Chapter 10

Blair drummed her fingers impatiently along the top of her handbag as she scanned the tarmac one more time.

Nate and Serena were both late.

Typical, she thought, heaving an exasperated little sigh.

And since she'd arrived half an hour early, that meant she'd been waiting for almost- she retrieved her cell phone to check the time, again- thirty two minutes now.

She adjusted the floppy brim of her hat, to ensure that the sun didn't freckle her skin, and began tapping one Louboutin-clad foot against the hot concrete.

"B!"

She turned around. Serena was waving as she and Nate made their way across the tarmac, both wheeling small roll-aboard suitcases and carrying leather duffels slung over their shoulders.

"It's about time," Blair sighed, and motioned to the nearby attendants to begin loading her belongings into the plane.

"You know we're only staying for four days, right?" Nate eyed the sizable pile of luggage with bemusement.

"I needed options." Blair shrugged.

Admittedly, she'd filled her entire luggage set, including the hat box, and it had taken her almost three hours to pack. And she hadn't even brought everything she'd wanted to bring.

Her cheeks flushed a little as she recalled the twenty minutes she'd spent agonizing over her new black silk teddy; she'd packed it, then unpacked it, then reconsidered, then re-reconsidered…

In the end, she'd decided it would just be tempting fate, and left it draped over the chaise in her bedroom.

Which was such a shame, she thought with a sigh, because she knew Chuck would love it. Especially if she accessorized with some red stilettos and a long strand of pearls…

"Blair? Are you okay?" Nate's voice snapped her back to reality, and she realized she was just standing at the top of the stairs, staring off into space.

"Sorry," she mumbled. She gave a brisk little shake of her head before continuing into the plane.

Once they'd settled into the luxurious leather seats and were waiting to taxi down the runway, Blair took a deep breath and tried to calm her jittery nerves. Flying had always made her nervous- well, more the prospect of crashing to a fiery death than the flying itself- but now she had the added stress of wondering what awaited her at their destination.

And the more she thought about it, the more nervous she became.

Because for the first time in her entire life… she had no idea how to act around Chuck.

Sure, they'd been talking on the phone over the past few months, but interacting in person was a totally different ballgame. Was she supposed to treat him like just another one of her friends, the same way she would Nate or Serena? She wasn't sure she was even capable of doing that.

But she certainly couldn't treat him the way she did feel- like she was thoroughly, desperately, irrevocably in love with him.

Not to mention lust. She was already a little apprehensive that she might just throw him down and mount him, like some sort of… wild jungle cat in heat.

"You seem tense, B," Serena observed from the adjacent seat. "Everything alright?"

"I am not tense, I'm just… excited," Blair replied coolly, crossing one leg over the other.

And then uncrossing, and re-crossing with the other leg.

Serena simply raised her eyebrows and shook her head in amusement.

Anyway, Blair decided, the point was that she was not an animal. Yes, being around Chuck did tend to inspire certain… animalistic urges. Urges that she'd often found difficult to resist in the past.

But she was older and wiser now. And she wasn't about to risk their future together over a couple rounds of really, really, ridiculously good sex.

If she were being completely honest with herself, though, that was far from the worst potential outcome of this trip. There was also the question of what she was going to learn about Chuck's life in London.

About his fabulous penthouse. His successful business deals. His fun new group of friends.

Co-ed friends.

She felt the corner of her eye twitch.

Resolving to put the matter from her mind, she turned her gaze over towards her best friend, who had settled back into her seat to read.

"Fifty Shades of Grey?" Blair read the title aloud in disbelief. "Seriously, Serena?"

"What?" Serena glanced up. "I heard it was a fun read."

"From whom?" Blair asked skeptically.

"I dunno." Serena shrugged. "People on the internet."

"You do know that's why they invented e-Readers," Blair commented.

A puzzled furrow appeared on Serena's forehead.

"So you can read that sort of… literature in public-" She wrinkled her nose in distaste "-without the risk of embarrassment."

"But we're not in public," Serena pointed out, amused. "And I'm not embarrassed."

Blair gave her a pointed look, to indicate that she damn well should be.

Serena just laughed and returned to her novel.

Deciding to seek distraction elsewhere, Blair looked across the aisle towards Nate, but he was already asleep. His head lolled off to one side and his lips parted to emit a soft, rumbling snore at regular intervals.

So Blair was left alone with her thoughts as she white-knuckled her way through takeoff, one question still lingering in her mind.

What if Chuck was so happy, he didn't want to come back?

.


.

"Hello?" Serena called out cheerfully, as the trio stepped into the front foyer.

The only response was an enthusiastic "ruff," followed by Monkey approaching in a blur of galloping legs. Overwhelmed by excitement, he couldn't seem to decide whom to sniff first; he wheeled back and forth, showering the three of them with attention in rapid succession.

Blair tried to reach over his flailing tongue and just pet the top of his head, but still ended up with a wet noseprint on her palm.

"Hey there, Monkey," Serena cooed, giving him an affectionate scratch behind the ears. "Where's your daddy?"

Monkey, unsurprisingly, offered little in the way of a helpful response.

As the three stepped forward into the penthouse, Blair took in Chuck's new home.

The foyer opened up into a spacious living room and dining area, adorned with elaborate woodwork and gilt-edged marble columns. The furnishings and artwork, however, were clearly more a reflection of Chuck's taste, their sleek, modern lines contrasting with the more ornate surroundings. She recognized a number of items from his Empire penthouse: small sculptures decorating the built-in bookshelves, the ebony chess set on the coffee table, the crystal decanter perched atop the corner bar.

But on her right hung a piece of artwork she'd never seen before, a large, black and white panoramic photograph of New York City at night. The glittering lights of the Brooklyn Bridge, at the lower right of the photo, cast an almost ethereal glow towards the towering Manhattan skyline. It made the city appear timeless, remote… untouchable.

Blair studied the picture, finding it oddly poignant.

Her musings were cut short, however, by the sharp buzz of the intercom in the foyer. It was echoed by a bark from Monkey, who turned to stare at one of the bedroom doors, tail wagging expectantly.

Moments later, the door swung open and Chuck walked out, hastily belting a silk robe around his midsection.

"I do appreciate the assistance, but you know I can hear it just…" He came to an abrupt halt when his gaze landed on Serena, Nate…and Blair. "… Fine," he finished, looking at her.

And that one, lingering look was enough to make Blair's breath catch, her pulse quicken. Everything else receded into the background as she drank in the sight of him, her eyes devouring every achingly-familiar detail.

For a brief moment, she actually forgot that anyone else was even in the room.

"Chuck!"

Serena's happy greeting shook Blair out of her trance. She watched her best friend rush forward to engulf Chuck in a warm embrace, which he seemed too surprised to fend off.

Nate soon followed, his "Hey, man" accompanied by a short, but heartfelt hug.

Which only left Blair.

And it would seem odd, she reasoned, if she were the only one who didn't hug him.

So she ignored the little voice in the back of her head ("you would take any excuse to touch him, you shameless hussy") and stepped forward.

"Hi," she murmured with a little smile, winding her arms around his shoulders and pressing herself against him.

The taut muscles of his back flexed under her palms, his freshly-shaved cheek rubbed against her own. The intoxicating scent of his aftershave enveloped her senses, making her long to just bury her face against his neck and press her lips against it.

As friendly and platonic as she'd intended to keep the hug, the second she felt his hands encircle her waist, it took on an very different tenor.

It wasn't entirely her fault. After all, she'd spent the trip here preparing to greet a fully-dressed Chuck. Not a half-dressed, just out of the shower, looking exactly like he had right before the last time they'd made love… Chuck.

Plus, he wasn't exactly fending her off. She could feel his breath against her ear, discreetly inhaling her scent, as his fingers tightened into the silk fabric of her blouse. If they didn't have an audience, she suspected this greeting would get a whole lot… friendlier.

But they did.

So, with a painful amount of self-restraint, she finally, regretfully, managed to pull away. Chuck took a step back as well, averting his eyes and clearing his throat as he did so.

"I was just about to call over to Teterboro to find out why you hadn't taken off yet," he commented, raising his eyebrows at Serena.

"Oh, well my afternoon class got cancelled, and Nate rescheduled his meetings, so we left a little early."

"I thought you were going to text me an ETA," he reminded her.

"ETA?" Serena echoed distractedly, as she continued to explore the penthouse.

"Estimated time of arrival," Blair clarified, with a pointed look at her best friend; it was starting to become obvious why Chuck was so unprepared for their appearance.

"Oh, well… now!" Serena announced with a grin.

The intercom buzzed again, and Chuck strode over to press the button.

"Mr. Bass, your visitors have arrived," chirped a friendly, British-accented voice.

"Yes, I see that," Chuck replied dryly. "Thank you, Amelia."

"Ooh, is that a patio?" Serena asked, making a beeline towards the doors she'd just spotted. "We should have drinks out there!"

Chuck turned around to answer, only to find Nate on his hands and knees on the floor- he was giving Monkey a vigorous scratching behind the ears and talking to him in a tone reserved exclusively for his non-human friends.

"Who's a good boy? Hmm? Is Monkey a good boy?" he crooned, continuing the motion down along the dog's neck and under his chin. "Did you miss your Uncle Nate?"

As Nate trailed off into incomprehensible gibberish, Chuck and Blair shared a moment of wry amusement over the top of his head.

"Right, well… I'll just go put some clothes on," Chuck said finally.

Blair nodded and smiled brightly, resisting the urge to take another long look at the unclothedness in question.

"I missed you too, yes I did, yes I did…" Nate continued in a sing-song voice.

"Hey guys, you can see the park from out here!" Serena's voice called out from the terrace.

Chuck grinned, giving a little shake of his head as he headed back towards his room.

Blair just heaved a sigh and eyed their two supposed chaperones- one of whom was now twirling around a balcony, not paying either of them any mind, while the other rolled around on the floor in a furry, slobbery embrace.

And wondered how on earth they were going to make it through the next four days.

.


.

"… And then Sunday night, we have dinner reservations at Le Gavroche, and tables booked at a couple of clubs, depending on what everyone's in the mood for," Chuck continued.

He paused as the wait staff deposited silver platters of hors d'oeuvres on the patio table and topped off everyone's champagne flutes.

