WARNING: some parts of this are quite brutal – please skip the first paragraph if you are squeamish or shouldn't be reading this type of thing for whatever reason. It's not the worst I've ever written, but it's not entirely pleasant.
In saying that, this update is quite long – I think it was my guilt trying to find a way to make up for the ridiculous length of time I've allowed to pass without updating this. Apologies.

Hope you enjoy…


Chapter Seven: If I Ever Leave This World Alive

"Tell me, Bass," the man says, sauntering into the room, arms outstretched as he welcomes an answer to his next words, "Is your daughter stupid? Or does she simply not care about what I'm going to do to you if she doesn't give me what I want?"

Chuck slowly lifts his head to meet the man's eyes, and before he can help himself he's reciting a line he uses to tease his family: "I want, doesn't get."

He curses himself, his big mouth; even his inability to stop his thoughts from straying to them when he's stuck in this place. It's tainted now, that one line he shared with his children, his wife; this place has ruined it. If he's not careful, it'll ruin them all.

"Nice. Is that what you teach those kids of yours?" is the smarmy retort to that. "You should've spent a little more time teaching them about discipline, then maybe we'd have this big sorry mess all cleaned up by now."

There's a clamoring of footsteps as more figures pour into the already cramped space to surround them; like a swarm of locusts, they're eager for destruction, keen to get in and get out, repeat the process whenever they're called upon.

"I gave her specific instructions: give me some money, dismantle a few companies, nothing particularly difficult, you know, not too strenuous; so why does she refuse to listen, hmm?"

"Maybe she just doesn't like the sound of your voice," his wife snaps, glaring at the creature on bended knee before them. "It does get rather grating after a while."

"That's funny. She's funny," the other awards her for her effort, nodding in recognition, a hard smile twisting his lips.

He pretends to be amused by this, and then backhands Chuck across the face.

Blair gasps at the sudden severity of the move and lunges forward, so he grapples to find his wife's hand in the darkness and interlaces his fingers through hers, tugging on her arm to stop her.

In place of his wife's anger, he finds himself laughing. The blood gurgles in his throat; he's drowning in this place.

"Mmm, feisty," is the comment that's directed at his wife then, complete with a lick of the lips that makes Chuck's skin crawl and Blair recoil in obvious disgust. "She's her mother's daughter then, huh?"

Chuck growls low in his throat, baring his teeth and causing the other to jerk back suddenly with a cackle that rebounds off the walls and rings in his ears.

This familiarity that this thing claims to have with his daughter, his family, any of them; it makes Chuck sick to his stomach. If his wife was safe, away from this place; he'd snap the little shit's neck just to shut him up, show him he doesn't know a damn thing about any of them.

"You know I admire how loyal you all are to one another. Truly," is what they're told then, like they should be proud even a wretch like the one before them can appreciate one of their greatest traits. "Family's a beautiful thing."

The urge to carry out his previous thought is unbelievably powerful. To reach out, to wrap his hands around the other's neck, to feel his windpipe as it crushes beneath the determined strength of his thumbs, his fingers digging into the weak flesh beneath, the steady beat of his pulse slowing until it stops completely.

If only.

The man signals to his henchmen who step forward when he steps back. Chuck squeezes Blair's hand, their last contact before they're brutally pulled apart and she's shoved back against the cold stone wall while he's propelled forward until his midsection connects with the wooden bench now situated in the centre of the room.

He tries to twist round so he can see his wife, but they wrench him back round so he's face to face with the cretin that's been plaguing them for the entirety of their stay.

The disapproval that meets him echoes off the walls with a shake of the head and a tut-tut as he carelessly tosses his latest toy back and forth between each hand. Chuck continues to struggle only to receive a hard knock to the back of his legs for his trouble. It sends him sprawling forward onto the table and allows the giants on either side of him to yank his arms further up the length of the table and secure his wrists against the rough surface. Palms down: they don't need him to offer; this time they can just take what they want.

"But you should know, both of you, your daughter – Lena – she's only making this harder than it needs to be for everyone."

