Red is her favorite color. Always has been; he knows this. And so when he sees the flicker of a crimson jacket passing through the seventh aisle of the supermarket, the can of soup in his hand drops to the floor.
His eyes chase the fabric, only breaking his hold when he feels something tugging on his pant leg. He looks down to be greeted by a toddler's inescapable pout.
"Daddy, you didn't throw it!" she sighs exasperatedly, kneeling down to pick up the can that's too big for her tiny fingers. Hugging it with both hands, she offers it back to him. "You said it's only free when you throw it—it's more fun this way. You're s'posed to throw it, 'member?"
He hauls her into his arms against her wishes, setting her down into the grocery cart.
"I wanna walk."
"Grow bigger legs," he winks, pushing the cart forward. She squeals delightedly as he races through the aisles, faster than he ever allows her to push it.
It comes to a startling halt somewhere between the milk and the ice cream, a step away from nostalgia and the disaster that's inevitable.
From here, she appears to be examining the Ben and Jerry's with far too much concentration, worry lines marring her forehead. Her arms hug herself, something between being cold and too self-conscious.
"Rory?" he questions uncertainly, although hers is the face he'll never forget.
She looks up, hollow eyes and sad smile radiating with confusion for a moment, widening when she recognizes him.
"Jess, oh my god!" she grins, throwing herself into his embrace with a hastiness he would not have expected from her. There is some desperation with which she clings to him, the kind he cannot dissect just yet.
Backing away, slightly embarrassed, she composes herself. Her gaze traces the lines of his face, the way the age clings to his skin with maturity rather than exhaustion. This is not the reaction she assumes to take; it is the last one he anticipates. But there it is—relief. To see him, of all the people that have drifted in and out of her life.
"It's been ages."
"Something like that," he nods, remembering exactly the last time they encountered one another. Outside of her college dorm room is his last memory of her, and more than that, the last one he expected to have of her. It was and perhaps still is a fitting end to the volatile nature of their relationship. He had gone out the way he came in…with a bang.
Now, he tries to ignore the excessive make-up on her face and the complete insecurity with which she carries herself. This is uncharacteristic behavior, even for her. She looks older, more tired. Grown up in a way that, to some degree, she should never be. There is no innocence left in the woman standing in front of him, and for reasons he doesn't realize, this scares him.
"And who's this? A new sidekick for Dodger? You better be careful with him, huh, he's a sneaky one."
"I'm sneakyer," the girl answers with a Cheshire grin.
"She's yours," Rory breathes with a slight disbelief.
"Yeah." All that repeats in his head is Dodger, the name reserved only for him, only by her. "And she is. Sneakier, that is."
"What's your name, trouble?"
Jess's younger counterpart giggles. "No!"
"This is Ilsa. Ilsa, this is Rory."
"Casablanca?" she raises a poised eyebrow.
"Old habits die hard." The truth of the statement lingers in the air awkwardly.
"I guess so."
"What are you doing in the city?" he asks.
"I live here. I just, I got married in March—"
"It was in the papers," he finishes for her.
"I guess it might have been."
"He'd give Trump a run for his money. Not surprised it was in there."
She shrinks away from him, into a shell he's seen before. The red all but swallows her, but he can't for the life of him figure out why.
"He's good at what he does…" she reaches into one of the freezers for a tub of ice cream. "Do you know what time it is?"
"I know the time!" Ilsa breaks the mood, lifting the tension in a way that makes him grateful. "Daddy, watch please."
Jess lends her his hand with a slight smile, allowing her fingers to wrap around his wrist delicately. "What time is it, Bogie?"
"You named her Ilsa and you call her Bogie?" Rory laughs a little, amused. "That's so typical of you."
"It works. You called it. She looks innocent, but she's trouble."
"It's six past the five…the big hand is on the six," she smiles proudly.
"You're lazy today," Jess chides, taking back his hand. "Don't pretend you don't know."
"Five-thirty," Ilsa relents.
"Thank you." His head shoots up at the sound of something dropping, this time not by his own accord. The tub of ice cream lies at Rory's feet, her expression panicked. "You okay?"
