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Chapter 3: The Christmas Present

December 2006

"Oh, they're just perfect," Blair said in a reverent tone. "Daddy really does have the most impeccable taste, doesn't he?"

Swiveling her head from side to side, she studied her reflection in the vanity mirror, her eyes alight with admiration.

Her new diamond earrings twinkled brilliantly in her earlobes; the small stones caught the muted bedroom lighting, refracting it into thousands of brightly-colored beams that danced across her neck and the tops of her shoulders.

"Very pretty, Miss Blair," Dorota confirmed with an affectionate smile.

After patting her young charge on the shoulder, the maid returned to the task at hand. There was a sizable mound of Christmas presents on the bed, which needed to be organized and tucked away in various drawers and chests and closets.

Selecting a soft cashmere scarf and matching gloves, Dorota carried them to the corner of Blair's closet that contained her outerwear accessories, meticulously organized by color.

"He got them at the most adorable little boutique in Paris," Blair continued with a happy sigh. "He promised to take me next time we're there. Spring break maybe? Paris is so beautiful in the spring…"

Shuffling back into the bedroom, Dorota retrieved a quilted leather Balenciaga, examining it carefully to determine whether it belonged with the "totes" or the "satchels."

"I just wish I had a matching pendant," Blair murmured, casting a critical eye over her bare neck. "Maybe I could go put one on hold tomorrow…"

She and Nate weren't exchanging gifts until Saturday, since he was spending the holidays at his grandfather's estate- but knowing him, he'd put off shopping until the very last minute.

And God knew he couldn't be trusted to pick out a gift on his own.

"Such a lovely dress not need any… embellishment," Dorota said dutifully.

Blair tilted her head to the side, contemplating her reflection.

Her dress, which she'd chosen especially for tonight, was a deep green velvet, accented by a belt of white ribbon that circled around her waist to form a bow at the center of her back. The boat-shaped neckline curved widely from the point of each shoulder, showing off her delicate collarbones and long neck. And she'd arranged her curls into a loose updo, with just a few strands strategically framing the glittering gems in her ears.

Dorota was right, she decided- you could never go wrong with simple and classic.

"Almost time for dinner, Miss Blair," the maid pointed out, with a quick glance at the bedside clock. "Your mother say guest arriving at 6pm."

Blair's satisfied smile vanished instantly.

"I don't understand why we even invited him," she groused, her mouth turning downwards into a frown. "Christmas dinner is always just the three of us. It's tradition."

"But two years ago, your grandparents-"

"It's tradition," Blair repeated, ignoring Dorota's interjection.

Taking another glance in the mirror, she smoothed her hands over her updo and tucked a wayward curl into place.

Daddy was just too nice, she thought to herself. Almost… pathologically nice. If it were up to him, they'd invite every hobo and indigent in the tri-state area over for Christmas dinner.

Which actually would've been preferable, she decided, to the person he'd invited instead.

.


.

"I am not over-reacting. I just wish you had consulted me first, that's all."

Eleanor's voice rang out through the living room, and Blair paused at the top of the staircase, craning her neck forward to hear.

"I told you, I didn't have a chance," Harold replied, in the pacifying tone he always used when her mother was overreacting. "I knew he was leaving for Dubai, but he didn't mention until the end of the meeting that Chuck was staying in New York."

"The boy is fifteen years old, Harold, he doesn't need a babysitter."

"He's the same age as Blair," Harold countered. "And you wouldn't leave her alone on Christmas, would you?"

"Well, no, of course not…"

Blair almost snorted aloud at Eleanor's obviously insincere denial.

"I just told Bart that we'd be happy to have him over for dinner, and he said that was very thoughtful of us," Harold continued.

"But we don't even have a gift for him," Eleanor pointed out. "You can't just invite someone over for Christmas and not-"

"I'm sure we can find something," Harold interjected, his voice still calm and placating. "It's not until tomorrow night, there's still plenty of time."

Even from fifteen feet away, Blair could hear her mother sigh.

"Well, it's fine with me," Eleanor finally conceded. "I just don't know if Blair will take it well. You know how… high-strung she gets about the holidays."

"Oh, don't worry about Blair," Harold replied cheerfully. "She and Chuck are friends, I'm sure she'll be thrilled."

.


.

Blair was… definitely not thrilled.

