GRAVITY

Summary: The Christmas season release of Serena's movie leads to Dan reassessing their creative partnership... and their relationship. Meanwhile, Chuck and Blair are spending their first holiday season as parents, and Nate, facing a future with a woman he isn't in love with, finds hope and strength during this special time of the year.

(This fic is set in the same AU as "Pomp and Circumstance," which departs from TV show canon after 5x19. While it isn't necessary to be familiar with that story to appreciate this one, readers of P&C should note that this story picks up roughly seven months after the eighth and final chapter, "Forever.")

Disclaimer: I own nothing in the Gossip Girl universe, not even (sadly) Chuck or Nate. Major props to Cecily von Ziegesar, the CW, the producers, actors, and crew, and everyone involved with bringing these amazing characters to life.

Dedicated to my long-suffering Derena darlings... especially Lauren, who made this beautiful YT video of DS moments to the tune of Sara Bareilles' "Gravity": watch?v=BiHIbqE646M - I hope that you enjoy this story, and keep the faith for our beautiful ship!

December 18, 2013 - New York City

Something always brings me back to you

It never takes too long

No matter what I say or do

I still feel you here 'til the moment I'm gone...

It wasn't often that Serena van der Woodsen looked into a vanity mirror and found fault with her appearance. Like many very beautiful women, Serena took what she saw there for granted... she never really found much pleasure in obsessing over every minute detail.

But today was different. Her very first movie, To Celia, would be premiering at Clearview, and she was scheduled to arrive on the red carpet at 6 pm sharp. Unlike her former appearances in the media during her partying days, the attention she'd get today would actually be for something good... no, better than good... outstanding.

The advance reviews for the film had been insane. Insanely positive, that is. The cast had delivered masterful performances, and Jennifer Lawrence had become Celia. Pairing her with Ian had been an inspired choice, but even so, Serena couldn't bring herself to believe the Oscar buzz. It was only the first project where she'd shared creative control, she told herself. What the critics were responding so positively to was her mentor Jane Campion's genius. For no one has ever applied the words "sensitive and intelligent" to her, which meant that her Celia, like Dan's creation Sabrina, really was a fictionalized character.

But both Celia and Sabrina had their genesis, their life, their birth in Serena van der Woodsen. This fall, there had been renewed interest in her. So many people figured out that she was the S. C. Vann who had written the movie that she dropped the pretense and just began using her name in association with the project over the summer. While the actors and Jane did the interview circuit over the past two weeks, she remained in New York, and only attended one press interview.

"Serena, we hear that despite all the buzz, you've remained quite grounded. You missed the Los Angeles and London premieres, and you've not been seen out and about all fall. What happened to Celia?"

Laugh. "Well, Celia's creator is now an aunt! I'm completely smitten with my new niece and nephew, so I haven't moved from my brother and sister-in-law's home since they were born..."

"That's right, your brother, real estate tycoon Chuck Bass, is married to the former Princess of Monaco, Blair Waldorf, yes?"

"Yes."

"You really are the real-life Celia. You're related to billionaires and European royalty. Tell me, are Michael's accusations in the movie correct? Is it impossible for the average girl to relate to Celia?"

Serena looked at the interviewer placidly.

"Celia's story shows that no one in this world escapes the human condition," she said quietly. "My world, and Celia's, look charmed from the outside looking in. But I think that Celia says it all. You can be rich and young and stop traffic, but you can be dying inside."

"Most people would kill to have Celia's problems."

"Yes, and in Celia's world, people kill and are killed, creating problems... even if that murder is a metaphorical one."

The interviewer blinked. Apparently he wasn't expecting a brain beneath her fabulous mane of Rhodes gold. (At this point, Serena was used to it. Up until a few years ago, she herself had doubted her intellect. What a difference success made.)

"So tell me about your next project. 99/1, the much anticipated television pilot by you and your creative partner Daniel Humphrey, has been picked up by Showtime. There's quite a bit of buzz about the show, and several other projects that your new October Eighth production company have put together. Can you tell me more about it?"

"More about what? The show or the company?"

"About Daniel, if you're willing to share."

Smile. "I prefer to keep my private life private. Dan and I have shared so much of our lives through our fiction that the reality is far less exciting. Fifty shades of boring, as an old acquaintance once said..."

"I'd beg to differ. During your It Girl days, you were linked with many different men. Is your relationship most like the one between Dylan and Sabrina that Daniel writes about in Inside and Monarch of Manhattan, or is it more like Celia and Michael?"

In response, Serena gave the interviewer her best blank face.

"Next question."

Blinking herself back to the present, Serena picked up a Chanel lipstick from the vanity. The makeup artist and stylist were finished with her, and now were with her best friend, but she'd been biting her lips as she was lost in thought, and needed a quick repair.

A knock sounded on the door. In spite of herself, Serena blushed a little, wondering if it was...

"Come in," she called.

It wasn't who she was expecting (and if she was honest, longing for), but Serena didn't mind Chuck interrupting her thoughts, especially these days. He wasn't changed into his tux yet, and Serena smiled at the reason why.

"We thought we'd peek in to see Aunt Serena before her momentous night," Chuck said casually. "Didn't we, Katie?"

At the sight of her adorable new baby niece in her brother's arms, Serena melted. "Aw, let me hold her!" she exclaimed, her arms held out.

Chuck raised an eyebrow. "Looking like that?"

"Come on, Chuck, she's my baby-love! I'll never turn my little Kate away..."

"Fine. Just don't complain when she spits up like you did with Spence the other day. As Blair says, couture wasn't designed for easy removal of baby saliva."

Chuck brought his daughter over to his sister, first dropping the white cloth that he carried over Serena's bare shoulder and dress bodice, then handing her the baby as if she was fine porcelain. Katharine Eleanor Bass was as beautiful of an infant as any that Serena had ever seen, with her softer than silk, rich brown baby curls, and petal soft, ivory baby skin. (Although Chuck swore that his little princess looked most like her mother, Blair and Serena secretly agreed that she looked most like his mom.)

Like her grandmother, father, and twin brother, little Kate's most arresting feature were her feline, almond-shaped hazel eyes. She always stared at Serena as if she was trying to memorize her features, or as Dan liked to say about the Bass twins (who would bawl if he even seemed he was going to touch them), "scan your brain."

Serena, who'd gotten used to holding one baby, or both, over the seven weeks of their existence, dabbed away her lipstick without another thought, then began to rain kisses on the tiny girl's cheeks and lips.

"Hey, little princess!" she said, stroking the baby's back as tiny Katharine stared at her curiously. "Have you been watching your Mommy get ready for Auntie S's party?"

"Actually, the little princess was screaming her head off until it was her turn to feed," said Chuck, sitting down on the chair near Serena's closet. "She is getting tired with sharing everything, including her mother, with Prince Spence."

"Really? Usually Spencey is the dramatic one! Yesterday morning at breakfast, he wouldn't stop bawling! He didn't want anything to do with me or Dorota, just B!"

"Yes, my son is discriminating," said Chuck proudly. "Takes after his father. But apparently, my quiet and sweet little Katie's been having her moment in the sun as far as clinginess goes. As usual, I was the only one she wanted. She was fussing so much that Blair called me home early." Chuck yawned. "Just like her mother... cool exterior, but scratch the surface and you'll get burned."

"She's such a Daddy's girl already." Serena let her niece's little hand curl around her freshly manicured finger as the tiny girl shut her eyes contentedly. "Chuck, you know things can't go on like this, especially now that the Roses and the Waldorfs are back in France."

