In a world where the reflection in the mirror could be deceitful and the sparkling varnish of a glamorous life tries to conceal what is dark and twisted, it's hard to distinguish between truth and lies. No one is forced to bear the burden of the face or the physical features they were born with, not when you can pay the best plastic surgeons and you have an entire army of stylists surrounding you 24 hours a day, taking care that not a single hair gets out of place, that your make up doesn't smear and reveal a flaw that might show your humanity. And if the worst came to happen, Photoshop can gloss over any nightmare and turn it into a product for sale.
The boundaries between reality and fiction become blurry when any story can be rewritten if only one knows whose phone to call, when one can make the dullest event sound brilliant and glamorous, when the most obscure secrets are hidden beneath Persian carpets and gold-threaded tapestries. Even notions as basic and absolute as "friendship" and "love" are rendered meaningless when children learn to value their classmates by their parents' bank account and prenups are signed even before the engagement ring is chosen.
Lies are the mother tongue in their world and Eric Van der Woodsen knows it well.
At a young age he learnt that deceit and simulation could be found not only on a stage, but in his own living room as well. As children, Eric and Serena soon learnt that it was better to pretend that their father had never existed rather than ask awkward questions on his whereabouts. As long as his checks keep arriving with the precision of a Swiss watch, it's pointless to wonder why he has never phoned them once ever since he left their home, long before Eric could even form a single clear memory of him. The Van der Woodsen siblings also learn to wear plastic smiles when their mother starts to make plans for yet another wedding, pretending that they truly believe this time will be forever and ever. As though they didn't know all too well that as soon as the honeymoon is over and the suitcases belonging to the man who was supposed to become their surrogate father appear on the doorstep, they will only have left a name and a bunch of pictures that'll end up in the trash can.
At a home where his mother keeps pretending she has an ideal family when her divorce papers are signed before the wedding dress can collect dust in her closet, where Serena's "indiscretions" are covered up with make up and secret meetings with the principal so she doesn't get suspended, where the bandages on Eric's wrists are concealed with an imaginary trip to Miami, it's not strange that lies become familiar.
Even though they don't like it, even though they make an effort to find something solid to hold onto, the Van der Woodsens fall into their own traps over and over again. Eric isn't surprised when Serena insists that she has found true love and a way to authenticity in Dan Humphrey and at the same time tries to keep from him as much of her own past as she can. He's not surprised either when their mother swears she will not fall again into this never-ending cycle and then starts to plan her wedding to a man with only one facial expression and a large bank account, a man who apparently still believes in Lily Van der Woodsen's fairytales.
He shouldn't be surprised either when he finds himself caught up in the same web of lies and pretence. When he assures Dr. Miller that everything is going great at home, when in front of his classmates he pretends that his antidepressants are just regular vitamins, when he acts as though he didn't see that Serena is in trouble again or when he gives his mother a smile and congratulates her on her upcoming wedding – one way or another, he is part of the same vicious circle. Whether he likes it or not, it's in his genes, in the very air he has breathed during his entire life.
Perhaps that's why when he catches a glimpse of something real, he tries to hold onto it, to build something tangible to oppose to all the gloss and varnish in his world.
Like his new camaraderie with Chuck, for instance.
Against popular belief, Eric is not naïve. He is perfectly aware that Chuck chooses to spend so much time with him as of late partly because he's been rather lonely ever since Nate stopped talking to him and partly because to him the notion of a family is a novelty and the role of a big brother is one he never thought he would be able to play. Eric is aware of this, but he also realizes that doesn't mean that Chuck's interest in forming a friendship with him is less sincere.
He is probably the most manipulative, twisted and unscrupulous person in the entire Upper East Side (as long as Georgina Sparks and Grandma Cece are out of town, of course) but he is also the most honest guy Eric has ever dealt with. Chuck doesn't try to conceal his true nature, he doesn't attempt to cover up with sparkling gloss and a forced smile the ugliness around him. Eric doesn't have to look like he is happy 24/7 when he is with Chuck, he doesn't have to pretend that he cares about everyone's feelings, he doesn't have to hide that he can also be selfish at times. It's a relief to get away from the image of a fragile but eternally understanding boy his mother and sister have built for him, a relief to be able to laugh at jokes in poor taste and to make fun of the scars on his wrists, without worrying that it might be read as another sign of depression.
