaybe some of the plot) – everything else belongs to Himaruya and Warner Brothers, respectively. A few quick notes: this is written in an American southern regional style - not super heavy, like some of Mark Twain's stories - but it's there. Just something to be aware of. I apologize to my international readers if some of the dialect is hard to understand. A medina is the old city center/non-European quarter of a North African town. It is typically walled with many maze-like streets. A coin to pay and Charon both come from Greek mythology – Charon was the ferryman for the underworld and it was customary to pay him a coin for passage. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoy!

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[ I. ]

June, 1941

The cat was a smoke-gray scrawny thing with wiry fur and a voice to match. Its legs and nose were darker than the rest of it, giving it the look of a Siamese rolled in soot. The tip of its tail bent to the right, like it had been on the bad side of a closing door. Alfred could hear its yowl echoing through the alleys of the medina as it wended its way from the docks to his cafe, having eaten its fill of fish for the evening. Sometimes it showed up, a fish head still in its mouth. Alfred always made it finish its meal before letting it in the cafe.

He couldn't remember when or why the cat showed up. It just did. And stayed. Like everything else in Casablanca. Alfred didn't mind the cat. It did as it pleased, didn't get in the way, and didn't demand anything of him.

Tonight, it was on guard duty. It sat by the front entrance, its crooked tail giving an occasional flick. Besides Alfred and the cat, only two other people occupied the cafe. Two men, sitting at the far end, near the kitchen and back entrance. The cat had kept its eyes on the men ever since they arrived, its whiskers twitching, as it sniffed the air.

The doors to the cafe were open to the warm night, as were the windows, but the breeze from the ocean had died off the moment the sun went down.

He had heard Africa was hot. Heard it was diseased, full of corruption and poverty and just about every other shitty cliché you could assign to a place.

But in his thirty-three years of living, Alfred had learned you could say those things about anywhere - even his hometown of Ozona, Texas. People liked to say those things about places they'd never been to. Easier'n puttin' in the effort or time it took to really get to know somewhere.

So they said Africa was dangerous, said that you'd die of heat stroke or in an elephant stampede.

But they never said what it really was:

Purgatory.

Alfred was sure of it.

This place. Was Purgatory.

The place where souls went to await Judgement.

It Existed, this place. It Was, and Is, and Had Yet To Be.

Nothing ever changed. Not the weather. Not the seasons. Not the people who came to his café - a way station for poor souls hoping to pass on to Lisbon, Stockholm, New York, anywhere, so long as it was neutral.

Problem was, they never left - though it wasn't for lack of tryin'.

They just Became. Part of the scenery, part of the crowd. A shade existing just Before the Beyond.

Well. Wasn't his problem anymore. He was no longer their Charon. The only thing he ran now were drinks to tables.

A coin to pay, a coin to play. Come to Al's Place for Half-Price Drinks on Wednesday.

Hmph. His cafe. Al's Place: Café Americain. The only thing American about it was him, the owner. He thought about changing the name a dozen times but never did. Another thing to add to the list of never-gonna-happens.

It stood on the very edge of the medina, his cafe. In the northernmost corner of what Casablanca had been, before the French came. The medina's narrow, labyrinthine streets gave it the old world charm many tourists sought when they came to Morocco, harkening back to exotic tales of mystery and intrigue, flying carpets and magic lamps. (It also came in mighty handy for making a quick getaway. Easy to lose the Vichy gendarmes through the twisting maze of the medina's inner walls).

But Al's Place...

Al's Place was respectable. Faced the docks, ready to scoop up tourists and refugees with open arms. An oasis in a thieves' den. Welcome, welcome. Stay awhile. Lemme take your coat, your hat. Have a sit, have a drink! Next ship don't leave 'til mornin'. What's the rush, what's your hurry? It's only a coin to pay...

A fly buzzed by his ear. He swatted at it lazily and glanced over the top of his specs. Damn fans weren't doing their job. Well. How could they? Only turnin' at quarter speed. Really no need t' crank 'em up. Casablanca hardly ever got hot. Not like Ozona.

They said Africa was hot.

He'd lived in hotter.

They said Africa was poor.

He'd seen poorer.

He licked his finger and turned a page of his newspaper.

Smoke from incense burners hung low over the tables and chairs, a hazy blanket perfuming the air with the dark scent of frankincense. It helped cover the smell of sweat and cheap tobacco that seemed to stick to places like his. Also helped with the flies - except for the stubborn one that would not leave his ear alone.

