Lightness and Weight
Sequel to The Unbearable Lightness of Being Chuck and Blair
Lightness and Weight
Part Two of the Unbearable Lightness Series
Sequel to The Unbearable Lightness of Being Chuck and Blair
A/N: Make sure that you read The Unbearable Lightness before this story, which commences two months after the conclusion of the previous tale.
Chapter One: The Tree of Life
Sometimes I dream of a tree, and the tree is my life.
One branch is the man I shall marry, and leaves my children.
Another branch is my future as a writer and each leaf is a poem.
Another branch is a glittering academic career.
But as I sit there trying to choose,
The leaves begin to turn brown and blow away
Until the tree is absolutely bare.
- "The Tree of Life", Sylvia Plath.
It was a prickling hot day at the end of summer, and not for the first time, Chuck Bass wondered why he had entertained the idea of throwing a party for his friends and family in the first house he had ever owned.
Of course, owning the most majestic house in the Hamptons came with certain responsibilities. For thirty years before Mrs Wincester's death and Chuck's purchase of "Barbiston", the final days of summer had been marked by a sumptuous party on these grounds. It had, in fact, been at one of these parties that Chuck had first imagined Blair Waldorf as the mistress of the house. Even now, long after the conversations he'd had with Blair about why she refused under any circumstances to allow him to give her the house as a gift, he felt a queer swoop of disappointment at the rejection. He understood it, of course; and it made him love her a little more when he understood her reasons. But even now, there was a sting accompanying the memory. After all, she was the reason he had purchased this place.
On the day that Chuck and Blair had returned from their two-month spirit quest, he had walked down the sweeping front yard of the estate and replaced the iron lettering with a more fitting title: Innisfree.
He had once told Blair that Innisfree represented what she was to him – a space of such purity and beauty that a man might weep at the sight of it. Of course, in reality, the entire enterprise was turning out to be the world's biggest headache.
"It's not too late to just call the whole thing off and go skinny dipping," Chuck commented as he pulled a sheet over his naked form and surveyed the dawning day from the door of the pool-house he and Blair had taken to sleeping him in the course of the week they had spent in the Hamptons.
"Nothing's to stop you from skinny dipping in front of our guests," Blair commented.
Chuck snorted, inhaling the scent of jasmines that seemed to emerge from every corner of the house. He knew that for the last five days, since he and Blair had landed from a two-month tour of…well, everywhere…Blair had been living and breathing the party that they would be throwing that evening. No matter how nonchalant she might act, it was important to her: a sort of coming out party – telling all of their Upper East Side friends and enemies that they had survived the summer break and were once more ready to assume their office at the very tip of the New York hierarchy.
The sky was a dim blue at this point, which would turn to cobalt as the day progressed. At this peaceful point of morning, the day was no more than potential. Chuck had taken to enjoying moments such as these; somewhere over the course of the summer. He had taken to trying new things.
It had been a thrilling and heartbreaking summer, full of discovery and tiny epiphanies, that Chuck was fearful to see the end of it. Not to mention that any day now, the call of New York and their futures would be too strong to resist.
With a heavy sigh, Chuck ran his hand down Blair's bare back. Every time he thought about the inevitable separation that college would bring, he felt a forbidding swoop of trepidation, followed by a possessive neediness. He cloaked this possessiveness with his usual sexual advances, hoping that the feeling of his skin against hers would blind Blair to the undercurrent of terror that coloured his gestures. Of course, if he was honest with himself, he knew that she was just as terrified as he was. And so, her mania about this party; perhaps, if the party was perfect, then the trials and tribulations of the coming months would be less acute.
Blair Waldorf – how hopeful her grand dreams were.
As if she could tell what he was thinking, she rolled onto her back to see his face more clearly.
"I had a dream last night," she said dreamily, tracing his bicep with her finger. "About a grand table…"
"And we were naked," Chuck contributed, only half joking as her slightly scarred leg wrapped around his.
"All our friends and family were sitting at the table," Blair continued, ignoring him. "We were laughing and talking. And it seemed as if a single meal could last forever."
"What happened next?"
Blair shrugged, suddenly sober and thoughtful. "Next, I woke up."
Chuck turned to look at her, her arm flung wide over the pillow, her free hand caressing his bare chest. If only they could be this way, always. If only the family and friends who even now prepared to drink the wine Blair had painstakingly ordered and eat the food that the kitchen staff had been preparing for days, would leave them be so that each day could be one endless smell of jasmine enjoyed in a pool house.
He was so fearful these days. The more perfect their time together, the more he anticipated its imminent loss. And yet somehow, the more heavily he sighed and the lower the dark clouds, the lighter Blair seemed. It must have been part of their cosmic balancing act: when he was heavy, she danced and near took flight.
Her eyes were still heavy with sleep, even though he could see them slowly awaken to the tasks that the morning would bring. For a moment, he fancied he could freeze this moment and live it again a hundred times before he departed for Princeton and before she entered the gates of Yale.
"What are you thinking about?" Chuck asked, suddenly desperate for reassurance, needing to know that she hadn't, in the course of the night, become a stranger.
She considered his question; it had become a game for them over the course of their travels. "I'm thinking about what Lily would say after two months of not seeing you, if you went skinny dipping in front of her."
"Lily is crazy about me," Chuck said matter-of-factly, surprising himself with the ease of the sentiment. "She will just be relieved that no bandits carried me off in the Far East."
Blair rolled her eyes. "I would feel more sorry for the bandits."
"Please. They'd be lucky to have me. I could be in their merry band."
"You realize that the international slave trade in no way resembles a scene from the Pirates of Penzance, right?"
Chuck shrugged non-commitally, suddenly losing interest in their easy banter, more interested suddenly in the sight of her stretching. "Is this what it was like – when you imagined it?"
"It was only one time," Blair blushed.
"Tell me," Chuck breathed.
She pulled back, as if needing a space of privacy before divulging the fantasy that she'd had of them in this very house. She ran her hand over the gap between their bodies, as if it were a part of him. "It was no more than a moment, I suppose. We were sitting next to that pool talking about…well, nothing really. And you're hand was touching mine – you probably don't even remember."
