AN: Hi friends! So, if it seems like the action has jumped ahead from what you remember, make sure you read the last chapter! I posted Part 10 while ffnet's notifications were down, so emails didn't go out. (Of all the luck!) And that chapter had some Important Events. You could also refer to Say No to This for some detail.
Soooo many thanks to lostie, who listened to all manner of agita as I worked on Confrontation. She helped more than she knows, and more than I can express.
Gumper, regarding your (rightful!) wrath over the card on the gift: Is it any better if it was negligence/overindulgence on Rhett's part, rather than intentional "me and my daughter and no one else in the family"? Perhaps he was wrapping the gift and Bonnie was there, and when he went to sign Uncle Rhett, Bonnie insisted that she be on the card, too? Of course, feelings caused by negligence or carelessness are no less real than those caused by intention, but would a situation like that redeem him, at least in part?
Your review = my birthday present! Especially now that we're finally getting to Rhett and THE RECKONING. (The Rhettkoning? It even double-works with retconning, which is clearly what he's been doing this whole time! But I get ahead of myself.) Thank you!
Rhett Butler had loved his wife very, very much, at one time. Loved her for years before he could get her. Loved her while she had been out of reach in widowhood, through war, and ultimately by marriage. Even as he kept running away because she belonged to someone else, he had risked everything to stay by her side. Risked arrest and death to have her, only to find her out of reach once again. Risked it all, and finally, his sanity and his soul.
Watching her drive to the mills, her figure growing thick with another man's child, he had thought he would go mad. It was almost lucky that poor old Frank Kennedy died when he did. A lesser man might have felt guilt over seeing his basest desire come to fruition. Not Rhett. Presented by life—or death, he supposed, to be more accurate—with the opportunity again to marry Scarlett, he did not question it. He had never been able to resist Scarlett. He couldn't resist her, even knowing how she felt about Ashley.
He had thought he could make her care. The first few months of his marriage were something like joyful. It was the slowly tightening noose of the years afterward that left him to realize that it had all been a mistake. While he could regale her with his past exploits, his heart lifted at her peals of laughter. He had seen how years as the mistress of a starving Tara and Mrs. Kennedy had tarnished her dear, precious vibrancy. He wanted to spoil her, and make her play. She had struggled for so long, and with his support, he wanted her to see that she could stop struggling. Let him fight for her, instead, and she could maybe start to see that he cared.
It was so obvious that they were right for each other. That he loved her, a greedy, unscrupulous rascal, like himself, not in spite of those flaws, but because of them, in a way that no other man of her acquaintance would care to understand or love her. But she had never opened her eyes to the feelings that lay behind his gestures. Every evening, she wished it was Ashley sitting across the supper table from her. Every night, different arms that held her…
And then even the opportunity to reach her heart had been cut unexpectedly short by the suggestion of that same estimable Mr. Wilkes.
For two years after she had removed him from her bedroom and any chance at her heart, he had felt vicious pleasure in jeering at her. If he could not stir passion or love in her, he could at least provoke anger. And, he admitted to himself, hurt. Let her feel an ounce of his agony, he thought to himself. And in the end, having her and still not having her had twisted his love into weaponry, and she had nearly died.
After that savage, wonderful night in April, when he had finally broken under the strain of loving but not having her, he had finally admitted to himself that his feelings were for naught. He would never supplant Ashley in her heart, and he finally resolved to stop tilting at that one particular windmill. He was hardly quixotic, but then Scarlett was no Dulcinea.
Unable to bear her contempt, he had run away, twice, returning in between only to mock her cruelly. Throwing his infidelity in her face, he had ensured himself that her pride would be too wounded to see his hope, to uncover any of the softer emotions that had driven him that night.
It was no wonder, when he finally did come home, that she hadn't wanted his baby. Not when she loved Ashley. Not when he, Rhett, had used her and unforgivably abandoned her in the pitch of scandal. Not when he, Rhett, had taunted her over their child's paternity. Not when he, Rhett, had wrought the very loss he had so casually, callously joked about, and nearly killed her with the fall.
Of course she had not called for him.