The prospect of sharing her traditional family gathering with an outsider was bad enough. But sharing it with someone whose idea of a merry Christmas probably involved strippers in slutty Mrs. Claus outfits and a big bag of coke? Well, that was just downright sacrilegious.

She'd complained bitterly about the situation during her last phone conversation with Serena, who was spending the week in Copenhagen with Eric, Lily, and Lily's latest boyfriend.

Her best friend had shown little sympathy for her plight.

"Hey, I'd take Christmas in New York over pretty much anywhere else… Chuck Bass or no," Serena had commented, disguising her melancholy with a little chuckle.

But what Serena didn't know- because Blair had never volunteered the details- was the motivation behind her Chuck-avoidance policy.

Basically, ever since he'd molested her with his tongue during an ill-advised (or Serena-advised, same difference) game of Spin-the-bottle, she'd made a conscious effort to avoid being alone with him. Not because the kiss had been a big deal or anything- or because she still thought about it, ever- but because she wanted to make it clear to him that such perviness would not be tolerated.

He was just lucky there'd been dozens of onlookers present, she thought with an indignant sniff. Otherwise he would've gotten backhanded right across his smirking face.

But, despite her misgivings, she'd decided to put on a good show for her father's sake. She didn't want to disabuse him of the notion that his daughter was still the warm-hearted, compassionate little girl he imagined her to be.

The kind of girl who would welcome the disadvantaged, the indigent, and the… morally-depraved to dine with them, without so much as wrinkling her nose.

"Blair-bear, your friend is here!" Harold's voice echoed up from the living room.

Blair's eyes narrowed involuntarily.

"Coming, daddy!" she called back, smoothing one hand across the bodice of her dress.

She allowed herself one last annoyed sigh before rearranging her features into an expression of doe-eyed innocence. Then she rose to her feet and stepped gingerly around Dorota- who was still busy sorting through her mound of gifts- and headed down to join the festivities.

.


.

"There you are, dear," Eleanor commented as Blair made her way down the stairs. "We were wondering if you were going to make an appearance."

Blair frowned slightly, glancing over at the antique grandfather clock against the living room wall.

It was exactly three minutes past six.

"You look beautiful, sweetie," Harold greeted her with an affectionate smile.

She practically beamed in response, one hand reaching up to tuck a stray curl behind her ear.

Her smile stiffened when the elevator dinged, signaling the arrival of their visitor- but she straightened her back and strode determinedly towards the foyer.

"Chuck!" she greeted him as he stepped out of the elevator, her voice brimming with exaggerated friendliness. "So wonderful of you to join us."

He raised an eyebrow at her feigned enthusiasm.

"Blair," he replied dryly, his lips quirking in a sardonic grin.

God, she hated when he looked at her like that. Like he found her… amusing.

Blair Waldorf was not amusing. She did not amuse people.

"Mr. Waldorf," he murmured politely in greeting. "Mrs. Waldorf."

"Chuck, good to see you again." Harold stepped forward, smiling amiably, and offered him a firm handshake.

"Charles," Eleanor chimed in with a perfunctory nod. "Won't you come in?"

Dorota bustled down the stairs and across the foyer to take Chuck's coat and scarf, as well as the bottle of wine he was carrying, which she handed off to Harold.

"Ah, the 2001 Latour, one of my favorites," Harold said approvingly, tracing one finger across the label. "We're actually having beef for the main course, this will go perfectly."

No one even batted an eye at a fifteen-year-old showing up with an eight hundred dollar bottle of wine- it was pretty much par for the course on the UES.

"Well, dinner will be served shortly," Harold commented, gesturing in the direction of the formal dining room. "Shall we?"

Blair turned to follow her parents, and Chuck fell into step beside her.

"You're looking very… festive, Waldorf," he observed in a low tone.

She narrowed her eyes at him, trying to decide if he was making fun of her.

"New earrings?"

Her hand automatically went up to graze against them.

"Yes, Daddy brought them back from Paris," she replied, her voice cool but polite.

"They suit you," he murmured.

His eyes trailed down the curve of her neck in a way that made her feel uncomfortably flushed.

"Thanks," she replied in a haughty tone, keeping her eyes fixed firmly ahead as she walked.

But she couldn't help glancing at him out of the corner of her eye, just to assess his outfit in turn. He wore an argyle-patterned cashmere sweater- dark green with gray and white accents- over a white shirt and bowtie, and charcoal-colored trousers. In fact, it coordinated so well with her dress, it almost looked as though they'd planned it.

