|Hardest of Hearts
Author: bethaboo PM
His wife dead and the foundation of his world shaken Chuck discovers only Blair is willing to find the answers to the many mysteries he isn't sure he wants solved. A story of love decimated and vows destroyed and the hope unexpectedly found in the ashesRated: Fiction M - English - Romance/Drama - Blair & Chuck - Chapters: 3 - Words: 12,210 - Reviews: 21 - Favs: 10 - Follows: 21 - Updated: 11-28-11 - Published: 09-06-11 - id: 7361144
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
There is love in your body,
but you can't hold it in.
It pours from your eyes and it spills from your skin.
The tenderest of touch leaves the darkest of marks;
and the kindest of kisses break the hardest of hearts.
The dusky light from the antique glass lamps shades her skin with tones of gold-tipped rose velvet, and sets the diamonds encircling her neck and wrists ablaze with electric fire. Her dark hair is woven into an intricate swirl atop her head, tipping her chin back with its the weight—or perhaps her elegant posture is simply the gravity of a lifetime of expectation. She is lovely, exquisite even, the delicate bones of her face strong and aristocratic. Every man in the tiny bar notices her, from the elderly retiree enjoying one last glass of sherry, to the young bus boy who takes extra care to set the dishes noiselessly into the bin from the moment she arrives.
She turns every man's head—all, except one. His suit is Savile Row perfection, his back bent, and his absorption into his glass of scotch complete. He spares not a single surreptitious glance for the lady beside him, yet he is the only man she looks at twice.
"Bass?" Her melodious voice is soft and hesitant, though listening to her one would easily believe she is used to speaking much more forcefully. "Chuck Bass?"
For a breathless half second, the rest of the bar's occupants hold their breath, waiting to see if the man will indeed snub her. Then he glances up, the darkness in his eyes somehow indicative of the darkness within.
"You may not remember me," she begins, only to have him give a blunt, harsh laugh.
"I think you'd be difficult to forget, Miss Waldorf." He lifts his glass, but doesn't drink, merely swirling the amber liquid and feeling its weight slosh against the crystal.
"It's Mrs. Archibald," she says, a touch defensively.
"Of course it is." He glances down, cynically noting her bare ring finger.
"Divorced, naturally," she adds self-consciously, lifting her own glass to her lips, but like him, she doesn't drink.
"I can't imagine you and Nathaniel suiting each other. You're certainly impressive, whereas he . . ." He trails off, letting her fill in the blank with whatever crimes she wishes to accuse her ex-husband of. In his experience, divorced women rarely needed help doing that.
A moment passes and though he thinks he sees a flash of annoyance in her dark eyes, she gives him a tiny smile, and says, "Nate and I remain friends, of course, which is more than I can say for you and he."
The pointed barb falls from her peony pink lips as softly as a whisper, but lands, as he is sure all her insults do, with deadly accuracy and suddenly, he remembers how swiftly the Queen B once doled out justice. It was a long time ago, in a far away place, in what feels to Chuck like a different life, but this is the same girl. She has not changed—her spine is as steely and straight as ever. It is him that has been altered, irrevocably.
"Not my decision," he says evenly, his voice modulated so well that except for the briefest of moments, he is sure that he's fooled even her. Try again, his smirk tells her, you didn't quite hit the mark yet.
His mistake is to assume that an initial fire-and-miss is enough to make her give up. What he remembers—belatedly—is that Blair Cornelia Waldorf-Archibald is not only tenacious, but stubborn to a fault.
And she likes to win as much as he does—or at least as much as he used to.
"Perhaps at first," she confides sweetly, "but I find it difficult to believe that Bart's guards stayed with you all through the Sorbonne and then when you started the French branch of Bass Industries. Surely they were not with you on your honeymoon."
His lips thin and he feels a spark, a flame, even, of rage. He thought he'd be immune to the anger at this point, but Blair's pointed reminder of his marriage resurrects and breathes new life into the fury inside him.
"No," he grinds out. He wants to say more, the words spinning through his head at an unbearable speed, but he can't pick out one single insult, and the cruel phrases will not align themselves into a reasonable order, so he doesn't.
She, however, does.
"I didn't think so," Blair continues, the self-satisfied edge to her voice growing harder, more defined. "But then, it was so long ago, and you wanted to 'start over.'"