Chuck doesn't treat him as though he were made of glass, he doesn't look at him as though he were a freak. Perhaps there are times when he is a tad patronizing, perhaps he takes his self-imposed role of a big brother a little too seriously, but Eric must admit that is much more fun to have an older brother than a sister, even though he will never tell Serena that.
Of course that, like everything else in this world, Chuck's friendship comes with a price.
'It's a façade, you can tell from miles away. Didn't you notice how she looks at him, as though she were looking through him? And he practically asks for her permission to hold her hand… I bet my Piaget watch that they're not getting laid.'
Eric frowns. They're comfortably sitting in the Bass' limo, drinking a Starbucks cappuccino each (Chuck's with a good dose of whiskey, naturally) and looking through the tinted windows how Blair Waldorf kisses Carter Baizen one more time. There's such amount of sugar in the smiles they exchange that Eric is convinced he will die of diabetes if he keeps watching them long enough.
'I thought you no longer had that watch… Didn't Carter steal it?'
Chuck dismisses this with a wave of his hand.
'It's a manner of speech. But look, just look at them. It's the fakest thing I've ever seen since Hazel got her nose job.'
'Which ended up crooked', adds Eric, letting out a less-than-kind chuckle. Chuck, though, doesn't smile. His brow is so furrowed that Eric is almost convinced that it will stay that way forever and his eyes never leave the couple across the street.
The knuckles in the hand that's holding the paper cup have turned white and Eric hopes he doesn't end up tearing apart the cup and pouring the coffee on him… Although with Chuck's current state of mind it is possible that he wouldn't even feel the steaming coffee on his pants.
'Chuck, why don't you let it go? If we stay here for long Blair will notice and she'll probably get a restraining order against you.'
'She won't,' he replies in his most characteristic self-assured tone. 'Don't you realize that this is precisely what she's aiming to?'
'You mean she wants you to follow her around like a psycho stalker?'
'No… Well, I don't know.' He hesitates and for the first time he tears his gaze away from the happy couple and fixes it upon Eric, who is surprised by the gleam of hope in his brown eyes. 'Do you think that she could be doing all this just to piss me off? That she's doing this because of me?'
Eric knows he's threading on treacherous waters, because although Chuck Bass might not be someone remotely likely to open up about his feelings, one should be blind and deaf not to notice certain things.
What makes him wonder – again – about Nate Archibald's IQ, but that's another story.
'Does it look like I've got the slightest clue of what goes inside Blair Waldorf's head?'
Chuck has to admit that Eric's got a point, probably because there are times when not even him can figure out what's hiding underneath the girl's velvet ribbons and sharp smiles.
After a while, Chuck gulps what's left of his cappuccino, which is probably freezing cold by now, and sinks into the leather seat.
'You're right. It's pointless to keep watching them. I'm not gonna figure out anything like this.'
Eric lets out an almost imperceptible sigh of relief… until Chuck turns to look at him with a rather sinister smirk on his face.
'But you could do it for me.'
The boy straightens in his seat and almost drops his own coffee.
'Chuck, whatever it is that you're thinking, I don't reckon…'
'Don't worry, it's neither illegal nor hazardous to your physical integrity,' he replies calmly. 'I just want you to follow them and see what they do when no one's watching.'
Eric arches an eyebrow. He is starting to reconsider the so-called advantages of having a brand new big brother.
'And you say it's not hazardous to my physical integrity? What do you think Blair will do to me when she realizes that I'm following her?'
Chuck rolls his eyes.
'Blair won't risk getting a nail broken to punch you. Besides, you're her best friend's little brother… and she likes you.'
Eric stares at him, his eyes wide open.
'I wouldn't be so sure of that…'
Before he can utter another word, though, Chuck opens the door on Eric's side of the limo and starts nudging him towards it.
'C'mon, Eric, it's just a little favor. After all, what are brothers for?'
Dr. Miller likes to tell him that he should be more firm about his decisions. That he cannot keep allowing others to make his choices for him just because he doesn't like confrontations, that sometimes people have to stand up to their beloved ones in order to obtain their independency. She says it won't be the end of the world if he ever tells someone "no".
While he watches the limo disappear around the corner, Eric wonders why he keeps making his mother waste five hundred dollars per session a week just to listen to some rather obvious advice that he will never take anyway.