"Please," Chuck scoffed. "It took about half a bottle of gin to get up the courage to touch your hand. I remember."
Blair inched closer to him, the need for space forgotten. "I imagined that you would lean over and kiss me. And from the moment of that first contact, there was no going back. You basically threw me over your shoulder and had your way with me, right here in the pool house."
"Take away the pool house and add in the limo, and that's pretty much how it happened," Chuck commented.
Blair smiled one of those tantalising, secret smiles that left him near-crazy wondering what was going on behind her dark eyes. "Just imagining it…it was so real. It was almost as if we had done something untoward; I slunk back to that party as if I had just fucked you."
Chuck felt a strange thrill at her words; there was something so erotic about her use of the crass language of profanity, especially in the white purity of the house. There was something primal about it; knowing that she had desired him so ardently in this house. Perhaps he was taken away by the smell of jasmine, or the impending fear of separation. For whatever reason, the party plans lay forgotten just outside the door they had kept open all night. In that moment, all Chuck could think about was pressing his skin against hers and making those daydreams of days passed into a reality.
"I stayed away form that party, because I was certain that if I went back, everyone would know how badly I wanted to fuck you," Chuck breathed into her neck, settling himself above her.
"Show me," she whispered. "Show me how much you wanted me."
And so he did.
When Serena came upon them, she didn't call attention to herself immediately, preferring instead to stand in the pooling darkness and view her old friends without their knowledge.
They were unpacking large boxes, filled to the brim with books of every shape and size, as the afternoon sunlight lapped at their ankles. On her way into the house, Serena had seen that the party preparations were complete (Blair seemed to have outdone herself, lining the garden path with old lamps of various sizes instead of the usual fairy lights that Mrs. Wincester had used). And so it seemed that the couple had decided to dedicate their final hours before the guests descended upon them to sorting, and alphabetising their combined book collection.
At least, Blair was sorting and alphabetising. It seemed that Chuck was content merely to lazily extricate a particular tome and read aloud to Blair as she grumbled, rolled her eyes, and pretended not to be thrilled to just be in his presence. Serena knew that while Chuck was the very picture of idleness, Blair was the most finicky and exacting person that Serena had ever met. To watch them work in consort was quite something.
Serena knew that at any moment the spell would be broken and they would know that both of Chuck's adopted siblings had arrived in the house, and that the luxurious silence of its still bare walls would be undone in the course of one afternoon and evening. But for the moment, Blair frowned at the various titles and referred to the papers she had drawn up.
"The Witches of Eastwick?" Chuck drawled. "Why not just put my Playboy collection on the shelves?"
"It's a book about powerful and cruel women, whose urgings turn their husbands to dust," Blair commented, with a grin. "It was a gift from my mother."
Chuck raised an eyebrow. "So it's Eleanor's autobiography, basically."
"Chuck," Blair said warningly, although Serena knew that a smile was teasing the edges of her stern expression.
With his strange, cat-like grace, Chuck manoeuvred himself so that she was sitting in the V formed by his legs. Wrapping his arms around her, smirking to himself when her body bent towards him instinctively, he opened the book to a random page. Blair was sitting with her knees drawn up towards her chin, and Serena could have sworn that she saw a faint shiver pass over Blair's body when Chuck came upon her.
"'Jenny, the backs of my thighs,' Sookie begged. "Just slowly along the backs, incredibly slowly. And use your fingernails. Don't be afraid of the insides of the thighs. The backs of the knees are wonderful," Chuck paused for effect, "wonderful. Oh my God.' Her thumb slid into her mouth."
As he spoke, he rand his fingers along her legs, as if this Sookie-character were instructing him. Blair's eyes slid shut, and Serena saw that her eyelids were vaguely translucent – they must have been doing this all week, Serena realized. Even now, after months together, it seemed that Chuck and Blair, quite simply, could not keep their hands off each other.
"You know," Chuck murmured into the shell of Blair's ear. "I'm starting to reconsider Updike. I think I'll keep this right next to our bed."
"Truth be told," Blair said breathlessly, as Chuck's finger ran along the backs of her thighs. "I haven't even read the thing."
"We'll read it together," he whispered.
For a moment, Serena almost smiled at that, until she noticed that Chuck's hands were straying, and that if she didn't draw attention to herself shortly, she would be privy to a very embarrassing and very personal display between the pair of them.
"Don't tell me that Chuck still needs help sounding out the big words," Serena said in a loud voice that sounded false even to her own ears.
Although Blair jumped and pulled Chuck's hands from her skin, Serena noticed that Chuck did no more than cast a mildly irritated look in her direction. It was impossible to catch him off-guard – that was something that Serena had always hated about Chuck. Of course, she had no time to ponder her elusive adoptive-brother, because within a few moments, her arms were brimming with a very excitable Blair, enjoying one of those rare instances when Blair didn't measure her responses, when she was just thrilled to have her friends gathered around her.
"You should go help Eric with his bags," Serena said over her shoulder as Blair dragged her from the room to show her around the house.
Chuck shot her a look that said very clearly that he had no intention of his beloved brother with something as menial as carrying bags, but seeing that Serena and Blair would soon be ensconced in the wardrobe Chuck had had built for Blair's benefit, he figured that now was as good a time as any to seek out his younger brother.
"I can't believe that Chuck brought this house for you," Serena murmured as they crossed over into the master bedroom.
"Well," Blair said stiffly. "I didn't accept. It's his house."
Serena looked at the enormous bed, feeling strangely embarrassed at the sight of its four-posters. It seemed so thoroughly grown-up, and for the life of her, she didn't feel old enough to have a friend who slept with her boyfriend in such a bed. She couldn't quite stomach the notion that Chuck and Blair were so settled into their relationship, when she, Serena, felt so very young in comparison. Watching Blair as she confidently navigated through the room, Serena was overcome with the alien feeling that she was a little girl knocking on the door of one of her mother's friends.
Although she knew that the house Chuck had brought was unofficially Blair's as well, it was strange to imagine her best friend as someone mature enough to be mistress of such a beautiful house.
It was clearly Blair's house as well; Serena could easily see the influence of Blair's taste on every corner of the place. And yet, there was something alien vying for dominance – an aesthetic that was somehow dangerous and foreign, something Serena didn't recognise.