The man leans forward, eyes fixed on his wife's, and presses his body weight down on the object in his hand.

Chuck screams in agony; blood squelching.

Blair cries out; bones crunching.

The man hoots with laughter; the sharp edge of the butcher's knife slamming against the wood beneath.

He sweeps his trophies into his hand, and doesn't flinch when precious metal hits the floor with a clatter, instead swooping down like a magpie to capture it too between greedy claws before allowing them a quick glimpse of his prize in the light.

"Oops," he voices, lips distorted by his manic, crooked attempt at a smile. "Wouldn't want to leave out the best part, now would we? Not sure Lena would appreciate that."

Chuck slumps to the floor, cradling his arm to his chest, staring horrified at what remains of his left hand. Blair crawls over to him, her cheeks stained with tears. She quickly rolls what's left of her shredded stockings down to her ankles, tugging them off hastily in turn, before taking his hand in hers and wrapping the material around the bloody stumps that mark the place where two of his fingers used to be.

"My – my ring," is all he manages to get out, looking desperately up at his wife.

"It's ok, Chuck, it's ok," she soothes him, holding his face in her hands, and looking into his eyes until he can see the faces of their children staring back at him. "Lena's got it, she'll keep it safe."

He's vaguely aware of nodding at her words, his arm raised awkwardly above him. There's a numbness in his fingers he's not felt since before he was even his eldest daughter's age, when being high on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol was part of his body's usual equilibrium.

Pressed tight against the rationed warmth of his wife's chest, he allows himself to succumb to unconsciousness, safe in the knowledge that her heart is still beating, that he can still feel her love.

The last thing he hears is the warped sound of a man's laughter echoing around the taunting words, "You can't beat the classics."

.

The room is bustling; pockets of chatter growing louder, a real mix of personnel huddled over desks and agents scuttling from one area to the next.

He imagines if he didn't feel so out of place, so utterly useless in this hub of activity, he likely wouldn't have noticed the boy as he slips into the room. No one else has noticed him.

And it would be fine, except Augie is like his parents, and Chuck and Blair have always known how to pick their moments.

Serena opens the box with shaky hands. Nate silently wonders why they're letting her do it at all, why they haven't just whisked it away to examine it like everything else; but apparently this is part of the deal, what he instructed was to happen. Apparently they're doing this madman's bidding now; Chuck may not negotiate with terrorists, but they do.

The room falls into silence as the blonde lifts the white piece of card and reads aloud, "For Lena: in case you're considering not adhering to my requests and doing something incredibly stupid instead, this is to remind you of what I have and what you don't, a little incentive – or two."

Nate's already moving through the throngs of people towards the twelve-year-old, who is standing so very still at the back of the room.

Serena lets out a horrified scream, half trapped behind the cage of her teeth as her hand flies to her mouth and she hastily drops the container, leaping back she hits the table behind her and the screeching sound of the feet dragging across the floor drown out everything else in her vicinity.

They really shouldn't have let her open it.

Nate picks up the pace as he gains on the boy's position, made easier by the fact that all those who blocked his path before are now advancing quickly on his ex-wife. He doesn't know why they're bothering. He chances a look back in time to see Serena's face turn to ash, and even from this distance he can see what she sees, what the agents and officers and intelligentsia are all scrambling to collect, to gather up into evidence bags for processing; to finally give them the lead they've been searching for.

The image simultaneously sears itself into his heart and mind.

Two bloody fingers lie in a mass of tissue paper, deep purple in color, thrown from an ivory box that was addressed to his ex-wife in scratchy black ink, but housed a message specifically for his niece; a warning, an incentive – or two.

He tries not to let himself fall into the memories of the past, of the last time he saw those shades intertwined. The memory of Chuck and Blair's wedding is one of the few that he holds with no regrets to shame his participation, or lack thereof, it is one of the few events in which they were all in attendance, all happy, all hopeful. He won't let them taint that for him, he refuses to lose that like he has everything else.

A flash of light catches his eyes, the sound of precious metal hitting the floor; years of sports and the tactics and levels of precision observation pay off and he pinpoints the target, the trajectory, before anyone else. Except him; except their son.

