Author's Note: Every writer in GWTW fandom has eventually to tackle the subject of The Morning After-you know, after that scene. Written back in 2002, this was my first published fic for the fandom, a what-if scenario that of course could never have happened in canon, since it would've ended the story right then and there! There's just a bit of angst to what I hope is not an intolerable amount of sweetness. I can't help wanting to give these two a happy ending, you know:)

"The Next Morning"

When she awoke the next morning, Scarlett was immediately conscious of two things: her entire body felt like one large bruise, and her pillow seemed to have grown larger and firmer and warmer sometime in the night. Stifling a soft oath she shifted slightly, her cricked neck protesting the movement, and sought to free her hair from whatever held it, and her, pinned into place. Her gummed eyelids pulled open and through the blear of sleep she came to a sudden third realisation: she was not alone in her bed.

Correction: she was not alone in Rhett's bed. That too-firm pillow was in fact the man in question, who sprawled full-length beside her, cradling her snugly against his warm naked body. The sight of him, and the sensation of flesh against flesh and the steady rhythm of his heartbeat beneath her cheek, were Scarlett's undoing. In a rush remembrance swept through her as the events of the night before came back with a clarity she would have thought beyond her brandy-benumbed brain.

Oh, she should die of shame! No true lady could ever hold up her head again in the wake of such a tempestuous night - and yet, stronger than shame was the memory of passion and its aftermath. Never before in her life had she felt such wild abandon, such fierce and dizzying emotion. She had been used and used badly, humbled and humiliated, her defenses shattered one by one, and she had gloried in it. Stronger than pride, stronger than fear, had been desire, surrender to something greater than herself, beyond whim and fantasy; something primal and oddly purifying. She had walked through fire last night, as surely as she had done when fleeing the flames of Sherman's attack; and as before, she had come through it changed, tempered, reborn.

Cautiously, biting back an insane urge to giggle, Scarlett lifted her head and peered down at the sleeping stranger who still held her pinned against his long body. She was having some difficulty sorting out her thoughts. This was Rhett; she'd known him practically forever, married him and shared his home and his bed, borne his child, lived with him and fought with him for years. There was no mystery here, surely; and yet, as she lay with her limbs tangled in his and the scent of his warm skin in her nostrils and the taste of him still on her lips, she found herself oddly uncertain. Things he had said - and oh, God's nightgown! The things she'd said in return! - fevered whispered words exchanged in the heat and the darkness now came back unbidden, tumbling through the tumult that had seized her brain. He'd said he loved her...and she was suddenly, sickeningly certain that she'd said something very similar in return.

Love Rhett Butler! Oh, the impossibility, the absurdity! It was Ashley she loved, wasn't it? A day ago the question would never have entered her mind; but now, as morning sent its first faint tendrils creeping around the edges of the heavy draperies, Scarlett found her former certainty shattered. Yesterday, at the mill, when Ashley had held her in his arms, she had felt none of the former ferocity of need; there had been nothing there, in fact, but the warm comfort of long acquaintance. And then, later, at that horrible party, even that had evaporated in the face of a most unpleasant truth: that Ashley, so long the romantic cavalier of her young heart, was an almighty coward.

He'd not dared look her in the face the entire night. He'd done nothing to defend her, or himself, from the malicious and false accusations of impropriety that swirled around them still, a sharp undertow threatening to pull them both under and drown them. Only Melanie's firm belief in them both - and the implacable silent presence of Rhett - had saved their skins from an outright lynching by the disapproving mob. Her soldier hero Ashley, so gallant, so brave, was in fact nothing of the kind; and she wondered that it had taken her so long to see it.

Her pillow shifted abruptly, and Scarlett realised with a thrill of apprehension that Rhett was stirring in his sleep. She was not at all certain that she wanted him to awaken; what on Earth would she say to him? Her skin burned with embarrassment and something else, that new sensation that had carried her away in the night and brought her to rest confused and unsure in the cool light of day. Oh, if he awoke and fixed her with his usual sardonic stare, if he jeered and jibed, she would die right on the spot. She couldn't bear his cruel jests, not now, not after...