It was Chuck's taste, Serena realized, staring at the tall oriental screen that stood proudly in the corner of the room. There was something so essentially Chuck about the piece – creating a dark space in the corner of a large and sunlit room. Surely Chuck must have chosen that red monkey cage as well.
There was something strangely moving about the knowledge that Blair had urged him to choose his own furniture: it was a pressing concern for Blair, Serena knew, her sense that Chuck never wanted to impact upon the physical spaces he inhabited, that he never wanted to grow roots. And for a moment, Serena was overcome with affection for her oldest friend and the way in which she loved someone as impossible as Chuck Bass.
"Why are you looking at me like that?"
"I don't know," Serena said honestly, "I'm just so…proud of you. You're so amazing, B."
"You know I'm taken, right?" she quipped.
Serena threw a pillow in her direction, before collapsing onto the huge bed. "It's just so strange to see you so domestic. And with Chuck."
"You know you say his name like it's some kind of insult."
"If the shoe fits," Serena muttered, patting the bed next to her.
But when Blair sat down, she didn't lie down the way she used to, but rather sat primly on the edge of the bed. Serena swallowed the slight disappointment she felt when she realized that Blair would not be play-acting their childhood with her today. In fact, after a few moments, Blair stood up again and disappeared into the closet to pull on a series of dresses for Serena's opinion.
"It's perfect," Serena said, nodding in approval at Blair's latest ensemble.
"Please," Blair frowned. "I look like potpourri."
"Hot potpourri," Serena retorted.
Blair stared at herself in the mirror. "I can't believe that two weeks ago I was in a nightclub in Shanghai with a highly-placed diplomat and an arms dealer, and today I look like a massive pot of dried flowers."
"It must be strange being back."
It had been a joke between Blair and Chuck, that Blair leave without informing Serena that she was leaving the country. A sort of payback for those times that Serena had picked up as if life weighed nothing and set out on a journey without telling her best friend where she was going and when she would be back.
At first it had been a joke, but soon enough, as the trip became the most exhilarating two months of Blair's life, it became too difficult to summarize, too complex to type in an email. To even begin to describe life on the road with Chuck would have take hours, and at the time, Blair was so taken away with the desire to live-live-live, that the thought of any sort of self-reflection seemed a dreadful waste.
So Serena lay, sprawled on her bed, positively itching with curiosity about where they had gone, what they had agreed about this year, what had happened. And once more, Blair found herself lost for words.
"I want to look nice tonight," she said suddenly, ignoring Serena's comment. "I want to look nice for Chuck."
"After travelling with him, I would imagine any mystery that you guys still had has disappeared," Serena commented.
Blair seemed lost in her mind for a moment. "I don't know," she commented, her eyes distant. "He can be so…Chuck."
"Well, he is Chuck Bass."
"I know," Blair said, with only a hint of a grin. "It's just he can be so different from other people. Sometimes he seems so far away. And I worry that I don't know him well enough. I don't know where he goes in those moments."
"You know him better than anyone," Serena protested. "I mean people always say that…but I mean, with you and Chuck it's true. No one knows him like you do."
"But the closer I get to him, the more I see that I'm never going to get to the bottom of him." Blair stared at Serena through one of the full-length mirrors. "You know, I saw it – when we were away. I saw it."
"Just flashes of it, really," Blair said dreamily. "There would be these fleeting moments when I would see from the corner of my eye how he might be one day – he'd be doing something completely every day. He'd be talking to someone, or just standing and staring at something. And I'd see it. This…remoteness in him."
Serena knew what she meant; sometimes the power just seemed to emanate from him. There were moments when he was entirely in the scene, the glowing centre of attention, and then there were moments when he seemed to spiral off to some great height, and be something different entirely. "And what would you do when you saw it?"
"I'd pull him back. He seemed so solemn at those moments - "
"Doesn't sound like Chuck," Serena interrupted.
"But that's the thing," Blair said, chewing her bottom lip. "It is Chuck. It is what Chuck was born for – it's what Bart intended for him when he was born. And I could see it. I could see him becoming someone so great." Serena cocked her head to the side, taking in the sight of Blair's fierce, proud and terrified face. "And I thought – what role do I have in that future?"
"Blair – "
Blair gestured dismissively. "No, I mean…who knows? But I just had this strange feeling that I might be holding him back."
"Please," Serena scoffed. "If anything, you're the only reason that future is even a possibility."
"Maybe now. But in the future…I don't know. It's too much isn't it – the significance of a life. The decisions you make in a lifetime. It's just…it's too much. And to think that I was leading him away form some destiny - "
"What's going on with you today?" Serena smiled nervously. "You know Chuck. You think he'd stay a moment more than he had to if he thought you were holding him back? He loves you."
"You're right," Blair said in a too-bright voice. "You're right. I'm just…nervous about the party. And I need to find an outfit that doesn't make me look like decorative foliage."
"Well then," Serena said, equally falsely. "To the closet."
"Honestly Chuck," Eric complained. "It's no big deal."
"He punched you," Chuck repeated for the umpteenth time. "He made a fist and hit you in the face with it?"
"Yes," Eric drawled. "We are using the more popular definition of the word 'punched'."
Chuck took a deep breath, one that could have been mistaken for a calming breath, had Eric not been convinced that at any second, his insane brother might go out and commit murder.
"I don't understand how this happened," Chuck said in a dangerously low voice.
Eric exhaled through his teeth, instantly regretting confiding in him. Perhaps he should have just told Chuck what he told Lily: that he had accidentally walked into a pole while walking and reading. But of course, Chuck would never believe a story so lame. And there was a strange quality in Chuck that seemed to draw out the truth. Eric found it impossible to lie to him.
So, when he had entered the grounds of Innisfree, sporting a brand new black eye, it seemed inevitable that Chuck would learn the truth.
Even now, Eric wasn't quite sure how to understand what had happened. It had been such an alien and shocking moment, when the boy he had attempted to chat up at a party had suddenly turned around and punched him in the face, decrying Eric's lifestyle and swearing to high heaven that he "was not a fag, man." Even after being on the receiving end of a sucker-punch, and falling to the ground, Eric had found the poise to offer the boy a Chuck Bass-inspired smirk.