"Bart wanted me to. And then I decided it wasn't such a terrible idea. After all, what was left for me in New York?"
Blair looks momentarily astonished, but buries the emotion deep, before he can do more than catch a single glimpse of it. "Nothing," she agrees with him. "There was nothing left for you in New York."
He is silent at her words. She couldn't know that she's describing how he now feels about Paris. She also couldn't know that such a revelation devastates him, as if every single tie he spent ten years building has been cut in one fell swoop.
He builds for a living, and knows the importance of a strong, unshakeable foundation. This, he knows, is what is left of a man when he discovers that every single beam, every single ounce of concrete poured, is faulty and false.
Finally, he asks the question that's been sitting, unasked, between them since she entered the small Parisian bar a quarter of an hour before. "Why are you here, Blair?"
She shrugs, a surprisingly Gallic gesture that reminds him so much of his wife that his heart literally hurts. He doesn't know whether to believe the surge of bitter hatred or the aching emptiness of loss. Both seem strangely appropriate.
"I don't want you here," he adds, trying to communicate via the blank stare he gives her that he means it. Not only that she is unwelcome, but that she's an unsolicited visitor from a past that he could care less about remembering. "Or in any other place that I choose to frequent."
He throws a fifty euro note on the shiny mahogany of the bar, the grimy coloring staring up at her as he walks out, and she doesn't know where she went wrong, except that when she calls Lily, she will have to tell her that it is much worse than anyone anticipated. That Chuck, who up until eight months ago was a well-adjusted, happy businessman in love with his soignée Parisian wife, is broken and bitter, empty of both politesse and charm. Basically, he's the Chuck everyone knew so long ago in New York.
The Chuck she used to love, all those many years ago.
Blair catches up with him on the sidewalk outside, her Louboutins making decisive clicking noises on the stone. He used to be able to know it was Eva behind him simply by the distinctive gait of her walk. Tap tap, tap tap tap, tap tap. Sometimes when he's had too much scotch, he can hear her behind him on the streets of Montmarte. Not tonight. Tonight he hears another ghost from the past, this one all too real.
"I'm sorry about Eva," Blair says bluntly. "I know you loved her."
How can he explain to Blair that it wasn't just love that leaves him empty now? How can he explain to a woman who is still friendly with her ex-husband, a man she has known her entire lifetime, about promises made—promises that were never meant to be broken? He hypothesizes that Blair, who probably decided to get divorced between the salad course and the fish course at one of her mother's business dinners, is incapable of understanding.
To Blair, love is not love, but a decision made by a calculating and power-hungry mind; the heart is only a fleeting thought for her. The hurt she'd exacted that he thought completely eradicated by Eva's sweet smiles somehow resurfaces and joins the myriad of betrayals he feels.
"If Lily sent you, which I am sure she did, you can tell her that I'm fine. Fine." He refuses to turn around to see her because if he does, he may throw something in her vicinity. His loss of temper surprises him—it has been ages since he even contemplated such a failure of self-control. Emotions still flare within him, but outside he is cold and smooth as ice.
"You're not fine," she says flatly. Finally. "You're not fine. Your wife died. I don't think you're supposed to be fine."
"Well, I am," he practically growls at her as he senses her come closer. Too close. Her nearness scares him; her very presence is terrifying. He is not ready for her. In truth, he is not ready for anyone.
"You were always a terrible liar," Blair says softly this time, all accusation and judgment gone from her voice. "Terrible." There is the minutest tremble at the last word. And just like before, like twenty years ago, when he was so learned and yet so naïve, he wonders if the real Blair Cornelia is the calculating queen or if there is indeed a heart buried under all the sophisticated, icy veneer.
"I'm not the man you used to know," he tells her because it's the truth, and of course, she is right—he was never any good at lying.
"I would hope not. The old Chuck Bass was a selfish egomaniac with a penchant for drugs, booze and whores."
"I'm not even . . .that man," he starts, then isn't sure how to describe the man he was with Eva. A figurehead? A man floating through his life, so sure that it adored him as much as he adored it? "I'm not good," he finally growls out, devoid of any true explanation.