Alfred swatted his hand again, faster this time, and clocked himself on the jaw. He stole a quick glance around, thankful no one had seen. The cafe was empty, save for two heads at the far end. Only thing that seemed outside the Static Equilibrium that governed this place was the number of faces he saw on a given night. It had been a slow week.

Alfred ran a hand through his hair, about to return to his paper, when a head topped with a Panama hat stepped in from the dark street.

Alfred glanced at his watch and snorted.

Francis.

He should have known.

How the Frenchman managed to arrive at nine o'clock on the dot every single time was beyond him.

Francis swept the hat from his head as he entered the cafe and glanced around as if trying to decide where to sit. He spotted Alfred at the bar with an affected look of surprise which morphed into a guiling grin. He held out his hand, which was immediately taken by the slender, caramel fingers of someone in the shadow of the door. Francis brought the hand to his lips as a woman stepped in. Her long black hair was pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck, exposing a striking and smoky-eyed face. She looked like a singer, Alfred thought.

Francis made his way to the bar, fanning his hat at the cloud of incense. The woman followed, not bothering to hide her disdain as she took in the cafe.

The cat followed them both, its surveillance of the two men at the far end interrupted by Francis' arrival. It twined figure eight patterns around his legs, yowling for attention. Francis scooped it up, scratching it under its chin. He set the cat on the bar and took out a handful of treats from his jacket pocket. The cat purred in appreciation.

"You keep feedin' that thing, it'll never leave," Alfred said.

"Who wants to leave? This place is paradise," Francis said with a wink. He stroked the cat between its ears as it gobbled up the last bite. It sniffed Francis's fingers, looking for more. "Ah, I am sorry mon petit chaton! I have nothing else."

The cat licked his fingers then hopped down and resumed its post.

"Alfred, my friend. It has been too long," Francis sighed.

Alfred cocked an eyebrow. "You call a week 'too long?'"

"Well, you know what I mean," Francis said vaguely, waving his hand. He took a seat. The woman settled next to him, offering Alfred a bored "Bonsoir."

Alfred couldn't help but stare as he nodded back.

"She's pretty, non?" Francis said, following Alfred's gaze. "But not quite to your tastes, I should think."

Alfred shrugged. "I've been known to bat for the other team."

"Ah, but only when it suits your interest," Francis winked.

"Is this your way of tryin' to persuade me to give up my dreams of finding a nice guy to settle down with?" Alfred pushed his glasses up his nose, trying to look nonchalant. Some things never changed.

Francis let out a laugh and drummed his knuckles on the bar top. He looked around the cafe again, the lift in his brow betraying an anxiousness his smile could not quite hide.

Alfred lit a cigarette and watched the Frenchman, all too familiar with how these exchanges usually went. Probably nothing more than one of Francis' cons. He always tried roping Alfred in, and Alfred had long since lost the tolerance for it. He liked to think he was no longer the same man he was when they first met. (Some things never change, 'specially when you were stuck in Purgatory).

"Somethin' on your mind, chief?"

Francis visibly started. His roving eyes snapped up to Alfred's. "What makes you say that?"

"'Cause. You wander in here, free as a breeze, but you got a look to your face. What is it this time? The Gestapo on your tail?" Alfred grinned.

Francis' face paled. He glanced around the cafe again.

Beside him, the woman seemed to be growing impatient. She nudged his arm. Francis hissed something at her in French that Alfred didn't quite get. She rolled her eyes, giving Alfred a look as if this was somehow all his fault.

"I don't suppose you could ask them to leave?" Francis said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the cafe's other two occupants.

Alfred shrugged. "I could. But why would I want to?"

"Because," Francis said, lowering his voice with a conspiratorial look. "This is important."

Alfred wasn't buying any of it. "Cut to the chase already," he spat.

"I am! That is, I'm trying to...but you're not making this easy, my friend."

Alfred snorted and shook his head. "I don't know how many times I got to tell you, whatever you're into, I want no part of it."

"Just let me talk - "

"If you wanna talk to me so bad, come back later, when we're closed. I've got a business to run, Francis. A legitimate business."

"Please - "

"I said no!"

Francis flinched. His face hardened. "We've been friends a long time, Alfred - "

"That depends on your definition - "

" - and I just...it's just one small favor I need. It's not money and it's not some new scheme. I just - " Francis huffed, cursing under his breath. "I-I have something. Something I need kept safe. Just for a little while." Francis' eyes flicked over Alfred's shoulder, to the door that led to the upstairs office where he knew the American's other safe was kept.