And so he had resolved, when he put his frail, drawn wife onto the train to Tara with her children, that he would never hurt her again. If he did not care about her, he could not hurt her. It sounded weak, as an excuse, vaguely Byronic and self-sacrificing, to his ears, when he thought about it thus, and so he did not think of it. If there was a path in his heart that led to Scarlett, weeds had been growing there for years. Now, as he had begun to this spring and summer, during his trip with Bonnie, he made a conscious effort to let them grow, twisted into sharp thorns that would hold him back. He had Bonnie, Belle loved him, and he could grow accustomed to a peaceful, meaningless existence with Scarlett. Extirpate any remaining feeling, and spare her and himself further hurt. Years from now, he could walk that garden, and remember. Ah yes, that used to lead somewhere. Soon enough, surely, practiced indifference would become the real thing.
Her words last night. The soft beauty of her face when she saw the necklace; her eyes had gleamed, not with avarice, but a soft, quiet flicker he could not place. Her reaction to the toy.
Scarlett did not get headaches.
Without conscious thought, he crossed the room, pausing as Scarlett had done at the threshold. Unlike his wife, he turned back for a moment. Bonnie was patting one smooth rocker, her other hand giving a bottle to a doll that lay at her side. She remained unaware of the room's tense atmosphere. Ella, still kneeling on the sofa, looked at him seriously. Wade's gentle brown eyes moved between his worried sister and Rhett, his thin shoulders squared, the soft corner of a jaw showing, the essence of his mother marking itself in the boy's features for the first time. Rhett felt struck by it.
He wanted to comfort them, but he had no words. He turned on his heel.
"Scarlett!" he called, once, at the bottom of the stairs, his voice sounding harsh, his tone unintentionally threatening. He felt desperate to see into her heart, to know that calculating mind. A mind he'd always thought he understood so perfectly. And yet… none of this added up. He might be able to catch up to her, if he took the stairs two at a time. His long legs might even be able to accomplish three. He silently lessened the distance between them, but he let her ascend the staircase alone. His eyes blazed, watching the tail of her wrapper whisper against each riser, and finally disappear over the lip. The thick carpet at the top muffled the gentle sound, but he heard the swish as if it was magnified. Her breath, slightly uneven. Her door opening, and the quiet click of it closing behind her.
Rhett stood in the hallway outside her door, for how long, he didn't know. He modulated his breathing, and willed his heart to slow. He raised his hand to her doorknob, then closed it in a fist. Reaching for control, he shrugged into it like an ill-fitting garment, a shirt that had been laundered in water that was too hot. Tight across his shoulders, and still damp, sticking to his body uncomfortably.
He uncurled his fingers and took a deep breath. Reclaiming blandness as well as he could, he tried again.
Her door swung open.
He had expected it to be locked, although he had not heard a latch. Careful of the children in the parlor downstairs, little Ella's worried face fresh in his mind, he caught it before it swung too far, before it could crash into, bounce off the wall.
Scarlett was sitting on the bed, facing the window away from him. Her arms were braced on the mattress at her sides, her shoulders uncharacteristically hunched in this position.
He did not know where to begin. His caginess, his pride, his training to never give his emotions away were the reasons for his survival. They could not be undone by the faint flicker of a hope he had thought long dead. She had not offered him anything to rely on, really. There was nothing here.
In the end, the old pattern of mocking, disguised truths triumphed.
"That rocking horse is rather small for our daughter, don't you think?" he asked, ready for her fight.
She did not turn to him. "You are a cad," she replied, her voice quiet and thick with… tears? "Let me be, Rhett. I am tired."
He frowned. It wasn't like her not to fight back, stinging him with insults, and her tired quiescence shifted unevenly across his chest. This was not right, this was not Scarlett, and those whispers tugged harder at his consciousness, reminding him of uncomfortable things, before blunt worry grew spikes, transforming into irritation and anger.
He made a tsking noise, chiding her softly.
"Such docility, my gently-bred mule," he remarked, leaning his shoulder against the bedpost behind her. She would have to look over her shoulder to see him, but he adopted a casual posture, anyway, one leg crossed negligently over the other, his toe sinking into the carpet's thick nap. "It hardly becomes you, pet."
"Oh!" she cried. She stood and faced him, finally, her hands clenched in fists at her sides. "You are the most vile… reprobate! You selfish cad, why must you always be nasty?" It was as if a dam had broken inside, as hurts she hadn't been aware of counting and remembering all poured out, gathering strength. "With your cruel insults and hateful jests. How dare you? How dare you say these things to me! Is it not enough what you say to everyone else?" She had moved toward him as she spoke, her eyes glittering with the fury he knew so well. "I know what you say about me," she continued, and Rhett thought she would claw him, catlike. But she made no further move, her hands still fisted at her sides. Her voice dropped very low, a quiet ferocity to it. "I know what you say to me," she punctuated that last gesturing toward her heart, thinking of one, very specific, thing he had said to her.