Too late. As she watched in horrified fascination, her husband's eyes flickered open, landed upon her, closed then opened wide again. Scarlett felt a sharp jab as her heart leapt in her chest and began a double-time rhythm. Her confusion and fear were writ large on her pale face, in the enormity of green unguarded eyes in which Rhett saw something that made his own face go paler. Swiftly, before either of them could speak and perhaps crush the fragile new thing that was being born, Scarlett lunged forward in something akin to desperation and did the only thing she could think to stave off the inevitable: she kissed him. As the fierce hot joy of the night before came flooding back through her, putting rational thought to flight, Scarlett felt him come to life beneath her and felt a wild rush of triumph. And then, for a time, she thought no more.

When the storm subsided, Scarlett again found herself draped across her husband, drowsy now and absurdly content. A delicious languor had stolen over her, sapping the strength from her limbs and, at least for the moment, the fight from her spirit. For perhaps the first time in her marriage to Rhett, she was feeling the compulsion neither to fight nor to flee; through the haze of pleasure that still fogged her mind she thought vaguely how nice it would be never to have to move from this room, this bed, the cozy shelter of Rhett's arms. The mills, the store, the whole of Atlanta could go hang, and Ashley Wilkes at the front of the pack, if only she could remain here enfolded in warmth and silence and satiation.

Then Rhett had to go and spoil it by speaking.

"Scarlett," he mumbled, voice sounding raspy and disused. He squeezed her once, tightly, before commencing to gently disentangle himself from her. "As delightful as I am presently finding your company, I'm afraid that nature has issued me a summons I dare not ignore. Er, if I may?"

Scarlett blinked owlishly at him, still half-lost in her reverie; then, grasping his meaning, she pulled back from him blushing furiously. "Oh. I'm sorry."

Rolling over and propping herself up on one elbow, Scarlett watched as Rhett struggled into his dressing gown and flapped off in the direction of the water closet. She had become suddenly, uncomfortably aware of a similar need on her own part, but was strangely loathe to leave the nest she'd made. Taking advantage of having the large bed momentarily to herself, she stretched and groaned aloud, feeling unfamiliar muscles tense and relax in a most satisfying manner. The sheets and coverlet held the scents of brandy and tobacco and something else, a faint and evocative whiff that she could only identify as their scent, the two of them together, something she'd not smelled in so very long that it sent a wave of nostalgia and remorse through her so strong that for a moment she felt almost faint. All these years, Scarlett thought fretfully. Oh, what a fool I've been!

The light streaming in around the curtain's edges was stronger now, and a shaft of it striped across the bed and caught in the enormous diamond of her wedding ring, sparking sudden fire that caught her eye. Moodily Scarlett tugged and twisted at the ring, considering the implications of its continued presence on her hand, and her continued presence in Rhett's bed.

What had changed, in the night - if indeed anything had? When Rhett returned, and they faced one another not in the warmth of darkness but in the cold rational light, what would they say to one another? Would the whispered words of the night still hold, or were old habits beyond their breaking? Scarlett was surprised to find her heart beating abnormally fast for a woman contemplating seeing her husband return after a separation of less than ten minutes' duration. She'd not felt this nervous on their wedding night - let alone the morning after!

The nerves took their toll. Scrambling out of the bed and darting behind the screen in the adjacent dressing room, Scarlett availed herself of the chamber pot. On her way back into the bedchamber she nearly ran full into Rhett, who had just come through the door.

"So you weren't a dream, after all," he stated mildly, his cool impertinent eyes raking up and down the unclothed length of her. On any other morning of her life, his cavalier attitude would have provoked her into biting words and an abrupt departure; but this was this morning, and something held her fast. Scarlett stood her ground, heedless of her unclothed state. Never analytical, it did not occur to her that what happened in the next few moments might well decide the course of the rest of her married life, but even she was cognizant of the importance of what had happened, and that she must tread lightly from here forward.

"Neither were you," she returned smoothly. Her eyes met his squarely and she did not trouble to school her expression to blandness. Turning her back upon him briefly, she picked up her red velvet dressing gown from where it lay crumpled beside the bed and swirled it round her shoulders. "Rhett, I - what is that?"

Startled, Scarlett reached forth a tentative hand and indicated a mark on his exposed chest. Rhett's gaze followed her pointing finger; and when he saw what had dismayed her, he threw back his dark head and yelped with laughter.