Alfred took a long, deliberate drag from his cigarette. "Sorry, pal. I'm no longer takin' deposits."

"Not even for a fee?" Francis' hand was already reaching for his wallet.

Alfred shook his head. "Like I said, bank's closed."

Francis swore and got to his feet. "Fine! Then on your head be it! Damn stubborn American. Come, ma chere, it seems I was mistaken." He held out his hand to the woman. She took it and stood with a look cold enough to freeze blood.

Alfred ground out his cigarette and folded his arms, wholly nonplussed. "Told you, if you wanna talk, come back later - "

"There won't be a 'later', my friend. That is the point!" Francis wrapped his arm around the woman as they stepped out into the waiting night.

Alfred watched them go, trying to tell himself he had not been riled by Francis. A hard thing to do, considering Francis was the closest thing to a friend he'd had in a long time. They had come to Casablanca together, had crossed the entire goddamn continent together. And no matter how many times he told himself he wouldn't, he always got sucked into the Frenchman's schemes. Cycles. No matter how he tried, he couldn't break out of 'em. That was the problem with going legit - it gave you credibility.

Alfred sighed. Maybe he shouldn't have been so abrupt. Maybe he should have played along a little longer. Odd to see Francis just...blow up like that. Sure he could be dramatic - he was French after all. But still. Alfred couldn't shake the nagging feeling this really wasn't another con.

It was a feeling that persisted as the night wore on. Alfred tried to distract himself from it, mostly through cleaning. Keepin' your hands movin' kept your mind focused.

He closed up early that night. No one else was coming in, and the two customers he did have left shortly after Francis. One of 'em spoke to him in French as they paid their tab, but his accent was one Alfred couldn't quite place. He hadn't paid much attention before, when he'd taken their order. But somehow, after Francis had left, his senses seemed dialed up. He suddenly found himself aware of everything - from the shadows sliding across the cafe walls cast by the slowly turning fan blades, to the man's accent and the odd color of his eyes. Alfred swore they looked red.

Impossible, he thought, as he watched them go. No one's eyes were that color. Had to be a trick of the light, and the fact his mind was whirring at a hundred and ten percent.

He fixed himself a whiskey, after he locked the doors, and went up to his office to go over the books. He didn't want to think about Francis. Or the man with the strange eyes.

[ o ]

A sharp pounding jolted him from sleep.

Alfred picked his head up, looked around for a dazed moment, and realized he had fallen asleep at his desk. He adjusted his glasses and squinted at his watch. Not even half past eleven. Early, for him. Alfred ran a hand over his face. The slow week must be messing with him. His body felt like it hadn't slept proper in days.

Another round of knocks - quick, like a snare drum - and Alfred hauled himself to his feet, grumbling under his breath.

The light from the stairwell spilled down into the cafe, dimly illuminating the bar and not much else. A motion in his periphery caught his attention as he made his way down, making his scalp prickle. His senses, already on alert from earlier, ratcheted up another notch - 'til he realized the movement was nothing more than a fan blade. Coulda sworn he turned those off...

Alfred hit the switch and drew his arms around him. He wasn't exactly afraid of the dark. Rather, he just didn't like the tricks shadows and light could play - an unfortunate side effect from his years spent in the jungle.

He went to the front entrance. Not many people knew about the back - and those that did, knew to only use it in an emergency. The front faced the boulevard. The back dumped you out into the medina.

As Alfred approached the door, he could hear a few words whispered through the stile. "Alfred! Please! Ouvre! C'est moi! Alfred! Ouvre! C'est moi..."

Alfred opened the door and all but had to catch a pale and out-of-breath Francis. He steadied the Frenchman and shut and locked the door again.

"Thank you, my friend," Francis breathed. He was holding his left shoulder, his face damp with sweat, and all Alfred could do was stutter out a lame "Wh-what happened?"

Francis shrugged and moved the hand holding his shoulder. A rust-colored smear darkened his palm.

"Jesus!" Alfred cried, jumping back.

"It's nothing."

"Bullshit it's nothin'! Christ, Francis, what happened?" Alfred steered the Frenchman up to the bar, away from the windows. The curtains were drawn, but he did not want to take any chances.

Alfred sat Francis down on a barstool and realized with a sinking feeling that Francis was alone.

"Where's your friend?" Alfred asked, lighting a cigarette. "The woman?"