Nate watches the boy, feels like he's suddenly moving in slow motion, like half of him is underwater and it's taking all the rest of him has to wade his way through.

Augie looks on with a terrifying fascination as the platinum band rolls towards him, coming to a stop only when it hits the top of his slipper clad foot and the twelve-year-old bends down to pick it up.

"This is my Dad's wedding ring," he says, blankly looking up at the myriad of disturbed faces that only seem able to stare back at him, before he returns his gaze to the object lying like a dead weight in the centre of his palm.

He nudges the tiny circle of precious metal over with his index finger, eyeing the other section of writing engraved on the inside, his young face falling into a frown. And Nate can see it as it happens; Augie's not looking at the words for proof that he's right; he doesn't need any help when it comes to identifying that which concerns his family; he's looking for the words to provide some sort of comfort, recollection of a better time. He's trying to conjure the memory of his father fondly rubbing the pad of his thumb across his wedding ring and reciting the words it bears inside, the words that have become embedded in his skin over years of use, the words that hold so much history and promise for the future: all the love he feels for his wife and she for him; what it means to be part of their family.

And Nate knows this, because if it was him he'd be doing the exact same thing.

"Why am I holding my Dad's wedding ring?" Augie slowly poses the question to the room before him, eyes still transfixed on the precious jewel held in his hand.

Time and space and everything that shouldn't have happened, but did, may have passed between them, but he still considers Chuck his best friend. He still thinks of him as his brother and loves him as one too.

Which is why, when his best friend's boy lifts his head and looks up with horrified eyes from the tips of his blood stained fingers to the neat circles of red transferred from his father's wedding ring to the little palm of his hand, Nate steps forward and absorbs his brother's son in his arms.

He expects the struggle that follows, anticipates the screams that fill his eardrums and the tiny fists that batter at his back in swift accompaniment to the spindly legs that strike out at anything they can put force against.

"No! Get off me! Let me go!" Augie's shouts are manic, purposeful, with vigorous punches and kicks to further impress his point. "Let me go! I don't want you! I want him, I don't want you!"

He pulls the boy from the room, still kicking and screaming in his arms, and carries him swiftly from this place; up the stairs to the room the boy no longer calls his own, but resides in anyway.

He sets him down on the bed, but Augie keeps a tight grip on him, arms loops around his neck and head buried into the hollow alcove by his shoulder.

"I don't want you," the boy mumbles into his shirt, his breath hot with the exertion and his face wet with tears. "I want my dad."

"I know," he empathizes with his best friend's son. "I know. So do I."

And they stay like that for several minutes, latched onto one another, trying to take from it what they can.

Lena appears in the doorway and they break apart as she exhales.

"Are you ok?" she urgently asks of her brother, crossing the space to kneel before him, cupping his face between her hands. "What – what happened?"

Words fail the boy; he's lost a sense before, but this is different.

Augie hesitates for but a second, before extending his hand towards his sister and slowly unfurling his fingers to reveal the platinum band that rests there; virtually wiped clean of the blood that could tell a story of its own.

"For you," the boy manages to say. "They sent this for you."

The blood that is absent from their father's ring stains his only son's hand as he offers it up to his older sister.

"They sent this," she repeats, "For me."

And just as Nate witnessed her brother's undoing, had thought he'd seen hers in the dead of night, he realizes that this, right here and now, this might just be the cause of hers.

Her lips part like she has something more to say, but her eyes are widening and soon she's lifting her hands to her face. They're splayed out on her cheeks, criss-crossing her mouth. Keeping the words on her tongue, the tears in her eyes; her breath barely manages to escape through the cracks in her fingers.

"Lena," Carter addresses her, and they all look to see him straddling the line between where they are and where they are not. "You need to come downstairs."

"Now?" she asks, momentarily at a loss for what to do.

The elder seems to pick up on it as he nods, telling her cleanly, "Yes. You need to come downstairs now."

It's not an order, but she'll follow it all the same, follow him.

She straightens, looks from Carter to her brother; they're both waiting for her to make a move.