And she wasn't the only one who noticed.

"Oh, look at how well you two match," Harold enthused, smiling fondly at them as he pulled out Eleanor's chair. "We'll have to take some pictures."

"Can't wait," Blair replied with a stiff smile of her own.

She fought the urge to roll her eyes when Chuck pulled out her own chair, the gentlemanly gesture not quite disguising the impudent glint in his eye.

But she channeled her inner Grace Kelly, smiling graciously as she took her seat and then folding her hands primly in her lap.

Chuck Bass was not going to ruin her Christmas.

.


.

"Oh, the potatoes dauphinoise are just divine," Eleanor said approvingly. "Alain really outdid himself this year."

Harold nodded in agreement, making an "mmm" noise as he chewed.

Blair pressed the tines of her fork into one buttery, cheesy slice of potato, and dragged it in a semi-circle around her plate.

Then slid it back to its original position.

She would have actually eaten a few bites, knowing they'd be delicious- perfectly tender and creamy, finished with the delicate aroma of white truffles- but Eleanor was watching her. No doubt counting the calories in every buttery, carbohydrate-laden morsel.

So Blair just continued moving the food around her plate.

Across, then back. Then across again.

She glanced over to the other side of the table, watching with mild annoyance as Chuck finished the last bite of his steak. He washed it down with a generous swig of bordeaux, and she found her eyes inexplicably drawn to his mouth as it pursed against the rim of his wine glass. His throat rippled as he swallowed, his tongue darting out to swipe an errant drop from his upper lip.

And suddenly- unwittingly- she recalled how it had felt tracing against her own.

Soft, sensual.

Provocative.

A rush of warmth flooded her face and she shifted uncomfortably in her chair, chastising herself for thinking about something so inappropriate. She'd already decided to forget that it ever happened, and she didn't understand why her mind wasn't cooperating.

But she still hadn't looked away when his eyes lifted to meet hers, the sudden contact causing a tingle of electricity to run up her spine.

He tipped his glass towards her in a teasing salute; his eyebrows raised in amusement, as if he knew exactly what she'd been thinking about.

Which he couldn't possibly, she reassured herself. Chuck Bass was many things- a schemer, a pervert, a delinquent- but he was not a mind-reader.

So Blair just stared back haughtily, trying to will away the flush she could still feel staining her cheeks.

He took another long swallow of his wine. Then, in a slow, calculated motion, ran his tongue deliberately along his upper lip once again, his eyes never leaving hers.

Blair's eyes widened in disbelief- and then narrowed in barely-restrained outrage when Chuck concluded this series of gestures with an unrepentant smirk.

As if his very presence weren't already offensive enough, now he was going to act like a total lech in the middle of Christmas dinner?

Oh, hell no, she decided.

She would make Chuck Bass rue the day he crashed her family's Christmas.

Realizing that her father was still speaking, she snapped back to attention when he asked Chuck something about his schoolwork.

"Fascinating as usual," Chuck replied in a tone that suggested the opposite.

Harold nodded with an indulgent little smile.

"Actually," Blair interjected, her eyes wide and innocent, "Chuck's been having a lot of trouble with his classes recently."

"Oh?" Harold raised his eyebrows.

"Yeah, didn't you fail like three of your midterms?" she asked Chuck, her tone full of faux concern.

He just shrugged indifferently.

"Well, we can't all be valedictorian," he replied, a hint of mockery in his voice.

Clearly insulting his academic prowess wasn't going to get her anywhere, she decided. Not that that came as any sort of surprise.

"Maybe you could tutor him, Blair-bear," Harold suggested helpfully.

Shit.

"Daddy, you're so thoughtful," she demurred, "but I'm sure Chuck wouldn't be interested in that…"

"Actually, I would be very interested," Chuck countered, clearly enjoying watching her squirm.

She shot him a look of thinly-veiled contempt.

Honestly, she didn't know why Bart didn't just cut to the chase and hire hookers instead of tutors; based on past precedent, the outcome was pretty much the same.

"Tutoring doesn't seem very effective for your learning style," she replied in a saccharine tone. "Perhaps you should practice more… solo studying."

He chuckled appreciatively at the double entendre.

"But it's so much more fun as a group activity," he replied with a suggestive wink.

"Oh, Blair's always preferred working on her own," Harold commented, oblivious to the undercurrents of their conversation.