"I've gotta go. Thank you for the time, Ilsa. It was very nice to meet you—Jess, it was great seeing you—"
"I'm late…he…I'm late for a thing…bye."
And she disappears just as she came, a vision of red that's nothing but fleeting.
The phone rings at an hour too obscene for his liking; he answers because he's too familiar with the voice on the other end of the line.
"It's four in the morning, kid. Weren't you the one who used to say sleep is sacred?"
"I can't. Sleep, I mean," she whispers. "It was good seeing you today."
"You too. Wasn't expecting it."
"We were kids, Jess." Rory curls the cord around her fingers nervously, wondering why she made this call to begin with. She's not sure what she wants to know. Everything, she thinks.
"Some of us still are," he says softly, matching her tone.
"Ilsa's adorable," she pauses, "definitely yours."
"She's three. And evil."
"Like I said…definitely yours."
He laughs a little, sitting up in bed.
"Are you busy?"
"It's four in the morning."
"Do you want to maybe, um, go for a walk?" she asks without thinking. "I'm sorry…Ilsa…I forgot."
"She's with her mom tonight. A walk sounds good. Where are you?"
"In the West Village. A few blocks from the Angelika Theater."
"Meet you at the theater?"
The more she considers it, the more she becomes aware that this is going down a road neither of them should travel through again. But the dim optimist in her is a silent reminder that enough time has passed for something to be salvaged. A friendship, perhaps. She needs…something.
He needs an explanation. One he knows won't be provided through a hush hush telephone conversation. "Rory?" Her silence worries him, hinting at questions he himself cannot answer.
"I'll meet you there in fifteen minutes."
"How's the married life?" he presses, somehow sensing that this is where his inquisitions should be directed.
"Oh, you know. It's…different than I expected. How's the divorced life?"
"Great. We get along much better when we're not hating each other."
"What happened?" she looks up at him and he sees the innocence surface in her gaze, briefly before it's chased away by his response.
"Oh…we had a song, you know."
"Did we?" It's not quite a question, despite the fact that he doesn't know the answer. He stares at the city lights in front of them, glancing up to find stars in the sky. This is a rare occurrence on too many grounds.
"As Time Goes By," Rory states confidently, the first time she's been sure of anything since they've closed the gap of the distance that still, and maybe always will, separate them.
"That's not our song. That's our movie. Song's just in there."
"The song made the movie!" she protests.
"Bogart and Bergman made the movie."
"You must remember this…a kiss is still a kiss…a sigh is just a—" she stops cold when his fingers cover her mouth.
"Don't ruin it," he smirks, his features softening as the tears surface in her eyes. "Hey, kid…what—"
She covers his mouth with hers and his first instinct is to resist, because his head is screaming married and his body is screaming relief. But he doesn't. He can't; he doesn't have it in him, to keep himself away from her. His arms pull her forward and she breaks away from him, wincing.
"Fine," she murmurs hazily, pulling him back down.
His calloused hands glide across her bare skin with familiarity, a touch he has memorized lifetimes before in his head. Her lips torture his, begging him for something he's not sure he can give her, not even now.
The bruises marring her back don't go unnoticed.
But they go unspoken, because he can't find the words and at this moment he doesn't want to.
Right now, her hair is in his hands, his heart is in her mouth and completion is the only thing that resonates in both their thoughts.
Smoke from his post-coital cigarette billows through the air, wandering a little before settling thickly in the space just below the ceiling. She is on her side, her back facing him and the scars that run down the length of her spine are enough to make him nauseous.
"Hmm?" she murmurs, somewhere between slightly dazed and blissfully unconscious.
His fingers trail a line from her neck down and she shivers a little, a slight smile curving her lips. "What's with these?"
Suddenly she stiffens and he wonders whether it's his place to question this; it probably isn't. But the marks stir something in him so fiercely that he feels he should know.
"You don't believe me," she says quietly.
"I don't know, yes. I've never lied to you."
"We were kids then," he breathes against her neck. "Lying's the only way to survive adulthood."
"How profound," she retorts, turning to face him.