Rhett had relished the torrent of her words, feeling himself once more on familiar ground, before she struck. He would never forgive himself for that particular utterance, and he had allowed himself to think his own self-inflicted guilt, a fanged thing with its own gravitational pull, so quietly enormous that it did not require Scarlett's blame, too.
It felt like he was drowning in the morass of their brief, agonizing shared history. He saw one last, desperate, foothold, and reached for it. He advanced toward her, like any number of the great cats, lazily stalking its prey. His hands clasped her arms firmly, in a grip almost biting. His voice was hard and low. Angry.
"Your hard mind loves nothing more than a bargain, my dear. So I will ask you again, are you so unaware of your children that you bought a toy Bonnie would outgrow in months, or was that rocking horse intended for a different recipient?"
Scarlett did not respond, could not respond. Agony clawed at her throat. How could he jest, now, at her humiliation, the revealing of her most cherished, foolish hope.
She couldn't look at him. Everything, everything she had learned this year was blindingly true, and yet some stupid, secret part of her had hoped differently all this time. Only to shatter into oblivion now, on Christmas morning. Her baby, her loneliness, Rhett who said things he didn't mean, and who said things he did. She was a silly, stupid fool, and how he would laugh if he only knew! Her jaw trembled, and she felt tears gather in her eyes.
She swallowed and blinked them back, her nails making dark crescents in her palms. "As a matter of fact, Rhett, it was. I ordered it in June, when I didn't know if I would ever see you or our daughter again. I bought it for you." She lifted her chin, and Rhett's heart twisted at the reverent, far-off memory in her eyes. She continued, the dream in her voice now sending ice slithering into Rhett's stomach. "But I was foolish then. I've learned a great deal in six months."
"So it's all my fault, is it?" Rhett asked, his voice light again, emptying of the hidden urgency driving it moments earlier.
Scarlett did not see his face go white, and misinterpreted the change in his tone. As sick as his anger had made her, its sudden disappearance frightened her even more. She raised blazing eyes to his face, searching for some meaning, any one thing to indicate how he felt, but she could find nothing.
Her voice was dry and brittle when she answered. "Of course not, Rhett. You only called me a… a—" her mind scrabbled around for the right term, "like a Jezebel, and then wished me to lose the baby. Why would I blame you?"
Rhett's fingers spasmed, his hold on her arms slackened. "You wanted the baby," he thought, not even realizing he had voiced the stunning revelation. His jaw trembled, his black eyes burning with shame and regret. Scarlett was too miserable to see it. She had never learned to wield stinging, vituperative words the way Rhett could. Lacking self-awareness, her insults instead fell heavy and dull on their targets. But sometimes, truth was the sharpest weapon in a person's arsenal. Impossible to know, for a person who used it so little.
Without even being aware of it, she dealt Rhett the mortal wound.
"Of course I wanted him." And shrugging out of his loose grip, she swept past him and out of the room, squaring her shoulders as she walked, a queen in a green velvet wrapper.
Rhett did not know how long he sat there, a statue on an overly fringed ottoman in this room where he was a stranger. It felt like hours, as his mind dragged over her profession. Her accusation. For it was an accusation. He had known Bonnie missed her mother, had known it from the first night aboard the ship when she didn't receive a goodnight kiss from Scarlett. Bonnie had been easily placated that night, but every subsequent night of their passage had found her more fractious and fretful.
He had chalked it up to homesickness and the change of surroundings for a small child. He had told himself she would get used to different circumstances. She had simply never been away from Atlanta before. Even when their truncated trip to London had verged on disaster, he had kept running away. He determined to bring his daughter back across the ocean, yet every day that brought him closer to the shore twisted the knife further into his abdomen. Finally, cowardly, he had brought Bonnie to visit her grandmother, because he still could not face Scarlett.