"And yet you punch like a girl."
That had not gone over particularly well. It was lucky that Lily had been so preoccupied with Rufus Humphrey; if she had taken a second to look closely at her son, she might have noticed the way he winced when he sat down.
It had been a low point of what had been an altogether frustrating summer. Without Chuck in the house, Eric had found himself spending extended periods of time with Nate and Serena. Although he loved Nate – especially the sight of Nate scantily clad at the breakfast table – he had begun to find the boy's wide-eyed innocence a touch trying. With Chuck off gallivanting around the earth, Eric had found that he was playing Chuck's role of the acerbic commentator. Serena had called him on it again and again, until eventually Eric had snapped at her (something rare for him).
"Well if you were as good a sister as he is brother, maybe I'd imitate you."
He could remember so exactly the look on Serena's face: hurt chased by guilt. And it was in that moment that Eric knew he was not cut out to be Chuck Bass; he couldn't free himself of the guilt that came with hurting Serena. For the last few weeks, she had been distant with him, so that Eric found himself alone for the most part.
"Can we try not to make a big deal out of this?" Eric asked.
"Can we try not to make a big deal out of this," Chuck repeated incredulously.
"Jinx?" Eric said weakly.
"What's his name?" Chuck said flatly, ignoring Eric's attempt at a joke.
"Chuck - "
"Give me a name," Chuck barked.
"No, because I won't let you hire a hit-man because I got the stuffing beaten out of me by some homophobic sophomore."
"Fine," Chuck said, crossing his arms across his chest. "I'll call my P.I. and have him find out the name for me."
"I don't need you to fight my battles for me," Eric snapped, speaking louder than he had intended.
Chuck paused from dialling. Unlike Serena, he gave no outward sign of offence at Eric's tone, but merely settled him with an irritatingly impassive look, waiting for him to explain himself.
"I mean," Eric continued in a softer tone. "Is that how it's always going to be? Every time some closed-minded prick gives me trouble, you're going to leap in with guns blazing?"
"It sounds like a fairly well-formed plan from where I'm standing," Chuck shrugged.
"Well I don't want it. I don't want to talk to you about this."
For a moment, Chuck seemed to teeter between listening to Eric's request and dialling his P.I.'s phone number. But, setting his eyes on the stern look on Eric's face, taking note of the dark circles under the boy's eyes and the grim set of his mouth, Chuck thought better of it. Slipping his phone into his jacket pocket, Chuck leant against the wall with almost theatrical nonchalance.
"So," he dead-panned. "What do you want to talk about."
Eric shrugged. "How's Blair?"
The play of emotions that crossed Chuck's face at the question almost stole the breath from Eric's lungs; he had forgotten quite what it looked like, this intensity that coloured Chuck and Blair's relationship. And now it hit him full force, the joy, terror and redemption that characterised even their every act. But, something was different – Eric saw it immediately. Over the course of their vacation, the already all-consuming relationship had adopted a new hue: it was more private, more intense. And Eric could have been knocked over by the force of it.
"She's good," he said simply.
"Another letter from Vanessa?" Jenny asked, in a half-sympathetic, half-teasing voice.
"She's nothing if not consistent," Dan acknowledged, folding the letter in his lap as the limousine cruised down the main road of East Hampton. "Consistent, and you know…flighty."
Jenny gestured non-commitally before staring out the tinted glass of the window. Dan took a moment to consider her, a metre away in this luxurious car. Apart from those natural changes that had taken place over the course of summer with Rufus and Lily finally committing to becoming whatever the grown-up version of a couple was, Jenny seemed to have changed more than anyone. Her legs were crossed, almost demurely, although her outfit was yet another blood-pressure rising ensemble that Dan both hated and admire. Hated, because he would have to give a stern talking to any man who glanced in her direction. Admired, because there was something so essentially "Jenny" about her way of dressing that made him jealous of this strange sense of self she had developed somewhere along the course of the tempestuous school year they had passed.
Dan folded and re-folded the note that Vanessa had sent him. It was a typically long-winded and emotional thing, which did nothing to dampen the sting he still felt when he considered the ease with which she had packed up and left town. Intellectually, he understood this need of hers to grow, to define herself without the safety net of the Humphrey family. But a part of him wished that she hadn't had to go on a whirlwind tour of the fifty states, armed only with her camcorder, in order to do so. He had imagined, when he had finally surrendered to those hidden feelings for his best friend, that they would have, at least, the entire summer to explore their relationship. But, sometime during the week that followed Chuck and Blair's sudden, if not unexpected, departure, she had become withdrawn, preoccupied with a strange sense that to be in the same place was to be trapped.
"I just need time," she had said, her eyes distant even as her hand was entwined with his.
"Time away from me," he'd responded petulantly.
She had settled one of those clear-eyed, thoughtful looks of hers on his face and he had hated the swoop of breathless affection he felt at the sight. He had fallen for her after she had fallen for him, but he couldn't shake the impression he had that he had fallen harder for her than she had. She was used to loving Dan Humphrey. This was new terrain for him. And to be faced, so soon, with this abandonment was more than he could stand.
"I suppose," she'd said, in her painfully honest way. "But more, time with myself."
"Can't you be yourself with me?"
"When I'm with you, I don't even think about myself."
There was little he could say to that. And so, he had given her his unwilling, stony-faced blessing, walking with her to the Greyhound bus that would take her from him. A part of him had hated her, embarking upon an adventure that could never include him. He had not said goodbye properly. He had grunted at her, unwilling to be emotionally available. There had been nothing cinematic about their farewell, and he knew she was disappointed. When he had returned to the now empty Humphrey loft, he had sat in front of his computer for hours, waiting for inspiration to come.
The document he had saved that day remained blank. It seemed that Vanessa's need to find herself had left him entirely adrift.
"I wonder what it will be like seeing them again," Jenny pondered, strumming her hands against the leather seat of Lily's limo.
"What do you mean?" Dan asked, fiddling with the knobs on the armrest, wondering how far behind Rufus and Lily were in the MiniCooper Rufus had insisted on driving to the Hamptons. Eric had caught the early bus, keen to enjoy some time alone with Chuck before the big party.
