Modern AU. Rhett, Scarlett, and the kids, 12-18 months after Bonnie's death. Mostly follows book plot (though some events may be shuffled around to fit) with one significant book plot deviation. I know all the famous last words, but I think this will be a four (or so) part story. I can't wait for next Christmas to post! Happy holidays!
A/N: I sat down (in late 2015, ah, best-laid plans) to write a happy winter/Christmas story with ice-skating, aaand… Instead, this happened. I blame 25! (Love you, Adele, please be my friend, xo.) Please tell me what you think!
"Wade! Ella! Come change into your shoes. We have to leave soon to meet Rhett." Scarlett called.
"Mother, come skate with us!" Ella cried.
Scarlett sighed. It had never made any sense to her to strap metal strips to your feet, just so you could wobble around and eventually fall, hard, on an unforgiving cold surface. And that was before it had reminded her far too much of Bonnie.
"Maybe next time," she called back. "Sweetheart," she added.
Over the unnatural quiet, Wade's voice carried easily. "There's not going to be a next time," he muttered, digging the jagged toe edge of his skate into the ice.
That was true enough. Ella had heard some of her classmates talk about ice skating, and known vaguely that her baby sister and stepdad could ice skate. Scarlett had only caved when she thought she couldn't stand another wheedling plea from Ella for the outing. Ella hadn't understood the implications of the request, and Scarlett didn't know how to explain it to her. She'd finally decided they might as well go and get it over with.
Once she acquiesced, she knew there would be no relief until they had actually gone, so she booked the rink for the following week. By the time she realized it was the same night Rhett was supposed to watch the kids, it was too late to reschedule, and now here they were. Renting out the rink probably hadn't been strictly necessary, but she was nervous enough about going and having a panic attack or bursting into uncontrollable tears that she could rationalize the extra expense. It was Rhett's money, anyway, she thought, tossing her hair over her shoulders. He had moved out the week after he'd been released from the hospital, but had made it clear that no expenditure was out of the question where Wade and Ella were concerned. Besides, renting out a rink seemed like something he'd do. She hadn't cried yet, though.
"Motheeeeeeer!" Ella called again in a childish sing-song. "Please?"
Wade was still glaring mutinously at her. He shoved off the wall and tossed over his shoulder, "Just forget it, Ella," as he skated haltingly away.
That settled it. Her own son wasn't going to think she was afraid. She just didn't like it. And now… She squared her shoulders. "Be right there!" Wade smirked, and she narrowed her eyes, as she bent forward to lace her skates.
Scarlett held Ella's hand—how was it sticky? She'd helped her wash them twenty minutes ago—as they made their way around the ice. She wobbled, and she knew her ankles would be sore tomorrow—she'd never understood how not to use them while skating, not that she'd ever tried that hard. Ella begged her to go around three more times.
"Two," Scarlett relented, checking her watch. "We don't have this place for that much longer." On the second loop, her toe caught a divot. She would have been fine had Ella not still been holding her hand. She wobbled a little, Ella wobbled violently, and then pulled Scarlett right down with her. Ella burst into noisy tears.
"Oh Ella, you're fine," Scarlett said, gruff and concerned and impatient all rolled up together, quickly checking to see that it was true. She stood up and brushed her jeans off. As she helped Ella up, the girl clung to her leg.
"Ella, sweetheart, come on now, it's okay. I'm not hurt, you're not hurt. No, Ella, I can't carry you back, you're much too big." She pried her daughter's hands from around her thigh and carefully crouched back down to look her in the eye. Ella's tears had dried, but she still breathed in shaky sobs. "You were just scared," Scarlett said, brushing some loose hairs out of Ella's eyes and back behind her ears. "Nothing happened." Hoping to distract her from the scare, she continued, "You know, I bet Rhett will take you for hot chocolate." Ella brightened considerably, and giggled when Scarlett tweaked one braided pigtail.
"Will you come too? Will you let me get extra marshmallows?" she chirped.