"You should take it," Augie says then, like any of them really believe it's that simple. "It was meant for you."

"Meant for me," Lena echoes the words; and her eyes shimmer like the edge of the ocean where the surface darkens like a warning you can't see until it's too late, when you lose your footing and sink sink sink to the murky depths below.

She nods, tentatively reaching out to lift the ring from where it rests loftily among its markings on her brother's skin. She holds it between her thumb and forefingers, frozen by its presence; and then as quickly as she was beginning to lose her grip and fall, she scrambles back up from the ledge.

This is what makes her a Bass, Nate thinks; this is why they will always unwittingly rest all their hopes on her. She just doesn't know how to quit.

Lena pulls at the chain around her neck, twisting it until the clasps lie at the front and she undoes them to allow her to slip the ring onto her necklace before securing them in place once more and readjusting its position. The ring weighs heavily on its tether, rocking back and forth like a pendulum swinging above her heart; the clock's been ticking for a while now.

"I'll look after it," she promises her brother, "I'll keep it safe."

Augie gifts her with a soft smile and the unwavering belief in his words, "I know you will. It's meant for you."

.

She's sitting by the dining room table, a glass of water sitting in front of her, still fresh enough that the drops of condensation drip from the edge to land on the coaster beneath. She'd insisted; her best friend would never forgive her if she stained the premium wood.

She reaches for it; idly wondering if you can get dehydrated from crying too much, but stops when she looks at her hand. She's still shaking. The tremors run the course of her body making her suddenly realize that the tapping noise she's been hearing since they put her in this room is the sound her chair makes as its legs rise and fall from the floor with the trembling of her frame. It sounds like her bones are rattling within her; and it wouldn't be too far from the truth, given how little she's eaten or slept since this all started.

"Mom," a voice suddenly says and she looks up to see her daughter rushing towards her, "Are you ok?"

"I'm fine," she manages to say; and it hurts so much to even pretend to admit it, but compared to the others; compared to her best friend, compared to her niece and nephew, compared to Chuck, she is fine.

"What happened? Why are you crying?" Hadley asks hurriedly, the worry so foreign and frightening to see on her young, beautiful features. "Oh God, they didn't – they haven't found their bodies, have they?"

"No!" she exclaims, immediately putting a stop to her only daughter's train of thought; they can't afford to be thinking like that. Especially not now, not after –

"Then what happened?" her fifteen-year-old asks urgently. "What's got you so upset?"

"I just – " she swallows, closes her eyes and tries to pretend she can no longer see the image of her brother's ring and pinky fingers lying on the purple tissue in the ivory box. "I opened a parcel that wasn't meant for me, and I didn't like what was inside."

"What was it?" her daughter inquires, seemingly unaware of what she's actually asking of her mother.

"It – It was meant to be a message," Serena tells her; because her baby girl doesn't need to hear the details, doesn't need to share in her mother's nightmare. "It wasn't meant to be for me, but it should've been, and I opened it and I was… shocked at what I saw, and it upset me."

Shocked? Try horrified. And upset? Well, she's still yet to stop shaking.

"Oh," her daughter voice's is quiet. "Well, I'm sorry you had to go through that, mom."

"Better me than any of you," she says, and she means it.

She hadn't known Augie was in the room at the time; hadn't known she'd be so shocked at what was inside that she'd drop the parcel altogether and his father's ring would roll across the floor to land at her feet. She hadn't known, hadn't thought, hadn't realized – until it was too late. Until Nate was carrying her distraught nephew up the stairs and her niece was flying up after them a moment after she'd stepped through the door, and Carter was following after Lena mere minutes after checking on her. She feels impossibly guilty and it weighs heavily on her heart; her skeletal framework clattering louder now as if to remind her that she is not built for this; she cannot withstand such pressure.

There's a nagging that refuses to cease, however, that tells her she has never been more successful than when she became a mother. And it's true, she knows it; she may make mistakes and she may still have a lot to make up for in this life; but everything she does is for her children, and she can't imagine how she could ever be judged for only wanting to do the best by her family.