But of course, an explanation isn't necessary because this is Blair, and years and years ago, she used to know him better than he knew himself. Then he was ordered to Paris, he met Eva and he re-learned everything about who he was. Except now, Chuck is beginning to suspect that the remodeling Eva encouraged was less of a permanent change and more of a band aid applied to hungers that never really died.
"Of course you're not that good," Blair scoffs, the dark sheen of her hair glinting under the pink light of Montmartre. Against his will, he remembers the way the silken strands felt as they slipped between his hands like water. He remembers them spread out on a limo seat—the thought barely has time to form in his mind before he shuts it down. He tells himself it doesn't matter that he once thought the incident permanently erased from his mind; the resurfacing is only due to her sudden presence. "You never were."
He is silent. The rage still lies in the back of his mind, and it isn't just at Eva. He doesn't want Blair here, prodding and poking at him.
"It's such a lovely evening for a walk," Blair chatters away, as if she has no idea that the monster inside him is seething with annoyance.
"No, it isn't," Chuck snaps.
"Of course it isn't." The ironic tone of her voice squeezes so much meaning in that one sentence that Chuck knows exactly how she feels about his lack of enjoyment. She thinks he has lost the thread of his life, and he hates her for being right.
He stops suddenly, and she continues on for a half a step before turning to face him, his expression dark and grim under the streetlight. "We're not doing this, Blair."
Her own expression goes clean and innocent, almost nun-like, but he knows better than to believe the visage.
"I'm not entirely sure what you mean, Bass."
He stares stonily at her. "This," he grinds out, the anger starting to build again. She is acting as if this is some sort of joyous, tear-filled reunion, and all he wants to do is drown out his sorrow and his anger and his rage, and he doesn't want her to see him do it. Twenty years have passed, but the tiny corner of his heart that he hadn't relinquished to Eva remembers Blair and his pride won't permit her to know it.
"Lily sent you to check up on me, to make sure I haven't thrown myself into the Seine yet. Well, you have your status report for her. Go away and leave me be."
Blair is quiet, a contemplative expression on her lovely face. He is even (mostly) sure that she hasn't had any work done yet. She's grown into her beauty as he knew she would. At 18, Serena often eclipsed her, but now years later, Chuck is sure it's Blair who turns men's heads wherever they go.
"I didn't only come for Lily," she says softly, so softly that he can barely hear her over the sounds of Paris. "She did call, but I came for me. And for you."
He shakes his head. This woman in her black cashmere coat, a fortune of diamonds around her neck, dark eyes knowing and wise, yet still vaguely impetuous—he feels as if he should know her, but she is a stranger now. They are strangers now.
Chuck pushes away the memory of leather against his skin, of dark hair falling over the smoothest skin he'd ever had the privilege to touch, to worship, and turns and walks away from her. This time she does not follow.
The next morning, over her café au lait, Blair can't help but wonder if she should gone against her better judgment and followed.
She's spent years wondering if she should have chased him across the Atlantic, demanded that Bart let her see him—she could have dug up something, anything, that would have given her enough leverage to convince him. But instead, fear bottled up all that difficult emotion inside of her and she had done nothing. She had let him go, and had spent years wondering if it had been the right decision.
The morning she married Nate, Blair swore to herself that she wouldn't spend any more of her precious minutes wondering about the what-if s.
So this morning, much like that other morning, Blair swallows a hot mouthful of espresso and skim milk and tells herself that she is perfectly content with her life—a life without Chuck Bass.
"Darling." Eleanor Waldorf doesn't walk into a room; she still moves as if she's a float and it's Thanksgiving morning on Fifth Avenue. Leaning down to brush a kiss over her daughter's cheek, Eleanor pulls back slightly, a frown creasing her brow. Unlike most society matrons of her generation, Eleanor believes fervently in unvarnished honesty, which includes her age.
"You look exhausted," she chides, sitting at the head of the table. "Maybe a spa day will clear up those circles under your eyes."
Blair nods absently, all too aware that the cause of her sleepless nights isn't a lack of relaxation but a lack of resolution—and since Chuck has so graciously denied her that privilege for over ten years, he isn't likely to start now.
"I'm off to the atelier today," Eleanor continues, barely noticing that Blair never acquiesced to her suggestion. "And tonight, there's a dinner."