"I am sure Rhett will let you get extra marshmallows, kiddo." Scarlett smiled at her daughter. As she stood up, she noticed Wade talking to someone across the rink. The manager to tell them their time was up, probably. She and Ella made their way over.
As they got closer, Scarlett almost gasped. The man Wade was talking to was Rhett. She had used to tease him about his "casual uniform"—dark jeans, a charcoal sweater that zipped up halfway, and today, a black overcoat. On him, the clothes seemed nearly as formal as his typical suit, especially with no brightly colored but always extremely tasteful tie lending a dash of color. He looked achingly good.
Sadness was etched on his features, but grief no longer clung to him like a mantle, sitting greyly on his skin. Most of the time that it had, she'd been too busy with her own sorrow to try to alleviate his, and he'd held her off the few times she'd made an effort. But he no longer looked haggard. Or maybe it was the tan. He'd been in Australia and New Zealand for three months, and it wouldn't be the first time she'd misread him. But what was he doing here?
He turned toward them and smiled. It was a small smile, and it seemed sad, maybe, but it showed his white, even teeth, and it was enough. Scarlett wasn't much for imagination, but swear to god, it felt like the sun came out with that smile. She hesitantly smiled back. She knew he was smiling at Ella, not her, but it just felt so good to know that he could even muster the feeling.
Scarlett stopped a couple feet away from him, but Ella charged toward the barrier, slamming into it, and wrapping skinny arms around Rhett's waist. "We missed you so much!" He leaned forward, enfolding her in a hug.
"I missed you too, pumpkin." He pressed a kiss onto the top of her head. "You're getting so big—both of you." he added, looking back at Wade. He leaned back to look at Ella carefully, pretend-measuring her height. "Have you grown a whole foot since I saw you last?"
Ella laughed and shook her head, "You're silly. But look, I lost a tooth!" She pulled her bottom lip down and pointed proudly toward the space at the front of her mouth.
Rhett's next words were gravelly, and Scarlett knew, for she had felt the same. Bonnie had never lost a tooth. "My dear girl." he said, and kissed her forehead. "And did you receive a visit from the tooth fairy?"
Scarlett indignantly started to protest, but Ella was quicker.
"She gave me five dollars!" she exclaimed.
"Five dollars?" he repeated, looking at Scarlett, one eyebrow raised. "My goodness, the tooth fairy has gotten richer since I was your age. I was lucky if I got a quarter."
Scarlett tossed her hair over one shoulder and shrugged. "Inflation." Rhett laughed, and her heart stuttered at the rich, warm sound. "Kids, go change into your shoes and use the bathroom before we leave." she ordered, looking away. She was thankful the bench with their bags was far enough away so that she and Rhett could talk without being overheard.
Wade took Ella's hand, and skated with her toward the entrance. Scarlett looked at Rhett as he watched them go. She inched forward and touched his hand. His head swung back toward her, but he didn't shake her fingers off. Progress. "Rhett, what are you doing here?" she asked in a low voice.
"I came to pick the kids up," he replied. She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. "You know that's not what I meant."
He shrugged. "I had to come back here sometime." Did he? Scarlett certainly wouldn't have if Ella hadn't gotten the idea into her head. "It's not like I haven't driven since." Well, that was true. New car, of course, but he'd gotten back behind the wheel. But that was different. Driving was a necessity. "Anyway, she was happy here." he continued. "I was… surprised when Melanie told me where you were, but I thought I'd save you the trouble of driving over."
"It's no trouble," Scarlett said softly. She reached out, pressing urgent fingers on his wrist. It was warm.
"I didn't mean for you to find out, or come here—not that I was trying to keep it a secret." The words rushed out, tumbling and tripping over themselves. There had been too many misunderstandings in their relationship. Even if it was over now, she couldn't bear for him to think she'd maneuvered this or tried to guilt him. "I wasn't trying to—" she stopped and chewed her lip. "Ella just wouldn't stop talking about it."