"Is that so?" Chuck's eyes twinkled with mirth.

"Yes, what's that you always say about group projects, sweetie?" Harold gave her a fond smile. "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself."

Blair felt her cheeks burn as Chuck cleared his throat to keep from laughing.

"Yes, I'd imagine Nathaniel wouldn't be a lot of assistance in a… study session," he commented, a note of wicked humor in his voice.

At this point, she decided that Operation Get Rid of Chuck was not going as planned. He seemed impervious to public embarrassment, and far more skilled than she at navigating a minefield of pervy double entendres.

Not to mention, that smug grin on his face was really starting to piss her off.

Time to regroup and plan her next move.

She plotted silently, pushing the potatoes around her plate with considerably more force than before. In the meantime, her parents began to discuss some of their upcoming social obligations.

"Of course, it's going to be terribly awkward with both Randall and Felicia there." Eleanor sighed. "It's only been two months since the divorce, and apparently it was not an amicable one."

Blair's ears perked up.

"Oh right, the Middletons," she mused, tilting her head to the side in feigned contemplation. "Why did they split up again? Something about… infidelity…"

"He came home early from a business trip and caught her in bed with someone else," Eleanor said with a snort of disgust. "Randall was… absolutely devastated, of course."

Blair widened her eyes in exaggerated horror.

"Oh no, that's awful," she said, shaking her head sadly.

She glanced over at Chuck, noting with satisfaction that his smug grin had disappeared.

"I wonder if it was anyone we know…" she added curiously.

"Well, he didn't say- just that he managed to get in a few good punches before the guy grabbed his pants and made a run for it," Eleanor said with a trace of vindictive amusement in her voice.

"Good for Randall," Blair commented, her voice matching her mother's.

Chuck said nothing, only a slight tensing of his jaw showing any reaction.

Harold fell oddly silent as well, she noticed, his attention suddenly fixed on his food. She frowned for a moment before mentally dismissing the observation.

"Come to think of it…" Blair pursed her lips as she studied the dark-haired boy across the table. "Didn't you come to school with a black eye a few months ago, Chuck?"

He lifted his gaze to meet hers, looking more annoyed than amused now.

"How on earth did that happen?" she asked innocently.

"Walked into a door," he said in a terse voice, his stare almost daring her to contradict him.

"Oh, how clumsy of you." Blair smiled brightly.

An awkward silence fell over the table for a few moments; it was clear that everyone understood the subtext of their exchange this time.

Quite frankly, she was surprised that was the first time Chuck had been caught by an angry husband. If there was one thing she knew about his sexual escapades, it was that he didn't discriminate based on marital status.

Or anything else, for that matter.

"Yes, well…" Harold cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Maybe on to more… cheerful topics?"

Blair took a sip of her own wine, taking a certain spiteful satisfaction in Chuck's obvious unease.

"So Charles… how was your Thanksgiving?" Eleanor asked politely.

"Oh yes, your father mentioned you two went to Puerto Vallarta," Harold said in an affable tone. "It must be beautiful down there this time of year."

Chuck opened his mouth to reply, but Blair cut him off.

"Not really the more cheerful topic you were going for, Daddy," she said with a little laugh. "Bart having to bribe Chuck out of jail isn't exactly a heartwarming holiday story."

Taken aback, both of her parents turned to look at her- Eleanor pausing with her fork halfway to her mouth and Harold looking as though his eyebrows were going to climb right off his forehead.

"Although, you can't really blame him. I mean, who knew drug possession was even illegal in Mexico?" she went on blithely.

"Blair," Harold interjected in a warning tone.

"So it's probably for the best that Bart left him in New York," she continued as if she hadn't heard him. "Because I have not heard anything good about the correctional facilities in Dubai-"

"Blair," Eleanor admonished her sharply.

Realizing that she'd gone too far, Blair fell silent, her stomach sinking at the consternation and embarrassment on her parents' faces.

Chuck was just staring at her in silence, every trace of amusement vanished from his stony expression.

"Perhaps you should go down to the kitchen and check on dessert, dear?" her mother suggested, her tone leaving no room for protest.

Blair's mouth tightened into a flat line as she understood her implication- Eleanor wanted her to leave the room so she could apologize to Chuck for her daughter's outrageous behavior.

"Fine," she said haughtily.