"It appears you have marked me, Scarlett, in more ways than one. You are looking at what is vulgarly known as a 'hickey', my dear; I gather that you have no recollection of placing it there? Ah. Well! I daresay there may be more where that came from - and that you yourself may have a few of your own."

He grinned at her, unguarded, and she felt her heart give an odd lurch. That old queer light, the one she had surprised in him so many times in the past, had returned to Rhett's eyes; and now it thrilled rather than confused her. She thought now she had a better idea of just what that look meant.

"Never you mind these 'hickeys', Rhett Butler," she said, tapping the spot on his chest with a fingertip. "I must have a thousand bruises from your manhandling! Why, it's a wonder I can even walk this morning!"

The unintentional reference struck Rhett as catastrophically humourous; and when the racier possibility of her statement at last filtered into Scarlett's brain, she too was overcome. In moments the pair of them were sagging against one another, laughing like fools and gasping for breath. It was delicious.

"May I?" Rhett asked at length, when his tongue would again cooperate. His big warm fingers caressed her shoulder as they slipped the soft velvet of her dressing gown down and away from her creamy skin. To his dismay, there were indeed dark purplish crescents coming up where his hands had gripped and shaken her the night before. His eyes, when they found hers, were genuinely apologetic, an expression with which Scarlett was almost entirely unfamiliar.

"I'm afraid your assessment of the damage was correct, Scarlett; you are a bit bruised. In my defense I can say only that I was quite drunk and quite swept off my feet by your charms." His eyebrow crinkled upward. "Shall I enumerate them?"

"Oh, be serious," she chided him, shrugging the dressing gown back up over her shoulder. "Only now you'll have to help me dress until the bruises fade. You know Mammy has eyes like a hawk, and she wouldn't scruple to call attention to them - not to mention any hickeys I may or may not have." Her green eyes were dancing. "That will be your penance. Acting as my maid."

"You may find this hard to believe, my dear, but getting you into your clothing is very nearly as much fun as getting you out of it."

"Oh Rhett, you do talk scandalous!"

"Yes, and you're enjoying it immensely, aren't you? Come on, Scarlett, admit it: being bad feels pretty good, doesn't it?"

She would admit no such thing aloud; but her eyes gave all the answer necessary. Unable to resist, Rhett reached out and caressed the side of her face, startled when she pressed her cheek into his palm and rubbed against him like a contented cat. He drew her into his arms again and she snuggled against him, one small hand slipping into his open dressing gown to play with the dark mat of hair on his chest. She felt his lips brush the top of her head, to be replaced by his chin resting there. They stood thus, still as statues, for what seemed an age; then Rhett's soft voice broke the stillness.

"Scarlett? I hate to bring this up, but there is the possibility...Ehm. Ah, last night I was, er, rather impetuous in the extremity of my desire for you, and did not scruple to take any precautions that might otherwise have occurred to me. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"God's nightgown, Rhett, why can't you just come right out and say a thing like a normal person? What on Earth are you rambling about?"

"Is there the possibility that last night's adventures might have left you with child?" He pulled away and looked intently into her face, waiting.

Scarlett's face went pale, her eyes round; but the first thing out of her mouth was hardly what he might have expected to hear.

"What did you mean, 'precautions'?" She demanded. "Do you mean there's - oh!"

Rhett looked at her more closely. "You mean to tell me that you weren't aware of...And all this time I thought surely you knew! I figured Mamie Bart would have given you all the particulars years ago, and..." He shook his head, still mightily amused. Scarlett, however, was not.

"Mamie only ever told me how to get rid of one once they'd got started; she never told me anything about preventing them. WHY didn't you tell me, Rhett? I would never have - well, things might've been different if you'd told me, back after Bonnie was born."

"It never crossed my mind that you were anything but repulsed by my coarse attentions, and entirely glad to be shut of me in your bed. I could scarcely be cad enough to deny you the sterile Hell you and the honourable Mr Wilkes had fashioned for yourselves, could I? Better I free you from my loathsome embrace than suffer further blows to my pride."

Scarlett had paced away from him during this speech, wandering over to the window and fidgeting with the heavy tieback. "I was never repulsed, Rhett. And I - " she stopped, almost choking on the words, unable to believe she was having this conversation with this man. For a moment she nearly abandoned the subject entirely, but then her courage came back to her in a warm rush and she squared her shoulders and lifted her head. Looking her husband in the eye, Scarlett said simply, "I missed you terribly, Rhett. I've regretted casting you out every day since I did it."