"Do you want to fight that particular battle with Blair? Because I won't. Especially not today."

"Eventually, you're going to have to," Serena said impatiently. "You can't go on like this. You can't. It hasn't even been a week since Blair's parents left, and you both look like you haven't slept in years."

"Maybe we could get some sleep if Aunt Serena would agree to have both babies in the guest suite for a change," pointed out Chuck. "How about tonight?"

"Tonight we're all going to the premiere, then the afterparty. Why not ask the sitter to spend the night?"

"Because my wife refuses to leave our children with strangers overnight. Says that at two months old, they're too young." He ran a hand through his hair, an uncharacteristic gesture for the usually suave Chuck Bass. "Something's got to give."

"Yes, it does, Chuck. Just have your staff hire someone, and then once Blair sees how much rest you're both getting, how comfortable things are, she'll..."

Chuck raised an eyebrow. Serena changed her tune. They both knew Blair too well to pretend!

"So she'll be pissed. Really pissed. So what?"

"So what? So plenty. Blair being pissed isn't going to help me at all." He paused. "We got the green light."

"For?"

Chuck just looked at her.

"Oh!" said Serena. "Oh."

"Exactly. If I hire a nanny, Blair will wear flannel and a chastity belt to bed. If we continue with the present chaos, we'll be too exhausted to remember our own names by bedtime, let alone our safe word..."

"And as always, that was far too much information about my brother and my best friend's sex life," said Serena. "Ew. But... yeah, Chuck, that's terrible. I'm sympathetic."

"Sympathetic enough to spend just one night in the service of our little prince and princess?"

"Absolutely not," said Serena. "If you think you and Blair have been deprived, it's been almost two months since I've been able to spend any real time with Dan. I've been sleeping here every night that I've been in New York since mid-October, and yes, I have been on baby duty plenty of those nights. But tonight, Dan... he's got something special planned to celebrate my premiere."

Serena blushed. Chuck regarded her impatiently.

"Surely Humphrey can wait."

"Surely you and Blair can wait. After all, the two of you are their parents. I'm just the aunt."

As if on cue, baby Katharine opened her eyes, looked at Serena... and started bawling.

"Let's go, princess," Chuck said, glaring at Serena as he took his child back. "Basses do not remain where they are not wanted. And we would like to remind Aunt Serena that van der Woodsens do not remain in Bass palaces where they are no longer useful."

"Okay, whatever, Chuck. Bye, Katie! Auntie still loves you, even if you're being a Bass today!"

Serena watched them go. Then she looked at the clock. Four minutes to five.

With each tick, she felt her heart flutter just a bit... and not just because of the movie.

You hold me without touch

You keep me without chains

I never wanted anything so much

Than to drown in your love and not feel your rain...

Dan Humphrey always felt a little ridiculous in a tuxedo. Even after all these years on the inside, they made him feel so fidgety. (And this tux with tails and white tie was even odder looking than the usual penguin-looking fare.) It was one of the small ways that he would never completely be part of the world that fate, Serena, and his father had brought him to. But after a late college stint of not really caring much about his appearance (to say the least), Dan thought he looked respectable as he trotted down the stairs of an Upper West Side brownstone that had been far too empty over the past two months.

The driver closed the door, and soon the limousine was pulling away from the curb. As he adjusted his cufflinks, he looked back at the red door of their home, smiling, thinking about the day that he'd led Serena by the hand as she practically danced up the steps, then lifted her by the waist so that her feet cleared the threshold...

What a summer it had been for the two of them. They'd split their time between preproduction for the pilot, and feathering their love nest. Not since those heady fall days in his long-ago junior year of high school had Dan felt so happy. So content. It seemed ridiculous, ludicrous even, that Dan had ever imagined other women into his future, that he'd ever questioned them. He wasn't sure how 99/1 would be received, but there was one thing he was sure of...

Serena van der Woodsen wasn't just some pretty girl who'd stepped out of his lustful, wistful teenage male fantasies. She wasn't just some ideal out there, with the reality being a constant disappointment. She was perfect for him. It took walking away from Serena, then almost losing her, for Dan to understand that.

Sometimes, during that summer as they worked together and healed their relationship, he'd watch Serena as she slept. Thinking about everything they'd been through. Didn't most high school sweethearts streak through the sky like a comet, burning brightly for a moment before fading into nothing but memory? Didn't he believe he wasn't in love with her anymore for years? Didn't she say it herself?

Yet here they were, all these years later, after ups and downs, breakups and betrayal, heartaches and heartbreaks.

Dylan and Sabrina.

Celia and Michael.

Daniel and Serena.

Serena had summed things up best right after they met Spencer Harold Bass and Katharine Eleanor Bass for the first time. Now, that had been a moment for the ages even if Dan wasn't a huge fan of the Basses. Everyone had been there within an hour of Nate and Serena calling everyone... Blair's parents, Lily, and Bart had been far too overcome to make announcements, but the blondes of the Non-Judging Breakfast Club had taken everyone's phones to the lobby and done the honors.

Although Dan had promised himself in the effort to preserve the peace with Serena that he'd never write about Chuck and Blair again, he couldn't help but think that if 99/1 did well, he wanted to try to capture what those two looked like as new parents in words, if he could... if there were words for what they looked like. Because as she held her children, Blair looked like an angel, a thousand years old, immortal... and a very young girl at the same time.

And Chuck... his nemesis, perhaps the man on the Upper East Side whom he'd spent the most energy disliking, but also the first of their cohort who, when Dan was most honest with himself, truly was the first to becomea man, was holding his wife in his arms as she held both their children, both guardian and protector of his family... shining as brightly as the sun with all the pride of new fatherhood... but terrible as an army with banners.

"Humphrey," said Chuck, and for the first time ever, there wasn't an ounce of sarcasm in his voice. "Allow us to introduce you to our son and daughter."

"Oh... you sure you want me to?" stammered Dan before thinking.

It almost broke the good cheer, as if his words were dark magic that threatened to summon the messy past. But Chuck and Blair weren't even on that page just then.

"Why wouldn't you?" Blair rasped, clearly exhausted, but with triumph and euphoria in her voice. "Do you seriously think you're getting out of your babysitting duties with Aunt Serena, Uncle Dan? Come here, right now."

"Yes, after all, Humphrey, despite all my best efforts, it seems as if you're part of this extended family," Chuck drawled tiredly, but with a smirk. "Your niece and nephew will grow used to that unfortunate mop on top of your head."

So he'd met the babies, then eventually, washed his hands so that he could hold them, one at a time, for a moment. Then Serena, who'd been dozing in a chair over in the corner despite the commotion, woke up, and they went down to the cafeteria in search of food.

"Wow," said Dan, as they sat next to each other with their trays. "You were right. That was kind of... wow."

"Yeah," said Serena, weary but pleased. "I couldn't even describe it on the phone. It was one of those moments that I can't believe I was able to witness. In the end, it was just Chuck, Eleanor, Mom, and me in the birthing suite."

"Wow, they let you stay?"

"Yeah! Chuck set it up so they could have whoever they wanted with them. Oh, my God, Dan... Blair was... she was so brave, Dan, and so beautiful, even going through that ordeal. And I'm so proud of Chuck, he did great! I know he was so scared something bad might happen, especially after everything that happened with his mom and grandma. But he never let her go, not even for a second."