Her chair scraped against the floor as she rose to her feet, threw down her napkin, and stalked out, feeling tears of frustration burning the rims of her eyes.

.


.

Several minutes later, Blair was standing in the middle of the kitchen with a furious expression on her face. She was supposedly "supervising" the kitchen staff as they organized the dessert service, but they were just skittering around her like frightened little mice, avoiding eye contact at all costs.

Suddenly a door swung open behind her, and the servants scurried out of the line of fire as Chuck strode into the kitchen.

"Are you on your period or something, Waldorf?" he said immediately, cutting right to the chase.

Blair's mouth dropped open at his audacity.

"How dare you-" she began in an imperious tone.

"Just trying to figure out why you're being even more of a bitch than usual, that's all," he shot back, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his trousers as he stared at her.

"Well, maybe I wouldn't be, if you'd quit acting like a degenerate pervert right in front of my parents," she countered, crossing her arms over her chest.

Chuck just rolled his eyes.

"Look, I get the whole uptight princess routine, but I didn't realize you'd completely lost the ability to take a joke," he replied in a sardonic tone.

"Oh, so now it's my fault that I don't find your offensive behavior hilarious?"

"It's never bothered you before," he pointed out.

Then he paused, his eyes narrowing on her flushed face.

"So you want to tell me what's really going on here?"

Her breath caught in her throat when his gaze lingered over her expression.

As if he could see straight through her.

Straight through to all of the thoughts she wasn't supposed to be thinking, to all of the mixed-up feelings evoked by his presence.

Anger. Resentment. Even jealousy, because Christmas was the one night per year that Blair Waldorf was guaranteed both of her parents' undivided attention- and here was Chuck Bass, making small talk with Harold and Eleanor over the Chateaubriand.

And then there was another feeling, one she was reluctant to even identify. Something deeper, darker. Something that, if she didn't know much, much better, she'd almost think was… desire.

It wasn't, of course. That was probably just… Chuck's debauchery rubbing off on her. An unfortunate side effect of that one meaningless, insignificant little kiss.

Hopefully that was the only thing she'd caught, she thought with a tinge of disgust.

"Or," Chuck continued, still looking at her, "maybe you could at least explain why you're suddenly bitching out on me for no reason?"

"No reason?" Blair repeated in disbelief. Indignation surged within her, quickly becoming the most prominent in her flurry of emotions.

Chuck prompted her to continue with an uncomprehending raise of his eyebrows.

"You're not even supposed to be here," she burst out, her words ringing through the now-empty kitchen. "This is my family, my Christmas. Daddy only invited you because he felt sorry for you."

She could've sworn she saw a flash of hurt in his dark eyes, a small chink in his otherwise stoic expression.

But it disappeared in an instant, replaced by icy indifference.

"Well, not to worry, Princess," he said coldly. "As soon as I can get out of here, I will. And you'll have your perfect family all to yourself again."

With that, he turned and strode out of the kitchen, leaving the door swinging behind him.

.


.

Blair made it back upstairs just in time to hear Chuck making some excuse to her parents about needing to leave.

"But thank you for dinner," he said politely. "Everything was delicious."

"You should at least stay for dessert," Harold cajoled him. "Alain made his famous buche de noel, it's one of Blair's favorites. Isn't that right, sweetie?"

He gave Blair an expectant look, clearly urging her to remedy her previous rude behavior.

"Yes, it's… really amazing." She cleared her throat, giving Chuck a look that- while not quite apologetic- was significantly softer than before. "You can't leave without trying it," she added earnestly.

He said nothing in response, and she felt her stomach tighten anxiously; she knew how disappointed her father would be if Chuck left because of her.

"Please?" she added in a beseeching tone.

Left with no other option, Chuck nodded in reluctant assent and followed them into the living room.

The room was still lit up with Christmas decorations: the lights on the tree twinkled in one corner, monogrammed stockings hung from the mantel over the fireplace, and the lilting melody of Christmas carols played in the background.

The staff was setting out coffee service and after-dinner drinks, as well as a china platter bearing the elaborately-frosted roulade. Chocolate buttercream adorned the outside, patterned into a bark-like texture, and the entire confection was embellished with powdered sugar snow, merengue mushrooms, and fresh raspberries.

As always, Blair settled in to her place on the sofa to watch as the dessert was plated, slipping her shoes off and tucking her feet up underneath her. Her parents sat in their adjacent armchairs, sipping on glasses of port and discussing their pre-opera plans for that weekend.