Considering it is a spring afternoon, the weather is freaking cold and Eric is chilled to the bone. He had to put his scarf in his schoolbag because it was way too notorious, and he pulls up the collar of his jacket in a futile attempt to keep the frosty wind at bay, imitating Chuck's style without realizing it. He could just send Chuck to hell and go home, where central heating and a comfortable sofa are waiting for him… but instead he keeps walking several meters behind Blair Waldorf and Carter Baizen, hiding his face each time it seems one of them might look over their shoulder. Much to his own annoyance, Eric has to admit that the newest UES' Sweethearts are piquing his curiosity.
They are walking hand in hand, their steps in synch, and at first they look like any other teenaged couple he's ever seen… but there are tiny details that seem to be off. For instance, the distance between them. Even though they're holding hands, they walk as far away from each other as they possibly can. On the other hand, they barely acknowledge each other. Blair seems more interested in either window shopping or in enthusiastically greeting any acquaintances they run into, whereas her brand new boyfriend is clearly not the focus of her attention. Not like Carter seems to mind it at all, considering he doesn't even attempt to hide it when he checks out other girls.
This last detail puzzles Eric when he realizes that Blair not only refrains from chastising her boyfriend for his behavior, but doesn't even seem to mind at all. Knowing Blair as he does, and being aware of the asphyxiating-possessive-paranoid nature of her relationship with Nate, it just doesn't make sense. Either she's very certain of Carter's feelings for her… or she doesn't care about them at all.
They reach Blair's building and Eric ducks, hiding his face while pretending to be tying his shoelaces. He watches them get into the building by the corner of his eye and wonders what he should do next. Technically, he's already done what Chuck asked of him and even though he hasn't figured out what's going on, that's not really his problem. His mission here is already over.
And yet… Eric knows himself better than Dr. Miller thinks and he is perfectly aware that curiosity might be one of his worst flaws. Serena and his mother would be horrified if they ever learnt the number of things Eric manages to find out just by stopping to listen through the door at an opportune moment. Now that he thinks of it, perhaps it isn't so outrageous that there was a time when everybody seemed to believe he was Gossip Girl.
Eric stands up and glances at his watch. He knows this building's security guard better than he knows the guy at the Palace Hotel and he is certain that Dorota won't be a problem. He hesitates, glancing at his watch again. Fifteen minutes should be more than enough.
He lounges against a wall across the street and for once he wishes he smoked, because it would be an inconspicuous way to occupy himself. Too bad, he mutters to himself, and then he thinks of pulling out his cell. It's as good as an excuse as any other and for lack of something better to do, he checks Gossip Girl's blog. He grimaces when he scrolls down the never-ending list of ridiculous rumors on both Blair and Jenny that seem to fill the blog. When he sees an entry comparing the two girls' new boyfriends something twists in his stomach, something that could be called guilt and that burns worse than ever when he sees Jenny's radiant smile.
She doesn't deserve something like this and you know it, says his conscience's rather irritating voice and for once he wishes he were like Chuck without any sort of conscience whatsoever, even though deep down he knows that's not necessarily true.
He fiddles with the cell, wondering what to do. Seeing Jenny's happiness these last few days has been a kick in the gut and each time he sees her grinning like a Cheshire cat Eric has to suppress the urge to scream.
And yet, you didn't dare to say anything to her, did you?
He really hates his conscience.
Eric Van der Woodsen isn't a particularly brave person. He has his moments, like everybody else, but the truth is that he usually hesitates too much before making his move, thinking over and over again about each possible course of action and more often than not he gets cold-feet before doing anything. The few times he did something drastic in his life – telling Blair and Jenny the truth about his fake trip to Miami, escaping from Ostroff Center, even grabbing the razor from the toilette's shelf and slicing his wrists with it – was always a spur of the moment thing, acting before he had time to stop himself, not allowing himself a second thought… because he knew that if he did, he would never dare.
His fingers search in his cell's directory the letter 'J', and he dials the number without even stopping to sort out what he'll say. Jenny deserves to know the truth and he's sick of keeping his mouth shut, sick of chickening out each time he tries to talk to her. He will just blurt it out and deal with the consequences later.
His call goes straight to voice mail. He shouldn't be surprised, considering his inherent bad luck and that he's barely been able to talk to Jenny this last couple of weeks. If both Dan and Mr. Humphrey hadn't assured him that lately they weren't seeing Jenny anymore than he did, Eric could have thought she was avoiding him.