Blair nods again, the activities of Eleanor's day hardly unusual. Her mind is consumed with thoughts.
He has not come to see her after all. Ten years ago, she barely had to glance at him sideways, and he would inevitably be drawn to her side. They used to vibrate at nearly the exact same frequency, but those days are long gone. Blair tells herself that she would be smart to remember this, and the next time Lily calls, as she inevitably will, she will extend her regrets. Coming to Paris has been a mistake.
Blair rouses herself from her apathy and musters a smile at her mother. It's merely a shadow, but it suffices. "What dinner?"
"Lagerfeld," Eleanor says, finishing her own café. She glances across the table at her daughter, and her gaze sharpens. "You're invited, of course. I sent regrets earlier, but I'm sure that can be remedied."
Blair remembers that she told her mother she hadn't come to Paris to socialize, and no doubt apologies were sent in response to each invitation that was delivered to her mother's apartment here. Stupidly, she had imagined her time occupied, but the task Lily charged her with has been completed and there is no longer any reason to cloister herself away. In fact, Blair thinks she might scream if forced to spend another evening cooped up with only her thoughts for company.
"That would be lovely, thank you."
"The car will be here at nine sharp," Eleanor reminds her, exiting the sunroom in a flutter of Chanel No. 5 and cashmere.
Dutifully, Blair lifts herself from her chair, determined that despite the ruin of her hopes, she will not feel sorry for herself.
Chuck is woken at precisely seven by his valet. Ten months ago, he would have brushed a kiss over his sleeping wife's head, and risen to shower, dress, and head into the office.
These days he merely brushes off the man, and buries his face back into his eight hundred thread count Egyptian cotton sheets. Sometimes he goes into the office late at night and finishes days, often weeks, of work in a marathon frenzy. He tells himself as he staggers to the limo that the reason he still attempts to keep up is so Bart's legacy will not fail.
He knows it's because he can no longer stand the maudlin repetition of his own thoughts. At least thinking about business means that, if only for a few hours, he can focus on something that makes him feel whole.
This particular morning, Chuck realizes that in the last six months, there has been one other moment that can even compete for that particular feeling: last night, when he glanced up and realized that Blair Cornelia Waldorf-Archibald was sitting at the bar, watching him intently.
For years, he has kept the memory, the feeling, of her, at bay. It was easy with Eva—making her happy consumed his every thought; was the focus of his entire being. But being with Blair last night felt different. Not the same as it was with Eva, but good nonetheless, and good is not something that Chuck can take for granted anymore.
He thinks this is why he turned and left her standing on a bridge overlooking the Seine. He has always been good at leaving people—he left her when Bart ordered him to France and refused to let him even pick up the shattered fragments of his former life. His new life embraced him, and he'd not thought of her, sure that she would behave similarly. But last night, Chuck thought he might have seen a hint of regret in her eyes.
That trace is enough to destroy his peace of mind for the second time in the last year, and despite that he knows better (this is Blair, after all), he is intrigued by her sudden reappearance in his life.
It isn't seven in the morning, but it's the earliest he's risen in months when he leans over and picks up his phone. He dials almost without thinking, and when the man answers, he speaks almost casually, as if he has been doing this all along. The truth is, he hasn't. It's the first thread of a life that didn't unravel just six months ago, but more like ten years ago.
"Tyler, it's Bass. I need some information on a Blair Cornelia Waldorf-Archibald."
"Good to hear from you, Mr. Bass. Mrs. Archibald's place of residence?"
"Typically New York, but right now, she's in Paris. With me."
Tyler says nothing, behaves normally as if this isn't the first time in nearly ten years that a Bass has used the retainer that Bass Industries still holds over his head. But the pregnant pauses in-between his words are enough and when Chuck hangs up, his desires expressed to the detective, he wonders what the hell he is doing.
Eva had forbidden him to utilize Tyler or any of his cronies, insisting that for their relationship to be real and true, unconditional trust had to exist between them. He'd never had reason to doubt her, so he had let the connections he'd developed in New York crumble. He'd never formed new ones in Paris.
With recent discoveries come to light, Chuck wonders if he was smart to believe his wife or if he should have questioned. Blair, he knows, would have questioned.