That's what you do when you're a man in love... and the woman you love gives you such an amazing gift, Dan thought in spite of himself, looking at her as she spooned up a little soup. It's the least you can do.

"What happened to Bart? I didn't see him."

"Oh, Bart and Blair's dads couldn't take it at all. They were gone the first time Blair had a rough contraction, and they had to give Harold and Bart something to settle their nerves when the doctor thought she was going into distress... they're still keeping an eye on Bart, everything just exhausted him. But Chuck was amazing! He was so calm, no matter how bad it got. Blair said he was her rock. Oh, and when the babies came, first Kate, then Spence, Eleanor couldn't stop smiling. I've never seen her beam like that!"

"And you?" Dan asked, amused. "What was your reaction?"

"Oh, Mom and I just cried! Dan, it was one of the best moments of my life!"

Dan was amused by her gushing account. "Was Nate in the room?"

"Yeah, he was there with us for almost the entire time. But when the last of it came, he went to go and tell the fathers that it was almost over. And it was perfect, Dan. The babies are normal weight, very healthy, none of the complications everyone was so afraid of after what happened two weeks ago... it was..."

"Phenomenal?" said Dan.

"Awe-inspiring. But of course, it would be, they're Chuck and Blair, that's kinda who they are."

He took her hand in his. "Well, I think you were pretty damned fantastic... you and Nate. Although I've been cynical about your friendships with them in the past, even I have to admit that at your best, the four of you are always there for each other."

"We try to be." Serena laughed. "Too funny that Charlie and Clair are living happily ever after, isn't it?"

"Correction, Charlie and Clair didn't, not in anything I'd ever write! And that over-the-top romance you gave Henry and Gabrielle in To Celia made me want to vomit..."

"Yes, they were all fanfare and fireworks! Very much my best friend and brother's style. But as one reviewer said, Celia and Michael got the subtlety, the complexity... the symphony." She kissed him softly. "That's just the way it should be."

"Well, you and I aren't Celia and Michael. Or Dylan and Sabrina, either," he pointed out.

"No matter what you call us," she said, "we're us. And I wouldn't change that, Dan. Not for anything in the world."

And Dan's answer was not in words, but in returning her sweet kiss...

Back in the present day, Dan wished he had wings. Or, maybe a helicopter. Because as the limo crawled through Manhattan traffic, he couldn't wait to see her.

You loved me 'cause I'm fragile

When I thought that I was strong

But you touch me for a little while

And all my fragile strength is gone...

Although she'd be arriving to the premiere long before Chuck and Blair, Serena thought that she might as well venture into the lion's den before she left. Even if it was Serena's night, she knew that Blair would expect her to check in before she stepped into the eyes of the world.

There was a great deal of activity in the master bedroom suite. The door to the giant master bathroom was shut, and Serena guessed that Chuck was finally getting ready for the evening. The twins, clearly freshly fed, were with Dorota and Margaret, the newly hired sitter. Although Kate was peaceful with the longtime Waldorf family maid, Spence was screaming his lungs out and Margaret was finding it impossible to settle him.

Blair was being worked on by three people at once: the hair stylist, the makeup artist, and the manicurist, as the Bass dog, Monkey, rested comfortably at her feet. Although it was clear that she would be ready soon, Serena knew her best friend was bothered by Margaret's handling of her son... even if Spence could be as difficult as his sister could be easy.

"S," Blair said, trying her very best to hold still but her posture indicating her growing restlessness, "get my son and bring him to me. I've already pumped, but I can nurse him a bit before we go..."

"No, Mrs. Blair," said Dorota. "Miss Serena looks like... fairytale princess, and you are looking like empress that you are. Baby and ballgown do not mix."

"Dorota, I don't care what I look like, and I think Serena cares more about her nephew than some stupid dress! Don't you, S?" She glanced at her sister-in-law appraisingly. "By the way, you look good. That Chanel was the right choice after all... I rarely like Marchesa on the red carpet."

Serena walked over to get Spencer, a bit wary. While she did love both babies, Kate was so much easier to deal with than Spence. But seven week old Spencer Harold Bass was Blair's heart. The new mother loved both of her babies equally, but it was clear that Spence was as much of a mama's boy as Kate was her daddy's girl.

"Spencey, it's Auntie S... are you going to be a good boy for me?" Please stop crying so your mama doesn't miss my premiere, kid, she thought.

As soon as Serena's hands closed around him, Spencer's crying stopped. She began to soothe him, meeting Blair's eyes over the infant's head.

"Wow, S, you have quite the touch," she smiled. "I'm probably going to feed them both one more time before we leave... maybe Spence will stop being selfish for a change and let me nurse his sister at the same time."

"You're in a ballgown."

"Which is strapless... how convenient, right? And we have towels and pillows," Blair said breezily, as if she were discussing whether to put her hair up or leave it down. "This way I'll only have to pump in the limo between the theatre and the afterparty. But I'll have Arthur stay nearby just in case I need to duck out."

"B," said Serena, "I really don't want you to miss anything."

"S, do you really want to know what happens when I don't empty these things every few hours? Oh, that's right... I think you do remember what happened three weeks ago, when you and I took the babies out for lunch and a little shopping. That picture ended up on every gossip rag in this city, and a couple overseas."

"It wasn't that bad," said Serena. "Besides, breasts are for babies, not for grown-ups to ogle..."

"Oh, I beg to differ," drawled Chuck, coming out of the bathroom as his valet came into the room, carrying an assortment of ties. Monkey unfolded himself from his mistress' feet, and trotted over to his master, who was wearing a velvet wine dinner jacket, dusky rose dress shirt, and black tuxedo pants.

"Chuck, don't be obscene in front of the children or the staff," said Blair, eyes sparkling nonetheless at the sight of him. (Serena noticed that she wasn't mentioned in the list of people not to be obscene in front of. Those two didn't censor themselves for her or Nate, much to their chagrin.)

"Noted. Later." He gestured to the ties. "Which one?"

"Black pinstripe," she said without a single glance. "And Ricardo, the brushed gold knot cufflinks for Mr. Bass as well."

"Wearing your rubies, then?" Chuck asked her.

"The ones set in gold, yes. It's nearly Christmas."

"You could wear the onyx set as well with that dress."

"I could, but I like the red and gold theme. S is going to win an Academy Award in a couple of months, so..."

"Yes, red carpets and Oscar gold. Very nice, Mrs. Bass..."

"Okay, you two, knock it off," said Serena, placing a lightly dozing Spencer in his bassinet for the few minutes that he'd sleep before waking up. Despite the fact that she was half amused by their interminable obsession with fashion and style, Serena did not want to think about her movie winning any kinds of awards at all. It was too personal to think of her pain as something that was award worthy.

"What time is Dan coming by?" asked Blair, waving off the stylist the second the makeup artist was finished, then turning to survey her features in the vanity mirror.

"Any minute now."

"So why aren't you in the lobby?"

"Sis, don't answer that," Chuck said from the depths of their cavernous walk-in closet. "You're talking to a woman who invented the art of making an entrance."

Serena bit her lip. "I... why don't the two of you ride with us?"

"S, it'll be a miracle if we make it on time," Blair said, a bit tiredly. "Do you really want us to?"

She didn't say anything. Blair, hair and makeup finished, dismissed the stylists, and asked Dorota for her pump. Then she made her way over to her best friend.

"What is it, Serena?" Blair asked, smoothing the folds of her exquisite wine-colored gown before grabbing her hands. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, it's just... you'll think I'm silly."

