A/N: I couldn't get this out of my head. Read and review, please!
His niece flies into his arms trustingly and he can't quell his smile. "Happy birthday, Lia Rose," he says fondly, pulling back from her enthusiastic hug so that he can look her in the eye. He tucks her long, brown locks out of her face, giving him a clear view of her sparkling blue orbs. There was a bright-coloured ribbon in her hair, earlier, holding it back, but it doesn't surprise him that she's lost it.
"I'm five," she announces to him solemnly.
"You are," he agrees. "Do you feel different than you did when you were four?"
She considers it, rosebud lips puckered in thought. She's a captivating little girl, not just in her striking features but also in her near-perfectly balanced personality, and he can't deny that he adores her, despite her parentage. She gave him somewhat of an opportunity to practice fatherhood, to prove to himself that he was capable, and they've had a special bond since they first met.
"No," she finally declares, tilting her head as she regards him. Precociously, well-aware of the ways he spoils her, she asks: "Did you bring me presents?"
He smirks but doesn't have time to reply before her mother appears at their side, Lia's ten-month-old brother balanced on her hip. "Honey, that's not polite to ask," she berates her daughter breathlessly, stifling a smile of her own. She looks good; the weather in Dubai and motherhood both agree with her. She's always been a purposefully happy, easygoing person, but he's never seen her look so entirely, honestly content. Peaceful never really was a word he would have associated with her before.
"But Uncle Chuck always brings me presents."
"I know; you're very lucky. He loves you a lot."
He almost wants to protest the words, but he can't, not with his niece snuggled up to him, her head resting on his shoulder. Her mother, reading this internal conflict with the eyes of someone who's known him since childhood, smiles triumphantly, her eyes glittering.
"Hey, sis," he finally says instead. "You look well."
"You too, bro," she replies warmly, only the slightest bit of hesitation and sarcasm in the final word. "We're so happy you could come."
It's a bit misleading, the way she says we, but he lets it go. "Yes, well…you're always travelling to New York and we're never here…Blair really misses you…"
"Sure." The familiar glint of mischief in her eyes hasn't faded with her happiness; it's still there, sparkling away. "Blair misses me. More like you miss Lia."
"I miss you, too," her daughter chimes in earnestly, lifting her head to look at him.
Serena bites back a grin, swaying slightly on the spot as she glances at her son, dropping a kiss atop his tousled head of dirty blonde hair and holding him a bit closer. "Baby girl, it's your party; go make sure you've said assalaam alaikum to everybody, okay? And mushkoor for your gifts."
It's odd, hearing Arabic slip so naturally from his stepsister's lips, but then again, Serena's always been adaptable. She leans in to nuzzle her nose against Lia's, making her daughter giggle before she wiggles out of Chuck's arms and runs off.
They both watch her go, weaving her way through the crowds.
"She's growing up beautifully," he finally says, turning back to Serena.
She looks wistful as Erik squirms in her arms – no one was surprised when she named her son for her little brother, but his middle name did come as a shock. "Old enough for school." She directs her smile back to him, adding, "Your baby boy's getting big, too. I saw him earlier. We miss a lot, you know? Of each other's lives, of the kids'."
Chuck nods, jumping at the opportunity to say: "You should move back to the city."
"You know that's not possible, not right now." Their conversation veers this way nearly every time they speak, which is often, and she's visibly tired of it.
"Your mother misses you," he interjects, shamelessly playing the guilt card.
Her eyes flash, but her tone stays soft and steady. "If she wanted me in her life so badly she should have considered that years ago."
"You're still holding a grudge?" He arches his eyebrows, goading her. Serena's never been the kind of person to hang on to hard feelings and he's trying to force her to contradict him.
She sighs tiredly, rocking back and forth lightly on the balls of her feet. "There's no grudge. I love my mother, you know that. But she never considered me when she moved. It's not fair that I should have to uproot my whole life just because she misses me. And to have to uproot the lives of my children?" Serena shakes her head, clearly set in her decision. "No. I will not do to them what she did to me."
"If you won't move for your mother, then what about Nate? He's starting a family. I don't know why you'd ever move for Dan –" There is a pause while she rolls her eyes and pretends not to smile; " – but what about for Jenny? You two are close. She's getting married, did you know that?"
"Of course. We've talked to Nate. We're going to Jenny's wedding."
"And then you'll be right back here again. What about Blair? Your nephew? Your brother?"
"Brothers," she corrects him quietly. "Plural." And for once, there is no sarcasm, no playful reluctance in acknowledging him as family. "Chuck…I miss all of you, very much, but my life is here. My husband's life is here. Our life as a family is here," she tells him firmly, gesturing to the expansive lawn and the buildings that compose the Baizen estate.