"He's stressed…Allan. He works really hard—"
"Not good enough," he bites, tasting the venom rising in his throat.
"I pester, I talk a lot and sometimes I just interrupt when I shouldn't. It's not that frequent."
"Fuck, Rory, don't let him do this shit to you. Don't let him reduce you to this."
"To what? I've been lower."
It's a direct jab, and he's too smart not to realize it. He's also too stupid to ignore it. "Oh yeah? Cause I don't know how much lower it gets than being some asshole's punching bag."
She's moving away from him, wrapping herself in the bed sheets at first before deciding she needs to get out of here—out of his house, away from his body and his concern. The most she can do is keep a barrier of physical distance. Anything else is a lost cause.
"Bruises go away, they're temporary."
"A copout answer and you know it."
Rory lets the sheet drop to her ankles, fumbling around for her clothes on the floor. She is naked and scared and shaking, not for any of the reasons she should be. This is, she thinks, worse than any bruise or scar she might acquire. This is honesty, the one thing she's absolutely terrified of these days. "Hmm, I'm not sure Jess, you're so familiar with copout answers, why don't you tell me?"
"Don't turn this around, this isn't about me."
"It's always about you, otherwise you wouldn't ask. It wouldn't matter if you had nothing to gain," she hisses, completely aware that she's lying through her teeth. Pulling her sweater over her head, she blinks back the stupid tears that can't keep from forming. "This was such a bad idea."
"No kidding," he mutters, slipping his boxers on beneath the blanket. His legs swing over the side of the bed, but when he looks back, she's already gone.
Time plays its persistent melody, and her visits become more frequent. The last time he sees her, she's on his doorstep with a broken wrist and a black eye.
"Jesus, Rory," he says when he answers the door.
"That good, huh?" she nods with a pained smile. "Can I come in?"
"Yeah…" he trails off, stepping aside to allow her room.
"Daddy who's there? I wanna see, can I see?" Ilsa bounds into the room, hiding behind his leg bashfully as she sees the woman standing in the foyer.
"Ilsa, you remember Rory, don't you?"
"The pretty lady from the store?" She looks up expectantly at him, brown eyes warm with interest.
"That's the one."
"She looks not the same."
"Little bit. Time for bed, Bogie."
Ilsa comes out from behind him, walks confidently towards Rory and beckons her down with a simple flick of her index finger. Rory looks to Jess, then back to the child before kneeling to the girl's level.
"Does it hurt?"
The question is startling in its innocence.
She regains her composure, clearing her throat before, "Does what hurt?"
"Your hand. I can tell your face hurts. You look sad. My face goes sad when I hurt there, too."
"It doesn't hurt too bad."
Ilsa nods. "Good. Want me to kiss it to make it good again? Daddy does it for me. Oh, you make him do it. He does it the best. Daddy, kiss it and make it good again."
Rory stands, awkward and unsure, something he's getting used to. He leans forward, pressing a gentle kiss to her cheek. She stands, dumbfounded as he takes her hand and presses another, softer kiss to the gauze adorning her wrist.
"Thank you," she whispers.
"But I'm not—"
"Not up for debate. Let's go," He swipes her from the ground, hoisting her into his arms. "Go to the den, give me fifteen minutes."
"Let's go somewhere—anywhere, I don't care."
"We can't do that."
Jess isn't used to being rational. It's just not his style. But now, for the first time, he has to be.
And so they do what they do best—argue.
She says forever.
He says Ilsa.
She loves him.
Does he reciprocate?
Of course. But there's a way this needs to be handled, and it's not by running scared.
She doesn't have an option.
They kiss—just once, beautifully, silently, desperately. Somehow he senses this is the last, and he holds onto it for as long as he can.
Because this time, when she walks out, she's not coming back.
And it's not her fault. And it's not his.
Their song plays somewhere in the background, a fitting interlude to the resolution they've reached. If there is one at all.
She disappears, finally, with a promise to come back. It's just one lie to keep things simple.
And the next morning, an unsettling feeling grows in his stomach.
And the morning after that, her picture is in the obituaries. A color spread—she's wearing that jacket.
Red was always her favorite.