If she knew the truth, you can be damn well sure she would be avoiding you.
He tries to push away that thought and his gaze fixes once more upon the building across the street. Neither Carter nor Blair have come out yet and Eric wonders whether he should wait a little more. Will he really dare to put into action what he's just thought? Or will he get cold feet as usual? He glances at his watch again, perhaps to gather some courage, and he feels his cell vibrate in his pocket. He pulls it out at once and almost drops it in his hurry to open it, but once he sees whose message it is he closes it, furious. What a nerve…
Maybe it's because of the sudden rage that fills him, maybe because he's so tired of spending his entire life waiting for something to happen, or perhaps it's because he's freezing to death, either way he decides to throw caution to the winds and crosses the street.
The security guard recognizes him at once and lets him in. As for Dorota, a lucky twist of fate favors him so she doesn't see him enter the penthouse. Eric manages to go all the way upstairs without being seen and when he reaches Blair's bedroom he stops on his tracks, until he sees that the door is ajar and his confidence returns to him. Blair might be many things but save for the occasional night at Victrola, exhibitionism is not one of her traits, so whatever she and Carter are doing in there in the very least they'll have their clothes on.
He walks in without knocking and stops dead on his tracks, stunned. Carter and Blair are in opposite sides of the room, he is watching TV while she sits in front of her computer typing really fast. They don't look at each other or speak at any rate, as though they didn't even know the other one was there at all.
Both of them turn to look at him, Blair's eyes widening in surprise, Carter looking indifferent.
'Eric! What a… surprise. How are you?'
'Er… fine, thanks. And you?'
A definitively awkward silence settles between them. Blair turns her chair so her back is at the computer and she can focus her attention on Eric, her hands crossed on her lap. There's an expectant look in her eyes and he is startled when he realizes that she's surely expecting an explanation regarding his presence in her room.
'Um… Can I have a word with you?'
'Sure', replies Blair, clearly intrigued. She looks at Carter for the very first time and her voice is overdosed with saccharine when she says: 'Honey, would you mind…?'
'Of course not,' he answers automatically. 'I gotta see my father anyway, so…'
'Oh, sure, don't make him wait. See you tomorrow?'
'Sure, sure,' he says as he gathers his stuff. 'Call you later.'
Eric makes a mental note when he sees that Carter doesn't kiss Blair goodbye and she doesn't seem to care. He doesn't know how Chuck will interpret it, but he'll certainly love to hear about it. He snaps back into reality when he sees that Blair is growing impatient and, in a fit of panic, Eric blurts out the first thing that comes to his mind.
'I'm worried over Serena.'
This definitely gets Blair's full attention, and he feels an inconvenient pang of guilt when he sees the concern on her face.
'What happened? Is she in trouble again?'
'I… I'm not sure,' Eric admits, sitting on the edge of her bed. 'It's just that a couple of weeks ago she began to act all weird, remember? She even lost the SATs and she'd been studying for entire weeks…'
Blair looks pensive.
'Yes, that was quite odd. I mean, if we were talking about Serena b.C,' Eric recognized the term "b.C" as "before Connecticut", where his sister ran away to when she decided to lock herself up in a boarding school, 'I wouldn't have been so surprised. I'd thought she had gone for some drinks the night before and the hangover was too strong for her to sit for the exam, but…'
'Serena doesn't do that kind of stuff anymore,' Eric finishes and she nods.
'Maybe she got in a fight with Cabbage Patch… No, he didn't know what was up with her either.' Blair bites her lip and fixes the ribbon on her head, which was perfectly in place before she touched it. 'To be honest, I've no idea. But she's back to normal now, isn't she?'
'Well… yeah,' Eric admits reluctantly. Blair gives him a smile.
'Then whatever this was about has already vanished.' She leans forward to place a hand on his knee and her tone turns almost motherly. 'I promise I'll keep an eye on her, but I don't think there's anything you should worry about, okay?'
'Thanks, Blair,' he says, feeling like crap. Blair straightens in her seat and after a while, she frowns.
'That was it, Eric? Or is there something else you wanted to tell me?'
Too late he realizes that he's remained sitting still on her bed instead of making his exit in time. The girl's brown eyes dig into his as though they were Zonds trying to pass through his skull to see what's underneath. Eric tries his best not to swallow and he lets escape the first thing that comes to his lips:
'Well, it's … It's Jenny.'