Months of separation, and he had let Bonnie miss her mother, because he was too scared to face his wife. Weeks of nightmares for the both of them, because he was a fool, and the mere thought of Scarlett still slickened his palms. He, who had once thought he would light himself on fire to save Bonnie from tears in the dark, had kept her away, and given the lie to his paternal devotion. When Bonnie did not cry, back at Peachtree, while Scarlett was at Tara, he let the homesickness fib exonerate him again.
It came crashing back now. And all that time, even knowing how Bonnie missed Scarlett, he had not given a single thought to Scarlett missing Bonnie.
But she had. She had missed Bonnie, had wanted their baby. Him, she had said. I wanted him.
It was stunning, almost sickeningly so. Even in his wildest grief, most of which remained a whiskey-soaked memory of a dream, he had not imagined it. Bile sloshed in his gut, wisps of memories taunting him. Scarlett had lain across the hall, cheating death, and even still, clutching Mrs. Wilkes' skirts, he had absolved himself. I didn't know about this baby… She didn't know where I was to write to me and tell me—but she wouldn't have written me if she had known. I tell you—I tell you I'd have come straight home—if I'd only known—whether she wanted me home or not…
She had wanted the baby, and very possibly even wanted him home, if she had meant what she said about the rocking horse. How could she have missed him, after what he had done? He had retreated behind Bonnie's love, leaving Scarlett to linger, alone, and she had simply… managed. Managed like she always did: daring the old cats to censure her for having the audacity to live after Charles, delivering her sister-in-law's child without aid, in sweltering heat, facing down an invading army, illness, starvation, and saving her entire extended family on guts alone. And finally, going about town, in the face of its worst scandal, carrying a child that its citizens had been only too maliciously happy to learn of—wanting to carry it, too, even when she had been abandoned so faithlessly. It was extraordinary, and it was cruel.
He dropped his head in his hands. Running his fingers through his hair, he tugged painfully at the roots. They were damp with sweat. So was his back. He felt a droplet roll down its length and sighed. He felt very, very old.
Somehow, he made his way to his room. Although he had already dressed for the day, he rang for Pork. He was retreating again, he knew, but he reasoned that he could not finish his conversation with Scarlett in front of the children. More weak excuses. He bathed again, scrubbing roughly at his skin as if the last eight months sat like a layer of grime on it. Rising from the cooling water, it nearly surprised him that it was not gray with the dirt of his despicable behavior. He took care dressing again, in a suit nearly identical to the one he'd so recently removed. A finely-starched, crisp shirt, charcoal wool, his silk cravat exchanged for one of checked light and dark green. He didn't know if he was trying to start the day anew or not.
If nothing else, he had to appear like himself—the Wilkeses had invited them over for Christmas dinner. He would have liked nothing better than sending their late regrets, a sick child as their excuse, but he could not help still being aware of their precarious position in society. Memory of the last time they had shared supper together lay heavily on his heart. They had all been uncomfortable—to hell with Ashley's distress, though. But Mrs. Wilkes too: he had embarrassed her so, and in repayment for her cooperation regarding the mills. She deserved better. Deserved better than all of them.
Scarlett, too, had been unable to respond to his mocking question. He didn't know why he had teased her about the Yankee. The old barbs he used to wield so deftly, sparking anger, passion, feeling, had all blunted, his rapier wit turned to an anvil after her fall. The old perverse impulses to tease her, prick her, had turned clumsy in his hands, clanging instead as against hollow tin, bruising her again. He had sworn not to hurt her anymore, and still he seemed unable, helpless to stop doing just that. He shook his head, feeling a new urgency pressing on him. His perfect understanding of his wife had unraveled—if she was telling the truth. And he was determined to get to the bottom of it.
When Rhett returned to the parlor, it was empty save the detritus of Christmas morning with three young children. It felt even more joyless, decorated for the holiday, absent a happy family. It felt like a mockery, and the gas lights flickering against the shiny baubles on the tree hurt his eyes.
A few toys lay scattered in the remnants of wrapping paper, but most had been removed to the nursery. He leaned down, his hand sifting among torn shreds, to pick up two dresses that had been left behind. Doll's clothing, they were the same size. One blue, one green. He smiled faintly, thinking of Ella next to Scarlett on the sofa, until other images dislodged the tender scene, and his mouth settled back into a grim line.
He had felt aimless, walking downstairs, but dresses in hand, he found new purpose—the only purpose he'd had, when he left his room, loath though he had been to admit it—and climbed the stairs again, this time heading for the nursery.