"Scarlett," he stopped her. He moved his hand, encircling her wrist with gentle fingers, before sliding them down to stroke her palm. "I know. I'm not upset. Like I said, Melanie told me you were here, and I thought, maybe… it was time." She felt tears gather in the corners of her eyes, and was afraid to look at him and see, again, all that they had lost. She looked at their hands instead. He was still tracing soft circles on her skin, and the lump in her throat made it difficult to speak.
"I told the kids you'd get them hot chocolate."
That was absolutely not what she had been going to say. Her brain and her mouth never seemed to communicate correctly when Rhett was around. Especially when he was like this. Had he ever been like this? Vulnerable and open, with her?
Her words broke the little spell that had been cast, and both she and Rhett looked up from where they had been staring at their hands, transfixed. His fingers stopped their movement, but not before catching hers and tangling with them awkwardly. He smiled at her—this time she knew it was meant for her, and she was grateful for it.
"Do you want to come with us? Make up for this adventure?" he asked, nodding his head in the direction of the ice.
She laughed, a short burst of sound that was strange to her ears.
She really shouldn't. Her nerves were already stretched taut and unprotected, laid bare from this short interaction. It seemed impossible that she could have loved him this much and not known it. Or maybe she hadn't loved him this much when there'd still been a chance, maybe she only felt overwhelmed and unmoored by the emotion now that it was too late. She needed a long, hot bath and a much too large glass of wine or two. "Sure."
Rhett smiled again, and Scarlett drew a deep breath. She could get through cocoa. "Okay, so we'll meet you there?"
"I'll take the kids," Rhett offered easily.
They packed up Wade's and Ella's bags and she listened to their easy chatter until she escaped to the quiet of her own car. She was grateful for it, again, and hoped she hadn't just looked like a lovesick teenager, alternately smiling and babbling inanely at her crush. Her charms had never worked on him, but now she couldn't even fall back on the old familiar habits and rhythms of them to help her navigate this strange uncharted territory. When Rhett was around now, she couldn't even remember how to be charming. She just felt foolish: guilty, and in love, and so raw, as if all her nerve endings were exposed to the open air. She had used to love how comforting Rhett's presence was. It still comforted her, though she did not know how that could be, and yet it exhausted her.
They'd talked a few times while he'd been in Australia. One night, after discussing the children, she'd told him about her last week at work, and it had felt like it had used to, during the time she hadn't realized was the happiest of their marriage—until, as he said goodnight, she had unthinkingly blurted out, "I love you." She heard his deep breath, and squeezed her eyes shut. It took all her willpower not to hang up on him right there. Finally, he responded, "I— You too. Goodnight, Scarlett." It was awful. She didn't know if he meant it in a fond, familial way, or if he didn't mean it at all and was trying to make her feel better. The prospects were equally horrifying to her. They hadn't spoken since.
She drove, unseeing, past the place where they'd bought Bonnie's crib, and steeled herself. The turn was coming up. But there was no rain today, and nothing out of the ordinary happened. She drove right past. The new section of guardrail gleamed, shining in the cold sun and hurting her eyes. She checked her rearview mirror, but Rhett was nowhere in sight.
When she arrived at the chocolate shop—one of those ridiculous artisanal places that charged seven bucks a cup, and more if you wanted any kind of flavor or extra; she loved it—Rhett and the kids were already happily ensconced in a booth.
"Mother!" Ella called, waving her whole arm to get Scarlett's attention. She walked over to their table. "Mother, I got butterscotch!" she whispered excitedly, in a voice almost as loud as before. Wade made a face. "AND extra marshmallows!"
Rhett stood up from the booth, as if to let her in. She opened her mouth to object. She did not want to sit next to him, but she didn't want him to know it, either. She closed her mouth, and slid in. Wade was looking at them appraisingly, and she felt her jaw tighten. Apparently, the drive over by herself was not enough time to prepare for this… whatever this was.
"What looks good?" she asked with feigned nonchalance as she glanced over the menu. "Hmm, raspberry… Wade, what did you order?"
"Peppermint," Wade shrugged.
"Ooh, that sounds good," Scarlett said. She had clearly not distracted him, as he was now looking at her with slightly narrowed eyes. Her voice sounded too high, and surely nobody over the age of ten was this interested in hot chocolate.