"Are you serious? We got past thinking the other is silly in like fifth grade. You can tell me."

Serena's voice lowered to a whisper. "I'm... feeling kind of nervous about seeing Dan today. Isn't that crazy? I've known him for almost a decade, we've dated off and on for years, I wrote a movie about him, and... I'm kinda scared."

Blair's puzzled look turned into a knowing smile.

"Go on," said Blair.

"I haven't felt this way about him since... since the fall I came back from boarding school. I don't know, B, maybe it's the movie bringing up all those old feelings."

"Or maybe the two of you are in a good place, maybe even good enough that you're back in love again, hm?"

"Love," Serena murmured. "Is it really love, or just that I'm exhaling because he's been so wonderful since this spring? I haven't seen this Dan since... since we were kids. And somehow, I'm becoming that young girl who wanted to be the person I saw in his eyes. The only difference is that he knows everything about me now. And, after all of our ups and downs, he... keeps coming back to me. But I'm so afraid, B..."

"What're you afraid of, S?" her best friend asked softly.

"Of taking that leap and giving him everything."

Blair took Serena by the hand and led her to the window seat, very near where Spencer was sleeping.

"S, every girl, every woman is scared of that. As much as we want it, as much as we deny it, giving your heart away to someone requires a lot of courage. Especially when that someone's hurt you a lot in the past... when you've hurt them... and when public opinion is betting against the two of you."

"How do you get past it?" Serena asked. "And don't say, 'because I'm Blair Waldorf.'"

"No, you know that's Chuck's catchphrase, not mine... see what I mean? After criticizing my mother for marrying someone with a catchphrase, look at what I went and did."

"But everyone knew you and Chuck were going to end up together. No one thinks that about me and Dan. So many of the movie reviews, even the wonderful ones, are saying..."

"Who cares what people think, S? I'm supposed to be the one who's overly concerned about reputations and social standing, not you."

"Well, that went out the window at your seventeenth birthday party, now didn't it?"

"Fine, point taken," said Blair.

"Technically," Chuck called, "it was the night before."

"OK, eavesdropper," Serena laughed at her brother, "do I even want to know what you think about all this?"

"Not at all. But it could be worse, you could've chosen Baizen."

"Leave Carter alone," Serena said. "Just because I'm still with Dan doesn't mean that he and I aren't friends..."

Dorota's voice interrupted their banter.

"Miss Serena," she said, head peering around the door. "Mister Daniel here for you... and Mrs. Blair, little Katharine is asleep."

Blair walked over to the door to take her daughter into her arms. "Thanks, Dorota... S, break a leg!"

"Hope Humphrey breaks his," Chuck said, walking out of the closet with his cufflinks, followed by his valet. "And I don't mean for luck."

"Shut up, Chuck," said Serena. "Blair, I'll see you two there!"

Here I am and I stand so tall

Just the way I'm supposed to be

But you're on to me and all over me...

Dan never felt completely comfortable in the Bass penthouse. He didn't think he ever would. Despite the tacit truce between him and Chuck ever since his graduation, Humphreys and Basses were never meant to live together in perfect harmony. They were two different people from two different worlds. (He also didn't think he'd ever quite get the whole Chuck and Blair thing... he'd come to the conclusion that some things defied logic, good judgment, and common sense... but hey, whatever worked for them.)

Despite the sheer Bassness of the multistory, opulent apartment, there was something to be said about having a butler who remembered Dan's favorite drink, and seeing Dorota's familiar, smiling face. As he sipped, he looked around at the art on the walls of the main living room (was that really an authentic Gursky?), then at the family photographs on the mantel.

That's when he heard someone clearing their throat. A very feminine person, that is. Turning around, he said, "Well, at least we'll only be fifteen min-"

He never finished the sentence, or the thought. Dan had gotten so used to looking at Serena over the past eight years that although he was struck by her from time to time, it didn't completely hit him over the head like it used to. But the woman standing in front of him, a shy smile playing around her lips, seemed like an apparition... because no living, breathing human woman had ever looked like that.

"Dan?" she asked, smile fading, a panicked look on her face.

He couldn't even pick out one thing to admire most. To focus on most. To drool over most. (Although he, Dan Humphrey, refused to pant after any girl... he was better than that! She wasn't a piece a meat... he loved her spirit, her sweetness, the intellect she kept well hidden... and... well, her radiant golden hair and starry blue eyes his soul could swim in and skin and perfect tits and legs that went on for days and days and would send him to heaven whenever they wrapped around him and...)

"That dress..."

"You don't like it?" Her face fell. "I told Blair..."

"That dress," said Dan, closing the distance between the two of them quickly, "is unfair." His hand curled around her bare, bronzed shoulder. "You mean to tell me that I have to actually sit next to you in the limo, walk the red carpet, sit in the theatre, and then do press afterparties when you look like that?"

Not caring at all that she'd likely spent hours getting ready, or that her makeup had just been spray painted on by a team of professionals, Dan's mouth descended on hers hungrily. Now, Dan Humphrey was far more of a cerebral person than a physical one, and he prided himself on not being uncouth (unless some jerk really deserved a punch in the jaw). But some things, some times, and some women were just too much.

"Dan," Serena breathed, breaking their kiss, "we have to go."

"We don't have to do anything," he muttered, "although whatever we do, I'd rather it not be in Chuck and Blair's sitting room."

Laughter... yeah, Serena still laughed like a toddler. (And it still made his cynical little hipster heart skip a beat.)

"Well, the good thing about movie theatres," she said against his lips, "is that they're dark."

Chortle. "Yeah, that's true."

"And... we've seen the movie. Several times, in fact."

"That's true, too."

She leaned closer, bringing her lips close enough to tickle his ear.

"They also have bathrooms. With stalls that lock. And this one may have a back room or two..."

Dan's arm wrapped around her waist. Possessively. (She was still his, his even after everything that had happened, his although he was a fool who almost lost her for good... still his.)

"Say no more. I'm sold."

But you're neither friend nor foe

Though I can't seem to let you go

The one thing that I still know...

Serena and Dan were the toast of the To Celia premiere afterparty. It seemed as if all of New York was in attendance, including the mayor and his wife, many of the top financiers, and of course, most of young Hollywood. Although Jennifer Lawrence, Ian Somerhalder, and the rest of the cast were the center of attention, the real-life inspiration for the movie had drawn their fair share of attention as well, making a sensation on the red carpet.

Everyone raved over Serena's dress and considered her to be the best dressed woman of the night, easily outshining the actresses, but, as Blair Bass would point out the next day, that was really nothing new (and after all, Blair herself had picked out her best friend's dress). But the real buzz in the entertainment press was about Dan and Serena together.

"They're positively glowing... with reviews like that, you can see the reason why!"

"No matter what happens in the film, it looks as if Celia and Michael got their happy ending after all."

"The pilot of 99/1 is one of the most anticipated new television shows of 2014, and here are the creative minds behind it... but one has to ask where the line falls between fiction and reality."

Serena had long ago learned to tune out public opinion, most of it. Thanks to Gossip Girl tracking her since her freshman year of high school, she was quite used to being in the spotlight. Gossip Girl tracked them all still, albeit less frequently, using their old nicknames. She was still anonymous, an almost comforting source of continuity in their lives... although Dan still hated being called Lonely Boy.

