Well, to quote another romantic hero, in vain I have struggled. Scarlett and Rhett have won. I am again working on Mending Wall and should have an update by the end of July or else a couple of them in August. And in the meantime I've picked up a little story I had outlined a few years ago. It's the first time I've written a what if - think of it as a summer diversion, easy to write and hopefully easy to update. It will also be a fast-moving story, if I can get it to cooperate, and one that won't stay in Wade's POV after this first chapter, much as I've enjoyed writing it. Your comments are much appreciated, as I slowly find my feet in this GWTW fanfic business again.

This story, too, is for iso, il miglior fabbro of Butler kids antics and in general.

Chapter I: Childhood's End

"'You understand little boys, don't you, Uncle Rhett?'" (GWTW Ch. L)

His mother was dying, of that there was no doubt. An entire day had passed since Wade and his sisters had been sent to his Aunt Melly's and not a word had come from home. The silence was not good. The silence could only mean one thing. His mother was not getting better, his mother was dying and no one wanted to tell him the truth. He knew other boys whose mothers had died and hearses had come to take them away. His grandmother had been sick and then she had died and, when they got to Tara, it was too late. Her room was dark and smelled of medicine, just like his mother's did now.

His mother had been sick before, when his sister Ella was born and they were living in his Aunt Pittypat's house, and later, when they had moved in their big house and his sister Bonnie was born. But this was nothing like those days. Back then everyone had frowned at him and pushed him out of the way and called him a bad boy. He would have been happy to be called a bad boy now. Instead, every time they came out of Mother's room and saw him spying from the hallway, they looked at him with something like pity in their eyes. His Aunt Pittypat had clutched him to her chest and cried. "The poor children, the poor children," she wailed before Aunt Melly, her face white and tired, had raised her voice to hush her. Aunt Melly had never before raised her voice at anyone.

His Uncle Ashley was the one who had brought Aunt Pittypat to visit. He had to stop outside the door to Mother's bedroom and wait for the women to come out. He didn't go in. Men were not allowed to go in, Uncle Rhett had told Wade, except for Dr. Meade. Uncle Ashley looked tired, he had those lines near his mouth like old people have, as if their whole face is made of crumpled paper. He didn't talk much and Wade thought he looked uneasy standing there in the hallway. He and Aunt Melly always looked like that when they came to visit.

On the other side of the hall, the door to his Uncle Rhett's bedroom was open. At first Uncle Rhett had let Wade stay there and wait with him. They didn't talk of anything, they just sat together on the edge of the bed and looked at Mother's door across the hall. But then Uncle Rhett had sent him away and sat himself directly on the floor and smoked so much that Wade was dizzy just from the smoke that drifted out of the room. Uncle Rhett was still on the floor when Uncle Ashley arrived but he didn't get up to greet him. He didn't say anything.

After he'd taken Aunt Pittypat to her carriage, Uncle Ashley returned for Wade and his sisters. He and Uncle Rhett locked eyes and looked at each other for a moment in a way Wade had never seen two persons look at each other before. When Uncle Rhett's face was not shaved and his eyes gleamed like that, he looked just like a pirate and it was frightening. But then his eyes were blank again and he seemed to be looking directly through the other man and at Mother's door. And then they had left for his Aunt Melly's house.

That night, Pork came to see Dilcey. Pork and Dilcey were husband and wife, but they didn't live in the same house. Why it was so, Wade didn't know. His mother and Uncle Rhett were married and they lived in the same house. So did Aunt Melly and Uncle Ashley. But Dilcey lived in a small room at his Aunt Melly's and Pork was their butler at home. They stood together in the small hallway that led to the kitchen and Wade heard Pork's voice rising and falling rapidly, but he couldn't make out any of the words. And then Dilcey looked towards the parlor, where his sisters were playing with Uncle Ashley and Beau, and she looked like she was very, very sorry.

And just like that he made his decision. He had to go home and see his mother. He'd go and ask Uncle Rhett not to send him away again and Uncle Rhett would understand, like he always did. He would have sneaked out the kitchen door immediately, but Pork was still there and would surely not allow him to leave. It was better to wait until everyone went to bed. Aunt Melly had not returned home, so Ella and Bonnie were sleeping in her room. He and Beau shared the small nursery next door. He sat wide-eyed in the dark, listening to the sound of Uncle Ashley's voice through the thin wall, reading a tale to the girls. If only he could read faster! It seemed like centuries before he heard Uncle Ashley's steps in the hallway and then the soft click of his bedroom door. He got up from his small cot in an instant and started putting on his clothes.

"What's happening?" Beau's asked sleepily from his bed. His voice was loud like the crack of a gun in the small room.

"Shhh," Wade whispered frantically. "I am going home."

Beau sat up in his bed. "Home? What are you going home for?"

Wade hesitated, but in the end he could not voice it, his terrible suspicion. Maybe if he didn't say it aloud, it wouldn't come true.

"I have to see how my mother is," he said, bending down to tie his shoelaces.

"But Father said he'd take us in the morning," Beau whispered reasonably.

"I want to go now," Wade said, quite stubbornly. "And you're not to tell anyone."

"Wait," Beau said, throwing his legs over the edge of the bed. "I am coming with you."

Wade looked at the small frame of his cousin in the moonlight and suddenly it didn't seem like such a bad idea to have someone next to him on the dark streets. He nodded quickly.

"All right, then. But hurry!"

