A/N: It's all been leading to this, and I hope it's a worthy conclusion! (Note: this is the multi-chapter story, not a weird cliffhangery one-shot, though I do love those sometimes. ;)) I'm fascinated by the idea of a couple that can hurt each other as much as this one can, so now I need to try to get them to heal each other as much, too.
To this point (in my mind, at least) everything from my series could have also happened in the book. Now I'm playing in the timeline, but trying not to branch out very much. Pull a thread here and there, and let's see if we can unravel this Butler Marriage Sadness Sweater.
if after all
It was a pale, thin woman that Rhett put on the Jonesboro train a month later. – Chapter LVII
Clayton County, Georgia, late September, 1871
Tara brought some restorative calm to Scarlett's troubled mind and wounded body, as it always did. On days when she had the energy, she walked down to the lane, or sometimes to the little rise overlooking the fields. She spent hours sitting in her favorite rocking chair on the porch. A soft, worn blanket covered her. She twisted her fingers in the fabric, anchoring herself to something she could touch, as she gazed out at this land. Dear Tara. How much she had given to save it. But it was not home the way it once had been. Why, it hadn't been her home for years! Not since that terrible time after Atlanta fell, not really since the war had first started, if she thought about it. Without Pa's fiery bluster and Ellen's cool grace smoothing everything over, it simply muddled along. She and Will did the best they could. And this land would always be a tremendous comfort to her. But oh, she longed for the safety of a place called home.
She didn't seem to have that anymore. The house on Peachtree was large and imposing and secure, and she loved it dearly, because she had survived and all of Atlanta had to be in awe of her material wealth. But it was no Tara, and now somehow Tara wasn't quite Tara either.
She supposed she must be getting back. The store could only look after itself for so long, and of course the mills… Well, they no longer brought her any pleasure to think of. The mills that had used to be her darlings, now seemed almost another burden. Her present ill health and weariness were directly related to her last visit there. It had cost her so much to get those mills, and now they seemed to have cost her everything.
Ashley's mill continued to lose money at an alarming rate, and now from far away at Tara, she could not even ensure that her mill and the lumber yard made enough to recoup her losses. She felt a now-familiar itch of irritation in her breast at him. Ashley was always using words she didn't understand—he was brilliant! She couldn't see why he couldn't make a success of it. And there was his gray, shame-filled countenance now, in the times they had met since his birthday. Why had he allowed Melanie to smooth over their behavior? Oh, not that anyone could have stopped her.
But there had been no passion in their embrace! She thought in impotent frustration, again, of how Rhett would have told everyone to the devil, or shot them if their roles had been reversed. But then, he felt no guilt about his adulterous behavior. It still flooded her with horror and shame to think the night they had shared was like so many others for him. Five months later, the pain was every bit as keen as it had been, sitting weakly on the bed, hearing that infernal laugh. Don't tell me you don't know! I thought surely the whole town knew by now. Perhaps they all do, except you. You know the old adage: 'The wife is always the last one to find out… I thought that after the police called at Belle's night before last— Hateful wretch! No, the mills reminded her of Rhett in far too many ways. Her mind backed hurriedly away from that track. She didn't want to think of that just now. Rhett's absence in the days following, and the three months, and then from her sickroom proved… well, it didn't matter, anyway. She had thought— but she had been wrong. She closed her eyes and turned her head against the headrest.
The baby flashed in her mind, and she pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. She did not think of him often—always a him, for some reason; she had simply known it was a boy, though the pregnancy had been largely indistinguishable from her others. Perhaps she simply couldn't bear to think of another daughter who would love Rhett so much more than her. And yet she thought of him all the time. He was a dull ache in her heart, so ever-present that she ceased to notice it, except when a sudden flash of longing left her dizzy. There was no baby to love, and there never would be, for whatever had driven Rhett that night had so obviously left him, that she couldn't comprehend how it had existed in the first place—or if it even had. He had been drunk, and she had been… there. Any words he might have spoken had only been some monstrous joke. He had made that clear when he returned, both after the days of waiting and worry, and after the months of agonizing hope, struck down with the first words out of his mouth. She shivered and pulled the blanket even tighter. The weather had turned, and the air did not hold its characteristic humidity. She wondered briefly if it felt unseasonably cool in Atlanta, as well.
She missed Bonnie, with a pang of regret as she thought Bonnie very possibly didn't miss her at all. She had made some little progress with both Wade and Ella while they had been here at Tara, though—more, certainly, than she had been able to make following Rhett's accusation and abrupt departure. Just yesterday, Ella had brought her to the barn, beaming with pride over her discovery of a new litter of kittens. As she picked up a grey ball of fluff and held him, struggling, to her chest, she hugged her mother. Scarlett fought the tears and weak nausea the tableau evoked, and managed to exclaim, she thought in the appropriate places, at her daughter's reluctant prize.
Wade, too, had opened up to her in his own way. He shadowed his uncle all day, growing brown in the sun from chores and surveying. He would probably never be as open with her as he was with Melanie or Will. But he took to life at Tara like a duck to water, and he had begun directing as much as a third of his reports on the state of the plantation to her over dinner. He loved this place, perhaps almost as much as she did. It gratified her that it was she who had brought him to this place that he loved so much. It seemed they had something in common, after all.
Yes, Tara had been good to all of them. Her refuge, even if it could not be her redemption.