So she dazzled, and Dan, for once, never left her side. It was her night, and for the first time in their lives together, he seemed completely comfortable being arm-in-arm with the supernova version of Serena. As he guided her around the party to mix and mingle, not saying much, but just being steadily there, Serena couldn't help but remember what Blair said about her brother. He's my rock, S... just as much as I've been his. And she marveled once again at the power of Chuck and Blair, at how elemental their love for each other was.

Serena didn't know if she'd call Dan her rock, or any other kind of element. That was much more of a Chuck and Blair thing (you're my earth, you're my water, you're an all-consuming fire, you're the air I breathe). No, that wasn't really her or Dan. But Serena didn't want that kind of love for herself, although she admired it, although for years she wondered why she didn't have it and Blair did.

But Serena van der Woodsen saw Dan Humphrey in a way that no one else truly had, not even his former best friend or his sister. She knew a side of Dan that no one else saw, a side that was tender, and at his best, patient and kind. And although Dan had showed that side of himself to a few others, including Blair (which, for Serena, was something that she'd forgiven him for, truthfully, but could no more completely forget than her best friend would ever forget the Empire incident), he didn't know any other woman the way that he knew Serena. He hadn't seen the real Olivia or Vanessa or Rachel or Blair... but he had seen Serena. First, he'd rejected her, then grew obsessed with her (what would Dan Humphrey have to write about if he didn't have the van der Bass sibs, their families and their friends?), and now...

He was in love with her. Not infatuated with her, like back in high school, the teen sweethearts who everyone said were so cute and how come you two aren't like that anymore and isn't Dan and Serena so 2007? But he loved her.

And what made Dan so wonderful was the same thing that made him so terrible at times. On the other side of the judging wet blanket side of Dan that surfaced when he was disappointed with her, others... or, deep down, himself...

...was a dreamer afraid to dream in an imperfect world. Afraid to let go and be free. Afraid to admit that he was just like everyone else, patched together, flawed, vulnerable.

Everything that was Serena called out to that part of him. A few months before, she overheard him describing her to an interviewer from the Times who wanted to chat with him about his third novel, a murder mystery set in the Hamptons, Montauk Monster.

"Dan, you and Serena have had some well documented ups and downs. Although your novels and To Celia are fictional, we know that they were based on your lives. Why, after everything that's happened between the two of you, are you still working together and living together?"

"Because..." Dan had trailed off, lowering his voice, obviously thinking she was still asleep. "Well, you know how hot New York gets in the summer, and unlike my friends, I didn't grow up with car service or a limo. I had my feet and I had a MetroCard. But whenever I got home to Brooklyn, the first thing I'd do is to pour a tall, cool glass of water, and drink it down. It was the best feeling in the world."

"Oh, yeah," said the reporter, clearly relating. "But I don't get..."

"Well, for me, Serena van der Woodsen is that tall, cool glass of water. Always was. Now, there were times when I thought she was a tall, cool glass of vodka, or poison, or flat Perrier. But now that we're adults, I can truly say that..."

"She's your muse?"

"More than that. She refreshes me when I'm dry. When I'm parched. When everything seems like it's too much. I can't do without her... every time I've tried, it's like I've been wandering around the hot streets of this city, and eventually, I have to come back home." Pause. "And I don't care if you print that."

"I assumed we were on the record."

"Good."

Back in the present, Dan was squeezing her waist, and leading her away from a teenybopper music group who were racing up the charts and had been thrilled to walk the red carpet at their first Hollywood event.

"Want something to drink?" he asked her, fingers tracing her hipbone through the silk shimmer of her dress.

"Not yet," she replied happily. "This is amazing, Dan."

"Yeah, it is. I only hope 99/1 and Monarch do as well next year." There was a small quaver in his voice, a bit of uncertainty. Although they were partners in life and love now, there was now a bit of competition between them.

Serena's lips brushed the side of his face, affectionately.

"Oh, they'll do just fine. The eyes of the world are on It Girl and her Lonely Boy."

"Her Lonely Boy? Why can't you be my It Girl?"

"I am," Serena giggled under her breath. "But I'm not just your It Girl anymore, Dan. I'm your girl..."

In response, Dan kissed her. Softly and sweetly, but not quickly enough for it to be missed by a few of the cell phone cameras, and a quick paparazzo.

"Next year is our year," he promised her quietly. "I'm going to find Alessandra so we can greet everyone. Meet me up there on the dais in fifteen?"

Serena's lips found his again.

"Ten."

"You've got it."

Here I am and I stand so tall

I'm just the way I'm supposed to be

But you're on to me and all over me...

Dan, as usual, was back in his head now that Serena was on the other side of the ballroom. He knew what he'd planned to do, later, when they were safely tucked away in their Upper West Side brownstone. But the moment was here... and although he was a Humphrey, and small significant moments were more his thing than grand gestures, he didn't think he could wait anymore.

All he had to do was to find Alessandra and get his briefcase from her...

"Humphrey!"

He looked up and saw Blair barreling toward him, full speed ahead in an incredible sherry-colored confection of a strapless gown, followed closely by Chuck, whose usual casual stroll was sped up a bit by his wife's urgency.

In spite of their pact for Serena's sake, Dan had to admit that the Basses still weren't his favorite people in the world, especially Chuck. But for the past six months, there had been enough dinners and events and brunches and long weekends in the Hamptons for him to grow used to them (and vice versa) again.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Disaster's on the horizon!" Blair exclaimed, breathless. "You have to help us keep Nate occupied."

Dan blinked, looking around, but there was such a crowd that he didn't see their friend. "I haven't seen Nate or Vanessa at all, but I heard they did make it to the theatre a few minutes after the movie started," he said. "What could be the problem?"

Chuck smirked. "Your sister is here."

"What?" said Dan. "Jenny made it after all? She said she wanted to come support Serena, but I thought she was stuck at the atelier in Paris until..."

Then it hit Dan. Yes, he could see the problem on the horizon.

"Right. That. But it's not just that," Blair continued, looking over her shoulder. "It's who she's here with that's the real problem."

Dan didn't even want to ask it. But he had to.

"Who?"

"Damien Dalgaard."

Dan's blood ran cold. "What?" he said again.

"Lily found us and told us. She says they met up in Europe earlier in the fall. Rufus is afraid she might be using again..."

Oh, no. For the millionth time, Dan wished his little sister had stayed in London instead of coming to his graduation. He was initially glad to see her, whatever happened between her and Nate had seemed serious, and he thought they'd be dating. Then came Chuck's birthday party, and everything that happened when Vanessa, Georgina, and Carter crashed the gathering. Would the mess that Vanessa's announcement caused ever end?

"Humphrey," drawled Chuck, "as much as we'd generously like to translate for the proles like you who reside in the cheap seats, we don't have much time. We need you to help us find Nathaniel and his... his..."

"Wife," said Dan firmly. He'd been trying to support Vanessa since a long heart to heart they'd had over the summer. Although they hadn't been close in a long time, Dan genuinely felt sorry for her... a fact that had driven a wedge between him and his little sister.

"Right. We need to find them before Jenny and Dalgaard do." Chuck looked around. "We should tell my sister, too. Do you know where she went?"

"I was just with her," said Dan, pulling out his cell. "I'll let her know what you've said, and I'll call or text Jen. If she's got her phone in her bag, maybe I can get through to her."

"Thanks, Humphrey," said Blair gratefully. "We've tried calling and texting, but we don't have any service in this Godforsaken dump... I have no idea why we had the afterparty here, I told Serena that we were more than happy to host..."