The waitress came back to their table. "What will you have, ma'am?" Scarlett felt her jaw tighten further. She hated being ma'amed. "I'll have the peppermint, too."
For the next few minutes, she listened with half an ear while Ella told Rhett about school. She still didn't like math that much; the numbers seemed to float around the page and then rearrange themselves in the wrong order at the last second.
They continued talking about different lessons until the waitress returned with their orders. Scarlett was drawn from her discomfiting, contemplative mood by the ceramic dish next to Ella's mug. It was piled with extra marshmallows so tall the top one was higher than the cocoa itself.
She laughed at the absurdity. "Ella, you'll never fit all those in your drink!" To which task Ella began diligently applying herself, her tongue poking out one corner of her mouth.
The gesture reminded her so much of Bonnie, Scarlett felt lightheaded, and she turned her head to see Rhett, positively ashen. "Can you let me out, please?" Rhett turned toward her, ghosts in his eyes. He clearly hadn't heard her, and she repeated herself. Once he stood up and she had scooted out and behind the kids' heads, she jerked her head toward the hall leading to the kitchen and bathrooms. Rhett excused himself from the table and followed her.
She whirled around when she felt him come up behind her. "Can you do this?" she asked, the words coming out more sharply than intended. She bit her cheek. How right he was—she'd never been very comforting. She tried to soften her tone. "They've stayed with you before. But if you can't—they still got to see you. Look, we can say you had something with work come up. They'll be fine."
He closed his fingers about one arm in a grip that hurt. "We're not saying I had to work." he cut her off, angrily. "They've heard that enough for a lifetime. And they're not fine with it."
She wanted to say that she knew her kids better than he did, but she could still hear his angry words from so long ago. The past year of attempting to mother them had gone better than she could have hoped for, really—to be fair, she had not hoped for much—but she never knew if it was because Rhett simply hadn't been around like before. She switched tacks instead.
"I don't know why you're mad at me! I was just trying to help!" Scarlett hissed, glaring up at him with eyes that flashed. She twisted her arm out of his hold. He had been so nice at the rink. Would she ever understand him? Whenever she thought she knew how he was feeling, his quicksilver moods would shift again, and she would lose her footing. At least she, in her obstinacy, had never been infuriating this way. "Why are you doing this?" Her shoulders slumped, and she suddenly felt defeated. As quickly as her fight had appeared, it vanished, something that had happened so much in the last year, something she was unfortunately getting used to. The last year had just taken so much. He reached for her and brushed gentle fingers across her arm where he had grabbed her. She wordlessly accepted his physical apology.
"How did you get here?" She looked up quickly. What? Again with the footing.
"What do you mean? I drove." she snapped.
Rhett rocked back on his heels, his head tilted to one side. "You took the parkway?"
"Yes," she spoke through clenched teeth. "I don't see what this has to do with anything."
"You don't have to make it harder on yourself. First the ice skating, and then driving by…" His hand smoothed up her arm to rest on her shoulder, and squeezed it gently. "I can't drive past it yet," he admitted. "Broadway's faster, anyway, even with the lights."
Scarlett shrugged, and Rhett sighed. "You always were stronger."
They stood together in the little hall, so close his wool coat brushed against her when he breathed, until she heard Ella's little laugh. She smiled; Wade was such a good big brother.
Pushing past Rhett, she made her way back to the table. She drank her not-hot-anymore chocolate and listened to a couple of the jokes that had made them laugh. (What's the internal temperature of a Tauntaun? Lukewarm.) Rhett returned, and she heard him tell the children his plans for the night—he'd bought the ingredients for s'mores, and there might even be enough blankets for a fort. Ella squealed at this.
When Rhett had paid the check, Scarlett kissed Wade and Ella goodbye. She nodded at Rhett, and walked outside. She had always known that Rhett loved her children, and been grateful for the ease with which he kept them out of her hair. Now that she was beginning to see them as their own little people, she was grateful for how easily he made them happy.
She breathed deep. The chilly air felt good against her throat.