Chuck sat quietly on the opposite end of the sofa, one leg propped up on the opposite knee. He kept his eyes averted whenever Blair glanced over at him, and she noticed a certain tension in his jaw that hadn't been present earlier.

She frowned, unaccustomed to the pang of regret in her chest.

She knew she hadn't hurt Chuck's feelings- as if that were even possible- but she didn't want him to be pissed at her either. After all, he was her boyfriend's best friend… and, for all his faults, she supposed she considered him one of her own as well. That made him a member of a very select coterie, of which he was probably the only one who'd be willing to hide a body for her.

Should that ever prove necessary.

She shot another sidelong glance at him, watching as he studied the ornately-decorated Christmas tree in the corner of the room.

"Do you like it?" she asked finally.

Chuck shot her a questioning look.

"The tree," she clarified. "I decorated it myself."

She could practically feel Dorota rolling her eyes from across the room.

Fine- so she'd supervised the decorating while Dorota perched precariously atop a step ladder, moving garlands and silver balls and ornaments around in response to her commands. Still, the creative vision was all hers.

"Yes, it's very… tasteful," Chuck said dryly, eying the perfectly color-coordinated trimmings.

Blair nodded in satisfaction.

Seeing his brow furrow, she followed his gaze to a lone mismatched ornament hanging near the bottom of the tree.

"Oh!" She jumped to her feet with an excited smile. "Do you remember when we made these?"

Retrieving the ornament from the tree, she brought it back over for Chuck's inspection. It was a reindeer made out of two wooden clothespins glued together and painted brown. Its googly eyes were slightly askew, and a red and white Santa hat was glued atop its "head," along with a loop of fine gold thread to hang it from.

"In preschool," she prompted him. "Remember, we made them as Christmas presents for our parents?"

"Oh, right." Chuck smiled wryly, turning the ornament over in his hand.

"Daddy insists on putting it on the tree every year, even though it doesn't match at all," she said with feigned exasperation- but was unable to suppress a smile when Harold winked at her from across the room.

"I'm guessing Bart doesn't put your embarrassing childhood art projects on your Christmas tree?" she said over her shoulder as she bent down to reposition the ornament.

"We're not allowed to have trees at the Palace." Chuck said absently, his eyes following her movements.

Blair's forehead crinkled. "Doesn't your father…own the hotel?"

Chuck shrugged.

"He's a stickler for his own rules, I guess."

"But how could he not allow people to have Christmas trees?" she asked, aghast. The idea was unfathomable to her.

"Fire hazard, or so he says." He shrugged again. "He's nothing if not practical."

"That is just… horrible," she decided, giving an appalled little shake of her head as she rose to her feet and rejoined him on the sofa.

Chuck's mouth quirked in a resigned sort of way.

"At least he doesn't pretend to be something he's not," he said impassively.

Following Chuck's gaze towards her parents, she felt herself prickle in defense.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded, keeping her voice down so Harold and Eleanor wouldn't notice. Though that was doubtful anyway, judging from the amount of port they'd already consumed…

Chuck glanced back at her and opened his mouth to reply, but appeared to think better of it.

"Nothing," he murmured. "Never mind."

She was about to question him further when they were interrupted by Dorota handing out dessert plates.

They ate quietly for a few moments, the only sounds "mmm"s of enjoyment. Blair cut her slice into tiny bite-sized pieces: this was one of the few occasions when she allowed herself to indulge in something so decadent, so she wanted to savor it for as long as possible.

"Oh Chuck, before I forget-" Harold rose to his feet, retrieving something from the mantel. "We wanted to give you a little something."

He held out a small box, wrapped in shiny red paper and topped with a gilt-trimmed ribbon.

Chuck looked taken aback, his brow furrowing in puzzlement as he stared at it.

"Oh, but… I didn't…" he began, sounding uncharacteristically tentative.

"Nonsense," Harold dismissed his hesitations with a wave of his hand. "Merry Christmas, Chuck."

He held the gift out until Chuck took it, turning it over in his hand several times before tugging the ribbon undone.

Blair watched him open it, wondering to herself why the sight seemed so incongruous.

It occurred to her that she'd never actually seen Chuck open a present. Unlike the rest of her classmates, she couldn't recall him ever having a birthday party; in fact, she wasn't even certain when his birthday was.