"Don't use that as an excuse," he says harshly. "You never let anyone dictate your life, Serena, it's not how you work. He could just as easily work in New York. Come home. If he loves you, he'll follow you. And if he doesn't follow you…"
Her eyes are icy. "I know you dislike him," she hisses, "but you're going to have to learn to accept that he's my husband. This isn't some fling, Chuck. He factors into every decision I make, and I factor into his, and we both want to live here. He's committed to me the same way you're committed to Blair, and you better find it in yourself to understand that soon, or I swear to god –"
She's cut off by Erik's whining; he's sensed that she's upset.
"Shh, baby, I'm sorry," she murmurs, stroking his hair. He pouts and points to Chuck questioningly. He's got the same blue eyes as his sister and Chuck can feel his anger melting away. "Want to hold him?" Serena asks quietly, her eyes warm and ocean-blue once again like those of her offspring.
He nods, accepting his nephew into his arms with a sigh. "Listen, sis," he begins.
"Serena!" Blair is moving toward them holding two glasses of wine. She touches her friend's elbow and smiles brightly. "I've hardly seen you all night, come talk to me." Shooting her husband a smile, she asks, "You can entertain your nephew for a little while, can't you, darling? Our boy is sleeping in the nursery," she tells him before he has a chance to ask.
The hope in her eyes is all it takes for him to agree. "Of course."
His stepsister doesn't take her eyes off of him. "Actually, I was just going to take him over to his father." She meets Chuck's eyes, testing him.
"Chuck can do that," Blair says instantly, anxious to get Serena alone so they can gossip. "Can't you?" she says for emphasis as she turns to Chuck.
With a little more difficulty, he repeats: "Of course."
Blair's smile is warm and loving as she hooks her arm through Serena's and guides her friend away, looking for a quiet place to catch up. They fall into one another so easily, no matter how much time they're spent apart; they're still S. and B., blonde and brown hair bouncing against their shoulders like it did when they were little girls. They love each other, they're family. The years and the distance have somehow managed to bring them even closer because they refuse so adamantly to be torn apart.
Chuck and Carter, on the other hand, have simply grown more adept at avoiding one another over the years. It's really very skilful, but their wives don't appreciate it. They're both stubborn men, unwilling to make the first move toward forgiveness: an apology, or an explanation. Carter has always been scornful of Chuck's relationship with Blair, having encountered it first during Blair's brief breakdown and basing all of his assumptions off of her opinion of him then. And Chuck, on his part, has never trusted or even remotely liked the other man. It would be possible to find some way to be civil to him if Carter had only messed with him, but he's screwed over Nate and taken advantage of Blair, and most horrifyingly, has married and procreated with Chuck's sister, and in doing so managed to convince her that he's actually a good man. Chuck isn't very good at admitting that he loves people, but Serena is perhaps his oldest and dearest friend other than Nathaniel, and she's family, and he does…love her. He loves her and she deserves much better.
He makes the obligatory trek across the lawn to where Carter is sitting in a chair, his business associates drifting away. His eyebrows fly up when he sees Chuck approaching, and they stare at one another for a moment. Finally, Chuck kicks the chair next to Carter's a couple inches further away and sits down.
"Serena asked me to bring him over to you," he explains, to clarify that he would never approach the other man unless he had a valid reason.
Carter smiles fondly at his son, reaching over to tickle his belly. "He seems pretty happy with you."
Chuck narrows his eyes. "And you seem…happy," he notes. Unable to help himself, he arches an eyebrow and asks, "Is Lia not the only one getting gifts from Serena today?"
Carter chuckles, hiding his laugh in his drink, which makes Chuck think that he's right.
"Honestly…I'm torn," he comments lightly. "I'm not sure if I want details; she's my sister."
Carter arches an eyebrow, meeting Chuck's gaze for what might be the first time in months, or years. "There's a first time for everything." Well-acquainted with Chuck's protective nature regarding Serena, he adds, "That's not it, anyway."
"Then what has made you so…gleeful?" he demands disdainfully.
Carter laughs again, and Erik beams at the sound. "Your sister trusts me," he tells Chuck.
Wondering why he'd ever decided to strike up this conversation, Chuck sighs and rolls his eyes. "Baizen, I heard rumours that you were smart, but apparently they weren't true." He pauses to let the insult sink in before he extrapolates: "My sister, for whatever insane reasons she has, has always trusted you."
"Not fully," Carter counters easily.
Irritated, Chuck scowls. "Why would she have married you if she didn't fully trust you?" he bites out.
"Look. Chuck," the other man says hesitantly, using his first name to demonstrate the seriousness of what he's about to say. "Serena and I…we've known each other for a long time. And what I feel for her, what I've always felt for her…it's almost embarrassing, the extent of it."