Jenny shrugged, unable to find the words. "You know. I mean…it's been months. And everything's changed. I just wonder if they're still going to be all…you know…star-crossed lover…can't-keep-our-hands-off-each-other Chuck and Blair."
Dan frowned to himself. "It's kind of scary, isn't it? I mean, I'm half scared that I'll wade in hip deep and find that they're just like everyone else. That it was something embarrassing and childish that seems less mystical in the cold light of day"
"What does the other half of you think?"
"The other half?" Dan sighed. "The other half is convinced that they are mystical. And that I will have to live with the knowledge that two of the most undeserving, insufferable people I could have thought of have created something greater than both of them."
"I guess we'll see," Jenny said, and for a moment she seemed far too old for her years.
Dan looked out the window as the roads turned from highway to luxury foot-mall. They were getting closer: and soon enough it would be time to confront the fact that while Chuck and Blair had travelled the world, he had done nothing in particular, apart from wonder where it was he had gone wrong in these interpersonal relationships of his. And, swallow the hurt he had felt at the fact that Chuck and Blair had scarcely contacted him during their whirlwind tour of the known world.
Of course, he knew that he was not the only one; he had taken to speaking to Serena at the family dinners Rufus and Lily insisted that they pass together. She had received only the merest word from Blair: mainly photos for Lily to enjoy. As for Nate, who sat awkwardly to Serena's right at these dinners, Chuck had sent him only the occasional word – probably urged by Blair.
"This is how Chuck is," Nate shrugged, sipping his wine and enjoying the feeling of civility that now characterised his interactions with Dan. "When he leaves a place, he erases any trace of himself."
"But Blair is usually so chatty," Serena fretted. "I mean it used to take me days to read one email from her when she was last in France."
"It's different, though," Dan mused. "She's got Chuck."
"And it's personal," Jenny added. "I mean, when they left, everything was crashing down around them. They needed time to de-compress."
"They needed time to de-compress in the company of Kim-Jong Il?" Serena rolled her eyes. Dan had to concede their points; in the sketchy reports that he had gleaned from Gossip Girl, Chuck and Blair had gone rather out-of-bounds during their journey.
To look at Chuck and Blair, one would have been forgiven for assuming that they were a couple most fitted to the well-worn paths of Europe. And, although there had been the requisite visits to Harold Waldorf and Roman LeClerc's vineyard, as well as various shopping visits to Paris, Blair and Chuck had seemed determined to visit only the most obscure places. They had traversed parts of Mongolia, they had brought silk in Nepal, they placed bids on Egyptian artefacts, and for some reason had been compelled to stare across the sumptuous but mine-filled rainforest of the DMZ that separated North and South Korea.
Dan was envious. As he looked over the low light of summer and the rolling grasslands of the playground of the rich, it occurred to him that he had never been anywhere in particular.
As the car came to a stop in front of the wrought iron gates that now bore the name "Innisfree", Dan took a moment to make sense of the huge white house, with those black shutters and the elegant curve of a willow tree in the front garden. He knew that the block of land must extend far back: Eric had cheerfully informed him that there was a pretty respectable (which Dan assumed meant heart-stopping in Upper-East-Side lingo). In his wildest dreams, Dan knew that he would never be able to afford a house as magnificent as this.
"Let's get this over with," Dan said through gritted teeth, gesturing towards the entrance with a heavy sense of dread.
"Just try and stop me," Jenny chirped, all-but skipping down the driveway.
For a moment, the house might have had eyes; Dan was certain that the house itself was cringing away from his humble roots. It was rare for Dan to have moments like this, where his sense of the injustice of society was so acute that he could scarcely breathe through the injustice of it. For an insane moment, Dan was convinced that the house was full of dark intents; that it's scale was too large for human inhabitants. He almost wanted to grab hold of Jenny's hand and run away from it's threatening magnitude.
Of course, the moment passed, and soon enough, Dan remembered that it was no more than a house. Chuck Bass' house at that.
"Let's get this over with," Dan said glumly, to no one in particular.
Apart from a laconic smile and a nod of acknowledgement at the entrance to the party, Dan hadn't found a moment to speak to Chuck, and after so long of no contact whatsoever, Dan was not certain how to go about talking to the boy he had been friends with for only a season.
And so Dan adopted the pose that he was most comfortable with: as an observer.
It had only been a few months since he had last seen Chuck and Blair, and the way they held each other's gazes during Blair's Graduation speech:
"So I want to take this opportunity to thank you for helping me become something substantial. And I want to assure you that no matter how far the distance between us, no matter how difficult the road that lies before us becomes, nothing will undo you, to me. Not because you've changed me, but because having you collide into my life showed me where my edges were."
They'd made plans to meet up after Graduation: it was to be a dinner at the Waldorf penthouse, with all of their friends and family in attendance. And yet before they'd even been able to plan the event fully, Chuck and Blair had made some sort of agreement to flee from the city. They hadn't looked back, and for the last few months, apart from the occasional three-line email from Blair, Dan had not heard a word from the secretive couple. He wondered, as he watched the way the couple navigated their way through their guests either separately or as a unit, whether they had fully prepared themselves for college.
The cynic in Dan, who had been awakened with Vanessa's unexpected desertion, smirked knowingly as Chuck went through the motions of listening to Nate's story, while his eyes devoured Blair in her purple summer dress with the intricate necklace Dan assumed Chuck himself had put around her neck.
It was easier to think of them as separate entities: the Chuck and Blair he knew as two of the most selfish, devious figures he had ever met and then the two people who were capable of such towering feats of love. They were irreconcilable; they contradicted everything Dan had assumed about love. How was it possible to never be open to anyone, and yet to find yourself entirely consumed by another person? How was it possible to be so mean with your sentiments, and yet to be a conduit for the most life-altering relationship Dan had witnessed.
It was unfair, really. And Dan didn't know how it was possible that everyone else didn't shout aloud with the injustice of it. In his unkind moments, Dan assumed that it was because they lacked the faculty to truly understand the dynamic between Chuck and Blair. Serena couldn't grasp it – Nate certainly couldn't. Perhaps Vanessa had been the only one among them to truly understand how lean any other sentiment appeared in comparison to Chuck and Blair's relationship.
