Thanks again to Baranduin for beta-reading services on this, and to the organizers who make Yuletide possible and so much fun for all of us. Seriously, use the link and go read!
by Laura Mason
He slogged through the filthy snow, relieved that the noise of the guns was growing fainter and cursing himself again for the boots that now gaped and filled with icy water at every step.
Beside him Tommy wavered and stumbled, and he put out a hand to steady the boy. Helping him was all that was left to do; Rhett hadn't been able to save their 12-pounder after the wheels had been shattered by a direct hit. There was no one left to carry the gun, even if he could have somehow pulled it out of the mud without mules.
Tommy's arm was shattered and it was still bleeding through the makeshift splint. It was fully dark now, the battle couldn't go on much longer. And somewhere to the rear there must still be a doctor, if Rhett could just keep him moving.
"I suppose you'll get sent home to recuperate, Tom." Rhett managed to sound confident and unconcerned. "You'll get to see your girl."
"Yes," he gasped, pushing himself to keep moving. "I hear ... nurses are ... pretty..."
Rhett didn't answer, pulled into a sudden memory of Scarlett, coming out of the hospital in an oft-mended, faded cotton dress, weary and grim until she caught sight of him waiting at his carriage. The way she'd smile, looking like a happy child. It wasn't her flirtatious, dazzling smile -- the one he knew she'd practiced in front of mirrors since she was twelve. She might try to use that on him later, but in the first moment she was purely happy to see him, and he could read it on that expressive face.
He pushed down thoughts of Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton and tried to concentrate on moving more quickly without stumbling over the twisted bodies sprawled gracelessly in their path. He hoped Tom was too wrapped up in fighting his pain to really see the hellish landscape, drawn directly out of Dante's seventh circle.
They caught up with another group of ragged, ill-clad scarecrows tightly clutching their mismatched weapons. Despite their blue coats, Rhett didn't bother pulling the pistol secured in his waistband. They weren't Yankees. The Yankees weren't marching with their feet wrapped in homespun rags. The Yankees had food in their bellies, so their uniforms didn't hang loosely and flap in the bitter wind.
They pushed on, retreating, no real order and no one in command. Rhett wasn't the only one slowing his steps to assist a wounded comrade, trying to find the landmarks they'd only seen by daylight and somehow reach what safety there was in all this insanity.
The ground abruptly went out from under the men in front of them. Rhett heard splashing and curses, and he more carefully followed the incline down to the creek, hopefully the same one he remembered from earlier that ran crookedly to the southeast. Tommy fell, a groan escaping him, but Rhett pulled him up until he'd steadied himself and they splashed along in the shallows, letting the water guide them.
The noise they were making used to belong to lazy summer days in Rhett's youth. He thought of Hap Winslow's swimming hole, and how they'd run naked in the warm sunlight, dreaming of adventure. Those days seemed unbearably sweet -- and centuries distant. Of course, if they'd really been so remote, Rhett wouldn't be here with the doomed army, fighting the long defeat. He'd known they were licked months ago, and the Yankee victory was sealed when Atlanta fell.
His mind wandered to Atlanta days. It had been too warm for May on that afternoon when he'd first taken Scarlett driving to Peachtree Creek. He'd had no reason to propose the outing other than his enjoyment of her excitement.
She'd still been in her damned mourning dress, but she was wearing the bonnet he'd brought her from Paris. She looked pretty and she knew it; the set of her head and her smile exuded confidence. Even in the bright sunlight, her skin was flawless. If he hadn't known about the little boy back at Pittypat's house, Rhett might have thought she was still as young and untouched as she'd been that first day he saw her, at the Wilkes house.
The memory of her passionate outburst that afternoon at Twelve Oaks made Rhett grin. She saw and immediately demanded to know the reason.
"I don't know what you mean, my pet. Did I smile?"
"You had the most wicked smirk on your face, Captain Butler, full of devilment."
"I'm sure you're mistaken, Mrs. Hamilton."
"Oh, no. Wait, I can guess -- you must be thinking of a woman!" As soon as the words left her mouth, he saw that Scarlett wished she could call them back. Her face went rosy with embarrassment. Rhett wondered exactly what she'd heard that discomfited her so. Probably only the vaguest of rumors had reached her sheltered ears.
"Since a lady is never wrong, I was thinking of you, of course. My dear Scarlett -- may I call you 'Scarlett,' Mrs. Hamilton? Oh, of course, I've been doing so for a month now. Well, as I was saying, my dear Scarlett, your glowing beauty puts the sun to shame this day and has moved me... Yes, moved me beyond my ability to control myself--"
"Oh, do hush!" she interrupted rudely. "Don't tell such whoppers, Rhett. You must have been thinking about money, nothing else would make you smile."
"You wound me, my dear."
Scarlett's only reply was a rude noise, and Rhett barked out a laugh.
"Don't yelp so. Someone will hear and the old cats will have even more to gossip about."
"I thought you'd finally learned to ignore the disapproval of Atlanta, Scarlett."