Ten years ago, he took one look at Eva's unquenchable, nearly naïve faith and trust and toppled head over heels. This morning, Eva's motives suddenly in question, Chuck can't help but respect the way Blair always looked for the angle.
He wonders what she would make of his angle this gray Parisian morning.
"We'll always have Paris," Blair mutters bitterly to herself as she sips her champagne.
A memory, Blair is learning, isn't always yours to direct at will. It sneaks up and takes your entire being hostage before you can steel yourself against it. So it is with Bass. So it's always been.
In any case, they won't ever have Paris. The only thing they had in common is over and finished, ashes scattered in the wind, and she needs to finally realize it.
"What was that, Blair dear?" Cecile, one of her mother's oldest Parisian friends, if you can truly call any of Eleanor's acquaintances "friends," inquires.
"Oh it was nothing, Madame Colbert," Blair covers hastily, deferentially tilting her head towards the older woman. "Nothing at all."
Luckily, another of their circle covers Blair's faux pas. Blair has never met Madame Girard before tonight's soiree, but she already does not like the false politesse that emanates from her like a bad perfume.
"It has been a long time since I was in New York," Madame Girard says with transparently fake sweetness, "but I heard a rumor, last time I was there, that your ex-husband married Serena Van der Woodsen. That could not possibly be true, could it?"
Blair vaguely hears Cecile's barely suppressed gasp of astonishment—everyone talked, of course, but she'd never imagined that anyone would brazenly ask her directly. This is why she came to Paris, Blair remembers belatedly. She was sick of being asked why she'd ever allowed her best friend to marry her ex-husband, as if she could have done anything to keep Serena and Nate apart. As if it was her decision that they fall in love in the first place.
She had known before the marriage, long before the wedding even, that she and Nate weren't in love, but their relationship had been an expedient solution to the devastation left in the wake of Chuck leaving New York.
"It's true," Blair finally admits, holding her head high, daring any of these piranhas to see even the barest hint of shame in her face. Shrugging, she continues with a blasé tone, as if she could have cared less that Nate had moved on to better, blonder pastures. "He was always in love with her, from when we were children, and our marriage. . ." Blair pauses and shakes her head almost imperceptibly. Let them finish the rest of that sentence, she thinks savagely.
She's not mad at either of them. Not really anyway. She gave her permission after all, believing that at least the two of them should be happy. She herself has long given up on that luxury, and has settled for half-truths like "comfortable" and "satisfied."
Happiness is for romance novels and Audrey Hepburn films.
"And nobody can blame you for leaving the man," Cecile adds and Blair is momentarily surprised by the vehemence in her tone. Cecile has never been especially friendly to her, but maybe she is not so terrible after all.
Or maybe Cecile is simply appalled at the bad manners of confronting the subject of all the gossip.
Blair taps her empty champagne glass and offers it as her excuse to leave the group, who continue chattering as she moves away. But she doesn't procure another glass—instead she slips through a half-closed door and finds herself in the quiet of a marble-floored landing at the top of a majestic red-carpeted stairway.
But the luxurious appointments of her salvation don't interest her. She'd thought she needed an evening away from her thoughts, but now, she can't wait to escape the nosy gossips who seem determine to chase her from both New York and Paris.
She gazes out the huge window into the rose-tinted City of Light, and wonders if she is not safe here then where she will go next. Unbidden, she thinks of Chuck and his need to run and wonders if she has become more like him than she would care to admit even to herself. She cannot face the constant whispers about her divorce and her ex-husband's remarriage, and she loathes the creeping, poisonous jealousy that grips her whenever she witnesses their happiness. Everyone would think it is the man she is jealous of, but having experienced being married to Nate Archibald once, she is definitely fine leaving him to Serena.
There has only been one man who turned her world upside down, and it was only to escape the devastation of his memory that she married at all.
If Chuck has even the slightest hesitation of the wisdom of this next move, the way he happens upon her almost by accident settles the last of his questions.
He thought he couldn't wait to be rid of her, but he cannot deny the pull she holds for him. The tantalizing zing of feeling life rushes back into the tips of his fingers, his toes, and then throughout his entire body, and it's like the gasp of fresh air after a lifetime underground.