They ran all the way to Wade's house. The night was soft and warm and full of sounds. They could hear them from all sides: the rustling of leaves, the mournful baying of a dog in the distance, a distant murmur of voices even, floating on the wind. They ran as fast as their legs could carry them, trying not to breathe too loudly for fear they'd stir some untold danger from beyond the protective circle drawn by the gas lights. Beau got a stitch in his side and had to stop just as the towers of the Butler house came into view at the top of the hill.

"Come on, Beau! Hurry!" Wade whispered, fighting an urge to grab his arm and drag him the rest of the way to the house.

General Forrest, Wade's St. Bernard, growled menacingly behind the gate as they opened it, but then it recognized its young master and was silent. They went swiftly into the house through the front door, which someone had left unlocked. The gas lamps were burning dimly in the hallway, making the massive shadows of the furniture loom like monsters along the walls. Apart from their trembling shapes and the hiss of the burning gas, everything was silent and motionless, so silent and so motionless that Wade could feel panic rising painfully in his stomach.

They went up the wide, carpeted stairs to the second floor. This was where his mother had fallen, Wade knew, and he looked behind him at the tumbling darkness. His sister Ella had always been afraid of the grand staircase. When she was a little younger, she'd fought him over a toy sword and, as he let go of it, she lost her balance and fell on her bottom, a hairsbreadth's away from the edge of the top step. She'd cried for hours and hours. That was the only time Wade had ever been spanked by his stepfather.

They went down the hall quietly, their footfalls swallowed by the thick carpet. No door was open, not even Uncle Rhett's, and Wade swallowed uneasily. He had imagined the house would look just like when he had left it, with people going in and out of his mother's room, and Uncle Rhett on the floor or the edge of his bed, following them with his eyes. He had imagined he would go to him and Uncle Rhett would tell him how Mother was, and tousle his hair as he did, and then let him and Beau wait in his room. But Uncle Rhett was not here to see them right away and Wade suddenly felt shy.

Alone he would have hid near the stairs and waited for a door to open, or even lost his courage entirely and run back to his Aunt Melly's house. But Beau was looking at him expectantly so he couldn't stop. They hesitantly inched their way to the doors at the end of the corridor—his mother's and Uncle Rhett's. And as they did, they heard a noise. It was like the sound of a harsh, choked breath, growing less and less faint the closer they got to Uncle Rhett's room. When they were close enough, they could tell what it was, and froze in place. It was the sound of a man crying. And judging by the muffled voice coming from behind the door, it was the sound of Uncle Rhett crying.

Wade's stomach turned to lead. They were too late. His mother was already dead. He felt tears prickling behind his eyelids and all he wanted to do was sink into a corner and cry. Beau was looking at him with wide, worried eyes. And then he did something that any other day would have made Wade jealous for its bravery. He pushed the door softly with the tip of his shoe. The door had been closed but had not clicked shut, and now it opened just a crack, enough for sound and light to spill out. But the words that emerged were anything but reassuring.

"Belle said we would kill each other in the end, and I've done it. I've killed Scarlett," Uncle Rhett said hoarsely.

Wade drew a sharp breath.

"No, Captain Butler, no," came Aunt Melly's soothing voice from within the room. "I told you, she's not dead. She'll be fine.'

But Rhett seemed not to hear her. "I've killed Scarlett, I've killed her. You don't understand."

At first Wade could only feel overwhelming relief at Aunt Melly's words. His mother was not dead, his mother was getting better. The terror that had been sitting on his chest, not letting him breathe for the past two days, lost some of its weight.

But in the dark Uncle Rhett continued to talk. Some words were ugly, and some Wade did not understand at all, but he grasped some parts, the most important parts. Uncle Rhett had hurt his mother and had run away and, when he came back, he made her fall down the stairs. His Aunt Melly kept saying it was not so, but Wade knew it was true. All his confused memories of the last three months fell into place in his mind to tell him it was true. He again felt the pressure of tears in his eyes, but this time they were hot, angry tears. He could not look at his cousin. Finally, he could stand no more and broke into a run, down the dark stairs and out of the house.

He ran down Peachtree Street so fast his shins hurt. His chest felt full and heavy, as if it was going to overflow at any second and running was the only thing that kept it from doing so. The pressure built in his throat until he finally had to stop and take deep, gulping breaths. Beau, who had been running silently behind him, too afraid to call after him, finally caught up.

"Wait—Wade—you shouldn't have—gone off like that—" he wheezed.

Wade did not say anything. They were already close to Ivy Street and they walked the rest of the way in silence, shuffling their feet. The small windows of Beau's house were dark; no one had noticed their absence. As they were slipping back into their beds, Wade finally spoke.

"You have to promise you won't tell anyone what we heard. Promise, Beau," he said fiercely.

Beau looked troubled, but he nodded. Wade turned to his side on the cot, facing the wall. The thoughts that running had kept at bay were now turning round and round in his head, like sharp-beaked birds. Everything he had thought he knew about his family was gone, replaced by a welter of anger and hurt. To think he had been so happy when Rhett had married his mother! To think he'd wanted to be Rhett's son once! Rhett who did not love Mother, who had almost killed her. Rhett who had only pretended to love them and care for them, who had been gone for months without a thought for them. Oh, if only his own father were alive! He'd challenge Rhett to a duel and kill him for what he had done. He wished Rhett were dead.

Tears unexpectedly filled his eyes at the thought and he dashed at them furiously. Real men, he had come to decide, did not cry.