Deeply moved, Rhett crossed the room in long strides and moved to take her in his arms; but Scarlett's hands came up and rested on his chest, holding him off. With serious eyes she searched his face, determined that he should hear her out.

"I missed lying in your arms at night, and talking to you, and waking up knowing you were there with me. I missed - being with you, we were last night. Only - " Her face was flaming now, but she forged gamely on, certain that her genteel mother was spinning in her grave over her eldest's forthright speech. "Only, Rhett, it was never like last night before. You were were always so distant with me, like you didn't really care that much who you were with or what you were doing. Like any woman would do. And you were always so mean to me, then, always teasing me and never taking me seriously. Treating me as if I were a pet, or a damned ignorant child. Then after I threw you out, you changed again, and you were even more distant. I even started to miss you being mean to me."

Taking a step back from her, Rhett raked a hand through his rumpled hair, turning his face away as though her earnest, pained expression was too much to bear.

"Mean to you," he murmured, now absently massaging his temple. "Yes, I suppose it would seem that way to you. Scarlett, sit down and I will tell you a story. I'm not certain if it's a comedy or a tragedy for you see, the ending hasn't been written yet. But I think you will find it entertaining, in any case."

Rhett belted his dressing gown firmly and, taking Scarlett's hand, walked them back across the chamber. Once he'd installed her in an armchair in the spacious sitting area, he pulled its mate over and seated himself across from her. Drawing a deep breath, he continued.

"Imagine falling, very much against your will, in love with someone - despite your knowledge that your love is not reciprocated and likely never will be. Imagine having to hide your love away, to keep it from being turned into a weapon against you in the capricious hands of your beloved. The lies you'd have to tell, to your beloved, to yourself, just to maintain your sanity day in and day out as you live with them, lie with them, knowing...ah, the knowing! Knowing yourself for a damned fool and unable to stop, unable to escape. Walking away a thousand times, and walking right back every damned time."

He leaned forward, black eyes lit with a frightening intensity; he looked like a man half-crazed. Scarlett stared into his fathomless gaze, transfixed.

"I've watched you walk away from me more times than I can count, Scarlett, and every time I've told myself to let it go, let you go, end this madness - and every time, I've ended up walking right after you. I have been running from you and to you simultaneously since the day I first saw you at that accursed barbecue, and I have been twisting in a Hell of our mutual devising since that day as well. I've watched you through marriage, mourning and motherhood, held my tongue and my temper and my heart as closely as I could, praying to a God I could never quite believe in that my secret remained safe from you - for Scarlett, I've seen the damage you inflict, intentionally or otherwise, on those who love you and are naive enough to let you know it. You're not kind, my darling; and despite what you may have thought to the contrary, I am far from unbreakable. There are limits; I've reached mine.

"I have been less than an ideal husband. I have been - cruel, perhaps; cold, certainly. I would have liked nothing better than to lavish you with all the affection, all the love, all the romance any woman could ever have desired - if only you'd given me even the slightest encouragement. Oh, don't think that I hold you entirely responsible; Hell, you were honest with me from the start. I knew you loved Ashley Wilkes, and I pursued you and persuaded you to marry me anyway. Like the bloody fool I am I thought, desperately and stupidly, that in time I could win you over. That I could make you love me and forget him. And when, belatedly, I realized just how wrong I'd been in that rash assumption, well, I suppose I took out my frustration on you."

This was a Rhett she'd never before encountered, never even quite imagined, and his bald admissions awoke in Scarlett such a tumult of confused emotions she had to look away, feeling a prickling at the back of her eyes that presaged tears she feared to shed. On the one hand, she felt an almost crushing remorse burgeoning, stronger even than that which had gripped her in the aftermath of Frank's death. That remorse was tinged with a nearly superstitious awe of Rhett's ability to read her so easily - for Scarlett was fundamentally honest enough with herself to recognize the truth of his assessment of her. Time was when she would have liked nothing better than to extract such a confession of helpless devotion from him, the better to use it against him to her own ends. To her bafflement, that desire no longer appeared to stir her; but it was still horrid of him to have ever seen it!