Finally divesting the gift of its wrapping, Chuck flipped open the hinged box inside to reveal a handsome silver money clip, its brushed metal surface decorated with an embossed filigree pattern.

Blair recognized it immediately as having come from her parents' gift closet- a selection of generic presents they kept on hand for unexpected houseguests and last minute events.

"I know most of you kids only carry plastic nowadays," Harold said with a self-deprecating smile. "But classic accessories never go out of style."

Chuck was silent for a moment, running his thumb along the edge of the box.

"It's… very nice," he said at last.

He stared at the gift for a moment longer before he appeared to regain his bearings. He looked back up at them and cleared his throat.

"Thank you," he said gruffly.

"Oh, it was our pleasure," Harold said blithely, gesturing to Dorota to refill his brandy. "We're just so happy you could join us."

The conversation quickly moved on to other topics- Blair happily reminisced about some of her favorite holiday vacations over the years, while her parents smiled indulgently and chimed in with anecdotes of their own.

But she couldn't help stealing glances at the dark-eyed boy sitting beside her. He remained quiet except for the occasional comment or chuckle, and seemed content to simply sit back and listen to their conversation.

Probably because all that awaited him at home was an empty hotel room.

For some reason, that realization produced an odd twinge of emotion in her chest. She chose not to identify it, although it was most certainly not sadness. Or remorse, for that matter.

It was just the holidays, she decided- they always made her so sentimental.

Which was probably why, when Chuck finally bid them goodnight an hour or so later, she actually got up to walk him to the elevator.

They stood side by side in the foyer as he shrugged into his wool overcoat, carefully tucking his gift into its front pocket.

"Well, thanks for coming," she said with a bright smile. "And, uh, about before-"

"Don't mention it, Waldorf," He shrugged off her intended apology. "I'm sure you can figure out a way to make it up to me later," he added suggestively, giving her a teasing smirk.

She just rolled her eyes in mock annoyance.

In doing so, however, her gaze caught on a decoration that was dangling from the foyer archway.

Chuck's eyes followed hers upwards- to the mistletoe hanging directly over their heads- then flicked back down to meet hers again.

The two of them regarded each other in silence for a moment before Chuck cleared his throat.

"Better not," he murmured with a wry twist of his lips. "Nathaniel might catch wind of our… sordid affair."

She smiled back, breathing a silent sigh of relief that things seemed to be back to normal between them.

At that moment, the elevator announced its arrival with a muted ding. Chuck draped his scarf around the collar of his coat and retrieved a pair of leather gloves from the inner pocket, before glancing back up at her.

Acting more on instinct than prudence, Blair leaned in to give him a friendly hug goodbye.

His shoulders tensed in surprise as she placed her hands on them- but he recovered quickly, sliding his hands around her back and enveloping her in his arms in return.

Blair felt herself flush at the feeling of his body pressed so closely to hers, the warmth of his hands palpable even through the heavy fabric of her dress. With a soft clearing of her throat, she pulled away, hoping the dim lighting would disguise the pink tint of her cheeks.

"Merry Christmas, Chuck," she said softly.

He stepped into the elevator and turned around, his dark eyes regarding her with an unfathomable expression.

"Merry Christmas, Blair," Chuck echoed, as the doors slid closed.

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A/N: So… long time no update, I know, I know. I've had some writer's block recently and decided to work on this story as a reprieve… and of course it ended up twice as long as I intended. But anyway, hope you enjoyed :) As always, thoughts/opinions/encouragement are much appreciated.

Thanks to Terrabeth for polishing this up for me- and to Tati for offering her own beta services while TB was out of the country, although it turns out I write so slowly that I didn't have to take her up on it, hah.

And thanks to everyone who reviewed the last chapter, I heart you guys: Abelard, Arazadia, annablake, fiona249, AquarianAir, Ariana Grey, ggloverxx19, LeftWriter224, maryl, bfan, Rf, Lsase, Italiapen112, ellibells, chaval, chair4everxoxo, theghostqueen, chadyuck, Nyx Underwood, notoutforawalk, Mademoiselle Bass, furygrrl, GGfan73104, jsta, louboutinlove, Chair fan, Terrabeth, SaturnineSunshine, tHe dAily ScRibbLeR, aliceeeebeth, Clair Carlyle, Lily, svenjen, Chelsey, missbabyv, veniceinbandw, and fanny0997.