Serena stays on in Paris for longer than he expects, even accompanying him on the Eurostar to London to pick up Daisy, entertaining the little girl on the journey back to the Gare du Nord with crayons and colouring books, putting on silly voices to act out plays with her toy animals, and letting Daisy's little hands twist the ends her long blonde hair.
Serena is still easy company, her presence a warm and comforting reminder of a safer, better past.
They take Daisy for walks in the Jardin du Luxembourg and share cheese fondue like tourists at street cafes, both females giggling like two-year olds as strings of warm cheese wrap themselves unflattering around their forks and faces.
He finds himself wearing an unforced smile for the first time in months and he considers, not unpleasantly, what life might be like if it were always like this. For a long time in their youth Serena had been the one. Maybe he'd been denying the inevitable, maybe this was fate's long-winded way of bringing them both back where they started. As if life - as if she - had never happened.
One sunny afternoon, they are drinking black coffee outside a café in the Latin Quarter, both keeping careful eyes on Daisy as she clumsily chases pigeons around the nearby fountain, her sturdy toddler steps echoing on the cobblestones. Serena frequently interrupts their conversation to leap up and guide Daisy away from potential danger, such as passing dogs, or potential faux-pas, like pulling at the skirt of the woman at the next table. She'd be a great mom, he thinks to himself with surprise, given that the previous Van der Woodsen generation pretty much wrote the 'how not to parent' handbook.
Serena returns with a vaguely disconsolate Daisy in her arms, the little girl clearly put out at being prevented from exploring their much more fascinating neighbours in favour of spending time with her already-familiar father and his friend. Serena placates Daisy with the promise of a glass of milk which she orders in charming school-girl French from the waiter. He takes in the scene, his daughter and his ex-girlfriend and their easy intimacy, and wonders if he could get used to it.
"You're a natural," he smiles.
"Oh, not really. It's not hard when they're this good-natured. I expect she takes after you. I bet you were a sweet kid too."
"Not the way my dad tells it."
Serena laughs in response, glancing up with a polite smile and a quick 'Merci' as the waiter brings Daisy's milk.
"Listen, Serena, this is probably wildly inappropriate and I have no right to ask, but…." He regrets beginning the sentence as soon as he starts, trailing off uncomfortably. Luckily for him she doesn't seem to notice, choosing the same time to start a portentous utterance of her own.
"I have something to tell you," she bites her lip in that Serena-like way of hers she has when she's trying to charm you into accepting a plan she feels you might not like. "I've been waiting for the right time, until things weren't quite so…raw," she continues, searching for her words.
She forces her gaze to meet his eyes and says quietly, "Nate asked me to marry him."
"Wow. Oh my god. Serena that's… great. That's wonderful news. I'm so happy for you." And as the words leave his lips he knows that they are true. He feels nothing but happiness for her and for Nate, bar – unexpectedly - relief for himself. Serena's not his fate and he's not Serena's, Nate is. Of course. It makes perfect sense. They make perfect sense.
Serena looks a little sheepish.
"You did say yes?"
"Of course! I'm just… I was expecting you'd tease me. You know, given my track record. Tell Nate to run for the hills."
"Third times the charm, eh?" he grins, wickedly. She rolls her eyes, good humouredly, expecting nothing less.
"I've got to call Nate and congratulate him. What time is it on the East Coast?"
She looks even more bashful. "He's not on the East Coast. He's here. Has been for two days," she sees his look of surprise and hurries on, "I asked him not get in touch because I wanted to be the one to tell you, and somehow between clearing the apartment and looking after Daisy and making sure you were okay, I hadn't quite found the moment."
He smiles his thanks. "You and Nate don't have to tip-toe around the rest of us. Something… awful happened, but you shouldn't have to apologise for your own happiness." He leans over and claims his daughter, folding her into his arms. "Daisy and I are delighted for you. Call Nate and get him here now, I'm going to order champagne." He's about to call the waiter when another thought occurs, "Wait, this means if Nate does become President, you'll be the First Lady of the United States of America."
"I know! Hilarious and terrifying, right?"
"Well, for the first time in my life I'm seriously considering voting Republican."
Serena swipes him with her napkin and moves to get her phone from her bag. She pauses. "Do you think Blair would be happy for us? It's stupid, but I kinda feel that… I'm stealing one of her old dreams."
"She'd be happier than anyone," he says firmly, thinking about a story he once wrote.
"I'm glad you think so, because I've something else to ask," Serena shifts her sky blue gaze to his daughter, "I'd really like Daisy to be my flower girl at the wedding."
"I think she'd like that. I'll have to check with Freya, of course, but thank you. It's really kind of you."
"Nonsense, you're family." He's never before felt so grateful to be Serena Van der Woodsen's family. He's not sure how - if - he would have got through the last few weeks without her, without her innate kindness, compassion and light preventing him from sinking into the darkness.
Fifteen minutes later Nate appears, his love for Serena shining steadily on his face the moment his eyes alight on hers. The three of them share champagne and raise glasses to toast both 'the Archibalds' and 'the Humphreys'.