After a moment, he nods. They both know that he feels the same way about Blair.
"I would do, and I will do, anything for her. She's always known that I have feelings for her, and she's…she's let me see sides of her that most people aren't privy to. She's trusted me in a lot of ways. For a long time, I was the only one who knew she was looking…for Keith," he adds quietly, his eyes solemn. "It took a while, and a lot of complications, but we fell in love, we got married, we had our kids. But there's a part of her that wasn't completely committed to it – or really, a part of her that thought that I wasn't completely committed to it."
Chuck thinks about saying rightly so, but he holds the words back.
"It faded, the more time I spent with her, the longer we were with one another. I could see how it went away. The last time I really saw it make a comeback, the last time I saw her so vulnerable, was the day she told me she was pregnant with Lia." He holds Chuck's gaze. "She sees Keith in me, and it terrifies her. I was such a nomad when we were younger; it didn't matter that I always came back to her, it mattered that I always left again. She let herself love me, she said I do, but there was always a part of her that was scared."
"And…now?" Chuck's voice is uncharacteristically soft, aware of the sensitivity of the issue.
Carter's gaze drifts across the lawn until it lands on his wife, who is sitting close to Chuck's, their heads bent close together. Chuck follows his eyes, and the women feel their gazes, glancing upward. Surprised smiles light up both their faces when they see their husbands willingly engaged in conversation; Serena grins warmly and winks at them both.
"And now…she knows that I'm staying. I've proven it to her; I'm still here. She knows that I'm…dedicated to us. She knows this is for good. She trusts me," he reiterates, still watching her.
Chuck swallows hard, digesting the words. "And you…you never gave up on her, you loved her anyway. That's…admirable," he admits.
Lia comes dashing toward them, her feet bare and her dress wrinkled, climbing onto her father's lap. "Look; the sky is blue but the clouds are pink," she informs them, pointing upward.
Carter smoothes her hair out of her face, presses a kiss to the crown of her head. "Do you know what that means, Li?" She shakes her head and he shifts her body on his lap so that she can lean into him more comfortably. "It means it's going to be a nice day tomorrow."
Chuck watches wordlessly, Erik dozing on his lap, while Carter explains to his daughter the words of old sailors' tales about red skies and what they mean for the weather. Carter's a good father, he realizes with a start. He's always credited everything he loves about Lia to her mother, but it's a joint effort, every bit as much from Carter as it is from Serena. Lia keeps up a steady train of questioning as she cuddles up to her father, her eyelashes fluttering as her eyes fall closed. Just as she begins to drift off, she asks for her song.
Carter smirks softly and whispers the words of the final verse – the rest of it's kind of inappropriate – of that Simon and Garfunkel, Cecelia, close to daughter's ear. She loves me again, I fall on the floor and I'm laughing…Lia smiles in her half-asleep state.
"She's worth it," Carter finally says to Chuck, quietly, as both his children nap.
He clears his throat, seeing much more of Carter in Lia's face and personality now that he takes a closer look. "Serena…she told me it was your idea. Erik Bartholomew."
Carter nods neutrally, unwilling to make a big deal out of it. "Bart was good to her. He deserved the recognition much more than Keith did. And it's your middle name, after all."
The words settle around them for a moment, sinking into the thick air that descends in Dubai at nightfall. Chuck swallows hard once again.
"What's yours?" he asks, clarifying: "Your middle name." He smirks softly. "You know, for…future reference."
Serena is standing in front of them before Carter has a chance to reply, whispering to her children that it's time for the fireworks Lia wanted so badly at her birthday party, gently rousing them. She smiles at Chuck as she gathers Erik into her arms, blowing her husband a kiss over her shoulder. Carter follows her toward the crowd waiting for the fireworks show to begin, leaving Chuck without an answer. But he doesn't feel troubled; he's got a feeling that there will be plenty of future conversations in which he can find out the answer.
Blair finds him, their son nestled in her arms with bleary eyes, and he guides them toward the crowd to find a chair. Serena and Carter's lawn chairs are roomy and cushioned, Blair sits half on his lap, their two-year-old comfortably settled in their arms. The fireworks start to a chorus of oohs and aahs; Lia's entire face is lit up like it's the best thing she's ever seen in her five short years old life, the fireworks reflected in her eyes.
Serena and Carter stand close to one another, a child still in each of their arms, as their guests and their children enjoy the show, face to face, sandwiching their family together. Taking advantage of everyone else's distraction, Carter whispers something in her ear that makes her smile, and they kiss over Lia and Erik's heads.
They look so together and in love. They look like everything Chuck has ever felt for Blair, and he feels himself soften, pressing a kiss to his wife's cheek. Truthfully, he could never really begrudge anyone that perfect kind of happiness.
Not even his worst enemy.