Now it was Dan's turn to smirk (although it always looked alien on his earnest features).

"Um, I think the two of you were a little occupied while this celebration was being thrown together... welcoming a little boy and girl into the world."

Chuck met his eyes, and almost (but not quite) cracked a half smile. Nothing got Chuck Bass to smile faster than any mention of their son and daughter.

"True," Blair admitted, "but Chuck and I can plan better parties than this in our sleep, Dan, and you know it. Next year, when your TV show comes out, I'll take the helm... I already have our people scouting venues in California when she gets her Oscar nod for this." She shook her head, clearly indignant as she continued to look around. "Damien Dalgaard should've never been let in the door, what else is a guest list for?"

"He must have been Jenny's plus one, which is disturbing in and of itself. Excuse me, guys, and thanks for the information."

Dan walked away towards the bathrooms, pressing and holding down the 1 on his phone's speed dial.

Set me free, leave me be...

I don't want to fall another moment into your gravity...

"Serena!"

She turned around and looked into the familiar face of one of her favorite men on the planet... and lit up happily. Nate Archibald cut a fine figure in a gray suit with a tie that brought out the color of his gorgeous eyes perfectly.

"Natie!" she said, running into his arms as he hugged her tightly. "Thank you so much for coming!"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world." He held her out at arm's length. "You look incredible."

"Thanks, it's been a wonderful night! How have you been? And where's Vanessa?"

"In the ladies' room."

"Oh. How's she feeling today? Not too long now, is it?"

A shadow crossed Nate's eyes... but only a fleeting one. "Yeah... just three and a half weeks now, the doctor says. She'll be born right after the New Year. Still sorting through all the stuff from the shower that you and Blair had for us."

"The Non-Judging Breakfast Club are all parents now... who would've thought?"

Nate raised an eyebrow. "Just three of the four of us. Unless... you and Dan...?"

It took Serena a minute. "Oh, no... at least, not that I know about! We're in a great place though. Finally. I'm happy." She took her hand in his and squeezed it. "I hope you are too."

"I... S, this isn't about that for me, and all of you know it. It's about what's best for my daughter. I'm going to make sure that little girl has everything."

"That's all well and good, Nate, but you can't just live for your child, no matter how wonderful they are."

"Yeah, well, we all have to make choices. And our kids shouldn't have to be punished for our mistakes. I think if we learned nothing else from all of our parents, it's that, wouldn't you think?"

"Good point," Serena conceded. "I just wish... you were happier."

"Well, I am happy. Vanessa and I have... an understanding. We're going to be parents. That trumps everything..."

Nate trailed off. His entire face changed, and looked as if he'd seen a vision beyond any words that he could possibly form. He was no longer looking at Serena, but past her, just as her silk wristlet began to buzz. Not looking at the incoming call, Serena unzipped the bag enough to silence her phone.

"Nate, what's wrong?"

She turned around and looked into the face of Jenny Humphrey. For once, the young woman wasn't going for an edgy look. Something about her look that evening reminded Serena of the young ingénue who'd been hanging around the Humphrey loft when she and Dan began dating freshman year. Her hair, back to its natural pale honey blonde shade, was swept back and up into a ballerina's knot. Her face looked almost unmade, save for mascara and a lip gloss with a gentle golden glow. (Serena knew it was the "natural" look that the designers were attempting to push that season... but one achieved it with as much product as a painted look.)

Her dress was, like Blair's, a J Humphrey for Waldorf Designs original. But where Blair's wine colored evening gown was suited for the reigning society queen that she was, Jenny's was sleek black-and-gold sequins that skimmed her slim body, accenting curves in all the right places. She looked drop dead gorgeous... and she knew it.

"Hello, Nate," she said.

Nate seemed at a loss for words.

Serena didn't like this situation. Not one bit. "I thought... they said you weren't coming," she said. "You decided not to."

"I wasn't going to come," Jenny said to Serena, keeping unblinking eyes on Nate, "but Dad and Lily convinced me that I should come support my brother and my... well, whatever you and I are these days so that you and Dan can feel better about being together."

"Yeah, but Vanessa's here."

"So?" Jenny said defiantly. "I have as much of a right to be here as she does... even if everyone except Blair is treating me like a pariah who's done something wrong..." She trailed off, licking her lips. "Even the person who I warned that this would happen... eventually."

And she looked straight at Nate as she said it.

"Jenny," swallowed Nate, finding his voice, "we need to talk."

"I thought that's what we're doing now... Serena, don't you dare move, I don't want Vanessa to have any excuse to ruin your party when she gets back from whatever she's doing." She folded her arms. "Nate, this is ridiculous. I'm not trying to come back to New York to live, but when Dan and Serena are torn about inviting to me to something that means so much to them... how am I supposed to react?"

"I... I didn't know," said Nate quietly. "And actually, I was hoping to see you tonight."

"Well, you're seeing me. Isn't that what you wanted? You've been calling me nonstop for six months, as if we had anything to talk about... you made your choice."

"I called you because I woke up the morning after Blair and Chuck's clambake to a cold bed and a note on my pillow. You never gave me the chance to choose, Jenny. Because I'd chosen you."

Serena was glancing over her shoulder. This was not good. Where was Dan? Or Blair, or Chuck? Or Rufus? Or anyone who could stop this train wreck from happening?

Oblivious to Serena's growing alarm, Nate and Jenny continued their clandestine conversation in plain sight.

"You never chose me, Nate."

"Don't. Don't pretend as I didn't try and..."

"It wasn't enough!" Jenny hissed, voice breaking. "It... just wasn't enough."

"No, I never was enough for you, was I?" Nate snapped. "That's why you and I never had a chance, Jenny. You never believed that I could actually want you! This summer, you did exactly what you did in high school! You walked away from me without a single word!"

"And you never cared enough to stop me, Nate! Never fought for me! You just sit down and let life happen to you! You don't care about anything enough to fight for it!"

Their faces were mere inches away from each other. Breathless. Serena as witness, long forgotten...

Serena, on her part, wasn't liking where this was going. First, Nate was a married man, no matter what. Then, she never really cared for the idea of Nate and Jenny together. Even Nate and Vanessa, while she wasn't a fan of that relationship, either, wasn't so bad by comparison.

"Guys..."

But they ignored her... even Nate, for once in his life.

"How can you say that?" he said to Jenny, very softly. Taking her gloved hands in his. "I more than cared, Jenny... I care. And I fought for..."

"Oh, my GOD!"

Nate and Jenny looked up, and Serena (who had been, in spite of herself, in a state of suspended horror in this conversation) looked straight into the blue-gray eyes of a very pregnant Vanessa Abrams Archibald. Despite the cool green of the dress she was wearing, she looked furious indeed.

"What the hell are you doing, Nate?"

Nate blinked. "Vanessa..."

Jenny shrugged, pulled away from Nate, and sauntered over to Vanessa.

"Oh, we were just having a conversation..."

SMACK!

"Get out of here," snapped Vanessa. "I don't ever want to see you near my husband again!"

Jenny's hand was pressed to her red cheek. But a defiant look was on her face.

"Fine," she said. "I've said what I've had to say to him, Vanessa. And he's right... I gave him up for you, twice. The first time all those years ago, he wrote me a letter that you stole. The second time, he sent me one hundred eighty-two emails, left me two hundred and thirteen voice messages... would you like to see the texts? I've lost count of those."

If looks could kill, Vanessa would have been on death row. She was visibly seething, her beautiful eyes darting back and forth between Jenny and Nate.