Her daughter leans down and puts her arms around her and Serena tugs Hadley into her lap, rocking her back and forth like she were still but a babe in her mother's embrace. It's a testament to their relationship that the teenager allows it, drops her head to the elder's shoulder, sighs contentedly into the soft wisps of blonde hair so like her own.

And Serena knows it's not fair, knows it's not right, but she does it anyway: she holds her daughter that bit closer, that much tighter, in her arms; just because she can.

.

"I wanted to thank you, for what you did for my brother," Lena says to him when she finds him standing in her parent's room, drinking in every inch of the space that testifies who they were when they stayed here; who they were when he'd still known them.

He turns at her words, notices for possibly the first time just how slender she is, how slim the contours of her face are; catches sight of the evidence in the tiredness of her eyes and the lag of her pant legs as they ruck at her knees that it wasn't always like this, she wasn't always like this.

"And to apologise – for my outburst – before," she tells him, referring to when she'd schooled him in what it meant to be Chuck Bass nowadays, and how he didn't have a clue anymore. "Regardless of your absence in our lives of late, I know my parents would appreciate you being here. And I know it can't be easy for you, to be around us all after everything that's happened, so for that too, I'd like to thank you."

"You don't – " he starts to say; because she shouldn't feel she has to apologise, she doesn't have to apologise. He gets it now, he understands; he hasn't been a part of their lives for so long, it's not fair for him to expect to be now.

"No," she refutes. "I do."

He nods, stays silent; because she's so like her mother it's scary.

"What you did earlier – there aren't… adequate words for what you did for Augie… but I want you to know just how grateful I am."

"You're welcome," he mumbles.

She nods, gives him a small satisfied smile as she heads for the door, but stops when she reaches it.

"I hope you won't get too lost again, when all this is over and everyone goes their separate ways," she says, turning back to face him with what looks like a second chance in her eyes. "I know my parents like it more when you're around rather than off gallivanting across the country – my dad especially, he's always regaling my little brother with tales of the adventures of your youth when he thinks no one else is listening."

He watches the wry smile curve her lips and imagines a similar reaction from Blair during these instances. So like her mother.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is: your absence doesn't go by unnoticed. You are Nathaniel Archibald, after all," she tells him, saying his name just like her father does, smiling at the edges like he tends to do too.

He nods, swallows around the lump in his throat. There aren't adequate words for what she's doing for him.

"I haven't forgotten, you know," Lena tells him softly, a memory of something he used to be part of showing plainly on her face. "That after my parents, it was my Uncle Nate that I loved most of all."

She closes the door quietly behind her on her way out and Nate collapses on the bed in the room where his best friends used to sleep. And for the first time in a long while, he cries.

.

He watches the rise and fall of their chests; follows the blend of their dark locks until they merge and become two incarnations of the same: two versions of their mother with hints of their father accentuating the edges.

His eyes shift from the arms that lie like protective wings around the little girl to the serene look on the child's face; they will do whatever it takes to shield her from this tragedy that has become their lives.

He feels a presence by his side as he watches over them, his suspicions confirmed as to the shadow's identity when the other man marvels at the sight with words just as awestruck, "I never quite realized just how like her mother she really is, not just in looks."

Carter turns to him with a slight frown. He's long since dropped any grudges he may or may not hold against the man, but that doesn't mean he doesn't find it somewhat disconcerting when Nate attempts to strike up a conversation with him; especially given all that's passed between them without the need for words.

"Lena," he explains his earlier words, as if the elder couldn't decipher that for himself.

"You're right," Carter replies, and there's no malice in his tone and it isn't meant to send a message or a warning, an incentive – or two – or otherwise; he's just making a statement. "She's too forgiving."

He's methodical as he closes the door softly then and turns to walk down the hall; leaving Nate to stand alone and choose his own path, as he's always done.

.