Dan found himself frowning malevolently.
"What's the matter, Humphrey?" a voice asked from behind him. "Do you need a decongestant?"
He had no idea how Chuck had managed to sneak up on him. At most he had looked away for a moment. That was all it took for Chuck to claim the upper hand. Dan didn't know why he felt so hostile towards the boy he had come to view as a close friend – at least, he had before Chuck had unceremoniously disappeared from his life altogether. Was it possible that Dan was a little bit hurt?
Definitely, Dan realized, embarrassed.
"I was just trying to calculate the combined age of the guests at this party," Dan said sarcastically.
Chuck cast a laconic eye at the crowd, which was, truth be told, largely populated by the very same guests Mrs. Wincester had invited. "I'd say if we added them together we'd get the exact year that dinosaurs walked the earth."
"You really know how to party."
"It was important to Blair," Chuck said, casting a curious look in Dan's direction. He was toying with a small package, that seemed to sit ill in his hands. He couldn't hold it still.
"You brought her a house," Dan said, a little unkindly. "What else does she want?"
There may have been the slightest hint of hurt still left in Dan's voice as he attempted the nonchalant cruelty that came so easily to Chuck. He had no doubt that someone as perceptive as Chuck would have noticed it – and he half expected Chuck to make some kind of derisive comment. Sorry Humphrey – did you think we were going steady?
Although Chuck's face registered some surprise at Dan's uncharacteristic cruelty, a look of guilt seemed to pass across it. Dan realized with a sense of relief that he hadn't dreamed the friendship he had gained with Chuck; Chuck's face told Dan that he was not only aware that he had been a bad friend, but that he was actually (and this surprised Dan deeply) sorry about it.
"I brought you a gift," Chuck said stiffly.
With a stiff awkwardness that looked strange on Chuck's usually so cat-like frame, he shoved his hand out to offer a hastily wrapped package. Dan sensed that the boy couldn't wait to be rid of it - that he found the whole process of buying a gift for a friend while overseas completely distasteful. He all but threw the package at Dan.
Sensing the burning embarrassment that Chuck would never admit to, Dan took the package casually, careful not to express too much gratitude or surprise. He could tell that Chuck was looking for the exits, seriously considering making a break for it. Not for the first time, Dan wondered what it had been like for Chuck growing up – how he had developed this intense phobia of emotional scenes. Happy to have something to keep him busy, Dan unwrapped the package, to expose the most delicately carved statue that Dan had ever seen. He held it up to the dim lights that illuminated the garden of the house.
It was clearly an Egyptian statue: and Dan didn't have to know much about the history of Egypt to know it was ridiculously valuable.
"It's Thoth," Chuck said flatly. "We thought of you when we saw it at this auction we went to. He's the god of moon, magic and writing – you know, basically an insufferable wanker. So of course we thought of you." He finished in a rush. "There's a certificate of authenticity inside, in case you want to sell it for food when you're a penniless author."
It was an outrageously generous gift accompanied by a mildly insulting explanation. In short – it was the Chuck, down to the finest detail. Dan noticed, while processing his awe at the demure colours that lined the headdress of the statue, the matter-of-fact way Chuck described himself and Blair as "we". Although he had heard other couples do the same thing, had even done it himself with Serena, Dan was struck by how closely fused they were – how the "we" on Chuck's lips made him think of them as a single entity.
He knew that he shouldn't accept such an expensive gift; he knew that his father would insist that it was too much. But he also knew that it would be unbearable to hand it back to Chuck. Not only because it was the most beautiful thing he had seen up close, but also because he knew that Chuck would never be able to countenance even a well-meaning rejection. So, with a sense of reverence, Dan placed the statue in his pocket and offered Chuck a quick smile.
"Thank you," Dan said simply.
"No problem," Chuck said quickly, relieved that the ordeal was over. "There was, uh…something I wanted to ask you.
And here came the inevitable catch, Dan mused wryly. "You want my advice on how to dress?" he asked raising an eyebrow at Chuck's typically over-the-top outfit.
"I think I could get all of your fashion advice from the hobo that lives on your street in Brooklyn," Chuck responded, gesturing at the waiter to hand over a scotch for both of them. Dan sniffed the amber liquid doubtfully. He was more of a cheap beer man, himself, but he hated to give the guests in attendance an excuse to look down on him.
"So what is it?" Dan asked, noticing that Chuck had lost his train of thought, staring at Blair and Nate talking to each other under the willow tree, while Serena danced with Cyrus, Blair's gnome-like step-father.
"I always thought it would be them, you know," Chuck said absently, watching as Blair laughed at Nate's expression.
"What – Nate and Blair?" Dan asked, choking slightly on the burn of the scotch.
"In this house. Together. I thought I'd buy it for them one day. And…stay with them in summers."
"Well," Dan said, trying to lighten his mood. "Looks like you were wrong. Turns out to be you and Blair playing house." He smirked at Chuck. "And here I thought you were more into playing doctor."
"I guess so," Chuck shrugged. "Although it's not really both of us is it? She won't let me put her name on anything to do with the place."
"So that was you who decorated the bathroom with all the vanilla candles?" Dan asked wryly.
"Okay," Chuck admitted with the hint of a smile. "She loves decorating it."
"What's this about, Chuck? I mean, I got the impression that you understood where Blair was coming from with this whole house thing. I mean, she doesn't want you to think she's sticking around just because she enjoys having a summer residence. She wanted you to make yourself something substantial: to have a reason to stay."
Chuck gestured dismissively. It seemed that the dance-partners were being rearranged once more, as Cyrus held out a hand for his step-daughter to dance with him, and Serena pulled a rhythmically challenged Nate onto the floor. Despite Dan's cruel joke about the age of the guests, it was plain to see that everyone was enjoying themselves. Lily and Rufus had yet to let go of each other, rotating on the large gazebo that was covered in jasmine. Dan almost smiled to himself at the sight of the majestic old gramophone and the old-style records that provided the musical accompaniment.