He knows it's a colossal mistake even before Blair stiffens and her expression turns as closed off as a security vault's door. The war over the Met steps and the Constance Billards' throne has turned ruthless and also bizarre since Gossip Girl's blog became the latest battlefield. Serena has already warned him that it's pointless trying to make Blair see reason, as the girl blames – perhaps not without good reason – Jenny for her fall from grace. Eric knows this, as he also knows that meddling will do him no good, that there's a good reason he avoids confrontations when he can… and yet, maybe because it hasn't left his thoughts during the entire week, perhaps because his guilt makes him feel like he owes her something, Eric raises his chin and says:
'I think you're making a mistake, Blair. Jenny is not… Jenny wasn't born to deal with the UES' lifestyle.'
Blair raises her eyebrows and her lips curve into a slightly sinister smirk, but Eric's been living long enough under the same roof as Chuck Bass and he's not easily intimidated.
'No one doubts that, Eric. That's why I want to send her back to where she belongs: the bottom of the food chain, right next to Wal-Mart's sales.'
'That's not what I meant, Blair,' he replies, standing on his feet to start walking around the room, perhaps because he feels nervous, perhaps because he is annoyed or maybe just fed up. 'I mean that she isn't like the rest of the girls at Constance Billards, like the boys at St. Jude's or even our parents. She wasn't raised like them, learning to lie before being able to speak properly, she wasn't taught to scheme when she was at kindergarten or to backstab her classmates at elementary school.'
He passes a hand through his hair, messing it more than usual and pulls at the cuffs of his shirt, an unconscious gesture he acquired during his stay at the Ostroff Center even though there are no longer any bandages to hide.
'She's different, Blair. Maybe Jenny started this, maybe not, I don't know, but I'm sure she has no idea what she's getting herself into. She wasn't born for this, she… She is not like you or me.'
Eric, tired of walking around aimlessly, sinks into the edge of the bed again. He's out of breath and there's a whirlwind running through his head after this bout of unexpected honesty, after finally admitting out loud that even though it bothers him, he's just like Blair and everyone else.
When she finally deigns to speak, Blair's voice could easily cut through steel and pulverize it.
'Do you really believe that, Eric? Do you really think that Jenny is not as capable of cheating and betraying as any of us? Let me tell you something, and for the record I'm only bothering to do this just out of concern for your well-being.'
At these words Eric looks up, incredulous, but Blair is absolutely serious, her body stiff, her lips pressed into a tight line, her face somber.
'Jenny is willing to do anything just to climb up the social ladder, Eric. She doesn't care whether she has to lie or walk over someone else if she can get what she wants. I know her type well, and there's nothing they won't do in order to win, don't let her deceive you with her goody-goody smile.'
'And yet,' Eric replies, his voice frigorific, 'I can't picture Jenny making up a fantasy relationship just to score a few popularity points at school.'
His are words spoken at random, a shot in the dark that has no more basis than the paranoid suspicions provoked by Chuck's jealously… words that manage to hit the target all the same because Blair flinches. A millisecond later she's composed herself, but they both know it's already too late. They stare at each other for a moment, until dawning comprehension shines in the girl's brown eyes.
'Chuck sent you, didn't he?'
He could lie. He could make up another excuse, he could just deny it or turn around and leave without providing the satisfaction of an answer. But Eric is sick, though, sick of the tangled web his life has been reduced to, a web in which each thread is a different lie that twists and entangles with all the others.
'Why do you ask me what you already know? Is it not because of Chuck that you're putting up this charade?'
It's the first time Blair doesn't hold his gaze, instead, she turns her chair and fixes her eyes upon the computer screen.
'Chuck Bass is not my main concern.' She starts to type something when Eric snorts. Her fingers stop moving and she deigns to glance over her shoulder, looking incredulous like every time anyone dares to challenge her. 'You don't believe me?'
Eric shrugs and stands up.
'To be honest, it's rather hard to do so but, you know what? I don't care. You can keep tearing each other apart as much as you like. See you, Blair.'
He's almost reached the elevator's doors when Blair, now standing on the stairs, an inscrutable expression on her face, stops him.
'It wasn't me who started this, Eric.'
She doesn't specify whether she's talking about either Jenny or Chuck but it doesn't really matter.
'I know that, Blair but, don't you think it's better to put an end to it before…?'