"That sounds great, Chuck," Serena enthused, taking a sip of her drink and looking over the spread of food with obvious interest.

Blair did the same, which produced an audible rumbling in her stomach. She'd been too consumed with nervous anticipation to eat anything earlier in the day, and after one glass of Dom was feeling decidedly… tipsy.

Given her tenuous emotional state and current Chuck-proximity, this was dangerous.

So she selected a chilled jumbo prawn, consuming it with delicate, unhurried nibbles- it wouldn't do for her to fall on her food like an animal at the zoo- and then turned her attention to a blini topped with crème fraiche and caviar.

Russian ossetra, she noted with a satisfied little mmm. Her favorite.

"And Saturday is your soccer game, right?" Nate stuffed a bacon-wrapped date into his mouth with considerably less care for propriety.

"I figured I could miss it this week." Chuck shrugged.

"But I wanted to come play too," Nate protested. "I even brought my cleats."

Chuck looked nonplussed for a moment.

"Oh, well… I thought we should all do something together," he demurred.

"Blair and I could come and cheer you on," Serena suggested, giving Blair a little nudge. "Doesn't that sound fun, B?"

Actually, it sounded like the opposite of fun. Not to mention, far too similar to how she'd spent many an afternoon in high school: as Nate's designated cheering section, watching a bunch of guys kick a ball back and forth until she was ready to drop dead from boredom.

But the reluctant glance Chuck shot in her direction made her suspicious.

Was there something going on at these games he didn't want her to see? she wondered, her eyes narrowing instinctively. Some cute British girls who came to cheer for him? His own little harem of soccer groupies, waiting with flirtatious giggles and cups of Gatorade?

It took a concerted effort to force her facial muscles into something resembling a smile.

"That does sound fun," she agreed in a breezy tone. "Plus we can meet all your new friends!"

She aimed a guileless bat of her lashes in Chuck's direction.

The smile he gave her in return, she noted, was slightly strained.

"That settles it then," Serena decided. "Soccer game Saturday afternoon, and then Saturday night, we can just play it by ear."

"And if you could arrange for us to be on opposite teams, that'd be awesome," Nate mused, with a playful arch of his brows. "Unless you've gotten a lot better since the last time we played."

"I'll see what I can do," Chuck replied dryly.

"Oh, and when you trap the ball," Nate continued, his lips quirking with mirth, "remember that you're supposed to do it with your chest."

"Mmm-hmm."

"Not your nuts."

Serena and Nate both laughed, and Chuck raised his glass in a mocking salute.

"Thanks for the tip," he said, a note of self-deprecating humor in his voice.

Satisfied that she could capably dispatch any potential soccer-groupie skanks, Blair returned her attention to the hors d'oeuvres.

"So where are we sleeping, exactly?" Nate asked, as she helped herself to a wedge of triple-crème Brie. "I only saw one extra bedroom."

"I figured the girls could share the guest room." Chuck took another sip of his scotch. "And you can have the couch."

"Why can't Nate just sleep with you? Your bed is like ten feet wide," Serena pointed out.

"Because ten feet is not nearly enough-" Chuck raised an eyebrow,"-to thwart a determined spooner."

The girls' heads swiveled towards Nate, expressions of amused disbelief on their faces.

"It was one time, I was chilly," Nate defended himself.

"You were lonely and drunk," Chuck corrected. "Anyway, you fall asleep on the sofa at the Empire more than you do in your own bed, I didn't think it would be that much of a hardship."

Nate sighed.

"Okay, fine," he conceded. "Although I could always squeeze in between you two?" he sent a hopeful glance towards the girls.

"In your dreams, Archibald." Blair rolled her eyes.

Serena just laughed.

"Well, on that note, friends…" Chuck rose to his feet. "I'd better get to bed, I have an early conference call tomorrow. I'll see you all in the morning."

Blair watched him leave. After listening to Nate and Serena chatter on for several minutes, she released an exaggerated yawn when there was finally a lull in the conversation.

"You know, I'm pretty beat, I might just head to bed too." She patted one hand against her mouth, as if stifling further yawns.

But as soon as she pushed her chair back, Serena did the same, shooting her a skeptical look out of the corner of her eye.

"It is getting late. Maybe we should all turn in?" she suggested with an exaggerated smile.

Blair sighed under her breath.

"Fine," she muttered.

As she stalked towards the terrace door with her best friend close on her heels, she reminded herself that this was exactly what she'd wanted- an attentive chaperone. And she was thankful that Serena was taking her assignment so seriously.

Besides, there'd be plenty of opportunities later.

.


.

Knock knock

Chuck felt his heart jump into his throat.

He swallowed it back down.

"Come in," he called out.

When the door opened to reveal a boxer-and-T-shirt-clad Nate, he felt a wave of irrational disappointment wash over him.

"Hey, do you mind if I use your bathroom? Between those two," he gestured with his thumb back over his shoulder, "I'm gonna be waiting awhile for that one."

"Sure, go ahead," Chuck responded absently.

He rolled over onto his side and closed his eyes, listening to the muffled sounds of water running.

Truthfully, the reason he'd objected to sharing his room with Nate hasn't been that incident in Vegas last spring; he'd been too drunk at the time to mind, and in retrospect, it was far from the worst snuggling experience he'd ever awakened to.

However, with Blair sleeping in his penthouse- more specifically, with Blair sleeping only two rooms away, probably in some barely-there slip of a nightdress that clung to every curve of her luscious body- he anticipated needing to relieve himself, possibly daily.

And cuddling jokes aside, he doubted that Nate wanted to be present for it.

So that was the reason he wanted his room to himself.

The only reason, he thought insistently, trying to drown out the little voice in the back of his head reminding him that he was full of shit.

Heaving a long sigh, Chuck pulled the duvet up over his chest and closed his eyes in a futile attempt at sleep.

.


.

"Mmm, this looks delicious," Serena declared, tucking into her lunch with enthusiasm.

With considerably less enthusiasm, Blair used the tines of her fork to poke her own fish fillet.

"So is this halibut, or…?" she asked dubiously.

"It says that traditional fish and chips is made with cod or haddock," Serena consulted the guidebook lying open beside her. "Oh, and we're supposed to sprinkle some malt vinegar on top."

"And that's intended to… improve the flavor?" Blair was skeptical.

"Blair," Serena said with a touch of exasperation. "You promised you would at least try to enjoy the stuff I planned."

"I have!" Blair protested.

She really had made an effort. After her planned day, which had included a trip to the National Gallery, a shopping excursion along Bond Street, and afternoon tea at Claridge's, she'd resolved to commit herself to Serena's planned activities with enthusiasm.

So she'd sampled the traditional English breakfast. She'd gamely tied her hair back and braved the upper deck of their double-decker tour bus. She'd taken a selfie in front of Big Ben.

She'd even made conversation with those tourists from Iowa who'd wanted to know if New York was just like it looked on 'Sex and the City.'

And now she was sitting in a cramped little wood-paneled pub that the guidebook had described as "quintessentially London," and Serena thought was "just so charming," eating another plate of fried things, and trying to ignore the rowdy young men behind them who appeared to be drunk in the middle of the day and directing a near-constant stream of curse words at the TV.

What was it about sports that made men act like such classless hooligans, she wondered.

"You've been a million miles away the entire morning," Serena sighed.

"Sorry." Blair shook her head as if to clear it. "It's just, things with Chuck… you know…" she trailed off with a little wave of her hand.

Serena paused mid-bite, a look of suspicion crossing her face.

"Wait, did something happen after I fell asleep last night?"

"No, nothing like that." Blair sighed.

Between Serena and Nate, she hadn't had a moment alone with Chuck since they'd arrived.

"It's just…" Blair paused, trying to sort out her vague feelings of discontentment. "I missed him so much, and I wanted to see him so badly. But now that I have, it feels like… he's just as far away as he was before."

Serena looked perplexed.

"Like… metaphorically?" she ventured.

"I guess this whole time we've been apart, I've just felt like we were in a long-distance relationship," Blair admitted. "And now that I'm here, and I have to actually act like we're friends… I'm not sure I know how."

"But you've been friends for almost your entire lives," Serena pointed out. "We all have."

"I know, but…" Blair exhaled a long sigh.

The truth was, ever since their first night together- almost five years ago now- they'd never really gone back to being friends. They'd been lovers, enemies, co-conspirators. Soulmates.

Never just friends.

She could still distinctly remember the moment when she'd been working on the guest list for her wedding, cross-referencing it with the seating chart, and she'd come across his name. It had stopped her cold.

Charles Bartholomew Bass, listed right between the Baizens and the Bergmans. As if he were no more consequential, no more important to her, than anyone else on that list.

She'd tried to picture herself as another man's wife, interacting with him- a congratulatory hug at the reception, perhaps - and her brain had simply refused to comply.

Then she'd tried to picture her life without him in it at all. Occasional encounters at parties or restaurants, passing each other on the street with nothing but brief smiles of acknowledgement, maybe a few moments of awkward small talk.

And it had broken her heart.

Appalled by what she'd viewed as her own weakness, she'd stuffed all of those feelings deep down inside of her and carried on as if they didn't exist.

If only she hadn't been so stubborn, she thought to herself. If only she'd accepted the way she'd actually felt, instead of forcing her life to conform to what she'd decided she should feel.

"Have you ever loved someone so much," she said finally, "that when you try to imagine a future without them in it… your whole chest gets tight, like you can't even breathe? And you feel like you're about to break down and cry?"

Serena was quiet for a moment.

"No, I guess not," she conceded, sounding almost wistful. "But why are you even worried about that? It's only a matter of time before you guys get back together."

"Yeah, I guess," Blair said, unconvinced.

"Blair," Serena said, a hint of exasperation in her voice. "Are you seriously doubting Chuck's feelings for you? After everything you two have been through?"

"No, no. It's just that…" Blair paused, not really wanting to admit her slightly-less-than-rational insecurities. "I never thought he'd really leave," she admitted. "And when he did, I kept expecting him to change his mind and come back. I thought telling him I wanted to be with him would be enough… to make him stay."

Serena's eyebrows hiked upwards in disbelief.

"So because you said 'jump', and Chuck didn't say 'how high?'… you're now questioning whether he loves you enough?"

"Okay, well- it sounds ridiculous when you put it like that," Blair said defensively.