Francis looked up with a slightly manic grin. "I told you, it was important."

"The hell does that mean? Francis, where is she?"

Francis' grin turned to a grimace as he sat up and began undoing his shirt to look at his shoulder. "Vichy police. They got her."

"Shit."

"I told you it was important," Francis said again. He winced as he peeled away his jacket and shirt. There was a sizable gash from where a bullet had grazed his arm.

"Here. Let me," Alfred said, his momentary panic replaced by something that needed doing. He was already running a cloth under the tap.

"No," Francis said, gingerly touching the skin around the gash. "It's okay. I cannot stay long. I don't want them to know you helped."

Alfred took a shaky puff from his cigarette. "What? Francis, you're not makin' sense. You've gotta stay here tonight. I don't want to hear another word."

Francis buttoned his shirt up and pressed his hand to the wound. "I cannot do that. There isn't enough time. I managed to lose them in the medina, but not before Angelique was taken. That's how I got this." He jerked his head at his injured arm.

Alfred was looking apologetic, but Francis shook his head. "She knew the risks. As did I." He gestured for Alfred's cigarette. The American obliged.

"What on earth have you gotten yourself into, my friend?"

Francis puffed out a laugh. " Ah, still the same old Alfred. You only care about me when I'm hurt or in trouble." He winced again as he reached for something in his jacket pocket. Alfred drew back, wary.

"Relax," Francis grinned. "You asked what I've been into. Well. Voilà."

Whatever Alfred had been expecting Francis to show him, it certainly was not what Francis placed on the bar.

"This?"

Francis nodded.

"This?!" Alfred cried, incredulous. "This is what you wanted - why you came -this is what you wanted to put in my safe?!"

Francis nodded again.

"It's a sheet of paper! Another one of your fakes! God, to think I almost fell for it - "

"Look again, my friend. That is a ticket out. Out of Casablanca. To anywhere you want to go. No questions asked."

"Bullshit. Francis, I don't care how good you are, they never work. They're not supposed to - "

"It's true," Francis said. "Just look."

Alfred's mouth twisted in a skeptical smirk, but he scanned the document nevertheless.

This was not another one of Francis' forgeries.

This. Was real.

Goosebumps rippled up and down his arms. His scalp prickled.

Alfred held it up to the light to be sure.

"Jesus Christ."

"I paid a price for that, believe me," Francis said. "With the guarantee, of course, that its buyer was to pay me three times the amount."

Alfred let go of a long breath. "Oh, Francis..."

"You must, you must promise me, Alfred. You will get that to its owner. Promise me. Please. The money is yours, only please please promise me!"

Alfred's mouth fell open, but before he could answer, the sound of someone passing by just outside the door made them both startle.

"I must go," Francis said. He ground out the cigarette and started to rise.

"Don't be an idiot!" Alfred hissed, his head working to catch up with all that was happening. He had a ticket. He had a way out...

Alfred shook his head. "You're not going anywhere."

Francis gave a wan smile. "They know I was here, Alfred. They'll be back. Now is not the time to be noble."

"Then take this!" Alfred brandished the ticket. "Take this and get outta here. Get yourself out of Morocco."

"Do not think the idea hasn't crossed my mind, as I know it's crossing yours," Francis said, a definite edge to his voice. "But the truth is, my friend, if this is the last job I ever do - if I am caught and they - well...it's not ideal, but who knows, maybe it can help atone for the things I've done."

Another pair of feet shuffled by the window. Alfred and Francis tensed, listening hard. A muffled and slurred singing followed.

Francis went to the window and peered around the curtain.

"I cannot stay."

"But why?" Alfred pressed, his voice cracking on the last word. "You're not thinking this through - "

"I have, Alfred. Believe me."

"But if they were following you - if they knew you had this - they'll search me, Francis! They'll search the cafe! They'll find that safe and - "

"Contingencies, my friend," Francis said with a knowing smirk. He opened his jacket, revealing an inner pocket. The tip of an envelope stuck out of the top. Travel documents. Forged by Francis' own hand.

Alfred felt his stomach sink. The pieces began to connect. "Francis," he croaked, "please tell me you're not..."

The Frenchman's face was set, determined. He turned again to the window. Not a soul was in sight - not even the drunk singer.

"No!" Alfred rushed to the door, blocking it. "I can't let you - I won't let you use yourself as bait!"

"The rats are still in the maze. If I leave now, there's less chance of an encounter."

"Why is this so goddamn important!?"