"Third time, Vanessa, you won't be so lucky," Jenny continued, winking at Nate. "Third time just may be the charm."

"You are a slut, Jenny Humphrey! I can't believe you..."

Serena stepped in the middle.

"Stop it, you two!" she said, trying not to draw too much attention. "This is my night, and you're not going to ruin this! Jenny, why don't you find Mom and Rufus?"

"Because I didn't come with them... oh, there's my date now!"

Serena looked up and saw a face that she had been hoping not to see, especially on tonight of all nights...

"Hello, gorgeous," drawled Damien Dalgaard, sauntering over. Managing to look as disheveled and roguish as always in spite of his finely tailored suit. "This is quite the bash."

Serena's eyes rolled to the top of her head. Exasperated.

"Damien, this is not a good time."

"No time's like the present," said Jenny, walking over toward him. "He's my date... and my new boyfriend."

"What?" Vanessa spat.

"WHAT?" Nate looked furious.

Damien pulled Jenny into his arms, and she leaned back against his chest, defiantly.

Shit. Serena pulled out her cell and saw the missed call and the text from Dan. She hit her speed dial quickly, but then saw Dan hurrying toward her, followed by Blair and Chuck.

But you're neither friend nor foe

Though I can't seem to let you go.

The one thing that I still know

Is that you're keeping me down...

"What is going on here?" Dan asked, looking around and trying to figure the situation out. "Jenny, what are you doing here with Damien?"

"Same thing you're doing here with Serena," Jenny said casually. Dan couldn't believe his little sister sometimes. "And maybe more than that later."

"Didn't we throw him out of New York a few months ago?" Blair wondered aloud to her husband.

"Dalgaard's like a bedbug... impossible to kill, and even tougher to get rid of," he replied. To Damien, he said, "You've got two seconds before I call security."

"You can't throw him out, Chuck," said Jenny, looking very satisfied with herself. "He's with me and we're not causing any trouble."

"Yeah, right, your middle name is trouble!" Vanessa exclaimed. "Stay away from my husband, I mean it!"

"Don't sweat it," Jenny said casually. "Damien, I'd like something to drink. Nice chat, Nate. See the rest of you around... Blair, I have some things for you to look at with me. I'll call Aurelie to schedule."

"Fine," said Blair, with a casual wave of her hand.

And it would've ended there, with Jenny leading Damien away, if...

If Nate Archibald hadn't, for the first time in his life, decided to act.

He yanked on Damien's shoulder...

...and when Damien protested ("hey, man, get off me"), Nate...

...punched his lights out...

...pounced...

..and started to pound Damien into the ground.

"You stay away from her! STAY THE FUCK AWAY!"

"NATE!" screamed Jenny and Vanessa at the same time. Blair's hands were covering her mouth. Serena was frozen in shock.

But Nate, for once in his nonchalant life, was like a charging bull. It took Chuck and Dan and a passing random reality TV star to pull Nate off Damien, as security rushed over.

"Next time, S," said Blair, shaking her head, "you really should let me plan the party."

I live here on my knees

As I try to make you see

That you're everything I think I need

Here on the ground...

"Tell me," said Serena as Dan helped her into the coat the valet handed him, "why can't we ever have a normal celebration? One that no one crashes, where no secret comes out, where there isn't a fight or a screaming match or slapping or...?"

"I used to feel the same way. But if we did... do you think tonight would have happened?"

Serena looked puzzled for a second. Then she beamed at him.

"Good point."

They made their way to the car lobby, waiting for their limo to be pulled around in companionable silence. Serena shivered when blasts of cold air from the outside entered as the door opened and closed, and Dan rubbed her arms up and down.

"Looks like snow," she said. "It's going to be a white Christmas after all."

"Yeah. We still have some of that fabulous hot cocoa starter Blair's mom brought you from Paris in the kitchen. Once we get home, I'll get a fire going, and do the honors..."

"Ah, firelight, afghans, and ironic mugs. What kind are they this time?"

"You'll have to wait and see," he said, capturing her lips in a kiss again. "Despite the brawl, I think it's going to be a great night."

As they embraced, Serena sensed someone's eyes on them. She looked up, and saw Nate standing there, knuckles bandaged. Usually he was an open book to her, but just then, his face was unreadable.

"Hey," she said, breaking away from Dan. "Everything OK?"

"Yeah, I guess," he said, shaking his head. "They questioned me and released me, but they took Damien in. Supposedly, he's got a few outstanding drug warrants." Nate regarded them both. "Sorry I messed up your party."

"You didn't mess it up," said Dan. "Damien Dalgaard is an asshole. His morals are questionable at best. And Jenny... you know why she did it."

"Do I?" Nate said, almost to himself. "I just... I wasn't going to stand there and watch her make another mistake in her life because of me."

"Is Vanessa OK?" Serena asked.

"Yeah, she went home, said she was tired and not to follow her... I'll have that to deal with whenever I get back, I guess. But not tonight. I told Chuck and Blair that I'd watch the kids for them as long as Dorota and the sitter were there, too."

"Oh, Nate!" Serena grinned. "That's really nice of you!"

"I suppose... I should be getting the practice in before my daughter gets here, right? Guess I should learn all about spit-up and baby poop before it's too late... and besides, Spencer and Katharine deserve to have their Uncle Nate around. Even if their Uncle Nate's not having such a great Christmas, their mom and dad deserve a helping hand."

"Yeah, and so does their Uncle Nate."

Jenny was walking up behind him, wearing a short velvet cape over her bare shoulders and shimmery gown.

"Nate, I'm so sorry. I know you have no reason to believe that, but I... since my date's gone, and I need to meet with Blair in the morning, I... I don't mind sitting up with the babies, too."

Although she seemed sincere, alarm bells went off in Serena's head. Dan voiced her fears.

"Jenny, do you think that's such a good idea? When Vanessa finds out..."

"Finds out what? Dan, we're going to babysit, not sex each other up. Twins are a handful, you know that. We won't be alone, because the staff will be there overnight. I can help, God knows I did enough sitting around Brooklyn in middle school before I went to Constance in order to afford fabric and secondhand dresses."

She stared at Nate.

"Besides, I was wrong earlier. So wrong. We're not done talking yet. You and I have much to discuss, my friend..."

Nate, looking as if he were a man newly released from a prison of his own making, lit up, coming alive. He walked over to where she stood, a kiss in his eyes. (Serena knew that look well!)

"We have nothing but time."

He offered her his arm. Jenny took it.

"Good night, Dan, S," Nate said, leading her out the door.

"Night," Dan and Serena chorused, watching them go.

Serena was frowning. "Dan, I think we should stop them. It's like watching a train wreck about to happen..."

"Yeah, it is. But you said the same thing about Chuck and Blair, many years ago, and they figured it out..."

"No thanks to you." But there was a teasing note in her voice that before this summer, had never been there.

"Ah, sometimes I get lost in my fictional worlds, and fall for imaginary girls. But you're real..." His fingers trailed up her arm, lazily. "So real."

Serena smiled. "So are you. Dan, this evening has been perfect... I'm so glad that we're in a good place now. That we have this moment."

"Can perfect get any better?"

"I don't see how... unless you're referring to tonight..."

"But I think I've found of a way to improve upon even perfection."

Serena's eyes rolled. "Only Dan Humphrey."

"No, not only Dan Humphrey... how about Dan and Serena Humphrey?"