It's barely dawn yet and he's awake; he doesn't know what's wrong with him. He knows Serena and Carter and Eric and everyone in between would tell him it's only natural, especially given the events of the previous day, but he knows that's not it. Cooper won't voice that, of course, because he's not suicidal and besides, it'll only make matters worse. Sure, he's sorry this has all happened to Chuck and Blair and he wouldn't wish the recurring events on their kids either, but it hasn't affected him in the same way it has his sister, for example. He's just not as embroiled in this whole family dynamic that they all pretend plays such a huge role in their lives: and they talk about his dad, they're no better than him, not really. They all just act like they care, but they don't show it. He'll say one thing for the Basses, whether they actually live up to all their hype about being the 'perfect family' or not, even in their absence it's obvious how deeply they all care for one another.

If anything he's a little jealous he's never really had that himself; then again, if this is what happens when love is taken away from you, he's grateful he's never had to experience it.

He imagines that loss has got to be a pretty devastating.

The door's already open, so he doesn't really consider it to be prying. Magdalena is leaning over the bed, tucking her little brother in, but there's something heartbreaking in the action.

"Forgive me, Augie," she whispers softly in the dark. "I'm only doing what they asked of me."

"You're up early," Cooper comments when he catches sight of her, and pauses to lean his weight against the doorframe of her room.

She lifts her head up at his words and offers him a small semblance of a smile when she looks over to find him watching her.

"So, this is where he's been hiding," he comments with a smile of his own and a nod in the direction of the boy curled up asleep in the middle of the bed. "I passed by his room a few times, but he was never there – thought he was avoiding me."

She looks tired, but not in a way that would suggest she's just woken up, more like she's not really been to sleep yet. That would explain a lot.

"He doesn't hate you, you know," Magdalena's voice breaks him from his thoughts.

"I know," he answers, gives her a small reassuring smile; he knows that much about the kid. "He apologized – multiple times."

"My little brother couldn't hate anyone. He doesn't have it in him," she says next, almost to herself.

"And you?" Cooper asks, and this time it is him who is breaking her from her reverie. "Could you ever hate someone?"

She turns her gaze from the world outside to him and something flickers in her eyes, passes by her face, which he can't place.

"Ask me tomorrow," she says softly, and her eyes are suddenly a darker blue than he thinks he's ever seen them, a black hole staring back at him.

"Why tomorrow?" his brow is furrowed, because he is genuinely confused; she's making no sense. He wonders if it's the lack of sleep.

"Because that's when I'll know if my parents are still alive," Magdalena tells him, in an eerily grave voice that speaks of a world he will never understand.

And because he simply doesn't understand, he offers her something else instead.

"I'd hate them too," he says quietly, secretly afraid to speak; he's trying to empathize all the same, though he doubts he ever could.

"If they're not alive, I'll know I shouldn't always listen to my father," she responds, continuing on from her own words, rather than his and there's the mark of a mirthless laugh on her lips.

"Your father? What? I don't understand," Cooper finally puts voice to what he's feeling: because if it were him, he'd save his hatred for the one responsible for the abduction, for all the pain and suffering; not the victim.

Then again, he doesn't think he's never really been on the same wavelength as his cousin; as any of them, in fact.

"Ask me tomorrow," she repeats, expands enough to say, "And if I tell you yes, then you'll know I hate myself more than I could ever hate another person or thing on this earth or beyond."

He frowns at her, because he still doesn't understand, and it's starting to get more than a little frustrating to see everyone work so hard to receive so little in return. As if the only people that could ever help the Bass family belong to the family itself; as if they alone can determine the outcome of their lives.

"If I tell you yes, I'll have killed my own parents," Magdalena tells him, and there's resolute belief in her words that seem to emanate from her very core. "And how could anyone ever love me after doing such a thing?"

.

TBC…


A/N: I think the start of Carter's section, where he's watching Viv and Lena sleep is inspired by a line from a Jodi Picoult novel, but I can't find it right now to source it properly, so you'll just have to take my vague word on it, sorry.

This chapter ended up being majorly long, so I split it in two and added some extra sections into the other part so hopefully it won't be too long before I update again.

Thank you to all of you who've read thus far, I hope you continue to do so, and if it takes your fancy, drop me a line or two to let me know your thoughts
Steph
xxx