The mood would be spoilt soon, though; he had noticed that a few of Nate's buddies from school had already begun fooling around with the mixing deck that one of them had brought for Chuck as a housewarming gift (although what possible use Chuck would have for mixing music eluded Dan – he imagined that the boys merely wanted to have access to it in the off chance that Chuck allowed them to stay in the house for spring break). Soon enough, the older guests would leave and the party would become a place for the after-hour enjoyment of the young. Dan had already seen Eleanor Waldorf, who had been in a remarkably quiet mood, excuse herself.
"I want you to keep an eye on her," Chuck said suddenly, shaking Dan from his reverie.
Chuck nodded to himself, watching Blair kiss Cyrus on the cheek. "At Yale. I want you to keep an eye on her."
A small, defiant part of him was angry; what right did that spoilt dilettante have to order him around? What right did Chuck have to make things sound so vitally important in that husky drawl of his? What made his relationship with Blair any different to Dan's relationship with Serena, or Vanessa? Why should he and Blair be immune from the power of distance to sever bonds?
"I'm not going to spy on her."
"It's not spying if you're concerned about someone," Chuck said stubbornly.
"Actually…it sort of is," Dan said, downing the rest of his drink. "Don't you think you're taking this controlling boyfriend thing a little far? Maybe giving Blair a bit of air to breathe wouldn't be such a crazy thing. She's hardly the flighty type. You don't have to worry about that. If that's what you're worried about. Because you shouldn't be."
Why was it that conversations with Chuck Bass always led to him sounding like he had been hit over the head with a cartoon dumbbell?
"I have the Skulls and Bones douchebags to make sure that none of the guys hit on her," Chuck said with a note of desperation. "That's not what I need. I can't be there everyday to see her face – to check whether her eyes match her mouth – I just…I can't be there - and I need someone who can be there every day to make sure that she's…that she's okay. Someone who knows her to tell me that she's still…"
Dan's voice was softer, now, moved by the desperation in Chuck's voice, by his choppy sentences. "Still?"
"Still Blair," he said simply.
For a moment, Dan wanted to say something cruel to Chuck, about how they were too young to speak in this way: as if Blair's entire identity depended upon her proximity to Chuck. He might have said so, too, had Blair not chosen that exact moment to walk towards them.
Chuck stiffened at the sight of her, skin turned rose quartz in the dim lighting. It was probably the last song before Justice's D.A.N.C.E. became the dominant sound. And for the time being, Tuck and Patti's "Mad Mad Me" filled the garden with tones of deep, velvety romance. Dan heard Chuck exhale heavily as Blair came within reach, placing his hands around her waist.
"Hey Humphrey," Blair said, smiling at him and tugging at her hair as it curled around her ear.
"Hi Blair," Dan said, finding it suddenly difficult to swallow, as Chuck leant down and kissed Blair on the neck. This close to them, all his uncharitable thoughts seemed pathetic. They were just as magnificent as he remembered. And all the sight of them did was confirm to Dan that there was something terribly lacking in his own life.
"We haven't danced yet, Chuck," Blair said softly.
"And we will remedy that immediately," he said smoothly.
The conversation was over, it seemed, as Chuck led Blair onto the dance-floor. They could have stepped out of the page of one of those books that sat on the shelves of the library Eric had shown him earlier.
Just when Dan thought he may escape without making any sort of deal, Chuck's eyes fell upon him.
Do we have a deal? Chuck mouthed, his arms around Blair as she rested her head on his chest.
"Yes," Dan said softly, nodding – needlessly. "We have a deal."
The moment the last of the important and older guests departed, the party became rather suddenly and rather surprisingly, completely debauched.
Perhaps it was because Blair had orchestrated the earlier stages so elegantly and exactly, but the entire latter half of the party fell to Chuck. And within minutes, displaying once more his uncanny ability to conjure decadence from nowhere in particular, Chuck had quadrupled the alcohol availability, positioned large couches under the night's sky for their more amorous guests, and even supplied pool tools for the impromptu pool party that had developed somewhere between 11pm and midnight.
"He's a psycho motherfucker," commented one articulate youth as he poured champagne into the pool, causing Penelope to squeal. "But Chuck Bass knows how to party."
Even Blair was taken up in the occasion, kicking off her shoes and dancing in a thoroughly inappropriate manner with Chuck. She had even managed to convince Serena to help her perform the entire dance to "Single Ladies" with Nate performing as the third woman. They performed their perfected dance for Chuck, who sat in a comically large armchair at the edge of the gazebo. The crowd who had gathered quickly dispersed, along with Serena and Nate, when Blair seemed to decide that Chuck deserved a more private show in that very chair.
"I've said it once, and I'll say it again," Nate said mournfully as Blair straddled Chuck. "I miss prudish Blair."
The evening was finally drawing to a close, with people sleeping wherever they landed, anticipating the sumptuous breakfast that Chuck promised them while standing on top of a table, his bow-tie coming undone. And then would come the Recovery Party. Basically, anyone who left the house with liver in tact had simply not tried hard enough.
Chuck had spent the greater part of the evening ensuring that Blair's glass was never empty for more than a moment. This had provoked the delicious promise of amorous activities to follow, and yet, as the clock struck 4a.m., Chuck found himself carrying an unconscious Blair into their bedroom. He kissed her lightly on the forehead, knowing that when morning came, this angelic-moonlit woman would be replaced by a hung-over harpy who would throw every object within arm's reach at his head if he made the slightest noise when waking up.
God he loved his insane she-devil.
But for the life of him, he couldn't seem to sleep that night. Perhaps it was because Blair kept hitting his face with the back of her hand and demanding that he bring her more daiquiri, or perhaps it was the sound of the impromptu rap battle that two of the whitest guys in his year at St Jude's going on under their window. Whatever the reason, he couldn't seem to sleep that night.
Pulling on a robe, and deciding that a cup of tea and the sight of the sun rising might cure his insomnia, Chuck made his way into the dark house, trying to avoid as many unconscious class-mates as possible.
He couldn't help but feel like a stranger in this house: couldn't quite comprehend that the place belonged to him and was not merely a halfway house for the wayward teens he had passed high school with. He didn't even want to consider what it would be like next week, when he and Blair departed for Princeton and Yale respectively. They had come to some tacit agreement not to speak of it.