At first, it didn't register. Serena just chuckled at him, at first.

"Come on."

"I'm serious."

And as his hand went into his pocket, he dropped down to one knee.

Serena gasped.

"I'm serious," Dan repeated.

"Y-you... can't be," Serena whispered, choking on a sob that suddenly rose to her throat. "Dan, here... now? It's the lobby..."

"Hotel lobbies are special for us," Dan said. "I'll never forget the way you looked, all those years ago, when I picked you up at the Palace for our first date. Or how I waited to give you back your phone. And... I can't wait anymore."

Serena's eyes filled with tears. She blushed and looked away.

"Serena Celia van der Woodsen, you are the most beautiful, the most sexy, the most vibrant, and the most alive woman I've ever met. I used to escape into books and movies whenever I couldn't deal with the real world. I let my mind, my imagination, and the way I thought things ought to be come between us, time and again. We both lost our way. Our parents, our families, and our friends got in the way. We got into our own way. But even after all that, here we are, right here, right now. Together.

"I love you, Serena. I love you. We make sense. Being with you is the easiest, most natural thing in my life. I want to be with you forever." Serena began to cry, and he kissed her hands. "I want to make television shows and movies with you. I want to make babies and waffles with you. I want long, lazy Sunday mornings and afternoons with you. I want long walks with a cup of good coffee and you. I want to make a life with you... we've begun it, earlier this year, but I don't want another year to pass without you being my wife.

"Will you marry me, Serena?"

Serena felt the cool metal of a new ring slide over the knuckle of her slender, elegant long finger. She looked down and saw the mysterious glow of a cool white opal, oval shaped, set in a pure gold, pearl studded band. Her heart skipped a beat; she loved it instantly. She knew she didn't want diamonds or platinum, but she and Dan had never gone ring shopping, never really talked much about it. But she'd always loved opals, pearls were her birthstone, and the gold seemed to glow beneath the lights.

Once the ring was in place, Dan's fingers laced through her own, bringing the back of her hand up to his lips to kiss.

"Dan..." She was sobbing openly now into her free hand. "I..."

"Please say yes."

"Yes, Serena," a familiar voice called. "After that proposal, you have to say it!"

It was Blair, who had entered the lobby with Chuck just in time, witnessing the proposal with the other glitterati waiting for their cars. She was beaming at them. As for her husband, the look on his face wasn't exactly unpleasant. (Which, considering who was doing the proposing to his sister, was huge.)

"We give you our blessing... or given the movie we watched earlier this evening, should I say, Henry and Gabrielle give you their blessing? As long as you promise never, ever to have Mila Kunis play my character again?"

"What are you waiting on, Celia?" called out an aging Broadway star, waiting with her poodle. "You wrote the movie... you already know what comes next!"

Serena looked deep into the dark eyes she loved so much. Smiled through her tears.

"Yes. Yes!"

And as they kissed, the first winter snowflakes floated down from above.

You're onto me

And all over me...

Hours later, the newly engaged couple were enjoying a crackling fire, gourmet hot chocolate... together. They shared a warm alpaca afghan, skin to skin, as they lay intertwined in each other's arms on the opened futon, bare except for the soft glow of Serena's new engagement ring, which she couldn't stop staring at.

"I hope you like it," Dan yawned sleepily, noticing her eyes on it again. "If you don't, tell me and we'll get something else."

"No, no, it's perfect! It's me... it's us," she said. "My mom will have something to say, though. 'Diamonds are forever.'"

"Yeah, and that's why this time around, Dad got her the ring he should have during their first marriage," he said. "If you'd wanted a diamond, I would've gotten you one. But the second I saw this ring, I knew it was for you."

Dan brought her hand up to his lips to kiss, and Serena sighed.

"Do you want to get married right away?"

"It's totally up to you," he said. "I mean, we're only 22... I'll be 23 next month, but we've got time if you want to wait. But if you don't want to wait, I'm fine with that, too."

Serena's eyes lit up, the fire's flicker giving them the same alluring light as that of the stone in the ring she now wore.

"I don't want to wait," she said. "Next summer... late summer, maybe August or early September. On the beach... I don't want to wear shoes."

"Then sounds like we're going to have a barefoot beach party right before our pilot airs," Dan said. "Works for me."

They were silent then. Savoring the moment.

After a while, Serena said:

"Dan? Do you think we're cliché?"

He blinked, thinking she'd fallen asleep before her voice softly disturbed the quiet. "Huh? Who's saying that?"

"Some of the reviewers. They say that Celia and Michael are cliché, an old tale retold, over and over again, by far better writers. The New Yorker article called them 'two spoiled and overprivileged rich prep school kids masquerading as a boho chic, hipster love story for the ages...'"

"See, this is why I advised you to never read the reviews," said Dan. "I did that with Inside, and I swore I'd never do it again. I pride myself on the fact that I..."

"Never read a single review of Monarch of Manhattan," they both said together.

"Good, because everyone knows that book was about Chuck as much as Inside was about me and Blair," said Serena. "You made Martin up because you killed his character in your first book... and now, you're taking the David Clarke story on. Tell me, what would you write about if you didn't write about our family and friends?"

"What would any writer write about? Including you, Miss van der Woodsen... soon to be Humphrey?"

"Oh, whatever. Answer the question, Dan."

"Are we cliché? Let's see, I guess I'd say that Celia and Michael, whom the reviewer was actually talking about, very well might be..."

"Dan!" She tried to pull away at the insult to her writing, but he cleaned it up quickly.

"But so are Dylan and Clair. And Sabrina and Charlie Trout. And Henry and Gabrielle. And when 99/1 premieres, they'll say it about Emma and Noah. But you know what? The things that make our characters cliché are the reasons why I've had two bestsellers and your movie racked up so many Golden Globe nods, not to mention the Academy..."

"Don't jinx me, Dan," Serena said. She still couldn't bring herself to think about it.

"Anyway, people don't read a book, go to the movies, or watch a TV show so that they can deal with the complexity of their everyday lives. They go to escape. And people who enjoy our work like that kind of predictability... it's not as if we're writing highbrow literary fiction here..."

"Finally! He admits it! Your goal was never literary greatness... you just wanted to be published!"

"Very funny. So I hope that answers your question... and next time, Serena, don't read the reviews."

"OK, I won't."

She shifted against him, wrapping a leg around him, using it as leverage to roll on top of him.

"You know I can't help it... so distract me."

He leaned his head up to get closer. All the better for their lips to meet again.

"Sounds like a plan for now... and for the rest of the night... and for the rest of our lives."

Something always brings me back to you...

It never takes too long.

~the end~

A/N: I hope that readers of "Pomp and Circumstance," as well as my Derena and Chair lovelies, enjoy this little story of mine! I have a few other stories already started in this 'verse, which I will write and post before switching to what most of us know will be canon endgame. :-D

Needless to say, I'm tickled, okay, over the moon about the 6x10 series finale spoilers, and laughed because I wrote all but the final scene before we knew anything about the end. I'm so excited about the rest of Gossip Girl, and hope that others are too.

Special thanks to my Chairy godmother Maryl, one of the best Chairleaders I know, who picked out DS' ring in the P&Cverse,and my beautiful friend and fellow Chair shipper DrGG who was kind enough to read and offer support although she's for Serenate. All I can say is this: Nellen FTW! :)

Until next time, my Derena darlings (and those Chair lovelies who saw this one through), I will always love you!

XOXO, Dr. Holland