"B, I think the problem is that the last two guys you've been with were sort of…" Serena paused, as if searching for a way to phrase something delicately. "… spineless doormats who let you walk all over them," she finished.

Blair didn't disagree.

"Chuck's not like that," Serena pointed out. "And honestly… do you really want him to be?"

"No," Blair conceded with a sigh.

"I just wish he could give a little more when it comes to the things I really, really want, that's all," she added sulkily.

Like his naked self, for example.

Serena chuckled, before turning serious again.

"B…" She hesitated. "After you got married, and then when everything happened with Dan… Chuck was in a pretty bad place, emotionally. He was… so depressed, it was like he just gave up, on everything. My mom said the Board was considering a no confidence vote to force him to step down."

"And I'm not saying this to make you feel bad," she hastened to say, after seeing the dismayed expression on her friend's face, "I just want you to understand why this is so important to him."

Blair tried to swallow over the lump in her throat.

"It's not a reflection of how he feels about you," Serena explained. "It's more that… I think it scared him a little, how bad things got. So he needs to do this for himself."

That familiar feeling of shame- a dark, hollow sensation, coiling in the pit of her stomach- had gradually abated over the past few months. But it never quite went away.

And neither did her entirely unreasonable resentment of Serena, for having this kinship with Chuck that she currently lacked.

But mostly, she was just thankful that he had so many people in his life looking out for him. It certainly hadn't always been the case.

"Yeah, I guess you're right," she said at last.

"Although I'm really not comfortable with how often I've been saying that lately," she added tartly.

Serena laughed.

"I'm sure it's just a fluke," she reassured her. Popping another chip into her mouth, she flipped the guidebook open to the next dog-eared page. "So are you excited for our row along the Serpentine?"

Blair regarded her with a pained expression.

"Row?" she echoed. "Like… a boat?"

"Yup! It's perfect weather for it." Serena turned to a map of Hyde Park and gestured towards the route she'd highlighted.

Blair took one last, mournful look at her flawless French manicure before dutifully assuming an expression of enthusiasm.

.


.

"B, will you slow down? You're practically running!"

"I'm hurrying because we're late," Blair tossed over her shoulder.

She strode across the street towards Hyde Park, heedless of the traffic; the sound of squealing tires filled the air as several cars came screeching to a halt.

One driver responded with a short, almost polite toot of the horn.

"Blair." Serena's voice, exasperated and winded, came from several feet behind her. "You just walked in front of a green light!"

"I know, right? If this were New York, they would've run me over without a second thought." Blair didn't break stride. "Is that really the fastest you can walk? Your legs are like twice as long as mine."

"Okay, first of all, this is a pickup soccer game, not a World Cup final. Nobody cares if we're late," Serena pointed out, hurrying to catch up. "And secondly, the reason that we're late is because you spent an hour and a half getting dressed."

"Well, I didn't exactly bring a suitcase full of spectator-sport-appropriate attire."

"Yes, I can see that." Serena rolled her eyes.

Blair came to a halt so suddenly that Serena almost ran into her.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded.

"Nothing, nothing," Serena sighed.

Blair looked down at her outfit- coral and white printed sundress, wide-brimmed straw hat with matching chiffon ribbon trim, and, in a nod to the outdoors, her new Balenciaga slingback wedge sandals- and then back up at her best friend with a scowl.

"I'm sorry, was I supposed to be wearing sweatpants and…" –she paused, trying to think of what people wore to exercise- "…Sketchers?"

"Seriously B, you look great," Serena said in a placating tone. "Very… sporty."

Blair narrowed her eyes.

"Okay, so…" Serena cleared her throat and consulted her cell phone. "Left at Edinburgh gate, and then second field on the right… oh, I think I see them!"

By the time they reached the sideline, Blair had already scouted out the entire surrounding area- and, to her surprise, found it devoid of spectators. No gold-digging skanks with knockoff designer bags. No hoochie-looking girls with their thongs whale-tailing out the back of their shorts. No girls, period.

Except-

"Wait, are there girls in the game?" Blair said in disbelief.

A petite blonde, her ponytailed hair held back with a striped headband, jogged along the near sideline. She raised one arm up in the air, and a moment later, the ball whizzed towards her on a diagonal.

"Oh yeah, I guess it's co-ed." Serena said, as if that were totally unremarkable.

Blair felt her eyebrows climbing up her forehead.

"It's not that weird." Serena shrugged. "Dan played in a co-ed rec league back in high school."

"Of course he did."

Serena's brow crinkled in puzzlement.

"Humphrey spent most of his formative years writing sonnets about your hair, Serena," Blair sighed. "Sports aren't exactly his forte."

Serena looked as if she couldn't decide whether to be offended or not.

"You know, it's not like Chuck is all that athletic either," she pointed out.

"Well, that's not… entirely true." Blair allowed a tiny smirk to cross her face.

"Ew," was Serena's succinct response.

Blair continued to scan the field, finally spotting Chuck near the opposite sideline. He was wearing some sort of blue-and-white team jersey, matching shorts, and a faint sheen of perspiration.

Athletics suited him, she decided. He looked all… hot and tousled.

"Hey guys!" Serena shouted, waving cheerfully.

Nate waved at them with a wide grin.

Chuck's smile of acknowledgement, in contrast, looked somewhat forced.

And she felt that familiar knot of anxiety forming in the pit of her stomach.

"Did you get the impression that, um… Chuck didn't really want us to come?" she ventured, taking care to keep her voice casual.

"No, why?"

"I don't know, he just seemed a little… reluctant, that's all."

"Maybe he thought we'd be bored." Serena shrugged.

"Well, it's certainly not the most thrilling sport, is it?" Blair said deprecatingly. She watched one player pass the ball to another player, who then passed it back to the first player.

This, as far as Blair could tell, was about 90% of soccer.

"It does seem to attract particularly hot guys though," Serena commented, eying a tall midfielder with sandy-colored hair and broad shoulders. "Maybe Chuck can introduce me."

"I thought you were choosing to 'work on you', female empowerment, et cetera?" Blair raised a brow.

"I'm single, I'm not dead." Serena smiled impishly. "Woo-hoo!" She suddenly clapped her hands together. "Yeah Nate!"

Blair looked up to see him feint past a defender and dribble across midfield, straight towards Chuck.

Nate faked to one side and then, with a quick step over, accelerated in the opposite direction; Chuck had already lunged too far the wrong way and was left in the dust.

Serena cheered wildly as Nate's shot on goal flew into the net, just barely under the crossbar. Blair contributed a few dutiful claps.

Feeling Chuck's gaze on her, she looked back towards him, but he'd already turned away.

"Soccer players always have such nice calves," Serena said, with another admiring glance towards Fratty Blonde Guy.

Never let it be said that Serena didn't have a type, Blair thought to herself.

"Feels just like old times, doesn't it?" Serena mused.

"What, watching Nate dominate everyone at whatever sport he's playing?" Blair asked dryly.

"Remember that time we taught him how to play field hockey?" Serena shook her head with a little laugh. "He was better than either of us in like five minutes."

A sudden cheer brought their attention back to the field.

Blonde ponytail had evidently scored a goal for the other team. She ran back down the field, fist held aloft in triumph.

"I think that's Chloe," Serena said, answering Blair's unspoken question. "It looks like her profile pic, anyway. She commented on Chuck's Instagram."

"Oh," Blair responded, attempting to sound nonchalant.

Serena's amused look indicated that she'd failed.

"For the millionth time, B, you have nothing to worry about," Serena said, in the sort of voice you might use to explain to a five-year-old that there were no monsters under the bed.

Which was silly, because Blair wasn't worried, at all.

Chloe was cute, she admitted to herself. Albeit in a sweaty, tomboyish sort of way.

And sure, now she and Chuck were walking side-by-side back to the other side of the field, talking about… something. There were hand motions involved, and they didn't appear to be of the sexy variety.

But she did note the way Chloe's eyes followed him as they returned to their respective positions.

And she didn't like that one bit.

When play resumed, the forward tapped the ball back to the center mid; he crossed it to Chuck, who sent a slightly wobbly pass over to Chloe.

But his aim was off, and it was immediately intercepted by the other team.

She caught him glancing at her again before falling back into defensive position.

"What was that you said about Chuck being athletic?" Serena asked in an amused voice.

And in an instant, Blair realized why he hadn't wanted her there.

It wasn't because he had anything to hide. It certainly wasn't because of any other girls.

It was because he was embarrassed.

Embarrassment was such an un-Chuck-like emotion that she hadn't even considered it. Much like herself, he excelled at pretty much everything he did; unlike herself, he'd always seemed impervious to shame.

But joking about his ineptitude over the phone was one thing… actually having her here, watching as he got his ass handed to him, was quite another.

Blair felt a swell of tenderness, for this proud, self-assured man, whose rare moments of vulnerability seemed visible only to her.

"You know, she's actually good," Serena commented, watching Chloe steal the ball from the opposing midfielder and sprint downfield. "Better than most of the guys out there."

Blair made a harrumphing sound.

She watched with satisfaction as the blonde girl got tangled up with a defender; eventually, in desperation, Chloe spun around and passed the ball back to Chuck.

He hesitated for just a moment, then took off towards the goal. His movements weren't nearly as effortless as some of the other players, but they were well-controlled, and it looked as though he might get off an open shot.

As he approached the penalty area, Blair felt herself bounce up and down on her heels, hands clasped together in nervous anticipation.

Then, in a sudden blur of movement, a defender slid in feet-first, knocking the ball to the side.

And Chuck to the ground.

"Hey!" Blair reacted immediately, her feet carrying her forward without her even realizing it. "That's a foul!"

Everyone stopped in their tracks, turning to stare at the source of the sudden outburst.

"You can't just knock people over like that!" Blair marched onto the field, spine ramrod-straight and voice brimming with indignation. "You could've hurt someone, you... you lumbering oaf!"

The oaf in question- a broad-shouldered guy with reddish hair and ruddy cheeks- looked legitimately concerned as Blair approached, index finger extended and ready to poke him in the chest.

"Blair, Blair…" Serena caught ahold of her arm from behind. "It's fine, really. It was just a slide tackle."

Blair came to a halt, eyes still narrowed on Chuck's assailant. Serena fruitlessly tried to tug her back towards the sideline.