As Daisy clambers around his neck, he wonders if the others are as aware as he is of the great gaping hole, the yawning empty chasm, alongside them; the absence of the missing piece that should be here squaring off the triangle, lifting a glass to her curved lips and covertly throwing him wry ironic glances.
Nate and Serena discretely slip their fingers together under the table and sneak occasional meaningful lover's looks. He smiles and laughs and drinks to his friends' good fortune, and misses her and misses her and misses her.
Six months pass. His home now is her Paris apartment. The date is the 14 January. His twenty-ninth birthday. In two hours he'll meet Daisy at the Gare du Nord; Freya and Mark delivering her like a duffle-coat wrapped present as they pass by en route to a city break in Madrid.
The intercom buzzes, he answers, catches something about a delivery and in his improving French asks the visitor to come up.
He opens the door, buttoning the collar of his shirt, to find the hallway filled with a slight serious-looking woman and two large security guards, an immense wrapped parcel suspended between them.
"Daniel Humphrey?" the woman asks over the top of a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. He nods. She continues in lilting French–accented English, "If you could sign the paperwork for the return of this piece." She indicates to the men to enter the apartment with a smart incline of her head, and pushes an official looking form into his hands. He looks baffled. She takes pity and more gently, indicates the places requiring his signature. He signs obediently. Meanwhile, the large rectangular parcel has been deposited on the floor of the lounge, leant against the back of one of Blair's curved Louis XVI chairs.
The woman with glasses advises, "You really should get it professionally hung as soon as possible."
"Get what hung? What is it?"
She gives him a bemused smile that transforms her serious face, infusing it with life, "You don't know?"
She takes a small pocket knife from her bag, kneels and begins to carefully peel away the packing, layer by layer. When she pulls the final protective covering away, his jaw drops.
"That can't be what it looks like."
"It is," she shrugs.
"But it looks like a Rothko."
The woman gives him a shoots him a sceptical look through long delicate lashes. "That's because it is a Rothko. Untitled, 1955. It's been on loan to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Australia for their retrospective. The exhibition finished two months ago, and now it is being returned according to instructions."
He stares at the canvas, mesmerised to the extent that he barely takes in her words. Eventually they filter through to his brain, "Whose instructions?"
"Blair Grimaldi, the late Princess of Monaco."
"It's Blair's." Of course. One more in the long line of exquisite possessions diminished in beauty and meaning by her absence.
"It was originally part of the Grimaldi family collection. It was gifted into the Princess's private ownership soon after her marriage."
"But you knew my name. At the door, you had my name."
"Yes, it's on the paperwork and on the Princess's written instructions. She was very specific; the date, the address, the name."
"Wait, she arranged for this to be delivered to me, here, on my birthday?"
"If 14 January is your birthday, then yes."
"Bon anniversaire," she smiles, the gesture animating her face again, the delicate lines of her lips forming a cupid's bow.
"Thank you," he mouths numbly.
The guards are already out the door. She retrieves the papers from his hand and begins to make her own exit.
"You're just leaving it here? You can't… I don't have it insured. I mean, it's not mine."
"I don't know about that, Monsieur Humphrey. I'm just returning the painting in accordance with its owner's instructions," she says, not unsympathetically. She indicates to the blank wall. "It used to hang there."
"You've been here before? You knew Blair?"
She nods gently, "I used to help her find pieces occasionally. We went to galleries together. I liked her very much. I was sorry to hear about her accident. She was very young." She adds reflectively, "And often very sad."
Neither know what to say to that.
After a long pause, she breaks the silence with a question, "You're her friend, the writer?"
He gives a short nod, mind now elsewhere. "Sometimes after we'd been to the Louvre, she used to read your stories to me on a bench in the Tuileries. They made her happy, even when they made her cry."
Another even more awkward silence hangs in the air. More for something to do than anything, she digs a business card out of her purse and puts it into his hand, before heading towards the door. She has her hand on the handle when she turns, exclaiming, "I almost forgot! It was in the instructions. I'm also to give you this."
She presses something else into his fingers and, with a quick departing smile that causes a light to flicker in her intelligent grey eyes, leaves.
He's alone again, but now with a priceless Rothko burning a hole in his conscience, and a thick cream envelope burning a hole in his heart.
He holds up the envelope, and at the sight of her familiar flowing letters, he feels his throat constrict and his eyes smart with hot tears.
Fumbling, fingers clumsy with emotion, he slides the card from the envelope and steels himself to read her last missive.
"Isla and Rick had Paris. We'll always have Coney Island. But now you should write yourself another life; just don't let it be only on paper this time – don't waste the ninth life.
I hope you like your birthday present.
Love then, now and forever, Blair. "
And on the card's reverse...
"P.S. Her name is Audrey. No, really. Even you couldn't make that up.
P.P.S. In case you're still enough of an idiot not to get her phone number, it's 48 04 37 96."
Astonished, bemused, his eyes lift from the card to stare dazedly at the Rothko.
That woman. That incredible, argumentative, tactless, elitist, narcissistic, hilarious, intelligent, stimulating, exhilarating, captivating, dangerous, lonely, lost, desperate, self-destructive, endlessly surprising woman.
A sudden, sharp, genuine laugh breaks through the still air. The sound is so unfamiliar it takes him a second to realise it's his.