"Well, yes, but if they ever heard the nonsense you can spout, well, I don't know what would happen." Then she gasped and put a hand on his arm. "Oh, Rhett, look! Can we stop here?"
It was a meadow full of early wildflowers: orchids, coneflowers and Jack-in-the-pulpit. Rhett brought his bay stallion to a halt and secured the reins while she impatiently looked around, murmuring, "How lovely."
He helped Scarlett down from her seat and followed her wandering progress through the field. She began filling his arms with blossoms, calling out "Oh, look at those!" when she saw a new type of flower.
When she finally slowed down, Rhett found her a seat on a tree trunk. Then he wrapped his handkerchief around the stems of the flowers before giving them to her to hold. He settled on the ground beside her, making sure he could see her face.
"Thank you, Rhett. I don't remember the last time I've had so much fun." She took a deeper breath and looked around happily. "I've been shut up in the house or at the hospital -- sometimes I feel as if I could just scream."
Rhett asked, "Or throw something?" and laughed at Scarlett's face, frozen on the verge of speaking. It plainly showed how torn she was between laughing with him or calling him a scoundrel yet again. She was so very much her father's daughter, and such a child at heart.
Rhett reached forward and gently pushed her up chin, closing her mouth. "This is why your mother warned you about men who aren't gentlemen, you know."
That settled it, she dimpled at him saucily and he thought about kissing her. It would be easy, just a tiny movement to pull her into his arms. Those lips were meant for kissing, and for other things that he could show her, if she'd only let him...
She was chattering happily once again, harmless gossip about the townspeople she knew best. Rhett leaned back and tipped his hat up to let the warm sunshine find his face. Scarlett was saying, "Maybelle is heartbroken. She said she won't feel married unless she has a white satin dress for her wedding day."
"Ah, that would certainly be a tragedy of epic proportions. Miss Merriwether's sentiments do her credit, really. What else is marriage about? Only couture. Well, that and millinery splendor."
"How you do run on," Scarlett said. "I don't suppose her feelings are any more foolish than those of most men. They seem to think marriage is all about... well, silly things." She was blushing furiously again, and Rhett smiled lazily.
"While you, my dear, know the only reason for marriage is Love. True, pure love."
"I ... you're the most ill-bred man," she said. "What does a selfish scoundrel like you know about love, Rhett Butler?"
"Very little, my dear. Unlike you, I've never been married. In fact, I shot a man to avoid it. I'm sure you've heard that story."
She looked guilty as she shook her head. "Just rumors."
"Ah, yes. Rumors. Funny how gossip makes rumors grow and change. For instance, I recently heard a rumor about a Wilkes..."
"Don't you dare repeat lies about Ashley!"
"Ah, but how do you know they're lies, Scarlett? For instance, the rumors about me being disowned by my father are true. The details might be blurred, but essentially Atlanta is quite correct when they say I'm a blackguard, a gambler, and an embarrassment to my family."
"Well, that I believe." She sat a minute in silence, then casually asked, "Who's been talking about Ashley?"
"Ah, that would be indiscreet of me to say. And inaccurate, because they were speaking of Mrs. Wilkes."
"Melly? No one gossips about Melly."
"There are people concerned about her desire for a -- oh, how to put this delicately? Her wish to bring forth a scion of the Honorable Ashley."
"Oh, that." She kept her head down, picking at the flowers, thoroughly disgruntled.
"Yes. And that leads me to a question. Do you suppose you and Ashley will still be able to maintain your pure, sweet, illicit love once he becomes a father?" She wouldn't look at him or speak, but her face grew red with anger. "Silence gives assent, my dear. I'm shocked. And here I'd always heard that he was such an honorable gentleman."
"He's worth ten of you!" she burst out. "Don't judge him by your own low standards."
"I see. I'm too dishonorable to understand how Ashley's pure love for you isn't an insult to both you and his wife?" Rhett looked at the stubborn set of her jaw and sighed. "Let's not argue, Scarlett, it's too nice a day. Tell me, when are you going to Tara for a visit? I want to make sure I don't waste time in Atlanta when you're not here to entertain me."
"Do you mean that, Rhett?"
"Of course I mean it. There's a definite shortage of women with your spirit of larceny, Scarlett, and the lack of moral fortitude to overcome it."
She stared at him for a moment, trying to read his face, and he somehow managed not to laugh. "I wish you'd always be nice, Rhett. You can be very pleasant -- when you want to be."
"You must blame my upbringing, my pet. I was taught a good Southern gentleman must always speak the truth. As I'm sure you know, that can be damned inconvenient."
Tommy fell again, taking Rhett down with him into the water. Those tromping along behind them stumbled over them and kept going. Rhett pulled himself to his feet, swaying dizzily, and then tried to get Tommy upright. It wasn't working; the boy was weak with blood loss and nearly unconscious. He legs wouldn't hold his weight standing still. Rhett cursed, then bent and wrestled him over his back into an awkward carry.
He couldn't straighten up under the extra weight and his progress was even slower, but he doggedly kept moving, lurching toward camp. After all, if a man was fool enough to keep loving a woman who was in love with another man, then he was idiotic enough to persevere in any impossible task.
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