Chuck, meanwhile, had rolled over to a seated position, hands resting on his knees as he caught his breath. He regarded Blair with an amused quirk of his brows.

"Sorry about that, mate." The redhead offered him a hand up, casting a wary look in Blair's direction.

"No problem." Chuck dusted off the front of his shorts.

Serena tugged on her arm again, and this time Blair allowed herself to be led back to the sideline.

Once there, she bent down to pick up the hat that had flown off as she'd stomped onto the field. She carefully brushed it off and settled it back on her head, then resumed watching the game, hands folded neatly in front of her.

"I think in soccer they're penalties, not fouls," Serena informed her in a low voice.

Blair waved dismissively. "Fine, call a penalty, whatever. Put him in the penalty box."

"That's hockey."

"Who are you, ESPN?" Blair folded her arms across her chest and continued glowering at the slide-tackling defender.

He cast a nervous glance back over his shoulder, as if he could feel her eyes on him.

"Well, drinks tonight should be fun," Serena commented, trying to suppress a smile.

"Drinks?" Blair echoed absently.

"Yeah, didn't Nate tell you? We're going out with Chuck's friends."

"And I'm sure they don't think you're crazy at all," she added under her breath.

.


.

The pub did have a certain amount of charm, Blair admitted to herself. Preserved from the Victorian era, it was lavishly decorated with hand-carved mahogany, burgundy leather, and enormous etched mirrors. Bronzed light fixtures bathed the interior in a warm, homey glow.

It was also tiny and packed with people, which is why there were nine of them crowded around one small table. Serena, Nate, and Chloe sat shoulder-to-shoulder along one bench, while Fratty Blonde Guy, the red-headed defender- whose name was apparently Brett- and another guy named Devin occupied the upholstered stools along the outside of the booth.

And Blair sat on the other bench between Chuck and his friend George… who kept glancing at her with a knowing look, as though he found something privately amusing.

They were an entertaining group, chatting and bantering with ease. Serena and Nate fit in immediately; Nate was thrilled to meet fellow Premier League fans, and Serena had Fratty Blonde Guy half in love with her before their drinks had even arrived.

"Manhattan sounds fantastic," Blair overheard him saying earnestly. "Maybe you could show me around sometime?"

Serena beamed.

Blair rolled her eyes.

At Serena's insistence, she'd changed into her most casual outfit- the sleeveless white silk blouse with oversized bow neckline, skinny jeans, and her cobalt t-strap Manolos. She also wore her friendliest, most approachable smile, so Chuck's friends would know that she was definitely not crazy.

This was proving to be a challenge, though, every time she looked at Chloe. The smile kept stiffening into more of a teeth-baring snarl.

Chloe seemed cheerfully oblivious.

"So Chuck tells me you're in fashion?" she asked, smiling at Blair with genuine interest.

She had a little gap between her top front teeth, Blair noticed. This pleased her inordinately.

"Yes, well, I'm just interning at my mother's company," she said with feigned modesty. "Eleanor Waldorf? You may have heard of her."

"Oh no, I'm hopeless with clothes." Chloe gestured towards her own jeans-and-t-shirt ensemble. "My mum's a bank teller."

"Probably shows," she added with a little laugh.

"Not at all." Blair smiled insincerely.

"And Chuck is so stylish, you two look fabulous together," Chloe added warmly.

Her bitchiness momentarily disarmed, Blair found herself at a sudden loss for words.

Then Chloe's admiring glance drifted over towards Chuck, and lingered, for just a beat too long.

Blair's eyes narrowed.

"Well, we try," she said sweetly. "I guess we've been featured in Page Six a few times… the Met Gala, opening night at the Philharmonic, the Mount Sinai benefit …" She pursed her lips, as if trying to remember them all. "Oh, and Fashion Week, of course. But really, who can keep count?"

Chuck raised an amused brow at her. Blair just smiled back, lashes fluttering innocently.

A waitress arrived, deftly maneuvering a tray with a tall stack of glasses, several pitchers of beer… and a single glass of white wine, which she placed in front of Blair with an ironic flourish.

"Didn't want to try the local specialty?" Serena asked, grinning.

Blair hadn't actually ordered anything- someone had surmised, correctly, that she wouldn't be interested in the piss-colored swill that passed as a beverage in these sorts of establishments. But immediately after sampling her wine- a surprisingly-passable Pinot Grigio- she realized that everyone else was drinking the beer.

Everyone, including Chuck.

He caught her startled look as he lifted the glass to his mouth. Then, with a shrug and a little smirk, he took a long, deliberate swallow.

Chuck, playing sports? Drinking beer? What the hell was going on here?

"You should've seen his face the first time," George said under his breath. "Like he was trying to figure out how to spit it out without any of us noticing."

George promptly imitated this expression, and Blair couldn't help but laugh.

"He's a good sport though." He raised his voice so that Chuck could hear him. "Shows up on the pitch every week and takes his beating like a man."

"He's actually gotten much better," Brett added, in a faux-confidential tone. "First few weeks, he was absolute rubbish."

Chuck took the ribbing good-naturedly; nevertheless, Blair felt compelled to defend him.

"Well, I thought he played great today," she said firmly.

"Not very familiar with football then, are you?" George asked, deadpan, eliciting a chorus of laughter from the others.

"And that goal at the end, that was really..." She tried to think of a good adjective for an athletic maneuver. "… impressive."

Nate snorted.

"He only scored because everyone was so afraid of you, they stopped playing defense on him," he pointed out.

No one disputed this.

Blair just shrugged, not seeing the problem.

"Seriously though, Chuck's a good bloke to have around," George continued. "Fantastic wingman. He attracts the ladies in droves, I've never seen anything like it."

Out of the corner of her eye, Blair could see Chuck smirk in acknowledgment, and her gut tightened into an uneasy knot.

"Of course, he's not interested in any of them," George took a long gulp of his ale. "But the ones willing to lower their standards a little can take solace in me and Devin here."

"So long as they're not too particular about looks or money," Devin agreed cheerfully.

"Ah, don't sell yourselves short. After five or six of these-" Brett gestured with his pint glass "-you're both downright tolerable-looking."

Her sense of relief almost palpable, Blair joined in the group's laughter.

She still had no doubt that Chloe- along with the aforementioned "droves of ladies"- would jump on Chuck's dick in half a second, given the slightest encouragement.

But it was starting to become obvious that they hadn't received any.

And that maybe, maybe she'd overreacted, just a tad.

"So Blair, you go to Columbia?" Brett inquired.

She nodded. It was strange, she thought, how they seemed to already know so much about her.

"I have a cousin who went to Uni in New York," George commented. "Bit of a divvy, though. Definitely not Ivy League material. What are you studying?"

"Economics, with a concentration in business management," Blair replied proudly.

This was a recent decision, after meeting with her advisor the previous week. She'd concluded that regardless of whether she stayed in fashion, she intended to make a lot of money, and have power and authority over a lot of people.

And since "manage" was basically just a euphemism for "rule over," the major seemed like a perfect fit.

"All part of your plan to 'redefine the New York fashion industry and establish a global brand'?" Brett's voice had a slightly affected lilt, as though he were quoting someone.

"Well…" Her brow furrowed in confusion. "Sure, I mean, long-term…"

"Oh, we saw the ad campaign you worked on!" Chloe chimed in. "It was really lovely."

"Oh right, the picture with the, uh… pink jacket," George recalled.

Blair was taken aback- first, by someone she kept staring daggers at continuing to be so obliviously nice to her, and second, by the fact that any of them would've seen an ad in Vogue Paris.

"Coral peacoat," she clarified absently. "Coral's going to be all over the fall runways."

"Yes, well, it was very… pretty." George sounded about as natural describing clothes as she did talking about sports. "Chuck showed us last week. Tell me, do most American lads carry around ladies' fashion magazines?" he asked curiously. "Not the sexy ones, but the ones full of… hats and handbags and whatnot?"

"I wouldn't say 'most'…" Nate said dryly.

"I suspected as much," George gave an exaggerated sigh. "This bloke needs even more help than we thought. Maybe we should all chip in and buy him some jeans?"

As everyone laughed, Blair glanced over at Chuck.

He was smiling at the friendly jibes, but when his eyes met hers, it was with that look- that intense, inscrutable gaze that never failed to make her heart beat faster and her stomach flutter.

"Having fun?" he asked in an undertone.

"I am," she replied, surprised to find that she actually meant it.

Being around people who seemed so entirely comfortable in their own skin- not a common occurrence on the UES- was having a pleasantly relaxing effect on her.

And having Chuck's thigh pressed snugly against hers was pleasant as well, albeit in a less relaxing way.

"Good," he murmured, taking a sip of his drink.

She noticed that he'd managed to covertly exchange his pint for a glass of Scotch.

Then, in a leisurely, unobtrusive movement, he lifted his other arm and rested it along the high wooden back of their booth. It was almost, but not quite, around her shoulders.

To anyone else, the gesture would've looked casual, even thoughtless.

Blair knew better.

The pads of his fingertips lightly brushed against the bare skin of her upper arm. Paused. And then lingered.

Blair bit down on her lip to try and contain a smile, but it was no use- she could feel the corners of her mouth edging upwards.

And when she glanced at him, just out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed the answering curve of his own mouth.

.


.

The following evening, the foursome arrived at Amika, already buzzed off a celebratory champagne toast and several bottles of good Bordeaux. With a deferential nod in Chuck's direction, one of the bouncers escorted them past the line of waiting club-goers to their reserved table.

And thanks to some deft maneuvering, Blair managed to slip in beside Chuck, so they were seated together along the back wall of the booth.

She'd mostly behaved herself at dinner- no excessive staring, flirty looks, or suggestive gestures with her wine glass- but she wasn't sure how much longer her willpower was going to hold up.

Because Chuck looked absolutely delicious tonight. It wasn't just the outfit- although his gray herringbone vest and slacks, pale pink shirt with fleur-de-lis cufflinks, and striped pewter ascot were all flawlessly coordinated.

It was more that unmistakable presence he had. The way he walked, with a perfectly refined saunter. The way he smiled, one side of his mouth slanting upwards more than the other. The way he smelled, like Scotch, and soap, and Clive Christian cologne; she kept catching herself leaning forward to catch a whiff of it.

Chuck's eyes met hers over the top of his drink, and a spark of nervous excitement shot through her belly.