She had no reason whatever to doubt the sincerity of his words; it was obvious even to her that some turning point had been reached, all bets called off, all cards on the table. What she couldn't be certain of was who had the upper hand. His words thrilled and frightened and confused and warmed and angered her all at once. The longstanding desire to pay him back for his years of insolence had evaporated without her even noticing its passing; and Scarlett, who had never troubled to examine an emotion in her life, was left floundering in a sea of inner conflict. Disturbing enough was her recent realisation that her love for Ashley, which had become as habitual and automatic as breathing, had undergone an irreparable change. Being forced now to confront not only Rhett's feelings for her, but her own awakening feelings for him - particularly in view of recent catalysing events! - left Scarlett all but paralyzed.

As the silence stretched out between them, Scarlett at last dared lift her eyes to his once more, and what she saw there made her thawing heart clench painfully in her chest.

"He looks so tired and...beaten," she thought, seeing him as if for the first time. "How long has he looked like that? Mother of God, what have we done to each other?"

Rhett was still watching her silently, appraisingly, as her torments played themselves out across her face. The green eyes, always an accurate barometer of her inner climate, were shiny as if with tears she refused to let fall. Hesitantly, she stretched out a hand across the looming chasm between them, resting it softly atop the clenched ball of his fists. The current between them was electric, palpable, the dead air between them fairly crackling with it. His bottomless black eyes locked onto hers, themselves a bit shinier than normal; his hands twisted beneath her gentle touch and took hold of her in a grip that hurt, but still he said nothing, merely sat silent and watchful as a cat, waiting.

"We're awfully good at working against each other, aren't we?" she finally asked, voice low and rueful. "It's like I - I punished you for not being Ashley, and you - you...oh, I don't know, Rhett!" This last burst from her with a passion and violence that startled them both. "I don't know, I don't understand, and I never have! I always knew you wanted me, but I never knew for sure how you felt about me. You'd say one thing and do another, you'd go away for ages and I'd never hear a word from you and I'd think you were gone for good, and then there you'd be one day, looking like you'd never left, and we'd start the whole dance all over again. You can be so nice, Rhett, so sweet and thoughtful that at times I'd almost forget myself - almost forget how mean you could be at other times, but then you'd change that fast and there I'd be again, on uncertain ground, not knowing where I stood with you or why you were with me when you apparently just hated me and thought I was an ignorant spoiled child.

"I know I'm not sophisticated like you, Rhett. I haven't traveled all over the world or read a lot of books; but there's precious little time for books when you've got to work like a field hand just to keep body and soul together. If I'm only about common sense and making money, it's because that's who I had to become to survive and to support my people. I always felt like you looked down on me, how you always make fun of my ignorance. And yet, sometimes you treat me like an equal, almost like you'd treat another man. I can't ever make sense of you.

"You say you never wanted me to know how you felt about me because you thought I'd turn it against you - and you're right! I would have! I would've loved to be able to lord it over you, Mister High-and-Mighty Blockade Runner, for all the times you'd treated me badly and made me feel so small and stupid." She paused, looking down at the knot of their fingers still entwined. "At least, I used to feel that way. I don't even know what to feel anymore. Last night was...I didn't know that feeling that way existed. I don't know if it means that I'm in love with you, or what. I'm so confused I think my brain is going to split in two. Sometimes I think I never should have married you at all. It would've been kinder to you, wouldn't it? I've only made a misery of your life and mine too. I never meant to, but I did."

"You can't take credit for all the misery, Scarlett; I've contributed my share too. As you said, we do have a knack for working at cross purposes, don't we? I suppose the question now, my dear, is whether we can arrive at a compromise and begin to work together."

"Together?" She coughed a small, bitter laugh. "Have we ever really been 'together'?"

He seemed to give her question serious consideration before speaking. "Yes, I think perhaps we have, on occasion. The years of our acquaintance haven't been one long dreary purgatorial march now, have they? I'd like to believe that if nothing else, we have become friends over the years; for loving you aside, Scarlett, I do genuinely like you. You're not always a particularly likeable person, but then I'm no prize myself; and I'm contrary enough to like you in part because of your less admirable qualities. That may be the greatest gift in the world, Scarlett - to be liked not in spite of what you are, but because of it, warts and all." He saw her eyes narrow at that last and grinned, remembering her propensity for taking the wrong things literally. "Er, figuratively speaking of course."