He doesn't end the sentence because he can find his answer in Blair's hardened eyes. Tired, he waves his hand goodbye and steps into the elevator. For a fleeting instant before the elevator's doors shut close, Eric could swear that he sees the girl's cool façade waver… or perhaps it's merely his imagination.
Apparently Chuck is too excited over his father's upcoming bachelor party in Monte Carlo and he doesn't seem to pay much attention when Eric tells him a shortened version of his conversation with Blair. He goes from one place to another bossing his valet around, telling him the precise way he wants his designers suits placed inside the suitcase, looking for his missing sunglasses or regretting aloud that Lily didn't grant Eric permission to go with them. Eric himself doesn't feel that much regret. He'll miss Chuck a little, sure, but he won't miss Bart so much and anyway, he suspects that the kind of fun that his stepbrother hopes to find in Monaco is really not his thing.
Only when the valet has left the room to pick up one more suit from the dryers, Chuck distractedly begins to organize his passport and documents and asks in an almost nonchalant manner:
'So, she didn't deny that it was all a charade, did she? And you said they weren't even making out when you walked into her bedroom?'
Eric sighs and confirms it once more. Chuck lets out a malicious chuckle, without looking up yet.
'Always knew that Carter Baizen was a moron. If I were with Blair Waldorf in her bedroom, you can bet we wouldn't be watching TV…'
When he realizes what a dangerous turn this conversation is taking, Chuck abruptly falls silent. He risks one glance at Eric by the corner of his eye, who keeps his face neutral, and looking somewhat relieved Chuck starts talking about all the women he expects to bed in Monaco. Eric nods at appropriate intervals, perfectly aware that even when he's miles away Chuck will find the time to check Gossip Girl's blog obsessively, looking for any sign of Blair, and that none of the women he likes to brag about will have brown curls or ruby lips.
Chuck leaves even though his presence is still felt in the daily phone calls Serena and Eric get. They can't help but burst into laughter when they see that they've gotten yet another call from him, and their laughter tries to conceal all the things none of them wants to say aloud. The Van der Woodsen siblings know that the fantasy of a Norman Rockwell family that Chuck's has built in his mind – assuming, of course, that good old Norman ever painted families that lived in penthouses and had a fondness for botox and whiskey – is meant to crash and burn because they have already walked down this road before and they know how the story ends once divorce papers are signed. Perhaps because for once they see Chuck excited over something that's neither illegal nor immoral they don't have the heart to crush his childish fantasy of family meals a la Ingalls, perhaps because they also need to believe that this time they're building a relationship over something more solid than their mother's sentimental swings. In any case, even Serena obliges when Chuck decides to act as the older brother (even though she was born two months before him) and Eric realizes that Chuck's concern over her has something to do with his sister's weird behavior a few weeks ago. It should be odd the relief he feels at knowing that, whatever it is that happened to Serena, their stepbrother is aware of it and is willing to lend her a hand. It should be odd, but it's not, because Eric has learnt that despite his many flaws, there are certain things one can implicitly trust Chuck Bass with.
Not only for Serena does Chuck find time to worry while he's supposed to be having fun in Monaco. Strangely enough – or perhaps not, because Eric should have realized that he can't fool him as easily as everybody else – Chuck doesn't ask him about Blair; instead, he wants to know how Eric himself is doing and there's real concern in his voice.
'Are you sure you're alright? Because you sound quite weird and you didn't look very well those last few days I was in New York.'
Eric is surprised that with his paranoid obsession with Blair and Baizen Chuck managed to notice that the world around him kept turning, but maybe he should start to give him a little more credit. No matter how self-absorbed he might be, Chuck has always been sharper than Serena and perhaps Eric should consider it the next time he attempts to hide something from him.
'I… I didn't think you'd noticed. You didn't say anything.'
Eric could swear that he can almost see Chuck shrug at the other end of the line and with an ocean among them.
'I figures that if you wanted to talk about it, you would.'
And that's why the relationship between Eric and Chuck is so incredibly simple when they live in a fucked-up world.
'Is it about the boy from Ostroff? Because, well, that's not exactly my area of expertise…'
Eric can feel how his cheeks start to incinerate and is deeply grateful that Chuck can't see him, although to be honest his stepbrother sounds as uncomfortable as he feels.