How she'd ever convinced herself she could get over this man, she had no idea.

"So how are you enjoying NYU so far?" he asked Serena.

"Oh, I love it!" she replied, sitting up straighter in her seat. "I just registered for fall semester- Film Theory, Intro to American Cinema, and a Screenwriting class that's supposed to be fantastic."

"That's great."

"Right, well." Serena hesitated. "The only problem is…"

Blair, having already heard plenty about this particular problem, rolled her eyes.

"It turns out, Dan and I have the same advisor. We ran into each other outside his office last week, and it was so awkward," Serena sighed. "And then, during all of that… awkwardness, I found out that he's in two of my classes next semester."

"My condolences," Chuck said dryly.

Blair was relieved to see that he looked unperturbed by the mention of Dan's name, which hadn't come up in conversation since the morning Chuck had left for London.

Not that there'd been much reason for it to do so; she hadn't had any contact with Dan since their breakup. She suspected his radio silence was meant to punish her for dumping him.

Which made her feel much less guilty about not missing him.

"I finally find a major I'm actually excited about, and classes I am- well, was- excited about. And now this," Serena said glumly, resting her chin on one upturned hand.

"Wait, were you… surprised to see him there?" Nate asked in a perplexed tone.

"I mean, you transferred to his department, at his school," he explained, in response to Serena's questioning look. "Didn't you kind of expect to run into him?"

"See, even Nate could see this coming," Blair said under her breath.

"I just… I didn't really think about it," Serena said defensively.

"I just figured you did it on purpose." Nate shrugged.

"Why would I do it on purpose?"

"Because you're not over him?" Nate said in an obvious tone. He glanced over at Blair and Chuck with raised eyebrows. "I'm sorry, was that supposed to be a secret?"

"I am not… not over him!" Serena looked appalled.

"Okay, sure."

Nate's tone made Serena practically sputter in indignation.

"Why would you even think that?"

"Well, I did have a front row seat to the 'Serena isn't over Dan' show," he pointed out.

"That was like two years ago!" she protested, her hands splaying out in an offended hand gesture.

Then, with a deep breath, she visibly calmed herself.

"Look, it's bad enough that I have to see him at my mom's all the time. It's almost like he purposely shows up when he knows I'm going to be there." Serena shook her head. "But now I have to see him at school too, and… ugh, it just sucks to constantly have your ex-boyfriend in your face everywhere you go."

"Well, there is one way to avoid that," Chuck interjected.

Serena gave him a quizzical look.

"You could try not dating your step-siblings," he suggested.

Chuckling, he dodged the cocktail olive Serena threw it at him.

"But I'm your ex-boyfriend, and you see me all the time," Nate pointed out.

"That's different." Serena sighed.

"How?"

"Because I don't want to punch you in your stupid smug face every time I see you, that's why!" Serena said, exasperated.

Blair's laugh caught in her throat when she felt Chuck's hand brush against her knee.

It was obvious, from the sudden tensing of his body, that the touch had been inadvertent.

But his hand lingered, the pads of his fingers just barely resting on her kneecap, as if hesitant. Undecided.

His face remained fixed in an expression of amused interest as he listened to Serena and Nate.

Blair attempted to do the same.

Several long seconds passed.

Then his fingers gently, surreptitiously stroked the inside of her thigh.

The sensation thrummed through her body like an electric current, as if he'd stroked her somewhere far more intimate. She barely had time to disguise her gasp as a cough.

Nate and Serena continued their good-natured sparring, oblivious. Meanwhile, Chuck softly, slowly traced circles along her skin with the tip of his pointer finger.

She remained still only through considerable effort.

Nevertheless, she liked to think that she would've managed to restrain herself, to behave with class and dignity.

If only she hadn't glanced over at him.

And seen, as he lifted his glass to take a sip, the faintest hint of a smirk curling the edge of his mouth.

So that's how he wants to play this? She thought.

Her eyes narrowed.

Oh, game on.

She slid her martini glass over to her left hand. She covertly withdrew her right hand from the table top.

And, in one swift, brazen movement, placed it at the juncture of Chuck's thighs.

His hand froze.

His eyes met hers over the rim of his glass, and she gave him her most guileless smile.

Above the table, he gave no indication anything was happening; below the table, she could feel his muscles go taut.

"I'm just saying, the fact that you're still mad at him means that you're not over him," Nate insisted.

"Or it could just mean that he deserves to have me mad at him," Serena shot back.

Chuck's hand resumed its motion, featherweight strokes of his fingers moving upwards along the sensitive skin of her inner thighs.

Undaunted, Blair curved her fingers around his length, evident through the thin fabric of his trousers, and gave it a single teasing stroke.

His response was gratifyingly swift. He began to harden beneath her hand, his thighs parting instinctively to give her better access.

But in spite of Chuck's obvious arousal, his expression still gave away nothing. He looked for all the world as though he were just relaxing and having a drink with his friends.

"Well, you're holding a pretty serious grudge, given that he didn't con your friends out of all of their money, or stalk you from prison or… crash your car and leave you to be eaten by wolves," Nate pointed out.

"So what, because I've dated a series of…" Serena made a little wave of her hand.

"Complete tools," Nate supplied helpfully.

"Right, so I'm supposed to just get over everything Dan's done because it's not as bad?"

Blair laughed, at what she assumed was an appropriate point in the conversation.

But her attention was now focused entirely on the task at hand. So to speak.

Determined to conquer Chuck's formidable self-control, she began to stroke him in a smooth, steady rhythm; she knew exactly the pace, and pressure, the combination of light touches and firm strokes, to drive him past the point of no return. Within moments, he was fully hard.

And although he was maintaining an admirable façade, she could see that telltale muscle in his jaw starting to clench.

But she faltered when his hand skimmed up her leg, his knuckles brushing against the front of her thong.

Only the flimsiest scrap of fabric now separated his fingers from where she suddenly, desperately, wanted them to be. She found herself holding her breath, her body humming with anticipation, as he lingered along the lace-trimmed elastic.

And then slid one finger beneath it.

"Wait, you're seriously still upset about that?" Nate sounded incredulous.

"Why wouldn't I be? He made me out to be some sort of flaky, shallow bimbo!"

"Whatever, he made me into a… a gay half-character, who was barely even in the story and didn't matter, like, at all, and I got over it."

"Yeah, you sound totally over it," Serena said dryly.

At even the lightest caress, all of the blood in Blair's body had rushed to pool between her legs.

Chuck skimmed his finger across her slick folds, back and forth, stroking, circling. Touching her everywhere except the one place that was throbbing for his touch.

She could feel her hips arching slightly off of the seat, her body disobeying the commands of her brain and straining towards the source of its pleasure.

God, it had been so long since he'd touched her like this. And he knew exactly how to tease her until she was practically out of her mind.

"… I mean, the only person he didn't shit all over was Blair."

All of a sudden both sets of blue eyes had swiveled to land on her.

And it was clear from their expectant expressions that a comment was required.

Chuck regarded her with a raised brow, the mischievous glimmer in his dark eyes the only evidence of what he was still doing to her beneath the table.

"Humphrey's book?" she said, fighting to keep her tone disdainful and her expression composed. "Why would you even care? Everyone knows that was nothing but… self-insert fanfiction."

Nate and Serena both nodded, seemingly none the wiser.

"I think he was just bitter about everything," Serena decided. "And needed to trash me so none of it would be his fault. Because God knows nothing ever is. Anyway…" She rose to her feet. "I'm going to the bathroom. When I come back, maybe we can move on to… happier topics?"

Serena headed off in the direction of the ladies' room. Nate pulled out his phone to check his messages.

"Ugh, this is exactly why I wanted those proofs submitted yesterday," he muttered to himself, a little frown of concentration creasing his forehead as he began typing out a response.

And Blair exhaled a long breath through her teeth, willing the color to recede from her face.

She'd known this wouldn't be easy- in five years, she'd never actually beaten Chuck at a round of Sex Chicken- but she wasn't going down without a fight.

She just needed to adjust her strategy.

With her free hand, she gathered her hair and twisted it onto her left shoulder, tipping her head forward as if to cool off the back of her neck. Then she made a second pass, pretending to capture a few stray hairs, and slowly trailed her fingers along her nape.

As she released a soft, pleasured sigh.

Chuck went completely still- except for his cock, which throbbed against her palm.

When she peeked up at him beneath her lashes, she could see his eyes fixed on her, rapt. She discreetly used the tip of her tongue to trace an arc along her upper lip; her thumb echoed the motion below, along the sensitive head of his cock.

An involuntary swallow moved down the front of his throat.

Victory.

Blair allowed herself a triumphant little smile.

But her satisfaction was short-lived; moments later, she was smothering a moan into her martini as Chuck slid one, then two, fingers inside of her.

He caressed her clit with his thumb as he thrust slowly, relentlessly, driving her towards her peak. He played her body like a virtuoso, and her mind seemed powerless to intervene.

And she knew he was close- but oh, God, she was closer, and she couldn't hold off much longer. She felt that hot, melting sweetness, her imminent defeat, start to unfurl through her body.

Making a split-second decision, she shot to her feet, causing Chuck's hand to fall away from her.

Her nether regions gave a mighty throb of protest.

Nate looked up, eyebrows raised quizzically.

"I'm going to go dance," she announced- assuming, correctly, that Nate would nod disinterestedly and return his attention to his phone.

She slid out from behind their table, not looking back.

Then she saw, out of the corner of her eye, Chuck rise to follow. Her pulse took off at a gallop.

This was it, she thought, nearly giddy in anticipation. They would find a nice secluded corner of the dance floor, where they could pretend to dance and just make out like a couple of horny teenagers. And then, when they couldn't control themselves any longer, they would go somewhere more private- coat check, closet, hell, she'd even consider an unoccupied bathroom at this point- where they could finally give in to their needs and have one hot, steamy, glorious-

"Hey guys!" Serena chirped, materializing directly in Blair's path. "Where are you off to?"

Blair stared at her dumbly for a second, her brain stalled in the wrong gear.

"Oh, I was just going to go dance," she said finally, praying that her friend wouldn't see straight through her.

"That sounds great! I'll join you."

It was obvious from Serena's wide grin that she was taking a certain perverse delight in thwarting Blair at every turn.

