AN: One-shot, standalone. Sort of in the "what if?" series of My Graceless Heart (but what is nearly all fic if not "what if?")

I find almost nothing in the book sadder than when Rhett comes home after two days away, and Scarlett "sank to her bed in weak thankfulness" to have him back, only to have him be so cruel. He says at the end "if she'd only met him halfway", and I always rage that she was TOO WEAK WITH RELIEF TO EVEN WALK. So I thought, "I wonder what difference 50 feet would make," and I wrote this.

The Unwilling Word

Rhett's nerves crawled, his stomach feeling as if it were full of worms.

Belle had sent him home. Not that he needed so much encouragement. He was neither willing nor unwilling to return, exactly. He simply felt like a prisoner whose time had come. He must face Scarlett again. After…

Her body was warm, pliant, supple, under and around his. Her arms held him to her. Her eyes… her eyes were open, their incandescent green a pale, otherworldly light in the dark room. Had she ever looked at him like this before? Was she seeing him? "Scarlett," he breathed, as his body started to take over. His mouth swallowed her response, whatever she might have said. Her arms tightened, one around his back, one moving to his neck. Her nails scraped lightly into the short hairs at the back of his scalp. He was lost.

How would she have reacted? What would she have said, if she had woken up—in his arms? Her dark hair wrapped around his throat once more? He swallowed and shivered against the sensation, ghost of bristly tresses against his neck.

His worst fear was a cold smile of triumph: her body, her heart, her mind, crystallized, in shrine to Ashley; a hard, glass disdain for Rhett, who had finally admitted the deepest desires of his weak, foolish heart. It plagued him, this imagery —of conquest, of scorn. He couldn't close his eyes without picturing it. And yet, try as he might, he could never bring the appropriate sneer to Scarlett's face. The cold, contemptuous woman was an almost faceless blur. Scarlett, on the other hand… Scarlett was willing, trembling, wanting. Her tongue brushed against his parted lips. Her sighs echoed in his ear. He could still feel the imprint of her knee under his ribs.

Had any of it been real? Or had he just been that drunk? He hadn't been that drunk since his father had kicked him out of the house. His stomach squirmed again, unnervingly. His hand shook as he unlatched the gate, and closed it behind him.

The sun was beginning to peek over one of the gables, and he squinted, his bloodshot eyes protesting the confrontational light. Freshly shaved, he missed the scrape of stubble against his palm as he dragged one hand down his weary face. Everything felt dulled, smooth, surreal, with nothing sharp to anchor him.

What awaited him inside? He knew what he barely dared to hope, and what he could not even fully fear. He might find something else altogether, yet his sleep-deprived brain could not begin to think what that could possibly be. Beyond, between the two extremes, was unfathomable.

His hands shook again as he put his key in the lock. Metal grated heavily against metal, but the door swung open.

His executioner awaited.

His hands trembled more violently now, as he removed his overcoat and hat. He heard quick feet on the stairs, and ice flooded his veins. He wanted to move forward, but his frozen limbs protested. Clumsily, he took two steps, almost coming abreast with the entry hall's frame. It was silent again, except for his heavy breathing, and the pounding of his heart. Had he imagined footsteps?

Curiosity and dread commanded him to move into the actual entry. The dining room door throbbed dully in his periphery, but every other synapse in his brain was focused on the staircase.

Scarlett stood, three steps from the bottom, in a dark green walking dress, one of the more demure fashions she'd managed to keep. She was very pale, but a soft blush colored her cheeks faintly. As he stepped around the corner, one white hand flew to her throat, as if to mask a silent scream. Her mouth, however, stayed closed.

Rhett's eyes drank her in: reaction or no, the mere sight of her, her very presence, a simple balm to his aching soul. Her features were soft in the morning light. Were shadows tricking his eyes, or did her eyelids flutter nervously? Her hand—could he detect a tremor? Did her magnificent eyes glow brightly? What he saw before him scared him so much, he almost thought to run away again. It couldn't be this; he was not just dreaming, he was all-out hallucinating now.

Time stretched, as they continued to stand like statues. No more than a handful of seconds, it seemed to expand and fill days as he waited for his sentence.

And then, before an empire could be crumbled into history and dirt, Fate gently intervened. Or love finally triumphed over pride.

He took two steps toward her, and even as he did so, he finally saw her. Her lips curved in a small, tremulous smile, her jaw quivering as it did to signal her oncoming tears.

She was in his arms again, and she was so… real. He clutched her form greedily to him, the suspense of days and years released in full-body shudders, and her arms were around his neck. Her face was buried in the curve of his shoulder, her body trembling, too. "Scarlett," he crooned. "My love," when he felt tears on his skin. Chains were broken with the uttering of those words. His left hand was still on her back, as his right came up to brush gently over her hair. It rested on her neck, and he tenderly traced the soft skin there.

He continued to whisper, "Scarlett, darling," and "my love," as the tension in her shoulders very slowly eased. She was saying something, perhaps, as her lips pressed into his skin over and over.

They stood together on the bottom step, warmth sliding their bodies closer to each other as a calm, comforting stillness gradually stole over them. Something like peace.

Rhett wanted to live in the glow of this moment forever. "My love," he said again, into the hush.

Scarlett breathed against his neck, and sighed tearily. "Oh, Rhett, I was so worried. Where have you been?"