"Because I am nothing compared to the owner of that ticket. It is he who must get out of Casablanca. Not me. Not you. Whatever it takes. This place is a purgatory - one that we helped create - but it's not too late to open your eyes and choose a side."

Francis clasped Alfred by the shoulders, pressing his forehead against Alfred's. "Goodbye, my friend. God willing, our paths will not cross again for quite some time." He kissed Alfred's cheek and slipped out into the night.

Alfred watched as the door closed, stricken, none too sure of what he was seeing. This was a dream. This had to be a dream...

But the paper clutched in his hand was very real.

Alfred looked at it, held it up to the light one last time. It was legit. Not one of Francis' forgeries.

He had a ticket out...

The sound of a scuffle outside broke through his thought. Boot heels. Running, by the sound of it.

"Francis," Alfred breathed. Had they seen him?

He looked at the door. It was too late for a warning. The boots were closing in fast.

A shout. Something in German. Alfred couldn't make out what. The boots were right outside his window.

He shoved the document in an inner pocket and dashed up the stairs, making sure to hit the lights once he reached the top.

He skidded to a halt in front of his office window. The light from the street lamps on the boulevard below cut through the half closed slats of his blinds, casting harsh shadows over the room. For one wild moment, Alfred didn't hear anything except his own heart pounding between his ears. He took a deep, steadying breath and went to the window, pushing a slat down with a finger for a better look at the street below.

He felt his heart stop.

There was Francis, hardly even a block away, standing in a ring of light cast by one of the street lamps. He had his hands up - either pleading or bargaining, Alfred could not tell. Two figures stood on the periphery. Alfred widened the gap to get a better look. He could hear their voices but still could not make out what they were saying. One of the figures stepped closer to Francis. The light gave an eerie cast to his hair and skin - he looked white as death. The man spoke in French to Francis and in German to his partner still standing in the shadows. Alfred saw Francis' hands start to lower, heard him break into an uneasy laugh. The man laughed, too - loud and obnoxious, like the call of a herring gull. He nodded at Francis. Francis did the same but seemed to hesitate. Then he slowly turned and began walking down the street.

That was when the man pulled out his gun. And shot him.

Francis' arms splayed out, his head went back, as down, down he fell. Like some bizarre crucifix.

Alfred's mouth opened in a silent scream. He sank to the floor, breath coming out in spurts. The walls around him began to tilt and spin as a noise filled the room. Sharp and shrill, like a kettle boiling over. It stuffed itself in corners, stacked up to the ceiling and flooded the floor, crept under the doorway and through the window pane, with Alfred as its nucleus. He clasped a hand to his mouth, unsure if it was in his throat or his head.

The gunshot had thrown his world out of focus, and he needed to regain it, fast. Through the swirling haze that had been his office and the sound with no beginning middle or end, a memory broke through. Something from his days as a Marine. Start with what you can feel. What was tangible? The hard floor beneath his knees, the squeeze of his hand on his cheeks, his toes in shoes. Good.

He allowed himself to feel those things until the room stopped spinning and the sound became no more than an echo between his ears. Gradually, he managed to pull himself to his knees, using the window ledge as support.

Alfred twitched the blinds aside and peered down the street. The two men had flipped Francis onto his back and were rummaging through his pockets. The one with the white hair took something out of Francis' jacket. The fake travel documents. He shook his head and signaled to his partner. He looked down at Francis, shook his head again, then looked up and down the deserted street, eyes lingering for a moment on Alfred's cafe.

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Author's Note (2): First, a big THANK YOU to niniel-kirkland for helping me with the French for this fic and to gummyboots for sparking the idea for this on Tumblr. The crack!ship intensifies!

So, as stated in the opening Author's Note, this fic is based off the movie "Casablanca." I have altered some things, but one thing I kept "original", so to speak, was the no-questions-asked travel document Francis had (known as "letters of transit" in the movie). I went back and forth about this one a bit for several reasons. The letters of transit are completely bogus from a historical perspective, but they are almost as iconic as Bogey's "Here's lookin' at you, kid." It would have been more accurate if Francis had exit and entry visas signed, sealed, and not quite delivered, but (long story short) not only were they hard to come by, they also did not guarantee anything. You could still be turned away or arrested even if you had the right papers. In "Casablanca", the letters of transit are about as vague as Rick's past, but they are still compelling as an idea – to have something that's the travel equivalent of a blank check – especially given the restrictions in place during this time period.