"Are you coming too, Chuck?" Serena asked, her tone all faux-innocence.

"No, I was just…" He cleared his throat. "Just going to the bar."

He ran one hand through his hair, the gesture uncharacteristically flustered.

"Hmm, that's odd," Serena mused, as she and Blair made their way to the dance floor. "He must've forgotten that we have table service."

Blair shot her a glare.

"You know, you really don't need to be breathing down my neck every second we're here," she said pointedly.

"You asked me to keep you two apart." Serena shrugged.

"Yes, but we're in a public place."

"That didn't stop you guys from pawing each other under the table back there." Serena laughed at Blair's astonished expression. "Come on, B, you're not that good an actress."

"Yes, well…"

She couldn't actually think of any witty comebacks to that statement.

"If it's any consolation, I'm pretty sure Nate didn't notice." Serena gave her a comforting pat on the shoulder. "Now let's go attract some admirers, shall we?"

.


.

"Chuck."

"Hmm?"

"Are you even listening?"

With a sigh, Chuck shifted his gaze away from the dance floor and back towards his peeved best friend.

"You really like her, she's so different from the other girls you've dated, and she just really gets you," he recited, deadpan.

"Oh, you actually were paying attention." Nate sounded surprised.

"No." Chuck took a long swallow of his drink. "That's the exact same thing you've said about every girl you've been interested in since high school."

"Hey," Nate protested. "That's not… well…"

Chuck raised his eyebrows.

"Okay, fine, maybe I have a pattern," Nate grudgingly conceded. "But she really is different. And I really do like her."

"Then stop overthinking everything." Chuck leaned back and draped one arm along the top of their booth. "You like her, she likes you. Order in dinner, add a bottle of wine and you two will be official by the next morning."

"Maybe…" Nate looked unconvinced.

"Or you could go ahead and Humphrey everything up with a painfully awkward conversation about whether she's your girlfriend." Chuck rolled his eyes. "Your call."

After a moment of silence, Chuck's attention drifted back over towards the dance floor, where Blair and Serena were being chatted up by two men. One of whom was sporting a faux hawk, he noted with amusement.

He watched Blair eye it dubiously.

"So speaking of overthinking things," Nate began. "Why, exactly, are you two not together again?"

Chuck gazed down into his drink, slowly rotating it with his thumb and forefinger, as he pondered the question.

The same question that the little voice in the back of his head had been asking for the past two days.

"Are you still mad at her?"

"I was never mad at her," he said quietly.

He'd been mad, yes. The splintered remains of his favorite humidor could attest to that.

But the majority of his anger had been reserved for himself. After years of fucking up every relationship in his life, repeatedly alienating anyone who got too close to him, he could hardly blame any of them for walking away. And Blair had stood by him through more than any person could be expected to endure.

The rest of his anger, he supposed, had been towards God, or fate, or whatever force of nature had derailed their reunion- which had felt, at the time, like their last chance at happiness together- in the cruelest manner possible.

Leaving Blair traumatized and heartbroken, and him, shut out of her life and helpless to do anything about it.

He'd been hurt, and frustrated, and depressed to the point that his therapist had started gently suggesting medication- but no, he'd never blamed her.

On some level, he'd viewed it as exactly what he'd deserved. His penance, for all of the pain that he'd caused her.

And on another, more visceral level, he'd feared that she'd finally seen the truth: that he simply wasn't worthy of her, and never would be.

"Wait, so if you're not mad at her…" Nate looked confused. "What is this even all about? Is it just the distance?"

"Because you do own a plane," he added in an obvious tone.

Chuck sighed.

"No, it's not the distance."

He could hardly complain about the distance when he'd been the one to put it there.

Part of it, which he'd told Blair, was the need to be okay on his own- if not happy, then at least functional. For her sake as much as his, because she deserved a true partner, not a co-dependent emotional cripple.

And part of it, which he hadn't told Blair, was that he knew she needed the same thing. She needed time to recover from everything she'd been through, and not by throwing herself headfirst into another relationship.

Their relationship couldn't "fix" her any more than it had fixed him.

And this was something that Dan, for all his good intentions, had never figured out- that Blair didn't need to be rescued. She was stronger, and smarter, and more resilient than any of them. All she needed was a chance to pull herself together.

But understanding that on an abstract level didn't make it any easier to keep her at a distance… not when he felt constantly, inexorably drawn to her every moment he was in her presence.

Hell, one little game of footsie under the table, and he'd been ready to follow her into the closest available broom closet.

His erection still hadn't quite subsided, he observed, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

But in a more rational frame of mind, he recognized that those few minutes of bliss wouldn't be worth the consequences: either reconciliation before they were ready, or an awkward clarification of their relationship status that she would interpret as a rejection.

However, if he even attempted to explain all of this to Nate, he knew he'd just get a look of vague bewilderment in response.

"We just have some things we both need to take care of first," he said instead.

Nate sighed wearily.

"Is this one of your weird games? Like the first person to say 'I love you' loses or whatever?" He shook his head. "I just don't get you two sometimes."

Chuck's only response was a wry smile.

The two girls, he noticed, had extricated themselves from their admirers and were now dancing by themselves- Serena, in her typical attention-grabbing whirlwind of hair and legs, and Blair, with a more restrained, elegant sway of her body.

Cool, deliberate, just an occasional glimpse of the sensuality beneath.

It had never ceased to fascinate him.

And there was no harm, he decided, in being fascinated from a distance.

Taking a long swallow of his scotch, he leaned back and settled in to enjoy the show.

.


.

Decidedly tipsy, the group finally returned to Chuck's penthouse around midnight. After kicking off shoes, removing jackets, and loosening cravats, they were relaxing on the red leather sectional in the living room.

"So what do you guys want to do?" Nate leaned back and stretched his arms along the back of the sofa. "It's too early to go to bed."

The other three pondered the question for a moment.

"Strip poker?" Chuck offered idly.

Serena rolled her eyes.

"We're not twelve years old anymore, Chuck. Although… " Her expression suddenly brightened. "Oh, we could play 'Never have I ever'," she suggested excitedly. "Remember how much fun that always was?"

"I thought we weren't twelve years old anymore," Chuck murmured.

"And we know pretty much everything about each other already," Blair pointed out.

"Psh," said Nate. "Hardly."

Blair regarded him with a raised eyebrow.

"Are you implying that there's more to Nate Archibald than meets the eye?" she teased. "That you have… hidden depths?"

"I might," he said nonchalantly.

"See, it's perfect!" Serena clapped her hands together in glee. "I'll go make the drinks!"

Ten minutes later, the four friends were clustered around the marble-topped bar counter, where Serena had distributed cups of a fruity rum-based cocktail referred to as "Jungle Juice," the recipe for which she'd apparently obtained from a UCLA frat party.

When she held a cup out towards Chuck, he shook his head and swirled the tumbler of 50-year-old single malt in his hand.

Apparently, his broadened horizons in the beverage arena had their limitations.

"Chuck, you can't play this game with Scotch, you'll end up completely shit-faced," Serena objected.

"I appreciate your concern…" He watched with amusement as Blair cautiously sniffed, and then sipped, her Jungle Juice. "…but I think I'll take my chances."

"Well, if you end up passed out on the floor, I'm taking your bed," Nate grinned.

"Okay, so the rules are, you drink if you've done… whatever the thing is," Serena began, "and if you're the only one who drinks, you have to tell the story. So who wants to go first?"

"I'll go." Blair leaned forward onto her elbows, clasping her drink between her palms. "I've never…" she paused deliberately, "…had sex with someone old enough to be one of my parents."

Nate groaned.

"Is that how we're playing, really?" He took a swallow of his drink.

Chuck took a sip of Scotch.

Serena looked perplexed.

"Wait, so that's like… fifteen years? So when I was sixteen, that would be-"

"You have, Serena. Trust me." Blair rolled her eyes. "Your turn."

"Alright." Serena thought for a moment. "I've never had sex with someone who actually was someone's parent."

Chuck took a drink.

"What if you're not sure?" Nate asked, his brow furrowing. "I mean, they don't always tell you…"

"You have, Nathaniel. Trust me." Chuck smirked, catching Blair's gaze over Nate's shoulder.

"Alright, I've never… made a sex tape," Nate offered.

"Okay, that's not fair," Serena protested. "I didn't even know it was being recorded, and nobody wants to hear that story again anyway-"

She paused abruptly when she realized that Chuck and Blair were both drinking.

"Oh, right. I should've figured." She raised her cup to take a drink.

Well, not really a sex tape, Blair thought to herself. More like… an anthology of sex tapes.

A compendium of erotic memoirs, perhaps.

She stole another glance at Chuck, wondering if he still watched them.

"My turn?" He thought for a moment. "Does it have to be something I've never done?"

"I can see how that would be challenging for you," Serena said dryly. "But no, it can be anything."

"Then I've never… watched anyone else have sex." He raised his glass towards Serena in a mocking salute, and then took another drink.

She gave him an exasperated look.

"Does it count if it wasn't on purpose?" Nate took a long swallow of his drink. "How strong is this stuff? It doesn't even taste like it has any alcohol in it."

The game carried on for several rounds, covering such topics as same-sex kissing (Chuck and Serena drank), pot (everyone but Blair drank, as she insisted unintentional use didn't count), handcuffs, arrests, sex in public, and faking orgasms.

She could feel Chuck's curious gaze on her when she drank on that particular turn.

True, maybe it should've been a clue that things weren't going to work out with Dan when she'd had to get herself practically blackout drunk to sleep with him. And it definitely should've been a clue when she'd had to half-heartedly pretend to enjoy it.

For some reason, she'd viewed the bad sex as a surmountable obstacle, instead of what it had actually been: a sign from God that their relationship was doomed.

In retrospect, she was rather baffled by her own stubbornness, especially considering that sex with Chuck had still been on the table at that point.

She released a mournful sigh, which caused everyone else to look over at her.

"I was just, uh… never mind," she murmured. "Your turn, Nate?"

"Alright, I've never… joined the mile high club," he said.

"Several times," Chuck murmured over the rim of his glass.

Blair grinned at him over hers.

"I'm sure that's a lot easier when you have access to a private jet," Serena pointed out.

"Fair enough," Chuck arched a brow. "Which is probably why I've never had sex… in the bathroom of a Greyhound bus."