'Look, if you want to get your revenge, I can think of something… Although I'd rather you waited for me to come back before taking any actions. Scheming is just not your thing. No offense.'
'None taken, don't worry' Eric replies, his lips curving into a smile that vanishes at once when a familiar limo stops in front of the school's entrance steps. The door opens to reveal Jenny Humphrey, looking more radiant than ever. 'Don't start with the scheming just yet, I think… I think I can handle this on my own.'
'Are you sure?' Chuck asks, and it's not that hard for Eric to imagine him with a glass of scotch in one hand, a girl on his lap and his right eyebrow arching.
'Sure,' says Eric through gritted teeth as he watches, along with the entire student body, how on the entrance steps Jenny and Asher share a kiss as Hollywood-esque as the one Blair and Carter are sharing against a pillar.
He says goodbye to Chuck and closes off his cell more forcefully than necessary, bile burning in his throat when Jenny kisses Asher goodbye one last time and runs towards her friends, who surround her at once as though she were their queen bee. Asher doesn't get into the limo immediately, a colossal mistake because when he looks up his gaze meets Eric's. His eyes only widen slightly in surprise, and the asshole has the nerve to wave in his direction.
Eric thinks of himself as a tolerant kind of person. He's probably not as tolerant as his mother and Serena seem to believe when they say that he's incapable of getting angry or holding a grudge, but tolerant nonetheless, never prone to anger or rage. When he turns around and walks in long strides towards Jenny, though, it's a miracle that none of his veins explodes and stains the floor with the red that invades his thoughts.
He doesn't even ponder on what he'll tell Jenny, how he'll manage to tell her the truth without hurting her. He's sick, sick of mirrors and screens, of white lies that cut deeper than razors and sick of the glossy make-up used to cover up the putrefaction underneath. The last thing he ever wanted was to cause Jenny any harm, but he has to pull off the veil that covers her eyes before it's too late, before she discovers on her own the deceiving structure on which relationships in the UES are built.
Eric doesn't want to admit that Blair Waldorf is right, but when a giggle and a ridiculous theory escape Jenny's lips, when she turns her back to him after throwing a 'call me back later, OK?' over her shoulder, he is forced to admit that even though she wasn't born for deceit and simulation, Jenny Humphrey has already learnt to fool herself with the same skill as any UES-sider.
Too upset to remain standing there, putting up with the stares and giggles he receives from Jenny's new clique, Eric turns around and runs down the entrance steps. Several people glance at him with curiosity and if he looked up he would see how Blair pushes Carter away to look at him with concern; he would see Dan Humphrey striding across the courtyard and walk a few meters behind him. He doesn't look up and he doesn't see either of them.
He doesn't know what he'll do next and he doesn't care. He's never skipped school before but he can't stay another second in that place.
He hasn't even turned around the corner when he feels a strong grip on his arm and before he can react, his back is pressed against the cold wall, there's a pair of sickeningly familiar eyes staring at him and he can feel his warm breath on his face, a few centimeters away from his.
'You didn't reply any of my messages.'
And what did you expect, asshole? As though the pretty charade of a normal couple he's putting up wasn't bad enough, he also had the great idea of singling out Eric's best friend as his co-star. No, that's not adding insult to injury at all. Eric doesn't tell him that, because he doesn't want to admit that underneath his fury there's also a piercing ache and why not, jealously as well, because he never said he was any better than Chuck and a fake love affair doesn't hurt any less.
'Aren't you worried that someone might see us? It's a public place and if I'm not mistaken you've got a girlfriend.'
Perhaps he should say to his credit that Asher doesn't even attempt to look over his shoulder at the people walking down the street, but Eric is not willing to grant him anything. He tries to push him away, but Asher is not willing to let his prey escape and when he leans forward to kiss him, perhaps Eric is forced to admit that this is not about physical strength, because his own will seems to have fallen to the sewers.
In a world where nothing and no one is what they seem to be at a first glance, where people make a solid effort to paint a beautiful fiction over what is already rotten, it's hard to distinguish what's real from what's fake. Eric experiences an unexpected clarity when he realizes that each lie is not just a thread of a web that gets more and more tangled, but that lies are also strong chains that tie and shatter everyone he knows – his mother, Serena, Asher, Chuck, Blair, Carter and even Jenny.
And he also realizes that, even though he hates it, even though it horrifies and disgusts him, he is as tangled and shackled by his own chains as any of them.