With the war over, there was no avoiding it anymore. Conversations teetered off into awkward silences and strained looks passed between them even as the celebrations of victory raged around them.
"When are you leaving?" Rick is blunt and nonchalant as always, but Louis hears the tension beneath the veneer, the accent on the "you" not "we".
Louis doesn't even feign ignorance. The winds of the world had changed and a fresh bold breeze from Europe rolled in, carrying with it the smell of a victorious and liberated homeland across the sea.
Rick seemed quite undisturbed by it and the effect it had on his companion. Nothing – not Allied victory nor some silly enamored Frenchman – could convince him to return to that place.
Louis smirked at his friend's apparent indifference.
If that is the way he wants to be then so be it.
He leaves on the next plane to Paris and doesn't look back.
Louis had always been a gambling man. Watching the seasons change in the City Of Lights, though, makes him suspect that perhaps this time Rick won't let him win.
After all, Louis knows all too well that Rick is a stubborn man. (Refusing to forget about one woman for seven years is most certainly the mark of one.) He tells himself that this is the reason Rick hasn't followed him yet – after all, swallowing one's pride takes time – because the alternative is simply unacceptable.
As the days pass on, he increasingly feeds a sense of indignation. Had he not given up a completely satisfactory post as Prefect of Police in Casablanca to follow Rick into the life of a freedom fighter in Godforsaken Brazzaville? Was it really fair for Rick to deny him a similar favor?
For seven months, these thoughts keep him generally content with his position on the matter. More importantly, they keep the shadow of doubt growing on the fringes of his mind at bay … for now, at least.
It's the coldest day of the year when Louis walks into his office, shaking off his coat, to find a man in the seat in front of his desk filling out a restaurant permit.
Addressing him in perfunctory French, he informs him that he has the wrong man – Public Records are on the door to the left and furthermore –
The name leaves his mouth in a whoosh of exhaled breathe.
"Yeah, it's me," the man replies offhandedly, as if they were still in Brazzaville and he had just seen him last night when they had tumbled to sleep in their skivvies. "So, who do I have to talk to about this permit?"
Louis takes the piece of paper from him and looks over it, attempting to collect his composure off the floor. Merde! He thinks as he sees the price. Even with the savings he knew Rick had accumulated on their travels and inflation quickly making the franc extinct, he knew it must have taken months to save up enough to make the purchase.
Seven months, he'd wager.
Suddenly Rick was standing in front of him – close but not nearly as close as he wants him to be. Louis hands the paper back, fingers trembling slightly. Rick places his hand over the one with the proffered paper. He takes it with the other hand and places it on Louis' desk without once looking away from his face. He looks at their clasped hands and absently kisses Louis' knuckles. The Frenchman closes his eyes at the touch of lips on skin.
"I was beginning to think …" Louis starts lightly, forcing half of a smile, eyes now keen on Rick's face. "That you weren't coming."
Rick stares back at him, his face unreadable as usual, except for the slight furrowing of his brow. He lets go of Louis' hand and grasps the back of his neck, fingers running through the hair at the nape. He closes his eyes, breath caught in his throat, as he lets the tenderness of Rick's touch seep into his bones. Then Rick's other hand finds the lapel of Louis' uniform and he is being yanked into a kiss.
The months of waiting, worrying, and wondering flood out of Louis, but he finds that they are matched equally in Rick. If his mouth wasn't quite so pleasantly occupied, Louis might have grinned with victory – and no small measure of relief.
When they part, he admits,
"I really thought you wouldn't come." I thought you didn't love me, couldn't love me – not like you loved her.
A soft lopsided crook of a smile.
"What were you thinking with?"
It's as close as he'll ever come to an admission, but Louis finds he can't help the bubble of laughter rising in his chest.
Yes, he'd always been a gambling man. And Rick would always let him win.