"It was a Jitney, Chuck," Serena said in an exasperated voice. "Not a Greyhound."

"A bus bathroom?" Blair was horrified. "What, was the floor of Penn Station already taken?"

"It was perfectly clean," Serena said defensively. "And we were hours from home, and… whatever, I'm sure you two have done it in worse places than that."

"Well, there was that janitor's closet at St. Jude's…" Chuck recalled fondly. "My scarf smelled like Pine-sol for weeks."

"Oh, or that warehouse you were going to buy down in Tribeca?" Blair reminisced. "I probably should've gotten a tetanus booster afterwards."

"Okay, this game isn't called 'let's name all the weird places Chuck and Blair have had sex'," Serena interrupted, massaging her temples with one hand.

"Fine, fine." Blair shared a little smile with Chuck over the top of Serena's head. "Let me think of something. So I've never…" she paused for effect, "had a threesome."

Having delivered what she'd thought to be a very risqué suggestion, she watched in disbelief as everybody else drank.

"Okay, you I expected." She gestured towards Chuck. "And you…" she turned to Nate, "well, women basically strip naked and throw themselves at you, you probably didn't even have to ask. But seriously, Serena?"

"What? Just a couple of times. It was fun." Serena shrugged.

"A couple of times?" Blair was aghast.

"Nice," Nate said with an appreciative grin.

"Told you," Chuck murmured back.

"Okay, well… you're all disgusting," Blair concluded with a sniff, folding her arms across her chest.

Serena's mouth curved in a knowing smile.

"Oh really?" she said airily. "Well, I've never fantasized about having a threesome with two of the other people in this room."

An outraged gasp escaped before Blair could contain it.

"That was supposed to be a secret, Serena," she said indignantly.

Chuck took a sip of his drink, his eyebrows hiking in interest.

"What was supposed to be a secret?" Nate asked, confused, as he took a drink of his own. "I don't get it."

"Don't worry about it, Archibald," Blair said, feeling her entire face flush with embarrassment. "It was… a long time ago."

She refused to meet Chuck's gaze, although she got the distinct impression that he was enjoying her discomfort.

Nate continued to stare at her in puzzlement.

"Okay, well… I've never… masturbated in front of someone," he said.

At this, everyone but Nate drank.

"You know, I can't tell anymore if Chuck is actually responding to the questions, or just continuously drinking," Serena grinned mischievously.

"You wound me, sis," he said dryly. "But I'm sure I can think of something I haven't done. I've never…" he pursed his lips in contemplation. "… been paid for sex."

"Okay, now it just feels like you guys are picking on me," Nate objected, looking disgruntled as he took his drink.

"No need to tell us the story… err, stories," Blair corrected herself. "We're all quite familiar with the saga of Nate Archibald, Male Gigolo. Anyway, I've never… slept with any of my teachers." She sent a triumphant look in Serena's direction.

Who just shrugged as she took her sip. Along with Chuck.

"Does a TA count?" Nate asked.

"Yes, Nate." Blair rolled her eyes. "If you have to ask if something counts, just go ahead and drink."

"I've never…" Serena paused, sending a look of feigned innocence towards Blair, "… slept with two people who are related."

Blair inhaled sharply.

"At the same time?" Chuck asked in a languid voice. "Well, not that it matters…" He took another sip of Scotch.

With narrowed eyes, Blair surveyed Serena's self-congratulatory expression.

"So are cousins not related now?" she inquired.

"Oh… right." Flushing guiltily, Serena cleared her throat and took another drink as well.

"Wait, isn't it my turn? I'm still trying to figure out the last one." Nate was frowning in concentration, as though scrolling through a log of women in his brain.

"Well I've never slept with anyone who was married," Blair said in a haughty tone.

"And I've never slept with anyone while I was married," Serena shot back.

Blair recoiled in indignation. "Well, I've never slept with a convicted felon!"

"Ladies, ladies…" Chuck interjected, after taking a drink for 'convicted felon.' "Sheath your claws."

Blair and Serena eyed each other like boxers who'd retreated to opposite corners of the ring.

"Well, married, yes…" Nate mused and took another drink. "but wait, if cousins count…"

"Look, if you're determined to prove who is, in fact, the sluttiest," Chuck tipped his glass towards the two girls, "I have an idea how we can settle this."

They looked at him expectantly.

"Threesome?" he suggested in a solemn voice.

Blair groaned and Serena rolled her eyes.

"He probably won't even notice we're gone," he added in a conspiratorial tone, gesturing toward Nate with his brows.

"Wait, what?" Nate's eyes, Blair noticed, had started to become distinctly glassy.

"Nothing, nothing," Chuck assured him. "You two talk it over and get back to me," he added in a stage whisper, giving them a lecherous wink.

Serena chuckled and shook her head, and Blair felt herself smile reluctantly.

"You know, I can't believe I'm saying this," Serena mused as she topped up everyone's cups from the pitcher, sloshing a significant amount onto the table in the process, "but I almost… miss your creepiness, Chuck."

"It is one of my finer qualities," he agreed.

"We should hang out like this more often," she went on, picking up steam. "I mean, you're only like six hours away. You could fly to New York and pick us up… and we could go to Vegas!" She toasted her own idea and took a large swig of her drink.

"Is it just me…" Nate furrowed his brow, "or are these chairs really hard to balance on?"

Watching Nate tilt rather precariously to one side, and Serena almost miss her mouth with the rim of her glass, Blair suddenly realized that the two had had quite a bit more to drink than she had.

Just like old times, she thought with a little smile.

Although hopefully this particular night wouldn't end with her cleaning vomit out of Serena's hair.

"You know, we've been drinking for a while now, maybe we should eat something," she suggested.

"I could eat," Nate agreed. "How about I call room service?"

Serena sat up straight and clapped her hands together.

"Do you think they have jalapeno poppers?" she asked excitedly.

"Oh, good idea." Nate grabbed for the phone- and then again, when his first attempt missed. "And those little... mini burger things…"

"Sliders, yes! And maybe fries? Wait, do they eat fries with mayonnaise here?"

"I bet they'll send up ketchup. I'll ask for ketchup."

Blair's eyes met Chuck's across the bar, their faces mirror images of wry amusement.

"If you'll excuse me, I need to use the restroom." He cleared his throat. "Make sure you order me some… jalapeno poppers."

.


.

Blair paused in the doorway of Chuck's bedroom.

Given that she'd been trying- and failing- to gain access to it for four days now, it felt like a monumental achievement.

A sense of anticipation thrumming through her veins, Blair stepped over the threshold, her bare feet padding silently onto the thick carpet.

The room was outfitted with simple, modern furnishings. An ebony dresser and bookcase lined one wall; a matching valet stand stood in the opposite corner, next to an oval-shaped full-length mirror. A blue patterned chaise reclined along the far wall, beneath a brightly-hued Kandinksy.

And then there was the centerpiece of the room- an expansive king-sized bed with a padded headboard in dove gray suede. The bed itself was made up with almost military precision, sheet corners ruthlessly tucked in, pillows arranged in a meticulous line.

It wouldn't stay like that for long, Blair decided.

As she continued to survey the room, her gaze skimmed past the nightstand- and then returned to it with a blink of surprise.

Right there, between the reading lamp and the alarm clock, was the framed picture of the two of them on the beach. The picture she'd seen months ago, boxed up and left behind in his penthouse at the Empire.

It was tilted slightly inward, facing the bed instead of the room.

With tentative steps, Blair walked over to the nightstand and picked up the frame. The photo captured such a perfect moment that it was almost painful to look at; the two of them flushed with the exhilaration of young love, basking in their hard-won happiness… certain it would last forever.

She wondered if Chuck even knew how much of himself this picture revealed. He looked relaxed, unguarded, his eyes warm with admiration and a sense of… wonder, almost. As if he were marveling at his own good fortune.

And at that moment, an unexpected stab of longing pierced her so sharply, it nearly took her breath away. All she could think of was everything she'd lost- everything she wanted so desperately to have back.

Absorbed in her thoughts, she didn't even notice Chuck had entered the room until he said her name.

"Oh." She looked up in surprise. "I was just, uh… I didn't realize you'd brought this."

"Because you saw it in the box you rifled through in my closet?" Chuck asked wryly.

Her mouth dropped open in feigned outrage.

"I did not rifle through-" He derailed her denial with a single, skeptical hike of his brow. "Okay fine, I may have seen it there," she admitted.

She returned the picture to the nightstand, and his gaze followed it, lingering for a long moment.

"By the way, I took my pajama top back," she informed him.

He chuckled low in his throat.

Their eyes locked again, and a sizzle of electricity passed between them.

Almost in unison, they both glanced downwards- suddenly, intensely aware that the only thing separating them was a wide expanse of mattress.

She could walk around the bed, she thought to herself. Pull him into a passionate kiss and let nature take its course. Or she could crawl across the bed, grab him by the belt, and make nature take its course.

Or, she could simply climb onto the bed, lean back against the pillows, slowly unzip her dress… and see how long he could hold back before he pounced on her.

And she could finally feel every inch of his body pressed against her. On top of her. Inside her.

God, she wanted him so much, she ached.

Suddenly, unbidden, she could hear Chuck's words echoing in her mind.

"You just decided that you wanted me again, and I'm supposed to be okay with that."

She closed her eyes and tried to will away the unwelcome memory.

"Tell me how I'm supposed to be okay with that, Blair."

The sadness and regret she could still hear in his voice was perhaps the one thing capable of cooling her ardor.

Opening her eyes, she looked up at him and observed what she'd deliberately overlooked before.

The slight glaze to his dark eyes.

The relaxed lines of his normally-taut features.

He could disguise it better than any of them, but Chuck was definitely intoxicated.

And she didn't want their reunion to be the result of a drunken hookup, a lapse in willpower that he might second guess- or even regret- in the morning. She didn't want them to end up back together, not because they were actually ready to be in a relationship again, but because they weren't strong enough to stay apart.

God knew they'd gone down that path enough times already.

This time she wanted him to choose to be with her. To decide, while completely lucid and clear-headed, that this was what he wanted.

Because if she didn't give him the freedom to do that, if she pressured him into a reconciliation before he was ready… it could very well end up like every previous incarnation of their relationship.

And she knew she couldn't bear that.