"I honestly do like you, too, Rhett. I always have, at least when you weren't being mean. There's been times when it's seemed like you were the only friend I had in the world."

"Don't forget Miss Melanie," he reminded her gently. "I believe you can count on her friendship as well."

"Of course, Melly's a friend too, but...well, Rhett, I can be honest with you about things that if Melly knew I felt that way or thought that way she'd never be able to look at me again. She's so innocent and tenderhearted that I don't believe she could stand me if she knew what I was really like."

"I think perhaps you underestimate her. But I suspect I know you far better than she, or anyone else, ever has or ever will."

"You probably do," she remarked gloomily. "And I wonder if I really know you at all. I never have bothered to find out much. I don't even know how old you are."

"Is that all? I'm forty-three - although I fancy myself as having retained a certain youthful charm. You've never revealed your age, either, Scarlett. Confess!"

"I'm twenty-six."

"So you were sweet sixteen when first we met. It has been ten years since that day - why, almost to the very day! It was in mid-April, as I recall. This is almost an anniversary of sorts for us. An ideal time for new beginnings, wouldn't you say?"

His tone was light, but his expression, and the pressure of his grip, was anything but. Scarlett hadn't felt this nervous and fluttery on that awful day when he'd proposed.

Ten years. Ten years of change, of hardship, of bitter struggle and even more bitter victories - and of moments, few and oh so far between, of incredible sweetness. Scarlett cast her mind back across those years and tried to recall a green-eyed girl, the belle of three counties, radiant in the certainty that she would never be less than utterly safe, utterly loved, utterly protected. That girl, she realized with a pang, had ceased to exist on the very day of which Rhett spoke - the day of that last barbecue at Twelve Oaks, the day the war began and her girlhood ended and she set her feet upon the path that had led, inevitably, to this place, this time.

And finally, this man.

"Has it only been ten years, Rhett? It seems like forever. Oh, I didn't mean it like that!" she added, off his grimace. "I feel like I've lived at least ten lifetimes since that day when we first met. So much of it's all jumbled together, like a dream, a bad dream most of it. Looking back I can't believe some of the things I did, but - well, I did what I had to do at the time. I'm not proud of myself, but I'm not sure I'd do anything differently. At the time, I couldn't see any other way, and, well, if I could go back it wouldn't matter, because I'd still be the same person, wouldn't I?" This flash of insight caused her forehead to wrinkle and her green eyes to narrow with the effort of comprehension. "But I don't feel like I'm the same person at all, now, not with everything that's happened since then. It's like - yes, it's almost like I've been asleep for the last ten years, having a nightmare, but now I'm waking up. Do you understand, Rhett?"

"I think I do. And I congratulate you. You're not waking up, my dear, but growing up."

"I've hurt you terribly, haven't I?" Her voice was soft. "We've hurt each other, so much. Is it too late for us, Rhett? I'm still so confused about - everything, and I can't promise I'll be the best wife in the world, but...if you're willing, I think I'd like to try. We could...get to know each other again, try to have a real marriage, be a real family. I know I can't change our past, but maybe we could both change our future, if - well, if you want to."

"I've been thinking a lot lately about new beginnings," Rhett said mildly. "Spring fever, perhaps. I'd been considering another trip abroad - "

"Running away from me again?" she asked, with a flash of humor. His answering grin made her feel flushed all over.

"That might be one way of looking at it, yes; but that was before we'd had this most informative discussion. I was considering taking Bonnie with me, but I believe I've hit upon a better idea." Lifting her left hand to his lips, he placed an ardent kiss into her palm, eyes never leaving her face. "I seem to recall asking you this once before, during the war. You turned me down flat then, but I'm willing to give you a second chance." The grin was back, as was the old teasing light in his eyes. Shoving his chair backward, he slid from it to his knees in one graceful flow, gazing up at her with such love and mischief and hope that Scarlett felt those unshed tears at last well up and over, unheeded.

"Mrs. Butler," he drawled, and his voice was as warm with promise as a spring morning in Georgia. "I still want you more than I've ever wanted any woman, and by God, I've waited for this long enough. Will you run away with me?"

Laughing and crying at once, Scarlett too slid from her chair and tackled him, throwing both arms around his neck and kissing him so hard she very nearly toppled them both over backwards.

"Anywhere," she whispered at last. "Anywhere in the world."