Chuck knew that if he went via the servant's quarters (yes, the house was old enough to have a wing for the servants), he might be able to avoid the twenty-odd people who had decided to sleep there, apart from the guests he had actually invited: Serena and Nate for a start, as Dan seemed to prefer to stay in CeCe's house with Lily and Rufus. Probably provoked by the lingering awkwardness of seeing Serena and Nate together without Vanessa at his side.
Chuck's mind was elsewhere, so he didn't quite notice that the light in the bathroom was switched on when he walked in. It took another moment to register that Eleanor Waldorf was standing in front of the large mirror – topless.
Now, Chuck Bass had seen many a topless woman, but never before had he accidentally walked into his girlfriend's mother in a state of dishabille.
Their eyes met in the mirror.
"Charles - " Eleanor exclaimed, sharply before pressing her shirt up to her chest.
"I'm terribly sorry," Chuck said, feeling a strange heat emanating from his cheeks. It was only by looking in the mirror that he realized he was actually blushing. Turning away with red cheeks, Chuck struggled with the door, his hands shaking with embarrassment.
"Charles – wait," Eleanor said in a shaky voice.
Chuck stared blankly at the wall in front of him, his back facing Eleanor. Now seemed like as good a time as any for an asteroid to hit the earth and obliterate all living things. This interlude was just what his already difficult relationship with Eleanor needed: more awkwardness.
"I need you to help me with something," Eleanor said – still using that unfamiliar voice that made Chuck so deeply uncomfortable. It was not her usual imperious tone. It was something small and delicate. And Chuck had never understood small and delicate creatures.
Turning around, eyes studiously examining the space behind Eleanor's shoulder (although she still had the shirt pressed to her bare chest.
"I need you to feel this," she said flatly, avoiding his eyes as he avoided hers.
It took a moment to register that Eleanor was pointing to a point on the side of her right breast: nearer her armpit than anything else. Chuck forgot about his policy of avoiding her eyes for a moment, a chill passing over him. Was it possible that Blair's mother was…hitting on him?
"Eleanor," Chuck said stiffly, crossing his arms to make some kind of barrier between himself and this crazy woman who stood in his bathroom half-undressed. "You're a very attractive woman, but I'm afraid that I am completely in love with your daughter.
"I'm not hitting on you, you complete dunce," Eleanor snapped, regaining some of her old imperiousness.
Chuck frowned. "Then I'm not sure that I really follow…"
Rolling her eyes, and giving him that look of hers which told him that she thought him completely and utterly idiotic, she grabbed his hand and pressed it to the place she had pointed to earlier. He was so shocked that for a moment he couldn't speak at all.
That was the reason it took a moment for him to feel it: the strange lump under the surface of the skin.
For a moment, all Chuck was aware of was the darkness of the world outside the window. It is always darkest before dawn. He remembered reading that somewhere. Judging by the still silence of the house, everyone else had surrendered to slumber. Two floors above them, Blair slept in her bed, completely unaware that in a forgotten bathroom of Chuck's house, her mother and her boyfriend were exchanging a terrified look.
"It's a lump," Chuck said softly, understanding now.
Eleanor pulled away, pulling the shirt on and ending the moment of pure and honest fear that they had just shared. Chuck knew what this was; he himself had just this reaction to events that were too threatening to process.
"Eleanor," Chuck said, slightly louder. "What - "
"So I didn't dream it after all," Eleanor said flatly, running her fingers through her hair.
"It's been there for a while?" Chuck asked, feeling another wave of panic.
Eleanor shot him a look, still regarding herself in the mirror. "You will tell no one."
"Eleanor, this is serious – we have to take you to the doctor. This isn't going to go away just because we don't talk about it."
"Do not condescend to me, Charles," Eleanor snapped. "I will see to a doctor. For the time being you just focus on keeping your mouth shut."
Chuck wished that he had chosen a different bathroom – wished that he had taken a different route to the kitchen. He had noticed Eleanor retire early from the party. He had noticed how pinched her face was during the course of the evening. He knew that if he had not run into her that night, this stubborn and implacable woman would never had involved him in this entire ordeal. He had walked into a life-changing scene. And for the first time in quite a while, Chuck wondered what else he and Blair had missed during their travels. He realized that even though they had stepped out of their lives, the lives of those they cared about had continued at their usual pace. For some reason, the sight of Eric's bruised eye came to mind.
"I won't lie to Blair," Chuck said flatly.
"So you'd rather hurt her?" Eleanor said sharply, her eyes flashing. "I'm going to the doctor next week. There might be nothing to tell. I for one would rather have all the facts before I worry Cyrus and Blair."
"I'm coming," Chuck said finally, his chin jutted out defiantly. "I'll take you – to the doctor. I'm coming."
She snorted. "And why would you do that?"
"Because I'm in love with your daughter," Chuck said simply. "And I'm the only person in your life who won't feel sorry for you."
"You don't feel sorry for me?"
Chuck shrugged and then flashed a slight smile. "Not as sorry as I feel for any doctor who tries to treat you."
"Alright then," Eleanor said, as if bestowing a great favour upon him.
"I'll just…leave you then."
Chuck never did make it to the kitchen; the moment he left the bathroom, he hurried back upstairs, feeling the pressing need to hold Blair in his arms.
As he climbed into the bed they had chosen together, he couldn't muster a smile when she immediately adjusted her sleeping body to meet his. For a long time, he stared at the ceiling, watching as the morning light changed it's colour.
To think that only a few hours before, his greatest worry had been what would happen when he and Blair departed for college.
They had left the United States in the hope that those forces that never ceased to threaten them could be left behind. They had run away, to be alone for a while. And for a blissful week, they had managed to maintain that illusion in this house. Far from the things of man, they had been the only two people in the universe.
It was only now, with Blair slumbering on his shoulder and the sound of the world waking up, that Chuck realized that the world will not cease turning for anyone.
Not even for Chuck Bass and Blair Waldorf.
A/N: Well, there's the first chapter. Chapter Two will pick up a month from now, and trust me when I say that all of the characters form the last instalment will be back soon. I just needed to lay the scene: now the players can enter.
Thanks for reading and reviewing!