So Blair mustered every ounce of self-control she possessed, exhaled one last, regretful sigh, and took a step backwards.

"We should probably, um, get back to the party," she murmured.

Chuck cast his eyes downwards, but not before she saw the look of disappointment flash across his face. He inhaled a slow, deep breath, as if forcibly regaining his composure.

"Yeah," he finally agreed, his lips curving up in a regretful smile. "You're probably right."

Even after agonizing over her mature, thoughtful decision, Blair had still been half-hoping he would just throw her down on the bed and have his way with her.

Being mature was the fucking worst, she decided.

"They might actually fall down and hurt themselves without supervision," she added, trying to lighten the mood.

"It's downright embarrassing." Chuck shook his head in mock sorrow. "Nathaniel used to be able to hold his liquor."

"Although," he mused, "If he's drunk enough, maybe we can see if he's interested in fulfilling that… ahem… fantasy of yours."

Blair groaned and covered her face.

"So how did you picture it, exactly?" Chuck tilted his head to one side, grinning at her discomfort. "Would we take turns, or were you thinking something more… simultaneous?"

"I'm going to kill Serena," she muttered into her hands.

Her face was still flushed with embarrassment as she stalked back out to the living room, Chuck following close behind.

Only to find the room looking like a crime scene.

A trail of sticky red liquid led from an overturned glass to the edge of the table, where it was steadily dripping onto one of the bar chairs. Another chair was leaning against the back of the sofa at a 45-degree angle, apparently having lost a battle with an impaired Nate. Serena's heels were strewn haphazardly across the marble floor.

Meanwhile, Serena and Nate were nowhere to be found.

"Maybe they're out on the patio?" Blair ventured.

But she'd barely taken two steps in that direction when an unmistakable giggle stopped her in her tracks. She pivoted, eyes narrowed with suspicion and fixed on the closed guest room door.

Next came the sound of fabric rustling. Then another giggle.

And then… a muffled moan.

"You have got to be kidding me," Blair said under her breath.

"Well, this is… ironic," Chuck murmured.

They both stared in bemusement at the closed door for several moments, until the increasingly explicit noises made Blair wince and cover her ears.

"Worst. Chaperones. Ever." She declared.

"Wasn't that the reason we asked them to do it?" Chuck asked wryly.

Their eyes met, and the corner of Blair's mouth tipped upwards in concession.

"Well then." Chuck cleared his throat. "Do you want to take my bed, or would you rather have the sofa?"

.


.

Placing her coffee cup into its saucer with a clank, Blair pushed her chair back from the patio table.

"Do you have to make so much noise?" Nate mumbled.

He was slumped forward onto his elbows, his head cradled gingerly in both hands.

"As a matter of fact, I do. Because we're supposed to leave in half an hour, and you two haven't even finished your walk of shame yet. You-" Blair gestured towards Serena, "-look like Lindsay Lohan after a weeklong bender, and you-" she raised her eyebrows at Nate,"-still haven't managed to put pants on."

"I don't know where they are," Nate said through the hand covering his face.

"I think I saw them …" Serena yawned and dragged one hand through her tangle of blonde hair. "… over by the couch. Monkey was sleeping on them."

"Would coffee do anything to speed this situation along?" Blair asked pointedly.

"Yeah, coffee… that's… yeah." Nate lifted his head and blinked his bleary eyes.

Blair poured coffee into their cups from the carafe, and then sat back, folded her arms across her chest and gave them both a withering stare.

After the night she'd had, she was in no mood to deal with this nonsense.

Chuck had done the gentlemanly thing and taken the couch, so she'd gotten a comfortable bed all to herself, far away from Nate and Serena's drunk sex noises. She'd spent the night in Chuck's king-sized bed, wearing a pair of Chuck's silk pajamas and wrapped in Chuck-scented sheets.

Alone.

It had felt like a particularly diabolical form of torture.

Exhausted from tossing and turning until the early hours of the morning, and sexually frustrated as all hell, she had no qualms about venting her aggravation on the closest available targets.

"You two should be ashamed of yourselves," she said sharply. "You had one job to do. One."

"Sorry," Nate muttered, massaging his temples with his thumb and forefinger. "I don't even remember much after… um…"

"Wait, if we failed…" Serena's brow crinkled in confusion, "then why are you in such a bitchy mood?"

"Mmm," Nate agreed. "Sex with Chuck usually, uh…" -he made a vague waving motion with his hand- "…cheers you up."

Serena regarded Blair over her cup of coffee for a moment before understanding flashed across her features.

"Oh, B," she said sympathetically. "I'm sorry."

"No, no, it wasn't… like that…" Blair gave a rapid shake of her head. "It was more of a… mutual… we just both thought that… shh, nevermind," she hissed finally, as Chuck made his way out onto the patio and took a seat at the table.

"Good morning," he greeted everyone.

He was dressed casually- pale blue polo, tan trousers, and brightly-colored boat shoes- and appeared well-rested and upbeat, apparently unaffected by the previous evening's debauchery.

A light wind tousled his hair. She eyed it wistfully.

Resolving to shake off her bad mood, Blair went to pour him a cup of coffee, at the exact moment he reached for the carafe himself. His fingers lingered atop hers for just a second too long.

Chuck cleared his throat, and she mumbled an apology under her breath.

It was ironic, she contemplated, how their morning-after awkwardness seemed to result from them not having sex.

"Well." He turned to Nate and Serena with a raised brow. "How are you two feeling this morning?"

"Not… the best," Serena admitted.

"My brain hurts," Nate mumbled into his coffee.

"It should, you gave it quite a workout last night," Blair said derisively. "All of that having to actually remember the women you've had sex with…"

"What?" Nate looked up at her through rumpled bangs, his brow furrowed in confusion. "What are you talking about?"

"Well, I guess we don't have to worry about Nate taking you up on your offer," Chuck said, straight-faced.

"Offer?" Nate echoed, looking back and forth between the two of them in confusion. "What offer?"

Blair's indignant scowl melted as soon as she met Chuck's eyes across the table, and saw that little smirk curling his mouth.

"Mine is still on the table, for the record," he added with mock seriousness.

"Huh?" Serena looked back and forth between the two of them with bleary eyes. "I think I missed something."

Blair hid her own smirk behind a croissant.

God, she'd missed having a snarking partner. The personalities in their foursome complemented each other so well, it always felt slightly off-balance when one of them was absent.

As much as she loved Chuck, she realized, she also just missed him. There was no one else who could make her laugh, calm her neuroses, or read her mind with a single glance, quite the way he could.

And while she hoped this visit would help tide her over until she saw him again… she feared it would just make her feel his absence even more keenly.

But their departure time loomed, and breakfast was a rushed affair. Twenty minutes later, they gathered in the foyer while porters shuttled their luggage down to the waiting towncar.

Goodbyes were said; hugs were exchanged.

The overall mood was subdued. Serena and Nate were obviously feeling under the weather, Blair was focusing all of her energy on not staring forlornly at Chuck, and Chuck just seemed… pensive.

It was only once she stepped onto the elevator and turned around that she finally met his eyes.

And the array of emotions she saw reflected there- doubt, longing, regret, adoration- made her heart catch in her throat.

She couldn't leave things like this, she realized. If she did, she would spend the entire flight home regretting it. And if this was going to be goodbye for another three months, maybe even longer, then she was damn well going to make it a goodbye to remember.

In a split-second decision, Blair darted out between the closing elevator doors, ignoring Nate's bewildered "wait, where are you-" and barely evading Serena's outstretched arm.

The elevator doors slid shut behind her with a whoosh, leaving her alone with Chuck in the foyer.

They regarded each other for a long moment.

The tension in his expression, she noted, had been replaced with a hint of amusement.

"Did you forget something?" Chuck asked wryly.

"… Yes."

"What's that?"

In three quick steps, Blair covered the distance between them. She slid her hands up his chest, along his shoulders, up the back of his neck, into his hair. Then she pulled his head down- not that she needed to, he was already tilting his head to meet her…

… and finally, finally kissed him.

It was exhilarating and comforting, familiar and brand-new, all at once.

Their lips moved in perfect unison. Their bodies fit together as though they recognized each other. Their tongues stroked and parried, eliciting a soft moan of approval from one of them- she wasn't sure who.

His hands encircled her waist to pull her tighter against him, and she rose up on tiptoe, threading her fingers deeper into his hair, desperate to get as close as possible.

It didn't feel like they were kissing for the first time in months. It felt like they were resuming a kiss interrupted only minutes ago.

A hot, ardent kiss, full of barely-restrained yearning.

And yet, after everything they'd been through, this sweet, simple pleasure felt almost like a revelation- like they were rediscovering each other all over again.

Blair didn't want it to ever end.

Which is why she ignored the ding of the elevator, and the opening doors. And the impatient drumming of fingers against the railing.

And finally, Serena's pointed cough.

Only then did Blair slowly, reluctantly pull away. First she sank down onto her heels, then she let go of his hair. Then she allowed her hands to slide back down to neck, his shoulders, to his chest. And then, finally, she broke off the kiss. She released his lower lip last of all, scraping her teeth against the inside of it as she did so.

Just to give him something to think about for the rest of the afternoon.

The doors started to close again, emitting another ding as someone jammed a finger against the "door open" button.

"So should we go, or…" Nate said, amused exasperation in his voice.

"Just a minute."

Blair paused for one last moment, lifting a hand to Chuck's face and stroking her thumb along his cheekbone. He stared down at her, his eyes warm and dark and still slightly dazed from their kiss, as if he couldn't bear to look away.

"Come home soon, Bass," she murmured.

With that, she turned and strode towards the elevator. There was a bounce to her step, a certain buoyant lightness in her chest, that she hadn't felt in ages.

It felt a lot like… happiness.

For the first time in a long time, she thought it might be almost within reach.

.


.

A/N: This ended up being so long that my brain is basically out of words, but the chapter looks naked without an author's note… so… big thanks to everyone who's encouraged me to keep working on this. I really appreciate all the support, and hopefully it was worth the wait. Well, nothing's really worth waiting a year and a half for, but hopefully you enjoyed it anyway, haha.

Special thanks to Maryl and her endless encouragement/pestering, and of course my beta Terrabeth (who's also written some fabulous stories, in case you're not familiar with them).

And as always, reviews make my day :)