Telling himself that he merely wishes to talk to her again, to capture that time so long ago when they were each other's greatest confidante, he climbs the stairs, his eyes never leaving the graceful curve of her back, draped in fire engine red chiffon.
But before he can telegraph his presence, she must sense him, because she half-turns and catches him staring.
"If you want me to leave you alone, you have to stop stalking me," Blair says with amusement in her voice. If she is surprised to see him there, she hides it completely.
"Of course, how silly of me." He pauses at the top of the staircase. Her hair is up again, this time simply pulled back into a sleek chignon. He wants to yank the pins out and see it tumble to her shoulders in a bohemian, completely inappropriate way. Like that night in the limo. "I realized that I forgot to tell you a last message to pass on to Lily."
Her lips curve upwards into a genuine smile. "And might I ask why you couldn't deliver this message yourself?"
"Because you're so conveniently here for that purpose. I wouldn't want to waste your trip."
"Of course not." Blair's real smile is still present, and it has deepened. He is ridiculously pleased at this, but can't manage to berate himself for smiling back. His cheek muscles hurt as his lips stretch wide; he can't even remember the last time he smiled like this.
Then he realizes; it wasn't just months ago, but maybe more like years. Maybe the last time he traded quips with New York's reigning queen of witty repartee.
"I'm going back to work." He does not know he is going to say it—or even what he is going to give as a message—until the words are out of his mouth. To his even greater surprise, he means them. "In a month," he adds, because strangely he does not want to scare her away from Paris, and from him.
"Lily will be pleased to hear it, I'm sure," she says smoothly, betraying none of her own surprise. "But why a month?"
"There are things I need to finish looking into," he says, again astonished at his own words. Up until this point, he has never even let himself consider the possibility that he would ever examine the circumstances under which Eva died. She had died, and that was enough for him. But there is a growing, deep-seated fear that she played him and had been doing it for a very long time. Before, when he was in the thick of his grief, he could have cared less, but his anger at her possible betrayal is growing inside of him like a disease. If he doesn't do anything to curb it, he's afraid it might consume him completely.
"Things?" Blair raises an eyebrow and it dawns on him that he came here tonight because he wanted to tell her. No—he needed to tell her. He can't hold it inside any longer, he is nearly splintering apart with the pain, the devastation, and anger and he needs to tell someone, and he has picked her. It shouldn't surprise him, he supposes, she used to be the person who knew everything, and despite it all, he still feels like he could trust her.
The sympathy of every Parisian acquaintance at his wife's death was suffocating enough, but every kind word and bouquet of flowers was a double-edged reminder that he could never truly express to anybody why he wasn't only sad, but blindingly angry. Until tonight, when he realizes that he can tell Blair. Nobody else might possibly be able to understand, but she is cut from tougher cloth than most other society misses he has met. Maybe that was why she always fascinated him so—the delicate beauty merged with the spine of tempered steel is a unique combination in their world.
"Chuck." Blair's words snap him back to reality; back from the funeral, and the wake, and the last mind-numbing eight months. "Charles. Are you alright?"
She has not called him Charles in a long time. Eva used to call him Charles, and though he hated the name, hated it because Bart had always used it when he had done something wrong, he never told her to stop. But Blair has none of Eva's delicate sensibilities.
"It's Chuck. Like it's always been."
"I thought so." Her smile widens again, like a cat who's just enjoyed a saucer of thick cream. Nothing pleases Blair more than being right. "I had to get your attention."
In another time, another life, he might have charmingly told her that she'd always had it—but today, he holds his tongue, reminding himself that he isn't the same man he used to be.
"Do you want to leave?" He is not sure he can confess the sordid details of his wife's death at a society party that Eva might have frequented only a year ago. Actually, he is not sure he can be here at all—the only motivation that resulted in him in a tuxedo and walking through the door was the knowledge that Blair was inside.
"You just got here," she objects. "And the dinner hasn't begun."
"Are you hungry?" he asks, and she gives him a long speculative look before shaking her head.
"Neither am I. But I could use a drink." He hesitates, and then holds his arm out, the way the deportment teacher had taught him so many years ago in New York.
She takes it as gracefully and perfectly as she did then. He remembers the way the teacher used to fawn over Serena's boisterous charms, but he always preferred Blair's delicate, restrained movements.
Maybe less has changed than he likes to think.